7 Frequently Asked Writing Questions

7 Frequently Asked Writing Questions

7 Frequently Asked Writing QuestionsThe amazing thing about being a writer is that you get to be part of a writing community. Especially now, in the Internet age, you have access not just to the writings of the great minds who have gone before, but also to the shared wisdom, common sense, commiseration, and encouragement of all your contemporaries. If you have a question about the writing journey or craft, you can be sure it is one of many frequently asked writing questions that have been asked before. This means the answers are out there!

I conservatively estimate I receive more than 1,000 writing questions every year—and that’s just in emails. Some of these questions are brand-new ones I’ve never seen before. Most are on topics I’ve covered here on the blog. Some are stumpers that prompt me to learn new things and write new posts. But many of them are ones I see over and over, because they are foundational questions in nearly every writer’s journey.

Today, I want to share just seven of the most frequently asked writing questions I receive, along with my answers. If you guys enjoy this format, I may share more posts in the same vein in the future.

7 Frequently Asked Writing Questions

1. Must My Story Have an Antagonist—or Can the Protagonist Be His Own Antagonist?

Man Against Himself is a time-honored storyform. Nothing wrong with writing a book that centers primarily around a character’s inner conflict.

However, that conflict will almost always manifest in the outer world as well. The best way to think of conflict is as a series of related obstacles that prevent the character from reaching her overall goal until the end of the story. The best way to think of an antagonistic force is as whoever or whatever is presenting those obstacles. (The antagonistic force’s moral alignment within the the story is irrelevant as far as the foundational conflict goes.)

Take a look at what is consistently standing between your character and her goals throughout the story. Whatever you find, that‘s your primary antagonistic force.

2. Can My Antagonist Be Non-Human?

Short answer: your antagonist does not have to be human. In fact, I generally prefer the term “antagonistic force,” since it allows for any type of obstacle to fill this role within the story.

Although you often get more mileage out of personifying your antagonistic force (see above), you don’t have to. The most important thing to remember about antagonistic forces is that they are nothing more or less than an obstacle between the protagonist and his goals. As long as that obstacle is thematically pertinent, that’s what’s most important.

3. Is There Such a Thing as Too Much Backstory?

Backstory is the subtext for the context of the main story. The deeper it is, the deeper the subtext can be. So there really isn’t such a thing as “too much backstory.”

However, there is definitely such a thing as sharing too much backstory within the main story. The best rule of thumb for knowing when and how much backstory to share is to try to refrain from sharing anything but hints about the backstory until the moment when the reader absolutely needs to know in order for the main story to work and progress.

4. What’s the Difference Between Scenes and Chapters?

Structuring Your Novel IPPY Award 165

The important difference to understand about scenes and chapters is that chapter divisions can be arbitrary; scene divisions cannot.

Chapter breaks are really just about breaking up the book at opportune moments to create a well-timed reading experience for readers.

Scenes, however, are about structure. A scene will always be defined by its two parts: scene (action) and sequel (reaction).

The action half is made up three parts of its own:

1. Goal

2. Conflict

3. Disaster

As is the reaction half:

1. Reaction

2. Dilemma

3. Decision

For a scene to work, it must possess all of those parts, to one degree or another. But you could stick in a chapter break at any moment. Personally, I often prefer to break my chapters right in the middle of the scene (after the disaster), then open the next chapter with the sequel/reaction and end it in the middle of the next scene.

5. Should I Edit As I Go?

As I’m sure you know, there are many opinions on whether writers should or should not edit as they go. Personally, I take something of a middle-ground approach.

My approach goes like this: each day, I allow myself to read whatever I wrote the previous day. This lets me clean it up and also get back into the same frame of mind in order to continue writing.

I also stop every quarter of the book and re-read the whole thing. I call this a “50-page edit.” It’s a great tool for turning out relatively clean first drafts and also for helping me stay oriented within the overall story. It can be so easy to lose the forest for the trees when writing a story over a long period of time, and this method is great for both helping me keep the big picture in view and scratch the edit-as-I-go itch.

6. How Can I Successfully Incorporate Themes of Faith Into My Fiction?

Behold the Dawn K.M. WeilandFor me, the first consideration in how explicit faith is in any story is always the characters and the setting. Probably my most explicitly Christian novel is my Crusades-era historical Behold the Dawn, simply because the era is steeped in Christianity. The setting and the protagonist’s central struggles with his own faith meant that I could effortlessly discuss blatantly religious subjects without it seeming as if they were shoehorned into the story.

Dreamlander K.M. WeilandThe same goes, more or less, for my portal fantasy Dreamlander. I was able to build a fantasy society in which religion was widespread and widely accepted. I dealt with Chris—my “real world” character—and his faith much more subtly, because, although I wanted to deal with religious themes, I didn’t want the story to necessarily be one that was about his personal redemption. So I got to discuss faith-based elements much more obviously in the POV of the dream-world character Allara.

My most recent book Storming is set in Nebraska in the 1920s and is basically an adventurous romp about barnstormers and steampunk-ish flying weather machines. I ended up touching on spiritual elements only obliquely in this story, since anything more just wouldn’t have flowed smoothly with the characters and the setting.

One other thing I always keep in mind is trying to address meaty spiritual themes from a place where the characters don’t have a handle on it. I think readers are much less likely to find subjects preachy and much more likely to relate to them if the characters are struggling through them. In essence, the characters are asking questions, not necessarily providing answers.

7. Should I Use Real-Life Settings or Made-Up Settings?

Since I write a lot of historical fiction, this is something I have to consider in every book. I’ve done it both ways.

Real-life settings present the obvious benefit of being instantly recognizable. Even if readers have never visited your setting, most will recognize the name and conjure up certain associations that will help them fill in the blanks and build the setting within their imaginations. Real-life settings offer built-in verisimilitude. The very fact that your setting is a real place gives readers a firmer belief in it and all the story events that happen there.

Because the facts are already there for you to draw upon, you won’t have to worry about creating a real-life setting from scratch. All you have to do is record what you see or learn. However, by the same token, you will also bear a greater responsibility for establishing an accurate portrayal. Get something wrong and some reader, somewhere, will notice. You’ll also have to deal with the possibility that real-life people living in your real-life setting may not like how you’ve portrayed them or their home.

Made-up settings, on the other hand, free you from the burden of the facts. If you want to maintain the verisimilitude of a real-life town, but need to tweak a few minor details, all you have to do is rename it. If you want to get a little wilder (as you almost certainly will if you’re writing speculative fiction), a made-up setting gives you the power to alter whole swatches of reality. To some extent, all stories include made-up settings, even if it’s only a street or a house.

Made-up settings offer partial or total freedom from the constraints of the facts, but they also impose a heavy demand for active creativity. With the power of total creation comes total accountability. Because even the most realistic of made-up settings will always lack the added punch of being real, your attention to detail must be even more obsessive than usual.

In most instances, the choice between a real-life setting and a made-up setting won’t significantly affect your plot (for example, Batman could just as easily have lived in New York City as its made-up doppelgänger Gotham). But, in application, the decision will affect every page of your story.

***

And there you have it: a small portion of some of the most frequently asked writing questions I see. Perhaps you’ve even asked these questions yourself. If so, I hope  you find the answers helpful in moving forward with your stories.

Wordplayers, what’s your opinion? What are some of the most frequently asked writing questions you hear from your fellow writers? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. Lyn Alexander says:

    Protagonist/antagonist
    This is a question I always ask myself. WHY do we need an antagonist, merely to ramp up the tension through the arc of the story?
    I write historical fiction. Life itself is tricky enough for my protagonist to beat his way through. Yes, there are “antagonists” (people who oppose him) along the way. But in my opinion, to build a whole novel upon the structure of protagonist vs antagonist doesn’t reflect real life.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      This is grounded in the misconception that the antagonist must be human. Once we realize the antagonistic force can be any obstacle–sentient or not–it opens a lot of options and clears away a lot of confusion.

      • Perhaps someones financial circumstances could be an antagonist and the story involves how they overcome that in some way, e.g. accepting it but being at peace, or overcoming obstacles to gain better financial circumstances, perhaps a little bit like will smith in ‘life of happiness’.

    • I’m all for villains. The danger with antagonistic forces is that they can seem too author-contrived, and the more awful the forces, the more they potentially look like auctorial devices. There’s nothing like an authentic human villain to make troubles seem logical and likely, even if the latter are still only inventions of the author. Antgonists conceal the author’s hand from the reader, a bit the way the torero’s cape hides his sword from the bull.

  2. I like the idea of a 50 page edit. I’ve never come across this idea before, but it seems to hold a lot of sense. I’m going to put it into action for my next novel. It just goes to show that you can discover something new even when the subject matter is seemingly about core principles of story writing.

  3. Thanks for the reminder about the distinction between chapters and scenes. At the moment (first draft nearing completion) I let each chapter end at the end of the story-day. Of course this won’t make it any further than the first draft, but it helps me keeping track of how much time has elapsed in the story. Also it makes finding scenes back easier. I will play around with chapter endings/beginnings later in the process.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I used to avoid chapter breaks altogether in the first draft, then just go through and break the chapters at suitable scene breaks. I don’t find that an organic way to work anymore, but it was kind of fun while it lasted.

      • At the moment im using chapters more like story structure points. Ive titled 50 odd chapters in order to track story development and direction.
        Ill have to think about scenes more though.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          These days, I prefer to use scenes (rather than chapters) as the fundamental structural building blocks of a story. If I know each scene is properly structured within the larger structure of the plot, then I know I have an unbroken causal chain from beginning to end of the story.

          • I think its something ill look into. I think my scenes are my chapters, ill see how they function with the 6 points that mention form whole scenes.

  4. Great post. These are all questions I’ve been asked and asked myself before, so I can relate. 😛

    A few other common ones could be boiled down to how to deal with a rogue protagonist (as in a protagonist who doesn’t want to do what he needs to for one reason or another), how to deal with a side-character taking over the story, how (or why) to avoid cliches, and what makes a protagonist ‘come alive’.
    Lots of people seem to want to know about protagonists… ;P

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Although it’s a fun joke, I dislike the idea that characters “have a mind of their own.” This, of course, isn’t true at all. If a character isn’t behaving as the author planned, that’s a sign of some unrecognized problem in another aspect of the storyform. The author needs to look to herself and ask logical questions about why the story is, essentially, blocked.

      • Hmm… in principle, I agree with you. However, I’ve also had at least three incidents where there’s no other way to describe what happened other than ‘character takeover’, and I loved the way it turned out.
        I’m thinking this might be a difference between plotters and pantsers. For plotters (like yourself) story is organization, flow, and logical cohesion. For pantsers (like myself) story is exploration, discovery, and emotional resonance.
        I’ve been slowly learning to plan more ahead of time, and so I agree with your assessment one hundred percent because I’ve been there as well, but I do think the way a writer approaches planning and plot in the first place is important to understanding what’s going on when it does get off-track.

        Not sure though; only just thought of that. What do you think?

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          Yeah, but it’s never the “character” taking over. It’s always a part of yourself, your own brain, your creative subconscious telling you that either something is wrong with the current setup or that there’s a better way.

  5. Very helpful write up, im not networked with other writers much so its interesting to engage with a range of questions. I like to engage with issues but as i know what im writing it stands out like a sore thumb to me, but i dont want it to be too in your face.

  6. I had a colleague ask me once about dialogue, as in the characters having something to say to each other. Not even making dialogue witty or full of subtext, but just talking to each other, period. As a background, we were working at the same newspaper — she had trouble with dialogue because she was so strongly wedded to the idea of not quoting something that was never said in real life. A good ethic for a reporter! Not so good for a novelist 🙂

    I’m not sure I came up with good advice to break her of that mindset, but for me the idea is that characters should have *something* to say to each other, or there’s something wrong. There should be an immediate purpose — “hey, want to get a pizza?” — and a larger purpose, e.g., strategizing how to thwart an upcoming heist while they eat the pizza. Dialogue should reveal something of the characters, as in maybe one character always orders something different on her pizza, and the other one has a specific topping combination named for her because she only ever orders that one.

    I think I advised her to consider her plot and themes, on the grounds that dialogue may flow from there. I don’t know if you’ve ever addressed dialogue from the angle of “what do they say when they’re talking?” But I’ve seen a few other writers struggle with that question. I suspect it would be a breakthrough if they could crack that particular element.

  7. I’ve participated in several online classes (Gotham and UCLA Writers) and I feel badly for the writers who become soooo stuck in crafting the Perfectly Written story that they NEVER finish writing their novel. Re-writing is something we all need to do to shine up our written story but this NEED to make it so perfect is tying up the Getting It Out There. Find a critique group, take classes, revise, but send it eventually (like before you die!).

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yup. Sometimes making the wrong move is better than making no move at all. At least it gets you moving forward.

  8. Ms. Albina says:

    I love your questions. Great questions. I am doing my WIP book in first person Leilani who is the main character telling some of her life stories and also her adventures as well as what happens right now is that her fraternal twin is kidnapped and will need to rescue her. I, for now, don’t know to edit as you go which is #5. In the book or beginning, I have her parents names and her sisters as in daughter of kind of thing and also starting her training as a healer/warrior when she was eight years old. When I am finished with it I want to do a DIY book cover. I just don’t know on how to do that. Do you know for me to create a book cover since I will be self-publshing.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Creating a professional cover requires experience with photo-editing software such as Photoshop. Derek Murphy has some good resources on the principles of design, including the book Book Cover Design Secrets You Can Use to Sell More Books.

  9. Lyn Alexander says:

    As K.T. has said (above) I edit as I go. Every morning when I sit down to write I open the document at the beginning of yesterday’s work. Reading it through I catch the typos and smooth out rough spots, and when I reach the end I’m back in the mood and motion of the story.
    I’ve never done a 50-page edit, but I do keep a writing journal to mark down plot points as they occur, and put a marker @ into the document.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I used to keep a writing journal. Mine was more a place to talk about how I was feeling about the story and what I wanted to do in that day. I used it as a way to warm up before the actual writing.

  10. Jon Carl Lewis says:

    Thank you for taking time to answer these questions. I like this format and I hope you continue it with more of the questions you receive.

  11. Can I haz more like this plz?

  12. I like the one about too much backstory. I try to put it in only as needed to make the story work and keep the reader informed.

    My greatest challenge has been in doing a series where I don’t to confuse any reader who reading out of sequence. My book #2 worked, the challenge will be book #3. Have you done a series and if so, how did you approach it?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      In sequels, just treat the events of the previous books as you would normal backstory in a standalone book. The same rule applies: only remind readers of what they need to know as they need to know it.

  13. Storming was really a spiritually meaningful story to me. Even though it did not discuss overtly religious questions, it was so rooted in the types of life questions that seem important to me, and I really believe these are religious questions. I think you are right that the themes don’t need to be explicit and can sometimes be more moving for being underneath the surface. But overt discussion can be meaningful, too — I am thinking of Brideshead Revisited, which had me in tears by the end of it. It is so overtly a conversion novel that it almost shouldn’t work. It probably helps that Ryder’s actual conversion is “off-screen.”

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Thank you! 🙂 Storming is a dear story to me for a number of reasons, so this makes me very happy.

  14. Scribalist says:

    I say this before I bother to go through your archives, but I would like to see some in-depth posts on world building. I have never attempted it, though I now see it as crucial.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I haven’t done too much on fantasy worldbuilding, mostly because it’s hard to beat Patricia C. Wrede’s Fantasy Worldbuilding Questions.

      • Scribalist says:

        Hmm. Okay, thanks!

        • Definitely use Wrede’s questions, and consider answering them within the framework of “analogous era.” As in, is your fantasy world modeled after medieval Japan, Renaissance Italy, ancient Greece, Australia during the “Dream Time,” etc. Knowing the historical analogues can give you rails to keep your worldbuilding on track, and birth a few plot bunnies.

          Discovering that the ancient Greeks had the equivalent of voodoo dolls helped me fuel the conflict in one sequence for my fantasy; and it was fun to come up with a fantastical reason for the debasing of currency in the Roman era — silver is really useful against certain supernatural creatures…

  15. Very nice. Always good to get a refresher on the essentials and I don’t think I’ve yet read a something from you about how to incorporate faith themes into a story.
    That one can be tricky for sure. I think it’s important to consider the intended audience. I believe there are some fine Christian novels that, like it or not, just aren’t going to be accepted by a wider audience because of how overt the religious aspects are in the story. Nothing wrong with that, just something to keep in mind.
    I agree though, characters with questions and struggles are always a better approach than those beating you over the head with all the answers, faith-based or not.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yes, there are plenty of “preachy” stories out there that have nothing to do with religion. The same rules apply across the board: tell an authentic story with organic themes that are not on-the-nose.

  16. While some of the best villains and antagonists are people we love to hate — King Joffrey of Game of Thrones, Emperor Commodus of Gladiator, Johnny from Cobra Kai and so on — I’ve always found it terrifying when the “antagonist” is something that cannot be negotiated or reasoned with.

    It’s like Ash says in Alien: “You still don’t understand what you’re dealing with, do you? The perfect organism. Its structural perfection is matched only by its hostility. I admire its purity. A survivor… unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality.”

    You do not negotiate with the alien. You die. Same deal with the Borg. Both those villains have been kind of ruined now by too much exposure, and by demystifying them over too many sequels and prequels, but in their original form they were terrifying. I do think things like this are better left half-in-the-shadows: The Alien xenomorph was never more terrifying when it was some nameless, saliva-dripping nightmare originating from a crashed ship so bizarre that its makers seemed unknowable to us humans. (Or originating from HR Giger’s disturbed mind, at any rate.)

    And if I may say something about being part of the writing community, please hear me out. I am specifically here, reading your blog, K.M., because you are the very rare writing blogger who offers practical, truly useful advice, who breaks writing down to its bits and pieces and always emphasizes it’s work.

    I’m not blowing smoke up your ass — I don’t know if you realize how rare it is to find decent writing advice. The minute you put something like “writing” or “science fiction” in your Twitter bio, which I did long ago, you’re going to get spammed with hundreds of people doing what you’re doing, and not doing it very well. These are the people who love to talk about writing, but never get any of it done. The people who like to frame it in these lofty terms involving muses and divine inspiration, instead of plain old: “Roll up your sleeves, and this is how you get it done…”

    That’s not meant as an insult to anyone, it’s meant as an acknowledgment.

    Lastly, I’ll close this long post by dropping in a suggestion. If you get a chance at some point, can you write a post explaining exactly what you mean by theme? I’m talking about the specific definition you have in mind when you use the word here. I recall trying to find a post about that a handful of times and didn’t succeed, so unless I missed it, it would be really helpful to know.

    Cheers.

  17. Thanks for yet another great resource!

    These are excellent questions, with answers that are definitely food-for-thought. I’ll try the editing method mentioned in the response to Question 5. I think that will help make my revision process more efficient.

  18. Those are some great tips, and I often use my experiences and whatnot in my story, though I do add in some sci-fi elements since I’m into superheroes.

  19. I love FAQs, so feel free to write more — maybe even grouped by theme or subject. 🙂 They’re a great way to find other posts and dive in from there.

  20. Thanks for writing this!

    I had a question about the antagonist bit. Is it possible for my protagonist to become the antagonist over time, a.k.a. lose her protag seat to a minor character?

    I think I ran into a problem with my protag, who none of my readers bonded with, and then she did something very antagonistic…

    Is this ‘negative transformation’ possible, or better yet, palatable?

    Thanks in advance. ^^

  21. My favorite is #7, Real vs. Imaginary settings. I set my picaresque novel in a place impractical to preview. Later, an over-flight via a satellite-based map system revealed that the city looked nothing like I had imagined it. I agonized over moving the story to ‘Alcosante’ or ‘Barataria,’ but finally just put the main action in a remote place outside the city.

    Still, I’m sure I’ll eventually be getting naggograms from readers saying, “That bridge wasn’t built until 1699!” or “The city had a Bishop from 1442 to 1839, not an Archbishop!” or “‘Carajo’ isn’t used in eastern Spain, only in the north-west!” I’ll refer any such complainers to my GoFund me campaign to send me to Spain for a month.

  22. I deal with the backstory compulsion by creating a lore document that could very well fill its own book and using it for reference. 75% of that never makes it into the story, not even tangentially, but I already got it out of my system, so all’s good after that.

    Also, for me, the task of writing all that pointless lore is an important part of developing the ‘feel’ of my world. It helps me get the tone down.

    I know I’m not the only one to do this, but I didn’t see it mentioned here, so here it goes, haha.

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