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by Diana Murray, who picks the freshest ideas

Congratulations! You made it through Storystorm. Instead of simply waiting for ideas to come to you, you went out there and actively churned them up, sought them out, and grabbed them! An idea may just be a word or short phrase. It may not seem like much, but really, it’s the beginning of everything! An overwhelming thought. Which idea do you choose? How do you proceed?

First, Marinate!
I urge you to proceed slowly and let your ideas fully develop. While you’re going about your usual business of walking the dog, running errands, or even sleeping, your brain is actually hard at work, with creative juices flowing. Feel free to jot a few notes down to keep track of things, but don’t rush into committing to a story. This marination phase has already been happening all through Storystorm and there’s no need to stop the process quite yet. For example, my book “Unicorn Day” sprouted from the idea of dolphins having a party in the ocean. I got the seed of the idea while observing dolphins down in Florida. But I didn’t start writing as soon as I had the idea. I let the idea sit around in my mind for a few weeks. I kept thinking about how majestic dolphins seemed, as if they were unicorns of the sea. Eventually, “Dolphin Party” evolved into “Unicorn Day”. If I had started writing the story immediately, I may have never made that mental leap.

What’s fresh?
If you had to choose between limp, out-of-season asparagus and crisp zucchini fresh from the farm, which would you choose? Probably the latter. If there have been a million books about a particular idea lately (especially bestsellers), and it seems the topic has been done to death, maybe now is not the time. Maybe you put that idea aside, at least temporarily, and work on a “fresher” one instead. Aside from what other books are out there, it’s also a matter of what feels fresh to YOU. For example, when I was brainstorming “Goodnight” books, I had many ideas that seemed like they had been done quite often, but when I wrote “Goodnight, Veggies” on my list of options, it made me chuckle a bit to myself. I thought it sounded a little odd and unexpected. That’s why it stood out to me. It should be noted that “Goodnight” books in general have been done a million times. So I’m not saying you should rule out everything that’s already been done. I mean, chefs aren’t going to stop making spaghetti with tomato sauce. There’s a reason people like that dish. But chefs who want to get noticed will put a unique twist on this old favorite. And most importantly, choosing something that feels fresh to YOU will help keep YOU interested and having fun. When the writer is having fun, it comes across on the page.

What are you in the mood for?
How do you decide what to make for dinner? Often, it’s just about what you’re in the mood for. Perhaps you’ve been craving tacos all day long. Why fight it? It’s the same with ideas. There is often one idea that is constantly calling to you. If it’s constantly popping in your head, no matter how hard you try to wait or to think about another idea on your list, then that’s it. That’s the one you should go with. Tacos it is! And that’s another good reason to try to wait and marinate in the beginning. It makes it easier to notice which idea is screaming for your attention more than all the others. This also comes down to personal preferences and experiences. No matter how fresh it is, you probably aren’t going to cook with zucchini if zucchini just isn’t your thing. On the other hand…

Try something new
If you’ve been eating nothing but tacos day after day, maybe it’s time to expand your horizons. On cooking shows, the judges always praise the contestants who reach past their comfort zone. And I can see why. Even the best chefs are always growing and learning and trying new things, even if that means they’re taking more risks. Trying something new is another way to keep things fresh and fun for yourself. Do you have a non-fiction idea but that’s not what you usually write? Give it a shot. Never wrote a concept book? Maybe now’s the time. When I wrote HELP MOM WORK FROM HOME!, I specifically wrote it in second person because I had never tried that before and I thought it would be fun. So when you’re choosing an idea from your list, maybe you try something different. Zucchini pizza, anyone?

Once you’ve chosen your well-marinated main ingredient, the idea, it’s time to start cooking! Don’t forget to taste often, add spices as needed, and have some other tasters (i.e., critique partners) on hand, too. Enjoy!

I also want to take a moment to thank Tara. I have been a huge fan of Storystorm since it first began and I’m so grateful for the feast of inspiration!

Diana Murray is the author of over twenty books for children (board books, early readers, and picture books), both published and forthcoming. Her books include the National IndieBound Bestseller UNICORN DAY and its sequels, UNICORN NIGHT and UNICORN CHRISTMAS, as well as HELP MOM WORK FROM HOME!, GOODNIGHT VEGGIES, GROGGLE’S MONSTER VALENTINE, and PIZZA PIG. Diana’s poems have appeared in many children’s magazines and anthologies. She grew up in New York City and still lives nearby with her firefighter husband, two children, and a dancing dog. To learn more, you can visit her website at dianamurray.com or follow her on Facebook, Instagram: @dianamurrayauthor, or Twitter: @DianaMWrites.

by Diana Murray

It seems only natural to start writing a story as soon as you know the beginning. But since the beginning and the ending need to be connected, doesn’t it make sense to figure out the ending first? That way you’ll know what you’re moving toward. But you often can’t work out the ending till you know the middle! I don’t mean every single thing that happens in between. But just that exact middle point. The middle can consist of a “black moment” before a final solution, or it can be some other big turn of events. Even in plotless, lyrical concept books, there is almost always an arc of some kind, and the middle needs to pop.

I know, I know. This challenge is all about creating ideas. Aren’t I putting the cart before the horse? Well, the thing is, once you catch an idea and write it down, it kind of takes on a life of its own. It will start sparking other similar ideas. It might branch off into something new or it might rustle up a distant memory. Your mind might ask questions about your idea, or posit possible story directions. Write everything down! I like to collect ALL those musings and nestle them right under the ideas in my file. Ideas always generate more ideas and questions generate more questions! Use that to your advantage.

Anyway, lots of people out there are successful “pantsers”, but I personally find that having a plan is the most efficient way for me to work. Here are the first few stages I typically go through, from idea to first draft. I’ll use “Unicorn Day” as an example (with actual snippets from my original idea file). As you can see, my ideas often begin with a title.

I have an idea. I write it down, but I don’t dive in yet.

Dolphin Party?

This idea came to me after watching dolphins swim around in Orlando. I was thinking about how majestic and almost magical they seem.

I have lots of other ideas throughout the weeks, both related and random. I write them down, but don’t go further than that yet. (Some of them suck. Some are OK. Some are fun, but not marketable. Some feel too common. I don’t assess that until later. For now, at the early idea stage, I enjoy being wild and free! No idea is shunned at this phase.)

Dolphin Daze, Dolphin Day, Five Diving Dolphins, Dolphin Princess, Unicorns of the Sea
Under where? Underwear! – wordplay? make refrain?

Loose Tooth Blues (song)

Worm Race

Monkey Party? They go “bananas”.

Unicorn Party? Unicorn Day?

etc…

If I find that thoughts keep popping up regarding one of the ideas in particular, I go back to it, and jot down some notes. Perhaps a turn of phrase or a plot point will keep bubbling up. When the same idea keeps nagging at me day after day, I know it’s time to go deeper.

Unicorn Party? Unicorn Day? Describe magical party. “Only three rules”. “Must have fabulous ‘do”?

But what happens??? Maybe a horse comes by and he’s sad. They give him a horn? “Unicorn party! Unicorn party! Everyone’s invited!” Chant of some kind?

Maybe they need someone sensible and horse is the sensible one?
Maybe ALL the unicorns are actually horses? Or the main one? That’s the surprise–fake horn all along?

…(my ramblings continue for several pages)

Once the story starts coming out, I write notes in this sort of crazy, conversational stream of consciousness. Usually, a week or two goes by. Then the answer finally pops out:

The horse sneaks in with a fake horn. Paper horn tied on with string. Nobody knows…until it falls off during celebration.

And that’s my middle. How do I know? It just feels right. And a different person might find a different “middle” even if they start with the exact same title. But anyway, now that I’ve found it, I know where I’m going with the story and I can start fleshing things out more. I often do a rough outline with page numbers before switching to verse. By this time, I’m usually chomping at the bit! I start writing at a galloping pace till I get my first draft down.

When I plan things like this, my initial draft comes out more polished and I tend to have fewer revisions after I’m done. And since I write in rhyme, that’s especially beneficial! Until I figure out that “middle” or that “twist” (and by extension, the ending) I don’t have much to go on, and I risk writing something that meanders or feels slight.

Here are a few other examples of “middles” in my books:

  • ONE SNOWY DAY (Sourcebooks): Two kids and a dog go on a snowy day adventure in this counting concept book. In the middle, the dog steals the snowman’s carrot nose.
  • GRIMELDA THE VERY MESSY WITCH (Tegen/HarperCollins): A messy witch loses an ingredient she needs to make pickle pie. In the middle, she’s forced to use her broom to sweep instead of fly.
  • SUMMER COLOR (Little/Brown): In this color concept book, two kids go on a nature walk on a very hot summer day. In the middle, there is a sudden rainstorm, and a mad rush home.
  • PIZZA PIG (Step-into-Reading/RandomHouse): A pig serves all his customers the perfect animal-specific pizzas in his shop. In the middle, a shy turtle refuses to eat, no matter what he tries.

Enjoy this early idea phase and write down EVERYTHING, without self-critiquing. Just let the ideas frolic in your mind. Soon, you will see which ideas keep nagging at you, and once you get that middle figured out, you’re off to the races! And with all that planning, you’ll have the reins firmly in hand.

For those who don’t know, it was during the very first Storystorm (PiBoIdMo 2009) that I came up with the manuscript that got me my agent. Since signing with her in 2012, I have sold 15 picture books and 2 early readers.

Diana Murray is the author of over a dozen books for children, including GOODNIGHT VEGGIES (HMH, March 2020), a Jr. Library Guild Selection; and UNICORN DAY (Sourcebooks, 2019), a National Indiebound Bestseller. Both of these books will be coming out in board book editions this April. Diana grew up in NYC and still lives nearby with her firefighter husband, two children, and a smarty-pants cockatiel named Bean. Visit her at dianamurray.com.

Diana is giving away one of her signed books (of your choice).

Leave one comment below to enter.

You’re eligible to win if you’re a registered Storystorm participant and you have commented once below.

by Diana Murray

I recently found an old high school journal in my basement. In it are some real gems, such as quotes from my awesome 11th grade Creative Writing teacher, Mr. Zavatsky. He once said, “Don’t wait for flaming asteroids to fly down and sit on your tongue.” I thought that was a delightful way to put it! Basically, you don’t need to sit passively waiting for inspiration. Sure, sometimes inspiration hits out of the blue, but you can also go out there and seek it or actively drum it up. Here are just a few ways to do that, as well as some personal examples.

Recycle by Switching Genres:
A few years ago, I had a pun-filled, garden-themed short poem published in Highlights magazine. It was one of my favorites. I liked it so much, I thought, hey, maybe I can recycle this idea into a picture book. And that’s when I began to write  “Goodnight Veggies.” The new manuscript was also pun-filled and garden-themed, but it had all the elements one commonly finds in a picture book (story arc, take-away message, enough room left for illustrations, etc.). I’m happy to say it will be published by HMH in 2020, and illustrated by the amazing Zachariah OHora. I was recently reviewing rough illustrations and noticed that Zach placed the garden on an urban rooftop. I thought that was brilliant! So I took THAT idea and wrote another short poem about a child planting a garden on his roof. Double recycling! Yet another time, I took a short High Five poem that I wrote (“Four Fun Chicks”) and re-imagined it as a goodnight/counting concept book (FIVE FUZZY CHICKS, Imprint/Macmillan, 2020). Again, this meant starting from scratch and adding things like a climax, and giving thought to page turns and so on. It’s not just a matter of slapping a different label on it. But if you have favorites in one genre, see if you can rework them to fit into another.

Pop Out a Character:
You can take a secondary character in an existing work and give them their own story. What if the cat in my witch story had an adventure on his own? Or what if he had to adjust to a new pet in the household? Or what if the shy turtle in PIZZA PIG had her own story in which she had to overcome her shyness? You don’t have to approach this with “sequel” mentality. You can just pull on character traits that you’re already familiar with and create something completely new and different. When I was first looking at illustrations for my forthcoming book UNICORN DAY (Sourcebooks, June 2019), I was immediately drawn to a particular background character–an edgy, goth unicorn that the illustrator, Luke Flowers, imaginatively included toward the end. My kids commented on their love for the character, as well. I mean, come on. How cool would that be to give the goth-icorn his/her own story?! If only I had a knack for writing novels.

Look for Holes in Your List:
What don’t you have yet? Surely anyone can put their own unique twist on a pirate book or goodnight book or holiday book. Think of all the super common themes that you always see in books. If there’s a theme you haven’t considered yet, consider it! Bring your own perspective to it. While I’m not a knitter, I used to work in the fashion industry and that helped inform my unique take on a pirate book with NED THE KNITTING PIRATE. You can even take an idea you already have and apply one of these second themes to it. What would happen if you turned an existing idea into a goodnight book? Or what if you turned your characters into pirates? Or dinosaurs? How would that change the story?

Have you tried a cumulative tale yet? A mirror tale? A circular story? A concept book? A fractured fairytale? Exhaust all possibilities! Go to the extreme. And don’t let your inner critic get involved at this point. Let your mind roam free, because even a bad idea could lead to a good idea in the end.

Many years ago, before I had an agent or any published books on the horizon, I had a book idea about a chef who was a cow. Her name was “Chef Moodette” and she made perfect dishes for everyone who came into her cafe. I kept wondering what the twist would be. Would a pair of human kids finally walk in? And she wouldn’t be able to figure out what they wanted? Did they want milkshakes? Ewwwww. No! I kept trying to make “Chef Moodette” work (I’m talking, over the course of a few years), but it was just terrible. I couldn’t get the ending right. But my work was not wasted. Years later I began to write PIZZA PIG and “Chef Moodette” jumped back into my mind. But this time, I finally figured out the ending (and lots of other issues)! So keep returning to your old manuscripts, folks. You never know when something will finally click. When you re-read your work, the stories simmer in the back of your brain, just waiting for the right moment to surface.

So don’t sit around waiting for “flaming asteroids” of inspiration. Get out there and wrangle them!

And in case anyone is interested, I’d like to note that I will be leading a detailed, online rhyming picture book workshop for the Highlights Foundation this fall. And here’s some fantastic news: Tara Lazar will be joining me on-site to lend her expertise! 

Diana Murray is the author of over a dozen books for children, including CITY SHAPES (Little, Brown, 2016), GRIMELDA THE VERY MESSY WITCH (Tegen Books/HarperCollins, 2016), NED THE KNITTING PIRATE (Roaring Brook/Macmillan, 2016), PIZZA PIG (Step-into-Reading/Random House, 2018), and UNICORN DAY (Sourcebooks, 2019). Her award-winning poems have appeared in magazines such as Highlights, High Five and Spider. Diana grew up in NYC and still lives nearby with her husband, two very messy children, and a motley crew of pets. Visit her at dianamurray.com.

Diana is giving away an advanced edition of UNICORN DAY (Sourcebooks, June 2019).

Simply leave ONE COMMENT below to enter.

You’re eligible to win if you’re a registered Storystorm participant and you have commented once below. Prizes will be given away at the conclusion of the event.

Good luck!

 

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April 26, 2022

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