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writing

The Difference between a Job and a Calling

SAMSUNGMost of us have and/or need jobs. Jobs pay the bills and keep the lights on. But not everyone has a calling, or is even interested in finding out what it might be if they do.

Writers are different.

Almost all writers know they have a calling, and they know their calling is to write.

If you’re not sure of the difference, how can you tell?

Examine your reasons. And then explore your emotions.

Let’s use one of my fictional characters as an example:

Oliver is a writer by night. He writes dark fantasy novels about his hero, Octavio Sash, and his villain, the sinister Letitia von Campidonni. Oliver is passionate about world-building and battle scenes and he stays up late to get more pages down. By day, he works tech support for a corporate cable company. He sits in a call center and answers repetitive phone calls.

Here are Oliver’s reasons behind his choice to work tech support:

He needs to pay rent
He needs to pay all his other bills
He’s had tech support jobs before and so he already knows how to do it
Inertia

Here are Oliver’s emotions about working tech support:

Contentment (sometimes)
Frustration (sometimes)
Apathy (all the time)

You can see that if Oliver’s reasons and emotions were put on a graph, they would probably chart a steady line with a few tiny bumps here and there.

Now here are Oliver’s reasons behind his choice to write:

When he isn’t writing he feels like something important is missing from his life
He has always loved books and is naturally drawn to writing
Making up stories is something his brain does on its own, he can’t stop from doing it

Here are his emotions about writing:

Joy
Excitement
Accomplishment
Pride

…and a dozen others that can be summed up in just one word: Happiness.

If Oliver’s reasons and emotions about his writing were put on a graph, the line would go up and up and up.

Sometimes, too, the line would suddenly plunge down. That’s when Oliver falls into doubting himself or runs into seemingly impossible problems in his story. But when the line starts climbing up again, it climbs even higher than before. That’s because Oliver had to push himself beyond his boundaries, he had to grow, to stick with his calling.

A job that is “just a job” very rarely pushes us to grow. But our calling never stops pushing.

We all have bills to pay. I’m not suggesting you give up your day job. What I am suggesting is that you start giving your calling top priority. Your writing is the thing in your life that brings you joy, and excitement, and that delicious feeling of riding the line to the top of the graph. The most important thing you can do is feed it—with your love, your belief, your time and energy.

You will always find something else to do to pay the rent. You will never find another calling. Writing is it for you, you drew those cards. Own it. Start writing as if it’s the most important thing in your life.

Because it is.

 

Why You Can’t Finish Your Novel

SAMSUNGSometimes we get sidetracked from our current writing project. A life crisis occurs, we get a promotion at our day job that includes more hours to be worked, or we get an idea for a new project that’s just begging to be written right now. These are all valid reasons for putting your novel on the shelf and planning to come back to it later. And these are not the reasons I’m addressing in this post. Instead, I’m talking about the situation where you’re halfway through, or three quarters, almost there…but you just can’t seem to pull through it. You feel blocked, congested, and hopeless when you think about your chances of ever having a completed manuscript to show anyone.

Why is this happening? You got this far, so why can’t you keep going? What’s stopping you?

It’s called Fear. Also known in some circles as Resistance.

Fear is a sneaky, snaky kind of operator, and it specializes in using your own voice to trick you. It wears dozens of different masks. But once you spot Fear at work and you know what you’re dealing with, your odds of dissolving it go up astronomically. When it comes to finishing your novel, you can recognize Fear in a few different costumes:

Perfectionism
In this guise Fear tells you that your writing isn’t good enough…yet. It promises that if you just revise a couple more times, and comb through every word again, you can make your novel perfect. What is Fear’s definition of “perfect”? Well, it never gets specific on that. It implies that it will be everything you ever dreamed, and no one in the entire world will have cause to criticize it, ever. Of course, reading this now you can see how irrational that is. But when Fear starts whispering the promises of the perfect in your ear, it’s much harder to resist.

Solution: Get to know the difference between “polished” and “perfect.” Polished is when you’ve given it your best effort and the end result is that you show it to someone—anyone. Perfect is like chasing the horizon. Polished is you moving forward. Perfect does nothing but hold you back.

Constant Comparison
We all have idols, and as writers our idols tend to be other writers. And when we first start writing, we tend to imitate those writer-idols we love the most. So when we read back over our work, it’s very easy to think, “This doesn’t sound half as funny as David Sedaris. I’m so lame.” Or, “Charles Bukowski managed to sound like an alcoholic and a profound poet, I just sound like an alcoholic.” The truth is, you are not David Sedaris or Charles Bukowski. You are not anyone else but YOU. And that’s actually totally cool. Because the world doesn’t need another David Sedaris or Charles Bukowski. It needs you.

Solution: Self-acceptance. You are what you are. That means you look like you, you act like you, and yup, you guessed it—you write like you. Write like yourself, and then set the goal to learn to like your own writing.

The Myth of Never-Been-Done-Before
Because our culture is filled with adoration for those who broke through those barriers of the never-been-done-before—Picasso, Beckett, Steve Jobs—we get obsessed with this notion that if something has been seen or done before, then it’s not worth creating something similar now. This is absolutely not true. Think about the character of Merlin. How may wizards have been based on him? For instance, Richard Harris played Dumbledore in the first Harry Potter and Ian McKellan played Gandalf in the Lord of the Rings. Can you picture either of those actors saying, “What?! Another wizard character? It’s so overdone! I won’t do it!” Of course not. Because no matter how many wizards show up in our stories, there is always room for one more. It’s the person behind the wizard—the writer or actor—who makes all the difference.

Solution: Google “archetypes” and see what comes up. Look into it. Seriously. You’ll see that everything has been done before. Just like the human body comes with two hands and ten fingers, it also comes with a human brain. We don’t think that differently from anyone else on earth. After you’ve studied up on archetypes, revisit your previous task of self-acceptance. Learn to love your own ideas simply because they came from you.

And lastly…

You’re Just Plain Scared
This one is the hardest, I think. There is no solution that makes you magically not scared anymore. I was so terrified of finishing my first novel that I kept writing, and writing, and writing…for months after I should have been done with it. When I finally wrapped it up, I’d written over 900 pages.

Do you know how difficult it is to find someone willing to read your 900-page attempt at a first novel?

I don’t regret doing things that way because I learned a lot. But later I saw that I let my fear hold me back. I was so scared that I wasn’t cut out to be a writer that I didn’t even give anyone the chance of being my first reader. And I still get scared. But the difference now is that I keep moving through the fear. I write that last chapter anyway and then hope for the best.

Solution: That saying really is true, you know. Feel the fear and do it anyway.

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Right Brain vs. Left Brain

Right Brain-Left Brain Theory has enjoyed rising popularity in recent years. In a nutshell, the theory states that the right side of your brain handles the intuitive, expressive, emotional stuff, and the left side handles the analytical, rational logical stuff. Now, whether or not you subscribe to the belief that certain people are more “right-brained” or “left-brained” you can use the basics of this framework to tap into some of your best creative writing.

Buddha and Mariachi

Imagine that you could drive your mind like you drive a car. If you want to go anywhere, pick a gear and stick with it.

Right-brain writing work is putting yourself in DRIVE. You’re moving forward, sometimes so fast you can’t really stop and look around. That’s your writing gear. Left-brain work is putting yourself in REVERSE. You’re backing up slowly to see what you might have missed. That’s your editing/revising gear. Just like a car, you can’t be in two gears at once. And if you shift rapidly back and forth between DRIVE and REVERSE, you won’t cover very much ground.

DRIVE: Let Your Right Brain PLAY
Writing your first draft, tackling those first few pages, getting your thoughts out of your head and down onto paper—those are all Right Brain writing functions. You’re driving. And if you allow yourself to stay in drive, you might even jump on the freeway and discover all kinds of new locales.

This is what we call Creative Flow. It means moving your energy into a state of opening and allowing. It means surrendering to the words pouring out of you, even if somewhere inside you’re still cringing at your word choice or struggling to describe something. You open to the experience. You allow yourself to make mistakes. After about five or six pages of nonstop writing, your subconscious will really start cooking, and this is where the awesome juicy stuff will start coming out of you.

Just like a car, your creative engine needs time to warm up. And in order to become the best driver you can be, you have to drive on a regular basis. Sit down, every single week, and push yourself to write nonstop—at least five or six pages. Surrender to the flow, even if you can’t make sense out of it.

REVERSE: Let Your Left Brain JUDGE
Critiquing your work, adding and cutting material, combing the pages for typos—these are all Left Brain writing functions. You’re backing up to see what you missed the first time through. These logical, analytical functions all have their place, but in creative writing that place comes when you have a finished sloppy first draft of your manuscript.

This is what we call Revision. All writers have to revise. (Yes, even Ernest Hemingway.) When you revise your work you’re bringing in your careful, critical eye. You’re asking questions like, “Will this make sense to the reader?” “Can my opening line be better?” “How can they fly to Saturn if they need pink elephant juice to do it?” The energy of revision is slow, nit-picky, and judgmental.

Just like when you’re driving a car, sometimes it’s necessary to back up and change direction. And when you’re backing up, you have to do it slowly and check all your mirrors. In order to master creative writing, you need to hone your craft. Let your inner critic come out to poke holes in all your lovely plans—as long as it’s after you’ve finished your first sloppy draft.

The more you write, the better you’ll get at letting go and surrendering to the flow. When it comes time to revise your first sloppy draft, you’ll get good at zeroing in on problems and issues. I’ll be covering both processes in much more detail with the goal of giving you comprehensive how-to guides for finishing that first draft, and revising it for outside readers later.

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Writing vs. Editing

REAL Spanish Moss

One of the stickiest issues writers tend to get caught up on is writing vs. editing. This happens especially if you’re working on your first manuscript, because you really have no idea what it’s supposed to look like.

There are a few common traps writers can fall into…

Writing a few pages and then re-reading them over and over again
The more you reread your first rough draft the more mistakes you will find. You’ll notice typos, feel the urge to add information and cut sentences, and cringe at the awkwardness of some of it. That’s totally normal. Every first sloppy draft is rambling and awkward or sparse and misspelled. That’s why it’s called your first sloppy draft.

Trying to revise and edit after writing every few pages only blocks your creative flow. You start focusing on everything that’s wrong instead of everything that’s right. You lose the enthusiastic, excited feeling of creating the story and descend into the nit-picky, critical vibe of dissecting all its problems.

Solution: Write a few pages every day, or every week, and then put those pages aside and write the next few pages. Only look back—and do it briefly—to give yourself a reminder of where you are in the story.

Starting with an outline of the story and then refusing to budge from it
Outlines can be helpful, yes, but there is no way you’re going to know how every chapter of your story plays out until you write it. You might have a pretty good idea of how it’s all going to end, or the message behind the action, but you will also find that a lot of the time your characters have their own ideas of what they want to do.

When you stubbornly stick to your outline and ignore your characters’ desires, they will punish you for it. By bringing in the attitude of resistance and rigidity, you block your creative flow. Creating your story is all about trust, and playfulness. Writing is actually supposed to be fun. You have plenty of time to restructure and revise later.

Solution: Let your story stream out of you as it comes. Let yourself have fun, and let it all hang out in your sloppy first draft. If you deviate from your outline, so be it. Creativity doesn’t work on schedule.

Seeking feedback too soon
Getting an objective critique from readers is essential to any writer who is sincerely trying to hone their craft, but there’s a time and place for everything. If you’ve just started your novel, or it’s your first novel and you’re feeling very raw and nervous about it, it’s not always helpful to seek objective feedback right away. Not only can it shut you down emotionally about the work, but you also might end up writing for the reader (trying to anticipate what they will and won’t like) and sacrificing your own individual writing voice.

The first sloppy draft of any creative work is like a tiny, quivering flame that you’re trying to grow into a full-fledged bonfire. It needs the right kind of fuel to keep it going and protection from the wind. When you get to the bonfire stage (i.e., you have an entire finished draft), then feel free to invite a bunch of friends over to toast marshmallows.

Solution: In the early stages, if someone even breathes too harshly on your idea, it could go out. Keep your story close to you and protect it from prying eyes for a while. Use your energies to concentrate on adding a little more to it each day.

Each of the traps I’ve covered above all have to do with making sure you keep your creative flow open and preventing the blockage of that flow. There is a reason that editing/revising work tends to dampen our creative flame, and it can be explained using Right-Brain, Left-Brain Theory. We’ll examine that in detail next post.

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Beginning Your Book

SAMSUNGStarting really is the hardest part.

If you’ve never written a book before you probably have a lot of assumptions and misconceptions about how it’s done. Before I wrote my first book I thought writers were divided into two categories. The first was the Ernest Hemingway writer. I pictured these kinds of writers sitting down at an orderly desk and writing slow, thoughtful sentences that came out brilliant and precise. The second type of writer I imagined was the Jack Kerouac or Philip K. Dick kind of writer. These kinds of writers drank two pots of coffee, took a bottle of pills, and then stayed up all night and the whole next day ripping through their work of genius. At the end of three days they had a completed manuscript and it was a new order of art that no one had ever seen before.

So when I sat down to start my own book and my mind went blank and I felt like a moron and wrote my first line as, “It was the middle of the night and it was really dark,” I thought it was a sure sign that I just wasn’t cut out to be a writer.

But guess what? Most writers feel like that. Seriously, they do. You are not alone. What separates the amateurs from the “real” writers is the simple fact that the real writers just keep going. They don’t let that feeling-like-an-idiot, dumb-first-sentence phase stop them in their tracks. They chug right on through it.

The first page is the hardest part. Here’s how to push through:

No Matter What Keep Writing
That means, don’t stop to check the time, don’t stop to reread what you just wrote, don’t stop to tell yourself you’re an idiot. Just keep writing. If it helps, tell yourself you’re just going to do a couple of pages of stream-of-consciousness writing to see what comes out. After two or three pages you can think about pausing, but get those initial pages out first. Once you break through the beginning, the flow will come faster and get easier.

Use Brackets
If you’re unsure of facts, or dates, or scenery—all of those little things writers like to research—put your question or concern in brackets so you can come back to it later. For example, if you’re writing a historical novel set in 15th century Italy and on your first page a man immediately adjust part of his clothing, but you’re not sure what to call the item of clothing being adjusted, make a note in brackets like this:

[check term for vest and scarf thing]

And then come back to it later. The key idea here is later. Right now, in this moment, you’re writing. Not researching. Your goal is to stay in the creative flow.

Your First Sentence Is Not Important
While it’s true that editors, literary agents, and publishers place a lot of importance on a book’s opening line, you’re not at that stage yet. You’re not going to contact any of the above if you don’t have a finished manuscript to show them, and you’re not going to get to the finished manuscript stage unless you start the damn thing. Getting hung up on crafting a perfect first sentence before you’ve even written one chapter has the power to block you for a very long time. Even if your first sentence is, “It was the middle of the night and it was really dark,” just keep pushing on from there. Who’s observing this dark night? Why is it so dark?

Let Your Characters Do What They Want
Our characters are just like the real people in our real lives—the minute they do something, one of our first reactions is to judge them for it. If our character is passive-aggressive, we might push them to be a little more assertive. If our character has issues with women, we might get offended since we identify as a feminist. If our character lives in rural Alabama in the 1950s we might have very definite ideas of how they should act and talk, according to our own preconceived notions.

Get it out of your head right now that you control your characters. You don’t. If you try to force them to do certain things, or act a certain way that is out of alignment with what they want to do, you’ll see it when you reread your rough draft. Their actions and words will feel stilted and forced. From that very first page, give them the freedom to show up in whatever way they choose.

Once you’ve experienced a few writing sessions and barreled through that first couple of pages, you’ll start to understand that writing is just like exercise. The first few minutes always suck. They just do. Your body and mind are warming up, falling into the rhythm. Just keep going, keep pushing through. Even if it seems impossible now, one day you really will be running a marathon.

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