How to become a better writer

I wrote my first picture book in the 1980s.

It was about a teddy bear. Mr Bear spent several hours dangling from a clothesline.

Gripping stuff.

I popped my story in an envelope and sent it to a publisher.

Six months later when the rejection slip arrived, I stuck it to the wall above my typewriter. (Yeah, it was a typewriter).

That rejection slip was proof my story had been on an editor’s desk. My story had been looked at, nay, handled by a professional.

My story was worthy of a stamp and a form letter!

I was on my way to becoming an Author.

Fast forward a few decades.

I was in a local cafe. No newspaper,  no phone, notepad or  typewriter.

Just sipping coffee and people-watching.

At the next table, a grandmother was reading a picture book to a little boy. The boy was trying to engage with the book. You could see the effort on his face and in his body language.

But the book was a dud.

It was one of those awful picture books you often see in cafes. If you’re interested in kid lit, you’ll know what I mean. (Note to cafe owners: Any old guff will NOT do.)

I thought, if I had to read a book like that to a kid, what would I do?

I knew the answer straight away.

I’d make up my own words and stick them into the story. I’d make that kid laugh if it was the last thing I did.

I wandered home thinking about what makes toddlers laugh.

Now, for some time I’d been taking art classes. I was at the stage where I was learning to draw… circles.

But my circles had evolved. I’d been painting cupcakes for weeks. (Actually, I’d been copying them from a tea-towel. But it was a good exercise and taught me a little about shading and watercolour  etc.)

Exhibit A

I was drawing eggs, too. Eggs in egg cups. Sponge-cakes, too. Chocolate sponges with gaudy pink icing, and strawberry jam in the middle.

Then I started drawing chickens.

I had no idea why I was doing this so obsessively. But over the years I’ve learned to go with creative impulses even when, or especially when, they don’t make sense.

When I arrived home from the cafe that day, I sat down and wrote a story about a cheery old fellow who lived on a farm and one day took a trip into town.

I wrote fast. I didn’t censor myself, I just wrote. I soon noticed that, lo and behold, I had the outline for picture book.

That night I sat up in bed with my sketchbook. Again, I was just doodling, not trying to dream up anything amazing.

I thought, What does this fellow look like?  His name is Clarrie and he’s bald, came the answer. Cool!

I drew him quickly. He spoke to me, ‘I’m very fond of chookens,’ he said. ‘They make good friends and their pegs make delicious cakes.’

Clarrie was getting clearer in my mind. Here’s how I drew him.

He kept chatting. He was sweet, and his quirky way of speaking and gentle outlook on life, made me smile. I drew a pile of wonky sketches.

The next day I rewrote the story in Clarrie’s voice.

Then I emailed my publisher at HarperCollins. ‘There’s someone I’d like you to meet.’

Here’s what we ended up with:


Sue deGennaro took my vision and perfected it.

What’s the lesson and how can you use it?

Well, there’s something about hanging onto your dreams. Remember, I’d been wanting to write picture books since the 80s…

But it’s more than that.

This experience confirmed for me that we must follow our creative urges.

We have to trust them. No matter how silly or irrational they seem (circles, eggs, cupcakes, chookens).

Our obsessions are always part of a bigger story. They’re always teaching us something important, helping us hone our skills, leading us towards something richer.

It may not be a book or anything so tangible. But everything you make, everything you create, feeds your inner artist and strengthens your imagination.

Trust your creative urges. Don’t dismiss them because you’re inexperienced or ‘unqualified’ or too embarrassed to try.

Don’t box yourself into one single form of creative expression.

Give yourself permission to play—to be an eternal beginner, to experiment, to be obsessive. That’s how we make art. That’s how we create.

It’s also how we become better writers, artists, illustrators, musicians…

Notice the cupcakes? Ha! Illustration, Sue deGennaro.

All our  interests are interconnected. If you want to draw, draw. If you want to write, write. If you want to play the tambourine, crochet, sing, make camels out of cotton wool, get to it!

Don’t question it. Just let it flow. That’s how creativity works. Carelessly.  In a state of trust and grace.

The only mistake you can ever make is to stop playing, to second guess the call.

Be brave. Declare yourself in.

Jen xo

#keepscribbling #createstuff

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