Friday, June 1, 2018

Dear Frida Pennabook: Truthful in Trenton

Sometimes it's helpful to tap into the expertise of a fellow writer or artist. Got a question? Need advice? Just ask Frida.

Dear Frida,

My latest project has been rejected by several agents now. The main comment I hear from them, and from my critique group, is that the story is not believable. But it really happened, and I have the photos to prove it! How can I convince everyone that truth is stranger than fiction?

Truthful in Trenton

Dear Truthful,

First of all, congratulations on working up the courage to send your baby out into the big wide world and subject it to the harsh criticism of all the haters. Because, my dear, there are a whole lot of them, and you will have to wade through approximately all of them before you find the one agent in a gazillion who is the right fit for you. But that agent is out there, and with a lot of patience, hard work on revisions, and research on agent wish lists, you’ll prevail. Honestly.

But let me play devil’s advocate for a moment here. (You knew this was coming, didn’t you? After all, you decided to come to me for advice, so buckle up, peanut butter cup.)

Your critique group and all those agents are right. Your story is not believable. “But, Frida!” you sputter through your Earl Grey as you read my words. “How could you possibly know such a thing? You haven’t even read my story!”

Oh, my little tea biscuit, I don’t need to. If all those agents and crit group members say it, it must be true. It is not whether your story is true in reality, but is it believable in fiction? The two are not the same thing at all.

What everyone is responding to is that the circumstances in your story are not believable in relation to your character or your setting or some other aspect of your story. Keep in mind that when you try to shoe horn real-life situations into fictionalized scenarios, certain details must be left out, characters deleted, time frames condensed, etc., to the point that the fictionalized version no longer feels authentic.

The question then becomes, how can you revise in order to rediscover that authenticity? First, what was so important about the “real” event that made you want to incorporate it into your fiction? The emotions? The outcome? The humor? The relationships? When you know that, you will have the central theme of your anecdote, which will inform your revisions and help you build a cohesive story.

Next, make certain your protagonist would actually find herself in the scenario you create for her. A twelve-year-old daughter of Italian immigrants in New York city in the 1950s is unlikely to find herself with a trout in her waders after falling in a stream while fly fishing with her Uncle Buck (unless you set up the story so that she is visiting her Appalachian relatives on her father’s side).

Finally, does your protagonist react to the situation the way the reader expects? While it’s important for the MC to occasionally surprise the reader (and himself), even when he does something surprising the reader needs to be able to say, “Okay, I can see that happening. I get it.” In other words, surprises need to arise from character growth. If not, they immediately become unbelievable.

So, Truthful, as much as you may love your true story, you must throw it out and start from scratch. Use it as a compass heading, but not a roadmap. Twist it, contort it, bend it, convolute it. In short, do what you do best and make it up. Ironically, this warped path will lead you to the truth.


*  Do you have a question about children's book writing or publishing? Send your questions to Mitten Blog editor, Kristin Lenz, and she'll promptly pass them along to Frida.

*  Do you have an idea for a special feature on the SCBWI-MI chapter blog? Would you like to write a guest post? We'd love to hear from you! Read our submission guidelines here.

Only three more days! The submission window opens on June 4th for the second SCBWI-MI Novel Mentorship Competition with mentor Kelly Barson. Read our interview with Kelly here.

Calling all illustrators! Are you up for the challenge? The 4 Out the Door postcard challenge is off to a great start. Learn more here.


  1. Fun read and great advice. Thank you Frida and Truthful!

  2. What a great question and helpful answer. I struggled with this same concept with a historical fiction to maintain the truth while creating a fictional narrative that rang true! Sigh.

  3. So happy Frida is back! And this is a really fun question, because so many times it's the truthful tidbits in my novel that readers find unbelievable, or sometimes even boring. In my case, I think it has to do with fun scenes I've experienced in real life that somehow lose their resonance once written down. Frida's advice is good--maybe those scenes don't fit the character, or maybe I'm feeling too nostalgic about those events and they don't work the same on the page.