Let me start with a confession, just to get everything clear and out in the open: I don’t actually have a real method for unsticking a story. But wait! Don’t go away! I do have ideas and suggestions. Which, if you’re interested in this post, is probably more than you have at the moment. Right? Right.
1. Research first
Writing a story isn’t something I can just sit down and get done. Other authors might be different. (Brandon Sanderson apparently can write 1500 words before he wakes up in the morning.) For me, it takes a lot of background research, writing out ideas, looking up character names, collecting possible occupations, and just letting the whole thing simmer in my head for a while. This is an exciting time of development and discovery!
I hate it.
Well, what I really hate is the delay. I want to write, but instead here I am watching quilting tutorials. However, if you get interested in what makes up your characters’ lives and personalities, eventually that will result in a much stronger story.
2. Talk to People
Yes, I’m cheating, because this is technically part of the research stage. But it’s important enough to be its own point. If you need to know about an occupation, a hobby, how to cook certain foods, what it’s like to live somewhere you’ve never been — nothing beats real-life voices and opinions.
For my current Work in Progress (WIP, as we writers refer to it), I’ve messaged six or seven friends for their expertise in certain areas. I’ve watched YouTube videos. I pay attention to conversations, online and in real life, that relate to my subject matter. I plan to attend some community events and get to know real people involved in the world I’m trying to build.
The research stage takes a lot of time, so you can skip it in two ways:
A. Write about something you already know very well; your research is already done.
B. Fake it and fudge it and write around the stuff you don’t really know. You definitely can write a story this way. Just don’t expect me to like it.
3. Make a List of Possibilities
This trick has gotten me out of Unstuckness many times. But I’d completely forgotten about it until I couldn’t figure out how to start my WIP. I ran a Google search and came up with this article. It’s all good advice, but #9 reintroduced me to my old friend, List of Possibilities.
The concept is simple. You number your page 1 – 10 and then you write down ideas to solve whatever your problem is. You keep thinking and writing until you finish your list. You’ll be surprised at the ideas available once you’re forced to articulate them.
For my problem of how to begin my story, I sat down for my regular writing time* earlier this week, and wrote ten possible openings.
*See my next point about this. Which you would anyway, I guess, but I just wanted to make sure.
I kept making up ideas until I filled up the whole list. It looked like this:
Ten Possible Openings
(some written without regard to usefulness or craft, just to fill up the slots.)
1.My grandmother didn’t want to give me the topaz necklace.
2.I was fourteen, it was Christmas Eve, and I was riding around an unfamiliar town with brand-new friends, trying to find somewhere that sold fireworks.
3.When I was fourteen, my paternal grandmother gave me one of her own necklaces. It was smoky topaz, a color that she said suited my ginger hair and freckles. The necklace was special to her, but even more so once it was mine. She often asked me to wear it. That’s how she remembered the story, anyway.
4.Being a librarian, cataloguing comes naturally to me. So as I got ready for work one chilly day in early December, I kept track of the texts and messages that came in on my phone from my dad, stepmom, sister, and brother. Three started with “my god” or “OMG!” One inquired if I were insane. Five overused exclamation points. All seven messages told me to call my grandmother, apologize, and not ruin Christmas for everybody.
5.My life was bookended by grandmothers. Everything else—my parents, stepparents, half-siblings, Christmas in Maryland, Easter in Virginia, growing up in between—was enveloped by the influence of my grandmothers.
Grandmom on my maternal side, my rock and foundation when my life got shaky.
Poppi on my paternal side, the brick wall that never moved, and heaven help the family member who tried to get around her.
6.I wouldn’t say that I grew up with a Good Grandma and a Bad Grandma. I wouldn’t say it out loud, anyway.
7.I liked to curl up in the hanging hammock chair in my living room, snuggled into one of Grandmom’s quilts, and let the swaying lull me into peace. The quilt still smelled like the perfume that Grandmom wore.
8.I guess I like the Dewey decimal system because it puts everything in order and makes sense. It would be nice if my life had a decimal system. I could definitely use a spot for Feelings about The Divorce even though it happened when I was six and I’m twenty-seven now. Or, Of course I love my mother more than my stepmother but Mom could take some lessons from April on being emotionally present most of the time.
I’d need to have a section dedicated to relating to my much-younger half-siblings. And most of all, I’d love to shelve my paternal grandmother. I’m not sure that came out quite right. Then again, considering that it’s Poppi we’re talking about—maybe it did.
9.When I first met Carolina, she was only sixteen and I was only fourteen. But she had enough poise to greet me with a handshake. “Hi, Bria. Nice to meet you.”
I remember the sight of our hands clasped briefly. Her dark skin, lighter along the knuckles, set off my own fair and freckled skin. Even our fingers were a contrast—her smooth oval nails polished in shocking pink, my stubby nails a deliberately offbeat olive-green.
10.When my maternal grandmother died, I packed up all my stuff, left the sprawling suburbia where I grew up, and moved into her old house on 123 Day Street in Delmar, Virgina. If nothing else, it put me three hundred miles away from my paternal grandmother, who was still alive—in case anybody needed proof that life is very unfair.
I ran all the ideas through my personal rating system and eventually decided on one. Which one? Well, I hope that when I finish it and give it to the world to read, you’ll see.
I kind of have to say this one. When you become an author, you sign the super-secret pact of loyalty that says, among other things, “Anytime somebody asks me about writing, I will without fail tell them to find a time to write consistently.”
Haha, I’m just kidding. Or am I? You won’t know until you join the society of authorship, and the only way you’ll do that is to… guess what?… write consistently.
When I do finally get a draft done, it’s usually because I’ve written it in 300- to 500-word bursts every morning. Note that, unlike Brandon Sanderson who can write 2500 words while dead, I don’t write a whole lot most of the time. But I’ve carved out a specific time to write, and can keep up any momentum I’ve created. Or even if I don’t have any momentum, I’m still there to write.
Related to this point…
Even if you’re not actively writing a story, novel, memoir, whatever — use this time to write. Letters, writing prompts, ideas you’ll one day use, blog posts… Ooh. Blog posts. Yes.
If you’re a writer, start a blog. And then maintain that blog. Who knows if anybody will read it? But it gives you an outlet to write regularly. During the years when I had four young children, homeschooled, and no emotional space to construct real stories, I blogged. It kept my hand in the craft so that when life became less intense, I was already primed and ready to write seriously. (As a major side benefit, we have a fairly regular record of our life stretching back to 2004.)
6.Don’t assume that where you are now is where you’ll always be
One benefit of having finished two serious projects is that now I know the truth. I know I’ll get stuck, the story will tangle up, I’ll hit dead ends… but eventually I’ll figure a way out and finish the story.
That’s not to say that I’ve finished everything I’ve started. I’ve got drafts of two separate stories that I’ve put away for now because I don’t yet know how to tell them properly. But I know that one day, if they’re important to me, I’ll break through the wall and get them in shape. I have before. I will again.
If you’re a writer, you don’t throw in the pencil, turn off the computer, and abandon your foolish passion. You just don’t. You take breaks, find new approaches, and never ever stop writing.
(That’s the in the super-secret author pact too.)
And when I do find a way through a tangle, or when I reach the end of a story, I’m on such a high that I will assure the whole world that it’s worth all that effort just to get to this point.
You know what? It really is.