The picture book market trend is to keep the word count low. I’ve found that this can be both a frustrating limitation and a helpful guide for my writing. The trend may be due to a push for students to start reading chapter books earlier, or it could be kids’ seemingly shorter attention spans. I think it’s because the lower word count challenges our stories to be better. So, regardless of whether or not you like it, it can be helpful to learn how to work within it.
The key to writing great, concise picture books is understanding that fewer words does not mean simpler, less substantial, or ‘dumbed down.’ In fact, the low word count pushes our stories to be all heart. It ensures that every word is exciting, plot advancing, or character revealing. Mo Willems is a great model for crafting surprising plots, humorous situations, and relatable characters in minimal words.
To expect to sit down and write a perfect 500 word story would be unreasonable. Don’t count your words before your story is fully hatched. The easiest way to find those 500 choice words is to first write thousands of them, no counting allowed. Get to know everything about your character, then choose which actions and interactions reveal the most about them and still pertain to the plot. Take the long and winding road to discover your plot, then seek out convenient shortcuts for the reader. Ask what set-up is really necessary, then jump into the action as quickly as possible. Give yourself a strong sense of setting so that you know how it affects the character and the plot, but then cut out any imagery that the illustrator can show instead. Play around with tongue-tingling words and pick out your favorites that tickle the reader without distracting from the story. To write picture books that are all heart, you have to write out all the meat and then become an expert at trimming fat.
If your story simply cannot be contained in a short picture book format, you might consider whether yours is actually a chapter book. And that would be good news for you, because those sell better anyway.