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November 2019

Front cover for 'No Baths Week' book by Katrina McKelvey

Writing for Children Part 1

By | News, Writing for Children

Writing for children is easy—right? Wrong! by Katrina McKelvey

a baby readingWriting for children is complex. After all, the readership is complex. To put it simply: kids are smart!

Children deserve stories that are compelling, breathtaking, and authentic that will make them think, empathise and wonder. Childhood is about learning, exploring and growing—mentally, physically, emotionally, socially—and the literature we present to them should contribute to this. We need to raise thinkers with the help of good quality literature.

Now, if you think writing for children (especially those books with all the coloured pictures) is easy, all you need to do is write a story in less than 500 words. Easy, right? Let’s take a closer look.


‘Picture books provide a beautiful experience that leaves 
the reader impacted, changed and empowered.’  
Essie White, US Agent

 

Australian publishers know children are complex and deserve the highest quality literature. They know and respect how clever children are. They don’t want to present literature that is preachy, repetitive and boring. That’s why only around five in 1000 picture book submissions make it through to publication in Australia every year.

Over these four articles, I will share a little about my publishing journey, as well as offer ways you can start your own journey to publication. It’s a long one. In fact, there are many paths, and no one can predict how long each path will be. There are NO overnight successes. It took me four years to get my first book published and another four years for the second and third.

It’s well known that authors and illustrators need the 6 Ps—patience, persistence, practise, perseverance, passion, and positivity. If you’ve got these, you’re ready to start.

Following this post I will discuss: The different ways you can write for children; How to learn more about writing for children; How to find an illustrator, a publisher and how to submit your manuscript to a publisher.

Loads of people decide they’d like to write a children’s book. Some people believe they have something to say. Some want to record family stories. Others want to fulfil the dream of having their name on the cover. All these reasons are valid, but the core reason will be what drives authors through the hard times and towards a published book. Is wanting your name on the cover enough? I don’t believe so.

But all beginning authors need to ask themselves, ‘Why do I want to write for children?’.

Here are some tips to get you started:

  • What are your childhood memories of reading and books?
  • Read like crazy! Read as many books as you can in the same format as you want to write in.
  • Take note of the author, illustrator, and publisher of the books you like. Why do you like some and not others?
  • Who will be your inspiration? Who do you admire in the industry?
  • Observe children. Listen to their dialogue. Take notes.
  • Write down ideas as soon as they come to you. They flutter in fast but leave at the same pace.
  • Watch illustrators of picture books. Observe how they tell stories visually.
  • Not all ideas become stories and not all stories will be published. Stories, characters and ideas evolve over time.
  • Ideas come from everywhere! Be observant! Be ready!
  • Follow your passion and not trends! Stories take years to perfect, so by the time your story is published (which could take years), that trend is long gone.

As you begin to write for children, here are a few questions you need to ask yourself:

  • Are you a reader? Read! Read! Read!
  • What are children reading?
  • Have you scheduled in writing daily? How often can you write?
  • Can you accept feedback? And not just from family and friends.
  • Have you heard of ‘show, don’t tell’?

And there are decisions that need to be made:

Before you start:

  • Who will be in my story? Great characters are crucial to keeping the reader interested until the end.
  • What structure will I follow? Structure needs planning in my opinion as the word count is limited. And kids love a twist.
  • Who is my intended audience? How old are they?
  • Will it rhyme?
  • First or third person? Past or present?
  • What is my word count?
  • What is the conflict in my story? Or is it a concept book?
  • What language devices will I use?
  • Do I need to do some research on my topic?
  • Is there a book already published similar to my idea? If so, how will mine be different?

During the writing process:

  • Do I know the themes of my story? Are they universal, complicated, sensitive, social?
  • Have I developed interesting, relatable, authentic characters?
  • Do I have excellent plot, dialogue, pace, mood?
  • Do I have a great ending? Have I left my reader satisfied?
  • Does my story have heart? Does it have an emotional core?
  • Can my story be enjoyed over and over again?
  • Do I have a great hook?
  • Does my story resonate? Is it engaging for children and adults? Is it memorable?
  • Do I have a strong, authentic voice? Write from the perspective of your deep, inner child.
  • Is every word needed? Make every word count. Delete unnecessary words.

Reality check: Beautiful writing doesn’t mean it’s publishable. Beautiful writing can win competitions, but this doesn’t mean it’s publishable. All my published books have been entered into competitions and haven’t won a thing. I have friends who have won competitions, but their books have never been published.

Another reality check: The industry is subjective. Different stories are magic to different people. One publisher could love it, while the next doesn’t. This can cause frustration and confusion. But you need to want it! Hard work, a strong belief in yourself, and a dose of stubbornness can get you through—that’s how I do it. Oh, and I keep going back to my original question, ‘Why do I want to write for children?’

It’s OK if you feel a little overwhelmed after reading this. It takes years to get your head around it. I feel like I have completed the equivalent of a university degree over that last eight years with the amount of educational opportunities I have completed in this industry. I believe learning the craft of writing for children is ongoing, but the basics remain the same.

And as they say in this industry, once you learn the rules, then you can go and break them.

So, is writing for children easy? Nope! I know—I’ve got the 200 rejections to prove it. But I also have five traditionally published books to show for the hard work I’ve put in over the last eight years. Each book was like starting all over again. Each of my books took 3 – 5 years of writing and submitting to finally get through. I currently have others out there trying to find homes. Others are being edited, others being written, and others swimming around in my head. It’s a juggling act but I’m where I want to be and I’m happy.

 

Katrina McKelvey author

Katrina McKelvey is a children’s author with over ten years primary school teaching experience. She’s currently working on her first chapter book series while developing new picture book stories. She’s highly involved in the Children’s Book Council of Australia, literary conferences and festivals, and loves visiting schools. No Baths Week and Up To Something are Katrina’s recent publications, after her successful debut picture book, Dandelions. Two more picture books are coming in 2020. She loves chocolate but doesn’t like chocolate cake. She’s left-handed but plays sport right-handed. She loves tea, but dislikes coffee. Katrina lives in Newcastle, Australia with her family and a naughty puppy. Google her or visit her website: www.katrinamckelvey.com

Front cover for 'Up To Something' book by Katrina McKelvey

Writing for Children Part 2

By | News, Writing for Children

What are the different ways I can write for children? by Katrina McKelvey

Becoming a children’s author can happen in many ways. I’ve heard loads of unique stories which included a combination of hard work, strategic moves, and luck. And just like any journey, some who start make it, and some don’t. Some take one direct path, while others weave around for years before they can see the direction they want to take.

I’m a children’s picture book author. I have five picture books—three on shelves, and two being illustrated as you read this. But I’m about to diversify into writing early chapter books. A lot of children’s authors write in different formats. The trick is to find the right one for your writing style. Each format has a criteria authors generally follow to meet the needs of that readership.

When we say ‘writing for children’, this could mean anything from board books to young adult literature (YA). This range is HUGE. So, what are the formats of children’s literature? Note: ‘format’ is different to ‘genre’.

Picture Books

Picture books (PB) are usually less than 500 words. But with everything in literature, there are exceptions. I honestly believe picture books are for everyone. And the reader’s age and life experience will determine what will be achieved with each reading. However, authors often have children aged 4-8 in mind when writing in this format.

Authors need to keep in mind the adults that will be with the child while they read these books. It’s the adults that will buy these books, and most often will do shared reading with them. They need to get something out of the reading experience too.

PBs are complex. Usually, an entire story (with a beginning, middle, end, complication, resolution, character journey/growth) will need to be told in less that 500 words and on 32 pages or less. It’s a very strict format but this is what makes it challenging. Picture books can be fiction, non-fiction, a concept book, or a combination.

PBs are also costly to produce. Those big, glossy, colourful pages are expensive so publishers have to truly adore a PB for it to get through to publication. This is why so many picture book manuscripts don’t make it through.

Let’s talk illustrations. It may take years for an author to get 500 words perfect—but it also takes an illustrator hours and hours which leads to months and months of long days to illustrate one book. The author and illustrator team are crucial to the success of the book. The story-telling style and illustration style have to match. The illustrations need to add another layer of storytelling to the text—known as visual literacy. Illustrations need to do more than mimic the text. And it can take a while for an author to understand they need to leave room for the illustrations to do their job. Authors don’t need to describe a character or setting. Illustrators help convey a character’s personality and feelings. Words and illustrations need to work seamlessly together.

In addition, authors need to hand over their story without telling the illustrator how to do their job. This is a BIG issue for some authors. I can relate. It took me a while to trust my publishers and illustrators and let their talents add to mine.

Picture books need to be surprising, challenging, fun, engaging, clever, relatable, and authentic. Oh, and did I mention all this needs to be done in less than 500 words?

Junior Fiction (JF):

Young boy readingJunior Fiction (JF) has three main categories: early chapter books, middle grade (MG), and young adult (YA).

1) Early Chapter Books

Children who are reading early chapter books are becoming independent readers. They are moving away from reading with guidance, so they need to feel successful. They need to be able to decode while also comprehending and enjoying the story. Early chapter books are full of lovely, easy language, have a simple action-packed plot, and have wonderful characters that will help the reader experience an amazing journey. Humour is often used as well. The word count can be as low as 1500 words and up to 10 000 words. This low word count lets the reader finish a book in one – two sittings. Generally, the readership is from 7-10 years old.

2) Middle Grade (MG)

These books can be 10 000 – 50 000 words long. Kids are usually 8-12 years old (Years 3 – 6). The themes are usually more complex. Wonderful, strong characters are woven in good, slightly more complicated plots, with loads of action and adventure. Pace is fast. There will be more secondary characters too.

3) Young Adult (YA)

This format can be between 60 000 – 90 000 words. This readership is mainly high school aged children though some older primary aged children will be reading these. These stories contain very deep, confronting themes but without detailed descriptions. Loads of adults enjoy reading these too as they tend to be shorter than adult fiction but fast paced with challenging and thought-provoking themes. Fantasy and Science Fiction tend to be popular genres with this readership.

When writing junior fiction, authors need to work out a few things:

  • Am I writing a series or a stand-alone title?
  • If I’m writing a series, can my books be read out of order?
  • If I’m writing a series, will I have a narrative and/or character arc across all books?

Publishers are offering many different contracts for series at the moment. Some are signing up books one at a time waiting for sales before they commit to another. Some are offering a 2-3 book deal, then offering to extend it if successful, sometimes with an extremely short deadline for following books to be ready.

Anthologies/Poetry/Plays/Magazine articles

There are loads of opportunities to write in these formats. These are often advertised in online subscriptions such as Pass It On and Buzz Words.

Education market

The Education market is different to the books you find in the bookshops. These books are often sold directly to schools. This is a hard market to get into at the moment. However, loads of established Australian authors started their career writing these types of books. But from what I can see from my research, you only usually get into this market by being commissioned.

When you combine loads of reading children’s literature with lots of practice, it should start to become clear which format your writing style sits best within. And you don’t have to have the same publisher for the lot. You may have one publisher producing your picture books while another is doing your JF. Is there a format described here your writing style fits within?

 

Katrina McKelvey author

Katrina McKelvey is a children’s author with over ten years primary school teaching experience. She’s currently working on her first chapter book series while developing new picture book stories. She’s highly involved in the Children’s Book Council of Australia, literary conferences and festivals, and loves visiting schools. No Baths Week and Up To Something are Katrina’s recent publications, after her successful debut picture book, Dandelions. Two more picture books are coming in 2020. She loves chocolate but doesn’t like chocolate cake. She’s left-handed but plays sport right-handed. She loves tea, but dislikes coffee. Katrina lives in Newcastle, Australia with her family and a naughty puppy. Google her or visit her website: www.katrinamckelvey.com