1, 2, 3 … Kickstart Your Writing

Need new story ideas? Make lists.

A mashup of Brainstorming and Writing Prompts, I find that list making can help even the most reluctant writer generate new and unexpected ideas. This is a fun activity to do by yourself, tackling a prompt or two per day, perhaps. Or, if you’re leading a class, here’s how it works:

Decide how much time you want to dedicate to list making. I’ll often devote 20 to 30 minutes at the beginning or end of a class. You may, instead, decide to use one prompt per day as a writing warm up. I introduce the activity by explaining that I will read prompts one at a time and give students five minutes to respond to each one. Some prompts are silly, while others are quite thoughtful. Students are not expected to write full sentences. No one cares about grammar, punctuation or spelling. This is about idea generation only. Oh, and there are two very important rules:

Everyone participates.
No one judges anyone else’s work.

I encourage students to make the lists in their writing notebooks so they can revisit these ideas or prompts from time to time.

This activity works well with high school and college students. With minor adjustments, it could be used with any age level. You may find certain prompts are better suited to your students; pick and choose which you use. Better yet, develop your own prompts.

So, let’s get started making some lists

  1. What are THREE things people would be surprised to learn about you?
  2. If/when you become a parent, what FIVE things do you vow never to do or say?
  3. Who are the THREE people from history (living or dead) that you would most like to meet and talk to? Why? What would you ask?
  4. If you could only speak FIFTEEN words for the rest of your life, what would those words be?
  5. If you had THREE wishes, what would they be? (No, you cannot ask for more wishes.)
  6. Write a list of TWENTY things that make you happy.
  7. Which FIVE celebrities would you like to invite to a party? Why?
  8. If you could only eat THREE foods for the rest of your life, what would they be? Why?
  9. What TEN places would you most like to visit?
  10. You have been named ruler of the world. What FIVE changes will you make first?
  11. Emergency evacuation. You must leave your home within the next few minutes. Which FIVE possessions do you take with you?
  12. What are THREE lies you’ve told recently?
  13. What are your FOUR favorite things to do with your family?
  14. What are your FOUR least favorite things to do with your family?
  15. Some words just roll on the tongue. What are your TEN favorite words to say?
  16. What are your FIVE biggest pet peeves?
  17. You are adrift at sea – no land in sight. What THREE people do you want in your boat? Why?
  18. What are your top FIVE life goals?
  19. Imagine you’ve just been given a litter of FIVE adorable puppies. What names do you give them?
  20. What are TEN words you hope no one ever uses to describe you?

When you’re done with your list-making activity, you may find some students are dying to share their lists. That’s fine. Just don’t force anyone to share anything they don’t want to – otherwise they’ll begin to edit their brainstorming.

Encourage students to think about ways in which some of these prompts lend themselves to future writing. Words that are fun to say, for example, might find their way into a poem. Or, thinking about least favorite family activities could turn into a funny short story.

Where will list making take you?

Giving Birth (to a first draft) with Less Pain

My writer friends are creative people. When we meet over coffee, talk often turns to story ideas and characters they’re creating. Then, someone inevitably says something to the effect of, “I just can’t get through my first draft.”

There’s an excellent reason for that: First drafts are really, really hard. I gave birth without drugs, and I can tell you that process was less painful than birthing almost any first draft I’ve ever written.

Writing is not for the faint of heart.

Still, if you want to conquer your next first draft, I encourage you to try these tips. The process still won’t be pain-free, but I’m hopeful these bits of wisdom will help you push through:

Be Honest with Yourself

Can you crank out pages of spectacular fiction in a busy coffee shop – or do you need complete silence at a clean and organized desk to be able to write anything? I once met a very prolific romance writer who was most productive when she wore blackout glasses while sitting at her computer; she said taking away visual distractions allowed her to focus completely on her stories.

Figure out when and where you are most productive. Are you an early morning person? Is your creativity at its highest after an evening jog? Assess your working habits and preferences and try to rearrange your schedule so you can write during these prime creative times.

Set a Timeline

If you have a deadline, figure out how much time you have between now and then to complete your project. If you work really late on Mondays and Wednesdays and you know you can’t write then, you’ll subtract those days. Can you spend 30 minutes per day writing? Or would it work better for you to write three hours per day twice each week?

If you don’t have a deadline, give yourself one – and hold yourself accountable. Join a critique group. Knowing that you need to bring new projects to biweekly or monthly meeting will help you keep moving forward with your writing projects

Just Jump In

If a lawyer has cases to research or a contractor has tile to set, they typically just roll up their sleeves and do the work. It’s work and it needs to be done, so they do it.

Why don’t writers think that way? When a writer has work to do, he might:

  • Make sculptures out of paper clips
  • Sort through old emails
  • Clean the bathroom
  • Finish some online shopping
  • Reorganize his closet
  • Almost anything but writing

If this sounds familiar, you are not alone. The hardest thing about writing is getting started. Set a time and a date that you’re going to sit and start your project – and be there. Start writing, whether at a computer or longhand in a notebook. Put down words – any words. It’s likely you’ll find that once you start, you won’t want to stop.

Stop Expecting Perfection

First drafts are all about discovering what’s happening, meeting characters, and figuring out where they’re going.

First drafts are not about producing perfect prose or dazzling dialogue. If you’re writing along and a brilliant line pops into your head, for god’s sake, write it down. But for the most part you must remember that the first draft is going to be ugly. That’s OK, because simply having words on paper gives you something to polish and improve in subsequent drafts.

I live by author Anne Lamott’s words: “The only way I can get anything written at all is to write really, really shitty first drafts.”

Write All The Way Through

For me, the easiest way to get through a first draft, is to sit down and write the whole thing in one sitting. I call this the “pre-first draft.”

I’m not talking about writing a 400-page novel in one sitting. What I’m suggesting is that you sit down and write what your story is going to be. Start at the beginning and don’t get up until you finish.

So many people – myself included – have started really promising stories that were never finished. That’s because we didn’t know where those stories were going.

Before you allow yourself to thoroughly develop characters and set up premises that you’re emotionally attached to, you must know where the story is going. Sure, you might later change your mind, but characters who don’t have a path are going to wander and readers will get bored – and so will writers.

Give yourself 30 minutes or an hour and just write down what your story is going to be. Taking the time to do this prewriting, will make your first draft (and subsequent drafts) easier to write.

See It Before You Write It

If you know your story is going to take place in a high-end department store, begin by visualizing it. As you open the doors, what do they look like? Are they heavy and polished? Are aisles wide or narrow? What do shoppers look like? What are they wearing? What does the store smell like?

Picture the setting through your viewpoint character’s eyes. Make notes about the sights, sounds and smells. Imagine how your character will act in this place. Is she confident? Uncomfortable?

Fill your mind with the scene you want to write. Once you’ve allowed your character to wander through the scene in your head, pick up your pen and start writing.

Keep Going

The first draft is just the beginning. Once it’s finished there will be rewriting and revising. Perhaps subplots will need to be added or characters will need to be fleshed out or eliminated. I don’t show anyone my first drafts, but I keep them all because I like to see the transformation my characters and stories go through. That sort of progress motivates me.

I find it’s best to write a draft and then let it simmer for a bit before I begin polishing. Time away from the project allows me to think about it without actually writing. It gives my brain a break so that, when I start again, I am able to look at it through fresh eyes.

Stephen King wrote in On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft that, when he completes a first draft, it lets it sit for about six weeks. During this time, he works on other projects. After the six weeks are up, he re-reads the manuscript and writes draft number two. King sends his second drafts out to beta readers and uses their input when he begins work on his third draft.

Yes, first drafts are difficult but they’re not impossible. Do the work and soon you’ll realize the joy of a complete and polished story.

 

 

You Can’t Make This Stuff Up

Whenever writers say they don’t know what to write about, I tell them to pick up a newspaper or turn on the news. Real life can be a real inspiration.

Blame my roots in journalism, but I love the news. I read at least one newspaper daily – a real, paper copy – and I’m forever sending myself links to news magazines and websites. I’m not reporting on the events I’m reading about, but rather I’m looking for tidbits – thought-provoking nuggets that can spawn bigger stories. When I find something that interests me, I clip it or print it out and stick it in my idea file. I’m especially drawn to crazy crime stories, but the file contains a wide variety of real-life inspiration that I thumb through from time to time:

  • Teva, the company known for its outdoor footwear, made its largest pair of sandals ever – for Shanthi, a 41-year-old arthritic elephant who lives at the National Zoo. The sandals reportedly make it easier for the 9,000-pound pachyderm to walk around.
  • A 2007 clipping details the almost unbelievable unraveling of NASA astronaut Lisa Nowak, who drove from Houston to Orlando to confront a romantic rival. As she drove, she disguised herself with a dark wig, glasses and trench coat and wore adult diapers so she wouldn’t have to stop.
  • Two Kentucky men were arrested in 2016 after they accidentally called 911 while sitting in their car, discussing plans to rob a local restaurant. The dispatcher listened to their conversation and police were able to intervene.
  • A burglar got stuck in a chimney while trying to break into a home in Huron, California, in November 2015. The man was discovered when the homeowner returned and lit the fireplace. Bad luck turned into horrible luck; the would-be thief died as a result of burns and smoke inhalation.

Will I ever write a novel about star-crossed NASA lovers? Probably not. But the intimate details of that account – the ways in which Nowak became so obsessed with “the other woman” – could well find their way into another story. Similarly, I wouldn’t be surprised if someday one of my characters butt-dials 911 and accidently confesses a crime.

Real life doesn’t have to be outrageous to be inspirational. I have journals filled with notes about people I’ve known or observed: How they dressed, wore their hair, talked, walked:

  • The high school classmate who always ate dessert first, in case she “ran out of room.”
  • The teammate whose softball uniform was so tight she confessed she had to shimmy into it while it was wet and let it dry on her body overnight.
  • The college Latin professor who carried a satchel, and wore a tight black turtleneck sweater and black leather pants to every class for a year.
  • My grandfather, who dressed in worn chambray shirts and drank one beer each summer – an Old Milwaukee to celebrate the end of haying season.

Those types of traits, those tiny details breathe life into fictional characters.

It’s not complicated. It’s real life. Observe it. Make notes about it. Use it the next time you need a little inspiration.