I love researching and I love thinking ideas through. Sometimes this means I get mired in my own head: getting thoughts onto paper becomes a chore because they’re never going to be as good as they are in my head. If that chimes for you, scroll to the end of this post for a quick fix.
When I’m starting a short story I usually have something that’s brought me to the desk: an opening line, an overheard phrase that suggests a character, a strong concept. I write and think and walk until I’ve got the skeleton of a plot and then I dig in to develop and edit it.
This week I’ve started a non-fiction project that’s not narrative based: without a plot to work towards or characters to get to know, I wanted to make sure I didn’t get in that awful stuck position where nothing gets done and I become more and more frustrated until I want to run away and train to be a productive member of society and run an all-female plumbing company or learn to drive a train.
I’m at the very beginning with this project: I’ve written nothing towards it, researched nothing towards it. I haven’t even done a google search to see if someone else has already written a version of what I’m planning to do. All I had at the beginning of this week was a title that summarised the area I’m interested in, a loose concept of what kinds of writing might be included, and some space in my timetable while the first draft of the novel sits and cools its heels pre-editing.
Normally I’d spend a lot of time on the internet and then a lot of time reading. I’d tell myself to do the research first and the writing second. But that wasn’t how I wanted to approach this project: I wanted to spend the next couple of weeks writing, keeping up the good habits I’d been practising with getting the novel draft done. The last thing I wanted to do was stare at a computer screen and fall into endless-scroll mode.
I was in a good starting place because I’d already identified the problem. Wanting to make the most of the adrenaline rush of energy that starting something new gives me, I thought I’d break unhelpful patterns of behaviour by trying a different approach.
Here’s what I did:
- Cut two A4 pieces of paper into long strips. I used an old story draft that had only been printed on one side of the paper for added environmentally-friendly, thrifty value.
- Wrote one-sentence starting points that asked me questions about the project from a variety of angles. As well as thematic questions, these included what I thought about the project, how I’d feel if I never finished it, where I saw it being in 1/5/10 years time, what I imagined the blurb on the back of a book about it would say, what my ambition for it was, what I’d be doing instead if I didn’t do it.
- Kept going until every strip of paper had something written on it. Even if I thought it was a slightly foolish question or a sentence that wouldn’t elicit anything interesting from me.
- Folded each piece of paper over three times and mixed them about. Then I put them in a satisfyingly wide glass jar with a metal lid I found in the swap-pile in the shared studio I write in.
Next time I sat at my desk, I opened a new page on my notebook and picked one of the folded pieces of paper out the jar. I wrote the sentence at the top of the page, set a timer for 6 minutes and wrote whatever came into my mind in response to the sentence until the timer went off.
What I’m really doing is giving myself space to understand the project better
I’m now about halfway through the jar and I’ve already decided to change the title. I’ve got a clearer idea of the timespan I’m wiling to focus on the project for, which parts of it interest me most and what creative need I’m filling by doing it in the first place. What I’m really doing is giving myself space to understand the project better before I put my energies into doing the research. By taking this time to think it through in writing, I’ll know how to pinpoint my research into the areas that really interest me and save myself from being tied up in sticky knots.
A quick fix to try at home when you’re stuck
Set a timer for 6 minutes then answer each of these questions in turn, moving on to the next questions when the timer goes off.
- Originally I wanted to write this because I knew it would…
- Right now, the thing I want to change is…
- At the end of today’s writing session I want to feel… and in order to achieve that I will…