Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Premise Palooza! Generating Great Story Ideas

by Julie Phend

What’s a Premise Palooza?

Premise Palooza is a fun idea for creating unique story concepts invented by my critique group: authors Kara Laughlin, Joyana McMahon, Amy Thernstrom, and myself, Julie Phend.  

Last December, we were all completing long-term projects. This can be a discouraging time for a writer—after years of commitment to a novel-in-progress, your heart can sink if you’re not sure what to tackle next. So we decided to skip traditional critiques that month and concentrate on creating memorable story premises. Our quest became Premise Palooza.

How Does Premise Palooza Work?

In fiction, a premise is defined as a one-sentence story concept that includes a protagonist, a goal, and a situation. For our challenge, we agreed to do the following:

  • Spend 15 minutes each day brainstorming premises. 
  • Not censor any ideas.
  • At the end of the month, choose our 10 most promising ideas and write a pitch paragraph for each.

To keep ourselves accountable and bolster morale, we emailed weekly to report our progress. We had some good laughs as we shared a few of our zanier ideas.

Each week, we took turns being in charge of prompts to stimulate creative thinking. We found three techniques to be particularly useful. Here’s how they worked:

Daily Prompts: 

Each night, the prompter sent three random prompts, which could be used together, separately, or not at all.

  • A gummy advent calendar, A cross-country train car, Mardi Gras
  •  A secret underwater laboratory, Enemies forced to work together,    National Pun-off
  •  New Year’s Eve, An abandoned mine shaft, A secret

Prompts became especially helpful as the month went on and our personal idea wells began to dry up. We discovered that a prompt generated by someone else often sends you in a direction you would never have gone on your own.

A Page from Julie's Notebook

Borrowed Premises: 

Here, the challenge was to take classic premises from books or movies and retell or update them. This strategy yielded some great story ideas.   

  • An update of the Scarlet Letter where a kid is forced to wear a C for cheating
  • A Christmas picture book based on Elf in which the family dog (instead of the baby) climbs into Santa’s sack. 

Chain Premises:  

This technique involved taking an existing premise—either our own or someone else’s—and changing one element at a time, resulting in a long list of permutations.

 We all liked this exercise and were often surprised at where we ended up. We felt it really pushed us to be creative—and it was fun because it produced new ideas quickly.

Amy shared a chain sequence that began with a borrowed premise. She said, “My 11-year-old son helped me brainstorm. We wrote down absolutely anything that came to our heads, no matter how silly, as you can see by the examples below.”  
(The premises marked with an asterisk * were generated by Amy’s son.) The original idea comes from “Robbie,” a short story by Isaac Asimov.

1.     Asimov’s premise: Busy parents hire a robot babysitter—but worry when the child gets too attached.
2.     Busy parents hire a robot bodyguard, but worry when the bodyguard turns out to be a coward.
3.     Busy parents hire a robot bodyguard, but worry when the child destroys him during a temper tantrum.*
4.     Busy parents hire a dragon babysitter, but worry when the child gets scared.*
5.     Busy parents hire a dragon babysitter, but worry when the child starts breathing fire.
6.     Busy parents hire an alien babysitter, but worry when the child starts growing a third eye.*
7.     Busy parents hire an alien cook, but worry about the ingredients of the food.
8.     Busy parents hire a dragon cook, but worry when the food is charred.
9.     A kid and his parents are kidnapped by a dragon and forced to babysit a dragonet.*
10.  A kid and his parents are hired by Santa Claus to babysit the elves.*

Testing our Ideas:

At the end of the month, we each wrote pitches for our most promising ideas and gave each other feedback. We also shared them with the children in our lives and asked which stories they’d most like to read. It was fascinating to learn which premises children of different ages liked and why.

Was it Successful?

Amy Thernstrom
I asked the group to comment on their Premise Palooza experience.

Amy: There was something magical about putting all other writing aside and focusing exclusively on generating premises for a solid month. I wrote more than I ever thought possible. 
Kara Laughlin

Kara: It kept me writing during a time of year that typically sees me away from my desk.

Joyana: It was fun to focus on exercising the idea-generating part of my brain without inhibitions. No idea was a bad one during the process.

Joyana Peters McMahon
Julie: I’ve always been a writer who grabbed the first idea that came into my head. This challenge pushed me to stretch my thinking and become more creative.   

Brainstorming premises is clearly a lot of fun. But does it yield valid story ideas?

We all felt that it did. Two of us are currently writing stories based on the challenge, and we’re all excited to have to have a well of story ideas to draw from when we need them.

Julie Phend
Overall, Premise Palooza was great fun, freed our creativity, bonded our group, and generated a ton of ideas—all during the usually less-productive month of December.

Try It!  

So, if you’re looking for a way to spark your creativity, grab a group of friendly writers and organize your own Premise Palooza. Maybe a Pandemic Premise Palooza is in your future.


Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Marketing a Picture Book in a Pandemic ~ by Patricia Toht

Authors and illustrators dream of the big day that their new book launches. They plan bookstore and school visits. They invest in swag and educational materials. Excitement builds as the day nears.

But this year? BAM! A pandemic hits!

So, what can you do to market a book in the time of Covid-19? 

With schools out and bookstores closed, social media is a lifesaver.
Meet Lisa Katzenberger, SCBWI-Illinois' Social Media Coordinator:

Lisa is a former freelance technical writer and social media manager, who now writes for children. She lives near Chicago with her husband and two children.

Her new picture book, NATIONAL REGULAR AVERAGE ORDINARY DAY, illustrated by Barbara Bakos, is released by Penguin Workshop on June 23rd. With Lisa's background, I knew she'd have some ideas about marketing a book in the time of a pandemic.

Q: It's pretty overwhelming to think about launching a book right now. What's the first thing you did when you found yourself in this situation?

Lisa: Honestly, I held a little pity party for myself. I moped. I whined. But after a few days, I put on my big girl pants and started to brainstorm ways to promote my book online. I reached out to friends for help, and people replied with support. I now have three virtual events planned for my release, and a few more in the works.

Q: Are there any ideas that are still feasible for working with bookstores and schools?

Lisa: I read my book to both of my kids' classrooms via Zoom. I did an intro, then shared my screen to display a pdf of the book so they could see it better, and read it to them. Afterward, we did a Q&A. It was a good reminder that you can do school visits, and on a smaller scale (class-sized), so you can give the kids more attention. I'm also working with a publicist to do virtual story-times through independent bookstores.
Lisa, meeting with a class, in pre-pandemic times.
Q: With the various possibilities for promotion, which are ones that you feel will give you more "bang-for-your-buck" (and time)?

Lisa: I'm doing a virtual book launch through The Writing Barn, and they are partnering with an independent bookstore in Austin, Book People. It's a fun way to celebrate and gives people an easy way to order. I can do everything I would do in a live event (except hand out treats!), and I can bring in more people virtually.

Q: Are book giveaways worth it?

Lisa: I don't have enough data to know if they're worth it yet, but they sure do make me feel good! I'm doing them through #PBChat on Twitter and the Debut Review Challenge. It's easiest to partner with someone else who already has a good system in place for handling the giveaway.

Q: What's your preference - Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram?

Lisa: I've been marketing my book on both Twitter and Facebook. I have a wider audience on Twitter, and have the support of author friends who retweet my posts. I try to always include a cover image and a link to buy my book. I use Canva to make a graphic that is properly sized for Twitter. The example below is how I shared a review for my book. 

Thank you, Lisa, for this wonderful information!

Here are a few more ideas:

Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram are all ways of connecting with your audience. 
  • Try an attention-grabbing trailer, like this one by Michelle Schaub, or this one by Suzanne Slade.
  • Do a special countdown or series of focused posts. Eileen Meyer continues to focus on Abraham Lincoln facts to promote her book, THE SUPERLATIVE A. LINCOLN.
  • Add links to activities and/or educational materials. Check out Jarret Lerner's offerings. 
  • Always tag your publisher, illustrator, and key groups!

Magnify your message.
  • Form a group of others with new books, either a formal one like @Perfect2020PBs (Lisa is in this group), an ad hoc mix of friends with similar titles, or join forces with others in your publishing family.
  • Check in with your publisher to see what they are doing. If they are sharing content on their websites, too, that doubles your message. 
  • Offer a giveaway, and add a condition to your draw - ask people to follow you, retweet/share, and/or tag a friend to enter. This will build your audience.

Look for Lisa's book, NATIONAL REGULAR AVERAGE ORDINARY DAY, on June 23rd. You can pre-order it through your local bookseller, IndieBound, Amazon, and B&N. Her next book, IT WILL BE OKAY, publishes on February 1, 2021.

Find out more about Lisa here:
Website -
Twitter - @FictionCity
Facebook - Lisa Katzenberger Author
Instagram - @lisakatz17



The winners of the May 13th GROG post by Garden Girl are

If you haven't already been in touch, you can reach Suzy at sleopold (at) gmail (dot) com.


Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Let’s Look at Satisfying Endings and a Giveaway

by Suzy Leopold

Writers who study the craft of writing children’s literature understand the importance of satisfying endings for picture books.

A good ending should satisfy the reader with delight and include an Aww!, Aah!, or Ha!

As a gardener on the Illinois Prairie, my husband Perry and I strive for a satisfying ending to the garden season. However, before the bountiful harvest is achieved, there is much to do. The first steps include planning and planting for the spring gardening season. This is the beginning. As days become warmer, seeds begin to sprout. Roots dig deep and shoots peek through the soil. Flowers and vegetables grow reaching for warm rays of sun. Watering and weeding take place to encourage strong, healthy plants. All of this care becomes the middle part of our garden story. Garden chores continue and time passes. Finally, the satisfying ending produces fresh garden goodness. This becomes our ending of Aww!
Just like a gardener, a writer must plan and prepare to achieve a final outcome—a satisfying ending. There are many important elements to consider when writing stories for children. 

For more thoughts about story beginnings with an opening line to hook a reader, click here for a post I wrote in March.

The most common fiction and nonfiction plot structure follows a problem/solution or rise/fall structure. This structure incorporates a beginning, middle, and ending.

Through action, dialogue, obstacles, and challenges, the main character solves a problem and answers questions that were raised during the story. A good ending shares a resolution. The takeaway may be fun, heart warming, surprising, or new learning. The ending shouldn’t be rushed, nor should it drag on. The reader needs to feel satisfied and pleased.

Satisfying endings may circle back to the hook at the beginning of the story. This technique ties the ending with the beginning.

“Come full circle, or bookend your book.
By ending your manuscript with a concept, word, 
or phrase from the beginning, 
you create an appealing, elegant symmetry.”
—Lisa D. Kerr

Sometimes writers like to review the main ideas in a story and remind the reader of important takeaway facts. This is a great technique for nonfiction stories. 

Let’s take a look at a picture book with nonfiction facts.

written and illustrated by Lily Williams
Roaring Brooks Press, 2018
“This is the Arctic. It’s an ecosystem in the far northern region of the globe. Few animals call this land home. The ones that do live here are strong, tough, slow, and ... ”
“The best way for you to help is to learn everything you can about climate change and how it affects environments like the Arctic. Taking action will lessen its devastating effects.

And maybe we will find that the answer to saving polar bears ...

Has been right in front of us all along.”

Here’s one more example:

written by Kobe Yamada; illustrated by Gabriella Barouch 
Compendium, Inc. 2019

“Have you ever wondered why you are here?”

“One thing is for sure, you are here.
And because you are here ...

... anything is possible.”

Now it is time to review one of your manuscripts or two. Examine the ending of your WIP. Revise and polish the story to include an Aww! Aah! or Ha!

In the comments below write an outstanding ending from a recently published fiction or nonfiction book to be eligible to win a bookmark. If you follow the instructions, I’ll put your name in a hat and draw two winners. Each winner will receive a hand crafted bookmark painted with watercolors. 
U. S. Mail only.

I will announce the lucky winners on the next GROG Blog on May 20th. Good luck!

1. Write an ending that left you with a feeling of satisfaction.
2. Include the title of the book, the author, the illustrator, and the publication date [2015-2020].

Wednesday, May 6, 2020


      I met Patricia Saunders at a WOW Writing Retreat in the summer of 2014 and then, in 2016, at the third WOW writing retreat, I was in a small critique group when she read a draft of what would be her second book. How cool was that? She was gracious enough to answer some questions for the GROG.

                                         Billy Bear is reading Patricia's book again!

       Tell us what you want readers to know about Mother Teresa: The Little Pencil in God's Hand.

I would like to say this isn’t about the Catholic religion nor a religious book. I have dedicated it to all the caregivers in the world. That’s what Agnes grew up learning to do from her mother. As an adult, Mother Teresa continued spending her life caring for the sick, the hungry, and helping those in need.

         I think you told me you were self-taught? Have you always enjoyed art? Taken any classes?

I have always been into the arts. As a child, I loved to sing, dance, draw, paint, and make things like paper-dolls. My cousins and I put on plays and charged everyone 10 cents to watch us perform. I did not like to read. I preferred to watch a movie. I did not like school either. In fact, I vowed to never go to school ever again! So, I am a late bloomer and did not start college until I was about 34-ish. I only planned to take one drawing class. Well that lead to many others along with academics. I decided school wasn’t so bad after all and loved it! What I really wanted to do was learn all I could about visual art and I wanted to go to graduate school. But that was going to be a big financial problem. However, the University of Dallas in Irving, Texas gave scholarships. In fact, getting a scholarship was the only way to get into their graduate program. My knees knocked as I handed over my application. Usually there were only about eleven students and took about 2-3 new ones annually. I believe I was supposed to be there. I earned my Master of Arts in Art and was invited to stay for my Master of Fine Arts. Before I became the illustrator for my book, I had taken Mira Reisberg's illustration class. Maybe it was a hidden desire of mine. Nevertheless, I learned how to navigate around without photoshop. I would recommend her class.

         How did you decide to write this book about Mother Teresa? What piqued your interest?

I was raised Catholic, but catechism was a hit-and-miss. My parents divorced and that stuff got put on the back burner. However, I’ve always known who Mother Teresa was. But when I read about her childhood . . .wow! I didn’t know any of it. I found it interesting especially how she spent her time---reading and writing. Now why the surprise? It shouldn’t be because she’s left a legacy of writings. I found her childhood fascinating.

         What medium did you use, and why?

Ages ago, I began water coloring. It comes easy to me. The softness seemed to go along with this story. I’ve had some of my flowers reproduced by the New York Graphic Society. That was 1984 and 1986. My last name was different than it is now. I still have the main catalogue showing my first two images, which I will share if anyone wants to see.

        As an author-illustrator, I always wonder what came first—the text or the art, or did they come into being side by side?

I am not a trained illustrator and I never dreamt I’d become one. I had the story written and Clear Fork Publishing, Callie Metler-Smith, wanted to publish it. I approached each illustration as a painting. I kept reminding myself how I drew fifteen huge pastels and made the frames for my MA Exhibition and how I sculpted twelve huge sculptures for my MFA Exhibition. I didn’t let anyone down then including myself. My logic said, “If I could do that, I could do this!” Making a book dummy is very important. I found arrangement and illustrations were changed around a little by considering both.

         How long from start to finish for the book to be sold? Were you ever discouraged during the process? Do you have an agent?

I began the writing and researching in 2015 and sold the book in 2017. Yes, I have been discouraged. I wrote a whole lot of examples to share but I’ve deleted them. Glean what criticism works and forget the rest. You must be thick skinned. Yes, I have had an agent. I seem to be doing better on my own.

         Do you have a favorite spread or spreads?

I like them all! But I suppose I really like the one where she’s giving food to the kids.

 Did you have some trouble spots that you had to iron out?

Yes! Originally in my research, I read Mother Teresa had a club foot. This is in many books, not just one. I wondered which foot it was and wrote to many places including the authors of those books. They didn’t answer. I also wrote to The Sisters of Loretto in Ireland. They didn’t know and suggested I write The Mother Teresa Center in Rome, Italy. It took a month or so to get a response. They wanted to know where and who told me that? In the end, Sr. M. Callisitta said Mother Teresa did not have a club foot and they only consider one book to be 100% accurate. My heart sank. Was my entire book going up in smoke?! It’s an older book and I only found it in the library downtown Dallas. I also bought it on Amazon so I could have it forever. Nevertheless, what I had written checked out! Relief and Hooray! If it had not, then the book would have been untrue---fiction and that would have been a real bummer.

         You have extensive back matter. How did you decide what to include?

Initial reading of this book is for the very young. The back matter makes it an interesting read for the older ones. Overall, I wanted my book to tell the whole truth about her childhood. But who can write that many speculated her father was murdered in a picture book? I couldn’t but it’s important to know along with other things. The back matter and timeline add to a student’s research for a class paper. The Catholic schools always teach about the saints and this book gives a lot of information about Mother Teresa.

       Any helps or hints for others who want to go the author-illustrator route? Any pitfalls to avoid?

When I first started writing in 2014, the word was to not submit illustrations with a manuscript. I heard publishers wanted to find their own artists. Now it seems like author/illustrators are in demand. So, I’d suggest finding a publisher that wants both in one package. As for myself, I am not planning on illustrating books for others. I’ve got plenty to do with my own stories.

       Tell us about any new books in the pipeline.

It’s a Muffuletta! It’s a Whata?
A fun picture book about Senor Salvatore Lupo who wants to open a little shopa and sella delicioso salami, provolone and lotsa stuff. It’s about the origin of the world famous Muffuletta Sandwich in New Orleans, Louisiana. Yummy. It includes a version of the recipe too.
Published by Clear Fork Publishing, Callie Metler-Smith.
Release date: It was scheduled for the end of May 2020. Due to the Covid-19 it is going to be late August 2020.
This spring, Callie Metler-Smith at Clear Fork Publishing, has asked to publish my new series titled: Wesley Rose and . . .
They will be Early Reader Chapter Books. We will have 5-6 for openers. I’ll also be the illustrator.

Can you give us a little bio blurb and contact info for our readers?

As a child, I loved traveling and meeting people from all over the world. When I was growing up, most people did not ride on airplanes or go to many faraway places. In fact, when I was born in Alaska, it was not even a state.I was in 6th grade when I realized the opportunities I had been given. Inside the world history textbook was a photo of the Inca ruins in South America. I clearly remember thinking how I had stood on that ground. From that day on, I appreciated moving ‘almost’ every year and making new friends.
I have always been into drawing and painting. Teaching art to the younger grades allowed me to notice the illustrations in picture books. Now I love adding words to my pictures. Somehow, it has come full circle and I am blessed.

Twitter: @WriterSaunders