Good Writing

Dear Miss Snark,

You have frequently insisted that good writing rises to the top of the pile, but what happens if good writing simply doesn’t fit? Children’s books, for example, have become increasingly more succinct and focus on telling the story mostly—if not solely—through pictures. However, many older (but beloved!) children’s stories are roughly equal. Has the market changed irrevocably? Or would a more wordy children’s book—if the writing was not extraneous—still have a chance?

I don't do kids books and it's a very much unto itself part of the industry.

When I find good writing, writing I love, even if I think the particular book won't fly in the market, you'll hear from me. No form rejection, probably even an email or a call.

I might ask if you've got something else, I might make a suggestion about refocusing the book, I might suggest other things to make it more "take on able".

I don't just toss good writing aside saying "I can't sell this" without covering all the bases.


Adrienne said...

I just thought I'd jump in as a children's book writer. I think when someone refers to 'good writing', they don't necessarily mean florid writing, or a lot of writing on a page. There aren't really quantifiably 'good' words and 'bad' words (okay there are those fun four lettered words people call bad, but I quite enjoy them). Long words, or difficult words are not necessarily better. What makes good writing, is a story told with the correct words. The words that tell the story in the most perfect way possible, whatever way that may be. So concluding that children's books these days by being succint and focussed are not well written is a falacy.


Your question over whether a more 'wordy' children's book would have a chance is an interesting one. First of all it depends on the genre, I think you are referring to PB's am I right? From what I understand of the PB industry (and I don't write them so maybe someone else can weigh in), the point is to use very few words because you also have pictures. This is the current trend. Though I am sure if you wrote something that didn't follow the rules, but was still spectacular, you could find someone to want it.

Okay. Long comment. Hope it made sense.

Michael Reynolds said...

The picture book market has changed but not in the way the writer suggests. The big change is that it is now dominated by celebrity authors -- TV stars, movie stars, bestselling adult authors, Madonna for God's sake. They can write whatever they like, long, short or in between.

That having been said my wife sold a relatively wordy picture book to Clarion. Of course, she can write, which helps.

It's a tough market, has been for a while, but "the word" is that it may be loosening a bit.

Anonymous said...

The only thing I would add to comment number one is a translation:

PB = picture book

Which we writers have to write well enough for the editors to "get it" and yet leave lots of room for the illustrator to take off and make it their own, complementing and expanding the text.

It's as difficult to write as a poem.
And yet, there is only one award, that I know of, specifically for the Writing of a picture book (as compared to the Caldecott which is only for the illustration). It is the SCBWI Golden Kite Award which awards separate awards for writing and for illustrating.

-librarian, writer, and grandmother

bookofkell said...

I agree with adrienne (I used to be a children's librarian) -- some of the shortest books can be the best written.

I'm thinking of modern books and older books.

Here are a couple of examples:

Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown is one of the best-known, best-loved picture books, imo, and is extremely short. But I would say the words hold the book together, though the pictures are great with it.

Show Way by Jaqueline Woodson, a picture book, just won this year's Newbery Honor, the second-highest award for children's literature -- not illustration. It's 40 pages long, and includes illustrations. It beat out books with five times as many pages. It really is that good.

But a co-winner of the same award, the Princess Academy by Shannon Hale, is 314 pages long. (Obviously, they're for different ages and audiences.)

In my experience, the reason that picture books with a lot of text are not as popular is that they're only really comprehendable by 1st graders and up, and those kids are usually starting to read on their own. 4th graders, for instance, might love the Serpent Came to Gloucester by M.T. Anderson, but the language is too difficult for most of them to read themselves, and they aren't read to as frequently as younger children are.

As for the market, what I think has happened is that more books are published for the 0-3-year-olds than in the past. Peoples' awareness of early childhood education is growing. Most pre-1960 or even pre-1980 books are not appropriate for those ages.

You might look at sites like the Lexile system (http://www.lexile.com) (I have no affiliation with them) to find new books for the ages you're writing for, and compare those -- it might help you clarify the market.

(Guess this is a long-comment kind of topic--sorry!)

Dave Fragments said...

After reading "Walter the Farting Dog" and its sequels, I gave up all hope of writing a picture book for kids.

Anonymous said...

As a published childrens book, (author/illustrator), I lost heart after WHERE'S WALDO... then I really gave up when every pregnant celeb "threw up" what the industry thought were guaranteed sales simply because of name recognition!

Haste yee back :-O

Anonymous said...

Children's publishers will often list what we know as "picture books" (pb's) in several categories. There are board books for ages around 0-3, pb's for 4-8 that, yes, do currently run shorter and rely heavily on the art, and picture storybooks that may run about ages 5-10. The text for these is longer and less picture-dependent, and this is not a popular category right now. I have, in fact, seen the longer form declared "dead," although a number of publishers continue to list them as a category they publish.

Styles change, and right now pb text runs short. True pb's are generally read to the child by adults, and I honestly believe the parents look for short books. The time crunch, y'know.

And don't judge anything by celebrity titles. Famous names can do anything they want. Take your cues from the pros.

Anonymous said...

To change the subject but not really. I'm no celebrity and when I sent in an article to a major periodical earlier this year it died on the slush pile. Then I recalled that I had a passing acquaintance with an editor at said periodical, so I sent it to her. It will appear in an upcoming issue. I'm still no celebrity and my writing got no better or worse. But I think the moral is that if you know someone, at least they will actually read your writing.

Sometimes I wonder if I should just resubmit stuff to slush piles where I was previously rejected on the hunch that the second or third time around someone might look at it--without any awareness it was submitted before.

Anonymous said...

The children's book industry is indeed fad-driven, at least in part because children are fad-driven. If it's the fad to buy Goosebumps books, then kids buy Goosebumps books (not necessariy to read, but to collect). If all your friends are into the latest little princess or balerina or soccer star books, then you're into them, too. Yes, it's frustrating when there's a huge trend going on and you're not part of it. And yes, as long as gross humor is acceptable, there will be gross humor books.

BUT, that said, the children's book market isn't going away any time soon. As long as there are children, there will be doting parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles who will buy them books. The market has shrunk since the 80's because of changing demographics, but with the current national obsession about pregnant celebrities and babies fast becoming a fashion statement, as shallow as it all is, I predict another baby boom coming up. And with a baby boom comes an expansion of the children's book market.

Anonymous said...

I just don't see a lot of what's being said here.

Not all children's books are illustrated. Wordless picture books are very rare.

If this so-called "good writing" is too long to be right for a picture book, it's not a good picture book manuscript. Not good. If you want to write a story with few or no illustrations, write a chapter book or novel.

The shortest books are the hardest to write. "Good writing" that is short is much better than "good writing" that is long. And what's so wrong with letting great illustrations do what they're there to do? These are not "new trends" ... Margaret Wise Brown, invoked above, is long dead. One of the greatest, and most brief, writers of text for the very young, of all time. (Kelly, I LOVE the Serpent Came to Gloucester! One of my faves of last year. Not the kid-friendliest, though, as you point out).

Celebrities can't just write whatever and get it on the shelves. Don't use that as an excuse. It only sounds like so much whining. The editorial department I work in has rejected more celebrity projects than you can shake a stick at in my short few years there. And we've pubbed dozens of non-celebrity books. You really do have to be as big as Madonna to get your crap pubbed by virtue of your name alone. And who's as big as Madonna? Maybe ten people in the world. Trust me--they're no threat to the average writer.

Anonymous said...

I read a lot of children's books, from picture books to young adult. I find no dearth of very well-written books.

I disagree with the sentiments of the initial writer that picture books have ruined the marketability of well-written manuscripts of children's stories.

Well-written scripts work together with the pictures in the picture-book genre to create a whole. Pacing is essential and picture opportunities have to be varied, but provide consistency that can be followed by the young child. Didactic scripts are disfavored because they don't work well in the genre.

It isn't easy to write good children's books, despite what anyone may think. The market is very competitive-especially in the picture book genre where everyone thinks they can easily toss off some story and have it succeed.

I think Miss Snark's advice-to write well- applies even more strictly in the children's market. What "writing well" means may be an evolving concept, but I don't think the standards applied today have lessened the chance for good writing and good stories. Really, I think we have better stories, higher quality writing in children's literature now than ever before. jmho.