For Readers & Writers
from Susan Dennard
M&D Issue #148

February 14, 2019

What's in this heart-to-heart?

Recent Goings On:

Happy Valentine's Day! 🥰

I'm in LA for a Very Cool Meeting today—and I hope to have Very Cool News to share sometime in the not-too-distant future.

In other words, the Witchlands TV show still lives (huzzah!) and things are happening. Mwuhahaha!

What I'm Playing:

What I'm Reading:

For the DenNerds:


Galentine's Day Sweepstakes!

To celebrate Galentine's Day, Tor Teen is hosting an epic sweepstakes

Fifty (fifty!!) winners will each get two copies of Truthwitch and two creature enamel pins! But hurry, the giveaway ends on Sunday, 2/16.

For the Daydreamers:

Engineering Story Breakthroughs


This week, I reread an old favorite novel: Bellwether by the incomparable Connie Willis. It’s a delightful story about fads and chaos theory (with a little romance thrown in).
It’s also about scientific breakthroughs—specifically, how hard they are to create. One quote in particular really sums up that book's theme:

“You can’t just order scientific breakthroughs. They happen when you look at something you’ve been working on for years and suddenly see a connection you never noticed before, or when you’re looking for something else altogether. Sometimes they happen by accident. Don’t they know you can’t get a scientific breakthrough just because you want one?”

It’s true. Many of the most famous leaps in science came about purely by accident.
There's Newton and the famous apple-falling-on-the-head story. There’s Alexander Fleming who discovered penicillin when a spore accidentally contaminated one of his bacteria cultures. Meanwhile Percy Spencer accidentally melted a chocolate bar in his pants while he was messing with radar arrays—and eureka! The microwave was invented.

Or what about the breakthrough that the word "eureka!" is associated with? Archimedes supposedly shouted it after he had stepped into a bath and noticed that the water level rose. Suddenly he understood that the volume of water displaced must equal the volume of the submerged body part.
Each of these massive leaps in our understanding of the world and our technology came about by seeming chance.
And I’m sure you know where I’m going with this, but the same can be said for any creative field. Replace the word “science” with “story” in the first quote, and you get:

“You can’t just order story breakthroughs. They happen when you look at something you’ve been working on for years and suddenly see a connection you never noticed before, or when you’re looking for something else altogether. Sometimes they happen by accident. Don’t they know you can’t get a story breakthrough just because you want one?”

In this instance, I guess "they" could be my publisher. 😅

A lot of writers out there will tell you that writer’s block is a myth. That if you just sit in the chair and start typing, the block will end.
I understand their point. Oftentimes block can be solved by simply BICHOKing (Butt In Chair, Hands On Keyboard).
But I don’t think that’s always the solution. I certainly wasn’t lazy any of the times I’ve been quagmired in my own books. I was working every day, writing word after word after word…and then throwing them all away.
I mean, we all remember the hell that was writing Windwitch.
Does this mean my brain just isn’t as powerful as those people who never have writer’s block? Maybe. But you know what? I’d wager more people have ended up in the quicksand of a story than people who haven’t.
And for everyone who is like me—who has hit a point where you just could not see what needed to come next or you just could not make all of those plot threads and character arcs coalesce—I want to give you a few tips.
No, you cannot make a breakthrough happen on command, but there are definitely ways to facilitate the process.
Note:  The answer is NOT “outline.” If I have one more person say to me, Have you tried outlining?, I might scream. I outline thoroughly. Prior to drafting, during drafting, during revisions. I love outlines.
Unfortunately, they still don’t help me when a story fundamentally isn’t working.
I’ve had glorious writing outcomes from pantsing.

I've had glorious writing outcomes from meticulous planning.

And I've had shitty outcomes from both. There is no perfect way to write a story, and every person + every book is different.
The Requirements for a Breakthrough
There are a few components that I think we have to nurture in order to get the breakthroughs that we need when our stories are stuck.

No, I can’t guarantee my solutions will work, but I do hope they at least give you food for thought and a few tools to try.

So behold, the core elements of a breakthrough:
  1. Letting go of preconceived ideas.
  2. Introducing random.
  3. Finding connections you hadn’t seen before.
These might all seem obvious on the surface, yet so few people (myself included!) actually sit down and try to use them.

Take "Letting go of preconceived ideas." I cannot tell you how many times I’ve met people with writer’s block who refuse to let go of how the story "has" to be.
I am guilty of this myself. As a hardcore planner, I get very, very attached to my ideas. It’s hard to look past them and see new alternatives.
And with the Witchlands in particular, I have been ruminating on the same plot points for 7 years now. I had a plan for the Witchlands when I first started it in 2013, and I’ve been sticking to that plan. Partly because I HAVE to (curse my early hints and foreshadowing!) but also because it has become impossible for me to imagine the story any other way.
And that right there is just asking for trouble.
You all know that things often change when you're in the middle of a scene—emotional beats that made sense in an outline no longer feel right in practice. Or surprises come along that send a story trajectory veering in a new way.

How can I handle those realities of writing if I'm so rigidly attached to The One Way?

Well, I end up with books that break me like Windwitch.
When I was younger (and badly wanted my father’s approval, ha), I played golf.

I was never, never, never good at it. But one lesson has always stuck with me.
You have to grip the club as if it were a bird trying to fly away. If you grip the bird too tightly, you’ll kill it. Too loosely, it will escape.
The same applies to ideas. The same applies to story.
If you squeeze your brain too tightly, it won’t give you what you need.

And the same is true if you don’t think about your story problem at all—the brain won’t provide then either.

You have to find that happy medium of grip that nurtures ideas and gives them space flourish.
Now, I can just hear a ton of you saying, Oh, but I don’t do this. Of course I am not so attached to the plan that I can’t be flexible.
Oh yeah you can. And I bet you’re exactly the ones doing it the worst. I sure was when I was drafting Windwitch.
So how do you know if you’re being rigid?
Introduce random and see.
There are a few ways to introduce random into your brain. The simplest and perhaps fastest method is to turn to a writer friend.
A trusted critique partner or fellow writer will be able to make suggestions that you simply cannot see. They don’t need to read your story either! In fact, sometimes giving them a vague overview can be more helpful because they have more objectivity, more space for random.
I’ll give you an example.
With the current Witchlands book, I’ve had to cram two books into one. For better or worse, I gave Iseult too much story. Too many plot threads, too much character growth to wrap up in a single book, but rather than give Iseult two books (as I had hoped to do), I ultimately decided to find a way to cram two stories into one.
I don’t recommend this. It’s not just a matter of writing 2 books and then tightening. It’s actually a matter of taking all the plot threads, reveals, twists, and character growth of 2 separate stories and turning those into a single story. One book doing the work of two.
Needless to say, I have struggled. I spent a year trying every possible solution I could conjure. How could I cover all this ground in only a single story? Every scene had to do at least double duty, it not more.

It wasn’t until I had a chat with two writer friends (thank you Alex and Erin!!!) that their completely fresh, outsider ideas gave me what I needed.
Alex was actually the one who suggested it: What if you start in the middle of it all?
At first, I thought her idea was impossible. She was basically saying, Skip a bunch of stuff.
And that “stuff” had been squeezed so tightly in my brain for a year (i.e. the bird had been crushed to death), so I couldn’t imagine letting it go.
But I was desperate, so I decided to give it a try—although, even then, my plan was to start in the middle and then go back and write a beginning.
Fast forward a few months, and no. Alex had the right of it. The beginning is the middle. I don’t need all the stuff came before. I can start later in the story.

In fact, the big mystery of “what happened? how did we get here?” is a great engine for propelling the story onward.
But I never would have had this idea if not for brainstorming with friends.
Another way to introduce random is to step away from the project and get outside, unrelated inspiration.
If you’re under deadline, this is a hard technique to apply. You don’t have the time to stop drafting, and I get that. But you also don’t need to step away for long.

Yes, taking 3 months off will reap more reward than 3 hours (because more time = a looser grip on the bird!), but even a short break can introduce all the random you need.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gotten ideas from just listening to NPR on my drive to karate. All Things Considered and Here and Now are chock full of stories about everything under sun, and it’s all those random slices of life that frequently offer me a missing link.
Or, on a similar note, I’ve gotten so many ideas at museums. Natural history museums in particular are my fave, but any museum is fodder for your muse. Trust me. Even that tiny little museum about the local post office or the old canning factory can be the random piece you needed.
Documentaries. Nonfiction books. Magazines in a doctor’s waiting office. Your neighbor on the train. All of these are sources for random input. You just have to turn off the brain for a bit—let the bird fly for a little while—and actively search for random.
Maybe your penicillin spore will be on the next episode of This American Life. You can’t know unless you step away from the keyboard. Give the bird some breathing room.
Okay, so maybe your brainstorming buddies and your external input aren’t giving you the eureka moment you'd hoped for.
I have one other way to introduce random. I call it the “character shuffle.”
This was a technique I came up with while I was working on Bloodwitch. I was drafting Merik’s POV, and honestly, it was a slog. Everything I’d had planned for him—and had had planned for him for years!—was boring and slow. I wasn’t enjoying anything about his scenes, and I knew that meant readers wouldn’t enjoy either.
So during a brainstorming session, my friend Rachel and I wrote down the name of every Witchlands character on index cards. Every character. Those went in one stack.
Then we wrote down every location. (Broadly, speaking. It’s a big map, after all.) Those index cards became a new stack.
Next, we shuffled the two stacks and started flipping cards. One card would have a character, the other a place, and we would stare at them and imagine, What if Merik ended up with this person in this place?
It was RANDOM. What if Merik ended up with Uncle Eron in the Sleeping Lands? What if Merik ended up with Gretchya in Dalmotti?
With each new combo, we would talk out how Merik could possibly end up with those people and what that story might look like if he did. Most of the combinations didn’t work or felt totally wrong.
But one combo…Oh, it was magical. What if Merik ended up with Esme in Poznin?
It was so random. SO RANDOM. And yet, it worked. I could easily get Merik to Esme thanks to circumstances I’d already written, and it made perfect sense why she would want to have him. Plus, it would allow me to finally show Esme and her wicked Puppeteer self in a way I hadn’t yet been able to thus far.
It was the perfect solution, and I started drafting this new version of his story that very night. And you know what? His story was the easiest for me to write in that book. It was a an absolute joy and worked a million times better than what I’d been planning for years.

But I never would have found those connections I hadn't seen before without introducing random.
It's those connections that are the "end goal" of a story breakthrough. The big EUREKA! moments that rearrange the story in your head.

I have a line from Something Strange & Deadly:

"It was if the world had been flipped. As if I have been holding a picture upside down, but now I'd figured out which way was up."

It's an incredible feeling when that happens. And the longer you've been stuck, ruminating endless solutions that don't seem to work, the more exciting that ultimate eureka is.

But you can't find connections without loosening your grip on the bird. You can't find connections without introducing a random spore or apple upon the head.
Think of it for a second from a neurological standpoint. What are our brains? They're a series of neural connections. Pathways along which signals speed.

The more we use a neural pathway, the thicker the myelin sheaths become—and the thicker those sheaths, the faster impulses move along the pathway. That's why practice makes perfect: our brains produce more myelin and the thoughts move more quickly.

But it also means our brains are really good at falling into ruts (why do you think bad habits are so hard to break?). Thoughts and impulses follow the same pathways over and over—the pathways with least resistance and most speed. It's efficiency, baby! Why change a "good" thing?

Well, if you're stuck in a story, those pathways work against you. You're imagining X character and Y character in a room, and the Z encounter you've imagined before is instantly what shows up for you to write...

Except you hate the Z encounter and don't want to write it. It doesn't work within the framework of the story anymore. Yet every time you try to conjure a new solution...your brain settles into the familiar pathways. You end up with the same conclusions, the same outcomes, the same useless Z encounter.

You have to step off those neural pathways. You have to forge new ones. You have to find the connections you hadn't seen before.
Like I said before, I'm not pretending that my suggestions for story breakthroughs are groundbreaking.

What I am suggesting is that you actually use them.

No one wants to leave the comfort of the known, the comfort of the established neural pathway. No one wants to let go of ideas they've clung to for ages. TRUST ME, I am right there with you, stuck in my ruts and unable to leave.

But leaving—by letting go of preconceived ideas and introducing random—is the best way (that I've found!) to spot those new connections and achieve the breakthroughs you need.

You tell me: what tried and true methods have you found for getting yourself through a story rut?

Upcoming Events:


I have nothing scheduled at the moment, but stay tuned!

Have a great Valentine's Day and weekend! 


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Susan Dennard
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I'm a misfit, a daydreamer,
a fangirl, an animal-lover,
a feminist killjoy,
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