A few years ago, I got this brilliant idea, after just having a baby, to write a picture book. Completely normal. So I sat down and wrote a first draft. I loved it. It was a cute little story about a ladybug and her adventures. The first draft was over 1,000 words. I thought it was fantastic. I revised and edited. My subsequent draft was about 900 words. I know. I know. I didn’t know any better. Now I know that word count is the absolute top end for almost any agent or publisher to consider. But, I started to query and I received rejection after rejection after rejection. Surprised right? I actually was. My story is adorable! Why won’t anyone represent it? It must be them not me.
Then I decided to put the picture books away and give a novel a shot. I wrote a novel. Then I wrote another novel. Then I wrote another novel. But in the middle of working on a third novel, I got a request for my picture book manuscript during a pitch contest on a wild shot. So I opened up my picture book to take a look through and make sure it was agent ready, since I hadn’t looked at it in a while. That’s when it smacked me in the face.
First of all, I had shown everything with words. EVERYTHING! I took a class through Writer’s Digest which was fantastic, and @CarlyWatters did an amazing job of discussing important things to remember when writing a picture book. One of the points that really stuck with me was to let the illustrator do their job. I’d made the cardinal mistake of drawing a picture with my words. In novels, that’s fantastic. You have to use your words to show the reader. But in a picture book, you have to leave room for the artist. It’s difficult to remember that there are going to be images tied to your words . Your words don’t need to show everything because the pictures will encompass the other 50%.
I knew I needed to edit the crap out the manuscript. I started imagining what the page would look like if it was actually an illustrated book sitting in front of me. Then, taking a look at the words, I chopped anything out of the manuscript that was too showy or something that an illustrator would obviously include in the illustrations. I cut the manuscript down to a whopping 508 words. That means I cut about 400 words of unnecessary stuff out of my manuscript. I reread it and amazingly, the story was still there, just more succinct with room for an amazing set of images.
I’ve also learned to play with language a lot more. In a picture book you need less words so the language has to be as precise as possible. Opening up to new vocabulary and sometimes even creating your own. If you can use one word instead of five, do it. You have to channel the voices of your characters in order to show instead of tell. Using unique story telling structures are another great way to show and still leave the illustrator a ton of room to paint your story. All these techniques take tons of time and practice to perfect.
It’s for all of these reasons that I love the challenge of writing picture books. But I have learned it takes a lot of time and revisions to make one great. I do have one thing going for me though; I have two little girls that read amazing picture books all the time.