Steph VanderMeulen

copy editor / writer

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I’m Stuck—Now What? How to Get Past Writer’s Block

This post is inspired by a question one of my students, who asked about being stuck while writing her short stories. She wrote:

I’m working on a few stories right now; all are in the stage where I’ve done the free writing (having had an idea for a story and freewriting with intention), and I have a good sense of where the story might go and what it might all mean. I’ve got pages and pages of nuggets, scenes, lines, and passages, most of which I know needs to go into the first draft. Somehow. This is where I’m stuck…I feel like I’ve gotten a glimpse of something…but I’ve paid so much attention to the details I [can’t] draw the [story] as a whole.

On the same day, I received an email from one of my best friends, who’s also a member of the writing group I’m part of. She said:

I’ve been transcribing my handwritten freewriting sessions into Scrivener and thought I was ready to start organizing these random bits into something coherent. Oh man, was I wrong. The second I started to organize myself and think in terms of structure, voice, POV, etc… I felt jammed up. Instead of feeling natural like all the freewriting has (or most of it, anyway), it felt totally forced. I wrote a little bit, but ended up quitting because it felt so awkward. What the heck!

Because everyone’s writing process is different, I’m going to offer various methods of how to break through the blocks you might have while trying to piece together your story.

You may be in the same situation as the two above, or you may be writing but not have much of an idea where your story is going. That’s normal and totally okay. One often doesn’t know where a story is going until one’s written it.

Here are some ways to break through writer’s block.

Do more character work

I find that if I’m stuck it’s usually because I don’t know my characters well enough, even though I start with one or two in mind. It’s also possible that you’re not sure whose story it is you’re writing if you have several different perspectives working in your story.

Doing character work will help with deciding this, as well as paying attention to whom you’re most drawn and what you think you want your story to be about.

Character sheets are a great way to do this work. Think of an actor when he wants to really understand the character he is portraying. Actors often visit the kind of place their character lives or works. They don the costumes their characters wear, style their hair and makeup the way their character does. This helps them better understand the motivation behind how their character behaves, talks, and even thinks.

So go deeper.

  • What hairstyles do your characters prefer?
  • What do their clothes and shoes/boots look like?
  • Do they wear jewellery, have tattooes, piercings, wear lots of makeup, go to church (which church?), self-harm, get in trouble with the law?
  • How old are they? Do they appear younger or older than their age? If so, why?
  • Do they have bad habits, and if so, what are they? Do they have good habits?
  • Are they family-oriented? Do they have family? Who are/were their parents?
  • Who are their friends, if they have any?
  • Where did they grow up?
  • What do they believe?
  • What do they do for a living, or are they unemployed?
  • What was their childhood like?
  • What are their emotional traits?
  • How do your characters feel about what’s happening around them?
  • What’s their financial situation?
  • Heck, what is their sign?

You can even write dialogue between you and your person to get to know them better.

When you answer these questions and more, you’ll have a better idea of how your characters would act and speak—how they want or don’t want to act and speak.

Authors often talk about how characters dictate their dialogue and story for them. This is because they really know who their people are.

When you feel like you’re forcing, there are likely several reasons. But it may be that you’re not paying enough attention to your people or that you’re trying to go against how they would naturally behave.

Hemingway said:

When writing a novel [or a short story!] a writer should create living people; people, not characters. A character is a caricature.

Do writing prompts

Writing prompts aren’t just for when you’re looking for ideas to start a story. They can also help you create scenes.

Again, this is about asking the right questions. Why is my character doing what she’s doing? What is my character looking for? What is his relationship to the other people in the story? What are the lose ends in this story right now that I might need to tie up?

If you have an idea of where your story is going, or of the end, look at the themes you want to include or the thing(s) you want your story to be about. Examine the process of how events may lead to your end. What led you to that ending while you were planning or writing it?

You can also look at existing writing prompts. There are tons of books out there for this, and many writers who offer writing prompts on their site, like Sarah Selecky. A seemingly random prompt may inspire you to include a new direction in your story.

Take prompts as well from your observations of people and animals. For example, today I had an emotional encounter with a very sick squirrel. I watched it for a while, not knowing what to do. It had been in either a very strategic and nasty fight or it was diseased. I’m inclined to think the latter, as it was quite grotesque.

But my heart went out to this blind animal trying to navigate the yard, and I’m still thinking of it. As I drank my tea and recovered after it found its way out through the fence, it occurred to me that this squirrel could work in my story to facilitate compassion for my protagonist, and thus I became unstuck. Yay!

Walk away

Or run or swim or rollerblade or bike—whatever you prefer to do. Physical activity often gets the creative juices flowing. Alternatively, stepping away from the computer for a short nap also sometimes helps ideas percolate.Whatever you do, it’s best not to resort to the internet. Trust me on this.

Read

Reading for influence is one of my biggest musts. I get ideas from others’ stories, and I also find myself motivated when I read good writing.

People often ask if this is okay, to lift inspiration from others’ writing. The answer is a resounding yes. Artists the world over copy each other or take ideas from others’ work. It’s okay. It’s expected. The only rule is not to plagiarize, of course.

What we write about is meant to reflect what it means to be human. There’s not much original about it, but you, with your unique voice, can write a variation on a theme without even trying be original. Just ask your own what ifs, take from your own experience or curiosity. I don’t know a single writer who hasn’t mentioned their influences, and they’re talking about not only style but also content.

Take the pressure off

It’s not uncommon for us to get writer’s block because we’ve put undue pressure on ourselves. When we’re freewriting and having fun getting out ideas, there’s little pressure.

But when things are going well, we also get excited and start to think about the finished product and getting published. Then we summarize, or labour for hours over a paragraph, or get stuck.

Writing is a process, which is necessary for growth, both for you and your story. I like to call this process plerking: play + work.

When I started writing again, my first draft had to be perfect and therefore also my final draft. It took a while for my coach to get me to understand that process is not a bad word. For me, what works is remembering what matters to me most: a really good story.

Try to remove your focus from finishing by a certain time or getting published or making the writing perfect when you’re writing a first or even second draft. Instead, focus on getting better, on writing good stories that reflect truth and that people will connect with.

Accept that there may be several drafts and that it takes as long as it takes for you to craft a well-rounded story.

Remember what you want: to be good. Being successful may be about talent and luck, but don’t quit if your luck isn’t panning out. The better you and your stories get, the better chance you have of your luck turning.

John Cleese said:

Nothing will stop you from being creative so effectively as the fear of making a mistake.

Pressure on yourself feels heavy because it is. I know it’s easier said than done to get out of your own way. But remember why you really write: because you love it. Then let the anxiety go.

Cut it all to pieces

Sometimes it’s hard to move past a certain point in your story because you can’t see it any other way than how it is on the page. It could be that something is not working, but you’re not sure what that is.

One of the best things I ever did for my draft to pull it together was to print it out as it was on the screen and then cut it up by scenes. I spread out all the pieces of paper on the floor. Then I began to sift through the pieces. At first I was overwhelmed, and I had a difficult time thinking of the story other than in the order it was on-screen. So I picked up the ending and worked backwards, taping scenes to each other, approaching it like a puzzle.

I kept telling myself, the order isn’t set in stone. It doesn’t matter if I tape something that doesn’t work out. I can always untape and retape.

What I found when I finished was that I had pieces left over that I could toss, and I had an order to the things I’d freewritten that made the story stronger. The middle was now the beginning. The perspective was sorted out. I saw the holes that needed to be filled.

It was a truly amazing experience. Plus, the scissors and tape and pieces of paper made me feel like I was playing.

I hope one or more of these tips help you move past your block. These are just a few things you can do. There are countless others: I’ve got tons of ideas!

The most important thing in all of this is not to get discouraged. Process is never smooth sailing. That’s why we and our stories grow and get better with it. Being stuck isn’t permanent. So don’t quit.

Go with what my coach told me:

Real writers aren’t people who don’t struggle. Real writers are the ones who feel the struggle and do it anyway.

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The Interplay of Reading and Editing: What You Do Determines What I Do

Hello all! 

Sarah Lingley is a copy editor and writer I got to know through networking. We professionals have to stick together! Today I have Sarah as my guest to tell you about the relationship between reading and writing, how you can become a better writer, and how, ultimately, you can save money when hiring one of us! 

Take it away, Sarah:

One of my earliest childhood memories is packing into the family van each Friday afternoon and heading to the library. While my friends and peers were keeping up with the latest shows on television or playing their newest Gameboys, I was reading. On the couch, in my tree fort, under my bed. When I was very young, it was picture books and easy readers, and then as I got older it was mini-series and novels, academic books and articles. On rainy days, my older brother and I would bring a stack of encyclopedias to the closet, wrap in a blanket, and read our way through each and every page.

I wrote my first short story, per the prompting of my author-grandma, around the age of eight. By the time I entered high school, I was a slave to words and sentences and paragraphs. Spelling them, memorizing them, manipulating them, and arranging them.

I began writing and submitting short stories and essays to contests and publications, and later researched, wrote, and self-published my great-grandparents’ immigrant biography. In college, I studied Communication, with a concentration in editing and proofreading; I had no future at all if it did not center on words.

Today, years after those Friday afternoon visits to the library, I sit in my home office and dedicate many hours a week to reading words, correcting words, adjusting words. Generally speaking, my job as an editor is based on the writing of others; specifically speaking, my job as an editor is based on the level of exposure my clients have had and do have to reading.

tumblr_m3px0wcb2K1qdsldwo1_r2_1280When people ask what I do for a living, many do not initially associate editing with reading, but ultimately, a client’s writing tells me a lot about their reading.

Within the first paragraph of a fresh document, it is usually very clear to me how well read my client is, what their experience is with writing (their own and that of others), and the depth of their knowledge of the English language.

Of the hundreds upon hundreds of documents I have edited over the years, it is becoming increasingly more difficult to find writers who are also readers. I blame society.

It is more than just the way I was raised that makes me want to bash the social trends that have thrown good books out the window.

It is the simple truth that, more often than not in this day and age, individuals just don’t know the true value of a good read. These factors result in disadvantages on multiple levels: imaginations are limited, social development is stunted, and individual achievements are restricted.

Society has replaced reading with mindless television shows, time-wasting video games, and unproductive media venues, all of which cause the mind to wane and become lax. While reading and other media are all forms of entertainment, the argument now lies between profitless distraction and productive distraction.

We all need something to take our minds off the weight of the world; choosing an activity that stretches, prods, and stimulates the intellect, rather than one which weakens and deadens it, creates a higher production of invention, contemplation, and insight.

Watching a meaningless show about vampires or throwing cartoon birds at objects on your phone does nothing for your imagination, while engrossing yourself alongside complex characters within a thick plotted novel forces you to envision, hope, and consider. Imagine how different our society would be if people actually knew how to dream and think rather than plug their ears and zone out in a cyber-reality!

With weak psyches, writing becomes much more difficult a task to complete and thought-provoking material is harder to generate. This, in turn, makes my job as an editor more time-consuming, and costs the client more money.

I have heard many people say that they read too many boring documents at work all day to be able to do anything other than switch on the television when they get home; their brain is fried and they want to zone out. While I completely understand, and can relate to an extent, reading has been misunderstood if it is viewed as work.

Yes, pleasure reading uses the brain more than checking out in front of the big screen does, yet if more people could train themselves to use pleasure reading as a means to relieve stress and relax, we’d all be better off.

Pleasure reading is meant to be just that, pleasure. While academic or work-related reading is draining and un-fun for some, reading in and of itself doesn’t have to be. I have heard some people say that books are not nearly as interesting as television shows.

Yet if one walks into a bookstore they will find almost every subject matter available to mankind. Drama, check. Horror, check. Thriller, check. Self-help, check. Okay, yes, you might not find Judge Judy, specifically, but you will find biographical or fictional books about legal drama and catastrophe, or NCIS-style cop dramas, or National Geographic documentaries.

There is no benefit to anyone who wishes to sit back and pass the buck on to society. Yes, society has pounded it into our minds that reading is boring work, but society is wrong. As a general rule, it seems society doesn’t want us to think, doesn’t want us to better ourselves, and doesn’t want us to benefit from expanding and growing our minds.

So it’s up to you, the internet surfer, to start reading. It’s up to you, the reader, to learn from what you read and to let those lessons mold you into a talented and gifted writer.

After all, as a good writer, you’ll pay less money out of pocket to editors like me, and, to boot, be able to pat yourself on the back for authoring a piece of well-written literature. Go expand your mind, and take pride in that as you start tapping away on the keyboard.

Sarah Williams is the owner and editor in chief of Lingley Editing Services, LLC. She holds a BA in Communication from Salem College. When not editing and proofreading, she enjoys the outdoors with her husband in hot and sunny Arizona. Visit her website, Facebook, and LinkedIn page to read more.

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