Confessions of a Pantser

Guest post by Holly Kelly.

Holly Kelly is a mom who writes books in her spare time: translation–she hides in the bathroom with her laptop and locks the door while the kids destroy the house and smear peanut butter on the walls. She signed with Clean Teen Publishing in 2013. Her first published book, Rising, quickly hit the best-seller lists and has maintained its status on those lists since its release in September 2013. The subsequent books in the series also became best-sellers at their releases, including the fourth and final book in the series—which was released on April 6, 2016.

Her latest series—The Unnatural States of America—will be launching its first book called Cursed by the Fountain of Youth and will release in the fall of 2016!


You can find Holly at

If you think I’m talking about pulling someone’s pants down, you obviously need to read more how-to books on writing.  Or perhaps you know me a bit too well. (I’m kidding!)

No, seriously. The term “pantsing” refers to a writer who does not outline but instead writes by the seat of his or her pants. Well, that’s me. And after beating myself up and trying to fit my round shape into a square hole (no pun intended), I’ve come to accept my pantser status and even appreciate it.

Let me start out by giving you a few pros and cons to pantsing versus outlining. I’ll start with the Outliners.

  1. Their books are well organized.
  2. They have a clear sense of where their story is going.
  3. They easily recognize where they need to foreshadow.
  4. They spend less time editing.
  5. There’s less chance they’ll put their characters into a no-win situation.
  6. They know beforehand what they need to research.
  7. They have a lower chance of getting writer’s block.
  8. They are more likely to have perfectly balanced action/character building scenes.
  9. Generally, they are able to complete books faster than pantsers.

Now that I’ve basically convinced you that outlining is the way to go, I’m going to give you the benefits of pantsing.

You don’t have to follow an outline.

Okay, that may be a tad over-simplified. But seriously, I can’t for the life of me follow an outline. I’ve been a pantser from day one and I’ll likely be one until day number one million. (I plan to keep writing for a long time.) I did try my hand at outlining once. And let me tell you what a disaster that was.

After publishing my first two books, I found myself frustrated at my inability to put out books as fast as other writers around me. I thought if I could outline, I could produce books faster, find greater success, and make more money. So, for my third book, I decided to outline. And I did. I created a beautiful outline—filled with all kinds of details. By the time I was done, I thought I’d come up with a pretty darn good story.

Then, I began to write.

The first chapter went smoothly. I stuck to my outline perfectly, but then as I began chapter two, disaster struck. Actually, it was inspiration. I had a “wouldn’t it be cool” moment. It was such an amazing idea in my mind, I couldn’t let it go. I had to use it! But it took my book in an entirely different direction than I’d planned. Still, I was determined to stick to my commitment to outlining. So, I rewrote the outline with the changes—in other words, I basically rewrote an entirely new outline, minus the first chapter.

Having done that, I began to write again. Chapter two went smoothly until I hit another snag. It was another darned “wouldn’t it be cool” moment. Again, I felt I need to make the change. I mean, the idea was really incredible! At this point, I was beginning to rethink my commitment to outlining, but I’m no quitter. So, I outlined once again.

At chapter three, I just wanted to hit my head against the wall the moment I got another idea. At this point I said, screw it, and threw the outline out the window.  (Not really. It was on my laptop, and laptops are expensive! But, if I’d outlined on paper, I’m sure I would have disposed of it dramatically.)

This book took me several months longer than my other books had, and it’s because I wasted time outlining again and again. But, straying from my outline really paid off. The changes I made were gold. My book made it to #1 on the best-sellers lists and currently has seventy-seven reviews on Amazon averaging a whopping 4.9 stars.

So what did I learn from my experience?

I learned that it’s really bad to compare yourself to others. No two writers are going to have the exact same process. And, just because something works for one person, doesn’t mean it will work for someone else. You need to find out, what your process is. What wakes up your muse, and gives you the best ideas. And then just do it. I’m not saying you shouldn’t try new things, but don’t force yourself to do something that is obviously not working, just because others say it’s the right way to do it.

I also learned that it’s okay to write a bit slower than others. I’m never going to be that author who can publish a new book every two months. That’s just not within my capabilities. But, I take pride in the books that I do write. I think I write well, and I’ve found a fan base that thinks so too.

So my message to you—be proud of who you are. Be proud of the work you create and appreciate the process you go through. And, stop comparing yourself to others! Just be the best you can be.


Utopia is boring

It’s an interesting aspect of writing that people who likely despise conflict in their own lives create so much conflict in the lives of those we write about. It seems a bit bloodthirsty, really, but think about it. Only one person I’m aware of has ever made a name for himself writing about utopia, and that was Sir Thomas More. Everyone else seems to take an idea that some characters might think is utopia, and then breaks it in some way or shows the reality behind the façade, resulting in what we of late have dubbed “Dystopic Fiction”.

Of course not every story needs an oppressive government enforcing psychotic laws to have conflict. Nor does a story’s protagonist have to have a miserable life they seek to escape. Conflict can come from something as simple as the character wanting their life to change. After all, how many successful children’s movies revolve around “kid’s life is less than perfect, kid meets animal, kid falls in love with animal, kid fights for animal, kid saves and/or gets to keep animal”?

This is pretty basic stuff, right? We create some sort of conflict around which we can build a story.

So why do I have such a hard time with this? How many times have I gone through world-building only to find I’ve created a relatively peaceful world, or one where the conflicts are superficial and are easily worked out? Or even if I do manage to build some conflict into my setting I find my characters are such reasonable, sensible people that the conflict it worked out far too easily.

I guess not all of us are the type to kick over an anthill just to watch the ants get mad, so to speak. Does this mean we’re doomed as writers? I don’t think so. I think it’s possible to train ourselves to introduce conflict.

I’m an avid role-playing gamer. I’ve been playing RPGs for most of my adult life. Oddly enough, I have no difficulty throwing my gaming groups into nasty situations. I enjoy creating narrow escapes and dramatic fights for them. They players enjoy it, too. They want their characters to be heroic, and you can’t be heroic without conflict. The greater the conflict, the more heroic they feel. And the longer they talk fondly about “that one time when we overcame that …”.

This was reinforced for me once again recently. My daughter has discovered RPGs recently, but her gaming group disbanded before she’d had her fill. I agreed to run a campaign for her and her friends, and have been busily creating a world to play in. And I found myself slipping back into my old, bad habits. I’d create one country and make the people there kinda cool. Then I’d create another country and make those people kinda cool. And of course two different people who are so darn cool would never have trouble getting along, right?

But that won’t be fun. I had to rethink my approach and start building in some conflict. And it was precisely those areas where each country was awesome that I found my points of conflict. I have one country that excels at trade. It occurred to me that not everyone is going to like them trying to control all trade, and may fight back. And that in turn is going to lead some of the less scrupulous of those traders to go to extreme measures to discourage competition. Viola! Conflict!

Even in building in adventure hooks for this potential game group I found just a little more effort would make things much more interesting, and by which I mean create conflict. Instead of creating a benevolent patron who sends the group out on quests I twisted him a little to make him secretive and not entirely forthcoming. He’ll send out the group, but he won’t tell them everything he knows–and some of that information could prove fatal. Bang! Conflict! They need this guy, but they can’t entirely trust him.

I’m increasingly convinced from this experience that the lack of conflict in my world building and plot creation could be from a form of laziness. I could create more potential for conflict, but I don’t want to. I need to force myself to look for those reasons why awesome characters might not get along so well. I need to purposely build in opportunities for reasonable people to reach different conclusions from the same information. I need to be willing to “stir the pot’ and make my characters not get along.

Because it’s fun! Utopia is dull!

It’ll take practice. But most good writing habits do.

Skyscraping Stakes and Costs

I’ve been talking about the writing techniques the Nolans used to really ramp up the Interstellar story and in particular, the audience’s emotional journey with it. Today’s post is all about taking the story’s stakes and costs to the max. I mean, totally skyscraping them.

In a story, the stakes are what are “at stake” or “at risk,” what your character has to lose. In The Hunger Games, Katniss’s life is what is at stake, and the emotional (and physical) health of her sister. If Katniss doesn’t win The Hunger Games, she’ll die and Prim will be devastated. In some stories, a relationship is what is at stake. A lot of 90’s movies are about the relationship between a father and son being at stake, because the father works too much. In other stories, it can be a job.

The costs are what the character has to do or give up to reach a goal and/or save those stakes. So in The Hunger Games, it cost Katniss some of her identity. At the very end of the book, she grows more and more confused over what part of her is real and what part was her just trying to survive. For Peeta, he says in Mockingjay that “to murder innocent people costs everything you are.”

For the 90’s movies, the dad usually learns some valuable lesson about the importance of family and has to tell work to shove off so he can spend time with his son. It costs him work.

In Interstellar, there are multiple stakes and each one is incredibly high. Note that, in the strongest stories, the stakes are going to broaden (meaning that the conflict gets bigger and includes more stuff in it) and are going to deepen (the conflict is going to become more personal) (got that info from Million Dollar Outlines). So the Nolans have both broad and deep stakes to play with.

Interstellar Stakes

  • Fate of the human race
    • As both for humans currently alive, and as a future species
  • Cooper’s and all of the astronauts’ lives
    • As both literally and in a more abstract sense, meaning their quality of life, not being able to have a real life, dealing with the chance of being lost in space for the rest of their lives (like Romily thought). It’s the stake of a wasted life.
  • Cooper’s relationship with his children.
    • Never being able to see them again
    • Never being able to make things right with Murph, and to some extent, Tom

Okay, wow, each of those stakes are pretty heavy duty. But see how some of them are “broad” and some of them are “deep.” And they aren’t just kind of broad, I mean, they are really broad–the fate of the whole human race? At the present and in the future? And they aren’t just kind of deep. The relationship between Cooper and Murph is super deep–deep enough to save a species. What’s also interesting to note is that each stake has two sides, two aspects, which makes them even more complex and more interesting.

The stakes in and of themselves are great enough for an exceptional story, one that will keep us on edge, make us emotionally invested. We can see big, huge stakes like this in epic fantasies, and probably most superhero movies.

These stakes are high in and of themselves, but the Nolans skyscraped another element to take tension and emotion to new heights: the costs.

Now, the concept of stakes and costs can overlap. Sometimes they can stack on top of each other and feed into each other for stunning story effects that I’ll get to in a second. But just keep in mind, that yes, some of the costs are the same as the stakes, but that’s because they are the costs of different stakes. If you’re confused, just hang in there.

Let’s look at the crazy costs in play here for Interstellar.

Interstellar Costs

  • Time. It takes time to carry out the mission
  • It costs all the supplies, fuel, etc.
  • Lives. Before Cooper goes out into space, 12 other astronauts have already gone out to 12 planets. Cooper can only visit up to three planets. He can save only up to three people, and even those people have given up parts of their “abstract” life–life’s experiences. Cooper’s mission also costs people’s lives, Doyle’s and Romily’s.
  • Loss of family relationships. The mission means losing family relationships, sometimes physically by death, and other times through emotional distance. And frankly, just missing out on a loved one’s life.

Not only are the stakes very high, but the costs to succeed at saving the human race are very high. And then, the Nolans ramp up these costs to new heights, new extremes. Time is a cost. It’s a cost in loads of movies. But in Interstellar we aren’t talking about losing time as we know it, we are really talking about losing time, to a devastating degree, to the extent that the whole human race could be dead in a matter of hours to Cooper.For the supplies, as the movie progresses, the Endurance starts to lose fuel, but the significance of that cost gets ramped up when Dr. Mann blows up part of the Endurance. Now Cooper and Amelia don’t even have the means to get to Edmunds’s planet, let alone Earth.

As an audience, when we set out on this space journey with Cooper, we have a sense of what the costs are, but the Nolans totally skyscrape them, and do so very quickly–in the first planet the team visits.

The costs of visiting the first of three planets is extremely high. A newer writer would never skyscrape the cost of the first planet like that (I’ll explain why in a future post), but the Nolans did, and they could, because they are phenomenal writers.

Here are the costs of visiting Miller’s planet:


  • Time, one hour equals about 7 Earth years. So Miller’s planet costs them 23 Earth years!
  • Lives. Miller is already dead (it cost her life for her to visit that planet). Doyle dies. And Romily loses years off his life waiting for Cooper to get back to the Endurance.
  • Supplies. They now don’t have enough fuel to visit Mann’s and Edmunds’s planets and make it back to Earth
  • Relationships. Cooper has missed out on 23 years of his children’s lives, and he can’t get that back! It’s gone. Not only that, but he’s lost communication with them.

What. The heck.

Do you see how freaking crazy those costs are? All for one planet? All for the first planet? (There’s still two more to visit!)

The Nolans just took all the costs and skyscraped them, beyond what we had ever expected, beyond what we had even imagined! It’s shocking. It’s devastating.

And the result?

An extremely powerful emotional response.

And after all these crazy high costs, we have to sit with Cooper and watch a whole 23 freaking years of his children’s lives in a matter of minutes. The condensation of it all makes it incredibly potent.

The result? Especially paired with that pairing of emotions I talked about before?

Sharp, sharp heartache.

And if you even just watch those videos with Cooper, you’ll see how the Nolans are still pairing opposite emotions to make each one sharper. We get the joy of Tom finishing school, getting married, having a son, then tragedy over his son’s death and Cooper’s dad’s death, and finally Tom saying goodbye to Cooper, because he believes him to be dead. Then we get Murph’s anger that’s paired with her own hurt and regret. And of course, all of this is overshadowed by loss, because Cooper missed it all. And he can’t communicate back to them.


The writing is fantastic!

And the Nolans’ continue to skyscrape the costs. As Dr. Brand dies, we learn that the survival of the human species actually costs the abandonment of the existing humans. Going into the black hole costs 50 years. Those are years with his children Cooper can never get back.

Okay, ready for the next cool thing the Nolans did with stakes and costs? This is one of my favorite plotting techniques that I don’t think I have the skill to pull off consciously in my own writing yet. (Someday. Someday.)

Remember how I said some of the costs were also some of the stakes?

That’s because some stakes are the costs of other stakes.

This space mission, meant to save the human race, costs the astronauts’ lives and relationships. Once we hit that twist with Dr. Brand’s death (about Plan A being fake) in the middle of the film, we realize that in order to save the human species, we must leave the existing humans for dead.

The cost of accomplishing the overall goal is abandoning Plan A (which in a way, was the overall goal, at least for Cooper). The cost of accomplishing this goal is losing the other stakes.

You can’t save, or even minimize the loss of the other stakes, because they are the cost. You have to give them up. You have to sacrifice them to save the most important stake.

Let me explain this in another way. Because it can get confusing and feel circular. Let’s get back to The Hunger Games, (spoilers ahead if you haven’t read the books) which actually does a similar thing in the trilogy as a whole, though it’s not as obvious. Katniss volunteers to be a tribute to save her sister. As the series continues, Prim’s safety is a driving force for Katniss. She doesn’t want Snow to kill Prim. Katniss wants to make a better world partly for Prim. But the cost of making a better world is Prim.


Prim was what was at stake. But she becomes a cost in order to save a different stake–the state of Panem.

So the main goal can get swallowed up in saving another stake.The things you can do with this technique are powerful.

Sometimes it can seem like the main goal and the cost are the same thing. For Cooper, the whole point of going into space is to save the human race, but in order to save the human race, he has to let it die. It’s like the cost is the same thing as the stake.The very reason Cooper went on this mission is also the cost of fulfilling that reason.

It kicks up the tension to a new level.So, here is what the Nolans did:

  • Selected high stakes and high costs
  • Completely ramped up the costs, making them so high they break through and beyond our expectations for a devastating effect.
  • Made what was at stake the cost of other stakes.
Now that’s killer writing.

Using Voice to Connect With Readers

Guest Post by Misty Moncur

Misty Moncur wanted to be Indiana Jones when she grew up. Instead, she became an author and has her adventures at home in moncur-020-jpg-2her jammies with her imagination and pens that she keeps running dry. Misty writes clean romance for young adults. She is the author of Daughter of Helaman, Fight For You, In All Places, and other novels in the Stripling Warrior series. Connect with Misty on Facebook or on her Website.

“You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive.”

—James Baldwin

I could say, “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,”1and you would know where it came from and likely what the rest of our conversation would be about. You might suppose that over the next ten minutes I am going to try to convince you that choosing a path less traveled is only a different choice and not a better one. Though our experiences with the poem are certainly not the same, we share the experience of having experienced the poem. Though this line about the yellow wood may resonate with you, and the line about ages and ages hence may resonate with me, the reality is that we have both connected in an intimate and personal way with a poet who died over fifty years ago.

Writing instructor and author, Constance Hale, tells a story of her father’s army days. He was stationed in South Korea, and he would send home cassette tapes of him reading Beetle Bailey comics so his family wouldn’t forget his voice. It was a large part of what kept them connected during that time and important because his voice was so much a part of who he was. “In writing,” Hale says, “the connection between storyteller and audience is just as important. By using some subtle devices, a narrator can reach out to the reader and say, ‘We’re in this together.’”

If you’ve raised kids, you probably remember telling that two-year-old with the sniffles and the sup-sups to “use your words,”because you can’t meet his needs until you know what they are, and he can’t relax until he knows you understand him. When he has at last used his words, he can relax because he trusts you to meet his needs. Trust, connecting with people, belonging to and acceptance as part of a group, these are all part of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. They are an important part of the life experience, and they are part of the reason we are compelled to write.

Because it is a compulsion, isn’t it? To write? I think most writers will tell you they write because they can’t not write. I think they will tell you they were born that way, like people who are born right handed or blonde or with a chin dimple. Any parent will tell you their kids all came with distinct personalities, even the parents of twins, and so it is with writing. We write because it is part of who we are at the very core of our core, or as E. E. Cummings phrased it:

(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud
and the sky of the sky of a tree called life;which grows
higher than soul can hope or mind can hide)
and this is the wonder that’s keeping the stars apart 

i carry your heart(i carry it in my heart)2

What is connecting with another person if it is not carrying their heart in your heart?

And so, it is no small thing we do as writers.

People who are charismatic use their words to incite people to action. People who have the gift of gab use their words to make people comfortable. Authors use their words to connect people. I think we can agree that we feel this connection when we read something particularly profound, something that feels like it was written for us in this exact moment, but we can also feel that connection as the writer. In fact, I will be so bold as to say that, though most of us probably like to be alone, we write because we crave connection—to our readers, to other authors, and to ourselves.

I’ve always been very into the mechanics of writing, the nuts and bolts of it. I love exploring how using a particular technique can make the reader feel a certain way—the exact way I want them to feel. So instead of taking the reader on a journey through a plot, I take them on a journey through a gamut of human emotions, and though our feelings will not be identical, we will have shared the experience of having experienced them.

It is no small thing we are doing, this writing. Sometimes, it’s about connecting with a person who may not even exist yet. It is letting yourself be known and trusting that your needs will be acknowledged. It is holding out a yellow wood and accepting an ages and ages hence.

It is no small thing we do as writers. Connecting generations. Intriguing young minds. Imparting nuggets of hope and wisdom to the sad and confused. Life is messy, and we’re in it, and we’re turning around to help the next guy slog through the mud behind us. Is that glorifying what we do? Yeah, I guess it is, but shouldn’t it be glorified? The power to put your words into the mind of someone ages and ages hence? It’s more than the sum of its parts. It’s more than grammar and plot and that new technique we learned at a conference. It’s power. It’s sharing. It’s love. It’s the root of the root and the bud of the bud. It’s connection.

Words don’t go away. Your words will not go away. Your voice is valid and beautiful and relevant. Your voice is needed. Someone needs the words you can say in just the way you can say them. Perfect your craft. Go to seminars, take classes, read books, and for heaven’s sake, practice! But above all, make your words vulnerable and make them strong. Make them meaningful and make them worthy of lasting.

1. Frost, Robert. Mountain Interval. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1920;, 1999.

2. Cummings, E. E. Complete Poems: 1904-1962(Liveright Publishing Corporation, 1991)

Never give up! (unless you should)

Ever since I resumed writing five years ago I’ve determined to never give up until a manuscript is finished. I’ve succeeded in that goal, too, even though it took finishing one twice and starting another twice. Once I started a novel I finished it. It was a point of pride.

For the first time I’ve failed. I have abandoned a project. You know, the project I wrote not that long ago about getting myself “unstuck” on. The one I told myself to keep writing, even if I was writing crap. Yeah, that one. It’s back in the The Well, my list of stories I’d like to write some day when the idea is sufficiently developed.

It was really hard to do. But in the end I think it was the kindest thing. I’ve been flailing away at this manuscript for nearly a year now, and it’s continually been in danger of collapsing beneath its own weight. It came to a decision point: either my writing career or this novel had to go. I knew going in that this was a tricky novel. I wasn’t sure I was up to it. It turns out I was probably right.

And it bugs me to death. Writers write. We don’t give up. We keep pushing forward in the face of self-doubt, rejection, and weariness until one day, on the thousand-and-oneth try we hit it big. Isn’t that how the story goes?

I’ve had to convince myself it’s okay to admit defeat. There are just too many problems with this novel, even after starting it twice. Better to set this one aside for now and work on something simpler.

I still feel like a failure. I’m not terribly good at convincing myself.

But I do feel there comes a point when it’s okay to set aside a project and go work on something else rather than torture yourself. In the process of convincing myself I’ve devised a few ideas on how and when it’s okay to give up–at least on the project that is standing in your way of moving forward as a writer.

  1. Finishing is not the trouble. I’ve proven to myself that I can finish projects. I don’t suffer from the same issue as my daughter, who invariably would get about 20k words into a novel and get bored. I’ve finished three out of the last four projects I’ve undertaken (more if you count some short stories I’ve written). I have a track record of success.
  2. It’s not too hard, just too boring. If you don’t even find your story interesting enough to keep you interested that’s probably a strong indicator the problem is the story, not you. It’s okay to let it go and move on to the next project that will grab your attention better.
  3. You really did try. I made two really good efforts, getting about 30k words into it on the first try, then around 60k on the second. It’s not like I wrote a couple pages and got stuck. If it was going to grab me and keep me going like previous projects have done it would have happened already.
  4. I know what a good story feels like. I’ve written three other novels that kept my interest, even through major resets. It was never this hard to keep going.

Those are the main reasons I used in convincing myself it’s okay, that I can’t wrestle ’em all over the finish line–and probably shouldn’t. Not every project is going to be the one to move your career to the next level. Not every manuscript can–or should–be saved. Sometimes it’s okay to mark one down to lessons learned…and move on.

Emergency First Aid for Writer’s Block

Guest Post by Angie Lofthouse

Angie Lofthouse went to college with every intention of becoming a particle physicist, but through a series of misadventures, found herself studying Shakespeare instead. After college, she combined her love of science and her love of words into a science fiction writing career.p1120718

She has published numerous short stories in online and print magazines and anthologies, as well as two sci-fi adventure novels, Defenders of the Covenant and The Ransomed Returning. Her latest novel, The Glory of the Stars, will be out in November, along with a novella, “Werewolves of California,” in an upcoming anthology.

She lives in a little canyon in the foothills of the Wasatch Mountains with her family of writers, artists, singers, composers, illustrators, and musicians.

When I sat down to write this article, I couldn’t get out a word. I couldn’t even think of a topic. I couldn’t work on my steampunk fantasy WIP, nor could I flesh out ideas for a Christmas story that needs writing. Instead, I sat grinding my teeth, getting more and more agitated, anxious, and depressed. It was time for some emergency first aid.

Maybe you’ve experienced this situation or something like it before? I think we all have. Here are some tips and tricks that I use to get past it. Apply one or more as needed. (Note: these tips may not work for you the way they do for me, but I hope you’ll find something useful here for the next time writing makes you feel like you’re stuck in quicksand.)

First, address the emotions.

For me, writer’s block is not too different from a typical anxiety attack. Writing does that to me quite a lot. When I take a step back to see why I’m stuck, I often find fear at the heart of it, so many of the same coping techniques I use for anxiety work for writer’s block as well. Take a look at the emotions powering your writer’s block and do what you can to turn those around. Pray. Meditate. I like kundalini meditations. Mantras for creativity or anxiety (like this one or this one) can be very useful. Use emotional release, or use some other relaxation technique. Journal about your feeling. Make a list of things that bring you joy. Count your blessings. Do something just for fun.

Take care of your physical needs.

Are you hungry, tired, thirsty, in pain, or do you have some other physical need that needs to be met? Go for a walk or get some other form of exercise. Eat a healthy snack or have a meal, but make sure you’re actually hungry. Don’t eat out of boredom or stress. Stay hydrated, preferably with water. Take any necessary medications or vitamin supplements. Take a nap if that works for you. (I am a huge fan of naps!) Or if it’s late, just go to bed and worry about the story in the morning. Getting enough sleep isn’t a waste of time. It’s essential. Get outside for some fresh air. Walk barefoot in the grass. Enjoy the beauty of nature. Breathe deeply.

Try some other creative outlet.

Make sure that whatever other outlet you try doesn’t also cause you stress. Be creative just for fun. Sing a song at the top of your lungs. Play an instrument. Color, draw, or paint. Dance. Paint your nails. Redecorate a room.

Or, you can consume creativity from others. Read a good book. Listen to your favorite music. Read poetry. Watch a movie or a TV show. Go to an art museum, or just look at art online. I often find it energizing and motivating to enjoy what other artists have created.


Yes, I’m giving daydreaming its very own paragraph. This is one of the single most powerful tools I have against writer’s block. Daydream about your characters in scenarios that aren’t in your story. Daydream about wildly different directions you could take the story. Daydream about some other story and characters entirely. Daydream about the goals you want to achieve. Daydream about your most audacious and unreachable dreams. Daydream the impossible into reality. Most importantly, though, daydream just for fun!

Create a vision board.

I’ve recently begun making vision boards to keep me excited about my writing projects. Find images online or in magazines that represent your characters, settings, plot, and themes. (Or draw your own!) Then hang it up where you usually write, so you can see it often. vision-boardI even made my vision boards the wallpaper on my phone. If you already have a vision board and are still stuck, try adding to it. What are the ideas that first got you excited about the story? Is there something you could add to the board to represent that visually?

The Don’ts. (These are almost as important as the dos.)

Don’t think about your story.

Don’t think about the story at all while you take care of emotional and physical needs. Give yourself a break. If you are daydreaming or creating a vision board, you can think about it, but don’t think about the plot problem that has you stuck or whatever it is about the story that is causing you stress. Focus on the joy and the fun. Give your writer brain a rest.

Don’t turn to addictive substances or practices.

When you’re mired in despair over writer’s block, it can be easy to go for these things that numb you or make you momentarily happy. You know what those things are. Don’t go there. Don’t drink. Don’t use drugs. Don’t gamble. Don’t look at pornography. Don’t turn to video games or social media or whatever else that might become a problem. Don’t go for the chocolate. I’m not trying to make light of these things. I know how serious they are. If we develop addictions to get us through when writer’s block comes, we will ruin all our hopes and dreams. If you do have a problem with an addiction, get help! Go to twelve step meetings. See a therapist. Do not let addiction rule your life.

Don’t despair.

You can get through this. Chances are you have in the past, and you’ll get through it now. It may last only a few hours or a couple of days or even a couple of weeks. It doesn’t mean you have to give up writing forever or that you’re no good at it or that you should never have tried to write anything in the first place. Don’t ever listen to the voices that tell you that! Writer’s block means that you are perfectly normal and need to step back for a few minutes, hours, or days until you are ready to work again.

Rules were made to be broken?

Most writers have heard about the problem of writing a “Mary Sue”, the concept of writing oneself into the story as a means of wish fulfillment. Wikipedia defines a Mary Sue thusly:

A Mary Sue is an idealized and seemingly perfect fictional character, a young or low-rank person who saves the day through unrealistic abilities. Often this character is recognized as an author insert or wish-fulfillment.[1] Sometimes the name is reserved only for women, and male Sues are called “Gary Stus” or “Marty Stus”; but more often the name is used for both sexes of offenders.[2][3]

“Mary Sue” today has changed from its original meaning and now carries a generalized, although not universal, connotation of wish-fulfillment and is commonly associated with self-insertion. True self-insertion is a literal and generally undisguised representation of the author; most characters described as “Mary Sues” are not, though they are often called “proxies”[8] for the author. The negative connotation comes from this “wish-fulfillment” implication: the “Mary Sue” is judged as a poorly developed character, too perfect and lacking in realism to be interesting.[9]

So writing yourself into stories, even under an assumed name, is bad. But for every rule there is the exception, right?

I recently picked up Michaelbrent Colling’s book “The Longest Con”, in which Michaelbrent places himself, whole and undisguised, into his own noir-esque novel as the main character, who has been deputized into a secret group protecting the humans at fan conventions from the monsters who also love fan conventions. He also lifts an entire cast of characters from con luminaries.

And I believe he proves the rule that there is an exception to every rule. However, it also proves the corollary that you have to know the rules before you can break them.

As a regular at LTUE and numerous writers panels at countless conventions it’s hard to imagine Michaelbrent doesn’t know about “Mary Sue.” I’m pretty sure I’ve heard him personally warn writers about the trap. So it’s likely safe to assume that he knows the rule. So how does he successfully break it?

  1. His character is no one’s wish fulfillment. He gets no respect from his handlers. He gets little respect from anyone else. And in spite of his training in numerous martial arts, pretty much everyone beats the crap out of him. His character is not unusually talented, either. About all he has going for him is relentless, stubborn determination.
  2. He is continually self-deprecating. He continually talks about all the other writers who make more money than he does. There’s a running gag about how his mother is more popular than he is. Other characters regularly have to bail him out of tight spots.
  3. He’s playing himself, in his own life. Most people who know Michaelbrent know that this is pretty much the life he lives–with the exception of the supernatural elements, perhaps. By choosing to cast himself in a role we already know him in, it’s not so big a stretch. Now if he were to cast himself as a nuclear physicist who must create a particle accelerator in time to save the world from comet impact that would be more questionable. But it’s hard to really accuse him of inserting himself into a story that he’s already living.
  4. He brings along company. By inserting other known creative types like Dave Butler, Blake Casselman, Kevin J. Andersen, Mercedes Lackey, etc., he’s essentially “hanging a lantern on it” that this is wish fulfillment for a lot of people he knows and likes, especially when he makes all of them “cooler” than him.

Like I said, Collings knows the rules, and is willing to gamble in breaking them by placing himself unashamedly at the center of his story, assuming that even with the limitations he places on himself to avoid becoming a Mary Sue, we’ll still find him a likeable, relatable character.

Likewise, there are many rules out there we might be tempted to break. So long as we know what we’re doing, we can break them, too. We should consider a few things first, though, when we set out to break rules:

  1. Why does this rule even exist? We need to know the reason for the rule. In the case of Mary Sue, it’s because stories about such “perfect people” are usually dull reading. They come across as self-indulgent. Knowing that, then, you can then make sure you avoid those elements that the rule is supposed to guard against.
  2. Can we still tell the story while staying true to the rule? If there’s really no reason to break a rule, don’t. If you can make it look like you’re going to break it, but not actually break it, that’s acceptable. That could be what Collings does in bringing other known characters into his book. It could be argued that this approach creates an entirely different type of story (ie. parody), so the fear of Mary Sue isn’t even valid.
  3. Can the rule be only bent? Is there a way to obey the spirit of the rule while not strictly keeping the letter of the rule? For example, a lot of writers don’t strictly adhere to the rule of not using adverbs in dialogue tags (ie. “Don’t go, Joe!” she wailed pathetically.) Many get by using them sparingly. Keeping rules the majority of the time and then breaking them now and then for specific effect is sometimes acceptable.

The rules are there for a reason, and a good writer should know the rules and why they are important. But in knowing the rules we can also know when and how to break them. The trick is knowing how to break them in a way that enhances the story, and not just to avoid having to keep them.

Find a New Angle

I’ve been trying to write a short story on a specific subject and struggling. I found it easier to not write than try to keep moving the story forward. That should have been my first warning sign that something was wrong. Unfortunately it took me a couple more days before it dawned on me: I didn’t like the story I was trying to tell.

At first I considered moving on to some other project altogether. But then I stepped back and looked at the idea I’d been trying to write. If I didn’t want to write the story then I clearly didn’t like the story I was trying to tell. The trouble is, I’ve been trying to come up with a decent idea for some time, and I really didn’t want to go back to the drawing board.

Then I had an idea: could I tell the same story, only from another angle–one that could be more interesting? My original idea was about someone trying to escape from the repercussions of something they had done. What if I instead told the story of someone who ends up apprehending that person? Suddenly the story got a lot more interesting. Now I’m writing a new draft, and I’m enjoying it much more.

Sometimes we forget that there is more than one way to tell a story. If we’re struggling to get a story out, perhaps it’s because we are telling the story from the wrong perspective. Is there someone else related to the story who would have a more interesting take on events?

Such thinking is the driving force behind many of the “re-imagined fairy tale” novels that are popular these days. Orson Scott Card sold a book that turned into a series covering much the same events as one of his earlier best sellers from the perspective of one of the minor characters. It’s not a new concept, certainly, but it can give new life to your story.

It’s easy to get into the rut of thinking there is only one way to tell a story. So long as that one way is sufficiently interesting, that’s not necessarily a problem. But sometimes the rut is also a dead-end. That’s when it can be helpful to step back and look for a new angle.

Keeping Conflicts Unresolved

Today’s post is short, but the writing technique is still strong and effective. I’ve been talking about what Interstellar did to have a powerful emotional impact. One way was to keep a crucial conflict unresolved until the very very end of the story.

When Cooper has to leave his family, and Murph refuses to say goodbye, it creates strong tension in the audience. See, if Murph and Cooper would have made-up before he left, that tension would have been released, but instead, the writers amplified it by leaving it not only unresolved, but by taking advantage of the parent-child relationship that was going on, and the unknown future of Cooper. All these things worked together to take the emotion to a new height.

Having Murph run after Cooper when he’s driving away, serves as an extra little push, an extra little reminder that their conflict is left very unresolved.  And because of Cooper’s situation, we have to carry all this tension and heartache with us through the entire movie.

The conflict gets touched on again and again. It changes, it stretches, it deepens through the show. (It can’t just stay the same, because it would go stale and dull our sensitivity to it). It hits a climax with Murph when she yells that Dad didn’t even try to save them, that he left them here to die, and hits a climax with Cooper when we see he would give anything, anything to go back and change his decision to leave Murph in the first place.

Imagine instead, that Murph had ran out and caught up to them, and they’d had a sweet loving goodbye, and later, Murph begins to think Cooper abandoned her. It would not have been near as effective. The emotion would not have felt near as powerful, near as raw through the movie.

So, look for powerful conflicts to leave very unresolved.



Guest post by Mikey Brooks

About Mikey Brooks: When he’s not saving the world from evil witches or changing diapers, he’s writing, illustrating, or mikeypicdaydreaming. He’s published six middle-grade books and several more picture books. He lives in Utah with his smokin’-hot- wife, their four kiddos, and the world’s ugliest dog. You can find out more about him, his books and art at:



I believe every writer struggles with self-confidence. I know I do. It doesn’t take much for me to find myself wallowing in my own self-doubt—listening to the negative voice in my head telling me to just give up. It’s pretty easy to do. Even after publishing 6 books I still find myself thinking that I am not a very good writer, or that I wrote all the books I had in me. If you are that special spirit that has never experienced self-doubt or have never heard that negative voice, then maybe this blog post isn’t for you. If you are like me, then read on.

My latest bout of self-doubt hit me rather hard this time. I was at a con talking with some author friends about their recent successes. The publishing gods had been generous to them over the last year. I was all, that’s awesome—good for you—you so deserve it. I was honestly happy for them. That is until it came my turn to share and I had nothing to offer. Nothing. My last full length book came out in November of 2014 and here I was, pretty much 2 years later, with nothing new to offer. In comparison to all their amazing-writerly-achievements, I was a loser. That’s all it took for me to grab hold of the pity train and ride it toward the inevitable cliff that was to be the demise of my writing career. Because I had nothing new to offer, right then, I was boomed to lie amongst the twisted metal of what could have been. It might sound a little dramatic, but let’s be honest, we all think this way…sometimes.

I had fallen into the comparing trap. Comparing myself to others has always lead to dangerous thoughts. Not a day passes that I can’t see or think of someone who is better looking, wealthier, more successful, or a better writer than me. In fact, in the time it took me to write that sentence I thought of a dozen people. With the negative thoughts about myself comes the ugly ones for others—mostly jealousy. How can I truly be happy for my friends when they have something I don’t? In no time at all, I can turn from easygoing Mikey Brooks to crazed Verruca Salt demanding the world to give it to me now. I don’t like these thoughts and feelings, so why do I continue to compare myself to others? Am I setting myself up for destruction—buying my own ticket for that train wreck? Well, yeah.

So how do I get off the pity train? How do I stop comparing myself to my friends? First off I have to say that comparing isn’t a bad thing. We compare cars when we are trying to find something reliable, we compare houses when we are trying to find the best place for our family to live, we compare dates when trying to find the perfect match for us. The problem with comparing comes when you try to compare yourself with others. Recently I came across a great quote that has become my new motto: “The only person you should compare yourself to is your former self.”


We all need improvements, we all want them. I want to be a better writer, a better husband to my wife, and a better father to my kids. How am I supposed to know how far I come if I don’t compare with where I’ve been? How do I compare with the Mikey of 10 years ago, 5 years ago, even 2 Years ago?

Keeping this strictly aimed at writing, 10 years ago I was just barely starting to let others see my writing, and let’s be honest, it wasn’t all that great. 5 years ago I had written a couple books and was sending them out to agents (I might mention here I had a huge self-doubt issue when all the rejections came because I was comparing myself to all those getting agents). 2 years ago I was still writing with 6 published books under my belt—6 books! Comparing myself to Mikey of 10 years ago really shows me how far I really have come. It also gets me excited for the future. Where will I be in 10 years, 5 years, 2 years? Where do I want to be? Let’s just say I’m 4 years into my 10 years of becoming an overnight success.

Nothing will be a quick fix when it comes to ridding the negative thoughts of self-doubt. Sometimes though we have to yank ourselves off that pity train before it crashes. We need to get out of the comparing trap and start comparing ourselves to what really matters: us. What are the good things you have done? What are the things you want to change? How are you going to accomplish them? Let’s look forward to the future with a positive outlook. Be the best kind of person/writer that you can be. No one can be a better you! So keep trying. Now go write!

The Authors' Think Tank Podcast, a show for writers by writers with new episodes every Monday.


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