I often talk about the “rules” of writing for children and sending manuscripts to children’s book publishers, citing appropriate page lengths and story types for different age groups. A better term would probably be “guidelines”; these rules exist only to tell you what, in general, editors like to see in the manuscripts sent to them. And, of course, for every rule there are numerous exceptions. But while we’d all like to think our book is strong enough to override the guidelines, this is usually not the case. Here are some rules that shouldn’t be ignored until you really know what you’re doing:
Don’t Write Rhyming Picture Books
Yes, you’ve seen them in the stores and kids like them. But children also like non-rhyming picture books. It takes a great deal of skill and hard work to craft an original story, complete with unique characters, in about 1000 words. It takes a different skill entirely to tell that story in rhyme. If you’ve got it, great. But don’t assume that because your story is aimed at young children it has to rhyme. Always try to write it in prose first. After you’ve got the story on paper, decide if the rhyming format will add to the text. If the answer is yes, make sure it’s strong rhyme: it has a consistent meter, uses no clichés or extra words, and has a rhythm that is easy to read aloud.
Don’t Overlook Designated Word Lengths
No editor is going to turn down a great book just because the text length falls outside the average guidelines. If your young adult novel is as good as it can be at 100 pages, there’s no sense padding the manuscript simply because most YAs are longer. But length guidelines are there for a reason – -publishers have determined about how much text kids of different ages can read, and so it behooves you to try to stay as close to those guidelines as possible. And if you’ve ever tried to get a group of 4-year-olds to sit still for a 2000-word picture book, you’ll understand why editors are leaning toward shorter texts in the youngest age brackets. When submitting to magazines, it’s vital that you stick to the requested word limits because articles must fit within a finite amount of space on the page. Too long, or too short, can mean instant rejection.
Don’t Provide Testimonials in Queries
It’s nice to have lots of neighborhood kids read your manuscript and give you a thumbs up, but your potential editor doesn’t need to hear about it. Frankly, editors don’t pay much attention to testimonials from readers who may be family or friends of the author. Also, don’t clutter up the query letter with ideas for why children need your book or what they’ll learn from it. This is up to the editor to decide. (One exception: You’re querying a nonfiction book and can show that there aren’t any other books in print that cover the same subject). Keep your query letter tight, brief, and to the point. Provide an intriguing plot synopsis or nonfiction outline, relevant information about yourself, and include a self-addressed, stamped envelope. Sell your book, not your reasons for writing it.
Don’t Write a Series Before Selling the First Book
I’ve critiqued many stories from authors who say, “I’ve got six more books written with these characters. Should I mention that to the editor when I submit my manuscript?” My answer? No.. Unless an editor is specifically looking for new series proposals, and the books were written from the start to form a series, this is a bad idea. Realize that series are created as a group of books that are bound together by some sort of hook; in fiction, it might be a club the main characters form, a neighborhood they all live in, or a cause they champion. In nonfiction, it’s a topic (natural sciences, biographies) and an age group. Rarely do you see picture book fiction series. What does happen is a character may find popularity with readers and the author is asked to write another book featuring the same cast. These fiction “series” actually grow over time, one book at a time.
So, unless you’ve designed your books as a traditional series and are able to creaft a thought-out series proposal to the editor, stick to selling one book. When an editor sees you have many manuscripts featuring the same characters and similar plots, she may feel that you’ve invested too much time writing new material and not enough time revising what you’ve already got. And keep in mind that each book – series or not – must stand on its own. It needs a strong beginning, well-developed middle, and satisfying end. No fair leaving the ending incomplete with the intention of continuing the story in the next book.