There’s a moment in every author’s first draft where you screech to a halt. Search into your heart. And wonder: have I made a huge mistake? Did I go down the wrong path? Is this story really a story? Can I make this work?
The reality of the terror in the middle pages has not diminished for me– not in book number one, when I faced it for the first time, and not in books two through twelve, where I recognized the moment and was nevertheless terrified. And now, in book thirteen, I hit that place again.
Because it’s just us, I will tell you: there was a moment of desperate terror.
But in the past, one method that has worked for unlocking the story has been what some people call free writing, what some people call speculation, or what if -ing. I call it list-making.
The key question is one the amazing Thomas Edison was once asked: “Isn’t it frustrating to have had to try 106 things for the lightbulb before you realized tungsten would work?”
And Thomas Edison reportedly said: “No! Now I know 105 things that don’t work.”
He also famously said, so the history goes, “When you think you have exhausted all of the possibilities, remember this: you haven’t.”
Keeping Edison in mind, how do we get ideas? I have learned over the years that when I am stuck, one thing to do is to just make a list, not on the computer but in handwriting, of all the possibilities.
In a previous book, my pantser-writing resulted in the end of the chapter having a person come home to her apartment, and see an envelope taped to the door. She wonders, “What’s in that envelope?”
And frankly? So did I.
It drove me crazy, it bugged me, what was in the envelope? Why would I write that?
I thought and thought about it, and couldn’t figure it out. So at one point I just told myself, okay. You don’t know. So let’s write a list of every single thing that possibly could be in an envelope.
A letter, of course. A photograph. A recipe. A summons. A page of a will. A page of a diary. A newspaper clipping. A yearbook page. A check. A page ripped out of a diary. A letter the recipient wrote themselves. A bill. A request. A blank piece of paper. Or nothing.
I won’t tell you what I decided, but making that list–letting my mind go and knowing that I did not need to make a decision– freed it to see all of the possibilities.
I can also reveal that in a different book, a protagonist opened the door to a room, and saw: a baby on the bed. Who’s baby is this? she wondered. And I, again, I had the same question. Yeah. Who’s baby is this?
I tried the list again. The boyfriend’s. The girlfriend. The mother. The bad guy. The good guy. The person in charge. A stranger. A new character. On and on. And finally I figured it out. My brain was freed, the boundaries were erased, it all just–didn’t matter.
And there’s more.
It’s also valuable to make a list to answer the question: why would this character do that? If you are stuck at a moment of action that you don’t understand, simply write down all the possibilities of why someone would make such a decision. Because, of course, in decision-making, character is revealed.
So, as if in reality, ask your character: why would you do that? And what would the character tell you? If your character is fully formed, or on the way to being fully formed, your character will answer you! And incredibly often, with with an answer that you hadn’t thought of! Yes, I am saying talk to your characters. Ask them a question. And see what they tell you. You might be happily surprised.
When we are sitting at our desks, and our brains are demanding: think of something! Right now! Think of something! it’s very difficult to have the mental freedom to speculate. I don’t have time to speculate! you cry. I HAVE to write! And then your brain seizes up even more .
But sometimes if you let go, free your brain and release your pressure, your imagination will be freed as well. Just make a list.
Have you ever made a list to unlock your brain? Let’s talk about it on the Career Authors Facebook page! (And then, get writing)