Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Digging for Gold


In an odd coincidence or bizarre sign from the universe, I keep coming upon articles and books that discuss how important it is for writers to ask questions about characters and plot, yet (here’s the twist) not accept the first answers. In other words, the emphasis is on digging deeper, going for the gold.

In Character & Viewpoint, Orson Scott Card writes: “Never let an idea pass through your mind without giving it the third degree.” Is the idea compelling? Important? Why? What will happen to make the story more relevant? Why is this important to the characters? Why should the reader care? According to Orson Scott Card (and others), chances are the first answers to these questions will be cliché, too obvious, or too easy. To find the best answers, the ones that are surprising and unique, a writer must excavate and burrow down below the surface.


Let’s be honest: It’s easy to go with the first answer, to think that it’s golden and glittery and perfect for the story. At least it is for me. Sometimes it takes time, a big step back, and contemplation to realize that the shiny first answer might be fool’s gold. Maybe the real gold, the best stuff, requires more mining.


What do you think? When you are crafting something new or reworking part of a work in progress, do you become enamored with the first answers that come to you? Or do you push, dig deeper, try to find a twist or something unique—the gold?


When you are reading, do you recognize when a writer hasn’t gone deep enough? Does this make a difference to you?


Photo credit for top photo: shovelshats.JPG by: taliesin at www.morguefile.com

52 comments:

  1. I think not digging deep enough would be writing stereotypical characters. I want depth! The real gold is found in realistic characters. At least this is something I strive for in my own writing.

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  2. Love this post.

    I do think in some stories you can see just how far the author dug down. In some historical fiction, it does make a difference - big time!

    I strive for authenticity.

    Lost in research for my next novel, I ran into some real gold...a landmark that is no longer there, but is there in the time of my story. I can't tell you what a nugget it will be to my novel.

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    1. Exciting, Loree! Finding real gold is the best.

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  3. For me, the ideas that are truly gold never seem to leave me alone--they're persistent and make me focus on how to make them work.

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  4. Yes, this is great advice. To dig that little bit deeper makes a world of difference to the story.

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  5. You are so right about taking the easier route! I think when I first started writing stories seriously, I know I chose the easy route cos it was easier! LOL! But many harsh but helpful critiques and feedback later, I know readers are not silly and can so see through the flimsiness of my stories! Must try harder and dig deeper! Take care
    x

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    1. Ah, harsh but helpful critiques are a essential, aren't they Old Kitty?

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  6. That's a pretty sensible approach. I think that's what I do.

    I *hope* that's what I do!

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  7. Since I finished my book, and focused my reading of blogs on ones that pertain to writing I have learned so much. This is just another lesson for me. Thanks!

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    1. Oh, I'm so happy to read that, Michael. Thanks! And congratulations on finishing your book.

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  8. I always stick to my initial thoughts during the first draft. Then the ideas really start to go wild during the second and third draft phases. My gold is when my crit partners finally tell me I've done it. Struck the motherlode.

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    1. Great point, Anne. Revisions tend to be where I do most of the digging, too.

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  9. I agree with Loree; doing the research for my present WIP, I literally hit the jackpot when I discovered the famous figure in my historical fiction had visited a site I was hoping to feature in my MG novel. Eureka! Thanks for another great post, Cynthia.

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    1. That's great, Victoria! I'm so happy for you. : )

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  10. That's very interesting! Great point about the first idea usually being cliche, the easy answer. Probably true. I think I do a bit of both--take the first answer, or contemplate others, depending on what I'm doing. Good to make the second-thought more of a conscious habit, though!!

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  11. Hmmmm. Interesting point. I think I could go deeper with my characters...

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    1. We can never go too deep with our characters, can we, Kelly?

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  12. I try to dig deeper. Sometimes I find gold. Sometimes I come back to the shiny idea after finding nothing but clay and gravel. Sometimes I can spot a problem like this in another author's work, and sometimes not. Don't I sound like Ms. Wishy-Washy with all these 'sometimes'?

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    1. Ah, but wishy-washy is part of the game, the way writing can go, right? Thanks, Carol.

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  13. That's why I have to do so many drafts--my first is very spare, and I go deeper with each pass. And my critiquers usually have to urge me to go deeper still.

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    1. Interesting, Jenn. Once again, hurray for our critiquers.

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  14. Donald Maass has you brainstorm all the possible choices and pick the least likely. It's a great idea.

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    1. Ah! I should have known to check in with Donald Maass on this one, too. He's amazing. I love that idea.

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  15. Sometimes it takes me a long time to get to the gold. I'm slow like that. It can be very frustrating, and I admit I've walked away from stories because I couldn't seem to get anywhere with the characters. I need to have more patience.

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    1. Well, when you find a way to tap into more patience, Alissa, please (PLEASE) share it with me. : )

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  16. That's a great idea. I also like what Stina said too...the most obvious thing can be a mistake sometimes.

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  17. Great post! It's a good tip to remember because it is so easy to go with the first thought. That's kind of what I mean when I say let the characters decide for themselves. What they'd do isn't necessarily the same as what we'd do.

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    1. Thanks, Lisa. And I love what you wrote about letting the characters decide for themselves.

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  18. I'm finding that I'm doing this more and more. I tend to dig deeper and the result is usually a better idea. Who knew? Ha. :)

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  19. Interesting thoughts.. I agree with the fools gold.

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  20. Yep, I remember reading this in Card's book. I think digging deep is important because we're too apt to settle for tropes that are too familiar otherwise, without even realizing it. It's all that reading we've done. :) We've got to dig to mine our own originality.

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    1. The without realizing part is the scariest , I think, Marcia.

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  21. I actually do run with the idea as it first comes to me to see if I really have a story there. If I do, then I start asking all the hard questions.

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  22. Can I answer "A bit of both"? For my main characters / main storylines, I give them the third degree. For supporting characters / secondary storylines, I go with what seems to fit best, which many times is the first answer.

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    1. Ha! Of course, Peggy. I bet we all give more attention to the main characters and story lines.

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  23. In my rewrites, I tried the old trick "ask the question, write as many answers, then go with the last one on your list." It was magic. Now I do this all the time. It changes the reason a character does things, and makes the story that much more interesting because it takes the reader by surprise.
    Great post!!! Looking forward to more.

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    1. Thanks, Tanya. I had not heard of using the last item on the list. Interesting.

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  24. It was a tip I found in the Donald Maass Workbook. Have fun with it!

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    1. Oh, and I have that workbook, too! Ha! Thanks!!!

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  25. I ask questions when I'm outlining, but after drafting I may still realize that something's off, and then I ask some more questions to dig deeper.

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  26. Brilliant, Medeia. It probably doesn't hurt to ask too many questions. : )

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  27. When I'm trying to solve a story problem, I always challenge myself to come up with ten possible answers and then pick the best of those. Usually the one I end up going with is #8 or later.

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  28. That's interesting, Susan. It shows that the first ideas might not always be the best ideas.

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  29. I always come to the gold by writing deeper into the story and then reworking the book. Almost none of the "first blush" stuff makes it into the polished version!

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