Start Writing Now
Maya Angelou said, “There’s no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” As someone who has had both an ectopic pregnancy and kidney stones (what many consider the most painful things we can experience), I can attest to the truth of what she says. They didn’t hold a candle to the pain of having a story stuck inside me.
The question that plagued me for years was, How do I give birth to a story inside of me that wants to be born? I never understood how writers did it. How did they come up with all the intricate ideas of a great story in the first place? And then magically weave them together? It felt impossible. Luckily, there was a ton of evidence showing it’s not impossible. So I started reading first-hand accounts from some of the best, and what I found fascinated me.
In his book, On Writing, Stephen King says that he doesn’t create his stories, he channels them. They exist beyond time and space, and his job is to uncover them, like an archaeologist unearths bones. He doesn’t have to make anything up. He said he never knows what’s going to happen next. He just writes from beginning to end, without stopping, and is surprised by each twist and turn, just like his reader. In fact, he says he’s really just the first person who gets to read that story. It made complete sense that someone or something had to be helping with the unimaginable task of pulling all the elements of a story together. And it was such a relief because it took all the pressure off.
I didn’t have to know everything before I began. I didn’t even have to know what would happen in the next sentence. I just had to start and all the details would be revealed to me through the writing process. His book gave me permission to move forward without knowing what would happen. The essence was that I needed to start writing before I could know what to write. I was halfway through On Writing when I began writing my novel, and just as King instructed, I worked on it every day until the first draft was complete.
But Stephen King’s way is not the only way. Diana Gabaldon, author of the Outlander Series, writes a little differently. She lets scenes come to her mind and writes down what she’s envisioning, fiddling with the words until she’s satisfied. When she reaches a certain threshold of mini stories, she pieces them together like a puzzle until the story is finished. Screenwriter, Ron Bass, starts by using a process he calls “matrixing” where he gets every idea he has about the project down before creating an outline. J. K. Rowling starts with the outline first.
Each of these authors shares one thing in common: They know what works for them. They likely tried many ways to write before discovering their own process; much like every actor has to find their own process for getting into character and memorizing lines. Learning what works for others is helpful because it gives you an entry point to start experimenting with what works for you. It really doesn’t matter which process you try first. If one doesn’t work, try a different one. Finding what doesn’t work gets you one step closer to knowing what does.
So, put pressure on the shelf. Commit to a regular writing schedule without knowing what will happen when you sit down, and try one of the following ways to get started:
Free write your entire story beginning to end without stopping to edit a thing until you’re finished.
Write scene by scene as they come to mind, waiting to piece them together until the order becomes clear.
“Matrix” ideas by writing down anything and everything that’s related to the story that comes to mind, including scene descriptions, bits of dialogue, notes on character development, order of events, plot, etc.
Write an outline first, THEN go back to either 1, 2, or 3.
Whichever process you try first, allow yourself the freedom to learn through trial and error what works best. Resist the temptation to give up when one way doesn’t work and try another. If one way works a little for you but not entirely, you may need to mix them. You might need to start with a rough outline instead of a super detailed one. You might need to matrix first and then outline. Or maybe as you’re matrixing, you’ll get an impulse to do something different, like video tape yourself acting out scenes and then stop to write them down.
Here’s a great quote by Joseph Campbell that can help you stay open to discovering your own writing process:
…yield yourself, and the book talks to you and builds itself. To a certain extent, you become the carrier of something that is given to you from what have been called the Muses—or in biblical language, God. This is no fancy, it is a fact. Since the inspiration comes from the unconscious, and since the unconscious minds of the people of any single small society have much in common, what the shaman or seer brings forth is something that is waiting to be brought forth in everyone.