Recently, I’ve been going through my old journals, and this morning it was one from 2004, which is all about a novel I never finished.
In reading it, I was struck by just how hard I was working on that book—really, I was giving it everything I had.
And yet, looking back, I know that literally no amount of time I could possibly have spent on that novel would have gotten me over the finish line with it, in terms of producing a publishable draft.
When I actually cracked open that dusty old file on my hard-drive and took a look at the manuscript, I could see that I had a number of things working in my favor with that project:
- I knew the characters well, and could draw them in a compelling way
- I knew the places where the story was set intimately
- I knew how to write a scene
- I knew how to create and maintain a source of tension as a story progressed, and
- The writing itself was fairly solid.
But even so, I would never have gotten over the finish line with this project because I didn’t know which questions to ask.
1. What do the major characters want and why do they want it?
As a writer, it’s easy to follow your characters around the game space of the story because you’re fascinated by them. But if your readers don’t know what your characters want, the story will feel like it’s going nowhere. And if the reason that character wants what they want doesn’t feel convincing, or has no real emotional charge to it…who really cares whether they get it or not?
2. What is the endgame of this story?
If you don’t know how your story ends—particularly, what the climax of that story is—the narrative momentum of your great idea and compelling characters and themes and situations and all that will run out, and you’ll find yourself stuck in the Messy Middle, the way I did with this project. Worse, you might find that there really isn’t any logical way everything you’ve set up actually can come together in a satisfying way at the end. Which SUCKS.
3. Where does this story really start?
You could pick any point in the timeline of the story to start with, but where you choose to start will create expectations on your reader’s part, and one of those expectations is that what appears within the first 20–40 pages will play through the whole of the story in a way that clearly escalates. Which means that you can’t take that long just to set up the world of the story and use scene after scene to SHOW the protagonist’s backstory because you’ve heard that telling is bad and backstory is boring. You certainly don’t have to start with the inciting incident, the way many story gurus will tell you to—but you also have a limited amount of time in the story before your reader will expect whatever they would read about in the course of a back-cover description to start actually happening on the page.
If I had known enough to ask myself those sorts of questions then—and to know that I really had to answer to them if any of my efforts were going to go anywhere—that novel might actually have gotten finished, and published.
In January, I’m going to be sharing a way that you can get clear on exactly these sorts of questions—and save yourself what I think of as running a thousand miles in the wrong direction, the way I did with this project.
Because I’d like to see your efforts with your current WIP actually come to fruition, so your voice and vision can live in the world, and have the sort of impact it should.
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