At a certain point in working on a manuscript, it becomes impossible to tell if dramatic moments actually feel tense, if magical moments are saturated with wonder, if comedic moments are funny. All the words are on the page that should evoke those qualities, but do they? Do my characters have distinct voices and clearly differentiated characteristics? Or are they interchangeable? Is my world building clear and comprehensible, or is it confusing and filled with contradictions? I know what I want to accomplish, but I’ve spent so much time elbows-deep in the story that I’ve lost the perspective a fresh reader can bring.
I can ask beta readers those questions and let them think through their answers. They can make notes on my manuscript and discuss possibilities with me, and all of that is incredibly helpful. But the thing they can’t do is provide in-the-moment gut reactions to the story the way a listener can. So, while my primary Write by Midnight goal is to complete an outline for my next manuscript, I am also reading my current manuscript aloud to my very own beta listener.
I read every night to my kids before bedtime, so one night, without fanfare, I began reading my own manuscript—a middle grade novel—aloud. Kids are fantastic and expressive listeners, and I was delighted to see them squeal with worry in the tense moments and laugh out loud in the funny ones. They also asked specific questions that brought up problems with the story—and showed clearly how to address those same problems.
It has been fun to share this project that has consumed so much of my time with my own family. Now they know what I’m talking about when I say I need to write. But it has also been incredibly helpful for my writing process. I’ve gained that fresh perspective that shows me what works and what needs work. And when I’ve finished my Write by Midnight outlining, I’ll know just what to do to get my manuscript in tip-top shape.
Welcome to Write by Midnight 2021! With everything that’s happened this past year, it’s a good time to recenter and refocus on your writing. That’s what the WriteOwls plan to do this month. Each of us has a specific goal for the write-a-thon. You can read about them below. In the spirit of giving you time to concentrate on your own projects, we’ll be scaling back our posts throughout the month. But don’t worry. We’ll still surprise you from time to time with bits of inspiration or prompts to keep you going. Update us on your progress. In the mean time, get writing!
Laura’s 2021 Write by Midnight Goal: Revise 8 chapters of my manuscript.
I’ve learned over the years that if I don’t prioritize writing first thing in the morning, I just don’t do it, no matter how good my intentions may be. So, every morning, as soon as my kids are at school (or settled in their virtual learning environment, as has often been the case this year), I set aside an hour to write. It’s a daily habit I’ve been able to maintain consistently ever since the pandemic began. Most days, that one hour is the only dedicated writing time I get. But those 60 minutes add up to words that, for me in 2020, led to a completed first draft of a middle grade historical fiction novel. I’ve got my work cut out for me for Write by Midnight 2021, though. I’m a month into my SCBWI Midsouth mentorship with the talented and gracious Kristin O’Donnell Tubb, and I’m determined to finish revising and polishing this manuscript during the time I get to work with and learn from her. So, I’m challenging myself this month to stretch my writing time to 90 minutes each morning and two full hours each on Saturdays and Sundays. I typically revise a chapter a week, so my hope is that by increasing the amount of time I write each day, I’ll progress at a faster pace.
Megan’s 2021 Write by Midnight Goal: Complete an outline of my next manuscript.
I just sent the latest draft of my current manuscript out to a couple of beta readers, so it’s time to focus on what’s next for a bit until I get it back. I actually completed half of an outline for another middle grade novel last spring, but I got bogged down in the muddy middle. I had written it off, but when I was trying to decide which project to tackle for Write by Midnight, I reread what I’d written so far and fell in love with the characters and their story all over again. I also saw more clearly how to work through some of the plot snarls that had confounded me during my first go-round. Outlining can be tricky work, tweaking a plot point in one scene that means three more need to be updated—or realizing that an entire subplot has to go—but I’ve found that taking the time to really think through and plan my story makes a huge difference during the writing process and frees me up to be more creative. So, this year I am focusing my Write by Midnight energy on my outline, which should set me up for creative success throughout the year as I dig into writing my next book.
Stacey’s 2021 Write by Midnight Goals: Write 14 hours/week and write or revise 4 chapters.
I had three writing goals for 2021: finish my book, write for an hour and a half every day and limit myself to only reading/watching the news twice a week. That last goal went out the window on Jan. 6, when I spent the entire day, and the next few, bouncing between CNN, NPR and the Washington Post like a relapsed newsaholic on a binge. But I did still manage to average ten hours a week writing, so that was almost a win.
But now it’s February and time for Write by Midnight—time for me to focus on writing—not a Senate impeachment trial. My overall goal for the year has not changed. I will finish my book. To do that, I want to up my writing time to an average of 14 hours a week and plan to re-write/revise at least eight chapters of my book this month. It’s doable—if I don’t let myself get distracted!
I have a bar of soap on my desk. It’s not for washing my hands. It’s not there by mistake. I bought it a couple of years ago at a quirky little handmade soap shop with a half-dozen other bars, intending to give them out as little gifts whenever a little-gift occasion came up. I did give the rest of them away, but not this one. I loved the scent, fresh and clean, but also like the ocean and crushed mint. And then I realized that the quirky soap shop owners had decided to call this particular scent ‘hangover,’ and I’d just never found anyone I felt good about giving it to. So I kept it, and it gravitated to my desk because its scent made me happy. Soon it didn’t just make me happy, it helped me kickstart my brain. Whenever I’m pondering a scene, I just reach over, grab the soap bar and inhale its ocean-mint scent, and changing one sensory input gives my brain a little jolt and helps me approach my writing with a fresh perspective.
I also have a blackberry sage tea canister that serves a similar purpose. The scent of the tea—leafy, fruity and bitter—lingers in the tin long after I’ve steeped the last bag, and its aroma has the ability to shift my mental focus and give me the nudge I need to think about my writing in a different way.
I like to keep something tactile nearby to work with my fingers while I think. It used to be one of those desk magnet things—until my children carried the little pieces away. Now it’s a slap bracelet with reversible sequins which one of those same children abandoned on my desk. Sequins aren’t really my style aesthetically; I’m more of a natural fibers kind of girl, but if I see reversible sequins, I must touch them, run my hands up and then down. Every. Single. Time. Addiction, y’all. But also a physical prompt to shift my perspective and renew my mind.
There are plenty of ways to shake up your environment in order to shake up your mind and your story. You just have to find the one that works for you. Change the lighting in you room. If you usually stick with a bright overhead light, try softer lamplight or natural light. Open a window. Light a candle. The oppressive heat of summer here has just been replaced by the invigorating chill of fall mornings, so I’ve moved my writing outside today. All the birdsong and fresh air has kept me going for a solid hour already.
What props or techniques do you use to renew your mind while you write?
Some people have compared our nation’s experience with the pandemic to the grieving process. Denial (that’s just in China!), bargaining (let’s stay home for a couple of weeks, and then this will all be better), anger (you can’t make me wear a mask!), depression (I’m going to get it no matter what I do), and acceptance. I’m not sure what acceptance looks like because I don’t think we’ve gotten there.
From a creativity perspective, these months of upheaval and uncertainty have definitely affected my writing life, bringing it almost to a standstill. For a while, everything else was blocked out by the enormity of the pandemic. Events popped up on my calendar, and I just deleted them. Nothing was going to happen. All I did was devour news about the coronavirus. Even areas of my life previously devoted to writing shifted to focus on the disease. Half our weekly WriteOwls phone call was consumed by discussion of the pandemic. I quit reading fiction. I quit watching television and movies. I stopped midway through an audiobook. I sat down to write in fits and starts, but I didn’t produce much. I developed a hyperawareness of the fragility not just of my physical life but also of the activities and relationships that once filled my life.
Sure, some of my writing problems were scheduling issues, since the time I had blocked out for writing didn’t exist any more, and instead I was suddenly shifting to homeschool mode. But I can always stay up later or get up earlier to make time to write. I just wasn’t in a headspace for creating stories in the face of so many unknowns. Even when I was at the bargaining stage of hoping for a return to normal before the school year was out, I knew deep down that this experience was reshaping our culture in profound ways that I couldn’t yet identify. And if the whole world changed, then would the stories I’ve written and am writing even make sense in that new world? Continue reading →
If you write, then you’re a writer. You don’t have to wait for the validation of publication, starred reviews, or the best seller lists. Writers write. But what happens when you get stuck, when you’re not writing? If a person who writes is a writer, then what is a person who stares at a computer screen and then decides that she’d better go do the laundry?
We all have those moments/weeks/seasons when the words won’t come. Don’t panic. There’s no need for an identity crisis. You are still a writer. You just need to use a little bit of your creativity to come up with something that makes you step back and consider the whole story, instead of that one little element you’re stuck on, something that reminds you what makes this story worth writing in the first place.
Here are a few techniques that have helped me:
1. Write the jacket copy. Jacket copy is those two to three paragraphs on the inside flap of a hardback or on the back of a paperback that introduce potential readers to your story and convince them that they have to read it. This exercise will help you home in on the best parts of your story because they’re what’s going to sell your book.Continue reading →
The WriteOwls blog about writing and the writing life. We primarily write picture books, middle grade, and young adult fiction. As each of us shares her unique writing experiences, influences, motivations, and resources, our joint goal is to enrich our writing journeys and yours.