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by Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen

I have something that’s so real.

Reality is your friend. That’s the best piece of advice I can give anyone about anything. Really.

Of course, it strikes even me that someone who makes a living distorting reality (i.e., writing fiction) would be so high on reality. Yet, here I am, with my message to other writers about elevating their fiction by keeping it real…

Now, let me take a step back and tell you that I wasn’t sure what this post was going to be about when I came up with this reality idea. (It was really only based on Tara’s brilliant Vogue cover.) Should I talk about the business of publishing, or the craft of writing? Should I talk about balancing life and art, or about using literature to explore life through art? I could see the positives in each of those approaches, and it made it really difficult to get started. So then I thought, maybe I could touch upon a few of these topics? Not all in one post, obviously, but maybe Tara would let me guest blog a few more times?

That’s my plan, at least. Shhh. Don’t tell her.

I’ve decided in this round, I’m going to focus on how we can use the reality of life to create meaningful art. So, to get back to where we started:

Reality is your friend. That’s the best piece of advice I can give anyone about anything. Really. But especially when it comes to writing fiction, reality is your best friend. It’s reality that makes your fiction come to life.

Whenever I’m at a school to talk about writing with kids, I spend a lot of time telling kids that every book is an autobiography. Obviously, that doesn’t mean that in my private moments I am a vampire pig (à la HAMPIRE) or a chicken in pajamas (à la CHICKS RUN WILD). But every book I write is informed by my own reality. In some way or another, I am every one of my main characters. My kids are my main characters, too, sometimes individually or sometimes as a blended product, but there’s always a piece of me. Because, at the end of the day, if the only way to be a successful storyteller is to write what you know, well, is there anyone we know better than ourselves?

The temptation when we start writing is to create something grander, bigger, more than ourselves. After all, my life is fairly boring—barely want to hear about it!—so why would anyone else want to read about my reality? So we start out creating characters that are better than everyone else, smarter, prettier, more talented, more perfect. Their adventures are epic. Their adversaries are the embodiment of evil.

And the result is often—not always, but often—unbelievable. In the “no one would believe this and therefore this story rings false” way.

As much as readers turn to literature to escape, to experience things that they cannot do, the reality is (and, remember, reality is your friend) that no reader likes to read about someone better than him for too long. The main character has to be relatable to keep a reader’s interest. And how do you craft a relatable character?

By making sure he is just a regular guy (who finds himself in extraordinary circumstances.) Basically, by keeping him real.

(This is hardly new advice. In fact, I’ve given this advice myself in a different form in my picture book workshops – that you should always make sure your main character is interesting, but well and truly flawed. Because it’s the flaws that keep him real.)

So, how do we use reality to craft fictional characters? Obviously, we can’t just write about ourselves or our kids exactly as we are. (Trust me, I’ve tried that. That’s a little too much reality.) The trick, I’ve found, is to choose interesting traits (perhaps from several different sources) and blend them together to create a new, fictional character grounded in reality.

Here are some examples:

In HAMPIRE, Duck desperately wants a midnight snack, but is worried about running into the dreaded Hampire. The reality: every night, I want a midnight snack, and every night, I am convinced that if I step foot off my bed, the monsters will get me. The fiction: I am not a duck.

In PIRATE PRINCESS (available in May 2012 from HarperCollins), Princess Bea dreams of the pirate life, but when she boards the pirate ship, she realizes she’s awful at deck-swabbing (she has no housekeeping skills), she can’t be their galley cook (no culinary talents), and she is an ineffective lookout in the crow’s nest (she get’s seasick). The reality: I have no housekeeping skills, I have no culinary talents, I get seasick, and I think I’d look dashing in a pirate hat. The fiction: while Princess Bea doesn’t like to dress in silk, brocade, or chintz, and can’t stand the idea of being married to a prince, I love dressing up and look forward to a life with my Prince Charming (yes, Daniel Craig, I’m talking to you!).

In my forthcoming chapter book series, THE SPECTACLES OF DESTINY, the main character, Destiny, discovers she needs glasses. She’s worried about what she will look like (especially about whether they will make her nose look big) and what others will think of her glasses, from her friends on her soccer team to her classmates in the fifth grade. This one is complicated, because I drew from a lot of different sources of reality, so here’s a little chart of some of the sources:

Something about Destiny The inspiration
She wears glasses My daughter Brooklyn and I both wear glasses, and we both initially worried about what other people would think of them.
She’s concerned about the size of her nose. I’m concerned about the massive size of my nose.
She’s in the 5th grade. My daughter Bella is in the 5th grade.
She loves soccer. Bella and Brooklyn both love soccer.
She plays goalie. Brooklyn plays goalie.
She’s super smart. Bella and Brooklyn are both super smart.
She’s afraid of spiders. I’m afraid of spiders.
She’s Indian American. My whole family is Indian American.
She lives in New Jersey, outside Philadelphia. We live in New Jersey, outside Philadelphia.
Her first pair of glasses are dark tortoiseshell. Brooklyn’s first pair of glasses are dark tortoiseshell.
Her second pair of glasses are black with zebra-printed sides. Brooklyn’s new pair of glasses are black with zebra-printed sides.
Her glasses let her see bits of the future clearly. Brooklyn’s glasses let her see the present clearly.

Obviously, I could go on and on with more examples of traits that I drew from my life or from my children’s lives. But you’re getting the idea. Here’s something I would add, though: in every place in the revision process where my editor asked for more detail, the things I added were inevitably true things about someone in my house.

So, one more time, let’s go back to the beginning: reality is your friend.

Do you believe me yet?

Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen is the award-winning author of many, many books for children, including picture books, nonfiction for young readers, and a forthcoming chapter book series called THE SPECTACLES OF DESTINY (due out in 2014). Her picture book QUACKENSTEIN HATCHES A FAMILY was selected for the California Readers 2011 Book Collections for School Libraries. BALLOTS FOR BELVA was named to the 2009 Amelia Bloomer List and received an Oppenheim Toy Portfolio Gold Award in 2008 and FLYING EAGLE was a National Science Teachers Association Outstanding Science Trade Book selection for Students K–12 in 2010. Her science book, NATURE SCIENCE EXPERIMENTS, was named a finalist for the 2011 AAAS/Subaru Science Books & Films Prize for Excellence in Science Books. And her books CHICKS RUN WILD (named one of Bank Street’s Best Children’s Books of the Year in 2012) and HAMPIRE! (nominated for a Maryland Black-Eyed Susan Award) are her personal favorites, and just fabulous.

Sudipta speaks at conferences, educator events, and schools across the country, teaching the craft of writing to children and adults. She lives outside Philadelphia with her three children and an imaginary pony named Penny. Learn more about her and her books at www.sudipta.com.

P.S. If you love Sudipta’s author headshot above, her photographer LifeArt Imaging is currently running a Groupon. Click here! 

by Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen

I have no new ideas.

None.

No plan. No flashes of inspiration. No idea where to find an idea.

This is not a new dilemma for me.

The longer I’ve been writing, the more successful I’ve gotten, the harder it becomes to find those ideas that get me excited. Sounds counterintuitive, doesn’t it? Shouldn’t it get easier with experience?

For me, it hasn’t. But that hasn’t stopped me from writing. (After all, this is the sweetest job on earth – not only do I get to create something from nothing, a lot of the time that I’m working, I’m in my jammies in my bed.) So, what’s a girl to do? How do you pull a good idea out of the air?

I don’t really know. But Tara invited me to blog so I thought I’d give y’all some possible places to start.

Look for Nuggets, not Multitudes
Everyone knows you can’t just sit down to write a picture book about a chicken and think that’s all the brainstorming you need to do to run with it. Just “chicken” is too generic, too common, too…uninspired. But what if that’s all you have? Don’t you need a complete plot, a big idea…a whole roaster, so to speak?

Let the chicken be your nugget, no pun intended, and build from there. (And who am I kidding? I totally intended the pun. See below. I don’t stop with the puns.)

I started with a chicken nugget once. I hadn’t written a chicken book. Chickens are adorable. Instant winner.

But I quickly realized that I needed more. For someone to give a cluck about my chicken book, I needed to add some garnish. So I started thinking about chickens and what they do. Eventually, I brainstormed about chicks – but there were so many chick books already. Baby chicks, fluffy chicks, chicks and salsa…the list went on and on. All these chicks in all these books, all running wild…
And then it hit me. CHICKS RUN WILD.

I took my nugget and grew it to a title. And from there, I…well, ran wild with it. Now, let’s be honest, I took this title and then did what writers all over the world do every day: I wrote about what I knew. CHICKS RUN WILD grew into the story of little chicks at bedtime who don’t want to go to sleep quite yet—it could be an autobiography of bedtime with my own children. So, easily, I could advise you to take inspiration from your life—but you get that everywhere, don’t you? Besides, my point is I only got to writing about what I knew after starting with a small nugget of inspiration. I nurtured that nugget and kept it warm and safe until it grew into a fully formed…idea.

What’s in a Name?
OK, let’s shift gears. No more chicken puns. Let’s talk names instead.

Is there anything more immediately suggestive than a character’s name? Think Willy Wonka, or Shrek, or Fancy Nancy—just the names create an image in the reader’s mind. Characters can grow to be iconic – if developed correctly. But you certainly can’t know ahead of time which of your characters will become iconic.

That doesn’t mean you can’t start with character.

The truth is, I think the best place to start is character. When you have an idea for a great character, you need to let him run free (run wild, perhaps?) even before you figure out exactly what that character will do in the story. A strong character will find his story.

Years ago, I wanted to write a story about a vampire pig named HAMPIRE. A pig with fangs and a Dracula cape. Preferably a vegetarian. But that’s all I knew about him.

It took years—YEARS—to find his story. For a long time, I didn’t have a story for Hampire—but he lingered in my thoughts, waiting for me to figure him out. I had dreams about him, I had nightmares about him—and I wrote draft after draft about him. In the end, he still had fangs, still wore a cape, was still a vegetarian—but everything else about him changed many, many times. And that was OK.

Be Patient
I probably haven’t told you anything here that you didn’t already know, and there’s certainly not anything earth shattering in looking for inspiration as small as a title or a character. But what I want to leave you with is the most important idea about ideas of all:

Be patient.

You can’t force a good idea. You can’t coerce your brain into generating a good idea, nor can you keep working at a bad idea to turn it into a good idea. And, honestly, the more you try to force yourself, the harder it gets to tell the difference between the good ideas and the truly horribly awful ones.

So, be patient. Work on ideas you have, and don’t be afraid to heavily edit as you’re writing. In fact, don’t be afraid of crumpling up a lot of paper and tossing things into the trash—sometimes, the best way to find a great idea is to sort through and dispose of all the bad ideas around it.

I won’t lie to you and say that after dispensing all this advice, I was hit by inspiration and walked away with a great new idea to work on. I didn’t. I still don’t have any ideas for my next picture book. But I also know that when the idea does come, it like won’t be accompanied by a flash of lightning and a gospel choir. It will come from a word, or a phrase, or an image that strikes me and lingers. And that’s where the work begins.

Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen is the author of many, many books for children, ranging from fourteen picture books to over a dozen nonfiction books for young readers. Her picture book Quackenstein Hatches a Family was selected for the California Readers 2011 Book Collections for School Libraries. Ballots for Belva was named to the 2009 Amelia Bloomer List and received an Oppenheim Toy Portfolio Gold Award in 2008 and Tightrope Poppy, the High-Wire Pig was named one of the Best Children’s Books of the Year in 2007 by the Children’s Book Committee at Bank Street. Flying Eagle was a National Science Teachers Association Outstanding Science Trade Book selection for Students K–12 in 2010 and was named one of the Bank Street’s Best Children’s Books of the Year in 2010. Her science book, Nature Science Experiments, was named a finalist for the 2011 AAAS/Subaru Science Books & Films Prize for Excellence in Science Books. And her books Chicks Run Wild and Hampire! are her personal favorites, and just fabulous.

Sudipta speaks at conferences, educator events, and schools across the country, teaching the craft of writing to children and adults. She lives outside Philadelphia with her three children and an imaginary pony named Penny. Learn more about her and her books at www.sudipta.com.

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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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