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Getting a Story Out of Nowhere

By Lily G. Stephen

Updated March 25, 2014

What about the idea that no story ever written is original to the author? That all fiction exists in perfection “out there,” in the realm of the spheres, with writers serving as channels to bring stories onto the page in some approximation of that perfect drama?

Open to the Unconscious Mind Like Noted Authors

That theory can be turned around to envision the process bubbling up from what mystery writer Lawrence Block terms the unconscious mind. This isn’t just my observation — it’s also that of many noted authors. For example, the October 10, 2005 U.S. News & World Report had an interview of E. L. Doctorow with his novel released, The March. He’s asked, "Where do 'real' characters end and imaginary ones begin?"

Here's Doctorow's answer: "I take the position that all the characters are real. The invented characters spring to mind whole with their names and their physiognomy and status established in the first sentence of writing about them. Sherman or any of the others who are recognizably historical come to me in the same way. Whatever research I've done boils down to an impression, and they spring into the book in the same way."

According to Sandra T. Wales, author of The Warrior Queen series under a pseudonym, most of us like to write what we like to read. Her regular column in the SPAN newsletter offered helpful advice for fiction writers. I understand what she meant. In many cases authors of romance or historical novels were readers of those genres as children or young adults. Yet I also observe exceptions to that, and I became an exception as well.

Make a Heartfelt Request

Here’s my experience. When my first novel, amounting to 830 manuscript pages after revisions, was ready to put aside, I went through a transition period when I knew the time had come to write a more significant fictional work — one offering more thought-provoking and wisdom-focused themes than those usually promoted. There was absolute certainty about this on my part, but there was no story. No ideas, not even a hint. So in my case, I asked for it — offered up my request to the universe, and waited.

  • Ask for it
  • Be patient, and
  • Stay tuned
  • Evolve; open to inner world
  • Recognize the story

Unknown to me at that time, I entered the second step of a writer’s intuitive process. After Step number 1, which could be called “ask for it,” came the second: “be patient.” Yet patience alone is insufficient. Step number 3 has to accompany it: “stay tuned.” What if that story makes itself known in a dream, but slips away into the waking day? How about this? Bram Stoker received Dracula in a dream, and when he woke up, he wrote it all down. About 250 movies have been based on that original story that came out of nowhere.

Or maybe a story is signaled by archetypical symbolism observed in some passing encounter, or the behavior of a colleague or friend. Staying tuned is vital. So is ongoing patience, not forcing an idea to work if it isn’t authentic.

Step number 4 should really begin before any of the others, because it lays the foundation for what Lawrence Block calls “organic writing.” Step number 4 is evolving personally and as an author. To say it differently, it’s the natural progression in development of one who really wants to write fiction — opening to the inner world as well as the outer.

So what happened to me? Step number 5, “recognizing the story.” One morning about 45 days after I had “asked for it,” the core concept for The Tenth Muse came through while I took a shower. The event was so charged with recognition that as soon as I was dry, I went to the desk and wrote it down.

Allow the Parade

Soon Lawrence Block’s concept of “organic writing” kicked in. I have found his book, Spider, Spin Me a Web, to be an ongoing source of inspiration. Before I delved into it, though, what happened for me is that while writing The Tenth Muse, a whole trilogy rolled out. It was a little like a film incrementally downloading in my head. Complete with titles for the other volumes and a title for the trilogy. Later, I realized this was a feature of “organic writing” as Block describes; writing that grows as it goes.

In his words: “Most of us who’ve spent a fair amount of time writing have come to see that the conscious analytical/intellectual part of the mind has only a small amount to do with what winds up on the page. It’s another portion of the mind altogether that just plain knows, sentences after the introduction of a newly-imagined character, what that character will or won’t do, say, notice, respond to, or remember. It’s that obscure side of the mind, too, that keeps producing fictional ideas — not just the initial idea that sparks the creation of a piece of writing, but the endless parade of creative ideas which must follow to see the work through to completion.”

Draw Maps

So enters that parade, and the need to stay open to those ideas as well as to manage them while they become a cohesive story. Several techniques shared by Dorothy Bryant, author of fine visionary writing, helped me. One technique is to draw maps. I drew maps of the town square central to parallel towns on both planets in Volume I, The Tenth Muse - Planet Earth and Planet Zamora; a map of the furnished house featured in the same manner; a map of the immense subterranean city, a setting in Volume II, The El-eventh Hour. All this enabled characters to move about in a setting or realm with authenticity.

Outpour into the First Draft

Another suggestion by Dorothy Bryant that I took to heart is, write it all down in the first draft. Just pour it all out. It can always be trimmed, but you’ve got to have work to trim. It also tends to interrupt the rhythm of the whole when new material is inserted later. She suggests, “You must know everything well before you can know what to discard. You must cover pages with material you will not finally put into the book. That doesn’t mean you don’t use it. It is still there, must be there, an invisible foundation which gives authority to the story. The planning done on setting is never wasted. Nothing is ever wasted. If it has been thought through and written, it is still there, in every word which does not mention it.”

Use that Notebook

And last, here's my suggestion, yet even though I haven’t read it in anyone’s how-to book, it can’t be original with me: from the moment Step number 5 occurs, “recognize the story,” open up to the first page of that fresh 8 x 10 side-bound spiral notebook you’ve kept waiting on your desk. Write down that core idea, and in the left margin beside it, note the date. Even if the author writes at the keyboard, every idea that suddenly appears, each setting, characterization, quotation, or random fragment of dialogue gets recorded and dated. This works better for me than other methods, though each author generally finds a particular technique for developing the story. The notebook keeps me from delving through file folders and stacks when I suddenly wonder where I put that quote from the program on quantum physics I scribbled weeks before. The author may progressively work at the keyboard, but the book’s skeleton is in the notebook for easy reference.

Best of all, the notebook is wonderful for figuring out just how long it took me to write the novel. It’s embarrassing to be asked that question, and to have to mumble, “forever,” because it seemed like it, and I'd forgotten when it was I started writing it down.

In conclusion, I appreciate these comments from an author who must certainly have been in touch with getting a story out of nowhere, Pulitzer winner and Nobelist Saul Bellow: “I feel that art has something to do with the achievement of stillness in the midst of chaos. A stillness which characterizes prayer, too, and the eye of the storm. I think that art has something to do with an arrest of attention in the midst of distraction.”*

Has that story come to you? Have you captured it onto pages? What next?


U.S. News & World Report, October 10, 2005, p. 22.

Spider, Spin Me a Web, Lawrence Block, 1988, Quill, William Morrow, New York, pp. 7,8.

Writing a Novel, Dorothy Bryant,1978, Ata Books, Berkeley, pp. 45, 46.

*The Writer's Desk, Jill Krementz, 1996, Random House, New York, p. 99.

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Would you like to know what Stephen King shares about "Everything You Need to Know About Writing Successfully?"

And say, do you already know about Dan Poynter's publishing newsletter? If not, you can go to to subscribe. It's worth it.

For example, he includes a section called "ParaTips," which offers suggestions that have helped me find directions for writing and marketing. In the April, 2010 issue there is a contribution from Sam Horn, book coach and author of POP! who shares quotations to help you finish writing your book, such as:

“Inspiration usually comes during work, not before it.” – Madeleine L’Engle

“Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can only see to the end of your headlights; but you can make the whole trip that way.” – E. L. Doctorow

“I write when I’m inspired, and I see to it that I’m inspired at 9 am every morning.” – PeterDeVries

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