When you want to push ahead with a project, it’s really helpful to have amassed all the knowledge you need in order to do the best job in the quickest time. Gaining understanding saves time, saves energy, and saves you falling into potential confidence-rocking, soul-destroying holes. So, if you’re setting out to write for children this year, what are those important things you need to know? Here are some suggestions.
Know your readers
The most helpful starting point is working out who the majority of your readers are. Although any book can be read and enjoyed by anyone of any age, having a rough idea of who you book is primarily aimed at will help hugely.
For example. word count is a big factor. There’s no point writing a 3,000-word picture book. Or a lower-middle grade with 60,000 words. Or a chapter book with 2,500-word-long chapters. Do your research and make an educated guess about where your book sits. What kind of other books will your readers be enjoying?
Know the market
You don’t need to write to trends as such, because publishing trends are as fickle as they come. However, it does help to keep tabs on what is or isn’t selling well at the moment. This can help you when you are planning and pitching your children’s book for example when providing comparison titles (for books similar to yours), if requested.
It can also help you direct your energy. For example, at the moment, picture books seem to be particularly difficult to shift, either going directly to publishers or being picked up by agents. So perhaps you might be better off focusing on that chapter book you were thinking of writing.
Know your genre
Knowing your genre (or mix of genres) is also valuable. It helps you get to grips with your story, and where it would sit on a shelf. Genre doesn’t mean the type of book regarding readership age –
so, for example, ‘picture book’ is not a genre – it’s a category. Genre means the type of story it is in content. Is it a funny story? A mystery story? A fantasy tale?
Understanding the genre of your book also means you can communicate this to your reader (child or gatekeeper), and they can feel confident what kind of story they are reading (or would like to read). Being clear about the genre also helps you to market your book and pitch it to agents and editors, who can in turn pitch it further up the chain, from sales team to booksellers.
Know your reasons
Understanding WHY you are writing this story is also important. This can help bring focus to the story, and also motivation for getting the job done! Why do you want to share this story with children? Why is this story important to you? Or… is it perhaps not that important to you? If it’s not, is there another story you might be better focusing on instead? Know your reasons for choosing this story to work on right now.
Know your story
Knowing your story well can save you a huge amount of time and ensure your writing keeps on track. If you know what kind of story you’re telling, what the premise is, what the themes are, what the tone is (and why), what the style is, then it can help you as you begin to write.
Obviously, sometimes these things only become clear as your write, and that’s absolutely fine. There is no one way to create and write a story. And it may even be different with every story you write. But the quickest way to create a story is being aware of what your story is and what it is trying to achieve.
If you’re not sure what your story is, or it seems a jumbled mess of perhaps two or more different stories or concepts, go back to the drawing board. Ask yourself what exactly your story is about and understand what the strongest version of itself is, or what your favourite version of it is.
Think Premise. Think Theme. Think Tone. Think Style.
Streamline as and where necessary, cutting out those factors which muddle or compromise the heart of your story idea. You can always keep those trimmed elements safe and use them for other story ideas in future.
Know your characters
As most stories are character-led, knowing your characters inside out makes your life much easier. If you truly understand their motivation, their background, their emotions, their personalities, then it’s much easier to understand and predict the choices they will make as the plot unfold. If you’re not clear about your characters, or they are too woolly or two-dimensional, you can risk having a story which doesn’t quite feel authentic.
Know your story plan
Whether you’re a plotter or a pantser or plantser, or any of the above on different days of the week, it helps to have an idea of where your story is heading. Being aware of the external conflicts (what your characters want) and internal conflicts (what your characters actually need) will keep every beat, every scene and every chapter in check, working towards those end internal and external goals, which, in turn, will help direct the plot.
Knowing your story plan is different from knowing your entire plot. You do not need to have the entire thing plotted out before you start writing, but a vague idea of beginning, middle and how the story is likely to resolve is incredibly helpful. It can keep it heading in the right direction and not going too off-piste.
If you do plot a story in advance, it can save time not only in the writing, but in the indecision which may happen along the way. If you choose to fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants through the story, make sure you know – and actively keep in mind – what you’re ultimately working towards.
Know your goals
Another way to help yourself to move forward to is to set yourself goals. This can you get the most out of your time and give you something tangible to aim for. It could be an external goal, like a competition deadline. But it’s also hugely helpful to get into the practice of giving yourself a personal – and realistic – deadline to achieve a goal by. If you don’t meet it, don’t be hard on yourself, but learn from the experience, and adjust your approach for the next goal you set. If you do finish a piece of work by a certain time (whether that’s just a chapter, or a whole book, or a synopsis, or three new story ideas to explore, etc.), then make sure you reward yourself.
If you know what your projects are, and you know what your goals are, then immediately you have something to aim for. Something you can achieve. And as writing can sometimes seem a long and endless winding road, knowing these things can be a great advantage and a great motivator.
Know your gatekeepers
When you start thinking about submitting, knowledge is also definitely power. Don’t underestimate the value of research. Which agents are a good fit? Which children’s authors do they represent? What are they interested in? Why will they think of you as a welcome addition to the list? Which publishers would be interested in your story? Why? Can you find evidence for these things?
Follow editors and agents and other gatekeepers, such as competition judges, or competition accounts on social media. Get a feel of who the gatekeepers actually are, without obviously being too much of a stalker! People often tend to overshare on social media, so it’s relatively easy – read what people post and get a feel for their preferences and personality! Use this knowledge to your advantage.
It’s also incredibly helpful to increase your self-awareness. Know the kind of stories you want to write and understand why you want to write them. Read as many children’s books as you can – what stories affect you emotionally? Which speak to your soul? Which make you laugh? Which authors inspire you?
Know what deadlines or workload you can cope with if you’re juggling writing and other demands. Don’t be afraid to test your limits from time to time. You might be surprised what you find! Equally, don’t be afraid to step back and reset if you need to.
© Amy Sparkes 2023