Power of Unanswered Questions: Putting Yourself on the Edge with Your Book Manuscript

By Mary Carroll Moore

Each November, I take on an insane project--National Novel Writers Month.  With thousands of other writers from around the world, I commit to writing 50,000 words in thirty days, about 1667 words or seven double-spaced pages a day.

My nanowrimo writing is not stellar.  It usually falls into what Anne Lamott calls the “shitty first draft.”  The goal is quantity, not quality.  But my first novel, Qualities of Light, began as a nanowrimo book.  And if that doesn’t impress you (it impressed me!), Sara Gruen's Water for Elephants got its start in the November insanity of nanowrimo.

The beauty of nanowrimo:  it is a fast and furious way to create more questions than you have answers for.  Because of the high word count and the push to finish quotas each day to stay in the game, writers explore.  They try wild ideas.  They develop an essential skill of tolerating unanswered questions.

Power of Unanswered Questions 

I worked as a professional editor for over thirty years.  My job was to have answers.  Editors research, plan, analyze, and evaluate to keep the ducks in a row.  It’s a talent and an obsession, and unanswered questions are an anathema.

Problem was, I also write.  Writers love unanswered questions.  They are creative rocket fuel for us—new ideas emerge more often from questions and problems in a manuscript, because they force us to try something different.

As an editor, I worked hard to have only answers, never their unsettling opposite, but as a writer I was starving.  Being too much in control of my manuscripts gave me fast solutions—but rarely the best, or most original.

“Love the Questions Themselves”

Rainier Maria Rilke, in Letters to a Young Poet, wrote, "Have patience with everything that remains unresolved in your heart. Try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books written in a foreign language. Do not now look for the answers. They cannot now be given to you because you could not live them."

Questions are gold.  Rilke's suggesting that to hang around with questions can lead to the best answers. Questions open up that creative self that makes original writing.

Nanowrimo went viral because it sets writers right on the edge of what they don’t know.  When we’re required to show up to the page, not think too much and just write, it can make us twitchy but it can also turn on the creative faucet.  Between now and November 1, though, I develop a questions list for my book.  Some questions for this November’s insanity are:

  1. What inconsistencies exist in Molly’s character that I don’t yet see?

  2. Should there be a final fight at the beach?

  3. What are Red’s favorite shoes?

Surprising Yourself

A favorite writing teacher once told me: "If it doesn't surprise you, it won't surprise the reader." He cautioned about the too-predictable plot, the unoriginal and uninspired ending.  But how do we writers surprise ourselves?  I use my unanswered questions to keep wondering, wandering in my creative self.  The literary answers I live my way towards, often surprise me.  And. I hope, the reader as well.

I love the questions list so much, I teach it in all my book-writing workshops at Grub and elsewhere.  It’s the starting point for our storyboards, and I encourage writers to add one question to the list each day, to let themselves live toward more original answers.

Join me at Grub Street on Saturday, November 2nd, to make your own questions list, storyboard, and more at my How to Plan, Write, and Develop a Book workshop.   

About the Author See other articles by Mary Carroll Moore
by Mary Carroll Moore


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