Frog Marching the Muse: Eighteen Tips to Get Words on the Page

photo: Thomas Hawk (Flickr)
photo: Thomas Hawk (Flickr)

Two days ago, I turned in a manuscript that I truly feared I would never finish. That has never happened to me before, and to have it happen when the final installment in a trilogy was DUE NOW, was as potentially disastrous as it was unacceptable.

Keep in mind that I am one of those people who does not subscribe to the belief that you must write every day; for me, forced writing does not always equal useable writing and can often times derail the story. I also believe that sometimes fallow periods and distance from our manuscripts are the best thing for them and those philosophies have served me well in the past. However, there are times when you simply have no choice.

My first option is always to try and coax the muse out to play, using music, collage, artist dates, whatever I think will work. But sometimes, she just isn’t coax-able. In this particular case, I think she was simply exhausted. And that’s okay, but as a writer with contracts and deadlines, I can’t always wait for her.

Here are eighteen tips I use to help me produce words when my creative muse packed up and left me, leaving no forwarding address. You can, in fact, get an entire book written this way, although it is not the most joyful of processes.

Some of the things on this list are about assembling the raw materials you will need to write the story. Others are about priming the writing pump to get the words flowing. Often, the suggestions will do both. But all of them are about building forward momentum and finding a way—any way—to get those damn words on the page.

I tend to think of them as the equivalent of hauling the bricks, bag of cement, mortar, etc. over to where I am going to build the wall, assembling all the things I will need. Sometimes, having them all there and ready provides motivational juice. Other times I still have to build brick by brick, but at least I don’t have to go hunting for all the parts.

And look! Just in time for NaNoWriMo!

 

1. Write in short bursts of 20-30 minutes or 500 words.

 

2. Take a short 10-15 minute walk. Bring a small notebook or recording device.

 

3. Even if you’re not an outliner see if you can at least find your story’s turning points. It is much easier to build drama and write across shorter distances and can seem more doable. Exploring either of the internal or external turning points can often produce scene ideas and help propel you forward.

External turning points are those moment when everything shifts for your character; surprises or twists are revealed; or the stakes suddenly become higher. (And if none of those happen, then brainstorm some immediately.)

 Internal turning points—think about your character’s emotional arc, who she is at the beginning of the story and how she will be different at the end. Be sure there is enough there there, then look at the incremental steps she will need to take in order to achieve that emotional growth.

 

4.  Assemble the story’s descriptive details and building blocks. Map out the world of your story so all the info you need will be there when you’re ready. Map of the word, the neighborhood, history of the players involved, floor plan of the castle, whatever. This is not procrastinating because at some point you will need to be grounded in the story logistics enough that you can block your scenes and character movements.

 

5.  Journal your characters wounds and scars and early life traumas. Once your character is fleshed out more, you often get a better idea for the sorts of obstacles she will need to face in the story, which in turn creates dramatic events and scene ideas.

 

6.  If your antagonist is not a POV character, consider writing a few short scenes from his POV anyway, just for your own benefit. Knowing what your antagonist is doing, thinking, planning  often helps you understand what needs to happen next and what your protagonist will need to do.

 

7.  Repeat the above for the love interest, especially if they are not a POV character. It gives you a better feel for the push/pull of the relationship dynamics.

 

8.  Plot out the beats of the main romance/relationship. What characteristics/attributes/specific moments/personality details feed the attraction between the two characters. Writing them down will help you see what needs to be woven into the story and will often generate scene ideas.

 

9.  Create character cards. This can be especially helpful for secondary characters and creates a wonderful shorthand to help you focus the way the character interacts with other people, which in turn can help provide scene momentum. Oftentimes just being reminded of character’s dominant traits and the way they move in the world can help get things started.

Take a 3 x 5 index card for each character with their name on the top: Baron Geffoy
List three characteristics for that person: jovial, opportunistic, nurses grudges.
Add a hidden core motivation for both his personality traits and actions: impotent
Next, list a handful of dominant physical features that will help you key into that character and can also act as tags to help anchor the reader:

pale read beard hides a weak chin,
blue eyes watery from too many evenings spent drinking wine,
barrel chested.

Lastly, come up with two or three mannerisms the person uses:

stroking his beard,
shifting eyes,
rocking back on his heels

 

10. Assemble a list of physical actions for the story in general, individual scenes, and for each character. These physical actions characters perform are a great way to pull action into the scene—action you can then tweak to create DRAMATIC action and subtext. For example, let’s say one of your characters whittles wood to keep his hands busy whenever he is sitting still. If he does that enough times, at some point he can fumble the wood or drop it or the knife can slip and you won’t even have to tell the reader that he was surprised or perturbed by what just happened. How he whittles–slowly, vigorously, carelessly–will add depth of emotion and subtext to the scene. And really, there are thousands of everyday actions that can be used to give the scene some extra layering.

 

11. Write whatever scene is most vivid in your mind, regardless of where it will come in the book. I know this is hard for a lot of people, but sometimes those vivid scenes will provide story juice or clues or touchstones that we can then use to work back from. Yes, it does involve some scene stitching later on, but if you are on a deadline and that’s all you’ve got to work with, you sometimes can’t afford not to try it.

 

12. Assemble a book specific thesaurus. We all have words we overuse, and each manuscript has it’s own special set of words we use too often. Mysterious, dangerous, dark, compelling, whatever words you see coming up thematically in your work. Take some time and a really good thesaurus and fill your word well with new choices that you haven’t used or thought of before. (Not overly fancy words or those that force people to use dictionaries—this is more of a way to break out of your word rut.)

 

13. Scene sketching – This is a great tool for brainstorming a scene and getting some bare bones down that you can then fill in with more detail. You can pick one of these per scene or throw the full monty at it, depending on how utterly blank your mind is.

a) gather the descriptive details you will need for the scene, location, weather, clothing

b) block out the physical action and logistics of the scene

c) list what has to happen here—what is the reason the scene exists.

D) write the dialog only—as if you are listening in on a conversation—what can you hear the characters saying to one another.

 

14. Write transitions. These are those chunks of writing that propel the reader from one scene to the next or across time and space where nothing happens. It’s a great way to jump through swaths of time and keep moving. You also might find in the end that you don’t actually need anything there. It’s a great way to avoid boring daily accounting of characters’ activities and keep the story moving forward.

 

15. Switch into a telling mode if you need to. This allows you to ‘tell’ the story. You can then go back in and convert it to showing/action based scenes later but being able to ‘tell’ helps you keep moving forward.

 

16. Give yourself 10-15 minutes to research visuals for your scene—the location, the room, the clothing, a picture of what your character either looks like or expressions that convey the emotion she is feeling. Sometimes it can be easier to describe what we can actually see.

 

17. Pick five or six dramatic events that you know occur in your story. Take those moments and really dig deep, delving into your characters deepest layer of thoughts and feelings. Sometimes the story stalls out not due to lack of action, but because we don’t truly understand what our characters would be experiencing in the moment and how that would impact their future decisions and actions.

 

18. Turn off the internet. No, really. Just turn it off.

 

And there you have it! All my quick and dirty tricks for getting words on the page. What about you? Do you have any tricks you fall back on for getting the words to flow when your well is feeling dry?

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About Robin LaFevers

Robin LaFevers is the author of fourteen books for young readers, including the Theodosia and Nathaniel Fludd series. Her most recent book, GRAVE MERCY, is a young adult romance about assassin nuns in medieval France. A lifelong introvert, she currently lives on a blissfully quiet hill in Southern California.

Comments

  1. Jeanne Kisacky says

    Robin,
    Thanks for an excellent list of how to keep moving on a story! You hit all of my favorites–walks, world and character building, turning off the internet. This definitely makes it clear that writing, though a joy, is also work. Thanks,

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  2. says

    I would leave a comment, but I’ve turned off the internet.

    Seriously, great stuff, Robin. I know that for me, sometimes just breaking the routine (i.e., taking a walk, switching from computer to notebook) is enough to get things going.
    jeffo´s last blog post ..A Question…

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    • says

      Yes! Switching up what we write with can break all sorts of stuff loose! I often use an actual pen and notebook paper, too, with great results.

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    • says

      I agree , Kathryn, in admiring others who can use this approach effectively. Its sounds more organized and efficient. I like when you say “chaos reigns.” I too find there is something exciting and mysterious in the process of unraveling the chaos.
      paula cappa´s last blog post ..An Unquiet Spirit

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    • says

      There is absolutely something exciting and mysterious in the chaos! I 100% agree. It’s just that as a working writer with contracts and deadlines, sadly, there isn’t always the luxury of wallowing in the mystery until it sorts itself out.

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  3. says

    Robin, I’ve got a question about this approach of “marching the muse.” I’ve tried similar approaches like you are suggesting ( ex. character cards, plotting out the relationship, map out details), but I often feel like I’m manipulating the character with tacked on characteristics and actions instead of discovering them within the story flow (which I find very exciting and fulfilling).

    Whenever I try these approaches of listing or separating the elements outside of the flow of the narrative story in my head, I get stuck. Something happens and the reality vanishes. Literally, the things that I write on that list or outline are empty and untrue; I end up throwing it out and going back to listening to the voice tell me the story. I guess it’s partly in how a character/story emerges, right? But, anyway, how does your approach work within the narrative flow of writing, of the voice and discovery going on in my head? Do you know what I’m saying? Maybe I’m just a weirdo writer!
    paula cappa´s last blog post ..An Unquiet Spirit

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    • says

      That’s a great question Paula and an issue I struggle with as well. That’s why as a general rule, I try to avoid forcing the writing. But when I don’t have that luxury, these are the techniques I use. For me, and the way I use them, they aren’t so much about assigning random qualities or tacking things on, but are instead specific ways to access what I know or intuit about the characters.

      For me, forcing the writing, just keeping the word count flowing, often ends up derailing the story far more than doing these sorts of exercises. For some reason—simply differing processes, maybe?—they don’t pull me out of the flow, but instead feel like poling a raft to work my way back into the flow.

      But the key to having that be the case is to be certain these exercises and techniques are rooted in the characters themselves or the setting itself.

      So with the character cards, for example, I don’t just sit down and randomly assign those attributes; I dig around in the character, using what I already know about him, and distilling that essence down into identifiable details. I also do a lot of reading on body language and such to help pick movements, gestures, and characteristics that illustrate that essence.

      So while it sounds very left brained—and it is, these are techniques I use when the right side of my brain refuses too play along—I try to have it all be organic to the characters themselves. For whatever reason, it is less disruptive to the story flow for me to assemble these building blocks than to force words on the page.

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  4. says

    Fantastic tips, Robin, and very timely. I’m a pantser who is trying hard to be more of a plotter. Lately I’ve read a couple of excellent books on outlining and I want to try these techniques. Your list is excellent. Thanks!

    Now I just need to get off the Internet and continue with my NaNo novel.
    CG Blake´s last blog post ..Speed Kills—Or Does It?

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  5. Jeannine Thibodeau says

    Robin,

    I’ve already bookmarked this so I can keep returning to it. You’ve gotten me excited for my writing time today! Thanks.

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  6. says

    Robin, this is a brilliant and helpful list. I’m in the middle of a fast drafting workshop where I need to produce twenty pages a day–and I only came up with the story idea two days before the workshop.

    Ordinarily, I would simply wait and let the story reveal itself, but in these circumstances I can’t do it like that.

    I’m really struggling, shoving out pages I know aren’t even any good, because I’m not yet sure what my story is or where it needs to go and I think this will all be a huge help.
    Leslie Miller´s last blog post ..Fast Drafting Adventures (Part One)

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  7. says

    Robin, thank you.

    As I was reading your post, a nice bright light came on in my brain. I am printing this out and adding it to my notebook of cherished writing advice. It’s WORLDS more helpful than a rigid and Spartan philosophy of making myself sit in a chair and stare at the page until the words come.

    Good luck on your recent submission!
    Jillian Boston´s last blog post ..Real Ghost Stories

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  8. says

    So many great ideas here! I especially like the quick Character Cards, and the POV switches. I’m definitely going to keep that one in mind as I work my way through my NaNo ms. At the moment, it’s from one POV only but I like the idea of switching off for a scene here and there, just to get a better idea of other characters’ motivations. Thanks, Robin!
    Madeline Mora-Summonte´s last blog post ..Motivational Monday: An Ebook Release!

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  9. says

    [Telling] the story – I keep forgetting this one!

    My brain wants to put out finished work, or at least polishable work, and resists putting down placeholders (I use [] to enclose them so I can find them easily), but I already use this for things to keep me from researching which leads to surfing which leads to lost days).

    I will use ‘telling’ today.

    I agree with you on the left/right brain thing – I wrote a blog post about it because they were fighting so much that I had to find a way to get them to play nice together (http://liebjabberings.wordpress.com/2013/08/15/left-brain-right-brain-hemisphere-wars-and-writers-block/). Having a printout on my bulletin board makes me conscious of having to switch sides – when one side gets blocked, it is often unblocking to switch to the other side.

    Alicia
    Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt´s last blog post ..The red lobster tale: ME/CFS and B1 overdose possible – CAUTION

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  10. says

    Oh wow, this is like a full-out writing course within one post! I love your concise, concrete suggestions. I’ve printed it, and I’m also putting it in my Scrivener writing craft folder! Thank you for these wonderful suggestions, Robin!
    Barb Riley´s last blog post ..The Eternal Gaze

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  11. says

    Terrific, helpful advice.

    I used to be a “pantser” type of writer. I loved flying by the seat of my pants, until I realized that my creative story outbursts were simply unfocused with plenty of story holes. I finally realized that outlines are necessary to keep the focus on my story, without dampening my creativity.

    Thanks for sharing your tips.

    MaryJane :)
    MaryJane Brodeck´s last blog post ..Memorable Monday Book Review: The Crimes of Paris

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  12. says

    Robin, what a fantastic list of tips for ANY time, including when you’re on deadline. I especially like the nitty-gritty tips: block out your environment–no kidding! How often have I just wanted to get going on the fun part and then turned around wondering what part of town the characters are in, and how did they get there, and is there a bus? Ten Google searches later, I’m down the rabbit hole. Focus. Focus. Focus. I’m bookmarking your list.
    Claire M. Caterer´s last blog post ..Wednesday Writer Tip: How to Set a Story in a Place You’ve Never Visited

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  13. says

    Great list, Robin. Some of my best solving of plot points and character motivations comes during washing dishes, folding clothes, or walking. OH, and the shower! And I forgot the most important one. A lot of the time, when I feel overwhelmed, a nap does wonders.
    vijaya´s last blog post ..Halloween, Requiem Mass, and Books

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  14. says

    I LOVE the idea about creating character cards! For fictional novels, this is a superb tip to get to know your characters and a good reminder to have on hand whenever you are unsure of small but important details like the colour of someone’s eyes.

    I have used several of these tips already, but always manage to find useful nuggets of information in the posts on WU. Thanks for sharing!
    Lorraine Reguly´s last blog post ..20 Blog Post Must-Haves: The Ultimate Blogging Checklist

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  15. says

    Hey Robin – Brava! Thanks for another fine post, & thanks in advance for that upcoming third-in-the-series. I’m loving those Dark Assassins.

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  16. says

    Fantastic advice!! I especially like the character cards, because I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to stop while writing in order to try to remember what the hell that character’s last name was again.

    I’m definitely going to save this post to look at later.
    Andrea Blythe´s last blog post ..Turning Right Instead of Left

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  17. says

    I have used 1, 11, 13, 15 and 18. It’s nice to know others recommend writing whatever scene is vivid in your mind. I tend to jump all over the place, so knowing this is ok was nice to read. It is especially helpful for NaNo.
    amy´s last blog post ..Have Pen, Will Travel

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  18. says

    Great list, and I second #18 for sure, lol.

    I just want to say, though, that 500 words is not a “short burst” for me, and sometimes it’s hard to see other writers talking about their sprints like that as if we should all be able to pound out so many words so quickly. For me, 500 words could be an hour’s struggle, or an entire day’s good work.
    Kristan Hoffman´s last blog post ..What happens away from the keyboard

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