Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Beginning, Again, and Shrinking the Gap

To kick off 2012, we've been blogging about "beginnings" here on the TeachingAuthors blog. I'd originally planned to post some thoughts on how to create a story beginning that hooks readers, since that's a topic I'll be presenting at an SCBWI-Illinois network meeting on January 28. But this week, I've been focused on preparing to teach a private class for a group of five very talented seventh-grade girls. We haven't met since November, when the girls shared the beginnings of their current work-in-progress. They were all off to a terrific start and I was looking forward to hearing the rest of their stories. When I checked in with their parents, though, I was surprised to learn that not one of the girls had actually finished her draft. They'd all gotten stuck somewhere in the middle, with one girl going back to rewrite her beginning in the hope it would lead down a new (and perhaps easier?) path.

I pulled out Gail Carson Levine's Writing Magic, which I've been using with the girls, to see what help she had to offer them. In a chapter called "Stuck!" Levine says that young writers quit because they don't know "There is no such thing as a perfect book." She goes on to say:
"When you're just starting to write, you may be miles away from perfection, and you may be well aware of it. It's maddening. It's disappointing."
Levine's words reminded me of a video clip my friend and former student Cathy Cronin recently shared on her blog. The clip features the voice of Ira Glass explaining that it's "normal" for there to be a gap between our vision for our creative work and the actual results of that work. Glass's comments confirm my own observations, and this "gap" is something that affects not only my young students but many adult writers, too, including me. So often, what ends up on the page doesn't match the ideal I have in my mind. I found Glass's words heartening--I've embedded the clip here in the hope you'll find them encouraging, too. (If you're an email subscriber and the clip doesn't show up in the email, you can watch it online at .)

Ira Glass on Storytelling from David Shiyang Liu on Vimeo.

So how do we shrink the gap between our vision and our results? According to Glass, the answer is to "fight your way through" the disappointment and feelings of inadequacy to create a large volume of work. Or, as I tell my students, "Write. Write. Write." The more we write, the better our writing becomes, and the closer we get to matching our output to our vision.

If you're looking for ways to motivate yourself to write more regularly to produce that "large volume of work" Glass talks about, I've included two challenges in the Blogosphere Buzz below that you may find helpful. And if you need help to "fight your way through" feelings of inadequacy, try the following Writing Workout.

Writing Workout
Ways to Get "Unstuck" 

Here are three suggestions for getting "unstuck" that I'll be sharing with my students on Saturday:
  1. Give yourself permission to write the story out of sequence. Mary Ann described this approach in her last post. If you know how the story will end, for example, go ahead and write the ending even if you haven't finished the middle. That's exactly what I did when I was working on Rosa, Sola. After I had a draft of my final chapter, I was able to go back and figure out what needed to happen to get my characters to that scene.
  2. Doodle. Doodling is a great activity to stimulate the creative side of the brain. Set aside 10-20 minutes. With your story in the back of your mind, put your pen to the page. You can draw images or just dots, lines, and shapes. Have fun and enjoy the process. If any story ideas come to mind, make a quick note about them, and then go back to doodling until your time is up. (For more about using doodling to stimulate creativity, see this website.) 
  3. Engage in a repetitive physical activity. This is another way to stimulate the creative side of your brain. Go for a long walk, jog, or bike ride. Again, keep the story in the back of your mind, but don't think about it too much. Instead, focus on the sound of your steps on the pavement, or your breathing, or the feel of the wind on your face. And be sure to have some pen and paper handy if you do get an idea. 

Blogosphere Buzz

  • Need ways to motivate yourself to write consistently enough to create that "large volume of work" Glass discussed? First, check out the site 750words. The site challenges members to write 750 words per day, or about 3 pages. You can type those words directly into the website and it will track your word count and statistics over time. You can also participate in the site's monthly challenges--participants who write 750 words per day for the whole month earn a place on the "Wall of Amazingness." Those who fail, end up on the "Wall of Shame." And many participants also set their own personal rewards and consequences.
  • Second, If you're a picture book writer, here's a challenge specifically for you: the 12 x 12 in 2012 Picture Book Challenge. The goal of the challenge is to "write one picture book per month for each of the twelve months of 2012.  This means a first draft: beginning, middle, end. NOT a submission-ready piece." Sign-up deadline is January 29. (In addition to the support and camaraderie, there are prizes!)
  • A totally different kind of challenge is also taking place this month: the annual Blog Comment Challenge, which runs through Wednesday, January 25. This is a chance to share our appreciation for all the terrific blogs out there, and also to make some new blogosphere friends. Sign up over at the MotherReader blog and check-in weekly at Lee Wind's blog. (And a welcome and thanks to all the bloggers who've already commented here on our TeachingAuthors blog this month as part of the challenge!)
  • Speaking of comments, another HUGE thank you to all of you who participated in our December charity drive for First Book by commenting here on our blog. As Jeanne Marie reported last week, we received around 160 comments and we donated $175 to First Book. With Disney's matching donations, that means we helped provide 245 books to children in need! If you'd like to participate in another FREE way to help book charities, visit the Playing By the Book blog. Zoe, the "British mum" who blogs there, has compiled a list of 125 charities around the world whose focus is literacy, reading and /or books. Post a comment on her blog about how she should best organize her list, and she'll make a donation to one of these worthwhile organizations.
  • As a great supporter of independent booksellers like my local wonderful Anderson's Bookshop, I encourage you to also participate in the 50/50 Challenge: Support Indie Booksellers, especially if you're a teacher or librarian. Join librarian Travis Jonker in committing to using at least half of your yearly budget to purchase books at your local independent bookstore.
  • And, finally, the finalists have been announced for the 2011 Cybils, the Children's and Young Adults Bloggers Literary Awards. You can find the lists here

Now I have to get back to writing so I can work on shrinking my own gap.
Happy Beginnings,
P.S. I've had all kinds of problems with spacing in this blog post. Sorry, I did my best. If it doesn't look right on your screen, I guess it's another example of my vision for a project not matching my results. :-)


Linda B said...

Wow, what a great, full of valuable information post! I love all your ideas, & am just starting a small writing group about memoir, so this fits me very well now! Thank you!

Kathy Cannon Wiechman said...

Great tips! And don't forget that sometimes the project that results so differently from what you planned is even better than the original plan!
Kathy Cannon Wiechman (Swagger Writers)

The Pen and Ink Blogspot said...

Well written chock full of information post. Please do do the post on beginnings. I need it. I love the starts in Gail Carson Levines Writing Magic

Carmela Martino said...

Glad you found the post helpful, Linda. Kathy, you're so write about unexpected results turning out better than we'd planned sometimes! Pen and Ink visitor: I will definitely keep the beginnings post in mind as a future topic.
Thanks for all the comments!

JenFW said...

I think your vision for this post comes through beautifully, Carmela.

These are great tips--for everyone, not just beginning writers. One thing I find helpful when I'm stuck or just lost in the middle of a story is to journal as my character. I sometimes do this right in the story in a different color. I let the character state the situation and then just let him/her whine about it, brag about it, get mad about it...whatever. Many times, this works like magic for me, providing the direction I need to move forward.

Thanks for the roundup of happenings, too.

Carmela Martino said...

Thanks for the feedback, Jen. I have also journalled from a character's viewpoint, but I've never tried typing it directly into the document. Great idea! Thanks for sharing.

Sandy Brehl said...

Posts like this one are the reason this is the blog I most often recommend to fellow writers. Thanks so much for all you provide.

MP Flory said...

Good comprehensive list!

Playing by the book said...

I've been reading lots of blogs as a result of the comment challenge which are by or for writers and it's interesting to see how many of the issues they raise also apply to me as a blogger - although what I write is nothing like a book, I still experience many of the same things - just like the gap between my vision for an engaging brilliant post and the reality (as I see it) when I put fingers to keyboard. What you wrote about a repetitive exercise is so true!

And thanks for linking to my charity list - I wasn't expecting that when I arrive here this morning!

Carmela Martino said...

Sandy, thank YOU for sharing our site with other writers. MP Flory, and Zoe at Playing By the Book, thanks so much for stopping by.

MotherReader said...

Thanks for all of these items - and not just because the Comment Challenge is one of them. ;^)

No really, I need a way to get unstuck in this new year and you have some great thoughts here.

Carmela Martino said...

Pam at MotherReader, I hope the suggestions help you. Thanks so much for stopping by.

Lee Wind, M.Ed. said...

Carmela, GREAT video by Ira Glass about the gap. Makes me think of England's subway signs, "mind the gap." And good motivators to work through it! thanks as well for sharing about the Comment Challenge, and of course for taking part!
Keep on commenting (and inspiring!)

Carmela Martino said...

Lee, I remember seeing those "mind the gap" signs, too, but I didn't think of them when I posted this. :-) Thanks so much for stopping by, and for again coordinating the Comment Challenge.