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#FirstDraftFriday with Brian Gehrlein!

It's the first #FirstDraftFriday of fall, and we're in for a treat with guest author Brian Gehrlein! In his own signature style, he's sharing the nitty-gritty on how he wrote his debut picture book. You're sure to be inspired to write your own future best-seller today!

Cover of My Sister, Daisy

PLUS...Brian is generously offering a manuscript critique as a prize for someone who completes a draft today! Details at the end of this post.

Brian’s debut picture book, THE BOOK OF RULES, illustrated by Tom Knight, will be out Nov. 16th from Farrar, Straus and Giroux!

For signed copies on pre-orders, visit Brian’s local indie bookstore, The Learning Tree:

Let's learn a little about THE BOOK OF RULES and what inspired Brian to sit down and write the first draft of it?

To start, here is a description of the book from Macmillan:

The Book of Rules is an interactive picture book with dynamic illustrations, in which readers have to follow the rules or risk a run-in with a monster—with a gentle approach to mindfulness along the way.

Beware! This book has rules. You must follow all the rules. If you break the rules . . . Dennis the monster will eat you. And you don’t want to be Dennis-food—do you?

With a laugh-out-loud, interactive style, The Book of Rules invites you to get your sillies out before it’s time to focus and listen to directions. And you better get started, because Dennis can’t wait to eat—or, um—meet you!

I wrote the first draft for RULES back in the fall of 2017 when I was working as a special education paraprofessional. Spending all day steeped in the glorious blend of order and chaos that often characterizes elementary schools, I observed lots of squireliness and varying degrees of success when students transitioned from one activity to another. I noticed varying degrees of engagement during whole class story times and lessons. I noticed lots of teacher-student call and responses. I must have been reflecting on what I was seeing. I must have been reflecting on kids navigating their day, following hundreds of rules. Some rules were easier to follow than others. Games also had rules. Games they played in PE and even games they made up at recess on their own. Play had rules. Rules were kind of...everywhere.

So that was the context I was in when I sat down to capture this voice I kept hearing. “This book has rules. You must follow all the rules…” I knew it was a meta fiction since it referred to itself as a book. I’ve always been attracted to meta-things because they’re so playfully cheeky. But why must they follow the rules? Why “must?” What was at stake? What was motivating the kids to participate in the rules of the book? Ah, avoid being eaten, of course! I don’t know about you but I’m highly motivated to not be eaten by anything (so far I’ve been successful). Okay. Eaten. Eaten by what? Eaten by a monster. Yes...a scary, child-eating monster who eats kids who don’t follow the rules (sounds EXTREMELY appropriate for 2021, right?).

To avoid a tone akin to the nightmarish 19th century behavior-manipulation-through-fear children’s stories which often featured violent and disastrous consequences for children who misbehave, I decided to make the monster as non-threatening as possible. He needed a disarming name. A name no actual monster should ever be named (comedy is all about breaking expectations). The least monsterly name I could come up with was Dennis. Dennis the child-eating monster. “This book has rules. You must follow all the rules. If you don’t...I will feed you to Dennis.” That was the original opener in the first draft. In later drafts, I cut the first-person perspective of the narrator and the final words became: “This book has rules. You must follow all the rules. If you break the rules, Dennis will eat you.”

The rules of the game were all there. It was a dare. An invitation to play with the book. That’s what I wanted. A group of kids captured and fully engaged via the power of the imagination. I wanted a unique story experience that placed them in the story and begged their response. We often pay more attention when we’re playing along.

We’ll see how it goes. I certainly hope we achieved that. Sara thinks we did…

What was that drafting process like? Any hiccups with getting the first draft done?

Once I had those few story elements ironed out, the actual writing flowed out fairly quickly and the shape of the story was sketched out in one sitting--maybe an hour or two? When I get an idea and I can hear the voice, the process of writing looks like me listening and writing what I hear. That’s it. Often, first drafts flow out and feel more like someone other than myself telling me a story that I just get to capture as it’s told. I go into detail more about this in later questions, but, ultimately, any hiccups that happen usually have to do with whether or not I can hear or see the story. If I can’t...good luck, Chuck.

For this story, the hiccups came after the first draft was done. I didn’t revise the story until almost two years after I wrote it. And I didn’t think anyone would want it because it was so weird and silly, so I never queried it. Dennis and his book of rules collected digital dust in a folder marked, “No longer pursuing.” I don’t know why I didn’t see it as a legitimate contender. I was probably too distracted by all the serious stories that were “better” and that I wanted to get published. Maybe I was thinking this story was just for fun. There’s immense liberation in writing just for fun--writing just to play. I often wonder what would happen to our stories and our writing if we stopped “trying to get something published” and wrote just for the fun of it?

How did the manuscript change from that first draft to what it is today?

The most notable change was the word, “mindfulness.” This was a word I was familiar with but didn’t realize it’s connection and potential with the story I was writing. Honestly, the story didn’t leap forward in this way until my editor noticed the opportunity to strengthen the spine of the narrative with a journey toward increased mindfulness and readiness. The broad arch of the story, in terms of the reader’s disposition was: chaos to order. Silly, squirreliness to calm and centered. Isolated to connected. Melissa saw the interactive potential to achieve these shifts and suggested bringing that more forward throughout the narrative. So, I did my homework. I researched mindfulness. The story started to take shape and become a conversation with the listeners--with the readers. Revisions intentionally looked at moving the chaos and unreadiness to the beginning of the story to better foster a slow progression of mindfulness and readiness. We began with the end in mind. What was the end goal? A calm, validated, seen and heard young person who had space to let all those sillies out...and then be gently redirected toward focus, presence, mindfulness…and also to avoid being eaten. ; )

Are you a pantser or a plotter? And how does that affect your drafting of a story?

I’m not going to lie...I had to Google the definition of both of these to begin this response. Mmmmmm...humble pie…always goes down smooth. I know I’ve heard them before but don’t use them an awful lot. I feel like they get tossed around more in middle grade and young adult more than picture books but maybe that’s just me. To answer the question, I’ve observed myself engage in both strategies of writing over the years. To be specific, sometimes I get a premonition of the ending of a book and I know exactly where I want to go. The analogy I use to market this option to my creative writing students is by asking them how many times they’ve gotten in the car without an end destination in mind? Besides the obvious outlier of joyriding, we all get in the car to go somewhere specific. I think there’s practical wisdom in that. Knowing where you’re going can be freeing. It can be safe. It can be fun. On the other side of the coin, it’s equally fun to just hear a voice or an opening line, or hear a note of an idea and just meander about until you discover the story. Both are great! For my own writing, it’s a story-by-story basis. Sometimes I have a skeleton or roadmap plotted out and sometimes it’s just hacking through the jungle to find a path. I don’t see myself pledging loyalty to one or the’s more fun to meet each story wherever my creativity and motivation is at.

Do you ever find yourself putting off drafting a story?

I’ll answer this question with a question: does a bear experience a bowel movement in a heavily wooded ecosystem? Yes. Yes, it does. But this is a normal and healthy part of the creative process. I call this meaningful period of time the crock pot. Some things taste so much better when they’ve simmered on low for eight hours. Yet there’s a difference between subconscious working out a creative problem and dime a dozen procrastination. Our brains need time to work out problems. And sometimes we find what we’re looking for by taking a break and intentionally preventing ourselves from looking. It is the rest and and stewing and the slower pace that can often unlock our creative subconscious minds which can bring perspective and clarity to a particular creative conundrum. Sometimes we only find when we have let go of seeking. So, I give myself a generous helping of grace. Cause if you force it, is it any good at all? And does it mean anything? We need to be patient in the process. We need to be okay with letting things sit. And marinate. And unlock. When that eureka moment happens (a Greek word that means,” I have found it”) it’s far more impactful. Far more fun. Give yourself permission to slow down. Give yourself permission to be surprised.

What is the hardest part of drafting a story for you? And how do you deal with that?

The hardest part is whether or not I can hear the voice. What a creepy know what I mean. If I can hear the voice, it just pours out. But that’s so rare. So, when I can’t hear it clearly and it’s me plotting things out or forcing the story, it feels like work. The manuscripts that have survived and actually have a chance to be sold are all stories where the voice was clear and the first draft was written in a short order of time. The ones that take longer seem not to survive. They seem forced. If a story is difficult while drafting it usually gets abandoned. Maybe to be picked up again after a period of rest. Maybe not. A lot of times it’s all or nothing. It comes out quick and complete, ready to be revised, or it festers and rots until I inevitably abandon it, tossing it in the story sepulcher. The manuscript mausoleum. The book burial ground.

What are your tips and tricks for getting that first draft committed to the page?

It’s not very sexy, but honestly, I kind of just sit there and don’t move and record every thought I hear until the voice goes quiet. I write until I can’t hear it. And then I wait. I wait until I can hear it again. Then I revise. Then I seek to understand it. Then I shape it into that which it wants to be—that which it could be. As far as tips and tricks go, maybe just work to increase stamina? Practice flexing whatever muscle that is when you’re almost dictating what you hear in your head--and noticing when that voice is gone. Maybe the longer we hold on and surrender to it the better we become at accessing or controlling it? It’s so hard to articulate in any coherent sense that doesn’t seem like I’m likening writing to actual schizophrenia. I suppose what I’m saying is that for me, it feels like the first draft is almost contingent on outside forces. Muses perhaps. Many, I’m sure, will disagree with this. But where I experience the need for “tips and tricks” is the second, third, and tenth drafts. The revision stage. For me, the first draft (if it has a chance) flows out like water…but only if I can hear the voice.

Whether you're hearing that voice or just trying to increase your stamina today, get writing! #FirstDraftFriday has officially begun!

To enter for a chance at a free critique of a picture book manuscript from Brian, you must do the following by 8 pm ET today (Oct. 1, 2021):

  1. Follow both me and Brian on Twitter: @HollieWolverton and @BrianGehrlein

  2. Complete a full picture book draft

  3. Return to this blog post and comment that you’ve completed your draft and provide your Twitter handle. You will need to Sign Up/Log In to leave a comment (it’s easy - just an email and password). NOTE: You may get notifications as others leave comments (unfortunately, this is how Wix works), feel free to hit "unsubscribe" at the bottom of any notification you receive if they bother you! You will still be signed up for the giveaway.

You don’t need to send in your draft or provide proof - we’re all about the honor system here! The lucky winner will be randomly drawn from the comments and announced on Twitter shortly after 8 pm ET tonight.

Happy writing!

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Hannah Roy LaGrone
Hannah Roy LaGrone
Oct 01, 2021

Squeaked out a rough new idea! Thanks for the inspiration!


Whew! Just made it in time...a new (rough) first draft! Thanks for the inspiration to write today! Thanks for your insights into the writing process, Brian. I'm looking forward to reading your book!


Wow, wow, wow! I connect very strongly with Brian's comments about hearing a Voice and just copying down everything it says until it goes quiet! That's how it goes down in my own head as well. Thanks for running this amazing event -- it's the perfect intersection of challenge and duration and always gets the Voice chattering. Finished a draft with 45 minutes to spare! @KellHeller


Oct 01, 2021

I finished a very rough draft for a picture book about funny foods. Needs lots of work, but the bones are in place.

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