QUICK FIXES WHEN YOU DON’T KNOW WHAT TO WRITE

You have some time. Maybe you have some time at the same hour and in the same place every day. Most days, you write eagerly and productively. You make progress on your novel or your collection of short stories, or your non-fiction history of the Sangre de Christo mountains.

But then one day you have the time. You have the space. You have the enthusiasm. But you don’t have any idea what you want to put down on the page. Often, this has roots in self doubt. 

Nobody wants to read this. I suck at this. Who am I to try this?

The first thing to do is tell yourself it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks, because this is a first draft, and you aren’t going to show it to anyone. Now that that’s out of the way, remind yourself that the most important thing is to get the story down on paper before you lose it. That is, if you have a story. 

If you  have a story, and you don’t know where to go next, try free writing. Do this with a paper and pen and the determination not to cross out or read until you’re done with the exercise. Start with the last sentence you wrote in your story and write for 30 minutes without stopping. At some point you may need to write “Keep the hand moving” a couple of time before your mind kicks in. As the author and creative writing teacher Natalie Goldberg advises: “Follow your mind.” Don’t try to stay on track (what you think is the track) just write. Something good will come out of it. Maybe something small, maybe something important. It doesn’t matter.

And if you don’t  have a story, pick a color, or an object, and write about that, until something clicks in your mind and you are writing about a memory, or a dream, or a wish you had as a child, anything that resonates with you and continue with that until you have exhausted it. These seemingly random thoughts will have little nuggets of truth that you can work with.

Maybe you will get a poem, or the start of one. Maybe you will get a flawed character that you can build a seven novel series on.

One of my favorite exercises when I’m starting a new story or poem or scene for a play is to go to the thesaurus or the dictionary, open it at random with my eyes closed and put my finger on the page. I do this three times (three different pages). Jot down each word in turn, then look at each word. If you’re not sure of the meaning, look it up. Now use the meanings of those three words in your poem or short story WITHOUT EVER USING THE WORDS. Somehow, this gives your mind room to play and make some surprising connections that will enrich your work.

Inspiration can come from anywhere. This next one came from Alice Whitfield, my voiceover coach one day when she felt that the energy in the class was not as creative as she would like. Evidently we were all giving lackluster performances on our recordings. She told us all to close our eyes and picture a corner in our kitchen at home. We were to recall every single item in that corner, from floor to ceiling, to pick up any small objects, to note their color, and weight in our minds. We were to think of a scent from the kitchen, maybe gingerbread, or savory stuffing, or something else pungent that we enjoyed. When she told us to open our eyes, and take our turns recording for a second time, every single performance had improved. And I put it into my writing toolkit. 

When the current plague is over and we can return to activities like sitting with our notebooks and a cup of tea or coffee at Travelers or Charlies or El Sombrero, listen to the conversations around you. Not obviously, of course, try to look like you are writing something of your own, not recording snippets of conversation. I once heard a woman say to a man that stopped by her table, “Is your dad still in the graveyard?” Something like that can lead to any number of stories.

Is the dad a gravedigger? A landscaper? A vampire that walks by night?

Another trick you can use is to have some jars filled with folded scraps of paper. One jar could have jobs – mechanic, neurosurgeon, substitute teacher, detective, etc. Another could have places – small town, big city, mesas, mountains, Alaska fishing village, artist’s colony, desert, any place you can think of, especially if you have been there, or would like to research it. Then a jar with situations – kidnapping, star crossed lovers, changing places with someone, building a house on swampland. Pull two slips out of the first jar for your protagonist and antagonist. Then a slip of paper for the place. Then one for the situation. And suddenly you have characters in a situation in a place. And it’s a start.

Now use these tips, or your preferred starting point, and write something (poetry, essay, or fiction) for Tapestry, the Las Vegas Literary Salon’s upcoming collection. The deadline for submission is June 1, so start writing. Click on the TAPESTRY GUIDELINES tab in the menu to get the submission guidelines and read the Call for Submissions here.

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