Friday, January 23, 2015

Ask Good Questions


Back in December, Adam Claxton wrote here, asking how (and here I paraphrase and oversimplify) a new writer can cope with the despair that seems to be an intrinsic part of being a writer.  I answered him as honestly as I could.  And then an interesting thing happened.

Alvaro Zinos-Amaro picked up the question and used it as the basis for a Locus Online roundtable discussion.

So now such literary luminaries as Peter Straub, Cecelia Holland, Jeffrey Ford, Michael Dirda, and many more (hi, Cat!) have put serious thought into Adam's question.  Simply because it was a good one.

When writers are just starting out, the awareness of how little inflence they have can be enervating.  Yet with one good question, Adam was able to, if only briefly, engage the thoughts of people he must surely admire.

This shows the power of good questions.  They get even more powerful when you ask them of a story you're writing.  Not questions you already know the answers to, but ones you don't.  Questions like "What would a woman really do in this situation?" Or "How would this technology change the people who use it?"  Or (and this is a classic) "Who gets hurt?"

Ask good questions.  Let your story answer them.  You'll be surprised what it has to say.

You can read the Locus Roundtable here.  And you can read the original blogpost here.

Above:  As always, writing advice applies only to those for whom it works.  There are all kinds of writers.  If the above doesn't work for you, you're just not the kind of writer for whom it works.


1 comment:

Unknown said...

Hi Michael,

I've been busy since I asked 'that' question. I went out and purchased John Gardner's 'The Art of Fiction' and 'On Becoming a Novelist’ – with book tokens I’d received for Christmas – I can't thank you enough for suggesting him. Those books have proved invaluable; I no longer feel quite so alone in my vocation – much of what I was struggling with, or had failed at that point to understand – is dealt with in those two books. Writing isn’t something I woke up to one day and decided to announce I would undertake, like – “I’m going to bake a cake today.” It’s something that has somehow, insidiously, made me its willing thrall over a period of several years; a symbiosis that allows me to make sense of the world, my place in it, and to order the effluvia of thought into tangible threads, that they may be woven together upon the page to create something beautiful within the eyes of whomsoever may behold them. Writing seems to be the only way I can, or want, to do this anymore.

I gave up on my design degree in 2002 (my final year); by then it was just a lacklustre sham and utter waste of time – writing had already turned my head – and, much like a man who realises he has married for convenience rather than love, I was seduced by the charm of the latter to the detriment of the former: writing had become my nemesis and nirvana. When I asked ‘that’ question I was riddled with doubt over my choice to ‘be’ a writer; my ability, my isolation from those I admired and wished to emulate – their apparent indifference to my presence – even my sanity where being questioned daily. I realised that writing had its hook in me, yet I had little grasp on ‘it’; after several short-stories were rejected last year I was feeling like I may have been suffering from delusions of grandeur, and that my life-choices might prove na├»ve at best. I think of my blog as a scrapbook or journal – and open to all – it was these rejections and the passivity of the internet I found so frustrating; the notion that I was not what I thought I might be because the internet had not declared it for me, had tainted my vision. Social media is not always the melting-pot I wish it were; it also provides fuel for the vicious circle of self-loathing that develops regarding one’s writing – when there is little or no encouragement offered, or comment of any sort made about your work, such as it may be – negativity is prevalent in the greenhorns mind, and only reinforced with the silence that comes after ‘submitting’ or ‘posting’.

It seems after reading John’s books that much of what I ‘despair’ over is part of a penance that must be paid to the gods of words along the paper road to enlightenment. I’m grateful to you for suggesting John’s teachings and humbled also that ‘that’ question provoked such a plethora of wide-ranging thoughts from like-minded folk (yet far more eloquent, wiser souls, than I) at Locus Online – although I may never meet any of you face to face – the simple fact that the smallest of drops can ripple an ocean has restored in me (coupled with John Gardner’s insights) the desire, enthusiasm and faith for this most capricious of Mistresses we share.

Thus, I am back to the grindstone – hunched over my desk, shivering under a blanket; entirely comfortable in my meagre surrounds and pleasant state of melancholia – working on a new draft of a long-running project, that, I hope someday will be my debut.