And that is the key concept to understand when it comes to choosing the stories we write … emotional power. If an idea doesn’t touch my own emotions, I can’t possibly write it in a way that will touch my readers.
How do I tell if a story idea is right for me, worth embarking on the long process of committing it to the page? The test is a simple one. Story ideas that are truly mine, that bring up the right combination of creativity and possibility, give me instant energy. When I hold a fresh idea—the right fresh idea—in my mind, more ideas begin to leap to it like iron filings to a magnet.
The ideas that have the most resonance for me are ones that come from some deep lack in my childhood, what I have heard referred to as a “child hole.” We all have them, these child holes. Human needs are so complex, parents and children alike, that it is impossible for anyone to enter adulthood unscarred. Each one of us is wounded in some way, lacking in some way, seeking to gather to ourselves what we missed when we were being formed. And stories are a perfect way to do that gathering, writing them or reading them.
But what makes an idea sing for me isn’t only that lack. My own child hole inevitably, I’ve found, lies at the core of each of my stories. But the details of the stories themselves come from as many emotional sources as a life is capable of embracing. A childhood fantasy of being three inches tall. The way, though I was terrified of horses, I used to pretend constantly that I was riding one. An obnoxious family cat!
When I’m developing story ideas the ones I hang onto are those that, when they first occur, seem not just interesting, but important to me. Most of these ideas are nothing that has ever happened to me, but when I pick them up to examine them, the feeling of importance lets me know they are mine to write.
So when you’re trying to decide what story to write, don’t look for what’s “in,” fantasy or horror or sweet romance. It doesn’t hurt to be aware of—and it’s a gift to be able to produce—what the market has decided it wants at any particular moment. But your greatest success will come, not from writing for the market’s ever-elusive demands, but from creating what satisfies your own deepest desires.
Only when you do that can you hope to satisfy your readers, too.
PS A reminder. I’m giving an on-line lecture on “The Basics of Writing Successful Picture Books” on Wednesday evening, September 19th, at 7 p.m. EDT. You can sign up for it at Writing for Children Live. It is free that evening, when it will be interactive, and it will be available without charge for twenty-four hours after. The lecture can be accessed for a fee after that.