Updated: Sep 6, 2022
In this blog, I share my method as a writing coach and how the question writers hate being asked is the question that can help them most
I was recently talking to a beginning writer who wanted help with their debut novel. When I told them that I can help them gain a clear understanding of What’s on the Page, they asked me, ‘Wait, does that mean you will help me improve my story?’
That happens to be one of the most common questions writers ask a professional writing coach. While it goes without saying that it is the writer's job to improve their story, the role of the coach is to show them whatever's on the page such that they can see things afresh before they begin to revise. A professional writing coach or even a book editor (developmental) will also help you distinguish a story from an idea.
It goes without saying that all of us have ideas but all of us don't naturally have stories. Hence, the need to see one from another. Given the right direction or even resources, I believe that anyone can identify the difference between an idea and a story, on the page.
In fact, one of the main reasons most manuscripts get rejected is the gap between what publishers want and what they get. Is it possible the manuscripts are rejected because they have a weak and/or underdeveloped idea, not a credible story? Yes! That happens all the time and to the best of us. For instance, I may have a written a full novel worth 70k words, and revised it a few times but it is possible that it is still an idea, maybe even a strong idea but it is not a story yet. Hence, the need to know what's a story.
Writer: 'So Priya, what's a story?'
Priya: 'Am glad you asked! A story is “someone wants something and has a hard time getting it.’*
I know this is a basic definition, but even then, answer the question below as honestly as you can.
Priya: 'Does your story have a character with a flaw (major and minor), one who wants something (needs as well as desires) but has a hard time (very) getting it?'
Writer: 'Yes, of course I have it, Priya!'
That's OK and I can hear most writers, especially beginning vouch that they have everything that makes for a story. However, you will also agree that as writers, we reach a point where it feels impossible to be objective about our work. If you have felt like I-can't-read-it-anymore, then you are likely too close to see what's on the page or even if you feel I-know-everything-in-my-story-word-by-word, you are not distant enough from whatever's on the page. All of this is OK.
This is also when I ask the question that gets me quite the hate.
Priya: ‘What’s on the Page? Tell me, what do you see?’
Writer: ‘What’s on the page! What do you mean? Can’t you see? It’s all there Priya!’
It is natural to feel tired and frustrated but this is also the point when the best of the writers listen without any judgements. And I then begin to show them (not tell) whatever’s on the page such that they can identify what’s working (strengths) and what’s not working on the page (weaknesses).
As a writing coach, I have often seen a shift in my clients. It may be first visible in a remark, or an emotional response but eventually, the shift appears on the page, which becomes a moment of pride for both writer and coach. How do we reach this stage? Now you know, by simply using the question, What's on the Page?. The good part is that such a simple and direct question enables even nonwriters to be objective such that they are able to develop an idea into a story independently.
Isn't that ideal, i.e., to be able to revise to your satisfaction, with just enough guidance from a professional?
That's my take on the most important question writers can't get away with, What’s on the page?
What do you think? Have you ever asked yourself the same question or another variant of the same? Has anyone else asked you the same? I would love to know your thoughts and experiences!
Six questions to assess if you have an idea or a story
Anyone can do this exercise at any stage of their story. Remember to answer the following questions as honestly as you can. The question applies best to a primary protagonist. 1. Do you have a character who wants something that they need? 2. Do they desire something they don't need? 3. Does the character have a major flaw? 4. Does that character face more than one reasonable setback? 5. Does the character lose anything they value to achieve their need or desire? 6. Does the character change at all close to the end? If you answered yes to most, especially the last four, you have developed an idea into a story! Well done!
*This is a quote that I had read long ago but did not bookmark or save the author. If you do know, please leave a comment and am able to revise the blog.