Writing for Children


Welcome to the 5th and final installment of learning to write alphabet or ABC books. I hope that you’ve picked up at least a couple of helpful nuggets along this journey. On this post, I want to discuss how to format and package your alphabet book to send to publishers or agents.

Please take the time to carefully review all submission guidelines that the publisher or agent has put forth on the website. They will tell you exactly how your manuscript should look, and it’s in your best interest to not deviate from these rules. The following are some general guidelines that will typically apply to formatting an ABC book:

1. Manuscript should be double spaced with all margins set at 1″.

2. Use a simple, readable font at the equivalent of a Times New Roman 12 point size.

3. Add a header to each page (starting on page 2) that includes the book title (you may shorten this to the first 2 or 3 words if the title is lengthy), then your full name, then the page number. Some publishers may request that you add your phone number or email address to your header as well.

4. On the first page in the top left corner, add your full contact info, including physical address, email, and phone number (s). In the top right corner, write “Picture book,” then the age range for your book (e.g.: “Ages 4-7”), then your total word count. Place each piece of information on a separate line (see below). Then, type your title half way down the page, with your byline under the title; both lines should be centered.

Renee Gray-Wilburn                                                                                             Picture book   

123 Main Street                                                                                                                   Ages 4-7

Colorado Springs, CO 80919                                                                                      250 words

719-555-1212

waywords@earthlink.net

Both the right and left columns should be justified to the outside margins, and you can single space these lines (this wordpress program will not allow me to do that and keep my columns straight!)

5. Because ABC books are types of picture books, you need to think in terms of page spreads. Unless the publisher states otherwise, there will only be one alphabet letter per page.  Since standard picture books are 32 pages long, and there are only 26 letters in the alphabet, those extra pages will be devoted to front and back matter.

6. You won’t know exactly which page the publisher will start your book on, so it’s acceptable when  formatting the manuscript to begin with page 1. Your title page will most likely be page 3 or 5, with your first letter (“A is for…”) starting on the following even-numbered page.

7. Type:  Page 1, double space, then “A is for Apple.” Double space twice to separate the pages then continue in this manner throughout all 26 pages. It is also okay to omit numbering the pages as you go, and instead simply write the text for each page with 2 double-spaced lines in between the alphabet letters.

As always, there may be some deviations to these formatting guidelines, especially if the publisher has specific requests. But this is a very standard and professional way to format an ABC book.

Now, on to packaging…

There are a variety of pieces of information a publisher or agent may ask for in your submission package. These include:

Cover letter–a 3-5 paragraph letter (no more than one page!) explaining what your manuscript is (an alphabet book that takes the reader on a journey through the oceans to meet all sorts of interesting sea life), who your target market is (this book is appropriate for early readers, ages 4-7), why you believe your book will be a perfect fit for this particular publisher’s current line (An ABC Swim through the Seas will make a great addition to your “Wild Animal” alphabet book series), and finally why you are qualified to write this book (having taught science to kindergartners for five years, having authored two other animal picture books, etc.)

Like a query letter, the cover letter is all about selling your project to the publisher. They should finish reading your letter excited about diving into your manuscript.

Resume–a one-to-two page (depending on your amount of experience) account of your writing or otherwise relevant experience. If you do not have much writing experience, add other work or volunteer projects that may be relevant to your book’s subject matter. Also include any formal writing training you’ve had. For more information on developing a writer’s resume, please see my two previous posts on this subject: Part 1 and Part 2.

Clips–articles, book excerpts, online pieces, or any other published work that you have. If you have several pieces of published work, select those that are most relevant to the manuscript you’re submitting. If you do not yet have any published material, you may send a writing sample in its place. Make it clear that it is a sample and has not been published, and make it as relevant to your manuscript as possible. In the case of an ABC book, you would want to provide a sample geared to the same target age of your book.

The publisher or agent may ask for a hard copy, mailed submission or an electronic submission sent as an email attachment. If you do submit via regular mail, include a self-addressed stamped envelope with sufficient postage for your manuscript to be returned.

Finally, be sure to send the publishing house just what they ask for–no more and no less! And, as usual, proofread everything at least twice before sending it off, and make sure that everything you submit is as aesthetically pleasing and professional as possible.

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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.

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!

Pardon the cliche, but writing alphabet books is definitely not as simple as ABC. I do think it’s very rewarding, however, probably because of the sense of accomplishment it brings when you’re able to meet the challenge. I also think writing ABC books could be the most fun I’ve ever had writing.

For those children’s writers out there who want to try to tackle this niche, I’d like to lay out 5 important steps I’ve learned along the way as I’ve attempted to construct my own ABC books for publication (I currently have a few in the works, but haven’t polished any enough to market them yet). Because the first step is lengthy, but very important, I will only cover this one in today’s post.

1. Research publishers

It’s tempting to think that you could just dive into an ABC book without much regard for where you’ll send it when you’ve finished. But publishers nowadays are rather particular about their alphabet books.

Your first step needs to be scouring the market guides for children’s book publishers who buy ABC books, and then determine what style of book they prefer. Unfortunately, I’ve found that not all publishers list alphabet books in the list of books they acquire when they submit their information to a market guide. That means you’ll have to dig deeper.

You can either do an internet search with combined key words such as “alphabet books,” “publishers,” “writers guidelines,” or you can identify some specific publishers and go to their websites to see if there are any alphabet books listed. If you don’t see any alphabet books on a publisher’s site, don’t bother querying them. There’s a reason that the publisher has decided not to carry them.

Once you determine which publishers do have alphabet books, you want to look at the style of those books. Some publishers may carry several different types of ABC books, while others may have one distinct style that all their ABC books follow. Based on the style they use, you may decide that particular publisher is not a good fit for you.

I remember coming across one publisher who did all their alphabet books in a two-tiered format, where one page of the two-page spread is to be read at the child’s level, by the child, while the other page contains more detailed information that is to be read by the parent. I knew that I only wanted to write to the child, so I bypassed that publisher.

You may also discover that some publishers only carry rhyming ABC books, while others never buy rhyming ABC books. Others may have ABC book series–animals, weather, transportation, etc. that your book would have to somehow fit into. All this to say that researching potential alphabet book publishers is crucial unless you have extra time on your hands to waste in writing a book that you won’t have a publishing audience for.

Once you’ve compiled a list of publishers that (a) purchase alphabet books and (b) have a style of ABC book you want to write, you then need to check their submission guidelines. They may have specifics on what they are currently looking for in regards to alphabet books. For instance, if you learn that a publisher produces ABC books in series, you can find out if they are open to a new series of themes or if you must write a book within a current series.

This information isn’t always available on their website, so you may need to query the editor, or even shoot him or her a quick email asking if they’re open to new series ideas or if there’s any particular ABC book they’d like to see for their upcoming book list. You may or may not get a response, but what I’ve learned is that it never hurts to ask. If they don’t answer you, nothing lost; if they do answer you, you typically will gain some real nuggets of information.

Once you’ve done your publisher research, you’re ready for Step #2, which is choosing your topic.

I’ll take a look at that and Step #3 (picking specific words) next time.

 

I’m excited to have a guest blogger today to share some tips on writing rhyme for kids. Tiffany Strelitz is a children’s writer and critiquer who has always had a passion for the art of rhyme.

Here’s Tiffany…

Rhyme is a beautiful thing. Except when it’s not.

Stringing together rhyming sentences is only the tip of the iceberg. Great rhyming picture books result from the seamless integration of story telling, perfect meter, bouncy rhythm, and last but not least, the rhyming words.

Below you will find a mix of tips, tricks, and tests that should help you not only gauge where you may stand as a rhyming picture book author, but also elevate your work to the next level. Here we go!

 1)   Let it flow, let it flow, let it flow.

Aka:  THE most important rule of all

Like a figure skater gliding across the ice, executing leaps, spins, and perfect landings, the words of a rhyming PB should flow effortlessly from the reader’s mouth—never forcing him or her to stumble, reread, or create awkward pronunciations to fit the rhythm.

Test: Here’s a simple test you can run to check on the accuracy of your word stresses: Pick a line in your story. Any line. Put it alone on a page and read it out loud. What syllables do you stress? Capitalize them so you don’t forget. Now put the line back into the context of your story, and read it out loud again. Are you still stressing the same syllables? If so…awesome! If not, rewrite that line. Period.

Additional test: Read through your entire story out loud while tapping your toe like a metronome. You should be able to bounce right along through the whole thing with no stumbling. Is it working? Good! Not so much? Go back to the first test:

 MON-sters are a SPOO-ky bunch

 a SCAR-y, hairy GROUP.

They RUN in packs, leave GI-ant tracks

and DINE on eyeball SOUP.

Do you hear the consistency of the meter in the stanza above?  Can you tap your toe right through it?  Do you hear how every stress is completely natural?  Note that each couplet has the same number of stressed beats as well. If we mix up a few words, we can see the stanza completely fall out of rhythm (as well as the consistency of the number of stresses that occur):

Monsters are spooky as can be

A scary group.

They run in packs, leave tracks

and dine on bone soup.

Do you hear how many unnatural stresses the reader is forced to insert in order to get through the stanza?

MON-sters are SPOO-ky AS can BE

a SCAR-y group.

They RUN in packs,  LEAVE tracks

and dine on BONE soup.

That’s the way I would be forced to pronounce the words.  Unnatural stresses are everywhere:  AS, LEAVE,  BONE….  You wouldn’t naturally stress any of those if you were saying the same sentences one by one.  (Try it!)  And as a result of the awkward reading, it’s tough (I’d argue impossible) to get lost in the story.

Tip: These tests are even more helpful if you have an objective party read your manuscript FOR you while you listen and take notes on where they stumble, etc.

2) Step right up and pick a meter….any meter….

Did you choose the right meter in the first place?  Different meters definitely lend themselves better to different stories. Try starting your story with a few meters before you commit to one.

Tip:  The right rhythm will make your whole book fall together beautifully. Experiment and see the difference! (PS: I cannot lie. This is HARD.)

3) Syllables are your friends!

Scan through your manuscript. Does every rhyming word contain exactly one syllable? Play, day, say, hay, may? No way!

Trick:  Sprinkle some two- and three-syllable rhymes throughout your story to make for a more enjoyable read AND expose children to a broader vocabulary!

4) Story first. Rhyme second. Period.

This is critical. When you write a rhyming picture book, your number-one priority should not be to make it rhyme. Your number-one priority should be to write the most beautiful, humorous, silly, lovely, heartwarming (insert adjective of your choice here) story you can…that just so happens to rhyme.

In other words: rhyme shmime. Without a solid, well-paced storyline, believable character development, real conflict/resolution and a strong open and close, who really cares if it rhymes?

Test:  Be honest with yourself. Take any (or perhaps every) line in your manuscript. Would you have written those words if your story didn’t have to rhyme?  Would your main character have said that, done that, felt that if your story didn’t have to rhyme?  Make sure your answer is YES 100% of the time. If it’s not…scrap the line immediately and rewrite.

Little Molly took her dolly

out to drink some tea.

She tripped and fell and dropped her doll,

and then she said, “oh gee!”

I can’t tell you how many times I come across verses like this when I do critiques.  The verse is completely unnecessary to the story (or at the least the final two lines are), which causes the rhyme to feel forced.  I guarantee, it is nothing they would have ever written if they weren’t searching for a rhyme.

We can replace the last line with:  “beneath the chestnut tree.”

This adds purpose to the verse (description of where the doll landed), which saves the rhyme from sounding forced. Can you feel the difference?

Well, there you have it.  A light smattering of tips, tricks, and tests to help gauge the level of your rhyming manuscript.  I hope you’ve found these useful, and remember: Rhyme is a tricky but wonderful thing. When it’s bad, it’s a mess; when it’s right, it will sing. Happy writing!!

Tiffany’s obsession with rhyme began at the age of 3, when a nursery school admissions scout asked her, “What is a flower that rhymes with nose?” and she proudly shouted: “Rose!” Twenty-five years later (give or take), now married with two sons and coming off of a long career in finance, she has reconnected with her love of words and rhyme as a writer.

To learn more about Tiffany, visit her website at www.itsrhymetime.com or visit her on FaceBook at www.facebook.com/tshauthor. And, if you write rhyme and need that objective third party to review your work, contact her for a critique quote. She can help you fine tune and find your rhythm!

Last week I promised to share some picture book writing tips. Here are a few I hope you will find helpful and be able to incorporate into your next picture book adventure.

1.  Repetition–Regardless of the structure of your picture book (See post on Organizing and Structuring Picture Books) or the type of story you’re writing, it will be more appealing to your reader and thus, more effective, if you weave repetition throughout. Repetition can take many forms. One way to use this technique is to repeat vowel or consonant sounds within sentences or lines, or to even have each line begin with the same sound. You can also repeat simple phrases throughout, perhaps altering them slightly as the story progresses–or keeping them exactly the same throughout but then changing the phrase at the very end for that element of surprise. Another form of repetition may be a repeated sound effect (“chugga-chugga” of a train or “splish splash” of the rain, for instance) or a particular expression spoken by a character. Kids love repetition as it helps them to anticipate the story and enables them to participate in it.

2.Don’t parent your reader: Kids love nothing more than to know that they were responsible for solving a problem. So whatever conflict or crisis situation you’ve set up in your picture book, allow the child character to be the one to figure out a solution. It’s OK to have parents in your picture book; this is a normal part of a child’s world, so they’d probably be expecting them. Just make sure the parents aren’t the problem solvers. And, be sure your reader can easily identify with how your character solves the problem–in other words, the child character’s solution to the problem shouldn’t be too “adult-like.”

3.  Use all five senses: Every reader wants to feel like he or she is part of the story and not simply watching from a distance. One of the best ways to capture your reader and pull him into your story is through sensory detail. Generously sprinkle moments of seeing, hearing, touching, smelling, and even tasting into your story. Don’t simply tell your reader there are chocolate chip cookies waiting for him on the table when he comes inside from playing. Make sure he smells them baking and sees the chocolate chips melting into the dough as he tears them apart. As the reader uses his senses to become engaged in your book, he will feel more a part of it and it will become a part of him.

4. Load your book with lots of fun words and sounds: For me, the absolute best part about writing a picture book is all the fun words I get to use. Unlike writing a book for adults, with picture books, I can even make up words–how cool is that? Don’t just randomly add these fun words and sounds anywhere though. Strategically weave them throughout your story. Look for opportunities to create a sense of rhythm with your words and use the sounds to help develop repetition. And, try to create words, phrases, and sounds that will be memorable to your reader. You know you’ve been effective in reaching your readers when they get one of your made-up words or crazy phrases stuck in their heads!

5.  Test market your manuscript: Don’t assume your manuscript is complete until you read it aloud to your target-age audience. As you read, pay attention to reactions. Did your attempts at humor get laughs? Were your repetitive phrases catchy enough to illicit anticipation and participation? When you’ve finished reading your manuscript, ask for feedback–kids are brutally honest, which is exactly what you want! Ask about the story, the characters, what they liked best and least. To gain an even more objective opinion, have someone else read to your “focus group” while you observe from a distance!

If you have other picture book tips that you’d like to share, I’d love to hear from you!

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