Keep Asking Why

When I’m not writing lately, I feel bereft, as if every moment spent not writing is a moment of my life wasted. This is huge progress from a few years ago, when I was so empty of words I couldn’t wait to get away from the page. So when I’m driving to work or walking the dog or doing the dishes, I listen to books about writing, which help me feel engaged in the process at times when I need something a bit more mindless to do.

My current listen is David Morrell’s The Successful Novelist, a book I’m thoroughly enjoying so far. He points out a habit I developed many years ago but never thought of as an actual writing technique. If someone had told me to do it at the very beginning of my career, it probably would have saved me the writing of a few terrible and overly plot-driven books.

The technique is this: When you are in the process of developing an idea for a book, and writing the book itself, have a conversation with yourself about the story on paper. It becomes a loose sort of plot outline. I keep a document for every book called “story notes” in which I brainstorm, write down ideas as they occur to me, ask myself questions I don’t know the answers to, and most importantly, I constantly ask myself why.

It looks something like this:

I think the heroine should be afraid of kids.
Why should she be afraid of kids?
Maybe because she has so many bad memories of childhood, and kids remind her of the pain she experienced when her dad drank too much and beat up her mom, and….

And it goes on that way. In the end I have a messy document, pages and pages of random conversations with myself, and always asking why, why, why. This question forces me to dig deeper. The temptation is always to go with that first idea that feels good enough, but the question why forces you to see if it’s really worthwhile. If I can’t come up with a good answer, I need to keep trying to find a better idea.

I don’t frequently need to refer back to my story notes document. Often, I have these conversations with myself right in the middle of my working manuscript when I get stuck, and if it’s something I feel I might want to refer to later, I’ll eventually cut and paste it into the story notes.

This kind of process, Morrell points out, is like a kind of written meditation, and I love that comparison. The written conversation forces me to put my meandering thoughts into real words, where I can examine them and see if they look pretty in the light of day.

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