Friday, November 11, 2011

Building a Questions List to Keep Writing Fresh

This month I've taken on an insane project--which I try to do each November.  I've signed up for National Novel Writers Month, or nanowrimo as it's affectionately called by those who know and love it.  Each year, hundreds of thousands of writers from around the world log on to the site and commit to writing 50,000 words in 30 days.  That's about 1667 words a day, give or take a few.

Nanowrimo boasts
that many note-worthy books have gotten their start during November insanity, Sara Gruen's Water for Elephants perhaps being the most famous.

I use nanowrimo for revision each year.  This year, my sequel to Qualities of Light is my nano focus.  Before November 1, I started a list of questions to fuel my daily writing.  These questions would help fill holes in the draft I am working on  for this new novel.

Whether you're involved with nanowrimo this year or not, the questions list is an excellent tool to get you going each day, or each writing session, with fresh material.

The Power of Unanswered Questions
As someone who loves it when the ducks are lined up, as an editor with many years answering whatever was unsolved in a writer's manuscript, I used to dread questions in my own work.  They were problems I hadn't yet solved, dilemmas yet unresolved.  They drove me nuts. I worked hard to stay ahead of any potential questions,  applying solutions to every problem that might come up.

Staying on top of all the problems of plot, character, method, and pacing felt like I was really in control of my manuscripts.  When unexpected questions came up, I got answers as fast as I could.  They may not have been the best, or deepest answer, but they kept the fear of the unknown and out-of-control at bay.

But the more books I wrote and published, the more I learned that books are large, unweildy events, worse than organizing a family wedding. Hard to predict what will happen. Hard to plan entirely. Full of unresolved problems and big questions that may not get solved until the final draft.

My first books were nightmares, partly because of my need to solve every problem right away. Luckily, back in the olden days when I began publishing, I worked with patient editors who helped me with my unanswered questions.  When the editors left, I was on my own with the questions.  I had to begin loving them or learning to work with them.

Love the Questions Themselves
Rainier Maria Rilke, the German writer responsible for the beautiful volume Letters To A Young Poet, said, "Have patience with everything that remains unresolved in your heart. Try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books written in a foreign language. Do not now look for the answers. They cannot now be given to you because you could not live them."

Rilke's point was that hanging around with questions leads to the best answers. You need time to live your way to the answers. There's real gold in the questions themselves because they open up the creative self.

So I began to train myself to be OK with things I didn't know yet about my manuscript.  It wasn't easy.  It made me tense and anxious at first, but then I saw how often the truer, better answer came if I let things sit a bit.  So I started loving the unanswered question in my work.

I began working with the questions list.

Now I ask my book-writing classes, especially those in revision, to create a list of questions about their books-in-progress. Add to the list, one question daily, and let yourself muse and wonder about what the answer could possibly be. Once I became patient enough to try this myself, I saw great improvement in my writing. It was as if a creative faucet got turned on.

I wasn't just working my problems to find solutions; I was creating something new. My random, creative, wondering and wandering writer inside was excited.

Does Unanswered Equal More Creative?
Why are unanswered questions so helpful for book writers? Why do we need NOT to know everything before we begin our writing process?

Theme, subtext, and inner story all emerge from the random, creative side, not the linear left brain of the writer. You can't get good theme by going after it directly. It bubbles up. It surprises you. A writing mentor once told me: "If it doesn't surprise you, it won't surprise the reader." You'll have a too-predictable plan, leading to an unoriginal and uninspired book.

This week, make a list of unanswered questions. Things that are worrying you about your outline or theory, plot or characters, theme or beginning or ending. Let the list simmer. Let the questions become part of your breathing and living each day. When you get the bubbling up of a possible creative idea that addresses your question, listen and take notes.

Your muse is talking.

PS This exercise isn't just limited to writing. I've used it to create answers to tangles with family and friends, health issues, everything under the sun. It's fun, creative, and it works.


  1. Thanks for another great tip/exercise. I'm doing NaNoWriMo and I like your idea using NaNo for revision.

  2. I enjoyed your post on the 5 stages of writing a book and found it a fresh take. I tend to write like that, and always refer to it as writing individual cards: I write something I'm compelled to write or that needs to be done (pivotal scenes, background, connecting passages) with the intent of shuffling and rearranging the deck to get a cohesive whole. I loved how you refer to it as writing islands that eventually become continents (chapters).

    That post led me to this one, and it was as if a bell went off! I'd take a scene to my writer's group and then cringe during some of the questions because I didn't yet know the answer to some of them. I tend to work in a story board-like method where I capture key points/topics or events/actions (depending on whether I'm writing non-fiction or fiction), and make ferocious lists, but never thought of a questions list. Thank you so much, both posts have been truly invaluable!

  3. So glad these posts work to inspire you, Linda!! Thanks for visiting.