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10 Questions to Ask Your First Draft

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I've been under the fog of a new manuscript lately, and I got to thinking. There are certain questions each writer asks themselves during the writing part and after, when they head into the revision stage. I figured the top ten questions I ask myself could be helpful to others, so enjoy!

1. Does This Move The Plot Along?

Though it is true that not all stories are the same, they tend to have one thing in common: they need characters and they need plot. No one knows how the story will work better than you, so you need to be mindful of each interaction your characters make, every choice, and each thing they learn. These things should not be thrown in for no reason. Do you reveal something about the character's personality because it helps the reader better understand their choices, or do you just really want your reader to know they like the color red? This will save you loads of time when you've trained yourself to leave whatever isn't important out.

2. Does This Make Sense?

This may seem like the most simple question, but oftentimes, it is overlooked. You can ask your manuscript these questions from different angles: plot-wise (is this moving too fast or slow? Can this event happen without X occurring first?), character-wise (see number 3), story arch-wise. Most importantly, once you've determined it makes sense to you, you need to ask whether the reader will understand. Remember, your goal as the writer is to make your reader suspend their disbelief no matter the genre you write. They are trusting you to guide you on this journey through the pages you've crafted and you should do your best to make sure they don't stumble over things you could have avoided.

3. Why Does My Character Do This?

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Whether your story is plot-driven or character-driven, your characters actions and reactions matter. For instance, if you have a shy woman who doesn't know how to talk to people, she wouldn't be comfortable going to a party where she doesn't know anyone. You want to make sure that you make your characters as realistic as you can so the reader has one more reason to believe what you are telling them. They are going to trust you on this journey and not question why the character reacts a certain way if you've already taken care of that concern for them.

4. What Are The Stakes?

Every story has stakes. They can be as large as "If I don't do this, the world will end," or as subtle as "If I get a high score on my SATs, I can go to college." Whatever the caliber, stakes are an important part of any story. They tell the reader what the character's goals are and what they will be working towards and against the entire novel. In my experience, you don't need to necissarily come out and say "The stakes are X,Y, and Z and if I don't achieve this, A, B, and C will happen". However, making it clear to outsiders who haven't had this story or characters in their head before is essential.

5. What Are The Consequences?

Having stakes without consequences does absolutely nothing for the story. It's a cause and effect thing. If a goal is introduced, so should the idea of what happens if the character does not achieve this goal. Maybe the consequence is the end of their marriage and maybe the consequence is even unknown; just make sure the reader knows about the unknown.

6. What Does The Character Learn or Not Learn? (Alternately: Does the Character Grow or Stay the same?)

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After you have established the stakes and consequences, the next logical thing to ask your manuscript is this question. As human beings, we all grow (or like to think we do at the very least) or choose to be stubborn or ignorant or a myriad of things in order to stay the same. When people do this, it affects their lives, and when characters do this it affects your novel. For a lot of writers and readers alike, this is the most satisfying part of the story. You get to see someone who has everything fail or someone who has been tortured finally get revenge. Whether the things that we put them through change them or not, it says a lot about this character and the direction of the story, so think hard about things like this!

7. Are the Characters in my novel People (e.g. Realistic) or Stock Archetypes?

Whatever you do, avoid making your characters stock characters. Simply put, stock characters are the stereotypical ones we could pick up off a grocery shelf "stocked" with hundreds more just like them. Stock characters can work as tropes, but as a whole, if your main character is a blond, big busted, popular cheerleader with no flaws, no secrets, and no struggles, no one is going to care about them. What helps me make characters more real is simply going to a public place and taking in the people around me. Sometimes I'll even bring a notebook and jot things down. This is a great way to observe how people speak, what they talk about, and what is important to them. It should be as effortless to recognize authenticity in your characters as it is in actual people in the real world.

8. Are there words, phrases, or ideas I over-use?

This is a simple thing I included in the 5 things to add to your editing checklist post. Take out a notebook, write down every time you see a word occur in your manuscript. Or use Word's handy search tool to find them! Many times, you can replace or delete these things altogether. When we're in our drafting phase, there's a tendency to work with our heads down and not coming up for air (at least that's what I do), so it's natural that things will be repeated every now and then. The trick is to train yourself to recognize it so it doesn't end up in the final version of your novel.

9. What is missing?

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Every story starts with an idea which spawns more ideas. There are elements you want to include, symbols for the reader to decode, scenes for them to picture, etc. Have you missed any of these? Does something not feel right or fall flat? Can you flesh things out more where you hold back? A great idea when you're questioning these things is to either join a workshop or find some Beta readers who will give you their honest opinions and notes on the story. Chances are, if you can't find something, they will!

10. Am I done?

This may be the hardest question yet, and the hardest part is that you may not know the answer. My advice is to set the manuscript aside for a while. Don't look at it, don't think about it, and don't talk about it if you can. I usually give it at least a week and sometimes when you come back and you're still confused, you need more time and that's okay. This is your story and it's your responsibility to make it the best it can be, so don't rush your own unique process!

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That's all from me this week! What are some questions you ask your manuscript?

--Nikki :)

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