blog, writing process

Taking it on the chin

6 steps to deal with constructive criticism

boxing girl_xusenru
xusenru via pixabay

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

Constructive vs. destructive

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

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

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

Put up your guard

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

Defence not attack

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

Probing for weaknesses

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

Engage in rational discussion

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

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

Round two

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

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

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

The student becomes the teacher

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

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

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

blog, garden, Pat Aitcheson writes

In praise of simplicity

Time to slow down

japanese bridge_JamesDeMers
JamesDeMers via pixabay

It’s Friday, finally.
The end of the week for me, and what a week it was. A week of turbulent news, both in the world at large and my little corner of it. Unwelcome developments, painful separations, and unexpected changes came thick and fast.

It’s been a hell of a week, actually.

So now I can relax, yes? Not really. My brain feels stuffed full and yet strangely empty at the same time. I cannot be mindful with a full mind. Little fragments of song play over and over. Weariness tugs at my limbs, and the to-do list dances in front of exhausted eyes.

It’s time to slow down.

So, I go out into the garden and sit. Just sit, nothing more. The sun is pleasantly warm on my skin, and the distant roar of traffic fades as I listen to birds chirping, and wind sighing in the trees. There are so many shades of green, if you only look. More birdsong, and if I am really still a brave robin approaches, his proud orange chest bright.

If I sit still enough, long enough, maybe I could become invisible. I pull my feet from sandals and curl my toes around cool grass, and watch cheerful daisies turn their faces to the sun. A blackbird hops by. The breeze brings a memory of roses.

Breathe, slow down, unwind. I drop my knapsack of cares so I can stretch shoulders bent under heavy burdens too long. I am Atlas released, Sisyphus freed, and for this and every moment that follows I will drink in the green refreshment of earth.

Sit still enough, long enough. Here tall trees give shade, blue sky exists, and thrushes sing in the warm sun because they must. I can be grounded and yet soaring, separate and yet whole.

Green will nourish and revive, and the earth will heal my torn and quivering heart. After a time, I will go on. But for now I let everything go.

I will take a moment to simply be.

blog, creative writing, Pat Aitcheson writes

Gone

a science fiction story

rusting cars_forest
Metallic structures found by Bard Loren on Earth

 

Captain’s note: 147.29.1

These entries were made by Bard Loren, and discovered after her disappearance. In addition to the journal, she uploaded over 15 dozettabytes of data, which will greatly offset her tragic loss on this unsuccessful mission. This is her legacy. May she walk with two shadows.

 

Journal entry: 147.15.1

This is a place more wondrous than I ever thought to see with my own eyes. Everywhere is green.

Bright colours flash and call above me, I think they are called ‘birds’. All around are things I cannot name. But I must try to name them, for that is why I was chosen. I am the foremost Bard of Novaterra, and I swear on the twin suns this is no idle boast. I store the images in my digicodex for later analysis back on board. All those nights in the archives, imprinting lost languages and reading the history of the Founders have come to this.

I have my epicsongs composed and ready, to share with the good people here. This is the greatest honour, to see our origin planet, and save any who wish to leave it.

I confess I hardly recognised this place from the files. The Founders recorded how their home stagnated, torn apart by war that followed desperation when the skies turned grey, the waters rose and land became scarce. That is why they turned to space. We have made the journey of these few light years much quicker than they.

But I did not say it was easy. It is cold in the space between stars, and no place for humankind. We were relieved when the planetary beacon guided us safely to the docking station. Although it was entirely unmanned, this did not surprise us. It is hardly necessary to waste human toil on such a routine task.

I must rest. Solar days are shorter here, and there is only 0.2095 oxygen in the air. No doubt a good 18 hours of true sleep will help wash away the lingering effects of hypersleep.

Journal entry: 147.15.2

This place is magical. Despite the warnings of the cyberdoc, I removed my helmet today. The air is quite breathable although I am gasping and sweating as I press on through green vegetation, towards the last recorded location of a sizeable humankind settlement. I am both excited and apprehensive. Will they understand me, and I them? Do they have their own, ancient culture to share with me? Will they understand the concept of a Bard?

I carry our history, our thoughts and ideas coded in organic memory storage. Perhaps they do not have the necessary interface and holo-display, but we carry these on the ship. The rest of the crew have stayed on board, broadcasting on all frequencies, but I wanted to experience this world first hand. Darkness caught me unawares and I had to return to the ship. More tomorrow.

Journal entry: 147.15.3

I asked the cyberdoc to enhance my performance, and grudgingly it performed a small gene splice. Now my oxycytes are more suited to the stronger, bluer sunlight here. Sol is much closer to Earth than our twins Novasol 1+2, and we have adapted over the generations. Oxygen is abundant at 0.2547 on Novaterra, and I really feel the difference. It was predicted of course, but to actually feel it- that is another thing altogether.

Captain Marish does not like my wandering. She only tolerates it because I am a Bard, and therefore expendable. But I am bringing back valuable data, and I upload my digicodex each night before sleep.

Journal entry: 147.15.9

I discovered today that my blood is dark red now. Maybe this is unwise, but I have discarded my Exosuit. I found liquid water running on the surface! This I know is a key characteristic of Earth, but to see it, feel it, taste it. I walked into the water to understand it better, but slipped and fell. I cut my hand on a mineral formation beside the water, and watched in wonder as dark drops welled from the cut and dispersed into the liquid water. I keep saying this, but you have to see it to believe it. No mining, people can actually live on the surface here! Amazing.

Journal entry: 147.16.3

I have not encountered any humans, but have recorded many types of lower animals. Marish tells me that all is in the archives, but what does she know? The Academy does not encourage questioning, and after all I am the one who has spent more than fifteen twin-sols studying Earth.

I find myself out of step with the crew. They refuse to come out of the ship, and my sleep cycle seems to be related to Sol’s movements.

But the things that are not in the archives are marvellous. Where the trees thin out, Sol’s yellow rays are warm on my skin. My breathing is easier now, and I carry skinbond for minor injuries. At night, I see unfamiliar stars that do not appear on my maps, and there is a single moon.

How could the Founders have considered this place so terrible that they journeyed across the stars to find Novaterra? It seems utterly beautiful to me. Oh, the epicsongs I will compose when I return! They will be the stuff of legend.

Journal entry: Sol 16

I have decided to use solar dates from now on. It makes more sense, and when I stay out overnight in a pod I get a little disoriented keeping to Standard Time. I came across the strangest thing today. (Image attached). I will research these metallic structures in the database.

Journal entry: Sol 21

There has been no response to broadcast and the Captain wants to move on. The metallic structures are manmade, and they were some kind of primitive transportation. They all point away from the settlement co-ordinates in a long, unbroken procession. There are no humans, anywhere. Are they hiding? Did they flee, and if so from what?

Journal entry: Sol 35

I have uploaded all my data. I cannot find the settlement; it is as though the earth has swallowed it in green. But I have Sol warm on my skin, rich scents as yet unnamed and the taste of liquid water on my lips. My skin grows pinker each day, and the only grey is beneath my unisuit. I feel strong and I am happy. I cannot convey to you the joy I feel when I hear the birds sing, and I leave that to another, better Bard than I.

Meantime, I have taken the interface and holodisplay, and some supplies. When I succeed I will activate my beacon. I am sure that no one would willingly leave a place like this, that the Founders would surely have called “Eden”. My search for humans goes on, for I must find them.

~journal ends~

blog, creative writing, Pat Aitcheson writes

The Blue Box

a ten minute tale*

blue box ribbon_Schwarzenarzisse
Schwarzenarzisse via pixabay

 

She tried to forget about the box. Really she kept herself so very busy, that she almost truly forgot about it. But it was always there, catching her step when she walked past, whispering into her ears when she wasn’t listening.

A box could contain everything and nothing. But she didn’t look because she didn’t care to find out.

She found it one warm summer afternoon, long after the funeral. She had been stiff and dignified, accepting the mourners’ murmured words of condolence. But she felt nothing. Those words rang hollow after all the sniping and criticism. Her mother had ground her down for years until there was nothing left. Or so she thought.

It was so unfair that there was nobody else to help. Her beloved father had gone years before. She imagined him apologising to the paramedic.

“Sorry to cause all this fuss,” he would have said as they bundled him off to the hospital. There, he had held her hand as she wept real tears.

“Really, Theresa, you’re making an exhibition of yourself.” Her mother’s scold bit deep.

She tried not to cry at his funeral. At her mother’s funeral, she didn’t. They all said how well she was doing.

Clearing out the house alone, she found the little dusty blue box, tied with navy ribbon. Eventually she gave in. It rattled.

Inside it she found the baby shoe she had once worn. Finally she cried, that her mother had remembered a softer, better time.


*written longhand in ten minutes, from a random word prompt: box

blog, writing process

Time for new beginnings

Break it to make it

easter eggs colour Alexas_Fotos
Alexas_Fotos via pixabay

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

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

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

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

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

My goal? Write 150 words every day.

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

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

It’s the season of new beginnings.

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

daffodils white double
Double white narcissus

blog, writing process

Everything is material

Using bad stuff to make good stuff

egg-broken_stevepb.jpg
stevepb via pixabay

 

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

Ernest Hemingway

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

The energy of anger and grief

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

For a writer, all emotions are fuel.

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

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

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

Write what you know?

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

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

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

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

Resources for character personality traits

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

More information is available here and here .

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

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

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

Suffering can become art

sky-clouds-rays_Skitterphoto
Skitterphoto via pixabay

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

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

 

blog, writing process

All writing is #writing

wolf_cornfreak
Cornfreak via pixabay

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

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

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

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

Plotters vs. Pantsers

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

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

It’s all material

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

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

Keep writing, no matter what you’re writing.