Writing books for children sounds fun, and it can be, but most people forget that it’s also a business. We hope these 10 tips will help you be a stronger and wiser writer. Before we begin, we do suggest first figuring out what your writing and publishing goals are.
Research The Market
You want to write the most unique story that’s never been written before? That’s great enthusiasm, but you wouldn’t cook a meal with zero experience on how to use a kitchen. There’s a system to writing, editing, publishing, and marketing books. Each aspect has to work together and match what’s appropriate to the market. This also means how a book will stand out among other books in that genre. Think of it as a balancing act between your unique story and where it would fit. Read books in your genre, sign up for newsletters on publishing industry news, and talk to other writers/editors.
For example, research the title of your work-in-progress manuscript (a publisher may or may not change the title), and get a feel of what results pop up online and look at other tittles/covers to see how they would stand next to yours.
Know Your Target Audience
Understand your target audience; understand what it’s like to be a kid in every dimension! A five year-old will have a different world experience and understanding than a ten year-old. Maybe you believe your story will be great for any age, but narrowing on your target audience will help construct appropriate language, story problems, and certain messaging.
For example, simple words (less than 200 words) are great in picture books with simple sentences for a three or four year-old with a simple message about sharing. If you want the book to be funny, play with word sounds for kids ages 3-5 and misnaming objects or actions for ages 2-4 to get your target audience laughing.
Match Your Language To The Story
Often times when we get submissions, everything is a mismatch. The genre (e.g. mystery) doesn’t match the word count (10,000 words) that doesn’t match the age of the heroine (16 years old) that doesn’t match the language for that book (chapter book) that doesn’t match the theme (problems with parents). You also want to match the emotional intensity, behaviors and reactions, and internal and external struggles of the main character and side characters appropriately. It takes time to figure this out just like it takes practice to figure out how to get dressed–you aren’t perfect the very first time.
For example, a chapter book (8,000 word count) should focus on one central problem like friendships because kids at this reading age (7-9) deal with this, and need a guide to navigate that world. The main character with a walker is a 9 year-old quirky girl filled with a huge personality. It can include a fun element such as a scavenger hunt where no one listens to each other but learns to work together at the end.
Become Your Characters
You are not an adult writing for kids. You are the inner kid sharing a world with the reader. Connect with your inner younger self and build a character through a child’s eyes (the main character is usually slightly older than the target reader). We come across many submissions as well as acclaimed published books where a parent is a main or side character in the story solving the kid’s problem. Kids don’t want to read about a parent; they need to solve their own problems, not be led my a parent. This is their escape from reality and they don’t imagine their parents in their play (for the most part). There are exceptions, say if the book is about family relations or the parent is a villain. Kids learn best from other kids as they read about those kid characters. If you got into an alien spaceship, you’d be curious about it for the first time and would want to figure it out on your own. Kids are always experiencing things for the first time; go deep with that experience.
For example, build a world of a main character who has adventures in a treehouse fighting off magical bubbles. He has to come up with a spell to save the world when the poison bubbles invade the world. The main character should battle whatever the problem/conflict is by ways suited for the main character’s personality in a kid-like way.
Stay Away From Boring
The first chapter needs to engage the reader to want to know what happens next. The purpose of most stories is to entertain. Create a hook that matches the interest of a reader and set up that first chapter (start with the normal and break into that) in a way that sets up what the entire book will be about. Every sentence should push the plot forward to the big climax that ends in a nice conclusion to tie everything together. Give the character a want or need, flaws, struggles, relationships (this can be with a toy, animal, person, etc.), personality, and realness that gets readers rooting for the main character.
For example, in a magical mystery story, introduce the character and their world, and then the problem of how a carnival disappears and the main character is the only one who can get everything back.
Don’t Be Preachy
Don’t be preachy! (repeating for emphasis) Don’t say what the lesson or what message the reader should learn. Show it, or even better, have the arc of the story illustrate that so the reader can figure it out themselves. Even better! Have the reader finish the book with a certain type of feeling that changes them. This part is about how well you understand the science of story creation. You need a character with agency, an effective story arc, language that keeps the reader engaged (and does what it should: make readers laugh, scared, excited, curious, etc.), uses show versus tell well, etc. A well executed and organized story, whether short or long, will shine the message without saying a word about it.
For example, if a main character goes camping but gets lost and struggles to find her way but through perseverance and strength, the manages to find her way home. The book never mentions not giving up, but the reader will feel that because the main character experienced it.
Edit, Edit, Edit
So many of our submissions come in with no professional editing. Yes, most presses will do editing after they acquire a manuscript. But this does not mean you should submit your first draft or even your first completed story. Every writer needs a professional editor specializing in that given genre and topic to help structure and weed out weak parts in the story. Great editors charge over or close to $1,000 (USD) for a YA full manuscript. Critiques are a bit cheaper but aren’t as in depth in feedback. The story has to be in great structure before you submit to an agent or press. Content and line editing is also great after all the structural stuff is sorted out. Again, hire a great professional editor in the genre you’re writing in. We advise having 3-4 editors on one story for unagented authors. Beta readers and critique groups are a great start, but a professional will help be critical to what is working and what is not. Writing is a business that requires investment.
For example, if you wrote a rhyme picture book about insects, hire someone who specializes in non-fiction rhyme and not your mom who’s a preschool teacher (she can serve more as a beta reader).
Know Who Wants What
If you want to work with a dream publishing house, illustrator, agent, or editor know their requirements. Maybe they only take on humorous chapter books or spooky YA stories. Outside of the publishing industry, consider what your readers might want to read as well. Or even, what you want to read. Each may seem different, which is why it’s also important to understand why you are writing for whom.
For example, if you have a dream of being represented by Agent Superhero, you know they only represent chapter books about kids being superheroes. Read books they’ve represented in the past and what they are currently looking for and how your story would fit but be unique enough to stand out. Also, follow submission guidelines (if there aren’t any specifics, use standard formatting).
Never Stop Learning
Join organizations, groups, and associations that fit with your writing goals. Attend conferences, workshops, and events to learn more. From writing to publicity, there is already too much to learn, so just because you’ve finished your first draft that does not mean you are done. You are just beginning and the work will only get harder. Getting support and helping others can lead to great learning opportunities.
For example, if you are writing a picture book, join SCBWI, the KidLit411 Facebook group, and sign up for the WriteToKids.org newsletter. Network and build relationships!
Once you’re written at least three manuscripts in full, you’re ready to start submitting and querying. That is, if you followed the suggestions mentioned above (please hire a professional editor!). And then write some more. As natural writers, the stories always come, so don’t give up on your first strike out. The hard work of authors comes in years and years and though lots of feedback and research. Because at the end of the day, the reason you even started writing is because you love to, so don’t forget why you started.
For example, when a story grows in your mind, let it flow into something magical, because that is part of being an author. Some stories will be stronger than others, so have a few bad apples to get to that golden apple.
We hope you found our tips helpful! If you have any others, let us know in the comments below or on social media. If you’re looking for more specifics, this article breaks into details what the standard is for each children’s book divisions. Emma Walton Hamilton discusses tips for submissions in a podcast. #includas #IncludasWrites