It’s pretty common in my workshops for me to suggest writers make lists of words for their stories. It’s a technique I learned from Alexander Sokoloff’s Screenwriting Tricks for Novelists. In the book, she recommends that authors make lists of thematic words relating to their story and characters that can be woven through the narrative to add more emotional resonance and create image systems. It’s a great technique that I use for my own novels.
Recently, I picked up Ray Bradbury’s Zen in the Art of Writing. I’ve been sipping from this font of writerly knowledge a bit at a time, giving myself time to digest each essay. Bradbury has long been a favorite writer of mine, and I’m not sure why it took me so long to find this book, but I sort of feel like it came into my life at the perfect time. Aren’t books magic that way?
Anyway, one of Bradbury’s techniques reminded me of the word lists I mentioned above. According to Bradbury, for years, he kept running lists of words. When he needed to sit down to write a short story, he’d look at that list, choose a word and start writing. The idea that we each have our own unique image system that can be used to find story ideas sort of blew my mind.
Lately, I’ve been in a weird space. I finished a novel a couple of months ago that took me two years to write. I want to write, but the idea of diving headlong into another huge project so soon feels daunting. The well needs some time to refill. However, I have a book on submission and lots of time of my hands now that I’ve finished most of my grad school coursework. Idle time is dangerous for an imagination. But then Bradbury and his word list offered me the perfect solution. Why not just write my own list and use it to write some shorts of my own? Not because I’m supposed to be writing, but because I want to be writing.
An interesting thing happens when you start to make these lists. Following Bradbury’s example, I formatted my list with “the” in front of each noun, e.g. “The Moon,” “The Tomb,” “The Hallway.” It’s a fun exercise to sit down and see how one image leads to others and before you know it, you have this neat list of all the images that your subconscious loves or fears. So far, my list is four pages long. That’s material for a LOT of stories.
Also? It’s fascinating to see what’s coming up. Images appear like words in the those Magic Eight Balls. They sort of emerge from the depths of my brain before sinking down below again. Paying attention to what’s coming up has been enlightening and has helped me really get a handle on my own personal image system. Meaning, the themes and images I go back to over and over again in my stories–the symbols that make up a large part of my writer voice. The ideas that fascinate and scare me enough to keep returning to them over and over in my work.
I feel sort of silly that it didn’t occur to me to apply the word lists I used for my novel to other things, but that’s sort of how this writing thing goes. The tools you think you’ve mastered have a way of evolving into new uses. I’m excited to see what sort of short stories come out of this, and even ore excited to see how my list of images grows and changes over the years as I become fascinated by or afraid of new things. As I fall in love with new ideas and characters and places.
So I guess today’s craft advice is twofold:
1. Always be open to using old tools in new ways.
2. If you pay attention, the mentors you need will appear right when you need them.