When you attend a conference, you never know what's going to resonate a month later. My initial response to the SCBWI summer conference in L.A. was author envy. Jon Scieszka, Gordon Korman, Marion Dane Bauer,…I'm not worthy! The sentiment lingered and this surprised me. In another life (as a lawyer), I'd lived in Los Angeles and had many star sightings: Bob Newhart in the video store! Rick Springfield ordering a sandwich in front of me! (I'll have what he's having.) Alfre Woodard at the dry cleaners! The moment of glee lasted as long as an Altoid. But I never (seriously) aspired to be an actor or a singer. A successful author? My ultimate dream.
I tried to live in the moment, listening to each esteemed writer and illustrator's keynote, hoping that their talent and good karma would transfer to me. A ridiculous wish considering I was one of 1,100 people in attendance, but there are no Wish Censors. If there were, fountains would have no more than three or four pennies lining their bottoms. On the return flight home, I wasn't sure what I'd gained from the four-day event. I had a vaguely positive feeling, but it couldn't pin it down to inspiration or direction.
Today, as I sat in a café in town, I stared at my laptop and felt I'd hit a snag with my latest project. Then, an L.A. moment flashed to mind. I tried a writing tip offered by Gail Carson Levine (Ella Enchanted). I flipped through my journal and found a notation from her speech. When she feels a part of a manuscript lacks oomph, she brainstorms other plot possibilities. The list must reach a dozen. Don't stop even if you like one of your first seven ideas.
I am outlining a new YA manuscript and, as I reviewed my notes, I struggled with why a character would do something seemingly unexpected. I started listing. The first idea seemed plausible. I could go with it, but I let the list persist. Item two, acceptable, although I was dwelling too much on one of the emerging themes. Too blatant. Item three—meh. I really liked my fourth and fifth ideas. The fifth, in particular, took off. I madly typed notes to expand on this possibility. I was sold on it as a compelling explanation.
Don't stop till you hit a dozen. I felt like I was back in math class, clearly getting a concept yet having to do all the assigned homework questions, ostensibly to solidify my understanding. Bah! Busy work. I'd resented Mr. Houston and Mrs. Hinich then and now I was resenting Gail Carson Levine. I was under no obligation. She wouldn't do a homework check. She didn't threaten detention or black marks in the grade book. I could stop and she'd never know. She wouldn't care if I followed her advice. She didn't know me. She didn't even follow me on Twitter, for Bill Peet's sake.
Ah, but the curse. I was always an obedient student, dammit. I continued with the list. After each new idea, I'd count my ideas as if by chance an extra one or two crept in from nowhere. By the time I had ten ideas, I got up and requested a coffee refill. Ten was terrific. It showed I could consider alternatives. Good enough.
I sat back down and figured a couple more ideas wouldn't hurt. Eleven. Twelve. Whew. Done.
You know what? I have to thank Gail Carson Levine for pushing me. As I review my list, it is clear that not all of the ideas are home runs. There are a few fouls and one or two embarrassing strikes. Still, creating the list helped with more than finding a fitting motive for a character. By exploring many possibilities, I had to consider my main character's relationship with each of the other characters. I deepened my understanding of some of the minor characters and tweaked other aspects of the plot.
Which idea will I go with? It's down to Numbers 5, 8 and 10. Five still feels the strongest, but I need to let the possibilities simmer. The fact that the tenth idea is a contender proves that I didn't fill the list just for the sake of reaching the seemingly random number of twelve. I fully committed to the exercise. And why wouldn't I? I am excited about my manuscript idea. Should I eventually get it published, I'll have to add Gail Carson Levine to the Acknowledgments. Turns out I was doing more than star gazing in L.A. after all!