August 30th, 2019

Focusing on the Heart of Writing

by Tasha Seegmiller

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.

Really. 

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.

17 responses to “Focusing on the Heart of Writing”

  1. Your post is a breath of fresh air. Sometimes I get stressed when I hear/read so many writers ask so many questions like you show here (How can I? Should I? Am I allowed to? Will an agent/editor like my work?, etc.) I teach creative writing classes, and I always tell my students: WRITE FOR YOU. First, write what speaks to YOU, the writer. I think we need to not care about an outside editor/agent/friend when writing that first draft. I find that when I write for myself, I naturally feel out my characters (who always of course have a part of me in them: the good, the bad, the funny, the scary) and fill them out. I appreciate your right-on advice here.

    • tashaseegmiller says:

      It is so essential to write for self. The industry is going to do what the industry is going to do. We can make ourselves crazy trying to appeal to it. Sounds like you are doing the good work with your students.

  2. Laura Drake says:

    I love this, Tasha. My last blog was a suggestion to always start with character. If you know who you're writing about, down to their backstory, then the plot is just forcing them to face their fears in many different ways, right? 🙂

  3. Fae Rowen says:

    Thanks for this, Tasha. When I started going to writing classes, every teacher handed our their "form" for "knowing your characters." It was multiple pages going to minute details that I knew I'd never use, from exact shade and pattern of color of eyes to fingernail length, thickness, shape, and lots of things I didn't care about. I wanted to know why he left home at fifteen and had never been back or why she wouldn't ask for help—no matter what.

    • tashaseegmiller says:

      Right? We can get so lost in the details of what a person looks like that we can forget that's not why someone is reading. We want to know THEM.

  4. Julie Glover says:

    What a fabulous reminder to get to the core of the character and the story! You nailed it here. Thank you.

  5. Eldred Bird says:

    Great advice. I like to get to know my characters inside out before I ever start to write. Not just what they look like, but their voice, walk, body language, history, likes, dislikes...everything. I sit down and talk with them as well as having the talk to other characters so I know how the different personalities interact. By the time I put them on paper, I want to know them as well as I do my own family and friends...because that's what they are to me.

  6. Jenny Hansen says:

    All of us have characters running around inside our heads, doing all their things. But the magical times on the page is when they show you their truth and their "why." The challenge of capturing that with words and clarity is what keeps us all going, right?

  7. Justine says:

    Probably the thing I dicker over most in my book is whose POV should a particularly chapter be in? But oftentimes, I look at the stakes (whose got the most emotional stakes in this chapter) and that helps me figure it out. And when I'm stuck? ALWAYS back to the GMC. My answer is always hiding there.

  8. I love this post--I couldn't agree more that character is the heart of story (as you pointed out in your great post recently too, Laura Drake!). I like your point about developing the important stuff--what they want, what keeps them from getting it, what formative experiences are in their backgrounds. I remember early in my publishing career seeing articles that tackled the minutiae, as you mention, and thinking, "Huh?" Some of that is good for "color," but it doesn't dig down to the meat of who your characters are, and it's easy to go down a rabbit hole of those minor details and neglect the foundational stuff. Great post!

  9. littlemissw says:

    Excellent post! I know I ask all those surface question when, what I'm really feeling, is that I can't make my story work but I don't want to do the hard work of unpicking it to find out why.

  10. Ann G. says:

    As someone stuck about thirty thousand words into my second book, which is very different from my published first, this post is very helpful. Thank you.

  11. dholcomb1 says:

    one of my writing groups seem to have people obsessed with blurbs. I'm really good at helping a friend with hers, but I've found in the groups, there are so many opinions, I don't help there.

    denise

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