1. The Difficulty of Writing about War

    December 16, 2017

    During my school appearances, students often suggest topics for novels they’d like me to write.  The request I get most often is for war stories. However, students are often surprised when I tell them that writing about war is very difficult for me.

    Half way through the first draft of my novel, The Winter War,  I was giving a talk at a middle school  in Park Rapids, Minnesota. After I’d finished my presentation, one of the students asked if I was working on any new books. I told him that I was part way through a novel about the 1939 war between Russia and Finland. Several of the boys got excited and said that they were looking forward to reading the story. When I told them that it had been a very hard book to write,  one boy asked me why.

    Instead of answering, I turned the question back to the students, asking, “Why do you think it might be challenging to write  about war?”

    After a long pause, a girl in the middle of the room raised her hand and said, “Since wars are so violent, it could make you sad writing about all the battles.”

    “Very true,” I agreed.

    Next, a boy beside her added, “And the reader might get grossed out if you put in too many gory things.”

    “Yes,” I nodded.

    Then a girl near the front said, “It also might be hard to write about war because wars happen on so many fronts at the same time. It would be hard to show all the action.”

    I agreed that a rapidly changing setting can be very problematic for an author.

    Another girl said, “And if you weren’t in the war you’d have to get all your information from other people, and they might have trouble remembering things or they might not want to talk about it.”

    “An excellent point,” I said.

    Finally, a quiet boy in the back of the room raised his hand and spoke in a soft voice. “If you wrote a war book too good and made it sound really exciting, kids might think it was cool to go off and join the army and fight in a war.”

    “Exactly,” I said. “That is, no doubt, the greatest challenge of all.”

  2. Addtional thoughts on Writer’s Block

    August 2, 2014

                            More “Rules” for Beating Writer’s Block

    First and foremost, remember there are no rules. What works for one person may not work for you. With that caveat in mind, here are a few guidelines that may help you make more productive use of your writing time.

    1.  Never just sit and wait for the words to come. Jump right in and engage in the writing process. Use listing, free writing, word association, automatic writing, etc. to start and to restart. Allow yourself to write badly at times.

    2.  Don’t be self critical, especially in the first draft stage.  Look on each writing task as an experiment and an opportunity to refine your skills as athletes do when they practice. Realize that most of what you write won’t (and shouldn’t) get published.

    3.  Separate composing from the act of revising and editing.

    4.  Keep a daily journal. Write down your thoughts and feelings, hopes and expectations. Observe the world closely. Try different genre’:  stories, poems, plays, essays, letters, etc., but don’t feel obliged to complete anything. Vary viewpoints and themes. Variety helps you grow. 

    5.  Maintain a separate notebook or a file for your story ideas.

    6.  Consider switching to a different genre if you’re not making progress. A story with too much dialogue might work better as a play. A poem could turn out to be a picture book.

    7.  Outline your longer projects and do a detailed sketch of all the characters before you start. Some writers believe that planning can stifle creativity and spontaneity, but an outline which is used as a general guide can help you make more productive use of your writing time. Knowing where you are going makes it easier to get to there. And it allows you the opportunity to naturally incorporate foreshadowing, thematic elements, character development, and the resolution of conflicts into your novel.

    8.  For a change of pace do something physical. A hike or a bike ride, paddling a canoe, splitting wood, or shoveling snow can do wonders for focusing your mind.

    9.  Read both classics and contemporary work for inspiration. But try to set trends rather than following them.

    10. When things aren’t going well, use your time to do research, work on story plans, and catch up on and the business side of writing: bookkeeping, marketing, updating contacts, etc.

    11. Read writers’ magazines like The Writer and Writer’s Digest for success stories.

    12. Use your old material to inspire new.

    13. During longer projects be careful of where you stop each day. Rather than quitting at the conclusion of a chapter or after  tying a scene together, stop in the middle of the action, or start the next scene, so you’ll have a good beginning point the next day.

    14. Be patient. The more you write the more you improve. The more you improve the more fun you have writing. The more     fun you have writing the more you want to write.

    15. Keep your body healthy and your mind clear.

    And remember, there are no rules.


  3. Beating Writer’s Block

    September 17, 2012

    Beating Writer’s Block

    When I conduct writing workshops for both young writers and adults, a question that’s asked often is “What should I do when I get stuck?” I answer by saying the key is to avoid getting stuck in the first place.

    The first and most important way to prevent writer’s block is to stay engaged in the writing task. Never just sit and wait for the words to come. Use listing, outlining, pre-writing, free writing, and stream-of-consciousness writing to get you started. And once you get started, don’t stop until your allotted writing time is used up.

    Don’t worry about getting your language perfectly ordered during your first draft. It’s important to separate the act of composing from editing. (More on that later.) Look on writing as a tool for speculation, exploration, and experimentation. Write fast and free, and whether you like to work from an outline or not, in this stage just see where your story/poem/essay takes you.

    Many people say that want to be writers, but they simply aren’t willing or able to dedicate sufficient time to the task. When Scholastic offered me a contract to write one of the first books in the My Name is America series, The Journal of Sean Sullivan, a Transcontinental Railroad Worker, I was working full-time as an English teacher at a high school, and one night a week as a college instructor. My schedule was further complicated by the fact that I had recently moved and had a daily, fifty-minute commute to work. But I knew that if I wanted to be a successful writer I had to focus on the task. For three months I got up at 4:30 each day and wrote for two hours before leaving for work. After I returned home, I’d spend a short time with my very understanding family. Then I worked three or four more hours in the evening. It was exhausting, but I met the deadline. The Journal of Sean Sullivan was published in the fall, and it sold more than 50,000 copies by Christmas. And best of all, because I delivered my book on time it was moved ahead of another title that was late coming in, and Scholastic offered me contracts for two more books.

The Broken Blade Wintering The Journal of Sean Sullivan The Journal of Otto Peltonen The Journal of C.J. Jackson Song of Sampo Lake Blackwater Ben The Darkest Evening El Lector The Winter War