blog, creativity, Pat Aitcheson writes, writing process

Done is Better Than Perfect: How to Move Past the Perfectionist Trap

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The worst enemy to creativity is self doubt.

Sylvia Plath

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.

via BrainyQuote

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

The more you make, the better you get.

David-head_paclomartinezclavel
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Let it go

Real artists ship.
Steve Jobs

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.

via BrainyQuote

Ready to reclaim your creativity?

This free short e-book will show you how to stop letting limiting beliefs hold you back and finally start creating the work you’ve been dreaming of. Want your creative spark back? This is the guide for you.

Get your free short e-book Unleash Your Creativity here.

blog, Pat Aitcheson writes, writing process

Writers’ groups: the good, the bad, and the ugly

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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

Stronger together

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.

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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.

Critical Colin

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.

Arrogant Alice

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.

Lazy Linda

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.

Blind Brian

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


Ready to Unleash Your Creativity?

This free short e-book will show you how to stop letting limiting beliefs hold you back and finally start creating the work you’ve been dreaming of. Want your creative spark back? This is the guide for you.

Get your free copy of Unleashing Your Creativity here.

blog, creativity, Pat Aitcheson writes, writing process

Diversify for writing success

go wide and deep for success

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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.

  • Personal tale
  • Readers like emotional stories
  • Universal theme of betrayal
  • Conversational style — written as a letter
  • Accessible language
  • 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.

Want more? You’ll have to do more

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

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

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

Challenge grows your writing muscles

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

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.

  • Fiction
  • Poetry
  • Non-fiction

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

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

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

The best pieces include elements from more than one discipline. 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
    Immersive memoir

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.

This article looks at non-fiction submission.

Submitting to literary magazines is covered here. Payment varies. Again, this is a good way to build writing credits and a reputation.

With a little help from my friends

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

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

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

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.

It’s time to get moving.

blog, Pat Aitcheson writes, writing process

How to take the negative feedback challenge – and win

blue thumbs up and red thumbs down by geralt on pixabay (edited)
geralt via pixabay

“Every defect is a treasure.”
W. Edwards Deming

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 respectfulSharpening your own critical faculties is essential if you’re serious about developing your writing skills.

via Brainyquote

blog, writing process

Remove crutch words to make your prose stronger

muscles-lineart_OpenClipart-Vectors
OpenClipart-Vectors via pixabay

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

• Well
• So
• Actually
• Honestly
• Really
• Definitely
• Anyway

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.

A word frequency counter like this one  identifies which words appear most often in your writing. Try it with a piece of your writing from one or two years ago.

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.

Overused words

• Certainly
• Probably
• Basically
• Virtually
• Slightly
• Rather
• Quite
• Very
• A bit
• Almost
• Just
• As though
• Somehow
• Seems/seemed
• Shrugged
• Smiled
• Laughed
• Looked
• Started to
• Began to

Don’t forget two little words that can often be cut without losing the meaning of the sentence.

  • But
  • And

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.”

blog, writing process

Choosing the best

vegetable market_raggio5
raggio5 via pixabay

 

How do you choose a picture for a blog post?

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.

 

 

blog, Pat Aitcheson writes, writing process

The character talks back

but what if they don’t?

sculpture-couple_LisaRedfern
LisaRedfern via pixabay

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.

Screen Shot 2018-07-23 at 09.37.51
Louise Foerster via Medium

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 is a way 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

blog, Pat Aitcheson writes, writing process

Finding themes in your writing

and using them to drive creativity

shells-sand_pasja1000
pasja1000 via pixabay

I’m back on the beach again, metaphorically rather than literally. Beaches and the sea feature prominently in my writing, and I didn’t even know.

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

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

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

Beaches inspired my prize winning story All the sands that touch the sea. Beaches and the sea inspired poems like All love in a day and blog posts like Forever summer and Flying free and many more. I realised that the ocean figured in about a third of my works that year.

Hiding in plain sight are ideas or beliefs that underpin some if not all of my work. The question is, what does the sea or beaches mean to me? And how can I use it to my advantage?

Theme in writing

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

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

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

Discovering your values

Most of us don’t examine our core beliefs on a regular basis, if ever. As writers hoping to illuminate the human condition through stories, it might be useful to our selves and to our readers to dig a little deeper into the beliefs that drive our behaviour. We might ask ourselves questions like

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

Looking a little deeper at the answers will help you understand yourself and what guides your choices. And of course in fiction, you can use values to build a compelling character who behaves like a real person in the story. A list of useful questions to ask and a summary of values can be found here at mindtools.com.

Using theme to your advantage

Sometimes the theme is only seen when looking back at a work. During the first draft our job is to tell ourselves the story, as Terry Pratchett said. After a break, re-reading the story should reveal its point, if you didn’t write with one in mind. It might be something unexpected. Your job then is to strengthen the theme using subtle hints in characterisation and dialogue, so that the narrative hangs together. On the other hand, if theme is too obvious, it may need toning down so that it fades into the background.

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

There’s the sea again

Why does the sea reappear in my work? The beach is a boundary combining air, earth and water aspects of nature. It represents transformation, endings and beginnings, awe and fear at the power of the sea, creation/birth vs. destruction/death. For me it also represents time, childhood, escape. All this and more, before even considering the symbology of water itself.

I use my sea theme to help me with new works. A new story takes shape more easily once I have a setting. I might set the story on the beach or at sea; or use the idea of a liminal space to come up with a supernatural tale. I have woven memories into beach stories.

Whether it is romance, SFF, magic realism or anything else, be careful what you wish for is another goal to work towards. This is especially good for short stories or poems with a single theme. There are many different ways in which this might play out. Not all involve a deal with a devil, but that does make for a good tale.

New directions

I don’t want to keep writing the same story though. So periodically I have a look at my values again. They change in importance and evolve as my life does, and my art should reflect that. And that is one of my personal values.

If we don’t change, we don’t grow. If we don’t grow, we aren’t really living.
Gail Sheehy

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

Let theme inspire you.

blog, Pat Aitcheson writes, writing process

How important is setting in fiction?

does the sofa colour matter?

bedrck via pixabay

Every story needs a setting — but how much?

One of the first things we need to know on starting a story is its setting. As well as establishing protagonist and stakes, the place where events happen must be known. A story without a clear setting floats around and is difficult to enter fully. If your reader scratches her head and asks herself “where are they again?” she steps outside the fictive dream. You’ve lost her.

The main elements of setting

  1. Location
  2. Time
  3. Mood/atmosphere
  4. Climate and geography
  5. Politics/culture
  6. History

The amount of detail needed varies. A contemporary short story may establish setting with a few words, especially if it is familiar to the reader. A novel needs more, particularly for historical fiction, science fiction and fantasy (SFF). The reader needs more depth to ground themselves in a world distanced by time or imagination.

Setting can be a character in itself. Consider the bleak post-apocalyptic wasteland of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road; Aliette de Bodard’s ancient, sinister Paris devastated by magic wars in The House of Shattered Wings; or the drowned Southern States of Sherri L Smith’s Orleans. In all these books place is not only evoked, it acts on the characters and forces them to make choices.

How much is too much?

SFF is my favourite genre to read and write. No doubt I will be accused of poor worldbuilding, but I fall into the camp of less is more. (Maybe it’s my poet’s ear, seeking economy of expression and spaces for interpretation.)

Talking to another writer recently, I was vocal in my dislike of huge prologues, maps on both endpapers, long lists of characters and noble houses and relationships…yawn. Just give me the story already.

She, however, loves all the details. And so do many other readers. They enjoy minute descriptions of magic systems, exactly imagined terrain, and a catalogue of interior furnishings.

Historical fiction relies on accurately depicting a lost time. Research is essential but on the page, in a long description of how a nineteenth century cotton mill works, it screams info dump.

Unless it’s relevant to the moment, leave it in backstory. Just as we don’t need to flesh out soldier number 6 who doesn’t speak, we don’t need to describe goblets and gizmos in detail. If setting is in the background, let’s leave it there. We can fill in using imagination, if we want.

Setting is important 

but in the end only two things matter:
what the characters are doing
and
what happened next.

Minimalist or maximalist; which camp do you fall in?

blog, Pat Aitcheson writes, writing process

What can you blog about every day?

You’ll need a plan

May18 blog challenge notes
my scrappy plan for blogging in May

In May 2018 I published every day on Medium (and my personal blog 2squarewriting.) I blogged about the results here.

Then Courtney Corboy reached out to ask, how did I choose what to write about? That sparked this post.

In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.
D. Eisenhower

You must have a plan

As the picture shows, the plan did not survive intact, but I won the battle. That’s the only thing that matters. What to write depends on what kind of writer you are, and what you hope to achieve. When I did the same challenge last year, I had less time and energy. Simply finishing was the aim. This year I wanted to test out different content, and see how publishing in publications changed the results. I was confident I could finish, because I’d done it before.

Bullet journals and spreadsheets are great, but they don’t work for me. And that’s okay. Messy can work too.

You may have a theme that informs your posts, for example self development or parenting or living with an illness. You can find a niche within these umbrellas; single parenting, self development for retirees, or life with anxiety. Even so, you might run out of steam. The trick here is to write what interests you, seen through the lens of your theme. How does a single parent navigate dating? What does the latest political event mean for a person with anxiety?

Seen through your eyes

Everything has been said, over and over. There is no such thing as originality. But it hasn’t been said by you, with your unique experience and perspective.Especially when first blogging, there’s a lot to be said for using other writing as your springboard.

You can only find your voice by using it, and imitation is a great start. Even Picasso began by copying the great masters such as Rafael. The more you write, the better your skills. Let your personality come through. By sharing we create connection. What we are comfortable to share will vary by subject and individual. Readers want and appreciate honesty.

Catch your ideas before they escape

Whenever you have a question or an idea, capture it. You won’t remember it in five minutes or a day’s time. Notebooks are great, and lots of writers love their physical notebook and pen. The notes function on your phone is practical, and more importantly, usually at hand. Even if it’s just a title, grab it. One day when you’re out of ideas, you can look at notes and a few words can spark a whole piece.

But — what do you actually write about?

Ah yes, the original question. Anything at all. I please myself. I don’t have a huge following to service, and I want to gather people who like what I write. I write fiction and poetry, and I write about writing, and about life in general, sometimes as it pertains to writing.

But what I write is not just about me once I hit publish. So it must fill a need for someone else; inform, entertain, or problem solve. (Fiction can do all three, but that’s a post for another time.)

See what’s trending on Medium or Quora, and write your own take on it.

Look at the blogs of writers you admire, and see how they address their niche. Notice how their personalities come through, how much personal stuff they share. Think about where you’d like to be on the open — closed spectrum.

Keep your eyes open when you’re away from the screen. Turn the irritation of sitting in traffic into your thoughts on public transport, or electric cars, or how hard it is to meditate in real life.

Challenge yourself to come up with ideas every day. It gets easier with practice, like every skill.

It does not have to be big. Haikus are just seventeen syllables long, and usually fewer words. In this case the image I choose is very important, and must convey more than the words while complementing them.

My non fiction pieces are often short, from three hundred to a thousand words. I edit ruthlessly. That’s another skill I’ve improved upon.

You can re-use old content. Rewrite if needed, update facts, and you’re good to go. And edit!

picjumbo_com via pixabay

The nitty-gritty

  • Gather your ideas together, at least 5–10 to prime the pump.
  • Decide if you will have themes for days or weeks. I found this helpful, in my case poetry on weekends and short stories etc. on weekdays.
  • Write out the days and dates in a list or chart, digital or analogue, whatever suits. If a month is too much, try two weeks.
  • Pencil in the pieces you already have, scattered through the time period.
  • Consider what you need to write to fill the gaps.
  • Write something every day. Start drafts even if you can’t immediately finish. As little as 150 words daily adds up, and that has worked for me.
  • Spend a few minutes thinking up new ideas. Write everything down without censoring.
  • Try to be at least a couple of days ahead. This might mean writing more when you have more time. A buffer is a wondrous thing.
  • But if you miss a day, don’t sweat it. It’s not life or death. Begin again the next day, catch up if you can.
  • Write it, edit, let it go. Done is better than perfect.
  • Concentrate on your goal and don’t worry (too much) about claps. You can only control what you do, not how it is received.
  • When someone takes the time to comment, respond. This is what we all want; for our words to reach someone. Start a conversation and reciprocateGive what you hope to get.
  • Creativity is a remix. Ideas come from living, reading, and often from connecting with others, just like this piece. You just have to notice them.
  • Write as though no-one will read it. In the beginning, that’s true for all of us. By the time they’re listening, you’ll have honed your craft and your voice. You’ll have something to say.

You can’t use up creativity. The more you use, the more you have.
Maya Angelou