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by Stacy McAnulty

I’m not a neuroscientist, but I have theories on how the brain works. Allow me to explain.

Your gray matter is full of ideas that are locked away, waiting to be released. These little nuggets can be freed by numerous methods. Here are some of my favorite ways to unlock an idea:

  1. Listen to NPR for an hour. It must be a show that has story segments. (Sorry Terry Gross.) Your world will be expanded and your brain will start asking questions. I listened to a story about de-extinction. It’s kind of like Jurassic Park but really happening with the Wooly Rhino. I ended up drafting a story called WOOLY AND FLEA.
  2. Force yourself to create a list. In seventh grade, my daughter had ten minutes of free writing at the beginning of every language arts class. The only rule, the pencil had to keep moving. Free writing is difficult for me, because I end up wanting to write “All Work and No Play Makes Johnny a Dull Boy” over and over. So, instead I recommend making lists.
    — Jot down a list of characters that would make horrible protagonists.
    — Titles that would make frightening bedtime stories.
    — Plots that would make conservatives (or liberals) really angry.
    — Unlikely friendship pairings.
    — A setting you’ve never seen before in a kid’s book.
  3. Stop twisting fairytales and twist something else. Can we all agree we have enough Goldilocks and the Three Whatevers? Why not twist “The Breakfast Club” into a picture book? Instead of “five high-school students from different walks of life endure a Saturday detention under a power-hungry principal,” how about “five dogs from different walks of life endure a Saturday at the groomers under a power-hungry stylist”? Or ghosts in a haunted house? Or fleas on the back of a wooly rhino?
  4. Play the what-if game with a six year old and then steal her ideas. The what-if game is simple. Just fill in the blank. What if your principal was alien? What if there was one clock that controlled time across the universe? You offer a what-if and then the child offers a what-if. The ideas will get crazier as you play. You can make it more challenging by adding “and”. What if your principal was an alien and you discovered his plot to collect specimens? Note: this game can also be played with a drunk friend if you don’t have a child handy.
  5. The playlist shuffle. Pluck an idea from whatever song comes up. I did this recently and got “Ebony and Ivory.” The result was an idea about a piano-playing t-rex named Wonder. Note: if you only listen to classical music, I don’t know if this will work. Maybe borrow someone else’s iPod.
  6. Go for a walk or take a hot shower. Kidding! Those never work for me.
  7. Head to your local bookstore. This works best on a Tuesday when the shelves are full of new releases. Pick up each book. Imagine what the story is about before you crack the cover. Sometimes you’ll be right. Sometimes you’ll be wrong. Sometimes you’ll have a better idea than what’s been published. Note on karma: do not walk out of this bookstore without buying something. Karma is watching.

If you do all of these things, I know a nugget of an idea will be knocked loose from your skull. Probably more than one. Once you open up the spigot, the ideas will trickle out.

But let’s be honest, most of these ideas probably stink. If you’re lucky, you’ll be blessed with a mediocre one. Unfortunately, when the idea presents itself, you really have no way of knowing if it’s golden or just coated in a golden-like substance.

So now you have to do the real work. You have to write the manuscript. That’s the only way to know. You might realize the nugget is garbage after the first sentence, or after you complete the first draft. If it still has some shine, you revise. Then you might realize it’s crap. Or you keep moving on. Revise. Is there something these? Revise. Has it lost its luster? Revise. Revise. Revise. Have you struck gold?

Now for the unfortunate moment of truth. That golden nugget of an idea—the one that has become a well-polished, beautiful manuscript—might never sell. (That’s a completely different conversation.) Your job is to move to the next idea. And the next. And the next. I promise, your brain is full of them. Just keep turning the key.


Stacy McAnulty is a children’s book author, who used to be a mechanical engineer, who’s also qualified to be a paleontologist (NOT REALLY), a correspondent for The Daily Show (why not), and a Green Bay Packer coach (totally!). She is the 2017 Ezra Jack Keats New Writer Honor Recipient for Excellent Ed, illustrated by Julia Sarcone-Roach. Her other picture books include Earth! My First 4.54 Billion Years, illustrated by David Litchfield; Brave and Beautiful, both illustrated by Joanne Lew-Vriethoff; Mr. Fuzzbuster Knows He’s the Favorite, illustrated by Edward Hemingway; and 101 Reasons Why I’m Not Taking a Bath, illustrated by Joy Ang. She’s also authored the chapter book series Goldie Blox, based on the award-winning toys, and The Dino Files. Her debut middle grade novel, The Miscalculations of Lightning Girl, will publish in May 2018. When not writing, Stacy likes to listen to NPR, bake triple-chocolate cupcakes, and eat triple-chocolate cupcakes. Originally from upstate NY, she now lives in Kernersville, NC with her 3 kids, 2 dogs, and 1 husband. Visit her online at StacyMcAnulty.com and Twitter

Stacy is giving away a signed copy of EARTH! MY FIRST 4.54 BILLION YEARS.

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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:

THE WHIZBANG WORDBOOK
illustrator TBA
Sourcebooks Jabberwocky
Early 2019

FOUR WAYS TO TRAP A LEPRECHAUN
illus by Vivienne To
HarperCollins
Spring 2019

YOUR FIRST DAY OF (CIRCUS) SCHOOL
illus by Melissa Crowton
Tundra/PRH Canada
Summer 2019

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