Thursday, August 16, 2012

What Happens When You Get Stuck?



When I visit schools, kids (and often teachers and librarians, too) ask me what's it's like to be a published author.  Do I ever get stuck?  Do I ever feel frustrated with my writing?  I've thought about this a lot, and this post is an answer to that question!  I hope it will help all the kids out there who wonder if we authors ever get stuck and if so, what do we do about it?  I'll begin with a story.  
Recently, I started writing Little Elfie One, a Christmas sequel to my Halloween picture book Little Goblins Ten (Harper 2011.) I was thrilled about the new book.  Jane Manning, who illustrated Goblins would be illustrating the sequel too, and I think we make a great writing and illustrating team.
Although the manuscript (writing) for Elfie wasn’t due for several months, I sat right down to write a first draft.  This was going to be so much fun!  But after several hours of writing random rhymes, I started to panic.  The story was so obviously not working.  The idea of a Christmas sequel (which was suggested by a fan of the Halloween book) was a huge mistake, I realized.  Why had I even thought I could do it?
I knew what the problem was, too.  Little Goblins Ten had a natural story line in the building excitement of all the monsters in the forest getting ready to go trick-or-treating.  But the Christmas story didn’t lend itself to that format.  In fact, it didn’t lend itself to any format.  My editor had mistakenly placed trust in me.  I’d have to return the advance (that's the money you get ahead of time for your book, like an advance on your allowance.) But wait, I didn’t even have the advance yet!   What was I going to do?  
My husband, John, says that panic is part of my writing process.  He says I always panic and then I figure out a way to make it work.  But at that moment, as I sat staring at a jumble of disconnected rhymes, I knew he was wrong, at least this time.
I really truly could not do this.
Since I've thought so much about the problem of getting stuck, I've come up with three tips to help writers of all ages get through those times:
I'm-stuck-writing Tip #1 – Talk to a friend
Talking to a friend, a teacher, or your mom and dad about the problem can help a lot.  Just by stating out loud what the problem is can help, especially if that person is a good listener.  You hear yourself asking the question and suddenly you have the answer!  Or your friend may see the story in a different way, which gives you a new way to look at it.  Instead of a "dead end" you suddenly see an open door.  
I'm-stuck-writing Tip #2 Put it in your pocket
Writing isn't just sitting down at the computer or with a notebook and pen.  It's what happens when you're in the shower, walking your dog, or eating lunch.  Take your story idea, problem and all, and "put it in your pocket."  Carry it around with you (not literally, unless you can fit your notebook in your pocket.)  Mull it over as you go through your day, until the perfect solution comes to you.
I'm-stuck-writing Tip #3.  Stop trying to "write."
Everyone, even writers, gets intimidated by thinking, "Now I'm going to write" as though that's a formal act separate from all the other things you think and do all day.  Or they think the words have to be perfect.  A story you write when you're trying to be perfect might look like this:
One day...
Yesterday...
The day before yesterday
Wow, no wonder it's not working!  You're trying too hard to "write."  You're not going to believe this, but guess what?  Writing is NOT about the words!  It's about what you really want to say, what feels is important or funny or exciting to write about.
It's about you.
The morning after my bad day of trying to write my Christmas book, I woke up and thought, forget the random verses.  Think of the story.  What happens in this book? Once I figured that out, the book wrote itself in three days.  It still needs work – a lot of work – but the frame is in place.
So the next time you get stuck, remember to talk to a friend, put the problem in your pocket or the back of your mind, and most importantly don't try to "write."  Just relax and tell the story on paper.  You'll be surprised at how much easier and more fun that is. 

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