Before You Start Writing, Ask: “What Is This About?”

I’ve talked about it in the past, but it’s becoming increasingly clear to me that one of the most important questions you need to ask (and then answer) about your story is, “What the hell is this about?”

I’m over here planning the novel (brief update: I’ve moved onto throwing together the loose structure of the thing, and I’ll talk about that next time), and first thing out of the gate I did was start planning out my characters. More specifically, I named them and then mind-mapped the ass out of them, because that gives me a good visual way of envisioning the characters together (and it’s fun! like playing with crayons! and drawing on somebody else’s wall!). For me, it felt most important to understand who these characters were and why I wanted to tell their story. That’s really a big part of planning for me — figuring out, hey, what do I like about this? What draws me into it? What’s my hook? In fact, the more hooks I get into the material, the more I’m likely to love writing it (and finding that the writing process is on par with reading a good book).

I had not, however, answered the question, “What is this about?”

And that’s okay. I don’t think you necessarily need to make it your first question.

But I think you damn sure better ask it before you start writing.

See, a funny thing happened on the way to the forum: as I mind-mapped the characters, I stumbled over the answer to that question: “What is this book about?”

Suddenly, I had that figured out. The characters emerged and grabbed me by the short and curlies and curb-stomped my dumb face with the truth. They told me what the book was about. (And yes, I realize that the reality is, I told me what the book was about. We pretend that our characters have all these special little lives, that they operate unbidden, but the truth is, the characters are always the writer. Some by few steps, some by many, but what the characters say and what the characters do is what you told them to do.)

Answering this question was for me a kind of revelation.

Why? What makes that question so juicy? So taste-a-licious? So… epiphanic?

The Epiphany Of The Revelation Of The Apocalypse Of The Answer Of St. Wendigslaus The Beard Of Wordlantis

Answering that question is going to do a handful of things for you and the writing of your newly-minted work-in-motherfucking-progress:

First, it’s going to tell you why you’re writing it. Every writer has something he wants to say. Something he believes in. This might be that. It might be some lesser thing than that. Either way, it’s something that interests you. Or, better still, it’s something that compels you. Maybe even a question that haunts you. Oh, that means this isn’t a clinical exercise. I’ll talk a little more about that below, but don’t let this be a dispassionate thing. You have to care about this question and, more importantly, care about the answer.

Second, it’s going to bind disparate elements together. Putting a story together isn’t just about writing it. I used to think it was, but I’ve since learned differently — it’s a kind of architecture, a barn-raising in the deepest pastures of your imagination. Bricks are just bricks, though, until you slap those sumbitches together with a little mortar, and the answer to this question is that mortar. It’s like Yoda says about the Force: “It binds us, it glues bricks together, it tickles our balls and gets us really high and dude.” I think that’s what Yoda said. I’m pretty sure that was it. Anyway. Point is, the web, the structure, the whole recipe comes together when you have this answer. You can look at the whole picture, nod, and just say, “Ohhhh.”

Third, it tells you how to jump. Listen, you can’t plan every step of a novel. As you’ll see when I get into structure, I don’t intend to beat this thing out page by page before writing it. So, between the plot points and important character moments and all that shit, you’ve got the Wild West. You’ve got the long stretch of Pine Barrens before you get to the Jersey Shore. You’re walking the dark side of the moon. And so you need a thread to follow. The answer to this question is that thread. You encounter lots of moments during writing where you have choices. Limitless choices. What does this character do here? What does she say? How’s this play out? Hold that answer in your hand. What is this story about? Use that to gauge what happens next. Armed with that answer, you’ll know.

The Vagaries Of Answering This Question

What is it about?

It might be an easy question. It might be hard.

When do you ask it, and when do you answer it? You ask it in the beginning. From day one. Put the question out there. You don’t need to address it. Not yet. It’s like a Komodo dragon. You loose it into the room, and as you write, that thing’s going to start stalking you. And those things have like, demon spit or some shit, so you know you don’t want him to bite you because that devil-sputum is some slow-acting evil. He’ll nip at your heel and that stuff will work its way through your body and as you write you’ll start to slow down and slow down and sloooow dooooown and things will start to feel mushy and the story will become this hazy shape with uncertain borders. The hazier that story gets, the harder it is.

What I’m saying is, you put the question out there. But then it’s a ticking clock. Before you actually start putting fingers to keys, my belief is, you better have an answer to that question.

In this latest novel, the answer only emerged once I started talking about the characters. I put the characters together in a mind-map, and as I juggled the bubbles and added or pruned information, I saw a pattern emerge. The pattern was there from the beginning, mind you; the only thing that’s new was my awareness of it. In that pattern waited the answer to what is this about?

I didn’t have to reach far for it.

You should never have to reach far for it.

Don’t force it. Put the pieces out there.

Really, it’s a conversation. A conversation with yourself (or with your loved ones if they’ll have you) (though, you could always take a hostage!) (okay, please don’t take a hostage) (and if you do, don’t blame it on me) (one day this website is going to get me into some deep shiznit) (these parentheticals are really addictive. once you start, you want to just keep going and going and you don’t know how to stop and SWEET BLISS I’m so high on parentheses I inject them straight into my eye sphincters OH GOD)

Okay, I’m better now.

What is this about? A question. A conversation.

The conversation is like… loosening the scree.

It’s story archaeology. You’re uncovering the answer that’s already in there. Brushing away the dirt with your mental toothbrush. Exposing the bones inch by inch until you have your answer.

You might feel pressure to make this answer conform to some… I dunno, some literary technique or some lofty notion. Fuck that. The question and subsequent answer of, “What is this about?” has no rules. It’s for you, not for the literary critics. Is it your theme? Maybe. If you need it to be. Really, all it is is your reason to write this thing. It’s what interests you. No, that’s too flimsy: it’s what drives you to write this.

The answer can be a couple words, or it can be a whole damn paragraph. As long as you get it? Who gives a shit? You’re not selling this to anybody but yourself. (Though eventually you’ll have to sell it to someone else when you write the query letter or pitch it. And this is another great reason to have this answer in mind, even if unrefined. Some day, someone is going to ask it. Be ready to answer it.)

“This is about how you can’t escape your past.”

“This is about just how fucked up people can be.”

“This is about how the education system fails its kids by adhering to antiquated ideals and stats that don’t mean anything and notions of ‘learning’ that remain separate from notions of ‘humanity.'”

“This is about the coming of age of MONKEY SQUID DEATH WOMBAT. Raaaaar!”

Whatever it is, answer it.

If you don’t love the answer, and that answer doesn’t get you all jizzity-jazzed about the process of writing this thing, then fuck it, that’s not your answer. The answer needs to engage you. It needs to excite you. It needs to give you purpose and be the lash on your ass-cheeks to spur you forward.