How to untangle a story

(This morning at about 12:15 a.m., I started writing a story about polling. I wasn’t excited about it; the material felt dry to me at first glance, and having done phone surveys myself in the past, I knew how tedious they could be to both outsiders and pollsters themselves. So I let it sit for a day after I transcribed interviews and organized notes before I began. The result was a little gem of a piece that I really love. Here’s how I did it.)

1. Always start after midnight. By midnight, your mind has reached that strange state of lucidness where everything is perfectly clear and connections previously obscured by mundane, everyday tasks come into focus.

2. Go to your most difficult interview and pick the one quote (or two) that is usable. It’s usually a detail that grabbed your pen when you were talking to the person and made you write furiously, whereas previously you were kind of scribbling along and wondering when you could finally go eat lunch.

3. If your interviewees brought up any outside studies, reports, etc., go find them. Read them quickly. Understand the context in which your story is situated.

4. Begin with the hard data, because you can’t manipulate it. It must be presented exactly as is and thus forms a foundation from which different viewpoints can flow.

5. Find a scene that portrays the conflict in the story. (No conflict? No story.) Go to the top of your word processor page and describe it. Who is there? What is he or she doing? Use environmental details–sights, sounds–to get across feelings that are difficult to put into words.

6. Don’t break your train of thought. It’s tempting to write “INSERT ADDITIONAL SENTENCE HERE” and move on to something easier. But force yourself through that sentence. Your story will flow better for it.

7. At the same time, though, if an idea comes to you, as ideas often do in the wee hours of the morning, for something that will come later in the story, jot it down right then. Fleeting thoughts get lost when sleep calls. Make a note and keep going.

8. Keep writing. Everything will come in due time.