Saturday, July 20, 2013

An Investigation: How to Identify Your Story's Problems

Inspector LestradeScribblers,

I ran across a problem in one of my stories, recently. That's not bad or even unexpected. A problem can be dealt with.

But I couldn't figure out what the problem was, exactly.

Have you ever experienced that? You can't put your finger on it, but something about your story is out of place?

Part of writing is learning how to deal with this. There are probably a million ways, as there are for every other step of the writing process. I'll tell you how I do it, though:

I transform into an investigator. An investigator refuses to be discouraged by puzzling clues or the general unpleasantness of bad writing. We Scribblers must be inquisitive folk. When a story of ours has a problem, we must be all up in its business. Nosy. Investigative.

Asking questions is the best technique I've found to discern the nature of a problem.

Lately, I've been revising a piece of historical fiction. I researched lots of period details, carefully formulated a unique story structure and mapped out what my main character wanted and needed.

But something was missing. The story felt dead. I sent it around to a few friends and got some great feedback, but even as I revised it, I just didn't like it very much.

So I turned to questions. When trying to solve a hazy problem in revisions, I have to push past my natural comfort zone and persistently inquire about my story's problems. I have to ask,

"Which areas feel wrong?"

I follow my intuition to areas that just don't feel "right." Typically, these are areas that I've been avoiding because they're uncomfortable and I don't feel like digging in to assess the damage.

This questioning process frequently takes me down tangents that may seem unrelated to each other, but I pour every thought out onto the page. I explore every misgiving or uncomfortable vibe via multiple smaller, more specific questions. Any one of them or all of them combined could be "the" problem, or a symptom of "the" problem, or at least an opportunity to improve my story. Exploring and questioning can be time-consuming, but they are necessary for me.*

*Lots of writers do this "exploring." As always, I would direct you to John Truby's The Anatomy of Story and Chris Baty's No Plot? No Problem! (Chris Baty is also the creator of NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month).

This is an example of what story notes, questions and exploring can
sometimes look like. The red is what I'm unsure about. Other times,
I highlight, make comments, or use strikethrough text to sort.
When you go on revision-brainstorming tangents, your subconscious is trying to point out what feels wrong about your story.

After I've exhausted my tangent, I've typically exhausted my brain, too. I take a break for a bit. Then I come back and organize the mess of "story notes" that usually looks like words, words, words without meaning. I have to fight off a headache and lots of distractions every time I begin to sort and evaluate this mess because it can be tedius and discouraging.* It's hard to deal with intangibles, especially if you are an indecisive sort of person, like I am. But I have to explore my options.

This is an example of a more "sorted" section. I've organized my
thoughts into labeled lists of ideas, such as the character's "Desires"
or the story's "Premise." But tangents still butt in throughout the
entire process, as evidenced by the gigantic comment to the right.
*I also begin to question myself: Exactly how short is my attention span? Am I really cut out to be a writer? How could I possibly write such a dead boring story? If you hear these voices in your head as well, don't worry. Once you push past the madness in your first few stories, you'll start to develop the confidence that you'll eventually like the end results. (Note: Your housemate(s) might try to comfort you at this stage. What nice friends. Tell them you'll be okay, you're just dealing with the voices.)

All these tangents and miniature questions may show you an overwhelming amount of work to be done still (it did for me: the side characters, the main character voice, and the themes). And/or, you might find that all these smaller problems are a symptom of one larger problem. My problems stemmed mainly from writing the end of my story all wrong. Don't worry, your story will be better for your revisions. But before implementing them, you can always save the old draft, in case you don't like the result.

I have one more technique that helps me form questions, if I'm struggling to sift through my masses of notes. Or perhaps I am perplexed by some seemingly unrelated feedback from my online critique group, and my investigation isn't helping.

I usually take a day off from my brainstorming page and open up an email addressed to no one.

I imagine I know a recipient who has all the "answers" to my story story questions. But this person is  extremely busy, so I don't want to waste her time. Like a professor, for example (uh oh, my technique development is showing).

I then form my incomprehension into a few perfect, succinct questions in the clearest possible manner. If I don't have an answer to my question by the time I form it (often, I do), I save it in my "drafts."

Then I do something else for a day, such as reading a writing manual or something else I think might help me answer the question. I may even give my brain a break and read for plain old fun.

Later, I return to the query and revise, revise, revise. Tighten it up even more. Did I really word the question right the first time? Or is my focus slightly off?

Then I take another day off from the question and read some more, or work on another project. (Letting the problem sit can be a great way to solve writing snaggles, as long as you come back on time to make your deadline. I do this constantly with blog posts, school papers or story problems. The only thing is, you have to start the project early in order to have time for rumination.) Then I come back to it again. After a few edit-then-research sessions, I always manage to find an answer.

If this doesn't work, you can do as I do and ask this wonderful agent/author/editor for advice! But you'll have to be able to form a general question about it, rather than asking for specific feedback on your work.

Before you try asking the agent/author/editor, though, try questioning yourself. You might be surprised what these organic techniques will yield in you. More than once, I've drafted an email to the agent/author/editor and discovered the answer to my question during the process. Yes, this is how I discovered the technique for myself. Somehow, trying to explain the issue to someone else with respect to their time and attention helps me find, ask and answer the right questions.

So, get in touch with your inquisitive side, Scribblers!
Photo Attribution: By Sidney Paget (1860-1908) (Strand Magazine) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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