What are you writing for?

In these unprecedented times, many of us have found our relationship with writing has changed – whether in a practical sense, as we try to fit our wordcounts around the demands of new working or childcare arrangements, or in terms of our own needs, as we turn to fiction to understand and escape the world around us.

No matter where you are with a work-in-progress – about to begin the first page or finishing the fifteenth edit – there is always value in taking a step back and thinking about why you’re writing as well as how. Here are some things that are worth considering:

What am I writing?

It’s a deceptively simple question, and perhaps not one we can always answer at the start of a project. But different genres bring with them their own goals and expectations, and understanding where in the market your work might sit can help clarify what you should be writing towards. Ask yourself which other authors’ work you feel may be similar to yours. What do you admire about those texts? How can you learn from that and apply it to your own writing? And what do you want to add to the conversation?

Who do I imagine reading this?

In Stephen King’s On Writing, he talks about writing your first draft with ‘the door closed’; writing, in other words, entirely for yourself without the doubts and pressures of a perceived future audience. But at some point – and where that point comes varies from writer to writer – you do have to start thinking about who you might be writing for. Who is your dream reader? What kind of person do you imagine falling in love with this story? And how can you make it speak to them, connect with them?

How do I want that person to feel when they finish reading?

Having that ideal reader in mind may particularly help if you’re struggling through the later sections of a draft; if you feel you’ve lost your way with the story. You don’t have to be aiming for something huge or profound here – are you trying to entertain? To move? To surprise? To make someone laugh or rage or realise that they feel differently about a character than they did when they started out? The best writing can do all of those things and more – but if you can choose the single emotional note that’s most important for you to hit, the one you care about above all, it will help you stay on track.

What do I want from the process?

Finally, close that door again for a minute and think about your own reasons for beginning. So often we say ‘It’s a story I just had to tell’ – but can you dig a little deeper? What was it about these characters, this plot that excited you in the first place? And how can you keep that in sight as you put it down on the page? As writers, we are always learning – whether that’s facing a new technical challenge (can I write an entire novel in the second person? Can I pull off stream of consciousness here? Do these flashbacks work?) or evolving the kinds of stories we want to tell entirely. Maybe you just want to see if you can get to the end of a novel-length manuscript or if you can write a short story or a novella or a perfectly formed piece of flash fiction for the first time. Whatever your goals and aims for this writing time might be, try and keep hold of them – and always make sure you celebrate when you achieve them.

Is your idea a novel yet?

So. You’ve had that lightning strike, the first Eureka! moment. You picture a character, or a situation, and you think: there’s a story there. Maybe it’s the concept that comes to you first, something that feels exciting and innovative. It’s X meets Y, you think – doesn’t that sound amazing? Why hasn’t anyone written this yet?! 

You rush to get started… but then things stall. 

Before you try and wrangle that perfect idea onto the page, here are some key questions to ask yourself.

Does it have direction?

I have this one never-written novel which nudges its way back into my brain every so often – usually when I’m a third of the way into a draft of something else (the magical point when all good novel ideas reveal themselves as terrible, flawed troublemakers, surely best ditched for something shiny and new). I can see the elevator pitch so clearly, and every time I remember it, it turns my head. I start thinking it over again, maybe jot down notes. But then I remember why I didn’t keep running with it the last time it popped up – because there’s nowhere for it to go. It’s a fun concept, a good elevator pitch (an ‘Imagine if you could…’ type easy hook) but when I start thinking about a character and where that if would lead them, I hit a blank. It’s a starting point, something I know I’d have fun setting up, but there’s no and then… to come next, to drive the action, to take the story onwards. 

Narrative momentum comes from lots of things, but conflict is a key one. This can be minor or major, external or internal; it can be a protagonist at war with the forces of evil or one who’s too shy to tell their friend they’re in love with them. Introducing conflict is how you push your characters on and how you hold them back from their desired goal. Because for our story to flow, we need that spark of a starting point and we need to end up somewhere else, but the journey between those points isn’t necessarily linear. The route your novel takes may be meandering, it may be a rollercoaster, but it needs to move. That idea has to be your jump-off – it can’t be all there is. 

Does it have logic?

A simple one, this, but one that’s really worth thinking about now (*ominous voice* while there’s still time…). If you’re satisfied you have a sense of direction for your story, think about the steps involved to get you there. Even at this early stage, it’s sometimes possible to see that it won’t make sense for Character A to do X when they could just do Y, or that Character B can’t make that life-changing decision when you need them to, and thus the plot won’t support the weight required to get you from beginning to end.

Even if you’re not a natural plotter, taking a little time at this stage to consider and stress-test the sense of any crucial turning points in the story can save you the heartache of discovering, 20,000 words in, that Character A would never actually rent a canoe in the first place, thank you very much, and thus the whole premise has come crashing down. 

Does it have space?

Not the final frontier kind (although sure, why not).

As much as your idea needs to have enough plot to drive and sustain a novel, a lot of that legwork is also done by the characters. Ensuring you have complex, developed characters helps (why not give our ultimate character questionnaire a go for that) but you also need space within the story for the characters to undergo some kind of growth or change. This, as much as rising action and mid-point turns and all that important structural stuff, is what gives your novel the sense of a satisfying arc. Change is a bit of a nebulous term here, really – it could be big or small, tangible or more existential (learning to ride a dragon or learning to accept a mistake they’ve made), and it doesn’t even need to be positive – a character can happily be ‘worse’ by the end of the novel (serial killer origin story, anyone?). But it’s essential that the story allows room for your protagonist(s) to come out in some way different than they were when we met them. If you don’t see that in your idea at the moment, you’re setting yourself a difficult task: keeping a reader engaged by concept or hook alone, for the entirety of a novel, isn’t easy.

Does it have the potential to surprise?

This is important not just for a future reader but for you, the author, as you begin to write. If you’re starting with a What if? and you knew the answer the second the question popped into your head, you probably aren’t going to have all that much fun letting it play out over thousands of words and many writing hours.

That doesn’t mean you can’t know the answer immediately and stick to it, but there needs to be potential for the plot to go a different way, for you and the reader to wonder how the novel might turn out if you took one of those other possible paths. A reader may keep turning pages because they want to find out what happens next – and that should never be far from our minds – but it may help you to keep writing them if you’re aware that the ending wasn’t a foregone conclusion the moment you began, that the elements of the story are coming together in a way that you’re choosing, and that it’s all the stronger for it.

~

Don’t lose heart if you’re starting to realise that your initial spark doesn’t quite stretch to a novel yet. Some ideas need a bit longer on the backburner; keep them bubbling away there while you get on with other stuff and you’ll be surprised how often your subconscious finds that extra thing – that subplot or character or slightest of shifts – that mean you’ll hit the page running. Ideas are fragile things. Handle them with an informed and critical eye, but also with care; given time to breathe, they often turn into the thing you need all by themselves.