Tag Archives: Psychology of writing

Links: the extrordinary poet Ruth Stone, and Barnes & Noble

In case anyone missed it back in November, you can read about the extraordinary poet Ruth Stone in the New York Times. I call her extraordinary not only because of her talent, but also because of her steadfast refusal during her lifetime to quit doing what she loved most: writing poetry.

She finally achieved literary success at the age 87 when she received a National Book Award in 2002. She’d been a poet for over 50 years by then and despite all she had been through had kept writing.

I couldn’t help thinking as I read about her life–what if she had given up on poetry in her fifties and sixties when things were rough? What if she hadn’t kept going? It was in her seventies that she began to break through.

In other links, Digital Book World has two great articles: one on Barnes & Noble’s strengths, and one on Barnes & Noble’s weaknesses. The article on the weaknesses includes a look at Amazon’s KDP program to contrast it to Barnes & Noble’s Pubit that is well worth the time to read.

The Time of Turtle Steps

For the past month, every time I sat down to write a major post about goals, productivity, and other topics of interest to me, I’ve ended up tossing out what I wrote instead of posting it. Too much of it read like boring platitudes.

I was probably spouting too many platitudes because there were a couple of life crises that happened during the last two months behind the scenes, and as a result I had to hunker down and focus on using what little time I had to just write. Everything else–blogging; getting the editing done on stories to be published as ebooks; marketing plans–got temporarily paused.

I now call times like these the “Time of Turtle Steps,” because even when I keep working, I feel like a turtle surrounded by hares. It feels like everyone else is racing past me while I plod along far, far behind.

And yet, I’ve now learned enough to know that I’m wrong. Those turtle steps add up over time if I keep doing them step by step by step…the hard part is to keep going. Too often we stop out of despair.

Let me give an example from my own experience. In October, a couple of crises hit at the same time.

I wasted a lot of mental energy in October beating myself up for my slowed pace in writing and in working on my career. There was little time to write, and my final word count for the month was 23,255 words.

In November, I decided that while I couldn’t participate in NaNoWriMo since I wanted to keep working on my novel in progress, I could at least change my attitude and stop beating myself up. The crises continued to eat up lots of time in November, but once I accepted that I was a turtle, I found I could mentally relax and enjoy the writing more when an opportunity appeared to grab an hour to write, and I passed the 50,000 word mark for November two days ago.

So my productivity more than doubled once I stopped beating myself up about my writing pace and lack of time to do career tasks.

There are times in our lives when a crisis hits and we have to jettison everything but the most essential tasks. Be kind to yourself and don’t beat yourself up for the slowed pace. It’ll just make it harder to get anything done.

Be a turtle. Do each step by step by step, and keep going…and you’ll be surprised by how far you can get in a month. I certainly was.

The Madness of Perfectionism

I hate making mistakes, no matter how small. Hate, hate, hate it. I’m one of those perfectionists that psychologists like to lecture about. And I know I’m not alone in the world–there’s a whole lot of perfectionists I know.

Being a perfectionist is a pain in the butt when it’s out of control, because it means one can get stuck in a rut of endless actions done over and over and over, or else one quits too soon. It’s an “all or nothing” mindset.

It’s a good thing babies don’t have this trait. Can you imagine a baby deciding after his first babble: “Hey, that didn’t make sense at all. I must have no ability for talking. I might as well quit now and stay silent.”

And yet I’ve seen people quit endeavors after one or two tries because they weren’t perfect at it. Perfectionism, when allowed to reign out of control, can shackle us in mental chains. We give up too soon. Or don’t even try at all, telling ourselves, “There’s no point, I’d screw it up anyway.”

As a perfectionist who loves to write, there are days when I wonder if I’m just a glutton for self-punishment by doing fiction writing on a daily basis. There are so many balls that need to be kept in the air during the writer’s juggle: plot, characterization, setting, narration style, word choices, grammar, structure, etc….no matter how a writer tries, there’s going to be mistakes.

For instance, I just got back today a corrected novel manuscript from the copy editor, and discovered that I’d accidentally left out a few bits of information about one of the villains that readers needed to know.  As the writer I can see into all the character’s heads at the same time, but the reader can only see into the characters by the words that were written on the manuscript page.  That’s why writers have first readers go over a manuscript–no matter how hard we try, we will not fill in all of the “lost” information the reader needs.

Still drives me bonkers when I forget to write something down for readers. I’m a perfectionist. I want to get it right the first time.

I’ve had to learn to accept that mistakes are going to happen. I still get upset, but at least I no longer quit or cycle endlessly in revisions. I find it helps to remind myself about my years in QA in the software industry, and how there was a point in the software release cycle where there were diminishing returns on the investment of time in revisions. There comes a point where a manuscript–or a piece of software–begins to fall apart the more you mess with it.

I’ve always like the advice one old pro gave me, which was, “Once you find yourself changing something in the manuscript, then changing it back to how it was before, it’s time to stop revising and send it off.”

There are days I’m sorely tempted to take the current urban fantasy manuscript that is being edited and hide it so that it’ll never see the light of day, even though it’s been read by an editor, several fellow writers, a careful first reader, and a copy editor at this point. My perfectionism flaring up.

I have to keep reminding myself that there comes a point that a piece of work needs to be released into the world to fend its way on its own.

Also, if I’m continually redoing old work to death, new work won’t get done, ala George Lucas and his endless revisions of the Star Wars films. Lucas is going to end up the patron saint of perfectionism at this rate. :P

So when perfectionism rears its ugly head, remember Saint George…

The Power of Kickstarter and Other Links

I’ve been swamped with writing and editing work, so that’s why I’ve been so quiet here on the blog for a bit. But there’s some links I want to share before I forget.

Everyone has probably heard all about Kickstarter (the funding platform for creative projects), but if you haven’t, go and check them out! Kickstarter is proving to be a great way for professional artists to get the start-up funds they need and for people to support favorite artists and web shows. For example:

A writer friend of mine, Annie Bellet, was able to successfully use Kickstarter to help fund her tuition to Clarion this past summer.

The web show Put This On just successfully raised over $70,000 to film Season Two.

Travis Hanson, a fantasy/comics illustrator I got to meet briefly at Albuquerque Comic Con, has successfully raised the funds he needs to print his web comic in book format.

Money has always been an issue for artists, especially filmmakers and illustrators, so the rise of crowd-sourcing such as Kickstarter excites me to no end.

In other news, Dean Wesley Smith has an important technology blog post on how writers, publishers, and booksellers can use Book Cards to market an e-book cheaply and attract readers into independent bookstores to buy e-books for their e-readers. WMG Publishing and Lucky Bat Books were passing out the first ever e-book cards at Worldcon to show off this brand new marketing idea.

And 20+ year pro Bob Mayer has some blunt, quick advice on how to be a fiction writer that has a career that lasts for decades.

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.