Welcome to the Kite Tales Writing Challenge: #KTWriteOn. Each writing challenge is crafted by a kid-lit publishing professional to help spark ideas, creative energy, and get your work moving out into the world.
This exercise was created by Christian McKay Heidicker, the author of the Newbery Honor-winning Scary Stories for Young Foxes, Thieves of Weirdwood, Cure for the Common Universe, and Attack of the 50 Foot Wallflower. He lives in Salt Lake City, Utah, where he reads and writes and drinks tea. Between his demon-hunting cat and his fiddling, red-headed fiancée, he feels completely protected from evil spirits. He wasn’t always an award-winning author. Read on for Christian’s excellent advice and exercises:
THE DESPERATE AUTHOR (Getting Good with Low Time and Resources)
By Christian McKay Heidicker
It took me twelve years to get my first book published. So in the interest of your sanity and my conscience, I’m going to tell you how to get better at this writing thing no matter what your obstacles are. Don’t have time? Don’t have money? Blessed with the attention span of a fruit fly? I experienced that in spades, my friend. And I’ve got some workarounds. All you need is a little window of time every day, a handful of unique shortcuts, and maybe some heartbreak. (That last one certainly helped me.)
So there I was, lost and penniless in Japan.
I’d just had my heart broken by a recovering addict in Beverly Hills, and I was trying to get as far away from myself as possible. It was here, removed from anything familiar, that I decided to become an author.
Why would I choose such a masochistic path, you ask?
It’s a good question, considering I was the laziest person I’ve ever met. (How bad was I? I fought with my mom when she tried to teach me how to pump gas.) But before my heartbreaker had broken up with me, I had told her that I (get this) had a great idea for a children’s book that would (I was certain) be developed into a film.
I’d heard somewhere that the best revenge was a life well lived. If I could just get this story of mine written and published, then she (my heartbreaker) would see how wrong she had been to break up with me and come crawling back.
Or, y’know, she’d call.
The details aren’t important.
I figured this process would be relatively simple. All I had to do was find the approximate words to match the perty images in my head, type them out, and I’d be on my way to fame and fort—pbbfffff ha ha ha . . .
Ah ha ha ha ha!
Sorry, I couldn’t even make it through that sentence.
I sat down, hacked out a novel, sent it around to a few places, and waited for the acceptances to come rolling in.
You know what happened next.
Fortunately, the lovelorn are an inherently dedicated breed. I was not about to mess up this opportunity to win back the love of my life. And I wasn’t about to let the fact that I had zero money, an abysmal work ethic, and no clue what I was doing get in the way.
I became amateurly scientific in my approach.
How does one become an author? I asked myself.
You go to school, of course, I answered.
Preparing to take on a massive amount of debt to heal my wounded heart, I made a list of my favorite writers and then looked up where they went to grad school. And I quickly discovered…they didn’t. Most of them didn’t even finish college. It turned out that in order to become a writer you just needed to write.
There’s this great quote from Neil Gaiman (if you haven’t heard of him, he co-wrote the screenplay for the hit CGI film Beowulf) about just going out and doing what you want to do. But why quote Gaiman when I can quote Mr. T from his unbelievably inspiring 1980s kids training video Be Somebody or Be Somebody’s Fool?
“You don’t need no fancy new gym. And pay all that money.” (He gestures to the world.) “This is a gym right here.”
Except, y’know, instead of a gym, Harvard or something.
I. WATCH YOUTUBE VIDEOS
Let’s start with the easiest shortcut.
Sure, you can go out and read every book on story theory and structure. You can invest in highlighters and make your books bleed yellow as you painstakingly analyze the text. But I guarantee you there’s someone on the internet who’s doing this better than either of us ever could. They’re probably fresh out of college, aren’t in a relationship (several of them will mention this), and are obsessed with pop culture. They have all the time in the world to break down the most popular works and show you how they work.
By bingeing YouTube, you can examine storytelling from every possible angle. You’ll learn about Macguffins and pinch points and structure and climaxes. You’ll avoid using too many clichés or predictable plot twists or writing a story that’s out of touch with current trends. And instead of spending several grand a semester, the creators will ask for a dollar or so a month. And even that is optional.
In five-to-twenty-minute chunks, I’ve learned that Shakespeare made puns more powerful by not making them funny. I’ve learned that the entire Marvel cinematic universe is about daddy issues. I’ve learned that Bathos is a fairly old term that refers to the moment in a story when sincerity is undercut with a joke, and that this can belie an author who isn’t confident in the emotions of their scene. I’ve even learned all about the necropolitical implications in Mad Max and Babe. (Don’t worry, I had no idea what that meant either.)
Not only is this method roughly a hundred times easier than reading theory texts, it’s also extremely fun. These videos often have clips of the movies or books in question, so you’re revisiting scenes to get refreshers on how dialogue works or how to lay out major plot points.
There’s enough information on YouTube to give you multiple MFAs-worth of knowledge. You just have to find it.
Just kidding. I’ve already found it for you. Here are a few of my favorite channels:
- Just Write
- Hello Future Me
- Jenny Nicholson
- Lessons from the Screenplay
- The Closer Look
- The Artisan Geek
Let me know what you think of these in the comments below, and please add any I’m missing. I’m always looking for more new channels, and I’d really like to add more diversity to my lineup.
II. WRITE A TEXTBOOK ONLY YOU WILL READ
While enjoying these videos, start a document on your phone of good writing advice. Think of it like a term paper for an MFA, only it can cover as many topics as you want, the sentences can be incomplete, and you never have to turn it in.
My document is titled GRATITUDE & TENACITY (Henry Winkler’s personal mantra for being successful as an actor). It’s filled with pure story advice that I want to revisit over and over until it’s infused into my bone marrow. The advice runs the gamut from obscure definitions to key story structure moments to mental health reminders:
- Denouement is French for ‘untying’
- An act ends when a character makes an irrevocable decision. Apparently Indiana Jones has, like, seven acts.
- Don’t forget. Work Calmly.
III. BE RIDICULOUS IN YOUR READING
Everyone says Read More. But I’m going to invite you to do it a little differently. Specifically, stop taking it so seriously.
First of all, only read things that energize you. As soon as a book feels like a chore, chuck it. Make it a goal to always be reading something that will rival going to that party where your current crush (romantic or otherwise) is hanging out.
Second of all, make reading as effortless as possible. Read comic books. Read picture books. Read really short books to bolster your confidence in your reading ability before you tackle longer and more complicated works. Listen to audiobooks when you’re doing the dishes or folding the laundry or grocery shopping or trying to fall asleep.
In fact, cheat. Speed up those audiobooks to 1.5x. Maybe even 2x if it’s really dragging. Read graphic novel adaptations of the classics that are too boring to get through but feel like they’re important. If you burn out on a classic, go read the SparkNotes online (or watch a YouTube video!). While checking out the summary, realize that the book is actually brilliant (you just didn’t get far enough) and pick it back up with your tail between your legs so you can tell all of your friends that A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is now one of your favorites.
Do whatever possible to know about all of the mainstream books and why they’re popular and why they maybe don’t deserve to be. Ask everyone what they’re reading always and have them tell you about it. Unless it’s an attractive girl on the subway, in which case, just leave her alone, bro. She’s not reading to get your attention.
IV. PUT ON YOUR FAVORITE AUTHOR’S SKIN
Yeah, I know that’s a creepy way of putting it. But if I said, steal from your favorite authors, then you’d probably just roll your eyes and point out that everyone says that too.
But here’s the thing. I’m gonna take it to the next level.
Write down a list of your twelve favorite authors, and then write a short story for each that embraces that author’s style and themes. Do one a month for a year. Every day, choose a single page of the author you’re mimicking and type it up word for word. Tell yourself, This is my N.K. Jemison story, and propel your writing toward the cutting edge of modern fantasy. Tell yourself, This is my Herman Melville story, and ensure only sixteen people will read it before you die.
While working on my Neil Gaiman story, There Are No Marshmallows in Camelot, I typed up the entirety of Coraline, and I cannot tell you how much I learned about Gaiman’s choice of words and repetition and paragraph breaks and commas. (He’s a big fan of polysyndeton.) His sensibility seeped into my fingertips, and the writing rules were completely reshuffled in my head.
By literally copying your favorites, you’ll start to see the invisible threads that hold up the words. You’ll sense the gears that turn the story.
Let me know how this goes or how you copy your favorite authors.
This one is probably the hardest sell.
I’m guessing that plenty of people have told you to try meditation. But I’m also guessing they didn’t tell you how it would help you become a better writer.
You know those books that feel effortless? The prose is breezy, the pages roll by like water, and the story itself feels like it was drawn from the very source of life? This kind of writing comes, I believe, after you learn how to better understand your own mind. When you acknowledge your thoughts and give them some room, allowing them to tumble past you like Styrofoam cups on a city street, it gives you a lot more time and space to reach your destination.
Let’s face it. Most of our thoughts aren’t doing us any favors. When you’re trying to figure out a character’s arc and you can’t stop worrying about money or a recent argument or that horrific story you saw on the news, your work suffers. The first time you thought about these things was helpful. The eleventh? Not so much.
I know what you’re thinking (maybe). You’re already investing a massive amount of time and energy trying to become a writer. How can you possibly seek nirvana at the same time? Fair. But believe me when I say, the upsides to meditating are vast. The fleeting moments you do have to write will no longer feel rushed or tangled. You’ll relax into the process because you’ll be able to soothe that voice that’s banging a pot in the back of your mind, screaming, “Your book sucks! That deadline you set for yourself is a week away! She’s never going to come back to you!”
“What’s up, voice?” you’ll answer. “You mad today? I get it. What if we talk about this after I finish working on the thing that will make both of us feel better?”
The voice will be so caught off guard, it will use that pot to cook you some gazpacho or something. (Do you cook gazpacho before cooling it? I dunno. I don’t watch cooking YouTube videos.)
I personally believe that the next frontier for writers doesn’t have anything to do with twists or structure or genre or any of that stuff. I think it has to do with quieting the noise of the world so completely that you can’t help but tap into the very source of what makes us human.
Stories like Twin Peaks, Adventure Time, or Fargo plunge beneath the rules to bring us somewhere deeper. And those kinds of stories change us profoundly. (If you hate those shows, then go ahead and ignore this whole section.)
There are plenty of free apps online that will train you how to meditate. I use Headspace. I’ve heard Calm is nice.
What are your thoughts?
VI. DEDICATE TO GETTING BETTER
I’ll bet you think you’ve done this. But trust me when I say that there is real power in speaking it aloud. To yourself. To your loved ones.
By declaring your intentions out loud, you’ll start holding yourself accountable for improving both consciously and subconsciously. That might mean using different structural advice—graduating from Save the Cat to Dan Harmon’s Story Circles to Joseph Campbell to the Heroine’s Journey. It might mean writing for twenty minutes after your brain thinks it’s done for the day. It might mean throwing out an entire book that just isn’t working. (What if you throw out <insert book you absolutely hated> and replace it with <insert book you absolutely loved>??)
By speaking your intention to others, you can get help. One of the most valuable things I’ve done for my work is to have multiple people read early drafts out loud to me. It’s scary to read your own stuff. It’s even scarier to read it out loud to someone. But it is downright terrifying to hear someone else read it to you. You’ll hear all of the warts and thorns and inconsistencies, and it will suuuuuuuuck. But then you can start fixing them and create something way better. And that will ruuuuuuuuule.
VII. CREATE A SCHEDULE (AND GET OTHERS TO ADHERE TO IT)
This, of course, is the easiest thing on this list. People respect writers and their time and will give them all the hours in the day to…
I’m just kidding. I can’t even laugh this time.
This one is probably the hardest of them all and probably why people pay thousands of dollars to escape to a graduate program so they can work on their art. My fiancée and I have struggled a lot with writing schedules. (She’s not the heartbreaker, by the way. She’s the heartmaker.) Every other writer I know has also grappled with someone in their lives not getting it. If you sit down to do something worthwhile for yourself, then you will get interrupted constantly. Partners, relatives, children, and pets hate us, and they hate our writing, and they will stop at nothing to prevent us from doing it.
Of course, the truth is they just don’t understand. It’s hard enough for writers to fortify our own minds against distraction. The work is so challenging that we’re constantly reaching for excuses not to write. (My apartment has been spotless since the day I decided to become an author.) When other people interrupt, it can feel twice as egregious because we were already fighting against ourselves. If you’re anything like me, you’ll carry the frustration of that interruption throughout the rest of your writing day, and it will ruin everything. (Step #V helps with this.)
Have a serious conversation with your loved ones about what you need to reach your aspirations. Have that conversation as many times as it takes. You’ll need to balance your goals with theirs, of course, and you’ll still find yourselves constantly stepping on each other’s toes. Possibly for years.
It’s important to know that this is part of the process. Every single writer you admire struggled with interruptions. With feeling selfish. With resenting those that got in the way of their dreams. (I just read that Lincoln briefly ended his engagement to Mary Todd after he realized marriage would cut into his reading time.)
Embrace the frustration. Talk about it. Try again tomorrow.
When my third book, Scary Stories for Young Foxes, won a Newbery Honor, the heartbreaker from the first paragraph actually contacted me for the first time in fifteen years. (Trust me, this happened. I would be ashamed to concoct such a predictable arc for this essay.) Fortunately, somewhere in the process of becoming an author, I had fallen in love with the finer things in life. Like writing. And heartmakers.
But it bears pointing out that I accomplished my initial goal. My methodology is perfect. And you should follow it to the letter.
(But in all seriousness, good luck.)
If you want to share what you’re learning or ideas based on Christian’s advice and challenges, or if you just want to connect with others who are tackling this work, comment on this blog post, post in our Facebook group, or Tweet us @SCBWISOCALLA with the hashtag #KTWriteOn and be sure to mention Christian (@cmheidicker) too!
Need more inspiration? Check out all the past #KTWriteOn prompts.