Almost every day of the week, for the past 36 weeks I’ve helped my daughter with her homework. This week, as we started the fourth and final quarter of the school year, something on her study guide caught my eye. Right smack dab in the middle of the page her teacher had written, just like every week prior two words: essential question? If I had been in a movie, it would’ve been the scene where my head started spinning and it all came together. The essential question. Ann Whitford Paul wrote about this very thing. Professional critiques have touched on the same concept and last week a critique partner of mine challenged me to dig deeper into a work in progress and build up this one element of the story… The essential question.
I’m a member of a wonderful group of wise pre-published picture book writers and we’re in the middle of an online book study of WRITING PICTURE BOOKS by Ann Whitford Paul. (You remember how much I love this book, right?) Early on, in Chapter two, she challenges her readers, assuming we’re all aspiring picture book writers of course, to find their ‘Story Question’ and soon after, their ‘Story Answer.’ These two concepts, she argues, are fundamental to guiding the course of a picture book from point A to the finish line while keeping a reader actively engaged. (I’m not doing this concept any justice though, you really have to read it for yourself)
For the sake of the book study, I wrote a new story rather than slowly working through one of my many existing manuscripts. It’s a silly little story about socks and its one of the reasons I’m so in love with my current genre. (Where else can you write an entire story about SOCKS?) I hammered it out one afternoon and then per the book study guidelines, posted it for the other members to review and discuss. All of our stories were very different, and Story Questions for each varied greatly. Some were silly and shallow, others dove deep and broached the subjects of acceptance and authenticity, all of them were eye-opening and stimulated great conversation. It was a great exercise but, for some reason, I haven’t done it again.
Why did I show this brand, new, baby manuscript enough love and attention to probe with these deep, though provoking questions, and not do the same for my older, more polished manuscripts? It was a critique partner of mine that I should really give the lion’s share of the credit to. I talked to her about my love of WRITING PICTURE BOOKS weeks ago, and on my recommendation, she bought and started reading her own copy. We’ve been trading manuscripts for a few months now and are starting to know each other’s style well. This month, my submission to her was weak, rough and scattered. She honed in immediately and challenged me to ‘find my question’ and give my story more direction. So, imagine my surprise when I found these same words on my daughter’s study guide. My eight-year-old has a better handle on this then I do! She knows the ‘essential question’ for every story she’s studied. Do I know these questions for each of my works in progress? More importantly, if I know the question, do I know the answer? If I don’t know the question and answer, will my reader? My daughter has read my stories more than anyone else, every draft of every story even. Would she be able to pinpoint the essential questions of each? Truth be told, I’m nervous to find out because even though it’s essential to the process, it’s a deceptively difficult task.
I had given myself the assignment of creating a(nother) dummy for my nearly-submission-ready manuscript, but first I have to start asking questions for all of my works in progress.
– What if you don’t love the work you’re expected to do?
– What do you do with a broken heart?
– What will it take to change a stubborn, little, picky-eaters mind?
– What can you do if you aren’t appreciated for being you?
– Who (or what) determines your self-worth?
– What is making that noise?!?
Do you know your ‘Essential Question’?
Next up, I will be making a dummy because the submission window for the SCBWI Work-In-Progress Grant ends on 3/31! Plus, as of the end of this month, I’m determined to be ‘submission-ready’. My story has been critiqued many (many, many) times, my word count is down, my illo notes are almost non-existent, my query letter was critiqued, my ending is tighter, my opening is stronger and my mind is made up. Look out editors (and contest judges) here I come!
Thanks for reading, come back anytime!