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WRITING ADVICE: How to build a story out of scraps of ideas

Friday, July 19, 2013

Writing is an art, which means it is mysterious. It rises from the deep bog of our subconscious and is guided by impulse and intuition and imagination.

However, writing is also a craft. A writer must learn how to shape and control the artistic impulse, to bring logic and structure to the story, to work with discipline and focus. Inspiration is a flash of light, gone in a second. The only way to harness that electricity, and pin it to the page, is with dogged determination.

I love to teach. I love to help people find their way towards their story. And so - when people write to me, asking for help - I do my best to give it to them. 

A few weeks an aspiring writer wrote to me in very real trouble, feeling stuck and unable to move on, and worried that meant she would never be able to make her dreams of writing come true. Its not the first correspondence I've had from this writer - she badly wants someone to help her.

This is a paraphrase of what she asked:

I am wondering whether you can help me.

I love writing fiction, but I'm really struggling to fix on a story. I just keep writing more and more starts, more pieces about characters, which I enjoy - but I can't back them up. I can't follow through. What should I do?

This is what I answered: 

You know in your heart exactly what you need to do. You don't need me to tell you. You're just hoping I'll tell you some secret way to make it easy. But there is no secret simple way.

You need to focus. You need to have discipline. You have to rein in your wild and beautiful imagination and learn to tame it. You need to have faith in yourself and your story, and not allow fear to shake you. 

Here is what I want you to do.

Spread all your ideas, all your story fragments, all your bibs and bobs, out on the table. See if any of them seem to belong together. Start sorting them into piles. 

Pick one pile. Just one. Probably the biggest pile is best, but go with your intuition - which idea, or cluster of ideas, speaks to you the most?

Put all the other ideas away in a folder, and shut them away in a drawer. You may wish to have a number of folders, one for every other pile.

Take the one you have chosen and focus all your attention on it. Begin to see the skeleton of a story in it. Write a rough outline of a plan. Write character outlines. Think about your setting, your time period, your story structure. Set aside an hour or two a day to work on it. Do nothing else in that time. 

When you have an idea of the story from beginning to end, with about a dozen key plot points along the way, begin to write. Start at the beginning of your story and write one scene at a time. Set yourself a goal for each week. Two thousand words is easily achievable. Tell yourself no wine or chocolate or mindless TV till you have written your word goal.

Write your story word by word, sentence by sentence, scene by scene. Do whatever you need to do to keep on going. 

Whenever you get an idea for another story, write it down - all of it, as much as you can - then put the idea away in a folder and shut it in the drawer. If you find yourself thinking about it, force your mind away from the pretty new thing and MAKE it think about the idea you are working on. Do not allow yourself to be distracted because that way lies chaos and failure. 

Go right now and do it! No excuses.

Our job as creative artists is to create order out of chaos. All novels begin with a mess - here is the mess I'm working on right now: 

Ashleigh Meikle commented on 19-Jul-2013 12:13 PM
That was wonderful advice! Most of my notes are in notebooks, sometimes across several, which is definitely confusing! I keep a large stack and variety of post its in my drawer of my desk. I might try this, when I print out and edit my first draft of my murder mystery (It's another one, the serial killer one had too many characters and was becoming too complicated, but I may revisit it or reuse the characters somewhere else)
Toni Dugo commented on 19-Jul-2013 03:06 PM
Your advice was awesome. I would never have thought to do what you suggested.
Julie commented on 20-Jul-2013 06:19 AM
Love this. Nice advice, thanks!
Kate Forsyth commented on 22-Jul-2013 12:04 PM
I'm so glad you all found the writing advice of help to you! Best of luck with what you're writing :)
Shelleyrae commented on 27-Jul-2013 02:19 AM
I don't really have any plans to write, I am content to read but I am sometimes hit with ideas that I scribble down. If I ever do anything with them, your advice makes a lot of sense. Thanks for sharing it Kate
Anonymous commented on 03-Sep-2013 04:34 PM
Great advice! I'm definitely going to try this.
Darla commented on 01-Nov-2013 02:21 PM
I can't work without an outline. I need structure and an idea of where and what I' doing. A fellow writer says she can't use one (or write one) and sometimes she gets stuck because she doesn't know where she's going next. On her latest project, she asked me to help her write an outline. We got to chapter 5 and she said that's enough. LOL I wanted to smack her. HAHA!

I struggle with a couple things. One is self sabotage and I recently realized it was because of fear. Fear of living up to everyone's expectations with my first novel.
The second is...I get in these slumps, dumps, or whatever, but I can't focus. I sit and stare at the blank screen or retype or reword the same sentence over and over. Haven't quite figured that one out yet but when I do get like this, I read. Reading helps the creative juices to flow again. And sooner or later, I'm writing again. :)
Varina Suellen Plonski commented on 21-Jan-2014 08:21 PM
This was such wonderful advice! My method is sort of a variation on this theme.
I don't get scraps, I get dreams. Wonderful, vivid dreams with intriguing characters and complex plot lines. Of course, they begin to evolve differently by the time I actually start writing them! For each of these I have a steno notebook (or three, or five...) which lives at home, and a small 2" by 3" spiral bound notebook which goes everywhere in my carryall bag. Anytime an idea comes up relating to that story or character, I jot it down in the notebook, where it can sit happily and percolate on the back burner while I continue with whatever project I'm currently working on. Fortunately there are only three stories vying for my attention at the moment (although some of them appear to be trying for series status), and if I hit a problem spot I switch over to one of the others for a bit. That allows me to go back with a fresh eye, and I find the problem has resolved itself.
Lauren Lagergren commented on 05-Dec-2014 11:32 AM
I am so glad I found this on Pinterest! I struggled for years with fits and starts and getting bits of ideas. Thank you for the wonderful advice on how to focus on one idea and creating a rough outline. I squirm at the idea of creating outlines, but this is way better.
Carol Warner commented on 12-Dec-2014 10:29 AM
Thanks, Kate. I will copy this, and read it every morning before I begin writing. :)
Magia Fay commented on 26-May-2015 02:02 AM
Thank you for this article! I have way too many story fragments, and they just sit in a box doing nothing because I get stuck. I'll have to sort them out and re-outline them.
In the midst of that, I have been working on one book in particular for about three years now. As of late, I haven't been writing and I can't get myself to do it. I thrive on the expectations of other people, but I don't have those expectations anymore. When I expect myself to write I end up not doing it. It's very frustrating. Any advice? I can't figure out what to do, and no one seems to have the answer. I've tried looking to friends and family, but they don't put any on me because they don't want to stress me out or they don't care.

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