Most writers struggle with the dreaded Writer’s Block—but I’ve never had this problem. Here are some of the tricks I use to keep the words flowing. Hopefully, they will help you too!
Reading really is the most important tool for becoming a better writer. With all of the formats available (print, eBook, audio, dramatization, graphic novels), there’s a storytelling format to fit everyone’s lifestyle. Be sure to read widely, not just within your own genre, as this will prevent you from accidentally emulating other authors’ styles. Read critically. What do you think an author has done well? What about their methods bother you? What would you do differently? You can learn from books you don’t enjoy as much as from those you love.
Try: Setting a limit (1 chapter or half-an-hour), and then sit down to write. See how your creative juices are jogged by imbibing stories.
Planning prevents you from stalling. Different types of writers prefer to be more concrete or more exploratory; some don’t anchor their outline until revisions. Whenever you choose to implement them, guidelines will help keep you on track and show the way forward when you get stuck. Figure out the answers to these basic questions: What do your characters want? What experiences will make them grow? What is their end-goal?
Try: Prepare point-form goals for each chapter (such as a key action, mood, or revelation); write a scene for each point.
Community builds your enthusiasm for the project, from gleaning insight into other writers’ processes, to trouble-shooting sticky points in your WIP. Your fellow writers provide fresh perspectives and may highlight inconsistencies you hadn’t noticed.
Try: Joining a critique group, forum, or exchanging work with beta readers. Send them guidelines for what kind of feedback you’re seeking.
Prompts can get you out of a rut. They can push you to explore genres, personas, or techniques you don’t typically use in your projects. They can help you discover backstory or motivations, and think outside the box. Find prompts online, in exercise books, or in writing courses. Consider prompts that test your weaknesses: unusual topics, dialogue, plot device, character, genre, time period, or circumstance.
Try: Working in short story formats; when the work is shorter, you can explore themes or ideas that you couldn’t sustain over a full-length book. You may even be able to polish and submit these exploratory works.
Change it up! If you’re having difficulty concentrating, getting up and stretching re-oxygenates your brain. Determine your ideal writing environment for lighting, hydration, comfort, ambient sound, etc. If you feel stagnant, try writing in a new location.
Try: Certain writing apps set reminders, rewards, or penalties; if you need an extra boost to hit your goals, consider Write-O-Meter, DabbleWriter, or Write Or Die.
Remember, every writer has a different pace and process. Set attainable and sustainable goals. You will feel much more productive hitting smaller regular goals that if you burn out writing six-thousand words for three days straight and then nothing for six months. Keep experimenting and find your sweet spot. After all, your story won’t write itself!
As a queer author focused on inclusive worldbuilding, Astra Crompton seeks to write complex characters whose identities, sexualities and motivations span across a nuanced spectrum. She has published short stories in anthologies including Blood Moon Rising and Anthology for a Green Planet, and for the tabletop RPG game Unity. She also has a number of self-published short stories, graphic novels, and a novel available. You can find her work at www.astracrompton.com
An anecdote, if you will.
In my late teens, I attended my first writing class. We were an eclectic group. Fiction writers. Poets. Even a few journalism enthusiasts. As an ice breaker, the teacher asked us to speak about our favourite books. I groaned. I always hated this question. I never knew how to answer. Could I rank a Hemingway above a Wilde? A Chekov above a Poe? How could I possibly decide?
The class went around, dropping names. All the big shots emerged. Shakespeare. Tolkien. King. Plath. This went on until we landed on a poet, a lanky boy in black who declared, “I don’t have a favourite book. I don’t read. I don’t want anything influencing my style.”
My first reaction was to stare. My second was to cry blasphemy. A writer who does not read? The idea was as foreign to me as a pianist who does not listen to music. I might have recoiled. I might have made a face. His answer lit a fire in me. When it was my turn to speak, I stood and said, with equal vehemence, “I don’t have a favourite book either, because I read everything.” I said this as though I had something to prove.
But why did I have such a reaction? Why did I feel such a drawing desire to rebut? In that moment, I believed, with every ounce of my being, that my answer was more correct than his. That a writer should always read, and not just read, but read widely.
The Well of Knowledge
One might claim that a writer does not need to read to write. This is true. Writing, after all, is merely a form of communication, and everyone knows, to some degree, how to communicate. My poet classmate, who did not read, still knew how to write. He understood sentences, and structure, and had creative ideas.
Yet writing does not happen in isolation. Not entirely, anyway.
Every piece of contemporary writing is a result of thousands of years of literary history—traditions that have percolated into our collective consciousness over time. Every genre is a plethora of established archetypes, patterns, and expectations. Writing itself is a transformative craft, constantly evolving, built on top of and alongside the ideas, styles, techniques, and successes of our writing peers and predecessors.
And herein lies my answer:
I read widely because I want to be influenced. Yes, I can write without reading, but to do so is to refuse the deep wells of knowledge sitting in my very backyard.
Learning from the Field
For writers, reading is akin to gaining field experience. The wider you read, the broader your horizons, and the better you understand your craft. Reading allows us to learn what has been done, what has worked, and, just as importantly, what has not worked. Better yet, it allows us to witness tools, techniques, and methods in action.
See, every literary genre has areas in which they excel. Prose does not read like a play does not read like poetry. Prose might prioritize narrative arc over imagery, whereas poetry might do the opposite. I am predominately a science-fiction fantasy novel writer. Yet every time I venture into genres outside my own, I find a wealth of transferable skills to add to my writing arsenal.
Graphic novels, for example, taught me how to better show. Subtle changes in lighting, angle, and colour can flavour a scene. A smile in sunshine feels different than a smile in the rain. I do not have pictures in my novels, but I have description, and that is a close enough approximation.
Poetry, on the other hand, made me more aware of connotations. An eternity of symbolism and cultural significance stands behind the word “rose.” This has made me more careful of my word choices in general.
And so on and so forth.
Let’s go back to that classroom.
It was not as though I did not understand my poetic classmate’s concerns. Originality is highly emphasized in all creative fields.
But what is originality anyway?
I would argue that originality is not so much invention than transformation. It does not spring from nothing. Rather, originality happens in reaction to pre-established norms. Fresh genres don’t pop out of nowhere. They are derived from existing ones. New voices don’t arise from the void. They counter traditional ones. To be original, you must first learn what is not original, per se.
Once you know of what is out there, you can change it. You can play, experiment, chop things up and put it back together in fascinating ways. Genre fusion, mixing and matching, purposeful deviations in structure and narrative—these are but a few examples of what you can try. See that familiar cliché? Invert it. That well-crafted sentence? Break it up. That hero’s journey? Apply it to contemporary romance instead.
To quote Dr. Seuss, “The more you know, the more places you’ll go.” If you’re worried about originality, don’t be. Reading widely can inspire originality rather than detracts from it.
Reading to Write
So, how does one begin to read widely? And how does one reap its benefits without writing hundred-page dissertations on craft? There is a lot out there, and our time is finite. No one wants to sift through every book in history on the off chance of finding a cool turn of phrase.
One of the safest ways to branch out is to mix the familiar with the unfamiliar. Take a trope, setting, or archetype you enjoy and seek it elsewhere. Enjoy romance novels? Try romance poetry. Enjoy strong voices in fiction? Seek strong voices in memoir. See how they differ. See how they are familiar. See where they pull, where they push, and how.
Great. Now, get active. Ask questions. When we read as a writers, we are not simply consuming a product, but actively considering its creation. Look for those “aha” moments where your brain snags, where you find yourself reading the same passage over and over again. These are moments where something resonated. Then, consider: Why did I react the way I did? How did the writing evoke such a reaction? Do I want that for my own writing? How can I work that into my own writing?
And when you have those “oh no” moments (which you certainly will), ask yourself similar questions: Why didn’t I like this? What happened? How can I avoid making the same mistakes? A negative experience, after all, is just as important as a positive one when it comes to learning.
An analogy, if you will.
You are in a workshop. Here is your project. Here are your tools. You chip away at your project using your tools. You become excellent at it. Then, one day, a new wing springs forth with new projects and new tools. You stare at these projects. They are different than your own. You stare at these tools. They are new to you. Maybe you love this new wing! You find its projects fascinating! You’re excited about having new tools! Great! Or, maybe, you hate everything about it. You cover it up and refuse to set foot inside. This is fine too.
Because love or hate, you have a new wing at your disposal, to visit or ignore at will.
Reading widely adds more wings.
It never hurts to have more wings.
Let me finish by stressing this: You can be a good writer without reading widely. Reading widely is by no means a prerequisite for writing. If anything, it’s icing on top. It’s the optional reading you get at the end of each class for enrichment’s sake. This is simply to encourage you to explore. To give it a try, whatever it may be. To test new waters, and seek new tools. To try novel things. To stretch and bend and break some boundaries. To have some fun.
So read widely, write without fear.
You never know what you will find.
Like more authors, Jennifer Chen is a humanoid organism. She is usually found in front of an unfinished Word document, ingesting caffeinated drinks, and daydreaming. She enjoys writing so much she went ahead and got herself an MFA in creative writing from University of British Columbia for it.
Jennifer will read anything at least once, and then talk about it over the course of several social dinners. Of all the genres available, she most enjoys speculative fiction and magic realism.
I love losing myself in a good story.
Whether I’m sitting on the couch with a fantastic show or film, whether I’m reading a phenomenal book, or whether I’m booting up my computer to reign supreme in Tamriel, a good plot with great characters can keep me occupied for hours.
Sometimes it’s because I need to shut down my brain, sure, but a lot of the time, these are not passive activities for me. They’re a work of study.
Seriously. You should listen to me, and my husband watch some of the new Netflix shows. We basically have notebooks out, noting each beat and marking the quality with which they hit it. It leaves us a bit more critical of what we’re watching than if we just sat back and enjoyed, but I have learned so much about great storytelling from the likes of the first season of Stranger Things or The Punisher*.
My particular favourite is watching relationships. Unique twists on romances or friendships, dynamics I’ve wanted to play with but haven’t quite figured out how. Stories are all about people, so if watching something triggers conflict between two characters in your head, you’re already off to a great start.
And have you ever read a book where the prose is so sharp and beautiful, the character so richly developed, that within five minutes of picking it up, you want to put it back down so you can make some words of your own? In my opinion, those are the best books. The ones that inspire, that spark ideas over the smallest details, and make you believe you’re capable of doing the same for someone else.
I’m also a big fan of video games. Not that I would call myself a gamer, per se. I don’t have the passion for them that, say, my husband does, or even all that many games in my history. The type of games I love take a lot of time, and I tend to get a little…consumed when I start a new one, so I have a habit of sticking with my tried-and-trues. But that’s okay! Each time I play I still get a lot out of them, which is the point of this post.
Video games, even more than watching or reading something, give that real sense of immersion. You’re not just watching someone else wield a dagger or some fancy magics, you’re the one defeating the big bads and having the wild romances, and saving the world from whatever evil is threatening it. You’re the one playing sneaky-sneaky thief, prowling in the shadows to pick locks and steal the sacred objects that, really, didn’t belong to the person laying claim to it either.
You can choose to be the villain, you can choose to be the hero, and all of your options are valid.
It’s pretty intoxicating.
And with a well-written game, it can set off a whirlwind of ideas.
At the moment, I’m replaying Skyrim for the umpteenth time**. This is not a perfect game, by far. The story is pretty shoddy, and beyond a few NPCs (non-playable characters), the character development is non-existent. But the Thieves’ Guild questline is always a joy to tackle (the first half anyway), and the characters involved never fail to spark an idea or five for some sneaky-stabby-rogue stories of my own. In a way, the lack of definitive story or development makes them that much easier to work with as a starting base. I have been known to pause games to write down ideas. My first publication, a serial called Greylands (no longer available to purchase), was based on just this kind of brainstorming session, and I know it won’t be the last time it happens
Stories are everywhere if you’re looking for them, so if you ever feel stuck, just lose yourself in someone else’s world with an eye to forming ideas of your own.
And the next time you’re playing a solid RPG or analyzing a great show, and someone says you should be writing, you can turn to them and tell them you already are.
*There are exceptions to this critical viewing. Brooklyn Nine-Nine and The Good Place get a pass. They’re too good for critique.
**I know for a fact I’m not the only author who has enjoyed Bethesda games. Among the many of us out there, here’s a wonderful story about a wonderful writer and a wonderful character and a wonderful mod that shows how meaningful and impactful gaming can be.
Like many authors, Krista Walsh has been writing since she was old enough to hold a pen. At eight years old, she wrote three one-page ghost stories that she still feels are her best work. From plays and short stories through to fanfiction and novels, stories have always buzzed around in her head. After her first publication in April 2012, a short story in a dark fantasy anthology, Krista made her way through various collaborations and anthologies until she founded the self-publishing brand of Raven’s Quill Press.
For me, the process of writing a story is an adventure. As a writer of epic fantasy, people often ask, “How do you world build? How do you establish plot lines? How do you create characters? How do you build magic systems?” To each and every one of those questions, the answer is simple. I don't.
So many people devote countless hours (some take years!) building a fantastical world. They spend days and weeks fretting over magic systems. They agonize until the sun comes up about the plot. I get it. There are a lot of people who require structure. Hey, if that works for them, great, but I don't have the patience, nor the time to devote to these things when I could be writing instead. I don’t need to stress over things my characters are going to sort out for themselves anyway.
What do I mean by that? Well, in some circles, I am called a ‘pantser.’ I had never heard of this term until a few months ago. It means I fly by the seat of my pants. Truth be told, I like to think I fly by the seat of my character's pants. When I sit down to write, I haven't spent weeks agonizing over scene development or crisis management. Heck, I don't even know what the land looks like around the next bend in the trail. The beauty is, I don't have to. My characters tell me everything I need to know as they experience it.
My worldbuilding consists of maintaining two detailed excel spreadsheets, which, by the way, are made and added to as the story progresses. Nothing is done beforehand. One spreadsheet, the places spreadsheet, has a tab for everyplace, road, river, etc. I put in the story—each with their own description. The other spreadsheet, the people spreadsheet, lists almost every character mentioned, with 3 subcategories: Physical Description, Clothing, and Other. (The obligatory guy that shows up and becomes collateral damage, doesn’t count.)
At some point, I generate a map, but not before the story is well underway. Why, because the characters haven’t told me what’s on the map yet. And magic systems? Huh? I write fantasy. Magic is an inherent part of the story. I don’t explain how people stay alive by describing the intricacies of breathing: oxygen enters one’s lungs via a tube called an esophagus and then passes through…you get what I’m saying? You just accept the fact that the character’s body is capable of breathing. That being said, I don’t need to explain how magic works—by definition, it’s magic!
There are days when the writing process doesn’t flow. Those days are tough. Some people like to hide behind the security curtain many refer to as writer’s block. I refuse to let myself do this. On the days writing doesn’t come naturally, my word count suffers for sure, but I still get a count. I force myself to write the word, ‘The,’ and then the next word, and then the one after that. You might surprise yourself. Once you change your mindset from “I can’t do it” to “I am doing it,” more often than not, the so-called ‘writer’s block’ disappears. Don’t worry if it’s not Pulitzer prize winning material—that’s what editing is for!
For me, writing a story is simple. I put a character in a room, or on a trail, or in a boat, and all I need to do is have them place that first foot in front of the other and give them a shove. The rest is easy. The land and their story will evolve before their eyes. My job as a writer is to keep up and tell the reader what my characters are experiencing.
Life is short. Don’t let it pass you by with your characters locked inside your head. If you don’t write it, no one can read it. Sit in front of your keyboard, look through your character’s eyes, and take part in the wondrous adventure awaiting them.
Richard H. Stephens
Born in Simcoe, Ontario, in 1965, Richard began writing circa 1974, a bored child looking for something to while away the long, summertime days. His penchant for reading The Hardy Boys led to an inspiration one sweltering summer afternoon when he and his best friend realized, "Hey, we could write one of those." And so, Richard did.
As his reading horizons broadened, so did his writing. Star Wars inspired Richard to write a 600-page novel about outer space that caught the attention of a special teacher, Mr. Woodley, who saw his talent and encouraged him to keep writing.
A few years later, Richard visited a local bookstore. The proprietor introduced him to Stephen R. Donaldson and Terry Brooks. Richard's writing life was forever changed.
Amazon Author Page: www.amazon.com/author/richardhstephens
YouTube Channel: https://bit.ly/2NKpOhn
Three weeks into National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) and I’m seeing a lot of people on social media say they’ve hit a wall when it comes to their work in progress (WIP). Let’s face it, churning out 2,000 or more words a day every day for weeks on end is a challenging pace.
When I’m stuck with a WIP, I ask myself what kind of inspiration I need. Sometimes, I do not understand a character. The way that I’m describing them is flat, they have poor dialogue, and they’re doing things mechanically and clinically. To get inspired, I watch a movie or two or three on a related theme that I’m writing on. Sometimes I’m trying to write something funny, so I watch a comedy in a setting that’s related to my books. If I’m stuck on a military character, then I pick a movie appropriate to the period of time I’m writing and focused on the rank that I’m writing (foot soldiers versus from Caesar’s perspective). I watch their body language and jot down notes to see how I can incorporate some of that into my characterisations.
If I need to brainstorm more realistic interactions, then I pick an appropriate public spot, and people watch for a while. I’ll sit in a café and watch two friends interact, or go to a restaurant that is family friendly to see how families with younger children communicate differently than those with older children.
Even though I use an outline for the main plot points and a few character moments, I do sometimes write myself into a corner or get stuck on the next logical step to get my character from A to B. One thing that really helps me is to jot thoughts down. (I have so many notebooks I had to get new shelves installed). I brainstorm a few words or plot points, I draw a relationship map between the characters, I write down a few motivations and goals for the characters involved in the scene, and I’ll even sketch the movement in a battle. I find that writing pen to paper uses a different brain mechanism than typing. Things pry loose from the corners of my mind, and I can continue with my scene.
If the words aren’t coming to me, I write an outline for another short story or book. I’m still working on my craft and moving my projects forward, without working on my word count. I feel productive and satisfied at the end of the day.
One of the most underrated things to do when you’re stuck is to do something else. Go for a walk. Exercise. Read a book. Take a course to improve your writing skills. Play a computer game. Visit a friend. Do anything else except writing, and it will give your brain a break.
When we read how well others are writing, their astronomical word counts, and the staggering pace at which they release books, remind yourself that they too get stuck. All writers face similar structural and characterisation issues, all writers have written themselves into corners and have had to find ways out. Getting stuck is part of the craft, and with persistence, everyone can get unstuck.
Word Crafting is a blog to help writers strive for excellence. If you would like to be a guest blogger, pitch me an idea.