Monday, February 28, 2011

For Writers - Beating Writers Block with Margaret Peterson Haddix

Again, I'm grateful for writing friends who are willing to share their time and wisdom to help other writers. This week's tip comes from my local critique group friend and best-selling author Margaret Peterson-Haddix. Margaret has written more than 25 books for kids and teens, including Running Out of Time; Don’t You Dare Read This, Mrs. Dunphrey; Leaving Fishers; Just Ella; Turnabout; Takeoffs and Landings; The Girl with 500 Middle Names; Because of Anya; Escape from Memory; Say What?; The House on the Gulf; Double Identity; Dexter the Tough; Uprising; Palace of Mirrors; Claim to Fame; the Shadow Children series; and the Missing series. *taking deep breath* She also wrote Into the Gauntlet, the tenth book in the 39 Clues series. Her books have been honored with New York Times bestseller status, the International Reading Association’s Children’s Book Award; American Library Association Best Book and Quick Pick for Reluctant Young Adult Readers notations; and more than a dozen state reader’s choice awards. I am honored to have her on the blog today.

You can also find Margaret online at her website, and follow her on facebook.

Margaret says:

“What do you do when you get writer’s block?”

I think this is the question people ask me the most about the actual nuts and bolts of being a writer. Probably this is partly because anyone who’s ever written anything has felt that terror of the blank page (or blank computer screen) at one time or another, and a lot of people can’t imagine choosing to grapple with that on a regular basis. Also, I think, a lot of us authors have encouraged that image of ourselves as tortured creative souls bravely doing battle with the demons who threaten to silence our voice.

It beats actually admitting, “Yeah, I just spent an hour staring at an empty computer screen. Do you think watching paint dry would have been a more productive use of my time?”

But over the years I have found that three different approaches work for me with writer’s block, depending on how serious it is:

1. Force yourself to keep writing.

This is the technique I always try first. It works best when you have at least a wisp of an idea of where you want the story to go, but you just can’t find the right words to tell your story. Even if you seem to have regressed to a preschooler’s command of the English language, get that down on paper. Even something as pathetic as “Characters go. Eat dinner. Sleep in bed” can always be revised. When I try this approach, I’m constantly telling myself, Yes, I know this is terrible, but I’ll fix it later. Nobody but me will ever have to see how terrible this is. Just keep going! And then, most of the time, the bad stuff leads into good stuff and I forget the internal pep talks because I am totally in the story and writing like crazy.

Unless, of course, this doesn’t work, and every word I try to write makes me more and more frustrated and I hate my story and I hate my characters and I hate writing and I’m ready to delete the entire manuscript and throw my computer out the window. Before I actually turn destructive, I shift to my second approach:

2. Walk away.

This one is a little bit dangerous, because what if you walk away and never go back? My strategy is to force myself to do something completely menial and brainless instead. It’s even better if it’s work I would normally hate, like scrubbing the grout in my shower. With my hands occupied and my brain free to wander, I can usually get a better perspective on what I’m trying to write, and mentally experiment with lots of ideas without the pressure of trying to instantly put those ideas into words. I have worked out knotty plot or character issues while exercising, mowing the yard, folding laundry, washing dishes, painting my basement, and, yes, scrubbing shower grout. There’s just something about physical labor that really does help you think.

But sometimes, all that that helps you accomplish is to get a mowed yard, clean clothes, clean dishes, newly painted basement or clean shower. Sometimes I have to try the third approach instead:

3. Do more research.

If I’m working on a book where I did a lot of research ahead of time, I go back and re-read my notes, or delve into more books or Internet sites to add to my knowledge base. Even if I’m writing something that would seem to be 100 percent imaginary, I find some angle to research. If I’m writing about an imaginary political uprising, I read about real ones; if I’m writing about an imaginary disease I read about treatments of vaguely comparable real ones. I almost always find some useful information to weave back into my story and keep me going. Often I realize that my problem wasn’t writer’s block at all—it was ignorance.

Good luck!

This week's link roundup:

Telling the story:

Getting started (Gail Carson Levine) All it takes is a few drops of blood.
Story starters! (Spilling Ink) Weird and wonderful prompts.
How to find good ideas (Time to Write) Ha. I watch No Ordinary Family with my son. He's right.
First lines (Part one - no gimmicks) (Part two - no cliches) c/o TheWriteGame
First line hooks (The Blood Red Pencil) Setting up story problem, setting, conflict.
Elevating Good Ideas (Nathan Bransford) More on first lines.
7 tips for 1st chapters (Alexandra Sokoloff) Love her blog.
What to avoid in opening chapters (WarriorWriters) Why your novel might get rejected.
Keeping going (Beyond the Margins) Be prepared to rip out a few seams.
Messy middles (Writer Unboxed) Navigating through.
Chapter Endings (League of Extraordinary Writers) Keep it moving forward.
Play by play storytelling ( How to avoid the chronological grocery list of events.
Aha moments (Paperback Writer) Listen to your instincts.

And then...

Synopsis checklist (YA muses) 7 steps to a better synopsis
Queries (Fiction Groupie) How to avoid getting donged.
Don't Knock The Query (Between Fact and Fiction) Tests your writing at every level

Storytelling elements:

Voice (Wordplay) Character vs. authorial
Omnicient POV (The Other Side of the Story) The stuff the character doesn't know.
Pacing (Dark Angel Fiction) Anticipating the pay-off scene
Settings (Edittorent) Use to establish the problem.
Establishing character (Openings) (Middle) (Endings)
Antagonists... (Write-brained) ... need sympathetic characteristics.
Action is Character (Rachelle Gardner) Actions speak louder than narrative.
Single character scene tension (LynetteLabelle) Internal conflict & triggers.
Creating moments (FictionGroupie) Make your story memorable
Cliches for aspiring authors (There Are No Rules) Excellent.
Finding the core (Jade Hears Voices) Be willing to change everything but that.
Goal vs Need (Plot Whisperer) Hint: tie goal to emotional need.

Inspiration and tips:

David Mack Quote (Ingrid's Notes) Love his illustrations, too.
Advice (WriterUnboxed) Nuggets of wisdom
More wisdom (Angels and Demons and Portals) Tips from the masters.
On Writing and Fear (All About Them Words) Take the leap.
Writing Demons (Natalie Whipple ) How to Deal.
Coping with criticism (Beyond the Margins) Know the game.
Suffering (The Bookshelf Muse) Don't forget the fabulous emotional thesaurus. New entries added all the time!

Reminder: The Writing Mysteries for YA online workshop begins next week. There's still time ro register here (until Monday.)

Also, because I'm racing to clear my desk before the workshop, there will be no Freebie Friday again this week. See you next week!

And for fun - how to deal with rejection letters:

Now go. Write!