by Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen

I have no new ideas.


No plan. No flashes of inspiration. No idea where to find an idea.

This is not a new dilemma for me.

The longer I’ve been writing, the more successful I’ve gotten, the harder it becomes to find those ideas that get me excited. Sounds counterintuitive, doesn’t it? Shouldn’t it get easier with experience?

For me, it hasn’t. But that hasn’t stopped me from writing. (After all, this is the sweetest job on earth – not only do I get to create something from nothing, a lot of the time that I’m working, I’m in my jammies in my bed.) So, what’s a girl to do? How do you pull a good idea out of the air?

I don’t really know. But Tara invited me to blog so I thought I’d give y’all some possible places to start.

Look for Nuggets, not Multitudes
Everyone knows you can’t just sit down to write a picture book about a chicken and think that’s all the brainstorming you need to do to run with it. Just “chicken” is too generic, too common, too…uninspired. But what if that’s all you have? Don’t you need a complete plot, a big idea…a whole roaster, so to speak?

Let the chicken be your nugget, no pun intended, and build from there. (And who am I kidding? I totally intended the pun. See below. I don’t stop with the puns.)

I started with a chicken nugget once. I hadn’t written a chicken book. Chickens are adorable. Instant winner.

But I quickly realized that I needed more. For someone to give a cluck about my chicken book, I needed to add some garnish. So I started thinking about chickens and what they do. Eventually, I brainstormed about chicks – but there were so many chick books already. Baby chicks, fluffy chicks, chicks and salsa…the list went on and on. All these chicks in all these books, all running wild…
And then it hit me. CHICKS RUN WILD.

I took my nugget and grew it to a title. And from there, I…well, ran wild with it. Now, let’s be honest, I took this title and then did what writers all over the world do every day: I wrote about what I knew. CHICKS RUN WILD grew into the story of little chicks at bedtime who don’t want to go to sleep quite yet—it could be an autobiography of bedtime with my own children. So, easily, I could advise you to take inspiration from your life—but you get that everywhere, don’t you? Besides, my point is I only got to writing about what I knew after starting with a small nugget of inspiration. I nurtured that nugget and kept it warm and safe until it grew into a fully formed…idea.

What’s in a Name?
OK, let’s shift gears. No more chicken puns. Let’s talk names instead.

Is there anything more immediately suggestive than a character’s name? Think Willy Wonka, or Shrek, or Fancy Nancy—just the names create an image in the reader’s mind. Characters can grow to be iconic – if developed correctly. But you certainly can’t know ahead of time which of your characters will become iconic.

That doesn’t mean you can’t start with character.

The truth is, I think the best place to start is character. When you have an idea for a great character, you need to let him run free (run wild, perhaps?) even before you figure out exactly what that character will do in the story. A strong character will find his story.

Years ago, I wanted to write a story about a vampire pig named HAMPIRE. A pig with fangs and a Dracula cape. Preferably a vegetarian. But that’s all I knew about him.

It took years—YEARS—to find his story. For a long time, I didn’t have a story for Hampire—but he lingered in my thoughts, waiting for me to figure him out. I had dreams about him, I had nightmares about him—and I wrote draft after draft about him. In the end, he still had fangs, still wore a cape, was still a vegetarian—but everything else about him changed many, many times. And that was OK.

Be Patient
I probably haven’t told you anything here that you didn’t already know, and there’s certainly not anything earth shattering in looking for inspiration as small as a title or a character. But what I want to leave you with is the most important idea about ideas of all:

Be patient.

You can’t force a good idea. You can’t coerce your brain into generating a good idea, nor can you keep working at a bad idea to turn it into a good idea. And, honestly, the more you try to force yourself, the harder it gets to tell the difference between the good ideas and the truly horribly awful ones.

So, be patient. Work on ideas you have, and don’t be afraid to heavily edit as you’re writing. In fact, don’t be afraid of crumpling up a lot of paper and tossing things into the trash—sometimes, the best way to find a great idea is to sort through and dispose of all the bad ideas around it.

I won’t lie to you and say that after dispensing all this advice, I was hit by inspiration and walked away with a great new idea to work on. I didn’t. I still don’t have any ideas for my next picture book. But I also know that when the idea does come, it like won’t be accompanied by a flash of lightning and a gospel choir. It will come from a word, or a phrase, or an image that strikes me and lingers. And that’s where the work begins.

Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen is the author of many, many books for children, ranging from fourteen picture books to over a dozen nonfiction books for young readers. Her picture book Quackenstein Hatches a Family was selected for the California Readers 2011 Book Collections for School Libraries. Ballots for Belva was named to the 2009 Amelia Bloomer List and received an Oppenheim Toy Portfolio Gold Award in 2008 and Tightrope Poppy, the High-Wire Pig was named one of the Best Children’s Books of the Year in 2007 by the Children’s Book Committee at Bank Street. Flying Eagle was a National Science Teachers Association Outstanding Science Trade Book selection for Students K–12 in 2010 and was named one of the Bank Street’s Best Children’s Books of the Year in 2010. Her science book, Nature Science Experiments, was named a finalist for the 2011 AAAS/Subaru Science Books & Films Prize for Excellence in Science Books. And her books Chicks Run Wild and Hampire! are her personal favorites, and just fabulous.

Sudipta speaks at conferences, educator events, and schools across the country, teaching the craft of writing to children and adults. She lives outside Philadelphia with her three children and an imaginary pony named Penny. Learn more about her and her books at