I was looking at Australian children’s author Mem Fox’s web site and in her “for writer’s” pages I found her 20 Do’s and 20 Don’ts for writers of picture books. It’s interesting to note how many of them applied to me as an aspiring cozy author (I’ve struck out the bits that aren’t relevant):
DO read recent picture books over and over again.
DO make friends with a bookseller or librarian or storyteller: their advice and guidance can be enormously helpful.
DO be original: try not to copy the ideas or structures of recent well-known books.
DO become familiar with the nature of rhythm in exquisite prose or poetry by reading it aloud: learn speech from Shakespeare, or several verses from the King James version of the Bible, or a long poem for children. Understanding brevity, rhythm, and cadence in prose will keep rejections at bay.
DO ensure your story makes an emotional impact: the reader should be changed by the reading.
DO ensure that the content of the story will interest both children and adults, not just adults—a common fault which might well lead to publication but will never lead to best-selling status.
DO write with narrative tension ie. solve a problem.
DO ’show’ and do not ‘tell’: try to reveal action and character through what the characters say and do.
DO keep the text under 500 words if possible. Minimise description. The fewer words the better, since the pictures will provide many of the visual details in the story. A picture book is always thirty-two pages.
DO remember that the secret of good writing is re-writing.
DO constantly re-read drafts aloud during the drafting process: hearing is one way of perceiving what’s wrong in the text, especially in regard to rhythm.
DO send the text to publishers without any accompanying artwork unless you are both the author and the illustrator
DO ensure the text is written grammatically, and the spelling and punctuation are correct.
DO type the manuscript on one side of the paper, with decent margins, double-spaced. It is acceptable to write the story in blocks of print, which suggest appropriate page-breaks, or simply as a straight telling from start to finish.
DO remain confident and up-beat after rejections. Re-write, re-think and send the story off to another publisher.
DO stay out of the illustrator’s way. Interference by an overbearing author is rarely appreciated.
DO retain humility, even after a best-seller. Success may not last and you may need the comfort of friends. Those who boast have no friends.
DO NOT write down to children. If the story makes adults wince, it will make children wince too. Write always for extremely clever, well-adjusted, lively children. Young readers will appreciate the compliment.
DO NOT write about inanimate objects such as shoes, a coin, a kite, an ice-cube, a piece of sausage or similar. Stick to people, toys, animals, birds or engines.
DO NOT use alliterative names or titles, such Izzie the Ice Cube, Kenny the Koala or Tommy the Tired Teddy. Use names, which reveal something of the character.
DO NOT write your story in rhyme. Prose is more effective. Most editors detest rhyme.
DO NOT assume that plot is the most important element is a story, or even the only important element in a story. Character comes first. Next comes the precise choice of words and the correct rhythmic placement of those words. Then trouble…
DO NOT forget that the rhythm of the text is the element which will, or will not bring the reader back to the story again and again.
DO NOT write things like: he gasped, she spluttered, etc. Use the word said. The gasping and spluttering, etc., should be obvious from the situation, if the writing is effective.
DO NOT write a picaresque story merely filled with one episode after another, with no tension or problem or resolution.
DO NOT forget that if the writer couldn’t care less about the fate of the characters the readers couldn’t care less either, and the book will fail.
DO NOT write stories which end: ‘…and then they all woke up.’ Dreams as stories are frustrating and will certainly be rejected.
DO NOT write to teach. Heavy morals are detested by children and publishers alike.
DO NOT attempt to bring up other people’s children through your text.
DO NOT get the name of the children’s editor wrong when you send off a manuscript. Check the spelling by phoning the publisher, if possible.
DO NOT get the name of the publishing company wrong, nor its address. Check that company does publish children’s books and that its books are of high quality and are readily available.
DO NOT forget to send a brief covering letter and DO NOT be ‘cute’ in this letter.
DO NOT be surprised not to hear from a publisher for two or three months.
DO NOT be surprised to find yourself working on a picture book text for a couple of years and DO NOT give up too soon. Also, DO NOT lose heart after rejections: be courageous and tenacious.
DO NOT forget that simple does not mean simplistic.
DO NOT expect to be accorded real respect as a writer of children’s books. It will never happen.