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It’s summer, so let’s have some fun, shall we?

How about a contest?

Good. I thought you’d like that.

And this one is easy. You don’t have to send a manuscript. All you need to enter is a premise.

That’s right! A picture book premise.

Make it unique, make it funny, make it touching. In less than 100 words tell me your story’s premise. What’s the problem? What crazy situation has got your character all flummoxed? Imagine it’s your book’s jacket copy. What would you say to sell the audience on your book? You’ve only got a few seconds to capture someone’s attention, so make it snappy.

The best premise will win a free critique–and get this, you don’t even have to have the book written yet! Think of a great premise now, claim your critique later. I’ll honor the free critique for as long as you need (although it’s non-transferable and its cash value is 1/100th of a cent.)

There are three steps to enter:

  1. Subscribe to my blog via email if you haven’t already. (See handy button in the top left column of my blog.)
  2. Send your premise in the body of an email with the subject line “PB Premise Contest” to tarawrites at yahoo dot you-know-what. All entries must be received by Sunday, August 14th. (One entry per person, please. So make it your best.)
  3. Tell your friends. The person who refers the most people to my blog will also win a critique! (Just let me know in a comment below who you referred. I’m working on the honor system here.)

That’s all! So easy-peasy! I’ll announce the winners the week of August 15th.

One last thing–if your premise is anything like one of my current projects, I will notify you, just to let you know, I’m not taking anyone’s premise. I’ve got enough of my own begging me to write them!

I drew this illustration to accompany an old story I wrote about my pencils and pens–who felt used and abused by my ceaseless creating, so they up and staged a revolt and escape! I never told my agent I could draw. I don’t think it’s good enough to be in books, but I thought I’d share it here. Maybe a coloring contest is in order?

Copyright 2011 Tara Lazar

I recently discovered a little gem of a book, a 1967 Reader’s Digest “New Family Quiz Book” with illustrations by Quentin Blake (mysteriously uncredited, but undoubtedly his).

The book is full of brain teasers and word puzzles, but there’s also a section that tests your creativity.

Jot down your answers to the following questions–your choice of responses shows your creativity. I’ll be back in a few days with the answers!

Object: Which responses do you feel apply to you?

1. Would you rather be considered:
a. practical ?
b. ingenious ?

2. Does following a schedule:
a. appeal to you ?
b. cramp you ?

3. Do you often get behind in your work?
a. Yes
b. No

4. Do hunches come to you just before you go to sleep?
a. Yes
b. No

5. Do you often fret about daily chores?
a. Yes
b. No

6. Do you like to introduce the speaker at a meeting?
a. Yes
b. No

7. Do you sometimes feel anxious about the success of your efforts?
a. Yes
b. No

8. Do you like work in which you must influence others?
a. Yes
b. No

9. Are you fundamentally contented?
a. Yes
b. No

10. Do you spend many evenings with friends?
a. Yes
b. No

11. Do you frequently day-dream?
a. Yes
b. No

12. Do you remember the names of people you meet?
a. Yes
b. No

Carol Gordon Ekster is a former teacher, author and writing tutor, and if you live in the Andover, MA area, she will visit your classroom for free!

Sponsored by this blog as part of the KidLit4Japan auctions, the giveaway runs now to May 15, with a visit to be arranged before the end of the school year.

Carol Gordon Ekster will visit for an hour, read her book Where Am I Sleeping Tonight? and  lead the class in a writing lesson, focusing on the features of good writing. Sending home a note to parents for possible purchase of her book would be appreciated.  And of course she will sign them!

The winning class should be within 25-30 miles of Andover, MA and the visit is most appropriate for 2nd through 5th grade.

To enter, leave a comment telling us why your class would love to win this author visit. The winning class will be chosen on May 15. Good luck!

by Dana Carey

Everyone knows what a great organization The Society of Children’s Books Writers and Illustrators is—bringing together people who love children’s books for 40 years. Did you know they do it all over the world? SCBWI France was founded in 1995 with a handful of members but it’s grown to a plucky little chapter of about 50. We have our regional conference in the fall that coincides with the French Children’s Book Fair in Paris and another big event in the spring. This May we’re organizing a Seaside Retreat way out here (I’m waving at you from the Breton coast in western France) with Diane Stanley as author/illustrator-in-residence.

I joined SCBWI in 2004 and started volunteering by cleaning up after a conference. Our tireless Regional Advisor, Tioka Tokedira asked me to explore the idea of a retreat in my area. Next thing you knew, I was an Event Coordinator. Then on the board working on publicity. And now I’m Assistant Regional Advisor. Tioka is great at rounding up the troops and I’m so glad she spotted me. I never really thought of myself as an Event Coordinator never mind ARA but here I am. That’s SCBWI: possibilities abound.

Living far from La Capitale can be isolating but being an active member of SCBWI France has helped. I’ve connected with people who share my interest but more importantly take it as seriously as I do. I’ve learned about children’s literature and the publishing industry but I’ve also done things I didn’t think I was inclined to do. One recent example was the Literary Discussion/Pitch Event in Paris with agent/author John Cusick of Scott Treimel NY on April 1st called “The Hook and Heart of the Story.” The idea of pitching in person made me nervous.

Our homework for this event made me think about my stories differently. While preparing my “hearts” and “hooks” as well as a pitch, I had to take a cold hard look at my work and reduce it to a few sentences. It was a test that revealed the difference between a story for submission and a story that stays in the desk drawer.

We met in a cozy restaurant called Le Patio but weren’t on the patio; instead we were in the basement, like those 1950’s beatniks on poetry night. There was even a jazz duo performing at one point. We sat on sofas and ottomans nestled around John discussing the heart of the story: “it’s the bones of the book.” The heart provokes the emotional response while the hook draws in the reader.

During the second part of the evening we pitched to John one-on-one, as if we bumped into each other in an elevator and he could not escape. It was supposed to be natural but I memorized it and rehearsed with my daughter (she couldn’t escape either) and we both realized why I’m not an actress. Luckily, this did not matter. It was evident during the pitch that John was much more interested in listening and processing my content than in dissecting my delivery. It was great to have the chance to try something new in a nonjudgmental atmosphere. John gave me some solid feedback on the pitch and then we discussed the story. All in 5 minutes.

I left knowing my next steps. And I learned first hand that during a pitch, the “pitcher” isn’t the only one working: the agent is listening hard, processing the information and then delivering a coherent critique full of insight. Not an easy thing to do in 5 minutes. But it’s worth stepping out of your comfort zone for it.

Join me (somewhere outside my comfort zone) at an SCBWI France event (in English): Find us on twitter: @scbwifrance and Facebook: SCBWI France.

Bon courage et à bientôt!

Before she moved out to the provinces, Dana Carey worked as a graphic designer in Paris then taught English to architecture and art school students. Now she writes and illustrates picture books. She also reads MG/YA books in English and writes reports in French for French publishers as well as doing some translation, painting and child-rearing on the side. Find her on twitter: @danaFR.

by Michael Sussman
with illustrations by Casey Girard

The struggle for new ideas can frustrate even the most creative writers and artists. For PiBoIdMo 2009, I unveiled my revolutionary device—the IdeaCatcher™—employing the latest in windsock technology to snag ideas from the air. Despite a very reasonable price of $29.95, sales were disappointing.

Undaunted, I’ve returned to the drawing board, and this year am pleased to offer not just one but two ground-breaking products, available exclusively for PiBoIdMo 2010 participants and lurkers.

Exciting new developments in neuropsychiatric research have revealed direct links between literary genres and specific regions of the brain. Mysteries, for example, are generated by the prefrontal cortex, and science fiction is associated with the anterior hypothalamus.

The human brain is a remarkable organ, but to function optimally it sometimes requires a little prodding. That’s where Whack-a-Plot™ comes in! Using this ingenious device, you can stimulate your gray matter to spew forth a story in the genre of your choice.

The Whack-a-Plot™ kit includes a titanium mallet and a detailed map of the skull, pinpointing the exact region of the brain responsible for each literary category. Need an idea for a pop-up picture book? Simply locate your posterior cingulate gyrus and pound away! Within seconds of regaining consciousness, you’ll have your story.

There may be times, however, when your mind is so sluggish or crammed with useless information that no amount of whacking will do the trick. In such cases, you’ll need Brano™. Just as Drano® flushes out clogged drains, and high colonics rid the colon of accumulated waste, Brano™ purges your mind of stale ideas. Two squirts in each nostril and you’re good to go! Out with the clichéd phrases and stale storylines, and in with the brilliant epiphanies!

Kiss writer’s block goodbye forever! Purchase Whack-a-Plot™ for just four payments of $19.99, and we’ll throw in Brano™ for free! Call 1-555-IDEA-NOW today! (Offer not valid in Tennessee or District of Columbia.)

Michael Sussman is a clinical psychologist and writer who resides in the Boston area. His debut picture book—OTTO GROWS DOWN—was published by Sterling, with illustrations by Scott Magoon. Dr. Sussman is also the author of A Curious Calling: Unconscious Motivations for Practicing Psychotherapy, and the editor of A Perilous Calling: The Hazards of Psychotherapy Practice.

Casey Girard is a freelance designer and illustrator working out of Boston. Her main business is marketing design for trade books and she is currently working on polishing up her own book ideas.

Photo credit DOCUMERICA by Patricia D. Duncan

Something strange happens to women once they reach 50, and I’m not talking about hot flashes and sagging skin. I am referring to those female family members who have an overabundance of stuff and feel the sudden need to unload it on me.

I do not need wooden napkin rings circa 1974 nor a pilly afghan in the trendy avocado green of that decade. A framed print seems like a generous offering, until I learn that it sits beneath cracked glass. Sweaters and velvet jackets thick with dust and the odor of mothballs? No thanks. Old dented tins, used shopping bags, vinyl placemats, and assorted ceramic chachkas—does my home look like a flea market?

I have relatives who want to get rid of things. I understand that. But they assume the items are too good to throw away. Yet I suspect they also realize their knick-knacks aren’t desirable enough to sell, not even to the eBay-obsessed, so I’m the solution to their clutter.

So what do I do? Refuse the third PBS tote bag I’ve been offered?

No, I graciously accept it with a “thank you” and watch their eyes light up with pleasure, knowing their treasure has found another home within the family. And then I tuck it away into a dark basement closet, awaiting my 50th birthday when I can hopefully dump the stuff on my nieces.

But a few months ago for Picture Book Idea Month, Susan Taylor Brown told us how she finds inspiration: collecting “junk” in an idea box, and then imagining the story behind the brooch, feather or piece of iridescent ribbon she’s found.

So perhaps collecting chachkas isn’t such a bad experience for a writer. In fact, maybe I’ll start asking neighbors to unload their trash–I mean treasure–on me.

A typical day as a newbie writer: sit down at the computer, start writing.

At least, that’s what I did two years ago. I got an idea and I didn’t stop to think: is this a good idea? Is it marketable? Has anyone written something like this before? Nope. I just wrote, motivated by my muse.

And perhaps this was good back then. I was honing my skills, finding the right words, crafting sentences, building stories.

But they were looooong stories. At an average 1,500 words my tales were neither picture books nor chapter books. I insisted I was writing picture storybooks, and I used Patricia Polacco’s body of work as an example of how my stories could be published, not realizing, c’mon, she’s PATRICIA POLACCO.

It took me a while to learn to THINK before I write.

An idea begins. I ponder it. I write down the initial concept. What is my topic—what is this story about on its surface? Bulldozers or ballet dancers or dragons? What is at its heart? Is it about friendship or fitting in or family? Who is my character and what does he want? What is my hook? Can I boil the concept down to one line?

Then I research. Is there anything similar already published? If so, I’ve got to change it up a bit. Or let it go.

I ask myself these important questions:

  • Is this picture book marketable?
  • Will someone pay $16 to buy it?

Granted, these are difficult questions to answer objectively. Of course you want to believe that everyone will buy your book! But as a mother of two picture book age kids, I know this isn’t the case. If we don’t love reading the book over and over again, I won’t buy it. I try to use my motherly instinct to answer these questions and I think of my other parent friends. (And then I stalk parents in the bookstore and ask them what they think. No, just kidding. But I’m tempted.)

If I can’t answer “yes,” the idea gets filed away for the future, when I can perhaps transform it into something more extraordinary.

If I do answer “yes,” (or even “maybe”) then I create a brief outline or I just write. And I keep the proper length in mind: 500 to 700 words.

Some writers may call this process stifling. But I call it smart. Because if you want to be published, you have to examine these elements before you write. Because although picture books are short, they don’t take a short time to write.

Sure, you may pump out a first draft in a few days, or even less, but picture book revisions could go on for weeks, months, even years until you get it right. You whittle down the length so every word packs a punch, while still presenting a compelling page-turner, full of illustrative potential. (Which means you have to leave some things unsaid.) With all that time invested in a product you want to sell, you’re playing Russian roulette if you haven’t researched the story’s potential first.

It took me a while to learn this, to realize this, so I’m just paying it forward. Many of you are probably nodding your head in agreement. And maybe some of you are waving a finger at me for being a creativity killer.

In any case, I’m eager to hear from both sides! Think or write? Or a hybrid of both?

Paula Yoo photo courtesy Jennifer Oyama, Audrey Magazine

30 picture book ideas in 30 days?

Are you CRAZY?

Oh wait. You’re a writer. OF COURSE you’re nuts!🙂

And I’m a writer, too. Which means we’re both in the same boat.

Tara asked me to give you some words of advice as you hunker down for that final idea for Day 30 of the 2009 PiBoldMo–Picture Book Idea Month!

I thought I’d talk a bit about my “other” job to give you some ideal inspiration! In addition to my YA novels and picture books, I am also a TV writer. I’ve written for NBC’s The West Wing, FOX’s Tru Calling, and currently The SyFy Channel’s Eureka.

As a working TV writer in Hollywood, I have to come up with ideas every single day. In fact, I have to come up with DOZENS of ideas every single hour of every single day when I’m working on a TV show.

Here’s how most scripted TV shows work: several writers are hired to literally sit around in a room called “The Writers’ Room” all day long and come up with ideas for episodes. Each show is run differently, but the basic day usually involves the writing staff discussing what storylines should happen in each episode, along with in-depth dialogue about character development and themes. It’s a really fun job when you think about it–you’re getting paid to make up stuff!

At the same time, it’s also a really TOUGH job. You can get burned out very easily when trying to brainstorm episode storylines and figuring out which character does what and why. It’s often like solving a puzzle–there’s a ton of logic and plausibility that you have to consider when pitching ideas.

I’ve learned a lot from having worked in TV about how to brainstorm effectively when it comes to ideas. Of course the sky’s the limit when it comes to brainstorming–anything from a pebble on the beach to a squirrel running across the street to the cranky lady standing in front of you in line at the bank can lead to an amazing story idea for your picture book.

But a cool image, compelling character, or interesting conflict isn’t enough to create a fully-fleshed out idea. You have to combine all three areas–image, character, conflict–into one idea in order to have a viable story for a potential picture book.

As a TV writer, I was constantly told that story equals intention plus obstacle. Memorize this formula!


In other words, your main character has an INTENTION. But there is an OBSTACLE standing in your character’s way. This creates CONFLICT… which is another way of saying STORY! Ah ha! So STORY EQUALS CONFLICT! And how that character overcomes that obstacle reveals his or her journey towards that end goal.

As long as you can make this equation work, you’ve got yourself a viable story idea! It’s actually a fun formula to apply to published books, movies, and TV shows to break down a completed project to its very essence–the idea. Sometimes working backwards and analyzing published books and figuring out their basic idea can help you as you brainstorm your own ideas.

In other words, try this formula on published books or movies etc. as a “warm up” exercise before you begin your own brainstorming. For example…

In Mo Willem’s Knuffle Bunny, Trixie and her dad go to the laundromat. Trixie accidentally leaves her stuffed toy, Knuffle Bunny, behind. She is unable to speak in full words yet, so complications arise when her father has no idea what she’s talking about when she tries to convince him to take her back to the laundromat to rescue Knuffle Bunny.

So Trixie’s INTENTION is that she wants to return to the laundromat to get her toy!

The OBSTACLE is her inability to speak in words yet to communicate her thoughts!

INTENTION (Trixie wants Knuffle Bunny back) + OBSTACLE (can’t speak inwords yet) = STORY (Trixie must figure out how to communicate to her father that they must return to the laundromat to rescue Knuffle Bunny!)

And how Trixie overcomes this obstacle shows her delightfully feisty personality and inventiveness.

See how that works? Try seeing if you can simplify your favorite picture book down to this formula. It’s a lot of fun and a good warm up exercise to jump start your own imagination!

Then apply this formula to your own original ideas–if you can create a compelling character who has to overcome an obstacle to reach his or her goal, then you’ve got your 30th picture book idea for this year’s PiBoIdMo!


And now that you have your 30 ideas, please join me this May 1-8, 2010 for the second annual NaPiboWriWee event sponsored by my website at!

For more information on NaPiBoWriWee, check out this link:

NaPiBoWriWee is short for National Picture Book Writing Week where I challenge writers to write an entire picture book every day for a whole week–7 picture books in 7 days!

See, I told you we were crazy!🙂

Paula Yoo

Paula Yoo is the author of the YA novel GOOD ENOUGH (HarperCollins ’08) and the children’s non-fiction picture books SHINING STAR: THE ANNA MAY WONG STORY (Lee & Low ’09) and IRA Notable SIXTEEN YEARS IN SIXTEEN SECONDS: THE SAMMY LEE STORY (Lee & Low ’08). She is also a TV writer, whose credits include THE WEST WING, TRU CALLING, and SIDE ORDER OF LIFE. She is currently a co-producer on The SyFy Channel’s series, EUREKA.


Tara’s Note:

Thanks, Paula! No one could have summed up PiBoIdMo better.

Everyone, stay tuned tomorrow for the PiBoIdMo pledge.

What’s the PiBoIdMo pledge? It’s your word that you have 30 ideas. I’ll ask you to leave a comment letting me know you’ve completed this month’s challenge. (Please note you do not have to submit your 30 ideas. Those are yours to keep!)

You’ll have until December 3rd to take the pledge, then on December 4th I’ll announce the randomly-selected PiBoIdMo prize winners.

Good luck!

Cheaper by the Dozen
by Mark Ury

Ideas are not a dime a dozen. They’re closer to $0.0001. That’s because they’re commodities. Everyone has them, everyone can think of them, and, as a culture, we’re saturated with them. Like most raw materials, ideas are worthless unless you turn them into something else, something of greater value.

How do you add value to ideas? With other ideas.

The concept of wit—one of our most enjoyable forms of ideas—is premised on taking one cliché and combining it with another to make something unexpected and remarkable.

An arrow pointing right is a cliché for a courier company. But burying it between the negative space of the “E” and “x” of FedEx makes it new. It makes the image memorable, if not surprising, and the idea valuable.

“You can’t teach an old dogma new tricks” is the written equivalent of the FedEx logo, as are many of Dorothy Parker’s best quips. “Take care of luxuries and the necessities will take care of themselves” and “It serves me right for keeping all my eggs in one bastard” whip two lazy ideas into shape and keep them marching for decades.

The economics of wit are 1+1=3. When your ideas are competing for a publisher’s or reader’s attention, those are valuable numbers to have on your side.

How do you create wit? The simplest technique is to tinker with clichés since they contain recognizable patterns that your audience can latch onto. For example, the cliché “ideas are a dime a dozen” gives you three things to mess about: ideas, money, and—thanks to the word “dozen”—eggs. If you were drawing, you might play with the notion of ideas as light bulbs and then substitute them for the eggs in a carton. You now have a new image to play with and the shadows of a scene. Who needs ideas? Inventors. But why cheap ones? Well, perhaps this inventor is down on his luck. Can’t you see him there at the register, digging into his empty pockets looking for a dime? Around him are other wealthy inventors, buying cartons of the stuff. But he can only afford one bulb for his last, terrible experiment…

The key to playing with clichés is to think visually AND conceptually. Sometimes the images line themselves up, like the example above. Other times, the concept is unlocked through narrative interplay. For instance, you might start with the visual of ghosts, creeping around in a mansion and scaring people. But then you flip to the narrative pieces and start toying with their DNA: the ghosts aren’t the antagonists. The ghosts don’t know they’re ghosts. The audience doesn’t know they’re ghosts. Before you know it, you’re in Spain with Nicole Kidman filming The Others.

In fact, if you want to study the blending of routine ideas into something fresh, Hollywood has a not unsuccessful record. Alien is the fusion of the shark thriller (Jaws) and outer space (Star Wars). Mad About You was pitched as thirtysomething, but funny. The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, The Village—many of M. Night Shyamalan’s films—rely on flipping everyday ideas to produce entertaining new ones that “unpack” their meaning as you watch.

That’s the benefit of folding two ideas into one. The audience experiences it in reverse: one idea unfolds into two and the brain has the joy of connecting the dots to find the hidden meaning.

Don’t worry about great ideas. Look for everyday, unbankable ones. If you invest and repackage them, they’ll outperform your reader’s expectations.

That’s my two cents.

Mark Ury is the co-founder of Storybird.

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