“It is more fun to talk with someone who doesn't use long, difficult words but rather short, easy words like "What about lunch?"-Winnie the Pooh.
OK, so we know what Pooh thinks about conversations; how does Pooh feel about the word count in picture books?
Yesterday, I received a note from my agent about the length of picture books. She wrote that they are getting shorter and shorter. And many comments she is receiving about rejected submissions say they are "too long" or "too many words."
While last year 1000 words was the absolute longest length for a picture book, now it's 600 words (according to her analysis of picture books she has sold in the past couple of years. ) Of those, 2 are mine, coming in at 151 words and 353 words.
Both books of mine are concept books not "story books." One, DAD and POP explores the "concept" of being a child with 2 fathers; the other, YOUR DADDY WAS JUST LIKE YOU, is a grandmother sharing how her grandson and his father were so alike as children. I wonder, how many of the other books on my agent's "sold" list are also concept books, or poetry? (Poems, rhymed and free verse, are usually shorter than prose.) Story books are often longer because there is more work to be done in telling a traditional story. The author must:
1. establish a problem;
2.show the main character trying to deal with the problem (often by choosing wrong solutions)and the problem becoming worse and worse:
3. realize the error of his or her ways and best, fall so far it feels as though all is lost;
4. choose a best solution, try it and succeed; or
5. realize his or her goals was way off base and he or she was better off before.
All in 600 words or less? Before any illustrations have been drawn to accompany the text? You try it...*
I get that picture books are getting shorter. They are more about illustration today than they have been in the past. And increasingly more picture books published are created by author-illustrators. Pictures are worth a 1000 words. And they can tell a story. The problem is, I'm not an illustrator. I'm a storyteller. I use words not images, to tell stories. Where does that leave me?
While once picture books were for children between 4 and 8, I'd say realistically, they are now for children 0-6. Those children older than 6 are reading on their own, and reading chapter books. (Not to say that older peeps don't like being read to, nor that picture books don't have value as literature for older students. Admit it...who doesn't enjoy a picture book?)
I'm no sprinter. I wasn't when I was a kid running track and I'm not now. It takes me a while to say what I need to say. One review of my 2005 award-winning, 2008 award-nominated picture book NOT NORMAN, A GOLDFISH STORY, referred to my text as being "bald" which we took to mean "tight". (The word count for NOT NORMAN is about 730 words.) I took that as a compliment. I had done what I set out to do: Pare my story down to the absolute shortest word length possible and leave as much room as possible for the illustrator's interpretation. Currently: today-yesterday-tomorrow, I am revising what I hope will be a future picture book. Presently, the text is 800 words and I'm trying to cut, shave, pare it down down down...but to what? What do we sacrifice in writing that tight?
Yes. Picture books are a marriage of text and illustration. And yes, children, especially preliterate children, "read" the illustrations and with them learn to interpret text. But... Much of storytelling, of hearing/reading/enjoying picture books comes from the text, the language, the character's voice and, dare I say it?...the author's voice. What will disappear if I cut 200 words from my story? What will that reviewer write about the books I'm revising now---which are supposed to be 130 words shorter? What's more spare than bald?
Me. That's what will be lost. My personality. My voice. I am long winded. As anyone who has ever read my blog postings knows, it takes me a while to tell a story. I am not "flash fiction." Just as it took me a few hundred yards to reach my stride on the track field, it takes me a few hundred words more to tell a good story.
So, what do I do? Do I cut cut cut and try to sell Kelly fiction-lite? or do I just keep writing stories I enjoy telling knowing they may end up in a drawer.
Or, do I quit trying to write picture books and wait/hope/pray for a reversal in word count?
P.S. Yes, yes yes: In keeping with the current trend, I should cut this posting by half. That having been said, ask yourself: what do you wish you hadn't read?
*This is just one example of a story model--there are others (is the word count less?)