This is a guest post by Teigan Margetts, Co-Founder, Ethicool Books. There is a common misconception that writing Children’s books is an easy feat. Something about the shorter word count and the younger audience makes this book form seem deceptively easy to write for and publish. The truth is that, as with any other form of writing, starting and completing a manuscript for a successful children’s book comes with its own set of unique challenges. It requires just as much (if not more!) time and effort than a longer book.
When it comes to publishing, publishers are often very spoiled for choice when it comes to submissions. At Ethicool Books, we receive hundreds of manuscripts every week. So to be quite honest, even if you’ve written a fantastic manuscript, it still needs to be able to stand out from the rest. Statistically, in the general publishing world, only 1% of submissions or lower are successful. What this means is that if you want to write a successful kids’ book, you really do need to ensure it’s the absolute best it can be. But how do you do that?
Write A Successful Children’s Book
The editorial team at Ethicool has reviewed just shy of 7000 manuscripts in the last 6 months, so I consulted them on what ‘the best’ looks like. Here are their ten best tips for writing a successful children’s book:
Create a Unique Concept
If you’re going to be that 1 in 100, you need to show the publishers something that is truly unforgettable and stands out from the rest. You don’t want to be writing a story that’s already been told a million times; you want to demonstrate your capabilities as an author and the potential that your writing has.
There’s no real foolproof technique to create or come up with a brilliant idea from nowhere. In fact, a lot of the time, the best ideas are the ones that hit us when we’re least expecting it. However, there are ways for you to try to give your creative side the push that it needs to come up with something great. One of the easiest ways to do this is through research.
What do we mean by research? We mean look at the different categories and genres of children’s books. Scour through the most popular and most successful published works and also the ones that maybe didn’t do so well. Identify the things that the author has successfully accomplished. Analyze why the not-so-successful books weren’t so great. Another great thing to do is read through the reviews for successful books. Get real feedback from the audience about what they enjoyed and loved.
If you’re looking for a successful book to analyze, our best seller Remembering Mother Nature has sold tens of thousands of copies within just a few months. You can check the reviews to see why.
Researching and analyzing should inspire you and give you the nudge you need. In all honesty, it’s almost impossible to come up with a narrative or plot that’s going to be completely original or unique. This just means that you need to make the other elements of your story more special. If you’re telling a tale that’s been told a million times, figure out how to make it more interesting. For example, if your story is about a child losing their favorite toy, what happens if you write it from the toy’s perspective?
Try to add some flavor to your story and spicing up certain elements to really make your writing distinct.
Hit the Correct Word Count for your Desired Form
At Ethicool, often we get submissions that really aren’t in the right ballpark in terms of word count and word limit for a children’s book (despite the fact that we’re very explicit about wordcount in our submission guidelines).
When writing for children, it’s really important to get your word count correct. If your story exceeds 1,000 words, you might be looking at publishing an older picture book or maybe even extending it to a chapter book instead. This is because picture books are aimed at younger children who have a lower attention span and verbal comprehension compared to older ages. It’s really important that in your shorter word count, you’re making the writing dynamic and engaging.
Depending on what form you want your story to take, here is a general guide to word counts:
- Board Book (0-3 years old): 0-200 words
- Early Picture Book (2-5 years old): 200-500 words
- Picture Book (3-7 years old): 500-800 words
- Older Picture Book (4-8 years old): 600-1,000 words
- Chapter Book (5-10 years old): 3,000-10,000 words
As you can see, if you’re writing a picture book, the sweet spot to hit is usually within 500 – 800 words. Within these confines, you should realistically be able to accomplish many things and develop your narrative and character by being concise.
Build a Compelling Protagonist
A big downfall we see in our submissions is that authors try to force their characters to bend to the will of their narrative. For example, characters that have no defining motivations and simply resolve the conflict so that the story can conclude.
The main character of your children’s book should be someone that children can relate to and have fun reading about. A great character from our Ethicool collection is the protagonist for Just a Rabbit. Upbeat, determined, and extremely clever, Rabbit is a fantastic character because you know from the very beginning what his goal is and you’re rooting for him to achieve it. The story is driven by him and not the other way around.
The main character shouldn’t be a cardboard cutout whose only function is to complete the objective of the story. Where’s the fun in that? How will a flat character be able to engage with the reader?
A good way to prevent this is to put in the effort to fill out a character profile template before you write. This can be as extensive or as simple as you’d like it to be, but the main point is that you need to be aware enough of your own writing to be able to give your character some distinct personality traits. You can check out this template for an extremely in-depth interrogation of your character or this one for something more basic.
Start with Action
Any good story is engaging from the very beginning. This is really important because you want your audience to have an incentive to keep reading! What a shame it would be if you’ve overcome the first obstacle of having your book stand out from the rest only for it to be too slow or not engaging enough that they put it back down.
A big mistake a lot of writers make is trying to jam-pack a lot of exposition and backstory into the start of their narrative because they think that it’s the best way to introduce the world and characters. Perhaps this is something you could do for a longer piece, but for a work that’s at 500-800 words, you really want to be focusing your word count on making your story as engaging and interesting as possible. Spending your first few pages on introduction and explanation is rarely the way to accomplish that.
First few pages
If you take a look at some of the most popular and successful picture books on the market, you’ll find that majority of the narratives get into the action of the plot within the first couple of pages. At max, by the third or fourth page. Usually, there is some kind of event or action that happens that will spur on the sequence of events of your plot.
Check out Ella and the Exploding Fish for a great example of this one. On the first page, Ella’s uncle tells Ella and her sister that he’ll buy them a fish each. From getting these two fish the entire story unfolds.
By starting your book quickly, you’re not losing the attention of your audience immediately. Instead, you’re piquing their interest because you’re making them want to know more. And it’s in that curiosity that will get children picking up your book and not putting it down.
Fine Tune your Conflict and Resolution
This, we would argue, is the most important aspect of your narrative. You need to have a clear understanding of what the conflict of your story is going to be because all the events and character decisions will need to make sense and adhere to it. Take your time figuring out what the cause of distress is going to be for your main character is. This is the main factor of tension within your story that’s going to keep the reader’s interest.
The main content of your story is going to be the main character’s journey to solve this conflict. In saying that, strike the right balance between your character solving the issue too quickly or not quickly enough. In both of these instances, you’re ruining the pace and tension of your story.
A great rule of thumb to get the balance right for this is the ‘Rule of Three’. Give your main character three obstacles to overcome before they’re able to solve the problem. This way, the resolution will still feel earned without the pacing dragging on too much and becoming slow. If you’d like to learn more about the ‘Rule of Three’ and how to use it, check out our article on narrative and plot.
End your Children’s Book Story with the Right Pacing
If you’ve done the previous step well, the ending shouldn’t be too difficult to nail on the head. We’ve briefly discussed how tension affects and influences your story so it’s incredibly important to understand what happens after it’s been resolved. There is no point in continuing the story once there is no longer a problem to solve. Once it’s been resolved and there’s a little bit of downtime for the happy ending, end the story immediately. This way, the satisfaction of the conclusion should be the only thing lingering for the reader.
A great method to use to end your story is to reference an element from the beginning of your story as a clever way to round out your plot. For example, in our book Simon and the Sad Salad, you can guess that while the story starts with a sad-looking salad and an even sadder looking boy, the story ends with a salad and a boy, but they’re not so sad anymore.
Using repetition as a writing technique is a fantastic way to engage with a younger audience. It has many functions from strengthening the core ideas of the story to creating a memorable experience for the reader.
On a linguistic level, repetition can stem from the language that you’re using. This can be the repetition of sounds (such as with alliteration or rhyme), a particular word, or phrase. One book that does this well from our current collection is My Rainforest Classroom. It’s jam-packed full of wonderful sounding sentences such as:
“These vines and birds and rivers, and these lions and tigers and lizards, they were here before all of us. They have seen the world in all its colors, fished gently in all its streams, and jumped between the branches of its trees. They want to show you just why – welcome to our Rainforest Classroom!”
For more insight into using rhyme and other poetic devices in your writing, read this article by My Rainforest Classroom’s brilliant author Stuart French.
Another way to use repetition is within the story structure itself. This is in terms of the sequence of events that happen. For example, every character that the protagonist comes across gives them a different gift.
Remember that Picture Books have Pictures
It’s easy to get caught up in all the intricacies of writing, so much so that you might forget that the illustrations of a picture book are just as important as their linguistic counterparts.
When submitting your manuscript, of course, there’s no pressure or expectation for you to already have illustrations or for you to do them yourself. However, it’s often a really great idea to keep the illustration stage of the publishing process in mind as you’re writing so that the writing elements of your story will run alongside, and even build upon, the future illustrations.
Consider visual elements that will heighten and emphasize the magic of your story and make sure that there is room to implement them in your story:
- Character: As we’ve already stated, making a unique and distinct character is incredibly important for your writing. But it also helps substantially with the illustrative process. We’ve seen a lot of stories with a cute dog, what if the main character is a giraffe instead?
- Setting: If your entire story is set in a classroom, how would the illustrator be able to make this visually exciting or pleasing? Try to consider the spaces around your main character, lead them to new areas, and other interesting places. Oftentimes, the outdoors can be illustrated in a much more unique way than indoors.
Create an Intriguing Title for the Children’s Book
I’m sure you’ve heard the saying ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’. But the reality is, that’s exactly how readers are going to first be attracted to your story, especially online as readers aren’t able to pick up the book and browse as they might be able to in a bookshop. And what’s smack dab in the center of your cover in bold, beautiful writing? The title, of course!
The title of your story can be difficult to think of during the writing process. Oftentimes, this comes more easily in the editing process once you know what your story is really about. Regardless of when you’re choosing the title, it’s really important that you’re considering how to make it as intriguing and as possible. You want the reader to be curious about your story’s contents. Here are some great ways to accomplish this:
- Put action and verbs in your title. This brings more life into the title and can make it more dynamic.
- Use alliteration or other poetic devices. (eg. Blake Breaks his Bike or Henry’s Daytime Frenzy)
- Give the reader some information but not all. Create a title that makes the reader ask questions such as: how or why?
- Don’t use an overly descriptive title. Verbs are great because they add a sense of liveliness, but adjectives can get quite stale and don’t incite excitement.
Kill your Darlings
This is a common phrase used in the writing industry. Basically, it asks you to not be afraid of deleting and cutting out the precious pieces of writing that you do. It’s a really integral part of the editing process. Because it’s very common for authors to overwrite and complicate their stories.
When you’re editing, you need to look at your own work with completely fresh eyes. You move your mindset from creative to critical. You need to make sure your feelings don’t get in the way of this! If you’ve spent two weeks trying to perfect a sentence and then you find out that it’s just not necessary in the overall story, you need to do yourself a favor and still get rid of it.
When you’re working with such a short word count, it’s integral to edit on a line-by-line basis. Check out each sentence and ask yourself: is this necessary? Or even better, analyze if the story is able to stand alone without it. If the story still makes sense without it being there, you can give it the cut.
The more concise you can make your Children’s Book story, the better. This way all the elements of your writing will most likely be working harmoniously without the added unnecessary fluff.
Our final piece of advice to Write A Successful Children’s Book
There’s no doubt about it – writing a successful children’s book can be a challenge. But that doesn’t mean you should give up, or that you should be deterred if you’re a first-time author. Many of Ethicool’s authors are first-timers, simply because we’re genuinely looking for stories that are different and unique.
Once you’ve completed all of the tips above, we highly recommend having your book edited. Given how competitive the industry is, you definitely don’t want your book to be let down by typos.
And after that? Hit submit! The next wildly successful children’s book could be yours.
Ethicool is always open for submissions. You can find out more about our submission guidelines and how to submit your story here.
Elements to consider
As you can tell, there are a lot of elements to consider when writing a picture book. This doesn’t mean that you should give up though. Some of the greatest and well-known authors of all time had to handle their fair share of rejection before they were finally published. If you are invested enough and put the time in, maybe the next big success story could be none other than you!
If you would like to be a part of the wonderful array of published authors here at Ethicool, polish up your manuscripts to send to us. We read every single submission and we hope to read your writing soon!