blog, Pat Aitcheson writes, writing process

Press pause

stop to go forward

boat-aground_HypnoArt
HypnoArt via pixabay

We’re meant to be up and at it, all the time. Get on the grind, be always hustling.

It’s exhausting.

Some days are not for progress. Especially for creators, some days it just won’t come. You run aground, the wind drops, the tide falls away. It’s not artists’ block, but something deeper. The well has run dry.

What does it mean, this empty feeling when the words won’t come and the eyes don’t see and there are no more songs in your head? Your Muse can’t be heard. Maybe they have fallen silent, maybe they are struggling against louder voices in your head.

At this point, you need to give up, without giving up completely.

Diagnosing the cause comes first, then action. Step away from your project and check in with yourself. Spend some time considering the possible origins. Write it down if that helps. I find pen and paper works better.

  • Body– are you hungry, tired, tense from inactivity, thirsty?

    • try this Go for a walk.
    • Drink some water rather than yet more coffee.
    • Go to bed an hour earlier for a few nights.
    • Stretch your hands and back regularly.
  • Mind – are you overcommitted, frazzled by too many demands, exhausted by conflicts in relationships?

    • try this List all your current commitments, personal and professional, consider delegating when possible.
    • Let go of perfectionism and embrace the idea of good enough. Prioritise and finish the most urgent thing on your list.
    • Start saying no. Between FOMO and the need to be liked, you risk spreading yourself too thin. Be choosy about where your energy goes.
    • Identify the people who are energy vampires, sucking the life out of you. Spend less time with them. Yes, even if they are your mother or close friend.
  • Spirit – are you deeply unhappy, profoundly lost, lacking in motivation for life itself?

  • You might need help from another if your depression and/or anxiety stands between you and what you want and need to do. I wrote here about what to do when you feel you can’t go on.
    • try this You can make a start on refilling your well by creating something different; a cake, a tidy room or garden area, a picture if you write, a poem if you draw.
    • Seek out peace in whatever way makes sense to you. You probably gave it up at some point, whether it be running, prayer, music, looking at the ocean, reading, or yoga. Schedule a half or even a whole hour. Devote the entire time to your own tranquility.
    • Go to a museum or gallery or store and enjoy looking at beautiful things. Then come home and make something small that is not connected to your main project.

Of course a week off in the Caribbean sounds like the perfect answer to the blahs. What it actually represents is time and space to do the things above. Since we mostly can’t take off whenever we need to reset our compass, what’s needed is a pause.

Just don’t stop completely.

You pause, catch your breath, and then you can go on.

 

blog, Pat Aitcheson writes, writing process

Teaching is a learning experience

dahlia orange_Oldiefan
Oldiefan via pixabay

We all have chances to teach, but sometimes the opportunity is unwelcome.

Has anyone ever asked you an apparently simple question, and you found yourself unable to answer? Parents of small children are very familiar with this. It’s very tempting to fall back on platitudes or distraction to cover up the lack of an adequate response.

Examinations are formidable, even to the best prepared; for the greatest fool can ask more than the wisest man can answer.
Charles Caleb Colton  

This week, I received a question about my writing process related to a story I posted on another website. It made me stop and examine my writing in a way I haven’t done before. Which lead me to remember this.

Before you can teach something, you have to understand it yourself.

Although watching an expert helps you to improve your own game, asking them to explain how they do it might not yield useful results. Because their skill is unconscious, they don’t have to think about how they hit the ball. They’re thinking about where the ball is going and where they need to be for the next shot.

Four stages to reaching the expert level

  1. You are unaware of the skill and the need for it – unconscious incompetence
  2.        You are aware of the skill and have none – conscious incompetence
  3.        You are aware of the skill and have some – conscious competence
  4.        Your have high levels of skill and no longer think about how to achieve it – unconscious competence.

Think of playing a guitar. First, you don’t know that a guitar exists or what it’s used for. Then you see a guitar but don’t know anything about it. You start learning, slowly, and making many mistakes. You practice.

You know what you want to do, but you can’t do it. Yet.

Eventually, after enough practice, your fingers know what to do to make notes. You can play new songs that only exist in your head, or sight read a song you never heard before. You are focused on outcome, not process.

A good teacher is one who can help you move from one stage to the next. Not necessarily the most gifted in their field, they still have a priceless skill. They can analyse skills and transmit that knowledge to others. And the skill of effective critique is one we could all benefit from.

As writers especially, we crave the feedback that comes from objective analysis with specific advice on moving forward. I wrote here about giving and receiving critique gracefully.

We all have opportunities to teach, and thereby to learn more about ourselves. I’m not sure if my answer helped my enquirer, but it made me think critically about my own practice. That’s the most important lesson of all.

Therefore the old trope of “those who can, do; those who can’t, teach” needs to be reframed. Who you speak to depends on what you’re trying to achieve. Inspiration and improvement are different activities.

And what about those who can’t do or teach? Lacking skill and insight but with plenty of envy, they become energetic armchair critics.

I bet even Michelangelo had someone saying, “Look, you missed a bit.”

blog, writing process

Taking it on the chin

6 steps to deal with constructive criticism

boxing girl_xusenru
xusenru via pixabay

It’s never easy to accept criticism gracefully. After you’ve poured sweat and tears into a creation, getting negative comments can be at best bruising and at worst devastating. But, like taking knocks from a sparring partner, good constructive criticism can spur you on to be better.

Constructive vs. destructive

Constructive critique is aimed at the work.
Destructive critique is aimed at the creator.

If the comments are based solely on what the commenter liked or didn’t like about the piece, without any objective elements, beware. You’ll find nothing useful there. Family and friends often say they love your work (if they say anything at all). Or they might say they hate it. Neither is helpful, though they can still elicit an emotional response.

Unrelieved negativity, especially if spiced with personal vitriol, says more about the commenter than their target.

Put up your guard

Whether or not you sought it out, critique can help. But assess it first as above. Critique does not consist of insults and slurs. Don’t stoop to that level. Walk away from trolls and don’t engage in a flame war that will hurt your brand and your soul.

Defence not attack

Don’t hit back immediately. You’re here to learn something, so first listen to the comments. Take extra time to process the message if you need it.

Probing for weaknesses

A sparring partner exposes your weaker areas without attacking them. The idea is to improve and strengthen those areas. Nobody’s perfect and if you think you are above criticism, here’s one: that idea needs to change if you want to improve. Critique of your work does not lessen your worth as a person.  You are not your creation, though part of you may be in it. Breathe and listen.

Engage in rational discussion

You wouldn’t spar when angry; it could turn into an ugly fight. It might take time for the emotional hit to lessen. Take that time and come back to it cold.

  • Look for the kernel of truth, no matter how small or hard to accept.
  • Consider the alternatives presented.
  • If you maintain your present position, be prepared to justify it.
  • You don’t have to accept all parts of the critique. You, the creator, are in charge.
  • Be open to trying another way, even if you reject it in the end.
  • Thank your critique partner for their time and attention.

Round two

Having considered the critique and decided what lessons you have drawn from it, put them into action. Good critique is focussed and objective, with examples, and offers specific remedies.

Poor critique says “I didn’t like that piece but I can’t explain why. You’re useless.”
Good critique says “I found that piece hard to read because the sentences and paragraphs were very long. You could try having just one idea in each sentence and two or three sentences per paragraph. That will give more white space on the page, which is easier to read on a screen.”

Now you have something to work with. You might cut down your sentences and play with them until you see that it does look better. Or you might find that short sentences don’t suit your writing style. Either way, you know more than before. You can make informed choices in future.

The student becomes the teacher

Everyone’s a critic and dishing out negative reviews is easy. Giving out useful critique though: that’s hard. I invite you to try it, and learn the other side of the challenge. A writers’ group IRL or online will give opportunities to try it out. Being respectful is the first and golden rule. Producing insightful analysis and actionable suggestions, like all good teaching, is harder than it looks.

Sharpening your own critical faculties makes it easier to read and watch like a writer. Deconstructing the magic trick helps you understand how to do it yourself.

Your writing relationships and your own work can only benefit when you learn how to give and take criticism like a pro.

blog, writing process

Time for new beginnings

Break it to make it

easter eggs colour Alexas_Fotos
Alexas_Fotos via pixabay

It’s the season of Easter. Eggs and bunnies are everywhere. Whatever you might think about the origins of Easter, whether pagan or religious, it’s hard to escape. The motif of eggs is woven into the English language. Life is itself a curate’s egg, both good and bad in parts.

We avoid putting all our eggs in one basket, and so diversify risk. We argue in circles about the chicken and the egg. We walk on eggshells through tricky situations, and break eggs to make omelettes. This last saying is the most interesting, because it tells us that sometimes, breaking comes before making.

Easter eggs look so beautifully perfect that it’s tempting to keep them intact. But we know that treasures are hidden inside the colourful exterior, so we’re happy to smash them. (Of course, getting to eat the whole thing doesn’t hurt either.) People, lives, and relationships can have a shiny surface gloss, and yet when they’re broken, something even better may emerge.

It need not be one huge blow, it could be a tiny chipping away that eventually changes everything. Like the chick emerging from its shell one peck at a time, small actions add up over time to something larger.

This is also the month of Camp NaNoWriMo, where you set your own daily writing goal. After I failed NaNo two years in a row, I decided I absolutely could not write every day. It all felt too much for me. But I want to become more of a writer, so I decided on a smaller challenge, inspired by Shaunta Grimes and her concept of teeny, tiny goals.

My goal? Write 150 words every day.

Stupidly small and hardly worth the effort, right? Well, so far I have kept to it, even after a gruelling 13 hour day at work. It’s so very small, that I often exceed it. Then I get to award myself a pat on the back for over-performing! On the worst days, it’s still doable and there is small but measurable progress.

I track my journey, nothing too involved because I don’t have the energy. Just a Very Easy Tracking Plan™ (as discussed here ). All that’s required is minimal motivation and the idea that I could break out of my shell.  I hope to build on a series of daily successes that will help me advance as a writer.

It’s the season of new beginnings.

What tiny, daily goal will you set, so you can escape a self-imposed jail of fixed expectations?

daffodils white double
Double white narcissus

blog, writing process

Everything is material

Using bad stuff to make good stuff

egg-broken_stevepb.jpg
stevepb via pixabay

 

There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.

Ernest Hemingway

Into every life some rain must fall. Whether  actual or metaphorical rain, it’s soon joined by tears from someone. Maybe that someone is you. It’s a fact that bad things happen to all of us. Then we must choose how to respond.

The energy of anger and grief

These powerful emotions can wreak havoc when suppressed. Instead, try directing them outwards. When I’m angry, I clean my house. I release the anger, and I get a tidy living space; two birds with one stone. I might dig in the garden if the weather permits. You might prefer to walk, or run, or do some boxing. All are good, allowing the body to let go of the tension, and maybe producing something positive too.

For a writer, all emotions are fuel.

To make our characters three dimensional, to give them life on the page and in the reader’s mind, means giving them real emotions. The characters need motivations and reactions that feel believable. As writers, we decide what to include, what to imply, and what to leave out. And we need empathy, that is the ability to feel what another person is feeling. It is the shared experience that defines empathy.

empathy      I understand your feeling, because I have felt the same
sympathy    This feeling is unpleasant, and I am sorry you have to experience it

Put simply, empathy is personal; you walk a mile in someone’s shoes. While sympathy is impersonal; you acknowledge the stone in the shoe without putting it on.

Write what you know?

We are often told to write what we know. If we took this literally, there would be very little literature beyond first person narrative. Stories need characters, and characters need fleshing out. When I think of a character who is not like me, I must inhabit their skin.

I need to draw on my own experiences, in order to know what my male humanoid in a distant galaxy might do in the middle of a pulse laser battle. I have not been in that situation, but I know what anxiety, fear, pain, and courage feel like.

For myself, I rarely bother with detailed check sheets for my characters, except when it comes to personality traits. I am much less interested in a character’s favourite colour, than in how they react to each situation. When I understand how each character thinks and feels, dialogue and action come naturally. And characters gain a life of their own, doing and saying surprising things. I just have to follow them, typing as fast as I can.

No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.
Robert Frost

Resources for character personality traits

One of the most popular schemes for assigning personality traits is the Alignment system, developed from the role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons. There are nine alignments, drawn from combinations of good-neutral-evil and lawful-neutral-chaotic. They deal with ethical and moral standpoints such as ‘rules are rules’ as opposed to ‘rules are meant to be broken sometimes’ as opposed to ‘what rules?’

More information is available here and here .

Like all classification systems, it is not perfect, but it’s very helpful in making your characters both internally consistent and more diverse overall. Each cast member needs to be authentic, but different from the others.

If you want to make a relatable villain, she must have some trait or behaviour your readers can share or empathise with. Otherwise all villains are chaotic evil, and that is not enough to sustain interest. (A possible exception might be Heath Ledger’s Joker, but one is enough.)

Another fabulous resource is the writers’ thesaurus series by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi. The Emotion Thesaurus details emotions along with their possible causes and effects on a person. This allows a writer to create finely detailed and observed characters.

Suffering can become art

sky-clouds-rays_Skitterphoto
Skitterphoto via pixabay

We don’t have to suffer for art; we will suffer whatever happens, because that’s life. As creators, we can use our suffering to build something that will show the world a truth, as we see it.

Write what you feel.
That’s the alchemy whereby pain becomes beauty. That’s art.

 

blog, writing process

Writing a query that hooks agents

fisherman_pexels
pexels via pixabay

 

I’ve been following Kristen Lamb ‘s blog for a while now, and she always has something interesting to say about writing and publishing. She is not afraid to say that writers should be paid, for example, and then to write about the ensuing storm of comments. That is not a discussion for today, but if you want to read more, it’s here.

Today I want to talk about query writing, and how to hook a literary agent. Of course I don’t pretend this is the last word on queries, there are resources everywhere. This is what I gleaned from various sources and from Pitch Perfect, one of Kristen’s webinars I attended recently under the WANA banner. She runs regular courses aimed at getting writers skilled, published and noticed.

How to find an agent to query

Literary agents represent specific genres according to their personal taste. They take on a book they believe in, and sell that book to a traditional publisher to offer in bookshops and stores. They also sell rights to film, TV, translations and so on.

You want someone who likes the kind of thing you write. Do your research so you won’t end up sending gory horror to someone who likes cookbooks and cosy mysteries, or indeed vice versa. You and your agent will conduct a business relationship aimed at selling books and making money. It pays to find the person who will be the best fit for you and your story.

  • Acknowledgements sometimes mention the agent by name. Check in books that are similar to yours – in other words, comparative titles.
  • Attending conferences and festivals can yield contacts.
  • Twitter can be very useful for making connections with agents. Also try looking through hashtags such as #mswl (manuscript wish list) which details stories agents are looking for right now, or genre based such as #scifi or #romance. Not all agents are very active on twitter, but it offers a chance to interact and importantly, to see how people behave online.
  • Google can be your friend here. Searching manuscript wish list + genre + agents will yield more options to look at.
  • Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook (UK) and Writers’ Market (USA) are very useful resources for everything to do with writing, including searchable databases and physical directories which are updated annually.

Which agents to query

Your agent will be getting 15% of your earnings, typically, so you want to be sure they are adding value. Check their websites to see what they have sold recently, who their other clients are, and so on. Remember that most of their energy will be spent on servicing existing clients. That said, everyone wants the next bestselling author. The new agent looking to build their list might have more time for you than JK Rowling’s agent.

Draw up a long list, and send queries out in batches of 10-12. They need to go in groups, it can take some time to get a reply so sending them singly takes far too long. If two (or more!) agents want to read more of your work after seeing the sample pages, you can always grant one exclusive reading for say, two weeks. Then they need to decide or you can move on to the next prospect.

What to write in your query

First read the submission guidelines. Let’s say that again.

First read the submission guidelines. Then follow them exactly.

Every agent has a slightly different preference. You look this up on their website, and you do not deviate. This is no time to show your creativity, you need to show that you can follow instructions. The agent or assistant has hundreds of these emails to read. They’re looking for a reason to say no and make the job easier. Tough, eh? But that’s how it is. Not dissimilar to making a job application, you need to demonstrate a professional approach. Reading and understanding instructions is a basic skill.

Everything is pasted into the email. Nobody will open an attachment. That’s the quickest way to viruses, the modern-day equivalent of the plague.

question-mark_qimono
qimono via pixabay

The query itself

The query is brief, no more than one page. Write in Word or your preferred program, and trim until it fits. Four paragraphs should cover it.

  1. Greet the agent by name.
    If unsure of gender, avoid titles and use the whole name eg Dear Sam Smith. This is a formal letter to a stranger, so unless you know them well, no first name terms. State your connection if applicable, eg met them at a conference, referral from a mutual contact, conversed on Twitter. Otherwise state how you found them eg from manuscript wish list, represented similar books, or anything else.
  2. Write about the book.
    “TITLE is a (genre) novel complete at (word count).”
    If you have a comparative title, mention that here, “in the style of (title)”. Don’t be overambitious and mention a mega-selling book. Just a current best-seller will do.
    Summarise the story, beginning with your log line. This is intended to whet their appetite to read more, it should sound like back cover blurb. It is not a full synopsis, that comes later.
  3. Author biography goes here.
    Keep this simple and on topic. Any writing credentials such as an MFA, and any publishing credits or competition wins belong in this section. Personal details such as age, job, how long you’ve been writing, are irrelevant until you meet your agent. The exception is where your thriller is set on an oil rig and you worked in the business for fifteen years, for example. That’s relevant.

    No credentials? Just state you’re a writer living in X, you write Y genre, and you’re currently working on Z. Don’t apologise for it. Absolutely every writer started with nothing to their name.

  4. Thank you for your time.
    Agents read constantly. Between meetings, while commuting, in the evenings. They have lives just like us, and they love good books, and they don’t get a penny until you do. A thank you is basic good manners, and rude people are remembered for the wrong reasons. Don’t be that person.

Below this, you paste the sample pages or chapters as per the submission guidelines (check them again). And below that, a one page synopsis. This is the one time Kristen suggests going off-menu.

I’ll cover the theory and practice of the log line and synopsis next time.

blog, writing process

All writing is #writing

wolf_cornfreak
Cornfreak via pixabay

I’m working on something new right now, a long form story that might run over 10K words. It’s flowing very well, and I’m writing to a mental outline  (because I’m really bad at writing them down).

What’s the problem, you ask? It isn’t my primary WIP.

I signed up for a course to help me plot that WIP like a pro, and then write it efficiently. Sadly, I am struggling with the step-by-step approach that is absolutely guaranteed to work. Except when it doesn’t.

Because the plotting isn’t working, my WIP has ground to a halt. In contrast to writing the shiny new story, I found myself blocked, struggling to regain that easy sense of creation. Meantime, I have written a few short stories for the writers’ group. But the more I struggle to fit into a particular way of doing things, the more constrained I feel. It’s like wearing blinkers inside a box. I can’t see which way to go, and straight ahead isn’t working.

Plotters vs. Pantsers

We are often advised, if we want to grow in skills and as humans, to challenge ourselves. I am all for this. So as a confirmed pantser, I am trying to learn the art of plotting. Currently, this is not going well. But – I am still writing. During the writing and re-writing of my first novel, taking time away to work on another short project had many benefits.

  • A sense of achievement from finishing shorter pieces
  • A rest from story problems
  • During which I gave my brain a chance to come up with answers
  • Returning to the main WIP refreshed and with new ideas

It’s all material

I found the picture above at random. I chose it for this post not because it’s immediately useful, but because I like clouds and mist, and it suggests a story, . It’s beautiful, and therein lies its utility. Inspiration cannot always be harnessed to a particular vehicle. Like a wayward horse, sometimes creativity needs to have its head and explore the meadow. Afterwards, it is more amenable to direction.

If I think I have writer’s block, it is a sign that I am trying to force myself in the wrong direction. Time to check out another path and keep going, because all writing is #writing.

Keep writing, no matter what you’re writing.