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carterhigginsby Carter Higgins

Looks like we’ve all made it to the hump day of PiBoIdMo! Congratulations! Turn to your neighbor and give out some high-fives. Your notebook might be empty or busting at the seams, and it really doesn’t matter, because you are doing it. So here’s to the back half of this month being as successful as the front, and here’s to more furious scribbling in those notebooks.

But with all of that forward motion, let’s rewind a little. Have you ever reverse engineered your process to chase an idea? This is a big experiment for me, because it’s a new trick in my trusty old bag, but it’s one that makes a lot of deep, true, heart-of-the-thing sense.

Just this month I’ve been talking with my agent about a new manuscript, one that makes us both a little goosebumpy and hopeful. But, true to what I’m learning is my signature maneuver, it’s a teensy bit abstract. Sure, the plot makes sense if you dig around in the dirt a little. And yeah, the characters have a heck of a journey when you squint and look real hard. But what’s there, the obvious thing that makes those goosebumps and hope, is the feeling of it. And I’m okay with that.

So as we wrap our brains around this text and sprinkle it with wishes as it blows out into the world, here’s what’s stuck with me—it’s a question my agent asks me nearly every single time we’re close to sending something out on submission, and it’s only now, years later, that I see its beginning-of-the-process, idea-making potential.

It’s this:

“I’d like to hear from you what YOU feel this story is about. You know, not a synopsis, but an about about.”

An about about.

In theory, that’s a simple question, right? But picture books are big, rich beasts, bigger than plot and arc and character development and the rules.

Here’s what I wrote back, about what it’s about about:

“This is a look at the risky business of breaking a routine, and what might happen when missed connections get bumped out of whack by just a hair. These two just do what they do, day after day, and are unaware of the friendship that is just a few blocks out of their routine. It’s about the magic of everyday things shaken out differently enough to make something wonderful, only if you look.”

That’s what it’s about about.

This book is about routine. It’s about friendship. It’s about everyday magic and the unexpected.

But that doesn’t tell YOU, PiBoIdMo-er, what it’s about, only what it’s about about. And that’s because what picture books are really, truly about about are big, huge things. The other things? Your brilliant characters and arcs and the nitty gritty? I might even say they aren’t as essential or important or heart-making as the about about.

Can you make some room in your notebook for this kind of reverse engineering? What’s the about about of your idea? Maybe it’s about about the loneliness of waiting. Your details of plot and character could be endlessly different from a fellow PiBoIdMoer’s—maybe there’s a kid who’s always picked last for the kickball team, or the excruciating watch of a favorite stuffed animal swirling around in the wash. Maybe it’s Santa himself on December 26th, beginning the countdown of days one more time. Those three stories would have entirely unique feelings and execution, but their about about is mostly the same.

And the about is certainly one beautiful, well-crafted thing, but the about about is what matters the most. What’s yours?

Carter is a librarian at an independent school in Los Angeles. She is the author of A Rambler Steals Home (HMH, 2016) and two forthcoming picture books from Chronicle Books. Everything You Need for a Treehouse is about about creating a place that becomes a home. And This Is Not a Valentine is about about the ickiness and confusion of first love. She is an Emmy-winning visual effects and motion graphics artist whose career has covered all the nooks and crannies of visual storytelling. She writes about picture books and graphic design at her blog, Design of the Picture Book and is a contributor of bookish love at All the Wonders. You can also find her on Twitter @carterhiggins.

PrizeDetails (2)

Carter is giving away a picture book critique (for a fiction manuscript 1000 words or less).

Leave a comment below to enter. One comment per person, please.

This prize will be given away at the conclusion of PiBoIdMo. You are eligible for this prize if:

  1. You have registered for PiBoIdMo.
  2. You have commented ONCE ONLY on today’s post.
  3. You have completed the PiBoIdMo challenge. (You will have to sign the PiBoIdMo Pledge at the end of the event.)

Good luck, everyone!

When Tara launched this party, she quoted the fantastic Mr. Dahl:

And above all,
watch with glittering eyes

the whole world around you
the greatest secrets
are always hidden

in the most unlikely places.
Those who don’t believe in magic

will never find it.

That’s just plain inspiring, no?

Well. Here’s my favorite sentence that man said, from THE BFG:

But let’s ignore that sage advice and gobblefunk a bit. That pretty much sums up what we do as writers anyway, right? Stir this, mix that, add in this word, trash those dumb ones, those unneccessary ones, those boring ones.

I’m always (always!) noodling around words in my brain. Odd I know, especially because my day job is all about pictures and graphics and effects. So at work recently, one dude asks the Boss Man, “Boss Man, what shot number is the one with the volcano?”

Too easy. I pipe up with, “Probably number e-LAVA-n.”

Maybe that was a bit of a groaner, or even a lot of a groaner if you have no funny bone. But since you are on the other side of the internet, and because I know we are all best friends, I have a feeling you laughed a little.

Did I write down “Punny Counting Book about Earth Science-y Things” in my PiBoIdMo notebook that day? Maybe.

(My honey’s fantasy football team is called the Favre Fig Newtons. Runs in the family.)

I figure if you look at the world like it’s one monster crossword puzzle, something unexpected is bound to tumble out.


And why limit the gobblefunking to words? Why not gobblefunk with pictures?

I’m really no different than your average preschooler, because all day long I think about shapes and lines and color.

It’s when this:

Becomes this:

Which could easily become this:

OK, well maybe that’s boring unless you are in my line of work. But!

Couldn’t that same gobblefunking help us with ideas?

And since words are just pictures in different shapes, let’s do some of those, too.

This is the high school football stadium up the road from me. I am obsessed with their signage. It’s strong and pretty, and it sparkles on Friday nights. I can’t explain my love for this tiny part of my town, I’m just drawn to it. (I secretly think Tami Taylor is in those bleachers, which may explain part of the love.)

So, switch around some letters, fire up the gobblefunking, and the leftovers might just be a flash of an idea.


Every day when I leave my house, these are the stepping stones I hop.

I hate them. They are awkwardly spaced, so in order to avoid the dewy grass I have to mosey with some serious cowboy swagger to land on each one. But remember that whole thing about being like a preschooler and thinking of shapes all day?

Maybe instead of stone circles they are actually…


Or this:

All I see is a pet rock factory. Or a cement skyscraper. You?

This will be the only time I ask you to listen to me and not Roald Dahl. But go ahead and ignore that advice above, and get busy gobblefunking.

Carter Higgins is a motion graphics designer and a former elementary school librarian. She spends her days creating graphics, teaching, gobblefunking, and writing picture books. All of these interests combine in her blog at Design of the Picture Book, or you can find her on Twitter @CarterHiggins.

Carter is generously donating a picture book critique to PiBoIdMo. And you don’t have to wait until the end of the month to win it! Anyone can enter, right here, right now. Just leave a comment and a winner will be randomly selected in one week. Good luck!

So I love this coffee mug.

Everything about the title and cover design screams that it’s going to have something marvelous inside. (And that it’s HOT.)

Note the retro color scheme and bold lines representing books on a shelf.

I talked to the author of this mug, and she said she wanted to create it so avid readers could profess their love of books. And, oh yeah, to also bring in a few bucks for Reading is Fundamental (RIF), the national non-profit organization that puts books in the hands of underprivileged kids who otherwise wouldn’t have any books of their own.

Well, how did the author pull this off?

That’s right, she bugged her friend Carter Higgins, the writer and designer behind the popular blog Design of the Picture Book. Yes, the same person who designed the Picture Book Writing Pie.

And Carter delivered. Big time.

So head on over to the CafePress PiBoIdMo shop to grab your cuppa. (And there’s a shirta, too.)

All proceeds benefit RIF ($3 per purchase), so there’s a good cause behind a good design!

When I teach a picture book writing class or speak to new writers, I tell them I don’t subscribe to the “write every day” philosophy. That just doesn’t work for me as a picture book author. Sorry, wise writing sages.

However, I do give out this suggestion: “stare every day”.

Yes, I spend the bulk of my time staring (a.k.a. thinking) when writing a picture book. In fact, it’s about 50% of my effort. And thanks to my friend Carter Higgins from Design of the Picture Book,  I can now share this secret with you in a deliciously accurate chart.

Can I get you a slice?

(Please note: “Writing” is the cherry on top!)

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