It’s a contest–read about it here for spring-inspired stories under 150 words! The organizers are author Ciara O’Neal and agent Kaitlyn Leann Sanchez. There are prizes to be won and a short window to submit: April 1st thru 3rd. And it’s free to enter.
This year I thought it might be fun to participate. It’s one way to get my writing out there. So the image above is a gif* that is required to go with the story.
I’m not comfortable pasting my whole story here, but will paste the opening:
A Squirrel Did It
“Noah, did you leave the bamboo gate open?” Mama asked. “I think a squirrel did it.” “Noah, did you dig a hole in the gravel path?” Mama asked. “No, a squirrel did it.” “Noah, did you put leaves in the fountain?” Mama asked. “I bet a squirrel did it.”
The story in total is 107 words. (For the contest entry, the judges will get to see the whole story.)
Why do we want to write short? There’s always room for shorter stories, whether in magazines or in picture books. I like what the Arapahoe Library says on their “Children’s Books with Few Words” page: “Your child can feel successful when reading these books that have very few words.” The page has links to staff chosen books.
But it’s not just for those learning to read. Parents often like a few short choices. Some kids have short attention spans. But also sometimes “less is more”–fewer words can have a stronger and lasting impact.
It could become a full-time job keeping up with all the new picture books coming out. And especially with libraries and many bookstores still being closed, it’s harder to do than ever. This is where I’m grateful for a number of blogs that help me stay in tune.
One site I’ve not shared before is Picture Book Builders. Formed by a group of well-published authors or author/illustrators, their goal is to explore“how one element of a picture book’s story or art manages to grab us or wow us or strike an emotional chord.” They take turns blogging about picture books. It may be an interview with a new author or illustrator about a book, or a recommendation of a new picture book, or maybe even a giveaway. The blog started in 2014, but I only discovered it last year. I subscribe—there are about 8 posts a month—so the info comes right into my inbox. A recent book from this site that I want to read is FIVE MINUTES (That’s a lot of time) (No, it’s not) (Yes, it is) (Putnam, 2019) written by Liz Garton Scanlon and Audrey Vernick and illustrated by Olivier Tallec.
I think I’ve talked about Susannah Hill Leonard’s blog before. I’m interested in her “Tuesday debuts” and “Perfect Picture Book Friday” posts. For the latter, anyone can add picture books they are reviewing or recommending, too. Susannah’s shared books on Fridays aren’t always the newest books, so there’s a nice mix of old and new. One of her recent posts is a book I’d already discovered, but love so much I’M A HARE, SO THERE (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2021) by Julie Rowan-Zoch. Susannah posts about 3 times a week. Again, I subscribe.
And if you’re familiar with Storystorm, you probably already know about Tara Lazar’sWriting for Kids (While Raising Them). It’s not just a January idea month blog. Posts are often written by other authors sharing their inspiration for a book, a cover reveal, success stories, etc. Here’s a book birthday post I recently enjoyed: BIRDS OF A FEATHER! (Philomel Books, 2021) by Sita Singh and illustrated by Stephanie Fizer Coleman. Except in January when posts are daily, posts vary but usually there are several per week. Again, I subscribe to get them in my inbox.
Do I look at these posts every day? No. Instead I take a few hours a few times a month and look at a batch of posts. Sometimes that means I miss out on giveaways from all of these sites, but since my main purpose is to get my eyes on picture books, that’s okay, too.
Do I like every book they share? Of course not. Books are very subjective. But I definitely find books I want to read. My library doesn’t always have them, but that doesn’t stop me from requesting they order the picture books!
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