Monday, July 25

Write Now: Let Go of Perfectionism


We want certain people to be perfectionists. We want them not to rest until their work is exactly right. Brain surgeons, chemists, geneticists, movie projectionists and, of course, accountants.

Writers, though, not so much. For a writer, perfectionism leads to missed deadlines and ulcers. Which isn’t to say that we don’t want our prose to sparkle. But perfectionism leads to second-guessing oneself and that’s poison to a writer’s muse.


Perfectionism Can Kill A Writing Career


Professional writers can’t miss deadlines. (Well, I’m pretty sure that writers like Stephen King or George R.R. Martin could miss a deadline or three, but most of us are light years away from being anywhere even remotely close to that particular ballpark.) 

If I contracted to write an article of a certain length by a certain date and then didn’t turn my work in on time or if it wasn’t to spec, then not only am I not getting paid, but I’m probably not getting another job from that person. If that happens enough times, it can kill a career.


Accept That You See Your Writing Differently Than Anyone Else


I’m often surprised by readers’ comments on my work. Especially on the first draft, what a reader will say they read and what I thought I wrote can be very different things.

But of course that’s the case! These are my thoughts and ideas. As Stephen King wrote in On Writing, this thing we do is really an odd sort of telepathy. Let me demonstrate:

There is a cat on a mat.

Simply by virtue of you reading, “There is a cat on a mat,” you thought of a cat on a mat. (Here’s my favorite: Don’t think of a white bear. But I can’t help it! To read and understand the sentence I inevitably think of a white bear.) So just by virtue of you reading those words I’ve transmitted my thought, my idea, to you.

Of course the idea of a cat on a mat is a general idea. Many of the details, the specifics, are going to differ between my cat and yours. As it happens, my cat is a tabby cat and it’s laying on an oblong, white, braided mat. Your cat might be a Siamese, or Persian, or perhaps a sleek Russian Blue.

And let’s not forget about the place in which the cat lies indolently upon the mat. I pictured my tabby curled lazily in front of a lit fireplace in a rustic cabin out in the woods. Where is your cat? In a building? Outdoors? Is it grooming itself, sleeping, or perhaps it’s looking intently at something you can’t quite make out just to the right of you, a space which seemed empty a moment ago. (mmmmmwwwwahahahahahaha)

In any case, I hope I have convinced you that, although there are differences in the specifics of the thought I wrote down (“There is a cat on the mat”) and the thought that you had after reading what I wrote, I successfully transmitted my thought to you.

How cool is that!

Anyway, my point is that no matter how obsessively you craft your writing—words that go together to create a sentence, a unit, a thought—you will never have full control of how your reader fills out the thought, how they complete it. 

I try to write with an awareness that I don’t have anything like complete control over how my thoughts fit into the teeming ecosystem of a reader’s mind, of the nuances that they bring to any text, nuances that subtly—or not so subtly—shade the meanings of my words.


How To Beat Perfectionism AND Defeat Writer’s Block



1. The Trial By Fire Method


I’ve done this. Write a blog post a day for a month, giving yourself a strict time limit. Say, two hours. After two hours, publish what you’ve written, even if it is incomplete. (Though if it is incomplete I would add an explanatory note about the 31 day challenge you’re on so your readers understand what’s going on.)

Toward the end of the month, you’ll get a feeling for where you are in the creation of a blog post. You’ll have a sense for how much more time it will take you to finish and so will be able to judge whether you need to narrow the scope (or perhaps expand the scope) of the article. Also, you will have to—you will be forced to—let go of any thought of being perfect and focus on whether what you have written accomplishes what you set out to do. If it does, and it’s spell checked and there are no grammatical mistakes, then click the publish button!


2. Freewriting


I don’t do this exercise often, but the times I have it has been very effective. Set a timer for five minutes (it can be any fairly short period of time) and begin writing. When the timer goes off you don’t have to stop that very second. Finish your thought and then read what you have. Chances are it’s a decent (though very short) rough draft.


You Have To Write A Rough Draft Before You Can Write the Finished Product


For myself, writer’s block comes from wanting to skip all the rough drafts and just write the finished perfect draft the first time through. While I’m sure there are writers who can do that, the overwhelming majority of professional writers can’t. Most writers need to vomit out a rough draft—several rough drafts—first. 

When I have a rough draft, even one that makes me cringe, I have something I can make better.

That’s it! I hope you’ve found something here that inspired you or helped you in some way. I’d love to hear your thoughts on perfectionism. Have you ever had writer’s block? What happened? How did you get over it? Please take a moment to share your tips and experiences, I’d love to read about them.

Until Thursday, good writing!

(What follows is an affiliate link. Every time someone buys something after clicking an affiliate link, Amazon gives my site a small percentage of the sale price. This is one of the ways I’m keeping the lights on at karenwoodward.org. I promise I will never post an affiliate link to a product I don’t believe in.)

I love all things audio: podcasts, radio, audiobooks. Especially audiobooks. I’ve used Audible and can recommend it without hesitation. Try it for one month, free!

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Friday, July 22

Never Give Up Your Dreams



Our dreams define us. They make us who we are.

Maybe your dreams are quirky—square blocks that can’t fit in the world’s round holes. That’s okay. They are you. Maybe you’ll use your dreams to create something unique. Or not. Perhaps your dreams aren’t that sort. Even unfulfilled dreams have the power to sustain us.

What Are Your Dreams?

What did you want to be when you grew up? I wanted to be a writer … or the President of the United States. Whichever. (In my 4-year-old brain, it didn’t matter in the slightest that I was Canadian!)

When you were a kid, what did you love?

Don’t laugh, but my very favorite thing when I was a kid was the big/towering/huge maple tree in our backyard. I think I spent half my childhood climbing all over it. In my memories it is a massive thing, with boughs the size of a child’s waist.

Well.

I went back and visited my old home and—yep, you guessed it—the tree was still there but it was not at all big or towering or huge. But that’s okay, I still got all teared up and hugged it.

Dreams That Can Be Achieved


Some dreams—like my becoming President—are doomed. Sure, I could have changed my dream to becoming Prime Minister of Canada, but it’s just not the same.

That’s not the only dream I’ve had to let go of over the years. Being an astronaut is forever beyond my reach due to, among other things, my propensity to become motion sick if I walk too fast. (I exaggerate, but not by much.)

My point is that, while impossible dreams like this are wonderful and lend themselves to the richly textured background of our imaginative lives, they demonstrate that there are two kinds of dreams: those that are physically, actually, possible and those that … well, not so much. And that’s fine. But if your dream IS possible, then what are you waiting for?

Why Our Dreams Fade And Die


There are all sorts of reasons why folks don’t try to fulfill their dreams but I think the most common is fear. To paraphrase Frank Herbert, fear is the dream killer.[1]

Fear of Failure


I think that the number one reason dreams fade and die is the fear of failure. We fear that we’ll start off on some wonderful adventure—we’ll try to write a book, or a short story a week, or we’ll start to save for an epic around-the-world trip—but when all the work is done, when the vacation is finished, all that will be left behind is emptiness. Regret.

The fear is that the book will be panned by critics, or that the short story collection would never sell, or that the around-the-world-trip would cost an inordinate amount of money and all you’d discover about yourself is that you’re a stay-at-home kinda person. Or worse, you could lose all your money and be stranded.

I’m not saying that every single dream you have will come true. I can’t see the future. But one thing I do know is that if one never tries to fulfill one’s dreams then that guarantees none of them will come to be.

You’ve heard it before, I’m sure, but it’s true: nothing risked, nothing gained.

Also—at least this is what I tell myself these days—if one lets fear control them then they will be forever swerving away from things, trying to avoid the bad rather than actively seeking the good. The former is existing, the latter is living.

Fear of the Unknown


Closely behind fear of failure is fear of what we don’t know, of what we can’t predict.

Personally, I hate uncertainty, but if there’s one thing I’m pretty sure of it’s that life is essentially uncertain. Just as you (and by ‘you’ I mean ‘me’) begin to think you’ve got a handle on this whole life thing, right then is when something completely unexpected happens and thoroughly bashes your world to pieces. Welcome to the unknown, please debark in an orderly fashion.

Errr, anyway. Getting back on track …

The key, here, is to take a deep breath and attempt to rationally assess the situation. A friend of mine—he’s a manager in a local high tech firm—once shared the following with me and, believe it or not, it has helped.

3. Ask yourself: If I do this, what is the best that could happen?
Ask yourself: If I do this, what is the worst that could happen?
Ask yourself: How likely is it that the worst will happen?
- Is there anything you can do before-the-fact to prevent the worst from happening?
- If the worst happens, could you repair the situation? If so, how?

(By the way, I know this way of assessing and mitigating risk didn’t originate with my friend, but that’s where I first heard about it.)

If the worst thing that could happen is complete and total devastation—the life-equivalent of a thermonuclear explosion—then maybe back away from that possible dream. Let it go on its way, but release it slowly and hope it doesn’t become startled.

On the other hand, if the worst thing that could happen isn’t very bad at all, or if it is easily prevented, or if you could mitigate the damage if it occurred, then why not try and live your dream?

Fear of Rejection


This is one of my personal boogeymen. What if people read my work and think I’m terrible?!

My rational mind has a reply ready: of course some people will hate your work. That’s inevitable. But, hopefully, some people will love it.

Whenever I see NO one star reviews on an otherwise popular book (say, over 100 reviews), I expect one of two things: first, the book is a classic that everyone agrees is awesome. Second, something is off. It could be that the writer’s friends and extended family have read the book and dutifully left nothing but glowing praise, but those aren’t the reviews I’m looking for. So don’t fear one star reviews! Look at them as weird kind of badge of honor.

Also, a book written for a niche market can easily acquire a lot of one star reviews if read by folks outside the niche. There’s nothing wrong with these people’s taste, the book just isn’t for them. And that’s fine. If your niche readers are as passionate about your work as you are, then you have a real chance of making a go of it.

Persistence can help to drive out our fears. Don’t lose sight of the folks who 'get' your work, who understand you. If your work is selling, then obviously it’s reaching people who appreciate it. Let the haters hate.

* * *

Okay! This article is longer than I thought it would be. I had wanted to chat about tips and tools writers can use to shape their dreams into reality. Perhaps another time.

Question: When you were a kid what did you dream about? What did you want to become when you grew up? Do you have a tip for how to defeat fear and follow your dreams? Please share!

(What follows is an affiliate link. Every time someone buys something after clicking an affiliate link, Amazon gives my site a small percentage of the sale price. This is one of the ways I’m keeping the lights on at karenwoodward.org. I promise I will never post an affiliate link to a product I don’t believe in.)

I love all things audio: podcasts, radio, audiobooks. Especially audiobooks. I’ve used Audible and can recommend it without hesitation. Try it for one month, free!

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Notes:


1. “I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.” Frank Herbert, Dune. The Litany Against Fear.

Tuesday, July 19

How To Write A Product Review


I’ve talked before (see Links, below) about how I write a critique, but I’ve never written about how I do a general review. Time to change that!

Essentially, I see a review as a persuasive argument. Your review of the product gives, first, your opinion of the product and then why you feel/think the way you do.

So far so good. But a great review goes beyond this and uses the writer’s own experiences to shape a persuasive argument: “I think this product is lousy/great  … and so should you!” The stronger the reasons for your opinion, the stronger your argument.

For instance, let’s say that the Kitchen-Gadgetinator 2000 is, hands down, the best apple corer I’ve ever used. That would become my thesis, my claim. I’d back up this claim by listing its positive features. (For example, “The Kitchen Gadgetinator 2000 is fast! Most gadgets take two full minutes to core an apple but this dohickey takes under a minute.”)

Like any good argument, though, if there are negatives about the product they need to be discussed. If you love the product, why do you love it despite these defects? Conversely, if the product has many positive points, but you hate it anyway, why do you?

Be Personal


Talk about your experiences with the product. After all, your experiences are the reason you’re writing the review!

Even though the number one reason anyone reads a review is that they want to know the answer to the question, Would I like this, if you can get the customer to smile, if you can reach beyond the page and change your reader's emotion, then—no matter what kind of writing you’re doing—it’s good writing.

Who Is Your Audience?


Taylor your review to your intended audience.

If you love the product you’re reviewing, then chances are you won’t have to do much audience research. I love role-playing games. I watch game trailers as they come out and have more-or-less strong ideas about what makes a game great. And, of course, I have my own list of “the greatest games ever made,” a list which is pretty much guaranteed to be different from everyone else’s list!

But no matter how I feel about the product I try to talk to as many people as I can who have used it. It could be that my reactions to the product are idiosyncratic, or I just don’t ‘get’ it. If this is the case still write the review, but mention that you realize your opinion is in the minority.

Compare The Product To Similar Products


Say you’re reviewing a camera. You might think the camera is terrific, but talking about, say, two close runner ups will give your readers perspective. This is where a comparison chart of key features might come in useful.

Be Focused


You probably can’t—and wouldn’t want to—talk equally about all the product’s features.

- Does the product have a killer feature? If it’s a camera, is it smaller than all other cameras? Lighter? Etc.
- What are, in your opinion, the product’s most important features?
- Do these features work as advertized?
- What did you like about each feature? Dislike?

Also:

- What was your first impression of the product?
- What things are easier to do if you use the product?
- Was there anything you had a bit of trouble figuring out?
- Is there something you thought the product or service would do for you, but it didn’t? Or, alternatively, anything that came as a pleasant surprise?
- Did the product meet your expectations?
- Is there anything that surprised you about the product? Was the surprise good? Bad?

Credentials


Generally, the only credentials one needs to write a review is your experience with the product. That said, readers would appreciate knowing a bit about you if the details are relevant to the product under review. For instance, if you’re reviewing a RPG game, your readers might be interested in which other RPG games you’ve played, which RPG game was your favorite, and so on. This information helps the reader understand your likes and dislikes and, I think, can help them get more out of your review.

Also, I think it’s much more fun to read a review that’s a bit personal and chatty. Don’t misunderstand, I want the facts, but I like it when they’re delivered in an entertaining and memorable way.

First Paragraph 


I try to (“try” being the operative word!) make the first line snappy, something to grab the reader's attention and showcase my writing style. I want to let the reader know this will be an informal, breesy, post—perhaps even a humorous post—and that they’ll learn something about the product in question that could be valuable to them.

Somewhere in the remainder of the first paragraph I’ll give the name of the product, I’ll also describe the product, what it does, how it can make a person’s life better, and so on.

At the end of the first paragraph I’ll inform my readers if I received a complimentary copy of the product for the purposes of review. Some folks do this at the beginning, in the first sentence, and that’s absolutely fine. Myself, since often the first sentence is what tells someone whether they want to read the review, I try and make my first sentence stand out from the crowd. I think as long as a writer is up front early in the review on about how they came by the product or service, that’s fine.

Ultimately, There Are No Rules


The only rule for writing well is that there are no rules. One hears this in connection with narrative fiction, but I think it’s just as true for review pieces. Which isn’t to say that certain ways of organizing your content don’t lend themselves more to being read and positively commented on.

How do you write a review? Please share your tips and tricks!


The Dark Art Of Critiquing, Part 1
Writing A Critique: Reading Critically
How To Write A Critique: The Sandwich Method

Thursday, July 14

How to write a blog post


I’ve been away from blogging for a while so I sat down and, feeling rusty, thought about the characteristics of a good blog post. What do I look for as a reader? In the past, what advice has worked for me?

Of course, everyone’s different. The advice that works for me may not work for you; different strokes and all that. My hope is only that what I’ve written will help you discover something useful.

Perhaps you’ve heard this advice before:

First, tell the reader what you are going to say.
Second, say it.
Third, tell the reader what you said.

Simple, yes, but it can help one craft short, clear and engaging pieces of prose.

Part One: Tell the reader what you’re going to say


When I write, the first thing that comes to me is usually the post’s title. At the moment, a post about podcasting is rattling around my head, begging to be written. I’m going to call it something like:  Why Every Blogger Should Have a Podcast. One thing I love about the title is that it contains the subject of the post.

In this imaginary blog post I’d probably say something like this in the first paragraph:

I think every blogger should also be a podcaster because having a podcast can, first, introduce one’s work to more readers, second, introduce one’s work to different readers and, perhaps most importantly, earn money.  Maybe, in the beginning, it would only earn enough to cover the cost of the podcast, but plenty of podcasters who stuck with it earn their livings from podcasting.

There we have a statement of the subject of the post and, what’s more, the hook is clear: Podcasting can help you put your work in front of more readers and earn you some money while you’re at it.

Part Two: Say it


In some sense -- even though this is where the bulk of the work is done -- this is the easiest bit. You know what you want to say; now all you have to do is say it.

In my example, I have three points:

Every blogger should be a podcaster because …
A. It can introduce your work to more people, (expand your audience)
B. It can introduce your work to different kinds of people, (expand into a different audience)
C. It can help you become profitable.

All I have to do is expand these points. I could give examples my own experience, talk about the experiences of others, talk a bit about strategies (successful and otherwise) others have used, and so on.

Part Three: Summarize


Summaries can feel stilted. After all, you’ve told people what you were going to tell them, and then you told them … do you really need to tell them (again!) what you just told them?

The short answer: No. Especially if the post is short, an explicit summary can be redundant.

In a longer post try making the summary short and breezy. A conclusion that focuses on one strong point – or an action item – can help bring the entire article into focus.

A Tip: Be Informal


Imagine you’re chatting with someone over a cup of joe at your favorite watering hole. If you wouldn’t use formal phrases like, “In relation to …” or “please be advised that …” in conversation then don’t use them in the article. That’s what seems to work for me, at least.

An Apology


You have my deepest apologies for letting this blog lay inactive so long. There's a story behind it (isn't there always?). For now let me just say: Life happened. Life happened in the same way it happens to a melon when dropped off the 52nd story of a skyscraper.  That’s an exaggeration, of course! I’m fine now, duct tape does wonders. 

My new blogging schedule: I will post something every Monday and Thursday.

Are there any topics that especially interest you? If so, let me know! Leave a comment, email me (KarenWoodward (at) gmail (dot) com), or drop me a note on Twitter (https://twitter.com/woodwardkaren).

Talk to you Thursday, and good writing!





Friday, July 17

Don’t Write, Bleed

Don’t Write, Bleed

I’ve been mulling over a pattern I’ve noticed: my work that has received the highest praise from readers is work in which I wrote about, if I may put it like this, the peculiar themes of my life. My hopes and fears, my hangups and triggers. My deep, dark, secrets.

Of course I didn’t just slap my traumas on the page and say: Here you go! No, I transformed them into the language of the story.

For example (and my apologies if I’ve mentioned this scene previously), in one of my scenes I had my protagonist sit down to coffee with her overbearing mother. To say that they didn’t get along is an understatement of staggering proportions. It’s like calling the Hindenburg disaster “unfortunate.” But the protagonist needed a favor, so she was trying to make nice. 

Well, as they sipped their coffees and chatted my protagonist came to an uncomfortable realization. She saw her mother not just as a parent but as a person, as a more-or-less ordinary human being. More than that, she realized her mother was suffering, that in fact she had been suffering for a while. She was being crushed by the weight of carrying, of safeguarding, her many secrets. Over the years these secrets had eaten away at the woman, at her sanity. My protagonist feels guilty and tries, in her stumbling inelegant way, to let her mother know she loved her and she didn’t need to be alone.

When I wrote this scene my own mother was in the hospital, slowly slipping away. In that scene ... I suppose it was a way for me to say things to my own mother that, due to her condition, she was beyond hearing.

Sorry for the melancholy post! My point is that readers were able to relate to my protagonist in that scene in a way that transcended the specific story I was telling and which, ultimately, helped bring it to life.

In connecting with my emotions concerning my mother, in channelling them into the scene, I made it better. Why? Because it brought to bear my specific experience of this universal human experience.

A Word of Warning


No doubt you’ve all heard the expression, often attributed to Ernest Hemingway, “Writing is easy. You just open a vein and bleed.”

The first time I read this quotation it resonated with me, but I didn’t realize that what I’ve been talking about – translating both the happiest and most painful experiences in life into one’s work – is how we bleed. 

At least, that’s my take on it. 

This kind of writing – writing with a kind of brutal emotional honesty – is uncomfortable because we feel a bit like we’re undressing in public. It’s a bit like living out one of those stress dreams we’ve all had where we walk into a crowded room, stark naked.

But, in a way, that’s what we’re doing. We’re revealing our essence, exposing our soul.

Yes, of course, we translate these experiences into the language of the story. Your dad coming home drunk and beating you becomes the protagonist’s betrayal by their best friend. It’s not the same thing, but that’s the point. We use the real emotions we have from the actual events of our lives but attach them to fictional events.

That’s how we bleed. 

That’s it! What do you think? Is this what the author of this quotation (“Writing is easy, just ...”) meant by opening a vein? Perhaps they were only trying to say that writing is a painful, exhausting experience.

Whatever the case, till next week, good writing!

Thursday, July 9

4 Tips For Finding Beta Readers Right For You


Lately I’ve been thinking about the importance of finding beta readers, readers who are right for you. 

For the most part I’ve had wonderful experiences with beta readers. They’ve been energizing to work with and have made my stories better: shorter, more interesting, twistier. Sure, I’ve had one or two bad experiences, but the good eclipses the bad.

For what it’s worth, here are four things I look for in beta readers:

1. They regularly read the genre you’ve written in.

I speak from experience, folks. Never, EVER, give a light, breezy paranormal romance to a fan of hard sci-fi. The conventions of the two genre are at odds (fact-based extrapolation versus flight of fanged fancy). Not only would the reader not know where to begin the critique, but they just might resent you personally for asking them to do it!

Let’s face it, many of us can tell when someone who disliked the book on a personal level tries to give a fair, even-handed critique. I’ve found it’s a bit like watching a car crash in slow motion – with me in one of the cars!

If I had one piece of advise I could pass off to new writers it would be this: Never ask for a critique from a person who doesn’t actively read the kind of book you’ve written. (Copy editing is different since the editor doesn’t comment on the content of the story. That said, if I knew my copy editor disliked the genre I’d written in, I wouldn’t want to inflict my story on her.)

2. They critique the work rather than the author of the work.

This may seem obvious, but saying, “It looks like a three year old wrote this,” or slightly less cutting, “I think this material may be too advanced for you,” is (generally speaking) not helpful. In my opinion, someone should never discourage anyone from writing. (Suggesting that a work isn’t ready to publish is another matter.) 

3. They are consistently consistent.

Everyone is biased. Which may be just another way of saying we each have our own taste, our own preferences. Sure, we try to be impartial but this is especially difficult when we don’t realize if or how we are biased.

So it’s no surprise that one beta reader will say they loved (for example) your protagonist’s tearful goodbye to her mother at the end of chapter one while another will think it extraneous and overwrought.

Such is life. Different strokes and all that.

I’ve found after I receive several critiques from someone that I get a feel for what that person likes, what they look for in a story. Which is to say that I begin to get a peek at their literary biases.

And that’s great! If I know someone disliked my tearful scene because they are constitutionally averse to tearful scenes, then I know what to make of their comments.

But sometimes – not often, but sometimes – folks are less than consistent.

What I’m talking about here are people who, if I might put it like this, are consistently inconsistent.

Thankfully I’ve only had one reader who was like this, and it was years ago, back when I first started writing. I suspect she didn’t read any of the stories she critiqued, but feeling the need to come up with a criticism, she picked a random paragraph and took issue with it!

Which brings us to ...

4. They are someone you won’t lose as a friend if you only ask them to read for you once, and never again.

This is just my advice, take it or leave it: Before you ask someone to read your work, think about what might happen if you never again ask this person for another critique.

When I was a teen (so, YEARS ago) I asked a close friend to look over my work. It was my first year of college and I loved everything about the english class I was taking, especially the teacher. She was awesome. I would go to her office hours and we would talk about literature and ideas and, well, life-in-general for hours. 

So, no surprise, when it was time for me to write my first essay for her course I wanted it to be perfect. (Cue ominous music.) Because I was especially nervous about my essay I asked my best friend to read it and give me her feedback.

And she did! She put a lot of time into reading my scribbles and composing her feedback. I still remember her handing the paper back to me, her look of hesitancy, the uncertainty (fear?) in her eyes.

“I think I may have gone a bit overboard,” she said.

“Nonsense!” I said, and pried my paper from her fingers.

I swear to you I do not exaggerate when I say there was more red ink on the paper than black!

My excitement took a nosedive, but I managed to hold my smile in place and thank her for the time she’d taken to look over the paper.

My friend, though brilliant on many levels, was neither a reader (of fiction) nor a writer. Her edits would have stripped my voice from the piece. It would have been more hers than mine!

Anyway, I handed my paper in sans the changes she had suggested and didn’t ask my friend to look over any other papers. I wasn’t upset at her – sure I was a little sad that she hadn’t ‘gotten’ what I was trying to say, but it honestly wasn’t a big deal. I recognized that her heart had bene in the right place and was touched by the amount of work she’d spent on my essay.

What I didn’t anticipate was that, because I didn’t give her another paper to read, she felt as though she’d failed. She thought I was upset with her and didn’t believe my claims to the contrary. It got to the point that my refusal to use her as a reader affected our relationship. Thankfully, we found a way to leave the incident in the past, but it has made me consider what might happen if I only use a reader once. 

Let’s face it, there are many reasons to only use a reader once, none of them negative. Perhaps one of your regular readers was busy so you needed someone to fill in, but just this once. Perhaps you experimented with a new genre and don’t write in it again. Perhaps the reader has a preference for stories of a certain length and you don’t normally write to that length. Whatever the case, before asking someone if they would read for you take a moment to consider how it will effect your relationship if you never ask them to read for you again.

Before I close I would like to thank all the beta readers out there. You’re terrific! You folks volunteer to read unpolished prose and give honest, heartfelt feedback. You rock!

That’s it! Thanks for reading, I’ll talk to you again next week. In the meantime, good writing!

Thursday, July 2

Be Fearless: Make Your Characters Real


As I mentioned last week, I’ve been overly concerned with what others think about my work, letting it paralyze me at times. This week I want to talk about the importance of knowing oneself and infusing one’s unique perspective into one’s work.

As Grace Paley wrote:

“The difference between writers and critics is that in order to function in their trade, writers must live in the world, and critics, to survive in the world, must live in literature. That’s why writers in their own work need have nothing to do with criticism, no matter on what level.” [1]

The writer immerses herself in the world to, in part, develop her unique perspective on the world. 

Paley goes on:

“One of the reasons writers are so much more interested in life than others who just go on living all the time is that what the writer doesn’t understand the first thing about is just what he acts like such a specialist about — and that is life. And the reason he writes is to explain it all to himself, and the less he understands to begin with, the more he probably writes. And he takes his ununderstanding, whatever it is — the face of wealth, the collapse of his father’s pride, the misuses of love, hopeless poverty — he simply never gets over it. He’s like an idealist who marries nearly the same woman over and over.” [1]

Writers are both stubborn and biased. We have our own questions, our own fears, our own concerns. Certain things mystify us and we are driven to unravel these mysteries even as we recognize the impossibility of such a task.

Paley’s words connected with me like a swift punch to the solar plexus and I realized a truth I’ve been ignoring: each writer’s work is unique because they—a person unlike any other—have given birth to it.  It has grown from the soil of their own concerns, their flaws, their unique worldview.

Creating Human Characters: Letting Your Life Guide Your Writing


This is going to seem like a digression, but hold on. 

I read an inspiring post today, “The Secret Behind Making Me Care About Your Characters,” by Chuck Wendig. In it he wrote:

“When I talk to you about your character, and you start to tell me, “Well, she has to find the DONGLE OF MAGIC to fight the WIZARD OF BADNESS and then she tames HORBERT THE MANY-HEADED DRAGON,” I immediately start to cross my eyes. I emit drool. I have a small seizure and then fall into a torpid grief-coma. Grief over what you’ve done to the human condition.

“And what you’ve done to the human condition is ignore it utterly.”

[...]

“A character doesn’t care about the WIDGET OF MAJESTY or the GIZMO OF FLARNIDONG unless those things suit something altogether more personal. Meaning: the character cares most about things personally relevant to the character. Not global, galactic, kingdom-wide concerns. But concerns about that person’s intimate sphere of influence.”

“Characters care about family, friends, jobs, love, hate. If they care about money or power, it’s because they see it as something they need personally. If they have larger, grander principles, those principles must be rooted in something intimate to the character.”

[...]

“We don’t sympathize with Luke’s galactic ambitions. We sympathize with him wanting to get off that [...] hillbilly planet. We totally grok him wanting to be something greater than he seems to be — the desire to stop being some blue-milk-slurpin’ sandfarmer and become the last of the Jedi, well, shit, who doesn’t want to accelerate past our seemingly mundane destinies?

“And it’s from this — from the part where the characters cleave to their personal goals, ideas and problems that we see them start to make changes.”

[...]

“[W]e look for things we understand. (And here may be the truest exploration of “write what you know” — it’s less about the facts and data and details and more about the authenticity of the human experience that you should draw upon. You don’t know what it is to karate kick a yeti, but you do know what it is to suffer loss and lies, to want love and experience hate [...].”

Although Chuck Wendig goes on to make a larger point about character versus plot, what he says right here, in the excerpts I’ve provided, nicely echoes Grace Paley’s point.

In a way, each of us is trapped inside our own skin, locked into one perspective, one worldview. 

In this light, then, perhaps one of the roles of a writer is to know our own mind, our own questions, our own fears, our own puzzlements, with such thoroughness that we infuse this understanding, this perspective, into our writing. Further, we want to do it so successfully that, for a time, our readers feel themselves transported into another worldview. 

Which, incidentally, doesn’t narrow what we can write about. Just the opposite. By getting in touch with (for instance) our own fear of failure one can craft innumerable believable characters, whether they want to build a rocket to Mars or get through their child’s first day at school.

That’s it! Write your worldview, write your soul. I’ll talk to you again next week. In the meantime, good writing!

Notes


1. This quotation is from a lecture Grace Paley gave in the 1960s entitled, “The Value of Not Understanding Everything.” The transcript was included in the volume “Just As I Thought.” I came across these quotations on the site Brain Pickings (brainpickings.org). Specifically, through an article by Maria Popova, “The Value of Not Understanding Everything: Grace Paley’s Advice to Aspiring Writers.”

Thursday, June 25

Write That Story! Don’t Let Fear Win

Write That Story! Don’t Let Fear Win

It’s said that, at the end of life, what haunts us ISN’T the things we did but the things we didn’t do. 

We can’t do everything in the time allotted to us, but we can do the important things. We can pursue our passions.

I think this is something that we, as writers, need to take to heart. (And by “writer” I mean just that--people who write. One does not need to be published to be a writer.)

For the past while I have deeply regretted letting fear rule me and NOT writing a particular story.

But please don’t misunderstand. There are many reasons to NOT write a story. (Stephen King talks about a few of these in “On Writing.”) Perhaps you’ve only got hold of a part of the story so you need to wait for the rest, for a complete idea. After all, it took Stephen King a few decades to finish the story we now know as “Under The Dome.” And so on.

There are good reasons to delay setting pen to paper. Fear, though, is NEVER a good reason. (Remember: just because you write a story doesn’t mean you have to publish it!)

My Story


Back at the beginning of my journey as a writer, back before I published anything, I had this idea for a story: From the first person perspective, have each of three characters tell the reader about an event that happened to all of them at the end of grade seven. They had been camping in the woods, camping with a fourth person, a person who died that night. Each of the first person accounts would differ and, through those differences, the reader would come to know the characters.

By the three-quarter point I wanted the reader to have formed certain conclusions about what happened that night. 

The last quarter of the story would be written in objective third person (fly on the wall perspective) and would be a recounting of the event itself. Further, the ending would introduce a twist, something that would shatter one of the reader’s fundamental assumptions, but in a way that made sense. 

At least, that was the plan!

Now, I’m not saying this story would have been any good, but I would have enjoyed writing it and, at the very least, it would have been good writing practice.

What Happened


I ended up never writing the story. Here’s what happened: 

A friend asked what the story was about. These days I have a rule: Never EVER discuss a WIP before the first draft is complete. At that time my story was still in the idea stage. Anyway, I told her. 

She said, “Oh no! You can’t do that. You can’t switch the POV from first to third at the end and you absolutely can’t have three different first person accounts.” 

And then she gave me a look that seemed to question my sanity!

Please don’t misunderstand. I now think my friend was correct, having three different first person narrators would have been extremely off-putting for readers (to say the least!). But that was in the days before I knew about free indirect voice. If I had written the story and put it away in a drawer I could have gone back to it as a more experienced writer and turned the first person accounts into third person accounts but without losing the sense of intimacy the story required.

As it was, my fear made me rethink the entire story. Where before I was excited and eager to begin now I questioned the whole enterprise. I spent so much time rethinking the story that I decided I wasn’t mature enough as a writer to attempt the project and put it to the side.

Here’s my advice: Even if you’ve gotten hold of an idea for a story you think you’ll never be able to publish, if it’s in your heart to write it, if you’re passionate about it, then go for it! Write it. 

Nowhere is it written, there is no commandment scrawled on stone tablets, that you have to publish every story you write.

Granted, you might NOT want to take months, or even years, out of your life writing a book length work you don’t think will be publishable. Point taken. But I believe that every longform story--the main plot line at least--can be condensed into a shortish story. Or at least a novella. 

Changing POV


The other day Adam Savage interviewed Andy Weir, author of runaway bestseller “The Martian,” for his podcast. It’s fascinating and I urge you to listen. Anyway, Adam mentions the book has a POV shift from first to third person halfway through!

When I heard that I sat in stunned silence. Now, I’m not saying that just because Andy Weir was able to pull off switching from first person to third that I would have been able to pull it off. I’m only saying that I should have tried. I should have written the story and THEN made the judgement call: Did it work?

As Stephen King says: It’s all on the table. Everything. Try it out. If it doesn’t work then don’t send the story out into the world. That one will just be for you. I’ve got a few stories like that and, honestly, they’re some of my favorites!

In Conclusion


The lesson I’ve learnt (or at least I hope I have!) is: Don’t let fear stop you from writing the story that’s in your heart to write.

I’ve decided I AM going to write that story and, in tandem with writing this blog post, have completed a (very rough!) first draft. Even if the story never sees the light of day, I’m putting this in the win column because I conquered my fear. And fear can lead to writers block--or at least it can if you’re me. (grin)

Don’t let fear get the upper hand. Write the story!

Talk to you again next week. In the meantime, good (fearless) writing!

Thursday, June 18

Getting Things Done: Reduce Your Stress Through Organization


Until recently I didn’t deal well with stress. Also, I wasn’t well-organized. (Stories, yes; life in general, no.)

Then I read “Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity” by David Allen and I realized there was a link between my lack of organization and my anxiety.

The following quotation (from the beginning of the book) nicely sums up Allen’s own view:

“Anxiety is caused by a lack of control, organization, preparation, and action.”
— David Kekich

I’m writing about this because, yesterday, I stumbled across the following in “Productivity 101: A Primer to the Getting Things Done (GTD) Philosophy”:

“At its core, GTD gives you a way to get everything you need to remember out of your head and into a system that can remember them for you, organize them, and break them down into pieces you can work with. That way, the next time you look at your to-do list, there should be no confusion over what you have time to tackle, or what's most important. You can spend less time thinking about what to do and how to work and more time actually working.” [2]

That’s a terrific summary. I wasn't going to write about GTD because it isn’t specifically about writing. Then I thought: Why not? If I’ve benefited from it, perhaps (if you aren't already using it) you will too. 

Besides, writing a book IS a project—and a pretty complex one at that. I've found Allen's principles of natural program design have helped me clarify my goals for my books. I'll talk more about that, below.

A Caveat


I know from personal experience that anxiety has many different causes. I’m not saying that folks with anxiety are poorly organized or that if a person with anxiety becomes better organized their anxiety will go away. 

BUT to the extent that anxiety is caused by a feeling of loss of control over the disparate bits of one’s life, then ... yes. I think that becoming more organized could help to lessen one’s anxiety. But who knows. All I can say for sure is that it lessened mine.

The System: Five Simple Steps That Create Order From Chaos


Part of the beauty of Getting Things Done (GTD) is its simplicity. There are only five basic steps. (To read more about this head over to David Allen’s site and look at Getting Started.)

Step 1: Capture


David Allen advises us to use whatever method is most convenient for you (notepad, voice recorder, etc.) to “capture 100% of everything that has your attention.”

The Capture step is something I’ve been doing for a while and chances are you have been too—jotting down ideas or reminders on whatever is at hand, be that a piece of paper, a stray grocery receipt, a notebook or writing journal.

What you use to record your ideas/reminders doesn’t matter. Any of the above would do, the key thing is that you must be confident you won’t lose it. I keep a notepad in my purse and another on my office desk. While I’ve found it easy to lose loose pieces of paper it’s a bit more difficult to lose an entire notebook! 

(That said, I’ve succeeded in doing so on more than one occasion. One time I left my writing notebook behind at the library. When I went to pick it up a hard-eyed security guard inquired about some of my writing ideas (It’s for a murder mystery, Officer. Honest!). He grudgingly gave it back to me.)  

In any case, at the beginning of every day I go through my journal and sift through all the tasks, ideas and ToDo items from the day before.

Step 2: Clarify


For each item you’ve recorded ask, Is it actionable?

If yes --> Decide what action should be taken. If that action will take less than, say, two minutes do it right then. If the action would require more than two minutes then delegate it to someone else or put it on a list to do later.

If no --> Discard it, incubate it (look at it again at some later date) or file it for reference. 

Step 3: Organize


At this point you’ll have a list of tasks that require more than two minutes. If (which is unlikely) you only have 20 or 30 of them then you might want to skip this step. If not, organize the tasks into lists however makes most sense to you. 

For example, I’ve broken my tasks up into a general list (Reminders), a WIP list (To Write), a TBR list (To Read), a TBR wish list of books I want to read one day but know I won’t have time in the foreseeable future (To Read One Day). I also have a list of stories matched with projected publishing dates (To Publish). I’ve embedded a link into this list, a link that opens up a Google Doc that has a record of all my published works (the title, when I published them, under what name, etc). 

When I discovered how few movies I’ve watched lately I added a list for movies I haven’t seen but want to (movies 2014 & 2015). I also have one for TV Shows (I’m looking forward to season two of True Detective!).

And so on.

Step 4: Reflect


The key to this system is to review each task at regular intervals. David Allen suggests folks do “a weekly review to clean up, update your lists, and clear your mind.”

Since you’ll be reviewing all these lists once a week, only record tasks you really do want accomplished. Otherwise the system will become bloated and, eventually, break down.

Step 5: Engage


As the folks at Nike say: Just do it. Go through your lists and do what needs to be done.

Here’s a handy organizational chart:

[embed graphic]

GTD & Writing


You’ve probably seen lists like this before—likely on this very blog! But here are three questions, questions David Allen raises in his book, that I like to apply to my WIP, especially if I’m stuck.

a) What is the purpose of this project/book?


As it happens I’m having some trouble on my WIP so I asked myself this question yesterday and here’s the answer I came up with:

To show that, no matter the odds, no matter what is stacked against you, you can make it through. You can succeed. You are stronger than you think.

b) What would a successful project/book would look like?


Minimally: 
- It would be a manuscript of between 70,000 and 100,000 words with, among other things, one main overarching theme and goal. 
- It would be immediately recognizable from the first few paragraphs as urban fantasy.
- The protagonist would be introduced on the first page and in such a way that her essential personality, her strengths and weaknesses, are communicated clearly.

c) Potential steps.


If I’m having trouble with a manuscript I like to break it up into units made up of scenes and sequels. These units could be chapters or just elements of chapters.

For each unit I identify the protagonist’s goal, the final outcome and a sketch of how the main character influences the outcome. (But that’s only the beginning. To see more of this process see my article: Using Index Cards To Outline A Novel.)

Software


If you want to keep your lists in your computer there are many choices available. One of the wonderful things about this method is that you can use whatever software works for you. 

A lot of folks swear by Evernote. 

Until recently I used two apps that came with my iMac: Reminders and Calendar. Now I use Fantastical 2 and absolutely love it.

I’m curious. What do you use to help organize your life? Are you old school and eschew everything but pen and paper or do you use one (or more) software programs? 

Notes:


1. “David Allen on How to Fix Your Life,” by James Fallows in The Atlantic.

Wednesday, June 10

Popular Writing Themes: The Secrets We Keep


Secret Keeping And Patricia Highsmith


Last week I binged on Patricia Highsmith’s work. Specifically, “Strangers on a Train” and “The Talented Mr. Ripley.” As I read, I recognized (or thought I did) a theme running through the two stories. If I had to put it into words, I would describe it like this: the secrets we keep destroy us by alienating us from the people we care about most. The-things-we-cannot-tell eventually transform us into dark twisted creatures our initial selves would have loathed.

Excellent books. (And excellent movies as well. Alfred Hitchcock adapted Strangers to the big screen in 1951 and The Talented Mr. Ripley was adapted by Anthony Minghella in 1999.)

Secret Keeping In Supernatural


After reading Highsmith’s work I watched season nine of the TV show Supernatural. What do you think I saw? The writers were using the same theme: the destructive nature of secrets. But I guess that’s the way of things, once you notice something in one place you notice it everywhere.

Sure, there were differences. Highsmith uses the crime of murder as the secret which must be kept, but the secret itself could be anything. In Supernatural the secret was (spoiler alert) that Dean had tricked Sam into letting an angel possess him. Sure Dean’s motives were pure (he wanted to save Sam’s life) but he knew that wouldn’t matter to Sam. If Sam found out he would demand the angel leave and, since the angel was the only thing keeping him alive, Sam would die. 

It’s the same dynamic as in Highsmith’s work. 

Supernatural: If Dean doesn’t keep his secret he will lose the person closest to him. 
Strangers on a Train: Guy Haines is convinced that if he doesn’t keep his secret that his fiancee will leave him. (The secret was that a stranger he met on a train killed his wife and is threatening to frame him for the murder unless he kills that person’s stepfather.) And Guy is probably right, she would leave him if she knew.
The Talented Mr. Ripley (the movie): Ripley is a con artist who drifts into a career as a murderer. What sends him over the edge is the secret he is forced to keep. 

In all these stories, the secret-that-must-be-kept severs the protagonist from society; it sets him off as ‘other,’ as beyond the pale. It is their wound, the thing the protagonist must fix yet can’t.

The writers of Supernatural used a secret-that-must-be-kept to create distance between Sam and Dean, the two protagonists, to sow suspicion in Sam’s heart. Sam knew something was off, he knew that his brother wasn’t being honest with him. This created tension between the brothers, tension which built until the next crisis hit and shattered their already damaged relationship (of course they’ll patch things up, this is Sam and Dean!)

Writing Practice


Joe Bunting (The Write Practice) has a practice exercise at the end of his posts; I hope he doesn’t mind, but I’m going to adopt that idea. I’m not sure I’ll have a writing practice section at the end of all my posts, but I’ll do it today and see where it goes.

Chuck Wendig publishes a writing exercise every Friday, sort of a mad lib exercise that injects a bit of randomness, of uniqueness, into a writing prompt. Here’s a suggestion, something I’ve done:

1. Head over to Chuck Wendig’s site and generate your own writing prompt (this week the story will be inspired by a randomly generated title). Here’s the link: The Random Title Jamboree. The title I came up with was: The Executioner’s Brains. Sounds like it’ll be a horror story. 

2. Write a story, inspired by the title generated in (1), that explores the destructive nature of secret keeping. (Or not! Pick your own theme.)

3. I encourage you to post your story on your web space and then leave a link in the comments on Chuck Wendig’s post (I’ve given the link, above). If you like, leave the link in the comments, here, as well. I’d love to read what you come up with. :-)

A Change In My Blogging Schedule


I’ve decided to focus more on writing fiction than writing about fiction, and on encouraging others to join me. I’m not suggesting you need my encouragement—I’m sure I need yours more than you need mine!—this is just where my muse is leading me. I’ll be cutting back my blog posts to once a week (on Wednesday) but I hope to begin publishing writing prompts again. Perhaps I’ll emulate Chuck Wendig and post a writing prompt every week, but perhaps on Monday rather than Friday.

That’s the plan at least. But you know what they say about the best laid plans. ;)

Until next time, good writing!