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.”
If you’re not using this tool in your word processor when things go wonky with a Word document, you’re missing out.
I recently had a student send me her article. She was so frustrated with the text jumping from one page to the next. It left a huge white space at the end of one page. And no matter what she did, she couldn’t fix it. Turns out she had a Section Break (Next Page) creating havoc.
How did I know?
I turned on Show/Hide (¶). It’s on my Home toolbar menu represented by the paragraph mark ¶. If you can’t find it, use the Help on your word processor and search for it. In some word processors, Help is represented by a question mark. I’m using the most recent version of MS Word.
What does Show/Hide do?
It shows hidden characters created by the system. A single space, such as the spaces between my words, is a raised dot ·. End of paragraph is ¶. (Mine are blue to contrast with my text—yours may be a different color.) Show/hide displays the column breaks, section breaks, and page breaks, too. It lets you see what’s going on behind the text.
For this student, it also showed me that she was using five spaces instead of an indent at the start of paragraphs. If one uses the tab to indent a paragraph, most word processors “learn” that is what is wanted and all new paragraphs will be indented automatically saving the writer time and effort. Note: Indent on your menu moves the left margin of an entire paragraph to the right. Tab only goes to your first tab which is usually one-half inch.
I’ve used Show/Hide and found places where I had multiple spaces when only one was needed. A Find and Replace can take care of that issue. (Under the Edit menu. Find space space, Replace All space). No more duplicate spaces.
How to fix an unwanted break
Usually your cursor can be put after the full expression of the break (at the right) and then you backspace which will delete it.
Sometimes, it’s resistant. Then, I’ve copied the text around it, including the pesky break, and pasted it into a new document by using Paste Special. (Under the Edit menu.) When the window pops up with options, choose Unformatted Text. This will paste it in without any extra formatting. Copy that and repaste over the same section in your original document.
If all else fails, copy the entire document and Paste Special, Unformatted Text in a new document. You will lose headers, but you can go back and copy the original header and paste into the new document. You also may lose double-spacing, and blank lines at the beginning of your manuscript, but those are easily fixed.
How to add a break
Say you’ve reached the end of your article and you want to add the bibliography to your document. Instead of using return/enter until you reach a new page (which, if you make any changes earlier in the document, won’t leave the vertical spacing correct) use Insert Break. My version of Word shows Insert next to Home. I click on it and can choose Page Break. Or on the very top menu line, I can chose Insert and then Page Break. The same method works at the end of a chapter in a novel so the new one starts on a new page. Your word processor may have this option elsewhere, but most offer it. Again, use Help if you can’t find it.
One last important tool
The rulers. I always have this on. The top one—a horizontal ruler—lets me see what is happening with my margins and tabs. The one on the left, shows me where I am vertically on the page. It also shows the top and bottom margins. I find it under View, either as a checkbox or as the word Ruler which I check by clicking on it.
Yes, word processors can be frustrating. But if you learn to use the tools that are offered, they can be a big help.
Google docs does not have the same options that a Word document has. It’s compatible with Word. I do not recommend opening a document in Google docs if you are planning to make comments and send back to the original writer. Instead download it, and open in Word.
Our 8 member writing group has once or twice yearly writing retreats. We enjoy time together, eat together, and get lots of work done. We make it affordable by staying at someone’s house (or cabin) with everyone bringing food. We share in cooking and cleanup. This year our scheduled retreat was in May. Obviously Covid-19 canceled that.
We rescheduled for July. This time instead of totally cancelling, we agreed on a substitute–a virtual write-in. If it goes well, we will probably repeat.
I thought our schedule might be of interest to others.
ONE DAY VIRTUAL WRITE-IN SCHEDULE
8:30am meet via Zoom – PJs welcome. – Bring a cup of coffee or tea, maybe a pastry or an egg, or some fruit. – While we eat, we chat. – Each one shares what project they will be working on this morning.
12noon meet via Zoom – Chat for a half hour. – Then eat your own lunch and return to work.
4:00pm meet via Zoom – Talk about your day’s progress. – Play game.
Children’s book question game:
All of us prepare a few children’s book related questions ahead of time.
Whoever raises their hand first and answers correctly gets a point. If no one guesses, the asker gets a point.
On to the next person until everyone has had a chance to ask three questions. (Prepare a few more in case someone uses yours!)
The winner gets a big hurrah from all of us.
In addition, the Zoom “room” will be open all day.
If someone wants to chat with someone for a bit, they could get on and see if anyone else is on.
Or text someone and ask them to meet.
We may decide to meet back after dinner and share some work for critique, or wait for our next Zoom critique meeting.
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