Friday, September 14, 2012

First Lines, Fresh Lines

Last Friday I posted an article about ways to generate a story idea when you're facing a blank page. Apparently it's a common problem as of late, because I found a similar article at the Writer's Digest site from earlier this week on the same topic! However, this article takes a different approach and.... well, you can never have enough weapons for attacking blank pages. I don't know about you, but there are too many blank pages around my house. They're everywhere!

This time the technique is called freewriting. The method is even simpler than the flash fiction techniques in last week's post. Here's how you do it:
  1. Get a timer and decide on a set number of minutes for your freewriting. There really are no guidelines on how long this should be. Five minutes is a commonly recommended time limit, but if you do it a few times you may find that more -- or less -- time gives you better results.
  2. Get something to write on and something to write with, then find a comfortable spot to write. You can use notebook paper and a pencil, a journal and a favorite fountain pen, a laptop, or even crayons and a blank wall if that's your thing! Just find some comfortable method of recording the words that come out.
  3. Start writing. And here's where it gets interesting...
See, I know what you're thinking. "I'm doing this because I don't have any idea what to write! How do you expect me to just 'start writing'?"

That's what is so cool about freewriting. You don't have to start with something original. You just need to start putting words on paper and continue doing so until your time is up. The first words on your paper might look something like this (I added the numbers after I finished, to make it easier to comment afterward about what I wrote):
(1) The TV is two feet wide and 18 inches tall. The lamp is white. (2) Fourscore and seven years ago our forefathers brought forth on this continent a nation... (3) What was the rest of that sentence? I remember it was something about our country being "conceived in liberty and dedicated to the idea that all men are created equal." (4) Equality is a good thing. In Greek mythology nobody was "created equal." You were either a mere human (even kings might be mere humans, albeit powerful mere humans), a demigod, or a god. Of course, the gods weren't any better than the mere humans. Sometimes they were worse, and with so much power they made it rough on everybody. (5) They made Hercules kill his family and then punished him for it! What kind of gods can get away with that? Didn't even one of the gods stand up and say, "Hey, this ain't right. Hercules didn't do anything except be born, and he didn't get a choice there either. You wanna punish somebody, punish Zeus for fooling around a human. (6) He's a god, for Pete's sake! Can't he figure out how to keep the girl from getting pregnant in the first place?"
And yes, I freewrote that without any preplanning. I didn't time myself either, since I just wanted to give you an idea of how it works. I had no idea how to start, so I just started writing:
  1. I looked around the room and started writing down what I saw. (The TV, the lamp.)
  2. Then, for some crazy reason, the Gettysburg Address came to mind, so I started writing down what I could remember of it. When you freewrite, you mind wanders. Let it. You're trying to find out what's bubbling around underneath the surface.
  3. I couldn't remember the exact phrasing so, when I couldn't remember enough to get it close, I just started summarizing.
  4. Then two things hit me at once -- first, the observation that equality is a good thing (duh!) and second, I saw a copy of Who's Who in Classical Mythology laying nearby. I'd been writing a piece about Hercules, and that started the meanderings about...
  5. How unfair the gods were to Hercules and what they could have done instead. And all of that led to...
  6. BINGO! Here's something I can work with! Why didn't Zeus ever prevent babies from being born? Then Hera would probably never have caught him and guys like Hercules wouldn't get hassled so much.
In case you've missed the point, it's not that I could write about pregnancy. The point I've stumbled upon is that the gods weren't so smart after all, since they couldn't even figure out this little piece of strategy. 

If I had really been searching for something, I would have continued freewriting and exploring the possibilities. What other kinds of silly trouble might the gods get into that even a child could figure out how to avoid? Now I've got something to work with!

Now you might be looking at this and saying, "I'd have never gotten that out of what you wrote." But that's the whole point -- YOUR freewriting would have followed YOUR OWN train of thought. YOU would have come up with something entirely different than I did. Freewriting is a way to discover what's bubbling around under the surface in YOUR mind... and trust me, you'll recognize YOUR OWN train of thought when it comes roaring onto the paper. (Or screen, as the case may be.)

The results of freewriting can be unpredictable. That's what makes it so useful! You may get an idea, the way I did... or you may get a few opening sentences... or a rough plot outline... or it's possible that an entire story comes flowing out. If any of those things start happening, I'd ignore the timer and just keep writing until everything comes out. Don't stop to check spellings or correct bad grammar or do any of those "editorial" things that you do in a final draft; all it will do is stop the flow. NOBODY IS GOING TO SEE THIS EXCEPT YOU, SO IT DOESN'T MATTER HOW BAD IT LOOKS OR SOUNDS. AS LONG AS IT MAKES SENSE TO YOU, IT'S GOOD. JUST GET IT ALL OUT.

If you don't get anything useful, that's ok. Go do something else for a while -- do some laundry, run some errands, take a walk, eat some ice cream (hey, writing's hard work!) -- and forget about writing for an hour or so. Then come back and try again. Eventually you'll get something you can use.

Then, when you finally get something out, do you know what you have? Clay. God can create things out of nothing, but humans need raw material to start with. And now you have something you can shape into a story.

Best of all, your paper is no longer blank. Ah, bliss!

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