Tips for Writing Picture Books: Picture Books Are Short

I recently wrote a post about Some Things I’ve Learned about writing in general. Today, I’m starting series of posts about what I’ve learned regarding writing picture books.

Some writers find writing picture books difficult. Some think it’s easier to jot down a quick 100,000 words and massage those words into a novel. I completely disagree. Writing picture books is waaaaaaaay easier than writing longer works of fiction. There aren’t nearly as many characters to consider, plot lines to keep track of, and they can often be pretty formulaic.

However, that doesn’t mean that you can jot down 500 words and call it a day. If you think you can throw together a handful of rhymes and send it off for publication, well … you’d be wrong. You need to understand what the picture book industry expects. Over the last few years, I’ve learned a lot. I’ll start sharing all of that here.

Picture Books Are Short

Except in rare circumstances, a picture book is going to be 32 pages long (if you want to find out why, check with my friends at Writers’ Rumpus). But with a title page, end notes, etc, you’re really limited to 24-28 pages. Keep that in mind as you are writing and pacing your story. If you don’t get to your plot quickly and end quickly, you’re pretty much down to 10 spreads (20 pages) to work with for your story. Seems like a small amount of space to make your art, right? Well …

As I write this, picture books should be no longer than 500 words. This may a tiny number, especially when the first draft of your first manuscript is clocking in at a hefty 1248 words. But since I first heard this ‘500’ rule in the fall of 2011, it hasn’t changed to date. Whether you like it or not, you’ve got to stick to it.

Push Book

I’ll tell you what, I’ll even increase it a bit for you. I’ll say 549 words is the maximum, because that rounds down to 500. But once you cross the 550 mark, the prospective agent or editor will see 600 and may read your query no further (this may not be factual, but it’s the vibe I get).

People say this is because parents don’t have as much time as they used to for reading bedtime stories. While this may be true, I’ve also heard parents complain lately that some books are too short. Some parents would like to read a book to their children so that upon completion, the children are settled and ready to sleep. But some of these super short books do nothing to tire out the child.

Therefore, I’m hopeful for a impending backlash. Maybe by 2020, they’ll be looking for 700 word picture book manuscripts again. But for now, the magic number is 549.

How do you get an entire story crammed into 549 words or less? The answer is to make sure that …

Every Word Counts

And I’ll tackle that piece of advice next time!

 

See all of Josh Funk’s 12-Step Guide to Writing Picture Books

Lesson #1: So, You Wrote a Book. Now What?
Lesson #2: Picture Books Are Short
Lesson #3: Every Word Counts
Lesson #4: The Illustrator Is Your Partner
Lesson #5: Show Don’t Tell
Lesson #6: Write with Active Emotion
Lesson #7: Story Arc Components
Lesson #8: Don’t Write In Rhyme
Lesson #9: Rhyming Is All About Rhythm
Lesson #10: Some Ideas Don’t Work
Lesson #11: Keep Learning
Lesson #12: Now You’re Ready! Dive In!

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7 thoughts on “Tips for Writing Picture Books: Picture Books Are Short

  1. A local writer, who is repped by another agent in the same agency that I’m repped by, has been told by his agent that publishers are looking for 300-word picture books now. That is an almost unbelievably small number of words to tell a story in!

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    1. You know, I wonder about this. It definitely depends on who you talk to. Lately I’ve been feeling that the publishers really are ok with slightly over 500 (maybe I just think what I wish to be true).

      Agents have the inside track (obviously) to the editors. And agents probably know that 80% of picture books published have 300-500 words or less (80% is an arbitrary number, not fact). The agent says 500 because they know it’s hard for them to sell anything larger than 500 to an editor. Hard, but not impossible. Agents would rather be trying to sell to that 80%, not the smaller 20% of books over 500, so they say 500.

      But the editors/publishers will still accept and publish longer works. But going through agents to publish 700 word picture books is just probably not the way to go (this same reasoning applies to rhyming, which I’ll go into detail about in a much later post).

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      1. It’s also possible that his agent knew the word-count preferences of the agents she had in mind for the book. (She did a good job choosing editors for a first time picture book author/illustrator. Four personal, encouraging rejections and one R&R request)

        I think page count is likely more important that word count. Paper costs more than words.

        tf

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