Writing Tip: Wielding Perseverance

Writing, like most things in life is up and down.  Some days it flows easily and gracefully.  But the next it turns laborious.  You may be flying high that everyone loves what you’ve written. Other times you may not be able to find a soul (not even you) to tell you your writing’s any good.  It can go like this – you show up to the desk or paper and your head is bursting with ideas.  You’ve finally figured out how to say it!  Out it comes.  Ahh . . .  Done. Feeling good. The next day, you sit there at the same keyboard or pad and nothing comes. Your mind is completely blank.  Oh yeah, you forgot to put the wash into the dryer. . . .  Isn’t that a pretty bird out there?

Many people who go through the monstrous job of completing a book-length manuscript find themselves exhausted from the process.  It might feel like nothing will ever come again.

I’m not one who believes in writer’s block.  Writer’s stuck?  Sure thing.  But not a block.  (Unless, of course, something very traumatic happens in your life to staunch the flow.)  Barring any catastrophic incidents, there is always a way out.

Perhaps you’ve done a project for a client and it is not accepted the way you wanted it to be.  You feel defeated.

So, what do you do in these cases?  Persevere.  As an everyday writer, we need this in our tool box. We use perseverance to get us through the book. The very same skills  get you to complete any writing assignment, especially the tough ones. You have it, you just have to work it a little harder at times.

The first step in the process of perseverance is acceptance.  Perseverance will get you out of being stuck and keep you going when you’re spent.  But it cannot work without acceptance. Once you say, okay, I’m stuck, then you can do something about it. Only then can you persevere and say I’m not done!

A sure-fire way to persevere is to write. Get back on the horse as they say.  Put the pen to paper and write. Write about what you’re feeling. Sketch out a devilish plan to get back at the person who dissed you. Whatever you can to get the muscles working again. You might try Natalie Goldberg’s writing practice.  10 minutes on a topic.  Go!  Before you know it, flow will return and you can pick up where you left off.

Perseverance is like courage.  It is something you must wield through daily (sometimes moment-by-moment) conscious choice. Remember perseverance never ends. Completing a manuscript is only the beginning if you are going to publish. There is still a lot of work ahead.  And another project waiting to begin, the next assignment to undertake.

Stay with it.  Don’t stop. Decide to persevere another day.

A wonderful resource for getting to know perseverance is Julia Cameron’s “Finding Water.”

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Absorbing Criticism

As everyday writers, the minute we put our writing into someone else’s hands, we open ourselves to criticism. When asked recently what she would advise her younger self, Hillary Clinton said, “Take criticism seriously but not personally.” This is sound advise.  Especially for writers.

To me, taking it “seriously” does not mean to use everything everyone says to you. You’ll drive yourself crazy! Some criticism is not worth the time. General critical comments are often not helpful at all.  It can get sticky in fiction, too.  I had someone tell me young accountants never went out for drinks!  Or that they never give out that kind of money in the music business. (I, having worked there, against the criticizer who knew nothing about it.)  I’m not sure where these kind of comments come from.  Simply note the source.

Editors, people who have been successful in the publishing industry or the industry you’re writing about, fellow writers, and others you think worthy should be accorded the respect of taking what they say seriously. That means seriously considering it.  Listening to it. Being open to it.

To accept any criticism it must first be filtered through your own knowing.  You are the author and therefore it is imperative that whatever you write stays true to your story, characters or subject.  What you need to say is the most important factor.  As the writer, it is up to you to stand up and protect what you’ve written.  But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t seriously consider criticism. Criticism dismissed because it hurts is unnecessary and a sad waste. There is so much wealth to be found in another’s point of view!

Recently, a fellow writer made some strong comments about my submission to our critique group.  To be helpful, she also made suggestions of how I might correct the problem.  Her ideas did not feel right for my characters or where I want to go with the story.

The first thought my ego tossed out was that she was wrong, she didn’t understand and I had to explain why I hadn’t gone that way.  In the process, it all began to shift and I was able to see it from her vantage point. Suddenly it made sense.  I was able to seriously consider what she was saying.  Maybe I had been just turned off by her suggestions of how to fix it, or perhaps it was the extra work involved. I may well have felt hurt that she didn’t like what I’d written.  As soon as I got enough distance, I could see exactly how to fix it. In the end, I did the work and it was so much better for it.

I believe Madame Secretary had it backwards.  You need to step out of the way of criticism first. When you can disconnect from the comments you have a much better chance to fully absorb it. When you take the “personally” part away, what seems so solid isn’t anymore.  The criticism can be viewed as about the writing, not the writer. From that perspective you can truly hear what the person is trying to tell you.  And incredibly valuable information may be revealed.

We can use this in life, too, whenever we face difficult or hurtful situations. If we find a way to move back, to step out of the gooey personal stuff, we can see what’s really going on.  From there, we can take it seriously, absorb the lesson and find our own way through.

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Writing Tip: Ask Questions

The act of asking questions is a very old and sacred one that can make great things happen.  It is no less powerful in the hands of a writer.

As writers, we need to continually ask questions.  The more questions asked, the better the piece. You can develop a series of regular questions if you like, but be sure that you ask  questions wherever you can.

The first question you might venture to ask is, what am I going to write about?    A better variation might be: What do I want to say about this?  The difference between a topic, say “The Rings of Saturn,” and an angle like how they are, in fact, made up of little particles.  Play with your questions to get to them right.

Probably not on your first draft, but definitely on subsequent drafts, question the words you’re using.  Is this precisely or exactly the word I want here?  There are so many variations in words.  Just look at a Thesaurus.  I found over 70 words that could stand in for Special all with different shades of meaning!  It is the writer’s job to ask questions until the word that rings most true appears.  It’s helpful to take a step further and ask if the word assures understanding or clouds it?

All through the writing process, it’s imperative to ask questions.  Does this follow logically from what I’ve just said? Are my paragraphs holding a single theme?  Too often writers jump around within one paragraph.  We learn in fiction that the action has to flow from one paragraph to another.  If you’re going to change places you have to let your readers know.  Following a path makes it easer to keep attention rolling along.  How is my path to walk?

Question sentences too. Do I have too many short sentences?  Can I combine them?  Do I have too many long, run on sentences, that, perhaps, have too many thoughts, too many directions, too many clauses?  I like to question the last sentence of the paragraph, particularly.  You might ask yourself, what is the thought (and the word) that will linger in the reader’s mind?

And of course, when is the right time to end?  Have I said all I needed to say? Before you conclude ask, Does this say what I really wanted to say? If it doesn’t, you may need to ask another set of questions. Asking if what you’ve written is true to what you wanted to convey could be the most important question of all.

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The Magic of Words

Words can make magic.  They can bring good news and cheer you up when you’re sad.  Words can heal wounds and offer forgiveness. They can express love and wow can they tell a story!  Like magic!

Sometimes, though, words can go awry and bounce off the wrong surface and cause hurt or destruction. They can sting or erupt in wars.  But we know this about magic – some is good, some not so good.

Words are, in essence, just an illusion.  They can only illustrate things and feelings, they aren’t real. Words are just a facade.  A trick of magic.

We can’t forget, though, how powerful they are.  Words can create pictures in your head. Those images can take root. You may not remember where you heard it, or even the exact words. But thanks to the magic of words, you can recreate the picture or the emotion.

As stewards of words, we need to be wary of the words we use.  Not just on the page or screen.  But also in how we talk to the real characters of our lives.

Stay open for ways that you can use words to help and heal others.  Wield words to make others feel better about themselves or encourage them to do more.  There’s so much we can do with our words!  What an amazing and magical gift we have to be able to say what we need to say.

Remember the power of words.  And watch how you use their magic.

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Writing Tip: Learn to Use Criticism

Let’s just get this clear, right from the start: if you are writing and putting your writing in front of others, you will encounter criticism. Just the way it is. Doesn’t matter how good you are, how much money you make, how many contests you’ve won. When you expose your writing to anyone else, you are asking for comments. Like most of the arts, it’s largely a matter of taste and opinion.  And everyone, if I may say so, has at least one.

Can you really be said to be writing if no one else reads it?  If a tree falls in the woods and there’s no one to read what it wrote, did it make a noise? Getting criticized means you’ve delivered what you’ve written. What you’re supposed to do.  As long as you do, there will be comments and feedback, especially if someone is paying for your words.

Criticism is a blessing to an act as subjective as writing.  Most of the time it’s me and my words.  A writer’s perception of what’s written can become fuzzy and familiar.  An outside source provides a sharpening of the lense.  When delivered properly, criticism shines a light on information which can make your writing better.

The other truth here is that, at our core, we are all sensitive beings.  Some criticism is more difficult to hear than others. General comments are often more hurtful and generally less helpful. How damaged we are by it depends on who is delivering and the stage of feedback receptivity we are in at the moment. Criticism is not easy to take.

The wrong criticism, given by the wrong person can send us out of the room screaming, cause an adult to crawl up into a ball, weeping, frozen on the tracks.  It might even, dare I say it, make a writer give up!  Fear of criticism is often the reason why novels sit in the back of a drawer, unread. Every writer must construct methods for conjuring a protective barrier. Some of us couldn’t earn our living without some way of handling it, no matter how it is delivered.

It may be possible to let the hurt inspire you and move you forward, but I don’t think that’s a long-lasting solution.  It can works well, though, as fuel to get you started. Tending to your wounds can help you get back on your feet again, but it is not enough to fix the problem.

To be more successful, it has to be an internal change.  Remembering that it means we are really writing can sometimes ease the pain. Disassociating yourself is another good ploy.  When we write, it often feels like we’re putting a piece of ourselves on the paper.  In many ways, we are.  But we can keep in mind that it is only ONE piece.  If there is something wrong with the writing, it doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with the writer.

Someone once said, no person or group of persons defines our worth. One cross word (or 5) from others doesn’t add up to who you are as a writer. What’s helped me is to say, some people like my writing, and some don’t. Inevitably there will be people who simply don’t like how I write. Thank goodness, there are also some who do!

If you can, ask the person for more information.  Getting clearer on what they’re really trying to say you might find: a) what they’re saying is not really as hurtful as you thought, b) it is just what you needed to hear, or  c) their criticism is incorrect.

Keep in mind that not all criticism is valid.  Just because someone says it, doesn’t make it true.  Consider whether it’s general or specific.  Who is saying it?   See how it feels to you. Would the change make your writing better?  If it doesn’t feel right, thank them for their thoughts and keep doing it the way you’ve been doing it. (However, it might pay to stay alert for any other such comments from other sources.)

The more criticism you can take without dramatic repercussions, the easier it is to  use it.  When you can skip the angst and go straight to asking questions – Do I understand what this person is saying?  How could I use this to improve my writing?  Is it true? – then you will open yourself to the data that can really improve your work. The fodder for honing your craft.  Learn to process it without hurt and you can do some wonderful things for your writing!

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Organizing Peace Out of Chaos

As every day writers we often, especially with bigger projects, find ourselves surrounded by tons of notes, research, and drafts. It is our job to make sense of it. We need good organizational skills to wrangle it into some kind of order.

Sometimes that may require spreading out the materials to see it at all once. Surveying the lay of the land. One organizational strategy we might use is to see what matches with what.

Traditional writing lessons tell us that each paragraph must have a theme and that it should be stated up front. In the first sentence, if possible. Under it can then be filed all the material that’s related, that supports the theme. You make a bold statement, you need to be able to back it up.

As writers we get to pull apart a subject. As we answer the questions what are we trying to say, where does that go, how do I want this to flow, we come to see how  different pieces relate to each other.

Organizing brings peace to chaos, wherever it hides. Whether that’s a complicated procedure, the contents of a drawer, or how we feel about most anything we might have a care about.

When we find ourselves in a snarl, where our needs are getting tangled up in others,  pens become increasingly hard to find, or papers (or emails) threaten to take over, we can bring those same skills to bear.

Laying out the components of the problem (as well as everything in the drawer) shows what goes with what. With the pieces sorted we can make decisions about how we’d prefer it to be. This is important information. It creates a map for finding our way out of chaos.

We can break down the issue into smaller pieces, like a paragraph. What are the points we want to make? What are the various pieces of whatever has us feeling out of control?

Tame wild thoughts by spilling them out. Then organize them. As you see the relationships, you will be better able to see where the pieces fit together. And soon a story will appear. One you can make sense of.

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Writing Tip: Appreciate the Computer

The computer allows us to combine our left and right brain. What would Dostoyevsky have to say about the two-handed writing we do today at the keyboard?

I can take a piece I created by hand and put in into the computer. From there I can work magic, easily cutting, pasting, moving in and out as I please. I keep a separate pitch file for those darlings that I feel have to be killed. Then, I have a file of material can use elsewhere. This simple step, thanks to the computer, makes it a whole lot easier to cut when necessary.

The computer is forgiving. The word left out, the missed capital, whatever I do, it can be fixed in a trice! And without having to retype, I have a perfectly clean copy.

How we have been set free by the computer! I can write almost everywhere I like, even in the most unlikely places. I carry my pieces and tools with me wherever I may roam. I can store and retrieve previous versions in an instant. With the Internet or a smart phone I have access to my very own “research department.”

I have to admit, previous versions haunt me. I have desperately clung to a lot of paper from long-term book projects. But the computer can help with that neurosis, too. How can I possibly find that scene by the window when the sun was setting and he professed his love for her, in all those boxes of paper? On the computer I can keep as much as I want, without any more space than a thumb drive. And when I want that scene, I have a good chance of finding it.

Though we can’t put our complete faith in it, “Spell Check” can save a lot of time and sometimes embarrassment. It’s easy to get to writing too fast and misspell or misplace words. The computer will try to catch that for us.

Files can be shared with others. “Track Changes” can keep a record of the changes each make. People on opposite ends of the world, as long as they agree on the language, can work together with ease.

I have heard there is software which guides plotting. I have never used one myself, but it’s an intriguing idea. Maybe, like the Thesaurus, it would help me to pick the right plot. Perhaps it takes the place of my antiquated system of making index cards to watch the plot move ahead. I don’t know much about it. I may try one and report on it. In the meantime, the computer has made it even easier to construct a story.

The computer allows us to work anywhere, including home-based. Add Skype and phone and you are connected to the entire world. Let’s not forget that the computer is our delivery system. Free and fast!

Thank you computer for all you do for writers! I wish to remember how much I depend on my constant companion, before the next time it glitches or crashes.

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Sketching Life

I use sketching as an important part of my writing process. I need the feel of pen to paper. Natalie Goldberg said that it connects you more directly to your heart. I find it also makes for a good link between me and my thoughts.

I sketch out on paper what I want to write about. I compose as I go, but I am free to leave notes to myself. In random order, I write as it comes to me, easy and without pressure. In essence this is a way of gathering my thoughts on the piece I want to write.

When faced with a decision or conflict, this technique can also be handy. Spilling out my thoughts on the various parts of the issue can be quite revealing. This exercise provides a venue for personal growth by defining what you feel and believe. To spread it out raw, in front of you, you can get a better view of what’s going on. And how it needs to be re-arranged.

In both cases, it makes for material that is more authentic.

You can start by describing whatever is before you. The order matters little. Maybe talk about how you feel about it. What are the emotions dancing around in side you? If it’s a decision you can sketch out both sides to see what may be found down each path. You might discover a fear is holding you back. Anything that you’re thinking or feeling about it will be helpful. The finished product shines a fresh light on the situation and can bring new perspective. Along with accompanying insights.

For a piece of writing, it can unearth a refreshing take on your topic.

In the end, perhaps sketching can soften how we look at our writing and our lives. It’s an easy step, with no pressure. Your investigations might reveal a long forgotten ache that can now be realized or forgiven. Maybe you will see a more loving take on how to proceed. An answer. A decision. A direction.

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Writing Tip: Use the Mirror of a Critique Group

I have written before about how much I love my Critique Group. I stand by my statement that it just might be the best thing I’ve ever done for my writing.

The reactions of the readers are so valuable in the writing process. The group provides a mirror that shows lazy habits. We all have them – a specific turn of phrase that’s bouncing around in our heads as we write. We might have a system of using commas that’s not quite correct. Or a pattern of using the word “that” where it’s not needed. The mirror of the group shows transitions or information that’s missing. Writing is a solitary endeavor. A Critique Group brings it out into the open with much needed reflection.

After repeated sessions with the same people I get to know their style of critiquing. While writing, I think of what they might say and can make the necessary adjustments while the page is still fresh. Knowing that someone is going to read what I’m writing shines a brighter light on it, too. It makes me more sharp-eyed for the things I know they will catch. It’s made me a better, more careful writer.

In our process, we send pages ahead of our meeting, giving each reader the time to read carefully and make notes. This past month, I had a little time left over in my reading session and had my submission there, so I read it. I used the same sense of scrutiny and deep attention that I gave to their pieces. I found so many things that my cursory read before sending didn’t reveal. It showed me, once again, how valuable the critiquing process is in my writing.

The group also keeps me writing. I write for a living and to fill my Blogs. So it’s unlikely I would find the time to write for fun. I write fiction for my group and every month I must produce my pages.

It is also true that a Critique Group can be a safe place to share what you’ve written and receive plenty of encouragement. There is no one better to read your work (especially before it’s complete) than another writer. We are sensitive to putting down another’s work.  Nine times out of ten, if another writer is at all uncomfortable with what I’ve written, I know there is a problem, even if they don’t give me outright criticism. I can’t tell you how many times someone in the group has been able to get to the heart of what I was trying to say, where I was struggling. Given me the exact word I was searching for or help me find my way to saying it myself. We are the most forgiving, but also have the sharpest pencils, tuned up for this kind of reading. With a finer view and a sympathetic heart, another writer can find what we often miss in our own writing.

The Critique Group never tries to rewrite my work. They simply put up the mirror and ask questions like, “Is that really what you mean?” You can learn (and practice ) new ways to refine your work from this. It will never take the place of the perspective and choices of the author, but rather it acts as an enhancement.

Writers, unlike non-writers are less likely to tell you what you should say or write about. There is an understanding and respect for the fact that there are many ways a character or a story can express itself. We uphold another writer’s right to say it the way he or she wants to. We may suggest other ways, but never push. It’s just not done.

Another thing that’s NOT done is stealing. If you have any hesitation about sharing your work with others, don’t. Anyone who might try to pass your work off as theirs will not get far. They can’t repeat it if they didn’t write it in the first place. Borrowing techniques, on the other hand, is part of the exchange process.

A Critique Group is well worth the time invested. It can show you things about your writing you never knew. It teaches new methods of editing your work as well. And provides a much-needed support team before you make it to the big time, and a place to keep you humble when you do.

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Putting Energy Into It

Recently, I’ve upscaled my daily writing quota to fill my five Blogs. As I’ve said, some of it was written or figured out long ago. But each piece has needed my attention in some volume of time. Many are just snippets or ideas that need to be developed.

I have put in a lot of time with this over the past . . . Has it been 6 weeks? I have to say, it’s been really wonderful. Easier than I thought it would be and has stirred up some good reaction.

I said awhile back, and I maintain that nothing breeds writing like writing. If you want to write, the only thing you have to do is sit down and write. It’s as simple as that.

We are creatures of energy. Where we put our energy has effect in the world. It has impact.  It makes perfect practical sense. If I am interested in gems, for instance, I will likely read a lot about them, spend time looking at them, maybe attend gem shows or frequent stores where they are sold. Consequently, there are likely to be gems in my life. Is it physics?

It is how so many writers are able to write a novel in a weekend or in a month for National Novel Writing Month. The more you write, the more ideas come up, inspiring you to write more. The physical act of writing (and the mental activity along with it) builds energy.

Natalie Goldberg speaks about getting pen to paper (or fingers to keys) and just writing anything at all. Even if you write, “I don’t know what to write,” it will get you going. Speaking of Natalie she has some great starters like “swimming, the stars, green places, physical endurance. . .”  Google Writing Prompts and see what you can get!

The point is, if you want to write (or play tennis or score an opera or be a better dad) you have to put energy into it.

It piles up. Sharon Salzberg, a gifted spiritual writer, talks of the Buddhist concept of drops of water in a bucket. Eventually the bucket will fill. She is talking about moments of awareness, but it works just the same for writing. It’s how a mother can get a novel written in the hour she has each morning before her baby wakes. The more you write, the more energy will sustain you. Writing breeds more writing. It can only be stopped by your decision to put your energy elsewhere.

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