Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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July 25, 2018

Ways To Exercise Your What-If Muscle

What-if muscle

Most novels are written on the premise of "what if." Our What-if muscles help us figure out what needs to come next in the story. Sometimes we're lucky and we just know. More often (at least for me) we often have no clue what needs to happen next.

When I write non-fiction for awhile, my fiction “What-if” muscle gets seriously out of shape. Thankfully, other writers who know more than I do share their tools. 

Here are several ways to get unstuck if your What-if muscle is feeling flabby.

Change creative mediums

  • Make a collage for your book. Jennifer Crusie does this.
  • Different textures and different mediums can stimulate your brain to be creative. Debbie Macomber and Christie Ridgway knit (so do I!); Linda Lael Miller paints.
  • Choose a soundtrack for your book. Spotify, YouTube, Pandora and Amazon Music will all work.
  • Julia Cameron composes music.

Something that always helps is to brainstorm with different types of people. I recommend a writer friend, a non-writer friend, a newbie writer and someone who writes in a different genre. One of my favorite gals for brainstorming is Leanne Banks.  Below are some of her top tricks for getting “unstuck.”

Write an autobiography of your characters and ask them provocative questions like:

  • What are you most proud of?
  • What was your most embarrassing moment?
  • What is your biggest fear?
  • What did your parents teach you about sex?
  • What did they teach you about love?
  • What is your biggest shame?
  • What is your secret wish?

Brainstorming Techniques

Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird is a classic must-read for writers. Not only does she give you “permission to write crap,” she also gives stellar brainstorming advice such as:

  • “Keep a one inch picture frame on your desk to remind yourself that for each moment, you only have to write as much as you can see through a one-inch picture frame.”
  • In other words, when a whole project is overwhelming, break it into little pieces or as she says, “don’t try to eat the elephant in one sitting.”

Leanne Banks also offers these tips:

  • If you’re stuck, be random. (I love this!)
  • Brainstorm what everyone else would do, then do the opposite.
  • Reconsider what you did that got you into this corner and determine if a small change can get you out of it.

Leanne's Creative “What-if” Techniques

  • Role-storming: How would you handle a problem if you were someone else?
  • Iconic figures: How would you approach it if you were an iconic figure from the past?
  • Brainwriting: Gather several people and give one person a piece of paper. Each person writes for 10 minutes, then passes the paper. Keep going until everyone has written on the page. Read the entire story out loud.
  • The old reliable List of 20 – You must write down twenty possibilities, as fast as you can think of them, no editing allowed. The only engraved rule is that you must write all twenty! It’s the “old reliable” because it works.

Other great brainstorming articles and tools:

And finally, if you are having trouble with your book, there is one other impediment to consider: YOU.  Cindy Dees said something in a workshop I went to last week that stuck in the minds of everyone there: "The three reasons why most of the writers I mentor are unpublished are personal, emotional or psychological. It has nothing to do with their writing."

Don't let your own fears and angst keep you from your story. You have the talent to write an amazing book. I know it. I hope you know it too.

Are you ready to stagger over to your work in progress and bring forth brainstorming magnificence? What techniques help you when your “what-if” muscle needs a workout?

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About Jenny Hansen

By day, Jenny provides training and social media marketing for an accounting firm. By night she writes humor, memoir, women’s fiction and short stories. After 18+ years as a corporate software trainer, she’s delighted to sit down while she works.

When she’s not at her personal blog, More Cowbell, Jenny can be found on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, or here at Writers In The Storm.

32 comments on “Ways To Exercise Your What-If Muscle”

  1. One of my favorite "What If" games when I'm stuck is to sit in a public place, pick out someone who catches my eye, and then write their backstory. More than one of those people have ended up as a character in one of my stories. My other favorite game is to pull out an old high school yearbook, pick two people at random, and write the conversation they might have at a reunion.

      1. I think it would be a blast to do the yearbook exercise with someone else. We could each pick a random person and write their side of the conversation. That would pretty much guarantee two unique voices for the characters.

  2. "Brainstorm what everyone else would do, then do the opposite." Leanne Banks is so, so, so correct! I love to twist a plot. I guess that makes me twisted...or a twister. Hmmm. As for what-ifs, that's the way I write. And live.

  3. I love this post! Sometimes I get tunnel vision with my writing and get frustrated when I can't find my way out(solve the conflict). This tip from Leanne resonates: Reconsider what you did that got you into this corner and determine if a small change can get you out of it.
    Don't over complicate! Ah-ha moment, lol

    1. Thanks so much, Jacquie! I really liked that one too because I make things more complex than they need to be very often, and I like the way she encourages us to take stock.

      1. The pinterest board is my vision board, and I can remind myself how to describe a dress, or the house, and other things; music is always an inspiration to me; and the notes are essential for character traits or names and just to keep things straight. I'll still search the document if I'm not sure, but it prevents some of it.

  4. I keep a file of magazine photos (just the photos, not the accompanying stories) and when I get stuck I pull out a photo from the file at random and tell the story captured by the photo. Shared this with my writing group and her photo (a dog stealing a cooked turkey off a set table) launched the idea for a 3 book series!!

  5. This post came on just the right day. I've been revising my latest completed romance's climax and had removed all the bits of the stupid rough-draft climax, but I still needed to finish constructing the new, hopefully non-stupid plotline. When I left off yesterday, I saw only a few ways it could go, but all seemed predictable, and the option that seemed most likely also seemed the most predictable--and, in a way, randomly contrived. Two things helped me tonight. One was asking myself all the reasons the heroine's sister-in-law might act as my heroine didn't (and did, at the same time) want her to; I made a surprisingly long list of motives. The other thing that helped was Leanne's suggestion to re-examine what you've written and see if you can back up and change just a little to keep from writing yourself into a corner, in this case a corner of predictability (which isn't the same as writing yourself into a corner where you don't know at all what should happen next). I realized the upcoming scene might seem l

  6. Picking off where I cut myself off, I realized the upcoming scene might seem less predictable if I cut a conversation a page earlier in which the hero's niece suggested the same thing I'm about to have the sister-in-law suggest. Thanks for posting this. I really like following WITS.

    1. That sounds like it will totally get you through. Laura Drake always says, "trust your reader - they get it before you think they do!" I think you will never miss the nieces suggestion, especially if the sister-in-law is a bigger character in the book.

  7. This happens to me a lot. I write myself into an impossible corner. No. Way. Out. That's when I call a lifeline - Orly Konig never fails to amaze - she says, 'Okay, what if . . .' and the answer is revealed. Fae Rowen has been known to do this, too!

    Love my writer buds. Couldn't do this without them.

    1. Hahahaha! Writing into a corner is such a sucky feeling. And of course, when I am in a corner, I ask my husband. He's an excellent "What-Iffer."

  8. Will initiate brainstorming session at my next crit group meeting to figure out where in the heck my new story idea is going. Great advice from everyone!

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