Thursday, August 20, 2009

3 Little ?'s

These questions I often ask myself as I write and especially after I have completed a draft. They are meant to be general and as open-ended as possible.

1) Are my characters DOING something? –Around six years ago I received a critique of one of my novels. They said my character was solipsistic, which I then looked up and discovered it meant, in a nutshell, that my character is egocentric and only cares about his own thoughts, his orbit, his own ‘self’. Bottom line, my character did nothing but think the entire novel. Yikes…

2) Is there a CONFLICT? –After getting blasted for my character’s solipsism, I wrote a journey novel where two characters did a lot of stuff, but they didn’t really ‘clash’, or disagree. They simply discussed things and continued moving to the end. Ugh…

3) If I’m 90 years old and sitting on the porch with my wife, will I say: “I am so glad I wrote THAT novel.”? –Sometimes I write so much I realize I’m only being clever, and I get a sudden feeling that, five years into the future, I’m going to look at what I’ve written and shake my head. Perhaps that is bound to happen with anything, but I feel like, if I respect what I’m writing, if I truly want it to be THE THING I leave behind, then there’s a good chance I’ll appreciate what I accomplished years on down the road, regardless of what happens.

Are there any questions you seem to continue asking yourself? Sorry for choosing 3 ‘serious’ questions. A lot of time I also think: Should I drink my coffee now? Or save it for later? Or…if I take the trash out now, could I write with a clearer mind?


  1. Ugh. I'm not exactly sure what I think of the person that critiqued your novel. "Solipsistic?" I mean, really? It sounds to me like they were more concerned with making you think they were intelligent and word-wise instead of actually critiquing your work. Oi.

    As far as questions go, you pretty much hit the nail on the head. :) Those 3 questions are, for me, the most important to consider when writing a story, because without them your end project turns out to be a vapid, little piece of nothingness. I can't even begin to count the crap stories I've created. haha Let's just hope that my WIP doesn't turn out to be as disappointing. :)


  2. 1. Is this a real character - do they have flaws, are they internally conflicted?

    2. Is there conflict between the characters? and does that conflict add to the story?

    3. Are my descriptions attacking all the senses? Not just what the characters see.

    4. Does the scene have an interesting opening?

    5. Does the scene have a closing that causes the reader to want more?

    I usually go through the first draft with a spreadsheet that has an entry per scene (not necessarily chapter, but could be). Each row is the scene, each column represents one of the questions.

    When the spreadsheet is filled with checkmarks, I'm done.

  3. Good questions for any writer.

  4. Oooh, Douglas, those are good ones! I love #'s 3 and 5. Will definitely be adding them to my check list.

  5. Stef,

    I'd like to take credit for them, but I can't. They are from Donald Maass's latest book "The Fire in Fiction". Every writer should drop what they are doing, and go get one. Yeah, right now.


  6. Although your commentary on the first question revealed that your character did nothing but think for the entire novel, at least your character DOES think. I would rather read that than all of the books out there (of which there are many (and most of which are movies-turned-into-books)) where there is no THOUGHT at all... the characters' actions and speech make up 100% of the text.
    I usually ask myself "Is my story moving along?" --I get into the habit of going into too much detail; too much dialogue; too much thought (like you said you did with your first novel). If nothing happens within maybe 350 words (which some even might say is pushing it), I force myself to rewrite.

  7. My two key questions are

    1) 'Am I enjoying writing this?'

    and when editing

    2) 'Am I enjoying reading this?'

    If the answer to 1 is 'no' then there's a good chance the manuscript will not get as far 2. If the answer to 2 is 'no' then I doubt my readers will enjoy it either since I'm trying to write stories that I would enjoy. If the answer is 'yes' to both then there's a good chance the characterisation, dialogue, plot, etc are okay. If not, then working through the other questions posed above are a good ways to think through the edits. I think in many ways writers are their own toughest critics and the best we can aim for is to produce stories we're not overly self-critical of and we enjoy reading.

  8. Great questions! I once read that we should be asking if when we read our MS do we get bored...if so, why wouldn't others?

    ~ Wendy

  9. Cool post.


    Right now my brain feels like mashed potatoes. It would be nice to be able to think and ask questions. I think that what is happening now is that I am going on instinct--when I am going. There's just nothing, and then all at once there is something--and I jump on it. I've been doing some good writing, but it's all about just going for it full blast when the inspiration comes.

  10. so Patterson once responded (quoting an author of an earlier era, i believe) to the question that went something like, "how do you write such blockbusters?" that he "left out all the boring parts."

    i guess i ask myself how i can balance the eschewing of "boring" and the encompassing of character development... :)

    great post & great questions!


Join the conversation, add insight, or disagree with us! We welcome your thoughts.