Thursday, February 18, 2010

Stuck-ness and Un-sticking

For me, getting un-stuck for picture books is different than for longer stories. When starting a PB story, sometimes I have the idea of what I want to write about. I might do a quick outline--especially if my story is following the rule of threes--think ahead what the obstacles will be and how the character will move from one to the next, what the resolution will ultimately be. These can easily change as I do the actual writing, morph into things different from what I originally envisioned, or maybe I will decide to take the story in another direction entirely and rewrite what I had so far. Sometimes I don’t know what I want to write about, so I pull up my list of very many ideas. These could include verses of rhyme, characters’ names, or 2-3 paragraphs of a story. I might choose a couple ideas and start writing for each of them, see which one seems to flow better at that time. There have been times I started writing and decided it just wasn’t working, scrapped it, and started a whole new book. This happens more when writing for a class deadline. I also really like Eve Heidi Bine-Stock's three volumes of How to Write a Children's Picture Book, using specific examples from well-known children's books. Sometimes just reading a little about structure or being very deliberate in word choice and sentence construction can give some new spark to your words just lying on there on the page, making your eyes cross!

If I get stuck in a novel, I might take a break from the narrative and delve more into a character’s backstory--flesh out a bio or “CV” on that person: favorite foods, songs, movies, color, who was his first kiss, who was her hero, when is his birthday. Where have they lived in the past? What jobs have they held? What are their strengths, weaknesses, talents, goals, any special powers? Who are their best friends, enemies, co-workers, family members, past loves? Can they drive a stick shift? How do they normally dress? Do they wear braces, glasses, wigs, prosthetic devices? Religious affiliations? Political leanings? When is the last time they laughed or cried? Write a few pages of a journal the character might have kept. Many of those details wouldn’t make into the narrative, but this kind of exercise might spur some ideas about where to go or how a character would behave, what choices he would make, that in turn drive the story. It’s kind of like spending time with the character outside the constraints of the plot and emerging with a better understanding of her and, thus, the story.

One “trick” with which I have never had a problem but noticed some people do in regard to novel-writing--I don’t write in chronological order. When I am inspired to tell a certain part of the story or write a certain scene, I do it, even if it doesn’t come till much later, even if it wouldn’t be till the next book of a series. I am always surprised when another writer starts at the beginning and writes all the way through and never has considered writing out of sequence. One of my friends was doing a memoir-type work--he wasn’t looking forward to the part that would come next chronologically in his life. Ummm, so why write it right now? Move ahead to the part that you WANT to tell. Plus, let’s be honest, if there’s a part in your own memoir that you find boring or tedious to get through, why would you expect a reader to slug through it? Another big help: skip ahead and write the ending. I learned this in junior high when we had to choose a children’s author and write a letter to that person. How exciting when I received not just the usual form letter response but an actual personal note from Lois Lowry! Her advice when getting stuck was to skip ahead and write the ending. Know where you’re going and it will help guide you in how to get there. Sometimes it is tricky to then go back and put scenes in correct order and transition them appropriately.

One technique I have not yet tried but am keeping in mind is one of Carmela Martino’s suggestions: go back and write part of your story using a different point of view. For example, if your book is in first-person, try writing some of it in third-person limited. I’m not a huge fan of the writing in the Twilight series, but I was really intrigued by something the author did. The books are mostly told from the point of view of the female protagonist (except for part of a book from the werewolf friend’s point of view), but the author did write a draft of some of the first book from the point of view of the male vampire who becomes the protagonist’s boyfriend. She posted this draft online so that readers could have access to it. I read that the actor who portrayed this vampire in the movie actually used this draft to better get into his character’s motivations, which weren’t as apparent in reading just the published first book. I think this would be a very interesting exercise in getting unstuck--write from a different point of view of your main character or write the same events from the perspective of a different character entirely.

My main point of stuck-ness is in revision. I don’t know if it’s just not as exciting as writing something new, if I am worried the revised version will end up worse than the original, or the anxiety of making choices. I know I make choices in writing an original draft of a story, but it seems like the choices in revising are more deliberate, like you’re more accountable for WHY you made certain decisions. I should just approach it as a fun to chance to play around with stuff I have already created.


  1. Wow. Okay I need to print this out and use all those character questions. That was awesome. I surely am delighted by this post. I reckon I want more see. You give various tips and keep the info coming. Great!

  2. I, like you cannot for the life of me write in chronological order. In some ways I feel its good, in other ways its frustrating. I even write picture books out of order.

    Also, I have scenes to a sequel written. They were originally intended for the current book, but as I progressed, I felt they are more appropriate as material for later. A direct result of writing out of order.

    And I agree 100% about establishing your characters. It definitely helps to know them intimately.

  3. Wow, you really get to know your characters. After I answered all of those questions, I'd probably know my characters better than my friends or husband. Seriously, you do have some great ideas on how to keep the ideas flowing.
    I know what you mean about not wanting to revise, I'm always wondering if the changes I make are for the better.