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