Questions About Writing Stories

I received an email the other day from someone who wanted to interview me for a class project. I think he’s for real, but some of the requests I have been getting recently are questionable, so I thought I’d post my responses here to stake my claim. Feel free to respond to any of the questions. If the interviewer does, in fact, read my blog as he said he did, I’m sure he’ll be glad of the additional input.

What, in your opinion, are the essential qualities of a good story?

The most essential quality of a good story is the ability to take readers somewhere else and make them glad they went. It’s also important to make the writing easy to read, which means the writing must be grammatically correct. Nothing takes a reader out of a story faster than having to decipher convoluted sentences with improper punctuation. Ideally, a story should leave readers a bit better off than they were before, either because of what they learned about the world and themselves, or because of the respite from their everyday lives.

Do you keep those qualities in mind while you write?

The only one of these qualities that I keep in mind while writing is to make sure what I write is readable. Other than that, I focus on the story, setting the scene then developing plot and characters into a cohesive whole.

Which of those qualities do you think is the most important, if there is a ‘most important’ one?

Some people think character is most important, others think plot is the most important, but you really can’t separate the two. Plot is what happens to a character, what a character does, or both. You cannot have a character without a plot. To show who or what a character is, you need to show the character acting, and that is plot. You also cannot have a plot without a character. If an asteroid falls to Earth, that might be newsworthy, but it’s not a story until you have characters interacting with the asteroid. Who found it? What did they do with it? What happened to them as a consequence of their actions? That’s what makes a story.

How much of a story do you have in your head before you start writing it?

I know the main characters, I know the beginning of the story, I know the end of the story, and I know how I want the characters to develop, but I don’t flesh out the individual scenes until I start writing them.

Do you do any research for your writing? If so, how do you do it? (searching Internet, magazines, other books, etc.)

The research for Light Bringer, which will be published mid 2010, took me approximately twenty years. The research for my other novels took two to five years each. Sometimes I consulted maps or guidebooks, sometimes people told me what they knew, but mostly I read books on the various subjects.

How do you prefer to start a novel? For instance, do you try to start it out with a ‘bang’, or do you prefer to start out with a low point?

I start with a good hook, sort of a small bang, and I work up to a bigger bang.

How (or when) do you decide that you are done writing a story?

A story is done when it is published. Otherwise, it is never finished. The more one writes, the more one learns, and the more one learns, the more one sees how earlier works can be improved. The only thing that stops this cycle of learning and rewriting is getting published.

Do you have any specific pattern of writing, however subtle it may be, when you write? (Using specific plot devices consistently, for instance)

The only device I use now (though I did not do it in the beginning) is a theme. If I know the theme of a story, I can keep focused on the main concept and not go off on tangents. A story needs to be tightly constructed without extraneous scenes or exposition. If not tightly constructed, a story loses its power and impact, sort of like a comedian who tells a rambling joke without a punch line.

The term ‘well developed characters’ is extremely vague and the definition differs depending on who is asked. What, in your opinion, does it mean?

A well-developed character gives readers a sense of that character’s personality, feelings, and struggles. A well-developed character changes and matures as a result of all that the character experiences during the course of the story.

What is your goal for the story to be when you write? That is, how do you want your stories to say what they say?

My only goal is to write the stories I want to read. If my books do have a message, it’s that nothing is as it seems. We are not necessarily who we think we are, history did not necessarily happen the way we think it did, and what we see is not necessarily the truth. But all that is more of a side effect. Mostly I just want to write good stories with good characters.

4 Responses to “Questions About Writing Stories”

  1. JaxPop Says:

    What, in your opinion, are the essential qualities of a good story?

    “The most essential quality of a good story is the ability to take readers somewhere else and make them glad they went”

    Probably one of the best answers I’ve heard – I’ll have to remember to borrow it someday. I write for kids so pace is a big consideration. Tough to do too much early story building when the readers are younger. Don’t want them to lose interest. 1st book I did more with creating the characters & settings to start. 2nd book, a sequel, starts off with a bang & a twist (I love twists) then retreats briefly to complete the character intro. Will be interesting to see how book 2 is received. Editing now & working on my ideas for the cover art & back of the book copy.

    Lots more that’s comment worthy here but I gotta get back to work (I’ve been very quiet in cyberspace lately – nose to the grindstone). Nice job Pat. DE

    Do you do any research for your writing?
    Can’t resist commenting on this one. I try to do everything & visit everywhere described in the stories. When I get home – will be meeting up with a pilot so he can teach me to fly a seaplane. What the heck – if I’m makin’ a 16 year-old do it in the book – I’d better be able to describe it!!!

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      I didn’t realize you subscribed to the derring-do school of writing! If I had to experience everything in my books, I’d never write! Oh . . . I forgot. I’m not writing.

      As for the comment you liked, feel free to steal it. I did. In Worlds of Wonder, David Gerrold tells writers to ask themselves:

      “How do I take the reader someplace else and make him glad he went?

      “How do I create an experience of another life so vivid and compelling that for the moment it exist in the mind, it obscures and obliterates the experience of the reader’s own life.

      “How do I transport human consciousness into the realm of exhiliration and transformation?

      How can I get so deeply into my story that I’m telling it from the inside?”

  2. JaxPop Says:

    Pat – I subscribe to trying to fit 3 or 4 lives into 1. As Joylene may explain – I’m a bit crazy – but not in a bad way.

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