Tag Archives: persistence

FIVE WRITING RULES AND HOW/WHEN TO BREAK THEM

I found a statement in an old copy of Writer’s Market on line by Jessica Strawser (Feb. 13, 2012 issue) that made me laugh out loud, and I quote: “As wordsmiths, many of us rejoice in a single fact every day: “Writing is not math.”

The reason it hit my funny bone is that I know a number of writers who would agree. I, on the other hand, loved math when I was a kid in school — probably from early junior high school on — Oh, not even! I remember maybe in upper elementary (?) whenever we hit fractions, both dividing and multiplying. I got an old steno-notebook and filled a page, top to bottom, with a straggly column of fractions. I moved over an inch or two and made a second column. Between the two I placed a “multiply” or “divide sign”; then moved over another inch or two, and I’d see how fast I could write the answers. My form of playing “Angry Birds” or some other “game” on an android, or even a phone, before those were invented.

What does all that math have to do with writing? Actually, it has to do with the “rules” imposed on us. Math has rules. So does writing. And every conceivable language, whether written or spoken, has rules. In math, formulae and protocols must be strictly adhered to . . . I wonder if anyone told Einstein that? Or Newton?

We writers “know” our rules too, and sometimes understand how and when to break them:

  1. WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW.
    But does that yield “bland protagonists? “Sleepy settings?” “Mild plots?” Instead, think “Write What You Know means Write What You See Differently, Feel Profoundly, Know is Important, Where You Find the Extraordinary in What is Universal.” Don’t limit yourself to what you know: use your imagination, exercise your human potential, stretch beyond your “borders.” And “The Rules.” Go ahead: Natalie Goldberg has advised writers to “lose control,” say what they want to say, break structure, and sometimes assigns them to write “what they’re not thinking of” or “what they don’t remember.” It’s the writer’s job, Goldman maintains, “to give the reader a larger vision of the world.” She claims everything — every person in Portugal or darkest Africa, the grass, bees, a horse, even a rock — all have different languages. And Donald Maass adds “. . . you can always research what you don’t know. But you can’t fake what’s in your heart. Say what matters. That’s writing what you know.”
  2. HOOK YOUR READERS ON PAGE 1.
    “Most experts advise starting with or quickly getting to an ‘inciting incident,’ or at least something that implies a main character’s status quo has been interrupted,” says Jerry B. Jenkins. Above all, he says, “it’s not gunfire, murder or mayhem,” but something wherein you want to know what’s going on — and you’ll stick with it until you find out. But, can we break even this rule? Steve Almond says most “student authors” refuse to orient the reader by providing “basic dramatic circumstances, such as where we are and what’s happening, and to whom. Instead we’re plunged into “[an] ectoplasm of vivid descriptions and incisive observations. I refer to this style of writing as hysterical lyricism.” All because they’ve been told over and over that they have to “hook readers on Page 1.” What the reader seeks to learn above all is “whom she should care about, and what those characters want or fear. Readers deserve clearly told stories, not high-watt histrionics.”
  3. SHOW, DON’T TELL.
    What, exactly, does that mean? Your job as the writer is to “transmit experience so the reader also experiences it. Details. We need details to let us envision. Back to Goldberg, “Writing is a visual art — and a visceral, sensory art. The world is not abstract, it is full of particulars.” Later, she says to “Lay out all the jewels for us to behold. To only tell about them is to hide the emeralds from view.” Donald Maass argues that, generally speaking, this rule is sound, but asks that we “make it concrete. Externalize . . . [what] is internal. Use a slap instead of a slow boil. A single four- letter word in dialogue can do the work of a whole paragraph.” But, he argues further, sometimes, “what you want to capture on the page is intangible. You can’t see it, weigh it, smack it or lick it. You have to trap a wisp in words. Trying to turn it concrete only causes it to evaporate.” He compares it to the change of mood in a stadium when fans know “with bitter certainty, that their team is about to lose.” There’s “the buoyancy of . . . new spring fashions . . . or the intuition . . . for no solid reason that she’s going to leave me.” So how do we break this rule? Maas says “Realize there can be tension in the invisible. . . found inside he who’s experiencing that which is vapor.” So the trick to telling is to base your passage “in emotions. Less obvious emotions are good. Contrasting emotions are better. Conflicting emotions are best. If moving beneath the surface, then you’re cooking. Fold into these feelings whatever outward details are at hand in the moment . . . Telling doesn’t ignore tension, it just snatches it from the air.”
  4. WRITE “SH*TTY FIRST DRAFTS.” (REALLY, DO YOU HAVE A CHOICE?)
    Nope. No choice in the matter. So “let it rip. You have nothing to lose as long as you make a deal with yourself: NO ONE will ever see it,” says John Smolens. “Here’s the thing about writing fiction : You’re alone. You work on your sentences, again and again. You have a chance to seem smarter in your final draft than you were in your first. Your character may not have the right rejoinder today, but by next Thursday she may come up with something . . . witty, urbane and wise and, despite your hours of labor, it may even appear to be spontaneous.” Musicians can jam — it’s not solitary, and what you hear is what you get — goofs and all. For writers, the first draft is a Solo Improvisation, “littered with sour notes and botched chords.” You’re just trying things out, what works, what fits. It’s the reason you write that “sh*tty” first draft: to see what you can’t/shouldn’t do before you discover what you CAN do. And with revision, patience, no one will ever know your first draft existed.
  5. WRITE EVERY DAY.
    John Dufresne believes in writing every day: says that writers want to write, but there’s the world beyond the writing room, intruding. And all those books to read! But “the doing, the intense activity of the mind . . . fascinates the writer . . . allows her to shape order from chaos. Writers write. Writing is work. And you go to work every day. It’s not a choice. If you don’t punch in, you lose your job.” He goes on to say “if you’ve tried to quit and catch yourself back at the desk — well, then don’t give up. Give in.” Good news: all the writing doesn’t go on at your desk. It goes on while you’re out in the world. So he advises carrying a pen, notebook; (today it’s more likely to be an Android or your phone). Whatever works. Gather evidence. With pen in hand (or other recording devise, perhaps), you think differently, observe more keenly, learn to pay attention, keep your senses alert. The note is repository, source of material, and refuge. “Go there when you need to think. Writing . . . engenders more writing. “And everything you write today informs everything you will ever write. James Scott Bell, on the other hand, is a big believer in word quotas. He claims the best advice he ever got was to set a quota and stick to it. He started doing a daily count, but life would intrude, and he’d miss a day (who hasn’t done that?), but when life intruded and he missed it, he became “surly and hard to live with.” He switched to a weekly quota, and has used it ever since: doesn’t have to beat himself up if he misses a day. He just writes a little extra on other days, uses a spread sheet (I, personally, let 750words.com keep track of my daily writing, and my total. Long ago, I passed a million words, and I’m almost 200K beyond that one now. And I can go look at any specific day since I started at ANY time!) Bell also intentionally takes one day off each week, his “writing Sabbath”. That seems to recharge his batteries. Meanwhile his projects are cooking away in his subconscious (like Stephen King’s ‘boys in the basement’ hard at work while King takes a day off). Bell also suggests taking a week-long break from writing each year. Use the time to assess your career, set goals, make plans — because “if you aim at nothing, there’s a very good chance you’ll hit it.”

Next week, Five More Writing “RULES” and How/When to Avoid/Circumvent Them.

Keepin’ Stuff, and Keepin’ Goin’

I keep a lot of “stuff”. Some of it, I even keep on my computer: old writers magazines I didn’t make time to read when they hit my INBOX. Further, I admitted (all too recently) how many partial books I have written (and “kept” thinking “some day . . . ). And admitted how much I want to work on my longest, most researched, toughest book, an historical tale from Celtic Times in today’s England.

So I was deleting literally HUNDREDS of “saves” from some of my 1586 folders (that is an accurate, not an exaggerated, number). And I spotted an old Writer’s Digest article called “6 Simple Ways to Reboot Your Writing Routine,” by Brian A. Klems. Since my “writing routine” consists most of thinking about, but not necessarily DOING the writing, I thought maybe I’d better READ THE ARTICLE, this time, from January 10, 2012. And, yes, sometimes the “old” ideas are the really “good” ideas.

Since this was an old January 2012 piece, I thought it very fitting that I try to learn something from it now, at the end of January 2016. Here’s the short list:

  1. Your New Year artist statement: You do have one don’t you?
  2. Your Current regimen. Still working?
  3. Your hardware, software: Time for an upgrade?
  4. Writing extracurriculars: Are you missing out?
  5. Your support network: Is it in place?
  6. Day planners and deadlines: Have you mapped out a path to success?

SELF‑EXAM TIME:

  1. What do I write? Any fancy, new idea that pushes its way into my head. Why do I write it? Because sitting down to write something new is exhilarating! At this point, everything always looks POSSIBLE. OK, Brenda, but dig deeper. How much does this really matter to me? Why should I bother?

DEAR READER: WRITE A SIMPLE, HEARTFELT ARTISTIC STATEMENT WHICH WILL SUSTAIN YOU OVER THE NEXT 11 MONTHS.

(If you wrote an artist statement LAST YEAR) drag it out, dust it off and find out whether any of it still applies. Make sure this statement for the new 2016 year fits you, fits your desires, fits your aims.

  1. Current regimen ‑‑‑ I HAVE one ? ? ? I usually set goals for the next day as I write my 750words on my journaling site. I know my most productive hours are in the morning. That said, those hours often collide with my “new” husband’s hours (haven’t quite reached our 4th anniversary, and this while we are in our 60’s and 70’s ‑ can you say “set in his/her ways”?), and I drop things from my agenda which are REALLY the things I want to get done. I need to start VERY early in the a.m. and get the MOST IMPORTANT THINGS done FIRST ‑‑‑ before our hours clash. SO:

6‑7 am: Get up, eat

7‑10:30 am: WRITE & REVIEW RESEARCH

I’m currently blogging for 3 different sites: A ‑ short, once a week; B ‑ full length, once a week; C ‑ two per week, but will need to increase as we get closer to May and June

Blogs can be written later and on specified days.

10:30‑noon: Household chores

And I MUST set my phone to buzz me when it’s time to move on ‑‑‑ for me, that’s a deadline and I’m pretty good at meeting (or even beating) deadlines!

  1. Hardware, software & upgrades: It’s good having a live‑in computer genius with magic hands around. Why, just tonight he reinstalled a program which may now prevent the SEVEN SHUT DOWNS I’ve been plagued with today! Hooray! for husbands ! ! !
  2.  Writing Extracurriculars: We’re both “retired” from Navy (him) and Teaching (moi). We’re just well enough off, normally, to be able to go to many writing workshops, conferences, as well as many theatrical venues: as a former drama director/debate coach, that’s Life’s Blood to me. We’ve already paid for two major workshops, and have our season’s tickets for this years plays and musical events which keep my blood flowing (AND ideas coming ! ! !).
  3. Support Network: I’ve been in one 40‑year‑old critique group for many years. I couldn’t go to their weekly sessions while I was teaching, but am now able to attend pretty regularly. My husband and I also started a small critique group (2 couples, with occasional visitors). Both families have been a bit bogged down since before the end of 2015 with holidays, illnesses, family “emergencies,” etc. We’re working at getting back on track. I’ve also found a neighbor and an “old” friend of many years who would be glad to act as Alpha or Beta readers. My Distractors/Discouragers? I have no one who discourages me from writing . . . other than myself. With this new plan (above, and last item below), I’m hopeful that will not be a problem now. Distractors? That’s something else again. The needs of extended family are occasionally almost over‑powering. I MUST learn to find good, gentle, kind ways to keep that from being a regular problem.
  4. Day Planners/Deadlines: I loved the quote the Writer’s Digest author of these main ideas gave: He’d had a college professor who would tell her graduate students, “A good paper is a done paper.” I’ve already set deadlines for myself from now until June 20, 2016. When I get close to that deadline, I’ll extend it through the next several months, and move from my historical novel (which takes precedence now) to one of the THREE non‑fiction tomes I’d like to pen. Or, actually, “compute.”

WHAT’S YOUR PLAN ? ? ?

I’m tired and I can’t think

tired
I woke up this morning to eight inches of snow on the ground. Normally as a kid I would get excited about the prospect of a snow day, but I’m an adult now. I had to go to work, like it or not. No matter how miserable the commute might be, I had to go. I was scheduled to be in online training today, too, so being late was not an option. The instructor was in Philadelphia, which wasn’t having trouble with snow.

And so I went, and then spend eight hours in a small, stuffy room watching someone present stuff I barely understood. Fortunately, being online, no one could see me pace the room in order to stay awake. I’ve got three more days of this.

The roads were better on the way home, but still not great. And when I got home I found a great deal of shoveling waiting for me. The snow plows had come through and blocked most of my driveway and in front of the mailbox. The postman gets grouchy when he can’t drive up to my mailbox. I’ve got Christmas orders coming, so we don’t want to risk making the mailman grouchy. And so I shoveled snow for about an hour.

And now I’m trying to write a post for Think Tank. Nothing is coming. My brain won’t think. The obvious thing would be to make some sort of analogy of heavy snows and writing, but…I’ve got nothing. I just stare at the wall and try to force my brain to think. But tonight that’s like pushing a rope.

There are two schools of thought on writing when you just can’t write. One says “write anyway, even if you end up throwing it all away and starting over tomorrow.” The other says “go and do something that will rejuvenate your mind and soul so you’ll be ready to write tomorrow.

Which is right? That really does depend. Are you on deadline? If so, you’d better just get in there and write, and hope you don’t have to throw away everything you write. Just like with my class today, sometimes you just have to put on your big-kid pants and do what’s got to be done.

But otherwise, you may be better off doing something different to stimulate your brain and/or reduce the fatigue in your body. Do something different for half an hour. And then come back and write. If you have something you can do for a short period of time that serves as a “mental palate-cleanser”, then do it! Reset your busy, tired brain for a while, then get back in there and write something, even if it’s only a few paragraphs.

Or a Think Tank post that puts people to sleep.

Michaelbrent Collings, horror writer and occasional Think Tank Facebook luminary, says it’s perfectly okay to deal with writer’s block by going to a movie, reading a book, or listening to music. It puts something new in the brain, helps refill the “creativity tank”, and can still be considered “writing.”

So am I really telling you it’s okay to not write? I suppose so. It’s now the next morning and I discarded the last several paragraphs that I wrote last night as incoherent rambling. My brain had already shut down, in spite of my best efforts to make it keep writing. Something it’s better to use that time for something that will help get the next day off to a good start.

So write! But if you can’t, do something that will help you get through whatever it is that’s making it so hard to write!

 

Thom Stratton

About Thom Stratton

Thom Stratton was born and raised in Idaho, and now lives in Utah with his Finnish wife, three amazing kids, three distinct cats, and a big, goofy dog. He works for a regional bank, and is part owner of a video game store. He enjoys writing, photography, war gaming, music, theater, building things, and reading. Though active in writing as a teen, he convinced himself it could never be a career. Decades later upon moving to Utah, where there’s something odd in the water, he has decided to get serious about writing. To date he has written five novels to be published posthumously by his greedy estate and is polishing a set of short stories to start submitting. Any day now…

Before and After

I just finished reading a biography of J.R.R. Tolkien that discussed the sort of problems Tolkien encountered while writing The Lord of the Rings. I found it interesting and a little amusing to find that the first draft of the novel was quite different from the final version we’ve come to know.

For example, Frodo was initially named Bingo, and Aragorn was also a Hobbit. The Ring was hardly even part of the plot. And Gandalf was held captive by Treebeard instead of Saruman because Saruman wasn’t even part of the story. Neither were Lothlorien or Rohan.

It’s odd to think of such a classic has having been anything but the novels we have today, but clearly they went through a long road to become what they are.

There are two main points of encouragement we can take from this:

  1. Even Tolkien didn’t get it “right” right away. At one point he stopped writing for over a year because the story had become a muddled mess that he couldn’t find a way out of. We often think that our favorite novels sprang fully-formed from the author’s mind like Athena from the head of Zeus. In reality even the best works require rework, and often a lot more than we realize.
  2. Tolkien did get it right–or at least right enough–through hard work. He was notorious with his publisher as a perfectionist, but there’s no denying now that the finished product was one heck of a story. If you’re willing to put work into it, your story can be improved. Editing may not be fun, but it’s a useful discipline to develop.

Tolkien had to spend time developing his craft, too. Before The Hobbit was even published he had spent years writing stories for his family and colleagues to enjoy. And The Lord of the Rings took over a decade to complete–and then another five years to get published. And even then it was not before it had gone through significant revision. In short, even Tolkien wasn’t Tolkien right away.  There is always hope.

Thom Stratton

About Thom Stratton

Thom Stratton was born and raised in Idaho, and now lives in Utah with his Finnish wife, three amazing kids, three distinct cats, and a big, goofy dog. He works for a regional bank, and is part owner of a video game store. He enjoys writing, photography, war gaming, music, theater, building things, and reading. Though active in writing as a teen, he convinced himself it could never be a career. Decades later upon moving to Utah, where there’s something odd in the water, he has decided to get serious about writing. To date he has written five novels to be published posthumously by his greedy estate and is polishing a set of short stories to start submitting. Any day now…

Seeing forests among the trees

There’s a saying from the Bible that a prophet is without honor in his own country. I’ve decided there’s a parallel saying in writing: A writer is without honor in his own mind.

Okay, there probably are writers who think that everything they write fell straight from the muse and heaven itself, but I doubt most of us are in this category. Most of us have a hard time convincing ourselves that what we write isn’t better suited for tilling into our gardens as fertilizer.

I’m working on a novel at the moment that is proving to be the hardest thing I’ve ever written.  If I had a dollar for every time I’ve been tempted to quit I could retire from my job and become a full-time writer.

But one of the worst blows came a few days ago while I was transferring files between laptops and came across a portion of the last novel I wrote. The characters’ voices were distinctive, the description was pretty good, there was depth to the characters and to the world I was writing in–it was fairly good stuff, actually. Much better than the rubbish I’m cranking out right now. I wanted to give up and go work on that novel again.

But then I remembered that I used to think that previous novel was fit only as digital birdcage liner.

Now, don’t get me wrong. There are legitimate reasons for giving up on–or at least setting aside for a time–a writing project. But don’t give up just because you’re too close to what you’re writing right now to be objective. Of course your current work isn’t exciting. You’ve been in that world for a long time now. It’s not interesting any more. Writing it is work.

But just remind yourself that someday this will be the interesting book you’d forgotten was so good, and something else will be the pile of doody you really want to just give up on and go write something fun.

Soldier on. Writing is work, and work is…well, a four-letter word. But then so is “book”, and so is “done”, and even “cash”, “fame”, and “fans”.

Thom Stratton

About Thom Stratton

Thom Stratton was born and raised in Idaho, and now lives in Utah with his Finnish wife, three amazing kids, three distinct cats, and a big, goofy dog. He works for a regional bank, and is part owner of a video game store. He enjoys writing, photography, war gaming, music, theater, building things, and reading. Though active in writing as a teen, he convinced himself it could never be a career. Decades later upon moving to Utah, where there’s something odd in the water, he has decided to get serious about writing. To date he has written five novels to be published posthumously by his greedy estate and is polishing a set of short stories to start submitting. Any day now…

Thank you for your support

I’ve written before about the teacher who got me started writing. I didn’t even know I had any talent until she spotted it and encouraged me. Thanks to her I’ve had gained a fair amount of enjoyment through the years. But there are others in my life who deserve as much credit or more.

I speak of the ones who have kept me going.

Cherish your support group
“Frodo wouldn’t have made it very far without Sam…”

There is, of course, my family. Pretty much all of my siblings have encouraged me at one point or another. Most recently my older brother and his wife have not only encouraged me, but actually volunteered to read my stuff. The feedback I received was valuable, even and especially the negative feedback (not presented in a negative way, though). My brother even brainstormed some better approaches with me.

I also received a great deal of encouragement from a friend of mine and his family. They’ve also read my latest completed work and offered feedback. This friend is also quick to kick my butt if I start getting too whiny–or listening too much to criticism, including my inner critic.

And of course there is my wife. I don’t think she’s read any of my work, actually. What I write isn’t really her thing. But her support is much more tangible in many ways. It’s she who helps me find time to keep writing and checks on my progress. She may never read a single novel I write, but she’s still a major partner in this endeavor.

And of course there are my kids. They don’t know they’re encouraging me. They’re curious about what I’m writing, certainly, but they take it for granted that I’m writing at all. Their contribution is to be my kids. It’s important to me to teach them not to give up on your dreams. They can be deferred, refined, and adjusted, but not given up on. I want to succeed as a writer as much to show them anything is possible as for my own gratification.

So, who is your support? Who keeps you going and won’t let you quit? Who sticks by you and refuses to give up, even when you’re ready to give up on yourself? If there’s someone like that in your life cherish them. More importantly, thank them.

Here’s to you, guys!

Thom Stratton

About Thom Stratton

Thom Stratton was born and raised in Idaho, and now lives in Utah with his Finnish wife, three amazing kids, three distinct cats, and a big, goofy dog. He works for a regional bank, and is part owner of a video game store. He enjoys writing, photography, war gaming, music, theater, building things, and reading. Though active in writing as a teen, he convinced himself it could never be a career. Decades later upon moving to Utah, where there’s something odd in the water, he has decided to get serious about writing. To date he has written five novels to be published posthumously by his greedy estate and is polishing a set of short stories to start submitting. Any day now…

Persistence Pays Off

by Alice Beesley

“Someday I’m going to write a book.”

Occasionally I hear people with a lot of writing talent who don’t write regularly, say this, and I think to myself, well, you better get started! From what I’ve heard and seen and experienced, it takes the average writer ten years from the time they start writing regularly until they sell a book. And there are no guarantees. If I had known this when I started writing ten years ago, I wonder if I would’ve ever begun.

They say your first 1, 000, 000 words are just practice. But what about those writers who sell their first book in a year or less? Those are rare exceptions. Even five years is a relatively short time to publish a book after beginning to write on a daily basis. I’ve seen a lot of talented writers start and stop after so many years and so much rejection when they didn’t get published. I’ve seen other writers keep going pounding out a certain amount of words every day, year after year, until, one day, they accomplish their dreams.

Persistence is the key. Even wildly successful writers typically receive a lot of rejections before they get their first big break. Success is ten percent talent, and ninety percent persistence. That’s my motto. So, if you’ve always wanted to write a book, but haven’t started yet, there’s no time like the present. If you’ve been writing for years and haven’t published a book yet, keep going. You’re getting closer.

5 tips for being persistent:

1. Set a time every day to write. Five or six days a week. Pick a time that works best for you. It could be early in the morning, late at night, or in the middle of the day like me when all my kids are in school.
2. Pick a certain amount of time or a certain amount of words to write each day and try to stick to it as closely as possible. I write one to two hours a day. Depending on your schedule you may write more or less. You may have to sacrifice something (television, cleaning, shopping, talking on the phone, surfing the net, etc, to find the time).
3. Create some rituals to help you get in the right frame of mind to write. Light a candle. Listen to music. Eat M&M’s.
4. Pick a favorite place to write where you won’t be disturbed or distracted. A quiet room in our house. Or go to the library or a bookstore or a coffee shop, etc. One writer I know turned a closet into her writing space by adding a daybed.
5. Submit your story. Once your work is revised, critiqued, and polished, send it out and keep sending it out, revising it as needed until you get an acceptance! In the mean time, get to work on your next book.

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.