Monday, August 26, 2013

Why Writing a Book is Like Hiking a Canyon

by Stephanie Morrill

Stephanie writes young adult contemporary novels and is the creator of GoTeenWriters.com. Her novels include The Reinvention of Skylar Hoyt series (Revell) and The Revised Life of Ellie Sweet (Playlist). You can connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and check out samples of her work on her author website.



For the last two years, I've given a talk to parents of teen writers at the One Year Adventure Novel summer workshop. I wanted to call it, "How to Prepare to Feed Your Babies to the Wolves," but the director thought that title was somewhat inappropriate. (Imagine that!) Instead I've called it something boring like The Emotional Journey of an Aspiring Novelist.

A lot of parents have approached me and said the talk really helped them understand their teen writer better. I thought it would be interesting to adapt my parent talk and have a similar conversation with you guys, though it's different in that I don't have to explain, "Hey, here's how this makes you feel."



I became serious about getting published my junior year of high school. I had been interesting in writing for years, and I had always planned on being a novelist when I grew up, but that was the year I started actually doing something more than writing a couple chapters here and there. It was when I decided to write an entire book.

At the time I imagined myself at the bottom of a big mountain. Publishing my book was at the top of the mountain, I was at the bottom, and I needed to work my way up. But I don't think that's the most accurate image. Because emotionally speaking, I don't think you start out at the bottom. I think you actually start out on top.

When I have a new story idea, I'm so excited I lay awake at night. I imagine what the cover will look like, and I obsess about the storyworld, characters, and plot twists. The book is far, far away from being completed, but in terms of my energy and emotions, I'm on top.

Now that I've learned the beginning is actually a "top of the mountain" moment, I've begun to capitalize on it. I used to just dive right into the project and trust the momentum to carry me through, but I've learned I can do a few things in the new idea, honeymoon time that will help me out during future lulls:
  • I tell only a few people. When I have new book ideas, I talk with my husband, Roseanna, and Jill about them first. I gauge their level of enthusiasm because by now I've figured out that counts for something. They help me identify problems before I talk to my agent.
  • I write back cover copy. I don't get super formal about it, but I do try to write something similar to what you might find on the back of a book. This forces me to do a couple things early on:
    • Helps me figure out the "hook" of this book, which is basically just determining what will make the potential reader say, "Yes, I'm going to read this one next." Your job with a hook is to create an itch that your reader wants to scratch.
    • Helps me get the back cover copy written so I'm not scrambling to do so right before publication.
    • Helps me brainstorm plot ideas, because as I'm writing my back cover copy, I'm thinking things like, "Well, everything I've written so far is story set up, but something has to happen to move my character from point A to point B..."
    • Later, these paragraphs will help remind me of the core of my story. This is especially useful when I'm halfway to three-quarters done with my first draft. It's nice to reread my draft of back cover copy and rediscover my original intentions for this book.
  • Every thought that pops into my head, I write it down. For every book I write, I also have a companion document called "notes." I create it during the brainstorming process as a place to gather all those random tidbits floating around in my head. Sometimes I write a paragraph about a possible plot twist. Sometimes I write just a snippet of dialogue. A lot of those notes make it into the book, but there are always a few items that don't. This is good because during edits if I need to beef up a plot line, or if my publisher says, "Can we do a sequel for this book?" I already have some material gathered.
  • I make a book love list. This is a new thing for me. It's something fun to do, and it's great for pulling out later when I'm in an inevitable rut. This is exactly what it sounds like - a list of things you love about your book. Your list will obviously be different than mine, but here's a handful of items from my love list for The Unlikely Debut of Ellie Sweet, which comes out in November:
    • A main character who wears glasses
    • Summertime
    • Finding love later in life
    • A dramatic grandmother
A warning about being up on the mountain: For many there's a temptation to stay here.

For a lot of writers, brainstorming the story is the best part. You get to be super creative, but you don't yet have to figure out how to transport those wonderful images in your head into the head of the reader. It can be extremely tempting to stay there, but eventually to get the book written. you have to go down into the canyon.

In June, my family went to Bryce Canyon National Park, which I had never heard of before, but is now one of my favorite places in the world. On our last full day there, we did a three mile hike with our children (who were five and two at the time) where we went down into the amphitheater and then hiked back out. I knew we had some potential obstacles - like hiking three miles with a five and two year old out in the desert - but there was stuff down there that I wanted to see close up.




I think there's a lesson in that for us as we start our stories. Writing takes energy and holds far more obstacles than just brainstorming, but if you sit out the writing, you don't get the up close view of all those cool story elements.

On Wednesday we'll talk more about the "hike" of writing the book!

What's your absolute favorite part of the writing process? The part where you have potential to get "stuck" because you love it so much?

37 comments:

  1. (i would be commenting with my account, but my mom is uploading a photo for her blog so, no can do. :p)

    This is SUCH A GREAT POST!!!! I LOVE it!!! And you have some great ideas! My favorite part in writing...? let's see, hmmm, umm, probably the beginning. You get to introdue your characters and just get to know them a little better than when you just think about them. (I like doing character things, can you tell?)

    can't wait for Wednesday! :)


    Abrielle Lindsay aka TW

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  2. I totally think you should have called it, "How to Prepare to Feed Your Babies to the Wolves". That's the best. title. ever.

    I get stuck on first sentences. I want to find the "right" first sentence (a.k.a the "perfect" one). It's a lot of fun, actually, to discover how hooky you can be. I'm not going to admit, of course, that I get stuck on pinterest looking for pictures of great settings and characters. No. Ha ha. That never happens.

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    1. Ha! Thanks, Cait :)

      YES - first sentences are a big hang up of mine as well. I often don't start writing a book until I figure out The Sentence.

      Pinterest...sigh. Huge weakness of mine. It's how I reward myself for finishing editing a page. I get to check Pinterest for a couple minutes.

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    2. i get on pinterest and then i don't get ANY typing done! :p but, i <3 pinterst SO much! :)

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  3. I always get stuck in the brainstorming/planning stage. I spend hours thinking and writing about my characters and the worlds they inhabit, but I have a hard time getting around to starting the actual draft. So far, I've had to resort to NaNoWriMo and 100 for 100 to get me to start writing anything!

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    1. I'm glad you've found ways to get writing done, Jonathan! As important as character and worldbuilding are, no one gets to enjoy them if you don't write the book!

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  4. I don't know how to put a time on my favourite part, because it can actually happen anywhere in the story, but I just love it when characters surprise me. Even though I am a plotter, occasionally characters still spring information or situations on me that I never saw coming. They are (almost always) the best plot twists >:)

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  5. I always get stuck one-third into the story. Not stuck as in no ideas, but stuck as in all the inspiration for the story idea has drained. But the best part of writing a story is when a twist or an obstacle slowly pries its way in. Then I get excited.

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    1. I get stuck there too, Samuel! I think (for me) it's because until then I've just done a lot of foreshadowing and building...and now I have to deliver on it!

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    2. Same with me too!!! I DO NOT like that part because then I take about a week off of writing. :P

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  6. I get stuck in the brainstorming process occasionally. I just want my story to be the best it can be before I start writing. (Yes, folks, I'm a plotter. I tried being a planster but I'm better off a plotter. lol!)

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    1. It's great that you've figured out what works for you, Rosie! And I also struggle with that. I think it's a perfectionism thing.

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  7. YES! You hit the nail right on the head. I can so relate to this, but cannot wait for Wednesday & "part two" of this post!

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  8. This is a great post! Sometimes I do get stuck in the brainstorming process and take too much time plotting important scenes and figuring out everything about my characters. Or I hardly spend any time brainstorming at all and dive right into the first draft, which results in lots of story problems...

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    1. Same here, Jillian! Takes a bit to figure out the right balance.

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  9. The brainstorming part ... and the worldbuilding ... and outlining. I've been having so much fun with it this past week. At the moment, I'm on the mountaintop about this story. So excited about the characters and the plot and the fantasy world. It's getting to the point where I know it's time to dive into the story, but there's a little bitty part of me that's terrified that I'll mess it up! :P Oh well, that's what editing's for, right?

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    1. That's when I have to tell myself that the best story ideas SHOULD be a little scary. It's tough though... I'm at a similar place, Gillian. I have a story idea rattling around in my head that I'm itching to start, but I'm also fearful of doing it justice.

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  10. My favorite part is definitely the beginning. I usually have no or very few issues with the first "act." Then I get stuck in a more literal sense as I go to start act two...sigh! :)

    Lovely post, by the way! I think your talk for parents would be super helpful. :P Mine don't always understand writer things. I've learned never to mention stubborn characters. LOL

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    1. Ha! Yeah, some things only other writers will understand :)

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    2. Amanda,
      Beginnings are always my favorite part as well. At the beginning, the story always seems so new and fun. Then I get to act two and I start having trouble.:)

      -Abby

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  11. Great post! :) I went to the last two Summer Workshops, and my mom loved your parent sessions! (And it's also benefited me, because she's more understanding about my writing now. :D)

    My favourite part of the novel would probably be the brainstorming and the plotting and the outlining and storyboarding and worldbuilding... all the stuff that goes into the novel, really. :)

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    1. Kristin, it's so nice to hear that! I tried to think of things that would have helped my parents with me. (They were super supportive but neither of them are writers.)

      And I love your "favourite" parts :) There's fun stuff at every stage, isn't there?

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    2. Yes, same here! Both supportive, but they're not writers, so they just don't "get" it.

      Yes, there most certainly is! The 100 for 100 is really helping me move forward on my latest manuscript, too. :)

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  12. Awesome post and pictures! I don't know what mt favorite part is, for me getting started has lots of struggles. Every step has struggles actually. My mountain/hike right is figuring out if I still want to write. I don't know if I'm in a lull or if I'm really not meant to be a writer? I'm sticking with 100-4-100 & writing short stories to not feel overwhelmed & burnt out. My hope is that ill see glimpses of desire to write come back. If not,idk yet?

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    1. I've struggled with those questions at times too, Tonya. Let me know if I can help in any way!

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  13. Awesome post! I just started my junior year today (shiver) but I've been "serious" about getting published since before I could spell "The End" with all the letters facing the right way. The first book that seemed the most serious I started in 8th grade and have been working on the series since. I now am sort of stuck in the editing stages, since I can't just write wildly--but I'm getting through it!!! When did you get your first novel published? Was it the first book you got serious about? How long did it actually take??

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  14. My favorite part is probably the brainstorming stages. Like you said in this post, it can be so exciting at that stage and it sounds like the best idea ever. But I also like the actual writing of the book, partly because when I hit a wall I have a writer friend who I can brainstorm with and she gets me re-excited about my book. I struggle the most in second and third drafts when there seems to be so many problems (grammar, plot, etc.) that I didn't consider in the first draft and really (if I'm honest) aren't as fun to figure out as the initial creative stage was.

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  15. I I love beginnings, and any kind of "mini climaxes"/defining moments. I get stuck when I feel like not enough time has passed between my events, but I don't know how to make something interesting and important happen to fill the space so I can get on to the part I really want to write.

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  16. Just have to say, my mom went to your parent session at OYAN this year and it has been such a blessing for me. She's a math and science person (as is everyone else in my family), so she doesn't necessarily get it, but your talk definitely helped her understand the way my brain works better. So thank you!

    Bryce looks awesome. :) Mom says it's one of her favorite national parks and from your pictures I think I understand why.

    My favorite part of writing is getting to know my characters. There's nothing quite like those moments when they start coming to life.

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  17. My favorite part is when I get a new idea for a new scene that I really really like. I have a document of random scenes and tend to either write it right then or day dream about it forever thinking about every detail and the dialogue etc. I tend to get stuck with transitions between scenes and timelines. Like how much time passes between them and what not.

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    1. My problem exactly! I do the same thing with scenes, but it always seems like I have to wait and wait to be able to use them.

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  18. I love this post! I think my favorite thing about writing (at least for my current project), is the surprises. For example, I had my story pretty planned out before hand. But when I start writing, something often happens that surprises me. I feel that a lot of these little "surprises" have actually enhanced the story. There has been one or two that deteriorated it, so I had to delete them, but otherwise they have been good surprises.

    Although, I also really enjoy creating the characters.

    Writing is just fun for me, and I get madly addicted to it. :) Kinda like chocolate...

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  19. So funny! I also have a "book love list". I pull it out every time I begin to have doubts about the story or am running low on inspiration/motivation.

    Love this post!

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