Years ago, when I was in my previous life and profession and was using a white board for something other than character arcs and plot progressions, I kept a question on my board at work. It was, “What keeps you up at night?” This is a question used in sales in marketing to remind sellers to think about what the customer wants/needs/stresses about, NOT about the widget or service we want to sell.
Then about five years ago, I read an article that argued (rather convincingly) that we should stop asking what keeps our customers up at night, and start asking, “What gets you out of bed in the morning?” Do you see the shift from negative to positive? I brought that to the teams I managed with the goal of writing our business proposals with a different spin. We still needed to write about knowing the customer’s pain and how to solve it. But I started pestering my teams (and the business development execs who interacted with the customers) to learn about customer’s bigger-picture visions. I wanted to expand our message to say, “We support solutions, but also aspirations.”
By now you’re wondering, WTH does this have to do with fiction writing? I’m so glad you asked! This past weekend, while completing course work for my book coaching certification (have I mentioned I’m becoming a book coach?), I was tasked with watching a TED talk by Simon Sinek. Sinek’s talk is titled How Great Leaders Inspire Action. That’s pretty self-explanatory. And he posits that leaders need to ask what people aspire to do, what gets them out of bed in the morning.
As to how this relates to fiction writing, I’m getting there, I promise! One thing good book coaches and writing mentors ask is “Why?” You’ve seen that question come up in our discussions about writing about eleventy billion times. In this instance, the question is regarding the writer’s desire to write a particular book at a particular time.
Why do you feel drawn to write this story at this time?
Why are you the right person to write this story?
Why will this story keep getting you out of bed in the morning (or in the middle of the night) when the going gets tough (and it almost always will)?
In our work with Jenny Crusie, we asked this question slightly differently: Where’s the juice in this story for you?
Sinek’s TED talk and the coaching module about getting to a writer’s deepest why regarding their book came at a fortuitous time. I’d spent a grueling couple of (ok, four) days trying to get the next scenes on the page for Harry and Adelia’s love story. I’m only a quarter of the way into the book and just hitting the first turning point, which should be exciting. It shouldn’t be so hard, not yet. And even when it gets hard, writing the next scenes shouldn’t be a slog. But there I was, staring down the computer, dreading even opening the file each morning. That was a huge red flag telling me I had taken a seriously wrong turn at Albuquerque (or in this case, maybe at King’s Cross Station).
I started asking myself the question a coach would ask a client (and which my coach no doubt will ask me when I speak with her). Where was the juice in this story? When and where, to the best of your knowledge, did it dry up? Why were you drawn to this story in the first place? Why did it, at one time, get you out of bed in the morning? What has changed?
By sifting through answers to these questions, I realized I was dragging my characters through the motions of working toward their goals. Why was I dragging them? Because they weren’t marching toward them. And they weren’t marching because their goals were fuzzy, squishy, nebulous little buggers.
It always comes back to the damn goals, doesn’t it?
Now you know what I’ll be up to this week: digging myself out of this goals hole, finding more concrete and “close-your-eyes-and-see-it” aspirations for these characters. All because I asked lots of questions, remembered what about this story used to make me spring out of bed with enthusiasm, and came up with a get-well plan for an ailing love story.
For the creators out there, what about your story (or project) gets you out of bed in the morning?