Six-week plan for writing a marketable children's book
Published: May 24, 2004
|Did you love curling up with a stack of library books when you were a child? If so, you've probably dreamed-off and on-of writing for kids. But life keeps getting in the way. There's been no time, and besides, you're not even sure where or how to begin.|
Have you got six weeks? If you're working full time, can you set aside six weeks of evenings and weekends? If so, you can start and finish a marketable book for youngsters. I've used this method six times and each completed manuscript, including all those mentioned in this article, sold to a major New York publisher. Use the following blueprint and make the project your top priority for the given time period.
This week of planning is every bit as important as the actual weeks of writing and revision. Don't take it lightly. You need an idea and a plan. Had you elected to undertake a six-week home improvement project, you would first decide if you were going to build a deck or a garage. Then you would need a building plan before you actually purchased supplies or invited friends to a Saturday afternoon construction party.
I had been reading Richard Ellis' The Search for the Giant Squid: The Biology and Mythology of the World's Most Elusive Sea Creature. Recalling my own childhood interests, I knew that inquisitive youngsters would relish a book about this fascinating subject. That was my idea-to write my own book about the giant squid.
But my plan was more specific than that: I wanted to write a nonfiction book for readers in grades 2-4. I spent my planning week in bookstores and the children's section of my local library. I read dozens of books aimed at youngsters in this age category. I studied the diction and sentence structure. I counted words, paragraphs and pages. This intensive market analysis provided me with a suitable blueprint or pattern for construction. I figured the book should have 48 pages, with about 1,000 words of text.
I also compiled a list of suitable publishers that had already published books similar in style to the one I intended to write. With that, I had a premise, a pattern and a list of possible publishers.
Now you can start drafting a rough outline of your manu-script. If you're writing fiction, you'll need to plot your story, develop character dossiers and establish a believable setting. Nonfiction writers will use this week to do research and take notes. If your topic is one that has been written about many times before-such as the 1804 Lewis and Clark expedition-consider a creative new slant to make your manuscript more marketable.
On a trip to Yellowstone National Park, I picked up materials about the expedition and learned how the explorers attempted to capture a prairie dog for Thomas Jefferson as a souvenir of their westward journey.
The image of 40 grown men peering and reaching down into prairie-dog burrows (while the prairie dogs watched curiously in the background) tickled my "inner child."
It was that episode I chose to focus on while writing my 48-page reader Lewis and Clark: A Prairie Dog for the President (due from Random House in January 2003). I spent my research time discovering how the explorers' Corps of Discovery actually shipped the little creature back to Washington, D.C.
Using the rough outline you drafted last week, you're now ready to start scribbling a story. Do it quickly. Don't worry about grammar, punctuation, spelling, paragraph structure or anything else. Simply write. Give in to the temptation to ramble on and on. Want to write your ending first? Go ahead! If a particular scene comes to mind and you're eager to put it on paper, do so. You can stitch everything together later.
To help you stay on course, however, keep your working title in sight at all times-at the top of each page, if you're writing longhand, or on a sticky note attached to your computer. This "word map" will help you maintain focus and keep you on the road you wish to travel, without accidentally veering off a side street. I used "Prairie Dog" instead of "Lewis and Clark" at the top of my page so that everything I scribbled would relate directly or indirectly to the capture of that rodent.
If you're prone to procrastinate, this will be your most dangerous week. Don't let your will power wane. Take your craft-and yourself-seriously. Persistence, patience, professionalism and perseverance are more often the keys to writing success than talent or creative originality, so don't quit now. If you're working on a long manuscript, keep those creative juices flowing. If necessary, set a word or page quota for yourself. Be your own merciless drill instructor-don't slack off.
If you've been working on a shorter manuscript, you may already be done with your second draft. What now? Yet another draft-this time separating the wheat from the chaff. Don't edit or tackle grammatical errors at this time. You'll do that during Week 6. Now you want to focus on quality control. Get rid of anecdotes or scenes that do not move your story forward. Concentrate on the "why" of it all. Why are you writing this story? To inform? Inspire? Entertain? Does each page or chapter reflect your purpose? Does the dialogue enhance the plot or pace of your story? If not, get rid of it.
"Persistence, patience, professionalism and perseverance are more often the keys to writing success than talent or creative originality"
How does your story measure up? Check for consistency. Does your protagonist still have blue eyes, or have they suddenly become brown? Have you been consistent with your spelling of Sacagawea (the preferred spelling of the U.S. Mint)? Is your story still being told from the same character's viewpoint?
While stitching together any out-of-order scenes or chapters, consider the emotion in your story. Like mortar between bricks, emotion and humor will stabilize your narrative. Children are emotional creatures. Let them giggle, worry and even weep. But if your story must have a sad ending-such as two friends parting-at least make it hopeful so that young readers can imagine the two friends will meet again one day.
Now's the time to tackle the good, the bad and the ugly. You can be sure your final draft will still need polishing and revision. Clean up that sloppy copy. Perfect your punctuation. A professional presentation is essential for attracting the attention of a discerning editor. Don't skimp on hard work this week. Rigorous revision is often what separates the published writers from the unpublished ones.
Consider your paragraphs one by one. Are they all tightly focused? Are the transitions smooth? Is your sentence structure too complex? Are your word choices age-appropriate and accurate? In polishing my Lewis and Clark manuscript, I realized I had misused the words "marmot" and "woodchuck" to describe two very different rodents. Actually, these two words refer to the same animal.
And your young readers will notice those lapses in logic. In my 96-page chapter book Grampa and the Ghost, the Gaffney youngsters rebel against the very idea of ghosts, while their grandfather readily accepts Tallulah's spooky presence. I knew savvy young readers would wonder why. So I addressed the problem head-on by having one of my characters declare: "You don't believe in ghosts, do you? There are no such things as ghosts and goblins anyway!" His grandfather replies with a sigh: "Mark, when I was a boy, there were no supersonic jets-I went to Africa on a ship. Man only dreamed of going to the moon, and we couldn't even imagine such things as heart transplants. Microwave ovens, high-tech computers and even televisions weren't even dreamed of. So you see, an old-fashioned ghost isn't such a hard thing for me to believe in at all."
So that's the basic blueprint. Take it and custom-build your very own marketable children's book!
--Posted May 24, 2004