July 2012


Welcome to Part 4 of Writing an Alphabet Book. I hope that the preceding posts have been beneficial as you’ve started to structure your book for submission. Last time I took a look at how to choose the specific words you want for your manuscript, and today I’ll talk about what to do with those words now that you’ve picked them.

Once again, this is where diligent research of both the publishers you want to pursue and their competition is going to pay off. Some publishers will have very specific styles that any potential ABC book must adhere to for publishing consideration. In general (I always have to say this because there are exceptions I will surely hear about if I don’t give this disclaimer!) you will find that the old style of “A is for Apple, B is for Banana” is long gone.

Publishers today are looking for a more sophisticated approach—one that really brings the alphabet to life for a young reader, or perhaps just helps that reader see it in a new way. One example is to make your way through the alphabet backwards. Another is to connect the alphabetical words in such a way that one logically leads to another. In my earlier sea creature theme, this would take the form of an Eel joining with a school of Fish to swim away from the Giant squid! Or something to that effect. Obviously, not every word can be joined, but you can do so in groupings of 3 or 4 at a time with some creativity.

Take note if other ABC books your potential publisher has are whimsical in nature, very straightforward, carry a certain rhythm, have a particular word or syllable count per page, have complete sentences (as opposed to phrases) for each letter, and so forth. Also make note of how much information is given about each word. This will largely depend on the reader age and level and whether or not the book follows a two-tiered format. Your ABC book may only offer the simplest description of a word, or it may give the reader several sentences of information. It’s important when submitting your manuscript to make sure that your style and depth of description coincides with what the publisher wants.

When studying the competition, look for creative and fresh ideas for how you can incorporate your letters. The more books you can read before diving into yours, the better your chances for hitting on something that will work perfectly for your book and the particular letters you have chosen.

Stayed tuned next time for Part 5—the final installation—where I will discuss how to properly format your book for submission and how to make sure that your presentation is as polished as possible.

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So far in this series on How to Write an Alphabet or ABC Book, I’ve covered the ins and outs of researching publishers and doing the necessary preliminary work so you know what kind of book will be most marketable, and I’ve talked about how to choose a specific niche or angle for the topic of your ABC book. Today I want to look at the particular words you choose that will comprise the alphabet in your book.

I always suggest, when starting from a clean slate in choosing your words, to make one long list of every possible word you can think of that deals with your topic. Let’s say you’ve decided to do an ABC book on sea creatures. Write down every creature, big and small, you can think of that lives in the seas and oceans. Don’t over think your words at this point. It’s important to have as many as possible to work from. I also recommend never leaving the house without some way of taking notes when you’re out. You never know when that perfect word is going to pop into your head!

After you have compiled a sizable list, organize it by letter.  Then identify those letters that have few, if any, corresponding words. For those letters that are lacking ideas, search through both children’s books and adult books on your topic. Check out the glossaries and indices of those books to identify potential words. Even look at other alphabet books on your subject for ideas.

For difficult letters, like Q or X, try to find other ABC books by the publishers you want to submit to, to see how they treat such letters. Some publishers are lenient and will allow authors to use words that merely have that letter in it, as opposed to insisting that the word start with it. Other publishers are not so lenient. You’ll need to know ahead of time what your potential publisher prefers.

Next, assuming that you have at least a few words to choose from for each letter, you’ll want to first eliminate all words that are not age appropriate. Again, this will depend on the target market for your publisher. Alphabet books can range anywhere from 4-8 years old–and even older,  if the book is a two-tiered style, which I discussed in Part 1 of this series. But the difference between a word that’s appropriate for a 4-year-old is much different than what’s appropriate for an 8-year-old. Find out what your target audience’s age will be, then grab a children’s word book that lists words by age or grade to determine which words will be best for your book. A very popular and excellent book for this is the Children’s Writers’ Word Book by Alijandra Mogilner.

Once you have narrowed your list to only age-appropriate words, you then want to choose those that aren’t as commonplace. For example, when picking words for our sea creatures book, instead of going with “shark” for S, what about “sand dollar” or “sea turtle”? For the youngest of readers, you don’t want to get too far away from what they already know, but it’s always good to introduce new words and to pick words that may not be expected. One easy way to do this is to think specific. Instead of “S for Shark,” how about “L for Lemon Shark”? Or “G for Gray Whale”? Going specific may also open up new possibilities for those tougher letters.

Now that you have a workable list of words (for some letters you may still have several words to choose from), you need to work those words into simple sentences, descriptions, or definitions, depending on the format of your book. That’s what I’ll be discussing next week. See you then!

As my Part 2 follow-up to researching potential publishers for your ABC book, today I’d like to discuss how to choose a topic for an alphabet book.

At first glance, coming up with a topic isn’t all that hard. The difficulty comes in choosing just the right angle for your topic. A lot like writing a magazine article, you need to find a niche for your topic that will make it unique, interesting, and of course, marketable. For example, writing an ABC book on food has been done a million times, but what about foods from around the world, where each letter could stand for a food from a different country?

Finding such niches can be challenging, and writing an alphabet book that is now constrained to such a niche is even more challenging. By doing so, however, you’re giving a publisher something fresh and unique, which is what everyone is looking for.

To start this process, I recommend looking at recent ABC books on the market (within the past 5 years). Find out what’s selling and why. This is a good question for your local librarian! While researching books, ask yourself (or your librarian) questions such as: Are most of the current ABC books rhyming or written in verse? What are the most popular topics? Is there a current trend (like having 2-tiered books for different reading levels), or does anything go? What is the typical word count range?

The answers to these questions will ultimately affect how you will structure and write your book. Many of these answers will come from the individual publisher’s guidelines as well, especially when it comes to word count and rhyme vs. verse.

When choosing a topic, look at other popular children’s books, aside from ABC books, to get ideas as well. Discover what some of the current themes are. One good example of this is the environment. Regardless of which side of the political fence your views fall on concerning being green, one thing you can’t deny is that the topic is showing up everywhere, even in children’s books. Take advantage of such popular topics and use them as a basis for your alphabet book. Just because you don’t see a book on a particular topic doesn’t mean that the topic has been rejected by publishers. It could very well mean that no one has thought to write about it yet!

In general, the more specific you can get with your topic, the better. Instead of animals, choose a particular category of animals, such as those that live in a certain region, or those you might find at a zoo. Another general rule is to think globally. More and more, publishers are trying to reach an international audience, or, at the very least, are trying to pull their readers into a global awareness. The more you can include other cultures and regions around the world, the more marketable your book will be viewed by publishers.

It’s important to spend adequate time researching your potential topic to make sure you can actually write a complete alphabet book on it. “A” though “D” may be easy, but what about “X” through “Z”? This, of course, is the downside of choosing a too-specific topic. But that’s where more research comes in, and that’s what we’ll talk about next time. After all, if these books were as easy as ABC, everyone would be writing one!

I was hoping to be able to cover the choosing of specific words this time around, but it will have to wait until next time!