Rules, Tara? Why are you writing about rules? K.L. Going just urged writers to shake off the rules and “step boldly across the lines.” We are creative souls! We don’t want more restrictions!
Ah, you are right. But remember, Ms. Going also said that writers need to be educated. Know those rules and understand why they are in place. Only then can you decide where to successfully break them. Then you don’t have to call them rules anymore—think of them more as suggestions.
Yesterday I met with Alyssa Eisner Henkin of Trident Media Group, an experienced professional who came to agenting via the editorial track. She knows this business. She knows what sells. So when she gave me five rules for picture books, I took careful notes.
Rule #1: Audience age is 2-6 years old
This one was a little surprising to me. I often see PBs categorized in three ways: baby board books, toddler books, and books for 4-8 year olds. But eight year-olds are not reading picture books. They may be classified that way for teachers who want to read aloud to their class. Unless you’re writing board books, think of your audience as 2-6 years of age. What situations will they relate to?
Rule #2: 500 Words is the Magic Number
Again, another suprise–somewhat. Yes, I’ve heard about that 500-word mark, but I’ve also heard about the 1000-word barrier. Most of the books I read my own children are closer to 1000 and sometimes more. Personally, I don’t often spend $16.99 on a 500-word three-minute experience. My children and I enjoy sharing stories at bedtime and a short one can sometimes leave us feeling short-changed. Ms. Henkin said she’s heard the same thing from many parents, so I asked, “Why is there this disconnect between parents and the industry?” It’s all about perception. The current industry perception is that today’s parents are busier than ever and they want short books to put their children to sleep quickly. OK, that’s not true in my house, but I’m a statistic of one. Publishers are buying 500 words or less. Repeat after me: 500 or less.
Rule #3: Make it Really Sweet or Really Funny
Maybe this isn’t so much a rule as a great suggestion. These kind of books are easier to sell. People get it. Elevate your “awww” factor. Make the laughs side-splitting.
Rule #4: Use Playful, Unique Language
When publishers say they seek a “unique voice” that doesn’t only apply to middle grade and young adult novels. The sounds words make are new and interesting to young children. Play it up.
Rule #5: Create Situations that Inspire Cool Illustrations
PB writers are told to leave enough unwritten so illustrators can tell half the tale. But that’s not enough to be thinking about. Go a step beyond. What story situation will inspire an unusual, unique illustration? Something you’ve never seen before? Don’t just leave room for pictures, leave room for AWESOME pictures. The cooler the art, the better the book.
Another thing that I brought home with me after our PB discussion was concept. Many times, I’ll get a spark of an idea and immediately sit down to write. I will start taking more time to develop that concept, thinking about all the rules above before ever putting pen to paper (or fingertips to keyboard). And then maybe I’ll decide to step over one or two of those lines. I’m a creative soul, after all.