WRITING PICTURE BOOKS: HOW HARD CAN 500 WORDS BE?
The other week I had a phone call from author and friend, Claire Saxby. She asked what I was doing. “Tearing my hair out!” was my exasperated reply, before explaining that I was working on a new picture book text and had spent the past couple of hours working on one line. One line! Six measly words! I hadn’t written a picture book text for quite some time and I had certainly forgotten what a monster they can be.
Claire, good pal that she is, said in her best TV cop voice, “Move away from that computer. I repeat. Hands in the air and move away from the computer.”
I moved away.
Had a nice chat. A bite of lunch. A walk. And eventually I wrestled that pesky line into submission. (And boy was that a fist-pumping moment.) (And yes, I live an exciting adrenaline-filled life.)
But truly, how can writing 500 words be so difficult? I mean, when you’re writing a novel, 500 words constitutes your morning warm-up.
But picture books are a different beast. Those 500 words have to do so much work. They have to tell a complete story with relatable authentic characters (even if they are animals), a proper narrative arc, great pacing, a layered plot and the words have to sing! Tra-la-la-la! Sing. Each word earning its place. Easy peasy.
Picture book texts take effort. And time. But when you see those 500 words come to life through the imagination and creativity of an illustrator, man, are they worth it.
Well, the good news is that after several weeks and eleven drafts of said beastly picture book manuscript, I sent it off to my agent and she liked it (as per my last blog post). Still a long way from being accepted – but, hey, that’s a positive first step.
So that was me done with picture books for a bit. Or so I thought. I was just about to get back to work on my middle grade novel when another idea came wafting on by. (Yep, glutton for punishment!)
This one came to me as an evocative line. Now, I’ve been writing picture books long enough to be wary of the evocative line. Very wary. Because they are usually just that – an evocative line. An evocative line that no matter how hard you try, you can never make into an actual story – with a plot and heart and verve.
But this one was different. First came the line. Then quite soon after came a tantalising idea, which together actually created a PLOT! Eureka! Now I am back at the drawing board trying to wrestle that line and that plot into 500 words that sing. Tra-la-la-la! And joyfully tearing my hair out.
Wish me luck.
PS: Top photo courtesy of Tim Harris and with thanks to Master 3 and Master 5!
A great article Sue. Can’t wait to read the finished books.
Thanks, Pat. A long way from being books – but despite the “hair tearing out”, it is a fun journey!
Love this, Sue! “Evocative line + plot” sounds like an excellent formula.
Now I just needs some words …
Hi Sue, I want to wish you the Best of Lucks for all your picture book ideas to grow into PB books, which will sing ‘Tra-la-la-la’ 🙂 Love your sense of humor! Easy Peasy…sounds quiet familiar 🙂 Sofia
Thanks Sofia. I am a dreadful singer – ask my family! – so I hope I’m not as tone deaf when writing those 500 words! Thanks for reading and commenting.
Good luck. Enjoy the challenge.
I will – thank you Jocelyn!
All very true words, Sue, especially wrestling that misbehaving line . . . or word! Good luck.
Thanks Corinne. It’s amazing how long one can spend on getting one word or line right. We must all be a little strange.
Oh those 500 words are hard, but magical when they work!
Powerful magic, at that!
oooh – lucky you! Good luck making those words sing 🙂
Thanks! Trying my best to hit the right notes! Congrats on the new book.