This week’s 1st Books guest, Marybeth Whalen, is the author of four novels, including the just released The Wishing Tree, which Sheila Roberts calls, “A lovely journey of discovery and forgiveness.” She also runs She Reads, an online book club celebrating the best in women’s fiction. I met her at the Pulpwood Queens girlfriend weekend a couple years ago, and she is also incredibly impressive: she raises six children while writing, and she is somehow also calm and nice and attentive. Really a lovely person. I love what she says about the story, that it’s “the shortest distance to the human heart,” and I love her post, which is both inspiring and chock full of great advice. (Trust me: she’s right about the index cards! I do the same thing she does with them.) – Meg
I was 20,000 words into my current novel when I had to stop writing. Something was not right. I sat, blinking at my computer screen, trying to determine what was wrong. I was contracted for this title. I had a deadline. I didn’t want to disappoint my publisher. And I didn’t want to abandon this story because I could see the potential. But I couldn’t figure out how to get there. What had gone wrong?
With an eye on my impending deadline, I had plunged into the story, focusing on piling up the word count in my race to the finish. But in my rush to produce, I’d neglected to do the work of the story. I was writing a story I didn’t fully understand. And the holes were starting to show in the manuscript. I had to do the work of the story before I could continue. For me, story work includes several things:
- Character interviews. I get to know my characters by taking the time to interview them. I ask them about their views, their hobbies, their pasts, their careers, their dreams. It is truly surprising what emerges from these interviews. I get to know these characters on a deeper level, one that adds to the richness of the story. Just googling “interviewing characters fiction” will pull up more sample questions than you can ever ask.
- Name the want. Hollywood story consultant Michael Hauge taught me that I must determine what each character wants before I write a word. The want of the character—and the obstacles that keep her or him from getting that want—is the crux of the story. This want needs to be tangible and exact.
- Determine the themes. While some of this does emerge only in the writing, it is good to have some sort of overarching idea of what the theme will be. I aim for themes that are universal and resonate with readers. Who among us doesn’t have regrets, need redemption, or wish for that second chance?
- Get visual. In our increasingly visual society, we are driven by images. What images do you want your reader to conjure as they are reading? A good place to start is by finding some images that are crucial to your story, and keep them in front of you. I have found photos of my main characters (celebrities are great for this—who would play your characters in a movie?), the settings, or just a particularly evocative image that sparks my creativity. With this story I ended up creating a Pinterest board for it. When I needed a little nudge, spending some time gazing at that board was guaranteed to get me going.
- Make index cards. For you pantsers, this is not an outline so don’t panic. This is just a brainstorming session where you write down everything that could happen. From that you create index cards (one scene per card) and start shuffling to create an order of events.
These five steps took a little extra time, but they helped me deepen my story and get a better handle on what I was doing. The next time you’re perplexed about plot, ask yourself if you’ve done the work of your story. In my experience, a little work on the front end makes an easier time of it later. – Marybeth