You know the feeling. You went to bed last night floating on air and wondering whether it really is too early to begin writing that acceptance speech for when you win the Pulitzer. But this morning when you reread your WIP, well, either monkeys got into your laptop while you were sleeping, or, let’s face it, you’ve been deluding yourself.
Now you’re sure that the only prize you’ll ever win is as the worst writer who ever lived. Suddenly you’re positive that your prose is stiff, your premise mundane, trite even, and who the hell wants to read yet another love story anyway?
Cue the mean voice in your head – the one that sounds suspiciously like your second grade teacher – that asks what made you think you could be a successful writer in the first place.
It’s at a moment like that when 97 out of 100 writers give up. Yep, studies show that only 3 out of 100 writers ever finish so much as their first draft.
Are those successful three the writers who never once doubted themselves or their story? Hell no! In fact, writers who never doubt themselves or their work are the very writers who should. Because writing a novel is hard. It takes time. And you have to do it all by your lonesome. Truth is, every writer worth their salt eventually faces that dark night of the soul, and for some writers, that night is every night. It can be oddly comforting to know that it’s a club the vast majority of us belong to.
The question is: Since those doubts aren’t going to disappear, how do you keep going, especially when the mean voice in your head gets really loud? What will give you the strength to soldier on day after day, and the courage to dig ever deeper in the face of that nagging doubt?
The good news is that there are two questions you can ask yourself that will give you the ammunition to fight back. What’s more, the answers to these questions will help keep your novel on track. They’ll not only help you become one of the three out of a hundred writers who finish a first draft, they’ll also help insure that that draft really has the power to rivet readers.
The questions are:
- What is my story’s point?
- Why is telling this story, making this point, deeply important to me?
Let’s dive in and find out why.
What is my story’s point?
Turns out this is a question you need to ask regardless, because all stories make a point beginning in the very first sentence. What kind of point? A point about human nature, about what makes people tick and, most importantly, why.
Don’t worry, you don’t have to step out and tell the reader what that point is. In fact, that’s the last thing you want to do. Rather, this is the point your story will be building toward from the first page to the last. Which is why you need to know what it is before you begin writing, otherwise, how can you build a story that gets there?
When you first begin to zero in on your point, it can sound shockingly simple. Cliché even. Like: It’s what’s inside that counts. Or, diving a bit deeper: Even though it’s terrifying to show people who you really are, it’s only by being vulnerable, thus authentic, that you can be loved for your true self. Or, given our scary world: Technology is a double-edged sword, don’t trust it to have your best interest at heart. Yes, Alexa, I’m talking about you. Stop laughing.
Ask yourself: What inside intel am I giving my reader about how to best navigate this mortal coil? How do you want to change the way people see the world, and how they treat each other? Because make no mistake: as a writer you are one of the most powerful people on the planet, and your novel will have the ability to shift your reader’s worldview. Not by telling them what to do, but by allowing them to experience the plot induced scene-by-scene evolution of your protagonist’s worldview.
Once you’ve nailed your point, we can ask the second question. It’s the answer to this question that will keep you writing, even when the going gets super tough.
Why is making this point so important to me?
This is a far more revealing question than it sounds at first blush. Because the answer isn’t a simple, declarative sentence, like: My point is that no child should ever go hungry and it matters to me because, hey, I just told you, no child should ever go hungry. Very true. But not the answer. Why? Because it’s surface. Impersonal. Generic. And let’s face it, a tad self-congratulatory.
What you’re looking for is something much deeper, and closer to home. Something that costs you something. Perhaps the reason your story matters to you is because of something that happened in your past that you’re still grappling with. Almost always there’s a deeply personal reason. That’s gold.
Ask yourself: What, specifically, happened in my life that made this important to me? This will probably make you feel vulnerable. It may hurt. That’s what tells you you’re getting close. You might also find yourself angry. Perhaps it was an unfairness that you experienced. Or a deep inner fear. Or it might be something that happened to someone you love. And sometimes the reason you’re writing your novel is to keep you from doing something that might get you in trouble. Like Sue Grafton, author of the Kinsey Millhone mysteries, as reported in the Los Angeles Times in 1990:
“Sue Grafton’s homicidal urges surfaced in the middle of a bitter, six-year custody battle with an ex-husband. “I was so furious at him that I lay awake at night fantasizing how I could finish him off,” she recalls.
“Then I had the brilliant idea of using oleander as a poison . . . So I concocted the perfect murder plot. I imagined making copies of my children’s keys to their father’s house–we had joint custody at the time–so that I could sneak in and put powdered oleander in his allergy capsules. The next hay fever attack–no more ex-husband.”
But in the clear light of morning, Grafton came to her senses. “Of course, I knew I’d never get away with it,” she says with a laugh. “And since I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life in a shapeless prison dress, I decided to turn my homicidal fantasy into a mystery novel.”
So, yes, sometimes the reason it matters to you is because it’s what’s going to keep you out of jail. If that isn’t a powerful motivator, I don’t know what is.
The point is, knowing why you’re writing your novel is what will give you the courage to face down that mean doubting voice when it pipes up and tells you you’re bound for failure. It’s what allows you to turn around and say to it, “Maybe so, but I’m on a mission to change things, and to make the world a better place. So if my novel fails, it won’t be because I didn’t give it everything I had and then some.”
That knowledge is what will keep you writing. Whether it’s that you want to save yourself, like Sue Grafton, or save the world, or both. It’s what gives fuel to the grit it takes to write through those dark nights of the soul. Once you know why writing your novel is deeply important to you, those dark nights aren’t quite so dark. There’s a surprising – and liberating — feeling of power that comes from the knowledge you have the moxie to keep on going. And that, too, is worth its weight in gold.
Lisa Cron is the author of Wired for Story and Story Genius. Her 6-hour video course Wired for Story: How to Become a Story Genius can be found at CreativeLive.com, and her TEDx talk, Wired for Story, opened Furman University’s 2014 TEDx conference, Stories: The Common Thread of Our Humanity.
In her work as a private story coach, Lisa helps writers of all ilk wrangle the story they’re telling onto the page. For a library of her free myth-busting writing tips, and information on how to work with her one-on-one, you can find her at: wiredforstory.com