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It’s day [whatever] of PiBoIdMo when it finally happens . . . you run out of ideas.
The blank page. It mocks you. And you’re panicked, because you’ve already plundered every cute/amusing thing your kids/pets have ever done, looking for inspiration. You’ve already turned your own experiences into rollicking, rhythmic (but never rhyming!) texts. You’ve perhaps even transformed Buzzfeed videos about unexpected animal friendships into whimsical odes to human emotions.
So now what? Well, now comes inspiration in the form of one of my favorite quotations:
“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.” —Marcel Proust
Even though this quote is nearly 100 years old, it’s meaningful, especially for a writer. In fact, Proust probably made this observation because as an author himself, he knew well that reaching past one’s initial, obvious, or cliched ideas to a place of true, fresh, personal creativity is among a writer’s greatest challenges—and greatest triumphs, when achieved. So, in Proust’s spirit, here are 5 tips to train your eyes, make new discoveries, and ultimately shape your words as a writer.
- Warm up your vision. Take one of your favorite ideas from a previous day’s writing and spin it into something fresh and new by changing one key element—like the point of view, the setting, or even a character’s identity. Switch the narrative voice from first person to third person, or turn from a contemporary setting to one that’s exotic or faraway or historical or fantastical. You can even turn human characters into animals and vice versa, or swap who the reader will see as the story’s hero/villain. And since the shape of your story was already established in your earlier creation (whether it was a full manuscript or just a simple outline), you’re temporarily free from thinking about plot and can instead play with transformation-enhancing details of voice and language. You may even realize that you enjoy the resulting version of the story more than your original! (An aside—one of my favorite books on writing covers similar ground: exploring how shifts in perspective can spark your creativity: check out 99 Ways to Tell a Story by Matt Madden.)
- Train your new eyes in real life. For one week, outlaw yourself from taking even a single photo. Every time you reach for your phone or other device to take a photo, force yourself instead to capture the moment differently, using only words! At the end of the week, select your favorite of these moments-turned-into-words on Facebook or Instagram and ask your friends and family if they can “see” the moment through your words alone. (If you like, snap a photo of your screen or notepad for more effective/visual social sharing.)
- Watch for details that make you ask “why.” Stories don’t always arrive in your mind, fully-imagined. Often, they start with a simple-but-intriguing image or detail, and the author’s curiosity to explore the story behind it. So study everyday life for places where paradoxes happen and tensions meet—for moments are memorable and yet unexpected at the same time. If you’re writing a humorous story, these details can sometimes add a layer of ridiculousness or absurdity that picture book readers will delight in. But more importantly, they make readers ask “why” enough to keep on turning pages. For example, imagine: Best friends who are suddenly not speaking, and no one knows why. A castle with a doorway that’s too small for any of its inhabitants to walk through. An abandoned home with a gift-wrapped package waiting at the door. With any of these jumping-off points or thousands of others like them, you can often reveal an interesting story to yourself (and your future readers) if you ask enough whys or what-ifs.
- Reverse the story-making process with visual storytelling. Many writers are accustomed to thinking that text always precedes art. But exercises in visual storytelling can engage your creativity in entirely different ways—making art an integral part of your creative process. To try this type of hybrid creativity, explore Storybird, which houses a curated collection of high-quality, original art and offers free and simple creative tools for authors. Simply select an image that catches your eye, and then use the art to enable your writing in one of countless ways—it can help spark or inspires story ideas; help you “unlock” or puzzle your way through a story, offering visual clues and perspective to offset your own imagination and talent with words; or simply enhance a story you’ve already been imagining. You can keep a story private, and share the link only with those you choose (like critique partners or friends/family); or you can add your stories into Storybird’s public library to get swift feedback from millions of young readers worldwide who use the platform.
- Remember that less is more. In art or photography, “negative space” is the white space in and around an image’s subject that helps viewers focus. For writers, there is sometimes a temptation to think that more words = better. But just like negative space can enhance artwork, sometimes a few well chosen words will say far more than an endless ramble. Fewer words means that each carries more power, so their precise selection and arrangement matters more. Similarly, remember that what’s not on the page is just as important as what is, and if a detail of your story can be portrayed through artwork, then it rarely needs to be repeated in the text. Your job as an author is to decide what does not belong in a story, as much as what does!
Here’s hoping you arrive at the end of these exercises—and PiBoIdMo—with powerful new eyes that would make Proust proud. Questions? Thoughts? Please share them, and your own suggestions to fellow writers seeking creative vision and unique perspectives, in the comments.
Molly O’Neill is Head of Editorial at Storybird where she works at the intersection of story, art, technology, and new publishing opportunities for authors and artists. Previously she was an editor at HarperCollins, where she launched the careers of talented authors and illustrators including bestselling phenom Veronica Roth (author of Divergent), heartwarming award-winner Bobbie Pyron (author of A Dog’s Way Home), and the distinctive narrative and visual voices of S. J. Kincaid (author of Insignia), Hilary T. Smith (author of Wild Awake), Sarah Jane Wright (illustrator of A Christmas Goodnight), and many others. Follow Storybird on Twitter for daily thoughts on art, writing, and creativity.
by Mark Ury
Blogging always seems to include sharing some sad truth about yourself, whether it’s your obsession with trash TV or one too many trips to the freezer for more mint chocolate chip ice cream (P.S. these are examples and any resemblance to my life is coincidental). So here’s my share: I can’t draw.
Admitting you can’t draw isn’t much of anything, really. Over 90% of the world can’t draw. But context is everything. Admitting I can’t draw to my bowling friends isn’t worth a second glance (P.S. I don’t bowl), whereas sharing it with picture book writers and illustrators is like asking your bowling friends to switch to five-pin balls since your wrist is to weak to use the grown-up sizes (P.S. this has never happened). It’s kinda sad and wimpy.
Now, don’t feel embarrassed for me (P.S. you are not my mother). I have at my disposal an entire platform to compensate for my lack of artistic skills. With it, I can inspire myself to great heights and pen imaginative stories that kids everywhere read and love. But, sleazily cross-promoting my venture is not what this post is about (P.S. unless you find my venture intriguing and possibly useful, in which case we should have coffee and be friends). No. This blog post is NOT about (shameful) marketing or even (sad) admissions of inferior uses of pencils. It’s about music. Or, more specifically, it’s about how music helps me get the feeling of a story long before (and sometimes after) I’ve seen the images or typed the words.
It’s quite possible you are already familiar with how music can shape your work. If so, perhaps you might be better off reading Sarah Dillard’s post—it has cute bunnies. But if you’re like me (P.S. heaven help you), you may only be modestly aware of how music can be used to give your story the tone or pitch your characters are longing for (and, eventually, if you score that deal with HarperCollins, your readers).
For the longest time, I *thought* what was inspiring the tone of my writing were the images I would paper on my walls, stash in my notebook, or hide under my pillow (P.S. the images under my pillow were not at all being hidden from my mother). Weathered photos of Sid Vicious and Marianne Faithful propelled my early poetry. An image of Kate Spade holding one of her early designs became the central figure in one of my (wretched and unfinished) screenplays, and a stark image of Vanessa Redgrave has been taunting me to start my graphic novel (P.S. yes, you read correctly that I can’t draw).
But, upon reflection (.PS. while searching for a theme for this blog post), only recently did I notice that while images were influencing *what* I was writing about, the actual tone came from the music around me.
This story, about memory and love, was shaped by This is the Kit’s Two Wooden Spoons—an earthy and lush little song that I couldn’t get off of replay on my iPod. And my story about a gruesomely self-centered girl rose from the the chill of Radiohead’s There There (P.S. This is ironic since Thom Yorke wrote the song as a kind of bedtime story for his son. P.P.S. I am glad I am not Thom Yorke’s son).
Music has shaped my copywriting and creative direction, too. Commercials, ads—even the design of products and services—have musical DNA from bouncy ABBA tunes, 80s Brit-pop, and recently, the alt-country acoustics of Kathleen Edwards. And why not? Music is this perfect mix of math and emotion, logic and passion. It’s the ideal stimulant for a tired mind and great whip to a lazy idea (P.S. my ideas need constant flogging). Mostly, it’s a great friend to writers, who need to balance structure and character with some sort of texture or flavor that they can’t quite articulate.
So here’s my suggestion: include music in your work. Better yet—let it muscle itself between your sketches and copy. Replay favorites and dig up old tunes. Drift through lyrics and free associate. Use sound to create new stories (don’t you WANT the East-End boys and West-End girls to meet?), vivid places (just what does the town in Simon & Garfunkel’s My Little Town look like?), and beguiling characters (surely Tom from Suzanne Vega’s Tom’s Diner is worth examining?). Most of all, let music do what it’s meant to do: alter your rhythm. Great stories don’t come from staid patterns.
As for me, I’m wrapping this post feeling less insecure about my poor pencilmanship. (This is quite possibly because I’m listening to The Wild Strawberries and thinking of pie rather than having stared down my limitations (P.S. It is.).) Either way, music saved the day, again.
Mark Ury is the cofounder of Storybird, an occasional writer, and almost always nibbling chocolate.
Cheaper by the Dozen
by Mark Ury
Ideas are not a dime a dozen. They’re closer to $0.0001. That’s because they’re commodities. Everyone has them, everyone can think of them, and, as a culture, we’re saturated with them. Like most raw materials, ideas are worthless unless you turn them into something else, something of greater value.
How do you add value to ideas? With other ideas.
The concept of wit—one of our most enjoyable forms of ideas—is premised on taking one cliché and combining it with another to make something unexpected and remarkable.
An arrow pointing right is a cliché for a courier company. But burying it between the negative space of the “E” and “x” of FedEx makes it new. It makes the image memorable, if not surprising, and the idea valuable.
“You can’t teach an old dogma new tricks” is the written equivalent of the FedEx logo, as are many of Dorothy Parker’s best quips. “Take care of luxuries and the necessities will take care of themselves” and “It serves me right for keeping all my eggs in one bastard” whip two lazy ideas into shape and keep them marching for decades.
The economics of wit are 1+1=3. When your ideas are competing for a publisher’s or reader’s attention, those are valuable numbers to have on your side.
How do you create wit? The simplest technique is to tinker with clichés since they contain recognizable patterns that your audience can latch onto. For example, the cliché “ideas are a dime a dozen” gives you three things to mess about: ideas, money, and—thanks to the word “dozen”—eggs. If you were drawing, you might play with the notion of ideas as light bulbs and then substitute them for the eggs in a carton. You now have a new image to play with and the shadows of a scene. Who needs ideas? Inventors. But why cheap ones? Well, perhaps this inventor is down on his luck. Can’t you see him there at the register, digging into his empty pockets looking for a dime? Around him are other wealthy inventors, buying cartons of the stuff. But he can only afford one bulb for his last, terrible experiment…
The key to playing with clichés is to think visually AND conceptually. Sometimes the images line themselves up, like the example above. Other times, the concept is unlocked through narrative interplay. For instance, you might start with the visual of ghosts, creeping around in a mansion and scaring people. But then you flip to the narrative pieces and start toying with their DNA: the ghosts aren’t the antagonists. The ghosts don’t know they’re ghosts. The audience doesn’t know they’re ghosts. Before you know it, you’re in Spain with Nicole Kidman filming The Others.
In fact, if you want to study the blending of routine ideas into something fresh, Hollywood has a not unsuccessful record. Alien is the fusion of the shark thriller (Jaws) and outer space (Star Wars). Mad About You was pitched as thirtysomething, but funny. The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, The Village—many of M. Night Shyamalan’s films—rely on flipping everyday ideas to produce entertaining new ones that “unpack” their meaning as you watch.
That’s the benefit of folding two ideas into one. The audience experiences it in reverse: one idea unfolds into two and the brain has the joy of connecting the dots to find the hidden meaning.
Don’t worry about great ideas. Look for everyday, unbankable ones. If you invest and repackage them, they’ll outperform your reader’s expectations.
That’s my two cents.
Mark Ury is the co-founder of Storybird.
Come visit a new website that lets kids spread their storytelling wings.
Storybird is “collaborative storytelling for family and friends.” When I first heard the tagline, I scratched my head. What is this all about? Then I got the beta tester invite. And I played on the site for hours. Days. My daughter begged, “Mommy, can we make another Storybird?”
So what is this high-flying new creature?
Storybird helps you create a tale with an intuitive book-like interface and a whimsical selection of artwork. (We’re not talking stick-figures here. These are high-quality images from some of the most talented “undiscovered” children’s illustrators today, like Irisz Agocs and Victoria Usova.)
Select an artist’s work to begin. A page appears in the center of the screen, surrounded by thumbnail images. Simply drag and drop an image onto a page, then write text to accompany the picture. Add as many pages as you like and you’ll soon have a bonafide book—one that looks professional, one that can be read online over and over again. You can choose to keep your Storybird private, or you can share it with the Storybird community. And they can read it online over and over again.
But the smartest feature of Storybird brings family and friends together. Is Grandma in Gary, Indiana? Cousin Kate in Kalamazoo? You can invite them to write a page in your story. Or two pages. There’s no limit…and what’s better, there’s no fee to join Storybird. According to CEO Mark Ury, “Making, sharing, and reading Storybirds online will always be free. Printing and premium services—when we introduce them later this year—will have a fee associated with them.”
(Uhh, Mark, could you please hurry up with that? My daughters want a copy of The Runaway Rabbit in their hands right away.)
Other planned features include the ability to: choose artwork based upon theme, upload your own images, and record your voice to accompany Storybirds. For those on the go, an IPhone app is coming, too.
What’s more, Storybird wants your ideas to improve and enhance the service. The site has only been live for 6 days, but educators in over 100 countries have already asked for a multi-user platform to help teach literacy skills in classrooms. Ury says his company is working on a teacher log-in that would enable students to work under that account without having to submit their information. Storybird be nimble, Storybird be quick.
And Storybird be popular! Some stats from their not-quite-a-week online:
- 1,000 users in 100+ countries
- 8,000 unique visits
- 76,000 page views
- 7-minute average visit
- some Storybirds viewed 325+ times each
Families and teachers will see enormous benefits in Storybird, as will artists. Storybird creates a marketplace to share your work and develop a fan following. If you’re an aspiring children’s illustrator, I encourage you to sign up.
So what are you waiting for? Slide a kid onto your lap and flap your wings on over to Storybird. (Or, if you’re like me, you don’t even need a kid. The child inside you will have plenty of fun on her own!)