Let’s play with an analogy today. Let’s equate Kidlit Summer School to running a 10k road race. You’ve signed up, you’re raring to get going. But of course, you won’t just show up on race day—you’ll train to build endurance. Over the upcoming steamy weeks, you’re going to pound pavement (okay, keyboards), learn tricks and tips from the pros for streamlining your techniques, and be cheered on by teammates who’ll help you dig deep for extra motivation when you need it.
And when race day comes, you’ll be cheered on from the sidelines by crowds of supporters. This is gonna be fun!
But wait. Back up just a bit. There’s a step that comes before any sweating begins, and it happens to be my favorite. You get to join the running club, shop for new springy shoes and super cute Lycra running shirts, and pencil in the training times in your calendar. You’re (literally) gearing up, building motivation, and giving yourself tools for success.
In NovelLand, we call this pre-writing… and it’s no less a part of the process than revision or drafting. It’s a time for allowing yourself to get excited and inspired. Your story is nothing but sheer possibility at this point, and you can play with abandon as you become acquainted with your characters and enter the world you’re creating for them.
It’s also a time to go from abstract to concrete, to begin zooming in closer and closer on the race map until, at last, you spot it: the starting line!
Try out any (or all) of these pre-writing activities to keep you energized while you wait for Day 1:
- Pinterest boards- create digital bulletin boards that help you get to know your characters (what does she look like, what would he wear, how is her room decorated), or their world (what is the scenery on his planet, how might the castle look or the monsters appear), or even one that simply evokes the mood of the story, to get you into the right frame of mind before a writing session. I’m an Author in Residence at a middle school and here’s an example one my students created when I had them do this assignment (using a similar program called Educlipper):
- Research the time, setting, or subject matter of your story through trips, texts, and personal interviews. I’m co-writing a novel set in the Gilded Age in Newport, RI and my co-author, Kris Asselin, and I spent a day walking the grounds of the mansion we’re using as our backdrop, snapped hundred of photos, and interviewed the caretaker at length. Since returning home, I’ve read a dozen books set in that time period and watched period dramas galore—this is hardly a hardship and I’m picking up the details that will make our descriptions as uber-rich as those high society types were.
- Interview your character. it can be a simple five questions or as detailed as an FBI background check, and there are tons of sample sheets online (Google: character worksheets) to get you started. Here’s a fairly basic one I have my students complete:
- Make a timeline for your story. For my YA Wanderlost that just released and follows a teen on her own for the first time and charged with leading a senior citizen’s bus tour through Europe, I went to AAA and collected brochures for actual European bus tour itineraries so I could see how much time might be allotted at each location and which routes would be followed. Below is a snippet of the timeline I had open next to me as I wrote my 2017 YA, Changes in Latitudes, which features a girl sailing from Oregon to Mexico. The timeline ended up dictating much of the story, because I needed to know the sailing times and weather conditions between each possible port, so I could figure out where to set pivotal scenes and how to get her into place for those events. The amenities she’d have access to at each port dictated how she’d be dressed and what tasks she’d need to concern herself with at each point in the trip. Had I skipped this step, the revision process would have been intense!
- Draw a map of the story’s world. Even if what you’re writing is less Game of Thrones and more “takes place on one square block in NYC,” maps are incredibly useful tools and they don’t have to be fancy. This is one of my co-author Gail Nall drew for us to use while drafting the You’re Invited series, which was set on the (fictional) teeny-tiny island of Sandpiper Beach in North Carolina:
- Create a playlist of songs that fit your story. I have a friend who blasts them on her drive home from work to get her in the world of the story, so even if you can’t write to music, it can be a helpful tool in your arsenal. This site has collected a series of authors’ playlists to give you some inspiration.
- Write your cover blurb. Last year during Kidlit Summer School I talked about how I always start my stories by writing the jacket flap copy.
- Send that blurb to friends and ask them to come up with five “what if’s” for twists and turns your story could take. People tend to underestimate how much of the book writing process relies on outside eyes and opinions to push things forward, and pre-writing is a perfect place to begin embracing that idea. You never know what jumping off points they might offer you!
So, while I’ll be cheering you all along the course (although, of course, writing is never a race. Bad Jen for even invoking this analogy!), I’m more excited to see you at the starting line, full of energy (and carbs) and wearing those cute, springy running shoes.
Have a blast gearing up!
Jen Malone writes fun and flirty YA travel romances with HarperCollins and humorous “girl power” MG adventures with Simon & Schuster. Her 2016 titles include The Sleepover (MG) and Wanderlost (YA). She once spent a year traveling the world solo, met her husband on the highway (literally), and went into labor with her identical twins while on a rock star’s tour bus. These days she saves the drama for her books. You can learn more about Jen and her books at http://www.jenmalonewrites.com. Find her on Twitter and Instagram @jenmalonewrites.
*Thanks to Jen for this excellent idea-generating post! Today is the last day to pre-register for KLSS and the pre-registration webinar is Wednesday, June 29. Click on this link for more details.