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Do you have a story that will make the perfect children’s book? But you don’t know where to start, let alone how to write a children’s book?
That exactly how I felt when I started researching the world of children’s literature. There’s SO MUCH to learn and it’s very easy to make a mistake. Unless, you have someone that can guide you. So that’s what I’m going to help you with in this post. 👇
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All You Need to Know to Write a Children’s Book:
There are four basic steps to follow when you decide to write a children’s book:
- Target the Perfect Reader for Your Story
- Research using existing comp books
- Format your manuscript in the way agents & editors want
- Join a critique group that will review your story before you send it
Each of these steps is listed below (Or you can skip ahead to the step that interests you most!)
Breaking into the children’s market is a process. After you learn how to write a children’s book through these steps, you’ll be sitting above the writers that didn’t do their research–which is HUGE in escaping the slush pile!
1. How to Target the Perfect Reader for Your Manuscript:
The first question an author must answer is “Who is your book for?” The most common, but WORST answer is “For everyone!” 🙅♀️ Writing for everyone will not allow you to target the perfect reader. It will only affect your ability to sell your book later.
Before you get all angry and pull your hair out, there’s good news. There’s an EASY way to make sure you set your children’s book up for success before you even write one word. (Heck, even before you develop a plot!) And that’s knowing WHO your reader is.
Think about the type of book you want to write.
The first step in trying to target the perfect reader is to decide what kind of book you want to write. This is the specific genre that you’re hoping to write a children’s book about. From a complicated love story, to an epic adventure, to a cute animal story about two talking hippos. Whatever is calling you!
Research other books that are about the same topic.
Once you know what you want to write a children’s book about, you need to research other books that already exist in the same genre.
You should look for these 3 things in your research:
- What age level other writers are writing to
- How the stories are generally structured
- If the story you want already exists
The goal when you’re done is to have a better understanding of the different markets your book could fall into. It will also keep you from writing something that already exists. Also–check out this article on the different age levels for the children’s market. It will give you a place to start your research.
Decide what you want in your main character.
After you’ve done your research and determined the basic idea for your book, you will need to brainstorm the type of character you want to write about.
These are the 3 basic characteristics you should know:
- What do you see them doing?
- Who do you see as their potential friends?
- About what age would you say they are?
Knowing these 3 things about your character will help you narrow down your audience. For instance: if you answered, the character is home a lot with his two best friends, and he’s about 12 years old, you are probably writing a middle-grade novel for 8 to 12-year-olds.
However, if you answered, she’s attacking zealots on a different planet all in the course of love for her best friend and she is probably 16 or 17, then you’re writing a YA novel for upper middle school kids and older.
(If you’re struggling with some character points or finding the age of your reader, check out the different age levels for children’s books here).
Develop a unique selling proposition (USP).
Once you have examples of comparable books and have defined the age of your reader, it’s a good practice to build your unique selling proposition (USP). This will be used as your pitch to your potential readers and to help brainstorm your plot.
A USP is a simple equation of X + Y = your story. For instance, Romeo & Juliet + New York= West Side Story. Or The Hunger Games + Royalty = The Selection. Any combination that will connect your reader to something they already know PLUS explain how your story is different.
**Note: you can use the comp books you already read for examples and save this USP to use later in your query.
Being able to target your perfect reader will take some trial and error, but it is very effective for writing a strong story that will sell. I have started writing a story for one target market, only to realize that my character relates better to a different market (Not fun when it’s halfway through the novel! 🙈).
Before you start writing, research the topic you want to write a children’s book about, look at the different age levels for children’s books, and plan your unique selling point based off your main character and plot. Then your book will have a jump start on being successful!
2. Know the Comp Books that Exist in the Market Already:
When you ask a published author what their BEST tip for aspiring authors is, almost ALL of them will say new writers should be reading comp books. If you hear something on repeat, it has to be important. Right?
What is a Comp Book?
The basic definition of a comp book is something that already exists in the marketplace in which you can compare to your story. There are two types of ways to list your comps:
- Those that would sit on the same shelf as your book. These comp books have the same target reader.
- Those that have a similar topic to yours. These you would compare to your book, but say how yours is different.
What’s the difference? And how do you know which type to use?
Now that you know the two different kinds of comp books, it’s important to know when to use them. I go through a process every time I have a new book idea that helps me find comp books for my story. Here are the steps I take:
1 – Start by researching similar concepts/ideas.
Whenever you have a new story idea, it’s important to make sure it doesn’t already exist. And if it does, you at least know your idea is different enough to make it worth pursuing.
You do this by Googling or searching Amazon for books about a similar topic as yours. If you can’t search for it, then it doesn’t matter enough to the market. (Meaning if a book does exist but you can’t find it, chances are your readers won’t be able to either, so you’re free to write about that topic!)
Any books you find during your search that are similar to your story idea would be considered comps. Those are the ones you want to find at the library or bookstore and read before you write.
It will give you an idea of what’s been previously published about the topic, what publishes are familiar with, and what readers have learned to expect.
If any of these books are notable (well-known by title or on a certain publisher’s list) then they’re important to mention them in the query letter. You would say “my story is like ‘X’ book but this makes it different”.
The difference part is key to helping a publisher or agent see that there’s enough of a twist to make it fresh to the readers and more marketable.
2 – Next, read popular books in your genre that your readers will have already read or are currently reading.
Sometimes when you’re submitting your story, to agents especially, they will have a fillable form for you to fill out instead of a query. And one of the questions will be what are your comp books.
This type of comp book is meant to be the other books your story would be shelved with. Or the types of books that share a similar target reader to your book and already are popular in the marketplace.
These can be a bit more ambiguous.
Or if you’re writing a middle grade book about middle school woes, you could reference How to Find What You’re Not Looking For by Veera Hiranandani or Middle School Bites by Steven Banks.
3 – Make sure the stories are well-known enough, but not necessarily international best-sellers.
No matter how amazing your book is, it’s never a good idea to compare it to one of the top-selling books of all time. Like Harry Potter.
A – that’s going to set super high expectations that your story might not be able to exceed, even though you’ve written a truly good story. B – it can come across as amateurish and cocky. Which are two impressions you don’t want to instill when you’re trying to convince someone to buy your book.
However, you can get away with referencing a top-selling book when it truly fits your story as a comp. For instance, the series The Selection by Kiera Cass was pitched as the Hunger Games meets the Bachelor. Even though the Hunger Games is a HUGE book, it totally works as a comp in this situation.
Finding comp books doesn’t have to be like finding a needle in a haystack. In fact, they’re pretty easy to find if you know what you’re looking for. Be sure to follow the steps in this guide as you begin to look for books to compare to your story.
You Must Format Your Children’s Manuscript Like an Expert:
You’ve seen what a children’s book looks like as a real book, but what does it look like as a manuscript? This is an essential question to answer before you EVER submit your story to a publishing house, agent, or professional for critique. So how should you format your children’s book manuscript?
Like most new authors, I had my formatting ALL wrong and it definitely led to some early rejection letters. This is why I’m going to help you avoid making those same mistakes. Below, I’ve created an easy, step-by-step guide to help you format your children’s manuscript. All you have to provide is your amazing story!
Depending how new you are to the writing world, you may not know what a children’s book manuscript looks like. (Let alone how to format it.) This is why I’ve created an easy-to-follow guide for you to set up your document.
In order to get started, you’ll need to open up a new Microsoft or Google Document. Here’s a snapshot of what we’re going to create together. 👇
When you set up your document, make sure you’re using a standard font like Times New Roman or Arial size 12, double-spaced. You’ll also want to have standard 1-inch margins, which should be the auto-setting for your document if you haven’t changed anything.
Once you have that, you’ll want to add the information needed in order to get your story set up like the one in the image.
Here is the Step-by-Step Guide to Format Your Children’s Manuscript-
1. Your Contact Information – Added in the Upper Lefthand Corner
The first step when you start a new manuscript is to put your contact information on it. That information includes:
- First and Last Name
- Phone Number
This information goes in the upper, left-hand corner of your Word document. I prefer to keep it single-spaced to save room for my story on the page.
**Note: For email submissions and first pages, this information won’t be included. Unless you’re submitting to an agent or editor with an attachment of your manuscript.
2. Your Target Reader & Word Count – Added in the Upper Righthand Corner
In the upper, right-hand corner you should include your target reader and word count when you format your children’s manuscript–If you don’t know who your book is for,
To do this, simply tab over next to your name to type your category and age range. Then tab over on the next line (where you’ve listed your address) and include your word count. This way they’re on the same line as your contact information.
You can list an exact word count or an approximate, it’s completely up to you on which you prefer. But if you’re writing a chapter book, middle-grade, or YA novel, I would stick to approximate word counts since it will round out nicer. (And if you’re writing a picture book, don’t include your illustrator notes in your word count.)
**Note: This will also be left off when you copy and paste your manuscript in the body of an email for submissions. If you keep it in, it will mess up your formatting.
3. Your Title and Written By – Located About Halfway Down the Page
Halfway down the first page of your manuscript you will want to include your title and written by. The title should be in all caps when you format your children’s manuscript but the written by can be standard lowercase.
Your title should be written in all caps but your byline or subtitles should use standard capitalization rules when you’re formatting your manuscript.
I know choosing a title is always one of the hardest things for me, so if you struggle with this too, here are two things to help you find a title that catches a reader’s interest:
- What’s the story plot of your story? (Either your main character’s goal or problem.)
- How can you make it intriguing as a title that will grab someone’s attention?
This will hopefully help you get passed the submission process. And if the editor wants to change it later, then that’s ok!
4. Name, Title, & Page Number in the Header – Double-Click to Add This to the Header
You will need to make sure to complete your header when you format your children’s manuscript. This should include your title slash last name and the page number aligned to the right. (To add page numbers, go to Insert -> Page Numbers.)
You want to make sure to add this to any submission you’re sending as an attachment or printing to give to someone. This way they’ll know the order the pages go together for reference or if they were to drop them after printing.
5A. Illustrator Notes (Picture Books Only)
Illustrator Notes are how a non-illustrating author adds images to the text. In order to insert them into the story though, you don’t want them to stand out. So you’ll align them to the right of your story. You can also italicize them or change the color so they really blend in.
In plotting your perfect picture book, I talked about Illustrator Notes for authors that are not creating the images for their books. But here are some tips for when you should use Illustrator Notes:
- When you’re writing an illustration-heavy manuscript (IE: little to no words). These notes will need to be well-thought-out, creative, and detailed in order to intrigue an agent/editor.
- When you use words or phrases that people can’t picture, like a charging herd of Crumblezars on planet Zod. (That might need some clarification…)
- Or when you have an obscure character or introduction to the story. For instance, if your main character is Frank but he’s a dog the whole time then you’ll want to insert an illustrator note at the beginning that says “Frank’s a dog.”
5B. Chapter Breaks (For Longer Manuscripts Only)
When you want to format your children’s manuscript but have a lot of chapters, you may think you should include a table of contents. Don’t.
You only have the first few seconds to intrigue an agent or editor and don’t want to lose them by listing all of your chapters. Especially, when they won’t have any reference to the story or characters. (Save your table of contents for a separate attachment you can include with your submission if they ask for it.)
Instead of a list of all your chapters upfront, simply list your chapter in your story when it appears. I like to spell mine out and make them bold to signal a page break, but you don’t have to — you can spell out your numbers, center your chapter breaks, or even add titles. There aren’t any hard and fast rules, but whatever you do, keep your formatting consistent.
Tie it all together.
Those are the main elements when you format your children’s books. Be sure to include contact info, target reader, word count, header information, and title. If you have references or an author’s note, those will be at the end of the manuscript.
Everything You Need to Know to Find a Writer’s Group:
You can’t spend all of your time writing alone. Eventually, you need to venture outside and learn the business of finding writing groups! Especially BEFORE you ever send out a manuscript to industry professionals.
What is a writer’s group?
By definition, a writing group is when 2 or more writers get together to chat about each other’s writing and collaborate on how to fix it. An important tool, especially before you decide to submit your manuscript.
If you’re not comfortable sharing your words with others, I would encourage you to rethink that. A writer’s group is an AMAZING resource for you, so long as you work at finding writing groups that will work for you. Which isn’t that hard to do, once you know what to look for.
What are the benefits of writing groups?
To help stifle some of your fears, and maybe reassure those of you who have a bad taste in your mouth, here are three ways that finding writing groups will benefit you and help you write a children’s book:
1. You are able to ask questions.
If you have questions and want to talk to real humans about it, start with finding writing groups in your area. The public library is a great resource for this!
2. You have someone to read your stuff (Even if it’s really rough!)
If you learned anything from the 5 major publishing mistakes I made, you know that you MUST have your manuscript reviewed.
The best part after finding writing groups that work for
The first time you go to a meeting, you don’t have to bring anything. Instead, you can sit and listen to other critiques to know what to expect and the process the group goes through.
3. You will have a group of friends that will be able to relate to you.
Writing is a lonely profession and, as much as our loved ones want to understand us, there are times where they have no idea what it takes to write a children’s book.
The final (and most uplifting) benefit to finding writing groups is having a group of friends you can talk about writing with. These people understand how much it sucks to get 30 rejections on a fantastic story that you absolutely love.
They also are over-the-moon excited when you reach a new milestone (Write amazingly or get the offer) and CAN’T WAIT to go to your book signings and launch. Because they’re other writers, supporting writers.
How do you find a writer’s group?
- Start with your local library. We know that the library is the ultimate resource for writers, and one of those benefits is hosting events. Including writer’s groups. Check their site for meet-ups or talk to a librarian.
- Join SCBWI (the Society of Children’ s Book Writers & Illustrators). They have regional advisors for your state that can point you in the direction of a group that meets in your area.
- Find an online critique group. You can look through SCBWI or use a simple Google search based
on your genre of interest. Make sure they’re on a credible site or have positive comments about them before signing up.
- Start your own group. However, if you’re just starting out, I would wait to use this step unless you have a few other writer friends that you know.
A writer’s group is an invaluable resource for you as you write a children’s book. Once you understand the steps in finding writing groups, you will feel more confident in joining one.
Remember, you can ask questions, bring stories for them to read, and network with other writers in your area. And don’t be afraid to go! Writers don’t bite your flesh. They only like sinking their teeth into books. 😜
Set yourself up to write a children’s book with success by remembering these four steps: Know your target market, read comp books in your genre, format your manuscript appropriately, and find other writers to read your work.
It’s fun to write a children’s book, and when you do it correctly, it will be more exciting to PUBLISH that children’s book!
And if you want to go further, check out the children’s book template you need to help your story!