On not-knowing what to do

It’s appropriate to pause and say that the writer is one who, embarking upon a task, does not know what to do.… The not knowing is crucial to art, is what permits art to be made. Without the scanning process engendered by not-knowing, without the possibility of having the mind move in unanticipated directions, there would be no invention.… Writing is a process of dealing with not-knowing, a forcing of what and how.

~Donald Barthelme, “Not-knowing”

On beginning

The scene comes first, an idea of a character in a place. It’s visual, it’s Technicolor—something I see in a vague way. Then sentence by sentence into the breach.

Elisa Gabber quoting Don DeLillo

Learning from Naomi Mitchison

It is said that when the new Queen saw the old Queen’s baby daughter, she told the King that the brat must be got rid of at once.

from Travel Light by Naomi Mitchison

This is the first sentence of a novel written in 1952. The novel is good and this sentence is excellent.

First sentences should include at least one implied question, a compelling question that leads readers into the text in search of an answer. The sentence quoted above includes an implied question about at least the life of the old queen’s baby daughter. It is easily read as including questions about the relationships between the queens and the king. Most compelling is the question of what the king does next. What happens to the baby? The rest of the novel answers that question.

The strategy of implied questions can and should be used at the beginning of chapters as well. Before answering any one implied question, be sure at least one other has been asked. A story or novel might be organized or outlined as a long series of related implied questions and answers.

Characterization and the 36 questions

Perhaps I should start an “Exercises” category for posts? I’ll think about it. While this post is much closer to an exercise than the sort of thing usually found in “Reading Like a Writer,” I hope it is useful in the same way.

The questions below are a revision of Arthur Aron’s research into creating emotional intimacy between individuals. His work suggests 36 questions. They are best asked and answered in the order below. After you have answered them, consider which answers might be expanded into engaging scenes for readers.

Answer these questions to help create a character or characters.


  1. Given the choice of anyone in any world, whom would this character want as a dinner guest?
  2. Would this character like to be famous? In what way?
  3. Before making a telephone call (or communicating in general), would this character ever rehearse what they are going to say? Why?
  4. What would constitute a “perfect” day for this character?
  5. When did this character last sing to themself? To someone else?
  6. If this character were able to live to the age of 90 and retain either the mind or body of a 30-year-old for the last 60 years of their life, which would they want?
  7. Does this character have a secret hunch about how they will die?
  8. Name three things this character and you or another character appear to have in common.
  9. For what in this character’s life do they feel most grateful?
  10. If this character could change anything about the way they were raised, what would it be?
  11. Take four minutes and free write this character’s life story in as much detail as possible.
  12. If this character could wake up tomorrow having gained any one quality or ability, what would it be?


  1. If a crystal ball could tell this character the truth about themself, their life, the future or anything else, what would they want to know?
  2. Is there something that this character has dreamed of doing for a long time? Why haven’t they done it?
  3. What is the greatest accomplishment of this character’s life so far?
  4. What does this character value most in a friendship?
  5. What is this character’s most treasured memory?
  6. What is this character’s most terrible memory?
  7. If this character knew that in one year they would die suddenly, would they change anything about the way they are now living? Why?
  8. What does friendship mean to this character?
  9. What roles do love and affection play in this character’s life?
  10. Draft a brief exchange in which this character describes a positive characteristic of another character while listening to themselves described positively. Share a total of five items.
  11. How close and warm is this character’s family? Does this character feel their childhood was happier than most other people’s?
  12. How does this character feel about their relationship with their mother? Their father?


  1. Make three true “we” statements for your character and one other character. For instance, “We are both in this room feeling … “
  2. Complete this sentence for your character: “I wish I had someone with whom I could share … “
  3. If this character were going to become a close friend with another character, what would be important for the second character to know.
  4. What might this character like about another character? What might this character like about another character they have been friends with for decades?
  5. What has been the most embarrassing moment in this character’s life.
  6. When did this character last cry in front of another person? By themself?
  7. If this character were to die with no opportunity to communicate with anyone, what would they most regret not having told another character? Why haven’t they told them yet?
  8. This character’s house, containing everything they own, catches fire. After saving loved ones, they have time to safely make a final dash to save any one item. What would it be? Why?
  9. Of all the people in this character’s family, whose death would they find most disturbing? Why?

Learning from Pynchon

“They arrived at the mouth of an oversized freight elevator, scrambled inside, and begun to plunge earpoppingly hellward, aged fluorescent bulbs buzzing and flickering till the brakes caught just when it seems too late, and they bloomed to a stop and came out into a tunnel, deep underground, which led them under the creek bed and then slowly uphill for half a mile, where they exited at last into brightly sunlit terrain where they could hear in the distance the invading motor convoy and the blades of the helicopters, merged in an industrious roar that could as well have been another patch of developer condos going up.”

from Vineland by Thomas Pynchon

  • This sentence is a summary of a journey. Summary, creative writers rightly worry, can be uninteresting. What makes this walk after an elevator ride engaging?
    • The context is one answer. The sentences before this suggest a chase is beginning. The characters are in danger, but even without that context I think this summary holds readers’ attention. Context alone is not enough.
    • While it is a summary, the sentence uses particular sensory details. It is specific and evokes sight and sound and perhaps a sense of movement.  
    • Word choice matters. “Oversized,” “scrambled,” “plunge earpoppingly hellward,” “bloomed,” for example. Almost every word manages to be interesting or a small surprise.
    • Finally, figurative language helps make the sentence interesting. After all, according to the first few pages, the elevator is a mouth and characters are inside.
  • The sentence begins at the beginning of the journey and ends at the end of the journey.
  • The length or structure or shape of this sentence is part of what is interesting about it. To illustrate, what would it be like as a series of shorter sentences? Would it be less or more engaging?
    • They arrived at the mouth of an oversized freight elevator. Scrambling inside, they began to plunge earpoppingly hellward. Aged fluorescent bulbs buzzed and flickered till the brakes caught just when it seems too late. They bloomed to a stop and came out into a tunnel, deep underground. It led them under the creek bed and then slowly uphill for half a mile. They exited at last into brightly sunlit terrain. In the distance they could hear the invading motor convoy and the blades of the helicopters. The sounds merged in an industrious roar that could as well have been another patch of developer condos going up
    • Obviously, rendered in shorter sentences, the reading experience has changed. Is it more or less likely to interest readers?
  • As the sentence ends, it returns to a larger theme, in this case the environment.

Consider trying something like this.

100 x 100 III

I reached my goal to draft 100 micro fictions. None of them are shorter than 100 words; some are longer but nothing over five hundred. I like some but flinch slightly at others.

The traditional suggestion for revision is that once a draft is done it should sit as long as possible. The thinking is that the passage of time will help make the draft new or fresh or strange the next time it is read. This strangeness will show possible next steps for future drafts.

Another common suggestion once a draft is done is reading it aloud. Hearing sentences can reveal ways they might be improved.

Today, I’m not sure which of these I’ll do next. Letting this draft of 100 micro fictions sit for a while is an easy default. I have one or two other big projects (Friends of the Clam and Children of the Witch) I ought to return to as well.

The pleasures of writing

Writing gives me such enormous pleasure, and I’m a much happier (and therefore nicer) person when I’m doing it. There’s a place in my head that I go to when I write and it’s so rich and unexpected – and scary sometimes – but never ever dull. I first went there when I was seven and I wrote a poem which startled me a bit because it felt like someone else had written it. The adrenaline rush that gave me was incredible and I wanted more. These days, maybe because I can now access that place quite easily, writing feels like something I simply could not live without. It is a joyous thing. I feel very lucky to be paid to do it, but even if I’d never been published, I think I’d still be writing. I love being read, but the person I’m really always writing for is me.

-Julie Myerson

Learning from King

“John Rainbird thought later that things could not have worked better if they had planned it . . . and if those fancy psychologists had been worth a tin whistle in a high wind, they would have planned it. But as it happened, it was only the lucky happenstance of the blackout’s occurring when it did that allowed him to finally get his chisel under one corner of the psychological steel that armored Charlie McGee. Luck, and his own inspired intuition.”

from Fire-starter by Stephen King

This paragraph begins a chapter. Here are some quick thoughts.

  • Readers know almost immediately that things worked out for this character but how things worked out is only presented very generally here. At the same time, the general language makes a promise: readers will have details. But the sentences also delay their presentation. The sentences build anticipation, in other words. Readers read on, looking for details.
  • The sentences that delay the details characterize both the characters involved in the event that will be described. John Rainbird thinks he has finally got “his chisel under one corner of the psychological steel that armored Charlie McGee.” Rainbird’s thoughts let readers know how he thinks of himself and Charlie McGee. Hi goal is clear. Consequences and change (McGee trusts or has opened up to Rainbird) are implied.
  • While the event is only described generally, readers have reasons to think it will be interesting: it’s a blackout, there is luck and “inspired intuition” involved, “those fancy psychologists” should have thought of it themselves.

These are a beautiful few sentences that drive readers farther into the chapter.