Writers Block: 3 New Ways to Overcome it

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.

Still stuck?

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.

Young Tied Male Image & Photo (Free Trial) | Bigstock

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.

350+ End Pictures [HD] | Download Free Images on Unsplash
from unsplash

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.)

my notes for recent picture book idea

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.

How Many Pages Should Your Manuscript or Book Be?

Sometimes it’s easier to see than explain:

PageCountInfographic

Who Are You Writing For? Age Range Matters.

Here’s a typical conversation at a social gathering, grocery store, or school fundraiser:

jerk photo: jerk Seinfeld_Jerk_Store_Black_Shirt.jpg“Oh, you write children’s books? I’ve always wanted to do that. I’ve got an idea I always wanted to try.”

Then they hold eye contact, waiting for me to ask them what it’s about.  I smile and leave the silence for just a teeny bit longer than a normal conversation would have because I’m a jerk.

Then I finally ask “What kind of book?”

Usually they’re taken aback because it’s not what they expected to be asked. They say something like “to teach kids about fire safety” or “it’s about the first day of school.”

I say, “No, what I meant is, is it a picture book? A Young adult?”

“It’s for kids,” they’ll say.

“But which kids?”

“All kinds of kids.”

I’m not getting through. I take a deep breath. “Let me ask this way: Who is your reader? What age?”

Continue reading

Revision: Taking A Step Back

 

Image result for image person asking help

Have you ever been asked to read a friend’s manuscript, and, well, their work was borderline horrible? But that friend is so clueless that he/she thinks it’s PERFECT and is honestly thinks a movie deal will be offered any day now?

Well I’ve been that friend. My first drafts were horrible. In fact, I didn’t even know they were drafts. I thought I had a final product. And I thought I had a GOOD final product.

After the first pieces of feedback, I got busy rewording a few things here and there, changed a description or two. What I didn’t realize is I was waaaay off the mark in what needed to be fixed. It wasn’t a matter of copy edits. It was the story overall needed some attention. “Revision” was something that needed to sit tight while bigger issues were figured out.

Here’s what I wish helpful folks would have told me:

Dear Bitsy,

Thank you for the chance to review your manuscript. It’s a charming concept with some wonderful moments. But it needs a bit of work.

A book is a story, a destination. HOW you tell the story is almost more important than WHAT the story is. Both need to be solid.

A simple question to ask yourself is: My books is about _______ but underneath it’s about ________. Wanting to dance, for example, is really a story about wanting to find a partner, or wanting to belong. Knowing what your character wants is what your story is about. Continue reading

8 Writing Tips in 8 Minutes: Bitsy’s tips for the newbie picture book writer

Are you one of the over 200 peeps headed to the SCBWI CA North/Central 2015 Spring Spirit writer’s conference? (wow, that was a mouthful) Are you looking for some beginner’s tip? Take a look here…”8 Writers Tips for Beginner Picture Book Writers” (uh,yeah, that was a mouthful too…don’t that that sway you on my mad writing skillz)

 

Hope to see you Saturday!

8 Writing Tips in 8 Minutes: Bitsy’s tips for the newbie picture book writer

Thinking of writing a children’s book? Have you written one but not sure what to do with it? Well a-looky here, I’ve got some slick tips for you, dear beginner. It’ll be the best eight minutes of your day! (Unless you won the lottery, in which case may I say how beautiful you look today?)

Feel free to share the video on your own blog or website. Just please give a link back to me here, okay? Thanks, doll.

If you have tips or tricks that you’d like to share with fellow newbies, please let me know! You may be featured in a future video 🙂

Top 12 Tips for Writing a (Good) Picture Book

DON'T BE A NEWBIE

DON’T BE A NEWBIE

Writing a picture book is easy.

Writing a good picture book is hard.

But how, you ask?

Top twelve newbie tips for writing a picture book, plus one bonus thought*

(so okay technically that makes it 13 but who’s counting?)

By Bitsy Kemper

  1. You’ve written a great story, and formatted it into standard picture book manuscript form. You’re getting ready to submit it to an editor or agent. How do you find an illustrator? TRICK QUESTION. You DON’T. [You don’t submit your manuscript with images or photos. Respectable publishers don’t want you to find an illustrator. Your job is to write so beautifully that it opens up illustration possibilities. Leave the actual artwork to professionals, just as they leave the writing to you.]
  2. A story has a beginning, middle, and end. A series of anecdotes, no matter how charming, isn’t a book.
  3. Pop quiz: Who said good writing is rewriting? It doesn’t matter. Just know that what you have now will go through MANY rounds of edits/changes before it’s ready for prime time. It’s not a sign of weakness to edit, change, rearrange, repeat. Working on your manuscript shows dedication and commitment to perfection. Don’t your readers deserve that?
  4. Do your homework. Research and study as many great picture books as you can. Why do they work? How? Notice how the book’s illustrations wouldn’t work without the words, or how the words wouldn’t come across without illustrations. You’ll soon see why both words and images are equally important. In picture books, you can’t have one without the other. The nomenclature “picture book” makes it clear: images (picture) and words/story (book) together. Read a hundred picture books, literally. Don’t just spend an hour in the kid section of the library. Spend days, weeks, months. The more you read from a content and format perspective, the more you’ll see  why good books work, and, odds are, the better your book will be.
  5. Take it out of rhyme. I haven’t read your manuscript, but I can assure you it’s not working. Sorry. Rhyme has to be PERFECT, not “close enough.” Perfection takes lots and lots of practice. (Pls see earlier reference to homework!)
  6.  “Fiona the Floormop”? “Becky’s BFF Bakes Biscuits”? NO. Alliteration and anthropomorphisms (giving human qualities to something non living, like a talking mop) are at the top of the DON’T list for most editors/agents.
  7. Speaking of editors/agents, they DON’T CARE if it’s a true story, or if your grandkids love it, or if getting a book published is something you’ve always wanted to do. All they care about is the story. Is it good? Different? Compelling? Will an audience want to read it again and again?
  8. Don’t moralize. No one wants to be talked down to or lectured. (In a well-written book, the reader figures out the moral of the story without being told pointblank what it is. If you have to call it out, your story’s not written well enough.)
  9. Join SCBWI! Attend a conference – as many as you can in fact. The more you understand the industry, the better you’ll be able to serve it. Imagine wanting to gold medal in luge but you never watched a game or met any fellow and/or award-winning lugers. Your desire to succeed will be stalled by your lack of involvement, interaction, and experience. Conferences are a great way to make writer friends, too. We’re good peeps! (Well, for the most part—there’s always that one guy…)
  10. You don’t have to have an agent—but it usually helps.
  11. Plan on getting rich? AHHAHAHAHAHAH Contracts can range from a few hundred dollars to a few thousand. To top it off, you split your +/- 10% cut of book sale price with the illustrator. You might only get 25¢ per book sold! You’d need to sell quite a few books before you even earn lunch money. And since books tend to go out of print in roughly two years, those books need to sell quickly.
  12. If you don’t have patience, find some. It can take YEARS for a manuscript to get accepted, and then another year—two or three isn’t unheard of—before it’s on the store shelf.
  13. The good news? Even if you never get published, I bet you’ll enjoy the process. My husband still plays soccer every Mon/Weds/Fri. Will he get drafted by a pro team? No. That’s not why he plays. He straps on his cleats and hits the field because he loves the game. If writing doesn’t make your heart sing, consider another career or hobby. You’re the only one who can make you happy.

*There are always exceptions to the rule. But not many. Swimming upstream is best left for after you’ve had several successful books under your belt. That’s not to say take the easy path. Know what you’re up against and arm yourself accordingly. Then the road won’t be as bumpy.