Friday, May 25, 2012

Give Back to Yourself -- Acknowledge Your Strengths

I have concentrated on criticism, whether constructive or destructive, for the past few posts (and a few in the past dealing with conformity), because in writing we need to lead with our strengths. To do so, it takes acknowledging that we have more strengths than weaknesses. After all, it takes a strong spirit and belief in yourself to continue writing despite all obstacles.

Building self esteem may help, but it's more about recognizing what you do day by day to embrace a writing life free of self-doubts.

In pursuit of that ideal, let me give you a checklist of things to work on in acknowledging and building your strengths:

1. Determine your own success. This means not depending on any "experts" to tell you how success should look, feel or be accomplished.
2. Celebrate those successes. Buy a book on gardening, instead of another one on how to write or succeed in writing. Or use the funds for a trip that you have put off until you "made it big."
3. Say you love to write out loud, every day. This is one piece of advice that makes absolute sense. Our self-talk is often self-defeating.
4. Don't defend or define your need to write. This includes having to answer the inevitable question: "What have you published?"
5. Play with words and ideas. If you write for a business or corporation, it takes reshaping how you approach a writing life on your own time. This can be done by playing with the words or overriding the restrictions you face every day, if only in a five-minute free-for-all of irreverence.
6. Acknowledge the changes you seek as positive moves forward for you.

I'm going to post only once or twice a week for a few months because I'm taking four classes toward a degree in computer media and a certificate in programming. Please bear with me.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Own Your Imagination and Work

In a world of online ease and work productivity, the software we use often comes with a price. That price in both dollars (pesos, Euros, etc.) and conformity can warp reality and demand a writer's soul in exchange for a steady job. Or at least that idea is what scared me about a recent discussion on LinkedIn about the evolution of workware (my word) and ownership issues.

The original article touted the "death of the document" and the need for programming, which would allow workers to cut and paste across a corporation. Innocuous on the surface, this idea of taking all creativity out of corporate communication even bothers the editor in me who makes a good living on understanding house and specialty style guides and adhering to standards. I would rather wade through someone's original ideas, which ultimately could help that writer grow in his or her ability to think and write, than have the job "simplified."

Don't get me wrong, I am forever grateful to the programmers who shared HTML, JavaScript and cascading style sheets. And in that spirit, any coding that I create that would help further the work in that community is freely shared. But my writing is personal, and just because someone came up with the alphabet eons ago doesn't mean the "community" owns my private works.

The very idea that all writing should come down to topics, content and conclusions, which workware encourages, says that the technical and scientific worlds have no room for original works. As a writer who appreciates the occasional software guide that is witty or even charming in its approach, leave our documents alone and let writers in every field "own" their creativity.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Read for Pleasure

Although many college English courses advise writers to read in order to hone their authorial skills, the real motive behind this is to teach students to think like researchers. Of course, that is my opinion. But telling a writer to read is like advising artists to look at artwork:  It should be a given.

We learn to love books and creative writing by growing up with books that we love and exploring as many different writing styles as possible, not by tearing apart what others believe are great works. Or, at least, that is how I have grown as a writer.

In high school English we delved into both "A Separate Peace" and "Romeo and Juliet." My bookshelf still holds the first because it made a difference to me due to its symbolism. Other books, along with short stories, were ruined because teachers or professors couldn't leave well enough alone. Most touted reading comprehension as the outcome of reading, rather than savoring the lyricism of words and the mind-stretching ability of writers to speak in more than one literary language. In other words, we need to decide for ourselves what to take away from any book, essay, poem or play.

Let others carve books up based on the academic pursuit of verifiable literary worthiness, but leave me to enjoy what I believe the author was saying to me alone. A little self-indulgency keeps a writer loving the process and can help avoid the restrictions inherent in believing that the readership is set in stone and cannot be tempted to stray.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Find a Good Editor & Ditch the Critiques

This post has taken a few days to finish due to a conflict in the way criticism is viewed and voiced online as almost a rite of passage, when writers often need an objective assessment more. Criticism is only for the ironclad, for the most part. (This relates to the competitive edge that cuts some writers, while it holds others aloft.) So, before you venture out with your writing into the world of critiques, consider carefully the source and any ulterior motives.

Unfortunately,  slash and dash commentaries eviscerate anything and everything deemed "different" or "not like me"  Critics put the personal and subjective out front and with pride. This isn't to say that a critical assessment isn't needed at times, just that it requires an editor more than someone with a greater opinion of her or his own talents than those of the writer.

I would rather have a good editor than a critic at any point along the journey. An objective eye for the repetitive nature of starting every paragraph with a "the" or changing the first or last name of a main character in the fifth chapter is worth far more than a person stating that a work is "mundane or pedantic." One person sets out to help, the other to destroy.

As a writer who appreciates honesty when it is given in small doses and privately, I'm also aware that all writers must face critics to be published. But it goes so much better if a good edit is performed first.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

A Mentor Be or Find

A friend's love of science is a constant reminder of how creativity is found in everything that allows us to try and fail, yet succeed in the end. She has also passed on that passion for science year after year as a teacher and a biologist who can name all the wildflowers and plants that most of us must look up.  However, a deep down belief in the creativity of science, rather than a rock-solid discipline, came after talking to a research assistant who believed in science's inherent creativity.

My friend inspires me to write because of her brilliance. Other people I know or have known also serve as mentors through commitments to everything from cancer support groups to computer coding.

For the most part, however, other writers need to concentrate on their own writing rather than serve as advisers. That doesn't mean that another writer can't be a mentor, but it takes someone who is secure enough in their own style not to lose their voice in the words of someone else.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Over or Under Generalizing

What is your specialty as a writer? If you answered in genre terms rather than based on your strengths in  writing dialogue, plot or characterizations, it may be that you have listened to far too many "experts" who advise digging into a specialized niche.

Granted, being a generalist presents its own problems for those who can't quite decide after three or four chapters whether to continue the book as a mystery, fantasy, literary epic or romance. But at least this type of writer could produce a different genre entirely. (I'm ever hopeful.)

As always, if you can terrify someone with words, bring to life magical lands, plot the perfect murder, after murder, or take the reader out of this world, then continue to carve out your niche.

For those writers who love to play with any and all of these aspects in writing short stories and books, keep in mind that the one person you need to please is yourself. A few years back, I was warned that the science fiction series I was writing for young adults would never find a publisher because middle  and high school readers weren't reading the genre. Now, many believe that YA readers could save science fiction, again.

That series embraces only one of several genres I play with, revise and rework until they sing to me. Fortunately, as writers we have many more options to get our works read and bought than in the past. So much is possible for both the specialized and generalized author.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Contests Contested

Do you find yourself on a seesaw when deciding whether writing contests are good or bad? If so, you are among friends. A recent blog post that got raves on a social networking site warned that a writer's work would be stolen and claimed by the individual or individuals sponsoring a contest, any contest. On the other end, many advice columns claim these contests are ways to gain confidence and exposure for little or no money.

The truth lies somewhere in between all loss and true gains.

First, let me tell you about a former fellow student who won $20,000 in a short story writing contest with a story she shared during class. I envied her before the win because she was also a sculptor who knew how to get into the creative flow. After, although many studies show that competition can spur both creative problem solving and motivation, my reaction was less than generous. (After all, only the prestigious contests pay out that much.)

Writing contests tempt us to put our writing out in the real world, and apparently encourage the lone writer to engage in competition that will yield more than angst. The way competition is seen in research, dating as far back as the 1800s, depends on the context.

In sports such as cycling, adding just one rider to the mix encouraged both riders to push themselves to better times and feel more successful, according to an article at social-facilitation-how-and-when-audiences-improve-performance.php. In 1898, researcher Norman Triplett reported that both cyclists and children tended to perform faster, if not better, when competing against others.

In a recent (2011) study of musicians who improvise, Jacob Eisenberg, of the University College Dublin School of Business, and William Forde Thompson, of the Macquarie University Department of Psychology, found that individuals who enjoy competition gained an intrinsic value from competing. In addition, Eisenberg and Forde Thompson discovered that the performances were judged as better when the musicians were more stressed because of the competition.

If you believe you are ready to enter a writing contest, consider whether you thrive or suffer when it comes to competition. However, every writer must face rejection at certain points along the line.

Fortunately for us, we don't have to go it alone due to features like the Science Fiction Writers of America's "Writers Beware" page that provide a starting point for deciding whether the risks are greater than a writer's desire to be published at the moment.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

A Writing Home

No matter where we write, it's home. That is why when someone suggests that we carve a small space in which to create out of a communal space, it drives me crazy.

The reason Virginia Woolfe wrote essays on a "Room of One's Own" was to lament the fact that women often give or have even a corner they carve out wrenched away in the name of "community." As a community of writers, we are often told that we should settle for the least when we have the world around us to "own."

So, if you are tasked with making due with a corner of a kitchen table, the bathroom sink edge or a dark corner of a front porch, please understand that a bookstore or a coffee shop is a much better place to write. To me, libraries are just too quiet, with any conversation or movement too distracting.

At a university, the best place to write is in the cafeteria because no one tells a student to leave. The noise is also just enough not to harm your hearing, but still aids concentration and writing dialogue.

If home is where you prefer to write, then ensure that you claim the space you need rather than making do. Otherwise, you are telling yourself and the world at large that writing can be contained.

Friday, May 4, 2012

The Drawn-out Outline

Proponents of outlining books and stories far outnumber those of us who believe outlines do more harm than good. So for those of you who swear by the standard decked, organized thought process that outlining represents, please continue.

For the rest of us, who have dutifully tried and had too many works die this way, there's got to be a better way to organically work through longer narratives without resorting to this structural dead end. (If this sounds similar to my post on is.) Have you ever shared a story you are writing with a friend, only to feel that it had been written and you didn't need to finish the tale?

No matter how you put together an outline, the basic idea is the same. You decide the main topic, add subtopics and explanations, partition the facts into understandable chapters or subheadings and conclude with a reasonable ending. The very nature of this organizational "tool" is to tame the creative urge.

I will concede, however, that despite all the downsides of this organizational aid, it may be the tool many fall back on just because nothing has come along that works better. Here are two suggestions to aid in the search to organize more visually:

  • Notecards: I have tried using notecards with colored inks, along with using the Microsoft cards that come with the Windows operating systems, all with no long-term success. However, the ability of some apps to "gather" the notes and make them searchable is worth researching.
  • Mindmapping: Whether on paper, a computer or through an app, being able to brainstorm rather than organize as you go along can help some writers push through the organizational maze.

If you have any other suggestions, please let me know by commenting.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Love What You Do and Write

This is a reconstruction, rather than a deconstruction, of one piece of advice. When we are passionate about what we write, then the urge to create flows.

The moment we lose sight of why writing draws us in day after day and year after year, when it becomes a drudge instead of a joy, this calling becomes just another job. This can happen if we depend on others to define what writing means to us as individuals.

For instance, it may be grief that drives you to write, or peace that feeds the muse. The wide array of emotions and how we perceive them are the driving factors and motivators in creation.

E. Paul Torrance talks about loving what you do in his 1995 paper, "Insights About Creativity: Questioned, Rejected, Ridiculed, Ignored." As the title spells out, he is one writer and researcher who continues to push forward because he must:
 "Very early in my attempts to understand what made for creative achievement, I developed the insight that being in love with what you are doing was very important in creative achievement. I began collecting data that would enable me to find out."
In all fields, we have amazing discoveries because inventors, writers, artists, researchers and others loved what they were doing. Ultimately, being a writer should make you feel good about yourself and everything you accomplish, large and small.