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READ LIKE A WRITER, a teaching blog


Edgar Allen Poe was the first author to use an unreliable narrator, according to Harry Lee Poe in his biography EDGAR ALLAN POE (Metro Books, 2008). Poe used this literary device in "The Cask of Amontillado" and "Tell-Tale Heart".

When writing a story with an unreliable narrator in children's literature, authors are tipping the reader  Read More 

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Photo Credit: Gerd Altmann / Pixabay

by Christine Kohler


When I moved to a different high school mid-11th grade, I was short one semester of physical education to be able to graduate. My first day the gym teacher told me to get on a trampoline. I told her I had never been on a trampoline. It became obvious that she thought I was lying.


"Jump higher!" the gym teacher yelled at me. "Higher!" Then she instructed me to do a somersault, or flip, or some contortion I had never done in my life. Not one to disobey, I threw my body in the air, twisted…and landed an inch of cracking my skull on the outer metal bar.


"Get off!" the gym teacher shouted. She never said a word to me the rest of the semester. I passed the class, though I don't remember what grade she gave me.   


In fact, I don't remember anything about that gym class, except getting to swim with a Polish exchange student later in the semester. I don't remember any of the sophomores in the class. Not what we wore.  Not even group showers or the locker room. But I remember every detail of what happened that day on the trampoline. That is the story I tell—the disaster story.




It's like that for most of us. What sticks in our memories are the stressful, the terrifying, the suspenseful, the horrifying…the conflict-filled, confrontation, heart-in-the-throat stories.

Why, then, do we writers back off from confrontation and conflict?


I have a theory about women writers reared in time periods and cultures where we were taught to behave lady-like, to be peace-makers, to acquiesce to others for the sake of avoiding conflict and arguments. What happens is that these life lessons water down our fiction and we write too quiet. Often it comes out in the main character observing more than being in the thicket of the conflict and action. This type of writer can succumb to having adults lecture to the main character as the resolution, then the main character acquiesces to please the adult.




The only thing you can do about how you were reared is to be introspective, and acknowledge it. (My dad reared me to be polite, lady-like, to not talk back, to exhibit good manners, and respect authority. Not saying there is anything wrong with these qualities, but I didn't learn to stand up for myself, or deal with conflict or confrontation.) However, as a writer I have had to be bold in print, put my main character in a royal mess, and escalate conflict.




First and foremost, write the first draft. This is the finger-painting stage. If you get too caught up in psycho-analyzing everything, you can get stymied and stuck. So, just write the story you want to tell.

After the first draft is written, do a reverse outline. A reverse outline is a chapter-by-chapter synoptic outline of what is already on the page. Don't add or subtract. Be honest and stay true to what you have already written in that early draft. You are going to use this outline to see if your first draft has full story and character arcs. The reverse outline will show you if your story is missing plot points. It's also a good way to check the subplot and an overlay of the character's emotional arc and growth change.  




Ask yourself these questions:

Is the main character in the mess, or observing someone else's mess?

Is the main character avoiding conflict or confrontation?   

Does the conflict escalate?

Does the main character resolve his or her own problem?


Note: Lectures do not work. Every parent can testify that if lectures worked then they would have perfect children after each lecture.   




Look at conflict differently. Instead of focusing on the unpleasant aspect of the conflict itself, look beyond the conflict and confrontation to the change it brings about. Change for your character. Change for your character's situation. Confrontation can empower a person. The alternative is for the person (your character) to constantly acquiesce and swallow her anger. To avoid conflict is to go along with the status quo. Let me repeat that vital point: Conflict and confrontation lead to mature growth in your character and change in his or her circumstances.


Just as you cannot help a butterfly break out of its cocoon prematurely, or break the shell for a bird or turtle, you shouldn't make it easy for your character to overcome adversity, avoid conflict, or back down from confrontation. It would make the character—and story—weak. Instead, in revision, have the main character stand up to the bully or overcome the obstacle bravely and boldly. Hit the conflict and confrontation head-on, and, by doing so, you empower the readers who identify with your character.     



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by Christine Kohler


Children's book editors often say they do not want writers to submit rhyming picture books. Yet, we all read and love rhyming picture books. What editors really mean is that they receive in the slush pile so few rhyming stories that are done well that they don't want to wade through them while reading submissions.


As a former writing instructor and an author for 37 years, most unpublished poems writers want critiqued as picture books are written in iamb. This is the most common rhythm in English verse.

As one who is published in poetry in two languages, I suggest you experiment with different feet and meters.


Here's a guide to different feet:  


Iamb – a foot consisting of an unaccented syllable and an accented. (Ex. forsake; New York)


Trochee – a foot consisting of an accented and an unaccented syllable. (Ex. happy; London)


Anapest – a metrical foot consisting of three syllables, with two unaccented syllables followed by an un accented one. (Ex. Tennessee; "The Cloud" by Byron Shelly, "Like a child from the womb, like a ghost from the tomb…")


Dactyl – a foot consisting of one accented syllable followed by two unaccented. (Ex. mannikin; Leningrad)


Spondee – a foot composed of two accented syllables. (Ex. football; all joy)


Pyrrhic -- a foot composed of two unstressed short syllables. (Ex. go to; the boy)


Teachers and poets who do school visits, I used to write these feet on the white-board, then have students come up and print their names and mark syllable breaks, stressed and unstressed syllables. This exercise was always a big hit. I like to think the lesson stayed with the teens longer because it was connected with their own names.    


In poetry, when you divide the lines into different feet by breaking up syllables and determining the accents, this is called "scanning" or "scansion."  Scansion tells you the rhythm of a line. From high school to graduate school I scanned poetry manually. However, if anyone knows of a scansion program, please share the link in comments, and how you liked using it compared to doing so manually. 

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photo by Antonio Doumas 

by Christine Kohler


Solomon, an Israelite king who ruled in 970-930 B.C., was a writer. Most know his works PROVERBS, SONG OF SOLOMON, and ECCESIASTES. Solomon has a lot to say to writers.


For instance, in Ecclesiastes 12:12 Solomon wrote to his son, "…of making many books is no end…" (KJV) This is true in so many different ways for writers. Writers often have so many ideas for books or articles that they couldn't begin to work on all of the ideas within a lifetime.  There's also the case of "byline high." The euphoria of publication and seeing your byline in print is a feeling that never gets old. When I switched to writing books exclusively, I waved my hand at all the files stuffed full of published articles and stories and told myself, "I have to never care whether I see my byline again" to pursue this path. (Prior to that decision I had 5 books and one collection published more than a decade before. It took me three years without a byline before I sold another book. That was a long three years, wondering if it would ever happen again.) 


Solomon doesn't always address writers specifically, but his wisdom still applies to writers and their quest to publish. One of my favorite verses is Ecclesiastes 9:10, "Whatsoever thy hand finds to do, do it with all thy might." That advice applies in genres, opportunities, efforts—including being able to seek and accept critiques, then doing multiple revisions, and improving craft skills.   


Solomon wrote in Ecclesiastes 9:11, "…the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happens to them all." The Amplified version paraphrases the ending to read, "but time and chance overtake them all."    


The two nuggets of wisdom I take away from this is, one, to persevere. When I taught writing, I saw some of the most gifted writers stymied to submit because of perfectionism and fear of rejection.


At the other end of the scale, several times I had adult writing students whom I didn't think would pass the course, let alone ever get published. (A requirement for passing the course was to produce at least one publishable-quality article or story.) Then, low and behold, that writer would get a piece published, and then another, and another. Amazing. (It's a subjective business, so I was amazed, but evidently some editor felt differently. Keep in mind, I only had about three or four of these type of writers during nearly a decade of teaching the writing course.) The qualities I found these writers had in common were that they studied the markets, wrote toward the market they wanted to get published in, believed in themselves, and persevered.  


The second pearl of wisdom in this verse: there is an element of luck in publishing. We can't do anything about luck. (I once had a Curtis Brown Ltd. agent who said I was the most unluckiest author she ever met. Then she left the biz and proved I have the luck of the Irish. No luck at all. Ha, ha.) But more important than speed, strength, talent, money, what you know, who you know, acquired skill, or the elusive Lady Luck, what really matters is PERSEVERANCE!  


The king concluded the sentence in Ecclesiastes 12:12 by writing this about research, "…much study is weariness of the flesh." I would add that on-site primary research is also expensive. Not that Solomon had to worry about money.    


There are more rich words of advice from author Solomon that applies to writers, and life, in general, for any person. It's interesting to note that Solomon's father was King David, also a writer, composer, and musician of poetry and songs.


Another thing Solomon understood well is that we don't have to walk a given path in life alone. In Proverbs 17:17 he wrote, "A friend loves at all times." Choosing a career in the arts is difficult for a number of reasons. Dreams are big, but only a limited number can rise to the top. Art is subjective, and no matter how hard the artist (encompassing writers, illustrators, actors, dancers, musicians, etc.) works, what is published or produced often has more to do with the present market than the brilliance of the work, and certainly the creativity and hard work of the artist. Put another way, we can only do the work before us. The rest is out of our control. This is not necessarily true in other professions. In addition, due the isolation of writers while creating, and the necessity to network during publishing and marketing, it's important to make friends with fellow writers. Invest in reciprocal friendships with people you trust.           


I made one such friend years ago with author Christine Taylor-Butler (TRIBES series, Move Books).  She is giving 20 FREE copies of my novel NO SURRENDER SOLDIER (Simon Pulse) to Kansas City middle & high school libraries. If you are at a KC school library, leave your name, school, e-mail, phone number on my Contact page and I will forward it to Christine Taylor-Butler.

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Photo by Alexander Kliem from Pixabay
Backstory is like a pinata. You have to bust it up to get sweet storytelling techniques.    

by Christine Kohler


I started reading a novel by a big-name best-selling mystery writer in the adult market when backstory confused the heck out of me in Chapter 2. I plodded through to Chapter 4 when, voila, that same backstory, only expanded, popped up again. This time it made sense in context. In my humble opinion, it never should have been inserted as early as Chapter 2. [I put the book down early in Chapter 5 because of poor writing and frequent tense and first-third person changes in single point of view passages.]


When I taught writing for a decade, one of the biggest problems novice novelists had was knowing when to insert the backstory. It's understandable because often we don't start "at the beginning" of a character's story. Often we begin the contained story in a book—the one that fits a story arc, and will hook the reader, then take off running pell mell—media res at the point of impact. Or, in laymen's terms, at the point where the apple cart is overturned. So, we have all this backstory that we feel the reader must know to understand our character and fully appreciate how the character got into this situation, and why the characters respond the way they do. (If you are tempted to add a prologue for this reason, don't. See my article on the purpose for prologues in children's literature.)


However, if you front-load your tale with backstory, then you are as guilty of slowing down the forward moving plot as if you had started the story in the wrong place. Either way, you lose their attention.


In first drafts, get the story down. Don't worry about what is backstory and what is forward-moving story at that point. Don't even get married to where your story begins. It's common to write a first draft, then in revision to realize the story really begins on Page 5 or Chapter 2 or backed up even further to show what is called the "Ordinary World" in a hero's journey.


In revision, get out your colored markers. One color for "Telling" and one color for "Showing" (action). One color for "Confused" and one color for "Backstory." (I capitalized the words here to show I use T, S, C, B as my shorthand codes.) In the confused places, often caught by a trusted critique partner, you may need a dollop of backstory. Just a dollop though early on. Maybe only a sentence or two.


In the places you've marked as backstory, take another colored marker and highlight how much of that backstory in the early chapters can be moved later and still have the context understood. How much can be deleted all together and not lose meaning or add confusion to the present story (what the readers already knows or needs to know)?


Some genres require backstory earlier, such as historical in children's literature. Ingrain in your brain this fact, all children today were born in the 21st century. Their Common Core experience is limited to only things that happened after the year 2001, at the earliest. Consider anything written in the 20th cenury as history to readers age 18 and younger. That's why you often need to fill in readers ignorant of the background in historical fiction and nonfiction. Consider, too, that this would also be the case if using in the story any pop culture such as music, dance, art before the 21st century.   


This same situation holds true in children's lit if you are writing about a sport, such as parkour, that is unfamiliar to readers.  


Other cases where backstory might need front-loaded is in mysteries where the premise and stakes need set.


Yes, we need to bust the backstory into smaller bites in the beginning. Or delay it. Or eliminate as much as possible so not to slow the forward moving action and bore readers. But, unfortunately, we can't cut all backstory, or make a hard-fast rule to dump it in, say, Chapter 5, if the reader gets lost early on without it.  


As always, I welcome comments regarding this difficult writing skill.

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My daughter stands by the historic Chocolate House near where the Spanish Palace was bombed during WWII. (photo by Christine Kohler, available through iStock/Getty Images)  

Author Jenny Carlisle is featuring NO SURRENDER SOLDIER (Simon & Schuster) on her new blog book tour. Only she's covering the novel from a different slant. Instead of interviewing me on process, Ms. Carlisle discusses the setting, including photos of Guam.




I got a surprise call last week from an old journalist-friend, John Archibald. John and I worked as reporters at the Pacific Daily News, a Gannett paper, covering the West Pacific. Presently, Mr. Archibald is owner-publisher of Ouachita Life in Arkansas. John called me because Jenny Carlisle was at his house, interviewing him about the island of Guam. (Ms. Carlisle's book TURN, TURN, TURN: THE VIEW FROM A BABY BOOMER'S FRONT PORCH is published by Ouachita Life.) So, when you read Jenny Carlisle's article about NO SURRENDER SOLDIER on her blog tour, the setting info and photos are from her publisher, and my old friend, John Archibald.


Ms. Carlisle is right in doing a blog about Guam, the setting of my historical novel. Readers say it transports them to the lush tropical island, and to the time period of 1972 in an Old World Catholic society. Many military veterans who have read NO SURRENDER SOLDIER tell me that reading my book took them back to the Guam they knew.




My family and I loved Guam. My children attended middle and high school there. I could tell you so many wonderful stories. But I already have in my novel. When I wrote about the tourist shop at Tumon by the beach and ocean. When I wrote about the Talafofo boonies (jungle) with banyan and tangantangan trees, the river, waterfalls, and caves where Tatan gathered fruit bats to eat. When I wrote about fiestas, and Catholic celebrations, and school, and Guam Memorial Hospital, I took you to many places on the island and introduced you to strong loving families who live there.  (Reviewers also said they salivated over the food in the book. One Romance author even asked for two recipes for a Romance authors' cookbook.)  So, I hope you'll hop on over to Jenny Carlisle's blog and check out her book tour featuring the setting in NO SURRENDER SOLDIER.


While there, comment and win a chance for a free signed hardback copy of NO SURRENDER SOLDIER.   

Jenny Carlisle Blog Book Tour


Si yu'us ma'ase!

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ABC Radio Interview on Shoichi Yokoi, the Real NO SURRENDER SOLDIER

ABC Radio Sydney, Australia, host Sarah Macdonald interviewed (me) Christine Kohler, author of NO SURRENDER SOLDIER (Simon Pulse/ Merit Press), about Shoichi Yokoi, the WWII Japanese soldier who hid on Guam for 28 years.


Yokoi is the model for Isamu Seto, the old soldier in my novel NO SURRENDER SOLDIER.  


Click the link under Yokoi's photo to hear the 30-minute interview.

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Research peripheral topics of your subject matter to add details in writing narrative nonfiction.

by Christine Kohler

In journalism school at the University of Hawaii we learned about Thomas Wolfe and his concept of “New Journalism.” Wolf believed that engaging nonfiction should contain elements of a novel, such as eyewitness and primary source accounts, real people as characters, dialogue, and descriptive details. Today we would call this narrative nonfiction.

Some people use the term creative nonfiction. However, as I discussed in my last blog article about misclassification, creative nonfiction should not be confused with fiction. Considered the godfather of creative nonfiction, author Lee Gutkind said, “Creative doesn’t mean inventing what didn’t happen, reporting and describing what wasn’t there. It doesn’t mean the writer has a license to lie. The cardinal rule is clear — and cannot be violated. This is the pledge the writer makes to the reader — the maxim we live by, the anchor of creative nonfiction: ’You can’t make this stuff up!’”

There are even some who believe that creative nonfiction is a separate genre. I do not. There are other quirky and erroneous beliefs about creative nonfiction. Because of the confusion in terms and misclassification (see my article “Classify Your Book Correctly”), I prefer to use the term narrative nonfiction instead of creative nonfiction or new journalism.

Narrative nonfiction tells the story in the sense that it may set a scene, or develop a character with details, and add lively quotes. But these all come from primary and secondary sources in research. They do not come from the writer’s imagination. Author Darcy Pattison said, “Nonfiction writers use scenes, sensory details, and work for a traditional story arc with a problem that is resolved in a climax.” An excellent example of a nonfiction picture book with a full story arc is THEY’RE OFF! THE STORY OF PONY EXPRESS (Simon & Schuster) by Cheryl Harness.

Author Ginger Wadsworth said, at the SCBWI 2014 conference in LA, that narrative nonfiction requires four elements:
1. documentable subject matter as opposed to invented in the writer’s mind;

2. exhaustive research, with verifiable sources, to provide unique perspectives on the subject;

3. creating the scene to give the reader context around events and people;

4. a story arc using fine, literary prose.

It comes to what I harp on all the time. Writers must do deep research. In research you can search facts outside of the main topic to add setting and character and plot details to your nonfiction topic to make it narrative.

For example, in writing a Civil War story I traveled to Vicksburg and read 1865 newspapers at the courthouse research library. (Get prior written permission before embarking on these research trips.) The national weather bureau suspended service during the war between the states, so instead I read harbor reports. Civil War museums also displayed period dress and uniforms. My husband called a realtor and we were able to visit the Balfour House. Downtown I found a pharmacy with historic objects on display. The drugstore had been in operation in Vicksburg for so long that the owner’s father, a retired pharmacist, talked to me about folk medicine during the 1800s.

These are just some ways in which researching the time period can give you detailed factual information to breathe life into facts to make nonfiction narrative engaging and entertaining.


On a personal note, I want to close out this year by thanking all of you who faithfully follow my READ LIKE A WRITER blog. Since I’ve been writing blog articles for six and a half years now, is there any topic I have not written about that you would like for me to cover? (Once I got a request to write about what changed in this business in the 35+ years since I began publishing, and I wrote an article about that.)

Wishing you all happy holidays, and a hopeful writing journey for 2019.  Read More 

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by Christine Kohler

I was preparing a presentation for an international SCBWI conference in LA in 2014 on “Real World Facts: The Foundation for Narrative Nonfiction, Historical Fiction, and Fiction” when I became aware of the problem of mis-classification. Classification between nonfiction and fiction should be a concern of not just librarians.

When I taught writing for ICL for nearly a decade I used to be generous, calling a hybrid of nonfiction being forced into a story arc “fictionalized nonfiction.” However, I became alarmed when this classification confusion crept into professional children’s publishing under the guise of “creative nonfiction” or “narrative nonfiction.” It was especially troubling when authors made up dialogue and internal monologue and classified their works as nonfiction, under the guise of narrative nonfiction.

For an example of classification confusion, look at AMELIA AND ELEANOR GO FOR A RIDE (Scholastic) by Pam Munoz Ryan. Is this book nonfiction or historical fiction? Pam and her publisher Scholastic give a disclaimer in the front of this picture book, “Based on a true story.” In the author’s note, Pam admits that to make this a more compelling story she “fictionalized” it. Then she elaborates what is fact and what is fiction. I love Pam Munoz Ryan’s writing and admire her dedication to research, but in my opinion, AMELIA AND ELEANOR GO FOR A RIDE should be classified as fiction, not “a fictionalized true story.” Even if the author and publisher were trying to say this picture book is fiction based on facts, it gets hazy as to what classification it is in the way they danced around that the story is fiction.

THE KITE THAT BRIDGED TWO NATIONS (Calkins Creek/Boyds Mills) by Alexis O’Neill is historical fiction written in first person. Alexis said she included back matter because readers will often accept historical fiction as fact and she wanted to help readers separate fact from fiction. Alexis said, “The more they are aware of the difference, the more they will keep their antenna up when they read other works of historical fiction. I hope they might begin to ask, ‘How could this be verified? Is there proof that this person really said or did that? Is the source of that information reliable?’”

When School Library Journal reviewed THE KITE THAT BRIDGED TWO NATIONS, it placed the picture book in the nonfiction section. In an interview, Alexis called this misclassification embarrassing and said, “If a writer makes up even one teeny, tiny thing that can’t be verified-- a piece of dialogue, a neighbor’s name, an emotional reaction--the piece becomes fiction. Nonfiction means that everything is verifiable. But librarians struggle with this, especially if the book has biographical information in it. They want to place the book where readers are most likely to search for it.”

Compare these two picture books VOICES OF PEARL HARBOR (Pelican) by Sherry Garland and REMEMBER PEARL HARBOR (National Geo) by Thomas Allen. Why is Tom’s book classified nonfiction and Sherry’s fiction when both are in first person? Sherry used different invented characters to represent Every native Hawaiian, Every US citizen, and Every Japanese mother and wife. Tom begins in first person as the narrator of his own story and memories of that day as if in a memoir to create a framing to the factual information about the bombing of Pearl Harbor during World War II. Notice that Tom put all dialogue in direct quotes in his book.

What are some no-nos in narrative nonfiction? Made-up quotes. People who never existed or interacted with the biography subject.

Even in FINDING MANANA: A MEMOIR OF A CUBAN EXODUS (Penquin), author Marta Ojito, a journalist, writes in her author’s note, “I won’t put dialogue that cannot be verified as exact.” This is not true for all memoirs. I admire Ojito for holding herself to a higher standard.

What does this mean for us as authors? I believe we should hold ourselves to higher standards. We should figure out in the course of our writing whether a piece is fiction or nonfiction. Do not be wishy-washy in using terms such as fictionalized nonfiction or creative nonfiction. Pitch it according to the correct classification--nonfiction or fiction. Even in author notes, jacket flap copy, blurbs, and publicity, the author should make the classification clear, and if it’s not, correct it.

Once the book is released to the world, though, it is out of our hands. It’s like I wrote in my October 2018 blog post about how books take on a life of their own after publication. Once your baby grows up and leaves the nest, you no longer have control over it. If someone misclassifies it after being published, an author has to swallow it like a bad review. *Sing “Let it go. Let it go.”* Take solace in that you, the author, did the best you could to make the classification clear.

Until next time, Happy Thanksgiving to my Canadian and U,S. readers! Stay tuned, everyone, for my next blog article about creative and narrative nonfiction.  Read More 

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photo by voltamax

by Christine Kohler

Even though I’ve admitted to not joining in National Novel Writing Month (NANOWRIMO), this topic would help aspiring novelists to make their goal in November. I, personally, don’t like to drag out writing a first draft for a multitude of reasons. For me, it’s easier to revise words on a page than it is to get those initial ideas down on paper. For many writers, they never finish that first draft. It becomes the “novel in the drawer.” Imagine how many novels those type of writers could have completed and polished during the time they dragged out for a year (or more) writing the first draft.


I bought ART & FEAR for my daughter, but started reading it myself. I don’t usually recommend books I haven’t finished, but this is one I’m really enjoying in unexpected ways. I don’t think of myself as being fearful to create art. However, being introspective, I do some things that show fear, causing me to procrastinate before writing sessions. For one, I circle like a cat before settling down.

Examine ways that you hold yourself back from plunging into writing sessions. Are you critical of your writing? Do you compare yourself with other authors? Do you self-edit to the point of hindering moving forward? Do you get stuck easily, then delay days before writing again? Once you’ve identified the fear that holds you back, then it’s easier to face, and break those negative cycles.


I’ve confessed before that I’m a pantser, but mid-way through I reverse outline. However, if you are on a really tight deadline, outlining prior to writing the story will move you forward at a swifter and steadier pace. It doesn’t have to be a formal outline. Or a long outline. But just enough so when you begin each writing session that you know what comes next.


Figure out how many words or pages you write on average per hour. Then figure about how many words or pages you expect your novel to be. Often a certain line for different publishers pre-determines length. Or if you’re doing NANOWRIMO, you have a word goal for one month. Then do the math. Once you figure how many words or pages you need to write per day, and how long that will take, write it on the calendar. If necessary, make set appointments with yourself based on your schedule between work and family. If this seems unrealistic, keep in mind that if you do get a coveted book contract with a publisher, you will be expected to work on a tight deadline. It’s the old adage, “You make time for what is important to you.”


When you need to end a writing session, do so in the middle of a sentence. Or write the first paragraph of the next scene, or chapter. I write myself a note in brackets telling what comes next. Otherwise, if you end a session at the end of a scene or chapter, it’s harder to pick it up the next day and move forward. You may spend too much time circling the block, or from the kitchen to the bathroom to a chore, trying to figure out what comes next. Leave yourself fresh breadcrumbs in the forest of doubt.


I’ve written about recursive before in a blog article “Getting Unstuck.” Recursive writing is when you write one day, then the next day you go back and read and tweak what you wrote, then move forward. The trick is that you can’t start from the beginning after your second day of writing. Also, don’t get bogged down in heavy rewrites or you won’t be able to move forward.


Again, I recommend you read my article “Getting Unstuck.” [Articles on this Authors Guild website are easier to find by title on the Blogletter tab than they are on the Blog tab.]

Twice I’ve been in family-life situations where I could not write long hours and every day. Both times my first draft dragged out longer than usual. And in both instances, I had a harder time getting into the writing each session, and got stuck more often. What I did in both cases was this little trick. When I found myself taking excruciating long to move forward, I wrote what scene needed to happen next in brackets, then skipped writing that scene. When I told myself in writing what needed to happen next, I didn’t bother to do so in the tense or person or voice of the novel.

For example, I don’t drink or go to clubs. But I needed to write a scene where the protagonist is at drinking and dancing at a club, and discovers her stalker is present at the club with her. I must have been stuck for two weeks on not being able to write that scene. So, finally, I put what needed to happen in brackets, then moved to the next scene where my protagonist leaves the club, drives home, and is arrested for DUI. I had no problem writing that scene and rolling forward.

What happened in the cases where I skipped writing out scenes, but made notations to myself in brackets, was that in revisions I told myself, “Your only job today is to write this scene.” In some instances, it took me two days to write that scene. But when I did it was fully developed.

The main thing to keep in mind with all of these suggestions, from overcoming fear to getting unstuck, is that the first draft is like finger painting. Your job is to get the idea down on paper. It’s not a finished work of art. It’s only the line drawing, or the colors smeared around. Finger painting is messy. But have fun with it. Revision is where you flesh out the characters and scenes and strengthen the story arc and plot strands. It’s where your finger painting takes form and shape and because a recognizable picture. Tell yourself, “This is the first draft, it’s supposed to be messy.” Then just do it.  Read More 

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