Fall makes me think of new beginnings: new school year, new friends, new opportunities, and (if you’re like me) a new book. Sometimes I’m lucky enough to have lots of novel ideas floating around my mind—but no clue how to turn the idea into a story. Other times, I’m missing that first spark of inspiration, but I’m certain once I have it, I’ll have all the tools to sit down and write something inspired.
Whether you’re grueling away on a first draft, ready to send your story out into the world, or just starting to jot down ideas into a journal, everyone struggles during the writing process. In honor of the new manuscript I’m currently struggling through, I thought I’d share some of my favorite writing tips.
So how do I start?
First, never turn off the writer. Whether I’m at the computer or out in the world, I draw inspiration from as many things around me as I can. Maybe it’s a song or an image I can’t get out of my head. Maybe it’s a sliver of an overheard conversation. (Eavesdropping is one of my favorite pasttimes, so be careful what you say within my earshot or you might end up in my next book.) I revel in my curiosity. I am vigilantly observant. I believe that inspiration is all around us. That’s why writers are never bored—and why we’re always scribbling manically into little notebooks or our cell phones.
Once I have my spark of inspiration, I often have to mull it over for a while. Sometimes it takes a day…sometimes it takes six months…or six years. Let it marinate. You’ll know when you’re ready to write. People say there are two kinds of writers: the plotters and the plungers. These days, plotting helps me see the shape of the story I want to create. But I didn’t always write that way. If you don’t feel like plotting out your story with an outline, just plunge right in and start writing. Let your characters surprise you. Follow them down unexpected roads. Go as deep as you can into their joys and sorrows—then go deeper. Don’t worry about where the story is going if you’re energized by your characters. You can (and will) go back and change things in future drafts. No need to criticize your work in the first draft. First drafts are skeletons, beginnings of beautiful things.
You will get stuck. We all get stuck. It always seems to happen to me when I was just getting in the flow. Writers block is terrible, but it is not an insurmountable enemy. Do not give up. Finish your stories. Here’s how:
Sometimes it helps me to look at the scene from a different angle. I write around it before I can write through it. Say I’m trying to write about my main character confronting an important fear, but I can’t get any leverage on her emotional pitch going into the situation. Sometimes I’ll imagine how someone else—that character’s boyfriend, her best friend, someone she recently argued with–might witness her facing that fear. What would these other characters notice about my protagonist that I might not? It’s exciting to trust your characters enough to allow them to know one another better than you might suspect you know them.
When I can’t get to the core of an emotional moment, I like to overwrite. I write a whole paragraph about a sunset instead of just a sentence. Then I go back and determine which image is the strongest, which image reflects something new about my characters. I keep that image and cut the rest. Eventually, those strong images begin to pop out first in my mind. And before I know it, I’m back in my inspired flow…at least until writer’s block strikes again.
When you’re finished with a draft, I highly advise you to find a writing friend to share your work with. You are looking for someone who can share your vision about what the story wants to be—not someone who will make your story into the kind of story they would write. These people are hard to find, but they are well worth seeking out and holding onto. Constructive criticism from this kind of reader is a great gift to your writing. Take the suggestions that feel immediately right, discard the ones that seem immediately wrong, sit on the troubling ones (they’re usually the best, and the hardest to absorb into your story). Don’t be afraid of revision. It is the step that makes stories come alive.
Finish your stories. Finish your stories. Finish your stories.
Writing advice is personal. Keep in mind that these directives are simply my take on my own process. Whatever gets you happy at your keyboard or notebook or cell phone or typewriter is the best writing advice for you.
Still aren’t sure how to get started, how about a writing prompt?
Look around and write down the first three words you see. They can be words on TV, on a book jacket, on a passing billboard, anything. Use all three in a sentence, and write a story that develops from that sentence. The result might be bizarre. That’s the point. Allow your creative self to write without expectations and see what you come up with.
What’s your favorite writing prompt? What do you do when crippled by writers block? Where do you turn to for support? Feel free to share your writing highs and lows with us in the comments section below.
Wishing you inspired and curious writing,