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by Michelle Cusolito

I’ve said this in other places, but I think it’s worth repeating here: I reject the idea that authors should write what we know. I believe we should write what we’re curious about. What captures our imaginations. What we’re passionate about or what we want to explore deeply.

I’ve nurtured a sense of wonder since I was a child growing up on a farm building hay bale forts and mucking around in nearby swamps. Once I lived abroad for the first time, my interests expanded to learning about other cultures and ecosystems. I am curious about the world. That curiosity determines the topics I choose to research and to write about. (I write fiction and non-fiction picture books, but I lean mostly toward non-fiction).

My debut, FLYING DEEP, invites young readers to imagine themselves piloting deep-submersible Alvin two miles below the ocean’s surface to explore the unique ecosystem that thrives near hydrothermal vents. I am not an Alvin pilot. I had never been inside Alvin or even seen Alvin up close when I started the book. But I WAS fascinated by the idea of piloting Alvin. I was especially fascinated by the alien-looking animals that live near the vents. How could I not be fascinated by dinner plate-sized clams, six foot tube worms and an octopus with appendages that look like Dumbo’s ears? I knew I wanted to write a picture book on the topic because I was so interested in learning more.

FLYING DEEP was a Storystorm (PiBoIdMo) idea in 2014. At that point, I had no idea how I would write the book or even what kind of book it would be. I only knew I was fascinated by Alvin and hydrothermal vents.

My approach to Storystorm was to list every topic I could think of that I was interested in. I used a printed PiBoIdMo calendar and wrote my ideas in the boxes. I allowed each idea to be as big or small as it came to me. Sometimes it was a topic, or a character or even a kind of book I wanted to try writing. I didn’t put any rules on it except that I had to fill every box in my calendar. Just one tiny box per day. No big deal. And I didn’t actually write one idea per day. Some days I wrote 6 or 7 or 8. Other days I wrote none, but my subconscious was certainly at work. One nugget on that calendar became FLYING DEEP. Another nugget became a manuscript that is now out on submission. That one took me years to research and write. Am I bored by the topic? Nope. I still get excited when I come across new articles about my subject. (The remaining ideas on my 2014 calendar did not see the light of day because, well, they were junk. But that didn’t matter. I got two viable manuscripts out of that list.)

So, today, instead of trying to come up with a fully formed idea, try this:

Sit with your notebook, calendar, or laptop and brainstorm. What are the topics you love? What are your passions? What intrigues you? What fascinates you? Who do you admire? Write quickly. Get everything down.

Maybe you love pickles, or ceramic tiles or the way light streams through tree leaves in the late afternoon sun. Are these fully formed book ideas? Of course not. Are they all book worthy? Maybe not, but I can imagine ways these COULD lead to something interesting, funny, or educational. (There are books about bacon and pasta that came out in recent years. Why not pickles? I’m not going to write that story, but maybe you will). This is where you come in: you craft the book that’s right for you.

How many ideas did you come up with? Guess what? All of them count toward your Storystorm total!


Michelle Cusolito’s debut, Flying Deep, will be published by Charlesbridge in May. Flying Deep won the PEN New England Susan P. Bloom Children’s Book Discovery Award and is a summer 2018 Junior Library Guild selection. Michelle climbed inside deep-submersible Alvin to complete research for Flying Deep. Michelle has lived in the Philippines and in Ireland. When she isn’t mucking around in the world, she’s usually in her home office or local coffee shop weaving these experiences into stories for children. Learn more at MichelleCusolito.com.

You can connect with Michelle on Instagram @mcusolitoTwitter @MCusolito, and Facebook.


Michelle is also making a special request. Her favorite local Indie, Eight Cousins, suffered a catastrophic flood last week. Eight Cousins is an amazing local business run by true booksellers. The storefront is closed until sometime this spring, but they are open for on-line orders which will be staged out of a temporary location. Last fall, Michelle had already arranged for pre-orders placed through Eight Cousins to be signed by both Michelle and Nicole Wong (the illustrator) before being shipped to purchasers on publication day (May 22, 2018). To sweeten the deal, she’s adding a chance in a special give-away. Learn more here: http://www.michellecusolito.com/my-books/.

Please support independent bookstores. If you plan to pre-order Flying Deep, will you order through Eight Cousins or your own favorite local book store? Thank you for your consideration.

Michelle is offering a critique of a fiction picture book up to 700 words or a non-fiction picture book up to 1200 words.

Leave ONE COMMENT on this blog post to enter. You are eligible to win if you are a registered Storystorm participant and you have commented once below. Prizes will be given away at the conclusion of the event.

Good luck!

by Jenna Grodzicki

2015 was the year I decided to finally give writing a go. Armed with my first idea, I began writing my first manuscript. Fast forward nine months—I was still working on that same story. Don’t get me wrong; it needed a LOT of work. But I hadn’t come up with any other ideas. I started to worry I was destined to be a one-trick pony.

Then I heard about Tara Lazar’s Storystorm (formerly PiBoIdMo). I was hopeful this challenge would get my creative juices flowing and help me generate some new ideas. And it did. I had just read David Michael Slater’s guest post about listening for ideas in misunderstandings, jokes, and silly expressions, when my husband and I started a conversation about our favorite place, Cape Cod. We spend time there every summer, and there are always several great white shark sightings. My husband was joking and said, “What if those sharks were just looking for friends?” BOOM! There was a new idea.

The rest of the month provided more and more inspiration. While I didn’t manage to form 30 ideas, the handful I did come up with fueled the fire to keep me writing. And the shark idea wouldn’t let me go. I wrote and revised and received feedback from my critique group, and then I rewrote and revised some more.

I submitted my polished manuscript to many agents and publishers and received a lot of rejections. But as they say, it only takes one yes. Last November, I got a response from Callie Metler-Smith of Clear Fork Publishing. She loved my story!

Now, one year later, my very first idea from my very first Storystorm is about to become a book! FINN FINDS A FRIEND will be released on November 7th from Clear Fork Publishing.

Thank you so much, Tara, for organizing such a wonderful challenge. From the guest bloggers to the support from other participants, Storystorm has become something I look forward to every year. I can’t wait to see what inspiration Storystorm 2018 brings!

Storystorm 2018 begins in January, but you can register in late December. Follow this blog (email sign-up in left column) for all the details…


Jenna Grodzicki lives in Connecticut with her husband, two crazy awesome kids, a cat named Pixie, and a dog named Ozzy. She has a Bachelor’s Degree in Elementary Education from Boston College and a Master’s in Education from the University of New England. Her first book, PIXIE’S ADVENTURE, was awarded two Honorable Mentions in the 2017 Purple Dragonfly Book Awards. She recently traded in her librarian hat to become a full-time writer. At all hours of the day (and night) she can be found at her desk, drinking iced coffee and working on her next story. When she’s not writing or spending time with her family, Jenna LOVES to read! She also enjoys skiing and cheering for the best team in baseball, the Boston Red Sox. Visit her website at JennaGrodzicki.com.

by Lori Alexander

DVD extras, artist interviews, author’s notes…I love going behind the scenes to learn how my favorite things were created. Here are some tidbits from the making of my latest picture book, FAMOUSLY PHOEBE, by the numbers:

24th idea:
In November 2014, deep into Picture Book Idea Month (now Storystorm), I jotted down my 24th idea: “A girl’s family takes so many pictures of her, she thinks she might be famous.” My daughter had been pestering me to take a picture of her new haircut and post it to Facebook. She was only seven! Kids these days. (Lesson learned: inspiration is everywhere.)

5 pitches:
After completing the month-long challenge, I had 30+ snippets of story ideas (some better than others). I selected my favorite five and crafted them into two-sentence pitches, like jacket flap copy. I emailed the five ideas to my agent, Kathleen Rushall, to see if she fancied any of them. FAMOUSLY PHOEBE stood out the most to her, so I expanded that idea into a complete story. (Lesson learned: a second opinion can be helpful, be it from an agent or a trusted critique partner)

9 critiques:
Once I finished my first draft, I sent it to various critique buddies, a few at a time. After receiving feedback and letting suggestions resonate for a couple days, I made revisions. Then the new draft went out to more fresh eyes. PHOEBE had at least nine critiques before I shared the completed story with my agent. (Lesson learned: take the time to get it right)

12 art notes:
Too many? Not sure, but there were lots of spots with little jokes and no way to understand them from the text alone. My critique partners didn’t seem bothered by them and neither did my agent. She loved the story and we were ready to submit. Hot dog! (Lesson learned: I’ll never know if I’m adding too many art notes)

13 rejections:
Ugh. Was it the art notes? We received no concrete feedback from editors on changes to be made. Some already had new-sibling stories in their pipeline. Others just weren’t feeling it. My agent continued to submit to editors, reminding me of her ever-encouraging mantra, “It only takes one.” (Lesson learned: don’t give up)

1 sale:
Sterling Children’s Books made an offer, about three months into the submission process. Hooray! (Lesson learned: rejection stinks but persistence pays.)

2 editors:
The acquiring editor for FAMOUSLY PHOEBE, Zaneta Jung, left Sterling about a year after the sale. Zaneta really “got” Phoebe and helped me revise the story into something funnier and sweeter than the original. I was crushed to see her go. But my new editor, Christina Pulles, has been amazing. She included me every step of the way, sharing sketches, color art, covers ideas. She listened to my suggestions and has been incredibly helpful on the marketing end of things. (Lesson learned: roll with the punches)

1 big thanks:
To Tara, for coordinating Storystorm and for sharing so much valuable information on her blog year-round, and for letting me celebrate the release of FAMOUSLY PHOEBE here, too. And get ready for your own success stories, picture book writers. Because…

89 days:
Storystorm 2018 is right around the corner!

1 giveaway:
Lori is giving away a signed copy of FAMOUSLY PHOEBE and a bunch of other Phoebe freebies. Leave a comment below to enter. A random winner will be selected in about two weeks. (Lesson learned: it’s fun to win free stuff!)

Lori Alexander is the author of BACKHOE JOE (Harper Children’s), FAMOUSLY PHOEBE (Sterling Children’s) and the upcoming ALL IN A DROP, a chapter book biography of scientist Antony van Leeuwenhoek (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). She happily shares the spotlight with her husband and two children under the star-filled skies of Tucson, AZ. You can find out more about Lori on her website at lorialexanderbooks.com or on Twitter @LoriJAlexander.

by Kerri Kokias

I’ve been quietly participating in Storystorm (formerly PiBoIdMo) since 2009. You know the type, the writer who lurks on the sidelines, observing and taking notes, but not necessarily being vocal in the comments. Well, it’s time for me to speak up!

I owe Storystorm a big THANK YOU for helping me come up with the idea for my debut picture book, SNOW SISTERS!, which is illustrated by Teagan White and being published by Knopf in January.

Actually, many of my current manuscripts incorporate elements of ideas I came up with in Novembers and Januaries past, and Storystorm has also changed the way I recognize and record ideas throughout the year.

I always think it’s funny when Storystorm participants ask, “What counts as an idea?”

For me, it’s any thought that gives me a little tingle or flash of curiosity. I’ve never tried to come up with 30 developed book ideas. Instead I record little bits of inspiration. I may think of a potential character, a structure, a title, a nonfiction topic, a plot or concept idea, or even just a few words that I like the sound of together. I jot the idea down by category and when I’m ready to start a new story I pull out my list and combine ideas from here and there.

For SNOW SISTERS! I had the idea of writing a story in mirrored language in 2010. I took note of the idea but never tried to do anything with it.

In 2012, I made a note about writing a story about sisters who were opposites.

In 2013, I took note when an editor questioned on Twitter why there weren’t any books about characters who hated the snow.

I pulled out my idea list and brainstormed ways that the different past pieces of inspiration could work with that concept. Through the process of writing and revising, the story didn’t end up implementing the ideas in the way I first thought; the sisters aren’t exactly opposite, they just have their own distinct personalities, which gives them room to connect in unexpected ways. And neither hate the snow, they just interact with it differently. And that specific editor didn’t connect with the story…but someone else did!

And now, 8 years after its first piece of inspiration, it’s a book!

So, thank you to Tara, all of her guest bloggers, and all of the participants over the years for keeping Storystorm going strong! I very much look forward to being a participant and guest blogger this coming January.

Kerri’s writing features unique structures, playful language, humor, tension, tenderness, simple text, and complicated characters. She has a good vision for how text and art can work together to tell a complete story. Kerri credits most of her story ideas to her “fly on the wall” personality. This means she’s both a keen observer of social interactions and a nosey eavesdropper. She lives in Seattle, Washington with her husband, two children, and three dogs.

You can learn more about Kerri at KerriKokias.com. Or connect with her on Facebook or Twitter @KerriKokias.

by Tami Charles

When Tara asked me to write a “Success Story” for PiBoIdMo (now Storystorm), I thought to myself:

Hooray!
I get to be one of the cool kids, like Tara!
I AM a success…right? RIGHT?

And then that familiar feeling surfaced:

I have no clue what I’m doing.
Any second now the literary gods will figure this out.

But all writers face this, I assume. That self-crippling doubt. Followed by euphoria. Only to return back to that place of doubt all over again.

C’est la vie!

Growing up, I never knew I could be an author. Sure, I loved to read and write. But it never dawned on me that I could write books like Beverly Cleary or Lois Lowry. While I loved Ramona Quimby and Anastasia Krupnik, they didn’t necessarily reflect me or the friends I grew up with. So, knowing this, I tucked that author dream in my pocket and moved on to become an elementary school teacher. I don’t regret this decision one bit. My students were the ones who helped me rediscover my passion. Thanks to them, I began writing again.

PiBoIdMo came at the “write” time in my life. (See what I just did there?) When I finished the challenge in 2013, I had several ideas and even a few manuscripts under my belt—all tossed into the black hole never to be seen again, naturally. But there was this one story that I kept returning to. Not because it was awful. (Not because it was any good at the time, either!) But because this story helped me realize the type of writer I wanted to be.

“Freedom Soup” is a story born out of love and family tradition. Early in my twenty-year friendship with my husband, his family introduced me to the delicious flavors of Haiti. They weren’t that far off from the Caribbean/Soul/Latin cuisine that I’d enjoyed as a child. Dare I say, I fell in love with Haitian food before I fell for my husband! (He doesn’t need to know that though.)

My husband’s late grandmother, Tí gran, was the one who gave me my very first bowl of Freedom Soup, also known as Soup joumou. As soon as I tasted it, I knew there had to be a story behind that taste of pride, victory, and joy. Seriously, if you haven’t tasted this soup, I suggest you find yourself some Haitian friends stat!

In a nutshell, “Freedom Soup” is written in tribute to the undying spirit of the Haitian people. Today, many people associate Haiti with poverty and earthquakes. But long ago, on January 1, 1804, Haiti made history as the first black republic to free themselves from the bondage of slavery. When slavery still existed on the island, slave masters rang in the New Year by eating Freedom Soup. They didn’t grow the vegetables or prepare the soup, of course. Their slaves did that for them. And for all of their hard work, slaves were not even allowed to eat the soup to celebrate the New Year. After twelve years of uprisings and fighting for their freedom, Haiti claimed their independence from France. Do you know how they celebrated? By eating Freedom Soup, of course! What a testament to their faith and resilience!

Before writing this picture book, I’d received plenty of rejections from literary agents and editors. And rightfully so. I wasn’t writing what spoke to me. I’m so grateful that this story
did. I’m happy to announce that “Freedom Soup” sold to Carter Hasegawa at Candlewick Press. I have so much to be thankful for:

  • Following my gut and creating stories that reflect the beautiful cultures in my family
  • Tí gran and the wisdom she shared with me before leaving this Earth
  • Storystorm for giving me the kick-in-the-butt inspiration I needed to jumpstart the sale of my debut picture book
  • For the chance to appear on Good Morning America, where I presented a Thanksgiving version of my Freedom Soup. (Michael Strahan smelled nice and all, but not better than my soup…just sayin’.)

GOOD MORNING AMERICA – Ocean Spray sponsors GMA’s ultimate cranberry challenge on “Good Morning America,” Tuesday, November 22, 2016, airing on ABC. (ABC/Lou Rocco)

I don’t know how much of a success I am right now, and I’m not sure if I’ll ever feel comfortable with calling myself that. I mean this could all change if I hit Tara Lazar status. Then I can puff out my chest and say “Why yes, I am quite the success, aren’t I?” (in a British accent, of course!)

In the meantime, I’ll just keep writing the stories that matter to me and collecting all the nuggets of wisdom I can along the way. And for the aspiring authors out there, I wish you success and prosperity as you do the same.

Congratulations, Tami. Best wishes for the launch of Freedom Soup in Fall 2019 (when I hope you’ll come back to show it off)…and for a long and prosperous kidlit career!

You can visit Tami Charles online at tamiwrites.com and follow her on Twitter @TamiWritesStuff.

 

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:

YOUR FIRST DAY OF CIRCUS SCHOOL
illus by Melissa Crowton
Tundra/PRH Canada
June 4, 2019

THE WHIZBANG WORDBOOK
illustrator TBA
Sourcebooks Jabberwocky
2019

THE UPPER CASE:
TROUBLE IN CAPITAL CITY
illus by Ross MacDonald
Disney*Hyperion
Fall 2019

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

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