Do You Need to Return to the Basics in Your Writing?

File0001530883609After all the hoopla over the publication of Emma Jean, (which really is ongoing, I'm just still getting used to it being a part of my life) I returned to my WIP with great joy.  Nothing makes me happier than working regularly on fiction.  I may have mentioned this once or twice over the course of this blog's life.

And yet.  When I re-read my WIP, I realized I had some problems.  Like, BIG problems.  Plot and story problems.  Huge holes in the backstory (because, um, I didn't know it).  Characters I didn't get.  And so on.  I had written about 180 pages.  Up to page 70, the work was fairly solid.  But from then on, I was pantsing like crazy, and it showed.

Concurrently, I've been teaching my Get Your Novel Written Now class.One thing I harp on talk about a lot in that class is going back to the basics.  As in, novel writing is a long-haul project, and odds are good you're going to get lost somewhere along the way.  When you do, your best bet is to go back to the basics.

The fundamentals of fiction.

I took my own advice.   Read a book on outlining and thought deep thoughts about plot and story.  Applied those deep thoughts to the loose outline I had partially created.  Watched the story come back to life.  Danced a jig.

All of which reminded me of the benefits of going back to the basics.

Perhaps you need to, also.  Are you stalled in an area of your novel or memoir?  Then turn your attention backwards.  Let's review the fundamentals of fiction and then you can figure out which area you need to return to and focus on.  And, please, bear in mind, mention "fundamentals of fiction" to ten different novelists and you'll get ten different lists of fundamentals.  But, over the years, I've researched and thought and researched some more and boiled them down to these five.  You can quibble if you want.  Go ahead, do it.  I'll be happy to debate it with you.  But these are the five that make sense to me, so I'm going with it.

  • Character
  • Story
  • Setting
  • Theme
  • Style

Let's look at them one by one, and think how paying some more attention to these fundamentals may help boost your WIP.

1.  Character.  The starting point of story, to me, is character, as in characters in conflict.  Characters who have real desires, needs and fears.  There are so many different ways you can get to know your characters through filling out dossiers and histories (a bunch of them are mentioned here.  Do you know your characters?  Did you take time to find out about them in depth before you started writing?  If not, maybe its time to do that now. 

2.  Story.  Story is what happens in your novel.  Plot is how you arrange it for the reader.  Well, anyway, that's one defnition.  There's a ton of others, but for our purposes today, you could do worse than to think about it that way.  Do you know where you're going in your story?  Do you need to? (Some do some don't.) If you're unclear, perhaps you need to do some outlining.

3.  Setting.  Where the novel takes place, duh, and also so much more–weather, time, the things your characters surround themselves with.   Sometimes when I'm writing and something isn't quite right, I look at setting.  It can make an enormous difference if you're in the wrong place. 

4.  Theme.  Broadly, what your story is about.  I'm a fan of the it-will-come-out-as-you-write school of them and premise, because thinking about it makes my head feel like it will explode.  (I find this somewhat hard to believe, but in all the years I've written this blog, I've never written a post about theme.  Can you tell it's not my strong suit?  I think I better put this topic on my future blog post list, just to challenge myself.)

5.  Style.   Breathe a sigh of relief–this fundamental of fiction is not something you need to fuss about too much while you still working on the initial drafts of your novel.  Style is how you put words together on the page, and much of it comes at the end, when you check over you use of commas, choose strong verbs, and so on.  HOWEVER, you can train yourself to make good writing style choices as you write, and this is a good idea.

It is my belief that you have the novel writer's intution and you'll know which fundamental you need to go back to do and ponder if you get stuck.  I know and love my characters well, for instance, but I knew I needed some crucial parts of their backstory that would tie directly to my plot.  It can feel like you're wasting time when you take time to go back to the basics, but it will pay off for you in the end.

I promise.

So, tell me–which basic do you need to focus on ? Or is everything going along swimmingly for you? Either way, please share in the comments.

***Struggling with a writer's block that feels deep and scary and not something that can be dealt with by going back to the basics?  I love helping writers get back on track.  Go here to read about my services. 

Photo by mconnors.

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10 Responses to Do You Need to Return to the Basics in Your Writing?

  1. Bonnie 03/31/2013 at 12:55 #

    Thanks, Charlotte! This is just what I’m needing this afternoon–after six weeks of uber-procrastination while “on vacation.” I have Meg & Monica spread out on my desk and I’ll be tackling some of the plot holes you know I’ve been struggling to get out of. . . just as soon as I’m done posting this comment! Hmmmm. Maybe in a future blog post you could discuss the difficulties of sustaining one’s writing momentum while in an unfamiliar environment for an extended period? You seem to be good at keeping your momentum during times like that– whether you’re temporarily in Tennessee or elsewhere. Thanks again for being such a great resource!

  2. Charlotte Dixon 03/31/2013 at 15:43 #

    Hi Bonnie, So glad you are back!  We missed you–and Meg and Monica.  And I'm glad the post was helpful to you in where you find yourself.  It can be daunting to return to a WIP after an extended time away and the best advice I have is to keep at it, it gets easier.  Thanks for the great suggestion for a blog post.

  3. Jessica Baverstock 03/31/2013 at 22:50 #

    For my latest WIP I’ve got no problem knowing my character. She’s very talkative and distinct.

    I am, however, working on story. My character talks a lot and doesn’t do that much so I’ve got to make sure something is actually happening.

    I’m storyboarding at the moment. What fun!

  4. Zan Marie 04/01/2013 at 06:30 #

    I’m thrilled you put Character at No. 1 position. It all starts and ends there for me. All the rest sorts themselves out as the character and his/her story demands.

    But, then, you knew I was on the character band wagon already, didn’t you? ; )

    P. S. You can’t force theme. Even when you think you know it, its subject to change as the story develops and deepens. (Ask me about my shifting theme for Friendly Fire, AKA Mother’s Day sometime.)

  5. Charlotte Dixon 04/01/2013 at 06:42 #

    Oh Zan Marie, you must be my long-lost twin sister!  I feel the same way about character.  I even argued with an editor recently that character came before story.  And I always feel a little guilty about my laissez-faire attitude about theme, because I'm convinced it comes out as we write.  I'm so glad we agree on these things!

  6. Charlotte Dixon 04/01/2013 at 07:48 #

    It is so much fun when a character talks a lot! That’s how Emma Jean was, and once she started, I couldn’t get her to shut up! And yes, something does have to actually happen. I think that’s what shocks people the most when they set out to write a novel–how much actually has to happen.

  7. Heather Jenkins 04/04/2013 at 09:06 #

    Great post, Charlotte. Do you have post fairy who sprinkles you with idea dust every morning, and if so, where can I get one??

    I am in complete agreement with you and Zan Marie that character is key. Sure, the other elements are important, but you can have an amazing story, with a killer setting, universal theme, and engaging style that the readers simply don’t care about because they can’t connect. Readers connect through characters. Great characters can carry even the most mediocre stories.

    I focus on three-dimensional characters with a need, something that propels them forward, something that speaks to the core of who they are and defines the “why” behind their choices. It’s like Emma Jean. We know who she is and why she does what she does. She keeps us reading.

    Thanks again for the great post. Let me know about that fairy dust… :)

  8. Charlotte Dixon 04/04/2013 at 09:14 #

    Heather, I'm going to package up some of the fairy dust and send it right over to you!  Yes, I agree with you and Zan Marie about characters being the starting point of all fiction–if I'm not interested in a character, I'll but a book down, no matter how lively the plot.  Now, excuse me, I have some fairy dust to package.

  9. Sharon 04/13/2013 at 14:23 #

    I think I stalled on characters. There are some I know really well, and others not so much. I know I need to go back and develop more backstory for most of them. What scares me is when I feel so close to my main character that I almost get to a point where I don’t know her. Does that make sense?

    Setting comes in second. I was drawn to northern Maine for some reason, even though I’ve never been there, and I feel quite attached to it as a setting. But sometimes I can’t seem to picture my character and the plot taking place in the cold and snow, so at some point I realized, hey, I’ve completely skipped over that entire season! (Which is weird, cause I’m from the frozen north, and currently dealing with a nice little spring snowfall warning of 20 cm.)

  10. Charlotte Dixon 04/13/2013 at 16:45 #

    Hi Sharon, I love your comment that you get to know your characters so well that you don't even know them.  Maybe you've melded with your character in some way.  But I have had really good luck going back and figuring out backstory for characters–it influences the story line so dramatically and opens up all kinds of ideas.  You'll laugh at this–I once wrote a coffee table book about Maine and I've never been there, either!  Enjoy your snowfall, I've been longing for it all year.

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