a very short story
listen to this story here:
People watching kept me entertained while I sipped fragrant apple and elderflower tea. I always preferred observing real life to endless scrolling or playing pointless games on my phone. Most likely I’d finish before Karen turned up and bought me something sweet to make up for her perennial lateness. Carrot cake would make a delicious apology.
The loud slam of a car door startled me as the coffee shop doors opened wide. Outside a dark haired woman strode along the footpath, her frown obvious as she approached the window where I sat.
Her companion caught up in a few long strides and grabbed her wrist. She spun around and shook her hand free. She waved her hands, stabbed a finger at his chest in accusation. He shook his head, fists clenched at his sides. One or two passers-by glanced at them but they paid no attention, fully absorbed in their moment of crisis.
He opened his palms in a placatory gesture while she slumped, eyes downcast. I took another sip of tea. Only a pane of glass separated me from the drama unfolding almost within touching distance. In movies, that would be the pivotal moment. He’d beg forgiveness, she’d realise what she was losing, and they would fall into each other’s arms.
She walked away. But when he called out, she hesitated and stopped. This was it; I held my breath, ready to cheer for the triumph of love and a happy ending.
She turned around and went back to him. The wind tugged at his hair as she cupped his face between her hands. He relaxed into her kiss and reached for her at the exact moment she let go. She gave him a small, sad smile before walking away, out of sight.
The man stood rooted to the spot, touching his lips as if to hold on to her final message. He returned to his car and sat for a while before driving away.
I wondered about them even after Karen rushed in, describing her own little drama of lost keys and a broken heel that could easily be repaired. My carrot cake was too sweet, a consolation prize that left a bitter aftertaste.
Love is no fairytale. Sometimes it ends with a kiss.
Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I am changing myself.
Raise your hand if you’ve tried self-improvement and failed at it? I have, more times than I can count.
I recall trying self-improvement but instead of gaining anything, I lost my way.
I started working with Finding Your Own North Star by Martha Beck. My life was super stressful with work and family challenges, and I felt defeated. The idea of resetting my internal compass was very appealing.
The book asked probing questions designed to reveal my true needs and aspirations. When I reached the chapter called Getting to Yes which asked me to create a best-case scenario for my life, I choked. Literally and metaphorically. I couldn’t go on, even though Beck had written about this exact reaction. Why?
Every positive scenario I thought of completely excluded the major elements of my life.
Whether it was work, family, or friends, I simply could not imagine how to improve my life without cancelling everything and starting with a clean slate. And I couldn’t cancel my life. So I was paralysed; unable to stay or go. I put the book away and tried to forget it.
Why couldn’t I change?
What Everybody Wants
I think we have a right to change course. But society is the one that keeps demanding that we fit in and not disturb things. They would like you to fit in right away so that things work now.
I was bound by ties of duty to be a good doctor, wife, mother, sister, daughter, friend, boss, colleague, and more. But I didn’t want to sacrifice everything I valued for personal growth.
My only solution to this tangled Gordian knot of expectation seemed to be cut and run.
Expectation reduces the amount of thought we have to put into interactions. For example, you buy a sandwich every day from the same store. Both you and the cashier know roughly what to expect from each other, especially if you’ve met a few times.
Now imagine that the next time you hand over your money, the cashier asks you how you’re sleeping and what medication you take.
Or imagine that you visit your accountant’s office and find her painting in oils. She says, “Sorry, I didn’t finish your accounts because this is who I am now.”
Both these scenarios lead to puzzlement and/or anger on your part. Why is this person acting in a different role to what’s agreed, and who’s going to do your accounts now?
Everyone has a role they expect you to play, and it messes up their plans if you don’t go along with it.
If you don’t design your own life plan, chances are you’ll fall into someone else’s plan. And guess what they have planned for you?
If you try to change yourself, you’ll find no shortage of people nudging you back into a place that feels comfortable for them. If you dare to step outside your box, society will discourage or even punish you.
Society runs on external validation and social proof, and it takes courage to chart your own path. When you do, you’ll find the people closest to you are confused. You act differently and they don’t know how to respond, so they try to bring you back in line with veiled or overt threats.
At some point on your journey, you’ll have to choose between what everybody else wants, and what you need. Are you ready to choose yourself?
Even if you cannot change all the people around you, you can change the people you choose to be around. Life is too short to waste your time on people who don’t respect, appreciate, and value you. Spend your life with people who make you smile, laugh, and feel loved.”
Roy T. Bennett
You’ve probably read that you’re the average of the five people you spend the most time with, or you might lean towards the idea that it’s more dispersed than that. There’s definitely some influence, whether larger or smaller.
Imagine you’ve moved on. You don’t want to gossip over lunch or complain about your boss or otherwise play small anymore. But your colleagues are the same. You can’t change them. Habits are triggered by cues, so you decide to work out at lunchtime instead of going to the break room to whine. Which is great for your abs, but you just lost your social group at work.
Some self-improvement writers present this social drift as a virtuous circle. The more they improve themselves, the less they have in common with previous friends. So they find new, better ones more suited to their higher vibration. Which makes them even better, and so on.
That can come across as rather shallow and self-serving. Some relationships are temporary, but if you treat everyone as disposable you’ll never make lasting connections. Plus you risk finding yourself out of the circle once they move on, again. If you find it difficult to make new friends, discarding those you have has little appeal.
So can you change without giving up all your relationships and risking society’s scorn?
The Same But Different
People can’t live with change if there’s not a changeless core inside them.
Stephen R. Covey
Most people don’t want to sell all their possessions and go meditate in a cave in search of personal growth. Maybe you don’t have to reconnect with your first love on Facebook and leave your husband and children behind to find happiness in life.
You want to live a truer version of yourself, not throw the baby out with the bathwater.
Self-improvement is Michelangelo carefully cutting away all that’s inessential to reveal the glory of his David. It’s about finding the core of your self by discarding what no longer works and then living in accordance with your truth.
Change is evolution, not revolution.
Taking tiny steps and testing the waters is less daunting and likely to be more successful than a wholesale revision.
- Get clear about what you want to achieve. Finding the right guru is important, but you have to do the exercises in the books to refine your vision rather than just read without reflection.
- You will have to give something up to move forward. There’s no lesson in life that doesn’t cost something. Outdated ways of thinking and childhood programming are burdens you don’t need, but they can be comforting because they’re familiar and the unknown is scary.
- Reach out to your new tribe. Hang out where your people hang out. The internet makes this simple, no matter your location or interests. If you want to be a writer or a potter or a vintage car restorer, go find them. Lurk in online groups before introducing yourself and if the group isn’t for you, move on. The stakes are lower online, plus you still have your real life friends, right?
- Practise assertiveness. People will challenge your new behaviour. Don’t fold or apologise. When they accuse you of having changed, smile and say, “Thanks, I hope so.”
- Give yourself time to emerge. A snake sheds its old skin to grow only after the new skin has formed. It’s tender and delicate for a while and the snake will often hide until it feels safe again. Try out your new behaviours in sympathetic settings first. Read to your poetry group before entering a poetry slam. Visit the gym at quiet times before tackling that huge, intimidating spin class. Practise saying no to your annoying co-worker before your demanding boss. Note the response and adjust your aim next time.
Stepping outside the shared comfort zone of what’s expected will never be easy, but the pain of change is worth it. Approach with care, know the danger spots, and keep the end in mind.
Better to endure breaking down in the chrysalis and emerge a butterfly than refuse growth and stay a caterpillar forever.
I do not always know what I want, but I do know what I don’t want.
How much time do you spend doing things you don’t want to do? I’m betting quite a bit.
As a child, you race towards adulthood in search of a mythical time when you’ll cast off the powerlessness of childhood and start doing exactly what you want.
And yet, the older you get, the more you realise adulthood is more about what you don’t want. The shine wears off a job and lifestyle you thought you wanted. And to maintain them you’re bound to a whole series of actions you’d rather skip.
Maybe, as Thoreau said, most of us are leading lives of quiet desperation. From that position, the only act of power left is to say no. If you can’t get what you want, you can still avoid what you don’t want.
Is it that simple?
What Came Out In The Wash
The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.
George Bernard Shaw
We all know that communication is the key to good relationships. Despite that, we carry deep-seated assumptions and prejudices into our closest interactions without thinking to question or even acknowledge them.
In the early years, doctors in training work long, long hours. I recall when my partner was pulling a heavy on-call burden of two nights per week and two out of five weekends, plus commuting to the hospital. He moved in with me; I did our combined laundry and housework.
Things went along fine until I came home one night after my own stressful weekend on call, while he had been at home resting. My house looked like a bomb had gone off.
“Why haven’t you cleaned up or done laundry?”
“I’m tired and I just didn’t want to do it.”
His response gave me an insight into his mind. It was a rare moment of truth, though I was too mad to appreciate that right then.
Much later, I was able to break it down as follows.
- I realised that he relied on emotion to guide his actions.
- He assumed that I did the same.
- He observed me doing housework without complaint.
- Therefore he inferred that I did it because I liked it.
This isn’t so much about gender roles as emotional styles. His was if it feels good do it but more importantly if it feels bad don’t do it.
The problem is, that commonly held attitude won’t get you ahead in life.
Sweat The Small Stuff
You’ve got to think about big things while you’re doing small things, so that all the small things go in the right direction.
You want to feel good and you don’t want to feel bad. That’s a basic instinct for every living creature. But the really good stuff lies on the far side of “bad” stuff. Any success is built on many hours of routine, boring effort. A great performance is an iceberg; one-tenth visible brilliance and nine-tenths hidden trial, error, and reiteration.
A painter cleans brushes, a gardener picks weeds, and a singer practises scales because these menial jobs build the foundations of their craft. Without a solid foundation, the most astonishing building will topple and eventually fail.
Without perseverance and the discipline to do what has to be done repeatedly, you’ll never develop the grit you need to succeed.
When you’re stuck with stuff that feels bad in the moment but still needs doing for various reasons, you need ways to take care of the things you really don’t want to do.
Feelings Don’t Work
Boxing is not about your feelings. It’s about performance.
Perhaps you think my story about laundry was just a silly domestic spat. We should have agreed a rota at the outset or something like that. You’d just get stuff done without fuss.
But I bet there is something that you haven’t done.
Something you should do, but you can’t bring yourself to start. A conversation, a letter, an action. Every time you think of it, your mind makes excuses and shies away.
You know this action will ultimately lead to a real benefit. You still don’t do it.
You’re trapped in an endless loop of feelings. No matter how trivial or important the task appears, it conjures up anxiety and avoidance that are usually symptoms of something deeper; fear of rejection, fear of failure, or shame. Those unnamed emotions lead to procrastination, which only amplifies them.
There are ways to escape this trap without therapy or suffering.
- Name your feelings and set them aside. This is the “just do it” school of thought. It is what it is. Push through your boredom or fatigue, load the washer, and get it done.
- Put a reward on the other side. Made a difficult phone call? Have a cookie.
- Focus on the outcome and not the process. You want clean clothes, doing laundry is the way to get them.
- Feel the fear. Perhaps there are bad consequences to leaving your task undone. You’ll get fired for coming to work in ripped jeans, or laughed at for wearing a formal gown to your retail job because your work clothes were dirty. Rather than avoiding the task itself, avoid feeling even worse by doing your laundry.
- Ask “Super Me” to do it. Super Me is you, but stronger. Super Me doesn’t agonise over a phone call or email, scared to make a fool of herself. Super Me knows that even if she stumbles a little, the world will not end. But she won’t stumble because she’s prepared and ready. Super Me knows how to deal with rejection and in that case, she’ll find another way.
- Review the need for the task. Sometimes it doesn’t have to be done by you. If you can reasonably delegate, do so. Pay for a laundry service. Teach your older children to do their own laundry, which is a basic life skill. If it’s a precious clothing item, maybe it would be safer if dry-cleaned.
- Drop it. This is only after careful thought that concludes this task demands much more input than the result deserves. Many “shoulds and oughts” drop into this category. It may be a friend who never listens and constantly demands your time; a relative you see out of duty; or drinks after work you don’t enjoy with people you don’t like. If the mere thought of dropping it fills you with relief, and you’ve been honest in your cost/benefit assessment, you’re on the right track. Go ahead and make a positive decision to decline gracefully.
Do It Now
If the first thing you do each morning is to eat a live frog, you can go through the day with the satisfaction of knowing that that is probably the worst thing that is going to happen to you all day long.
Research tells us that willpower is a limited resource. Since procrastination is almost inevitable when it comes to doing the thing you don’t want to do, it follows that willpower needs careful management.
So when you’ve found the right strategy to do the thing, do it now. And if you can’t do it now, do it as early in the day as possible, before your willpower is depleted by forcing yourself to be civil rather than cursing at your co-worker or relative.
In other words, decide how you’re going to eat that frog and then, without hesitation, swallow it whole. It won’t taste as bad as you feared. As a bonus, everything else will taste much better, now that’s out of the way.
As for me and my partner, I explained that I subscribed to the “get it done” school and he needed to get with the programme. I despise domestic work to this day, but tolerate it in order to enjoy a tidy living space. We got on the same page, eventually. You can too if you can ask the right questions and listen to the answers.
You’re avoiding something. Get it done and off your plate. Get on with the next thing.
I believe in Karma. If the good is sown, the good is collected. When positive things are made, that returns well.
Are you an active writer on Medium or elsewhere?
If so, when did you last check your stats for votes, reads, comments or earnings? I guess that was today, maybe more than once already because we all like to see how we’re doing by whatever metric we prefer.
I have another question. Have you read anything lately? Did you clap, vote, comment, review, or buy?
And if not, why not?
You’re expecting to get something you didn’t give. Karma says what goes around, comes around. Karma says you get what you give.
The Silent Majority
Most people consume without creating, and they consume without responding. Around 5–10% of buyers leave reviews on Amazon overall. Even the most popular articles on Medium or Quora have a tiny percentage of comments compared to claps, and claps compared to reads.
Consider this article, which gained almost 21,000 claps in thirteen days but just 79 comments.
Since each reader can give from zero to a maximum of fifty claps, we can infer that at least 420 people read this piece, but the true figure is likely to be many more.
As good as it feels to be read, it feels great to get applause. And comments? Well, a thoughtful comment is the sweetest nectar of all. It can give validation and the dopamine hit we all crave, but it can do something even more valuable. It can start a conversation. And conversations lead to relationships.
So if there are all these positive outcomes on offer, why don’t writers engage?
Paved With Good Intentions
Excuses are lies wrapped up in reasons.
There are reasons why you haven’t tended to your writer karma. Few of them stand up to closer scrutiny.
- I don’t have time to read.
Stephen King said if you don’t have time to read, then you don’t have time and the tools to write. A good writer, one who aspires to improve, must also read widely. It takes just a few minutes to read an article on Quora or Medium, or look at your favourite writer’s website. Step away from mindless scrolling and put that time to better use.
- I don’t have time to respond.
Really? It takes seconds to vote or clap. Even a brief message can make someone’s day. It would make yours, wouldn’t it?
- I can’t afford to buy a book.
Buying a book new at full price is the ideal, but maybe you don’t have resources. Buy secondhand, borrow from a library or a friend and review, tweet and Facebook post about it, tell your friends. You can download free books from Prolific Works and review.
Reviews on Amazon and Goodreads drive sales twice. First, because the algorithms favour books with more reviews. Second, because readers also favour books with reviews. In this era of almost endless choice, recommendations are even more important.
- Nobody’s reading my stuff so why should I bother?
See point 2 above. Feel good by doing good. Your following is built one reader at a time, one comment and relationship at a time. The best follower is one who is invested in your work, and the numbers are only one way of measuring impact. You never know who will be your new cheerleader.
Your tribe of like-minded readers and writers is out there, but it can’t find you if you’re hiding silently behind a screen. You’re a creator, not part of the herd of consumers. Act accordingly.Connect. Reciprocate.
Keep The Faith
There are two ways of spreading light: to be the candle or the mirror that reflects it.
You want to be a bright star, but it doesn’t happen overnight. Sometimes all you have is faith in yourself, faith that things will turn in your favour if you keep putting your work out there.
While you’re waiting, give what you want to see in the world. Acknowledge the impact someone’s words made on you. Be more than a silent consumer, because you’re part of the creative minority and you know how hard that road is, how lonely and unrewarding it can feel.
So don’t wait. You can improve someone’s day, right now, for free, and it only takes a minute.
the truth doesn’t have to hurt
Anyone who is going to be a writer knows enough at 15 to write several novels.
They say write what you know.
Be authentic and write from the heart. But what if that’s too painful? What if, like many writers, you’re afraid to be exposed by your words?
It happened to me. I wrote a story that I was afraid to publish.
Not because it was risqué or difficult. It was honest and true. And that was the problem. It was too honest, too raw, and reading it over felt like dissecting a part of my heart and leaving it open for anyone to see.
As we all do, I drew on experience as well as imagination to create my world. Something sneaked past my filters and on to the page. I wrote it for a competition, but missed the deadline while I agonised over whether to let it go.
How could I be prepared to send this off to be judged by strangers, but hesitate to post it on my own media?
The difference was anonymity.
The story was too close to uncomfortable truths. I usually bury those truths within the lie of fiction, but here they were all too visible to me.
Many writers know this feeling. What if someone who knows me reads it?
I wanted my stories to be strong. But I didn’t want to write them with my own blood.
Was I right to hesitate?
All Eyes On You
Have you ever heard the expression: Walk a mile in my shoes, and then judge me? And write your own books.
You know how it feels when you’re anxious or shy. You feel as if everyone is looking at you and worse, judging you harshly. But that’s not true. Everyone is as consumed by thoughts about themselves as you are.
This is known as the spotlight effect. You hide because of the erroneous belief that everyone is watching. They’re not.
Remember that as the author you know everything about your story. You know where you found events and people that appear in it. Nothing is disguised. But the reader doesn’t have that inside knowledge. As long as you change details, especially about real people, the reader’s unlikely to draw the conclusions you fear.
You have to trust your story, and your judgement, and move forward despite anxiety.
Feel The Fear
You must do the thing you think you cannot do.
One day, heart pounding and mouth dry, I attached the story to a competition entry and pressed send. I felt sick.
Months later, heart pounding and mouth dry, I read that prize-winning story to an audience of writers. They told me how they had been drawn in by the emotions portrayed.
The dilemma we face as artists is the need to be authentic, to bleed onto the page, while retaining our emotional integrity. Deep connection with a story is visceral recognition, a punch in the gut that speaks more eloquently than any words could.
And it is the drop of your blood, the moment of vulnerability, that makes the connection true.
Channel real emotion into honest writing.
If you’re writing memoir, events can be portrayed as they happened, letting the reader experience them with you.
If you’re writing fiction, you need to get emotion on the page without revealing your source material. Change names and places. Combine elements of real people into a new character. Writers have the power to immortalise or demonise friends and enemies — but a libel suit or worse, an angry relative is best avoided.
When you write betrayal, for example, think back to when someone let you down. Allow yourself to experience it again and jot down the first words that occur to you. The first words are the true ones, before your brain has time to filter and censor.
How would your character express those feelings? The circumstances are different, but the emotion is familiar.
You don’t know how it feels to hide during an alien invasion. Or maybe you have been that person, frightened of being discovered or left behind. In any case you do know something similar; fear, despair, anger, hope. That’s what you write.
It is only when you open your veins and bleed onto the page a little that you establish contact with your reader.
I don’t suggest you should spill every secret on the page. But some experiences have lessons worth sharing. In sharing experiences and lessons learned, we connect. We give people the chance to recognise themselves on the page, and feel less alone.
Show us a glimpse of your soul, show us what it is to be human.
When you hesitate because it feels too personal, write it.
When you pause because it’s still a little raw, write it.
When your heart pounds at the sight of those true words, write it.
Someone needs to read your words and recognise themselves within them.
Have a comment or suggestion? Leave it below.
it’s time to claim your title
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.
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.
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.
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.
- Recall what was said and who said it
- Write it down
- Write a letter to that person telling them they were wrong
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
- Write stuff — and finish it
- Release old programming that doesn’t work for you anymore
- Write the story of the new you
- 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.
leave blame behind and take control
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.
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 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?
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.
Don’t settle for good when you could be better
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.
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.
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.
8. You’re Unbelievable
It’s no wonder that truth is stranger than fiction. Fiction has to make sense.
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.
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.
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.
Go to it. Your readers are waiting.
Please leave your comment below and I’ll reply.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.