Tiger has a wild side!

“Centerfold” of Peter Brown’s forthcoming book – Mr. Tiger Goes Wild

I love writer’s conferences. All of that passion and creativity buzzing around in one place — it’s enough to raise the roof off a building! (Especially when there’s a karaoke machine, but that’s another story…)

Last year, when I was attending every children’s writing conference known to humanity, I began, sometimes, to eschew keynote speeches. Not because I don’t find them inspiring (I do!), but because I was holding what I now know to be a mistaken belief that they weren’t specific enough to assist me in my craft.

I figured I was better off working on my own writing, scheduling one-on-one meetings or preparing for pitch sessions and then attending the more craft-focused sessions.

Luckily, I got smacked right between the eyeballs with the folly of this thinking when I attended author/illustrator Peter Brown’s keynote at the NJ-SCBWI conference in June.

Let me explain.

One of the things I’ve been struggling with lately in my writing is my failure (fear?) to go deeper and get beyond the initial premise, trope, joke, wordplay, etc. My agent, while praising my writing in general, has been encouraging me to take more risks and reach past the obvious. We’ve talked about writing character bios, putting characters in different situations, switching genres or formats. These suggestions have been both scary and frustrating to me even though I know she wants them to be liberating.

As a divorced mother of two young children who also runs an online writing business, my actual writing time is often hard to come by (especially during summer vacation). So when I do sit down with that precious nugget of time to write, I want that writing to count. Meaning, words on the page of a manuscript that might actually get published one day. I’m completely cool with the fact that there will be many revisions, but I seldom allow myself to “play” with scenarios or characters or tense or format. I make a choice and stick to it because that has always seemed like the most efficient way to get that writing “done.”

But then I found myself in the auditorium listening to Peter talk about how he connects to his inspiration in many ways — surrounding himself with his favorite books or art or by taking himself to places that inspire him. He said he lets his imagination “go” by doing dozens of sketches before settling on the “look” of a character. While preparing to illustrate the Caldecott Honor-winning book CREEPY CARROTS, he said he watched dozens of old episodes of The Twilight Zone, old film noir, and science fiction films. He studied old movie credits and posters all in an attempt to infuse his art with the old-time feel of his childhood favorites while still keeping his personal style. (P.S. You can learn more about this yourself if you watch Peter’s fab Creepy Carrots video!)

That’s when it hit me! Experimentation and play, allowing yourself to marinate in inspiration, trying different angles — all of this is as integral to the product as the actual “writing.” It took listening to Peter’s speech, combined with the recent conversation I’d had with my agent, for that epiphany to strike. As a goal-oriented person, it’s always been difficult for me to value the process of creating more than the product. But now I’m excited about immersing myself in the vast options available to my characters and stories, mining those options while still being willing to change mid-stream.

I won’t be avoiding keynotes at conferences anymore, because by learning about someone else’s process, we also learn about our own. We all create differently, but at the end of the day, the drive and the passion is what unites us as artists, and that is confirmed each and every time I find myself in one of those auditoriums.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have some character bios to sketch out! 🙂

Have you ever learned something significant about your own creative process by listening to others? Share in the comments!

Categories: Agents, Children's Books, Creativity, Picture Books, Publishing, SCBWI, Works in Progress, Writing · Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,



  1. What a great realization to come to, Julie! It’s quite possible that freeing yourself in that way will enhance your productivity!

    I’ve only been able to attend a couple of conferences, but the keynotes at SCBWI LA ’11 were one of the most valuable parts of that total experience for me.

  2. What a great takeaway from the conference! Very helpful post!

  3. One of the joys of my life was meeting my writing hero, Joy Cowley of New Zealand, at Chautauqua in 2011, and then sitting next to her on the bus during a field trip. One of the things she shared was the importance of humor in children’s books. “Children love to laugh,” she said, and she recalled that one of her very favorite letters from a young reader said “When I read your book, I larf and larf. Then I read it again so I can larf some more.” She also told me that “People who write for children are living in deep awareness,” which I think speaks to your point, Julie, about the value of of inspiration.

  4. Many of my story ideas come from new situations which seems to stimulate my creativity. Great post, Julie!

  5. Inspiring post Julie.

  6. Thanks for this post. I’m a lot like you..more product oriented than process, and this is a good reminder that there are no wasted drafts and exercises when they all feed into the work.

  7. He was so personable and connected so well with the audience, it’s not surprising how well he connects with readers. I’m with you, Julie. Loved his presentation, bought his book, got a photo with him – yeah, writing crush.

  8. Stacy S. Jensen

    Oh, I hope you were able to do those sketches in the Apple store. I need to do some of those too.

  9. I heard Peter at our Houston SCBWI conference this spring. What I took away from his talk was when he explained how he “steals” from other artists–how he surrounded himself with all the kinds of art that spoke to him so they would sink into his subconscious. He showed us all his influences on various books including the Carrots book. I acted on that by buying copies of the new books that make me laugh. It’s discover them at the library, then buy my favorites. I want them keeping me company, being within reach, giving me inspiration all over again–Janet Stevens, Mo Willems, Peter Brown.

  10. I’m like you–hear the advice to try manuscripts in a different POV, to dummy it out, to do character interviews–but don’t always take the time. And then I finally get around to doing it, and find it’s such an enlightening process that I wonder why I didn’t do it sooner!

  11. That’s funny – I just wrote about Peter Brown in my blog too. It will be posted next week. I’ll share the link then.

    While I was at NJSCBWI, an illustrator recommended the book, The War of Art by Steven Pressfield. It’s a great read if you’re struggling to push yourself as an artist of any sort. Best of luck!

  12. I loved it when he talked about his Mommy!

  13. I absolutely love listening to people talk about their process. But I am the same as you in the way I use my writing time. Stories. Must. Move. Forward. Susanna Hill’s class taught me the value of the character sketch and planning process. It’s difficult for me to wrap my head around, but worthwhile when I do.

  14. Don’t forget the power of dance, Julie! We’ve all seen yoyr moves, and that’s something I think your kids could join in on- quality creative time! You and your post rock!

  15. Tanja Bauerle

    Great eye-opener, Julie. Time is such a precious commodity, that I can completely understand your initial thinking about playing and exploring. Getting to the final product is what counts, right? I too am guilty of this misconception. Sometimes the exploration and journey through inspiration is just as important and often vital to producing a satisfying complete manuscript. Thank you for sharing.

  16. Great post. We’ve just been reading Creepy Carrots, my reluctant readers loved it. I had no idea you were divorced, Julie. You are amazing all that you have achieved and are able to do.

  17. Wowowow, Julie.I am really fearful of taking risks too. But after reading this, I won’t be anymore. I am proud to know you, pal. It’s only soaring up from here. This post is a keeper. I tuck stuff away in folders in my email that I will need for inspiration later on. This is one of those yummy morsels. :-).

  18. Great post! I’ve been reading Ann Whitford Paul’s book on writing picture books. I’ve been trying the different exercises in her book (playing with pov, format etc) and it’s really opened my eyes.

  19. Pat Haapaniemi

    Loved your post, Julie! Very helpful – thanks!

  20. great post! i suffer from a lack of experimentation too. I blame it on my day job where the goal is to learn things as fast as you can, solve the customer problem and move on to the next thing. Only recently have a started to appreciate/accept that there is something to be learned by experimenting. I think all those character bios and exercises and changes in POV help to immerse yourself in the story and make it more 3D and alive.

  21. Kathleen Cornell Berman

    Thanks for a great post Julie. I was also fortunate to hear Peter’s inspirational speech. I LOVED hearing about his writing process. I learned a lot from him and others at the conference. Experimenting is crucial. One editor I spoke to said to experiment with the opening and closing of a story. She said a writer should write 25 or more different endings. Experiment until it feels right.

  22. Julie, As you know – I was there too and couldn’t agree with you more. Well said.

  23. His keynote was amazing. His natural talent for storytelling supported by images on the screen was enthralling- just like reading a picture book. I think just tacking that big rewrite cuts to the gut so quickly that by default more emotion will leak into the work.

  24. Thanks so much for this post, Julie! I love Peter’s talk about letting go and experimenting with other ideas. It truly a fresh take on brainstorming.

  25. Experiment and play…that’s the heart of the matter. I tend to to ‘stick with what I’ve got’ because that means I’ve ‘got it done.’ And that dangerously makes a story timid or bland or plain…or at LEAST not adventurous. Thanks for the prompt Julie to go farther, deeper, off the beaten path.

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