Tag Archives: picture books

Your Picture Book Manuscript Questions Answered

Let’s talk a little bit about picture books—specifically about word count and illustration notes. Shout out to @pamela_kindred on Twitter. She came through when I asked for suggestions about what to write about this week. So, I’ll tell you a little bit about picture books. But please remember, this word count info I’m telling you is applicable right now and might not be the same in six months or next year or something—because publishing changes.

When I first got into the industry, about ten years ago, the recommendation was that picture book word counts should try to be <1000 words. And now? I’d say most editors whom I submit to are looking for around 500 words ±. I sent a picture book out on submission a couple of weeks ago that had about 158 words in it and the editors who got it were absolutely thrilled because of the low word count. And yet… there are other editors I know who say, “I really don’t care about word counts! If I love the manuscript, I love the manuscript.” And, to be honest, it really does depend upon what you’re writing. I sold a picture book biography a few months ago that had 1,500 words.

Right now, what I’m seeing the most movement on in picture books are manuscripts geared towards the very young crowd. So, keep that in mind. Low word count… and very young readers… which means you should also be thinking about content that very little kids would be interested in having read to them and that they will understand. The other day I received a well-written picture book submission that had the right voice for little kids, and a low word-count, but the subject matter was all about single-celled organisms… which actually could be pretty cool, but the story, the laughable moments and stuff, all presupposed a body of knowledge that a three or four-year old child just doesn’t have.

Picture book biographies can often have longer word counts, as can other non-fiction manuscripts. But again, you need to take into account what aged kid you’re writing for, what knowledge they already will have, what they will already need to know to understand what you’re writing, and if a kid that age will still be reading picture books. All of which depends upon your subject matter, the voice you’re using, vocabulary level, etc… Good ideas are great (and, for the record, good ideas are a dime a dozen) but what you do with your good ideas is another matter. And you need to be thinking about all of these things to make a picture book work.

Ok, now let’s talk about illustrations. If you’re not an author/illustrator (that is, if you are only writing the text of a picture book) you don’t need to find an illustrator. As a matter of fact, unless you’re collaborating and writing a story with an illustrator, finding one is a rooky move. It’s not only not necessary, but it shows you don’t know how the publishing process works. Publishers buy text-only picture books all the time, and then they find the illustrator that they think will work best for their vision of the book. Did you hear that? Their vision of the book. Because when an editor buys a manuscript, they have a vision. Which leads me to illustration notes…

This is what you need to know about illustration notes: only use illustration notes that you must put in for somebody to understand your story—and the less the better. When I read a picture book manuscript, I want my imagination to take over, and so does an editor, and so does a potential illustrator. So, don’t tell me in an illustration note that your character, Gordo the Great, wields a golden sword, and has long blue dreadlocks, and always wears a bowtie, unless the sword, the locks, and the bowtie, are integral to your story. Because maybe the amazing illustrator that the publisher finds to illustrate your story will want to make Gordo the Great a fish. (It could happen.) My client Ruth Horowitz and I were oh so very surprised when we first saw the illustrations from Blanca Gomez for Ruth’s picture book, Are We Still Friends, because we had no idea that Ruth’s characters Beatrice and Abel would end up being a bear and a mouse! Go back and re-read that book, and don’t look at the pictures, and you will see that nowhere in the text does it indicate that they’re a bear and a mouse. When I sent Ruth’s manuscript out on submission it didn’t have one illustration note. And you know what? The whole thing works! There was plenty of room for Blanca’s artistic vision to complement Ruth’s text, and the result is a very beautiful book.

Ok, now one of the specific questions on Twitter was about word count when querying a picture book manuscript. The concern was that if a picture book manuscript has a high word count, and you’re not sure what to edit out because you love it all, do you submit it anyway and pray, or pull out the potential best part of it. Guess what? I can’t answer that question! How can I possibly know the answer to that? But people, listen to me: if you don’t have other folks reading your work, critique partners, beta readers, a mentor, classmate, etc… go and get some right now! In my opinion, you shouldn’t be sending out work that has only been seen by your own eyes. And then, go kill some darlings. The only things that should stay in a manuscript (picture book or any other kind) are the things that make the manuscript great. If the word count is high but nothing can be trimmed because it’s all brilliant, then don’t trim it.

Another question was about whether a submission would be rejected if it wasn’t quite right or if agents might suggest edits if it was close, and just needed “small repairs.” Every agent is different, but the thing to know is that no agent is going to take on a manuscript unless they’re in love with it. And if they’re really in love with a manuscript, whether it’s the story itself or the writing or voice or whatever (hopefully all of those things), then if there are minor things that need fixing it’s probably not going to make a difference to them. That’s how I am, anyway.

I’m happy to answer your general questions about picture books down in the comments.

And stop back for some terrific guest bloggers in the coming weeks!




Filed under Uncategorized

Picture Book Submissions, or how not to rant about the insane state of affairs in the world

tumblr_static_cats_umbrellas_vintage_postcard_kats-in-klompenLet’s not talk about real estate mogul 1%-er fascist scary political crazy people. Let’s not talk about bigotry and racism and feeling impotent against its magnitude. Let’s not talk about women’s reproductive freedom and that there are places where women are actually getting stoned to death and where girls aren’t even allowed to go to school. Let’s not talk about terrorism and school shootings and let’s also not talk about poverty or disease or feeling powerless about the destruction of our planet and natural resources. Let’s look at pictures of kitty cats. Yes, let’s do that. Let’s try to get our minds off the terrible, scary things for a moment.

Oh, I know! Let’s talk about some writing things! Let’s talk about things regarding submitting picture book manuscripts to agents, because this is The Blabbermouth Blog, and I’m a literary agent, and you’re probably here because you’re a writer. Right. Ok. I can do this!

Here are a few things to keep in mind when sending your picture book manuscript to an agent:

  • Follow an agent/agency’s submission guidelines. If you’re supposed to include the full picture book manuscript in the body of the email, do that. If you’re supposed to attach the manuscript to your email, do that. There’s no one right way to do this, there’s only the way the agent asks you to do it.
  • If you’ve written the text of a picture book but you’re not an author-illustrator, there’s no reason to send sample pictures with your submission (unless there’s some reason these pictures have to be included… like you can’t understand the text without them).
  • The author doesn’t find an illustrator for their book; the publisher does that after they decide they want to publish your book. So, unless there’s a very good reason to submit your book with an illustrator already attached (e.g. you wrote it together), there’s no reason to find someone to draw pictures for you. That’s actually a rookie move.
  • If you’re an author-illustrator and you need to include samples of your artwork, see if the agent makes exceptions to the standard “no attachments” rule. Or, provide a link to your website, which should have illustration examples on it. If you have a site that has a password protected aspect to it, provide a link to the site and the password for the agent to use. Make it as easy as possible for agents to see your work.
  • Only submit one manuscript at a time. If interested, an agent will follow up and ask if you have other manuscripts (because most folks don’t want to represent someone with only one executed idea). But we don’t want to be bombarded with a gazillion pitches in one email. It will suffice to just state that you have other manuscripts already written, which you can send on request.
  • Remember that the agents you are submitting your work to are just regular people, with families and interests and outside concerns. So, sometimes you might go to a writing sight to learn about submitting your manuscript, and first have to wade through a tiny rant.

Hope this has been helpful! Feel free to comment with writerly questions about other writerly things you’d like to see written about on this blog. I’ll try really hard not to include a rant next time.

Peace out.




Filed under Uncategorized

Picture Books: Disabusing Aspiring Authors of Some Misconceptions

image003Let’s talk about picture books, ok? I made a little quiz for you all. Check off all the reasons why you might want to write a picture book:

☐I like kids! I even have a few of my own.

☐It would take too long to write a novel.

☐Writing a picture book is easier than writing a novel.

☐I just got a silly idea and it would make a great book.

☐I want to teach kids that <fill something in here>.

☐I wrote something for my kids and I think every kid would love it.

☐I want to be rich and famous like Dr. Seuss or Jane Yolen or Eric Carle or Patricia Polacco, etc…

Let me set the record straight, right here and now: picture books are really hard to write. I want you to understand, on a visceral level, that being a writer of picture books isn’t easier, simpler, or in any way less than being a writer of longer form work. And having or teaching kids doesn’t necessarily give you the authority to write picture books. In some ways, it’s just irrelevant. Some of the greatest children’s book authors didn’t even have kids (like Theodore Geisel and Maurice Sendak). What’s more helpful than having some kids is being able to experience the world like a child, remembering how to see and hear and think like a kid.

It might not take as long to write a picture book as it would to write a novel, but the game isn’t just to write the book. The game is to write something interesting, unique, perhaps funny or poignant or informative… and you want it readable, sellable, marketable… and well written! So, if you can do that in the flash of a hat, congratulations! For most people though, writing a picture book takes a while. You need to be thoughtful. You need to mold and craft and hone the language to work in every single sentence and on every single page. The overarching story needs to work, too. Your characters need to pop off the pages and into the minds and hearts of your readers. Plus, there’s the pacing, of course. Doing all of this, getting it right, takes time.

Picture books that are overly didactic and teachy-preachy aren’t so much fun for kids to read. When you write a picture book, get out of your own point of view as the author and jump into the shoes of one of the kids who you hope will be your reader. Would they like what you’re writing? Check in on that. Not on what you think (because you’re a grownup), but on how it will land for a kid.

Also remember (and this is not just for picture books!) that just because your family, and others who love you, are interested in something you’ve written, does not mean it will have universal appeal. Ask yourself why what you’re writing will be interesting to people who don’t know you. But remember to be honest when you answer yourself.

Lastly, anyone who’s going into writing because of the money, my advice is “don’t quit your day job just yet.” Write books because it’s what you love, what you have to do, what lights you up. If you end up getting paid for it? Bonus! It’s the rare lucky author who is able to pay their bills from the money they make writing picture books.

Any questions?



Filed under Uncategorized