When I’m asked to write something on the subject of writing fiction, my first response tends toward, What the hell do I know about writing fiction? That’s despite having written professionally for fifty or so years, published eighteen or so novels and short story collections, and even received a heart-warming lifetime achievement award for science fiction writing. Still, I think, I really don’t know how this works. Creating fiction, after all, is an extraordinarily personal endeavor, and one that draws heavily (at least in my case) upon subconscious memory and intuition. I never quite know what I’m going to come up with until I’ve done it.

This is distinct from the craft of writing. That you can both teach and learn. I’ve taught it in dozens of workshops. I’ve got an online course about it. There are hundreds of books that discuss how to craft a satisfying story, and hundreds more that will guide you in the proper use of language and grammar. And all of that is important—crucial, if you want to succeed as a storyteller. But the core of a story, the heart, is another matter. That comes from somewhere inside yourself. Sometimes it spills right out…and sometimes it’s buried so deeply, and entwined around the sinews of the subconscious that it practically requires the work of a shaman, or a wizard, to extract it.

Finding the actual story can be a thorny problem for new and seasoned writers alike. You might have a nugget, a piece of an idea, a character who in the early stages is completely one dimensional. Where to go from here to a complete story? It can be a path with many twists and turns.

Sure, you’ll hear of stories that just wrote themselves. Or writers for whom stories just flow, tumbling out of the fingertips onto the keyboard. Can we agree that these are the exceptions? Take a moment right now to feel insanely jealous. Get it out of your system. Need a little more time? Feel better? Let’s get back to the issues most of us face.

Finding your story can feel like stumbling in the wilderness. You don’t know which way to turn. Are you going in circles? Maybe. Be prepared to make course corrections when you see the way more clearly.

Anne Lamott, in her excellent book Bird by Bird, talks about creating a story one step at a time—like painting a picture of birds, one bird at a time. That’s excellent advice, on the day to day level. Don’t be overwhelmed by the size of the project, especially a big project like a novel, or a series of novels. One step at a time.

On the other hand, where are we going with this? What’s the ultimate direction, the big picture? It’s a mental balancing act to keep the micro and the macro in harmony. I was going to say, always ask yourself, how does this scene I’m writing contribute to the story at large? But you know what—sometimes you can’t see the big story yet. Sometimes it’s okay to just write and get through this scene, and then get through the next scene—always keeping in mind that on the next draft, or the fourth, you might find them irrelevant, and out they go. They’re not wasted words, if they help you to get down the road and find your way through the wilderness—even if later, you see them as a detour to be cut. Another dictum of Anne Lamott’s: go ahead and write shitty first drafts. Which combines with another dictum: writing is rewriting. Don’t be afraid to put down today what you will cut or change tomorrow, or next month.

It’s easy to fall under the sway of the inner editor, when what you want right now is to interface with your subconscious, pull that story out of thin air, and get something on the page to work with. Tell the editor to chill, go watch a good movie, and stay out of your face while the hard work of first-drafting is being done. Don’t be mean; you’re going to need her later, when drafts 2,3… come around.

What about writer’s block? Writer’s block is real, and don’t let anyone tell you differently. But it can take a myriad of forms. Some will say it’s just an excuse for laziness and lack of focus, and that can be true. Some will say it’s caused by letting that editor get in your way too soon, and that can be true. Some will say, it’s just a way to make yourself feel better, when the truth is you don’t have what it takes to write a story to completion. That can be true, as well. And some will say, it’s a real affliction, when your muse has fled for parts unknown, and you simply cannot find the story, even if you have shown time and again that you have what it takes. That can definitely be true. This last is probably the hardest to overcome.

But here are some things that can help:

Ask yourself questions about your characters: What do they really want, and what—or whom—are they willing to sacrifice to get it? Not just the protagonist, but the antagonist, as well. What are their complexities? What are their strengths? Their weaknesses? How do they clash, and why?

Ask yourself about the setting, the world-building (especially if you’re writing speculative fiction). What details will come into play and maybe unexpectedly change the course of the story? What details add depth and realism?

Think about secondary characters, whose importance might not be immediately obvious. I wrote two novels about dragons, which had their origin in a throwaway line in another book. In The Reefs of Time, I created an animal companion, a gokat, for an alien—mostly to add some depth to the alien character. Later, the gokat played an unexpected, crucial role in the story. Or think of Sam, in The Lord of the Rings. Don’t be afraid to add new elements, even if you’re not sure, in the moment, why.

There are no one-size-fits-all answers to the question of how to develop a story. But persistence is your friend. I hope these thoughts might help just a little as you face your own heart-to-heart with your muse.

First appeared in Books & Buzz Magazine online, March 2024, under the title “How to find the story you want to tell.”