Monday 27 February 2017

Openings with a Promise – the Emotional Journey of Your Character • Natascha Biebow

I love it when as a writer you realize that other creative people face similar struggles or challenges with their craft. 

Like when I attended the SCBWI conference in LA last summer, I was heartened to hear how Drew Daywalt, the author of the NY Times bestselling The Day the Crayons Quit, waited six years for his agent to find a publisher who ‘got’ his book and wanted to publish it.
The Day the Crayons Quit
by Drew Daywalt and Oliver Jeffers

Or like how Jon Klassen of I Want My Hat Back fame was stuck because:

“… I had a problem in that I didn’t like drawing characters. I like drawing scenery and inanimate objects and I especially liked it back then. The challenge of making a piece where the subject wasn’t a living thing was really fun, and I liked how quiet the effect was.”

I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen

I recently received a gift. It was one of my favourite kinds of books – the story of a fellow writer. As I savoured the book, its pages, beautifully designed windows into E.B. White’s life and writing, I realized a few things:

Some Writer! by Melissa Sweet
• E.B. White kept a journal and he finished each entry by asking himself a question that he could think about as he was drifting off to sleep.

from Some Writer! The Story of E.B. White by Melissa Sweet
from Some Writer! The Story of E.B. White by Melissa Sweet

Yes! This is such a good technique – to mull the questions of the day, of the story, of a stuckness that becomes unstuck in the subconscious of slumber. I love to do that too!

• In his column One Man’s Meat for Harper’s Magazine, he wrote in 1982 about the influence of moving to a farm in Maine, where “confronted by new challenges, surrounded by new acquaintances – including the characters in the barnyard who were later to appear in Charlotte’s Web – I was suddenly seeing, feeling, and listening as a child sees, feels and listens”.
from Some Writer! The Story of E.B. White by Melissa Sweet

I thought about this. As I read on . . .

• It took E.B. White a year of revisions to settle on the iconic opening for Charlotte’s Web. 

Charlotte's Web by E.B. White, illustrated by Garth Williams,
published 1952

In Some Writer!, Sweet includes images of White's original manuscripts, complete with crossings-out and musings in the margins. 

I learned that E.B. White tried at least six different tacks to nail the opening of his most famous book. First:

“Charlotte was a grey spider who lived in the doorway of a barn.”

Then: “I shall speak first of Wilbur.”

Then: “A barn can have a horse in it, and a barn can have a cow in it, and a barn can have hens scratching the chaff and swallows flying in and out through the door – but if a barn hasn’t got a pig in it, it is hardly worth talking about.”

After a year, White wrote: “At midnight, John Arable pulled his boots on, lit a lantern, and walked out the hoghouse.”

Next, he cut to the action: “Where’s Papa going with that hand ax?”

Which was shortened to: “Where’s Papa going with that ax?”

opening chapter from Charlotte's Web by E.B. White

I was struck by this journey to find the way into the story. The story was there all along, wasn’t it, but it was only when White cut to the emotional core of the characters’ emotional journey and told it like child might experience it that it felt right.

In previous blogs about creating compelling openings and using show, don’t tell”, I wrote about the importance of:

• showing readers through the character’s body language, action and dialogue

• including the answers to the questions who, what and where to create a compelling opening

• clear character motivation – why?

• creating vivid, detailed scenes

But, connecting these elements with

• the promise of the characters’ emotional journey and

• “seeing, feeling, and listening” like a child

is what will really hook readers into the story and get them to keep turning the pages.

When we read the opening line of Charlotte’s Web, these elements come together almost effortlessly. But the weren’t effortless at all . . .! 

E.B. White with his beloved dog

Wow, some writer!

Natascha Biebow
Author, Editor and Mentor

Blue Elephant Storyshaping is an editing, coaching and mentoring service aimed at empowering writers and illustrators to fine-tune their work pre-submission.  Check out my small-group coaching Cook Up a Picture Book courses!
Natascha is also the author of Elephants Never Forget and Is This My Nose?, editor of numerous award-winning children’s books, and Regional Advisor (Chair) of SCBWI British Isles. 


Jane Clarke said...

Thanks for this, Natascha - it's especially true of picture books that what reads effortlessly isn't effortless at all :-)

Candy Gourlay said...

I love this article, especially learning about EB White's search for a way into his story. As a children's author, this is what I struggle with as I write draft after draft of my novel - how do I cut to the emotional core of my child character and tell the story from there? Thank you.

Natascha Biebow said...

Thank you! Yes, it was a kind of a-ha! moment reading about White's journey.

Frances Tosdevin said...

Inspiring words Natascha,... great advice to help shape beginnings and lure the reader in. I especially liked your quote from E B White, "I was suddenly seeing, feeling, and listening as a child sees, feels and listens”. I'm going to channel that thought to help me listen to my "inner child" when writing picture books. Thank you!

David McMullin said...

This is a wonderful article. It's good to see that the journey can be long and challenging for everyone.

Natascha Biebow said...

Thank you! Yes, sometimes, we forget to get into the child reader's shoes.

Natascha Biebow said...

Thanks! Yes, heartening for all creatives.

Unknown said...

Thank you Natascha, this is heartening! :)

Camilla Chester said...

Not just me who finds the whole thing way too tricky then?