Tag Archives: writing

Writing in Flow

Guest post by Vicki Hunt Budge.

Vicki Hunt Budge grew up in southern Idaho with a mother who read to her and a father who taught her how to golf and swim. She attended Idaho State University and the University of Utah. Vicki began writing for the Friend magazine when her children were young and she’s published many stories and articles for LDS church magazines since that time. She is the author of three LDS Women’s Fiction in the Hope & Healing Series: Intercession, Renewal, and the newly released, Deliverance. Her books explore the miracle of addiction recovery, and are available on Amazon.


What is flow?

According to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, author of Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, flow is “being completely involved in an activity for its own sake.” He claims that flow begins when you are working on an activity that you really like and that your challenges and skills are higher than average.

Writers recognize this experience when they are so absorbed in their work that they don’t feel tired or hungry, and they lose track of time. For me, I first experienced this complete immersion in writing when I worked on Intercession. The feeling of working in flow increased with each book as I became so engrossed with my characters and their story that I forgot about dinner, or didn’t realize the sun had gone down. It is a time of pure contentment.

So how do we find this state of flow in our day-to-day writing?

Here are some things that have worked for me.I improved my skills by reading books and blogs on the fundamentals of plot, characterization, point of view, and motivation. I watched Dan Wells’ Seven Plot Points online and studied the fundamentals of the Hero’s Journey. I joined Indie Author Hub and other online writing groups, gleaning everything I could from other authors. I attended workshops.

Many times when I learned something new and important from my studies, I went back to my manuscript and rewrote what I had written. After hearing Jeff Savage talk about first chapters in a writing class, I went home and rewrote the first chapter of Intercession. The following week, as a follow-up, he critiqued several students’ first chapters. I went home and rewrote the first chapter—again. It took nearly four years to complete Intercession and publish it. The more I learned and the more I wrote, the more I experienced flow.

Several years ago I served as a Cub Scout den mother. I learned an important concept in the initial training. No matter how much fun the boys were having, stop after one hour. I was told that the boys might whine because they were having so much fun, but they would remain excited to come back next week if we ended on time. The same principle works with writing for me. I try to stop with a scene that I’m looking forward to writing. When it’s time to work on the story again, I’m excited to start. Writer’s block is eliminated.

Don’t waste time finding the perfect word for a scene.

I’ve heard that a lot, but it’s hard to do because I’m in love with words. Words are one of the things I love most about writing. Now I’ve trained myself to type xxx when I’m not sure what word or thought I need at that point in the manuscript. I keep writing and viola! When I later go back to reread and edit, the elusive word or phrase almost always flows into my thoughts.

I also don’t stress over how many times I use certain words—like was or that. It breaks the flow. Once again, when I’m rewriting, I love to spot It breaks the flow. Once again, when I’m rewriting, I love to spot problem or repetitive words and enjoy the challenge of making the writing better. Tighter.

Elmore Leonard advises writers to “leave out the part that readers tend to skip.” I’ve found this to be true. Too much description and too many unimportant details cause me to skip ahead when I’m reading. After my first book, I found it easier to spot and avoid unnecessary parts to my second and third books. The writing became more natural—allowing me to get into the flow of things without having so much to cut in the revisions.

As writers, we’ve all heard of “show, don’t tell.” Sometimes, when I’m stuck with what to write next, I tell instead of show. I place the computer on all caps and write myself a note right there in the middle of the manuscript. I don’t have to struggle with how to begin the scene or who says what. I simply tell myself about the scene as I envision it. Those notes to myself are the jumpstart I need the next day or the next week to fully write that scene and show instead of tell. Because I have a blueprint in front of me, it enables me to get right into flow. Naturally, I delete the note from my manuscript.
Often when I start these notes to myself, and I’m not at a stopping point for the day, the storyteller in me takes over. I’m able to drop the all caps and continue the story with dialogue and action.

Several years ago our family had a small farm. Every spring we flushed the irrigation pipes by pumping water through each of our three lines. We almost always flushed a rock chuck or two out of those pipes. Sometimes writers struggle with brain fog that, like a rock chuck in a pipe, causes blockage. I’ve found that cutting sugar and dairy out of my diet flushes brain fog right out of my head. I can think and imagine scenes clearly. Writing flows just like water in a pipe.

In high school, my friend, Jeanie, taught me to play table tennis. She was far above my skill level. When I got discouraged because of the disparity in our abilities, she encouraged me by saying I would improve faster by playing against someone better. I found this principle to be true with writing too. To improve my writing skills, I have read hundreds of books by best-selling and polished writers. And like table tennis or any activity, I’ve found that my writing improves by the number of good books I’ve read. To quote Stephen King, “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write.

Not every writing day is fun and full of flow. Writing is hard work and sometimes frustrating. But we can set ourselves up with opportunities where flow occurs. When we are completely involved in our writing, and our challenges and skills are higher than average, we find true immersion possible, and can truly enjoy the process of writing.

Jennifer Bennett

About Jennifer Bennett

Jennifer J. Bennett was born in Southern California as the youngest of six children. Her imagination began to develop as a child creating worlds in her backyard. Books have always played a big role in her life; favorites growing up were “The Country Bunny” by Dubose Heyward, “The Light in the Attic”by Shel Silverstein, and “Island of the Blue Dolphins” by Scott O’ Dell among many, many others. She also enjoys music, theater, travel, and cooking.

Jennifer moved from Southern California in 1989 and finished high school in Southern Utah where she met her husband Matthew Bennett who currently works in educational administration. They reside in St. George, Utah with four amazing kids: Haylee, Chase, Conner, and Libby. After her father was diagnosed with cancer, she began writing her first novel, “The Path”. Her father encouraged her to move forward with her writing and she has continued since. He passed away in 2009.

Jen, as her friends call her; can be found buzzing around California from time to time in search of magical elements from the past. She tries to balance fun, being a mom, and trying to be a grownup (which she really isn’t sure she ever wants to be).

Confessions of a Pantser

Guest post by Holly Kelly.

Holly Kelly is a mom who writes books in her spare time: translation–she hides in the bathroom with her laptop and locks the door while the kids destroy the house and smear peanut butter on the walls. She signed with Clean Teen Publishing in 2013. Her first published book, Rising, quickly hit the best-seller lists and has maintained its status on those lists since its release in September 2013. The subsequent books in the series also became best-sellers at their releases, including the fourth and final book in the series—which was released on April 6, 2016.

Her latest series—The Unnatural States of America—will be launching its first book called Cursed by the Fountain of Youth and will release in the fall of 2016!

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You can find Holly at AuthorHollyKelly.com


If you think I’m talking about pulling someone’s pants down, you obviously need to read more how-to books on writing.  Or perhaps you know me a bit too well. (I’m kidding!)

No, seriously. The term “pantsing” refers to a writer who does not outline but instead writes by the seat of his or her pants. Well, that’s me. And after beating myself up and trying to fit my round shape into a square hole (no pun intended), I’ve come to accept my pantser status and even appreciate it.

Let me start out by giving you a few pros and cons to pantsing versus outlining. I’ll start with the Outliners.

  1. Their books are well organized.
  2. They have a clear sense of where their story is going.
  3. They easily recognize where they need to foreshadow.
  4. They spend less time editing.
  5. There’s less chance they’ll put their characters into a no-win situation.
  6. They know beforehand what they need to research.
  7. They have a lower chance of getting writer’s block.
  8. They are more likely to have perfectly balanced action/character building scenes.
  9. Generally, they are able to complete books faster than pantsers.

Now that I’ve basically convinced you that outlining is the way to go, I’m going to give you the benefits of pantsing.

You don’t have to follow an outline.

Okay, that may be a tad over-simplified. But seriously, I can’t for the life of me follow an outline. I’ve been a pantser from day one and I’ll likely be one until day number one million. (I plan to keep writing for a long time.) I did try my hand at outlining once. And let me tell you what a disaster that was.

After publishing my first two books, I found myself frustrated at my inability to put out books as fast as other writers around me. I thought if I could outline, I could produce books faster, find greater success, and make more money. So, for my third book, I decided to outline. And I did. I created a beautiful outline—filled with all kinds of details. By the time I was done, I thought I’d come up with a pretty darn good story.

Then, I began to write.

The first chapter went smoothly. I stuck to my outline perfectly, but then as I began chapter two, disaster struck. Actually, it was inspiration. I had a “wouldn’t it be cool” moment. It was such an amazing idea in my mind, I couldn’t let it go. I had to use it! But it took my book in an entirely different direction than I’d planned. Still, I was determined to stick to my commitment to outlining. So, I rewrote the outline with the changes—in other words, I basically rewrote an entirely new outline, minus the first chapter.

Having done that, I began to write again. Chapter two went smoothly until I hit another snag. It was another darned “wouldn’t it be cool” moment. Again, I felt I need to make the change. I mean, the idea was really incredible! At this point, I was beginning to rethink my commitment to outlining, but I’m no quitter. So, I outlined once again.

At chapter three, I just wanted to hit my head against the wall the moment I got another idea. At this point I said, screw it, and threw the outline out the window.  (Not really. It was on my laptop, and laptops are expensive! But, if I’d outlined on paper, I’m sure I would have disposed of it dramatically.)

This book took me several months longer than my other books had, and it’s because I wasted time outlining again and again. But, straying from my outline really paid off. The changes I made were gold. My book made it to #1 on the best-sellers lists and currently has seventy-seven reviews on Amazon averaging a whopping 4.9 stars.

So what did I learn from my experience?

I learned that it’s really bad to compare yourself to others. No two writers are going to have the exact same process. And, just because something works for one person, doesn’t mean it will work for someone else. You need to find out, what your process is. What wakes up your muse, and gives you the best ideas. And then just do it. I’m not saying you shouldn’t try new things, but don’t force yourself to do something that is obviously not working, just because others say it’s the right way to do it.

I also learned that it’s okay to write a bit slower than others. I’m never going to be that author who can publish a new book every two months. That’s just not within my capabilities. But, I take pride in the books that I do write. I think I write well, and I’ve found a fan base that thinks so too.

So my message to you—be proud of who you are. Be proud of the work you create and appreciate the process you go through. And, stop comparing yourself to others! Just be the best you can be.

 

Jennifer Bennett

About Jennifer Bennett

Jennifer J. Bennett was born in Southern California as the youngest of six children. Her imagination began to develop as a child creating worlds in her backyard. Books have always played a big role in her life; favorites growing up were “The Country Bunny” by Dubose Heyward, “The Light in the Attic”by Shel Silverstein, and “Island of the Blue Dolphins” by Scott O’ Dell among many, many others. She also enjoys music, theater, travel, and cooking.

Jennifer moved from Southern California in 1989 and finished high school in Southern Utah where she met her husband Matthew Bennett who currently works in educational administration. They reside in St. George, Utah with four amazing kids: Haylee, Chase, Conner, and Libby. After her father was diagnosed with cancer, she began writing her first novel, “The Path”. Her father encouraged her to move forward with her writing and she has continued since. He passed away in 2009.

Jen, as her friends call her; can be found buzzing around California from time to time in search of magical elements from the past. She tries to balance fun, being a mom, and trying to be a grownup (which she really isn’t sure she ever wants to be).

SENTENCE OLYMPIANS: LEARNING THE POWER OF THE SENTENCE

Guest post by Daniel Noyes

Daniel Noyes writes books for children and is currently seeking DanielNoyesPhotorepresentation for his work. He is a member of SCBWI and a winner of the 2014, 2015, and 2016 LDStorymakers Conference first chapter contests. He has an MBA from Idaho State University and works as a critical infrastructure cyber security analyst.


Everything we write involves three choices: what to write about, the words we use, and the order in which we place them.

Gertrude Stein once asked:

Why should a sequence of words be anything but a pleasure?

As writers, our tools are words and sentences, and with these two things we write mountains of books. From these two things are birthed a plethora of pleasing sentences, some you may have memorized.

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.

—–

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.

—–

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, . . .

Consider the following sentence.

He drove the car carefully, his shaggy hair whipped by the wind, his eyes hidden behind wraparound mirror shades, his mouth set in a grim smile, a .38 Police Special on the seat beside him, the corpse stuffed in the trunk.

Wow, right? What a power-packed sentence. It starts so simple and clear and then builds and builds all the way to the very last word. Would you have guessed it was forty-one words long? Forty-one words. Did you have any trouble comprehending it?

Did you know that the sentence, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” goes on for over a hundred words?

There will be many willing to teach you the “rules of writing.”  One rule I see too often is to keep sentences short. Some even say not to exceed a certain number of words and that if you do, you need to start trimming. They say long sentences only confuse readers. They tell you that Hemingway used only short sentences, unaware of his 424-word monster in The Green Hills of Africa, among others.

In a course titled, “Building Great Sentences: Exploring the Writer’s Craft,” Brooks Landon, English Professor at the University of Iowa, says this:

An assumption exists that long sentences are bad, but it is usually the case that bad sentences are long.

It’s time we shrug off our fear of long sentences. Fear is for things we don’t understand, things we can’t control, and as authors, we control our sentences.

There are many ways to write long sentences that are both crystal clear and replete with pleasure. One such way is through cumulative syntax.

In his course, Professor Landon goes on to say:

I think cumulative syntax is…the surest way for writers to immediately improve the effectiveness of their sentences.

—–

Cumulative sentences are easy to write, a process of adding modifying phrases to the base clause of the sentence, each phrase adding to our understanding or sharpening our visualization of the preceding phrase or of the base clause.

Let’s refer back to that corpse-in-the-trunk sentence, one that Professor Landon uses as a poster child in his course.

It has one base clause: He drove the car carefully,

Followed by five free modifying phrases: his shaggy hair whipped by the wind, his eyes hidden behind wraparound mirror shades, his mouth set in a grim smile, a .38 Police Special on the seat beside him, the corpse stuffed in the trunk.

They’re called free modifying phrases because they can be placed in any syntactic position relative to the base clause, unlike bound modifiers, which have a tendency to curtail comprehension in long sentences.

Go ahead and try it. Start with a simple base clause, add a comma to the end, and pile on some modifying phrases.

If your modifying phrases all refer back to the base clause, it’s called a coordinate pattern.

D1

If you’d like, each modifying phrase can refer to the clause or phrase immediately preceding it to create a subordinate pattern.

D2

Of course, we can mix and match coordinate and subordinate phrases as we desire. This is known as a mixed pattern.

D3

Here’s an example I found in one of my manuscripts. My main character, Ricky, has just arrived at the Colosseum in Rome where he is to change into an animal and compete in an Olympic-style tournament. Given how we’re just coming away from the summer Olympics in real life, this seems particularly fitting. Here are Ricky’s thoughts as he studies the arena.

Ricky imagined a Roman chariot flashing by, dust whipping and swirling in the air behind it, the horses galloping with every mite of speed they could muster, each hoping to finish first, to earn their master a laurel crown, to finally retire and grow fat and sire the next generation of champions, the next generation of stars.

Fifty-seven words; not bad. And if I can do it, anyone can do it.

Our goal as writers shouldn’t be to follow a list of do’s and don’ts, but rather to become sentence Olympians, able to perform syntagmatic and paradigmatic feats that give our readers ample pleasure.

(Cue epic music) No, we writers don’t win gold medals in live events with millions cheering us on. We don’t perform in vast arenas with tens of thousands screaming our names. Many of us will never earn enough to pay the bills with our writing. But our words, our sentences, our characters, our stories fill the minds of the world, expand the knowledgeverse, and live on, and on, and on.

Every book you read, every blockbuster you watch, every hit pouring through your speakers, all were spawned in the mind of a brave soul, a writer who slapped rejection in the face, saying, “You don’t own me; you don’t choose the words I share or decide when I give up, because I won’t give up; I will write, creating something where there was void, telling stories you said couldn’t be told, and if someday in a quiet corner of Earth, a beautiful bag of blood and bones reads my words and in them finds comfort or adventure, longing or courage, or whatever manner of happily they desire, then I’ve changed the world, made an individual difference, held an empty hand, dried a lonely tear, nourished a starving soul, and all by taking a single word and writing it down and adding to it another, and another, until I’ve reached the end and created something beautiful—a thing alive.”

Words are our nails, sentences, our lumber. From a blank space, we create characters who are as real to our readers as any pop star or gold medalist they’ve never met. Scientific discovery is engaged by our conceptions. Newborns are named after characters sparked from our minds. Our words, our sentences, are not accidents. They are decisions, choices we make every time we set off to write, choices we can be proud of, choices we can cherish.

Jennifer Bennett

About Jennifer Bennett

Jennifer J. Bennett was born in Southern California as the youngest of six children. Her imagination began to develop as a child creating worlds in her backyard. Books have always played a big role in her life; favorites growing up were “The Country Bunny” by Dubose Heyward, “The Light in the Attic”by Shel Silverstein, and “Island of the Blue Dolphins” by Scott O’ Dell among many, many others. She also enjoys music, theater, travel, and cooking.

Jennifer moved from Southern California in 1989 and finished high school in Southern Utah where she met her husband Matthew Bennett who currently works in educational administration. They reside in St. George, Utah with four amazing kids: Haylee, Chase, Conner, and Libby. After her father was diagnosed with cancer, she began writing her first novel, “The Path”. Her father encouraged her to move forward with her writing and she has continued since. He passed away in 2009.

Jen, as her friends call her; can be found buzzing around California from time to time in search of magical elements from the past. She tries to balance fun, being a mom, and trying to be a grownup (which she really isn’t sure she ever wants to be).

NOTES FROM BEHIND THE RED PEN

Guest post by Juli Caldwell.

Juli Caldwell holds a degree in English and technical writing from Weber State University. This award-winning, multi-genre author juleslives in northern Utah with a guy she calls the big hairy man, her hilarious teen daughters, a dog with an anxiety disorder, and a trained attack kitten.


As a published author as well as a freelance editor for indies, I have a unique perspective on mistakes we writers make, me included. I can honestly say your editor really doesn’t want to kill you. Okay, we can be honest here. Maybe sometimes the editor wants to kill you…most likely right around the same time you really want to kill her, but if you’ve picked the right one, they’re going to fight for the integrity of your story. We see things you may not see, as close as you are to your work. A good editor will base suggestions on what we believe will make your story stronger.

Since I know writers reading this blog are most likely already well versed in the basics of publishing and editorial, I thought I’d share a few tips for making the process go as smoothly as possible so you can be the award-winning, best-selling rock star I know you can be.

IT’s NOT YOUR BABY

Sorry to say this, but we can’t look at our books this way. I cringe when I see happy authors announce to the world that their book baby is born and ready to share with the world. I understand why we say it—we put months of work, sleepless nights, plotting, world building, and word crafting into our manuscripts. When we finally type those glorious words, “THE END,” it feels like we’ve given birth. It’s emotionally draining and thrilling all at once.

Looking at what we’ve written as our perfect little children, however, may prevent us from eyeing our work objectively.  It’s important to take a step back from those glaring, red, tracked changes giving us a death stare. Every red mark on the screen is an opportunity to learn and improve your craft. If you’ve asked for a comprehensive look at your manuscript, think carefully about every point your editor brings up. It will hurt to “kill your darling,” as they say, but in the end, you should have a more solid story, a tighter plot, and a better product overall to offer your readers. Your book is a thing that can be improved and refined.

To illustrate, I’ll share a personal experience. A writer hired me to do a line edit on her MS after complaining that her last editor only moved around a few commas. I commiserated and promised not to do that … but in the end, the biggest issue was her punctuation. Her manuscript had only a few inconsistent details to correct, but it was riddled with incomplete sentences. She had a serious addiction to the comma splice. So what did I do? Basically, I moved commas around. About a week after she published, she called me to complain that she had a bunch of typos in her book. I was mortified and promised a rush job to fix the book at no extra charge. I asked her to send back what she’d published so I could see what went wrong. (I use track changes and comments, and leave it to my clients to finish their changes unless they only need a proofread).

What did I find when I opened it? A book with most of my editorial changes rejected.

I always tell my clients it’s their prerogative to accept or reject my changes, but in this case, it didn’t work out so well for either of us. She protected her baby at the expense of a polished book for her readers to enjoy. She never hired me again, and I don’t blame her. It’s important that you have a solid working relationship with your editor. You have to trust that this person will make changes and suggestions not only based on a solid understanding of the rules of grammar, punctuation, spelling, and mechanics, but a belief in you, your story, your writing, and a desire to preserve the integrity of the story you want to tell. Working well together will do more for your story than the editor can do alone.

SPELL CHECK IS A BANDAID ON A GAPING FLESH WOUND

It’s essential that your editor be well read and has a broad vocabulary, because let’s get real: spell check is coded by computer geeks, not grammar geeks. It won’t catch words you have spelled correctly but aren’t really right. Those darn homonyms and homophones!

It’s not uncommon to see words that are close but really not all that close at the same time. When you have the wrong word, you’re going to have a sentence that means something you weren’t going for. My critique group buddy sent out a chapter with a sentence that was something like the following: “She lay prostate on the ground.” I didn’t mock him for it (although I really should have). I changed it to what it should have been in the first place, “prostrate,” and finished up my review. He couldn’t stop laughing and thanked me for the catch. Because let’s get real…if your female protagonist is laying her prostate on the ground, she can’t be fixed in one novel.

Nothing was wrong with the word he used, according to spell check. He spelled prostate correctly. This illustrates the finer point: it’s easy to miss tiny errors like that. I’ve seen typos in books gone over several times by the author and multiple beta readers. A good editor will read one word at a time, all 100,000 or so words of it, and it can be an arduous process. Ever wonder why your editor takes forever and falls behind easily? Now you know.

We check for overused words that slow down your story’s pacing. Most repeat offenders are ‘that,’ ‘just,’ ‘simply,’ ‘very,’ and adding a preposition to the end of a sentence. “Where are you at? Where are you going to?” Drop the ‘at’ and the ‘to.’  I’m also brutal on sentences that begin with a relative pronoun or have reflexive pronouns in them. These make your sentences awkward and bulky. We’re going for word economy.

Sentence length and style matter, too. Most of the writers I work with tend to favor compound sentences. It’s a fine sentence construction, but readers tire of the same pattern over and over. When your editor alters or recommends altering sentences, we’re trying to help you improve your pacing,  dramatic beats, and the flow of your narrative. When you’re setting the scene, long descriptive sentences are fantastic. They don’t work as well when you’re building suspense.

Spell check is a useful tool, but it has its limitations. Consider it one of many things we use to help you.

IT’S ALL ABOUT YOU

You have a story to tell. Editors want to help you tell that story. Overlook that red on the screen and take a long, hard look at what your editor tells you. In my professional opinion, the best thing you can do for your novel is to hire an editor you trust and work well with. In an ideal world, you’ll develop a good enough working relationship that you will learn from editorial changes in each manuscript. Ultimately, you will become a better writer through the process.

 

 

Jennifer Bennett

About Jennifer Bennett

Jennifer J. Bennett was born in Southern California as the youngest of six children. Her imagination began to develop as a child creating worlds in her backyard. Books have always played a big role in her life; favorites growing up were “The Country Bunny” by Dubose Heyward, “The Light in the Attic”by Shel Silverstein, and “Island of the Blue Dolphins” by Scott O’ Dell among many, many others. She also enjoys music, theater, travel, and cooking.

Jennifer moved from Southern California in 1989 and finished high school in Southern Utah where she met her husband Matthew Bennett who currently works in educational administration. They reside in St. George, Utah with four amazing kids: Haylee, Chase, Conner, and Libby. After her father was diagnosed with cancer, she began writing her first novel, “The Path”. Her father encouraged her to move forward with her writing and she has continued since. He passed away in 2009.

Jen, as her friends call her; can be found buzzing around California from time to time in search of magical elements from the past. She tries to balance fun, being a mom, and trying to be a grownup (which she really isn’t sure she ever wants to be).

CONQUERING THE DEVILS IN THE WRITER’S MIND

Guest Post by Michelle Wilson

michelle

Michelle Wilson is the author of “Does This Insecurity Make Me Look Fat?.” an inspirational nonfiction look at the power of perspective in our lives. Her second book, “The Beautiful Balance: Claiming Personal Control and Giving the Rest to God” will be available in August 2016. Michelle also writes women’s fiction and is represented by Marisa Corvisiero of The Corvisiero Literary Agency. She lives in Washington State with her husband and three kids.


A few years ago I attended my first LDStorymakers Writers Conference. I walked around wide-eyed and drooling at the privilege of learning from amazing authors and experts, rubbing shoulders with agents and editors, and meeting some awesome people. I sat through classes that fueled my passion for writing. And yet, the strangest thing happened. By the end of the conference, I found myself feeling overwhelmed. Still excited, but daunted by the idea of writing the best novel ever.

I came home and stared at my laptop. I typed and deleted. Then stared some more. Then the doubts began to creep in. What if I couldn’t write the best novel ever? What if I couldn’t even write a crappy novel? The more the questions rolled in my head, the bigger they got, and the more I believed them until finally, the big one came: What if I’m not a writer at all?

The words of Ana Gasteyer to Garth Brookes in their infamous SNL skit came to mind: “You’re pathetic (Michelle). You are a talentless loser, and I’m not supporting you anymore.”

Who was I kidding? What made me think I could do this? What made so special to think I could write something people would want to read. I was afraid to fail. I wanted to stop writing. To quit.

These doubts—these devils—in a writers mind are dangerous. If you’re a writer, you’ve probably experienced them too. They whisper cold lies that still your creativity and smother your enthusiasm.

And it’s not just self-doubt. Other devils include but most definitely are not limited to:

  • Fear of failure
  • Fear of success
  • Perfectionism
  • Unrealistic expectations
  • Doubt
  • Guilt

These devils make you feel out of control, helpless, and hopeless.

You and I aren’t the only ones who have felt this way. Stephen King once said, “I’m afraid of failing at whatever story I’m writing—that it won’t come up for me, or that I won’t be able to finish it.” Romance writer Sara Eden shared with me that “doubt is my constant companion as a writer. Doubt in my abilities, in my dreams, my future, even in the very choice to write. It whispers constantly, creeping into my thoughts and making me question what I do.”

We writers wrestle with demons. That’s part of the gig. I know I did. And still do.

Luckily, I had someone in my corner who wouldn’t let me believe them, wouldn’t let me quit. My husband, Jerey. He said, “The only way you’ll fail is if you stop trying.”

It sounds like something you’d see on a kitten or unicorn poster, or cross-stitched on a pillow. But his words held great meaning for me. They made me realize that the enemy isn’t my perceived lack of skill, but the thoughts I allowed to swallow my confidence in and gratitude for my passion. He helped me to understand that the power to succeed is, in large measure, in my own hands.

In the words of T.A. Barron, from The Mirror of Merlin: “But you also have choices. Yes—and choices are nothing less than the power of creation. Through them, you can create your own life, your own future, your own destiny. . . By your choices, you might even create an entirely new world, one that will spring into being from the ruins of the old.”

We have choices! And in those choices lay more power than any devil we can summon.

We can choose to acknowledge and understand our fears.

We can choose who we are. Say it with me: “I am a writer.”

We can choose to be realistic about our progress and our need for continual growth.

We can choose to not let our dream of publication overshadow our love of writing.

We can choose to be ourselves, not copycats of other writers. But, us.

We can choose to be vulnerable, to take risks.

We can choose to believe in ourselves.

And we can choose not stop trying.

For every writer, that looks different. I’ve heard it said that real writers write every day. Not true. Real writers simply write. Period.

It’s normal to feel some doubt and fear. It doesn’t mean you’re a loser, talentless, or hopeless.

 

You are a writer.  ALL writers fight devils sometimes. The key is to starve the voices—write in spite of the devils—and feed the creativity. Write what you love, not what you think will sell. Take a break if you need to. (You’re still a writer when you’re on a break.)

 

You have been given a gift. Claim it. Nurture it. Love it. Live it.

 

Don’t compare yourself to others. Be your own kind of awesome, and do it well.

 

You answered the call to write. Don’t hang up.

 

Choose to keep trying, to keep writing.

 

Because you are a writer.

Jennifer Bennett

About Jennifer Bennett

Jennifer J. Bennett was born in Southern California as the youngest of six children. Her imagination began to develop as a child creating worlds in her backyard. Books have always played a big role in her life; favorites growing up were “The Country Bunny” by Dubose Heyward, “The Light in the Attic”by Shel Silverstein, and “Island of the Blue Dolphins” by Scott O’ Dell among many, many others. She also enjoys music, theater, travel, and cooking.

Jennifer moved from Southern California in 1989 and finished high school in Southern Utah where she met her husband Matthew Bennett who currently works in educational administration. They reside in St. George, Utah with four amazing kids: Haylee, Chase, Conner, and Libby. After her father was diagnosed with cancer, she began writing her first novel, “The Path”. Her father encouraged her to move forward with her writing and she has continued since. He passed away in 2009.

Jen, as her friends call her; can be found buzzing around California from time to time in search of magical elements from the past. She tries to balance fun, being a mom, and trying to be a grownup (which she really isn’t sure she ever wants to be).

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.

Unreliable Narrators

I’ve been hearing more and more about “unreliable narrators,” so I was curious when Deb Caletti, an award‑winning writer, chose to write a column called “8 Tips to Writing Unreliable Narrators”. Why would I want to do that? It’s an odd concept. . . . . . Or not.

Her suggestions for “turning it up a notch” were to:

  • make your MC a liar,
  • let him/her lie “by omission” too,
  • “muddy” his/her motivations,
  • make that protagonist more clever than s/he seems,
  • “catch” this person in his/her lies by letting a secondary character catch him/her at it (it may also
  • help to have the secondary character doubt what s/he is seeing and so “catches” a narrator in a lie, or even show that s/he has been the victim of the MC’s lies),
  • throw in a MC’s unpredictable act,
  • make that MC the “bad guy” (or not!),
  • but, somehow amidst all that, keep it believable ! ! !

WOW. With just these short “headline” suggestions, I can see how unsettling such a MC could be. It would certainly keep me wondering, questioning, as I read. What could it do for YOUR MC? What could it do for ‑‑‑ or TO ‑‑‑ your readers?

Ooooh! THAT sounds like fun.

 

Have You Ever Thought About Writing a Memoir?

I have. In fact, I have three non‑fiction book ideas I’m thinking about right now, and they really could be written as memoirs. Or would it be better to write them as novels, give my MC (that would be moi) a different name and take great “Poetic License”?

My three books ideas are

  1.  About my nearly 30‑year fight with three‑time bouts of cancer.
  2. My trip in 1967 driving to California (shortly before the ’67 riots), flying to Hawaii, taking a 29‑day cruise past our west coast, through the Panama Canal, through the Caribbean islands, across the Atlantic, to Portugal, France, and England — where I bought a mo‑ped to drive through England, Scotland, then France, Spain and Italy.
  3. My evolution from student to career teacher in junior high schools (just enough to know not to do that again!), multiple high schools and most of Utah’s colleges and/or Universities.

I happened to look at an old article in Writer’s Digest online, from Jan. 23, 2012 called “10 Ways to Tell If Your Story Should be a Memoir or a Novel” by Adair Lara. It seemed like a pretty good guide to help you (ME!) decide.

I’ll give you her 10 categories, but I urge you to read the original, (if you can’t find it, let me know — I’ll send it to you from my archive (BenschWensch@yahoo.com) — if this is something of serious consideration for you.

Write It as a Novel:

  1. If I need to make up some things.
  2. If I would like my family to stay on speaking terms.
  3. If I think I may not remember some things as clearly as I’d like.
  4. If I need to include events that did not happen to me, personally.
  5. If my “inspiration” for this story is just a spark of real life, but probably not a complete story arc.

Write It as a Memoir:

  1. If readers will strongly identify with my story, and I want to share the truth of it.
  2. If I don’t want to work around inconvenient, stranger‑than‑fiction facts to maintain a “shapely plot.”
  3. If I find fiction’s “unlimited choices” overwhelming.
  4. If I want to write in a quirky, appealing voice.
  5. If I’m writing this to explore questions I have about the events.

What examining these 10 items told me about my stories:

Cancer story: straight memoir, throughout; even though I intend to have the “quirky” voice

The Trip: oh, boy: sounds like novel . . . only it really could be memoir

Evolution to teacher: memoir, if I can make it as “real” as the old Up the Down Staircase.

Guess I’ll just have to start with the Cancer story: I’ve got good back‑up for information with my current surgeon and former radiologist, and the others are more likely to be mongrel breeds between novel and memoir. And that’s OK. Just looking at the ten categories above did help me think my stories through. And, hopefully, they’ll help your thinking as well.

Trust Your Readers

I noticed some comments by our regular readers/writers on a pet peeve of mine. The use (and, in this case, the punctuation involved) of “then” or “then and.” The comments which came back, explaining the grammatical correctness of various examples were fine. But they skipped the idea of my pet peeve.

When I was teaching English at Salt Lake Community, and later at Utah Valley University, we occasionally had an assignment where students were required to explain, in considerable detail, something which they knew how to do, but had to explain to a novice. It could be about making some woodworking item, cooking a meal, baking a cake, knitting a scarf, etc. The subject needed only to be something they knew and understood how to do. The object was to “teach” someone else how to do the same thing. On paper.

That was when I began to notice what I now call “Timeline” words: then, now, after, before, soon, first, next, etc. The problem, to my mind, is that when groups of such words clutter your explanation of “how to,” they project your distrust of your reader or audience.

Someone writes about mixing a cake:

“First, you need to decide on the type of cake you want to bake.”

“Before you begin, decide which pots and pans you’ll need, mixing bowls, utensils, etc.”

“Then you gather all your ingredients.”

On and on. Even for a fairly simple task, the instructions and constant reminders of what to do when make for a confusing presentation. I found that if students wrote their instructions in a logical order, clarifying where necessary what they meant by each section, they did not need words like “And then . . .” “After that . . .” “First, . . .” (and this was always one of the worst offenders because, too often, two or three paragraphs later they would say “First, . . .” again. How can two things be done “first” ? ? ? Worse still, many students would write “Then, . . .” Three sentences later: “And then, you . . .” and ‑‑‑ for variety’s sake ‑‑‑ they might throw in a “Finally, you . . .” or “Last . . .” (or even “Lastly . . .”) Ugh!

This even carries over into the writing of fiction. You’re so afraid the readers won’t be able to keep track of the sequence of events, you label each step to clarify. What it really does is muddle the issue.

If you write your instructions ‑‑‑ or your fictional events ‑‑‑ in chronological order, and the instructions or details are clear, you won’t need any Timeline. If you throw them into the mix anyway, you are telling your reader “I don’t trust you to see events or tasks in the right order, if I don’t keep labeling their order for you.” Please, don’t assume your reader is stupid.

Cut most, if not all, Timeline words. Your clarity and the logical order of your writing will be enough.

 

ADVICE FROM AN “OLD” PRO: Charles Dickens

I’ve read that Charles Dickens ‑‑‑ yes, that Charles Dickens ‑‑‑ wanted to do three things to his readers:

  1. Make ’em laugh
  2. Make ’em cry
  3. Make ’em wait

What the Dickens ? ? ? All at once, or one at a time?

If Bleak House sounds a little too morose to contemplate reading, or you’re just “tired” of the constant Christmas Carol retreads every December, maybe you ought to look at some of his other works. See how he made ’em laugh, or cry, or wait.

Dickens’ overblown characterizations are often the source of his humour. For instance, the “evil” character Fagan and his often inept handling of all his “boys,” followed by his ultimate defeat, brings readers and audience members plenty of things to laugh at or with.

The writing of Dickens’ day was often what we would call “overly sentimental”. And yet, can you watch any production of A Christmas Carol, with Tiny Tim lifted on the shoulder of his father, shouting triumphantly “God bless us, every one!” without a lump in your throat, or a tear in your eye? Or, in writing about his own childhood experiences, recalling having to work early and work hard at demeaning jobs as a child, Dickens can choke you up every time.

Finally, one of the ways Dickens made readers “wait” was to write serial installments which appeared in papers or magazines. He did the same with Oliver Twist, while “dedicated readers” eagerly anticipated the next monthly installment, even crowding the docks where the installments would be shipped in. And within the stories themselves, where there is mystery, there is also the edict that you, the reader, must “wait” to find out what happens. He was also famous for his ability to withhold crucial information ‑‑‑ which character is really your hero’s friend (or is he the enemy?). Just when you’ve figured out the truth, another “fact” comes to light and changes your mind completely. Great technique for mystery writing, among other things. “The less you tell the reader, the more they will love it.”

Much of Oliver Twist and even The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby and others, were so published as continuing sagas. Later, he and his wife embarked on a five‑month lecture tour of the United States, which he followed by penning American Notes for General Circulation, a sarcastic travelogue which criticized American culture and materialism. His lectures were so widely attended that ticket scalpers gathered outside his events (What would he think of us now?), and his biographer, J. B. Priestly, wrote that during the tour, Dickens “had the greatest welcome that probably any visitor to America has ever had.”

How can you, an author, twist and braid these three strands ‑‑‑ humor, pathos and the impatient waiting ‑‑‑ together in today’s lexicon? Seen through a 21st Century lens, these three attributes still have the power to move an audience, whether in a theatre or a book. And that’s a good lesson to learn.