by Dev Petty
I wrote a whole post for this very blog some time ago about NOT writing and just thinking. I wrote about getting to the heart of your story idea in your head before you ever write a word. I believe in that process…big time. But it’s not how I wrote I DON’T WANT TO BE A FROG. That’s a different story. That’s the story of how a sort of basic story idea turned into one with legs…frog legs! In fact, it was the writing of FROG that taught me to slow down and think, to find the story thread before I started writing.
I knew I wanted to write a story all in dialogue. I wanted it to be funny. And I wanted it to be about a frog. I like frogs, it was that simple. Not much to go on, eh? Believe me, my first efforts on frog reflected just how thin the idea was. Frog went from animal to animal saying “I want to be like you…because…you’re furry (or you can fly or you can hop).” It was repetitive and a little hollow and NOTHING REALLY AT ALL HAPPENED. These are the sort of problems I usually suss out when I’m just thinking instead of writing, so I don’t usually have this situation. But there was something about the first draft I liked enough to keep at it.
This is when I stopped and realized I needed to answer my own critical, favorite story writing question.
“What is this about?”
The answer, as written, was “A frog who wants to be a rabbit or a cat or an owl.” And after a ton of rewrites and rearranging, it wasn’t getting any better on the page. So I stopped revising. I stopped writing. As I closed the laptop and started thinking, I realized it was a little deeper. The answer really was, “This is a story about a frog who doesn’t want to be a frog.” It’s about wanting to be something other than what you are. Now THAT’S a little more interesting. When I started thinking about it that way, the story opened up and it wasn’t anymore about cats or owls, it was about nature, it was about accepting your nature.
That answer allowed me to start thinking about the frog, the good parts, the bad parts, the way we all sometimes envy things about others that we can never, and probably should never have. The story was getting deeper, but still…nothing really happened. The frog went from animal to animal saying he wanted to be them and then the book ended. You’re a frog. Get over it.
Confession. I’ve tried to write novels. A bunch of em. I am a Viking at writing three awesome chapters and then running out of steam, throwing the laptop across the room and eating ice cream for a while. But I do it often enough that I’ve learned a few things. Newsflash Dev, your story has to have a PLOT and not just be a rambling treatise on frog existentialism. So I decided to bring a new character in…a wolf…who would act as a bit of a therapist, a reality checker who would point out the good parts of being a frog through his own nature. Once something happened, the wolf, my story had a turn and a direction and something, albeit small, happened. I hope kids will read frog and realize that everyone has things they want to change about themselves, and that’s a totally okay, natural thing to explore. But you also sort of have to accept who you are, find the bright parts about who you are and work with what you have.
I guess the truth is, I sort of violated most of my own rules of picture book writing in the writing of the one picture book I have out there. I kind of teased a good story out of a pretty mediocre one. But that’s ok too, it taught me a lot about finding that thread. It helped me develop a process…find the thread FIRST! Remember to TELL a story and not just muse.
Since we’re talking story threads, I thought I’d put down a few tools I use to try to figure out what I’m getting at when I’m developing a story idea in my head, before I start writing.
- I write a poem. It’s not the kind of poem anyone would ever, ever, ever want to read. But the lack of rules in poetry allow me to explore an idea without limitations. I usually write pretty long, stream of consciousness poems about my story idea and most of it will be total garbage. But usually, when I read it through, somewhere in there is a thread I can hold onto and start crafting a story around.
- Imagine your story as a trailer. I’d never thought of this one until I started watching a lot of picture book trailers and working on my own, for Frog. But when you have to introduce your character, a story problem, a plot twist and a possible solution- you’ve covered a lot of story elements and it’s pretty easy to find where you need to go a little deeper.
- Ask yourself what your story is about. Sounds obvious, I know, but I forget to do it ALL THE TIME. And, while you’re busy talking to yourself, why not have a whole conversation?
“Dev, what is this story about?”
“Well, it’s about a frog who wants to be a cat or an owl or something else.”
“Gosh, Dev, that’s not very interesting.”
“It’s not? Crap. OK, it’s about not wanting to be a frog.”
“You’re bossy. Fine. It’s about not wanting to be what you are.”
“Okee…it’s about accepting who you are.”
“I don’t like you.”
“I don’t like you either.”
Finally, Never throw anything away. Whether you save one giant list of picture books in Scrivener or text files or email drafts (I’m partial to that one), never give up on a story. Put it aside, let it steep, even put it in total cold storage, but don’t throw anything away. SO many of my stories come from little breadcrumbs of ideas I left myself along the way.
Dev Petty is the author of I DON’T WANT TO BE A FROG (Doubleday 2015, Illustrated by Mike Boldt) and CLAYMATES (Little Brown, 2017). A former film effects artist, she lives in Albany, California and writes funny books for kids and immature adults. Visit her at DevPetty.com.
Do you want to be a frog? No? Do you want to own a frog? Not really? How about own a SIGNED COPY of Dev’s I DON’T WANT TO BE A FROG? Plus bookmarks? Yes? OK then, leave one comment below and a winner will be randomly selected in two weeks! Good luck!