Sometimes the best way to move forward is to go back to the past. That may sound strange, but I’ve found it can make sense, especially when it comes to writing. Many writers I know often complain about being stuck in their story and they can’t figure out what to write next. Or they might say that they have too much to get done outside their writing work and are having problems. Or they just plain give in to having writers’ block.
As writers, we always seem to be looking for new ways to get motivated or to keep moving forward. We are always looking for those “AHA” moments that can unblock the writing logjam and get them moving again.
Recently I attended a writing workshop aimed at putting together stories for a new planned anthology. I went to it thinking I was going to find out what kind of stories the anthology editors were looking for. I came away with not only a new idea for a story but a breakthrough in my current work. Yes, it was one of those “aha” moments for me. As a writer and as a former journalist who is always eager to share new ideas, I just had to write it down so I could tell others and hopefully help them too.
In that session we not only discussed ideas for the anthology we got to talking about writing itself and one of the elements we discussed was “atmosphere.” Our leader reminded us that as writers we needed to bring the setting into our stories through painting a picture of the atmosphere around the characters. We also got a reminder that each character sees the setting differently. For me that really hit home because I am currently working on the sequel to my romantic suspense, Dead Man’s Rules. Like the first book, the new story is set in New Mexico, and it brings together a woman who hails from California with a man who grew up in New Mexico. Naturally they are going to see the atmosphere, the environment and the people in different ways. He has grown up with the rural New Mexican people and culture while she is a product of the crowds and chaos that is Los Angeles. But while he is also an attorney so he sees things more down to earth, she is an artistic free spirit who is dealing with the more spiritual side of life as well as being open to new experiences.
I had been bogged down with their initial meeting and it just didn’t seem to flow or excite me. But then I got that lesson on atmosphere. I had been writing witty dialogue, but I was forgetting to bring in the atmosphere and who they really were BEHIND the dialogue. I wasn’t bringing my characters fully to life. That lesson reminded me to go back to studying them and how they were going to view their current circumstances differently but also their unique views of how they saw everything from their role in life to how they saw the countryside and how they were going to communicate those feelings.
When I began to consider “atmosphere,” suddenly the full picture of that scene and the story itself began to open up. The scene started to come together. It was a simple exercise, and it was something I should have been able to figure out for myself. But seeing it from someone else’s perspective and in a different way made all the difference. That section that I had struggled with for weeks is now written.
As writers we always need to remember our characters and their voice as we write. That is part of making them unique and we need to remember that as we write. But sometimes it is easy to get so bogged down that we forget to look at the big picture.
For the past two months I have been teaching a series of classes on plotting and creating characters. From the first moments of that first class we started out with something simple – just a plot idea and we began to develop it and then to develop the characters in it. The first month brought some great plots, and last month we worked on some pretty incredible characters.
Now we’re ready to write and we’re going to be focusing on things like atmosphere and dialogue and writing scenes that convey the plot. We’ll be actually putting our stories on the written page. Sometimes writing our stories or finishing them requires taking that step back from what might be troubling you to getting some fresh ideas. Or it might even be an opportunity to remind yourself what appealed to you in these characters or the plot you have developed.
Sometimes all we really need is to once again remember or practice some of those old guidelines we learned in the past but that have become so normal we forget to use them to their fullest potential.
If you have been working on a story and find yourself stalled, if you have a new story with nothing more than characters and a vague plot, if all you have is an idea, but you want to start writing, or you just want a refresher of what you need to do in your writing, I hope you’ll consider joining us in my new class Let’s Write a Story. We’ll be covering a lot of ground, but we will be writing!
Becky Martinez is an award-winning former broadcast journalist who made writing and editing a part of her daily life for 30+ years. Currently she writes romance, mystery and romantic suspense fiction as well as regularly teaching writing classes. Her latest work, a short story, “One More Romance” was published in the anthology, Sealed with Love. She is currently finishing the sequel to her suspense, Dead Man’s Rules, which was published by The Wild Rose Press. She is also the co-author of three published books on writing and has just completed the third entry in the Let’s Write A Story series, The Plotting Wheel.
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