Here is another post in my WRITERLY WISDOM series I first ran back in 2013. Five years later, I’ve updated the material and made sure it still applies to today’s writers. Today’s post is from a lovely writer l met five years ago. You can connect with Linda through her website (www.lindalodding.com), on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/i.lodding?ref=br_rs), or Twitter (https://twitter.com/LindaLodding)
Wait for the Hot Dog (and Other Writing Words of Wisdom)
By Linda Ravin Lodding
Writing starts with an idea. It’s as simple, and magical, as that. We have an idea for a story that continues to tickle and taunt until we have to write it down. Sometimes this idea is just a seed, sometimes that seed unfurls into a first sentence, and sometimes that seed blossoms into a fully-fledge first chapter or picture book. And before we know it, we are writing.
I’m not going to write about how to find those seeds of ideas.
What I’m going to write about is something that I find so much harder than finding ideas – it’s being patience with those ideas — patience to listen, cultivate and let those ideas grow into not just the best idea but into the best book.
(But since I promised Donna that I would write about finding ideas I’m adding my top 10 list of where I get ideas as a free bonus! You’ll find them at the end of this blog post.)
Patience is something I don’t have in abundance. I seem to be more akin with daughter who, as a toddler, fidgeted in her chair at a restaurant anxiously awaiting her meal. When I explained that she needed patience, she shook her curly head and declared “I don’t need patience. I need a hot dog!” And who doesn’t know that feeling? The hunger for not only a hot dog but a finished book.
Patience may be a virtue, but it sure isn’t a fun one. And because of that – our society has come up with many ways to avoid the nastiness of patience. Want to read that new book? Download it instantaneously! Want to get in touch with a friend? E-mail, Skype, tweet, text or zone in on their physical coordinates via Google Earth. Because of this, our patience muscle has atrophied. And let’s face it, patience feels like nothing but delayed gratification.
Who needs it?
Well, writers do. And here’s why. Patience improves our ideas and makes our writing better.
But isn’t patience the absence of writing? Well, yes…and no. I like to recast patience as part of the writing process — just like plotting, crafting, revising etc. If we look at patience as part of the process of writing — then it is something that we can actively plan. And a part of the writing process that is almost always rewarded with better, stronger work. I like to consider this “productive patience”.
What happens in the white space of productive patience? For me, two things happen. The story that I’m working on stays in that neither-here-no-there place in my brain. Not so front of mind that it edges out my day’s “to do” list; but not so back-of-my mind that it’s crouching under the cobwebs. And while this idea lollygags in limboland — it’s being attacked by all the other impressions that I’m bombarded with on a hourly basis. That doesn’t sound like patience does it? But it is! These other impressions feed into this story– creating extra dimensions to characters, solving plotting problems, hitting upon the perfect punch line or satisfying ending.
Secondly, patience also allows me the joy of objectivity. Have you ever forgotten about a story only to rediscover it later and read it with the fresh eyes of a reader? What a wonderful way to experience our work and see what works and what doesn’t. Just a few patient days away from your work can give you this perspective.
Here’s where patience can also pay off:
1. Be patient with your idea
I’m sure this is a familiar: you’re struck with a story idea – an idea that seems to want to write itself and it does! Your fingers fly on the keyboard for an hour, for a week , for a month and then…WHAM! You falter. You flail. You take a second look at your work and that idea just doesn’t feel so special anymore. It’s enough to make you want to retreat back into your writing hole. This is where patience is a virtue. Be patient with your good idea – give it time to speak to you again but maybe this time it will speak in another accent. Most likely it is still a good idea –it just needs time to develop. Patience.
2. Be patient with your characters
As authors we manipulate our character’s puppet strings. But patience with your characters means that you give them time to tell you their story — which might be a much more interesting story than the one that you were planning on writing.
3. Be patient with your story structure
Being patient with your story sometimes means that a new, better, story structure emerges. Maybe your story flows best in prose rather than rhyme. Maybe your main character becomes more multi-dimensional when you let her speak in first person, rather than third. And maybe your book has a more dramatic hook starting with the climax, rather than the back-story. Patience may reveal a better, stronger story structure.
4. Be patient with the submission process
This may be the hardest patience lesson of all. The publishing industry feels as if it works at a snail’s pace (I should know, my second picture book has been finished and waiting for publication for almost two years!) – but agents and editors are busier than ever and confronting a changing publishing scene, consolidations and mergers. (Fortunately many editors and agents now take e-mail submissions which makes things much faster. When I started submitting my works years ago my submission would take two weeks via snail mail from Europe just to reach the slush pile!). Be patient, and respectful, of the submissions process – and you will get your answer sooner or later.
5. Be patient with yourself
Above all, give yourself time to develop as a writer. Even published writers continue to develop over time. As writers, we’re in this for the long haul and one of the things I love about this industry is it is not age-dependent. My dreams of becoming a ballerina are long over, but as long as I still have ideas – I will write.
But this advice comes with a warning label. Patience can easily mask as procrastination (take it from one who knows!). “Productive patience” is the active state of being — it’s something we plan and then declare over. Know when something is as finished as its going to get – and then move on.
It’s still not easy for me to practice productive patience. But when I do, I find that my seed of an idea flourishes not into just a flower – but a multi-hued, diverse and abundant garden.
ADDED BONUS! (and as a reward for your patience)….
Linda’s Top 10 Ways to get Ideas for Children’s Books:
1. Oh, the cute things they say! Make the most of the cute things children say. (I got the idea for Hold That Thought, Milton! from my then 7 year-old who always had a lot to say!).
2. Read, read, read! When I’m in an idea-slump, I read in the genre that I’m trying to write. Reading always kick-starts my idea engine. Linda’s prescription: 5 books a day for 5 weeks = 100 picture books and just as many ideas!
3. Take off and travel – I’m lucky that I’ve lived in many beautiful places. A Gift for Mama, which takes place in Vienna during the turn of the last century, was inspired by my daily walks in Vienna’s old town. But you can also be a tourist in your own backyard. Visit a historical home, try out a new trail, wander into a new neighborhood.
4. Look at stunning art: Visit museums and galleries: One of the first YA books that I wrote (which is still patiently waiting…) was inspired by a haunting photo I saw in a museum.
5. Mish-mash mayhem! See what happens when you cross pollinate character type and genres or cast characters against type. I rootin’ tootin’ western starring a shy cowboy? A book-loving pirate? A big-footed dinosaur daring to dance?
6. Social trend spotting: Look at today’s social trends to see if you can spot a fun new idea. The Busy Life of Ernestine Buckmeister is a playful look at the over-scheduled child phenomenon.
7. Illustration prompts: Scour online illustrations and imagine the story that goes with them. One place to start is:www.childrensillustrators.com.
8. Participate in Tara Lazar’s StoryStorm (Picture Book Idea Month)– generating one picture book idea every day. The ideas that I have generated during this challenge are not always the freshest ideas, or the most novel – but this challenge exercises my idea-generating muscle. (You can’t have a light bulb moment without having the light bulb plugged in. StoryStorm plugs me in.) StoryStorm is in January– but no need to wait until then. Challenge yourself to find one picture book idea every day for a week,
9. “What if…” These two little words have kicked started me on many picture book ideas.
10. Get out and do! The best story ideas start with a kernel of truth – truth built from experience. And the best way to gain those experiences is to get out from behind our gadgets and engage with the world. Be a tourist in your own town, volunteer for a project, give yourself a physical challenge, try a new vegetable – engage all your senses and not only will the ideas start flowing, but your life will be richer too.
Have fun on your idea hunt!
Linda Ravin Lodding is the author of The Busy Life of Ernestine Buckmeister (Flashlight Press, 2011) and the upcoming Hold That Thought, Milton! (illustrated by Ross Collins) and A Gift for Mama (illustrated by Alison Jay) both from Gullane Children’s Books, London. A Gift for Mama will be out in the US in 2014 from Knopf/Random House in time for Mother’s Day.
Linda is originally from New York, but has spent the past 15 years in Austria, The Netherlands and now Sweden. Today she lives in Sweden’s oldest town,Sigtuna, with her husband and daughter (who is, at times, as busy as Ernestine) and their part-time dog Nino (who speaks Dutch, Swedish, Spanish and a smattering of English).
Linda graduated from Barnard College, Columbia University (New York) and has an MBA from New York University’s Stern School of Business. When Linda isn’t writing, she’s usually working for the United Nations as a media and public information specialist – or eating heavily frosted cupcakes.