Swoon Author Katie Van Ark: Say “Yes” to Your Own Writing

When Holly asked me months ago if I’d do a guest post on writing here on the blog, my first thought was, “Yay!” My second was, “But how will I choose a topic?” Because I love writing, and talking about writing, and writing about writing, and . . . you get the picture, right? As the deadline grew closer, though, I found the unthinkable happening. Just as my own novel was finally hitting bookshelves, I was losing my enthusiasm for writing.

Fellow Swoon author Karole Cozzo wrote a superb post about the tragic side of writing in December, but I’d gotten the “rainbow and unicorns” ending. I’d been picked for the first list. My book had been through two rounds of revisions plus copy edits and I was thrilled with how much more awesome the story had become. I’d gotten all this fun stuff like my own copy of the UK version (actual glitter on the cover — swoon!) and a great review from School Library Journal. I’d spent a perfect date night out with my husband taking shelfies at bookstores. But underneath all the fuss over my book baby, I was suffering from severe post-book depression.

So what was going on? In my conversations with her, my editor Holly had made it clear that Swoon Reads was looking not to publish just books but authors. (Sandy Hall’s second book, Signs Point to Yes, is already on my Goodreads list. Don’t forget to cast your vote for the cover!) My problem? I had no idea how I was going to write another book. Unlike Sandy’s six days to a rough draft, I’d spent years writing and re-writing The Boy Next Door before I even submitted it to Swoon. I had another book I’d worked on for three years but it didn’t exactly have that requisite romance-ever-after ending, a truth the Swoon editorial team gently pointed out in their rejection of it.

Completing a NaNo novel helped temporarily, but when #DecemberEdits rolled around I had to face the cold hard truth again. My newest manuscript was just one more manuscript in a pile of truly bad first drafts. I spent days going through every project I had and practicing my French vocabulary — the pardon-my-French kind, that is. Why did I think I could write? I was never going to write anything good again!

I’m currently studying writing at Vermont College of Fine Arts and, just a couple of days after The Boy Next Door was released, I had to be on  campus for the mandatory January residency. Like the Swoon community, VCFA is a fantastic group of supportive people and I was sure the trip would get me out of my funk. It did, but like a great novel, I found a happy ending in a different way than I expected. It wasn’t a lecture on revision or scenes or character motivation that changed my life, but a lecture on improv theater by a graduating student, Lianna McSwain.

One of the first things she learned in improv, Lianna explained, was to get over the fear of making mistakes. She had us play a game where we had to count to three repeatedly with a partner. (Harder than it looks – try it at home!) When we blew it, which we all inevitably did, we had to throw our arms up gymnast-style and shout “Ta-da!” We were all laughing by the time we took our seats again and Lianna continued with more great improv hacks, but that one exercise had been just what I needed. I’d been in a funk about my writing because I was beating myself up over mistakes. My book was already published, right? I should know how to do this? But as a skater, I would never berate myself over errors in a skating program. As a teacher, I wouldn’t have let my students keep ripping on their work. As a writer, I was going to make mistakes and I was going to have to get over that fact.

I came home excited to learn more about improv theater and the more I learned, the more re-inspired I became about my writing. Here’s some improv rules I found especially helpful:

●  Agree. Say yes. In improv, this means with your partner. So if your partner says, “Freeze! I have a gun!” then you don’t say “No, that’s just your finger.” In writing, this meant I had to stop saying “no” to my muse. Bryce Christiansen put it like this on his blog about improv rules for the workplace: “We all know what it’s like working with the guy who breaks rule #1. You’ve heard him, he’s the guy who says, ‘No, it won’t work,’ ‘That’s impossible,’ ‘Nope, we can’t do that.’ Not so much fun working with him, is it?”

●  Say yes, and . . . Once you’ve said yes to whatever the writing muse gave you, add something to it. Gotten the so-original line of “it’s hot in here” or something similar? Take it and supply the why. (Improv partners, a.k.a muses, shouldn’t have to do all the work themselves.) Add the “What did you expect in the middle of the Sahara?”

●  When in doubt, have fun. This one comes from Andrew Tarvin at “10 Life Tips from Improv Class” and Tarvin says it best with, “Sometimes, before a big show, I make sure I remind myself that improv is fun — that’s why I do it. I step on stage to have fun and entertain others. So when I’m in a scene and I’m not sure what else to do, I do what is fun; I play games, I make interesting choices, and I enjoy myself.”

Enjoy your writing time, friends.

Want more? Pan Theater’s list of improv rules provides lots more great advice.

Author spotlight

Katie Van Ark

Katie Van Ark lives in Michigan with two daughters, two cats, and one very patient husband who was also her …

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