Monday, May 6, 2013

Word Count: Pay Tribute to the Past, But Write in the Present

The Classics. 

We all fell in love with them as a child.  We still love to read them over and over again.  And perhaps we hope to emulate them. 

However, as Picture Book Writers of today, we need to tread carefully.

This week we take a look at 3 contrasts between the Picture Books of our childhood and today's market.

First up, Word Count ~

Your favorite pb writer is William Steig?  You want to create a character as unforgettable as Dr. DeSoto or Shrek?  You want to write a story as memorable as Sylvester and the Magic Pebble


But watch that word count.

The word count for Sylvester and the Magic Pebble is 1425!  By today's standards that is even a tad too high for non-fiction. 

Other childhood favorites weigh in high, as well: Strega Nona by Tomie dePaola (1245 words), Dr. Seuss's Bartholomew and the Oobleck (2898 words) and Curious George by H.A. Rey (918 words).

By today's standards, we are told by editors and agents, those numbers are sky-rocketly,way too high.

The industry says we should be writing stories that are 300-550 words.

I'm not making this up.  Every conference, every panel, every class I have EVER attended says the same thing.  So why are so many of us fighting it or shocked when someone says it?

Maybe we need proof...

The ever-popular Boy + Bot by Ame Dyckman is only 240 words.  Oliver Jeffers' This Moose Belongs to Me is a little longer at 394 words.  Jon Klassen's instant classic I Want my Hat Back is 253 words.  And shockingly, Mo Willem's Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Tale is only  211 words!

So even though we have been told that it is ok to write up to 500 words, editors are starting to push even closer to 300-350.

A friend of mine, just recently, submitted a story to her editor which was about 500 words.  He loved the idea.  His request for revision?  "Try to get it down to 300 words."  Ouch!

Why the difference? 

Some have said that parents are too busy to read longer books to kids at bedtime.  Others have said that kids do not have the attention span in today's hectic, technology-driven world to sit through a longer book. 

Whatever the reasoning, the bottomline is that agents and editors say they just can't sell the longer books...and you want to be published, right?

You can pout about it.  You can continue to write longer books hoping to change the trend.  But if you want to be a published  Picture Book Writer in this day and have to get with the program.

Stop by Wednesday when we continue this discussion with Conflict Resolution in the Classics vs. Today.


  1. Marcie,
    Love this idea. Can't wait to hear what you say about conflict resolution on Wednesday.

  2. Marcie,
    I have trouble keeping my word count below five or six hundred. You info was good to know.

  3. Marcie,

    Your blog was very informative. I am frustrated with picture books because the word count has to be so low. I have to leave so much of the story in my head.

  4. I always love your blogs, Marcie. My first book HEART OF A TIGER, which won the Ridgway for Best First Book by a New Author, was probably at least 1500. 17 years in print and lots of awards. But the last pb I sold was way under 200 words.

    I still see new bps with high word count though and I wonder why those were accepted. It's always confusing to me. My THE PUMPKIN RUNNER is still in print and earning royalties and it is surely 1500 or so words. (Not counting and I have no idea where the final revision is. Ha.)

    I think part of lower word count is because everyone seems to see pbs as more for pre-schoolers today. In the past I visited schools and talked to kids up to 6th grade about my pbs and they loved them. I wonder if it's the kids changing or whether we are pushing them to read novels sooner and sooner.

    Thanks for your blog. You are so inspiring!

  5. blurg. Just a few years ago we were told under 1,000 words, then it went to 800, then 500, now 300! I would love to see a current sales comparison between the longer classics and the shorter contemporaries--which sell more?

  6. Great topic to discuss, and I appreciate Marsha's input! That parental guidance that challenges kids to read more challenging books should include an appreciation for the artform found with PBs. Looking forward to more posts!

  7. Frustrating. I remember the good old days of 1,000 word manuscripts. I I thought THAT was difficult. Ha! *sigh* .....good times....

  8. I love the classics, so this post is sweet. I am really looking forward to reading about Conflict and Resolution!

  9. My last pb ms was 295 words :) I did it!

  10. Marcie, this is an interesting point. Sometimes as a reader, I feel the characters and plot are note well developed enough in a 300-word picture book. It makes it very tough to craft something that I want to read over and over again. However, from the parent's perspective, I understand the need for brevity. We read 3 books at bedtime after PJs, brushing teeth, mass resistance, etc. It is nice when 3 books takes no more than 15 minutes. This leaves no room for a 1200-word PB.

  11. Great post Marcie! I think Marsha has a good point with the count and age target going together. We read Those Darn Squirrels and the Cat Next Store (2011, Adam Rubin) last night which is about 1000 words and is for older kids (I'm assuming on account of the squirrel wedgies and other humor.) At least I really hope that's true because my current ms for 5+ is 797 words :)

  12. Thanks for a very interesting comparison of PB ms lengths of older and newer books! I do like pithy but not at the expense of losing a certain poetry...but I'm not running the publication world so will have to live by their rules. :}

  13. Thanks for a very interesting comparison of PB ms lengths of older and newer books! I do like pithy but not at the expense of losing a certain poetry...but I'm not running the publication world so will have to live by their rules. :}