I’m not an outliner either, as I’ve said many times on the blog. Sometimes I attempt outlining, but when I start to write, I realize problems that didn’t occur to me earlier, and the outline doesn’t accommodate them. I suspect serious outliners spend as much time, or almost as much, outlining as actually writing. They anticipate the issues and also manage not to over-plot. Wish I knew how to do it.
Even without outlining, however, you might restrain yourself from starting your story until your idea gels a little. Write notes instead of actual story. Write what ideas interest you in the beginning you have in mind. Consider where you might go with them, loosely, and put your thoughts on paper. Think (in writing) about a few characters who might fit. I also like to think of real people I know whose personalities fascinate me. Can you put any of your fascinating people in, in a fictionalized fashion?
Then ruminate over how the story might end. Write a few alternate endings. You can commit to one if it strikes you as perfect or you can leave them all hanging out there as possibilities. As you write, keep them in mind. One may become more probable as you move along.
I hope you’ve been saving your petered-out beginnings. Go through them and pick one. Tentatively decide that you just didn’t stick with it long enough. Stare at it. See if you can coax a new paragraph out of the void and then another. What do you make of your main character? Ask yourself questions about him. Who are his friends? His family? What’s easy for him? What’s hard? What tempts him into trouble? Can you move the story toward that trouble? Did you start in the right place? Is it possible that your beginning is really the end, and what you have to do is write toward it?
Ask yourself these questions and any others you can dream up. Then go back to your beginning and see if you can make more progress.
Look over your false starts again. Do any belong together? If you combine them, do they move you deeper into your story? If yes, keep going.
You describe your beginnings and ideas as random, but I believe nothing in writing is random. I say in Writing Magic, and I think I’ve said on the blog that writing comes from a very deep place. Even the simplest, lightest stories do. Let’s take "Little Bo Peep" for example. Here we go:
Little Bo Peep has lost her sheep
and doesn’t know where to find them.
Leave them alone
and they’ll come home,
wagging their tails behind them.
I may not have broken the lines correctly. Sorry. But there’s profundity to spare here. We’ve all felt the desperation of losing something important, could be homework, money, even trust. And we’ve all (I think) had the experience of letting the lost thing go, and the relief of that. Sometimes the loss is never recovered, but sometimes we get whatever it was back, and it seems that the letting go made the return possible. All that out of a nursery rhyme!
Themes repeat, not just story lines. Look at your beginnings once more. Is there something that unites them? If you can’t find a thread, ask your friends or family to read them and suggest a theme. They may see more than one, which is great.
A frequent story thread I see in kids’ stories is a main character being kidnapped. So what might be going on underneath? You may think of more possibilities, but here are two of mine: the victim, Eloise, is wanted, needed, so desired for some quality (her mind, her lovableness, her beautiful voice, her paranormal power) that the kidnappers put themselves at risk to capture her; or Eloise is in danger of being taken over, of losing her will, even her self, to her captors. Or both. So where can the writer take these themes? How can he play them out? Who are her captors? What are their personalities, flaws, virtues?
In both these examples, Bo Peep and the kidnapping, what chokes off the writing may be the underlying depth. It may be scary to explore, in the kidnapping case for instance, what it means for a main character, the one both reader and writer most identify with, to be so valuable. It reminds me of the sequence in the old movie It's a Wonderful Life when the angel shows George Bailey what his town would have been like without him. I love that part, but it also embarrasses me - kind of like imagining your own funeral and how much everyone loved you.
Now I don’t mean that we’re aware in the slightest of feeling frightened when we write our failed beginnings. The idea simply peters out. But if we look at our themes, bring them out in the open, that lurking uneasiness may melt away. What we have turns into mere story and we see where we can go with it.
Contrariwise, ordinarily I resist examining my underlying motifs because I suspect that their subterranean natures give my stories power. But these cut-off beginnings are a special case and make the exploration worthwhile.
Here are some prompts:
• If you too have trouble staying with your beginnings, review your false starts. Seek out your themes. Ask friends for help. When you have a few ideas, see where they take you. If a particular thread makes your heart race a little, keep going. If your heart persists in beating according to its ordinary rhythm, keep going anyway.
• Expand Little Bo Peep’s situation, showing her story rather than telling it. How did she lose the sheep? Where does she search? What will the consequences be if the sheep stay lost? Who will be angry? How will Bo Peep suffer? If you like, turn the nursery rhyme into a novel or a series, The Bo Peep Chronicles.
• Look up nursery rhymes, like "Little Bo Peep." Pick one or two or more and speculate about their deeper meanings. Write down what you think.
• This familiar lullaby is totally crazy (and creepy), in my opinion:
Rock-a-bye baby, on the treetop,
When the wind blows, the cradle will rock,
When the bough breaks, the cradle will fall,
And down will come baby, cradle and all.
Who put Baby up there? Does somebody want to kill him? Turn this one into a story or a novel. If you want to see my silly interpretation, look for it in my book of mean poems, Forgive Me, I Meant to Do It, coming out next March.
Have fun, and save what you write!