While I was planning my current novel and annotating that plan, I asked myself a series of questions in the annotations. I know I’m not the only one to make notes on a draft in the form of questions, but until recently I wasn’t aware that I was creating problems for myself by not categorizing the questions. (I’m taking part in a coaching program for writers called Dream Author, run by bestselling crime writer Sophie Hannah, and this realization came to me as a result of one of the exercises we did.)
Some questions have to be answered before I can make any progress with a draft. But others are simply the result of indecision; I could simply make up my mind and move on, knowing I can always change my mind later.
Now I am convinced that two things can hold me back (for years on some projects) and they are:
- not knowing the answers to crucial questions, and
- not knowing which questions were which in the first place.
What types of questions are there?
Here are the types of questions I found when examining my current novel. You might have other categories of question when you make notes on your work. (I would love to know what they are! Please leave a comment.) Of course, many of these questions could fall into more than one category—a kind of overlapping Venn diagram of questions if you like.
These are the most important questions to identify and could be what’s holding you back, especially if you don’t know about them yet. Here’s an example from my work in progress: When do the police start to treat the death as suspicious?
Unless I can answer this, I can’t make progress. This question is like a wall I can’t get over without a ladder. If you are similarly stuck with your manuscript, attempt to identify these unanswered crucial questions.
These are written as authentic questions, but they hide the actual question and are hard to spot.
Example: When does Character B tell Character A what happened?
This later became: Should I use two viewpoint characters instead?
This is when I forget how I organized or described something or someone earlier. These are easy to sort out using an old-fashioned read-through with a colored pen or your word processor’s “find and replace” function.
Example: Weren’t his eyes blue earlier?
These questions shouldn’t hold you back because you can sort it out in the revision.
Decisions disguised as questions
With this kind of question, I know what I want in my head, but I’ve still phrased it as a question—maybe because I don’t want to make the effort it would necessitate.
Example: Should I use Character B’s point of view in this scene?
This translates into: I want to write some scenes from Character B’s point of view so I need to look again at my plan with this in mind, but it’s going to take me several days and I’d rather avoid it.
Masks for indecision
These are questions I could easily answer, and I don’t need any further information to do so. I simply have to make up my mind.
Example: Where shall I set this scene?
The answer to such questions is always: Just decide already!
These are usually about the plot or structure, and you need to give yourself permission to answer these. Write down every idea you have, however wacky. If you like, you can deliberately ask your brain to come up with the answer and mull it over for a while, then make copious notes.
Example: How could character C feasibly gain entry to Character A’s house after dark?
These could be described as “meta” or “contextual” and have to do with the writing process.
Example: Should I be planning the novel in this way? Or Should I plan this scene in more detail?
Often process questions can be negative, translating to: I shouldn’t be doing it like this! Sometimes they are positive: Maybe I should try it like this?
Research questions (two types)
Most fiction writers are familiar with research questions that come up while writing.
Example: What’s the name of the main shopping street in High Wycombe? Or: Is this the procedure the police would follow to investigate this crime?
Right there, we have examples of two very different types of research questions: those you can move on without answering (what’s the name of the street?) and those you can’t move on without answering (how would police investigate?). If you can move on without knowing the answer—because you can easily change the information later—no problem. But for some questions you must know the answer because it’s crucial to the plot line or story development.
These questions often relate to how you’re writing each chapter or scene.
Example: Should I write this in first person? Shall I put this in the present tense?
With these, unless you need to seek information or guidance, it’s often best just to decide and change your mind later if you need to, although it does take a long time to change from first person to third and back, as I discovered when I wrote my last book!
How to resolve your questions or indecision
You don’t need me to tell you that there are a lot of things that can get in the way of the writing process. But what we think of as writer’s block can often be “circumstances,” in that we have limited quiet time and space in which to focus, or that our mental load—what we carry around in our heads—is too much. Be kind to yourself if that’s true for you. But don’t let writer’s indecision disguise itself as writer’s block.
First, keep a list of your questions all in one place so it is easy to refer back to and amend. I keep mine in a notebook or folder and then type them up, mainly because my handwriting is messy.
I divide questions into three main types:
- Those I definitely need to answer before I can make any more progress. This might be to do with the setting, or it may be a crucial structural or plotting decision. Prioritize these questions.
- Those I possibly need to answer before I can make any more progress. Mindset is everything here. If you feel these are holding you back, answer them.
- Those I definitely do not need to answer before I can make any more progress. Did you make his eyes blue in chapter 3 and green in chapter 17? Maybe. Make a note to check. You can keep writing.
It helps to write down why you haven’t already answered a question, but it should be fairly straightforward (although not necessarily comfortable if you are a procrastinator) to tell the difference. Once you have identified whether you are being indecisive or whether you lack certain information or guidance, you can move on to the next step: What action do I need to take? Write down the decision you have made or what steps you must take to make the decision. For example, if you’ve decided to set your novel in X town, you can change your mind later if you want to. And you might need to phone your historian friend to help you better develop that book’s setting in the 1920s. Crucially, make a commitment to take that next step, whatever it is.
Let us know in the comments if this resonates with you and the kinds of questions you ask yourself as you plan and redraft. Happy writing!