Writer's Block/Feeling stuck


There's a story I'm working on at the moment. The genre of it is mainly comedy with challenges in life here and there, sometimes simple and sometimes extreme. What I'm a bit torn about is the approach to take in writing it.

The thing is originally I had this story penned out with the characters in their final year of high-school. I sat down to develop their characters and flesh them out. When I read the finished sheet to analyze and edit I noticed that these characters had a lot of depth and history to them; their selves in their senior year contrast majorly to when they first started out as children.

When my beta had a look at it too she told me that she would be really interested to know the lives of the characters all the way up to their final year, as if she was watching them all grow.

It's a really interesting thought and I'm inclined to take the approach. It's because I feel that a lot of the characters would be better understood by the audience as they 'watch' them make their slow transition to who they ultimately become.

Now here comes my question: if I'm planning to write them out first in their much younger years (I was thinking preteen-stage might be interesting and not too much) what would be the best way for me to find out what issues and concerns they would realistically have along each milestone of their life, both academically and scholastically?

For instance, in their preteen stage there would be the usual challenges and concerns that come like change in friendships, physical changes (puberty), change in interests, identity conflict (feeling stuck between being a kid and a teen - and then feeling stuck between being a teen and an adult), recreational drugs and other similar topics (though this would come up once they're older, like around 15 or 16)...but what would be other concerns or issues, particularly things like a plot point or similar that could drive the stories rather than social issues alone? And for the younger ages too - writing from my own experiences is a bit grim and might come off as unrealistic as well since obviously not everyone goes through the same thing, though perhaps one or two of the characters might.

I'm just really stumped. One advantage is that as I'm staging this story back in time (leaning towards the 80s or 70s or 60s) there are plenty of chances for them to have adventures and other interesting experiences because they would need to constantly meet up face to face and actually go out and about for things to happen with no pc or internet around.

But what type of adventure? Especially for a younger age?

Dear Nada,

Thank you for your question; it’s very interesting.

As I understand it, you’re asking about how to set up adventures or experiences for your characters that will show how they developed in their pre- and mid-teen years. These events also need to connect logically with the plot as you’ve written it thus far. It seems to me that this question is a more complicated than it seems, so I'll present the answer as a series of steps.

First I suggest that you make a few basic decisions. Then you can try a technique mystery writers often use, which I’ll explain later.

<b>First Steps: Make Decisions, Then Gather Data<b>

The steps below are interrelated and intended to provoke thought. Read them carefully before drawing any conclusions.

    1. How many characters do you intend to provide back stories for?

    2. Will the quantity of information vary depending upon the character’s role in the story? (I hope so.)

    3. Will this work be a story or a novel? It it’s to be a story, you won’t have much space to develop previous events for the characters, and you’ll need to find brief ways to indicate backgrounds and influences. If it’s going to be a novel, you will need to decide how to unfold the characters’ stories to keep readers interested. (The reason I ask this question is because you mentioned that they will make a “slow transition.”)

    4. Decide upon what time frame you want to use. Childhoods during the 60s, 70s, and 80s were radically different from each other, not just in terms of what happened historically, but also in terms of what it felt like to be a kid then. Yes, things like puberty and social issues and the problem of finding one’s way happen to every growing child. However, these universal experiences manifest differently in different periods of time. It doesn’t matter which you choose, as long as it can be connected in some way to events in the current plot. Pick the time period that intrigues you the most, or the one you know least about. It really doesn’t matter. For now, you just need to stop floating and make a commitment.

    5. You asked, “What would be the best way for me to find out what issues and concerns they would realistically have along each milestone of their life, both academically and scholastically?” Once you pick a time frame, start gathering possible scenarios, stories, and snatches of information that might fit these children’s personalities. Just amass the information; don’t try to fit it into a plot yet. Your main goal is to build large collections of formative experiences. For starters, Google the following phrase: “being a child in the 19xxs”. Substitute 60, 70, or 80 for the xx. Poke around the Internet some more, focusing on children and your selected decade. Grab & save what interests you. A good tool for doing that is the free version of Evernote or a similar app.

Having done all this, you'll have some solid decisions about how to proceed and a vast amount of useful and interesting data. Now go to the next step, which is often called Reverse Plotting.

<b>Reverse Plotting: Effect Becomes Cause<b>

Reverse plotting is the opposite of cause and effect. To use this technique, you go backwards from the ending. Start with the current situation and go back what caused it. That cause was an effect of something that previously caused it. You can chain sequences of effects and causes back as far as you want to. Here goes:

    1. Start with the main character and take him or her back, perhaps a year or two if you’re writing a story, or a few months (more detail) if you’re writing a novel. Match events you got from your Google search to the character and make up other events or use bits from your own experience.

    2. Move to the next character. Go back roughly the same amount of time and give the character things to do or experience.

    3. Do the same with the rest of the characters, roughly from most to least important.

    4. Use different scenarios. Try them out on different characters. Just play around. Don’t make any final commitments about who does what or when just yet.

Basically, you fill in time backwards by assigning previously collected events to various characters. You’re in charge of time, space, and how people function within it. Be prepared to cut back on some events and amplify others in order to: 1. Make your point, and 2. Bring life to the story.

As events and characters firm up, you’ll need a way to track your characters’ parallel and overlapping actions in more detail. You’ll also want to map out when these actions happen over time. An obvious example: if it’s summer, they won’t be ice-skating.

Depending upon the complexity of your plot and your personal preferences, you could move index cards around on a bulletin board, lay out an Excel spreadsheet, or paint Rustoleum Dry Erase Whiteboard on your wall and go at it with markers. Or you could buy a roll of craft paper and tape it anywhere you want to work.

Author Mary Ellen Summer writes the best description of this process that I’ve seen: “As you fill in all the events that happen in your novel, patterns start popping out. If you’re constructing your story well, there’s a warp and weft of action and reaction, cause and effect, which carries your characters through to their fateful conclusion. If something’s off, you can tell in a glance. It’s like taking a step back and seeing the forest rather than the trees.”

I recommend you read her entire blog entry: http://mesummer.wordpress.com/2012/07/18/kate-becketts-murder-board-reverse-engi

<b>Advice in a Nutshell<b>

Plotting is a puzzle that you create and solve at the same time.

Play around with “it could have been this” or “it could have been that” until you know what it absolutely should be.

If you plan carefully and then carefully follow the plan, you should be able to write a functional draft quickly and fine-tune from there.

Good luck!

Fran Ponick

Writer's Block

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Frances S. Ponick


EXPERTISE: Unblocking communications is the main focus here, so all questions are answered publicly. I will answer questions from adults who are struggling with a book, a major report for an employer, a dissertation, or something equally hefty in business, science, or academics. I can help if you absolutely have to write something and can't get started, or if you've started writing and don't know what to do next. If you need help beyond individual questions, I also offer personal coaching, book doctoring, or critiques and analysis. I can answer questions about your novel, your journal, or your poem if you are under the gun because of a contract deadline or some other legal or workplace pressure. Unblocking communications is the main focus here, so I don't accept questions marked private.


Independent book doctor, author coach. Author of "Only Angels Can Wing It: Write a Eulogy Quickly and Present It Compassionately" and "101 Telephone Interview Tips for Speakers of English as a Second Language". Other titles in progress. Director of Publications at MENC: The National Association for Music Education, the largest nonprofit arts education association in the world. 1997–2008. Recruited experienced authors and developed novice authors. Their names are listed below in “Past and Current Clients,” and their books can be viewed on www.amazon.com. At conventions, gave presentations to nonprofessional writers: “How to Get an Article Published,” “How to Write a Book,” “The Publications Process,” “Working with Your Editor,” and similar subjects. Coached book authors and taught staff editors to coach authors. Ghost-wrote forewords for books, endorsements, speeches, marketing materials, presentations, proposals, technical writing, executive summaries, press releases, and other projects. Co-owner, Edge City Press. The Logic of Microspace, a collection of essays on rocket science used as a textbook at the U.S. Air Force Academy (2000). Senior Technical Writer/Marketing Support Specialist, Unisys Corporation, Publications and Engineering departments, 1984–93. S and TS clearances. Designed and taught classes in administrative, business, and technical writing. Wrote and rewrote all types of technical documentation, including proposals. Senior Technical Writer, Informatics General, Rockville, Maryland, 1982–83. Sole writer to thirty-five member Federal Marketing Organization. Conceived and created, wrote and edited numerous marketing brochures, commercial and government proposals. Designed document formats, provided hands-on assistance to technical personnel with documentation assignments, and edited their completed work.

National Speakers Association, Asian-American Chamber of Commerce

Some of these include: Contributor, The Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 282: New Formalist Poets. (New York: Gale, 2003). Entries on Dick Allen, pp. 3–15; Jared Carter, pp. 31–40; Frederick Feirstein, pp. 83–90; and Bruce Meyer, pp. 223–32. Writer for major area HMO, responding to 300 client complaint/comment letters, 1995, 1997. Managing and poetry editor, The Edge City Review, a quarterly literary magazine, 1991–2005. Arts critic for the Times-Mirror Newspapers, a community newspaper chain with a circulation of 120,000. Reviewed galleries, music, fine arts, poetry/fiction, and profiled personalities. Arts reviewer for the Connection newspapers.

MNM (Master in NonProfit Management; coursework) Regis University, Denver, CO. M.A., American Literature, University of South Carolina, Columbia, SC. B.A., English Literature, Cleveland State University, Cleveland, OH. P-ESL Certificate (Pronouncing English as a Second Language), IPL (Institute of Language & Phonology) Attendance at seminars and similar learning opportunities about twice a year.

Awards and Honors
American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) Deems Taylor Award for excellence, Music Educators Journal, 2004. Two First Prizes, Poetry Society of Virginia, 1999. Best Small Business of the Year Award, Reston Chamber of Commerce, 1997–98. Washington Dateline Award, Washington DC Professional Chapter, Society of Professional Journalists, Sigma Delta Chi (National Press Club), First Place for 1993 Arts Criticism, 1994. Award for Writing Excellence, DCI Publications Group, Alexandria, VA, 1992. Achievement Award, Independent Research and Development (IRAD) Brochures, Unisys Corporation, 1990. Exemplary Action Award, for proposal writing skills and for developing a data base of corporate capabilities to support proposal efforts, Unisys Corporation, 1989. Exemplary Action Award, for setting up and publishing a monthly project newsletter with sole responsibility for reporting, writing, and coordinating word processing, graphics, reproduction, and distribution while completing other duties as project editor, Unisys Corporation, 1989. Exemplary Action Award, for writing, editing and coordinating production for over 300 resumes within a one-month period for GSA STRIDE proposal delivered January, 1988. Commendation from Comptroller, U.S. Department of State, for designing, developing, writing, and producing the Budget Reporting System used by over 156 embassies worldwide, 1980. Honorable Mention, American Academy of Poets, 1975. University Research/Teaching Fellowships, University of South Carolina, 1972–75. Phi Sigma Iota Romance Languages Honor Society, 1975.

Past/Present Clients
Most recently, Selected authors include Bennett Reimer; Maureen Harris, Jody L. Kerchner, Carlos R. Abril, Charlene Ryan, Zachary B. Poulter; Natalie Sarrazin, Victor V. Bobetsky; Patrick K. Freer Karin K. Nolan, Elise S. Sobol, Michael Mark, Lois Veenhoven Guderian, William Gradante, Margaret Schmidt, Steve Eckels, Rebecca E. Hamik and Catherine M. Wilson, Janet Barrett, Michele Kaschub and Janice Smith, Charlene Ryan, William J. Dawson, Tony Bancroft, Susan L. Haugland, Kevin Mixon, Chris Tanner, David Doerksen, Carol Frierson-Campbell, Debra Kay Robinson Lindsay. Their books can be viewed at www.amazon.com. Also Rick Fleeter, Ph.D.; Kaiser Permanente; Unisys Corporation, and many, many other individuals and companies over the past 35 years.

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