MYC: Conquering the Dreaded Blank Page (and other drafting tricks)

Welcome to this week’s Master Your Craft post! Each Wednesday we’ll discuss prewriting and drafting a new book from the BIG IDEA to QUERYING. Last week, we reviewed our treasure trove of pre-writing posts. Today we’re on to starting — and keeping going on — your first draft.

You’ve finally arrived. You’ve got your coffee (or tea), your snacks, your favorite writing socks. Your writing space is perfectly set up, and you’ve got an hour or two of quiet uninterrupted writing time.

You open your computer, gently rest your hands on the keyboard, and…

Now what?

Many, many writers are daunted by the sight of a blank page. It’s a little unnerving to open a new document and realize that you’re exactly zero words into a 60,000+ word manuscript.

And even when you’ve tackled the blank page, there will come a moment when you sit down to write, and nothing comes out. You’re stuck. Where is this scene going? What happens next? It’s easy to waste a lot of time staring at the blinking cursor, trying to find your way back into your story.

While we can’t eliminate the fear and frustration completely, we can help you overcome.

Here are some of our favorite Winged Pen tips for conquering the blank page and pushing through the sticky spots:

Julie: I have a lot of time to stare at the blank page built into my writing process, since I usually prewrite for about six months and then draft in a month or so. But I also try to stop mid-scene at the end of each writing session so I can pick up the next day knowing roughly what needs to happen.

I also use a placeholder [TK] in the ms when there’s a fact or bit of research I need to look up. So I’ll write something like [TK research what moon jellies eat] and just keep going rather than stopping and going down the worm hole of doing research, which can pull me off track for days. I also use [TK] when I know something needs to happen but can’t figure out what. So I might write [TK Nic bickers with Mom over something to introduce frustration].

Jennifer: You know, the blank page has never been an issue. The beginning is always the easiest part for me. It’s everything past the first few pages that is hard. But getting past being stuck? For me, if I’m stuck, it means I took a wrong turn, and I need to go a few pages back and decide if this is really where I want to be. Sometimes I push through, but usually, I need to figure out what the problem is.

Michelle: I stop and have a heart to heart with my MC to ask (her usually) what the problem is. I also use the tricks that were in my Creativity to the Rescue post.

Halli: I tell myself I’m just going to write notes about the MS. Nothing official, just whatever comes to mind. Usually I find a place to start. I have also been known to write a scene or scenes out of order if that’s what strikes me at the time, but that is not my preferred method.

Gabrielle: Long walks and hot showers. Looking at art.

Gita: I give myself a very small amount of time to write. It could be 1 minute, 5, or 10–whatever seems very easy, no problem at all. I set the timer and usually I find myself needing more time. I repeat until I don’t need it anymore.

Richelle: From my years of writing to hard deadlines, I’ve learned that a blank page is far, far worse than bad copy. So I write something down, even if it’s complete garbage. I can always fix it later! I don’t remember where I read this, but one of my favorite pieces of writing advice is that your first draft is you telling yourself your story. Subsequent drafts are you telling it to someone else. I keep that in mind while drafting, and it eases a lot of my anxiety – after all, I’m just telling myself a story, not writing the next best-seller!

As for stuck spots, like Julie, I stop mid-scene – or sometimes mid-sentence – to keep my momentum going and give myself a road map for the next writing session.

And if that’s not enough inspiration, try these tried-and-true drafting tips:

  • Check in with your outline or other pre-writing work. Chances are there is a pivotal scene, key character motivation, or even a phrase of inspiration that will propel you back into your story.
  • Backstory is a great way to remind yourself where your characters have been and where they’re going. For best effect, connect your backstory scene with the current scene…and then watch as the ideas start flowing for what comes next. (For more on backstory, check out this post.)
  • If you’re stuck on a scene, try writing it in a different tense, or from a different perspective. Have the main character’s mom or best friend tell what happens next, or change from first person to third (or vice versa).
  • Often, when our scenes aren’t sparking enough for us to want to write them, it’s because we’ve made it too easy for our characters to get what they want. Toss a new obstacle or two into your scene and see what happens. It can be as simple as making their environment a bit more challenging, like having two characters try to talk over a fight happening nearby. Or if your MC is just trying to get to her bestie’s house, make it difficult for her. A sprained ankle? A lost child who needs her help? Those obstacles could add a spark to your scene and help you find new ways to keep going.

Above all, when you’re in the thicket of drafting, remember that perfect is the enemy of done. You don’t need anyone else to understand what you’re trying to do right now. You just need to get it down, to tell yourself what happens next.

Revisions are the magical place where your own bedtime story gets shaped into a book that we all want to read.

Tune in next week when we will look at ways to overcome the dreaded saggy middle!

Interview with Adrienne Kress

Adrienne Kress is so cool. She’s an actor, playwright, filmmaker, and director. She teaches drama to kids, and she has her own production company. Most importantly for our purposes here, she is an author, of fantastical middle grade adventure stories with daring girls and careful boys, absurd predicaments and narrow escapes. I first came to love Adrienne’s work when I read her book, ALEX AND THE IRONIC GENTLEMAN, about a girl who sets off to rescue her favorite teacher after he is kidnapped by pirates.

Adrienne’s new book is THE EXPLORERS: THE DOOR IN THE ALLEY. Here is the description:

This is one of those stories that start with a pig in a teeny hat. It’s not the one you’re thinking about. (This story is way better than that one.)

This pig-in-a-teeny-hat story starts when a very uninquisitive boy stumbles upon a very mysterious society. After that, there is danger and adventure; there are missing persons, hired thugs, a hidden box, a lost map, and famous explorers; and also a girl on a rescue mission.

The Explorers: The Door in the Alley is the first book in a series that is sure to hit young readers right in the funny bone.

Doesn’t that sound fun? It is. I was lucky enough to get an advance copy of THE EXPLORERS, and quickly fell in love with the witty language, the exciting plot, and the main relatable main characters, careful Sebastian and daring Evie. Adrienne agreed to answer a few questions for The Winged Pen.

  1. Your books are so wild and fun. What do you do to get in the right mindset to let your creativity flow?

Thank you! I’m very happy that you find my books so engaging. What you’re asking is how do I get inspired. And that changes constantly. These days, though, it’s not about getting into any kind of mindset, it’s sitting down and getting to work. I used to find I could only create when my imagination was on fire with ideas, but as I started to write more, it became necessary to learn how to treat writing like a job. I remember the first time I “forced” myself to write. It was a struggle and I worried so much that the effort was going to show on the page. But I was stunned when I reread the work later and found that it came across much in the same way as those bits written out of pure inspiration. So it’s a combination of inspiration (because you still have to come up with the ideas, etc.) and getting down to it. And, it’s a very good feeling, really, knowing you can write without the muse constantly sitting on your shoulder and whispering in your ear. It’s still not easy, but it is very freeing.

  1. Was this always written with two points of view? Why did you decide to write it this way? What did you gain or lose?

I actually started with just Sebastian while I was planning out the book. But pretty quickly I realized I wanted to write about a girl as well. I had written from several points of view before in my YA book THE FRIDAY SOCIETY so I had some experience in this area. And I don’t really think I lost anything by making that choice. I feel like I gained a great deal by adding another perspective. Evie’s connection to the team makes the adventure personal right from the start rather than just something interesting to an outsider. Sebastian starts as kind of the person on the outside looking in, almost in a way representing the readers themselves, but as Sebastian gets more involved, the situation becomes more personal to him too. Sebastian’s development gives another dimension to the story. So I gained the opportunity to engage with the readers in more ways.

  1. Was there anything particularly challenging about writing this book? Or particularly fun?

Figuring out what they were searching for was oddly difficult. I knew it had to do with that mysterious exploration, and I knew all five members of the team had to be involved somehow. The key was not the first thing I thought of, though it definitely was the best choice once I thought of it.

As for fun, well, I always love writing animal characters. So I got very excited every time that opportunity presented itself. Of course, since the story all comes from my brain, I made sure to present such an opportunity to myself as often as possible. As you may have noticed . . .

  1. What other projects are you working on now?

I’m currently finishing up copy edits on the second book in THE EXPLORERS series, and will be shortly starting to write the third. And I am acting in a Fringe play this summer here in Toronto, a fun parody of Shakespeare called MACBETH’S HEAD.

  1. What’s the best writing advice you’ve heard?

It isn’t specifically writing advice, but I like to turn to Dory from Finding Nemo: “Just keep swimming.” There are so many things out of our control as writers. There are even things that are just pure luck. But the one thing we can do is just keep writing. That’s what we can take ownership of.

  1. What were your favorite books when you were a kid? And how about kid books that you discovered as an adult?

As a kid I was a big fan of both Beverly Cleary and Judy Blume. I also enjoyed the Encyclopedia Brown detective books a lot. And The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster. My dad read me some grown-up books too. Lord of the Rings really stayed with me. And he also introduced The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy to me as well. That book changed everything about how I looked at writing – and kind of life as well. As a kid I fell in love with the absurdity.

As an adult, well, I mean I guess I have to say the biggest kid book I discovered as an adult is probably the most obvious as well. I’m a huge Harry Potterphile. But can you blame me??

 

Katharine Manning now wants to make teeny hats for her cats. Anyone with miniature millinery skills, please get in touch. You can reach her here and at Mixed Up Files, as well as on Twitter, Instagram, and at www.katharinemanning.com.

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Writing Historical Fiction, or, Notes from a Time Traveler

Welcome to this week’s Master Your Craft post! Each Wednesday we’ll discuss prewriting and drafting a new book from the BIG IDEA to QUERYING. Last week, we continued our series with an introductory post on research. This week, we’ll share our thoughts on digging into historical research.

For years I was haunted by a dream of a young woman walking through long grass. I couldn’t see her face, but I could hear her breathing hard, because she wore a corset and the hem of her brocade dress was damp and heavy. She carried a letter in her hand as she made her way toward a small building, a kind of folly, to read in private. The Belvedere, VersaillesThis person didn’t fit into the book I was working on at the time. At all! But then last fall, I happened to read about the invention of hot-air balloons and a real-life event in which a Parisian girl saved a balloon pilot from injury. This happened right before the French Revolution, which made me think about Versailles and its gardens and court dresses and then I knew: my protagonist would be the tough city girl who stopped the balloon from crashing—and fell in love with its pilot—and  she would be the girl with the letter, ruining her expensive dress as she strode through the gardens of Versailles.

My current project, Enchantée, is a YA historical fantasy, which means (at least to me) that it’s rooted in historical fact and touched by magic. The magic I get to invent, but the details of life in the 1780s—the settings, historical events, clothes, food, economy, transportation and more—I need to research. And all of that research is in pursuit of one thing: to make my readers feel that they are THERE, that they’ve traveled back in time and space.

But HOW?

When I started, I knew a bit about the eighteenth century from my grad school days, but not much. I’d listened to Antonia Fraser’s biography of Marie Antoinette. I’d visited Paris, a long time ago. I’d seen period films set in the 1780s. For me, this was enough to begin, to rough out a story arc. Then I starting researching. Then I wrote. Then I researched again, this time with more focus because I had a better idea of what I needed to know. And then I wrote more. And so on and so on.

Research, I’ve discovered, is a spiral process: you can’t possibly know what you need to know at the beginning, so inevitably you’ll go back to the source many times. Knowing this has helped me deal with the inevitable overwhelm that comes with trying to get a grasp on a historical moment.

I’ve read more about the period than will fit in my book; in fact, what shows up in the novel is only the tip of the iceberg. Will readers care about the difficulty of producing hydrogen gas for balloons? I highly doubt it! But understanding it added another layer of authenticity to the story and helped me see the challenges my balloonist would face, which in turn sparked changes in the plot. This wasn’t something I’d expected to happen, but I was thrilled when it did.

Yet as K.M. Weiland stresses in her great post on writing historical fiction, even more than getting the facts right (which you need to do), what counts is creating a feeling of authenticity.

But how do you do that? Here’s what I’ve learned so far:

Tiny details can be time machines. Learning that the pomade used in hairstyles in the 1780s reeked after a week gave me a powerful sensory detail. Learning that Versailles crawled with rats and that anyone could wander its halls helped me see the glittering palace with fresh eyes—and devise a way in for my heroine.

Read what interests you. Try biographies, social and political histories. You don’t have to start with the most complex one, either, unless it speaks to you. Know that you’ll probably come back to whatever you read, so be sure to take notes and save links to websites. (I do this by importing links into Scrivener.)

Use historians’ bibliographies to track down Books to Read, September 2015documents from the period, many of which are available online or included in books. These primary sources are what historians use to write their accounts; they include letters and diaries, or things like a first-hand account of a balloon flight in 1783, and they are gold. Not only because they contain the priceless details you want, but they will be written in the language of a person from your period.

Which brings me to voice. Reading eighteenth-century letters as well as novels, histories, and poems helped me shape my protagonist’s voice. I wanted her voice and thoughts to feel contemporary enough for YA readers of today, but also to feel authentic to the time. I’ll admit that for me, balancing these two issues is an ongoing struggle.

If your chosen period isn’t too far in the past, you may find maps, old guidebooks, or travel writing useful. Even present-day guidebooks can contain helpful information, especially if aspects of your setting still exist—as they did for me in Paris and at Versailles.

Indulge in period films, your pen at the ready (next to the popcorn, of course). Surround yourself with photos of the places you’re writing about. Follow pinners on Pinterest who are fascinated by your setting and your time period and pin like crazy. Track down museums that feature objects important to your book—in my case, the Bata shoe museum and the Murtog D. Guiness Collection of Automata.

Seek out passionate experts of your period. They’re not all academics. I follow people on Pinterest who pin eighteenth-century clothes; their pins function as a virtual wardrobe when I’m dressing my characters. If, for example, you want to set your novel during the American Civil War, you might find a re-enactor’s blog useful. I was captivated by the work of a Finnish blogger who sews 18th century dresses. I also stumbled across an online agency that rents weapons to acting companies; one of its owners provided the best description I’d found of how to fight with a French small sword. Many of these experts will welcome questions—they love to share their passion.

The most important thing I’ve learned is both humbling and inspiring. As Newberry winner Karen Hesse, author of Out of the Dust wrote, “Even after researching for a full year, after reading thousands of pages of material, both primary and secondary sources, I could never recreate an historical period with absolute confidence. I needed to make so many leaps of faith and asked the reader to leap with me.”

So yes, you need to research, but time travel happens through imagination—something you already have. Happy writing!

Looking to read some MG and YA historical fiction? Here are a few of my favorites:

Elizabeth Wein, Code Name Verity
Lois Lowry, Number the Stars
Laurie Halse Anderson, Chains
MT Anderson, The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing
Elizabeth George Speare, The Witch of Blackbird Pond

You can read interviews with MT Anderson here and Laurie Halse Anderson here; Emma Darwin takes you through the process in her book.

Do you have any tips on writing historical fiction? I’d love to hear from you in the comments!

Next week, Halli will be here to talk about setting as a character.

GITA TRELEASE writes YA fantasy. She was born in Sweden and has lived in France, Italy, and the United States. In her former life as a college professor, she taught classes on fairy tales, monsters, and Victorian criminals. Along with her artist husband, teenage son, and Maine Coon, Gita divides her time between a boarding school in Massachusetts and the wild Maine coast. Her current project takes place during the French Revolution: hot-air balloons and gambling, decadence and dark magic. Connect with her on Twitter and Instagram.

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My Month of Poetry

I recently found myself in a writing rut. A hectic home life, a stressful and stressed-out world, and somehow writing became both trivial and inaccessible. I could not connect with my creativity, and it felt self-indulgent even to try.

Over dinner, a wise friend suggested a poetry challenge. Write a poem a day for thirty days, to clean out the spiders of doubt and despair, and to get my creativity flowing again.

Huh, I thought. Poetry.

I’ve written poetry off and on since college. I’ve never let anyone read it, not even my wife. But this wouldn’t need to be shared. This was about healing, not productivity or entertainment. And April, being National Poetry Month, certainly seemed an appropriate time for it.

I quietly decided to give it a try. The only rules I set were that each day I had to write a poem at some point before midnight, and that I was not allowed to read it after I closed the document.

I wasn’t sure how it would go, and so for the first week, I didn’t tell anyone that I was doing it. As the days stacked up, though, I became more confident. And then I began to have fun. Poems allow for such freedom to play with language and with white space. Amazing things came up. I would open the blank document expecting to write about one thing, and almost immediately, something entirely different came to my fingers. That’s what I’m worrying about? Who knew?

Some days were harder, particularly as I happened to choose the month we were moving back into our not-quite-fully renovated house. So, sometimes the poems were really short. On the day we moved, I wrote a haiku. Other days I wrote longer and more nuanced pieces. The topics varied. Some were intense, others light. The key was that I didn’t judge myself for what I wrote—for how good it was, or how many words I got down. I allowed myself to experiment and to explore my thoughts.

I started this in late March, so my thirty days are up today. It’s been both fun and illuminating. I’ve gotten back into the groove of daily writing, which feels wonderful. I have a moment each day of reflection and creativity, which I don’t believe I will be able to relinquish. My creativity has been primed, and I have a few new ideas for stories and writing projects. Perhaps most importantly, I’ve found a way to remember that writing is, for me, healing. I know that writing is a business, but that’s not all it is. It is a sacred practice, a way to connect with myself. And if I allow it to, it can save me.

For those looking for more ideas about writing and reading poetry, Laura Shovan, the wise friend who started me on this journey, has a wealth of information on her blog, including, this month, an amazing lineup of interviews with verse novelists. And if anyone is inspired to try a month of poetry, here are some prompts to help you get started.

Katharine Manning blogs here and at From the Mixed-Up Files of Middle Grade Authors. She writes middle grade stories about strong, brave girls who sometimes make mistakes. She was thrilled to serve as a 2016 Cybils judge for poetry and novels in verse. You can find her online at www.katharinemanning.com, on Twitter, and on Instagram. Her book blog is KidBookList.

Creativity to the Rescue: Finding BIG Ideas

As a piggyback to last week’s BIG IDEAS post in our Master Your Craft Series, it occurred to me that many of our readers may still be struggling with their concept not being quite BIG enough to commit months or maybe years to writing a story. Or maybe you’ve only got a small nugget of an idea. So what do you do?

First let’s break concept down into bite size chunks.

Inciting Incident: The “what now” that sets your story in motion! This is the scene where something happens to cause the protagonists to change course.

Protagonist: A main character with specific characteristics.

Goal: What must your main character achieve in your story?

Stakes: What will happen if the protagonist don’t achieve his/her goal?

If you have these four ingredients, you can write a logline.

Standard logline: When/After {INCITING INCIDENT OCCURS}, a {PROTAGONIST} must {GOAL}, or else {STAKES}.

But what if you don’t have all those ingredients? Well, it’s going to be difficult to write a story! You need a creativity boost!

There’s been much written about how to maximize your creativity. Basically, you need a method for opening your mind to jiggle loose new ideas. Physical Movement often helps or sometimes a nice long bath does the trick. Sometimes we get ideas through serendipity, like from dreams or watching people, or by cross-pollinating ideas by watching the news or enjoying art. Writing prompts can help too, but sometimes you have to go grab creativity and force it to work for you.

Creativity tricks for writers:

  • Apples to Apples Game: No, I’m not asking you to play it! But you can use the game cards to help you generate ideas. There are 749 red noun (person, place, thing, or event) cards, 249 green adjective cards, and some blank cards.

Example: Say you’ve got a main character {a quiet young boy who’s ignored by his busy family}, but that’s it.

Easy! Pull out three adjective cards and three noun cards and start making some connections. Let’s pretend you get Demi Moore, The Great Depression, and NYPD for your nouns and Scary, Mysterious, and Hard-Working for your adjectives.

So obviously, a story where Demi Moore is the goal, inciting incident, or the stakes is a little bit too weird. But you see the words scary and mysterious and you might remember that Demi Moore was in the movie Ghost. Then your mind starts to pull the other words together to form a bigger idea. Let’s try inserting some of this into the standard logline structure.

After {moving into an old house in New York}, {a quiet young boy who’s normally ignored by his family} must {convince his family that their new home is inhabited by a ghost}, or else {STAKES}.

Okay, this isn’t perfect and I wouldn’t pitch it to an agent, but it’s got your brain working, which was the goal. I ran out of steam with those cards. I didn’t use them all and some of them were just used to generate other ideas (Demi Moore=ghost, NYPD=New York, The Great Depression=the time period just before their house was built). Also, I’m not done. I don’t have STAKES yet. So pull another set of cards and see what you come up with for the stakes. If you completely hate the idea, start over and draw more cards or move on to another trick.

  • The Dictionary: Just turn to a random page, close your eyes, and point to a word. Repeat this until you have an assortment of words to work with and fill in the blanks just like you did with the Apples to Apples game.
  • Magnetic Words: Every writer has those magnetic words that speak to them. (Heck, one of my favorites is the word “magnetic.”) Keep a list of your magnetic words in a handy spot (like a favorite journal or an easily accessible file) and use those to fill in the blanks just like we did with Apples to Apples.
  • Misfortune Tellers and Tarot Readings: Author John Claude Bemis has great creativity exercises on his website that can be used to help fill in the blanks for your logline.
  • Talk it out: Once you’ve used the ideas above to come up with your best possible BIG IDEA, talk it out with a friend or family member. See if they think you’ve come up with a BIG IDEA, or maybe they can help you make it BIGGER!

Happy Writing!

MICHELLE LEONARD is a math and science nerd, a chocolate biscotti baker, and a SCBWI member who writes middle-grade and young adult fiction. Her young adult sci-fi short story IN A WHOLE NEW LIGHT will be published in the BRAVE NEW GIRLS ANTHOLOGY: STORIES OF GIRLS WHO SCIENCE AND SCHEME releasing August 2017. Connect with her on Twitter.