How to write a book that kids will love — and kids’ book publishers will love too
I recently opened my email to find this message: “Can I get published as a children’s book author if I’m not a good writer?” I was surprised at first, but the more I thought about it, the more I liked the question. The sender knows his limits, but still dreams of being published. She doesn’t suffer from the illusion that she’s the next Dr. Seuss, and I admire that. She will look at her work with a critical eye and look for ways to improve it. This assumes that it is possible to learn to write well. I think so.
Very few writers have the innate ability to create vibrant, relevant, and compelling stories from the start. Most have to work there. And those who see writing as a skill that is never quite mastered, requiring lifelong devotion to the learning process, will experience the most success. Where it gets tricky is that unlike other skills — like baking a cake — there’s no surefire way to learn how to write. So while I can’t give you a one-size-fits-all method, I can give you some ideas on how you can find the path that works best for you.
Read, read, read. Why do publishers always tell budding authors to read stacks of children’s books? Because they give you a concrete representation of what works. Be sure to read good books (check reviews or ask a librarian or teacher for advice). By simply reading, you will learn the ebb and flow of a story, how a character is introduced and developed, the types of conflict appropriate for each age range, how to create tension in scenes and chapters, the relationship from sub-plots to the main storyline, how dialogue advances the plot, and much more. You’ll experience first-hand how a skilled author uses sensory imagery to fully immerse the reader in the story. By comparing several authors writing for the same age group, you will hear different literary voices.
I suggest reading books like the ones you want to write, as well as younger level and older level books. So if your goal is to write an intermediate level mystery for 8-12 year olds, also read mysteries for 7-10 and 10-14 year olds. This way, you’ll learn precisely what constitutes a mid-level novel and how it differs from fiction for older and younger readers. You might even learn that your story isn’t really for middle schoolers after all.
Another reason to read a lot of quality books is that you need a yardstick by which to judge your own work. You will learn which “rules” cannot be broken and which have more leeway. For example, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a 60-page picture book in stores, even from a well-known author. If your picture book is that long, you’ll have no choice but to redesign the story and fit it to 32 pages. However, you can experiment with unconventional characters and unexpected points of view. And the older the reader, the less the rules apply. But no matter what you’re doing with your plot, your characters, or your writing style, make sure you know why you’re doing it. Don’t write the story in the present tense unless it needs to unfold in real time for the reader. Don’t include flashbacks unless they’re essential to understanding what’s happening in the story now.
Find a system that works for you. The first step towards learning how to write a book that engages readers is about how you learn best. Some writers I know are very left-brained; they like tables, graphs and lists. They thrive on following their scenes and plotting their book on every level before they start writing. These left-brains will analyze published books and count the words per page, note which scene contains the plot catalyst, plot where the tension rises and falls in each chapter. Others prefer to learn more intuitively. They read books, absorb different writing styles, and maybe take a few notes with general impressions or key points they want to remember. They have a general idea of where their own story is heading and aren’t afraid to experiment and take detours along the way.
If you’re unsure where you fall on the spectrum, try different approaches and see what works for you. Remember that there is no one way to do it and each method has its pros and cons. Mapping out your story in advance can keep you from wandering off, but listings can become an evasive technique to keep you from writing the book. Letting the words spill out across the page without a big plan is very creative, but usually results in huge first drafts that need to be cut and shaped considerably. If you write long enough, you will discover your weaknesses and find ways around them. Maybe you outline first, then put it away while you write your first draft. Maybe you lay out your scenes on a plot after each chapter, then revise as needed before moving on to the next chapter. If your dialogue tends to go in circles before getting to the point, you’ll learn how to put it down on paper and then tighten it up in the second draft.
Recognize your strengths. Some authors are brilliant non-fiction writers but can’t sell a fictional story. Others write wonderful picture books but are overwhelmed by all the layers of a novel. Instead of trying to force a style that doesn’t look like you, start with what you’re naturally good at. You don’t have to publish fiction to be a successful author. You may dream of writing picture books, but if you have a knack for teens, maybe young adult novels are your future.
Discovering your strengths involves experimenting with different writing styles and age groups. If you’re not sure where to start, think about the types of children’s books you enjoy reading the most. Then play around with writing dialogue or scenes for the same age group. If you’re naturally drawn to non-fiction, make a list of subjects you’re passionate about. Start by writing about one of the topics in the style of some of your favorite children’s magazines.
Convenient. Over the years I have worked with writers who have been published by force of will. They went over the manuscripts again and again, taking them from mediocre to polished. They put aside ideas that just didn’t work and turned to something new. And they never submitted the first or second draft to an editor, because those manuscripts could always be improved. They weren’t very good writers when they started, but they learned. And you can too.