Ten writers for children. All with something to say.


Connections: Getting from point B to A

Creativity is about making connections. I read that in the brains of creators, synapses fire with much greater frequency. Close your eyes and think of a time-lapse camera displaying a connect-the-dot drawing done in the blink of an eye. Now multiply this vision, and imagine dots rapidly connecting on hundreds and thousands of DIFFERENT drawings—all done simultaneously. That is my brain, and the stimulus can be overwhelming. I am the annoying person who is always reminded of something else. Possibilities are everywhere: in my daughter’s classroom project, in an offhand quip from my husband, in double entendres, in rhythm and wordplay, in a radio interview, in a newspaper article, in absurd spellings, in junk and ephemera, in children’s toys, in an incident observed in the park, in lines and shapes and textures and colors—all are waiting to be transformed into picture books (by me, of course). Ecclesiastes 12:12 “…the making of many books hath no end…”

I’m convinced that with practice, anyone can become more fluid and flexible in generating ideas. A friend and stand-up comedian recommended a book that has great exercises for artists and writers looking to make connections. It’s called, Cartoonist’s and Gag Writer’s Handbook by Jack Marlow.

I read an interesting post on “The Waves of Creativity. Check out http://playgroundblues.com/posts/2007/may/17/waves-creativity/”. Brain synapses vibrate at different frequencies, leading to different “states of mind.” Beta is associated with being tense, alert, or afraid. Alpha is a state of relaxation without loss of awareness. Theta is a daydream state and Delta is a state of unconsciousness (sleep). Too often I am tightly wound, and in a Beta mode. While others are navigating from point A to B, I am desperately trying to go from Beta to Alpha. I juggle a variety of jobs. Some work doesn’t require me to delve as deeply. Design work demands less concentration than illustration, and at this point, because it’s still so new, writing requires me to plunge to even further depths. For this reason it’s the easiest to let slide.

My writing ideas wait patiently though. When I finally claim time to explore the connections I have made, I often start by brainstorming. I make lists of anything that seems connected to my initial idea and then begin research, following various threads to see where they lead. All tangents are interesting and I try to keep open, to see what emerges. I read, highlight, and take notes. Eventually something begins to stand out and capture my attention. I am finding and building my story or concept. The process can take a long time.

Since the 32-page picture book format is deeply imprinted in my brain, I pace my ideas in a layout from the start. Often a story presents itself to me in pictures before words. Another book I highly recommend is Writing With Pictures by Uri Shulevitz. At some point I dare to put words down on the page. It’s easier to improve imperfect jottings than to wait for perfection before beginning. I pull out a thesaurus or rhyming dictionary to find alternate words, and then shuffle my writing around in a little dance--cut and add, cut and add. It’s all a tug-of-war/wrestling match experience. Many of my ideas are for concept books that need a sketch dummy to accompany the text. I am telling in two ways: word and image.

When a story takes some kind of form, it’s a good time to test the idea out with a critique group. Other writers and illustrators can help unlock sticking points, help clarify an idea, send it in a new direction, or bring added elements that take the work to a new level.

I am now aware that the acquisition of a project does not mark a completion point, but a rebirth point. Enormous development occurs between signing the contract and publication. It may be easy to articulate how an idea began, but identifying all the layering and altering components is much trickier. Many sources and people help to take my electrochemical brain connection on it’s path to become a book.


On Emotion as Inspiration

I have tucked away countless scribbled lists and files of ideas for stories. Many of the ideas may fade on those lists, but a few will inch onto the page and eventually into a novel. The key to what will spur me as a writer is in what first grabs me as a reader when I open a new book. And the answer to that is emotion. Something on the opening pages of a book (whether it be in the illustrations or the words) must pull me into the setting or force me to care about the main character.

Finding the emotional core of my own stories is sometimes like digging a splinter out of my finger. Usually there's a bigger hunk I can pull out first, but it breaks off just below the surface. Then it gets a little painful when I have to dig in deeper to get the rest. Just when I think I have it all, a niggling sensation tells me there's still a sliver of substance to be retrieved. Lighter emotions may float on the surface, but digging to the true core calls for layering--breaking through a barrier and crawling beneath the outer skin to yet another story. That is the process I went through in writing ROAD TO TATER HILL, involving many drafts and revisions until I found what I was truly vested in. It also required crawling into the lives and minds of more than just my protagonist in order to understand the actions, reactions, and responses of all my characters. I can't remember the name of the author who first said this, but I truly believe his words: "Until you have emotion [grief, anger, fear, guilt, humor, love, joy, satisfaction...] in your story, you are not writing with substance."

Setting, too, encompasses emotion and draws me to a scene. The photo above of me standing on the summit of Tater Hill (North Carolina) during my college years pulls me back to that particular place in time. Many years later (I won't say how many) I still feel the joy of standing on top of the world, the wind in my hair, and my life spread before me.


Where Do Ideas Come From?

  • I never run out of ideas because they are everywhere. Where?

    * In childhood
    + I have many stories about my sister and how she treated little ME!
    + I began my novel In the Shade of the Nispero Tree on a day when I missed my second-grade friend, Hilcia. Later the characters acted differently than Hilcia and I did, so I changed their names and the memoir turned into a novel.

    * In oral traditions
    + Juan Bobo:Four Folktales from Puerto Rico are stories I heard when I was growing up.
    + Shake It, Morena! is a collection of stories, songs, riddles, and games from my childhood.

    * In heroes
    + I have four published biographies: Poet and Politician of Puerto Rico: Don Luis Munoz Marin , Cesar: Si, se puede! Yes, We Can! , Frida: Viva la vida! Long Live Life! , and Diego: Bigger than Life.
    + My father is also a hero, and I want to write about him.

    * In the grave
    + Cemeteries are good places to find ideas. In Canada I found a grave covered with marbles. Why? I have an answer cooking in my head.

    * In the "What if?"
    + Since I was shorter than I am now I've stared at people. I didn't know it then, but I was becoming a writer. I stared because I wanted to be in their heads. I wanted to know what they were thinking. I couldn't do that. So I made it up. "What if he's thinking how delicious that chocolate ice cream he's licking is, and what if at the bottom of the sugar cone a cockroach is waiting to jump out?" I'm lactose intolerant, you see?

    I wish I could have more time to write, because there are as many stories as there are numbers.


Inspired writing

I love to enter contests. Ever since I won a transistor radio in a McDonald's coloring contest when I was in first grade, I've been hooked. My prizes have ranged from a trip to Paris in a national scavenger hunt to $40,000 for describing in twenty-five words why I like Healthy Choice foods. The picture above is when I won a 7-minute grocery shopping spree in junior high for creating a winning contest jingle for Shasta soda pop.

Not surprisingly, several of my books (including the first book I ever had published) began as contest entries. But why do I find contests so intriguing? Why do they fuel my inspiration so strongly? Here are a few reasons:

* Contests have a set deadline. This is great motivation for someone like me who will work on an idea forever, waiting to get it perfected.

* Contests have rules, which help give me focus.

* Contests have rules, which I love to stretch (the rules say I can use only twenty-five words, but they don't say I can't also include pictures with my entry).

* Contests are competitive. I like the challenge of trying to come up with an idea or approach that will stand out from the thousands of other entries.

* Contests are an excellent venue for taking creative risks. If I try something totally off-the-wall and I don't win, I haven't lost anything.

* Contests offer great prizes ($40,ooo is nothing to sneeze at, but I've also gotten excited over winning a t-shirt or a deck of playing cards).

For me, writing books is a lot like entering a contest. I love the challenge of coming up with an idea that will be different than anything my editor has seen before. I love stretching the boundaries of what can be done in a picture book format. And of course I love the possibility of winning the "grand prize" of a publishing contract.

The joy I feel when working on an exciting picture book idea is the same joy I've felt when working on a strong contest entry.

Now all I need is for my editor to give me a specific deadline and my inspiration will kick into high gear.


On inspiration...

My first book, Elizabeti's Doll, is about a Tanzanian girl who has a rock for a doll. While my Peace Corps experiences were paramount to the inspiration for that story, I've been thinking lately about inspiration we don't consider. The photo above is me in 1970, at age 5, with my dolls. I loved dolls. My favorite was my Drowsy doll, and then I had a Buffy doll from Family Affair, complete with a tiny Mrs. Beasley. As I got a little older, I became obsessed with Barbies. I even had one of those Tuesday Taylor Barbies where she was blonde on one side, then you twirled her scalp and she was a brunette. Hmmmm.

I have two daughters, and when they were little, they loved dolls, too. My best friend from childhood happens to be a designer for American Girl, so she got me some good discounts at Christmas and birthdays.

So sometimes I get asked about my Elizabeti books. Like, don't I feel invasive, writing about a little girl from a different country? Don't I feel like I'm stealing someone's story?

And then I think about me. I was once a little girl who loved dolls. I think about my daughters, who, more recently, were little girls that loved dolls. And it seems natural for me to write about a little girl who loves dolls... After all, that's my story.