by Alison Potoma
This Fall, I was struck by a bout of writer’s block. I should point out that my writer’s block does not start with the blinking cursor. Writing the first chapter of a story for me is easy. I have an entire folder of first chapters. My writer’s block kicks in around chapters 2 or 3. When this happens, I carefully label the document, put it in the “New Story Ideas” folder on my computer and let it marinate there for another time.
When faced with my own brand of writers block, I tend to skim my previous first chapters, hoping that something will spark and get my juices flowing beyond 1500 words. But nothing was doing it for me. Everything felt…
Too gimmicky: Invisible girl.
Too overdone: Boy stranded on an island.
Too underdone: Kid riding on a Ferris wheel and… ???
So, I went back to what I would consider my practice novel, a middle grade with a wonderful alternative universe. I wrote it for my god-daughter. She wasn’t a big reader at the time, and I wanted to write something that might excite her. Looking back at my first drafts, I have to say, I did everything wrong. Too many adjectives, too much unnecessary description, not enough conflict etc etc etc, I could go on for a day and a half.
But what struck me was that I wrote that story for someone I cared about, and it made it worth the writing.
Getting to the Heart of the Matter
At the 2014 NESCBWI conference, Laurel Snyder gave a keynote speech where she talked about considering your audience. She asked the same question, “Who is it you write for?” Using the metaphor of a party, and being cornered in the kitchen, she spoke about how you are different people around, say your mother vs. a hot celebrity. She summarized that she writes for her 13-year-old self.
Who is it that I write for? My 13-year-old self? No. I seem to recall being into musicals at the time. My students? Although they are a great inspiration to me, and even though I enjoy sharing my stories with them, they are not necessarily where my seeds of inspiration grow from.
Turns out I write for my family, only, not as I know them now. I write for my family members as if they were 8 years old.
Like Having Tea With Your Imaginary Best Friend
I wrote The Smith Family Secret for my mother. Yes, the story came from my experiences being an art teacher, but ultimately, this is a book that my mother would have enjoyed very much as a 3rd grader. She would have loved that the protagonist is an artist with a brother and a sister. She would have identified with Cardiff, and drawn her own pictures to go along with the story. I’m sure of it. However much she enjoys these stories now, she would have loved them as a kid.
I am currently working on a space adventure series. This one is for my father… when he was 8 years old. He would have loved zooming around the universe with a genius kid astronaut. I have also added tons of references to my dad’s college buddies. I’m sad that he’ll never actually get to read this book, but I like to think that he’s sitting on a cloud in heaven getting a kick out of the giant metal robot.
Ultimately, asking myself the question, “Who do you write for?” pulled me out of my chapter 1 slump. My next story is for my grandfather’s 9-year-old persona. My Pop Pop is 86 years old and my hero. He spent his life taking care of other people, and makes every decision with his heart. He was an engineer, and has always enjoyed taking things apart and putting them back together again better than they were before. As soon as I knew WHO I was writing for, writing the first few chapters was no problem, and now I am on a trajectory for a thrilling science fiction middle grade.
I think Laurel was right. Once you know who you are writing for, the words tend to flow. My most successful pieces are ones that appeal to my family’s younger alter egos. Perhaps one day I will write a story for my 8-year-old self. But for now, writing for my family is pretty cool.
Who do you write for? Feel free to add your thoughts to the Writers’ Rumpus!