The Write Tip: Writing Your Way by Elissa Weissman

My hope is that seeing the childhood writing and art of today’s most beloved authors and illustrators in Our Story Begins will inspire readers to tell their own stories in their own way. In that spirit, here’s a behind-the-scenes peek at my personal writing process, with 5 things that don’t work for me and 5 things that do.

Five Things That DON’T Work for Me:

  1. Outlining my story

I once heard the author John Barth say, “Some writers need a detailed road map to get where they’re going, but others just need their headlights.” I am, without a doubt, a headlights writer. Planning takes the fun out of the process for me. I need to write a story to find out what happens.

  1. Writing a terrible first draft

Many authors recommend being fast and furious with your first draft, to get everything on the page without caring how it sounds. While I can see the appeal of this method, it does not work for me because—and teachers hate when I tell this to kids—I can’t stand revising. I write slowly and deliberately, trying to make each sentence and each scene as strong as possible as I go. Of course, nothing is just right the first time through, and I always end up revising a lot (teachers like to hear that!), but when I write the last sentence of my first draft, I know I’ve got something that’s about 75% there.

  1. Setting a daily word count requirement

I think this is a good approach for people who already have an outline or who believe in terrible first drafts. But having to meet a daily word count would make me write something just to have words on the page, and then I’d have to go back and revise those words later. No, thank you.

  1. Spending 10 years on a book

I am amazed by writers who spend years and years on a single project. Some of those projects end up being masterpieces, and with good reason. But others never make it into the world because it becomes easy to fall into a revision loop, fearing the book still isn’t perfect.

Guess what? No book is ever perfect. My test: Am I happy enough of this book to let people read it, knowing it has my name on it? If so, I send it out, and start working on something new.

  1. Talking about my story as I write it

When I’m working on something, I don’t breathe a word about it until I’m done. That means I often go a year or more without telling anyone what I’ve been doing every day, not even my husband. It’s kind of like I’m in the CIA.

Why? One good thing: If I end up abandoning a project somewhere in the middle, I don’t have to explain myself to anyone. Better: If I’m really excited about a project but I can’t talk about it until I’m done, I’m more motivated to get it done! Best of all: I get to pretend I’m in the CIA.

So, what DOES work for me?

  1. Getting feedback from other writers: I do read-in a few people on my work-in-progress, and they’re the people in my writers’ group. Hearing their feedback is super helpful, and their encouragement helps sustain my momentum. Reading their work is fun. And being in a writers’ group provides something else that is essential to my productivity…

2. Having a deadline: I am super driven by deadlines. I’ll do whatever it takes to meet a deadline, and with something that I’m proud enough to have my name on.

3. Reminding myself to not get stuck in what happens next: Writing the beginning of a story is fun and exciting, and so is writing the end. But the middle…well, the middle can be a slog. It’s easy to get stuck on autopilot, writing what the character had for breakfast, then what she did at school, then what she had for lunch….

In those moments, I think of Mary Kole’s advice in Writing Irresistible Kidlit and remind myself that I’m a writer, not a security camera. I don’t need to record everything; just the important stuff. The beauty of fiction is you can skip the boring parts, start a new chapter, and get straight to meat.

4. Ending each work day in the middle of a scene: I used to try to end each writing session at the end of a chapter. Then one day, by accident, I had to stop in the middle of a scene. The next day, it was quicker and easier to get back into the story, and I spent less time than usual procrastinating, because I was excited to finish the scene. As an added bonus, when I finished that chapter, it was easy to start a new one, because I was already in the zone. From then on, I started doing this on purpose. It works like magic!

5.Sticking with it: People always ask writers where they get their ideas. But ideas are the easy part—I bet you have at least five great ideas for a book right now! The hard part is sticking with it. If I want to turn one of my ideas into a book, I need to put my butt in a chair, day after day, and write a book. In the words of Richard Bach, “A professional writer is an amateur who didn’t quit.”


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