word craft


Writing Tip: James Ponti

I’ve invit­ed a group of top-notch writ­ers to share their writ­ing tips with you this sum­mer. Look for a new bit of learned expe­ri­ence each Tuesday.

James Pon­ti: Start­ing a Story 

Have you ever been over­whelmed when you start to write some­thing? Wor­ried that it isn’t quite good enough? Wor­ried that it’s not per­fect or impor­tant? That hap­pens to me all the time, and I’ve had a bunch of books pub­lished. (Well, not as many as Avi, but still enough that you’d think I’d be over that feel­ing by now.) When it hap­pens, I try to stretch.

Just like an ath­lete stretch­es their mus­cles before tak­ing the field, writ­ers can often use a lit­tle men­tal stretch before putting words on a page. Here’s an exer­cise that can help you stretch your writ­ing mus­cles. Get 15 index cards (you can use post-its or scraps of paper, but I like index cards so I can use them again lat­er) and put them in three sep­a­rate piles of five.

On the first five, write a descrip­tion of a char­ac­ter. On the next five, describe a prob­lem. On the last five, put down a set­ting. Don’t give much thought to any of these, just write down the first things that come to mind. They can be seri­ous or sil­ly, it doesn’t mat­ter. When you’re done turn them upside down and blind­ly pull one card from each pile.

You now have the ele­ments for an entire­ly new and orig­i­nal sto­ry. Say, for exam­ple, these are the three cards you pulled:

  • Char­ac­ter – An absent-mind­ed soc­cer player
  • Prob­lem – Is late for some­thing important
  • Set­ting – in San Francisco

Try to make up a quick sto­ry on the spot. You don’t need to write any of it down, just think it through by ask­ing your­self quick ques­tions. How old is the soc­cer play­er? Are they late for a game? A prac­tice? Are they run­ning up and down the hills of San Fran­cis­co? Do they take a cable car? Do they feel the tremor of an earth­quake? How do they solve their problem?

When you’ve fig­ured out a basic sto­ry­line, pull out a new set of cards and do the same thing again. Keep doing this until your sto­ry mus­cles feel loose and ready. Then, do the same thing, only this time not with the cards. Use a char­ac­ter, prob­lem, and set­ting that mat­ter to you and start writing.

It’s game time.

Learn more about James Pon­ti at his web­site. Fol­low James on Face­book, Twit­ter, and Insta­gram.

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