Monthly Archives: July 2011

Welcome to the Era of Being Hurt by Too Much as Well as Too Little

After a long hiatus, I went to the movies this summer to see several films (Thor was very good), and I was stunned to notice how huge the sodas and popcorn bags are.

I’m old enough to remember when today’s “small” soda size was more like a  “large” back in the 1970s.

I wondered if maybe my memory was faulty, so I did some digging around, and found some outside sources that confirmed that this change wasn’t just in my head. Check out this portion quiz done by the National Institute of Health if you want to see how things have changed in the past 20 years. And here’s an article from several years back at USA Today that covers “Portion Distortion.”

For those of us in the U.S. with the money to pay for food, we can now literally eat ourselves into obesity and bad health if we aren’t paying attention to what is being served to us.  There are so many choices and the portions have gotten so oversized that we can literally eat our way to an early death.

And yet there are still people dying of famine and starvation in this world.

Welcome to the era of being hurt by too much as well as too little. And it isn’t going to just be too much food. It’s also going to be too much information, too much communication, and too many entertainment choices.

In the old days, most people could get away about not being mindful about what they were doing because either the choices were limited, the costs were high, or their disposable income was limited.

But prices are coming down and the technology barriers are falling. We’re about to have too much to choose from and deal with, instead of too little.  Think about it. Already there’s more blogs and e-books and video games than someone could  experience in a lifetime. Internet connections are on 24/7/365 through social media and cell phones, so that the communication demands never stop unless the person mindfully chooses to take a break.

Long ago, when I wanted to goof off from my homework by watching TV, I had only five channels to choose from. There were no VCRs. There was no cable. If I didn’t like what was on those five channels (which happened quite a lot), I was out of luck and had to find something else to do–like read a book, or stop procrastinating and finish my work.

Now I’ve got so much to choose from on my TV that I could spend my entire life on my couch watching show after show and never run out of things to watch. I find myself in an era where I have to make strict rules about TV usage (limits on the number of hours, and having to mindfully think about what I want to watch) or else I’d fritter the hours of my life away.

I’m willing to bet that time management is going to become a critical survival  skill. It was hard enough to manage time in the old days. Now someone’s entire life can easily disappear down a black hole of web surfing, social media, and entertainment, and the big dreams in life will never get done.

A big dream (for example, to become an archaeologist) requires long hours and hard work. It requires focus and dedication over decades. I find myself wondering how many people are going to wake up thirty years from now to discover that they’ve frittered their dreams away by not being able to manage the overabundance of having too much.

I speak of these things because I struggle with them on a daily basis. These days I must consciously remind myself to get off the internet, get away from the TV, or put down my e-reader. I can no longer rely on boredom to get me to stop an entertainment activity since the choices are almost limitless now.

I love it that favorite authors of mine are putting up their backlists in electronic format. I love being able to obtain and watch famous films that would have been unavailable to me in the past. But now I have think about what I want to do and experience, because the options are too vast otherwise.

I was told about Randy Pausch’s lecture on Time Management, which I watched and found a helpful introduction to various ideas and techniques. There are also books by Steven Covey and Peter Drucker that do a good job in teaching time management.

Through trial and error I’ve found one of the most useful questions for me to ask at the beginning of the day is, “When this day is over, what will I regret not getting done?”  Whatever things pop up become the major goals of the day and I do everything I possibly can to do them.

So let me leave readers with this question:

“When this day is over, what will you regret not getting done?”

Every Renown Writer Starts Out a Beginner

Every renown writer you love to read started out as a beginner.

This is so obvious, and yet it gets forgotten so easily since it’s the masterpieces that get remembered when we talk about our favorite dead writers…not the unpublished works and the weak stuff published early on (unless you’re an English major doing research or an obsessive fan).

Very often, people who are not artists or just starting out have this mental gap in their heads about the journey that an artist takes from beginner to master:

beginner———– > luck  ————> master

Mastery and success are attributed to luck.

Well, there’s a middle phase that gets left out:

beginner ——-> apprentice ——> journeyman —> (95% hard work, 5% luck) ——-> master

The apprentice phase for writers is equivalent to the law school phase for someone who wants to be a lawyer. This is the phase where a writer often has to get on a plane to study with a particular writing teacher or to attend a national-level writing workshop. In old novels or movies, this was the point where the young artist packed up to move to an international hub for artists like Paris or New York City or London.

And then there’s the journeyman phase, where the writer has started to sell his or her stories, but there’s still so much to learn. This phase lasts for years to decades, or even a lifetime if the writer decides to stop learning and coast.

As for mastery, it doesn’t spontaneously happen. Don’t ask me why, but people  seem to have a natural tendency to ignore the middle phase when they talk about a particular famous dead writer or fantasize aloud about how easy it would be to write a bestselling novel if they just had the time.

And yet it’s the hard work in journeyman phase that will make or break a writer in becoming a master of the craft.

I think one of the most valuable lessons a writer can do once past the beginner stage is to choose a couple of favorite writers (both living and dead) and read their early works.

So, for example, if you were a huge fan of Charlotte Bronte as a writer, you’d dig up a research book that had her unpublished first writings and probably also a copy of her first novel, The Professor.

Or how about William Shakespeare? Go read his earliest plays (researchers still fight about which play he wrote first, so I’d advise reading several). Then think about how we’d see him now if he’d stopped after those early plays and had never written anything more.

But make sure to also include some favorite recent writers who wrote over a long time frame, twenty years or more.  For example, I went out and bought collections of the early published short stories of three recent writers whose later works I loved to read:  John D. MacDonald’s More Good Stuff, Stephen King’s Night Shift, and James Lee Burke’s The Convict & Other Stories.

This turned out to be an eye-opening exercise for me as I read the unpublished  early works of old greats (such as Jane Austen) and early short stories of favorite present day NYT bestsellers.

Their early works weren’t as well-written as their later works were. They’d gotten better at their craft over time. Big shocker, right?

Of course not.

But I’ve noticed a lot of my fellow Americans like to see their artists as the equivalent of Athena jumping fully formed out of the skull of Zeus. The arts are supposed to be “easy.” You have either “got it” as an artist or you don’t. No hard work, no sweat, no tears, no frustration, no years of dedicated study–as if somehow the arts are different from every other human endeavor.

So reading the early works of these various writers impressed upon me, at a deep gut level, how craft gets better over time as one works at it. Hmm, let me put it bluntly. A few of the early works “sucked.” A few seemed like they showed “no talent.” And yet these writers persevered and became masters of their craft. It would have been a terrible thing if any of these writers had quit during the early days due to a mistaken idea that it was impossible to improve in writing skill.

Every writer starts out a beginner. Where we go from there is up to us.

Writing the Unmarketable Novel

Almost two years ago I finished a YA novel, Soul Cages, that I knew in my heart of hearts was going to be a nightmare for an editor to get past the sales & marketing department of a traditional publisher.

That’s because in my gut I knew it was going to be difficult to get any readers to even want to pick it up. I knew the book was in trouble sales-wise as soon as my usual first reader burst into tears while reading the synopsis, and then refused to read the manuscript. I had to get other readers to take over for that book. Most ended up loving the story, but I never forgot the response of that first reader.

Seeing your first reader cry in sorrow really sucks.

Let’s face it. Most of the time, readers are coming to a story to mentally relax for a while. They’re coming for entertainment. I’d written a story that was a weird horror/romance/special issues tribute to Judy Blume, C. S. Lewis, and Stephen King in one go. It dealt with ugly nasty stuff like family abuse, the way kids with Asperger’s sometimes get treated badly, the abuse of Scripture in the Bible to justify cruelty, and anti-Semitism…among other things.

None of that stuff is appealing for entertainment. Ugh, who wants to read all  that after a bad day?

The novel went through several rounds of editing, but there comes a point when you realize as a writer that you can only make a weird “Frankenstein” novel  marketable by censoring your protagonist and mutilating the story by chopping it up. Chop out the romance, or chop out the horror, or chop out the Asperger’s.

In the end I decided to leave the main character alone. It was her story, not mine, and I decided to let her story stand as she’d told it to me, and I went on to write new stories.

And it was the best decision I ever made. I’ve written another novel and many  short stories since I put Soul Cages to rest, and a lot of exciting things have been happening behind the scenes these last six months. Things that would not have happened if I had attempted to keep rewriting Soul Cages to death.

Soul Cages itself has been released in e-book form, and it is still under consideration with a certain midsize traditional publishing house (though I suspect in the end the editor will fail in getting it past marketing).

I’ve done no email blasts, no blog tours, no ads, no book launch party, no “push” of any sort. And I don’t intend to. My limited work time is better spent writing new stories to improve my craft, and some of those new stories will prove to be more marketable–i.e. more appealing to readers–than Soul Cages is.

But am I sorry that I wrote Soul Cages? Do I feel I wasted my time by working on an unmarketable novel?

No.

I think it’s good for an artist to write at least one story where it feels like you’re spitting in the eye of the market. Writing that unmarketable novel made me a better writer by making me a gutsier writer, and I think I’ll be reaping the benefits for decades to come.

Hillary Rettig on Dealing With an Inner Critic

Hillary Rettig has gone and written a very helpful post, “Writing Isn’t Hard!” on a favorite technique for dealing with an inner critic while writing. She’s been gathering all kinds of productivity tips and techniques and experiences for a book for writers called The Seven Secrets of the Prolific that will be coming out in August.

Shutting Up Your Inner Critic

Dean Wesley Smith reposted an edited version of his essay on the attitude that “Writing is Hard,” and it got me thinking about how to get the inner critic to shut up. You know, the inner voice that says, “This sucks! You suck!” when you’re trying to get your first draft written.

I just came up with a nifty technique for shutting up the inner critic that I’d like to share. It’s sort of a mental combo of National Novel Writing Month‘s daily word quota assignment, Laura Resnick’s essay “The Long Haul” in Rejections, Romance, and Royalties where she compares writing to trucking, several episodes of Dirty Jobs with Mike Rowe, and thinking about my past experiences as a cafeteria worker.

Step 1: Choose a down-to-earth analogy for writing. It can be trucking, bricklaying, road paving, plumbing, cafeteria cooking, whatever. However, choosing an environment that will make your inner critic feel uncomfortable to be in is a definite plus.

Step 1 Example: I really liked Laura Resnick’s trucking analogy for writing a long fantasy novel, so I chose trucking. Instead of meeting daily mileage goals, I’d be meeting word quota goals. But the mindset had to be the same. I have yet to hear a story about a trucker moping at a truck stop about how his inner critic keeps  telling him his driving sucks…and so he’s stopped driving in mid-journey.

Step 2: Hone in on that inner critic voice that keeps showing up when you’re trying to write. Give it a physical persona that you can visualize in your mind–what does he or she wear? look like? what profession? etc.  (Note, if it takes on a persona that won’t be intimidated by the analogy chosen in Step 1, choose a new analogy.)

Step 2 Example: When I honed in on my inner critic voice, it morphed into an English professor guy who likes to wear tweed.

Step 3:Imagine your supervisor for your analogy to writing.

Step 3 Example: I found myself visualizing that I worked for “Flo.” She runs a small trucking company in North Carolina and loves to eat cole slaw burgers for lunch. There’s a stack of James Lee Burke and Nora Roberts paperbacks on the corner of her desk that she likes to read during breaks. Often she wears NASCAR T-shirts. She has 0% patience for whining or crap.  The trucking garage smells of diesel and there’s the rumble of engines as trucks pull up or drive off.

Step 4: The next time the inner critic voice shows up during a writing session, tell it “Go away. I’ve got a quota for this first draft I’ve got to meet.”  If the critic refuses to go away, make him or her go visit your supervisor to complain.

Step 4 Example: When Dr. Inner Critic showed up and wouldn’t shut up during the first draft work I was doing, I imagined sending him off to Flo to whine at her instead about the quality of my writing. Writers, by training, have very vivid imaginations. My imagination gave me a whole short scene of Inner Critic beginning his whine about my writing, and losing steam as Flo glared at him. Then she asked him, “Are you going to do L.M.’s work?” which made him hunch up as he replied, “No.” Then she ripped into him verbally with insults about his stupidity and laziness until he slunk off. I got back to work since there was a quota to meet. Inner Critic left me alone since showing up again would mean  another yellfest from Flo.

These days, whenever an inner critic voice pops up during the writing of a first draft, I do the steps above, and it shuts that voice up darn quick. I hope it does likewise for you all. Good luck!