If you are new to children’s publishing, you may be feeling a tad overwhelmed by the jargon. There are picture books, chapter books, and young adult novels. You have fiction, nonfiction, and informational texts. It may be tempting to shrug and ignore these terms. After all, you just want to write for kids. You can send in your work and let the publisher sort it out.
Unfortunately, that isn’t going to happen. Here are three reasons you need to learn the lingo.
What Are Editors Requesting?
When an editor, agent or publisher puts out a call, you need to know what it is they want. After all, a nonfiction STEM picture book is going to be very different from a young adult novel with touches of magical realism. If you don’t know what they are asking for, how can you possibly know what to send them? If nothing else, Google unfamiliar terms. “What is magical realism?” (It is amazing! That’s what.)
Know What You Are Sending
You also need to know the lingo so that you know what you are submitting when you send something in. If you say that you are sending a picture book and the editor finds a 2500 word manuscript, you are going to earn a rapid ‘no thank you.” Using the correct terminology to describe your work shows publishing professionals that you too are a pro. That’s going to cast your work in a completely different light. And if it is the buzz of the next office Zoom meeting, it will be a good buzz. And, that’s what you want.
When It Is Time to Break the Rules
If you know the terminology used in publishing as well as the conventions of each type of book, you can sometimes get by with breaking the rules. Why? Because you know what the rules are and why this rule right here needs to be broken to tell this particular story in the most effective way.
Every industry has conventions and terminology. Learn what they are and then you can set about carving a space that only you and your work can fill.
Yesterday @JoshuaIsard tweeted an Orwell quote. “Never use a long word where a short one will do.” Contrary-bear that I am, I immediately thought of an exception. But that doesn’t mean that we should ignore writing rules.
Oft repeated rules are oft repeated for a reason. Breaking them can be done but can be hard to do well. Thus the rule.
Here are five of them as well as authors/books that break them.
“Never use a long word when a short one will do.” George Orwell I hadn’t had my coffee when I read Joshua’s tweet but immediately the word tintinnabulation popped into my head. Poe used it in his poem, The Bells. It is definitely a $20 word but well worth the extra penny. Poetry and picture books are often about the sound of the word and sometimes that sound requires a more elaborate word than ring or toll, peal or jingle. Perhaps this rule should really be, use the right word?
Don’t write rhyming picture books . This isn’t a rule that I’m inclined to break but there are other people who do it well. If you are interested in writing rhyming picture books, look beyond Seuss and study April Pulley Sayre. Your rhyme and rhythm have to be spot on and you can’t switch up the word order in your sentence. It has to be logical and smooth.
Children and teens want to read about characters who are slightly older than they are. No adults! The trick is that readers need to be able to identify with the characters and it can be hard for young readers to identify with adult characters. But, there are exceptions. Among my favorites were Mr. Putter and Mrs. Teaberry, two of Cynthia Rylant’s characters. They may not be children but young readers identify with their love of their pets and friends and also their ability to get in a fix.
If you are determined to break the rules, study other writers who have done it and done it well. Your attempt still may not fly but at least you struggled to get air born!
Is there another writing rule I should have included? If so, list it below.
There are a lot of rules when it comes to writing for children. I’m always amazed at how many of them involve Do Not.
Do Not write picture books about inanimate characters.
Do Not create picture books with talking animal characters.
Do Not write rhyming picture books.
Do Not switch point of view characters.
Do Not have an adult protagonist.
Do Not have a protagonist who is younger than your reader.
And yet, we can all name writers who get away with breaking these very rules. How come they can do it but you can I can’t? There are several answers to this question.
Because they’ve done it successfully and you and I have not. Whether our inanimate object character was shallow or we failed to help our young reader connect with your adult character, we did not get the job done right. Period. Which ever of these rules we tried to break, we didn’t do it well and we failed. That’s why the editor or agent responded with the appropriate rule.
Because the author has a following that you and I do not have. The latter part of this response is a little cynical but it is also a lot honest. If Rowling or Yolen or Scieszka write something different or odd or unexpected, they have a following who will take the time to puzzle through it. “Oh, that’s what she was up to. Cool.” You and I? Nope. No followers to willingly puzzle through our cleverness. Writing may be an art but publishing is a business and if your work isn’t going to be acessible enough to pay for itself and then some, it isn’t going to sell.
Does all of this mean that you should not try to break these rules? I sure hope it doesn’t.
I am currently marketing a picture book that seems to be a rule breaker. Do Not create nonfiction without a strong and obvious arc. Unfortunately this is exactly what I’ve done. I think there’s an arc. My critique group agrees. In fact, they helped me hammer it out. But the first agent I showed it to said, “No thanks. No arc.” while simultaneously assuring me that there is a place in the world for this particular story.
All I can say is that if you chose to break the rules, don’t expect an easy sale.