Posted On March 28, 2012 by Print This Post

The Power of What If by Donna Cummings

Author Donna Cummings of, is one of my twitter buddies, as we swig our way through reams of coffee, piles of brownies and the realm of sea-faring hotties. And when she’s not entertaining me in our own little world of silliness, she writes a darn entertaining book and blog!

The Power of “What If?”

Author Donna CummingsThese two little words can be the start of some wondrous stories.

Perhaps you’re reading the newspaper (if you’re in the 20th century), or you’re skimming headlines on the internet, and something strikes your brain in a certain way. Next thing you know, your imagination is off and running, and you’re consumed with a new hero and heroine, writing emotional scenes of incredible depth and power.

All because you wanted to know what would happen. . .if.

Unfortunately, there’s also a down side to “what if”. It’s just as powerful, and probably even harder to contain once it starts racing around the brain cells. It’s the “what if nobody likes my book”. Or “what if I never get an agent or publisher”. Or maybe it escalates to “what if I chuck this laptop out the window of a fast-moving car”.

How is a writer supposed to handle these good twin/evil twin, yin and yang versions of creative inspiration? It’s not possible to arrange a joint custody agreement, so that each group can do it’s what if-ing on alternating weekends. And they can’t be separated from each other because they both use the same basic operating system (your brain).

We have to harness these What Ifs, and use them to our advantage. I’ve actually put the What Ifs into a book, turning them into a sort of Greek chorus that helps my heroine in a romantic comedy titled Bad Sex Karma.

I also have a few other suggestions that might help keep things in sync.

1.      Put those angsty What Ifs to work

Author Donna Cummings Historical Lord MidnightWhen we’re stuck on a scene, and we start to drift towards “what if I just wiped everything off the hard drive to save humanity from ever being exposed to this dreck”–remind yourself that characters go through similar emotions. Maybe they feel like they will never achieve their goal, or they’ll never be appreciated for who they are, or what they do.

Let the hero or heroine chatter while you scribble down their feelings. Explore what makes them believe this about their future. It will actually help you drill down to what their core values and beliefs are. Why do they feel this way? What makes them feel their goal is unattainable? Even though they express this, what makes them continue to strive for their goal?

2.      Transform “What If” to “What’s Next?

Answering the above types of questions will spark a ton of “what if” scenarios. The more you know about your characters, the more possibilities arise for different scenes, as well as interactions with other characters.

However, just as you can’t let yourself get derailed by the emo “what if” crowd, you can’t let the wildly enthusiastic “what ifs” steer the story train either. (“What if we add aliens? The kind that drink coffee through their fingertips?!”) You want to explore, not exhaust, the various plot options. So save the coffee-finger-guzzling aliens for a different story. Keep focused on moving forward, to the next step, the next scene, all the way to The End.

3.      Use What If to recalibrate perspective

Isn’t this what really happens when the hero and heroine see each other in a different light all of a sudden? At the beginning of the book you can’t find two people who are more ill-suited for each other. There isn’t anything —not one single thing–that could make them feel differently. Okay, there is that one thing, the one that starts with S and ends with X. But other than that. . .

Author Donna Cummings - Summer Lovin'However, “what if” allows these two characters to make it from Point A to Point HEA in our stories. They have to contemplate something that they wouldn’t have considered when they started out. “What if” that annoying man who stood in the way of the heroine’s goals and made her lust go wild — what if he wasn’t what she thought he was? What if he was different than he appeared? Even more radical, what if he is exactly how he appeared all along, but the heroine opened her brain to possibilities which allowed her to see who he is?

Writers can benefit from this kind of recalibration too. As writers we’re blessed, and possibly cursed, with this insatiable desire to tell stories, trying to make words express the amazing things inside our heads. It’s frustrating when our vision doesn’t match with the reality on the page, and it can make us succumb to doubts and fears and tears and angst. Yet it’s even more maddening when our stories die a slow death, all because our creative What Ifs were choked out by the fearful What Ifs.

So let’s boot those aside, and pamper the productive What Ifs. How do you plan to do that today?


Okay, RU Crew – toss out a few productive What If’s – lets hear ’em!

Join us tomorrow for Romantic Suspense author Laura Griffin and how to keep ’em turning the pages!


Bio: I have worked as an attorney, winery tasting room manager, and retail business owner, but nothing beats the thrill of writing humorously-ever-after romances.

Currently I reside in New England, although I fantasize about spending the rest of my days in a tropical locale, consuming mojitos for breakfast and wearing flip flops year-round.

I can usually be found at the local Starbucks, fine-tuning my caffeine levels while working on my latest manuscript, or on Twitter (@BookEmDonna), talking about writing, and coffee. Find out more about me and my books at

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19 Responses to “The Power of What If by Donna Cummings”

  1. Is that a bunny or a puppy that I see on the second cover?

    Posted by Chihuahua0 | March 28, 2012, 5:43 am
  2. Good morning! I’ve brought a few barrels of coffee — hopefully that will be enough for everyone. 🙂

    Chihuahua0, that is a puppy on the second cover. 🙂 She designed both covers actually. And I hope to have another one for her to do pretty soon.

    Posted by Donna Cummings | March 28, 2012, 6:15 am
  3. Oops! Can you tell I’m commenting before coffee? That last comment mentioning “she” is supposed to say “Carrie Spencer”. Who is awesome. While I. . .need more caffeine. 🙂

    Posted by Donna Cummings | March 28, 2012, 6:38 am
  4. Morning Donna!!!

    Get some caffeine in your system…lol…just don’t suck it up through your fingertips. =)

    I’m a huge believer of What If….I say it all the time – although I will say I’d never thought of the fingertips/aliens what if. The wiping the hard drive to save all humanity? Yup, every day.

    Actually, I’d read once that Max Brand used to write that way…he’d read the first three chapters of someone else’s book, then sit and think ….what if? Then he’d rewrite the end of the book with his new ideas, then rewrite the first 3 chapters. An entire new book.

    Thanks for a great post, Donna!


    Posted by Carrie Spencer | March 28, 2012, 7:26 am
  5. Carrie, thanks for having me here. I’m quaffing the coffee, but it seems like my levels are lower than usual. LOL My brain isn’t waking up as fast as it should.

    I use “what if” all the time too, although most days I tend to terrify myself with it. LOL And I’m intrigued by Max Brand’s method. I guess I did that when I was younger, when I rewrote the ending to “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”. LOL

    Posted by Donna Cummings | March 28, 2012, 8:19 am
  6. Hi Donna,

    I would add “How come?” to questions to ask. It adds to the backstory and explains why things aren’t moving along.

    Mary Jo

    Posted by Mary Jo Burke | March 28, 2012, 8:28 am
  7. Mary Jo, that’s an excellent question for the writer’s arsenal. When I’m wandering around the WIP, trying to figure things out, I ask “why?” more often than a toddler who has just learned the word. LOL It does help with backstory and character motivation, and works hand-in-hand with “what if”. 🙂

    Posted by Donna Cummings | March 28, 2012, 8:47 am
  8. Donna – These are great suggestions! I try to use the “what if?” question to help with plot points, but I love your idea of having the characters suffer from the same frustration I do when I hit a tricky part. Thanks!!

    Posted by Becke Martin/Davis | March 28, 2012, 9:24 am
  9. Donna –

    Welcome to RU. It’s so great to “see” you again :-). Carrie made some fab book cover letters! Thank God we have such talented folks around RU.

    I’m with Becke – I love the idea of using my own frustration to motivate my characters. Lord knows I have enough craziness and angst to fuel an entire book cast – LOL.

    The only problem with “What if” for me is that I continue to ask myself the question WAY past the planning stage in my stories, which sometimes means I’m make big changes later on in the writing and revision process. I need to finish things, darn it!

    I’d love to catch up on what’s going on with you!

    Posted by Kelsey Browning | March 28, 2012, 9:32 am
    • Kelsey, it’s great to “see” you too! I don’t get here often enough anymore. The day job is taking up more and more of my tiime lately. *sad face*

      Carrie is indeed fabulous with the book covers–and everything, really. She was so patient with me, and I can’t wait til I can do the next one with her. We’ve already started brainstorming. 🙂

      It IS great to channel that frustration into the characters, isn’t it? I like knowing that it’s not going to waste. It actually has a productive outcome. LOL

      And I know how the “what if” brainstorming can be hard to stop, and then all of a sudden it’s developed into a Category 4 hurricane. Maybe if we have a time limit. Or a ironclad deadline, with dire consequences for adding any changes afterwards?

      Posted by Donna Cummings | March 28, 2012, 9:52 am
  10. Nice, Donna. I’ve done this, too. At stalled moments in a book, have had a character ask “what now?” LOL or the like, and then let them find the answer for me. 😉 (How to make your characters write for you… LOL).

    But if you can turn those nasty what-ifs into good energy, I am all for it 🙂


    Posted by Samantha Hunter | March 28, 2012, 10:50 am
    • Thanks, Samantha! I think the characters should take on more responsibility, serving as co-pilots or navigators. LOL After all, we’re doing this for THEM. 🙂

      I try to transform the potential negative energy into something useful. Some days I’m better at it than others. Other days it would be easier to sip coffee thru my fingertips. LOL

      Posted by Donna Cummings | March 28, 2012, 11:05 am
  11. Hi Donna!

    Ah, recalibrate sounds so much better than the scorched earth technique I use when the story wanders off its intended path. I’m a big What If girl. I think that’s why I’m not a very fast writer. I keep asking What If.

    Thanks for being with us today!

    Posted by Jennifer Tanner | March 28, 2012, 12:43 pm
    • Jennifer, thanks so much for having me here today. And I like “recalibrate” better too. LOL It sounds like it just involves tweaking, rather than blasting everything to smithereens.

      Sometimes I just let my what if thoughts go into a separate document. They don’t even have to be used for the current WIP. Sometimes it’s a springboard to another story entirely. 🙂

      Posted by Donna Cummings | March 28, 2012, 2:24 pm
  12. Hi Donna! I really needed to read #3. Thank you!

    Posted by Kelly Wolf | March 29, 2012, 8:59 am

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