Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Writing Outside Your Story: Using Short Self-Assignments When You Don't Have Anything to Write About

I first learned about short self-assignments from Natalie Goldberg's well-known Writing Down the Bones.  Goldberg introduced the concept of "freewriting" to us with that book, and many writers discovered new energy to sail past writing stall-outs by giving themselves freedom to write small, short, and random.

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:

rusty nail

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.        


  1. Never thought of doing this, will have to consider it when I'm working on my next :)

  2. Hi Nicole,
    Thanks for posting a comment--hope this works for you when you try it!