For Writers

Where Do Middle Grade Authors Get Ideas?

When children’s authors go on school visits, one of the first questions we often get is–where do you get your ideas? This question will also sometimes go up in writing classes that I teach at Hollins University Graduate Program in Children’s Literature and Illustration and at The Children’s Book Academy. I thought I’d share with The Mixed Up Files, some place where I’ve found inspiration! Feel free to share tips on where you find ideas as well. May the well never run dry for any of us!

Ideas Are Everywhere!
I see the world as generously offering book ideas every day. Even the smallest everyday object can provide inspiration. It’s a state of mind, of pondering and unleashing curiosity.

Hey, that piece of bubble gum that I’m chewing. Hmm, has anyone written a book about the history of gum? The inventor of gum? Is there just one inventor? Or many? What about writing a chapter book about a kid whose ability is bubble blowing? Or a book on how to make your own gum? Or a book of bubble gum techniques? Or what happens to the environment because of the all the gum that gets tossed out in the trash? Or maybe gum provides a character tag—a dad who has recently given up smoking is constantly chewing a stick of gum. Once you have that lens –that anything can be a book–there’s a deluge, a veritable avalanche of ideas.

Write Down Those Ideas
The trick is to write them down the moment you think of them. Otherwise, you’ll be like, um, what was that idea I had last week? That’s why notepads litter my nightstand and are scattered throughout the house. Of course, make sure to transfer those ideas from the notepad to your computer. In our home, little papers get lost (dogs and pets eat them, kids turn them into spitballs and absentminded writers are known to lose track of them).

Be a Snoop
Many of my ideas have come from simply overhearing my children. Here’s an example: when I noticed that my middle schoolers were obsessed with the amount of FB Likes they were getting a few years back, I thought–what about a seventh grader who is social media obsessed, does something she shouldn’t, and then her parents shut down her account and take away her phone? Bingo!

Do Market Research
At the time, I checked to see if there were any middle school books out there focusing on social media obsession—and there weren’t! I wrote it simply by inhaling the atmosphere around me. The book sold quickly and became the Queen of Likes, one of my most popular books for tweens.

Once I get my idea, I always engage in a period of discovery. This first involves market research. My first question is — has this subject been tackled before? If so, how many and for what age groups? If there are books looking at the very same subject for the same group, I ask myself–how will my or narrative stand out from the crowd? What am I offering that’s fresh? If I’m not doing something new, I seek out another idea.

For my Ellie May chapter books, I knew I wanted to write about an exuberant second grader who loves to celebrate holidays in her classroom. However, I also knew I didn’t want to pick holidays that had already been heavily featured in other books. For my period of discovery, I asked educators about the holidays that were a big deal for students and yet weren’t truly represented in chapter books. That’s how I came up with Ellie May on Presidents Day and Ellie May on April Fools’ Day.

Have Fun!
Investigating the variety of ways in which school celebrate holidays offered hours of fruitful discovery. I interviewed teachers as well as visited blogs, vlogs and websites. Writing those books was a blast, and I gained confidence that I was writing about subjects that would be truly appreciated in the classroom.

Hillary Homzie is the author of Ellie May chapter book series (Charlesbridge, Dec 18, 2018), as well as Apple Pie Promises (Sky Pony/Swirl, October 2018), Pumpkin Spice Secrets (Sky Pony/Swirl, October 2017), Queen of Likes (Simon & Schuster MIX 2016), The Hot List (Simon & Schuster MIX 2011) and Things Are Gonna Be Ugly (Simon & Schuster, 2009) as well as the Alien Clones From Outer Space (Simon & Schuster Aladdin 2002) chapter book series. She teaches at Hollins University Graduate Program in Children’s Literature, Writing and Illustration and at the Children’s Book Academy. She can be found at and on her Facebook page as well as on Twitter.

When Writers Speak: Presentation Tips for Introverts

Like most writers, I’m a pretty introverted person. I am happy pecking away at my keyboard, with only my cat for company, for hours on end. Sometimes, though, I’m invited to speak about my work. You can’t just run away, right? I also do a lot of training for my day job. In fact, I’m on the tail end of six weeks in which I will have presented twelve times. While this is an unusual amount of training in a short period, I have presented hundreds of times, to audiences of up to eight hundred people. It must be easy by now, right?


I still get nervous. Every. Single. Time.

I have, however, developed a few tricks to help me out at this point. In solidarity with my fellow introverts, I offer them up for you.

First, a quick pep talk. I actually think that introverts are better presenters than extroverts. Those who love the spotlight can tend to linger there, even if they don’t have a ton of stuff to say. We introverts are not wasting anyone’s time. We say what we need to say, as clearly and succinctly as possible, and then we sit down. We also are always prepared. If I’m standing up in front of an audience, even if I have delivered this exact talk fifty times, I’m still prepping for it. I never wing a presentation. And trust me, I’ve been in the audiences of presenters who are gregarious and unprepared and those who are quiet but well-prepared, and I’d choose the latter every time. An entertaining presentation that lacks substance is like cotton candy—sweet, but in reality nothing but air. Be a carrot—solid, strong, maybe a little boring, but great for helping you see.

Now for the tips:


I always think through ahead of time my goal for the presentation. What is it that I want people to learn or understand from what I’m saying? Then I organize my presentation in a way that makes logical sense for the audience. What do they need to understand first, then second? I start my presentation with a roadmap, telling them what I’m going to say. I do this because I heard somewhere that whenever we are being presented with new material, a part of our brain is working to understand the overarching structure of the presentation. If we as presenters tell them ahead of time what we’re going to cover when, that part of the brain can relax and just absorb what we’re saying.

In terms of my own notes, I use bullet points instead of a script, because then it flows a little more naturally for me. If I’m really nervous or it’s a new presentation, I may practice writing out what I want to say a few times, but I still will rely only on the bullet points for the actual presentation.

You might consider using props—pictures, cartoons, or physical objects of some kind. They’re a great way to help you loosen up, and pull the focus off yourself for a little bit. Video and audio can also be great, but I tend to steer away from them myself because I don’t trust myself not to mess them up.

On the day of the presentation, give yourself more time than you think you need to get there. Your stress level will already be at eleven, no need to make it worse with unexpected traffic, a wrong turn, or a goat crossing.

On Site

Once I’m at the location of the talk, my nerves really go into overdrive. My hands shake, I can’t think straight, I get clumsy. The worst.

Here’s what helps: I find a quiet spot (a bathroom stall is fine) and lock myself in. First, I wiggle/dance/jump around or whatever it takes to work out some energy. Then I take a moment of zen—just breathe in and out for a few minutes. There are some great tips on breathing techniques here. Then I do a quick superhero stance.

Once I feel like I’ve gotten myself under control, I walk into the talk’s location. I spend a few minutes in there getting acclimated. Where will I be standing? Is there a microphone? Is the technology all set up and ready to go? Where’s the clock? Can I see it easily from where I’ll be presenting? If not, I slip off my watch and put it somewhere on the podium or table in front of me—that way, I don’t have to be obvious about checking the time partway through. I don’t use my cell phone clock because it’s a little hard to read, and it will go to sleep unless I remember to tell it not to.

As people start filing into the room, I try to chat up a few who seem nice. This will help later, when the audience starts to seem like a scary wall of judgment—see, there’s that guy who just got back from Jamaica! And the lady with the cute dog!

The Talking Part

Eventually, of course, you’re going to have to get up and speak. It’s not easy, friends. But here’s what I do. Stand, walk to the right spot, and take a breath. In. Out. You may feel like you need to start speaking right away or it’ll be super awkward, but it won’t. Nobody will even notice that you took that second to breathe, but it’ll help you gather yourself.

One of my cheater moves is that I always start my talks by complimenting the audience. What a fun and energetic group! You guys are so smart, I can tell already! I love this town/building/room! This is the best podium I’ve ever seen! I do this because I want them to like me, so that when I later mess up, they find it charming instead of annoying. I have no idea if it works, but I’ve been doing it for years, and I always at least get a few smiles, which gives me the courage to go on.

Speak slower and louder than seems appropriate. Anxiety will make you talk fast and quiet, so with effort, you may end up sounding somewhere approaching normal.

Keep an eye on the time. Unless you are Michelle Obama, no audience wants you to talk for longer than they’ve mentally prepared to hear from you.

If you have a question period at the end, my best tip for you if something stumps you is to repeat the question. “Did everyone hear that? He asked…” Even if everyone clearly did hear him, even if people two towns over heard him, restating the question gives a little time for the hamsters in my brain to scurry around trying to find something to say. If that’s still not enough time, I’ll go back to the questioner, to buy myself a little more. “Did I say that correctly?” (Nod thoughtfully.) Finally, if the hamsters are still empty-handed, I’ll say, “That’s a great question. Here are some of the things I know about your question. Has anyone else got thoughts on this?” There are lots of smart people in your audience, many of whom will be happy to show how smart they are. Let them take some of the pressure off.

Finish Strong

I used to finish presentations with a relieved, “So, that’s all I have. Thanks!” Then I took a class on presenting and learned that is not in fact a super effective way to end a presentation. Apparently, you’re supposed to leave your audience with a few takeaways—final words of wisdom, bon mots, or at least a nice picture of a cute bunny. The goal is to end on a high note. I’m still not great at this, but I try.

There you have it, fellow introverts. If you have any questions or tips of your own, leave them in the comments. Thanks for your time and attention! Oh, and one more thing:

The Problem with (Too Many) Ideas

There are two kinds of people.

People who think like writers. And people who don’t.

Give a class of fifth graders blank paper and and tell them they can write about anything they choose. Those who don’t think like writers will stare at the page. They will fidget. They’ll gaze into the middle distance, as if to summon an idea from the atmosphere. Before long, the teacher will see the frustration begin to rise and she’ll remind them of the time the author came to school and talked about how ideas are all around us and we must only keep our eyes and ears open to find one.

But I want to talk about those who think like writers. Those students may also stare at the blank page, fidget, and appear filled with angst, but it’s for a different reason. Those who think like writers have no shortage of ideas. They have ideas stacked upon ideas stacked upon ideas. If they are hesitating, it’s because they can’t possibly choose between the many fabulous ideas they have swimming around in their brains.Image result for crossroads

Writers talk a lot about where to find ideas.  (Keep your eyes open. Keep a journal. Listen. Engage in the world around you. Observe the world around you. Read the newspaper. Ask questions. Etc. So on. You know.)

But we seldom discuss what to do about all of the ideas we have.

I’ve been struggling with too many ideas myself this past year. Some folks might be unsympathetic to this plight, especially those who feel challenged to come up with ideas. But, believe me, having too many ideas can be just as damaging to productivity.

That shiny new idea always seems better than the tired old one I’ve been working on for months years.

I bounce from project to project, working on many, completing none.

I can’t decide which idea to tackle today, so I flip through social media and waste a few minutes hours days while I consider which idea is the best one to work on.

When the going gets tough on WIP (Work In Progress) #1, I don’t stick it out. Why should I when I have WIP #2, #3,  and #4 through #47 to turn my attention to?

Let’s talk about what to do when we have TOO MANY ideas.

Triage. I love this word. And the first time I ever heard it applied to ideas was at Picture Book Boot Camp with Jane Yolen. Jane has TOO MANY ideas. You don’t publish over 365 books without having an abundance of ideas. But daily, Jane triages her ideas so that she can focus on THE ONE. She might do this several times a day, but that’s okay. We need to rank our ideas: those that will die without our immediate attention and those which can lounge around a while, waiting for us.

But by what criteria do we make these life-and-death decisions? I’ve identified five ways. Here they are, not necessarily in order of importance.

  1. The idea with a deadline. This is often a no-brainer. You work on the project that someone else is expecting. But just like a student with a homework assignment, it isn’t always what you’re excited about working on. Still, if an editor or agent is waiting, it makes sense to put this idea on the top of the stack.
  2. The idea that won’t leave you alone. These ideas don’t like to be pushed aside. They follow you home from work. They jump in the shower with you (of all the nerve!) They lay awake at night and make sure you do, too. If you have an idea following you around like a lost pup, then you might want to give it some attention. It will LOVE YOU for it.
  3. The idea that is new and exciting. Use caution here. Sometimes the idea that is new and exciting is nothing more than a distraction. But, once in a while, that new and exciting idea is one that can’t wait. To be honest, the idea probably can wait. But your enthusiasm carries some clout. If we’re really, really into something, we’re likely to give it our best attention. If you are passionate about a new idea, at least explore it a little. You’ll know soon enough whether it’s a distraction or your new WIP.
  4. The idea that is almost done. This idea used to be new and exciting. A long time ago. When it was new. And exciting. But now it’s the WIP that has been whipping you for months or years. The thing is, it’s still good, but you gave up too quickly (likely when Miss New and Exciting showed up) and now it feels like drudgery to return to the scene of the abandonment. But, consider the time and energy you’ve already invested. If you just put in a little more time, the results might be amazing. And, even if they aren’t quite amazing, you’ll have a completed manuscript. And that has much more potential than an incomplete one.
  5. The idea that is timely.  Sometimes an idea can’t wait. As I put the finishing touches on this post, which is scheduled for April 24th, I notice that today (April 22nd) is Earth Day. I also learned that this is the 49th anniversary of Earth Day. That means next year at this time, the world will celebrate the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. If I had a brilliant idea for a book plot that centered around Earth Day, next year would be the ideal time to get that book out into the world. If I had such an idea (I don’t), it would have been worth setting aside something else this past year to work on it. In fact, books that will release in the spring of 2020 have already been written, submitted, accepted, and are in the editing process right now. For some ideas, timing is everything.

Having  too many ideas may make it difficult to focus our energy on just one at a time, but look at the bright side. We’ll never run out of inspiration. We’ll write until we can’t write any longer and, perhaps, leave some ideas behind for others to explore. It’s a lovely problem to have.

If you have TOO MANY IDEAS, embrace them. And triage with confidence.