The Big 3 Questions Every Writer Should Answer

Before I begin to plot a novel  — before developing my characters or deciding on the obstacles they’ll face or devising their spiritual journey — I always ask myself the “Big 3 Questions.”

Always.

The Big 3 are focusing questions that every writer should ask before plotting a new novel. So what are the Big 3?

  1. What is your novel about?
  2. Why should anyone pick up your novel?
  3. What is your novel’s Story Question?

 

To understand the importance of these questions, let’s take the Big 3 one by one.

  • What is your novel about?

Keep your answer to this question simple. One to three sentences. If you don’t know where to start, write down your genre. Then give a straightforward explanation of your story’s plot. EX: Contemporary Romance. My novel is about the relationship between a young widow and her husband’s twin brother. (This was for my novel Somebody Like You.)

Another way to approach this question is if you’ve written more than one manuscript or published more than one novel. Consider the plots of your books and then answer the question: What are your novels about? EX: family, life not going according to plan, messy relationships, mistakes defining us, twins, estrangement, widowhood, secrets, where do we find significance, military, medicine/physicians

Doing this helps you begin to see the recurring issues you write about. This kind of question also shows up on the author questionnaires sent by publishers’ marketing departments.

  • Why should anyone pick up your novel? Another way to ask this: Why should anyone ever read your book? What are readers going to love about your book? What makes your book un-put-downable? When someone sees your name on the front cover of a novel, what kind of story are they going to get? EX: Rachel Hauck has a literary voice and is known for slip-time novels — stories two time periods intersect — as well as royal romances. Susan May Warren is known for family stories, as well contemporary romances laced with adventure and action. Me? I write contemporary romance with strong women’s fiction elements. 

Again, if you’ve written more than one manuscript or novel, step back and take a big picture look at your books. What defines you as a writer? Humor? Happily Ever Afters? Supernatural elements? Gritty reality?

  • What is your novel’s Story Question? 

I’ve written about Story Question before and, yes, it’s vital to know your novel’s Story Question (SQ) because it fuels your novel and keeps it moving forward. Your main characters and subplot characters are trying to answer your SQ — and your readers are subconsciously wrestling with the SQ, too. EX: Some of my novels’ SQs are:

  • Is it ever wrong to love someone? (Somebody Like You)
  • What if you discovered that what you thought was your worst mistake was actually the right choice? (Crazy Little Thing Called Love)
  • How do other people’s opinions about us influence our choices? (Almost Like Being in Love)

 

By answering the Big 3 Questions, you are discovering more about yourself as a writer: what you write, why you write, and how to connect with your readers on an emotional level through your novel’s Story Question. So what about you? Will you take the time to answer the Big 3 before starting to write your next story? 

 

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ACFW 2016 — My Book Therapy-style!

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I spent last week in Nashville attending the annual American Christian Fiction Writers (ACFW) Conference. Ted Dekker was the keynote speaker. The multitalented Rachel Hauck led worship. And yes, there were all sorts of workshops. Besides attending Jim Rubart’s workshop on creativity, I also attended Ami McConnell’s workshop on “Writing Naked.” I spent a lot of time meeting one-on-one with writing friends.

Truthfully, the best part of the conference was spending time with friends — talking, laughing, commiserating. Getting out from behind our computers and up close with other creatives because we understand one another. We were 580 strong — and we all “got” one another.

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I loved seeing so many My Book Therapy (MBT) friends. One of the things I love most about MBT is the community you find here. Yes, we’re all about writing — but we’re also about building relationships with one another — about encouraging one another in our writing journeys. Meeting up at conferences is one of the best ways to strengthen your relationships with other MBT members.

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Another thing I love about MBT how we celebrate one other. Susie and Rachel are amazing mentors to so many writers and I’m so thankful for their influence in my life, both professionally and personally.

If you attended ACFW 2016, I hope you’re savoring your memories today. If you weren’t able to go, I hope you’re already planning how you’re getting to next year’s conference! And don’t forget to make plans to attend the MBT Deep Thinkers Retreat early next year!

 

 

 

The What and Why of Writing: Boy Scout Moment

Say the words “Boy Scout” and most people will think “Be prepared.” That’s the Boy Scout Motto. Or they might think of words like trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous. These are parts of the 12 Points of the Scout Law. I know all this because my husband, who is an Eagle Scout, recited all 12 Points to me in rapid-fire succession. Once a scout, always a scout.

And yes, all of this Boy Scout trivia is applicable to writing a novel.

What: Boy Scout Moment

This is a sweet moment in the beginning of the book where we glimpse the hero or heroine doing something kind: Maybe they are  kind to an animal. Maybe they help an old woman across the street (Boy Scout, remember?). In some small way, your character sacrifices what they want for someone else. The Boy Scout Moment helps your readers like your hero and/or your heroine.

Why: I already explained why you need a Boy Scout Moment early on in your novel. Look at the last line under the section labeled “What.” You want your readers to like your hero and your heroine.

As novelists, we understand the character arc in a story. Character arc is the timeline that allows our main characters to change and mature as the story progresses. This is why in Chapter One you can have a hero and heroine who loathe each other but then discover Happily Ever After together by the time you pen “The End.” Thanks to the character arc, they are not the same people they were at the beginning of the story.

But not all our characters are likeable at the beginning of the book. As a matter of fact, we’re supposed to write characters who are less-than-perfect. How do you show readers that your hero or heroine are still worth their time, despite their faults?

This is the brilliance of the Boy Scout Moment.

While your heroine may not glimpse the hero’s heart of gold until later in the book, give your readers a quick peek. Here’s where you can peruse that 12 Point Scout Law again:

  1. Trustworthy
  2. Loyal
  3. Helpful
  4. Friendly
  5. Courteous
  6. Kind
  7. Obedient
  8. Cheerful
  9. Thrifty
  10. Brave
  11. Clean
  12. Reverent

 

Example: In my novel Crazy Little Thing Called Love, my heroine Vanessa doesn’t do close relationships. She’s good at saying hello and she’s good at saying goodbye — but she doesn’t know how to do all that comes in between those two words. And yes, there are reasons for that. I knew if I wasn’t careful, Vanessa could come across as distant, yes, even unlikeable, to my readers. At the beginning of the book they wouldn’t know all the reasons why Vanessa would seem closed off toward people. That unfolded as the story progressed. So I crafted a Boy Scout Moment for Vanessa where she helped out a single mom who she’d met during one of her shifts as a paramedic.

What kind of Boy Scout Moment could you give your hero or heroine? Could he look like a jerk to the heroine but prove himself to be trustworthy to someone else? (#1) Could she be loyal to her family by helping out a sibling? (#2) Could he continue to be courteous to his boss even though he’s seething inside? (#5) Or could she clean up a mess she didn’t make?  (#11)

 

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The What and Why of Writing: Layer or Subplot

There are so many details that go into plotting our stories – one simple way to think of plotting is  everything that happens to our hero and heroine: The Inciting Incident(s). The Ds (Disappointments) or obstacles, that force them to face Ys in the Road and ask the question, “What do I do now?” over and over again. The Black Moment, which is a repeat of the Dark Moment of the past. And the long-awaited Happily-Ever-After, where our hero and heroine ride off into the sunset …

Sorry. I lapsed into a romantic cliché there, didn’t I?

It’s vital to plot a strong main story, but while you’re doing that, remember to deepen your story too. How? Weave in an intriguing Layer or Subplot

What:

A story Layer and a Subplot are two different elements:

  • A Layer adds depth to the plot and enhances the character’s struggle – and eventually his/her Epiphany.
  • A Subplot is its own distinct story. It has an Inciting Incident, Obstacles, a Black Moment, and lessons learned (and hopefully a Happily Ever After).

Why:

A Layer deepens the theme of the story. Remember: theme is the overall idea of your story and can usually be summarized in one word such as courage or forgiveness or grace. In J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings one of the themes is power. Tolkien weaves in the layer of Saruman the wizard to show what happens when power is corrupted.

A Subplot can mirror the main plot, and even intersect with it, but it has its own main characters, its own arc, and if pulled out of the story, could stand alone as a mini-story.

In the novel Les Misérables by Victor Hugo, the main story is about the ex-convict Jean Valjean. Hugo wove many subplots within Les Misérables: Fantine’s story, Cossette’s story, Eponine’s story – and interestingly, when he wrote Les Mis, Hugo divided the novel into volumes highlighting each character’s storyline.

The main thing to remember is that you are deepening your story as you weave in a Layer and/or a Subplot. If you add a Layer to your story, keep it simple, asking yourself which character might act as a Voice of Truth for your hero or heroine to teach them something new about the theme.

When you build a Subplot, allow it to be a testing ground for “what if.” What happens if a certain choice is made – or isn’t made? What lesson are your hero and heroine learning? Is there a smaller lesson, or a piece of that lesson, that you can highlight through the Subplot characters?

Consider your work-in-progress: Can you deepen the story by adding a Layer or Subplot? 

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