“I just don’t know how you write,” the young woman said. “When I try to write, my idea comes out like mush. It’s so much better in my head.”
In my following discussion with her, I realized that there’s a lot about writing that I just take for granted. It’s like any other skill: You get so used to doing it, that you forget all the steps that go into it, and you are hardly aware of the choices you make in arranging and creating your material.
So I had my non-writer create a list of questions for me to answer (as best I could). It was a much longer list than I expected. Here are my responses to the first four questions:
How do you get the great idea from your head to paper?
I’d recommend starting with your “seed idea,” which is the scene that first gave you the idea for your story. Even if it’s in the middle of the story, it’s the part that’s clearest and most interesting to you, and you can use it to give you a fuller idea of the story’s beginning and end. (Read “Start With Your Seed Idea” here.)
How do you start a story, and get past that feeling that it is just never going to happen?
Give yourself a time or word goal. Say, “I’m going to write this for fifteen minutes.” Or “I’m going to write three hundred words, even if they’re terrible.” Usually, by the time either of those two goals has been reached, you’ve found a groove and have the momentum to keep going.
Sometimes, I tell myself I have to write until I complete an epic music collection of a particular length; PandoraJourney’s or Dragonstorm’s Youtube channels have varying lengths (half-hour, hour, two hours, etc.) that you can play as a sort of motivator/timer. (See also my post on music tracks that inspire me to write.)
What do you do when you have a perfectly good idea, but 5 sentences in, you are completely lost?
If you lose your momentum, try approaching the story differently. Tell the story from the viewpoint of a different character, or use first-person narrative. Start with a conversation, or a crisis, both of which get the story moving quickly. For more ideas, see “5 Super Strategies to Start Your Story Right.”
Often, if I’m stuck, I go for a run or pace around the house. Usually, physical activity kickstarts your brain again. In fact, some studies show that sitting down for more than 20 minutes reduces your brain activity.
Are there other creative ways to get a story off the ground? (i.e. have a writing partner, draw a picture of your story, make a time line of your story, make character “sketches” by defining looks and traits, etc.)
Having a writing partner is not something I recommend at first, because usually one is a stronger writer than the other, which can make the weaker writer feel inadequate or just go along with her friend’s suggestions, instead of exercising her writing muscles. (See my post “Writing a Story With a Friend.”)
I do, however, recommend having a friend who keeps bugging you to start/finish the story. Some of my stories would never have been completed without nagging from an enthusiastic reader.
Drawing a picture (or the front cover) can help you condense your “image” of the story, since details may come out in the picture that you hadn’t considered before, and give you new ideas for your story.
Making a timeline of my story was not something I found useful until I knew where the story was actually headed, but making a character “dossier” with name, hair color, eye color, and personality traits was always useful. Characters drive the story forward, because you become so interested in seeing what they will do next that you keep writing just to find out. Click here for some ideas on creating a memorable character.
Now it's your turn: What would you like to know about writing?