Friday, February 5, 2016

The Importance of Asking Why: 4 Questions You Should Ask Yourself as a Writer

I think it's generally understood that authors tend to over-analyze everything. The amount of questions that fly through our heads are innumerable:

What are some Irish baby names starting with the letter "F"?

What is it that makes the sky blue?

Exactly why does America use the ever-confusing inches and gallons rather than following the metric system?

How much arsenic does it take to kill somebody?

On a completely unrelated note: Can you be arrested for your Google search history?

Writers never come up short when it comes to questions. But I think sometimes we don't ask the right kinds of questions.

A common theme on this blog is how important it is to write stories with meaning. But I know some people have a difficult time discovering how to make their story say what they want it to say...or even discovering what exactly it is that they want to say. We get so caught up in plot and characters and asking writing-related questions that we forget to ask the questions that really make a difference.

We forget to ask why.
Here are 4 "why" questions that will help you get to the heart of your writing:

1. Why are you a writer? Don't say "Because I like writing" unless you want me to slap you upside the head. That's a superficial answer and not at all helpful. Why do you like writing? What draws you to it? There are so many possible hobbies and jobs out there, and yet you chose this one. Coincidence? I think not!

2. Why are you writing this story in particular? What are you trying to say through this story? Some writers argue that you don't need to be trying to saying anything at all. Rather, you should write a story and let people take from it what they will rather than trying to guide them. Okay, fine. But then what's the point? Why write the story at all? Anyone can throw together an ambiguous story and let others interpret it because they were too lazy or afraid to do it themselves. In fact, many people do that very thing. But guess what? Nothing helpful ever comes of it. So if you want to write a book that isn't empty and lifeless like so many other out there, then you need have a reason for writing it. And you cannot write anything meaningful if you don't understand why you're writing the story in the first place. So ask yourself what you want people to get out of this story. And don't start writing until you have at least some semblance of an answer.

3. Why is this story important to you? Often we write the stories that we want to read. So why is this a story that you want? Identify the parts of you that seeped into your story. You can be sure that they're there, even if you didn't put them in on purpose. Then ask yourself: Why? Of everything about you, why did that part show up in your story? The answer just might be that it's the part of your life that bothers you the most or the part that is most important to you. Make sure that you understand this. A story has to be important to you before it can become important to anybody else. And a story can only be important to you if you recognize what it is about this idea that speaks to you more than all others.

4. Why are you the one who can write this story? Why not somebody else? This question scares a lot of writers, simply because sometimes we feel like we're not good enough to write this story. Maybe somebody else should do it. We might mess it up! To this I say: My God! Pull yourself together! Go. Confront the problem. Fight. Win! If this story is important to you, then don't you dare give it up. You are the only one who can write this story because you're the only one who knows you. Allow me to explain: Maybe your story isn't horribly unique. Maybe the message and storyline is similar to others. Maybe, when you strip it down, it's just like every other story. But it doesn't matter. All stories are similar at their core. They're kind of like houses: All houses are similar in that they have a floor, a roof, some walls. But they are different because of the people who live in them: The people who decorate them with their presence, their tastes in furniture, their favorite colors, their love and laughter. It's the same concept when it comes to writing. You make the story special, you make the story yours, simply by being attached to it. Ask yourself what makes you different from other writers. Then decorate your story with all of the things that nobody else has: Your thoughts, your memories, your friends, your questions, your answers, your doubts, your passions. Only one person has the ability to do that: You.

Now, hopefully, after all of these questions, you have one of your own: "Why is it important to ask these questions?"

Well, let's look at something. Take the answers to these four questions. Put them together. What do they make?

A mission statement.

They embody who you are and why you write. And while that may not seem very important, it is, in fact, one of the most important pieces of knowledge you will ever have as a writer.

When you start having a hard time with your writing, when you get rejection letter after rejection letter, when you want to throw your hands up in disgust and burn all the manuscripts, you can look back at your mission statement.

You can remember why you are doing what you're doing. You can rest knowing that you are going through this fiery inferno of red ink and critical comments for a reason. And then you can stand up and yell, "Never give up! Never surrender!" and charge back into the fray.

What are your answers to the four why's? Or have you never really thought about it before? Leave your thoughts below! I always love hearing what it is that keeps other writers going.

Related articles:
Be A Writer, Not An Author
Write What YOU Want To Write: Why You Shouldn't Follow The Current Writing Trend
Challenging Writers to Create Stories With Meaning

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  1. Wow, I always enjoy how motivational your writing style is! ;) I've always thought about writing a mission statement before, and I've attempted some for a couple projects, but your questions make it sound so do-able.

    Without giving you a complete essay, here's my #1:
    I’m a writer because I enjoy a well-told story that brings me alongside the characters and makes me think about life. I torture myself by staying up ‘till two in the morning because I had to know how the book ends. The written is an art form—sometimes messy, sometimes neat—but I enjoy finding beauty in things great and small. I’d like to share stories of my own with like-minded readers because I’ve got a couple crazy ideas of my own.

    Thank you for inspiring me to work on my mission statement. I know what I'll be working on some more this weekend!

    1. Yay! I'm so glad it helped. I love what you came up with. I especially liked the second to last sentence ("The written is an art form..."). Not only does it read well, but it's totally relatable! If I didn't already follow your writing endeavors, your statement would make be start. =) Can't wait to hear the rest of it!

    2. Aw, thanks! I've managed to finish my mission statement for my latest project, though I can't say when I'll have it up on my blog. I haven't officially announced my short story series yet because I'm still in the rough draft process, but I hope to finish soon!

  2. Whenever I write a WIP, I try to have a secret question that's just for me hidden in the story. What is something I personally am asking, something I don't know the answer to? And then I try to find the answer as I write the book.

    It's probably too early to tell if it's an effective writing technique, but it is something that makes a project more raw and pushes me harder toward truth. It's also sometimes quite interesting to pinpoint what layered, difficult wound is festering under a fun story.

    1. That is so neat, Alyssa! I do the same thing and always wondered if I was the only one. I think it's helpful for both deepening my stories and myself. Keep up the epic work!

  3. Yeah, I hope Big Brother is not watching me, because I spent like thirty minutes yesterday researching the feet per second that bullets travel and their range. And that's the more mild content of my search history.

    These are all great points. When I started out writing it was because of the books that I had read that spoke to me on some personal level. To every good piece of literature there is a deeper meaning and it was books like that which left a lasting impression with me. I always knew that I wanted to do that for someone else. That they would come away from a story with new thoughts in their minds and their morals challenged yet reaffirmed and that wonderful bitter sweet ache in their heart. That's why I wright.

    I like the part about putting pieces of yourself in because, wether or not I realize it, I always do this. I notice that there teem of a lot of my pieces is self forgiveness, which is something I deal a lot with in my own life.

    Great post!

    1. Lol! It sounds like your search history looks a lot like mine.

      I agree with your thought that ever good piece of writing has a deeper meaning. I've been noticing that almost all classic novels have very layered messages, whereas the books today don't seem to do that as often. Like you, I'd love to bring that deepness back into the writing world.

      It's awesome that you already know what parts of you get into your story. Not only can that help your story grow, but it can help you grow as a person, too. At least that's been my experience. =)

      Thanks for the great comment!

  4. Your posts always remind me of the real value of reading and writing; thank you! I write what I like to read- philosophical things and characters who love each other more than anything else, which is to me the greatest part of a story. Theme development is so important here, you've hit exactly what it means to be a deliberate writer with deliberate choices, so thank you!

    1. Thank you for the sweet comment! It's nice to know that my posts are doing their job (reminding people to write with a purpose). You seem to like writing exactly the things that I enjoy reading. Philosophy and deep friendships? I'm in. Keep on writing what you love! You got this.

  5. When I read really good books, I wonder if I should work toward that sort of accomplishment personally. At the moment, I write fan fiction, mostly as a creative outlet. Eventually, I suppose some part of me did ask why I wasn't trying to write something original for publishing. The answer came back that I enjoyed playing in other peoples' worlds, but also, I don't want to have to write to a deadline. I write when I want and stop when I want (or have to for some reason). Another big part of writing in the fan fiction world is partly to teach. There are so many who read/write fan fiction who are barely coherent with words. They laugh off typos or mistakes. They write incomprehensible summaries of their stories (though some can't even be called a summary), and then expect us to trust their word that the story is "really good even though the summary sucks". Hopefully, if they read well-written stories (mine and certain others) they will see a greater need to go beyond that.

    And the other reason I write? To amuse myself. It really is true that I write the stories that I want to read, but even in the writing process there is still the element of "Goodness! What happens next?" And I can't wait to find the answer to that!

    - Kay

    1. How fun! I've never tried fan fiction, but it seems like it would be great practice. And, like you mentioned, it's a great opportunity to reach people who are struggling in the writing area.
      The "What happens next?" is one of my favorite questions, both in reading and writing. If you care enough to wonder, then something is being done correctly. =)

  6. Man, that was inspirational.

    Ok, question #1 - I am a writer because I couldn't not be. I have too many characters and stories that must be told. There are too many untold friendships and adventures and stories of hope and love that need to be told so others can enjoy them and be encouraged. Sometimes life hurts but there is always - always - a light at the end of the tunnel and I want to share that with people.

    This was an excellent post. *nods* (And Hannah, why do YOU write?)

    1. Thanks Victoria! I love your reason for writing. You're working to show people a light. That's an awesome, difficult, brave, amazing thing to do. Clearly, I'm a bit excited for you. =D

      As for me? Well, I write because I know that having a talent and passion for writing doesn’t just happen without reason. This is something that God has plopped into my lap. Everything that has happened since the writing of my first story seems to be him telling me: “This is your job. Run with it.” Writing means having the opportunity to inspire and build up my readers, while also forcing myself to learn and grow as a person. So that’s what I’ve been doing. Or at least trying to do. =)

  7. Great questions! My first reply to #1 really is because I like to write. But since that earns me a slap, I guess I should elaborate by telling you that when I don't do enough writing I get very melancholy. Over the years I've learned the hard way, that I need to write. Some of the people that inspired me are:

    - Anne Frank, I read her diary when I was young and that set me off writing my own diary.

    - Toni Morrison, who I believe is the one who said that if you can't find the book you want to read, you have to write it.

    I never wrote a mission statement for any of my story ideas but after reading your post I might give it a shot!

    1. How cool! I've heard it said that writing causes people to go insane, but, like you, I've always found it to help me keep my sanity.
      It's great that you can pinpoint who it is that's inspired you and why. I bet that would be very helpful when coming up with your own mission statement. Best of luck!

  8. Excellent post, Hannah - probably your best yet. You nailed it. These questions should form the basis of any writer's philosophy. Yet you are right that many authors get stuck on trivialities and never arrive at the crux of the matter. Well said indeed.

  9. Great post! I really liked your comment about how all houses contain the same elements yet are made different by the people who live there and decorate them. That's such a great comparison. Sometimes I feel like my story is very conventional but I keep going back to that sentiment that I can make it my own and only I can do that.

    I only started writing a year ago, but the stories in my head have been there forever. It's been an amazing experience to write them down and discover how deep I can go and how they can evolve with each revision. And being able to share with others something that's been hidden in my head for so long is priceless.

    1. Thank you, Delise! I'm glad you liked that point. I was rather proud of it, myself. ;-)

      I love hearing how great your writing experience has been. It's such an amazing feeling to have a story to tell and actually have the means to tell it. Keep on writing! I'm sure your stories will be fabulous!

  10. Hannah, I don't know the answers to those questions yet, but I do know they are going to have a profound impact on my life. I've tried asking similar questions, but haven't really put it together yet; I'm going to have to let these percolate. Because you are so right about finding parts of ourselves in our work. I started writing my WIP for NaNoWriMo in 2012, from a vivid dream I had that would not let me go. It's changed from the original idea quite a bit; in no small part because as I reread it I found I was learning things about me that I had never consciously known. It's been as much a journey of discovery for me as it was for my characters.
    Thank you so much for steering me in a new direction!

  11. i am for the first time here. I found this board and I in finding It truly helpful & it helped me out a lot. I hope to present something back and help others such as you helped me.

  12. You... thank you for writing this! It's inspiring and motivational! i agree with a lot of things you write- which is probably why I gravitate to this blog more than other blogs. I understand what you mean/what you are trying to say, so this blog helps a lot. I don't know why I like to write. I usually write fanfic (which I also call "practice" because it IS good practice), but maybe I'll create a novel or even a book series of my own some day! After reading this, I looked back over some of my stories and realized those words were more than just words. More than just fiction. No, they were more than just words on a computer screen; they were the result of my thoughts- even the ones I never knew I had. They reflected my feelings. My fears. My hopes and dreams. They embodied my worries, problems and internal struggles. The more I think about it, the more they really show me. If I never read this article, I may have never realized the true meaning of my own words. For that, I thank you. This means a lot to me. Now that I know this, it has become much, much easier for me to pour my heart out when I write. Easier to let my feelings show in what I say. Easier to let everything flow into words. Again, thank you. I can not thank you enough for this wonderful article.

    "Don't dare to dream; instead, dare to make those dreams a reality."
    -Me, speaking from the bottom of my heart


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