Wednesday, February 12, 2020

WWW: Seven Ways to Beat Writer’s Block!

In my last post, I shared ways to achieve 20/20 vision in 2020. So I’m especially grateful today’s Wednesday Writing Workout allows me to look back – to the 90’s, when SCBWI-Illinois connected me to terrific writer and friend Mary Sandford, next consider the present – the celebration of Mary’s debut middle grade novel UNWANTED (Ambassador International, 2019), and finally, eye the future - a world with lots of Mary Sandford books on my shelf.

Both Mary and UNWANTED deserve the best and biggest of celebrations.  Mary truly kept her eye on the prize as she did everything she could to ready this particular story for readers.  Everything, as in: participate in long-standing Writers Groups; attend classes and conferences; learn from critiques; enter and win contests; connect with fellow SCBWI children’s book creators across the Chicago area, Illinois, the Midwest, Tennessee and now Hickory Creek, Texas (though I still consider her my Illinois kin.); and of course, read, write and revisereviserevise. Her writer’s antennae were and remain always on alert for learning opportunities. She’s published more than 50 articles and stories along the way.

Mary’s historical middle grade novel UNWANTED takes place in Chicago in 1958 and is inspired by true events – the unfortunate December 1 fire at Our Lady of the Angels parochial school that took the lives of 100 students. UNWANTED tells the story of Debbie Spencer who is like most twelve-year-old girls.  She loves her friends, loves to laugh, and she’s not afraid to pray.  Debbie is an average seventh grader…except she lives at an orphanage…even though she’s not an orphan.  Convinced her family is damaged beyond repair, Debbie longs for a new one.  And she’s going to find one.  When the Our Lady of the Angels fire tragically takes the lives of her roommate Noreen’s friends, Debbie puts aside her own desires to help her friend.  Things, it turns out, aren’t always what they seem and forgiveness is always the best choice.

Thank you, Mary, for sharing your novel, your writing smarts, insights and terrific self with our TeachingAuthors readers. Just about all of us are familiar with Writer’s Block.  I especially like #6 in your tips.

Good Luck Beating Writer’s Block!

Esther Hershenhorn

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I know it’s strange, but I’ve never struggled with writer’s block. So, it may seem like I’m the last person to write about how to avoid it. You may be thinking, “Write what you know.” How many times have we heard that? Or you may wonder, "How can I  have any idea about  something I can't possibly understand?" But I do understand. It’s just that my writing struggles were different. When I stared writing, my seven children were still young. So, I spent several years longing for time to write. I found myself creating paragraphs in my head about the things that filled up all my time. Paragraphs like this:

     Mary pulled the last shirt out of the dryer, folded it in the air and laid it on top of the stack for Terianne. Picking up four stacks of shirts, she checked on the kids who were making yet another tent  in the family room and headed upstairs. On her way through the kitchen she spotted Michael standing in front of the open refrigerator staring inside. “Aren’t you going to be late for work?” she asked.

And then, as usual, a real conversation kept me from finishing my mental paragraphs without any time at all to revise. And I really wanted to change that character’s name to Olivia or Cynthia or something more creative.

When my youngest, Jeff, started sleeping through the night and not waking up before six am, I started getting up at about five in the morning, so I could tiptoe downstairs and write for maybe an hour and a half before the craziness started. I even managed to write a few devotionals, children’s programs, and puppet performance scripts. But my children were always my priority. I loved playing with them and reading to them and just hanging out.

When Jeff started school, I had more time to spend on writing. That’s when I joined the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators and started to attend conferences and writing workshops. In the summer when my tribe grew older, I was the “good mom” who took her kids to the community pool every day because I discovered it was a great place to write and still respond to “Watch this, Mom!”

Now, the nest is empty, but all those years I spent focusing on my children filled my head with stories and taught me how to avoid writer’s block. So, here are my Seven Ways to Beat Writers Block.

1. Think. 
I imagine every writer does a lot of thinking before writing a new story. But I intentionally think about what I want to write and then I keep on thinking about what should happen next before I ever sit down at my computer. I think about what I want to write while I’m making breakfast or waiting in a check-out line at a store or walking on my treadmill or in my neighborhood. Even driving or commuting anywhere that takes more than five minutes is a great time to spend thinking and planning what to write next. My favorite time is when I can’t sleep. It might be when I first get in bed or maybe in the middle of the night when I wake up and can’t get back to sleep. I have learned, the hard way, to write a few notes on my phone so I won’t forget.

2. Reread what you wrote yesterday.
I confess I’ve never written the Lousy First Draft suggested by most successful writers and now that my first book is out I feel at least a little justified to admit it here. Every writer has a different process, right? Mine includes rereading and revising whatever I wrote the last time I sat down to write. Now that my life is my own most of the time, I’ve realized I am a very organized person. (I confess I like that my spices are in order alphabetically. Come on, it doesn’t take much time to keep them that way and it makes cooking much faster.) For me revision is just organizing what I’ve written. And I like to do it. Plus, it gets me completely back into my story making it easy to continue creating it.

3. Stop with a cliff hanger.

Here’s an excerpt from Unwanted:

     Noreen buried her face in her brother's chest, a fresh wave of sobs engulfing them both.
     “Shhh . . . ” I tried to quiet her. It was a small miracle that we’d made it all the way to the infirmary without anyone seeing us.
     Silently, I thanked God for the miracle and begged to know what to do next.
     That's when the door swung open. 

That’s a perfect place to stop writing. I know exactly what to write next – Patricia Olsen stepped into the infirmary – and what she says and what she does. Sometimes I stop in the middle of a scene. That’s usually because my phone reminds me I have an appointment I’ve forgotten. While I’m driving to my appointment I’m using technique number one.

4. Stop writing mid-sentence or mid-paragraph.
Like technique #3, this is easy to do when my writing time is interrupted, but sometimes I just make myself stop so I won’t struggle to start again. I know what’s coming next and just stop writing before I put it on paper; if I think I might forget I put down a few words as a reminder. This isn’t something I do often, but sometimes I know I need to stop. I know I haven’t done enough thinking to get much farther.

5. Read books in your genre.
This technique works great when I’ve used #4 or before I sit down to write when I’ll have several hours of uninterrupted time. Good writers are great readers, right? I usually read at least two or three middle grade books every week. Reading good books in your genre is a great way to improve your craft. I love reading middle grade, so it works for me. I always say I’m working when I’m reading and it makes me laugh. I have a wonderful “job.”

6. Work on something related to your Work-in-Progress.
When I know I am not ready to work on my manuscript, working on my synopsis or a query letter helps me see my story in different way. The concise format can trigger ideas of where to go with the story next. I might realize the need for a scene earlier in the story to make my reader keep reading or begin to wonder about something I plan to add later.

7. Keep your (saved) document on your desktop.
I’ll admit: sometimes my computer desktop is so full of documents and photos or whatever, I might not even notice my Work-in-Progress. But I know it’s there. When I’m reminded about my WIP, I remember technique #1 and I’m thinking about what I want to write next and so it goes.

I personally don’t struggle with Writer’s Block, but maybe using some of these techniques will help those of you who do to stop struggling and BIC -get your butt in your chair and write.


David McMullin said...

These are fantastic ideas. Thank you for sharing.

Julie Phend said...

Congratulations, Mary! I know you've been working toward this for a very long time. I enjoyed reading your tips, too. Great post!

April Halprin Wayland said...

Esther, thank you for bringing Mary to offer her insights.

And Mary, welcome to TeachingAuthors and thank you for your Seven Ways.

For me, the line that resonated most was: "Every writer has a different process, right?"

You bet!

Trine Grillo said...

I gre up in Chicago and remember ver vividly the fire. I look forward to reading this book

Jarm Del Boccio said...

Great article, Mary!! I like #7. Yep, my WIP easily accessible on the desktop!

Carol Varsalona said...

Thanks for the tips!

Esther Hershenhorn said...

Oh, so glad Mary's WWW resonated with so many!
Thanks, Mary, for sharing your smarts.

Carmela Martino said...

So happy to celebrate with you, Mary. Thanks for sharing your tips!

Mary Sandford said...

Thanks for all your kind words! I so appreciate y'all taking the time to comment and encourage me.