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Finding Your Story's Core Vision

Up to my eyeteeth in a pair of projects that come with a pair of seriously-daunting deadlines, I'm asking myself some hard questions about how to streamline my process without sacrificing quality. How to trust to my story instincts and cut the mental noise (self-doubt!) until I come to my own core vision for the book.

To get to the story's heart, I've decided, I must first define the following:

1. What kind of reading experience do I want my audience to have with this story? Some books are thoughtful and complex, playing with the very structure of the novel and retraining the reader about narrative expectations. Other stories carry one along more simply, allowing the reader to join one of the endless permutations of the well-loved and ageless hero's journey. There's not a right or wrong about one way or the other, but they're far different writing tasks.

2. What emotional experiences do I want to be central? Is it campy horror (who doesn't love a good zombie romp?), heartrending pathos, an understated-but-no-less-moving romance, or a hair-raising suspense?

3. In just a few words, what central emotional challenge must the protagonist face? Is he an aging math professor learning that his inflexible theorems can't be applied to human relationships? Is she a free-spirited innocent who must learn that trust can come back to bite the one who gives of it too freely? Notice that we're talking here about internal conflicts. Sometimes these don't become clear until the draft is well underway or even complete.

4. Should this story leave the reader with questions (i.e. What is the right choice, really, in some particularly-knotty situation? Is our society correct, with its emphasis on X at the expense of y?) or answers and affirmations? (In a mystery, justice eventually prevails and the central story question had darned well better be answered. In a romance, character integrity wins the day, and after their long struggle toward love, the protagonists are rewarded with an enduring connection. Since both justice and interpersonal connection are highly valued by our culture, I consider this sort of a feel-good affirmation of the readers' core values.) Both types of stories can be fabulous, and you can even mix to a certain extent, but in the end, you need to know what you are writing.

5. For whom am I writing this story? There's a huge difference between writing a book meant for young adult fans of post-apocolyptic gorefests and middle-aged women in the book-club set, for example, and in my opinion you had better know your audience, along with their tastes, needs, and expectations, quite intimately if you're gunning to sell to them. All this, it should go without saying, requires tons of reading to sharpen your awareness of your market!)

Once you've figured out your core vision for the story and its characters, it becomes far easier to shape the emerging or completed draft, and it helps me a great deal with deciding which suggestions from beta-readers are helpful and which don't work with this particular. Put simply, emphasize whatever underscores the beating heart of this story, and lose whatever conflicts.

As helpful a guide as it may be, however, your core vision - or what you think of as central - can't be utterly inflexible. Sometimes, you'll find your focus incompatible with the market you're targeting. Your agent or your acquiring editor (the one agreeing to pay for this masterpiece!) will have other ideas that, once you've gotten over being horrified and really thought them over, resonate with you. Though there are times to stick to your guns, the wise writer will realize that negotiation is part of this business, and that in the end, the readers' needs must come before your own.


Anonymous said…
What a great post, Colleen!!! I always know my core story, even though I'm a panster.
Unknown said…
Honestly, there's not much in a book I wouldn't change to sell it. I suppose that's tarty of me, but I'm okay with that. If an editor wants me to slap it (the book *g*)and call it Suzi, I'm on board.

There are very few things I'll contest. Though, I did find one when Chris and I were revising HTLD. But like you said, being flexible on everything else made it easier to say I didn't care for that change and we moved on and were both happy with the final product.
Thanks, Tess and Saranna.

Saranna, I always say there are battles worth fighting. But every single edit certainly can't be one. I try to always remember that we all have the same goal - making the book as great as it can be and getting as many as possible into the hands of readers.
L. A. Green said…
Great advice, Colleen. And great timing for me, who's about to dive into final revisions on my second novel. Your tips will really help me focus in on the key elements in the story. :)
Yes, I'm dealing with this right now as I develop the subplots in my novel. The danger with subplots is that they will detract from the focus of the main plot, and I'm trying to avoid that by making sure that there are many hooks/overlaps with the main arc of the novel.

I'm also trying to clarify what that main arc is and make sure it's clear to readers, and to find books that are somewhat similar. My problem is that I think the book will appeal to multiple audiences (which might be a good thing!), but I'm not sure where it fits specifically. Since I'm trying to go mainstream, we'll see. But I fully expect an agent to have ideas about how to best shape for a target audience, and I'm actually excited about that.

And Saranna, I hear you, although like Colleen says, there are battles worth fighting. I can think of a couple of changes I know I wouldn't make. If someone suggested I change the overall theme/central question of the story, I wouldn't, for instance. But I don't think it's "tarty" at all to make changes for the marketplace if that's what you want to do for a living!

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