Lee Harper: Plotting with Post-its and GIVEAWAY

I love to write, but writing scares me. I never feel like I really know what I’m doing. I’m a big fraud.

Since breaking into the business in 2008, I’ve published eight picture books, all of which I illustrated. Three of them I wrote and illustrated. I’ve sold a lot of books. I’ve won some awards. I’ve gotten some good reviews. It’s been an exciting ride.

Luckily, they haven’t found me out yet, I guess.

During this time I’ve met a lot of other authors and illustrators. It’s been comforting to learn that most of us share the same insecurities. You’d be surprised how many of us think we’re one bad sentence, or one bad drawing away from being exposed as the frauds we really are. We’re an odd bunch.

I haven’t always been very good at plotting. In fact, I’ve wasted a lot of time on plotless messes. I’ve learned the hard way the importance plotting. I’ve also learned from getting to know so many authors and illustrators that we each have our different ways of doing things. One thing I’ve noticed most of the successful ones have in common is that they plot their stories with words or drawings and sometimes both.

LHarper_BookCovers

Although I’m no authority on the subject, I have somehow managed to find an idiosyncratic technique of plotting a picture book that works for me. You might want to try it yourself. All you need is your imagination and access to Post-its.

Begin with a three or four sentence summary of your story. Imagine it’s the blurb on the jacket sleeve of your book.

Next write a quick first draft of this story. Try to visualize the scenes as you write. Listen for the voices of the characters. For visual variety try to place the story in different settings. Don’t describe with words what you can show with pictures. Make illustration notes as you write. (They’ll come in handy during the next phase) Most important is to get it all down in one fell swoop.

Next go through your manuscript and make notes about which images will appear on which page. This is the rough pagination. Most picture books are thirty-two pages. Some forty. (Leave blank about six pages for the endpapers, the copyright page and title pages.) As you’re deciding which image will go on which page, try to imagine the turning of the page. The page turn is crucial.

In the pagination stage it’ll become obvious right away if the story needs to be lengthened or shortened. Go back and lengthen or shorten the story and repeat the pagination process before proceeding to next stage. With each step, distil your story down to the bare essentials. Get rid of any words that aren’t necessary. Imagine reading it aloud to a kindergartener. Imagine the kindergartener trying to read it. Always remember your reader.

There is always a LOT of going back and forth in the process of plotting a picture book. It’s like putting together a puzzle. Try this piece here, if it doesn’t fit, try it another way…

Now we bring in the Post-its that I mentioned earlier. This is where the visual plotting begins in earnest. On a large drafting table — or on the wall—lay out your Post-its like this:

 

LHarper_DraftTable_01

 

Similar to our quick approach when we began writing our story, we’ll quickly go through and place very rough stick figure drawings on each Post-it. Also jot down where the text will fit on each page. As the visual story begins to emerge more clearly you’ll find things that work and other things that don’t work. New ideas will be triggered by the drawings. Play! The beauty of the Post-it technique is that you can easily get rid of what doesn’t work without investing a great deal of time in each drawing. But save the drawings that don’t work. Tomorrow when you view it with a fresh eye you may change your mind!

 

LHarper_DraftTable_02

Back and forth we go with our drawings through the story. Add a new drawing. Take away a drawing. Put back a drawing you took away the day before. When stuck, lie down, close your eyes and imagine you are a hummingbird flying around, looking at the scene from many different angles. Don’t get discouraged in the beginning of this stage. This is when the big creative storm is brewing, building energy.

 

LHarper_DraftTable_03

 

Keep chugging along. You are approaching one of the most exciting peaks in this up and down process I often equate with being on a roller-coaster ride. Once rounding the peak, things will happen fast. It will be an exhilarating blur as your book picks up momentum. Get up early. Stay up late. Drink coffee. Light a candle. Listen to Norma. Lock the studio door. Get carried away with your work. Be temperamental when interrupted. Don’t listen to those little voices in your head telling you you are a fraud. You are NOT a fraud! You are a genius! You are now on the verge of creating the next great picture book!

When you emerge back into the real world with a bunch of little doodles that seem like they could be the blueprints for a book, scan them all, insert the text, and make a PDF file out of them. If you want, make a little mock book. If you are an author/illustrator a sample can help. Send your masterpiece to an editor or agent. Buckle up and prepare for the roller-coaster ride all over again.

Chances are you may receive rejections. This is normal. (Even after you’ve gotten your foot in the door) This is the low point of the ride. This is when most rational people get off, say thank you very much. I tried, but I think I’ll go back to being a claims adjuster now. There’s absolutely no shame in that.

If the spark continues to burn inside you, I recommend staying on. Not everyone makes it to the peaks, but I don’t think anyone with that burning spark has ever regretted shooting for their dreams. Stay the course, and with a lot of hard work and a little luck, the next thing you could be plotting is your successful picture book career.

 

LeeHarper_72dpi

 

Lee’s Books: Turkey Trick or Treat, by Wendi Silvano (August 11, 2015); Turkey Claus, by Wendi Silvano; Turkey Trouble, by Wendi Silvano; The Emperor’s Cool Clothes, by Lee Harper; Snow! Snow! Snow! By Lee Harper; Woolbur, by Leslie Helakoski; Coyote, by Lee Harper; Looking For The Easy Life by Walter Dean Myers. Find Lee online at LeeHarperart.com

Lee is giving away a signed advance copy of TURKEY TRICK OR TREAT written by Wendi Silvano and a copy of THE EMPEROR’S COOL CLOTHES that he wrote and illustrated himself. If you are a registered Summer School student and would like a chance to win, please leave a comment on this post to be entered into the drawing. Good luck!

If you are registered for Kidlit Summer School, you can download a worksheet of Lee’s writing exercise at our Exercise Book. This is a password-protected area — only members allowed! Please check your email for the password.

170 comments on “Lee Harper: Plotting with Post-its and GIVEAWAY

  1. Cathy B. says:

    Now I know what I can do with all those colored post-its that I have bought from the Dollar Store! Love your books, love your illustrations, and I love your funny post today. Great stuff and inspirational, too.

    Like

  2. Charlene Steadman says:

    Stick figures is as good as I get. Good advice!

    Like

  3. Stacey jacobs says:

    I am not a fraud.
    Your lesson was beautifully written.
    Thank you. Lee, you have kind eyes and I can tell you aren’t a fraud either!
    I needed to read your words today. Just the pick-me-up I required. Some days are hard…

    Like

  4. Always fun to hear about others processes!
    Lee, huge fan of whimsical, free-spirIted WOOLBUR!

    Like

  5. […] just need to see something in it’s space, then plotting with post-its is for you. Check out this link to see Lee explain it much better than I […]

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  6. Turkey is a favorite in our house. Now we have to read WOOLBUR!
    Thanks for your informational post.

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  7. Maria Marshall says:

    I have made dummy books, but using post-it notes is an inspired idea. Fort Knox, indeed. Thank you for allowing us into your process and doubts. I appreciate the pep talk as well. I want to join Vivian and stay after class, too!

    Like

  8. ellenramsey says:

    Love your books, Lee. And the plot post-its technique sounds fascinating and fun–I’m eager to try it.

    Like

  9. sharon giltrow says:

    Hi Lee thanks for a great blog and showing me how the post it notes work. I love your studio too it looks like a great creative space.

    Like

  10. Juliana Lee says:

    I like the process of letting it flow and adjusting as necessary. 3M should be paying you!

    Like

  11. Diane Nizlek says:

    You have the storyboard writing and sketches down to a science! Enjoyed your post!

    Like

  12. Sarah Rosenthal says:

    Thank you for your post it post

    Like

  13. Val McCammon says:

    Post-Its are a great idea for visualizing and moving things around. Thanks, Lee.

    Like

  14. Caroline says:

    Love this encouragement. I definitely understand this kind of insecurity! It took me two years to learn that I really needed to storyboard and plan out the paginations on manuscripts, but I’ve been doing that for about two years now, and, wow, it really does make a difference. I’ve previously plotted them out on index cards, but I think I’ll try your post-it idea now! It sounds much easier to move/shuffle. Thank you for sharing!

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  15. I don’t think I can begin to describe how much I love this post! I’ve been working on a book and banging my head against a wall trying to figure out how to pull it all together. I love the idea of the post-it’s! I thank you for telling me I am not a fraud. I need desperately to believe that and now I know I’m in good company. THANK YOU. From the bottom of my not-so-fraudulent heart.

    Like

  16. Melanie Ellsworth says:

    Lee, I hope you get Post-Its as birthday presents and for all the major holidays. I haven’t tried the Post-It approach before, but I can see this really working for me in my PB planning. Thank you!

    Like

  17. Teresa Wiles says:

    Using post its should help with all the changes especially when writing and illustrating a picture book. Working on a wall and keeping things flexible would help with the chaos. Great post!

    Like

  18. Post-Its! Why didn’t I think of that?! Thanks for the insights and the pep talk. Both gave me inspiration and encouragement.

    Like

  19. Jenifer McNamara says:

    Interresting post. Enjoyed your don’t quit at what you must enjoy ideas.

    Like

  20. Marla Lesage says:

    Love it! I think Ineed some post-it’s!

    Like

  21. Katie says:

    Thanks for the post on the use of post-its!

    Like

  22. Woolbur made it to the LA SCBWI conference this past weekend. Someone used it in a presentation. Post-its–great idea! Thanks.

    Like

  23. Anne Lipton says:

    Thanks for a fun post, Lee. I love how you much you embrace and enjoy the rollercoaster ride of creativity. Great idea to storyboard with sticky notes!

    Like

  24. What a great use for post-its. Thanks for the share!

    Like

  25. Zainab says:

    I am pretending I am a hummingbird fluttering above my words. Thank you.

    Like

  26. writeknit says:

    Thanks for the post-it plot plan. I plan to give it a try. 🙂

    Like

  27. Trine says:

    I am very encouraged! Thanks, Lee.

    Like

  28. Keila Dawson says:

    “Draw stick figures.” I can do that. Going to give your plotting tips a try. 🙂

    Like

  29. MaDonna says:

    Thanks for this idea with post-its.

    Like

  30. Thanks, Lee. It’s great to hear you’re starting to believe in your inner storyteller. Can’t wait for your next big thing.

    Like

  31. Kathy Ley says:

    The best part of your post was the image of your amazing plotting board. I’ve propped my white board up against a bookcase, and I’m ready to post-it.. Great idea, and thank you!

    Like

  32. Woah…totally cool thumbnail post-its! I loved peeking at your process, Lee. Thanks for sharing.

    Like

  33. hethfeth says:

    There’s something really confidence-building about this post. Thank you! It’s nice to know it’s ok to come around to plotting in various sidelong ways…as long as you do come around to it eventually.

    Like

  34. Jeanine Potter says:

    Thank you for the brilliant idea of Post-its! I can’t wait to try it!

    Like

  35. Heather Pierce Stigall says:

    I sometimes use post-its with a different method, but I’m looking forward to trying these ideas. Thanks for the suggestions.

    Like

  36. Cindy Fullmer says:

    This is the most logical approach to a Picture Book I’ve seen. Quick dummies always need redone over and over if you can’t just remove a page and you can’t see the big picture at once. I prefer story-boarding for the big picture and I love the post-it method

    Like

  37. Cindy Fullmer says:

    Oh, and I now have serious Studio-envy. How fabulous!

    Like

  38. lahewson says:

    Thanks, Lee. I have fun making up and drawing a mock book, but I really like your idea of using Post-It notes. Thanks for the tips.

    Like

  39. I like the fast flexibility of this approach more than dummy one. Can’t wait to give it a whirl!

    Like

  40. Janet Smart says:

    Thanks for the post and showing us your process.

    Like

  41. Susan Schade says:

    Thank you for the good advice!

    Like

  42. The Post-Its would be easier to move than my tape. Thanks!

    Like

  43. Carol Nelson says:

    Post Its are awesome! I love the idea of being able to move them around. This will definitely help my WIP that is in serious need of plotting!

    Like

  44. Sheri Rad says:

    Thank you for plotting for picture books, very helpful and looks fun. Trying that today.

    Like

  45. “Imagine the kindergartener trying to read it. Always remember your reader.” Great reminder! I may write this above my desk. Thank you!

    Like

  46. Good pep talk! What most strikes a chord with me is the encouragement, the imperative to dive into the work when the time comes, putting the time in and devoting yourself to it. The times I have succeeded with ambitious creative projects, it was principally due to just that.

    Like

  47. yangmommy says:

    Love “Turkey Claus!” And I also love seeing your storyboard in action. Alas, my illustrations tend to look like a 3yr old did the drawing, so I write one draft of my MS with illustration notes and the other just the text. It can get confusing, but it also helps to keep word count in check because if I can show it vs telling it, I will. Thanks for the post!

    Like

  48. Thanks for the great tip. I’m a big fan of post-its myself. Now I have yet one more way to use them. Ha!

    Like

  49. tinamcho says:

    Very clever to use post it notes! Thanks!

    Like

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