Janet Lee Carey-Dreamwalks DreamWalks Janet Lee Carey Award-winning author of novels for children and young adults

Getting Unstuck

October has come, and with it, the northwest rains. We had this conversation below before Anne’s summer fire. Air quality in Anne’s area still ranges from “good” to “dangerous.” As of now, she’s getting red flag warnings for extreme wildfire danger, and more smoke expected in the atmosphere. Anne says she will never ever take being able to breathe the air for granted! It is a gift, every single breath.

Here’s to you, Anne.
Hoping the rains come your way and the wildfires are out soon.

Dear Dreamwalkers, my friend and fellow children’s author Anne Nesbet gleaned four starred reviews for her book Daring Darleen Queen of the Screen . That’s something to celebrate! Anne’s stopped by to talk about Daring Darleen and fiddle with the question of what to do when you’re stuck. Yes, Anne gets stuck like the rest of us, and she’s willing to wrestle stuckness down and get some answers – or at least try.
Snag a copy Here

Lights! Camera! Kidnapping?
It’s 1914, and Darleen Darling’s film adventures collide with reality when a fake kidnapping set up by her studio becomes all too real. Suddenly Darleen finds herself in the hands of dastardly criminals who have just nabbed Miss Victorine Berryman, the poor-little-rich-girl heiress of one of America’s largest fortunes. Soon real life starts to seem like a bona fide adventure serial, complete with dramatic escapes, murderous plots, and a runaway air balloon. Will Darleen and Victorine be able to engineer their own happily-ever-after, or will the villains be victorious?

Nesbet, a University Professor of Film and Media Studies, draws from her research a wealth of historical detail about film production at the time. An excellent suggestion for precocious readers and film history buffs alike.
—School Library Connection

Janet: I’m sitting at my desk with a view of the garden drinking razz-cranberry sparkling water. So glad you could swing by to talk, Anne.

Anne: Very glad to be here, Janet! Thank you for the invitation! I’m looking out at the slightly perilous deck (safest for squirrels and Steller’s Jays) and at many overgrown trees and shrubs beyond. It’s a lovely day here today! Yesterday was too hot, but this morning the fog was back, and the air on our dog walk along the ridge was extra crisp and refreshing. And I’m drinking iced blueberry* tea.

Janet: I’m trying berry hard not to be jealous. I’m thrilled you’re here, Anne. I’d love to talk a bit about your newest book and then about what to do when stuck. Can we start with Daring Darleen, Queen of the Screen? I loved this book!

Anne: *Don’t be jealous! I noticed nobody else in this household likes “blueberry,” so I am trying to use up the neglected teabags. I’m so glad you liked DARING DARLEEN! Serial adventures are all about getting Seriously Stuck and then finding a way to Dramatically Unstick yourself again, aren’t they? True of characters–and true of writers, too. So that’s why “stuckness” seems like a good topic for a couple of writers to chat about over tea.

Janet; Yes! When we last met at our Erin Murphy Literary Agency retreat, you were Seriously Stuck on how to handle a requested revision. A group of us gathered for an all-out Daring Darleen brainstorm to deal with the stuckness. I remember the free-flying ideas and admired your willingness to listen, consider, and play even with the wildest ones. I wonder if your willingness to play has helped you get unstuck? Sometimes I clamp down and can’t see a way out.

Anne: I will never ever forget the amazingness of that group brainstorming session. I remember I was bemoaning at dinner how STUCK I was, and a few people at that table said, “Come on, Anne–let’s just go into this other room, and you keep talking to us until you figure out what needs to be done”–and that’s what we did. I still have the little DARING DARLEEN notebook with ideas from that evening.









Janet: That makes me happy.

Anne: I’ve tried to make a habit, since then, of holding “getting unstuck” sessions for stuck writers. It turns out that explaining to a few friendly souls where your plot has gone off the rails is actually the best medicine for that particular type* of stuckness: the stuck plot. [*There are many, many ways to be stuck or blocked, as I’m sure we’ll discuss!] One thing I’ve noticed while participating in a bunch of these sessions is that the Stuck Writer often misidentifies what it is about the plot that is really making them stuck. That’s why our wheels turn fruitlessly when we’re trying to power through those moments on our own, I guess! But a few other minds lending themselves to the problem can sometimes reflect something back that the Stuck Writer was avoiding or not seeing: “You keep saying the problem is X but isn’t it maybe Y? After all, Y keeps coming up when you describe this scene. I think there’s something big going on with Y!”

Now let me point out the obvious: being able to help other people get unstuck doesn’t at all mean you don’t get stuck anymore yourself. ALAS.

Janet: Ha! Good point, Anne. I love the idea of these sessions. We’ve been taught to think of the writer as the lone soul at the keyboard devising brilliance instantly. I’m very solitary, but I’ve also come to see that I sometimes end up working in a closed system. I need fresh air! When I can’t talk with a friend or in a small group about the trouble, I’ve found that ranting in my journal works wonders. Saying, “there’s no solution to this stupid plot problem!” breaks the ice, and a moment later my pencil jots down several solutions. A trusted group goes one better because people’s life experiences bring up wholly new options. One Daring Darleen question here. I was amazed by the ingenious ways Darleen and Victorine solved the wild plot twists. How was it solving the problems for your stuck characters? Easy? Dreadfully difficult? Or . . .

Anne: I like your analogy of bringing “fresh air” into the system! So, yes, characters and writers have this in common: they get stuck. And USUALLY they are “stuck” both in ways they see (“kidnappers have trapped us in a room, and the fire escape is too far away to reach!” or “wait! Is that a snake on the loose on this ferry boat?”) and ways they may not yet see. Darleen is the star of adventure films, working in a studio run by members of her extended family. Victorine is an orphaned heiress, trying to keep out of the clutches of villains who are after her family fortune. Darleen and Victorine learn–as they navigate those kidnappers and snakes and runaway balloons and etcetera–that what they both really want from life is to be the writers and directors of their own stories. That’s a lot for girls to want in 1914!

So, part of the writer’s job is to allow the surface stuckness (the kidnappers! And snakes!) give the characters and the readers hints about the deeper stuckness the characters are trying to overcome.

And WRITERS are very much in this boat, as well, because, as I said above, we often misdiagnose the thing that is holding us back.

Also–I keep meaning to say this and keep forgetting, even though it is hugely important–every block, every time we get stuck, feels uniquely terrible and uniquely permanent and uniquely hopeless. Every single time!

It can be funny in retrospect, but it’s the end of the world while you’re in the middle of it.

So writers are bringing their poor characters to the edge of the abyss–and meanwhile, the story may be doing the same thing to the poor writer! Compassion necessary, all around

Janet: Thank you for saying that, Anne. Each block can feel like “the end.” I’m in that pit right now with my WIP. What I need at that moment is confidence — and that can be sorely missing. One of the best cures for me at those moments is to recall conversations like these and think. Oh! Anne feels this way sometimes, and She’s still managing to write. Maybe I can back a few steps away from the precipice and ponder that. I’m so grateful to all the brave authors out there. And I’m just beginning to come to terms with the reality that life is Change. Change is Good. And Change usually presents itself as a Problem.

Anne: I remember what you said a few minutes ago: about how, when you get stuck, your reaction is too often to “clamp down.” That is SO HUMAN of you, Janet! Clamping down is like our human superhero talent! But it certainly leads to a lot of extra misery, doesn’t it? I don’t know whether I’m wise enough to think “change is good” about ALL change–but I do know that life IS change, and we are afloat in change and always changing.

So perhaps our writing should also be loosening itself up, learning to change and to accept change.

Our world is changing, too, and we have to learn to change with it, not to clamp down. That’s not easy. The stuckness of the world is a pretty huge stuckness. But perhaps we can learn to let go and build something new and just and lovely.

I’m also a musician, and that’s one of the key things anyone who plays an instrument has to try to do: not clamp down; keep those joints and muscles loose. Be always in the middle of change.

Janet: Musicianship is something else we share, Anne 🙂 I love what you said above. I think of the ups and downs of the writer’s rollercoaster. The “clamping down” response is holding on too tight while careening down. But the downslide provides momentum for going up again.

Anne: You know, I keep thinking of Daring Darleen, trying to suppress the joy she feels when climbing cliffs (because she thinks to be a good daughter, a good girl, she must avoid danger). Sometimes when we unclamp ourselves–when we let ourselves face the truth that change–and danger–are everywhere, both in life and in our stories, we find ourselves breathing more deeply, climbing higher, living and writing more freely.

A confessional example: I was so very stuck this spring, trying to rewrite another book. STUCK. Felt like I should pack up the pens and keyboard and stop trying to pretend I could ever write anything. I had already rewritten the book more than once. And then my daughter said, “Why don’t you do X?” And I said in despair, “But that would change everything!”

And THEN I let that thought hover in the air for a moment: “That would change everything.”

And THEN I said, “You know, you’re right. I should try that.”

It means rewriting the whole book from scratch. But when I decided to take the leap–to start climbing up the cliff–I felt the sort of wild joy that Daring Darleen feels: the joy of deep change.

And I was able to write again, word after word, page after page. It feels like magic, but it’s really, I guess, about letting go.

Janet: Ah! What a great turnaround story, Anne! I love your courageous willingness to leap. I’m terribly curious about the “X,” she suggested, but I’ll try and wait patiently until I have the book in my hands.

Thanks for your thoughts, playfulness, courage and heart, Anne. It’s easier to face stuckness when I’m with friends. Such fun talking with you.

Anne: Thank you for dangling a rope down a cliff when I was frozen–and for reminding me today that sometimes the best thing for a writer to do is to throw the ropes away and simply climb!

poster by Books Inc. Berkley

Anne Nesbet is the author of the historical middle-grade novels Cloud and Wallfish and The Orphan Band of Springdale, as well as three fantasy novels for middle-graders. Her books have received numerous accolades, including multiple starred reviews and appearances on many best book and notables lists. A professor at the University of California, Berkeley, Anne Nesbet lives with her family in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Find Anne online:
Website http://annenesbet.com/
Twitter @AnnenesBet
Facebook https://www.facebook.com/AnneNesbet
Instagram #annenesbet

3 comments on “Getting Unstuck

  1. Lovely to eavesdrop on your conversation. I had some help getting unstuck at the EMLA 2019 retreat from Anne and company.

  2. Hi Kristin
    So glad to hear your story from the 2019 retreat. I love the group brainstorming process. Sometimes a fellow creative will ask just the right question, opening the way past the roadblock.
    I wish you the best of luck with what you’re writing now, Kristin.

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