How to write something when you don’t know where to start

It’s November and you know what that means? NaNoWriMo!

What’s that? You don’t know about National Novel Writing Month? I wrote about it last November when I shared some thoughts about “Writers’ Block”.

You may not aspire to be the next John Grisham, but if you’ve ever struggled to write something you’ve never written before, and you don’t know where to start, I have a possible solution.

When I was in high school, my parents had a friend who created several TV shows, wrote screenplays, non-fiction, and music. He also did some acting. Anyway, he didn’t have a musical background, but he wrote some very clever songs. One day, my father asked him how he did it.

He said he took an existing song he liked and used it’s structure as a template. He changed it, note by note, until he had an original piece that was nothing like the one he started with, except maybe in length, key, and tempo. (Since he couldn’t read music, he recorded himself humming his new tune and had someone transcribe it.)

For the lyrics, he took the original words and changed those word by word, or he found another song he liked and changed those words to create a new song to go with his new music. He used the same technique for creating screenplays.

Instead of writing from scratch, he re-wrote something that was already written. He didn’t plagiarize or steal ideas. He took the original, pared it down to it’s skeleton, and added new flesh and sinew to give life to a completely new creation.

Now don’t get me wrong, the guy had talent. Lots of it. He simply used his note/word-changing technique as a starting point. If I ever write a novel, that’s exactly how I will start.

After all, isn’t “getting started” the hardest part of doing something new? Once you have a first draft, you can make it better. But so many aspiring writers never get started so they never have a first draft they can improve.

If you wanted to use this technique to write the first draft of a novel, find one you like (in the appropriate genre and voice, i.e., “first person detective”) and create a “step outline”–a sequential list of the plot points. Note the number of major characters, when they are introduced, and their role (i.e., friend who encourages, villain, love interest, and so on). How many chapters are there? How long are they? When does the crime take place? When do we meet the hero?

Now you have a story skeleton, but of course it’s for someone else’s story. Your job is to change things, point by point, element by element, to write your own.

Your setting will be different. San Antonio instead of San Clemente. Your characters will be different. If the victim in the original was an insurance investigator who is murdered to cover up a fraudulent claim, your victim might be an accountant who knew too much about his crooked client’s business activities.

You write your own novel, using the structure of the original, but nothing else.

Now I didn’t say yours would be a good novel. That’s easier said than done. But your novel will at least be the right length, number of characters, and have the requisite elements in it. You’ll have a workable first draft.

You can use the same technique to write something much less ambitious, like an article or report. Decide on a topic you want to write about and find a model. How many paragraphs? How many main points? How many bullet points? Use this as a template.

Doing something new is much easier when you have a place to start. Fortunately, you don’t have to invent the place the start. You can follow someone who already finished.

Would you like a template for marketing your legal services? Use this