Know Your Conventions

Thursday, September 15, 2022
Don't forget your stepping stones

Last week, a writing friend contacted me because her nephew has written a children's book. She’s a successful author of speculative fiction but knows nothing about picture book publication. Does he need to supply illustrations? What are the first steps he should take? 

First things first, I had to be certain that I knew what she was asking. What are the first steps he should take in beating the manuscript into shape? Or what are the first steps he should take in getting it out in front of agents or editors? It turns out that the answer was choice “c,” “all of the above.” 

In case you are wondering, the answers to the above questions are: 

For traditional publication he does not need to supply illustrations if he is not an illustrator. He’s a cellist who doesn’t draw, so the answer is a firm no. 

First steps? He should read 50-100 picture books, find a critique group, and probably join SCBWI (The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators). The latter isn’t essential, but it is a great way to hook up with people who know picture books and that’s important. 

Picture books are their own unique creature. How so? They are only 32 pages long and many are under 500 words. Most texts take advantage of page turns to surprise the reader or add suspense. The text shouldn’t provide details that can come through the illustrations. 

Those are just a few of the basic conventions of picture book writing. But picture books aren’t the only form of literature that come with conventions or special requirements. Early readers also include illustrations (still not to be provided by non-illustrators) but there are also specific requirements in terms of manuscript format and line length. In cozy mysteries, your character can’t swear and there is no on-screen sex or violence. What you might consider including is a second murder. In science fiction, you should avoid describing how your faster-than-light travel works as well as on-ship gravity. These are givens in a lot of science fiction so explaining them is just a waste of word count. 

Whether you only write essays and autofiction or you also write novels, novellas, and flash, you need to know the conventions. They will provide the steppingstones that you need to make it from the first page to the final draft. 

Does this mean that you can never break them? It depends. Your goal is to write a piece that works. Can you ignore a convention and write something that works not only for you but also for your reader? If you can, then you have your answer. 

Still, it pays to know the conventions. They can save you a lot of work and frustration especially if you are a cellist who doesn’t draw, but you are writing an illustrated book. 

Conventions also provide us with a way to categorize our work. Follow the right set of conventions and when you approach your agent with a cozy mystery, you’ll know for a fact that that is what you’ve written. 


Sue Bradford Edwards' is the author of over 35 books for young readers.  To find out more about her writing, visit her site and blog, One Writer's Journey.

The next session of her new course, Pitching, Querying and Submitting Your Work will begin on October 5, 2022).  Coping with rejection is one of the topics she will cover in this course.

Sue is also the instructor for  Research: Prepping to Write Nonfiction for Children and Young Adults (next session begins October 5, 2022) and Writing Nonfiction for Children and Young Adults (next session begins October 5, 2022). 


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