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Questions To Ask Before Writing A Novel And A Realization

Posted by Shannon Haddock on January 10, 2018 in Rants, Writing process |

These are compiled from various sources and occasionally rephrased some.

And the questions will, of course, be followed by my commentary.  And the answers for one of my current works-in-progress, something that presently has the wonderful working title of Ren/Vik.  I am so good at titles!

1)  What is the protagonist’s biggest regret?  (This is supposed to have something to do with the “heart of the human condition” and make the character more real and identifiable and all that.  I don’t think that the heart of the human condition is failure and regret.  That is one hell of a pessimistic outlook on life!  The answer for Ren?  I honestly don’t think she has one.  First, she’s only 17 so she hasn’t exactly had much time to have regrets, not big ones anyway.  Second, she’s quite a bit the “everything is an adventure” sort.  She tends to look at things as “Well, that sucked, but at least now I’ve learned something not to do again.”)

2) What is the protagonist’s goal?  (This, of course, is supposed to be what the story is about.  This one leads to my realization later on in this post, and is something I’ve ranted about before, so I’ll just get to my answer:  Ren’s goal is to get through Dagger training.  That’s not what the story is about in the slightest though.)

3) What is your biggest hope for the book?  (I’m supposed to think about this before I write?!  I don’t even know, most of the time, if I’ve got a book length idea or a short story or yet another “Great start, now where the everloving fuck is this going?!” thing!  My biggest hope when I start writing is always that I finish the motherfucking thing this time!  I mean, ignoring the pleasant daydreams of winning a Hugo and outselling Rowling.  Those are dreams, not hopes.)

4) How do you want the book to look and feel?  (The site explained that they meant format, size, all that sort of stuff.  This is not before ever writing a word stuff!  Don’t worry about what it’s going to look like printed before you’ve even figured out if you can write it.  Jesus Christ, people!  Talk about putting the cart before the horse.)

5) What’s your budget for the book?  (Again, this is not something to worry about before you even know if you can finish the book!  Don’t worry about what it’s going to cost to edit something and get cover art when all you’ve got is an idea.  I get ideas all the motherfucking time.  Very few of them get to the stage where I need to worry about this sort of stuff.)

6) How will you feel when you finish the book?  (I don’t understand at all why this is something to think about before writing a book.  The site offered no explanation either.  As for Ren/Vik, I’ll feel relieved to finally be fucking done with it, same as I always do when I finish a story.  Then I’ll immediately be seized with ten million ideas for bits I should’ve done differently.)

7) How will you celebrate finishing the book?  (Again, this is not something to think about at the beginning.  For that matter, it’s not something I ever think about.  I don’t think I’ve ever celebrated finishing a story.  Probably because I’m too busy just feeling relieved that I finally did it.)

8) What’s the theme?  (Okay, I admit that my feelings about this one are not wholly rational.  Many years ago when I spent all that time on that rpg forum that I’ve mentioned before, there was a dude — the author who accused me of being illiterate, in fact — who was really big on the idea that all campaigns had themes.  And as he was a very respected rpg author, there’s a segment of the hobby that latched on to this idea.  Add to this too many literature classes during the misguided time I was an English major and . . . long story short, if I never see a discussion of theme in anything again, it’ll be too soon.  That said, in both gaming and writing, I’m a very firm believer in emergent themes.  Trying to force a theme results in things that beat you over the head with it too often, in my experience.  So I don’t believe in asking yourself this before you write.  That said, now that I’m something like 85k words into Ren/Vik . . . I’m still not sure what themes there are, actually.  Something about family, most likely.)

9) What is the one sentence summary?  (I don’t think I will ever figure out the importance of this one!  I mean, I know that the idea is so you can easily answer people who ask about what you’re writing, but one sentence?!  I can’t think of a single book I love that I can summarize in one sentence.  I did manage to summarize No More Lies in one sentence once, but it was possibly a run-on and was certainly longer than most people mean when they say this.  I know some people see this as a weakness in the story, see it as meaning it lacks focus.  I see it as a strength.  It means I wrote something more complex than a lot of the shit out there these days.  For Ren/Vik, an honest one sentence summary would be something like “Sarcastic people banter non-stop.”  And that’s not me being self-depreciating.  I think it’s one of the best things I’ve written.  I’m not sure what this says about me.)

10) Is this story “on brand” for you?  (There are valid reasons to use a pseudonym — an author I love uses one for her books for adults since she’s primarily a kid’s author and doesn’t want parents assuming that anything by her is kid-safe — but this really isn’t a thing to think about before you put a word on paper.  In fact one of that author’s books she thought was a kid’s book at first until people pointed out that despite having a kid as the protagonist, it was dealing with stuff that wasn’t kid stuff.  So, Ren/Vik . . . let’s see, lots of sarcastic people bantering with each other non-stop.  Pretty sure that is my brand.  Also pretty sure that’s my life.  Did you know there are actually couples who are only sarcastic with each other when they’re mad?!  Go figure.)

11) Why are you the best person to write this book?  (This one — and lots like it that I’m not including here — say they’re equally valid for fiction and non-fiction, but they really aren’t.  I’m the best person to write Ren/Vik because I invented both of them.  And co-created the setting.  I mean, who the hell else could write about two people who live in my brain?!)

12) Why do you need to write about your protagonist?  (I’m pretty sure “because she wouldn’t shut the fuck up while I was trying to write something else” isn’t the sort of answer they were looking for here, but it’s the only sort I could ever give.)

And then there was a page that said it was questions to ask before writing a novel, but looked to me more like questions to ask yourself while revising (if you’re the sort of person who uses questions to guide your revision process.  I’m the “rewrite the bits that aren’t good until the whole thing is as good as it’s going to get” sort.).  Things like “Is there anything you could do to raise the stakes?” and “Is the reader going to sympathize with your protagonist?”.  I guess maybe these sorts of questions are helpful to the detailed outline sort of writer, but that’s so far from my mindset that I got nothing out of the questions except confusion.

Now, for my realization:

All the stuff about the protagonist’s goal and how that is what guides the book and stuff like that made me realize something, something I’ve sort of noticed before, but not to this extent:

All of the sci-fi and fantasy I’ve read and watched hasn’t had nearly the impact on my writing that the Little House books, the Anne series, and Little Women did.

I feel weird saying that.  Most of sff fandom dismisses those books as out-of-date patriarchal crap.  And, to be fair, there are bits of each that make me roll my eyes as an adult.  Many fans of those books (do note that I said “books”; I’m not talking about the TV series and movie fans) love them for reasons that annoy the shit out of me, because they’re about “a more innocent time”, because they “show women in their proper roles”, and other seriously cringeworthy stuff like that.

But I love them for two very big reasons, probably the reasons that there are still people out there discovering and loving them today, decades after they were first published:

1)  The characters felt like real people.  Anne especially.  A kid whose imagination runs away with her all the time?  At thirty-seven, I identify with her only very slightly less than I did at ten.

2)  They showed you how people lived.  Sure, Little Women really is about the March girls overcoming their personality flaws and becoming better people, but who reads the book for that?  But none of the I-lost-count-ages-ago times I’ve read it have been for that.  I’ve read it to go to Civil War era Concord for a while.  I read the Anne books to go to late Victorian Prince Edward Island for a while.

And All-of-a-Kind Family should be on that list too, I realize now.  I think I even read it before the rest of those.  (Not before Mom had read me Little Women though.  I don’t remember not knowing who Jo March was, that’s how little I was then.)

I was reading something the other day about how the books we read growing up shape what authors write, and I’ve come to realize just how very, very true it is.  I didn’t read The Hobbit until I was eleven.  I’d read the whole Little House series by then.  I read the whole Anne series by then. (Most of it in one day.  Outdoors.  I remember the sunburn well.)  I’d read at least the first half of Little Women myself by then.  (The part originally published as Good Wives didn’t keep my interest well for until I was older.  I still don’t like it as much.  Though I love Professor Bhaer.)

I’ve seen many authors around the same age as me talking about Dragonlance as one of their early influences.  I didn’t read the Chronicles until high school.  That favorite of female authors around my age, Mercedes Lackey?  I didn’t hear of her until I was in my early twenties.  And I think my opinion that she’s highly overrated is probably because I didn’t discover her books during that magical period when they’re just what some people need.  (My wife has the same opinion on why the Dragonlance stuff doesn’t speak to her the same way it did me.)

My influences at the age where apparently writer brains start forming opinions on what makes a good story were slice-of-life stories from a different era, before the idea that stories had to have conflict and such to really be stories had taken hold.  The aesthetics of my setting, the technology, all of that stuff — that came from Star Trek and Star Wars.  But the stories?  The bits I think are worth writing about?  That came from a bunch of kids’ books showing me how different people lived.  This means that, even when I’m writing a story that is plot-driven (I’ve got one in the works right now!), I’m not thinking about it in terms of arcs and tension and all that sort of stuff.  I’m looking at the characters and writing about what they’re doing.  That’s all I’m ever doing.

I think really the best way to summarize my writing is that I’m always writing slice-of-life . . . it’s just sometimes that particular slice-of-life is more exciting.  And sometimes it’s 85,000 words of people being smartasses to each other.

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