Ursula Nordstrom was the legendary editor for many children’s book luminaries such as E.B. White, Shel Silverstein, and Maurice Sendak. Two years before Sendak wrote Where the Wild Things Are, he sent Nordstrom a letter (oh, the days of authors and editors exchanging actual letters!) lamenting that he was no genius like Tolstoy or Melville. In Nordstrom’s typically wry style, she assured him that, indeed, he was no Tolstoy. Then she added, “But Tolstoy wasn’t Sendak, either.”
I love this advice. We often look with admiration and envy at other writers, when we should set our sights on recognizing the unique perspective only we have to offer in our stories. Sure, I would never have invented Hogwarts or Narnia, but Rowling and Lewis would never have dreamed up the magical America of my Clockwork Dark trilogy or the fantastical Venetian Empire in my latest fantasy-adventure The Wooden Prince.
What is the story only you can write? The story no other author possibly could because they don’t have your singular way of seeing the world?
One simple way of discovering your unique vision is to make a list of 10 – 20 things that fascinate you. Maybe they’re types of characters like 10 year-old con artists or astrophysicists. Or places like Venice or lost tropical islands. They could be video games, dust bunnies, Thai food, or even revenge, unrequited love, or shapeshifting.
Obviously, your list will include things that might fascinate other writers, but how many others will have your list? It’s the combination of things on your list that reveals aspects of your unique storytelling angle.
When I began developing The Wooden Prince, I knew I wanted it to be a retelling of Pinocchio. But what could I do with this classic story that hadn’t been done before? I began making lists of what I thought would be. . .well, to put it simply, awesome. Call it your awesome-sauce: the basic ingredients that not only make the story appealing to you, but hopefully to readers as well. I had ingredients like robots and sea monsters, Leonardo Da Vinci and reckless fairy princesses. At first, it didn’t seem like sci-fi elements like robots would go together with a magical Renaissance Italy. But I found a way to make it work organically and to develop a wonderfully strange world that put a new twist on Pinocchio.
The key was making connections between awesome-sauce ingredients that might seem disparate, like Da Vinci-technology with monsters and magic. Some might say all ideas have already been used. But truthfully there are endless new story ideas waiting to be discovered if we only combine things in ways readers have never seen before.
So develop your list of awesome-sauce—your ever-growing list of character-types, places, things, and story elements that ignite your imagination. Then look for unusual and unexpected ways that they might be combined in your story. This could be a first peek into the unique story only you could write, the book readers have never seen before and are going to be ecstatic to discover.
John Claude Bemis is the award-winning author of five middle grade novels and one picture book. His latest fantasy-adventure is The Wooden Prince, the first book in Out of Abaton series from Disney-Hyperion. John served as North Carolina’s Piedmont Laureate for Children’s Literature. He lives in Hillsborough, NC. You can find out more about him on his website HERE, or by visiting his FACEBOOK PAGE.
*Note: The pre-registration webinar will be held on Wednesday night. Pre-registered students, don’t forget to check your emails Wednesday.