Wednesday, 25 December 2013

Being Productive Despite Writer's Block

I've been on vacation for a couple weeks now. I was counting down the days until my break because I had intended to write. I haven't written as much as I intended, but break's not over yet.

I've been mulling over my YA soccer WIP for a while now, trying to make various plot pieces fit, but I haven't written anything in what feels like ages. Honestly, I've had a bit of writer's block. Every idea I came up with seemed wrong and so I was hesitant to put my fingers to the keys because I've already done two major overhauls on this manuscript. So how have I been combating writer's block and turning into something productive? Here are a few tips.

1. Writing Podcasts

I've never listed to podcasts before. I know. I know. I'm behind the times. But I found some wonderful podcasts. Sara Zarr has a wonderful podcast that comes out roughly twice a month. It's called "This Creative Life with Sara Zarr." Ms. Zarr interviews other influential writers like A.S. King, Sara Dessen, Siobhan Vivian and Stephanie Perkins. These interviews often discuss the writing process, the struggles of being a writer (i.e. self-doubt), and the benefits of the writing community. It was nice to know that successful writers have experience/are experiencing some of the struggles I have faced/am facing. Plus, I love hearing about other writer's processes and where their inspirations comes from. Other noteworthy podcasts include Authors are Rockstars! and Girls in the Stacks.

Do you listen to podcasts? Which ones do you like?

2. Write when you aren't "writing."

As I said before, I haven't put my fingers to the keys in a while, but I've been mulling over plot points. I find myself thinking about my book before bed, at the gym while I'm on the treadmill, even in the shower and in the car. Writers are busy people, but we do have some time to ourselves, and sometimes, we just need to think. This is still "writing." At least in my opinion it is. I'm a planner, and while I have read some scenes by the seat of my pants and ADORED them and the feeling of doing so, I work best when I have a clear idea of what I want to write before I sit down to try. Otherwise, I end up staring at a blank screen. Even if all that thinking leads to "Person A and Person B need to have a talk about X," that's at least progress.

3. Work on something else.

For me, this has meant editing another WIP and putting together the materials for an upcoming blog tour for Podium Finish. I'm still doing writerly things, but have put some distance between me and this WIP that is driving me crazy.

**Side note: The reason it's "driving me crazy" is because I know the idea is worth pursuing and has potential. I just need to find the path of least resistance to fix these plot issues. So a tip for those experiencing writer's block: try to pin point why. Are you intimidated by the idea? Do you know it's good and question your ability to write it? Is doubt starting to creep in? Combating writer's block is easier when you know the cause.

4. Read and read like a writer.

Since I'm on break, I've had a lot more time to read. But what does reading like a writer mean? It means finding literary models and determining what you like or don't like about them. Do you like how the romance develops? Do you like the complexity of the narrator? Does it have a knock-out voice? Is it an old tale with a new twist? I've been reading YA contemporary books since that is what my WIP is, but reading outside of the genre you are working in can be helpful too.

**Another tip: It's almost 2014, so there have been lots of lists posted recently about the books that are coming out next year. Read these lists. At the very least, it will grow your TBR list, but it could get the juices flowing. You never know.

**Random thought I had recently: wouldn't it be cool if there was a way to sync your goodreads TBR list with your amazon wishlist? Is there a way to do this and I just don't know it?

5. Practice your pitch and/or query.

Ideally, there will come a point when said troublesome WIP will be ready to be pitched to agents. Work on the pitch now. There are lots of twitter pitch contests out there and getting the main idea of your novel down in 140 characters can be hard. (Sometimes harder than writing the novel.) Working on a pitch is still productive, and it could help you combat writer's block, as makes you focus on your book in a different way. If you're having trouble with plot points or a story arc, trying to come up with a 140 character pitch or a 35 word pitch really makes you get to the heart of your story and what makes it interesting. Writing a draft of a query or working on a synopsis can help too. Both options are another way of doing something productive (though they might not be used immediately and will likely need to be tweaked later on when they are needed) but also looking at your manuscript through a different lens.

6. Ask yourself "what is the worst thing that could happen to my character?"

In trying to streamline my plot, I asked myself this question and doing so helped me better realize my main character's arc and what major plot points need to happen.

7. Work out of order.

If you are stuck at a certain point in your book, why not fast forward and write a later scene. Even if it's just a single scene, it's something, and often times, writing one scene can lead to momentum. I did this with the MG WIP I have. I had a solid beginning third and a middle I was not-so-into at that point, so I skipped ahead to the last third. I don't think this will work for everyone and it definitely won't work for every project, but in this instance, after writing part A and part C, it was very easy to write Part B.

What other tips do you have?

Back in October 2012, I did a similar post about writer's block that can be viewed here.


Saturday, 7 December 2013

Tackling Book Research

Earlier this week I was asked to write a guest post (my first ever) for Aimee L. Salter's blog about the research I did for Podium Finish. I've posted it below, but if you're curious to see the original (or to find a site with interesting blog posts about writing), check out Aimee's blog here. Seriously, writer friends, check out Aimee's website. She's got wonderful insight into what it takes to self-pub. She's also writing some interesting posts on craft.

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Confession: As a 7-year-old, I dreamed of being an Olympic pairs figure skater. I loved the grace of the female skaters, how they were lifted and thrown, how they spun. I loved it all. When I told my mom and my figure skating coach my wish to try pairs figure skating, they couldn’t contain their amusement. I was already as tall as my coach and was still growing. Sure I was coordinated and had strong legs, but I definitely did not have the build of a figure skater.

I took figure skating lessons for another year, but ultimately went on to compete in a variety of other sports. Still, I loved skating, and I loved the Winter Olympics. In fact, it was the 2006 Torino Olympics that first inspired my novel Podium Finish. As interesting as the sports were, I found the athletes’ life stories even more fascinating.

While I knew what it felt like to win and lose, how much it hurt to break a bone, and though I had some idea of what it meant to train twice a day multiple days a week, I realized very quickly that I didn’t really know what it was like to be an Olympic hopeful, nor did I know that much about the winter sports I wanted to write about. This meant one thing: I had to do research.

The first thing I did was buy a 3 ring binder and dividers. I wanted to research 5 sports, so each sport had its own section. I made lists of the things I didn’t know, starting with a bulleted list of broad topics such as rules, gear, or training, and then started writing specific questions.
I also made “character sketches.” So much of what drew me to wanting to write about the Olympics in the first place were the different life stories of the athletes. This notebook was a good place to develop their character and plotlines before I even started writing.

The internet was a great resource for answers, especially my questions about ice dance. Image searches helped with ice dance costume ideas for Alex’s character. The images were also helpful for when I needed to explain certain body positions.
I watched footage from different skating competitions, always making sure I had a pen and paper at hand. Watching skating competitions gave me a feel for how the skaters moved and acted. Plus, televised skating competitions have sportscasters, some of whom were skaters themselves. They explain what is going on for an audience of non-experts. They make skating accessible to those who have never skated before. This is similar to what an author does, so it was incredibly useful to hear how the sportscasters described the rules and routines and borrowing their jargon added a sense of authenticity to the book.
Nonfiction books are another great source of information. I read several autobiographies of athletes from various winter sports. These books captured the hard work, sacrifice, and daily struggles of an Olympian. Plus, they answered questions I didn’t even know I had. Turning to autobiographies has also proven helpful in the research I’m doing for another manuscript I am currently working on. This story involves various medical components—comas, organ transplant, hospital regulations, etc.—and while some of this information is on the internet, autobiographies give a closer and more insightful look, because they tell of a more in-depth personal experience.

It’s important to know your market. Where does your book fit?

The best way to figure this out is to read other books in the genre. When I was writing Podium Finish, there weren’t many other young adult books out there that dealt with winter sports, let alone the Olympics, so my work offered something new. However, there were some wonderful young adult books that had sporty female protagonists, such as Catherine Gilbert Murdock’s Dairy Queen series and Miranda Kenneally’s Catching Jordan. Know what’s out there. Know what these authors do well and see if your book has these elements. Sometimes doing book research involves improving your craft.

Initially, I had intended for the book to take place in Torino, as this was what sparked the premise of Podium Finish in the first place, but an agent told me that using a real Olympic location would date the book. She recommended I change the location to some place real, but a place that had not recently hosted/was not scheduled to host the Olympics. I had traveled to Iceland in 2010 and was able to use bits and pieces of that experience in the book.

After reading and scouring the internet, I still had some unanswered questions, so I contacted some Olympians and Olympic hopefuls. I emailed them explaining that I was doing research and asked if they would have time to answer a few questions for me. I had some wonderful responses. I wanted my book to portray their sports as accurately as possible. The accuracy was something important to the athletes too. I was writing about sports that most people only pay attention to every four years, so this was a way to get the athletes’ voices out there as well. Plus, I was 16 at the time. I used my age to my advantage. While some adult athletes might have been skeptical of helping a young, budding writer, I found that teen athletes and athletes in their early twenties were very interested in helping out. They were trying to build their career just like I was trying to build mine, so we could relate to one another. And, the characters in my book were 17-year-old Olympic hopefuls. Interviewing teen Olympic hopefuls about their experience made the most sense.

As a final note, it’s important to remember that not all research will end up in the book. For example, I interviewed a snowboarder, Brooke Shaw, who, fingers crossed, will make the 2014 Olympic team—she’s awesome and I loved interviewing her—but I ultimately decided to cut the snowboarder character from the book, so I could focus more on Alex and Harper. This research wasn’t in vain. I learned a lot, and who knows, I might use it an upcoming project.