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Writing and Illustrating a Picture Book: Part 1 - Word Limitations

A number of people I've talked to seem to have contemplated the idea of writing a children's book at some point. Which is fantastic, but I think we tend to have this misconception that writing for children is somehow so much easier than writing other kinds of books, and that's especially true when it comes to picture books. I'll admit I was one of those people when I started this journey. I was in high school, and I decided to write and illustrate a picture book for my senior project. After doing the research that went into that project and then finally completing the book all these years later, I learned it's not all that simple. Add in the extra complications that go into self-publishing and it doesn't take much to set yourself up for failure. So for the next few weeks, I'm going to be doing a series of blog posts about all the things I learned that I wish I'd known before I started and that I'll definitely be taking into consideration the next time around.

Part 1: Word Limitations

Word Count

One of the first things you need to keep in mind when writing a picture book is your word count. You want your story to be able to hold the attention span of a small child, who will probably be paying more attention to the colorful pictures anyway - no offense to the writer. That means you don't want to get long-winded. At all. A good rule of thumb for picture books is that they shouldn't be longer than 1,000 words, and 300 to 800 seems to be more of the industry standard.

"But I'm self publishing," you say. "I don't have to do what the traditional publishers say I should do." Fair point. And while I'm all for self-publishing being an avenue for books that otherwise wouldn't see the light of day, there's a reason the traditional publishers do things the way they do. Because it works. So unless you have a good reason to go above that 1,000 words, it might be a good idea to re-examine your manuscript and send some of those words to the chopping block.

Words and Pictures Working Together

So exactly how do you tell a story in just 1,000 words? I know it can seem daunting and maybe even impossible at first, but it can be done. The key is to let the illustrations take on some of the storytelling. We've all heard the saying that a picture is worth a thousand words, and you can use that to your advantage when you're writing a picture book. Don't waste words on descriptions of characters and setting, and don't get too preoccupied with giving a detailed play-by-play every piece of action in a scene. These are things the illustrations can show, so there's no need to repeat them in the narration of the story. Think of some of your favorite picture books. My guess is that part of the thing that makes these books great is the way the words and pictures work together to tell the story. You couldn't have one without the other, and if you did, the story wouldn't be nearly as good.

The book A Mouse Told His Mother does a really good job with this. It tells the story of a mouse getting ready for bed, and as he does, he imagines he's going on exciting adventures. The words are very limited and simple, allowing the pictures to take on much of the storytelling, but it's through the words that we get a sense of the fun and caring relationship between the young mouse and his mother as she helps him get ready for bed.

If you want to see more examples of this and learn how you can apply this strategy to your own story, take a look at some of the picture books you already own, or go to the library and spend some time reading in the children's section. Focus on how the words and pictures complement each other. Notice the places where the pictures take on the bulk of the storytelling and vice versa. Pay attention to which stories you like best and then try to figure out why that is. It might even be helpful to take some notes as you're doing this.

Please let me know if you have any comments or questions about this. And come back for next week's blog post, where I'll be talking about how alliteration, repetition, and rhyme can be used in picture books.

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