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About two and a half months ago I decided I was going to start running. I had a few reasons for this decision;

  1. I was getting fat.
  2. I didn’t feel great about the way I looked.
  3. I had seen one too many pictures of myself at various author events from weird angles with more than one chin.

So I bought some cheap running shoes and decided to start running when my kids went back to school after summer break. Keep in mind that I’ve never been a runner. Not when I was a kid, not in high school, not ever. I’d see people running down the street and think that they were crazy. Running was never something that wanted to do but I was determined to give it a try.

My kids started school on August 14th and, as planned, I started running. I use the term “running” very loosely here as I was doing more walking than running. I would run as far as I could until my lungs were screaming and my legs were burning and then walk. Run. Walk. Run. Walk. Rinse and repeat. On and on until I had completed thirty minutes. (Around two miles.) At the end of my first run/walk I was pretty sure that I was going to die. My legs were sore and throbbing but I had taken the first step towards a leaner, happier me.

The next day I woke up with sore legs but I still went out running. Run. Walk. Run. Walk. At this point I had no idea that I was supposed to take days off between runs. (This was all new to me.) I was determined to stick to my new goal regardless of the pain. So I hobbled along running and walking for two weeks straight with only the weekends off to rest.

After two weeks of running I reached a point where my legs were super sore. I could barely sleep at night. I knew I needed to take some time off to let my muscles recover. The funny thing is that I didn’t want to take a break. Even with my legs screaming for relief I loved running. I loved being outside listening to the music on my iPod and I felt really great emotionally. I had a deep sense of accomplishment and I was starting to see some results when I got on the scale. But I knew if I wanted to keep running I’d have to take some time off and let my legs recover.

Lucky for my legs I had a six-day book tour of San Francisco the following week. It would be the perfect time for a break.

When I returned from San Francisco I jumped right back into running. My legs felt better but it wasn’t long before they began to hurt again. After some online research and talking to friends who run I came to the conclusion that maybe it was my shoes. So I went to my local running store and twenty minutes later I left with the most expensive pair of shoes that I’d ever bought in my life. The salesman said that they would help absorb some of the impact and give my legs more support. The next day I took the shoes out for a test run and they worked. My legs weren’t near as sore as they had been previously. Success!

At this point I’d been at it for about a month. My legs weren’t hurting quite as bad as before but they were still a little sore. I did a little more research and discovered that it’s a good idea to do some cross training between running workouts. So I dusted the cobwebs off my ten-year-old mountain bike and hit the bike trail. Riding my bike between running workouts made a huge deference. It gave my legs a day between runs to recover and I was still able to get in a good workout every day.

I really had no idea what I was doing when I started this whole running thing. I just figured it out as I went. The important thing for me was to just keep at it. To make myself get out of bed every day and either run or bike. It didn’t matter how fast I went, it only mattered that I was doing it everyday or almost every day. I would after all take the occasional day off to rest or to sleep in. I hadn’t completely lost my mind.

The funny thing is that the more I worked out, the better I felt, and the better I felt the further I pushed myself to go. I went from running short spurts and walking, to running three to five miles at a time without stopping. I started biking 18 miles on my bike and I felt amazing. Now, every day I go out and I challenge myself to go a little further or a little faster. I go to bed at night looking forward to getting up the next morning and running or biking. It’s crazy. It’s been two and half months since I started and I feel happier and less stressed than ever before. Oh, and I’ve lost twelve pounds and counting. No more extra chins.

Some of you reading this may be asking yourself at this point, “What does this have to do with writing picture books?” Good question. Here’s the thing, no matter what you want to do in life it all starts by taking a step. A single step.

That step may be taking a class or starting to draw, or in my case starting to run. It can be anything. You just have to take the step. The more steps you take the easier it will get. Along the way you may step in a puddle or two, or get injured (rejected) and that’s okay. Just take some time off to clean yourself up and recoup.

Then when you’re ready, take another step, and another. After a while your steps will get faster and a lot easier, and before you know it you’ll be running. You’ll be pushing yourself to go further and you will be feeling better. You’ll be happier. Who knows, maybe some day you’ll even run a marathon or two. All you have to do is just keep running.

James Burks started out working as an artist in the animation industry for various studios including Disney, Warner Brothers, and Nickelodeon. Projects he has worked on include the Emperor’s New Groove, Atlantis, Treasure Planet, Home on the Range, Space Jam, the Iron Giant and the television shows Wow Wow Wubbzy, Ni-hao Kai-lan, the Dinosaur Train and Fan Boy and Chum Chum.

He currently spends his days taking care of his two kids, running/biking and writing/illustrating his own books. His first graphic novel for kids, GABBY AND GATOR, published by Yen Press, was a Junior Library Guild selection and a 2012 CTA Read Across America title. He also has a picture book with Carolrhoda entitled BEEP AND BAH, a graphic novel with Scholastic/Graphix called BIRD AND SQUIRREL ON THE RUN, and he just finished illustrating a book for Simon & Schuster called THE MONSTORE written by Tara Lazar which will be out in June 2013.

James is giving away a signed digital print of this friendly witch and best friend. It sure is as sweet as Halloween candy!

Just comment to be entered into the drawing (one comment per person).

A winner will be randomly selected in one week.

Good luck!

by James Burks

It’s day 18 of PiBoIdMo and I’m here to give you inspiration or at least a small push towards the finish line. I’m sure that, at some point in your life, most of you have put together a puzzle. It could have been a small puzzle with only a hundred pieces, or a ginormous puzzle with a bazillion pieces. Regardless of the size, if you can put together a puzzle then you can put together a story. So let’s get started.

To put together a story puzzle, the first things you need are the pieces. That’s where your ideas come in. Every single idea you come up with is a piece of the story puzzle. This includes characters, settings, or lines of dialogue; you name it, they are all pieces of the puzzle. And here’s the best part: there are no wrong pieces. If a piece doesn’t seem to fit into the puzzle you’re working on, you can set it aside to use later.

Here’s an example of a recent story puzzle that I put together:

About a year ago, I sat down and tried to come up with my next great idea. I had just sold my first two stories to different publishers and was trying to come up with a third story that my agent could send out. I had the first piece of my story puzzle: a squirrel. I spent the next few days creating more pieces. I gave the squirrel a name (another puzzle piece), and I came up with a bunch of stuff that he loved to do (more puzzle pieces). After a few days I took all the pieces and arranged them into a simple story, drew some rough drawings (for illustrators, these are more pieces), and sent it off to my agent. My agent thought it needed something more, though, and at the time I didn’t know what that was. So I set the entire puzzle aside and went off to work on another project.

After about a month, my agent called and asked if I had come up with any new ideas. I hadn’t. Or at least that’s what I thought. After hanging up the phone I started running through a bunch of random ideas while surfing the internet. I remember contemplating Amelia Earhart (I think the biopic was coming out or had just came out), went from there to Penguins, then to the South Pole, and from there to a bird migrating south for the winter. (It’s always a good idea to let your brain off its leash once in a while and let it run free. You never know what it might bring back.) Something about a bird flying south for the winter ended up sticking with me.

I didn’t know it just yet but I had just found another piece to my story puzzle.

From there, everything seemed to magically fall into place. I took the bird migrating south for the winter and stuck him with the squirrel from my earlier story. A small part of my story puzzle took shape.

Then I started to ask myself a series of questions to fill in the rest:

Why do they have to migrate south together for the winter? There had to be a reason and it had to be big. I asked myself what would happen if Squirrel was forced to go along after he unintentionally sacrificed his entire winter stash of food to save Bird from an attacking cat. He would have no other choice; if he didn’t go with Bird then he’d starve.

But, where was the conflict? What was going to make my story interesting? Maybe they were like the odd couple. I imagined Bird as a total free spirit who just wanted to have fun, while Squirrel was a bit neurotic and was all about responsibility. Squirrel can’t stand Bird, but they’re stuck together. A natural conflict of personality that would provide for some humorous scenes.

This left one last question. How would the two characters change by the end of the story? What would their character arc be? In the case of this story, I decided to have Bird learn to be a little more responsible and Squirrel learn to have a little more fun. The story, at its heart, would be about finding a balance between having fun and being responsible. And by the time the journey ended, they might even become friends.

At that point I could pretty much see the overall structure of my puzzle. The edges were complete and all the major parts were coming together. All I had to do was fill in the missing pieces in the middle, which solidified as I wrote the outline and got to know the characters better. Two weeks later I sent it off to my agent, we made some minor tweaks, and eventually sold it to a major publisher. (Deal announcement pending; I’m drawing and writing the book for release sometime in 2012.)

I hope you find inspiration in my recent experience and are able to put together some great story puzzles of your own. Just remember that there are no wrong pieces. You may not use every idea or piece you think of right now, but every piece (used or not) helps you build your puzzle. Now go forth and conquer the book world!

James Burks has spent the last 15 years working in the animation industry on various movies and television shows, including The Emperor’s New Groove, Atlantis, Treasure Planet, Home on the Range, Space Jam, The Iron Giant, Wow Wow Wubbzy, and most recently on Fan Boy and Chum Chum. His first graphic novel for kids, GABBY AND GATOR, was published by Yen Press in September 2010 and is a Junior Library Guild selection. James is currently working on a picture book with Lerner/Carolrhoda entitled BEEP AND BAH (2012), and the graphic novel mentioned above.

James is giving away a signed copy of GABBY & GATOR! Leave a comment to enter. A winner will be randomly selected one week from today.

Thanks to James for the PiBoIdMo 2010 logo and badges!

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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:


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 eXplore
August 2020

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