Monday, 6 February 2017

Want to get published? Five rules of what not to do - Lynne Garner

When I submitted my first picture book manuscript I knew nothing about the industry, I just knew I wanted to write picture books. I'd proved I could write non-fiction as I'd had features and non-fiction books published. However picture books was one of those bucket list things, so I decided to give it a go. Not surprisingly I received a lot of rejections and along with some of those rejections I received a little advice from editors (which is uncommon, they simply don't have the time, so their comments were much appreciated). So I decided to study and signed up for a distance writing course. I started to submit my work and although I received positive feedback I also received notes, similar to those I'd received from editors.

So in the spirit of sharing here are the five rules I've drawn up based on the feedback I've received over the years.

Rule one:
Don't write about inanimate objects, especially those that talk. Talking and thinking inanimate objects is old fashioned. Children don't like to be 'talked down' to so they won't believe that inanimate objects can have a life of their own. So talking socks - oh no talking socks would never make a good story.

An epic adventure that starts
in a sock drawer.
Rule two:
Don't write about things considered to be 'adult' topics things like death, disability, bullying etc. So nothing like Gilbert the Great which deals with the lose of a friend - that'd never reach the shelves.  

Gilbert The Great White Shark
loses a friend.

Rule three:
Never ever write about a character that is not cute. Children and adults can't bond with un-cute characters, they want a character that has the arrr! factor.

Trolls aren't cute but I think I got away with it because
this story relies on humour. 

Rule four:

If you want your story to be published then it should have a 'proper' story arch with a beginning, middle and end. One where your character changes, gains or learns something. So a book where you make choices on behalf of the character would never get published.
Well it does work and so well that this title has been
followed by another including colouring books.
Rule five:

Your story should always have a happy ending. Leave your reader feeling positive. There's enough sadness in the world, so you don't have to introduce it to young readers in a book.

You'd never think a picture book where one of the main
characters eats the other would work, but it does.  

So now you know the rules guess what? Go on break them! If it worked for these authors then it might work for you. 

Mmmm what rule can I go and break? 


Now for a blatant plug, so please feel free to stop reading now:

My latest short story collection Coyote Tales Retold is available on Amazon in ebook format. Also available Meet The Tricksters a collection of 18 short stories featuring Anansi the Trickster Spider, Brer Rabbit and Coyote is available as a paper back and an ebook. 

I run the following online courses for Women On Writing:
How to write A children's book and get published
5 picture books in 5 weeks
How to write a hobby-based how to book


  1. I love this post! Often the best books are the ones that go against the accepted norms. I'm still amused by the 'whatever you do, don't write about hedgehogs' thing. Thanks for including Odd Socks, I'm doing another inanimate objects story with Andersen Press featuring sausages meeting grisly ends. Inanimate objects AND terrifying deaths. Tsk tsk!

  2. Brilliant because its all so true! And what about the 'don't write in rhyme' one, when we all know that the best selling of all picture books, those by Julia Donaldson, DO rhyme?

    1. Pippa - darn... I'd forgotten about the rhyme one.

  3. A great post, Lynne!

    More rules lead to formulaic writing and the more formulaic picture books become, the narrower the market they will appeal to. So if writers want picture books to appeal to every child, we have to keep challenging and breaking the rules.

    Here's another rule for your list. "Don't have older people as main characters – children can only relate to characters of their own age." Preumably nobody thought to remind Julia Donaldson of this rule before she wrote "A Squash and a Squeeze" or "Room on the Broom".

    1. Thanks Jonathan - between your rule and the one Pippa reminded me of that's my next post already half written.

  4. I've never met a rule I didn't break. Often to the dismay of my critique partners. How about write for illustrations/no talking heads (Elephant and Piggie books) or never fiction over 1000 words (The Three Lucys, Dewey Bob, Armstrong) My goodness, there are a lot of rules, aren't there.

    1. I know but pleased to read you also like breaking them. Also thanks for the other two rules I've added them and to my growing list as I think I have a part two to the post developing.

  5. Ha ha, for a few moments I was puzzled and thought you were being serious, Lynne!
    For so-called 'Rule 1' we not only have socks and trains, we have the award-winning 'The Day the Crayons Quit'. I've never understood why it was acceptable to have anthropomorphised objects in children's TV cartoons, but not in books. Imagine if somebody submitted a story about a yellow sponge or a singing candlestick?!

  6. I've also at various times been told not to include any freestanding closets, ice creams and/or pigs :-)

  7. Paeony - I love the Crayons book, one of those books I'd wish I'd written. I've had many a conversation about how Disney and the like can anthropomorphise objects but as writers we're told it's old fashion.

    Jane - Not sure why freestanding closets, ice creams and or pigs would be a problem. Would love to know what the reasoning is.