Browsing Tag

first-time writers

Writing Out Loud

SAMSUNGA couple of weeks ago my writing group got together and staged a reading. We did it at the apartment of one of our members, and each of us brought a dish or snack to share. We each picked a bookstore or venue where it would be our dream to have our own author event. One of the other writers in our group introduced us and we presented our writing exactly as if our book had just been published and we were doing the book tour. Then we did the Q&A afterward.

It was one of the coolest experiences I’ve ever had.

This is what I learned:

Your writing is always different spoken out loud
Sentences that flow on the page might turn up clumsy out of the mouth. Dialogue that seems lackluster in written form can surprise you with how funny it sounds in actual conversation. Your writing takes on a different personality when you read it in front of other people (or even just yourself), and this difference can give you valuable information about the way you work your particular craft.

Reading in front of people builds your confidence
Yes, it is nerve-wracking at first. When it was my turn to get up and read my voice was shaking, my hands were shaking, and I even had trouble breathing! Every gland on my body that could sweat started sweating. But it got easier as I read page after page. The audience laughed at my funny stuff, and groaned at my embarrassing parts. I heard with my own ears how my writing was doing what I wanted it to do, and inside, I grew stronger.

Other writers are just as unsure as you
When you’re struggling to write your first novel, it’s easy to assume that other writers magically have their shit together and know exactly what they’re doing. This is simply not true. There are so many other writers out there who are just as uncertain about what to expect as you are. If we make the journey together and support each other along the way, it won’t be as scary. The energy we would have put toward fear, we can shift toward getting our work published and finding new readers.

So now that you know the benefits, who will be your audience for your very first reading?

How about…

Your Writing Group
If you’re part of a Reading Circle, you’re doing this kind of work anyway. But if you’re part of a Critique Group or a Timed Writing Group, it couldn’t hurt to propose a practice reading to your group, solely focused on encouragement and the art of public speaking. Your writing group should function as your sounding board and your local community; a practice reading will contribute to both of these functions.

Open Mic Night
If you live in the city, you can probably find an Open Mic Night at a local bar, bookstore, or community center. These are usually focused on poetry and spoken word, but sometimes you can present flash fiction too. This is a good option for more extroverted writers who like being in the spotlight.

The Stuffed Animal Brigade
If you’re an introvert, or just not ready to share your writing at that level, then the two options above might feel like too much for you. This is when you call in the troops—your favorite stuffed animals, ceramic figurines, Halloween masks—anything with a face! Assemble them all together as your audience and read your work loud and proud.

Reading your work out loud is a serious step toward finding your voice as a writer. You don’t have to agonize over which option to choose, just make the choice and start reading your week out loud, at least once every couple of months.

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The Beast of Self-Judgment

SAMSUNGWhat’s the number one thing that cripples writers?


No matter what kind of fiction we write, most of us writers have eerily similar personalities. We are sensitive and intelligent, and we have high standards when it comes to our creative work. So high, in fact, that sometimes our standards turn into the two-headed Beast of Self-Judgment that breathes fire with one head and drools poison with the other, usually all over our fragile dreams.

If you are writing your first novel, you will do battle with the beast of Self-Judgment over and over again. And you will even judge yourself on who’s winning or losing the battle.

Here’s how you know when you’re losing:

You hear that critical voice in your head that makes you feel terrible about yourself.
You inwardly call yourself names, or call yourself stupid.
Your chest feels tight, your throat feels tight, you feel like you might cry.
Your stomach sinks like a dead weight.
You get agitated and reach for any addiction—food, the remote, a drink, whatever.

If you feel any of these things while reading your writing, or talking about your writing, or even just thinking about your writing, the Beast of Self-Judgment is in the room with you.

It’s time to do battle.

But how do you fight the Beast? It has an argument ready for every point you debate. It digs up old secrets and memories that make you feel even worse. It hits below the belt, every time.

I’m going to give you a quick exercise you can do anytime, anywhere, and the results are huge. But if you want it to actually work, you have to put your whole imagination into it. No half-assing this. No “kind of” trying to do it. Close your eyes and really do it.

Picture yourself as you were when you were six years old. Remember how you looked, how small you were, how unsure of the world. Page through an old photo album if you have one. Really sit and settle into those six-year-old shoes.

Now picture another six-year-old kid—someone who is not you. Maybe you have a son or daughter that age, or a niece or nephew. Maybe you’re a teacher and you can picture some of the kids in your school. If you really don’t know any six-year-old kids, Google what’s going on at a local school in your community and look at the pictures of the first-graders.

Notice how small and innocent these kids are. How bright and hopeful. Sit with the feeling of being an adult, being a protector and a leader for these kids. Feel how much potential they have, how much joy they can bring to the world.

Okay—now that you’ve got all those feelings loaded and locked down in your psyche, go back to the space where you felt the most Self-Judgment. How would you react if you heard someone being as harsh as you are on yourself, to those six-year-old kids you were picturing? What if one of those kids was writing his or her first story and some mean crazy person came along and told them it was stupid?

How hurtful would that be?

Now go back to six-year-old you. Picture you as the kid sitting there writing that story. You’re excited and having fun, totally lit up from the inside out. The voice of Self-Judgment is the crazy mean person who comes along and tries to kick your story to pieces.

But now, there’s a difference. You are going to come in as the adult and protect you as the child. The six-year-old you writing that story is your little flame of creativity. It has limitless potential, boundless joy and curiosity for the world. You-the-adult understands that some things are worth protecting. That just because someone is small right now and still learning, doesn’t give anyone else the right to try to tear them down.

Anytime you feel that icky feeling of Self-Judgment, that snaky poisonous voice of self-criticism, you’re going to picture yourself as a child once again, sitting at a sunny table writing your very first story. And then you’re going to imagine yourself as the adult you are now, shielding that child inside and taking your creative power back.

This exercise truly can work wonders for you, but you must practice it earnestly. You must be serious about dedicating yourself to the protection and well-being of the child writer inside you.

Be brave—your six-year-old self is counting on you!

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:

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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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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