Writing books for kids is no child’s play. It requires a special skill-set to write books that will engage children as well as educate or entertain them. I’ve always been curious about writing for children, and today children’s author Chris Eboch shares some of the basics of writing for kids. Take it away, Chris!
Damyanti asked me to talk about writing for children. That’s a big subject, butI’ll cover a couple of important points. Besides publishing a dozen children’s books myself, I’ve taught hundreds of students and critique thousands of manuscripts, so I’ll look at a few common misconceptions and mistakes.
Misconception: Children’s books are easier than other forms of writing.
Truth: Writing for children is in many ways harder than writing for grown-ups. In both cases, you have to have interesting and relatable characters, dramatic plots, and smooth writing. For children, you have to do everything in fewer words. Picture books are typically less than 1000 words, with less than 500 words preferred. Short stories are usually under 1200 words (under 800 for Highlights magazine), while stories for the younger children may be under 400 words. Even novels are shorter and the writing must be tight, to appeal to busy and restless readers. You also have to have an appropriate language level. Learning to write well for children can take years (though they can be fun years!).
Common Mistake: Writing a story with no conflict, a slice of life or something quiet.
Solution: Children’s stories need a strong conflict like every story does. The character should have a problem or a goal. For very young children, it can be a simple goal, like making a new friend or staying up late. For young adult novels, it can be as serious as dealing with abuse or addiction. But children’s stories need plot, and plot comes from conflict.
Common Mistake: Writing a story where the adult solves the problem – a parent, grandparent, teacher, fairy godmother, ghost, or some other creature steps into fix the situation or tell the child what to do.
Solution: The main character should solve his or her own problem. In some cases it’s all right to ask an adult for help or advice, but the child must control the story, make a final decision about what to do, and be responsible for the end result. Kids are inspired by reading about other children who tackle challenges and succeed. It’s not as satisfying if someone else steps in to fix things (or worse, scolds the child for misbehaving and tells them what they should have done instead). Avoid preaching!
Common Mistake: Writing for children without reading modern children’s stories. (This gets back to that misconception that children’s books are easy to write. Or in some cases the writer is basing their stories on what they remember reading as a child, which may have been many decades ago.) This leads to an outdated tone, inappropriate language level, stories lacking interest for today’s kids, or formats totally inappropriate for the market (such as 3000 word picture books).
Solution: All writers need to read widely in their genre. That helps you understand the parameters of that genre and see what has already been done. You’ll also start to internalize the language and pacing of children’s books. Stories have changed over the last century, so it’s important to read recent books or magazines to understand both what children find interesting, and how modern stories are styled. Reading can also help you with market research if you pay attention to the publishers.
Damyanti also asked about tips for breaking in to the children’s market. The best advice I can give you is to take time to learn how to write well, and to understand the market, before you start submitting your work.
Take courses (the Institute of Children’s Literature offers a correspondence course through mail or e-mail, and you may be able to find a local community college course).
Attend workshops or conferences (SCBWI, The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, has regional groups around the country and the world, many offering annual conferences or retreats and more frequent small workshops or meetings).
Read books or magazines on writing (including mine for novelists, Advanced Plotting).
Join a critique group, sign up for a critique at a conference, and/or hire an editor to review your work. (SCBWI can be a resource for finding critique groups and also offers a list of freelance editors – or you can see my rates and recommendations.)
Basically, don’t rush things. Starting a new career takes time and education, so take the time to learn and enjoy the process. Have fun with the writing, and your readers are more likely to have fun with the reading.
Have you been writing for children? What are the challenges you’ve faced in children’s writing? What kind of books do you purchase for your children? Would you like tips on writing for children?
Learn more about Chris and read excerpts of her work at www.chriseboch.com (for children’s books) or www.krisbock.com (for adult romantic suspense written under the name Kris Bock) or see her Amazon page. You can also read excerpts from Advance Plotting and get other writing craft advice on her blog.
Through the months of November and December, some fab writers would take over Daily (w)rite. At least twice a week, this blog would host posts on writing, by writers.
I still have a few slots open for December, so I would welcome guest posts by writers who have something to say about the art, craft, and business of writing. Write me a mail at atozstories at gmail dot com to discuss this.
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Great blog! Do you have any tips and hints for aspiring writers? I’m hoping to start my own site soon but I’m a little lost on everything. Would you recommend starting with a free platform like WordPress or go for a paid option? There are so many choices out there that I’m totally overwhelmed .. Any suggestions? Appreciate it!
I think a free platform like WordPress or blogger works fine, though some say there’s an advantage to having your blog right on your website. That way, blog hits count as website hits, and anybody interested in your work can see more right there. Some of the blog hosting sites allow you to have other pages which you can turn into a sort of website, and some website hosting sites have a blog option. Were I to start over, I would probably have my Write like a Pro blog on my Chris Eboch website. (I am using the blog option on my Kris Bock/romantic suspense site, hosted by the Authors Guild — you can see how the website and blog are connected here: http://www.krisbock.com/blog.htm.)
Good post. Talk about making each word count. That’s a must especially when you have to tell a story in fewer words.
Yes, you can have those characters — so long as the hero remains heroic, the driving force. And there are exceptions to every rule — books that teach numbers or colors don’t need conflict; “I love you”/bedtime books for very young children may have a parent in the dominant role. And older stories are more likely to have a passive main character, like the girls in fairy tales who do nothing but act “good” and then get rescued. But today strong main characters rule!
Fairy Godmothers are okay – so are Gandalph and Dumbledore – especially when they get out of the way in time to allow hero to complete story on hso own.
Remember hero, freind,mento, enmey cast
Thank you everyone for your comments. And Patricia, a wise decision — another common misconception is that writers are supposed to find illustrators for their work. Wrong! Unless you are an author/illustrator, doing both at a professional level, publishers just want to see the manuscript. They prefer to find their own illustrator. Many people waste money (if they hire an illustrator) or wind up hurting feelings (if they ask a friend or family member to illustrate the manuscript) before they discover this.
Industry research up front can save angst along the way. One great resource is The Children’s Books Guide to Children’s Book Publishing, by Harold Underdown. Also the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI).
lovely post. And you’ve reiterated a point not appreciated by many. Childrens books are tough as nails to write
I don’t write childrens books but I do agree, it’s not easier than an adult book. I started writing a YA book and that’s not easier than an adult book.
If anything, I think kids’ books are harder to write than adult books!
Will share with my writing tweeps.
Thanks for the offer to share this, Kristy. #grateful.
Nice post. Years ago my older sister wrote a little children’s story and I illustrated it. When she learned about my writing, she suggested I see about doing ours and I told her no way. The children’s market her story would be in was way too different from what my writing was y for (YA.) I said if anything, I’d find an agent and professional help for her story.
Wise option for your sister.
Some great advice! I have never considered writing for children, but these tips are useful for anyone who ever does!
Join me in the Trick or Treat Spooktacular! Could you help make the Grand Prize a brand new Kindle Touch?
Chris certainly has provided some very good advice here!
I would find writing for kids a challenge. Mostly because it’s been so long since I thought like one. I’m envious of your ability and talent at it, Chris.
I always dream about this! so many things to do…but I love your Post!
Only if we dream do we get a shot at making it come true 🙂
I wouldn’t think kid’s books are easy to write. I’d certainly never attempt one!
Alex, completely agree.
Great post & love the question!
6 months ago I would have told you I have no interest in this but since then my wife & I found out we are having our first little one. Now I do have an interest to create something I could share with my child!!
It is wonderful how our views change 🙂 Congrats on the prospective new arrival!