On Friday afternoon, one of my coworkers celebrated escaping moving on from the military.
She’s the wonderful individual who routinely asks me in a friendly but annoyed tone, “Where’s my book, sir?”
Though I never have a good answer to that question, I thought at least I could give something personal and special as a thank you for all the encouragement that her persistence has given me.
I drew up the three main characters of my fantasy series–Josephine, the Soulforged holy warrior; Kaalistera, the shadow-bending assassin; and Lyllithe, the outcast Devoted touched by the Void. It’s hastily-drawn and imperfect, but heartfelt.
When I presented her this gift, it led to a discussion with a couple of other co-workers, and my friend praised my book for its well-rounded characters and exciting action.
Of course, my initial reaction was to cringe a bit, shrug my shoulders, and deflect the praise, because I see all the flaws and mistakes where I should have spent more time to put out a better product.
However, it’s always a meaningful and special experience when someone expresses genuine interest in your creative work.
If you know someone who is involved in creative endeavors, you can show them a little love and spark them to put in the work with a simple expression of interest.
“What have you been drawing lately?”
“How’s writing going?”
“What’s your band playing next?”
“Where is my book, sir?”
Then endure their awkward look of embarrassment, nod politely, and let them continue on their way–probably with a smile on their face.
If nothing else, you might get a drawing out of it.
Last week, I facilitated a discussion on Writing for Non-Writers as part of our base library’s summer reading program. Our librarian knew I had been published in a couple editions of Chicken Soup for the Soul and thought I might have a few lessons learned or tips for folks who would never call themselves writers, but might have interesting stories to tell. Thanks to a few eager participants, we enjoyed an energetic discussion and exercised our creative muscles.
Here’s the Cliff’s Notes version:
(Quote boxes are composed of inputs others offered as we discussed the topic.)
Intro: You may not feel like a writer, but chances are you’re a story-teller. Story is the vehicle for how we communicate our lives and share our experiences with one another. What if you put some of those stories in writing instead of merely sharing them in person?
Q: WHAT DO YOU LOVE ABOUT STORIES?
“Stories validate you and help you connect. Our stories can help others find their way or enjoy new experiences.”
Power of Story: We process random circumstance into narratives. We tell people stories about ourselves and create stories to explain life. It’s why conspiracy theories have so much strength.
“You wouldn’t believe what I saw the other day…” Yeah? Tell me about it. “So there I was, minding my own business, nursing my cup of coffee, when this crazy guy comes in…”
“I have to tell you about my trip to the store, oh my gosh—UNBELIEVABLE!” But it’s totally believable, depending on the skill or the passion of the story-teller. We expect a hilarious and unexpected ride on the struggle bus… so we lean forward, smile, and wait for the laughs.
Q: WHAT MAKES A STORY BAD?
Not tragic / dark, but “turn off Netflix / put the book in the bin” bad?
“A story is bad when there’s too much or too little detail. If it’s too complex, with pages of description… and on the other hand, if there’s not enough information, it’s hard to relate.”
Q: WHAT MAKES A STORY GOOD?
“When we can see it happen, when we feel the buildup and climax, when we can apply our story to the story or feel ourselves being IN the story.”
Does a good story mean having an interesting character? Often, WE are the characters; we can’t help if we’re interesting or not.
What about an interesting event? Not necessarily; a good story can be about a mundane event told in an interesting way.
How about a relatable event? At the very least, something that connects to the specific message or point, like an analogy.
Good stories often show how someone grew or changed as a result.
Interesting telling. No rambling, side jaunts, or rabbit trails. Stories usually have direction and purpose. Think of a testimony at church, or a blog post with a life lesson. These often have a three-part structure:
How things were (I didn’t think of myself as creative, or worth listening to)
What happened (I met some folks who showed me how to write well)
How things changed (I ended up submitting to Chicken Soup and got published!)
Tell it with your voice. Write what you might speak. How would you tell a friend? Tell that same story to the paper or screen.
“You can always revise! It might be trash but it can become better.”
Q: HOW MUCH DETAIL IS TOO MUCH?
Have you ever asked a kid to tell you a scene in a movie?
“So the bad guy did this, but then the hero came in, but wait–so before that, there was this one guy, and he said to the lady–um, she is the friend of this other dude who shows up at the beginning of the movie but then the shark eats him–the shark is the one from the aquarium but it got out because the bad guy opened up the doors on the tank so that he could–wait, so there is this secret message…”
“What is relevant to the story? That’s all you need.”
Concrete = convincing… to a point.
Which sounds better?
“A hot cup of coffee” or “a steaming cup of Sumatra dark roast”?
“A Dachshund the color of cinnamon,” or “a brown dog”?
Only the most important adjectives, not all possible descriptors. Convey the point, not the entire movie.
While it paints a clear picture, that might be too much–certainly far more than is necessary unless the story hinges on all those details.
Use all five senses. We focus on the eyes and ears like we’re describing the movie in our heads. We’re used to the cinema, but the world has smells, feelings, textures, tastes…
Someone might say, “Well, I’m not a writer.”
“I’m not going to make up stories and worlds and stuff like that.”
Q: HAS ANYONE TRIED JOURNALING?
A journal gives us a place for processing the junk in our lives… A chance to be “honest” in a way we may not in public. Pour out the words onto a page and tell it like it is. Keep it private so you can unload and release. If you want to go deeper, try exploring what comes up when you ask yourself a series of “why” questions like a three-year-old.
I feel like they took advantage of me. Why?
Because they didn’t say thank you and that bothers me. Why?
I want to know that what I do has value. Why?
I don’t want to waste my time on things that don’t matter. Why?
I feel like there are too many things I don’t have time for which matter to me, and if I’m wasting my time on people that don’t care about the effort I put in, then I don’t want to do those things…
“A journal is a perfect place for the ‘bad’ emotions – we can vent our hate or anger.”
Q: ANYONE HAVE PERSONAL / FAMILY MEMORIES THEY STRUGGLE TO RECALL?
What about keeping a family journal? How many times have we lost important memories? “Grandad had all these great stories, but I didn’t pay attention back then, and I don’t remember them now…”
We can write down important details to keep for ourselves or pass down to our kids.
Mom? How did you meet Dad?
What was it like before the Internet?
The day I got the good news about…
I remember where I was when…
The day I got an F-15 incentive ride, I went home and wrote down all the details I could in order to capture the memory. I knew I would forget details over the years, even though it’s one of the most exciting and meaningful experiences in my life. (Full disclosure, I actually wrote things down later in the week. That detail doesn’t matter to the story so we can fudge it a bit without losing anything.)
What about hilarious conversations with kids? How about the silly things they say when they first start speaking?
We think we’ll have these moments forever in our minds, but the hard drives in our brains get corrupted and fragmented pretty easily, and time passes quick.
(I made an Avengers: Infinity War reference at the workshop, talking about our memories flaking into ash and fading away… and not one of the participants had seen the movie. What a wasted analogy!!!)
These ideas and writings may not lead to a book deal, but they may prove satisfying in a way we didn’t expect, meeting a need we didn’t realize we had.
(I put on some soft instrumental music and read the following directions and questions.)
Close your eyes for a minute and think of a happy memory. Relive it for a moment. Pay attention to the details.
I’m not even talking about the deeply emotional, soul-searching stuff like the Hemingway quote about bleeding all over your typewriter. (If you’re doing that to your computer, get yourself checked by a doctor. Get your computer checked, too–they’re not waterproof, let alone blood-proof.)
I know, it’s supposed to be as easy as pouring words onto a page, knowing they’re garbage, so that you have something to sculpt or reshape into actual quality. It’s dumping sand into the sandbox so you can eventually build your little castle.
Like that kid in the sandbox, the castle of words I see in my mind is often quite different from what everyone else sees in the real world.
A little outside perspective is necessary.
Enter the beta reader!
Beta readers are the folks who get to see first (and second, and fifth) drafts of a novel. They’re the trusted friends and fellow writers who have the opportunity to give the vitally important reader perspective to a novelist. They can let a writer know what parts are working great and what parts need more work, long before the draft gets submitted to a publisher or to a self-publishing service.
If you’re working with a publishing house or agent, you’re probably paying for editing, or it’s part of some arrangement with your creative overlords. If you’re self-publishing, it can be liberating to avoid all the hurdles and onerous steps of the traditional process, but you’re also left in desperate need of that outsider perspective.
I’ve been blessed to have several beta readers along the way, each of whom helped make my efforts better. One of them, a friend named David, just came to Okinawa for a month-long, work-related trip, and we had the chance to bounce ideas back and forth as I look at my meager efforts on book 2.
David is a great example of how to be a beta reader. What does he do right?
He gets into the setting and questions world-building.
“If your magic system works this way, then how do you have an economy? It can’t be based on precious metals if people can simply conjure metals.”
“It would be difficult to be a classical atheist or even agnostic in a world where people literally manifest symbols of power granted from the Divine, so have you thought about how that might change social interactions and expectations?”
The messages in the pic above are another example, this time questioning the details of the magic system. While I had an answer, I also noted that I didn’t communicate the concept clearly enough in the story to prevent the question from being asked.
He challenges the writing when it doesn’t fit the character.
“You made your main characters sound like middle school girls playing around and laughing when… I mean, the town might not still be on fire but several buildings are still smoldering, and Lyllithe just got kicked out of her religious order, not to mention the attack in the woods… that whole dialogue feels wrong.”
A beta reader can also tell you which characters are hitting the mark and which feel forgettable.
“You’ve got Lyl and Jo, and they’re great… and then there’s… uh… Blade Guy with the knives, and Mage Guy who casts spells, and the Other Guy who is scarred. I don’t know anything really about them, and so I don’t really care about them yet.”
He offers tough but fair criticism that is genuinely constructive. Feedback like “You’re trying too hard” or “this is bad” is terrible, as it doesn’t offer any corrective option. Feedback like “I liked it” is so vague that it doesn’t identify any positive quality to capitalize upon. I suppose no feedback at all is the worst sort.
Instead of any of that, I get moments like, “One thing to do in the future may be to pick a single metaphor or simile. There’s a lot of instances where you choose two, where one might have done. Like a child caught between two slices of cake, or pieces of candy.”
Feedback on the actual writing is the first thing that comes to mind when discussing what makes a beta reader good, but I put it last for this reason:
Writers need this kind of attention to the quality of their writing, but a grammatically correct manuscript might still be full of plot holes and flat characters.
David and I talked on the way to the airport yesterday, as he is headed back to the States. “It’s a unique experience,” he said of reading my book and peppering me with friendly, well-intentioned grief. “It’s not every book I read where I know the author and can message them with challenges or questions about their work. It’s not like I can email Stephen King and ask, ‘Hey, what were you thinking here?'”
Sometimes that’s exactly what we need to hear… preferably before we publish.
If you want to support a friend who is a writer, offer to be a beta reader for their work… then follow through.
Though I didn’t care for all his politics, I enjoyed listening to President Obama as a public speaker. I’m sure some of that credit belongs to good speech writers, but still… I felt like here’s a guy who can make a coherent case for the position he holds, even if I don’t agree with him.
I tried to imagine how this interview might go with the current administration:
“Have you ever read Reinhold Niebuhr?”
“Who?” Trump smirked. “Is that an op-ed guy from some fake news media site? I don’t—“
“He’s a philosopher, Mister President.”
“Oh.” Trump shakes his head. “The thing with those guys is—I mean, it’s great to have people who sit around thinking really deep about stuff, but in business you don’t have time for, you know, I’m going to—what about the human condition and how does it play into—you’re there to win, and be great, and make good deals.”
“Of course,” I respond. “But wouldn’t you say there’s—“
“You know, we have a lot of guys that want to read this or that guy, what does he think about, I don’t know, poverty or diplomacy or whatever. But as a successful businessman, I learned the value of fast action—you just go after it and get it done, which—I think that’s kind of a philosophy of it’s own. Maybe the best philosophy. I wrote a book about it, you know. The Art of the Deal. Have you read it?”
He flashes a grin. “I’ll turn the tables on you. What do you think of Donald Trump?”
Before I can come up with an appropriate response, he laughs, waves me off with one hand, and goes on. “Not that it really matters. I know how many copies it sold. One of the best books in America, the best. What was your question again?”
To any of my friends on the Right, #sorrynotsorry and I hope some day the President proves me wrong. I look forward to that day like a thirsting man in the desert crawling toward an oasis.
To my friends on the Left, don’t become what you hate about the Right—because there’s a lot of mindless groupthink on your side too.
I long for the return of politics where we can communicate with one another and actually discuss the merits and concerns of any given policy or change.
I’m beyond tired of party-line foul-atics, where all that matters is your slavish devotion to whatever your party’s gods and goddesses deem correct. “I support this initiative.” Why? “Because it’s what’s best. I saw a piece by (Alex Jones / Rachel Maddow), so I know this is what the country needs.”
Whether it’s Tomi Lahren getting fired on the Right because she disagreed with the party norm about abortion, or people dog-piling something Bill Maher or Jon Stewart says which goes against the flow, tribalism fuels this kind of “politics” instead of thought.
We have had eloquent Presidents in the past, and we can again. Fair point.
More importantly, we also have been an eloquent, educated, considerate people in the past. We can become that again.
I’m proud to have put over 50,000 words into my project, but I’m most excited about connecting and re-connecting with writers in my area. Not only did all four regular members of our base writing group dive into the challenge this year, but a WriMo participant from a few years ago jumped in (and won!). On top of that, I met four writers I didn’t know prior to the NaNoWriMo events.
Not everything went perfectly.
I had the privilege once again of serving as a Municipal Liaison for Japan–specifically Okinawa.
We have three stellar individuals on the mainland who managed the bulk of the nation’s participants. On island, our group had a rough start that forced me to develop some guidelines and contingency plans for future NaNo events–stuff you hope you never have to enforce, but you realize should be in place “just in case.” Yay for opportunities to grow and practice interpersonal skills!
The librarian on Kadena is passionate about writing groups–participating and supporting–so we enjoyed an array of Keurig coffee cups and a constant influx of writing resources. (Anyone need a journal? Here’s a stack. Need a book about researching how bodies decompose? I know a great one we might even have here… Stuck in your manuscript? Try playing around with some poetry magnets or story dice.) Who said libraries aren’t cool?
My writing felt like a mess more than usual.
In the past, I approached NaNo like a plotter, laying out the overall course of the story with key milestones I knew I needed to hit as well as rough scene ideas documenting who needed to say or do what and for what purpose. That usually works for me, like following a recipe of cake mix. I have a little bit of freedom to substitute ingredients, and I can change plans in the middle if I really want to do so. “I think I’ll turn this into cupcakes instead of using a standard 9 by 13 cake pan. I’ll switch out the oil with applesauce for a healthier option.”
Some people are “pantsers” who sit down with a blank document and go to town, allowing the muse and the characters they’ve created in their minds to develop on paper in whatever way the story unfolds. More power to all of you who can manage that.
This year, I think I fell in the middle of the two–what some NaNo types call “plantser.” I had much less to go on than my last three NaNo drafts. The rough bones of a story arc bounced around in my mind, and I jotted down certain key points at the bottom of my manuscript Word document, but I had nowhere near the detail or preparation of previous efforts. It showed, as I left myself a lot more notes with questions to follow-up on, gaps or plot holes I could see while writing, even basic details like “insert her mom’s name here.”
On the one hand, “plantsing” gave me enough freedom to do as I pleased, changing up the events in the story as I wrote, to fit new ideas and revelations. It also gave me enough signposts as reminders to keep me moving in my intended direction. “Not saying you have to take the left lane onto I-80, but Chicago is far down the interstate in this direction, so you do you.”
I kept distractions to a (relative) minimum.
My favorite author Brandon Sanderson released the next novel in his massive epic fantasy series, The Stormlight Archives. Those books are so good, my non-fantasy-reading wife even loves them. That has been sitting on my iPad for the last three weeks, taunting me, beckoning with one finger crooked. “Just one chapter… that’s all… won’t take long… come on…”
The Netflix Punisher series came out mid-November, and I am a sucker for Jon Bernthal’s amazing combination of brooding / unhinged. Dude is like the stacks of unstable dynamite from my favorite 80s post-apocalyptic games. Sure, you might gain something by searching this, but you probably ought to back out of the fallout shelter slowly and forget what you saw here. (Fans of Wasteland might know what I’m talking about. The rest of you can take pleasure knowing I suck at analogies.)
I watched one episode the night it came out, then forced myself to close the app.
Thor: Ragnarok was a must-see, so I used that as my reward for getting ahead of schedule early. Justice League was going to be a mid-month reward, but I started falling behind and never found a good time to see it. In 20/20 hindsight, given the reviews and images, maybe that wasn’t a bad thing.
The addiction to video games kept its hooks deep in my flesh-husk. While I pulled away from WoW, and only played a couple hours of the intro of Horizon: Zero Dawn – The Frozen Wilds (omg such a great game), the mindless entertainment bug bit hard about three weeks in. For inexplicable reasons, as I looked at the Blizzard launcher on my PC, I realized that I own Diablo III, and I never played through the fifth act expansion, nor have I tried the necromancer class they added long after the game’s release. Easy fix! A few minutes of monster-grinding and loot-grabbing wouldn’t affect my writing too much, right?
In the course of a week, I played through the whole story and raised my overpowered goddess of death to just shy of max level. “Just one more level… just one more quest… just need to kill this one boss…”
I’ve put 75,000 words on various projects this month.
I started this year with a goal of writing a thousand words a day. Like many New Year’s resolutions, that lost steam after the first month or two. By about April I recalculated my goal. (500 words wouldn’t be too bad, right?)
In September, I realized if I cracked down and wrote like NaNoWriMo every month until the end of the year, I would make it. That didn’t pan out, though I exceeded my 1K/day goal. After the last month of grinding, I’m sitting at about 320K, with a few different projects clamoring for my attention. (I’ll post about one of them soon, because it has been both fun and valuable to me.)
Not saying those words are great words… but they’re something I can edit, revise, or cut, which is better than a blank page on screen and a bunch of imagined plot lines in my head.
All of that to say, I’m sort of sorry I was gone for the last month (plus), I’m not too worried because I can see how many or how few views come through, but I’m grateful for those of you who care enough to read this and/or support me, even if it’s just asking, “How’s that writing coming?”
Cue the wild-eyed Superman pain-rictus. “Pretty good,” I say through clenched teeth, choking down my self-loathing. “Everything is fine.”
At our bi-weekly Okinawa Military Community Writers meeting, Kyle led off the discussion with an exercise in developing the main idea of a short story, novella, or book. He posted about this and covered the 5 Ws that can help a writer summarize the story they intend to write.
I hope to build on that here with some additional tools or techniques for devising a plot line. Your mileage may vary, but hopefully one of these options will prove useful.
So you want to write a book…
Anyone setting out to write hopes to create something new and interesting, a unique contribution to their genre–and that’s a noble aspiration, of course. That might make some of these formulaic approaches seem unpalatable.
The thing to remember about a formula is it exists because it works.
Readers expect certain elements in particular genres… and this is not bad. A reader should have a decent idea what to expect based on the cover, back copy, and the first few pages. The tale may be familiar in structure, but unique in the telling, which makes it a fun read.
Deviating from the standard plan can be creative. Deviating too much is detrimental unless you telegraph it from the beginning.
In one of his excellent lectures on writing, fantasy author Brandon Sanderson brings up the example of a fellow writer who got published around the same time as Sanderson’s first book, Elantris. Sanderson’s book sold well and launched his career. The other fellow’s book sold poorly. What started as one type of novel (fantasy coming of age) suddenly became an entirely different book (dark and gritty science fiction) about three-quarters of the way in. Obviously other factors could be at work in this example, but when a book doesn’t deliver on its promise, that turns readers away.
That’s where planning and plotting can help. If we understand the commitment we’re making and the steps we should take in order to fulfill that promise, it’s easy to give readers what they will like.
“But I write free and unrestrained,” one may protest. “An outline or plot is a straitjacket in a padded room, an orange jumpsuit in a prison cell. I won’t go willingly.”
Pantsers (those who write by the seat of the pants) can still find use in these tools and structures. However, instead of using one to start an outline, the pantser can use these to guide the first major revision. If we’ve done our job as writers, the rough first draft will have elements of story and theme and proper flow between events, leading from whatever kicks off the thrill ride to the explosive climax. Figuring out the main structure of a story–even a free-writing journey of creativity–can illuminate what works and what fits, or highlight what should be cut to make the end result leaner and tighter.
Get your writing on LOCK
James Scott Bell writes about the LOCK method in Plot and Structure, among other books. The elements are:
Lead – a compelling or interesting character we’re going to care about enough to read through an entire novel.
Objective – the important goal or need driving this character into action they might otherwise avoid
Confrontation – the opposing forces or agents keeping the Lead from a quick solution
Knockout – an unexpected yet exciting ending that wraps up the conflict while blowing the reader’s mind
The stakes in the conflict have to be high–usually involving death. That doesn’t mean the lead or some support character must literally be hanging from a cliff or targeted in a sniper’s scope. Death can be professional (disbarred as a lawyer, kicked out of the military, imprisoned for a crime, or simply shamed and humiliated), or personal (divorced by the spouse they love, abandoned or rejected by their child, trapped forever in regret and frustration at what might have been).
Varying the Variables
A technique I picked up from George Guthridge during a fantasy writing workshop involves sorting out the variables and reasons that sum up the conflict, almost like a math formula.
(Variable 1) (verb phrase) (variable 2) because (reason).
For example, “A hopeless loser gets his life mixed up with his wealthy twin because neither knew the other existed.” So we get all the variations on The Prince and the Pauper, such as Freaky Friday, the Parent Trap, and a number of plots for one-off episodes in cartoons and comedy shows.
The trick here is to ensure that most of the equation involves some new or interesting. One of the variables can be boring–the hopeless loser, for example–but the rest must be exciting for the equation to work.
For example, the hopeless modern-day loser is trained to use magic by an enigmatic centuries-old sorcerer because only together can they close the portal to Hell in the middle of Times Square.
Okay, that’s been done, but the point is only one part of that equation feels like it fits in the mundane everyday world.
Filling Out the Outline
Guthridge also taught a skeletal plot structure that lays out the protagonist’s character arc, around which all the rest of the story will build. Here are the pieces of that framework:
The Protagonist (what’s interesting about him or her?)
Has an emotional / inner problem (what’s the backstory that led to this personal issue?)
But an outside problem arises (what happens that forces the protagonist to face their issue and backstory?)
Protagonist tries a solution that not only fails, but makes things worse (how are the stakes raised as a result?)
Repeat 4 with another failed solution that builds the conflict and deepens the crisis
Repeat 4 if you have space for a third failed solution and the resulting increased tension
Protagonist solves the outer problem (without help from God, luck, friends, family, deus ex machina stuff)…
And in so doing also solves or overcomes their inner problem
This will establish the main thrust of your character’s journey. Plotters can use it to start an outline; pantsers can look for how what they’ve written conforms to this kind of arc and revise accordingly.
Characters Change… Maybe?
Some books and speakers insist that a story is a series of events where characters change. This isn’t always true.
While considering the path a character will take (or has taken in the first draft), it may be that he or she remained firm in their convictions, against all the odds and pressure to change. Some stories are about people whose unwavering beliefs carry them through seemingly insurmountable odds. The tension builds with the increasing temptation to give in, and readers wonder, “Will they break? Will they sell out?” We’re satisfied when they don’t. Think of Captain America in the Avengers movies, who states that sometimes when all the world pushes you to move, you have to stand your ground and say, “No, you move.”
Conversely, plenty of stories involve the transition from an old belief or worldview to a new take on reality. Most “apprentice” novels and coming-of-age stories involve an underdog who becomes a master of their craft while developing the internal confidence to stand up for themselves.
A character may stand firm or change views–then we can reveal if their decision will end well or poorly for them. Maybe it’s a mistake with dire consequences, a cautionary tale. The unwavering person might not be able to survive a changing world (alas, Ned Stark!), and the person shifting their beliefs might live to regret their decision. Either of these can be a satisfying (if not happy) resolution to a character’s arc.
Nothing New Under the Sun
None of these structures or techniques are first-seen, unheard of, unique experimental snowflake novels. They don’t have to be. Everything we do and create is derivative of something we’ve seen or experienced–that’s what makes it relatable. The familiarity of the structure puts readers in a comfortable place, but each writer’s individual twists or combinations of ideas build a fresh experience that keeps the writing from feeling like what we’ve seen before. On top of that, no one tells a story exactly the same way; the use of voice and style in writing puts the spice in the casserole of words that will satisfy a hungry reader.
I hope the tools above and the 5 Ws from Kyle’s post help spur some creative writing. Whether following a recipe is easier, or looking at a picture and winging it is preferred, let’s get cooking and serve up something delicious.
It’s not a one-off, not a fluke, not a one-hit wonder. I got confirmation today of upcoming payment for my words by a “real” publisher. In a couple months I’ll get a small check from Simon & Schuster, and one of my stories will appear in Chicken Soup for the Soul: Step Out of Your Comfort Zone, due out on Halloween.
While a short story submission like that doesn’t take a lot of time or effort, it represents the return on investment, the proof of growth and progress in this self-proclaimed writer status.
A second story published is a signal that I’ve done something with the last several years of “taking writing seriously.” It validates the advice and constructive criticism I’ve received over five years of participating in critique groups.
For most of us, nothing worth doing comes naturally or easy. Talent won’t make the difference; it’s what we do with our opportunities. Motivation doesn’t make magic happen; small, incremental efforts repeated daily or at least frequently will create results over time. We’re trading a little pain now for something important later.
Learning to play the piano took eight years of lessons, and over thirty years of ongoing effort… but it’s a skill I get paid for now. Becoming a Spin instructor wasn’t easy, but overcoming the challenge of each session gave me deep satisfaction… and also a paycheck.
A friend of mine fought his debt and financial status for the last few years, chipping away at the bills and pumping money little by little into savings. He’s getting ready to move, and we talked for a while at the grocery store while he picked up some lunchmeat, some cheese, and some wraps with which to make meals. He chooses to live comfortably yet below his means in order to manage his money better, and now he’s putting half his paycheck into investments every month. By the time he retires from the military, he’ll own a few properties with a plan to purchase more–his invested money earning enough to pay for all his expenses. It took time, discipline, and some pain… living like no one else now so he can live like no one else later, to quote Dave Ramsey.
I read a challenging quote from motivational speaker Jim Rohn yesterday which reaffirmed the thoughts behind this blog: “We all must suffer one of two pains: the pain of discipline or the pain of regret. The difference is discipline weighs ounces while regret weighs tons.”
After a long workday of chaos, I want nothing more than to log into Warcraft, rip open some bag of junk food, put something on the TV, and shut off my brain.
Instead, I came home and headed out the door for some sprints around the neighborhood and gradual climbs on nearby hills. I’ve got a PT test coming up in a month–probably my last one in the Air Force–and I can’t afford to fail. That means putting in the work now so I can see and enjoy the progress later.
Despite the ache and soreness in my knee.
Regardless of the arthritic throbbing in my fused ankles.
Despite the stabbing pain in my big toe for the last few days.
Regardless of what other things I could or should be doing with my time.
Effort leads to results… eventually.
What are the goals and aspirations that float through the void of “someday I’d like to” in your mind? What small steps can you take today to advance toward them?
The oft-quoted adage conveys important wisdom. In our efforts to make something the best it can be, we might pour too much effort or time into a project when “good enough” would suffice. Perfection is notoriously impossible to obtain, especially when we rely on our subjective judgment to make determinations. Most of us are never so confident as to say something we do or create is perfect… but it’s what many of us strive for nonetheless.
Wise people recognize when “good” is good enough, and refocus their attention or resources to accomplish the next task instead of perfecting the first.
Yet I find a related lesson as I consider that first quote:
We must not let good become the enemy of our goal.
In life, if we’re open to new ideas and watching for new opportunities, there are always choices and options available which seem appealing or even ideal. It’s too easy to follow these rabbit trails into tangential tasks and irrelevant efforts that feel good but never satisfy our deeper desires.
Motivational speakers and writers issue a common refrain: if you’re going to succeed at the most important thing to you, it has to become the most important thing to you.
Sometimes that means getting up earlier. Working on the weekend. Putting in some hours working at your passion, after you’ve already put in a full day’s work on the job. Other times, it means forsaking what’s appealing for what you’re accomplishing. While friends party or catch a movie, you grind a little more today so you start tomorrow further along the path to the goal. When genuinely good commitments are asked of you, sometimes it means saying, “I can’t do that right now.”
Speaking of financial stability and living within one’s means, Dave Ramsey puts it this way:
“If you will live like no one else, later you can live like no one else.”
His program applies this principle toward financial management, and participants cut unnecessary or excessive expenses while planning and monitoring their budgets down to the penny. The same concept applies to anyone who sets out to accomplish some difficult and demanding long-term goal–except it means cutting irrelevant activities and expenditures of energy, and focusing in on the actual priorities we claim mean so much.
I’m presuming you’ve already made some goals and decided certain activities are worth your effort–perhaps fitness achievements or weight loss, perhaps a career in writing or art or music, maybe some professional education or advancement with a clearly laid-out path and requirements.
Step one is to figure out what matters to you and commit to it, not as some hobby, thing on the side, or “personal interest.” Of this you can be certain: Make such a decision, and those good temptations and worthwhile distractions will come out of the woodwork. So what’s the way forward?
Make the most of your time.
Sometimes we can kill two or three birds with one stone. As I type, I’m sitting on the bike, finishing an hour pedaling away. I’m knocking out my exercise for today while getting a blog post typed up while taking time for personal reflection while meeting today’s word count goal.
In a similar vein, while waiting in line at the post office or grocery store, I’ve typed up blogs or short stories, outlined D&D sessions or book ideas, coordinated events or meetings, and so on.
When I feel rushed, I consider my YouTube video history, the “hours played” on various video games, or the Netflix log of shows I’ve watched. We all have 24 hours a day, with probably 8 hours that we allocate as we see fit.
Long-term effort made of small steps and good decisions is the only path to success and accomplishing some of our goals. I can’t get fit in a week of high-intensity workouts and crash-diets. I won’t write a novel by sitting down and cranking out 80,000 words in a couple days. I’m not likely to see a million dollars drop into my bank account so I can pay off all my debts and save for retirement. Regular, disciplined effort is the only way forward.
Small steps add up to big results.
A few hundred words isn’t much, but when I write 500 in the half-hour before work, then 600 at lunch, then 250 while waiting to pay my groceries, then another 800 before bed… that’s how progress is made.
Paying an extra $50 or $100 on a bill until it’s gone means that I have that money plus the amount of the regular bill available to apply elsewhere in the budget. This is a big part of how Dave Ramsey’s program eliminates debt: small steps that build momentum.
Still, all too often there’s a whole gang of “good” calling for my attention.
I may have to learn to say no.
What about you? How do you balance pursuing your interests and passions with the demands of “real life” and other commitments? Got any tips for readers? (That really means please can I steal some good ideas because I’m desperate.) Let me know in a comment below.
“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:
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.
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.
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.
Here’s my BlogBattle entry for this week, with the word “pirate” and the genre of crime/thriller, especially mystery.
This was an unexpected return to the setting of a recent piece starring Dom the Deadtective and his love interest, Innova, the Spirit of Innovation, prisoner of the cruel and powerful Oni. I’ll finish this story with next week’s Blog Battle.
Innova tiptoes through the alleyway, weaving between puddles of vomit and piles of Devil-Knows-What. Her nose turns up at the odor, or at least that’s the impression I get. Not sure spirits breathe at all, let alone smell anything.
We’re a couple blocks down the road from the banks of the Styx, where the Ferryman drops off all the new arrivals–assuming they don’t find other ways into these parts. I can see the crowd of newcomers stumbling around, dumbfounded, maybe trying to make sense of their last moments, struggling to understand how they ended up here.
High overhead, angels speed through the plumes of ash and swirling clouds, zipping to and fro on whatever errands Heaven deems important. Other spirits flicker through the sky over the crowd, curious and watchful, but keeping their distance.
Some goblins are slumped against the wall of the alley, drunken to oblivion, surrounded by the wreckage of a keg and the stench of waste. I’m jealous of Innova, and wishing my nose could block out the stink. But being caught between life and death means just about everything works fine.
Everything except hope.
“I can’t believe,” Innova says, looking around, “that you traded away your Intel on the Prince of Rage for this.”
Turned out ol’ Belial’s got a secret. Big fan of bootleg entertainment smuggled from the up-world… and I’m talking cartoons with ponies and unicorns, or movies where dolphins save the day. Haven’t seen anything so funny in all my years down here as a massive, black-horned Daemon Lord fighting back tears when the little girl and her dolphin finally reunite at the end of the film.
The Oni didn’t believe me at first–I had to bring him proof. Hacked in and copied a video feed from the Prince’s lair. When the Oni watched it, he laughed so hard I thought he’d shatter his armor.
The blackmail potential was worth a fortune. Got me a day with Innova, outside the Oni’s club. The tracker strapped around her ankle rattles a little with each step–a formality, really. Her radiant figure is pretty hard to miss strolling down the black tar streets of Hell. Plenty of petty thugs and beady-eyed hellspawn watching our every move. If I tried to escape with the Spirit of Innovation, one of these devils’ll rat me out to the Oni in a heartbeat.
The thought barely crossed my mind, like, five or ten times. I know some back ways and hidden paths through the outskirts of the underworld. Could prob’ly give the Oni’s toughs a good chase–maybe even make it to some kind of freedom, such as there is to find down here.
But much as I love Innova’s company, I need her for something else right now. Everything’s brighter when she’s around. Clearer. Focused. Complicated things just start to make sense. It’s her effect on the people around her, boosting creativity, inspiring new ideas, new ways of seeing things.
“Dom,” Innova says, “seriously. What are we doing here?”
“I’m hoping it’s just a quick stop before we find something better to do. I’ve got a bit of mystery to figure out.”
Turns out someone’s been cutting into the Oni’s unique business–I’m talking the bottled spirits, not the brokering of secrets. The numbers at the bar have been low lately, like people found another source. Only there ain’t another being with the power to capture and collect pure spiritual essence, so an upstart rival doesn’t make sense.
My lead pointed me this way, before he vanished. Then he turned up a husk, drained of whatever remnants of life he’d brought down here from his mortal days. Figure if someone goes to the trouble of killing a dead person to keep a secret, must be a good one.
Too good of one, in fact. I’ve scoured these streets a hundred times on my own, with nothing to show but worn-out soles. Not a scrap of a clue to go on… and today’s not looking any better.
“Let’s go on,” I say, taking Innova’s hand. But she doesn’t move. Head cocked, brow furrowed, she’s fixated on the main thoroughfare.
“What is it, babe?”
She purses her lips. “Why are so many people moving the wrong direction, toward the ferry?”
I watch the shifting bodies and heads bobbing up and down, letting my eyes go a little unfocused, taking in the big picture. She’s right. Among all the clueless recently departed, there are a handful going against the stream like salmon in the rapids. I’ve been checking out the headstones, so to speak, forgetting that there’s a whole cemetery.
In fact, the only ones that move with any purpose are weaving the wrong way through the shambling masses and their vacant stares. I don’t remember ever feeling that way after I came down here. “Does everyone look sluggish to you?”
We head toward the ferry too, sticking to alleys and side streets–for whatever it’s worth since I’m walking beside a glowing vision of beauty. There’s a rusted ladder hanging from a fire escape on the next building–an amusing feature for the pit of hell. “Maybe we should get onto the rooftops,” I suggest. “Lots of eyes down here.”
Innova shrugs and starts climbing. The look in her eyes is still a mixture of love and confusion. “You have the weirdest ideas for dates,” she calls down as I climb up. Then something catches her eye and she disappears from view.
The ferry pulls up to the dock, full of passengers about to disembark into the wrong side of eternity. They all look just as lifeless as the crowd, no pun intended. I find myself mesmerized watching them lumbering off the boat and into their new home.
“Look at the Ferryman,” Innova whispers. He’s working at the back of the vessel, hooking up fuel hoses or something, charging the ferry’s necrotic cells for another trip, perhaps.
Except when I look at the pulsing lights, it’s clear the energy is pumping the wrong way. Dockhands disconnect metal tanks and carry them off, one under each thick arm. Empty cylinders replace the first pairs, then another set.
Innova peers at the tanks and gasps. “Those are full of spirits… or spiritual essences of some kind. I can sense the emotions, the experiences–the contents of the tanks feel like they’ve been spliced or suctioned off the new arrivals on the ferry.”
Things finally click into place. “They’re burning bootleg copies of souls,” I say, “collecting passions… pirating the human spirit.”
“Is that even possible?”
“Maybe they’re not as high-quality as what the Oni offers, but probably good enough for a cheap fix.” I creep toward the edge of the rooftop. “We need to get on board that ship.”
“Uh, Dom?” Innova kicks up her smooth, long leg and wiggles her foot at me, jostling the tracker. “The Oni will unleash all hell after you if I step on that ferry. What are we supposed to do about this?”
I can’t help but grin. She’s so cute when she’s concerned. And like a flash of her bright smile, a moment of inspired genius flares in my mind.
Innova grimaces. “Oh, I don’t like that look.”
“Why not?” I poke a playful finger her way. “”It’s your fault, after all. I’ve got an idea, one that solves all our problems at once…”
(to be continued next week)
The home of David M. Williamson, writer of fantasy, sci-fi, short stories, and cultural rants.