The other day, I was reading one of my current favourite books to my little group of Year 1 students. The book in question is ‘The Red Book’ by Beck and Matt Stanton. I love this book. It’s hilarious and it always had the kids in stitches. It’s based on such a simple but brilliant concept. When I read it, I always feel pangs of envy and always ask myself the same question, ‘Why couldn’t I have thought of this?’ It’s always the same when I’m reading one of my other favourite books, ‘The Day the Crayon’s Quit’ by Drew Daywalt. I mean who would ever have thought that writing a story about a box of grumpy crayons would turn into such a hit? Every time I open that book, I end up wondering why I don’t seem to be able to come up a similarly great idea for a story.
And that’s the thing, being a successful writer entails many elements, but obviously the first one, is the ability to come up with unique and clever ideas that will instantly appeal to children, and to publishers, of course! I’m sure for many of us emerging writers this can be the hardest part.
I guess we all have different sources of inspiration and ways of thinking up ideas to write about. I’m still practising. I’ve tried browsing the shelves of bookshops and deciding, ‘Right, I’m going to write a book like this one about crayons, only mine’s going to be about some other disillusioned household object’. That’s just not going to work! Any publisher worth their salt would see right through this strategy. ‘Hmmm, we have another crayon quitting wannabe.’ The offending manuscript would go straight in the virtual trash, I’m sure.
So, as much as I would like to emulate the creative ideas of those successful, published writers out there, I don’t think it is ever going to work for me. It becomes too forced and too artificial. There’s nothing of me behind the idea. Don’t’ get me wrong, I think it’s great to see how other writers craft their ideas into prose or rhyme, and of course, we can learn a huge amount from looking at the language they use, or even how they use the minimum of language in the case of picture books. But ideas need to come from where you are at, not from where that particular successful writer is.
I think the essence of a good idea is to write about what is real to you. An idea isn’t going to work well unless it honestly resonates with you in some way. Then you can breathe real life into it and put yourself in the protagonist’s shoes. This is so important. When learning to write picture books, we are encouraged to write from a close-focus point of view. When I think about the stories I’ve written so far, they have all been born out of real-life events – things that have happened, things that I have seen or things that I have heard. Each time, there’s always been that ‘Ah-ha’ moment and I know I’m going to have to race home and start writing, (or in some cases, not bother about getting home first!).
Let me give you some examples. I have three stories in the ‘Creative Kid’s Tales Story Collection’. Two of them are based directly on things I have experienced. My short story is entitled, ‘Biscuit’s Escape’. It’s about a soft toy dog who gets tired of the trials of a camping trip. He manages to escape from his family, only to end up in a far greater pickle, until, once again, the determined pup escapes back to his family. The story is based on a cute little bean-filled pup my son had when he was little. He loved that pup so very much and always took him with us on trips and holidays. On one occasion we were packing up at the end of a camping trip in a sudden, heavy downpour of rain. In all the flurry of activity, Biscuit somehow got left behind. When we got home, we looked everywhere but Biscuit had vanished. We never did work out how. My son was inconsolable and used to cry for him every night at bedtime. He worried about Biscuit being lost and cold at night at the campground. To try and placate him, I assured my son that Biscuit would be back; he was just having a little holiday of his own. I started making up stories about all the adventures Biscuit was having on his holiday. This seemed to help … at least a bit. But anyway, some years later, these stories evolved into the tale that I tell in ‘Biscuit’s Escape’. I already knew the type of personality Biscuit had from conversations with my son – he was feisty and just a little naughty, and he had a huge sense of adventure.
‘Super Max’ is also included in the CKT anthology. It’s about a little boy with a new super-hero outfit who becomes increasingly frustrated when all the grown-ups fail to see him as a super-hero; that is, until he is faced with a real-life crisis. The inspiration for this story came from visit to Springbrook National Park with my sister. We passed a little boy running ahead of his parents. He had blond, curly locks and was proudly wearing a Batman dress-up. As I passed him, I greeted him with, ‘Hello darling.’ His very serious and somewhat indignant reply was, ‘I’m not darling; I’m Batman.’ My sister and I cracked up and we both looked at each other and said, ‘There’s a story in that!’. So I sat down and started writing. As I wrote, I could really resonate with the little boy’s indignance at not being recognised as the super-hero he was, in his imagination. I played with this idea by including a cast of adults in the story who all make the same error as I did; thus, making poor little ‘Super Max’ very mad indeed.
I have just finished tweaking another picture book manuscript called ‘Old Dog’. It’s about a lonely, scruffy old dog who wanders into a country town looking for a new home. No one wants him to stay until he saves a local café from disaster. The inspiration for this tale came when I was driving home from a busy day at school. I was stuck in a very long traffic queue that was barely creeping forward. As I glanced out the window, I saw an old, lone dog trotting down the footpath. He looked rather unloved, and my heart went out to him. Oh, old dog, where do you belong?’, I murmured, and I was immediately inspired to start jotting down the first draft of my picture book in my school diary as I crept along in the car! It certainly made that traffic jam easier to deal with! In my story, Old Dog has charm and a ‘never-give-up’ attitude as he tries his best to befriend the locals. I could visualise his rejection as he plods up the main street in the heat of the day, desperate for a place to eat and rest. Now two years later, I have just sent the manuscript to a publisher … so fingers crossed that ‘Old Dog’ finally finds a home … on the bookshelves of your local bookshop.
Meanwhile, I hope all your ‘Old Dog’ or ‘Batman’ moments find their own homes in the texts of some brilliantly-inspired stories. Happy writing.
Jo Saunders – CKT Author