Monday, October 14, 2013

Starting New Stories: a Reliable Way to Avoid the Mythical "Writer's Block"

I've had a couple of former students email me recently expressing their desire to write stories but their frustration that when they sit down, no ideas come to them. As I've said, I don't believe in writer's block--you can write something, but . . . here's an old trick I've used many times and shared with students over the years that can jumpstart your subconscious (which is where the best short story drafting comes from).

It starts today, ideally in your writer's journal (don't have one? Start one. Here's your first entry). Do this: (1) make a list of at least 10 character names (and add to it once a week or so)--make them interesting and varied: Larry "Lemon" Haggerty, Julia Rosebottom, Hines Redd, Carl "Hoggy" Smith, Lisa Jobile, Idaho Richarson, etc. (2) makes a list of 10-15 concrete nouns (add to it as you can)--again, varied: spoon, kitchen matches, lighter, helium birthday balloon, can of sausages, child's princess tiara, etc. (3) make a list of one-sentence desciptions of small, specific settings (add others when you can): backseat of a white '72 Buick Skylark with electrical tape holding the seat leather together; an overgrown flowergarden next to a carport cluttered with junk attached to Old Man Shaver's house; the back stoop of a Chinese restaurant next to a trash bin where stray dogs gather, etc.

Now, one day when you sit down and don't know what to write about, pull out these lists, choose a name, object, and place (or better yet, have someone else do it), and start writing. See where it takes you (sometimes use two names, or two objects--mix it up).

For example: "Some of the dogs barked and whined over by the trash bin, but a mangy hound crept slowly toward Julia Rosebottom with two of the saddest eyes she'd ever seen. He seemed to be looking at the sagging helium birthday balloon that floated just above her head on its string, which she'd wrapped around her pinky like a ring. Julia wiped the tears from her eyes and tried to coax the dog over to the stoop she was sitting on by scratching her fingers against the concrete."

It's rough, but it's a start. There's a character in a place with a situation. Now it's up to me (you! our subconscious) to figure out where the story goes from here.


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