As part of an ongoing challenge, I’m learning the craft of writing picture books by reading, studying, and deconstructing 100 picture books from the last 5 years. Here are some early observations as I start to climb my mountain of picture books:
On page counts
Picture books tend to fall into 32-, 40-, 48-page formats based on production constraints. From my early reading, it looks like the more conceptual and more informative the story or subject matter, the more pages you might need (and get) to tell the story. One would think that having such a formula approach would limit creativity, but it doesn’t. It’s fun to see the many variations and creative uses of space, end pages, copyright pages, and title pages. I love books that tell a story from cover to end flap and back cover!
On word counts
From the titles I read, the word counts definitely leaned closer to that magic 500-ish number that most writing resources urge you to aim for. Larger word counts seem to be reserved for more informational-heavy stories, books grounded in history, biography, social movements, or science. Even for these, the factual information is often corralled in pages at the back of the book, leaving the stories to live and breathe closer to that 500-word-count sweet spot.
I was surprised that many wordless or word-lite books used that longer 48-page format. I’m wondering if it is easier for more established writers to get their stories published with higher page counts. Sometimes they don’t always feel like they needed to be that length, but hey, if it’s a favorite author and you love the illustrations, it adds value.
I also wonder how much a story expands or contracts in the editing and production phases of creation. As I studied these books, I could definitely see hints that some of the illustration and design decisions may have impacted the editing and placement of words.
Thoughts for pre-published writers
I think for the debut picture-book writer, you should stick to the 32-page self-ended format and try to keep it at that 500-to-550-word sweet spot. As a writer, I’m going to view these guides as a challenge. When you land a publisher and start working with editors, illustrators, and book designers, there will be plenty of time to expand and play with your words.
If your manuscript does have an elevated word count, I would seriously ask yourself, if it really needs to? If the experts say the sweet spot is 550 or fewer, why wouldn’t you aim for that as a newbie writer? Anything else would be like aiming for the edge of the target, not the bull’s eye. I say aim for that bull’s eye or have a very, very, very good reason why you didn't. So far in my writing process, my first drafts tend to be long-ish (700-1000) words, but through revision, I'm usually able to scale them back to under 550—and so far I've been happier with the stories.
Peaks, valleys, and page turns
My favorite picture books meander and undulate all over the place to tell their stories and keep you engaged. Peaks and valleys with words, peaks and valleys with scale, colors, and shapes, and when the writing and illustrations come together, they add surprises around every corner that compel readers to flip of the page.
Not only is it the concise and powerful words you use to craft your story, but where and how you decide to spend them. There is nothing like a story that builds and builds and then… BOOM. A wordless, colorful spread takes your breath away.
This brings us to twists in the story
Stories build with twists. Big twists. Little twists. Fun twists. Unexpected twists. Found treasures in the artwork. Fun wordplay in the writing. They add something to the story and make the reader come back again and again.
Confession: AFTER THE FALL (HOW HUMPTY DUMPTY GOT BACK UP AGAIN) by David Santat made me literally gasp when I turned the page and it's twist on the Humpty Dumpty was revealed in a full spread. I can't say any more, because I don't want to spoil the surprise. You'll know when you read it.
Crafting scenes for picture books
Like with novel-length manuscripts, picture books are crafted using scenes. There needs to be movement, and pacing, and it needs to take readers on a journey. From the picture books I've studied so far, some spreads have multiple scenes on them and others take multiple spreads to allow a single scene to unfold. Again, the peaks and valleys make for interesting storytelling.
Picture books are like advertising
I work as a copywriter, and I think the creative process for picture books is similar to that of writing and designing advertising. The words and imagery need to work together to create and tell the story. They must build off each other to communicate in the clearest, purest form. They should lift each other up, adding depth and dimension, whether it is building a story, or selling a service or product.
Like in advertising, it's a team effort. You hear debate over whether illustrator notes should or shouldn't be in a manuscript. Graphic designers are like illustrators; they really don’t like to be told what to show, just like writers don’t like to be told what to write, so I get the debate over why illustration notes may not be welcomed in a manuscript. I think I will only include them to clarify the story where needed. Again, I would run them through a pretty strict filter to make sure they are truly needed. You want an illustrator to run with your words, so it's important to give them the space to go big, go bold, and interpret your words. The words might be yours, but the end result, the book, is a shared creation. Once the words are written, you might just need to let them go.
First pages need to have punch
They can set up the conflict right from the start. Some of the books I reviewed seemed to start before the first page. The scene was set by the cover, the artwork on the end pages, and the title page, so that the actual story started exactly where it was suppose to. Just like with writing novel, never underestimate the power of a first line!
End pages can speak volumes
Those pages at the beginning and end of the book are more than blank pages. They are opportunities to jumpstart or continue the story. MR. TIGER GOES WILD by Pete Brown starts with bricks in the front and ends with lush jungle in the back to represent his journey to embrace the wild. THE DARK by Lemony Snicket and Jon Klassen starts and ends simply with rich and total blackness to represent the darkness. THE WAY HOME IN THE NIGHT by Akiko Miyakoshi features pages of dark building with lit windows, and each one tells a little mini story.
The little details are like magic
The balloons lifting the basket of children in the THE BOOK OF MISTAKES by Corinna Luyken bleeds off the back flap of the book onto the inside of the back cover. It's little thoughtful details like this that make me smile. The label on the jar of "totally mild" salsa in DRAGONS LOVE TACOS by Adam Rubin and Daniel Salmieri says, "Now with spicy jalapeno peppers." It's a subtle and sophisticated detail that's pivotal to the story, and it's just so darn funny.
Phew, I could go on and on, but I'm going to stop right here and read some more picture books. Going forward, I'll try to post once a week about my #100picturebooks project, and I will get into specific books and what makes them successful.