It’s always brilliant to hear lessons learned from other writers and I know a lot of you are writing for children, so I’m sure this post by Jo Ann Kairys, co-author of Sunbelievable will be helpful.
My son and I wrote the first draft of a children’s story over 2 years ago. Never did we imagine there would be dozens of re-writes.
We were inspired by his daughters, then ages 5 and 3, as they entertained each other with vivid imagination and storytelling. Each of us, accomplished authors on academic topics, thought we could easily transform their amusing dialogue into a children’s book.
Not so fast!
Those early steps led to quite an adventure—not just writing—but more importantly, the process of creating a unique product for a crowded children’s book market. After all, in 2009 alone, almost 22,000 children’s books were published in the U.S.
Undaunted, we took the plunge with unbridled enthusiasm and learned from our mistakes along the way. It was a humbling experience. Here are tips for avoiding similar mistakes and creating a high quality children’s picture book that will make you proud.
1. Don’t take writing skills for granted.
Our first draft turned into 5, then 20, then we lost count. Okay, so we loved the basic story idea, but it didn’t have the key ingredients of a compelling story—a problem to overcome, trouble happening, trouble resolved. Mostly it lacked a powerful, memorable message. So I took an online writing course geared toward children’s picture books, and that made the critical difference. It offered 24/7 feedback from 15 other writers and the course instructor, and an in-depth look at story techniques such as rhyming, plot structure and character development. It also focused on story pace, cadence and a reason for telling. We revised many more times, even days before the book went to press. In the end, our technical writing skills proved more of a hindrance than a help, with the exception of editing and proofreading.
2. Develop a meaningful message.
From the beginning, we were narrowly focused on what I call “inside attractors.” The kids were cute, made up wildly funny stories, laughed hysterically at their own fantasies and drew us naturally into their humorous storytelling. While fun and engaging, their antics had no particular message, or what I call “external attractors.” Who else but us would laugh at their clowning around and think they were appealing to a wide audience of young readers or their parents? Basically, what was the point of the story? Since the main characters tease each other about a natural phenomenon—in this case, the Sun—why not capitalize on their curiosity and add facts about the real Sun? This led to the “external attractor” concept, enhancing the story to include a learning opportunity, making it both fun and educational. Think about the potential appeal to teachers and libraries with this more expanded dimension. The message becomes entertaining as well as functional.
3. Can you sum up the message in a short sentence?
Marketers often refer to this as the “elevator pitch,” and it’s challenging. While creating your story, think about how you’ll relate the message in 30 seconds. For example, this book helps school children learn ways to avoid bullying, or this book teaches young children about respecting other cultures. While writing, continue to ask if you’re on message. It’s hard to admit that we didn’t create the message until the story was almost finalized. Classic cart-before-the-horse approach. Then it took some time to sum it up. And that meant more story revisions and even more time!
4. Work with professionals on illustrations.
I began illustrating the story using Photoshop CS3. The software was completely new to me and I was no artist. I wasted at least 6 months trying to do it myself, learning the basics. Eventually, I began consulting with a Photoshop instructor and a graphic design expert. The story illustrations merge real children with digitally manipulated images—a digital photo collage style that’s pretty unique for children’s picture books. This may or may not prove a “winner,” but the craft is on solid ground thanks to the professionals’ instruction and knowledge.
5. Work with a professional children’s book designer.
We were happy with how the illustrations evolved as a rich visual background for the story. I had a few digital book copies made and took them to the 2-day Publishing University workshop at the Independent Book Publishers Association (IBPA) conference in May 2011. I took advantage of every opportunity to meet one-on-one with experts from the industry. Feedback was mostly positive, but the “constructive” criticism sent me into a tailspin. For example—the story text gets lost in the illustrations, there’s no defining author platform, digital collage isn’t “mainstream” for children, the book size is too small. I felt overwhelmed and, yes, pretty discouraged. But I had a lucky break. A professional graphic design company specializing in award-winning book makeovers, agreed to take on the project. The book was good enough to be considered, so all the prior effort wasn’t completely in vain. But we could have saved a tremendous amount of time and financial resources if we started working with a book designer much earlier in the process.
Do you write for children? Do you have any tips to share?
Does the Sun ride roller coasters? Teach fireflies to shine? Take bubble baths when eating pizza?
Sunbelievable helps young children connect storytelling with science and nature. If the Sun can ride roller coasters, anything is possible!
Top image Flickr CC Kristiewells