Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Typically, how many words in a picture book? by Paeony Lewis


New writers often ask how many words they’re allowed in a picture-book text. The answer is as many words as are needed. Ho hum, when you’re new, that’s a frustrating answer. A more helpful answer might be to say that 500 words is a good general number.

At this point somebody often says they've written a story that’s 1,000 or 2,000 words, and every word is needed. They'll also say they've seen picture books with over 1,000 words (the picture-book market teems with exceptions). So I'll bring their attention to  Martin Waddell’s wonderful Big Big Sea (well, I think it’s wonderful, but picture-book readers also teem with exceptions!). I remember reading that the Big Big Sea started off at over 1,000 words, but when Martin Waddell searched for what was at the heart of his timeless story, the word count was reduced to 222 words (and that includes what could be considered an overlong ending). So don’t be afraid to be savage. You can save endless versions (I date them), so nothing is lost. Even so, I know cutting beloved words can be difficult.

I’ll admit I once wrote a picture-book text that was 1,700 words. Yikes! Despite my ludicrous wordiness, I received many lovely comments from publishers and a few suggested shortening the story. However, surprise, surprise, nobody took it on at 1700 words. Later I cut it to about 1,000 words. Still no takers and although I'm usually very flexible, I just didn't want to shorten it further so the story was stuck in a file to moulder. Years later I became interested in poetry and without looking at the original wording I rewrote the story in a poetic form. It became 374 words. My agent was enthusiastic. I’d like to be able to say it then sold, but it’s early days and I've no idea what’s happening. We'll see!

This experience gave me an idea for a writing exercise on a course I tutor on writing picture books. Some of you might like to try it. The students handed in their texts of 500 words (some tried to sneak in more words!). I then asked them to write a new version of their story in approximately 150 words, without access to the original story.  They had to do it in class, and several were appalled at my cruelty. However, by the time they’d all finished, I was relieved and smug that it had been a revelation for them and they all felt their original stories could be cut and improved.

Now here’s the really tricky bit. How far should you go when cutting a story?  How far before just a shell is left and the vitality and sense of a story is lost? I once sold a story to a publisher and at the editor’s request I cut the 600+ word story until she was happy with what became a story of 500 words. Much later, a senior editor worked with me again on the story and asked me to expand several sections. These were the same sections I’d cut for the other editor! When I mentioned this she told me a story is as long as it needs to be. So we're back to the answer I said would frustrate new writers, but it's true!

If you've had success with increasing or decreasing the word count of a picture book, do share in the comments section. I usually start long and then cut and cut. Good luck.

This blog post is by Paeony Lewis
www.paeonylewis.com

22 comments:

  1. Fab post - will bookmark for my students.

    I tend to just write the story then look at the word count. Typically they come in at around 1,000 - 1,200 words. I then get to work cutting everything the illustrator can 'tell' the reader in the illustrations. By this time I normally I end up with a manuscript of 600 - 800 words.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks, Lynne :-) I too write what I want, and then cut and cut and revise.

      Delete
  2. Good question!
    I think the very first draft of my pb was about 500 words. When I submitted it to the publisher, I had gotten it down to about 300. Final word count- 270 (book coming out in January, 2014) :)
    I agree that starting "long" and cutting is the way to go.
    PS- Love your blog :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Delighted you enjoy the blog - thanks a lot. Is that 'Henny' from your book? Good luck with this new book - we keep hens and I've tried writing a pb, but (unlike you!) it didn't work out.

      Delete
  3. I apparently do things "backwards" :P I tend to start short (around 350) and then expand the first draft. I think that's just me frantically getting the idea on paper before it darts out of my head again, and then each revision adds detail or necessary clarity. My agent suggests to aim for between 500 and 700, depending on the story. However, I don't have a completely finished (acquired) product yet, so we'll see.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Ah, I do write short (sometimes illegible) ideas for new picture books in my notebooks. It's the next stage I'm thinking of, when I start writing on the computer and produce a first. long-winded draft.
      It's interesting you add words - must mean you have a great, clear plot! Hope you succeed soon :-)

      Delete
  4. I have done it both ways--but I still have yet to have anything published. Most of the time I write what I want to first and then cut, but occasionally I have all these visuals in my mind on only write the core stuff.

    Thanks for your post!
    Kids Math Teacher

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes, that's a good point that different sources of inspiration influence writing in different ways. Bet you could write some great number-related pbs!

      Delete
  5. And of course the classic Rosie's Walk has only 32 words in all!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That's one of the many 'exceptions'!!

      Delete
    2. I once went on an inspirational picture book writing course led by Pat Hutchins - she told us that Rosie's Walk originally had a long text, too - until an editor spotted that it worked better with almost all of the words removed.

      Delete
  6. Great post.
    However painful it feels at first when you cut words, it usually results in a much tighter story. I like to cut a story then put it away for a day or two and come back to it and see if I can cut it down a bit more, and I usually find I can. I often find that I can juggle the words to say what I want more succinctly and it always improves the final version.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks, Linda :-) And if you put aside a story for a year... Snip, snip, snip! Though with me it's often a case of simply rewriting, rather than cutting, and sometimes I'll even add words, but I'll always have 500 words at the back of my mind and try not to go over (unless the story really needs it).

      Delete
  7. Thanks for that advice. I have to cut my story down and put it in the 32-page format as I wrote it as straight prose originally. I will try your techniques.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Good luck, Colleen. We all work differently, though sometimes it can be refreshing to try new things and I think I need to do more of that. Personally, I find I write most stories in spreads as the page turn is almost a form of punctuation, but I've written a few as straight text.

      Delete
  8. I have a question, which might be a bit off topic, but it pertains to picture books. If you have a story you've written, and it's considerably more than 1000-1200 words, and you honestly believe it NEEDS to be longer, if it's not a picture book then what is it? I have several stories I've written that fit this description. I guess they're too long to be called "picture books" but they're not chapter books and I believe they would work well as hard-bound books with pictures, but the pictures would be more to break up the print than to actually tell the story (does that make any sense?). So, if they're not "picture books" what are they and how do I market them?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Christine. I tend to call this sort of story an illustrated story book (that could just be me) and I think they tend to be aimed at the upper end of the picture-book age group. I believe there's a place for them and illustrated fairytales are a good example. They're lovely books to read at bedtime.

      The 1,700 book I mentioned in my blog fell into that category and it's a tricky one. Perhaps look at what's in the bookshops and see if any publishers fit? So sorry I can't be more help, though perhaps somebody else can be more useful? Anyone?!

      By the way, could you keep your longer version, but just have a go at writing a shorter one and dividing it into spreads (as an exercise)and see what happens? It won't be the same story, but it's heart should remain.

      Hope somebody else can help with advice. Also, don't just focus on this story (I'm sure you're not). Write loads of picture-book stories - picture-book writers always have a bigger pile of unpublished manuscripts, than published manuscripts. (Now somebody is going to produce an exception!)

      Delete
  9. Fantastic practical advice, Paeony. It's frustrating when I think what I've done is as perfect as it can be, and others don't agree - but it's usually because I've worked on it too much and can't see the wood for the trees. Then I need to leave it for a while. Absolutely vital advice to save the various versions - Thanks!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Many thanks, Moira. That's one of my problems too - over editing! And going back to a story after several years can be such a revelation.

      Delete
  10. Great advice. I write long sometimes then cut, cut, cut. Then, I'll write short and add, add.

    ReplyDelete
  11. This is a great post! I remember when I wrote my first picture book story about 15 years ago. It started out at 1000 words, but in America I found publishers specifically requested shorter manuscripts--sometimes 200-300 words. I actually got that story reduced only to find that editors thought the story lacked EMPATHY. I thought it was all about EMPATHY, kids and their parents changing roles on nutrition! Anyway, this is just me ranting. I LOVED the advice, "cut and cut..." What a great blog in general.

    ReplyDelete