In my writing class, we’ve moved into the portion of the course when we’re writing novellas. These are longer pieces of writing that are more focused than novels, and ours will end up being 40 to 60 manuscript pages. We’ve been spending a considerable amount of time discussing how we think about these projects before we write them. I’ve been writing long projects since middle school (my first novel weighs in at 80,000 words or 160 pages) so I’m not particularly worried about coming up with an idea that can be sustained as a novella like some of my classmates are. But the discussions have challenged me to really think about my process instead of just doing.
For example, my professor poised these questions to us for deciding which idea to use:
- Is this a story I want to tell? Am I emotionally and intellectually invested in it? Is there something in the idea that I’m interested in working out?
- Is the story going somewhere? Is it dynamic? Can I imagine multiple moments within the scope of the story? Can I dramatize these moments?
- What is at stake in this story? Is there a struggle?
These are questions I have never articulated but nonetheless have thought about before starting a project. Some of them I can answer intuitively; whether or not I want to tell the story, for example, is the kind of thing you know like knowing whether there is chemistry between two people. Either the idea excites you or it doesn’t.
The question about dynamism is something that sounds obvious, but it actually often becomes subjective. A writer friend was telling me about how her sorority sister was in an intro fiction class and was trying to come up with a short story idea. She was listing ideas like, “A story about a boy getting ice cream” and “A woman getting her haircut,” and each one she discarded with, “that’s not a story.” And no, those sentences alone are not stories. But my friend could see the story inside each of those stories. They excited her. Partly this is because she’s been writing so long that her imagination has been trained to latch onto to the small things for inspiration; still, these ideas that got her imagination going probably didn’t do it for her sorority sister because the sister just wasn’t interested in that kind of mundane. Maybe what gets her going is fantasy stories or epic family dramas or historicals. A story can be dynamic, but if it doesn’t answer that first question too–if it doesn’t excite you–then it’s not your story to tell.
The third question is the one I think most beginning writers (and possibly experienced writers) neglect too often. We get an idea for the beginning or middle or end of the story, and we start writing, and then we have to figure out what it is actually about and what is driving the plot after it’s written. This isn’t a “wrong” way of doing it, but at some point in writing, even if it’s just in the revision process, the writer needs to figure out what is at stake and what is causing tension.
There are a lot of people out there who want to be writers but just don’t know what to write, or don’t know how to sustain an idea. These questions are the most useful ones I’ve found for figuring out how to align the imaginative part of stories with the process of writing.
And in case you haven’t seen this meme yet, here is the truth about writers: