Three Questions I Ask When I Write A Novel, by Jane Kirkpatrick
At author forums, I am often asked what my writing day looks like, or what my writing practices are that have helped me write a historical novel each year. I tell them first about a book, Structuring Your Novel by Robert Meredith and John Fitzgerald. It was a suggested read by my first editor and the book has enhanced my work before actual writing. One of the most important practices suggested in that book has been to answer three questions posed by the authors to would-be novelists.
The first question is: What is my intention? The answer to this is the “elevator answer” for when someone asks us on the elevator what we’re working on and we have one floor to describe our work in progress. What is this story about? For my current historical novel the first answer is that this is a story about Dorothea Dix, an early international reformer for mental health. It’s more than that of course and over time I created a few other answers for the elevator, hoping to bring a little more interest before the eyes of the questioner glaze over. A well-crafted elevator answer also offers an important one-liner when a writer is hoping to pitch to an agent or editor and is asked “So, what’s your book about?”
The second question is: What is my attitude (what do I feel deeply about)? This question tugs at the emotional heartstrings of the story and of us as writers. My answer to this question for my novel deals with the suffering my character experiences as a child and how she turns that suffering into relieving the pain of others. As I worked on each scene I’d ask myself if I felt my character’s struggle in that scene and if not I’d rework it.
The third question is: What is my purpose? It’s corollary is: How do I hope a reader will be changed by reading this work? It might also be answered through finishing the sentence: I’m going to prove that…. For my story of an early reformer, I answered this by trying to prove that one person’s commitment can change the lives of many, even if the stated goal is never reached. I also hope that readers will realize that, even in circumstances where one might feel victimized or with little choice, each of us still have control over our attitudes and how we face the trials in our lives. I’d like to help readers choose to be good stewards of their circumstances.
I spend hours writing answers to these three questions. The process allows me to synthesize the answers to one sentence each. I type those three answers and put them up on my computer, to help me remember why I began this project, especially when I start to feel lost in that muddle in the middle.
During revisions, the answers also help me let go of some scenes I truly love. Like a good photographer, I might have to forego the use of a terrific picture if it doesn’t reflect the project it was intended for. I’ll look up at my three answers and ask myself whether that scene enhances what the story is about, the emotional connection I want with readers and the story’s progress toward proving what I hope to prove. If it doesn’t, it gets cut. So Sad!
What I’ve discovered over time is that when I finish revising a novel the answers to the questions I ask myself about the novel are sometimes different from when I began. I think that’s healthy. It suggests that writing the characters changed me, just as I hoped to change my characters. For my latest historical novel, I was surprised to discover that it was really a story about a woman who sought justice and who came to believe that by giving a voice to those denied one she could truly find her own.
Jane Kirkpatrick’s author website: www.jkbooks.com
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