Advice on Writing for Children

There is no right or wrong way to write a children’s book;
what works for one person may not work for another.
The advice below is based on what works for me.

General Advice

Get stuck in!

Start writing now, and don’t be disappointed if the first things you write are not as impressive as you’d hoped. You will get better if you keep at it.

Don’t be afraid to show your stories to other people to see what they think. Listen to what they say – you don’t have to agree with them! But if several people make the same criticism or suggestion, you might consider revising your story in response.

Always try to finish what you start. You might not be happy with what you end up with, but you will gain useful experience for your next project.

Learn to touch type. If you don’t want to go on a course, then get some typing-tutor software (which is how I learnt). This may seem like a lot of bother, but the time you spend learning to type will be paid back a hundred-fold should you become a professional writer and you will find that you will be able to set down and manipulate your ideas with a lot less effort.

Inspiration

Write the kind of story you’d like to read yourself. Or if you are a parent, write the kind of story you’d like to read to your kids.

I get my inspiration from anywhere and everywhere: books, films, television, video games and things that happen to me in real life.

Ideas come in all shapes and sizes. Sometimes I have come up with what I think is a good title and it will be months before I have a story to go with it. Other times a story will arrive in my head fully formed. 

If I’m already working on something and don’t want to develop the idea straight away, I will note it down and stick it in the “ideas” file that I keep on my computer. When I’m stuck for inspiration this is the first place that I look. I never throw any of these ideas away, and often I will come back to an idea several times over a period of months or even years before I eventually succeed in working it up into a story.

Learn from other writers

If you want to become a good writer then of course it helps if you read a lot. However, I don’t believe that books are superior to other media – screen media in particular. I’ve watched a lot of well written television and I’ve read many badly written books. The important thing is to be selective about whatever you read or watch. You can learn more about good writing from spending an hour watching a good TV drama than you can from spending a day reading a trashy novel.

When you have read a good book or seen a good screen drama, try to analyse why the story worked so well; how did it hold your interest or what made the characters so appealing?

Write an outline

One thing I always do before I start writing any story, even the simplest picture book, is write an outline. An outline is a brief summary of what happens in the whole story. I like to know where a story is going before I start writing it, and I like to know how it will end.

Once I start writing, the story can still develop in a totally unexpected direction. The outline is not a fixed document; I am constantly tinkering with it as the story is written. If an appealing idea occurs to me in the middle of writing the story, I will see if I can rework the outline to accommodate it. For example, If I suddenly decide I want to get rid of one of my characters, I can use the outline to see if this character plays an essential role in subsequent events. If they do, I may consider cutting those events OR reworking the outline so that another character plays that role OR I may decide that the overall story will be better if that character remains.

Keep the reader interested

Give your reader clues so that they can make guesses about how the story might develop – then they will want to keep on reading to see if they were right. But don’t give too much away and perhaps throw in a few misleading clues, otherwise the story will become predictable.

Reflect your potential readership

You want your story to appeal to a wide readership, so make sure the characters in your story reflect the diversity of its potential audience. Try to make your cast gender-balanced and – if your story features human rather than animal characters – racially diverse.

Polish!

I suspect that very few writers are able to produce beautifully written prose in a single draft and that most good writing is the result of several rewrites. Authors sometimes refer to this rewriting as polishing.

If you are in the middle of writing a story, it’s often a good idea to read through what you have written the previous day before starting on a new section. But don’t spend too long polishing your writing on the first draft. There’s no point in spending half a day coming up with a beautifully crafted paragraph if you decide to get rid of it in a subsequent rewrite.

And always read aloud what you’ve written. It’s the best way of checking whether a sentence is too long or overly complex.

Picture Books

Here are a few tips relating specifically to picture books.

Fit the format

Most publishers are looking for picture books that are less than 700 words long and will break down into twelve spreads (excluding imprint and title pages).

Turning the page in a picture book is a big event. Each page turn is an opportunity to spring a surprise on the reader or to introduce a new character or location.

I think about page breaks very early on in the writing process and my picture book outlines are usually divided into 12 sections (each no more than a couple of sentences long) describing what happens on each spread.

You don’t have to say everything!

A good picture book will tell the story as much with pictures as it does with words. So don’t describe things that can be shown far better in the illustrations (e.g. a character’s appearance or the setting). If a particular visual element is essential to the story, you can add an illustration note. I usually put illustration notes in italics, in a smaller font size to make them easy to distinguish from the main text.

Rhyming texts

The use of rhyme can add enormously to a picture book’s appeal and yet many publishers discourage new authors from submitting rhyming picture book texts. One of the reasons for this is that many picture books require foreign language co-editions to be financially viable and rhyme is difficult to translate well. Nevertheless, many rhyming picture books are still published and some are even translated, with or without rhyme, into other languages.

If you are writing a rhyming text, make sure that the story comes first, such that it would still make an appealing picture book without the rhyme. That way, it won’t matter if the rhyme is dropped for the foreign co-editions.

As you are writing your rhyming text, keep reading it aloud and check that it scans well and the meter works properly. Better still, get someone else to read the text aloud, as they will interpret it more objectively. Most computers now have sophisticated text-to-speech function that will allow them to read text aloud. I use the text-to-speech function on my Mac regularly whenever I am working on a rhyming story.

Getting Published

OK, so you’ve finished your children’s book, so how do you go about getting it published?

Get a directory

First, I’d recommend that you get hold of a directory of children’s publishers and literary agents such as the Children’s Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook in the UK or Children’s Writer’s & Illustrator’s Market in the US. As well as giving you addresses and contact details, these books will give you an idea of the sort of material a publisher or agent deals with, so you will know which ones are worth submitting to. Both of these books are published annually, so if you can’t get a recent copy from your local library, you might consider buying one from a bookshop or through one of the sales links below.

BUY the Children’s Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook from Hive in the UK

BUY Children’s Writer’s & Illustrator’s Market from Amazon in the US

Publisher or Agent?

Now you must decide whether to try to get yourself an agent or to send your book directly to publishers.

Most publishers are inundated with unsolicited manuscripts, the vast majority of which are unsuitable for publication. These manuscripts are vetted by professional readers who pass anything that might be suitable on to an editor. However, the number of publishable manuscripts that result from this process is so small that some publishers feel it does not justify the cost of employing a reader. Publishers that are willing to accept unsolicited manuscripts usually have a backlog of unread manuscripts known as a “slush pile”. 

Many publishers now ignore unsolicited manuscripts and rely entirely upon literary agents to supply them with suitable material from new authors, since the agent will have to carry the cost of vetting material instead of the publisher. The end result is that the best agents now have huge slush piles of their own and that it’s almost as difficult to get accepted by a good agent as it is to get accepted by a good publisher.

Nevertheless, my advice is to try to find an agent. If you succeed, your agent will be able to bring your manuscript to the immediate attention of a number of suitable publishers. If the manuscript is accepted, your agent should be able to negotiate the best possible terms for your contract. And if it is rejected, an agent will usually be able to get some sort of feedback as to why – as opposed to the standard response that most publishers give to unwanted manuscripts.

A good agent will also guide your work, helping you to get it into shape before it is submitted to a publisher.

And then there’s the issue of proximity. Although things are changing slowly, London is still the hub of the UK children’s publishing industry. As a UK author living outside of London, my London-based agent is far more tuned in to the UK publishing scene than I could ever hope to be. As such she is aware of changes in the publishing industry and is always on the lookout for new opportunities to place my work.

The only downside to having an agent is that they will charge a commission, a percentage (typically anything between 10 and 15%) of the income on the books that they have promoted. If you think that this sounds like a lot, bear in mind that some of the books your agent will promote may never get published, so they may never receive a commission for this work.

Final Words

Some important final words of advice.

Believe in yourself. If you don’t, then no one else will.

Expect rejections. The first two books that I wrote – a novel and a chapter book – were turned down by every publisher that I sent them to and are still unpublished.

Don’t give up. I was writing stories and sending them off for FIVE YEARS before I was accepted by a publisher.