So you want to write a children’s book?
The first thing you need to understand is that writing a children’s book is pretty much like writing any other book.
I have heard a lot of people say “I have children” or “I work with children” and “so I am sure I could write a children’s book”. That may well be true, but those factors in and of themselves do not qualify a person to write a children’s book.
What does qualify a person to write is one word that many people might not associate with creative writing, and that word is WORK.
Unfortunately this is not one of those “How To Do It” books in three easy steps that will allow you to entirely write a book in your subconscious while you are eating your breakfast or having a stroll along the river. Note: I use the word ‘entirely’ in italics because we will discuss at length the subconscious aspect of writing later in this book.
What this book is basically about is firstly preparing and showing you how to build the skills, technique and writing muscle that will allow you to become capable of writing your own book in a way that is both productive and efficient.
Secondly it shows you how to use your subconscious to access your creativity and finish your book and of course how to feel good about yourself and get a good nights sleep.
DETERMINE WHAT YOU WANT TO WRITE AND PREPARE TO WRITE IT.
Step 1. First you must decide what kind of book you want to write and the kind of book you don’t want to write. The best way of doing this is to have a look around at what is already in the marketplace. This will do a few things for you.
· It will acquaint you with what is in the marketplace
· It will allow you the opportunity of seeing and discovering children’s book authors that you like and don’t like.
· It will acquaint you with the various styles that different authors are using to write in the children’s genre. This process will also acquaint you with how different authors write for different age groups.
The internet is always a good place to start, but I also encourage people to visit libraries because although the internet is good for research, the internet does not have librarians, and libraries can make a big difference to your research. I find librarians can be very helpful because in the library there are sections where children’s books are shelved according to age groups. I would encourage you to undertake library research as the very first step in the preparation process.
Question: How long does this research take, you may ask?
Answer: As long as it takes you to find what you need.
Every person is different so there is no one answer to fit all situations. I personally like to go in and talk to librarians, and ask them about the books, to see what I like and then check out the maximum number of books it is possible to take home at one time. By taking the books home I can read through them at my leisure.
The other thing you can do is to go to a high street book shop or mall book shop to see what books are popular. Many of the larger book shops such as Barnes and Noble or Waterstone’s in the U.K. have a reading area. It is well worth spending a couple of sessions in a book shop and having a look through what is currently being sold.
I would suggest that you give this stage a definite period of no longer than one month. The reason for this is that you need to start getting used to doing things within a time frame.
When you have decided the kind of book you want to write you are ready for the second step.
STEP 2. Making a commitment to finishing your book and giving yourself a finishing date.
This is extremely important because many people will make a start, write a few pages or even half the book and then never finish. One of the things that people can be great at doing is writing something, looking at it and saying that it’s rubbish, tearing it up and starting again. I cannot tell you the amount of times I have talked to people who say ‘I started writing a children’s book but never got around to finishing it’. The worst part is that some of these people I am sure have real writing talent, but because they lack the commitment to finish, the world will never know about that talent.
It may seem as if I am putting the cart before the horse by asking you to make a commitment to finish before you even know what you are going to write or how difficult the writing will be, but believe me, the more of this book you read, the more sense it will start to make.
The trick here is to give yourself a finishing date, and then extend it by two months.
So if you think writing your book will take 2 months, make it 4 months. Use the first date as your original date and the second date is the backup plan.
The original finishing date gives you focus. The extension allows you to have a cushion of time so that if you cannot finish by the first date, then the stress and frustration doesn’t kick it and make you abandon your book.
Different books will take different amounts of time depending on how fast a person writes as well as how complex the book will be. My suggestion is to make the final date something you can live with but at the same time something that is not so comfortable that it will allow you to be lazy.
My suggestion is, if this is a short book of 10-29 pages, give yourself 3 months, if it is a novel of 200 or more pages, give yourself 12 months, (6 months as original finishing date, 6 month as an extension).
Take this date, write it down and put it in a place where you can often see it.
STEP 3. Make Yourself a Work Schedule.
The periods you spend working should not be very long, especially not at first, but they should be consistent. The work periods could be 1-2 hours per day or 1-2 hours per week, it doesn’t matter. What does matter is the commitment to follow it through. You might find yourself working 5-6 hours per day or per week which will be great, but the most important thing is that you stick to your minimal schedule because the commitment to follow the schedule will prove your commitment to the work.
This time is sacred, so set things up in your life so that you are not disturbed during this time. Turn off the phone, send the kids away, do whatever you have to do to make sure that for the time you are writing you are alone with your thoughts and uninterrupted. Tell the members of your household that this is your writing time and you are not to be disturbed and make them respect that time. Remember, this undisturbed writing time part of that commitment to yourself to finish your book.
Every person is different. Some people like to work with music, some with a drink, some even lying down on the floor. Whatever you need to do to put yourself in that writing space, get there and be able to stay there uninterrupted until you reach the end of the work period for that time you are committed to writing for that day.
One of the important things to understand about writing is that often you may not feel like sitting down to write. There may be nothing in your head, maybe because you have just had a hard day. My advice, is to SIT DOWN ANYWAY and keep to your schedule, even if you think you have nothing to write, because sometimes writing can be a bit like sleeping- if you put yourself in the right comfortable circumstances, you will be surprised even if you are not sleepy, you will find yourself suddenly having dozed off.
I have found that if I put myself into the writing situation, even if I have nothing to write, if I start to even doodle around with ideas, even if those ideas are crap ideas I find that many times crap ideas will open the door to better ideas. But first I have to be in that writing space before the crap ideas can turn into goods idea. My suggestion is that you start with 1 hour writing periods. The important thing is that you move forward. Even if it is inch by inch, it will be an accomplishment you can look back on and feel good about.
Step 4. OBTAINING TOOLS OF THE TRADE
Now you will begin to assemble the tools you need for writing; and for me this is where the REAL WORK takes place.
It is here that you start to accumulate the building blocks that will allow you to develop the technique to write as a professional.
i. Read as much as possible of the genre in which you want to write. This will not only familiarize you with that genre but will plant psychological links to other books which you will either consciously or subconsciously research or reproduce. Either one is fine because no writing, no matter who writes it, is totally original. Everyone steals and borrows technique, story ideas and style from everyone else and always has done. The trick is to steal in such a way as to make it your own. So don’t be ashamed or afraid to take ideas from other books. Remember even though publishers always say they are looking for something different, most often their idea of different is simply something familiar with only a very slight difference. This is not to discourage original ideas, but rather to let you know that if you as a new author are influenced by an idea, it is perfectly ok to use that idea to develop your own.
ii. Buy Books. I suggest that you buy the books you like and think you want to use for research. I like to buy the books I use for research because when I own them I can write my notes at the beginning of them in case I want to use the book as a reference at some later point while I am writing.
iii. Learn the basic techniques of sentence structure and the parts of speech and practice them. It may sound patronizing but it is not meant to be in any way. Too many people who want to write have no real idea of how the language works. I mean something as simple as subject and verb agreement, or subject and predicate. If you don’t know, no problem. The internet is a sea of knowledge at your fingertips. Even a basic “how to write a composition paper” that you can find online can give up lots of secrets. This is especially good for people who might not have written anything creative for a while. Nothing is wrong with refreshing or learning things at any point. If you don’t know, ok. Don’t feel you should already know. It will take you 20 minutes to look it over and then you are ready to go on to the next step which is learning to develop your ideas for writing. The main thing to know is that all writers have problems with something. You are not alone. Most writers I know cannot spell to save their lives, and others cannot write dialogue. All writers have weaknesses. The trick is to recognize yours and deal with them unashamedly. Once you admit to yourself what you don’t know, it is simple enough to find the answer and move forward. But if you don’t know and continue to live in denial you will become stuck and at a later stage it will be much more difficult for you to acquire the technical skill level that will allow you to enter into a zone when you are writing.
iv. Use all the tools available to you. These days there are great tools attached to your computer like spell check, sentence structure and rules of grammar etc., use them unashamedly.
v. Learn To Take Notes. I always start with notes, all kinds of notes, some of which are written on napkins, scraps of paper or recorded on my mobile phone. The reason for this is that when an idea comes into your head, in my opinion THIS IS THE EXACT MOMENT WHEN THE IDEA IS IN ITS PUREST FORM AND YOU NEED TO RECORD OR WRITE IT DOWN AS SOON AS YOU CAN.
Over the years, I have learned to stop the world for a few seconds to record my thoughts, sometimes, I admit, to the surprise, consternation and possibly the annoyance of those around me. But it doesn’t matter because this is an essential part of the toolkit that makes my writing possible. I have long ago learned not to care what anyone says or thinks about this trait I have developed. I am adamant about this because if you wait until you get home to record your idea, I can almost guarantee that your idea will be diluted, or worse, gone altogether. So discipline yourself to stop whatever you are doing and take a second to write it down or record your idea to your mobile phone. It does not have to be a developed idea, but just enough to record what the thought or idea is, for example “woman riding in car,” “baby carriages all in a row”, “big shoes, little feet”. By themselves they don’t mean much but these raw notes are the ingredients for the gourmet meal you are about to make.
vi. Organize Your Notes Into A Plot Outline
Now that you have the notes you can start to organize them into some form that only you need to understand. That organizational form can be pages, chapters, sections, whatever, but WHATEVER FORM IT TAKES YOU NEED TO WRITE IT DOWN IN AN OUTLINE FORM.
OUTLINING THE PLOT IS THE HOLY GRAIL OF STORYTELLING because it is your ROADMAP.
ONCE YOU KNOW YOUR GENERAL DIRECTION TOWARDS YOUR DESTINATION you can move towards that direction confidently. You may decide to take a number of different routes to reach that destination, but at least you now have a clear idea of where you are moving towards. By looking at your road map you know you are moving north and not south. A plot outline it is your storytelling compass to make sure you are always moving towards where you want to go. So it is worth taking the time to define a Good Clear Plot Outline before you start writing. I ALWAYS START making stories JUST WITH PLOT OUTLINES. I suggest making your outline in 5-6 lines to show the story. This outline strips away the fluff and gives you a clear picture of the building block elements you need to build your story.
My plot outlines are often simple and usually look something like this.
1. This happens… (main conflict)
2. This happens next… (character and conflict development)
3. This happens next… (twist)
4. This happens next... (conflict resolution)...or not
Because I started as a mystery writer I still use my old tried and true mystery writing plot outline form even when I write children books, because the elements are still applicable for the kind of children stories I write.
Also because I have worked a lot in film I tend to organize my plot outline in terms of visual scenes. This works for me but it may or may not for you. Every writer is different and there is no right or wrong writing method. You can use index cards, message notes on your phone, text or email yourself, post it notes etc. But whatever method you choose, it is essential that you organize your notes in some way so that it leads you to the next step in the writing process.
Also I don’t think an outline should be rushed. When I am writing a novel, it can easily take me a few months to develop the plot outline. But this is time well spent because I know once the outline is right then all other things will fall into place more easily.
vii. Tell the Story
The next step is telling the story. You as a writer now want to bring the reader into your world. You want to take control of their mind and emotions to deliver a set of messages and images that will create an emotional and intellectual response.
A filmmaker does this with a combination of visual images, music, acting and camera movement, a musician does this with composition, arrangement, instruments and voice. As a writer you want to do exactly the same thing with the words and images you create in the reader’s mind.
You want to take the reader on a journey. I find whether it a children’s story or a full length novel, the basic structure still works.
A. The character has a problem to solve or a goal to reach/ conflict
B. In the process of trying to reach that goal or solve the problem there are complications / involvement & development
C. In more complex stories the resolution is not so forthcoming or obvious and is often preceded by one or more surprises. This surprise element is usually called “the twist” and comes before the Conflict Resolution to take the audience in another direction and raise the emotional ante.
In the early Hollywood days they used to say the basic writing formula was,
1. Get the character up the tree
2. Shake the tree
3. Get the character down from the tree.
It still pretty much works, because the main emphasis of most stories is going to be the dramatic focus or conflict and the journey through and the answer to resolving that conflict.
viii. Combine the Outlining and the Storytelling.
Some writers develop the story first while others develop the characters.
Here is how you can develop characters.
I. Make a list of your characters
Character a. John
Character b. Peggy
Character c. Idris
Character d. Sarah
II. Ask these questions about each of them
1. Who are they, what is their basic personality?
2. What do they do (as a job if applicable)?
3. What is strange or funny or unique about them?
4. What is their relationship with the story and the other characters?
5. How old are they?
6. Why have they been chosen to be a part of this story?
7. IMPORTANT- write a basic character overview for each main character including personal characteristics and even a short history (see below)
III. Other things you need to define
· When is the story taking place (time period) present/past/future?
· Where is the story located, what is special about the environment or location you have chosen for the story?
· The story takes place over what time period? 2 days/a week/a month?
· Once you have your characters, the basic idea for telling the story and your outline you are ready to prepare to start moving towards the zone because now you have the general direction of where you are headed. Even if you go off track, you can get back on track easily because now you have your plot outline as your roadmap.
So now you are ready for your next big step which is developing your character’s personality so that they work within your story. This is something we will explore in Part 2.