What to Do When You Have Too Many Good Ideas

a large lightbulbThere was a pivotal moment in my writing life when suddenly I gained confidence in my words. I went from having one I-don’t-know-maybe-this-is-kind-of-a-good idea to having constant oh-my-gosh-I-think-this-is-the-next-great idea(s). It’s like uncovering buried treasure; most of it is gold coins that are exciting yet equal in merit, and a few of them are shiny, precious gemstones you want to hide for fear everyone will steal them away from you.

Now, of those precious gemstones, you get to covet and nurture just one. At least, that’s what seems to be the consensus from the pros on how to get a good (or great) book written. So what do you do with all those other gems?

If you’ve read Big Magic, you know about Elizabeth Gilbert’s “you snooze, you lose” theory: if you sit on an idea for too long, it’s not going to wait for you. It’s going to float back up into the ether and find someone else worthy of its presence.

Depressing, right?!

But working on two (or more) books at a time is overwhelming, even just to think about.

And then there’s the inevitable pitfall of any writing endeavor: fleeting inspiration. At some point, no matter how much you love your idea, the self-doubt creeps in—or worse, writer’s block.  And then those other gems looks shiny and new compared to your current smudged and scratched gem.

Nurturing More than One Idea

So how do you reconcile all these factors without giving up on your current project, ending up with several uncompleted projects, or biting off more than you can chew?

First, I think it’s important to commit to that first project wholeheartedly. As long as it’s working, as long as you believe in it, as long as it was the project that felt most right to bring forth into the world—even if in this very moment you are having doubts—then you need to finish it.

That being said, the psychology of writing is no walk in the park. At best it’s a long, wandering hike through a mountainous forest whose many paths are overgrown with tree roots and muddy impasses. The point is, there are going to be days or weeks—or even months—where you just can’t work on that main project. Be it writer’s block, lack of inspiration, or a roadblock you need to work through just by thinking instead of putting words on the page, that day will come. And when it does, these other gems get their moment to shine.

I’m not talking about jumping ship.

I’m talking about nurturing.

Your idea can’t go to someone else if you continue to pay it attention once in a while.

Giving Your Ideas Loving Attention

Depending on the project, this could be as simple as research; reading a specific book, doing an interview, or online searches for a topic. This could also mean beginning an outline to work through plot or developing characters. The distinction is that you are not jumping head first into a second endeavor while the first is still trying to make its way into the world. You are simply setting aside some headspace or free time to let that gem know it’s still important to you.

It could be once a week, once a month, or even once a year. But this second (or third, or fourth) idea becomes a security blanket, writer’s block therapy, or a spark of inspiration so that you may continue on your path of getting the first project done. And then, when you do, that next project already has a sprouting seed from which you can work.

And the best part? The cycle can continue indefinitely!

5 Unconventional Ways to Develop Your Characters

multi-colored wooden game piecesYou already know the single most important question to ask about your protagonist:

What does he/she want?

With that alone, you can make it pretty far into your story. But then something happens. You realize you still don’t know your protagonist. Maybe you have some backstory worked out, you know her education level, even her family history, but there’s a difference between the what of it and the who of it.

Does she like her environment neat and organized or prefer it messy? Does she value money or people more? Does she shut down and deny her involvement when something goes wrong or own up to it?

These are the questions that start to give your protagonist (and all your characters for that matter) the multi-dimensions that they and your readers deserve. Creating distinctive personality types ensures your characters aren’t, well, acting out of character or worse—reacting to situations in the same way. So here are five resources to check out that will help you understand your characters better:

1. The Enneagram Institute

https://www.enneagraminstitute.com

I recently learned about this one from author William Craig Reed at the La Jolla Writer’s Conference (you should check out his newest book and support a worthy cause here: 7 Secrets of Neuron Leadership: What Top Military Commanders, Neuroscientists, and the Ancient Greeks Teach Us about Inspiring Teams).

The Enneagram Institute breaks personalities down into nine major types, falling under the “Thinking,” “Feeling,” or “Intuiting” categories. Those types can then have “wings,” meaning someone can share traits of another personality. And each type can also “integrate” or “disintegrate,” becoming a better or worse version of that personality.

Whew! That’s a lot to take in, right? For the purposes of defining characters, you can start with reading about each of the nine types (enneagraminstitute.com/type-descriptions) and try to categorize your characters accordingly.

2. Astrology – Zodiac Signs

I might as well put the Google search link for this one because you’ll find plentiful articles and horoscopes out there for Zodiac signs. Astrology never resonated with me until I found out there was more than just a sun sign. There’s also a rising sign, a moon, a bunch of houses, ruling planets but without getting carried away, the two most useful categories are:

Sun sign: This is the sign that the sun was in when your character was born. This is your character’s essence or who they are at their core.

Rising sign aka Ascendant: This is the sign that was rising over the eastern horizon when your character was born. This is your character’s surface personality or how they appear to others.

For instance, your character might have a Leo sun and Libra rising sign. This means that, while she would run headfirst into battle to protect her own, she also has a harmonious side—a side that might try to stop a war or argument from happening in the first place. See how these two signs can interact and add some dimension to your characters?

3. Numerology

Again, there are many online resources for numerology, even a Numerology for Dummies book that will get your pretty far. Like Enneagram, numerology also has nine distinct number types. The most important number is the “birth number.” That is, the number you’re left with when adding up the birth date. For instance, someone born December 22, 2017, would be an 8:

1 + 2 + 2 + 2 + 2 + 0 + 1 + 7 = 17

1 + 7 = 8.

Okay, you don’t actually have to assign your characters birth dates and do a bunch of math, but you can read about each number and its basic traits and then assign a number to each character.

A 1, for instance, would be much more independent than a 2. A 4 would be a worker bee, while an 8 values money and power. A 7 would be very inward and pensive, while a 3 might be an artist. Once you get to know the numbers, you will see how assigning each character a different one will produce interesting conflict within your scenes.

4. Myer’s Briggs

16 Personalities.com

There’s been some backlash on this one recently, but I stand my ground as an INFJ and still believe there’s some merit to it! Myers Briggs claims there are sixteen possible personality combinations. They are broken down into polarities:

Introverted vs. Extroverted

Observant vs. Intuitive

Thinking vs. Feeling

Judging vs. Prospecting

Assertive vs. Turbulent

Since it would be an undertaking to read up on all sixteen types, you can work with these basic questions:

Is your character more introverted or extroverted?

Do they analyze their surrounding or go with their gut?

Do they use their head or their heart more?

Are they organized planners or flexible improvisers?

Are they self-assured or self-conscious?

Once you decide which way they sway, you can read up on that specific personality type.

5. Secret Language Birthdays

TheSecretLanguage.com/check/day

It’s actually scary how accurate this one is! The data was collected from a forty-year empirical study of the life stories of more than twenty thousand people, analyzed by date of birth. If you select your birthdate, you will get a two-word description of yourself. I, for instance, am “Revelational Winner.” My sister is “Wondrous Explosive.” See how fun these can be?!

Under the title, there are specific traits and then larger descriptions of each aspect. While I don’t recommend painstakingly sifting through hundreds of birthday combinations, try searching for yourself and a few friends or family members. Start to pick up on traits and how those simple, two-word descriptions can define someone. As a bonus, you can choose a second birthday and read about how two personalities would be in a relationship together.

*

There are many other ways to develop your characters, but these five techniques will give you a jump-start. The technique that resonates with you may be different from project to project. On my last book, I used both numerology and astrology to develop my characters, whereas on my current project I’m finding the Enneagram personalities incredibly helpful. There’s no one right way, and not many wrong ways either!

 

How To Be A Writer Who Reads

a woman reading while sitting on the year 2018As 2017 drew to a close, the Internet lit up with posts boasting how many books people had read in the year. Some were photos of meticulously written lists, others just a blanket statement: “I read sixty-six books!”

That was the one that got me: sixty-six books—in one year.

Were these children’s books? I wondered.

I turned to a new page in my to-do list and jotted down the books I could remember I’d read in the past year. And then I checked my Audible account—because audio books count, right?

My grand total? Sixteen books. That’s one-six. The age you get your driver’s license.

That other person could have filed for social security with her book count.

I glanced at the stack of books on my bedside table and noted that five of them had makeshift bookmarks sticking out the top. Three of those I had started two or three years previous. And I still wasn’t done.

The next thought that popped into my head was, what’s wrong with me? I love reading! Why am I not reading more?

And then I remembered one little detail: I’ve been writing a book.

Not that that’s an excuse. And yet it’s an important factor to consider. Reading is a vital part of any writer’s life. Be it for inspiration, learning new prose, becoming familiar with why certain grammar techniques sound better on the page, or just for the escapism fare from your own ideas.

And yet when forced to make a choice between spending one hour reading and one hour writing, the decision is simple: spend it writing.

That’s what I’d done all year: set aside time for writing. Excepting the audiobooks, three of the books I’d completed had been for a yoga teacher-training program and the three that had been for “leisure” were actually my attempts at finding a comparison title for my own novel.

Sadness and doubt crept into my mind. I was failing at one of my favorite past times. And I refused to believe that reading and writing had to be mutually exclusive!

By chance, I’d just signed up for an online learning platform called Mindvalley and the next morning in my inbox was a video (http://www.emresanli.com/video/?id=ll2C2J6Q3SY) about reading faster! According to the man in the video, Jim Kwik, the CEO and founder of Kwik Learning, the average number of words in a book is 64,000, and the average person reads 200 words per minute. By his calculation, if you set aside forty-five minutes a day for reading, you could finish one book per week.  

Hallelujah! The answer I was looking for dropped into my lap!

Of course, fifty-two books per year still seemed a bit ambitious, but this tangible breakdown of time was the first step in factoring reading into my schedule.

I decided that I would set aside forty-five minutes just before bed for reading. This would give my mind a way to wind down instead of staring at a computer screen. I could still write a bit before that forty-five minutes, or I could move my writing time to when I woke up.

Within a month, I was able to finish one of my “in-progress” books and get halfway through another. Not quite a book a week, but I was also able to achieve my weekly writing goals.

So let’s break this down:

Let’s say you allot three hours per day to writing. Of those three hours, forty-five minutes—or twenty-five percent of your writing time—would go to reading. By that same calculation, if you allot ten hours per week to writing, two and a half hours would go to reading. While this isn’t getting you to fifty-two books a year, it’s allowing you some time for reading without compromising too much writing time.  

You can apply this math to any amount of writing time that works for your week or month. For me, it’s about making reading just as deliberate as I make writing.

And with that I leave you with a Confucius-style quote to ponder:

“To be a good writer, you have to read; and to be a good reader, you have to read.”

Wouldn’t you agree?

Photo Credit: https://pixabay.com/3039802/

The Problem with Rushing

people rushing on a crosswalkI moved to Los Angeles when I was barely eighteen after living in a town where my high school was within walking distance. This, of course, meant that I didn’t have much driving experience before I arrived in a city infamous for its traffic, road rage, and expansive grid system which tapers off into narrow, winding, steep hills. Needless to say, that first year wasn’t pretty. While I surprisingly managed to avoid any accidents, I did not avoid adopting the following habits:

  1. Tailing cars on the freeway, whether the traffic is moving or not.
  2. Changing lanes without a blinker since using it only signals to the car behind you to speed up so you can’t get over.
  3. Speeding up whenever there’s a pocket of traffic-less road, and,
  4. Since clear roads are about as common as flying pigs, how to rush.

I’ve become that person I was warned about. The one who everyone makes fun of at parties when they say, “she’s fashionably late.” But guess what? I can tell you from many years of experience, that there’s nothing fashionable about being late. My version of fashionably late is not a laissez-faire, get-there-when-I-get-there affair. It is an oh-no-I’m-late-get-me-there-now ordeal that spins me into a fight-or-flight, grip the steering wheel, and internalize road rage state of being.

I no longer live in Los Angeles. And yet, yesterday I was in the car—white-knuckle grip on the wheel, perched forward as if ready to pounce on the car in front of me, which I was inching closer and closer to by the second—and it occurred to me that I was rushing for absolutely no reason. I had plenty of time to get where I was going, but the mere action of driving was sending me off into that fight-or-flight, post-apocalyptic, every-woman-for-herself mode.

Why? I asked myself. Why are you stressing out when you know you’re going to get where you need to go eventually?

And while the answer was, I don’t know, it did spark an epiphany: that driving was not the only time I do this. I also do it when I write.

I’m very goal-oriented, which means I’m also a little deadline obsessed. I love setting deadlines for finishing outlines, chapters, drafts—you name it. It feels great to meet them and also gives me a sense of purpose when writing, but, as I mentioned in a previous blog post (Play to Your Edge: Maintaining a Writing Routine), it can also deflate me. When I get busy or when I get writer’s block, my deadlines come and go, and I’m left scrambling to make new ones. Or, worse, I rush the words out just to meet the deadline, which ends up setting me further back because I write myself into a hole or I’m not fully entrenching myself into the scene where I discover all sorts of lovely world-building and character moments.

To be clear, no writing is a waste of time. But rushing affects the quality of my words and also the quality of my life. So while I still think deadlines are important—as well as being punctual—no deadline or event or job interview is worth the cost of rushing.

I am still working on this one myself, being mindful of how I drive, write, and move through my day. But once you’re aware, you will notice those small cues—increased heart rate, constricting chest, clenched teeth—which mean you need to step on the brakes. Because once you do, everything you want to accomplish will be waiting there, ready to be worked on, ready to be finished—within a reasonable timeframe, of course.

Photo by mauro mora on Unsplash

The Familiar Girl

Astronaut on planet with pyramids“You look familiar,” she says as she shakes my hand. Her brown eyes peer at me expectantly over the rim of her glasses. “Have we met before?”

“I don’t think so,” I say, and we sit down opposite each other at the rustic wooden table. She’s the hostess of a wine tasting dinner my friend invited me to, in a neighborhood I’ve never been to, with people I’ve never met—or have I?

The following ten minutes I spend racking my brain for where I could’ve met this woman. I watch her slender hand swirl the wine in its glass. Watch her curly hair bounce as she turns her head. Maybe we have met. Maybe I wasn’t paying attention when we did. Sometimes I do that. Maybe I just have a bad memory.

This is not the first time someone has said, “You look familiar.”

It started in high school when my classmate, Andres, turned to me in math class and said, “You look like my friend, Jennifer. I’m going to call you Jennifer.” And he did—for the rest of the year.

It instilled in me a mixture of embarrassment and annoyance, until it got weirder. Many people after that, into my adult life, mistook me for a Jennifer. Even people who already knew my name.

Someone once told me I looked like Anne Hathaway. Someone else, like Rosamund Pike. I do this to people too—I walk the streets and mutter to my friends:

“That’s Heath Ledger and Orlando Bloom mixed together.”

“There’s Norwegian Brad Pitt.”

“Don’t you think she looks like our cousin?”

I’ve been pondering this concept of familiarity for a long time. Do I have a twin sister named Jennifer who my parents never told me about? Could I have multiple doppelgängers trotting the globe, grown in the lab from my stolen DNA? Do people look at my general features and compartmentalize them under “brown-haired, brown-eyed girls with small foreheads and big smiles?”

Lately, I’ve been thinking that maybe the why of it isn’t as important and the what of it: we seek out the familiar because we are comfortable with the familiar. We resonate with it. We relate to it.

We do it on the street corner. We do it at work. We do it while traveling. And we do it when we read a book.

The familiar, the relatable, it’s what draws us.

When characters feel like old friends, when we can taste a meal, smell a setting, hear a song.

The story could be set on Mars—The Martian’s main character, Mark Watney, is stuck on a hostile planet with no one to interact with but himself. Yet, his sense of humor remains intact and brings him “down to earth,” so to speak: “Turns out the ‘L’ in ‘LCD’ stands for ‘Liquid.’ I guess it either froze or boiled off. Maybe I’ll post a consumer review. Brought product to surface of Mars. It stopped working. 0/10” (pg. 150).

The story could be set in a country we’ve never been to before—in The God of Small Things, set in India, Arundhati Roy transcends her homeland, using similes to exemplify the human condition: “Both she and he knew that there are things that can be forgotten. And things that cannot—that sit on dusty shelves like stuffed birds with baleful, sideways-staring eyes” (pg. 122-123).

Your story could be set in your childhood home—but, inevitably, your nostalgia, your memories, they’ll feel familiar to your readers too.

So the next time you spot someone you think you might know, ask yourself, “What is it about them that makes me think that?” and you may have the beginnings of a new character.

The next time you walk into a restaurant and feel a sense of deja vu, ask yourself, “What is it about this place that makes me think I’ve been here?” and you may notice some nuanced details that will enhance your set description.

And the next time someone tells you that you look familiar, recognize that they’re giving you the highest compliment—that you comfort them (And maybe try to figure out what about yourself brings that familiarity.).

Soon enough, you’ll have your readers seeing themselves in your work, turning the page, and coming back for more of the familiar.

Photo Credit: https://pixabay.com/1900352/

Quiz: Should You Call Yourself a Writer?

A green sign that says Quiz TimeIt’s Time to Label It.

You heard me—today’s the day you call yourself a writer.

What’s that—you already do? Are you sure? Good thing I made you a quiz to find out if you really should call yourself a writer!

  1. You write:
    a) daily
    b) weekly
    c) monthly
    d) yearly
  2. You share your writing with:
    a) your family
    b) your friends
    c) your critique group
    d) no one
  3. You consider writing a:
    a) hobby
    b) passion
    c) chore
    d) all of the above
  4. You enjoy writing:
    a) true
    b) false
    c) all of the above
  5. When you’re at parties and people ask you what you do, you say, “I’m a writer”:
    a) first
    b) last
    c) not at all

Okay, save your answers because now I’m going to tell you a story.

When I was a little girl, I loved arts and crafts: play-doh and coloring books, beads and lanyards. I took art classes all through school. Spent my weekends learning to draw. I went to college for film and animation. And I landed my first job as a puppet fabricator for stop-motion animation. But still, I didn’t consider myself an artist.

Sure, I made art all day. I painted and sculpted, molded and casted, sewed and glued. But I wasn’t an artist! It wasn’t my vision. It was a skillset I had built and implemented. So what if I was passionate about it? So what if I worked my butt off to get there? If I were a real artist, my work would be in a gallery. I would have art shows. I would go through blue phases and red phases. I wouldn’t just make things—right?

It was when I voiced that line of thinking to a friend, who looked at me with raised eyebrows and said, “Melissa, you are an artist,” that I finally realized I was selling myself short. I had the experience, the passion, and even the job to back it up, but still, I felt undeserving of the label.

Is this starting to sound familiar? Good, then you’re ready for the real quiz question:

When will you be good enough for the label?

a) right now
b) right now
c) right now
d) all of the above

If you haven’t guessed it already, no matter how you answered the quiz questions, you pass. You are allowed to call yourself a writer. No, not allowed—entitled. You deserve it. Whether you’re on your first draft or your final manuscript. Whether you have an agent or a published book. Whether you write in a notebook that remains locked away in a drawer for three hundred sixty-four days of the year or type away on your computer daily.

You. Are. A. Writer.

And you don’t need a quiz or a friend or a publisher to validate that. You just need to own it!

Photo Credit: pixabay.com/2453148/

Showing Up Is Half the Battle: Ways to Utilize Your Writing Critique Group

a cement hand supporting a tree branchIn a previous post, I explained why you should have a writing critique group, where to find people who resonate with you, and even how to get started. At the time, my critique group had been going strong for about a year, each of us submitting chapters weekly and spending Sunday mornings analyzing them page-by-page. But this year the worst happened—we all got busy.

That’s not to say we stopped writing. But for different reasons, each of us hit a rut in our communal writing groove. My first partner realized he could finish his first draft sooner if he wrote stream of conscious, without fixing the pages for us to read. My other partner started a new project, which meant going back to the outlining and brainstorming phase for quite a while. And as for me, I resisted at first. I kept submitting until I reached a chapter that required me to do some research for world-building. For several Sundays, I showed up to our chat discouraged that I hadn’t made any page-count progress. But when I shared what I had discovered, it led to a productive conversation about what could happen next in my story.

It was then I realized we were onto something. Maybe critiquing didn’t necessarily mean analyzing paragraphs of writing. Maybe our group was more than that—a writer’s support system ready for whatever hurdles stood in the way of completing our projects.

Since then, my critique group has become a check-in space—a weekly powwow where the goal is to discuss where we are, both in writing and in life. And though our conversations involve fewer grammar lessons and technical insights than last year, we have each expanded our writing strategies and techniques. And most importantly, no matter how many words we actually write, we feel like we’re making progress.

So next time you’re pressed for time and can’t meet your critique group’s submission deadline, keep in mind that you have other avenues of discussion. Here are some ideas of what to talk about when you don’t have pages to show:

  • Where your story’s headed next
  • A scene or chapter’s purpose
  • Who your characters are, delving into their wants and fears, and how they play into the larger framework of your story
  • World-building ideas, your latest research, or potential interview subjects to aid in research
  • Brainstorming how to get out of a plot hole
  • Your writing goals and how to hit your next deadline
  • Strategies for finding more time in the week to write
  • A vent session about how busy you are and why you haven’t typed a single word in the past week

As you can see, potential topics are plentiful!

While it may sound silly or even seem like a waste of time to use your critique group in this way, it ensures your writing routine stays consistent. And with consistency comes growth—improving not just what’s already on the page, but also how it gets there.  

 

Photo by Neil Thomas on Unsplash

Writing Uninspired: Three Tools for Novel Completion

A ditch in a green field with cows grazing around itEarlier this year I attended the first stop of Neil Gaiman’s book tour for Norse Mythology. I had no idea what to expect and, as it turns out, he had only some idea of what he was going to do. He walked onto the stage to an unassuming, spotlighted podium and began speaking in his whimsical British voice about how he hasn’t done “one of these” in a while. In his hands were small slips of paper where audience members wrote questions before the show. And in between talking and reading short stories, he answered a few, one of which was:

How do you stay inspired?

Without missing a beat, he said that he doesn’t stay inspired. That he wished he could, but that inspiration lasts for about the first twenty pages of writing a book and the rest is like digging a really long ditch.

Everyone laughed. I laughed too. But I also felt this weight lift off my chest; a confirmation that inspiration is fleeting. It fills you up like a Thanksgiving Day parade and then leaves you with the remnants of confetti and a tryptophan coma.

I think about Neil’s words every time I sit down to continue digging my own ditch. And yet some days, I wonder if the key is simply this: one shovel full at a time. Some days, I can’t help but look toward the end of a long expanse of dirt and think, “Why am I not there yet?”

Each morning I wake up with this source of energy coursing through me and sometimes it gets spent before I sit down to write. Some days it bursts out of me and latches onto the first thing—or the necessary thing—of the day. Before I know it, the day is gone, the page is blank, and my expectations spin into an inner pressure that builds all night and into the next day.

And when I pick up the shovel to keep digging, the un-dug part of the ditch appears so much longer. Instead of excitement that I will get there, I feel dread that I am not there.

What, then, is the key to getting to the end? Or, rather, what’s stopping us?

Lately, I’ve been keeping track of what’s most important to writing productivity. Three tools in the writing arsenal that, when in perfect balance, can bring us steadily closer to the end of the ditch: energy, time, and expectation.

Energy: The right amount of energy is almost as good as inspiration. It’s brainpower and word fuel. It keeps the pen moving or the fingers typing. It nurtures the necessary headspace for creative thinking. But without it, our motivation and ideas sputter out of us like the last squirt of ketchup in the bottle.

Time: Time management is vital for accomplishing any endeavor. It doesn’t have to mean writing at the same time or for the same duration every day (heck, for me sometimes it means staring at a computer screen for an hour), but if you don’t meet the page, your words can never get there.

Expectation: Expectation is the wild card of writing tools. It is woven into all of our writing goals and deadlines, self-imposed or otherwise. Low expectations that are exceeded can lead to a boost in energy or inspiration; high expectations that aren’t met can lead to stunted creativity and self-pressure.

Mitigating that self-pressure is the ultimate key to getting to the end of the ditch.

Allow for a dip in energy, a lack of routine, or squandered expectations. Because if, at the end of the day, you haven’t written a word, but you go to bed okay with that fact, you will wake up excited about your project instead of turning it into just another chore on the list.

So be aware of how your energy, time, and expectations interact. Experiment with when and how long you write. Experiment with different kinds of goals—chapters, word-count, even stream of consciousness journaling. Eventually, the right combination for you will emerge. And in the meantime, remember: every word counts!

Photo Credit: https://pixabay.com/en/cow-cows-pasture-landscape-whey-1940971/

“The Infamous They” Exposed

Piranhas swimming toward us with blue background.In a previous blog post, I mentioned, “The Infamous They,” and a friend asked me to elaborate on what exactly I meant. You’ve encountered Them anytime someone starts a sentence with, “You know what They say….”

And while They often say inspiring and wise tidbits of advice, that’s merely how They infiltrate your mind. Once They’re in, They have an altogether different sort of message.

At Their essence, They are the elusive, undefined body of judgers. The judgers who decide whether or not a passion is worth pursuing. Whether you should go big or go home. Whether you are on your way to success or failure.  

They infiltrate just as inspiration dwindles to a dull flicker. Just as you take that first step past your comfort zone. When your confidence, like the tide, retreats and exposes the foraging crabs of passion and fragmented shells of ideas not yet ready for human interaction.

They stand before the next incoming wave and dissect all that was uncovered. They keep you down when you’re on your way up.

Suddenly, questions arise:

“But what will They think?”

“What if They know I don’t really know what I’m doing?”

“They have already done what I want to do.”

Those insecurities spiral and weave around your dreams until all of it’s knotted together and you don’t know where to begin to untangle it all.

They become the critics none of us need or want. But somehow you value Their opinion more than your own. More than anyone you trust.

They are the bully telling you to “stay down” when you were born to fight. When all you want to do is keep fighting, even if it means getting beaten to a pulp. And yet, you don’t really want to be beaten.

So you listen. You listen because They know best. They know when you’re going to make a fool of yourself. When you’re wasting your time.

Right?

It’s when my friends bring up “The Infamous They” that suddenly a switch goes off in my head. When I can see Them outside of myself, and I know—one hundred percent, clearly, and truly—

They don’t exist.

They’re all in our heads.

Which means They don’t actually care either way what we do, how we do it, or how successful we become.

And yet, They come back again and again.

And sometimes They win.

If we don’t confront Them. If we don’t confide in those we trust and expose those judgers for what They really are, then all our passions and dreams stay improbable and impossible. Then we let Them win.

So when They start to take over your thoughts and make you question your stroke of inspiration, the book you’ve been writing for five years, the idea you thought was amazing, but now you’re not so sure—call Them out. Whether you phone your best friend and say, “They’re at it again,” so he or she can remind you that They hold no power over you. Or speak directly to Them and say, “You don’t decide when I’m done with something. I do.”

Voice the fears and release Them from your headspace.

Eventually, “The Infamous They” can become a tool by which you measure your doubt, your confidence, your trust in yourself. Once you recognize those fear indicators, once you see when and why that tide of confidence recedes, then you can begin to reverse-condition those thoughts and turn them into motivation to continue on your path to success—whatever that may mean for you, not Them.

 

Photo credit: https://pixabay.com/en/piranhas-nightmare-fish-swarm-fish-123287/

Establish Your Code: Navigating the Rules of Writing

Pirate (Johnny Depp) looking at other pirate with parrot on his shoulderIn Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, the pirate code is brought up often. It’s a code of conduct for pirates on the high seas to abide by, set down by the pirate brethren. But not long into the story, we realize the code doesn’t mean much to swashbuckling pirates. As Captain Barbosa explains, “The code is more what you call guidelines than actual rules.” And while the code’s informality becomes the running joke throughout the film, it implies that most rules, no matter what they’re governing, are not “one size fits all.”

There are books upon blogs upon interviews of writing rules to absorb nowadays. The rules of grammar, of story structure, of technique, of discipline. Many of them overlap and reiterate the same points, but the question remains: when is it okay to break one (or all) of them?

We writers, like those pirates, need to establish our code: the circumstances in which we’ll veer from the precedent and try something new, and the times we’ll follow the rules without question.

It’s a gamble to stray from the tried and true because your heart or gut is telling you it feels right—when the muse is guiding you to write an entire short story of run-on sentences or to eliminate a vital plot point from the hero’s journey. But writers have made similar choices. To follow their right way and not the right way. Some of them have failed miserably, but some have succeeded far beyond their expectations (Many writers since Hemingway and Faulkner have successfully employed run-on sentences, for instance).

The most reiterated rule I came across when I told people I was writing a book was: don’t start working on a second project until the first one is one hundred percent complete.

It’s a great rule, to be sure. How many people do you know that start gardening one day and the next the flowers have wilted and the herbs have shriveled up because they’ve moved on to knitting? And then their living room is strung with unused yarn while they learn to decorate cakes in the kitchen? And then the dishes lie dirty in the sink while they learn to roller blade? You know that person I’m speaking of—you might even be that person!

I can sometimes be that person. So when I was told not to jump ship, I didn’t. Even though a year into writing my book, I got one of those ideas that demands to be known. That idea that stops you in your tracks and has you grasping for a pen or your smartphone, so you don’t forget a detail. The one you can’t wait to tell someone about. The one you’re itching to work on at any given lull in the day.

But then there was that rule: Don’t. Jump. Ship.

So I continued with my first project for another year. But all the while the other project called to me. And all the while I wanted so badly to work on it. And so instead of having a half-completed story, I ended up completing a story with half a heart behind it.

It took me another two months and a writer’s conference to finally, consciously, decide to jump ship. At first, it felt like I had wasted two years of work. Like I had given up or failed somehow. But as I dove into the new project, I began to employ all the rules and techniques I had learned in the past two years of writing. And the words were pouring out of me.

I did not fail, I grew.

Sometimes breaking the rules yields the greatest learning experiences.

So while you’re skimming this blog, or reading an interview with your favorite author, or referencing Joseph Campbell’s “The Hero’s Journey,” remember that your inner compass doesn’t have to point north for your writing to become a treasure.

Read the rules. Accept the rules. But make your own code.

Photo Credit: http://pirates.disney.com/galleries