Monthly Archives: April 2021

Deep Dive into Your Target Word Count

As you develop your story, there are so many components to consider and perfect: a strong character arc, varied pacing, stellar dialogue, beautiful descriptions… the list goes on and on. But one factor you must always consider is word count.

If your novel is too short, it might not be considered ‘meaty’ enough for the age group. If your novel is too long, agents and publishers might worry that it has a ‘saggy middle’ or is filled with fluff. And for picture books, the current trend is definitely shorter over longer, but that can look very different depending on the age of the targeted audience and whether the book is fiction or non-fiction.

So what do you do?

First, because this can change over time, research the current trends for word length for the type of book you are writing (type something like “word length for picture books” in the search engine and see what you get). Here’s an article from Writer’s Digest to get you started.

Second, find comparison (comps) and/or mentor texts. Story Spinner Susan Wroble wrote a great post on how to do this.

Third, use a fantastic resource like Accelerated Reader Bookfinder (www.arbookfind.com) to see how those comp and mentor texts measure up when it comes to word count.

When you search for a book, AR Bookfinder will give you a lot of information (short blurb, ATOS book level, interest level, rating, whether it is fiction or non-fiction, subtopics, etc.), but most importantly (for this post) it will give you the specific word count for the book.

This is critical because page length can vary – just think about the difference between a story submitted in 11 point font, single spaced, with ½ inch margins vs. a double spaced, 14 point font, with 2-inch margins. This is why the industry is so specific about the formatting that you use when submitting materials – it gives some consistency about what ‘5 pages’ really means. But when you’re publishing a book, you have no such limitations. The pages can differ in size of the book itself, in margins, in fonts and font size… the list goes on and on. While, in general, more pages means more words, two books that are 250 physical pages can have very different word lengths. Nowhere can you see that more than in picture books.

Here are four examples:

** If you have trouble seeing the table, the information is written at the end of the blog post

 

These are four wonderful books, all targeted to the K-3 reader, but they couldn’t be more different. And that is reflected not only in the way the books are written (prose vs. dialogue, for example) but in the word length. For these four books, the book with the most pages has the smallest number of words. Seeing how your book stacks up in word length to a book similar to yours can give you a good sense as to whether you are hitting the mark.

 

If your picture book is 700 words, and your comp titles all range from 400-500, your book may be too long for your target audience.  If your mentor texts are 45,000  – 50,000 words, and your novel is 17,000 words, again — potential problem. Your book lengths don’t need to be an exact match, but hitting market expectations is important in securing an agent and/or a publisher, or in getting readers if you decide to indie publish.

 

And … don’t use a single text to decide if you are hitting this mark because, just like rules for ‘i before e’ there are exceptions out there. Could your book be double (or half) the expected length and still sell? Of course it could! But make sure when you decide that your final manuscript is really final, you know how your book measures up.

***

If you couldn’t read the table, here is the information on the four picture books:

Alma and How She Got Her Name by Juana Martinez-Neal

Fiction, 32 pages, 341 words

Thank You, Omu! by Oge Mora

Fiction, 36 pages, 822 words

I Dissent: Ruth Bader Ginsburg Makes Her Mark by Debbie  Levy, Illustrated by Elizabeth Baddeley

Nonfiction, 40 pages, 1802 words

 Waiting Is Not Easy! by Mo Willems

Fiction, 58 pages, 197 words

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Filed under Coral Jenrette, craft advice, Revision process

Let Me Introduce Myself…and My Meandering Writing Journey

One morning, I woke up with a picture book story fully formed in my head. Characters, dialogue, everything. I got out of bed and grabbed my computer. I wrote down everything I was thinking of and was SO excited. I wrote a picture book!

There was only one problem – the story had no end. My brain had not deigned to give me the solution to the conflict in the story, so I put it away, and left it. 

But I’m getting ahead of myself. This is supposed to be an introduction!

Hello, fellow writers! My name is Mary, and in January I had the extreme good fortune to be invited to join this illustrious group, The StorySpinners. I’ve been writing for a while, but my critique “partners” were friends and coworkers, as well as the occasional paid critique at a conference, so I’d never really had a group of fellow writers who would regularly take a look at my work and give me thoughtful, useful and TRUTHFUL criticism and advice. It has been a blessing. 

A little bit about me – I’m an early literacy librarian, which means I specialize in kids ages 0 – 5 and their grownups and I know a lot about early brain development and what parents and caregivers can do to help their young people get ready to learn to read. I work in a public library, and have been at this career for almost 22 years. I LOVE it, and I LOVE the books that go along with this job. To say that I’ve read a lot of picture books would be an understatement. They are my absolute favorites and it’s long been a goal of mine to one day have one of my books on a library’s shelf. Personally, I gravitate towards silly books – the funnier, the better – but I appreciate a beautifully written story no matter if it makes me laugh or not. 

But until that day in, oh, 2014, I think, I didn’t really believe I was a writer. I write for work, sure, but I’d not done much creative writing at all in my lifetime. 

ACTUAL fake news.

Or so I thought.

Recently I took a dusty box of keepsakes off a closet shelf intending to go through it and get rid of some stuff. Does anyone really NEED to keep birthday cards they got from grandma when they were 7? Probably not. 

In that box, though, I found a few remnants of my earlier writing life. An “article” I wrote for my high school’s fake newspaper, about my Spanish teacher living a secret double life as a famous matador. And a literary magazine from the school’s Writing Club, of which I was apparently the secretary. I had forgotten all about this.

My first rejection! Yay?

I remembered that time in 2nd grade where I wrote my own “autobiography,” including details from my own birth (that were, my mom has pointed out, completely wrong – the doctor did not call HER to tell her it was time to give birth). And that time in 6th grade where my teacher submitted a poem I wrote, mimicking e.e. cummings’ style, to a poetry contest. And that time in 8th grade when an English teacher encouraged me to submit a story to Cricket magazine. I still have the rejection postcard. 

So I guess I’ve been writing longer than I thought. 

At any rate, it took me at least 3 more years to figure out how to resolve that first story, and as soon as I had finished, I was RARING to go. I had joined SCBWI at that point, and had access to THE BOOK, so I read the chapter on querying and got to it.  I sent out 6 queries that month, and, surprising no one, got 3 rejections and 3 non responses. 

Soon after, I posted something on twitter about having written one picture book and starting to query. An established picture book writer, whom I really respect, called me out and said WHOA WHOA WHOA – you really need to have AT LEAST 3 polished manuscripts before you start querying. 

HELLO, RUDE BUT MUCH NEEDED AWAKENING. In my naivete and enthusiasm I had jumped the gun. I really needed to get more stories under my belt, AND make sure they were the best they could be. 

Fast forward to 2021. Lo, these many years later, I am still querying, but with 4 manuscripts I’m really proud of and lots of ideas on the go. I’ve pretty much abandoned that first story that jumped onto the page (mostly) fully formed, but I’m grateful for the push my brain gave me to get to work on fulfilling my dream. I’ve found AMAZING friends and mentors in my local SCBWI chapter, and have been fortunate enough to attend a couple of in-person conferences and have my work critiqued by established authors whose opinions, comments and suggestions mean the world to me.

And now? I am a StorySpinner. And boy am I lucky to be one. In the short time I’ve been involved my stories have already become so much better, and it’s such a joy to read my colleagues’ work and cheer them on. They’re a great bunch – Susan, Beth, Rondi, Karen and Coral – and I know I am, and will continue to be, motivated and moved by their inspiration and guidance. THANK YOU, StorySpinners!

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Filed under Mary Kuehner