Welcome to the first of my “How I Write” posts!
To start with, I’ll be doing a series on writing picture books, with the goal of posting once or twice per week. After that, I’ll be doing a series of posts on writing graphic novels. I didn’t go to school for creative writing and haven’t been able to attend very many workshops or conferences, so I learned what I know mainly by reading how-to books and finding advice from authors online. My hope with these posts is to pay it forward by sharing specific practical writing advice and ideas for aspiring writers, as well as giving a behind-the-scenes look at how I write.
One of the main questions kids (and adults) always ask me is “How do you get your ideas?”
Sometimes, an idea just seems to float by like a lost balloon, begging me to grab it before it slips out of reach. Sometimes…but not usually. I believe that we become more creative by practicing creativity, because I’ve gotten most of my ideas by actively trying to think of ideas. It’s not as whimsical sounding as ideas floating by, waiting to be snatched up, but I think searching for and finding ideas has its own kind of magic.
Here are four of methods I use to think up new picture book ideas:
- Make lists of things I love
This one is pretty self-explanatory. I brainstorm ideas by making lists of things I love or am interested in that I think young kids might like, too—topics, activities, foods, holidays, concepts, etc. I also think about the things I loved when I was little. I came up for the ideas for my books FORT-BUILDING TIME and BUILDING BOOKS using this method.
For FORT-BUILDING TIME, I knew I wanted to write a picture book about building forts—something that I loved doing as a kid and something that seems like it’s almost universally enjoyed by kids. But I felt like the concept was a little bit thin conceptually, even for a relatively simple young picture book. It needed more. Going back to my list of things I loved, I saw that I’d written “the four seasons.” I combined the idea of building forts with the idea of building forts in all four seasons, and FORT-BUILDING TIME was born. Introducing the seasons gave the book structure, as well as reinforcing the theme that no matter the season, no matter the weather, and no matter the fort-falling disaster, any day can be a fort-building time.
For BUILDING BOOKS, I combined two things I loved as a child: reading and building. I loved reading the most—I was a classic bookworm as a kid, always reading. But I also have happy memories of building with Legos. After acquiring FINDING WILD and FORT-BUILDING TIME, my editor at Knopf was interested in doing a more story-based picture book with me, so I developed siblings to align with these two pursuits: Katie loves reading and Owen loves building. By the end of the book, they—and their hobbies—have come together, and they use books not just as reading material, but as physical objects to build amazing creations.
- Recognize picture book potential
Sometimes I’m trying to write for a different age group, and the trick is simply recognizing that what I’m writing would make a great picture book instead. When I first started writing what became FINDING WILD, I was trying to write an essay for adults about appreciating the wild. But as soon as I thought of shaping it into a picture book instead, I knew I’d found the right form to explore this theme. Interestingly enough, adult readers often connect with FINDING WILD just as much as kids do. It makes me wonder if my initial intended audience is still layered in there, and adults can sense that. Experiences like this are proof to me that pushing myself to write in new areas can often pay off in multiple ways—it helps me develop the writing chops for those new areas, but also helps me think of new ideas and new approaches to the genres and age groups I’ve already been focusing on.
- Come up with an idea a day for a month
One thing I did several years in a row is force myself to write down one picture book idea a day for an entire month. (Picture book author Tara Lazar hosts a community doing this same thing every January called Storystorm. It’s kind of like NaNoWriMo for picture book authors. I’ve actually never participated formally, but it seems great! More info on her site here.)
One year when I was doing this, I wrote down the words “The Paper Mice.” I didn’t have any idea beyond that title. I didn’t know where I could go with it or what it could become. I just had to come up with something for that day and somehow my brain, under pressure, landed on paper mice.
After I wrote and sold PAPER MICE a few years later, I found a bundle of mice paper dolls that I’d loved when I was a kid. I think that I must have subconsciously remembered them and how much I loved them.
Some people seem to think that forcing yourself to create will lead to forced-feeling work—as if you have to have a dream about an idea or some huge experience to prompt it for it to be genuine. But I think that forcing yourself to come up with new ideas is just as valid and can actually make you dig deeper and be more creative.
- Exploring new angles on an evergreen topic or story
Another way I look at finding ideas for picture books is through the concept of evergreen topics—themes that come up again and again in picture books. Things like: bedtime, going to school, being away from parents, a parent’s unconditional love for their child, learning to share, learning the alphabet, etc. I would also include classic structures, like fairy tales and ABC books in this category.
There are SO many books centered on these ideas that it can be hard, but is essential, to come up with a fresh approach. I always ask myself, how is my take on this evergreen topic original and interesting? What can I add to this topic, or how can I use this theme or structure in a new and unique way?
My upcoming picture book with Chronicle Books, THE ABCs OF CATCHING Zs, is about going to bed (a common topic) and it’s an ABC book (a common structure). But I added my own sweet and silly spin: that the little zzzs (often pictured floating above people’s sleeping faces in illustrations) are actually small flying creatures that help people fall fast asleep each night. And how are you supposed to fall asleep when your Zs have gone missing? (By doing all the steps of the bedtime routine to lure them back, of course!).
So, there you have it—four ways to come up with picture book ideas. Next time I’ll be detailing how I go about writing picture book rough drafts. Please comment here or on Instagram if you have any questions that you’d like addressed in future posts.