My friend Caroline, a microbiologist who is looking to get started with writing, asked me a “stupid” writing question recently. It wasn’t stupid at all, and in the course of our conversation I realized that I wanted to set up a place for questions and answers just like hers.
“Ask Nancy” will appear as I get questions, so feel free to send yours my way. Your question will almost certainly not be stupid, either, but if you’re convinced that it is, I’m happy to post it anonymously.
In the meantime, here’s the first part of our conversation.
Caroline: listen, i have an extremely stupid writerly question to ask you. are you ready?
Caroline: well, here’s the thing. what do you do when you have a vague idea for a story? Like, where do you begin?
i mean i have some vague ideas about place and people and what would happen, but i have no idea what to start diddling with
Nancy: Ah! Well.
I want to say “anything,” because it really doesn’t matter where you start, just that you do—but that’s probably not helpful.
Nancy: So I will say this: go with whatever pulls you most strongly.
So if you have a character, let her talk.
If you have a place, describe it.
And then see what grabs your attention and follow that.
Caroline: ok, i will try that
Nancy: Ask your character questions.
Heck. Ask your place questions.
Talk to them like they’re people. ’Cause place is a character, too.
But the most important thing to do, IMHO, is to play with it, like you’re 5 and you’re playing with Barbies or cars or blocks or whatever. Just make it play.
You can toss it all out if it doesn’t work. But hey! If it doesn’t work, you know more than you did when you started. You know something that doesn’t work.
Other characters may turn up when you start and you can follow them, too—or if they feel like they’re just taking up space, you can dump ’em.
Also, this is totally NOT a stupid question.
It’s a question tons of people have. Lots of people are where you are and never start because nothing feels right and they think they don’t have enough, but jeez, NOBODY starts with a complete idea. Everyone starts with a little spark and has to turn it into something.
I’m gonna go out on a limb and say that even William Shakespeare started with the same little spark of nothing that everyone else does (except for, say, the history plays!). You’ve got this.
More questions? Please ask in the comments or drop me a note at [email protected]!