This is the sixth of a 6-part series on the W’s. Coming into the home stretch.

WHAT is happening? – Apparent Event
WHAT do you want? – Actual Event
WHERE are you? – Environment
WHO are you? – Character and Relationship
WHAT is the obstacle? – Conflict
WHAT just happened? – The Moment Before

What Just Happened? – The Moment Before

This part is essential for an actor, as it determines his character’s state immediately before the scene starts. Does he come in calm, cool, and collected, or does he enter in a rush, frazzled, beside himself. The moment before matters. It’s vital. It determines the audience’s first glimpse of that character in that particular scene.

But what if you’re a novelist? Does the moment before matter for your characters on the page?

Maybe it matters more than it does to an actor.

The Moment Before Can Be Told

For an actor, the moment before is only shown through the lens of behavior; the audience will never see it, unless it’s from the scene immediately preceding. For a writer… ah, for a writer the moment before can come alive on the page.

Remember, the unique strength of prose is that it reveals the characters’ inner lives. Their internal voices. For a writer, their characters’ moments before not only can be told, those moments must be told for the narrative to make sense.

Let’s go back to our birthday party example. You know the apparent event, the actual event, the environment, a relationship, the conflict, and now you give your hero a moment before. She’s just been evicted. She’s effectively homeless now.

Would that change the way she approaches the conflict? Absolutely, desperation makes people do odd things. Would being evicted change the way she approaches the apparent event? Of course, maybe she now thinks she has nothing to lose… or, maybe she’s already lost too much and needs to re-think things.

The Resolution Of A Scene Leads To The Next Moment Before

This only stands to reason, but so many writers forget it. No matter how the particular scene you’re writing ends, it’s the moment before for the next scene. Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end, as it were.

In our example, let’s say our hero musters up the courage to go through with it, and tell her ex-husband she’s moving across the country with their son. How does the husband react? Not well, obviously, or there wouldn’t be much of a story. But say he threatens the hero, tells her that she can run but she can’t hide. He’s going to find her no matter what.

What does the hero do next? Whatever it is, it’s going to be with that threat hanging over her head.

Of course, the resolution of the scene for the ex-husband is also his moment before his next scene.

Next time: we’ll put it all together.

How quickly should you move your story along? That depends, what kind of story are you telling?

I think the biggest structural mistakes I see in writers’ work is the wrong pace for the material. You need to pick your pace as carefully as you pick your scenes and your characters.

A Big Story Needs A Fast Pace

Let’s say that, for some reason, you’ve decided to write the next ‘War and Peace.’ That’s a huge story, and, full disclosure, takes its time like a stoned sloth staring at wallpaper. But it’s not the 19th Century and you’re not Leo Tolstoy, your writing needs to move faster than his did.

A big story is going to have a lot of characters, and a lot of plot points, and a lot of incidental characterization and detail. You absolutely cannot take your time with that kind of story. You have to hammer it out, rapid-fire. Get it done.

Imagine you’re explaining your story in detail to an interested party. Imagine also that you can see their eyes start to droop. You’re losing them. Every part of your story that you’d gloss over for the purpose of keeping them interested you can probably lose from your first draft. If it’s not vital to the ‘and then…’ part of storytelling, dump it.

A Smaller Story Can Go Slower

Notice I didn’t say ‘less dramatic’ or ‘less important.’ Instead of ‘War and Peace’ you’re going to write the story of a man’s slow failing and transformation as his marriage dissolves after the death of his only child.

That’s some serious, serious storytelling. Heart-wrenching drama that will probably make your reader cry. But it’s not a ‘big’ story. You can and should take your time with this kind of story, because the meat is in the characters’ internal voices, and in their sad, inevitable interactions with one another. There’s no war or peace with this kid of story, no tales of sacrifice and heroism, just the very real tale of one man’s misery. Take your time.

Know What Kind Of Story You’re Telling

I’ve seen people with big, big, stories spend far too much time on their characters’ internal lives, while outside the world is ending. Maybe you can pull that kind of juxtaposition off, but you probably can’t. Big stories mean big choices, and big choices mean broad strokes at the keyboard.

Alternatively, I’ve seen authors try to tell small stories with smash-cut urgency, which no one can sustain. It’s exhausting to read, and those stories tend to reach several conclusions as the author pads the word count to reach novel length.

Be honest with yourself as you plan your story. Is it big or is it small? Then pace accordingly.

Your goal as a writer is to get published. Probably. If you’re one of those people who writes solely for love of the craft, then more power to you. You’re a better man than I. Most of you want to see your name on the shelf in a bookstore, though.

It’s difficult at best, nearly impossible at worst. Your inclination is to try to write for the market, to try to guess what agents or publishers want to see and give them that.

Don’t do it.

Publishing Lead Time Is At Least A Year

It’s the Internet age, you say. Things move at the speed of cat memes. If the hot thing right now is sparkly vampires, then you’re going to write the best damn sparkly vampire story you can, so you can dip your ladle into the river of money that is publishing.

Despite what you may have heard, or thought, or felt in your bones, publishing is still a very plodding industry. From the moment a publisher accepts your manuscript, you have at least a year until publication. Sometimes two years. That sparkly vampire story on the shelves now? It got the green light twelve to twenty-four months ago.

What’s Hot Now Is Cold To Agents And Publishers

By the time you – a publishing outsider – notice a trend, that trend is already old and stale as far as the publishing insiders see it. They don’t want your sparkly vampire story, they’ve already seen thousands of them in the past two years. Your attempt, no matter how well-done, isn’t going to rise to their notice.

That’s not to say that there isn’t a chance your story will break through. Just like there’s a chance you’ll win the lottery if you buy a ticket twice a week. But you’re probably not that lucky.

Writing For The Market Is Cynical

I know. A cynical writer. What a concept…

But seriously, if you try to write for the market you’re not going to do your best work. If you’re passionate about your project that will show up in your finished product. If you have a story you absolutely need to get out of you and onto paper, your readers will be able to tell. Your work will reflect your sincerity.

If you’re not all that into sparkly vampires, and if you think deep down they’re stupid and wrong (I mean, what kind of vampire is sparkly in the sunlight?), your vampire story is going to be terrible. Not to say that sparkly vampire stories aren’t terrible from jump street, but yours will never rise above the level of background noise. You’ll be spending a lot of effort for what is almost guaranteed to be zero return.

Don’t Be One Of A Crowd

Writers who try to write for the market think they’re the only ones doing so. This is the curse of a solitary passion. You never have office buildings full of writers who talk about writing during lunch breaks. We almost all work alone, and we think the ideas we have are unique. Fresh. Never been done.

If you try to write for the market, you’re just one more hack trying to cash in on a trend. That’s not to say there aren’t very successful hacks cashing in every moment of every day. If you want to be one of them, step up your game. Get good at it. Lead the pack of hacks. Be the alpha hack.

If you want to do good work, if you want to have your contribution be worthy and noticed and appreciated, leave the market-chasing to the desperate writers. The ones who have no confidence in their ability to tell a story. The ones who need someone else to tell them what a good story is. There’s plenty of those writers out there. Don’t join them. Hoe your own row.

You’ll see this advice given to struggling writers: write what you know. Is this good advice, or just well-intentioned bad advice?

‘Write What You Know’ Is The Stupidest Advice Ever Given

I’m sure someday I’ll think of some advice that’s stupider, but ‘write what you know’ is at the top of the list for now. Writers use their imaginations to come up with worlds, characters, and situations that have never existed and likely can never exist. If someone nowadays stuck with writing what they know, then we’d only have stories about people living comfortable, boring, middle-class lives where their biggest problem is dogs barking at the UPS guy.

Did J.K. Rowling do an autobiography about her time at Hogwarts? Did Dan Brown mine his meeting notes about his time with the Knights Templar? Did C.S. Lewis refer to his AAA triptych about Naria? Absolutely not, these writers made that stuff up. They didn’t know anything about those places, events, or characters. They created everything.

Same thing with you and your writing. You don’t have to have been a philanderer to write about adultery. You don’t have to have robbed a bank to create a gripping tale about your character doing so. Your job as a writer is to put yourself and your characters in unique situations, and to bring your readers along with your. Write what you know is bogus.

‘Write What You Know’ Can Help Your Writing Immensely

Aw… crap. Here he goes again with saying the opposite of what he said before. Make up your mind, Jack…

I just said ‘writing what you know’ is bogus. So how can it help your writing in any way? You not going to write what you know, you’re going to relate what you’ve lived. The two things are very different. Bring your own experience to your writing. Once you do that, the truth can’t help but shine through.

Say you’ve been a waiter. But your story isn’t about a restaurant or about waiters, or about the felonious cook staff who are always stoned and stealing frozen steaks. How do you write what you know there?

Take a step back. Make your experience general. Abstract. Being a waiter is serving in a low-pay, menial job, where you are pretty close to the bottom rung on the social ladder. The only person lower in the restaurant pecking order is the dish dog. Maybe in your story your main character is struggling, trying to pull herself up by her own bootstraps only to discover she’s not wearing any shoes at all. You can make her experience real – even if she’s in a dystopian future hellscape – by tapping into your own experience as a tipped employee/wage slave/menial laborer.

‘Write What You Know’ might better be said as ‘write your own truth.’

Write Who You Know

Do you want to know a secret? Okay… but you have to promise to keep it to yourself.

The secret to ‘writing what you know’ is actually Writing Who You Know.

Who should you know best? Yourself. Now, while that might not be the case for every writer, you really should be familiar with your preferences, foibles, and flaws, especially if you’re not a child any more. You put yourself in your characters, and if you do it right, you make them very real with almost no effort.

But even if there’s a spark of yourself in every character, not all of them can be you. To make your characters unique – and to tell them apart from one another – you should base them on someone you know. When your characters look at the world through a lens that is not your own, then you can’t pretend to be writing what you know. You’re making stuff up again, as a writer should.

Let’s say you have a character who is an overbearing Olympic coach. A real prick, but a guy whose athletes win championships and medals. Who is that guy? You could take your example from any number of real coaches you’ve seen on the news or seen profiled on the Olympics. But wouldn’t it be better if that coach was modeled after your college art teacher, who was an annoying prick who always thought he was right about everything even though he was wrong most of the time? You don’t know an Olympic coach (probably), but you know that art teacher. And you hated him. Except maybe now you understand him a little better.