Posts Tagged storytelling

How Do Writers Get Ideas?

question-mark Every time I do an author visit, I get asked this question, and I always stumble as I try to answer it. Most writers I know dread this question. How do we explain what happens in our brains? How do we describe the way everything we see, read, hear, and do generates story ideas?

Interesting ideas are all around us and seem to hop into our heads all day long. As John Steinbeck said, “Ideas are like rabbits. You get a couple and learn how to handle them and pretty soon you have a dozen.” Maybe the key is not how we get ideas, but what we do with them. Perhaps taking a peek into an author’s brain might clarify this process.

Say we walk into the grocery store and see a scruffy-looking girl with a backpack struggling to reach for a box of cereal. Nonwriters might think, “Poor girl, she looks a mess. I’m surprised her parents let her out of the house looking like that.” Or maybe, “I wonder where her parents are.” Some might judge her choice: “I can’t believe she’s picking that sugary cereal. Kids her age should have healthy breakfasts.” Caring souls might ask, “Do you need help reaching that cereal box, honey?” Suspicious people might wonder: “She doesn’t look like she can afford that. I hope she’s not planning to shoplift.”

dogWriters may think those thoughts too, but then their brains start racing. Hmm…what if she’s a mess because her family’s homeless, and this is their only food for the day? Where might they be living? In a homeless shelter? In their car? What would it be like to live there, and how did they end up there? What would a little girl like that want or need if she were living in a car? And the writer is off, plotting a new story or maybe even two. Perhaps all those questions might lead to a story like Barbara O’Connor’s How to Steal a Dog, where a girl living in a car is lonely and wants a pet so badly she decides to steal one.

Or the writer might think: That girl looks sad. What if her mom left, and her dad doesn’t pay much attention to her? Maybe she’s lonely and needs a friend. What if a stray dog wandered into the grocery store, and the girl tried to save it? Maybe similar thoughts ran through Kate DiCamillo’s head as she plotted Because of Winn Dixie, the story of a girl who misses her mother and adopts a stray dog.winn-dixie

Perhaps the writer notices the girl looks neglected. Her next thought might be: What if she looks so scruffy because her parents are dead. Maybe she lives with mean relatives who don’t take good care of her. But what if the relatives don’t realize she has secret powers? Hmm… what if she goes to a magical school and… Oh, I wonder if it would be better if it were a boy, and he goes to wizard school. The plot could easily turn into Harry Potter.harry

Another writer might think, That girl’s all alone. What if that older lady choosing a carton of oatmeal befriends her? Maybe the two of them could form an unusual friendship. Or wait… What if the old lady is a kidnapper, and when she sees the girl alone, she pretends to help her and she invites the girl back to her house and…

Or maybe the girl’s only pretending to look at cereal, but she’s really been stalking the older lady… Why would she do that? What if she thinks the lady is the grandmother she’s never met? Is it really her relative? If so, why wouldn’t she have met her grandmother? Maybe her mother ran away from home as a teen? So how did the girl discover the grandmother’s whereabouts? Will the grandmother be overjoyed to discover she has a grandchild? How will the mother react when she finds out?

And once again, several story ideas have formed in the writer’s mind. He can’t wait to get home and jot them down. Or if he carries a small notebook, as most writers do, he’ll scribble some notes in it. The whole way home, his brain will be whirling with what-if questions.

A fantasy writer might look at the girl and think: What if she took that box of cereal home, and a fairy popped out when she was having breakfast? Maybe the fairy could grant her one wish. I wonder what she’d wish for. It looks like her family needs help. Oh, but what if she has a brother who’s deathly ill? Would she give up her wish to save him?

Or the writer’s thoughts might run in other directions. What if the fairy was bad at spells and messed up the wishes? Wouldn’t it be funny if… Or What if that isn’t a backpack, but a jet pack? She could fly off with that cereal. But where would she go? And how did she get that jetpack in the first place? Once again, the writer has the seeds of plot or two.

We could keep going with story ideas just from seeing one girl in a grocery store. Now imagine living inside a writer’s head. Everything sparks ideas for stories. We’re always asking questions about what could happen. Or wondering why people do things. And everyone we see or meet becomes a potential story. Yes, even you. So beware when you’re around a writer. You never know when they might make up a story about you.

But what about you? Can you think like a writer? As you go through your day, ask yourself: Who is this person really? Why is she doing what she’s doing? What would he be like if he lived in another country or on another planet? What if that person is only pretending to be a teacher? What if she’s a superhero in disguise or a kid (or animal) who switched bodies with an adult? What if something magical or unusual happened to her? What if this person got into trouble? Who would save him? What does that person dream of? How could I make her wish come true in a story? What does that person need? What’s the scariest idea I can come with about this person? The most unusual idea?

Ideas are all around us. You don’t need magic to create a story, only a little imagination, a lot of curiosity, and many, many questions.


A former teacher and librarian, Laurie J. Edwards is now an author who has written more than 2300 articles and 30 books under several pen names, including Erin Johnson and Rachel J. Good. To come up with ideas for her books, she people-watches and eavesdrops on conversations in public places, which starts her brain racing with questions. To find out more about Laurie, visit her website and blog.

Recipe for a Successful Book Festival

ksfest1This past Saturday I participated in the first annual Kansas Children’s Literacy Festival, and it was such an amazing experience I thought I’d share my thoughts on why it worked so well. It was a new event in Wichita, Kansas, but the turnout was huge and scores of kids walked away with new books to explore, and a whole lot more!

kslitfest3Here’s what made the event so successful: COMMUNITY. Area schools, local book stores, and community organizations partnered together with city leadership and a radio station to encourage kids to read and write. I loved the scope of fun events offered to celebrate literacy. The event kicked off with a full-blown parade, including a float featuring a gigantic book! Then a celebrated local children’s choir gave their first concert of the year. An illustrator presented a riveting and humorous demonstration. A local kite and toy store helped kids make kites and we had a balloon launch to help “Reading Take Flight.” Wichita Griots African storytellers played drums and told enchanting stories. There were balloon creations, face painting, food trucks, and everything that makes a festival a festival!

ksfest4And of course there were books! SCBWI authors and illustrators from around the state talked with young readers in an author tent and read from their works in the storytime tent. There were so many smiles!

I think another big factor in the success of the event had to do with the level of PROMOTION it received beforehand. Local news stations and newspapers came out to cover the festival as well, interviewing families and participants to ensure the word is out for next year’s celebration.

ksfest5As you see, I roped my lovely daughter into helping me. She played the Tickle Me Pink Crayon and The Very Hungry Caterpillar and had so much fun!

If you are an educator or librarian hoping to launch a book festival of any size or add some zest to an already existing one, may I suggest adding some activities that may not seem necessarily reading related to draw interest? I think that was the other factor that caused the Kansas Children’s Literacy Festival to be such a success: VARIETY.

What things have you seen work to draw kids to book fairs and festivals? We’d love to hear your ideas!

Louise Galveston is the author of BY THE GRACE OF TODD and IN TODD WE TRUST (Penguin/Razorbill.)

How to Spark A Child’s Love of Writing

Spilling Ink by Ellen Potter and Anne Mazer
Spilling Ink by Ellen Potter and Anne Mazer

Spilling Ink by Ellen Potter and Anne Mazer

For parents, teachers and librarians, we know that reading to kids, bringing them to libraries and bookstores to choose books they’re interested in and generally being enthusiastic about reading are all ways to spark a lifelong love of reading. What about writing? How do you spark that passion, too? Whether it’s a kid who already loves telling stories or one who’s a bit hesitant about putting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard), Ellen Potter and Anne Mazer have figured out how to spark writing love. They’re the co-authors of the highly-regarded Spilling Ink: A Young Writer’s Handbook. I spoke with them recently about what the act of writing provides for kids, the wonders of collaboration and why “works-in-progress are as fragile as a soap bubble.”

Mixed-Up Files: Was SPILLING INK aimed at kids that love to write and want to write more, or for kids who might need a little push to get their pen and paper out?

Ellen: Both, actually.

Anne: We wanted to address the needs of both groups of kids –reluctant AND enthusiastic writers. We wanted to open a pathway for every kid to express his or her imagination through writing. It’s incredibly satisfying to hear from kids who previously hated writing and now love it; and it’s also satisfying to hear from kids who already loved writing and feel validated and supported by our book. We’ve heard from them all!

MUF: What inspired you to write this book?

Ellen: It was Anne’s idea, and the moment she proposed it to me, I knew it was brilliant. For years, both of us had been receiving loads of emails from kids, asking us questions about writing. These young writers were desperate for answers. “What do I do when I get writers’ block?” “How do I make my characters feel real?” “I can’t figure out how to end my story.” Anne suggested writing a book that answered all their questions in a fun, engaging, and honest way. Ultimately, we wanted to write the kind of book that both of us would have loved when we were kids.

Anne: Ellen and I both have so much joy in writing. Too often writing is experienced as boring or painful. From our many years of writing, we felt we knew how to make it more intuitive and natural. We wanted to transmit our joy to young writers.

MUF: What makes writing such a wonderful activity for kids during their middle school years?

Ellen: Of course, I think writing is wonderful for people of all ages! For middle schoolers, though, creative writing can be particularly powerful. When you write, you are building worlds, exploring motives, deciding on paths of action. What a great way to discover what you believe and what you value! Also, writing is a slow activity. It forces your mind to settle and focus, which heaven knows is something we all need, now more than ever.

Anne: Writing is a wonderful activity for every age. But especially in middle school, when there are so many things to sort out and when you’re struggling to find your way. My middle school years were the hardest of my life. (I still think so!) But I remember the pride and pleasure I had in writing stories at that age. Writing doesn’t have to be all about imagination, though. It can help you clarify your thoughts and feelings. It can be a friend when you need one; someone to talk to. It can also be a way to connect with other people.

Angela Carter

MUF: How should a parent try to nurture a love of writing, or is that possible or do you more suggest parents hang back and let kids take the lead on this?

Ellen: I think that the best way to nurture a love of writing is to encourage a love of reading. Reading to your child well into their middle school years forms such a viscerally pleasurable connection to reading, which can lead to a love of writing. You can’t force that desire to write, though. Believe me, I’ve tried. My 10-year-old son isn’t naturally drawn to writing. For him, it’s a chore. That used to worry me. How could the child of a writer have zero interest in writing? Yet this past summer, we found an injured seagull near our house. We took it home and tried to nurse it back to health. The poor thing only lived a few hours. We gave it a burial at sea. When we got home, my son was silent, thoughtful. He was obviously very moved by the experience, but didn’t want to talk about it. Instead, he sat down and wrote it out as a story. That avenue of expression was open to him, it had been all along, and he turned to it when he most needed it.

Anne: The best way to nurture a love of anything is to model it. So parents who wish to nurture a love of writing in their offspring should enjoy writing themselves. But don’t force it! Kids can always tell the difference between genuine enthusiasm and a parent with an agenda. You can also nurture a love of reading, or of storytelling, or language, or curiosity about the world. All these things feed into writing.

MUF: For teachers/librarians, would advice might you give to spark passionate writers and help hesitant or shy writers push past their reluctance? 

Ellen: I think one of the most freeing things for young writers is for them to realize that writing is hard for everyone, even professional writers. Getting frustrated is normal. Getting stuck is normal. I get stuck on a daily basis. Actually, strike that. I get stuck on an hourly basis.

Young writers should also know that first drafts are typically awful. If they could see the first drafts of their favorite books, they would probably be shocked. Expecting perfection the first time around is unreasonable. Luckily, we have a handy little thing called “revision.”

Anne: You have to find out who the person is. Then connect writing to the individual’s interests, experiences, and feelings. Try to help them find something that they want to write about. You have to sometimes get creative to help someone connect to his or her creativity.

MUF: What are some big don’ts when it comes to keeping kids enthusiastic about writing — have you seen adults say or do just the wrong thing?  Like what? 

Ellen: I think it’s helpful to figure out which part of writing comes most naturally to an individual child. Sometimes a child has a great narrative voice. Or maybe she can create suspenseful scenes. Maybe his dialogue is really funny. Point out their strengths. Let them know what works best in their writing. If you must critique, be gentle. For those of you who have ever been in a writing group, you know that even adults find critiques of their writing difficult to hear. These young writers are learning a very challenging craft. Give them space to make a muddle of it while they’re figuring it out.

Anne: When adults say or do the wrong thing, it usually reflects their misunderstanding of the writing process. Unfortunately, kids don’t know this. They see adults as the authority, so they give their words great power. It’s far too easy to destroy someone’s confidence in the early stages of writing. If you want to really help your kids with writing, start doing some serious writing yourself. You will quickly see how difficult, confusing and chaotic the process is, and how vulnerable you become. You might also experience the joy, playfulness, and connection that writing can bring. Once you have a taste of what writing really involves, you will be far more sensitive to what a young writer goes through.

PeterHandkeMUF: Middle school is an age where kids often start to feel self-conscious in front of peers, and that can often stifle creativity. What do you suggest for a child who wants to write but is nervous about what other people say? 

Ellen: It’s the same advice I would give to an adult writer. Works-in-progress are as fragile as a soap bubble. One harsh or overly critical word and it all goes SPLAT! Writers need to be choosey about who sees their works-in-progress. If a child is anxious to share his or her work with someone, I suggest that they tell that reader exactly what they want to know. For instance, the young writer could say, “I want to know what you think of my main character.” Or “Is there any part of the story that doesn’t make sense?” They can coach their reader into giving them feedback that is helpful and not discouraging.

Also journal writing is often perfect for middle school kids. It’s private, you can spill your guts or explore story ideas and no one but you ever needs to see it.

 Anne: I think every writer should have the right to keep their work to themselves, if they wish. Let them know that they can share if and when they’re ready. Another idea is for the student to find a group of like-minded peers and to share work within that group. Or find a writing buddy. All these are good options for shy or self-conscious students.

 MUF: When it comes to reading, are there certain books you think young writers might particularly love, perhaps because they feature writers as main characters or have something about them that makes kids want to write themselves?

Ellen: The two that top my list are The Amazing Days of Abby Hayes series by Anne Mazer, and Harriet the Spy, by Louise Fitzhugh.

Anne: Every single book that I’ve loved has made me want to write. And that’s a LOT of books, by now. Go to the library. Read as much and as widely as you can. It will nurture you as a writer. 

MUF: Can you talk a bit about what you do at the official SPILLING INK website and why people should come check it out? 

Ellen: The Spilling Ink website is really a treasure trove for young writers. We regularly host writing contest for children and teens. Winners are awarded gift cards and their stories are posted on our site. We also offer writing prompts, book club ideas, and a list of magazines that publish children’s stories. We’re very proud of our site and have gotten amazing feedback about it from teachers who use it in the classroom.

Anne: Ellen and I have worked very hard to assemble some excellent resources for young writers – from where to publish your work to how to start a writing club. There are bookmark and poster downloads, new “I Dare You’s,” writing contests, and more, – and it’s all free!

MUF: Lastly, how was it working on this project together? Is collaborating something you’d suggest to younger writers, too? 

Ellen: Working with Anne on Spilling Ink was one of the highlights of my writing career. I had never collaborated with anyone before, so I was a little nervous at the beginning. I wasn’t sure how it was supposed to work. It didn’t take long, though, to see that the collaboration would be dreamy. We just had so much fun! Also, we share a mutual admiration for each other’s work and a respect for each other’s opinion, both of which are crucial for a collaborative team. I still run most of my own manuscripts by Anne first. She has an impeccable editorial eye.

Many young writers are naturally drawn to collaborations with their friends. I think it can foster a healthy approach to writing. It takes the focus off the individual writer and puts it squarely on the story itself. Plus, when the story hits a rough patch, two heads are almost always better than one. The key to successful collaborations, in my opinion, is to pick a partner whom you respect and trust.

 Anne: Working with Ellen was the best. In fact, it was so good that I didn’t want to go back to my usual solo writing gig. For a while, I really hated writing my own books (fortunately, I’ve gotten over that). I said earlier that we wanted to transmit our joy in writing to young writers. Joy is a word I associate with every aspect of Spilling Ink. We had a lot of joy working together.

Collaboration can be wonderful for kids; they can really support and inspire each other. But it’s very important to find the right partner. The partners need a creative connection; they should spark each other’s imagination. Each partner needs to feel like an equal.

Andrea Pyros is the author of My Year of Epic Rock, a middle grade novel about friends, crushes, food allergies, and a rock band named The EpiPens.