By Traci Sorell
For those of us newer to the field of children’s literature, the numerous writing rules for various age groups and in different genres can feel overwhelming.
As one who appreciates the guidelines but also creatively breaks them when necessary, I am thrilled to welcome a group of rulebreakers to Cynsations.
Members of the Notable 19s, all débuting their first picture books this year, each offer a rule we’ve all heard and then share how they broke it during the creative process.
Sara F. Shacter
Common wisdom for writers: “Avoid illustration notes.”
Confession: I use them! Low word count is my thing. My notes focus on vital information not conveyed in the text, and I make sure to give the illustrator space.
I write from a child’s perspective so I get to throw all grammar and punctuation rules out the window.
It’s great fun and very freeing to write however I want. Spellcheck can be a pain though, so I write by hand!
I’ve been advised, “write what you know.” I’m curious about so many things that I don’t know much about.
Rather than write what I know, I give my curiosity free rein, and I write (and draw) what interests me.
We’re often told not to paginate our manuscripts when querying and submitting, but I did that with my debut picture book (because that’s how Jane Yolen showed me to do it), and no agent or editor voiced objections.
Stephanie V.W. Lucianovic
Both my PBs under contract completely broke the “no more than 500 words rule.”
If you limit yourself, you limit your story. You must write what you feel regardless of word count; you can trim later.
Common wisdom for writers: “Avoid writing dialogue-heavy picture books.”
Confession: Almost all my manuscripts are dialogue-heavy or dialogue-only. Having been an actor, it’s just how my brain works. Plus, it’s a great way to insert humor.
Common wisdom for writers: “Give your MC (main character) an arc.”
Confession: The MC of my first book doesn’t change! Not every story hinges on the protagonist learning a lesson; sometimes, it’s another character (or the reader) whose perspective changes.
Marcie Flinchum Atkins
Common wisdom: “Write in one genre.”
Confession: I write in multiple genres for multiple ages. I don’t have work published in all of those areas, but I love working on multiple projects of varying length and styles.
Cathy Ballou Mealey
Rule: Introduce your main character, their quest and conflict in the opening pages.
When A Tree Grows has two characters who ping-pong through unexpected circumstances until one deep desire is finally revealed, almost at the end!
You don’t always need words to tell a story!
Some of my favorite picture books are wordless. A story without words invites the reader to participate in the story telling and I love that.
I break the rules about which way is up!
I’m not afraid to make readers rotate my book when I need a vertical composition. Even the youngest readers have no trouble understanding what to do.
Shauna LaVoy Reynolds
Questionable author advice: “Don’t try to write in rhyme. It’s too hard to get it right.”
Sure, not every picture book should be written in rhyme. But rhyming might be exactly what you need to make your story sing!
Common wisdom for writers: “Writing is a solitary sport.”
Confession: Try a writing Boot Camp. I joined Pat Cumming’s Boot Camp and got opinions from three editors and fifteen writers. Trucker was ready for submission after three meetings.
Traci Sorell covers children’s-YA writing, illustration, publishing and other book news from Indigenous authors and illustrators for Cynsations. She also covers fiction and nonfiction picture books.
Traci is the author of We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga, illustrated by Frané Lessac (Charlesbridge, 2018), a 2019 Sibert Medal Honor and 2019 Orbis Pictus Honor award-winning nonfiction picture book with four starred reviews.
Her forthcoming works include: At the Mountain’s Base illustrated by Weshoyot Alvitre (Kokila, Sept. 17, 2019); Indian No More, a historical fiction middle grade novel co-authored with the late Charlene Willing McManis (Tu Books, fall 2019); and Powwow Day illustrated by Marlena Miles (Charlesbridge, April 21, 2020).
Traci is an enrolled citizen of the Cherokee Nation and lives in northeastern Oklahoma, where her tribe is located. She is represented by Emily Mitchell of Wernick & Pratt Literary Agency. Follow Traci on Twitter and Instagram.