Writing tips

Joyce Dunbar's guide to writing picture books

Joyce Dunbar's guide to writing picture books

16 May 2012 by Joyce Dunbar

Although you may not be interested in writing a picture book - perhaps because you can't illustrate - they are a very good way to learn about shaping a story, because they have a built in structure, generally, of 12-14 spreads (i.e. 24-28 pages). They also encourage you to think visually, which is always good for children. So here is my simple, 12 point guide:

 

1. Do you have a problem? Good - because then you have a story. If you are one of those rare beings without a problem, steal one from someone else. Call it a predicament. Sort it. Stories are about overcoming obstacles, never, ever, about everything being all right.


2. Stories that are just a string of events are boring. The way in which events unfold is part of the meaning. You need a turning point; this usually comes on about spread 8, followed by a resolution. Surprise is good too, an unexpected twist, if you can manage it.


3. It is a good idea to make a blank dummy book, with cover, title page etc, and the right number of spreads. This is easily done with folded paper. The lovely empty pages should encourage you to pace the story - to spread the events evenly with your imagined pictures.


4. The good news about picture books is that they are very short - between 500-700 words. 300 words, with a beginning, middle and an end, is even better.  People think that this is easy. The bad news is that it is very hard. Every word has to earn its keep. You have to keep cutting, so that only the best remains. What you say is very important; equally important is what you don't say.


5. Language is very important in all books, but especially in picture books for the very young. Try to think of words as playthings; their colour, shape, taste, as well as their meaning. Roll them around in your mouth. See how they sound. Smell them. This will make your text very lively.


6. Rhyme, rhythm, pattern, repetition, are also a feature in picture books. They are an invitation to the child to join in. That's why nursery rhymes are important. Refrain is good too - the same words repeated on several pages. But don't overdo it.  And remember that rhyme is difficult to translate - so this could be a problem if you hope to have foreign co-editions of your book.


7. The shape of the story is important, so is the idea behind it. In picture books, you never explain. The structure, the pattern of events, explains itself. You don't need to describe either; leave that to the illustrator. This does not mean that you cannot visualize for yourself - but never, ever, give instructions to the illustrator. They are equal partners in the making of a picture book and need their own space for their own imaginings. The pictures do not merely illustrate the text, they complement it. It is like a strange and wonderful dance, where you do not step on each other's toes.


8. Sometimes, an illustrator will pull a story in a different direction from the one you have written. This can be annoying. But it can also be illuminating. I rewrote one story, 130 words long, 12 times over a year, because I liked what the illustrator was doing. I started the dance, but then was happy to follow his movements. It can be very tricky and disheartening at times, but you keep going. Any disputes are resolved through the editor and the art director. They like authors to know what they're doing, but they don't like bossy authors who have no respect for the role of other people in the making of a book.

9. Illustrate the story yourself by all means, but don't worry if you can't. Publishers always have lots of illustrators they would like to use, and are always on the look-out for good texts. If you have no desire to publish, but would like to make a book with a child, then you could collaborate with that person, or draw you own pictures. I have seen some charming results from this, but very few are publishable.  This is because publishers have a very important role to play and they do not like to be presented with the finished product.

10. A good story is more than just an idea - it needs a vital spark - an impulse. It's a bit like an electrical charge. You could even call it love. It's that moment when an image, or an incident, or some words, strike you as funny, important, or interesting. This is what brings a story to life. When you have written a really good story - you usually know. It feels as if you have written something that was already there, just waiting to be discovered.

11. There is a much overlooked element in picture books - the white space. The designer looks after this. This is the space in which the child readers make their own interpretations.A room crammed with furniture is not inviting. Nor is a book too full of words and pictures. Leave space for the reader to contribute.  This will foster literacy of both kinds in the child, the visual and the verbal. It will also actively engage and stimulate the imagination.


12. Be patient. Be gentle. Stories can be shy, furtive creatures, like fish. You must cast your line and your hook, but then be still for a very long time, making your brain an inviting place for a story to swim into. This rarely happens all by itself. You have to sit in the chair, write something on the page, make yourself available. Sometimes, you don't catch a fish. You catch a tin can or an old boot. Before you throw it back, look inside the can or the boot -there might be a story inside it!

 

 

Joyce Dunbar published her first children's book in 1980. At the time, she thought she was a one book person. She has now published about 80 books in all, working with many world class illustrators. Her daughter, Polly Dunbar, also writes and illustrates: Joyce and Polly worked on the book Shoe Baby together. www.joycedunbar.com

Comments

Thank you. This is very inspiring.

VeraB
14 May 2016

I have now written three poems in what could be a set of picture books for Children. One site I looked at said 32 pages so have 32 lines. I can not affrord the fee's some 'companies are asking to look at and advise us budding authors or the big fees to have published on demand etc. My local librarians saw my stories and said worth publishing. Help please.


 


BookTrust reply: We'd recommend looking at something like the Writers' & Artists' Yearbook 2016 for further information on how to get published. Best of luck.

Philip
5 May 2016

Thank you so much for your wonderful information!
I appreciate it very much.
Sonia

Sonia
9 February 2016

Thank you for insights. I work with kids, teach writing and I'll share this with them in new school year - from an author's point of view!

Zaga
23 December 2015

Hi,
My name is Paul Lowther and I am currently a primary teacher.
I am very interested in writing books for young children and your words have inspired me.
The only problem is where do I secs my ideas?!
Any help or advice would be welcome.
Thanks and keep up the good work.
Paul


 


Book Trust: Hi Paul, thanks for your message. You might want to explore some of the sites on our Useful links page. We wish you the very best of luck!

Paul L
4 November 2015

 


Dear Joyce, thank you so much for your guidance and help. I have written a children's book and in the process of starting another. Unfortunately I really don't no what to do from here. I even have an Illustrator set up but can't seem to get a publishing company to read my book think I'm just doing something wrong. I'm a more mature writer and although I'm ok with the internet I find it slightly confusing at times. I wonder whether it would be an awful cheek of me to ask if there was any possibility of you pointing me in the right direction or even help with finding a publisher that might just have time to read my book? Anything would be helpful, thank you once again.

Best Regards
Mrs Nikki Dewar

Nikki Dewar
14 July 2015

Thank you.
I've been working on a picture book called Stubby the Howler Monkey which started out as a joke in my family that i was a very stubborn howler monkey. Your tips have really helped. I'm only ten so i expect i won't be publishing it very soon though!
Thank you!

Grace Klara Charlton
4 January 2015

Thank you Joyce. It's was 23 yrs ago on our honeymoon my wife and I talked about producing children's books. We had a lot going on with stories but four kids later and many economic turns in the road, here we are making another go at it. Now, either that's some of the patience your talking about, or a tenacity to never let a dream die. Maybe overcoming adversity is a vital building block to any good story teller! I think I can,I think I can, I think I can. Many thanks...

Mark
28 October 2014

Wonderful advice, Joyce! I especially like #12.

Lori Mozdzizerz
1 June 2014

Thank you, Joyce. I know I am going to keep looking back at this over and over again. (I've just read it twice now!)

Jackie O'Neill
11 May 2014

Thank you for the invaluable insight Joyce! I am in the process of typing out the manuscript for my first children's story and activity book. I was a little discouraged having not found an illustrator however, your article helped reset my focus, ambition and determination. Sincere gratitude and to all Authors out there: "Go forth and spread your knowledge via the best media known to man!"

Tamlyn Samuel
23 January 2014

Thank you for your generous advice. The point about the turning point was helpful in my current picture book text.

Jean Webster
18 December 2013

This this a motivating article. Thank you.

Vera
18 November 2013

COOL

TAWNY OWL
17 June 2013

hi im in the process of writing my own book, finding it hard to fine someone to publish it, dont know were to start, its a mind field out there thanks

karen
14 February 2013

I'm in the process of publishing my first picture book. Though I've already written it and the first sketches are already complete, I found your article very helpful in pushing forward. Having a few concrete steps to think about while writing is always a huge relief.

Rajiv Haque
20 August 2012

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