Want to impress an editor? Then heed this advice…
I have tremendous respect for editors at children's book publishers. It's a grueling job to wade through a pile of manuscripts looking for that elusive gem. And it can't be much fun seeing the same mistakes made again and again by aspiring writers. I know lots of editors who would love to issue proclamations such as, "Don't even think about sending me your work until you understand the difference between 'your' and 'you're'." But editors are, by and large, very nice people who wouldn't dream of being so rude. So I'll do the job for them. Here are seven things that, I'm willing to bet, editors at children's book publishers would wish more writers knew:
1) Please learn to punctuate. A misplaced comma or two won't prevent you from getting published (children's book publishers do have people on staff who correct those things), but if your manuscript is riddled with typos, it gives a bad first impression. To me, the most egregious offense is poor punctuation. It's easy to gloss over a misspelled word when reading a manuscript for the first time, but inappropriate semicolons or dialogue with all the quotation marks in the wrong place ruins the flow of the story. If you're not absolutely sure of your punctuation skills, have someone else proof your manuscript before you send it out.
2) Don't rhyme unless you have to. Many authors think picture books equal rhyming stories. The problem is that most people can't write very well in rhyme. The rhyming format should be the last thing you think about— first comes the character development, then the plot, then the pacing and tightly-written text. If all that's in place, then you can overlay the rhyme, without adding any extra, unnecessary details to the story. Only tell a story in rhyme if it's absolutely the best way— the only way— it can be told.
3) Only develop ideas worth a publisher's investment. Did you know it costs a major children's book publisher over $100,000 to get a picture book from manuscript to the book store? Is your idea worth that much of a risk? Novels cost less to produce (no color illustrations) but the market is smaller. Books that are simply cute, sweet, informative, or teach an important lesson don't do enough to justify the publisher's financial risk. Manuscripts need to do more than one thing. So develop ideas that are funny and teach science concepts, or are multicultural, entertaining, and illustrate an important life lesson without preaching to the reader.
4) Pay attention to established age groups and word counts. Once you're famous, you can break all the rules you want. In the meantime, you need to write within established guidelines so editors can visualize exactly where your book would fit on their list, and (more importantly) how their sales reps would pitch it to a book store. Don't submit a 3000 word picture book for ages 3-6. It simply won't fit into 32 pages with illustrations. Don't write a 15-chapter easy reader. Most second graders will be intimidated by a book that long. Be creative with your story, not its format.
5) If you're writing for older readers, understand the distinction between middle grade and young adult. Read several novels for ages 8-12, and for ages 12 and up, so you can begin to see the difference in characters and conflicts for the two age groups. Very often beginning writers think they're writing YA, but they've actually created a middle grade novel with 15-year-old characters. And do incorporate subplots into your story. These books need to have several layers— some emotional, some action-driven— that all work together to build the plot.
6) If your story is very personal and specific to your life/family, consider self-publishing. For your life to be interesting to a wide audience, you must be willing to sacrifice the facts when necessary to make good fiction. The incidents need a universal theme that's relevant to many children. If you have your heart set on writing a book about all the funny, mischievous things your kids and pets did when they were little, and you don't want to alter any events to create a solid, unique plot, then self-publish a few copies at your local copy shop (or an online site like CreateSpace) and give them to family members at the next reunion. Your book will be treasured by the people who will appreciate it the most.
7) Don't think you can abandon logic just because you're writing for children. Several years ago, I worked with a writer who was creating a middle grade fantasy set in the distant past, and yet one of his characters had a few modern-day items in his bedroom. I explained that, even though the book was fantasy, 21st century devices couldn't exist if he clearly stated the story happened long ago. "Kids aren't going to care," was his response. But they will. Even picture book readers will wonder why your spider character carries a life-sized baseball in his pocket. And then your credibility as an author is shot. If you maintain logic in the details, you can get away with a far greater suspension of disbelief in the story. And a story that's a delight to believe is what editors at children's book publishers wish for most of all.