On Sunday, I attended a panel on non-fiction writing at the Writers’ Loft with authors Sarah Albee, Loree Griffin Burns, Leslie Bulion, Susan Goodman, and April Prince Jones. It was an all-star line-up, and the panelists had lots of valuable things to say. I was especially struck by one thread of the conversation on finding your story’s Big Idea.
Several of the authors highly recommended writing a book proposal for a project before you start–whether or not you’re going to be trying to sell the project on proposal or not–to help you figure out your “big idea.” By this, they meant the approach to your story that will make it unique. So instead of simply writing yet another book about snakes, you can find a way of talking about snakes that makes the concept feel fresh and unique and you.
The wisdom in this advice is two-fold and applies to any type of writing, including fiction. When you’re starting a project, it’s a good idea to first take notes and brainstorm to get at the heart of your story. This is true even if you’re writing a picture book. I often jump in and write a terrible draft of a picture book first, but then I step back and work on pinpointing what’s going on below the surface of the story and how I can make it stronger. And when I’m working on a novel, by the time I’m done writing and revising the synopsis and opening chapters, I usually feel like I’ve found the novel’s voice and central conflict so that I can keep going all the way until the end.
The second part of the advice, though, about finding the “you” in your story, I think is even more important. When you’re working on a manuscript, it’s vital to think about how you can put your own unique spin on it. How is your story about friendship different from the other ones already out there? It can’t simply be fun or cute. It has to feel fresh, even if it’s a story that’s been told numerous times. That freshness will come from you–your voice, your perspective, your sense of humor, etc. No one else can write the book the same way you can, but make sure you’re pushing the “you” in it as far as it needs to go.
Do you put together a proposal when you begin working on a project? How do you go about finding your story’s Big Idea?