Only nine plots exist

Stacks of books in a store

Photo via Visualhunt.

As of this writing, Google tells me there are 129,864,880 books in the world. Mentalfloss tells me there are 134,021,533. The actual count is probably higher since neither figure was calculated this year and it’s impossible to accurately count self-published books, since not all of them have an ISBN.

So, how can I be so brazen as to say there are only nine plots—only nine basic stories—in this world?

Here’s an example:

An orphaned child is abused by relatives. The child dreams of different life but cannot fight against their fate. A person wielding magic steps in and gives the child a chance to be whisked off to a castle, where the child is able to see their self-worth. They are eventually forced back home and the relatives fight hard to keep the child from returning to the castle, but thanks in part to good friends and a bit of magic, they are able to make it back and leave behind their abusive childhood home.

Am I talking about Cinderella? Or Harry Potter?

Obviously that is a simplified example, but you get my meaning. A better example would be all the novels based on the same fairy tale, such as Cinderella. They are all so unique and different (and there are plenty more than I’ve just linked to), and yet they follow the same plot.

And that’s just ONE plot!

But there are nine, and it is the writer’s job to choose one and make it unique with their own characters, details, and voice.

The only nine plots in existence

Character vs Character
Character vs Him/Herself
Character vs Culture/Society
Character vs Setting
Character vs Situation
Character vs God(s)
Character vs Fate
Character vs the Unknown
Character vs Machine

All stories have their plot based in one of these conflicts. So, if you’re wrestling with your story because it sounds tired and overdone, consider how you might make it fresh and exciting. Every plot has been done multiple times, and when stripped to its bones, yes, your story may sound familiar.

But you are the only you that there is. Only you can make your story different than all of the others, because no other writer has your voice. What changes can you make to reenergize your plot and to give it a beat of its own to march to?

Finish that story and up the total count of books released into the world. I know you have it in you!

Do you tend to gravitate toward a certain plot for most of your stories? Or are each of your stories different from the others? I really like character driven stories with lots of interpersonal conflict, so I tend to write Character vs Character or Character vs Culture/Society stories. What’s your favorite to read? Is it different than what you like to write?

Why I write

Hiker walking a path in the mountains

Photo via Visualhunt.

A person with a clear purpose will make progress on even the toughest road. A person with no purpose will make no progress on even the smoothest road. –Thomas Carlyle

Why do you write? If you don’t know the answer to this, you will have a hard time completing your stories.

I write to quiet the stories in my head. They won’t leave me alone—they haunt both my dreams and my daydreams—until I spill them out onto paper. I also write because as a teenager I desperately needed the escape books offered me. I’d like to offer a safe place to escape to for someone else who needs it.

So, why do you write? Share your purpose in the comments!

How to start writing when you feel stuck

Writer tapping pencil on blank notebook

Photo via Visualhunt.

Ever had a writing assignment or a new story idea, but the blank screen or notebook page kept mocking you in silence? Just me? I find that blinking cursor to be particularly impertinent. As if it’s saying, “Why. Aren’t. You. Writing. Any. Thing. Yet? Are. You. That. Inept?”

Cheeky little brat.

Well, never fear. With these steps you’ll be able to wipe that smug look off of its face with the punch of a few keys, before it can even blink another insult at you.

Figure out what you’re writing first

The first and most important step before you write a single word is to know what you’re trying to write. Most likely, not knowing what you’re writing exactly is what’s paralyzing you. Answering the question “What am I writing?” sounds simple, and it is, but that doesn’t mean it’s always easy. Is it an article? Is it a poem? Is it a story? Is it a school assignment? Okay, that’s the easy part.

Here’s the harder part: If it’s an article, what is its purpose—to encourage, to educate, to inspire? If it’s a poem or story, what kind is it? Is it romantic? An adventure? Is it tragic? Do you have a specific message you’re trying to get across? Do you want to spur people into action or just leave them with a warm feeling in their hearts?

In short, what is the point? What are you really trying to say?

Once you’ve wrestled with that and have come to a conclusion, the rest with follow. If you try to plunge into it without really knowing what you’re writing, you’ll end up with a lot of wasted words as you cut, rewrite, and edit repeatedly.

Need an example? I’m writing a blog post to help budding writers get over the feeling of paralysis that comes with a new project. I’ll provide concrete steps to follow so that their blank page becomes a finished project with the least amount of hair pulled out as possible.

Next, make a loose outline

As a student, I always hated outlines. Teachers would make me fill out outline worksheets before I could write my research paper, like this:

Example of an outline using Roman numerals and alphabet letters

Just writing that out for this post made me shudder. Ugh. I really hated those things. Sometimes I found it easier to secretly write my paper first and then make the outline match afterword.

But that’s not the kind of outline I’m talking about here. You don’t need anything that formal or rigid. Blog post outlines are the easiest examples, so here, you can see mine for this post:

A text document showing the title and subheads for this post

As you can see, I figured out what I was writing about and put that at the top. For blog posts, that’s a good place to start for the title. An opening sentence to flesh out the title/the point of the post can help. Next, I wrote the subheads that will lead each point so that as I’m writing the post I don’t lose my way. It makes writing blog posts quicker and less rambly (because I am definitely prone to rambling).

If I’m honest, this kind of outline isn’t that different from my school-age outlines, but it’s much more casual. I find the end result feels less wooden, too (blog post vs research paper), which I consider a boon.

Outlining like this works for stories, too. What do I want to write? How about a YA romance that encourages friendships before relationships? Great, now I know what I’m writing about. Let’s flesh it out a bit: The story is about a two high schoolers, Nathan and Amy, who struggle to fit in at school but find a place of belonging in each other. Okay. What’s my outline?

Amy is new. She is sweet but quiet; she doesn’t stand out. She meets Nathan in class. He is very showy and a know-it-all, and doesn’t mind disrupting class because he likes the attention. He finds her unflappability fascinating.

It is quickly evident to all, especially the teachers, that Amy and Nathan pair well. Nathan is smart but Amy can keep up, so he competes privately with her instead of annoying everyone else with his competitive spirit. She also accepts his quirks without judgement, which in turn tones him down. Their schedules are arranged so they share many of their classes, which allows Nathan’s classes to run more smoothly.

They learn about each other. Nathan is from a big family full of big personalities, and he’s had trouble finding his place. He deals with loneliness by trying to draw attention. Amy lives with her single mom, and has developed a “good girl” personality to anchor her drained mother at the expense of her own needs. She is the first to recognize in Nathan her own struggles with loneliness, and sharing this thought with Nathan seals their friendship.

Amy’s mother is in a car crash and is hospitalized. It is the first time Nathan witnesses Amy crying. They struggle through their new roles of Amy depending on Nathan (instead of vice versa), but the process turns their friendship into a relationship. Both gain confidence in themselves and their own abilities, as well as find a place of belonging in each other.

Amy’s mother comes home. Nathan’s family warmly welcomes her and Amy, and the families develop a tight bond. Nathan and Amy make a private promise to love each other always as the story ends.

There! Now I have my whole story outlined, whipped up in a few minutes. All that’s left is to flesh out the parts I’ve already decided and then smooth those together with new writing for the parts I don’t have yet (maybe there’s a subplot about how Nathan relates to his siblings, or Amy has a part time job).

It’s much easier to write a novel this way since I know where I’m going. I don’t have to make it up as I go along, only to end up throwing out large chunks that don’t work with the new direction the story ends up taking me. Or worse, write myself into a corner and end up having to abandon the project. I was able to work out those awful kinks in the outline in a few minutes instead of wasting days or weeks fighting them in the body of my novel.

Side note: Your outline isn’t written in stone. Remember, it’s casual, not rigid like school outlines that are judged by a teacher. It’s a tool to help you write your story without inhibition, but if something doesn’t work or you come up with a better idea, it’s okay to change the outline. Just fix the outline before you write any more in your project to save yourself some time.

Fill out each point in your outline

This next step is fairly obvious. Take a look at that image of my blog post outline and compare it to the actual post you’re reading. See how it’s fleshed out with all these paragraphs full of details? I just went point by point and explained what I meant by each subhead. It’s really that simple.

The handy thing about outlines is that they keep you from losing your way, so you can choose to write from the beginning to the end, or to skip around from point to point (or in the case of a story, scene to scene), as you see fit, until all the points (scenes) are addressed. Write in whatever order is easiest for you.

Smooth things together

Here’s where you make sure the piece flows together as a whole. This is particularly important if in the previous step you jumped around instead of writing consecutively from start to finish. Did you reference things your reader hasn’t gotten to yet, because you wrote it out of order? Do you need a transition from point A to point C? Better write that point B now.

Read your piece from start to finish and note any clunky parts… and then fix those clunky parts. This is the time to look at the big picture, rather than worrying about little things like word choice, typos, or punctuation. It’s the first stage of editing, but it doesn’t feel that way because it still involves a lot of writing.

Edit, edit, edit. And then edit again.

Now you’re elbows deep in editing. This is where you read through your piece looking for all of the little things. If you liken your writing to hair, you’ve already finger combed through it, so it’s more or less presentable. But now it’s time to go through with a brush and get all of the tangles out.

Once you’ve done that… you’re still not done. This time, read your piece out loud to yourself. I promise you will find more things that need tinkering that way. When we’re forced to read something aloud, we catch things our eyes gloss over when reading silently because they’re used to seeing it.

Our minds have a habit of filling in any accidental blanks with what’s supposed to be there, which reading in a new way can help you catch. Reading your work aloud will also help you notice weird rhythms, repetitive words, or accidental alliterations (ha!) that you might not have noticed while reading in your head.

Once you’ve done that… you’re STILL not done! This time you let the piece rest. You close the document, you put the notebook in a drawer, you lock your writing in a chest and bury it on a deserted island—whatever you have to do to ignore it for a while and not take a peek.

How long you let it rest depends on its length. Something shorter like a blog post can rest a few hours to overnight. Something long like a novel probably should rest one to three months. After the rest, you’ll come back to it with fresh eyes and be able to spot things you couldn’t before, and you’ll also be able to polish the best parts to make them even better.

I followed these steps with this post, too. Can you spot the differences between the current post and my original outline? I stuck pretty close to it, but there were some changes.

You’re done!

Now you can submit that assignment or give your story to someone else to read with confidence. Look at that! You were stuck on a blank page, not knowing how to start, and now you’ve got a finished piece. Not bad, eh?

How do you get started when you don’t know where to begin? Maybe your method is more simple than mine, like putting on your lucky writing hat, or using a writing prompt (like “write a poem that uses the words ‘silver,’ ‘toad,’ and ‘happy’ “). After all, “figure out what you’re writing” sounds simple, but often can be the hardest part! By the way, am I really the only one who loathes that blinky little line on my screen that I swear judges me every time I hesitate when typing? Please tell me I’m not alone.

7 steps to re-establishing your writing habit

Freshly sharpened pencil on notebook

Photo via Visualhunt.

It’s happened to all of us. You have this great idea, or these characters that won’t leave your thoughts alone, and you start writing in earnest only to trail off and leave the project unfinished. Or you decide that you’re going to write for at least 30 minutes every day, but after a week of daily successes you have to miss a day (you’re sick, you’re running late, etc.). Before you know it you’ve fallen off the wagon and you’re not writing at all.

Or maybe you committed to writing one blog post a week, and somehow it’s been four weeks since your last post… like me. Oops. How do you pick up the habit again?

Forgive yourself

The people who succeed in their goals aren’t the ones who never make mistakes. They’re the people who don’t give up. So, when you recognize you’ve made a mistake, don’t waste energy beating yourself up or assume it’s too late to start again. It’s never too late! Give yourself permission to let go of the guilt—and then buckle down and do the work.

This is not only true for re-establishing habits, but also for perfectionism. You’re not a writer if you don’t write. But if you write, you’re a writer, even if it isn’t published. Don’t worry about how it sounds when your ideas come out of your head. Just focus on putting the words to paper (or screen). There’s a reason why every writer revises—even the best of the best don’t get it perfect the first time!

Remember why you write

It’s easy to lose your focus when you don’t remember why you’re even doing this in the first place. Why are you writing? Is it to complete a novel? Is it to submit articles and see your name in print/online? Is it to practice so your skills improve, rather than to show anyone else? Is it for fun? Different goals require different kinds of habits. Knowing why you want to write helps you build more effective writing habits.

Visualize the end goal

Once you know WHY you want to write, it’s time to visualize what that goal looks like. For me, I write this blog to get in the habit of writing more often. I love to write, but it’s easy for me to let other things take priority. And I want to be in the habit of writing because I want to complete and publish my novels.

So the goal that I’m visualizing is that I’m a published author with multiple novels for sale, with an author blog that posts regularly and receives a number of comments in return. Having this clear image in mind when I’m tempted to let things slide makes it easier to follow through with my writing habits. It also helps keep me from getting discouraged when I lose sight of why I’m doing this.

Sometimes it helps to think about how I’ll feel too, both positively and negatively. Let’s say I become the published author I’ve visualized. Imagining myself this way makes me feel accomplished and proud of myself. I feel energized and want to accomplish even more, knowing the hard work pays off.

But what if I don’t reach that goal? What if I don’t write? I’ll wonder why I’ve been so busy with things that don’t have long-term results. I’ll feel embarrassed for always wishing but never doing what I’ve wanted to do for years, and I’ll regret not having pursued my dreams. I’ll have nothing to show for all the thoughts and stories in my head that occupy my time.

This yucky feeling is usually enough for me to set my course straight again when I’ve let myself get distracted. Kind of like how watching the show Hoarders makes me want to clean and organize my house.

Discern what went wrong

Our lives aren’t static, and sometimes even good habits that are well established break when our lives begin to shift. Other times it’s pretty obvious that our bad behavior is at fault. What went wrong in your case? In mine, my weekly writing time, which is the only morning during the week I’m kid-free, gradually was taken over by other responsibilities that had to be done before the kids came home from preschool.

In the past I’ve lost steam on a project because I didn’t take enough time before writing to figure out what I was writing about. After the few scenes that captivated my attention were written down, I didn’t know what to write next. It was too hard to work it out after writing myself into a corner and I had this other shiny idea pestering me, so instead of pushing through I gave it up. A little extra note taking ahead of time would have saved me a lot of wasted words later.

Do you know what caused you to stop writing? Give it some honest thought, though without condemnation (remember, we are forgiving ourselves).

Remove distractions

Now that you’ve identified what went wrong, you can pinpoint what the catalysts were. Are you ignoring your alarm and letting yourself sleep a few extra minutes, leaving not enough time to write before you head out for the day? Try going to sleep earlier so you’re not so tired in the morning. Or maybe set your alarm far away so you have to get up to turn it off.

Maybe you’ve decided to write after you finish your homework in the afternoon, but by then you feel like consuming (watching TV, reading a book, checking social media) instead of creating. Try finding another time during your day in which to write. Even night owls aren’t necessarily the most prolific at night.

Are you spending too much time on your phone or the Internet, or letting notifications interrupt you when you’re supposed to be writing? There are apps you can use to silently observe and then report how much time you’re spending where, or to block certain sites temporarily, or to silence distracting notifications. Use Google to find what you need.

Attach your writing time to a trigger

Habits work best when they’re automatic. Each of us only has a certain amount of willpower at our disposal, so the less we have to use it to get stuff done, the more we can accomplish. What’s something you do automatically already? Attach your writing time to that, and it’ll be easier to make your writing a habit.

Let’s say that every weekday you come home from school and hang up your backpack, grab a snack, and sit at the table. You don’t even think about it, you just do it. How about keeping a pen and paper nearby so you can write while you snack? Or maybe every Sunday afternoon your family hangs out at the library. You could be reading or playing computer games while you’re there. Or you could take your laptop with you and use that built-in weekly time to write.

Be held accountable

It’s easy to let things slide when there aren’t any consequences. So, make some. Some people work well with deadlines, because they take the word literally—you cross this line and you’re dead. With a serious enough consequence, they’ll work hard to avoid it. I know someone who gave their friend a lot of money to hold. If they met their deadline, they got their money back. If they didn’t, the friend got to keep it. Talk about motivation!

Other people work better with a partner, who checks in on them occasionally to make sure things are being addressed little by little instead of piled up at the end (350 words a day over the course of a month is a lot easier than 10,000 words due tomorrow).

Some people work best when it’s a competition. Try racing your friends to see who writes the most words in 10 minutes. Start your short stories on the same day and see who finishes first. How many days did it take, including revisions? Find a way to use a new vocabulary word in your writing; have someone read it over to make sure you’ve used it correctly. There are lots of ways you can turn your writing goals into a game.

Still others work best when they can see a dangling “carrot” that they want and use the reward as an incentive. This can be as simple as a sticker on a chart for each day you write (it feels good to see them in a row with no spaces) or as big as a shopping trip at the mall as a reward for a completed project.

Do you recognize yourself in one of these? Is there another way you can keep yourself accountable?

I hope I’ve encouraged you to keep up your writing habit. If you find yourself out of the habit again, you’ll have the tools to get back into it. I’ll be using these steps for myself, too!

I’m a perfectionist procrastinator, meaning I put things off if I can’t get them done perfectly the first time. I’m learning to give myself grace and accept that “good enough” is better than “not done at all.” I’m also a poor judge of how long it’ll take me to do something, so thinking, “Well, I’ll just get this out of the way first and THEN I’ll write,” ends up being my downfall. That’s how I fell behind this time. Grace, grace, grace! I’m forgiving myself and starting over. How about you? Have you struggled with your writing habits lately? Any victory stories about how you overcame such obstacles? Let us learn from you!

Writer’s block does not exist

Mindfully drinking tea

Photo via Visualhunt.

Distraction exists. Fear of writing something stupid exists. Trouble narrowing one’s focus exists. Plot problems exist. Fear of success exists. Fear of the unknown exists. Mental exhaustion exists.

But writer’s block does NOT exist.

If you find yourself sitting down to write and staring at a blank screen or notebook, something specific is hindering you. The trick is to search yourself and figure out what.

It’s too easy to blame writer’s block, this great big smotherer that has blanketed your thoughts and frozen your fingers so that you cannot write. You’re paralyzed and it’s not your fault! You have writer’s block. You can’t help it.

It’s easy to find excuses. It’s hard to get to the root of the problem and find a solution. So, we hide behind “writer’s block” and don’t write.

Push through!

Or take a break. Whichever.

…Um, so which is it? Push or pull? The answer lies with you.

If it’s fear, you’ll probably be better off if you push through. Quiet your inner editor and just write. What’s the worst that could happen? You’ll have written something that’s not worth showing anyone. But is that so bad? You write to get better at writing. So, even if what you’re about to write ends up being garbage, you’ll have gotten some writing practice in. You’ll know for next time what does or doesn’t work. And you can legitimately call yourself a writer because you actually WROTE something, instead of just THINKING about writing something.

Writers write. If you don’t write, you’re not a writer, no matter how many good ideas you have.

Back to “writer’s block.” If fear of something isn’t what’s troubling you, what do you do? Say you’re distracted. Perhaps taking about 30 minutes to write down everything that comes to mind will help. Things like: I need to return my library books before I go home. Oh, and Susie needs to borrow my notes for the test next week. Did I tell Mom about that meeting after school tomorrow? I better check with her later. And I need to make sure my green shirt gets in the laundry so it’s clean for picture day. …except that I let my sister borrow it, right. Guess I’ll have to get that back from her first.

And so on.

After half an hour or so of getting all of the random bits floating around in your brain down on to paper where you know you won’t lose it, your brain will quiet enough to create. You’ll be free from distraction. And if while you’re writing you think, “Shoot, I need to call my classmate about that one project,” just add it to the piece of paper and keep going. You can deal with everything on the paper after you’re done writing for the day.

What if you’re exhausted? Your brain is so full, or you feel stretched thin, or you’re juggling so many projects you can’t think straight. Or you’re just plain tired and need a nap.

Then do so. Sleep. Or get outside and take a walk. Get a cup of coffee or tea and mindfully drink it, thinking of nothing else but the smell of it in your nose, the taste of it on your tongue, and the feel of it going down your throat.

Then after your break—where you’ve intentionally not thought about writing, grammar, characters, plot points, deadlines, and so on—take a deep breath, and push on, as described above.

If you’re not tired, not distracted, love your story, but still find yourself procrastinating? (Most common form: “I want to write it but I just don’t have time!” but you have time to check your Snapchat and Tumblr.) That’s an obvious sign that something is not working in your story. Take the time to figure out what’s not working and how to fix it (even if that means scrapping something you’ve already written) so that you can’t help but write again. Words only stop flowing when you’ve got a problem—you don’t know what happens next, you’ve got a plot hole, you need to go back and change the protagonist’s point of view, etc.

Obviously these suggestions aren’t “one size fits all.” What you need depends on what’s stumbling you.

But one thing is clear:

Writer’s block, the hopeless condition in which you are unable to write and nothing can be done about it, does not exist.

You are in control. You must decide. Then you will be free to write again and won’t be able to stop.

What tends to trip you up? When you have trouble writing, what’s bugging you? For me, it’s usually a pretty even split between plot problems I haven’t noticed yet or fear of success. What if this gets published and, though I’m proud of it now, later I regret it? Sometimes I have to hogtie and gag my inner critic to get my words on the page. Anyone else struggle with this too?