It’s always tempting — you come up with a good idea. A cool character. An awesome death scene. A villain who’s not only creepy, but a bad-ass mf’er who also happens to be completely empathetic from his point of view. And you want to just start writing, before you lose that inspiration.
Here’s the thing about that: that high is fleeting. That “inspiration” isn’t actually doing you any favors. Sure, you might get a lightning strike, sit down and hammer out something great.
But then what?
So now you have a great scene. You have a great twist. You have a great character. But far more often than not, you’ll run out of steam pouring out that cool idea onto a page long before you have a great story. Inspiration might serve you for a while, but it’s rare that it allows you to truly create something whole. Unless you have an unlimited supply of inspiration, you’ll inevitably run up against “writer’s block,” or what I liked to call, “having no goddamn idea what to do next.”
Here’s a fact rarely talked about: Inspiration kills stories.
I don’t get “writer’s block” writing features, or reviews, or any of the other day-to-day stuff I do to make a living. It doesn’t happen. I might stall out for a bit, trying to figure out where something should go next or how best to begin a project, but I don’t have the luxury of “blocks.” And really, the very notion seems ridiculous.
So what’s the issue with fiction? Well, fiction is hard. Making a coherent story that’s more than just a conglomeration of events or characters or cool stuff happening, something that affects the reader and conveys a message or an emotion, that’s difficult. Even just creating an original, compelling, non-cliche plot takes a lot of effort. Writing is a job for a reason; it’s work. Being “inspired” and laying down a story isn’t you working, it’s you playing. That’s nice every once in a while, and it can be valuable, but stories get written with work.
And the real work of writing isn’t in slapping stuff onto a page, it’s in preparation. When you’re inspired, you might want to throw down the scene you just saw perfectly envisioned in your mind. Then you should start doing the less fun stuff.
5. Throw your muse out on her ass
Guess what: If you’re a writer, inspiration is a commodity. It’s a luxury item. It’s a “one free back rub” coupon for your birthday. Sure, it seems nice. It’s actually helpful. But the absence of back rubs for the next 364 days makes you realize that inspiration is a lot more selfish than it appears to be.
The consequence of running out of inspiration is loathing your regular monkey brain, letting projects languish, failing to complete them, and feeling like a failure because of it. You’re not stupid or a failure; you’re dependent on the inspiration drug. Kick that habit.
If you’re a writer, your job is to write. Rain, sleet, snow, hail, hangover, or lack of inspiration, it doesn’t matter. This is the job you picked. Sometimes you get to be the well-loved architect, sometimes you get to run the wrecking ball, but most of the time, you’re the ditch digger. So get digging.
4. Invent characters — good ones
Done letting inspiration distract you with its hot ass, rippling muscles or insert sexually attractive human body part analog you might enjoy here? Great. Hope you had fun. Now the real work begins.
Before you do much of anything in terms of plot, you need to know who your story is about and, more aptly, why the hell we should care. Think about your characters’ backgrounds, how they’ll react to things, who their friends are, what has made them the way they are. Make them real. Write down everything you can think of about them and keep all that information handy.
Knowing the people in your story is going to be far more valuable than any outlining or plotting, because if the Muse does come banging on the door, hoping you’ll take it back one last time, knowing your characters inside and out (and having a reference if you need it) will let you make something out of whatever story juice it might drip into your brain.
3. Outline, then outline again
I hate outlining. It’s boring and terrible. It may be the least interesting thing to do when it comes to crafting a story. It’s also essential to having any idea of what your plot will actually be or how it will work. Figuring out how your scenes will lead from one to the next will keep you moving through your story piece by piece. This is how you’ll be able to see if your story makes sense on the whole.
But your outline is going to be crap, almost without fail. Mine always are. Your first outline will be too broad, or you’ll pass too quickly over bits that will hold you up later. So when you’re done outlining, read it over and outline again. Maybe not right away, but do it. Look at it fresh. Add more details — as many as you can manage.
When you outline, yes, you’re ditch-digging. Or maybe more accurately, what you’re doing is wandering through the mosquito-infested jungle with a machete and survey tools. You’re drawing the map of your story. Making that map sucks; you’ll have to avoid getting malaria or West Nile. But having that map is phenomenal, because it’ll mean getting through the wilderness much more quickly the second time, with a lot less effort. You don’t want to be hacking away with a machete, figuring out the path, when you’re characters are impatiently tapping their feet, waiting for the next crisis you mean to inflict on them.
2. Know where you’re going
Endings are important. Stories are about development — rising action, climax, character arcs. Forward progress. Growth. Loss. Change. It’s a lot more difficult to map out a powerful change for the spectacular characters you’ve spawned as they move through the brilliant horrors to which you mean to subject them. Not knowing where you’re going will have a tendency to make your story meander, and despite having that map you’ve hacked together, without a proper destination, the whole journey may not amount to much.
Figuring out the destination of your story helps it make sense. It gives meaning to the struggles of your characters. The results, good or bad, of the experiments of their actions is what your readers signed up for, so it’s key you give them a goal. That means thinking about it. A lot. Don’t wait until you reach it organically, or until you’ve run out of good ideas. Have a plan.
Your readers hitched up to your storytelling wagon because they believed you had somewhere to go. Don’t set off into the mountains and then get them lost in the wilderness. Don’t make them wish they’d never come along because they had to eat each other to survive.
1. Know why you’re going there
Sure, you’ve got a great destination in mind and you’re chugging right along with all the planning and preparation you’ve done. Good work. Well done. But there’s one question you need to ask yourself — why are you telling the story you’re telling? The destination is important, of course, but having a reason for it all is what will make the whole thing satisfying.
Your how is important, definitely. It’ll give you the good idea, the destination in mind, the plan for what will happen to the people you’re pushing through your story; it’ll let you plot the arc of your characters. But the why — that’s the reason to tell the story at all. The thing your characters learn, or that the reader takes away. It doesn’t have to be profound, necessarily, or life-changing. You don’t have to impart a lesson for your story to be worth reading.
But you do need to have an idea of what you mean to accomplish with your story and why you’re writing it in the first place. Otherwise, what’s the point? Ultimately, you’re writing for your readers, not just to do it. Your story has to come to something, mean something, do something — even if the meaning or the doing is the lack of meaning or doing, or the deconstruction of meaning or doing. But if you don’t have a clear picture of what the hell it is you’re trying to do, how will anyone else figure it out?
They won’t; which is why you need to prepare, unless you want to waste time digging ditches that don’t go anywhere.