My 12-part guide to writing and publishing picture books for children
Where do you get your ideas? Where do you find your inspiration? These are two of the questions most frequently asked of me at book talks.
Do you know that the word ‘inspire’ originates from the Latin word inspirare, meaning to ‘breathe into’, as in to breathe life into an idea? I think of creative inspiration as just that: ideas into which you have breathed life. So, where do ideas come from and, perhaps more importantly, how do we breathe life into them?
There are generally two schools of thought about the source of inspiration: one says ideas are drawn from a cosmic creative well: a universal consciousness (see an earlier blog post here); the second school says ideas are generated through work and play. These schools are not mutually exclusive; rather, they overlap, and certainly most completed creative projects are a result of both the initial spark of inspiration and the teasing out of that spark — working and playing with an idea until it is fully realised. The universe is, after all, made up of energy, and ideas are like sparks of energy that may ignite passion in anyone who happens to notice them. And that — the noticing of them — is my first point.
Pay attention to your ideas. Validate your inspiration by regarding your thoughts with interest and curiosity. Treat your muse with courtesy. Everyone has fleeting moments of inspiration, surely, but the difference may simply lie in being mindful of those moments. Watch, listen, observe. Sketch, record or write down your images for, if you do not, you will, over time, likely forget the essence of those moments. I, like many writers and artists, have numerous books and files on the computer where I have documented the beginnings of an illustration, a story. I keep these jottings because some of them I will return to and pursue; they may well become the next project, when the time seems right.
The matter of timing is well worth exploring. Timing is a funny beastie. Often, an idea comes to you when it is nigh impossible to act on that idea. Do you find that? Perhaps you are in the thick of another project, working to deadline, when you have a flash of brilliance and conceive of an entirely new notion. You itch to ditch the project you are obliged to work on and feverishly apply yourself to this new and seductive brainwave. Or perhaps you have written an amazing story, which has been accepted by a publisher, but the submission process has taken, say, two years and now you have to rework (edit, rewrite) a manuscript you wrote over two years ago when your flame for that story was burning high.
Ideally, we would all work on our creative projects — a book, a painting, an invention, a score — in the heat of early passion. Indeed, that fervour may fade and sometimes the initial spark cannot be rekindled. Projects carry an energy, a feeling, and it is good to allow space for that feeling and work with it while it is strong. But this is where discipline kicks in. When working with your new idea is not possible now, because of more demanding obligations or because of necessary delays, take notes or do whatever you need to do to remember all you can about the idea, and then return to your responsibilities. Of course, if it is possible to rearrange your workload so as you can focus on your newfound flame, by all means do so. You are fortunate. Many times we must exert our willpower to finish the job at hand before we can pay attention to a new idea, however brilliant.
It is also essential to recognise when the piping-hot ideas fruiting in our minds are actually a form of distraction or procrastination, intended to deliver us from the task before us. Not saying your fresh idea may not be ingenious, perhaps even more so than the immediate assignment, but this, again, is where discipline kicks in. Finish your creative project, your story. Do the work and see it through. It is all well and good having an idea, but if you do not chase it all the way to the finish line, well, it will not exist — in this earthly realm, at least. Use your willpower, wrestle with self-sabotage and pin that baby to the ground. Make friends with discipline and finish your book.
It is also worth mentioning that it pays to discern which ideas should be nurtured and which should be weeded out. If you are creative, it is likely you have many ideas, sometimes too many. This can result in scattered energies. Not all good ideas need to be realised. Some need to be composted, returned to the thriving, humming seedbed of creativity where they may be reborn, maybe in the mind of another creative, ready for that idea. Choose well where you focus your attention.
Now, as often as ideas appear seemingly out of the blue, they also occur after much groundwork. ‘Work. Be Frustrated. Repeat.’ I am not sure who penned this sage advice (if anyone knows the author of this phrase, please tell me and I will credit them), but this is a sure-fire recipe for creating. Don’t quit at the frustration phase as, often in the midst of this phase, we experience a breakthrough — an idea, a solution, or a learning curve. Just the unexpected thing to take our work to the next level.
The most reliable method of creativity is simply that — creating. You need to work at your craft, be it writing, illustration, cooking, composing or any other form of creativity, to make progress. This means writing the story, the book. Creating the illustrations. It is our everyday choices — our determination to do the work — that will shape our success. Our lives are the manifestation of what we think and do every day; anything done regularly becomes a habit and our lives are a reflection of our habits. Cultivate good habits that contribute to the person you wish to be and to the works you want to create.
While many ideas strike during the busy times, others require space and room to germinate. Lying half-awake at three in the morning when your imagination is highly lucid, or lying in the bath, or walking, or meditating — these are times you are (hopefully) relatively relaxed, which frees up the mind to imagine, to dream. Daydreaming can be actively cultivated. If you need to, create opportunities to daydream and, as I said before, pay attention to your thoughts — follow them, indulge in them, imagine them in detail and, then, write them down. Sometimes a divine spark of inspiration is simply a single word, a vague concept, the first line of a story, or an image of how a character looks. It is up to you what you do with your inspiration. Will it remain an idea full of potential that never comes to fruition? Will it be something passing by, something you don’t really register, or something you dream up and speak about but never actually do?
Of course, it is probably easier, more comfortable, to have an idea and do nothing about it — that way you cannot fail, can you? Or, by not having a go, have you failed already? Don’t keep from doing something because you want it to be perfect from the outset or you simply can’t be bothered. Ultimately, if you want to create a book, a work of art or even a blog post, you need to begin, you need to wrestle with your ideas, you need to write and rewrite, or draw and redraw, do whatever it takes to bring your spark of inspiration into reality. Do the work, put in the energy. Breathe your idea into life.
If you found this post helpful, you may like to read the upcoming posts in the series: My 12-part guide to writing and publishing picture books for children. I will publish the posts over the coming weeks and announce them on Facebook and Instagram, but if you want to make sure you don’t miss a post, subscribe to my newsletter for free.
My 12-part guide to writing and publishing picture books for children:
Part 1: Know and love your readers
Part 2: Ideas and inspiration
Part 3: Character, theme, rhythm and rhyme, and all of that writing stuff
Part 4: Who’s who in the zoo (writer, illustrator, editor, designer, publisher)
Part 5: Editing and storyboarding
Part 6: Illustration
Part 7: Traditional publishing or self-publishing
Part 8: Submitting your manuscript — the slow business of traditional publishing
Part 9: Contracts, advances and royalties
Part 10: PR — book launch, web presence, book talks and more
Part 11: Who are you and who do you want to be?
Part 12: Resources