Thursday, April 12, 2012

Creative Juices--Be Ready When Inspiration Strikes

By Nancy Raines Day

JH: Today, I'd like to welcome picture book author Nancy Raines Day to the blog. Since I'm an artist and a writer, I used to think it would be fun to write a picture book. (I even did one in college for my portfolio) Then I discovered these books are a heck of a lot harder to write than they look. Now I leave them to the writers with mad picture book skills. If you've ever had that urge to write a picture book (or just wanted to find ways to nudge your muse a little), Nancy has some great tips to get your creative juices flowing.

In addition to authoring numerous children's books, Nancy writes for educational publishers and consults on picture book texts for members of the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators. Her first children's book, The Lion's Whiskers: A Ethiopian Folktale, was hailed by the New York Times as one of five notable picture books of the year. She earned a BA in journalism from the University of Michigan and an MA in literacy journalism from Syracuse University. A member of the Authors Guild, Day lives with her husband and three cats on St. Simons Island in Georgia. Her most recent book is A is for Alliguitar.

Take it away Nancy...

I always wanted to write an alphabet book. The question was, how would mine be different from all the others on the market? Googling “alphabet book” on Amazon brings up 8,871 results!

I had thought about using a different gargoyle beast for each letter, but struck out on a few difficult letters (X, I’m talking about you.) Then I expanded it to fantastical beasts, such is U is for unicorn, then to creations of the imagination. But I failed to actually finish any of them. The project went, as so many do, onto what I think of as my “back burner” to simmer until some brilliant idea might bubble to the surface.

Months later, I was standing on the St. Simons Island pier, thinking about going to a reunion concert of the youth orchestra I played viola with in high school--all the different instruments and the people who played them. Some tourists said they’d just seen an alligator. So, while scanning the water for an alligator and thinking about instruments, my wires got crossed and I whispered, "Alliguitar".

I wondered if I could come up with an animal/instrument combination for every letter of the alphabet. It wasn’t easy, but Googling alphabetical lists of animals and instruments helped. Mostly, I did it for my own entertainment. Some people do crossword puzzles or Sudoku; I set myself these personal wordplay challenges. Then I wondered if I could put it all in rhyme, which—for once--came easily. It was a gift.

Once A is for Alliguitar was done, I was delighted by my musical alphabeast creations. However, I didn’t think this project would ever sell. I could already see the rejection letters calling it too odd or too slight or questioning whether we should be teaching children the alphabet with words that aren’t even real words.

Still, I sent it out into the world—and three months later, I heard Pelican Publishing wanted it. A year later, I’m holding the book in my hands. In the molasses-paced picture book world, it was enough to make my head spin!

Now that it’s out, I’m tickled to see both children and adults laughing over each alphabeast and marveling over the pigolo, saxofox, wolbourines and other favorites. The first blog review the book received called it “beyond creative”. A local librarian friend said it was her favorite of my books so far. “It’s just so much fun!” she told me. It makes me happy to think that something I had so much fun creating has become an instrument for leading kids and their grownups into having fun together.

And it all started with a one-word inspiration—alliguitar. Yet, in many ways, I had primed myself beforehand to be ready when that ah-ha moment came. That’s what I’d like to share with you fellow writers.

First, I had set my mind to be open and on the lookout for ideas that could be shaped into an alphabet book. I had also always wanted to write a picture book that drew on my love for and experience with music. Growing up, my grandmother lived with us, and often played piano while my sisters and I danced around the living room. She could sit down and play any song she heard, often “ragging” the rhythm. Small wonder that my younger sister is a bluegrass fiddler of the first order. Our family gatherings are something to hear!

So I carry in my head these general categories of projects I’d like to write. You have to tell the universe what you’re looking for and be ready to receive it when it lobs back an answer. I try to keep myself in a creative frame of mind.

One thing that helps is getting enough sleep. Neuroscientists are now discovering that, even after one night of less than seven hours of sleep, people’s ability to “think outside the box” is reduced. I’ve noticed over the years that I’m less likely to be creatively productive when I don’t sleep enough. Sure, life gets in the way sometimes, but I find it’s good to have getting a good night’s sleep as a goal and a value.

I often wake up knowing I’ve been dreaming when I’ve slept well. In periods I’ve been able to keep up the rhythm that allows me to dream every morning, I’ve been much more creative than in more stressful periods when I don’t. In case I have a “brilliant idea” in the night, I keep a pen that lights up by my bed so I can jot it down and go back to sleep. Sometimes it still seems brilliant in the light of day (though often less so)!

Another place inspiration often strikes is in the shower. In case it strikes while driving down the highway, some writers keep a tape recorder so they can dictate their brilliant ideas. You can always pull over and jot it down if it seems important.

I do some of my best thinking about writing projects when I’m doing something relaxing and rhythmic—walking on the beach or swimming laps. It’s great to be able to work, exercise, and rejuvenate yourself all at the same time! But on a rainy day, even rocking in a rocking chair can do the trick.

Asking for what you want, relaxing, and recharging may be a tough prescription, but somebody’s got to do it. Happy creating to you all!

About A is for Alliguitar

A wacky safari that is sure to strike a chord with kids! For each letter of the alphabet, this clever book of rhymes presents a cross between an animal and a musical instrument. From newtubas and mandolions to drumonkeys and pigolos, kids will have a blast during this musical safari. Zany illustrations by Herb Leonhard accompany each creation.


  1. Thank you for sharing your process and tips with us Nancy. BTW I love your name.

  2. These animals sound Adorable! I already sent an email to my mom and sister, both Librarians. I love finding new books for my kiddos to love. :)

  3. Very cool! Love your illustrations, Nancy! I also had a desire to do picture books at one time, Janice. Still haven't given it up entirely. You're right! It's waaaaay more involved than it might seem to people who haven't tried it! Thanks for always having such great posts. - cat