Six Questions To Ask As You Write

As you write, it’s easy to… just Zen the fuck out. Right? You’re writing, you’re tippity-typing, and you find yourself swallowed whole by the moment, lost in the fog, drifting silently through the mists of your story. Next thing you know, you wake up on the floor. You’re naked, but for a pair of Wonder Woman underoos that smell suspiciously of rosehips, and your lips are really, really chapped. Later you’ll discover a tattoo on your lower back (a tramp stamp above the ass-crack) that marks you in lovely calligraphy as “PROPERTY OF MONGO.”

That happens. You’re so absorbed in the moment, you don’t really remember what happened, or how you get here, or just who exactly this “Mongo” fellow happens to be.

This shouldn’t be how you write.

So, here’s what you do.

As you write, you want to keep your mind on a handful of things. You don’t want to get crazy with it; obsession to detail as you write might make you batshit. Nobody wants you to go batshit. I certainly don’t, because then it’s on me. Then I’ve got to carry that burden around.

But these things, maybe you ask yourself these questions before you start writing for the day. Maybe you occasionally pause, take a breath, and reorient yourself to these Six Cardinal Directions. If you can’t answer these questions, then maybe you’re lost, and maybe this scene isn’t working quite right either on the page or in your head. Let’s have a look.

“What Is This About?”

You ever wander into a bookstore or — before the music industry explosively shit the bed — a CD-slash-record store, and as soon as you wander in you lose complete and total track of what it is you’re looking for? You can’t even remember how you got here. Did you drive? Ride a bike? A tuk-tuk? You wander the aisles like a zombie, thumbing through CDs or picking up books, your eyes glazing over, your mouth dry, the name “Mongo” perched precariously on the edge of your thoughts.

Or maybe that’s just me.

Either way, that shit can happen when you’re in the middle of writing.

You start writing, and you suddenly feel like, “What the fuck am I doing here?”

Get that question out of the way early. Ask it. Force yourself to answer. What are you doing here? What is this scene about? Imagine that someone has a gun to your head, and that someone is asking: “Tell me in less than a hundred words what this scene is about, or I will make you perform fellatio on a hunk of hot lead.”

Answering this question anchors you to the day’s writing. It gives you purpose. It grants you intent.

Best of all, it offers clarity.

“Does This Look Like Shit?”

Look at the page you just wrote. Or the paragraph. Or the sentence.

Is everything spelled correctly? Any grammatical goblins gamboling about, cackling and throwing feces?

Is the page one big block of text?

Does everything look right?

Some advice you’ll read will tell you to worry about that stuff later. And that might be the way you want to go with it. Me? I say, be aware of it now. Be aware of it as you go. Why?

First, it makes you a better writer — at least, from the technical side of things. If you become mindful of these things now, you’ll actually make fewer mistakes the next time, and the time after that, and the time after that. You want to improve, right? Grow sharper?

Second, it’ll save you time on the back end. (Heh, back end. Ass!) Seriously, your second edit is best when it’s an edit for content, not an edit for all the little niggling bits and hangnails. This is especially useful as a freelance writer with deadlines to meet.

Third, you won’t catch all the niggling bits and hangnails — you go back and try to fix this stuff in post, you’re going to miss stuff. Easier to do it as you go, provided you don’t get obsessed with it.

Fourth, because you don’t want to be a lazy asshole. You do a job, do it right. You mow the lawn, you don’t leave a patch unmowed “for later.” What are you, a jerk? Don’t be a jerk. “I’ll wipe my ass later.” Man, don’t be that guy. Nobody likes that guy.

“Am I Writing To Spec?”

Again, many writers will simply write — however long it ends up is however long it ends up. Just write! Let the story tell itself!

Nah. Nuh-uh. Bzzt. No. You write the story. (But in Soviet Russia, the story writes you!)

As a freelancer, you start to develop the habit of “writing to spec.” Meaning, writing to specifications. Client wants 50,000 words, then you turn in 50,000 words. I mean, no, not exactly (“I ended the sentence in the middle because I reached my limit!”), but you don’t turn in something that’s 10,000 words over.

In writing a script, you also find this a useful skill — sure, you can write a 240 page magnum motherfucking opus, but nobody’s going to want to produce your four-hour epic about… I dunno, talking cats or whatever.

Whatever you’re writing, have a goal in mind. Know how long you want this to be. A lean-and-mean novel coming out at 70,000 words? An epic fantasy swelling and bloating to 150,000 words? A 90-page script? A 3,000-word short? A 500-word flashbang?

Note this as you go. Note how long a scene should be. Don’t let the story escape your grip. Know that today’s writing shouldn’t go beyond 2,000 words — stay on track. Keep a schedule. Burn yourself with a cigarette if you go too far. Burn the left hand first as a warning. The left hand is the sinister hand. It is the hand that slow-jerks the Devil’s wang.

…this is going off the rails. See what happens when you don’t write to spec? When you don’t control your subject matter? You start talking about diabolical phalluses. And nobody wants that. Well, I know at least one of you wants that, but we’re not going to name any names.

“What’s The Conflict?”

Let me repeat myself: “Conflict is the food that feeds the reader.”

The most significant ingredient to any story is conflict.

Each scene must have conflict. This conflict may reflect the larger conflict of the story, or may have its own smaller conflict intrinsic to the scene.

“Conflict” does not mean that every scene is a fight scene. You do not need ninjas in every scene. I mean, maybe you want them, because — hey, fuck, ninjas are awesome. But a conflict needn’t be a fight. It needn’t even be external. It can be internal — does the character make a choice? Is he struggling with his own worst instincts? Or against his best ones? Love is a conflict. Relationships are conflicts. Humor can be born of conflict, too. Conflict can be huge or it can be itty-bitty.

You need to know what the conflict is. Identify it going in.

“Bob struggles with his addiction to giraffe porn.”

“Betty and Miranda must wrestle in mud to save the orphanage.”

“Casimir must tame the Mighty Humbaba.”

It will drive the scene. More specifically, it will drive the writing of said scene. Here’s a little secret, too — if you know the conflict, then you know the stakes, and stakes are important. Stakes tell you what can be gained or lost in a scene. Conflict feeds the reader, and the stakes (the want or need of said stakes, or the fear that they will come true) is what drives characters to that conflict.

If you ask the question, “What’s the conflict?” and you do not have a good answer, then this scene needs to be dragged out back by the ankle and fed to the hogs.

The scene will mewl and cry, but fuck that. The hogs need to eat, and your story needn’t be bogged down by scenes whose narrative thrust is as substantial as a mushy, jizz-caked tube sock lying on the highway.

“Does This Make Sense?”

This one’s easy.

Does it make sense?

Hold the scene’s feet to the fire.

Does it cry out? Does it suddenly reveal to you the ways in which it really doesn’t make sense?

Are you forcing it? Would your main character really do that? Does the logic hold up? Does the timeline hold up? Do all the moving parts fail to move properly?

Don’t get bogged down on this one. But just keep an eye on it as you go. You may think it’s easy to fix in post, but trust me, you go too far into illogical or nonsensical territory, and it becomes harder and harder to excise things if you’ve hung entire characters or plotlines on shit that just doesn’t make sense.

Do I Like This Scene?

Critical question.

Do you like what you’re writing today?

Do you like this scene?

You’ll know. This is a gut-check question. Doesn’t need a lot of scrutiny (and if it does, then you have your answer already — you don’t really like it).

This is simple: if you don’t like it, then don’t keep it.

Why don’t you like it? Fuck, I dunno. We’re talking about you, not me. What I do know is this: if it doesn’t pass the smell-test, it means you’re sensing that something about this scene just doesn’t work. And that’s okay. Good you caught it now. It may help if you figure out what it is that doesn’t work (like a crooked painting on the wall, it’ll drive you nutty until you figure it out and straighten it), or it may help if you just throw the scene to the hogs and replace it with something you do like.

The secret is always this: if you don’t like something, then the reader won’t like it either. They will feel your disdain and discomfort. It’ll be like sitting in on an uncomfortable family dinner. Don’t do that to your reader. You’re doing this for her, after all. Why do you want to be a jerk to your reader? She didn’t do anything to you. Heck, she bought your book, didn’t she?

Oh, and if you’re one of those writers who hates writing — and I know you’re out there, you fucking weirdos — then maybe, just maybe, you shouldn’t be writing at all. I’m just putting that out there. You do with it as you wish. Take it or leave it. But me, I say you feed your so-called “career” to the hogs. They oink because they’re hungry.