This post was originally published on November 29, 2010 at Tara Lazar’s blog in honor of PiBoIdMo. We thought those of you participating in this year’s picture book idea month might find it useful.
Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen Has Nothing to Write About
by Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen
If you’re like me, writing is work. By this I mean it is my job, my primary source of income (therefore, work) but also that it is just plain HARD. There is nothing so depressing as trying to come up with something new and fresh to write about—and coming up with nothing.
That happens to me a lot.
So what do you do?
Well, I really don’t know the answer. But here are some tricks I use to muddle through those times when I have nothing to write about.
1) Start with character. I truly believe that the most important aspect of a picture book, what drives its popularity the most, is a charismatic main character. The premise, the setting, the cutesy word play and rhyme—all of these are secondary to character. So if you need to brainstorm only one thing, work on that viable character list.
The trick to creating a truly charismatic main character is to blend flaws with flair. Don’t just come up with fifty cute character traits. Give your main character some faults, some defects—he will be infinitely more interesting.
2) Something old into something new. There are so many examples of authors who take an old idea and make it into something modern and fresh. The entire genre of fractured fairy tales is built on the premise that recognizable is always a benefit for marketing, but recognizable AND fresh is money in the bank. Now I’m not at all recommending that all you do is read a collection of Grimm’s fairy tales and add a hippopotamus to each story (don’t do that, because it was my idea first). But if you can take inspiration from something your audience will recognize and then take it to a brand new place, where is the downside?
Some examples of this in my own work:
THE HOG PRINCE – we know it’s a frog prince, not a hog prince, but Eldon does not.
QUACKENSTEIN – isn’t every monster story better with a duck?
THE TWELVE WORST DAYS OF CHRISTMAS – believe it or not, in addition to a Christmas song, this is a sibling story
3) Look at your own life. And I mean this as way to eliminate bad ideas. When you’re having a hard time with inspiration, there is the temptation to use your own children or grandchildren as your muses. Trust me, this is a bad idea. Because as cute as their latest antics are to you, they very rarely make for good picture books. Save yourself. Don’t do it.
4) Exercise. Well, do a writing exercise at least. When you’re really stuck you could reinforce your writing ability by taking a book that is perhaps not one of your favorites and then rewriting it the way it should be. Obviously, you can’t then try to publish your version of Dora the Explorer (because Nora the Explorer or even Eleanora the Explorer is simply not going to be fresh enough to merit a whole new franchise!). But the exercise will show you that you are not only able to create a new story but one that is better than something that was actually published (which means there is hope for you yet) and, again, you never know where that road will lead.
5) When all else fails, take a breath. Sorry, guys, sometimes the ideas are not going to come. No matter how much you force it. When you are really and truly stuck, stop trying so hard. Instead, work on revising older manuscripts—maybe you can whip one of those into shape. Or perhaps the something old that you will turn into something new will come from your own pile of older ideas.