Writing Tip Thursday #3: What To Do About Writer’s Block

Hey everyone!  Sorry I missed last week’s installment of this.  I was busy dealing with my writer’s block, which then occurred to me that it would be a good topic to talk about, especially with NaNo right around the corner.  So here’s what happened to me and what I did about it.

What To Do About Writer’s Block

About 1.5-2 weeks ago, while writing my novel, I realized I didn’t know how it was going to end.  I’d planned everything out, but in the process of writing a pivotal scene, I realized the emotions weren’t right and that I wasn’t ready to do a Really Bad Thing to my main character, so changed the scene.  I really like where it went and I think it brought more depth to all of the characters involved, so I don’t want to cut it.  But that meant now…my ending didn’t work right.

Simply put, I was stuck.  I felt like a sailor without any guides, drifting aimless in a sea of words.

So I did just about the only thing I could do, being 45,000 words into the story: I went back to the beginning.

That’s right.  I went allllll the way back and started rereading and editing as I went.  And I’m telling you, it helped me so much.  By the time I’d gotten to that 45,000th word, I had a much better idea of who my characters were than I did at Word 1,000.  Because of that, I needed to change scenes.  I needed to make my heroine stronger and more brazen.  I needed to add scenes now that the mystery in the story made more sense to me.  It also meant that I cut a couple thousand words, but I also added back at least 5,000 in new scenes that I now adore.

This also helped because it showed me where my plot holes were.  I saw the times my mystery didn’t quite work or seemed stupid.  I saw the scenes that needed foreshadowing or needed more context later.

Most of all, though, I noticed I still hadn’t figured out my villain’s motivation except that he’s a horrible person.

That was, surprisingly, the trickiest part of this whole thing.  I had 4-5 things in motion that he was doing to thwart my heroine…and yet I didn’t know why.  Once I realized that, I literally couldn’t stop thinking about it.  I had to figure it out.

I tried getting him to talk to me in my head.  (The voices can be very helpful in that way.)  There was one sentence he kept growling to me over and over, but it didn’t tell me why he did these things.  But I kid you not, the moment I picked up a pencil to jot down what little I had figured out, the rest of it came pouring out.  Suddenly, all my clues and pieces worked.

So I went back to editing.  I needed to make sure the pieces I’d already written made sense with this motivation I’d finally found.  I still have some new clues to drop to make it make more sense, but I’m on my way.

Here’s basically my advice: if you’re stuck by writer’s block, it probably means something’s not right somewhere.  Maybe it’s the plot not coming together the way you want.  Maybe it’s characters or even the conflict itself being weak.  My recommendation is to go back through what you’ve written and look it over with as impartial an eye as you can.  Does this need to be there?  Does this feel right?  Are my characters acting the way they would naturally and not just the way I want them to?

Sometimes your own feelings can get in the way.  Sometimes the stress of your day comes between you and your best writing.  There may be days when it’s not possible to leave your day at the door–and maybe you don’t want to if that helps drive your writing.  I can be very inspired by what irritates me.  But it can help to take a step back and look at your story with a critical, English Lit major eye.  Or at least that helps me.

Others obviously have other fixes for writer’s block.  Some people go for a walk or let the story sit for a few days.  Some clean their houses or do more research on their topics.  For me, it’s about going back to the roots of the story.  If I find a tangle in the web, then untangling that may just be the inspiration I need for the ending.

Whatever you do, don’t give up.  Unless whatever you’re writing is actually terrible (and I have a binder full of those).  But if you’re truly passionate about what you’re writing, you need to keep pushing on.  A setback is just that–a setback.  It’s not a nosedive off a cliff, something that will kill your story.  You just need to find out what went wrong and work from there.  It might be a lot of work (it took me nearly 2 weeks to edit what I have so far and write those new scenes), but you’ll feel better about it.

Hope this helps!

Writing Tip Thursday #2: Plan It

Hey!  So you guys seemed to like the last writing tip, so here’s my next installment!  This one…well, we’ll talk about it.

Tip #2: Plan It

I can already hear some of you griping about this.  “But I write just fine with a white screen in front of me, thank you very much.  I don’t need to plan anything.”

Until very recently (like 3 months ago), I was this person.  Give me a blank piece of paper and a casual observation of something that got the wheels spinning, and I was off and running.  I wrote something like 30 pages in a notebook about St. Peter as a teenager meeting Jesus just because I read someone say Jesus was a passive aggressive rebel with real trouble with authority.  I thought that sounded awesome and I needed to write that out.  Instead, the story transformed into me working through some demons.

So I get it.  Being a pantser (someone who writes “by the seat of their pants”) is still how I get a story idea rolling.

But I’m quickly discovering how helpful actually plans can be.  You’d think I’d have realized this before, being a teacher and preaching to my students how important planning is, but it didn’t apply to me.

God, I really am my students some days.

My first full-length novel was a work in progress for something like 4 years or more.  In the Word doc I used for the story, I kept a loose outline of what I wanted to happen in the story.  I had even written the ending already, since that was what had come to mind for me when creating the idea for it.  (And let me tell you, I never write the ending first.)

That outline helped me remember what I was thinking for the story.  I used that as a guideline to keep me on track, though I didn’t completely follow it.  I fleshed things out more as I went along, adding scenes here or there, changing scenes that no longer worked.  So while I wasn’t 100% tied to my plans, they certainly helped.

They gave me something to look forward to.  There were scenes I wanted to write badly and working chronologically through the story kept me motivated to keep writing to get to those scenes.

The plans also helped me remember what my end goal was.  That story had a purpose, a character arc that I was especially excited about.  Without my outline, I might have forgotten that over the years.

But plans don’t have to just be for stories like that, works years in the process.

My next story (which I’m still writing) is a retelling of Robin Hood, from Marian’s perspective.  I actually found a 16 page draft of a particularly moving scene on my desktop, written two years ago.  For that, there was no outline, just familiar characters I love and an interesting conflict.

So I created an outline.  The story was vivid in my head and before I knew it, I’d planned out nearly the entire story in a couple of afternoons.  And once I had that outline, I was excited to get to writing it.

Sure, my plans changed a little once I got the story going.  I thought of interesting plot twists, unexpected conflicts, and making one character darker than I had originally planned.  But I had a guideline to work off of, and idea how I wanted things to eventually go.  So even when I didn’t use the entire outline, I had a framework to stick to.  Now, around 2 months later, I’m now up to about 43,000 words.

And actually, I’m dealing with a little writer’s block because some of my scenes aren’t coming together right.  Why?  Because I didn’t plan those out.

Every writer has their own process for planning that works for them.  I don’t want to suggest one sure-fire way of doing it because I don’t know what that looks like.  For me, it involves notebook paper and a pencil.  Always.  There’s just something about paper that gets my creative juices flowing.

My process is basically to become semi-obsessed with some crazy idea to the point where my hand itches to write it.  At that point, I can usually visualize how I want the story to start.  I make a bullet point list of how I see the story going.  It usually ends up looking a little something like this:

“-Jade walks through the school, trying to avoid everyone’s notice.

-Ryan sees her, moves through the hall toward her.  Jade confronts him for spreading rumors about her.”

Sometimes I am wildly specific about what I want happening, other times I’m incredibly vague.  It depends on how well I see the scene in my head.  Most of the time, my head plays it out like a movie.

I try not to start writing until I have a plan now.  And if I’m not excited about the story after I have my plans, it probably means there’s something wrong with the story, that the conflict is lacking or something is missing–another subplot probably.

I saw that author Aimee Carter (The Goddess Test) uses note cards to plot out her stories, writing major events on the cards and rearranging them as needed to make the story work.  I thought that was pretty smart, but I don’t think it will work for me.

Planning is hard.  It’s hard to want to sit down and map everything out before you get going.  I totally get it.  Ironically, I didn’t plan this post out before I started writing it.  Did it work?  I think so.  But this is also a 1,000 word post and not a 50,000+ word novel with characters, plot, and conflicts.  I can get away with it here.  I can’t there.

It may take some time to discover what your method is and that’s ok.  Even published authors will frequently post about how their process suddenly doesn’t work with the new book they’re writing.  Every novel is its own adventure and we learn new things about ourselves along the way.

I think that’s really what the creative process’s purpose is, actually.

Writing Tip Thursday #1: Make It A Habit

Hey everyone!  So I’ve noticed that a lot of you have an interest in writing (blogging or fiction or anything else), so I thought I’d make a weekly post about my best tips for writing.  In case you’re curious about my credentials, let me list them:

  • I’ve been a book blogger for the last 8.5 years
  • I’ve been a middle school English teacher for the last 5 years
  • I finished a novel over the summer that I hope to publish on Amazon soon.  (And I’m over halfway through another novel I’ve been working on for the last 2-ish months.)
  • And let’s not forget that I’m a published poet.  Yes.  One of my 4th grade poems ended up in a book.  I’m sure my royalty check has simply been lost in the mail since then.

Like all advice, you can take it or leave it.  I’ve certainly heard many things about writing, some of which I think is a joke or just doesn’t work for me.  Feel free to disagree with me.

However, I think there are enough people who might need a little nudge to keep writing/feel more confident with their writing and I want to help.

Tip #1: Make It A Habit

This is perhaps one of the simplest writing tips I can ever give you.  Like any sport, like any pursuit, the more you practice, the better you’ll be.  Trust me, I cringe looking back at my first blog posts or back at the stories I was writing as a kid.  (Especially those.)

But while they weren’t always quality, they were still happening.  I may have written stupid stories as a kid of my cousins and me taking on an evil Easter bunny or the Grinch, but that helped me see how plotting and characters worked.  (Don’t judge, I was like 8.  Though weirdly enough, I made the Easter bunny’s henchman a PlayGirl Bunny model.  I wish I knew where my 8-year-old self picked up that nugget of inspiration.)  Ahem.  My original blog posts taught me about the importance of voice and finding mine.  Even my diary/journal entries helped me figure out how to express painful emotions in words.

Did I always write regularly?  No.  My journal entries are sporadic at best.  But throughout my life, I’ve done so much writing now that when I don’t pick up a pencil for a few days or a few weeks, my hand itches for it.  The physicality of putting a pencil to paper is, to me, very cathartic.

I digress a little.  The point is that, if you’re serious about writing, you need to carve out a little time on some kind of schedule to write.  It doesn’t need to be every day (in fact, that can be overwhelming at times as I’m learning), but it does need to be somewhat consistent.  Since the school year started, I’ve had a schedule I try to stick to:

  • Arrive home from school
  • Change into comfy clothes, read/decompress from school
  • Eat dinner, watch the news, and do the dishes
  • Check emails
  • Write for 1-2 hours

Sometimes, this doesn’t work.  Plans change or I have other commitments that day.  Some days I simply don’t have any good ideas to write about if I’ve been too busy/tired/sick.  But by doing this, I’ve discovered that I do my best writing right around twilight.  The darkness actually helps me focus by removing other distractions.  (As I write this, a neighbor’s dog is barking incessantly outside.)

And a set schedule dramatically helps me stick with a story.  I have a terrible habit of getting sidetracked by a new idea or getting stumped in my plotting and giving up for months or years.  (Both of the stories I’m working on/completing were started at least 2 years ago.)  I’ve written so much more this year than I ever have before because I pushed myself to keep writing.  And we’ll talk about that more on another day.

No matter if you’re writing stories or blog posts, make a schedule for yourself.  Maybe you’re best motivated in the mornings after your coffee.  Maybe it’s easier at night after the kids are in bed (if you have any).  Again, it doesn’t have to be daily; maybe it’s only 3 times a week.  But that routine is going to make it easier and easier for you to work and work well.  Your writing is bound to improve in part because you’re constantly doing it and critiquing your own work.

I hope this helps!  Check in next Thursday for my next tip!

Top Ten Freebie! My Ten Tips For Writing

Hey everyone!  There are a lot of different things I could have gone with for this (and I very nearly did a list about series I still need to finish), but I thought I’d talk about writing.  Whether you write a blog or fiction, I thought I’d give you some advice.  My qualifications are limited, I admit, but I am an English teacher, avid reader, and blogger for 8.5 years.  Take it or leave it.

So let’s get started!

Top Ten Tips For Writing

1. Write what interests you

I mean, this is probably the easiest thing.  When I started this blog, it was because I desperately loved YA books (and still do).  I knew I could write for days about books, authors, stories, whatever.  It was not going to be a problem to pull up my computer and start typing about something book related.

When it comes to fiction, this might be a little harder to pinpoint.  The common saying is to “write what you know,” but that’s not great advice. What I end up writing most often are love stories and ghost stories.  I have no experience with ghosts, but they interest me.  And love stories are fascinating because of the characters I can create and watch them fall for each other.

But this also requires some care.  Like, I love fantasy stories but I don’t have an interest in building my own worlds.  So even though I could write something like that, I’d lose interest way too fast and the project would never get off the ground.  It’s about knowing you, I guess.

2. Find your voice

This was super easy for me in terms of blogging.  My writing voice sounds like me.  You may have noticed in the last paragraph of the previous point, I said, “Like, I love fantasy.”  That’s an example of voice.  That’s how I talk.  What I’m hearing in my head as I think about this topic is what I write.  It’s my inner monologue put to the keyboard.  (I was going to say “put to paper,” but that didn’t make much sense since this is a blog.)

In writing fiction, this is a little harder.  Generally what I do for that is I just think about who my narrator is and I just start writing an emotional scene for them, whatever thing is stuck in my head.  As I inhabit that character more, their voice makes more sense.  I’ll probably go back and change some of that early stuff later on, but it’s all a process.

For example, in the story I’ve been working on on-and-off for 4 years, I recently deleted about a page of a fight that I was once proud of because it no longer fit the character.  I didn’t see her talking like that anymore.  And even though I liked what she had to say, it just didn’t make sense.

3. Word choice matters

Word choice is so important.  This is me as a teacher speaking.  I read essays all the time where their word choice is terrible.  Please, for the love of God, vary your word choices.  Don’t use the same phrases over and over, don’t consistently say words like “thought,” “said,” or “things.”  I know you’re going to use them, but if a better word comes along like “mused,” “stated,” or “dinglehopper,” please use those instead.

This has been an English Teacher PSA.  Thank you for watching.

4. Details, details, details

I’m a sucker for details.  I think most of us are.  When I write reviews, I have to balance the details with being too wordy or giving away the ending.  I try to give details about what I remembered the most, what I was impressed by, or what I hated.  I don’t always succeed, but that is my goal.

With fiction, the key is imagery.  You want to include as many of the five senses as possible while still making sense.  (My students are particularly bad at this.  I have to use examples like, “If you tell me what a baseball tastes like as you’re describing a game, I’m going to be worried about you.”)  It’s not always going to make sense to describe smells or tastes or even touch unless it pertains to the scene.

But seriously, don’t go overboard.  Victor Hugo and Charles Dickens go overboard.  While they are classic Dead White Guys, don’t be them.

5. Plot. It. Out.

Most of the time, I’m a pantser.  I just sit in front of a white screen and type what pops into my head.  So I’m guilty of not following this at all.

With my blog, I can get away with it.  I have a formula in my head for my reviews that I follow.  I know to intro my review, give a quick synopsis of the book, talk about the characters/plot/action/humor/writing, then end with what I didn’t like, if there was anything.  I do this without thinking about it much anymore.  Do I change it up occasionally?  Sure, especially if there’s a movie version of the book or if something really stands out that I have to address.  But mostly, I don’t mess with the formula.

With fiction, I’m coming to learn that it really does help to plot things out.  My problem with that usual stems from the fact that my interests drops out after I know how a story will end.  But my current story has been plotted for years and the notes, while somewhat different from how the story is turning out, have been helpful for keeping me on track.  Your story is allowed to take detours from your notes.  Sometimes those things develop minds of their own.

6. Find the right audience

Not everyone is going to like what you write.  It’s a peril of the job.  My YA blog would not be applicable to my dad, for example, who really doesn’t read at all and certainly never YA.  In this case, I think it helps to network with other writers who have similar blogs to you.  (Shout out to all you other fabulous YA bloggers!  Y’all are stellar people!)

And obviously, the same is true for fiction.  Someone who always reads nonfiction may not appreciate literary fiction or the latest thriller novel.  It’s all about finding the people who are interested in what you’re saying.  Trust me, they’re out there.

7. Proof it/Edit often

I’m guilt of not doing this a lot with my blog.  I pretty much write up a post and click “publish.”  I will do that as soon as I finish this.  I’ll glance over it super quick and click that button without actually proofing this.

But I also sort of proof it as I write it.  If I have a typo, I literally cannot move past it.  I have to immediately hit the delete button to get back to it.  So it’s not that I’m not doing it at all, just that my process works differently.

I digress.  This is why editing matters.  I probably should go back and delete that previous paragraph because it does nothing to help this point.  Ironically, I didn’t do that on purpose.  Proofing and editing help you look like a better, more accomplished writer because you can be critical of your own work and make decisions about what would make it better.

As I mentioned earlier, I deleted a part of my story that no longer made sense.  I’ve been doing that, going back and filling holes, as I’ve been working on this story the past few weeks.  With fiction, it’s all about what feels right for the story and looking intelligent as you do it.  We all hate those stories where we are distracted by the typos.  Ugh.  Bane of my existence.

8. Stand by your work, but don’t get an ego

What I mean by this is have pride in your work but be willing to change.  I’m incredibly proud of what I post on this blog…most of the time.  Sometimes I start on a weekly bit that doesn’t seem to be getting the reaction I thought it would, so I drop it.  Sometimes I start something as a joke and get great feedback about it and keep it going.  It’s all about adaptability.

Fiction is the same way.  Be proud of what you’ve written, but if someone gives you advice about how to make it better, take it.  You don’t have to listen to everything, but acknowledge it.  I try to impress this upon my students.  I’m not the be-all, end-all of writing, so sometimes my advice may not be the vision they have for their paper.  And that’s ok.

9. Write often.  Even if it sucks.

Mostly, I’m talking about fiction here.  I’ll admit that during testing or projects in my classroom, I can get super bored watching the kids work on the same thing all day long.  (Especially during standardized tests when I have nothing to grade.)  So last year, I spent a good portion of the year during those moments jotting little bits of a story down.  It started in…October?…and I wrote it up through May.  I’d just grab a piece of notebook paper and write out the scene, tucking it away in my bag to look at later.

Afterward, I compiled it all into a story.  And some of it sucks.  I definitely didn’t plot it out ahead of time, so it feels aimless.  But there are pieces of it that are pretty genius and those are the parts that made it all worth it.  Maybe I can’t salvage the story (or maybe I can), but I have something I can build off of.

10. Let it sit.  Then come back to it.

Especially in fiction, I believe this is crucial.  You almost need to let it sit so long you’ve forgotten the story.  My on-and-off story gets looked at so infrequently that it’s been 10 months since I last looked at it.  And yeah, I remembered the basic plot.  Of course I did.  But the details…going back and reading some of that again was inspiring.  These words came from me.  I said this smart stuff.  And I started to see how I could add a scene here or change the wording here or make the visual clearer there.

It’s fascinating to go back and read those old stories.  I get sucked back into them all over again.  It’s a lot like the thrill of rereading an old favorite book, one where you have those set mental pictures and you remember the feelings with certain scenes.

A lot of the time when we write, we think it’s all crap.  We get frustrated and just want to delete/burn the whole thing.  But let it sit.  Sometimes, like a fine wine, it gets better with age.  And other times it doesn’t.  If it doesn’t, then you can burn it.

Introducing…Fantastic Writing Fridays!

Hey everyone!  So I felt like I needed a little something extra to post about every week and I settled on focusing on writing.  Usually with this blog (and most others I see), we tend to focus on the characters, the plots, the conflicts, the themes, the books overall.  We rarely focus on the writing unless it’s bad.

I’ve been really moved by a lot of writing lately.  The complexities of it, the amazing metaphors writers come up with, etc.  I’ve been watching Songland on NBC (Tuesdays at 10!) about the songwriting process and I’ve got to say, every song I’ve heard on it has been beautiful.

On top of that, I just feel like writing in general is undervalued.  We should be celebrating authors that are amazing and who hit us square in the feels with a perfectly worded quote or advice or pose the question that just doesn’t leave us.

I’m going to have some fun with this.  I hope you will too.

Fantastic Writing

This week’s Fantastic Writer is…

Tahereh Mafi

This wasn’t even a question when I first actually sat down and started planning out this post.  Mafi’s quotes (especially from Juliette in any of the Shatter Me series) have always had a way of getting to me.  This one about loneliness painted such an amazing picture that I think about this a lot:

“Loneliness is a strange sort of thing.
It creeps on you, quiet and still, sits by your side in the dark, strokes by your hair as you sleep. It wraps itself around your bones, squeezing so tight you almost can’t breathe. It leaves lies in your heart, lies next to you at night, leaches the light out of every corner. It’s a constant companion, clasping your hand only to yank you down when you’re struggling to stand up.
You wake up in the morning and wonder who you are. You fail to fall asleep at night and tremble in your skin. You doubt you doubt you doubt.
do I
don’t I
should I
why won’t I
And even when you’re ready to let go. When you’re ready to break free. When you’re ready to be brand-new. Loneliness is an old friend stand beside you in the mirror, looking you in the eye, challenging you to live your life without it. You can’t find the words to fight yourself, to fight the words screaming that you’re not enough never enough never ever enough.
Loneliness is a bitter, wretched companion.
Sometimes it just won’t let go.”

-Tahereh Mafi, Unravel Me

Or this one about time:

“Killing time isn’t as difficult as it sounds.

I can shoot a hundred numbers through the chest and watch them bleed decimal points in the palm of my hand. I can rip the numbers off a clock and watch the hour hand tick tick tick its final tock just before I fall asleep. I can suffocate seconds just by holding my breath. I’ve been murdering minutes for hours and no one seems to mind.”

-Tahereh Mafi, Shatter Me

I haven’t read much that Mafi has done outside of the Shatter Me series, so that’s basically what I’m going to be basing this on.

What I love best about Mafi writing as Juliette is how she plays with language.  Both of these quotes personify abstract ideas in a way that makes them feel so different from how we’re used to thinking about them.  And I love that.  I love that loneliness feels jealous of success, that time is represented as mortal.  It’s fascinating how she’s put that all together.

She also plays with language in the way she frames some of her writing in a way that feels like poetry.  She doesn’t always use punctuation, especially when she’s trying to show a decline in Juliette’s mental state.  She also plays with the crossing out of words in the story to show what Juliette feels and how she’s editing it.  It’s so bizarre to see this that I fell in love with it pretty quickly because of how it helped enhance the characters.  Here’s an example of that poetry sound:

“He’s breathing like he’s lost his mind and he’s looking at me like something has broken inside of him, like he’s woken up to find that his nightmares were just that, that they never existed, that it was all just a bad dream that felt far too real but now he’s awake and he’s safe and everything is going to be okay and
I’m falling.
I’m falling apart and into his heart and I’m a disaster.”

-Tahereh Mafi, Unravel Me

As Mafi has gotten older, her writing has tended to be more thoughtful.  She relies more on those Big Questions that drive most of us in some way, how we look for those universal truths in literature.  Who am I?  What do I want?  What does real love look like?  In A Very Large Expanse of Sea, she really dives into those questions as she writes (in a fictional way) about what she and others endured as Muslim women after 9/11 and the ignorance many people showed them.  Here’s a quote from that book that moved me:

“The more I got to know people, the more I realized we were all just a bunch of frightened idiots walking around in the dark, bumping into each other and panicking for no reason at all.
So I started turning on a light.
I stopped thinking of people as mobs. Hordes. Faceless masses. I tried, really hard, to stop assuming I had people figured out, especially before I’d ever even spoken to them. I wasn’t great at this—and I’d probably have to work at it for the rest of my life—but I tried. I really did. It scared me to realize that I’d done to others exactly what I hadn’t wanted them to do to me: I made sweeping statements about who I thought they were and how they lived their lives; and I made broad generalizations about what I thought they were thinking, all the time.”

-Tahereh Mafi, A Very Large Expanse of Sea

Mafi is a brilliant writer with stunning prose that leaves me captivated every time I pick up her books.  She twists language in ways that I didn’t know it could go and it makes me, as an English teacher, fangirl with delight as I read it.  Language is power and Mafi understands that.  Her metaphors are incredible and you end up seeing the world very differently after each book than you did before you started it.  That’s the sign of a powerful writer.

In the comments below, please leave your favorite Mafi quote!  What’s moved you?  (If you’re having trouble finding one, Goodreads has a lot of them!)