You had a plan. Marked it on your calendar and everything. You’d sit down to write at these times on these days. Then you got sick. Then Aunt Marci came to visit. Then there was the whole fiasco with your car and the maple syrup. In other words, life got in the way, as it always does. One of the most important factors to developing a writing routine you’ll actually stick to is adaptability—your ability to adjust whenever life happens and keep on with your goal.
It would be great if we could sit down in our favorite spot everyday, completely uninterrupted and focused on our writing. But that’s just not reality. You’re going to get sick and have visitors and schedule changes and all kinds of chaos thrown your way. The real question is, what are you going to do about it? You know you want to achieve your goal of finishing your draft or revising your book or whatever it is.
Here are five strategies for utilizing adaptability to stay the course.
Strategy One: Don’t Beat Yourself Up
The first thing you need to do is actually something *not* to do: Don’t beat yourself up. It happens to all of us. We all get sidetracked from time to time. In fact, you should probably expect it. Something is going to pull you off course and you'll have the challenge of fighting with yourself to get back into your routine.
Know what doesn’t help? Telling yourself you failed or that you can’t do it or that you can never achieve your goal. Negative talk does not put words on the page. Negative talk does not finish the book. It only holds you back. Use your disappointment to motivate you to get back to work.
Strategy Two: Get Back on Your Routine ASAP
It’s okay to have a bad day or week or month or several. As soon as you are able, hop back on your routine. You’ll feel better and have more output. Don’t use life’s potholes as an excuse to be lazy about your routine. Got a stomach bug and had to take a week off? Rest during that week and feel better. Return to your writing next week but don’t let one week off turn into four. Remember you want to achieve your goal and the longer you aren’t writing/revising/other, the longer and less likely it will be for you to finish.
Strategy Three: Recognize When Your Plan Isn’t Working
It’s one thing to have an illness bump you off track, it’s a whole other thing to create a routine you can’t possibly stick to in the first place. Writers want to Get.It.Done. We also get incredibly excited about new ideas and can be very driven...in the beginning. But writing or revising an entire manuscript takes more than just the beginning, it takes months and sometimes years of work. Focused, sustained work.
Creating a “writing routine” where you write eight hours a day everyday or have a 20,000 words per week limit aren’t sustainable in the long run. Trying to keep up with high-maintenance routines leads to burnout and likely to project abandonment. Be realistic with yourself and what you can do in your schedule. You want to strive to make progress, but in doses you can manage. I have a writer friend who gave herself a 400-word-a-day minimum because she knew that was something she could do with her schedule and would be able to stick to. She did it everyday for an entire year!
Be honest with yourself about your routine. If you keep not making your weekly goals, maybe it’s time adjust your expectations of yourself. You’ll be happier overall if you remove the pressure to produce, produce, produce and enjoy the process. You want this to be a routine that flows naturally into your life, not something you constantly struggle to accomplish.
Strategy Four: Be Willing to Experiment
A key component to adaptability is trying different ways to follow through with your routine. It would be great if we could block off two hours at the same time every single day to write but that doesn’t work out for most people. So if you made a goal like my writer friend of 400 words per day, you may have to experiment with writing at different times. Don’t tell yourself, “I can’t write in the mornings.” That’s an excuse. You can write any time.
When my kids were very little I was always exhausted at the end of the day from chasing them around. I tried to say I couldn’t write at night. Well when I stuck to that excuse, guess what happened? You know it—I didn’t write at all. I tried getting up at five in the morning but someone always got up early and I lost that time. There was no other option. I decided to try out doing thirty minutes a night, just thirty minutes. I could do that. Once I got started, often I ended up writing longer because I got into the story. Be willing to try things out and give it a good two weeks of effort. You might surprise yourself.
Strategy Five: Squeeze in Time Whenever You Can
Five minutes here and there can really add up. Use apps on your phone to write-as-you-go. I personally prefer the Google Docs app so I can work directly on my story. One story that ended up being a contest winner I wrote on my phone in a doctor’s office waiting room. I’ve also been spotted with a notebook on the stationary bike at the gym and using talk-to-text while pushing a stroller through the park.
When you find you have a few minutes, stop yourself from playing on social media or whatever else you do during that time and add a few lines to your story. If you do this twice a day, that’s over an hour of work you’ve squeezed into your week.
Adaptability is an essential part of sticking to your goals long term. This is especially true if you have kids or a demanding day job. Keep making progress, however you can, and your goals will be met!
Having the correct pacing in action scenes is essential. Otherwise your big moment will flop and the worst thing will happen: your reader will be disappointed. Fast pacing is a combination of five factors. Read on to find out what they are!
Factor One: Time Manipulation
The scene itself is usually only a matter of minutes or sometimes even seconds. Think about when Harry and Voldemort clash wands. That was maybe two minutes? But the scene isn’t written like this: Harry and Voldemort pointed wands at each other. The wands blew up. Writing actions scenes requires the author to slow down the clock and stretch out the moment, giving it weight in the plot. This amps up the tension and the interest for the reader.
Another way to manipulate time in action scenes is to try and introduce a “ticking clock.” Yes, this could mean a literal timer before something explodes, but it could also be an imminent consequence if something doesn’t happen within the time frame. Someone or something is coming. Something is falling down. Anything that puts an element of time pressure into the scene.
Factor Two: Including Action + Reaction
We want to give the scene a physical and an emotional punch, a one-two combo. Start with breaking down the scene into smaller actions. What exactly is the character doing? Each motion has more gravitas in this scene so be sure to highlight the actions that are propelling the character forward in the plot. (example: opens the door, feet brush on the rug, a noise comes from the bedroom…)
Next, add in the character’s internal reactions and thoughts. (example: no one is supposed to be here) This confrontation is the culmination of more than just one thing and the character’s mind should reflect that. Increasing the emotion for the character also increases the emotion for the reader. It makes them more attached and rooting for the character to succeed.
Factor Three: Layers of Conflict
Pacing slows down in any scene where there isn’t enough conflict, but it’s especially true during action scenes. Not enough conflict can also make your scene too short or things too easy for your character. The best thing you can do is to absolutely torture your character. Make every single thing that can go wrong happen. If he is about to give a speech in front of a large crowd, make him get a cold the night before. Have him chug a glass of water but not have time to stop in the bathroom. Make him lose all his notes and have his long lost girlfriend in the crowd. Then have a wardrobe malfunction on stage.
Remember to include the internal conflict as well. Our speech giver can have a crippling fear of failure from all the years his mother berated him for minor mistakes. Make this action scene so heavy with conflict it is almost too much for the reader to handle. We really want to stress the reader out. That way when the upturn comes, it’s that much more exciting.
Factor Four: Zero Fluff. None.
Your big action scene isn’t the place for your character to casually notice the surroundings or have long introspections. Anything extra is going to slow down the pace at this critical moment in your story. It could be information you do need to include in your plot, but it’s probably best to save it for another chapter or scene. So if you haven’t explained why the car is able to fly, the big action scene isn’t the right place to tell the whole backstory involving the fairy powder.
Be merciless when revising your action scene. Ask yourself if the information is an essential part of the current motion or if it can be moved elsewhere. Cut your sentences down as much as possible.
Factor Five: Strategic Structure
This is a critical but often overlooked element of writing fast pacing: the visual structure of the words on the page. The reader’s eyes should fly over the text at the same speed as the story pace. Avoid extended paragraphs and complex sentences. Use short sentences deliberately, creating a punch. When you want the reader to pause, say right before the dog is about to attack, that is a good place to put in a paragraph that is a little longer than the others. Look at the structure of the words on your page. Use the visual elements of the text itself to enhance your pacing.
Mastering pacing in action scenes takes practice and a focused effort. My best suggestion is to study your favorite action authors and analyze their scenes. How do they use time to create fast pacing? How much of what they write is action versus reaction? What are the layers of conflict? How did they keep the scene lean? What does the structure of the text look like? Studying successful action scenes can help you learn how to build your own.
It may not be intuitive to think about including negative emotions in a children’s book. After all, we don’t want to make the little guys cry, right? But including a moment of sadness in your picture book narrative can make for a more complete emotional journey for your character, and your reader, too.
Think about adult stories, particularly one with a hero. There is always a moment when it looks like the bad guy is going to win, when the character is at their darkest place. All seems to be lost. Luke Skywalker’s hand has been cut off. Voldemort has Harry trapped. Then it’s time for the big finale where the hero defeats the odds and wins.
While there (hopefully) aren’t dark, scary bad guys in picture books, including a moment of sadness or a feeling of loss for the character deepens the narrative. While the antagonist might be a character, it could also be an emotion such as fear, or a concept such as rejection.
Examples of Moments of Sadness in Picture Books
In Llama Llama Red Pajama by Anna Dewdney, Baby Llama is put to bed but then realizes he wants his mom to come back into the room. He makes several attempts to get her attention but she is downstairs and doesn’t hear him. There is an incredible spread with an expansive dark blue background and Baby Llama sitting in the darkness with a blanket pulled up over half his face. His eyes are wide and he wonders if his mom is gone. The feeling here is clear: fear. His dark moment is when he thinks his mother could be gone forever.
The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats also has a sad moment for the character. Peter spent his whole day exploring the wondrous, snowy outdoors. He brings home a memento of this special day in his pocket, a snowball. Of course when he wakes up and checks his coat pocket, the snowball has melted. His joy from the day before is seemingly gone.
Another example is in It’s Christmas, David by David Shannon. David has been enjoying all things holiday...cookies, ornaments, making his list...and trying hard to be on the nice list. Finally the big day comes. When he wakes up on Christmas morning, he runs to the living room only to find a lump of coal.
Reasons to Include a Moment of Sadness in Your Picture Book Manuscript
It strengthens your character’s emotional journey and makes your story more compelling. Facing a challenge or dark time gives a more complete character arc and increases the reader’s attachment to the character. Were you a little upset that I stopped in the examples above before knowing what happened to those characters? Even in the short descriptions of the stories, you wanted to know that things turned out all right. Surely that mom came back to Baby Llama, right? That kid got his presents, right? Experiencing challenges makes us want to root for the characters even more.
Children relate to negative feelings. If you’ve been around a child recently, you know their day can be quite an emotional roller coaster. From getting the wrong color cup, to their brother picking the TV show, to having to sing the song on stage in front of everyone...there are a lot of negative emotions during their days. They feel angry, sad, scared, overwhelmed, and everything else under the rainbow. They relate when a character is afraid like Baby Llama or sad like Jack and his melted snowball. Including negative emotions in stories shows kids that other people feel the same way they do and can also help them learn how to manage those feelings by seeing the character’s example.
It makes the ending that much more sweet. Think about the emotional journey of a book character as a line. If the line is flat because the emotion has been flat throughout, then it peaks at the climax, the jump from just before the climax to the peak is minimal. If we have a big dip before the climax, the jump up to the peak is huge! We’ve gone all this way! The happy ending has significantly more emotional impact because of that great low we had before. When Mama Llama finally comes, we are so relieved. Phew. Baby Llama was really upset and afraid. We are so happy they are back together. When David realizes the coal is just a bad dream and he wakes up and finally sees his presents, we are thrilled. He worked hard and deserved those.
Of course a moment of sadness may not fit the structure of every picture book. Books such as the How Do Dinosaurs…? series by Jane Yolen don’t follow a typical narrative structure and a moment of sadness wouldn’t fit in the question and answer style she uses. Examine your manuscript and ask yourself if you follow a narrative structure and if you are trying to include a character arc. See if a moment of sadness would punch up the emotional impact of your story. Remember, if the kids connect with your character more, the more likely they will be to pick up your book over and over again.
Revision can be a highly emotional process. One day everything in the chapter is fixed perfectly, piece of cake. You were born for this. The next day you spend HOURS on one paragraph. Why are you doing this? Four root canals with no numbing agents would be less painful than this.
Things can go from bad to worse after you spend months and months fixing and rewriting only to feel like you've made no progress in making the book better or you see how much more there still is to fix. You think you'll never finish.
Then a common, yet terrible thing happens to writers. Revision burnout.
What is Revision Burnout?
Revision burnout occurs when a writer becomes frustrated with the time and entanglements of revision and quits. They walk away from their manuscript, sometimes never coming back.
Oftentimes a little time and space are good for a project, giving the writer a chance to get a mental break and gain perspective. Too much time is a bad thing. The longer a person steps away from the project, the more they forget about the smaller details, and the longer it takes for them to reread and remember what they wrote about before jumping back in. You can also lose the sense of tone and direction you originally had with the work, making the new parts not match up as well with the older ones. This doesn't mean it's impossible to jump back on a project you didn't finish from three years ago, it just means that it will take time to recapture your sense of the story.
The real threat with revision burnout is complete abandonment. The biggest crime in writing is to give up on your work. You've made it this far and finished the draft. How many hours, days, weeks, months, maybe even years did that take? Don't quit now because it's hard. I have yet to hear an author preach about how easy writing is. Yes, some projects will need more work than others and yes, not all projects are going to be award winners. But the learning and growth of you as an author is critical. Going through the whole journey and finishing your big projects will teach you more about how you work and your processes than any webinar or craft book can.
Besides, wasn't this your dream? Didn't you picture holding this book in your hands...signing the title page...having fans desperately want your next book...? Or maybe you felt so passionate about the story that you just needed to get your work out there. Revision is hard. Period. That doesn't mean you should abandon your work.
Seven Tips for Avoiding Revision Burnout
Goal Setting: Make a realistic timeline for finishing your revision. Adapt it as necessary as life happens. Sometimes you get sick or have to move or have to help family members. Adjust your timeline as needed but stay focused on your end goal of having your project completed.
Revision Routines: Develop a routine for revision each week. You can plan something such as an hour each day in the early mornings or all day on Tuesdays and Fridays. This is going to depend on your schedule. The emphasis is on writing down what days and times are for revision only. Do not let yourself get distracted or work on other things during revision time. Focus!
Accountability: Have an accountability system in place to check in with your overall progress on your project and also to make sure you're sticking to your routine. You can have a writer friend you email every Sunday night to check in or make yourself post your progress on social media every Tuesday. Whatever works for you. This is a key piece in long-term success and finishing your project in your desired time frame.
Recognize Fatigue and Take Appropriate Breaks: If you find yourself hating your story or sitting down to revise becomes entirely torturous, a short break may help you adjust your frame of mind. Take a week off and spend some time in nature or with good friends who make you laugh, anything that energizes you. Do not let your break go on for weeks. Remember the longer you are away from a project, the longer it takes to jump back in.
Focus on Progress, not Perfection: You don't have to get your story perfect in the first round of revision. Or the second. Or the third. It can certainly seem like you are revising in circles sometimes. Remind yourself that every time you sit down and revise, you are making the story better. Focus on one story issue at a time and pat yourself on the back as you fix problems.
Keep in Touch with your Love of the Story: You will hate your story from time to time. It's completely normal. My loathing for my work peaks at about round three of revision. Take a journey back in your memory to when you first got the idea for this book. What was the spark? What made you excited? I like to write my story ideas down in a notebook and I will go back to that notebook to recapture my excitement. You can also make a list of your favorite scenes or lines from the book. Stay connected to what you love in your work. You may have to fight yourself for it.
Build a Support Network: Writers make the best allies in the revision process. They know how hard it is. If you haven't already, build relationships within the writing community either in person or online. Other writers can give emotional support and also ideas for when you're stuck. Writing a book can be a very lonely journey so reach out to others in the community for support.
Now you have some tools in your toolbox for avoiding revision burnout. Keep working on your revisions and don't let negative emotions stop you from achieving your goal.
Want more revision posts? Check out some others I've written:
Picture books are primarily a print market. Kids and parents love holding the books in their hands and interacting with them, pointing to pictures and turning pages. Deciding the best way to make your physical product involves some decision making and figuring out what is best for you and your book. Here are the options, along with the benefits and drawbacks of each, to help you decide.
The two main ways to indie print picture books (or any book) are to offset print or use a print-on-demand service. Offset printing is when you put in an order with a traditional book printer such as Thomson-Shore or Phoenix Color and they do what is called a print run. You pay the money up front for an agreed-upon amount of books. When the print run is finished, you have all of your books ready to sell.
Print-on-demand or POD is a relatively newer service in the history of book printing. All you do is upload the files to a service such as Amazon or Ingram Spark and they print copies after they are purchased and mail them to the customer. If you want to have a home stock of books, you will need to order from the printing service and you only pay for the exact amount you want.
Offset Printing Benefits and Drawbacks
Offset printing is number one when it comes to print quality, especially for picture books that have color interiors. You also have more print options with an offset printer. You can pick your trim size, get foil embossing, do lift-the-flaps, even get holes cut in your pages. You can customize whatever you want!
However, when you offset print you have to pay for an entire print run. This can get expensive and is risky if you end up not selling very many books. Also, now you have an entire print run. Where are you going to store those books? You will have to do some research and see if you want to apply for a distributor, store them at a warehouse that does pack-n-ship, or keep them at home/a storage unit and mail them yourself. But another benefit is the per-unit price. The higher the total print run, the cheaper the books are per book.
Print-on-Demand (POD) Benefits and Drawbacks
The benefits of POD are easy to see: significantly less up front cost and much easier product management. It is the most economical option. Plus services that do POD also list and ship your books for you. Double bonus!
Here comes the big drawback: print quality. Because these books are printed quickly and shipped out right away, the printing methods give less rich color and quality controls aren't as well regulated. You are also limited in your options and must chose a trim size from a predetermined list and can't get any of the special features. Some POD printers, such as Amazon, only print paperbacks. Finally, the price of the book per unit stays the same whether you print two books or two thousand. It becomes the least economical option if you need to print large quantities of books.
The best method is going to be what is right for your goals, your time, and your budget. What is most important to you? What can you honestly manage? How much money do you have to spend? You also don't have to be married to one printing method. You can make a judgement call for each project and see what works best for you. I personally do both, pending the project and what I deem is important.
Layering theme and metaphor in your memoir can take your story from being good to great. The challenge is...well...figuring out what exactly your theme is. The good news? You don’t need to know it before you start writing. In fact, you don’t need to figure it out while you’re drafting either. When you sit down to write your memoir, just get your story down on the page.
Finished? Now look over your piece as a whole, whether it is a short memoir or a longer work. Part of your writing journey will be the self-discovery you have when drafting and then stepping back and seeing what came out.
Finding Theme in Memoir
While reviewing your work, look for patterns in the following things:
When I drafted my award-winning short memoir “Learning to Kick,” I detailed my experience with postpartum depression and identity loss. After reading through what I had gotten down, I noticed a pattern involving my expectations at that point in my life: I kept thinking things would get better and month after month they didn’t. It went on for most of a year until I finally realized I needed to do something, to be proactive in my happiness. I realized this would be the theme of my piece.
Using Metaphor to Integrate Theme in Memoir
Then it was time to show the readers my theme instead of telling it to them. What was this feeling of things not improving month after month similar to? My mind went immediately to something dark, thinking of light fading away and me drifting further and further from happiness. I also thought about cold and feeling a crushing sensation of sadness. I realized a good parallel would be sinking in cold ocean water.
I wove this metaphor into my storyline in different places throughout: a giant wave knocking me into the water when I found out I was pregnant, dipping just under the surface on my first day alone with the baby, sinking further and further into the cold water as the months progressed. And the moment I realized I needed to fight for my happiness? That’s when I learned to kick, which gave me the title of the piece.
Once you see the pattern in your work, think about what it reminds you of in the world. Then integrate this metaphor at key points in your story, including your opening and closing, as well as your title. It will give unity and depth to your piece. It will also do what every writer wants...get your readers more engaged in your story.
Revision can be an intimidating, often daunting task, especially if you have a messy draft. It can be hard to tell where to begin. You know you need to fix things, but you aren’t exactly sure how to get started. That’s where a revision plan comes in. This post will tell three steps to getting a chapter-by-chapter revision plan.
Step 1: Evaluate Your Manuscript
Reread your novel from start to finish without making any changes. That’s right. Resist the urge to tweak as you read and just go through the entire thing. Why? The first thing you need to do is take stock of what you have. There is no sense in making little changes on something that may end up being cut later. So just read.
As you are reading, take notes in a notebook or type them up in a doc about things you think need revision or parts you don’t like. I prefer to take notes for each chapter but also keep a running list of things I see overall. For example, I may write a chapter note about the dialogue in a certain scene being flat but also make a note in the overall section about the character as a whole needing more dimension. I like to write my notes in columns, then compile the overall notes separately afterwards.
Step 2: Problem Solve Your Story Issues
Review your notes as a whole and determine what your biggest problems are. Saggy middle? Ending not explosive enough? Characters unlikable? Start by brainstorming one problem at a time. For example, if you noticed you have a saggy middle, do some research and think of every idea you can to solve the problem. Make a big list of possibilities. Now identify which ones are the best solutions to your problem, not the easiest, but the best. What makes sense in your story and for your characters?
Step 3: Make a Revision Plan
Now it is time to implement your solutions chapter by chapter. I find it helpful to start my revision plan by writing down what is currently in my chapter, then what I want to do in the revision next so I can see what specific changes need to be made. I will write in a to-do list addressing the chapter problems I saw during rereading and also what I need to do in this chapter to address the bigger, overall issues I noted. So if I am adding a subplot to help with my saggy middle, I will note which chapters need added scenes.
I often make adjustments and changes to my plan as I am revising. So it’s okay if everything isn’t perfectly fixed before you get started. The important thing is to GET STARTED! Sometimes writers can get lost in planning and delay beginning the actual work of revision. Don’t spend more than a month evaluating, problem solving, and planning. Some solutions will come to you as you work. Now it’s time to roll up those sleeves and get started!
Want more revision posts? Check out some others I've written:
Let's start with a doozy of a sentence: The short-legged, fluffy, orange Pomeranian walked down the dirty sidewalk, past the shady green trees, and into her large square yard with the tulips, daisies, and daffodils next to the two story blue house with the wrap-around porch.
While this does give you quite a visual, it's pretty exhausting to read and a bit long for the attention of a three-year-old. Visual description is often a place where a picture book author can make deep cuts, or not include it all. Here are three reasons why you can toss those adjectives out the door.
Written Description Is Redundant
One great thing about picture books is they have pictures! The pictures do the work of showing the visuals so the words don't have to. Why tell the reader and listener the pig is wearing a red rain jacket with yellow buttons when they can look at the page and see it? Or that the park has a swing and a slide and a bench and a...you get the idea. The park will be there on the page.
Let's go back to the sentence with the Pomeranian. Reread it and think of everything written there that would be shown in pictures. The short-legged, fluffy, orange Pomeranian walked down the dirty sidewalk, past the shady green trees, and into her large square yard with the tulips, daisies, and daffodils next to the two story blue house with the wrap-around porch. Most of the words in this sentence can be cut out.
Illustrators Don't Like It
When an illustrator gets a manuscript, they develop their own vision for the story. They don't want to be told what every tiny detail looks like. That would leave no room for them to experience and interpret the story with their own creativity. Think about it. Before you wrote a story, would you want someone telling you every single detail to write?
You may want to cling to the idea that the pig must be in a red raincoat with yellow buttons. After all, that's how you pictured it as you wrote. But is that really the most important part of the story? Will the story not be the same if the pig is in a blue raincoat, or gasp!, no raincoat at all? Giving the illustrator that creative freedom results in a better product because they use their expert artistic and visual skills to come up with things that are often even better than what you imagined.
This doesn't mean you shouldn't include a visual detail that is essential to the story. But you should leave room for creative interpretation by the illustrator as much as possible.
It Inflates Word Count
Getting the word count down is often one of the biggest challenges of revising picture book manuscripts. Traditional publishers want manuscripts to be around 500 words or less. There is more wiggle room for indies, but it should be below 1,000. (See this post on word count for more info.)
You have to chop, chop, chop as much as you can. Visual description can take up a lot of those precious words and like I said earlier, it's redundant with the pictures. Trim it wherever you can and don't let it inflate your word count. (See this post for other ways to cut word count.)
A picture book needs to use concise yet enticing language that lends itself well to being read aloud. The challenge? Doing all that in less than a thousand words, in fact, as close to 500 words as possible. First drafts are often too long since all you are doing is capturing your ideas and putting them on the page. Then it is time to revise, trim the fat, slice and dice...whatever you like to call it.
A picture book manuscript is already fairly short, so what exactly can you cut? Here are five tricks to trim down those words:
This is the first place to start. Take a close look at your sentence structures. Do you have sentences with several clauses strung together? Long compound sentences? Search your manuscript for lengthy sentences and see where you can chop.
Become a hound on the hunt for any extra words. Look for adverbs and adjectives and determine if they are truly necessary. The word “that” is often a filler word when not specifying an object. (If you are looking for more tips at the sentence level, see Tighten Up! Seven Tips for Decluttering Your Sentences, an article I wrote for the Florida Writers Association.)
Cut Out Visual Description
Visual description, such as describing the setting or what the character looks like, is usually left out of picture books. Most obviously because the pictures show the visuals and it would be superfluous.
The second reason is that illustrators do not want to be told how things look. There needs to be room for creative interpretation. (More on this in another post.) So look through your story and see if there are any lines that tell what something looks like and ask yourself if they are really necessary or if the pictures will show it.
A common mistake is to assume kids need tons of action in a picture book in order to keep their interest, making it more like a TV show. Characters are here then there then up then down then karate chop! Big action isn’t a bad thing, but too much action is. The first problem is that it’s hard for children to follow. Adults, too.
Second, an illustrator doesn’t create an individual scene for every single little action in the book. (Think about transitions like opening doors and entering rooms.) So if you have too much action, an illustrator won’t be able to draw it all anyway. Limit your action to what is essential to your plot. Ask yourself what *must* the character do and limit the number of obstacles to what will fit within the word count. Which leads to the next tip…
Reduce the Number of Events
Oftentimes writers get excited about the idea behind a picture book and add in too many events. My very first picture book attempt involved a tough-guy Easter bunny and his peppy sidekick. While I was developing the story, I planned a kooky system for how they traveled around the world. The first few events in the book where all about glitches in the system before they got to where the story actually started. It was exciting and fun and I loved it. It was also totally unnecessary. My word count was a shocking 2,000 words. It broke my heart but those events had to be cut.
A good trick to help focus your events is to write your logline: one sentence saying what your book is about. Events need to be directly related to the direction of the book. How many events should there be for a picture book? It depends on the structure of the book. I tend to use a simplified version of the three act structure, so three events or event groups. Examine the structure of your book and determine if there are any events that can be left out and the end result would be the same. That may be an indicator they can be cut.
It’s not always necessary to show every setting in a book. A character may come home from school and have to walk through the foyer, then the living room, then the hallway before getting to her bedroom. Save yourself some words and jump straight to where she needs to be.
Limiting settings also goes hand-in-hand with simplifying action. If you stick to only the necessary scenes that involve the obstacles and the character’s goal, then you will see which settings are integral and which can be cut. Once again, the structure of the book will determine the number of settings.
Keep Working On It
It takes me several months to work over a manuscript and get it where it’s ready to publish. I revise over and over and over, getting lots of feedback from other picture book authors. Keep coming back to your manuscript and asking yourself what is essential to your story. With time and effort, you’ll be able to cut out the excess and highlight what is truly important.
Getting the word count correct is a very important skill for anyone looking to publish picture books. Agents and publishers won’t accept manuscripts with high words counts. Distributors won’t select them for sales representation either.
Why? Long picture books don’t sell very well anymore.
Why Long Picture Book Manuscripts Don’t Work
Small Press United, an indie book distributor, has this in their Reasons for Declining information: “a children's picture book with pages that have large amounts of text no longer works as a picture book.”
Recent market surveys show that children age out of picture books at six, earlier than previous generations. Kids are moving up to early readers and chapter books younger than before. This in and of itself is a great thing. We have better readers! But it does raise a problem for picture book authors and publishers. We need to adjust our standards to match what children need and ultimately, what sells.
Authors also need to keep in mind the dual audience of picture books: the children hearing the story and the parent who reads it. Parents are the ones purchasing the books and reading them aloud until the child is old enough to read on their own. If there is one thing that drives me crazy during story time at night, it is a picture book that goes on and on and on. Those books often mysteriously disappear under the bed or at the very bottom of the book bin. As a parent, I won’t buy a picture book with a lot of text.
Picture Book Word Count: Here’s the Magic Number
For fiction or creative nonfiction picture books (not informational), the current word count goal is 500 words. Yup, that’s it.
If you are planning to traditionally publish, it is significantly more likely you will be successful if you stick to this word count. Yes, you can go to Barnes and Noble and likely find a longer picture book on the shelf. This book is probably either a classic or written by an established author. Stick to 500 words to increase your chances of acceptance.
If you are self-publishing, you do have some leeway but remember that you want to be competitive in the market with all the other picture books. You also don’t want your adorable-but-wiggly audience getting bored. Keep it under 1,000 but try to get closer to 500.
A Quick Way to Practice
If you write adult fiction, one of the best activities you can do to get comfortable with the 500 word format is to practice flash fiction. It teaches you to squeeze your entire story in a low word count and helps you focus on every single word, cutting anything extra.
If you are new to writing or are only interested in writing picture books, look for my next blog post: Five Tricks for Trimming Word Count in Picture Book Manuscripts.