If you’re on the cusp of a first or a new writing project, congratulations!
You’ve bought into the most fun and exciting stage of novel-writing, the invention stage.
A blank page needn’t strike terror into your heart, or bring on a subsequent bout of writers’ block, either. Just think of this as a time for exploring possibilities, with a few free tips from us to keep things fun, fresh, and critically, fear-free.
Here’s how to capture your best, most authentic ideas.
How to start (or write what you love)
“Write what you know” may sound hackneyed, but in terms of what we know emotionally, it’s indisputably sound advice.
All you’ll do is dress it up in fiction.
Creating stories that resonate with readers is intuitive. If a story isn’t heartfelt for you, if you’re not invested emotionally in its pages as creator, you may as well not write. Revisiting your emotional bank of experiences and knowledge is key to storytelling. Good writing creates connection in readers, and you can’t do this if you’re not emotionally invested in your own story.
Write what brings you to life. Write what is important to you.
Let this be fundamental to your writing, the foundation from which you create and map out your ideas, before you get started.
How to source story material
Sourcing story material means journeying inward, coming back to or reconnecting with what’s already in you.
Cheryl Strayed, author of Wild, has observed:
“Writing is hard for every last one of us — straight white men included. Coal mining is harder. Do you think miners stand around all day talking about how hard it is to mine for coal? They do not. They simply dig.”
Writer and creativity guru Elizabeth Gilbert hints at the same, in her creative treatise Big Magic, speaking of hidden treasures in us waiting for excavation.
You’ll find answers already lurking inside you.
Elizabeth Gilbert also calls this, in Big Magic, a distinction between hard work and fairy dust. Hard work is a condition of fairy dust, so don’t wait for inspiration to float down, settle like an aura or divine calling upon your shoulders.
There’s something magical in creativity, to be sure, and J.K. Rowling has famously described the character Harry Potter simply walking into her head as she travelled on a train.
Nevertheless, J.K. Rowling’s also spoken intimately of the loss she felt at her mother’s death, her struggles with depression, how these have informed her writing. She’s shared just how much love and loss has influenced the series.
In a conversation with Oprah:
J.K. Rowling: The books are what they are because she died. Because I loved her and she died. That’s why they are what they are.
Oprah Winfrey: Would it also be fair to say that your life – everything in your life, because I know you went through a period of depression and I had read that the Dementors came from that depression—
J.K. Rowling: Completely, yeah.
Oprah Winfrey: Would it be fair to say that you’ve used, in the seventeen-year process, writing the Potter series, that you’ve used the good, the bad and the ugly of your life?
J.K. Rowling: Yeah. Definitely. Definitely.
Don’t reject the life experiences you have, the emotional learning you have.
Perhaps you’re writing a character who’s struggling with a loss. Think of losses you’ve had yourself and draw on feelings, on experience. Or perhaps you’re creating a villain with bitter, jealous motives. Draw on the bitterest moments of your own life to prevent caricature.
Great characters are born out of empathy.
Poking around in coals and dark
Writers’ block can hit as hard at the start as it can mid-draft.
If you’re feeling stuck in the dark now, in this excavation process, remember overthinking will be counterproductive.
Be curious instead.
Explore what brings light and sparks interest, things going on in your present, things from your past. Curiosity helps you get on track to ideas, to forming creative connections.
Just be gentle with yourself, or curiosity can’t flourish.
If you tend to berate yourself when you’re feeling blocked, stop. Doing so again and again is dangerous, and Sylvia Plath has warned us “the worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt”.
Don’t disparage yourself, making self-doubt in your imagination so ingrained, so habitual, you believe it’s true.
Instead, ask yourself questions (take a walk if it helps when you do this). Ponder anything that interests you. Research it. Read around, ask questions. Listen.
If it’s scenes in films or books that grip you, write these down, too. You’re not about to copy. Just think of these as a wish list for momentum and drama in your own writing.
And whenever your ideas start bubbling, make a list to catch them.
John Truby, in The Anatomy of Story, suggests of your story wish list:
“It’s what you are passionately interested in, and it’s what entertains you. You might jot down characters you have imagined, cool plot twists, or great lines of dialogue that have popped into your head. … Write them all down on as many sheets of paper as you need. This is your own personal wish list, so don’t reject anything.”
List anything, everything you’re passionate about.
Then join the dots.
Patterns and connections
More often than not, things you’ve listed won’t be random, or exist in isolation.
Writer Scarlett Thomas has shared how she came up with ideas for her novel PopCo. Topics like piracy, toy-making, cryptanalysis, marketing and mathematics interested her at the time she was writing.
Themes became interwoven as she tied elements together, informing her plot, feeding into ideas her protagonist, Alice, grapples with as an employee at toy company PopCo.
Scarlett Thomas shared in Monkeys with Typewriters what she teaches Creative Writing students at the University of Kent:
“You take the things you know, the experiences you’ve had and the ideas that interest you and make a narrative by combining them in good ways. … This method forces us out of predictability … keeps us grounded in what really matters to us (and what has emotional truth for us) … to find an innovative, truthful and entertaining way of examining the world.”
This is what you are after as a writer.
Writing out your story idea
Once you’ve written your list (or lists), it’s time to create a story idea or premise from which you’ll write your novel draft.
Invent as many premises as you need, looking for possibilities from your lists until something clicks, feels right. Combine unusual ingredients to help things feel fresh, authentic.
You needn’t fret about originality, though. Most things have been done already and the best will continue to be done. Don’t let it threaten you. What matters is if your book will be different enough (as opposed to different altogether), so your story feels authentic.
As an example, most readers sense a formulaic plotline and its outcome when they stumble across them. The key is to add elements that are more unusual, that naturally subvert cliché, so you can surprise readers.
Most of the best stories gently subvert our expectations, stopping these stories becoming formulaic.
Just keep everything rooted in what you love.
Returning to John Truby:
“Key patterns will emerge about what you love. This, in the rawest form possible, is your vision. It’s who you are, as a writer and as a human being, on paper in front of you. Go back to it often.”
Keep your lists close by as you begin to draft.
Curing writers’ block (or fear) and starting to draft
Writer Neil Gaiman’s said that when he sits intentionally to write, he permits himself one of two things.
He either writes, or he looks out of the window.
Tell yourself you’re not allowed to do anything else (e.g. looking out of a window, drumming your fingers on a table), if you can’t write during these times. Writing might just be more fun than looking out of a window, and you can always edit things that don’t work, if you’re convinced you’re writing badly.
Just write anything until you feel “in flow” again, and remember, your first draft is allowed to read poorly. Allow yourself this to ease the pressure of getting words down. Your only job at this point is to get the story out (because you’ll polish it later).
What’s most important is to “book in” your writing sessions when you know you’ll show up to your desk, then start setting structures and permissions around this writing time, just as Neil Gaiman does.
There are online productivity tools to help you stop visiting social media sites, if you find your discipline flagging. Look up free ones like Cold Turkey, for desktops. Switch it on during writing times, and if this doesn’t help, turn off your wi-fi.
If a change of scene helps, find a library, or a café to write in, as J.K. Rowling did when she found the Elephant House Café in Edinburgh.
After all this, if you’re still suffering from writers’ block, fall again upon curiosity, and your lists. If you need, just make more lists. Then come back to your story-in-progress, keeping yourself in that loop of gentle creative discipline.
We must wait upon, not wait for, inspiration.
Just allow it to find you sitting at your desk, hard at work, scribbling lists of ideas and interests, if nothing else (yet).
Lastly, enjoy this time. Writing should be fun, so let the ideas and possibilities excite you, not daunt you.