Steph VanderMeulen

copy editor / writer

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Creativity Is Your Birthright: Write the Story

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Big Magic is Elizabeth Gilbert’s new book, coming in September from Penguin (Riverhead). I’m excited about it because I wholeheartedly believe everything Gilbert says about creativity. These beliefs, mainly that we are meant to create and that we become miserable when we don’t, are what drive me to write, to allow myself to create, to honour myself by letting myself write whatever I want, and to encourage others to foster that part of them too.

Write what you want. Don’t worry. Your only job is to make the thing.



Reading for Influence: What Alice Munro’s Stories Tell Us About Writing

You’ve probably heard this before, but it bears repeating because it’s true and incontestable: One of the most important things you can do as a writer is read.

That’s why I always ask the writers I coach to read short stories by authors they admire, and to try new ones. Reading for influence helps us find our voice and style. It reveals that rules can be broken. Many students express surprise when they read short stories: “I didn’t know you could do that!” They’re talking about switching perspectives or writing horrific things or going beyond writing what you know. Most important of all, though, is that examining the mechanics of a story—that is, going beyond whether or not we liked it—helps us understand what good writing is and how it works.

For an assignment, one of my students wrote a list of things she observed while reading Alice Munro’s short stories. I asked her if I could share it with you because it’s excellent advice for writing well. The following are the best tips I know for writing, and apply to any style or author. I have it printed out. When I write, it can be my checklist.

How to Win the Nobel Prize

(or, the stories of Alice Munro)

  1. Don’t get caught up in literary movements or names. Be real. Be honest.
  2. Be simple: don’t over-complicate the plot. Life is complicated enough as it is.
  3. Explore the unsaid more than the said. The pull of the story often lies in unexpressed emotions.
  4. Stay small: you don’t have to create fantastic worlds or wizard characters; you don’t have to have a green-eyed heroine; you don’t have to make up another language. Everyday conflicts, both internal and external, speak to the heart of what it means to be human.
  5. Dig deep into what makes people do what they do and think what they think and say what they say. We may never truly be able to understand why people do what they do, but it’s intriguing to try to find out.
  6. Find the rhythm in the sentences and the words and play them like quiet music.
  7. Be surprising with the ordinary. Push characters to do things that we might all be afraid to do or say.
  8. Be geographically specific, but in doing so, be universal. The same stories that take place in small towns are played out on stages all over the world.
  9. Find the weakness in a character and make us love him/her for it.
  10. Leave the reader wanting more. No story is ever truly finished.

Any other tips to add? What is the best thing you’ve learned about writing from reading?


Self-Editing for Story Writers

Handing your story over to someone for editing is nerve-racking, to say the least. You’ve worked on this for a long time, pouring your heart into it, and you’ve got darlings. You may be afraid those darlings will be killed, or that your story will be changed to someone else’s taste, or that you can’t trust the editor to know what’s good. Being edited by someone else requires skills and traits you have to develop—but those are for another post.

First, you should self-edit. This doesn’t mean you’re doing the editor’s job for her; she’s just going to repeat this process with fresh eyes and an objective point of view. You want to self-edit so that when your story goes to someone else to look at, it already tells the tale you want to tell, how you want to tell it—at least, to the best of your ability.

So how do you self-edit? Once your draft is finished, how do you approach your own story and see what needs to be done when you’re so close to it?

You may feel several things, such as:

  • Know what? It’s fine as it is.
  • OMG, I have NO idea if it’s good or not. I don’t even know where to begin.
  • I have no idea how to fix this!
  • I’m so effing sick of this story. I can’t even stand to look at it.
  • Ugh, I hate this. The writing sucks.
  • How do I know when it’s finished?

If you feel any of these, step back. You may want to step back anyway, even if when you look at your story you ready to get to work. This is the first step to self-editing.

You need distance from your story first, so you can approach it with a fresh mind and heart. I do this when I’m copy editing, too. If I see something that needs fixing but I can’t figure out how to fix it, I go for a walk or make lunch or even watch TV. When I go back to the work, the solution usually comes to me immediately.

Go out in nature, spend some time in a quiet room meditating, have a bath, sit and stare out the window. Allow yourself about an hour (though you can step away for a day or more, too). Just get calm and still and open. Then you can sit with your story again.  Make tea, light a candle. Feel prepared and receptive. Invite in your intuition and creativity. Invite your characters. These are the ideas that have been presented to me by others. And they work.

When I approach a draft, I first ask: What is this about? What do I want it to be about?

Then: Whose story is it?

When I have these answers, I read the story with them in mind. I can check for focus and to verify that the story is indeed about what I want or think. I also check that the point of view is is consistent with whose story I’m telling. This can take some time, especially if you find that you meant to tell one person’s story but another character has taken the limelight.

Next, I examine the mechanics of the story. Here are a few things to look for in this regard:

1. Tense issues and most effective tense for the story: When does your story take place? Is it in the present, past, or even future tense? Is your story in the present tense with flashbacks? If so, do the tense switches happen appropriately? If your story is in the past tense, how would it sound in the present? And vice versa?

2. Perspective problems: Is your story told in the first, second, or third person? Whichever you choose (and experiment with this, because, like tense, it can make all the difference), make sure the perspective is consistent throughout. It can start to get a little tricky when you’re doing third person, because there are actually several third-person perspectives—for example, do we know only what your protagonist is thinking? Or do we know what all the characters are thinking? I’ll be writing about perspectives in another post.

3. Dialogue tags: Scan your draft for anywhere you didn’t use “said” when you’re indicating who’s spoken in dialogue sequences. Examples of dialogue tags can be found here. Make sure you didn’t use any non-speech verbs, for example, “I don’t think so,” she sighed; “Not likely,” he laughed. Other examples are “hissed,” “growled,” “nodded,” and “groaned.” In these instances, your character is saying something: she can’t chuckle or sigh those words. However, you can write: “he said, chuckling”; “‘I don’t think so,’ she said, and sighed.” You can also change the punctuation so that the sentence reads, “I don’t think so.” She sighed.

Using dialogue tags other than “said” can clutter your writing with too many unnecessarily descriptive words. The point of dialogue tags is simply to indicate who’s speaking and when. And if you do use something other than “said” as well as add an adverb, make sure it’s not repetitive—for example, “he shouted loudly.” There’s really no other way to shout, so “loudly” is redundant. Beware that too many adverbial tags can also call the readers’ attention to the writing and thus pull them out of the story.

In a nutshell, let the dialogue do the talking.

4. Scan your story for filtering: This is actually one of the most valuable lessons I learned while being edited. Filtering is when you don’t allow your reader to experience things through another character; instead, your writing brings the readers’ attention to the character rather than the event. So, for example: “Caleb heard the girl speaking to another man” instead of “the girl spoke to another man”; “Debbie saw Scott coming toward her” instead of “Scott came toward her.” If we’re reading the story from Caleb’s or Debbie’s perspective, we already know they’re hearing or seeing what’s happening in front of them. What we want is to be able to enter a scene directly. One way to do this is to forgo using the words “recall” or “remember”—that is, “Duke remembers…” Instead, you can launch into the scene using the past tense.

Have a look at this example:

Sherry felt her heart pounding in her chest. She saw John disappear around the corner of the building, the back of his blazer lifting as he sped. She wondered if this was his first time down here, or whether he’d been coming here the whole time since they’d married. She knew he’d been acting strange with her mother; saw that he’d been angry with her when she’d interrupted him on the phone. She decided not to follow him.

Now read this version, where the filtering is removed:

Sherry’s heart pounded. Ahead of her, John disappeared around the corner of the building, the back of his blazer lifting as he sped. Was this his first time down here, or had he been coming here the whole time since they’d married? He’d been acting strange around her mother, and had scowled at her when she’d interrupted him on the phone. She turned from the alleyway and stepped off the sidewalk to her car.

See the difference? The second is more immediate, and draws your attention to what’s been happening rather than to Shelley herself.

At first, this may be somewhat difficult to ferret out in your writing, so you can read more about it here.

self-editing by Steph VanderMeulen5. Examine the order of your story: For me, this is the hardest part of self-editing. I’m at this stage with a draft now, and frankly, it’s stressing me out. When it comes to my own writing, I can hardly see the forest for the trees. The big picture escapes me. Story arcs elude me. So when it comes time to make sure the story is told in the most effective order (that is, not necessarily chronologically or the way I wrote it), I really struggle.

There are several ways to order your story—for example, chronologically, or following a character (if you have two characters, maybe you follow one up to just before meeting the other, then switch to the other and start from the beginning up to when they meet), or with point of view (the reader discovers what happens to a character when the character does, even if the events happened before).

The only exercise I find effective for ordering a story is to physically cut it up into scenes, spread the pieces on the floor, and then start piecing them together. I sometimes have to start from the end. Or the middle. I just start taping pieces together that seem to naturally flow. Because you’re taping them, you can always untape and retape. This is playing, experimenting. You don’t have to get it right the first time.

Ask yourself two questions: 1) What order will avoid confusion for the reader and, even, satisfy them? 2) What sequence is logical and avoids awkward transitions?

You may find that when you’re ordering your story, things don’t fit well no matter how hard you try. This may mean you still have bits to write or that some scenes aren’t really serving the story and have to go.

Finish! You’ve come this far already

Aside from the basics, like spell checking, self-editing helps you get intimate with your story and its elements. Questions will arise that will require you to make both major and minor decisions, or get to know your characters better, or polish your dialogue, or tighten your text by making sure the story is focused rather than meandering.

This process will challenge you. Likely, you’ll question the quality of your writing and your story. You’ll find it difficult to make decisions because you’ll be anxious about getting things right. You’ll feel shitty about having to cut stuff out and too impatient to have to write new material.

In times like these, remind yourself of your goal, which is to have, in the end, a solid, well-written story. Keep going. Your story is worth the effort, and you are worth the effort. The most important of all is that you finish.

Lastly, although this is about self-editing, you don’t have to do it alone. I don’t! It’s very difficult to know when you’re done, to trust your intuition and decide it’s good enough. So engage your writing group, or published friends you trust. Or get a short story critique: as an editor, I can guide you as you work to make your story the best it can be.


Getting Past Your Inner Critic

Last week I gave tips on how to get past writer’s block. One thing I didn’t touch on, though, was that writer’s block, as well as procrastination, is also often caused by that nasty set of inner voices collectively known as “the inner critic.”

The inner critic is the voice of ougetting past the inner criticr ego—that mostly but not totally unnecessary creature that causes us so much grief. It’s the voice of fear, of the debilitating beliefs and thoughts we’ve nurtured and accumulated through our interpretations of what’s happened to us as we’ve grown.

The inner critic is not really us speaking. It’s a whole lot of overwhelming, powerful, and erroneous thinking. Ultimately, it’s what we imagine others think of us, which we project onto ourselves. And this is why it’s bullshit. For one thing, it keeps us from doing anything we’re passionate about. For another…well, who are we to presume what others are thinking?

These are some things you might hear in your head and which you’ll probably recognize as the inner critic:

  • You suck at this!
  • You’ll never be good enough.
  • Who are you to think you can do this?
  • What makes you worthy of being published?
  • Don’t bother, man, you never finish anything anyway.
  • You’re not as good as you think you are.
  • You’re a fraud.
  • You’ll never be as good as X.
  • Why bother doing this when so many others are doing it already?
  • Who’s going to read your stuff? Who’s going to care?
  • Why are you writing that stuff? It’s depressing!
  • Stop, you moron! Don’t submit! It needs to be perfect.
  • This is a waste of time and you should be doing something more important, like making money or cleaning the bathroom.
  • It’s just too damn hard, and too much work, and for what?
  • So you’re getting published. So what? Millions do. Doesn’t mean you’re good.
  • Getting published? Dream on. It’s all about who you know and what you’ve already done.

Any of these sound familiar?

When you read them all together like this, how do you feel? Mostly, I feel really sad. I’ll get to why in Tip 2.

The important thing to remember here is that you are not your ego. You are not defined by your fears or shame or self-doubt. You are the creative being who desires to write. You need to separate your inner writer from your inner critic.

Here are two tips I use to allow me to write.

Personify your critic

This isn’t a new concept, but it’s a powerful one. It’s greatly diminished the time it takes for me to get writing again after a period of self-doubt.

All my life I’ve struggled with people telling me what I can and can’t do, particularly the latter. You tell me I can’t do something, I get upset. Because of my rebellious nature, I find it easy, then, to personify those voices in my head and then talk to the character who represents them—er, just as I used to with my parents! I was a terrible backtalker, I admit.

Some people have an item, like a horrifying cat statue, for instance, that they use to personify their inner critic. Some draw a picture of their inner critic and hang it on the wall. I just have an image in my mind. It’s not even troll-like. It just looks like me, with crossed arms (because it’s actually scared and thus lashing out).

Sometimes I get angry and defensive. Inner Critic, I say, don’t tell me what I can’t do. What do you know? Who are you to think you own me, or know me? I’ll write if I want to write. And I’ll write what I want.

Sometimes—and this is actually more productive—I’ll say, Inner Critic, hey. You again, huh. Okay, since I notice you keep showing up every time I want to do something I love, I’m going to go ahead and guess that right now you’re Fear. You’re afraid for me. You’re afraid I’ll get hurt or be disappointed. So what are you trying to tell me about myself here? What can I learn? And then: Can you step back and let me do this? I got this. I’m all right. I don’t need you right now—all I want to do is create. I’m not doing anything life-threatening. You can relax.

You can also say, Um, really? Is this supposed to help me? At least my trying gives me something instead of nothing! Just how are your criticisms serving me? You know what? You’re ugly. Judgemental. A coward. And mean. You’re a bully! Is that any way to talk to me? I would never talk that way to anyone else! 

Which leads me to this, the most powerful tool in my personal arsenal.

Imagine yourself, the writer, as a child

I put up a kindergarten photo of myself in my office. I’m sweet-looking and have big blue eyes. More important, I was unhindered by self-doubt at that time in my life. I learned to read at four. I was putting together words and stories early. I drew pictures, and I imagined myself in the stories I was reading.

I think of my creative self as me when I was little. Or my inner child, if you want.

When I hear my inner critic start up, I turn things around by imagining my adult self saying all the nasty things to that child, to the me who wants to write. I imagine looking down at this sweet little girl who just wants to be free to create and colour the sky purple if she wants and write stories about aliens named Pookie, and saying:

  • You can’t.
  • You suck.
  • You’ll never be good at it.

I don’t make it very far before I start to get all choked up.

Is that any way to talk to a child? It is not. It’s not any way to talk to anyone. It’s cruel. Not only that, it’s actually lying. Now all I want to do at that point is hug that little girl and say, I’m sorry! You are worthy. Have at it! Make what you want, you beautiful, light, unfettered being!

Listen. You can’t control what others might say. And that’s okay. Let them think what they want to think. It actually has no bearing on you: that’s all about them. Allow them to think your writing is good! Allow them their opinion. It’s out of your hands, so decide not to waste your energy.

What you can control is that inner critic. Let the doer in you be in charge. Let the one who wants to “embiggen” your life be in charge. Let the creative self, who you were born as, be in charge.

What you can control is your writing practice. Your job is only to show up and to do your best as a writer, with the talent you have and the tools available to you. Give yourself permission to do this every day.

No one can stop you but you. See that inner critic and push him into the wings. Take that stage and step into the light.


Sometimes things are easier said than done, especially for those whose inner critics are strong and debilitating. You either start and then stop, or you can’t get started at all, and you struggle with this daily so much that it makes you hate yourself even more. That makes it really hard to banish the inner critic, I know.

If this is the case, I understand. I have a hard time working on my own to get rid of the inner critic sometimes. Sometimes my ego requires a boost from someone else. Sometimes my creative being needs some outside encouragement.

If you need help getting past your inner critic, someone to talk to your writer self and nudge you past your procrastination or blocks, I can help.

If you’ve got a draft but are suffering with self-doubt about it, consider a short story critique, which is constructive help to get you ready for submission.

Don’t allow your inner critic to keep you from shining. You can write and you can do it well. Decide you will. Then do what you need to do.


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.


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.