Writing Children's Books

What Do Publishers Want?
by Robyn Opie Parnell

I was sitting in a room with fifty or so writers and three publishers. It was a seminar for all writers, not specifically aimed at writing for children.

Someone asked the question: what do publishers want?

Silence. Every head was turned toward the three publishers.

The publishers looked at each other, blank expressions on their faces. No one spoke at first. Each publisher was probably waiting for the other to speak.

Finally, one of the publishers said that she didn't know what she wanted until it landed on her desk.

Great. That was a lot of help!

We kept at them, like a pack of dogs gnawing at three bones.

The publisher went on to say that she wanted sparkle.

Terrific. All we had to do was paste sparkles to our manuscript.

If only it were that simple.

The publishers saw no escape. They had to answer the question, to ward off the pack of ravenous dogs. So they went on to explain.

What it came down to was this. Publishers want a writer who can:

a) write well,

b) write more than one story, and

c) be professional.

They are also looking for that extra something. Sparkle. Freshness. Originality.

My publisher said the same thing about writing for children. He was looking for sparkle. Freshness. Originality. And a surprise ending. He loves surprise endings.

Okay. But what does this mean?

When pressed, the publishers defined sparkle, freshness and originality as YOU. You bring a special element to a story that is unique. Your experience. Your personality. Your emotions.

No two people write the same story. We come at the same topic from different backgrounds, experience and personalities.

Pour yourself, your soul, into a story because that is what makes it special. You.

As an author of more than 80 published children's books, I will explain this further using my experience as an example. But it doesn't matter what genre you write, publishers want that extra sparkle in a manuscript - you.

The idea for my novel
Backstage Betrayal originated from a personal fear and my high school memories of catty female behaviour. It was impossible for me to write from my personal experience without putting a lot of me - my soul and my fear - into the story.

Laura is rehearsing for the school play in an old theatre. She goes to the toilet and, while inside, the lights go out. Everyone goes home and Laura finds herself locked in the theatre.

Excerpts from
Backstage Betrayal:

Darkness swirls around her - thick darkness, like black fog.

She hates staring into the darkness. It is so black and unknown. She closes her eyes - it makes her feel a little better. What should she do? What can she do?

A floorboard creaks. This time it isn't coming from her feet. It's further away, behind her, to the right. Laura stops, holds her breath and listens. Everything seems still … except for the pounding of her heart and the trembling of her hands. Slowly turning around and squinting into the darkness, Laura sees shadows. Some shapes she recognises and some she doesn't. Is someone there?

All of the emotions that Laura feels are drawn from my own experience and feelings of being alone in the dark. I put myself in her place and vividly imagined every scene. I felt her emotion.

It's fun exploring your fears through characters. You get to experience the anxiety and insecurity from the safety of your home. You get to do things to characters that you wouldn't want happening to you.

Experienced writers often tell newcomers to write about what they know. One of the reasons is because you can put so much more of yourself into a story. I don't know what it's like to be locked in a dark theatre. But I do know how the darkness, night, strange environment and unfamiliar noises can effect your imagination and composure. I've experienced the feelings of being alone in the dark and can draw on them to give my story that extra sparkle.

However, it isn't easy pouring so much of yourself into a story. You're bearing your soul to the world and it can be an uncomfortable experience having others read about something so personal. You feel vulnerable. Exposed. But it's the difference between writing a good book and a great book. You must learn how to let go once the story is finished.

If you want to be published submit what publishers want - the unique sparkle that is you.


Copyright Robyn Opie Parnell. All Rights Reserved.

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