After years of editing, teaching writing, working with writers, and learning about the industry as a writer/illustrator, I have a created a list of things I believe new children’s book writers need to know. I also asked some published author and illustrator friends to tell me what they wish they’d known when they began. Following is a compilation of the very least you need to know when you’re starting out. It is by no means an exhaustive list, but it will give you a solid foundation as you begin your journey toward publication.
Always carry a notebook or another way to record your ideas. Always. That incredible idea you have at 3 am that you’re certain you’ll remember in the morning? You won’t. Great ideas and inspiration can strike at any time: in the car, in line at the supermarket, while cleaning your bathroom. Be prepared.
Know your audience—know the genre
The genre “children’s books” is divided into the following basic sub-categories based on the age range of the readership:
- YA—young adult
- Middle grade—for eight to twelve-year-olds or so
- Chapter books—divided into chapters, some black and white illustrations, for elementary-age ranges six to nine, seven to ten, and eight to twelve-year-olds.
- Early readers—for young children learning to read
- Picture books—fully illustrated, for four to eight-year-olds (sometimes three to seven)
- Board books—for babies and toddlers, made to be tough so they can withstand everything babies throw at them, including chewing
- Graphic novels are also increasingly popular and can be for various age groups
- Non-fiction picture books and other, various ages
If you write a 3000-word picture book or a 120,000-word middle grade novel, expect it to be rejected. Your picture book should be under 1000 words when you submit it; in fact, the industry is tending toward books about half that length or less, currently. A middle grade novel over 60,000 words (75,000 words for fantasy) is going to be treated with serious caution. These word counts aren’t arbitrary, but have been defined by what sells and what works for young readers based on their age, comprehension skills, interests, and attention span. If you’ve written something 3000 words long, consider it may not be a picture book but perhaps a chapter book for slightly older readers—or it may just need editing, development, and revision. Agent Jennifer Laughran has an excellent post about word counts.
Time spent in libraries and bookstores educating yourself about the different sub-genres of children’s books and reading both classic and recently published children’s books is not time wasted. Also, the industry has changed since you were a kid, so don’t rely on the stories you loved as a child for role models. Look at what is being published now.
Think story, not message
Remember when you were a kid and you got a lecture from your parents or a teacher? How did it make you feel? Did it feel great and make you beg for more? Or did you just wish you could get it over with? Compare how you felt when watching your favorite movie or reading your favorite book. Were you immersed and entertained and a little sorry when it was over? That is your job as the writer: to draw the reader in and immerse them in the narrative, not to deliver a lecture. The story should come first, and any message you are trying to convey or teach is best subtly delivered through the narrative, not by heavy-handed didactic lessons, which give a publisher or agent an easy reason to reject your manuscript. Kids should absorb any message or lesson by default, not because they’re having it flapped in their face.
And while I’m on the subject of narrative, a weak narrative arc is one of the biggest reasons manuscripts get rejected. See myblog post on narrative issues.
One of the things that always surprises me is that newer writers think they should automatically know how to write a publishable story. You wouldn’t expect to win a tennis match the first time you played or give a great haircut or perform brain surgery without acquiring the necessary skills. So why do so many newer writers assume they should already know how to write for kids and feel terrible about negative feedback? We ALL have to travel the learning curve. If we don’t, forget getting (traditionally) published.
Take a course, read books about writing, read blogs about writing, join SCBWI, work with an editor or writing mentor, and above all, read, read, read.
Unless you are an illustrator and hope to have your own illustrations published with your story, you do not need to (and should not) have your manuscript illustrated before you submit it to traditional publishers or literary agents. If your story is acquired by a publisher, the publisher will choose an illustrator whose work complements your own. You have, in the vast majority of cases, no power over this decision, but keep in mind that publishers are very good at knowing what you intend, as well as seeing possibilities for your work that you might not have considered. Publishers tend to pair new writers with established illustrators so books can be marketed on the established party’s previous success in creating books that sell. Publishing is, after all, a business.
Also, you do not need to make suggestions for what should be in the illustrations or about any matters of style, layout, typography, etc.
Of course, if you self-publish, you are in charge of it all. Keep in mind that illustrators will not work only for the promise of royalties somewhere down the track. Most will require a deposit and progress payments along the way. Illustration is a skilled and time-consuming process, and you wouldn’t expect your hairdresser or brain surgeon to provide services for free. Also, there is a difference between a graphic artist and a children’s book illustrator, and children’s book illustration has particular requirements that are best understood by someone who has studied children’s book illustration and knows how picture books work.
No work by any writer comes out perfect or publishable the first time. A lack of adequate revision is one of the biggest mistakes aspiring authors make, in my opinion. Revise, revise, revise. And then, revise some more.
Join or start a critique group
You need multiple sets of eyes on your work as you develop your work, revise, and then prepare for submission. Family and friends can be a great source of support, but they’re less likely to give accurate, impartial, or even knowledgeable critical feedback. A good critique group is also a source of support and friendships on the up-and-down journey to publication. SCBWI (see next point) can advise you about critique groups in your area.
Become a SCBWI member
TheSociety of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators is an invaluable resource for writers and illustrators alike (whether you seek traditional publication or plan to self-publish). You do not need to be published to join. It’s also a warm, friendly, generous, international community of like-minded people. It’s your tribe.
SCBWI conferences and events are a great source of information, inspiration, industry contacts, invitations to submit manuscripts, and enduring friendships. You can also sign up to have your manuscript or portfolio critiqued by an editor or agent.
Get to know people
“I wish I’d known that sometimes it isn’t enough to be a great writer,” one author friend told me. Imagine the following scenario: there are two equally excellent, highly marketable manuscripts, and an editor is forced to choose between them. Writer A is a complete unknown. The editor has not heard of him, and he has no social media presence. Writer B has become well-known by kid-lit industry folks over the years for her personable, easy-to-get-along with manner, and the editor has had very pleasant interactions with her several times at conferences and kid-lit events. When she critiqued Writer B’s work at a recent conference, Writer B was open to suggestion, easy to work with, and very appreciative of her advice. Turns out they’re even friends on Facebook and from time to time, the editor has chuckled at Writer B’s upbeat, amusing, positive, supportive (of fellow kid-lit folk), book-and-creativity related posts on social media, which bodes well for how she will interact with the buying public and how she will work to market her books. Which writer do you think is more likely to get the deal?
Contests and Awards
One illustrator friend said she wished she’d known about writer and illustrator contests and awards before she’d progressed too far to enter them. SCBWI and its regional chapters offer various contests, awards, and scholarships, and there are other similar opportunities out there for writers. Just make sure that you do a thorough online search for any negative info about scam contests designed only to separate unwary, hopeful writers from their money.
This a topic for a blog post of its own, but some basics:
- format your text properly for submission and make sure it is properly copyedited without word misuse, spelling mistakes, punctuation and other grammatical errors, or typos.
- Write and revise an excellent query/cover letter. (See myblog post on writing queries for the kid-lit market.)
- Start with The Children’s Writers & illustrators Market (Writer’s Digest Books). Always use the latest edition. An excellent print resource for finding publishers and agents.
- Then make a list of suitable publishers who are accepting unsolicited manuscripts in the genre in which you are writing and confirm their submission guidelines on their website—then follow them!
- Avoid the scatter-gun approach to submissions by targeting your submissions to publishers and agents whose work is a good fit for your own. (I once had a client give me a list of publishers she’d submitted her sweet, lyrical picture book to, and one was a publisher who only published material about southwestern architecture and history…for adults.)
- If you submit to agents, don’t also submit to publishers. If an agent takes you on and then finds your manuscript has already been submitted to and rejected by a bunch of publishers she was going to contact, that’s annoying and self-defeating.
- Online resources such as QueryTracker.net and AgentQuery.com can help you navigate the process of finding an agent.
- Don’t be arrogant, gimmicky, or demanding. Be professional, polite, and personable. Don’t be a jerk. Nobody wants to work with a jerk.
- Don’t take rejections personally. Look at them as a chance to improve your craft. EVERYONE, no matter how talented, gets them, and manuscripts are rejected for all sorts of reasons, some of which have nothing to do with the quality of the work. If you keep writing and submitting, you can expect to get a huge pile just like every other writer who eventually achieves publication. Learn to love rejection.
If you’re aiming for traditional publication, be aware that it will take time. Don’t expect that your first manuscript will be on the bookstore shelves in time for Christmas. It just doesn’t work that way. You first have to learn to write for kids—think of it as doing your apprenticeship. Learning takes time. Revising takes time. The submissions process takes time. (I don’t know anyone who’s achieved traditional publication in less than five years, and I know many who have taken longer.) And even if your book is acquired by a publisher, expect two years to pass before you hold your published book in your hands.
Don’t be quick to quit your day job, and don’t expect to make buckets of money when you are finally published. Kid-lit authors almost always supplement their book income by doing school visits, speaking engagements, teaching writing, and editing/mentoring.
The best reason to write for kids and create books is because you love writing for kids and creating books. This path is definitely a journey, not a destination—and a most wonderful journey it is. Remember the 3 P’s: passion, patience, and perseverance. Good luck!