Tag Archives: creativity

Scary But Not Too Scary

 

Writing a scary book for young readers is a tricky business. Where is that line between fun scary and scary scary?

With my latest book, The Frightful Ride of Michael McMichael, I’m hoping I found that line. It certainly was fun to write, even though it took forever. I really can’t remember when I jotted down the first few lines:

It was the thirteenth of November, a stormy night
When the Thirteen bus hove into sight.
Something about it didn’t seem right
But Michael McMichael boarded.

It might have been as long as 20 years ago. Long enough that the first drafts are somewhere on a discarded hard disc drive.  It was just a bit of doggerel that kept stumping me because I’d boxed myself into a corner with my rhyme scheme. The story had to make sense and have a satisfying arc, yet the first three lines of every stanza needed to end in perfect rhyme and the last line had to rhyme or near rhyme with “boarded.”

The first three lines rule wasn’t hard. It was that darn “boarded.” I think I managed to find just about every word that rhymes or near rhymes with “boarded”, from the sensible “hoarded” to the desperate and untenable “sore head.”

Years would go by as I worked on other things; The Frightful Ride forgotten only to be rediscovered once in awhile in my files and noodled with a bit more. Finally it occurred to me that I had a complete story and this might be a picture book. Luckily Sarah Ketchersid at Candlewick agreed—with a few changes.

Back to the drawing board for a few more years. Then the completed manuscript went to the marvelous Mark Fearing for illustrations. (Where I suddenly realized that a word I’d used years ago when banishing the villainous bus driver–deported–needed to be changed to “exported.” Deported had become too loaded of a word.) Then a year for printing and distribution. And finally, it is here! The official release date is July 10, 2018.

But all along it was geared to younger readers, so, of course, the scary thing is defeated in the end. But the real key to me between scary but not too scary is humor. And that was my instinct from the get-go. What was really rattling around in my mind was my memory of the macabre, rhyming tall tales of Robert Service, especially his poem The Cremation of Sam McGee.

My father read that to us when I was a kid and I loved its wonderful “chewy” language.

There are strange things done in the midnight sun
By the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
That would make your blood run cold;
The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,
But the queerest they ever did see
Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge
I cremated Sam McGee.

 “The men who moil for gold” or “That night on the marge of Lake Lebarge,” who can beat that?

There’s that kind of juicy language throughout Service’s poem. At the same time it’s a complicated story, but Service doesn’t cheat with easy or obvious rhymes. He reaches for the great instead of the good. (I’ve always wondered if “moil” was made up, but it’s a real word as is “marge.” There’s even a Lake Laberge in the Yukon. Service definitely isn’t a cheater.)

I can’t claim I achieved a “Robert Service” but his macabre humor, his love of words and tall tale format were my inspiration. In these tense times with voices of concern all around us, it’s nice to know that sometimes our stories, even scary ones, can just be for the fun and the love of it.

Here are some more samples of Fearing’s wonderful illustrations. Thanks, Mark and Sarah and all of Candlewick for making this book possible.

 

 

 

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So, How Does that Make You Feel?

It took me awhile to understand that creating an emotional experience for the reader is really what my job as a writer is about. And that this is what we all are after when we sit down with a book. Sure we want a good story with clever plots turns. We want language we can relish. We want an intellectual challenge or an exploration of a social issue or of a person or world different from our own.

But bottom line to all of that is the hope/expectation that this will take us on an emotional journey. Books that do this are the ones that we recommend to our friends, that our kids ask us to read over and over, that stay with us sometimes for a lifetime.

Recently I picked up The Emotional Craft of Fiction by Donald Maass. He makes the same point. Even better, he talks about how you, the writer, can create an emotional journey. Because, as he notes, not every published novel does that. “The sad truth,” he says, “is that television commercials can stir more feelings in thirty seconds than many manuscripts can do in a three hundred pages.”

So how can we best a Charmin ad? Maass offers some ideas and techniques that I thought would be fun to share over my next couple of blog posts.

I strongly agree with Maass’s first point: the reader is the one creating the emotional experience. We writers are giving them the triggers:  “(Readers) don’t so much read as respond. They do not automatically adopt your outlook and outrage. They formulate their own. You are not the author of what readers feel, just the provocateur of those feelings.”

But what those feelings are won’t be universally agreed upon, as anyone who has been in a book club can tell you. Everyone is unique. So, Maass suggests that, “The most useful question is not how can I get across what characters are going through? The better question is how can I get readers to go on emotional journeys of their own?”

 Maass says there are three primary paths to creating an emotional response from the reader. Outer Mode: showing. Inner Mode: telling. And something he calls Other Mode: a combination of showing and telling and other techniques to create something that is emotionally “chewable” for the reader.

So let’s talk about Outer Mode in this post.

Outer Mode is good old showing–showing what the character is feeling through their behavior, dialog and visible responses, rather than the character (or the narrator) telling us what they are feeling.

Most of us pretty much know about telling and showing. It’s the difference between “I was terrified” and “My heart beat a staccato rhythm that said run, run, run, but I couldn’t move. I could only scream.”

Of course, there are a lot of techniques involved in using show or tell well, but the most important trick here, says Maass, is not so much in knowing how to use show. But knowing when to use show. He says showing works best when the character’s feelings are highly painful, including highly painful or difficult for the reader.

I love the example he uses from The Silver Linings Playbook by Matthew Quick. Quick’s main character, Pat Peoples, is mentally ill. He’s just been released from a mental health facility to the care of his mother, but he is convinced he will soon be reuniting with his estranged wife, Nikki.

When I finally come out of the basement, I notice that all the pictures of Nikki and me have been removed from the walls and the mantel over the fireplace.

I ask my mother where these pictures went. She tells me our house was burglarized a few weeks before I came home and the pictures were stolen. I ask why a burglar would want pictures of Nikki and me, and my mother says she puts all of her pictures in very expensive frames. Why didn’t the burglar steal the rest of the family pictures? I ask. Mom says the burglar stole all the expensive frames, but she had the negatives for the family portraits and had them replaced. Why didn’t you replace the pictures of Nikki and me? I ask. Mom says she did not have the negatives for the pictures of Nikki and me, especially because Nikki’s parents had paid for the wedding pictures and had only given my mother copies of the photos she liked. Nikki had given Mom the other non-wedding pictures of us, and well, we aren’t in touch with Nikki or her family right now because its apart time.

We know what’s going on even if Pat doesn’t. We don’t have to be inside Pat’s head to feel emotional about this scene. In fact, it might be too painful to be inside Pat’s poor demented head and his determined belief he and his wife are still a thing. Instead, the reader gets a different experience. Not only do we feel Pat’s sad blindness, we feel his mother’s desperate efforts to spare his feelings. And it’s all made more poignant by the fact that it’s funny in a horrible way.

A key ingredient in effective showing of emotion says Maass is “subtext.” When there’s a feeling we’re not being told, but that we can sense. “It’s the unspoken emotional truth. When we discern it, it’s a surprise.”  And a pleasure.

Maass says there’s even a way to describe a character’s inner states without actually telling the emotion. It’s still “showing.” Here’s his example from Ernest Hemingway’s short story, “Now I Lay Me.”

That night we lay on the floor in the room and I listened to the silk-worms eating. The silk-worms fed in racks of mulberry leaves and all night you could hear them eating and a dropping sound in the leaves. I myself did not want to sleep because I had been living for a long time with the knowledge that if I ever shut my eyes in the dark and let myself go, my soul would go out of my body. I had been that way for a long time, ever since I had been blown up at night and felt it go out of me and go off and then come back. I tried never to think about it, but it had started to go since, in the nights, just at the moment of going off to sleep, and I could only stop it by a very great effort. So while now I am fairly sure that it would not really have gone out, yet then, that summer, I was unwilling to make the experiment.

Without even knowing context (this character is a victim of wartime post traumatic stress disorder) we can feel his suffering. Maass says writing with a lot of subtext works especially well for the big feelings—death, deep fear, deep loss, love.

Maass offers a writer’s exercise if you want to bring effective showing into your work. Basically he suggests that you:

– Pick a moment in your story when your main character is moved, unsettled, disturbed. Maybe a moment of choice, of needing something badly, having learned something shocking, feeling overwhelmed. Now write down all the emotions you can think of for this moment—obvious and hidden.

– Now write how your character would behave, act. What’s the biggest, most explosive thing your character could do? What would be symbolic? “Go sideways, underneath or ahead,” Maass advises. “How can your protagonist show us a feeling we don’t expect…?”

– Add a detail in the setting that only your main character might notice or notice in a unique way. (I particularly like this technique. It’s very powerful. Not only can the detail be symbolic, but it replicates the odd disassociation we can feel in an emotionally powerful moment. The funeral is NOT the time to notice the dandruff on the corpse’s shoulders, but, of course, you do.)

– Finally, Maass says to delete all the emotions you wrote down in the beginning and let the actions and dialog do the work. Of the emotions you evoke, he asks, “Do they feel too big, dangerous, or over-the top? Use them anyway. Others will tell you if you’ve gone too far, but more likely, you haven’t gone far enough.” (The italics are mine, because this is what I have to battle time and time again! I have a fear of getting melodramatic, she said between lips trembling like the young leaves of the aspen.)

In the future, I’ll talk about Maass’s ideas about Inner Mode and Other Mode and other techniques for evoking emotion. As Maass says, “I want to feel more as I read. Don’t you?…I don’t care about what you write, how you write it, your choices in publishing, or what you want out of your career. What I want is to feel deeply as I read your work.”

As a writer that’s exactly what I hope to do. Maass’s book is a good start.

 

 

Creative Writing 101

My youngest daughter just finished her first year of a Creative Writing/English Literature degree at Concordia University in Montreal, Quebec. She returned to Seattle this week and I was interested to hear what they teach about the craft of writing these days, so I invited her to take my spot writing this week’s post on Books Around The Table.

Introducing Clare Chodos-Irvine

I only have ¼ of a university degree, but after nine months of studying literature and attending writing workshops, this is what I’ve learned about writing:

  1. 90% of the time, avoid adverbs. I have a classmate who, throughout the five submissions I made over the course of a year, never failed to circle my unnecessary adverbs. I didn’t realize that I used so many until he pointed it out. More often than not, an image, sentence or metaphor is stronger without the use of an adverb. Usually, it stops you from repeating yourself. There’s no reason to say, “She ran quickly,” because if she was running, one would hope it would be quick.
  2. Classmates and teachers are there to help you. I’m lucky to have had professors in my first year who were constantly supportive. My classmates are all so talented, and having a group of people to bounce creative ideas off of is extremely helpful, even if you’re not a creative writing student.
  3. Pretty much anything can inspire you. I took a survey of British literature from the beginning of time until 1660, and although the course didn’t leave me a lot of time to read for pleasure, I was inspired by the alliteration in “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” and the complicated rhyme scheme in Beowulf. I read things I would never have read otherwise, thanks to my teachers’ thoughtful planning of the course reading lists. A story I have been sitting on for three years went from a fantasy/romance piece to a feminist werewolf story thanks to Angela Carter’s “The Company of Wolves” , and my fiction workshop classmates. I was inspired by my classmates constantly. They often found meaning in my writing that I hadn’t discovered myself. For example, they saw a woman chipping paint off her wall as an extended metaphor reflecting her decaying relationship. Being surrounded by a large group of creative individuals is electrifying because, for the first time in my life, the majority of the people I am around share my passion for writing.
  4. There is no such thing as children’s writing. If a children’s book or a YA novel is well written, anyone can enjoy it. This was emphasized frequently by my fiction professor, and is proven true by writers like Daniel Handler (AKA Lemony Snicket) or Roald Dahl.
  5. Don’t get rid of anything. I discovered this year that some of my pieces that were unsuccessful as short stories work very well as poems. I disliked poetry until I turned sixteen. Even after I liked reading poetry, I didn’t think I should write poetry. My poems sounded too confessional. But when I rewrote some of my short stories as poems, they worked much better. Fiction can work as poetry, and vice versa.

Lastly, I learned that creativity takes work, and it hurts and it’s scary to put a piece of yourself out there. But as intimidating as writing is, it’s what I want to do for the rest of my life. I am eager to learn as much as I can about the past, present and future of the craft. I can’t wait to earn the next ¾ of my degree.

 

Why Hadn’t I Done This Before?

I attended Western Washington University’s Children’s Literature Conference for the first time a few weekends ago. And I’m rather chagrined that I’d never attended this 15-year-old event before.

The conference is a gathering of some of the top creators in children’s literature right here in my own backyard—or close enough, anyway. It started relatively small 15 years ago and now it draws a sell-out crowd of over 600 teachers, students, writers, illustrators and children’s lit aficionados to Bellingham, WA.

This year’s speakers were Sophie Blackall, Pam Muñoz Ryan, Benjamin Alire Sáenz and Kevin Henkes. I won’t even try to list all their awards and accomplishments—but the poster for the event will give you some idea. I think you’ll recognize the books, even you don’t always recognize the name.

I have this thing. Whenever I hear a speaker, I end up kind of wanting to be them. Or, at least, thinking maybe I should talk that way. Maybe that’s how I should present myself. Although, the most heartening thing about it all is that everyone presents themselves differently (scholarly, anecdotally, ad lib, prepared, humorous, philosophically), but if they do it with honesty and care, it works.

Sophie Blackall

Author/illustrator Sophie Blackall shared the things she loves, including six books that were important in her life and she used these as a springboard to anecdotes about herself and her writing. I was intrigued by her fun, idiosyncratic selection: Winnie the Pooh by A. A. Milne and E. H. Shepard , The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes by DuBose Heyward and Marjorie Flack, The Unstrung Harp by Edward Gorey , The Principle of Uncertainty by Maira Kalman , Here We Are by Oliver Jeffers and Moby Dick by Herman Melville. The nicest touch of all? She gave her copy of each book to six members of the audience who shared the titles of books that had been important to them.

The give-away seemed to fit into Blackall’s overall approach to life and work. She’s generous. She’s a giver. Check out this project she’s starting for other writers and artists: https://www.milkwoodfarm.org/

Poet and writer of young adult novels, Benajmin Alire Sáenz gave an almost stream-of-consciousness incantation of a talk. Sáenz, who starts his own day with a “word of the day,” repeated the phrase “the word of the day is” throughout his talk. Each time invoking a new word and new idea. “The word of the day is” became something of a catchphrase for the rest of the day.

For Sáenz, in general, the word of the day would have to be “words of the day” including Latino, gay, philosopher, survivor, award-winner, role model and maybe even life-saver. On his Twitter feed are comments like this:

i’m a gay transgender man and i can’t even begin to tell you how grateful i am for this story; it saved my life. thank you so much.

8:02 PM – 8 Mar 2018

And photos like this:

Benjamin Alire Sáenz and a fan

The word of the day for author Pam Muñoz Ryan was clearly serendipity, in particular when it came her latest book Echo. Researching a story that was going to be about segregation Ryan ran across a photo of a classroom of children each holding a harmonica. When she asked about it she was told it was a 1931 photo of the school’s harmonica band, something that apparently was common at the time.

Harmonica bands! What was not to like? Ryan reasoned. As Ryan followed that trail, her story changed completely, turning quite unexpectedly into a tale about a magical harmonica and how it connected three different children in three different times and places but all somewhat connected to WWII and Nazi Germany.

Pam Muñoz Ryan

Pam seems to be one of those people who can turn the every-day events of their lives into stories. Funny stories. Like the time she joined band, decided to play violin, broke said violin, tried to super glue it back together, got ejected from band, but ended up in chorus, then was asked to write an article about being in chorus, which led to her doing more writing, which led to her, of course, becoming a famous author. Isn’t joining band in the 4th grade how everyone’s life stitches together?

Author/illustrator Kevin Henkes word of the day was “waiting.” A common theme in his work and his life. He waits, he said, for ideas. Then he has to wait to see if the idea proves good and solid. His characters wait, like the characters in his book Waiting. And this feels apt, he says because children themselves are always waiting.

A particular creative quirk of his that struck me: he likes to have a title from the very beginning of writing. It helps him know and remember what the book is about. What I liked about Henkes’ presentation was his awareness of and respect for the creative process and for his readers.

It showed in his talk and it shows up in his work. Lily’s Purple Plastic Purse was one of the texts I pored over when I was trying to figure out how to write picture books. The only bad part: it gave me the notion that picture books could be over 1,000 words. Well, if they’re by Kevin Henkes, maybe.

Keep your eyes open for the 2019 WWU Children’s Literature Conference with an equally impressive line-up of speakers: Barbara O’Connor, Candace Fleming and Eric Rohmann, Neal and Jarrod Shusterman, and Jerry Pinkney.

Another major children’s lit event that WWU is hosting this year is the May Hill Arbuthnot Lecture on April 28, 2018. This free, annual event features an author, critic, librarian, historian or teacher of children’s literature, of any country, who prepares and presents paper considered to be a significant contribution to the field of children’s literature. This year’s speaker is Naomi Shihab Nye who has received four Pushcart Prizes, was a National Book Award finalist, and has been named a Guggenheim Fellow, among other honors.

Books and bad weather

Illustration by Karen Hollingsworth

Books and bad weather just seem to go together. It’s so enticing to settle in with a book in hand and snow, wind and rain at the window.

Illustration by Lorenzo Mattotti

It can be a moment of solitude…

Illustration by Samantha Dodge

or a moment that unites us.

Illustration by Vincent Mahe

Illustration by Adrian Tomine

Sometimes you can create your own shelter.

Illustration by Iker Ayestaran

Illustration by Michelle Riche

In my collection of images of books in art, reading in a time of cold and dark is almost always a warm, safe moment.

Illustration by Sasha Ivoylova

But not always.

Illustration by AJ Frena

But let’s not end on this chilling note. Here’s the perfect image for cozy holiday reading.

Illustration by Raija Nokkal

Merry Christmas! Happy holidays! Season’s readings!

A Christmas for Bear: Writing a Holiday Book

The sixth book in the Mouse and Bear series, A Christmas for Bear, came out this September.

Holidays are a sure fire subject for a kid’s picture book. These days there’s a book for just about any special day you can name: Arbor Day, Halloween, Easter, Passover, Kwanzaa, Fourth of July… in fact, if you’re looking for a book idea, go through the calendar, pick a marked day, and write. There’s probably an editor looking for one of those.

Christmas is, of course, the granddaddy of all the holidays in the U.S. My Amazon search for “picture books Christmas” netted 6,782 results.

I’ve written two holiday books, both about Christmas. My first was A Christmas Crocodile illustrated by David Small, reissued last fall by Two Lions Press. My latest just came out, A Christmas for Bear, the sixth book in my Mouse and Bear series. It’s getting great reviews, including a star from Kirkus!

As with any familiar topic–bedtime stories, first day of school, a new sibling, a major holiday–part of the trick to getting published is finding a fresh way to talk about it.

With my first Christmas book, The Christmas Crocodile, the idea simply came to me–a crocodile who eats up Christmas. It took years to work it into its published form, but I was pretty confident that there weren’t many books out there featuring crocodiles and Christmas.

My latest, A Christmas for Bear, also had an easy genesis. Christmas was, of course, a natural topic for this very Western-culture-based book series that featured a joyous, celebratory Mouse and an always reluctant Bear. My bigger challenge was how to ring up something new about Mouse and Bear themselves.

Sharp-eyed readers might notice a hint that maybe Bear has presents after all.

I decided to flip things on their head a bit. I wanted Bear to be the one offering celebration. I felt that Bear should be the party guy this time around, so he’s eager to throw his first Christmas party ever. But not being very well versed in  holidays, Bear decides Christmas is all about food, mostly pickles, and a nice Christmas poem (The Night Before Christmas, of course). No presents necessary.

Mouse, naturally, finds the “no presents allowed” idea not so great. And the story centers on Mouse’s attempts to find the present he is sure must be there.

Mouse searches for a present all over Bear’s house.

In today’s world, it’s not that common for commercial picture books to work with the true meaning of Christmas, the birth of Christ. So if you’re not going to celebrate the religious significance of the festival, you substitute other things: love, togetherness, friendship, family, bounty, kindness. Christmas stories are almost always sentimental in one way or another—in fact, it’s one of the few times you can pretty shamelessly lay on the sweet if you want. But I’ve always wanted to avoid getting too saccharine. So for me, humor is the way out. But, even so, I want to say something.

What I remember most about Christmas as a child was how safe I would feel. I didn’t put it that way in my mind. But I knew I would eat well, I would laugh a lot, I would feel close to my family, I would nap in front of the living room fireplace, my father would read The Night Before Christmas, I would have trouble falling asleep. I would get at least one thing the next day that was unexpected and special.

Even though I’m not Christian, I was raised as one. And it’s a little sad to me that we don’t have some shared sense of the numinous, a shared acknowledgment of wonder and awe. But I, and most people I know, are not that comfortable with an established creed. So we really have nothing that calls us collectively to the deep and the mysterious.

So what could I do to evoke some of the values this holiday was supposed to celebrate?

I thought about what the two friends could give each other. Bear gives Mouse a telescope. In my mind, it was a way to evoke that “big thing” that was there in the original meaning of Christmas. For Mouse and Bear (and for me, too) that something big and mysterious can be found under the night sky.

Mouse gives Bear a shiny, red sled. A call to adventure and fun and a time to acknowledge where this series has been going all along—the deep friendship of these two very different characters. This is the real gift of Bear’s Christmas. But I did want to get actual presents in! Good luck making the child reader happy with a pious lesson instead of presents on Christmas morning!

 

 

 

 

 

Sailing Away

If you had to guess what kind of boat is most associated with books, what type do you think it would be?

Just like cats and books, birds and books, and rain and books go together, so do books and sailboats (although there are some rare exceptions to the sailboat).

For these summer days, I thought it would be fun to look at  my collection of images of books in art for the theme of boat. I found quite a few.

Not only does the sailboat work conceptually since sailboats and books are both places of leisure, contemplation and escape:

Illustration by Pawel Kuczynski

Illustration by Yuko Shimizu

Illustration by Catherine Nolan

Illustration by Natalie Andrewson

It works artistically given how books and boats echo each other visually:

Illustration by Pawel Kuczynski

Illustration by Henriette Sauvant

Sometimes the books and boat metaphor can feel a bit stretched:

(Couldn’t find credit for artist)

I do like the idea of books as an ark to preserve knowledge–although I’m not sure what the cylinders on the roof are about.

Books and boats can also be seen as a metaphor for capturing knowledge:

Illustration by Christiane Beauregard

Illustration by Gurbuz Dogan Eksioglu

Or maybe the appeal is that with both boats and book we are set a-sail on something vast and deep:

Illustration by Pawel Kuczynski

 

 

 

 

When Your Mind is Blank

Kelly Barnhill, author of this year’s Newbery winner, The Girl Who Drank the Moon, says her book began with a vision that literally stopped her in her tracks:

I was out for a run, and I had this image appear in my head, unbidden, that was so shocking to me that I had to stop in my tracks. It was of this four-armed swamp monster with a huge tail, and extremely wide-spaced eyes…and these big, damp jaws and it was holding a daisy in one hand and was reciting a poem…

That’s one way ideas come. A gift from the universe. And there are the good times when they seem to come crowding into your mind. But sometimes they don’t come at all. That’s what I want to write about today–what do you do when the ideas aren’t popping.

First, let’s get in the right frame of mind.

There are two types of brain waves associated with generating creative ideas, especially the kind that seem to come from nowhere. The ones that just rise up into your conscious mind. They are alpha and theta waves.

Alpha waves are a function of deep relaxation. In alpha, we begin to access the creativity that lies just below our conscious awareness. It is the gateway, the entry-point that leads into deeper states of consciousness. And they often rise into consciousness on that walk, in the bath, on a car ride.

A deeper state of consciousness is signaled by theta waves. It is also known as the twilight state–which we normally only experience fleetingly as we rise up out of sleep, or drift off to sleep. Probably most of us have been jolted occasionally by a sudden idea or solution or vision in these moments.

But how can we get into these creative states?

Artists through the ages have tried! They’ve called on the gods, made deals with the devil, called on love, passion, nature, drugs, alcohol and madness.

But actually those alpha and theta waves? They like certain conditions, especially alpha.

Your brain waves will tend to fall in with a dominant rhythm in your environment: a drumbeat, a heartbeat, the fall of your footsteps—they call it entrainment. So the creative muse loves rhythmic activity: music, walking, chopping vegetables, riding along in a vehicle.

Mozart said, “When I am traveling in a carriage, or walking after a good meal, or during the night when I cannot sleep; it is on such occasions that ideas flow best and most abundantly.”

It’s no coincidence that Barnhill’s vision of the swamp monster came to her during a run.

But let’s say, you’ve walked your feet off, bathed till your skin is a prune, chopped broccoli for hours, and you still got nothin’. There are also more deliberate ways to generate ideas. Let’s start with this simple formula for a story:

A (character) who (core trait) wants (goal plus hidden need).

The core trait is a simple, quick way to give your character a personality. It’s a good way to think about picture book characters who need to be developed quickly and simply.

So the formula for my book A Visitor for Bear might be: a bear who is grumpy wants to be left alone (but the truth is he needs a friend.) The formula for Wanda Gag’s Millions of Cats might be: a couple who are old want a cat (but the true need is companionship or something to care for.)

Of course, these formulas are for books that have already been worked out, and A Visitor for Bear actually was one of those “just popped into my head” ideas, but let’s say you really are at a loss for an idea. So let’s look around and just grab something.

“A cat who is ugly wants to catch a mouse (and I don’t know the true need yet.)”

Okay, I truly did just grab this out of my head. Let’s see what happens if we work with it. I especially like to play with the core trait, because how a character is challenged or changed is what makes the story interesting.

1.Make the core trait conflict with the goal/need.

For example, in Millions of Cats most couples might look to have a child to meet that need to have companionship or something to care for—but their core trait is that they are old. Not only does this heighten their loneliness, it means having a child is not possible. It ups the stakes and means there will be obstacles to overcome in order to not be lonely in their old age.

2. Work with an unusual trait:

Rather than creating a character who is easily scared (a familiar trait), how about someone who loves to scare others?

Rather than someone who’s nice, create a character who’s grouchy (That’s my bear in A Visitor for Bear.) Rather than a child who is scared about the first day of school, a child who can’t wait! Rather than a child who won’t eat his vegetables, a child who is a vege fiend!

3. Combine disparate traits:

A gentle giant. A kind witch. A pacifist bull. A mighty ant.

4. Put two characters with conflicting traits together:

A cheerful mouse and a grumpy bear

You can also work with plot.

5. Set up an unlikely or improbable goal:

A cow who wants to be a ballerina. A horse who wants to drive a car. Your character can be fairly ordinary but there will be story conflict and reader interest because of the improbable goal.

So let’s start messing around with that idea about an ugly cat wanting to catch a mouse. Notice it’s a mundane familiar goal. Picture books have to be simple so if I combined an odd core trait with an unlikely goal it can get complicated. An ugly cat who wants to go to the moon. It might work, but it becomes unclear what’s the real issue of the story.

So I’ll stick with “ugly cat wants to catch a mouse” and start to play with the options. An ugly cat: well, that’s a bit unusual. We don’t often deal with an ugly character in a picture book. But the story immediately suggests humor and the character is not human, so we can have fun with it.

Does his core trait (ugly) conflict with the cat’s desire to catch a mouse? Maybe. Maybe he’s so ugly he scares away mice before he can even get close. Okay that seems funny to me. So I can go with that.

Since he’s always scaring away his intended prey, what does he do? Put on a mask? Put a bag over his head? Try to creep up on mice backward? Now I’m starting to see the obstacles that will make up my plot.

Can I take advantage of two unlikely characters together? Cats and mice aren’t known to be friends. Cats are the predators. Mice, the prey. Cats big, dangerous, brave, graceful. Mice, small, scared, hiding, weak. I could maybe play off those stereotypes or start flipping them in some way. A big mouse. A tiny cat. But I need to ground my story in that core trait. What the one thing I know for sure about my particular cat. He’s uncommonly ugly.

Is my mouse perhaps uncommonly handsome? Or is he the world’s ugliest mouse? Do they have that in common?

Since this is child’s picture book, I know I want to drive it to a happy ending (although if the tone is exactly right, you could perhaps have a more macabre ending like I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen. But that is a rare exception.) So now I’m liking the idea of the having the world’s ugliest mouse because I can see friendship there. That’s probably my cat’s true need—friendship or acceptance.

To really develop this story would take a lot more time and thinking. And, more often than not, you might find your story idea ultimately doesn’t work or doesn’t really hold your interest. But generating a story idea in this very deliberate way might get the story making machine inside your mind turning over again.

So grab a random character, a trait and a need and start walking!

 

 

 

Are You the One for Me

Author Elizabeth Gilbert believes that ideas are “entities” that circulate out in the universe looking for someone to bring them to life. To Gilbert this isn’t a metaphor or a way to describe the collective unconscious or a shared cultural milieu. Here’s how she puts it in her book “Big Magic.”

“I believe that our planet is inhabited not only by animals and plants and bacteria and viruses, but also by ideas. Ideas are disembodied, energetic life-forms…Ideas are driven by a single impulse: to be made manifest. And the only way an idea can be made manifest in our world is through collaboration with a human partner.”

I heard Gilbert speak a few weeks ago to a packed theater in Seattle. She’s a funny, entertaining and insightful speaker. Best known for the book Eat Pray Love, I was there to hear more about Big Magic, her book about nurturing creativity.

According to Gilbert, ideas are so eager to manifest that if you don’t take them up on the offer they’ll find someone else.

But even though, it’s a privilege for an idea tap on your door, you, as the one committing to a lot of hard work, have the right and, indeed, obligation to interview ideas to see if you and the idea are the right fit. As Gilbert says, “I have many times been approached by ideas that I know are not right for me, and I’ve politely said to them, ‘I’m honored by your invitation, but I’m not your girl.’”

What she said about interviewing ideas struck a chord for me. Like many writers, I often have more ideas than I know what to do with. But, especially when I was beginning, I really had a hard time figuring out which ideas were worth the effort and which weren’t. And there were some ideas that I beat to death, so sure was I that I could turn it into something, even though the truth is it had come to the wrong door.

The way I eventually put it to myself was that certain ideas had “energy.” Certain story ideas somehow seemed to demand my attention and effort again and again. It was more intuitive than formalized. I just gradually began to recognize the ideas that were right for me.

I’d never thought to more actively interrogate the idea as Gilbert suggests, but it could be a fun and useful way to find the idea that’s right for you. And I thought about some of the questions I would ask:

 

 

 

Why do you think you’re the right idea for me?

What’s in your heart? Do you have depth or are you just a pretty face?

Do you have breadth? Is there room to move around in this situation or notion?

Do you have any surprises in store? (I want surprises.)

Can I do justice to this idea? Sure, I can research and travel and work hard and probably learn about just about anything, but am I the right writer for a spy novel set in Istanbul? What would it take to learn about international espionage and learn Turkish customs and culture and idioms and geography and so much more?

But even more important than that is the question: is this story “me”? Can I really see the world like Graham Greene or, another way to put it, is my understanding of the world genuinely expressed through a spy novel or will it feel fake in the end?

If a picture book idea comes to my door, I already have some questions that I like to ask:

Do you have a plot? In other words, are you a story or a concept book?

If you’re a concept book, do you have a different or new way to talk about colors or sounds or feelings or trucks? How much “concept” (as in high concept) is there to you so you can stand out?

If you’re an alphabet book do you have a word for Q?

If you’re a rhyming book, why are you a rhyming book? Do you have a good reason to be or do you just think that makes you cute and what one does in kids books?

Are you simple enough to be a picture book, but profound enough to be interesting to me and a reader?

I don’t overwork the question: will you sell? But I let it brush across my mind. How saturated is the market with stories about schools for kids with supernatural skills? Can you, Ms. Idea, or I bring anything new to the table?

Still in the end, probably the most important question for any idea is: Do you excite me? Do I want to do you?

When I mentioned I was writing about interviewing ideas, fellow blogger Julie Paschkis reminded me how fragile ideas are and that you can over-interrogate them. She shared this poem with me.

Shallow Poem

I’ve thought of a poem.
I carry it carefully,
nervously, in my head,
like a saucer of milk;
in case I should spill some lines
before I put them down.

Gerda Mayer

So don’t grill your idea till it’s sweating under the lights, or to really stretch a metaphor, till the milk curdles. But a few gentle questions could allow you to say “No thanks,” with no regrets. Or, “Yes, let’s do it!” more confident that this is an idea that deserves your love and hard work and that will, in turn, work hard for you.

 

Wordless Letters

J Paskchis wordless letter

This post is about my correspondence with Julie Paschkis while I was in London. Apparently, February is International Correspondence Writing Month (InCoWriMo), so this will be especially appropriate.

After I had gotten myself settled in and had recovered from the initial shock of moving to another country, I still felt a bit untethered. Printmaking, my artistic comfort zone, had begun to feel tedious and boring, so I intentionally left my printmaking presses behind in Seattle. Now I had a new environment to explore and no reason not to experiment and be inspired.

But sometimes, having so many options becomes overwhelming. Where to start?

I told Julie how I was feeling. She said that when she isn’t sure where to start creatively, she finds it helpful to make something with someone particular in mind, as if she is making a gift for them. I liked that idea. Julie suggested we both send each other a “wordless letter” every week.

This turned out to be a wonderful solution, in so many ways. I found the challenge of describing what I was doing and expressing what I was feeling, without words, to be a very productive means to mine my experiences.

Julie and I have been friends for nearly thirty years. She knows my art. She knows my insecurities and foibles. She is my dear friend. I knew that whatever I sent her would be received openly and without judgement. That was important to me at a time when I was trying new things that I wasn’t necessarily good at. Some weeks I felt more inspired than others. Some weeks I had less time than others. It was all okay.

The practice kept me being creative, even when distractions and excuses not to stay in my workspace were everywhere, and it disciplined me to do so on a regular basis. During the week, I would keep my eyes open for bits and bobs of ephemera to use in my next missive. Often, what I would make for Julie would lead me to create other pieces in a similar vein.

It also kept me in touch with Julie in a different way than texts or FaceTime or even written letters would have done. It was like a conversation of imagery.

All that, and the joy of receiving something in kind every week. A letter is a gift. We don’t get or give them often enough.

These letters are some of my most treasured relics from my two years in London. All in all, I have nearly fifty wordless letters from Julie. The envelopes were also works of art. I have picked some of my favorites to show you here.

J Paschkis - wordless letter

J Paschkis - wordless letter

J Paschkis - wordless letter

J Paschkis - wordless letterJulie sent me this after I told her about a missing teapot from my parents’ home.

J Paschkis - wordless letter

J Paschkis - wordless letter

J Paschkis - wordless letterArrows were a common theme for me. Julie responded in kind.

J Paschkis - wordless letterJulie and I exchanged squiggles at one point, and then colored them in and sent them back.

J Paschkis - wordless letterSome of the letters were 3-D.

J Paschkis - wordless letterOthers had movable parts!

J Paschkis - wordless letter

J Paschkis - wordless letter

J Paschkis - wordless letterRose colored glasses to induce optimism.

J Paschkis - wordless letter

J Paschkis - wordless letter

J Paschkis - wordless letter

J Paschkis - wordless letter

J Paschkis - wordless letter

J Paschkis - wordless letter

J Paschkis - wordless letterThis was a Thank You note from Julie after she and her husband Joe visited us and we took a trip to Amsterdam.

J Paschkis - wordless letterJulie sent me this after I met her in New York for a visit.

J Paschkis - wordless letter A letter for a new year.

J Paschkis - wordless letterAnd this was one of the last letters Julie sent me. It is me, returning to Seattle (the handle on the suitcase goes up and down and the flaps open).

Next week, Julie will share her side of our exchange.