How to Get Clear on What Your Book Is About

Writing scenes that won’t end up in your novel matter as much as the ones that will.

Photo by Shopify Partners from Burst

On January first, I uploaded an article announcing that I knew what the book I was writing would be about. I had it all figured out… or so I thought.

15,500 words later, I’m here to tell you I was wrong.

I’m still writing the same book. My characters remain, and the storyline is basically the same, but it’s taking a different direction. One I didn’t envision.

You might be wondering why I didnt create an outline to not waste time. Believe me, I tried, and it didn’t work for me. I had to write the journey to stumble upon an idea worth following.

“All good writing is swimming under water and holding your breath.” — F. Scott Fitzgerald

I don’t regret the time I spent writing those 15,000 words. There’s material I can use, details I’ve learned about my characters, and more. Even if I don’t use anything, my efforts didn’t go to waste.

I uncovered what I didn’t want to write to land upon something worthy. All of those words were necessary parts of the process.

If you’re still unclear as to what your novel is about, there’s hope. Take it from someone who took a month to arrive at this point. (Let’s hope this is the last time I write this goddamn article.)

Choose to write even when you don’t think you can

I attribute getting clear on my book to writing every day. When I didn’t know what words would spill out, I worked anyway. When it was nearly midnight, and I hadn’t gotten my word count in, I still managed.

“Exercise the writing muscle every day, even if it is only a letter, notes, a title list, a character sketch, a journal entry. Writers are like dancers, like athletes. Without that exercise, the muscles seize up.” — Jane Yolen

If you’ve been keeping up with this book-writing journey, you know that I’m dedicated to writing 200 words of my book per day.

Since the year started, I’ve managed to achieve that goal daily. It hasn’t been easy, especially when you don’t know where your story is heading.

I kept Anne Lamott’s — author of Bird By Bird — advice in my head: You don’t need to know where you’re headed. You can trust the process.

I wanted to quit over and over again, but that advice pushed me forward.

You need to decide right now that you’ll write a bit every day no matter what. You might have a bunch of questions, but the best way to answer them is through writing. (Although, a heavy outliner may tell you differently. If you love outlining, I would probably ignore the rest of what I’m going to say.)

The person who succeeds is the person who pushes forward. Even if I want to give up, I won’t.

Choose to be that kind of person. Write every day simply because you said you would.

Let the process be a complete mess

As I said, Anne Lamott is the reason I’m writing this article. Knowing that a successful author had the same struggles as I do now helped shifted perspective. I realized I wasn’t alone.

So, I write this now to remind you that you’re not alone.

You probably feel as though what you’ve been writing is complete crap. You’re questioning whether or not you really are a writer. You’re doubting yourself and wondering why you thought you’d be able to write a novel.

You want to pull away and quit. But something is keeping you near, pulling you like a magnet. Let that magnetic pull be stronger than your doubts.

I wrote a mess of 15,000 words. Most of them aren’t even in chronological order. Now I’m here because I decided I would stick around. I’m more confident than ever about where I’m headed.

Don’t be strict about this process. Write with trust. The words will guide you.

Pay attention and take notes

In his book, Several Short Sentences About Writing, Verlyn Klinkenborg says that if something captures your attention, it matters. Even if you don’t think it does, it matters because you noticed it.

Now and then, I’d be in the middle of writing, and a phrase or idea would grab my attention. I’d lean back and think about it, played the possibilities in my head like a film.

Whether or not I liked the potential outcomes, I’d write it down. You never know when your notes could become useful. My memo notebook contains notes, character descriptions, and random scene ideas.

You don’t have to know how you’re going to use your notes. You can refer to them later and figure it out.

Klinkenborg is against writing down good ideas. He says that if they’re that good, you’ll remember them. I say, congratulations on an exemplary brain that can actually remember things.

Write down your ideas. Notice things and see where they might lead you. Sometimes, nothing. Sometimes, everything.

All you crappy work will lead you somewhere

A mix of ideas, questions that arose, and writing led me to discover what I’m writing about.

Every good and bad idea led me to this moment. I wouldn’t have gotten here by pushing my book aside and declaring that inspiration would hit eventually. The ideas didn’t develop freely — I made them happen.

If you’re still unclear about what you’re writing, write anyway. Little ideas add up in the end and will help you create an entire book.

“First, find out what your hero wants, then just follow him.” Ray Bradbury

Write through the bad until you trip over a good idea. Then, stand up and keep writing.

Writing scenes that won’t end up in your novel is just as important as the ones that will. They help you uncover what your book isn’t about and who your characters aren’t. Until you finally get to the truth.

You’re the only one who can uncover that truth.

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