[This post originally appeared as part of Tara Lazar’s awesome PiBoIdMo event in 2011. This annual idea generation month is now called StoryStorm. It’s fantastic.]
Seeds Versus Pebbles:
Evaluating Your Story Ideas
This activity generates such a feeling of abundance. Ideas everywhere! Some of these ideas have great promise, and some of them…don’t.
I characterize ideas as pebbles or seeds. Pebbles are hard and immutable. They might be shiny, or pretty, or just dusty. But whatever they are, they’re rocks. They aren’t going to grow into something different.
But seeds…oh, seeds! Some look like pebbles. They seem hard and small and nondescript at first. But if you nurture them with questions, and time, and creativity, the seed ideas can grow into more—like a picture book.
So, how do I sort them out? I ask questions. I play around with answers. I try to be honest, even when I don’t want to. Here are some of the things I ask:
One premise from my PiBoIdMo list this year is: “I Won’t Come Down: Rhyming pb from pov of a kitten stuck in a tree. With a refrain? Who tries to get me down? Kid climbs up, but I climb higher. Fire truck? Where’s the fire? Need a personality for the kitten. Is she witty and clever? Scared to death? Sassy?”
1) Who is my main character?
Does my idea or premise suggest a particular character? Does she fit the situation perfectly? Or totally clash with it? In this case, as I re-read the idea, I know my main character kitten HAS to be a witty, clever girl. She appears to be stuck in the tree, but she’s really perfectly happy up there.
2) What is the conflict?
Easy-peasy. Everybody assumes she wants to get down, but she doesn’t. Sometimes the conflict isn’t obvious. Another of my ideas is about a pet cloud. Just an idea—but I don’t have a clue what the conflict would be (yet).
3) Does it make me ask more questions?
A good idea expands. It makes me want to explore possibilities. My treed kitten does that for me.
4) Has it been done a million times?
Uniqueness is key in publishing picture books. I’ve had manuscripts turned down recently that editors said they loved but that were “too similar” to books already published—even though the similarity is broad at most. In this tight market, publishers don’t want two “pet books” or whatever. I start on Amazon. I find 27 picture books including the words “kitten” and “tree” published over the past 25 years. Dang. That doesn’t mean any of them have the same premise, but I’ll need to do further research.
5) Can I see the book in my mind?
Picture books, of course, need pictures. Does my idea make me immediately visualize tons of images?
6) Is it a seed that will grow a short story instead of a picture book?
It can take years of reading to absorb the intrinsic difference between the two forms. Illo potential is part of it, but there’s more. If your idea depends on a twist/joke ending, it’s likely to be a short story. (The ending of a picture book should be surprising and satisfying, but not a joke/punchline.) If you can picture one great illo for it, but not 14, it’s a short story. If it involves complex plot points and many details, it’s a short story.
7) Does it stand up to repetition?
Will kids want to listen to this over and over? Will adults be happy to read it over and over? That’s a picture book.
As I play around with these questions, a seed idea will grow into the bare bones outline of a picture book. It will feel simple and essential enough to get a draft down in a single swoop. The manuscripts I’ve tweaked and tortured to death have just not cut it as picture books.
I’m not saying I don’t spend a ton of time revising! I do. I change points of view, try different main characters, etc. But if the essence of the conflict and character don’t fall into place quickly, I’ve come to accept that it’s probably just not a fantastic picture book idea for me to pursue.
So, read through your list of ideas. Play with them. Ask questions. Brainstorm conflicts and storylines.
Then, mark the ones that are ready to plant. They won’t all grow. But at least some of them are seeds, ready to bloom in the soil of your creativity, under the sunshine of your words.
As for the pebbles, don’t sweat it! They’ll make a nice little border around your garden of picture books!