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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Fanning the Spark of Your Story Idea

Every story – be it a mystery or a YA or woman’s fiction – begins with a spark, an idea that ignites an author’s imagination. Fanning that spark into a full-blown novel requires the patience to pursue the idea to see if it flames into something vibrant. Or will your initial idea be smothered under the full weight of a story – theme, plot, character development, spiritual thread?

Mulling over concepts for my novels always begins with two key elements: a familiar topic and the question “What if?” For me, it’s the mental equivalent of rubbing two sticks together to create literary fire.

For my 2014 novel, Somebody Like You, I started off by focusing on a subject I’ve long wanted to write about: twins. I have a fraternal twin sister. Growing up, we looked nothing alike – she had dark hair and dark eyes and I was a tow-headed blond with hazel eyes. Identical or not, I do understand the dynamics of twins.

Next, I tossed the topic of twins up against the question “What if?” and that led to several days of mulling. My author internal dialogue went something like this:

What if I wrote a book about twins?

A lot of novels about twins are historical romances – and I write contemporary romance.

A lot of historical romance novels about twins have to do with twin sisters … and somehow one of the sisters changes places with the other sister.

Okay, so besides being set in contemporary times, I’ll mix it up and write about twin brothers.

What other topics or issues am I familiar with?

The military. (My husband was in the military for 24 years. I always identified myself as the civilian along for the ride.)

The military is a good topic – one that interests a wide range of readers. Okay. I could weave in a military angle.

 What if … what if … what if …

 What if a woman’s husband is a soldier killed in Afghanistan?

What if after he dies, his identical twin brother shows up – a brother she knows nothing about?

 And after mulling and praying and rubbing those two mental sticks together, I developed this pitch for my editors: Can a young widow fall in love with her husband’s reflection?

That single sentence reflected the sparks for my story: twins and the military. But it wasn’t the complete story. I had to fan the question so that it grew into an entire contemporary romance novel, including a young woman who was widowed when her army medic husband was killed in Afghanistan and twin brothers who were estranged for twelve years. Just as you carefully build a fire so you don’t bury the beginnings of the flames you’ve kindled, I had to structure my novel so it allowed the story to expand in a natural, real way – instead of smothering it.

Igniting a story spark is more of a controlled burn than a raging wildfire. As a writer, I’m wise to work within the boundaries of good storytelling. I want to discover a spark – a compelling idea – and then craft a book that will engage readers’ minds and hearts. Doing so takes time, careful effort, and attention to detail. I have to keep my focus on the fire – control it, without suffocating the heat, the passion – and convey all of power on the page.

What idea — personal interest or life experience — can you use to spark a story?

Stalled in your writing?  The Benefits of a Quick Read!

I read a quote recently that said if you look at the state of your house, office and garage, that reflects the state of your inner being.

Hmm…I just came off a week of celebrations – my daughter graduating from college, my son graduating from high school – and the ensuing parties and houseful of guests.  All my adult children, plus extended family hung out at our house, playing games into the wee hours of the night.

The morning light revealed piles of coke cans, Doritos wrappers, blankets, shoes and pillows scattered around the family ottoman or kitchen table, the evidence of, well, fun had the night before.

We capped off our week with a hike up to a local waterfall, where we took a few minutes to sit down and reflect on the accomplishments of our graduates, as well as looked ahead to the future with hopes and dreams.

Amidst the fun of the game playing and cake-eating, the three hour hike afforded us with an opportunity to cherish the important stuff.

In the middle of writing a book, we can get caught up in the drama (and challenge) of writing, moving from one climatic event to the next. But somewhere in the middle we sometimes lose steam as we look ahead at all the scenes we must yet accomplish. Our progress begins to slow and suddenly we find ourselves standing in the middle of the room, looking at the debris, wondering how we got here, and how we might find the strength to continue.

It’s time to do a Quick Read of your book.

Reading what you have so far will charm you back into the story, into the big picture, and charge you with momentum to finish.  You’ll see what you have accomplished – and the reward of staying the course.

Here’s some advice on how to maximize your Quick Read:

  1. Don’t edit each scene as you go. If you stop to edit, you’ll find yourself suddenly reworking essential moments, slow your progress and you might even change something that will affect your ending.  Instead, TAKE NOTES on your story – outlining possible changes.  You might also highlight areas you need to pay special attention to later.  Remind yourself that you WILL go back and re-write, and give your story a deep edit when you’re finished.  Now, you’re just trying to reignite your inspiration.
  2. Keep an eye out for shallow (and unfounded) emotional responses. When you’re writing that first pass, you’re still getting to know your characters and their emotional responses. A second read through, after you’ve gotten to know them better will unearth deeper responses, more meaningful reactions, and add to your emotional layering of a scene.  Again, don’t rewrite it yet, but make notes on how you might react to this differently.  Then, on your editing pass, you’ll have a springboard from which to rewrite the emotions.
  3. Make notes on where you might need more storyworld, or perhaps even an additional scene. You might even find a redundant scene.
  4. Pick up plotting threads you might have forgotten as you’ve trudged through Act 2. Make a list of all the threads so you remember to wind them up at the end.
  5. Ask: WHAT DO I LOVE? I always ask myself this as I’m reading. What do I love about this book?  What character moments, plot twists, dialogue, prose – I go ahead and highlight it so I can remember why I’m writing this book, and I’m encouraged that yes, it’s a worthwhile venture to continue.  Seeing all those pink highlights is encouraging as I’m scrolling through my kindle, ready to start moving forward away.

Finally, doing a Quick Read of your book, especially while you’re busy with other events (e.g. family graduations!) utilizes that “non-writing” time and helps build your momentum for getting back on track after the party has died.

Life gets in the way of our writing – (or rather, writing gets in the way of life?), but you don’t have to let yourself get derailed.  Or, maybe you simply have lost your steam.  Stop writing, sit down and start reading.

You might just discover you’ve found your next favorite author.

Go! Write Something Brilliant!

Susie May

 

 

Step-by-Step: Storycrafting Process

My brother ran a ½ marathon last weekend.   For him, this is a regular occurrence – he has a wall full of finisher medals from marathons and iron man competitions around the country.  I love seeing him cross the finishing line – so much triumph in his face.

It’s exactly how I feel when I finish a novel. 

I handed him a water bottle as he met us in the finishers area.  “I’d love to run a marathon someday,” I said.

He leaned over, groaning a little, stretching out.  “You might not say that around mile 10,” he said.  “When everything starts to hurt and you think. . .why did I do this?”

Yeah, he’s right.  I amended my statement to reflect truth:  “I’d like to SAY I ran a marathon!”

We laughed, but that’s a little like the conversation I have with aspiring authors.

“I’m going to write a book.”

I love it when I hear people declare this!  I love standing at the edge of a brand new project, seeing the possibilities of the story, the twists and turns, the character growth, the amazing ending.  So much potential embodied in that statement.

And so much struggle.  Because writing a great story doesn’t just happen.  From idea to finished story, each chapter and step in the character journey is wrestled out of our brain (and hearts).   As Hemingway is reported to have said, “It is easy to write. Just sit in front of your typewriter and bleed.”

The problem with writing a great novel is that we want to rush ahead to the good stuff, to the chapters and happy ending without stopping to take the time to work through each step.  But without completing the characterization and plotting, the themematic exploration and developing the storyworld and the tension, it’s akin to me jumping off my sofa, grabbing my old running shoes and leaping into the crowd.

I’m going to die, long before mile 10!

First Scene and Synopsis ImageAnd this is why, I believe, aspiring authors give up around chapter 7. (or before). Because enthusiasm can only fuel us so far down the journey.  Without proper preparation, we’ll fizzle out when we get to the mire of Act 2.

At MBT, we have a Peptalk every Thursday night to encourage and train our members on the craft of storycrafting.  This year, one Thursday a month, we’re building a book together, working through the process step by step.

Last week, we opened up our private Peptalk to the public to take a peek at what we do.  We quickly summed up the process, then talked about how/when to craft the Inciting Incident.  We outlined our goals for Chapter 1, then Rachel Hauck and I shared some tips for getting the story on the page.

And, because we had such an overwhelming response, I thought it might help if we shared the replay.

Get the video replay of the class – Build-A-Book:  Inciting Incident and Getting the Story on the Page.  (You’ll also get the PDF Slides that are rich in the content we talk about.)
 
Quickly, here’s a rundown of the process we cover:

  1. Start with your Story Seed (or idea that sparked the story)
  2. Decide on your Genre
  3. Discover your Setting
  4. Create your Characters
    1. Find the Dark Moment Story
    2. Use the Story Equation (a MBT Tool) to build the plot
    3. Put your elements together in a loose plot (using our grid for story structure)
  5. Ask your Storyquestion
  6. Create a short premise
  7. Create the Act 2 elements (we use a 4 Act plotting structure)
  8. Decide on your Inciting Incident
  9. Craft your home world/Chapter 1 elements
  10. Put together your plot & Tell Yourself the Story

WRITE!

You can run a marathon (aka, write a brilliant novel!)  You just need to plan for success.

Have a great writing week and Go! Write Something Brilliant!

smw sig without background

 

 

 

Susie May