Friday, July 29

Weekend Reading: The Girl on the Train, by Paula Hawkins


I've been falling behind on my reading and thought I'd try something new. Weeks (months?!) ago I swore I would read "The Girl on the Train," by Paula Hawkins. From everything I've heard it's a delightful, provoking, read.

But, really, it was what Stephen King tweeted that sealed the deal for me:
So this weekend I'm going to do it, I'm going to read "The Girl on the Train," and by posting this here I'm making myself accountable to you!

What book are you reading this weekend? I would love to hear from you!

Talk to you again on Monday.

Thursday, July 28

Write Now: Finding Inspiration


Anyone who stops learning is old, whether at twenty or eighty. Anyone who keeps learning stays young. The greatest thing in life is to keep your mind young.” —Robert Frost

Let’s get something out of the way: writers do not need to feel inspired before they sit down to write. Or perhaps I should say that professional writers are sufficiently afraid of not being able to pay rent that they’re able to conjure up inspiration. As Jack London said, “You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.”

Today, I would like to discuss what inspires me, what motivates me to write, and it turns out to be a long list. So, in no particular order:

Past Trauma


I think the best writing is emotionally evocative, causing the reader to feel fear, hate, loss, sadness, happiness, joy or regret.

What was a low time in your life? A dark hour? Think of it, concentrate on that memory. Slip into it. What were you feeling? Thinking? At the time, were you thinking clearly? How did your emotions change over time? Why did your emotions change? Did someone help you through your trauma or did you get through it in spite of those around you?

Now think of a character. It could be one that you have created; for instance, it could be the protagonist from your work in progress. It could also be a character from your favorite movie or TV show. Make that character an actor in your traumatic situation. Perhaps they can take on the role of one of the other people in your memory. Maybe they become you.

Now ask yourself, how would this have changed the situation? What would this character do differently? What would the new ending be, or would everything have turned out the same, regardless?

This is one way to take your raw emotions and weave them into a fictionalized environment, merging the unique, the painfully personal, and the general archetypal kinds of life events we’ve all suffered through. (For example, finding out that someone you love more than life doesn’t feel the same way about you.)

Past Triumph


Repeat the exercise we just did (Past Trauma) but now do it with a wonderful memory rather than a traumatic one. Think of a wonderful time of your life. Think of an event at which you were giddily, all-consumingly, happy. Close your eyes and slip into the memory.

How did your body feel? Were you outside or inside? Was it sunny out? Rainy? Who was with you? Why were you so happy? How did the people you were with (if any) respond to your happiness? Were they happy you were happy or were they jealous? How did the event end?

If you could go back in time and relive the event again, would you do anything differently? How would the character from your WIP react if put in exactly the same situation?

Writing Prompts


I love writing prompts! A good prompt—or perhaps just one suited to my particular creative temperament—can conjure up a strange new world.

I used to publish a new writing prompt every day. Just today I began corralling those into a Google+ collection imaginatively entitled, “Writing Prompts.” ;-) I plan to, one day, have all my writing prompts there. I find they’re a great way to kick-start my day.

I don’t have space to go into all of these in depth, but here is a list of possible sources of inspiration:

Friends and Family
Quotations
Religion
A Writing Journal
Pinterest
Google Maps, Street View
Poems
Novels
Music
Daydreams
Dreams
Blog Posts
People-Watching
Movies and TV
Forums
Free Writing

These are just a few of the ways I get inspiration. I would be really interested to hear how you find inspiration to write. What sort of things do you think about, what kind of things feed your soul?

Thanks it for today! Good writing and talk to you again on Monday.

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!

Try Audible and Get Two Free Audiobooks

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!