Job Posting: Writer. Prerequisite: Not Having All the Answers.

I did something brilliant by accident the other day. This is a pretty common occurrence for me, as is sharing my brilliance with the world in posts like this one.

What can I say? I’m a giver.

Whilst on a recent road trip, driving through the gorgeous monotony of a mountain canyon, I was pondering the parallelism of plot and character arc—as one does—and it struck me that if one were to input character interview questions into a google form, and then link that google form to a google spreadsheet, one could compile vital story-data into a singular, easy-to-navigate access point.

One, I thought to myself, despite your tendency to think in really long sentences, you’re a freakin’ genius.

I then conceived the notion that one could gather data on character motivations, reactions, and actions, as well as the relevant plot points in the story, color-code them, and thus create a literal rainbow of parallelized plot and character arc in spreadsheet form.

Fall inlove with taking care of yourself..png

My geeky little heart nearly burst, guys. These spreadsheets could take my pre-writing to a level I’d never even conceived of! And that’s actually the point of this adorably egocentric little post of mine. What haven’t you conceived of? What data could you collect? How much deeper can you dig? How much more mindfully can you plot? How well can you get to know your characters, your magic system, your setting? How much more is waiting inside of you?

I’m not asking you because you’re supposed to have the answers to all of those questions right this moment. You’re not. Refer back to the title of this post if you don’t think I’m super serious about that.

Being a writer isn’t about knowing, it’s about writing! Exploring. Seeking. Striving. Trying out your crazy ideas (like rainbow-themed story spreadsheets) and stubbornly moving forward whether they pan out or not.

And one of the biggest thrills in the whole process is how much of a process it is. How there are always new insights and ideas waiting for you. How you can feel stuck at your current level of understanding, and then get slammed so hard by a random epiphany that the pages of your future books tremble from the impact.

Keeping pushing. Keep pondering. Keep plotting.

You never know what new ideas might be waiting for you around the bend.

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Kimberly VanderhorstKimberly VanderHorst is a YA author who cherishes a love for all things quirky and strange. Claims to fame include running Prism Editing, co-hosting the annual Pitch Slam contest, and serving on the committees for the annual LDStorymakers Conference and The Whitney Awards program. Despite being a city girl with a tendency to cuss a lot, Kimberly is married to an LDS minister and lives in rural northern Canada. There, she helps raise their four lovely daughters while pretending not to be afraid of the neighbour’s chickens.

Back Cover Blurbs vs Query Letter Blurbs

Blurb is a weird word. It sounds like a fish trying to talk. Blurb. Blurb. Blurbitty-blurrrrr-blurb.

Quirky as the word itself is, the ability to write an effective one is a vital marketing technique. While studying effective query letters and back covers can help us develop a sort of sixth-sense regarding blurb writing, a lot of authors struggle because of the profound similarities and differences between back cover blurbs and query letter blurbs.

The queries I critique tend to fall into one of three camps:

Camp #1: Reads like a synopsis, listing almost every major event in the story, often in laundry list “and then” fashion. Literary TMI.

Camp #2: Reads like a back-cover blurb. Often contains vague, and clichéd language.

Camp #3: Gets the level of detail spot-on, making my job way easier (yes, this actually happens, and yes, I sometimes weep tears of joy when it does).

I’ve seen authors complain that some agents ask for queries that are “more like a back cover blurb,” but when they try to mimic that style, their queries still fall flat. It’s my belief that understanding the similarities and differences between a back cover blurb and a query letter blurb, can make or break a querying author.

Blurbs_ Back Cover vs Query Letter.png

Similarities: 

Back-Cover Blurb Query Blurb

Meant to intrigue/entice the reader.

Meant to “sell” your book.

Contains plot, character, and world-building elements (to name a few).

Doesn’t reveal the resolution of the ultimate climax of the story.

Is written in present tense.

Differences:

Back-Cover Blurb Query Blurb
Avoids spoilers as much as possible. Spoilers galore! Many secrets revealed!
Generalized language. Specific details all over the place!
Attached to a published book. Does not need to prove it can be a book, because it already is. Attached to a manuscript that might or might not be ready to be a published book. Needs to prove itself worthy.
Aimed at readers. Aimed at publishing industry professionals.

 One of the biggest differences between the back cover blurb of a published book, and the query blurb of a query letter, is detail-level. Back cover blurbs are secretive creatures. They have to be vague. They have to avoid spoilers. Their goal is to intrigue with just enough information to entice the reader, but little enough that the reader will still be thrilled and surprised by the story itself.

Your average author has read far more back-covers than they have query letters. When we try to describe a story in blurb-format, Back-cover-ese is the language we automatically translate into. Also movie trailers. Our brains tend to be big fans of movie trailers.

Back Cover Blurb: “In a race against time, young Owen must delve into his secretive past and learn the truth, or lose his newfound brother who he’s already beginning to love!”

Query Letter Blurb: “Ha! That’s not what I heard. My author told me Owen was adopted, and that his newfound brother Jimmy lives with his bio-mom—who kept Jimmy but not Owen!—and his birth family is super screwed up because his bio-dad cheated on his bio-mom with her sister, then robbed both women blind! And while he’s dealing with that hot mess of emotional overload, Owen’s got to track dad-dude down because he’s their last hope of finding a bone marrow match for Jimmy!”

^^^Don’t write your blurbs like this. This is terrible writing. The story idea is kind of cool though. Someone should maybe write that.

Query blurbs, as you may have noticed, are the loud-laughing, secret-sharing gossip at the party. They spoil almost everything. But they do it for good reason. Agents and editors read more query letters than we can probably imagine. They understand story structure. They get it on a deep, bedrock level. To appeal to them, to show them ours is a story worth giving their (very limited) time to, we need more than just the basic surface-level of the story.

Details. It’s all about those specific details.

When writing your query letter blurb (or anything, really) please, for the love of words, avoid phrases like:

  • “Or her whole world will be turned upside down.”
  • “Or everything he thought he knew would fall apart.”
  • “Or everything would change.”

Back Cover Blurb: “She must race against time to prevent a catastrophe!”

Query Letter Blurb: “She must defuse the bomb or a school bus full of children is going to blow up!”

If a phrase in your query could be used to describe literally hundreds of other stories, it doesn’t belong there. You’re not going to hook agents or editors with generic lines like “They must master their new ability or the world will be destroyed.” The world is always about to be destroyed. Main characters always have new abilities that need mastering.

What makes your story special? What’s unique about it? What does your story have that the other 724 queries in the agent or editor’s inbox don’t? A main character who uses graffiti art to make incisive social commentary, but secretly dreams of being an accountant some day? A clever novelization of Westside Story, but with mermaids? A murderer who puts a chess piece in the mouth of each of their victims, and the clever young waitress who figures out why?

Querying authors, find those details, and then share them! If you sacrifice clarity for the sake of mystery, you sacrifice your best chance to show agents or editors what your story is actually about. Make sure your query letter is that talkative gossip at the party*.

*But aim for the 250-300 word sweet spot, okay? Agents and editors have tired eyes and tired brains. Be nice to them.

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Kimberly VanderhorstKimberly VanderHorst is a YA author who cherishes a love for all things quirky and strange. Claims to fame include running Prism Editing, co-hosting the annual Pitch Slam contest, and serving on the committees for the annual LDStorymakers Conference and The Whitney Awards program. Despite being a city girl with a tendency to cuss a lot, Kimberly is married to an LDS minister and lives in rural northern Canada. There, she helps raise their four lovely daughters while pretending not to be afraid of the neighbour’s chickens.

 

The Lie We Write On Ourselves

You are a story.

You are a human-shaped piece of paper. There are doodled facts on your elbows, and virtues and vices have been etched into your finger bones. There are blazing truths rattling echoes through your ribcage, and fragments of about-to-be-told story lodged in your lung tissue.

People have written on you without your permission, and you’ve erased some of the scribbles you’ve realized aren’t true. But there’s this itchy spot between your shoulder blades where people carve hard-to-reach lies sometimes, and you can’t find an eraser big enough to scour yourself all the way clean.

  • You’ll never be as good as [insert name].
  • Writing is just a hobby.
  • Books are entertaining, but don’t you want to do something that really matters?
  • You need a thick skin to make it. You’re not tough enough.

On and on the lies go. Some are just scratches that heal over after hours or days. Some dig deep, clawing through skin and sinew till they’re so far inside you it’s hard to know where they end and you begin. Some are written by others, but the most heartache and hurting ones are in handwriting you recognize all too well.

The Lies We Write On Ourselves.png

The only antidote to a lie is the truth, to write over the falsehoods till they disappear altogether. So pick up your pen and write those blazing truths down. Write them deep, and write them true.

  • You are finding newer and truer words. You are building worlds and breathing life. You are pulling magic out of the sheer white nothing of the empty page. You are a creator. You are the pop-sizzle-crackle of the new and the now. You are enough.
  • Creating brings you a measure of joy you can’t find anywhere else. You are meant for this. Whether you devote zero minutes or hundreds each day, this is a part of the entirety of who you are.
  • Stories inspire empathy—they help us learn compassion. Stories inspire imagination—they help us see the legion of possibilities stretching out before us. They matter. Oh, how they matter.
  • You are a human, not a dragon. Your skin is beautifully vulnerable. You are allowed to hurt. You are allowed to struggle. You’re allowed to stop for a while and start again when you’re ready. You’re allowed all the human qualities those itchy lies between your shoulder blades want you to shun.

Your words are the answer to the itch and the etch. Use them to tell yourself all the truths the paper of your soul is hungry for. Tell yourself who and what you are. Tell yourself who and what you have it in you to be. Don’t give lies co-author credit for the story of your life. Don’t let small minds and small words steal the wide and the stretch of your aspirations.

2018 is coming, an infinite blank canvas, waiting for words and stories only you can tell. Sometimes they’ll come in dribbles, sometimes in monsoon-level pourings, but whenever and however they come, they’ll be yours. They’ll be you.

You are a story. Don’t let anyone tell you that you shouldn’t be written.

________________________

kimKimberly VanderHorst is a YA author who cherishes a love for all things quirky and strange. Claims to fame include running Prism Editing, co-hosting the annual Pitch Slam contest, and serving on the committees for the annual LDStorymakers Conference and The Whitney Awards program. Despite being a city girl with a tendency to cuss a lot, Kimberly is married to an LDS minister and lives in rural northern Canada. There, she helps raise their four lovely daughters while pretending not to be afraid of the neighbour’s chickens.

 

The Possible Life

Sometimes the words get stuck. They tangle themselves up in our neural pathways. They catch on our rib cages, or sink into our lungs. They burrow into our spines and make nests in the cozy little nooks between our vertebrae. We know they’re in there. We can feel them inside us. But they just won’t come out.

The list of possible reasons for this is near endless. Sleep deprivation, sensory distractions, doubt, despair, chaos, and the siren call of all the should-be-doings rattling around inside our skulls.

I want to focus on that last one.

Recently, I took some time I probably should have been doing something else with, and made a list. Most people assume I love lists, because I like to be so on top of things I get vertigo, and lists can be ladders. But I also hate them with a fiery passion that makes the sun look like the flicker of a candle right before it runs out of wick. I hate them partly because I’m a rebel (no stinkin’ piece of paper has the right to tell me what to do!), but mostly because my lists shout about things I should be doing.

This list I made was of the dreaded To Do variety, but it was comprehensive. It included dates and deadlines, non-deadlined things that were still Very Important Indeed, things I need to do for my husband, my children, my church, my writers’ guild, my extended family, my Lion’s Club, my school PAC program, my household duties, my conference committee, my critique partners, my friends who emailed me happy birthday in August who I still haven’t replied to because of the shame of having taken this long, and my . . .

Me. Yeah, my me. I actually made it onto the list once or twice. Stuff like “Pluck monobrow,” and “Play the piano—you miss it.”

The Possible Life.jpg

Guys, I read the list in its entirety and then started to laugh, and not just because I giggle every time I admit I have a monobrow. I laughed because the life I was chasing is, quite literally, impossible. And maybe that should be discouraging. Maybe that should lead to the kind of despair that chokes my words down so far my toes get heavy. But instead, I reveled in the sweet, blissful freedom of realizing that I cannot possibly achieve the level of accomplishment I’m aiming for, that it’s not just beyond inherently flawed me, it’s beyond any human person’s ability.

So, unless I can figure out how to stumble into/earn the superpowers I’ve been craving since I was six years old and had my first “I can fly!” dream, I now have permission to aim to be less than my unrealistic expectations. I can aim for happiness and self-respect instead. Aiming for more by aiming for less. It seems counterintuitive, but it isn’t.

Having experienced my “Impossible Life” epiphany, I still get panicky. But less than I used to. My words still claw at my insides, trying to get out, weighed down by “list items” (whether I actually write those lists or not). Sometimes though I smile, sit down in front of my laptop first thing in the morning, and ask myself, “What’s possible today?”

And the answer always includes, “Letting some words out.”

What’s actually possible for you today? Is today a “write all the words” day? Is it a “work the day job and sneak some words in during lunch break” day? Is it a “I have energy to put on pants today and that is all—that is enough” day?

Our possible changes from day to day, and sometimes from hour to hour. And everything can change when you give yourself permission to live a possible life.

________________________

kimKimberly VanderHorst is a YA author who cherishes a love for all things quirky and strange. Claims to fame include running Prism Editing, co-hosting the annual Pitch Slam contest, and serving on the committees for the annual LDStorymakers Conference and The Whitney Awards program. Despite being a city girl with a tendency to cuss a lot, Kimberly is married to an LDS minister and lives in rural northern Canada. There, she helps raise their four lovely daughters while pretending not to be afraid of the neighbour’s chickens.

Showing vs. Telling: The Whole Story Approach

There are a lot of writing absolutes floating around the internet. “You must write every day to be a real writer.” (Yeah, no.) “True artists use pen and paper.” (Nope. Nope. Nope.) “Showing is better than telling.” (Sometimes yes. Sometimes no.)

We crave these absolutes. We live in the gray area between Definitely-Yes and Definitely-No, and when revisions have worn us down to splinters, we sometimes find ourselves wanting nothing more than to be told what is right, and what is wrong. But there are few topics more divisive than Showing vs. Telling. What do we show, and what do we tell? How do we show it, and when do we tell it?

Opinions vary.

Showing Vs Telling.jpg

I’m super smart (some have even called me awesome), but I don’t have the answers. What I do have are some insights that might help you find some on your own. Because you’re super smart too, as evidenced by your taste in writing advice websites.

Telling: The black cat walked down the sunny sidewalk.

Showing: The cat twined between the legs of the sidewalk’s pedestrians, its dark fur a sharp contrast to the sunshine lighting the city up like a casino billboard.

Now, both of these sentences are decent. There’s nothing wrong with telling your reader about the cat. And there’s nothing wrong with showing your reader either. Your story should have a balance of showing and telling in it. But how do you decide what to show, and what to tell?

The way I look at it is this: Is the cat important? Is noticing the cat a casual observation on the part of my main character, or does it hold some sort of significance? Did my character’s pet cat just die, giving this moment internal resonance? Or is the cat going to play a role in the story, giving this moment a more external meaning?

Showing is a wonderful tool you can use to “zoom in” on the aspects of a scene that hold the most importance for your main character, whether you’re setting the mood through emotional resonance, subtly hinting at events to come, or simply bringing an otherwise dull scene to life.

Telling: She hated peas.

Showing: The peas in the casserole looked like green pustules of evil. Suzy didn’t care if Mom promised her a thousand desserts, no way was she ever going to touch the stuff.

Showing can also be used as an element of voice. Is Suzy’s hatred of peas integral to the story, or to her emotional landscape? Probably not. Does the showing line give us a better sense of Suzy as a character, and help us “hear” her voice? You betcha.

Of course, one danger of showing is that it can so easily be overdone. We have to be careful that we don’t obscure meaning with flowery (purple) prose, zooming in on the words instead of the actual significance of the moment.

The mellifluous golden orb crested the horizon, a river of yellow light touching the world to waking, a heralding of the warmth of spring that would soon touch the land again.

Which is a fancy way of saying: The sun rose. Spring was coming.

Whether we’re zoomed in too far, or not far enough, we run the risk of showing our reader who’s hiding behind the puppet theater’s curtains. For the most part, modern storytelling is all about the invisible narrator. Readers want to believe in the puppets. They want to be enchanted by them. Root for them. Boo at the villain, and cheer on the hero.

The person pulling the strings? They don’t care about so much. Ouch. I know.

If the main character notices things it doesn’t make sense for them to notice (like walking into their bedroom and mentally reciting a long list of descriptions so the reader can see it with them), the reader will see the puppet-master. If the main character doesn’t notice something it does make sense for them to notice (like hey, that boat they climbed on so they could say goodbye to their ex has been moving for an hour now and they are out to sea suddenly!), yep, the reader is definitely going to know who’s pulling the strings.

And they won’t be the least bit surprised when that storm rolls in and strands the two characters on a desert island. Just sayin’.

Showing isn’t just about how you write your sentences, it’s about how you write your story. It’s about what you want your readers to experience with your main characters.

If you need to describe your main character’s bedroom to set the scene, walk into your own bedroom and take note of what you notice. Did your significant other leave a mess again? Did you? Does the fact that only one half of your bed is rumpled remind you that you don’t have a significant other? Do you notice something missing? Is the clock in the hallway ticking stupid loud because you’re late? Is there a funky smell because you’ve been super down lately and laundry is your nemesis?

If your main character needs to be on that boat with their ex, and having them not notice it moving doesn’t make sense, what if they do notice it moving? What if they could have stopped it before it got out to sea, but they didn’t? What if they have to deal with the emotional fallout of realizing that deep down they want to be trapped on a boat with their ex?

What your character notices shows the reader who your character is. It shows them what your character places value in. If your character walks into a room full of people and notices their clothing first, they might come off a little shallow. If they notice someone who’s upset, they might give a more empathetic impression. Zoom in on those moments. Show them to us. Help us get lost in your character’s experiences.

I’ve come to realize that this is one of the dividing lines between meh-it’s-all-right fiction and blows-my-freakin’-mind fiction. Do the descriptions feel organic? Do they pull us into the main character’s point of view to the degree that we feel like we are experiencing the story with them? Do we learn about who the character is through their sensory experiences of their world?

Tell us your story by showing us what matters most.

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kimKimberly VanderHorst is a YA author who cherishes a love for all things quirky and strange. Claims to fame include running Prism Editing, co-hosting the annual Pitch Slam contest, and serving on the committees for the annual LDStorymakers Conference and The Whitney Awards program. Despite being a city girl with a tendency to cuss a lot, Kimberly is married to an LDS minister and lives in rural northern Canada. There, she helps raise their four lovely daughters while pretending not to be afraid of the neighbour’s chickens.

 

 

 

Pitch Writing 101: What’s at Stake?

Pitches are hard.

I could just end the post there and you’d all feel super validated, right? And I am all about validation. That dry eyeball feeling you get from staring at the screen too long? Totally normal. The way your fingers curl in on themselves and you’re not sure if it’s because your body wants to end the torture session you call “Pitch Writing” or because they’ve taken on a life of their own and are thinking about clawing your eyeballs right out of your head?

Okay, maybe that’s just me.

But while I firmly believe any author who claims “pitch writing is FUN!” is a couple sentences short of a full paragraph, there are a few tips I think might prove helpful to you. Being a long-time co-host of the annual Pitch Slam contest doesn’t mean I’m an expert, of course, but what it does mean is that I’ve read a lot of pitches over the years.

Here are my thoughts based on those experiences. What makes a pitch work (or not) for me:

Stakes.

94.37% of the time, stakes are the ideal way to hook your reader. What’s on the line for your character? What do they want more than anything in the world? What will happen if they fail?

Start with the basic formula:

TTOF5

And then refine from there.

Stakes are vital, but so is knowing who they’re happening to. For the love of words, use your character’sNAME. Please. Not all the characters, of course. We shouldn’t have to swim through character soup to get your plotline. But if your story is about a seventeen-year-old gymnast named Steve, make sure those details are in your pitch. Let us know who we should be rooting for.

BE SPECIFIC.

There’s a big difference between intrigue and mystery, but time and again I see people confuse the two. Avoid vagueness at all costs.

For Example:

Pitch #1: When she went to work she had no idea the danger she’d be walking into. Now, she must overcome a dangerous foe, or the worst day of her life might be her last.

 Pitch #2: Twenty-three-year-old bank teller Maria Santos yearns to get home to her infant son, but if she can’t get through to the bomb-wielding psycho robbing the bank, she and the forty-two other hostages are done for.

The first pitch is very mysterious, isn’t it? So mysterious, we don’t know the character’s name, occupation, life situation, who her “dangerous foe” is, why this is the “worst day of her life,” or why her life is in danger. Funny thing? Pitch #2 only uses two more words than pitch number one does, and yet communicates ten times as much information.

Mystery is not your friend. Don’t try to surprise the reader with the secret of what your book is about. That’s what the pitch is supposed to tell them!

USE YOUR WORDS.

As I’m always saying to my children: Use Your Words. Going under the expected word count can do as much damage as going over. Remember Steve the Gymnast who I mentioned earlier? How much more powerful does that character introduction become if I call him “Steve the reluctant gymnast” or “Steve the singing gymnast” or “Steve the blackmailing gymnast?” A single word can make a world of difference.

Strive for perfection (and know you’re still awesome even if you don’t achieve it). Read your pitch out loud. Write it out by hand. Have friends proofread for you. Share it with people who know nothing about your story. If your pitch has only had one pair of eyes on it, odds are it’s not ready yet.

Comp Titles.

Whoo boy, is this is a tricky subject. Some writers just love using comp titles in pitches. They can be remarkably effective in a query (I encourage all my editing clients to use them), because they demonstrate that you know your genre. My personal opinion though? Comps usually don’t belong in a pitch. You have a limited word count, and I think those words should be about your story, not someone else’s. That said, if they’re the perfect comparisons, they CAN work. I’ve seen them work. But only about 5% of the time.

Don’t assume you’re in the 5%. Get second, third, fourth, and fifth opinions.

Back to number 1 on my list. Stakes. All the coolest people are talking about them. They’re missing in pitches. They’re missing in queries. The question, “But what’s at stake?” gets lobbed around a lot, because stakes create empathy.

Knowing the main character has something to lose helps the reader invest themselves in the story on an emotional level. And when you shine the spotlight on “If Main Character doesn’t do BLANK, then DOOM will happen,” the suspense intensifies by a factor of 57% (-ish). Stakes are the match that lights the “What’s going to happen?!” fire.

So how do you figure out what the stakes of your story are?

Try framing it as a “What if?” What happens if your Main Character fails? What if they don’t save the world? What if they don’t let themselves fall in love? What if the bus driver never solves the mystery of why he wakes up with a new tattoo every morning?

TTOF

TTOF2

TTOF3

TTOF4

Picture a different ending for these popular stories. Picture Harry failing and Voldemort triumphing. Picture the havoc a functioning Death Star could wreak on the galaxy—the innumerable lives it could snuff out. Picture sweet little Wilbur dead and butchered. Picture him sizzling in a frying pan.

That feeling of unease you’re feeling (assuming you let me boss you around, your imagination is functional, and you have a heart) is what you’re shooting for in your stakes-based pitches, and in your query. Make the reader uncomfortable. Introduce them to your amazing, unique, memorable main character, show them what that character wants more than anything, then make them sick with worry over the potential consequences.

Not all stories have happy endings. Make your reader terrified that yours might be one of them.

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kimKimberly VanderHorst is a YA author who cherishes a love for all things quirky and strange. Claims to fame include running Prism Editing, co-hosting the annual Pitch Slam contest, and serving on the committees for the annual LDStorymakers Conference and The Whitney Awards program. Despite being a city girl with a tendency to cuss a lot, Kimberly is married to an LDS minister and lives in rural northern Canada. There, she helps raise their four lovely daughters while pretending not to be afraid of the neighbour’s chickens.

As the World Burns – Strategies for Creating Through the Chaos

My province is on fire.

That’s not a metaphor. British Columbia is literally on fire, with blazes that experts from various countries have described as “apocalyptic” and “like nothing I’ve ever seen.”

Our neighbourhood was evacuated. Two houses on our street burned down. Our oldest daughter’s mental health has been . . . not great. Chaos and turmoil. Stress and uncertainty. And now that we’re home again with out of control fires less than an hour away in three different directions, our new status quo has fear and flinching stitched into it.

Strategies for Creating Through the Chaos.png

Which begs the question, how do you keep writing when your world is literally—or metaphorically—on fire? How do you keep hold of your creativity in the face of mental trauma, when all your brain wants to do is sleep and binge watch your favorite shows on Netflix?

Step 1: Forgive yourself if you stop.

Stopping is normal. Shutting down is normal. Not being able to find words is normal. When you’re experiencing trauma, your brain looks for ways to protect itself, to protect you. Let it do its job without guilt. This is a natural process, and you can not override it with shame.

Shame is the enemy.

Shame prolongs the shut down process and eats through your words like the mental acid that it is. You will recover faster if you don’t pile shame on top of your hurt. Shame makes you heavier. Giving yourself permission to be a human being having a hard time makes you lighter. Treat yourself with the same level of compassion and care that you would give to a dear friend in similar circumstances. 

Step 2: Fight panic with an awareness of the temporary.

Mental trauma lies to us. It tells us that the level of stability and sporadic joy we once experienced is gone, forever out of reach, and that the current struggle is our new normal.

Sometimes it is. Maybe your house did burn down. Maybe you were handed a life-altering medical diagnosis. Maybe you’ve lost a loved one. Surely, these aren’t temporary traumas.

But what is temporary, is the intensity of our initial grief. The raw vulnerability of a freshly dealt blow. You’ve been sucker punched in the gut. You’re bent over from the pain. It hurts and it hurts and it hurts. But eventually you’re going to straighten up. Eventually, the pain is going to diminish to a dull throb. However long-lasting the cause of your trauma is, it will never hurt as much as it did in that first moment, and there’s a strange comfort to be found in that.

Trauma is temporary and limited in its scope, but our ability to adapt and recover is not.

Step 3: Experiment.

If the worst has passed and the words still aren’t coming, try different creativity-stirring methods like these to get your brain zinging and zapping again:

  • Take pictures.
  • Find some fun writing prompts.
  • Create inspiration boards and/or story boards.
  • Brainstorm with a friend.
  • Use different writing methods like pen/pencil, voice recorder, or different devices.
  • Watch imagination-inspiring movies and T.V. shows.
  • Explore new environments and take note of what you notice and why.

If you usually write fiction, try your hand at poetry. If you’re normally a poet, try a personal essay, perhaps. Different mediums can help you escape shut down mode. They can be loopholes in your brain’s self-defense program.

Step 4: Avoid writing advice.

You’re probably laughing at this one, or maybe rolling your eyes. Perhaps I should qualify that statement and say “Avoid harmful writing advice.”

The harmful kind abounds. I’ve seen famous authors say things like “If you don’t write every day, you’ll never make it.” “If you don’t carry pen and paper with you everywhere, you’re not a real writer.” “You know you’re supposed to be an author if you wake up every morning needing to write.”

Statements like these are inherently dangerous. They’re fabulous sound bytes. They’re powerful. Quotable. And they put forward strong opinions that make a certain amount of sense. Writing every day is a good idea, isn’t it? Pen and paper in this electronic age of ours . . . there’s something poetic about that. And needing to write, that’s how you know it’s destiny. That’s how you know it’s what you’re meant to do.

Yeah. No. That’s how you know that overly generalized statements based on one dimensional ideas are stupid.

You do not have to write every day, or even every week to “make it.” Plenty of successful authors have stopped just like you have, shut down just like you have, felt the weight of grief and pressure and chaos just like you have. Plenty of successful authors haven’t touched pen and paper in years. And plenty of successful authors wake up groaning because ugh, they don’t want to write today, never mind need to.

Do what works for you, and don’t put too much stock in the opinions of people who think what applies to them applies to everyone. That includes me. Your brain doesn’t work the exact same way my brain works, and that’s okay. That’s normal. That’s good.

Step 5: You don’t have to hurt to write good words.

Our stories are tapestries into which we weave elements of our life experiences: the light and the dark, the joyful and the sorrowful, the painful and the transcendent. When the worst of your trauma has passed, and your brain comes out of lockdown mode and the words start flowing again, you might notice that they are deeper than they were before. This is one of the most incredible things about being a human being, that we can take the fabric of the worst events in our lives, and create wonders out of it.

But. But.

You don’t have to live in that place, in that dark well you drew those powerful words from. You can find words in bright places too. Through empathy, through newness, through love. Through unique viewpoints that take you and your stories to places you couldn’t reach otherwise.

Yes, hurting can make you a better writer. But so can loving. And only one of those experiences is worth chasing.

Suffering = Beautiful Art. Joy = Beautiful Art. Curiosity = Beautiful Art. Love = Beautiful Art.

Trauma is temporary, and while it has the power to hurt you and steal your words for a time, your creativity is stronger. You can and will triumph. Give yourself time. Forgive yourself for being human. And chase joy.

Both you and your stories are worth it.

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kimKimberly VanderHorst is a YA author who cherishes a love for all things quirky and strange. Claims to fame include running Prism Editing, co-hosting the annual Pitch Slam contest, and serving on the committees for the annual LDStorymakers Conference and The Whitney Awards program. Despite being a city girl with a tendency to cuss a lot, Kimberly is married to an LDS minister and lives in rural northern Canada. There, she helps raise their four lovely daughters while pretending not to be afraid of the neighbour’s chickens.