Advice on Children's Writing

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

Click on a heading below to go straight to that section.
General Advice
Picture books
Getting Published
Final Words

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 to refect this.

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

Learn to touch type with word processing software on a computer. If you don't want to go on a course then try to get some typing-tutor software (this 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 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 (like "Goblin Stew") 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. On a few occasions, I've seen a character or an object in the background of a favourite picture book by another author and have written my own story about them.

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 will 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 good at writing, then, of course, it helps if you read a lot. However, I don't share the prejudice that some authors have that books are innately superior to other media - television 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 film or TV 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 of the things that I always do before I start writing any story, even the simplest picture book, is write a good 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.


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.


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 the whole story does not need to be included in the text. Don't waste the reader's time by describing things that will be shown far better in the illustration. If you are worried that an idea will not come across then add illustration notes at the end of the text.


Fit the format

Most publishers are looking for picture books that are less than 1000 words long and will break down easily over 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 viewer 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.


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 most picture books require foreign language co-editions to be successful and so the rhyme will be lost in translation.

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 it, keep reading it aloud and check that it scans well and the meter works properly. Better still, get someone else to read it aloud, as they will interpret it far more objectively. If you have a Mac computer, you can get the computer to read the text aloud to you - which is what I do.


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 Writers' 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 are published annually, so if you can't get a recent copy from you 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"

BUY "Children's Writers' Market"

You can also find a directory of UK agents and lots of good advice for aspiring author's online in the 'Guide for unpublished writers' at the Bloomsbury Magazine web site .


Print it out

The finished text is often referred to by publishers as a manuscript .

Most publishers require manuscripts from new authors to be printed out (not handwritten), in double line spacing on A4 paper. The paper should be printed on one side only and each page should be numbered. Some publishers list their submission guidelines on their web sites. And again, there is some excellent advice on submissions in the 'Guide for unpublished writers' at the Bloomsbury Magazine web site .


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 sifted through by professional readers who pass anything that might be suitable on to an editor. However, one large UK children's publisher has admitted that the number of publishable manuscripts that arrived from this route was so small that it did not justify the cost of employing readers. Consequently, most publishers have a backlog of unread manuscripts which is often referred to as a "slush pile". When I first started writing, some of the manuscripts that I sent directly to publishers took almost two years to be returned.

Many publishers now ignore unsolicited manuscripts altogether 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 sifting material instead of the publisher. The end result is that the best agents now have an even bigger "slush pile" and that it's just as difficult to get an agent as it is to get a publisher direct.

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 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, they will usually be able to get some sort of feedback as to why - as opposed to the standard rejection slip that most publishers send in response to unsolicited manuscripts.

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

And then there's the question of proximity. 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 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 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 finally published!


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