This is my second year to participate with Storystorm—30 ideas in 31 days. And this time I joined the Facebook group which has already been helpful. Cindy Williams Schrauben shared how she lists her picture book ideas:
Main Character – Problem – Title – Setting –
Because Susanna Leonard Hill always asks for up to three themes for “Perfect Picture Book Friday,” I decided to add Theme.
And then on Day 3, Ashley Franklin talked about feelings, so now I’ve added Emotion.
I’ve put these headings in a spreadsheet.
I know, I know. What does that have to do with coming up with story ideas? Day 1, Tara Lazar reminded us to write our ideas down. The method I used last year wasn’t so helpful—I think this will work better for me.
In fact, I think I might reorganize my ideas from last year the same way on a different worksheet. Maybe it will make one of those ideas pop. Or as Cindy suggested, something from my old list might mix or match with something on this year’s list of ideas.
Doing a challenge or activity like this can get us moving and thinking. If you haven’t registered for Storystorm, there’s still time. (And it’s not just for picture book writers.) Check it out here and make sure you subscribe to Tara’s blog to get the posts.
Sometimes the ideas just don’t come. But one thing I know is ideas breed other ideas. As John Steinbeck said, “Ideas are like rabbits. You get a couple and learn how to handle them, and pretty soon you have a dozen.”
Here are a couple ways to get your mind working:
Make up long lists of….
where you’ve been.
from childhood (include dramatic places where you or someone else was worried, afraid, injured, etc.).
places important to you now.
where you’d like to be (research probably needed).
specific situations or problems.
talents and skills.
habits and quirks.
Pick items from three or four lists and see what happens when you put them together.
Do you come up with an opening for a story? Interesting ideas for a character or a problem? A way a character could solve a problem? A setting? An antagonist?
Experiment with these ideas and see where they take you. Enjoy playing around.
Make up a list of first lines without worrying whether or not you’d actually want to use them. Make them compelling and interesting.
If you need a starting point, look at famous opening lines and reimagine them.
Imagine how your character, if you have one already, might say something similar.
Imagine how a specific animal might say it.
Put it in picture book language.
Make something serious funny or vice versa.
Have fun—there are no rules.
When you’ve got a good number, read through them again.
Ask yourself questions such as…
Which ones catch my attention?
Which ones make me laugh?
Which ones make me want to know more?
Which ones make me sad?
Which are boring?
Pick a couple of favorite opening lines. Can you expand them into a paragraph or more? If you find ideas are flowing, keep going to see how far it takes you.
Set the list and the paragraphs aside.
If any ideas keep “haunting” you, consider how to make them a complete project.
Look at the list again at a later date. Do the same lines grab you or do different ones? If different lines grab you, expand those.
Look at the paragraphs again at a later date. Does more scene unfold in your mind? Write and see where you go.
I ended up writing a whole novel inspired by a writing exercise. Others have inspired picture books. Yet, others sent me back to the writing desk to works-in-progress. And at the very least, they got me putting words on a page.
As Louis L’Amour said, “Start writing, no matter what. The water does not flow until the tap is turned on.”
Yesterday, a student who deals with depression and anxiety
and, like all of us, now this pandemic, said that looking at the instruction
manual felt overwhelming. Yet still she had sent in her assignment. In my
letter back to her, I commended her for her accomplishment and then gave her some
writing “work” advice.
Writing it made me aware of my own creativity. Or should I
say lack thereof. I’m finding it much
easier to do a student lesson, critique someone else’s picture book or novel,
than to actually create myself. It’s easy to jump on the news, Facebook (for
socializing), etc. I need to take my own advice.
We all have upheaval in our lives right now with social
distancing and worrying about the coronavirus. Some of you have children home
full time now. You and/or your spouse may be working from home which is another
adjustment. Or someone in the family has been laid off. It’s stressful. Perhaps
these suggestions for making writing “work” easier will be helpful to you, too.
First, pick one task
Get that one done today and stop. Don’t worry about other writing
things that need to be done. However, if doing one tasks leads you to wanting
to do more, feel free. Just don’t agonize over those days when you can only do
But how do you know what task to do?
Set yourself a writing work schedule
1. Start by making a list of all the things you want to get done: – read recent children’s books – brainstorm ideas – research for one idea – work on first draft – revise a short story, article, picture book, or chapter – do market research – listen to a podcast on ____ topic – read blog posts on _____ – analyze feedback from others on my work – write a cover/query letter for _____ – submit manuscript _____
Be as specific as possible.
See more sample task ideas at the bottom of this article
and in the chart.
2. Commit to a time period whether it is a half hour or an
hour or two. Pick three to five days a week.
3. Next, if you can, prioritize you list in order of most important.
If none stand out, that’s okay too.
4. Then take your “to-do” list and plot them on a calendar OR
during each scheduled time just pick one off of your list.
5. Add and cross-off items on your “want to get done” list.
Word by word, project by project, if you spend a little
bit of time, you will make progress. Celebrate those accomplishments no
matter how small.
Here’s a chart suggestion for recording what you’ve done so you can look back on it and be encouraged:
Second, remember you are not alone
We are all affected. Interacting digitally with others can help us not feel so isolated. My critique group is using Zoom to meet weekly. Don’t have a critique group? Offer to exchange critiques via email with other writers. (You can find them through SCBWI.org, on the Blueboard, through Facebook and Google groups, etc.) Talk to others in these groups. Comment on blog posts or podcasts that you found helpful. Share those links with others you know. And/or share on Twitter.
Third, encourage yourself
I’m finding myself doing a lot of what I call “comfort”
reading—that’s rereading books that I know I’ll enjoy. Recently, it’s been the Harry
Potter books. I’ve also connected with some old friends whom I haven’t talked
to in years. I’m getting outside in the fresh air. What makes you happy? It’s necessary
to take a break from all the bad news and uncertainty.
Read recent children’s books. Whatever fits what you want to write.
A novel. A handful of picture books. Chapter books. What did you learn?
Research one magazine market. Read about the magazine
in the market book, go to the magazine’s website, read guidelines and editorial
calendars, and sample copies if available. Take notes, if you like. I often
write directly in my copy of a market book.
Search #MSWL on Twitter. Agents and editors give updates using
Why are you writing? (Or illustrating or both?) Do you have
I have so many students who sign up to take one of the
writing courses I teach, then don’t turn in assignments. Two things happen.
They either get tired of being nagged and send something in, or drop out. Some
do several lessons, then drop the class. Some are almost done with the course,
then quit. (And this is a course they’re paying for!)
I get it. I do. Some find this writing gig is much harder
than they thought. Many think that writing for children is so simple.
Especially picture books. They look simple. Others have life
interfere—something has to give and the class is easy to cut.
Mem Fox said, “We need to be honest, right from the start,
about why we want to write for children. If we intend to moralise, teach a
lesson, patronise, categorise, marginalise, or show off our own brilliance, we
are doing it for the wrong reasons and we’ll need to reassess our motives. We
are not writing academically de-constructible literature. Nor are we writing as
therapy to eradicate our guilt about the world and what we have done to it.”
Writing as therapy is fine, but it’s different than writing for
Hobby or Business?
For me, putting the words on a page is something I do. Yet,
I don’t do it only for my own pleasure. I want to affect others, whether it is via
entertainment, words of wisdom, or helpful tips. The latter is one of the
reasons I blog.
I treat writing like a business. Just like a “regular” job,
I show up. I get to work. I write. I read for research purposes. I do other
parts of the job, such as record keeping, social media, critiques, etc. Look
what Nathan Bransford has said, “The only way to stay sane in the business is
to enjoy every step as you’re actually experiencing it. Happiness is not around
the bend. It’s found in the present. Because writing is pretty great —
otherwise why are you doing it?” I will admit that writing for me is a part
Patricia Wrede said, “Talent is way down on the list
of things you need to write; it comes in a distant fourth, after persistence,
motivation, and discipline. And the reason is that “talent” is as
common as mud; what’s rare is the motivation to sit down and actually do
something with it, the discipline to do it regularly, and the persistence to
stick with it until it’s finished.”
“Being a writer and eventually a published author is no
different than the pursuit of any profession. You have to pay your dues,” Pam
Torres said. Treating your writing like a business is part of paying your dues.
I also agree with Vita Sackville-West: “It is necessary to
write, if the days are not to slip emptily by. How else, indeed, to clap the
net over the butterfly of the moment? For the moment passes, it is
forgotten; the mood is gone; life itself is gone.“ I am most happy and
satisfied with myself when I write.
One fiction assignment at the Institute of Children’s Literature is to write something inspired by a picture in the manual. The pictures show people (or animals) doing something—each picture can inspire ideas for a story.
Many years ago I
attended a workshop where the speaker, Peggy
King Anderson, had laid out newspaper and magazine clippings of drawings
and photos. Our instructions were to pick several images that appealed to us.
Then, asking ourselves questions about who, where, what, and when, we wrote a
paragraph triggered by the pictures and the questions. That exercise created a
character for me who wouldn’t let me go.
Once I was contacted by a publisher who had a project where books for English as a Foreign Language had been written and illustrated, but not published. There was a change in company staff and the new editors wanted to go a different direction. However, it was too expensive to start from scratch with new illustrations, so they wanted writers to take the existing spreads of illustrations and fix the text.
Here’s part of what my editor said, “It has the potential to be a fine story, it just needs a little work. The main thing is that it’s pretty humorless. And with a title like that, it needs humor! Also Jake’s moaning about how his summer is ruined . . . gets old fast. Really try to write it from the mind of a kid. You can change the whole story or just tweak it. Try to make it more entertaining! Don’t be afraid to be funny. And you can change the title.”
I read the original story and agreed that the main character was too whiny. I analyzed the story and found this main issue: the main character didn’t have a strong reason to solve the problem and he wasn’t in control. His mother made a lot of the decisions. That meant I didn’t care about him. There also was a lot of telling.
Brainstorming, I asked how I could make the problem a bigger deal for this kid. I asked how it could become more important to him. What could make it worse for him? I made the problem relational—it wasn’t just something ruined, but his friend’s possession that was ruined. His friend might get mad at him if he can’t fix it. That raised the stakes.
Next, I printed out the illustrations and ignored the existing text. I rewrote the story using showing instead of telling and made each set of words fit with the picture on a page. I rearranged some of the pictures. Changed a character where I could. Most every time there was a place for a decision or suggestion to be made, I had the main character make it—that put him in control, not his mom. Most importantly, his suggestion at the end of the story solves the problem.
When I submitted it to the editor, this is what I got back: “You’ve done a great job with this story! I think it works really well; it’s a lot of fun and now it makes a lot more sense why Jake was so worried . . . I really like what you’ve done. I have a few small changes to suggest . . .”
I revised again and the story (and new title) was approved. (The Smell of Trouble was published in 2012 by Compass Media.) Plus, they asked me to do more stories.
How does this apply to you? You can also be inspired by pictures. Here are some ideas:
Ask someone else to
choose some story starter images for you.* Action pictures are good. Also, ones
that make you asks questions. (Internet sites such as pixabay.com could be used. Challenge yourself to
come up with a story for one picture and write the story.
*in case you don’t have anyone willing to
do this for you, here are some images:
Start an image
collection. Add anything that appeals to you, causes emotion, or reaction. This
might be a character you’d like to write about, a setting that reminds you of
something from your childhood, an interesting object. There’s no limit. I know one
writer who pastes them into a journal and sometimes jots down a few words. When
he needs an idea, he flips through the pages for inspiration. You can do the
same whether your images are in a folder or a journal.
Take a picture book or
easy reader that you don’t like. Only look at the images. What else could be
happening in the story? Perhaps you’re more interested in a sidekick than the
main character. Brainstorm about the sidekick and what he needs. Remember the
images don’t have to stay in the same order. Nor do you have to use them all to
get ideas flowing.
Or take characters
from two different stories. What would it be like if you put them together? You
aren’t limited by who they are in their stories. Consider changing their personalities.
Create different conflicts. Put them in a new setting. Have fun with it and
something extraordinary might happen.
And don’t forget your
own cell phone photos. Some of them may prompt story ideas, too.
I’d love to hear from
others who have been inspired by pictures. Feel free to share in comments.