I’m in A LOT of Facebook writing groups. I suspect I’m not alone in this. It’s actually one of my favorite things about social media.
One of the perks of being in so many groups is I get to see what people are wondering about. And the thing that has been showing up the most, lately, are questions like:
- If I’m writing YA, should it be in past or present tense?
- Do agents like first or third person more?
- Will editors like my book if I switch POVs every chapter?
- How many words are in a chapter?
I get it. And I’m guessing if you are reading this, you have wondered or asked the same things before as well. You might be wondering now.
And in the kindest way possible, I want to say to each of you (yes, this includes me), these things don’t matter.
Yes, there are suggested word lengths for certain kinds of books. And in the same breath that someone shares what they are, you will hear of an example of a wildly successful book that broke that guideline (even besides Harry Potter).
But chances are something is going on in your story that you can’t quite figure out, something about character development or plot or pacing or setting or any number of other things that are missing their mark, and so, in order to find something resembling direction, we start asking quantitative questions.
Friend? The answers to those questions aren’t going to fix the heart of the problem.
Feel free to play around with past and present. Write a scene in first and then in third. Maybe it will unlock something.
But, more likely, you will need to answer these questions:
Who is your Character?
Not what is their name or favorite color. I mean, when was the last time your character learned something new? Who does your character have to care for and who cares for your character? Do they know what love is? Have they experienced sorrow? Are they the kind of person always looking for a new adventure or does hanging out at home with tea and a book sound luxurious? There are all kinds of charts and forms and questionnaires to help people develop a character, and they likely help a lot of people. Use them, don’t use them. But please make sure you are leaning into the elements of character that elevate them from a stick figure to a person.
What does your Character Want?
Sure, it’s fun for a character to have a favorite drink. They might have an imaginary friend no one accepts as real. Maybe they are a grown-up adult with kids and jobs and significant others and they want a nap. But remember, the thing that they want isn’t actually the thing they want. The person who wants the drink might want to sit back, let go, enjoy themselves for a minute (and really, that could go for everything from coffee to water to scotch). Is the kid with the imaginary friend creative or lonely? And how about that nap?
Where would your Character Like to Be?
Employed? Retired? At school? At home? In Italy? Remember, where can be both a physical place anda state of being. Maybe your character would like to be in a place where they are no longer triggered. Maybe they’d like to be on the most popular list. But of course, we know that where a character wants to be isn’t necessarily where they really want to be. Dive deep. Explore that.
Once you have some answers for those questions, answer these:
- Who do people think your character is?
- What is preventing your character from getting what they want?
- Why can’t your character be where they’d like to be?
Got some side characters? Take some time to figure out their stories. An antagonist or two? Same thing (remember, often an antagonist is a protagonist to someone…).
Then create your outline or get writing. Let the characters tell their stories. Get that all out in the world. And then, when you really know what is going on in your story, explore what format might work best for you, for them, for the story. And if it doesn’t work? Try something else. You aren’t etching these lines on stone, and no one needs to know how long it took you to get to where the story is working. And they don’t need to know how many times it took you to get it right. o
Do you have any other questions you ask yourself when you are stuck on a story?
Tasha Seegmiller believes in the magic of love and hope, which she weaves into every story she creates. She is the president of the Women’s Fiction Writers Association and studying in the MFA in Writing Program at Pacific University, and teaches composition courses at Southern Utah University. Tasha married a guy she’s known since she was seven, is the mom of three teens, and co-owner of a cotton candy company. She is represented by Annelise Robey of Jane Rotrosen Agency.