Chris Gurney
Tips for Aspiring Writers

Some people assume it is easy to write a children's book. After all, they're only kids! We know that's not true. Kids know what they like, they are smart and picky about what they read. Publishers get inundated with children's book manuscripts, so they have to be very discerning.

Probably my initial tip would be to read masses of picture books. Picture books have a unique rhythm to them that can only be understood by reading them. Picture books have to make every word count. Look at how the text and illustrations work together. The more familiar you become with all types of picture books, the more of an expert you become on how to go about your own writing.

Here are a few tips to help you on your writing journey. I learned many of them as I stumbled along, and I also had far more experienced writers willingly help a naive newbie, for which I'm extremely grateful.

  • Shop! Gather your ideas.
    Observe. Write your ideas down. Keep a notebook.
  • Make time for your writing.
    Even if it's only a few minutes a day, write every day if you can. Keep a diary, work on a story. Good writing takes practice and if you don't do it often enough, you get rusty.
  • Put it away for a while.
    You've written something and decide that it's awful. Put it away for a week, a month, several months, then bring it out and work on it again with a fresh perspective.
  • Keep it short!
    Picture books are usually between 500-900 words. Publishers are not interested in long manuscripts for picture books. So make every word count.
    Remember that illustrations tell half the story, so you don't need to be excessively descriptive. You also are not expected to provide illustrations or an illustrator. Publishers prefer to choose their own.
  • Revise Rewrite Revise Rewrite
    Going over and over your work is a big part of writing. Cut out unnecessary words, make sure you haven't used the same word too often. Could you say something in a better way? Getting the story down on paper is only the beginning. The bulk of the work is in the rewriting and polishing of the story.
  • Have someone read your writing out loud to you.
    This is especially important with rhyming text, to make sure it scans properly. Does the rhythm sound the same to someone else's ears as it does to mine? The way you are hearing the words in your own brain can be quite different to how someone else does, and you can work on problem areas once you can identify them.
  • Research
    When you feel you are ready to submit your manuscript to a publisher, research which publisher publishes the type of story you have written. Visit book stores and libraries. Then research those publishers. Many do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.
    Those that do, check out what their submission guidelines are. Make sure your manuscript is presented exactly the way they specify, or they won't look at it.
  • Enter annual competitions in a bid to get published.
    Storylines list of their relevant competitions.
  • Join writers' organisations and network
    Storylines promotes public awareness of the importance of reading and supports New Zealand writers and illustrators. Storylines hold events that are invaluable with networking with both published and unpublished writers.
  • Believe in yourself
    Don't let anyone discourage you from your dream. Don't compare yourself to others. Work on improving your writing skills, but remember you are unique.
  • Write for pleasure, not just to get published.
    Writing should be something you love to do, regardless of what form it takes. Enjoy the process and the sense of achievement when you have written something from the heart.
    However, there is nothing wrong with wanting to be published, just don't take the rejections personally.
  • And never ever give up!
    If my dream can come true, so can yours.


Chris Gurney with Dame Lynley Dodd
Years ago, when I was reading Hairy MacLary to my kids, I would never have thought in my wildest dreams that one day I'd be a (very nervous) guest speaker at a function with the legendary Dame Lynley Dodd!

A word about Rhyme and Rhythm

Rhyme

Rhyme Time

Why do editors say they don't want rhyming stories?
Because it is so frequently done BADLY.
• Rhyme must not be forced. You must not rhyme for the sake of rhyming.
• It must flow smoothly (rhythm).
• Most of all, it must tell a terrific story. Telling a story is the important part, the rhyme should sound like an afterthought.
• Rhyming books are difficult to translate into other languages. An editor may not want to lose out on foreign book sales, so they'll pass on a rhyming project.
However ... If your heart is set on rhyme and if you have a talent for it, go for it.

Rhythm

Rhythm

Rhythm is the 'music' made by the words. Rhythm is when the arrangement of words creates a pattern or beat when read out loud.
Picture books are created to be read aloud. They have to sound right, and this is especially true of a rhyming picture book.
So when you've written your story, read it aloud. See where the blips are. Then get others to read it aloud. The way you hear the words in your mind may not necessarily be how someone else will hear the flow, and this will identify areas you need to work on so you get the rhythm just right.

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