blog, creativity, self improvement

Reboot Your Dreams To Get More Out Of Life

Photo by Paulin on Unsplash

Kids these days, huh?

They have it so much easier than you and I do, caught up in the humdrum world of adulthood. It makes you angry, how carefree and downright dreamy they are.

Under the anger lies envy. You long for something you lost long before you could even really appreciate it, and now you can’t see how to get it back.

Parents and teachers told you not to waste your time dreaming, because it doesn’t lead anywhere. They told you success comes from hard work here in the real world, doing serious jobs. You took that lesson to heart, put your head down and became realistic about what you could achieve.

You were caught in a trap and told it was the right place to be.

But your dreams didn’t go away completely. Occasionally you glimpse them out of the corner of your eye, when your brain drifts in a boring meeting or long commute. Sometimes the sight of someone else living your dream makes you envious or sad, and you can’t fully explain why.

You know, deep down, something’s missing from your life.

An Imaginary World

Imagination is the beginning of creation. You imagine what you desire, you will what you imagine and at last you create what you will.
George Bernard Shaw

None of the technological and artistic advances we now enjoy were created purely by realists.

Sure, when it comes to implementation, refinement, and exploitation, a concrete approach is essential. But concrete builds solid foundations. It does not let us fly.

Everything that exists in the world begins as an idea. An idea can be as expansive as your imagination. In other words, ideas are limitless. Work must be done to manifest ideas in the real world, but dreaming is free.

Realism doesn’t produce innovation, it produces incremental improvement. To make something new, you must first dream a new dream. That’s how the world got cars, airplanes, telephones, computers, and video games.

That’s how you’ll get where you want to be.

Put Away Childish Things

It’s never too late to have a happy childhood.
Berkeley Breathed

When you decide how to behave in a given situation, the voices of caregivers and authority figures loop endlessly, and often unrecognised, in your inner conversation.

Your father no longer scares you so badly you can’t look him in the eye, but when faced by an aggressive manager that’s exactly what you do — without thinking. And you wonder why you can’t assert yourself.

School days are far behind you, but when you browse painting sets online your old art teacher whispers that you have no talent. And instead of wondering why you’re looking at paints, you click away. That’s not for me, you say.

Here’s the thing. You’re an adult now. No-one is the boss of you.

You get to decide how you act at all times, and you take responsibility for your actions. At some point, you need to stop blaming parents, caregivers, teachers or others in your past for how you respond to life now.

The past experiences and attached emotions that make up so much of your inner self-talk are no more than an outdated script. When you realise that your reaction today is based on the memory of a conversation that’s decades old, you can escape your past.

That was then and this is now. You can choose to respond differently and write a new script.

That’s when you grow up.

Start Your Second Childhood

The creative adult is the child who survived after the world tried killing them, making them grown up. The creative adult is the child who survived the blandness of schooling, the unhelpful words of bad teachers, and the nay-saying ways of the world. The creative adult is in essence simply that, a child.
Julian Fleron

You’ve had your share of bad experiences that have shaped your life. Now it’s time to turn the page and write a new chapter with new rules. Acknowledge what feels bad and let it show you where you need to seek something better.

This means rediscovering your inner child. Try books from this list to guide your journey. Or let go of your old programming and try something new, like the artist dates described in Julia Cameron’s book The Artist’s Way.

We are all innately creative. You can be a functional adult and still retain childlike wonder and creative flow. Both are essential to a sense of wholeness.

Photo by JR Korpa on Unsplash

From Reality To Fantasy

Creativity is putting your imagination to work, and it’s produced the most extraordinary results in human culture.
Ken Robinson

Now you know that cultivating dreams is not only good but essential and nobody can tell you otherwise, it’s time to examine what that means for you.

Although dreams look very different on the outside, they can be stripped down to a small number of basic desires.

  • Security: safety, stability
  • Love: belonging, bonding, intimacy
  • Esteem: respect, confidence, achievement
  • Self-actualisation: spontaneity, knowledge, purpose, and meaning

Understanding your underlying drives will help you see whether different approaches to similar goals are right for you.

One person might value respect, another stability. The first is happier writing well-reviewed literary fiction, the other writes copy that sells. Their dreams might look like ‘my novel is featured in The Times Literary Supplement’ versus ‘I support myself by writing for others.’

Both are writers but their dreams lie on different paths. Our desires form a hierarchy of needs and we are happiest when the earlier needs are met before seeking out the higher ones. That might mean putting your dream on hold while you work on strengthening the foundations of life.

Look Inside

This simple visualisation exercise is designed to bring your dream into focus so that you can use it as fuel in the real world. I’m going to talk about writing, but it can be applied to anything you want to create.

Get comfortable and close your eyes. Breathe slowly. Future you has achieved your wildest dream. What do you see?

You’re typing on a new laptop in a cosy study, and your days as a wage slave are behind you. You’re holding a copy of your book in Barnes and Noble. A bus drives past advertising the film of your book.

Now zoom in on specifics. What are you wearing? Is the bubbly in your glass Prosecco or beer or mineral water? Use all your senses. Turn up the brightness and create a vivid picture.

In dreams there are no limits to what you can do.

If you want to be a number one bestselling author, touch the cover of your book. If you want to finish a triathlon, hear the spectators’ cheers. If you want to build a million dollar business, see your signature on the annual accounts below a seven-figure number.

In this place there are no limits to what you can do. And it can only come true if you first create it mentally.

When you have the picture and the feeling that comes with it, associate it with a physical sensation. Pinch your thumb and middle finger together firmly while picturing your dream in all its multicoloured glory.

Practice frequently until you can recall the dream with ease, simply by pressing your thumb and middle finger together.

Great athletes use visualisation to increase their chance of winning. They work towards a clearly defined image of success. They’ve lived it so many times in their minds that it already feels real.

Where Are You Going?

It doesn’t matter where you’re going, as long as the destination matters to you.

Once you have a dream fixed in your mind, check whether your actions move you closer to your goal or away from it. That might mean giving up socialising because you’re training hard, or putting your great novel aside for six months while you concentrate on financial stability.

Sometimes the way forwards is sideways or even backwards. As long as you stay pointed at that wonderful dream destination, you can still make it.

Either way, you’re in charge. You own your decisions and their consequences. You stop making excuses. Your destiny is in your hands.

Go get it.

blog

The Art of Letting Go – Moving On Without Losing Everyone You Know

Photo by Duy Pham on Unsplash

What are you willing to give up in order to become the person you are meant to be?
Jim Kwik

Are you a people collector?

You have hundreds of Facebook friends. Your address book holds everyone from the girl you sat next to in English class to the couple you enjoyed drinks with on holiday last year. Keeping up with them all is easier in the electronic age but still, reacting to the updates takes time. But you’re happy to do that because you value connection.

Or maybe you’re a people curator.

You have a select friends group of whom an even more select few make it into your inner circle. You use the word friend like you use the word love – with care and intention. You nurture your small group and put effort into it because you value connection.

I wrote about the cost of personal growth recently with relationships particularly in mind. The connections that served the person you were might not support the person you want to become.

Then a reader commented that the article didn’t answer her question, “What about my old tribe, the ones I don’t want to treat as disposable?”

This prompted me to wonder again about letting go and moving on. How can we preserve relationships in the process of personal change without letting go of things we already value?

Circles Within Circles

Letting go means to come to the realization that some people are a part of your history, but not a part of your destiny.
Steve Maraboli

Someone at a party once told me she didn’t trust any woman who didn’t have a posse – six or eight female friends she shared everything with. You might agree and find this natural, or you might be horrified at the idea of living by committee.

Research suggests that we can maintain only five really close friendships, which form our inner circle. Outside this are wider circles where connections are looser, up to a maximum of one hundred and fifty people. Introverts and extroverts have varying numbers in their circles.

You share different things with the people in each circle. When you begin the process of change, your position relative to each person changes too. This might mean moving closer to them, as you share more, or it might mean moving away.

The conversation and connection is louder and stronger if you both move in the same direction. But you can’t expect they will follow you. That decision is theirs alone, and they have the right to stay exactly where they are.

That doesn’t negate all that’s gone before. You still have shared history. But your shared future has changed, because you’ve changed.

What held me back from even contemplating growth was the fear that I would be left without connections, by having to reject my entire life as it was then. All or nothing thinking kept me trapped.

There’s a better way to think about preserving relationships as we change.

Caught In a Web

There’s a trick to the Graceful Exit. It begins with the vision to recognize when a job, a life stage, a relationship is over – and to let go. It means leaving what’s over without denying its value.
Ellen Goodman

Most people resist change. We value the familiar. We need much more brain space to deal with novelty, even though we’re hard-wired for it. So we want the same but different, and this contradictory desire drives industries as different as movie franchises and hotel chains.

The same applies to people. Consider your circles of friendship. Rather than concentric circles, think of your circles overlapping like a Venn diagram. Some circles overlap almost completely, like your very best and oldest friend, the one you can call at three a.m. Some barely touch, like the person who always takes the bike next to you in spin class.

Shifts in common ground – the area of overlap – isn’t about making disposable relationships, using people only for what they can give you. This transactional approach to connection is common, but it’s hollow and lacks authenticity. We all hate to be a means to someone’s end.

You can do completely different things yet still share something with the person in front of you. Existing relationships can be maintained even if you share less of your life and current interests. New relationships can find their place in your network as you evolve.

However, time is the forgotten variable.

Some connections have an expiry date; work colleagues, soccer parents, neighbours. It’s okay to let these fade out and eventually exit the outer borders of your friend group, especially as others come to replace them.

Holding on to everyone you ever connect with is exhausting, and leaves less energy for those who matter most. Perhaps the biggest challenge of personal growth is leaving behind not only an image of who you were, but also a pattern of connections that served you well until this point.

You might also find that a relationship you thought was solid is anything but. Years ago I moved cities to follow my partner. I found myself adrift (before social media) without anyone I knew nearby or the much-needed job that would have helped me make the transition. I called my three a.m. friend and poured my heart out. She dismissed my struggle and returned to rehashing the same issue in her life that we always talked about.

I’d placed her in my inner circle of friends, but I was much more distant in hers.

Although I didn’t want to accept it, the signs were there. You need ongoing positive interactions to nourish friendships, and I’d been making excuses for her lack of interest to keep our friendship going.

We had some great times together, but our paths diverged. It was hard to walk on without her, but who said life was easy?

Embracing Old and New

Open your arms to change, but don’t let go of your values.
Dalai Lama

Unlike Janus, god of doorways and transitions, we can’t look back and forward at the same time. At some point we have to leave the past behind, taking forward only what we have learned from it.

So you’ve decided to change, and that’s great. You’re becoming more of yourself by aligning more closely with the core of who you are.

While you do that, hold on lightly to ideas, behaviours, scripts, and relationships.

Be ready to loosen ties without letting go at first. If you stop calling your friend and making all the plans, see how they respond. Don’t prioritise people who don’t prioritise you. You have finite time and energy, so spend both on people and activities that give back.

When you change, the people around you choose how they respond. You don’t have to cancel everyone but you do have to re-evaluate where you stand now, and whether they have a place in the group of people who matter.

Whether you let go or are let go, be grateful for what you’ve learned. Accept that life’s lessons always come at a cost and let yourself mourn if need be.

Then face the future and keep moving.

When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be. When I let go of what I have, I receive what I need.
Tao Te Ching

blog, productivity, writing, writing process

How to Improve Your Writing Dramatically in Less Than 5 Minutes

little tweaks, big results

tulips -yellow_keila-hotzel
Photo by Keila Hötzel on Unsplash

Good writing is good writing, but that doesn’t mean you can’t orchestrate it or tweak it.
John Travolta

Everyone’s a writer these days. Whether working on your novel or captioning your latest social media image, you’re writing every day.

How do you choose your words?

Do you always use the same few words, or are you a logophile who loves playing with shades of meaning?

Although it’s difficult to count the number of words in the English language, around 170,000 words are currently in use. An adult native speaker uses 20-35,000 words (source) depending on age, education, location and so on.

Yet you can improve your writing immediately by using fewer words. It might seem obvious to avoid long words, but what about small words?

Some small words reduce the flow and clarity of your writing. You might not notice them because they’re so common, they’re practically invisible. Before we look at them in more detail, make an exception for dialogue.

Writing rules are less strict when writing dialogue. Most people don’t speak properly all the time. You can make your lines sound natural is by reading them out loud.

No doubt you’ve been advised to write the way you speak, but remember that written dialogue is natural speech, polished.

Reducing the frequency of these four common words will sharpen your prose, whether fiction or nonfiction. No words are completely excluded – just use them with purpose.

That’s That, That’s All

Good writing does not come from verbiage but from words.
Jeff Lindsay

“That” is a common word which you can often cut without losing the sense of your sentence.

This is the plate that she told me to wash. I can see that it’s dirty.

This is the plate she told me to wash. I can see it’s dirty.

The sentence is more direct if you reword it.

She told me to wash this dirty plate.

Try your sentence with and without that. Rewrite if needed.

The Thing Is…

I have rewritten — often several times — every word I have ever published. My pencils outlast their erasers.
Vladimir Nabokov

What is the thing you’re trying to convey? Using “thing”  is imprecise at best, and at worst pulls your reader out of the writing. If he’s scratching his head wondering what the thing is, you’ve lost him.  Find a better way to express your idea.

The thing is, we’ll never know the truth. He may or may not have a thing for kale.

We’ll never know the truth. He may or may not love kale.

Look for thing and either define it or remove it, unless you aim to mystify the reader.

What’s the thing we all strive for? Happiness.

What emotion do we all strive for? Happiness.

Parts Of Possession

Notice the small things. The rewards are inversely proportional.
Liz Vassey

This tiny word is absolutely essential – but not all the time. You can’t speak or write without using “of” and this leads to overuse through familiarity. Consider these four examples.

  1. Informal

It’s not that big of a problem or  

It’s not such a big problem or

It’s not a big problem

Which sounds better to you?

The first example sounds ‘different’ to my ear, since I speak and write British English. I can use the difference to make my American character more believable. But if my English character said that phrase it wouldn’t be authentic.

The cadences of speech spill into our written words, so think about the effect you want to produce. Ask yourself who is speaking, and what’s the context?

  1. Wordy

The roof of the house. The sleeve of his shirt. The golden colour of her hair or

The roof. The shirt sleeve. Her golden hair.

Sometimes we over-explain. The reader can follow along if the scene is clearly described, and you don’t have to assign every detail.

  1. Archaic

I present Achmael, Lord Protector of Blein, Archduke of Nimra, Third of his name… or
This is Achmael Blein III.

The first example sits well in a high fantasy story, while the second suits a more modern setting.

  1. Cliché

The end of the day. The blink of an eye. The dead of night. A thing of beauty.

Watch out for clichés – overused, tired descriptions and metaphors. Rewrite the phrase and make it your own.

What Was Going On?

No words are too good for the cutting-room floor, no idea so fine that it cannot be phrased more succinctly.”
Merilyn Simonds

Writers often use the word “was”  paired with a verb ending in -ing. It’s natural in storytelling to say something like this.

“So I was moving away, and all of a sudden there was a loud crash behind me.”

Writing aims for a more polished delivery, and the style varies with the desired effect. Replace all was/am/were plus -ing verbs with the simple past tense, which is shorter and more immediate. If adverbs clutter the sentence, choose a stronger verb.

Thus “I was walking slowly” becomes “I walked slowly” or better yet “I strolled” “I crept” or “I hobbled” according to need.

For the examples above, a possible rewrite is this.

What happened?

“I ran, startled by the crash of metal against metal behind me.”

Of This and That and Other Things

Four small words –  that, thing, of, was – are indispensable in the right place. You’ll tighten your prose by hunting them down, shining a bright light in their eyes, and asking them, “What do you think you’re doing here?”

Only let them stay if you get a definite answer to that question. If not, you know what you have to do. Your clarity is at stake.

blog, self improvement

Sitting on the Sidelines: How to Defeat The Insidious Rise of Do Nothing Culture

woman eating popcorn holding remote control
Photo by JESHOOTS.COM on Unsplash

I think the love-hate is fundamental. Everyone hates reality television, and everyone’s watching it.
Bo Burnham

Did you watch any reality TV this week? Whether drag queens on a catwalk, crab fishermen in a storm or brides choosing a wedding dress, these programmes are everywhere. They feature “real” people and film their reactions in varying situations.

In the UK there’s even a reality programme showing people at home reacting to TV shows, which is either very, very meta or imaginatively bankrupt. Not only is it popular, but more than one of the featured participants has gone on to (short-lived) solo TV careers.

Harmless fun and entertainment, right? But these programmes can be anything but. Reality TV can harm your health whether you’re on screen or in front of it.

In pursuit of viewers, participants are manipulated and stressed to exaggerate their responses.

Further manipulation takes place in editing so that the finished product bears little relation to the events as they happened.

My friend was featured on a house renovation show. She and her family were split up, kept waiting in different rooms, and denied opportunities for rest. There was no escaping the cameras.

Her partner was encouraged to have a beer in the garden at the end of a very long day, and the programme presented him as a disinterested drinker. Neither found the experience a positive one overall.

But you’ve had a hard day and you deserve some downtime. Why overthink things?

Watching The Box

I’m capable of living in the moment. And I’m especially capable of living in the moment of sitting on my sofa and watching other people’s moments.
Samantha Bee

We’re watching a lot of TV. The 2017 US average TV viewing time figures show Americans watch 7 hours 50 minutes per day, while the 2018 UK average was 22 hours per week. These figures don’t include streaming and social media use.

Watching TV is a passive activity that gives the illusion of participation.

Programmes showing rugged men diving for gold or surviving inhospitable terrain cater to particular views of masculinity. Programmes showing sexy twenty-somethings in skimpy clothing cater to particular views of femininity and relationships.

When the camera zeroes in on faces to show every micro-expression, you’re invited to feel the same emotions. When the tough guy swims across an icy lake and builds a shelter out of pine branches, you’re invited to feel that you too are braving the elements in a primal struggle for survival. Mirror neurons fire in your brain to make you feel as if you were there.

But you’re sitting on your couch, warm and safe, with snacks to hand. You’re not there and the supposed experience is an illusion.

The show-runners respond to our inevitable habituation by turning up the pressure; less time, bigger challenges, more remote islands, surprise evictions.

It’s the modern version of bread and circuses, in which the audience is promised ever more dangerous animals for the gladiators to face. The blood on the floor is all part of the show.

What happens to those reality gladiators and us, their audience, afterwards?

Fifteen Minutes and After

You will soon break the bow if you keep it always stretched.
Norman Vincent Peale

Contestants can struggle after the camera moves on. The unrelenting pressure to perform and keep strong emotions near the surface can amount to abuse, hazardous to even the strongest personality.

We don’t often hear about the dark side of reality TVSuicide of a cast member becomes fodder for the mill because “any publicity is good publicity.” Some argue that abusive relationships are being normalised by shows that present a human being as a prize to be contested and claimed, leaving the others as failures.

For you as a viewer, artificially evoked empathy for the unsuccessful contestant is fleeting and dulls your true responses. When we dismiss on-screen emotion as fake, our cynicism can spill over into real life.

At its worst, observation culture hurts all of us. We watch, we are numbed by over-exposure, and we are caught in the illusion of participation.

At its best, observation culture can enrich your life. You just need to approach it differently.

Watch and Learn

Life is not a spectator sport. If you’re going to spend your whole life in the grandstand just watching what goes on, in my opinion you’re wasting your life.
Jackie Robinson

There’s nothing wrong with watching reality TV or any other shows. As in so much of life, moderation is key. Sometimes you really need to relax and let your mind drift.

The less challenge and hazard we face in modern life, the more we’re spoon-fed distant dangers to compensate. But watching someone else climb a mountain can’t build your muscles, and you can’t eat that delicious meal on the screen.

Don’t fall for the magic trick which confuses observing with doing. Use your favourite show as inspiration for actual activity in the real world. Get off the couch and try it.

If you like cookery shows, try new recipes. Maybe you can’t cook a gourmet meal yet, but you could enjoy a new recipe or make your own bread.

If you watch survival, go hiking. You don’t have to fight off a bear or eat bugs to enjoy the fresh air and stretch your legs.

If you watch shows that hook you with strongly expressed emotion, remember those emotions are often the result of being stressed and cornered and filmed in HD for hours on end. People are more than characters in a soap opera; and actual soaps, movies and books exist to fill your need for empathywithout pushing real people to their limits and beyond.

Plan a trip somewhere you’ve never been. My trips to Lapland and Iceland were inspired by snowy Swedish landscapes in a programme featuring Ray Mears, a noted British survival expert. It sparked something in my heart I couldn’t forget. Because of that show, I drove a snowmobile, visited the original Ice Hotel, and experienced a blizzard on a glacier. And my children have never forgotten the thrill of husky sledding.

Now when I see these countries on TV, I recall wonderful memories. I was there; I know what the cold is like, and that makes me appreciate my central heating and plush sofa all the more.

Part of the reason watching TV is ultimately hollow is because you don’t participate. Your body knows the difference between muscle relaxation after actual activity and slumped tension after hours on the sofa.

Your favourite reality show can be more than entertainment; it can signpost a way out of boredom and disengagement. The things you yearn to do and the places you want to see are often right in front of you, disguised as passive entertainment choices.

As Halliday said in Ready Player One, people need to spend time in the real world because reality is the only thing that’s real.

By all means, rest in front of the box. Learn something new. But after that, go find a way to experience life.

To learn and not to do is really not to learn. To know and not to do is really not to know.
Stephen Covey


 

blog, productivity, self improvement

How to Turn Surprisingly Small Actions Into Dramatically Better Results

clouds dawn lake landscape
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Someone is sitting in the shade today because someone planted a tree a long time ago.
Warren Buffett

We all want to succeed. We want our hard work to pay off, and we dream of the benefits yet to come. But in the present, we’re consumed by the immediate and the urgent.

Putting out fires takes up time and energy we could otherwise devote to fireproofing the walls or fixing the faulty stove. We prioritise the urgent over the important.

You know this logically, but what do you do about it?

You don’t have time for the strategic thinking in sector 2 because you’re overwhelmed by stuff that has to be done right now. You spend your time in sector 1 firefighting, at the mercy of whatever comes up in the moment. You’re on a hamster wheel of busy work and you’re exhausted.

You think the future stuff can wait. That’s a mistake you can’t afford to make.

Here’s how to shift your focus.

The Seed Is Not The Tree — Yet

Every tree begins as a single seed. The seed needs the right conditions to develop. But properly managed, it will grow into a plant many times larger than the seed it sprouted from.

The biggest input into growth is time. Given enough time, growth can be amazing.

We underestimate the power of compounding.

The chart shows the difference in return from investing the same amount of money at different times, with the same growth rates. The earlier you start, the bigger your return when interest is allowed to compound over time.

In the same way, repeated daily actions add up over time. Whether you invest in yourself or in something external, starting early and persisting is the key to finishing your novel or building up a pension plan.

How can you get compounding to work for you?

You Have One Job

Don’t judge each day by the harvest you reap, but by the seeds that you plant.
Robert Louis Stevenson

There’s something small you can do which will more than repay the effort now. Its effects will build over time to get you much further along your path, whether your horizon is measured in days or decades.

You might think big gestures get the winner to the podium. But more often, building one small deed on another over time brings the biggest rewards. No deed is too small, provided we keep doing it.

If you draw an apple every day, you’ll improve. If you write a story every week, you’ll improve. If you walk ten minutes daily, you’ll improve. With these baby steps you can go further each time, and eventually, things will take off.

Of course, you’ll feel like there’s no progress to start. You might get discouraged. Remember you will never reach the tipping point if you don’t keep moving.

Do one thing your future self will thank you for. Repeat regularly.

  • Write 250 words on your current project
  • Exercise for ten minutes
  • Read a chapter of that book you meant to finish
  • Wear sunscreen
  • Plant something — a tree or a window box
  • Save whatever you can afford each month — if only spare change
  • Paint or draw a small picture

Any gardeners reading this will nod sagely, already thinking ahead to a new season in the natural calendar. Years ago I braved a bitter wind to plant a few bulbs that didn’t look like much. The pay-off was not immediate, unlike my frozen fingers. But now, with little to no extra effort, the flowers cheer up dreary winter days. And every year there are more.

So what will you do today, and tomorrow, and onwards to secure a better future?

Whether it’s saving £5 a week, or kissing your SO every day, you’ll be delighted with the return on your investment. Start now.

The law of harvest is to reap more than you sow. Sow an act, and you reap a habit. Sow a habit and you reap a character. Sow a character and you reap a destiny.

James Allen

blog, creativity, self improvement, writing

How to Turn Negative Feedback Into a Positive Experience

men s black and white long sleeve shirt
Photo by rawpixel.com on Pexels.com

A critic is a man who knows the way but can’t drive the car.
Kenneth Tynan

When was the last time you got negative feedback?
You’ve probably had comments on your writing, cooking, driving, or that shirt only you like. It doesn’t feel good.

Feedback is crucial to improvement. You only know what needs to change by assessing what does or doesn’t work.

Creative work of any kind exposes you to one-star reviews, lack of engagement, negative or offensive comments. You hoped for praise but got something unpleasant instead.

Alternatively, you might be working with a mentor or in a group of your peers, and actively seeking constructive comments.

You know feedback is a good thing. But do you always want it?

Candy or Broccoli?

Writers crave good feedback. You want to hear how much readers loved your characters, plot, and description. Positive feedback (I loved this!) feels good, but like eating candy, it isn’t nourishing on its own.

But despite the supposed benefits, we’re less keen on hearing negatives. Like broccoli or high fibre cereal, we know it’s good for us but it doesn’t taste good.

Negative feedback cuts to the heart of your self-esteem. If you’re too closely identified with your work (writing is my life rather than writing is something I do) criticism of your work feels like criticism of your core self. Then you attack in self-defence — either the critic or yourself. Both options are painful.

Reviews and comments are an accepted part of life. The only way to avoid them is never showing your work.

Fighters work with a sparring partner to build their strength and skills. Ask for help from a trusted source. Each time someone points out a defect is an opportunity to learn and do better next time. Take feedback on the chin and emerge with your self-esteem intact.

There are ways to make feedback both palatable and useful, whether it was invited or not.

Here To Help

The trouble with most of us is that we would rather be ruined by praise than saved by criticism.
Norman Vincent Peale

Constructive critique is aimed at the work.
It is factual. It focuses on objective measures using rational language.

Destructive critique is aimed at the creator.
It is opinion given in emotive language. It may not be relevant to the work at hand. It is personal.

What does constructive critique look like?

  • Timely — ideally given soon after the event
  • Focused — limited to one or two points
  • Objective — factual, uses respectful language
  • Specific — gives examples
  • Actionable — suggests targeted remedies

 

Poor critique:
What complete rubbish. You’re useless, my ten year old could do better than this.

Good critique:
I enjoyed the story but found this hard to read. The sentences and paragraphs were very long and it looked like a solid wall of text.

Consider having one idea per sentence and three sentences per paragraph. That gives more white space on the screen, which is easier to read.

 

The first example is pure negative opinion and offers no useful insight.
The second example avoids insults and emotive language and suggests remedies.

Whether you choose to take the advice depends on the source and the quality of the suggestion. But it gives you something to work with. The new version might work better or not suit your style. Either way, you know more than before, and can make more informed choices in your next piece.

Photo by Matheus Ferrero on Unsplash

Take It On The Chin

  • Allow time for strong emotions to settle
  • Look for a kernel of truth, no matter how small or hard to accept
  • Consider the alternatives presented
  • Be open to trying another way, even if you reject it in the end
  • If you decide to maintain your current position, know why
  • Thank your critique partner for their time and attention

Not every comment deserves a response. Sometimes you just note it and move on. Remember you are in charge of your words. You don’t have to accept all of the critiques or make all suggested changes. However, review from another source can be invaluable in showing a reader’s view, which you as the author cannot experience.

Put Up Your Guard

Endless negativity, especially if mixed with personal attack and vitriol, says more about the commenter than the work.

The internet is full of people whose comments consist only of slurs and insults. Sometimes they start by being pleasant and complementary; when you take the bait they switch to attack. Being targeted by an online and probably anonymous bully is a painful and upsetting experience. The answer is simple; don’t feed the trolls.

Don’t respond or engage in a flame war. Don’t stoop to their level.

You risk hurting your brand among observers, as a reputation is hard to build but easy to destroy. And you open yourself to a stream of negative feelings that persist long after the encounter.

You can close comments, mute, block or unfollow, depending on the platform. Often silence is the best response.

Open Your Mind

A common response to critique is to become defensive or aggressive.

I worked all night on that and you didn’t even give me any credit so what’s the point?

Well, what do you know anyway? I’ve got a postgraduate degree in X so I think I know what I’m talking about.

A good sparring partner exposes your weaker areas without attacking them outright. You wouldn’t spar when angry; it could turn into an ugly fight.

It might take some time to process the emotional hit, so take a breath. Remember that you’re here to learn. Nobody is perfect. Everyone can improve.

Learn to Love The Pain

The pain of discipline is nothing like the pain of disappointment.
Justin Langer

Exposing yourself to feedback more often is the best way to increase your tolerance of it.

No creative is immune to the sinking feeling when they see just how many changes they need to make to a piece. You’re allowed to feel bad about it as long as you keep the end goal in mind. Constructive critique builds the strength to do better work.

You Are Not Your Work

You put something of yourself into your creation, but please separate your sense of self from the thing you made. Critique of your work does not lessen your worth as a person. When you truly accept this, feedback is much easier to handle. Make another, a better piece using what you’ve learned.

You are not your work.

Everyone’s a Critic

Those who talk should do and only those who do should talk.
Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Skin in the Game

Dishing out negative reviews is easy. Giving useful critique isn’t easy. Like all good teaching, producing insightful analysis and actionable suggestions is harder than it looks.

So try writing a good critique by swapping with someone else. There are websites where you can submit your work for review, and earn credits by doing the same for others. It’s the tough love version of karma.

Follow the golden rule; be respectful.
Sharpen your critical skills, but not at someone else’s expense. Read other reviews to learn how to phrase your suggestions if you’re unsure. Even when you have points to make, imagine how your words would feel if you were receiving them. Empathy does not prevent you from being honest.

Whether you’re dishing it out or taking it, constructive feedback is central to your improvement and eventual success. You can learn to like broccoli. And dessert always tastes better after you’ve eaten your greens.

blog, creativity, productivity, writing

How to Find Writing Success By Leaving Your Niche

time to move on

adult architecture binoculars building
Photo by Burst on Pexels.com

 

You know success is out there but you’re not finding it no matter how hard you dig. You see others strike it big and assume they’re luckier or got a bigger shovel.

You could have the perfect tools and focus on your goals, but it won’t matter if you’re digging in the wrong place.

People may spend their whole lives climbing the ladder of success only to find, once they reach the top, that the ladder is leaning against the wrong wall.
Thomas Merton

The Double-Edged Sword of Focus

You work hard, eliminate distractions, and focus on one area. This can be good and bad at the same time.

Take gold prospecting. Digging a one hundred foot mine shaft will keep you busy, whether the gold lies there or not. If there isn’t any gold, all your work will be in vain.

The same can be said for your writing.

How do you know where to invest your effort?

You need to go wide and then deep.

Trying new areas is the only way to know if a better prospect is out there for you.

The gold miners need to survey the whole landscape first. They go wide. The surveyors dig exploratory mines in promising spots. They only go deep when there’s a good chance of reward for their efforts, because they have to process a lot of ore to find nuggets of gold.

Then they study the landscape to learn the signs that tell them there’s gold further down, which makes it easier to spot next time.

For example, I wrote an article about being let down by a former friend. It was more popular than anything I’d written up to that point.

Friends shared it and reached out to me on Twitter. It wasn’t viral, but it was a little gold strike. Once I got over being amazed, I studied it to see how it differed from previous pieces and came up with the following points.

  • Personal tale
  • Readers like emotional stories
  • Universal theme of betrayal
  • Conversational style — written as a letter
  • Shared to social media on a ‘quiet’ day
  • Friend shared it on her Facebook feed
  • Cross posted in several places — blog, Medium, Twitter
  • Performed best on Medium

So now I have some pointers to what might do well, and where. I can choose to add the personal, and decide on the best writing style to use next time.

The other lesson is that it’s impossible to predict what will do well and where. Spread your net wide.

Want more? You’ll have to do more

Quality comes from quantity. You can’t hit the target if you don’t shoot, and the more shots you take the more hits are likely. Yes, a debut author might be nominated for the Man Booker Prize or get their first novel filmed by Steven Spielberg.

But these are unicorns, rarer than a lottery win and even less predictable. Working consistently is the best route to success.

There are two ways to approach diversifying your writing. You can explore your niche more widely, or move outside it altogether. Let’s look at that in more detail.

Challenge grows your writing muscles

Life begins at the edge of your comfort zone.
Neale Donald Walsch

You want to do more. You want to achieve your potential, though you’re unsure what that might look like.

That means leaving the comfort zone and doing something new. Then assess your results and adjust your course. Let’s see what that looks like for a writer.

Try a new fishing ground

Writing divides into three very broad categories.

  • Fiction
  • Poetry
  • Non-fiction

Writing fiction teaches imagination, how to move a story along, and how to tell the truth by hiding it inside a story.

Writing poetry teaches focus on emotions, how to condense expression, how to convey concepts in word pictures that show the world in a new light.

Writing non-fiction teaches structure, clarity of expression, how to make an argument, how to persuade and inform.

The best pieces include elements from more than one discipline and appeals to more of our senses and emotions. We write to change how people feel, so having more tools leads to better engagement with our audience.

Crossing the boundaries could look like this.

  • Poetry plus non-fiction elements:
    Structured poetry forms like sonnet, villanelle, tanka
    Polemic — a poem with a strongly stated point of view
  • Fiction plus non-fiction elements:
    Tightly plotted fiction
    Historical fiction with strong research base
  • Fiction plus poetry elements:
    Lyrical writing style
    Highly descriptive but concise style
  • Non-fiction plus poetry elements
    Descriptive travel writing
    Immersive memoir

Learn new ways to tell your story. Blur the boundaries. Take what you learn back to your chosen area and play with it.

Try a different corner of your own field

If you always write free poetry, use a recognised form like a sonnet. If you write technical pieces, write a think piece on your industry or an interview with a leader in the field. Horror and romance writers, switch genres.

Your next piece will benefit from a new approach.

Wave a flag and get noticed

This is a great time to be a writer. Gatekeepers might still guard the doors to traditional publishing, but it’s never been easier to choose yourself and get your words out there. That inevitably leads to a crowded marketplace, but there are ways to stand out.

Enter a competition

In a world of almost limitless choices, recommendations count for a lot. That’s why star ratings are so powerful. Winning a competition or even getting shortlisted in one can lead to new opportunities. A win says you can be trusted to tell a story.

In 2017 I won first place after entering the HE Bates Short Story Competition. The boost this gave my writing career and confidence continues even now.

The win raised my profile among friends and family, some of whom took my writing seriously for the first time. The story was published in a local lifestyle magazine.

I now write a monthly story for them and continue to build my portfolio.

It’s a virtuous circle in which success opens doors and changes attitudes, not least my own. And I bought some very fancy noise cancelling headphones with the prize money.

Competitions cover every kind of writing and writer and are held year-round. Writing magazines are good sources of information, and you can google by type. Many are free to enter so there’s no reason to pass on a chance for recognition.

Start a blog

Starting a blog is easier than ever, and can be low or even no cost. While it’s not easy to drive traffic to a blog, you can experiment with your style and start gathering fans.

If you’re querying agents for traditional publishing, they expect to see samples of your work if they Google you.

Your blog or website is the place to assemble your portfolio. Aim for consistent, high quality work rather than lots of rushed pieces.

Medium is one of the best places to expand your writing career. You can write for yourself, or for publications boasting thousands of followers.

Do both and spread your net wider. Look around and see where you could fit in. Try Smedian, a site that gathers useful information on publications plus links to joining them as a writer.

Submit to magazines

Study the websites for guidelines on what the editor is looking for and how to submit. Editors need good fiction and non-fiction every month.

This article looks at non-fiction submission.

Submitting to literary magazines is covered here. This is a good way to build writing credits and a reputation.

With a Little Help From My Friends

If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.
African proverb

Writing is a solitary occupation but sometimes it’s helpful to share the journey. Other writers understand the challenges and can be supportive, sharing ideas and information. Writing magazines host online forums where feedback and advice is given.

Many online groups exist, often run through Facebook. Real life groups get you out of the chair and offer social interaction.

Be prepared to stick with a group for a while to see if it’s a good fit with you and your aspirations.

 

Groups reflect life and can be breeding grounds for negative interactions, so if you’re experiencing overbearing or overcritical personalities leave gracefully and look for another.

Try It Now

Prompt: a person finds a key in the street.

Now write about it in 500 words or less.

Non-fiction writers, write a poem of any form.

Fiction writers, write a factual piece.

Poets, write a short story.

Take the Next Step

You want to improve and get to the next level?

Challenge yourself to do something new and stretch your muscles. Then employ that new strength in a new area. You never know, your real calling might lie in a totally different place from where you are now.

It’s time to get moving.

blog

How to Harness A Powerful Element in Your Writing (That You Don’t Even Recognise)

binoculars-child_nightowl
Image by nightowl on Pixabay

I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.
Joan Didion

Every writer has been asked why they write, and what they write. Sometimes you ask yourself those questions. My question is why do you write what you write?

The superficial answers might be for a deadline, for money, for laughs. But consider why you choose particular subjects or ideas when you have a free hand, or maybe even when you don’t.

Of the myriad possibilities for your last piece of fiction or poetry, what drew you to one in particular?

Eyes Wide Shut

What is art but a way of seeing?
Saul Bellow

It started with a chance remark from a writer friend. She read my short story and commented, “Be careful what you wish for seems to be a theme in your stories.”
“Huh,” I replied.

That got me thinking. I’ve contributed stories to anthologies based on a deal with the devil, another about a wish come horribly true, and a ghost story with an implied wish embedded in the protagonist’s motivation.

Then in my poetry group, another poet asked if I deliberately included the sea in my poems, because beaches often came up in them.
“Huh,” I replied again, eloquently.

Beaches inspired my prize winning story All the sands that touch the sea as well as Deeper.

Screenshot 2019-02-26 at 11.05.49

I checked back, and found the ocean figured in about a third of my works that year. How could I use that new insight?

An Invisible Centre 

The theme of a story is what the author is trying to convey — in other words, the central idea of the story. Short stories often have just one theme, whereas novels usually have multiple themes. The theme of a story is woven all the way through the story, and the characters’ actions, interactions, and motivations all reflect the story’s theme.
Cliff’s notes

In well written stories, theme gives a satisfying sense of ‘I know what that was all about’ in terms of universal ideas like love conquers all or family comes first. Theme is separate to plot or what happens and where. Love can conquer all in any number of different settings.

A story without an identifiable theme, even if well written with engaging characters, leaves the reader wondering ‘so what?’ On the other hand, a story written to a specific theme can come over as preachy, especially when political or religious. The reader feels they’ve been beaten over the head with a blunt instrument.

Check Yourself

Most of us don’t examine our core beliefs on a regular basis, if ever. For a writer hoping to illuminate the human condition through stories, it might be useful to dig a little deeper into the beliefs that drive your behaviour. You might ask questions like

  • what makes me happy?
  • is my life the result of luck or choice?
  • what is the strongest emotion?
  • is ‘blood thicker than water’?
  • are people essentially good or essentially sinful?
  • are rules made to be broken?

Looking a little deeper will help you understand yourself and what guides your choices. And of course in fiction, you can use values to build a compelling character who behaves like a real person in the story.

A list of useful questions to ask and a summary of values can be found here at mindtools.com.

Through A Glass Darkly

You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards.
Steve Jobs

Sometimes the theme is only seen when looking back at a work. During the first draft our job is to tell ourselves the story, as Terry Pratchett said. After a break, re-reading the story should reveal its point, if you didn’t write with one in mind. It might be something unexpected.

Your job then is to strengthen the theme using subtle hints in characterisation and dialogue, so that the narrative hangs together. On the other hand, if theme is too obvious, it may need toning down so that it fades into the background.

If genre is an ocean and plot is the wind steering the boat of characters, they can change course by their actions. But the theme is like a deep ocean current that will bring them to a particular shore, even though they can’t see it.

There’s the Sea Again…

Why does the sea reappear in my work? The beach is a boundary combining air, earth and water aspects of nature. It represents transformation, awe and fear at the power of the sea, and creation/birth vs. destruction/death.

For me it also represents time, childhood, escape. All this and more, before even considering the symbology of water itself.

You could use a sea theme to help with new works. A new story takes shape more easily once you have a setting. Set the story on the beach or on a ship. Use the idea of the shore as a liminal space to come up with a supernatural tale.

Whether it is romance, SFF, magic realism or anything else, be careful what you wish for has depths to explore. There are many different ways in which this might play out. Not all involve a deal with a devil, but that does make for a good tale.

Take your theme and brainstorm possible meanings and related ideas, to improve your writing and make it work on a deeper level.

New Directions

If there were only one truth, you couldn’t paint a hundred canvases on the same theme.
Picasso

You don’t want to keep writing the same story. So periodically have a look at your values again. They change in importance and evolve as life does, and your art should reflect that.

Look at your works, or better yet ask someone else to read them, and see if a recurring idea or value reveals itself. You may be surprised. Then have a go at a new piece, keeping your theme in mind.

Your favourite themes mean something important. When you’re aware of them, you’ll find it much easier to generate ideas that resonate with you. That resonance makes your stories shine with authenticity.

Let theme inspire you.