Friday, October 9, 2015

What to do when you don't know what to write

There's a quote that perfectly describes the approach I've taken with this first draft. The gist is that writing the rough draft is scooping sand into a sandbox so that later you can build the sand castle—the book. Since I only half-believed (or maybe quarter-believed) that I had a novel in me, I took the no-outline, free-spirited, sand-in-the-sandbox approach. 
Each day I came to the laptop with no idea what I would write. I took a deep breath, said a quiet prayer, and thought about my character and what I could explore that day. The remarkable thing was that every single day something came to me. Some days were harder to fill a page, but an idea always came to me. And as the days passed, I saw the story take shape in my mind. 
There is freedom in scooping sand in the sandbox. There's no pressure to get it right on this go-round. Keeping the sandbox in mind helped me stay playful and flexible.

On a few occasions, I felt like I was running out of words or just didn't know where to go next. Each time I hit a difficult patch, I reached out to my friend-come-writing coach, Dan. He always had just the right advice at the right time. 
One of his assignments during this dry period was to write a page-a-day about each character's parents. In each entry, he suggested that I name them, give them birth dates, give them an occupation and note their marital status. "These pages you write will be more important than anything else you write. You'll get to know your characters so much better."
As a writing coach, I don't think this man is ever wrong. 
It was in those days that I "discovered" Astrid's nickname for her brother and how she came up with it. With that one little detail, a completely different thread of the story was created. Her best friend and her story came into sharper focus. I also figured out how the ensemble cast came to be so close.
That week of writing backstory for my characters' parents refueled me. There was more sand in the sandbox. More material to work with. 
Writing this book has been an excellent exercise in letting go of the need for my writing to be perfect on the first try. That approach is a set-up for failure. When you don't know what to write, the best antidote is more writing. It's counter-intuitive, but it worked for me over and over again in this process.

Curious how Derrick got his nickname? 

You can read it here! 

A little context: Derrick and Astrid's mother has recently died in a car accident. Their father is so distraught and distracted, he leaves. His mother, Phoebe, steps in to care for the children while their father is sorting himself out.

Phoebe had one excited little boy on her hands. He'd been up two hours in advance of his first baseball game. He'd burst into her room already dressed in his little sluggers blue and grey uniform. He stood at her bedside throwing the ball up into the air. She scolded him for doing it in the house, but secretly delighted in the fact that he never dropped the ball. He caught it every time.
Phoebe sent him outside to run off some energy while she made breakfast and let two-year-old Astrid sleep a little longer. Phoebe put water on the stove to boil for oatmeal. She set the kettle on the other burner for tea. She watched her grandson swing his bat, throw the ball into the air and catch it, and run imaginary bases. She hadn't seen him this full of energy since his dad left. She prayed silently that baseball would breathe new life into him. 
She heard Astrid in her crib. She was chirping and singing. She was still calling out for mama in the mornings, and it broke Phoebe's heart, but she never suggested Astrid say anything different. She left the kitchen and sung her way to Astrid's crib. She peeked around the corner. Astrid held onto the rail of her crib and jumped. 

“Good morning, Baby Astrid. Phoebe's here. She loves you sooooo much.”

Astrid raised her arms to be lifted out of her crib. Phoebe lifted her and walked her to the window. 

“There's your sweet big brother. Can you say Derr-ick?” Phoebe held the first syllable of her grandson's name long for Astrid to mimic. Derr-ick. 
Astrid sat on her grandmother's hip and watched her brother. He always made her smile. She pointed to him and said, “Ick.” 
“That's right, Derrick,” Phoebe giggled. That boy was not going to like his new name.

“We've got to get back to the kitchen or our breakfast will be ruined.”

Phoebe toted the toddler into the kitchen on her hip and held her there as she poured in the oatmeal and stirred it occasionally. She opened the refrigerator and pulled out a glass jar of orange juice. She set it on the table and reached for the strawberries.

She kept an eye on Derrick through the kitchen windows. She was so pleased that he could and would entertain himself. They all had so many adjustments to make. She was building up her stamina again for the daily care of two children. She loved having them in her home, but ached for all the reasons it had been made imperative that they were there.

She knocked on the window. Derrick looked up. She smiled and waved him in for breakfast. He grabbed his baseball gear and ran toward the house.

Derrick burst through the door. 
“Hi Slugger. Please wash your hands before you eat. I saw some great baseball moves out there.”
Derrick grinned and walked to the sink to wash his hands. He moved the stool with his foot to position it closer to the faucet. He stepped on it and turned on the faucet. 
“Today's going to be fun, Phoebe. I can't wait for the game. Will you be there?”

“Of course I will. You don't think I'd miss my grandson's first game do you? No way!”

Derrick dried his hands on the soft dishtowel and sat down at the table.

Astrid was sitting in her booster seat. Phoebe took their little hands and prayed. “Dear God, we ask for your blessing over this food. May it make us strong and healthy and fuel us to do your will. Keep our Derrick safe at his game today. And help me have the energy to keep up with our little Astrid. We pray all of this in Jesus' name. Amen.” She squeezed their hands before letting go and picking up her spoon. 
“Astrid,” Phoebe pointed to Derrick. “Who is that? What's your brother's name? Can you say Derr-ick?”

Astrid was unsuccessfully getting the spoonful of oatmeal to her mouth. She grinned with some errant oats on her cheek. “Ick. Ick. Ick.”

Phoebe giggled. “Did you hear that sweet boy. Your name is Ick. What do you think of that?” 
Derrick furrowed his brow. “It's okay, I guess. She's a baby. Is she going to call me that forever?


  1. Awe! I love this....eventually I will write a fiction book (currently am a non-fiction author) and will have to remember that exercise! Thanks for sharing!!!

  2. Ick? That will be a hard one to live with. Phoebe sounds like she is holding a lot together. Write on!

  3. This is great advice - thank you! Though I don't know if I have a novel in me or not, I can imagine that I would have the urge to do something to advance the plot every time I wrote, and that could be frustrating if I don't know where to take it. I like the idea of filling the sandbox

  4. Love the sandbox analogy. It will help me as I fulfill this challenge during October

  5. I guess I've been using the sandbox theory and didn't even know it because a few days this week I came to the table and thought, "I got nothin'!' But then, the more I typed, the more words I had. Crazy, right?
    I liked your story! You're doing great! (Poor Derrick. Will he always be "ick"?) ;)