February 27, 2020
Writing a publishable picture book is hard. It simply is. The competition is incredible. And your book must do so many things well.
• It needs to sing.
• It needs to speak to every reader, whether child or adult.
• It needs a sense of universality.
• It needs to leave room for the illustrations while still capturing the initial reader (and editor or agent).
• And it needs to do all of those things in approximately 500 words (more for nonfiction).
That, my friends, is hard. And because the best picture book writers make the work look so effortless and organic, many have been lured into expecting it to be easy. If your goal is to publish a picture book, you must give up that expectation immediately. It's not easy. It may be totally worth the work, but just be aware: there will be work. The only way to write and sell a picture book is to do that work. So if the picture book you dashed off in the weekend after being delighted by the antics of your grandchildren or your dog seemed easy, that's because the hard work has yet to begin. You'll need to turn that charming bit of writing into a picture book.
What is Your Structure?
Everything in a picture book works together to produce the end result. Every word, every sound, every bit of punctuation serves the whole of it. And your book does need a purpose––a kind of story journey of its own. Many beginning picture book authors create books that are basically lists where the character does one thing and then the next thing and then the next thing and then the next thing and you keep piling on things until you either run out of things or you realize you probably need to stop because your book is really long. These kinds of list books don't seem to be driving toward anything. They could stop any time without destroying the "story" because there is no story. Very, very, very, very, very few of these kinds of "lists of activities" books will ever be published.
For a book that is basically a list of activities to work, they must bring something else to the book, something amazing. For instance, suppose your book is about a walk in the woods with a little girl and her dad. They see a great many things and then maybe the little girl falls asleep and the dad carries her home, or something similar. This kind of "do things until you're too tired to do anymore" books only work if they bring something else beyond just the list. Maybe the writing is incredibly beautiful, lyrical, and with perfect meter. And maybe the book reflects the beauty of the father-daughter relationship where the dad has made time in his day to spend with his little girl. In that case, the weaker structure (a list of things) is overcome by the incredible voice and the beautiful theme. So look at your book closely. Is it simply a list of things done or seen? If it is, what are you bringing to the party to overcome that?
How Much Can You Cut?
One of the first chores of polishing a picture book is cutting out all the bits you don't need. When you're writing the picture book, things will often creep in because they're funny or because you like the way it sounds or because it reminds you of a loved one. Those kinds of things only get to stay if they serve the plot, theme, or concept of the book. One of the most asked questions of beginning picture book writers is "Are there any publishers who'll accept picture books of over 1,000 words?" Actually sometimes that question stretches to 2,000 words or even more. The reality is that there are a very few publishers who do buy longer picture books for older readers. Their books are often unique, and length is not the only reason why. They tend to have a distinct voice tied to a very specific place, time, or event and the publisher’s whole line will feel cohesive. So if you do find a publisher for long picture books, you'll need to read a handful of their books to know if your long picture book will fit in.
But there will be far, far more publishers available to you if you can tell your story in about 500 words. Remember that you're competing with a great many skilled picture book authors. If your book is going to win a slot in the publisher's list, you must bring something amazing to the book and do it in as few words as possible. Many published picture book authors comment on the amount of time they put into picking exactly the right words for every sentence. Newbery winning author Linda Sue Park once said that she rewrites every sentence in her picture books around ten times to find exactly the right words and word order to give the sentence the sound she wants.
Stay in Your Lane
One helpful way to trim word count is to remember that the picture book writer's job is words, not pictures. If you have primarily read novels, you've filled your head with prose that contains both action and image. Novel writers help the reader see through specific visual details. A novel might describe clothes, hair, and objects around your character. A picture book writer doesn't do this because the job of those visuals belongs to the other half of the storytelling team: the illustrator. Don't illustrate with your words. In fact, this is a good time to give up your "right" to decide what the visuals in the picture book will be. Picture books (at least those done by commercial publishers) are basically a team effort between author and illustrator (unless the author is the illustrator). That team effort is normally done with no contact, so the illustrator is free to be inspired by just the story (not art notes, unless there is no way to understand the story without them). The illustrator is expected to bring his or her own creativity to the story, making it something bigger than it would have been with only one person's vision. This means the final result will not look the way you envisioned. That’s scary for many beginning picture book writers, but it is something to recognize. If you can't work in this kind of partnership, then picture books might not be right for you (unless you have a lot of extra money and want to self-publish).
Don't Do What You Can't Do
Some people are extremely gifted at hearing the meter in sentences. For people like this, writing metrical language is natural. That doesn't mean it's easy, but it is something they can do and something they can recognize when they've failed to do it well. These people can write picture books in verse successfully.
Most of the rest of us fall into one of two other categories. We may recognize that we cannot write meter well. Maybe we can do it for a few lines, but keeping a consistent meter through a full story is beyond us. For writers who fall into that category, writing prose picture books is best. And the good news is that most publishers prefer prose picture book submissions from those authors who are not previously published in rhyming picture books.
The third category is the one that will struggle the most. These writers cannot do metered verse, but don't realize they cannot. They read their work aloud and force the stresses to go in the right places, even though they don't fall that way naturally. Or they read it out loud and can't even tell that the meter is a mess. They often try for a very Seuss-style of verse. Or they may not even realize that rhyming picture books are supposed to have a clear, regular rhythm along with the rhymes. So they simply put rhyming words at the ends of sentences and don't worry about the meter at all. Unfortunately, these kinds of books won't be picked up by publishers. If you choose rhyme, you must bring meter along for the rhyme. And if you don't understand meter then prose picture books are the way to go. And remember, they are actually preferred!
If you are going to try for a rhyming picture book, it is absolutely essential to have feedback before submission, feedback from someone who actually can tell when meter works and when it does not. It may come in the form of a critique group or a critique partner, or may be a critique from a professional who is paid to tell you the truth about your weaknesses. When getting that kind of feedback, ask specifically for feedback on meter and where it works or does not work. And don't dismiss feedback that is somewhat vague like "something feels off there." In a picture book, that almost always is feedback on the meter of the sentence. Picture books are all read aloud, so sound is important, even when not writing metered verse.
So, yes, picture books are hard, maybe harder than you'd expected. They aren't the right format for every writer. They should not be chosen simply because they're short and therefore feel easier. They are an art form all their own and a vital one as they affect the youngest children. Plus, when done right, they are practically eternal. So if you feel called to write picture books, go for it, but be prepared to do the work. It'll be worth it.
Jan Fields is a former Institute of Children's Literature Instructor and a full-time, freelance author.
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