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Yep, I signed up. Why? Because as much as I enjoy eating all the chocolate in the world when I’m working on a book or screenplay, I don’t actually like the brain fog that comes with it. So I’m more than happy to turn to science to help me solve the sugar thing once and for all.
If you have your own particular food issues and you’re interested in joining me, here’s the final video in Dr. Susan Peirce Thompson’s excellent, informative Food Freedom series. She’s also giving some free webinars with Q & A this week. I signed up for the one on Tuesday afternoon.
Like I said before, it’s not like I’m particularly proud of fueling my creativity with so much sugar over the years, but I do see from your emails and comments to me that you appreciate me talking about it in public. So here I am again! If that helps you, I’m happy.
Here’s to eating in a way that feels easy, automatic, and free. ‘Bout time!
A lot of you have written to me in the past few days thanking me for sharing my own struggles with sugar addiction (a.k.a. my kryptonite), and also for sharing Dr. Susan Thompson’s videos about what she’s learned as both a neuropsychologist and as a formerly obese woman about how to rewire our brains and finally get rid of cravings once and for all. Yes, please, now!
(And by the way, thank you for all your emails and comments! I really do love the solidarity we can have about this topic. It’s not something any of us are particularly proud of, but it feels good to be able to talk about it with each other!)
The third video in Susan’s series is now out, and it’s the best so far: about the 5 critical ways we can rewire our brains so that eating the right foods, and not eating the wrong foods, becomes completely automatic.
If you haven’t already watched videos one and two yet, I highly recommend them, since each is chock full of all sorts of cool science about why we crave what we do, why willpower fails us (it’s not the right tool), and other answers to questions you’ve probably had as you dive into that fourth serving of cookies, candy, cake, or ice cream. I know because I have been there, my friend. As recently as last week!
Hope you love this last video as much as I did! LEARNING! Love it!
Earlier this year I read a great book that really helped me get my financial life in order: The Wealth Chefby Ann Wilson.
I was so enthusiastic after reading it, I actually signed up for a course with her. And as a result of that, I ended up paying off a car loan that’s been hanging over my head too long and was going to keep hanging there for a few more years.
So here you go. Enjoy the video, where Ann talks about her fellow South African, an artist who didn’t let his own poverty and lack of access to oil paints stop him from creating beautiful and now-celebrated works of art.
Then make sure you read her blog beneath it. So much great information and so many great ideas!
And by the way, if you’d like more posts like this, delivered to your email every morning, subscribe to my Wise Girl Daily Wisdom emails! I think you’ll enjoy those!
I have, at various times in my life, been merely overweight, then obese, then heavy, then down to slim and trim, then up a little to what I considered “sturdy,” rather than fat, then down a little, up … a lot of you can relate to the pattern.
And right now, coming off multiple months in a row of writing for sometimes 18 hours a day, not getting as much exercise as I usually love, and powering my books and screenplays with WAY too much sugar, I feel pretty gross. I still love myself and want to be nothing but kind to myself no matter what, but I know my “kindness” of feeding myself a whole bunch of chocolate to keep up my energy and creativity during this time of intense work has actually not been a kindness at all.
Sometimes information comes to you at just the right time. Or maybe it’s always out there, but you’re not ready for it until you are.
A week or so ago, a friend of mine sent me a link to an interview with Dr. Susan Peirce Thompson. She’s both a psychology professor and a formerly obese woman. And I just loved her energy. I loved her sincerity and her passion for teaching what she knows about finally breaking free of food addictions and finding our individual bodies’ own natural weight. It was a theme I explored in my novel FAT CAT, and it’s definitely something that speaks to me personally.
(And by the way, when I was researching and writing FAT CAT, I completely gave up sugar. Weight melted off me. I felt great. My brain was clear, I had incredible energy … and yet here I am again.)
What drew me in was Susan’s own story about appearing to be very accomplished in some respects — highly educated, very successful in her career as a professor — but at the same time feeling like a failure because she was always overweight. How could she be so smart in other areas of her life — how could she know so much about science and psychology — and yet still look like … that?
Then one day she was finally ready to turn her years of research and knowledge on herself and figure this out once and for all. And to her utter delight, she discovered it wasn’t an issue of willpower or weakness or laziness, it was actually just a matter of brain chemistry. Some people are more susceptible to certain foods than others are. It’s not a moral issue, it’s just biology. And we can work with biology.
For some of us, sugar is as addictive as cocaine or heroine. If you’ve felt as enslaved by sugar as I have at times, you know it absolutely feels like a drug.
By the end of watching that interview, I knew I wanted to hear more of what Susan could teach. So I actually contacted her to find out when her next course was. Turns out it starts in just a few weeks. PERFECT.
A lot of you have written to me over the years after reading FAT CAT to share with me your own struggles or journeys about food and weight loss. I’ve read them all, I’ve answered them all, because I know what you’re going through and I want to try to help where I can. I’ve passed along resources I relied on in writing the novel, such as websites and books and cookbooks. I hope all of you who have written to me have gotten great value out of that information.
Some writers rely on drugs and alcohol. Not me. I just finished writing a screenplay fueled mostly by coffee and Reese's peanut butter cups. Soooo much better, right? *cough*
One of the reasons I wrote my novel FAT CAT was that I was an overweight teen (and adult, at times), and I wanted to sit down and research everything I could find about food, weight loss, and healthy eating. Then I came up with the science project plan for my heroine, Cat, to put herself through. I even did it myself while I wrote the book so I could accurately depict what Cat was feeling from day to day.
And the hardest things for both Cat and me to give up were -- you guessed it -- sugar and caffeine. Cat's withdrawal struggle in the novel was mine. But once I got passed that, boy, did I feel great! But then after I finished writing it, I eventually slipped right back into my old habits. And to be honest, I'm still struggling with that today.
Which is why I'm so excited about this free video series from Dr. Susan Peirce Thompson. She's a tenured psychology professor with a Ph.D. in Brain and Cognitive Sciences (and you know how much I love SCIENCE!). She also used to be obese. I always love to learn from someone who's been on the front lines and has figured out how to do something better.
For years now Susan has been teaching her findings in her college course on the Psychology of Eating. But last year she realized she should make that same information available to more people. She decided to create her free video series to share the truth about the psychology and neuroscience of weight loss and food freedom.
I'm glad she has! I've already listened to some of her presentations, and WOW. So much of what she had to say really hit home.
One of my favourite Neil Gaiman quotes: "Just write. Many writers have a vague hope that elves will come in the night and finish any stories for you for you. They won’t." You can see the original video in which he offers advice for young writers:
Happy Friday, everyone! To go along with Stacey’s post about submissions, this is a repost from my blog, a silly little song filk I hope some of you—especially those submerged in the submission swamp—might enjoy.
Last summer, when I was on submission with my novel to publishers, I remember being in complete and utter agony with the not knowing and not being in control. There’s a lot written about the query trenches throughout the blogosphere, but not a lot of space is given over to being on submission.
Part of that is because unlike querying, the experience of being on submission varies widely from individual to individual, so it’s hard to generalize. Another part is that being of sub is pretty much entirely out of your hands. Once your manuscript is on the desk of an editor, there is literally NOTHING you can do to influence the outcome. It doesn’t make for easy, digestible blog posts. Query tips are relatively easy to give, but there is no advice you can give to someone on sub, save Patience, young Skywalker.
And that advice sucks.
Being on sub is a bit like being the awkward middle schooler at a junior high school dance. Pick me, pick me! Sometimes you’re the first on the dance floor. Sometimes you’re left the self-conscious wallflower. Junior high—and publishing—can sometimes be cold and capricious.
I find the best thing to do in these sorts of situations is laugh them off. It’s either laugh, or cry, right? I’d rather a good chuckle than anguished sobs, so in order to distract myself, I rewrote the lyrics to “Agony” from Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods.1
If you aren’t familiar with the song:
Did I confuse them
With my rabid, insane,
Don’t I amuse them
With my witty, urbane,
Beyond power of speech!
When the contract you want
Is the only thing out of your reach.
Here in my tower,
I sit by the hour
Awaiting the Call.
The one that will save me
And soon validate me
In the eyes of them all:
All those agents are jerks!
Low esteem, insecurity
Are affecting my work!
Oh the torment, the stress!
Why can’t they just buy me—
How could they deny me—
They don’t know what is best!
Am I not lyrical,
Ahead of my time?
I am everything agents could wish for!
Then why no—
Then why no—
They all must be mad!
You know nothing of madness
Till you’re tearing your hair.
As you open email,
Yes, refreshing it,
Always refreshing it,
Though it’s different for each.
Always ten trends behind—
Always telling you no—
And the dream is just out of your reach.
I must have a book deal!
Okay, so I went ahead and decide to record the cover for funsies. Apologies for inflicting my voice on y’all. This song is not in my range.
At the point I had written this, the Disney movie version hadn’t come out yet. I have…Thoughts about it, but the “Agony” scene with Billy Magnussen and Chris Pine is definitely the best—and maybe the only worthwhile—scene in the entire film. ↩
Third grade was my favorite year of school. We had the best teacher ever. We sang songs and poems that I still remember to this day (Cumalada cumalada cumalada vista!). For math, we… Continue reading →
I love what Stephen King said about not waiting for one's Muse to show up.
“Don't wait for the muse. As I've said, he's a hardheaded guy who's not susceptible to a lot of creative fluttering. This isn't the Ouija board or the spirit-world we're talking about here, but just another job like laying pipe or driving long-haul trucks. Your job is to make sure the muse knows where you're going to be every day from nine 'til noon. or seven 'til three. If he does know, I assure you that sooner or later he'll start showing up.”
Guys. Queries are hard. This is an undisputed fact of the agent-acquiring process. These days a lot of agents ask for the first 5-30 pages of your manuscript when you query, because it’s so much easier to tell if a story is good by reading, well, the actual story. But the query is the hook—the bait that gets the agent past that first page and into your story.
I read queries on the daily. A lot of them. As a literary assistant, it’s one of my many responsibilities. I need to be able to tell, just from that one page, if your book is something the agent and I will want to read. I need to see just how I would pitch it to an editor. And I need to see that you know your stuff. Have you done your research? Or did you scribble off a quick note and hit SEND ALL?
The queries that stand out are either very good, or very bad. But there are a lot of queries that get stuck in the middle—that strange wasteland of almost-there, but just not quite. Chances are, a lot of you are in that boat. Most of us, even those who have agents, have written blah query letters. And I know PubCrawlers are smart. You have done your research, much of it on this very website. I don’t need to tell you not to send attachments, or not to write your bio in the third person. I don’t need to tell you not to call your manuscript a future bestseller, the most unique piece of fiction ever written, a story that will apply to all of the audiences that ever existed!
So I’m not going to talk about the basics. You guys KNOW the basics. I’m going to talk about those little things that maybe don’t seem problematic at first glance. But fixing these can go a long way toward helping the viability of your query overall
1. Don’t start your letter with all the details about how you came to write this book.
Writing is exciting. How you came to be a writer is exciting. The fact that it’s your first, or second, or millionth novel ever is exciting. But they are most exciting to you—in a query, these things clog up your first paragraph and waste valuable space. Before he or she has ever met you or read your work, an agent doesn’t care how you got started writing. As much as it matters to you (and it does matter!), it’s best to leave it out. It will not change how he or she feels about your story.
2. Be careful creating “atmosphere” before launching into your hook.
It can feel gimmicky. Unless your setting is basically a character itself, it’s best to stay away from this method. For example:
Castle Pelimere is deep and dark, inhabited by angry spirits and on the verge of certain doom. For a hundred years it has stood, and now, thanks to the Everlasting Nothing that has circled its walls for centuries, it is all about to come crashing down.
Jody Brody is a teenage pickpocket with no other skills and no other prospects. When Castle Pelimere needs a hero, Jody steps up to the plate.
I know, I know—this is a very obvious example. But it serves the point—character is story, and when I’m scanning through queries, I’m more interested in Jody Brody the pickpocket than the plight of Castle Pelimere.
3. Don’t relate two unrelated ideas in your hook.
You would be shocked how often I see this. Shocked, I tell you. An example:
Marty Schmarty is not your typical jock—he’s been taking ballet since before he could walk, and he’s better than half the girls in his class. But when he’s offered a football scholarship to his dream school, he learns what it really means to be part of a team.
Again, another extreme example. But writing a good hook is a huge part of the battle when it comes to queries. A good hook can make me perk up and pay attention. In this case, the writer has written something that “sounds hooky” and “adds character”. It makes me pay attention—then has no pay-off. Marty’s a pro at ballet, and this is set up as a key quality—then is not mentioned again.
4. Be confident…to a point.
There is nothing wrong with being proud of the story you wrote. It takes a huge amount of confidence to query a book (we’re all writers here, we can admit this). But it’s not up to you to decide whether your writing is of the same caliber as authors you have emulated or been inspired by, or if it’s beautifully lyrical or powerful and gritty—that is for your readers, and that includes any agents you are querying, to decide.
5. Be wary of the false choice.
Technically, a false choice refers to a situation where two choices are given as the only possible option—even though more choices may be viable. In this case, I’m using to describe it as a situation given in a query, wherein a character has what appear to be two choices—but only one of those choices is actually viable. Still with me?
Okay, so you’ve laid out your hook, given a short synopsis, and now it’s time to present the dramatic question. Your character must do x or y. But when you present a false choice, it becomes clear right away which path your character will and must choose. At first glance, it isn’t always clear you’ve presented a false choice. For example:
Jake must choose between saving the woman he loves from the mob and escaping to the Bahamas, or turning himself in and confessing to his crimes, even if it means her death.
Maybe turning himself in might be the right thing to do, but unless this is a morality play, the choice here is not actually black and white. When questions like this are presented at the end of a query, I can’t help but roll my eyes—I know what Jake is going to do. He’s going to choose the Bahamas. And if he doesn’t, then you need to do a fantastic job of setting up the why within your query. Again, the above is extreme example, but I encourage you to take a look at the stakes in your own query and find out whether what you’ve presented is a real dilemma, or a false choice. I want the questions you present to make me go, “MUST READ AND FIND OUT THE ANSWER!”
So the gist of these suggestions comes out to: Make me want to read your book. Seriously, give me no other option. You wrote a whole book. You know how to put words together on a page—this is just a different kind of writing. One that forces you to think about how to condense what you’ve written, and lay it out in a way that is tight and enticing. I promise you—it is doable. It’s hard, it’s often confusing, and sometimes it can take multiple drafts to get right. But it can be done!
I hope this is useful, and I wish everyone who is currently writing their query, Good Luck!
Hi, everyone! It’s Stacey here, with fellow pub-crawler, Stephanie Garber to talk about surviving the grueling journey that is known as publishing.
Getting published is an exercise in patience and perseverance. It is a punishing, bone-wearying journey comparable to climbing up a fog-covered mountain. Each step is an effort and though you know you will eventually reach the top, you don’t know when, or whether you will run out of juice before you get there. (And even when you do reach the top, you might find that the view up there isn’t enough, and that there are even more mountains to climb beyond.)
Stacey: Fifteen years ago, my older sister shared with me the power of the index card. At the time, she was single, thirty-ish, and had been looking for Mr. Right for a long time. At church, her pastor gave a sermon on how God wanted us to have the things we wanted. He suggested listing these wants on an index card, in specific terms, and then letting God take care of the rest.
So my sister wrote down ten things she was looking for in a Mr. Right, qualities as specific as “a healthcare professional,” “Chinese American,” “patient,” and “at least four inches taller than me.” Hey, if you’re going to wish, might as well include everything. After writing them down, she tucked away the card, and stopped worrying.
Within the year, she was engaged to a man with all ten of the attributes she had listed.
Because I am a skeptic and generally a suspicious person, I chalked it up to luck, and thought nothing more of it. I was just happy for her and her new husband (who, it should be noted, is an amazing brother-in-law.)
Fast forward. When Under a Painted Sky went on sub, I knew it wasn’t going to be an easy journey. My agent informed me that it would take a year to sell if it sold at all—editors weren’t clamoring to buy historical fiction. As rejections piled up, I happened to have lunch with a friend, who was finally in her third trimester of pregnancy, after a decade of unsuccessful fertility treatments.
When I asked her how she had come by this miracle, she revealed that she had gone to this new-agey seminar about the power of the index card. To my surprise, she told me she had been advised to write down, in very specific terms, her wish. She wrote that she wanted a baby girl, and stopped worrying.
Within two months, she was pregnant. With a girl.
I decided maybe there was something to the power of the index card that seemed to work for both believers and non-believers alike, and even if there wasn’t, what did I have to lose? It was better than fretting over something that was out of my control. I took out an index card.
The best part of the index card is that it gives you the power to let go of something not in your control to influence (and I’m pretty sure it doesn’t have to be on an index card). True, my sister couldn’t just sit at home and wait for Mr. Right to dig her out of the sofa, just as my friend couldn’t give up on doing that deed that leads to babies if she wanted to conceive.
Stephanie: Stacey told me this story last fall, when I was struggling with my writing.
I was on submission with a book I knew wouldn’t sell, and it was killing my creativity. I was putting all kinds of pressure on myself to produce something really good that would totally sell when I went on submission again, which is a terrible way to write.
So, after listening to Stacey’s story about the magic of the index card I decided to give it a shot. Instead of stressing over my hopes and dreams for this book I wrote them out on a piece of binder paper, and just that act alone taught me something interesting.
As I expressed all my hopes and wishes for this book, I didn’t say that I wanted to write a really good book—because really, what does that even mean? Instead I found myself writing things like, I hope to write a story that feels magical and mysterious. I want to keep readers guessing and sweep them into another world. I want this book to feel big and bright like Baz Luhrmann movie.
I’m not even sure I knew that I wanted to write all of those things until I put them on paper, but once I did, it was as if all my creativity flooded back. For some, I think using an index is an exercise in letting go. But for me this activity ended up showing me what I really wanted, and my true desire had nothing to do with pleasing editors and everything to do with writing a story for the sake of creating a certain type of experience for the reader.
Have you ever tried something like this? And if you haven’t, it might be worth giving it a shot.
The death of a villain can inspire a wide range of emotions, from happiness and gratitude, to sorrow and remorse. I love me a good villain, and some of my favourite story moments are the amazing death scenes some villains are granted. That is, of course, assuming the death is indeed amazing and not an affront to their character arc. I am so in love with the closure of a good villain death that a bad one can ruin the entire story for me.
So without further ado, here are some pet peeves of mine: cheap villain death tropes I’d love to see gone forever, and how they can maybe be flipped around.
Oftentimes a cheap villain death is the result of a deus ex machina: the hero doesn’t actually have the means to kill the villain because they’re too damn awesome, so the villain accidentally dies when they slip and fall off a cliff during the final fight. Unless the hero has actual control over how the villain dies, such as a clever plan to lure them to the edge, this is the cheapest of cheap deaths.
Accidental death can only work if the villain is immediately replaced by an even greater threat to the hero that has somehow been vaguely hinted at or foreshadowed beforehand so it doesn’t come out of nowhere. Perhaps they’re fighting on an active volcano that suddenly explodes and kills the villain. The foreshadowing is in the fact that it’s active, and the bigger threat is the indiscriminate firebombing and hot ash the hero now has to escape—bigger, because volcanoes don’t think, so the hero can’t guess what its next move might be. This will still feel a little cheap if it’s not well done, however, because as it’s your story, you can choose when the volcano blows, and choosing to kill an antagonist with a natural disaster over which the hero has no control is underwhelming. The other problem in this kind of scenario is that as soon as the hero is out of the volcano’s range, safety is within reach even if the volcano hasn’t been destroyed, compared to the hero still being in constant potential danger if the villain were still alive.
The only good kind of accidental death is when the new threat is worse than the old, it has an active agenda, and it’s not directly connected to the villain. In fact, in these situations, this big annoyance of mine can be totally turned around into something brilliant. If the new threat is something which even the old villain had no concept of, you’re not only effectively upping the ante by making the old villain look like a schoolyard bully, you’re also vastly expanding your universe. If you set up your story well, dropping hints here and there of all the possible people (or monsters) in such a way that a new threat is plausible, you can follow up the old villain with a new, terrifying and vast enemy that will make your hero feel incredibly small and will eventually make the victory that much sweeter. But in this case, the old villain isn’t the true villain of the story; they’re more of a stepping stone. And since stepping stones are not an ending but part of the journey, the old villain’s accidental death won’t feel cheap: it’ll lead to something bigger.
Death is also cheap when the villain’s intelligence is insulted. More than any, I hate this kind of death the most. If the villain is really smart, the hero’s going to have a hell of a time luring them to a cliff. Unless they have no choice, the odds that smart characters would willingly put themselves in dangerous positions are very low. There is nothing more frustrating than watching an otherwise remarkable and cerebral villain suddenly become a half-wit so that the hero can defeat them. Not to mention it makes the hero’s victory completely hollow. The most satisfying time to defeat an enemy is when their faculties are at full power, anyway. Why blunt their intellect if you’ve worked so hard to write them as smart, effectively making the reader anticipate an ending where they’re finally outsmarted?
The only time this convenient stupidity can be forgiven is in comedy. This kind of thing can make for a good punchline. However, it also relies on your story being a parody. Otherwise, it’s a glaring continuity error and an unfair way of treating both your villain and hero, because following the kill, the hero will develop a reputation of only being able to defeat enemies when they mysteriously become very weak.
My final pet peeve is a classic villain trait: arrogance. It’s a frustrating reason for a villain’s death, mostly because it isn’t very original, but also because I have a personal bias toward villains that don’t think of themselves as unbeatable, since people act in more interesting ways if they think they’re being threatened. If we revisit the accidental death scenario, and consider again why it’s better for the new, bigger threat to have little to no connection to the old villain, another reason would be that if the new threat were the villain’s fault, their character becomes an archetype for hubris: “His ego made him blind,” “He thought he could control the strain.” This isn’t a terrible thing, but if manmade threats are the worst possible ones in your world, you could argue that you’re restricting yourself.
They also make for really annoying characters. The ones that yell “I’m invincible!” as they’re dying are pathetic, and I always thought they cast a shadow over the hero’s victory. Not to mention, defeating a villain whose fatal flaw is hubris tends to involve a formulaic take-down by people who ultimately come across as preachy and say things like “You can’t play God,” or “He flew too close to the sun.”
However, hubris can be a genuinely interesting character trait. And there are times when I really enjoy it. But I’ve noticed that every single one of those times, the hubris was something I discovered afterwards upon reflection; something that wasn’t told to me, but that I began to understand as I considered the story from start to finish. In other words, if you’re going to give your villain a god complex, no need to shout it from the hills. Subtlety is a pretty nice touch.
So there they are. Three massive and common villain death pet peeves of my very own. Obviously, they are tailored to my personal tastes. I’d love to hear yours.
The last few weeks have seen me getting back into writing full-time again, hence my long blog hiatus. And with writing comes, of course, editing and revising, and then revising again, and well, you know how it goes. An endless cycle of chop, change, doubt, re-organization, and finally having to say, "That's it! This book is FINISHED. No more edits until a copy editor tells me what to do." It wasn't easy to settle back into a writing routine. Most days I just wanted to go through my photos from Taiwan and play with watercolors. Fun ways to make the hours fly, but nothing that was going to get my WIP ready for a potential agent or publisher. In order to instill some discipline into my writing life, I desperately needed to remind myself of all the things I've ever taught and encouraged my own writing students to do. (Sometimes you have to be your own teacher!) Grabbing a new dry erase board and pen, I made myself a flow chart listing the top 12 ways to get me and my manuscript back into the writing zone. Here's what I came up with:
Focus. Boy, did I need this one. After Taiwan, my mind was a mess: I wanted to work on my novel, only to then want to write poetry, or work on a screenplay, or hey, what about that Young Adult thing in my filing cabinet, or no, a picture book might be even better. . . . After several false starts, I knew this had to stop. I had to narrow my vision, forget about the other projects (they're all lined up in boxes ready to be tackled one at a time), and concentrate solely on the most important manuscript, the one I was working on before I went on my trip. That's it. Just one manuscript at a time.
Mindfulness. Because I so desperately wanted that manuscript finished, I started to slash words, sentences, and paragraphs without thinking about how much work had gone into creating them. It seemed easier to toss phrases and pages that were bothering me rather than try to improve or rewrite them. After several hours of draconian "ruthless revising" I went back and retrieved all those toss-outs, learning that it was far better to savor each unwanted word, sentence, and paragraph until I knew how I could either fix or use them elsewhere in the story to their advantage.
Brevity. That said, sometimes my choices were right. Less is better in a manuscript. Focusing with mindfulness, I looked for all the ways I could say what I wanted to say without having to say it twice or with too much description.
Let go. It was imperative that I let go of everything that was blocking my way forward or eating my time: unrealistic expectations that I could be finished in a few days (leading to speed-editing); unnecessary shopping trips; housework that was simply routine and not because the house was dirty; and especially social media sites, including, unfortunately, my blog. It was hard, but I got so much done. And I'm back now!
Ritual. For some people it's lighting a candle before they start work, or choosing a favorite pen. My writing ritual, at least for this current book, was to make myself a cup of jasmine green tea, go out of my office and upstairs to my breakfast nook, and read a Chinese poem (translated into English!) from The White Pony before I began freewriting or editing. It was a great system, and one I intend to continue with my next project.
Music. I've always loved the idea of writing to music, and have enjoyed doing so when I've been in workshops or seminars, but it's often something I forget to do on my own. Recently I bought a small portable radio that I can use in both my office and the breakfast nook (or anywhere else for that matter). I've found it very helpful to put on what I used to call "elevator" or "waiting for the dentist" music to calm me down and set the tone of my writing session.
Magazine or artwork prompts. Using cut-out images from magazines, old books, and catalogs has always been my go-to story starter. Whether the pictures are of fashion models or reproductions of famous artworks, I couldn't live without my image library. For my current WIP I thought I had more than enough pictures to keep the story flowing, but I also realized many of the images had become somewhat stale--I had looked at them so often I had stopped seeing them. Starting a new collection solely for the last stage of the book seemed to revive all my interest in the story again, and gave me a fresh perspective on the older pictures when I paired them up with the new ones.
Meditation. I've never been a "good meditator" (whatever that means), having hopeless monkey mind and a tendency to squirm when I have to sit still without a book or a pen in my hand. That said, I have always appreciated the need to be quiet for a bit before I start my day or any creative work. The secret I've learned is to not set a time: "I will meditate for twenty minutes straight or else!" but just to give myself permission to stop and not be so busy-busy from the minute I get up or the second I sit down to write. Take a breath, take a minute, relax. Let go.
Choose a path/theme/genre/medium. My usual working style when starting anything new is to just let it happen. More times than not, genre or theme is something I choose for my work after my first draft. This time, though, and following through with #1: Focus, I decided to study and develop my genre/theme before I did anything else. It was a good decision--I found myself taking less side trips and getting right to the heart of my story a whole lot faster than in the past.
"How can I help?" It's nice to help other people, wonderful, in fact, but how often do we stop to help ourselves? I once read a quote that has always stayed with me about how the writer would never work for a boss as mean as she was to herself. Me neither--nothing but constant criticism, impossible deadlines, food and drink deprivation, and definitely no bathroom breaks allowed! When I'm writing, I can be horrible to myself. To break this tyranny, I wrote a "Letter to Me" asking what kind of help I needed to change the pattern. Some of my reply includes writing in 25-minute increments, followed by 15 minutes of anything non-writing related; rewarding myself with something special at the end of each day (can be as simple and inexpensive as a new library book); and making sure I put my writing, rather than the laundry, first.
Find a problem, brainstorm a solution. Halfway through my manuscript I realized I was being far too darn nice to my characters. I hated it when anything bad happened to them, so I'd hurriedly make it all better so they wouldn't suffer. Bad idea. Characters crave suffering--it's what makes them whole in the end! My solution was to make lists of terrible things that could go wrong for each of them, and then brainstorm several dozen ways to prolong the trouble. The lists also gave me ways to solve the problems without relying on coincidence or magic wands.
Write a gratitude or daily achievement list (especially after a rejection or a bad writing day). Not every writing day is a good day. In fact, a lot of them can be downright horrible, or at least they can seem to be until you really examine how the day went. Writing a gratitude list at the end of every day is an amazing practice. I like to go for a list of twelve. Even if the best I can do is write, "I have enough ink in my printer to send my manuscript out again." Or, "I got rid of four typos in Chapter 3," it's a win. (It's also positive proof that you're making progress, a good thing to remember and remind yourself when you don't even have ink in the printer.)
Tip of the Day: My absolute all-time favorite writing tip ever: Take a nap. Yes! Seriously! Napping can be a real creativity-saver, and it doesn't have to take up a lot of time. Whether it's in the middle of a hot Saturday afternoon, or as soon as you come home from work, don't fight the need to snooze--use it. To turn naps into real productivity, always have pen and paper right by your side so that as soon as you wake up, you can start writing. The results can be miraculous--new insights, new characters, new energy. I love it. So what works for you? Drop a line in the comments section and let me know some of your favorite tips, too. Thanks for visiting! Add a Comment
Lin says it is a wonderfully satisfying and emotional moment to introduce Dan Santat and I agree, he's the super best.
Dan came here in 2001, this Summer Conference is the first SCBWI conference he ever attended. He worried it was too expensive, but that worry was soon put to rest when his portfolio got noticed by editor Arthur Levine, and because of attending the conference,Dan got his first book contract.
In the many years of attending SCBWI events and conferences, Dan's noticed success stories of authors and illustrators, and some stories of people who are still finding there way. Dan says:
Your time will come, it's not a race to the top of the mountain, everyone finds their time.
One way to ease your trek on the road to publication is to improve your taste: Do you know if you have good taste? Do you know if what you're writing is good? Dan reads us this Ira Glass quote:
Dan lists some of the stories and genres he likes, and thinks improving your work and taste is due to understanding why you like things, don't censor or bias yourself. Dan likes:
Batman and Akira comics. Movies and TV shows like Moneyball, Game of Thrones, Lost, and Breaking Bad. Podcasts like This American Life and Serial. From all of these he is learning story style and technique, observing different points of view. Immerse yourself in life and culture, take these references, says Dan, and come up with a unique spin on things.
You must do a critical review of your work. Dan reads us some 1 star and 5 star Goodreads reviews for Where the Wild Things Are (which has an overall rating of 4.2, by the way). Compare your opinions with others, there are crazy reviewers and there are good reviewers, the good reviews are useful pieces of critical information that can make your work better.
Study the fundamentals, but don't be rigid.
Learn by imitation, but don't become a clone. In art school, Dan copied Wyeth paintings in class because when you paint the strokes a master painter painted, your hands learn what your head doesn't quite understand yet. But be sure to make your art your own, Dan says, try to make work that is original to yourself once you begin to trust your inner instincts.
The exploration comes by doing: You have to make a lot of lousy paintings before you find one you want to put in your portfolio. Dan was working a full-time job when he decided he wanted to be published, so he started working from 10 pm to 3 am on his illustration work and after weeks and weeks of working like this and honing his craft, he'd made himself an illustration portfolio he could be proud of.
Form follows function. Dan shows us how good stories have things happening for a reason, you see it in everything from Back to the Future to his very own Beekle.
A few of Dan's final thoughts: Do what you love, and the work will find you. Don't think about the money, think about the craft, and working on your craft is the only way to improve. And don't give up!
Molly Idle is the Caldecott-honor winning author and illustrator of Flora and the Flamingo. She talked about the collaborative work that bookmaking is, and how she uses stage and improvisation techniques to boost her personality.
Keeping an open mind is the key to successful collaboration, she says.
In improv, there's a game called "Yes, and."
The first player kicks out an opening line. For example, "Did you remember to clean out the cat barf from Uncle Billy's car?"
Your job as a player is to accept that and add AND, she says. So you'd reply, "I did remember, and I think the smell is going to linger for quite some time."
"It sounds so simple, but it is so easy to do just the opposite and block," she says. "We are born to 'Yes.' We are born instinctively to be creative. To express our boundaries both real and imaginary."
She uses stage techniques a lot in her work. When she's figuring out how to lay out characters, she thinks about and experiments with many things ... putting characters center stage, even not having them react at all (which is the second-most powerful thing you can do on stage).
She encouraged us to push out of our comfort zones and keep many choices as possibilities. "It's the only way to come up with new ideas."
We have to ask ourselves, "How can I push my creative comfort zone out?"
The answer? You have to know your bit. This means know your lines. To really know a line is to know why you say it. You need to know the line before that. And the line before that. And why you're in the scene in the first place.
"You have to know the whole play to know your bit. If you know the whole play, you can jump in and help," she says. 'You know why you're supposed to be there."
Molly knows the editor's job. She knows the art director's job. She knows the designer's bit too—and the printer's. This means that in the end, the book will be a better book.
Several years ago I visited the Robert Mondavi Wine Center at U.C. Davis and I was given a grape vine. I live in a region of California known for its agriculture, so when I got home I planted it in my backyard. That first year the plant grew like crazy—extra trellises had to be tacked to the fence, so that the crawling vines didn’t take over the entire backyard. It was incredible to watch this rapidly growing vine cover half my fence in lush green leaves, but sadly it didn’t produce any grapes that year.
My cousins, owners of a vineyard, advised it would take three years to produce fruit. But when the next summer came and the vine went crazy again—growing so tall it climbed into my neighbors evergreen trees—I thought maybe my vine was special. Surely it would grow grapes early. Maybe I’d even be able to make a bottle of wine.
Not a single grape grew.
The third year passed, and still no grapes.
I started to get discouraged. Instead of believing my vine was special, I thought my vine was a dud. Or maybe my cousins were wrong about how long it takes to grow grapes. I waited another year. And then, during that fourth year, something magical happened. Between the leaves, tiny little clusters started forming. At first they almost looked like weeds, spindly with tiny dots on the ends, but I knew those dots would turn into grapes. I counted the number of clusters. There were five.
It was not the bumper crop I’d hoped for, but I was still extremely excited for my little baby grapes. As the clusters grew larger, I started going into my backyard and counting the grapes on each cluster—yes, I am that nerdy.
Then one day, I went out back and, to my horror, every cluster had shriveled up completely. Not a single grape survived.
I was beginning to think there was something wrong with my little vine. But the following summer, one cluster stayed alive. After five years, my vine grew nineteen grapes!
I bragged. I beamed. My hope was renewed. My vine was not broken or useless, it was just a little slower than normal. I did fear my vine may never produce more than nineteen grapes, but by that point I’d had it for half of a decade, and I loved the plant. I decided not to care if it was fruitful. The vine added beauty to my backyard, and I chose to be proud of whatever it produced. I stopped counting grapes, and started to simply enjoy the way my vine curled around the fence, creating a beautiful green wall that thrived all summer long.
This is the sixth summer I’ve had the vine and—to my total shock—several weeks ago I noticed that the vine was bursting with clusters of grapes.
You can’t see them all from this picture, but there are over a dozen clusters. As a reader this might not feel like a big moment to you, but, for me, seeing all those grapes impacted me in a surprising way. For the first time I realized how strong of a parallel there was to that grape vine and my own writing journey.
The vine was planted in my backyard shortly after I’d decided to take my writing seriously and pursue publication. And like my writing, for YEARS there was no fruit.
But here is the big difference. Even though I thought my grape vine was a dud at times, I never once thought about ripping it out of the ground and giving up on it completely. I knew that fruit bearing plants could take years to mature. And even if it never bore fruit, I was able to simply appreciate the beauty it provided—something I continually failed to do with my writing. This is something I’ve also noticed that a lot of other writers do as well.
I do believe it’s important to have goals when it comes to writing, but I don’t believe that traditional publication should be a person’s only measure of success, the way it was for me.
I imagine there are a lot of other writers out there who have done the same thing to themselves. Maybe some of you have decided that if the book you currently have on submission doesn’t sell by (FILL IN DATE HERE) you will give up on it, or give up on publishing. Same goes for those of you who might be querying. It took me five novels before I found my first agent, and when she failed to sell that novel and decided to leave the business, many of my family members took it as a sign that I should give up on my writing as well. But you know, those same family members never suggested I rip out that grape vine. In fact, I’m pretty sure everyone agreed it was a beautiful vine.
When I shared this story with my friend, Stacey Lee, she had a few thoughts that I wanted to share with all of you as well.
Stacey: I love Stephanie’s story, as it underscores the importance of writing for the sake of creating beauty, and not for the end point. If you find yourself wondering if the writer’s journey is ‘worth it,’ we suggest asking yourself this one question: can I imagine myself not writing? If you can’t, then consider yourself the owner of a very special vine, a vine bestowed upon precious few, a vine for which there will be ups and downs, backwards and forwards, some years with fruit, and some years with blight, but it is all a part of the privilege of owning a vine.
In the comments, we would love to hear how your vines are coming along. Are you in a drought? Are you bearing fruit? Have there been years that have been more productive than others?
Also, there is still time left to fill out our reader survey if you haven’t done so yet.
When you're stuck and you can't figure out where your plot is going, it can be debilitating. It can make you doubt everything. Your idea, your skills, why you wanted to be a writer in the first place . . . In my experience--and that's all I can really speak to!--writer's block is usually nothing magical. It's my subconscious telling me I've taken a wrong turn somewhere, and all I really need to get myself going is an old-fashioned dose of creative brainstorming.
I start by reassessing what I already know in three different ways. Invariably, long before I've reached the end of this exercise, something has sparked my interest or alerted me to the problem.
You can work through these techniques one at a time, working up to a hundred statements in one category before moving on to the next, or you can jump from category to category at whatever point you like. There are no rules, except that you keep going and keep your butt in your chair until you're itching to right or until you've had an epiphany.
Ready? Let's get started.
Technique Number One: Declarative Sentences Write one hundred declarative sentences about whatever story element you're trying to fix. Suppose you have a character, Daisy Dull as Dirt, who you don't know well enough. Make a list of what you do know, and then keep going as inspiration strikes.
Daisy is fifteen years old.
Daisy hates when the different foods on her plate touch each other.
Daisy talks too much and has no filter--she'll blurt out whatever comes to mind.
Daisy's inability to keep her thoughts to herself get her into trouble.
But her need to talk to people gets her back out of trouble.
Daisy learns that she has developed the ability to talk to anyone by drawing them out of their shells.
Revelation: Daisy's babbling isn't really babbling. She is actively listening and cataloging what she learns about the people she's talking to.
That's a revelation that you can use in many different ways, and it's a skill that helps not only your plot, but also your character development from the beginning of the book. She's had to be developing those skills all along. Where can you show that in your manuscript? Sometimes, just that small change can get you out of your block. If not, keep going. You'll find more revelations as you go.
Technique Number Two: Loves and Passions Write one hundred (you won't get there, trust me) things that your characters love or have loved in their lives, or things/causes they're passionate about or have been passionate about in the past, and state why.
Daisy loves banana bread. She used to make it with her mother every Sunday morning, and just the smell of it reminds her of the warm kitchen and the soft Southern drawl of her mother's voice. (Wait. What happened to her mother? Why don't they do this anymore.)
See? It only needed that one statement to get to a revelation.
Technique Number Three: Hates and Conflicts Write one hundred--although, again, you won't get there--things that one of your characters hates and another loves, or vise versa. Explain why they both feel the way they feel and how that puts them at odds with each other.
Daisy loathes runny eggs. They make her sick to her stomach because they remind her of the time her cat climbed up to a bird's nest and Daisy tried to save the eggs. Ralph, Daisy's love interest, loves runny eggs. They are a comfort food for him, because his father used to make him poached eggs on toast whenever he was sick. Ralph and Daisy have been in a plane crash and have to live off the land. Ralph gets up early after a rough night in the open and goes in search of food. He finds an old can, a stream, and a bird's nest with several eggs. He makes a fire and decides to poach the eggs and serve them on the stale crackers Daisy had stuffed in her purse. What happens when Daisy wakes up?
For the record. I knew nothing about Daisy, Ralph, or the plot of this story when I started writing this post. In just these short snippets working through the techniques, I've learned a LOT.
Whether you're trying to find a story, or trying to discover where your existing WIP took a turn it shouldn't have taken, these techniques are certain to get you writing again.
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