14 Common Misconceptions About Writing Picture Books

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With people like Simon Cowell making flippant remarks about all children’s books being boring and that he could easily do better it’s no wonder the genre doesn’t always get the credit it deserves inside and outside the writing industry. It’s short sighted to assume that because children aren’t yet as knowledgeable, educated or verbally adept as most (but by no means all) adults that their books are easy to write. I chose to start my writing career with picture books because I could see the difference they make to thousands of children’s lives but do I feel I plumped for the easy option? Hell no and these 14 misconceptions make up just a few of the reasons why I feel that way even at this early stage of my career.

  1. Writing children’s picture books is easy. Writing a picture book plays on a very particular set of writing skills including saying something of note, interest or amusement within a limited word count; picking words which convey your sometimes complicated message clearly and simply; choosing a topic or character of interest to your reader who is of an age you have experienced but in an era vastly different to that of today and usually long forgotten. Every single word is important and every phrase should stick in a child’s mind for the right reasons. You are not writing for someone who thinks like you, you are writing for someone who is learning from you.
  2. You just have to send your story to publishers. Finding a publisher is only a small part of the process. First there’s learning all about what publishers are expecting, how to stand out from the crowd, having an original idea or putting a new spin on an old one, adapting your writing into a style children will appreciate, getting the layout right, learning how to be a tough editor on your own masterpieces … and that’s all before you’ve even approached any potential publishers and agents.
  3. If your family and friends like it everyone else will like it. Of course it’s a good start if they genuinely like your stories but unless your family members are involved in the publishing industry chances are they haven’t a clue if it is written well or whether it’s a potential top seller. Your family may be among your target audience but their’s is only a limited (unprofessional) opinion. Find someone who knows the industry who can give you sound advice to take your dreams forward.
  4. Everybody is writing a children’s book. Sometimes it may seem that way with the amount of talented competition appearing out there but not everyone has the desire or inclination and especially not the perseverance to write a children’s book so concentrate on developing your own talents and skills and just enjoy reading other writer’s books and learning from the successful ones along the way.
  5. You just have to write your main idea down as it comes into your head, do a couple of tweaks then send your first draft out as the editors will do the rest. I think I once read that you’re likely to write your book at least 5 times. In my house that’s a gross underestimation even before sending to publishers. First there’s the idea and coordinating it into a solid story structure. Then there’s the correct layout and word count to consider, the suitability of the words I’m using not to mention the checking part, checking I’m successfully saying what I set out to say, that it’s believable and makes sense and that each spread evokes good imagery. Yes editors will want to alter your work but first the publishers need to see that you have an idea that works within a picture book framework.
  6. Picture books are too short to need a story structure. Wrong. Everything you’ve ever learned about writing an outstanding story needs to be covered despite your challenging word count.
  7. You have to be able to draw (or know someone who can) to write picture books. I’ve come to realise that if you’re a professional illustrator and a writer you do have an advantage in marketing terms. Pictures and images are always a more attractive sell than stand alone text. However if you’re not a professional illustrator don’t attempt to pretend you are. Poor pictures can do more harm than no pictures. Be brave and trust in your ability as a writer to speak for itself. Many publishers have a bank of illustrators they like to use so it’s certainly not an expectancy in the publishing world and they will be happy to match your writing style with the right illustrator.
  8. It doesn’t take long to write a picture book. Writing a picture book takes as long as it takes. What do I mean by that? It’s different for everyone as a number of factors can affect the speed of production. How experienced are you? What other commitments do you have? Is it your full time job? Do you write in short bursts or hide away in a room for hours? Can you focus on your writing at the drop of a hat or do you need to build up to the levels of concentration required to produce good written work? One thing you do need to do is to keep persisting and continue writing.
  9. Anyone can write a children’s book. True anyone can and even anyone can publish one nowadays but writing a quality, timeless picture book takes, talent, willingness to learn, being able to accept criticism, not being precious about changing and adapting your story idea and understanding the commercial expectations.
  10. If it’s a good picture book it will sell itself. Don’t be fooled into thinking that a talented writer or even a published writer is instantly recognised. People need to know you’re out there before they can like your stories. An agent can help but knowing the basics of marketing will go a long way to building your career – although if you’re Simon Cowell you’ve probably already got this part covered.
  11. Picture books can be as long or as short as you like. Most picture books follow a strict layout and word count which has been proven to appeal to their market audience. Generally the more succinct the better. Any deviance from this can reduce your chances of being published. So pinpointing your story’s plot, progress, conflicts, surprises and goals on a limited word count without reigning in your imagination is a constant juggling act and paramount if you want to avoid a boring tale Mr Cowell.
  12. Rhyming picture books are the most popular. I’ve read with many different children and undoubtedly they enjoy books in rhyme as do their teachers. However for many publishers, this is a perfect example of when it’s not always wise or viable to follow the demand. Rhyming stories can add complications to the publishing process as rhyming books pose numerous translation issues. So beware when writing in rhyme. Every word and every sentence has to flow effortlessly to convince the reader it’s the right style for your story. The rhyme must serve to enhance the pace and humour and know that even when you master this you may be limiting your market.
  13. If your picture book is rejected is must be rubbish. It might be rubbish (probably a doubt many writers suffer from) but rejections can be due to a number of things. Your book may be too similar to another book they’re publishing, the subject matter doesn’t fit with other books they publish, they’ve already filled their quota for the year so don’t have the resources to support the offer of a contract. One of the hardest parts of being a writer is to accept when your work isn’t up to scratch but to believe in your abilities and success regardless.
  14. Picture books only appeal to young children. Picture books may be aimed at young children but the appeal stretches much further than that. When writing a picture book you need to bear in mind that much of the time adults are the ones who make the initial purchase and the ones who read the stories so giving consideration to an adults enjoyment can only enhance the longevity of your story. As picture book popularity develops, despite being traditionally billed as starter books, more and more of the contemporary picture books are retaining their simplistic appeal for older children too now. The bold, colourful and often humorous stories can be an attractive, uncomplicated read for any able reader too.

So Mr Cowell, all any children’s writer is aiming to do is to offer a book that is captivating, exciting, fun and interesting to pass on their love of reading and if you can achieve that with your army of editors supporting you, I look forward to an entertaining read at bedtime.

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