People often ask me about my writing process for a picture book (PB), including this question, which always trips me up: How do you go from an idea to a complete draft of a PB? I know the person asking is often looking for a strategy, but I never know how to simply describe my strategy in a clear way except to call it “gathering.” This article is my attempt to lay it out. Maybe, it will be useful to some writers out there. At the very least, I hope it will be entertaining.
Strategies That Don’t Work for Me: Pantsing or Outlining
Lots of PB creators simply dive in and draft. Theoretically, pantsing a PB of less than 1000 words is easy compared to a 50,000+ novel. Yet and still, it has a lot of the same pitfalls for writers like me: it leads to unfocused, meandering writing. For me, it means never getting to the end of the story and probably getting bored.
Other authors outline. Hundreds of great PB templates exist on the internet. However, I’ve always found outlining a picture book painstaking. If I try to structure a new story idea, I experience a lot of creative blocks and can’t figure out how to move forward. I need some messiness to generate ideas.
My Strategy: Gathering
Because the two methods above don’t work for me, I gather. Another way to explain my process is intensive brainstorming–it’s days of brainstorming–and gathering or collecting my notes from that brainstorming.
To show what I mean by this, I found old notebooks where I gathered brainstorms for Your Name is a Song and took pictures.
Yeah... I wrote pieces for Your Name is a Song in four notebooks... on random pages, interspersed with diary entries, random lists, and brainstorms for other books!
Did I mention I struggle with organization?
Through looking back at these old scribblings, I was able to figure out just what I am doing during my process, and I’m proud to say I did organize that process here!
1. A Very Long Free Write (maybe multiple)
I started out knowing that I wanted to write a book called, Your Name is a Song, but had no idea what the story was about. That title came to me as I was reflecting on a child’s beautiful name, and I decided to write a story that could fit that title.
These are some pages from an almost five-page free write I did to get ideas. Free writing means quickly writing all of your ideas during a set time period without stopping to edit those thoughts. I find writing without self-censoring a therapeutic way to start a book. It took me at least two free writing periods to have a clear direction for Your Name is a Song.
2. Writing Down Words, Phrases, and Sentences I Want in the Book
Once I pinned down that Your Name is a Song would feature many names from multiple cultures, I was constantly making random name lists.
In addition to important words, or in this case names, I will write sentences, phrases, and major ideas I want to put in any book. I don’t necessarily know how or where these will fit in the narrative but I jot them down. Here, I was focusing on language around made-up names.
3. Notes of Encouragement
Finding old notes to myself made this dig into old notebooks pretty special. I, like many authors, often doubt myself while writing a book. I write myself encouraging notes when I’m having those moments. I think they’re an important part of the process.
I hesitated to share the note I found in the middle of my brainstorming. It makes me blush. The language is so lofty, and it talks about my work as genius . However, when I’m having a moment when I don’t feel good enough to write something, I need a note to lean into grandiosity. (And authors, if the note is helpful to you in your own writing, please use it!)
There are no limits to genius. Because it [genius] isn’t yours. But you can hold on to and grasp as many pieces of this infinite mass [of genius] if you want it enough. If you crave it enough. You can create this work of art because it is there to be created.
4. Asking Myself Questions
My questions are interspersed throughout my brainstorming pieces. They are in my freewrites. They are in places where I wrote about scenes. An important question to ask yourself again and again throughout this pre-writing process is “why?”
Here I ask myself: Should I give [my MC] a name? I answer: Shaherazadrina. Of course, I later changed that!
5. Write Messy Versions of Two Key Scenes (typically from the beginning and the end)
I write quick and short versions of scenes. From this photo, you can see just how short sometimes. The important thing at this stage is not that I’ve written a long detailed complete scene but that I have a clear idea in my head of the complete scene.
Here I am teasing out the beginning scene of the book when the girl stomps and say “I never want to go back there again!”
Time to Draft!
After gathering ideas, words, and scenes, I have a good sense of my picture book. I know where it’s going and what it needs to do. I know and love my characters. And I am DYING to finally write the thing. When I have to write the story, I know my idea gathering is done.
Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow, M.S.Ed, is a Philadelphia-based educator and children’s book author. Her works, which feature young Black Muslim protagonists, have been recognized and critically-praised by many trusted voices in literature, including American Library Association, School Library Journal, and NPR. She writes picture books and middle grade fiction. Her books include Mommy’s Khimar, Once Upon an Eid (contributor), Your Name is a Song, and Abdul’s Story. She’s taught youth in traditional and alternative learning settings for 15 years.