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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.

Do you have a love/hate relationship with bedtime? It’s a cozy time to snuggle and read a book with the kids, but it’s also when they refuse to settle down to sleep. Mom, can I sleep in your bed? Dad, can I have a glass of water? Could you fluff my pillow? Can we read one more book? Please? Five more minutes? Pretty please with sugar on top?

Ey yi yi. It’s enough to drive any mama hen wild! And it does in Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen’s new picture book, Chicks Run Wild.

In her Coop Sweet Coop, Mama has five chicks to put to bed. She tucks them in, gives them each a peck goodnight, but when she closes the door, they leap out of bed and cause a riotous ruckus. Feathers fly and Mama’s patience wears thin.

At first Mama scolds her chicks, but when she realizes her little ones are not ready for dreamland, she does something unexpected. Chicks Run Wild lets both parents and kids know it’s okay to break the rules every once in a while.

With a bright and cheery color palate, Ward Jenkins creates an adorable brood of five chicks with distinct personalities. One chick always has one eye opened, awaiting Mama’s departure. And there’s other fun details, like a spoof of the Beatles’ album cover Abbey Road, and Mama’s favorite read, Gone with the Wing. Sudipta’s jaunty rhyme makes you want to get up and shake your tail feathers with the family.

Bedtime is going to be a lot more fun with Chicks Run Wild. When your kids ask to read one more book, you’ll happily pick this one.

Want it? Sure you do!

Chicks Run Wild
Story by Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen
Illustrations by Ward Jenkins
Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
January 2011

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!

SudiptaEver have one of those light-bulb moments when your manuscript finally gels? Your plot falls into place and you wonder why you didn’t think of something so simple and perfect before.

Sitting in on Sudipta Bardhan Quallen’s picture book workshop last month, I had a dozen lightbulb moments. She dissected picture book structure like a biology teacher dissecting a frog–she split it wide open and showed us its heart. (OK, maybe that analogy wasn’t good for the squeamish, but she has a science background, so I think it works.)

For example, she suggested inserting a “ticking clock” into our manuscript. A deadline makes the story urgent and exciting. (Eureka!) If you’ve never heard her speak, you’re missing out on one of the finest picture book tutorials anywhere.

Besides being wicked sharp, Sudipta has a nervous energy that’s endearing. Get her engaged in conversation, and she’ll talk non-stop about her love of children’s literature. (And high heels and shopping on Bluefly. Yes, she’s a girly-girl like me.)

Surprisingly, she never dreamed of becoming a kidlit writer. She’d thought of being a doctor (but she’s afraid of blood), a model (but she likes to eat), and the President (but she had a dissolute youth). So much for childhood dreams.

belvaBut now she’s the author of 11 picture books and 16 non-fiction books for children including The Hog Prince (Dutton), Ballots for Belva (Abrams) and Tightrope Poppy the High-Wire Pig (Sterling).

So Sudipta, if you didn’t want to be a writer, how did you get into the kidlit business?

I got pregnant twice in the span of 15 months and had to move from California (where I’d been going to grad school) to New Jersey (where a little piece of me dies every day). Like every other new mom in the world, I decided I had stories that I just had to tell my kids and so I started writing. I also had this idea that writing was totally a job I could do with two babies in the house, which was just stupid because you can’t do anything with two babies in the house.

Amen to that! I can’t do anything with two babies out of the house, either. (And by the way, I’ll let that NJ crack slide.)

When I started writing, everything was really bad. Some day, when I am super-famous, I will pull out my Alphabet book, and my going-to-the-zoo book, and all the other requisite bad stories we all write when we start. But eventually, I figured out to go to conferences and read up on the craft of writing, and I started to get things published.

How did you get your first big break?

About two months after I started writing, I wrote up a short story for Highlights. It was something that had actually happened to a friend of mine, with a bit of fictional dramatization. Highlights bought it and it was the first $200 I made writing.

poppyI also randomly got a foot in the door of children’s publishing by mentioning my science background in a cover letter. I’d sent a picture book manuscript to Sterling, which they rejected, but in the rejection the editor asked if I’d consider writing a science experiment book for them. That became Championship Science Fair Projects, which still sells really well for me, and a few years later, my first picture book, Tightrope Poppy, was published by the same editor.

New writers are often told not to mention irrelevant information in queries, but your science background landed you a contract. What exactly is your science background?

I graduated Caltech in 1998 with a BS in Biology (by the way, with the passage of years and my gradual failure to remember even the most basic biology concepts, BS is becoming more and more appropriate). I spent a year at Harvard, but it really wasn’t for me, and then headed back to Caltech as a PhD candidate in developmental neurobiology. But those plans went off the rails when I had two babies. I had this crazy idea that I could write with two kids in the house—which you totally cannot do—but that’s how I got into the writing-for-kids business.

Normally, I recommend that you don’t mention anything other than kidlit in your cover/query letters, but if you keep it short and sweet, you can throw some things in there. I think the line I wrote was something like: “I have a Master’s degree in Biology from the California Institute of Technology and have published several scientific articles.” That doesn’t take up so much space that it is annoying.

What has surprised you most about being a published author?

So many things have surprised me about being a published author. Hard to pick just one. So I wrote a Top Ten list. I love Top Ten Lists. Except after I start writing and realize that I only have six interesting things to say. But who’s ever heard of a Top Six list?

Top Ten surprising things about being a published author:

  1. That the advances are so small that after everyone has had their cut and you’ve paid all your expenses (whether it’s permissions, or research costs, or just the cost of babysitting that allowed you to write the book) you have just enough money left over to take your family out to dinner. But only if they agree to go Dutch.
  2. That you can’t just show up at a book store and expect them to have your book. Or believe that you are a real author.
  3. That there’s a 50-50 chance that the number of kids that are biologically related to you who show up for a book signing will outnumber the number of kids that are NOT biologically related to you.
  4. That no matter how much market research you’ve done, there’s a good possibility that there is a really similar book out there that no one has ever heard of – except the person writing the review.
  5. That even though the publisher picks up the tab for producing the book, all of the marketing responsibility is on you. So if you want anyone beyond your mother and your best friend to know about it, you need to get your butt in gear.
  6. That you know no more about writing or publishing after the contract than you did before. Even though everyone expects that you do.
  7. That the more successful you get and the more books you publish, the less of your writing time will actually be devoted to writing.
  8. That when you and a group of writing colleagues meet certain editors (who may now be agents…), no matter how many books you’ve done, the first comment he will make is, “So… you all are *moms*, huh?”
  9. That it is a long time before you move “real author” into the list of things you consider yourself. I still haven’t really gotten there.
  10. That going to a school for an author visit is as close to being Angelina Jolie as you will ever get. And it’s a pretty cool feeling.

How did you begin to bill yourself as a speaker?

I started to volunteer to speak at conferences because I wanted to teach what I had learned about the craft of writing picture books to other aspiring writers. I got a lot out of SCBWI events in New Jersey, and I wanted to give back. Also, teaching helps you learn in ways that doing does not. For example, at this year’s NJ-SCBWI annual conference, I gave a workshop about rhythm, rhyme, and repetition. I talked about using a refrain in your picture book manuscript to give it narrative structure—and it was the first time I had consciously realized that that was something I do a lot in my own writing. Having to teach it, however, was what made me conscious of it.

hogprinceSome authors say they learn something about themselves with each new book. What did writing The Hog Prince teach you?

In my workshops, I emphasize the importance of the market over and over again. I’m constantly saying that I only write what I know I can sell. But as I review my own body of work, which has finally grown large enough that I feel comfortable calling it a body of work, I notice that, within the confines of what I feel the market can bear, there are themes that I subconsciously explore time and again. And these are the themes that resonate most strongly for me.

In The Hog Prince, Eldon dreams of being something he is not. He believes that if he were to change by magic, his life would be better, that everything would be shiny and pretty and luxurious and grand. And while I run the risk of coming off as having no self-esteem at all (which is not true, I have an itty-bitty bit), I can say that there have been plenty of times in my life that I have felt this way. In fact, I don’t think it is just a childhood thing–I’m not sure that we ever completely grow out of feeling like everything about our lives would be improved if only we could change ONE little thing. Except that it is never a little thing, nor is it one thing, nor will your life actually get better.

What’s nice about the story is that Eldon figures out that he is worthy and precious just the way he is, and that the folks who really matter (in his case, Petunia) don’t want him to change one muddy little thing. I struggle with this lesson, and I think a lot of kids do, too. Hopefully, that’s what makes the story timeless.

So, here is what I learned about myself:

  • I sometimes wish I could change into royalty;
  • I use my books to sort out emotional issues;
  • I think that every story is better is you replace the main character with a pig.

You may be right there. Who doesn’t love pigs? I mean pigs in literature. Real pigs, not so much.

Thanks for the interview, Sudipta! I think I know what the blog market can bear, and although I’d love to talk to you for another thousand words, something’s telling me to wrap it up here.

More of Sudipta’s serious-yet-sassy picture book philosophies can be found on her new blog, including a picture book writer’s Ten Commandments. Thou shalt not submit a manuscript before its time…

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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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