carterhigginsby Carter Higgins

Looks like we’ve all made it to the hump day of PiBoIdMo! Congratulations! Turn to your neighbor and give out some high-fives. Your notebook might be empty or busting at the seams, and it really doesn’t matter, because you are doing it. So here’s to the back half of this month being as successful as the front, and here’s to more furious scribbling in those notebooks.

But with all of that forward motion, let’s rewind a little. Have you ever reverse engineered your process to chase an idea? This is a big experiment for me, because it’s a new trick in my trusty old bag, but it’s one that makes a lot of deep, true, heart-of-the-thing sense.

Just this month I’ve been talking with my agent about a new manuscript, one that makes us both a little goosebumpy and hopeful. But, true to what I’m learning is my signature maneuver, it’s a teensy bit abstract. Sure, the plot makes sense if you dig around in the dirt a little. And yeah, the characters have a heck of a journey when you squint and look real hard. But what’s there, the obvious thing that makes those goosebumps and hope, is the feeling of it. And I’m okay with that.

So as we wrap our brains around this text and sprinkle it with wishes as it blows out into the world, here’s what’s stuck with me—it’s a question my agent asks me nearly every single time we’re close to sending something out on submission, and it’s only now, years later, that I see its beginning-of-the-process, idea-making potential.

It’s this:

“I’d like to hear from you what YOU feel this story is about. You know, not a synopsis, but an about about.”

An about about.

In theory, that’s a simple question, right? But picture books are big, rich beasts, bigger than plot and arc and character development and the rules.

Here’s what I wrote back, about what it’s about about:

“This is a look at the risky business of breaking a routine, and what might happen when missed connections get bumped out of whack by just a hair. These two just do what they do, day after day, and are unaware of the friendship that is just a few blocks out of their routine. It’s about the magic of everyday things shaken out differently enough to make something wonderful, only if you look.”

That’s what it’s about about.

This book is about routine. It’s about friendship. It’s about everyday magic and the unexpected.

But that doesn’t tell YOU, PiBoIdMo-er, what it’s about, only what it’s about about. And that’s because what picture books are really, truly about about are big, huge things. The other things? Your brilliant characters and arcs and the nitty gritty? I might even say they aren’t as essential or important or heart-making as the about about.

Can you make some room in your notebook for this kind of reverse engineering? What’s the about about of your idea? Maybe it’s about about the loneliness of waiting. Your details of plot and character could be endlessly different from a fellow PiBoIdMoer’s—maybe there’s a kid who’s always picked last for the kickball team, or the excruciating watch of a favorite stuffed animal swirling around in the wash. Maybe it’s Santa himself on December 26th, beginning the countdown of days one more time. Those three stories would have entirely unique feelings and execution, but their about about is mostly the same.

And the about is certainly one beautiful, well-crafted thing, but the about about is what matters the most. What’s yours?

Carter is a librarian at an independent school in Los Angeles. She is the author of A Rambler Steals Home (HMH, 2016) and two forthcoming picture books from Chronicle Books. Everything You Need for a Treehouse is about about creating a place that becomes a home. And This Is Not a Valentine is about about the ickiness and confusion of first love. She is an Emmy-winning visual effects and motion graphics artist whose career has covered all the nooks and crannies of visual storytelling. She writes about picture books and graphic design at her blog, Design of the Picture Book and is a contributor of bookish love at All the Wonders. You can also find her on Twitter @carterhiggins.

PrizeDetails (2)

Carter is giving away a picture book critique (for a fiction manuscript 1000 words or less).

Leave a comment below to enter. One comment per person, please.

This prize will be given away at the conclusion of PiBoIdMo. You are eligible for this prize if:

  1. You have registered for PiBoIdMo.
  2. You have commented ONCE ONLY on today’s post.
  3. You have completed the PiBoIdMo challenge. (You will have to sign the PiBoIdMo Pledge at the end of the event.)

Good luck, everyone!