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Meet 2012 Golden Heart Finalist Mary Danielson

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Today, as part of our series introducing 2012 Golden Heart nominees, we welcome Mary Danielson, who is nominated in the YA category. Mary is a medical student and YA writer from Austin, TX. She has a deep and abiding love for pumpkin pie, Broadway musicals, and unrequited love stories. All of these things make an appearance in The Suspicions of Cairo Jones, her finalist for the 2012 Golden Heart® award, about a street-smart, heart-dumb girl reporter who upends 1920s New York City looking for a murderer…and the perfect first kiss. She blogs about writing, travel, and pie at www.MaryDanielson.com.

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Rekindling Inspiration

(or How To Stop Staring at Evening Gowns and Start Writing Again)

Hello, Rubies! Thank you so much for having me over today! Writing a post for this blog, which I’ve been reading and loving for years, is surreal. Though, that’s the theme of a Golden Heart final, isn’t it? This last month has been a whirlwind of excitement. First, there was the giddiness after the initial call, then the fun of meeting all the other finalists, and – of course! – hunting for the perfect awards ceremony dress. I’ve been walking on air for weeks. Unfortunately, I’ve also been walking away from something important: writing.

In between the thrill of finaling and the demands of real life, I let the actual work fall by the wayside. There were hundreds of loop e-mails to read and a fabulous dress to find, after all! Fast forward to late April and a looming deadline for my work-in-progress.  Where did the time go? I needed to get back into the story – fast. Unfortunately, that was easier said than done. After all that time away from my WIP, my writing mojo had disappeared. My heroine suddenly sounded shrill, my hero was a bit of wimp, and my plot jumped not only a shark, but a whole pod of dolphins. Luckily, I’m an old hand at wooing inspiration. Writers Block and I are dear, personal friends, so I’ve developed an attack method that works for me.

Step One:  Read Aloud – When my prose begins to flatten or that speakeasy scene refuses to sparkle, it’s storytime.  I’ll go back a chapter or two and, just like wee little Mary did with A Little Princess, read it out loud. Something about speaking the words makes them easier to visualize. Most times, this is all I need to kick start my writing. The voice of the heroine will start taking over, or a bit of dialogue will demand to be written next. It’s like magic! Well, you know, if magic required a cough drop after use.

Step Two: Plot – Y’all, I’m a plotter. Before I start writing, I make up character dossiers, chart all my turning points, and even use – horror! – math to map out my chapters. So, when I’m feeling especially stuck, I go back to my happy place: the outline. I know the pantsers among us are cringing, but more plotting always calms me down. If I can review a scene’s GMC or the emotional arc of an act, that blank page doesn’t seem so scary. Having a roadmap to follow keeps me calm, in writing as on car trips.

Step Three: Talk It Out With Friends – Unfortunately, plotting doesn’t fix everything. Sometimes I plot myself into a corner of epic proportions, so tight and cramped only my writing buddies can talk me out of it. Such was the case with the current WIP. After a week of plotting and reading and general freaking out, I went to brunch with my two best friends. Between the scones and the book brainstorming,  I left feeling a million times better. My friends managed to talk both me and my heroine off the ledge.

Step Four: BICHOK – Of course, steps one through three are never enough. One of my favorite writing mantras, which I’m sure you’ve all heard before is: Butt in Chair, Hands on Keyboard. Sure, I can have an inspiration plan all I want, but if I don’t actually sit down to write? It’s never going to work. Writing mojo comes and goes, but it’s more apt to hang around, if actual writing goes on. Shocking, right? And, yet, I never seem to learn.

Luckily, I seem to have finally found the balance of being an excited first-time Golden Heart finalist and actually writing. It requires equal parts BICHOK and double lattes!

What do you do when the words refuse to flow, Rubies? Just in case you’re like me and need to remain caffeinated, I’ve brought along two $10 Starbucks gift cards as a thank you gift for inviting us over. Comment with your favorite inspiration tip (or a call for writer’s block commiseration!) and your name will go in the hat!

57 Responses to “Meet 2012 Golden Heart Finalist Mary Danielson”

  1. Elisa Beatty says:

    Welcome, Mary!!

    So great to have you blogging with us today!

    I love this post–especially about how just diving back into a book that seems dead dead dead is an act of magic. You start reading, start tinkering, keep those fingers on the keyboard and suddenly the manuscript has a pulse again….and then it’s up and running.

    Also, I love the idea of a YA set in 1920s New York!!!

    • Thanks so much for having me, Elisa! Y’all are the best!

      It really is amazing, isn’t it, how steady work on a book helps everything? When I’m not writing, it’s easy to forget that. A book’s problems can seem so big and impossible to conquer, but getting back to the writing is always the key.

      And, thank you! I’ve always been such a 1920s nerd, so it was a thrill to write. All those hours spent watching Thoroughly Modern Millie as a kid actually seem to have been productive! ;)

      • Elisa Beatty says:

        I have a friend who’s personal rule is to open her WIP file every single day. Even if all she does is say “AAAAAAAAH!” and close it again in a panic, at least she laid hands on it.

        It’s amazing how fast momentum gets lost when you take even just a few days away, and how fast it builds when you do at least a little work. I find that as long as I at least glance at it daily, new ideas for the next scene, or for a scrap of dialogue, or for a way of describing a bit of scenery just come flowing into my brain unbidden.

        Like they say, you can’t win the game if you don’t show up.

  2. Welcome, Mary, and congrats. If it’s any consolation, the writing often takes a backseat to the thrill of a GH final, as I’m sure many will attest. Thus, you are not only not alone but in some fantabulous company!

    Unlike you, I don’t plot at all and have, of necessity, set my stories aside for lengthy swathes of time on numerous occasions. Jump start can require several attempts, but on that seems to give me my batteries the most juice in the least time is Text Aloud. Listening to the story being read, I can close my eyes and be swept away (but for those times my ears detect fingernails on the blackboard. Then I’m jarred anyway, so go in and take care of a little business.) While not the perfect reader (Tears is always pronounced like it’s homonym, tares), I’ve found it helpful (and I can say I’m working when my eyes are closed!);-)

    • Thank you for the welcome, Gwynlyn!

      I absolutely love the idea of using Text Aloud as a writing aid. It never ceases to amaze me how different words can sound, when read aloud. Even just reading to myself, it becomes so much easier to pick out problem areas in the prose. It would be worth the odd pronunciations, just to have a computer do the work for me! Plus, I’d save a lot on throat lozenges, I suppose. ;)

    • Elisa Beatty says:

      I keep saying I have to try that….

  3. Amanda Brice says:

    OK, I officially want to read your book. 1920s YA murder mystery set in NY and your heroine loves Broadway musicals? I WANT!

  4. AJ Larrieu says:

    Wow, do I need this advice right now! The project I’m currently working on, I’ve had to stop and start half a dozen times. Every time, I have to ease myself back into the story. Usually I do it by reading at least the first few chapters over again. And then there’s the “love list.” It’s not my idea; I got it from Stephanie Perkins writing on Natalie Whipple’s blog. I make a list of all the things I love about the book, big and small. For the book I’m working on right now, the love list includes:
    -the way the hero leaves his ties lying around his apartment
    -the graffiti on the ceiling of the bar where the heroine works
    -the heroine’s red silk shirt that laces up the back
    …plus a dozen other things, but I’ll spare you! When my confidence starts to flag and I forget why I needed to write this story, I go back to my love list to remind myself.

    Great post! And I’m itching to read your book…it sounds fabulous!

  5. Great post! I’m a panster, so plotting can actually confuse me and knock enthusiasm right out of me. I have a general idea, but I love that my story shifts and turns unexpectedly and the result is better than any plotting I could have done. When I find myself ‘out of the flow’ of my story, go for a long walk, then I go back and read at random, pretending I’ve picked up someone else’s book (I know, but it works). When I hit a sentence or paragraph that strikes me as, “Hey, I wrote that? That’s pretty good!” Something happens – the juices flow again with enthusiasm and inspiration right behind. That’s when my fingers start flying on the keyboard again.

    • Kathleen, I love your process for becoming unstuck. It’s amazing how differently pantsers and plotters approach things, isn’t it? I have a really difficult time turning off my “internal editor,” but reading like a reader sounds like a brilliant idea. It’s like coming back to a long-shelved MS – there are always wonderful little bits you can’t even remember writing!

  6. Lynn Cahoon says:

    I’m a pantser – mostly. I can outline up to a point, then I want to get into the story, let my characters have their head, so to speak.

    So when I’m not feeling the groove, I make myself open the document. Just a page, or two, or maybe just a sentence. Any kind of forward movement.

    It’s the little bits that get you done sometimes. :)

    Congrats on your final (and finding a dress…)

    • Thank you, Lynn! You’re exactly right – in writing, it’s the little bits that matter most sometimes. Eventually, things will come unstuck, if you keep going. They never seem to just unstick themselves, while the file is closed…no matter how much I may want them to! ;)

  7. Writer’s Block is your friend too?! Damn, the lady gets around. I thought she just lived at my house ;)

    I’m a total panster, but I’m trying (trying!!) to do outlines for my second book. On the one hand, I love having a “roadmap” (love that expression too, btw), but I fear my writing won’t have the same energy if I’m not letting the twists come organically. Guess we’ll find out soon if I can pull it off :)

    Thanks for sharing! Really enjoyed the post!

    • Oh no, Rom, I was hoping Miss Writer’s Block was only friends with me. ;) I swear, she must have evil minions, with how often she visits over here!

      I love how different we all are, when it comes to our process. I tried my hand at pantsing with this current WIP…it lasted about a chapter before I broke down and had to outline. It’s a compulsion!

      Good luck with your own outline adventures! It’s amazing how often editors and agents want to see outlines for books, when so many of us are pantsers. The before-and-after of the outlines versus the shiny, finished books are probably amazing to compare.

    • AJ Larrieu says:

      Romily, I have this problem to. I love the process of discovering the story as I go, and I worry that if I plan it out too much, the book will suffer. Still, I envy the plotters. It seems so much safer!

  8. Pintip says:

    This is great advice, Mary! Exactly what I needed to hear right now!
    This might sound weird, but when I can’t bear to look at my own WIP, I critique other people’s manuscripts. Friends’ or entries from a contest, whatever. It helps me stay connected with writing but is a nice change of
    pace to think about someone else’s story. By the end

    • Pintip says:

      Sorry — by the end of it, I’m usually inspired to work on my own. Good luck Mary!!! You can do it!

    • Thanks so much, Pintip! I’ve never thought about it, but I can definitely see how critiquing for others would be helpful. It’s like critically reading a favorite book – just paying attention to what others are doing with craft can be revelatory. I love that idea!

      Also…

      Happy birthday, chica! I hope you’re having a lovely day!

  9. Kat Cantrell says:

    Hi Mary! I really liked this post. Except for the reading aloud, your steps are pretty much what I do as well. Some days, BICHOK is all that keeps me going. I’m typing and saying to myself – “Yes, it’s dreck. Keep writing. Fix later.” It’s hard, but I do it! (Usually I’m whining to my CP at the same time, because you know, I like to multi-task) Looking forward to meeting you in Anaheim and can’t wait to see the dress!

    PS I’m with Amanda – your book sounds AWESOME.

    • Thank you, Kat! I’m so glad you stopped by! Isn’t BICHOK amazing? When I’m actually slogging through, it can feel like torture sometimes, but there is nothing like it for getting past the sticking point. Well, nothing except complaining to a CP. I’m totally with you there! The amount of long, whiny e-mails my poor best friend has suffered through has to number in the thousands. It may not work as well for getting the page numbers higher, but man does it make me feel better! ;)

  10. Nikki McIntosh says:

    Yay Mary!! Great post – I’m a plotter too … couldn’t get through without it … but it does get me in a corner too sometimes!

    My favourite way to get “inspired” is through collaging – either through Pinterest or just the old fashioned way (cutting out photos). Nothing like seeing my heroine and hero to spark the muse!!

    Nikki McIntosh

    • Nikki, I think we might be process soulmates! I’m not only a major plotter, but I collage for all of my books as well. I make digital collages (because glue and I are a disaster together!), which stay as the background to my computer while I’m working on the book. There’s something about making a visual representation for the book that is wonderful for inspiration, isn’t there?

  11. robena grant says:

    I love the sound of your story. Congrats! again, on the GH final.

    I’m mostly a pantser but I do a bit of plotting in that first thinking/discovery stage of the book but then I toss it all aside to write. In rewrites I tend to focus a bit more on plot, and rearranging scenes, etc. Reading aloud puts me to sleep, hee hee. If I get blocked I like to take long walks by myself and think things through.

    • Elisa Beatty says:

      Yes…long walks. Any kind of exercise. Swimming. Jumping in the shower. (Water seems to be a natural catalyst for creativity.)

      • Elisa, that’s a great point. There is definitely something about water, isn’t there? Taking a bath is one of my favorite cure-alls for thinking through a difficult scene.

    • Thank you, Robena! Exercise is a wonderful suggestion. It’s amazing what just getting outside can do for clearing one’s mind. Right now, I have a rather exuberant Bichon puppy at home, so any walk is filled with her rushing ahead to smell another bush. It’s not so great for calming my mind, but it’s wonderful for a laugh. ;)

  12. Yay, Mary! Welcome and congrats, and what a fantastic post!!! It’s so easy for us to get lost in all that is the GH final. I know. I was there too. So, I really love that you addressed this and came up with some fab solutions when times get tough.

    I have found that if I am stuck, there is something inherently wrong with my story. I have to take a step back and figure out where I’m going wrong. Very often, it’s in my balance of characters. I can’t tell you how many times I forget to bring the hero into the story. Hahaha. He’s important, but for some reason, he often gets left out on the curb. Not sure why, but there you have it.

    Thanks so much for being here!

    • Diana Layne says:

      yes, inevitably I’m going wrong. Or, like now, with the new WIP–not really sure where to start–so social media and promoting is actually more appealing, lol.

    • Thank you so much, Darynda! You bring up a wonderful point. It’s rare that I stop motion, when everything is working in the book. There is always something that needs to be fixed, if only I can find it. Now…if only finding it were easier!

      • EXACTLY! Figuring out what’s wrong is SO difficult. Sometimes I think I know, I fix that, but something is still wrong. So, I like to turn to whining. And knocking my head against the wall. And more coffee. Something eventually breaks loose. Either my problem or a bit of drywall.

  13. Hey Mary! Great blog post! I’ll admit I’ve lost my balance a little as well. I can really connect to steps 2 and 4. I’m a total plotter (who occasionally enjoys pantser field trips/tangents). And my mantra is BICHOK. I can’t think who said it, but one of my favorite quotes is, “I only write when I’m inspired. I make sure I’m inspired every morning at 9.” (I’m paraphrasing, of course.)

    Congratulations on the GH final! Looking forward to seeing you in Anaheim!!

    • Susan, I absolutely love that quote. BICHOK is the only way I can get through an MS. It continually awes me that some writers can finish a whole first draft on one tide of inspiration. All too often it’s a battle for me!

      Congratulations right back to you! Anaheim can’t come soon enough. I’m so excited to meet y’all!

  14. Congratulations, Mary. Your story sounds really fresh. Crossing my fingers that editors and agents will think so too.

    I always fall back on writing a synopsis when I get stuck. It helps refocus me on the characters’ GMC and the overall story conflict and goals.

    • Laurie, thank you so much!

      Also, I hadn’t thought of it, by going back to a synopsis is a wonderful tool. As a heavy plotter, GMC are so important to me when planning a book. All too often, I lose sight of them when actually writing. I have a feeling I’ll be trying this myself next time… Thank you for sharing!

  15. Hi, Mary, and congratulations on your GH final!!

    I can SO relate to walking away from your manuscript and, when I come back weeks later, having to force myself into my characters’ world again. Ugh. I’ve found starting at the beginning again (as frustrating as that can be) helps me. I start reading from the beginning, tweaking as I go, until I get to where I had to stop. Usually, I end up strengthening the story, so even though starting at the beginning sounds like it takes too much time, it’s time well spent.

    And, like Laurie, refocusing on the characters’ GMC charts really helps me get back into their heads…

    • Thank you so much, Anne Marie!

      I’m a big fan of going through the MS from the beginning. It’s always amazing to see how much can be improved, when reading an MS with fresh eyes. As Pintip said above, editing can be a great tool for getting re-inspired. The doctor in me loves how efficient using a block to edit is, as well! ;) Thanks for sharing!

  16. Shoshana Brown says:

    When the words refuse to flow, I go to a coffee shop. Something about the caffeine (even if I’m not the one ingesting it) and the white noise seems to help.

    Congrats on your final, Mary. The Suspicions of Cairo Jones sounds awesome!

    • Oh, Shoshana, I love that idea! Changing locations at all can be so helpful, when writer’s block looms. Though, I always end up getting sucked in to other people’s conversations at Starbucks. Headphones are a must, for me!

      Also, thank you so much! I’m still amazed by it all, even over a month later!

    • Love that idea, Shoshana – it works well for me. In fact, I went through the Starbucks drive-thru today and just the wafting of coffee-scented air from the store into my car put me in the mood to write. I’m like a Pavlovian dog, I guess. LOL

  17. Carol Post says:

    Hi Mary,

    The suspicions of Cairo Jones sounds like a great story.

    I’m totally with you on the whole slacking-on-writing thing. I feel like I’ve been away from it FOREVER! I sold my GH finaling entry to Love Inspired the end of January, then spent the next two months on revisions. Then I’ve been keeping up with everything GH related, doing the agent search, designing my web site, etc. Now it’s time go buckle down and get back on the WIP.

    The things that work for me are rereading what I wrote previously (after this long, I have no choice–I can’t remember my story!) and BICHOK. When I’m not in the mood, I make myself write, even though I think it sounds like crap. Then when I reread it the next day, it doesn’t sound half as bad as it did the day before and just needs a little tweaking.

    Carol

    • Hi Carol! What a wonderful, whirlwind couple of months you’ve had. It’s a bit belated, but congratulations on your sale! Love Inspired must have fabulous taste, snapping up both you and Kristen. :D

      I love that so many of us use the BICHOK method. It can be tough going, but it’s the only thing I truly swear by. You’re exactly right – things that sounds iffy today almost always look better tomorrow.

      Good luck on your revisions and agent hunting! I’ll have my fingers crossed for more good news.

  18. My never-fail approach to getting “un-stuck” (besides calling my sister!) is to go out to the garden and start yanking out weeds. With my hands occupied, I find all sorts of ideas begin flowing through my head.

    Unfortunately, it also means I start muttering out loud, and having conversations with the characters, which often devolve into full-on arguments as they refuse to do as I say.

    Luckily, my neighbors are used to it by now, and I rarely get strange looks, or mothers pulling their kids away from me anymore.

    • Ha! Oh, Eileen, I love the image of you having character conversations while gardening. We writers are definitely just a bit different from everyone else sometimes! I have been known to try out dialogue in my car, while stuck in traffic. Other drivers probably think I’m talking on a hands-free, but if they only knew…

  19. Diana Layne says:

    congrats on the final, Mary! And I believe your tips are right on target–thanks for sharing! Oh…don’t enter me for the gift card drawing, not a coffee drinker (nor is there a Starbucks in range for at least 60 miles). I’m sure someone who is a coffee drinker will love the gift card!

  20. Beth Langston says:

    The RWA National Conference has given me writer’s block.

    My brain gets so chock-full of ideas, techniques, and information that I get home and freeze. No writing for six weeks or more.

    Luxuriating in my TBR pile seems to help. I write YA, so I read anything but YA. Mostly murder mysteries. That makes me hanker for my YA WIP again.

    • Beth, the same thing happens to me post-conference! I always think all that writing talk will make me extra-inspired, but it does take awhile to wind down and process everything.

      Also, I love that you have a penchant for murder mysteries! They’re one of my favorite genres to go to for inspiration. I swear, I’ve read Aunt Dimity’s Death by Nancy Atherton so many times when blocked, the spine is falling apart. ;)

  21. Karen says:

    Hi Mary.
    Wonderful insights. I also go back a few chapters to get myself back into the emotion and pacing of my characters and story so the stopping/starting place blends well.
    And looking for that perfect dress was very distracting. ;-)
    Can’t wait to meet you in California.
    Karen

  22. Elisa Beatty says:

    Thanks so much for being with us today, Mary!

    The winners of the Starbucks gift cards are Kat Cantrell and Karen Fleming!

    Kat and Karen, I’ll pass your email addresses on to Mary!

  23. Jean says:

    Hi Mary!! Great, timely post. Does BICHOK come with a seatbelt? Sometimes it’s so hard to just sit and read, edit and write when it’s not working. Part of me wants to use the shredder…something so soothing about the motor whirring as it chews paper. I print out a copy because a pen in hand finds more errors than my eyes on the screen. :)
    I’m a plotter as well, but with panster tendencies. If I plot to the smallest detail my brain says, “Done! Good job next…” So, I have to leave something for the right brain to play with or it won’t play at all.
    LOL on the math– I use a chapter- timeline as well. But I use math more when plotting a mystery..working backwards is also a great tool.

    Enjoyed the post. Good luck in Anaheim!!

    Jean

  24. M. Kassel says:

    Thanks for the tips, Mary. Inspiration doesn’t always flow thick and heavy, and your steps are great for getting over the hump!

  25. Great post, Mary! Life does tend to get in the way sometimes, doesn’t it? My poor WIP is sadly neglected at the moment but I can’t wait to dive back into it. Thank you for all the tips!

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