Thursday, November 11, 2010

Which Story Do You Want To Tell?

I’m back from my class with Stephen Roxburgh, definitely wiser. (And about a pound heavier—the food is seriously good there. Would I like fresh whipped cream with my warm apple crumble? Why yes, it turns out. I would.)

The class was held over four days: an intro the first evening, two full days of awesomeness, and then a wrap-up the final morning. One of the great things about it was this relaxed structure. Over the course of the class, I had four scheduled one-on-ones with a really smart editor whose sole focus for that half hour was to help me make my work better. But equally helpful was the fact that in-between each meeting there was down time when I could process what we’d talked about, let the cream rise to the top, and generate new ideas to discuss at the next meeting.

Roxburgh’s goal is to help you tell the story you want to tell. Sounds simple, right? But I’ve been surprised by how often authors I know (myself included!) struggle to articulate exactly what they are trying to say in the book they are working on. You’d think we would know what our book is about since we are writing the darn thing. But but but sheesh, when working in a field that offers almost limitless possibilities, it can be hard to choose: which story do I want to tell?

Though I worked on a novel during the class, it’s the same issue I face when writing a work of narrative nonfiction. After months of research, there is a LOT of information rattling around in my mind. I can’t really know what to keep and what to get rid of until I decide what my story is about.

This was a particular challenge when I worked on The Extraordinary Mark Twain (According to Susy). I was juggling three elements: the extraordinary—in every sense of the word—Twain and his quirky genius; his equally extraordinary daughter Susy—deeply perceptive to her father’s strengths and weaknesses; and the no-holds-barred biography she wrote of him in secret.

For months I researched, feeling alternately hopeful, excited, and frustrated. I knew there was a story there, but for the longest time, I couldn’t quite grasp it. And because I couldn’t quite decide which story I wanted to write (there were so many to choose from!), I couldn’t really start writing.

Luckily, I have an amazing editor, Tracy Mack, who knows this about me, and one of the many wonderful things she does is help me succinctly articulate what my story is about, so that I can then actually write it.

For a picture book, this kind of focus is crucial. It wasn’t until I had a simple plot statement that I was able to pick and choose the appropriate facts and shape them into a story: Susy showed her love for her father by writing a biography that set the record about him straight. (It sounds simple, I know, and sort of obvious. What else would the book be about? But you’d be surprised how hard it is to see a simple storyline after months of research, when your head is full of juicy details that are too fascinating to let go of, but don’t really fit the story.)

Deciding which story you want to write is the first step. Next month, I’ll post some thoughts on what to do after you’ve got that first, oh-so-messy draft down.


Melissa Stewart said...

Great post, Barbara. Finding the way to cull all that research into a single story that's just right is a really big challenge for any author--especially when the target audience is kids. I can't wait for your next post.

Unknown said...

Another aspect of finding the story is to figure out what you, the author, bring to the party. This is especially true when writing a biography about a person for whom a gazillion biographies have already been written. You made a brilliant contribution to the story of Mark Twain in your book, Barbara. And that's what makes it literature.

Gretchen Woelfle said...

I never know what story to tell until at least the third draft.

Barbara Kerley said...

Melissa -- exactly!

Vicki -- thanks :)

Gretchen -- ha ha. I know what you mean!