Monday, January 22, 2018

5 Places to Rake In Picture Book Ideas


1. Hidden History

Ever heard of Grace Hopper? Jean Jennings? I hadn't until very recently. Did you know they were instrumental in the development of the modern computer, coding and programming in particular? Our history is full of characters, women especially, who made insanely awesome contributions to our world that we don't know about. And picture book biographies are the bomb! Find the hidden stories and bring them to light. Keep asking questions and keep researching. Who was the first African-American woman in space? Who was the empress who smuggled silkworms out of China?

2. Old Diaries and Photo Albums

Your life has hidden gems too. Nobody grew up quite exactly the way you did. Maybe you were an only child who lived in a high-rise in New York. Maybe you grew up on a farm in Idaho. Maybe your parents immigrated to Canada from Syria when you were 4 years old. Maybe your brother was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Whatever it is, find the richness and uniqueness from your own life and bring it to the page. Best of all you get to call it "fiction" so nobody can make fun of you for that purple underwear you wore every day of third grade. We know that was you.

3. Dreams and Nightmares

I once had a dream about sword-fighting a wolf in my old school's gym. There's something ethereal, childlike and whimsical about dreams, even scary ones, that might be a perfect match for the ethereal, childlike, and whimsical experience we want readers to have in our picture books. Its a good idea to have a notebook with you wherever you go, but for sure keep one by your bed and jot down the craziness that happens inside your brain while you're asleep.

4. Mythology and Folklore

I recently watched Myths and Monsters on Netflix and it was really fun! I learned a lot about western European mythology that I hadn't known before. It's a classic but excellent place to go digging for story ideas, especially if you look through areas that maybe haven't really been explored before. I'd be excited by some picture books featuring Ghanaian folk tales. I'd spend my grubby, hard-earned dollars on picture books about heroes from Korean mythology.

5. Other Picture Books

There aren't really very many "shoulds" when it comes to writing. Yeah there are wise suggestions that most likely it's a good idea to follow, but really we are free to blaze our own path. But one really solid "should", at least in my mind, is the idea that if you want to write something, you've got to read that something. I mean come on. Freddie Mercury only happened because the Beatles happened. We've gotta know what conversation we're joining otherwise we might get stuck playing in our own mess, thinking we're creating something new. So if you wanna write picture books, then read picture books. Let the ideas you love inspire you. Let the pictures you love best spark something in your own mind. And you'll have ideas coming out your ears as thick as Grandpa Norbert's wiry grey ear-hair.

Write on, everyone!

Sarah Allen

Monday, January 15, 2018

5 Habits That Will Amp Up Every Scene You Write


1. Admit that you need amping. I think sometimes we writers--and by we I most definitely mean me--think of some of our most precious scenes like songs from an acoustic guitar. We imagine these scenes like intimate notes sung quietly, soothingly, so poignant and whatever because by now your reader has fallen asleep. These scenes are where most of those darlings reside, those darlings you must rip out by the roots and toss into a wood chipper, no matter the stream of tears coursing down your cheeks. Here's the thing. Am I saying we can never have acoustic scenes? Not remotely. In fact intimate, acoustic scenes are my absolute favorite thing (examples to follow), but you have to earn them. They have to be placed just right, so that when the audience reaches them they're on the edge of their seats, chills running down their spine as they wait for that next, solitary chord.

2. Place your calm in the eye of the tornado. You know that seen in the movie Babe, where farmer Hogget has walked his pig out onto the field of the sheepdog trials and everyone laughs and then Babe beats every record and herds the sheep into the correct pens and as Farmer Hoggett shuts the sheep pen, slowly, so slowly, every single person in the audience is dead silent and you hear that final metallic clink of the latch and then everyone bolts to their feet cheering their heads off and in the midst of the applause Farmer Hoggett looks down at Babe and says, "At'll do Pig. At'll do." You know that scene? Well the feeling of that scene is sort of what I mean when say put your calm in the eye of a tornado. That look on the Farmer's face when he looks down, the sun shining behind him, is an acoustic, intimate moment. But it means everything because of what's around it. Because we've gone through jeers and mockery and dog bites and cat scratches and a myriad other animal hijinks to get there. Even that silent latch click moment. We get a storm of jeering and harsh laughter before it and an eruption of validation and applause afterward. A perfect, tender chord will stand out all the more for surviving the chaos that surrounds it.

3. Stare Down the Gun Barrel. Here's a story I read recently in Benjamin Percy's Thrill Me (which you should all go read immediately why are you still here go read it). He tells the story of a professor in a creative writing program. A gruff, boot wearing, bearded professor from the south. One day in workshop one of the students turns in a story about a young man being robbed at gunpoint. The robbers have the gun directed at his head and the young man thinks through all the things he's going to miss out on if he dies. He'll miss making love to his girlfriend. He'll miss ever visiting Australia, and a bunch of other things. The student finishes this story, and gruff professor tells him to start reading it again. In the midst of this reading the professor, with no warning, pulls a gun from his coat and points it between the kids eyes. "What are you thinking about?" he says.

The story may or may not true, but there's no doubt it's worth remembering. Your knight racing toward his opponents javelin is not going to be pondering the various shades of blue in the princesses eyes. He's not going to be thinking much at all. He's going to be fighting an aching shoulder barely able to lift his weapon. He's going to be feeling the roll of his horses gait. His vision will become tunneled. So get that metaphorical gun pointed at your forehead and ask yourself, "What are you thinking about?"

4. Activate Your Setting. This is another idea that has its basis in Benjamin Percy's Thrill Me book. We writers can easily slip into the habit of allowing their setting to be still. Unmoving. Static. That in many ways is how we interact with the world, isn't it? It's not like our desk moves. But keeping our setting's static gets us low-amp level scenes. Say you've got two neighborhood kids daring for the first time to approach the local haunted house. As you show your reader this house for the first time, what does move? What motion is your tour guide? Is there a breeze rustling the shredded grey curtains? Is there a grey mouse moving across the floorboards from the orange-stained kitchen to the cobwebbed library and down the creaking basement steps? Follow the motion. Make your setting dynamic. Make your world dance.

5. Think Triangle Dialog. We often think of dialog as between two people, but your scenes will level up if you add a third element. The best dialog is more than just talking heads. A conversation may just have a player and their guitar, but when you add an amp it boosts the music to a new level. That amp, that third element in your triangle, is something like action or active setting. An argument between father and son in the kitchen is fine. An argument between father and son during the down-to-the-wire ninth inning of a National's game is much better. Or maybe you need to put the seen in the kitchen. If so, have the muffins in the oven burn. Give them a leaky pipe in the fridge, or a cut finger while they're trying to chop onions. Have your characters do something while they talk, and the dialog will amp up to a whole new level of strength.

Write on!
Sarah

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