Monthly Archives

June 2013

Secrets Your Inner Critic Would Kill to Keep

SAMSUNGThis article is not for everyone.

Some writers really love the actual process of writing. Some writers have so many ideas they don’t even know what to do with them all. Some writers almost always feel confident and upbeat about their writing.

I am not one of those writers.

It is incredibly difficult for me to sit down and do the physical work of writing. I love tripping though Imagination-land in my head. I love talking about books and writing. I love to read novels, stories, and poetry. But when I sit down in front of the blank page I would rather be anywhere else.

I am also a very slow writer. I write about 5 pages a week, sometimes I make it to 10. I have never—never, ever—written over 20 pages in one week.

And almost every time I reread the first draft of anything I’ve written, I absolutely hate it.

For years, I assumed all of these things were indicators that I was not cut out to be a writer. My inner critic pushed me to compare myself to other writers, and to legends about writers, and to idealized fantasies in my head about what a writer was supposed to be and how they were supposed to work.

I came up short every time.

Then…I discovered that my inner critic is not my voice of truth. In fact, it’s not even my voice at all. The voice of my inner critic comes from a place of fear. My inner critic likes to mislead me into thinking that if I listen to fear I will be safer, I won’t be laughed at, I won’t lose anything.

After all, it is true that is if you never put yourself out there, you might feel safer.

And if you never put yourself 100% into finishing your novel, you won’t run the risk of it being laughed at.

And if you never try to move out of your comfort zone, you won’t ever lose the familiar.

But when I started writing again seven years ago, I decided things were going to be different between me and my inner critic. No matter how much fear it tried to pour all over my hopes and dreams, I would keep going. I would keep pushing forward, no matter what. So what if writing is hard for me? So what if I’m a slow writer? So what if I cringe when I reread my rough drafts? I still get to try.

In seven years I’ve written four novels. I’ve written eight short stories. Now, I’m writing a blog. And the only thing I did was show up for myself and my writing, week after week, and promise the universe that I would get those 5 or 10 pages down on paper. And I did this in spite of being possibly the world’s worst procrastinator, while simultaneously competing for an Olympic gold in low self-esteem.

If I can do it, you can too.

You don’t have to be amazingly awesome at writing right out of the gate. You don’t have to have an idea that no one’s ever had before. All that’s required is that you show up and write. Even one page once a week will do it.

Warning: Your inner critic is not going to like it. It’s probably going to throw a temper tantrum or try to undermine you sneaky-style at first. Because the number one thing your inner critic is truly terrified of is you stepping into your own power. Once you take that step it’s very likely you’ll discover that you never needed your inner critic to survive. Quite the opposite: It always needed you.

To follow your dream as a writer, it’s most helpful to practice positive thinking and persistence. That means, the Beast of Self-Judgment is not going to get you again. That means, one bad day no longer has the power to significantly set you back. The future is full of more days in which you get to try again. And if you do have a bad day, it’s not something to beat yourself up over. That’s an inner critic strategy and we’ve determined the inner critic is destructive and unhelpful, if not outright insane. So if you have a bad day, or feel down about your writing, the new strategy is to show yourself loving kindness and gentle compassion.

And then get up the next day and try again.

Persistence and positive thinking come from a place of love. Moving out of fear and into love, using love as your new operating system, and consistently practicing love towards yourself—these are all radical shifts to make. However, once you shift into a life that includes mostly love and not so much fear, your creativity and writing will show the difference. And because you already know what every writer should know

You will find the strength to show up every week for yourself and your writing.

You will trust and have faith that your book is already inside you, waiting to be born.

You will accept yourself as the unique, beautiful writer that you are, and you will spread this light to others around you.

And you will get up, day after day, and keep on trying again.

The next time your inner critic speaks up you can choose to listen to your own true creative essence instead and expose your truth.

Your inner critic voice is not you. And YOU already know what to do.

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The Writer’s Magic Notebook

SAMSUNGI’m talking about a real notebook. The physical, paper kind of notebook.

Of course your laptop, iPad, or phone works for taking notes, but the writer’s magic notebook is for so much more than just taking notes.

Writers are a certain strain of artist. Like sculptors and painters, we are creatively tied to our hands. We tend to forget that fact in our brave new world of futuristic technology. But no matter how much we come to rely on computers it is always beneficial for writers to maintain that link between our mind and our hands.

This is the attitude I want you to bring to your writer’s magic notebook. It is not just a place to jot down notes. Think of it instead as an artist’s sketchpad. You’re going to use your notebook as a writing tool to explore environment, record experience, and practice the craft.

Here’s how you do it.

Pay Attention to Physical Fit
Many writers have already discovered their preference in notebooks. Some use Moleskins, some use the old-fashioned black and white composition notebook, some prefer pocket-sized with a flip top. If you’re not yet sure which type works for you, experiment with a few different options. Your notebook should comfortably fit into your schedule and your life. For instance, if you tend to travel light, go with something small and easy to carry. And if you have toddlers running around your house, go with something that can survive the assault of a two-year-old.

Paint a Picture
Choose a public place like a park, a Starbucks, or a subway station, and sit somewhere out of the way with your magic notebook. Observe everything around you and “sketch” the scene out with words. You can practice creating vivid physical descriptions by noting the details of dress, facial expression, and overall appearance of the people, and the weather, lighting, and overall ambiance of the location. Pretend this sketch of yours will be read by a good friend who needs an exact picture of this place and these people.

Indulge in Eavesdropping
If you frequently ride the bus you can get lots of practice dropping in on conversations. You can also do this as part of the exercise above. Listen to the conversations going on around you and write them down. Fragments work too. Note the rhythm of voices and the emotional tone. Pay attention to the way people use slang and abbreviations. This is an excellent way to improve your skills at writing dialogue, and you might even come out of it with some story ideas as well.

Share the Love
I had a couple of writer friends in Seattle who used to keep one notebook together, and pass it back and forth. One person started a storyline, trailed off with a cliffhanger, and then handed it on to the second person to continue the story. They would do this for months and then finally, when the notebook was almost full, they wrote the ending and read the whole thing out loud. It was an amazing narrative every time. Pick one of your best writer friends and experiment with this process. It takes the pressure off and allows the silly, fun part of your writer brain to come out and play.

Always Write It Down
For some reason, I seem to get my best ideas right before I fall asleep. I always think to myself, “I should really get up and write this down. Nah, I’m sure I’ll remember it in the morning.” And you know what? I never remember. Because our writer brains present ideas to us so vibrantly and they seem so alive, it’s hard to believe in the moment that they could ever fade. Until a new, vibrant and alive idea comes along and pushes it out of the way. Our brains only have room for so much to swirl around in the forefront of our consciousness. Always keep your writer’s magic notebook near you, and when you get a brilliant idea, always write it down.

Think of your magic notebook like a doctor’s medical bag, or a CEO’s cell phone. As a writer, you’re always on call and the call could come at any time. Part of being a great artist is being prepared.

Buy a magic notebook. Keep it near you. Write it down.

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Does Your Hero Have a Hidden Dark Side?

SAMSUNGWe all know what “compelling hero” means. It can be the difference between a so-so manuscript and a potential bestseller. It seems like a deliciously layered character can almost hypnotize readers into devouring a whole series of books, and significantly increase chances of a long-dreamed-of movie deal for the author. Let’s consider Harry Potter. In the first installment, Harry was an average bookish, lonely, and misunderstood kid. But by the end of the series he had blossomed into a powerful young wizard, willing to take risks and wrestle with fate. The depth he gained came not only from the experiences we watched him go through, but more essentially from the ambivalent psychological texture of his changing motives.

To be plain, sometimes the good things people do come from a dark place.

Boring heroes never teeter on the edge. We never wonder what they’re going to do next, because we already know. Of course they’ll do the right thing. When this element of wonder is low, so is our urge to turn the next page. We followed Harry Potter’s adventures so doggedly because we all knew that he always had it in him to go dark side.

And we wanted to see if he actually would.

You also can craft your hero in such a way that the narrative of their journey inspires rabid devotion from their fans. To take personal story to the level of compelling mythology, dig deep into the dark muck of your character’s psyche.

If it came down to a deal with the devil, what would the devil offer your hero in exchange for their soul? Remember, the devil can see into your hero’s darkest secret heart—what’s the desire hiding in there that can’t be passed up? The devil rarely conjures up anything so easily won these days as money or fame. Think about people your hero has lost, deeds that can’t be undone. Regrets that haunt them in the middle of the night. Every character has their price, it’s just a matter of finding out how high.

So Jaded
No one remains unscathed by life, so what does your hero have to be cynical about? Were they part of a political movement that didn’t work out? Or did someone break their heart and turn them off love for good? Even if they’re the most optimistic character in the world, they still have at least one tiny area that’s been poisoned by an awful past experience. Dig up that little poison spot and expose it to the light. How does it affect your hero’s present-day actions?

Achilles Heel
This isn’t just any old weakness your hero might struggle against, it’s the weakness. The flaw that could bring them down entirely. It might be uncovered when using deal-with-the-devil temptation, or when turning over the stones of cynical bitterness, but be prepared for heavy duty excavation with this one. You’ll probably go back through childhood memories, and maybe even all the way back through a character’s ancestry to find the weakest link. The intense archaeological dig will be well worth it though. Once you find the Achilles Heel of your hero, you pretty much hold the key to everything.

Using any of these methods is going to make your hero uncomfortable, no doubt about it. It might even make you a little uncomfortable, since our heroes are usually reflections of ourselves. But you can use intuitive character development and your own natural artistic empathy to pull that kind of charged emotion out of the depths. And when you bring it to the surface your story will start rippling with beautiful interesting texture. Every ripple sends another chain-of-reaction outward, building those interconnected circles and layers of narrative.

To find the layers of your story, dig down into your hero. Dig as deep as you can go.

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Discovering Yourself as a Writer

SAMSUNGMany writers tell me they struggle with these three things:

Admitting they want to be a writer.

Showing anyone their writing.

Writing anything at all.

Why is this so hard for writers? I mean, it’s not like you meet accountants who say, “For years I wanted to do other people’s taxes but I didn’t think I was good enough. I kept a calculator hidden away in my drawer and looked at longingly every now and then.”

It’s because writing is a calling. There’s a difference between a job and a calling.

When you are called to do something in life part of the agreement is that you follow your path in your own unique way. That means that guides, books, classes, teachers and mentors, are only going to help you along so far. The rest is up to you. It’s up to you to discover the way you write best, the voice you write in, and your message behind it all.

This process of discovery can get overwhelming. When you’re tired, or discouraged, or having a bad day, it’s so tempting to look at other writers or someone else’s career, and start to believe that you should be doing it like they are, or that there is something wrong with the way you’re doing things. This perspective is absolutely inaccurate, and it’s also not helpful.

To set yourself up for success in your writing, begin with the very basics and go from there.

Prime the Pump
Your brain is at its very best usually around the same time each day. For instance, if you’re at your most alert and optimistic between 9am and noon then protect these hours. Devote them solely to your writing. Or if you’re a night owl, try to leave your evenings as free as possible so you can sit down and work.

If you’re a writer who doesn’t have that kind of leeway with your schedule and can only fit writing in on the run, then sit for five minutes to clear your mind and re-center before you start writing. Have a small high-protein snack like some trail mix or an avocado to feed your brain and take a few deep breaths. Many writers have highly sensitive nervous systems; taking care of your body can go a long way toward feeding your creative flame.

Assess Your Personality
Even if you don’t care at all about the particulars of your psychological makeup, it’s still helpful to determine which side of the fence you fall on in one important area: Do you work better with Intuition or Logic? It doesn’t have to be one at the expense of the other. It comes down to type of writer you are and which works the best for you.

If you lean heavily toward intuition, plotting your novel to adhere to a preconceived outline is not going to work for you. You’ll feel constricted and repressed, and then you’ll explode and rebel by scrapping the whole project. If your brain uses logic as its natural course and you try to spontaneously free-flow your whole book with no plan, you’ll feel utterly lost and frustrated. And if you fall squarely in the middle, you’ll need some planning, and also some room to run with your story in order to feel satisfied in your creative process. Nail down what it is that works best for you.

Let Go of Creative Expectations
I’m lucky enough to have an extremely talented fantasy writer in my weekly writing group. Every time I read her newest work I’m in awe of her stories. Her characters kick down doors, commandeer spaceships, and fight ninja-style duels-to-the-death—and they do this stuff all the time. In contrast, the characters in my stories do very little. They sit on tree stumps and think a whole lot. Or they meet for coffee and talk about records. It took me a long time to accept my characters and stories for what they are, instead of trying to make them into something else.

You might be writing a story you didn’t expect to come out of you, or characters you feel weird about. It might feel like too much is happening, or not enough. That’s totally okay. In the writing stage, concentrate only on writing it all down. Later, when you’re editing, you can truly determine what needs to be added and what can be cut. Always keep the writing vs. editing separate, even if you’re sticking to an outlined plan.

Influence is Invaluable
One writer told me he feels like his work is unoriginal because he is so heavily influenced by classic science fiction authors and movies like Star Wars. I told him that he was worrying for nothing, because no matter what you do as a writer you cannot rinse the YOU out of your writing.

For instance, look at David Lynch’s movies. He’s an artist very heavily influenced by 1950s doo-wop culture. You can hear it in the music in his movies, and see it in the imagery of his characters, in the way they dress and their hair. You can even see it in the iconic diner of Twin Peaks. But no one would ever say David Lynch is “copying” the rock n’ roll vibe of the 50s. His work has too much Lynch in it to be anything other than what it is—totally original. If you’re honestly writing down something that’s dancing around in your head, then it’s yours and there’s no getting around it.

Writing is an emotional journey, which means it’s ongoing and messy, and you’ll be discovering and learning new things about yourself all the time. Resist the temptation to compare and judge yourself against other writers. Keep your eyes on your own next step and what you, personally, need to continue moving through the pages.

And keep in mind: If you’re writing on a regular basis then you already are a success.

Want to Be a Better Writer? Watch More Movies.

SAMSUNGShould writers even bother with movies? Shouldn’t they devote themselves to the written word?

Well, yes.

But the written word falls a little flat without any human element to back it up.


Think about reading an electrical engineering textbook. It’s precise, detailed and descriptive. It fits each piece into the next, in exact order with the most effective explanation. But the human element is missing. No tension or anxiety, no emotion at all.

And this is why electrical engineering textbooks aren’t exactly riveting page-turners.

The best books are bursting with the human element—that sloppy, messy, problematic stuff we call emotion. To see human emotion in action, there is no better place to go than to the movies.

Here are a few valuable things you can take from the cinema and incorporate into your writing:

Facial Expressions
Telling the reader that your characters are angry, or sad, or elated isn’t the most compelling way to present their stories. You can take a lesson from the movies and share what you see playing out across the actors’ faces on screen. For instance, a character in a homicidal rage might roll his eyes around like Jack Nicholson in The Shining—describe those little physical details. Or your character might be cool and confident like Luke Skywalker facing down Jabba the Hutt—describe that slight dangerous smile playing around the corners of Luke’s mouth. Use intuitive character development to gather the images, and then transfer them to paper in your own words.

Pay attention to on-screen arguments and unexpected news. How long does it take for information to sink in and how does the immediate reaction play out? Also pay attention to plot points. How quickly are characters, events, and back story presented within the narrative? For maximum readability, it’s helpful to aim for a story structure that keeps things fresh and exciting for the reader, while maintaining clarity. The best movies make this look easy, study them and learn.

This is the “suspense” factor in an amazing thriller, and the “delicious anticipation” found in a really good romance. Between heroes and villains, and smoking hot lovers, there’s always that magic chemistry that makes readers root for them to be together, or blow each other up. The magic can be found in the way they rub each other the wrong way. Something about that wrong way—to the audience—just feels so right. Carefully watch how the greatest duos interact (Clarice Starling and Hannibal Lecter, for instance) and take notes on what you see.

Setting and Scenery
This one works well as a writing prompt too. Pick a visually striking movie with awesome background scenery (think: Blade Runner or Barry Lyndon) and exercise your creative muscle by describing it on paper. Write about it at length, even if you feel like you’re repeating yourself. Exploring in-depth description of physical place will enhance your command of adjectives, and your ability to transport the reader to a world of your own making.

You can check out the 100 Greatest Movies of All Time to get ideas or make your own list. You can even revisit all the movies that are already your favorites. The key is to watch each movie when you can do so uninterrupted, and maybe even by yourself so that you can pause and/or rewind when you want to reexamine a scene or an actor’s expression. Make some popcorn, get in your comfy chair and remind yourself that this is hard work you’re about to do. After all, it’s essential to your craft to get lost in as many fantasy worlds as you possibly can.

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