A Good Place to Start

by Cathy Pickens

Do you feel the pull to write, but you’re not sure what you want to say?

Are you bogged down in a project?

Do you have too many projects and can’t choose where to begin?

You have a story to tell. Or you have lots of stories. You have an itch or a yearning to write something, but just what isn’t clear. Yet.

Maybe you haven’t written in years. Maybe you’ve written a lot—in journals or on scraps of paper or a book draft—but you can’t bring it together.

Most writers have been in those same places. I certainly have. My 15th published book will be out in March. Note the word published. Yes, I’ve also got unpublished books stored away. Every fiction and nonfiction book, article, essay, short story—and my entire writing life—started with the same messy roadmap. That’s part of the fun of creating.

For any writer, any new beginning can be daunting. Getting stuck is downright scary. Where do I start?

First, explore what you love to read. Creativity starts with a spark, with something that makes you want to tell a story. An urge to write often starts with reading.

What book, essay, writer makes you want to write? Do you want to write a mystery? Or a memoir? Make a list (or lists) of ones you’ve enjoyed, examples you’d like your work to sit beside on the shelf.

Review your models or inspirations. Why do these books or these writers stick with you? What specifically do you admire? Make a list.

If you know exactly what you want to write—the story of your childhood or your favorite dog or a historical saga—look for similar stories. Study those.

You’ll find the best guides are the writers you admire. How do they handle technical choices like point of view? Why do you love (or hate) certain characters? How do they keep you interested in what’s happening, curious or anxious about happens next?

Also consider why you stopped reading a book. Because you weren’t interested? It moved too slowly? Or you already knew where it was going and no longer cared to stay for the ride?

As a writer, study what stopped you just as you study what you love in others’ writing. In a book you’re not enjoying, flip to the end to see how the story resolves. Then pick up another book or essay that shows promise. As a writer, read what inspires you to write—and read and read and read.

With your models in mind—good ones to inspire and make you long to write, weaker ones that show what to avoid—start writing. Pay attention to that urge to write. It’s a gift, that spark. But it will fully reveal itself only when you pick up your pen (or keyboard) and write.

Write what, you say? In the words of Henri Nouwen, most “feel that they must first have something to say before they can put it down on paper. For them writing is little more than recording a preexistent thought. But … writing is a process in which we discover what lives in us. The writing itself reveals what is alive.

Scribbling those first words can be a bit scary. And no, they won’t be perfect—yet. But oh, what fun to get started.

Cathy Pickens’ first mystery, Southern Fried, won the coveted St. Martin’s Press Malice Domestic Award for Best Traditional Mystery. She’s written five books in the series, as well as Charlotte True Crime Stories and four other books in a regional series for History Press, as well as CREATE!, on developing the creative process. She writes a regular true crime column for Mystery Readers Journal and articles on writing craft and on business, published in writing craft collections. She served as national president of Sisters in Crime and on the national board for Mystery Writers of America. As a long-time professor in the McColl School of Business at Queens University of Charlotte, she won numerous teaching awards. She’s coached writers working on mystery, suspense, and middle-grade fiction; and memoir and other nonfiction.

Creativity Spark for the New Year: What better time to start that new project? Or return to something you put on a shelf? Or explore a new creative outlet? Wondering how to start? Or if you’re headed in the right direction? Creativity is not a mysterious muse-bestowed gift but a discipline that can be developed. This workshop offers time-tested techniques to predictably tap into your own creativity and recharge your creative work. Participants will receive a copy of Cathy’s book, CREATE: Develop Your Own Creative Process. Class discussions will focus on how to develop your own projects. Thursday, December 19, 6:00 – 8:00 pm, virtual via Zoom. Register Here.