Lead and I Will Follow; Meander and I Will Say F*@k Off

My family and I recently relocated to Virginia, and as a result, we’re working through a lot of necessary changes. One of those is the search for a local writing/critique group, so I don’t go crazy from lack of human contact.

(I work from home and easily lose track of time. So unless I have regularly scheduled events that take me outside, I’m going days without feeling the sun on my skin. It seems like this fact should bring me some level of shame, but honestly, it doesn’t. I am who I am.)

Anyway … as the search for local writers continues, I find myself dropping in on meetings and sitting in on critique groups to evaluate chapter 28 of some random person’s novel. This ongoing experience has really crystalized a couple things for me:

  1. I really miss the writing group I had before the move. I knew I was lucky to have them; I just didn’t realize how lucky.
  2. It’s a lot easier to figure out what keeps a reader turning the page when you’ve been reading things that make you want to stop doing so.

It probably goes without saying, but the search isn’t going well.

One of the main things I’ve been seeing lately is a lack of direction in these strangers’ manuscripts. Whether you’re writing a novel, a story, or just a single scene, you need to know where the hell you’re going. Stories have questions that need answering, and they shouldn’t be vague.

As the author, it’s your job to tell the reader what your characters want, why they want it, and what’s at stake. This is probably easiest to illustrate in short stories because the form usually results in a self-contained, stand-alone tale.

When I read a short story, I want you to tell me who these people are, what it is they’re after, and why I should care. Then, because you want to make me happy, you throw a fair amount of obstacles in their way, ideally making your characters sacrifice something along the way.

By the end, your story people either have or haven’t achieved their stated goals, and you tell me the consequences of the outcomes. (Hint, hint: there are always unintended consequences, and achieving what you set out to achieve doesn’t always solve your problems.)

Like I said before, this is easy to see in a short story, but the same rules should apply for chapters in your novel. The novel, itself, has an overall story question, and in case I wasn’t clear enough before: state it, state it, state it! Implicitly!

Don’t make me guess at your story question. If I don’t know what your characters want, you probably don’t know either, and there’s no reason for me to keep reading. Don’t waste my time.

Every novel has a question that needs answering, or if you prefer, a story goal that your character is trying to achieve. Likewise, each chapter within the novel has its own individual goal, and for the most part, those goals should somehow serve the overall story question.

For example, in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, one of the overall questions of the novel is whether or not Harry will convince Professor Slughorn to show him a memory that is important to Hogwarts Headmaster Albus Dumbledore. The book has numerous scenes in which Harry tries different ways to obtain the memory. Many of these efforts fail, sometimes resulting in setbacks, and each time Harry is forced to reevaluate his approach.

Each of these attempts is treated as an individual goal within a chapter. The scene question becomes the following: Will Harry’s new approach work this time? The answering of these questions is not only important to the scene but to the overall novel as well.

Each failure raises the stakes as to whether or not Harry can accomplish the task Dumbledore has given him, and even when Harry finally does manage to procure the memory, this positive outcome sets events into motion that have their own unintended consequences. Harry will witness the death of Dumbledore and, in the subsequent book in the series, will go on a quest of his own, in search of the items he needs to defeat the Dark Lord Voldemort.

Full disclosure here: I have mad respect for J.K. Rowling’s story skills. I think she is a plotting ninja. This is a lady who always seems to know where she’s going, and I never feel lost in her novels.

So, to recap what we’ve learned:

  1. The northern Virginia writers I’ve met so far need to step up their game.
  2. You, me, and every other aspiring-writer type needs to get themselves a plan. Know where you want to go, know how you’re getting there, and don’t waste your audience’s time.

They can always find someone else to read.

Larry Jenkins is an aspiring Word Pimp. Has laptop, will travel. Let's make this happen, people.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.