blog, Pat Aitcheson writes, writing process

If You Want To Be A Better Writer, Stop Writing

sometimes more writing isn’t the answer

Pascal van de Vendel on Unsplash

You’re a writer. You gave yourself permission, put your bum in the seat, and started cranking out words. They’re not perfect yet but that’s okay because you read advice articles that tell you how to do it better. You’re on your way.

Then you stumble. No matter how much advice you read and try to apply, the words don’t get any better. You’ve tried it all, and when you read your piece back you cringe. It’s dull, it’s bad, and it’s all yours.

Impostor syndrome sneaks up behind you like a cheap horror movie monster. It breathes down your neck. “I knew it. You’ve been found out, and not even the best advice can save you now. You’re no good. And you never will be.”

You stop trying.

Writing is too hard and you’re just not good enough. It’s enough to drive you to drink. Or back to Facebook and Netflix.

Invisible Growth — What You Don’t Understand About Practice

When something isn’t working, it’s tempting to give up. But you need to think about the way growth happens.

I used to plant sunflower seeds every spring with my young children. They were so excited, pushing seeds into the earth and imagining sunflowers higher than their heads. They looked at the picture on the packet, and they wanted all the flowers right now.

But the seed needed time to absorb water, develop roots, and grow a stem. On the surface, nothing was happening. The kids got impatient because progress was less than they expected. Under the surface, growth was already proceeding unseen. One day the shoot popped up, apparently overnight.

Then it grew really fast.

Source Evolution Partners

This type of progress in students as described by Thomas P Seager, PhD fits with my own experiences in the garden or the classroom.

Some students (black line) show linear growth at a steady rate. Others (green line) take instruction with little apparent effect until one day it clicks, and they take off. Soon they leave the others behind, despite being slower to start.

The move to higher levels of skill is often preceded by a stage in which nothing much appears to be happening. In fact a number of sub-skills are developing. When those skills reach critical mass they combine to produce a leap forward, followed by accelerated development.

In the early days of building a skill, a following, or a plant, progress seems slow. Patience and persistence are essential.

That means you must have faith and keep going. But although creativity is endless, it needs to be replenished.

Sometimes the best way to keep going is to stop.

Just Don’t Do It

You’ve read many articles about establishing a writing habit. You might know that Stephen King writes 2000 words every single day. All the advice says sit and write daily.

I suggest you do the exact opposite. Step away from the keyboard.

Just like any other human, a writer is the sum of many parts. The healthiest writers get out of their rooms and out of their heads regularly, and those experiences enlarge their characters and inform their writing. The more they see and hear of people, and the more things they do, the bigger their repertoire of subjects, characters, and situations to write about.

If you’ve been pushing harder but not seeing results, it’s time to change your approach. Staring at the blank screen for hours isn’t working. Rewriting the same paragraph isn’t working.

You need to move on and concentrate on another part of your skill set. Writing is more than butt in chair, just as soccer is more than kicking a ball. Stop writing and you’ll write better.

Three types of not-writing can help you reach the visible growth stage faster.

Get Physical

Mens sana in corpore sano
A sound mind in a healthy body
Juvenal

MatanVizel via pixabay

The brain weighs about 2% of body mass but needs 20% of energy intake to function well. In addition, we can concentrate fully for around 90–120 minutes. After that, we need a break to maintain focus.

You need to build two types of break into your writing routine.

One is a short break after ninety minutes. Get up, stretch, move around. Look into the distance to rest your eye muscles which have been working hard to focus on the screen. Take five slow deep breaths, allowing your belly to relax. Your brain needs extra oxygen.

Drink water

Research has shown that thirst is a poor predictor of dehydration and that dehydration reduces performance. Consider setting an alarm to remind you to drink more water.

Move your body

The second type of break is regular exercise. The type of exercise doesn’t matter; what’s important is that you engage regularly, which is more likely if you enjoy it. Some activities have a social element built in, which is very good if you sit alone all day to write.

Sitting for extended periods is known to increase your risks of premature death. That alone should motivate you to get moving. Walking, running, gym work, and yoga are all beneficial. Vigorous gardening and housework are alternatives.

Get enough sleep

Insomnia is a problem for many of us that tends to increase with age. However, finding and keeping good sleep habits is essential to mental and physical health. If you have problems start your search for help here or here.

Simple measures like regular sleep and wake times, keeping your bedroom dark and the bed only for rest or sex, and writing a to-do list for the next day can all help. Cut back on the nightcap because although alcohol might help you nod off, it then causes broken sleep.

My one best tip, gleaned from personal experience and professional practice as a family physician is this;

if you wake in the night, never check the time.

Your brain immediately starts working, calculating the time you’ve been awake, the time left before the alarm goes, and so on. Turn the clock away. Do not look at your phone. Slow deep breaths can help.

It’s natural to wake during the night and it will happen more often as the years go by, so have realistic expectations. Learning to go back to sleep is the skill you need.

Whatever your health status, you can improve fitness levels and give your brain what it needs to function more effectively.

Only Connect

Staying mentally fit and well needs to be a priority. It’s certain that you will have to navigate personal or professional difficulties at some time, while continuing to meet your obligations. It’s all too easy to withdraw from people, but if you write you already spend a lot of time with your own thoughts. Balance that with positive contact.

Humans are social creatures. We all need different amounts of interaction to feel our best, but looking at the same walls every day can drag you down, especially if you live where winters are long and dark. Figure out how much social interaction you need to be energised, not depleted. Then make sure you schedule time to get it.

Combine social contact with exercise by going to the gym or taking a class. Dog walkers know that pets can be a great icebreaker.

Stay in contact with friends and family. Avoid being hijacked by Facebook and Twitter by setting a time limit on checking updates.

Sit in a cafe and listen to people talking for clues on dialogue and people’s current concerns. You might hear a character or a problem for your next piece.

Join a writers’ group and interact with people who understand the struggle. Even difficult interactions can be a source of material for your writing.

Writers are often introverts who find being in groups more or less difficult. Online connections can be as real and nurturing as real-life ones, if not more so. Don’t let extroverts mock you for not going out all the time.

Part Of The Fabric

BrainyQuote

Maybe you’re a religious person. In that case, honouring your faith will be key to your wellbeing. Even if you’re not religiousfeeding your spirit is essential to wholeness. Finding meaning, a reason to go on with life, is a matter of realising that you are part of something larger than yourself.

There’s more than one way to tap into a sense of awe and wonder that enlarges your sense of being. Prayer works for some, while contemplating the natural world or spending time with a child or pet is preferred by others. Quieting the endless chatter in your mind can be achieved by gardening or stargazing or knitting.

Concentration on a single thing is the essence of meditation. It doesn’t have to mean chanting and impossible poses. Find the thing that absorbs your attention to the exclusion of external stimulus. Do that regularly.

Feeding your spirit might come from watching the ocean, singing along at a concert, or volunteering. It can come from seeing art or listening to music, or sending a supportive message to someone who’s struggling.

Don’t underestimate the value of laughter.

We smile and laugh much less as we grow up, and who can blame us? Adult life is tough. Share a joke with your server or your partner. Watch a comedy show before bed rather than depressing news. Humour is essentially linking familiar things in an unexpected way. It’s one of the most creative activities around and it’s calorie free, so indulge.

Connecting with people has an element of looking outward and giving rather than receiving. Altruism makes us happier by focusing attention outside our selves while making a positive contribution. Even though each one of us is a tiny part of the fabric of life, we can still make a difference.

And as writers, isn’t connection and making a difference all we want?

Burn Bright, Don’t Burn Out

Nobody can be ‘on’ all the time. Balancing work, rest, and recreation is the key to a healthy life for everyone. Sometimes before we can push forward we need to stop and catch our breath a moment.

Solutions often bubble to the surface after a period of letting problems percolate unseen. While you’re occupied in another activity, your subconscious is busy figuring out the questions you’ve been stuck on.

Your body will benefit from the improved physical health that comes from being strong, well rested and well hydrated. A healthy brain is more flexible and resilient, able to think faster and process the many different things it sees and feels. And creativity is about making new connections.

Creativity is just connecting things.

Steve Jobs

Now you have more material and a better machine to work with. Come back to your screen refreshed, and get growing.

blog, Pat Aitcheson writes, writing process

Free resources to power your writing

express yourself for less

person holding coins
Photo by rawpixel.com on Pexels.com

 

Don’t let lack of funds hold you back from your dreams of being a writer.

Ideas may be free, but the tools to express them can be pricey. Fortunately there are numerous free materials to help you write without breaking the bank. These are some of my favourite free writing resources.

What follows assumes you have a least a smartphone, if not a laptop. That’s a great deal of resource already. Try this for free laptops for people on low incomes in US and for those on low incomes in the UK try here. Schemes can have differing eligibility and be withdrawn at any time, so make sure you always use the most up to date information.

Burning Books in the House of Books

Ray Bradbury wrote Fahrenheit 451 in 1953 on a rented UCLA library typewriter. He paid ten cents per half hour and completed the first draft in nine days for $9.80. That’s approximately $88 today.

In the age of smartphones and Google, the modern library and its librarians are often forgotten as resources. But the library provides a quiet space and is one of the very few public spaces left where you can spend time without spending money.

Libraries offer free or subsidised internet access and computer help, which are invaluable to people with extremely limited funds and/or knowledge. A library card allows you to borrow not just any book available, but also other media such as magazines, DVDs and music.

You might need to research something arcane or historical. We’ve all experienced the frustration of getting a million hits on a search but not finding the facts we need. In times of data overload, having a guide can be the best option. A good librarian knows how to find information.

Catching Butterflies

Chasing new ideas can feel a lot like chasing butterflies. They catch your eye but flutter out of reach before you can grasp them. Or, they don’t arrive at all.

Try sparking your ideas by using randomly generated prompts. Need a name for a character or a first line? Need a plot idea or a first line? Look at some of these sites for a jump start.

https://www.fantasynamegenerators.com/

This site generates names for different character types such as elves or warriors, as well as place names.

http://writingexercises.co.uk/

Multiple random generators covering first lines, story plots, images, three noun combinations, dialogue, and many more.

https://web.njit.edu/~ronkowit/poetsonline/generator.html

Generates a random line of poetry to start or inspire your next poem.

An image can launch a thousand words. If you’re visually inclined or need a royalty-free picture, you can search millions of free-to-use images at Pixabay or Unsplash.

The images are licensed under the Creative Commons, meaning you can use them any way you wish without attribution. I encourage you to link to the original though, because every artist deserves credit for their work.

Lost in Translation

Does one of your characters lapse into their native language when angry? Do you want to leave an Easter egg for your readers to find? Then you need accurate translation. While Google Translate is a great start, sometimes the machine translation can be clunky or plain wrong. To test this, translate the result back to English and see what you get.

You might be lucky enough to have access to a native speaker who can help.

I use Reverso.net. It covers English, French, Spanish, German, Italian, Russian, Portuguese, Chinese, Arabic, Hebrew, and Japanese.

What sets it apart from Google is the use of context. It will give several translated examples so you can choose the right one for the sense you’re trying to convey.

Getting It Right

Writing is simply a matter of the right words in the right order. Correct grammar and spelling ensure that the words make sense to readers. Searching for the right word is easier with sites such as thesaurus.com which give more options than your word processor’s built in option.

Hemingway and Grammarly both offer free and paid versions. These text editors check grammar, passive voice, readability, adverbs, and more.

Grammar Girl is brilliant for learning all the rules of English grammar you forgot or never knew. If you don’t know where the apostrophe goes, or whether to use lie or lay, this is the place to find out.

A Place Of One’s Own

All writers should consider having a blog. This website is a place to start showing your work, practising in public, and building a following. You can blog on a personal site, or place your work with others where traffic is guaranteed to be higher.

WordPress is easy to set up and use. You can start your own website without paying a penny. WordPress offers paid options with more features, but it’s an excellent place to begin. Help to run your blog is a click away.

Medium is relatively new, but is set up so that anyone can post their work. The interface is clean and easy to read. You can post under your own name, or under the umbrella of a large publication with thousands of followers and potential readers of your work.

Quora is a site where anyone can ask a question, and anyone can answer. You can see what types of questions are most popular at any time, and you can build a following by answering questions in your area of knowledge. This can help you find hot topics to write about.

Finding Your Community

Medium is a wonderful place to read, write and connect in almost any area of interest. There’s also the chance to earn money from your writing.

Facebook offers another way to find groups who share your interests.

Twitter is not just a timewaster. You will find every kind of writer, including famous names, plus publishers, agents, and publications have a presence here. Careful sifting will yield opportunities to connect, plus promote your writing and brand to the right people.

Every genre has its own sites which offer targeted advice and information, plus forums to meet other writers and share your work. Search for your chosen genre and try some out.

In It To Win It

Writing competitions can boost your visibility and give much needed legitimacy to your career. There are lots of free options. Use Google, but I highly recommend Free Writing Events. Here you’ll find a monthly calendar of all kinds of free to enter contests.

Hang With The Cool Kids

Most published authors have their own website, with information and links to their work. Consider following your favourites. In the same vein, search sites like Medium and WordPress for blogs worth your time. Use keywords to focus on what matters to you.

Lists of 100 best websites for writers are collated by various people and updated annually. They’re an excellent source of great writers. Try The Write Life or Feedspot or Writers Digest.  

Watch And Learn

YouTube has much more than cute animal videos. It’s an underrated source of knowledge, whether you need to know how to write a query letter or how to do stretches for carpal tunnel syndrome. You can watch famous speeches by authors like JK Rowling or Neil Gaiman for inspiration.

Research is easy with YouTube. I recently wrote a ghost story involving a battle from the English Civil War. History was never my strong point, but watching videos of re-enactments gave me enough information to add authentic details about uniforms and muskets.

If you’re a visual learner, YouTube is for you. Someone has already uploaded a video showing exactly what you need.

All You Can Eat

He that loves reading has everything within his reach. - William Godwin
BrainyQuote

 

To write well, you must read widely. If your reading appetite exceeds your pocket, then look at ways of getting free books. I already mentioned libraries.

Sign up with Prolific Works, previously known as Instafreebie. For the price of your email address, you can download free full length e-books in many genres.

BookBub offers free and discounted new releases, as promotions for the authors. You can return the favour by leaving a good review.

Wattpad is beloved by young adult (YA) fiction writers and readers. If your young relative is an aspiring author, this is the place to post their early efforts. Quality varies wildly, but it’s a great place for younger and young at heart readers to indulge in YA and fanfiction.

Increasingly, the most popular titles on free platforms are moving to trad publishing or even television. Some of the biggest titles in recent history (for example The Martian by Andy Weir) started out on free-to-read sites.

The Daddy Of Them All

Google is the king of free resources.

Search for anything and get millions of results. Use Wikipedia as the starting point for subjects you know little about. At the bottom of each page you’ll find a list of reference articles. Explore those for more depth and accuracy.

Use Google Docs to write, collaborate, dictate, and edit your words. Search within your documents and add links and images with ease.  Import articles into your WordPress blog with a click. And all your work is saved automatically in Google Drive.

Not Quite Free

These are not quite free, but low in cost. If you’re really strapped for cash, they make good gift ideas that are more practical use than another journal.

Magazine subscriptions are a gift that keeps giving. Each month you’ll get information on writers, writing, contests and conferences. Often new subscribers can pick up goodies such as pens, mugs, books and bags, as well as reduced cost for the first year.

Try Writer’s Digest Writing Magazine Poets & Writers or Writers’ Forum. All these offer print, online, and international subscriptions.

The Visual Thesaurus is a treat for the eyes as well as a logophile’s delight. Search for a word, and it displays a beautiful animated tree of related words and definitions, all of which are fully searchable. It supports Dutch, English, French, German, Italian and Spanish. It’s also possible to search in more than one language at the same time. There is a free trial, after which it costs $14.95 a year.

The writer in a coffee shop is a cliché but for good reason. Being around people can break up a monotonous week, and offers opportunities to people watch. Listening to dialogue or making up stories about the people you see hones your writing skills, all for the price of a hot drink. Wifi is free and you’re forced to get dressed and leave the house, which every writer should do at least occasionally.

Information roaming free

When so much data is freely available the problem is not how to gain information, but where to find the information we need and turn that into useful knowledge.

We can access centuries of thought and progress without a second thought. Add that to minimal cost of entry, and there really is no better time to be a writer than now.

BrainyQuote

 


Reclaim Your Creativity

Get your creative spark back now. Claim your free copy of my ebook Unleash Your Creativity here.

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

Writing karma: do you give as good as you get?

gift-flowers-hands_klimkin
klimkin via pixabay

Once you’ve lived a little you will find that whatever you send out into the world comes back to you in one way or another.
Slash, rock star

Hello, fellow writer. Have you written something lately? Posted it anywhere? Checked your feed for claps, votes, comments or sales? It’s something we all do. Unless we’re writing purely for our own catharsis, we want our words to be heard by an audience.

But now another question. Have you read anything lately? Did you clap, vote, comment, review, or buy?
And if not, why not?

You’re asking for something you didn’t give. Karma says what goes around, comes around. Karma says you get what you give.

Consumers, creators, commenters

Most people consume without creating, and they consume without responding. Around 5-10% of buyers leave reviews on Amazon overall. Even the most popular articles on Medium or Quora have a tiny percentage of comments compared to claps, and claps compared to reads.

Consider this article by Zat Rana, who has 72,000 followers on Medium. This gained almost 21,000 claps in thirteen days but a mere 79 comments.

View story at Medium.com

Screen Shot 2018-09-28 at 14.38.46

Since each reader can give from zero to a maximum of fifty claps, we can infer that at least 420 people read this piece, but the true figure is likely to be many more. As good as it feels to be read, it feels great to get applause. And comments? Well, a thoughtful comment is the sweetest nectar of all. It can give you validation and the dopamine hit we all crave, but it can do something even more valuable. It can start a conversation. And conversations lead to relationships.

Your reasons are excuses

There are reasons why you haven’t tended to your writer karma. Few of them stand up to closer scrutiny.

  1. I don’t have time to read.
    Stephen King said  if you don’t have time to read, then you don’t have time and the tools  to write. A good writer, one who aspires to improve, must also read widely. It takes a few minutes to read an article on Quora or Medium, or look at your favourite writer’s website. Step away from mindless scrolling and put that time to better use.
  2. I don’t have time to respond.
    Really? It takes seconds to vote or clap. Even a brief message can make someone’s day, so why would you not do it?
  3. I can’t afford to buy a book.
    Buying a book new at full price is the ideal for an author, but maybe you don’t have resources. You can still buy secondhand and review, borrow from a library or a friend and review, tweet and Facebook post about it, tell your friends. You can download free books from Instafreebie and review.

    Reviews on Amazon and Goodreads drive sales twice. First, because the algorithms favour books with more reviews. Second, because readers also favour books with reviews. In this era of almost endless choice, recommendations are even more important.

  4. Nobody’s reading my stuff so why should I bother?
    See point 2 above. Feel good by doing good. Your following is built one reader at a time, one comment and relationship at a time. The best follower is one who is invested in your work, and the numbers are only one way of measuring impact. You never know who will be your new cheerleader.

    Your tribe of like-minded readers and writers is out there, but it will not find you if you are hiding silently behind a screen. You’re a creator, not part of the herd of consumers. Act accordingly. Connect. Reciprocate.

Give as good as you get – or better

Paraphrasing Anna Sabino, sometimes you have to send ships in the hope that one day they will come in. Sometimes you need faith in yourself, faith that things will turn in your favour, if you keep working. And when prayers are answered, it’s usually because a lot of unseen groundwork was put in without a guaranteed return. Ask any ‘overnight success.’

When your success arrives, you’ll want to turn to the people who matter, your mutual support system. You can rejoice together, because the only thing that makes a well-deserved success better is people to share it with.

So don’t wait. You can improve someone’s day, right now, and it only takes a minute.

I'm a true believer in karma. You get what you give, whether it's bad or good. - Sandra Bullock

Source

 

 

 

 

 

 

View story at Medium.com

View story at Medium.com

View story at Medium.com

blog, writing process

Creative slump? Think inside the box

fractal-box-733918_960_720
pixel1 via pixabay

Sometimes more is not better.

In the developed world choice is king. The more choices, the better the world is working, and the received wisdom is that more is always better. Whole industries are built on finding and then expanding niches.

It’s no wonder that the protagonist of The Hurt Locker stood in the store when he returned from Iran, paralysed by too much choice. We’ve all done this. We rush into the store to find something for dinner, and we find ourselves overwhelmed, unable to choose.

FMI statistics show the average US supermarket carries over 42,000 items. In 2015 Tesco, Britain’s largest supermarket chain, carried 90,000 items, including 28 kinds of tomato ketchup. They planned to cut this to 60,000 to make shopping more efficient.

Mind. Blown.

How often do we grab the first thing we see, or give up and get a takeaway meal instead, in a mild state of panic? Those tempting offers and discounts take advantage of our frazzled brains, already worn out by too many choices from the moment we woke up.

In his TED talk Phil Hansen talks candidly about his quest to “Embrace the shake”. Well worth ten minutes of your time. He talks about losing the ability and will to create as he wished, and how he overcame a creative slump that lasted for years. He vividly describes becoming overwhelmed by possibility.

For writers, this equates not only to the empty page, but also to absent parameters. “Write a short story/novel/poem about anything” sounds great, till we sit down to start.

decisions-407750_960_720
image: geralt via pixabay

If all paths are open, which one should we take? Perhaps your stomach is already clenching at the very thought. But there is a way forward.

Creativity blossoms where there are restrictions.

The enemy of art is the absence of limitations.

attributed to Orson Welles

Put some walls in place, and ideas can bounce off them, finding surprising ways to fulfil the brief. It’s not only true for artists, because we all have constraints. Problem solving is a key skill for life.

If there are no constraints, there is no problem to solve.

We happen on a brilliant solution not by waving a hand or throwing money at problems, but by understanding that we must transcend apparently fixed parameters. We use only what we have been given to find another way.

This is a great way to recover creativity. Or to overcome the dread of the empty page. Or to continue when we we doubt our ability to get going.

Here are some suggestions. The first and most important step is to suspend judgement, the endless chatter of this is stupid/no good/worthless. It’s just practice.

The idea is to move forward and get ideas flowing, so that the energy feeds into your current project. First you need to loosen your creative muscles, like an athlete warning up.

  • Look around you, and write 100 words on the first red or blue object you see.
  • Construct a main dish using only the items in your fridge right now.
  • Pick up a book, turn to a random page. Look for the first word that is a noun, verb, or adjective. Write a one page story using that word, in ten minutes or less.
  • Paint using only shades of one colour.
  • Use random word generators, or a random first line generator, to get started. No more than ten minutes to create something using your preferred medium; words, images, music.
  • I highly recommend Phil Hansen‘s talk, where he gives great illustrated examples. He tried some surprising things. One might just be the spark you need to get started again.

Limiting our fictional characters can also be a good thing. Give her a seemingly impossible situation, and then she must fight her way out. Put him in a literal or metaphorical cage, and see how he responds. It’s a great way of showing character.

Sometimes, too many choices make us anxious. Then, we need a box as a starting point. It needs to be small enough that it doesn’t paralyse with too much possibility.

Big enough that imagination can stretch its wings and fly.

 

blog, writing process

31 day writing challenge 2018

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pexels

It’s time for another daily writing challenge.

I took part in Shaunta Grimes challenge to Ninja Writers last year, and it changed everything. I learned about Medium, about email lists and services, and just how hard it is to post daily. Even with planning, work and life in general easily derails the best laid plans. I barely made it to the end.

But I found a wonderful community of writers along the way, grew my list of followers, and although none of my posts went viral I was encouraged to keep going. After May 2017 I continued to post weekly, and reached out to publications who accepted my pieces. Gradually I felt more at home on Medium.

This time, I have three aims in mind.

Consistency
Community
Confidence

Consistency — posting every day without fail, learning to let go of the less perfect. As Steve Jobs said, real artists ship. I will experiment more widely with style and content. My plan is to post more fiction in serial form, as well as poetry and tips/advice. We’ll see what works.

Community — building a network of readers who enjoy my work, and a network of fellow writers for mutual advice and support is very important to me. One new follower per day is a modest goal. I will also read and comment on at least three posts daily.

Confidence — something that so many writers struggle with, including me. The only way to prove you can do it, is to do it. A positive response is always encouraging, but I’m going to write regardless. That was last year’s big lesson.

Best get to it.

blog, writing process

Exposing the real you

hiding girl hand_Pexels
pexels

 

I was afraid to publish my short story.

Not because it was risqué or difficult. I felt it was a great piece; honest and true. And that was the problem. It was too honest, too raw, and reading it over felt like dissecting a part of my heart and leaving it open for anyone to see.

This piece was not meant to be confessional. I wrote it for a competition, and I missed the deadline. As we all do, I drew on experience as well as imagination to create my world. Somehow what was normally hidden sneaked past my filters and on to the (virtual) page .

It sat on my hard drive for a while.

I considered, and rejected, the idea of a pseudonym.

How could I send this off to be judged, but hesitate to post it on my own media?

The difference was anonymity.

It was too close to uncomfortable truths. I usually bury those truths within the lie of fiction, but here they were all too visible. I hesitated to expose so much tender flesh.

Many writers know this feeling. What if someone who knows me reads it?

I wanted my stories to be strong. But I didn’t want to have to write them with my own blood.

I wrote about this on my blog while trying to find my courage.

Feel the fear

One day, heart pounding and mouth dry, I attached the story to a competition entry and pressed send. I felt sick.

Months later, heart pounding and mouth dry, I read that prize-winning story to an audience of writers. Many told me how they had been drawn in by the emotions portrayed.

The dilemma we face as artists is the need to be authentic, to bleed onto the page, while retaining  our emotional integrity. Deep connection with a story is visceral recognition, a punch in the gut that says yes more eloquently than any words could. And it is the drop of our blood, the moment of vulnerability, that makes the moment true.

So now, months and many thousands of words later, I am braver with weaving my true experiences and emotions into my stories. And  when readers message me to say yes, I felt that too, there is no better reward.

Be brave

I don’t suggest you should spill every secret on the page. But some experiences have lessons worth sharing. Show us a glimpse of your soul, show us what it is to be human.

When you hesitate because it feels too personal, write it.
When you pause because it’s still a little raw, write it.
When your heart pounds at the sight of those true words, write it.

Someone needs to read your words and feel understood.

blog, Pat Aitcheson writes, writing process

Press pause

stop to go forward

boat-aground_HypnoArt
HypnoArt via pixabay

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

It’s exhausting.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just don’t stop completely.

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

 

blog, 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.