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  • Kacen Callender

WIP: What's the Point?

Whenever I’m starting out a new project, I stop and ask myself: what’s the point of this story? For me, the point of the story is the equivalent of the story’s theme.

Sometimes I don’t have a theme in mind when I begin writing the first draft; I’m just excited by the world, the characters, and I dive right in to writing out the action-packed or romantic scenes that’ve played out in my head. And then… the scene is over. The characters are flat, the action just not as exciting as what I’d envisioned in my head. I’ve realized this is usually because there’s no spark, no heart, no life in these scenes—and that’s usually because I don’t know what the point of the scene is yet. I don’t know what the point of the story is yet. Not knowing the point of my first drafts as I look over scenes = me asking myself, “Why am I even reading this right now?"

I’ve jumped into many first drafts without knowing why I want to write the story yet, what point I want to make or question I want to ask, and every single time, the first draft falls apart for me within a few chapters, usually right at the start of Act II, right around where the “fun and games” (Save the Cat!) comes into play. It’s even more important for me to figure out what the theme is before the story’s fun and games, the promised concept, comes into play—because I could do literally anything, go in any direction with any novel, throw a bunch of explosions and murders and kissing and stabbing and alien abductions into the potion to see what happens.

Usually… the potion fizzles into an unappetizing muck. Knowing the point of the story—the theme, the spark, the soul, the heart of the book—is really was helps to organize my ideas. If this is a book about colonization and being stuck between privilege and oppression, chances are the conflicts will revolve around the colonizers and the islanders, like in Queen of the Conquered. If a book is about discovering self-love and self-worth in the face of transphobia, a character like Felix will need to face conflicts of transphobia and questioning their own worth until they discover that they are worthy of love.

I can have an amazing, rock star-level idea in mind for the “high concept” portion, but if I don’t have a point, a theme that helps to organize the story, then it falls apart. There’s no passion, no excitement, no questioning of humanity and pondering of what makes us all tick and no thinking, no feeling—just a bunch of meaningless scenes thrown together that leaves me asking myself, “What’s the point of this? Why I am writing this? Why am I reading it?”

One thing I’m discovering now as I work on a few WIPs is that it’s even better if there are multiple points and multiple questions, too. My favorites are when I legitimately don’t have an answer myself. Two questions drive both books for Queen of the Conquered and King of the Rising: do we need to play the oppressors’ game to win our freedom, or do we need to burn everything to the ground and start again? The answer is probably gray, murky, not an either/or situation; but the two protagonists, Sigourney and Løren, are each other’s antagonists as they symbolize each side of the question. They’re in a constant push and pull, a debate symbolized by the plot as they try to win against each other. The books originally started as me only wanting to tell a fantasy set in a Caribbean-inspired world. Again, there are an infinite number of possibilities for a plot set in a Caribbean-inspired world, so overwhelming that I could freeze thinking about which direction I’d want to go in. Asking myself the question, “Well, what’s the point of the story I want to tell?” helped me create guidelines, helped to create the DNA that would allow bones, flesh, skin to grow and create the story itself.

Right now, I’m right at the beginning of the draft of a new YA contemporary. I won’t say much about the idea and concept, but this time instead of beginning with setting or character, I started this WIP with the question, “What’s the point?”

I’ve struggled with being a people pleaser all of my life. It’s something I’m working on now—expressing my genuine thoughts and emotions, instead of constantly trying to please others—and I also think a lot about how identity is tied into this. As a Black person, as a queer person, as a trans person, I’m not allowed to be angry in the same way that many white, cis, straight people are allowed to be angry. I think a lot about Felix Ever After: my sweet baby Felix went through something traumatic, and in response decided he wanted revenge, something that many humans do (there's an endless number of YA books devoted to the idea revenge, right?)—yet he was considered unlikeable and unrelatable by a lot of readers because he wanted revenge. I think about Simon Vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda, one of my all-time favorite books, and about the fact that Simon basically manipulated a friend into being romantically involved with another person. I know that if Simon were Black, he would be accused of being unlikeable and unrelatable, too. The anger in knowing that, even in our own stories, Black, queer, trans people will never be allowed to be fully human is certainly a spark that could drive me writing several novels.

What’s the point of this WIP? I want to break the reaction to Felix’s character down—all of it, the expected people pleasing of marginalized voices and the double standards and who is allowed to be a human being in this world—into a theme, a story, a character. This would mean that the main character should probably struggle with people pleasing themself, and that race, gender, and queerness comes into their fear of having to face double standards, and just wanting to be loved and accepted. Similarly to Sigourney and Løren, I think there needs to be a character opposite this new WIP’s main character. They need to symbolize the other end of the spectrum: someone who is hated, seen as too angry, too unlikeable, simply because they are Black, queer, and trans. They symbolize the lesson that the main character needs to learn: that it’s impossible to please everyone, and that the main character should not bend themself and try to be someone they’re not for the sake of racism, transphobia, and anti-queerness. I also want to ask questions that I don’t necessarily know the answer to: if this is a coping mechanism for some with marginalized identities, perhaps the only way they know how to survive this violent world that was built against them, is people pleasing necessarily something another person can judge?

There’s the electricity, the life of the story, the DNA. In my opinion, figuring out the point of the story might just be the easiest part of the writing process. We all have opinions, all have questions about our society, all have experiences that have sparked thoughts within us, and we all have lessons we’ve needed to learn in our lives, lessons we could have our characters learn as well. What is a lesson that we’ve had to learn to grow as human beings? What’s a question that we still grapple with, that we can use characters as debate pieces? With any of these elements, I think the point of the story will always come through, helping to eliminate the chance that someone might be left asking, "Why am I reading this book right now?"

The next part, for me, is always the hardest: what the heck is the plot?! Yes, I have the DNA and the spark of life, the questions and points and themes of the book, but what about the blood that's the conflict that keeps pushing forward and the layers of bone and muscle that make complex characters and the juicy fat and skin that lets us see the story as a whole, dynamic piece? How do I develop a single question into a book that feels rich and full, with a plot that’s exciting and will grab the reader’s attention so that they just have to know what happens next? These are questions I’ll be asking myself as I continue to develop this YA contemporary and other WIPs, and will try to continue exploring in this blog.

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