Perfectionism and Pomodori

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If you suffer from writer’s block, you’re not alone. Most writers I know have faced that wall many times and surmounted it. Some people find themselves at that wall over and over again.

Sometimes this happens because you’re not sure how to move your story forward.

Sometimes this happens because you’re terrified of failing.

If it’s the latter, you may be a perfectionist. One understanding of perfectionism is that it’s a psychological mechanism by which you attempt to prevent failure by being “perfect.” And one of the symptoms of perfectionism is procrastination, a way to avoid engaging with perfectionism’s relentlessly harsh taskmaster by…not writing.

Writing and Life Coach Hillary Rettig discusses this tangled web of fear and diminished productivity in her fantastic book, 7 Secrets of the Prolific. She presents lots of ways to tackle perfectionism and become more productive, the chief among them being a mental attitude of “compassionate objectivity.” You might think of this as the voice of the loving (grand)parent, the wise mentor, the friend. It might be the voice of your writing partners or critique group (that’s certainly true for me), who say, “Don’t worry. Everyone goes through this.”  It’s very different than the nasty voice of perfectionism, which hisses, “Why did you ever think you could do this? You’re a total failure. Quit now.” One of the ways Rettig proposes writers develop the compassionate objectivity and resilience they need to become prolific is through extremely short timed writing.

I taught creative and expository writing for many years, and I often asked my students to free-write for fifteen or twenty minutes. I was inspired to do this by Natalie Goldberg’s classic, Writing Down the Bones, in which she extols the virtues of free-writing and cautions: Don’t let the hand stop moving. Rettig’s important twist on this practice is that if you are suffering from writer’s block, you have to start small. Laughably small. If you’re blocked—either by perfectionism or because you don’t know where to go with your piece—start with five minutes of writing.

FIVE minutes?

Five minutes.

If you’re blocked, you’re probably thinking: How the @&?!*%#$! is five minutes going to help me? I have a 400-page novel to write! Tell yourself Rome was not built in a day. Tell yourself, as Anne Lamott says, to just do it “bird by bird.” And then give this practical technique a try.

Get a timer. Rettig suggests using an old-fashioned kitchen timer. I tried this and it made me feel like a bomb was about to go off under my desk, but if it works for you, go for it. I like the free app called Pomodoro (more about the Pomodoro technique & other apps here). You can set up the timer for up to five intervals, each one lasting from five to twenty-five minutes. You can also create a break between your sessions, however long you wish, which are perfect for rewards (see below).

The idea is to write for a very short time. Set an interval that makes you say: I can definitely write for X minutes. Then choose any part of your story and write for X minutes. The idea is to not worry about quality at this point. And if you get stuck trying to write the story, Rettig recommends you write about the story, or about the problem you’re having with it.

Five minutes. Then stop and celebrate. Reward yourself well—you must treat yourself way better than you think you deserve for writing for five minutes—and then, when you want to write again, do so. But only for five minutes.

Short, timed writing—what I think of as micro writing—defeats the perfectionist nay-sayer and stops procrastination. It’s only five minutes, after all. And, as Rettig points out, as you use this technique you will find that your sense of accomplishment returns. And when that happens, you can lengthen your timed sessions: fifteen minutes, forty minutes, four hours.

It’s very simple and very powerful. And if the panic sets in after you get going with this, and it probably will—“Yes, yes, I was writing nothing but I’m still only writing 2,000 words a day and it’s not nearly enough to finish my 400-page book!—gently go back to timed sessions. Trust the process to get you back on track so that you are once again writing without fear.

Pomodoro by pomodoro: which is how I wrote this post.

Explore Hillary Rettig’s methods (time-management, helicopter writing, back-to-front writing and more) on her website and in her excellent book.

 

IMG_1617When GITA TRELEASE was little, she believed that if she squinted just right, she could see the glimmer of magic around certain things. She still does. As an English professor, she taught classes on Victorian criminals, monsters, and fairy tales. Along with her artist husband, teenage son, and opinionated Maine Coon cat, Gita divides her time between a boarding school in Massachusetts and the wild Maine coast. Her current YA project is a historical fantasy set during the French Revolution—with a glimmer of magic. Connect with her on Twitter and Instagram.

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Award Winning KidLit: First Lines Quiz

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In a previous Killer KidLit First Lines post (click here to read), I revealed my obsession with revising first lines. I’m almost equally obsessed with writing a banned book (I’m a rogue at heart), or winning the Newbery. Either way, I’m happy.

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The idea for this quiz came to me after the January American Library Association award announcements. I wondered, “Can you identify books that are so special that they win the Caldecott, Newbery, or Printz award based on the greatness of their opening lines?”

 

FullSizeRenderSo here you have it, folks. A quiz to answer that question. I mixed in a few lines from great kid’s books that didn’t win the Caldecott, Newbery, or Printz awards, but that are equally awesome to me. Take the quiz to see if you can figure out which of the first lines are from award winning children’s books.

 

If you do well on the quiz, CONGRATS! You’re a Kid Lit Trivia Genius.

If not, don’t fret. There are plenty of fantastic books that haven’t won awards. And there are many books that have won awards with just so-so opening lines. In fact, reviewing the opening lines for this quiz led me to believe that my obsession with creating a killer opening line might not be as important as I once thought.

Happy reading and writing! And GOOD LUCK!

CLICK HERE to PLAY OUR

Award Winning KidLit First Lines Quiz

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profileMMICHELLE LEONARD is a math and science nerd, a chocolate biscotti baker, and a SCBWI member who writes middle-grade fiction and non-fiction. Connect with her on Twitter !

 

 

 

Backstory as Character: COLD KISS

Cold Kiss by Amy Garvey is a Gothic YA novel published in 2011.

Glass Heart follows in the series.

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What I find particularly well done in Cold Kiss is the backstory. The story follows the tragic misadventures of Wren, a teenaged girl who brought back her dead boyfriend Danny from the grave.
Using the backstory as an important element in a novel is always risky and often damaging to the story momentum, but Amy Garvey expertly weaved the past into the present and made the past part of the present.

Cold Kiss
Amy Garvey’s homepage.  Watch trailer here.

 

 

How did Garvey use the backstory?

First of all, the author spends a great deal of the novel reflecting on the aching of a lost love and how it transforms someone’s present life. She reflects on the importance of grieving and going full circle and the consequences of the avoidance of it. She also stresses the responsibilities of not letting go. That’s how she traces the character arc, her growth and shows the lessons Wren learns.

That’s also how she ups the stakes. Wren spends a lot of time struggling with the emotionally exhausting demands of her terrible secret and the lies she has to tell others and to herself. Hiding Danny is not a small feat. The more Wren gets conscious that she made the wrong decision by bringing back Danny, the more she has to lose. The more he stays, the harder it is to lead a sane, normal life, especially making and keeping friends.

Second, the author explains how the past changes the present. The past prevents Wren from being herself because if she lets herself go, her magical powers might destroy everything around her. This affects not only Wren, but her mother too who is a pale reflection of Wren. Even the picture of her dad dead ten years ago seems to push away any boyfriend her mom has. “Her boyfriends never last long. I wonder if they get discouraged when they see the picture of my dad on the mantel.”

Third, this story is compelling because the backstory plays a decisive role in the novel. The backstory is given the weight of a character. For example, the contrast between the living Danny and the dead Danny dramatically foreshadows the new relationship: “It’s getting harder to remember the way Danny used to be. That Danny wouldn’t have waited so patiently for me. […] That Danny had ideas, crazy, late-night fantasies…”
Danny will always be a shadow of himself, not the boy she loved. We understand right away that it’s time to move on even though Wren does not realize this at first. That makes the story even more tragic.

 

Backstory ghost
Find article here.

In Cold Kiss, Amy Garvey used the backstory in the way K.M. Weiland instructs us to use it. The backstory highlights the internal and external conflict, and up the stakes. The backstory also explains the present and adds to the present plot. The backstory plays the role of a protagonist and changes the cards for Wren. The ghost of her past weighs on her and makes it obvious that something is wrong, out of place, and tragically holds her back and causes Wren to make mistakes.

In this gothic novel, the backstory plays more than the role of explaining key elements in the story. In Cold Kiss, it creates the sense of dread and inpending doom on the character. The backstory is the antagonist. In my opinion, for its unusual and unconventional use of the backstory, Cold Kiss is worth the read.

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Sussu

 

You can read more about the use of the backstory is Sussu Leclerc’s website. Please, also follow her on Twitter.

 

Summer Road Trip Read Alouds

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It’s summer road trip season, and in our family, that means I’m on the lookout for great books for reading out loud. That’s our favorite way to while away the hours speeding down the highways and back roads.

Not all books are great for reading aloud. To me, the key is that the plot has to be relatively straightforward (in case someone zones out for a bit, looking for the world’s largest ball of twine) and it has to move at a good clip (to keep the interest of those who might otherwise start kicking their sisters). Bonus points if it’s exciting, funny, and has silly names.

Here are some we’ve loved recently.

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The Princess Bride: If you’ve seen the movie, the book, which reads almost verbatim, will crack you right up. Everyone has his or her own favorite lines. In our family, the surest way to make someone laugh is to say, “Anybody want a peanut?” This is one of the rare instances in which I would recommend seeing the movie first, because the fantastic actors and settings make the book come to life as you’re reading.

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Snow Treasure: This was one of my wife’s favorite books as a kid, but I’d never heard of it. It’s the fascinating true story of Norwegian children who smuggled $12 million in gold out of their country on sleds after the Nazi occupation in WWII began. We were all on the edges of our seats to find out what happened, and I especially love the kid power message here.

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TumTum and Nutmeg: These are fantastic for younger kids, who may not be able to follow a longer plot yet. It’s a series of long-ish short stories starring a fussy husband and doting wife mouse couple and their trouble-causing, pompous best friend, General Marchmouse. The stories are entertaining, but not too scary, and everyone is polite and trying to be good. It definitely has fun-to-say names.

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Harry Potter: To me, these are the quintessential read alouds. My wife and I actually read these to each other before we had kids, even over the phone when we were long distance. The stories are gripping, and get better as the series progresses. It has the best names of any books out there. Hufflepuff! Dumbledore! Rowena Ravenclaw! Plus you get to try out fun British-isms like “snogging” and “bloody.” You really can’t get better than this.

wizard of oz

The Wizard of Oz: Another one where the fantastic book gets overshadowed by the movie, I like this for a road trip because it’s the story of a journey and trying to get home. The books (there are five of them) read more like a series of connected short stories, so it’s also nice for bedtime stories, or where you can’t read it all at once.

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Fortunately, the Milk: So silly and funny. A dad goes out for milk, takes too long getting home, and comes back to tell the kids the fantastic tale of where he’s been. It’s a quick read, and will have you all howling with laughter.

Okay, your turn! I’ve got a looong road trip coming up at the end of this month. What do you recommend? What have you loved?

Katharine Manning is a middle grade writer who is working on her British accent. You can see more of her middle grade book recommendations at Kid Book List. You can also find her at www.katharinemanning.com and on Twitter

The Confusing World of Genres

I’ve always been intrigued by a book’s title. I mean, how awesome is AND THEN THERE WERE NONE by Agatha Christie. For most of my life, that’s how I chose books. Or so I thought.

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One day I stopped drooling over the shelves and shelves of books at my local bookstore and paid attention to my surroundings. I was smack dab in the middle of the adult mystery section. I was deep into a genre.

Ah! Genre. What is that? I never thought about it before I became a writer. As a kid, I remember books falling into four categories: mysteries, science fiction (which covered topics like Star Trek), fiction (which included everything else), and non-fiction. But now, the world of genres seems to have exploded.

Not only is there a long list of genres, but there are subgenres, crossovers, subgenres of crossovers, subgenres of subgenres of crossovers – but only if they occurred before 1950 and have a redhead fairy with a sparkly wand who turns out to be the long lost daughter of Adolf Hitler and is seeking to continue his dream by summoning aliens to take over the world. (Seems like fanaticism is hereditary).

So what exactly is a genre and why do we need it?

Genres are a categories of literature characterized by similarities in form, style, or subject matter. (Oxford dictionary).

Parents, have you ever gone to a bookstore and searched for a book with dragon-type characters or a world set in the clouds? Or how about a world of magic? Imagine searching hundreds of shelves, or thousands of books online to find the only ones your child will read. Wouldn’t it have been easier to ask for the fantasy section?

Writers, wouldn’t it be wonderful if parents looking for fantasy books headed directly to that section in the bookstore and picked yours off the shelf? Or you wanted to find books similar to the stories floating around in your head and you knew just where to search?

And how do books find their way to bookstore shelves and the proper sections? That’s where agents and publishers come into play. Agents have a great understanding of genres and the current market. They know which editors and publishers are looking for specific types of books. Publishers will then provide your book to the bookseller who will place it in the proper section for readers.

So as writers, it all comes back to you. What genres do you write in? With a limited understanding of them, I had categorized mine incorrectly. What I thought was contemporary was actually science fiction. (Who knew sci-fi was more than Star Trek?)

To help you understand genres, below is a handy list with book title examples. You may also take those as recommendations.

Action adventure – stories with spies, superheroes, or journeys. Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson

Contemporary – stories occurring in current times. Destiny Rewritten by Kathryn Fitzmaurice

Dystopian – stories with social and political control systems that focus on lack of individual freedoms and may be in a constant state of violence. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

Fantasy – stories with dragons, wizards, made-up worlds. Harry Potter Series by J.K. Rowling

Historical fiction – stories set in the past, often during a significant event or time period, with fictional characters and events. Prisoner of Night and Fog by Anne Blankman

Horror – fiction which evokes a feeling of fear and/or dread. Bag of Bones by Stephen King

Humorous – a novel designed to amuse the reader. The Strange Case of Origami Yoda by Tom Angleberger

Magical realism – fiction with magical elements that are considered normal and work together with real, or non-magical, life. The Seventh Wish by Kate Messner

Mystery – fiction that deals with solving crimes. The 39 Clues

Mythology – fiction involving stories explaining how the world or humankind came to be. Usually involves gods or supernatural heroes. The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan IMG_1616

Paranormal – stories involving experiences that lack scientific explanation and may include ghosts and psychics. This Savage Song by Victoria Schwab

Science fiction – based on actual, imagined, or potential science. Can be set in current times, or in another world. Tesla’s Attic by Neal Shusterman and Eric Elfman

Speculative fiction – fiction about worlds unlike the real world and usually overlaps with other genres such as science fiction, horror, dystopian, and supernatural fiction. The Progeny by Tosca Lee

Steampunk – stories usually set in a Victorian or quasi-Victorian alternate history. Can also involve science fiction, fantasy, or horror themes. Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld

Of course as you can see, many genres incorporate others, which can make categorizing or searching for books confusing. But for writers, it makes things much more interesting!

I would love to hear about your favorite genres and books! Please leave them in the comments.
A third IMG_2142 - Version 2degree black belt in taekwondo, HALLI GOMEZ teaches martial arts and writes for children and young adults because those voices flow through her brain. She enjoys family, outdoors, reading, and is addicted to superhero movies. You can find her on Twitter