If you didn’t get to 30 ideas yet, you have a few more days!
Go back and re-read posts, browse posts from previous years (see category drop-down menu in the left column), or just take a shower. Showers ALWAYS work.
(See? Even this guy’s excited.)
When you have 30 ideas, you can qualify for one of our AMAZING Storystorm prizes (the daily giveaways and the Grand Prizes, feedback from a kidlit agent) just by taking the following pledge. Put your right hand on a picture book and repeat after me:
I do solemnly swear that I have faithfully executed the Storystorm 30-ideas-in-30-days challenge, and will, to the best of my ability, parlay my ideas into picture book manuscripts.
Now I’m not saying all 30 ideas have to be good. Some may just be titles, some may be character quirks. Some may be problems and some may create problems when you sit down to write. Some may be high-concept and some barely a concept. But…they’re yours, all yours! Give them a big, fat, juicy smacker! SMOOCH!
You have until February 5th at 11:59:59PM EST to sign the pledge by leaving a comment on this post.
PLEASE COMMENT ONLY ONCE.
The name or email you left on the registration post and the name or email you leave on this winner’s pledge SHOULD MATCH. If you want to check the registration post, it is here.
Again, please COMMENT ONLY ONCE. If you make a mistake, contact me instead of leaving a second comment.
Remember, this is an honor system pledge. You don’t have to send in your ideas to prove you’ve got 30 of them. If you say so, I’ll believe you! Honestly, it’s that simple. (Wouldn’t it be nice if real life were that straightforward.)
If your name appears on both the registration post AND this winner’s pledge, you’ll be entered into the drawings for the daily giveaways and the Grand Prizes: feedback on your best 5 ideas from a literary agent. (I will announce the agents tomorrow.)
So what should you do now? Start fleshing out your best ideas! Write them as elevator pitches. Get ready because YOU might be a CHOSEN ONE.
The daily giveaway prizes include picture books, manuscript critiques—all the stuff you saw during the month. All winners will be randomly selected by Random.org and announced next week.
So, sign away and pick up your winner’s badge to proudly display anywhere you choose:
(Once again, thank you to Melissa Crowton for the Storystorm 2019 logo and badges!)
CONGRATULATIONS! YOU’VE EARNED IT, STORYSTORMER!
But remember, Storystorm doesn’t necessarily have to end here. Hopefully idea generation has become a habit and you will continue to jot down ideas throughout the year. Don’t stop! Keep it going!
Hello Storystormers!!! You did it! You’re rounding the bases, and it’s time to bring it home. Can’t you hear the roar of the crowd cheering you on??
Wait! Is that the roar of the crowd or the sound of stampeding hooves??
When I think about ideas, I like to think of them as wild horses galloping across my mind. Growing up, I remember reading Marguerite Henry’s Misty of Chincoteague and being introduced to the idea of an island full of wild horses. Imagine the freedom, wildness and possibility of such a place!
Well, our minds are just that—islands of cavorting, galloping, prancing wild ideas just waiting to be discovered. But half the time we’re so distracted (mobile phones, social media, etc, I’m looking at you!) that we don’t even recognize the brilliance that is racing around in there.
Ideas are just like wild horses—blink once and they’re gone! How many times have you had that AMAZING idea that you promised yourself you’d remember when you woke up in the morning or as soon as you got back from the grocery store? Yep, not gonna happen. If you’ve got an idea, you need to rope it, and rope it QUICK!
So grab your lasso (ie; trusty pen and notebook, voice recorder, a new doc on your computer) and get that horse into a stable. You don’t need to know all there is to know about your new idea, but you do need it in a safe place so you can come back to it later!
Now that you’ve roped that horse (or 30!), it’s yours! Woohoo! Time to start training. WHOOOAAAAA!! Just where do you think you’re going?
All I can tell you about this step is—prepare for a WILD ride! No two horses are alike. Every idea is going to require its own special treatment. So you, as the trainer, must be FLEXIBLE!
There are some authors who are very methodical, using the same process for every project they approach. That has never been my experience. Every idea I’ve worked with has been completely different and has required something different from me.
Some horses are docile. They’ll let you take the reins easily. (I have one PB under contract right now that was like that. I wrote it in one afternoon in between working on other ideas.)
But other ideas (dare I say, the majority!) WHOAAAA NELLIE! Hold onto your hats because they are like bucking broncos. You try to climb on but end up on the ground. UGH! But this was such a great idea!! Why isn’t it coming together?
That’s when you have a choice.
Will you. . .
A) steer clear of that horse?
B) climb back on?
I know what you’re thinking. The right answer is B!!! Well, not always. Sometimes when a horse keeps throwing you to the ground, it’s best to move on for awhile. Give that horse some space. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and wild horses aren’t trained in a day either.
Sometimes ideas need to breathe, and sometimes, you, the trainer, need the fresh perspective that comes from time, space and experience in order to make your idea work.
The best part about Storystorm is that you’ve got 30 ideas to work with. 30 different horses to choose from. In this moment, don’t stress about which one’s going to get you the agent or the big contract. Instead, look at your stable and ENJOY your horses. They’re yours! And now it’s time for the fun to begin – take them out for a ride. You may find yourself galloping, trotting, or getting pulled in a direction you never imagined.
So climb on and enjoy the ride, because as my almost-2-year-old already knows, horses (and ideas!) are the coolest!
NOTE: This post is not an endorsement for capturing/training wild animals! It is an endorsement for capturing/training WILD IDEAS!
Lindsay Bonilla spent her childhood voraciously reading books, scribbling stories, and taking the lead roles in her solo front porch stage plays. While a theatre major at Northwestern University, she fell in love with folktales and world travel. Later she spent a year and a half touring Spain and Portugal teaching ESL with the audience-participatory theatre company, Interacting. Since then she’s had the opportunity to tell stories to school children in Haiti and Ghana, teach workshops to youth pastors in Guatemala and El Salvador and even perform street theatre in Puerto Rico and New York City. All of these experiences have made her passionate about building understanding and relationships across cultures while inspiring the imagination. When she’s not telling stories or acting them out with her sons, she’s busy writing them from my office or a library in North Canton, Ohio.
Lindsay is a member of the National Storytelling Network (NSN) and the Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). She is also a teaching artist with Arts in Stark. Visit her at lindsaybonilla.com.
Lindsay is giving away a copy of her newest book POLAR BEAR ISLAND and a Skype session with the classroom of your choice.
There will be two winners of one prize each.
Simply leave ONE COMMENT below to enter.
You’re eligible to win if you’re a registered Storystorm participant and you have commented once below. Prizes will be given away at the conclusion of the event.
Novelists rarely collaborate successfully, but the stars aligned when Terry Pratchett rang Neil Gaiman back to discuss the idea of Just William as the Antichrist
Is it hyperbole to call Good Omens one of the most successful collaborative novels of all time? Certainly, it’s a success: it’s clever, funny and has stayed in print – and stayed relevant – for almost three decades. More than that, it is deeply beloved. When we chose it for the reading group this month, I knew the book mattered to a huge number of people (myself included) – but all this happy month we’ve had huge numbers of people visiting for the first time, to share their love for the book.
It’s hard to think of any other collaborative novels that have been so successful. There’s George and Weedon Grossmith’s The Diary of a Nobody, which gave us the concept of “Pooterism” and has been haunting the aspirational middle classes since 1892. More recently, you could argue for The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, which has come to define an entire genre (steampunk) and won great praise and awards, as well as legions of fans. There’s also Rama II, which Arthur C Clarke wrote with Gentry Lee; it is good, but not quite as good as Clarke’s Rendezvous With Rama.
I recently found an old high school journal in my basement. In it are some real gems, such as quotes from my awesome 11th grade Creative Writing teacher, Mr. Zavatsky. He once said, “Don’t wait for flaming asteroids to fly down and sit on your tongue.” I thought that was a delightful way to put it! Basically, you don’t need to sit passively waiting for inspiration. Sure, sometimes inspiration hits out of the blue, but you can also go out there and seek it or actively drum it up. Here are just a few ways to do that, as well as some personal examples.
Recycle by Switching Genres: A few years ago, I had a pun-filled, garden-themed short poem published in Highlights magazine. It was one of my favorites. I liked it so much, I thought, hey, maybe I can recycle this idea into a picture book. And that’s when I began to write “Goodnight Veggies.” The new manuscript was also pun-filled and garden-themed, but it had all the elements one commonly finds in a picture book (story arc, take-away message, enough room left for illustrations, etc.). I’m happy to say it will be published by HMH in 2020, and illustrated by the amazing Zachariah OHora. I was recently reviewing rough illustrations and noticed that Zach placed the garden on an urban rooftop. I thought that was brilliant! So I took THAT idea and wrote another short poem about a child planting a garden on his roof. Double recycling! Yet another time, I took a short High Five poem that I wrote (“Four Fun Chicks”) and re-imagined it as a goodnight/counting concept book (FIVE FUZZY CHICKS, Imprint/Macmillan, 2020). Again, this meant starting from scratch and adding things like a climax, and giving thought to page turns and so on. It’s not just a matter of slapping a different label on it. But if you have favorites in one genre, see if you can rework them to fit into another.
Pop Out a Character: You can take a secondary character in an existing work and give them their own story. What if the cat in my witch story had an adventure on his own? Or what if he had to adjust to a new pet in the household? Or what if the shy turtle in PIZZA PIG had her own story in which she had to overcome her shyness? You don’t have to approach this with “sequel” mentality. You can just pull on character traits that you’re already familiar with and create something completely new and different. When I was first looking at illustrations for my forthcoming book UNICORN DAY (Sourcebooks, June 2019), I was immediately drawn to a particular background character–an edgy, goth unicorn that the illustrator, Luke Flowers, imaginatively included toward the end. My kids commented on their love for the character, as well. I mean, come on. How cool would that be to give the goth-icorn his/her own story?! If only I had a knack for writing novels.
Look for Holes in Your List: What don’t you have yet? Surely anyone can put their own unique twist on a pirate book or goodnight book or holiday book. Think of all the super common themes that you always see in books. If there’s a theme you haven’t considered yet, consider it! Bring your own perspective to it. While I’m not a knitter, I used to work in the fashion industry and that helped inform my unique take on a pirate book with NED THE KNITTING PIRATE. You can even take an idea you already have and apply one of these second themes to it. What would happen if you turned an existing idea into a goodnight book? Or what if you turned your characters into pirates? Or dinosaurs? How would that change the story?
Have you tried a cumulative tale yet? A mirror tale? A circular story? A concept book? A fractured fairytale? Exhaust all possibilities! Go to the extreme. And don’t let your inner critic get involved at this point. Let your mind roam free, because even a bad idea could lead to a good idea in the end.
Many years ago, before I had an agent or any published books on the horizon, I had a book idea about a chef who was a cow. Her name was “Chef Moodette” and she made perfect dishes for everyone who came into her cafe. I kept wondering what the twist would be. Would a pair of human kids finally walk in? And she wouldn’t be able to figure out what they wanted? Did they want milkshakes? Ewwwww. No! I kept trying to make “Chef Moodette” work (I’m talking, over the course of a few years), but it was just terrible. I couldn’t get the ending right. But my work was not wasted. Years later I began to write PIZZA PIG and “Chef Moodette” jumped back into my mind. But this time, I finally figured out the ending (and lots of other issues)! So keep returning to your old manuscripts, folks. You never know when something will finally click. When you re-read your work, the stories simmer in the back of your brain, just waiting for the right moment to surface.
So don’t sit around waiting for “flaming asteroids” of inspiration. Get out there and wrangle them!
And in case anyone is interested, I’d like to note that I will be leading a detailed, online rhyming picture book workshop for the Highlights Foundation this fall. And here’s some fantastic news: Tara Lazar will be joining me on-site to lend her expertise!
Diana Murray is the author of over a dozen books for children, including CITY SHAPES (Little, Brown, 2016), GRIMELDA THE VERY MESSY WITCH (Tegen Books/HarperCollins, 2016), NED THE KNITTING PIRATE (Roaring Brook/Macmillan, 2016), PIZZA PIG (Step-into-Reading/Random House, 2018), and UNICORN DAY (Sourcebooks, 2019). Her award-winning poems have appeared in magazines such as Highlights, High Five and Spider. Diana grew up in NYC and still lives nearby with her husband, two very messy children, and a motley crew of pets. Visit her at dianamurray.com.
Diana is giving away an advanced edition of UNICORN DAY (Sourcebooks, June 2019).
Simply leave ONE COMMENT below to enter.
You’re eligible to win if you’re a registered Storystorm participant and you have commented once below. Prizes will be given away at the conclusion of the event.
Jonathan Rendall’s This Bloody Mary Is The Last Thing I Own: A Journey To The End Of Boxing is, according to EstelleMoon, “one of the all time book titles”. It is also:
A fantastic account of the author’s life in the boxing world, primarily as a journalist and writer but also as a manager for Colin “Sweet C” Macmillan in the early 90s. It takes us from Rendall’s childhood, fervently watching boxing on the TV and buying Ring magazine, to working for that same magazine; staying in grubby Las Vegas hotels; tracking down long-lost fighters in Cuba; seeking out young upcoming talent, dealing with violence both in and out of the ring … and ends with his eventual disillusionment with the whole game, and some hard-won realisations about life. It’s a brilliant book, written with real verve, and shot through with sadness, nostalgia and faded glory.
Quite apart from the inherent satisfaction of a story about a good man acting in accordance with his conscience – against the advice of all rational men! – there is Trollope’s comical satirising of secondary figures, which I had quite forgotten. We have, among others, Dr Pessimist Anticant, the Scottish thinker whose charm lasts only so long as he chooses to remain “vague, mysterious, and cloudy”, and Mr Popular Sentiment, the novelist whose “good poor people are so very good” and “hard rich people so very hard”, and Sir Abraham Haphazard, Attorney-General, with his bill to institute the bodily searching of nuns for Jesuitical symbols.
A novel conjured from the little that is known of the life of a nineteenth century Liverpool architect. Peter Ellis’s most outstanding work is Oriel Chambers on Water Street in Liverpool. Described by Pevsner as “one of the most remarkable buildings of its date in Europe”.
The author fictionalises him as ‘Peter Eames’ and sets the story a century later during the Blitz with the main character an architectural historian. Novels that have a real geographical setting but into which are inserted imaginary places are fascinating. As the story unfolds and locations are described you can picture exactly where the characters are standing. Then they turn a corner and enter an unknown street and an unknown building. You pause for an instant, wonder where you are, put your faith in the author and sit back and enjoy the story. For anyone who knows Liverpool this book is a treat. For those who like a tale of a doomed love affair it’s an equal pleasure.
It’s an alternative history novel – Britain surrenders after Dunkirk and Churchill goes into hiding as leader of the Resistance. The book is set mainly in smog-bound 1950’s London, and Sansom effortlessly conjures up the privation, fear and horror of living under a regime that is mostly controlled from Berlin. It has rather worrying echoes of where the world is currently headed, with demagogues like Trump, Bolsonaro and others rising like turds in a midden. The style and pace remind me of two of my favourite thriller writers – Roberts Goddard and Harris.
I am greatly enjoying this meticulously researched history of the creation of Wonder Woman and her creator, psychologist Dr William Moulton Marston: a man, who despite his oddities (for many years he lived in a ménage-à-trois with his wife and Margaret Sanger’s niece), was deeply immersed in the American suffrage and feminist movements of the early 20th-century and genuinely saw Wonder Woman as a vehicle for a feminist message. Full of fascinating and unexpected detail, it is, as I said, deeply researched and, though I sometimes find Lepore’s writing a little “choppy” and abrupt, a vivid read that pulls the reader along
First read it back in my late 20s. It was lent to me my an Aussie friend just after I’d moved to Istanbul. It was a good time in my life. I remember liking it. The novel and life.
Didn’t like anything else I’ve read of his since very much, so wasn’t sure how going back to it would be. And it was enjoyable – a guilty pleasure for the most part. Granted, sometimes his style reads a little like Enid Blyton with sexy bits, but there were various parts of it that were fairly compelling. You know – pageturnery. It was all a touch redolent of faux-intellectualism with its scattergun intertextuality and self-conscious exploration of the boundaries and ambivalences between dream and reality, symbols and tangibles, and space and time, but again, I found myself not really caring all that much…
I write picture books. That means that my readers are very short. I remember what it was like to be a kid, but it’s not as easy to remember what it feels like to be little in a world of big people. What do kids notice at that height? And more importantly, what am I missing? It was time for a change of perspective.
On my way to the New York Public Library, I stopped by Bryant Park to find out what a walk through the park would look like through the eyes of my readers. I held the camera at about 33” from the ground, and here’s what I saw…
The first thing I notice is legs. And butts. And the ground is much closer. Then I notice a little bird preening under a cafe table. Then a white wall—and I had to see what was on the other side of it. But first I had to chase a pigeon—I just HAD to.
I took a peek over the wall, and I saw one little fellow ice skating with a penguin. Then I’m drawn to the lights and sounds of the carousel with it’s toads, rabbits and horses flying through the air, and notice one unusual rider, as well.
A vine running up the side of a building is tempting to climb. I watch friendly jugglers and dream about joining the circus. And at the end of the day, I meet a friend and we play. Which is what our readers love to do most of all.
I hope this helps you come up with even more ideas this month. Our little ones are counting on you!
Julie Gribble produces works for children and the children’s literature community in both the United States and Great Britain. While a Children’s Literature Fellow at Stony Brook Southampton, she founded KidLit TV to help inspire children to learn and read. Julie is also founder of the upcoming TeenLit TV which will feature video programs for YA fans. Julie has been nominated for two Emmy Awards and is a multi-award-winning writer, screenwriter, filmmaker, and producer. Her charming picture book, Bubblegum Princess, is based on a true story about Kate Middleton and was released on the day the first royal baby, who we now know as Prince George, arrived. Copies of the book have been donated to underprivileged children in the US and to children’s hospices in the UK. In addition to producing KidLit TV’s original shows, Julie co-produced Who Killed Nelson Nutmeg, a feature film shot in Dorset, England with Bonnie Wright of Harry Potter fame, and DOG BOWL, a short film by Gordy Hoffman which premiered at the 2015 Raindance International Film Festival in London. Julie sits on the Children’s Committee of the British Academy of Film and Television Arts: BAFTA-NY and is a member of the National Association of Latino Independent Producers, New York Women in Film and Television, and the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. She has presented at the Texas Library Association Annual Conference, NYC School Library System Spring Institute, Connecticut Library Association, the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, and the 21st Century Children’s Nonfiction Conference.
Last year, I wrote about how I don’t really like writing goals. Mostly, this is because they focus on the results and too often bypasses the importance of the journey. But this January, perhaps more than any other January, I find myself brimming with intentional and actionable ideas about where I want this year to take me, as both a writer and a person.
This post is a little late—scraping into the official goal-setting month by a bare week—since most of my January so far as been taken up with recovering from Christmas (literally) and launching my latest novel Wayfarer. But I’ve also been doing a lot of thinking and processing. I feel like last year was the close of a significant chapter in my life, culminating with a move to be nearer my sister and her growing family. As I look out on this brand-new chapter, I find there is so much I want to do.
Because my writing ultimately influences or is influenced by everything else in my life, it’s hard for me to separate writing goals from life goals. They all blur together. So today I thought I’d share my top nine goals/intentions for this year, with a specific focus on how they will impact my journey as a writer.
Although these goals are obviously very specific to me and my current chapter in life, I’m sharing them today because I think all of them are potential value-adders for any writer at any time. If nothing else, I hope you find them interesting!
My Top 9 Suggestions for Writing Goals This Year
1. Find the Balance Between Art and Business
More than any other question in my writing life, this remains the big one, always looming, never quite finding an answer.
As such, the business naturally likes to try to suck up my attention and energy. Gotta eat after all, right? For me, part of the problem is that I’m such a crazy all-or-nothing person. If I’m focusing on the business, it’s hard to keep that from being all I’m focusing on. And vice versa. When I’m writing, I don’t want to think about scheduling social media messages or reminding a partner company that I really need an invoice now.
Even after eleven years of juggling the art of writing fiction with the business of teaching writing, I find I don’t yet have what I would call an intentional solution to this challenge. But it remains my top goal.
There are parts of writing—and the writing business—that come naturally to me. There are other parts I’ve mastered through dedication and learning. And then… there are parts that make me feel like a five-year-old kicking and screaming and howling at the thought of getting her picture taken with the creepy clown.
It’s stuff that’s not easy, not intuitive, not interesting, and not fun. And I. don’t. wanna.
But on the business side, I’m wanting to be more intentional about how I approach the stuff I really don’t like—and am therefore much more likely to procrastinate on.
For example, I hate ads. I just… hate them. The whole researching keywords and A/B testing and analyzing which approach is actually working? Totally not my thing. Every part of my brain rebels. For eleven years, I’ve pretty much avoided having to deal with them. But as Amazon now shifts into a “pay-to-play” model where advertising seems to be becoming a necessity, I find myself reluctantly moving into this dreaded playground.
My advantage is that I know how my brain works. I know my weaknesses (studying, analyzing, and integrating technical information on the spot), and I know my strengths (holistically absorbing information and implementing organized plans of attack). This realization takes off a lot of the pressure, reframes the problem into a shape I can take a bite out of, and gives me a plan for moving forward.
Guess that means no more excuses for procrastination.
3. Trust Myself More
This is primarily a life goal, but it has obvious implications in both my writing and my business.
Something I realized this winter is that I constantly second-guess myself, in response to other people’s opinions, only to, more often than not, circle back around months (or even years) later and realize I wasn’t so wrong in the first place.
Part of this is just how my brain works—taking in massive chunks of information, slowly observing patterns as they emerge, and sorting and resorting conclusions into appropriate “boxes.” But part of it, I’m realizing, is just me undervaluing my own observations and understanding.
In many instances, the odds aren’t any greater that someone else is right (in their presentation of themselves, in their world view, in their knowledge of a specific subject) than you are. If you’re going to trust one person over the other, why shouldn’t you just trust yourself?
Granted, there’s a fine line here between confidence and hubris. But as long as that line is always being rigorously examined, with a continuous focus on refining the purity and honesty of emotional and logical judgments, I believe it’s important for each of us to learn to trust our gut instincts.
This is something I’ve long believed when it comes to writing: each writer must find the balance between the humility necessary to learn and the confidence to stand on their own artistic understanding and vision. It’s just as true in life.
4. Live (and Write) Greener
This year, I’ve made a commitment to trying to make more sustainable life choices. I’ve cut out pretty much all single-use products (such as napkins, tissues, straws, grocery bags). I’m trying to choose non-plastic alternatives for household items (my dish brush is wooden, pot scrapers and dish drainer are bamboo, refillable shampoo and conditioner bottles are stainless steel, etc.). I buy almost exclusively second-hand clothing (mostly through ThredUp and garage sales). And I’m trying to grow more of my food (via a kitchen garden from Aggressively Organic—we’ll see how that goes, since I have something of a black thumb).
Although a minimal-waste lifestyle sounds daunting at first glance, I can’t believe how much fun I’m having with it. Seriously. Not only is it way easier than I thought it would be (once you get the basics in place, it’s no less work and little to no less expense than “normal”), and not only does it contribute to a beautiful home (seriously—wood, glass, and stainless steel products create a much nicer aesthetic than do neon plastics), it’s also a delightful and genuinely enjoyable challenge to figure out new ways to live greener. My life is about 75% “green-hacked” at this point, and I’m honestly a little bummed there are no longer any major changes I can work on.
This actually hasn’t created too many changes in my writing life, since I was already pretty green there. I’m going to do a post (and maybe even a video) on the specifics sometime this year, including such things as printing manuscripts less, buying more e-books instead of print, switching to a fountain pen, switching to a stapleless stapler, switching to highlighter pencils, etc.
5. Make Time to Rest, Listen, Think
January is always a bit of a “funk” month for me. It’s hard for my productivity-oriented personality to be okay with this. But beyond just recognizing the inevitability of the hibernation pattern, I’m also trying to focus more on the importance of intentional downtime.
The other night, I was whining on the phone to my mom about how lazy I feel because, ever since Christmas, it seems like it’s taking me longer and longer to get going in the mornings. She immediately turned on the mom voice: “You’re thinking, and that’s incredibly important for a writer.”
She’s right. I never sit around doing nothing. But sometimes—more often than I realize, I think—I need to sit around and intensely process. This, too, is how my brain works. The more intentional I am at taking my gut instincts and observations and actively and logically talking myself through them, the more insightful and productive I ultimately am.
Fortuitously, the same night my mom got after me, I also read Madeleine L’Engle’s similar reminder in Walking on Water:
Sitting or, better, lying on one of my favourite sun-warmed rocks, I try to take time to let go, to listen, in much the same way that I listen when I am writing.
In our go-go world, it can be so easy to feel guilty for taking the time to mentally rest. But I grow more and more adamant in my belief that stepping back from busyness is important, not least for personal health, but also for artistic inspiration. The well must be filled before the bucket can be lowered.
6. Read More Consciously
I talked about this in my recent compilation of my favorite reads from last year: I don’t read like I used to. To some extent this was affected by other aspects of my life, but it’s also just part of the continuing evolution of my mindset from being focused on productivity to being more focused on being present and enjoying the journey.
This year, I find myself with a renewed excitement about reading, in no small part because I’ve changed up my reading “schedule” to prevent any one book from feeling formidable.
I’ve started reading the “harder” books just a little tiny bit at a time (I’m currently working through Emmy E. Werner’s painful WWII account Through the Eyes of Innocents).
Instead of being (ridiculously) rigid in what I read when, I’m giving myself the freedom to focus on whatever reading feels most urgent and interesting at any given time. Occasionally, I’ll find a novel I just can’t put down, but these days, my page-turners seem to be mostly non-fiction (my current goal is to try to read at least one book of history about every major country). But I still make sure to get my fiction fix with one chapter sometime during the day (usually right after lunch).
This undoubtedly sounds insane to most people, but the realization, last summer, that I didn’t have to read my TBR pile in order was incredibly liberating. Now I read what I want when I want. It works much better. (Don’t laugh.)
7. Find and Utilize the Best Times to Write
Another area of my life in which I’m trying to be more receptively spontaneously and less rigidly scheduled is in my actual writing. I want to optimize every part of my day, so I’m at my best for each task. Writing, of course, is always at the top of the to-do list.
There are periods in my life when writing first thing in the morning is the best thing. I wake up excited by the thought that I get to start my day with writing!
But other periods (usually in the winter), I do better when I get everything else out of the way first, then write in the waning twilight of the afternoon’s last few hours.
Again, for me, this is part of learning about being more aware of and receptive to myself. Instead of boxing myself into a schedule and demanding I keep it, I want to get better at listening to and understanding the ebbs and flows of my inner (and outer) life. This is nowhere more important than in my art.
8. Stretch My Comfort Zones in the Real World
If you were to ask me to name one thing I don’t feel I’m very good at, my immediate answer would be driving. Blame it on being the absent-minded-writer-in-her-ivory-tower stereotype, but all my insecurities come out when I have to drive in unfamiliar areas or circumstances. I’m actually not a bad driver; but I am a stressed-out driver.
One of my main goals this year is to give myself more driving experience. Since I’m living in a new town, there are lots of opportunities for driving in unfamiliar areas. I’ve made it a commitment to drive someplace new at least once a week.
So how does this tie into writing?
Not at all. Or not directly, at any rate. But writers must live, must have experiences, must push their comfort zones in order to better understand themselves and their lives. It’s all grist for the mill. This is something I grow more aware of with every year. I spent so much of my twenties in front of a computer screen; I want my thirties to be spent stockpiling experiences and skills other than those inherent to being a writer.
9. Approach the Page With Wonder
I feel I have come so far as a writer. I have learned so much. I know how to write a novel now. The process doesn’t scare me or frustrate me anymore. And that’s wonderful.
But as I begin writing what will be my twelfth novel (not all of them were published, naturally), I am hyper-aware that I don’t ever want the glory of this journey to become dusty and rote. I want every story I write to be an adventure, full of mystery.
I admit it: sometimes I have to remind myself to approach the page with wonder. And that is perhaps my most important goal this year. I want every minute I spend with my stories to be minutes that, underneath all the workmanship, are minutes founded in reverence and awe. At the end of the day, I am not a teacher of stories; the story is the teacher of me. And I want never to forget the magnificent humility of that.
I’m sure there are some more subconscious ideas and intentions also rattling around in my brain, but these nine goals are my top focus for this year (and, I’m sure, quite a few years to come). More specifically, my goals also include finishing the outline for the third book in the Dreamlander trilogy, finishing second-round edits on Dreambreaker (after my alpha readers report back), and probably starting work on a new writing-craft book. I’m also toying with the idea of returning to a weekly video series, probably in an informal Q&A format. I’d also like to see my fiction start migrating into audio editions, and my podcast get settled on a better platform that will make it more easily accessible to non-iTunes users.
In short, I have big plans for this year. Unlike some past years, I think most of these are doable—mostly because they’re focused primarily on intentional living rather than just on productivity. I hope this peek into my thoughts for the new year will give you some thoughts for your own writing goals. Let’s make this year our best year yet!
Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! What are your biggest writing goals for this year? Tell me in the comments!
“There’s simply no imaginable tomorrow — no modeled future scenario, no amount or shade of red — that could ever possibly nullify the need for unwavering care and thoughtful action today.”
“I love the cedar,” Walt Whitman exulted in his sublime Specimen Days, “its naked ruggedness, its just palpable odor, (so different from the perfumer’s best,) its silence, its equable acceptance of winter’s cold and summer’s heat, of rain or drouth — its shelter to me from those, at times — its associations — (well, I never could explain why I love anybody, or anything.)”
Whitman, who celebrated the wisdom of trees, might have been both gladdened and saddened to know that one particular species of cedar — Callitropsis nootkatensis, or yellow cedar, which his contemporary and admirer John Muir considered “a truly noble tree… undoubtedly the best the country affords” — holds deep and previously unfathomed wisdom on the greatest ecological challenge our civilization is facing, wisdom both devastating and strangely optimistic.
Both witness and survivor of epochs of change, the yellow-cedar tree has stood sentinel across the Pacific Northwest, revered by native mystics and exploited by industrialists for its lush golden wood, its growth-rings encoding a record of good and bad fortune dealt indiscriminately by the long hand of geological time. Kindred to the giant sequoia, it is not a true cedar but rather a cypress, also known as yellow cypress or Nootka cypress, after the Nootka Sound of Vancouver Island, where it first entered the annals of botany.
Oakes — one of those science writers who can rise, in her finest passages, to the rare category of enchanter — made the yellow cedar the focal point of her research not long after earning her doctorate. It would soon become her lens on the largest ecological problems — and their most auspicious solutions — of our time. She writes:
I came to Alaska looking for hope in a graveyard. Ice melting, seas rising, longer droughts — in a world seemingly on fire, I chose to put myself in some of the worst of it. The Alexander Archipelago in Southeast Alaska is a collection of thousands of islands in one of the scarce pockets remaining on this planet where thick moss blankets the forest floor and trees range from tiny seedlings to ancient giants. But I wasn’t loading into that Cessna four-seater to look for fairy-tale forests of spruce, hemlock, and cedar. I was flying in search of the forests I’d study — the graveyards of standing dead trees and the plants I so wanted to believe could tell me, through science, that maybe the world is not coming to an end.
Oakes describes her first embodied encounter with the specter of the yellow cedar as she hovers over the Alaskan coastline in a small jet plane, about to land and commence her research:
To the left, the verdant coastline broke off into inlets and side channels. To my right, I could see the steep hillsides covered in white skeletons of dead trees — standing on end like telephone poles, leafless ghosts of the towering cypress. Boulder-sized rocks on the beaches looked like little specks in relation to the large tracks of terrain with dying trees, the canopies of foliage in faded sepia tone.
I had been so focused on building a sound scientific study that wouldn’t get me or my crew killed that I hadn’t given much thought to what I would feel when I first saw the dead. From the bird’s-eye view, the giant trunks looked like thousands of toothpicks stuck in the earth. If trees were people, anyone would have called it a tragedy — an epidemic running rampant throughout the community in the largest remaining coastal temperate rainforest on Earth. I felt the tiny hairs on my forearms rise.
“We call it ‘Nature’; only reluctantly admitting ourselves to be ‘Nature’ too,” Denise Levertov wrote in her superb poem “Sojourns in the Parallel World” in recognition that such a response to witnessing the tragedy of another species is, of course, the only truly natural response — the response we cannot help but have the moment we unlearn our civilization-conditioned delusion that we are somehow separate from the rest of nature. Rachel Carson knew this in contemplating science and our spiritual bond with nature: “Our origins are of the earth. And so there is in us a deeply seated response to the natural universe, which is part of our humanity.”
It is from this deeply seated response that Oakes wrests her direction of research as a scientist and her direction of hope — that ultimate driver of transformation and survival — as a human being:
There was no driving on from the graveyards of standing dead, no going home, and no forgetting. I didn’t know it then, but those trees would change my life. In the moment, soaring above them, they made me feel vulnerable to our warming world in a way I had never felt before.
There’s a limit to the change we can tolerate, I thought. There’s a threshold and tipping point for every species — humans included.
What I didn’t know then was that these dead trees would eventually give me more than just hope. They’d give me a sense of conviction about our ability to cope with climate change. They’d motivate me to do my part. They’d move me from pessimism about the outlook of our world to optimism about all we still can do. As we made our way back down Slocum Arm, I stopped focusing on the dead trees and started looking around them. I could see green peeking up and around the barren trunks. I wondered if there was a new forest forming and what individuals could survive amidst the changes occurring. They were there. I could see them reaching toward the light through the broken canopies. I was committed to finding an answer — but for more than just the fate of the trees.
A century and a half after the great naturalist John Muir so memorably and poetically observed that “when we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe,” Oakes set out to investigate the interleaved fates of trees and people, of the local and the global. On foot and kayak, she traveled across Alaska’s coastal forests to speak with hunters, Native weavers, naturalists, climate change deniers, and foresters, fusing ecology and social science in an effort to understand why a species that had survived the tumult of eons was dying so rapidly, what could be done about it, and how both the problem and its improbable solution might illuminate a new path forward for us as an ecologically responsible species. It is a matter of both science and storytelling, reason and reflection — “Attention without feeling,” Mary Oliver wrote, “is only a report.” Our search for truth, after all, is inseparable from our hunger for meaning — a hunger we feel at the core of our being, inside the rings of our varied experiences. Oakes writes:
We create and re-create narratives throughout our lives to make sense of what happened, to process experience, to interpret and reinterpret our view of the world as life unfolds. I believe that beautiful and difficult process is what it is to be human.
Scientific facts rely upon assumptions; they are blocks built upon one another. But what I learned in the archipelago came from a mix of science and the act of doing that work; of striving for another layer of understanding in lived experience. Our own truths, felt in the heart and known in the mind, are transient as we create the storied landscapes of our lives, again and again and again. So this is me, at this point in time, finding my way into tomorrow in a world destined, as some argue, to become uninhabitable. It is a story of refusing my own fear of what a warming world will mean for me in my lifetime; a story of becoming an unexpected optimist against a backdrop of dying forests and in a profession where pessimism is often the common response.
The kind of optimism Oakes cultivates in the course of her yellow-cedar research, both ecological and sociological, is not a blind and passive hope but the kind Walt Whitman saw as our mightiest force of resistance — a sane and sane-making optimism best articulated by a naturalist named Greg Steveler, whom Oakes interviews along the way. He tells her:
A forest is a concept. A forest is an actuating algorithm that we are catching at a moment. But the beauty, to me, one of the principal beauties is to try to imagine the stream of matter and energy through this moment from where it’s coming from to where it’s going. So that’s the forest.
I don’t do hope.. One of the reasons I think geology has become important to me is that it helps me pass the pain I just mentioned to you. I’m getting better at visualizing deep time in both directions. It makes me realize that the present moment of human depredation is definitely going to be fleeting. Other things will change in ways that I can’t imagine. But there will be ancient things again in the world at some point, and there have been. So it gives my spirit respite to live in remote times, either future or past… Here’s the substance of it: In the modern world, I think it’s intellectually dishonest to be hopeful, but it’s equally stupid to be hopeless. You can’t live out of a hopeless life.
What occurred to me a few years ago was that I don’t have to get caught in that trap. The best thing for me to do is to develop my inner voice and to steer as close to that as I can and to act as if what I do matters. And allow the future to decide what comes of who I am… There was a fairly brief period in my life when I was pretty well philosophically prostrated by this because I couldn’t bring myself to play these little hope games and say, ‘Oh, see that little thing over there, notice now that the car is using a few gallons per hour less,’ or, ‘Look, someone just put a solar panel on their roof. And so things are getting better!’ Well, they’re not getting better. I didn’t want to play that game with myself, and yet I didn’t want to be trapped in the abysm of being depressed over it. I want to live a more joyful life than that.
Grace is what we decide to take with us and what we leave behind.
Half a century earlier, conservationist Mardie Murie had drawn on her enchantment with Alaska to help craft the language of the landmark 1964 Wilderness Act — possibly the most lyrical piece of legislature in human history: “A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man* and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” But in the course of her conversations with the various human stakeholders in the plight of the yellow cedar, Oakes is jolted into the realization that the wildness as such doesn’t exist and never existed — “instead of a physical reality, it’s a state of mind.” Or, rather, it is different states in different minds.
Two of the people she encounters — a Tlingit weaver named Kasyyahgei, who goes by the English name Ernestine, and her niece and apprentice, Cathy — would articulate this notion with staggering intensity. The forest, they felt, gave their people their identity. “Wilderness is a curse word,” Ernestine tells Oakes, then Cathy adds:
I would rather educate the people and see — have them learn the value of what they’re using, as opposed to set aside and make it all stop… Because once you’ve set that in motion, it becomes political football. Who wants to rape the land the most? We’re a minority here. We’re a small voice trying to say there’s true value in this land. This is one part of it that you’re checking, the cedar.
Echoing Rachel Carson’s courageous insistence that the designation and administration of nature “is not properly, and cannot be, a matter of politics,” Oakes reflects in a sentiment that highlights the complexities and inner contradictions of any ecosystem, including that of human society:
To sit there in Ernestine’s home by her loom and hear her call wilderness a curse word, to claim the designation itself is to blame for the imbalance we’ve created on our planet, that struck me.
Our separation from nature stems from our early efforts to protect it? And that separation is the cause of our problems today? There was an irony and unexpected twist — the once well-intentioned act of protecting wild places had broken the relationships needed to sustain the larger whole over a much longer time frame. It was the exact opposite of what Stegner and the National Park Service would have wanted. What I had once fought for, she was fighting against, but I didn’t feel defensive. I felt like I had something to learn.
Formally designating lands as “Wilderness” had severed the relationships she and her people had cultivated with the natural world. Ernestine said their relationship to the land and trees had always been one of balance and respect. Just as a curse word divides two people in conversation, setting aside nature tore it apart from humanity. For someone like Ernestine, drawing lines on a map and preserving places for people to connect with “nature” made no sense. This approach was only logical to people who had lost that connection and already severed relationships.
Teri Rofkar — another Tlingit Native, also a weaver — highlights this predicament with the insightful insistence that the term natural resource only furthers this artificial divide and the framing of nature as an exploitable commodity. Rather, replacing the term with the word relationship would begin the repairing of our bond with nature. (We know, after all, that relationship is the forest’s fabric of life.) “When we resource, we don’t make the ties of what was lost in order to gain something,” she tells Oakes, who echoes Carson’s insistence that “it is not half so important to know as to feel“ and writes:
There’s an objective world of the measurable — one where I can identify the species and count the saplings and run the statistics on a large dataset of forests affected by climate change. There’s an objective world where the patterns from interviews reveal that the people most connected to nature are also the ones most prepared to act and respond as it changes around them. Then there’s a whole realm of the immeasurable that’s deeply intertwined with the measurable. Where adapting requires collaboration and working across the boundaries that climate change ignores; where mitigating the damage requires both restraint and bold action. Where what I feel is just as important as what I know. It is what comes with intuition based on knowledge.
With an eye to the intricate interchange between relationship and responsibility, Oakes frames the central question animating her work:
At what point will adaptation become triage, caring for the people most affected? Like an epidemic, an extreme weather event can devastate whole communities of people, but when do we start investing in getting out in front of the next one? … Waiting for the top-down approach is an excuse for doing nothing from the bottom up. Adaptation requires me to stop thinking about climate change as someone else’s problem and accept it as my own. It requires me to stop thinking about the global risks and to start seeing what’s happening in my own community, and then to reach out to others. It requires me to consider the more vulnerable places and populations to ask, “What can I do to help?” These are the things this cypress, and all the people connected to it, have taught me. What happens at the local scale matters when it comes to climate change because that’s where people’s lives are carried out.
I can observe the changes occurring around me and embrace the struggle to accept them, to respond to them, to adapt to them. I can look ahead and live today holding space for tomorrow. I can fight for what we can still curtail. I can play a part, not live apart, and I can act with care for others when the floods hit, when the seas rise, when the snow melts, the rivers run dry, and the flames rage. Defeat may only be a failure to adapt.
If fear is the absence of breath, and faith is a positive force, I want to breathe into an uncertain future. If this tree species and all the people connected to it gave me one great gift, it is this: the realization that there’s simply no imaginable tomorrow — no modeled future scenario, no amount or shade of red—that could ever possibly nullify the need for unwavering care and thoughtful action today. To me, that is thriving. To me, in this rapidly changing world, that is grace. It is how I choose to live with what I know.
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Let’s speed-date Storystorm ideas and take the winners on a date (where you can have fun, put in the time and emotional energy, and see if you’re the perfect match)!
Each of my children gave me a notebook for Christmas (they know me so well!) and this, from my middle child, is now officially my Journal of Misfit Ideas (thanks to Mike Allegra on Day 5)…filling up with lots of Storystorm ideas…
I hope you’re having as much fun coming up with lots of unfiltered ideas as I am-–thanks to so many excellent posts. We’re nearing the end of Storystorm 2019 (can I hear a collective sigh?), so how do we make the most of our ideas? Well here’s something we tried last year with our local SCBWI group here in Birmingham, UK (on a budget hostel weekend retreat just after Storystorm finished). It went down really well and this year, we’re doing it again with a much bigger group. If you’d like to try it, you will need:
 Your thirty Storystorm ideas (fewer is fine, but if you have more, stop at thirty, or take literally just a couple of minutes before you start to filter it down to thirty).
 Lots of paper-–thirty sheets of A3 (that’s approximately double US letter-sized paper); I used a cheap recycled low grade A3 pad or you can use a roll of wallpaper or the light brown paper that comes free as packaging…
 A couple of sheets of A4 (letter-size) paper
 A pen (and could use other coloured pens to identify certain ideas if you’re interested in them—and want an excuse to use coloured pens…)
PART 1 (one hour): Speed-dating. Set a two-minute timer and press GO!
Brainstorm idea number one (on a big sheet)–quickly!- until the timer goes off. Start the two-minute timer again—and brainstorm idea number two… and work your way through all thirty in an hour. Be open and ready to be surprised by each of your thirty (idea) speed dates. Two minutes of consideration will often be enough to know whether there’s a spark, or something worth pursuing…
END OF PART 1: Take a break. Laugh with your friends. You might be buzzing or feeling emotionally drained.
PART 2 (one hour): (Not quite but fairly) snap decision time. Aim: to identify your top five and give each potential date some consideration before making your final choices…
Go through your ideas quickly and see which speak to you (or ‘spark joy’, anyone? So when you hold that piece of paper up to your chest it makes you go ‘eeeeeee!’)
Marie Kondo on sparking joy with clothes. Try it with your Storystorm ideas…
Choose five of those and spend about eight minutes on each one writing a short summary or pitch for it.
PART 3: Final hour—if you’re with a group (it’ll take less time with fewer people): Pitch a maximum of five ideas you like in no more than thirty seconds per idea. Have each of your fellow critique partners vote for the two they find most compelling. You may choose to ignore their thoughts but it was really interesting to hear the consensus (or lack of) on people’s preferred ones.
FINISH. With OPTIONAL PART 4: This year, at the end of the session, we will each decide on one to write up as a first draft manuscript for our March critique session, so that we don’t lose momentum (and those who aren’t able to write a draft by then will write a twelve-spread structure).
But what if you’re not in a critique group? I’d heartily advise joining one but you can do it easily on your own (without the vote), or if you have even one fellow Storystormer who you’re in contact with, you could do this whole process over Skype. I have an amazing fellow-Storystormer accountability partner and we Skype once a week and have committed to sending each other a picture book manuscript on the last day of each month for the whole of 2019 (and we hope, beyond) –it’s a great –if slightly terrifying- way of being proactive with your Storystorm ideas (and the many other ideas you will come up with over the course of the year if you continue to use your Storystorm techniques throughout the year. Remember, Storystorm’s for life, not just for January!
Of course, like some relationships, it might be that certain ideas are growers and need time to ferment. Great –just don’t throw your ideas out and you can see if any are slow burners by coming back to your discarded ideas in the future (or see if any of them make their own way back to you…). But treating your ideas professionally and respectfully –and efficiently, by the end of an afternoon or morning, you can have decided on which ones you’re most interested in taking out on a real date and spending some real time and emotional energy getting to know.
As a final note, I’ve never actually done speed-dating with people so apologies if the metaphor is a little off. Perhaps I should try it in the interests of blogging accuracy… I’m sure it would give me some more story ideas, though not, perhaps, for picture books…
Juliet Clare Bell (always called Clare, just to confuse people) is the author of five picture books with more on the way (including a very exciting narrative non-fiction project which she hopes she can talk about soon). She also teaches writing picture books to adults, does professional critiques, writes for the joint blog Picture Book Den, runs creative writing sessions with children and does numerous author visits. She’s been heavily involved with SCBWI British Isles for fourteen years. Visit her at julietclarebell.com and www.picturebookden.blogspot.co.uk.
Clare is giving away a professional picture book critique which includes an optional one-hour skype session to discuss the feedback.
Simply leave ONE COMMENT below to enter.
You’re eligible to win if you’re a registered Storystorm participant and you have commented once below. Prizes will be given away at the conclusion of the event.