Navigating the confusing slope of word count…

…for Picture books that is. And, early readers and chapter books too for that matter.

Some of you know that I’m a writer. Some of you even know that I write under two names, but what you may not know is that there isn’t an age range out there that I haven’t written a manuscript for. It’s true. Although if I’m going to be perfectly honest, some of these manuscripts are solely in screenplay format and not novels. I love writing scripts just as much as I love writing novels. But once upon a time: I was just getting started and word counts confused me…. terribly.

When writing scripts for kids you can have up to 30 pages of words, and assuming that you multiply that by the average words per novel page (which is 250 words/page) that gave me 7500 words I could write. However, that is EXTREMELY too high of a word count for picture books. So, I had to cut, slash and otherwise mutilate my beautiful manuscript and then, I couldn’t even find a story anymore. So – I was disgusted.

I tossed away over 100 manuscripts. Yeah, you read that right – 100 manuscripts. Because the script writer in me couldn’t find the picture book writer in me, I lost them all. I even deleted those files from my computer, because obviously I sucked and was incapable of writing picture books. Until the researcher in me reared her rudely obtrusive head and made me research.

I read blog posts from publishers, from literary agents, from other writers, magazines and books all about this weird concept that the screenwriter in me didn’t like. I thought I would reach some sort of epiphany then and all would be well – I didn’t. And, I wasn’t.

If anything all the conflicting information made my confusion worse. So, me being me – I crammed everything into a crate in the recesses of my basement and I walked away. I still wrote scripts, because those things and I had a system. We had a routine. I needed my scripts. A few months later, I stumbled across that crate downstairs again.

I sat down then and tried one more time. I discovered I could write adult novels. I could write new adult novels. I could write young adult novels. And, I could even write middle grade novels. But those darn picture books, early readers and chapter books still drove me insane. This time though I didn’t give up.

Chapter books, were almost like middle grade novels. In fact, chapter books ‘appropriate’ word count was almost the same as a 30 minute script. So – BAM! I transferred my In’VEST’a’GATOR’ script into a chapter book. I saw Al Gator come to life as a chapter book and at the end, his story totaled 8000 words. Which was just like writing a 32 page script. I could do this! Then, I tackled early readers.

Early readers are lost in the void of age space between picture books and chapter books. Kids are just starting to read and enjoy books on their own, besides being chew toys. (I don’t know about your kids, but mine like to try to eat their books when they were about 6 months old – if they could get a grip on one. ;-)) Early readers are designed for 4 to 5 year olds or so. It’s a book they can sit down with themselves and read with their fledgling reading vocabulary they’re learning in preschool and kindergarten. So, I did the math.

I sat down to try to hit that sweet spot of a word count for early readers. Math-wise I knew that it would be like trying to write a 5 page script. And WHOA! That is a very, very short amount of page space. If I could hit 5 pages, then it would give me a 1250 word story. So, I tried. Thus, Boris the Bear was created. Boris taught a lost baby duck all about swimming in a 5 page span. It had humor. It had the three necessary parts of a good story, a beginning, a climax, and an end. It wasn’t good in any sense of the word, but I had succeeded! With a little bit of editing and tweaks, I might actually have a doable early reader. Then, I set off to discover picture books.

Picture books. WERE. HARD. Somehow I had to fit all of makings of a good story in about 800 words. Impossible! Or so I thought. That was just a smidgen over three pages. Mind-boggling I know. How on earth was I supposed to get a whole story in three pages!? For the first time, I abandoned my screenwriting methodology.

I decided I had three pages. I had three parts each story needed. So, I put pen to paper. Page one; I introduced the characters. Page two; I had the climax. And page three; I tied up lose ends – which I learned weren’t many. After all, you can’t really have an excessive amount of subplots in such a small range of pages. You just tell the story. The first one I did was terrible, but I knew that I had found the trick. So, I tried again.

Jane’s Secret Code was created this second time around. I had everything I needed; a diverse character (Jane is blind), an inciting incident (A classmate saw her secret code), and finally I tied it up (the whole class started learning Jane’s Secret Code). I had a whole story, rough though it was, and it was four pages long. After some tweaking, I had the word count down to 500 words – that’s two pages.

I’d done it! I’d mastered the art of super short children’s storytelling. Now, I have little problem, I tend to be a bit wordy at times and wind up having to cut words, but I have a workable first draft in a couple of days. This post is meant to be about word count, so let me just refresh you below – all that good information was lost in my longhand up above. 😉

Word Counts

  • Picture Books:  Less than 800 words
  • Early Readers:  Between 1000-1500 words
  • Chapter Books:  Around 7,000 words

Now, these are the so-called sweet spot word count ranges. Sometimes you see picture books that are 1000 words, early readers that are 2500 words, and chapter books wiggle too. However, if you are still searching for an agent try to STAY IN THE SWEET SPOT RANGE. I assure you that if you search through magazines, hunt around the web and ask around you will receive conflicting advice. Just remember if you flip through books on a bookstore shelf; those writers already HAVE agents and/or editors. Because of that they can break the rules. You. You shouldn’t – at least not until you either snag an agent or entice an editor. Don’t give them a reason to reject you before they even get to read your manuscript. It’s the same thing as submitting a 100,000 word young adult novel, it’s a bad idea. (Yes, it’s been done – Stephenie Meyer, J.K. Rowling and others —but chances are when they were submitting to their agents, their books were in the word count sweet spot too. They just got longer after their agent helped them, and then their publishing house editor helped them — REMEMBER THIS!!!!)

As always, if you have any questions or comments please drop me a line. I’d actually love to hear some thoughts from you on this. Have you ever written a script? Have you ever horribly overshot your target word count? If so, how’d you fix it? Talk to me!!! 😉


2 thoughts on “Navigating the confusing slope of word count…

  1. Good for you and thanks for the reminder to get those word counts down. I’m working on that, too. My first picture book attempts were always around 1200 and now I’ve finally got them closer to 800. I’d like to go even shorter, but it’s difficult to let lines go, especially since I’ve always been drawn to longer picture storybooks.

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