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  That’s when it hit me: my original story question was no longer valid, and I figured out what the new question was.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: , , , , , , , , ,



  1. So, since I was in the said intensive, I want to say it wasn’t as bad as you describe. However, maybe I’m just trying to convince myself this since I was asked the same question and also fumbled over my answer. It was frustrating for me because I had started my story with a specific “truth” or “message” and it still wasn’t clear. Nonetheless, it was a good experience. It’s too bad I didn’t stay at the hotel like originally planned, or I would’ve been on the treadmill next to you.

  2. My writing process is a lot like yours sounds. I tend to get part of an idea and write first and then figure out what the story question could be after. Not the best way to go about it! So this is a good reminder to me, too 🙂 It goes hand in hand with being able to sum up your story in one sentence – another thing I’m not very good at. “Well, there’s this girl, and she blah blah blah…” I hope I don’t meet Alexandra Penfold in an elevator 🙂

    • Your comment has me rolling. I do the SAME thing. No matter how many times they tell us to boil it down to a sentence, we can never do that, can we?

  3. Your revised question is stellar . . . a step (or tread) in the right direction. 😉

  4. All I can say is ((GULP))

    And ditto to NR Hatch’s comment!

    A brave, honest and helpful post!

  5. Ooo, that’s a tough spot to be in, but what a learning moment it turned out to be (sorry my teacher self is coming out!).

    My biggest tic is grammar and sometimes flow. I tend to write as it shows up in my head so there are weird little pauses in the middle of flowing paragraphs. It’s something I’m constantly having to fix in the editing process.

  6. Hmmm… So the story question is the theme in the form of a question. I’d forgotten about that one too. I also get a title, concept, or character, and just start writing. My SCBWI event starts this Friday. Can’t wait! The funny thing is, you already had the story going in the right direction, whether or not you could articulate its “question.” In your case, did solidifying the question change the story at all? See ya later!

    • Christie,

      I actually ended up taking a lot out of the story. I’ve already cut 200+ words that weren’t in direct service to this new story question. I guess you’ll see the result when I put it up next month.

      Have a great time at your SCBWI conference! I know you’ll come away with as much inspiration as I did.

  7. My writing style has both “Tic’s” and “Fleas”. Required vigilance would probably be to jump on that tread mill and start working on my “Ticker” but, I’m fleeing from that idea before it puts me in cardiac arrest. Great information from your post, and eloquently rendered, as always.
    God Bless You

  8. Wanted to give you a thank you hug for sharing this when I read this. I too think of a character, story, idea, before coming up with a story question. Oh I have lots to learn.

  9. Thanks for sharing your embarrassing moment 🙂 We all have them, and yes your revised question really is stellar!

    I start with asking myself “What is the problem?”, though I always have a character in mind… I am hopeless and titles 🙁 and I am learning that there needs to be great emotional growth not just a problem resolution…

  10. Good for you, Julie, for being brave enough to bring a WIP that wasn’t perfect. By doing so, you received valuable insight and now you know that future work on the WIP will not be wasted effort, going down blind alleys. I’m happy for you!

    As much as I like to plot and plan before writing in depth, I find the story question eludes me at times when I start. Recently, I realized on the second draft of an essay that I was actually pursuing a different question entirely, and (sadly) had to strip out the cool stuff that was now off-subject.

  11. That’s a great picture of you on that treadmill, Julie! A very easy thing to get caught out on, love the way you explained it to us. I have a problem with tension in my MG at the moment, so not sure whether to sort it out before I finish the first draft or get this draft finished then worry about it. Tension is kind of related to story question, because it is one thing the protag is worried about. If you’re looking for me I’ll be leafing through the marshes looking for ticking time bombs 🙂
    It is so great that you got all that feedback where you needed it. Far better than taking a perfect piece (unless of course you land an agent with it).
    Good luck with your story 🙂

  12. I love reading all these insights of “what went wrong” at conferences or manuscripts. I know it puts you in a vulnerable position to put it out there, but it is so very helpful to your audience of writers.

    Thank you for sharing your lesson and spurring thoughts in all of us reading your post!

    Stopping by via group #53 at the Campaign. 🙂

  13. “What is your story question? What is the one truth that you want your reader to take away from this story?”

    Um… um… I can’t think of one! Does every story really have to be asking a question / trying to portray some message to the reader? Can’t I just tell an entertaining story?! Or am I misunderstanding the concept of “story question”? Please tell me if I am, ’cause I want to get this right!

    • Rachel,

      I don’t think the question has to be a profound one, as in a huge life lesson. My advice (take this with a grain of salt given that I just screwed this up at a conference), is to look at stories you think are similar to yours and find the “higher” emotional thread. They all have them, even if they seem on the surface like a simply entertaining story.

      Is the story about friendship? About personal growth of some sort? About self-awareness? Believe me when I tell you that my current story is very fun and not at all “message-y.” It’s almost like the “universal truth” comes out in spite of yourself. Which is what I discovered after thinking about it. I had to dig a little deeper to find it, but once I did, I realized I can make the story even MORE entertaining, and at the same time even MORE meaningful?

      Does that make any sense?? Probably not, but feel free to contact me offline and we can discuss some more.

  14. I’m so glad I stumbled upon you as I was googling Alexandra Penfold. I am preparing a submission for her. I attended the Orlando conference in June and am quickly approaching that Sept 30 deadline. Your post was very helpful. Thanks!

    • Bonnie,

      I’m so glad you found the post and that it was helpful. Let me know if you have any other questions. Querying is so nerve-wracking, I know!

  15. What an AWESOME post, Julie. If it makes you feel any better, I don’t think I can state the story question for ANY of my PB manuscripts! (Even the ones that have sold!)

  16. The great thing about attending those conferences is that no matter how long you’ve been in the business (20 years for me!), I always walk away with a new way of looking at writing and typically figure out a way to fix something in a manuscript. Plus hearing it from an editor seems to sink in more.

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