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.
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. They are:
- Knowing the target market you’re writing for
- Being able to do research using existing comp books
- Formatting your manuscript in the way agents & editors want
- Joining 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?” And the 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!
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. For instance, a story about a girl looking for love may be a novel in either the middle grade or YA section. Or a book about a boy sharing his family’s rituals for dinner could be in a picture book section.
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 8-12-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 target your perfect 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 (No 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 jumpstart on being successful!
2. Why Reading Comp Books is the Best Advice for Writers:
I was listening to an episode on the Picturebooking Podcast about tips to break into the industry. The host interviewed TONS of published authors and illustrators and asked their top advice for other writers. Almost ALL of them said writers should be reading comp books.
If you hear something on repeat, it has to be important. Right? So I thought I would do a little digging and find out WHY this is so crucial.
There are two questions that I always ask writers that want to write a children’s book when I learn they aren’t reading books in their genre:
1. Why would you expect others to read your book, if you don’t read the books yourself?
2. How do you know what’s going on in Children’s Literature?
You can’t ask one without asking the other. Because if you haven’t read a book in your targeted age level since you were a child, then things are most likely different.
For instance, if you are writing picture books, but haven’t read a picture book since you were 5, that’s a problem. Picture books have changed SO MUCH since the 90s. And you have no idea.
Or if you’re writing a novel and you can only think of Harry Potter as the last big book in middle grade, that’s a problem. Harry Potter is TWENTY YEARS OLD! There have been many new books since then.
Your best hope is for people to not be like you. Otherwise, no one will buy your book. And then what would be the point?
Here are five things you will learn from reading comp books:
1. You know what’s recently been published.
If you are reading comp books that have come out recently (like in the last five years), you’ll have a better understanding of the style publishers are looking for right now and what may not sell.
For instance, if you have a thousand-word picture book that’s description heavy, you may need to cut down. Picture books that have come out recently tend to be shorter with hardly any description.
Or if you’re writing a YA dystopian novel about a corrupt government, you may struggle to get published. It’s been done too much lately! Same with sparkly vampires and werewolves with washboard abs.
(You can even use the ultimate FREE resource for writers to find out this information!)
2. You get into a child’s mindset.
I used to work in property management and talk to people all day about picking up after their dog and paying their rent on time. Not exactly a child’s idea of a fun time.
Meaning, if I came home from work and brought the same mindset I used at work to my manuscript, it would be very adult.
But if you read childish books or watch kid TV, you can swap into a child’s mind (Watching TV might even help your writing!). Maybe even remember how much fun it is to draw with crayons, sit under a blanket fort, and make plans to save the world from aliens.😉
3. You understand the structure better.
This is my favorite reason for reading comp books, especially if you’re new to a genre. Or if you’re having troubles getting your story right.
Reading comp books is like a crash course in plot structure, voice, pacing, word-choice, you name it. It’s the easiest way to learn how to write a children’s book in your genre of choice. And if you go to the library, it’s completely FREE!
When I decided to write from a boy’s perspective, I went to the library and got ARMLOADS of books to read. Why? Because I didn’t know what boys liked, let alone what they enjoyed in books.
But I learned so much by reading comp books from a boy’s perspective. Including what I did and didn’t like.
You’ll be AMAZED at how much easier it is to write after you’ve been reading.
4. You’ll have a general idea for tone and pacing.
Whenever you hear someone say they “like the voice”, they’re referring to the style of writing. The voice is what pulls a reader in, connects them to the characters, and has them racing to the end–Then wishing there was more after the book is done.
When you find your voice, you’re finding your style for writing.
And this will be derived from endlessly reading comp books to understand other authors’ tone and pacing for your specific genre. Because you can’t tell a chapter book story the same way you can a YA. They’re very different.
5. You’ll know if your book is available to write.
This is the number one reason for reading comp books. You have to know if your story has already been written.
Because you can’t submit a story to a publisher with an idea about how the crayons decided not to be crayons anymore. Or about a girl that finds out she’s a princess when she’s thirteen after her dad dies. (Ok, maybe you can if you have a REALLY REALLY different way of telling that story.)
However, you do want to find books that are similar to yours. Otherwise, your book topic might not be interesting or relevant enough to sell.
It’s all a balance.
Reading comp books is very important as a writer. It’s like the only job you have besides writing before you should start submitting. Because you learn about current books, plot structure, tone, pacing, and if your topic is available.
Check out these other articles that will help elevate your writing:
- Ultimate Free Resource for Your Comp Books
- Best Writing Exercises for Creating Plot
- Lazy Day Activity that can Help Your Writing
3. How to Format Your Children’s Manuscript Like an Expert:
At my writer’s group, we’ve had a few new members come for someone to look at their manuscripts before they submit them. And the biggest question is how do you format your children’s manuscript?
I remember my first time writing a picture book and sending it out, my formatting was all off. It’s one of the five major mistakes I made and I WISH someone was there to tell me what to do–then I wouldn’t have embarrassed myself. 🙈
So that you don’t look like an amateur (Like I did), 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!
There are many different places you will send your manuscript and they all have slight variances in formatting. We will focus on the final submission process to format your children’s manuscript. This can be tweaked slightly for the other types, so it’s the best way to start the formatting.
Here is the Step-by-Step Guide to Format Your Children’s Manuscript-
1. Your Contact Information
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
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
I prefer an approximate word count for my manuscripts, but you can list exact word count on picture books. If you’re writing a chapter book, middle-grade, or YA novel, I would stick to approximate word counts.
**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
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.
Picking a title is always one of the hardest things for me, but there are two things I try to focus on when I write mine:
- Is it related to my story?
- Does it make the reader curious?
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
You will need to make sure to complete your header when you format your children’s manuscript. This should include your last name/title of your book and the page number aligned to the right.
**Note: Your should keep this for ALL submissions except when you copy and paste your manuscript into the body of an email. It helps make sure that your pages don’t get lost whenever someone prints out your story.
5A. Illustrator Notes (Picture Books Only)
In plotting your perfect picture book, I talked about Illustrator Notes for authors that are not creating the images for their books (If you haven’t read it yet, you can do that here. It’s worth the read, especially before you submit!)
These will be aligned to the right side of the manuscript, under the line that you need the note for. Here’s 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-thoughtout, 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.
- 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 or if you are using a narrator voice but it’s a grandpa talking to his grandson.
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.
Instead, simply list your chapter in your story. I like to spell mine out and make them bold to signal a page break, but you don’t have to. The main goal is to keep consistency for them all. So if you spell your numbers out, they all should be and the same with bolding the letters.
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.
Some industry standards to note:
- Use Romans 12pt font, and double space your manuscript
- Follow each person’s SPECIFIC guidelines before submitting
4. Everything You Need to Know on Finding Writing Groups:
You can’t spend all of your time writing alone. Eventually, you need to venture outside and learn the business of finding writing groups!
As writer’s, we like to spend time alone–you know, doing that whole ‘writing’ business. In fact, most of us are introverts and that’s why we chose this industry. To be alone with our thoughts.
However, to write a children’s book well, you HAVE to get out and find yourself a writing group.
Lone wolves don’t travel in packs. I hear you! But this time, you kind of have to.
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.
But what if you’re really not comfortable sharing your words with others, because you’ve either:
- Been burned before?
- Not liked what they had to say?
- Been torn down and drug through the mud?
- Were fried like turkey on a stake?
I’d say, fair and valid worries. 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.
When we’re new, it feels like there’s SOOOOO much to learn. And a lot of it, we didn’t even know we needed to learn! (Like who knew there was a right and wrong way to type out your manuscript? Wasn’t that what English class was for??)
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 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
offyour genre of interest. Make sure they’re on a credible site or have positive comments about them before signing up.
- Start your own group. I did that for my latest middle-grade
group,since there wasn’t another group around me that met up during the month. 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. 😜
For more learning, check out these articles:
- How to be a Successful Children’s Author
- The #1 Resource for Writers
- My 5 Biggest Publishing Mistakes
- 100 Things to Remember when You Need to Write
- Everything You need to Publish a Children’s Book
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!