Writing during a pandemic

As you may or may not know, I did a series of Instagram Live videos for three weeks at the start of the coronavirus pandemic here in the U.S. I read my picture books (with the illustrators) and read the first Two Dogs in a Trench Coat book (with special appearances by the audiobook narrator Oliver Wyman and my editor, Matt Ringler).

I also had other special guests like Elizabeth Stevens Omlor (reading her book Walk Your Dog, which is illustrated by Neesha Hudson) and Carter Higgins (reading her book This is Not a Valentine, which is illustrated by Lucy Ruth Cummins). (Bonus: here is a great video of Carter reading her picture book Bikes for Sale, illustrated by Zachariah OHora.)

In addition to readalouds, I did two videos about writing. One was with Bob Shea about how to write a smash hit, bestselling, instant classic picture book. It was a lot of us making jokes and playing around with picture book tropes, but there were a lot of honestly good tips in there.

I also did a video about how I write picture books. I talked about how to find ideas (usually I say that ideas live outside, but right now we have to try to find ideas inside). I shared my method for making ideas into good stories, which is to come up with characters, character traits, and interesting plot developments, and then smush those together into a story.

I shared a sample sheet of characters, character traits, and plot developments, and you can download that here.

We also talked about the general format of a picture book, which is:
1. Here’s a character!
2. Here’s that character’s problem!
3. Character tries and fails three times to solve their problem. Often, the ways they try to solve the problem get increasingly worse/larger/more ridiculous.
4. All hope is lost. Your reader has to be thinking, “How will this EVER be solved?”
5. And then, like magic, a solution. You want a solution that is surprising and amazing, but also works so beautifully in the story that it makes your reader think, “Of COURSE!” Not to put too much pressure on you, but getting this step right is often what makes a story truly brilliant. And it is (in my experience) the hardest step.

What you want in that final step is what I’ve come to call the Exploding Sandwich. A surprise. But somehow one that will leave your reader wondering how they missed it. “Of COURSE the exploding sandwich! It fixes everything!”

Shout out forever to the great picture book author Rob Sanders, who, long ago, shared on his (extensive! informative!) website something called the Picture Book Graphic Organizer, which is incredibly helpful, and from which I adapted the above, and also which I use every single time I’m having trouble figuring out a picture book plot.

Should you even be trying to write right now? Do you crumple a little bit every time you hear about people being productive or about Mary Shelley writing Frankenstein during a pandemic? First of all, I think you should be gentle and patient with yourself. Now is not really a time to push yourself to uncomfortable places, because we’re already in an uncomfortable place.

However, if you strive to be more creative (at any time), now is a great time to play around with that. Let yourself write some terrible stories. Write up fifty mediocre ideas. Free write for one minute. Write the words “what should I write about?” on a page and then see what happens when you keep writing to see what the answer is. Take a tiny bit of time, every day, to remember what it looks like to be a creative person. Even if it’s just holding a pencil in your hand and making one horizontal line on a piece of paper. Do that every day and eventually you’ll get bored and annoyed with yourself and start writing.

The other thing I want to say is that, if you’re anything like me, you’re looking with some hope to a time when this is all over. And I know I would love to come out of this having done something. I want to know I tried. What I’m doing right now is a lot of baking and hanging out with my kids. And trying to write. I know there’s a real pull toward news sites right now, but they are often a swirling vortex of anxiety. And personally I can’t write from inside an anxiety whirlwind. So I’m really making an effort to avoid the news except for reading the newspaper in the morning to see what happened yesterday. I’m a healthy person who can work from home, and there’s no reason I need to know what the news is RIGHT NOW. Maybe you do? But I’m betting you don’t. So turn the news off and make horizontal lines on a piece of paper until a story gets so annoyed with all your horizontal line making that it insists you write it down.

I learned that it’s a real pain to save an Instagram Live. Or it was for me, at least. I also tried to upload the videos I did manage to save to IGTV (Instagram TeleVision, I guess), but I could never get it to work.

So here are the writing videos to you in two formats: video and audio (pretend it’s a podcast!). (Please don’t write to me to complain about the video and audio quality. I know they’re not fantastic. When I was unable to save the videos from Instagram Live, I ended up screen recording them on my phone, which doesn’t make for top-notch quality. But it’s a good, mediocre, understandable, quarantine-quality recording.)

Here is the video of me and Bob Shea (you know Bob! author and illustrator of the Dinosaur vs. series and the Unicorn Thinks He’s Pretty Great books and author the new classic Who Wet My Pants?).

Here is the video where I talk about writing, and how to stay motivated to write during this weird time.

Go forth, my friends, and be as well as you can. Stay inside. Be kind to yourself, and to others. Wash your hands. Read a book. Watch a weird old movie (I’ve been enjoying the virtual film series that the Brattle Theatre in Boston has been putting together). Sleep. Eat. Stretch.

And, if you are up to it, make something wild, beautiful, and full of joy.

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