Tuesday, June 1, 2010
Writing Outside Your Story: Using Short Self-Assignments When You Don't Have Anything to Write About
Working on a book project often brings me a sense of being so overwhelmed, I can't think of anything to write about. I make brainstorming lists of topics, and this helps. But sometimes I have to write outside my story, just to get the momentum going again.
Short self-assignments help tremendously.
In her book, Thunder and Lightning, Goldberg told the story of a time when she and a friend were stuck, unhappy, and unable to think of how to move forward creatively. They tried talking. They tried taking a hike. But nothing worked until they both sat down and did a timed writing session. As I remember the anecdote, they picked a topic outside their current writing projects, something that had less importance or weight, and this freed up the stuckness.
I'm reaching a marker this week, finishing the edits on Act 2 of my novel-in-progress, Breathing Room. It's the sequel to Qualities of Light, which was published in October, and it's a much more complicated story with three main characters, three main points of view. Last week my breakthrough on Breathing Room came when I reversed something in the plot. Instead of Kate, the mother, having a car accident, I gave it to Molly, the daughter. By reversing one plot point, it gave huge momentum.
This week I got stuck again. It's become a normal process to work my way out of being stuck in this story. The reversing technique of last week didn't work. So I searched for something new.
When the Story Becomes Too Important, Write "Outside" of It
I realized I was overwhelmed with the importance of this section of the book. It is the second major turning point, if you follow the three-act structure, and the plot responsibility felt enormous. I found myself with nothing to write about.
So I went outside my story.
I gave myself a short self-assignment, using a list of random words. Typical Writing Down the Bones approach: set a kitchen timer for 20 minutes, let myself blah, blah on paper without worrying about quality or quantity.
These little tricks really do work. Midway through, I came upon an idea. It was a small idea, not really big enough for this moment in my book, but it intrigued me. So I took a walk and thought about it. That evening I was looking at the field behind our house, where the farmer just hayed, and the hay bales were these huge rolls, looking like a Claude Monet painting in the late evening sun. Somehow the image of that field juiced my little idea and I sat and wrote for two hours, finishing my chapters.
A miracle. Want one for yourself?
This Week's Writing Exercise
1. Pick one of the following words:
2. Set a kitchen timer for 20 minutes. Write anything that comes, using the word as a trigger. Don't think about your book.
3. Put the writing aside and take a walk. Let the scenery around you bring something to your imagination.
4. When you get home, set the timer for 20 minutes again. Go back to a stuck place in your story. Bring what you've just experienced to the page.
Posted by Mary Carroll Moore at 10:40 AM