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 Holiday Gift Guide for Feisty Writers

Do you ever wonder what to give your favorite feisty writer? It’s that time of year, and some of our awesome contributors have made gift suggestions any scribe is sure to love:

Marni’s Writer Gift Ideas:

the cover of Novel & Short Story Writers Market1. Novel & Short Story Writer’s Market 2018 is the only resource you need to get your short stories, novellas, and novels published. This edition of NSSWM features hundreds of updated listings for book publishers, literary agents, fiction publications, contests, and more, and each listing includes contact information, submission guidelines, and other essential tips.

Inside Novel & Short Story Writer’s Market, you’ll find valuable tips for:

  • How to take your readers on a roller-coaster ride by mastering the art of the unexpected
  • Weaving foreshadowing and echoing into your story
  • Discovering the DNA—dialogue, narrative, and action—dwelling inside all memorable characters
  • Gaining insight from best-selling and award-winning authors, including Steve Berry, Liane Moriarty, Junot Díaz, and more

Why I love it:  I love this gift because it answers the age old question, “But where should I send my work?”  This is the gift that keeps your work from ending up in a shoe box.  Buy one for yourself while you’re at it.  Truly worth it.

https://www.writersdigestshop.com/novel-and-short-story-writers-market-2018

2. Inspirational Book

Book Cover for Juicy Pens Thirsty PaperWrite and share what’s in your heart! Let SARK show you how. Juicy Pens, Thirsty Paper is your non-judgmental witness, resoundingly supportive friend, and practical guide to the craft of writing and storytelling. For anyone who knows that a writer lives within them but doesn’t know how or where to start; for writers who need new ways to work past their blocks and be reinspired; for anyone who loves SARK’s wise words and art, Juicy Pens, Thirsty Paper will help start the ink flowing and keep it going.

 

 

 

 

Why I love it:  Well, truth be told, I love every book by Sark.  She is the queen of giving you permission to loosen up, to play, to love the messy, juicy and joyful process that writing can be.  If you become a fan here are a few more: Eat Mangoes Naked, Succulent Wild Woman and Inspiration Sandwich

3. The Editor’s Tote by Dooney and Bourke

For those who want luxurious toting of their notebooks, papers and laptops…

The Editor's Tote by Dooney & BourkeThe Editor’s Tote by Dooney and Bourke

H 7.5″ x W 4.5″ x L 8.75″ One inside zip pocket. Two inside pockets. Cell phone pocket. Inside key hook. Buckle closure. Handle drop length 4.5″. Detachable strap. Strap drop length 13.5″. Lined.

https://www.dooney.com/pebble-editors-travel-tote-BSHTL0326.html?dwvar_BSHTL0326_color=2LCAPATN#q=editors+&start=1&cgid=dooney-bags-style-tote

 

 

Why I love it:  Well if you know me, you know I can be greatly cheered up with purses and totes.  I don’t know why but when I carry around my notebooks in this it makes me happy.  If you have a writer in your life who is equally delighted by pretty containers with straps, this is a lovely gift.  And guess what, it is ON SALE for the next 4 days!

4. Bonus Gift – Just for Fun

fun wall clock for writers

The Writer’s Clock at Café Press

Why I Love it:  It only allows you an hour to panic, then back to writing.

http://www.cafepress.com/+writers_clock_wall_clock,1160095998

 

 

 

 

 

Melissa’s Writer Gift Idea:

book cover for The Anatomy of Story

 

The Anatomy of Story: 22 Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller by John Truby

 

This is the most comprehensive and practical how-to book for narrative writing that I’ve ever come across. It explores story from conception through execution, delving into character development, world building, thematic through line, plot, and scene construction. Truby’s concepts build upon one another, helping the writer understand their story from many different perspectives and thus giving them the tools to weave an intricate and cohesive web that will satisfy readers. And the best part is, this isn’t just for fiction writers—it’s useful to anyone who incorporates narrative into their writing, be it journalism, memoir, or non-fiction. While this book could be mulled over from time to time as ideas develop, it also includes a workbook format where the writer can do the work as they progress through each chapter. The writer(s) in your life will be forever indebted to you for this gift and—let’s be honest—there’s no shame in treating yourself to this one too!

https://www.amazon.com/Anatomy-Story-Becoming-Master-Storyteller/dp/0865479933

Karen’s Writer Gift Idea:

an index card that says the gift of 5 hours for writing

 

The gift of time to write.

That’s all I want in this crazy season. My shelves are full of books on how to write, I have very nice bags to carry 10 copies of my latest, a laptop, pens, three spare unfilled composition books. There’s one thing missing…

 

 

Paula’s Writer Gift Idea:

book cover for Big Magic

 

Liz Gilbert’s Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear 

Here’s why I recommend it:

Big Magic grants authors and artists permission to create free of fear (or maybe in concert with it). I especially liked the early sections on the distinction between being a genius and having genius pour through you (the latter reflects the true nature of the artist) and how ideas can get sidetracked and, if they’re set aside too long, lost (been there myself recently). But, Gilbert argues, even if these ideas go away from you, they often appear elsewhere, pursued by others in a concept known as multiple discovery.

Fascinating and liberating, this book celebrates the joy of creating and gifts all authors and artistic types with the knowledge that it’s okay to just do the work, no matter the experience level or eventual outcome. Highly recommended, not just for authors, but for all who yearn to be creative explorers.

Marijke’s Writer Gift Ideas:

an open moleskine journal with drawings and writing in it1. Moleskin Journals

https://www.amazon.com/Moleskine-Cahier-Journal-Large-Ruled/dp/8883704983/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&qid=1512416238&sr=8-3&keywords=moleskin+journals+set+of+3

I’ve tried a LOT of journals and finally settled on the plain moleskin journals.  They are the perfect size to carry with me.  I have taken them on all my retreats and now have a collection, one for each retreat I’ve been to.  These are marvelous to mine for content later.

 

2. Watercolor pencils

water color pencils

https://www.amazon.com/dp/B000J6EVZK/ref=twister_B076PK1CZC?_encoding=UTF8&psc=1

These are so fun for adding pictures to my journals.  I find that it helps me relax and pay attention to my surroundings when I add a little color to my journal notes

 

 

 

 

 

3. The True Secret of Writing: Connecting Life with Language by Natalie Goldberg.

book cover for The True Secret of Writing

 

https://www.amazon.com/True-Secret-Writing-Connecting-Language-ebook/dp/B008J4RQD8/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1512417133&sr=8-1&keywords=the+true+secret+of+writing

This book captures what I think are essential components of my own writing practice, which Natalie distills as this: Sit. Write. Walk. It encourages us to dig a little deeper to “mine the rich awareness in your life, and to ground and empower yourself.”

 

 

 

 

Danielle’s Writer Gift Ideas:

  1. Out of print clothing

old t-shirt

https://www.outofprintclothing.com/

I wear a lot of t-shirts. They are part of my personality and feature anything from interesting designs, to bands that I love. Lately I’ve started to add both bookstore and book t-shirts to my collection. This site has a whole host of book-themed gifts, whether it be a t-shirt with Frederick the Mouse or a scarf with Edgar Allen Poe-ka dots.

 

 

 

 

 

2. Book darts

book darts

https://www.amazon.com/Book-Darts-Bronze-Line-Markers/dp/B0030J1J30/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1512428855&sr=8-2&keywords=book+darts

I choose to read physical books simply because I spend most of my days and nights in front of a screen. I have also attempted to curb my book spending, so I’ve also been borrowing a lot of books from the library. Book darts are the absolutely perfect way to mark specific passages in books. If you’re reading a book you borrowed for the library for book club, you can “dart” your way though it and remove them all prior to returning the book. Book darts are thin, neat looking, and removable. I’ve already blown through two tins. So worth it.

3. The War of Art by Steven Pressfield

The War of Art book cover

 

 

https://www.amazon.com/War-Art-Through-Creative-Battles/dp/1936891026/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1512428569&sr=1-1&keywords=the+war+of+art

The War of Art is my writing bible. Pressfield tackles one of the greatest nemesis of writers around the world – resistance. When I’m wrestling with the demons of resistance I reread the final paragraph of this book (which is marked with a book dart in case you were wondering) “Creative work is not a selfish act or a need for attention. It’s a gift to the world and every being in it. Don’t cheat us of your contribution. Give us all you’ve got.”

 

 

Lisa’s Writer Gift Ideas:

  1. 1. Book Map

book map

https://laughingsquid.com/street-maps-of-book-and-tv-show-titles-by-dorothy-collective/

These are fun, beautiful pieces of artwork featuring landmarks from literature in a single city map. Fun to stare at during those brainstorming sessions! They also have TV and movie maps, for those who don’t just love books…

 

 

 

 

 

2. Storymatic:

picture of storymatic game

https://thestorymatic.com/collections/frontpage/products/the-storymatic-classic

Literally a box of writing prompts. These have gotten me out of many a writer’s block jam, and there is a booklet of fun group games, too!

 

 

 

 

3. Dragon:

dragon software box

https://www.amazon.com/Dragon-NaturallySpeaking-Home-13-0-English/dp/B00LX4BZAQ/ref=as_li_ss_tl?ie=UTF8&qid=1481404642&sr=8-1&keywords=speech+to+text+software&linkCode=sl1&tag=bookfox-20&linkId=989cb992faf4df717d127e4fe36aecd5

This is a software program for taking dictation, which is the fastest way to get words on the page, whether they are notes, prose, blogs, or whatever pops into your brain. It also learns to recognize words and spellings you use often, including proper names. Think of all the brilliance you’ll be able to get out when the words move as quickly as your imagination! (Note: this is the PC version. They have it for Mac as well, but it’s more expensive for some reason.)

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

Keep Your Opinion to Yourself: How to Prevent Authorial Bias From Poisoning Your Writing

black and white photo of person wearing gloves holding a mirror in a snowy forestAll artists have a distinctive style, but have you ever thought about how they acquired it? I’ve worked alongside character sculptors for many years and noticed that whether they sculpt animals, monsters, or humans, each creation resembles them to some degree. It’s not a conscious effort but rather a subconsciously learned habit from looking in the mirror every day and seeing the same familiar features staring back.

For writers, it’s not so different. There’s no way to turn off the constant stream of thoughts, emotions, ideas, and annoying jingles swirling around in the figurative mirror of our minds. So, just like those visual artists, our writing is imbued with “features” of ourselves.

By “features” I don’t mean in the sense of “write what you know.” Anything you create will reflect your personality and interests. But there are other “features”—the subconscious ones—that you don’t intend to include.

While you inform how your characters think and act, this doesn’t mean they should think and act how you would in a given situation, or that your opinion of them should affect their identities. In my current project, my protagonist has two love interests vying for her attention. About halfway through my first draft, I realized that not only did my critique partners dislike the second love interest, but so did I (and so did my protagonist)! Far from making him compelling and attractive, I made him deplorable! His actions and dialogue completely discounted his strengths. Upon reflection, this was because the first love interest was someone I would want to be with. So when I was knee deep in the writing trenches, the mirror in my head had a thing or two to contribute to the second love interest’s character. Luckily, with a few dialogue tweaks and sequences where he could be more active, I was able to redeem him.

This is just one example of how the internal mirror can take over. It can also manifest in dialogue, plot, or theme. And although sometimes it will enhance your project, it won’t always. So be aware of the “features” you pour into your writing and then decide if they should stay or go. Here’s how:

  1. Write uncensored. Especially in a first draft, it can be hard to discern where you’re giving away too much information and where the integrity of certain characters falls short. So get the first draft out with no regard for the mirror.
  1. Identify where the mirror takes over. Some instances you’ll notice as you’re writing and others upon immediate review, but certain cases—the ones that have infiltrated an entire character arc or thematic message—you’ll have a hard time identifying. So start with dialogue and plot revelations, and then look at the larger picture of arcs and themes.
  1. Evaluate what works—and what doesn’t. Don’t be afraid to depart from what you know and love. Remember that removing the mirror’s influence doesn’t mean the writing’s gone forever; you can always relocate it to your ‘killed darlings’ document.
  1. Let others read your work. While they may not know you well enough to recognize where the internal mirror takes over, their critique may show you where your story is suffering. Not to mention, they could help you solve a problem you may not have noticed on your own.

All that being said, this is your story—of course, your “features” will be reflected within! So allow the internal mirror to take over once in a while, and then evaluate if you need to fog it up, shatter it, or give it a good polish.

PHOTO CREDIT: https://unsplash.com/search/mirror?photo=aUYmEjU6mvY

Play to Your Edge: Maintaining a Writing Routine

person standing on edge of rockWhen I tell people that I’m writing a book, they eventually ask about my writing routine. My response usually starts with, “It depends…,” because, while I generally write each night before bed—and occasionally can devote an entire morning or afternoon to writing—I may also go several days without putting pen to paper (or, I should say, fingers to keyboard). My routine (or lack thereof) seemed to fall into the “I write when I can” category.

I wanted to do better.

I knew, for instance, that Earnest Hemingway wrote daily, while standing up, and clocked at least three hundred words per day—he also weighed himself every morning and documented it in pencil on his bathroom wall (Okay, perhaps he’s not the best example.). On the other end of the spectrum, Neil Gaiman has revealed that boredom is the key to his creativity, and so he takes regular walks that allow him the headspace to come up with new ideas. I needed something in between to help me mend the gaps in my writing routine.

So I started waking up an hour early every morning. Whether I used the time to write, journal, read, work out, or some combination, this small adjustment to my schedule energized me and sparked a feeling of productivity that lasted the entire day.

Then one morning, I had to wake up earlier than usual for work. I forwent my morning ritual, stumbled out of bed, brushed my teeth, threw on the outfit I—thankfully—had picked out the night before, and left. When I got home, all I wanted to do was plop into bed and shut my eyes. And so I did.

The next morning, I woke up later than usual—and groggier than usual. Sluggishness and unproductiveness clouded my day. When I finally sat down to write, the task at hand felt monumental. I didn’t know what to write; I just felt an overwhelming pressure to do it. But the words were caught somewhere in transit, inaccessible.

The rest of that week was a downward spiral: My journaling was sporadic and uninspired, I finished my leisure book and had nothing lined up to read next, I had no idea what the point of my scene-in-progress was, both my critique partners had to cancel our weekly chat, and, on top of all that, I had no advice to write about for this blog post!

My intention for waking up early was to complete a task before I started my day, thus boosting my productivity. Failing to wake up early (a task in itself) meant I now had more to do in less time. And the more I thought about needing to do those tasks, the less I felt capable of actually doing them. I had taken motivation and turned it into stress.

I needed to take a step back.

There’s a yoga concept called “playing to your edge”—that place just outside your comfort zone but not so far past it that you’ll sustain an injury. The tricky part is, your edge today might be much further than your edge tomorrow. But the mind has already documented the progress you made today and established it as the new standard.

Therein was my problem. I was operating on the inherent desire to do better than yesterday, but imposing that standard was only hindering my ability to meet it at all! Instead, I needed to play to my edge.

The next morning I woke up with the sun, made some eggs, and got on with my day. And that night, the words flowed again.

So whether you operate on the level of “I write when I can” or on the level of “I’ll sleep when I’m dead,” embrace your edge—wherever it may be today—and let it guide your routine.

Photo Credit: https://unsplash.com/search/edge?photo=ke2-WbTxINI