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?

- 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.)


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? 


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!

Friday, June 5

Writing And The Movies

Years ago I watched a reality TV show that chronicled Jamie Oliver’s (at times desperate) attempts to teach a group of unambitious youth the art and craft of cooking, the idea being that they would go on to culinary school and, in due course, become chefs themselves.

As I say, that was the idea. I’m not sure how it turned out, but one scene from the program has remained with me through the years. Let me try to set this up.

One thing I learnt from Food TV, and from Jamie Oliver’s shows in particular, is what I call the number one rule of cooking: One must taste the food one prepares. Does it need more seasoning? Is it undercooked? Overcooked? And so on. All these questions can only be answered by tasting the food

Obvious, right? But I hadn’t been doing it! This simple rule radically improved my cooking. 

Back to Jamie Oliver’s reality show. This dictum I’ve just shared, what I’ve called the number one rule of cooking, is of course something Jamie Oliver shared with his proteges. So you can imagine how surprised he was when one of the aspiring chefs categorically refused to taste seafood. She wasn’t allergic to shellfish and she wasn’t a vegetarian. Shrimp, she said, were “icky.”

How, he asked her, can you expect to prepare seafood if you’ve never tasted it? How could you hope to prepare a dish—and prepare it well—if you have no idea how you want the dish to taste? (There’s a difference between liking something, and knowing how it should taste.)

Perhaps you can see where this is going. Just as a cook must be familiar with how a certain dish should taste (how else could she be sure she'd gotten it right?), so a writer must read within her genre and so be familiar with the kind of stories she writes/tells. This goes back to the (often repeated) first rule of writing: To write, you must read.

Back to the movies ...

When I was a teenager, my friends and I would head down to the local theater every weekend. Every weekend. Sometimes we would even go on a weekday, though our parents (“You need to do your homework!”) tried to discourage this.

We ended up watching about 80% of the movies available in our area, and that includes art house pictures, though our little town didn’t have many of those.

Some movies we liked, a few we loved and there were what we called “the groaners,” movies so terrible we considered it our duty to warn others against them.

But, honestly, the true joy of going to see a movie had more to do with what happened after the movie. The group of us would head off to a restaurant to eat and discuss. It didn’t so much matter whether the movie was bad or good, what mattered was what we thought of it and why.

*  *  *

The members of our amorphous little group melted away over the years, drawn away by the demands of work or family.

And that was fine. In fact, I think we barely noticed as the group shrank and, eventually, died. Our lives had changed, we had drifted into adulthood, and the slow dissolving of the group seemed inevitable.

It’s only now, after a span of more years than I care to count, that I look back and feel it as the loss it was; and not just in terms of the strange, unconscious, camaraderie we shared, but in terms of ... well, in terms of the shared experience of story.

Until recently I had almost given up watching movies. After The Group had faded into memory I all but stopped going to movie theaters. I didn’t even watch many movies at home, though I hadn't realized this until the other day when I looked at a list of one hundred of the top rated movies of 2014 and realized I had watched four on the list. Four out of one hundred!

My mind plays the most devilish tricks on me. The moment I realized how few movies I’ve seen lately I remembered Jamie Oliver’s student, the one who refused to eat seafood. 

Then I had an epiphany: That was me! 

Yes, of course, I read, but story comes in many forms. I find that reading and watching a movie—even when both tell the same story—are different experiences. The point about the number one rule of writing—To write, you must read—is for writers to immerse themselves in story, which can only happen through a steady diet of all sorts of different stories by all sorts of different writers.

As I say, reading is essential for a writer, but I think it would be a mistake to neglect (as I have) movies.

First, there are practical considerations. Even a short book takes about three times as long to read as the longest movie takes to watch. Also, book clubs aside, I generally don’t read the same book at exactly the same time as my friends and there is something to be said for experiencing a story together. 

And, finally, there’s something magical about sitting in the dark, having one’s senses assaulted with sound and light, having one’s mind teased and entertained with new ideas, vicariously experiencing (as much as we are able) how it might be for someone else, learning to walk in the shoes of another.

So. The point—one of them at least—of this rambling and somewhat ramshackle post is that I have resolved to watch more movies. My goal is to watch at least 50 of the movies in the top 100 list for each year, beginning with 2014.

I don’t know if watching more movies will make me a better writer, but it certainly couldn’t hurt!

What about you? How many movies did you watch last year? What about this year? What were your favorites? Did you watch what I’ve called a ‘groaner,’ a movie so bad you feel obligated to warn others away from it? If so, do tell!

Till next time, happy writing (and watching)!