Getting Your Novel Unstuck

Getting Your Novel Unstuck

Guest blogger Stephanie Gibeault is a freelance writer with a passion for fiction for young readers. She recently wrote a post for Writescape about the benefits of writing away at the Highlights Foundation’s Pennsylvania retreat. As she promised in that December post, she’s here to share what she learned about getting a novel unstuck:

Whether you call it writer’s block, an empty tank or say your creative well has run dry, every writer has days or weeks when putting words on the page is a challenge. This past summer, I found myself stuck on my middle grade manuscript.

I created a storyboard (on my closet doors) to help me see the flow of the plot, only to discover there were structural issues I hadn’t noticed before. I could see what the problems were, but had no idea how to fix them. Thankfully, I had already signed up for a workshop dedicated to getting unstuck.

Stop spinning your wheels

In my recent guest post, I wrote about my experience at the Highlights Foundation workshop Getting Your Middle Grade Novel Unstuck. I learned many things at the workshop, but the main focus was how to deal with being stuck.

Beginning, middle or end of your story—there are great techniques that can help move you forward. Instructors Chris Tebbetts and Elise Broach armed me with loads of options. And many of them don’t even involve working directly on your manuscript.

The most valuable piece of advice I took away from the workshop: there’s always something you can be doing even if it’s not writing.

Experiment with play

Sometimes, it feels like anything other than writing a new scene is procrastination. That’s simply not the case.

Anything that moves you forward with your writing, builds your skills, increases your familiarity with your characters or fleshes out your plot is a productive and effective use of your time. That’s incredibly liberating.

Discovering your characters

Successful middle grade writers create characters their readers connect with—and characters the writers know inside and out. Chris and Elise offered lots of suggestions to get to know our characters better. Here’s a really effective one for me:

  1. Create a chart with a column for a character’s self-perception and a column for how they are seen by others.
  2. The two columns are those perceptions that are true or accurate and those that are false. This provides insight into your character’s psyche – what they hide from others and what they hide from themselves.


Always positive

Never afraid

HOW OTHERS SEE BOB Cute but annoying

Makes light of tough situations



Journal as your character. Get at their innermost thoughts, motivations and goals.Other ways of getting in touch with your characters include:

  • Fill out a questionnaire or survey as one of your characters. How do they answer differently than you or another character would?
  • Write about a character’s perfect day. What makes him or her happy?
  • Create a character profile with details like hair colour, favourite movie and best friend. The more details the better.
  • Write a letter to yourself from a character about what you are getting right and wrong about him or her in your manuscript.

Stretch some more!

I learned how writing prompts helped uncover details about our characters and plots. I thought it would be limiting because I’d have to go in a particular direction rather than letting my creativity flow.

I was amazed. Forced to explore areas I might otherwise have ignored, I answered questions not directly related to my story but essential to understanding it. Simple questions like, “What does this character want?” or “Why do I love this story?” gave me a great start.

ReVision to move forward

Editing can be as radical as starting from scratch and rewriting a scene entirely from memory. You’ll likely retain your favourite parts while stumbling onto some new descriptions, dialogue and directions at the same time. With track changes in your word processor, it’s easy to compare the two versions, choosing the best sections to keep.

Or be more conservative and only delete what isn’t completely necessary. Decide what, if any, details need to go back in and what the reader never needed in the first place.

One of my favourite suggestions was when Chris told me to rewrite a section of my manuscript in first person point of view. The purpose was not to rewrite my entire manuscript, (although that is exactly what I will do), but to get me deeper into my main character’s head.

I couldn’t believe the difference it made. No longer hovering over my story, now saw it through my protagonist’s eyes. Changing point of view, or even tense (from past to present, for example), allows you to approach your narrative from a different angle and that can be all you need.

No more excuses

With so many available options, I no longer have any reason to be stuck. Or to use the phrase “writer’s block”. If you’re feeling stuck with a writing project, consider trying some of these suggestions.

Remember to take advantage of workshops and retreats to help propel you forward. My experience at Highlights sure made a difference for me.

Did You Know

Are you stuck? Writescape retreats offer the perfect space to stretch your writing skills, re-imagine your work in new and exciting ways and the safety you need for full-throated expression. Spring Thaw is already half full of eager and focused writers like you, ready to give focus to their work.

Join us for an all-inclusive escape on the shores of Rice Lake. Elmhirst’s Resort boasts cozy fully equipped cottages with fireplaces, private bedrooms and gorgeous sunrise lake views. All you need is your jammies, toothbrush and writing materials; writers at all levels are welcome. Choose either a 3-day or 5-day retreat. April 20-24.


Write Away: Highlights From the Poconos

Write Away: Highlights From the Poconos

Guest blogger Stephanie Gibeault writes for children. And lately, she’d been stuck on a novel she loves but couldn’t get liftoff with. A change in locale and working with experienced authors and editors paved the way for some breakthrough work on that middle grade manuscript. She shares her experience with us:

I always heard how amazing writing retreats can be. To learn and write in a resort-like location sounds like a dream. But they’re for people who already have well-developed skills. Right? Not for writers relatively new to their careers or with one unfinished work-in-progress.

Boyds Mills Press

In short, not for writers like me.

Maybe someday I thought I might indulge, but for now, I figured I didn’t have enough ability under my belt. And I didn’t want to be the least-experienced person in the room. Besides, I have a private office for writing, so why would I need to go somewhere else?

Then I stumbled across a five-day workshop I simply couldn’t resist – GettingYour Middle Grade Novel Unstuck at the Highlights Foundation.

Getting there

The Barn workshop centre

The Highlights Foundation is a not-for-profit organization with the mission of improving the quality of children’s literature by helping writers and illustrators hone their craft. They offer more than 40 workshops a year for both  published and novice writers at their retreat centre near Honesdale, Pennsylvania in the Pocono Mountains. Topics range from picture books to YA, and from fiction to the education market. They generously offer over $100,000 in scholarship aid each year to more than 100 attendees, and I am one such grateful recipient.

Despite my reservations about not being ready, I signed up for the workshop last spring because of the teaching staff. I didn’t want to miss my chance to learn from best-selling middle grade authors Elise Broach and Chris Tebbetts. Plus, a guest appearance by Aubrey Poole, editor at Hachette’s JIMMY Patterson Books imprint — too good to pass up.

Writing community magic

It was a magical event and exactly what I needed. Along with 11 other attendees, from a writer with many books under his belt to people just starting out, I learned about both the craft and business of writing, received one-on-one feedback on my work, and left feeling encouraged and inspired. Most importantly, I got “unstuck,” including waking up at 3:00 a.m. and rushing to my computer because I had figured out exactly how to raise my main character’s stakes.

My accommodation was charming, something out of a writer’s daydream. Although there are private rooms in The Lodge, I lucked into a private cabin. Who doesn’t want to write in a quaint little cabin in the woods?

I had twin beds, a desk, my own coffee maker, a mini fridge stocked with pop, and a small bathroom. Everything I needed to nestle in and get to work.

More than eurekas

The days were divided between class time and private writing time. During class, we had lectures, discussions, Q & A sessions, and even writing exercises with the opportunity to share our work with the class. We learned about plot and outlines, the revision process, developing scenes and characters, and how to write gripping first pages. And of course, how to move forward with your writing whenever you’re feeling stuck. (Editor’s note: more on that last one in a future post.)

There was also a one-on-one critique from one of the instructors. This was scheduled on the second day of the workshop, so there was plenty of time to put the feedback into practice. Then, most importantly, we had the opportunity to show the instructor our changes and discuss whether we were on the right track. Both Chris and Elise were incredibly generous with their time, and I took advantage to follow up with my new ideas. That kind of individual attention was invaluable.

Time well spent

Stephanie Elise & Chris

We also ate all our meals with our instructors. It was fun to get to know our teachers better and chat about publishing in such a social and relaxed atmosphere. I don’t know of many events, other than a retreat, that let you so casually interact with publishing professionals and published authors on such an equal footing.

And that private writing time I didn’t think I needed? It was productive, exciting and different from writing at home. A  new view, both from my chair and out my window, inspired me. Fresh off a lecture or critique, I felt motivated to work. No scheduling my writing between chores or other obligations. It was the sole reason I was there and that was liberating.

It was also wonderful to have no other responsibilities than to improve my skills. Other than loading up my plate at mealtimes, I didn’t have to lift a finger away from my pen or keyboard. And that meant more words in less time.

Cross-border revelations

I was the only Canadian at the workshop. I’d heard from other Canadian writers that breaking into the American market is an almost impossible goal. So, during a tour of Boyds Mills Press on the first day, I asked the assistant editor what she thought of working with Canadian authors. I also asked my instructors, Chris and Elise, and the Hachette editor, Aubrey, whether they thought there was such a barrier.

I’m pleased to report they all looked at me like I had two heads. Each one agreed that if the story was excellent, it didn’t matter if the author was Canadian or American.

The issue of setting was mentioned, however. Although a Canadian location was not considered a deal-breaker, it was pointed out that Americans prefer to read about America.

So, if location is not crucial to the story, perhaps moving your setting to south of the border is worth considering if you plan to publish in the States. Of course, this may be specific to children’s literature or these particular editors, but it is still helpful information.

I am so glad I didn’t let my concerns hold me back from attending this writing retreat. I was wrong about the prerequisites and I undervalued the chance to write in a new location. And I wasn’t the only one with those same fears at the workshop.

We all struggle to call ourselves writers. If you are thinking a retreat would be valuable, just not right now, think again. There is no time like the present to improve your skills, receive encouragement, and get inspired. And a retreat is the perfect place to make that happen.

Did You Know?

Writescape has hosted many writers like Stephanie at our retreats. Some of them are writers who say “I’m not sure I’m really a writer.” We’re happy to report that each and every time, those writers leave our retreats knowing they are writers. It is not about the skill level. It is all about owning your true voice and finding the best ways to develop and  express it.

Next retreat: Spring Thaw at Elmhirst’s Resort in Kawartha Lakes. April 20 – 22 or Extend Your Pen until April 24. Includes manuscript feedback and one-on-one consultations. Registration is open now.