Challenging questions writers should ask

In a thesis board meeting recently I learned so much from an up and coming writer and new adjunct faculty member, Jonathan Auxier,
Here are some of his words, mixed with my own, as I’ve thought about the highlights of his comments to the student.
Jonathan spoke of having the “bones” of a plot, the “and then this happened, and then that,” but still not having the story, the blood and heart of the book—my words, not his. He suggested we imagine ourselves in a bar (at first I wrote bra—which could be an important image for some of us, too), sipping a gin, (my preference, not his), telling someone a story. Story won’t necessarily happen chronologically; it often starts much later than many of our books begin. Jonathan’s words reminded me of the writers of South Park and Book of Mormon who tell us always to apply “therefore or but” to each new scene or possibly “meanwhile.” Neil Gaiman said the most important words for a writer are “And the what happened,” but I think he could be wrong. Or at least those words are the chronological outline, from which a writer uses the South Parkian approach.
Jonathan spoke of having parallels in the novel, but not connections, so that thematically two characters might share something in common, like a preoccupation with fire or sex or sports, yet not have the same experience with them at all, making them absolutely unconnected.
He asked a question that I’ve always thought was critical—is this chapter essential—but though I’ve turned that question on my own work, I’ve occasionally answered it, ah, incorrectly. So we may have to pose that question of ourselves more than once.
He spoke of two other vital questions to ask in challenging a manuscript—first, why the protagonist? Why is this story happening to this particular character and not six others? What is so blooming distinct about the character (again my words) that she/he lands the protagonist’s role in the story? And second, why now? Why is this story happening now to this person/character?
In her introduction, the insightful student made some salient points, too, in analyzing her work. Most importantly, she realized that she hadn’t taken risks in her thesis. She came to that conclusion after realizing that the books she prizes all have taken risks in structure, topic, language—something. Because she had this time-limited project, she chose to play the book safe, because she didn’t want to experiment and fail, and consequently lose precious time. This time crunch also kept her from doing a lot of research. She didn’t want to spend days doing a great dig for info that she might never be able to use in her project. That prompted a bit of a discussion about research, because her story had a historical component.
But though I didn’t say it in the discussion—because of our own time-crunch—I think research is pretty essential, even in nonhistorical writing. I can remember struggling with a picture book set on a lake, and finally stepping into my favorite lake and like the water’s current, my thoughts and images flowed.
And, as it turned out, the student had actually done some critical research. She had read through every letter she’d written to her beloved older sister after the sis had left for college. The sister had saved them for over fifteen years and gifted them to her this past Christmas. There were her sad, angsty 14-year-old letters, expressing her anger and deep loneliness for the missing sibling.
The letters symbolized an even greater gift, the love shared by two sisters.
And the thesis board meeting showed me the possibility of yet another important gift, the advantage of sharing insights and experiences about writing among people who respect and admire one another.


About Sally Hobart Alexander

Blinded at the age of twenty-six, I left California and elementary school teaching for life in Pittsburgh, Pa. There, I met my husband, got a Masters' degree in social work, had two kids, now 35 and 32, and became a writer. Surprisingly, the writing career led me full-circle to teaching, and I teach in Chatham University's M.F.A. program and lead two writing critique groups. Always, since the age of 26, I have traveled, not in the stereotypic darkness attributed to blindness, but a mist. My blog then, "traveling through the mist" will deal with issues in my culturally different life as a blind writer, teacher, speaker, and human being.
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