Every writer has days where they feel a little deflated, distracted or depleted of wonder — especially when working on a project as grand as a novel. With short fiction too, it’s natural for this ebb and flow. Although each of us must find our own process, if your writing runs a little dry or you’re feeling uninspired, try these ocean-inspired storytelling tips.
When You Don’t Know How to Begin: Jump In
When you don’t know how to begin, or find yourself repeatedly editing the first chapter, skip it. Return to it later. Far finer to make progress and the act of doing so is creatively-affirming. If forever stuck in a groundhog day of editing that initial scene, your story cannot move forward, and if it isn’t progressing, your passion for the project will wane.
Instead, jump in where your passion is. Begin with a piece of potent dialogue or a major scene, even one of those milestones or heart-clutching moments (see below). It doesn’t matter where you begin in the initial stages, only that you do. “Ignore sequence while writing your first draft,” says Elizabeth Sims, Writer’s Digest contributing editor and author of ‘You’ve Got a Book in You: A Stress-Free Guide to Writing the Book of Your Dreams’.
“Beginning writers will often say, “I’ve got the basic story figured out, but I don’t know how to present it so it hangs together. I’m never sure what should come next.” Nothing is as freeing as writing what comes to mind next, not necessarily what must come next. Transitions are unimportant. Exposition is always less important than you think it is. Just focus on what happens next.”
• Start in the middle.
• Jump into the story where there is already potent energy or a scene you are passionate about.
• Start where your passion is, where something exciting happens, and write. The act of beginning will create its own momentum, bringing you both the satisfaction and motivation to continue.
• Notice what sparks your interest. Follow Tangents.
• Just focus on what comes to mind next, not what must come next.
Let Go & Get Messy With Your First Draft
“Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts,” Anne Lamott wrote in ‘Bird by Bird’, echoing Hemmingway’s famous quote. Wild and messy first drafts not only grant you the permission to write badly, which is key, but also allow you to slip into your creative flow. Unless you let go, stop overthinking your process, and allow your writing to come through you, it will always feel a little stuck.
“As soon as I stopped over-thinking my process, my infernal internal editor shut up, my characters started talking to me again, and my writing improved vastly,” says author K. M. Weiland. “The first draft is the place to smear your raw creativity onto the page. Don’t worry about being perfect. Just have fun. Live your story; find your awe. Don’t think too hard about what you’re doing until after you’ve done it.”
Let Your Writing Flow
To make progress with writing, any writing, letting it be wild and untamed during the first draft stage is essential for both your progress and prose. “Why does a coherent first draft give birth to a stilted finished product? Because it means you haven’t let it flow. You haven’t given yourself permission to make mistakes,” says Elizabeth Sims.
“Unless your throttle’s wide open, you’re not giving it everything you’ve got. If you can be gut-level honest with yourself, you’ve really got a shot at your readers. And the only way to find that honesty is to not overthink it. For your writing to come alive—to be multi-dimensional—you must barter away some control. The rewards are worth it.”
Trust Your Story & the Fluidity of the Process
The nature of creativity is fluid, and the process filled with fluidity too. One useful storytelling tool I learnt from author and creator of the inspired Story is a State of Mind writing course, Sarah Selecky, was to let yourself drift, to trust your story, and be carried by it. Writing in this way feels curious, a method of discovery. As if the characters are whispering in your ear and you the conduit through which they speak.
“It’s as if [my stories] were dictated to me by something that is in me, but it’s not me who’s responsible.” Novelist, short story writer and essayist Julio Cortázar said in this Paris Review interview. Let that deeper creativity come through you to put those intangible sensations into prose. They come when you allow them to, and trust without judgement.
The word ‘drift’ is a wonderful one as like a Pooh stick from A. A Milne’s classic book, floating downstream, it knows its destination but allows the river to carry it — and flows — with the river, wherever that river takes it and out to see. Writing can be a lot like this but you need to get into the water to grant yourself that freedom, and trust too that you will be carried by the water.
Sometimes that river may not take you where you thought it would but that too is one of the great beauties of writing (anyone unversed in the wisdom of Winnie the Pooh, he’s a little bear with a big appetite for honey).
“It took time to learn that the hard thing about writing is to let the story write itself, while one sits at the typewriter and does as little thinking as possible,” said Richard Bach, in his short story and essay anthology A Gift of Wings. It happened over and over again, and the beginner learned—when you start puzzling over an idea, and slowing down on the keys, the writing gets worse and worse.”
As author Joy Williams told The Paris Review, “The story knows itself better than the writer does at some point.” Trust is key in creativity. You have to relax into the process, and let the words carry you, just as they carry the story forward. It’s not always easy to relinquish control—in life and in art—but in both, letting go makes for both a finer life, and far finer storytelling.
“In storytelling, what will happen informs what is happening, and what is happening informs what did. You cannot know where a story needs to go until you know where it’s been, but you cannot know where it needs to have been until you know where it’s going,” says writing instructor and novelist, Steven James. “It’s a paradox. And that’s part of the fun.”
Zoom in on Sensory Detail
If you find yourself slowing or getting a little stuck on a scene or sentence, zoom in. Focus on the sensory detail. Writing through each sense is a wonderful way to bring a scene alive, and reconnect with your characters, setting, and story. To find the source of an experience, the detail, the sentiment.
Become acquainted with the sensation of writing—the feeling of writing—with the images that come to you, through you. “When you are present, the thing you are watching becomes new to you. Something altogether different,” says Sarah Selecky. Through the working magic of language, you reveal new worlds to your reader.
Instead of analysing what the characters are feeling or experiencing, give subtle, and sometimes not-so-subtle clues. Get out of any stance of analysis. We love and read fiction so we can feel so don’t short-change your reader. Instead let the reader feel the story, slip inside it and be there right next to the characters, so that their pain and fear is felt, vicariously of course.
Slow down and zoom in: What does it smell like? What are the sounds? How does it feel? Taste? What detail can you see or suggest?
Embrace the Uncertainty
So much fear and uncertainty comes with writing yet the irony is that the finest way to make those feelings disappear, or at least abate a little, is to begin. Trust, get going, shoot it all as Annie Dillard once said. Finding your own unique process may require a little discovery and experimentation.
Sometimes the uncertainty becomes too intense or unsettling, and that’s when many writers give-up but uncertainty isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Personally, it was only in letting go of control — of trusting the process and embracing that uncertainty — while showing up every day, that my writing found its voice. My story too, found its literary feet.
“It’s like improvising in jazz,” said Julio Cortázar. “You don’t ask a jazz musician, “But what are you going to play?” He’ll laugh at you. He has a theme, a series of chords he has to respect, and then he takes up his trumpet or his saxophone and he begins. It’s not a question of idea. He performs through a series of different internal pulsations. Sometimes it comes out well, sometimes it doesn’t.”
“Recognize that when you experience doubt and fear, it is a signal that you are touching onto something important and necessary for your personal growth and for the growth of your writing,” says writer and creator of Finally Writing blog, Jackie Johansen. “Write your way through discomfort. Write through the negative feelings. Write with confidence, love and heart. Trust that the writing practice will take you and your work exactly where you need to be.”
Explore the Terrain of Your Story
“Forget all that rubbish you’ve heard about staying on track and not following rabbit trails. Of course you should follow them. It’s inherent to the creative process,” says Steven James. “What you at first thought was just a rabbit trail leading nowhere in particular might take you to a breathtaking overlook that eclipses everything you previously had in mind.”
Free-writing can be a powerful tool to chase down tangents and explore your story’s possibilities. “Without serendipitous discoveries, your story runs the risk of feeling artificial and prepackaged. Give yourself the freedom to explore the terrain of your story. Wander daily through your idea field and unreservedly embrace the adventure.”
Adjusting Your Sails
Just as no sailor became skilled in calm seas, we must adjust our sails according to the state of the waves and creative weather, and navigate these waters each day we write. Some days the sea is choppy and we make little progress, others, it’s as if we’re skimming along the shore with the thrill of writing propelling us onward, but not every day can be this way.
“Instead of trying to cling on to wanting the waves to be a certain way every day, or clinging to one wave with everything we have, it is much more helpful to concentrate on learning how to surf the energy waves of our lives,” says writing coach and author, Lauren Sapala.
“We accept the big waves and the little waves, and the crashes and the calm sea, knowing that we can’t force the waves and we can’t control the waves either.” Much like the ocean is forever changing, creativity also fluctuates and influences how your writing goes on a given day. Respect this process of ebb and flow. Be kind to yourself — especially through the the less creative days — and remember that much of writing fiction isn’t spent actually writing.
“On those days that a word count doesn’t happen, I write down my insights each day in my notebook instead,” says Sarah Selecky. “Lo and behold, I really am writing, even when I’m not writing! Thinking about my characters is important, not to be overlooked. So what if I don’t have a word count? Onward!”
Dive Deep into Story Tension
Whether you’re writing short fiction or an epic novel, at the heart of every story is tension, the unmet need and desire of your protagonist. This character wants something but cannot get it but each attempt, each resolved problem, must always be within the context of a greater escalation of your plot, an increased momentum.
“To create depth in your characters, typically you’ll have two struggles that play off each other to deepen the tension of the story. The character’s external struggle is a problem that needs to be solved; her internal struggle is a question that needs to be answered. The interplay of these two struggles is complementary until, at the climax, the resolution of one gives the protagonist the skills, insights to resolve the other,” says Steven James.
“As you shape your novel, ask yourself, “How can I make things worse?” Always look for ways to drive the protagonist deeper and deeper into an impossible situation (emotionally, physically or relationally) that you then eventually resolve in a way that is both surprising and satisfying to the reader.” Every story must progress toward increasingly more conflict — internal and external — and deeper tension.
Follow a More Relaxed Outline
Although every writer must discover their own unique process, for many who find themselves somewhere between plotter and panster, having an outline can kill the magic but an absence thereof can lead to an uncontrollable story, too many tangents or an absence of direction.
Every writer knows that writing isn’t all easy sailing or joyful skips along a beach but for many, figuring out every scene before writing can lessen the joy of the process, and if you are not enjoying it — at least some of the time — that seeps into your writing like ink into parchment. Darkening it, your mood, dedication, and love of the process too.
Creating a loose outline can offer you guidance — a framework for your story — without taking away any of the magic. It allows you to drift, to follow tangents, to plough down questions and ask ‘what if…?’ but keeps you — and your story — moving onward. You have direction but retain the literary liberty you need to enjoy and discover the story while writing it.
“I spent months studying story structure and plotting out everything on a detailed timeline. I outlined my whole book before I wrote it. By the end of all of that hard work and plotting, I was bored by my own story,” says Sarah Selecky. “There was no reason to write it anymore, because when I outlined it I’d already decided on all the twists and turns, and I wasn’t curious anymore. Finally, I discovered the elegance of a loose outline.”
When you give yourself the freedom of a loose outline, your story and characters surprise you with insights that may never have organically evolved were you to stick to the strict doctrine of the outline. You can’t plan these insights ahead of time, they come through the act itself, and can be what separates a mediocre story from a wonderful one. “It’s an approach that mixes the joy of freewriting with the comfort of an outline,” says Sarah Selecky.
Find the Key Scenes: Milestones & Heart-Clutching Moments
The finest plotting technique I’ve ever been taught is to find the key scenes in your novel, the ‘heart-clutching moments’, as Elizabeth Sims calls them. Similarly, Sarah Selecky refers to these pivotal story moments ‘milestones’. While author Victoria Mixon, in her book ‘The Art and Craft of Fiction‘, used the loose map of the subway to plot (for fellow Brits, think London Underground).
You’re looking for the key scenes, and then using these to guide your story much like a buoys guide a boat through a channel. It’s a fantastic tool as you have direction, you have a loose outline, a sequence of events, and guide but are free to discover, experiment, dive deep. “I chose a few milestones to hit throughout the story — scenes that had some energy that I liked turning over and over in my head. I invited these scenes to come at the beginning, middle and end. I didn’t force them,” says Sarah Selecky.
“I wrote a lot of notes and questions in my notebooks until something interesting happened on the page. I saved the interesting bits, highlighted them, and wrote them in general terms on Post-It notes and called them ‘milestones’.” Writing to these ‘milestones’ or ‘heart-clutching moments’ leaves room for your story to evolve and change without the need to revaluate everything. “I simply adjust the outline as I go. It’s an approach that mixes the joy of freewriting with the comfort of an outline.”
Uncover Your Story
“I love Stephen King’s analogy in his book On Writing comparing stories to fossils that we, the storytellers, are uncovering. To plot out a story is to decide beforehand what kind of dinosaur it is. His analogy helps me to stop thinking of a story as something I create as much as it is something I uncover by asking the right questions,” says Steven James.
Who believes that the biggest problem with writing to a strict outline is that you stop this curiosity, this discovery. “You’ll get to a certain place and stop digging, even though there might be a lot more of that dinosaur left to uncover.” Give yourself permission to start without every scene or chapter figured out. It can be good to have an ending in mind but allow yourself to experiment with it too.
Ask yourself ‘what if…?’, follow tangents, and keep digging, discovering, diving deep. “Unleash your curiosity; fling open possibilities. If you do, ideas will come up faster than you can address them. The key to developing ideas in writing is to plough up questions and chase down tangents,” says Elizabeth Sims.
Get Out to Sea and Start Sailing
I was once so filled with doubt I’d edit before I even began, and then feel deflated as so little was produced. Now I get it all out and onto the page, and then see what there is to do with it. This simple transition in process, tripled my output, and instead of it being difficult — though obviously it still can be — when absorbed in the process, it’s easy to remember why we love it so much.
“Hemingway didn’t mean that if you begin with crap, dung or merde, you’ll end up with something far better without much effort. He also didn’t mean that it’s OK to start with a weak premise,” says Elizabeth Sims. “He meant that the first execution of your ideas must be as unfettered as possible.”
Writing is a process of allowing instead of forcing. Surrendering, being a conduit. Writing it down instead of thinking things up. “Don’t think too much. There’ll be time to think later,” writes author Dani Shapiro. “Analysis won’t help. You’re chiseling now. You’re passing your hands over the wood. Now the page is no longer blank … Now you’ve carved the tree. You’ve chiseled the marble. You’ve begun.”
Swim Out for a More Panoramic View
It can be easy to get too close to a story, especially when concerned about story structure and plot. If worrying whether there’s enough momentum or rising action when your story is still embryonic, these things—though obviously crucial to a good story—can get in the way in these early stages, and hamper your progress, or at the very least, slow it down.
Like a mermaid staring back at the full expanse of your story’s shore, swimming out to see things from a more panoramic view can help as although breaking up grand projects into humble pieces does help your progress, the story has to work as its own integrated entity, as a whole.
“I find it helpful to discard the idea of a first draft and think of writing the entire story as an integrated whole,” says Steven James. “As you pay attention to the choices your characters make and let the implications of their choices play out on the page, you’ll find yourself writing your story forward and backward at the same time, weaving in narrative elements to create your work intuitively rather than mechanically.”
Let Your Story Flow
To keep readers turning the pages of your novel, the story must flow and the tension evolve and escalate in a natural and believable way. “By consistently driving your story forward through action that follows naturally, characters who act believably, and tension that mounts exponentially, you’ll keep readers flipping pages,” says Steven James.
“When every event is naturally caused by the one that precedes it, the story makes sense. As characters act in ways that are credible and convincing in the quest for their goals, the story remains believable, and the deepening tension and struggles keep the reader caring about what’s happening as well as interested in what’s going to happen next.”
Show Up Every Day & Go Pro
“My writing philosophy is a kind of warrior code—internal rather than external—in which the enemy is identified as those forms of self-sabotage that I call ‘Resistance’ with a capital R (in The War of Art). The technique for combating these foes can be described as ‘turning pro’,” says novelist and author of The War of Art, Steven Pressfield.
You have to show up and do the work. Regardless of whether it’s a day where you are filled to the brim with creative splendour, or you’re deep in a creative funk, if you can begin, you can continue. If you continue, a body of work swiftly materialises. “If you want success,you must pursue it,” agrees Elizabeth Sims.
No matter how humble your output is, writing on a daily basis will quicken your craft quite unlike anything else. As author Tom Robbins said: “Waiting for the right time, the right situation, or the right inspiration, well, that’s for amateurs. If you’re professional, or want to be, you write every day.”
Every writer has moments of creative doubt or insecurities about their writing. Unlike this poor soul, you are not alone in the ocean. “Fear doesn’t go away. The warrior and the artist live by the same code of necessity, which dictates that the battle must be fought anew every day,” says Steven Pressfield.
“If you find yourself asking yourself (and your friends), “Am I really a writer? Am I really an artist?” chances are you are. The counterfeit innovator is wildly self-confident. The real one is scared to death.”
In finding presence before the process, you let the subtle, intuitive part of you connect with and intuit your prose. In stillness, you liberate yourself from overwhelm. In learning to quieten your mind of distractions, you are free to focus and create. Letting go, having trust, and allowing the story to tell itself — while contained by the loosest of guidelines — can transform a troublesome story into one you’re hooked on.
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