Or, perhaps better titled: Creating in the Time of COVID: When Having All the Time in the World Somehow Means Less Time to Create
Quarantine time. In a way, it’s a dream come true. You’re home. You have free time out the wazoo. That book you always wanted to write, that is right there at the forefront of your brain and tip of your tongue: there will never be a better chance to write it. What an opportunity, all this free time. It’s happening!!
Yet hey, look–how did you never realize how dusty those floorboards were? Those dressers and closets, man, it was high time someone Marie Kondo’d the heck out of them, right? And did someone mention virtual happy hour?
A month goes by. Then two. As a third smirks and waves on its way past, you realize it’s time to knock off the distractions and get to work. This is something you’re doing for you, afterall. Since self isolation isn’t going away any time soon, you still have a chance. So pull up your laptop and get to work. This is something you always wanted to do! Let’s go already!
You face the screen. The white, blank screen. Your mind is as empty as the chapters you thought you’d have finished by now. Is that blinking cursor laughing at you?! They should call it a curser for pete’s sake…
ENOUGH!! Focus. Smack that writers block in the face and get to work, man!! This home-time is a gift that you can’t waste any longer.
There are good ways and not-so-good ways to go about it. Here are some counter-intuitive tips to get your muse out of that cave and onto the page.
1. GO FOR A WALK? HAH nice try. All a walk is going to do is take you farther away from your problem. If an athlete is tired of training, does she say I’ll just sit out for a while? No, she trains anyway. Going for a walk is only helpful if you’re, say, trying to think of the perfect word or trying not to swear, and you are coming right back to your work. Otherwise we know we’ll never see you again. Sitting down and powering through is the only way to improve (shout out to Malcolm Gladwell and The Outlier Effect that talks about the more you practice, the better you get… “There is a direct correlation between effort and reward. You get exactly out of your rice paddy what you put into it.” Read that book, please!)
The best thing to do when faced with a blank screen is to start writing anyway. Anything. Write your grocery list. A fan letter. Your favorite smells. Your thoughts about how it stinks to not be able to think about what you want to write about. If you’re stuck on a certain part of the story, skip over it and come back to it later.
Hammering out repetitive words or phrases isn’t helpful as it doesn’t engage the brain or thought process. Writing about work stuff isn’t helpful as it switches your thought process in a different (aka wrong–for now) direction. But writing ANYTHING else does two things.
First, it keeps your butt in that chair (“BIC,” as 380+ book author Jane Yolen likes to say) and trains your mind (and butt?) to stay focused on the task at hand. It reminds every part of you that sitting in front of a screen and writing things non-work related is OK. You can do this. You can’t get used to doing something you aren’t doing!
Second, it gets those creative juices flowing. And if you promise to try it, I promise never to use that phrase again.
2. START AT THE BEGINNING AND PLOT TO THE END? Nope. Try the opposite. If you’re stuck on where to go next, or even where to start the story, try going backwards. I know I say a version of this a lot, but: if you don’t know where you are going, how do you know how to get there? Start at the end. Picture what it will look like. Don’t write anything yet, just imagine it. Where and who are XX and YY are going to be?
Take the first thing that comes into your head and run with it. Explore all the possibilities it could bring to the story. You might surprise yourself with “What? I was planning on Y going to France!” You might realize your ending is too ‘expected,’ and more twists are needed. You might find someone new sitting there. Stew on it for a bit. IN YOUR CHAIR. You are thinking for a few minutes and are getting right back to writing so don’t even think about grabbing a cup of tea. Sit and think. Are there changes that need to be made in order to make that ending happen? New scenes you can add? Hints you can drop or details you can point out? Now start writing. Some authors think you can plot easier and save time by now realizing certain paths to get to that ending are better than others, and you can better streamline your storyline.
I recently had an idea for a story when an image came into my head. As I thought about the image, I realized it was the end of the story. Now I am figuring out who it is and how they got there. I love this part of discovery!
That first thought that you are playing around with doesn’t have to be the end you stick with. Have fun with it for right now, though. Take risks. See where it leads. That image I had in my head? I actually hated it. When it wouldn’t leave, I knew I had to embrace it. I encourage you: if you HATE the ending you just thought it, it might just be the ending you need. Go from there. Put your character someone you never dreamed they’d go. If you can’t think of a plausible ending, you might not know your characters well enough yet, so go back and work on that. You might realize a change in setting is needed, so work there. There is so much you can work on that isn’t just going from page one to page two.
3. FINESSE DIALOGUE? Speaking of writing out of sequence (were we?), writing doesn’t have to mean plausible word count. That pressure is what can make an author go mad. Burrowing in the nitty-gritty like dialogue or scene transitions can get tiresome. Sometimes when you “write,” you really “plot.” Why not look big picture instead of detail? But I’m not exactly talking plot. Take a one step further back and outline your story.
Start by filling out the blanks: Hero wants __[goal]__ but can’t __[obstacle/problem]__ so they __[take action]__.
This works for almost all picture books too! Now you have everything you need. Take the time to outline just the highlights of your story that tell the problem, actions, and outcome–yes, even if it’s a 500 word picture book. As far as what you’ve written so far: where are you in the standard plot arc? What areas need more meat? (If you don’t have some sort of plot arc…dude…start working on one. If you need help, Google “plot arc” and about a hundred images will pop up, along with blog posts that walk you through how to do it. I especially liked the image below from Christine Wodtke.) Are there enough struggles in your journey, are the stakes high enough, is the resolution unexpected and worth it?
You know that idea I’m working on? Every thought I had on it, I put on a post-it note, as I thought of it, so I could rearrange into a timeline. That helped me outline it by better understanding not only where I was trying to go but how I was going to get there. The post-it notes were not evenly-weighted as far as plot or outline, by any means. They had suggested phrases, ideas for names, and some just had an idea for a change in setting. It was by no means what most people would call an outline. But I had enough to go on to think through how I got to the pivotal point (the twist), and what the milestones might be. (I’m still working on the manuscript FYI–it’s not a miracle cure.)
Do you need to go into that notes & graphing detail? No! Do you have to draw out a plot arc and paginate each piece? No, no, not at all. But you should have an idea of where it all falls. Creating a new outline for WIP is a great way to see if it’s a lopsided story, where it might need more action, or less action, or if you forgot about a character introduced in Chapter 3. Stepping back to look at the outline of a manuscript you think is almost finished is a great way to take another look at an issue that has you stymied or treading water. Maybe that part is in the wrong place, or needs amping up.
Now, I’m saying all of this about multi-chapter books when I primarily write picture books, so I might be out of my league. But I know firsthand that all of this applies to picture books.
Sometimes we think if the story doesn’t come to us organically, that it’s not worth working on. No story in the history of publishing has ever been successful without some sort of planning and plotting. Even wordless picture books!! And we’ve all had moments where we doubt and want to walk away.
Stick with it.
You’ve got the time.