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.
We 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.”
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.
Julie 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 Cupcake; The 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!
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