Overcome the Starting Block: Make a List

It doesn’t matter how many writing projects I’ve had. Whether stories, poems, or at my technical writing job, starting a new project is always the hardest part. I have a method, though, that helps me get over the getting started hump.

I make lists.

Before I start, I usually have a very bare-bones idea of something I want to do. It might be a character or a setting, or the beginnings of a plot. I take that seed of an idea and build on it with a list.

For example, I used to write songs with a friend in England, Francis Greene. One day, I really missed the ocean. Having grown up in California, the coast was always a very important place for me. So I started writing down some images from my cold, rocky Northern California beaches. Things like:

  • The water pulling the sand from under my feet
  • Seagulls
  • A foghorn near a lighthouse
  • Ocean spray
  • The pier
  • A ship on the horizon
  • Shells
  • Starfish
  • Hermit crabs

There were a lot more. Many of the items in my list didn’t make the final cut. This is often the case.

I didn’t list only items. I also thought of things I like to do at the beach:

  • Walk
  • Hunt for shells
  • Bark at the sea lions

Once I had my list, I rearranged the items. This is easy to do on a computer, and sometimes (especially if I’m listing plot points), the list becomes my outline. My favorite way to sort a list while brainstorming is to put each list item on a Post-It and stick them to my white board or wall, where I can move them around, group them, make connections, easily add to them, and whatever else comes to mind.

I’ll often use different colored Post-Its and different colored pens for different things so I can easily look at the board and see groupings. Like, maybe green notes are settings and blue notes are characters, and so on.

Once I start making a list, I have never been blocked. I find that as I write each list item, more thoughts and ideas jump into my head. Almost without effort, my brain builds associations between the things in my list, and story ideas and themes start to form.

My song, because I was missing the beach, took on a melancholy feel, even though that wasn’t the original intention. It became a song about loss and loneliness. Here are the final lyrics. See how many of my list items you can spot.

When You Were Here
(Rhoades/Greene, 1997)

The ocean breeze is blowing, fog is drifting in
It’s cool and damp, there’s no one here
The tide is pulling sand from underneath my feet
The sea lions play beneath the pier
Remember how we used to bark at them?
When you were here

(Chorus)
Like that distant ship out there on the horizon
You sailed far away from me
You swore that it was nothing I had said or done, that
You just needed to be free

Across the rocks, a hermit crab scurries away
I find a starfish in the sand
The wind and sea, my wet hair clinging to my face
I always loved to hold your hand
Remember how we used to hunt for shells?
When you were here

(Chorus)

(Bridge)
I remember when I used to walk alone
But then we met and I walked with you
Loneliness was such a very special place
When we walked alone as two

The lighthouse beam, in vain it tries to pierce the fog
A foghorn warns the ships away
A gull is struggling, tries to fly against the wind
My tears disguised by ocean spray
Remember how we used to chase the waves?
When you were here

(Chorus)

(Bridge)

The ocean breeze is blowing, fog is drifting in
A foghorn warns the ships away
The tide is pulling sand from underneath my feet
My tears disguised by ocean spray
Remember how we used to love this place?
Wish you were here
Wish you were here
Wish you were here

You can listen to it, if you’d like, as performed by The Bicycle Riders (featuring Francis Greene). If you listen carefully, you can hear me being absolutely silent.

Exercise: Think of a place that’s important to your character. In Kidlit, this might be a bedroom or a classroom, for example. List key elements of that place. Include objects, but don’t forget to also include sensory things, such as smells and textures. Once you have your list, sort the items and make associations. Note any ideas that surface as you work with your list. Finally, write a scene in that setting. You don’t have to use every item in your list, but pay attention to how the items you don’t use affect your perception of that place.

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