I know I’m preaching to the choir here, but picture books are stinkin’ hard to write. Creating a compelling story arc with memorable characters that appeal to both kids and adults is hard enough. But aiming to keep the story under 500 words? Ideally 300 words or less? That’s incredibly difficult.
When I write my PB manuscripts, I tend to start long, then edit down with each draft. This is effective for many reasons. It allows me to form my arc and flesh out the characters. I can fully realize the story before I have to slash words.
But that’s the hard part: killing my darlings. The worst is when I’m super happy with a story before I realize it’s 100 words over count. It’s something every writer faces. It’s easy to produce tons of extra words that really aren’t essential to the story. Words that you end up loving and just can’t live without (or so you convince yourself).
As an experiment, I’ve challenged myself to shake things up a bit—flip my normal writing process upside down. Instead of word-vomiting all over a blank page, I’m going to draft a six-word story, then expand from there.
Arguably the most famous six-word story was written by Ernest Hemingway:
For sale: baby shoes, never worn.
It’s so powerful. In six words, you feel the struggle of the character or characters who lost their baby. Though we aren’t given a detailed story arc, those six words provide enough context for the reader to feel the pain and sorrow of the unknown characters.
Think of those six words as a blueprint. If you were tasked with expanding it to picture-book length, could you do it? Do you have enough of a sense of the story to lengthen it? I think so.
So I’m working to develop my own six-word story. When I’ve got something I’m happy with, I’ll insert sentences between those words to develop a 300-word picture book manuscript. Maybe it’ll take a different shape than I originally intended. Maybe it’ll be completely different. But the thought of having a solid starting point is super enticing.
I invite you to do the same. Flex those PB muscles, people!