by Jo Swartz

The expression “A picture is worth a thousand words” for me, is very true. Sometimes inspiration comes from an idea, sometimes the words just come, but mostly the idea creeps up on me and surprises me when I least expect it out of something else. The only scary feeling accompanying it is “can I pull it off?”. Will the finished product turn out as fabulous as I imagine it?

Lately I have been quite surprised by the source of 3 of my newest picture books—all ‘works in progress’. They each began as a simple, single drawing. One was for a licensing line I am hoping to develop, another was just a portfolio sketch based on a fairy tale, and my shiniest new idea began while trying to think of a single picture to show my illustrative abilities for the upcoming SCBWI conference in New York. Aaack! Since, only one picture is allowed. I had to create one that would encapsulate my style and ability which for me meant I needed to create a concept where I showed beautifully costumed people, and talking animals. (At least I think so…who knows if this will be the image I use).

As I was working out what the picture should look like, my family became the source of inspiration for the theme, and suddenly there it was—the whole picture book. Right now, it is just all pictures in my head and very few words…but they are on their way. And I hope I can ‘pull it off’.

I don’t know how authors who don’t draw plan out a picture book. I don’t think I could without pictures early on in the process, even sketching out a rough stick figure dummy about what is going on in each page really helps me.

Even if you don’t draw—collage can do the trick. Just one picture can give you so much. Setting, characters, emotions.

This post is pretty late in the PiBoIdMo challenge, and if you are doing well with it—you have probably found that the more ideas you get, the more ideas you get! I think the challenge is great for training the mind to see opportunities for a story. Suddenly you find something humorous—whether it is a picture or a comment you heard while eavesdropping, the juxtaposition of something, irony, all these things can create a wonderfully original story, and sometimes something you never thought or intended to become a story—suddenly does.

I would also like to add for the illustrators out there—that not all picture books need to have words, either.

The story idea that I got while working on the licensing project has no words. I think of it like a silent movie. I just found that the illustrations told it all and words added nothing.

So, whether you draw, write, or both, don’t wait for your muse. If the one for writing isn’t showing up that day for work, try calling on one that handles the pictures to guide you. And if you are too scared to work with her—try the one for song, history, and so on. Or, do something completely different…but keep your mind ready for when the idea pops in. Mine likes to wake me in the middle of the night—so it is a good idea to always have a pen and notebook nearby!

The thing with inspiration is you never know what you’re going to get. None of the stories I am most pleased with, I intended, or planned, or saw coming. And whatever you do…have fun with the whole process—it will show in the work.

Jo Swartz is a writer/illustrator in Toronto. She works with both traditional media (mainly watercolor & ink) and digitally. She has several WIPs at various stages of completion. Jo is a former fashion designer, and has worked internationally in ready-to-wear and haute-couture in Paris, and a former creative director/graphic artist. This is her 3rd career. Jo’s work can be found at and you can follow her on twitter She has recently been featured at Smith Micro’s Manga Studio site.