Are You Asking the Right Questions?
As part of the writing community, I belong to several groups on LinkedIn and Facebook, populated by writers of every skill level and various career stages. Many are seasoned authors, but some are newbies, struggling to put words together on paper or computer screen. The question that comes up most often in these forums is, “what do you do when you get writer’s block? How do you move forward when the words don’t come?”
These are fair questions and challenges that every writer has experienced at one time or another. While there are no simple answers, there are some tricks you can employ to get the writing juices flowing again. One is to walk away and do something else. A second is to begin writing about a totally different topic, to get your mind off of the project that is causing the blockage. A third trick is to write “out of sequence.” In other words, if you’re writing a blog or article and you know the point you want to make, write that first, then go back and write what is needed to get to the conclusion you just penned. I’ve used this technique many times when I was stuck trying to get from point A to B and eventually to C.
Because I specialize in helping others bring their stories to life, I’m often asked a different question. That has to do with the process of either ghostwriting someone else’s account or helping them edit what they have written so that it comes alive. One technique I use is the interview process. That is, talking to the subject, getting them to tell their story verbally, and then turning that into text.
For example, here’s an excerpt of a book chapter I’m currently working on. It came from interviewing the author.
Something is wrong, I realized as I awoke in my tiny cubby hole. My skin was crawling, and I had an overwhelming feeling of doom and dread. Someone is coming to kill me, I thought in panic. I stumbled to the apartment across the hall and asked Rick to give me something. “Mellow out,” he said, seeing the panic in my eyes and hearing the fear in my voice.
Suddenly, and without warning, he was gone. Strange, I thought, because he never left his apartment. He even had his groceries delivered. In my paranoia, I thought he was working with the people who were coming to get me. Frozen in fear, I could not control the shaking, so I found a beer in Rick’s refrigerator and locked the front door behind me.
I stayed there in the apartment waiting, opening and closing the blinds, and watching. I knew that at any moment, someone was going to break down the door and haul me off. So, I began formulating a plan. If someone breaks in, I’m not going to let them take me. I’ll shoot myself in the head first. I knew Rick had a gun in the apartment because he always had it lying around on the coffee table. I found it in a dresser next to the bed. It was a revolver, already loaded, and I picked it up. I began pacing around the apartment, pistol in hand, just waiting for someone to come after me. I knew that everything was going to end today, either by my own hand or someone else’s.
My mind raced. I can’t do this anymore, I just need to kill myself, my inner voice whispered, as I put the gun to my head, finger on the trigger. I alternated between pointing the gun barrel at my temple and putting it in my mouth. Wait, what was that noise? I panicked, distracting myself from pulling the trigger. I moved my head to look for the noise, but my body stayed still as I momentarily propped the gun against the window.
This incident was almost a footnote in my initial conversation with the book author. He just mentioned it in passing, but I immediately highlighted it in my notes as a dramatic introduction to his story. Perhaps it’s my journalism background, but sometimes the little things can really turn a narrative around and serve as a lead-in to launch the adventure. In this case, recognizing a dramatic moment and choosing to make that the hook really paid off. We immediately knew we had found the perfect anecdote to grab the reader’s attention and draw them into his story of addiction, hitting rock bottom, and recovery.
Who * What * When * Where * Why * How
When interviewing a subject for a book, article, blog, or anything, utilize the tried and true journalistic method of asking the five “W” questions. That is, who, what, when, where, and why. You can include “how” in the list as well. For example, in the book passage I just cited, I wanted to know who Rick was and why he was important in the scene. What was the setting for the drama that unfolded? What was your thought process, and what were your emotions? Define them. Why were you in this state of mind, and how did you get there?
Often, when writing such a memoir, you have to probe and dig to get these answers. I typically tell my subjects that this may be a painful and emotional process to dig up the past, which is okay. It may even be cathartic for them.
You can utilize the same process when editing a manuscript, asking the same questions to fill in missing pieces of the puzzle. Ask the author, who is this character in the story, their relationship to the other characters, and why are they important? Or, instead of saying, so-and-so was arrested, give us details and why they were detained and how that process looked. Visualize it as you would a scene from a movie or TV show and try to fill in those details, painting the entire picture for the reader. As a writer, you have the tremendous honor of creating a scene, a memory, or an image, so use your imagination, and ask the questions you think the reader would ask.
Dave Ficere is an Author, Editor, and Ghostwriter with over 30 years of experience in broadcasting and writing. When Dave is not writing and editing manuscripts for clients, you can typically find him narrating and producing audiobooks.
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