I'm not sure if the title of this post is technically correct. Can you have a small epiphany, or are they always great huge things that clout you around the head and take your breath away? Anyway, when I had one of these sudden writing realisations at the SCBWI Conference last weekend, I was reminded what a good environment it was for these unexpected leaps of thinking. The fact that I was able to nonchalantly describe the emotional heart of my new novel to Sara Grant just ten minutes later, was a bonus! (I don't get to look nonchalant very often – my default mode is "slightly flustered")
I also remembered being at the conference three years earlier and having almost exactly the same experience. One of the speakers back then had suggested writing a three word pitch for your novel, so I tried it with Back from the Dead, which had recently lurched into Undiscovered Voices. I came up with Zombies Are Family and it was so spot on that it made me cry. I realised how central the idea of families was to the story, how the plot was driven by the protagonist trying to find his zombified relatives and discovering a whole new family unit in the process. Unwittingly, I had found the heart of the story, over a year since I'd started writing it. And it was a good thing I did, because that emotional core helped to drive and shape the novel through the massive rewrite I would do over the year that followed.
So what is it about the SCBWI conference that encourages moments like these to happen? Well, first of all I think it's a very stimulating environment. I don't believe in a universal consciousness or anything like that, but being around like-minded people definitely allows ideas to mix and mutate. You also spend a lot of time discussing your own and other people's books, and that sets up plenty of thought-lines for your brain to work on. In the hurly-burly of everyday life, it can be hard to set aside that kind of pure thinking time, but at the conference, it's very much encouraged.
The other thing that changes is the nature of the thought process. All too often when writing a novel, I need to concentrate on the practical business of constructing the story and characters – the what. But being with certain writers (and Sara is an excellent example) conversation quickly turns to the why. Why am I writing this book? What makes it special to me and me alone? Why have I chosen that setting or that mix of characters? The answers may not come out immediately, but more often than not, the unconscious choices bubble to the surface as small epiphanies.
These are the moments we cherish as writers, where just for a second the pieces interlock and we get a glimpse of the picture behind. I'm not a religious man, but there's something divine about that. Thank you SCBWI, for making it happen.