by Arree Chung
Has this ever happened to you? You’re working on an idea. You’re excited about it. You share it with your agent or editor and then they tell you that it’s not working. Thud, thud, thud (that’s the sound of my head hitting against the wall).
Back to the drawing board. Well, not always. Developing an idea and refining it is really hard but sometimes you can make it work. This happened to me, on the book I’m currently working on. It’s titled OUT.
In this post, I’ll share a few tips on developing an idea and how to make an idea work when it’s not working.
START WITH THE FEELING
Stories come from many places but sometimes, I like to start with the feeling. OUT began as a story tilted BREAKOUT.
At the start, I knew I wanted to make an adventure story. As a kid, I loved watching the Great Escape with my dad. I loved the humor and the near chances of getting caught.
Kids love to play cops and robbers all the time so I started to think about an adventure of escaping prison. At first, I imagined braking out of prison with a quirky set of animal characters.
I worked really hard and made a full picture book dummy of BREAKOUT. I excitedly shared my idea with my agent. He wasn’t in love with it and brought up some good points. Prison is probably a subject to avoid in picture books- some kids have incarcerated parents and we want to be sensitive. But I was disappointed. I had come up with all these ideas that I loved and I didn’t want to scrap them completely.
SALVAGING AN IDEA
I was frustrated and stuck. I shared my idea with a good friend who taught kindergarten and 1st grade. We started to brainstorm.
We asked ourselves:
- How could we adapt this idea to something more age appropriate?
- How could we retain the same sense of adventure, escape and mischief?
Still thinking graphically about black bars and shadows, I thought about how cribs are like little prison cells for infants and toddlers. And I know lots of kids hate being stuck in them when they want to roam.
TRANSFORMING YOUR STORY
I made a few new thumbnails to map out the new story. At this moment, I thought about how a baby and his favorite toy could break out of the crib. It wasn’t a fully developed story yet but we were on our way.
STEP AWAY AND COME BACK WITH FRESH EYES
I shared this with my agent. I knew it wasn’t working yet but wanted feedback. One of the most helpful aspects of sharing your ideas with story experts is that they ask you smart questions. In this case, Rubin asked me what could happen once the baby is out of the crib.
I could feel ideas percolating. I didn’t have the solution yet and sometimes it’s helpful to step away for a bit. I had a few other books to illustrate so I spent my days working on those. But I always had this idea in the back of my mind. Then it all came together.
PUZZLE PIECES AND INSPIRATION
Stories are like puzzle pieces that perfectly fit together in a narrative. The tough part is you never know where to get all the pieces from. Sometimes a picture you see will be a piece. This picture did it for me.
You probably saw these pictures around the internet too. When a boy and his dog started to take naps habitually together, a mom started photographing them and posting on the internet.
That was the missing piece for me. I knew what the story was. It was about a toddler and his dog. When the toddler gets put to bed, the dog and the toddler are separated. When the toddler escapes his crib, the two are on their own adventure. You’ll have to wait to see what the rest of the book is about.
Here’s are a few tips for making a story work:
- START WITH A STRONG FEELING. Think of stories that you love and how they made you feel. Capture this in your first draft of your story.
- SHARE YOUR IDEA with a few trusted experts. Be careful not to overshare. You don’t need too many ideas in your head, especially at this early juncture.
- If your concept isn’t working, THINK HOW YOU CAN SHIFT YOUR STORY to a new setting or new characters. Remember the feelings of the story you want to create. Sets and characters are actors in your world. Anything can change at this early stage.
- STEP AWAY AND GET INSPIRED. Collect references. Make boards, folders.
- PUT IT TOGETHER. If you have enough pieces, you’ll be able to put together a new story. If you’re not quiet there yet, repeat steps 3 and 4.
If you have an idea or strong feeling for a story, don’t give up. OUT took 2 years to piece together. Refining ideas into a core story is the hardest part of developing a book. Remember the feeling you want to capture in your story and get excited. Keep at it and you’ll get there.
Happy Holidays and Happy PiBoMo!
Arree Chung is the author and illustrator of the popular picture book, “Ninja!”, which has received starred reviews from Kirkus and School Library Journal and has been named one of Amazon’s best books for 2014. “Ninja!” was also named one of NPR’s best children’s books of 2014. “Ninja!, Attack of the Clan” the followup to Ninja will be releasing in 2016, along with “How to Pee: Potty Training for Girls” and “Fix-it Man.” Arree has a two-picture-book contract with MacMillan and is also illustrating books from other publishers. Visit him online at Arree.com.
Arree is giving away a signed copy of NINJA!
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Good luck, everyone!