Josh Funk's Guide to 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 today's picture book industry expects. One thing that's different than you may remember:
Picture Books Are Short
Most picture books are 32 pages long (if you want to find out why, check with my friends at Writers Rumpus). But with a title page, endpapers, etc, you’re really limited to between 24-28 pages. Keep that in mind as you're writing and pacing your story. Even if you get to your plot quickly and end quickly, you’re pretty much down to less than 10 spreads (20 pages) to work with for your story. Seems like a small amount of real estate, right? Well …
Current industry standards are that picture books should be no longer than 500 words. This may seem like 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.
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 think 600 and may read your query no further (this may not be factual, but it’s the vibe I get).
Why so few words? 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 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 an impending backlash. Maybe by 2030, 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.