When you’re writing a story, any kind of story, including graphic novels, nonfiction, news articles, funny stories in a text to your best friend – WHATEVER!!! – you want to be creative. At least, I want to be creative. I hope you do, too!
But creativity can be hard to turn on some days. Some days I feel blah or dull in my brain. But I know that these feelings can be cleaned out and swept away with a few tricks. I’m going to share mine with you, and then I want to hear how you tap into your creativity.
Exercise. Yes, exercise. In whatever shape or form you like to do exercise, do it. I’m not going to dictate that you do a certain kind of exercise for a certain length of time, but I do find that aerobic exercise works the best for me in terms of coming up with new ways of thinking about something. So, find something that works for you. Experiment. Try a new kind of movement. Walking, running, swimming, rowing, dancing – whatever!!! But get that blood pumping and that oxygen into your brain and let the neurons sparkle and snap. You will find your creativity.
Make something. Whether it’s baking or cooking (I’m good at one and only so-so at the other), drawing, gardening, sculpting, soap carving, knitting, whatever!!! Again it’s all up to you, but the act of making something that isn’t writing can feel really empowering. You remind yourself that you are good at creating. It’s not procrastinating at all, it’s actually a reinforcement of the idea that you can start and finish something that you enjoy, and you will bring that to your writing.
Read outside the genre you’re writing. I love to read all kinds of writing about all kinds of topics, and I promise that if you expand what you read, it will help you be more creative in your writing. When I’m writing nonfiction, I read rom-coms. When I’m writing a picture book with a fun premise, I might read a field guide. (Yes, I love to read field guides). When I’m working on a textbook, I read poetry. Sometimes, I read print magazines when I’m tackling a graphic novel manuscript. Bring in all kinds of ideas and perspectives to your brain from all kinds of writing. Let it swirl around and unlock some new doors you didn’t even know were waiting.
These are my top three ways to bring creativity into my writing. I rely on them to help me be creative and think about not only my manuscripts, but my life, in a new way. But they only work when I actually use them, and when I practice being creative. That’s is the main point of all of this. You can’t be creative if you sit and wait for it. You have to work on it every day and build the creativity habit. So these little side methods are my creativity cross-training. I use them to build up my creativity muscles and keep things fresh and strong.
Now, what do you do to strengthen your creativity?
In this month’s post, I’m going to share three things to help you write a better story thatAREN’T writing. There’s a lot of writing advice out there about how to write better that are focused on actual writing. Things like dialogue, voice, and clarity. And those are incredibly important parts of writing. But sometimes you need to take a step back from the story and look at things in a new way.
Also, you’ve probably figured this out already, but these three things work best if you already have a story written.
Last year, I drafted and revised a young adult manuscript in about six months. Yep, six. And it was a strong enough story that my agent put it out on sub! Woo! Now, there are a few reasons why I was able to get this story done quickly. One reason is that I’m a pretty good typist. Two, I am able to set aside time each day to write. We need to acknowledge that this is really, really hard for a lot of people. Finally, I’m very disciplined. I don’t struggle with procrastination (about writing).
But I also used some really important non-writing strategies that helped me write a strong story.
Write the pitch first. This is something I do with every book idea now, from picture books to novels to nonfiction. If you write the pitch first, you know the essence of the story. You know who the main character is, what their goal is, and what their challenges will be. And you know how to sell this story! This is crucial if you want to create something that has a chance at being published in the traditional publishing industry. So when I’m crafting my pitch, I’m reading the pitches of books that sold and are listed in PW Children’s Bookshelf. I’m copying text from those listings, deleting the words relating to those stories, and inserting words from my story. Does it work? Does it sound similar? Do I have a strong, sellable story idea?
Outline. Yep, I’m a plotter. I am 100% fully onboard with plotting. Remember I mentioned I’m really good at not procrastinating (about writing)? It’s because I know what my plan is each time I sit down to write. I don’t have writers block because I’ve already mapped out my route. I think this is a skill I learned from running. I know how far I’m going to run each day, and where I need to go to get that mileage. If you think that plotting stifles your creativity, you might want to test this theory. I find that plotting enhances my creativity and productivity. I know my pitch already, so the next logical step is to outline the story. This helps me work out the details and add in fun elements that I look forward to writing. And it helps me identify areas that I haven’t quite figured out yet. But I am free to make changes to the outline because I’m not 20,000 words into the story when I need to make a change. I’m only 200 words in, so easy peasy! Change it up! Get creative! And when you’re ready to start writing, it’s so much easier.
Halfway through the story, and after you’ve finished your draft, write a chapter by chapter outline. Wait, what? Why am I doing this if I already outlined? I don’t really need to do this, do I? Yep. I do. Here’s why. When you write a chapter by chapter outline, you get a chance to make sure that each chapter is working to advance the plot. You can identify the object (goal) of each chapter, the obstacle or problem in each chapter, and the outcome, that should make readers want to turn the page and start the next chapter. If any one of these is missing from a chapter, you need to figure out if you can add it, or if you should just delete the chapter. Again, yep. I’ve deleted whole chapters because I realized even though I had fun writing them, and they helped me get to know my main character, they were not essential to the story.
So there are three things I do to help me write a better story that aren’t actually writing the story. I hope they help you write a better story, too!
The start of a new year is one of my favorite times – because I can start a new year list of birds! Did you notice the first bird you saw this year? It could have a special meaning. People have used birds to predict the future for generations. So, what do the birds have to say about your 2024?
Search the document for overused filler words like just, should, Once, I used the word shrugged 117 times.
Search the document and double-check your their, there, you’re, your, where, were.
Does the first scene deliver your story promise?
Are all of these characters necessary?
Write out all of the letters of the alphabet. Then, write down all of the names of your characters and places. Are you reusing the same first letter all of the time? This can be confusing for readers.
Check for “he started running” and “she began yelling.” Change these phrases to “he ran” and “she yelled.”
If nothing significant to the story happens on Sunday, we don’t need to read about what your main character does on Sunday. Skip ahead to the next big moment.
Have you used all five senses in this story? What does a walk down the main character’s street sound like? When it’s French toast day, do their clothes smell like maple syrup all day and make them grumpy?
Be careful about using slang. It could make your book sound outdated.
Does each chapter finish with a moment that makes it irresistible to turn the page?
If you’re writing historical fiction, watch for anachronisms. I once had to tell a critique partner that people couldn’t go to Wendy’s in the early 1960s.
Nonfiction can be unbelievable, but fiction must be believable. Make sure your characters’ actions and motives feel absolutely logical and rational within the context of your story, and connected to their goals and desires. Otherwise, you lose the reader.
Last week, I signed a new book contract, and I am thrilled. This book is really special and while I don’t have all the details to share right now, I hope you’ll join me in celebrating. Every book contract is cause for celebration, but this one is special. In many ways this story started when my oldest was in Kindergarten (he’s at college now and was there tonight on FaceTime!) It continued to grow in my heart for many years. Then, one phone call with my incredible agent Miranda Paul at EMLA changed everything. Writers, find an agent who sees the story you can tell. Miranda encouraged me to be brave and write this story and it’s found a home at a wonderful publisher!! I’ll have more news to share soon, but I’m so grateful for my family’s love and support, for my agent’s support and encouragement, and for every critique partner who gives so generously. Sometimes it’s hard to write stories that matter, but tonight I’m taking time to celebrate!! 🎉🎉🎉📕📕📕🎉🎉🎉
Here’s a fun video I shared on TikTok about the whole book contract signing experience that I hope you enjoy!
Who doesn’t love dinosaurs? Toys, pajamas, movies, chicken nuggets – dinosaurs are everywhere. When you’re ready to go beyond Jurassic Park and learn even more about dinosaurs, it’s worth checking out the nonfiction book The First Dinosaur: How Science Solved the Greatest Mystery on Earth by Ian Lender. This book tells the story of how the idea of dinosaurs and extinction developed. It’s almost as – maybe more than? – incredible as dinosaurs themselves!
After reading the book, dive into two excellent board games that involve strategy and creativity.
Another great card game featuring dinosaurs is the quick but tricky Chomp! You only have 8 draws to score the most points, and sometimes that means letting your dinosaurs go extinct. It’s not easy to survive the prehistoric world. We got this game by supporting the Kickstarter, and we all agree it was worth it!
As always, if you want to learn how to play, I recommend checking out “Watch It Played” on YouTube. Also,BoardGameGeek offers a lot of great recommendations and Q&A.
Once you decide you want to buy a game, please look around for a local board game store!
For more book recommendations, I ALWAYS recommend visiting and buying from your local bookstore. One way you can buy online and support a local store is by shopping through Bookshop.org.
When you want to be a writer, the first step is to sit down and write. But then what? You can’t write a book all in one sitting. (Well, you can write a picture book in one sitting. But then you revise it for months, am I right?) It can be hard to get that positive feedback that people need working on your own day after day. How do you know if you’re making progress or doing a good job?
You need to set some benchmarks for yourself that are objective, achievable, and recognizable. The goals also need to be things you are in charge of completing. They can’t rely on other people.
I set goals for every week, every month, and every year. A few years ago, I thought about writing “get an agent” as a goal. But then I crossed that out. Because that is not a goal that I am in charge of achieving. It depends on someone else to like my work. What goal was I in charge of achieving?
Submitting to agents.
So, I set a goal that was like “submit to 10 agents every 3 months.” Another goal was “attend an event with submission opportunities.” I can be in charge of reaching those goals. And they were not too big, they were small steps that I could take within the time that I had.
So set reasonable goals. Then write them down AND write down the work you are doing to work toward your goals.
One classic goal that writers set is a certain number of words a day. Do you just have a mental note of your daily word count? Or do you use a word count tracker? I use a tracker because I love to see that evidence of my work. I look back over it when I need to remind myself that I have reached my goals in the past and I can reach my goals today.
You need to know when you reach your goals. Because when you hit those goals, you need to CELEBRATE those goals! You need to give yourself the pat on the back to keep going.
What’s your favorite way to celebrate? I love a piece of chocolate or a birding walk! Sometimes, I watch a favorite tv show or movie (that counts as professional development!) What do you do?