How to build a story out of scraps of ideas

Writing is an art, which means it is mysterious. It rises from the deep bog of our subconscious and is guided by impulse and intuition and imagination.

However, writing is also a craft. A writer must learn how to shape and control the artistic impulse, to bring logic and structure to the story, to work with discipline and focus. Inspiration is a flash of light, gone in a second. The only way to harness that electricity, and pin it to the page, is with dogged determination.

I love to teach. I love to help people find their way towards their story. And so – when people write to me, asking for help – I do my best to give it to them.

A few weeks ago an aspiring writer wrote to me in very real trouble, feeling stuck and unable to move on, and worried that meant she would never be able to make her dreams of writing come true. Its not the first correspondence I've had from this writer – she badly wants someone to help her.

This is a paraphrase of what she asked:

I am wondering whether you can help me. I love writing fiction, but I'm really struggling to fix on a story. I just keep writing more and more starts, more pieces about characters, which I enjoy – but I can't back them up. I can't follow through. What should I do?

This is what I answered:

You know in your heart exactly what you need to do. You don't need me to tell you. You're just hoping I'll tell you some secret way to make it easy. But there is no secret simple way.

You need to focus. You need to have discipline. You have to rein in your wild and beautiful imagination and learn to tame it. You need to have faith in yourself and your story, and not allow fear to shake you.

Here is what I want you to do.

Spread all your ideas, all your story fragments, all your bibs and bobs, out on the table. See if any of them seem to belong together. Start sorting them into piles.

Pick one pile. Just one. Probably the biggest pile is best, but go with your intuition – which idea, or cluster of ideas, speaks to you the most?

Put all the other ideas away in a folder, and shut them away in a drawer. You may wish to have a number of folders, one for every other pile.

Take the one you have chosen and focus all your attention on it. Begin to see the skeleton of a story in it. Write a rough outline of a plan. Write character outlines. Think about your setting, your time period, your story structure. Set aside an hour or two a day to work on it. Do nothing else in that time.

When you have an idea of the story from beginning to end, with about a dozen key plot points along the way, begin to write. Start at the beginning of your story and write one scene at a time. Set yourself a goal for each week. Two thousand words is easily achievable. Tell yourself no wine or chocolate or mindless TV till you have written your word goal.

Write your story word by word, sentence by sentence, scene by scene. Do whatever you need to do to keep on going.

Whenever you get an idea for another story, write it down – all of it, as much as you can – then put the idea away in a folder and shut it in the drawer. If you find yourself thinking about it, force your mind away from the pretty new thing and MAKE it think about the idea you are working on. Do not allow yourself to be distracted because that way lies chaos and failure.

Go right now and do it! No excuses.

Our job as creative artists is to create order out of chaos. All novels begin with a mess – here is the mess I'm working on right now:

Kate's desk

Kate H-S smlKate Forsyth is the internationally bestselling author of 26 books, which have been published in 15 countries, including The Wild Girl and Bitter Greens. She was recently voted one of Australia’s Favourite 25 Novelists and has been called “one of the finest writers of this generation”.

Kate teaches many creative writing courses at the Australian Writers' Centre. This post originally appeared on Kate's blog.

Find out more on the Writing in Oxford tour led by Kate and hosted by the Australian Writers’ Centre and Bookshop Travel.

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