I recently earned my Zumba Instructor certification and it occurred to me that writing middle-grade books has a lot in common with Zumba.
1.You’re never too old
I never understood why adults think that middle-grade books are beneath them. (Have you ever had anyone ask you when you are going to write a real book?) As for Zumba, you can work at whatever intensity you want. Don’t want to do that jumping move? Don’t. Just step instead. There are Zumba Gold classes especially for those with limited mobility, but if you can put one foot in front of the other, then you can do a regular Zumba class. As for teaching Zumba, suffice it to say that I have both a Zumba Instructor Certification and an AARP card.
2.You can do it in the pool
There are Aqua Zumba classes for those who enjoy that kind of thing. It’s especially easy on the joints. I don’t care for them, at least in an indoor pool, because the music echoes so much. As for writing, I do some of my best writing while swimming laps. I don’t bring a computer or notebook into the pool with me, but the meditative action of lap swimming can sometimes help me work out sticky plot points.
3. Music helps
The Latin and International music is one of the major appeals of Zumba, at least for me. I often need music to write, and coincidentally, it is often International music, because the lyrics are not in English. English lyrics seem to short circuit the neural writing pathways. (Even though I understand French, those lyrics don’t bother me, because I’m writing in English. I haven’t tried the converse experiment—writing in French while listening to English lyrics.)
(photo credit: John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation)
4. Earplugs help, too
Several people I know use earplugs in Zumba classes, especially with some of the younger, more enthusiastic instructors. They like to crank the tunes. Some writers work better when it’s quiet. I know I resorted to earplugs when they tore up my street last summer.
5.Working together has benefits
Some authors have writing retreats together, and the peer pressure to be writing while your fellow retreaters are writing can increase productivity. Some writers connect online and hold each other accountable. Word sprints are an online productivity tool. You each commit to writing without stopping for a set amount of time, say fifteen minutes, then you report your word count. Sure, you can lie about it, but you don’t. As for Zumba, research has shown that dancing in unison can have health benefits above and beyond simple exercise. Even more benefits than dancing independently to the same music.
6. You can learn from each other
That’s what critique groups are for. That’s why you go to writers’ conferences. That’s why you read a lot. It’s how you figure out what works for you. Same with Zumba. You go to different classes with different instructors. You watch the choreography videos. To get ideas. To see how other people interpret the same music. That person next to you in class adds a turn or a flourish of the arms to the same step you are all doing. Hmm. What if…?
7. A marathon session can be painful
The Zumba Instructor Training went from 7:30am to 4:00pm. It started with an hour-long master class, and although we didn’t dance the entire time, there were multiple sessions of learning the steps and variations, warm-ups and cool-downs, and practice putting together choreography. I learned that Zumba uses just about every muscle, because just about every muscle was sore for days. A marathon writing session can also leave me pretzel-like, because I find myself in the vulture position when I am really concentrating.
8. It has a beginning, a middle, and an end.
We learn in elementary school language arts class that a story needs a beginning, a middle, and an end. In Zumba, we start with a warmup, to ease the body into the class, get the blood moving, and increase the heart rate. Then at the end, a cool down gradually decreases the heart rate, and stretching helps reduce muscle pain later on.
9. The middle is the hardest part.
In a Zumba class, the most strenuous, fastest songs fall between the warmup and the cool down. Authors refer to the “dreaded middle,” “sagging middle,” “middle muddle,” “sticky, icky middle,” and so on. You know where the book starts, and how you want it to end. The trick is to get your reader to the end without getting bored.
10. There’s a supportive community
The children’s writing community is one of the most supportive groups I know. Whether it’s a hug at a conference, an email or Facebook post to show an author a photo of their book “in the wild,” or offering goods and services to online auctions to help pay another author’s medical bills, you can count on the kidlit community. There’s a lot of support among Zumba aficionados, too. The instructors sub for each other and get together to run charity Zumbathons. And if you are a regular participant in a class, you are definitely missed when you don’t show up.
Whether it’s a publishable manuscript or a healthier body you’re after, you can’t just wish for it. You have to work at it. So get your butt in that chair or get your butt to the gym. You’ll feel better for having done it.
Jacqueline Houtman is the author of the middle-grade novel The Reinvention of Edison Thomas (Front Street/Boyds Mills Press 2010) and coauthor, with Walter Naegle and Michael G. Long, of the biography for young (and not-so-young) readers, Bayard Rustin: The Invisible Activist (Quaker Press 2014).