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Zombies! Brains! Brainstorming! Oh my!

Happy Friday and welcome to Picture Book Spotlight!

Today marks the last day of #KidlitZombieWeek--an odd little happening I accidentally inspired. Cause sometimes you write a book. Sometimes it’s Tuesday. And sometimes you inspire an annual zombie-themed kidlit celebration of resurrecting dead manuscripts through the magical zombification of revision…

Even if you didn’t participate in Kidlit Zombie Week, this post spotlights some brainstorming techniques I use that hopefully will help you generate new projects.

According to the Kidlit Zombie Week webpage (run by 6 Ladies and a MANuscript), a zombie story can be a shelved story, that manuscript stuck in a drawer, or a written piece you once considered "dead" but want to revise to bring it back to life.

My debut picture book, THE BOOK OF RULES (illustrated by Tom Knight), was technically a zombie story.

It’s about a monster named Dennis who eats children if they don’t follow the rules. This is Dennis. He's hungry.

Shortly after it was written, THE BOOK OF RULES was tossed in a folder marked, “No Longer Pursuing” (the place my stories go to die). Maybe I put it there because I thought it was nothing. Maybe I thought it was my worst story. Maybe it wasn’t as interesting as other manuscripts I had. Or some combination of the three.

And so there it sat for months on end, far removed from my consciousness and certainly not on my radar to be taken seriously. After all, I was working hard to get published...why waste my time on a story in a dusty folder for the dead?

As fate would have it, while brainstorming future projects to potentially submit, I took a dive into the crypt and decided why not include it in a list of pitches to my agent. Just for funsies.

Why not? Why not? Why not?

Them’s magical words. Never doubt the power of “why not?”

“Why not” generates a feeling that there’s nothing to lose. When you feel there’s nothing to lose, the pressure is off and incredible things can happen. Pressure is a creativity killer. This is something I've been reflecting a lot about lately.

The honest truth is the longer I do this, the less and less confident I am about why some books work and others don’t. Why some “make it” and some never see the light of day. It’s all so subjective, isn't it? That can be very frustrating--especially for my friends slogging away in the murky querying trenches.

So, in the face of that heavy subjectivity, pressure, and uncertainty, we have to learn to just go with it, be prepared for surprises, keep an open mind, and make time to play. When we make time to play, we disrupt our usual creative process and invite novelty into our hallowed creative spaces and rhythms. Mix it up, kidlit fam!

When we play, brainstorm, and develop new work, it’s good to remember that it’s healthy and normal NOT to finish every idea. Most ideas stay in their raw seed form and that’s okay. Lots of ideas get developed and show budding signs of life. Some only get half-sprouted, while others are “finished” and fully bloom. Some get pruned, ready for sharing. And a small select few make it into a colorful bouquet and are queried or submitted. Man, I really went all-in with this botanical analogy, didn’t I?

Whatever is produced from a brainstorming session is an ultimate good--a net positive. So let's do some brainstorming!

Cause zombies...brains...and brainstorming!

Without any further zombie-ado, here’s a list of strategies to generate some hopefully living manuscripts...or at the very least, just help you increase the body count in your story sepulcher. Either way, it’s all good! Cause maybe one day they’ll get up, start walking, and totally surprise you…(or eat your brains).

Be sure to hit me up if anything comes from these brainstorming strategies--I'd love to hear about it!

1. Make a list of really awesome titles

Titles that jump out and say...READ ME! On the titles you create, ask yourself, “do any of these titles scream about the kind of book it is? Do I get a sense of story? Voice? Genre?" Make a document and keep a running list so you can quickly capture title ideas as they come. Take a few of your favorite and experiment with the story. What’s a good first line to open a book with a title like that?

2. Make a list of really awesome first lines

Book openers are crucial. They’re the handshake of the story. Get the first line right, and you’re likely to keep them reading. Likewise, the opposite is true. So practice awesome first lines! Experiment with voice and form and length and sentence structure. Grab the reader’s attention. Thrust us into the middle of something. Reveal a key characterization with that first line. Communicate the problem or plot or where we’re going with that first line. Make a document and keep a running list of interesting first lines so you can quickly capture ideas as they come. If some of them just can’t leave your brain...see what comes next!

3. Make a list of really awesome characters

Characters make or break a book, don’t they? They stick with us. Haunt us. So why not make a list of characters that would make great picture book protagonists (and antagonists). Experiment with species. Objects. People of all types. People with flaws. Animals. Plants. Personified ideas! There’s no wrong choice. Give them interesting names. Desires. Goals. Scars. Give them quirks and idiosyncrasies. Give them obsessions. And friends. Families. Give them fears and hopes and dreams. Next, if you really want to experiment...interview them. Yes, interview them. Write the interview down as it unfolds. You can learn SO much from characters through this activity. A word to the wise: try to listen more than impose your ideas onto them. Let them be who they are.

4. Make a list of really “bad” picture book ideas

Okay, so this one is very signature Brian Gehrlein. Here’s my point: everyone is inherently seeking to write a good book. Nobody (unless you’re me) is seeking to intentionally write a bad book. But to write a bad book you have to operate under the assumption that you know what a “good” book requires and then blatantly break those “rules.” It places your brain in a very unique state of mind. And frees inhibitions. Follow me here. If you aren’t concerned about writing something “good” just might end up writing something amazing. Counterintuitive? Yes. But try it. Go on. Write a bad book. I DARE YOU! Who knows what could come out?

5. Make a list of story parodies that would be great

Think about books and movies and plays that have timeless ideas and themes and plots. Would any work well retold as a picture book? Why not!? Lampoon a famous story. Write an irreligious parody. Poke fun at a classic. If it's public domain, maybe just retell it for a picture book audience. All ideas are on the table. Except maybe Game of Thrones. Probably just...don’t. Cause incest, ice-zombies, and unending, power-grabbing cycles of murder don’t quite translate to the picture book crowd...

6. Make a list of topics, themes, conflicts, or emotions you feel confident you know

What are you an authority on? What do you really “know?” They say write what you know but have you ever really sat down and taken stock of what you know? What do you know so well that it’s in your bones and you can just talk and talk about? What emotional baggage are you carrying around from your childhood that you connect to in a deep way? What has life shown you and how can you use those experiences to draw from and fictionalize? (or maybe don’t fictionalize...maybe go nonfiction!)

7. Try library-kinesthetic-osmosis-muse-activation-activity

This one is ritualistic for me. And it’s the only strategy that seems to work 100% of the time. Get yourself to the library. Take a notebook and pen with you. Next, just explore the stacks. Pull books and read titles. Look at covers. Open first pages and last pages. Skim. Pull and pull and pull. Touch the books. Let your mind go blank and let your eyes and hands lead you. When an idea pops into your head, document it. Write it down really quick. Don’t develop it. Just capture it in its raw form. And move on. Do this until you have a paper filled up with ideas. It sounds sort of touchy-feely but try it! Seriously, get yourself to the library. Like yesterday. There’s magic in the stacks!

8. Intentionally push against established form

Real talk: Form is just unchecked literary tradition (what has worked and sold in the past) parading around as untouchable, axiomatic common sense. Form exists simply because we uphold it. More accurately, those with power and influence uphold it. The gatekeepers uphold it--the agents and editors tirelessly protect it. But if they protect it, why not leave it alone and work exclusively within the form, not against it? Why fix something that’s not broken? Why poke the bear? Why break the rules? Why? Because...why not? Because that’s how evolution and progress and innovation happen. So take a risk! Send all convention and form out the window! Write a book that purposely pushes against all common sense of what a picture book “should be.” Write a book without tension or an arc or a theme or a plot or even a main character...go on...break the rules (Dennis won’t eat you...probably.) I wonder what would happen to our writing if we weren't so damned subservient to form and the gatekeepers who uphold it...don't you?

9. Try a word association idea generator

Get some paper and a pen. Think of a topic. A category. Or any word to start. How about tree? Or penguin? Or sky? It doesn’t matter where you start. Next, you’re going to make a word association list of everything even loosely associated with that word. Sometimes a timer can create a false sense of urgency that generates more associations. If anything, it makes it more fun! After you have a fairly good list, look back and place some stars over your favorites. Maybe 3-5 of the words you feel most connected to. Now, narrow that top list down to your very favorite. Just ONE! From that one word you identified, incorporate it into a title, a first line, or a character name. Where can you go from there? Do you have any experience to draw from that word? Does something jump out to you?

10. Try a sensory prompt generator

This idea is similar to the word association idea generator but is narrowed to the categories of the senses. My favorite sense to do this activity with is smell--it’s the strongest sense tied to memory. Sounds work great as well since we have a TON of emotional information stored with sounds. Let’s go with smells. For 2 minutes (works best with a timer!) make a list of smells. Literally any smell. Make them wildly different and not associated with each other. But there’s no wrong answer. Any smell! Once you have your list of smells, you’re going to try and narrow them down to your top 3-5. Place some stars on the ones you feel most emotionally connected to. Now you need to commit. Pick ONE of those top smells that you feel most drawn to. And there is your inspiration point. Take that smell and brainstorm. What story ideas come to mind? What conflicts, characters, titles, first lines, or experiences might be associated with that smell? When I use this exercise, I have my students write a first-person scene or journal entry inspired by the smell. Some really interesting things always come out!

The purpose behind brainstorming is to get your creative mind percolating. To get SOMETHING down. Because sometimes the most emotionally oppressive thing a writer can face is a blank page. So throw some words on that page! Play a little bit and see what happens. You never know what might come out.

Maybe you’ll capture something interesting. Maybe you won’t be sure about it so you’ll put it in a folder marked, “No Longer Pursuing.” Maybe you’ll rediscover it months later when you want to pitch ideas to your agent (just for funsies). Maybe your agent will love it. Maybe multiple editors will want it! Maybe...who knows? Who knows what’s possible when we break the rules and mix it up.

But just remember...if you break the rules...Dennis will eat you.

For those participating in Kidlit Zombie Week, I will be selecting one winner from the pitch form submissions to receive a "mini mentorship" consisting of three critiques! The winner can share the same manuscript three times or share three different manuscripts for one critique each. I look forward to reading everyone's pitches and selecting my favorite!

Join the Twitter discussion about what's working in your zombie manuscript!

What are you really connecting to?


If you’d like to read more about THE BOOK OF RULES or my authoring journey, check out the links below!

(post that inspired Kid Lit Zombie Week)

(about my journey and 600 rejections...yes, 600 rejections…)

(my thoughts on the awesome cover by Tom Knight!)

(goes into detail on inspiration and process of writing the book)

Coming October 19, 2021 from FSG Books for Young Readers


This will be the bio to end all bios. The one that puts all other bios to shame. It will be...a bio of epic proportions. So get ready. Buckle up. And hold on tight…

Brian likes toast. He writes books for kids. Sometimes he eats toast while writing books for kids. Sometimes the books are about toast. Sometimes they are not. The toast is better with butter and jam. So are the books. The Book of Rules is not about toast. But you should still pre-order it. Brian will now stop writing this bio and make some toast. Stop reading it.



October 19, 2021 (34)_edited.jpg
October 19, 2021 (34)_edited.jpg
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