Monday, August 22, 2011

Part I Question 5 of Interview Series on Non-Fiction Markets With Writer Noelle Sterne, Ph.D.

Coaching Writers Through Technical and Creative Blocks 

5.  What are a few of the differences that you've discovered between coaching writers through technical as opposed to creative writing blocks? 

Why Writers Seek Coaching

Writers who seek coaching have different motives and hopes from writers who seek critiques of their work. As apprehensive as critique-seeking writers may feel about actually getting others’ assessments, they’ve produced the work and secretly want to shove it in the face of their fourth-grade red-penciling teacher (and their mothers). They want specific improvements and suggestions for how the work can be strengthened, made more dramatic, and snatched up by an ecstatic agent.

When writers look for coaching, they have other objectives and usually feel blocked in one or more ways. They may feel weak in the basic mechanics—grammar, spelling, punctuation, correct use of parts of speech, syntax (how words are combined to construct sentences), conventions of the genre (such as for dialogue), and required submission formats. Their lack of knowledge or facility fuels their insecurity and anxiety and they become frozen in their writing.

Or writers feel something uncomfortable in the vicinity of their lower abdomen that tells them they need more knowledge and comprehension in other technical aspects of writing. These include major parts of a story or novel.

     What’s the best point of view—first person, “I,” or third, “he”? What is the proper choice of and emphasis on main character(s)?
     How detailed should character descriptions be? Just enough without telling too much.
     How long should setting descriptions go on? Enough to give the flavor but not so much that they go on for purple pages.
     What’s the appropriate language for the subject and genre? Not everyone should speak in text or drop all final consonants.
     Are the details consistent? The main character should remain in the vicinity of 300 pounds and 7 feet 4 inches throughout.
     Is the story “arc” or plot satisfying? Boy meets girl, boy meets dog, boy loses girl, boy gets dog, boy in doghouse, boy alibis to girl, girl forgives boy, dog has puppies.

Or writers, even experienced ones, may feel they can’t write another word. It’s not only that they haven’t slept in thirty-two hours because of a massive project at their day (and night) job. Rather, that censuring lawn gnome staring from weeds beneath the window, or the gremlin glued to their shoulder or lodged in their head snorts derision at every attempt. The writers feel they have nothing fresh or unique to say. The gnome cackles. The writers mumble, “What’s the point?” and stuff in another cran-nut muffin.

How Technical Are Technical Problems?

Writers often let the technical aspects consume them. They hone in on these as if mastery will make them recognized writing geniuses. If they don’t know how to spell “commitment” correctly (I had to learn to drop a second middle “t”), they feel that correction with equal acceptance. They assiduously try to ferret out technical errors when they should be using writing time to ask themselves questions about character aliveness, dramatic focus, story line, and other creativity-related issues.

Writers who seek help for some basic technical problems can be directed to a good English grammar book (borrow one from the neighbor’s kid in middle school). They can hire a tutor or explore the many online resources, workshops, and exercises available (for example, those on the Writer’s Digest pages). Sometimes an A-in-English friend or instructor can be enlisted for technical editing favors. And reading—advice I’m sure you’ve heard before—helps greatly. A mysterious osmosis takes place when you read, and it beats trying to memorize grammar rules—you absorb good use of English.

But when I suggest such fixes, writers usually protest. They know that deficiency in mechanics only masks their real problems. Technically-stuck writers are usually stuck creatively. They’re letting their real or perceived English comp deficiencies get in the way of creating. So, to me, helping writers smash through creative blocks is the more fundamental and important type of coaching.

I focus on teaching them what to look for (e.g., too much passive voice and use of forms of “is,” overuse of adjectives, repetition of “pet” words and phrases, and lapses into clichés). Too, I dive into their manuscripts with hands-on editing and ask them to study what I’ve done. They can learn from my revisions and suggestions. Then we talk about why I suggested adding a certain detail or omitting a certain scene and their responses. We also think together about other possibilities and ways to express, say, Sam’s secret motivation, Barbara’s torrent of tears, or Karl’s shocking actions.

As we deal with various aspects of their work, I help writers explore print and online resources specific to their broader issues. The writing magazines have fine articles in almost every issue on such issues. I may recommend writing books. Here are some excellent ones:
     For short stories and novels, Nancy Kress’ Beginnings, Middles and Ends (Writer’s Digest Books, 1999).
     For articles and queries, Moira Allen’s Starting Your Career as a Freelance Writer (Allworth, 2006).
     For plays, Christina Hamlett’s Screenwriting for Teens (Michael Weiss Productions, 2006).
     For every genre, The Portable MFA in Creative Writing (New York Writers Workshop, 2006).

Getting Beneath the Block

For serious blocks, first I ask (maybe hard) questions about writers’ purposes in writing at all. Do you really want to write? What do you see yourself doing instead, today and tomorrow? How do you feel when you write? Who told you it was okay (or not) to use your time for writing?

Then I ask when they first felt the block. In the current piece? We explore when the block started threatening and whether it could have been connected to feeling stymied at a particular turn (what the hero should do next, how much to describe the new love interest, whether to introduce the hero’s mother). I also ask how satisfied writers feel in fulfilling the purpose of the piece and what could be missing.

Did the block sneak up when writers were anticipating the next piece? Did they feel inadequate to the task? Didn’t know enough about the subject? Compared themselves to prominent experts? Were they gripped by a complete loss of confidence in their writing abilities?

With the right accepting environment, despite squirming and stuttering, writers will blurt out what’s really bothering them. I can conjecture, advise, and point out, but the writers know. Even with my prompting, their learning and light bulbs are always more effective when they themselves realize and verbalize responses to such questions.

Creative blocks are psychological, even spiritual. They stem from a sense of perfectionism, fear of success, profound doubts that one can’t “make it” or feeling there’s no more room, lack of deserving, replaying of old disparaging parental messages. I talk about some of these issues in my essay “Reversing Writer’s Guilt” in The Write Place At the Write Time (Summer 2011- See also a great little book, Rachel Ballon’s The Writer’s Portable Therapist (Adams Media, 2007).

More radically, I sometimes suggest that blocks don’t exist. When I asked a longtime editor for his advice, he said, “I don’t believe in writers’ blocks, boulders, or pebbles. As the well-worn phrase goes, every writer has to do the same: apply the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair.”

Block Blasting Boosts

When writers’ negative convictions can’t quickly be scraped off, like chewing gum on the soles of your sneakers, I suggest one or more of several ploys. 

First, just go and sit where you write. Place fingers on keyboard or pick up the pen. Just sit. The American short story writer Flannery O’Connor advised an aspiring author to “set aside three hours every morning in which you write or do nothing else; no reading, no talking, no cooking, no nothing, but you sit there . . . .”[1]

Time management tricks can help. Set your timer for 6½ minutes to write (you can last that long, can’t you?). Dash off a character’s background in the 10 minutes before you have to pick up the kids from school.

Sidling into it often works. Choose something really easy, like a three-sentence description of the cousin who asks you at every holiday dinner when you’re going to get a real job instead of this writer stuff. Or recording your sister-in-law’s maddening repeated clichés about your style sense.

If you’ve pinpointed when in the current work the block reared up in front of you, ask yourself questions. “What do I need to add to make this scene believable?” “How do I get Thatcher out of this mess?” What do I really want to show about Georgette here?" "How does Clifton act now? Do I need to show his motivation—how, when he was five, his father forced him to bait fishing hooks with squishy worms?"

Or just put down how you're feeling right now. Whether you keep a journal or not, no one ever has to see what you write. Afterwards, you can hit Delete or burn the paper. I often recommend Julia Cameron’s “Morning Pages,” three daily (eek!) longhand pages on anything. They are a great way to allow up your real feelings, rages, jealousies, hopes, and exultations about writing and everything else.

Just get away. Writers use exercise, cooking, driving, tree-staring, pet-petting, home-improvement-store browsing, partner-fighting, and many other methods to take breaks. (TV and Facebook aren’t the most nourishing.)

To get back in, if you feel you need outside help, look up writing prompts. They are plentiful in writing how-to books, articles, and newsletters. Or, if you really want an avalanche, type “writing prompts” into your main search box.

I must tell you, though, that I am not in favor of prepackaged prompts. As a writer, if you lob your pen at the dartboard of your life, even if it sticks at an outer circle, you’ll find memories pouring in and plenty to write about. Now you problem will be which to choose first.

Or give yourself a structured assignment. I recommend a site called “Six Sentences” ( All the entries are only six sentences long,  on any subject. They range from ruminations to mood pieces to complete stories. And you have a good chance at publication here (that alone, for bucks or not, can do wonders to vaporize a block).

Read a few of the entries to see the great array of styles and subjects. This is an excellent exercise for discipline, evocativeness, and dramatic effect. And you’ll (a) effectively break your block, (b) produce something satisfying in itself, and (c) have the germ of what could become a story or novel. [2]

Block Banishment

As you see, for me coaching writers differs in the technical and creative aspects. Each has its place, but, except for language mechanics, they can blur, affect each other, and, happily, help relieve each other.

When you next catch yourself sinking into a block, whether because of your poor 'speelling', thin character development, or internal whines about the futility of it all, stop, think, and question yourself. Use the suggestions here and others your fertile mind creates to get you writing again. Soon, without resistance, recriminations, or barking self-commands, you’ll find the seat of your shorts super-glued to the seat of your chair.


[1]Flannery O’Connor, Letter to Cecil Dawkins, November 12, 1960, The Habit of Being: Letters, ed. Sally Fitzgerald (New York: Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1979), p. 49.

[2]For more ideas to vanquish various densities of blocks, see my article “When You’re Not in the Mood to Write” (Writing World, 2011,

©2011 Noelle Sterne

Bio: Author, editor, writing coach, and spiritual counselor, Noelle Sterne has published over 250 articles, essays, stories, and poems in print and online venues, including The Writer, Writer’s Digest, Writers’ Journal, 11.11, Soulful Living, and Unity Magazine. With a Ph.D. from Columbia University, for over 28 years Noelle has helped doctoral candidates complete their dissertations (finally). In her new book, Trust Your Life: Forgive Yourself and Go After Your Dreams (Unity Books), she uses “practical spirituality” and examples from her consulting practice and other aspects of life to help readers let go of regrets, relabel their past, and reach their lifelong yearnings. Her radio interview on Unity Online Radio’s Village Events and Voices, hosted by Dean Ted Collins, is available for free download at
Visit Noelle’ website at

An essay on Noelle’s own recognition and re-framing of the past appears in The Moment I Knew: Reflections from Women on Life's Defining Moments (Sugati Publications, August 2011). On August 28, 2011, from 5:00pm to 7:00pm Eastern time, Noelle will moderate a national book salon of authors in this volume discussing their work and women writing. The discussion is on Firedoglake: Readers are invited to participate.

1 comment: