Julie Sternberg: Let’s Talk This Through and GIVEAWAY

I spend a lot of time trying to trick myself into believing that writing is easy—that if I would just sit down and open my laptop, words would fly across the page. It helps to say to myself, All you have to do is tell a story. That’s it. Just take a seat and tell a story.

JSternberg_Freindship_CoverWe know how to tell stories. We’ve told them since we were kids, in countless conversations with friends and more-than-friends and sisters and brothers and parents and teachers and neighbors. “You are never going to believe this,” we’ve said, and then we’re off. We’ve listened to plenty of stories, too, and we know good ones from bad.

Because conversation feels so much easier than writing, I use it in various ways as I figure out what should happen in my story. (That’s how I like to think about plot: just, what happens in my story. That’s it. Nothing to be afraid of here.) I can’t move forward without my primary characters and at lease one pivotal problem, so I come up with those first. Then I try this technique, suggested by my friend and mentor Amy Hest: I sit somewhere quiet and pretend that my main character and her best friend are nearby. My main character is chattering away, telling her friend everything that’s happened (either in a particular scene or over the course of the whole book). Sometimes I think, That can’t be possibly be true, and my main character backtracks a little and tweaks what she’s said, then continues. Eventually, I start taking notes.


I talk to real, live people, too, and probably not often enough. It’s surprisingly easy to get caught up in the solitude of writing and forget how useful it can be to brainstorm plot ideas with others. In my writing group we usually submit draft pages, but sometimes I’ll ask if we can discuss what should be happening in my story instead. Those sessions can feel life-saving.

Finally, each and every time I struggle with a particular moment in the story (this happens embarrassingly often), I open a new document and start a written conversation with myself. These conversations go something like this (except they’re a lot harder to read than what I’m about to type, because I’m not allowed to pause or edit, and I often skip the punctuation):

Okay, what’s the problem? Why isn’t this working?

I think maybe Sadie’s too angry given the circumstances. It doesn’t feel real. 

So she has to dial it back, right?

Or maybe something worse needs to have happened. Like, let’s say, x instead of y. If x had happened, it’d make perfect sense for her to say what she did. Or she could even say ‘Z’ instead. Yeah, Z is better.”

JSternberg_IllustrationOnce I reach the “Yeah, Z is better” point, then I can close out of my just-talking-to-myself document, make the change in the manuscript, and revise my sense of what’s going to happen next.

In essence, I often use a “there’s no such thing as talker’s block” approach to avoiding writer’s block—including when it comes to plot. I suggest these three conversation-based techniques:

  • Eavesdrop on your main character as (s)he tells his/her best friend what’s happened. If it feels too strange to imagine them sitting in the room with you, then have your main character write the story out in a letter to the best friend. (Letters are a great way for drawing out a character’s voice. I highly recommend having your character write a letter or two.)
  • Don’t forget to brainstorm your plot ideas with your writer friends, and keep brainstorming as you continue to write.
  • Whenever a particular moment, or the plot as a whole, isn’t working, open a new document and have a conversation with yourself about why that might be. It’s surprisingly helpful.

Good luck!
Julie_Sternberg 115_2Julie Sternberg is the author of the best-selling Like Pickle Juice on a Cookie; its sequels Like Bug Juice on a Burger and Like Carrot Juice on a CupcakeThe Top-Secret Diary of Celie Valentine series; and the picture book Bedtime at Bessie and Lil’s. She is also the creator of Play, Memory, a podcast about stories from childhood. Formerly a public interest lawyer, she is a graduate of the New School’s MFA program in Creative Writing, with a concentration in writing for children. She lives with her family in Brooklyn, New York. You can learn more about Julie at juliesternberg.com.

Julie is giving away a signed copy of LIKE PICKLE JUICE ON A COOKIE. If you are a registered Summer School student and would like a chance to win, please leave a comment on this post to be entered into the drawing. Good luck!

If you are registered for Kidlit Summer School, you can download a worksheet of Julie’s writing exercise at our Exercise Book. This is a password-protected area — only members allowed! Please check your email for the password.



132 comments on “Julie Sternberg: Let’s Talk This Through and GIVEAWAY

  1. Melanie Ellsworth says:

    Julie, I often find writing conversations easier than having them, so I don’t know if your method will work for me, but I will give it a go! I used the letter-writing technique recently to hear what my character was thinking as she wrote to her best friend – definitely helpful for bringing out her voice and her fears and wants.


  2. JEN Garrett says:

    Brainstorm ideas from friends is exactly what my picture book needed to go from OK to nearly polished. 🙂


  3. writeknit says:

    Great tips on plotting. Even though my hubby would love it, I have never hat talker’s block either 🙂


  4. Christine says:

    I have “talker’s block” a lot more often than I have writer’s block, but I love the term! Thanks for an interesting post.


  5. Anne Lipton says:

    Thanks for the juicy talking points, Julie. I have a similar approach, but I find it best to get away from my computer and do something else. I find exercising often leads to my best and boldest breakthroughs. But sleep is good, too.

    Sometimes you gotta talk through it. Sometimes you gotta walk through it. And sometimes you gotta sleep on it.


  6. katmaz2012 says:

    You have great sense of humor! Thank you.


  7. Sue Fritz says:

    I love your suggestions, especially the one where you eavesdrop on your main character. What a great writing tool!!


  8. Trine says:

    I love this idea of eavesdropping on my characters and also of having them write a letter. I am starting right now!


  9. kdveiten says:

    Love these ideas. For whatever reason, they seem less intimidating that some other methods that I’ve read about or tried. Thanks! I look forward to giving them a whirl!


  10. mwebb32 says:

    I love your post! And I really like the idea of “eavesdropping”. I want to try that!


  11. donnacangelosi says:

    Such fun ideas! Thank you Julie!


  12. Thanks for sharing your great ideas!


  13. I think I need to listen in on my character and her best friend! Thanks for the awesome post.


  14. Janet Smart says:

    You have some great ideas. I think I’ll give them a try. Your books look like they would be really fun to read – thanks for the give a way.


  15. Cindy Fullmer says:

    I’ve always been the kind of writer who doesn’t believe in writer’s block. Because my solution is like yours-write about it. I’ll type things like “I have writer’s block. Why can’t I think of what to write next. Maybe I should just…” And so on till the text starts flowing again.


  16. Michele says:

    Thank you so much for this lovely piece. I hear you saying, just relax. Big sigh of relief. It really does help to have a conversation with yourself, and I love the idea of characters writing a letter. I often forget that, yet it is one of my favorite tools!


  17. LauraHB says:

    Wow—- “There’s no such thing as talker’s block”— this is a gem. Thank you so very much. I’m constantly trying to figure out ways to “trick ” myself into writing when I’m blocked. This is a wonderful approach! THANK YOU!!


  18. Priya says:

    You want us to eavesdrop on our characters? Great, I can do that. 🙂


  19. susanzonca says:

    I wonder with every post, what else can there possibly be that might help me with plot. We have learned SO much. These tips, dear Julie, are magnificent and suit me very well. Off to my story!


  20. Margaret Greanias says:

    Great idea. I’ve been having these conversations in my head, but I think talking them out will probably work better. Thanks.


  21. pathaap says:

    Great ideas, here!


  22. ptnozell says:

    I like your suggestions of engaging with your characters, having a conversation, eavesdropping on their conversation, or even writing a letter. Definitely plan to give it a go! Thanks, Julie!


  23. I love the advice of “listening in” on your character’s conversation! I’m going to try this. Thank you!


  24. Michelle Leonard says:

    Great advice,Julie. Love this post so much!!!


  25. mona861 says:

    I love this! I can talk to myself pretty easily, but haven’t tried writing the talk to myself! Thank you.


  26. Deirdre Englehart says:

    This is a great idea, I will try it out! Thank you!


  27. Wow! Have never thought about typing out the what’s wrong conversation. Great advice!


  28. Dee Knabb says:

    Talking – something we all can do. Great tip. Thank you.


  29. julicaveny says:

    Thanks goodness for families that listen/discuss and good critique groups! Without them, I’d never make it past the hard parts of writing! (Thanks for the post, Julie!)


  30. dctutormentor says:

    Love talking!!! Wake up talking – to my characters 😉 Feel like I’ve just talked to YOU! Thanks! xo


  31. Lauri Meyers says:

    Love this idea of eavesdropping on the characters telling eachother the crazy things that happened in yesterday’s plot:)


  32. angelcat2014 says:

    Thanks for giving me a reason to talk to myself without looking TOO crazy! ;P Love this post. Thanks. :


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