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Playing Dress-Up

Originally posted to Flickr as Girl. By Ray_from_LA

Yesterday was Halloween, which in addition to the trick-or-treaters and piles of candy, seems to call out some very strong opinions, especially all over social media. People who love Halloween and people who hate it. I’m probably somewhere in the middle, myself. I love carving pumpkins, chilly weather, changing leaves, and my kids’ excitement. I don’t love the over-priced costumes (we always wind up making our own out of odds and ends we have on hand; this year I had a water spirit, a pirate, and a super hero) and the candy that no one in my family can eat anyway due to food allergies. (I’m also generally pro on the great pumpkin-spice debate issue, but my husband is legit allergic to even the smell of cinnamon, so that’s kind of out in our house). BUT there is one aspect of Halloween that as I was considering the holiday, I realized actually related to a writing issue I was having this week, and that is the fun of playing dress-up, the sheer freedom and excitement of pretending to be someone you’re not for a few hours.

For me, that’s really what writing is: sinking deep down into a character until I know her inside and out, letting myself become her while my fingers are touching the keys . . . letting that connection fill me with experiences and abilities I’ll never have, being carried away to a world I’ve never seen. At root for me, writing is magic. It’s fun, in the same way that hot-gluing seashells to a headband or donning a mask is fun for my kids. I’m immersed in a world where literally anything is possible, where the only bounds are those of my imagination. That doesn’t mean that my writing never takes me to a dark place or a raw or uncomfortable one, but still, even in those moments . . . it’s magic, and there’s just nothing else like that thrill of being fully immersed in a world I’ve created.

And yet . . . it’s that very magic that’s sometimes easy to lose track of along the way in the writing process. Because although it’s true that while writing fiction, we’re bound only by the limits of our own imaginations . . . it’s not as though there are no external pressures to be considered. Publishing contracts, the ever-changing market, sales numbers, reviews . . . and then of course there’s just the pressure, if you’re someone lucky enough to write as a full-time job, to produce a finished book on schedule, because your family is counting on the income. It’s an amazing gift to be able to earn a living at writing, don’t get me wrong, but still, it comes with the price-tag of that kind of pressure attached.

This past week, I hit a bit of a writing snag. Not writer’s block per se, because I was still getting in my word count goals, but each day’s work just felt a little more like a slog than usual. After some pondering, I realized that oddly enough the problem wasn’t in the chapter I was currently working on. Rather, it was in the one before it, which on examination just felt a bit . . . meh. This is a YA fantasy book, and the chapter was one building up to the final climax that involved a fast-paced, action-filled sequence. Yet it somehow felt off, even boring. At first glance, the pacing shouldn’t have been the issue, I’d kept things fast-paced to preserve the tension and move the plot forward towards the crescendo of the finale. But what I realized was that in my efforts to keep things moving forward at tense, break-neck speed, I’d forgotten to have fun and fully immerse myself into that particular chapter itself. It was serving its purpose of getting from plot point A to plot point B, but nothing more. Ultimately, I needed to let myself and my characters play dress-up a bit, even within the confines of high-speed action sequence.

In my case, this time of year provided not just figurative but literal inspiration, as well. My story doesn’t take place in our world, but seeing all the decorations surrounding preparations for the Day of the Dead celebrations made me realize how much fun it would be to add that type of a cultural celebration to the world I was writing about. And it fit perfectly into my problem chapter– rich with details and so much fun to explore and describe, and yet providing that underlying slightly spooky mood and reminder of mortality to maintain the tense mood. But I think it’s a lesson that can be almost universally applied: when in doubt, let your inner child play in the world that you’ve created. Let your imagination run free and ask yourself what would bring you the most excitement, the most joy, to write.

What about you? Have you ever struggled with a stretch of writing that seems dull or lifeless? How have you brought back the spark?

About Anna Elliott [1]

Anna Elliott is an author of historical fiction and fantasy. Her first series, the Twilight of Avalon trilogy, is a retelling of the Trystan and Isolde legend. She wrote her second series, the Pride and Prejudice Chronicles, chiefly to satisfy her own curiosity about what might have happened to Elizabeth Bennet, Mr. Darcy, and all the other wonderful cast of characters after the official end of Jane Austen's classic work. She enjoys stories about strong women, and loves exploring the multitude of ways women can find their unique strengths. Anna lives in the Washington DC area with her husband and three children.