Left: Public domain electron microscope image of the coronavirus, courtesy of the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
If you’re a parent or grandparent, you’ve probably fielded questions from children about the coronavirus (COVID-19): “Why are those people wearing masks?” “Why is the store out of toilet paper?” “Why did they close the school?” “Why can’t we visit Grandma and Grandpa?” “Will I get sick?”
I’m not a child development expert. I’m just a dad, a granddad, and an author who has written books for children. I want to offer some suggestions for talking to kids about the coronavirus.
Communicate with calm confidence. You may not feel confident about the future when you see your supermarket shelves cleared of toilet paper and hand sanitizer and when the schools are closed. Nevertheless, you have good reason for confidence. The pandemic will pass. The economy will rebound. We don’t know how long it will take, but we do know that governments around the world are taking steps to save lives and shorten the duration of the crisis.
Filter the daily news. Our children look to us for their sense of safety and security. Our job is to filter out as much of the scary stuff as possible, and interpret these events so our kids will feel safe, secure, and loved. Turn off the 24-hour cable news when they are around. Be the news filter for your children.
Be a good listener. Invite children to talk about their feelings and fears. After you have listened to them, tell them the steps you’re taking to keep them safe. Tell them what they can do to help, such as covering their coughs and thoroughly washing their hands while singing the “Happy Birthday” song twice through. Make it fun by washing your hands with your children and singing with them.
Answer questions honestly—and reassuringly. Children often get misinformation from friends or by misunderstanding news broadcasts. Answer their questions simply and briefly. Avoid overwhelming them with more information than they want or need. If you don’t know the answer, say, “I’ll find out and tell you.” If they worry, “Will I get sick?” tell them probably not, but even if they do, kids generally don’t get as sick as grownups. Reassure your children that they can always talk to you about their fears and worries.
Create new routines that give children a sense of normalcy. If your children are unable to participate in their usual gymnastics or dance classes, they may feel their lives are disrupted. Create new routines and structure for them. Set aside certain days for crafts, reading, backyard play, homework, games, baking, and other activities that help kids feel engaged and secure.
Help your children stay connected with family and friends. Skype, Facebook Messenger, Facetime, WhatsApp, Google Hangouts, and Marco Polo are great ways to hear and see your family and friends during these “social distancing” times. (Note: I do NOT recommend Zoom because of its vulnerability to being hacked by “Zoombombers.“)
Rely on your faith. Praying with your children in stressful times can lift their spirits. Lean on the reassuring words of Psalm 46: “God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble.” (Read the entire psalm here.)
Encourage your kids to read. Reading good books is time well spent—during stressful times, doubly so. Reading takes kids’ minds off of headlines and confinement, and transports them to other times, other places, with messages of hope and reassurance. Here are some recent releases I would suggest:
Another by Christian Robinson. A cat leads a girl into a magical world of adventure, where she learns to appreciate similarities and differences.
Birdsong by Julie Flett. A charming story about a family moving to a new place, making new friends, and experiencing loss and growth through a season of life.
Pokko and the Drum by Matthew Forsythe. A whimsical tale of a frog and his drum, and the parade he leads.
Fry Bread: A Native American Family Story by Kevin Noble Maillard, illustrated by Juana Martinez-Neal. Delicate illustrations enhance this poetic meditation on food, heritage, history, and culture.
Truman by Jean Reidy, illustrated by Lucy Ruth Cummins. When five-year-old Sarah begins her first day of kindergarten, her devoted pet turtle Truman escapes from his tank to search for her.
I Miss My Grandpa by Jin Xiaojing. In this lyrical tale, a girl recalls all she has heard about a story-telling grandfather she has never met.
Middle Grade Books
This Was Our Pact by Ryan Andrews. Graphic novel about six boys who explore a legend about paper lanterns becoming stars.
New Kid by Jerry Craft. Graphic novel about an art-loving African-American boy at an upscale private school.
Sal & Gabi Break the Universe by Carlos Hernandez. Sal Vidón is a thirteen-year-old boy afflicted with diabetes yet gifted with the ability to alter the space-time continuum.
Queen of the Sea by Dylan Meconis. Graphic novel and alternate history inspired by the early life of Queen Elizabeth I and her sister-rival, Mary Tudor.
The Lost Girl by Anne Ursu. A tale of twin sisters Iris and Lark who discover a dark secret that threatens to separate them forever. A triumphant story of love and empowerment.
Look Both Ways: A Tale Told in Ten Blocks by Jason Reynolds, illustrated by Alexander Nabaum. Ten overlapping stories about the adventures, fears, and first crushes of middle-schoolers when school’s out.
And, if I may . . .
I would also suggest my four-book Timebendors Series, originally published in 2002. I have just revised and updated all four books for a new generation of readers. Designed for middle graders, ages nine to thirteen, the Timebenders Series is a thrill-ride through time and space with Max McCrane, a young genius who invented a time machine. These books deal with themes of faith, courage, character, and spiritual warfare from a Christian perspective. Young readers who enjoy C. S. Lewis’s Narnia tales or Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time would probably like the Timebenders series.
One Amazon reviewer wrote, “I read this series as a kid and they have remained four of the most memorable books from my childhood. Well-written and action-packed, they helped me understand important concepts like ‘Why does God give us free will?’ . . . I was so wrapped up in the story that I wouldn’t realize I was learning until later. I would read a few chapters and then excitedly run over to my mom to give her the latest update on what was happening in the lives of Max and his three friends. . . . The Timebenders Series is such a fun read!”
If your children struggle with fears and insecurities because of the coronavirus emergency, the Timebenders books might provide hope and encouragement. The four books in the series are:
Max McCrane is a young inventor who built his own time machine. Climb aboard with Max and his companions—Allie O’Dell, Grady Stubblefield, and Toby Brubaker—as they face dinosaurs, alien Emissaries, and mankind’s most ancient and terrifying Enemy, the Silver Dragon.
In Book Three, Max is trapped in the past by Luna Skyes, a wannabe witch. His friends Allie, Grady, and Toby jump aboard Timebender to search for Max and Luna, only to be chased through time and space by the relentless, robotic Time Troopers!
In Book Four, Max adds something new to Timebender: Anti-gravity! Meanwhile, his friend Allie O’Dell feels her life is falling apart—and the troublesome Toby Brubaker is chased by the police! So begins the latest Timebenders adventure as Max, Grady, Allie, and Toby are swept away to another world to face the strange, golden-eyed beings called the Timelings. Jim Denney has written more than a hundred books, but the Timebenders series is his favorite. He is a member of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA).
I knew I wanted to be a writer when I was about nine years old. How about you? Do you have stories to tell? Would you like to spend your days thinking up adventures and writing them down, like I do? Excellent! Writing is a lot of fun. If you’d like to be a writer, too, then I have some ideas that may help you reach your goals.
Tip #1: Write About What You Really Care About
I’ve heard people say, “Write what you know.” Well, I say, “Write what you really care about.”
The problem with “Write what you know” is that there are a lot of things that are fun to write about that nobody has ever done. For example, my Timebenders books are about time travel—but I’ve never traveled in time. I’ve never been scared out of my socks by a Tyrannosaurus rex. I’ve never been to an old English castle. I’ve never gone to the future and been chased by robots. If I could only write what I know from my own experience, I couldn’t have written Timebenders.
If you write a story about a different time or place, you may need to do some research. For example, if you want to write a story about the American Civil War, you’ll need to read books on American history in the 1860s. One of the most famous novels ever written about the Civil War is The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane. Yet Stephen Crane was never a soldier and was never in the Civil War. He didn’t write what he knew; he did research. And he did his research so well that his book convinced many people that he had actually been a soldier in the war.
So write whatever you really want to write about, whatever you think would make an interesting story, whatever you really care and feel intensely about. Write about the things you love, the things that make you angry, or the things that make you afraid.
Tip #2: Read.
A writer is a reader first of all, so read every day. And when you read, don’t just read your favorite kind of book. Read all kinds of books. Whether you like scary books or fantasy or adventure stories or romance, you should read other kinds of books as well. Read fiction and nonfiction. Read books about the lives of famous people. Read books about science, history, literature, and art. Read poetry. Read the Bible. If you want to be a good writer, become a well-rounded reader.
Tip #3: Write All the Time.
Some people only like to write when they feel “inspired.” But I’ve found that the best way to be inspired is to sit down and start writing—even when I don’t feel like writing. I write every day, and I don’t always feel “inspired” when I begin. But soon after I start writing, ideas and sentences start to flow. I start having fun. And I keep writing for an hour, two hours, or three hours at a stretch.
Keep a journal or diary. Write down observations about interesting events and interesting people. Write down things that happen to you. Write about things that make you feel happy, angry, scared, sad, or embarrassed. Someday, you may use those observations as bits and pieces of a story or book.
When you write, remember it’s okay to imitate writers you admire. I don’t mean you should “steal” story ideas or actual sentences from other writers. But study your favorite writers and see how they create characters, how they write believable dialogue, how they create realistic settings and descriptions, and how they use metaphors to create word pictures in the reader’s mind. It’s okay to study and imitate other writers—that’s how we learn. Over time, you’ll develop your own style and a writing “voice” that is uniquely your own.
Tip #4: Relax and Daydream
My best ideas come when I am relaxed, not when I’m super-concentrating. If you concentrate real hard and tell yourself, “Think. Think. Come up with an idea.,” your imagination will freeze up. But when you relax, you loosen up your mind, you let your thoughts drift, and ideas start to flow.
Here are some relaxation ideas: Step away from your desk or computer for a moment, lie down on the couch or your bed, and just daydream about your story. You can listen to music, but keep the TV, phone, and video games turned off. Take a walk, get some exercise, or do some yardwork—sweeping the patio or raking the leaves in the yard.
As you let your thoughts drift, daydream about the characters in your story. What do they look like? What are their personalities like? How are your characters different from each other? Why do they like or dislike each other? What makes them get mad at each other? What common goals do they have to unite them? Are your characters messy or neat? Are they lazy or hard-working? Are they kind or are they mean? How do they talk? How can you give each character a unique-sounding voice?
Daydream about your setting. How can you describe the setting of your story and make it feel real? Let’s say your story takes place in a garden. As you daydream, ask yourself: What grows in this garden? What plants and flowers do you see? What are the unique smells and sounds in this garden? What kinds of insects and birds do you see and hear in this garden? Help your reader see, smell, and hear the garden. Get inside the skin of your characters and feel what they feel. Let the reader feel it, too: The warm, golden sunshine on a character’s face, or the fragrance of orange blossoms on the breeze. Help your reader to be there, right alongside your characters.
Daydream about your plot. Ask yourself: How can I start the story in an exciting way? What unexpected thing can I do to surprise the reader? What can I do at the end of the chapter to make the reader want to turn the page and keep reading? How can I keep the reader asking, “What happens next?”
Tip #5: Don’t Try to be Perfect.
Don’t try to be perfect when you write. Tell yourself, “It’s okay to write badly. The important thing is to just write.” Get the words down, even if you’re not sure of the spelling, even if you think it’s the worst piece of writing anyone has ever done. That’s okay. Just write. Jodi Picoult, who has written bestselling novels and Wonder Woman comic books, said, “You might not write well every day, but you can always edit a bad page. You can’t edit a blank page.”
I make my living writing books—yet I write badly all the time. And that’s okay. It doesn’t bother me one bit to write badly. You know why? Because it’s just a first draft. First drafts are supposed to be bad. That’s why they call them “first drafts.” I don’t worry about a bad first draft, because I know I’m going to do a second draft, and a third draft, and by the time my third draft is done, it’s going to be a very good piece of writing.
When you write your first draft, write it as fast as you can. Don’t criticize it. Don’t go back over the sentence you just wrote and keep fiddling with it. Write one sentence and move quickly to the next sentence, and keep going, going, going, without looking back. The faster you write, the better you write. When you write quickly, you write with the creative side of your brain; when you write slowly and try to make it perfect, you write with the critical side of your brain.
The best writing is done by the creative side of your brain, because that is writing that flows, that soars, that inspires. Then, after you create your first draft, you let the critical side of your brain go over it, tidy it up, and make it sparkle. Both sides of your brain are important, but when you do your first draft, write it quickly, write it creatively. Don’t let the critical side of your brain interrupt your creative flow.
Tip #6: Welcome Criticism
Never fear criticism. I always have people criticize my books before they’re published, because I want my books to be as good as they can be. If there are mistakes or boring places or dumb ideas in my books, I hope someone helps me catch them before the book is printed.
Remember that writing is a matter of taste—and what one person finds interesting, another person will find dull. So don’t expect to please everybody, and don’t be surprised if you get conflicting advice from different people. That’s okay. Listen to the criticism and see if it makes sense to you. If the advice makes sense, follow it. If the advice doesn’t ring true, ignore it and write it the way it seems best to you.
Show your writing to your friends and teachers. Start a writing club and share your stories with each other. Criticize each other’s stories—not in a mean or hurtful way, but in a helpful way: “I think this dialogue could be improved if you did such and such,” or, “What if your character decided to do this instead of that?” Encourage each other and help each other to do your finest work.
“The scariest moment is always just before you start.” —Stephen King
I once taught a writer’s workshop and a young woman came to me after a session and said, “I just can’t get started. I know what I want to write about, and I know my characters — it all seems so perfect in my head. But when I try to write the perfect opening line, nothing comes to me — nothing that feels good enough. Without a brilliant first sentence, I can’t write the rest of the story. I’m afraid to start writing.”
This is a classic writer’s fear — the fear of the blank page (or blank screen). A surprising number of experienced writers are afflicted with this fear well into their careers.
Margaret Atwood, author of The Handmaid’s Tale, said that, even after publishing more than a dozen novels, “Blank pages inspire me with terror.”
Oscar- and Emmy-winning screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing, The Social Network) said, “I love writing, but hate starting. The page is awfully white and it says, ‘You may have fooled some of the people some of the time but those days are over.”1
Before Nobel-winning novelist Gabriel García Márquez could sell 30 million copies of One Hundred Years of Solitude, he had to work up the courage to write the first line. “All my life,” he told an interviewer, “I’ve been frightened at the moment I sit down to write.”2
Another Nobel winner, John Steinbeck, wrote in his journal, “I suffer as always from the fear of putting down the first line. It is amazing the terrors, the magics, the prayers, the straightening shyness that assails one.”3
The fear of the blank page may be as old as literature itself. In 1295, the poet Dante Alighieri wrote in Vita Nuova (The New Life), “It seemed to me that I had undertaken a theme too lofty for myself, so that I did not dare to begin writing, and I remained for several days with the desire to write and the fear of beginning.”4
If you struggle with fear of the blank page or the blank screen, you’re in excellent company. But you don’t have to be paralyzed by this fear. Here are some practical tools I’ve discovered that enable me to start writing, keep writing, and finish.
Save the first for last.
A lot of well-meaning writing teachers do their students a disservice by saying, “You’ve got to rivet your reader’s attention with a knockout first sentence.” Yes, you need to grab the reader’s attention quickly, at the very beginning. But what writing teachers fail to tell their students is that a book does not need to be written in the order it will be read.
You can start writing in the middle, or near the end, or you can let the whole thing grow organically from a pile of tangled nouns and verbs. You don’t have to write the first sentence first.
Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 opens with one of the best first sentences in literary history: “It was a pleasure to burn.” The novel had its beginnings in a 1947 short story, “Bright Phoenix.” Bradbury expanded the story to a 25,000-word novella, “The Fireman,” in 1950. Only when Bradbury wrote the final 50,000-word novel in 1953 did that famous opening line occur to him — and it was one of the last sentences Bradbury wrote for the novel.
Sometimes it’s best to save the first for last. As you face the blank page, don’t focus on writing a perfect first sentence. Forget perfectionism altogether. Don’t listen to the voice of your Inner Critic. Find any old way into the story and start writing. You might even put this down as the first sentence of your novel: [BRILLIANT OPENING SENTENCE GOES HERE.] Then keep writing.
Dorothea Brande, in Becoming a Writer, advises, “Simply start working. If a good first sentence does not come, leave a space for it and write it in later. Write as rapidly as possible.”5
After your first draft is written, you’ll know your story inside and out, backward and forward. Knowing your story can be a huge advantage in crafting a brilliant opening line.
Don’t let fear control you.
Approach the blank page with a chip on your shoulder. Tell fear to get off your back and out of your way. Refuse to let fear have its way with you. Erica Jong says that refusing to be controlled by fear is one of the greatest lessons life has taught her:
All the good things that have happened to me in the last several years have come, without exception, from a willingness to change, to risk the unknown, to do the very things I feared most. Every poem, every page of fiction I have written, has been written with anxiety, occasionally panic, always uncertainty about its reception. . . . I have not ceased being fearful, but I have ceased to let fear control me.6
Get mad at fear. Snub it and spurn it. The greater your anger, the less your fear — and anger can be a great motivator to get you writing. Romance writer Jo Leigh (One Wicked Night, Relentless) has a simple, blunt maxim for dealing with fear of the blank page: “Screw the fear.”
Don’t let fear bully you, control your decisions, or frighten you away from the blank page. Take charge of your fear. Stare it down and show it who’s boss. As dystopian novelist Tahereh Mafi said, “The words get easier the moment you stop fearing them.”
If you can’t start writing, do writing-related tasks.
This is treacherous territory. Doing so-called “writing-related tasks” can become an excuse for procrastination. Getting on Google and doing “research” can become a way of putting off getting started, while telling ourselves it’s really “writing-related.” I hesitate to suggest a course that might actually keep you from writing.
At same time, I know you can often get unstuck by circling around your writing, probing and testing until you find a way in. To make sure you are truly approaching the blank page from a new angle, not simply avoiding it, set a time limit — no more than ten minutes — to do research, outlining, or note-making. Within those ten minutes, probably much sooner, a piece of information you turn up or a phrase you jot down will spark an idea — and you’ll be off and writing.
Ray Bradbury would wander the Los Angeles Main Library, take down a book, read a few lines of poetry or a paragraph from an astronomy book — and his brain would light up. He’d snatch some library scratch paper and a stubby little pencil, and he’d fill those slips of paper with notes and ideas. Then he’d hurry home and turn those ideas into stories.
Young adult fantasy author Laini Taylor (Daughter of Smoke and Bone) says:
Never sit staring at a blank page or screen. If you find yourself stuck, write. Write about the scene you’re trying to write. Writing about is easier than writing, and chances are, it will give you your way in. You could try listing ten things that might happen next, or do a timed free-write — fast, non-precious forward momentum; you don’t even have to read it afterward, but it might give you ideas. Try anything and everything. Never fall still, and don’t be lazy.7
That’s practical advice. Keep writing, keep moving, keep pushing forward until you find a way into your story.
Don’t try — do.
Good writing is not something we try to do. It’s something we do. Good writing flows naturally. The harder we try to write, the harder writing becomes.
Sometimes, we find it difficult to begin because we put too much pressure on ourselves. We’re trying too hard to be clever or artsy. Or we’re trying to impress. Or we’re putting pressure on ourselves to be productive because we’ve got a word-count goal to reach.
When we realize we’re trying too hard, the solution is to relax. That doesn’t mean we stop writing. It doesn’t mean we take the day off. It means we stop pressuring ourselves and simply write for fun. Great writing is relaxed writing. You can be serious and be relaxed. You can work hard, hour after hour, and still be emotionally and mentally relaxed.
If you need ideas, step away from your keyboard, take a walk, take a shower, lie down and daydream, fix yourself a hot drink, or listen to music. Create a little space between yourself and your work — and allow your unconscious mind to fill that space with images, scenes, characters, and dialogue.
Don’t stay away from the keyboard too long. Don’t read or turn on the news or talk on the phone. Don’t do anything that would fill that space with someone else’s words. Don’t play an addictive game on your computer or phone. Relax quietly. Ten or twenty minutes will do. When you come back to the keyboard, you’ll be renewed and refreshed — and you’ll probably have some powerful new ideas, ready to write.
Write what you love and love what you write.
Sometimes sit paralyzed before the blank screen because we’re trying to write something we don’t love or care about. That’s when our unconscious mind rebels. That’s when the Muse stamps off in a huff.
To write freely, write what you love. Ray Bradbury said, “Fall in love and stay in love. Write only what you love, and love what you write. The key word is love. You have to get up in the morning and write something you love, something to live for.”
When you write what you love and love what you write, the blank page doesn’t represent fear — it represents freedom, the freedom to dream, the freedom to invent entire worlds out of sheer imagination. As the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard wrote in The Poetics of Reverie, “How can one not dream while writing? It is the pen which dreams. The blank page gives the right to dream. If only one could write for himself alone.”8
When you’re in love with your characters, your idea, your story, the grand vision of the tale in your imagination, you’ll sit down to the blank page and write brilliantly. Revel in the freedom of the blank page. Love is the key. “There is no fear in love,” wrote St. John, “but perfect love drives out fear.”9
Be afraid and write anyway.
“It’s the job that’s never started as takes longest to finish,” said Samwise Gamgee (quoting his Old Gaffer) in J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring. So accept your fear and get started. Go ahead and be afraid — but write anyway.
So you’re afraid of the blank page. So what? What can the blank page do to you? How can it hurt you? What do you have to lose by throwing some words — any words — onto that glowing screen, that blank page?
You can rearrange those words, play with them, do some word association, let one word lead to another, and before you know it, you’ll be writing. Your worst day of writing beats your best day of procrastinating, so you might as well write. As science fiction writer A. Lee Martinez observed, “Those who write are writers. Those who wait are waiters.”
It takes courage to be a writer. Not a lot of courage, not the kind of physical courage it takes to be a cop or a firefighter or a soldier. But it does take a certain kind of courage that is uncommon in the general population.
Anthony J. W. Benson, founder of Injoi Creative and Deeper Well Publishing, said, “Writers are a courageous lot. Often embattled by confusion, distraction and persistent dissatisfaction, they fight through pain, sweat and tears, as well as the unforgiving blinding glare of the blank page, to bring their thoughts forth.”10
Courage, of course, is not the absence of fear. Rather, it’s a determined, deliberate response to fear that says, “I’m afraid, but I won’t let my fear stop me or control me. By the force of my will, I will do the thing I fear.”
There are more than fourteen million copies of Jodi Picoult’s twenty novels in print. And here’s a fun fact: Did you know that Picoult also scripted five issues of DC Comics Wonder Woman in 2007? She has accomplished so much as a writer because she does not let fear of the blank page stop her from writing. “You might not write well every day,” she once said, “but you can always edit a bad page. You can’t edit a blank page.”
Writing is fun, but it’s also serious business. It’s important. It’s enduring. It’s art. Let’s not get pretentious about it, but writing is a creative endeavor. As Stephen King said, “You can approach the act of writing with nervousness, excitement, hopefulness, or even despair . . . [but] you must not come lightly to the blank page.”11
I don’t come lightly to this blog post. I come to it in an attitude of prayer. I come to it believing that the One who created the universe is also the One who ignites the spark of creativity within us all. I believe prayer is how we connect our creative human souls with the soul of the Creator.
Anne Lamott, in Bird by Bird, says she makes prayer her writing ritual as well as her spiritual discipline. Prayer gives her the courage to confront the blank page. “I sit for a moment,” she said, “and then say a small prayer — ‘please help me get out of the way so I can write what wants to be written.’ Sometimes ritual quiets the racket. Try it.”12
What should you pray for? Pray for courage, inspiration, and ideas. Pray for wisdom. Pray for an opening line. Pray for the determination and imagination to continue writing, even if a brilliant opening line doesn’t come to you.
Pray over your words — then get down to business. Relax — then get to work. Face your fear — then write from your courage.
Melissa Crawley, Mr. Sorkin Goes to Washington: Shaping the President on Television’s The West Wing (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., 2006), 61.
Gene H. Bell-Villada, ed., Conversations With Gabriel García Márquez (Jackson MS: University Press of Mississippi, 2006), 147.
John Steinbeck, Journal of a Novel: The East of Eden Letters (New York: Penguin, 1990), Kindle edition, Entry for February 13, 1951.
Dante Alighieri, Vita Nuova (1295), in The Portable Dante (New York: Penguin, 2003), 610.
Dorothea Brande, Becoming a Writer (New York: Tarcher, 1981), 142.
Erica Jong, What Do Women Want? Essays by Erica Jong (New York: Tarcher, 2007), 62.
Tara Randel is an award-winning, USA Today bestselling author. Family values, a bit of mystery and of course, love and romance, are her favorite themes. Look for her next Harlequin Heartwarming romance, available in August.
One of the first things people ask me when I tell them I’m an author is, “What do you write?” And since I love my job, I’m happy to tell them.
But before I continue, I need to go back in time.
I’ve always loved to read. My favorite memories are coming home with a stack of books from the public library. The love continued through high school. Once I got to college, fiction went to the wayside while I studied. Then, when I entered the work force (in the totally non-creative writing field of dentistry), I resumed my lifelong passion of reading.
Somewhere along the line a friend I worked with introduced me to romance novels. I fell in love. With the characters. The stories. The idea that love was bigger and stronger than anything I could imagine.
And then one day that same friend said, “We should write a book.” My immediate response was, “Sure.” What did I know? Nothing, I soon learned. But I studied craft and the business of writing in the hopes that my new dream might come true.
Fast forward twenty-some years. Not only do I write romance novels, but the world of writing has opened up so much, I write in other genres as well.
Romance will always be my first love. I’m a hopeless romantic and can’t fathom a world without love stories. I’ve been fortunate to write for Harlequin Heartwarming, their wholesome fiction line — stories that celebrate the greatest gift of all: Love.
I’ve also been able to write my second favorite genre, mystery. Who doesn’t love a story where you have to figure out “Who done it?” I love the layers, the red herrings and the logic behind piecing together a good story you hope a reader won’t put down until they get to the very last page.
This year, I’ll be starting work on books for a Women’s Fiction line. Another step into a different genre and I can’t wait to get started. Real life issues tackled in a way to connect women, to bond over stories of family, heartache and life changes.
As a writer, I want to move readers with the journey of my characters, the growth and lessons learned along the way. No matter what genre you read or write, we can always close the book after the last page having made new friends and making new discoveries. It’s the magic of books that will never go away, and that’s why I love sitting at my keyboard every day, creating stories I can’t wait to share.
When I first started writing and had trouble getting published, my husband suggested that I not limit myself to one genre. Best advice ever. Now I get to work with different publishers. I’ve made new friends as my career has grown. Best of all, the ideas in my head eventually get a home.
If you’ve ever thought about writing, I encourage you to start by writing those first words. You never know what can happen. All those years ago, I never imagined being an author.
If you love to read, keep supporting the authors whose books you enjoy. I may never meet you face to face, but trust me, I appreciate the time you take out of your schedule to get lost in one of my books. It’s a privilege and an honor, and one I never take for granted.
by Jim Denney, author of Walt’s Disneyland and Writing in Overdrive “Walt Disney was more important than all the politicians we’ve ever had. They pretended optimism. He was optimism. He has done more to change the world for the good than almost any politician who … Continue reading Walt Disney Made Me A Better Writer
“You fail only if you stop writing.” —Ray Bradbury
In 1983, Margaret Atwood rented a fisherman’s cottage in the English seacoast village of Blakeney, Norfolk. She planned to spend the next six months writing her most ambitious novel yet — a complex and richly detailed dystopian tale.
Atwood soon realized she was unable to write. The sheer scope of her novel intimidated her. She spent her days bird-watching and her nights reading bad historical novels and nursing chilblains caused by the cold damp weather. She later referred to that time as “six months of futile striving.”
What was wrong? Why didn’t she write? Answer: She was blocked by fear of failure. Her vision of the novel loomed so large in her mind that she felt overwhelmed and paralyzed. She didn’t know where to begin.
Frustrated with herself for wasting months of valuable writing time, Atwood finally did what every successful writer must do in order to overcome the fear of failure: She wrote. She began producing bits and pieces of the story. She sketched in characters and wrote patches of dialogue. It didn’t all hang together at first, but that didn’t matter. After six months, she was finally writing again.
“I grasped the nettle I had been avoiding,” she later said, “and began to write The Handmaid’s Tale.” That novel later became her most successful and acclaimed work. Her advice to anyone who is paralyzed by the fear of failure: “Get back on the horse that threw you, as they used to say. They also used to say: you learn as much from failure as you learn from success.”1
This was hardly Margaret Atwood’s first novel. She had already enjoyed a fifteen-year, five-novel career when she found herself blocked during The Handmaid’s Tale. So the fear of failure is not restricted to beginning and aspiring writers. Successful novelists often experience this fear as well. Like Margaret Atwood, you can conquer your fear of failure and go on to achieve your greatest work.
Embrace the Sense of Failure
The conquest of this fear begins with acceptance of the inevitability of failure. To write is to know failure. Most writers experience more failure than success, and we all strive to achieve a level of perfection that is probably unattainable.
Irish novelist Anne Enright describes a frustration most writers have felt — that of always aspiring to an artistic goal that is just beyond our reach: “I still have this big, stupid idea that if you are good enough and lucky enough, you can make an object that insists on its own subjective truth, a personal thing, a book that shifts between its covers and will not stay easy on the page, a real novel, one that lives, talks, breathes, and refuses to die. And in this, I am doomed to fail.”2
And English novelist Will Self said, “To attempt to write seriously is always, I feel, to fail. The disjunction between my beautifully sonorous, accurate and painfully affecting mental content and the leaden, halting sentences on the page always seems a dreadful falling short. . . . I prize this sense of failure — embrace it even. . . . To continue writing is to accept failure as simply a part of the experience.”3 As writers, we accept the inevitability of commercial failure, artistic failure, and even failed relationships.
One True Sentence
The fear of failure afflicts many writers soon after the publication of their first book. The writer thinks, “I fooled ’em once, but can I fool ’em again? What if I only have one book in me? What if I have no encore?”
Suspense writer James L. Rubart, author of Rooms and Book of Days, recalls that after his first book was well-received by critics and readers, he worried that it was a fluke — and that his second novel might not measure up. “The response to Rooms was so strong that I was definitely nervous when Book of Days came out. That whole ‘I only have one book in me’ thing. But a lot of people liked Book of Days better.”
In fact, Rubart says, his mastery of the writing craft increased in demonstrable ways with each new novel. “It took me six years to write Rooms,” he recalls, “two years to write Book of Days, five months to write The Chair, ten weeks to write Soul’s Gate . . . and I’m on pace to finish the novel I’m working on right now in six weeks.”4Wendell Berry is a farmer, antiwar activist, novelist, and poet. He remembers the sense of unease he felt after his first book was published. He has learned to embrace that uneasy feeling and to anticipate the unknown adventures ahead. “I am discomforted,” he says, “by the knowledge that I don’t know how to write the books that I have not yet written. But that discomfort has an excitement about it, and it is the necessary antecedent of one of the best kinds of happiness.”5
In A Moveable Feast, Ernest Hemingway recalled the twinge of self-doubt he felt as he contemplated a new story:
I would stand and look out over the roofs of Paris and think, “Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence you know.” So finally I would write one true sentence, and then go on from there. It was easy then because there was always one true sentence that you knew or had seen or had heard someone say.6
Don’t fear that you have no more stories or books in you. You have barely scratched the surface of all the stories your soul contains. Over time, you have learned and grown as a writer. Relax in the confidence and mastery you have gained from that achievement — and prepare to conquer even greater challenges in the future. Trust your unconscious mind, your talent, your training, and your experience. Then sit down in front of your screen or your blank page and write the truest sentence you know.
Fail Early, Fail Often
Web writer Diogenes Brito says that he wrestles with a number of fears every time he sets out to write — fear of the blank page, fear of the unknown, fear of being judged, and fear of losing control. But one fear that no longer troubles him is the fear of failure. Brito says he overcame that fear thanks to one of his university professors:
When I was in Stanford’s design program, a professor named Dave Beach had everyone raise jazz hands to the sky. He then instructed us to jump and cheer, “I failed!” I have never forgotten that moment. “Fail early, fail often” was the mantra. The goal was to build up an immunity to failure, so that fear of it would never hold you back. Like [computer scientist] Dick Karpinski says, “Anything worth doing is worth doing badly — at first.” I remember that, and it keeps me from freezing up. The enemy of creativity is fear, so I keep going, no matter what.7
If you live by the maxim, “Fail early, fail often,” you can write without fear of failure. Train yourself to view failure not as an objective reality but as a false label people impose on a learning experience. Instead of telling yourself, “How horrible — I’ve failed,” simply shrug and say, “Well, that didn’t work. Lesson learned. What should I try next?” Make up your mind to learn from your failures and you’ll stop being afraid.
A conversation with romance novelist Robin Lee Hatcher
by Jim Denney
Robin Lee Hatcher is the best-selling author of more than seventy-five novels and novellas featuring emotionally charged stories of love, faith, and courage. She has won a shelf full of awards, including the prestigious Romance Writers of America’s RITA® Award for excellence in romance fiction. She has been an eleven-time RITA finalist and has won the award twice. She has also won the RWA’s Lifetime Achievement Award. the American Christian Fiction Writers’ Lifetime Achievement Award, the Christy Award, and ACFW’s Carol Award.
I’ve known Robin for a number of years, and when I learned how she approached the writing process, I asked if she would let me share her creative approach with my readers at Writing in Overdrive. I always like to find out how writers are drawn to a life of storytelling.
Some people divide writers into two camps — (1) those who plot out an outline of their story before they begin writing (usually called “outliners” or “plotters”), and (2) those who “write by the seat of their pants.” Non-outliners are often referred to as “pantsers” — an inelegant term, in my view. I prefer the term “cliff-jumper,” derived from Ray Bradbury’s advice to writers, “You’ve got to jump off the cliff and build your wings on the way down.” In other words, don’t outline — just leap off the cliff and into your story and you’ll discover your characters and your plot along the way.
Now, I’m not saying that cliff-jumping is the only way to write. Outlining (sometimes called “pre-writing”) is a perfectly legitimate approach the creative process. J. K. Rowling, J. R. R. Tolkien, William Faulkner, Joseph Heller, Kurt Vonnegut, John Grisham, Jennifer Egan, Norman Mailer, and James Scott Bell are some well-known outliners.
Everybody is wired differently, so do whatever works for you. The problem is that a lot of cliff-jumpers have been told they are “doing it wrong” if they don’t outline. If you’re a natural-born cliff-jumper, you’re in excellent company. Madeleine L’Engle, Ernest Hemingway, Ray Bradbury, Theodore Sturgeon, John Steinbeck, Margaret Atwood, Colleen Coble, Stephen King and Robin Lee Hatcher are all cliff-jumpers. Some writers — Piers Anthony, for example — are a hybrid, doing a lot of cliff-jumping within a loosely structured outline. So if you either can’t outline or you don’t want to outline, you’re in good company.
How did Robin Lee Hatcher become a writer? She didn’t always dream of becoming a writer, even though she was a avid reader. In fact, she says she went to her first day of first grade with a single goal: learn to read. She completed her first day of school and still didn’t know how to read, so she told her mother there was no point in going back the next day. But her mother sent her back to school, and she eventually learned to read — and write.
She loved drama and storytelling, and she dreamed of being a movie star. When she was in the fifth grade, she made up a story about her mother, claiming her mom had moved west in a covered wagon along the Oregon Trail. As a consequence, her mother instructed her in the difference between fiction and fibbing.
In her twenties, inspired by Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind, Robin got an idea for an epic romance story. She talked about the story with friends, and finally realized that books only get written by writing them down, not by talking about them. She wrote her first novel in longhand on yellow legal pads, then typed it up during lunch breaks on an IBM Selectric typewriter at work. It took her nine months to write it, then another two-plus years to get it published.
More than seventy-five books later, Robin Lee Hatcher is still making up intriguing stories and selling them to an eager public. She recently told me about her creative process.
Q: As a writer, you are what some would call a “pantser” — or what I would call, borrowing Ray Bradbury’s term, a “cliff-jumper.”
Robin Lee Hatcher: That’s right. I really like that term “cliff-jumper.” It’s a good description of my writing process. I do not outline. I do not use a storyboard or sticky notes or Scrivener’s cork board. Rarely do I go back and rework anything I’ve written while I’m in first draft. I keep writing forward. If I need to find an answer to a question, I stop and research, then keep going.
Q: How much planning goes into your characters before you begin? Do you know your characters well before you start writing, or do you get to know them as the story develops?
Robin Lee Hatcher: I write first-person autobiographies of my major characters from birth to when the novel opens. This enables me to understand their backgrounds and motivations. I know where they hurt. I know what they want. I have a good idea which characters will come into conflict with each other, and why. Then I write them in a stream-of-consciousness style. I just let my imagination take wing. My stories are totally character-driven, not plot-driven. The plot is simply what emerges from the interaction of the characters.
Q: Your approach is a great illustration of what Bradbury meant when he said, “Plot is no more than footprints left in the snow after your characters have run by on their way to incredible destinations.” What about your setting? Certainly you need to know where your story takes place before you begin to write.
Robin Lee Hatcher: To an extent. I usually have an idea of my setting, but it’s rarely very concrete. The setting tends to come to life as I write. Almost all of my settings are fictional towns. I know the reality of where they are set but the towns are laid out in ways that best serve my stories. When I begin a novel, I know my main characters, the opening scene, and I have a vague idea of where I am headed. That’s all I need to begin writing.
Q: Have you ever tried outlining?
Robin Lee Hatcher: Yes. I learned that it just doesn’t work for me.
Q: Why not?
Robin Lee Hatcher: Writing for me is all about discovering the story. When I tried to outline the story in advance, I realized that I no longer wanted to write the book because I already knew how it was going to end. Why write it once I know that? Knowing everything about my story in advance only dampened my enthusiasm for writing it down. It made me anxious to set it aside and move on to a new idea.
Writing without an outline, I get up and go to my computer every morning so that I can discover what happens next. I’m just like my readers in that regard. They read my books to find out what happens next, and that’s why I write them. The deeper I write into the story, the better I understand the story, and the more I know what will happen next.
Q: E. L. Doctorow said about writing, “It’s like driving a car at night. You never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” Is that an apt description of how your creative process feels? And isn’t it a bit scary?
Robin Lee Hatcher: Yes, writing for me is a lot like driving at night on a deserted highway. My imagination serves as a set of headlights, providing enough light each day to keep me on the road. Are there twists and turns ahead? Is it scary not knowing what’s out there in the dark? Yes, a bit. But it’s also exciting. All the answers to my story are out there, beyond the range of the headlights.
Q: Have you ever wished you could be an outliner instead of a cliff-jumper?
Robin Lee Hatcher: Yes, there was a time when I thought it would make the writing process much easier if I could pre-write the novel, then breeze through the actual writing. One time, years ago, I was at a conference. As I talked to different writers about the workshops they were attending, it occurred to me that all the character-driven novelists were attending the plotting workshops and all of the plot-driven novelists were attending workshops on characterization. Why were they doing that? Were they trying to improve their craft and sharpen their writing skills? Yes. But more than that, I think that, whether they realized it or not, they were also looking for an easier way to write a novel.
When I came to that realization, I quit feeling guilty about not being a plotter. I decided to embrace the way God made me to write. This how my brain works, and I’m good with that. I don’t need to change. Cliff-jumping works for me. There is such freedom in getting to the point where you accept that this is who you are as a writer. If you can only write a novel by driving in the dark without a roadmap, that’s fine. If you need to outline your plot before you begin, that’s fine, too.
The truth is, there’s no easy way to write a novel. It’s hard work, whether you’re a cliff-jumper or an outliner. With study and practice, some aspects of writing become easier and more natural, but it’s still hard work. In some ways it becomes even harder, because as we increase our confidence and our skill-level, we want to challenge ourselves more and stretch ourselves in new directions.
Of course, I had to try everything early on in my writing career. I tried the plot-motivation-whatever chart. I tried outlining a novel from start to finish. I’ve read tons of how-to books with all kinds of tips and tricks and I’ve tried most of the suggestions I came across. And in all of that reading and experimenting, I’ve discovered what works for me and what doesn’t.
Q: You said that you don’t use Scrivener—
Robin Lee Hatcher: Well, I don’t use Scrivener’s cork board feature, but Scrivener is a very powerful and useful tool for writers. I do use it. I love the character pages in Scrivener. I love the way you can add photos and details and insights about your characters as you go along. So I enjoy using Scrivener, but I don’t use it for outlining. I use it to make my creative process flow more freely.
Q: One thing I talk about a lot on the Writing in Overdrive website is the power of the unconscious mind to enable us to write faster and to be more creative and uninhibited. What role does the unconscious mind play in your creative process?
Robin Lee Hatcher: I’m convinced that much of my writing happens in my unconscious before I’m ever aware of it. Sometimes the writing even happens while I sleep. I don’t mean that I get plot ideas from dreams — although I have actually dreamt some scenes. I mean that, somewhere below the surface of my awareness, my brain is working on the story. So while it sounds like I just wing it, there’s an unconscious creative process going on that I’m not aware of. That process is working out interactions between characters, exploring plot possibilities, and making intuitive leaps that my conscious mind would never think of.
Q: This is a phenomenon many writers observe during the writing process. Ursula Le Guin said, “I allow my unconscious mind to control the course of the story, using rational thought only to reality check when revising.” And Anne Lamott talked about the need to align ourselves with “the river of the story, the river of the unconscious.”
Robin Lee Hatcher: Exactly! During every writing session, there are probably two or three things that emerge — ideas, insights, connections, entire scenes — that I wasn’t consciously aware of at the start, but at some unconscious level my brain was working on the story. When I’m writing, these ideas come to the surface. We think it comes out of nowhere and we call it “inspiration,” but I think it often comes from our God-given unconscious self. And, of course, God works through us and inspires us when we are open to him and listening to him.
That’s why it’s so important to show up for work every day. We won’t receive our daily allotment of inspiration until we sit down, place our fingers on the keyboard, and discover what our unconscious creativity has been working on.
Q: Robin, the words rewriting and revising are sometimes used interchangeably, but technically they are not the same thing. Rewriting is more drastic, and usually involves major restructuring, such as adding or deleting an entire subplot or character arc, inserting new scenes, or removing scenes that detract from the storyline. Revising is essentially buffing and polishing and perfecting a novel that is structurally sound. Do you find that writing without an outline is an advantage or a disadvantage when it comes to rewriting or revising your first draft?
Robin Lee Hatcher: I don’t think my creative process gives me an advantage or a disadvantage. Both outliners and cliff-jumpers need to revise. I don’t generally have to do major rewrites, but they have happened on occasion. Most of the time, however, when I finish a first draft, I do a proof and polish, then turn it in. I’ve been tweaking and polishing throughout the first draft, so it is usually in good shape.
Because most of my books are romances, I begin with a hero and heroine and I know their history, their lives leading up to the story. For instance, with my latest novel, I know that Jessica is a pregnant widow whose husband cheated on her and he died in a car wreck just after telling her he was leaving her for another woman. And I know that Ridley is a tech guy who got involved in a political scandal for which he was blamed. Both are trying to hide from life and keep people from knowing who they really are. Ridley goes to Jessica’s small town and becomes her neighbor. Their romance begins.
Now, because it’s a romance, we know that the two of them will get together at the end. So I just start writing toward that moment when they get their Happily Ever After. Sometimes I have a glimmer of an idea as to how they will get there, but I usually don’t. I’m driving in the dark.
My first drafts tend to be pithy and concise, so my revisions usually involve fleshing out the scenes I’ve written to make them longer, more emotionally involving. As a romance writer, revisions usually involve going deeper into my characters’ emotions.
Q: I think many outliners have a more adventurous, cliff-jumping spirit than they realize. I’ve known many writers, myself included, who started out with an outline, then wrote and wrote without even looking at the outline. By the time the book was written, it was a very different story than the one in the outline. Along the way, outliners generally discover depths to their story they never imagined at the outset. They discover new characters, new plot twists, and often come up with a completely new ending.
Robin Lee Hatcher: I agree. I don’t think plotters are slaves to their outlines. I’m sure they are constantly tweaking and refining their ideas as they write, whether in broad ways or subtle ways. The book they planned and the book they wrote are often very different from each other. An outline doesn’t have to be a straight-jacket. If you’re a plotter, then your outline is your roadmap. But if, along your journey, you stumble onto a road that isn’t on the map, you’re perfectly free to explore it.
No outlining writer should ever tell a cliff-jumping writer, “You’re doing it wrong.” Or vice versa. A plotter feels more freedom with an outline to follow. A cliff-jumper feels more freedom without an outline. That’s great! Whatever works for you, do that. Enjoy your freedom to create.
Q: That’s great advice for any writer. Thank you, Robin, for sharing your experiences and insights.