by Winsome Bingham

So here we are! Another commitment or challenge to be inspired in a new year. Keep in mind, the crazy and chaos of 2020 still lingers, and we’re already nine days into a new year, 2021. But you know what you signed up for. What the commitment is! It’s Storystorm 2021, a commitment to challenge yourself. You are following your passion and finding INSPIRATION.

You signed up for the storm, for the hurricane of pagination and pacing, for the squalls of structures and scenes and superior storytelling. So, what do you do now? What’s the task? Your task is to come up with thirty ideas in thirty-one days. Your task is to find inspiration. Your task is to be creative and write. So, how do you do that? I’ll tell you how I do it. How I choose what to write, when to write, and how. I’ll tell you how I find inspiration.

I never know what I’m going to write or what will inspire me. I tend to approach writing differently. I don’t just sit and create something. I wait! I wait for the idea to hit me. Then I wait for the whole story to form in my head. When I wait for the moment where I can sit in my bed and write that story out in one sitting. This is my process.

The first manuscript I sold was written in twenty minutes and sold in twenty-four hours. True Story! The picture book is called LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL; it will be published in Spring 2022 by Beach Lane Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster. The inspiration came from a friend whose daughter’s grandmother died. While conversing with her, it triggered a childhood memory with my great-grandmother who had also died while I was a young girl. But the book wasn’t about death. Yes, death was mentioned. But it wasn’t what drove the story. It was her living and enjoying life. It was how she lived, what she believed, and what she wanted her family to learn and carry on. And the message is clear: LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL, live every day to the fullest.

The story formed in my head in minutes. I sat in my bed (because that’s where I do all my writing. Do not tell my therapist this as she is willing to die on the cliff that your bed should only be used for sleep and grown-up activities.) I wrote the story out. It poured out of me the way you will see it in print, in one shot. Every onomatopoeia. Every alliteration. Every power-of-threes. Every anaphora and epiphora, all came out in one sitting. All came out in twenty minutes. And after it was written and I read it, I cried.

I sent Marla Frazee a message and asked her if she could look at it for me. She said she was working on a project and it would be weeks before she got back to me. I was in no hurry, as I write a lot and have a bunch of manuscripts sitting in drawers, hibernating. In a few minutes after sending it, my phone rang. Marla called and said, “This is so beautiful. I’m crying.”

(If you have not read anything written or illustrated by Marla Frazee, you are missing out. ROLLER COASTER and ALL THE WORLD by Liz Garton Scanlon and illustrated by Marla are my favorites.)

A few months earlier, I met an editor, Allyn Johnston of Beach Lane Books, at the SCBWI Winter Conference. I still had time to submit to her as a conference attendee, so I  decided I’d send this manuscript. Off it went. The next morning, she called. It was a Friday. I was in my weekly PTSD meeting with other veterans at the VA Hospital when she called. “This is Allyn Johnston of Beach Lane Books,” she said. “I’m crying. I love your manuscript. And I want to buy it.”

I screamed so loud, office doors opened. Veterans, nurses, and therapists rushed to see what was happening. (I forgot I was in a hospital.) The book sold and the inspiration came from a conversation.

Another inspiration came from Tara Lazar’s PiBoIdMo (which is now Storystorm). In 2013, while doing the Picture Book Idea Month (PiBoIdMo) Challenge, one of my ideas was SOUL FOOD SUNDAY, a picture book about a child coming of age and learning to cook soul food with her family. I wrote a draft and spent months re-reading and re-writing. Eventually, it was polished. And instead of trying to get an agent with it, I tucked it into a drawer for years until 2018 when I went to Highlights and shared the manuscript for critique with an editor. That editor triggered a bidding war with multiple houses, and Emma Ledbetter at AbramsKids won it in auction. It will be published in September 2021 and it will be illustrated by C. G. Esparanza. (You must check out C. G.’s book coming out this year from HarperCollins.)

The inspiration came three days into this challenge. I was asked to make macaroni and cheese and collard greens for a friend who wanted to take it to her family’s potluck Sunday dinner. (People love my cooking.) Her daughter was grounded and was bored. So, I told her, she was going to be my sous chef. That was a “What if?” moment for me. What if I teach her how to cook soul food. I took her through the steps. And the idea was formed. The book wrote itself. I tucked it away because I had people read it and the consensus was, You will not be published because the character doesn’t try three times and fail.

There are many ways to tell stories, many ways to write picture books. This thought process of only one way to write picture books is antiquated. Different cultures tell stories in different ways. There is no right or wrong way to tell a story. Just make it enjoyable and entertaining. That should be the requirement and the inspiration. We should all want to tell good stories.

Another inspiration for one of my books came from Michelle Obama and her documentary “Becoming” on Netflix. The morning the documentary premiered, I watched with both awe and hurt and left with the inspiration to write THE WALK, which will be published by Abrams in the fall of 2022.

THE WALK is about a grandmother going to vote and taking her granddaughter with her. I wrote this manuscript in less than 40 minutes. It poured out of me. When I was done, I emailed Emma and asked her if I could share it with her. We set up a time the next morning, and I read it to her over the phone. (She loves my reading voice.) When I was done reading it, she said, “I love it. Send it to me. I want to take it to my acquisition meeting.” Two weeks later, she bought it. I remembered her saying, “I wish I could publish this today. It is so needed.” This picture book is about voting and community and responsibilities of its citizens.

The inspiration was the voice of the people, of Michelle Obama talking about her husband, her kids, her community, and CHANGE. Black folks know that for change to happen, we have to go above and beyond the call of duty. We had our first Black family in the White House because a multi-cultural community went out and vote. They showed-up, showed-out, and showed the world that change was necessary. No matter your politics, voting is not an individual act. It is an act of many coming together. This is THE WALK. This book is about a community walking together to the polls, walking for change and hope and progress. The idea of hope was my inspiration.

You can also find inspiration at conferences. I was at a SCBWI Conference when I was having a conversation with Wiley Blevins, Acquisition Editor at ReyCraft Books, and the editor who critiqued SOUL FOOD SUNDAY at Highlights. We were talking about writing and what is missing from the market when he said, “I would love to see a book about military families.” That inspired my chapter book series FORT GOODE which will be published by ReyCraft Books. This book is about military families and children on an Army post called FORT GOODE, hence the name of the series. I love this series. I love writing stories about all kind of things.

Sometimes, I find inspiration in other books, but I never re-write those stories. I just look at the theme and always thinking, how can I write children of color within those themes? Last year, the best book of 2020 for me was ROU [pronounced Roo] AND THE GREAT RACE written by Pam Fong and published by ReyCraft Books.

I was disappointed that this book didn’t make any of the Best of 2020 list. Which is truly a shame. This book is so inspiring. (YOU MUST ORDER IT!!!)

It is a dystopian picture book. DYS-TO-PI-AN! Let that sink in. I loved it because there isn’t a book like it. It is fresh! Evergreen! Nothing in the market like it. But I loved it more because it is an intergenerational story. (These are the stories I write.) It is about a little girl who wants to make her grandmother happy. The girl had to figure out what that would look like. How to accomplish that. It inspires me to think about the process of creating happiness. What do I want my character to achieve? But it is inspiring to create a new domain at this level. How many dystopian picture books are there?

My agent is inspiring as well. I think I have one of the best agents. She is literally a picture book GURU! Her name is Hannah Mann and she’s at Writers House. Hannah can tell me if my manuscript is not working just by looking at it once. She has an ear for rhythm, rhyme, and meter. She listens for cadence and is very hands-on with her clients and projects. I love that she doesn’t tell me what to write, and she gets me and my writing. She lets me tell my own story and do my own thing. That inspires me because I know that I can write what I want.

So how do we get inspired? I listen to music. Beyonce! Nicki Minaj! Elton John! I read books, comics, magazines, short stories, etc.. I watch the world and the people in it. I watch documentaries and movies and Housewives on Bravo. I am always looking for a nugget of something new and different. I’m always asking myself, “Do I think kids will like this?” or “Will they want to learn from this?” or “Do they need to know this?” These are questions that fill my imagination and fuel my inspiration. These questions inspire me to dig deep and explore. So, my advice to you is this:

  1. Speak to folks. Ask questions. Listen.
  2. Pay attention to what is happening around you.
  3. Take advantage of conferences especially now that they are on Zoom and for a fraction of the cost.
  4. Eavesdrop on kids and adults.
  5. Find inspiration and follow your passion to tell stories.

Winsome Bingham writes for kids of all ages. She is a US Army veteran and ex-teacher. She grew up sitting under mango and coconut trees listening to her granny tell stories. Now, Bingham gets to sit down and tell you stories. Many days, she sits on her deck waiting to sight submarines shooting out of the water. Her first four picture books will be released in the coming two years.

Follow her on Twitter @ArmyVet5.

This is a generous giveaway from colleagues of Winsome and the author herself!

Eight (!!!) separate winners will be randomly chosen to receive:

  • One picture book critique from agent Hannah Mann
  • Two picture books courtesy of editor Emma Ledbetter and AbramsKids
  • Four copies of ROU AND THE GREAT RACE courtesy of ReyCraft Books
  • One picture book critique from Winsome Bingham

Leave one comment below to enter.

You’re eligible to win if you’re a registered Storystorm participant and you have commented once below.