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NaNoWriMo Special: The Shotgun Approach to Writing

WritersdontcryBy which I don’t mean take a shotgun to your computer or anything so dire. I’m talking about doing some rapid-fire brainstorming to quickly move through a lot of different ideas--from a variety of different approaches--until you find one that suits your fancy. Because you need a good idea if you’re going to participate in National Novel Writing Month, and NaNoWriMo is not about taking it slow.Brainstorm

NaNoWriMo is about getting hooked on writing. You kind of have to be if you’re going to hit 50k in just one month! Of course, to get to even 1k, you first need to do one very important thing: start. Starting is for many the hardest part. And the hardest part of starting is coming up with an idea you're crazy enough about to spend all your Friday nights cuddling up to your computer.

So, listed below are five of my favorite ways to get an idea. Try all of them! Who knows? You might just hit on something good. After all, legend has it Erin Morgenstern’s acclaimed The Night Circus started in a story she wrote for NaNoWriMo . . .

1. Picture Yourself Legend Tripping 

There's a reason legends stick around for so long: something about them grips the human imagination. Which means they make damn good stories. You can tackle the big ones--like the fall of the mythical city of Atlantis, or the smaller ones, like the lost colony or Roanoke, in which 128 people disappeared, leaving only the word "Croatoan" carved on a solitary post of the fort. Either way, trying to explain the unexplainable is always a fun way to spend some words. Here are some of my favorites (inspired by Jeff Belanger's excellent Picture Yourself Legend Tripping):

  •  The origins of the Pied Piper myth is Hamelin’s town records. In an entry from 1384, it states: "It is 100 years since our children left." No other details. How’s that for a historical mystery worth talking about?
  • The Starchild skull, found in 1930, was shown in 2000 to have belonged to a creature with a human mother (based on mitochondrial DNA)--and in 2009 to have a nonhuman father (based on nuclear DNA). Now, what could have caused that?
  • Robert Leroy Johnson had such phenomenal talent that many said it could have only come from a deal with the devil. He makes an appearance in O Brother Where Art Thou? and Reservation Blues. But he’s hardly the only famously skilled musician who was said to have made a deal with the devil and died at age 27. What others can you find?

2. Stranger Than Fiction

History is sometimes so strange as to be unbelievable, so poignant as to be heartbreaking, and so inspiring as to be worth a thousand tales. From the dramatic and epic lives of gangsters and cowboys like Bonnie and Clyde and Doc Holliday, to the oddest of mysteries. Like, did you know "dancing mania" was a thing? Tens of thousands would appear and dance for up to months in an unconscious, uncontrollable state. Why did they dance, and what happened to those who were left behind?

And then there are war stories. Scott Westerfeld, in his talk at Central Library, said that part of the inspiration for the Leviathan trilogy came from World War I--thinking about the tragic deaths of two Austrian nobles that caused the whole world to fall apart, and how much worse that must be for you if you were the child of that couple. What if your personal tragedy, which makes it feel as though the world is breaking, was echoed on the world stage like that? What if the world actually did fall apart?

3. Found Objects

One of my favorite methods of brainstorming is seeing what random associations your brain makes for you--what stories your brain will tell, if given an object, a detail, and a location. You’d be surprised what an effective story-starter this can be.

  •  Pick an object. You want it to be personal, like an antique pocket watch, a locket, a cuff link, a ring made of twisted copper wire, a ribbon, a much-folded drawing, an intricately bound journal, a torn-out page of a book in another language, or a key.
  • Pick a detail to be attached to that object, like an inscribed date, a word, an address, a picture, some blood, a lock of hair, a map, a strange perfume, or a tooth.
  • Pick a location to find that object, like a storm drain, the sidewalk, a hollow tree, a cereal box, an abandoned hospital, a tree house, the glove compartment of a rental car, a secret panel in your mother’s make-up kit, under the floorboards, or in a book.

Now tell a story about that object with that detail in that location. Who finds the object? How did it get there? What does the detail mean?

4. Art Books Are a Writer’s Best Friend

They say a picture is worth a thousand words . . . Books of pictures, then, must hold thousands of stories. Flip through the pages of a fantastic art book, or through galleries online, and see what inspires you. Some of my favorite art books are:

  • The award-winning, annual international collection of the best fantastic art out there, every page of Spectrum is inspiring.
  • Brian Froud’s faerie and goblin art was the inspiration behind Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal.
  • Award-winning H.R. Giger is probably best known for his work on Alien, but there’s a lot more disturbing, beautiful art where that came from . . .

5. What Do You Hear In These Sounds?

Songwriters have far fewer lines in which to tell their stories, which often results in lines that hold whole worlds in just a few words. Try taking a line from a song, and telling a story based around that single line. Here are some good examples:

  • "I’m sorry if I left the angels crying over me"--Selena Gomez
  • "The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls"--Paul Simon
  • "I saw my daddy cry and curse at the wind. He broke his own heart and I watched as he tried to reassemble it."--Paramore 
  • "Because you're mine, I walk the line."--Johnny Cash
  • " 'There must be some kind of way out of here,' Said the joker to the thief"--Bob Dylan

Another useful music technique is listening to a soundtrack, and telling the story you hear in the music. Some of my favorites for this are Pan’s Labyrinth, House of Flying Daggers, Spirited Away, and The Lord of the Rings.

Come up with any interesting ideas? Take some time, flesh it out a bit. Then, next week, come back for some tips on writing a quick and dirty outline. Happy writing!

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