Skip to main content

Asking Questions


There are times when I'm writing, at just about any stage of the process, from outlining to revision, where I will find myself in a tough place. I won't quite know what's wrong, but I do know that moving forward with any sense of momentum is difficult.

I've found a pretty fast and simple way to get me out of these situations: by asking questions.

It's really as simple as that.

I don't ask these questions out loud or anything, or even in front of other people, unless I'm bringing in a collaborator or a sounding board to help. No, what I use is my notebook. It's amazing how liberating it can feel to get off of my computer, pull out my pen, and put ink on paper.

I'll ask myself all sorts of questions, and the act of asking the questions forces me to rationalize answers.

Here are some examples from my notebook, scrubbed of pertinent details:
"Why is this person afraid?"
"What secret is being kept here?" 
"Why didn't they do this three scenes ago?" 
"Was she a veteran? Or a neophyte? How does that decision affect the story later? Which is more interesting?"
Sometimes the answers are apparent and lead to a lot of work. "Why didn't they do this three scenes ago?" helped me realize that the reason I was having a problem with the scene was because all of the information made more sense coming sooner. I was able to cut the scene and fold in the information and rationalizations earlier.

But when I was right up against it, toiling away on the manuscript itself, it just wasn't coming to me. But switching the medium of my thoughts and asking myself direct questions in a loose, free-form conversation format made it all seem instantly apparent. It's a technique I recommend to anyone looking for a way through that next stumbling block in your writing.

Obviously, the questions I noted above are from my current revision process, but it works at all other phases as well. Think about questions you can ask during the outlining phase.
"Are my characters driving the action? Or is the action driving them?"
 "Half the population is female, is half the population of this story?" 
"Is this authentic?"
I've made it through many difficult scenes in the drafting phase, only through the force of my question answering. It happens to all of us. We'll be in the middle of a tough chapter and sit back and ask ourselves why we even have this chapter. That's when I'll pull back and ask myself questions like this:
"Is this going to be relevant to the ending of the story?" 
"Is this scene accomplishing enough?" 
"Am I writing toward the theme?"  
"How do the actions my lead take in this scene make the next scene inevitable?" 
"Does it make it so inevitable that I can just skip it?"
 Sometimes, writing down elaborate and detailed answers to these questions will help me find the key I need to finish the scene and with an enthusiasm I'd previously lost. Or it will help me find things to include in the scene to help it do more than just one thing, adding layers to it. It's a good way for me to pull back and gauge the effectiveness of what I'm doing.

Try it. See how it works for you.

Ask yourself questions. Constantly. Ask them about your characters. About your stories. About every aspect of your writing.

And isn't that all writing is all about? Asking yourself questions? Granted, those questions that kick off stories usually start with, "What if...?" but you get the idea.

--

As far as my writing, I'm in the revision process on one project and outlining a couple of other projects to get moving on.

My latest for Salt Lake City Weekly is about actors reprising roles that were defined by other, more iconic actors. It was a fun piece. It's called Double Vision.

As for events, I'll be at FanCon this weekend at the Southwest Branch of the Weber County Library. I'll be giving a talk about Star Wars and signing books. So be there. More information here.

In the middle of June, I'll be at Origins Gamefair teaching classes about writing.

--

As a reminder: The Aeronaut and Escape Vector are still out and still need your purchases and reviews. If nothing else, they can use you telling people about them. If you want signed copies, visit the shop here on this page.

As far as my work outside of all this: There's a lot of great stuff on Big Shiny Robot! and Full of Sith for you. 

And please, please, please don't forget to check out any of my books, drop reviews of them on Amazon or Goodreads, and follow me on twitter and Facebook!

Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

Anatomy of an Opening: The End of the Affair

Instead of breaking down a scene from a movie, this time we'll break down the opening of a book. (Previously, I've done scenes from City Lights, Citizen Kane, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.  I've also broken down the opening to Starship Troopers.

Graham Greene's The End of the Affair is absolutely one of my favorite books. The writing is lyrical and story heart-wrenching and beautiful. Greene's style of writing is such that he always has me gripped, whether it's the beginning of the book or the end. And he shows you so much about the character in his opening lines.

So, here are the first two paragraphs from the book:
A story has no beginning or end: arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which, to look ahead. I say 'one chooses' with the inaccurate pride of a professional writer who - when he has been seriously noted at all - has been praised for his technical ability, but d…

The Symbiotic Relationship Between Art and Politics

Art is inherently political.

Let's just get that out of the way. We all have things we want to say (or things we want to not say) in our personal lives that shape the art we make. And artists, more often than not, are trying to say something with their art, even if their goal is to not say something.

There is no doubt that this has been a turbulent week in the country I live in. There are many of us that are confused and shocked and afraid of what might be to come in the future. That's understandable. As artists and writers, I feel like we're typically more empathetic than the general population. It's easy to think about what it's like to be in someone else's shoes because we spend so much of our creative time almost literally in someone else's shoes. And we need to pass that understanding on to our readers or viewers or however else they're consuming this art.

I've seen this troubling idea, though, that art needs to be purely for escape and that p…

Writing is Listening

In many social situations, I'm a talker. I like to think of myself as a raconteur, but it's more just like I don't know how to shut up. At least in the right situation. I've done a lot and know just a little bit about so many different things, it's easy for me to find something to talk about with people. When I can come out of my social anxiety shell, I actually like talking to people. But there are times when I can't really talk, I don't have the energy, emotional or physical, to do it. Instead, I just drink in the surroundings.

I like to listen. I like to observe.

It's something we writers have to do. We have to take in all the input we can. And sometimes that means shutting the hell up and just listening. Listen to your friends tell their stories. Listen to how they talk about other people and describe them. Listen to the words they use. Listen to the emotion in people's voices as they're talking. Watch how they talk. What sorts of things th…