Child-Testing Your Work

By Rondi Sokoloff Frieder

 

During my revision process, I try to read my works-in-progress to actual children. These willing guinea pigs have mostly been my loving sons and adoring first graders. Unfortunately, their reactions are often overly positive. “What’s wrong with those editors, Mom? Your story is awesome!” or “I loved it, Ms. Rondi. It was so funny!” And although these comments make me feel great about my writing, they rarely help me improve my books.

But this year, I had two “constructive” experiences. The first one happened when I asked a writer friend if she’d be willing to critique my middle-grade novel. She said yes, and then wanted to know if she could share the book with her eleven-year-old daughter who was extremely interested in my novel’s time period –World War II. I said yes, but knew better than to expect a great deal of useful feedback. Still, I printed out a hard copy of the manuscript, came up with a page of questions for her to answer, and dropped the binder off at their house.

In a little less than a week, I received an email from my young reader. “Hi Rondi! Is it okay if I write on the manuscript?” This was encouraging. It sounded like she was really digging in and taking the critique process seriously. I wrote back and told her I welcomed her comments and to write away. But deep down, I was a little worried. She was only at the beginning of my book and already making notes. Was it in worse shape than I thought?

In a few weeks, I got an email from my friend saying that although she still needed more time with my pages, her daughter had completed her critique. “She couldn’t put the book down!” were the exact words. This was good news, right? You didn’t zip through a boring book. But I could be wrong. She could have gotten all caught up in the editing process and ripped my words to shreds. All I knew was that the manuscript was ready to be picked up so I dashed to the store, bought a thank-you gift card, and drove to their house.

When we sat down in the family room together, I opened the black binder, not knowing what to expect. Here’s a sample of what I found:

        1.The names of these two characters confused me. You should think about changing them.

       2. How is this person related to the main character? You should tell us right away.

       3.We met this character in chapter 1 so you should change the name of chapter 2.

       4. You should explain this earlier in the story.

       5. You use some big words here that readers may not understand.

I was blown away. Her comments were sophisticated, specific, and helpful. She had taken the time to think about the nitty gritty details of my story and give me suggestions on how to make the book stronger.

There were also thoughtful compliments:

  1. I like how you added an author’s note so I knew the story was based on your mom’s life.
  2. Thanks for adding a glossary so people will know what the Yiddish and Italian words mean.

And last, but not least, the accolades:

  1. This book rocks!
  2. Great job!
  3. This is one of the best books I’ve ever read!

This young reader had turned out to be a fabulous editor! She was well-read in my genre,  the same age as my protagonist, and didn’t know me well enough to worry about pleasing me. But more importantly, she had taken her job seriously and giving me an honest critique with positive overtones. It was a winning combination.

The next opportunity to “child-test” my work came when I was invited to do a lesson on “Creating Interesting Characters” in a second grade classroom. Before I read my first chapter to the students, I had their teacher (my former first grader!) interview me as my main character. I had modified the list of questions I often use myself. This immediately drew the children into the life of my protagonist, especially when I tried to sound like an eleven-year-old! And although they were an attentive and engaged audience, I instantly became aware of some glaring problems in the manuscript. There were places where the dialogue was too long and sections with excessive narration and not enough action. I made notes, immediately. But here’s the best part… when I finished reading, their hands shot up and the questions flew. “What happens next? Does Shirley get to sing on the record? Is the new boy a bad guy?” They were hooked. I knew I still had work to do, but the foundation of my story was undeniably solid. “Well,” I said, smiling. “When the book is published, you’ll just have to read it and find out!”

Have you had similar experiences when sharing your work with children? If so, we’d love to hear about them!

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Plug-Ins, Widgets and Jet Packs

Okay. I get it now. There’s more to being a writer in the 21st century than just writing. If you really wanna make it, you gotta have your “online presence,” your “author platform,” a fancy-schmancy website and up-to-date, clever blog. You need to identify your “target market” and “target audience” and be “discoverable” by current and potential “readers” and “industry figures.” Through your web presence, you need to create “connections” and be “accessible,” as well as be “a source of inspiration and motivation.” You need to “create,” “grow” and “maintain” your “fresh and engaging” author platform.

Oh dear. I just wanted to write children’s books. I thought that my wonderful books would speak for themselves. I believed that my focus should be on my creative process and telling the stories that have floated in my head for years. I wanted to be discovered by a publishing company who would nurture my image and take care of all those tiresome details. It could happen… right?

Nope. Not anymore. In today’s publishing landscape writers apparently need to be on top of their online presence almost as much as they need to be on top of their writing. Or so I am told. So what’s a writer to do?

I did what anyone else would do. I went on the internet. Just like my “target audience.” I learned what current and potential readers, agents and publishers expect from an author in this digital age. I acquired a whole new vocabulary related to creating a web presence. I consulted a website developer to help me get oriented and begin. Exploring and analyzing the author platforms of both successful and unknown children’s writers helped me see possibilities and what works for them. I registered for a class on website design. My own tech-friendly children and colleagues gave me advice and I started to figure it out.

As I involved myself in the process, I started to believe that this might even be a good idea. Surprisingly useful. Kind of interesting. Possibly even … exciting?

So, I am now in the process of creating that all-important author website. I am finally putting to good use a domain name that I claimed years ago. I have a “theme” and an outline for my “pages” and the draft content for each page and sub-page. I’m learning about “plug-ins” and “widgets” and “jetpacks.” Yes, jetpacks!

Soon, I’ll move onto mastering social media. Facebook (no problem), Instagram and Pinterest (sure, why not?), YouTube (well, maybe), and Twitter (maybe not!).

While I would rather be spending my time just writing, I have come to appreciate the creativity and purpose of this process too. It has forced me to think deeply and differently about my writing. I am beginning to know how I want to present myself to the wide, wide world that can be accessed with the touch of a button. The idea of such immediate access is challenging and important. I’m focusing on the ways I can reach and interact with my readers and am considering what they might want from me. I want agents and publishers to know that I can contribute to my own success. Embracing the idea of a web-presence will enable me to connect to the world ways that would have been impossible a generation ago.

And using a jet-pack, even a digital one, is really, really cool.

 

 

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Character Driven Picture Books

By Denise Schurr

I recently visited the children’s department at my local Barnes & Noble and found a whole wall dedicated to famous book characters. Classic titles as well as more recent ones lined the shelves and I stopped to get acquainted with a couple.

Ellie by Mike Wu puts a new spin on the dilemma of wanting to help, but not knowing how. Ellie and the other animals at the zoo want to help clean up in a last ditch effort to keep the zoo doors from closing for good. Every animal has a special talent they put to use, everyone except for Ellie. Until, she finds a paint brush and adds some amazing artwork which brings crowds of people. I love the message for young kids. So often children want to help with big or small projects but they don’t know how. It’s important to show them they don’t have to be big to help or even have a special talent. Showing up, pitching in, and having the desire is what makes a difference.

Thelma the Unicorn by Aaron Blabey is a timely story of a horse who thinks her life would be better as a unicorn. When she is given the opportunity to disguise herself as a unicorn, she finds that being a unicorn isn’t as magical as she thought it was. It’s easy to think that if we were someone else, lived somewhere else, had other circumstances, our life would be perfect. But, the grass isn’t always greener on the other side and there are people in our lives, who love us for who we are right now. All you have to do, is you.

If I had more time, I would have loved to read more. Who are your favorite children’s book characters of new or old?

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Push your characters off a cliff

You’ve heard people say that you need to be mean to your characters – you may have heard the recommendation to have your protagonist climb up a tree only to steal their ladder, and then throw rocks at them.

This idea of being mean can also be thought about as keeping the flame burning – if you set up a problem for your character, and then resolve it too quickly, then you release all the tension in your chapter (or maybe in your book, depending on what it is). And tension is what keeps us reading.

Imagine your main character wants to go to Harvard. It’s all they want. She rushes home and the letter is waiting right on top of the stack. She takes a deep breath, and opens the envelope. She reads it – and she got in. Hooray! But she didn’t worry that long (on the page) so neither did we, as readers.

Imagine instead she rushes home. She takes a deep breath. She paws through the mail. The last letter on the bottom of the stack – is her letter from Harvard. She takes a deep breath. Should she open it? It’s not thin, but it’s not fat either. She tosses it into the air, and her beloved dog, a Great Pyrenees, grabs the letter out of the air and races right out the doggy door. She struggles to open the backdoor – where is he? Where is he? She finds him behind a tree, slobbering all over it and chewing on it. She grabs it from him – but tearing it out of his teeth rips off a chunk. She opens it. “We are writing to inform you –“ and that’s the chunk that is missing. She doesn’t know if she got in! Will she call the school? Ask her guidance counselor? How will she find out???

These extra moments of stress and strain amp up the emotion. If you put your character on the hook, and then immediately take them off the hook, you lose all these opportunities to keep your reader furiously engaged to find out oh my goodness what is going to happen next?

You can keep tension both by lengthening the amount of time it takes for resolution (in this instance, I added in a dog and ripped letter) or by putting the resolution of one chapter into the next chapter. My father used to read me Tros of Samothrace by Talbot Mundy as a child – and I don’t know if the chapter always ended with Tros hanging off a cliff or if my father, with his understanding of story, would just stop reading at that moment. But I do know that I couldn’t wait for the next night when we’d pick up where we left off and find out what happened. Give those moments of wonder and breathless anticipation to your reader – by using the content within your chapters and in your chapter breaks.

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Teachers and Librarians and Authors, Oh My!

By Rondi Sokoloff Frieder

This past weekend, I had the privilege of running three incredible events for the Rocky Mountain Chapter of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. My position on our board of directors is called, “PAL Liaison,” which means I connect traditionally published authors and illustrators with teachers, librarians, booksellers, parents, and of course, children.

The first, and most elaborate event, was hosting a table in the Exhibits Hall at the annual Colorado Council of the International Reading Association (CCIRA) Conference at the Marriott DTC, on the outskirts of Denver, Colorado. With over 1500 teachers and librarians in attendance, you can imagine the buzz and excitement surrounding us. I arranged for twenty different authors and illustrators to join me in two-hour shifts where they showcased their books, met teachers and librarians, and gave away swag. Here are a few creative displays:        

It was a joy to see our SCBWI PAL (published and listed) members share their passion with the people who love their books. For many years, I attended this conference as one of those teachers. I met Kate DiCamillo, Will Hobbs, and Lois Lowry at this very same venue. I was totally star struck when I had the opportunity to be in the company of these literary rock stars! This weekend, I am happy to report that we had our own share of squeals and howls as teachers won door prizes, took photos with our authors and illustrators, and went away with pencils, hand-painted rocks, and gobs of stickers. Yippee!

My next program was leading a “Speed Dating” session with authors, illustrators, and educators. There were eleven stations set up around the room which enabled our authors and illustrators to spend quality “one-on-one” time with teachers and librarians. Some attendees wanted to know how to  write for children. Others were interested in learning more about using specific books in their classrooms. No two conversations were alike. This went on for eight minutes until it was time for the next date. The only problem I had was moving the participants on to the next chair. Everyone was so engaged and animated! At one point, the chatting became so loud, other conference attendees began poking their heads into our room to see what was going on. They smiled and nodded when they saw our rollicking book party! It was so much fun that one teacher asked if we could do this next year as an exclusive luncheon. It certainly is something to consider.

    

For my third act, I hosted a happy hour “meet and greet” in downtown Denver for authors and librarians. As luck would have it, the American Library Association (ALA) was holding its mid-winter conference at the Colorado Convention Center this same weekend. Despite frigid weather and blowing snow, a dozen of us made our way down to the Greedy Hamster on Saturday night for appetizers and drinks with a group of friendly YALSA (Young Adult Library Services Association) librarians from around the country. Many of our debut authors got to experience the thrill of giving away pre-released books to these lucky book lovers. Huzzah!

    

Connecting authors and illustrators with their adoring fans is definitely the best job in the world. I can’t wait for our next event!

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Writer’s Block…

It is a perfect day for writing.

I have characters impatient to move forward, ready to endure things getting a little worse before they get better. My plot is waiting to advance and my characters are growing and changing, all according to the outline that I hammered out months ago. Two people I created are literally trapped in a tree and the person they are hiding from is striding toward them. They need me.

So why can’t I write?

I keep trying, but every time I sit down to write, I come up blank. I write a sentence or two and it seems so… wrong somehow. I think back to the way the story flowed out of me in the beginning, the characters putting on their personalities like layers of clothes, filling out and surprising me with their actions and words. It was fun and exciting. I anticipated my writing time, eager to watch how the story I wanted to tell would find its way into the world.

But now, my frightened characters hide in the branches. I need to write the words get them out of this chapter and into the next. But there they wait, feeling confused and abandoned. I know them and they are very, very disappointed in me.

It turns out that I am not the first writer to experience a phenomenon known as writer’s block. Merriam-Webster defines writer’s block as “a psychological inhibition preventing a writer from proceeding with a piece.”

Looking for answers, I decided to survey what some of my favorite authors had to say about writer’s block. They provided interesting and sometimes contradictory advice, but I was buoyed by the wisdom that their words spoke to me.

  •  Hilary Mantel: “If you get stuck, get away from your desk. Take a walk, take a bath, go to sleep, make a pie, draw, listen to music, meditate, exercise; whatever you do, don’t just stick there scowling at the problem. Open a gap for them, create a space. Be patient.”
    • Lesson from Hilary: It’s okay to take a break and to wait for the right way to tell the story to come to me. Plus, it’s fine to find some time to bake that pie. Oh… and scowling does not help.
  • Orson Scott Card: “Writer’s block is my unconscious mind telling me that something I’ve just written is either unbelievable or unimportant to me, and I solve it by going back and reinventing some part of what I’ve already written so that when I write it again, it is believable and interesting to me. … [If] you haven’t solved the problem that caused your unconscious mind to rebel against the story, it still won’t work – for you or for the reader.”
    • Lesson from Orson Scott: I need to pay attention to what I have written and analyze if it feels true. If not, I’ll need to change it and make it both believable and interesting in order to move forward. My unconscious mind will be telling me things my conscious mind does not know.
  • Margaret Atwood: “If I waited for perfection, I would never write a word.”
    • Lesson from Margaret: My book is not going to arrive perfectly, so obsessing about each word or sentence is counterproductive. I can revise a bit as I go, but I can always go back and change everything if I wish. My first draft is just one part of the process and I need to get it down from beginning to end, then see about moving it closer to perfect.
  • Maya Angelou: “What I try to do is write. I may write for two weeks ‘the cat sat on the mat, that is that, not a rat.’ And it might be just the most boring and awful stuff. But I try. And then it’s as if the muse is convinced that I’m serious and says, ‘Okay. Okay. I’ll come.’”
    • Lesson from Maya: Some of what I write will be boring and awful. But that “the muse” is waiting and inspiration will come when I am ready for it…or when it is ready for me.
  • Jeffrey Deaver: “I’ve often said that there’s no such thing as writer’s block; the problem is idea block. When I find myself frozen… it’s usually because I’m trying to shoehorn an idea into the passage or story where it has no place.”
    • Lesson from Jeff: I need to trust the story and allow myself to veer from my plan if something isn’t quite right. I need to let go of some things, things that seemed important and essential at one time, and leave it out if it doesn’t belong any more.
  • Barbara Kingsolver: “Close the door. Write with no one looking over your shoulder. Don’t try to figure out what other people want to hear from you; figure out what you have to say. It’s the one and only thing you have to offer.”
    • Lesson from Barbara: I need to make sure that the book is my own, not what I think other people want the book to be. My book is historical fiction for children; I worry about making it marketable, politically correct, and always age appropriate. I need to set aside those worries for now and just tell the story.
  •  Mark Twain: “The secret of getting ahead is getting started. The secret of getting started is breaking your complex overwhelming tasks into small manageable tasks, and then starting on the first one.”
    • Lesson from Samuel: I shouldn’t be overwhelmed by the entirety of the book, but just move forward one incident at a time. If that is how he got that fence whitewashed and Huck to his own funeral, I can get those characters out of the tree.
  • Warren Ellis: “Writer’s block? This is when a writer cannot write? Then that person isn’t a writer anymore. I’m sorry, but the job is getting up in the fucking morning and writing.”
    • Lesson from Warren Ellis: I’ve never read anything by Warren Ellis, in fact I’ve never heard of Warren Ellis, but I appreciated what he had to say. I probably just need to get over myself and just write the @#$%$#ing book.
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12 x 12

Image result for 12 x 12 challenge logo

All last year I was busy taking classes for my LDE (Linguistically Diverse Educator) Certification for work. It was valuable because I was able to learn best practices that I could immediately apply in the classroom and the courses helped me to grow as an educator. It also meant I had to sacrifice time away from family, friends, and writing.

Starting the new year, I feel like a bear waking up from hibernation. While it was important for me to focus on school last year, now, I will have more time to do the things I enjoy. To help get back into the writing saddle, I’ve decided to take a writing challenge. I signed up for 12 x 12, with goal of writing 12 picture book drafts by the end of the year. It’s broken up into manageable chunks of writing one picture book draft each month.

Going to conferences, taking classes, and participating in online challenges and courses is a great way to help jump start motivation. It’s also a great way to hold yourself accountable and learn the craft of writing for children.

What classes, courses, or conferences (in person or online) have you found to be beneficial?

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Leaping into Genres

By Susan Wroble

This fall, I took a leap. I had wanted to take a more active role in the Rocky Mountain Chapter of SCBWI. When an opportunity arose, I volunteered to co-lead a new writing group — the Denver South Connect and Critique.

Working with my co-leader, the talented Judy Rose (author of the award-winning Look Both Ways in Barrio Blanco) has been a delight. Having the opportunity to mentor some of the members who are new to SCBWI is incredibly fulfilling. But what I didn’t expect what how much I would learn and get out of this job.

Judy and I constructed a survey to try to find out the wants and needs of this new group and we passed it out at the first meeting. Understanding children’s literature terms and genres scored high. We divvied up the presentation work for meeting number two, Judy taking terms while I took genres. After all, how hard could explaining the difference between Middle Grade and Young Adult, Fiction and Non-Fiction, or Literary and Commercial actually be?

Hard, it turns out. For every site I turned to, there were slightly different definitions. I finally chose a primary source to settle the disputes (Laura Backes of Children’s Book Insider). Then I made a spreadsheet. With a background in engineering, I love trying to make tight, concise spreadsheets. Making this one clarified a lot about genres for me — I hope it does the same for you.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Panning for Gold

I’m a huge fan of any kind of professional development, and now that I’m focused on writing, I love finding all different kinds of ways to help expand my craft. I find real pleasure in looking through course catalogues (in particular the one for Lighthouse Writer’s Workshop for those in the Denver area) to see what class sounds like it will be just the right key to unlock some question I have. I can’t wait for the conference schedule to come out each year for the SCBWI Letters & Lines conference. I browse the 800 section in my local library. I listen to a slew of podcasts. I love learning and hearing and thinking about writing.

Whenever I walk into some type of professional development, and that classification can be broad, I try to consider them along two layers – the understood benefit and the underlying nugget of gold. Everything has an immediate impact– I took a class on book mapping to bring another level and nuance to my ability to edit full-length novels. I learned just what I thought I would – how to choose the elements to map out a book, mapping it out, and subsequently using that map to develop an editorial letter. It was a great online class that gave me a new tool that is aligned really well to my analytical left-brained side that is a part of my revision and editorial process.

But a class almost always has more to offer than what is listed in the course description. This second layer is the underlying nugget of gold. Some of the gold from this class was that I am now connected to an experienced children’s book editor, and it got me thinking about how I might expand some of my own editorial services.

The nugget of gold can be obvious, or subtle, singular, or numerous. I received a critique where one of the comments was that my protagonist was coming off as a little quiet. A few days later someone called to ask if I was interested in a class on voice. Yes! Yes, absolutely! So the immediate benefit I expected from that class was obvious. But the class was also full of nuggets of gold. It got me thinking about my writing practice, and how I was incorporating it into my daily life. In hearing others read their work in class, I learned from what they were doing. And, the best nugget of all, I got a burst of motivation to continue on my own draft.

Not every class, or course, or podcast, or book feels worth the time or expense. Sometimes it repeats information you already have, sometimes it isn’t as applicable as you thought it would be. These are the times when it’s especially critical to pan for that gold. If you take the ownership to search deeply for the underlying value, not matter how big or how small, then it will increase the benefits of every way in which you engage with your craft. It will ensure that you have spent your precious time wisely.

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Stretching My Writer Muscles, Literally

by Karen Deger McChesney

Lauren, my massage therapist: “Any areas that you want me to especially work on?”

Me: (Pointing to my triceps and forearms.) “Here and here. They’ve really been hurting.”

Lauren: “Have you been writing more?”

Her question surprised me. Lauren listened intensely as I rambled about revising, which I rarely do outside of writer circles. Then, she got her usual twinkle in her eye and briefly explained why my aches were from writing. My pride sunk. I wanted to hear that my aches were from my weightlifting or something else. Not writing! Unfair. Yes, my aches could be much worse. But, from writing? A year ago, I committed to increasing my weekly writing time – and now I have an achy-breaky upper body? Darn! As my mind melted into the land of massage, it made more sense. Like Natalie Goldberg says: “Writing is physical…like an athletic activity.”

After my massage, Lauren showed me stretches and mentioned that she works with writers (and how much she enjoys “them”). Wow! What a coincidence!

I recently interviewed Lauren about stretches for writers and to motivate myself to un-hunch and stretttcccchhhhh! Lauren has been a massage therapist and cranio-sacral practitioner (a hands-on therapy to enhance the body’s natural capacity for healing) for over 25 years, and she has taught yoga for 18 years to a wide variety of people in health clubs, yoga studios, senior centers, and other settings.

What ails writers? What do they come to you for?

Stiffness and pain in their neck, shoulders, low back and hamstring. I find that writers get so wrapped up in their writing, they go for hours without moving.

Name your top tips for writers:

1st, set a timer to go off every hour.

2nd, then, get out of your chair and stretch.

3rd, do gentle twists while you’re sitting.

Describe the correct way to sit at a computer:

Sit in a chair that allows your hips to be a little above your knees. Ideally, you want your body to be stacked, which means in alignment – your shoulder joints over your hip joints and your ears over your shoulders. Then, always be looking straight ahead at your screen, not down. If you’re not at a desk, put a pillow on your lap to lift up your laptop closer to eye level. Keep changing positions and trying different chairs.

How do we maintain good posture, especially when writing for hours and hours?

I tell my yoga students: imagine moving your right shoulder blade toward your left hip pocket and vice versa. This will open up your shoulders.

 What’s a good stretching sequence for writers?

 CHAIR TWIST: To the right, then left. Hold each side 15-30 seconds.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 WALL DOG: Hold 15-30 seconds.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

EAGLE POSE: Left elbow over right, then vice versa. For maximum stretch, press elbows together.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Any other stretches to add to our sequence?

PALM AND WRIST STRETCH: Push both palms and all fingers into a wall simultaneously. Hold 15-30 seconds.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

TRICEP STRETCH: Bend left arm over, touch fingertips on left shoulder, then right hand over head and touch left elbow. Vice versa. Hold each side 15-30 seconds.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ARMS OVER HEAD: Hold 15-30 seconds.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What stretches should writers do while sitting?

1: CHAIR TWIST 

2: RUBBERBAND STRETCH:

Wrap rubberband around outside of fingertips.

 Then, spread thumb and fingers out. Hold 10-15 seconds.

 

 

 

 

Are there any other aches that you’ve noticed in writers?

When they’re into a really intense session (and feeling a lot of emotion) or writing for extremely long periods, they often clench their jaw. This can cause neck issues and pain. Try this: Move the tip of your tongue to the middle of the roof of your mouth. Hold for 10-20 seconds.

Your words of wisdom?

Experiment and do stretches that feel best for you.

What is your current yoga class schedule?

7-8am Wednesdays – Living Yoga Studio, Denver; 8:30-9:30am Fridays – Sol Center for Radiant Living, Georgetown.

Special thanks to Lauren Hess for her time and commitment to writers. For more information about her massage therapy and yoga class schedules, contact Lauren at lhmoscow@hotmail.com.

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by | December 6, 2017 · 3:04 pm