Sunday, July 12, 2015

Organizing My Ideas - By Maple Lam

If you are a scatter-brain like me, your brain sprouts an idea every 35 seconds.

This makes me jumpy and quirky, and it takes a life-time of discipline to organize these thoughts methodologically to ensure the truly good ideas do not slip through my fingers.

Visual cues trigger my memory the fastest, which is why I like using transparent folders. (They cost $1.50 for 10 folders at my local Daiso.) Other simple tools include small post-its and paper clips.

In my previous post How I Study Picture Books, I shared my method of using rough thumbnails to understand picture books. When I write stories, I use the same method. The only difference is that I use post-its to brainstorm, for the process requires switching scenes' order constantly.

I name this section "Concepts".

Sometimes the story comes first; other times, characters come first. The process is organic. I create a section called "Sketches" and place all my early drawings here.

The "Sketches" section.

With both "Concepts" and "Sketches", I will create a dummy, translating rough thumbnails into legible contents. I send a PDF dummy to my agent and print a copy for my reference.

A section called "Dummy v.1" for my reference.

If my agent likes the story, we work on it together to make it better. When the story is ready, my agent will send the dummy to publishers. And if the story finds an editor, the story editing and revision process truly begins.

At this stage, the story gets an "upgrade" – The packet will move from a flimsy transparent folder to a rigid transparent folder, for it holds more contents.

More developed ideas get a folder "upgrade".

Transparent folders organized vertically for easy access.

I hope you find my process helpful. How do you organize your ideas, sketches, and artwork? I would love to learn from you too. :)

~ Maple Lam

Illustrator of Two Girls Want a Puppy by Evie & Ryan Cordell, Published by HarperCollins, June 2015.
Author/Illustrator of My Little Sister and Me, Pubished by HarperCollins, Summer 2016.


  1. Thank you for such wonderful tips.
    I might adopt them into my illustration process.

  2. Thanks for sharing this helpful post. I also enjoy reading how to study picture books. I should practice studying how other illustrations are laid out. I have several ideas but I haven't really thought how to expand this to story. It is just chuck of ideas. I will try to use this tactics! :)

  3. I like the idea of transparent folders. I'm not an illustrator, but I do have notebooks full of ideas that suffer from "out-of-sight-out-of-mind" syndrome. I'll have to try this idea. Thx!

  4. I also use the Post-Its method, except on large sheets of foam core (4'x8' cut and folded into 3'x4' sandwich). I like how you have used it directly in the thumbnails, Maple. Yes, the beauty of Post-its is that the method is non-static -- move, change, discard Post-its at rapid fire speed. This means that you can be creative longer before you settle on the ideas you are happy with.

  5. gotta try the post it idea. I've used index cards or just squares of paper that I can move and discard as needed.

  6. I love the two kinds of transparent folders idea! I'm going to try this because traditional file folders are not working for me. This will spur me to clear off some appropriate shelf space, too. Thanks so much!