It’s that time of year again: for some, it’s an opportunity to grow interesting facial hair
for several hundred of us, it’s the annual British Isles SCBWI Conference, with Malorie Blackman and Catherine Rayner for starters...
and for many hundred of us picture book writers throughout the world, it’s
PiBoIdMo 13! Yay!
November has turned into a month I get childishly excited about. And Tara Lazar’s PiBoIdMo (where you have to come up with 30 ideas for picture books in 30 days) has a whole lot to do with it. Since it’s all about inspiration and good habits for being creative, I’m going to talk about inspiration here. And where better to start than with my favourite illustrator (author and illustrator of my favourite adult book –Words and Pictures, and illustrator of one of my very favourite picture books, How Tom Beat Captain Najork and His Hired Sportsmen), whom I met/saw for the first time last night (a long held ambition of mine)? It's the one and only...
The lecture was brilliant. He talked about the illustrations he’s been doing ‘beyond the page’ in the last ten years or so, on buildings, art gallery and many different hospital walls and on buses for education projects (his book Beyond the Page, is beautiful and is always on my desk for inspiration...).
So how does this fit with PiBoIdMo?
Well this year, I want to try specific ways of coming up with my picture book ideas as well as just writing down ideas that come to me in the course of a day.
So where do you go looking for ideas?
Not surprisingly, I’ve been thinking about pictures today. In bed this morning, one of my children, apropo of nothing, started talking about how the Paul Klee picture on the wall made her think about a story, which she proceeded to tell me.
So one place I’m looking for ideas this month is in pictures –wherever I can find them. On walls, waiting to be hung in our new office, from notecards, in Quentin Blake and Shaun Tan books, the children’s (as always)....
This year, I’m going to practise what I preach. I teach writing picture books and it’s been too long since I’ve gone through my favourite picture books and tried to capture the essence of what it is I really love about them. Often, there's really interesting use of metaphor, as in Not Now, Bernard, by David McKee. I'd really like to play around with this more for this year's PiBoIdMo ideas... Quentin Blake talked about this in the lecture, using the example of The Story of the Dancing Frog, and how he was using a metaphor for bereavement but that he could just have easily had the main character learning to play the cello instead.
I love the idea that as an illustrator you can choose the metaphors you use in picture books partly based on your desire to draw that particular thing (he didn’t say that specifically in this example but he’s talked about it in other books before). As an author who doesn’t illustrate or know who the illustrator for my stories are going to be until after I've written them, it’s a slightly different game but I’m going to look at themes I’d like to explore and come up with visually different metaphors and see whether that leads to fresh story ideas.
... exercises I do in school visits with children
I’m going to...
make up silly stories on the hoof the same way I get children to do collectively in school assemblies and see if any germs of ideas for something more substantial come (I’m the character in their story. Someone in the audience chooses what I am –it can be anything at all; someone else chooses a name; then what I most want to do in the world –or beyond- that day; what’s getting in my way, etc.. Because it’s all done quickly by different people, no one thinks about it much or feels self-conscious);
...play the name game that inspired Don’t Panic, Annika! where you come up with characteristics of a character based on their name, using rhyme or alliteration. And when you’ve got those characteristics you work out what needs to change by the end of the story in order to make it satisfying/funny etc.;
...play the What If? game I play in the classroom where we look around at the room, or the playground and turn ordinary objects or scenes into something quite extraordinary by saying: this may look like an ordinary whiteboard/wall display/teacher, but what if... (and similarly with objects taken from a bag).
And I’ll be reading Tara Lazar’s blog daily and follow the exercises that the guest bloggers suggest.
Basically, I’m going to allow myself to play for a month.
Do more creative pursuits that aren’t writing
This month, I’m trying out a local close-part harmony group. I joined a choir for one concert about twenty years ago but before that I’d not sung collectively since being in school, and although I love singing with the children, and in the shower, I’ve not done anything since. Again, inspired by Quentin Blake, as a non-drawer, I’m going to do five minutes of drawing each day throughout November just for the fun of it. And I’m attending the first in a series of traditional arts storytelling workshops, run by local storyteller, Graham Langley . And, since the death of my mother earlier this year, who was a prolific reader, and whose inscription is in many of the books that I have, I’ve started reading novels again in a way that I haven’t for almost twenty years. I do actually feel as if something has reawakened in me (so thanks, Mum, for that).
Different writing environments. Writing alongside others...
If you’re a member of SCBWI and PiBoIdMo etc., writing really isn’t the lonely occupation many think of it as. There’s such a huge, welcoming community out there. But a lot of it is online and this year, I’m arranging to do more writing alongside others. It started with a writing retreat last year where a fellow picture book author, Rebecca Colby, and I booked a cottage for a week and just wrote, usually in our own beds during the day, and then in the evenings, sitting together at the dining room table. We were joined for a couple of days by another children’s author (Addy Farmer), and it was an incredible week.
Whilst it’s extremely hard to get away for a week, I was really keen to try and replicate something of that communal environment, so from this month, once a month, our local SCBWI is going to host a free day-long write-in in the fantastic new Library of Birmingham...
where anyone can come along and write/sketch for the day together on their separate projects.
I’ve also recently moved into an office over the road from our house, with another children’s author and fellow SCBWI-er, Leila Rasheed, which is brilliant. It’s freed up loads of space in our respective houses and has provided us with a fantastic working space. And from January, we’ll be running fortnightly day-long write-ins in one of the large meeting rooms there where writers and illustrators can come and write/illustrate for the day.
As always, November is going to be a busy month (especially in the run-up to the conference where I organise the mass Friday night critique with seventy-plus critiquers) and this year I’m also writing a commissioned book for which I’m doing loads of really interesting research/interviews at the moment, but that’s the joy of PiBoIdMo. It doesn’t actually have to take much time at all. You just need to do it every day and get yourself into good habits (and this year, I've actually bought index cards and a box to put them in, which is an exciting if unusually organised step to have taken). To finish with the wonderful Quentin Blake again...
“I don’t wait for inspiration. I’m not, in fact, quite sure what inspiration is, but I’m sure that if it is going to turn up, my having started work is the precondition of its arrival,” (Words and Pictures, p100).
Do you have any PiBoIdMo tips or hints? Please leave them in the comments section below -and have a fruitful month.
Juliet Clare Bell is currently researching for a picture book based around the Cadbury chocolate factory and Bournville in Birmingham, which so far has been extremely interesting and very tasty...