Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Writing that matters

Why should a company pay you for your writing?

In today's tough publishing industry, so tenuously held aloft by shredding economic tethers, this question has never been more relevant. If you are trying to earn money from your writing, you've hopefully given some thought to answering this question. If your answer is "My book is just like Nora Roberts," you're on thin ice—Nora Roberts is already doing that quite well, thank you.

What do you have to offer the world? How can you make your writing important enough to sustain you through what may become many lean years? How can you discover your true material, that story that only you can write? The following questions, answered quickly, might lead you in a useful direction.

1. Let’s say you’re going to write a fictional story. Is your main character a man or woman? Why?

Humans are intensely interested in this primal question: Is it a boy or a girl? And if it's not clear, or a bit of both? Ooh, even more intriguing!

2. What was happening the last time you cried? The last time you laughed so hard you couldn’t breathe? The last time you were so angry that you want to hurt someone?

This speaks to what moves you. And what moves you will move your readers.

3. People write for many reasons. Why do you write? What are you seeking?
Circle all that apply:

  • Fame
  • Fortune
  • Meaning
  • Part-time income
  • Beauty
  • God
  • Pain relief
  • Legacy
  • To inspire others/self
  • To entertain
  • To learn
  • To work something through
  • To educate
  • Other: _____________________

This question speaks to how you define "what matters."

4. What are you interested in writing—a journal, articles, an essay, memoir, novel (if so, what kind?), nonfiction book, poetry?

Different genres reveal your concerns by raising different questions. Will the hero and heroine get together? Who will win the war? How will inner conflict be resolved? Will evil be vanquished?

Science fiction, like a nonfiction book, might ask how technology will impact this problem. A memoir, like a novel, might ask how the character will prevail against the odds. An article might ask who else suffers with this problem, and what solution current research supports. A poem might ask how one image can represent a truth about the world, or what our senses can be trusted to tell us. Journal entries might ask how the writer will ever sort through the mess of her life. An essay might ask how the author's perspective can impact others.

5. What “real characters” have you known in your life? Who have you truly admired, literary or real? Who have you reviled? What details set them apart?

Characters you feel deeply about can lead you toward your true story material.

6. What makes a house a home? What room do you love most in your home (think of details that support your answer)? Is there a place outside that you particularly love (use details)? Is there a city, building, outdoor space, or room in your world or story that is “hot” (rife with conflict)? Why?

This speaks to the way the settings we choose reveal us, as authors and characters. The central setting in Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist J.R. Moehringer's memoir, The Tender Bar, is a barroom occupied the men who raised him within it; Moehringer ghost-wrote Andre Agassi's autobiography, Open, where the author plays out inner conflict on the tennis court.

7. Complete this sentence: everything changed in my life the day that ______________. What life experiences can you draw from? How have they shaped you? How did these events reveal your character?

This is an inciting incident: the moment beyond which all changes, that raises a question for your protagonist and your reader and tips him into the story. What happened that mattered so much it tipped you into the story of your life?

8. Stories are best told through the eyes of an “outsider.” When were you an outsider? When were you an insider, and what outsiders impacted you?

This speaks to a powerful point of view—the perspective of your story. Readers will relate to this perspective because at some point or another we've all felt the pain of being an outsider.

9. What philosophies and religious notions shape the way you believe the way the world works? What life experiences impacted them? Compare before and after.

You don't have to work hard to build philosophical underpinnings into your story. They will simply be there, revealed in every decision you make. Identifying the beliefs revealed through your story, however—even after they reveal themselves to you in the first draft—will help you make the most of them.

10. Think of a story you like to share about your own life. Think of a favorite movie. Now think of a favorite book. What do all three have in common?

What does this say about what matters to you?

**BONUS: You wrote ten books before you died, and now your fans have gathered at your funeral. What would you like them to say about you?

I'll share my bonus answer: At the end of my life, should I be so lucky as to have a group of readers at my grave to see me off, I hope they'll say, "Those books were so her."

How about you?


Kathryn Craft is a developmental editor at, an independent manuscript evaluation and line editing service. Formerly a dance critic and arts journalist, she now writes women's fiction and memoir. The first chapter of her memoir, Standoff at Ronnie's Place, modified as a stand-alone essay, has been published online by Mason's Road, the online journal of Fairfield University's MFA program. She blogs about Healing through Writing.

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  1. What a terrific post, Kathryn. Answering these questions should help any writer start developing a new story.

  2. A lot of important questions to answer. Thanks.

    I'm wondering about your statement that stories are best told by an outsider, though. For what I'm working on now, the answer would be that it could only be told by an insider.

  3. Thanks, Maryann.

    Helen: "It depends." I had someone recently tell me that The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein was told by an insider--a dog. Of course there was no other way to learn of the dog's world but to get inside his perspective. But what the dog really wanted was to die, so he could become human. So in my opinion, he was an outsider trying to get inside.

    But I'd be curious how your situation jives with that.

  4. What a wonderful set of questions. They helped me take a hard look at what I was doing and why? And actually, helped re-affirm that what I was doing was valid and exciting.

  5. Thank you, Kathryn. Cogent, relevant, helpful, and...INTERESTING!

  6. Thanks, Henri. What a gift, to be excited by one's work. Let alone the pragmatic angle--if you aren't excited by your writing, why should others be? Keep digging until you connect with the part that moves you, right?

  7. Thanks for stopping by, Sally. If all those adjectives were true, then I guess I did write until I found what mattered. In the world of blogging as with so many other aspects of the writing world, where we can't measure our worth with a paycheck, I'd call that a success!

  8. That bonus question -- how about, "Wait. She's alive. Open the casket."

    Terry's Place
    Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

  9. Terry: I love the humorous take on the bonus question! (Then again, Poe didn't think such a thing was so funny, did he...)

  10. I love your statement about what you'd like readers to say at your funeral. I feel the same way about my books - they are so me! And when readers get what I'm about, well, I'm just thrilled!

  11. Kathy: Sounds like as good a definition of effective writing as any I've heard! At my writing retreats the women get to know one another quickly--through sharing their writing.

  12. Wonderful questions! I am book marking this and adding it to my files to re-read when I lose my way in this pursuit of the writing life. Thank you for this great site!

  13. I write because it's an obsession. I can't give it up for good, though sometimes I do take breaks. (g)
    Anyway, it's a great obsession to have and a satisfying one.

    Morgan Mandel

  14. Useful post, Kathryn. Bright and inspiring.

  15. This is an inspiring post and so insightful. I'm new on the writing front, and all these questions help me find gems for my writing crown. I will re-visit this post again and again.

  16. Providing questions that might help a Recovering Church Lady find her way was such an astounding concept--and the name "Recovering Church Lady" so intriguing--that I had to click through and see what you were about. Thanks for stopping by! I'm a big question-asker from way back.

  17. Morgan: I suppose obsessions make decisions for us sometimes. :) But if it loses its driving power, and you suddenly scratch your head and wonder what all this writing stuff is for, the questions will still be here!

  18. Gerri (an experienced writer) and Barbara ( self-described newbie): I'm glad you found some inspiration at the BRP today. I know I usually do! And Barbara: super that you are already planning to inlay jewels in your writing crown! Why settle for gravel, right?

  19. I like Kathryn's comment: "At the end of my life, should I be so lucky as to have a group of readers at my grave to see me off" ... me too ... well, I'm hoping for a group of anybody ... readers or not ... to see me off. My guess is the most overheard comment at said event would be, "What was that all about?"


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.


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