Sunday, September 7, 2014

5 Things to Write When You Don't Know What to Write

Say you’re a new writer. Like me.

And say you never had the bug to write every single day like the “real” writers. Say maybe you even went a few years without writing any fiction at all, because you decided you weren’t good enough. If you were good enough, after all, you’d be finishing stuff. You’d have the instinct and it would come easily.

Then let’s say something happened. A tragedy, perhaps, something that seared your soul shut and you had to find a new way to let things out. And you thought maybe you could write about other things, about stories or poems, about other people’s tragedies until your pain would disappear.

And it did. It worked. You rode the wave of a writing high for a few weeks and words came spurting out of you like bad blood, flushing out pain and sorrow and leaving you feeling thin, dizzy, and light, but deliciously, ecstatically happy.

When the last spurts dry onto the page, you feel some life rushing back into you. You begin to be able to walk straight again. Chin up, eyes bright. Best of all, you have a purpose for your life. This is what you were meant to do.

You are a writer!

One problem.

You have no idea what to write. For a while, you fool around with extending the pain you were writing through, but it falls flat. That’s not who you are anymore, and even when it is, it’s not really getting you anywhere. You want to write something amazing, something to win prizes, earn money, and most importantly, something that you can show to your girlfriend.

But what?

You sit down in front of the keyboard and peck away at a novel. You get fifteen thousand words or so, but it’s not good enough. If Tolkien and Rowling got together and had a baby, and that baby grew up and adopted a cat named Butcher, and then the cat got sick and started hacking hairballs all over the living room, then one of those hairballs was your novel.

What to do? Well, you know what to do. It’s rule one.

Write more. Write every day. Write when you don’t feel like it. Write when you’re short on sleep or when you’re out of coffee or when you had too much coffee. Write when you’re sad or lonely or angry or happy or lustful or tired or bored. Get all those things down on paper. Write a million words and then you’ll be a “real” writer.

But you still don’t know what to write!

First of all, you don’t have writer’s block. That’s not a thing. That thing is banished from the Scriptorium. Writing is always hard, it’s never easy, and there’s no excuse for not doing it.
Here are a few suggestions for things to write.

1. Flash Fiction

This is my go-to for dry days. Pick a topic, a funny idea, a dream, or even a piece of art and sit down to make a brief story out of it. How brief? Well, that’s up to you. I like to aim for 1800 words. This is one of those times when outlines are unnecessary. Just start an idea and see where it takes you. 

You are a sculptor in front of a block of marble. Start chipping away.

For some great examples of Flash Fiction (as well as a popular place to submit one) check out,

2. Six Word Stories

Six word stories: writer’s sleeping pill.

If you’re interested in becoming a word master, six word stories are an excellent exercise. Think of a concept and try to condense it to six words. TRY. Here are some of my favorites.

His flowers were my last goodbye.
Luckily for me, a vegetarian dragon.
This empty page: my only friend.
Temperature rises. Oceans flood. Death awaits.
Wanting to know all, I listen.

3. Backstory Blurbs

If you have a captivating idea for a novel that you can’t get out of your head, but you can’t seem to get it out of your head, try writing backstory blurbs.

Get a blank sheet of paper and write the letters A-Z down one column. Next to each letter, pick a topic relevant to your story. It’s okay to skip Q and Z and X if you like – there’s not going to be a grade. Each day, until you think of something else to do, pick one of those topics and expand it. Pretend you are writing an encyclopedia for your world. If you get all the way through, start over again. This stuff may be useful someday.

4. Narrative Outlines

Another trick for a gummed-up novel-writing pipe is to clear the way with a narrative outline. Pick an unlikely character in your story and tell the whole story from their point of view. Tell it quickly like a bored conversation or tell it slowly with a lot of detail. Make it their dying confession or their interview for the local paper. Anything to help you visualize the story in your head.

5. Bad Poetry

When all else fails, write bad poetry. It’s a required part of the writing process, so you might as well get it out of the way. I’ll close with one of my own bad poems, so you don’t feel embarrassed about yours.

::golem depart::
from earth he came
as strong as steel
but soft as sand
he learned to feel
taught to fight,
he fought to win.
then saw the right
and saw the sin
he saw the blood
that dyed the clay
the blameless girl
who died that day
with tears of mud
and moans of sod
he fell to earth
he flew to God
from earth he came,
no heart or soul,
but learned to feel
and paid the toll
broke bread with men
who broke his heart
to dust returned
Golem Depart
There you go. That was one of mine, written on a day when I had nothing else to write. Now it’s your turn. Go on, pick one of my crazy ideas and run with it. Better yet, make it a blog post and link it here for all of us to enjoy!

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