Tag Archives: Nathan Barra

Start Where You Are

I’ve recently started a weight-loss program provided by my day-job as a health benefit. The program, Naturally Slim, consists of a series of weekly video lessons that cover topics of nutrition, weight loss, exercise, stress reduction, and general mental and physical well-being. In one segment on exercise, the speaker pointed out that people, especially men in their forties and fifties, tend to hurt themselves by overdoing exercise when they first try to get back in shape. He further elaborated that our society seems to cling to the unhealthy expectation that to “be fit” is a destination, not a process. If you haven’t worked out in twenty years, you can’t reasonably expect to get up off the couch and power through the workouts that were difficult in your teens and twenties.

With this attitude, most people who try to get into shape to quit before giving themselves a chance to achieve their goals. Most often, they either injure themselves or are overwhelmed by their perceived lack of progress. It is better to be honest with oneself, accept your limitations and “start where you are,” even if all you can manage is a ten-minute walk. Soon enough, ten-minute walks turn into twenty-minute walks. With persistence, you’ll be able to walk for an hour or more, incorporate some weight training and more high-intensity cardio. It just makes sense, right?

At that point, I took a moment to pause the video and figure out why the point seemed bigger to me than simple fitness advice. It didn’t take very long for my mind to wander back to my writing, as it tends to do. I had been struggling with putting words on the page that week and was getting frustrated with my lack of progress. “His arguments about fitness make perfect sense to me,” I thought, “and yet, I also am frustrated when I have writing sessions that result in a lower than desired word count. I’m disappointed when my first drafts fail to live up to the awesome thing I had pictured in my head. It’s as if I’ve convinced myself that small steps means that I’ve somehow failed as a writer.” See how that logic, or shall I say “illogic,” works? It sneaks into your every day life if you’re not careful to watch for it!

As a society, we’ve bought into the fallacy that if we don’t see instant perfection we have some how failed. As such, we are unreasonably hard on ourselves and become frustrated from “lack of progress.” It is unreasonable to insist that we can go from an inactive lifestyle to sprinting without conditioning ourselves with the steps in between. Likewise, it’s unreasonable to insist that we go from a blank page to a polished work without taking the time to draft and redraft.

I, like many of y’all, have been raised and molded in a culture of instant gratification. Personally, I blame marketing. We’ve been told so often that we deserve to be a fit/healthy/sexy person and for all our dreams to come true, instantly. Why are you sitting? After all, you were meant to be up and running! The capital “T” truth is that’s not how real life works. Frankly, those sorts of expectations are unhealthy, counter productive, and only work for the people who are trying to sell you something. Real progress, real accomplishment, takes the expenditure of blood, sweat, and tears. In the end, it is the struggle that makes what we accomplish meaningful.

For creative people, this truth is particularly difficult to shake. As the legendary radio personality, Ira Glass put it, we often get into creative endeavors because we have exceptional taste. We want to make the things we love, and when our initial attempts fall short of the standards set by our own good taste, we’re disheartened.

So, the first step to becoming a better author is to realize that our early attempts aren’t going to live up to our full potential. Certainly, we won’t be able to compare to the heroes that inspired us to write in the first place. Truth be told, they weren’t born perfect either, but rather earned their skill. Don’t believe me? Find your favorite author who has published more than ten books. Read their debut novel and then their most recent work. Notice the difference?

There is no such thing as the perfect novel. Writing is too subjective for that to be possible. Rather, we must struggle to be better than we were. Most of the writers I know are too self-critical to be able to help themselves improve in the long run. Certainly, I’ve reached plateaus in my skill that I could only overcome with the help of a new craft book, or the advice and observations of a trusted friend. Not all advice should be treated equally. Instead, we have to find those with the experience to give us an accurate view of our work and who aren’t afraid of hurting our feelings in the process. This is why editors and writing groups are critical to an author’s growth. They help remind us where we are today and show us what we need to do to get better.

I recently experienced this first hand when a writing friend of mine sent me a guest post for the Fictorians. However, the first draft was less than I had hoped from her, less than I knew she could accomplish. It was full of language that hinted at depth and emotional power, but fell short of the mark. I had asked her for the post because I knew she had something to share with the wider world of the blogosphere. I told her just that in my feedback, highlighting my observations with specific examples. Sure, I was reluctant to hurting her feelings, but at that point I was her editor, not her friend. A few days later, I received a note back from her. She had taken my feedback and redrafted the post. When I read it, I found that she had delivered even more than I had initially hoped for! In the end, she ended up thanking me for the push. My honesty had helped her do her best work.

To become a master at any activity, you must start where you are, and start today. You’ll never finish a paragraph if you don’t finish a sentence. If you don’t finish a first draft, you’ll never have the opportunity to practice your revision skills. If you read interviews and biographies of the world’s greatest minds, you’ll find one thing to hold true. Becoming an expert or a professional is a process, not a destination. They were obsessed. They consumed, learned, and practiced voraciously until they reached the end of what others could teach them. Only then could they push further than anyone had achieved before. Sure, there have been a few sparks of brilliance over the course of human history, but more often than not it was persistence that allowed them to reach those unprecedented heights.

Nathan Barra

About Nathan Barra

Though Nathan Barra is an engineer by profession, training and temperament, he is a storyteller by nature and at heart. Fascinated with the byplay of magic and technology, Nathan is drawn to science fantasy in both his reading and writing. He has been known, however, to wander off into other genres for “funzies.” He is an active blogger, not only on his own site, NathanBarra.com, but also with a group blog called the Fictorians (www.Fictorians.com). Nathan is always up for a good conversation, so please drop him a line through his contact page, or write on his Facebook wall (www.facebook.com/WriterNathanBarra).

Building a Better Blog

The blogosphere is unique social construct, a community in which thousands of voices speak into the darkness and hope for a whisper in return. Even though nothing committed to the internet ever disappears entirely, the life of a blog is always uncertain. Some voices seem to continue to ring on strong, but these are the exception. Most speak out for a while and then die off into nothingness. There are several important differentiating factors that I have found as both a reader and a writer to be good indicators of the health of a blog.

The first predictor is the dependability of the people behind the blog. If they have a schedule set, do they fulfill those promises? If not, do they post regularly or is it months between new content? Do they have some way to communicate to their readership when new content becomes available? As a reader, I have neither the leisure time nor the inclination to browse blogs that haven’t been updated. Go too long without new material, and I will not be back. Chances are the blogger won’t be either.

The next sign I look for is the self-awareness of the blog and blogger. All writing must have a target audience, a group of people whom they wish to reach and influence. Whether you are trying to reach a niche, sub-culture or an entire demographic, it is essential to know what interests them and to tailor the blog’s culture to fulfill those needs. Do your readers seek entertainment? To learn something or keep up on news? To share in the thoughts and art of another? These questions change the nature of the posts themselves.

This leads directly into my third flag. Does the blogger produce high quality content, or can most of what they post be considered “fluff”? More importantly, is the type of content that they produce consistent to the needs and expectations of their audience? Both are legitimate strategies, after all. For instance, a blog that seeks to target geeks with science and entertainment news may be posting many short, graphic centric articles. They do not rely on readers going in depth, but rather depend on a high frequency of shares and new visits to spread their message. A blog that discusses the finer points of restoring classic cars, however, would rely on a small pool of devoted readers and discussions generated by more detailed content.

The final and most important aspect that I use to predict the success of a blog is its focus. Bloggers who write for their own satisfaction, who are internally focused, tend to be less reliable, and frankly, less interesting. They write for an audience of one. If that is enough for them, then I hope that they have fun with their little piece of the internet. Bloggers who are truly successful tend to be externally focused, seeking to reach people in order to share their passion and interest. They seek to form a community.

When I think of the blogosphere, I can’t help but picture the club fair that occurred during the first week of the fall semester at my college. Back then, we dragged tables out to the middle of our campus, and freshmen wandered around, trying to find what extracurricular they wanted to be a part of. These days I sit behind a digital table, but the goal is the same. I want to attract people who share my interests to stop and talk to me. If I’m lucky, they’ll even join my club and stick around. Community is what matters to bloggers, it is what supports and sustains us. It is our raison d’être.

The community that surrounds ForeverWriters.com and the Author’s Think Thank have become part of my personal blogosphere, part of my community. This community has done what most don’t. Not just grown, but thrived. Through reading their blog, listening to the podcast, and participating in discussions in the Think Tank, I see many of the indications I mentioned above that point to a long-lasting and healthy community.

Most of all, I’m thankful to all of you, dear fans and readers. Both my own, and those native to ForeverWriters. Without y’all, without your willingness to listen from within the darkness, and occasionally even whisper back, we would not, could not go on.

Nathan Barra

About Nathan Barra

Though Nathan Barra is an engineer by profession, training and temperament, he is a storyteller by nature and at heart. Fascinated with the byplay of magic and technology, Nathan is drawn to science fantasy in both his reading and writing. He has been known, however, to wander off into other genres for “funzies.” He is an active blogger, not only on his own site, NathanBarra.com, but also with a group blog called the Fictorians (www.Fictorians.com). Nathan is always up for a good conversation, so please drop him a line through his contact page, or write on his Facebook wall (www.facebook.com/WriterNathanBarra).

Instinct: The Devil is in the Details

by Nathan Barra

Psychology has demonstrated that the human brain the greatest piece of pattern recognition hardware under the sun.  For years, computer scientists and programmers, roboticists and specialists in human-computer interaction have tried and failed, to build and program computers with a fraction of the capabilities of an infant.  After all, all it takes is a simple password encoded in a GIF to baffle even sophisticated bots.

Instinct is the culmination of subconscious observation compared against experience.  Certainties we often attribute to “a strange feeling” are really our hind brain processing details we would otherwise miss.  It is a brilliant and elegant survival mechanism, allowing us to quickly evaluate and react.  Even better?  As I see it, instinct can’t be invented by each individual, but rather, we draw our base set of instincts from biology and society and then fine tune them with our experiences.  If this is true, then our audiences share this common base set of instincts, handing conscientious author another lever to manipulate.

The first and easiest of three major sets of instincts discussed is the instincts of characters.  Everything a protagonist says and does, every interaction they have with the people and things around them is telling of character.  A character’s instinctual reactions to stressful situations indicate the individual’s past.  After the freeze reaction kicks in, will the character fight or flight?  How they go about either reaction when not given the time to think will show what has either worked for them in the past or they have trained into muscle memory.

The second set of instincts are the reader’s instincts.  Readers consume fiction because they enjoy doing so.  Given this as true, it is likely that the readers are observant and intelligent.  It is also likely that they have read extensively and have a sizable background of works from which they draw experience.  As many authors were readers first, we share many of the same traits.  Look at your own experiences and use elements common to works to manage tension and pacing.  As an author, if you slowly start stripping a beloved protagonist of protection and resources in a seemingly innocent way, the tension of your readers will ratchet.  Certain other actions or phrases will induce a rise of romantic tension.  Also, think of commonly accepted cues that signal the transition from rising action to dénouement.  Like many other levers, manipulating reader instinct will allow for a great deal of between-the-lines communication.

The third set of instincts to manage is also the most difficult to be aware of and to trust.  They are your own authorial instincts.  Like many writers, you were a reader first.  You know what sort of works you have enjoyed and know what has been effective for them and for you.  You have practiced your writing, developed on your craft and wrestled with inspiration and motivation.  All this experience has added additional fine tuning to your instincts.  If you read a paragraph or scene and it seems off, dig deeper and discover why.  Your instincts are identifying a problem with your prose that you know needs to be addressed.  The concern then becomes identifying with your conscious mind what your subconscious has already highlighted.  These days, when I suffer writer’s block or a feeling of vague blasé towards my prose, this is why.  My subconscious has identified a problem that needs to be fixed, a choice that needs to be readdressed and will not let me invest in new material until I identify and correct the situation.

Experience drives action and reaction.  What has worked for you in the past or you have observed working for others will shape your present.  It is therefore essential for an author not only to be aware of the fine tuning to the base collective instinct in themselves, but also be conscious of the instincts of both your intended audience and characters.  Instinct, like other levers of craft, can be manipulated to your advantage only if you are aware of how it affects you, your readers and your works.

About Bonnie Gwyn Johnson

Bonnie Gwyn wrote her first book, about a talking grandfather clock, when she was six – and hasn’t stopped writing since. In fact, she can’t “not write,” and she wouldn’t have it any other way. She hasn’t missed a day of writing in her journal for the past four years!

As a winner in this year’s National Novel Writing Month challenge, Bonnie produced her latest dystopian novel, "Escaping Safety," and is now working on its sequel. She is also close to completing a fantasy romance series, "The Legends of Elldamorae," whose characters have captured her heart and can’t wait to have their stories revealed.

Bonnie’s mantra is, “I write because I believe every story deserves to be told.”

You can learn more about Bonnie, and read her inspirational blog posts, on Where Legends Begin at http://www.bonniegwyn.blogspot.com/

Bonnie Gwyn handles all guest bloggers on this website. Contact her if you would like to volunteer your time to share writing advice for The Authors' Think Tank.