Tag Archives | what to write

When You Don’t Know How to Write

Painter_sidewalk_easel_596182_hYears ago, as a freelance writer, I wrote a lot of articles about art.  One of them was about the Makk family of artists, who lived in Hawaii.  The big thing I remember from this article happened while I interviewed the Eva, the matriarch of the family. She told me how when she was a young artist she had images in her head that she wanted to paint–but it took her a long time to figure out how to get those images onto canvas.

I could relate.  As a fledgling fiction writer, I often had trouble translating the stories in my head onto the page.  And even now, after writing fiction a gazillion years, sometimes I just can't quite get what I'm writing to work right.   I have the idea in my head.  I can see it.  But when I put it on the page, it is dead and lifeless.  Something about it doesn't work, and I moan and groan and wring my hands and decide I'm going to sell yarn for a living.  Or get a job in a restaurant.  Or something, anything, other than writing. At times like these, I need to remind myself how to write all over again.  

But the great thing about writing for so many years is that I've figured out a few things about how to get myself out of these situations.  And so I offer them to you.

1. Write a scene.  Often, deadly boring prose is written in narrative summary, which is, as the name implies, words written in summary.  She spent the afternoon reading on the couch, is an example.  Or, six months later, the baby was born.  You glide over a short or long amount of time or compactly explain some information.  Narrative summary most definitely has its place–it is a useful technique for all manner of things–but when it is used too often it results in big yawns.  Writing a scene, which incorporates dialogue, description, action, and interiority, will be much livelier and it may be just what the writing doctor ordered.

2. Try a line of dialogue.   Have one of your characters say something.  This can often lead you into a full-blown scene, or a half-scene, which is a bit of narrative summary with a line of dialogue as its anchor.  This link has great definitions of half-scene, scene, and narrative summary.

3. Copy exactly.   Take out your favorite novel or memoir, prop it next to your computer, and copy a scene word for word.  You know, of course, that I offer this as an exercise only and you aren't going to use this plagiarizing for anything but your own learning purposes.  This is kind of an amazing way to get the cadence of writing into your brain and heart and is a great learning tool.  Try it.  You'll be amazed at how much you glean from it.

4. Copy and rewrite.  A variation of the above.  First complete #3, then take the scene or paragraph and rewrite it in your own words, maintaining the same idea and actions as the original.  Another surprisingly fabulous learning tool.

5. Read.  Take a break from your struggles and go read a book.  Nine times out of ten, this sends me running back to the computer.  Its as if I just need to refill myself with words.  Note: reading blog posts, gossip sites, news articles, or anything on the internet DOES NOT COUNT.

6. Take a class.  If you are a true rank beginner, a class is going to be your best starting point.  If you are an introvert or don't have time for an in-person class, there's a ton of great offerings online, and many of them are self-paced.

7. Hire a coach.  Like me.  This would sound incredibly self-serving but for the fact that I'm not taking on new clients for the time being–unless you call and beg me on bending knee, in which case I'll consider it.  But whether it is me or someone else you work with, a coach can point out your strengths and weaknesses and help you learn to implement more of the latter.

So there you have it.  Oh, by the way, you might also be interested in my post on What to Do When You Don't Know What to Write, which inspired this one.

What do you do when you don't know what to write?

Photo by moriza.

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What to Do When You Don’t Know What to Write

Thoughtful-creative-moved-22614-lSo there you are.  You've cleared your schedule and made time to write.  The kids are farmed out, the dog is asleep, your partner is happily watching something stupid on TV.  You open a file, place your hands on your keyboard, and ….. nothing happens.

You don't know what to write.  And when you don't know what to write, writing doesn't happen.

This can occur whether you are starting something new, or in the middle of a writing project.  And no matter when it happens, it can stop you cold.  Maybe you're trying to parse out the plot of your novel, or maybe you're partway through and you thought you knew where you were going but suddenly you don't.

One of the single best pieces of advice I can give you, writer to writer, is this: always know where you are going next.  (My daughter-in-law drove up to Bainbridge Island last weekend to hear one of her favorite authors, Annie Barrows of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society fame speak, and guess what?  That's the exact same advice she gave.)  I'm experiencing this first hand as I get up and work on my new WIP every morning.  The days I know where I'm going next, my fingers fly.  The days where I'm not sure, I meander.  And on those meandering days I get nothing done.

But what if you find yourself at the page and you don't have a freaking clue what to write?  Here are some suggestions.

1.  Write about your project.  Don't worry about writing within the project, write around it.  I always keep a spiral handy for notes and "writing about" sessions.  These help me clarify where I am and can get me back to the project at hand.  I thought everyone did this, so much so that I'd never bothered to mention it–but then we had a long discussion about it in the writing group I lead and to most, it was a novel idea.  Go figure.  Anyway, for me, inspiration always comes through the writing itself.

2.  Use a prompt.  Yeah, I know.  But they work.  There are tons here and a million other places on the web.  The thing to remember about using prompts successfully is to not make yourself hew to them religiously.  By this I mean, use them as a starting point.  Doesn't matter if the prompt is about a cat and you write about dogs.  The idea is to get you getting words on the page.

3.  Fill out a character dossier.  This is another thing I thought everyone did.  Turns out, not so.  I have standard character forms I've developed from a variety of sources over the years–and I invariably find myself figuring things out as I write fill them in.  (If you need a template for that, just email me and I'll send you mine.)

4.  Remember, nothing is wasted.  Sometimes it is valuable just to plunge in.  Put your character somewhere and start writing.  It may not turn into anything at all, but then again, it might.  And even if you don't use it this time around, maybe it will work itself into your next WIP.  Who knows? The muse works in mysterious ways–but she's happiest when you meet her partway.

5.  Also remember that maybe something is wrong.  If you are in the middle of a project and you don't know what to right, consider that something isn't working.  Maybe you've conceived the scene wrong, or it belongs in a different place.  Maybe it needs to be in a different location or with a different set of characters.  In order not to get stuck here, either move on to a different scene, or write something else–play around with a short story or an essay, for instance.

6.  Make a list of what you know and don't know.  Approach this like free writing and set a timer, then write down every thing you can think of that you don't know.  Ask yourself questions.  Make odd connections.  See what comes out on the page.  You know more than you think, you just need to unlock it from within.

7.  Change up your routine.  I rarely listen to music while writing, but at the moment I'm listening to a soundtrack that purports to zap you into the right brain and allow the words to flow.  It seems to be working! (Though I must admit I found the bird calls on it a bit distracting at first.) I've written recently about how working outside every morning has improved my writing.  So try something different–it may give you inspiration, and that's really what we're talking about here.

8.  Write a description.  Some people love it, some people hate it, but writing it is good practice.  Maybe you'll actually use it somewhere–or maybe it will spark the words you're looking for.

9.  Walk away.  If all else fails, go do something else.  Take a walk, mow the lawn, pull weeds, something.  It amazes me how often I don't know what to write next, get up from my chair, and find myself running back to the computer because everything has clicked into place.

10.  Keep a writer's journal.  Carry a journal around with you and take notes.  I don't do this as often as I should but when I do, it makes me happy.  Write about the woman with magenta hair and tattoos sitting next to you at the coffee shop, make notes on dialogue.  You can do this quickly, in phrases and lists, or elaborately, whatever your pleasure.  Then when you're sitting back at your desk, despairing because you don't know what to write, flip through it for inspiration.

So….what do you do when you don't know what to write?  Please share in the comments.

Photo by corpitho.

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