Monday, 29 October 2018

'The Less Said The Better' by Lou Carter

This week, author, Lou Carter, has taken the Picture Book Den reins and is talking to us about minimal word count picture books. Lou is the author of 'Pirate Stew', illustrated by Nikki Dyson, and also 'There Is No Dragon In This Story', illustrated by Deborah Allwright, which has now been translated into a phenomenal 18 languages!!  'Oscar The Hungry Unicorn' is Lou and Nikki's next offering and we're lucky to have a sneak peek of it today! Thank you, Lou.

'When my agent suggested that I try to write a minimal word count picture book I immediately thought, no way. Surely that would be territory reserved only for author-illustrators. And would a publisher not think I was just downright lazy? But then I got to work…

When I run picture book writing workshops in schools, one of the most important things I try to get across is that you must let the pictures tell some of the story. This sounds obvious I know, but I think it is all too easy to write too much in the text and then have an illustration showing the same information.

For example;
TEXT: One bright, sunny morning Rabbit put on her favourite red hat and hopped off to the Carrot Cafe for breakfast.
ILLUSTRATION: A rabbit in a red hat hopping towards Carrot Cafe, the sun shining in the sky.

In this example the text tells you everything you need to know without the picture. Similarly the picture tells you everything you need to know without the text. You would not glean any extra information from either the words or the illustrations. Ideally, with this illustration the only text needed would be something that Rabbit thinks or feels i.e. something we cannot SEE.
For example;
TEXT: Rabbit was hungry!
TEXT: Rabbit couldn't wait for breakfast!

This skill is important for any length picture book but is essential for minimal word texts.

In my opinion, Jon Klassen is the king of this genre, my favourites being This Is Not My Hat and  I Want My Hat Back. In both stories the illustrations and text come together perfectly to tell simple yet highly amusing stories.

So when I came to write Oscar The Hungry Unicorn I tried to focus on these key principles;
1) story simplicity
(The Oscar storyline is that of a unicorn who eats everything, including his stable, and simply tries to find somewhere else to live.)
2) punchline pictures
(where the text will set up the joke for the illustration to answer)
For instance, on this page neither the text nor the illustration would be complete on their own. But together the text sets up the joke by explaining that the ship has a hole in it and the picture provides the punchline - Oscar has bitten the hole in it. 

My first drafts of Oscar were in excess of 400 words (around half that of my other picture books.) And although I was pleased with the early versions I felt they could be funnier still. 

It was my daughter in the end who suggested that I “cut way more words”. Once I halved the word count again to just under 200 words the story suddenly felt right and packed more of a punch.

Less is more, as they say.'

'Oscar the Hungry Unicorn' by Lou Carter and Nikki Dyson is out now and can be found in all good book shops and online! 



Lucy Rowland said...

Wonderful post, thank you Lou! Writing 'Minimal word count texts' is an area of picture book writing that I'd really like to trial. With your tips, I'm looking forward to having a go! x

Jonathan Emmett said...

Thanks for a great guest post, Lou. I must confess that I've made the case that "less is often just less" elsewhere on this blog, as I worry that publishers sometimes get overly obsessive about word count at the expense of appealing storytelling. But pruning back a text is definetly an essential skill for a picture book author and I've written some minimal word count picture books as well.

Paeony Lewis said...

Thanks, Lou :-) When you write a minimal text, do you do a really rough dummy so the editor and illustrator can understand what is happening? I appreciate the illustrator won't want to follow your illustrations, and they'd only be for clarity!

David McMullin said...

Shorter texts is definitely a skill. Ten years ago I couldn't write a PB under 1000 words to save my life, but now most of my manuscripts arequite short. I feel, for me, that as the word counts went down, the quality went up.

Helen Ishmurzin said...

Thanks for the fascinating insights, Lou! Similar to Paeony's question above, the article made me wonder how extensive your art notes were? Picture book authors are often warned off of using art notes because we're told many agents and editors hate them, but I can't imagine a manuscript such as Oscar the Hungry Unicorn without any...