Thursday, September 29, 2011

6 Keys to Opening Up New Possibilities in Your Story

"What makes familiar things worth writing about is that we are able to find a way to see them new, both for us and the people we write for." --Bruce Ballenger

Some years ago we had a mail-delivery problem when a bird built its nest in our mailbox. A problem with a simple solution, it would seem. Just pull the nest out and discard. But when, the next day, we observed how the bird flew down, perched on the box, opened the lid with its beak and subsequently made several trips to deposit more nest-building straw inside, we knew we had to do something. After all, how many times could we pull out the bird's work only to see it come back and start all over? We didn't have the heart for that.

Thankfully, at about the same time, we happened to hear a park naturalist speak at the local library. During the Q&A session, I asked for advice.

"The key," the naturalist said, "is to put a brick in the mailbox. It will change the space so that the bird will want to look for a new home. Hopefully a place that's a better fit for him--and you."

A brick? It was worth a try. And, happy ending, the bird soon disappeared, never again to take up residence in our box.

Remembering the incident prompted me to wonder what keys we writers might use in dealing with some of our writing problems--problems like bogging middles, lackluster writing, stories that seem to go nowhere--or that elusive, "something just ain't working" feeling. How can we change the "space" of the piece so that we look at it differently, see new possibilities? Some ideas:

1. Experiment with point of view.  This is a suggestion made by Ann Whitford Paul in Writing Picture Books. "Rewrite the opening paragraph in your story," she says, "in different forms." In other words, switch things around. If you're writing in first person, change to third--or even second. Single POV? Try multiple. Change your POV character. "While you’re writing these different opening paragraphs," she adds, "be playful. Let your imagination run wild. See how your experiments will take your story in new and surprising directions."

2. "Go Topsy-Turvey." This is how Jane Yolen puts it in Take Joy, A Writer’s Guide to Loving the Craft. “Writers know that if they turn a picture upside down, the central shapes are better exposed. No longer concerned with the drawing...what comes through is the composition itself." She acknowledges that you cannot very well read a book upside down, but you can look at its composition differently. For example, "Take one of your chapters, and reread what you've written with all the modifiers blocked out. Declare war on adverbs. Change your main character's gender. Turn a prose paragraph into lines of poetry to see how you've overwritten it...When we force ourselves to go topsy-turvy, we can see anew what is on the page."

3. Play "How Many Endings?". This is a personal favorite--an exercise I did that opened up a whole new realm of possibilities in my writing. In How to Write with the Skill of a Master and the Genius of a Child, Marshall J. Cook says this: "Select a finished story—your own or somebody else’s—and play the ‘How Many Endings?’ game. How many different ways could you end that story? Don’t judge, analyze, or otherwise evaluate your endings as you jot them down. And don’t bother polishing the prose. Just capture the idea. When you think you can’t think of any more endings, think of one more." At this point I was sweating, but I did it--one more idea--and it was by far the best.

4. Vary your writing tools. This idea came from the March/April 2011 SCBWI Bulletin, in an  article titled, "Rhythm and Flow in a Writer’s Life" by Pedro De Alcantara: “Writing by hand has a different rhythm and feel from typing at a manual typewriter or at a computer. And writing by hand on unlined pages is different from writing by hand on lined paper. Alternate using pens, pencils, various notebooks, computers, Post-its, and other media. Each writing tool triggers your creativity in distinctive ways."

5. Grab your camera. Bruce Ballenger, in Discovering the Writer Within, proposes taking a series of pictures of an object of choice--making each shot different by varying the angle, distance, lighting. Print the pictures, spread them out, and ask yourself, "Do any of the images help me to see my familiar object in a new way?"

6. Change your space. Again, from Ballenger: "Go for walks, swim, run, go to a movie, read. Do anything but write for a day or so...(and) don't allow yourself to indulge in negativity."

Experiment. Turn things topsy-turvey. Go a step deeper when you think you've given it all you've got. Vary your approach. Play with images. Change your own space to make room in your head for solutions. Just a handful of ideas. When troublesome birds build nests in your head and hamper your writerly deliveries, what are some of the keys you turn to?


  1. I love these tips, and I love your real-life example! I would never have thought of doing something so simple as changing the bird's work space to encourage different behavior. Thanks for all of the ideas :)

  2. I love all these tips, Kenda. I like the change the Point of View idea a lot.

  3. What a great post. A banquet of food for thought.

  4. What a refreshing post, Kenda! I think you should submit this to the SCBWI magazine--such practical ideas!


  5. Thanks, Jess and Heather. Glad this post proved helpful. And Debbie--appreciate your suggestion! A real boost. I think I'll do just that and see what happens :-) Thanks for the support...

  6. This are all great suggestions. Thanks for sharing them with us. :D

  7. Great advice, thanks. Now a follower (hoping to pick up a few more handy hints).

    Moody Writing

  8. Thanks, Stina, for stopping in...

    And thanks for the follow, mooderino :-) Nice "meeting" you!

  9. Hey, Kenda! Thanks for commenting on my blog and for becoming a Follower! It's great to meet you!

    And good luck with your MG book submissions process! Keep us updated on how it's going!