Tuesday, May 25, 2021

One Key Question to Ask Before You Start Writing

By Shanna Swendson, @ShannaSwendson

Part of The Writer’s Life Series 

JH: Writers write for many different reasons, but there's one reason we don't usually consider when we start a novel. Shanna Swendson discusses this unexpected question every writer should ask when considering a new idea. 

Shanna Swendson earned a journalism degree from the University of Texas but decided it was more fun to make up the people she wrote about and became a novelist. She’s written a number of fantasy novels for teens and adults, including the Enchanted, Inc. series and the Rebel Mechanics series. She devotes her spare time to reading, knitting, and music. Her newest novel is the paranormal mystery Interview with a Dead Editor

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Take it away Shanna…

Because I’m always looking for ways to optimize my writing process, I enjoy reading books on plot structures and finding new kinds of worksheets for outlining novels. Usually, these are mostly about steps in the plot progression or character arcs, but I recently ran across one that had an interesting question on it: Why do you want to write this book?

At first glance, that seemed like a “duh” question. I wouldn’t be writing the book if I didn’t know why I wanted to write it. Plus, writing books is my job. But I decided to go along with it and wrote a page or so about how the idea came to me, what it was about the idea that really appealed to me, and what parts I was most looking forward to writing. I also wrote about what market I thought it would target and which readers I thought it was most likely to appeal to.

It turned out to be an enlightening exercise. I hadn’t put conscious thought into why I’d picked that idea out of all my other ideas. I’d considered the market issues, but hadn’t been specific about why I’d been drawn to this idea in the first place.

Writing all this out and thinking about it before I began the process of figuring out the steps of the plot influenced the way I outlined the book. I’m sure I was making choices on the basis of the things I liked most about the idea and the things I was excited about writing since that exercise was fresh in my mind and I’m made myself articulate my reasons. That made the story more personal and enjoyable to me. It also gave me ideas as I wrote down my answers. I found myself imagining scenes, moments, settings, and characters even before I started the process of developing any of that.

Having those notes about why I wanted to write the book came in handy again while I was drafting. When I hit the inevitable “Ugh, why am I doing this?” stage in the middle of the draft, I could look back at what I’d said about why I wanted to write it and remind myself. I could find the joy again. It also served as a good touchstone. When I came to a writing crossroads and needed to make a choice, I could pick the choice that kept the story closer to what I loved about the idea.

When I got editing notes back on the book, I used my “why” document to make sure I retained my vision for the book, even as I considered input from others. Writing a book is a long process, and it’s easy to forget during what can feel like a slog why you started writing it in the first place. Then it can be easy to lose that when you’re getting input from people who don’t have insight into what was in your heart as you wrote it. Reminding yourself of why you wanted to write this idea can help you decide which advice to choose and can help you stay on course as you make revisions.

Then when I needed to write cover copy, these notes helped me keep in mind what excited me about this story. If it excited me, it might excite others, so it’s a good way of figuring out what to focus on when writing material meant to promote the book. This would also be good for helping you write query letters to pitch the book to agents or editors. You’ll probably find a lot about why this story would be appealing in your notes about why you want to write this book.

“Why do you want to write this book?” turned out not to be a “duh” question, after all.

I would recommend adding this to your process, whether you’re a plotter or a pantser. In fact, it might be even more useful for people who don’t like to plot or outline. Thinking about the things you like about the idea might be a way of getting started on the story and getting a sense of where it might go that will focus on what you love about it, and it’s something to return to if you get lost along the way and need to decide which way to go.

So, before you start outlining or writing, take a moment to ask yourself why you’re writing this book. Where did the idea come from? What about the idea made you decide this was something you wanted to write? What aspects of this story are you most looking forward to delving into? Why do you want to spend time in the setting of this book? Which characters are you anticipating spending time with as you write? Can you think of any scenes you want to see?

And then the practical questions: What kind of readers do you think will enjoy this book? Which aspects are most likely to appeal to them? What other books or authors do you think these readers enjoy? What does your story have in common with those books? Where do you think your idea will fit in the market?

Having all of this clear in your head before you begin can make a big difference in your writing.

Worst Job Interview Ever!

Alexa “Lucky Lexie” Lincoln has always had a nose for news and a knack for being first on the scene whenever there’s a big story. Now her luck seems to have run out. First, she loses her reporting job. Then she gets an interview for a job at a small-town paper, only to find the editor dead on the newsroom floor. That makes her a suspect in the eyes of local policeman Wes Mosby.

To make matters worse, someone sabotages her alibi, and a freak ice storm strands her in town. That’s when she learns that this idyllic little town right out of a movie set is full of secrets, including people with uncanny abilities and the ghost who really runs the newspaper.

To clear her name (and get the job), Lexie will have to find the real killer—a killer who seems to think she knows a lot more than she does. If she’s not careful, she could be the next victim.

1 comment:

  1. An interesting post. And a good idea. I'm stuck in the middle of my current wip. I know where it begins and where ot ends, but not how to get there. I'll go back and think about why I want to write it. That should get me going again, or make me decide it's a no go and put it away for good.
    Thank you.