Tired of sitting on the sidelines while her novelist friends participated in NaNoWriMo each November, kidlit author Tara Lazar created PiBoIdMo (Picture Book Idea Month), a monthlong brainstorming event for picture book writers: 30 ideas in 30 days.
That was back in 2009. The event has since been renamed Storystorm, in order to be reflect a “broader range” of writers, moved to January, and now boasts nearly 2,000 participants from across the country and around the world—professionals, amateurs, teachers, and students alike.
Ready, Set… GO!
With this in mind, and eager to get my fun on during the dark days of Covid, I decided to give Storystorm a try. How hard could it be?
Harder than I thought. The first week went by relatively smoothly, with ideas spewing from my brain like Vesuvius lava. But by Day #11, I found myself scraping the bottom of the idea barrel. Such gems from my notebook include: “Tween kidnapping ring”; “Reality show for middle-school tuba players”; and, simply, “oranges.”
In frustration, I decided to kick Storystorm to the curb. The event was for picture book writers, I rationalized—not for middle-grade authors who wrote entire novels. The challenge was that much harder for us.
That was just an excuse, of course. The real reason I didn’t want to continue the challenge is that it was far outside comfort zone. Like, Timbuktu far. I also felt pressure to come up with the “perfect” idea for my next novel. The idea that would catapult me to MG superstardom and make readers go, “Jeff Kinney, who…?”
Unfortunately, and as any writer knows, pressure can stop creativity dead in its tracks. It can also make you feel “less than” as a writer. So, instead of seeking perfection (which doesn’t exist, anyway), I decided to have fun with the challenge. I added “What if…?” and “maybe” sentences to my brainstorming sessions:
“What if the main character is forced to live with her crotchety grandmother for the summer?”
“What if she’s left-handed, with fiery red hair, and a dime-size gap between her two front teeth?” “Maybe she’s a gifted tap dancer who loves Cheetos.”
“Maybe she’s five feet tall…”
This helped ease the pressure that declarative statements can often bring. Once I started to enjoy the Storystorm journey, rather than the destination, I felt myself relax. And even better? I crossed the finish line, with a slew of sparkling new ideas.
And now, without further ado…
Five questions for the creator of Storystorm, Tara Lazar
MR: Hi, Tara! I know this isn’t your first Mixed-Up Files rodeo. You appeared on the blog in 2019, with this interview by Mindy Alyse Weiss. Welcome back!
TL: Merci beaucoup!
MR: As above, you created StoryStorm in 2009, as a response to NaNoWriMo. Which aspects of the event have changed most since then? What remains the same?
TL: The name and the month changed—because if I had thought about it for two seconds, I would’ve realized that PiBoIdMo is a terrible name and November is an awful month to get anything done. Plus, the first year, I wrote HALF of all the blog posts. Fifteen! Talk about scraping the bottom of the barrel for ideas! The following year I invited more authors and illustrators to guest blog and I took on a more administrative role.
Advice for MG writers (including yours truly)?
MR: As I mentioned in the intro, as an MG author I had a hard time generating 30 ideas in 31 days. It felt like a lot! In your opinion, is brainstorming different for writers of MG fiction and nonfiction? What advice do you have for MG writers specifically, in terms of idea generation?
TL: I think picture books sell based more upon concept than MG novels. MG novels have much more “meat” to them—yes, they can have a brilliant premise, but voice, plot, subplot and language play a bigger role than in picture books. Picture books are generally a tougher sell, so the more manuscripts you have, the better a position you’re in. As an MG author you probably don’t need as many ideas as PB authors do, but I believe the more ideas from which to choose, the better.
Storystorm in the classroom
MR: Educators, such as teachers and librarians, are encouraged to participate in Storystorm. From what you’ve seen and heard, what are the most effective ways educators have used Storystorm in the classroom?
TL: Teachers put the daily blog posts on their smartboards in the classroom and encourage their students to brainstorm at the start of the school day. It’s an easy way to get students into a creative mode, plus they will have a portfolio of ideas ready to go for their next writing assignment. It eliminates that “blank page” fear! Writing is less daunting if students already know what to write about!
MR: You can say that again. Now, I’m curious, Tara… Do you participate in Storystorm yourself? If so, have any of your published or soon-to-be-published books been Storystorm ideas? Enquiring minds want to know!
TL: I do, and I don’t. I generate ideas all year long so I don’t necessarily need to do Storystorm, plus I’m busy behind the scenes. If I get ideas during the event, I write them down, like always. The whole point of Storystorm is to create a habit for writers, and I’ve already cultivated it!
Free to Be You and Me
MR: You sure have. What advice do you have for MG writers who are reluctant to participate in Storystorm because they feel intimidated? Let’s hear your best sales pitch. 🙂
TL: It’s free. There’s a great community of writers to keep you on track, and there’s no punishment if you don’t get 30 ideas. And your ideas are for your eyes only—no one has to see them if you don’t want to share. You’re going to end the month with more story ideas than you had before it began, so what have you got to lose? Nuthin’. Did I mention it’s free?
MR: Thank you so much for joining us again on Mixed-Up Files, Tara. And thanks for everything you do for the kidlit community!
TARA LAZAR is the author of several picture books, including the award-winning 7 ATE 9: THE UNTOLD STORY from Little, Brown. Her next book BLOOP is illustrated by Mike Boldt and releases from HarperCollins in July ’21.
Tara is the co-chair of the Rutgers University Council on Children’s Literature One-on-One Plus Conference and an SCBWI member. She writes flash fiction for adults and serves as an inspirational speaker, based on her battle with Primary Progressive Multiple Sclerosis.
The Skinny on Storystorm: What other MG writers are saying…
Wendy McLeod MacKnight, MG author of It’s Not a Mystery, Pig Face; The Frame-Up; and The CopyCat: “As an author who both struggles to come up with ideas AND flesh them out, Storystorm has been a creative godsend! I’ve got new tools for my idea-generation toolkit and a bunch of shiny new ideas to work on in 2021! I can’t wait for the next iteration!”
Christiana Doucette, MG writer: “Brainstorming alongside so many other writers—the energy and encouragement—has helped me to create an idea-seeds spreadsheet. I’m excited to sift through my list and start drafting my next story.”
Andrea Mack, writer of PBs and MG fiction: “I love how generating ideas through Storystorm inspires me by opening the door to my creativity. Sometimes I get ideas for developing my characters, plot events, or interesting details. If none of the ideas works for my story, starting my day by adding an idea or two to my list sets me up for a good writing day. And I love how I have that whole list of ideas to fall back on when my writing isn’t going anywhere.”
Mindy Alyse Weiss, Mixed-Up Files contributor and PB/MG writer: “Not only is Storystorm great for coming up with potential series ideas, I’ve found that a few ideas can mesh together into one amazing one. Also, I’ve discovered a few tricks to spark ideas, thanks to some of Tara’s archived posts. The ones I use most are: 500+ Things That Kids Like and 100+ Things Kids Don’t Like. I also scroll back to posts from previous years, for both Storystorm and the original PiBoIdMo. Tammi Sauer’s posts are always a huge help!”