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. Ann Rule
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.
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. Paul Gallico
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.
If you’re a creative, you’ll face a lot of rejection. Your pitch, query, design or article will be politely turned down, or worse, ignored altogether. You’re hardwired to remember the negative more than the positive. But you go on because nobody has a perfect hit rate, right?
You try again, and again.
One day, another rejection is the final straw. You’ve been slaving away to make your work the best it can be, and you just can’t take any more. You stop working.
Each no makes you feel like an egg dropped on the floor. And this time, you shatter so badly that you can’t put yourself back together again. You know mindless distractions don’t help, but you numb the feelings with food or alcohol or endless scrolling anyway.
What are you going to do now?
Never Too Big To Fail
The reality is: sometimes you lose. And you’re never too good to lose. You’re never too big to lose. You’re never too smart to lose. It happens. Beyoncé Knowles
Nobody succeeds all the time. When we see the hits, it’s easy to forget all the misses. And we never see all the pieces that didn’t make it into the public eye.
You are not your work.
You’ve put time and effort and maybe a part of yourself into your work, but it isn’t you. A rejection of your work doesn’t pass judgement on you as a person or your overall skill as a creative.
Separate your work from your self-esteem and reframe the loss. Maybe the piece wasn’t a good fit, or it was the fifth similar piece that month, or it was overlooked. None of that has anything to do with you. Remember opinion is subjective and what’s wrong for one person is just right for another.
Have a mourning period if you need it and then move on to action.
Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently. Henry Ford
The quality of the piece is something that is entirely within your control. Feedback on rejected work is uncommon but take it if offered. It’s time to review and rework your piece.
Could it be better? The answer is almost always yes. Look at it with new eyes, or pretend it belongs to someone else. When in doubt, cut the beginning. It might work better without it, or with a new opening.
Learn to self-edit ruthlessly and polish your work to show its best features. When you believe it can’t be improved further, you’re ready for the next step.
A New Home
Have you had a failure or rejection? You could get bitter. That’s one way to deal with it. Or…you could just get BETTER. What do you think? Destiny Booze
Take your shiny piece and resubmit elsewhere. If you want to be published in a journal, you have to contend with a very low acceptance rate.
Let’s say your journal of choice publishes four pieces by new writers four times a year. Only sixteen of the hundreds or perhaps thousands of pieces they receive will make it. The same goes for contests.
The odds are against you so you’ll have to play more games to increase your chance of winning. A tiny proportion of players become winners, but that doesn’t mean that the rest have no merit.
Alternatively, bypass the gatekeepers completely. You have the freedom to publish whatever you choose on sites such as Medium, Wattpad, or your own blog.
Believe in your work and search for a better home.
So you sent your story out to do battle elsewhere, or maybe you concluded it wasn’t in fact good enough. Your next step is to regroup and renew.
Look around for the next opportunity — a contest or publication. Use prompts. Or indulge and write something just for yourself. Make something new and make it great. Setting a deadline forces completion.
A portfolio of completed pieces boosts your confidence and drives improvement in your skills. No words are wasted whether they are made public or not.
Do you keep an ideas file? If not, start one. Capture them all in one place, whether digital like Evernote or the notes function on your phone, or an old-school notebook. When you don’t know what to write, pick an idea and write without judgement.
Don’t be derailed by perfectionism. Your inner editor will whisper, “That last piece bombed, what makes you think this will do any better?” Ignore it. Your job is simply to write.
Spew out a messy first draft and keep going till you reach the end. You can’t edit an empty page.
Your ability to adapt to failure, and navigate your way out of it, absolutely 100 percent makes you who you are. Viola Davis
What’s the real meaning of rejection?
It means you succeeded in facing the world. You took a chance on your own abilities and risked the pain of failure. Rejection is a lesson. It asks, “How much do you want this success, and what price are you prepared to pay?”
There’s no shame in giving up a dream, as long as you don’t give up on dreaming altogether. There’s no shame in failure, as long as you use it to fuel your work.
Every five or ten rejections, reward yourself for effort. It’s painful and you deserve to ease that pain, even if you accept it’s necessary for your growth. We all know the Beatles, Ernest Hemingway, and JK Rowling faced rejection before they found success. But it’s still hard when it happens to you.
Nobody bats a thousand. But winners keep swinging until they hit that home run, and then they keep going. Athletes who didn’t make the winners’ podium carry on eating clean and logging training hours so they can beat their personal best and win next time.
To make rejection work for you,
Reframe the loss
Review and rework it
Regroup and renew your efforts
Reward your bravery
Rejection is unavoidable, but you can work through it. Success is waiting, so keep writing.
A rejection is nothing more than a necessary step in the pursuit of success. Bo Bennett
You want views, and reads, and fans for your writing. We all do. You’ve been posting for a while now, but not seeing the results you want.
You’re not too discouraged yet, but you definitely feel like there’s something missing, and if you could only find out what to change you could move forward.
Perhaps you’ve fallen into the trap of believing that if you build it, the readers will come. That depends on what you build and who you hope to attract.
Getting readers to come, stay awhile and return isn’t easy, no matter what the latest guru might say. And if they don’t come, the swamp of suck will get you.
If you can’t build and keep momentum, loss of motivation will soon follow. Like running headlong into quicksand, discouragement slows you down and pulls you under. Avoid that by making your writing more engaging, regardless of subject.
Make Them An Offer They Can’t Refuse
The purpose of the headlines must be to convey a message to people who read headlines, then decide whether or not they will look at the copy. John Caples
The headline is your shop window. The world is a noisy place and you have to work hard to catch readers. That might mean tricking people into looking your way; lure them with the candy of an eye-catching banner, then feed them the wholesome food of your content.
It’s fashionable to sneer at so-called clickbait headlines that so often lead to worthless content. But looking at their structure can teach you what attracts attention. Then you can get your good content in front of more people.
Your potential reader will make a decision to stop and read or scroll on based on the offer in the headline. Copywriters and advertising have a lot to teach writers about headlines. We often spend little time on them, but they are as important as the content. If the reader doesn’t stop, he can’t be persuaded by our words.
Sell the benefit of your piece. Mention the value or learning that readers will get from reading, and then deliver. There is one reason that “How To” headlines and lists are so frequently used; they work. They draw people in.
The CoSchedule headline analyzer is a free to use resource that scores headlines based on an extensive database. The results can be counter-intuitive, especially for writers used to crafting beautiful prose. Save intrigue and wordplay for later. The headline has a job to do, and it has to be effective, not beautiful.
This example shows different versions of the same idea. The very simple headline scores best, showing the power of “How To” even though for me it’s not the most attractive.
Better writing is one step away = 63/100
You can become a better writer = 67/100
You can become a better writer now = 71/100
How to get better at writing =78/100
Write and analyse several versions of your headline. It’s hard but you’ll learn what actually makes a better headline, rather than what you think is better.
How Hard Can It Be?
So you’ve got your reader hooked. She’s looking forward to learning something or being entertained. But instead, she clicks away because your piece isn’t readable. Don’t let her go.
Hit the Wall
Few things are more off-putting than a wall of unbroken text on a screen. The words go on and on without end, and there’s nowhere to pause.
We need more white space on a screen, which allows our eyes to rest. Break up the prose. Have one idea to a sentence and two to three sentences to a paragraph. Don’t be afraid to have many short paragraphs, it makes the text more readable.
Important sentences can have a paragraph of their own to make them stand out.
The Long and the Short Of It
It’s vital that you target your writing at the right level for your readers.
Reading age refers to the ability of an average child of a given age to read and understand a piece of writing. Most people prefer to read for pleasure at least two years lower than their educational level. The average reading age in the US is 12 years. For comparison, the reading age of popular media is as follows.
The Sun, UK tabloid7-8 years
Harry Potter novels 12-13 years
Stephen King novels12 years
Reader’s Digest12 years
You might be a true logophile, but most readers want to see words they understand without reference to a dictionary. In most cases, use simpler words and sentences, and keep paragraphs short. Avoid jargon unless it’s essential, and explain the meaning of unfamiliar words the first time you use them.
Keep It Moving
Academic and business writing are notorious for being stodgy and dull. The writing often uses passive voice, which has a distant, formal effect. Active voice makes your writing more immediate and informal, which keeps readers moving down the page.
Modern writers dislike passive voice.(active) Passive voice is disliked by modern writers. (passive)
Instead of a generic noun such as “writers” try using “you” and “your”.
Address your reader directly when possible so they can identify with your point.
Avoid this Trap
Beware of purely emotional outpourings. Keep laments and angry rants in your journal. It’s cathartic but comes across as self-absorbed unless you make a point that’s relevant to your reader.
I recently unfollowed a writer who is angry. All the time. About everything they see with no end in sight. I share many of their concerns, but I wish they’d provide solutions for dealing with those issues.
Use your emotion as a starting point to help others deal with shared themes. Tell your story briefly then move on to how you dealt with it and your reader can too. Give alternatives, do your research, and avoid insulting language. There’s too much of that in any comments section already.
Put Meat on the Bones
So your headline drew the reader in. Your piece is well crafted. But is it compelling? Your content needs to solve a problem for your reader; it should inform, instruct, or entertain.
Here’s where you deliver on the promise of your headline. Ask yourself who your readers are and what problems they have. Make sure your piece answers their question or tells a great story.
If you posed a question, answer it. If you offered solutions, explain them. If you promised information, give it and make sure that it is something worth the time spent reading. Each item on your list won’t appeal equally to everyone, but there should be a take-away of value to a broad range of people.
Much has been written about “voice”, that elusive quality that makes a piece unique to its author. A good place to start finding your voice is writing as you speak, as though your reader is sitting next to you with a cup of coffee listening to every word.
Be conversational and friendly, and you’ll avoid business-speak.
Success isn’t always about greatness. It’s about consistency. Consistent hard work leads to success. Greatness will come. Dwayne Johnson
After all that hard work you might want to rest and admire your words. Instead you have to do it all over again. Building an audience is never a matter of one viral post. You need a body of work and you need to give your audience what they want.
Showing up, over and over, is much easier said than done. That’s why so many people fall by the wayside. It’s a long slog with little reward in the beginning, and as soon as you finish one post you have to make another. Whether the deadlines are external or self-imposed, they are an endless treadmill.
Some days you’ll feel exhausted and want to stop. But if you stop, you can’t win. So you have to carry on. Slow down if you must. Keep moving.
Remind yourself why you started. Celebrate your wins, however small. List your posts and remember when you had none. Remind yourself how far you’ve come.
Stick to your subject, at least until you have earned the trust of your readers by delivering consistently. Decide on a schedule and stick to it. Actions mean everything. The people you enticed in with a headline and who stayed to read your content want more from you. Build a portfolio and keep adding to it.
You cannot know which post will make your name. All you can do is do good work, over and over, and share it with the world. It’s as easy, and as hard, as that.
Walk That Talk
An ounce of action is worth a ton of theory. Karl Marx
How is it that so many self-help and advice books are bought and yet we remain overweight, unfit, unhappy and unfulfilled? The disconnect between reading and nodding sagely, and actually following the steps given is huge. Your success lies in closing that gap. I know because I have lived the same struggle.
Recently I felt discouraged about my work. I was putting in more effort but not yet seeing results. Knowing that this dip was going to happen didn’t make it any easier to deal with.
I leaned into my discontent. I studied harder, learned more and then put what I learned into practice. I followed advice, both my own and others who’ve trodden this path.
The result: more fans for one piece in 5 days than in the previous four weeks combined.
I wrote more, learned about exponential growth and encouraged myself. In addition, each published piece gives another opportunity to connect with people through the comments. Hearing that my words helped someone else is the reward that lifted my mood and got me working again.
Elite sportspeople know about marginal gains. Even a world champion can improve, but it’s a result of multiple tiny tweaks rather than one major change in routine. True champions push their personal best by optimising all the subroutines that make up their whole practice.
Let go of what you think works. Experiment with another way of doing things and adjust according to the result. It will be uncomfortable until you’ve repeated it so many times that it’s second nature.
You’re good enough and you can be better.
Take both of these ideas on board and decide what you’re willing to try today. I’m rooting for us.
Got a comment or suggestion? Drop it in the box below.
They say that everyone has a novel inside them. Maybe you know someone who is hard at work on theirs. You read their comments online or chat with them at an event. They tell you they’ve been working on it for a while. “How long?” you ask. They tell you it’s been several years so far. These perfectionists have laboured over this one piece for five, seven, ten years. And they don’t know when it will be finished.
Or maybe it’s your work that has limped on forever. You’re stuck because you can’t figure out the right style of the gowns in your Imperial court, or your research on spring weather patterns in Kansas has led down increasingly arcane corridors.
You’ll publish or submit, someday. But it’s not perfect yet. And so your great work sits on your hard drive and the world never sees it.
What Are You Afraid Of?
Perfectionists are often procrastinators. You believe if a thing’s worth doing, it must be done properly and nothing less will do. So you either rework and edit endlessly, or you don’t even start because you can never get it absolutely right. And you can’t edit an empty page.
You conceal these feelings behind strong psychological defences and sublimate them into pointless activity. But research isn’t writing. At some level, you know that and you’re disappointed with yourself.
At the heart of perfectionism is fear.
Fear of failure.
Fear of success, because then you have to do it again, leading back to fear of failure.
To overcome perfectionism, you need to understand your fear and master it. Courage is not the absence of fear, it is action despite feeling fear. Courage is taking a deep breath and doing it anyway because your desire for something is greater than the fear of what might happen.
If you never challenge yourself to move past fear, you cannot improve or grow. Everything you really want is outside of your comfort zone.
In order to step out there and thrive, you’ll need to let some ideas go and embrace new thinking. We’ll look at how to do this next.
Everybody sucks and nobody cares
Fear is a basic emotion that we all understand. You fear humiliation and ridicule for getting something wrong. Perhaps you replay some old memory of being laughed at for a minor error, and that underlies your current avoidant behaviour.
Here are two reasons why you should leave that in the past where it belongs.
Everybody sucks in the beginning. Every author, actor, artist, or sports person you admire now was once terrible at their chosen discipline. They wrote awful prose, missed more shots than they scored, and forgot their lines on stage. But they carried on and used those early failures to improve over time. Nobody has a perfect score overall.
People aren’t actually watching that closely. They are as consumed by their inner lives as you are by yours. Even if they look your way, they forget you the next moment as their own drama takes over. Though you might feel as though everyone is looking at you, they’re really not. In psychology, this is known as the spotlight effect. Knowing about the spotlight effect is liberating. It frees you to do whatever you need to do without the pressure of a supposed audience.
Act like a baby
Babies are the world’s fastest learners. From zero, they learn to feed, walk, talk, and live in a social unit, all within two years. They achieve this not by being perfect, but the opposite. They stumble, fall, stand up again.
They babble nonsense and parrot speech without understanding at first. Eventually, they achieve a level of competence that allows them to run, jump, and sing a nursery rhyme.
They do not beat themselves up because they can’t yet recite Shakespeare. They simply chatter and listen to adults when corrected. Each time they repeat, they’re closer to the goal of intelligible speech.
You learned to speak, walk, and countless other complex skills in the same way. If you had waited to speak until you were perfect, you would not have uttered a word for years.
Cultivate a beginner’s mind. Understand that supposed errors are signposts back to the right path, and you’re much less fearful of your results. Judge not against some unattainable level of perfection, but against where you were last time you tried.
You already know how to learn and improve. Adjust your aim, and try again.
Less is not more
While you’re slaving over one meticulously crafted blog post, searching tirelessly for exactly the right image and quote, I’m ramping up my output. One post every Friday was my first goal. Having reached that goal and with over 200 posts under my belt, now I’m aiming to post two or three articles every week. I don’t have time to agonise endlessly over a picture.
Oh, you say, but you prefer quality over quantity. People repeat this justification for low output as if it were gospel truth. It’s completely wrong.
Quantity leads to quality
In an experiment, students in a ceramics class were split into two groups. One group was told that they could get an A by turning in one perfect piece. The other group was told that they would be graded solely on the total weight of pieces produced, of any quality.
The results were surprising. The second group produced a large number of extremely good pieces. They were freed from the constraints of perfection and given free rein to experiment without being penalised. I’d bet money they were happier with their work too.
Repeated practice increased their skills and confidence. They weren’t paralysed by over-analysis or worried about criticism. They did not fear the impossibility of lightning striking twice, because they knew how to create a storm. They were able to replicate good work because they understood what went into making it.
Imagine if Dali had refused to let anyone see his paintings, or if Michelangelo had obsessively chipped away at and repolished his David. How much poorer we would be! Remember also that an artist’s most famous works comprise only a fraction of their total output.
Writers learn more from finishing one story than from starting and abandoning ten. You’ll learn where you wrote yourself into a corner, and how to figure your way out. You’ll learn how many plots you can juggle. You’ll learn what makes a good ending. And eventually, you’ll join up all those skills and move from conscious competence to unconscious competence.
In other words, you will master your craft and spend more effort on deciding where to put the ball than how to kick it.
At some point, you have to declare a thing finished and let it go. The more refined your skill, the harder it is. You always feel there is just one more thing you could improve upon.
Let it go. Ship it. Publish, submit, and move on to the next thing. That’s the secret; always have a next thing. Each piece becomes a little less precious when it forms a smaller part of your portfolio. You may still have your favourites and the ones you shrug over, but the totality is what matters.
Confidence comes from improvement. You know that you can make another piece, and it might be even better than the last. And if it’s not, that’s okay too.
That is true creative freedom.
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Writing groups offer a social counterpoint to the solitary business of writing. Joining a group is neither necessary nor sufficient for becoming a writer, but the benefits of belonging include mutual support, sharing advice and information, and opportunities for getting published.
You can also access critique and reviews in some writing groups.
I am a member of one real life and three online groups. Through these groups, I get out of the house regularly, cheer on my peers, and commiserate over problems in writing and life. Crucially, I write more than I would on my own. I write for meetings, for competitions, and for anthologies.
Because of these groups, I’m a published author in four anthologies with more to come. I’ve learned about self-publishing, editing, making ebooks, book launches and more.
Most of all, I have networks; people who are geographically dispersed but come together to read each other’s work and spread the word about all our work. It’s good karma in action.
Membership of an organisation is good, as long as you can make yourself heard. Mahathir Mohamad
Crucially, being part of a writing group makes it more likely that you will show up. We often find it easier to keep commitments we make to others. This is the basis of many group activities that can be done alone such as exercise or weight loss. Whether it is guilt or wanting to be seen as a good person that motivates us, external promises are more likely to be honoured.
At their best, groups provide a way to discuss your craft with people who can become friends. Other writers get the struggle of finding words, changing words, and chasing elusive words. Another writer might have the nugget of advice you need to get your stalled WIP working again.
Since many writers are introverts, a group provides a social outlet without the horror of small talk. You already have a shared interest to discuss. And if real life interaction is too much to bear or not possible, online groups are a great alternative.
Think big or small?
The web is full of online writing communities. They can be centred on the works of a single author or genre, or be more diverse. Often they have subgroups devoted to specific topics, and they collect together useful resources for reference.
Facebook (FB) is a great resource for writing groups. You’ll find thousands of groups with every kind of focus you can think of. Some groups are geographic, which is great if you’re looking for something local that offers opportunities for face to face interaction. Many groups are based on genre; romance or crime or thriller writers join to talk about their niche. Still, others are based on the qualities of their members, such as freelance, terrified, or female writers.
Some of the largest FB writing groups are open to all. The upsides include a diversity of membership and subject matter, a huge store of collective knowledge, and lots of activity. You might like the relative anonymity. The downsides are related to size as well. It’s easy to become overwhelmed with notifications, alienated by a feeling of insignificance, and not feeling welcomed.
Smaller groups can be more welcoming. You will be more visible, which as always can be a good or a bad thing. You can get involved to a greater degree if that’s what you want. Accountability is greater in a small group, where you’re making commitments to individuals rather than a faceless crowd. On the other hand, any failure to honour commitments is obvious, although explaining why is often easier when you have a stronger connection.
Of course, smaller groups can easily be overtaken by strong personalities. Most of us have experienced this in other groups we’ve been part of; families, friend groups, work teams. This is where the dark side of groups rears its ugly head.
The Four Horsemen of the Writing Group Apocalypse
We’re only human, and writing groups reflect that as much as any other. You might gain a writing friend for life, or you might find yourself trapped in a room with someone you’d normally cross the road to avoid. Here are four examples.
Colin is always right. His eagle eye spots every typo, hanging participle and use of passive voice. He’s a whizz at seeing weak characters and plot holes. Because he’s always right, he rebuffs any and all criticisms of his own work. He is generous with his critique, all of it negative, and tells you what you should do to fix things.
Sometimes Colin simply declares that the piece didn’t work, folds his arms and sits back, judging silently. Colin is writing Literature. He despises genre fiction.
Alice gives you the gift of her presence at every meeting. You’re truly fortunate to have her, as she is really a bit too advanced and/or successful for the group. Alice may be traditionally published, or she may have self-published before the other members of the group. She may have won a prize or know a famous author slightly.
Either way, she is faintly condescending and never misses a chance to remind you of her greater accomplishments. She is an Author, not a mere scribbler.
Linda wants to write, really she does, but life conspires against her. She fails to give her apologies and attends less than half of the scheduled meetings. She either brings nothing or an incomplete 500-word first draft that doesn’t make sense. Linda has fewer domestic responsibilities than you, but she still can’t find the time to write.
At coffee break, she regales you with the long story of how she didn’t write anything this month because she was Busy. When it is her turn to set the group challenge, she has nothing prepared. She does not complete her own challenge.
Brian wears blinkers which shield him from anything he doesn’t want to see. He is loud and talks over others. He attacks writers, especially quieter ones, for errors he commits himself. He strays from the point to keep discussion where he wants it; on his opinions or his work.
His work may have merit but he resists any constructive criticism that could improve it. He passionately argues some detail because unlike others, he Cares about his work. He doesn’t recognise social cues such as checking a watch, sighing, or impending tears. He will pursue you at coffee time to discuss the finer points of something or other that you don’t care about.
Who hasn’t been in a group that’s being derailed by one or other of these characters?
You could always walk away, but if you’d prefer to stay in the group you need to know how to handle the horsemen without going crazy.
Tactics for survival
If you’re fortunate, the chair will keep the meeting flowing and focused on the point in hand.
If not, there are things you can do.
Critical Colin may make good points with his eye for detail. Look beyond your emotional response to see if you can take the positive from his negative feedback. Be respectful when you give your critique, and remember he might just take it on board – outside the meeting.
Arrogant Alice may have useful information. If she’s ahead of you on the curve, picking her brains will flatter her ego and help you.
Lazy Linda may need your help. Casual discussion of how you find time to write, or general time management tips could be the nudge she needs to move from aspiring to actual writer. Keep it friendly, no matter how irritated you feel by her flakiness.
Blind Brian is a challenge. It could be personality, lack of empathy, or lack of social skills that informs his behaviour. The chair is the best person to nudge him back on track. Sometimes a quiet word in private will be needed, but this is risky with someone who may lack self-awareness. On the other hand, he can’t know how he appears to others unless told.
The problem is that the group relationship may not be strong enough to withstand this personal feedback, therefore no-one wants to take it on. He may be avoided by everyone, which is sad but it isn’t your job to solve his social issues.
Finding your tribe
Survival has always been about finding your tribe. It’s possible to go it alone successfully, but why make things harder than they need to be?
First, lurk around online writing groups. Lurking means hiding in the shadows observing without interacting. It’s a good way to see if online groups are right for you. Google, as always, is your friend. Here’s a list of recommended writing groups to get you started. Have a look around, see what feels right for you and your goals.
Facebook (FB) is different because you have to join, and then most groups are private so non-members can’t view their activity. However, you can look at the descriptions and request to join. You’re under no obligation to stay in any group. If it’s not for you, move on.
I joined FB two years ago purely to be a part of a large writing group. That led to the formation of a splinter group. We felt lost as the original group grew, and now we have around twenty members, all by invitation only. The strength of FB is the ability to create groups, and if you don’t find what you want you can make your own.
Size doesn’t determine effectiveness. My small group just published the first of four planned anthologies, and it feels great to be involved and significant. I am still a member of the large group. Different groups fill different needs. Try this list of Facebook writing groups to get you started.
It’s not in numbers but in unity that our greatest strength lies. Thomas Paine
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Finding writing success can be like prospecting for gold.
You know it’s out there, somewhere, but you’re not finding it no matter how hard you dig. You see others strike it big and assume they’re luckier or got a bigger shovel.
You could have the perfect tools and focus on your goals, but it won’t matter if you’re digging in the wrong place.
People may spend their whole lives climbing the ladder of success only to find, once they reach the top, that the ladder is leaning against the wrong wall. Thomas Merton
The Double-Edged Sword of Focus
You work hard, eliminate distractions, and focus on one thing at a time.This can be good and bad at the same time.
Take gold prospecting. Digging a one hundred foot mine shaft will keep you busy, whether the gold lies there or not. If there isn’t any gold, your work will be in vain.
The same can be said for your writing.
How will you find out where to place your efforts?
You need to go wide and then deep.
Trying new areas is the only way to know if a better prospect is out there for you.
The gold miners need to survey whole landscape first. They go wide. The surveyors dig exploratory mines in promising spots. They only go deep when there’s a good chance of reward for their efforts, because they have to process a lot of ore to find nuggets of gold.
Then they study the landscape to learn the signs that tell them there’s gold further down, which makes it easier to spot next time.
For example, I wrote an article last year about being let down by a friend. It was more popular than anything I’d written up to that point.
Friends shared it and reached out to me on Twitter. It wasn’t viral, but it was a little gold strike. Once I got over being amazed, I studied it to see how it differed from previous pieces and came up with the following points.
Readers like emotional stories
Universal theme of betrayal
Conversational style — written as a letter
Shared to social media on a ‘quiet’ day
Title alluded to Facebook
Friend shared it on her Facebook feed
Cross posted in several places — blog, Medium, Twitter
Performed best on Medium
So now I have some pointers to what might do well, and where. I can choose to add the personal, and decide on the writing style to use next time. I won’t expect huge response from my blog, but there are other reasons to post there.
The other lesson is that it’s impossible to predict what will do well and where. Spread your net wide.
Perhaps you’re comfortable doing what you do now. You don’t want to progress or grow as a writer and person. That’s fine. Challenge isn’t for everyone, and there are times in every life where the challenge is survival, pure and simple.
But you’re reading this because you want to do more. You want to achieve your potential, though you’re unsure what that might look like.
That means leaving comfort behind, even if very briefly, and doing something new. Then assess the result and course correct. Let’s see what that looks like for a writer.
Try a new fishing ground
Writing divides into three very broad categories.
Writing fiction teaches imagination, how to move a story along, and how to tell the truth by hiding it inside a story.
Writing poetry teaches focus on emotions, how to condense expression, how to convey concepts in word pictures that show the world in a new light.
Writing non-fiction teaches structure, clarity of expression, how to make an argument, how to persuade and inform.
The best pieces include elements from more than one discipline. That breadth of expression appeals to more of our senses and emotions, therefore affects us more. We write to change how people feel, so having more tools leads to better engagement with our audience.
Crossing the boundaries could look like this.
Poetry plus non-fiction elements:
Structured poetry forms like sonnet, villanelle, tanka
Polemic — a poem with a strongly stated point of view
Fiction plus non-fiction elements:
Tightly plotted fiction
Historical fiction with strong research base
Fiction plus poetry elements:
Lyrical writing style
Highly descriptive but concise style
Non-fiction plus poetry elements
Descriptive travel writing
Learn new ways to tell your story, blur the boundaries. Take what you learn back to your chosen field and play with it.
In your own field, try a different corner.
If you always write free poetry, use a recognised form like a sonnet. If you write technical pieces, write a think piece on your industry or an interview with a leader in the field. Horror and romance writers, switch genres.
Your next piece will benefit from taking another viewpoint.
Wave a flag and get noticed
This is a great time to be a writer. Gatekeepers still exist for traditional publishing, but it’s never been easier to choose yourself and get your words out there. That inevitably leads to a crowded marketplace, but there are ways to stand out.
Enter a competition
In a world of almost limitless choices, recommendations count for a lot. That’s why star ratings are so powerful. Winning a competition, even getting shortlisted in one, can be the start of new opportunities. A win says you can be trusted to tell a story.
In 2017 I won first place in an international short story contest. I’d missed the deadline for another contest, and entered the HE Bates Short Story Competition at the last minute. The boost this gave my writing career and confidence continues even now. It’s a fine addition to my writing CV.
The win raised my profile among friends and family, some of whom took my writing seriously for the first time. The story was published in a local lifestyle magazine.
I now write a monthly story for them and continue to build my portfolio. Because people know I write, some came forward in response to a Facebook request for early reviewers of an anthology.
It’s a virtuous circle in which success opens doors and changes attitudes, not least my own. And I bought some very fancy noise cancelling headphones with the prize money.
Competitions exist for every kind of writing and writer and are held year-round. Writing magazines are good sources of information, and you can google by type.
The cost of entry varies but many are free to enter so you can try without financial barriers. There is no reason to pass on this chance for recognition and validation.
Start a blog
Starting a blog is easier than ever, and can be low or even no cost. While it’s hard to drive traffic to a blog, it’s also a place for you to do whatever you want, to experiment, and to start gathering fans.
You can showcase your writing, give advice on any subject, maybe even earn money eventually.
If you’re querying agents for traditional publishing, they will expect to see samples of your work if they Google you.
Your blog or website is the place to assemble your portfolio. Aim for consistent, quality work rather than lots of rushed pieces.
Medium is one of the best places to expand your writing career. You can write for yourself, or for publications boasting thousands of followers.
In fact, you should do both and spread your net wider. Look around and see where you could fit in. Try Smedian, a site that gathers useful information on publications plus links to joining them as a writer.
Submit to magazines
Some magazines are online only while others have a print version as well. The website will have guidelines on what the editor is looking for and how to submit. Both fiction and non-fiction are wanted and all editors need good content every month.
If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.
Writing is a solitary occupation but sometimes it’s helpful to share the journey. Other writers understand the challenges and can be supportive, sharing ideas and information. Writing magazines host online forums where feedback and advice is given.
Many online groups exist, often run through Facebook. Real life groups get you out of the chair and offer social interaction.
Some groups run their own contests and publish anthologies of members’ work. Again a google search should give some options local to you.
Be prepared to stick with a group for a while to see if it’s a good fit with you and your aspirations.
Groups reflect life and can be breeding grounds for negative interactions, so if you’re experiencing overbearing or overcritical personalities leave gracefully and look for another.
Try it now
Prompt: a person finds a key in the street. Now write about it in 500 words or less.
Non-fiction writers, write a poem of any form.
Fiction writers, write a factual piece.
Poets, write a short story.
Take the next step
You want to improve and get to the next level?
Challenge yourself to do something new and stretch your muscles. Then employ that new strength in a new area. You never know, your real calling might lie in a totally different place from where you are now.
Integral to improvement is the need for feedback. You only know what needs to change or improve by seeing what does or does not work.
For creatives it can come as one star reviews, lack of engagement, negative or offensive comments. You might be working with a mentor/tutor or in a group of your peers, and actively seeking comment in order to do better work.
Harness the pain of negative feedback
Writers crave good feedback. We want to hear how much readers loved our characters, plot and description. Positive feedback (I loved this!) feels good but isn’t enough on its own. Without constructive elements there can be no learning. Like dessert, it tastes better after eating your greens.
But we’re less keen on hearing negatives. Like broccoli or high fibre cereal, we know it’s good for us but it doesn’t taste good.
Negative feedback cuts to the heart of our self esteem. If we are too closely identified with our work (writing is my life rather than writing is something I do) we feel that a criticism of our work is a criticism of our core self. Then we must defend ourselves by attacking either the critic or ourselves. Both of these options are painful, therefore we avoid them.
Reviews and comments are an accepted part of life. The only way to avoid them is never showing your work. Fighters work with a sparring partner to build up strength and improve skills. Writers can ask for help from a trusted source. Each time someone points out a defect is an opportunity to learn and do better next time. We must learn to take feedback on the chin and come out fighting with our self-esteem intact.
There are ways to make feedback both palatable and useful, whether it was invited or not.
Constructive or destructive criticism — know the difference
Constructive critique is aimed at the work. It is factual. It focuses on objective measures using rational language.
Destructive critique is aimed at the creator. It is opinion given in emotive language. It may not be relevant to the work at hand. It is personal.
What does a constructive critique look like?
Timely — ideally given soon after the event
Focused — limited to one or two points
Objective — factual, uses respectful language
Specific — gives examples
Actionable — suggests targeted remedies
Poor critique: What complete rubbish. I didn’t get it. You’re useless, my child could write better.
Good critique: I enjoyed the story but found this hard to read. The sentences and paragraphs were very long and it looked like a solid wall of text.
Consider having one idea per sentence and three sentences per paragraph. That will give more white space on the screen, which is easier to read.
The first example is pure negative opinion and offers no useful insight.
The second example avoids insults and emotive language, and suggests remedies.
Whether you choose to take the advice depends on the source and the quality of the suggestion. But it gives you something to work with. The new version might work better or not suit your style. Either way you know more than before, and can make more informed choices in the next piece.
Take constructive feedback on the chin
Allow time for strong emotions to settle
Look for a kernel of truth, no matter how small or hard to accept
Consider the alternatives presented
Be open to trying another way, even if you reject it in the end
If you decide to maintain your current position, know why
Thank your critique partner for their time and attention
Not every comment deserves a response. Sometimes you just note it and move on. Remember you are in charge of your words. You don’t have to accept all of the critique, or make all suggested changes. However, review from another source can be invaluable in showing a reader’s view, which you as the author cannot experience.
Put up your guard against trolls
Endless negativity, especially if mixed with personal attack and vitriol, says more about the commenter than the work.
The internet is full of people whose comments consist of slurs and insults. Sometimes they start by being pleasant and complimentary, then if you respond they switch to attack. Being targeted by an online and probably anonymous bully is a painful and upsetting experience. The answer is simple; don’t feed the trolls.
Do not respond, do not engage in a flame war, do not stoop to their level. You risk hurting your brand among observers, as a reputation is hard to build but easy to destroy. And you open yourself to a stream of negative feelings that persist long after the encounter.
You can close comments, mute, block or unfollow, depending on the platform. Often silence is the best response.
Be open to discussion
A common response to critique is to become defensive or aggressive.
I worked all night on that and you don’t even give me any credit so what’s the point?
Well, what do you know anyway? I’ve got a postgraduate degree in X so I think I know what I’m talking about.
A good sparring partner exposes your weaker areas without attacking them outright. You wouldn’t spar when angry; it could turn into an ugly fight. It might take some time to process the emotional hit, so take a breath. Take in the comment and remember that you’re here to learn. Nobody is perfect. Everyone can improve.
Learn to love the pain
Exposing yourself to feedback more often is the best way to increase your tolerance of it. No creative is immune to the sinking feeling when they see just how many changes they need to make to a piece. You’re allowed to feel bad about it as long as you keep the end goal in mind. Constructive critique builds the strength to do better work.
You are not your work
You put something of yourself into your creation, but please separate your sense of self from the thing you made. Critique of your work does not lessen your worth as a person. When you truly accept this, critique is much easier to handle. You can always make another, better piece using what you’ve learned.
You are not your work.
Now it’s your turn
Everyone’s a critic and dishing out negative reviews is easy. Giving useful critique isn’t easy. Like all good teaching, producing insightful analysis and actionable suggestions is harder than it looks.
I invite you to try writing good critique, either on an older piece of your own writing or by swapping with someone else. The first and golden rule is be respectful. Sharpening your own critical faculties is essential if you’re serious about developing your writing skills.
When editing your work you’ll find words that crop up over and over, but add no value to the prose. These are crutch words and removing them will strengthen your prose.
When speaking, crutch words give us time to think. They’re used as filler or emphasis.
Filler words in speech
In writing we tend to use the same words and phrases repeatedly. They slow down or dilute what we’re trying to say. When writing dialogue, a few of these words give a natural feel. They should still be used sparingly, because written dialogue is natural speech, but polished.
You can use the ‘find’ function in a word processor, or use a printout and red pen, editor-style. Sometimes the word can be removed. Other times the sentence will need re-writing.
Like all editing rules, this is a guideline. You don’t need to remove every one of the words on the list. You’re looking at each instance critically and making a conscious decision to keep, change or cut. Some are adverbs, which as we know must be used with care.
• A bit
• As though
• Started to
• Began to
Don’t forget two little words that can often be cut without losing the meaning of the sentence.
You will find that taking out a proportion of the crutch words/phrases allows your writing to speak more directly. And that is the aim of every writer.
On being asked how he created his magnificent sculpture of David, Michelangelo is reputed to have said, “Simple. I cut away everything that wasn’t David.”
We live in an age of abundance. We expect a wide range of choices in all areas of our lives, whether choosing a tomato or a house or a college course. But who has not stood in front of a supermarket shelf, tired and hungry, overwhelmed by the range of choices presented?
The ability to choose is finite, no matter the size of the choice. Following the example of Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg, we can cut down the number to make each day by wearing the same clothes, for example. This leaves more brainpower to spend on the hustle that is your real focus.
More is not always better
Researchers have shown that too many choices can lead to less satisfaction. They divided people into maximizers – who need to investigate all possible choices, or as many as possible
and satisficers – who make a choice that best fits their needs, then stop looking.
These two styles are incompatible when shopping. The maximizer always wants to try one more store because the perfect item is out there. The satisficer has a definite idea in mind, but will buy an item that comes close to their ideal. Perhaps you can recall a shopping trip where you are one type and your companion is the other. It can be a miserable experience.
Maximizers also tend to rely on external sources of validation. Their car meets their needs but it must also be validated by a car comparison website. In an age of internet searches and five star ratings, it has never been easier to search endlessly for the perfect deal.
Come off the fence
Finding a suitable photo for a blog post is vital. The choice on sites such as Pixabay and Unsplash is truly mind-boggling. But time is short.
The trick is to set parameters for your search, especially if you tend to be a maximizer.
search key words such as couple or beach
consider narrowing the colour choices
decide on a number of pages to search; these do not have to be sequential
go with your gut feeling; the right image may be on page one
have a time limit
The filters above applied to Pixabay results in 379 images spread over four pages. Searching more sites simply takes time that is better spent writing.
Not set in stone
Learning to choose effectively is a key time management skill. For writers that might be a name, a picture, or a title. In fact most of these choices are not final, yet they can derail a writing session. Pick something and move on. Don’t let maximizing hide your procrastination. Remember done is better than perfect.
Characters have a life of their own — or they should. Most writers know the feeling of writing something that seemed to come from the mouth of their creation, bypassing the writer’s mind entirely. Or breathlessly chasing words and images that play like a film going at double speed, hoping that fingers can keep up.
You could call it flow. You could call it the Muse. You could call it a lucky break.
Reading this piece from Louise Foerster reminded me of a time when my characters deserted me.
My protagonist and antagonist were about to face off for the last time, but I didn’t know where and how. Protagonist didn’t want to do it, so naturally he was no help. “It’s not fair,” Protag grumbled. “Didn’t I beat this guy already? Wasn’t that enough?”
The novel ground to a halt. In line with my less is more approach to worldbuilding, I don’t complete huge lists of traits for my characters. Much more important than their childhood pet or favourite colour, their personalities and choices are my focus. No short cuts there.
I was stuck.
Interview with the Bad Guy
Protag sulked. Antagonist stared out of the window, eyes fixed on a future only he could see. I decided to take a risk.
“Um, Antagonist? How are you going to win this once and for all? Why will you win?”
He turned his gaze towards me. “I am better and I am right.”
He explained himself fully and precisely, without emotion because that’s his character. It was the infamous villain’s monologue of so many movies and comic books, but before the battleground had even been decided.
I let him speak. I took notes (longhand works better for this kind of exercise.) About three-quarters of the way down the page, the solution came to me. I had to hustle him out of the room and get writing.
“I have more to say, if you would permit — ”
“Thanks so much for your time, but I have an appointment with my laptop. See you soon.”
He sounded disappointed. Not many people listened to him like that; they were all afraid of him. He couldn’t scare me and I’d heard enough.
Let the character speak
When you get stuck, interview a character. Interview the bad guy, the bad guy’s chief henchman, the protag’s best friend, the bartender who serves him whisky when things go wrong. Secondary characters often give a new perspective on the character that rounds him out. Of course, primary and secondary roles are all relative to where you’re standing, as the hero in your own tale.
Sometimes problem solving needs a different approach. The answer is within you. This isaway to coax it out of hiding.
There are secrets at the heart of every story; there is something that must be uncovered or discovered, both by the reader and by the characters. Hannah Kent