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What's Your Big Idea?

What do you feel most passionate about? What holds your interest longer than it takes to read a preview on Netflix? If you write about concepts that you care about—that make you laugh, cry, or shake your fists in the air—your readers will get lost in the pages of your book. A book draws readers by the way it makes them feel and/or helps them escape from their everyday lives.

You’ll find ideas in your home, workplace, neighbourhood, and community. Everybody in your circle of family, friends, and acquaintances has a story that’s important to them. It may touch on healthcare, employment, family, eldercare, sibling conflicts, marriage, divorce, housing, friendships, travel, security, politics, or injustice.

From the embryo of someone else’s story, develop your narrative.

You’ll also come across ideas from the social issues of our time. Media overflows with articles about race, religion, sexual orientation, immigration, childcare, poverty, Indigenous rights, healthcare, school safety, terrorism, politics, the opioid crisis, the #MeToo movement, gun laws, the vaccine debate, abortion laws, human trafficking, cyberbullying, along with top newsmakers such as climate change.

Turning her back on gas-guzzling planes, Swedish teen Greta Thunberg boarded a boat and sailed across the Atlantic Ocean to spread the doomsday message about climate change. Her story gripped the world. She scolded presidents and prime ministers. She condemned the older generation for polluting the environment and demanded they change the laws before global warming destroyed the planet. Thunberg refused to allow her young age and diagnosis of Asperger’s syndrome to stand in her way.

Her story has several intriguing aspects. It’s about the young pitted against the old, a teen who shows indomitable strength despite her limitations, and the frightening vision of the future if global warming is unrestrained. Even one aspect of Thunberg’s story could shape the big idea in a book.

Although I never wrote verbatim about true events (except as a reporter), I based my young adult books on my experiences teaching in elementary schools for over twenty-five years. Most of the characters, dialogue, and plotlines stemmed from my interactions with children, parents, and staff in classrooms or on playgrounds.

When I noticed mental illness was a growing concern school-wide, I chose this problem as the big idea in When Pigs Fly, one of my coming-of-age titles. The protagonist, Maddie, wants nothing to do with her estranged father when he walks back into her life. She thinks he is using his depression as an excuse for breaking all his promises. She’s happy spending the summer without him, hanging around friends and preparing for a mountain bike race, until tragedy strikes, and then her world spins out of control. The novel appeals to young readers affected by mental illness, either directly or indirectly, which involves a substantial number of people.

Write about a social issue that interests your target audience or resonates in your own life. I write about racism because of my chance encounter with a stranger long ago.

I grew up in a small village on a lake about sixty kilometres from Toronto, Ontario. In my early years, I hadn't met anyone who wasn't white among my friends, family, neighbours, and community. One blustery day, my mother, a nurse, took the bus to work at the hospital thirty minutes away, as the driving conditions were bad. When she returned that night, she wandered into the kitchen with a stranger—an African American woman.

Apparently, the bus driver had refused to let the woman off at her stop because he didn’t like the colour of her skin. That meant she had faced several kilometres of backtracking in the dark and in a blizzard. Outraged, my mother had blasted the driver—she was not one to hold back—and then had invited the woman home to have dinner at our house. Afterward, my father drove her home.

The bus driver’s perspective baffled me. Why wouldn’t he let the woman get off the bus? Why didn’t he care that if she missed her stop, she’d have to trek a long way on foot in the frigid weather to get home? His actions turned my stomach. They made little sense—and still don’t.

What bothers you most? Write about that, for chances are that connects to the important message you hope readers will take away from your book.


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