by Margo Sorenson

You’re done! Woohooo! you say to yourself, riffling through the pages of ideas you’ve concocted during Tara’s awesome PiBoIdMo. Rubbing your hands together gleefully (and maybe cackling, too), you can’t wait to start writing the zingy text for the next Caldecott winner, and then you stop. Stop dead, actually. *headdesk* Bewildered, you stare with glazed eyes at each idea you jotted down, some followed by questions you wrote (good), some followed by extraneous comments and ditherings (still good), and others followed by a vast blankness (not so good, but, hey, who said this was easy?).

Lazar Lots of Questions

Good.

Lazar Thinking on Paper

Still good.

Lazar Vast Blankness

Not so good.

AllThroughMyTown_cov_variations.inddTo prioritize and organize, it can help us to be disciplined *she says, shuffling madly through all the writing tips in search of the shiny ones* and apply some ‘litmus tests’ to see which of these ideas might actually fly. This is not to say that some of our golden ideas that don’t pass these tests won’t eventually spark other ideas, or that they can’t be reworked into something else, but to save time (and agony!), it can help us (our mileage may vary) to concentrate on three or four out of the thirty ideas just to begin with.

Test #1: Our first litmus test is thanks to Jean Reidy, author of fun picture books like TOO PURPLEY and ALL THROUGH MY TOWN. She asks in her Ten Power Premises: Will a kid like it? (Is it part of a kid’s world—real or imaginary? Is it relatable?) Aha! You may have seen this wonderful New York Times cartoon by Grant Snider, The Very Bad Picture Book.

Very Bad Picture Book

Yes, the last frame in the cartoon can be a wake-up call, can’t it? Does our idea seem didactic? Are we trying to teach children something they “should know”? Once we go through our ideas, one by one, asking that question, a number of ideas get shelved. This isn’t to say that from one or two of them, a connection to a kid’s world couldn’t be made in time, particularly by asking, “What if…?”, but, in the interests of prioritizing and efficient use of time, those can be put aside for now.

sophiessquashTest #2: The next litmus test, if we’re writing a story, not a concept book, is thanks to David Mamet, he of playwriting (Glengarry Glenross, etc.) and screenwriting fame. ‘Who wants what, and why? Why now? What happens if her [sic] don’t [sic] get it?’ To give substance to that framework, a good example would be what Pat Z. Miller, author of the wonderful SOPHIE’S SQUASH said: “Sonia’s love for her squash gave me the initial idea for the book. But by itself it wasn’t enough. If I had written the book exactly the way things happened in real life, it would have been an amusing anecdote, at best. And that’s kind of what my first draft was. It took me a while to build out a full story and figure out the problem (the rotting squash, a long winter apart) and the resolution (baby squash).”

Spaghetti Smiles Cover - CopyThis step of plotting in our prioritizing takes more time, but the fun begins here. The metamorphosis from one of our daughters’ make-your-own pizza birthday parties (the amusing anecdote) to my most recent picture book SPAGHETTI SMILES took years to create, but, asking the right questions finally paid off. From my PiBoIdMo idea, “Click,” one of my written questions to myself generated the character of Little Bunny.

The story idea for TAIL-END BUNNY actually turned out to be the opposite of the thread of my initial questioning, but, that’s what’s exciting and mesmerizing(oh, and frustrating, too! ☺) about writing. We don’t often really know what we’re saying until we see it on the page.

Finally: Once we have a clutch of ideas that have passed our litmus tests of the moment, we can begin spending more time on each. Other good questions to ask about each idea are: (thanks, again, Jean Reidy!) “Is it highly visual? Can you imagine 14+ scenes coming from your story?; and (thank you, Tara!) Does it convey emotional truth? That is the kicker question! Ruminating, musing, writing as we think, taking a walk to clear our heads and letting ideas simmer on the back burners of our minds will end up helping us to cook up a great story.

Without Tara’s PiBoIdMo, though, we wouldn’t have thirty little lumps of coal, jostling each other to catch our attention, to rub and polish, so it’s with much gratitude that I thank Tara for continuing to inspire us and galvanize us as we embark on our own new writing adventures and pick just the right ones!


ALOHA FOR CAROL ANNNational Milken Educator Award recipient and author of twenty-nine books, Margo Sorenson’s most recent picture books are SPAGHETTI SMILES (Pelican Publishing) and ALOHA FOR CAROL ANN (Marimba Books/JustUs Books). Among Margo’s awards was being named a finalist for the Minnesota Book Award in YA Fiction. She enjoys Skyping and meeting with readers from Minnesota to California, Hawaii, the Philippines and the UK.

You can find Margo on the web at MargoSorenson.com and on Twitter as @ipapaverison.

PrizeDetails (2)

Margo is giving away two books–one copy each of SPAGHETTI SMILES and ALOHA FOR CAROL ANN.

Leave a comment below to enter. One comment per person, please.

These prizes will be given away at the conclusion of PiBoIdMo. You will be eligible for these prizes if:

  • You have registered for PiBoIdMo.
  • You have commented ONCE ONLY on today’s post.
  • You have completed the PiBoIdMo challenge.

Good luck, everyone!