Questions to Ask Yourself (Part II)

Just catching up? Superb. Read the first part here.

Do I feel like I’m forcing my plot?

When characters escape, it can really fuck up your plot. Except not, you’re thinking, for you. You know everything, everything about every single one of your characters and they’re all rad to the max and fuck me. Well, okay then: your problem is your plot. Congratulations?

Your character turning into, for lack of a better way to put this, a real person is the goal. Still, he needs somewhere to go. Which means it’s time to ask yourself: is what I’m seeing in my mind’s eye the same thing I’m actually getting out onto the page? Why, or why not? The most enticing characters in the world can’t fight their way free from a story that makes no sense and they can’t save it, either. Honestly, the reverse is true: a mediocre, or nonsensical plot is going to sabotage everything else you’re trying to accomplish. Which means that the next question we have to tackle is….

What’s the biggest weakness in my plot?

         Recently, a miserable husk of a woman tried to convince me that she possessed classified information. Information that was, in fact, too classified for the Pentagon. I’d shared, as I’m apt to do, an opinion. In this case I was waxing poetic on how profiteering is bullshit. For those not in the know, profiteering is making a bad situation worse in the name of capitalism. For example, I know quite a few people who want me to fork over whatever money I’ve managed to make for some gimmicky workout program as I’m apparently too fat to quarantine correctly. After which I can gather up whatever change I’ve managed to scrounge from the couch cushions and buy some overpriced hand sanitizer.

         Well, this blobfish in a tutu informs me that the United States—I shit you not—was supplying arms to Germany during WWII. Then again, she also thought the United States and Canada were on two different sides. She told some story about American G.I.’s watching bombs stamped with “made in USA” raining down on them. I…digested this and then tried, politely, to explain why she was wrong using history. Which, as I’m sure you’ve deduced by now, didn’t go well.

How did she “know” all this? Her high school geography teacher told her! Moreover, she was right as—again I shit you not—this was classified information. I’d like to think that anyone over the age of birth could debunk this argument but Ms. Deficient was supremely unlucky in that she peddled this nonsense to probably the one person she knew who, in turn, knew anything about how classified information actually works. We’ll thrill to my work history another time, but I’ll finish out this story by bragging that I resisted the urge to ask her why her high school geography teacher, who hadn’t served in any branch of the military in either the United States or Canada, came to possess intelligence that’d literally rewrite world history. Or, indeed, how something witnessed by the entire western front would be classified in the first place. I knew, and she knew, that she needed some justification for a statement that was patently ridiculous. She needed, in a word, a plot.

“Several thousand grunts supposedly saw something, and absolutely all of them confided in this one man, and only this one man, who hadn’t actually been alive at the time and now I know that the United States was actually conducting an entire war by itself; those sweet, loveable Nazis were only using their factories to produce Fanta” just doesn’t sound realistic. Jack Ryan, Dirk Pitt, and motherfucking Ethan Hunt, together, couldn’t pull off something this convoluted. I’m a comics fan, too, so I’m hardly averse to stupidity. But there is a line, and you need to know where it is.

You audience can tell—on Facebook, Twitter, and elsewhere—whether your story exhibits any kind of internal logic. Ms. Deficient knew where she’d started out, which was being a contrarian. She knew where she wanted to end up, too: at being right. What she didn’t count on is that between A and C is…B. Which is never, and I repeat never, “and then a miracle occurs.”

Should you find yourself losing track of the plot to the point where you can’t remember what side anyone’s on, it’s time to step back. Doing so might not feel so good but, believe me, looking like the world’s biggest blowhard isn’t a desirable alternative. Instead of writing in circles until a story somehow materializes out of thin air and confusion, ask yourself: could my story, in whatever universe it’s set in, really happen? Why, or why not?

Wherever your story is set, you have to know what the hell’s happening.

How original is my story?

         You won’t improve as a writer if your only inspiration is yourself. Stephen King advises, “if you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut.” Enclosing yourself in a bubble is the surest way to cut yourself off from any and all sources of inspiration. Before you can write, you have to understand writing. As a reader, what draws you in? What separates the characters you merely enjoy from the characters you can’t stop thinking about in the middle of the night? Why is your favorite book, your favorite book? The more you read, the better you’ll be able to answer these questions and, therefore, the better your writing will become.

West Side Story is a retelling of Romeo and Juliet. Everyone knows that. Romeo and Juliet, itself, has been made into dozens of films if not more. This isn’t plagiarism, any more than Sons of Anarchy plagiarized Hamlet or Breaking Bad plagiarized King Lear. Fan fiction is hardly a new concept; Le Morte d’Arthur, the first novel ever written in English, was an ode to a popular fairy tale. You go from honoring someone else’s work to stealing it when your only “inspiration” is found in someone else’s story. Changing the names, maybe the locations, that’s not an act of creation.

Creativity takes courage. Don’t let your fear of failure mislead you into doing harm to someone else. And believe me, plagiarism is evil. However you perceive a creator, however successful they seem to you, they worked hard—and are still working hard—for everything they have. You might actually ruin someone else’s life, and for what? Stories that aren’t authentic aren’t any good.

Do I relate to my protagonist(s)?

Stephen King’s protagonists are all writers for a reason. Writers, or teachers and teaching, given his resume, also isn’t much of a stretch. This works, because he’s writing from a perspective he understands. This story, wherever it’s set, has to come from you. You’re not here—in any way—to tell someone else’s story. You might feel like you have to jazz things up a bit, that you’re boring. That’s not true! Don’t listen to your doubts; don’t let them limit you. Someone, out there, is waiting for you to show them that they’re not alone. Maybe more than one someone. Your story might seem silly to you, because we live in a society that encourages self-doubt. You might, even so, end up being the light at the end of a lot of tunnels. Share the raw, unvarnished, vulnerable you with the world.

Why am I telling this story?

“Because vampires are in” isn’t an answer. Neither is, “I’d be a better billionaire than J.K. Rowling.” Writing isn’t a get rich quick scheme. It’s not a get rich slow scheme, either. You’ll make more, and be treated better, working at Target. Your book won’t be any good, anyway, even if you do get it finished. You can’t expect to make up some story that means nothing to you and expect anyone to care. Why would they, how could they, when you don’t?

Writing is about passion, not trying to cash in. You’re on the right track with your story when you’d still be working on it, every day, while trapped on some deserted island. Every morning, when you wake up, are you excited to write? Why or why not? If your story isn’t exciting you, and I mean new crush level thrills, well, it should. What are you holding back from yourself?

To recap, here, our questions are:

  1. What’s my story about—really?
  2. Do I feel like I’m forcing my characters?
  3. Do I feel like I’m forcing my plot?
  4. How original is my story?
  5. Do I relate to my protagonist(s)?
  6. Why am I telling this story?

Answering them might take you a few minutes, or a few months. You’ll know when you’re done, provided you’re being honest with yourself. Like any tool, this only works as hard as you work it. Vince Lombardi said that leaders are made; writers are also made. No one’s born knowing how to write, hell, no one’s born knowing how to chew. Don’t expect too much of yourself, and too soon. Supposedly, anyone can become an expert at anything in 10,000 hours. I don’t know about that but what I do know is that no effort is ever wasted. Maybe you do end up tossing out a story or two—so what? They gave you something, in that they helped you hone your skills. With every new story, you have a better and better sense of what works.

That’s all for today, folks, and remember to tweet @rfseligmann.