A few weeks ago, the fabulous Kimberly Brock wrote a post about the fear of the blank page. She claimed that there are people who love it and she called them psychopaths and equated it to jumping out of airplanes.
I’m here to confess: I am that psychopath.
I just handed in my latest novel to my editor. I have a few scenes I know it needs so I plan on banging them out now while she is reading. I have articles to write (this one!) and emails to catch up on. But the lure of the blank page is too much. Today I opened a Scrivener file and wrote 800 words. I don’t know where the scene will fit in the novel, if it’s the first scene (feels like it to me) or if will be relegated to the murky middle, as a flashback. I just know that right now, everything about this book feels kind of amazing: fresh, new, not muddled and unclear, the shimmering pull of discovery right around the next bend.
For me, the draw of writing isn’t in the actual drafting. It’s in the idea of story. I have a Google word document with ten primary story ideas (and a zillion other partial ideas) in various stages of development. Some are just a logline with zero details: a woman does x, a woman’s sister/friend does y. Others have fleshed out characters, and still others have a theme I’m interested in more than a plot. Bottom line? They’re all potential stories. (Side note: I keep it in Google so I can access it anywhere, even from my phone on the go).
Are you the kind of writer who feels paralyzed by the beginning? Who looks at a blank page with dread? Who thinks, “Oh no, now I have to come up with a whole new idea,” and rather than feel that zing of anticipation, you want to crawl into bed and pull the covers over your head?
4 tips to help you come up with a new story:
1. Open to the stories around you.
They are everywhere. In the man who walks from his house across the street to three houses down, every single morning, and walks home every night. Who lives three doors down? I’ve never seen them. I assume a sweet, octogenarian romance. But how cute is it that he comes home every night? Does he care that much about propriety?
I write suspense, so sometimes I see a story and think: oh, this is not my story, not my genre. Sometimes I even pass those ideas along to friends. Sometimes I can massage the inspiration into something that does fit my genre. Writers can be lightning rods for stories, but we struggle to receive it. We can get so caught up in the questions: Is it commercially viable? Can it carry a book? Is it for me? Can I make it for me? Can I bring that something-something into another plot? It can get so exhausting that it kills creativity.
I find that getting the initial lightning strike down on paper — regardless of logistical questions — is what captures the essence of story. My Google word doc has zillions of these; it stands at almost twenty-five pages: some of it is complete non-sensical, various fonts (copied and pasted!), it’s messy and disorganized but it’s all (gold)mine.
2. Read the headlines.
I peruse headlines from five or ten years ago, just for fun. There’s a danger here, especially for historical fiction writers, since what inspires one may inspire many. The old adage, “the truth is stranger than fiction” is never more true than when you find a gem like this or a heartwarming story like this.
I read a story, years ago, about a family of children who was kept in a small New York City apartment their entire lives. Their mother died and the children were taken in by social services. They’d never been outside, never been to school, never socialized with other children. This is absolutely in my story document. I can’t find an angle that fits my brand but I just love it.
My forthcoming novel, THE BLACKBIRD SEASON, was inspired by a news story I read about a teacher who followed his students on social media. He was praised in the story for being involved and going beyond the call of duty. I thought, hmmm there must be a twist I can apply to this. What if the very thing that once made him a great teacher became the thing that made him a suspect in a student’s murder? I catalog these odd bits and pieces on Pinterest where I can access them later.
3. Consume other fiction: Not just books, but movies, television.
I find a lot of inspiration in true crime TV, as does a writer friend who recommends shows to me. I am currently into The First 48, which breaks a case down to the investigation level, each episode ending with an arrest. I am also inspired by books outside of my genre. Years ago, I read the book THE CASTAWAYS by Elin Hildebrand. I loved the ensemble cast structure and the beach setting, so an ensemble cast with a beach setting has been on my list since. In a fit of inspiration, I recently dusted it off and developed the four main voices, the murder, the motive, the red herrings.
This comes off like sanctimonious B.S. I’m sorry. I do think some percentage of writers expect inspiration to be like divine intervention. I’ve heard a newly published writer say “I have to really be inspired by something” when discussing story development. While many great stories may start as pure lightning strike, others must be ferreted out of the confusing depths and coils of the writer’s mind.
Sometimes I use long drives to deliberate think of story ideas. I talk into a microphone and pretend it’s a person. Sometimes I talk to another writer. The act of using my voice prompts me to dig deeper. I might say, “What if a woman who is hiding from her ex-husband falls in love, unwittingly, with her ex’s brother? NO, that’s been done before, I think. Wait, look up the plot of Sleeping With the Enemy, God I haven’t seen that in like 15 years.” It’s the stream of consciousness that awakens THE THING in me: the creative beast that will eventually unlock the story.
And that is all I really need: the key to unlock the story I know I have. Somewhere. I get the partial down in my Google doc and call it a day. When I’m at the stage I’m now, where I have to write up a pitch for my agent to send to my editor or even start a few chapters, I mine the document monster I’ve been keeping for years. Sometimes, it even works.
How do you mine for story?
* * * * * *
Kate Moretti is the New York Times Bestselling author of four novels and a novella, including Thought I Knew You, While You Were Gone, Binds That Tie, The Vanishing Year, and Blackbird Season. Her first novel THOUGHT I KNEW YOU, was a New York Times bestseller. THE VANISHING YEAR was a nominee in the Goodreads Choice Awards Mystery/Thriller category for 2016 and was called "chillingly satisfying." (Publisher's Weekly) with "superb" closing twists (New York Times Book Review).
Kate has worked in the pharmaceutical industry for twenty years as a scientist and enjoys traveling and cooking. She lives in Pennsylvania in an old farmhouse with her husband, two children and no known ghosts. Her lifelong dream is to find a secret passageway. Visit her website at www.katemoretti.com.