This is the first half of chapter two; stay tuned for the thrilling conclusion in Questions To Ask Yourself (Part II).
Two: Questions to Ask Yourself
If you’re anything like me, then your first question is probably: should I give up? No, but you might want to switch things up a little. I wrote a million words of absolute, abject drivel before writing another million words that, in retrospect, were almost as bad. Twenty-one books is nothing to sneeze at, but becomes a lot less impressive after you face the fact that every single one of them reads like an encyclopedia. Back then, I didn’t know how to self-edit. And yes, further along in this book is a chapter on how to do exactly that. But I digress. I could never quite find my voice, in the third person, because my voice wasn’t in the third person. When I started writing in the first person, everything suddenly came into focus.
What’s standing between you and greatness might be something almost too miniscule to notice and equally minor to fix. I’m going to help you assess both where you want to go, and where you actually are. As Lucius Annaeus Seneca said, “if one does not know to which port one is sailing, no wind is favorable.” Which means that, conversely, it might be hard to decide what, if any, feedback is worth considering. Feedback is important, and we’ll talk about that, too—but not yet.
First, let’s assess your story. In doing this exercise, pretend I’m someone you trust and feel safe confiding in, but who you also kind of want to punch. For me, that’s my high school basketball coach. He told me all kinds of things I didn’t want to hear, more than you could shake a stick at. Our debates, related to all kinds of topics, sometimes got a little fiery. But I treasure the man, and his wisdom, to this day and I can count more than a few situations where remembering his words brought me out of some dark places. My point being, I don’t want you to tear yourself down. This exercise, like everything else in this chapter and in this book, is about loving yourself into the best writer and the best you that you can be.
Succeeding as a writer is about more than knowing how to properly construct a sentence. You have to kill your darlings. Sometimes that means pitching a sentence or two and sometimes that means pitching an entire story. Just like you have to prune a bush to make it grow, you have to focus your creativity where it has the greatest chance to flourish.
In other words, the more time you waste banging your head against the wall, the less time you have for redirecting your energies and possibly creating something that’ll actually be good.
Reading this, you might be rolling your eyes. She’s just telling us to give up whenever the going gets tough. No wonder she sucks. Except that’s not what I’m saying at all. Einstein said, “everyone is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” I’m asking you to think long and hard about whether you’re a revision or two from greatness or whether stubbornness has completely trapped your imagination.
What’s my story about—really?
You should be able to answer this question in one sentence. A quick, simple summary is more than an elevator pitch; it’s a test of whether your story actually has a plot. The longer it takes you to explain what’s going on, the less engaged your readers are going to be. Most people browsing for books never read past the first sentence of any book. Not unless they’re pulled right in. And you absolutely cannot pull anyone in unless you, yourself, are completely clear on where your reader is supposedly going. Einstein also said, “if you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” That goes for literally every single aspect of crafting a story, from worldbuilding to plot to your characters’ various motivations. Murkiness in this first step signals a need to go back and maybe rework a few things.
Which isn’t to say that, should you find yourself in this situation, you should print out your manuscript solely for the express purpose of lighting it on fire. There might or might not be some fantastic writing, there—writing that’ll be even more fantastic once it’s in the proper context. What I did, after I realized that my first stab at Write in Water was slightly less interesting than a toilet paper commercial, was put the entire thing aside. The best solution, for me, was going back to the drawing board. For you, a better idea might be to cut and paste the parts you really like into a new outline.
Do I feel like I’m forcing my characters?
Characters are supposed to evolve. It’s a problem, though, if your mild-mannered professor of linguistics starts—without explanation—suddenly speaking only in karate. Give yourself whatever freedom you need, to explore! But know, really know, who your protagonists are before you start writing.
And know this, too: even then, you will run into issues. I’ve realized, after 20,000 words, that I hated my protagonist. Or that I was bored with her. Or him. This has, ahem, happened more than once. Mostly I’ve pushed on, finished things, and even agreed to let them be published. Once or twice, though, I’ve done the smart thing and regrouped. Frustration, or even boredom with a character signals that you’ve lost your connection to them. Here’s the thing, though: these people, these imaginary people living in your head, need to be people you actually want to spend time with. I wrote two whole books about a girl who, if I’d seen her approaching me at lunch, I would’ve abandoned my things to avoid. Your readers, as I’m fond of pointing out, discover the world you’re creating through your eyes. Gee, how come those books weren’t bestsellers?
Maybe, you’re thinking, you don’t hate your character. You just…don’t really like him, either. You turned him into a sensei halfway through the last chapter as anything was better than having him wax poetic, again, about his love for the Dewey Decimal System. And boy, did I just pull that reference out of my ass. The answer for you, then, is to remember that this person is in fact a figment of your imagination. You do not owe him anything. Turn this into Ong Bak tribute porn if you need to; you’re the one in charge, here.
While you’re at it, here’s some additional advice: the essence of drama, as we know, is conflict. Remember, though, that—especially in a character-driven story—the plot serves the characters. External conflict comes from internal conflict; the latter must exist, before the former can. As a storyteller, your job is to explicate that conflict in an exciting way. To give an example from a book that was actually popular, Twilight, the essence of the plot isn’t that some bullies show up to the schoolyard. In fact, the story would be pretty much the same without the Cullens’, um, non-kosher frenemies. This is a book about Edward’s internal conflict, which is caused by the fact that he’s in love with his dinner. Then, too, there’s Bella’s conflict over whether she prefers bestiality or necrophilia.
Superman, as a character, is boring. Wonder Woman, well, she’s also kind of boring unless Linda Carter’s the reason you have a thing for roller skates. What makes Wonder Woman slightly less like a comics-based enema is the fact that she has a disability. Back in the 50’s it was womanly angst and…wait. It’s still that. Wondering if she’ll survive her adventures is sort of like wondering if the dental dam will break during this presentation. Shit, it’d be funny if something went wrong. Superman, meanwhile, doesn’t even offer this level of suspense. Wondering if he’ll survive his adventures is the mental equivalent of shoving a kazoo up your nose and using it to spray bleach onto your brain.
If this sounds like a better alternative than spending one more sentence with Dr. Hardmeat, then step back from the keyboard! Spend some time with your characters, instead. Work out, for yourself, who they are. I mean. Who they really are. Ask yourself the tough questions and make your characters answer them, too. You don’t need to like them, or at least all of them, although that’s certainly preferable and yes, even with the villains. You do, however, need to understand them.