blog, creativity, Pat Aitcheson writes, writing process

Stronger Together: How Collaboration Makes You A Better Writer

Photo by Jed Villejo on Unsplash

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Can that work for writers too?

All By Myself

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

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

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

Working with someone else makes you accountable.

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

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

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

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

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

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

One Plus One Equals One

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Sum Of The Parts

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

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

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

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

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

Stronger Together

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

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

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


Have a comment or suggestion? Drop it below and start a conversation.

blog, creativity, Pat Aitcheson writes, writing process

What’s Your Superpower?

Be your own hero

boy child clouds kid
Photo by Porapak Apichodilok on Pexels.com

 

I have a weird question for you…

How special do you feel right now? Over seven billion people on this planet, and there’s nobody quite like you.

But unique isn’t always enough, is it?

You feel ordinary, nondescript, forgettable. Even though you’re trying hard to be more, make a difference, stand out somehow, it’s not working. You feel like a failure because the gap between where you are and where you want to be is so great.

So what do you do about it? Let’s start with what definitely won’t work.

Feedback Doesn’t Work

You’re realistic about what you can achieve.

Your goals are SMART. You write, but you’re not JK Rowling. You sing, but you’re not Beyonce. You play soccer, but you’re not Lionel Messi.

You take stock of your skillset and work on your weaknesses. You take on board the lessons of constructive critique.

Playing only by these rules traps you in a limiting cycle of assessment and remediation.

Stop Flogging the Horse

Most of us can instantly remember being corrected, disciplined, or criticised for some action. It still happens on a daily basis for many of us. We’re far more likely to recall events imprinted with negative emotions. The negative memories guide our future behaviour for years to come.

Can you recall being praised for doing something really well? How long ago was that?  Yet being rewarded for doing something well makes it more likely that you will do it again.

Positive reinforcement works, whether we are learning to tango or training a dog to fetch a ball. Positive reinforcement rewards desired behaviour. Each time you do something that brings you closer to the desired standard in any way, you get a reward.

Rewards are tangible like money, or intangible like time or praise. Praise is one of the most potent rewards of all because it’s rare, and winning genuine praise from a person you respect is a great motivator.

Positive reinforcement rewards effort, not just the final result. Reaching a standard involves repeated effort that moves closer to the target, and rewarding the work done motivates you to keep trying even when the goal is still some way off. That’s crucial when undertaking a lengthy project or course of study.

Bad To Be Good

Some skills come easy. And we are conditioned to believe that if they come easy, they aren’t as valuable as those that are hard won. The teacher doesn’t praise your descriptive prose, she focuses on your weak grammar. The parent ignores your accurate scale model of the Death Star but focuses on your low grade in maths.

Over time your confidence in the things that you can do with ease, the things you enjoy, is eroded. You’re trained to discount your talents in favour of endless remedial work on things that are valued more. You’re forever failing. How does that feel?

Time to reset your approach and accentuate the positive.

The Humility Trap

Some people have a hard time identifying anything they’re good at. They feel uncomfortable even thinking about it. This usually relates to a time when they showed skill and were reprimanded for it.

Perhaps you were told to stop showing off, to be humble and modest, not to rub it in people’s faces. You remember how it felt to be slapped down for thinking you were better than the next person when you were probably worse.

Your discomfort is rooted in shame, a deep and pervasive human emotion. Shame is corrosive. Shame bypasses the behaviour and sticks to the person, leaving a sense of wrongness that’s hard to describe but easy to take on board.

Negative value judgements by important figures can lead to a lifetime of low self-esteem.

You learned to keep your head down because the tall poppy standing above the others gets cut down. Even heroes of popular culture are revered one day and vilified the next.

These comments are expressions of envy. Building strong self-esteem helps you shrug off the hateful comments. They hurt, but you move past them because you know what you’re here to do.

Performing a task successfully gives us a sense of being in control and achieving a goal. The more often we do this the greater our feeling of self-efficacy. It follows that performing tasks we enjoy and are good at increases confidence.

Achieving mastery of a task is one of the best ways to increase self-efficacy. It promotes a positive attitude to change, and willingness to engage with challenges that serve us well in every area of life.

You have the right to be good.

Every Facet Shines

An elite practitioner spends many hours working on their weaker areas. But they also work on their strengths, the things they are good at. To be elite is to grow in all areas, not just one or two. Exercising skills makes us happier, more attractive to others, and more confident.

People who possess confidence without arrogance and believe in their own abilities are happier than those who have low self-esteem. The belief that you can change and improve your own life is built on setting goals and reaching them. This confidence supports all areas of life, as long as you have a growth mindset. That is, you believe that you can learn and change throughout life; your skills are not fixed in stone.

A person with a growth mindset isn’t limited by where they are currently because they know they can learn new things. They acknowledge their skills, and then they amplify those skills. They value their talents, therefore they work on them and use them, which makes them happier and more likely to repeat the behaviour.

A winner is someone who recognizes his God-given talents, works his tail off to develop them into skills, and uses these skills to accomplish his goals.
Larry Bird

LEGO Batman, Wonder Woman, Sonic Hedgehog, and Harry Potter Gandalf toys

Focus On The Right Things

What’s your superpower?

It’s the thing that comes easier to you than others. You don’t know how you do it, you just do. You learn and improve quickly, even if you struggle with other things. It might be part of a bigger skillset or stand alone.

  • Tennis backhand
  • Packing a suitcase
  • Playing a new song by ear after hearing it once
  • Knowing all your sports team’s stats for the last five years
  • Sense of direction
  • Affinity for animals
  • Remembering numbers
  • Making a meal from leftovers

You might not need or use these exact skills every day, but when you do they bring a smile to your face. You did it and you did it well. Why not smile and feel good about yourself more often?

Own Your Power

Think of your superpower.

What do you find easy and enjoyable? What makes you smile?

You’re going to do more of that. Take your sports knowledge to the pub trivia team. Get out your guitar and play along with the radio. Read that story you wrote last year and enjoy the descriptions you got just right. Bake a pie because you’re a dab hand at it, take it to work for coffee break. Buy a book of Sudoku or download a game to your phone and play to the end. Instead of buying a card for your friend, paint a tiny canvas instead.

Why do this? Because you can.

Doing a thing well is its own reward. If you do something really well, in a way no-one else can, money may follow. If money were the only measure of success, the rich would be happier in proportion to their wealth. We all know that money is important but not the whole story.

Focus on how you feel about yourself and avoid the trap of more money, less happy.

We’re not here to blend into the background. We’re here for a short time, and our only purpose is to make the best use of that time.

I want to marvel at your ability to compose rude poems on the spot or drink a yard of ale without spilling a drop. I want to see your beautiful calligraphy or hear you sing Happy Birthday in four languages. Then I want to see you smile and feel good. Isn’t that better?

We ask ourselves, ‘Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?’ Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do.
Marianne Williamson

blog, creativity, Pat Aitcheson writes, writing process

Diversify for writing success

go wide and deep for success

rawpixel via pixabay

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

HE Bates short story win!

he-bates-award-cert

I won first prize in the HE Bates national short story competition!

I’m still in a state of shock. When the competition organisers emailed to ask if I would read my story, I had no idea this was to be the outcome. And I’ve waited for a success for a while. I even blogged about how elements of this story felt perhaps too personal to share with the world. But, it seems that the personal touches are what spoke to people. One or two came up after my reading to tell me how moved they were.

So I’m enjoying the warm glow of validation and success, and planning how to spend the prize money (£500, since you ask). I plan to buy a lasting memento of my first competition win. And I’m going to pop some bubbly and celebrate this, because as I’ve said before it’s important to celebrate even the small wins. Today I have a big win, for which I thank organiser Nick Hamlyn and head judge Maggie Allen, and the Northampton Writers Group.

The story will be featured on NWG website and here on my blog.

What next?

More writing, of course. You have to treat the twin impostors success and failure just the same (even though they really aren’t). Acknowledge or celebrate, and always keep moving. The next goal is up ahead, and I will keep writing, submitting, and dreaming.

Never, never, never give up.