by Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen

It’s Picture Book Idea Month, and I’m going to give you a math lesson.

Who remembers high school math? A long time ago, we may have learned about combinations of variables. As we go through PiBoIdMo, we need to explore different combinations to discern the optimal result.

Now, you’re thinking, well, no kidding. How does that help me?

Aren’t you lucky? I’m going to tell you.

• Step One: Finding the Variables

If you are like me, you try to come up with picture book ideas as complete entities: a character with a specific problem/resolution. But just like in your manuscript drafts, your first idea isn’t necessarily your best idea, and it definitely doesn’t need to be your last idea. If you allow yourself the freedom to separate your idea into it’s entities, you might end up with something better.

Think of it this way: if you come up with 30 characters over the next month (let’s call this variable C) with 30 definite story outcomes (this variable will be O), all you have is 30 ideas to work with. On the other hand, if you have 30 characters, each of whom has 30 story outcomes, you have many more possible ideas to develop. Mathematically, the total number of combinations is represented by this formula:

Number of combinations = C x O

In this case, you end up with 30 x 30 = 900 story ideas at the end of PiBoIdMo. That’s accomplishing a lot, isn’t it?

Basically, separating your ideas into building blocks—into variables—allows you to have useful partial ideas. How many times have you realized that there really needs to be a book about a certain topic? Or come up with an adorable character for whom you can’t think up a story?

Write these down. Add them to your C and O lists. Every once in a while, look over the lists and see if there is a combination you see that resonates with you that was different than what you originally imagined. Allowing these partial ideas to have value takes a lot of pressure off you as a writer and creator. It is very hard to have a good idea every day! But just because something isn’t the perfect idea doesn’t mean you can’t make it work for you.

• Step Two: Expanding the Combinations

A good book has a main character and a primary plot. Many books, however, have secondary characters. Some books have secondary plots.
What if some of your PiBoIdMo ideas don’t work as stories because you came up with a secondary character or a plot?

Some books even have a pair of main characters (mash-up, anyone?) What if one of your character ideas would be four times as strong if you combine it with another character?

If you combine even more variables, you make your work go even further:

Number of story ideas with 2 characters = C x (C-1) x O = 30 x 29 x 30 = 26,100 ideas!

(and a secondary plot on top of this…you get the idea…)

Again, allowing yourself to have incomplete ideas gives you the freedom to pursue many more possibilities.

Obviously, some of the combinations that come out of this process are not going to work. So you really won’t have tens of thousands of ideas to sort through. But hopefully, you’ve picked up on the fact that I’m trying to encourage you to look at your work over this month in a different way.

Whenever you can have a complete story idea, that’s fabulous. Run with it. But don’t get frustrated if inspiration comes in drips and drops instead of a flowing stream. It’s all going to be valuable in the end.

• Step Three: The Idea Wheels

I want to leave you with something fun. I’ve asked you to take your building block story variables and consider them in various combinations. You could create a spreadsheet and be very orderly about it, but what I really want you do to is have fun with it and let the random ideas percolate through your brains. So I’m inviting you to create your own Idea Wheels.

There’s a great site called WheelDecide.com, where you can create your own wheels of fortune, if you will. You can create one wheel for your character ideas and another for your story outcomes. Then, spin away until the wheels hit upon something that really works for you. It’s visual and fun, and if nothing else, there’s a winner every time!

You are all just beginning your PiBoIdMo journey, and it will be a long month ahead. But I hope you stick with it—I bet you’ll come out on the other side with valuable starting points for writing. Good luck!

BONUS!
Last week, this blog hosted a double cover reveal for two of my upcoming picture books. In honor of the reveals, I held a book cover caption contest. It was not easy to pick the winner because there were so many captions that were great! But after careful consideration, on the basis that this caption works so well for BOTH covers, here is the winner:

“Is this as awkward for you as it is for me?”

Everyone, please put your hands together for Dawn Young! Dawn wins her choice of a signed copy of ORANGUTANGLED or SNORING BEAUTY! Yay!

And one more bonus…

BONUS: If you’d like more PiBoIdMo tips, pop over to my blog at NerdyChicksRule.com for a great post about knowing what your character wants.

Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen is an award-winning children’s book author whose books include Chicks Run Wild, Pirate Princess, Hampire!, and Quackenstein Hatches a Family. She visits schools around the country to talk about the craft of writing to children of all ages. “Every book is an autobiography” is a favorite saying of hers, and a big part of her message is that everyone, grownup or child, has a story that is interesting and compelling—if you can find the right words to tell it. Sudipta lives outside Philadelphia with her children and an imaginary pony named Penny. You can learn more about her and her books on her website www.sudipta.com or at her blog www.NerdyChicksRule.com.