A few years ago I started following Tara Lazar on Twitter. Not only does she have a great blog that is full of resources and is helpful to writers, but she’s also a great author herself. Then I discovered Tara Lazar’s Storystorm (formerly PiBoIdMo). I used to try and fail at NaNoWriMo, but writing 31 different ideas for a month sounded like a goal I could reach and it would be fun.
I had just sold my second picture book THE MEMORY BOX: A BOOK ABOUT GRIEF in November of 2016 and I needed some time to figure out what to write about next.
Luckily, as a teacher I have the beginning of January off so I can really focus on Storystorm at kickoff. In January 2017, I was up at the family cabin when a snow storm came in. So there on my second day of Storystorm I just wrote the word storm. There is so much I love about storms. The only problem was I didn’t have an idea of how to tackle the story. What was my story?
What I’ve learned about my writing process is that sometimes I get a topic before the story. With my first book ALWAYS MOM; FOREVER DAD (Tilbury, 2014), I knew I wanted to write a positive picture book on divorce. I knew I wanted the topic of divorce before I knew what my story was. I was reading WHEN I WAS LITTLE: A Four–Year-Old’s Memoir of Her Youth by Jamie Lee Curtis to my Kindergarten class. Her book went back and forth with memories of when she was little to her now big age of FOUR. Something struck me in that moment of reading and I thought, What if I write a book about a child that goes back and forth between time with mom and time with dad? I wrote ALWAYS MOM; FOREVER DAD based on that structure and it allowed me to write about divorce and separation and the child’s relationship with each parent in a positive light.
A month before ALWAYS MOM; FOREVER DAD was to be released, a relative that was intended to receive my picture book on divorce and was one the inspirations behind it, tragically lost her father. So then I knew I needed to write a book on grief. I didn’t know what my story was, but I knew it needed to be written. About a month after trying to write about grief, our synchronized swimming team got devastating news that one of our beloved swimmers and coaches was diagnosed with cancer. Within six months, our sweet Marisa, who I used to coach and who swam with my niece and daughters, passed away. It was so heartbreaking.
I had to get this story right. I think going through grief and taking my youngest to her first funeral at age six, helped me find a way to talk about death with my youngest and find the heart of the story. It still took me over two years to get the story right, but again the topic of grief came before the story.
THE MEMORY BOX: A BOOK ABOUT GRIEF won a gold from The Mom’s Choice Award, St. Jude Hospital read it on their Day of Remembrance to families that attended around the world, and it recently sold Dutch and Simplified Foreign Rights. It’s been such a blessing to see and hear how hospitals and counselors are using it. I think my editor Andrew DeYoung was also touched to see how this book has been helping people. He emailed me on his paternity leave to pitch an idea for a companion. Coming Spring of 2020, THE MEMORY BOOK: A GRIEF JOURNAL FOR FAMILIES will be out. Families will be able to write, add pictures, and draw in their own keepsake journal of their loved one. This can be something they add inside their own memory box.
After the years writing THE MEMORY BOX, I now know when a topic lingers, I’m meant to hold on to it. I kept thinking about storms and what I could do, but nothing really inspired me. Then as I was listening to the radio, Imagine Dragons’ song “Thunder” came on and it really made me feel something. So I kept driving around and thinking. I find thinking/writing about difficult topics usually will bring out my best writing or story ideas. I was actually thinking about a childhood friend that died by suicide and how I wished he had stayed. And then the word STAY hit me and I knew I had found my storm story.
I wanted to show friendship through a storm. So my little word storm that I wrote on the second day of Storystorm back on January 2, 2017 took over 9 months to find its true story, but it finally sold to editor Andrew DeYoung of Beaming Books. He took such great care of my second book THE MEMORY BOX that I was beyond thrilled to work with him again.
STAY THROUGH THE STORM is about friendship during a storm. Many kids have fears of actual storms, so kids will be able to relate that fear and it shows ways of being a friend during a real storm. But it is also a metaphor that I think adults will be able to find their own meaning to. One thing I’m very passionate about is mental health and writing books that may help people through difficult times. This story is about being there for one another during the dark and scary times and knowing the storm will pass. You’re not alone.
So my advice is to listen. What topics won’t let go of you? It may take a month, a year, or more, but search for the story that comes from your heart.
Thank you Tara for all that you do to inspire writers and for creating challenges like this where you encourage writers to stop and take the time just to jot down ideas for a month and see where it takes you.
And thank you, Joanna, for sharing your Storystorm success story!
And please join the next Storystorm—a free brainstorming event open to all writers—in January 2020!