You Can’t Write Publishable Picture Books If You Don’t Know These 5 Things
5 red flags that tell me you don’t actually know what a picture book is
In the editing and manuscript development part of my work, I see a lot of people with drafts of picture books they want critiqued. Sometimes they think their story is already topnotch and they ask for copy editing and proofreading. But before I even open their Word file, I can tell from their request they don’t actually know the key elements of a picture book, and it means they will never get published until they do.
Picture books have very few words
Even fewer now than they used to! A few years ago, guidelines for texts were around the 800 words as a maximum. Now that’s 500 words. People send me stories that are 1500 or 2000 words. These aren’t picture books. They’re children’s stories, and there is a huge difference. Pick up any picture book nowadays and you’ll see maybe one or two sentences per double page spread. Probably not even that much. My first picture book was 130 words. Why have word counts reduced so much? Read on.
Illustrators contribute much more to the book than you realize
Again, illustrators used to be in the role of creating pictures that complemented the text, that basically just reflected what was going on in the story. Now the relationship is more complex — the illustrator adds so much more, including sometimes extra small stories that aren’t even in the text (like a little mouse doing its own thing). Sometimes those stories might have been in the original manuscript, but as soon as the illustrator puts something in the illustration, it’s often taken out of the story.
The aim now is for story and pictures to be much more integrated, for them to work together to create the whole, and the whole is a much richer experience for the reader. Why? Because the advances in visual literacy in small children have been huge, and a great picture book responds to that visual literacy by providing a deeper experience.
What this means for the writer is that you have to learn how to write and leave room for the illustrator. Which leads to …
Picture book texts have to leave out stuff that will be in the pictures
This means that all the obvious things in a story such as animal descriptions, setting descriptions, even character descriptions, should be left out unless they are a vital part of the story (as in the elephant is purple). Even these vital bits may be deleted later on, once the illustrator has included them in the illustrations.
Writers think then they have to put in lots of illustration notes, so the editor and illustrator will “understand their vision”. Um, no. The editor and particularly the illustrator will have their own unique and wonderful vision for the book’s illustrations, and in most cases, the writer won’t have a say.
98% of picture books have 32 pages
This is to do with printing, and unlikely to change for larger print runs. It costs a lot of money to print a full-color picture book, and most are printed on large machines, on one huge sheet of paper, on both sides. Then the sheet is folded and trimmed, and 32 pages is the result. There is a standard layout that ensures the pages all end up in the right order. You mess with this at your (financial) peril.
It’s also why editors and designers talk about “double-page spreads” because picture books are also designed to lay flat when open, for easy holding and reading. So instead of one page at a time, you can play with much bigger spreads and place the illustrations and text much more openly.
Your story need not fill all 32 pages because you still allow for the title page, dedication page, imprint page etc (although these can be squished up if necessary), but you have to keep this in mind as you work on your story, because …
Each bit of your story has to inspire an illustration
By this I mean — think of your story spread across those pages or double-page spreads. Maybe one sentence or two sentences per page (max). The best way to do this is to make up a dummy book of 32 pages/16 pieces of paper, and try to work out what words will go on each page.
It’s very likely that you will soon see you have things in your story that either aren’t illustratable in any interesting or active way (like someone thinking), or you have way too much that doesn’t really inspire any kind of illustration. They’re really extra words that can be deleted or condensed. The dummy book is crunch time. I’ve had many of my students make one, and what they discover about their stories, despite believing their stories are “finished”, can be confronting.
What they thought was a good story is suddenly revealed to be flat and lacking in action. Most of all, the story is not going to appeal to an editor or an illustrator because there is not enough to work with.
This revelation is a good thing!
Many picture books take 10, 20 or even 40+ drafts. Once you understand what a picture book requires at its most fundamental level, you’ve got the tools to rewrite and make it really come alive!