Why every writer needs to dig deeper
Blogger: Janet Kobobel Grant
This past week I had conversations with two clients about digging deeper in their writing: one was writing her first book; the other has been writing for about 30 years. Yet both needed to hear the same message: Your work will be richer, more layered and meaningful if you’ll dig deeper within yourself.
Digging deeper isn’t just a concept for nonfiction; it’s also important for fiction. When a novelist is told, “Write what you know,” that includes not only the setting and premise but also character development. That requires the writer to know him or herself, the troubles, tribulations and triumphs of life and to bestow authentic responses on a novel’s characters. If you haven’t traveled deep within yourself, how can your character?
In nonfiction that requires either stories from the writer’s life or the retelling of others’ incidents. Digging deep takes the book to a richer place. Sometimes that means asking those people whose stories you’re sharing the hard questions. Sometimes it means asking yourself the hard questions.
My two clients can help us to understand what digging deeper means.
Even in nonfiction, characters have arcs
The new writer, whom I’ll call Alice, was writing about one year in her life in which she chose an unusual way to live. Now she’s writing about what that year was like. When I read the first draft, I said to her, “You’ve told me what happened, but you didn’t tell what really happened. What did you struggle with most that year, and how did you try to resolve the issue?”
I pointed out that she was, in essence, the protagonist of the story she was writing. Readers would want to know what occurred not only with the people who encountered her that year but even more how she dealt with issues within herself. As a character, Alice needed an arc in the book. The year was bound to have had that kind of building of conflict until it climaxed in a moment of the greatest emotional pain–and its resolution, either for good or ill or some combination.
Much to my surprise, Alice came back with struggles she had never even mentioned–major physical challenges, a collapse of her self-image, and a descent into doubt. That is what the year really was about; the activities that set the year apart were the surface stuff. Suddenly the manuscript had texture, surprise, and challenges the readers wouldn’t have anticipated. Ah, plot twists and turns!
Deciding what to tell
My more experienced client, whom we’ll call Megan, had written about a turning point in her life that I’d read in other books she’d written. But somehow it came out flat and stilted in her work in progress. I mentioned to her that readers would be so distracted by the details Megan was skirting that they wouldn’t remember why she was even telling the story. Instead, they’d be preoccupied trying to figure out what she was eluding to.
So she told me the entire event. It was a stunner, filled with betrayal, lies, lost love, and lost faith. Here was the real story, the one readers would find jaw-dropping and vulnerable.
But Megan didn’t want to tell the in-depth story. So she suggested she cast herself in the role of counselor and some other woman tell that story to Megan. Nope. I wouldn’t have it. She needed to tell her story–as much for her sake as for the readers. The time had come to work through another level of healing, and that would occur as she wrote the scene.
Megan agreed. But challenges remained. She couldn’t tell everything because parts would reflect negatively on people active in ministry today, who most likely had matured in faith in the decades since the event. It wasn’t Megan’s job to drag others’ into a gauntlet of judgments.
So she and I discussed the parts that would enlighten the readers, bring authenticity to the story, yet not damage other people. We chose not to question where those people were spiritually today; it wasn’t our place to judge. But it was our place to respect others’ privacy.
Deciding what not to tell
Both Alice and Megan have parts of their stories they will withhold. But they’ll now do so with careful thought and a clear decision about what benefits the reader, shows the author’s genuine struggles, and makes the writing braver and truer. Soul-baring doesn’t involve over-sharing. Both writers have details that are private and should remain so.
How do you figure out what adds depth, a character arc, and a deeper identification with readers? What parts would be inappropriate to write about?
- Talk to a trusted adviser–someone with nothing to gain and nothing to lose. That might be your agent, your editor, a critique partner.
- Test within yourself what feels right. Sometimes you aren’t ready to share enough details to enrich the story. Then you should step away from that story and write another one. God will have you circle back to the initial event in his good time.
- Protect the identities of others involved or get their permission to tell the story. Don’t dip into a pool of potential legalities. When in doubt, talk to your editor about how to handle your story.
- Ask yourself how you’re likely to feel about that event being in print five years from now.
When have you dug deep to enrich your writing? What made you decide to do so? How do you feel about that now?
In what ways can you dig deeper in your work in progress?
Why writing is better when the author is vulnerable. Click to tweet.
What digging deeper inside yourself brings out in your writing. Click to tweet.