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by Pam Calvert (from Thanksgiving 2010)

So, today you’re supposed to be eating lots of turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, dressing, pies (emphasis on the plural here)…AND talking (not fighting) with your relatives. Enjoying your day! But still…it IS Picture Book Idea Month and so you’re also supposed to be thinking of a blockbuster picture book idea today as well. But I’m not thinking about today. No. I’m thinking about tomorrow.

BLACK FRIDAY!

Mwahahahaaaa!

And in honor of Black Friday, I’m going to veer off from the normal “how I get my ideas” blog post to a more material slant—something all picture book writers should have sitting with them when they’re about to brainstorm. Something you should ask for Christmas so you can weave all those good ideas into editor-loving stories. It’s something I bought myself (SPLURGED on) several years ago and it helped me brainstorm two of my upcoming picture books.

It’s called the Magna Storyboard Pad (pictured). Notice it has three areas where you can draw and lines for writing. “But WAIT!” you say. “I’M NOT AN ILLUSTRATOR!”

Well, I’m not either, but if you’re going to be a picture book author, you better be visualizing your story even before you start writing. This pad forces you to think in pictures. A lot of times, it’s easy for me to get swept away by my words when I should be visualizing my story first. And since I bought this pad, thinking in pictures has never been easier. And another secret?

No one has to see your pictures!

But I’ll show you some of mine so you’ll feel better about your artistic talent (because it’s gotta be better).

When I started on the sequel to my math adventure, MULTIPLYING MENACE, my editor told me I needed to meld one of my contracted stories with an earlier version of the sequel, MULTIPLYING MENACE DIVIDES. The contracted story was entitled, THE FROG PRINCE IN FRACTIONLAND. That meant I had to apply frogs throughout my original (that didn’t even have a frog in the background.) And I had to apply fractions throughout. This required pictures. Oh yeah, and I needed another villain. Panicking, I grabbed my math books, desperately searching for an idea. But then I remembered the storyboard pads. I hadn’t used them (even though it was at the top of my things to do list). I started with the new villain…

Her name was Diva Divine in a feeble attempt to use a play on words with division. Of course, through revision her name ended up being Matilda, but this is what she ended up looking like in the book:

There’s quite a bit of resemblance and I never had a talk with the illustrator, Wayne Geehan, about the witch. He suspected what she’d be like from her actions. But without my visualization on paper, her character may not have come out so well.

Now, the witch was the easy part. So much fun. I had her reading In Stye magazine and wearing Jimmy Ooze shoes (um…that never made it in the book…ha!).

The next part was thinking in fractions. So, I plotted out every element. Here’s one page example when I had to show how the division magic worked with dividing twelve kittens. I brainstormed some ways I could show this on the storyboard paper:

Not only did I brainstorm dividing the kittens into frogs, but I had to divide things by fractions, which makes a larger number. In the storyboard picture I used frogs, but they ended up being pigs. Here’s the finished page of the kittens.

After I completed this story, I was hooked! I would never again brainstorm without my storypad.

Here’s another example using my newest PRINCESS PEEPERS book entitled, PRINCESS PEEPERS PICKS A PET. These are the initial thoughts. Notice, I’m terrible at illustrating, but the ideas flow much more freely when I use it, and I can tell if my story would lend itself well to illustration. You need at least sixteen different scene changes for a picture book.

Here is Peepers trying to find a pet for the pet show:

She’s frustrated because she can’t find anything (that’s a frog on her head!) In the finished book, she does find the frog and it looks like this:

Before I leave you with your Black Friday find, I’ll show you my newest picture book idea brainstorm.

HAPPY THANKSGIVING!

Pam Calvert is the author of seven picture books. Her most recent title is BRIANNA BRIGHT, BALLERINA KNIGHT illustrated by Liana Hee (Two Lions), about a spunky princess who’s trying to find her talent. Pam is well-known for her award-winning PRINCESS PEEPERS books as well as her math adventure series and is happy to announce that her newest title, FLASH: THE LITTLE FIRE ENGINE, is forthcoming in November 2019! She offers a free picture book workshop, Picture Book University, on her blog as well as a highly praised critique service. You can find Pam on Twitter @pammcalvert

At the conclusion of Storystorm, prize packs will be given away (books, swag, writing tools). Comment once on this blog post to enter into the prize pack drawing.

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

Good luck!

by Julie Segal Walters

In November 2011, I secretly stalked Storystorm (then PiBoIdMo) from afar. I wanted to write picture books, but I didn’t take myself seriously as a writer. So I lurked in the shadows, read the inspirational blog posts, and soaked up everything I could without thinking of ideas, putting myself out there, or participating in the group’s Facebook page in any way whatsoever.

By Storystorm 2012, I had boldly joined a local critique group of other greenhorn picture book writers, and had resolved to stop being so secretive about my desire and efforts to write for children. I decided it was time to publicly try on my new identity, and I hoped that it would fit. So when Maria Burel posted on the Storystorm Facebook wall (with similar trepidation) that she lived in my area and was looking to join an in-person critique group, I invited her to join mine.

You see, for me, Storystorm wasn’t about generating picture book ideas. It was about the people. The community of writers who shared a love for children’s literature and a desire to write stories that would touch a child’s heart, or funny bone, or soul. While I’m constantly grateful for the blog posts and for the opportunity to learn from shared resources, mostly, what drove my desire to participate in Storystorm was engaging with others. I loved interacting in the comments on the Facebook wall! The Storystorm community provided the much needed infusion of interpersonal connection in my otherwise solitary writing effort.

That said, when November 2013 rolled around, I was also in it for the ideas! I was writing more seriously, meeting regularly with my critique group (including Maria), and learning everything I could about the children’s book business and craft. That year, I was deliberate about capturing every idea in my idea notebook, including, on November 20, when I documented the idea, “Find some fun Yiddish saying and make a story out of it.”

This idea surfaced while reading a bedtime story to my son that included Yiddish vocabulary. I have always loved Yiddish, and I think Yiddish proverbs are the perfect combination of hilarious and profound. My father’s parents spoke Yiddish, and I have fond memories of my grandfather teaching me to swear in Yiddish while my grandmother yelled at him to stop corrupting me.

Later that same night, I continued thinking about my grandfather, and decided to spend a few minutes researching Yiddish proverbs. I came across the proverb that became the first line of my book—“If the cat laid an egg, it would be a hen.” (It loosely means, you can’t wish for something to be different from what it is because wishing won’t make it so.)  The proverb inspired me to write more words about different types of animals, and ultimately a full meta-fiction author-illustrator conflict story spilled out.

As far as I was concerned, though, I was merely entertaining myself by writing a funny story based on that day’s Storystorm idea. It was a fun night. But, a few weeks later, I was still amused by the story, so I emailed it to my critique partner, Maria. Maria replied: “JULIE! I LOVE this. Your natural voice comes through so clearly here. Like you allowed yourself to be silly and THIS came out!”

I still get chills when I read her message, because I think Maria’s point—allowing yourself to be silly—is another gift of Storystorm. Sure it’s important to generate lots of picture book ideas. But I think Tara Lazar’s genius in creating Storystorm was in creating an environment that allows us—even requires us—to just be creative. And silly. It’s a brainstorm with no room for an internal editor. It doesn’t require industry savvy, or story arc, or plotting. Storystorm frees our imaginations, and sometimes an unburdened inspiration results in a book.

That book I wrote in November 2013, THIS IS NOT A NORMAL ANIMAL BOOK, sold in May 2014 to Simon and Schuster, and released in November 2017. While I will NEVER write or sell a book that quickly again, I always try to return to that zone of unburdened creative freedom that I learned and nurtured through participation in Storystorm when I think of story ideas or write something new.

All of this was possible thanks to Tara Lazar and the Storystorm community, and I will be forever grateful to you all. But Tara can only lead a horse to water (and, you know, provide the water). It’s up to each of us to drink the Storystorm opportunities. I’m proud that I chose to take a risk, participate in the challenge, and engage with the community. Thanks to Storystorm, I thought of the idea for my debut picture book. But more importantly, I met the critique partner who encouraged me to pursue the book, as well as dozens of other incredible picture book writers and friends. I also learned about Julie Hedlund’s 12×12 [http://12x12challenge.com/] from Storystorm. Through 12×12, I received further critiques on my book, and met the people with whom I would later form Picture the Books, [https://picturethebooks2017.wordpress.com/] the group of 2017 debut authors and illustrators who have become some of my most trusted colleagues and dear friends.

To me, my true triumph, and the real Storystorm success story here, is an achievement we all have the opportunity to share — the enduring gift of creativity, and of connecting with this committed, generous, and supportive community of writers and illustrators.

Thank you all for everything!

Julie Segal Walters is the author of THIS IS NOT A NORMAL ANIMAL BOOK (illustrated by Brian Biggs) (Simon and Schuster 2017). She lives in Washington, DC, with her husband, son, and pesky cat. Before writing for children, Julie was a lawyer and advocate for civil rights and civil liberties, and an international democracy and civil society development specialist. These days, she can be found advocating for her many favorite children’s books to anyone who will listen. Julie is fluent in Spanish and loves to cook, but not bake. She thinks baking has too many rules. You can find her online at juliesegalwalters.com.

Julie is giving away a picture book critique.

Simply leave ONE COMMENT below to enter.

You’re eligible to win if you’re a registered Storystorm participant and you have commented once below. Prizes will be given away at the conclusion of the event.

Good luck!

by Debbie Ridpath Ohi (from 2017)

I’m assuming that you’re all deep into your brainstorming about story ideas at this point and already have a meaty list after all the inspiring posts you’ve been reading during Storystorm. Good for you!

I sometimes equate this stage of story brainstorming to experimenting with a recipe for a cake. Why cake? Because cake is one of my favorite things in the world. And suppose it’s a recipe entry for a baking contest in which you can submit ONE entry.

ssdebbieohione

After Storystorm, I advise you to browse your list of ideas and choose the one that appeals to you the most. Maybe you’ll be so excited about this particular idea that you won’t be able to wait. Maybe you’ve already started working on expanding the story, plotting an outline and/or doodling rough sketches. Maybe you’ve just expanded the idea a wee bit, perhaps into a paragraph or a few pages of notes.

Excellent! Now put that story away and DON’T LOOK AT IT for a while. “A while” is up to you. For me, it’s at least two weeks but sometimes several months.

In our baking analogy: it means tweaking your cake recipe and then putting that experimental cake in the oven:

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RESIST THE URGE TO TAKE IT OUT OF THE OVEN BEFORE IT’S READY.

Why?

Because if you take it out too soon, it’ll look pretty much the same as when you put it in. What you want: to give it enough time to settle, to bake, to reach a state where you can taste it objectively and see whether it’s really THE cake recipe you want to submit to the contest.

Sometimes when you take it out of the oven, it’ll look like this:

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Though of course we all hope for this:

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But back to when your cake story looks like this:

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At this point, you may realize that it’s not worth salvaging, and you may want to just toss it. Sometimes your instinct will be right.

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However, there may still be SOMETHING about it that you just can’t let go of:

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In that case, try experimenting some more. Maybe combine it with another idea, find a different spin, rework it in a different genre or format. Turn it upside down or reverse it, add an unexpected twist. You never know what will happen. Read this Veronica Bartles Storystorm post about how she substitutes story ingredients to familiar recipes to make them uniquely delicious. (Mmm, plus her Cranberry Sage Cookies With Almonds recipe sounds yummy….)

Then put it in the oven again to let it bake:

ss-debbieohi-08-creatureoven-v3-flat-490

As before, no matter how excited you are, force yourself to work on something else and NOT take your new creation out too soon. While you’re waiting, take a look at your other recipe ideas, start experimenting for another recipe.

And so on. Ok, I’ll drop the baking analogy…you get the message, right?

Sometimes I may feel SUPER excited with a new story idea and have the urge to IMMEDIATELY dive into the writing and editing and revision process. Sometimes the first draft of the story pours out onto the paper; I love when this happens. However, I have learned to let an idea or first draft sit for a while before coming back to it. If I’m still excited about it, then I go to the next stage. After another round of writing or sketching or revising, I let it sit again and then re-evaluate.

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The danger of letting yourself dive into developing a story idea too soon is that you’ll get so caught up with the “ooo shiny toy” honeymoon phase that you won’t be objective. You’re going to be pouring a lot of time and effort into this project, after all, as well as inevitably getting emotionally invested. It’s in your best interest to take your time before you commit.

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So stick with the rest of the Storystorm month! Keep reading Storystorm blog posts and coming up with ideas. By the end of the month, you’ll be able to look at your earlier ideas more objectively.

This is pretty much my story brainstorming process, by the way. I currently keep a notebook where I constantly jot down story ideas, fragments, bits of conversations and synopses for picture books, chapter books and middle grade novels. I used to use a digital notebook but I currently prefer a paper notebook where I can doodle as well as scribble ideas PLUS I like being able to physically browse earlier ideas to see if they still excite me.

Whatever the method you use to keep track of your story ideas, I encourage you to GIVE THEM TIME to develop and before sending them out into the world.

Good luck!

Debbie Ridpath Ohi is the author and illustrator of Where Are My Books? (Simon & Schuster), a book that began as an idea generated during PiBoIdMo (now known as Storystorm). Her writing and/or illustrations have appeared in over20 books. She is the author and illustrator of two picture books: SAM & EVA (Simon & Schuster Books For Young Readers, 2017) and WHERE ARE MY BOOKS? (S&S, 2015). Her home publisher is Simon & Schuster, but she has also worked with HarperCollins, Random House, Little, Brown, and Stone Bridge Press, among others. She feels honured to have worked with wonderful authors like Judy BlumeMichael Ian BlackAaron ReynoldsRob SandersLauren McLaughlin and Colby Sharp. Debbie posts about reading, writing and illustrating children’s books at Inkygirl.com. Twitter: @inkyelbows.

At the conclusion of Storystorm, prize packs will be given away (books, swag, writing tools). Comment once on this blog post to enter into the prize pack drawing.

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

Good luck!

 

by Chana Stiefel

Hello Storystormers! By now, you are either sloshing through puddles of ideas, or maybe you’re stuck in the mud. That’s ok! Here’s a method to jumpstart your story idea machine…

Recently, I came across an article by Fancy Nancy author Jane O’Connor announcing that she is hanging up her boa. O’Connor’s idea for her blockbuster series came from her habit of dressing up when she was a kid and urging her mom to be fancy, too.

I love that O’Connor’s spark came not only from exploring her inner child but from her ACTUAL childhood. So here’s your new assignment: Take a walk down memory lane and dig deep into your childhood. (You may have blocked it, but you had one!)

What stories pop into your head? What made your childhood unique? Think about your relationships with parents, siblings, teachers, friends, camp counselors, baby sitters, coaches, neighbors, pets….you get the idea! What conflicts or challenges did you face? Did you resolve them? If so, how? What were your talents, hobbies, dreams, likes and dislikes?

Now here’s the TWIST. Unless you are uber-famous, most kids (or editors) may not want to read your autobiography. So take your idea and give it a twist. Exaggerate, add humor, turn yourself into an animal or robot, take your idea and go bigger!

O’Connor didn’t copy her own childhood; she took it to another level and created a character that uses French terms and flowery language to express her “fancy” nature. Voila!

When I started writing my upcoming picture book, MY NAME IS WAKAWAKALOCH!, a Storystorm (then PiBoIdMo) 2014 idea that will be published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt on August 27 (woohoo!), my first drafts were about a girl named Chana (ahem) who wanted to change her unpronounceable name. In those older versions, Chana’s grandmother explained that Chana got her name from her namesake, her resilient great grandmother. My critique partners thought my story was okay but Chana needed to solve her own problem. I was stuck in the muck for a long time. Then I read a blog post by my agent John Cusick suggesting that I drop my character into a new setting. That’s how my cave girl Wakawakaloch was born.

Soon a whole new world opened up and my manuscript took off. (Check out my full “success story” on Tara’s blog.) Basically, I started with my own childhood struggle of dealing with a hard-to-pronounce name, gave it a neolithic twist, and ended up with cave girl with a funny and relatable problem. The takeaway: It’s those real, relatable childhood experiences that touch the hearts of kids.

I asked some writer friends if their own childhoods sparked book ideas. OF COURSE they did! Here are some more examples for inspiration:

  • Army brat journeys

Gretchen McLellan wrote, “Many of my books, published and soon-to-be, are based on my nomadic army-brat childhood. MRS. McBEE LEAVES ROOM 3 (Peachtree, 2017) is grounded in my extensive experience with the bittersweet of saying goodbye. BUTTON AND BUNDLE (Knopf 2/19/19) is based on leaving my first best friend and the world of play we created. My experience of having a father at war is deeply woven into WHEN YOUR DADDY’S A SOLDIER (Beach Lane, 2020).”

  • Family traditions

Patricia Toht said, “I mined our family’s holiday traditions for PICK A PUMPKIN (Candlewick, July 9, 2019) and PICK A PINE TREE (Candlewick 2017).”

  • Childhood fears

Gaia Cornwall added, “Being scared of jumping off the diving board, while wanting to sooo badly, is a very clear memory from childhood.” Results: The beautiful JABARI JUMPS (Candlewick, 2017).

  • Family photos

Ariel Bernstein shared this gem: “I saw an old photo of me on a camping trip with my family–in a canoe with my mom and sister where they were smiling and I was scowling. I thought it was funny and came up with the idea for my upcoming PB, WE LOVE FISHING, which is about four woodland friends who go fishing–three love fishing, one (the squirrel, based on me), does not. (S & S, Paula Wiseman, 2020).” See how Ariel drew from her childhood and added a twist?

  • Size matters

From Gina Perry: “I wrote SMALL (Little Bee, 2017) because I was always the smallest kid in my class, all the way through middle school. I never forgot how it felt and wanted to show ways that kids could feel big regardless of size.” True that!

  • Collectibles

Michelle Schaub shared: “Two of the poems In my upcoming PB poetry collection, FINDING TREASURE (about things people collect), coming from Charlesbridge in September 2019, are based off of childhood memories of my grandma collecting teapots and my grandpa collecting license plates.”

So get out of the muck and give it a try: Tap into your unique childhood. Add a twist. Create fresh new stories for years to come!

Check out Jane O’Connor’s article here:
“Au Revoir, Nancy! A Children’s Book Author Kisses Her Character Goodbye”

Chana Stiefel grew up in South Florida, fishing for tadpoles and going on swamp tromps in the Everglades. Her childhood love of creepy critters was her inspiration for writing ANIMAL ZOMBIES!…& OTHER REAL-LIFE MONSTERS (NatGeoKids, 2019). Growing up with a hard-to-pronounce name gave Chana the spark to write MY NAME IS WAKAWAKALOCH! (illus. by Mary Sullivan; HMH, 8-27-19) about a cave girl who wants to change her unpronounceable name. Chana is also the author of DADDY DEPOT (Feiwel & Friends, 2017) and the upcoming LET LIBERTY RISE (Scholastic, 2021). She is represented by John M. Cusick at Folio Literary. Follow @chanastiefel on FB, Twitter, and Instagram and visit her at https://chanastiefel.com/.

Chana is giving away a signed copy of MY NAME IS WAKAWAKALOCH! after its release in August. (U.S. only, please!)

Simply leave ONE COMMENT below to enter.

You’re eligible to win if you’re a registered Storystorm participant and you have commented once below. Prizes will be given away at the conclusion of the event.

Good luck!

 

by Vanessa Brantley Newton (from 2014)

When I was going to school, I attended a community school that had been created by the parents and local writers, artist, musicians, and poets. It was a special school because we could not go to white schools. We had some of the best teachers ever! One day, I met this wonderful teacher named Miss Russell. Miss Russell had the biggest, orangest afro I had ever seen in my whole entire life. It looked like a cloud. She wore the shortest dresses and the coolest shoes. I loved Miss Russell. Once she set me on her lap and shared a beautiful book that has stayed with me all these years. It was about a young boy who wore a red snow suit and lived in the hood as far as I was concerned, LOL! The thing that stood out about this boy was that he was brown just like me!

He was beautiful!! His mom and dad looked just like my parents. Even the wallpaper looked like the wallpaper in my own house. I was excited and thrilled. Surely the person was who created this book must have been watching me from his studio window.  The book left me feeling some kind of way. It conveyed all my feelings and thoughts through its beautiful, colorful pictures and collage. I couldn’t remember all the words to the story, for you see I am dyslexic. There was nobody who really understood what that was. The words didn’t make sense to me but the pictures told me the story.

Everybody is now talking about diversity in children’s books. In 1963 there weren’t many books that had a black child as a main character, and when they were drawn in children’s books of old, black people were drawn very cruelly and just plain ugly. The book moved me so because it would be the first time I would see a black child that looked like me, dressed like me…might have even been me, LOL.

I loved Peter—he was my little brother in my head. Peter was beautifully illustrated and I related to his story because I had experienced the same thing. Countless other children experienced the same thing. Many years would pass and I would end up in a Barnes and Noble looking for picture books to inspire me as I began to illustrate children’s books myself. I came across “The Snowy Day”.

snowyday

Now as I told you, I am dyslexic. Reading for me sometimes can be a struggle. The words seem to dance on the page. Numbers seem to move and float around. I push myself constantly to read out loud, and while I make it look effortless and fun, it is a struggle for me still. I took “The Snowy Day” and sat on the floor of B&N and I read it through tears. Every wonderful and magnificent word.

Nessa Cutout

Finally, words and pictures came together. Comforting memories from the first time that the book was read to me spilled over like warm beach waves. I looked for books written and illustrated by Ezra Jack Keats. I began to do my own study on his work. I copied the man. I wanted to somehow do for other children what this awesome man had done for me. Ezra Jack Keats made me feel so special because he thought that I should have been in a children’s book all along. I wasn’t an afterthought!

The Singing 2

It is important that not only Black, White, Chinese or Indian children be seen in picture books, but that all children see themselves in picture books. That all children get to experience another culture so that their minds broaden. Diversity is needed if we are going to grow as writers and illustrators. I like to call myself “The Multicultural Illustrator”. It is reflected in my work. I come from a very blended background—African American, Asian, European, and Jewish decent—it’s all in there. So if you are thinking that diversity is not important, take it from a little brown girl who was effected by someone’s beautiful pictures.

Indiababeslr

School girl talk

AMG CRNV pic

Once Upon A Time, a little girl wished to be an artist. So, she took her fantastic box of Crayola crayons and drew on the sides of her mother’s clean white stove and white walls. When her mother prepared dinner that night, the crayons melted in a beautiful puddle of waxy deliciousness. She was thrilled! Her parents? Not so much. They made that almost-famous artist get some soap and water and remove and clean up her fantastic masterpiece. Her mom and dad got her a pad of paper and she has been drawing ever since. Vanessa is agented by Painted-words.com. She lives in Charlotte, NC with her husband, daughter and a friendly cat named Stripes. Visit her at vanessabrantleynewton.com.

At the conclusion of Storystorm, prize packs will be given away (books, swag, writing tools). Comment once on this blog post to enter into the prize pack drawing.

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

Good luck!

 

by Trisha Speed Shaskan & Stephen Shaskan

Writing is often thought of as a solo process. Picture a beret-clad, tortured artist in a dimly-lit room typing on a laptop with a bottle of Absinthe on hand. But it doesn’t need to be that way. Every book is made by a team—the author and editor for starters. So why not collaborate with someone from the start of your story?

Since we first met while working at an elementary school, we’ve been collaborators. We became friends, eventually married (but that’s another story), and formed a rock band together. Stephen played guitar. Trisha played drums.

At school, we co-taught a class. We eventually co-taught classes where we encouraged students to collaborate on creating stories and comics. But it wasn’t until we had both published books—Stephen as an author/illustrator and Trisha as an author—that we began collaborating from the start of the story process.  After our agents submitted an early chapter book for us that was rejected, an editor asked if we were interested in submitting a new chapter book series idea. In the past, Trisha had written the story, then Stephen read it and illustrated it. This time, we decided to collaborate from the start. Since then, we’ve found the process is really beneficial; it helped us create our graphic novel series Q & RAY and our picture book PUNK SKUNKS. This process could help you too.

When choosing someone to collaborate with on brainstorming story ideas, choose someone you fully trust. Once you’ve chosen a person, there are ground rules.

First: Collaborators need to find equal value. Brainstorm mutual interests that could be the subject of a story—basket weaving, sky diving. This allows each collaborator to have the maximum amount of investment in the story. When we first brainstormed a list of ideas to work on collaboratively, “rock bands” was one of the first subjects we both agreed on. Stephen wasn’t so keen on tea parties.

Second: Maintain mutual respect with your collaborator(s). Allow ample space for everyone’s ideas. Remember to keep things positive. There aren’t bad ideas when brainstorming (except for bands that throw tea parties according to Stephen). Think of the brainstorming session as a large pot of soup. Your collaborative cook throws in rutabaga. You don’t like rutabaga, but this is the first time you’re trying this recipe. When the soup is done, you’ll be able to see if the rutabaga works or not. When we brainstormed which animals might play in a rock band, we tried moles, then badgers who looked much better as folk rockers than rockers when sketched, before choosing punk skunks for our story.

Third: Have a sense of humor. Don’t take anything too seriously. Try to laugh at yourself. Even if you seriously want the band to throw a tea party.

Once we’ve brainstormed a story idea together, we also brainstorm the conflict. For PUNK SKUNKS, the natural conflict was one skunk wanted to sing about one topic, while the other skunk disagreed. Together we brainstormed what the characters’ personalities might be and came up with a possible outline for the story. But when it was time to write, Trisha wrote the story on her own, then Stephen illustrated it on his own.

Our first collaborative story idea that became PUNK SKUNKS was rejected as a chapter book as was our second idea, Q & Ray. We loved the stories so we switched the formats. We sold (and have now published) PUNK SKUNKS as a picture book and Q & Ray as a 3-book graphic novel series for young readers. Plus, we learned the benefits of collaborating. There’s group investment in the story. We’ve combined our expertise. The process forced each of us to think outside ourselves and to maybe let go of the tea parties. We hope you try collaborating too.

Trisha Speed Shaskan has written over forty books for children, including the picture book PUNK SKUNKS and the Q & RAY graphic novel series, which are all illustrated by her husband Stephen Shaskan. Trisha is also the author of the upcoming picture book THE ITTY-BITTY WITCH illustrated by Xindi Yan releasing in July (Two Lions/Amazon). Trisha and Stephen, their cat Eartha, and dog Beatrix live in Minnesota. Visit Trisha online at: trishaspeedshaskan.com or on Facebook.

Stephen Shaskan is the author and illustrator of several picture books including: BIG CHOO, TOAD ON THE ROAD, MAX SPEED, THE THREE TRICERATOPS TUFF, and A DOG IS A DOG. He is also the illustrator of the picture book PUNK SKUNKS and the graphic novel series Q and Ray, both written by his wife Trisha Speed Shaskan. Stephen lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota with Trisha, and their cat Eartha and dog Bea. Find him at stephenshaskan.com or on Facebook.

You can also follow Trisha and Stephen together on Facebook here.

  

Trisha and Stephen are giving away a signed copy of PUNK SKUNKS and a signed copy of Q & RAY CASE #1: THE MISSING MOLA LISA. There will be two winners of one book each.

Simply leave ONE COMMENT below to enter.

You’re eligible to win if you’re a registered Storystorm participant and you have commented once below. Prizes will be given away at the conclusion of the event.

Good luck!

 

by Jess Keating

When I first started writing about how to get inspired, I realized the truth: I don’t believe getting inspired is the answer. Instead, we need to be inspired. All the time. Don’t roll your eyes! I know it’s a lofty goal. But you’re a writer: you’re built to do this.

I find everything inspiring. But it takes work. Inspiration is a muscle, not a muse. The more you actively develop an attitude to suit your creative needs, the more it will come naturally. When your whole world is interesting to you, you don’t need to hunt for ideas. They grow around you organically and wait for you to pluck them out of your life.

So how do you become inspired all the time? You cultivate an attitude of inspiration. We’re talking about growing new eyes, new ears—a whole new set of senses here. Or rather, really turning on the ones you’ve got. No more autopilot.

What does this mean? Here are a few exercises that work for me.

1) Every day, learn something new.

This one sounds pretty obvious, but my rule is: if you haven’t written it down, it doesn’t count. Gone are the days of “oh, I’ll definitely remember this!” (You won’t.) You’re a writer, after all. Act like it, and write it down! The goal here isn’t just to get smarter (though that’s always a benefit), rather to go deeper into your own world.

That coffee in front of you? Do you know what part of the world it came from? What other uses could humans have for something like coffee? What’s the Swahili word for coffee? Take something that you enjoy that’s right in front of you, and challenge yourself to learn something new about it. Google it, ask someone smart, anything you need to do to grow a new connection in your mind. And when you’re done, write it down.

Creativity is born from two seemingly unrelated things suddenly making a new kind of sense together. This exercise will build your repertoire of “seemingly unrelated things”. Think of it like an encyclopedia of your life.

2) Never, ever censor or judge your own interests. This kiss of death for any project is when you think it’s something you should do. Leave the shoulds in your life to your bills, your taxes, and getting food on the table. Let your creative side tackle the things you want to do. Don’t box it in. Don’t expect it to be something it’s not. Do not compare your interests to those of anyone else. (That’s a biggie.) Their version of what matters most won’t match yours. That’s a good thing.

Let your true passions and interests breathe, no matter how quiet, untraditional, un-trendy, unsellable, or downright bizarre they are. Reminder: the things that make you strange are the things that make you memorable. Honor them.

You know how, when you’re house training a dog, you’re told to make a big, hairy deal every time they get it right and go to the door when nature calls? That is how you need to respond to your creative self here. Every time you feel that familiar buzz of energy that comes from learning, discovering, or contemplating a thing that excites you, make a gigantic fuss about it. Get excited. Praise yourself (“Ooh, I love this! Go, me!”), and again, write it down. This tells your brain and subconscious one very simple yet crucial fact: I will pay attention and I won’t judge you—send me more of this!

The sooner you get your brain on board, the better.

The way to be inspired all the time is to surround yourself, and your mind, with sources that feed it. Don’t discount a single thing that lights you up. Give it the time of day. Treat it like a special guest. Invite it in for a scone, and pay special attention. It has something to tell you.

3) One final tip? Open a dialogue with the world around you.

Too often, we bookish folks live in our heads. But the downside to existing only in your own head is you miss out on, oh…pretty much everything outside of it.

Something magical happens when you go about your day looking to have a dialogue with the world.

Meaningful, inspiring things have a tendency to find you. Why? Because you’ve made some space for them. The best way I’ve found to do this is by playing a little game with the world. Set yourself up to succeed here.

In your notebook, before you start your day, draw an empty box or a circle on your page. Write the words, “one amazing thing” above it and leave it blank. Then, walk away.

Challenge yourself to be on the lookout for one amazing thing that sparks your curiosity. Curiosity is your heart’s way of telling you to pay attention. The minute you give yourself this exercise, your awareness will go on overdrive. The forced “limit” of that little box is also incredibly freeing. You’re not asking yourself to solve world hunger. You’re just looking for one amazing thing to fill that little box.

Suddenly, your day takes on a different meaning. Maybe you notice the snow piling up in funny angles on the railing outside. Or the way the squirrels’ tails seem to floop around as they run. Or that tiny, shy grin the cashier at the grocery store gives the teen boy buying gum. (Is a new romance afoot?!)

Don’t look now, you’re actively looking at the world with that attitude of inspiration we were talking about! Go, you! You’ll know when you come across the thing that belongs in your notebook.

Do this for a week and you’ll notice some fun insights about what finds its way to your awareness. Do this for a year and you’ll need ten notebooks a day for all the amazing things you’ll notice.

Why are these three exercises so helpful to grow that inspiration muscle? Quite simply: what inspires you is what matters to you. By approaching what matters to you from several perspectives like this, you’ll begin to uncover some truths about what makes you tick creatively. Your viewpoint suddenly becomes amplified.

And, lucky you, you’ve written it down!

Everybody has themes to their lives, and they operate like hidden train tracks beneath our stories. These exercises will shine a spotlight on those emotional tracks so you can build stories that truly resonate with you. And that’s the first step behind creating something that will resonate with others.

This month, (and every month) don’t tell yourself you’re generating ideas. Instead, you’re waking up to the ideas that want your attention. They’re already there, waiting for you. Your job is to pay attention and create space for them.

So…what amazing thing have you noticed today?


As a zoologist and author, Jess Keating has been sprayed by skunks, bitten by crocodiles, and victim to the dreaded papercut. Her books blend science, humor, and creativity, and include the acclaimed My Life is a Zoo middle-grade trilogy, the picture book biography, Shark Lady, and the award-winning World of Weird Animals nonfiction series, launching with Pink is for Blobfish. You can find her on Twitter @Jess_Keating and on her website, JessKeating.com.

Jess Keating is a fiction and nonfiction writer who loves telling fun stories in any way she can. She also has a Masters of Science in Zoology, so she gets to throw around goofy animal facts a lot.

She is the author of several picture books including PINK IS FOR BLOBFISH, CUTE AS AN AXOLOTL and SHARK LADY. Her forthcoming middle grade novel, NIKKI TESLA AND THE FERRET-PROOF DEATH RAY is out July 2019.

Visit her online at jesskeating.com and follow her on Twitter @Jess_Keating.

At the conclusion of Storystorm, prize packs will be given away (books, swag, writing tools). Comment once on this blog post to enter into the prize pack drawing.

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

Good luck!

 


Bonus: quotes for sharing!

   

by Nina Victor Crittenden

Are you a fan of puns? I sure am! I grew up in a really punny family so puns have always been one of my favorite things. Puns are a fun way to play with words and a terrific way for kids to develop a love of language.

Tara Lazar’s 7 Ate 9 (illustrated by Ross MacDonald) is an excellent example of fabulous punning for a number of reasons (and you can always count on it for a laugh).

Chicken Lily, written by Lori Mortensen, is full of clever chicken puns. The main character is a chicken who is too chicken to read a poem onstage at school.

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving was the inspiration for this promotional postcard that I made back in 2011:

I even put a pun in The Three Little Pugs (a group of pugs is called a grumble):

Let’s pick a random topic and get started:

Cheese.

You don’t need to havarti supplies, just a pencil and paper will do. Immerse yourself in the subject and don’t let anything get pasteurize. Milk it for all it’s worth. Where there’s a will, there’s a whey. Get ready for some brie-lliant ideas to start rolling in. Have fun and be silly, before you know it you could have a pile of…

Thank you, Tara! Have a punderful day, everyone!

Nina Victor Crittenden is an artist, certified veterinary technician, scarf knitter, and tea drinker. She works traditionally using ink and watercolor on hot pressed paper. Nina is the illustrator of Cedric and the Dragon and Chicken Lily, and is the author/illustrator of The Three Little Pugs. She lives in the land of 10,000 lakes with her husband, daughters, guinea pig, bunnies, fish, and two little pugs.

Visit her at ninacrittenden.com or follow her on Twitter @NVCrittenden and Instagram @nvcrittenden.

 

  

Nina is giving away one copy of Chicken Lily and one copy of The Three Little Pugs. There will be two winners of one book each.

Simply leave ONE COMMENT below to enter.

You’re eligible to win if you’re a registered Storystorm participant and you have commented once below. Prizes will be given away at the conclusion of the event.

Good luck!

 

by Shutta Crum (from Thanksgiving 2011)

Storystorm is about beginnings—first ideas, first notes, and then, hopefully, first drafts from the exciting tidbits we’ve jotted down during the month. While thinking about beginnings I remembered one of my first writing classes: high school journalism. I don’t remember much from the class except that a good lead should always include the answers to four important questions: the 4 Ws. These are: who, what, where, and when. After a good lead, we were taught the story could move on into the details of how, or why.

Good leads are something that the news reader doesn’t really notice, but are crucial to keeping the reader’s attention. They quickly dispense with niggly concerns and important facts so the reader can settle into the story. It is a technique every picture book writer ought to know.

Answering those four questions right up front in any story tucks the reader in. However, as with many aspects of writing the picture book, the writer for the very young has to do it faster, with fewer words, and sometimes in verse!

Better than hearing this from me—and more fun—is studying how some of our best picture book writers, and illustrators, do it. Below are some of my favorite examples, in prose and in verse.

(Prose) Rosemary Wells, from MAX’S CHOCOLATE CHICKEN.

 

“One morning somebody put a chocolate chicken in the birdbath.”

Let’s parse this opening line. When: one morning. Who: somebody. (We also see a picture of that somebody—Poppa?) What: put a chocolate chicken. Where: in the birdbath. (And what a great hook for a young child! Why would someone do that?)

(Verse) Karma Wilson, from BEAR SNORES ON.

 

 “In a cave in the woods

in his deep, dark lair,

through the long, cold winter

sleeps a great brown bear.”

Where: in a cave in the woods in a deep dark lair. When: through the long cold winter. What: sleeps. Who: a great brown bear. (And she did all this with perfect meter! Note: be sure to read Karma’s earlier post, on Nov. 2nd.)

Of course, we are blessed by the illustrations in our picture books. In addition to everything else they do so well, the art carries a great deal of this initial informational load. If the setting is a farm, we see that and it may not be mentioned at all in the text. If it is nighttime, or winter, or the main character is a bear . . . these may, also, not be directly mentioned. If it is not said in the text, it is then incumbent on the illustrator to add that context. Look at Jane Yolen’s Caldecott-winning book, illustrated by John Schoenherr.

(Free verse) Jane Yolen, from OWL MOON.

 

“It was late one winter night,

long past my bedtime,

when Pa and I went owling.”

When: late one winter night, long past my bedtime. Who: Pa and I. What: went owling. There is no mention of where . . . that is covered by the beautiful farm scene in the illustration.

Occasionally, leaving out more than one of these details may actually enhance the story by focusing the reader’s attention on another detail that may be of more importance. For example, study Jon Klassen’s new book I WANT MY HAT BACK. There is no where indicated (except for a few rocks and sprigs of grass). Nor, even a whenWho and what are of prime importance. (Who: I. What: Want my hat back.) Against almost completely blank pages readers really notice those eyes on the bear and the rabbit. The facial expressions are subtle, yet so important for understanding the story.  In an intensely illustrated background, the significance of those looks might get lost. We assume it is some place where there are bears and rabbits and other animals. And the when is unimportant. As in all things, once you know the rules you also know when it may be best to break them.

(Prose) Jon Klassen. From I WANT MY HAT BACK.

“My hat is gone.

I want it back.”

So study first lines for how good writers quickly dispense with the basic questions any reader has about the world of the story. Then once you’ve tucked your readers in, you can lead them on to discover the answers to those other two important questions: how the story unfolds and why.

Shutta Crum is the author of several middle-grade novels, more than a dozen picture books, and many poems and magazine articles. She adores speaking about children’s books and is an oft-requested presenter, guest lecturer, panel moderator, and keynote speaker. Her latest picture book is MOUSELING’S WORDS (Clarion). It’s her auto-mouse-biography—about a mouse who becomes a swashbuckler of words. The idea came from one of Tara’s Storystorm (PiBoIdMo) challenges. Thanks Tara for challenging us!

You can follow Shutta on her blog & website at shutta.com, on Twitter @Shutta and on Facebook here.

At the conclusion of Storystorm, prize packs will be given away (books, swag, writing tools). Comment once on this blog post to enter into the prize pack drawing.

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

Good luck!

 

by Andria Rosenbaum

Writers understand the power of Story. We get that stories can enlighten, educate, make you laugh till you’re breathless, or move you to tears. All good stories make you feel something.

I wish I was a humorous writer, à la Madam Tara Lazar.  

Who wouldn’t want to bring word play, joy and humor to the world of kidlit?

But it turns out that some stories knock on your door unsolicited. Sometimes, they seep into your brain and wrap around your heart. They badger you until you pull them into the world by painting them with words.

These stories can be tricky. Especially when they’re based on truth, or history. If they aren’t handled with care, they can end up sounding boring, sentimental and didactic. When that happens the hearts and minds these stories long to open—remain closed.

More than ten years ago, one of these persistent ideas knocked on my door after I read multiple testimonies from people who had been separated from their parents and siblings during WWII. Even as these children grew up in different countries with new families, they remembered each other. But each believed the other had perished in the war. Some sixty-plus years later, some of them found one another thanks to organizations like The Shoah Project and Yad Vashem.  

Their stories haunted me. They shadowed me like a lost dog looking for home. I wondered how war scars children? How did they survive while others didn’t? What unseen fractures remained? How could they be healed? I felt compelled to share the stories that had shaped their lives.

I knew a manuscript about children of war would be tough to sell. Especially a picture book. But that didn’t matter. I only knew I had to write it. Because this had happened to children, I wanted to write it for children. But how could I begin to describe such a tragic truth?

Simply.

Honestly.

Looking out of the eyes of a child.

As I read and researched more and more about the Holocaust, I realized I wanted to tell a story sewn together from accounts of siblings from multiple families. I put myself into the heart of the older sister. Her memories became mine. I wrote in her voice. I minimized the graphic details and focused on the separation itself. The main character Ruthi refused to let her story be solely about what she’d lost. Her story became more about what kept her going. It’s about the key ingredients that might have allowed her and others to survive.

I shared the manuscript with my agent unsure of how she’d respond. Thankfully, she loved it and was determined to sell it. Eventually, she did. HAND IN HAND will be published in April by Apples & Honey Press. Maya Shleifer’s incredible illustrations bring Ruthi and her little brother Leib to life, while softening the hard edges of their story through color and character.

Editing helped the book evolved into a story about the effects of separation and war on children.

It became more than just another book about the Holocaust. Though it’s aimed at 7-10 year-olds, I hope it speaks to a broader audience.  

Our stories can’t change history, but they might have the ability to heal. By spotlighting tragic events, books can build empathy and understanding. If you have a tough story you’re longing to tell I hope you find a way to share it. Open the door and embrace it. Try to be honest. Try to be brave. Listen to your characters. You never know who may be waiting for your words.

Andria Warmflash Rosenbaum is the author of TRAINS DON’T SLEEP, illustrated by Deirdre Gill (HMH) and BIG SISTER, LITTLE MONSTER, illustrated by Edwin Fotheringham (Scholastic Press), a PiBoldMo idea from 2014. She hunts for picture book ideas from her home in New Jersey. You can follow her on Twitter @andriawrose, or learn more about Andria and her books at: andriawarmflashrosenbaum.com.

Andria is giving away a signed copy of HAND IN HAND when it’s published in April.

Simply leave ONE COMMENT below to enter.

You’re eligible to win if you’re a registered Storystorm participant and you have commented once below. Prizes will be given away at the conclusion of the event.

Good luck!

 

7ate9
Winner of the 2018 Irma S. Black Award and the SCBWI Crystal Kite!
black kite

As a children's book author and mother of two, I'm pushing a stroller along the path to publication. I collect shiny doodads on the journey and share them here. You've found a kidlit treasure box.

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My Picture Books

COMING SOON:


illus by Melissa Crowton
Tundra/PRH Canada
June 4, 2019


illus by Ross MacDonald
Disney*Hyperion
October 15, 2019

THREE WAYS TO TRAP A LEPRECHAUN
illus by Vivienne To
HarperCollins
Spring 2020

THE WHIZBANG WORDBOOK
illustrator TBA
Sourcebooks Jabberwocky
August 2020

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