How to Brainstorm Your Next Bestseller by T.N. Rosema

Writing advice often talks about how to organize ideas into a coherent form: plot, scenes, timeline. But how do we come up with these story ideas in the first place? How, exactly, does one brainstorm?

At its heart, brainstorming has three steps:

  1. Generate
  2. Evaluate
  3. Reiterate!


STEP 1: Idea Generation, or Problem Solving

Creativity flourishes within limits. I posit that, for successful brainstorming, we need to assign:

  • one or more specific questions, and
  • a numerical limit.


An idea is the answer to a question, stated or implied. It is the solution to a problem. The broader (or more unlimited) the question, the vaguer the result. For example, “What is my hero like?” might yield vague answers. More specific questions could be:

What does my hero want the most?

Why does she want this?

What happens if he doesn’t get it?

How can her story-desire be expressed in a scene?

How could he react in a compelling way?

The limit can be quantity (10 ideas, one paragraph, etc) and/or time (5 minutes to an hour).

Do not judge or criticize any ideas generated in Step 1. This step is all about quantity over quality; focus on producing ideas, however weak or “impossible” they seem.

Number your ideas; it helps during Step 2.

All writers (and projects) are different, so there are myriad ways to generate ideas. Popular methods include freewriting, listing, and mindmapping or clustering. Below is an example of a mindmap.

Time limit: 10 minutes.

Question 1: How are these characters connected?

Question 2: What is their nationality or ethnic background?


STEP 2: Evaluation, or Quality Control

Time to engage the critical brain. For every idea generated in the last step:

List its advantages (pros).

 List its disadvantages (cons).

 How might you convert these cons into pros?

E.g. X is from Country Y.

(1) More diversity in the cast.

(2) Do I know enough about this region to draw a representative and respectful portrait?

(3) Cultural research might enrich / modernize the story.



STEP 3: Repeat

Repeat Steps 1 and 2 as necessary.


Creative brainstorming is a three-step process that we can do at any time; there’s no need to depend on eureka moments in the shower! If you keep a writer’s notebook, I highly recommend creating a page for Problems to Solve.

Remember —

If instinct tells you to keep a “crazy” idea: figure out why and how.

If there are significant disadvantages to an idea: feel free to discard it. Better ones will come.

If you aren’t coming up with any ideas that you like: rephrase your original questions, or change them altogether.

Good luck, and happy brainstorming ~


Reading for Writing: Essential Books for Writers by Josh Smith

Who do you turn to when you’re stuck? Who can you reach out to if you’re chained to a manuscript in the middle of the night and nothing you write is lining up? You may be lucky enough to have a close writer or editor friend who will drop everything to help you out, but at some point, they’re going to need a break too. Every once in a while, you need some pointers when no one is available to give them, and when all seems lost, what better place to turn to than a book? Several seasoned pros are always at the ready when you’ve got a well-stocked bookshelf, so prepare your arsenal with The LetterWorks’ staff guide to essential books for writers!

A Book of Surrealist GamesA Book of Surrealist Games by Alastair Brotchie, Mel Gooding
Got writer’s block? Dip into one of the exercises in this book and you’re bound to coax something out of the depths! This is a collection of creative prompts, challenges, and idea-prods developed by Surrealists and Oulipo artists to help them approach creating from different angles, often with very specific sets of rules and restraints.
Buy this book!



BooklifeBooklife: Strategies and Survival Tips for the 21st-Century Writer by Jeff VanderMeer
This one stands out for me because it is not so much a book about craft, but a book about every other element of writing life. VanderMeer discusses balancing your public and private lives, marketing, maintaining good physical and mental health, and much more. VanderMeer delivers a bounty of insights linked to tales of his own personal experiences—failures and successes alike—and leans heavily on helpful concepts, such as leveraging your actions to benefit your writing career in one way or another. Booklife is also unique in that VanderMeer anticipated the looming expiration dates of some subjects such as social media (the book was published in 2009, and as such, there’s a brief discussion of Myspace), so he had the foresight to create to exist as a support site for both updates to tools in transition, and as a place for writers to continue finding supportive resources of all kinds. While the site hasn’t seen any new content since 2014, there’s still no shortage of helpful information.
Buy this book!


The Elements of StyleThe Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White
What more can be said? The Elements is just a classic, boring but useful. Also, it’s nice and cheap these days.
Buy this Book!





On WritingOn Writing by Stephen King
You’d be hard pressed to find a useful list of writing books that doesn’t include this one, but even as my inner contrarian urges me to leave it aside, On Writing, much like King himself, cannot be denied. There’s only one Stephen King, and you’d be remiss to sleep on an opportunity to absorb anything he’s willing to pass on. It doesn’t hurt that his approach here is hilarious and uncouth, keeping you absorbed in what can be a terribly dry subject matter.
Buy this book!


WonderbookWonderbook: The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction by Jeff VanderMeer
Before you roll your eyes for including VanderMeer on this list twice, take a quick glimpse at this book. Seriously, just look at this preview. This, clearly, is not your average writing book. It is geared toward visual learners, loaded with pages of diagrams, exercises, essays, and so much more, beautifully illustrated  by Jeremy Zerfoss and many others. It also features a bevy of contributions from outstanding writers like Ursula Le Guin, George R.R. Martin, Nnedi Okorafor, Neil Gaiman, Karin Tidbeck, and Peter Straub, to name just a few. If that’s not enough to snag your interest, an expanded and revised edition was released in July of 2018. Forget fueling your creative fire, this book will dump a barrel of gasoline on those hungry flames!
Buy this book!


Writing Down the BonesWriting Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within by Natalie Goldberg
Writing Down the Bones is a helpful jumping off point, especially for beginning writers. It’s packed full of free-writing exercises that help get that pen (or cursor) moving and help transition into a writers’ state. I still use it when it’s time to write but I don’t have a specific project I’m working on.
Buy this book!



Writing ExcusesWriting Excuses (Podcast)
Writing Excuses is a podcast by Brandon Sanderson, Howard Tayler, Dan Wells, and Mary Kowal. Occasionally there is a guest author along with, or instead of one of the four. They cover absolutely everything and their slogan is “only 15 minutes long ‘cuz you’re in a hurry, and we’re not that smart.” It’s light and fun, but packed full of helpful ideas from multiple perspectives. Howard is a graphic novelist, Sanderson likes to write LONG epic fantasy, Mary tends toward realistic fiction on a shorter scale, and Wells writes in a variety of genres. They cover things they’ve done well, things that work, things that haven’t worked, and besides being a lot of fun, it’s incredibly helpful. Each podcast centers around an idea, such as “time,” and how to use that to your advantage in a story. They recommend a book that well demonstrates the idea at hand, then there is the jovial discussion of the book and topic. They end with an actual writing assignment. Now you’re all out of excuses, so go write! Sanderson actually teaches creative writing at BYU and one year decided to model their discussions after his typical class schedule, so if you start on Episode 10.1, it’s like taking a college level writing class for free. Melissa loves recommending this podcast.

Listen to this podcast!


Writing books aren’t for everyone. Catherine has a different approach:
I wish I could give you a great and comprehensive list of titles that I learned from, but nothing comes to mind. I’ve actually been thinking about this a lot. I mostly learned from a great compilation of classics, and nothing in particular about the writing craft itself. I had what I would term a stellar education in the reading of the classics, from the Greeks to the Medieval to the Renaissance to a tour of the Puritans and early American writers. This was all in high school. I studied poetry, from the Fireside poets to Victorians that instilled and firmed up my love of the written word. That in and of itself does not a good writer make, unfortunately. For the heart of writing, no one person inspired me, but my favorite poets are Poe (lamentably still an old emo favorite) and Tennyson. They didn’t have any personal direction to steer me into the field, but their poetry was enough to inspire forever and make me want to repair the cracks in other peoples’ foundations. Can’t ever get enough of it!

What are your favorite books on writing?

Note: We aren’t Amazon affiliates, we just love these books! We get nothing if you purchase.

Organizing Your Creative Chaos by Melissa Heiselt

Authors tend to be creative people, and creativity tends to be messy. Everyone has different ways of bringing order to that chaos, and finding the way that suits you is an endeavor well worth the effort. In “The Wand and the Word,” Leonard Marcus interviews various fantasy authors revealing their path to success, and their methods. The most fascinating thing about these interviews is how incredibly varied their responses are. There is no hard and fast rule about how to successfully organize information, but there are a few main categories that encompass different personalities and styles of organization.

Highly Structured

Brandon Sanderson has mentioned in his podcast, Writing Excuses, that he organizes everything from characters and their motivations and network of connections to world-building details in spreadsheets. He finds it a useful way to track and cross-reference those crucial story points. I am a very visual person, and that is so not for me. I can say this with confidence because I tried it, and it was miserable. For me it took so much effort to think about how to arrange things in an unfamiliar terrain, and I didn’t have enough room to see what was in each box. For people who love organizing things so they are neat and tidy and put away, it may be right up your alley. If you are more familiar with spreadsheets, I am sure there are many ways to layer and search information efficiently in that format. If you like to see the big picture, or flip from one idea to the next quickly, it might not be the best fit.

Visually Organized

Graphic novelists, designers and cartoonists (for obvious reasons) tend to gravitate toward storyboarding, where the story is told on a large horizontal space with images and text together showing what the story is to evolve into. Some authors use sticky notes to create a timeline for their work, which can easily be moved around and experimented with before the actual writing begins. Mind mapping is a highly visual way of showing connection, cause and effect, and the underlying moving forces in a piece. It is one way I have enjoyed organizing information for a smaller project, such as an article. It can also be a useful way of showing character connections and motivations, or even a useful way of revealing those less-obvious connections in a non-fiction piece. Many times I’ve had a revelation as I surround the nucleus of an idea with its many outgrowths and discover truths I hadn’t seen before. XMind is an excellent digital way to record an extensive mind-map.


Notebooks are a huge part of cultivating a healthy writing habit. Writing every day is essential! It’s also a place to capture the genius that visits in the night, or the moment that would otherwise be lost. The problem is: how the heck do you find anything useful in there? It’s as good as lost if you never revisit those words. Enter the card file idea. This was a method suggested to me for organizing research papers back in the day, but never have I found it more useful than when I have the seeds of several good stories, but need time to flesh out the details and characters more fully. On my countertop I keep an old school card file box. I know. So retro. But it’s in the center of my home where I work, and right at my fingertips so I can jot down snippets while passing by. I have color coded notecards for each of the stories I have in progress at the moment, with headers on each card noting what the card relates to; anything from character name lists, plot twists, or map sketches. They are then chronologically ordered in relevance to the story. You could do the same thing in Evernote as Josh recommended a couple of posts ago, which would make it available across platforms, making your ideas that much more accessible and searchable, which is hugely helpful as a project grows.

Don’t be afraid to try out something new on your next project… but also trust yourself. Just because Jack Kerouac typed it all out on a typewriter, or Brian Jaques hand wrote his work nearly flawlessly in beautiful flowing script doesn’t mean you need to follow suit. Same goes for these organization ideas. Do what works for you, and keep writing!

Five Writing Rules You Should Break by Amanda Wayne

There are hard and fast rules of the writing industry. A story must… a poem must.. We are fortunate enough to live in a time when many of those rules can and perhaps even must be broken. Sure, you still have to follow basic grammar and spelling structures. An “i” must always precede an “e” (except for those twenty or so times when it doesn’t). A story must have a beginning, middle, and end. It must have characters. It must have a plot. Flash fiction defies most of these. A single fragment of a sentence about unworn baby shoes can convey an entire story. Poems once needed to rhyme in order to be considered poetry. Should you break the rules? It is a calculated risk. Breaking the rules merely for the sake of breaking them achieves little. Breaking the rules in order to showcase facets of your story is far more rewarding. Language isn’t permanent. It changes and bends. So which rules should be broken?

Ending a Sentence in a Preposition, are you going to?

I’m from the Midwest. We drop prepositions at the end of virtually every sentence. They are often entirely superfluous. Otherwise, they require a sentence structure that is entirely too formal. It isn’t that we don’t know this rule, its just a regional vernacular pattern. We also say, “Do what?” which means “Huh?” and drop our g’s like we’re sellin’ em.

“Where are you going to?” (Where are you going?)

“What did you talk about?” (About which topics did you converse?)

and my favorite, “Whadjuh do that for?” (Why did you do that? or For what reason did you do that?)

Now, I’m not advocating that your prose be full of sentences that end in prepositions. That would be tiresome. Instead, embrace your character’s vernacular. If your protagonist isn’t an old school grammarian, they probably don’t speak like one. If your prose does occasionally end in a preposition and the alternative is too weighty or formal, just run with it. Your personal writing style can be looser than your professors taught you.

And Beginning a sentence with a Conjunction or Additive

Thou shalt not begin a sentence with “because”. Why? “Because I said so.” It isn’t often appropriate to begin a sentence with an additive or conjunction. The definition of these terms almost precludes you from doing so. An additive is also known as a copulative conjunction, which sounds sexier than it is! The function of a conjunction is to add together words and clauses and phrases. This usage seems to insist that something came before it. It can be a powerful stylistic move to break this rule. Using it yanks your reader’s attention. It is unusual. It stands out. Use it sparingly and wisely. It is especially effective in a climactic moment. Breaking this rule feels delicious. It’s a flagrant word foul and my seventh grade English teacher would be appalled. It isn’t wrong, just frowned upon.

The will they/won’t they couple finally gets together? “And then she kissed him.” The use of the copulative conjunction here connects it not directly to the sentence before it, but to everything that came before it. All of the tension and angst builds to this powerful little additive.  “Or she would have if not for…” The oppositional conjunction here set us up against what came before it. Its use can pull a reader out of a character’s fantasy or daydream and back into the real action. Other good additives to begin with are “moreover” and “plus.” These are easier to pop into dialogue than into your prose.

Use Small Words (not Infinitesimal Language Constructions)

Don’t say saffron if you mean yellow. Don’t say ambulatory if you mean walking. This rule can easily be broken. Be wary of breaking it too much. I like some descriptive language as much as the next person, but overly poetic sentences that run on are pretty much guaranteed to annoy the reader. A man doesn’t always walk, sometimes he struts, slinks, or creeps. A woman sometimes puts on lavender eyeshadow with teal eyeliner. Use those bigger, more descriptive words to draw attention to where you want your reader to focus. A cream colored horse in a herd of white ones draws a picture in the reader’s mind. If every horse is described in great detail, nothing sticks out. Try to keep the landscape in your mind. What features do you most want to highlight? Place your descriptors there and leave the rest in plainer language. Finding that exact word that precisely captures what you were looking for can be exhilarating. So, if your character is obsequious and that’s exactly right, let them be. Just make sure they aren’t an obsequious boniface enjoying vespertine recumbence. No one likes garrulous loquacity.

Middle, End, Beginning

A story has a beginning, middle, and an end. True. Does it also follow that you must read them in that order? Some of my favorite books have teased the end first and made me work to find out how we get there. Sometimes the prologue is the last page of the book. I read a popular very long series where the last sentence was the same as the first. It was intensely disappointing and satisfying at the same time. I know a woman who always reads the last few pages before she begins a book. It saves her getting immersed in a story that won’t pan out. Flashbacks are also a great way to jump around in the timeline of a story and reveal bits and pieces that become important later. The beginning of the story doesn’t always begin on the first page. Often, the beginning of the story happened before the novel even begins and the reader has to catch up to where you are in the action. There are lots of constructions to make this really work for you. Remember, though, that just because they aren’t in order doesn’t mean you don’t need all the pieces.

Show, Don’t Tell

Of all the rules, this one is the big one. Don’t say that the man is compulsive, show it in his actions. Don’t say that it was an important day, make it obvious. That’s all well and good, but sometimes it is necessary to just tell your reader something and move on. I’m not advocating the detested “info dump.” However, it can be better to add a line or two that answers some questions than to write a whole page showing it. Not every small fact about your fantasy world must be fleshed out in agonizing detail. There is a fine line between showing and swimming in verbosity. Again, this is a violation of the rules that you want to do judiciously.

Most rules of language can be broken if you break them wisely and with purpose. To break a rule just for the sake of breaking it may be satisfying to you as an author, but if you alienate your reader it achieves little. Overusing adverbs is as bad as using none. Writing a cliché metaphor is bad, but creating a new metaphor that makes no sense is worse. For every writing rule, there is an author who broke it well and beautifully. You can be that author so long as you approach it with caution and determination.




Mind Gremlins: Should I Pursue This Idea? by Josh Smith

If you’re anything like me, you have a stockpile of story concepts that multiplies like wet Mogwai. If you’re even more like me, most of these ideas are half-baked at best, and just like our little Mogwai buddies, should probably never be exposed to the light of day. Determining which of these critters is worth taking the time to develop into a full-length work can require some careful consideration, but where does one begin?

Get organized!
For years, I carried a pen and small notepad everywhere I went and would scratch things down as they hit me, but I’ve since switched to archiving these flashes on my smartphone. In the notepad days, I would typically wait until it was full to sift through it and weed out all the obviously bad ideas, but now I just scroll through my notes any time I’m ready to start a new project and see if anything clicks with how I’m feeling. There are several note taking apps out there and they all do basically the same thing, but I highly recommend Evernote. It’s free, has a relatively low learning curve, lots of organizational capabilities, and it syncs across devices and platforms, which means if you write something on your phone, you can pull it up on your computer or tablet almost instantly, regardless of whether it’s Mac, PC, Android, or other. I use it for everything. I’m composing this draft in Evernote right now so I can pick it back up during my lunch break! Whichever method you choose to collect your grand schemes, just make sure to clear out the clutter regularly, or you’ll have a mess of slimy Gremlin cocoons and nowhere to release them when they hatch. Why yes, I am running with this absurd metaphor.

Are any of these good?
Sifting through an avalanche of story ideas can be a tedious task, and you may very well hit a pile of ideas so dumb you stop dead in your tracks. Just remember that not everything works, delete the ones that make you cringe and keep going. Usually you’ll know right away if you want to pursue an idea, but sometimes it helps to set it aside for a couple days and see if it still holds its appeal. If you’re still on the fence after a little time, take it back to the curio shop and get back to inventing.

Is it enough to work with?
Sometimes the potential of an idea doesn’t become clear until another element snaps into place. If you have the skeleton of an exciting plot but no character or settings in mind, flag it and continue through your idea mine looking for something to compliment it. Like a furry little Rambo in a Barbie car, wildly different elements can unite with a spark that gives your piece a unique tone and give your voice a platform all your own. If this method doesn’t yield the results you’re looking for, you can always take the basic concept and use it to guide character sketches, or even write a couple rough scenes. If those results don’t stir enough excitement to get you working, it’s time to try a different approach.

Google it!
Seriously. Sometimes a title or a situation comes so clearly into focus that we can’t wait to get it on paper, but it’s always smart to do some quick research to make sure someone didn’t beat you to it. I’m not even talking about plagiarism here—there are just so many writers and creators, so many platforms for people to create with little to no editorial input, that you never really know what’s out there unless you search for it. Parallel thinking is an interesting concept, but it doesn’t do you any good as a writer, so avoid being panned as a ripoff artist by doing a little digging before you pour your soul into a story about cute, fuzzy creatures who morph into monsters if they eat after midnight.

What is it?
The best way to approach work on an idea is to understand your ultimate goals for it as a completed piece. These goals will likely evolve over the course of the writing process, but you should know going in what points you’re trying to make, and what you hope your readers will take away from it. It’s also good to know if you’ve got the makings of a flash fiction, epic poem, novel, novel series, or something else entirely. When I first started writing a novel, it began as a poem because poetry was all I had written up to that point, and I simply didn’t have the experience to realize that the concept was much larger than the couple pages of free verse I had scrawled out. I kept returning to it, and eventually the verse became prose, the prose became a short story, the short story became a chapter, and the chapter became one of several in what became a (relatively short) novel. Had I realized from the start what these words were trying to form, I could have approached the entire project with a clearer perspective, and likely produced a finished product much sooner than the several years it took me to compose a readable draft. Not every concept is birthed with a clear intention, so when you find one that speaks to you, keep listening until you know what to do with it. At the end of the day, you will guide your adorable conceptual Mogwai through its transformation into a wild-eyed, mischievous story Gremlin, but it’s up to you whether it becomes a Stripe or a Vegetable Gremlin.


Seriously, whose idea was the Vegetable Gremlin?

Let it Rest. by Melissa Heiselt

Writing is easy. As the distinguished columnist Red Smith once said, “You simply sit down at the typewriter, open your veins, and bleed.” It’s the editing that’s murder.

Like any great bread, cheese, or wine, time is the secret ingredient to making your writing the best it can be. Let’s say you’ve just finished your masterpiece; a complicated story, biography, or self-help manuscript that you just know is going to enlighten and entertain. Maybe you feverishly earned that NaNoWriMo Badge proving to the world that you can write a novel in just one month. We all know editing comes next, and so many writers want to dive right in and tackle it! Believe it or not, the most valuable thing you can do here is: leave it alone.

In my experience, the length of time for a good rest is dependent on the length of the material. A blog post or article may need just 24 hours. Something that has soaked up your life and soul and absorbed your every thought for months, and especially years could benefit from even more time. Giving it time does not mean abandoning the work altogether. It’s thoughtful time away from the manuscript, enabling you to disengage that part of your brain that created those words, and engage the part of your brain that’s wired for refining those words.

My first NaNoWriMo piece was a disaster. DISASTER, I tell you. I dove right in once the frenzied writing was over. After a month of trying to force that monstrosity into shape, I finally decided it was an interesting writing exercise, but for me was ultimately just not going to result in any kind of complete, publishable work. I had completely forgotten about it until clearing out my computer and stumbling across it years later. Just for laughs, I decided to read over this disasterpiece. And you know what? It wasn’t that bad. I was too close to it at the time to have perspective enough to know how to handle the awkward transitions and pacing that resulted from my feverish endeavor. There were sections that truly were all but unintelligible. But with time between us, we were able to make amends.

This experience opened my eyes to the importance of respecting the time and space required for good writing. When I’ve typed that last period I know it’s time to put it away, take a walk, and enjoy the life of the living for awhile. Now  even as an editor, I’ve learned that when things start to feel muddy, and frustration creeps in, walk away. Give it some space to expand and develop in your subconscious before you return to the work and give it its best chance at published life. You’ll be glad you did.

On Being Wrong or Admit it, You Fucked Up by Josh Smith

Remember that time you wrote a perfect manuscript, proofread it, fixed a couple minor grammatical errors, then fired it off to your favorite publishing house and woke up a month later to find it on the Best Seller’s list? Yeah, me either.

Let’s be honest, if writing was such a magically painless act, there would be no editors and you wouldn’t be here right now. Writers of all levels are well aware that no first draft materializes fully-formed and ready for mass consumption, but what is truly difficult is not only recognizing areas in which you have failed to achieve what you envisioned, but accepting that failure. Not accepting it in the “well, this sucks, but I need it for the mechanics of this story to work, so I guess it stays” sense, but accepting that you have failed in order to understand why you failed, which in turn will lead you to the rectification of said failure.

While a great many issues can be dealt with during regular revisions, it is common to be so focused on a specific idea or approach that you overlook faults that negatively impact other areas of the work. Given the nature of these more insidious flaws, they usually require an external perspective, such as a beta reader, editor, or critique group to bring them to light. However, having someone else question your failings within these foundational elements can be challenging when you’ve already built an entire story or novel atop them. As I recommended in a previous post, take time to consider these suggestions before dismissing them outright. You aren’t beholden to the specific requests of any editor or reader, but their acknowledgement of the problem will help you internalize that it exists, and your wild writer brain will begin to redraw the map that will lead you to the optimal solution.

In high-concept pieces, each poor decision can construct a step in a Rube Goldberg machine triggered to derail your story. The first tripwire is the most important to root out, and once you see it, its entire architecture will become clear. Yes, you will have your work cut out for you. Yes, you may want to call for backup to help determine the success of your restorative efforts, but if you want to tell your story on your terms, I suspect you want to do it as effectively as possible. There is a delicate balance in non-traditional works that are more driven by tonal or visceral choices than plot, so be on the lookout for sections where style devours story.

Not all pieces require such in-depth scavenging, but that does not necessarily make them any easier to edit. All the best stories take us to previously unimaginable places and make us feel emotions we would never fathom otherwise, but these powerful elements can’t just be loaded up into the ol’ canon and blasted at our sensory receptors to achieve the desired effect. An intense or climactic scene might exist precisely as you envisioned, but if it doesn’t translate for your readers, it’s a wasted effort. Oftentimes, it isn’t even the writing of the scene itself, but the storytelling around it that leaves people grasping at your intent. Scenes featuring unrealistic or traumatic events are almost always divisive in early drafts, because they require the reader to conjure considerable imagination or empathy, and it is possible that you have not properly set the stage for such an undertaking. It can be particularly difficult to endure these criticisms if you are fictionalizing a lived experience, or are writing non-fiction, but no one said this would be easy. Again, recognizing that a problem exists, accepting that your approach is off, and working your way through will guide you to a more fulfilling story for you and your readers.

There is something to be said for a writer who will defend their vision to the death, but the mark of a true professional is identifying something that isn’t working, being open to changes, and dedicating themselves to improving the reading experience.

Advice From My Publisher: Being a Better Writer by Amanda Wayne

Being a writer is easy. You just sit down and write. Being a good writer is much harder. For a time, I worked at The Indiana Review, and I was always eavesdropping on the editors, trying to find that one little nugget of truth that made a “yes” piece. Was it something about the language? The characters? The plot? What was missing from my work that would take it from mediocre to good? So, I asked one of the editors, Tessa Yang, what she sought. She replied, “Freshness and risk will capture my attention. I’m looking for something that dares in the first few pages. It needs to have difficult and new language, character, or concept. At the same time, what keeps me reading to the end—and what ultimately convinces me to vote for a piece—is earnestness and vulnerability. I’ve become less and less interested in emotional withholding. If you’re brave enough to reach for honesty and feeling, no matter concerns about sentimentality or mawkishness, I’ll want to take the plunge with you.”

Freshness? Risk? I tried to square this idea with “write what you know.” It’s that adage that every author knows. What I knew was everyone else’s work. I had decades of reading other people’s words. Everything I wrote read like my favorite authors. When I finished Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, I wrote a short story about a man trying to find his son in a post-apocalyptic world. It wasn’t half bad, but there was nothing new in it. During my Stephen King phase, I wrote macabre pieces about the baser side of mankind. They were mediocre at best. My poems had bits of Frost and Dickinson, slapped together with a touch of Whitman and a dash of Poe. It was only later that I found a place where my work was my own. Somewhere along the way, I found a voice that was only mine. Sure, it echoes with reverberations of the millions of words I have read. It stands on the shoulders of the authors whose work I relished. That doesn’t make it less mine.  Writing what you know doesn’t have to be boring. It just starts emotionally, physically, or aesthetically in a place you are familiar.

The other half of the advice concerned emotional vulnerability. That process of letting your characters show your own emotion. This is even harder. Modern society doesn’t have much place for emotional vulnerability. We love it in our romantic comedies. We love that moment when the plucky but underappreciated woman convinces the emotionally absent male lead to open his heart to a chance at love. We like to see a hint of it in politicians because it makes them seem like real people. We wait for that moment when they swear, or slip up, or stumble. In everyday life, though, no one wants to see the innermost emotions of your local barista, the man walking his dog, or the neighbor you barely know. However, it is important to your character because without seeing their emotional vulnerability, the reader cannot grasp why they behave the way they do. A story needs this in order to engage the reader. Each piece of emotion lays bare a piece of the author’s soul. Not every character is like me or does what I would do, but each character is a part of me. To send those little pieces out into the world, to allow someone else to see them, is to put those vulnerable Horcruxes of my soul in danger of discovery and critique.  It was my own vulnerability that is needed, my own willingness to be open and available.

In short, what I learned was that the easiest way to get an answer is to ask the question. And being a better writer is hard. It takes writing more, reading more, and editing more. It requires that I be willing to part with pieces of my soul and be vulnerable. It is this last piece that I have struggled to overcome. I have the language, the vocabulary, even the imagination. Letting a stranger, let alone a multitude of them, into the private recesses of your being is what a writer does. Anything short of that isn’t worth my time or my reader’s time. Good writing begins with emotion and is propelled by prose and plot. Whether we like or dislike a character is immaterial; we must believe in their humanity in order to care what happens to them. A writer puts a piece of her own humanity into her characters, breathing life in where before there only existed form. Becoming a better writer is a lifelong journey, not a destination. At no point does the learning and editing stop. I can try every day to improve my craft and so, too, can you. It requires taking risks and creating emotional vulnerability. Both of those are tasks which even seasoned and published authors struggle to accomplish. By writing every day and actively seeking to better ourselves as artists, we become better each day.

Writing Past The Wall: A Guide to Beating Writer’s Block by Melissa Heiselt

It has begun. You are neck-deep into NaNoWriMo, or a writing project with a looming deadline, or your own creative baby. And it has come to an abrupt halt. Suddenly the ideas just won’t come. You aren’t sure what comes next or why you are even doing this anymore. Every. Word. Is. Wrong. Welcome to The Wall. Let’s discuss how to navigate around that sucker.

Embrace the Mess

I agree 100% with Malcolm Gladwell’s assessment that creative people have messy brains. It’s not just a matter of disorganization; many of us are actually painfully well organized. It’s just that we recognize that every experience can be useful, so we don’t throw anything out. Our minds are overly full, spilling over the boundaries of categorization. The problems arise when we try to pre-edit before that glorious mess comes out on paper. Embrace that mess. Learn the value of a good edit. Which comes later. Know that if it winds up even messier than you had planned, you can always hire a good editor to help you sort it out. Your job at the creative stage is just to see what might happen. What could happen. Scott Barry Kauffman, author of The Psychology of Creative Writing, claims the secret past the notorious writer’s block is in allowing for error, and realizing how non-linear writing can be.

Write Something Else

Prolific writer Graham Greene found that keeping a dream journal was his solution. It allowed him to be completely free of all compulsion to judge the work he was writing. It just was. He was merely the recorder. And everything could happen. Not much of a lucid dreamer? Try another writing exercise to get you going. Imitate another author’s work. Re-write your day the way you wish it had happened. Embrace your inner poet. Take another character’s point of view. Write their backstory, or the backstory of a totally minor side character, and have fun with it. It’s not going into the final product, so don’t worry about it being “right.” My favorite part of this strategy is that I can convince myself I am working on the project. Because it all matters. Even if those pages don’t wind up in the final piece, you as author knowing these details will enable them to emerge in meaningful ways throughout the text. Side trails do not make you less productive. They are an important part of the creative process!

Switch Gears

A routine helps ensure you are making room in your life for creativity and progress in your work. But it can also start to make you dread that 5:00 hour, or whenever you begin writing. Switch it up. Wake up early. Take your work outside. Read out loud. Write with pencil and paper for a bit. Beyond that, get up and MOVE. Literally get a fresh perspective. A Stanford study showed an 81 percent increase in divergent thinking in participants who went for walks. Science doesn’t lie, friends. I’ve also found it helps to go make something totally unrelated. Pottery. Cookies. Paper crafts. Bookshelves. Giving your brain a much-needed break to creatively solve other problems while allowing the story to marinate in your subconscious can create delicious results.

Allow for Distractions

Is there another project taking up brain-space just waiting for you? Tackle it. Do the laundry. Answer emails. Get some holiday shopping done. Get it out of the way so you can relax into the more creative work on your docket. Clear out those distractions. Setting a timer is a great tool for free-writing, but it’s also great for giving room to those nagging projects begging to be an interruption. Give yourself 20 minutes to tidy up the office, or make a phone call. Accomplishing something so visible and refreshingly complete feels fantastic when you’re in the middle of a beast.

Self Care

NaNoWriMo, huh? So… how much sleep have you been getting? Despite the urgency of the task, your brain is dependent on the rest of your body getting everything it needs for survival to function at its best. Make sure you are getting a reasonable amount of sleep. Take a nap, if you need it. Set a goal to drink at least 8 cups of water a day. Get some exercise. Running is known to release endorphins and help with memory and cognition. Run on a nature trail if you really want to break out of writer’s block jail. That combo of endorphins and stress relief found in the great out of doors is like dynamite to those walls hemming in your creativity. One 2012 study found that people who spend significant time in the wild increase their ability to solve creative puzzles by 47%. Finally, listen to your grandmother. Choose healthy foods. When you eat well, you feel well.

Hitting that wall can be a daunting experience, but with the right mindset, it can actually lead you down paths you would have otherwise left unexplored. Embrace the mess. Write, walk, and work your way around it. Take care of yourself, and carry on. You’ve got this.



30 Days in the Trenches: Staying Motivated During NaNoWriMo by Josh Smith

Now that we’re a few days into NaNoWriMo, you may be starting to question whether or not you can actually pull this off. You may not have even started yet if you plan on word-sprinting through the weekends, but that fear might already linger. Make no mistake, this is a massive undertaking, but it is far from impossible. The first step is preparation. At this point, you should have a game plan, but if you still need some pointers, Melissa has you covered right here: Making the Most of NaNoWriMo.

Once you have yourself sequestered in your sacred writer’s cave with a head full of characters and a clear direction you’ll lead them in, nothing can stop you, right? Well … you’re going to experience some fatigue. It may not be today, tomorrow, or even next week, but your brain is going through the wringer this month and you need to stay limber if you’re going to reach the finish line. Here are some insights from previous NaNo participants to keep the words flowing!

Set Goals, stay on schedule
The 50,000 word finish line can easily be broken down into manageable chunks, such as 2,000 per day or 12,500 per weekend. These regular goals can be tailored to your schedule, and when you keep track of your word counts at, you will earn badges that act not only as trail markers but confidence boosters as well! There will likely be times that you fall behind, but as long as you don’t stray too far from your target, you’ll be able to catch up without exhausting yourself.

Remember why you’re participating
Those word count gaps can strike terror into the heart of even the most seasoned NaNo vet, so when that fear creeps into your periphery, when your text isn’t living up to your expectations, or if you’re just flat out tired and unable to focus, remember why you signed on in the first place. Whether you feel like this is an important step in growing as a writer, or you’ve always wanted to complete a novel, or maybe you just want to prove to yourself that you can do it. As long as you honestly care about your motivation, it will be an effective fuel!

Don’t let you physical or mental health slip
There’s a good chance you’ll notice a boost in your caffeine intake and a decrease in your physical activity and non-workplace human interactions. The quality of your meals might deteriorate as you hijack every possible minute to reach your goals. These situations may be unavoidable for most, but try to strike a balance. Your health is very important to both creativity and productivity, so it’s worth sacrificing a little time to go outside and enjoy the brisk autumn air, play a game with friends or family, or get a little exercise. Sometimes these short breaks can even clear your mind of clutter and help you work through troublesome patches in the novel. However, hunkering down over the leftover Halloween candy and seeing how much sugar you can pack into your body in one sitting is not an ideal break. You’re going to need snacks, and while a little candy here and there can be a nice treat, you should stock up on trail mix, fruits, or even energy bars. I’m not saying you need to go to Whole Foods and go wild on chia seeds and dried kale (unless that’s what you like), but be mindful of your snacking and try to take it easy on the caffeine. If you need a break from coffee, try brewed cocoa or new flavors of tea and always have water nearby!

Remember: 50,000 raw words
Don’t stop to edit yourself or second guess a decision. If you start questioning what’s hitting the page, make a note and write through it. There will be plenty of time to edit later. When your writing begins to feel sluggish, go wild! Use these moments as opportunities to explore situations you wouldn’t typically consider. Use your instincts and let the characters guide you. If you need to catapult someone into the sun or reveal that someone’s been an agent of the antagonist the whole time to get the pace of the story back on track, so be it. You have plenty of time to edit once NaNo ends, so don’t let any second-guessing throw you off track. You are a warrior, this is your battle, so get in there and slay that word count!

Special thanks to NaNo vets Nancy Moran, Judy Hopkins, and our own Melissa Heiselt for all the excellent info that went into this post. Be sure to check out next week’s NaNo blog as Melissa squares off with THE WALL!