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Back to Basics

rosanne_cornbrooks_catalano_headshotby Rosanne Catalano

I recently faced the apparently insurmountable task of helping my second grader with a book report. Yes, we both survived. And the process reminded me of a great fix for any type or level of writing issue.

The biggest challenge? Helping my son lay out the important parts of the story. I had to figure out a way to inspire him to tell me the information that matters without going into too much detail. And if you know second graders, you know they will wander through the details for days! I thought for a minute, then asked him the questions I would ask myself—or any author I work with—in order to get to the backbone of the story.

Whenever we get stuck, writing or editing, it’s best to go back to basics. Start with the beginning of any story. What’s the problem? Yes, every great story starts with a problem. In Pride and Prejudice, the Bennets need to marry off their daughters; in Star Wars, Leia needs to get the plans to Obi Wan. Think of any story you like and I’ll bet the action really gets going with a problem.

So what do we do next? That is exactly the question we need to ask: what does the main character try to do about the problem? Mrs. Bennet gets a little pushy with the new neighbors and Leia gives the plans to R2D2.

After that, we can skip to the ultimate question (if we’re doing a book report): Does it work? If we’re writing something longer than a book report, we can explore the other questions raised: Does it work the first time? Who opposes it? Who helps? Does it work in the end? What price does the main character pay?

I recently saw a fabulous interview with the legendary Ursula LeGuin. She explained that she can never get further than about forty pages into a novel unless she knows where it’s going. Plenty of other authors follow where the characters take them. Either way, asking those basic questions will give you a road map to get where you need to go!


Rosanne Catalano is an editor of fiction works and enjoys working with writers of all levels.

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