by Betsy Devany
When Tara approached me to do a guest post, I was thrilled. And then I sat down and thought: Oh, dear. How best can I contribute as a pre-published author, who shares her writing room with a life-sized gorilla named Norman and a slew of beloved stuffies?
So I went back through my own PiBoldMo notes/ideas. While I’d followed prior years’ posts, I didn’t officially commit until 2011. I’d spent months revising a number of novels, and I missed working on picture books. Coming up with a new idea(s) every day was like treating myself to a mango/banana smoothie from Cold Stone. I told myself, at the time, that if I actually did that, maybe while enjoying a Love It smoothie, a picture book idea would come to me. I’d have a sparking new voice before I got back home, acting like I had not just gone to Cold Stone and indulged myself, once again.
So with a self-promise to more vigorously support Cold Stone, I took a leap of faith, and added my name to the 2011 PiBoldMo roster.
Every day, I read the guest post. I studied the advice, soaked in the inspiration, and highlighted what spoke to me. I kept a pen and paper nearby at all times. As ideas came, I stretched some further, adding bits of dialogue or notes about conflict. With other ideas, I described the image or images that led to the “light bulb,” all of which seemed to come when I was driving, walking, or paying with my grandkids, i.e. just being silly. Silly like having tea parties with Norman, my granddaughter and seventeen unicorns. Silly like wearing funny glasses and too-small gowns, riding on stick horses while speaking in a British accent. Silly like doing puppet shows in which you act out picture books gone wild. With all of this, I embraced the child within—with my grandkids along for the fun, of course. I do not hold private tea parties for the gorilla, the unicorns, and myself. (Well, okay, I may have done this once.)
Two words of advice: Have fun.
Open your heart and forget what your neighbors might think when they see you dashing through your yard riding a stick pony and shouting, “Yee-haw! Grandma’s gonna wrestle you wild thing!” Ignore their looks when you’re tossing balls to a giant stuffed gorilla. And if your dress-up outfit suggests you’ve forgotten that you’re now a responsible adult, smile and wave. They might even join you! Enjoying-your-life moments take us to the magical place where ideas shift like cotton-candy clouds, all for the taking. Reach out and grab one!
Or . . . you can dice potatoes, because the act of dicing potatoes can also land you in the Magical and Marketable World of Ideas.
On day twenty-four of PiBoldMo 2011, I was doing exactly that, trying to look like I knew the official ins-and-outs of all things potato. It was Thanksgiving, and my daughters, whose adept cooking skills strongly suggest I did not give birth to them, stood there watching me.
“No, Mom. Smaller chunks,” said my youngest.
“Use the other knife, and hold it this way,” said the eldest. “Are you sure you’re our mother?”
“Yes,” I said. Chop, chop, chop.
“I’m shocked that we didn’t starve as children,” said one sister to the other.
“At least I can write,” I said when the “light bulb” went off. “Lucy!” I shouted.
“Who’s Lucy?” asked the youngest. “It’ll be midnight before we’re sitting at the table eating turkey.”
“Lucy . . . she has dolls, all these dolls, and . . .” I swapped the knife for a pen. “One is really smelly and . . .”
My youngest gave her sister an uneasy look. “You’re the paramedic. I think Mom needs medical attention.”
“I think those potatoes need attention,” my eldest said, right after she forever-fired me from cooking the annual Thanksgiving dinner. In truth, we took a family vote. And when my eldest said, “Raise your hand if you think we should fire Mom from cooking Thanksgiving dinner from here on out.” My arm slapped the ceiling first.
The vote was unanimous.
“Thank you, PiBoldMo!” I said, fleeing the kitchen in pursuit of this new smelly idea.
While SMELLY BABY seemed to rise from a pot of unevenly diced potatoes, it wasn’t that simple. Ideas latch on to us, long before the switch goes on. And the more you write, the more the ideas come. Which is why my father, who was a published author, always said, “Write every day, but also live and enjoy your life. The ideas will come, when you’re not so busy chasing them.”
SMELLY BABY grew in my subconscious, its seed planted from working in an old-fashioned toy store, where electronic toys don’t exist. Lucy quietly evolved after talking to hundreds of children I’ve met at the store, children who’ve shared stories of their dollies and smelly stuffies. I love these stories—every single one of them. So listen. Listen to what kids say. Sincere interest (and delight) in what children have to say has left me with a tub full of notes and bits of dialogue, all scribbled on tiny slips of paper. It’s my Idea Treasure Chest. “You have to think of your writing as an IRA, and make daily deposits,” my father also loved to tell me. If all those slips of paper had monetary value, I would be a millionaire, though what makes my life rich is writing for children.
By November’s end my 2011 calendar was filled with stars—one for every idea I came up with. It was so much fun, I gave no thought to which ideas might blossom into a marketable story.
And then one did.
Smelly Baby’s story bubbled and boiled. It was a joy to work on. Playing with the words. Roaring at the images the words evoked. Living with these characters that became (and remain) real to me. This little spark of a PiBoldMo idea grew and grew until it gathered enough strength and heart to capture the attention of not only Christy Ottaviano at Christy Ottaviano Books/Henry Holt, but also the renowned illustrator, Christopher Denise, who calls it “laugh out loud funny.” Publication is set for Spring 2016.
In 2011, I also won an original painting by James Burks (the illustrator of Tara’s book THE MONSTORE). Little (PiBoldMo) Monkey hangs on my wall, and reminds me to play every day. Reminds me to mount a red tricycle, even if my legs are too long. It reminds me to trust in myself, and that if I lift my bare feet off the pedals, I won’t fall off.
Can you see the steep hill? See all of us on our tricycles, waiting for Tara to lower the flag? Little Monkey can. He’s waiting to shout, “1-2-3, Go! Go write daily. Reach for those ideas on your way down.” Having bare feet works the best, as does shouting ‘Whee!’ as you catch a new idea.
It’s almost November 1st, so get out your tricycle, your stars, your pen and your paper.
You’re in for a fun ride.
I’ll be waving at you as we coast down the PiBoldMo hill together.
Betsy Devany wrote her first picture book, The Cat Who Ate Green Peas, at the age of nine. While she wishes the self-illustrated manuscript were still in her possession, she is certain that elements of it have found their way into her writing today. Today, she writes picture books, chapter books, middle grade and young adult novels. Her picture book featuring Norman the gorilla won the 2011 Barbara Karlin Grant Runner-up. Betsy has been honored nine times since 2007 in the prestigious writing competition, New Voices in Children’s Literature: Tassy Walden Award. She is honored to work with the lovely Emily van Beek at Folio Literary.
Almost eight years to the month of joining SCBWI, Betsy received her first book contract. Smelly Baby, illustrated by Christopher Denise, is forthcoming from Christy Ottaviano Books/Henry Holt with publication set for Spring 2016.
To learn more about Betsy (or Norman), visit her at BetsyDevany.com, follow her on Twitter, or read about Norman’s retirement and how his replacement was found.
Betsy is giving away TWO picture book critiques!
Both prizes will be given away at the conclusion of PiBoIdMo. You are eligible for these prizes if:
- You have registered for PiBoIdMo.
- You have commented ONCE ONLY on this post.
- You have completed the PiBoIdMo challenge. (You will have to sign the PiBoIdMo Pledge at the end of the event.)
Good luck, everyone!