Craft Book Read-Along: Writing Picture Books – Word Count

writingpicturebookscoverI’m someone who writes “long.” Most of my stories start out about twice as long as they need to be. In some ways, that’s nice because it means I have a lot of material to work with. But it also means that I agonize over every cut. Am I gutting my story of personality? Am I making it so sketchy that it no longer makes sense? Usually, if I put things away for a while, time will help reveal which cuts I can make without sacrificing meaning or voice.

Chapter 15 of WRITING PICTURE BOOKS by Ann Whitford Paul has many excellent suggestions for cutting word count. Sixteen excellent suggestions, to be exact. This is important in today’s picture book market when we hear that many editors want books that are in the 300-500 word range. I won’t share the whole list here, but do take a look at Chapter 15 if you struggle with cutting.

My favorite (and the one I find most effective for me) is number 14 – Characters don’t pee in stories. I find I often go into a level of detail, backstory, and scene-setting that’s not necessary. Below are two drafts of a story I wrote for a contest on Susanna Leonard Hill’s blog. I find contests to be a great way to get motivated to write, and to restrict myself to a specific word count. In this case, the limit was 300 words. My first complete draft was 556 words. Gulp! And yet, by cutting out many of the unnecessary details, I was able to get the text down below 300 words. And  the story really isn’t any different. When I struggle with cutting, I sometimes go back to this story to remind myself that I’ve done it before — and can do it again.

BIRTHDAY AT THE BEACH by Carrie Finison

(FIRST DRAFT – 556 WORDS)

The phone rang just as Kara was finishing dinner.

“Yes?” said Mom. “Now? OK. Yes, I’ll be there.”

Mom hung up.

“Grab your jacket,” she said, grinning.

“Where are we going?” asked Kara, wondering where she had put her jacket among all the unpacked moving boxes. They had lived in this town almost a week, but their boxes and furniture had arrived on the big truck just two days ago.

“To a birthday party,” said Mom.

A birthday party? But we don’t know anyone here, Kara thought.

“Whose birthday?” she asked.

“It’s a surprise,” said Mom.

“Where’s the party?” asked Kara as they hopped in the car.

“At the beach,” said Mom. “I told you it would be great to live near the beach,”

“But it’s almost dark!” said Kara.

Mom smiled.

“Will there be cake?” asked Kara.

“Nope, no cake at this party,” said Mom.

“A birthday party at the beach, in the dark, with no cake? What kind of party is this?” asked Kara. But Mom was tight-lipped. “You’ll see,” she said.

A few other cars dotted the parking lot at the beach, only 5 minutes away from their new house. Kara and Mom jumped out of the car and walked through the lot down onto the sand. In the distance, Kara could see a small crowd of people.

“That must be it,” said Mom.

When they got closer, Kara could see that the crowd was divided into two groups. Down the middle, a sort of path toward the water was marked by ropes tied to sticks poked in the sand, to keep people back. A woman sat in the middle of the path holding a clipboard. At the head of the path was a sunken patch of sand.

“Watch that patch of sand,” whispered Mom. For a birthday party, it sure was quiet, Kara thought.

Kara stared hard at the sand. Nothing happened. Then, she thought she saw the sand move. It was quite dark now, and hard to see. Then the sand moved again, and a quiet murmur rippled through the crowd. Slowly, the sand started to pulse and bubble. To Kara, it looked like a pot of water just beginning to boil. Then a black dot appeared – first one, then another, and another and suddenly the sand boiled over with tiny creatures struggling up through the sand.

“Turtles!” Kara whispered to Mom, and Mom squeezed her hand. As they watched together, the baby turtles scuttled along the path toward the water. The woman with the clipboard counted them. The crowd remained very quiet and still, but every once in a while someone would stoop down and gently guide a wandering baby turtle back to the path.

As Kara watched, the crowd of babies reached the ocean. The waves, though gentle, threw some of them back, but still they struggled forward. Kara thought about how brave the baby turtles were, crawling across the sand into the vast ocean, a place they had never been and could know nothing about. But somehow they trusted the future.

The last of the turtles had reached the water and the crowd started to break up, still careful not to walk on the pathway in case any late-hatching turtles came out.

“I think I’m going to like living near the beach,” said Kara.

BIRTHDAY AT THE BEACH by Carrie Finison

(FINAL DRAFT – 297 WORDS)

Mom hung up the phone just as Kara finished dinner.

“Grab your jacket,” Mom said, grinning. “We’re going to a birthday party.”

“Whose birthday? We don’t know anyone here,” said Kara. She searched for her jacket among the moving boxes that had arrived, like they had, only three days ago.

“It’s a surprise,” said Mom.

“Where’s the party?” asked Kara, climbing into the car.

“At the beach,” said Mom. “I told you it would be great to live near the beach,”

“But it’s almost dark!”

Mom smiled.

“Will there be cake?”

“Nope.”

A birthday party at the beach, in the dark, with no cake?

At the beach, a small crowd had gathered. Coming closer, Kara saw that the crowd surrounded a rope-marked path from the dunes toward the water. For a birthday party, it sure was quiet.

“Watch that patch of sand,” whispered Mom, pointing. Kara stared through the growing darkness. She thought she saw the sand shift. Then it shifted again, slowly, and then more rapidly. To Kara, it looked like a pot of water beginning to simmer. A small black head appeared, then another, then a flipper, and suddenly the sand boiled over with tiny creatures struggling toward the surface.

“Turtles!” Mom whispered, squeezing Kara’s hand. Dozens of baby sea turtles flip-flopped their way across the sand toward the waves. A woman with a clipboard counted them. The crowd remained still, but once in a while someone stooped to gently guide a wandering baby turtle back to the path.

They’re brave, Kara thought, watching the tiny creatures make their way into the vast ocean, a place they had never been and could know nothing about.

“Happy birthday,” Kara whispered, then smiled at Mom.

“I think I’m going to like living near the beach,” she said.

21 thoughts on “Craft Book Read-Along: Writing Picture Books – Word Count

  1. Great stuff, Carrie. I’m facing the same issue with my too-long pb ms. This will help me do some serious editing. Thanks!

  2. I really like writing w/as few of words as possible. Today I revised my hamster story from 300 to 285 words! On the other hand, the book I’m writing for legacy has to be 36,000 words, which is hard for me! aghhh

  3. Great job editing, Carrie. It’s hard to cut words we spent time conjuring up in the first place. I have to admit I didn’t write any new poetry myself last month, my celebration was in reading other folks work on places like Renee LaTulippe and David Harrison’s sites. Still soaking in the masters’ work!

  4. I “write short,” so I some times have the opposite problem . I got an editor’s personal rejection that said, “Short is good, but sometimes it can be *too short*-”
    But yes, most writers say more than they need to, even trying to direct with art notes where they are not essential. Less is good.

  5. Thanks for sharing your examples, Carrie! You did a great job tightening it up. I have a hard time cutting what Miranda Paul calls my “darlings,” phrases I love but that just aren’t needed.

  6. I struggle with having too little to work with, quite the opposite! And as each word has to count it can be a problem. Especially if you want to have your piece critiqued by your writer’s group – you have to share SOME of the pictures in your head. So I look for more detail to add – maybe not having my mc pee, but it might be worth consideration. Thanks for another great post!

  7. Wow. What a difference between the two drafts. The second is so much tighter and stronger. I sometimes fall in love with writing just for the sake of writing. It’s hard to go back and make sure every word actually advances the story.

  8. I remember that story, Carrie….I loved it…have you submitted it anywhere? I, too, suffer from worditis.:) I think I have to tell everything…but of course, I don’t. I’m trying very hard to be change.:)

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