I have one of those jobs I don’t really talk about at cocktail parties — especially around suburban parents with young children.
Because, when I tell them I am a published children’s book author, I start the count — 3…2…1...— just waiting for the inevitable question:
“You write children’s books? I have a children’s book! Can I send it to you?”
What most people don’t know is that editors receive more picture book manuscripts than any other genre. Why? Because it seems so easy to do. Well, despite popular belief, writing books for small people who can’t even read is actually really hard.
Before I was an author, I was a literary agent for children’s books authors. I had the honor of working with some incredible people: Dav Pilkey, Cynthia Rylant, Paul Zindel and even with Judy Blume! And I can tell you that for every manuscript I’ve represented and sold, there were 500 more I just couldn’t — for almost always the same reasons.
If you want your picture book to rise to the top of the unsolicited pile you need more than an amazing character (preferably not a talking broomstick) and a great story. So if you promise to not say “So, you write children’s books? That’s really easy, right?” I’ll share 7 of my favorite tips for writing a children’s book manuscript and (hopefully) get it sold:
1. Define a target market. If I hear “This is a story for ALL ages” one more time, I’m going to spontaneously combust. Pick an age group and write a relatable story for them. Is it for young children (target ages 2-6); Middle graders (target ages 8-11); or Young Adult (target 12+)? If you have really written a story for all ages, it will work on this and so many more levels. But if you can’t engage even one of these groups directly, it won’t work for any of them.
2. Choose a relatable theme? Does it have wide appeal? Is it from a child’s point of view – or at least about an issue that’s important to a child’s world? (So you might want to rethink your story about the middle-aged grocer who is sad their lettuce isn’t selling - kid’s don’t understand the 9-5 gig, man!). If a child relates to your story and sees themselves in it, they’ll want to read it over and over.
3. Make a clear beginning, middle, and an end. A story about a little girl who sees a snail, fills a bucket with sand then goes to bed at night is not a story, it’s your child’s day. And while I’m sure she had a lovely day, it just doesn’t make for a compelling story…well, to anyone other than her grandmother. The truth is, ending a story is even harder than starting one.
4. Don’t let your story be preachy. Your story should be subtle enough to convey a message without the moral being “in your face.” Kids can smell morals. And they smell like Brussels sprouts.
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5. ‘Show’, don’t ‘tell’. Writing picture books looks deceptively simple—after all, how hard can it be to write a 32-page story of about 700 words? (Most picture books are between 500 and 1000 words). In fact, though, it is this very economy of words that challenges a writer most. The craft of writing picture books involves telling your story in as few — and using the most potent — words possible (don’t get me started on why rhyme makes this even harder!) Keep it short and keep it “to the point.”
6. Make your story different. Sure your son’s 1st grade class loved your story. Heck, you got a standing ovation! (By the way, first graders will enjoy almost anything that gets them out of math). But is your story different enough from what is already out there to compel a publisher to invest thousands of dollars publishing, marketing and selling it?
7. Good picture books aren’t written overnight. One of my favorite stories is about a guy who told me “I wrote a book on the way home on the Metro North the other day. Can you look at it?” No. No, I can’t. And please don’t make me. Why? Because anything written in the amount of time it takes to get from Grand Central to Scarsdale isn’t a book. It’s a first draft. You can’t write a kid’s book in an hour or even two. Kid’s books take a long time to write (My last picture book took me almost a year.) A good children’s book is a “distillation of an idea and the most successful writers use only a few potent words to say the most important (and entertaining) things. Acclaimed author/illustrator Mem Fox put it best when she said “Writing for children is like writing “War and Peace,” in haiku.”
Sarah Maizes is the author of several picture books for children including “On My Way to School” (Bloomsbury) which was just nominated for the New York State Reading Association’s Charlotte Award. Follow her on Facebook or go to www.SarahMaizes.com