Posts Tagged ‘writing fiction’


One of the most common questions an author, cartoonist or illustrator receives is, ‘Where do you get your ideas?’

This is somewhat straightforward to answer when you are contracted to illustrate a manuscript. I literally was handed a story to illustrate. Granted all the visuals must be created, so you are definitely generating visual ideas that must come from somewhere, but you have the architecture plans in hand – the manuscript.

John Cleese has lots of great quotes about creativity and ideas.

“We get our ideas from what I’m going to call for a moment our unconscious — the part of our mind that goes on working, for example, when we’re asleep. So what I’m saying is that if you get into the right mood, then your mode of thinking will become much more creative. But if you’re racing around all day, ticking things off a list, looking at your watch, making phone calls and generally just keeping all the balls in the air, you are not going to have any creative ideas.” ~ John Cleese

I recite an answer to the question of where I get my ideas when I give talks, which sounds much like every other author’s answers I’ve ever heard. And I think I began to believe it. It makes it sound likes it’s a discipline. Like you can take Idea Generation 101 at a university where you practice and develop and study and craft creating ideas. NO. You craft and refine and revise a manuscript or a sketch – which is based on an idea that comes from…????

When looking back on things it’s easy to think we see dots connecting to create an outcome. I think we mostly create those dots to fulfill a preconceived notion of ourselves. For those very same ‘dots’ could produce an infinite number of different outcomes. That they resulted in any particular event is simply a product of odds. So the looking back and pretending to know where an idea generated from is a comforting fiction we tell ourselves so that the world continues to unfold in an orderly action-reaction state.

A few weeks back I was sitting in the waiting room of a local athletic club. I was tired, a little bored, thinking about what I was going to make for dinner while I waited for my daughter to get done with swim team practice. And I was writing/doodling in my sketchbook, which I do all the time. And a story simply developed from a few sentences and a quick sketch.

I have NO idea where it came from. And of course no idea if it’s any good. But if I continue to revise it and if it is submitted to editors one day, I will follow up on this post.

But the fact is – I see no logical reason for that story to have appeared in my head at that moment. I hadn’t been working on it. It doesn’t have to do with swimming… it was totally random.

So much for knowing where ideas come from.

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I never have the right things to say in situations like this either. I just read news that Barbara Park passed away last Friday. It made me stop what I was doing and put my list of STUFF TO DO aside for awhile. I really enjoyed reading the Junie B. Jones books she wrote to my daughter, who was obsessed with them her final year of pre-school and in kindergarten. I loved them because they were a joy to read as an adult too. And that doesn’t always happen with kids lit, as we all know.

The voice in the books was so clear my daughter and I would pick out ‘Junie-isms’ that other people said.

Great books. I’m sure she realized how much joy those books brought to lots and lots of kids. So sad she said goodbye at only 66. What else can you say, she’ll be missed but those books will live on.

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This is more ‘story-booky’ than I usually do. It’s inspired from less a kids book than a short story I was playing around with. But now I really do need to get back to deadline work. So much for letting my creative side run amok. Click on it to make it bigger.


Not a cat, a bear or a lion. He’s just Mr. Rare to you and I.

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There are a few really good days being a full-time author/illustrator. Getting checks is nice of course. After all, the food doesn’t buy itself. But really the best days are when you get the book you worked on for a year or more for the first time.  Seeing the final proof for the first time is also a good day.

This past week I’ve been busy working on the second picture book I wrote and will illustrate. The dummy is coming together, though it’s at that point where I spend a lot of time wondering if a particular page communicates the right story beat.  I was concentrating so hard that my daughter and her friend snuck up to my studio and gave me a big “BOO! ” on Saturday. Twice to be exact. Each time  I screamed out loud. My wife heard it from the front porch. Well, it is the season for scares.

But the other cool thing this week was seeing the final digital proof of the picture book I wrote and illustrated that will be released  by Candlewick Press next Thanksgiving. The cover, the flap copy, the final art with final type…very cool to see. And I am looking forward to the first hardcopy proofs in a few months. You will hear me talking more about both books as they near release.

Now, back to work. But I better make sure my daughter isn’t sneaking up the stairs.

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The Revision Jungle


Editing. Revisions. New Drafts. We all know what the smart alec kids say: good writing is really rewriting.  It’s a fact of life. Just like leftovers are always better the second and third night. Wait. That’s not true…Anyway – join me, if you dare, on my editing expedition through my most recent manuscript.

Day one

All set to go. My gear is ready: A cup of tea. A bag of mini-M&M’s. The dogs are walked. Now I carefully double-click and open the file. My excitement drains away upon a first read. It’s not nearly as good as I remember. This will be a tough slog. Tough Slog. Not a bad name for a new book.

Day two

I have laundry to do. And I need to buy dog food. I also have to stop at the postoffice. Maybe I’ll put this rewriting stuff off. You know, I should clean up the studio before I start this…

Day three.

Making my way through the manuscript. It’s rough going. Adjectives are sneaking around, hiding everywhere. Must-be-careful.

Day four

Haven’t see sunlight in days. But that’s mainly because I live in Oregon. All around me present tense and past tense are mixed up. What’s that sound in the distance? It’s getting closer. There it is again! It’s just a past participle stumbling through the woods. I stop and ask if it’s OK. Everything is fine it says with a  slur. And then it’s gone.

Day five

Maybe I should just write another book. Would be easier then editing this mess. No idea how long I’ve been gone. No idea if I will ever see the downstairs again. I hear the howls of  wild animals. Did I feed the dogs this morning?

Day six

Entire paragraphs go missing. Gone. As if they never existed. Makes you reflect on the beauty of the delete key.

Day seven

I can almost see the end of the journey. The light through the proverbial and not-so-proverbial trees. Wait a second, what exactly does PROVERBIAL mean? I need to look that up. This is the final push. My fingers are cramped. My legs itch. The stench is overwhelming. I’ll shower tonight.

Day eight

Exclamation points everywhere! EVERYWHERE!!!! Get the machete out and start falling those heinous beasts.

Day nine

So tired. The sentences dance about on their own. Nothing makes sense. What was I saying in this paragraph? I’m not sure. Then the words from deep in the jungle scream out: DELETE IT! DEETE IT! DELETE EVERYTHING. I’m almost at the end of this dark journey. The manuscript mocks me – “You’re an errand boy, sent by grocery clerks to collect a bill.”

Day ten

I’m done. DONE! I can’t take it anymore. I pronounce this done! Words have been moved. Sentences slashed. Adjectives obliterated…mostly. I make my way downstairs and decide to prepare dinner. No frozen pizza tonight. I greet my daughter when she gets off the bus. She doesn’t remember me. She’s grown so much I hardly recognize her. After dinner and dishes, the manuscript calls out. It’s strange voice echoing in an octave only I can hear. It sings to me, “Time to start the next draft.” And I know I will have to go back.

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Out and About

I’ve been tardy here at The Blog. I’ve been sick and then on vacation. And yes, I was sick on vacation for a while too.

I’ll write more about all that later. But I visited Disneyland and California Adventure for the first time in 7 years. I’m not sure but I think a few people were still standing in line from last time I was there.

And I got to travel to California via airplane, which gets less fun every time I do it. What struck me this time is the current obsession in this country to be treated ‘special’. The airline must have had 14 different levels of ‘preferred customer’.

Diamond Members, Gold Club Customers, SIlver Club Members, Platinum Members…and I’m not sure  which commodity is the most valuable. Do they adjust the perks depending on what is selling for the most?

I’m pretty sure I’m at the Tin Level. That’s the stand-in-line and fight-it-out level. And by the way, why does everyone rush to get on the plane? We all have assigned seats. And the sooner you get on airplane on the more times you get smashed in the head by the ginormous carry-ons people lug now to avoid paying to ship bags.

And we called it a vacation.

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I was recently asked what you need to be a writer. I took that question home with me. I looked around my desk.

I guess you need paper and a pencil or pen. Or a computer. You must have ideas. And of course time; always more time than you think. But the thing on my desk that I most need is The Elements of Style by Strunk and White. Oh how dog-eared my copy is.


(oh no, did I use that semi-colon correctly?!)

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Q: Why is it I never seem to have good endings for the picture book stories I write?

A: This is a classic case of FOGK (Fear Of Going Kaput). It’s a fear of death thing for a writer based on the fact that no picture book can have too dark an outcome. What’s the solution? Well if you can’t have the main character die (it’s a picture book after all!) then have them happily go to bed (it’s a picture book after all!). Other choices include: happy to go to school, happy to eat their dinner and happy to walk the dog. (Hey, that last one is mine! No stealing it!)

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With Elmore Leonard passing a few days ago I’m seeing his ‘ten rules of writing’ posted all over. And I want to join in and post them too.

1. Never open a book with weather.
2. Avoid prologues.
3. Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.
4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said”…he admonished gravely.
5. Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.
6. Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.”
7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
9. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.
10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

And Stephen King has 20 ‘rules’. Well, that’s not fair, these are bits of advice for aspiring writers, such as: 1. First write for yourself, and then worry about the audience. “When you write a story, you’re telling yourself the story. When you rewrite, your main job is taking out all the things that are not the story. Your stuff starts out being just for you, but then it goes out.”

And Hemingway sort of chimed in at one time. But I can’t imagine Ernest Hemingway leading a class. He’d punch out the first person who asked a question he didn’t like.  But that’s a Link to his which are based on rules for reporters he received when starting out, for instance: “1. USE SHORT SENTENCES.” I will not elaborate.

And finally Charles Schulz’ rules for cartooning. OK. I don’t think Schulz ever gave out any Rules for Cartooning. But Charlie Brown did say this once: “Sometimes I lie awake at night, and ask, ‘Where have I gone wrong?’ Then a voice says to me, ‘This is going to take more than one night.’

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Q: How many trees does it take to make an average picture book if that book is printed on paper and not released as a digital edition on the iPad?

A: It is estimated that a single ‘average’ tree (at least 1 foot in diameter and 60 feet tall) produces about 80,500 sheets of 8 1/2 x 11 paper. How that works out to a picture book is best left to people who got better grades than me in 8th grade algebra. Our friend the tree has sacrificed plenty for literacy. And for that I am thankful. But as the Ents often say (if you take the time to listen) every time you open a book, a tree screams.

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