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Shake It Up
22 Ways to Enliven Your Moribund Draft or Start a New One
Happy New Year, my friends!
I hope your year is off to a great start in all ways, but especially in your creative life. There is something very hopeful about starting a new year, hanging a pristine calendar on the wall, beginning anew and afresh.
We can take the same attitude towards our writing. Do you, like me, have several drafts gathering virtual dust in your files that you open every now and again, hoping to revise and they just seem dead on arrival? Beyond fixing?
So we turn to all the free writing advice at our disposal, we read those threads of writing advice on Twitter, sure they contain the magic bullet we need. But almost always, that advice, so freely and authoritatively given, comes in the form of “dos’ and “don’ts.” They feel restrictive, constrictive, and mildly judgmental.
Rarely are we told what we can try. And this makes sense if your approach to creative writing is akin to following an instruction manual. If you’re having car trouble, for instance, you’d be taken aback and more than a little annoyed if you were advised on page 23 to “stand on your head.”
Creativity, unlike maintaining a car, is mysterious and weird. Nobody fully understands the workings of the creative brain. To be sure, there are some basic rules to narrative (hello, Aristotle), but these hardly inspire or spark genius or originality on their own.
I’m listening to the book Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain by David Eagleman, where he goes deep (in an accessible and entertaining way) to how the brain works, particularly the subconscious. Turns out, we are not as in control as we think we are. The “quiet” part of the brain, the one we’re not aware of, is busy making the decisions and the creative leaps. In my workshops and classes, I’m always looking for ways to tap into the subconscious, pre-writing exercises and so forth, in order to subvert any pre-conceived ideas or plans writers may have. To go beyond what automatically suggests itself. This is how we get to the good stuff, the genius we all have at our disposal.
So! To that end, I offer you these twenty-two tricks I use in my own practice and teaching to “shake up” the writerly brain, and breathe fresh life into our moribund drafts. Give these a try whenever you feel you’re despairing of a story. Be OPEN and RECEPTIVE to whatever comes your way.
TWENTY-TWO WAYS TO SHAKE UP YOUR MORIBUND STORY DRAFT (OR CREATE A NEW ONE OUT OF THIN AIR)
Throw in an animal. Joy Williams, in her “Eight Essential Attributes of the Short Story and One Way it Differs from the Novel” says a short story must include “an animal within to give its blessing.” Animals can be unpredictable. Include a peacock in your story and see what happens.
Slap a title on that thing. Preferably one that does not, in any way, support the current draft. Now write into it. Let it inform your revision. Be bold in this. You can also start from a title alone: “The Last Time [So and So] Did [Such and Such]” or “My Life as a [Article of Furniture].”
Include an Unexpected Detail. Those who’ve taken my workshops are familiar with this exercise. This can be a Particular Object or it can be, well, anything. What happens to your story if you throw in some unexpected kindness, for example? Indeed, what happens in life?
Get boldly weird in your descriptions. Compare a smell to a sound. A color to an emotion. See how this gives your subconscious permission to think outside the box in other ways.
If you’re thinking, “no one will publish this” lean even further into the idea.
Forget the template in your mind.
Forget what the writer on Twitter admonished you against.
“Poem-ize” your prose. Break it into stanzas. Create line breaks. Pull out anything but the most essential images, the most powerful language. (I learned this from Maureen Langloss, editor-in-chief of Split Lip Magazine, who offered this gem up on Twitter, as if to say, “here’s something you can do,” my favorite kind of writing advice.
Similar to #8, pull your paragraphs apart and create one sentence paragraphs and see what lives in the white space. I do this one a LOT as a means of “re-visioning” my story. Breathe some air into a breathless paragraph.
Or chunk up your short paragraphs into one breathless paragraph and see what taking the air out does. For all of these, read your piece aloud, before and after. Which version best serves your intention for the story? Compare the experience of breathlessness vs. the sort of collaboration required of a story full of white space.
Remove the first and last paragraphs entirely. Now what?
If your story is in first person, remove all instances of the word “I.” (This is HARD, but really changes the movement of the writing.)
All objects. (Keep at these until your subconscious supplies a pattern. Our brains are story-seeking machines if you get out of their way long enough.)
Try putting your story into a new container. A list? A hermit crab?
Print out your story. Cut up the paragraphs. Move them around.
Ooh, I really loathe writing prompts that supply a “situation” but sometimes they’re useful. Here’s one: Bear walks into a bar. Go!
Hunt for the “why” of your story. Lucy Cron, in her article, “Tell Don’t Show? What Brain Imaging Reveals About Readers,” examines the work of neuroscientist Steven Brown. “According to Brown, when we’re grabbed by a story, we’re instantly making inferences about the protagonist’s beliefs in order to pinpoint their intentions and what is motivating their actions. We’re not hooked by what the protagonist is doing; we’re on the hunt for why they’re doing it.” This is part of the fun of reading!
Mad Lib it! One of my all-time favorite flashes is Madlib by Kim Magowan in Okay Donkey. I create my own “fill-in-the-blanks” stories when I have the ghost of an idea but am bereft of details. Use this framework to plug things in without overthinking until something sticks. This is a recent example of my own, which I entitled “Objects of Beauty at Rest”: My mother kept a [SOMETHING] on the top shelf of the kitchen cupboard, one shelf higher than that [SOMETHING]. The only time she ever got it down was when company came. She’d drag one of the dining room chairs over to the cupboard to climb on so she could reach it. We always worried she might fall and break it. Then she’d place it in the middle of the table as a centerpiece and, hopefully, a conversation piece. One day, [SOMEONE] arrived [FROM SOMEWHERE] wearing [SOMETHING] and she [SOME OTHER TELLING DETAIL] She touched the [SOMETHING] and [DID SOMETHING ELSE] and said, [SOMETHING DELICATELY SCATHING]. From then on, and for as long as I can remember, my mother [DID OR DID NOT DO SOMETHING].
If in doubt, more tacos.
BEFORE YOU GO
Though substack would very much like me to (which is understandable), I have no plans for monetizing this newsletter. But if you have found my craft articles, writing prompts, and recommended readings useful, and you’d like to thank me in some small, tangible way, I will not object!
Thanks, as always, for stopping by. Please feel free to leave a comment or question below.
Want to write in a beautifully rustic setting this August? Nancy Stohlman and I are running a flash fiction retreat in the gorgeous Colorado Rockies this summer and we’d love to have you join us! Go HERE for more information! There’s also one budget-friendly tent space in our retreat in France that’s available in the stunning French countryside.
(View from Shadowcliff Mountain Lodge, Grand Lake, Colorado)
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