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by Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen

If you’re like me, writing is work. By this I mean it is my job, my primary source of income (therefore, work) but also that it is just plain HARD. There is nothing so depressing as trying to come up with something new and fresh to write about—and coming up with nothing.

That happens to me a lot.

So what do you do?

Well, I really don’t know the answer. But here are some tricks I use to muddle through those times when I have nothing to write about.

1) Start with character. I truly believe that the most important aspect of a picture book, what drives its popularity the most, is a charismatic main character. The premise, the setting, the cutesy word play and rhyme—all of these are secondary to character. So if you need to brainstorm only one thing, work on that viable character list.

The trick to creating a truly charismatic main character is to blend flaws with flair. Don’t just come up with fifty cute character traits. Give your main character some faults, some defects—he will be infinitely more interesting.

2) Something old into something new. There are so many examples of authors who take an old idea and make it into something modern and fresh. The entire genre of fractured fairy tales is built on the premise that recognizable is always a benefit for marketing, but recognizable AND fresh is money in the bank. Now I’m not at all recommending that all you do is read a collection of Grimm’s fairy tales and add a hippopotamus to each story (don’t do that, because it was my idea first). But if you can take inspiration from something your audience will recognize and then take it to a brand new place, where is the downside?

Some examples of this in my own work:
THE HOG PRINCE – we know it’s a frog prince, not a hog prince, but Eldon does not.
QUACKENSTEIN – isn’t every monster story better with a duck?
THE TWELVE WORST DAYS OF CHRISTMAS – believe it or not, in addition to a Christmas song, this is a sibling story

3) Look at your own life. And I mean this as way to eliminate bad ideas. When you’re having a hard time with inspiration, there is the temptation to use your own children or grandchildren as your muses. Trust me, this is a bad idea. Because as cute as their latest antics are to you, they very rarely make for good picture books. Save yourself. Don’t do it.

4) Exercise. Well, do a writing exercise at least. When you’re really stuck you could reinforce your writing ability by taking a book that is perhaps not one of your favorites and then rewriting it the way it should be. Obviously, you can’t then try to publish your version of Dora the Explorer (because Nora the Explorer or even Eleanora the Explorer is simply not going to be fresh enough to merit a whole new franchise!). But the exercise will show you that you are not only able to create a new story but one that is better than something that was actually published (which means there is hope for you yet) and, again, you never know where that road will lead.

5) When all else fails, take a breath. Sorry, guys, sometimes the ideas are not going to come. No matter how much you force it. When you are really and truly stuck, stop trying so hard. Instead, work on revising older manuscripts—maybe you can whip one of those into shape. Or perhaps the something old that you will turn into something new will come from your own pile of older ideas.

Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen is the author of 18 non-fiction books for children and several picture books. Her newest release, QUACKENSTEIN HATCHES A FAMILY, will be followed by CHICKS RUN WILD in January. Enter the CHICKS contest at sudipta.com!

by Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen

Authors always say that we write what we know, and it is completely true—you cannot tell an authentic story if it doesn’t come from a place of truth. The trouble, though, is when you write picture books for kids, how do you define what it is that you know?

I write books about talking pigs and lonely ducks, and I can assure you I am neither a pig (verbose or otherwise) nor a duck nor any other kind of animal featured in any of my books. And yet I feel very strongly that I only write about the things that I know and that almost every one of my picture books draws heavily from my own life.

Take QUACKENSTEIN HATCHES A FAMILY, for example, my newest book published by Abrams. In this story, poor, lonely Quackenstein looks on in envy as all the other animals in the zoo settle in with their families. So he hatches a plan to solve his problem—upon spying a sign for “orphaned eggs,” Quackenstein decides to adopt an egg to start a family of his own.

The previously cantankerous duck becomes a devoted father-to-be, even cooing to his “ducky-poo” that he will never be neglected. But when the egg finally does hatch, it is more than the eggshell that cracks—Quackenstein takes one look at his hatchling and runs off in terror.

Without giving away the whole book, suffice it to say that the hatchling eventually catches up to his father and a few choice words serve to melt Quackenstein’s heart and open his eyes to the fact that families can be different or strange but always find a way to work. Despite his fears, Quackenstein learns to be the father he wanted to be—and that his son deserves.

I wrote this story when I was pregnant with my son, Sawyer, who is my third child. I’d already had two girls, Isabella and Brooklyn, and I was convinced that baby number three was going to be daughter number three. So when the doctor told me that I was having a boy, my first response was, “No, I’m not, and you can’t make me.”

Turns out, I really was going to have a boy and nothing was going to change that.

I will freely admit being terrified at the prospect of having a son. After all, I knew lots and lots about how to be a good mother to girls, but knew absolutely nothing about mothering a boy. (Since then, I’ve learned that boys and girls truly are as similar as, well, ducks and platypi—they might as well be two different species.)

I honestly didn’t sit down to write a book about a parent who was both excited and terrified about having a baby. But looking back, I realize I did exactly that.

Had I written QUACKENSTEIN five years earlier, I am convinced it would have been a different story, because there were different things important in my life then. If I’d never written the book and started fresh on it now, it would definitely be a different story (and probably far scarier!).

As much as authors write what they know, the real test of a good story is whether the author has not only found his or her own truth, but also illuminated some truth for the readers. So I’ll leave you with this hope: that you can find a little Quackenstein in your own heart.

Thanks for giving us a warm-up for PiBoIdMo, Sudipta!

Want a sneak peek of QUACKENSTEIN? Look no further–the trailer is here! With every view, a donation will be made to the Association of Zoos and Aquariums!

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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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