Writing Dialogue: The 5 Mistakes Beginning Writers Make

Hi writers! We kicked off 2019 with a new 4-part blog series called “Craft Q&A.” In this series, we tackle real questions submitted to us by Yellow Bird clients. Each question pertains to the craft of writing fiction. Without further ado, we present today’s question about writing strong dialogue:

QUESTION: “I honestly feel like my dialogue could be a lot better. It either feels too stiff or too rambling. Do you have any advice about how to get better at writing dialogue?”

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Dialogue is a natural part of life, serving as a bridge between individuals and characterizing the speaker. Just as conversing is important in any relationship or interaction, dialogue between characters is critical to a story. It provides readers with a direct link into the scene and gives us a glimpse into the immediate thoughts of characters. However, crafting authentic dialogue is a challenge that many of us struggle with. It’s easy to overthink the dialogue, resulting in these common dialogue mistakes.  

Mistake #1: Using formal dialogue that doesn’t sound natural

 Avoid excessively polished dialogue that comes across as stilted and unnatural. You wouldn’t have this conversation with a friend:

“Hello, Morgan. You are looking better today.”

“Thank you for noticing, Alex. I am feeling a lot better. I do not feel as sick as I did yesterday.”

“That is good news, I hope your health continues to recovery.”

People use contractions in everyday use, so they should occur in your dialogue as well. Additionally, while we call out names in order to get people’s attention, we don’t normally address someone by name when we’re talking exclusively to them. The above conversation would probably look more like this:

“Hey dude, you look so much better today!”

“Oh, thanks! Yeah, I definitely don’t feel as bad as I did.”

“I can tell. I’m glad! Get more rest.”

Overthinking the dialogue can result in rigid conversations that don’t actually take place in real life. Making the dialogue realistic to your setting is important to keep in mind, as well as remembering your character’s personality and how their diction might differ from one another. Going back through and reading your dialogue out loud is a good way to ensure it sounds realistic and natural.

Mistake #2: Using dialogue that sounds TOO natural

On the other hand, many people say “um” and “like” in real life, sometimes multiple times in a sentence. That’s just the natural way we speak when we have to pause and think about what to say. However, readers don’t want all these placeholders when they’re reading text. While those superfluous bits are normal for everyday conversations, dialogue between characters is not meant to contain such filler. Reading someone say “um” between every other word can make it hard to decipher the meaning of the dialogue.

Maybe a character is talking to their high school crush and gets flustered while stumbling over their words. In that case, the ums and likes would add important characterization to the scene, conveying the overwhelming nerves that take over in the moment. These techniques can have an effective impact when used carefully, but they should be used sparingly — in most instances, try to instead let descriptions of body language and natural pauses in dialogue convey the characters’ emotions.

 Mistake #3: Not inserting enough dialogue tags.

Dialogue tags are such a natural part of stories that they are almost invisible. Yet, while readers don’t often notice them at all, there’s an art to these little markers. The main purpose of dialogue tags is to prevent confusion about who is speaking. They serve a functional purpose before anything else. Using not enough dialogue tags can lead to confusion about which characters are saying what, particularly if there are three or more people involved in the conversation. If a reader has to go back to count the lines in order to figure out who is speaking, you need to add more tags.

 Mistake #4: Going crazy with dialogue tags

While some people tend to forget dialogue tags, others make them more complicated than they should be. An overzealous author might write the following scene:

 “Where were you last night?” she demanded angrily.

“None of your business,” he muttered quietly.

“What did you say?” she shouted loudly.

“I said it’s none of your business,” he screamed back.

This exchange features redundant markers, particularly the adverbs describing the dialogue tags. The dialogue itself, along with actions, should convey the tone and mood of the speakers, so words such as “angrily” or “quietly” should not be necessary. While you may think you’re adding more description to the scene, you’re just being repetitious. Supplementing the dialogue with details about the scene can be more effective than adjectives and adverbs. You also don’t need to insert tags with every piece of dialogue, especially if it’s just between two people.

Some writers try to avoid “said,” opting instead for strong verbs (such as “demanded,” “muttered,” “shouted,” and “screamed” from the example above) to keep the text interesting. However, these can interrupt the flow of the story. Sometimes it is best to keep things simple. The majority of dialogue tags in your story should be “said” or “asked” so that you can focus on creating powerful imagery by showing the emotions and actions rather than telling them.

The above scene could be rewritten with fewer dialogue tags and more descriptions of the scene, such as this:

She heard the door creak open and looked up. “Where were you last night?” She asked, slamming her book shut.

“None of your business,” he said, avoiding eye contact while hanging up his coat.

“What did you say?”

He turned abruptly, looking into his wife’s eyes with a piercing, bloodshot look. “I said it’s none of your business.”

 Mistake #5: Filler dialogue

 Just as every word in your story should have a purpose, dialogue is no exception. You should never use dialogue as filler or small talk; instead, be intentional in creating meaningful interactions between characters. Dialogue can characterize characters in important ways or move the plot forward by having a character accidentally let a secret slip out. While dialogue can be a useful tool to add information to the story, avoid using dialogue to summarize events, and don’t use conversations as a way to dump information all at once. Pacing is critical to stories and specifically to dialogue as well.

 As with any writing technique, it takes time and many drafts to hone the art of dialogue. Also, remember that dialogue entails more than just the spoken word, so don’t rely solely on words to convey thoughts, emotions, and information. Dialogue is just one tool in the writer’s toolbox, so use it masterfully in order to create complex characters and an engaging story.


No More Paper Dolls: Pointers for Writing 3-Dimensional Fictional Characters

Hi writers! We kicked off 2019 with a new 4-part blog series called “Craft Q&A.” In this series, we tackle real questions submitted to us by Yellow Bird clients. Each question pertains to the craft of writing fiction. Without further ado, we present today’s question about building 3-dimensional fictional characters.

QUESTION: How do I make my characters 3-dimensional human beings instead of 2-dimensional paper dolls?

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 Characters are the basis of your stories, the driving force that grasps the attention, the reason why certain plot lines unfold the way they do. Readers want complex characters they can engage with, relate to, and try to unravel through the pages. As Hemingway said, readers want to read about living people, not a “character.” If a character is particularly unattractive (emotionally and mentally, not physically), readers don’t invest their time and energy into them, and the story is already over in essence.

 With some careful thought and extra time, your story can bring to life our next favorite complex character who is unique and fascinating in their own right. In order to do this, you need to steer clear of the overdone tropes and avoid generalizations that make your characters blend in with the vast sea of literary characters that already exist. To help you achieve this, consider these four pointers that will help bring your characters to life.   

  • Know the basics...of plot lines, genre tropes, and character stereotypes. If you know what’s overdone, you can actively shape your writing to avoid clichés, add an original twist to them, or combine them to create a new challenge. Creating a fresh plot line will help you create a three-dimensional character who can meet and overcome (or get defeated by) that challenge. Some examples of cliché character tropes include the Chosen One, the damsel in distress, the brooding rebel, the high school hunk, and the Plain Jane. Unless you have a particularly unique approach to subverting these tropes, you’re better off avoiding them altogether. And even if you feel that your approach to a cliché character will be fresh, you should think hard on whether it’s what best serves your story.

  • Give your character a goal…or better yet, an obsession. What do your characters want in the big picture? What drives their behavior or actions? What do they wish to achieve in a certain moment, and how does that get them closer or farther from their goal? Everything we do is driven by a motive, even if it isn’t explicitly clear. If someone desperately wants money, is it because they want to live comfortably or because they want to show off? This minor distinction is important in creating a well-rounded character and can affect how they would react when their goal is obstructed by different obstacles. Just as we need something to strive for, your characters should always have a goal in the back of their minds. The more intense the goal, the more gripping the story will be, which is why giving your character a single-minded obsession can be a great trick to kick the manuscript into high gear.

  • Complexity is key. Establish everyone’s skills and flaws, and then build on them throughout the story. Nobody’s perfect, not even fictional characters — they’re clumsy or impatient or self-conscious, among other things. On the other hand, everyone has something they’re good at, including the most incompetent character. But you don’t want to rely on just one trait to define your character, since that will lead to predictability in the plot. Give your characters distinct personalities that are challenged to grow, and don’t be afraid to give them a surprising evolution.

  • Create contradictions. Now that your characters have a solid personality and their goals in mind, have them contradict themselves. This interesting feature of the human condition is what makes people so frustrating and hard to understand, yet it’s also what makes them relatable. Contradictions are an unavoidable essence of being human, no matter how assured your character may seem. Perhaps your die-hard feminist character has always secretly dreamed of her father walking her down the aisle at her wedding. Or perhaps your philanthropist character can’t bring himself to actually give money to homeless people on the street. Draw from their flaws when adding this extra flavor into their personality. Their behaviors might go against their most valued beliefs or even their goals. This complexity in behavior may not change the plot immensely (though it can), but it draws us in to their psychology while creating some potential tension, either internally or interpersonally.

Though it may seem difficult, and even at times impossible, you can create a character unparalleled in complexity, precisely because that character exists somewhere in your imagination and only you have the power to bring that unique character, with all their quirks and attitudes and problems, into the real world. Just as your characters can transcend the tropes laid out for them, you also have the ability to defy the classic writer stereotype by writing and pouring life into your characters with the words and imagination only you possess.

Take Your Writing to a New World: Tips for World-Building in Fiction

Hi writers! We kicked off 2019 with a new 4-part blog series called “Craft Q&A.” In this series, we tackle real questions submitted to us by Yellow Bird clients. Each question pertains to the craft of writing fiction. Without further ado, we present today’s question about world-building for Sci-Fi, Fantasy, Dystopian, and even Historical Fiction novels.

QUESTION: What are some pointers for writers who are working on a story that takes place in another time, place, or fantasy setting?

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As exciting as Earth is in the 21st century, sometimes the best setting for a story is another world altogether. Many great stories take place in different timelines and dimensions, places where there are different rules and creatures, where the impossible becomes possible. Why limit your stories to the laws of physics and the history that’s already been written when you can make up your own laws and history?

High fantasy fiction takes place in secondary or parallel worlds, which can take an endless variety of forms. One of the best examples of a richly detailed world is J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth, a diverse world filled with many creatures, lands, and languages that makes it the perfect setting for adventures. It’s a world containing different villages, kingdoms, and landscapes, from the peaceful Shire to the declining kingdom of Gondor to the desolate volcanoes of Mordor. There are elves and dwarves and hobbits and goblins and many more peoples and races that have their own history and personality. This world takes on a life of its own, and it’s an exemplary model of how you want to build your fictional world.

If you’re writing a story in another time or place, you have the power to develop everything from scratch. Creating these immersive and complex worlds can be a complicated process, but by following these steps when building your world, you can ensure your new fantasy setting becomes a believable and engaging place that your readers will never want to leave.

  • Read other works. Learn from the best works of fiction already written. See how other authors show the elements of their world. As mentioned above, The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit are critical works to study. Examine how Tolkien develops the setting, characters, and the logic of Middle-earth, granting everything in his made-up world a believable explanation and a consistent history. Other classic fictional worlds include the universe of George Lucas’ Star Wars (and the Extended Universe that sprang up in other media over the years) and “The Known World” in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire. Find your favorite fantasies and note how they make the world work.

  • Plan ahead. Writing about this world is difficult as it is. Creating a whole new world requires elaborate histories and backstories that involve thorough planning. You want to have a general idea, as well as specific details, of this world ready to go before you write a single word. Be able to rationalize why things work the way they do in your world. You need to have a complete grasp of the inner workings yourself before you can hope to depict this world for others. The more intimately you know your world, the more intricate your writing can be. Here is a quick list of things you should have fully considered before you start writing.

    • The people: What are their language, practices, and customs? What do they value?

    • The geographical layout of the world: How big or small is your world? Are there different regions, and if so, what are their defining characteristics?

    • The history of the world: How did the present day reach its current state? Are there any historical conflicts that affect the present? What was the most recent event that happened before your story begins? How technically advanced is the world?

  • Make the world a character. Just as your characters grow throughout the story, so can the characters’ environment. Think of this new world as a character of its own. It should have its own feel, look, sound, and smell. The setting is your own creation that serves an integral role for your story, and it can grow as stories evolve. However, the world shouldn’t be the central character. Each detail you insert about the setting should serve a purpose, whether it’s building imagery or advancing the plot, so it’s best to avoid including superfluous details that don’t enhance the story in the long run.

  • Use dialogue appropriately. It can be tempting to divulge all the details and histories about your new world in a character’s monologue, but dumping this information all at once is boring and unnecessary. When used sparingly and smartly, dialogue and diction can reveal much about a character’s nature, as well as the society and world in which they live. Aim for a healthy balance that equally favors descriptions, dialogue, and action.

  • Double check the logic. If you’re writing a story set in an alternate timeline or a brand new world, that naturally means there are more loopholes that your story could fall through, especially as you find yourself taking your story in new directions you didn’t anticipate when you first started writing it. An event may be out place or a fact may contradict something you previously mentioned. Just as you should take the precious time before your writing to map out the details, take some extra time at the end to review what you’ve actually written. It’s important your details line up logically or else the invalidity of your world will undermine your writing.

Just as these tips advise what you should do, here is a quick list of things you shouldn’t do: Don’t write excessive descriptions. Don’t rely on high fantasy clichés. Don’t create stock characters. And don’t stress!

World building is not an easy task, but if planned thoroughly and executed carefully, you’ll enlighten your readers and bring them to a whole new world only you are capable of creating.

Show AND Tell: Navigating the Nuances of Showing vs. Telling

Hi writers! We thought we’d kick off 2019 with a new 4-part blog series called “Craft Q&A.” In this series, we will be tackling 4 real questions submitted to us by Yellow Bird clients. Each question pertains to the craft of writing fiction. Without further ado, we present today’s question about the nuances of showing vs. telling.

QUESTION: The classic writing advice is, "show, don't tell." But is that always good advice? Don't the best novels show AND tell? How do you know if you're "telling" too much, and what counts as telling?

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As kids, we loved show and tell day at school. Proudly brandishing a souvenir from a trip or a prized family heirloom, we would capture the attention of our peers and then describe the object’s elaborate origin. Our description of its significance and why it’s special provided a glimpse into who we are and what’s important to us.

This simple presentation uses storytelling and visual aids to stir an interest in an object people would otherwise find insignificant. Show and tell relies on effective storytelling to take us into someone else’s world. Can we learn something from this grade school tradition in our writing techniques?

Writes always hear the mantra, “show, don’t tell.” Descriptions of scenes and dramatization of actions take precedence over the exposition and summary that simply take up space without accomplishing anything in an engaging fashion. Readers love to vividly imagine the characters’ expressions, feelings, and actions that remain unwritten in ink. This ability to stir a reader’s imagination is powerful, letting the story unfold with minimal hand-holding.

A story that simply tells its readers what is happening loses their attention fast. But that’s not to say telling is an inefficient technique that is completely forbidden. Rather, it is just one tool in a writer’s toolkit that can, and should, be used. Just like any craft, the best stories use a variety of tools.

The classic advice should be modified to say “show more than tell.”

Achieving this balance between showing and telling can be difficult. Learning exactly how to “show” a scene requires a lot of practice to begin with, but with practice makes perfect, so keep writing and rewriting to hone these skills. As you master the art of storytelling, keep these guidelines in mind.

  • Avoid detail-dumping. When you are giving background information, make sure the details are necessary. Don’t overwhelm readers by dumping the entire backstory of a character or society in the first few pages. Weave these details in throughout the story when it is necessary to develop characterization or advance the plot. Write every word with a purpose, and make every sentence worth something to the reader.

  • Make your writing cinematic. Evoke emotion with your writing and give your characters enough movement so you don’t have to explicitly list personality traits; instead, your readers can just tell who the character is from his or her diction and action, or lack thereof. Use all five senses in your writing so that your readers feel an emotional response without you telling them how they should be feeling.  

  • Put your readers in the scene. This is a good technique to help minimize unnecessary telling. Prioritize first-hand information over second-hand by letting readers see the action happen with their own eyes (or the mind’s eye). No one likes to hear about a past event because they weren’t there when it occurred. There is no emotional attachment to the event or the character. Instead, if you’re giving important backstory, tell it through a flashback. Let the reader experience the scene in real time rather than read about something that’s already happened.

  • Replace adjectives with actions. If your character goes through a tough breakup or suffers a major loss in the family, they would feel sad. But how sad do they feel, and what do they do with that sadness? Do they completely shut down and withdraw socially? Do they reach out for consolation and company? Do they continue functioning as if nothing happened? Not only do these details convey their sadness, they provide more insight into how the character acts during this sadness than if you simply said they were sad. By replacing adjectives with actions, you achieve the technique of showing, while revealing more about a character than you would otherwise.

  • Believe in your readers’ abilities. By describing something rather than simply telling it, you’re giving your readers some credit to their ability to imagine what is happening. You don’t have to spell out every single detail for them. Instead, let their imagination take hold as you plant the seeds of emotion and action in their brains with your words. Push them in the right direction, but let them form their own conclusions and interpretations. With each word that adds to their mental scene, they’ll feel more invested in the plot and connected to the characters.

  • Write. Write. Write. Revising and reworking scenes is the best way to practice this technique. Your first draft might consist of you simply explaining the scene, and that’s okay. On your second draft, start taking out the mechanics of the scene and adding descriptions. The third draft should involve more rewriting, and the fourth and fifth drafts even more so. Making mistakes is a normal part of writing, and only through trial and error will you be able to learn how to perfect the art of showing.

“Show, don’t tell” is important advice to consider, but don’t let it consume your writing. If telling works in the moment and conveys what you need, do that. Additionally, showing doesn’t mean never telling. Explore the nuances of your writing to discover how you can incorporate both into your story or when you need to utilize one technique over the other.

The best writing finds the perfect balance between showing and telling. Sometimes, as writers, we have to channel our inner child and see how show and tell still has its benefits.  

Writer's block is just writer's fear. Here's how to beat it.

Writer’s block and I have a too close relationship. In fact, we’ve had a co-dependent relationship since last spring. That’s when my literary agent told me he didn’t like the sample chapter I’d included in my most recent book proposal.

I knew the chapter was weak when I sent it to him, but I had hoped the book’s overall proposal—I believed its opening was powerful—and strong marketing plan would supersede the sample chapter. That was wishful, amateurish thinking on my part.

My agent suggested I solve the problem by incorporating my proposal’s opening into the first chapter. I know that would work, but if I move the proposal’s opening to the first chapter, how I will begin the proposal? He had a fix for that, too—write half the book and skip the proposal.

Oh, lordy, mercy.

It scares the heck out of me to think about doing what novelists must do—write the book first. Since I’ve been writing nonfiction books, I’ve always sold my books on proposal only.

Can we say I’ve gotten lazy? Spoiled? Then again, after writing a half dozen (or more) book proposals, I know that writing the proposal is harder—at least for me—than writing the book. So why don’t I just go ahead and write the book? The answer is because of the last thing my agent told me my proposal needed—humor. Again, I know he’s right. I know that laughter—amidst tears—is what’s going to make this book succeed.

So since I know what the problems are, why aren’t I writing? After all, I know the writing excuses:

  1. Family responsibilities and demands
  2. Day job responsibilities and demands
  3. Major holiday responsibilities and demands
  4. The need for a social life, as well as the responsibilities and demands of being supportive of friends during their trying times
  5. Illness of relatives, friends, and even self
  6. The need for exercise
  7. The need for some plain and simple fun
  8. The need to find inspiration
  9. The need to do book research
  10. The need to take that writing class, go to that seminar, go to that reading and book signing
  11. Volunteer work
  12. Grocery shopping and cooking
  13. Car repairs
  14. Picking a health plan
  15. Doing taxes
  16. Cleaning house
  17. Doing laundry
  18. Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram, i.e. creating that platform that we’re always told we must have

The list and the excuses are infinite. I’ve used several of them to delay writing this essay. But since I know all the excuses—well, okay, at least 18 of them—I should be able to avoid them like I avoid potholes when I’m driving.

Of course, winter is coming, which means there’ll be cold and rain and the number of potholes will increase. And when there are more potholes in the road, it’s harder to swerve around them all—like the potholes of Christmas, cleaning up after Christmas, post-Christmas shopping, New Year’s, implementing that New Year’s resolution to exercise while coping with post-holiday exhaustion and trying to get back into a routine, college football playoffs, Super Bowl parties, and that writing class we’ve got to squeeze in since we promised ourselves we’d take at least one to kick start our writing.

I recall one such winter class. I was teaching it; we were discussing what keeps us from writing. I listened to excuse after excuse, most of which were reasonable—family responsibilities, day job, etc. Then … oh, then … one retired man told me he couldn’t find time to write because he had to play golf. At that, I snapped, “Then I guess you don’t really want to write, so just give it up and go play golf.”

The class gasped at my harshness.

But you know that old cliché what goes around comes around? Well, my sharp words to that senior citizen are boomeranging and smacking me right in my hard head. And they’re forcing me to ask myself if my excuses are really me telling me that I no longer want to write. I mean, aren’t excuses a form of writer’s block? Perhaps the ultimate manifestation of writer’s block?

Yet I can’t imagine not writing—no longer being a writer. Writer isn’t simply what I am. It’s who I am. If I’m not a writer, then who am I?

So I sit here and tick through my list of tips that can break one out of writer’s block:

  1. Establishing a ritual. When I was a struggling novelist living in Los Angeles, I always sat down and wrote when I heard a pianist playing a few floors above me. I thought if she could spend that much time on her art, then I could too. This time, though, that hasn’t worked for me. I sit down at my computer every day and the next thing I know four hours have passed and all I’ve done is Facebook and Twitter and paid some bills and walked in circles trying to get in my exercise.
  2. Lying on the couch and going to that meditative/day dream state between sleep and wakefulness. I used to know a man who worked on the original MacGyver TV series. He told me he came up with his best plot ideas while dozing on the couch. That used to work for me, too. Now days, when I try that, I find myself turning on CNN and getting twisted into full stress mode.
  3. Putting pen to paper and writing for ten minutes straight, about anything, without lifting pen off paper. And when I say anything I mean anything—how I’m stuck, how I can’t think of anything to write, how my hand is cramping because I’m using a pen, how I can’t read my own handwriting anymore, how I wish I were typing instead.            That’s basically the Natalie Goldberg Writing Down the Bones method, and it’s something novelist Wally Lamb says he does to break through his writing blocks. Me? In truth, that method has never worked for me because I want everything I write to be useful. And I find writing like that provides me with inane ramblings that go nowhere. But if it’s good enough for Wally Lamb …
  4. Watching a great movie or listening to great music. That’s one of the tips novelist Anne Rice gives writers. In particular, she says watching the film Amadeus inspires her. And, yes, watching a film can inspire me, but by the time I get home (I still like to watch movies in theatres), the inspiration has been totaled in a traffic jam. If I’m listening to music, I feel I should be doing something else at the same time—like paying bills, cleaning the house, reading the news or tweeting. So …
  5. Reading a great book. While reading great books is certainly inspiring, that also defeats me because I think I’ll never write that well. However, reading a rotten book sometimes inspires me because I think if that person can get published, surely I can too. But I’ve gotten where I no longer resort to that because I don’t want to waste my time reading rotten writing. I fear it taints the mind and encourages me to settle for less than great work.
  6. Taking a walk, a shower, gardening. I’ve heard novelist Jeff Abbott say some of his best ideas come when he’s in the shower or gardening. I know that when I’m frustrated with my writing, I walk out to my backyard and start pulling weeds. That generally accomplishes two things—my backyard looks a bit better and I break out in an allergic reaction to words. No! I mean I break out in an allergic reaction to weeds.
  7. Breaking out of my routine and going someplace else to write. That’s the one that generally works best for me. It’s what got me started on this essay, since lately I seem to have an allergic reaction to my office. I drove to my neighborhood Whataburger, where there isn’t any internet access to distract me, and I sat down with a pen and paper and jotted a few ideas, then a sentence, then a paragraph. I thought I was ready to get on a writing roll. Then I got into traffic, got home, got on my computer, and got distracted by Facebook and Twitter and bills and CNN and … this essay that should have been written in one day, is now a week in the making.

Years ago, a friend of mine who is a far more talented writer than I and who was a featured author at the Texas Book Festival, invited me to attend the festival’s authors breakfast with her. At that point, my friend was a single mom struggling to balance motherhood and writing. No, that’s an exaggeration. Due to the responsibilities and demands of motherhood, she had stopped writing.

But as we left that breakfast, we ran into Jane Smiley, my friend’s hero of authors and a writer who is also a mother. My friend asked Jane how she’d kept writing after she’d had children. Jane answered that you just do it.

My friend was furious. Maybe she wanted Jane to say I stopped writing and didn’t begin again until my kids were grown, i.e. an easy-out excuse to stop writing like I gave that man who wanted to play golf. Or maybe my friend wanted Jane to list 1-7 easy steps out of procrastination and writer’s block.

Either way, I know Jane was right. In fact, that’s Anne Rice’s final advice to writers who are blocked—write yourself out of it. And that’s really the only thing that works for me. Sure, when I do that there are rotten sentences and paragraphs. But as Anne Lamott says in her book Bird by Bird, go ahead, write a shitty first draft. At least then you have some word clay to work with and mold into a powerful narrative, just like I have that powerful opening to my book proposal that I know will work great in the first chapter …

If I can only figure out how to shape it … pull it … trim it … twist it …

Oh, gee, I’m twisting myself into writer’s block again.

It’s that danged co-dependency issue.

According to the non-profit organization Mental Health America, co-dependency is “an emotional and behavioral condition that affects an individual’s ability to have a healthy, mutually satisfying relationship.” In other words, my co-dependency on writer’s block is preventing me from having a healthy, mutually satisfying relationship with words and writing. (Yes, I’m going to believe my words and my writing have feelings and they’re happy when I put them together in an order that’s riveting, enlightening, coherent, and inspiring.)

Mental Health America further states that co-dependency “is also known as ‘relationship addiction’ because people with co-dependency often form or maintain relationships that are one-sided, emotionally destructive and/or abusive.”

Believe me, when I’m not writing, writer’s block is laughing at me and I’m feeling ridiculed, abused, depressed, alone, and like I’m a failure.

If I think back to when co-dependency was a trendy topic that everyone discussed seemingly every day (thank you, Oprah), I believe that co-dependency is about fear—fear of letting go of that abusive relationship, fear of being out “there” on one’s own, fear of being alone and lonely, fear of the unknown.


Isn’t that what writer’s block really is? Writer’s fear? Fear that the words will reject us. Fear that the agents and editors will reject us. Fear that the readers will reject us. Fear that our families and friends will reject us because of what we write. Fear of letting the world (and our families and friends) read our true thoughts and real emotions. Fear of being vulnerable. Fear of being hurt. Fear that we’re really not good enough.

I think back to my last book where I expressed my fears and insecurities and weaknesses and joys and confusions and some readers loved that, while others hated it and have shamed me for it.

Do I really want to do that again? Put myself out there like that?

As I asked myself as I struggled with the ending of that book and wondered how much of myself to reveal—am I a writer or what?

I’m a writer.

I do what’s best for the book.

So I sit down and I face those fears, battle that writer’s block co-dependency, and I write. Day by day. Word by word. I move the opening of the proposal to my first chapter. Sentence by sentence. I remind myself that I’ve never written a funny first draft, only a self-pitying one. Paragraph by paragraph. The humor comes in the second draft. Page by page. I remind myself that if I write just one page a day, by the end of the year I’ll have a book. Chapter by chapter. And I forget about writer’s block because I have a new, healthy relationship. It’s with writing.

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Suzy Spencer is an award-winning journalist and author of four nonfiction books — Wasted, a New York Times bestsellter and Violet Crown Award finalist; Wages of Sin, which was featured in the 2013 season of Investigation Discovery’s Deadly Sins; Breaking Point, a Book of the Month Club, Doubleday Book Club, Literary Guild, and Mystery Guild selection; and The Fortune Hunter, which was called “riveting” and “block-buster” by Globe magazine. In 2012, the Berkley Books division of Penguin published Suzy’s first memoir, Secret Sex Lives: A Year on the Fringes of American SexualitySecret Sex Lives was named a Publishers Weekly Fall 2012 pick, a Barnes & Noble editor’s recommendation, and a Writers’ League of Texas 2013 Book Award finalist, among other accolades. Suzy holds a Master’s of Professional Writing in fiction and screenwriting and a Master’s of Business Administration in marketing and finance, both from the University of Southern California, and a Bachelor of Arts in journalism from Baylor University.

AREAS OF SPECIALTY: Creative and narrative nonfiction, memoir, adult fiction including contemporary fiction, upmarket fiction, commercial fiction, women’s fiction, and thrillers.

AVAILABLE FOR: Manuscript critiques, content editing, developmental editing, first chapter evaluations, nonfiction book proposal edits, private writing coaching, media coaching.