I’ll admit it – I’m feeling pretty frustrated this week. It’s all down to word count. Why is it that some picture book writers are able to publish stories of 600 -800 words, yet unpublished newbies are constantly being told to use less and less? Some publishers specify a maximum of 600 words, I’ve seen agents who want 500 or less (one particular agent specified a maximum of 200 words!) I have critique group friends who’ve been told to cut their 500 word texts in half, but yet at the same time some of my work has been seen by both editors and agents who made no comment on their word counts of 600-700.
When did picture books suddenly become so short, and who decided they had to be? I agree there are some books which unnecessarily go on and on. There are a few fairly recent picture books by a very well-known and much loved author that I personally think waffle on, and which I strenuously avoid reading to my children! But – and I know I’ve said this before – a lot of the shorter texts are too short. With only a few words on every page, the page turn comes too quickly and the child doesn’t have time to absorb the story or the illustrations.
There were several things I heard a lot during the mentoring I undertook with Natascha Biebow of ‘Blue Elephant Storyshaping’. A story needs a character that has both personality and some kind of motivation – there’s a ‘need’ or a ‘want’ that drives the story forward. They must go on an emotional journey. There should be a strong story arc. The ending needs to be satisfying and preferably ‘bookend’ with the beginning. The reader needs to know what the story’s message is. Natascha also said a story should make sense when being read aloud without seeing the illustrations. She wanted virtually no illustration notes – only when absolutely necessary, like when the illustration needs to show something that differs from the text. By trying to make my stories contain all of the above points, my word counts jumped – and in the case of my shorter, illustration-note heavy texts, jumped quite significantly.
This week I was told by a lovely agent who had asked to see some of my prose texts, that what I was writing were early readers, not picture book texts. They told me I was ‘saying’ things that should be said via the illustrations and that the text should be ‘captions for the illustrations’. Okay – this makes perfect sense, but it’s also pretty much the opposite from what Natascha said about the story needing to be clear without the illustrations. The stories I sent were between 600-700 words, and this agent suggested I rewrite one of the stories and aim for 100 words. I’m having a go at doing this, taking out everything Natascha had told me to put in and more, (and putting back all the illustration notes – and more!) So far I’ve only managed to get down to 318 words, and I feel like the story has lost its personality. I guess I could write a completely new story altogether, but I actually liked my original idea.
I know there are some successful picture book authors who can write an extremely short text which still has voice and personality. But I think these types of people are the minority. They are also, apparently, often ex-marketing professionals already skilled at saying a lot in few words. I would also like to suggest that some of these very short stories aren’t actually narratives, but more poems or concepts.
But my point is something else. Why do we all need to fit into this particular super-short text box? Obviously there is room for writers who write longer narratives, because many people do. The majority of modern day classics beloved by both children and parents alike fall into the 500-700 word bracket. So why are new authors expected to write stories containing motivation, personality, and emotional journey all in 100-200 words? Is this the result of some head-honcho in marketing insisting that what works for advertising also works for children’s stories?
Why should children be forced to accept stories of less than 200 words – doesn’t this only reinforce the ‘instant gratification’ lifestyle of today’s world? Parents, teachers, librarians and child-carers WANT longer texts to read their children! Yes – no one likes a story that unnecessarily waffles on and on, but we’d still like some that take more than a minute to read. This seems to be the clear public opinion, but yet for some reason writers are still being told to write less. Children are bombarded with television, tablets, apps, online this and that – all instantaneous, quick, fast information. Wouldn’t they actually benefit from longer stories of 500-700 words, as opposed to 100-200?
Publishers and agents say they are looking for new ideas and new voices – by insisting new authors fit into a specific word count, aren’t they then narrowing the pool of new potential? Perhaps one day I will have an idea for a story with all the necessary elements that I can tell in 100 words. But right now this is simply not my style, and when I have written something totally pared back I’ve been told to add more to it! And at the end of the day, there are some stories that cannot be told in 100 words.
I believe there is a place for both longer narrative stories, and for short concept or poem-like books. But I wish there was more open-mindedness for new authors. Not all of us are writing complete slush – some people are writing stories that if they already had a name for themselves, might actually have a chance of being published. Why make us fit into a particular box? How about considering what we have to offer on its own merit?