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A few months ago, my son came to me to pitch a story idea.

“I want a story about a superhero taco.”

“You mean, like a superhero that eats tacos?”

“No, a superhero taco. Like a real taco, though. Not those fake hardshell tacos.”

“Got it,” I said.

“And his name needs to be Taco Tony.”

So, there I had it. My son had given me specific parameters that I would consider my design features. Together, Christy (my wife) and I let the idea incubate. We shared ideas back and forth, but never put anything down on paper. Eventually we began telling short stories before the kids went to bed or when we were stuck in traffic or during long road trips. This was our play space before putting anything to paper.

This November, I began the first draft of The Awkwardly Awesome Adventures of Taco Tony for my #nanowrimo project. I say “my project,” but it’s a collaborative venture. I’m doing the first draft and it will be a step above mediocre. Christy will do a re-write and it’ll be awesome.

Using Design Thinking to Craft a Story

I believe in the power of design thinking to bring out the best in the creative process. It’s something I advocate for in schools, which is why I developed the Design Thinking Toolkit and the free design thinking maker project. It’s why I co-wrote Launch and why I lead workshops and give keynotes on the topics.

But it’s also a process I use in my own creative work. When I look at this #NaNoWriMo project, I realize that Christy and I have been using the LAUNCH Cycle the entire time. So, I figured I would share this to give a peak into what design thinking looks like for self-initiated projects and what it looks like outside the traditional zones of STEM or engineering.

Here’s what I mean:

  • Look, Listen, and Learn: We began with a sense of awareness. In this case, we started with empathy toward my audience (my kids). We had a clear sense of the constraints involved and we used those as the starting point for my work. I realize that many authors start with their story concept and find an audience, but for this project it really began with a desire to make a story our kids would love. It is an empathy-driven project.
  • Ask Tons of Questions: This was the inquiry stage. After Micah suggested the concept, I jotted down tons of questions in my journal. Some of these were about the writing craft: What makes a story compelling? What does it mean to develop a character over time? What is the difference between action and suspense? Some of these were questions for my kids: What do you like in a story? Which stories have you read in the last year that you couldn’t put down? Some of the questions were related to planning the book: What is the conflict? Who is the character? What is the backstory? Who is the villain? What kinds of strengths and weaknesses will this bionic taco superhero have?
  • Understand the Process: This is the research stage. Here, I researched the superhero genre. Okay, I really just read graphic novels and watched movies, but it sounds so much more official when you call it research. However, a big part of the research was simply this “play space” of telling short stories with my kids and watching things change through different iterations. This sense of experimentation ultimately led me to a sense of clarity, where I could navigate ideas.
  • Navigate Ideas: We spent the first week of this month storyboarding the plot, developing the character descriptions, and playing around with ideas. We cycled back and forth between open brainstorming, analyzing ideas, combining ideas, and narrowing the concept. At the end of the week, we had a clear concept.
  • Create a Prototype: Okay, this is a fancy term for writing a first draft. I spent about two weeks writing an initial draft. I would sit down and knock out about 2,000 words a day without thinking about quality. I simply wanted to get the story down. I actually created a sequel as well.
  • Highlight and Fix: This is our current phase. Christy is highlighting what’s working and fixing what’s failing in this draft. We may, at some point, invite peer editors into the process. But for now, this is where my wife works her storytelling magic.
  • Launch to an Audience: Here’s the hard part. I don’t know what I want to do as far as a launch. We are actually leaning toward audio-recording it as as serial podcast aimed specifically at kids who want to listen to an audio book on their tablets. I’ve also wondered what it might look like to make it into a graphic novel on a website. It could be a blast to illustrate it. But it’s still up in the air.

I realize that this might seem like a long and convoluted process, but in the end it’s worth it. By walking through each phase with a sense of purpose and intentionality, we will have a better story in the end.

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John Spencer

My goal is simple. I want to make something each day. Sometimes I make things. Sometimes I make a difference. On a good day, I get to do both.More about me

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