What’s the Big Idea?

Writing

Writing (Photo credit: jjpacres)

You’d think after ten years together, you’d know someone really well. And, no, I’m not talking about my husband. I’m talking about a character, and January marked ten years since she showed up out of nowhere, demanding I tell her story.

When eleven-year-old Emma popped into my imagination, it was shortly after I really got into reading young adult lit. I figured it was a sign that that was the writing path for me. Early drafts of her story were promising; readers liked it (and gave me a lot of constructive criticism). I finished writing the novel in nine months. That was a first for me: finishing a novel. I was good at beginnings and endings, but I always had trouble making that connection in the middle. But I finally felt ready to face the big boys; I learned everything I could about queries and began looking for a literary agent.

Then reality set in: no one was interested.

Rejection is discouraging, yes, especially when you know that your story has promise. But the wonderful thing, the part that makes me sure I’m not wasting my time, is that I never wanted to stop writing, even when I learned to expect that every SASE would come back containing a form rejection. I got excited when agents wrote something personal, even if the answer was no.

Each rejection I took as an opportunity to better my story; maybe it simply wasn’t ready yet. I continued revising, or sometimes it just sat and kind of stewed while I worked on other projects (like being a mom). Many authors recommend leaving the book for six weeks or so after revising, then coming back for a fresh look. To date, I’ve gone through ten major revisions (sometimes revisions within revisions) since I finished the first draft. Each time I’ve returned to my story, I’ve seen changes that I needed to make and might not have noticed if I hadn’t taken a break. I rediscovered clever bits of writing that I couldn’t believe I actually created (unless there’s a little word fairy that turns garbage into poetry when I’m not looking). It’s a fantasy novel, so I really delved into the world of the story and made up words in my own fictional language, gave my fictional kingdom its own history, wrote pages of backstory. I changed the title four times, and I think I finally have the one that fits.

With each revision, I felt like I was getting closer to my goal, but it wasn’t until recently that I finally felt satisfied with it. Even though all the components were there, including that tricky middle bit, I think part of my problem when querying was that I wasn’t completely confident. I was almost relieved by the rejections, as much as I wanted someone to love my book, because I didn’t know if I would be happy publishing it as it stood.

Then, last fall a friend clued me into a webinar given by a literary agent, which led to me buying the agent’s book and discovering perhaps the biggest roadblock in the way of me truly knowing my story—and thus being able to tell it. The agent is Mary Kole, her book Writing Irresistible Kidlit (which I recommend to all authors, not just those of “kidlit”). In it, Kole addresses many aspects to which I never gave conscious thought. Perhaps the biggest, aptly named, is the Big Idea of the story. Even if not clearly articulated in a novel, the Big Idea needs to shine through. It’s also something an author should be able to clearly state in a query letter. Well, I can tell you that every query I ever wrote before reading Kole’s advice was all over the map when it came to describing my book. I could not specifically pinpoint what it was about without giving a lengthy explanation of the plot (which is extremely difficult to pull off in a one-page query).

Other authors such as Madeleine L’Engle and Anne Lamott further encouraged me. (Click the links to read about them in previous posts.) I thought about my story, went to sleep and awoke in the middle of the night with Emma on my mind. One thing that always bothered me was that I had no idea what her middle name was. Now, Sarah, you’re probably thinking, how could you not know your own protagonist’s middle name? You made her up, how hard is it? The problem was that when I thought of Emma, a middle name automatically came to mind, but even though it sounded right, it wasn’t hers. The same thing happened with her hair color. My first, hand-written draft made it brown, but Emma’s hair isn’t brown, it’s red. Sometimes, there are things that authors try to force on their characters—attributes or bits of history—that don’t suit, and they have to go.

Then it came to me—the perfect name and with a perfectly logical reason for why Emma’s parents gave it to her. It’s a name that defines her. . . because she hates it. If you told me at the beginning what her middle name was, I would have laughed and said it was stupid. I hadn’t gotten to know my story yet.

And it turns out that Emma’s middle name has a lot to do with the Big Idea, which I only started to figure out a few months ago. With that final bit of requisite knowledge, I not only composed a better query letter, but I finally did so with confidence. For the first time, I have a firm grasp on what I wrote and what I need to do moving forward. Am I happy that it took me ten years to get here? Of course not, and if I’d known it would take so long all those years ago, it probably would have killed my spirit. Nor does it mean that I’m done making changes, finished struggling, or guaranteed a best seller. But I am satisfied and ready to share Emma’s story. And I think she is ready to share her middle name, even though she doesn’t like it.

4 thoughts on “What’s the Big Idea?

  1. Christi says:

    I keep running across references to Writing Irresistible Kidlit and how helpful it is. I may have to break down and get a copy… Thanks for sharing this! 🙂

  2. Georgene says:

    Great article Sarah! I’m sitting on go waiting for the book!

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