tips when you’re stuck for ideas

I love getting feedback from kids after school sessions, and I got a particularly lovely couple e-mails from a girl at Newbottle and Charleton School after events last week. In one of them, she wrote something that a lot of people ask:

I loved reading Vern and Lettuce and hoping to get some more of your books soon!! I really like drawing but I usually get stuck for ideas. What tips do you have?

The first answer that popped into my head was a blog post by comics writer Neil Gaiman, who wrote, You get ideas when you ask yourself simple questions. The most important of the questions is just, What if…? So I answered her in a similar vein, because I do something just about like that.

I wrote: Hello! A good way to get ideas is to ask yourself ‘What if…?’

What if the chair you’re sitting in had legs that could really walk? What would happen when it galloped out the door and down your street and ran over a cat, and it turned out to be your nasty neighbour’s cat, and she threatened to call the police on you, and meanwhile your chair was wreaking havoc in the local supermarket?

What if… [fill in the blank]

When I wrote Vern and Lettuce, I looked at the things happening around me in real life, and substituted animals for people, and instantly that made it more interesting. What if… London was inhabited entirely by animals? And what if there was a tower block full of animals and a family of polar bears moved in.. and everyone is a bit suspicious and scared, while the polar bears just want to be good neighbours and fit in?

And if I didn’t like the way something in real life worked, I could improve on it in my story. For example, I took out those divider pieces that don’t let people slide on the shiny metal bits next to the escalators in the London Underground, so that the rabbits could go whooshing down. And I gave London’s mayor a big airship, so she could send Vern and Lettuce home in style. (I really just wanted to draw an airship over London.)

So what would it be like, if, say, a giraffe was sleeping in your bed instead of you, and had to get up in the morning for school? What kind of challenges would it face, since it has hooves instead of hands, and its neck doesn’t fit through the doorways very easily? That could be quite funny. Perhaps it’s homesick for the African savannah. Or maybe not, perhaps it dreams of visiting the moon. Or a magnificent hat shop. You wouldn’t have to go far to research the setting, you could draw it right in your own house, and street, and school and look at the things around you.

Trees are also good practice to draw. It’s a lot like drawing people, they have a lot of character, but they’re very good at holding still. And it it doesn’t look exactly like the tree, the tree won’t get annoyed at you. They might even take on a life of their own in your story. (Here are some of my blog posts with tree drawings.)

Do you keep a sketchbook? That’s a good way to start. And I found getting a blog very helpful; a lot of blogs are free to set up (Tumblr, Blogger, WordPress, LiveJournal, etc), and the challenge of trying to post a drawing almost every day made me draw more than I might have done otherwise.

Hope that helps! Best wishes, Sarah

I could say loads more, but I need to do some painting! On a related note, Meg Rosoff just wrote a good blog post, How to Beat Writer’s Block.

Oh, and The Guardian has released a video advert along similar lines to what I was saying about Vern and Lettuce, animals set in the real world… fab! Works with folk tales, too. More on this subject later…

(Thanks to Justin Hill for the link!)

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