Updated: Aug 29
When you’re just starting your journey writing for children, you usually have more questions than answers, and lots and lots of doubt!
...but sometimes what you really need is practical advice from people who’ve been there.
Luckily, the kid-lit community is one of the most supportive and helpful communities around, so I asked some successfully published children’s book authors:
“What advice would you give to someone who’s just starting out?”
Here’s what they said!
So many new picture book authors have one pet project that they become hyper-fixated on. Usually, it’s because that story is deeply personal - and that’s not a bad thing! But, don’t forget to KEEP WRITING!
Kate Allen Fox, the traditionally published, award-winning author of the lyrical non-fiction picture book Pando: A Living Wonder of Trees notes, "When you first start writing picture books, it's a numbers game. You need to read a lot, write a lot, generate a lot of ideas.”
Pando, Kate’s debut picture book, is about one of the world’s oldest and largest living things - a grove of Aspens in Utah. But her upcoming release A Few Beautiful Minutes, takes on an entirely different topic - solar eclipses. And she has many other ideas in the works.
Why pursue multiple projects? Picture books don’t typically bring in a lot of money for publishers, agents - or authors -and not every book will sell! So, whether you’re submitting to traditional publishers or self-publishing, having more projects in the pipeline is critical to your overall success. New releases can help promote your backlist and drive more sales overall.
Keep your heart and mind open. And don’t become so wrapped up in a single idea that you stop creating!
"Write what brings you joy."
Kate encourages us to keep looking for new ideas. But if you’re like me, sometimes you have TOO MANY ideas! How do you know which ones to pursue? Where should you focus your attention?
Kate has advice for that too. She says, “... pay attention. Which books that you're reading excite you? Which manuscripts are making your heart beat faster while you write? What ideas bounce around in your mind for days? Follow your joy and pursue it relentlessly."
What beautiful advice! (And if you think that’s beautiful, you should read her books!)
"Take a break."
Once you’ve jumped into writing for children, and you've chosen a project to work on, the words will just flow out of you and onto the page like magic. Right?
Even the most talented writers get stuck and sometimes struggle to get the words on the page.
Annette Whipple is the traditionally published author of twelve children’s non-fiction books, with more on the way, and she’s experienced her share of writer’s block.
She shares this valuable advice:
“When you get stuck, take a break from that project and work on something else. Your new project might be a different article or book. Or you might tend your garden or visit a museum.
I had been working on my owl book for a couple of years. I had included tons and tons
of incredible owl facts. My writing was good. But it wasn’t working, even with twenty
drafts. I needed a break.
During the break, I spent a lot of time reading children’s nonfiction. As I read other
children’s nonfiction books, I realized I couldn’t include every “owl-some” fact I knew. I
also needed to change the structure.
I shortened it and changed the manuscript to a question-and-answer format. I also added humorous sidebars to engage the reader even more. The first editor who saw the new manuscript loved it. Reycraft Books published Whooo Knew? The Truth About Owls in 2020.”
One of the most common mistakes new authors make is that they rush to publish too quickly. They just want to hold their book in their hands! But great books - the ones that make an impact - don’t happen overnight. They take time and work and wrestling with the words - sometimes for months or even years!
Rather than saying, “It’s good enough,” or worse…giving up entirely, press pause and give yourself time away from that struggle. You never know what you might accomplish with fresh eyes.
"Get a critique group or partner."
Speaking of eyes…sometimes you need to look at your story through someone else’s to see what you are too close to notice. That’s where critique partners or groups come in!
Annette says, “I learn so much from my critique partners. By studying their writing and listening to their suggestions for my projects, I have become a much better writer.”
Many new writers are hesitant to share their work with others for one of two reasons.
They are insecure and worried a critique partner will tell them they stink.
They are worried about someone stealing their ideas.
But in both cases, it’s really about doing your research and reaching out to fellow writers who respect the craft and the process. If you do that, there’s very little risk - and SO MUCH potential reward. (Here’s my list of the Top 5 Places to Find Critique Partners if you’re ready to get started!)
"Don’t just write a good book, write a GREAT book."
This piece of advice comes to us from Clay Anderson. He’s a self-published author of three GREAT
children’s picture books and he’s sold over 50,000 copies! (So listen up!)
Clay says, “Don't just write a good book, write a GREAT book. That means making sure you're satisfied with every line and every illustration.
Does it read well? Does it set the right mood? Advance the story? Connect with the reader?
Be willing to recognize when it's not working, and if necessary, hit reset. (I did this when a book was already being illustrated, and I'm so glad I did. That book is now nearing completion, and it's SO much better.)”
So many authors who are new to writing for children fall into the trap of thinking, “It’s just a kid’s book. It doesn’t have to be a masterpiece.” But with thousands of new children’s books hitting the market each year, competition is fierce. If your book is good, but not great - there’s a good chance it won’t stand out in the market.
What makes a book great? Clay has an answer for that too!
"Make your book re-readable."
“Children's books are different than other books: in order to be successful, a children's book needs to be one that kids (and parents!) want to read over and over again. A one-read children's book is a failure, and unfortunately far too common,” Clay points out.
We all know there are certain books that our kids ask for over and over again. And others that are read once and then forgotten on the shelf. In fact, Clay says, “With perhaps 80% of the children's books I read, I think, 'Well, that was nice, but I doubt I'd ever read it again.' It either wasn't entertaining enough, wasn't emotionally engaging, wasn't a pleasurable read, or didn't have a satisfying finish. It didn't make me remember it. Didn't make me pick it up again. Didn't make me recommend it to others.”
Don’t let your book be in that 80%!
There are any number of qualities that can make a book re-readable - captivating artwork, a catchy rhyme or rhythm or refrain, a character who makes us laugh. The important thing is to consider the reader as you write…and refer back to #5!
"Just do it!"
Now, all of this talk of writing a book that is GREAT might have you feeling a little - nervous.
Leticia Ordaz felt nervous too! But, today, she’s an international award-winning author and founder of her own publishing company. She wouldn’t be where she is today if she hadn’t been brave enough to take that first step! “So many people I have encountered say they have an idea for a children’s book, but few take the time to follow it through to make their story a reality,” she says.
“Get to writing the story that is in your head. I wrote the first draft of my 4-time award-winning debut book, The Adventures of Mr. Macaw, using a crayon and scratch paper while on vacation. It doesn’t have to be perfect or published right away. Expect to have many drafts…Type it on your phone or laptop, and you are one step closer to becoming an author.”
"Don’t give up!"
“When some publishers didn’t think the bilingual format (English/Spanish) I was proposing would sell, I decided to publish my books and start my company, Cielito Lindo Books,” Leticia says.
Writing for children and publishing your own book is hard work! So hard, in fact, that sometimes it feels like it would be easier to just give up. But nothing worth doing is easy!
As Leticia says, “Don’t just talk about your dreams. Put in the work so the world will enjoy your book or books…Believe in your story and find a way to get it into the world.”
Remember, Kate, Annette, Clay, and Leticia were ALL once in your shoes. And look at them now! Their paths are all different - self-published, traditionally published, agented, non-agented - but they have one very important thing in common. They didn’t give up!
What will YOUR writing future look like? You won’t know until you try!
Writing for children made simple: Join the challenge
Whether you're new to writing children's books and don't know what you're doing or you've done this before but need accountability and a spark, the Write Your Picture Book 5-Day Challenge is just what you need! This is 100% free to you and delivered straight to your email inbox. You'll get a video training each day and by the end of the event, you'll have a finished children's book! Click here to join.
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