by Katey Howes

Happy 2021, StoryStormers! How is the month of brainstorming treating you so far?

Maybe your idea engine is chugging steadily along with an “I think I can, I think I can,” attitude. You might feel your creativity bouncing out of control like five little monkeys jumping on a bed. Or perhaps, in spite of an influx of inspirational sights, sounds and friendly blog posts, your brain snores on??

Well, no matter which classic picture book your mind most resembles today, I’m pretty sure you can guess my chosen theme: refrains!

From CHICK-A CHICK-A BOOM BOOM to I LOVE MY WHITE SHOES, children’s literature is full of fabulous refrains. Why not channel their power jumpstart your creativity today?

A refrain is a phrase repeated throughout a book, generally in a predictable position in the text structure. A good refrain:

  • adds to the MEANING of the story
  • contributes to the PACING and FLOW of the story
  • compliments the SPIRIT of the story
  • is fun to say!

An effective refrain is repeated frequently enough to be memorable, but not so often it overwhelms. It may get a “twist” or variation once or twice in the book to keep readers on their toes or to emphasize a significant plot point.

Done well, refrains boost a book’s place in a child’s heart from blasé to “read it ten times a day!” Refrains may make a book rhythmic or melodic, add predictability, improve participation at bedtime and circle time, form a lasting impression, teach, soothe, or motivate.

On the other hand, done poorly, a refrain can come across as unnecessary, lazy, trite or annoying. It can distract from the heart of your story or – even worse – showcase that there’s not much story there at all.

Refrains are a risky business, people. This writing thing is not for the faint of heart.

In my upcoming book, RISSY NO KISSIES, I utilized a refrain for several reasons. First, to showcase building tension, caused by repeated conflicts. Rissy is a lovebird, but she doesn’t like kisses. In one situation after another, family and friends try to share affection with her through kisses. Each time she repeats the refrain to refuse kisses, they speculate as to what might be wrong with her. Is she rude? Confused? Sick?

The pairing of the refrain with Rissy’s increasingly upset body language and facial expression drives home the idea that these various interactions aren’t isolated incidents. They form a pattern, and build one upon the next.

At the same time, the refrain provides young readers with something familiar and predictable, increasing their comfort level with the story. Because this book addresses tough emotions and difficult social situations, giving kids that comfort is very important!  With the help of a soft color palette and clear, empowering resolution, the familiarity of a refrain balances out the difficult emotions and situations tackled in the book.

The idea for the refrain:

“No Kissies!” Rissy chirruped
with a most emphatic squeak,

was actually inspired by a line in one of my favorite books, NOISY NORA, which ends:

“But I’m back again!” said Nora
with a monumental crash.

I wanted to channel an energy, emotionality, and authenticity similar to Nora’s as I told Rissy’s story. Reflecting Nora’s voice in Rissy’s refrain helped me focus on and accomplish that goal.

So as a spark for your Storystorm idea today, I suggest you begin with a refrain. This particular refrain may never make it to a final draft (I assure you, many of mine have made it to the trash bin!), but it can certainly get you started on something new. Here are a few exercises you can try:

  1. Find a line from a book you love and create a refrain that mimics its rhythm and intonation, but hints at a different story.
  2. Pick an emotion you’d like readers to feel and write a refrain that centers that emotion.
  3. Think of a catchy or fun-to-say phrase (and imagine a character who’d like to say it).
  4. Take a refrain from a song or nursery rhyme and change a few words to give it a unique twist.

Good luck and good writing!

Katey Howes is the award-winning author of several picture books, including Grandmother Thorn (Ripple Grove Press, 2017), Magnolia Mudd and the Super Jumptastic Launcher Deluxe (Sterling, 2018), and Be A Maker (Carolrhoda, 2019). With each of her books, Katey seeks to empower readers to recognize their independence, creativity, and strength.

Katey’s latest book, Rissy No Kissies, illustrated by Jess Engle, releases March 2, 2021 with Carolrhoda Books, and has already received a starred Kirkus review and glowing recommendations from teachers, psychologists, and consent educators for its messages of autonomy, consent, and acceptance.

Katey lives in Bucks County, Pennsylvania with her husband, three ravenous readers, and a pup named Samwise Gamgee. You can find her on the screened porch with a notebook and a bowl of Moose Munch—or find her online at kateyhowes.com, tweeting @kateywrites, and on Instagram @kidlitlove.

Katey is giving away a signed copy of RISSY NO KISSIES and a custom enamel Rissy the lovebird pin.

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by Diana Murray

It seems only natural to start writing a story as soon as you know the beginning. But since the beginning and the ending need to be connected, doesn’t it make sense to figure out the ending first? That way you’ll know what you’re moving toward. But you often can’t work out the ending till you know the middle! I don’t mean every single thing that happens in between. But just that exact middle point. The middle can consist of a “black moment” before a final solution, or it can be some other big turn of events. Even in plotless, lyrical concept books, there is almost always an arc of some kind, and the middle needs to pop.

I know, I know. This challenge is all about creating ideas. Aren’t I putting the cart before the horse? Well, the thing is, once you catch an idea and write it down, it kind of takes on a life of its own. It will start sparking other similar ideas. It might branch off into something new or it might rustle up a distant memory. Your mind might ask questions about your idea, or posit possible story directions. Write everything down! I like to collect ALL those musings and nestle them right under the ideas in my file. Ideas always generate more ideas and questions generate more questions! Use that to your advantage.

Anyway, lots of people out there are successful “pantsers”, but I personally find that having a plan is the most efficient way for me to work. Here are the first few stages I typically go through, from idea to first draft. I’ll use “Unicorn Day” as an example (with actual snippets from my original idea file). As you can see, my ideas often begin with a title.

I have an idea. I write it down, but I don’t dive in yet.

Dolphin Party?

This idea came to me after watching dolphins swim around in Orlando. I was thinking about how majestic and almost magical they seem.

I have lots of other ideas throughout the weeks, both related and random. I write them down, but don’t go further than that yet. (Some of them suck. Some are OK. Some are fun, but not marketable. Some feel too common. I don’t assess that until later. For now, at the early idea stage, I enjoy being wild and free! No idea is shunned at this phase.)

Dolphin Daze, Dolphin Day, Five Diving Dolphins, Dolphin Princess, Unicorns of the Sea
Under where? Underwear! – wordplay? make refrain?

Loose Tooth Blues (song)

Worm Race

Monkey Party? They go “bananas”.

Unicorn Party? Unicorn Day?

etc…

If I find that thoughts keep popping up regarding one of the ideas in particular, I go back to it, and jot down some notes. Perhaps a turn of phrase or a plot point will keep bubbling up. When the same idea keeps nagging at me day after day, I know it’s time to go deeper.

Unicorn Party? Unicorn Day? Describe magical party. “Only three rules”. “Must have fabulous ‘do”?

But what happens??? Maybe a horse comes by and he’s sad. They give him a horn? “Unicorn party! Unicorn party! Everyone’s invited!” Chant of some kind?

Maybe they need someone sensible and horse is the sensible one?
Maybe ALL the unicorns are actually horses? Or the main one? That’s the surprise–fake horn all along?

…(my ramblings continue for several pages)

Once the story starts coming out, I write notes in this sort of crazy, conversational stream of consciousness. Usually, a week or two goes by. Then the answer finally pops out:

The horse sneaks in with a fake horn. Paper horn tied on with string. Nobody knows…until it falls off during celebration.

And that’s my middle. How do I know? It just feels right. And a different person might find a different “middle” even if they start with the exact same title. But anyway, now that I’ve found it, I know where I’m going with the story and I can start fleshing things out more. I often do a rough outline with page numbers before switching to verse. By this time, I’m usually chomping at the bit! I start writing at a galloping pace till I get my first draft down.

When I plan things like this, my initial draft comes out more polished and I tend to have fewer revisions after I’m done. And since I write in rhyme, that’s especially beneficial! Until I figure out that “middle” or that “twist” (and by extension, the ending) I don’t have much to go on, and I risk writing something that meanders or feels slight.

Here are a few other examples of “middles” in my books:

  • ONE SNOWY DAY (Sourcebooks): Two kids and a dog go on a snowy day adventure in this counting concept book. In the middle, the dog steals the snowman’s carrot nose.
  • GRIMELDA THE VERY MESSY WITCH (Tegen/HarperCollins): A messy witch loses an ingredient she needs to make pickle pie. In the middle, she’s forced to use her broom to sweep instead of fly.
  • SUMMER COLOR (Little/Brown): In this color concept book, two kids go on a nature walk on a very hot summer day. In the middle, there is a sudden rainstorm, and a mad rush home.
  • PIZZA PIG (Step-into-Reading/RandomHouse): A pig serves all his customers the perfect animal-specific pizzas in his shop. In the middle, a shy turtle refuses to eat, no matter what he tries.

Enjoy this early idea phase and write down EVERYTHING, without self-critiquing. Just let the ideas frolic in your mind. Soon, you will see which ideas keep nagging at you, and once you get that middle figured out, you’re off to the races! And with all that planning, you’ll have the reins firmly in hand.

For those who don’t know, it was during the very first Storystorm (PiBoIdMo 2009) that I came up with the manuscript that got me my agent. Since signing with her in 2012, I have sold 15 picture books and 2 early readers.

Diana Murray is the author of over a dozen books for children, including GOODNIGHT VEGGIES (HMH, March 2020), a Jr. Library Guild Selection; and UNICORN DAY (Sourcebooks, 2019), a National Indiebound Bestseller. Both of these books will be coming out in board book editions this April. Diana grew up in NYC and still lives nearby with her firefighter husband, two children, and a smarty-pants cockatiel named Bean. Visit her at dianamurray.com.

Diana is giving away one of her signed books (of your choice).

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by Mike Ciccotello

We’ve all heard that critique from an editor, “It’s too predictable.” And then, we pull out the rejection Bingo Card and fill in a spot.

Coming up with an unexpected concept is challenging. There are plenty of ways we can apply this “unexpected” element to a story. It could be the overall concept, a plot point, or even a character. For this post, let’s focus on the concept of your story. For me, it’s typically paired with a bunch of planning and work. What? But, Mike, shouldn’t these unexpected concepts just come to us when we least expect them? Well, just because we used the word “Unexpected” does not mean the idea will unexpectedly come to us. I wish it were that simple. Maybe some magical authors have unexpected ideas suddenly popping in their heads all the time. Good for them. I wish them well. I’m so very, very happy for them. Sigh. Still, the rest of us need to spend a lot of time working toward the unexpected. We need to dig deep to find that special something that makes our story sing.

A couple of years ago, my agent asked me to develop a promotional illustration for back-to-school. I immediately started working but knew I needed to get all of my expected ideas out of the way to get to the unexpected. I started drawing a typical back-to-school scene with kids in line at the bus. Which led to adding a dog in place of a child, then an anthropomorphic bus, then an anthropomorphic book with the bus. This process went on for a few days. (Sometimes, this process takes much longer.) Then, one day, I was outside with my kids in their sandbox, playing sandcastle ice cream shop, of course, and the idea appeared in front of me. Well, part of it, anyway. I was staring at a shovel, and it was staring back at me.

But, Mike, what does a shovel have to do with back-to-school? Absolutely nothing, but it has a lot to do with right before you go back-to-school. I started imagining a shovel and a ruler sizing each other up on the beach. Why not, right? So, I played around with the sketch and added a few more items.

That was the first iteration of BEACH TOYS vs. SCHOOL SUPPLIES. It was a fun concept, and I couldn’t wait to develop it. I did more work on the illustration and ended up with this.

My next author-illustrated book, BEACH TOYS vs. SCHOOL SUPPLIES (FSG/Macmillan), will be washing up on shore near you this June.

And here’s the cover. Did you expect a cover reveal in this blog post?

Now, how do you find YOUR unexpected ideas? Take your time. Work through the expected and then keep going. Turn the expected upside down and shake the change out of its pockets. You may find something unexpected there.

Once you find that surprising concept, you can sprinkle in some compelling characters, build a strong narrative, and add a bit more “unexpected” to the plot. You know, all the easy stuff. 😉

Before I go, let’s try something fun—list five random objects around you. Pick the one with the most personality. Now come up with today’s Storystorm idea based on that character.

Happy writing, and don’t forget to talk to your silverware!

Mike Ciccotello received a BFA with a concentration in painting from Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University. He is the author-illustrator of the picture book TWINS and the forthcoming BEACH TOYS VS. SCHOOL SUPPLIES (both from FSG/Macmillan). Mike will also illustrate Bridget Heos’s TREEMENDOUS (forthcoming from Crown/Penguin Random House) and CHEESE AND QUACKERS, a two-book early graphic chapter-book series written by Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen (forthcoming from Aladdin/S&S). He is an active member of SCBWI, CBIG, and was a contributing member of AllTheWonders.com. Find him online on Twitter @ciccotello, Instagram @ciccotello and ciccotello.com. Mike is represented by Rachel Orr. Please contact Rachel at rko(a)prospectagency.com.

Mike is giving away an an original inked piece of some of the BEACH TOYS VS. SCHOOL SUPPLIES characters.

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by Lauren Kerstein

We’re off to see the Wizard! The Wizard of story ideas…

Often, when I begin exploring an idea, my journey leads to LOTS of new ideas. Grab a notebook and let’s go! Let me show you what I mean.

Step One: THE SPARK

Let’s start with a concrete idea.

Here’s one: Squirrel loves peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, but his brother is allergic so he can’t eat them. Ever!

Step Two: WORD BANK WONDER

Let’s create a word bank of words we might use in this story:

Step 3: FOLLOW THE YELLOW BRICK ROAD

Let’s pick a few of the words we added to our word bank and follow that lovely Yellow Brick Road. What other ideas might we discover?

Step 4: CELEBRATE GOOD TIMES

Let’s celebrate. We just generated a whole list of new ideas by following the Yellow Brick Road. WOO HOO!

Step 5: RECORD IT OR WEEP

Now, spend some time fleshing out a few of those ideas before you lose them. You can write in your notebook or on blank paper. You can use the Storystorm template I created. Or you can do both. I fill out as much of my template as I can. Then, if I’m really inspired by an idea, I write notes, notes, and more notes in a journal dedicated to this new book idea.

ADDED BONUS: The other thing to keep in mind is that following the Yellow Brick Road not only leads to new ideas, it can also help you add layers to your manuscript. And as we all know, layers are a very good thing. In my picture book HOME FOR A WHILE (Illustrated by Natalia Moore/Magination Press/ February 2, 2021), I incorporated many different layers: foster care, finding your strengths, and emotion regulation/coping strategies. These layers clicked into place as I followed the Yellow Brick Road and really explored the heart of Calvin’s story. I can’t wait for you to meet him!

So, GO FORTH and conquer, and follow the Yellow Brick Road. You just never know where it might lead!

Lauren Kerstein is an author and psychotherapist. She is a Jersey girl at heart who currently lives in Colorado with her husband, their two dragons…er, daughters, and their rescue dog. Lauren is the author of the Rosie the Dragon and Charlie picture book series (Illustrated by Nate Wragg/Two Lions). Her latest picture book, HOME FOR A WHILE (Illustrated by Natalia Moore/Magination Press) moves into shelves February 2, 2021. Lauren also writes books in her field. Lauren is one of the founders of #ReVISIONweek, a judge with Rate Your Story, runs a critique business, and is a long-time member of 12×12 and SCBWI. Her writing goals are simple. Read voraciously. Embrace feedback. Grow each day. Work hard. Be passionate. Write courageously. Touch children’s hearts. You can visit her at LaurenKerstein.net, and follow her on Twitter @LaurenKerstein, Instagram @LaurenKerstein and Facebook.

Lauren is giving away a picture book critique and a copy of HOME FOR A WHILE.

Two separate winners will be randomly chosen.

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by Joana Pastro

In my 2020 StoryStorm post, I talked about always having my senses on, and my brain ready to make the necessary connections to generate ideas.

But then the pandemic turned our lives upside-down, and somewhere along the way, I lost the habit of searching for ideas. It was like my senses were turned off and I was going about my day on autopilot. Not making connections. Not allowing my mind to wander, or my heart to wonder at the beauty and emotions each day brings. Yes, dear Storystormer, I forgot to follow my own advice.

But fear not! Storystorm is here to make it all better, and I’m happy to report that I’ve been having at least one idea per day. I hope you are too!

Today, I propose we set out to find an idea for a story only you can tell. After all, that’s one of the top pieces of advice that writers get. To do so, you’ll have to dig into your memories and find an idea near and dear to your heart. How?

The first idea spark for my upcoming book BISA’S CARNAVAL (illustrated by Carolina Coroa, coming November 2021 from Scholastic), happened when I fell in love with the picture book FESTIVAL OF COLORS by Kabir Sehgal and Surishta Sehgal. I knew I HAD to write a book as bright and vibrant as that one. But what would MY story be about? What was the ACTUAL idea? I found out by doing the following exercises.

Make Lists!

I love making lists. They keep me organized, on task, and, because of their visual aspect, I can literally see the ideas that are already floating in my head!

So, keeping in mind your heritage and/or your childhood, create the following lists:

  • Festivals/celebrations
  • Music, dances
  • Clothing, accessories
  • Food, dishes
  • Places
  • People
  • Sports, entertainment
  • Nature – plants
  • Nature – animals

Feel free to add other categories. Take ownership of this activity! I suggest saving and adding to these lists for future idea hunts!

Now, take a closer look, and select the words that are begging for your attention. When I make these lists there’s always something that will almost immediately hook me, even if it’s only a faint spark of an idea.

Take those words and:

  • Let them simmer.
  • Do a quick research about them. New? Wikipedia? Fun facts? Wacky news?

In addition to the lists, I recommend taking your chosen word(s) and. . .

Go on a journey!

Well, not exactly, but I like to think of this as embarking on a train that you’ll keep riding from one memory to another, until you reach one that you feel strongly enough to explore. The goal is to dig deeper on a more personal level. Ready?

Make yourself comfortable, close your eyes, and think about what memories those words prompt! What do you remember? Allow your memories to roam free, and see where else it takes you.

Make connections, catch those ideas and write them down!

Here’s to a healthier and happier 2021 filled with an abundance of ideas!

Joana Pastro always wanted to be an artist of some sort. So, she became an architect. But once her first child was born, all the visits to the library, and the countless story times made Joana start dreaming of becoming a children’s book author. After a lot of reading, writing and revising, her dream came true. Her debut picture book, LILLYBELLE, A DAMSEL NOT IN DISTRESS, illustrated by Jhon Ortiz, was published by Boyds Mills Press in 2020. Her second book, BISA’S CARNAVAL, illustrated by Carolina Coroa will be published by Scholastic in Fall/2021. Originally from Brazil, Joana now lives in Florida with her husband, her three extremely creative children, a rambunctious Morkie, and a needy Maltipoo. Visit her on Twitter @jopastro, Instagram @jppastro, or at joanapastro.com.

Joana is giving away a copy of LILLYBELLE, A DAMSEL NOT IN DISTRESS.

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by Christine Van Zandt

Hello, Storystormers!

To quote Thomas Edison: “Genius is one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration.” The inspiration for my underpants manuscript happened during an idea-brainstorming session I forced my family to have with me. My (then) third-grader had the lightbulb moment, “Kids love underwear!” So true, but was I the right person to write an underwear book? Since I’m so meticulously methodical, I generated a list of random questions and checked them off in my mind:

  • Q. Was I an expert on underwear?
  • A. Of course! An almost-lifelong expert at that.

 

  • Q. If, maybe, I needed to uncover more information, did I have the resources?
  • A. The library’s my best friend! The staff knows my name. (Really, they do.)

 

  • Q. Was I passionate about this topic?
  • A. YES! Underwear is fun and it saves our buns.

After those two minutes of inspiration, I moved on to perspiration and in the subsequent months many bars of chocolate were consumed.

I found published picture books similar to my idea, read and analyzed them. Deciding that my vision differed enough that it may find room in the marketplace, I charged forward like a knight in quilted underpants and . . . wrote the first draft!

It took 235 days from the first draft until I connected with a publisher. Here’s a glimpse at that time period:

  1. Read the manuscript aloud to myself. Revised.
  2. Thought it’d be easy finding and verifying kid-friendly facts. Discovered I was wrong.
  3. Reminded myself that my job needed my time. Tried to stop thinking about underwear.
  4. Checked out fifty pounds of reference books. Found five-and-a-half relevant facts.
  5. Panicked. Refocused when libraries closed, at-home school began, and everyone was home (Every. Day. All. Day. Long.).
  6. Read my manuscript to my family and got their feedback. Revised.
  7. Had family members read it to me. Revised.
  8. Read to the cat, because no one else would listen. Realized the cat only wanted to type with his tail. Let the cat revise.
  9. Bought reference books. Bought more reference books.
  10. Added foldout tables so I could dig out my keyboard, mouse, and the cat.
  11. Workshopped with my main critique group. Revised.
  12. Workshopped with other critique partners, then (guess what?), revised!
  13. Repeated until no one could stand this story anymore—because of how awesome it had become.
  14. Put the manuscript out there for the world. Logged when/where/how/why I sent it.
  15. Started over and wrote the next book.

So you see, it’s simple. Inspiration + perspiration = publication. Sometimes. I’ve written plenty of manuscripts that haven’t connected with the right publisher at the right moment. In the book industry, a story may also need the element of luck/timing.

In the 129 days since my underwear book found its publisher I’ve repeated many of the above steps as the book’s length increased from 32 to 48 pages and went through various renditions.

Am I finished? I don’t think “finished” happens.

My focus has shifted to the pre-order campaign, product- and self-promotion. Because of the pandemic, resilient, innovative authors are having successful book rollouts virtually and through social media. Since I work as a literary editor, I’ve been giving away manuscript critiques via opportunities like Storystorm, and monthly on Twitter. (So follow me already, @ChristineVZ.)

Today and every day in January, take time to create and write down a new story idea. You never know when a thought or statement will be THE ONE that you streeeetch into a published picture book.

Happy Storystorming evermore,
Christine

Credit: Marlena Van Zandt

Christine is a freelance editor, writer, and owner of Write for Success Editing Services. To uncover underwear facts, take a peek at her nonfiction picture book, A BRIEF HISTORY OF UNDERPANTS (April 2021, becker&mayer! kids). She’s the editor behind the SCBWI’s “Ask an Editor” column (Kite Tales blog) and contributes interviews. She also reviews children’s books for Good Reads with Ronna.

To find or follow Christine: website, Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, or Instagram.

Christine is giving away a first-1,000-words critique of one story (children’s/adult, fiction/nonfiction, any genre). For shorter pieces, such as picture book/short story/magazine article, one item of 1,000 words or fewer will be critiqued. If you have something that’s not listed, rub a magic lantern and make your wish—or just ask Christine.

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by Carrie Finison

If you’ve studied story structure, you’re familiar with the classic narrative arc: main character has a problem or wants something, makes several attempts to solve her problem, learns a little something along the way, and finally uses that learning to resolve her problem or get what she wants. Growth and change in the main character is key to many of these stories.

BUT…what if that thing your character wants, or that problem she’s trying to solve, is in direct opposition to an innate character trait—something she CANNOT CHANGE about herself?

What if your character has fabulous hair, but feels uncomfortable when people touch it?

Don’t Touch My Hair by Sharee Miller

What if your character is a bear, but would rather be a bunny? Or is a frog, but would rather be…anything else?

Bunnybear by Andrea J. Loney, illustrated by Carmen Saldaña
I Don’t Want to Be a Frog by Dev Petty, illustrated by Mike Boldt

What if your character is big and mean and grouchy, but is continually followed around by small, adorable creatures?

Big Mean Mike by Michelle Knudsen, illustrated by Scott Magoon
Mother Bruce by Ryan T. Higgins

What if your character needs her personal space, but has waaaay too many siblings?

Charlotte the Scientist is Squished by Camille Andros, illustrated by Brianne Farley

What if a group of carnivores tries to go vegetarian?

Carnivores by Aaron Reynolds, illustrated by Dan Santat

What if your character is a very loud rooster who lives in a very quiet town?

The Rooster Who Would Not Be Quiet by Carmen Agra Deedy, illustrated by Eugene Yelchin

What if your character is so huggable that everyone wants to give him a squeeze, but he’s not the hugging kind? That’s how the idea for my upcoming picture book DON’T HUG DOUG, illustrated by Daniel Wiseman, came to me.

I knew this was a common problem—we all know kids who have gone through a no-hugs phase, kids who avoid hugs due to sensory issues, and conversely, kids (and—ahem!—adults) who are overenthusiastic huggers. What if, I thought, a kid who doesn’t like hugs is just so puppy-dog-eyes adorable that EVERYONE wants to hug him? Instant conflict!

These books are often about personal boundaries, identity, or personality. They’re humorous and can be fun to read but—writer beware—they can be difficult to write, as I quickly found with my hugging story. Why? Because as I stated at the start of this post, problems that are in opposition to an innate character trait usually cannot be resolved (or at least, can’t be happily resolved) the “old fashioned way”—by the main character changing. Something else has gotta give. Find these books and study their endings to see how the authors handled this dilemma.

In the meantime, have fun making your characters miserable!

Carrie Finison began her literary career at the age of seven with an idea, a box of markers, and her father’s typewriter. She has been writing off and on ever since, though she has (somewhat regretfully) traded in the typewriter for a laptop. Her first picture book, DOZENS OF DOUGHNUTS, was published in July, 2020. Her second book, DON’T HUG DOUG, illustrated by Daniel Wiseman, will hit the shelves this month, on January 26 and has earned a starred review from Kirkus. She lives outside Boston with her husband, son, daughter, and two cats who permit her to write in their cozy attic office. For updates, subscribe to her newsletter, check out her website, or follow on Twitter @CarrieFinison, Facebook, or Instagram @carriefinison.

Carrie is giving away a picture book critique.

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by Kirsten Pendreigh

I’m loving the inspirational Storystorm posts from successfully published creators! But I also know that the road from shiny new idea to publication is long and winding. There are potholes and wrong turns, dead ends and roadwork delays. So many delays! Sometimes you run out of gas. Sometimes you break down and wonder, should I take the offramp?

When my 2021 picture book debut got cancelled last summer, I had to pull over and refuel. I’d followed all the publishing advice. (Work Hard! Persevere! Be Patient! Toughen Up! Set Clear Goals!) It wasn’t enough. It was time to remind myself why I was on the road at all. Goalposts shift. Years of work can get swept away. Many things are out of our control.

I asked: What is it that sustains me and keeps me trucking along?

My answer? A lesson my son taught me years ago:

Joy in the journey.

Process over [unpredictable] product.

Kids model process over product all the time. My son loved to paint and draw and dig. But he never wanted to keep his paintings or drawings; he didn’t really care what we planted. To him, the joyful process of creating, of digging in, was more important.

What are the things that bring you joy on this writing journey?

For me it’s a long list, that includes:

  • creating funny characters and stories in my unique voice
  • playing with words: finding the perfect line, the perfect rhythmic pattern
  • puzzling out picture books:  page turns, art notes, pacing
  • diving down rabbit holes of research
  • editing and revising
  • sharing stories with critique partners, helping them shape their work
  • being part of a supportive and loving community of writer

But what do I love most? Generating ideas!

For me, Storystorm is the perfect way to rekindle my creative joy. In this tired old world, how magical, how hopeful, to join almost two thousand other people firing up their synapses and finding new stories to share!

This idea stage is free of judgement and full of possibility. Each new idea is a precious, fragile, exciting secret only your unique brain knows about. It could go anywhere!

Today I challenge YOU, fellow traveller on this long and bumpy road, to cherish this stage. Be open to the joyful sparks waiting for you—as you walk, as you eavesdrop on your kids, as you look out the window at birds, as you laugh about something you read. What calls to you? What triggers a faster thumpetty-thump of your pulse? What gives you that warm glow, that AHA moment?

Respond to those sparks. Nurture them!

Jot something down, even if it’s a fragment of a thought, a nonsensical doodle, or a question. And do it without judgement. Brainstorm like no-one’s watching!

Just for today, forget about all the webinars and craft books and agent/editor/author interviews you read. Forget about 3-act structures and hooks and pitches, and marketability. Forget about the destination.

Because if you start with joy, the rest will follow. Joy is contagious. Readers and editors and agents will feel it too. The stories I start with joy always fare better than the ones I try to “engineer” at the beginning. One of them landed my wonderful agent! Soon, I’ll be able to announce good news about another story, of whales who made my heart go thumpetty-thump. And that debut that got cancelled? It’s going out on sub again. If it doesn’t get picked up, that’s okay; I still love it. It still makes people laugh.

I’ve recently written a lyrical story about nurse logs—fallen trees that nurture new life in the coastal rainforests near my home. Clearly a metaphor for the poet in me! I feel my spirits lift each time I see this regeneration, even on these cold, dark days of isolation and uncertainty. It’s a gift to get to write about things I love. Maybe my log story will end up as firewood. I’ll try to bask in its warm glow. I’ll still be creating with joy. I hope you will too.

Happy Storystorm, fellow travellers!

Kirsten Pendreigh is a children’s author and poet who lives in Vancouver, BC. She is represented by Natalie Lakosil at Bradford Literary. Kirsten writes both humor and lyrical stories for children, in fiction and non-fiction. Her poems are found in multiple literary anthologies and magazines. Kirsten is an active member of 12x12PB and Storystorm and a regular on Twitter. Please connect with her there @kpiependreigh or through her website or Instagram where she posts pictures of things that bring her joy.

Kirsten is giving away two picture book critiques.

Two separate winners will be randomly selected.

Leave one comment below to enter.

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

by Winsome Bingham

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Follow her on Twitter @ArmyVet5.

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

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

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

Leave one comment below to enter.

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

by Ashley Belote

Once upon a slime…I couldn’t resist! Slime! Something so seemingly simple has had a profound effect on my art and outlook on inspiration. When my art director sent me the manuscript for FRANKENSLIME, I was blown away by Joy Keller’s ability to turn the act of making slime into an adventurous, mysterious, and scientific narrative. Using slime as my inspiration, I set out on my own scientific adventure to create a body of artwork inspired by this unique substance categorized as a non-Newtonian fluid (how’s that for some science talk?!).

Inspiration constantly exists around us; we must be willing to recognize it or even create it. When I began thinking about how to illustrate this book, the first step was to completely immerse myself in my inspiration, literally! I made slime! Glitter slime. Fluffy slime. Ghost slime. Butter slime. Crunchy slime. You get it, I made a lot of slime. Being able to touch and feel and observe slime firsthand allowed me to learn about it through play. I had to think of myself as the main character, Victoria Franken, and interact with this substance. A lot of the funny scenes I drew were a result of my Pinterest slime fails and inability to admit defeat. I had a blast! As adults, we tend to look at things analytically and can sometimes forget to have fun.

Now, I realize that not all inspiration can be easily accessed physically, and there are times when we must look inward and rely on our imaginations. But this isn’t always as simple as it sounds; some days we feel like we don’t even have imaginations! No more of that! When I’m stuck, I complete the following drawing exercise to get my mind thinking in a different way. This trick is great for illustrators AND writers, so, if you’re one of those people who say drawing is impossible, now is the slime to put those thoughts away and get ready to play! (Did you like that one?!)

Step 1: Take out some blank paper.
TIP! If you can get your hands on a large-scale piece of paper, like 22” x 16”, DO IT! Trust me, there is something freeing about drawing on a big surface. You feel limitless. I am blessed with a creative mom and when I was a kid, she would bring home pieces of unused billboard paper for me to draw on. They were huge! They took up our entire living room floor, so the whole room was my canvas! Obviously, that isn’t something you can get from Amazon (at least I don’t think so…) but just try to get your hands on something a bit bigger than printer paper. Again, we are focusing on fun!

Step 2: ART SUPPLIES!
You can use pencils, markers, colored pencils…whatever you want! Just find something to draw with that feels good to you.

Step 3: Hold your drawing utensil in your NON-dominant hand.
For me, that is my left hand as I usually draw with my right. Close your eyes, place your pencil to paper, and make a sweeping, continuous mark for 3 seconds.

Step 4: Voila!
Open your eyes and see your masterpiece! Just kidding, haha. It probably will not be a masterpiece quite yet. Look at the shape you have created. What does it look like? Turn your paper to get a look at your shape upside down and keep turning until you see something. A moose? Maybe a river? An elegant three-story Victorian home with a walkway and koi pond? Wonderful! Now, once you “see” something or visualize the potential of your shape, start drawing it out. Add color, details, manipulate it to create what your mind’s eye is seeing.

Step 5: Use your inspiration!
Have you designed a landscape that can act as a setting for a story? Did you create a character? How exciting to be able to take this creation in any direction you’d like.

I love this stuff!! I hope you can use this technique to help find the fun in your inspiration and jumpstart your imagination going forward. Have the slime of your life! I had to sneak in one more 😊 As for me, I am proud to show the cover of FRANKENSLIME, coming to shelves near you on July 13th and followed shortly thereafter by its sequel, VALENSLIME, on November 16th!

Ashley Belote is the illustrator of FRANKENSLIME (2021), VALENSLIME (2021), and the author-illustrator of her solo debut picture book, LISTEN UP, LOUELLA (2022). She studied traditional animation under the direction of Don Bluth. Ashley earned her BA from Alderson Broaddus University and her MA in Arts Administration from the University of Kentucky. Her graduate study included a children’s literature and illustration course through Simmons College. Ashley lives and works in North Carolina where she creates artwork that she hopes brings lots of laughs to others. Visit her at AshleyBelote.com and and follow her on Instagram @AshleyBeloteIllustration and Twitter @AshleyBelote1.

Ashley is giving away a virtual visit—either for a classroom or a writer/illustrator consultation.

Leave one comment below to enter.

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

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My Picture Books

COMING SOON:


BLOOP
illus by Mike Boldt
HarperCollins
July 2021

ABSURD WORDS
illustrator TBA
Sourcebooks eXplore
November 2021

"PRIVATE I" SERIES #3
illus by Ross MacDonald
Little, Brown
2022

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