As I am busily designing pages for Soda’s Valentine (and you can learn about that process here) I reflect upon the most difficult question posed to me by both children and adults–“What should I write about?”. I have 4 kids myself, and they are often-times stumped by what to write about. Factual reports and papers are actually pretty easy, because they are assignments, and usually, the topic is assigned as well, so that takes away all the work of coming up with a subject. But for writing a children’s book, or an adult’s book, or a poem, or even a blog, figuring out what to write about is sometimes the hardest part. Ultimately, this question is best rephrased as “How can I come up with ideas?”
For me, it is usually about what I see in the world. Visual things flip the switch in my brain, and make me generate ideas. I am a visual-spatial learner, and I need visual input to activate the writing parts of my brain. Which, in many ways is a bit contradictory. Speech is a left-brained activity, and image processing is a right-brained activity. So, creative writing is an interesting mix of right and left-brained activities that don’t always mesh well. I am a compulsive doodler, for instance, and when I went to school, back in the dark ages, I doodled through every lecture, at least on the corner of my page. My children tell me now, that this is often frowned upon severely. But for me, when I doodle, it makes my brain much more able to handle the verbal concepts that are being presented to me. So, that’s what I did, and I did pretty well in school. It makes me wonder if we should be teaching a doodling class in school, for children who are visual learners instead of auditory learners–kids who learn by visualizing instead of by listening. Anyway…
Some people process information–and come up with ideas for their writing in other ways. Listening to music will spur some folks to come up with ideas, and other people need to take a walk or a run, do yoga, have a shower–these are all reflective of the way your brain learns and processes information. Everyone’s brain is different. Use what works for you.
Today, I’m talking about what works for me. However, the list at the end of the blog is good for anyone, regardless of HOW they get their brain to turn on.
Sometimes I have a very striking, visual dream. Now, usually, the dream doesn’t TELL me a story (although that HAS happened, and I scribbled down the high points in my notebook for later use) but rather, there is an IMAGE in the dream that really gets me going. For Sylvia McBye Learns To Fly, I had a dream about….you guessed it….flying. And when I woke up, I knew I wanted to write about a little girl who wanted to fly. Then, we went for a drive on a windy day in April. You know the kind of day–you can smell the springtime in the air, and the wind rolls across the treetops, bouncing all the new, baby-green leaves. My brain lept to flying kites, a memory I carried from my childhood. I put those concepts together—the dream of flying, and the memory of kite-flying, and the story began to percolate. I needed a name for my character, and I briefly thought of naming it after my daughter Sailor, who was kind of the inspiration for the character, but, I rejected that. I just don’t like to borrow THAT freely from my real life. So, my brain offered up the name Sylvia, and coincidentally, I have a photography client named Sylvia, who, coincidentally again, I photographed in my Studio wearing wings as a very small infant. The pieces began to fall together. During this ride in the car, I wrote about 80% of the book in my brain–I made some notes on paper, but no real sense of anything. Then, we got home, I sat down, and two hours later I had the completed story written–it almost wrote itself. It took me an additional 6 weeks to do the 24 illustrations inside.
Bug Summer is a bit different. For those of you unfamiliar, my Bug Summer series of books is all about the insects my main character Zack, and his dog, Flash, encounter during their wanderings in Inclement, Iowa. The books are heavily illustrated with art and macro-photography of insects–extreme close-up work, for those of you unfamiliar with the “macro” prefix.
I actually started photographing bugs roughly 6 years before I had a story written to go along with the photos. I didn’t know WHAT the story would be, but I knew there would be a story. So, I collected images. And I drew sketches of who I thought the main character could be. But I didn’t really DO anything with all this stuff for many years–I just kept the ideas, the images, and the concepts.
So, what does all this mean? Does it mean anything? Personally, I believe that it tells us that creative writing is a process of following breadcrumbs through a forest, just like Hansel and Gretel. And what is important here—following the trail even though it doesn’t seem to lead anywhere. I pick up the breadcrumbs that are there before me, and store them in my pocket (brain, or, preferably, I write them down in a notebook) and I don’t worry about how they all connect. But those breadcrumbs that seem to lead in random directions, they accumulate. And eventually, some of them make sense, some of them form stories, and, if I’m lucky, they form books! So, maybe more than a writer and an artist, I am a collector of breadcrumbs (ideas). And I note them down–random stuff that appeals to me for whatever reason. I do illustrations that way too. In the same notebook, I have scritches and scratches of drawings (doodles!) that many times turn into pieces of real illustrations for books.
I also pick ideas that I know something about, that I really like, or that I want to learn about. I think most people do this naturally, but it is important to mention that you won’t be successful writing about a subject you just don’t care about. I like childhood, art, science fiction, photography, insects, things that are a little bit mysterious, friendships, the environment, music, nature, magical things, wonder, Halloween, animals….the list really goes on and on.
Sometimes I am really brainstorming without knowing it, and a whole bunch of ideas will come to me at once. This often happens early in the morning, when the sun is just peeping over the horizon and everyone else is asleep. Writing things down is crucial–if you don’t get it down, it gets away.
Read a lot. I read every day. I read things I love. I don’t read as many children’s books as I used to, because my kids all read themselves, but I do try to sample what’s out there. It really doesn’t matter though. Find an author or two or five that you love, that makes you want to be like them, and read their stuff. Ideas will flow from what they have written, and HOW they have written it.
So, how do you figure out what to write about?
1. Keep a notebook of ideas and sketches and words that you like. Add to it daily.
2. Be a lifelong collector. Your notebooks should be a storage place for all the weird stuff that strikes you as interesting or funny or scary or inspirational. It may take YEARS for a unifying idea to help you make sense of all the “junk” you have stored away in your notebooks. Don’t throw them away, don’t think they are stupid, and don’t feel you have to share them. Your notebooks are for mental hoarding…keep them well.
3. Write it down. Write down ANYTHING. If you don’t get it down, it gets away.
4. Make a habit of putting something down every day, maybe at the same time. Pretty soon, your brain will associate that time with creative idea-building time, and it will get easier.
5. Write about things you know about, things you love, things you want to learn more about. Keep a running list of what those things are, so you know when you are on track.
6. Read every day, things that you love. Reading and writing are inseparable.
7. Do things that activate your brain. I doodle. I scribble. Some people run, or move, or dance or listen to music. Do whatever works for you. Then record your ideas somehow!
8. When you feel inspired, when the lightbulb goes off in your head, write. Write your story, your poem, your paper. If you are in the middle of something else, at least make NOTES for you to write from later. This is very important! Do it when the moment strikes!
9. This is also important—there will be ideas you have that you will never use. Just like there are trails of breadcrumbs that you follow and they never take you anywhere. This is okay. Just keep moving forward with ideas, keep picking up the breadcrumbs. Something will come together.
So, I am back to page design for today. Hopefully, I will have a bunch more pages to share over the course of this week, as well as other projects I am working on! For now, start generating ideas!
Tracy Lovett is an artist, author, illustrator, photographer, wife, mom, and all around creative gal trying to spread the message that creativity is one of our most important qualities. She uses her books, photographs, and writings to encourage others to just take the chance and be creative. This BLOG is about her creative journey into all her creative endeavors, including writing for children and adults, art and illustration, photography and photo-illustration, and book-building from beginning to end. There may be other “sidetrips” that can’t be predicted–so hop in and enjoy the ride! You may learn more about Tracy here. You may follow her on Facebook here.