July 15, 2013

Blog Break!

I'm sleep-writing this...really.
Hi everyone,

The end-of-the-summer panic has begun.

I'm so busy with work and getting ready for college to start back up that I'm gonna have to take a one- or two-week break on this blog. Hopefully I'll be 'back' sooner than later and can continue on with our series on writer's block! In the meantime, if there are any other topics you would like me to cover (from picking character names to punctuation to anything in between!) post a comment below and I'll add it to my schedule. :)

July 8, 2013

Kill Your Blank Pages: Experience

This week, we begin the second part of my series on writer’s block. Here I’ll be focusing on some creativity-killers that don’t stem from your story: instead, they are problems that come from an unhealthy writing life. Not all of these will apply to each of you, and some take longer than others to achieve, but please read through them as they are important to be able to identify and counter for the long-term health of your writing career! 

In 1851, Henry David Thoreau wrote in his journal, “How vain it is to sit down to write when you have not stood up to live.”

Honestly, I think there are few words that writers need to hear more. So often, our passion for writing consumes our lives, stifling our relationships, work life, school life, and everything else. We sit for hours each day at our computers or writing pads, the blinds pulled down and the phone line unplugged.

But this is silly of us. After all, our muse doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Even if we don’t realize it, our creativity is unleashed by drawing in our experiences and pouring them out in a new medium. If we don’t live life, how are we to write about life? If we don’t develop our own emotions and relationships, how are we to create believable ones on paper? How can we write about triumph if we never triumph, or about suffering if we never suffer?

This section of my ten-part series on writer’s block may be the most discouraging, because I’m going to urge many of you to stop writing for a while. Obviously, this advice will not apply to all of you. But don’t dismiss it off-hand: if you experience writer’s block on a constant basis, it’s all too likely that you really need to hear this.

Is Lack of Experience Stifling Your Muse?

If you’ve read through all of the first five sections on writer’s block and nothing seems to get rid of your writer’s block, it’s entirely possible that your creativity simply isn’t ready to be unleashed. Have you ever done anything so hard, you thought it would be impossible? Have you been through the blackest night and come out alive? Have you ever conquered your biggest fear? Have you faced crippling criticism or hatred? Have you ever been forced to completely re-evaluated your priorities or worldview? Have you been forced you give up your biggest dream?

Have you made friends with a freak, or been betrayed by your best friend? Have you been humiliated beyond what you thought possible? Have you lost something dear to you that you could never replace? Have you been pushed to work so hard you ached every night? Have you ever cried yourself to sleep? Have you ever been speechless at the hugeness and complexity and beauty of the world?

If you’ve never experienced any of this, then you are not ready to write.

How Do You Get More Experience?

Let me begin by talking to my fellow youths. As a young writer myself, I know what it’s like to be told “you just need to wait until you’re older.” It’s not advice I appreciated. But I accepted it. I never gave up writing—I wrote children’s stories, and essays, and poems, and even some plot outlines—but I never attempted to write a full-length novel until I was eighteen years (still young by many standards.)

In the meantime, I dedicated myself to growing up. I joined a speech and debate club so I could expose myself to a wide variety of worldviews, and to learn the big issues in this big world. I learned about the rise and fall of countries by studying history and current events. I joined 4-H so I could learn practical skills (from cooking to consumer decision making to sewing to wildlife studies). I learned the sciences and mastered many art skills. I studied writing craft and grammar and other authors’ novels as hard as I could. Most importantly, I forced myself to survive the hundreds of difficulties, sufferings, and setbacks that faced me constantly. In short, I matured.

My patience paid off. The January after I turned 18, I sat down to write my first-ever full-length novel, and to my complete shock and amazement, I completed it in less than four months. Not only that, but my writing was infinitely better than I ever would have expected of myself. To all the young writers out there: please don’t feel like you have to give up writing while you are young—on the contrary, hone your skills! But in the meanwhile, challenge yourself to mature and grow up. If you want your writing to be mature and meaningful, make your life mature and meaningful.

Now. Despite all this special counsel to young writers, they aren’t the only ones who might be facing experience-based troubles. Anyone can be unprepared to write. So here is some advice for those of you who feel like they might just need to do more…


As any truly wise person will tell you, sometimes you need to simply do hard things. No matter what your goals are in life, whether they have to do with writing or not, to be a complete human being you need to develop all sides of you—mind, body, and spirit.

Develop your mind by studying a broad range of material. You’d be surprised at all the ways seemingly random fields of study can enhance not just your writing, but all areas of your life. Study politics and social studies, history, science, mathematics and literature. Learn about other cultures. Follow news and current events. Analyze events, both tragic and triumphant-- what mindsets/actions caused them to occur? Let your knowledge base grow deep like tree roots and broad like tree branches, and when you sit down to write, you will have an unlimited sea of ideas for your muse to draw from.

You also need to challenge your body. Use your muscles—make them strain and hurt and ache with exertion! Run a marathon for an important cause, canoe across your local lake, climb a mountain, hike a forest. Eat strange foods. Learn new physical and practical skills. For your writing to come alive, you need to experience physical sensations and be able to write about them.

Finally, have a healthy emotional life. Understand people and how they tick, and how to handle different personalities. Be kind to people you don’t like. Be compassionate—go out of your way to help someone every day! Forgive the ones you hate. Forgive yourself when you fail, and always, always, always try again no matter how many times you don’t reach your goal. At the same time, make sure your priorities in life are properly aligned. Discover whether God exists! Fight for an important cause, save a life, save a soul.

Your novel is an extension of your soul. It’s a re-translation of your experience. If you don’t breathe deeply of this life, your story will never breathe life. Remember Thoreau’s words! Challenge yourself to do hard things, and writing will become easy.

This is the hardest, longest step to defeating writer’s block, but it’s also how you overcome the most tenacious form of writer’s block. Hang on tight until next week with part seven of KILL YOUR BLANK PAGES: A TEN-PART SERIES ON WRITER’S BLOCK.

July 1, 2013

Kill Your Blank Pages: Research

No wonder Tolkien took 14 years to write
his book...there was no internet!
During high school, I was forced to write dozens and dozens of speeches and essays for various academic and scholarship competitions. The beginning of the writing process was always miserable for me, because I had no idea where to start.

I quickly learned that my apparent inability to write didn't stem from any problem with my brain or my creativity. Quite simply, I didn't know where to start because I didn't know what to fill the middle with. Until I thoroughly researched the topic I was writing on, I wouldn't be able to find the motivation I needed. Passion, I learned, stems from knowledge and understanding.

The same concept applies to story writing as well! While knowing your plot and characters and setting goes a long way towards freeing your creativity, there are still a lot of holes left to fill unless you do enough research. How can you convincingly write that combat scene if you know nothing about martial arts or weapons? How can you describe your character's struggles with a legal system if you know nothing about the legal system?

Clearly, unless you know what you are writing, it can be really hard to write. Thus, today we will be talking about how to identify problems related to lack of research and how to effectively solve them.

Is Lack of Research Slowing You Down?

A lot of writers don't even realize it when lack of research is the hang-up, because the only way to really describe the feeling is as “stuck”. If you answer “yes” to any of the following, however, you might need to do some more research:

Are you unable to find a good solution to a problem your characters are trying to solve? Are you having trouble thinking up a plotline for a character who is a professional? Is it difficult to imagine or describe a setting, location, or country? Do you know your character’s culture and its expectations?

How Do You to Research Properly?

Learn how to use spreadsheets, and compile lists and maps of details about your characters: their school schedules, birthdays, maps of important locations and rooms, places they were born in or have traveled to, and even lists of their relatives and friends, and their professions.

These details not only serve to keep your story consistent, but whenever your reach a roadblock in your mind, you can refer to these lists for inspiration. “Oh, this guy’s dad was a fisherman? He probably knows a lot about saltwater ecology… maybe I could have a plot device where all the fish are dying randomly and he helps the MC figure out why…” A stupid example, but you get my point. ;)

Story details aren’t the only research you need to do, however. A common writing admonition is to write what you know. I think the best advice comes when you reverse the saying: know what you write! If you have a farm in your story, know which crops grow in which climates and conditions! If your characters take a boat out on the water, use a boat that makes sense for what they’re doing.

Take advantage of the internet and social media as you research. Your friends and relations may know a surprising amount of information, and can answer your questions if you call them up or post a question on facebook or twitter. Wikipedia (while obviously not 100% accurate) can get you started on your search, and there are thousands of forums out there if you want to find a good answer to technical, scientific, or really any kind of information. This should help keep your story realistic, and unplug your creativity all that’s left becomes explaining what you know.

As one example, my own novel was stuck because I needed my character to be able to make a quick getaway over the water without his enemies catching up—a problem hard to solve, since his enemies enjoyed a better understanding and availability of transportation than my MC. Then I realized that the only water to travel for both of them would be by motorboat. So, the best idea would be for my MC to disable all the motorboats at the dock excepting his own. I researched motorboats on a help forum, and learned that the simplest way to disable the motorboats (using my MC’s unique ability to move water) would be to let water into the engines. Voila! I wouldn’t have figured that out without researching common motorboat problems.

Know Your World
While your story may be focused on a small, localized problem or scenario, you should think big about your story.

If you’ve ever been out of the country, you will definitely have noticed how different foreign cultures are from each other. Countries value different attributes—Italians enjoy family and friendship, while Germans appreciate hard work and honesty. I’ve been all over the United States, and learned that no two states or towns are the same: Dallas, Texas is different from St. Paul, Minnesota is different from San Diego, California is different from Pittsburg, Pennsylvania is different from St. Augustine, Florida. Even NYC and Washington D.C. have extremely different atmospheres.

These differences come from many factors: the prominent industries in that region, the landscape and resources, the history, the population, the religion and values, the education level, the wealth of the people, and how connected the location is to outside business and trade. Whether your story’s town/country/world is real or imaginary, you need to how these factors influence and affect the location in question.

Sometimes the easiest thing to do is find a community or country that resembles the one in your story, and learn as much about it as possible. While obviously you don’t want to mimic it exactly, learning why a culture is the way it is will contribute some valuable information and possibilities for your own story world.

As a writer, your job is to transport your reader into another world. So make sure you truly know the world you are writing! By researching it and understanding it as fully as possible, you do all the left-side-brain work that allows your creative right side to flow freely over the page.

Next week we begin the second half of this series. Rather than discussing story elements that might be slowing your writing down, we’ll discuss some lifestyle changes that you may need to make if you’re having serious, long-term writer’s block. Figure out if any of the five causes of writer’s block already discussed are at the root of your problem, and if they’re not, get ready for part six of KILL YOUR BLANK PAGES: A TEN-PART SERIES ON WRITER’S BLOCK. Cheers!

More Links:
Questions you can ask to make sure you know your world, real or fictional: