by Corey Finkle

I wrote my first PB manuscript in 1999, and got my first publishing deal a mere twenty years later. I spent those two decades writing, attending critique groups, going to conferences, the whole shebang. And every time I interacted with a published author, I looked on them with a kind of awe. Somehow, these people were able to rise above it all. Were they better than I was, or did they know a secret to getting published that I hadn’t figured out yet?

Now that I’m on the other side, I can report that the answer to the above question is yes, there IS a secret to getting published. In fact, there’s an entire checklist of things you can absolutely do, right now, to propel yourself forward on the path to publication. That’s the good news.

The bad news is, at some point along that path, you need to get a lucky break. There’s no two ways about it.

Literally every author you know or have ever heard of, from Doctor Seuss to Mo Willems, had a moment in their lives when someone looked on their work in the right way, at the right time. I’m no exception. Here’s mine:

In 2015, I was having a great year. By July, I had five agents and a publisher considering my work, which had gotten into their hands through querying, paid critiques at writers’ conferences, and even a Twitter event. But by Thanksgiving, every single one of them had passed. I was so despondent by this that I vowed to take six months off querying so I could focus on my writing full-time. That led me to sign up for the Whispering Pines writers retreat, where at the first dinner I sat (entirely by accident) next to one of the VIP speakers. He was a senior editor for a major publishing house, and we soon discovered that we had also graduated from the same college one year apart, and had over thirty friends in common, despite having never met ourselves. At his request, after the event I sent him a manuscript (that I had developed from a Storystorm idea), and one week after he read it, I had three offers of representation (though my first sale wouldn’t come for another three years after that). Pretty lucky, right?

I am 100% positive that every published writer has a story like this, even if they don’t know it. They might not have recognized their lucky break when it happened (or shook hands with it like in my case), but at some point in their past, someone took a chance on them when they didn’t have to. It’s not as romantic as “meant to be,” but it’s the truth.

But here’s the trick: “getting lucky” is not entirely about luck.

Park View Middle School sign: "Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity"

Years ago, I got a job offer out of the blue. When I told my aunt (a career counselor with her own published book!) about it, I marveled about how lucky this had been. She pushed back that, instead of luck, I should think of it as “planned happenstance.” In other words, meeting the man who offered me that job was luck, for sure, but I had been READY for that moment, due to my education and experience to that point.

My having personal ties to a publisher was absolutely a singular moment that propelled my writing career forward, but consider this: I had been writing picture books for over fifteen years, participating in critique groups, attending conferences, getting professional assessments of my work, even being part of events like #PBPitch, 12×12, and Storystorm. If I had met that publisher even a year before, it might have been just another setback to add to the list. Instead, I was ready, and good things happened.

Getting published is a journey, and for most of us, it can be brutal and disheartening at times (it’s the only field I’ve ever heard of where we celebrate when our rejections are worded nicely). But please PLEASE take my word for this: if you’re reading this right now, you are absolutely doing exactly what you need to be doing on your writing journey. You’re generating ideas, finding a tribe of supporters (this is also the only field I’ve ever heard of where we all truly celebrate one another’s success at every step), participating in events, and above all, you’re writing. Even if it feels impossibly long sometimes, I promise you that this is the path you need to follow, and by embracing it, you’re further along than you realize.

Don’t give up, don’t get discouraged, and learn from every triumph and mistake. If you do, then one day when that lucky break does occur, whatever happens next will have nothing whatsoever to do with luck. Or, to put it another way:

 


Corey Finkle wrote his first picture book manuscript as a senior project in college, spent ten years tinkering with and pitching it, and finally put it aside after realizing it wasn’t actually very good at all. He got his lucky break selling his first book, YOUR FUTURE IS BRIGHT, almost 20 years to the day after completing that senior project. His second published book, POP’S PERFECT PRESENT, comes out this May. When not working on his next manuscript, Corey spends his time writing business-y words for companies, playing board games, spending time with his wife and two kids, or collecting t-shirts from unusual or lesser-known sports teams. Visit him at CoreyFinkle.com and follow him on Twitter @cefinkle.

Corey Finkle is giving away two prizes to two people: one copy of YOUR FUTURE IS BRIGHT, and one manuscript review and/or Zoom career consultation.

You’re eligible to win if you’re a registered Storystorm 2023 participant and you have commented only once on today’s blog post. ↓

Prizes will be distributed at the conclusion of Storystorm.

by Laura Lavoie

Before we dive into this post, let’s all take a moment to give a round of applause for Tara. How about a round of applause for YOU, because if you’ve made it this far, you’re almost to the end!

Storystorm has given me a gazillion ideas over the years. In fact, the ideas for my first two picture books both came from Storystorm 2019. I got the idea for my debut, VAMPIRE VACATION (illustrated by Micah Player), from a post about inherent conflict. That post made me think, What would happen if a vampire wanted to visit a sunshine-y beach?

From there, a story about a little vampire named Fang who dreams of sunshine, sandcastles, and surfing was born. Coincidentally, did you know that the last day of Storystorm is also National Plan Your Vacation Day? What a perfect time—as you wrap up the hard work of brainstorming 30 ideas—to make a plan to intentionally rest and recharge!

My second book, MONSTER BAKER, illustrated by Vanessa Morales, will dash to shelves this August. The brilliant blogger who wrote the post that gave me the idea for this story suggested pairing things that are scary with things that are not scary. Here, you can see lists I made of scary characters and not-so-scary hobbies.

MONSTER BAKER is about a little monster who thinks her grandmonster’s baked goods are the best. Together, they watch their favorite French pastry chef, Pierre du Monstère, on TV. Does this bring back Julia Child memories for anyone else?

I wish I could say that every Storystorm idea I’ve had is fated to become a book someday. (Don’t we all?!) The truth is, some ideas just don’t cut the mustard. Including a story I wrote about mustard, which sadly died on sub.

That doesn’t mean, though, that these ideas are all destined for the Island of Bad Ideas, which I imagine to be something like the Island of Misfit Toys. In reality, it’s more like my stack of old idea notebooks, which are brimming with titles, characters, and story sparks that have never seen the light of day.

Sometimes, the original idea might not be a winner, but I encourage you to consider: where could it lead you? What I’ve discovered is that I don’t need hundreds of unique ideas. Characters, concepts, titles, and more can be recycled. (Upcycled? Repurposed? Something like that.) Here’s what I mean…

Many years back, I brainstormed a title that I thought was genius. I Googled it extensively. It hadn’t been done. Bingo! I must write it.

Ultimately, though, I didn’t like how the manuscript turned out. After several revisions, the title was still great, but the story was decidedly meh. I wound up scrapping it and moving on.

Despite not vibing with that manuscript, I loved the spunky, brave best friend I had cast for my main character. I found myself recasting her as the best pal in a few subsequent stories. Finally, it clicked: this best bud needed a tale of her own. Why hadn’t I thought of that before? It was like an idea bubble had popped up above my head; much like my little amateur chef, Tillie, realizing that she could bake a cake on her own, without Grandmonster’s help.

The manuscript that resulted from this aha! moment is now in the lineup of sub-ready stories my agent sends to editors. Hopefully, (maybe, fingers crossed) you’ll see it on shelves someday.

So that’s the story of how I recycled a minor character into a starring role. But what about recycling a concept Well…

A yet-to-be-announced book I have coming out is a very, very heavily revised version of a manuscript that sprung from my Storystorm 2017 idea list. In this case, I had come up with an idea for a character after scrolling through pictures on my phone’s camera roll, stumbling upon a picture of my dad, and suddenly thinking of a particular animal. (Sorry, Dad. All good things, I promise!) In the version you’ll see on shelves, I recycled the basic concept but changed pretty much everything else–including that initial character, who ultimately got the ax. (Sorry, Dad. Again.)

For your brainstorming task today, I encourage you to go back to your old Storystorm journals, to your misfit manuscripts, to those ideas you cast aside as unworkable, and see if something sparks. Time and fresh perspective can do wonders for the creative mind. Maybe it’s just a title that strikes you, or a minor character, or a teeny tiny seed you planted in a draft, thinking it wasn’t super significant. Let your mind wander, and see where those old ideas take you.

 


Laura Lavoie writes humorous, pun-filled picture books. She is the author of Vampire Vacation, published by Viking in 2022, as well as the forthcoming titles Monster Baker (Roaring Brook Press, 2023), Duck, Duck, Taco Truck (Doubleday, 2024), and more on the way! When she’s not writing or reading books, she can be found in the kitchen, cooking up something delicious, or playing outside: hiking, kayaking, gardening, or hanging around in trees. You can visit her at LauraLavoieAuthor.com, or find her on Twitter and Instagram @llavoieauthor.

Laura is giving away a 30-minute Ask-Me-Anything Zoom chat to talk about picture book craft, querying, promo groups, the best types of cheese… anything you’d like!

You’re eligible to win if you’re a registered Storystorm 2023 participant and you have commented only once on today’s blog post. ↓

Prizes will be distributed at the conclusion of Storystorm.

by Kirsten Pendreigh

It’s Day 27, Storystormers! Phew! Feeling over-ideated? Need a breather?

Today, let’s forget about trying to cook up one big, delicious IDEA and instead  focus on the tasty tidbits that, when mixed into idea bowls, make ideas deliciously irresistible to write.

I’m talking about Ideagrients™, a totally real, and not-made-up term for the specific details that move our ideas from Maybes to compelling concepts we can’t wait to begin writing!

Ideagrients™: distinctive fragments and descriptive sparks that elevate ideas. May include—but not limited to—gorgeous words, evocative images, sensory details, original names, and clever language devices. According to experts at PBIU (Picture Book Idea University), good ideas require a minimum of five Ideagrients before story writing can begin.

Look at your 27 ideas. Which ones have promise but are still kind of obscure? Maybe they feel predictable? Too similar to books that already exist? Could these ideas use a pinch of sensory salt, a sprinkle of funny sugar, or a splash of surprise food coloring to make them more intriguing?

Great ideas, just like great writing, are full of specificity. Readers struggle to connect to vague concepts; they love clear, evocative descriptions that surprise and delight. Writers do, too! Trust me, it’s a struggle to create a compelling picture book if you start with a half-baked, surface-level idea. I’ve learned the hard way, meandering from a generic concept, wasting my time, and ending up with unmarketable, unwieldy, and unoriginal stories.

More and more, especially now that I run ideas past my agent, I seek specificity and detail before I commit writing time. Setting, weather, foods I love, names I love, phrases I love, metaphors I love, etc. Assembling these Ideagrients™ beforehand—even as a mental checklist—ensures a more compelling pitch, a smoother writing process and a better end product. Ideally, a story that delights readers AND reflects my unique voice and style.

Let’s use my debut picture book, LUNA’S GREEN PET, as an example.

My initial idea was sparked by a photo of a girl “walking” a plant. I wrote: “A child wants a plant for a pet.” Hmmm, an okay concept, different from a dog or cat story, (and walking your plant is SO cute!) but it still felt flat.

It was time to raid my Ideagrient™ pantry. I looked for words and expressions to make this story idea unique and uniquely mine. I scanned my Brain Rolodex (every professional picture book writer has one!) and my notes app for details and images I’ve stashed away, hoping to find tidbits to take my idea from “Cute, but do I want to spend years with this concept?” to “Oh! I absolutely must write this!”

Here are 5 Ideagrients™ I brainstormed BEFORE writing.

  • Humor:
    My kids and I love deadpan humor. What if I went all in and talked about the plant pet using animal terms? Animalpomorphizing . That way we are quickly on board with Luna’s perspective. A plant pot could be a cage or crate. Soil could be bedding. And of course, Luna’s plant should have a name! I love nicknames and clever abbreviations.

  • Vocabulary:
    Words set the tone for stories, especially for picture books which are read aloud. I looked at a list of my favorite funny words. First up, rambunctious! To me, rambunctious sets a playful tone. It’s fun and it’s funny to read aloud. A key part of pet ownership is behavioral training. While a plant can’t bark or misbehave, it can grow! It can be rambunctious! This Ideagrient led to Stephanie getting a trim. That later led to Carmen’s brilliant idea—shaping Stephanie into a recognizable pet. Win, win!

  • Heart:
    I already had Luna walking her plant, but what other sweet ways could Luna nurture her pet? What about reading a bedtime story? Jack and the Beanstalk? Haha. Perfect tie-in with rambunctious! (And, sorry, not sorry about the dog pee, Stephanie, it was an Ideagrient™ I had to keep!)

  • A Top Ten List:
    I LOVE fun backmatter and I LOVE top ten lists. Could I use one to convince people houseplants really are great pets? “Plants are good listeners” was a key Ideagrient™!

  • A parade!
    What’s a pet story without a parade? And of course, Stephanie must win something! Parade was mixed into my idea bowl. “Best in Scent” came later. Chef’s kiss!

Of course, other details were later mixed into LUNA’S GREEN PET. But having at least five Ideagrients™ assembled beforehand reassured me this idea was absolutely worth pursuing. I was now excited to commit time and energy to writing it, knowing I could bring fresh, unique, fun elements to layer around a central theme of marching to the beat of your own drum. LUNA helped secure my agent and sold in our first round of submissions! Now, I look back and realize that initial photo was only an Ideagrient . You might realize that with some of your ideas. But that’s fine! Mix them with other tasty Ideagrients to make a compelling, layered idea!

What five Ideagrients™ can you come up with today?

Some suggestions:

  • A word. Consult Tara’s amazing book, ABSURD WORDS if you need inspiration!
  • A phrase or metaphor. Maybe a family saying, something funny your kid says, a line from a song, a regional expression.
  • A sensory description only you could write. How does snow feel on your skin? What does dinner smell like to you?
  • A striking image. A photo of yours or something you see online or in a book.
  • An example of a writing device you admire. A rhyme scheme, a clever alliteration, a type of humor.

Jot them down, organize your pantry in your own inimitable way, and soon, you’ll have plenty of Ideagrients on hand for a signature idea bake! Share one with us in the comments!

Thanks for reading! Please support all the guest bloggers (and Tara!) by buying, preordering, reviewing, and asking your library to order our books!

Now, after all those baking references, enjoy an imaginary slice of this beautiful and delicious cake, made by my funny, talented CP, Lisa Tolin (Author of HOW TO BE A ROCK STAR).

 


Kirsten Pendreigh’s debut picture book LUNA’S GREEN PET, illustrated by Carmen Mok, is available wherever books are sold. MAYBE A WHALE, a lyrical story of healing in nature, illustrated by Crystal Smith, publishes in August with Groundwood Books and is available for preorders. WHEN A TREE FALLS, a nonfiction book about nurse logs in the forest, illustrated by Matthew Cruikshank, publishes with Chronicle Books in 2025. (Kirsten wrote about this story in a previous Storystorm post ). Kirsten is represented by Natalie Lakosil at the Irene Goodman Literary Agency. Visit Kirsten online KirstenPendreigh.com and follow her on Twitter @kpiependreigh and Instagram @kirsten.pendreigh.

Kirsten is offering one picture book critique, or a virtual classroom visit to read LUNA’S GREEN PET.

You’re eligible to win if you’re a registered Storystorm 2023 participant and you have commented only once on today’s blog post. ↓

Prizes will be distributed at the conclusion of Storystorm.

by Ebony Lynn Mudd

We’re in the home stretch, Storystorm friends!! Look at us, go!!

Maybe you’ve been here getting inspiration all month. Maybe you’ve popped in and out, or maybe this is the first post you’ve seen since this challenge began. Wherever you fall on the Storystorm participation spectrum, I’m so glad you are here investing in YOU. You deserve it. Your work is worth it. Now, let’s figure out some new book ideas!

Anybody else get their best book ideas when you’re one deep breathe away from dozing off to sleep? Or in the shower when there is no paper or pen around? SAME.

But do you know what other “lazy” task has brought me some FIRE book ideas?

Mindlessly scrolling through my phone. Yep. You heard me right…

Keep. Scrolling.

I mean, listen, if we’re going to scroll on our phones all day anyway, why not scroll for stories? If we’re going to struggle to fight our social media addictions, then why not lean in and make it work for us?

According to techspot.com, the average adult checks their phone 96 times per day. That’s WILD. But if this is you, (*Raises hand* because it is me) then let’s get you some book ideas out of it. With those stats, if you could find ONE book idea for every 20 times you checked your phone, you could have 4-5 book ideas per day. Can’t be mad about that!

As a former professional dancer and founder of a tuition-free dance company, I used to scroll through lots of dance accounts on Instagram for inspiration (and so I could dance along with them from my side of the screen)!

One day, I scrolled my way to this…

The @blackboysdancetoo Instagram account slashes gender norms through art, beauty, and inspirational post after inspirational post.

So, I scrolled. And then, I wrote this…

I always knew that I would write a dance book, but when I saw that account, the idea for JUNIOR TAKES A LEAP was set in stone! I was always an advocate for boys who dance through my own dance company, but scrolling through that account sparked something in me that allowed me to take it to the page.

“So, Ebony, you just want me to doomscroll all day?”

No, friend. But during the moments when you ARE on your phone, I want to help you intentionally scroll all day (haha)!

So let’s do it. Here are some of my go-to accounts when I’m scrolling for stories:

 

What is it: The world’s happiest and healthiest daily news—when you need it the most.

Why I love it: Aside from being the serotonin boost you need each day, this account is great for inspiring non-fiction ideas and unique biography ideas. But fiction ideas can be born from here as well!

Who knew that Chicken Tikka Masala was a pretty new dish? If this is a food you grew up eating with your family, and you feel like this is your story to tell, how AMAZING to get this inspiration as you are scrolling through social media! First of all, I will immediately buy any picture book about food. Full stop. But, this… I want to know about the history. The how. The why. The who. I want to know it all. So many ideas could be born from this.

Bios that get into the nooks and crannies of someone’s life in a way that you wouldn’t expect? Sign me up! That’s how I felt when I saw this Usain Bolt post. You’d expect a story about Usain Bolt to be about a few things: his speed, his track journey, or his culture. But his acts of kindness throughout the journey? I love this angle.

And then this last one…ummm I’m not sure if I want to curl up in a ball and cry, read a picture book about it, or both. Either way, a 100-year-old who volunteers to read at elementary schools is a picture book screaming to happen. GIVE ME THIS 32-PAGER RIGHT NOW!!! Immediate preorder from me!

I found those three great posts while scrolling…they would be great to write about as is, but also, what fictional ideas can you think of that could come from them?

 

What is it: Content about sustainable living and good news you may not have heard about.

Why I love it: Sam lists all of his sources on his good news videos. And every single video features a topic I’ve never heard about that I want kids everywhere to know about! There are so many nonfiction and fiction ideas that could come from his videos if you dig deep!

Did you know goats are helping prevent wildfires in California? You can’t make this stuff up. But you can write about it! Goats are taking the place of traditional mowers by fitting in areas that are hard to reach and by clearing out long grass and weeds. I LOVE THIS AS IS. But also if you fictionalized this: a goat that saves lives/the world/the environment by eating? I’m jealous, because stuffing my face has never saved anyone’s life! And also, I would read that!

Other inspiring ideas from scrolling through @sambentley’s videos include:

  • Robot dolphins that were invented to help end animal captivity by providing a cruelty-free way for people to interact with marine life.
  • Kenyan farmers who dug tens of thousands of these holes called bunds to save their land from drought. Any Kenyans in the house ready to write this one?!
  • And don’t even get me started about this underwater forest! I’ll leave it at that.

Last, but certainly not least, my favorite account to scroll for stories is…

 

What is it: NYC teacher Alyssa Cowit,was so fascinated by the questions and comments from her students that she started to chronicle them online.

Why I love it: Because kids….

 

I mean….do we even need to discuss this one or should you just start writing this story right this second?! THE NICEST MEAN TEACHER. What a title! And it could be so many things!

I laughed for an hour about this! SLOW KARATE! I want to know everything about the type of kid who would say this and all the things they think might be EASY because it’s just [write the book and fill in the blank here].

Sometimes these posts can inspire characters and then ideas flow from there.

And these…I’m just going to leave these here…

But the last and sweetest one goes to…

This would warm even the coldest of hearts!! I want to marry Grandma! Write that book. What does that spark in you about your own grandma or grandparent figure?

So there you have it. And look, I know most people tell you to get off of social media and to get off of your screens, and you definitely should sometimes. But since we are here now…why not go scroll for stories!

If you find a story idea from scrolling after this, tweet me at @ebonylynnmudd and let me know!

And remember,

Your art is the prize.

 


Ebony Lynn Mudd writes picture books and novels for underrepresented kids who don’t see themselves portrayed positively in the media. Her upcoming picture book, JUNIOR TAKES A LEAP, will be illustrated by Pure Belpré and Coretta Scott King Honor artist C.G. Esperanza and published by Scholastic. She is also the co-founder of the PB Rising Stars Mentorship program and the creator of picture book writing courses through The Voice Roadmap. Ebony is represented by Erin Murphy of Erin Murphy Literary Agency.

Ebony is giving away a scholarship to her upcoming course: How to Find the Right Picture Book Structure to Save Your Story! It starts March 23!

You’re eligible to win if you’re a registered Storystorm 2023 participant and you have commented only once on today’s blog post. ↓

Prizes will be distributed at the conclusion of Storystorm.

by CK Malone

Omigosh. Imagine being a middle school teacher and a K-12 literacy coach and being unable to follow directions?

Me. Alllllllllll me. Heck, I don’t even follow the grammatical rules I was taught or teach (most of the time) when writing blog posts and the like. I’m a big fan of informal writing.

In 2019, I wrote the book of my heart. It is how I wish my coming out WOULD HAVE happened in elementary; but, alas, it did not. And guess who still didn’t follow directions when querying the agent of their dreams? Yup, you got it. I queried Dan Cramer, then at Flannery Literary, and forgot to paste my book into the email. *Face Palm* Seriously, double-check everything. That’s the one rule I think is important. Luckily, once he read the query, he was interested enough to ask for CHARLY in March of 2021.

Now, let’s rewind back to January of 2021 and Storystorm.

How did Storystorm play into this? Oh, peeps, let me tell you. I heard about this amazing month through Twitter. I was all like, “Ooooh!!! Writing a story a day sounds amazing!!! I can stop feeling stressed about the writing process and just write.”

Rewind.

See the mistake?

Writing a story a day sounds amazing!!!

And I did. I wrote a freaking story a day for all of January. Some were okay and some were downright atrocious. Some were middling. And some will be going on sub soon. While #Storystorm has no set “rules”, many laughed when I told them this as it wasn’t what this ah-mazing month of creativity meant.

But do you know what doing this taught me aside from the need to follow instructions?

I could persevere. There were days I came home from teaching and I felt I just couldn’t do it. But I did. I eeked out a flipping story. There were days I thought I didn’t even matter. I wrote. There were days I felt I couldn’t do any of the things anymore. I wrote. When I thought the world really flipping hated me for being me. There were days I thought this was the end of humanity because, yanno, COVID.

I wrote.

I wrote.

I wrote.

And YOU have these days because YOUR life is HARD, too. YOU have obstacles—whether emotional, physical, mental or a blend of any–and YOU are still HERE. YOU are writing.

Whatever is in your heart, your stories matter. Whether it takes 31 days in a Storystorm or just one day. Write every day if the stories flow out of you. Or write every now and then. Write once a year. Do you. There are no rules for success or storytelling.

And break the rules with your books! Some of the best authors do this all the time. I was told to edit out some of the rhymes in CHARLY since mash-ups of techniques won’t be “tolerated”, and these same rhymes ended up being my editor’s favorite parts.

So break some rules during your process and blaze your own trail as only YOU can.

Much Love and Light,
CK


C.K. Malone (they/them) is a bigender educator and literature coach at the secondary level. When not grading essays or helping students, they’re busy helping design culturally and LGBTQIA+ responsive units for the district and working as a climate and culture coach. When they’re not writing, they’re coaching and advising through alignment with the Genders and Sexualities Alliance Network. Their book A COSTUME FOR CHARLY with Illos by Alejandra Barajas (Beaming Books) is out now. Their next book, A SIMPLE SONG, with Illos by Shelly Swann releases with Beaming Books in Fall ‘24. Visit CK at CarlisleMalonebooks.com and follow them on Twitter @CKMalone2.

CK is giving away:

  • Ask Me Anything Session with myself and my agent Dan, founder of Page Turner Literary (30 minutes): 1 winner
  • Critique of a Fiction PB up to 2,000 words with multiple revisions (just me): 2 winners
  • CHARLY Signed Prize bundle of book and LGBTQ+ Items + A surprise book not by me: 3 winners

You’re eligible to win if you’re a registered Storystorm 2023 participant and you have commented only once on today’s blog post. ↓

Prizes will be distributed at the conclusion of Storystorm.

by Marzieh Abbas

I have been kicking off every new year (since the past three years) with awesome Storystorm blog posts! I’m happy to report, at least three of my upcoming picture books began as idea that were sparked from January blog posts! I’m super excited to be a guest blogger today. Let’s get right to it!

You’ve probably heard: “Write what you know” several times, as have I. But when I sit to write what I know, I usually draw a blank. That’s when I dip into my memories, especially photographs from my childhood and my phone’s gallery. Childhood memories are great for recalling important milestones, but everyday clicks of things which seem interesting to me and for pictures of my kids doing fun and silly stuff also bring many story possibilities.

Let’s start with childhood memories: thankfully, I wasn’t the last of four siblings, so my parents took loads of pictures of me as a child (my youngest sister has all of five pictures of her toddler years…lollll). Sometimes I open up those albums and think about all the fun we had and all the lovely memories we made. Sometimes a picture will remind me of a mood or what a specific location made me feel. It’s a springboard for more memories; even those not captured in those albums. There’s fun moments and not-so-fun moments, all great for story ideas!

A picture I came across a few years ago when my mom was cleaning out her storeroom. It had one of us sisters wrapped in a dupatta, an oversized South-Asian scarf, that had been tied like a sari. It was from the time we were visiting Karachi to see my Dadi, my grandma. She always wore saris and loved to dress us girls up in pseudo-saris, using fancy dupattas. She was a quirky grandparent who was married off at 16 and widowed at 28. She, herself, was a treasure trove of stories. A few years ago she passed away. My father, the youngest of three sons, had moved back to Pakistan to be with her in her last years. A few weeks after she passed, we noticed my dad had been sleeping with her dupatta tucked beside his pillow. He had asked my mother never to wash it, as it held her scent and helped hold her memory close.

Not only did this stay with me for a long time, it was the spark of an idea for my debut picture book, A DUPATTA IS… which releases on April 11th this year (published by Feiwel & Friends and illustrated by the super-talented Anu Chouhan).

It also made me think of all the memories that I can tap into by using a particular scent as a clue. Sometimes a waft of cinnamon will remind me of the home remedies my mother made for us when we had a flu. And then I’ll think about other connected memories– comforting vibes, or the panic I’d experience about a test I’d miss if I had to stay home due to a flu. Once Anu started sharing the illustrations, her settings, inspired by her own childhood with her grandma, resembled my own Dadi’s home, right down to the bangle stand and wooden cupboard, and subsequently brought in a flood of memories.

I encourage you to flip through your childhood memories. Does a particular picture remind you of a place or setting that evoked a feeling? Could that mood, or feeling possibly take center stage for a story. Maybe a picture in an old house would remind you of a nosy neighbor or a neighborhood friend you’ve long forgotten. Think about the sounds that you heard in that neighborhood, or the secret stash of your candies you hoped your sibling would never find. These may not be ideas in themselves, but it’s always great to jot these down for later; they may inspire a character quirk for a side character, or a specific detail for your current WIP.

Now coming to my phone gallery photos. I usually take pictures of unusual things I spot as I drive through my city, Karachi, or roam the bazaars. I also click a load of food and produce pictures. Sometimes I transfer photos and videos to an album that I’ve labeled “Story Prompts.”

When I had initially gotten married, my mother-in-law taught me lots of her secret recipes. I loved to cook and getting introduced to so many new recipes, while learning of new customs, was great. One of those recipes was a samosa stuffed with coconut shavings, sugar, cardamom, and lots of crushed nuts.

I had only ever eaten savory samosas. I recreated the sweet samosas many times. Many years down the line it was the story spark for my upcoming AWE-SAMOSAS! book that releases in 2024 (published by HarperCollins and illustrated in the most beautiful, warm hues by Bhagya Madanasinghe.)

My memories are a constant source of inspiration, and I’m sure yours are, or will be, too!

 


Raised between the bustling cities of Dubai, U.A.E and Karachi, Pakistan, Marzieh Abbas loves traveling, reading and samosas. She is a member of SCBWI, 12×12, and a graduate of the Lyrical Language Lab, Children’s Book Academy, and Storyteller Academy. She is active on Twitter where she continues to form connections with the Writing Community, runs a kidlit review group on Facebook and blogs about her author journey and life in Pakistan on Instagram. You can find out more about her at MarziehAbbas.com and follow her on Twitter @MarziehAbbas and Instagram @marziehabbas_author.

Marzieh is giving away a picture book critique (under 650-word fiction and non-rhyming manuscript).

You’re eligible to win if you’re a registered Storystorm 2023 participant and you have commented only once on today’s blog post. ↓

Prizes will be distributed at the conclusion of Storystorm.

by Louise M. Aamodt

Welcome to Day 24 of Storystorm! If you’re like me, pretty soon your gleeful Storystorm inspired so many fantastic new ideas! will crash headlong into the reality of When can I possibly develop them?

Don’t despair! Instead of squeezing water from a rock, as the saying goes, you must squeeze time from a rock. Here are three tips for fitting more writing into your already-full schedule.

  • Tip #1: Writing is about trade-offs. Be at peace with letting some things slide.

‘Time’ is a tricky concept. My so-called “instant success story” of signing with my agent in June 2021 and landing my first picture book contract just four months later doesn’t show how long it took to reach those milestones. (15 years, BTW, but who’s counting?)

What I really want to stress is what ELSE I’ve been doing all this time: Raising two active kids, working a demanding full-time teaching job, volunteering, commuting, carrying out environmental projects, training rescued dogs, and much more.

The key to doing it all is doing some of it badly. My house is messy, I haven’t added to the family scrapbook in years, and bramble is invading my pollinator field. But these are sacrifices I’ve made for the sake of my writing.

  • Tip #2: You will not FIND more writing time; you must MAKE it.

The stork won’t flap to your home and deliver a joyful bundle of hours. Nope, not ever. The only time you’ll have to write is that which you actively hunt down, pounce upon, tie up, and claim.

Just as Storystorm trains your brain to draw inspiration from everyday life, you must actively train your brain to utilize every sliver of that hard-earned time. Which brings us to…

  • Tip #3: Match each specific writing task to its required concentration.

To fully ‘get’ this, I’m challenging you to a hands-on activity. You’ll need scissors, scratch paper, and your favorite writing tool. Go get ‘em.

Ready? Here we go.

  • 1. Prep your paper. 
    Cut it into about a dozen slips or so, each big enough for a phrase. Stop reading this blog, right now, and cut up that paper before you continue. (Or substitute sticky notes, if that’s your thing.)
  • 2. Record your writing tasks.
    On each slip of paper, record one of your writing-related to-dos. Dig deep, and remember the little administrative tasks, too. Here’s about half of my list:
    • Catch up on Storystorm (my 7th year!)
    • Save files to external drive
    • Draft new manuscript
    • Study library books for rhyming patterns and layered NF text structure
    • Research how the heck to make a website
    • Read latest PW Children’s Bookshelf rights report
    • Revise something really challenging
    • Research for latest manuscript
    • Look up SCBWI workshop
  • 3. Rank your tasks by level of required concentration.
    It’s time to create your own personal Column-o-Concentration. Move your I-must-focus-so-don’t-even-think about talking-to-me task to the top, with the rest in descending order.

    Remember, it’s not about priorities. Each of these pieces serves your writing career in some way. It’s about the CONCENTRATION REQUIRED for that particular task. Go ahead and rank your tasks. This hands-on manipulation activates a different part of your brain, so if you skip the process, you’re cheating yourself. Here’s my column:

  • 4. Consider the realities of your schedule.
    This is the very most important, MUST-NOT-SKIP step. Reflect upon your Column-o-Concentration and think about your time commitments. What’s happening today? What obligations do you anticipate in the next two weeks? Two months? Do you see any writing task you could complete even in a distraction-filled setting?For example, I need my full concentration to write, so that golden, sacred time only happens early in the morning before anybody else stirs. But I’ve requested library books during my son’s screaming karate class, and I’ve looked up SCBWI workshops while sweating poolside through my kids’ swim lessons. Critiquing for my peers happens over lunch when there’s minimal distraction. I listen to Renee LaTulippe’s online rhyming lessons as I cook, and to Picture Book Look podcasts when I weed. Organizing files during the TV’s blaring football game works just fine. I study picture books by veteran writers while waiting in the car at the school pick-up line, and during Covid lockdowns I rewatched webinars while huffing on the treadmill.

    To prove I practice what I preach, here are snapshots of the actual picture books I hauled around this week in my front seat, and the oh-so-fancy 2x4s across my treadmill that balance my laptop:

  • 5. State ALOUD when and where you could realistically accomplish each task.
    Stating it aloud is like making a promise to yourself. Don’t worry if folks stare, we writers can claim a certain level of eccentricity.

The trick is to be honest as you match your writing tasks with your realities. It takes practice, but you can do it! Train your brain to squeeze time from a rock as if your writing life depends on it. Your new Storystorm ideas are counting on you!

 


Louise M. Aamodt attended her first picture book class in 2006, and has been tackling that beast ever since. Her debut, A FOREST BEGINS ANEW, illustrated by Elly MacKay and published by Astra Young Readers, rolls out in 2025. You can find Lou mumbling rhyming words as she lops thistles in the pasture, studying picture books in the kid section of the dentist’s lobby, or on Twitter @LouiseMAamodt. That last one is definitely the easiest way to connect. 

Lou is offering a picture book critique. Her agent, Emily S. Keyes of Keyes Agency LLC, is offering another participant feedback on a picture book manuscript plus its accompanying query. One each of these prizes will go to two winners.

You’re eligible to win if you’re a registered Storystorm 2023 participant and you have commented only once on today’s blog post. ↓

Prizes will be distributed at the conclusion of Storystorm.

by Lauren H. Kerstein

You’ve made it to Day 23 in 2023. That has to be lucky, right?

First, a confession: I look forward to Storystorm every December. After all, Tara Lazar is one of my all-time favorite funny kidlit writers and an all-around generous soul. When the new year begins, I know I can expect 31 insightful and inspiring posts from phenomenal creators.

But…

on January 1st, I ALWAYS find myself derailed from my excellent intentions. Day after day, posts pop into my inbox and remain unread. And then, miraculously, somewhere during week two, I recalibrate, regroup, and read them. And they never disappoint! Someone told me yesterday that the first week of January doesn’t count toward good intentions. I’m going with that! (Or maybe the first few weeks of January don’t count.) So if it has taken you until today to start reading these posts, that is fine! You’re here now and that’s what counts!

Let’s talk about email. I have a love/loathe relationship with email. On the one hand, my inbox helps me stay organized (I use it like a “to do” list). On the other hand, my emails seem to birth emails, and before I can say “I need WAY more tea,” my inbox becomes a growing, growling beast.

But here’s the thing—

The “love” part of my email relationship is that my inbox isn’t all bad. In fact, emails are where I find at least 60% of my new ideas. Yup, you heard me right. Email is full of KIDLIT ideas! Let me explain.

Warning: didactic moment ahead.

Today’s post is all about generating ideas (and clearing out emails) using task bundling and temptation bundling.

A quick lesson digression:

  • Task bundling is the process of making similar tasks more manageable. It is often used in project management.
  • Temptation bundling (coined by Katherine Milkman, assistant professor at Wharton University) is a way to use things you enjoy as rewards for less enjoyable tasks. For example, I LOVE listening to steamy romance novels while cleaning the house. It sure makes cleaning WAY more fun.

Okay, now bundle, bundle, bundle! Clean out all of those pesky…I mean, important emails…AND find hidden idea gems. At the same time!

Let’s go through my inbox together in real time. (Terrifying, I know.)

First up, an email from Bed, Bath, and Beyond: “Up to $80 off top Ninja appliances that help you eat healthier…”

Action step: tempting, but…delete (one less email in my inbox)

Ideas: can I write a book about a ninja family who is trying to eat healthier? Or ninjas who host a cooking show? Or a ninja character who wants to be in a cooking show/contest, but has an intense and distracting desire to karate chop the vegetables and…UGH…other contestants during the auditions?

I can just see it now! I need to write this story!

Next: Sage Publishing: “Welcome to the Social & Behavioral Science Monthly Roundup”

Action step: DELETE! No way I’m getting sucked down that rabbit hole right now.

Ideas: Nada!

 

Next: Amazon smile donation notice

Action step: quick-glance and delete.

Ideas: what if a child saved up their pennies for a donation, but had trouble deciding (from the gazillions of options) to whom to donate the money? Is this a PB? A MG? Does it have a Jewish layer? Can it incorporate concepts like, tzedakah, mitzvah, tikkun olam?

 

Ooooh, I like this one too! It actually dovetails into a NF PB idea I already had.

 

Next: Wayfair: wall art we found for you

Action step: delete. Talk about a two-hour side excursion! Note: I often mine tons of ideas from looking at art on websites like Wayfair and Society 6, but that is another post and activity for different day.

Ideas: none.

 

Next: (YIKES: they are coming in faster than I can type!) A “call for help” from the Animal Rescue of the Rockies.

Action step: hesitantly delete. We currently have our hands full with the puppy we fostered for them and then adopted (in record time).

Ideas: picture book about a dog’s life before she ends up in a shelter or foster home, that highlights the original family, the foster family, and then the new/forever family. Or a picture book about the other dog we adopted, a tripod dog. Maybe the picture book shows what happened to the pup before he ended up in a foster home (after surgery to amputate), and then the resilience and strength of the dog as he finds his way to a three-legged life.

Hooray! I have five fewer emails in my inbox. And I have a few new story ideas that I’m excited to write!  I even wrote this post as well. That was some serious task and temptation bundling!

Although none of my “on shelves now and coming soon” books came from this strategy—

I have many manuscripts out on submission and awaiting attention that did.

I challenge you to look your emails in the eye, find idea gems, and then delete, delete, delete. Your task and temptation bundling will pay off as you clean out your inbox each day and unearth shiny kidlit treasures that you can’t wait to craft.

As I always say in my Quick-Read Crafty Tips blog posts—

Feel. Write. Risk.

And remember, you are a creative superhero!

 


Lauren H. Kerstein is an author and psychotherapist. She is a Jersey girl at heart who lives in Colorado with her husband, daughters, and rescue dogs. Lauren is the author of the RIE THE DRAGON AND CHARLIE picture book series (Illustrated by Nate Wragg/Two Lions) and HOME FOR A WHILE (Illustrated by Natalia Moore/Magination Press). REMEMBERING SUNDAYS WITH GRANDPA (Illustrated by Nanette Regan/Beaming Books) is expected November 7, 2023, and another soon-to-be announced picture book will gallop to bookshelves in 2024. Lauren also writes books in her field. Lauren’s books include themes of courage, flexible thinking, friendship, social emotional learning, foster care, seeing your strengths, sensory issues, and emotion regulation. Lauren is represented by Deborah Warren with East/West Literary Agency. Her writing goals are simple. Read voraciously. Embrace feedback. Grow each day. Work hard. Be passionate. Write courageously. Touch children’s hearts. You can visit her at LaurenKerstein.net, and connect with her on Twitter and Instagram @LaurenKerstein, and on FB

Lauren is giving away a 30-minute video-call consultation.

You’re eligible to win if you’re a registered Storystorm 2023 participant and you have commented only once on today’s blog post. ↓

Prizes will be distributed at the conclusion of Storystorm.

  • Jackie Azúa Kramer, interviewed by Jonah Kramer

How did MANOLO AND THE UNICORN come to be?

Ah, peeling the onion of inspiration isn’t always straightforward. I believe I was reading mentor texts about odd friendship stories and bouncing around ideas like what if a koala and a kangaroo met. When Jonah shared that as a young boy he was teased for coloring with a purple crayon. I never knew this. It upset me to think that at such a young age, he navigated questions of his identity. I remembered that Jonah, as a child loved mythology, especially unicorns. Keeping in mind the idea of the odd friendship, we started talking about a boy who loved unicorns but was teased about it. And what if, the boy actually encountered a unicorn. In that moment, we envisioned the whole story. Then the hard work began.

What was it like to collaborate for the first time with another writer?

Covid had just hit and Jonah, an actor, was now home from touring. So, our collaboration was a nice distraction from reality. It was an interesting time for imagination and allowing seeds of ideas to grow and bloom. I thought the mother-son relationship might affect our work together. But writing can be a lonely business, so it was fun having someone to help develop and discuss the story. I would write a section and email it to Jonah. Then Jonah would revise and send his revision back to me. And vice versa, he’d write a section, and I’d revise. Under one roof it was easy to work together. For example, I remember us working late into the night, and it felt perfectly normal sitting around in our pajamas.

MANOLO AND THE UNICORN touches upon a child’s sense of self and identity. Can you speak to that?

In the story, Manolo believes the world is a magical place. He loves exploring in the natural world and loves unicorns most of all. Manolo is truly and authentically himself until someone tells him otherwise. Jonah and I learned from our research that unicorns only appear to those pure of heart. That element strengthened and weaved well into our theme of identity. Identity encompasses the memories, experiences, relationships, and values that shape one’s sense of self. One’s identity is made up of big and small things – everything from one’s hair, who one prays to, who one loves, the food one eats, to the families and neighborhoods one grows  up in.

What do you hope will be the takeaway for young readers?

The more a child feels seen, the more they feel valued; the less a child feels seen, the less they feel that they matter. We hope the book lifts children up and supports their positive identity.

 

  • Jonah Kramer, interviewed by Jackie Azúa Kramer

What was it like to write a book for the first time? And what was it like to work with your mom?

Ever since I was a kid we would read children’s books together and we would each take turns giving the characters different voices. I never imagined that one day I would be writing a children’s book with my mom instead of just reading them. The challenge as a first time writer was finding a way to channel and refine my ideas into a story. Many times, one of us would have an idea and we would riff off each other talking about all the different ways we could take the story. Working with my mom I got to see the craftsmanship that goes into writing a children’s book. She knows how to take a concept and think about it both as a writer and through the eyes of a child, which I think is an invaluable skill.

 How did negative childhood experiences impact your identity?

For our yearbook, I was asked what I wanted to be when I grew up. Without hesitation, I said, “a Disney princess.” When the yearbook came out it said “actor” and not “Disney princess”, which ironically set me on my path to becoming an actor. But it was not my honest answer and taught me that there are certain things that our culture was not willing to let me express about myself. As I was writing the story, it hit me how damaging it was to have that experience at such a formative age.

How has your work as an actor effected how you write?

When writing I would often imagine the text in my head as if someone was performing it. It would help me to act out parts of the book as in a script. For example, my mom and I, spent time going over the details of Manolo’s first sighting of the Unicorn and I remember acting out for her what that greeting might look like. My three act play depicting this interaction didn’t entirely make it into the final story, lol. I think part of the reason we worked well together is that we both have theatre backgrounds.

We decided to stick very closely to the mythology about unicorns. How did that become an important theme in the book and how did that shape the characters of both the Unicorn and Manolo?

I would lose myself for hours imagining that I had magical powers, that I had a team of Pokémon, or that I was exploring the distant planets in Star Wars and its creatures. I would even draw my own characters with names and their own magical mythology. So the magical thinking of children was important in the story. However, everything was still rooted in realism. Manolo is a boy with a family that goes to school and has all the experiences that come with that. The sadness and aloneness Manolo feels when he’s teased by classmates for liking and believing in unicorns. Unicorn mythology often describes them as creatures who only show themselves to those who are pure of heart. Manolo sees the magic in everything, and he can find the extraordinary in the ordinary, which makes for the perfect friendship between these two characters.

What do you hope the takeaway for young readers will be?

I wish that I had a book like Manolo and the Unicorn when I was a kid. It might have changed the way I thought about myself and given me reassurance that I can use that purple marker, that I can be a Disney princess if I wanted to. Still waiting for the offer from Disney. There aren’t enough books for kids like me to see themselves reflected in. I hope that all creators in all mediums continue to write more stories for kids that reinforce the idea that all parts of us are beautiful.


Jackie Azúa Kramer is an award-winning and internationally translated children’s book author. Her picture books include THE GREEN UMBRELLA, 2017 Bank Street College Best Children’s Books of the Year; IF YOU WANT TO FALL ASLEEP; a 2021 SCBWI Crystal Kite Award winner, THE BOY AND THE GORILLA; I WISH YOU KNEW, Chicago Public Library Best of the Best Books 2021 and 2021. Parents’ Magazine Raising the Future Book Club Pick; MILES WON’T SMILE and Junior Library Guild Gold Selection, DOROTHY AND HERBERT: AN ORDINARY COUPLE AND THEIR EXTRAORDINARY COLLECTION OF ART. Her upcoming picture books releasing in 2023 are WE ARE ONE, EMPANADAS FOR EVERYONE and BOOGIE IN THE BRONX. Visit her online at Jackieazuakramer.com, on Twitter @jackiekramer422 and Instagram @jackie_azua_kramer.

Jonah Kramer is a New York City-based actor, singer, dancer, and now children’s book author. He has traveled as a performer both nationally and internationally. He is delighted to coauthor his first book with his amazing mom. Find him online at JonahKramer.com and follow him on Instagram @jonahekramer.

 

Jackie and Jonah are giving away two copies of MANOLO AND THE UNICORN (when it releases on April 18), one copy each to two winners.

You’re eligible to win if you’re a registered Storystorm 2023 participant and you have commented only once on today’s blog post. ↓

Prizes will be distributed at the conclusion of Storystorm.

by M.O. Yuksel

I love using writing exercises to generate story ideas. One exercise I find especially useful is trying out different points of view (POV). For example, when I started writing my new picture book RAMADAN KAREEM, about the Muslim holy month of fasting, I wrote it from the fast-breaking meal, iftar’s POV. A story from a meal’s perspective? At first, it seemed crazy. But I went with it anyway. I was trusting the process of creating and giving myself permission to play.

This exercise allowed me to put my creative hat on and think about all kinds of fun possibilities like how iftar might react to a child dreaming about their favorite foods, or how it might respond to a child being impatient waiting for iftar to arrive. After many revisions, I eventually changed the POV of the final story, but the initial kernel was sprinkled throughout the book, RAMADAN KAREEM, coming out in 2024.

I also used this POV exercise when I was stuck while working on my picture book biography, ONE WISH: Fatima al-Fihri and the World’s Oldest University. I couldn’t figure out how to structure this story about this inspiring, trail blazing woman who built the world’s oldest, continually operating university in Fez, Morocco in the 9th century. I was determined to figure it out, but I was stuck and frustrated!

So, I decided to open myself up to play and try writing the story from different perspectives. I wrote the story from the university’s perspective. What? Yes, the university. I thought, what might a university hear, see, smell, taste, touch, if it could? The final version of ONE WISH isn’t written from the school’s perspective, but this exercise did help me come up with a few sensory details including this refrain:

“Fatima imagined her school—feet shuffling from class to class, scholars lecturing at every corner of the building, students debating in various dialects…She could almost touch each brick and stone.”

Writing from multiple POV also came in handy when I was drafting my picture book, IN MY MOSQUE.

I first wrote it from the community perspective—what, where, why of a place of worship. But it wasn’t very kid relatable. So, I included a second perspective, that of the child. Each spread begins with the community perspective and ends with the child’s, incorporating their feelings and senses.

Now, it’s your turn. Try writing in different POVs. You might try it on a draft you’re working on, or an idea percolating in your head, or if you don’t have an idea, maybe look at the first thing you see and write it from its POV, then write it from other POVs, and see what happens! Most importantly, put your internal editor and critic away, trust the process, and give yourself permission to play!

 


M.O. Yuksel is author of the picture books, IN MY MOSQUE, illustrated by Hatem Aly (HarperCollins 2021), and ONE WISH: Fatima al-Fihri and the World’s Oldest University, illustrated by Mariam Quraishi (HarperCollins 2022). Her forthcoming books include RAMADAN KAREEM, illustrated by Hatem Aly (HarperCollins 2024), SAMI’S SPECIAL GIFT: An Eid Al-Adha Story, illustrated by Huseyin Sonmezay (Charlesbridge 2024), and PRINCE OF STARS: The Story of Ulugh Beg, illustrated by Zelma Firdauzia (HarperCollins, 2024). Before becoming a full-time writer, she worked in the education field for over twenty years as an administrator, manager, teacher, and yoga instructor. She lives in New Jersey with her three kids, two cats, and one husband. Visit her online at: MOYuksel.com.

M.O. Yuksel is giving away a copy of her book, ONE WISH: Fatima al-Fihri and the World’s Oldest University.

You’re eligible to win if you’re a registered Storystorm 2023 participant and you have commented only once on today’s blog post. ↓

Prizes will be distributed at the conclusion of Storystorm.

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