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If you’re like me, writing is work. By this I mean it is my job, my primary source of income (therefore, work) but also that it is just plain HARD. There is nothing so depressing as trying to come up with something new and fresh to write about—and coming up with nothing.
That happens to me a lot.
So what do you do?
Well, I really don’t know the answer. But here are some tricks I use to muddle through those times when I have nothing to write about.
1) Start with character. I truly believe that the most important aspect of a picture book, what drives its popularity the most, is a charismatic main character. The premise, the setting, the cutesy word play and rhyme—all of these are secondary to character. So if you need to brainstorm only one thing, work on that viable character list.
The trick to creating a truly charismatic main character is to blend flaws with flair. Don’t just come up with fifty cute character traits. Give your main character some faults, some defects—he will be infinitely more interesting.
2) Something old into something new. There are so many examples of authors who take an old idea and make it into something modern and fresh. The entire genre of fractured fairy tales is built on the premise that recognizable is always a benefit for marketing, but recognizable AND fresh is money in the bank. Now I’m not at all recommending that all you do is read a collection of Grimm’s fairy tales and add a hippopotamus to each story (don’t do that, because it was my idea first). But if you can take inspiration from something your audience will recognize and then take it to a brand new place, where is the downside?
Some examples of this in my own work:
THE HOG PRINCE – we know it’s a frog prince, not a hog prince, but Eldon does not.
QUACKENSTEIN – isn’t every monster story better with a duck?
THE TWELVE WORST DAYS OF CHRISTMAS – believe it or not, in addition to a Christmas song, this is a sibling story
3) Look at your own life. And I mean this as way to eliminate bad ideas. When you’re having a hard time with inspiration, there is the temptation to use your own children or grandchildren as your muses. Trust me, this is a bad idea. Because as cute as their latest antics are to you, they very rarely make for good picture books. Save yourself. Don’t do it.
4) Exercise. Well, do a writing exercise at least. When you’re really stuck you could reinforce your writing ability by taking a book that is perhaps not one of your favorites and then rewriting it the way it should be. Obviously, you can’t then try to publish your version of Dora the Explorer (because Nora the Explorer or even Eleanora the Explorer is simply not going to be fresh enough to merit a whole new franchise!). But the exercise will show you that you are not only able to create a new story but one that is better than something that was actually published (which means there is hope for you yet) and, again, you never know where that road will lead.
5) When all else fails, take a breath. Sorry, guys, sometimes the ideas are not going to come. No matter how much you force it. When you are really and truly stuck, stop trying so hard. Instead, work on revising older manuscripts—maybe you can whip one of those into shape. Or perhaps the something old that you will turn into something new will come from your own pile of older ideas.
Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen is the author of 18 non-fiction books for children and several picture books. Her newest release, QUACKENSTEIN HATCHES A FAMILY, will be followed by CHICKS RUN WILD in January. Enter the CHICKS contest at sudipta.com!
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.
So, in trying to figure out what to write for this post, I was forced to take a cold hard look at what really keeps me going. And the truth is….I have no freaking idea! It’s certainly not nothing. Is it everything?? Little things? Enormous things. Totally random, oddball things? I guess it’s a combination of things that make me want to start writing, and others that make me want to keep writing. And one thing that works wonders like a triple shot of red bull (which I actually find vile and disgusting, so—bad example)—is when I read an interview with an incredibly talented author that I admire and respect, and they say something that makes me think— “Yes! ME TOO!!!” I’m instantly overcome with a case of the warm and fuzzies, coupled with a heart pounding adrenaline surge. It must be something about feeling like maybe, you really do belong? So….to honor the people whose words have been the fuel in my own personal tank, I am going to shush now, and attempt to pay it forward with an assortment of statements that have calmed, excited, tickled, confused, comforted and without question—inspired me. I hope they work for you!
“The scariest moment is always just before you start.” — Stephen King
“You can never cross the ocean unless you have the courage to lose sight of the shore.” — Christopher Columbus
“I make up a lot of s***.” — Maurice Sendak
“All really good picture books are written to be read 500 times.” — Rosemary Wells
“I try to create sympathy for my characters, then turn the monsters loose.” — Stephen King
“There are no rules here. We are trying to accomplish something.” — Thomas Edison
“Write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open.” — Stephen King
“So the writer who breeds more words than he needs, is making a chore for the reader that reads.” — Dr. Seuss
“This morning I took out a comma. This afternoon I put it back in.” — Oscar Wilde
“Follow your heart. It is the only right way out of darkness.” — Allison Milana
“Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write “very”; your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.” — Mark Twain
“I try to leave out the parts that people skip.” — Elmore Leonard
“Every writer I know has trouble writing.” — Joseph Heller
“You fail only if you stop writing.” — Ray Bradbury
Well…there you have it. A selection of yummy tidbits to nibble on. And with Day 27 of PiBoIdMo officially in full swing, we’re in the homestretch now! The time to either slow down and crap out (26 is close enough, right? NOT.)…or push yourself harder than ever, and sail right through the finish line. Here’s to powerful endings!
Tiffany Strelitz Haber is a rhyming children’s book author, represented by Teresa Kietlinski of The Prospect Agency. She has two forthcoming picture books: THE MONSTER WHO LOST HIS MEAN (Holt/Macmillan) Spring 2012, and OLLIE AND CLAIRE (Philomel/Penguin) Spring 2013. To learn more about Tiffany, please visit her website: www.itsrhymetime.com and her facebook author page: www.facebook.com/tshauthor.
Tiffany is giving away a free, in-depth critique of a rhyming picture book manuscript. A winner will be selected at the conclusion of PiBoIdMo.
by Ame Dyckman
Hi, guys! Need picture book ideas? Me, too. So, I’m not going to be a grown-up today.
Today, I’m going to be a kid.
Wanna play? Go grab a towel. Tie it around your shoulders like mine.
Got your cape on? It’s time to:
Open all the cereal boxes—search for hidden passageways—whisper secrets to a dog—attempt a world record—pick up pennies—make a newspaper hat—sit on top of the monkey bars—build a fort—get fooled by pyrite—try to fool someone else with pyrite—sneak up on pigeons—blow a kazoo—roll down a hill—split your pants—eat a crust-less sandwich—pop bubble wrap—taste paste—rescue worms from puddles—draw the sky as a stripe—pee-pee dance—forget to flush—break a geode—spell Mississippi—beg a cookie—give sticky kisses—staple things—juggle oranges—throw a tantrum—wiggle a tooth—catch a frog—fall down laughing—wear olives on your fingers—race a friend—declare Backwards Day—cross your heart—mix baking soda and vinegar—collect pebbles—spin in circles—lose a sock—thumb wrestle—demand a do-over—run from bees—spray the hose—wish for stilts—build another fort—slide down the stairs—beat pots and pans—dig for buried treasure—help a robot friend who accidentally turned himself off—deny being tired—
Whew! I’m tired. I’ve got some ideas, though. Hope you do, too. Feel free to borrow from the list above. (Except the second-to-the-last-one. I already used that one.)
You can take your cape off now.
No? You’re going to wear yours a little longer?
Ame Dyckman is represented by Super Agent Scott Treimel, Scott Treimel NY. Her debut picture book, BOY AND BOT (illustrated by Dan Yaccarino), will be released by Knopf in Spring, 2012. Ame loves cryptozoology, peanut butter, and screaming at Japanese game shows on TV. She lives in New Jersey (“Go, NJ SCBWI!”) with her husband, daughter, black cats, hermit crabs, fish, and obnoxious-yet-endearing pet squirrel.
As a prize, Ame is offering a chat about… ANYTHING! From getting an agent/book contract to advice on love, money, and your manuscript, Ame answers ALL! (For entertainment purposes only.)
by Jannie Ho
I saw this quote the other day and it had a powerful effect on me. Whether you are a writer, illustrator, or both—in order to create something, you must follow through. It is almost towards the end of the challenge and most of you already have plenty of ideas on your list. Sometimes ideas are a dime a dozen. The hard part is spending the time to sit with it and flesh it out, finish it, and get it out there into the world.
I participated in the PiBoIdMo last year and came out a with a few ideas. I even started a picture book dummy with one, but it is half way completed. My goal is to get that finished up, no matter what happens to it. Perhaps giving the time and attention to one idea will lead to many others.
Good luck to all!
Jannie Ho, also known as chicken girl, is an illustrator/designer specializing in the children’s market, with her work appearing in books, magazines, toys, crafts, and digital media. Her books include The Haunted Ghoul Bus (2008), and The Great Reindeer Rebellion (2009), both written by Lisa Trumbauer, published by Sterling. She is currently working on a picture book with Viking entitled Road Work Ahead, written by Anastasia Suen (2011), and a sequel to The Great Reindeer Rebellion (2012).
Jannie is generously giving away her signed illustration above. Leave a comment to enter. A winner will be randomly selected one week from today. A signed copy of The Great Reindeer Rebellion will be given away at the conclusion of PiBoIdMo 2010.
by Tammi Sauer
One of the ways I come up with picture book ideas is to push myself to put a twist on the familiar. This technique worked out well for me with my latest book MOSTLY MONSTERLY (Simon & Schuster, 2010) and my upcoming book ME WANT PET (Simon & Schuster, 2012).
The initial seed for MOSTLY MONSTERLY came from my editor wanting a young, funny Valentine’s Day book about friendship. She encouraged me to try to write one. Oh, the thrill! Oh, the pressure. I went to the library and read Every Valentine’s Day Picture Book Ever Written.
I discovered that most of those books were about cutesy things like kittens and puppies and mice. I knew my story had to be different, so I thought as un-cutesy as possible. And came up with monsters. Bernadette is an ordinary monster on the outside, but, underneath her fangs and fur, she has a deep, dark secret. She—gasp!—has a sweet side.
Even though my editor and I eventually decided to tweak out the Valentine’s Day references and make the book marketable year-round, the story is still very much the same. But it never would have come about if I wasn’t trying to find a way to make my story stand out from the competition.
ME WANT PET sprang from my desire to write a book about a kid who really wanted a pet. There was only one problem. Every publishing house already had a pet book. Once again, I knew my story had to be unique if I wanted any chance of selling it. So I brainstormed. And read, read, read, read, read, read. And thunked my head on the keyboard.
One day, it hit me. My pet story wasn’t going to be about a typical kid who wanted a typical pet. Mine would star a cave boy in pursuit of the perfect prehistoric pet. Ooga!
So give it a try. Come up with a basic topic (Valentine’s Day, pets, siblings, pirates, first day of school, etc.). See what else is already out there. Then brainstorm a way that sets your story apart.
Tammi Sauer spends the bulk of her free time hanging out with cowboys, chickens, monsters, ducks, princesses, three disgruntled chipmunks, and the occasional cave boy. Her next book, MR. DUCK MEANS BUSINESS (Simon & Schuster, 2011), debuts in January. To learn more about Tammi, please visit her at www.tammisauer.com.
Tammi will be giving away a signed copy of MOSTLY MONSTERLY at the conclusion of PiBoIdMo.
I’ll let you in on a secret—I’m not really an author. Actually, I’m a poet who has managed to trick a bunch of people (including some very nice editors and a terrific agent) into believing I’m an author. I’m sneaky like that.
For me, the work of writing prose is hard. All those words! My novels tend to shrink a lot, before they grow. I revise and edit myself so heavily that the pages melt away. My background in poetry, and my love of precise language, doesn’t lend itself well to the mad dash—the word-sprint—you have to do when you draft a novel.
But picture books? Ahhhhhh, picture books! Picture books are so much like poems. With their economy of language and their image-heavy text, picture books do much the same work poetry does. I actually enjoy the feeling of trying and failing and shelving an idea, because with picture books, you can just start over again with something else. I love seeing art come in from my illustrator, finding out what my words looked like inside an artist’s head. But best of all, I love the beginning of a picture book, the burst of a new project.
I have a huge junk file on my laptop called JUNK, and it is absolutely filled with documents that are “new beginnings.” Empty documents with only a title or a single line in them.
See, as a poet, I don’t really come up with “ideas for picture books” so much as I dream up little spurts of language, lines of text from which a picture book can grow. For me, the beginning is more about the way a few words sound together than it is about an “idea.”
Let me explain. I’ll use as my example my first book. INSIDE THE SLIDY DINER grew out of my career as a waitress, so if I had begun with an idea, I’d have written down, “make a picture book about a diner.” Instead I wrote down, “Inside the Slidy Diner, the Greasy Spoon of stuck.” I didn’t even know it was a picture book when I began it. At first I thought of it as the first line of a prose poem. I had no idea that I’d invent a character named Edie, or that the diner would be a kind of pseudo-magical place, or that there would be a funny cast of characters. I only had the internal rhyme of “sliiiiiiidy diiiiiiner” and the alliteration of “ssssssspoon of sssssstuck.” But the story sprang from that language.
Likewise, the JUNK file I mentioned earlier is full of lines that I’m not sure about yet. In each case, I don’t know what my idea is exactly, or what the story is about. I only know that I liked the way a few words sounded in my head. Maybe you can help me puzzle them out. Here are a few:
See what I mean? These are not ideas. They could still head off in a million different directions. They’re just words, that sound nice, in the right order.
So now, as an exercise, for other folks who are equally language driven, I might suggest that instead of trying to think up a picture book idea every day, you can also try to revisit the way you describe things each day. You could spend the entire month describing the same thing differently, day after day.
Because each description might, in the end, give way to a different book! Language drives tone and voice, and those things can drive your idea and your story instead of things happening the other way around. For me, it’s much easier to make up a story to match a voice than it is to find a voice for a story.
Try it right now! It’ll only take a second. Go look at something—a squirrel, maybe, or the ground at your feet, or your closet door, and instead of trying to think of the idea it might lead to, try to think of different sets of words for what you see.
That squirrel? How might you describe him? Don’t try to be smart, just think of different ways to talk about him. Using as many different words as you can. It’s okay if they’re lame. Maybe that squirrel is:
1. A fidgety bit
2. A tree rat
3. Too loud
4. Fluffytail, the adorable poufypie
5. The fattest squirrel in the tree
6. The squirrel who lost his tail
7. A nut-thief
8. A nuisance
9. The one who wouldn’t leave
See what I mean? By the time you revisit your titles, Fidgity Bit might be a funny board book about a kid who can’t sit still, and Tree Rat might be about a rat who moves from New York to the country and wants to fit in with the squirrels, and Harold might be about a geeky squirrel who wants to study for the LSAT instead of finding nuts all fall.
For me, it is hard to think of new ideas, and far simpler (and more fun) to think of new ways to say things, and then figure out what they might mean.
Give it a try! Or a whirl! Or a go! Or set your pen scratching! Or dive into your dictionary! Or head off into the word mines! Or take a dip in the language lake.
Or… or… or…
Oops! There I go again…
Laurel Snyder is the author, most recently, of a picture book, BAXTER, THE PIG WHO WANTED TO BE KOSHER, and a novel, PENNY DREADFUL. Her next book, Nosh, Schlep, Schluff: BabYiddish will be out in January. She is also the author of a book of poems (for grownups), THE MYTH OF THE SIMPLE MACHINES. Laurel lives in Atlanta and online at http://laurelsnyder.com and she tweets obsessively, if haphazardly. Follow her @laurelsnyder!
BAXTER art by David Goldin, SLIDY DINER art by Jaime Zollars (who also did the cover for MYTH). PENNY DREADFUL cover by Abigail Halpin, NOSH art by Tiphanie Beeke
I wish I could tell you some great strategies I use to brainstorm picture book ideas. I really do. Unfortunately, most of my best ideas don’t work that way.
No, my best ideas are more like a butterfly flitting by. They’re beautiful and they’re fast and, if I have a butterfly net handy and I’m really quick, I just might be lucky enough to catch one for a closer look.
So here’s how catching an idea works for me (and how you can try it too):
Are you listening?
(Yes, I know you’re listening to me, but that’s not what I meant. 🙂 )
Are you listening… to yourself?
Yes, that’s the way I come up with many of my best ideas. By listening, to myself.
Here’s how it works:
I’m talking to my husband or my son or a friend and suddenly I hear myself say something curious or funny or thought provoking or odd.
Before I took myself seriously as a writer, those comments used to just “fly away”, but now…
“That sounds like a picture book,” I exclaim, and use my handy dandy “idea net” to catch it and store it in my ideas with possibility pile.
Now if you want to be even more effective at catching promising ideas before they fly away, here’s another hint:
It can really help if the people around you start to listen for picture book ideas too. (My husband and I were in the middle of a wacky conversation, when he pointed out that the silly topic we were discussing just might make an interesting picture book idea. It hadn’t even occurred to me. But, guess what? He was right!)
Now, maybe because many of my best ideas start out sounding like picture books, I often seem to catch titles. That’s what happened with my upcoming picture book, WHERE DO DIGGERS SLEEP AT NIGHT?
I was talking to my almost-three-year-old about his favorite topic, trucks, when I heard myself saying, “Where do diggers sleep at night?”
“That sounds like a picture book!” I exclaimed, and I had my idea. Hurray!
But just because I had my idea didn’t mean I knew what to do with it. For me, that’s when the brainstorming really starts going in earnest. So I decided to go just a bit further with this post, to trace what happened to this idea after I caught it.
Should a book called “Where Do Diggers Sleep at Night?” be a nonfiction book, factually explaining where a variety of trucks slept at night?
I definitely considered that possibility. After all, my truck-loving son had exposed me to many wonderful informational books. I eagerly began researching where trucks truly spent the night. Somehow, though, this direction didn’t feel right to me. Nonfiction is awesome, but the title I had caught felt more fanciful.
So, I went back to the drawing board. What else could I do with this title? I wondered. It should be a bedtime book, I thought, and I started to draft a rather sweet book about a bunch of trucks getting ready for bed.
Right direction, but this new version still had one major problem. It just wasn’t “truck-y” enough. The getting ready for bed story I was writing could have been about airplanes or clowns or elephants (or little boys).
The whole reason I was intrigued, and that I thought my young readers would be intrigued, was that this story would be about trucks. So I headed back to the drawing board once again. This time, I made sure that each stanza contained something about bedtime and something about trucks. Bingo! I finally knew where to go with my idea.
Then came lots and lots of revisions, but that’s another story.
So, good luck with Picture Book Idea Month! Listen to yourself closely and you just might catch an idea. And once you catch it, good luck with brainstorming until you know just what to do with it. 🙂
Brianna Caplan Sayres has taught students ranging in age from kindergarten to graduate school. Now she’s busy writing and raising two kids of her own. Brianna’s writing has been published in magazines including Highlights for Children and Cobblestone, and she’s super excited that her first picture book, WHERE DO DIGGERS SLEEP AT NIGHT?, is scheduled to be published by Random House in Summer 2012. Brianna and her critique group chat about writing for children at The Paper Wait. Brianna is represented by Teresa Kietlinski of Prospect Agency.
by Jo Swartz
The expression “A picture is worth a thousand words” for me, is very true. Sometimes inspiration comes from an idea, sometimes the words just come, but mostly the idea creeps up on me and surprises me when I least expect it out of something else. The only scary feeling accompanying it is “can I pull it off?”. Will the finished product turn out as fabulous as I imagine it?
Lately I have been quite surprised by the source of 3 of my newest picture books—all ‘works in progress’. They each began as a simple, single drawing. One was for a licensing line I am hoping to develop, another was just a portfolio sketch based on a fairy tale, and my shiniest new idea began while trying to think of a single picture to show my illustrative abilities for the upcoming SCBWI conference in New York. Aaack! Since, only one picture is allowed. I had to create one that would encapsulate my style and ability which for me meant I needed to create a concept where I showed beautifully costumed people, and talking animals. (At least I think so…who knows if this will be the image I use).
As I was working out what the picture should look like, my family became the source of inspiration for the theme, and suddenly there it was—the whole picture book. Right now, it is just all pictures in my head and very few words…but they are on their way. And I hope I can ‘pull it off’.
I don’t know how authors who don’t draw plan out a picture book. I don’t think I could without pictures early on in the process, even sketching out a rough stick figure dummy about what is going on in each page really helps me.
Even if you don’t draw—collage can do the trick. Just one picture can give you so much. Setting, characters, emotions.
This post is pretty late in the PiBoIdMo challenge, and if you are doing well with it—you have probably found that the more ideas you get, the more ideas you get! I think the challenge is great for training the mind to see opportunities for a story. Suddenly you find something humorous—whether it is a picture or a comment you heard while eavesdropping, the juxtaposition of something, irony, all these things can create a wonderfully original story, and sometimes something you never thought or intended to become a story—suddenly does.
I would also like to add for the illustrators out there—that not all picture books need to have words, either.
The story idea that I got while working on the licensing project has no words. I think of it like a silent movie. I just found that the illustrations told it all and words added nothing.
So, whether you draw, write, or both, don’t wait for your muse. If the one for writing isn’t showing up that day for work, try calling on one that handles the pictures to guide you. And if you are too scared to work with her—try the one for song, history, and so on. Or, do something completely different…but keep your mind ready for when the idea pops in. Mine likes to wake me in the middle of the night—so it is a good idea to always have a pen and notebook nearby!
The thing with inspiration is you never know what you’re going to get. None of the stories I am most pleased with, I intended, or planned, or saw coming. And whatever you do…have fun with the whole process—it will show in the work.
Jo Swartz is a writer/illustrator in Toronto. She works with both traditional media (mainly watercolor & ink) and digitally. She has several WIPs at various stages of completion. Jo is a former fashion designer, and has worked internationally in ready-to-wear and haute-couture in Paris, and a former creative director/graphic artist. This is her 3rd career. Jo’s work can be found at www.littlejolit.com and you can follow her on twitter http://www.twitter.com/littlejolit. She has recently been featured at Smith Micro’s Manga Studio site.