If you are interested in learning how to write a children's book for any age group up to 18-years-old, you are certainly not alone. Over the last two decades, children’s literature has become one of the most popular genres for writers. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard, “I’ve always wanted to write a children’s book!” (Including one time at the dentist, my mouth wide open and full of dental equipment!)
As a result of the growing popularity of this category and the ease of self-publishing, many new authors have expressed interest in learning how to write children's books. Fortunately, it is possible to learn this craft and hone your writing. A children's book may seem easier because there are fewer words, but there are steps to take before you should ever try to get published. Though all those folks tell me, “I’ve always wanted to write a children’s book,” they never actually sit down to do it. Sometimes all it takes is to sit down and finally get it written. (Easier said than done!) I hope these basic pointers could help get you started on your book.
Step 1: Create an Outline
Create an outline only if you’re a “plotter!” If you can’t figure out what to write without an outline, go for it! But if you’re a “pantser,” (one who prefers to write by the seat of their pants) avoid creating an outline. You don’t want to squelch any creativity. The point is, just sit the heck down and come up with something. So if you’re like all those people who’ve said they always wanted to write a children’s book but you never knew what to write about, an outline may help you. It doesn’t even have to be as formal as an outline. You could just list important moments in your own childhood. All I want you to do is some simple brainstorming, and get you to tap into universal feelings of children. If you can take something unique that happened to you but create a children’s book that taps into a universal feeling, you’d have a winner.
For example, Rukhsana Kahn, wrote Big Red Lollipop, “a multicultural picture book about greed and temptation, set in North America about two sisters who are invited to a birthday party.” Though the family in the book is Muslim and has what may be very different culture, customs, and traditions from the reader, the sibling relationship and the theme of generosity and greed are universal. A specific experience inspired Rukhsana to write a story that has an identifiable, relatable emotion and situation.
When thinking about your book, jot down what characters you want to include. For a picture book, limit your characters. For novels, obviously you can include more characters, but if you’re just starting, remember your young readers will need to keep them all straight. For example, there should be varying habits and styles of each character. One might be shy, another brash. Make sure their names are differentiated––they should start with different letters (I once critiqued a manuscript where all the character’s names started with the letter M…and yup, I kept confusing them). Think about how these characters will interact with one another. Think about what each wants. It is also important to decide how these characters will fit into and relate to the story. Don’t just have a character in there for no reason.
Step 2: Draft
You may have a clear direction for your story in mind, or you may be the aforementioned “pantser.” Whichever you are, the next best step would be actually writing the first draft. If you wrote an outline, expand it now. Once you feel you’ve gotten the basics of the story down and the first draft of your story is in a good place, put it away. Yes, stop working on it. Just stick it on the back burner of your brain.
Step 3: Revise
After the draft of your story has simmered for about a month, go back and read it aloud. Even if you feel like a total dork doing it, you’ll hear it better, and you’ll also find more story errors and typos this way. Everyone needs to revise and you will be no different. You may want to do this in layers. In other words, the first pass will be story logic flaws, for example. When you read it again, you’ll look for “trash” words that do nothing to push your story or arc ahead. Those are the filler words. Get rid of them. Look for spots where you’re telling your reader information, rather than showing them what’s going on. (I always use this quick example to explain SDT – Show Don’t Tell. Telling: Janie was angry. Showing: Janie stomped out the door and slammed it behind her.) Look for grammatical errors, punctuation problems, and shifts in tense throughout your manuscript. Make sure your character has the same name throughout the story. If you called him Ted in chapter one, three, and ten, but used Theodore in chapters four, seven and nine, you need to fix that. (Unless his friends call him Teddy and Mom calls him Theodore.)
Writing can be incredibly rewarding as well as frustrating. It takes a lot of work. You’ll go through tons of drafts, scores of revisions, and make many errors. But once you’ve got that book in your hands, you’ll be happy you worked as hard as you did on it.
Step 4: Review
After you’ve gotten to a place with your story where you feel confident it’s tight, you’ve got no extraneous details and words, and you’re showing (not telling) what’s going on, you may be ready to have someone you trust to read your manuscript. Warning: if you ask a friend or relative, you may just get an “I love this!” whether it deserves that or not, because those people love you. They don’t know how to give a professional critique and not least of all, they wouldn’t want to hurt your feelings. Get a fellow writer to read it. Once they’ve reviewed it, you could ask them for their honest opinion about your story. Even if some of the feedback is not what you were expecting, by asking others to critique your children’s book, this step will give you a different perspective on your children’s book.
You can also hire a professional to critique your work. Find out what the deliverables are. Do you get to ask questions after you receive your manuscript back? Will there be annotations? Next step would be hiring a professional book editor to check your work and give you feedback. An editor will be well versed in what should be included in a book, as well as how to present certain scenes or events for your audience and age group. Good editors will take the time to review your manuscript and may provide suggestions with the perspective of the audience you would like your story to resonate with most.
Whether you’re hoping to get traditionally published or want to self-publish, you want to have the best possible manuscript before publication. Get it right. Listen to the experts, and make your book happen!