How to Beat Writer’s Block

Please enjoy this blog post by guest blogger Brooke Stoltzfus!

Writer’s block is something everybody suffers through regardless of who you are. It is an “illness” that no one can escape, but there are definitely remedies for this common plague. As a college student, I have learned what to do when I find myself suffering from writer’s block. Here are 5 quick easy steps for beating writer’s block:

  1. Dedicate a Certain Amount of Time to write
  • Each person may write a different way, but I do not write well when I write a paper over the course of a couple days. I find it most helpful to write my paper in one sitting, depending on how long it is. That is not to say that writing a paper the night before is a smart idea, but getting into a writing mindset and staying there is helpful to me.
  1. Find a Space Dedicated to Work
  • I often find myself not being productive in my room as opposed to a space such as a library. My mind works better when it knows that it’s in a space it associates with work, such as a classroom or library.
  1. Limit the Distractions Around You
  • This seems like a simple one, but it is so important! Putting my phone across the room so I can’t see the notifications is helpful because I am not tempted to respond. Keeping my work area neat also helps so that I am not stressed out by the amount of clutter around me.
  1. Don’t Listen to Music with Words
  • I am one of those people who likes to have background noise, but music with lyrics distract me from what I am writing. My mind wants to sing along to the song instead of putting thoughts down on a page. I often listen to study playlists made by Spotify. The playlists are great background noise, and they eliminate the dead silence in the room.
  1. Be Knowledgeable About Your Subject
  • Knowing the subject you are writing about is important so that you don’t keep writing down the same thought over and over with different wording. The more knowledge you have access to, the more information you can write about.

Each person is different so these tips may not work for everyone. Writer’s block does plague the best of us, so sometimes gaining insight from outside sources is beneficial.

Happy Writing!

Brooke Stoltzfus

If the stakes are high…. Your story will fly!

One of the ongoing problems I see in my students’ screenwriting is that the stakes simply aren’t high enough in their scripts. What I mean is, they set up a problem that—no matter the solution—will leave the hero in the same position at the end of the script regardless of whether he wins or loses.

This is a huge problem.

In order for the script to work (and really this is true of a novel and likely short story as well) the world must change dramatically if the hero wins, but it must also change dramatically if he or she loses too. Otherwise, what’s the point of the story? And your audience/ reader will see right through it.

To ensure your stakes are high enough for your hero, consider the following points:

  • The hero wants something and has shown through his or her actions that they’re willing to do anything to get it. A person who is this intense and working toward a life-altering goal is doing things he or she may never have tried before—and they’re likely exhibiting some kind of courage to do it. With that being said, how could life ever be the same again?
  • Ask yourself why the hero wants to achieve this goal. What are the solid answers to that question? Usually this centers somewhere in the realm of the hero’s view of his/ her own self-worth. This is not an issue to be taken lightly.
  • Articulate clearly before you write how the world will be different if the hero wins or loses. This might make the concept of stakes clearer and more tangible.
  • Near the end of the story the hero should have exhausted all avenues in their efforts to find success. In doing this, the world has already changed. For better or worse is up to you—but the change will be there.
  • This may be a little bit of a side-note but something else that helps me make sure the stakes are high enough is knowing how my story will end before I start writing. It’s a habit I picked up when I studied screenwriting, but I find it helps in all forms of writing in terms of character development, plot progression, and even setting the stakes. I’ll likely write a separate blog post about this in the future.

Setting the stakes can seem like a daunting task at the beginning of the process. But if you think about anything you’ve done in your life that you’re incredibly proud of or that was very difficult, and you’ll likely find the reason this was so was that there were clearly established stakes that made all the difference.

Film examples of setting the stakes – Big Fish (Edward will die before his son knows who he is, and before their relationship—they’ve been estranged for years—is healed), Bruce Almighty (Bruce is selfish and if he doesn’t change he won’t really understand what love is or how to treat others), Wall Street (Bud is bent on success, but if he finds it, he may lose his family and soul)… see how important this is? Your hero’s victory or defeat is the center of the story- but only because in that he/ she’s life is changing in dramatic, unbelievable ways.

So, what are the stakes for your hero?

Happy writing!

What if…? The writer’s perfect question

The question to end all questions- what if…? It is a writer’s treasure trove. It is how I began writing one of my recent screenplays.

I should have been paying attention the sermon in church and instead I was looking at the back of this woman in front of me and wondering if she would find love or if men would only see her as the wheelchair she sat in. My ‘what if’ question was ‘what if a woman in a wheelchair met the man least likely to see her as anything but the wheelchair?’

And thus became the start of a story that wouldn’t leave me for years. The woman became Daisy Parker, the man, Robby Grant, the screenplay, and then novel—Picking Daisy.

So how do you construct a great ‘what if’ question that will lead to a novel, screenplay, short story, or other work? In my case it boils down to a few key elements:

  • Curiosity- as writers we should be curious people. Asking ‘what if’ almost all the time about the people and things around us will provide no end of inspiration for writing
  • Engagement- although there will be times, of course, when we can’t just be thinking ‘what if…?’ otherwise, we’d get nothing done. That said, engaging with and paying attention to the world around us is essential to the successful and constant creation of ‘what if’ questions. In other, more direct words, pay attention
  • Creativity- the ‘what if’ question needn’t end after only one has been posed. Don’t hesitate to ask more than one of them until the right one that sparks your creativity strikes. Additionally, don’t let the more direct, easy answer to the ‘what if/\’ question be the only idea you embrace. Test drive a few until you find the one that fits your writing situation.
  • Answers- Answering the ‘what if’ question can be the most fun you’ll have with this experience. Once the right ‘what if’ question is formed, the real creativity begins. Your characters and scenarios will develop more easily and you’ll have fun experimenting with the many options available as answers to your questions.

The benefits of the ‘what if’ question can’t be overstated. Not only will it spark your creativity, it will also help you avoid that terrible problem of writer’s block.

So go ahead and try it. Take a look around you and ask ‘what if’ and see what happens. Comment below with any intriguing insights from your ‘what if’ experience.

Happy writing!sunset

Creating your perfect writing space

Writing is a solo endeavor but it doesn’t have to be a painful one.

Creating the perfect writing space is essential to a writer’s productivity. Although my current office space at home is functional, I am considering ways to spice things up and improve the inspiration that surrounds me.

Below are some things I recommend you consider as you work on your own writing space. Maybe when mine is finished I’ll post some pics, but for now, I hope my work and insight can be helpful to you.

Desk:

The right desk will give you a place to create, write, and do what writers do best—dream. My desk is over a hundred years old and has many drawers and a roll top I rarely pull down for fear it will break. But I love it! If you’re a fan of vintage pieces, I suggest looking at consignment shops, antique stores, auctions, or even yard sales. I found my desk at a consignment shop. If you’re a fan of new furniture, but you’re on a budget, local discount stores or even Ikea might be the best bets for you.

Schedule:

Are you writing in the early morning or in the evening? Adding the right lights or curtains to your space will allow better illumination as you read, write, edit, or market your work. My overhead light is functional (and I have a large window on my office at home) but I added a lamp to my desk for those days when it’s gray or I just feel the need for a brighter workspace.

Color:

Selecting a carpet or area rug that features bright colors will inspire you. Then, you can pull from the carpet to bring accents to the room through curtains, pillows, paint color, and even wall hangings. Have fun with color to make your writing room feel focused and creative.

Shelves:

As writers it goes without saying that we have a lot of books. A. Lot. Of. Books. Proper storage is critical to making the resources you use often available and those you don’t handy enough that they are there when needed. Get creative and use your space well, but don’t be afraid to get rid of books you haven’t opened in a while (pssst! This just makes room for you to buy more books! Win-win!)

Chairs:

A comfortable seat is critical to writing well. Try out several that not only appeal to your sense of aesthetic in the room but also to your body make-up. Lumbar support and the ability to raise and lower the seat, as well as change positions as needed will be some factors to look for in choosing the right chair for you. But don’t limit yourself! Also consider having additional seating if the room allows so that you can get away from your desk and maybe put your feet up as you read, write, research, or edit your work.

Change:

Even if you settle on a color scheme, design concept, or organization tactic, you aren’t tied to it. Know that you can change what doesn’t work—and be open to new ideas that, thanks to the internet, will surely come up right as you complete the office overhaul.

And finally…

Pinterest:

Pinterest has been an invaluable tool to getting ideas for my oddly-shaped (but pretty cool) writing space. When it’s done, I promise to share some pics but right now it’s still a work in progress. Search as many different ideas as you can and create boards for your thoughts. Pull from these as you can and create the room of your dreams!

And check out my pinterest board for inspiration if you like:

Happy writing!

Shh… listening to learn dialogue

It’s tremendously frustrating to be in the thick of reading a great novel only to become stuck when the dialogue doesn’t ring true. Bad dialogue can ruin the emotional impact of a great scene and draw attention to itself that means your reader is no longer invested in the story, but instead is concerned with the way your writing has strayed from reality.

Today, I’d like to give you a few tips for writing effective, natural, excellent dialogue:

  • Listen to the way people actually speak-
    • This doesn’t mean you have to write with all the fillers like ‘uh, um, well,’ etc. What it means is that you should pay attention to the word choices people make. For instance, how often do people actually refer to one another by name? If you listen to conversations in real life, you may notice it isn’t that often- therefore, it shouldn’t happen all that often in your dialogue, either.
  • Word choice matters
    • Some words are easy and natural to read, but are not often used in dialogue or actual speech because they’re cumbersome—or more likely, there’s an easier, more natural word to use. During the editing process, ask yourself if each word is one you’d hear someone say, or if you’ve included it because you thought it sounded more intelligent.
  • Cheap words are better
    • The previous point leads to this one- people usually speak with economy. We’re more inclined to use an easy word over a more difficult one in conversation. There are some caveats to this, of course, but consider the nudge anyway
  • Reveal what you need in that moment only
    • A writer can use dialogue to reveal things like a character’s education, economic status, what is important to them/ motivation, and a host of other things as well. But, you don’t need to smack your reader upside the skull to let them know your character is smart. Be subtle. Conversation usually is.
  • Less is more
    • Readers usually prefer to read snappy dialogue that moves things along. Use your dialogue well to do this- but don’t overdo it. Some writers rely too heavily on dialogue when the novel, for instance, gives you a chance to get inside the character’s mind too. As example, I usually use the first draft to ‘get it all out’ then I cut and cut (and cut some more) and end up with the dialogue that actually words
  • Be smart in editing
    • In addition to the above points, use your editing time well. Read the dialogue out loud to hear how it sounds (and if it’s a screenplay you’re working on, you should do this anyway to make sure the words are easy to say together). You might also consider during editing whether each dialogue exchange is necessary or if it would be more effective if handled another way.

While I certainly haven’t exhausted the many ways to write better conversations into your work, these are some of the main methods that work for me. You, too, can use these tips to write (and edit) your dialogue more effectively.

Please comment below if any of these ideas worked for you, or with your own dialogue tips/ tricks.

Editing 101: Sharpen your story

With a little tweaking to your editing process, you might find significant improvement in the outcome of your story/ novel/ screenplay or other writing.

Below are some ideas from my writing and teaching experiences, as well as thoughts from a professional editor.

  1. Get the story finished! – Feel free to make minor edits as you write but the best practice is to finish the story so the structure is already in place. Overall this makes the editing process more effective (and easier!)
    • And take time away from it
      • This will allow even the best editor to see clearly what is not working in the story, characters, dialogue, and so much more
  1. Replace some of the following words where appropriate
    • Feel/felt, have/ had, hear, knew/ know, see/saw, just, then, than, maybe, look, watch/notice/observe, so and very
      • You may be shocked at how often these words (and others) appear in your work
  1. Does your timeline make sense?
    • If ‘three days pass’ between one event and the next, is it possible for your character to do what you say she/ he is doing? (like going to the bank, for instance, which may be closed on a Sunday)
  2. Read your story in print
    • Different than reading on a computer or on a Kindle
    • You might catch mistakes that otherwise could be missed
  3. Share it with a friend and get his/ her insights
    • Fresh eyes can be incredibly helpful in the process
      • May help you to see where logic problems, typos, or other questions are apparent
  1. Cut yourself slack
    • No one is perfect. You may not catch every mistake
      • This.
  1. Fight for your story
    • You don’t have to make all of the recommended changes from a friend or your editor
      • Some will be preference issues
    • You know your story better than anyone
  2. Have fun!
    • Editing is making your story stronger and better!
    • I mean it. Really.

What are your keys to editing success? Share them in the comments!

Writer’s block? It could always be worse…

My dissertation concerned student perceptions of writer’s block.

Not how to ‘cure’ or ‘solve’ it- simply what did students think about it- and could a film (or film clips) about the subject impact those perceptions.

To study this, I used clips from the film Stranger than Fiction. For those unfamiliar with the film, here’s the quick synopsis- a writer named Kay Eiffel (Emma Thompson) is struggling to kill her protagonist, Harold Crick (Will Ferrell)– who is actually a real person hearing Eiffel narrate his dull day-to-day life.

In the film, Eiffel sits by a road imagining car wrecks, visits a hospital looking for the dead “for sure” patients, and does any other number of wild things to rid herself of writer’s block.

Ironically, my study indicated that while the film may open the student/ beginning writer to more highly dramatic notions of writer’s block, most of the study participants felt writer’s block was a natural part of their writing process. Their perceptions were largely negatively impacted by viewing films such as Stranger than Fiction that portray writer’s block as life-altering.

Additionally, while these new writers had creative and varying ways for handling the situation, few shared that their lives overall, or their projects/ pieces, were ruined by writer’s block.

Perhaps a change in perspective would be beneficial to our understanding about writer’s block. Referring to it as a problem creates a sense that we should ‘solve’ it. In fact, I often discovered in my research that articles abound offering to help writers ‘cure’ their writer’s block, while few suggest this is a natural part of writing.

Even Kay Eiffel’s writer’s block ended eventually. And it ended in much the same way most writers end their writer’s block. It ended naturally, and without fanfare.

The lesson? Don’t run from writer’s block. Embrace it. It could be worse.

For the sake of discussion, how have you viewed writer’s block? Do you try to solve it? Or, are you more likely to push through and keep writing?

What’s in a name?

Naming characters is a fun, but sometimes scary, part of writing. The options sometimes feel limitless… or is it daunting? There really are some great ways you can make it easier to name your story characters. Let’s explore some of them.

To begin, perhaps you should consider when in the writing process you typically like to name your characters. If it is at the start of your story then you might add one (or more) of these ideas to your writing schedule before you do anything else. If you prefer to learn about your characters and then name them, you may add these in at the middle or closer to the end of your writing process.

A few basic considerations:

Some specific areas may impact the name you choose for your character—and knowing even a little bit about him/ her will help narrow down your options. Some of these issues include:

  • Time period- a name like Gretchen, Rain, or Alberta may be popular at particular times in history but maybe not so (or not used at all) in others.
  • Location- some names vary in popularity based on area
  • Economics- which leads to status in the community and so on. This may be of lesser importance than other issues, but is still worthy of consideration
  • Education- knowing cultural issues, literary references, etc. might suit one class more than another
  • Ethnicity- if a character is from another part of the world or has a family that is proud of or influenced strongly by their roots, ethnicity may play a part in a character name

Any or all of these might in some way influence your choice of character name. Don’t hesitate to do a little research before locking in a name (it’s easy- and with the Internet, you have no excuse). Finally, you also don’t want to stereotype your characters based on any of these things, so be open-minded.

Useful resources:

Random name generators and web sites that explain names and history abound on the Internet, but don’t shy away from some other less frequently considered, but still valid, options for finding names. And a side note- when you hear/ read a name you like and want to use later, be sure you’ve created a space on your computer (a folder perhaps) for names you might need at another time.

Some off-the-wall places to find names that can be used as-found, or adapted in creative and unique ways based on your needs/ wants:

  • Telephone books (last names as first names, anyone?)
  • Places (small towns, cities, countries)
  • The Bible
  • Literature/pamphlets/ documents/ history
  • Observe (waitresses, clerks, cashiers, managers… anyone you run into could have the name- or even nickname- you’ve been searching for. I once overheard someone in a café and used that name later in a story, so pay attention to who is around!)

And, of course I wouldn’t belittle the use of a website to generate a name that suits your story. I’ve used many when writing my own stories and found them to be very helpful. Try one and see what works for you.

Finally, once you settle on a name, remember that you can always change it later. Sometimes I’ll start with a ‘short list’ of names I like, and realize that one stands out over the others. I’ve also written well into a story and realized a name wasn’t working—or that I preferred the character’s nickname to their given name.

Take your time but don’t let naming characters worry you or stall your writing process.

Bonus exercise: Name the character described here: Owner of a small business that prints business cards and other signage. She’s tall with a crooked nose but has a magnetic personality and tells jokes often. Everyone in town knows her as she took over the business for her ailing father who recently passed away. She’s 24 years old and didn’t go to college but took a few online business courses recently. Has a boyfriend who takes her for granted but she’s willing to dump him… just doesn’t yet have a good enough reason (and she doesn’t want to be alone).

Who is she? What are your top name picks? Do first, middle, and last on this one. Feel free to comment with your ideas for her name– or with any other thoughts you have about naming characters.

Happy writing!