blog, creativity, productivity

Is Self-Help Really For Everyone?

think before you choose your guru

helping-up_sasint
sasint via pixabay

Make the most of yourself….for that is all there is of you.
Ralph Waldo Emerson

Self-improvement is everywhere. It’s a multi-billion dollar business and popular non-fiction niche on Amazon. There’s no shortage of people telling you how to achieve success in life, just like they did.

Picture person A, your typical guru. He’s young and healthy, with a bright smile and muscular arms peeking out of his short sleeved tee-shirt. He wakes very early, meditates, then writes in his gratitude journal before exercising. One cold shower later he’s ready to crush it! He has a blog, a book, and a course you can buy.

He has daily, weekly, monthly and life goals, and reviews them every week.
He reads. A lot. Business books, biographies of the famous, maybe a little light philosophy like Marcus Aurelius or Seneca.

Does this sound like you?

Or are you more like person B? You drag yourself out of bed, rushing around to get children and pets organised as well as yourself, before fighting with a million other commuters on your way to do something soul-crushing that pays the bills.

You haven’t read anything more than a headline in months, and evenings are a chance to collapse in front of TV before you do it all again. If you do read, you want light relief from all the stuff that weighs on you, not long words and tough concepts.

There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be more like the guru. The real question is, are self-help gurus the best guides for people like person B?

The Past Is A Different Country

He was still too young to know that the heart’s memory eliminates the bad and magnifies the good, and that thanks to this artifice we manage to endure the burden of the past.
Gabriel García Márquez, Love in the Time of Cholera

Memory is a tricky beast. Rather than fixed rail tracks, memories are more like paths worn through grass that are slightly different each time. Memory is approximate, and the passage of time makes it more so.

This means that when people look back to see how they arrived where they stand, it’s difficult to see the exact route. There are mileposts where something significant happened, and those memories are stronger. But there are also many days without particular events, and those are harder to recall.

Recall isn’t the same as a recording. We tend to over emphasise some points and downplay others. Some memories fade with time, making others look brighter, and often we tend to rose-tint the past.

So when someone tells you how he got from there to here, his account is likely to be distorted by emotion and time. Also he might downplay the difficulties or lucky breaks he had to make the journey seem more achievable.

Person A is an unreliable guide to his own history. We all are.

All Things Being Unequal

Photo by Deva Darshan on Unsplash

You can’t get there from here.

There are assumptions baked into most self-improvement schedules. Person A tells you that he reached his current position by following specific rules and behaviours, and you can do it too.

But can you?

Maybe your 5 o’clock morning is dark and cold for most of the year, and/or you’re up most nights with a child so need all the sleep you can get.

Maybe you’re not blessed with a mesomorph build and fast metabolism that responds easily and predictably to diet and exercise.

Maybe you have medical or physical challenges that make yoga a huge challenge.

Maybe you don’t have the temperament for introspection and you’ve never kept a journal in your life.

We all have different handicaps and starting points. There’s no level playing field in life.

The question is…what do you do about that?

Before You Climb, Sit Down

Never ask advice of someone with whom you wouldn’t want to trade places.
Darren Hardy

You can and should challenge yourself to be better in pursuit of personal growth. But your journey isn’t exactly the same as mine, and there’s no single route to the goal.

Even more important, you need to be sure you’re climbing the right mountain for the right reasons. Only then should you pick a guide.

Your peak might be Everest or Kilimanjaro. You might aim for the very top or be satisfied to reach the foothills. Each requires different techniques.

Are you looking for inner strength, resilience, or a specific skill?

Get clear about what you want. Try the following, and if one doesn’t work try another.

1. Journaling is a reliable route into your innermost thoughts. It doesn’t have to be done first thing though. After dinner or before bed are good times to jot down a few thoughts about the day and what’s currently missing from your life.

If the idea of keeping a diary is a turn off, try this; once a week, write a list of the things that would make your life better. After six or eight weeks, see what comes up repeatedly. That’s a clue.

You could also try the future you exercise. Think about a future where you have everything you want. What does it look like? What are you doing, and with whom? Where are you living and how? Write it all down, in detail. This helps to crystallise the targets you’re aiming at.

2. Meditation is popular for stress reduction, improved mental health, and gaining insight. But you don’t have to do it in one specific way. The aim of meditation is a single point of focus to clear the mind. You can gain benefits from as little as ten minutes, as long as you practise regularly.

Apps are good for getting you started, but you can reach the meditative state through exercise (walking, swimming, running), prayer, or simple repetitive actions like washing or sweeping. Even focusing on the water raining down in the shower might work.

Or you can chant and focus on a candle flame. Do whatever works for you. The insights come not during your session, but later when your subconscious has had time to work out answers to the questions of what you want or need.

3. Talking might appeal more than endless navel-gazing. Choose your listener with care. You want someone who knows you well, but with less baggage and expectations than your mother or childhood friend.

A pet can be the best listener. They don’t interrupt and stroking them lowers your stress level as a bonus.

However you do it, form a picture of where you want to be. The question is, who will get you there?

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Are You Gonna Go Their Way?

People buy into the leader before they buy into the vision.
John C. Maxwell

Once you know what you want specifically, look around at the people offering guidance. Are they where you want to be? Did they share some of your challenges at the start of their journey?

If you can, look inside the range of books on offer. Is the writing easy to read? You might prefer an upbeat can-do style or something more measured.

Don’t automatically buy the best seller of the moment. Of the top twenty best sellers in self help on Amazon UK, only five are by female authors and one of those is about tidying up. Different authors have values, insights and goals that might not align with yours at all.

This can make the difference between success and failure. You must adapt the method to your unique circumstances and problem solve ahead of time.

If you have primary childcare responsibilities, pay attention to what the guru says about their family. If childcare doesn’t factor into their morning routine, ask yourself who is going to handle that in your life. Either someone else has to do it, or you’ll have to work around it.

If you’re not a lark, or you already rise at five to commute, the morning routine could shift into an evening routine. Try listening to books or podcasts while travelling. You could give up an hour a day of mindless TV in favour of working on your development.

Exercise is good for everyone, as long as it fits with your routine and current level of fitness. Don’t think of it as an all or nothing game. Simply walking has benefits if you do it regularly, and over time you can move on to more intense exercise in a gym or at home.

If you can’t fly then run, if you can’t run then walk, if you can’t walk then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward.
Martin Luther King

Start at the lowest comfortable level and set yourself up for success. Consistency is more important than intensity. Don’t overload yourself with too many changes at once. It’s still worth improving just one aspect of your current status quo, and the next change will be easier.

Choose Your Piece of the Pie

To achieve greatness, start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.
Arthur Ashe

We can all be better versions of ourselves, but we have to be real about the process. Self-help is a crowded arena and every guru promises success with their methods. But you’re an individual and one size never fits all.

Remember caveat emptor — buyer beware. You don’t have to take on every suggestion — and you don’t have to do it all on day one.

    • Get clear about what you want.
    • Survey the options on offer.
    • Seek guidance from someone who’s overcome challenges similar to yours.
    • Make sure the guru stands where you want to be.
  • Adjust the route to fit your own needs and preferences.

There are many ways up the mountain — go find your best path.


Comment or question? Leave it below and I’ll answer.

blog, creativity, writing

How To Be Interesting

goodbye to boring

Photo by Naassom Azevedo on Unsplash

I never said I wanted a ‘happy’ life but an interesting one.
Isabel Allende

Wanna know one of the biggest secrets in the world? One that millions of people will never admit?

No matter how much you deny it…

You want to be remembered, live a legacy, and have an awesome life.

You want to be remembered for the right reasons, whether that’s beauty or intellect or wit. You definitely don’t want people to sigh when they hear your name.

You’ve met people like that. They attach themselves to you at a party and talk endlessly about their pet subject. They ask a question and as soon as you stop talking they launch into a monologue.

At work, they monopolise meetings. A watercooler chat becomes another arena for them to demonstrate superiority. You know much more about their private life than you ever wanted, because they tell you.

You can’t wait to get away. And you hope that you’re not like that, but how can you be sure?

Cast the Net

An intellectual is a person who’s found one thing that’s more interesting than sex.
Aldous Huxley

Interesting people go wide with their interests and avoid convergent thinking. They’re curious about everything they encounter.

Convergent thinking is an efficient way to reach a goal, like fishing with a rod where fish have been caught before.

In contrast, divergent thinking is messy and unpredictable, like casting a net in the open sea.

Convergent thinking takes information and discards multiple options until it arrives at the correct answer.
Divergent thinking collects multiple options any of which could be the correct answer.

Single-minded focus on one object is necessary and desirable in many situations, like landing a jet or flipping a pancake. But on its own, it won’t make you an interesting person. Neither will knowledge or intelligence.

To be interesting, you really need just one thing.

One Way Leads To Many Roads

Curiosity is one of the permanent and certain characteristics of a vigorous mind.
Samuel Johnson

Curiosity drives interesting people.

Interesting people apply divergent thinking to their world every day. When they encounter something new, whether a person or a philosophy, they resist the natural tendency to drop it in a box they already know.

For example, you might think gardening is boring. Yet approaching it with curiosity allows you to find common ground with the person who’s passionate about it. You’re looking for the overlap between their specific interest and your general interest in the world. So instead of politely nodding, ask open questions.

What’s the best (or worst) thing about gardening?
What’s your favourite plant that you grew yourself?
If you couldn’t garden, how would you feel?

These answers require deeper thinking and they reveal more about a person than standard small talk ever will.

Asking what someone does for a living is routine. More interesting questions might be

What do you enjoy about your work?
What do people get wrong about your profession?
How do you relax after a stressful day of (occupation)?

But asking the right question is only the first step.

One Closed and Two Open

Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.
Stephen Covey

Most people love to talk about themselves, so let them —  and they’ll think you are the most interesting person in the world. Ask the right questions and listen actively. That means being present and engaged, not looking around for your next networking opportunity or waiting for an opportunity to drop your brilliant insight. People will appreciate genuine interest.

We’re given two ears and one mouth. Use yours accordingly.

This isn’t to say you must never speak. Aim to listen, understand, and only then speak. If you want to show off your knowledge, enter a pub quiz or give a seminar. How do you turn those dry facts into something interesting?

Not All That Glitters is Instant Gold

When you’re curious, you find lots of interesting things to do.
Walt Disney

Interesting people gather new information even if it doesn’t seem immediately useful.

Steve Jobs took a calligraphy class as a dropout student. That led him to spend time in a monastery and, much later, develop proportionally spaced fonts for the fledgling Macintosh computer.

Visual art was unrelated to his technology skills, but he combined them and revolutionised the look of computing.

Having more raw material to work with gives you more options to make interesting things. And that’s the essence of creativity.

Photo by Marnix Hogendoorn on Unsplash

Bored Isn’t Interesting

And also, a thing is interesting because of thinking about it and not because of it being new.
Mark Haddon, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

Only boring people are bored is something I heard as a child. I’d like to turn that saying on its head; interesting people are never bored.

You can find something of interest in almost anything, simply by closer observation. That single-minded focus becomes meditative when watching raindrops on a window or a bee visiting flowers. Ask yourself open questions.

What is happening here?
How can I describe this sound in words?
Where did this drop of water come from and where will it go next?

When you can find something new in the everyday, then you distance yourself from the constant dopamine hit of passing novelty. See what is in front of you, rather than always looking around for the next new thing.

Passion is Contagious

You are not wrong to be unique. You are not incorrect because you are different. You should not be sorry for being interesting.
Jessica Hagy, How to Be Interesting

One of the most wonderful connections we can have is to hear someone speak about their passion. Passion illuminates and sparks recognition in ourselves. It’s hard not to smile when you see it.

Perhaps you’ve learned to hide your passions because you’ve been met with boredom or told to shut up about it. But without passion life is stale and beige.

True attention is a gift all too rarely given these days.

Interesting people are not about hogging the limelight. They’re secure enough to let others shine, and they want to know more about other interesting souls.

If someone gives you the space to let your passion show, remember that a conversation is like tennis; serve and return. Both players can’t have the ball at the same time.

In Your Court

Interesting people are interested in things other than themselves. They’re educationally omnivorous. And so they end a lot of sentences with honest question marks.
Jessica Hagy, How to Be Interesting

The world is full of wonders, and other people are among those wonders.

  • Pay attention to everything you encounter.
  • Be curious.
  • Ask open questions.
  • Dismiss your first thought and always have a second thought.
  • Listen more than you talk.
  • Give people space to be brilliant, and they will want to spend more time with you.

Be interesting. The world needs you.

blog, Pat Aitcheson writes, writing process

How To Call Yourself A Writer (And Mean It)

it’s time to claim your title

Photo by Bruno van der Kraan on Unsplash

I know a secret about you.

You want to share your secret and at the same time you’ll never tell. What would people say? How would they think about you after they learn the truth?

Well guess what? I carry the same burden, and since you can’t talk about it openly I will.

You’re a writer. There, I said it.

Are you already blushing and stuttering, denying what you know is true? Maybe feeling a bit angry at being exposed? Then read on, because you need to fix this immediately.

But Are You Though?

If you can’t stop thinking about it, don’t stop working for it.
Michael Jordan

Most writers realise their calling when still young, though some come to it later. Hobbies and interests come and go but those of childhood have a tendency to remain, even if they’re driven underground by adult responsibilities.

Some avid readers remain just that, while others start making up their own stories. You might not have written a word for years, yet the idea nags at you. You keep a journal or scribble bits of poetry when you feel sad. You read novels and think you could do as well if not better.

These moments can be the beginning of a writing career if you go from thought to action. Dreaming gets you nowhere, you must act. Talking about it, thinking about it, or planning it isn’t enough.

To be a writer, you must write. And you must finish your stuff.

A chef doesn’t serve a raw pie. A surgeon doesn’t down tools halfway through closing a wound. And a writer finishes what she starts, no matter how hard it is.

Stephen King said that if you’ve paid a bill with money earned from writing, then you can call yourself a writer. That’s true for a professional, but we all have different goals and money is only one of them.

A writer has an itch, a compulsion, a need to express themselves in words. That’s you, and you want to know how to own it.

Not in Public

Writing is not necessarily something to be ashamed of, but do it in private and wash your hands afterwards.
Robert Heinlein

So you want to call yourself a writer, but something is holding you back. Perhaps you remember being dismissed or ridiculed by someone whose opinion mattered — a parent, teacher or friend. They told you writing poetry was banal and writing romance was pathetic wish-fulfilment.

They told you your words were no good, and by extension, you were no good. The resulting shame caused you to bury writing where nobody could find it and use it against you.

Things are different now. You’re grown, and nobody can tell you what to do. These wounds run deep but you can heal them without therapy.

    1. Recall what was said and who said it
    2. Write it down
    3. Write a letter to that person telling them they were wrong
    4. Burn or tear up the letter

Anyone can write, just as anyone can cook. But not everyone can do it well. Maybe you think you’re not good enough because you’re not Neil Gaiman or Stephen Covey yet.

You must practise. Write a thousand words, then ten thousand more. Make writing a central part of your life so that it becomes familiar. Lose your fear of the thing you love and get good.

No Words to Say

Put one word after another. Find the right word, put it down.
Neil Gaiman

Imagine this scene. You’re at a social gathering and someone you know asks, “So I hear that you write, what are you working on?” They smile encouragingly. What do you do?

    • Flight — you get away as soon as possible without answering
    • Fight — you deny it or make some self-deprecating remark
  • Freeze — you’re terrified and unable to speak

You’re a writer and words are your tools. It’s time to use them.

You need two stories; one for you and one for your work.

Photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash
 

What Would Super Me Do?

Beginning. Middle. End. Facts. Details. Condense. Plot. Tell it.
Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen

Picture yourself as a confident writer. If that’s too difficult, create an alter ego (why do you think authors use pen names? Just for anonymity?) A superhero writer who looks like you but acts like she was born to do this.

Now ask yourself WWSMD? What would Super Me do?

She’d face her questioner and smile. Then she’d say something like, “That’s so kind of you to ask. I’m working on some short stories/ editing my novel/ working on my blog.”

When the follow-up questions come, she’s ready with the address of her blog and an elevator pitch for her book. She isn’t ashamed of who she is. But she isn’t her work either; it’s part of her life, not her whole being.

So use your skills and write those stories. Write the description of you as you are now, making the best of your position. A single sentence should do. Then write the next part, where you answer deeper questions. Be vague; say it’s at an early stage, or in editing, or that you plan to find an agent in the future.

If someone is asking personal questions like how much money you’ve made, don’t get angry or embarrassed. Find words that you can say with a smile, then change the subject.

“When I make my first million, I’ll let you know!”

Writing an elevator pitch is a great exercise for any novelist and forces you to condense your story into its essentials. Try it, and you’ll find it easier to write queries, blurbs, and synopses.

Do not put yourself down by saying that your writing isn’t serious, or that you’re no good. Nobody wants to hear that. Don’t apologise. Avoid any opinion, just stick to the objective facts.

No Fear

I have learned over the years that when one’s mind is made up, this diminishes fear; knowing what must be done does away with fear.
Rosa Parks

Fear is at the heart of our troubles.

We don’t tell the truth about our work and ourselves because we fear an imaginary outcome. As writers, we’re blessed and cursed with well-developed imaginations, full of monsters and disaster.

It’s never as bad as you think it will be. Practise in low-risk settings first. Try out your routine on a trusted friend, in the same way Chris Rock tests his routine in small clubs before going on tour. Tweak and adjust until you feel happy with it.

As you get more confident, expand your arena. Last year my online writing group produced an anthology of short stories. Each writer was tasked with getting people to be part of the street team who would be early reviewers. Did I want to approach people and ask for something? Hell no.

After I calmed down, I wrote a short Facebook post that started with, “As some of you may know, I am a writer.” Writing it down was much less scary than speaking it out loud. Two surprising things happened.

First, lots of people agreed to be part of the launch, not always the ones I expected.

And second, I introduced myself to my social network as a writer, and the sky did not fall. In fact, it became much easier to say it in person.

Claiming your title as a writer is simple.

    1. Write stuff —  and finish it
    2. Release old programming that doesn’t work for you anymore
    3. Write the story of the new you
    4. Practice makes perfect

Soon you won’t need an alter ego because you will become Super Me, proud writer and not afraid to say it.

Go on, you can do it. Start today.

blog, writing, writing process

How To Shower a Writer With Gifts (Even If You Have No Money)

because money isn’t everything

Photo by Simon Maage on Unsplash

 

We all have an innate desire to make a difference, to make an impact, to be seen, to be heard, to leave behind something better than what we’re brought into.

Maureen Johnson

Christmas may be a distant memory, but there’s no wrong time to give a gift. And there are always birthdays, anniversaries, and random Thursdays to celebrate. If you want to treat a writer in your life, or even if the writer is you, here are some generous gift ideas that go beyond another fancy notebook.

Money Money Money

You can find some free resources for writers here. But if you’re feeling generous or the occasion demands a bigger splash, try these.

  1. Essential Hardware

The expectations of life depend upon diligence; the mechanic that would perfect his work must first sharpen his tools.

Confucius

A new laptop or phone tops this wishlist, but a more affordable choice is external storage. Backup that work in extra paid cloud storage or an external hard drive.

Noise-cancelling headphones are a luxury, but the joy of being able to choose your own sound environment can’t be overstated.

 

  1. Specialist Software

My writing process hasn’t changed… A lot of reading, a lot of research if the subject warrants it, a lot of sticky notes and scraps of paper…

Kathe Koja

While excellent free options exist, programs such as Scrivener and of course Microsoft Word offer more sophisticated ways to organise words at varying prices. Screenwriters will appreciate something like Final Draft or Movie Magic Screenwriter.

  1. More Books

The more that you read, the more you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.

Dr Seuss

Any writer worth their salt has a pile of books waiting to be read, whether digital or physical (or both.) That doesn’t mean a few more wouldn’t be welcome.

Ask your writer which craft books they’d like and what genre they write in, then buy one or two best sellers from each list. Reading their competition will help them refine their own voice.

I prefer physical reference books though ebooks are a great alternative for fiction. Yes, you could give a gift voucher but there’s no thrilling parcel to unwrap.

  1. Community

Every person is defined by the communities she belongs to.

Orson Scott Card

No serious writer would turn down a ticket for a conference or writing retreat. Local options can be affordable, and if you want to push the boat out there are luxury options in beautiful places both at home and abroad.

These events are opportunities to meet other writers and network with people in the publishing world. Some people find agents and editors, but time to concentrate on writing and talk with like-minded others is the big draw.

  1. Welcome to the Club

Find a group of people who challenge and inspire you, spend a lot of time with them, and it will change your life.

Amy Poehler

A subscription is the gift that keeps on giving. Consider Writer’s Digest, Writing Magazine, The New York Review of Books, among many others. Websites, print, and digital magazines cover every corner of the writing universe and offer contests, publication opportunities, and advice.

 

Not Available in Stores

Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.

Simone Weil

Gift giving is fraught with social and individual expectation. We make many judgements when it comes to selecting a gift and measuring its success.

If we’re less well off, we feel that we can’t give what we don’t have. And if we’re well off, we can resent spending money we worked hard for. All these negative feelings sour both giving and receiving.

How about taking money out of the equation altogether?

Tangible gifts are welcome of course, but what humans crave is often something both simpler and more complex. You and I both want the same thing; we want to matter. We want to be heard and appreciated in some way. Here are some options for generous gifts for writers that don’t cost a penny.

  1. Time

The hardest part is making the time to write. Not finding the time to write, mind you. Making.

Carmen Agra Deedy

If you share a busy life with a writer, chances are they struggle finding enough time to write. Look at your schedules and figure out a slot that works for both of you. Put it in the planner and stick to it. And be prepared to take on the work that needs doing to make it happen, whether that’s taking over bathtime or walking the dog.

  1. Space

No pen, no ink, no table, no room, no time, no quiet, no inclination.

James Joyce

Maybe you don’t have room for a Pinterest-worthy writer’s study overflowing with books and a vintage typewriter. A corner of the spare bedroom or living room might have to do. Respect that space. Keep yours and the kids’ stuff off the table when it’s writing time.

Your writer needs space in time to attend a retreat or conference. Again this might mean you have to take up the slack in domestic chores. If you’re the writer, return the favour by trading chores and fun another time so you both get away. This works well for friends with children who need watching.

  1. Notice them in the world

I always worried someone would notice me, and then when no-one did, I felt lonely.

Curtis Sittenfeld

Buying a book? There’s a card for that, but interaction is priceless. Engage with your writer’s work in public. Write a positive review or comment, rate or clap their pieces, like their Facebook page, and sign up for their email list.

  1. Amplify their voice

Every human being is trying to say something to others. Trying to cry out I am alive, notice me! Speak to me! Conform that I am important, that I matter!!

Marion D. Hanks

Writers and creatives are often introverts who hate to be too visible, even as they want their work to be noticed. You can help by engaging with them on social media. Follow them, retweet them, talk about their work online and in person. We’re bombarded with so much information and choice that personal recommendation means more than ever.

  1. Acknowledgement is everything

The simple act of paying positive attention to people has a great deal to do with productivity.

Tom Peters

We say it’s the thought that counts but it’s more than a cliche. The most important gift of all is acceptance. The person who describes themselves as a writer does so after much soul-searching and doubt. Allowing them to claim that identity, without mockery or dismissiveness, is a precious gift.

Enthusiasm and genuine curiosity in asking about their work will be remembered and appreciated long after the conversation is over.

 

Give A Little More

We all have the ability to make someone’s life better. If you have plenty of resources, or your donor does, appreciate your good fortune and choose something to move your work forward. But the intangibles, the things which are free but rarely given, are even more valuable.

Award gifts to yourself, to others, and remember what goes around comes around. Build good writing karma and give at least as good as you get.

Generosity brings happiness at every stage of its expression. We experience joy in forming the intention to be generous. We experience joy in the actual act of giving something. And we experience joy in remembering the fact that we have given.

Buddha

blog, creativity, productivity, writing process

The Beyoncé School of Being A Masterfully Creative Artist

How to delight your audience

Beyonce Dublin 2016
Beyonce at Croke Park Dublin

 

In 2016 I went to see Beyonce in Dublin. It was one of the best lessons in pleasing your audience that I’ve ever been given.

We may inhabit the same planet, but Beyonce lives in a different universe. She flew in from London that day after watching Serena Williams win her seventh Wimbledon title. Then she performed at Croke Park in front of 75,000 fans.

Her show was an amazing spectacle. There were lasers and dancers on water. There was fire and fireworks. There was the feeling that comes from being part of a huge crowd, all of whom are focused on enjoying the same thing; a global superstar.

Yet her show wasn’t what I expected.

The Hero’s Promise

When you connect with your heroes through their work, you have certain expectations. When those expectations are met, you’re satisfied. If they’re not met, you’re disappointed.

Your feelings about that experience shape your future choices. If you’ve seen a movie, read a book, or attended a concert by someone you admire, you know how that plays out.

“That was amazing, can’t wait for the next one!”
Or
“It was all right.”
Or
“What a waste of time, next time don’t bother.”

All these responses are mediated by dopamine.

Dopamine is part of the reward system in the brain. It lights up the pleasure centres when we do something that feels good, and prompts us to repeat the behaviour.

Our brains have evolved to reward us when we engage in behaviour that improves our survival, such as drinking water, eating, and procreation. Nowadays we also seek dopamine hits elsewhere, in activities like shopping and gambling. For our brains, it’s all the same thing; if it feels good do it, then seek it out and do it again.

But what’s less well known is that dopamine also plays a part in avoiding negative emotions. Your brain learns from experience and steers you away from those that felt bad before.

When you get what you expected, you get a dopamine hit. But it’s much larger when you encounter the unexpected. That’s why novelty is so important in life. That’s why gambling machines pay out unpredictably. Gamblers are hooked by a small win, and play on compulsively in search of the biggest win and the ultimate dopamine rush.

Why does that matter and what does it have to do with a pop concert?

No Rest For The Best

Beyonce is a global phenomenon. She could have milked the adoring crowd, played a few of her many wonderful old hits and forced a smile. She didn’t do that.

Instead of resting on her laurels, she raised her game.

She gave us more. More dancing, more costume changes, more new material. More dopamine hits.

We were dazzled by a smile that looked genuine and a gorgeous show that was underpinned by tons of hard work. She gave us her best and lived by her work ethic.

Her ethic says create a wonder, send it out into the world, then create another. Her ethic pays attention to the tiniest detail that 99.9% of consumers miss, but delights the 0.1% who notice.

Her ethic says, “My audience turned out for me, and I am sure as hell turning up for them.”

This is a creative philosophy we can all get behind.

Delight Is Tough


The secret of joy in work is contained in one word – excellence. To know how to do something well is to enjoy it.
Pearl S Buck

Building a body of work is hard. You have to keep going through stress and doubt and blocks. You have to go to your audience, shout for their attention, and then continue to deliver to keep their attention.

Isn’t it tempting to rush through and cut corners? To say that will do and send it out anyway? That’s a mistake.

While you absolutely must ship your work and avoid the perfectionist trap, it’s even more essential to maintain your standards. And to grow as a creator, you must push your limits and raise your standards over time.

When you under-deliver, you risk turning people away from your future offerings. They won’t necessarily give you a second chance unless they’re one of your true fans – or feeling generous.

When you over-deliver, casual observers eventually become fans who will amplify your message by sharing it with enthusiasm.

The better you get, and the more you surprise even yourself with the quality of your output, the more pleasure you’ll have in your work. Put care into the details, and someone else will notice and smile.

One of the joys of a good set of headphones is hearing all the intricacies that artists put into their music. Even though none of it can be heard on the radio or at concert volume, it’s there if you look for it.

So to create delight, do more than is expected. Add extra information and references to blog posts. Layer meaning in every name in your fantasy world. Use the language of flowers in the bouquet given to your romance character.

Don’t take attention for granted because novelty really does wear off. Try to find that extra 5% when you can, because it amplifies the whole experience for those who see it.

The unexpected brings us joy. We’re wired for it.

Give us your best – plus a little extra we didn’t predict, to keep us coming back for more.


Comment or question? Drop it below and let’s talk.

blog, creativity, poetry, productivity

Making my way

StockSnap via pixabay

It’s getting cooler now, autumn truly setting in as what’s left of summer fades away. Rain trickles down the windows. I stare out at the grey sky, and I don’t know what I’m doing or why.

I begin work.

Sometimes nothingness and oblivion are far more appealing than they should be. Have I had a good life, someone asks. I’ve been good. I’ve done good. Followed the rules. Not made a fuss.

I don’t know if that is a good life. If it is good for me.

I keep working.

It seems futile, shouting into the void, scratching symbols on the sand for the tide to wash it away. Hurricanes blow away human constructions, suck the very ocean from the earth. People talk feverishly of end times, booking places in the lifeboat of faith. They know they will be saved. All seems futile, all comes to an end, why not here?

I have not come to an end. I wake, and it is another day, and I go on working.

There are lean times, and times of plenty. There are droughts, and oases of green. There are things made of grey, and nothings made of black. There are places where all these co-exist, a Schrödinger dimension of ideas. My head is one of these places.

In the midst of death and endings, my fingers sprout new lives and beginnings that never were. I build word bricks into sentence walls and so construct whole cities of fanciful notions, airy and insubstantial and leaden. If I don’t spit them out they weigh me down and I drown in a sea of tears.

I must work.

Fly my pretties, out into an uncertain world of indifference and pain. Let me birth you one by one, sit gasping and bleeding in the road, then catch my breath and move on, never looking back. Another cuckoo grows within. I sleep, and life comes to me again with dawn. I rise, weary.

The work compels me.

If I have material or if I have not, it is the same. It is only the work, the creation, the what if spur in my flanks, that gives meaning to the day. I may turn my back, but it is always there.

And so I’m doing the work.


 

blog, creativity, productivity, writing process

Learn to Love Frustration

beating the block isn’t what you think

Photo by Fancycrave on Unsplash

 

Do you sometimes feel like you’re banging your head against a wall?

Your puppy fetches the ball, but won’t drop it. Your golf handicap is stuck at 22 despite taking lessons from the club pro. You can’t get past 25K words in your novel.

Or maybe the situations are all internal. Despite resolving to work smarter, you can’t stop playing that online game. You resolved to write 500 words daily but you wrote barely 500 in the last two weeks.

All these situations share one thing; you’re not getting what you want. Instead, you have effort without progress. You’re tempted to shout in anger or walk away in disgust.

It’s just not working. And you don’t know what to do next.

So Close

Expectation is the mother of all frustration.
Antonio Banderas

You might assume that as you become more skilled or experienced, frustration lessens. Sadly, that’s not true.

The novice knows she lacks skill. She has everything to gain and getting it wrong is a necessary part of the process. She endures the frustration of failure because there is no other way to improve.

Now consider the skilled practitioner who wants to improve. She’s gone through the early stages of learning and she has a decent level of skill. Now she wants to step up her game. She knows what she wants to achieve and she’s confident, having done something like it before.

If she enters a new arena where the players are more advanced, she must return to the novice position. This isn’t easy, because it entails putting aside her hard-earned pride in her skills. The frustration in failing again at what ought to be easy is huge.

Some years ago I took a postgraduate course on teaching adults. A twelve-month course was condensed into eight. The students were all respected professionals with letters after their names. Enthusiasm varied but the course was mandatory and how hard could it be?

We struggled. Every one of us.

The academic writing style was alien to me and my tutor’s comments reflected that. We were used to working hard for top scores; what do you mean the marking range is 50–60 marks?

We couldn’t accept that a mark of 54% was deemed a reasonable pass, that 58% would be excellent, that 60% was perfect and impossible to achieve. The workload was tough, on top of demanding full-time work and managing both practice and teenage family.

One woman, traumatised by failing an assignment for the first time in her life, never returned for the second module. I was used to being a high achiever, and suddenly I was in unfamiliar territory with a hard deadline to meet.

I had to find another way, fast.

Beginner’s Mind is Only the Start

Needing to have things perfect is the surest way to immobilize yourself with frustration.
Wayne Dyer

Beginner’s mind is that state in which the student is like an empty cup, waiting to be filled. In it we accept that we don’t know; we keep an open mind.

In reality, we can’t jettison everything we think we know so easily. For expert professionals, a great deal of self-worth and ego is tied up in knowledge and competence, the things for which experts are respected and rewarded.

A pragmatic compromise is to separate things we know from things we don’t yet know. It’s tempting to let real skills in one area bleed into an assumption of skill in another. Hence pop stars try to act and actors try to sing, with varying results.

For me and my postgraduate student peers, it meant returning to a state we’d left far behind us; a state of ignorance.

I had to let go of my past behaviours and assumptions. The minimum needed to pass was an aggregate score of 51%. That miserable number still required a ton of work.

We could argue about which referencing style was superior, or we could accept that the university required the Vancouver style and get to learning it.

I still had my skills in studying, revising, and time management. I still had expert status in my own field. Being a beginner again didn’t negate those things.

I only pushed through my frustration after a clear analysis of the work and resources needed, but without overvaluing my past experience.

There’s no shame in not knowing, as long as you’re prepared to learn.

A Different Playing Field

You have expectations about the effort needed and the results you can expect from that effort. You experience frustration because either:

  1. You’re putting in an effort but not achieving the goal.
  2. Your actual effort is less than your perceived or promised effort.

1. Nice Try But No Cigar

You must figure out what is blocking your progress and then be ready to act, even if it goes against the grain. It’s okay to ask for help. High achievers have coaches and mentors on their teams.

Do you need to lean into practice? The very best practitioners in all disciplines practise over and over. They hit millions of balls, run thousands of miles, or write millions of words before the world sees them winning.

Moving up a level in your field rests on doing more. And then, when you’re sick of it, do it again.

Perseverance is the hard work you do after you get tired of doing the hard work you already did.
Newt Gingrich

Improving in a new field means checking your ego at the door. Listen to the coach and follow instructions. You can’t win at baseball using a golf club or marathon running techniques.

2. The Lies You Tell

Are you guilty of complaining? You tell anyone who’ll listen that you just don’t have time to write, you’re too busy to work out, or you have special circumstances that stop you from doing what you said you would.

Before you can lie to someone, you first lie to yourself.

You already know what stands in your way. You prioritised it and did that instead. Hard work is hard and boring. You want an easy life — but here’s the thing.

You can have excuses, or you can have results.

You can have excuses, or you can have results. The choice is yours.

Other people have achieved what you want with fewer resources and greater challenges. So decide what you really want and commit to it fully.

Assume you’ll fall into bad habits again, then plan around your weak spots so you keep working.

Fill the fridge with healthy food options. Pack your gym bag at night and put it in front of the door so you can’t avoid it the next morning. Use distraction-free software to keep your focus on the words you’re producing.

Tell yourself the hard truth. You are the only one holding you back.

How Much Do You Want It?

Success is not built on success. It’s built on failure. It’s built on frustration. Sometimes it’s built on catastrophe.
Sumner Redstone

Why suffer through frustration when it’s easier to give up?

Because the obstacle doesn’t block your path — it is the path.

The obstacle is there to teach you humility, to test your resolve and strengthen your muscles, to drive your growth.

And the prize will be all the sweeter after the struggles you endured. It’s time to stretch for the higher fruit.


Have a comment or question? Drop it in the form below and let’s talk.

blog, Pat Aitcheson writes

How to Escape the Blame Game and Reclaim Your Happiness

leave blame behind and take control

balloons-boy_bugent
bugent via pixabay

We all have baggage.

Yours isn’t the same as mine but it’s all heavy. It weighs us down in the present because we can’t face the future without looking back at what happened in the past.

And then we place blame.

“I can’t succeed as a writer because my English teacher said I lacked imagination.”

“I can’t get close to anyone because my mother said I was unlovable.”

“I lack confidence because someone said I was ugly.”

Blame lets you off the hook. The blame game is satisfying because it allows you to simultaneously wallow in past hurt and dodge any remedial actions. It’s not your fault, you cry. People or life or the universe did you wrong. You can’t help the position you’re in.

Well, guess what? That story you tell yourself and anyone who’ll listen is BS.

Not My Fault!

A few years ago The Secret by Rhonda Byrne swept to the top of bestseller lists all over the world. It sold people one beguiling idea: that you could bring about anything you wanted by asking the Universe for it. It repackaged ideas about the power of positive thinking that had been around since Think and Grow Rich was written in 1937 and brought them into the modern age.

But this bright smiley idea has a dark side. It’s this; if bad things happen, you brought them on yourself by negative thinking. Got laid off? Ill health? Betrayed by someone? You weren’t thinking right and now it’s your fault.

This idea is insidious and fails to acknowledge that some people have very real challenges that aren’t necessarily avoidable. Nobody chooses a hard life if they have a choice.

In this case, something bad happened and it was not your fault. You shouldn’t blame yourself for events that are out of your direct control.

Fault lies with whoever caused the event.

Blame is something you lay at the feet of the person who caused it.

But while they are responsible for causing the event, you also have a responsibility. It’s your job to fix yourself.

Photo by Noah Silliman on Unsplash

Still On The Hook

Understand you’re not letting the person responsible off the hook. If your father was a violent alcoholic, he made his choices and acted accordingly. Your task now is to choose how you go forward from the place you find yourself in through no fault of your own.

Constantly pointing back to the past won’t help. You have to accept the task of building your own happiness, without either sacrificing it on the altar of blame or outsourcing it to someone or something else.

It’s not necessary to forgive what happened. Remember that forgiveness is a gift for you, not a prize for wrongdoing.  You get the benefit; you release yourself from the burden of grief and move forward with a lighter heart.

That might be too much to ask. But it’s not necessary to forgive or forget. What you must do is focus on yourself and your future.

Time To Take Charge

It may not be your fault, but it is for sure your responsibility to fix it.
Will Smith

Will Smith posted a short video in which he explains his idea. He advocates reclaiming your power by facing the truth of your situation and any necessary change head-on but leaving fault behind.

Once again, the person with a strong internal locus of control is better equipped for the task of forging their own path. They’re used to setting their own standards and goals before working out how to achieve them. They accept help if needed and work together with their advisers to succeed.

The person with an external locus of control believes that when things happen to them they’re relatively powerless to change the outcome. They look for answers and remedies outside themselves and are typically passive observers of their lives. They want to be saved. They get angry when the solutions don’t magically appear and don’t expect to exert any effort to achieve them.

But It’s Not Fair

I know the world isn’t fair, but why isn’t it ever unfair in my favor?
Bill Watterson

From my first day of school, I faced relentless bullying. It never really stopped as I got older, it simply changed. The boys chanting names behind five-year-old me all the way home gave way to the woman who was enraged that eighteen-year-old me got the university place that rightly belonged to her son. And so on.

I was hurt and confused and angry. I wasn’t at fault, I simply existed in the same space as people who thought I shouldn’t be there. Many tears were shed in secret.

We all live in a story of our own making. Sometimes we write the script, other times we speak other people’s words. We don’t always control the scenes. But our lives are stories, and we can change them.

The first step towards getting somewhere is to decide you’re not going to stay where you are.
John Pierpont “J.P.” Morgan

So you’re going to take a long hard look at some of the scripts that run your life. You’re going to be brutally honest about how you react to the bad stuff. And you’re going to change and do better.

For me, that means acknowledging things that have happened without laying blame. Blame is a trap that steals both agency and hope.

People act at their current level of thinking, and they cannot do better until they think better. It’s not my job to change their minds. It’s my job to change mine.

I have to do the work of repairing my wounds, grow a thicker skin, strengthen my resolve, and claim the life I want. It’s not fair and it’s not right, but that’s life and we deserve to thrive despite it all.

Get Up That Ladder

If lightning strikes your roof, you can cry or curse the weather. The rain will keep coming in as long as you fail to fix the problem that you didn’t cause.

Or you get out the ladder and call someone who can help because you’re the one getting wet. Choosing to stay wet? That’s on you.

Stuff happens. It is what it is. What the future will be is up to you.

blog, creativity, Pat Aitcheson writes, writing process

10 Common Writing Mistakes to Avoid

Don’t settle for good when you could be better

Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

 

So you want to write a short story or maybe even a novel. Your idea is ready, you have an outline, and you’re raring to go. Or you’ve finished a piece and you’re wondering if it’s good enough to release into the world.

You don’t want the editor or agent to pass on it because of errors you could and should have fixed before submission.

You also don’t want to give your reader any reason to put down your manuscript or click away from the page.

Just because you’ve read published work that wasn’t that good doesn’t mean your work should be sub par.

Here are ten common writing errors new writers make and how to correct them.

 

1. Weak Concepts Don’t Fly

What’s the central drive of your narrative? What differentiates it from the next story and the others that came before it? If you’re writing about a married woman who is unhappy with her life, you’d better have a unique take on that.

Maybe she finds out her husband is a spy. Maybe they’re both secret assassins but he’s her latest target. Give the story a twist, otherwise there’s nothing to hold the reader’s attention.

Sometimes you’re writing an anecdote rather than a story, and that isn’t enough to hold a reader. An anecdote stays in one place but a story moves. The characters are changed in some way by the events.

Make sure your story has a start, middle, and end. Follow genre conventions, even if you leave some loose threads for the next book. A romance must end with the main characters together, at least for the moment. A mystery must be solved.

2. Poor Pacing is a Drag

Readers have multiple media competing for shortening attention spans. It’s vital to hook their attention and hold it.

  • Starting too early kills the pace. We don’t care about the journey to work, it’s what happened at the office that matters.
  • Failure to raise the stakes as time goes on can cause readers to lose interest.
  • Too much action without actual plot leaves your reader wondering why any of it matters.

To correct these try the following.

  • Follow the screenwriters’ rule: get in late and leave early. Write the interesting part where a situation develops or characters interact, and leave the rest out.  
  • Check that your characters are facing larger challenges as a consequence of their earlier choices. Making their life difficult is more interesting.
  • Starting in the middle of things is good advice, but we need to care about the characters first. A huge battle only matters when the readers are invested, so spend time establishing who the players are and why they act as they do.

3. Overwriting Weighs a Story Down

Don’t let your love of words get in the way of your story. Less is more when you’re writing for the reader and not yourself. An overly detailed description can stop a story in its tracks.

Trust your reader. Give each character one or two interesting features without describing everything and you’ll inject more life into them than a list ever could. Let the reader fill in some details in her head; that’s one of the joys of reading.

Tighten up your prose by removing crutch words.

This tool helps you find and destroy clichés.

4. Telling not Showing

Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.
Anton Chekhov

Telling robs significant moments of their power.

When the cop finds the third body, don’t say he was angry.

Describe his actions so we can work out what he feels. Show him walking away, throwing his latex gloves on the ground; gripping the steering wheel, his stomach churning; drinking his third whisky, ignoring his team playing on the screen above the bar.

Telling is essential of course. Telling summarises action and gets us from one scene to the next. Rather than describing the cop’s uneventful drive home, jump to him fumbling with his front door key. Instead of walking us through every hour of his restless night, he wakes bleary-eyed.

Give your pivotal and climactic scenes the page time they deserve so the reader doesn’t feel shortchanged. Whenever you’re tempted to write a perception such as he thought, felt or knew something, stop. Find another way and let the reader do some work.

5. Dialogue Tag Troubles

Dialogue tags are a frequent source of errors new writers make.

Many writers and editors advise that ‘said’ is the only dialogue tag you need. It’s the most versatile and tends to disappear when read. The dialogue should make the emotional tone clear.

There will be occasions where ‘said’ isn’t precise enough. Avoid adverbs such as quietly, loudly, angrily and so on. Use a stronger verb such as whispered, called, yelled, but consider whether you’re telling what you should be showing by actions.

You can get around overuse of ‘said’ and make your writing more varied by using action tags.

“Is this okay?” She held out the report.
He scanned it, then put it on the table. “I think it’s all there.”

Notice that the tag is on the same line as the dialogue it belongs to. Getting this wrong is irritating and confusing for the reader, who can’t follow who is doing what.

If you have dialogue between two people, you can leave out some tags. Be sure your reader can follow, either by using different speech patterns or by actions.

6. Point of View Problems

Point of View (POV) ranges from the distant, omniscient third person typical of fairy tales to the immediate, internal first person typical of modern YA novels. For example:

Once upon a time in a land far, far away, a poor boy was making his way home. A great storm was brewing over the horizon.

My ragged shirt was no match for the rain and I shivered, already soaked to the skin.

Emma Darwin discusses the use of different POV here but you must make your choice and stick to it.

Imagine there is a camera stuck to your POV character’s head. It sees only what he sees. Therefore write what he sees and knows and nothing else.  Things that happen outside his view can only be revealed in dialogue unless you’re writing in the omniscient 3rd person.

This avoids head-hopping, where the camera jumps from one person’s perception to another in the same scene. The character can’t see his own expression unless he’s looking in the mirror. So you can write that his face felt hot but not that he looked embarrassed, which his companion can observe.

It’s tempting to write something like, “I didn’t realise then that this storm would change my life.” That destroys both POV and pacing. As the author, you know everything. Resist the impulse to give your plot points away, and leave the reader guessing.

7. What Time Is It?

Is your character’s story unfolding now or in the past? Use of present tense is more popular now, especially linked with first person POV. It gives the narrative immediacy and is immersive. You live the events with the narrator in real time.

Past tense remains the most familiar choice.

Tense is not the same as POV. You can write first person, present tense: I run to the store.

Or you can write first person, past tense: I ran to the store.

Shifting between past and present can be an effective stylistic device when used deliberately and with care. Be certain of your choice before you start. Rewriting a whole work is tedious and careful editing would be even more essential than usual.

Find advice on managing tenses here.

8. You’re Unbelievable

It’s no wonder that truth is stranger than fiction. Fiction has to make sense.
Mark Twain

Fiction makes a contract between reader and writer. The reader agrees to treat the events as if they really happened by suspending their disbelief. The writer pledges to make the events seem believable. If not, the reader is pulled out of the story.

You’ve experienced a character doing something that makes you scratch your head or just say, “No way would that happen.” You know how frustrating that is.  

Characters need to behave in ways consistent with the story and their motivations. As the all-seeing author, you might make them do something unexpected as long as it’s in line with the story’s resolution.

This means that you can add twists and surprises, but they must be foreshadowed in clues beforehand or explained by later events. Your hard-boiled female detective is unlikely to foster orphaned kittens, because of the different demands of each activity. But if she does, there’d better be credible explanations of how and why.

Having the protagonist get exactly what they need out of nowhere is lazy writing. Known as Deus ex machina, this device introduces a new and pivotal item just in time to save the day. You can use coincidence to get characters into trouble, but they have to fight their way out.

Don’t make life too easy for the characters. Make it impossible to reach their goal, and the eventual victory will be sweeter.

9. It’s All Too Much

Have you chosen a theme for your story or a symbolic motif? Be careful.

It’s okay that the weather mirrors your heroine’s mood. But it’s not okay if it’s always sunny when she’s happy, raining when she cries, stormy when she’s angry… you get the point.

Use a light hand with symbolism. Often theme only emerges when you read the complete story, and sometimes it’s clearer to other readers than to the writer. During editing, you can decide whether to add extra clues or tone it down.

Similarly, too much action in one scene can feel like being hit over the head repeatedly. Movies might get away with blowing things up every two minutes but most novels need some quieter space in between the action sequences.

Don’t go on so long that the reader gets bored. Show the aftermath and let the character’s development shine through. Strong language and strong emotion lose their power if overused, so add some contrast whether it’s a fight or a love scene.

10. Not Looking Good

Your words must look good on screen or in print. Correct grammar, spelling, and punctuation are essential.

Whether you self-publish or aim to be traditionally published, make sure the work you send out looks professional. Nobody wants to read work that’s littered with errors, giving the impression that the author doesn’t care.

You care, so fix your work. This 12 step self-editing checklist covers a range of tips and resources that will help you polish your drafts.

Re:fiction article on self-editing
refiction.com/articles/self-editing-checklist/

Finally, Get To The End

The secret is not following the right path, it’s following that right path to the end. Don’t quit, my friend, until you’ve arrived.
Toni Sorenson

Unfinished works linger in the back of your brain, slowly draining your energy. You feel anxious and guilty about them.

Do whatever you need to finish. If you can’t let go, that’s a sign. Complete your piece somehow. You can’t query half a novel or publish half an article.

Eliminate as many of the issues above as you can, or trash the piece and start fresh.

Let go of perfectionism because done is better than perfect. And once it’s done, it can be edited until it’s as close to perfect as you can get.

Go to it. Your readers are waiting.


Please leave your comment below and I’ll reply.

blog, creativity, Pat Aitcheson writes, writing process

Stronger Together: How Collaboration Makes You A Better Writer

Photo by Jed Villejo on Unsplash

 

Col·lab·o·ra·tion (noun)
/kəˌlabəˈrāSH(ə)n/

1. the action of working with someone to produce or create something. “he wrote on art and architecture in collaboration with John Betjeman”

2. traitorous cooperation with an enemy. “he faces charges of collaboration”

What comes to mind when you think about working in groups?

Collaboration can have both positive and negative associations depending on who you work with and for what result.

Writing is a solitary act. You close the curtains and lock the doors before exposing your inner thoughts and desires. Then comes the agonising process of deciding how much to show and how much to tuck away safely out of sight.

You set limits on displaying your truth, much like the spectrum covering those who walk around a changing room proudly naked and those who withdraw into a closed cubicle — or go home and keep their secrets.

Collaboration can feel like sharing that cubicle with a stranger, for a long time. The thought of inviting more people inside is even worse.

In the gym, people often work with one or two others or in bigger groups to achieve their aims.

Can that work for writers too?

All By Myself

Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much.
Helen Keller

Working alone is great because you can please yourself. And working alone is bad because you can please yourself. Who will call you out and make sure you show up if you don’t? Nobody will. You’ll simply make excuses and move the finishing line to tomorrow, sometime, never.

Promises to ourselves are much easier to break than promises made to others. That’s why we’re advised to make our resolutions public so other people can support us when we waver.

Working with someone else makes you accountable.

If you’ve agreed to meet up, write something, or complete an exercise, it’s harder to let yourself off the hook and disappoint your writing partner(s). In a small group you’re more visible and under greater social pressure to finish the task.

This alone can mean the difference between moving forward and spinning your wheels without any progress. An external deadline is a great motivator. In fact, for some people, it’s the only pressure that moves them from thinking to doing.

You know how hard it can be to start writing, and it’s even harder to finish. Self-imposed deadlines can work, but even the most disciplined person sometimes runs out of steam.

Then a scheduled meeting or submission date comes into its own because you don’t want to let someone down. Your self-image as an honest, reliable, trustworthy person depends on delivering.

So you focus and produce something. Perhaps it isn’t the perfectly polished jewel of work that you dreamed of, but that only ever existed in your head. Deadlines force completion.

Collaboration means accountability. Accountability means getting things done as promised. What does that mean for writers?

One Plus One Equals One

Collaboration on a book is the ultimate unnatural act.
Tom Clancy

Presumably, Clancy was talking about fiction. If a novel represents one person’s vision, how can more than one person write a novel?

One example is the successful crime author Nicci French, made up of husband and wife team Sean French and Nicci Gerrard. They chose the female name combination because their first novel had a female narrator.

They talk here about how they make shared writing work. Strict rules are essential — for example, each must accept the other’s edits, preventing a constant back and forth that would be exhausting and result in no book at all.

Writing pairs remain the exception in fiction. If you’re compatible with another writer in terms of personality and style, you could attempt it as long as you agree on the ground rules from the beginning. Each of you will bring different skills and knowledge to the work.

But there are many pitfalls in trying to create a cohesive story with more than one writer. Is there a place for multiple authors in one book?

The Sum Of The Parts

The fun for me in collaboration is… working with other people just makes you smarter; that’s proven.
Lin-Manuel Miranda

A short story anthology gathers a number of pieces into a single volume, with or without a unifying theme. Each writer works as an individual but is included by group membership or success in a contest.

The editing process is a collaboration aimed at polishing your work so it conforms to external standards. If you haven’t published anything before, working with an editor will teach you how to present your writing and save you time and effort the next time.

Writing groups offer support while requiring you to produce work regularly. I’ve found my real-life and online groups invaluable. They’ve challenged me to write in different styles, to a theme and deadline, and most importantly to engage regularly with other writers.

Sharing tips and problems improves all our work. And my stories have now been published in four anthologies, with more planned this year. Collaboration means opportunity.

Stronger Together

If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.

Writing is just you and a blank page at its simplest, but that isn’t the whole story. Collaboration makes you a better writer. It brings accountability, opportunity, and productivity into the picture.

Combine all three with your hard-won words, and you’ll go far.


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