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.
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 →
We’ve all been there. That moment when a new story takes shape, and your mind is alive with all the possibilities of creation. It’s brilliant, so shiny and bright, and you just have to start writing it now. Because, honestly, that story you’ve been slogging through for a couple of years now is looking pretty tired. It’s probably not The One, so it’ll be best all around if you dig into the new story right away.
Maybe yes, maybe no. I’ve made both choices: abandon a manuscript that just doesn’t have what it takes or stay the course till it’s finished. An idea that hasn’t been written down yet will almost always look better in your imagination than the reality of clumsy words on the page that never quite tell the amazing story that lives in your head. Sometimes it’s best to cut your losses and move on to something more promising, but if you don’t learn to finish what you’ve started, you’ll never actually write a book.
So how do you decide which to do? Here are some points of consideration that have helped me.
1. Is the underlying idea of your story strong enough to carry an entire book?
Sometimes I have an idea that seems really great, but when I sit down to write it, that great idea isn’t really strong enough to undergird an entire novel. The first manuscript I wrote was like that. I wrote a draft, polished it up a bit, and took it to my first writers’ conference. Once there, it was a terrible shock to discover that my little novel was terribly thin. The idea simply wasn’t interesting enough to keep anyone reading. If I were to ever have any hope of publishing it, the spit shine I’d given my first draft wouldn’t do. It required a complete overhaul, down to its premise. I could have kept the characters and story world I’d created, but that was about it. I discovered that I wasn’t so attached to those characters to make the work worthwhile. I let it go. 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.