As you've gathered by now, Robyn and I talk about writing a lot. Almost every day, in fact, we IM each other, talking about what we're writing, sharing good lines that we just wrote, cackling about the terrible things we are about to do to our characters, taunting each other during word wars, or, at the very least, talking about what we would be writing if we weren't busy hitting on Alistair in Dragon Age.
All of these conversations are important to us as writing and critique partners, but some of the most important--and most fun--conversations revolve around questions. The beginning of a recent session went something like this:
Robyn: I'm thinking about writing a story about Michael and Emily.
Diana: Can I ask questions?
Diana: What's life like for seers in Victorian England? When exactly during Victoria's reign is this set (she lived for freakin ever)? Is Michael Simon's first apprentice? What makes him so special? Is this going to be in London? Will Emily put chunks of masonry in her reticule?
Granted, I did pause to let Robyn give me some answers (I'll think about it, I have birth years for them, yes, dunno yet, yes, and snerk, respectively), but otherwise that's pretty much how our conversations go whenever one of us has a new idea or runs into a thorny worldbuilding or plotting problem. And getting answers really isn't the goal of question time.
When I ask questions, I really don't care about getting answers. Well, sure, there's a part of me that really does want to know if Cecelia of the Silver Crescent ever does the chicken dance with toadstool pixies, but getting answers to everything isn't the goal. Ultimately, the questions I ask are a way of prodding the other person into thinking about the topic in general, nudging her or him out of a rut and into a frame of mind where new ideas can be generated. Unless there's a specific problem area that we're trying to address, starting at "What shoes is the villain wearing" and winding up at "What are the mourning rituals of this subculture" is a good thing.
What you ask, of course, depends on whether you're playing off of a brand-new idea with lots of possible angles or exploring something specific. Starting with the germ of an idea can be fun--that's when you can play with the wacky random questions or do in-depth worldbuilding. The former can lead to fun character touches, while the latter can lead to information that your partner needs to figure out, even if it doesn't make it into the book.
These categories are very fluid. Robyn and I once started out with a character question that led to worldbuilding, winding up back with character touches. A question about one character's siblings evolved into lengthy session on the mating habits of werejaguars: Do they have litters? Which form reproduces? Are there problems if a mother shifts during gestation? Can they cross-breed? All of that was information that was fun worldbuilding, but very little of it will end up in the finished product. (We did wind up needing to know whether our were needed to worry about birth control with a non-were!) (We really need to finish that book someday.)
When your writing partner comes to you with a specific issue to work on, you need to keep in mind not only the immediate problem, but also where the problem fits into the rest of the work. Ideally, you've been discussing the project beforehand so you're not asking basic questions to orient yourself! Earlier this evening, Robyn asked me where a new villain should be introduced--a villain so new, I didn't know much about him! We had to go through a couple rounds of questions until I understood how he fit into the story as I knew it and could ask the questions that actually led to a decision.
As an aside, when you ask your questions, it's unavoidable that your own opinions will creep in, and you may be tempted to guide your partner toward what you would write, rather than what is best for the story. Try to keep an open mind until you've exhausted all the possibilities. For the villain introduction I just mentioned, I initially was leaning toward option A, because I thought it would be better for the heroine's interactions with the hero, but once we'd explored the full situation, I suggested option B...because I thought it would be better for the heroine's interactions with the hero!
Channeling a three-year-old who just learned about "Why?" isn't always the best way to feel like you're being constructive--and isn't the best way to keep your writing partner from winging a can of tuna at your head. Being sensitive to your writing partner's mood, idiosyncrasies, and current writing needs is essential.
While one or two unprompted questions can be good if you've been pondering something that might need clarification, try to avoid ambushing your partner with a dozen questions at once.
Also, I ask "Am I being annoying?" a lot. When we get to a point where the answer is "Yes," I stop. Most of the time.
Concluding a Session
Ideally, question sessions are both finite and ongoing. As fun as a good round of questions can be, you do need to stop at some point and actually write! A natural time to take a break is when you hit on an idea so excellent, it must be written down immediately or it will get lost. But if you find yourself circling around the same questions or getting involved in details that no one, not even the writer, needs to know, it's probably time to stop procrastinating and get something down on the page.
When you find someone you work well with--when you are able to both nag and encourage each other in productive ways--then the questions never really stop. And it's a wonderful thing.
Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to ask Robyn about what one of my secondary characters should be having for breakfast. And tell her what Alistair just said about my dwarf noble's hindquarters.