Last Friday, as part of the Rocky Mountain SCBWI annual conference, I participated in a picture-book writing intensive led by Alexandra Penfold, editor at the Paula Wiseman Books imprint of Simon & Schuster. After a group discussion, each of us got 10 minutes to read a draft of one of our WIPs and get feedback from Alexandra (and others in the group).
The story I took is a relatively new draft (I’ve only done a couple of major revisions on it). Normally, if I’m getting feedback from an editor or agent, I’d bring a more polished piece, but in this case, I felt stuck and really needed some solid direction. I felt I’d taken it far enough to not be embarrassed by presenting it. After all, I’m not a total newbie anymore, right?
So I found myself quite surprised and embarrassed when Alexandra asked me, “What is your story question? What is the one truth that you want your reader to take away from this story?” I blushed, fumbled, and blathered before I realized… I don’t know. I don’t know what my story question is.
Such a rookie mistake. Needless to say, I was not happy at being called out on something that is pretty fundamental to the writing process. Doh!
Lucky for me, I forgot to pack my headphones, so when I went to run on the treadmill later, I had nothing to do but mull over what I’d learned in the workshop. That’s when it hit me: my original story question was no longer valid, and I figured out what the new question was.
See, I don’t usually start stories with a question that I want to explore or answer. I almost always start with a concept, a character name or a title that sounds catchy. In the case of my existing story, it was a concept – a specific way to fracture a fairy tale. What I realized is that although I do write a story question before drafting, I have a tendency to shoe-horn the question to fit whatever concept, title, etc. I want to work with. In my current story, my original story question was:
What do you do if the person you are supposed to marry turns out to be a shrew?
After the writing intensive, I realized the question really is:
What do you do when everyone in your trusted circle is telling you to do something, but your heart is saying no?
Not only is the second question more relevant to the story, it’s also much more compelling and universal, no?
In the end, I’m glad I got called out on something that it a weakness of mine as a writer – understanding and expressing the essential truth of what I am writing. Now it is firmly on my radar, and I’ll be looking out for that in my future writing. I suppose that large of a lesson was worth a little embarrassment.
And, as an added bonus, I was so deep in thought during my run that it wasn’t until I felt sweat dripping on my shoes that I realized I’d been running for almost an hour. Time flies when you’re sweating over your writing…
What “tics” do you have in your writing or your profession that require vigilance on your part?Categories: Children's Books, Picture Books, Publishing, SCBWI, Works in Progress, Writing · Tags: Alexandra Penfold, Editing, Editors, Paula Wiseman Books, Picture Books, Rocky Mountain Chapter SCBWI, SCBWI, Simon & Schuster, WIP, Writing