by Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen

Ask any writer, and he or she will tell you that ideas are hard.

Except…they’re not.

Ideas are easy. I can come up with a new idea for a book once a day. I could probably do it once an hour! I’d have oodles of ideas at the end of this exercise.

Except…they probably wouldn’t be good ideas.

Ideas aren’t hard. Good ideas, on the other hand are as elusive as a greased pig at a county fair. (I assume that greased pigs at a county fair would be elusive. I have no first-hand knowledge of pigs, greased or otherwise, or county fairs. But I’ve definitely read about them, and they sound very elusive.)

I’ve talked about sorting through your ideas on this blog before, and I won’t be repeating the same old story. After all, that would not be a very good idea. Instead, I’d like to share some tips about developing an idea from eh to excellent.

You already know that creating a polished, publishable manuscript involves peer review, professional critiques, and revision. But there is something else I do to get to the strongest possible story: I rely on my sounding board.

We’re all familiar with the dictionary definition of sounding board: “a person or group whose reactions to suggested ideas are used as a test of their validity or likely success before they are made public.” It’s very likely you already have a critique group to perform a similar function on your manuscripts. But I use a sounding board as early as the idea stage.

There are some things to look for when choosing an idea sounding board. First, he or she must be a children’s literature professional. So, no, you can’t bounce your ideas off your spouse or your kids or your neighbor or—heaven forbid—your mother. Those are fine people to consult with when you’re brainstorming or writing, but they don’t count as the kind of sounding board I’m talking about.

Next, you have to choose someone you work well with. This does not have to be someone you will be using as an active collaborator, but it does have to be someone who feels comfortable giving you honest feedback—because telling you something is good when it isn’t is really just a waste of everyone’s time. As Roxie says, ain’t nobody got time for dishonesty.

Thirdly—and this is perhaps the most important—your sounding board should be someone who doesn’t think like you do. In fact, the less your artistic points of view overlap, the better it is. You are already thinking of your idea the way  someone like you would think about it. What you need is someone different, who comes at it from a totally contrasting viewpoint, and who might even bring a completely new skill set.

For me, my sounding board is most often my agent. (After all, I can threaten to fire her if she doesn’t listen to me.) We’ve been working together for over a decade, so there is a high level of comfort there. She’s still unflinchingly honest and I respect her knowledge of the market. Unfortunately, she also tends to nag me about ideas I’ve bounced off her that I…never seem to finish. Which means, sometimes, I have to hide from her—and I have to find a different sounding board. Which brings me to the story I want to share.

A few months ago, my agent nagged reminded me about a Project-That-Shall-Not-Be-Named that I have been trying to write for years. She even asked one of her illustrator clients, Mike Ciccotello, to draw a character sketch to help inspire me. So, of course, I immediately began working on…a completely different project. I guiltily shared that information with Mike. To my surprise, he both liked the new project and had suggestions.

The second project is called CHEESE & QUACKERS. The story centered on a lamb (Cheese) and a duck (Quackers) who have an odd couple-type relationship as roommates at summer camp. I had the idea that the story should be told in sparse text in a comic book-like format, but that would require rich, expressive illustrations. Luckily, Mike had the idea that the story should be told with rich, expressive illustrations in a comic book-like format and therefore should have sparse text.

Thus, the idea bouncing—really an elaborate version of the “What If” game—began.

What if one of them was neat and organized and the other was a slob? (Good idea.)

What if one was a summer camp veteran and the other new to camping? (Also good.)

What if one had lots of friends at camp and the other was totally reliant on his roommate? (We’re on a roll!)

What if the characters wore shirts but no pants? (That’s a hard “no.”)

What if one of them likes pancake batter and jelly sandwiches? (Also no.)

What if we put two llamas in their core friend group so I can name them Dolly Llama and Kendrick Llama? (Umm, of course!)

Because Mike and I were collaborating, the “What If” game was reciprocal and ran concurrently with drafting the manuscript. This typically won’t be the case, but luckily, your sounding board does not need to be a collaborator. The important thing is that he or she needs to be able to ask you “What If” questions to get you to think about things you hadn’t considered, and he or she needs to be able to answer your “What If” questions to toss out new ideas. Answering “What If” questions makes the eventual story become clearer in your head. It also helps you block off the paths you shouldn’t take your character down (see pancake batter and jelly above), which makes the idea stronger.

Sometimes, you need a little feedback.

Sometimes, it’s a long back-and-forth.

Sometimes, you hear something you didn’t expect.But every round of the game helps you hone in on the good ideas, discard the bad ideas, and gets you closer to where you need to get your story.

Mike and I were fortunate to have found a home for CHEESE & QUACKERS, tentatively scheduled for 2022. So we get to continue playing the “What If” game through at least two books. It’s very exciting.

Though, Mike is definitely more excited to play than I am.

Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen is an award-winning children’s book author whose books include Chicks Rule, The United States vs. Jackie Robinson (2019 ALSC Notable Children’s Books List), Duck Duck Moose (CBC Children’s Choice Award Finalist), Tyrannosaurus Wrecks (Junior Library Guild Selection), and the Purrmaids chapter book series. She has visited schools and libraries for the past 15 years, talking to kids about writing, reading, and finding their voices.

She lives in Princeton, NJ with her husband, three children, and an adorable pug named Roxie (featured above). You can learn more about her and her books on her website

Special announcement! Sudipta will be teaching at our premiere Storystorm Retreat at Highlights Foundation, March 5-8, 2020. Learn more about our fun and intensive picture book retreat here!

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Hope to see you there!