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The Big Damn Writer Advice Column

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It’s that time of the week when I answer your anonymous questions about writing and all that stuff connected to it. Every Thursday, I’ll be answering two questions from the Big Damn Writer Question Box.

Q: What are your thoughts on writing children believably if you do not spend time with children?

A: This one is tricky. My first instinct is to say, “spend time with children,” but that’s a stupid thing to say because it’s not like you can just acquire children. People tend to think it’s a little sketch to be like, “Hey, I’m researching a book. Give me access to your children, strangers.” On the other hand, I also kind of think, why would someone want to write about children if they don’t know kids? Don’t take that personally. It’s the first week of school and my kids aren’t adjusted to their sleep schedules and they’re cranky as hell and I just want to escape into a paradise where no one yells at me when they can’t find their Harley Quinn headband.

So, onto the actual advice that will help you: books about developmental stages in children. Even though I have kids of my own, I had to turn to What To Expect The Second Year to remember how to write Olivia in The Sister. It’s just been too long to remember what kids are like at that age. You can find tons of parenting books that lay out developmental milestones and analysis of thought processes that we’ve forgotten experiencing as adults. For example, if you’re writing pre-teen and teen girls, pick up Reviving Ophelia and Queen Bees and Wannabes. Writing teen boys? Masterminds and Wingmen. You’ll be able to find books on kids of any age, and they’re going to keep you from falling into the trap of writing unrealistic or underdeveloped child characters. Read about kids who aren’t neurotypical, too.

One caution when writing kids: precocious children like the kid from Jerry McGuire work well on screen, but become eye-roll inducing drags on the story in books. I don’t know why this happens. But avoid the trap of writing the perfect, always cute, well-behaved-unless-the-trouble-is-humorous child characters. For a great example of well-written, realistic children in a novel, check out Everything I Never Told You, by Celeste Ng (which is a fairly dark book, so, warning there) and Sustained, by Emma Chase.

 

Q: I’ve always wanted to be a writer, and any time I’ve stopped writing I’ve started up again, but recently I’ve felt really discouraged. I’ve been taking writing classes, and try to schedule “writing time”, but no matter how hard I try I just can’t seem to find the words. It’s like I’ve lost my voice. Even my journal writing has stopped. Help?

A: So, you’re taking writing classes. I assume you’re having to write for assignments? That’s where your writing went. There is a finite amount of mental energy a person has in a day, and if you’re writing for your assignments, or even just sitting through a class where your whole focus is writing, it might just be that your brain doesn’t shift gears easily from that. That’s not to say you should stop taking the classes if you’re enjoying them. It just means you have to structure your writer brain differently.

I’m prone to this kind of burn out, so I added a special section in my journal every week. It’s adapted from an article about how to function with adult ADHD:

My journal, open to a page with a big grid drawn on it. Across the top are columns for Goals, Plan, Worries, and Self-Care, while the rows are labeled with days of the week.

I’ve blurred out some of the more personal stuff and projects that I haven’t announced yet. But anyway, I’ve found that having a visual that I can put together in the morning and go, “This is what I have to write today, this is how I’m going to accomplish this, but hey, what’s holding me back and what can I do to fix that,” as well as having an overview of my bigger goals for the week, helps me not get overwhelmed. (For those interested in planning and bullet journals, this is a “Dutch Door” spread; the other days of the week are on the other side of the split.) I used to struggle changing gears, but now my productivity has shot up because I have my thoughts organized and I’ve thought about the stuff that might be dragging my writing down.

This might help you manage the writing you’re doing for your classes and your own writing. Even if you’re just writing down, “Write for ten minutes,” and that’s all you can do, great. I’m also a big fan of the Pomodoro method of time management for building up your writing focus muscles. But remember: you have permission to be a writer and go through periods where writing is hard. It doesn’t make you less of a writer. It makes you a writer.

Wanna see your questions get answered (or just wanna air a grievance?) Put it in the box!

6 Comments

  1. Chris
    Chris

    So you are going to write more on Ian & Penny? Yay!!!

    I haven’t read where you discussed anything more on them as a book!

    The dreaded follow up question…do you know when it will be released? Ballpark time?

    September 7, 2017
    |Reply
    • JennyTrout
      JennyTrout

      The third book(s) in their series will hopefully be out this coming winter!

      September 7, 2017
      |Reply
  2. Vix
    Vix

    I love your journal! Is there a system you use or did you invent it yourself? It looks incredibly approachable and useful.

    September 7, 2017
    |Reply
    • JennyTrout
      JennyTrout

      I use a bullet journal! It’s really the only way I can keep track of anything.

      September 7, 2017
      |Reply
  3. Quelaag
    Quelaag

    “One caution when writing kids: precocious children like the kid from Jerry McGuire work well on screen, but become eye-roll inducing drags on the story in books.”

    They get a lot of eye-rolls from movie audiences as well. “The Book of Henry” got a lot of flack for using the trope. Tim Burton’s “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” also took some criticism for portraying Charlie as a tiny Jesus.

    September 7, 2017
    |Reply
    • JennyTrout
      JennyTrout

      Charlie and the Chocolate factory is a really good “how not to” for this week’s question because when you compare the two, the original Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory has kids exhibiting realistic behaviors in overblown, cartoonish situations, and the Tim Burton very has overblown, cartoonish kids who have been stripped of all realism.

      September 7, 2017
      |Reply

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