Last weekend, I was busy with the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) Boise conference. We had a great time. About 70 people turned out to hear about children’s literature at every stage from first draft to using books in the classroom.
One talk that had a big impact on my thought process as a writer was Jennifer Rofe, an agent with Andrea Brown Literary Agency. Jen said one thing that really gets her attention when she’s reading a query or a manuscript is what she calls the “So what?” factor.
Jen used Harry Potter as an example. The first thing you say about it is “Harry Potter is an orphan.” The reply: “So what?” In other words, why should I care about this character or this story?
“He’s in danger.”
“The world’s most evil wizard is out to kill Harry.”
“Voldemort will destroy the entire wizarding world if Harry dies.”
“Harry is the only one who can save them.”
“Harry doesn’t even know he’s a wizard.”
Jen says at this point when you can’t really say “so what?” anymore, that’s when you know your story is going in the right direction.
It’s kind of like the hook of the story. I knew about hooks and I frequently toss my manuscript in the proverbial fish pond to see if the hook catches anything.
With this new concept of the “so what?” factor, though, I have a more concrete way to think about my hook. I can keep upping the stakes on my character until I find that moment where the stakes are so high a reader can’t help but care about the story and the character.
It’s a difficult challenge. I have three works in progress right now. And one novel I thought was pretty well revised. But when I subject them to the “so what?” test, some of them don’t really stand up. This gives me a new way to work on revising that essential beginning. Of course, the rest of the story has to stand up to that beginning, but the plot really doesn’t get going anywhere until you are done asking “so what?”
If you are in a critique group, this is an excellent exercise to try with each manuscript you’re reading. If you’re not in a group, here’s an great idea. Send your first page or a synopsis to me in the comment section of this blog, and we’ll “so what?” it together.
I look forward to seeing some of your writing.