08/18/2010 12:40 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Making of a Novel: Be Specific or Die

I've got my first and second chapters down, but my third chapter has been problematic from the start. It's told from the point of view of my mother character and the problem is that I don't really know who she is. I can't see her. I can give you rough outlines about her life, I can say what she wants, and I know the role I need her to play in the story, but none of that adds up to anything. As my friend Lisa Cron, my UCLA Extension Writers' Program colleague, says, "And so?"

If a reader were to ever ask that question while reading my story, that would be the end of it. They would close the book, and pick up something else.

The "And so?" question is a perfect test. Because the only way to answer it is to figure out what the action of the storymeansto the character. It's not enough to know that this mother is overly eager for her daughter to get into a good college; we have to know why, specifically, this particular thing matters to this particular woman at this particular time. What, specifically, will she lose if she doesn't get what she wants? What, specifically, will she gain if she does?

This dilemma reminds me of that quote from Jane Wagner's, The Search For Intelligent Life In The Universe, "All my life, I always wanted to be somebody. Now I see that I should have been more specific."

I could spend three weeks trying to figure out what this mother's favorite color is, or trying to imagine her dream life, but all I really need to do is understand why. So I'm going for a walk on the beach, later today. And that's what I'll think about while I'm out there with the seagulls and the dolphins and the weekday beach goers.

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