Joyce Dunbar's guide to writing picture books

Mouse & Mole author Joyce Dunbar shares her 12-step guide to writing successful picture books.

Joyce Dunbar books

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. They generally have a built-in structure 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, 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 and 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 editions of your book.

7. The shape of the story is important, and 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 visualise 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 lookout 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 your 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.