One Thing Leads to Another

Naomi Hawkins-Rowe

Naomi Hawkins-Rowe

I’ve been told that the two places you should never attempt to talk to an editor (or anyone in publishing for that matter) are an elevator or a public bathroom. Seems logical and polite. No one wants anyone shoving a manuscript at them when 1) they have no exit, or 2) they are in a delicate situation. I state again, it’s a matter of being logically polite.

So imagine, regardless of knowing this tip of etiquette, I committed this faux-pas. Now, before I mislead you, I didn’t have my manuscript in hand, nor did I intend to solicit the editor with my manuscript, but for a brief moment you could tell she was wondering if I was going to try and shove one in her bag.

While I was looking for something in my purse, I saw her exiting a bathroom stall, and I had a sudden urge to thank her for giving real advice in both the intensive and morning session I’d attended so far at the SCBWI Mid-South Conference. She, already being one of the coolest editors I’ve ever heard speak, smiled warmly (probably out of relief more than anything) and asked if I was going to the next breakout session. Since I was on my way to another session, I said yes. It was after she’d left the bathroom and I returned to arranging my bag that I realized what she’d meant. She wasn’t asking if I was going to the next breakout session, as in breakout session III, she was asking if I was going to HER next session.

For a moment, I panicked. I wasn’t registered to go to her session and I thought, I just lied to an editor I would die to work with. The truth is, I hadn’t registered her session on World Building, because I didn’t think it would apply to anything I’m currently working on. World Building, in my mind, was for Fantasy and Science Fiction. But there I was, committing myself to going. So, I had to go! While walking to the room, I imaged someone from the conference discovering I’d sneaked into to her session and dragging me out by my ear, shaming me in front of everyone. But no one noticed I was there, except the editor, whom I made eye contact with while I settled into my chair, happy I’d kept my word.

That simple misunderstanding in the bathroom lead to a moment of clarity. My prejudice about what world building was got shattered. The first thing she said was that: “Every story has a world—creating it is essential.” True enough. But then she took it a step further, and challenged us to both look at and create our worlds with our characters in mind. So rather than creating the setting and asking how the world affects our characters, like my anthropologically trained mind wants to do, I was being forced to look at how my character would affect the world I was writing about. In essence, the world is a reflection of the traits I give my characters, and I need to create a world/environment that allows for their wants/desires to be challenged and for the wants to be fulfilled in some way, be it the thing desired or something obtained that the character didn’t even know they wanted or needed.

During the session we were asked, taking the current story we are working on, to list first the tangible and then the emotional wants of our protagonist. This, she said, we should do with each of our characters. Knowing what our characters wanted, we were then asked to create three things in our world: 1) barriers to success, 2) a means to break down the barriers and 3) wish fulfillment (either desired or unaware of the thing desired).

In doing the exercise, I realized why I was stuck with one of my narrators. Not writing fantasy or science fiction, I was stuck in a loop of trying to be so accurate with the real world and culture I was writing about, that my character’s actions were being coming stereotypical and shallow. I’d spent so much time focusing on how the environment would make her react, that I’d neglected to ask what her wants were in the first place. Knowing my character’s wants, I then was able to find barriers and solutions that I hope will help make the world of my story multi-deminsional without creating cultural tropes.

At the end of the session, Madame Editor left us with this last thought, and I think it too essential: “Young readers—like anyone—come to your books to experience fulfillment, and you better give it to them.

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