Children’s Writing Weblog

How to Pick a Topic When Writing a Children’s Book

Posted on: January 25, 2010

You’re driven to write a children’s book, but you’re not sure what to write about.

No problem, let’s figure it out. But first, it’s best to start with a few things you *shouldn’t* write about:

* Subjects that have been beaten to death. 

If you want to write another alphabet book, or a picture book in which our hero learns that it’s OK to be different, or a story about a talking squirrel and his whimsical forest friends, you had better have a really fresh take on things, or else you’re wasting your — and the editor’s — time.  The best way to determine over-covered topics?  Ask your local children’s librarian about the types of stories she hopes never to see again.  You’ll get an earful — and a clear picture of where not to go.

* Subjects that have already been done better than you can possibly manage.  As far as I’m concerned, no one should ever attempt to record a cover version of an Otis Redding song.  Really, what’s the point?  Is it even remotely possible to do that song better than Otis did it? 

But yet, some have tried.  And they’ve failed.

If you’re inspired by a truly great writer, that’s wonderful.  Generations of writers have been sparked by the work of Dr. Seuss, or J.K. Rowling or Gary Paulsen.  But no one will ever succeed simply by aping what those extraordinary talents have done.  If you read Hatchet and decide that you’re going to take a crack at your own story about a boy stranded in the wilderness after he has to land a plane on his own, you’re missing the point.  If you read Hatchet and decide that you’re going to write an entirely fresh and original adventure story for boys, you’re on the right track.

* Subjects you don’t care about.  So you read that horror for teens is hot right now, and you decide that your ticket to publighsing glory will be a YA novel filled with frights and chills.  That’s cool — if you understand and appreciate the genre.  But, if you aren’t inclined to read horror books on your own time just for the fun of it, what makes you think you’re at all capable of doing the genre justice in your own writing?  “Write what you know” is an absolute truism, but I would add “write what you’re passionate about”.  That’s the real key. (I have a simple and foolproof technique for determining this coming up soon.)

So, with that in mind, here are my two tips for coming up with a story idea that will resonate with readers and give your talent the best opportunity to shine:

1.  Write about something from your own life and make it meaningful to today’s readers.

A great way to start is to get outside your own head, and into your young readers’ heads.

Before you start your manuscript, create two “characters” to represent your potential readership.  One boy, one girl.  Give each one a name.  Imagine their age, their physical appearance, the way they speak and how they dress.  Think about what they do with themselves in the hours not spent reading your book.  Who are their friends?  Who are their antagonists?   What else do they read?  In what kind of house or apartment do they live?  And, most importantly, what are they looking for when they pick up your book?  To be entertained?  Enlightened?  Scared? Tickled pink with laughter?  

Don’t start writing your book until these two kids truly become real to you.  Now, start writing your book for them.  Forget the publisher, forget the editor, forget the (hopefully) throngs of other kids that will ultimately read your book.  Write this book for those two kids.  

Now examine your own life and find the things that have the most meaning for you.  Did you overcome a great obstacle?  Accomplish something you never thought possible?  Survive a tragedy?  Have a family member who got sick or was disabled?  Develop an unusual hobby or interest?  Make a list and see what speaks loudest to you.  Now go back to your imaginary readers, take yourself out of the event and place one of them into it.  In one stroke,  you’ve obtained the necessary distance to write this story.  Set your story in the child’s world, not yours.  Let the child deal with it in his or her own way, not necessarily in the way you dealt with it.  Let go of the story and allow your new protagonist to take over.  You just might find that your story is a heck of a lot more fascinating, unpredictable and meaningful than you’ve ever imagined.

2. Discover Your True Passions and Write About Them

Here it is, my foolproof method of determining the subjects that you truly and deeply care about.  And it couldn’t be simpler.    Just answer this question:

When you’re browsing magazine racks in a bookstore, to which section do you go first?  Which section do you head to next?  And after that?

You just listed your top three passions.  Simple, right?  

Me, I go to the music section first.  Then I look at martial arts magazines.  Then political magazines.    How about you?

There, you’ve just discovered the subjects you should be writing about (unless, of course, your first three stops are Hustler, High Times and Soldier of Fortune, in which case I suggest you might reconsider this whole children’s writing thing). 

Interested in learning how to write a book and send it to children’s book publishers? Come on over to The CBI Clubhouse for audios, videos, insider writing tips and much, much more!

1 Response to "How to Pick a Topic When Writing a Children’s Book"

A handmade trackback since I can’t figure out how to do it the official way. 🙂 I mentioned this article at my blog in a january in review post. Cheers! – Corra McFeydon

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