4 Tricks When You Don’t Know What to Write

Keyboard with "confused" key.

Whether you’re a plotter or a pantser (or a plontser – somewhere in between on the spectrum of story planning), there are going to be times when you stare at the page or plot outline and think…

I have no idea what comes next.

Sometimes you’ll write a placeholder:  [exciting thing happens here.]

Or [secret is revealed – note: figure out secret.]

Or [the hero gets away somehow.] 

So that’s something. You have a sense of what’s supposed to happen, you just don’t have the specifics.

It’s even worse when you can’t even see your way clear to what type of scene needs to happen.

You know there’s going to be a love story, or intrigue, or mystery… but you’re not entirely sure what said romance/intrigue/mystery is going to actually do.

This is especially prevalent in the middle of the book, which is how so many manuscripts wind up with the Dreaded Sagging Middle™.

If you’re a plotter, you’ll bump up against this as you’re creating the plot outline. Hopefully, you know your major plot points – and that’s a huge step in the right direction. 

If you’re a plontser, those major plot points may be all you have. Or you may just know the beginning, have some hints of the middle, and then have the end.

If you’re a pantser, you’re probably stopped dead in the middle of your writing process. Either that, or (if you don’t write in a linear/chronological fashion) you’re plinking away at scenes that you know probably should happen, even if you don’t know quite how they fit in with the whole.

Here are some tricks to get you to the next scene.

  1. Study your characters.

    The first thing is always, always, always check in with character. Which means checking with your protagonist’s GMC (Goal, Motivation, Conflict.)  The more you know about your character’s goal and motivation, the easier it is to figure out the meat of your story. 

    Even if you’re a full-blown anti-planning pantser, knowing your character is what makes it possible to see where you’re supposed to go… so if you’re really stuck, there is a good chance that you simply don’t know your characters well enough.

    Doing some deep dive character work might be helpful here.  Brainstorm, do some journal journeying or mind-mapping or fill out character sheets from writing reference books. Then figure out what your character wants, and why.

  2. Get to plot points.

    Plot points are a godsend. If you know your character’s GMC, these should be fairly straightforward. (Maybe not easy, but straightforward!)

    Even if you’re the most die-hard pantser, if you’re stuck and running out of time, just figuring out the major landmarks of your story will help you figure out what to write.

    Why? Because you’re not looking at a huge expanse and trying to chart a path from beginning to end. You’re just looking at the distance between two plot points, which is infinitely more workable.

  3. Reverse engineer. 

    Again, if you’re a die-hard pantser and refuse to get to plot points, at least figure out the ending.  If you have too many choices because you haven’t figured out your ending, it’s easy to slip into decision fatigue and analysis paralysis, or write snippets of wrong turns and fruitless paths.

    This isn’t to say it’s a bad thing, necessarily. Some writers need exploratory writing to piece together their story. But if you’re stuck and want some relief, looking to the ending will at least encapsulate your story and give you more focus.

    If you’re not sure of your ending, the best way I’ve found is to ask theme-related questions. What do you want the reader to feel after they finish reading? Is there a message? What do you want the story to do? 

    Once you have the ending, or the theme, you can then ask yourself: what kind of character would I need to construct to create this kind of character arc?  (Again: character work is the foundation for any story, whether it’s genre or literary, “plot driven” or “character driven.”)

  4. Add conflict.

    If you know your characters, know approximately what they’re supposed to do (i.e. “solve the murder” or “win the business contract” or “take kid to Disneyland”) but you still don’t know what the next step is, look at where you are in the story, and see how you can add escalating conflict to the story

    That doesn’t mean throw in some extraneous terrorists or an unexpected tsunami. Given who they are and what they’re trying to do, what would be in their way? And is there anything you could add to make things (plausibly) worse, in an escalating fashion?

And if you’re still stuck… you can always contact me for a Plot Brainstorming session. But in the meantime, start with these tricks, and see if you can’t get your story back on track!

The Same, but Different

If you’ve ever read an interview with an agent or editor, and someone asks “what are you looking for?” you’ll notice they often say things like “we’re always looking for a good story” or “I want to see more stories like (whatever’s popular).”

They may say they want something new and groundbreaking, but the form rejection letters you’re getting seem to belie that point.

So what is it they want?

To put it bluntly: they’re looking for stuff that sells. That’s their job, after all. As much as they may love literature, they’re not in this for art.

Your goal as an author: give them something sellable and different.

That’s the trick, isn’t it?

What makes a novel sellable?  There isn’t a defined formula. It’s more alchemy than physics. That said, there are a few tips and tricks that you need to be aware of to at least get your foot in the door.

The same… but different.

You’ve probably heard this old chestnut, too. “Publishers are looking for the same… but different.”

What the heck does that mean?

Is it just the usual double-speak, so editors don’t have to say “listen, I have no idea what I want, but I’ll know it when I see it?”

Is it an agent’s dodge?

Actually, no. At least, not exactly.

The same: GENRE.

Knowing what genre you’re writing in is an enormous step towards making your novel sellable. Why? Because categories help readers find authors. They also establish reader expectations.

If you’re writing a mystery, there had better be a dead body or two in there and a puzzle to solve.

If you’re writing a romance, there had better be a love story with a happy ending. Even if it’s only happy-for-now.

If you’re writing science fiction, but it takes place on present day earth with no extra-terrestrials, no strange or supernatural phenomenon, and not a lot of sci-fi accoutrement… well. You get the idea.

If you’re writing a Western, but it takes place in Paris? Good luck with that.

The different: VOICE.

Voice is what you bring to the table.

It’s when you take the established reader expectations of genre, and bring your own spin to the story.

This can either be through your writing style, or through your interpretation of how to build the story itself. 

For example, think of the thousands of different re-tellings of the Cinderella story. Or Romeo and Juliet. There are a million variations… as Shakespeare says, there’s nothing new under the sun.

If you think of some of the most unique reads out there, you can break it down into expected elements and then identify the twist.

Example #1: romance.

One of my favorite reads last year was Red, White, and Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston. It’s a classic romance, in a lot of ways: uses the enemies to lovers trope, has royalty, has a happy ending.  The twist? The son of the President of the United States falls in love… with the Prince of Wales. (It is adorable. I highly recommend it.) The writing is fresh, the dialogue and description pop, the characters are well delineated and unique. It’s the same, but different.

Example #2: mystery.

Nothing exemplifies “the same, but different” as well as cozy mysteries. They literally follow the same playbook, over and over.  Sleuth is established, crime is committed, suspects are lined up. Another body may enter the mix, usually a primary suspect cleared off the board. All evidence is presented for reader delectation. Sleuth then reveals the solution, and justice is served.

If you haven’t watched the movie Knives Out, it is a masterclass in mystery construction, with a few true twists (as well as an absolutely banana-pants set of characters.) To talk too much about the plot would be to spoil it, and it’s truly something that shouldn’t be spoiled. But it turns the genre on its head. There’s murder, there are suspects, there’s a “gentleman sleuth” that is so scenery-chewing over-the-top he’s hilarious, there are tweaks and winks and callbacks to the mystery genre itself. Best of all, every single detail that is referenced in terms of mystery is tied up by the end, no simple red herrings or throwaway clues. It is the same, but very, very different.

What about cross-genre?

Ah, cross-genre. The problem with cross-genre is determining who it would most appeal to, and how to sell it. Saying that something will “appeal to a variety of audiences” doesn’t actually mean it’s so. You’re going to have to work twice as hard to get it to seamless, so it fulfills the expectations of more than one genre.

What if I don’t know my story’s genre?

Admittedly, it’s easier to come up with a “same but different” story in the premise stage, building it right into the foundation. But what if you’ve written a story of your heart, and now you’re trying to think of how to market it?

Your first step is probably figuring out your book’s genre (and I’ve written a whole blog post to help you do that, just follow the link. Or, you can purchase my ebook on this whole subject, Genre & Voice.) Once you’ve got that pinned down, it will be easier to categorize, especially if you’re pursuing traditional publishing. It will also make it easier to find comparable titles.

Keep the faith.

It’s easy to get demoralized by the ambiguity in our business. Whether something is “too similar” or “too divergent” is going to be a judgment call on the part of both readers and publishing professionals. The trick is to keep moving, keep striving – and keep writing.

How to Make Your Writing Memorable

Being successful in the writing world is about standing out in a ridiculously crowded field (like, in-the-millions ridiculous.)  It’s about getting people to find you, but also getting them hooked on your style of writing, on your novels, enough that they decide they trust you and want to get more books from you. They’ve been burned before, you see, so “keeper” authors mean more than ever.

The way to do this is to make sure your stories are memorable.

Easy enough to say. But how do you make your stories memorable?

Memorable characters

Please note: this does not mean “throw a bunch of quirks at the character.”  We don’t need a bunch of protagonists with peg legs and telepathy who were abused by Joan Crawford as children.

To create a memorable character, you need to do your homework and fully flesh out who they were, build out chronologies, in order to create believable people that the reader will be able to empathize with (or at least understand.)  This needs to happen for all protagonists and the antagonist, as well.  It is the antidote to cardboard character syndrome.

The other essential exercise for memorable characters: their goals and motivation.  A memorable character wants something very, very badly.  Their motivation is what makes them unique and what propels them forward in the story.  There should be a tangible consequence if their goal is not met.

You can layer quirks on top of that, especially if it matches with your voice (which we’ll discuss in a moment.) But quirks without a solid foundation of backstory and goal are just clothes on a hanger, not on a living, breathing body.

Memorable plot

I go through this in more depth in my book, Rock Your Plot, but the bottom line is, without a gradually escalating plot line that draws the reader inexorably forward through the story, you’ll have a hard time presenting a memorable novel.

If you have fully fleshed out and intriguing characters, but they’re spinning their wheels as the plot mires in conflict plateaus and pointless scenarios (i.e., scenes that don’t forward the protagonist’s pursuit of the goal or provide conflict to achieving that goal), then you’re spiking your own wheels.  Make sure the storyline is gripping.

You may think “but I’m writing a sweet romance” or “it’s just a coming of age story” or “I don’t need a gripping storyline, this is not that kind of story.”

Don’t mistake “gripping” for a Liam Neeson movie where there are plenty of action scenes and guns blazing and whatnot.  (For more detail, check this blog post — Plot Help:  How to Blow Shit Up.)

You can have “quietly gripping” where we as readers are still riveted by what happens and whether or not your protagonist is going to achieve his or her goal, whether that’s saving the world or standing up for herself against a pushy sister or finding love.

The trick?  Do your character work.  Without a memorable, fully fleshed character, you won’t have the fuel to drive a story engine that sticks with readers.

Memorable world building.

World building: it’s not just for sci-fi anymore! 🙂

If you’re going to make your protagonists chefs, for example, you should study the restaurant world and get a feel for how they work.  Underwater divers?  Race car drivers?  Emergency room doctors?

You see where I’m going with this.  Do the research.

A caveat to this:  know your audience.  For things like historical, it’s easy to get lost in the research and dump it all in big gobs. Just because you found something fascinating doesn’t necessarily mean the reader will, and even if they do, don’t dump it at the expense of story.

There are few stories out there that are able to weave in a mass amount of finicky details without sacrificing readers.  Novels like The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern create a character out of the world, and walk the fine line of losing their storylines. That presents a wealth of details about the Circus itself, which are fascinating. It does run the risk of losing the story itself with its mass number of POV characters and some story plateaus. (Note: it’s one of my favorite novels anyway.)

A novel like Memoirs of a Geisha presents the details that only pertain to the protagonist and her situation – he could have focused more on politics, for example, but mainly focused on tight-focus personal politics and what affected Sayuri in her quest to survive as a geisha.  That doesn’t mean that World War II was ignored. In fact, knowledge of it was crucial to the third act of the book, because it does affect Sayuri. But you don’t read the novel because of its deep dive into World War II Japan.

The details, pertinent, distinctive, and fascinating, are what you want to focus on to make your story memorable.

Memorable voice.

Think of your favorite writers. Think of the one that’s the funniest.  Now perhaps the scariest, or the most suspenseful, or the one that brings you the most joy.

Not the stories.  The writers themselves.  Your keeper authors – the ones you’ll buy, no questions asked, when they come out with another book, because you like how they write.

They may nail the first three elements, and that’s what got them on your auto-buy list. But odds are good, they have distinctive voices, as well.  Voice is how an author tells a story.

I love comedic voices, for example. But there’s a big difference between the urban fantasy humor of Seanan Mcguire’s Incryptid series or Jim Butcher’s Dresden file series, and Penny Reid’s Winston Brothers romantic comedies, or the absurdist sci-fi humor of Douglas Adams.  It’s a matter of internal observations in their exposition, I’ve noticed.  Or in the witty banter of the protagonists.

When I’m reading scary, I’ve noticed a lot of it is in what they don’t say.  Less is often more.  Details without a lot of exposition put me on edge.  Want me to keep the light on after I go to bed?  Don’t tell me I’m scared.  Show me why I should be.

That’s voice.

Nailing all four of these elements is a master’s task. 

That said, it’s not impossible.

You’re going to be developing your voice your entire writing career – your whole life, really. It’s not a matter of creating your voice as discovering it and polishing it.  Your voice is an integral part of you. Personally, I wouldn’t worry about it as much as the other elements.

The other elements can be strengthened through study and work.

Focus on character first, since plot without character is useless.  Then strengthen your plot skills.  You’ll probably wind up diving into research after your initial plot, and then adjusting your plot line as your research provides the details.

Finally, you pull them together and create your memorable story.  It’s like Jim Butcher says:  it’s like lifting an engine block – it’s not easy, but it’s not exactly complicated, either.

Now go forth, and be memorable!

Need some additional help?  I do plot coaching.  Contact me, and schedule a one-hour plot consult session today.

Turning the Negativity Train Around

Image by Ianqui Doodle

“Negativity is the enemy of creativity.”  —David Lynch

Everyone experiences negativity sometimes.  We have niggling self-doubt, depressed thoughts, frustrations or anger about all kinds of things in our lives.

The problem occurs when that little engine of negativity starts racing downhill like a train without brakes.  It’s gonna take out anything good in its tracks and be pretty dang hard to turn around once it gets going.

Including our creativity.

Unfortunately, writers (and other creatives) can develop the really bad habit of thinking negatively about themselves and their craft.  We say (or think) things like:

  • I’ll never write as well as Stephen King, so why bother?
  • My family will never support me in my writing/I’m taking time away from my family.
  • I can’t plot.
  • I’m too embarrassed to ever let anyone see my work.
  • My writing is always rejected.
  • I’ll never have enough time.
  • No agent will sign me.
  • The publishing industry sucks.

The problem with all this negativity is that, once you get going, it’s sooo hard to pull yourself out of it.  (Newton knew what he was talking about when he talked about the first law of motion, yo.)

The momentum of negativity zaps creativity and motivation right outta here.  If you go into a writing session, for instance, thinking that this manuscript is just going to be rejected like all your others, how much effort are you really going to put into it?

All this negativity usually falls into a few different categories:  negativity about your writing, negativity about the writing industry, and negativity about living up to expectations.  Depending where your negative train is headed makes all the difference in how you turn it around.

Negativity about your writing

When you feel that your writing stinks and will never get any better, just remember this:  every writer, no matter how famous now, started in the exact same place you are.  New York Times Bestsellers weren’t born with their names on the list. They had to go through the same process you do of dreaming up an idea, drafting it out, editing it, editing it some more, submitting it, getting rejected, submitting it some more.

It’s highly unlikely that their first book was published.  More probably, they have just as many awful manuscripts under their beds as you will have by the time you’re “make it.”

Something that may surprise you, too, is that even famous authors have negative thoughts. Maybe even more so. They have bad days or days when the writing doesn’t flow or when they just can’t get the right words on the page. They worry about whether the current manuscript will live up to the last one or whether fans will be disappointed.

The difference is, they don’t allow that negativity to keep them from making a living.

Negativity about the writing industry

There’s always something to complain about regarding the writing industry, and always someone happy to complain, just in case you don’t have enough negativity of your own.

The deal is this:  the writing industry is hard.  But so is becoming a doctor or a lawyer.  So is making it to upper management of a big corporation. So is owning your own business. So is being a parent. Sometimes so is just getting out of bed every day!

Anything worth doing is hard.

Instead of complaining about how hard something is, though, successful people study it, figure out how to work through the hard parts, and persevere through the tough times.  They become informed about what to expect, so they don’t focus only on the potential good parts and then get floored by the not-so-good parts.

Negativity about living up to expectations

Expectations, real or imagined, can produce a lot of negativity. Whether they are your outlandish expectations for yourself (I’ll sell my first book for six figures and a movie deal) or the expectations you believe others have for you (my wife expects me to become the next J. K. Rowling while never missing a minute of family time).

Goals are great, but setting your own expectations too high can make you feel defeated.  Rather than allowing yourself to grow as a writer, your expectations can set you up for failure when you experience the snail’s pace of the industry or repeated rejections as you’re starting out.

Feeling pressured by other’s expectations can bring guilt and fear into what should be a fun, creative part of your life. Sometimes that guilt involves making writing a priority when others feel they should be your priority.  And sometimes it’s about the fear of being judged by family and friends for what you write or what you think they expect of you as a writer.

Reversing that runaway train

There are lots of ways to turn around negativity.  Give some of these a try and see if you can put yourself in a more positive frame of mind, which is sure to help your creativity!

  • Keep a notebook (or a Pinterest board) of positive writing quotes, or quotes that just make you feel better about writing. Read them often, particularly when feeling down.
  • Read articles by or interviews with writers who have “made it.” They are often full of stories that will make you feel some camaraderie with others who have been right where you are and presevered.
  • When you feel yourself becoming consumed by a particular negative thought, ask yourself, “Can I be 100% certain this is true.?” I’m pretty sure that most famous writers didn’t start out thinking they would be famous writers.  You can’t be 100% certain that you’ll never write as well as Stephen King or J.R.R Tolkien.  Are you 100% certain you “don’t have time to write” (or are you really just choosing to spend your time on other things)?
  • Surround yourself with positive writers. If you find that your writing friends just fuel your negativity, it’s time to find different friends. A positive support group can make all the difference.
  • Set realistic expectations of yourself. Talk to other, more experienced writers, and ask them about their paths.  Knowing what to expect can help you feel more grounded in reality and less likely to put pressure on yourself. Share this information with family and friends who may have outlandish expectations. Talk about the truth of this career and ask them for the support you need from them.
  • One of Rock Your Writing’s philosophies is, “The only way out is through.” This mantra will get you through a lot of tough times and counteract much of your negative thinking  about your writing when it feels too hard or like it’s taking too long.
  • Use some of your negativity to fuel your writing. Who better to create a realistically frustrated character than someone who is experiencing frustration?
  • Build your skills.  You can improve your writing by taking courses, hiring a coach, joining a critique group, etc. Most of all, though, you can improve your writing by WRITING.   The more you write, not worrying about the end result, the better chance you have of publishing.

You’ll never be positive 100% of the time.   But whether you wallow or change tactics to beat those negative feelings determines whether you’re a positive writer or a negative one. And which of those writer personas you identify with plays a huge part in your ability to be successful.

Rock on!

~ Shannon McKelden

Full Metal Edit: How I learned to stop copyediting and love the critique

[Editor’s note:  Another great post from our editor, Lewis Pollak!]5871413651_5cb7d14c5a_o


Some years back, long before I started working as an editor, my wife became a writer. Though there was certainly a part of me that thought this was a flight of fancy at the time and that she wasn’t serious about it (spoiler: I was wrong), I was very much curious to see her work.

Her response was something akin to, “Hell no,” but possibly less polite than that. My wife knows me well, and she knew exactly what would happen.

You see, my background is in academics. I spent years doing research and working on advanced degrees. While I grew up reading a great deal of science fiction and fantasy, the writing I knew as an adult (stop snickering, I hear you) was the sort you’d find in scientific journals.

But I was persistent, and eventually, she relented. What happened next was precisely what she’d feared. I started marking things like sentence fragments and other grammar that didn’t meet some standard I had in my head. I was copyediting when what she wanted was a critique. This is not what she, her story, or our marriage needed at the time.

It took a while (and a few smacks with a two-by-four studded with rusty nails), but she eventually helped me learn to look past the grammar and see the story. Without having gone through that process, I never would have gotten into editing. Even after I started, I still had to fight that impulse when doing developmental edits, and the ones I did early on took far longer than they should have and certainly caused undue stress for the authors I worked with as a result.

Editing Stages

I wanted to take a few moments today to talk about the different stages of editing, hopefully helping you understand the editing process better and perhaps putting you on the path to giving better critiques to other authors. Bear in mind that these are generalizations, not absolutes, and that different people may refer to them by different names.

A developmental edit looks at big picture issues: things like GMC, characterization, conflict and adhesion between characters, plot structure, and overall pacing. In the wake of a developmental edit, entire story threads could be changed or removed. Character motivations or flaws might be rewritten. Entire scenes could be moved, removed, changed dramatically, or added. In a perfect world, all the heavy changes happen here. But it is often the case that changes beget other changes down the line. Also, at least for me, there comes a point where it becomes a challenge to clearly envision what the story will look like after those changes are made. Sometimes things that should be obvious can be missed until after the dust settles a bit. It may also be the case that an issue can’t be addressed until the author makes some changes. This is often the case with ending sequences, because I don’t know how an author might choose to resolve various things.

A line edit is all about the details and more focused on the language, drilling down into individual scenes. Is POV clearly established? Should POV be deeper? Do characters react to stimuli appropriately? Do scenes flow well one into the next? Do conversations drift back and forth between multiple topics or simply drag on too long? Is it clear who is speaking? Could the end of each scene or chapter be stronger so we keep the reader from putting the book down? Are there words/phrases that are repeated too frequently or are used in multiple POVs inappropriately? Is appropriate character movement present?

Keep in mind that if an issue that would normally be discussed in line edits is pervasive throughout the manuscript, an editor may bring it up during developmental edits and give the author a chance to address the issue, which can save a ton of time later on. For instance, if characters never have internal reactions to stimuli/events (and I see that frequently) that should be brought up in a developmental edit. If it is only a problem occasionally, it can wait, so the author can focus on bigger issues.

A copyedit focuses almost entirely on language: clarity, readability, grammar, spelling, etc. That doesn’t mean a good copyeditor (and they are worth their weight in gold) won’t identify some of the issues above, but their focus should be on the language and continuity, sentence by sentence. Copyeditors are like a safety net. They get paid to see the things others have read five times and never spotted. A good copyeditor understands and respects voice and will refrain from sacrificing voice on the altar of grammar provided clarity is not an issue.

Being a Better Critique Partner

In my eyes, a critique is very similar to a developmental edit, the primary difference being the nature of the relationship between the writer and the person providing the critique. The reason I wanted to go through this was so that you could keep it in mind the next time you are asked to give a critique. Try not to focus on the language. Nitpicking over things like word choice is premature if the entire scene needs to be cut or moved.

Instead, do your best to look at the big picture. Do you like the characters? Do they behave in ways that make sense? Is there enough conflict? Is the plot interesting and does it have some element (or combined elements in some way) that makes it original? Does the story bog down in places? Those are the things that your critique partner probably needs to know in order to make the story the best it can be, not whether they have sentence fragments or they used a semi-colon incorrectly.

Applying Feedback

Give careful consideration to the feedback you receive, even if you disagree. Have you not conveyed something clearly enough? Are there ideas in your head that haven’t made it onto the page? Pay special attention to anything you hear from multiple people.

One last thing to note: not all feedback is necessarily right for your story. Know what your vision of the story is. Understand what you want the story to be. Don’t be afraid to filter out feedback that doesn’t fit that vision. If the feedback identifies a problem but the proposed solution doesn’t work for you, consider alternate ways to attack the problem instead.

Then you will be happy, your critique partner will be happy, and there will be no need for rusty nails.