Tag Archives: creativity

Compliments and Confidence

I had the privilege of singing the Japanese and American National Anthems for my unit’s Change of Command ceremony this week. It went well. I didn’t make any significant mistakes (that I’m aware of at least). I received several compliments. Some people seemed genuinely surprised.

It got me thinking about the distance between compliments for a job well done, and confidence that we can do a job well.

I spend a lot of time in front of other people–public speaking in the form of leading mission briefs and planning discussions, public singing and musical performance in church bands or for secular functions, and of course… writing.

At a recent writing group, we talked about how hard it can be to accept the compliments or to truly believe “My work is of sufficient quality.” People give compliments to be polite, right? It’s easy to shrug those off or downplay them… after all, that’s the humble thing to do, and no one likes an arrogant jerk, right?

“Oh, it’s no big thing, you know, I’ve been doing this for years… just another day to me. Glad you liked it.”

The reason these thoughts came to mind was because then someone didn’t say something to me about the performance. Immediately doubts and questions arose. Did they not like it? Did they think I sucked? Was I off key? Were they not impressed? Do they care at all? Do they know how good I am? Am I not that good? Why didn’t they say something when all those other people did? What did I do wrong that they didn’t like?

The truth is, none of those things are true.  I didn’t do anything wrong and I did just fine if not awesome (if the compliments are to be believed). Yet that brief moment of silence creates so many questions where none are necessary.

Early on, in singing or speaking or writing, I needed those compliments – I need some praise and assurance. “You are good at this.”  That can become a crutch, a dependency that nags at the back of my mind when I check site views or book reviews. When I participate in a critique group and put my work out there to other writers, I might come at that experience looking for validation instead of constructive feedback.

“Oh, you’re so good at this!”

*fake blush* Thank you, I know…

On the other hand, I don’t want to become arrogant or overconfident about how good I think I am. That’s the danger of believing the compliments a little too easily: acting as though I’ve mastered a thing when I’m really only an amateur.

So I presume and hope that there is a comfortable middle ground—a  place where I can be confident in my abilities while remaining grateful for the praise I earn. Something like the prophets in the Bible following the phrase “Don’t look at their faces.” Don’t try to figure out how everyone feels about what you’re doing–figure out how to do it, and just go for your best.

That’s a place where I’m not dependent on what others think to find my own validation. A place where I know I do pretty fine at X, Y, and Z… but I still want to get better at them.

Today, I’ll be signing books at the Base Exchange and shaking customers’ hands. I have no illusions about how minor a thing it is to get a story published in a Chicken Soup for the Soul book. It’s not the first step to becoming a Stephen King or George Martin.

But a company paid money for my words and put them in print. Salespeople suggested “What if you came and signed books?” Maybe some people will buy it, even if just as a novelty.

So it’s something. And today, that’s enough.

Feedback vs Feel Bad

“Well, I tried to read it, but… sorry, I couldn’t get past the first page.”

If you’ve ever put your creative work out for other to see, you likely did so wincing with trepidation, unsure what to expect.

Do they love it? Do they hate it?

Did he just laugh? At what?

Did she just raise her eyebrows?

Is that interest at a cool turn of phrase, or disgust at some mistake I didn’t catch?

Sometimes the response you get back is empty of value. Other times, it’s thoughtless and crushing.

One of the hardest steps we take as amateur writers is giving others the opportunity to read our work. It feels easier to leave all our poems or stories in files on the computer than to face the judgment we fear.

But unless it’s a private diary or journal, reading is an essential part of the writing process. The audience is the intended recipient of all our word-smithing, and their response is the tool we use to discover what we’re doing well and where we’ve missed the mark.

What if we could witness those important cues and responses in a friendly setting, a “safe space” of sorts? What if we got insight from other writers on a similar journey–people who know not just what we’re going through but how it feels–rather than from “professional readers” whose replies lack technical detail or depth?

Enter the feedback group.

I’ve written about the value of such groups before, so this time, I thought I could show an example of what good feedback looks like:

What He Would Have Wanted–Full Critique

The Word document at that link is a combination of comments and discussion points over aspects of grammar, description, dialogue, and format. I love the comment feature on Word and similar programs for this purpose.

Feedback2.png

Kyle writes epic fantasy, and he also pays great attention to detail. He uses AutoCrit among other programs and services to dig into the weeds on his own writing.

One good example of such detail is that in my original draft, I used “then” 12 times. As an example of the constructive type of feedback, Kyle not only pointed these out but also provided re-writing suggestions for how to avoid them.

Feedback1

Jessica is an avid fantasy reader and helped me see what worked really well in my descriptions.

A newcomer to the group, Natalie mentioned how a portion of dialogue struck her as possibly too modern for the setting.

Judy is a professor at one of the on-base colleges. She saw a lot of meaning in the imagery and word choice that I didn’t anticipate or intend. I can use that feedback to do a better job intentionally incorporating those aspects in future writing.

One point that isn’t captured in the document (because I forgot to add it as a comment): I described Fleuris as having hair the color of carnations… but there are many varieties of carnations. Judy and Kyle assumed red, and Jessica pictured a light pink–which is what I was aiming for. Lesson learned: it’s not a clear description as written.

At the end of the session, Natalie–a newcomer to the group–remarked that the experience was better than she expected or feared. In her career dealing with military writing, she’d seen arguments over whether to use “or” or “and” in order to highlight some meaning in an article. “People spend hours bickering over these minor details,” she said. “I guess I thought it might be like that.”

That fear is common when joining a new community or putting our work out for others to see. But like many things in life, the fear is often far worse than reality.

In a good group, everyone has the same vision of constructive criticism in order to make each other’s work better. In that light, while it may sting a little to realize I’ve made a mistake, I develop from the insight of others and hone my skills for next time.

For anyone wishing to grow as a writer, I can think of no greater resource or method than a solid, constructive feedback group.

Military Community Writers currently meets every two weeks from 10:30 to 12:30 on Saturday at the Kadena Base Library. Our next meeting is July 29th. Got something to share? Come out and take the plunge with the rest of us.

Bullet Journal Part 2: Personalization

In my first Bullet Journal post, I talked about the results I tracked during the first month testing out how I liked the system.

In this post, I wanted to share a few of the personal touches from my journal. 

A look through social media or Google Images for anything “bullet journal” might return wild results that look more like a scrapbooking site than some quick and easy system for tracking tasks.

Some argue there’s a difference between bullet journals (which have little to no complexity, basic subjects, simple uses) versus the “omnijournals” where people are tracking anything and everything, from books to read, to which episodes of Dexter they’ve watched, usually with impressive calligraphy, artwork, colorful inks, and even art supplies like stamps, stencils, and washi tape. It can get expensive if you go all out, but the system can function just as well in a 69 cent memo pad. 

While I think the minimalist version has great usefulness and merit, I’m too artsy and doodle-prone to be content with that. So when I found an article called “The Comic Book Journal” on the bullet journal site blog, I decided that was closer to what I wanted. This allowed me to capture some moments and memories, like a family trip to a restaurant, some time relaxing in the shade of Okinawan banyan trees, and a silly drawing to remind me to avoid superficial garbage and distractions. 

Here’s what worked for me: 

Beyond the basics (index, future log, monthly spread, daily entries), I adopted a more complex monthly format that allows tracking of recurring activities–great for building habits and checking progress toward goals. 

A lot of the purpose of the bullet journal is to serve as a brain dump memo pad which can quickly feed into indexed sections based on the content. Someone recommends a good book? Jot it in the daily notes, so that later you can put it into the “books to read” spread. Hear a line that inspires you? Add it to a motivational quotes spread for mental fuel when you need a pick-me-up or a kick in the procrastination. When the spouse says “We need toilet paper next time we go to the store,” or when you realize the car needs a tune-up next month, put those on financial spreads split for short-term and long-term expenses. 

I loved pictures I found of a bookshelf spread with books you color in as you finish reading them, or popcorn kernels for movies you want to watch.  

Watching movies is clearly easier than reading books…

I have some fitness goals I want to reach, so I set up a tracker for push-ups, sit-ups, planks, and generic strength-focused workouts. I also put in a page for meal plans, so I can easily grab the right ingredients and put together lunches for a few days at a time. For my writing efforts, I put in a year-long word count spread with a color code for how many words I manage on a given day, and space to jot down writing ideas.  

It turns out twelve hour fly days don’t help me get a lot of writing done.

Some of the artistic pages incorporated ways to track or focus on gratitude, which I thought would help me maintain positive energy. I liked the gratitude “sunburst” the most, with rays for each day and then some.  


I viewed that as part of my month-long tracking, so a new sunburst got added for this month right before my February spread. The habit trackers have been great for pushing me toward making better decisions and achieving my goals. For example, last month I tracked whether I logged all my meals in my fitness pal, but this month I added a box for which days I kept below my calorie count. And while I don’t drink alcohol all the time and keep it to a small amount (a couple shots max) whenever I do imbibe, I decided a box for “no alcohol” was a way to force a conscious decision of “do you really want a drink?” The mental reward of checking a box that said I didn’t partake is enough to make me hesitate and actively consider the question rather than drinking just because it’s there. 


The artistic aspect of the way I’m doing my journal lets me capture memories and moments in pictures. Maybe it’s a character’s silly expression or a mindless doodle, but sometimes it’s an attempt to capture the way the sunrise painted amber on the tips of purple clouds, or the hilltop view overlooking the ocean with islands on the horizon. For me, these also break up the monotony of tasks and appointments in my journal, giving me something cool to look at when I flip through the pages.

A drawing of some sunrise clouds with touches of amber on the tips.
A view from a high hill overlooking the sea on the horizon

All of that said (and shown), this is just what I found kept me motivated and engaged in these areas I wanted to track. My format might not work for every reader. 

The personalization makes all the difference. 

I have a co-worker friend of mine who started setting up his Bullet Journal, and he paged through mine to get some ideas. We talked at length about what I used and why, but from the get-go, he proclaimed he wanted the minimalist arrangement, nothing elaborate or frilly. I stopped in his office today and saw a Leuchtturm 1917 opened with a number of familiar spreads–all of them clean and neat, black and white, crisp and sharp. Most of all, I noticed the bright smile on his face as he showed off his work in progress. I recognize that happiness–it’s the same sensation I feel about my Bullet Journal, even though mine is full of varied letter shapes, random doodles, and colored pencils. 

Do you “BuJo” ? (confession: I hate that word and I won’t be using it any more.) What have you found works for your needs? Do you go artistic or minimalist in your journal? Let me know in a comment. I’d love to see how you set up yours–maybe I’ll get a new idea for mine!

A Year of Words

This year I aimed to log a daily word count, and this blog post will place me right above 215,000 for 2016. (I should go home and write a thousand words or so, in order to get 216K for 2016… Obviously!)

The management principle is you can’t achieve higher goals without changing what you do, you can’t change what you don’t measure, and you can’t measure what you don’t track. Hence the love-hate relationship many office minions have with spreadsheets, trackers, databases, and anything involving counting beans.

Maybe I won’t be a vile, languid slug with the rest of New Year’s Eve, and I’ll raise the final count a little more… NAAAAAH!

215K per day divides up to under 600 words a day. I know there are programs dedicated to encouraging a minimum 500 words per day, so yay, I met that (on average). Of course my goal–realistic or not–was to hit 1K per day, so I’m way off.

The other day, I went to the gym with a couple co-workers, and made a suggestion. “Whatever else we do, let’s try a pyramid of push-ups and sit-ups,” I said, since those are two of the four components of the Air Force fitness test. If you haven’t done a pyramid before, it’s one push-up, one sit-up, then two of each, then three… Up to some number (ten, I suggested) and back down to one. 

I hadn’t done one of these in years, and honestly wasn’t sure how well my ponderous flesh-husk could handle the challenge. The answer was “not well.” I found out right quick where my limits lay. 

In the writing arena, much like that pyramid, maybe I bit off more than I could chew by setting a goal like 1k a day. I don’t know, because I never tracked my word count before. Now I have data, so at the end of next year, I can see “Am I doing better? Am I doing about the same? Did I slow down?” To be fair, I understand there can be explanations and reasons for those ups and downs, and I’ll take those into consideration. But having some baseline gives me something to compare against.

It’s the same reason I do well on a diet or fitness plan when I log what I’ve been doing and eating. “I walked the other day, and I did a sit-up of sorts when I got out of bed. I only ate half that pizza. Doin’ pretty good!” I’m far too kind to myself when I don’t have the harsh reality of data challenging me. 

Sometimes the word count tracker showed the results of a tough effort. That’s great–part of the benefit. NaNoWriMo of course is a good example (58K in November), and when I tried Camp NaNo in April, that momentum carried into May, my second best month (just under 24K).  Sadly, those months of “high” effort are offset by too many relaxed months where I barely topped 10K. I’ll log word counts again next year, even though there are swaths of blocks with a big angry 0.

I know this is a time for new resolutions and personal commitments. A big part of setting that goal is finding a way to track progress — the ‘M’ in the SMART goal setting acronym is ‘measurable.’ 

Whether you aim for something new, something familiar but better, or simply contentment with where you are right now in life, I wish you a happy 2017 and thank you for hanging out with me here throughout the year.

Story By Numbers

“Story-telling and writing fiction are very different skills,” the professor said.

I immediately wanted to disagree with him. But then I thought about that dictation software I purchased and rarely used. For somewhere around $70 I had a top-of-the-line program ready to turn my speech into text. In the end, it turned hard drive storage into wasted space.

Telling a captivating story out loud is not the same as writing a page-turner novel. I’ve written some decent stuff over the years, and I’ve told some decent stories to my friends. But you can’t transcribe the latter and automatically have a great piece of prose ready for readers.

So I decided to listen and accept that maybe Dr. Guthridge knew what he was talking about.

(His awards and successes could have sufficed.)


Last week, a local college with offices on-base provided a free two-hour workshop: How to Write a Short Story

Dr. Guthridge provided a formulaic method for plotting and outlining short stories–one that presumably works pretty well with full-length novels. 

Cool idea

Protagonist

Emotional problem

Outer problem

False solutions

Final solution

For sci-fi, fantasy, and horror, start with your cool idea. Maybe it’s a magic system, a piece of technology, or a creepy monster. Honestly, you can also come up with cool ideas for mainstream fiction–you just need an interesting fact or two upon which to base the story. 

Brainstorm a protagonist and a problem that protagonist might have, based on the cool idea or historical inspiration. The protag should have an inner, emotional problem that needs to be resolved… insecurity, hatred, fear, anger. Something they’ve tried to keep at bay, but it clearly affects everything about them.

The outer problem is the conflict that forces the protag to deal with their inner emotional baggage. It’s the issue that pulls all of that junk to the surface to be confronted. 

Brainstorm a few false solutions. These don’t have to be super intellectual and creative; in fact, we often distract ourselves and delay coming up with useful ideas by looking for the most creative, least expected attempted solution. These solutions are intended to fail, so it’s fine–maybe even preferred–if they’re the “obvious” answers to the outer problem. Unstable magic energy is creating a disturbance? Great… send in a magician to collect or contain it. A piece of technology isn’t functioning, and threatens innocent lives? Pull the plug… it’s a no-brainer.

Also brainstorm easy ways that these failed and false solutions will make things worse. Skynet starts a global thermonuclear war when the military tries to pull the plug. Noble men go mad with lust for power when they try to use the Ring of Power as a weapon against Sauron. Bullets don’t stop Jason Voorhes, they just make him chase you.

The final solution is where brainstorming and creativity come into play. This has to be unexpected. (Readers will be unsatisfied if they guessed the ending from the beginning.) This has to be unique and intelligent. (Readers will be frustrated if the answer is something obvious and simple like pulling the plug.) And this solution has to not only solve the outer problem but also resolve the protag’s internal conflict–because that’s really what the story is about.

Since “everyone is a unique snowflake,” the creative person in me hates the idea that good fiction usually has some clear structure we should mechanically duplicate. Where’s the freedom of expression? Where’s the special quality that sets apart one writer’s fiction from another’s?

But this sort of construct works really well as a framework upon which we build and decorate a house.

It reminds me of James Scott Bell’s LOCK concept: 

Every story has a relatable and interesting Lead. The lead character must have an achievable and important Objective. There must be considerable and meaningful Conflict preventing the lead from easily achieving the objective. And the reader expects a Knockout ending that wraps it all up in an exciting way.

The fact is, the meat of telling a good story or writing good fiction hasn’t changed much over the centuries and millenia of recorded human history. These are the tales that speak to us and capture our imaginations over and over again.

Even if it feels formulaic, why fix what isn’t broke?

What do you think? Is this too simplistic a view? Is there more to the story (pun intended)? Let me know in a comment.

Savvy?

A friend from my writers’ group in Nebraska is now posting her artwork on DeviantArt.

I can’t help but picture Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean whenever I see her nickname, Savvy.

This is the tale of Captain Jack Sparrow, a pirate so brave on the seven seas...
This is the tale of Captain Jack Sparrow, a pirate so brave on the seven seas…

She has a couple pictures posted so far. I’ve seen her creativity and skill firsthand, so I am definitely looking forward to more.

Wasting Time

Today’s been one of those “Why am I even bothering with writing?” days. Maybe none of you have them.

After a lot of moping and video games, then some inspirational videos on YouTube, I’ve come to a conclusion that serves as a good reminder to myself for next time:

Writing is not a waste of time. Worrying over that thought is.

Off to pick up the teen, then I’m getting back to work. These stories won’t write themselves.

Watt a Bargain!

So I joined WattPad and started a project.

I’ll be honest. At first, I was put off by grammar errors and amateur mistakes. Even more, the commenters who gush over the simplest sentences with “I so get u” and “omg this ^^^ right here” and other such text-style feedback.

Then my wife kindly reminded me that everyone’s on a journey to being a better writer, and any mistakes I see now are only because I’ve had quality writer friends supporting and educating me along the way. I’m guilty of some of the same–if not right now, then certainly in the past.

And let’s face it. Feedback is feedback. If a character, quip, or interaction resonates with a reader, I am happy, whether they tell me, “Poignant and touching; Splendid work” or “oh wow sooooo many feels.” Any connection with a reader is a good thing, and the teen fangirl who says “omg” today is the young adult who clicks “buy” on Amazon tomorrow.

The short stories I’ll be posting in “Pieces” aren’t all new. Many appear somewhere on this blog. But I figure WattPad is another avenue to gain a following, and a fun way of doing so. My “Echoes” story (mentioned in a few previous blogs) will be posted entirely to WattPad.

Plus, my wife’s comment reminded me of the point of all this. WattPad is full of unique content and interesting takes on existing material. It’s a bunch of people who are expressing their passion for good characters and stories. Is that what I find valuable? Is that what excites me? Or is it grammatically correct, properly formatted, everything-just-so writing?

No, the point is to have fun and share the experience with others.

So I went ahead and drew an amateur cover for my project, incorporating scenes of most of the various stories into sections of different puzzles. No, it’s not professional quality. No, it’s not what will garner attention.

But I loved the process of expressing myself through a different medium, and I’m having fun with my own amateur mistake.

Here’s the cover to Pieces:

The cover to my short story compilation on WattPad
The cover to my short story compilation on WattPad

I hope you’ll visit me on WattPad, especially if you have an account and post your own work.

D&D 5th Ed: A Resurgence of Imagination

I quite possibly squealed with glee when I saw the Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition Player’s Handbook show up at our local base exchange book store. That meant they should carry the other books when those are published.

It's here!
It’s here!

I know there’s Amazon, but I still like picking up a physical thing and looking at it before deciding to plunk down my card or cash.

Some of my best-viewed blog posts are about 5th edition. It’s perhaps a trick of the title I chose; certain kinds of players go looking for ideas on how to build the “best” character to “win” at the game, so they’ll search online to see what combinations and tricks others have found within the rules to make (arguably) overpowered characters.

I suppose it’s the D&D version of human growth hormone, and it’s not banned… just frowned upon by some.

Leaving for a deployment plus NaNoWriMo kept me from focusing on setting up the long-awaited game for my family, let alone an actual group of people. But what D&D 5th Edition is doing well is just that: bringing groups of people back together.

Sure, your tabletop group today might bring along their tablets or iPhones for dice apps and fast tracking of information related to the game. The tabletop might even be virtual.

But people are connecting once again, telling stories together, and exploring that wonderful space between our ears. Some fear that in our digital, always-connected, everything-visualized world, there’s little room for imagination and wonder.

Thankfully I find these fears unfounded. My kids play with Legos and bring me their latest creations constantly. They also play Minecraft on the iPad or Xbox. But again, they often show off their wild palaces, deep caverns, and unique structures. They’re exercising and expressing their imagination with ease.

While I don’t fear for them in this area, I do want to encourage them–and their friends–and create spaces for their minds to play in. Because we have that ability to conceive of things beyond ourselves… beyond even the bounds of what we’ve seen or experienced before… beyond what actually exists and into what could.

Maybe that’s not for everyone. Whether the subject is video games, RPGs, or even TV shows and written fiction, I know I’ve heard the judgmental “I don’t waste my time thinking about things that aren’t real.”

How boring.

This article sums it up really well, even if the URL appears to be about something completely different (and super gross):

The awesome glory that is Dungeons and Dragons

When Does Inspiration Strike?

Just curious, as it’s almost 3 AM here and I’m wide awake tapping on my iPad.

My wife asked me why in the world I so often wait until midnight (or 1 or 2 AM) to get motivated. I don’t have any good answer for her. Maybe my caffeine intake caught up with me, but even when I’m not pounding coffee, this happens to me.

What about you? I’m sure some of you are the mythical “disciplined writer” I’ve heard about, who sets aside a certain time each day and punches out a quota of words. But that’s not what I’m talking about.

When does inspiration strike and demand your attention?