“What process do you follow to write your stories?” I’ve heard that question more frequently as I’ve sold more picture books, and I never quite know how to answer.
The people asking usually look as if they’re waiting for a golden ticket to inspiration.
Like, maybe I’ll say that I always walk three times around my living room, stand on one foot, hum the “Star-Spangled Banner” and then run to the computer to start writing before the muse I’ve conjured flies away. Then, they can do the same and wait for their own inspiration to strike.
When I tell the truth – that I don’t have a specific writing process – they seem disappointed. But, trust me. I’m doing them a favor. If they knew how things really go down, they might give up writing altogether. I’m a little haphazard.
But, just for you, in honor of my newest picture book, WIDE-AWAKE BEAR, being released by HarperCollins Jan. 2 with illustrations by Jean Kim, I am pulling back the curtain and sharing my process, such as it is. Here’s how I wrote this book:*
Step One: Have a cranky child.
Many years ago, my youngest daughter was happily napping on the couch. When I woke her to take her to volleyball practice, she had a world-class meltdown. There was wailing, tears and shouting. I tossed her into the car and took her anyway. Afterward, when she was calm, I asked, “What was THAT all about?” Her response? “I was a hibernating bear. You woke me up, and I went into a bear frenzy.” (Author’s note: Is that not the best response ever? I love this kid.)
Step Two: Forget about that adorable incident.
I filed that wonderful remark under the category of “Cool Stuff My Kid Has Said” and went about my business. For many years.
Step Three: Be bored on a plane.
On a plane ride home from Yellowstone Park, where I was disappointed I hadn’t seen a bear, I thought I should use the flying time to do something productive. So I grabbed a notepad and pen and wrote a story about a bear cub who wakes up in the middle of winter and goes into a bear frenzy.
Step Four: Listen to your critique group say, “Meh.”
I shared this story with my critique group and got a lukewarm response. They thought the bear cub got too cranky and deserved a timeout. They also didn’t understand why he got so angry.
So I adjusted and reworked the story over several weeks. The title changed, and the storyline morphed into a bear cub who wakes up midwinter, gets scared and can’t fall back asleep. I shared it with some more writing friends and adjusted it even more. Then, I stopped, because I didn’t know what else to do.
Step Five: Let it sit on your desktop for a while.
I wasn’t sure the story was ready. So I worked on other things and didn’t think much about it.
Step Six: Send it to your agent on a whim.
Then, one day, I opened the file and thought, “This isn’t so bad.” (See how I just glow with self-confidence?) I sent it to my agent, hoping she might give me a few ideas so I could work on it some more. But she thought it was ready to go, sent it out and it sold in about three weeks. That’s my quickest sale ever.
So, there you have it. How to write and sell a picture book in six simple steps. You know just what to do now, right? (And, yes, my daughter who inspired this story is the same kid who inspired SOPHIE’S SQUASH. No, you may not borrow her.)
I told another writer about my lack of a process, and she said, “You do have a process. It’s organic!” And, she is absolutely right, because I’ve never once used pesticides in any of my books.
If there’s anything to learn from my post, it’s that everyone’s process is different. As long as you find something that works for you, you’ll be fine. If you’re not seeing the results you want and feel like your process may be fault, try a few different things.
- Be haphazard – I mean organic – like me.
- Be super-organized like another writer I know who sets her timer for 45-minute chunks and logs her writing minutes in a chart posted on her office door.
- Try writing mornings or evenings to see if something works better. Try different locations, too.
- Try standing on one foot in your living room and humming the national anthem. (Hey, it could work.)
Chances are something will seem more appealing to you and you’ll be well on your way to finding your own inspiration.
And now: A GIVEAWAY
If you’d like the chance to win a signed copy of WIDE-AWAKE BEAR, just leave a comment on this post. After a week, I’ll pick a random winner.
If you order it from this Madison, Wisconsin bookstore and write a message in the special instructions box, I’ll sign it before the store sends it to you.
Happy reading. And may you always sleep peacefully.
*Disclaimer: This post originally ran on Tara Lazar’s wonderful blog: Writing for Kids While Raising Them. Thanks, Tara, for asking me to join you way back when. (And if you’re looking for more picture books to read, check out Tara’s latest, 7 ATE 9. It’s hilarious.)