Category Archives: * Writing tips

Writing with the senses

There is one piece of advice that I give to a lot of writers who want to enrich the narrative they produce when they write. I call it, “Writing with the senses.” This is especially useful for people like me, who have difficulty writing descriptions of people’s surroundings and to some degree, even of the people and their actions themselves.


How do you create such a scene in your readers’ minds?

Here’s how it works. You write your basic description of a particular scene, and then you go back over it five times, once for each of the five senses, looking for things related to those senses that can be added to make the scene more real. It can be a lot of work—and when I did this for a few stories, I finally realized why many writers talk about how much work it is to get a story right—but when you read the results, you will be astounded at how much richer and more vivid those scenes are.

I’ll use an example of a fanfic I wrote for the first anime series of Fullmetal Alchemist. It involved a complete (but ancient and utterly empty) city that was discovered in a gigantic underground cavern. It had some buildings on the flat surface at the bottom of the bowl of the cavern, but the streets and buildings also climbed quite high up the curve of the bowl. I had several characters walking through it, exploring it to see how intact the buildings are and how the streets were laid out.


EarI had written the basic scene, but I went back and asked myself, “What would the characters hear as they walked around in that dead, empty city in the cavern?” You might think, “Well, nothing. On to the next step.” But that’s not true at all. In fact, in a place that empty, even if there were none of the usual sounds of a city, even the tiniest sounds would be magnified.

So no, the characters did not hear even the small sounds you might have expected from little animals moving around in the place. This was in fact an indicator of how dead the place was. But the main character, standing in the central square by himself and turning and turning, looking around and up at the streets rising all around him—his leather boots made the slightest squeak as he turned. A character farther up the side of the bowl grew uncomfortable at the sound of his own soft footfalls and the rasp of his own breathing. And when he came farther down, even though he was still some distance away, he could hear what two other characters were saying to each other, even though they were speaking very quietly.

And in between these things was the heavy, endless hush of a city that had no other life in it.


HandYou might think that there wasn’t really much to touch in a situation like that dead city in the cavern, but this situation illustrates just how real you can make your scene. The character who walked up higher in the city had to undo his collar because the place was warmer than he expected (there’s an issue of feeling with the skin, right?), and the collar began to rub his throat uncomfortably. He found a tiny patch of fenced-in dirt that was once obviously a little park, and there was even a park bench still there. But as he touched it, the ancient wood crumbled under his fingers and he felt it turn to dust that collapsed into a heap under his hand.

He also touched the stone wall of a building, feeling it solid and firm and still whole, despite how everything made of less strong material had dried out and either turned to dust already or was about to turn to dust at the least touch.

Ask yourself what your character’s skin would feel like. Would it feel dampness? Heat? If your character ran a hand along a fence as she walked, how would you describe the feel of the fenceposts under her fingers?


SmellThis was a hard one, but this is the sort of situation where you really get to put yourself right in the scene and use your imagination. Just what would you smell in a place like that? Anything? Nothing?

Think about it. This is a city that has been sealed away and eerily preserved in an underground cavern for several hundred years. Nothing has turned moldy; anything organic has long since died and turned to dust. Doesn’t that remind you of places like the ancient Egyptian tombs? If things that are not made of stone (or the occasional bit of metal) are crumbling and turning to dust, that means the place is dry.

And if it’s dry, might there be a faint, almost acrid smell? Not a strong smell, because of how dead everything is, but it would probably be there, barely underlying everything else. A dry, acrid smell where even the air you breathe feels utterly sterile in your mouth and lungs.

And speaking of lungs, one of my characters, the one who was eavesdropping, stood some distance away and had a cigarette. One thing that had alerted people to the cavern in the first place was that someone had burst through its roof, creating a small hole through which both the sun and some fresh air were starting to come through.

This meant that there was now just enough movement of air that the two speakers this character was eavesdropping on became aware of him—because the slight movement of air wafted the slight tobacco aroma toward them despite his being hidden.


TasteI’ve left this one almost to the last, because this is often going to be the sense that you think you can’t possibly add to the scene. I mean, it’s not as though all of your characters are going around sticking objects into their mouths, you know, unless most of your characters are babies or toddlers. And unless your characters are either very weird or perhaps somewhat kinky, they also are not going to go up to every object in the vicinity and lick it.

So are you stuck only being able to write about this sense when you place your characters in a scene where they’re eating lunch, attending a banquet, or, at the very least, quaffing a tasty, satisfying beverage. Not necessarily. It is surprising how much you might be able to use taste in scenes in which you thought it could contribute nothing.

Take my story about the cavern. Sure, I had one chapter in which two characters met at a restaurant and shared a really tasty lunch, and later on, all of my characters attended a banquet. I had a wonderful time describing the food (and I took great care about what they ordered, and I read quite a bit about the ingredients, so I could describe the sensation of those tastes in the characters’  mouths). But what about when some of the characters were in the cavern itself? Nothing to taste there, right?

Oh, really? If the air is so dry and acrid, maybe there is the faintest dusty taste when a character breathes. Or a sterile, almost metallic, sharp taste as the atmosphere of the place descends and begins to affect the characters’ sensations. And that character having a clandestine cigarette while he was eavesdropping? He could certainly taste the hot smoke as it passed through his mouth.

You’d be surprised what you can add to a scene, even if it involves very tiny sensations, when you ask the question, “What sort of things might a character begin to taste in this situation?” Sometimes, it might really be nothing much. But there may be faint tastes that would be associated only with that particular situation (like that sharp, dry air that seemed to suck the moisture out of everything), and you can let the reader feel like she’s almost there, just by making brief a mention of that taste.


EyeI left this one to the very last, almost for the opposite reason that I left the previous sense: you might feel like sight is actually the easiest one of the senses to deal with when you’re writing descriptions. After all, that’s what most people think of when they think of writing a description. What does the location, the scene, the surrounding area, the setting for the next act in the story look like? Where are the characters situated? What is to the left and right? What do they see when they enter the room? What are they wearing, and what are their facial features? All of that type of description is what people see when they are in the scene.

And of course, that is all true. I’ve already written about ways of working some descriptions into the action. The purpose there is so you don’t have a big, heavy block of descriptive text sitting there like a lump of dinner your readers have to digest and allow to diminish before they can go on to the action again. So you might be worrying that I’m now suggesting adding all that description back in, in a big block, in the name of writing according to this one of the five senses.

Not necessarily. You can work much of the visual detail into the action itself, to make it less heavy and an organic part of keeping the story moving. But it’s what sort of visual detail you include that is addressed by this fifth extra pass through the text you’ve already written. Here’s where you can add smaller details or more details about something you have thus far only covered broadly. In my city-in-a-cavern scene, I had a shaft of sunlight coming down into one part of the city through the gaping hole in the roof. But it wasn’t that the sun was shining into the cavern; it was slanting into the cavern (remember how that crack snaked across the wall?), thick with tiny dust motes that seemed to sparkle like fireflies and create an illusion of life in this dead city. I could have just written about the slanting shaft of sunlight, and that would have been sufficient. But those sparkling dust motes added something that actually accentuated just how lifeless the ancient city really was. Not a big visual detail, but a really helpful, vivid detail.

You don’t have to describe every tiny detail of every single thing you see in a scene. Marcel Proust might get away with that, but if you do it, your readers will abandon your story by the second paragraph. But you can add some extra details to your description of the visuals, and if you pick the right details, they can really enrich and add to the living, breathing story you create.


Use the five senses to bring your scenes vividly to life

The same applies to writing with the other four senses. Go over your scene five times, concentrating on only one of the senses and looking for small details you might add that accentuate something important or just make the scene more real and vivid. It does add time and work—and maybe this really isn’t something you want to do during the NaNo but can do when you’re back to writing at your normal pace. But when you do this work in your story, you will be thrilled at the rich story that results.

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Descriptions inserted into action

Yesterday’s post about using a party or other types of crowd scenes to add to your word count made me think of other ways that you can do the same sort of thing—add to your word count, that is. But rather than adding entire new (and perhaps unplanned-for) scenes full of people, just so you have an excuse to go into detail about those scenes, you can add words in other ways, within existing scenes. The main way is by writing descriptions, either of characters or of the setting in which they find themselves.


Word cloudDescriptive writing tends to raise a great deal of dread in a lot of people. I’ll let you in on a secret: I’ve been writing stories since I was ten (this was some time ago, I assure you), and I’ve always had a great many problems, myself, with descriptions. I’ve never been all that interested in reading gobs and gobs of description, because I frequently find them boring—though that may in fact say more about the skill of certain writers than it says either about me or about description itself. And I’ve always had to labor hard to write good descriptions in my own stories. It doesn’t help that I have trouble picturing scenery in my own mind to begin with. (I’m great at imagining people, but not so great with their settings.)

Remember that the NaNo, for some, is about word count as much as it is about writing good stories. But here are some ideas about writing descriptions that might help you add value to the story itself, without just adding blocks of words for their own sake when you describe things.

ConversationSay you’ve got a character whose appearance you need to describe. It’s very likely that your first impulse will be to write two or three paragraphs doing just that, mentioning how tall the person is, what color his or her eyes and hair are, what the person is wearing, who he or she is related to or how the person relates to what’s going on in the story (why does this person appear right at this moment?), and so on. You might want to add another paragraph about extra distinguishing characteristics or quirks, whether those involve appearance or character traits. So you might mention that the man has a high, squeaky voice or that the woman’s deep eyes hint at an unacknowledged sorrow. She might have a lock of hair that wants to stand up, and he might constantly jiggle his keys in his pocket. On and on you go, for what might seem (to your reader as well as to you) to be hours, reciting a list of descriptive points.

But what if you could work some of that description into the action itself? Don’t lay out a big block of description all at once. Give just enough to provide a context or at least an entrance into the story for this new character, and then weave tidbits of the rest of the description into the story as it unfolds. Here’s an example of how you might do that.

He was met at the door by a small, brisk young woman who barely gave him a glance through her blue-tinged metal-framed glasses. She pulled down the white cuffs of her shirt peeping out from the sleeves of her navy power suit and said, “You would be Garth, I presume?”

“Yes,” he nodded. “I was wondering—”

“I don’t know how much help I can be,” she blurted, shoving a stray lock of short black hair back behind an ear. She straightened the hair for a second as she looked past him down the hall, her red-painted nails glimmering in the sterile light of the hall lamps. “I’m not very familiar with the field of study you mentioned over the phone.” Then she focussed a pair of disconcertingly direct blue eyes on him and added, “But do come in. I can at least hear you out.”

And there you have some important details already: this woman is short; she is also young. She wears glasses (whose frames are made of blue-tinged metal), and she’s wearing a navy power suit with a white shirt under it. Her hair is short and black, and her eyes are blue. And she paints her nails red.

Now look at the paragraph I just wrote, summarizing the description of the woman, and compare it to the conversation I wrote above it. Wasn’t the conversation more interesting than the block of description? One common approach would be to write all the description first and then start writing the conversation between the two people. But when you can work some of the description into the conversation itself instead, you get the conversation accomplished (which you wanted to do anyway), but you did not have to pause in moving the story along while you gave a lot of description first.

Remember the issue of using language that does not make the story drag? This is another way of doing it, even while you’re providing the description necessary to reveal someone’s appearance. The action keeps moving without a pause, but you work the snippets of description one by one into the action itself.


Dark alley

You can do the same thing with descriptions of scenery. You can add descriptions of locations in the same way that you can add them into conversations. Take, for example, that chase scene I was mentioning in the post when I was talking about using a party or other crowd scenes to add words. Here’s an example of how you might insert some description into one part of the chase.

They burst out the rear door, hardly noticing as it banged flat against the wall of worn, grimy red bricks in the alley. They clattered past several dented garbage bins that had been set out for pickup overnight, barely managing not to tip them over, and fled the short distance to where the alley came out onto the street.

“Slow down!” gasped Susan as they neared the streetlight at the alley entrance. “Try to walk normally, at least till we get around the corner.” She slowed her wild flight to something resembling a walk as she approached the alley exit, glancing casually but cautiously at the myriad little two- and three-person groups of people strolling down the wide sidewalk. She recognized the blazing lights of the theater marquee across the street and realized that the lightly milling crowds must have just left a performance—she peered at the sign—of Phantom of the Opera.

“Where to now?” panted Jason, skidding on the gravel at the alley opening as he slowed down, moving to her side.

A taxi sped by, raising a light spray from a couple of puddles along the curb; the light from the streetlights sheened on the surface of the road, telling them that there had been a light rain while they were inside. Susan could feel it as she breathed, in fact, that freshly washed air and cool humidity that misted the skin.

“This way.” She jerked her head in the direction of the corner to her right. She glanced back over her shoulder into the darkness of the alley, watching the faces of their other three companions gradually materialize out of the murk.

Before Lori appeared, her disembodied voice reassured them from the rear of the group, “No sign of pursuit yet.”

“Good. So let’s get out of here while they aren’t sure where we are.” Susan slipped around the corner of the building at the alley’s end and marched quickly down the sidewalk, weaving her way among the groups of people, trusting the others to follow her and thankful for the cover.

Jason pulled up to her side again, and she saw him glance past her at the warm interior and welcoming light of a wine bar as they passed its wide windows and walked under the swinging wine bottle that hung over the sidewalk. “I’m thirsty,” he muttered.

Here you have the five characters getting away from their pursuers (for the moment, anyway), but you’ve also established that they came out into a dark alley, at least some of whose walls are made of red brick. There are also some metal garbage bins set out there, just outside the rear door of whatever store or other establishment they’ve just run through. (And the pickup is tonight.) The alley opening, which has a bit of gravel in it, faces a theater with a big marquee, and the theater is currently featuring an old favorite. Many people have just left that theater, in fact. There is a rather inviting wine bar near the corner, and its sign hangs over the sidewalk in the form of a big wine bottle. It has also rained enough to form at least a couple of puddles and to film the road and sidewalk with moisture. It has made the air fresh but kind of damp.

But all of these facts have been established while the action was happening. You didn’t pause at all in these characters’ dash to freedom just so you could make the reader wait while you recited some descriptive facts, as I just did in the kind of boring paragraph I wrote after writing the action. You wove the descriptions into the action itself, and we noticed the details along with the characters, as they ran or walked past those places.

Wine bar

And you might have noticed that the addition of these descriptive details didn’t just let us know what sorts of surroundings the characters now find themselves in. These details also made the action itself a little more active—more vivid—more real and alive. These characters didn’t just “run out the door and run quickly down an alley.” They banged the door and almost overturned a bunch of garbage bins as they ran.  The fact that they almost overturned the bins does more to indicate the swiftness of their running than just saying the word “quickly.”

Remember that descriptions, of people and of scenery and locations, does not have to be boring even if it is a necessary part of your story. You do want to establish what your characters are like, and you want your readers to be able to picture at least some of what the surroundings are like. But you do not have to introduce this information in big, dead, boring blocks of text. Work descriptive details into the story more gradually, bit by bit as part of the action itself. When you can do this, not only will your description be more interesting and palatable, but the action itself will come to much more vivid life.

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Short of words? Throw in a crowd. Or a recitation

Arrow upSome days you just can’t get your word count up there no matter what you do. You’re pushing forward the major events you need in your story, but you just can’t think of enough to say to add to that precious word count. Everything already seems to be said. So you resign yourself to coming up short today, hoping that you’ll find a way to make up for the missing words tomorrow. Nothing else you can do, after all.

Nothing else you can do? Au contraire, mon ami! You can throw a party, of course. Or perhaps have a mob scene or some other reason for a gathering of people in considerable numbers. You might also stage an interrogation of some sort or perhaps find a reason why two or three of your main characters need to explain to another character—preferably in great, infinitely verbose and  minute detail—what they’ve been up to lately. After all, everybody needs to be kept up to speed.


PartySurely you can think of plausible reasons to have an unexpected party or gathering. Somebody has thrown a surprise birthday party for one of your main characters, say. That would explain why you haven’t written about an upcoming party, to this point in the story: your character didn’t have a clue that it was about to happen. (You can be coy about the fact that you didn’t either.) And of course, the characters around him or her weren’t about to mention it, because they didn’t want to let on that something was up.

Why a party? Think of it. You suddenly have a lot of people in the same room. Some of them will need brief descriptions, at the very least, as your main characters interact with them. It could be that your three main characters get separated, just when they need to huddle together and whisper in a corner about the latest clues that each of them has discovered in the past few hours. They have to peer over and around other people to try to find each other, all the while trying to carry on small talk with others nearby and not sound rude. If they finally catch sight of each other, can they catch each other’s eyes too? Or do they start doing silly things to try to get each other’s attention and then have to explain to their current companions what the heck they’re doing, jerking their head sideways like that and gesticulating with their elbow?

And when the three characters do finally notice each other, then each of them has to try to push his or her way through the crowd, which seems to be getting bigger and more obstructive with each passing moment. Just how many people have been invited to this party, anyway? Or have a few uninvited people actually crashed it? That could add another dimension of description as the people who belong there try to deal with the people who don’t.

herd of sheep

Someone might get waylaid by the principal of the school or by the boss or by her mother. You can write their brief conversation, throwing in small bits of description of the mother or boss or principal along the way. Does the person look a bit harried, perhaps, with hair slightly mussed? (Was the person in charge of the party, and is he or she a bit nonplussed by the crashers?) Are the person’s glasses crooked on their nose, so he or she keeps having to adjust them? You can describe how the waiter moves in and out of the crowd with a tray, offering glasses of champagne to people. One character spots a small table nearby and makes her way toward it, setting her glass onto it. Meanwhile, another character decides to find his own way to the snack table—acknowledging to himself how predictable or unusual this is of him—before meeting up with the others. He spends some time examining the various available snacks—and there you’ve got yet another bunch of words as you describe these delectable delights.

You could use up quite a bit of your daily word count just describing that party. And remember the idea of “winging it” or writing by the seat of your pants? Once you’ve thrown this party into the mix of the story, you might discover that a very important missing character shows up there. Or one of your characters hears a casual remark made by someone, a remark that suddenly casts a whole different light on the dilemma in which the characters find themselves. Who said that important thing? Your character doesn’t recognize the voice and looks around frantically, trying to listen in on every conversation within fifteen feet, hoping against hope to pick up that thread again and learn more. By the time you’re done with this party, your plot may have shifted in an entirely different direction, or the last missing element in the resolution of the plot might have fallen right into place. Your characters may decide to go somewhere, after the party, where they hadn’t originally intended to go. And the story may do the same thing.


Times Square in ManhattanYou could do either a party or a chase—or both! A chase provides just as much opportunity to build that word count in a hurry as a party does, and maybe even more. Your characters might be going through the secret files in that supposedly locked room whose lock one of them has picked so easily (and don’t think the other characters haven’t noticed that suspicious ease and that they don’t suddenly have private and disturbing questions about the fact), but suddenly they’re discovered. They race frantically away before they are recognized, and off you go on another word-building (and maybe world-building!) adventure. Through the hallways they race, rattling the knobs or levers of locked doors, trying to find places to hide, or stumbling down stairways, or standing in an elevator lobby as one character stabs and stabs at the “Down” button while another one keeps a lookout at the corner.

If they get out into the street, you’ve got an infinite array of alleyways, pedestrians, taxis, pigeons, shops, roads, traffic lights, crosswalks, weather, and cracks in the sidewalk to describe. Your characters could duck into any number of stores and notice all sorts of intriguing merchandise as they fly by, shoving their way into the back and out the rear door into yet another alley. One character might see the exact gadget that she’s been hunting for, for weeks, and want to stop and quickly try to buy it while the other characters try to persuade her of the urgency of racing out the back door instead. Does she stop? (And are there consequences to her stopping?) Or does she demand that the proprietor tell her the address of the store and then race along the back streets for a while, muttering the address over and over again so she memorizes it for later?


As mentioned earlier, there might be a need for each person in your little group to explain to all the others what he or she has discovered or been up to in the past day, as they’ve all gone about their separate investigations. Or the group as a whole may decide that they are in way over their heads, and perhaps it’s time to bring in someone in authority. You can bet that whatever it is they’re up to, it’s going to sound awfully dodgy to some adult or some captain or some older cousin or whoever it might be, until they explain the whole situation to him or her. In—of course—excruciatingly specific and minute detail. Oh, the words you can add as you do that! The characters might tumble over each other in the rush to make their explanations, so some things might get referred to for a moment and then be dropped as the group backtracks to cover earlier details. Then that topic is picked up again.

And of course there may be arguments. The new person will probably need to do the usual, “What were you thinking?” and “Why didn’t you call the police or our mother or the principal or the janitor right at the beginning?” speeches. You know they have to. And then come all the explanations about why this Just Wasn’t Possible.


But of course, there are other sorts of interrogations too. Remember that person who decided to take the risk of staying behind to buy that gadget she just could not live without? The others could get disgusted and leave, and then the pursuers burst into the store and she gets caught. Or the others could wait, and the pursuers could burst in and she could do everything possible to try to occupy them while her friends get away while having to leave her behind as a sacrifice. (This would be especially difficult if she was also the romantic interest of someone who functioned more or less as the leader of the group. That person would have to put the group’s greater needs first, and then would agonize over the necessity as the rest of them escaped. [More words!])

And once the person is caught? Or once the whole group is caught? Oh my, the interrogations! If they are caught by police who are otherwise the good guys but who still Can’t Be Told The Important Thing, there could be all sorts of travelling back and forth between two or three interrogation rooms, with the different police interrogators comparing notes from time to time or listening in on each other’s interrogations. They could find discrepancies in the nonexplanatory stories they’re getting from the three different rooms, or they could be frustrated at how similar the stories are (because of course, your group foresaw this possibility and planned ahead of time what they would all say).

But what if your characters are not caught by the good guys but by the very people they are trying to thwart? Those interrogations might be considerably less pleasant, if the people they are trying to thwart are not nice people, and they might include some nasty actions too, like hitting. And yelling, naturally. (She said, trying not to think of the Vogons.) If some members of your group got away and others were caught, then the escapees, rather than doing the previously agreed-upon thing and fleeing altogether, to nobly carry on the fight while nobly sacrificing their companions, would almost inevitably start plotting a very clever plan to enact a rescue of their captured friends. (This also provides still more opportunities for lots of words later, when the rescued people yell at the rescuers for not following the plan, before they finally relent and admit that, well, yes, of course they’re still grateful, but it’s the principle of the thing.)

Or maybe the whole group is caught, and each person has something to contribute to a wider (and spontaneous, naturally) escape plan that is ultimately successful—after a lot of questioning and tense moments with the bad guys, of course. This is a great chance for each member of your group of characters to show off his or her special talents or useful personality traits. If they can escape in such a way that the bad guys are immobilized or seriously thrown off the trail for a while, so much the better. And if, while they were captured, one or more of them learned something that is terribly useful for resolving The Big Issue leading to their ultimate success, why, even better still!

You see what sort of word count bonus it can be if you throw in an event that either has a lot of action or involves a great many people? You don’t even need to add superfluous words, necessarily. There’s enough going on in scenes like this that you could end up doing two (or more) days’ worth of word count in one go. You will probably think of several useful things that your characters can accomplish at this party that you hadn’t planned on but which will really push the plot ahead. So it’s a big win, all around.

When short on the word count—have a party!

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Not inspired? Tough. Keep writing.

So you’re well into the NaNo now, happily bashing away on your writing on the last day of the first week. Who said this was hard? You just need to meet that daily total and pace your story properly, and you move along swimmingly. You have spent several days now carried on a wave of enthusiasm, and it’s not hard at all. In fact, you’d almost call it easy!

Except maybe not. Maybe, to your surprise, you are suddenly not actually “bashing away” after all. After a few days of running on straight adrenalin, you suddenly feel the letdown of that initial energy, and WHOMP! Now you are into the nitty gritty of the thing. Maybe instead of watching the words flow like sweet, sweet water from your fingertips onto the page, today you are looking at a dry, cracked desert surface, waiting for that precious flow of inspiration. And nothing’s coming. What can you do?



Write in order to write

Isn’t it a little harsh to say, “Write anyway,” when that in fact is precisely what you want to do in the first place but are unable to do? Isn’t that rubbing salt into the wound? Yes and no. This is where the discipline really comes in. Think of people like journalists or others who write blogs and articles for a living. They have regular deadlines—sometimes daily ones. Are they brilliantly inspired all the time, so their writing just flows and never gets blocked up? Not at all. But they write anyway, because they have to. If you know how to string words together in coherent, grammatical sentences (and please, do learn grammar so people outside your own head will actually understand what you write), then you can write, even when you don’t “feel like it.” This is when you discover how tough and disciplined you can actually be. These are the moments you’ll be most proud of on November 30.

Even if you can’t think of anything brilliant (or even moderately worthwhile) to say—write anyway, especially if you do have an idea where the plot is supposed to go. Make it go in that direction, one way or another. We are back to what the facilitator told me in that novel-writing workshop so long ago: “You can’t steer a car that’s not moving.” If your creative flow is blocked up, you’re not going to get it unblocked by just sitting there. Start to force some words through. After a few sentences, you’ll probably find that the words are flowing a bit more easily. They’re probably nowhere near close to perfect yet, but at least there’s a trickle. And eventually, as the clogged areas of your brain are cleared of whatever it was that had blocked you up, you may find that you’ve actually written several paragraphs, and you know exactly where you’re going to go with the next several.

Or not—sometimes you just have to grind the words out. But do it.

Get a prompt

But what if you don’t actually know where the story is going next, so you don’t even have that way or directing your hard-written words? This is where it can be an advantage to be part of a group who are all doing or cheering for the NaNo together. Sometimes you can go there and describe how stuck you are, and others in the discussion can suggest prompts for you to write about. Some writing websites have lists of prompts that they’ve posted for each day or the month or for the month in general. Some will be too big to tackle if they involve major plot points, but some smaller ideas may just get things flowing for you again.

FireThere’s a sudden small fire in a room down the hall, and your character(s) quickly deals with it. Someone shows up at the door with a pizza nobody had ordered. Someone feels a lump under a sofa cushion and discovers a…what? (You decide.) There are fireworks in the park nearby. What is the occasion, and how does it relate to your story? Your character forgot to feed the dog. Someone casts a forgetting spell, but only with respect to a certain event. That little creature your character recently found in the garden is growing bigger every day. A duo of missionaries knocks on the door, but they are promoting beliefs of a very unexpected kind.

There are all sorts of things you can throw into the story to give your characters (and you) some new inspiration.

Write a different scene

So you’re stuck in one spot, primarily because your current scene is kind of boring and you don’t know how to get out of it? Guess what—you can write a different scene! Pick a really interesting scene that you know is coming later, and write it instead. Watch the words flow then! I did this once with a fanfic I did a few years ago. I knew that the story would end with one massive, climactic event that my two main characters would be in the middle of. That scene was written very early as I wrote that story, even though it actually turned out to be Chapter 8 (out of 9).

I would offer one small caution on this one, though. Try not to jump ahead to the “good scenes” too often, lest you “use them up” and discover by mid-month that you have none left. You do need something be working toward; sometimes it’s just enough to know those great scenes are coming, to help you get through the more mundane scenes that lead up to them.

On the other hand, when you have a few major scenes already written, they sometimes influence the story “retroactively.” That is, you learn something in a later, more interesting scene that requires you to change what you were going to write in an earlier scene. This new revelation might just make that earlier scene less boring after all.


And we’re back to the “chunking,” or writing in chunks, that I talked about in the first post in this series. There are ways of getting yourself moving that involve writing in shorter bits and then rewarding yourself in some way. With every “reward” you get, you are closer to the 1,667-word goal of the day.

Short word targets

There are some apps and online “helps” that are designed to get you bashing those words out. One pretty deadly app in this regard is called Write or Die (and you have to be really dedicated to your writing, because it’s not a free app). The reason I use the word “deadly” is that on certain settings, if you go without typing into the app for more than a few seconds, it actually starts deleting the words you have already written. This you don’t need. Well, not unless you want that to happen. Because you can at least choose your settings on this app, setting a time period (a certain range of minutes) where the app keeps track of your writing progress. On less “deadly” settings, if you go a few seconds without writing, it might make nasty noises or pop up an unpleasant photo, even if it’s not deleting your work. Whether this provides you with incentive to keep going or becomes so irritating that you want to stop writing altogether will probably depend on your temperament.

kittenThere is another website called Written? Kitten! that used to pop up a new picture of a kitten every time you made 100 words (or more; there were a few “100s” settings you could choose from). It was later expanded so you could choose puppy photos or other types of photos. This was a fun “reward” for managing to churn out a certain number of words. I used to keep writing just so I could see what the next kitten would be. However, even though the site itself still seems to exist, when I recently tested it, it wasn’t bringing up any photos. I haven’t been there for a while, but I think it’s been this way for quite a while now. That’s a shame (the kittens were adorable), but even so, it might be worth using this site just to aim at 100 words at a time. You will have to copy what you’ve written to paste and save into your own word processor document, though.

You might also consider trying a site called 750 Words. You have to register on the site, but that’s easy. Once you’re there, you can use the site to prompt you to write at least 750 words at a time. Once again, you’ll need to copy and paste what you write into your own document. The site encourages you by giving you points for particular milestones (especially if you write for three days in a row) and offering monthly challenges. And at the beginning of every month, you get new clean slate. Kind of perfect for November, don’t you think?

Short tunnels

You can approach a giant task by regarding it as one big, long tunnel whose end is, say, thirty days away—so far, in fact, that you can’t see the light at the end of it. Even a 1,667-word goal can seem like an awfully long tunnel, some days.

But you can make some progress on a grinding day by journeying through several much shorter tunnels, each one of which has a light at the end of it. Can you write a single paragraph, at least? Sure you can. So write that paragraph and then get up and go make a sandwich. The freedom of making the sandwich is the light at the end of this particular tunnel. Munch on the sandwich thoughtfully for a few minutes while gazing out the window at the great view or watching your cat sleep peacefully. Then write another paragraph and reward yourself by getting up and doing something else for another ten minutes or so.

You can even set a timer for ten minutes at a time, if you really want to be disciplined about this. Write for ten minutes (and be sure that you write), and when the timer goes, set it for another ten minutes and, oh, make your bed. Write again, and then hang yesterday’s clothes up in the closet. Write another ten minutes and then clear the dishes from lunch and put them into the sink (maybe even wash them). And there you are—getting your NaNo writing done and tidying your room or your place at the same time! (You don’t have to tidy; you can switch to other types of tasks too, as long as they are things you can also do in small, discrete bits.)

You don’t have to stay stuck even on days when you’re stuck. You can do a great many things to help get yourself unstuck, or even just to keep grinding on through this slow day. There will be more inspired days to come, so take heart and keep writing!


(Photos from Pixabay)

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Filed under * NaNoWriMo, * Writing tips