There Will Be Blood

Sunday, August 02, 2020
Once upon a time, in a land not so far away, there lived a writer named Sioux. She spent hundreds of hours carefully crafting a story… the lyrical lines… the sensory images. Sioux was in love with her picture book manuscript, all 2,782 words of it--

Screee! What? Your picture book is almost 3,000 words long? That’s sooo long, the kid will go to sleep in the middle of it, and when the story is finished being read aloud, the kid will have graduated from high school. Good grief! That is much too lengthy for a picture book.

image by Pixabay

The above fairy tale is totally true. I’ve had a picture book manuscript gathering dust for at least 15 years. I was in love with it. There’s a long, not-happily-ever-after story about it involving a small publisher who is now on the “writer beware” list. Suffice it to say: I was elated, I was then crestfallen, so I put aside the project for what I thought was forever.

Fast-forward to July of 2020. I got a nudge from Margo Dill. “You’ve purchased a picture book editorial package a while ago. Remember? I’m booked through the end of this month, but would you be interested in sending me a manuscript at the beginning of August?”

Me: Sure. I have a picture book that’s 2,700 words long. (I shaved off the other 82 words… kind of like how I ignore the weight on my driver’s license, that’s about 20 years old and a ton too little.)

Margo: Usually picture books are 1,000 words or less. (Translation: That is going to be a hot mess for me to critique. I’ll have to go in with a flame-thrower and set the thing ablaze if there’s any hope of getting rid of that many words.)

I felt Margo’s shudder even through her email. I smelled the sweat circles start to form in her armpits. So I reexamined my story… and I started cutting.

Here’s how I pared it down from 2,700+ to 1,009 (and I’m not quite finished):

1. Using contractions in some spots. “I would” became “I’d” when it fit with the tone and the rhythm of the piece. Of course, this is the opposite of what I’ve done during some NaNoWriMos. There was one November where I didn’t use a single contraction because when a writer is working on amassing 50,000 words, every single word counts.“I will” is two words. “I’ll” is only one.

2. Condensing time. My story takes place over 9 months. In the earlier draft, I impressed myself over how I included sensory details about each season. I patted myself on the back each time I read it--with each seasonal scene, I had created a rich world for my main character. Unfortunately, when major cutting and slashing has to be done, time has to be shrunk. Spring and summer were now covered in the same paragraph. Fall segued into winter in a sentence or two, instead of a couple of paragraphs on each one. After all, there isn’t much difference between spring and summer, and snow is the big difference between fall and winter. Condense and combine!

3. Show not tell. Forget the gorgeously-written descriptions. Show through a few, tightly-written phrases. After all, the illustrations (hopefully) will fill in some of the story details.

In short, drastically cutting a piece involves blood. You have to go in ruthlessly, with a sword machete, and do major slashing. Does my story still have moving moments... or is it now a disjointed mess? Did I do a passable job of keeping the storyline intact?

And most importantly--will Margo be able to come in on a white horse and save my manuscript?

(Like with all fairy tales, to find out how it ends, you'll have to wait until we get to the last page of the story... so this story will be continued later. If you'd like to read about some more suggestions on how to slice and slash your work, check out this article.)

Sioux is hoping there will be a happily-ever-after with her picture book manuscript. (Her middle grade novel? That's a longer tale, frought with more obstacles.) If you'd like to read more of Sioux's stuff, check out her blog.


Nicole Pyles said...

What an impressive job you did cutting out words! The lack of words usually isn't my problem. I tend to need to add. But I did do a pretty decent job cutting out over 100 words in a piece that I didn't think needed any cutting. So it definitely can be done! Good luck with your picture book!

Margo Dill said...

Hahahahahaha! This makes me laugh out loud. :) I don't think I had sweat circles, but I am glad that you did pare it down.

Angelica R. Jackson said...

But picture books are so much easier to write than novels! 😁😂🤣

KAlan said...

Even when my writing was too short, it was often too long. Try not to ask what that means. I find your advice to "condense time" to be familiar and often effective. That can work when a plot elements spans days, not just months or years.

Jeanine DeHoney said...

Hi Sioux. Great article. I have a ginormous problem paring down my words, showing instead of telling, and oh how I love flowery words. I'm working on it though. Good luck with your picture book.

Sioux Roslawski said...

Nicole--I often have "diarrhea of the pen." Thanks. I'm impressed that you cut 100 words from a piece that didn't seem overly wordy. Getting our pieces to be as tight as possible is always a goal. But sometimes, that goal doesn't seem as urgent...

Margo--You WOULD have those dark circles if you'd been sent a 2,700-word picture book manuscript. Yikes!

Angelica--Thanks for the levity. That's what nonwriters think. "There's less words. They're for younger readers. They MUST be easier to write."

KAlan--It's been a while since I've seen a comment from you. Thanks for stopping by.

Yes, it works when condensing a day or two. Writers can even shrink down a "moment" to make it even tighter.

Again, thanks for reading and leaving a comment.

Jeanine--Thank you. Me, too. The flowery words and phrases. Perhaps we could combine our flowery words, and come up with a huge bouquet... ;)

Renee Roberson said...

Are you sure you don't want to just add about 12K words and make it a chapter book instead? Kidding, kidding. I laughed out loud about not having contractions in a NaNoWriMo draft. Every character counts, right? I applaud you just for even writing picture books. I can't even think about attempting one. It drives me up the wall when people say "I've got an idea for a children's book. Shouldn't be the hard to write!" Sure, you go right ahead. I have all the confidence that your story is fabulous and Margo will be able to whip it into shape, with no blood necessary!

Sioux Roslawski said...

Renee--That's funny you should say that. I had an earlier picture book (it's a permanent dust-collector) and the topic could have been expanded into a chapter book (not easily, because it would have taken loads of research and lots of fabrication). I did consider it, but lost steam...

Yeah, it's so funny when people think: Picture books MUST be easy to write. They're so short. They're for young kids. We'll see. The proof is not in the pudding, but with Margo.

Sorry, Nicole, for jacking your post. ;)

Cathy C. Hall said...

PICTURE BOOKS ARE HARD. That is all I've got to say about that.

Well, okay, I'll add good luck. And maybe that what you wrote was actually a story and not a PB? There's a difference and it took me YEARS to figure that out!

Sioux Roslawski said...

Cathy--Ooooh noooo! Don't say that. Don't even suggest that it might be a kids' chapter book. (However, if Margo says the same thing, that will make me think, 'Two smart writers think this. I need to consider it.')

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