Uncertainty and Overwhelm in Writers

I wanted to share with you this article from Lit Hub, “George Saunders on Overcoming Uncertainty in Writing,” specifically this part:

Since I first stumbled on this idea, I’ve found it oddly comforting. If I have a story that is a mess, full of places I can’t live with, instead of thinking, you know, “And you call yourself a professional writer? Just look at the mess you’ve made!” I try to think, “Ah, you have skillfully revised yourself into a place where the key to getting the story to its higher ground lies in this little handful of messy places. Good for you! And look, there are only, like, six of them. And they are messy because—well, because they have the potential to be really beautiful, but they don’t know how yet, the poor things.”

The whole article is worth a read. (Note to sensitive readers: it references sex but doesn’t describe sexual acts.)

I wish I was back in that uncertain-writer stage rather than here, in the overwhelmed-slug stage.

I spent two wonderful and difficult years busting my tail writing in my MFA program, and now I’ve spent two years… not writing. I could blame it on the pandemic, on moving across country during a pandemic, on completely switching careers during a pandemic, on getting my teaching license and crafting curriculum—from scratch, no less—for eight completely different classes while teaching and nurturing 200 high school students and keeping small humans and dogs alive, half of the time as a solo parent.

It makes sense why I’m burnt out, and I need to remember that energy, especially for someone with a chronic illness, is finite.

Yet there’s still that little part of my brain, the part that is usually occupied with imposter syndrome when I’m writing, that has declared dead my passion for writing, adding, Maybe I never liked writing anyway, and why should I spend my limited energy doing something I don’t like?

And my heart says, But you do like writing. You smile when you think of your characters. Nothing can come close to that dopamine hit of discovering a perfect line of dialogue, of making a creative breakthrough in a story.

So many writers I know, especially querying writers, have had their hearts bruised or even broken and are ready to give up. Their heart is saying, “I want to keep going,” and they’re saying, “Hush now, you’re hurt. It’s time to rest.”

I’m going to be honest. Writing is generally not fun for me. It’s often excruciating. I feel like an idiot…most of the time. Why can’t I make this work? Why can’t I just write something, anything, without getting distracted?

It’s easy to just not do things that are hard, especially when you’re tired and are running on fumes and can barely bring yourself to watch a television show.

It’s OK to do the bare minimum. To be in survival mode.

It’s difficult to pull yourself out of survival mode.

This summer, I’m trying to drag myself out. One thing I’m trying is looking at tasks in one of three categories:

  • Required (things to do to “function” as an “adult”)
  • Refreshing (restful activities that require very little energy)
  • Rewarding (hard things that make me feel like a human being rather than a robot doing)

It’s kind of like Eisenhower’s Decision Matrix, but more personal, less corporate feeling.

Thanks to the hierarchy of needs, I’ve realized it’s pretty hard for me to do anything rewarding when I’m overwhelmed by those required tasks.

Thanks to ADHD, it’s pretty difficult for me to accomplish any of those required tasks without an immediate reward.

So I’m pairing as much of the refreshing things with the required things as possible. I need to do outdoor chores (required)? OK, I need to listen to an audiobook at the same time (refreshing). That TV show I’ve been wanting to watch for months? I will watch it. In fact, I need to watch it, because I need to sort through my kids’ old clothes.

I’m starting small, pairing one required with one refreshing task per day and choosing one rewarding thing per week. My hope is way more frequent than that, but I’m trying to go easy on myself.

I’ll read poetry and paint every day! No, I’ll read poetry and paint once a week.

Get out a journal, or just write a comment below, and answer these reflective questions.

  1. Where are you at with your writing right now? Are you certain? Uncertain? Bruised? Overwhelmed?
  2. What is your goal for this season you’re currently in? Is it a S.M.A.R.T. goal?
  3. What would the midpoint look like for that goal? How would you know that you’re halfway there?
  4. What would half of that look like, the quarter point?
  5. What are your daily or weekly goals? If being a “daily doer” hasn’t worked for you, take any daily goal you set for yourself and turn it into a weekly goal.
  6. Now cut that daily or weekly goal in half.

Something is better than nothing. Many writers are perfectionists, who think that something has to be 100% (or an impossible 110%) or it may as well be 0%. Take yourself out of that all-or-nothing mindset. You may know that done is better than perfect, but 10% is infinitely better than 0%.

“One page a day can be a novel draft in a year” doesn’t sound like a lot of effort, but it is a marathon, and we’re not all marathon runners!

One sentence a week is a paragraph per month.

One book written in five years is still a #&%@!$* book.

I know I’ve said goals need to be SMART, and therefore quantitative, but whether you set your goals in minutes or words, when you are trying to determine whether a writing session was a success or not, try not to focus so much on the quantitativeness of your work but instead reflect on the experience.

We are not human accomplishers, we are human beings. Spend some time this week being a writer, just enjoying the process and what you can learn from it.

Smooth seas never made a skilled sailor. We can only write greatness by navigating through an ocean of not-great words and ideas. Every session is a learning experience.

Approach your next writing session like Saunders, saying, “What’ve we got here? Let’s see what we can do. It’s going to be all right.”

7 Tips for Writing Realistic Dialogue

I wrote this post in 2014. It was originally published on The Better Novel Project. I am reposting with minor updates.

Does all of your dialogue sound the same, no matter who’s talking? Have you had feedback saying that your dialogue is awkward or unrealistic?

Nearly any book about writing fiction will have a section on dialogue. Consider this a quick reference or summary.

These are my top 7 tips for writing realistic dialogue:

1. Read the dialogue aloud.

This is the #1 tip that will solve 90% of your problems if you pay attention to how the words sound. Fix the awkward syntax, the too perfect grammar, the long-winded response.

A breath unit is the number of syllables a reader would have to read aloud in one breath. Readers take breaths at punctuation marks.

Try keeping to 20 syllables or fewer per breath unit (25 is pushing it), and vary the lengths.

Too many long segments make your reader lose his or her place. 

Too many short ones are choppy and jarring, like using exclamation points after each sentence.

  • Example of too many, too-short breath units:
    • And the line comes (I swear it) from the breath, from the breathing of the man who writes, at the moment that he writes, and thus is, it is here that, the daily work, the WORK, gets in, for only he, the man who writes, can declare, at every moment, the line its metric and its ending—where its breathing, shall come to, termination. —Charles Olson, 1950
    • Breath units: 4, 3, 3, 9, 7, 3, 4, 4, 2, 2, 3, 4, 3, 5, 9, 4, 3, 4
  • Example of varied breath units:
    • The vorticist relies on this alone: on the primary pigment of his art, nothing else. Every conception, every emotion presents itself to the vivid conscious in some primary form. —Ezra Pound
    • Breath units: 10, 10, 3, 5, 21

2. Take notes on how people actually speak.

Use a journal or tape recorder. Consider the era, location, and culture of your character. Then find diaries, spoken interviews, or Youtube videos of people with a similar background. Study their vocabulary and the way they string words together. 

What kinds of idioms do they use? What kind of words do they leave out? Record their speech and then craft similar sentences in the same style. One of my notebooks has these recordings: “What he did was he told me” and “‘Matter of fact, they.”

Note that reality TV is often scripted and quotes in newspaper interviews are often edited. You want unscripted, unedited speech—so try to find interviews you can watch or listen to.

  • Example: Letters to the editor or “Dear Abby” from your time period can give you a glimpse of how people talked in certain decades, but unless you can find a local paper, they won’t give you regional clues. Here’s a letter with some great diction:
    • DEAR ABBY: My wife sleeps in the raw. Then she showers, brushes her teeth and fixes breakfast—still in the buff. We’re newlyweds and there are just the two of us, so I suppose there’s really nothing wrong with it. What do you think? —ED
    • DEAR ED: It’s O.K. with me. But tell her to put on an apron when she’s frying bacon. (Source)

3. Write in standard English, not dialect … unless it’s your own.

Bottom line, if it’s hard to read aloud, you’re doing it wrong.

If one of your characters speaks with an accent, that’s a good time to tell us rather than show us (an exception to the oft over-quoted “show, don’t tell“). Spelling words to show pronunciation is called “eye-dialect.” Eye-dialect is usually stereotypical, at best confusing to some readers, and at worst, racist. 

Nicola Yoon’s Instructions for Dancing includes two characters who speak with accents: Fifi, the dance instructor, and Mom, the mother of the main character and narrator. Yoon uses eye-dialect sparingly to show the reader how Fifi sounds, but after that, she sticks to standard spelling and describes the voice for the reader.

“You are interested in the waltz, I see.” Except for when she says it, it sounds like You are eeenterested in zee waltz, I zee. Her accent is vaguely Eastern European and very heavy.

If Yoon had written all of Fifi’s lines in eye-dialect, readers would spend more time decoding what she was saying rather than enjoying her sense of humor.

“No rocking side to side. You are not little teapot.”

Twice she tells me that my hips are “like rusty spring.”

For Mom’s voice, Yoon does not use eye-dialect, instead describing how and when the character’s voice becomes more accented:

Mom’s originally from Jamaica. … The only time she has a Jamaican accent is when she’s nervous or upset.

…She sounds like she just immigrated yesterday.

Rather than employing creative spelling, make diction (word choice) and syntax (word order) your tools. Vary Latinate and Anglo-Saxon diction, vary sentence length, and switch up word order until you get a distinctive (but realistic) voice.

4. Read plays and screenplays.

Good ones. Award-winning ones. With diverse writers and casts.

Dialogue is the meat of a screenplay. Screenwriters know how to convey tone, conflict, backstory, motivation, and more through dialogue.

  • Hint: TV shows are written by multiple people and tend to be more inclusive in their representation than movies or plays. Sitcoms and dramas with large casts need to be able to realistically portray many different voices.
  • Hint: Try The Internet Movie Script Database for finding screenplays online.

5. Take an acting class.

Preferably improv! Acting will show you how to get into your character and make them sound and act realistic.

If you can become your character, if you can live inside your character’s mind, not only will your dialogue be realistic, but your plot will also ring true.


Use invisible dialogue tags.* 

Eliminate all empty words. Realize that subtext is even more important than text—what isn’t said is more important than what is said. Think of dialogue as an espresso and each dialogue tag as a slap in the face.

It’s okay to excite the reader, but overexcite them, and you’ll give them a panic attack.

*Invisible dialogue tags are “he said” or “she said,” placed unobtrusively, usually at the end, if used at all.

7. Don’t use dialogue as an information dump.

“Remember when…?”

“I know that…”

“You know…”

Anytime a character says one of the above, you know that the dialogue is highly contrived. If the character already knows it, then why is he or she stating the obvious?

Dialogue has two functions: to characterize and move the story forward. Not backward. If you can characterize the protagonist through the interchange, then do it. If your information is absolutely necessary, but doesn’t characterize more than one character, summarize. 

  • Example: In Indiana Jones and the Last Crusadewhen Jones and Henry, Sr. are chatting in the Zeppelin, we get backstory through dialogue. The “It was just the two of us, Dad” line is a bit contrived, but Henry’s side of the conversation makes up for it. The conversation characterizes both Indy and Henry, and portrays their relationship as it was and as it currently stands. It moves the story forward; it doesn’t hang out in the past.

Bonus Exercise from The Hunger Games

Here are a few lines from chapter nine of The Hunger Games. Can you guess which character—Katniss, Effie, or Haymitch—said what?

1: “Well, you better learn fast. You’ve got about as much charm as a dead slug.”

2: “Well, try and pretend! See, like this. I’m smiling at you even though you’re aggravating me.”

3: “And you’ve given me so many reasons to be cheery.”


  1. “You better learn fast” isn’t correct grammar, but it’s what this character would say. Not every character would choose to compare a person to a slug.
  2. This character has a rhythm to their speech and chooses words like “aggravating.”
  3. This sounds like a sarcastic character.

8 Book Recommendations for a 13yo Kid Who Loves TikTok, Anime, and Marvel

Today my Twitter mutual, Ebony Lynn Mudd, tweeted the following question:

#writingcommunity #kidlit friends, What book could I gift to an almost 13-year old boy who stays on TikTok all day and loves anime, but isn’t a reader? #mg

Maybe you know a kid with similar tastes! So I figured I’d share my recommendations with my blog readers, too!

(If you don’t have an independent bookstore near you, I recommend ordering from Bookshop.org. Any purchase benefits independent shops. You can even choose an individual shop to support, like Black Garnet Books, the only Black-owned book shop in Minnesota)

This was my first response to Ebony’s tweet:

If reading Manga might be too difficult (since they’re read backwards and can have very long series), try a standalone graphic novel or comics volume. What shows or topics does he like?

Ebony responded that he likes Marvel and Stranger Things. So here we go with recommendations!

Highly recommend Gene Luen Yang’s middle grade or YA. One of his Avatar: the Last Airbender series or Superman Smashes the Klan (each series told in a collection or 3 short books).

For comics, look for the words “vol. 1” or “omnibus” or “collection” so it includes a whole story arc.

I also highly recommend the Shuri comics by Nnedi Okorafor and Leonardo Romero, which include some great cameos from other Marvel characters.

Axe Cop is ridiculous and hilarious, if he likes weird slapstick humor on TikTok.

My 10yo absolutely loves Preeti Chhibber’s Marvel books. He’s constantly snickering while reading them, and sharing his favorite parts with me.

He also enjoys the Ms. Marvel’s Fists of Fury chapter book (ages 9-12), where Kamala Khan teams up with Thor.

War of the Realms comics are really fun (though violent, so rated T+ and recommended for 13+) and mix a bunch of Marvel heroes into different teams. They also include this gem of Spider-Man talking to a horse [content warning: bloody violence].

If you want to get him a prose novel, get him anything by Jason Reynolds! I’d start with Miles Morales: Spider-Man, given his likes.

Those are my starter book recommendations for a young teen non-reader who loves anime and TikTok! If you ever need a book recommendation (or 8) for a child or teen, tweet me @larathelark or send me a message on Instagram @larathelark!

Beyond Beginning, Middle & End

“A story has a beginning, middle, and end!”

Is it just me, or is this just the writer version of the “How to Draw an Owl” meme?

1. Draw some circles. 2. Draw the rest of the ******* owl.

If the whole “beginning, middle, end” thing never did much for you, either, try this:

Think of a story, not as beginning, middle & end, but as a change with a before, an after, and all of the trial, error, and perseverance in between.

I’ll use Yaroslav Shuraev’s videos to illustrate. Here’s a moment—a woman at the summit of a mountain.

We’ll use this as the ending of our story, just for simplicity’s sake.

What happened at the beginning of this day? Probably the hiker getting ready. But a beginning and an ending don’t make a story:

Something has to happen in the middle. Let’s say the hiker saw some flowers on the way up the mountain. We could add something like this:

Does this feel like a story to you? Or does it feel like a series of events?

We know that stories need conflict or obstacles to create drama. So let’s add some obstacles in the middle:

Adding obstacles creates conflict, and conflict turns a series of events into a story.

…But obstacles don’t necessarily mean a character is changing.

Did the hiker change at all during that series of events? It’s hard to say. What makes her climb of that mountain any different from anyone else’s?

What makes this climb significant? Worth telling a story about?

As writers, we have to be intentional about our choices of conflict, setting, and character.

To create a dynamic character who changes over the course of the story, instead of thinking beginning and end, think before and after.

Let’s go back to the hiker alone on the summit of the mountain. If that’s her after, what if this is her before?

The hiker wasn’t always alone.

Giving the solo hiker a companion at the beginning shows that something has changed from then to her alone at the top of the mountain.

Now we can add a bit of a montage of before and afters (yeah, OK, I’m not a film editor):

Awkward transitions aside, a story is starting to emerge. Can you feel it?

Did you notice that I took out the original “beginning” of the hiker tying her boots? It wasn’t significant, so it got cut.

That obstacles clip—where she runs out of breath but decides to keep going—did that affect you a bit more the second time around, knowing her “before”?

To give a character a before and an after is to create change.

What got our hiker from before—climbing together with this other hiker—to after—hiking alone?

The answer to that question is the “middle” of the story: the trials and errors and perseverance that changed her relationships and changed her as person.

I’d love to hear what kind of story you can make from this before and after. The hows and whys and whens and wheres, and the whos and whats that brought our hiker to that mountaintop.

Your intentional choices are what makes a story yours. For more inspiration from Yaroslav Shuraev’s gorgeous and story-provoking images and video, see more footage from his hiking shoot or follow him at yaroslavshuraev.com or on Instagram @yaroslav_shuraev.

Think of a story, not as beginning, middle & end, but as a change with a before, an after, and all of the trial, error, and perseverance in between.

Now as much as ever, humans need stories that can inspire them to persevere, stories that show change.

Write on.