Hey Writer—Handle with Care

Hey Writer: Handle with Care (jjhowe)Hey, writer! Your wordsmithing skills are strengthening. (Remember when a blank page made you sigh and stare at the ceiling? That’s less frequent now. Or if you start counting holes in ceiling tiles, you can break the pattern. Celebrate little victories!) The writing life is a challenge, but it’s also exciting. You’re crafting sentences now, and you know it. Still—there are things to think about.

It’s time to write with care.
By now you’ve got a reader in mind when you write. You know all about her, even see her face. What does your relationship feel like? Are you friends? Now write with her in mind. Choose words that communicate and connect, rather than overwhelm or confuse. If the relationship to your reader is caretaking, you might reach her with words that encourage or soothe her soul. If banter is your connection, you can still respect her stage of life, knowledge of the world, and her worldview. If she’s your nemesis, you may be crafting word weapons. (This is a challenge for me, and I do well to borrow Shakespeare’s words like I did here. It could be the difference between nuclear devastation fueled by unchecked emotion and precise targeting through borrowed words.)

Talk to your real, imaginary friend.
You’re writing to a reader, having a conversation on the page with an imaginary friend of your own invention—a clearly identified, very real reader. Now you’ve got a job to do.  Think about your work in these terms.

  • Hold her attention. If you make writing decisions centered purely on your own preference, she’ll sense that. If you’re not inviting her into the conversation or honoring her presence, it will be obvious. Invite your reader into your world of words prepared for her before she ever cracked the cover. If you’ve been thinking of her, she’ll know. She’ll feel welcome, like she belongs.
  • Move her along in your work. When she enters your writing world, be sure to gift her with a page-turner. Use language that’s easily understood, phrasing that reads naturally, and descriptions that serve her. If you choose to bog her down in difficult language, sentences that require two or three attempts, and heavy-handed details that are overwhelming or overdone, she may be done (long before you’d like!).
  • Genuinely impact her life. Leave her with all the benefits of your words. Choose well what you share—make your work a gift that keeps giving long after the final words. Has she met new friends? Visited new places? Grown in her knowledge or wisdom? Is her quality of life better for reading your words? Those are some goals.

It’s not about you.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it a hundred times (probably). A writer is an artist who births a beautiful “child” in the final draft, a child who might seem to be the darling who can do no wrong. A writer who never feels this way either has no genuine connection to the work or extreme insecurity in it (a topic for another day). The mature writer learns to love writing, wholeheartedly enjoying the process and avoiding self-indulgence for the sake of the reader. If a writer manages to balance the creativity and crafting with love for the reader, it’s a win-win. The writer writes, the reader reads, and the work’s fulfillment comes through the reader’s engagement.

Writer, handle your reader and words with care. Do that through skillful, thoughtful writing.

~Jennifer

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Hey Writer, Feed the Mind

Typewriter_Iván_Melenchón_Serrano_MorguefileHello, beautiful writer friends!

I’ve been thinking about the small steps we might take in our writing journey. The question of the day is this—What am I doing today that will feed my writer soul?

No idea what that might be? Sometimes we forget the building blocks of our writer souls, but I’ve got some ideas. Try some of these:

  • Read something today (learn about craft, storytelling, successful writing strategies; notice the signage around you; try reading an encouraging blog, thread, etc.).
  • Observe the characters surrounding you today (their appearance, mannerisms, obvious emotional states).
  • Observe the environment around you (notice the floor plan, decoration, building materials).
  • Listen closely to the casual dialog that surrounds you (vernacular, tone, communication styles, emotions conveyed).
  • Imagine telling a short story about the moment you’re sitting in right now (find the significance in the moment, even if it seems boring).

Just some thoughts for you today. Remember that you can always think like a writer, even when you’re not actively adding words to the count.

Thanks for stopping by. If you’re feeding your writer soul and mind in a fresh way, share what that is for you. We can all use the encouragement and fresh ideas! Comment below, share at the Facebook page or Tweet away!

~Jennifer

Hey Writer, Got Analysis Paralysis?

Writing exists in different parts of my mind—the forefront or the back—and, every so often it drives me out of it. A good number of writers I know have said something similar in conversation. One of my biggest struggles is the “stuck place” that goes along with over-thinking everything: plot or flow, content or structure, word choices, word count, the number of adverbs! (Kidding about that last one.)

And I’m brought back to one consistent truth in the writer life: writers write. Sure, they read and research and doodle sometimes, too, but they invest time in writing. When the analysis overwhelms the process, paralysis sets in. I don’t really believe this is the same thing as writer’s block. Analysis paralysis is something a little different. While the block is a dry inkwell, the paralysis feels something like the inkwell vacillating between explosion and implosion. Suddenly, the words just won’t flow because my mind just won’t play nicely with whatever is on the page or trying to get there.

I have a love-hate thing with the fact that writing is a mental thing. The beauty is that writing allows the pictures, stories, or ideas floating in my head to be shared with people anywhere and any time. The agony is that my mind can have so many incomplete thoughts floating around, and I somehow feel each one should be examined for validity before it hits the page. (This is ridiculous!) What’s a writer to do when the analysis breaks the beautiful process?

Here are three ideas that may help you get past the paralysis in your process:

  1. Take a walk and have a little talk with yourself. A change of scenery may be helpful. You just may have to give yourself permission to write badly or explore an incomplete thought’s development without evaluation. Agree to just write without judgment when you sit down again, if you can.
  2. Try writing from stream of consciousness as an exercise on a regular basis. Timed free-writes can be helpful with practice. You’ll often find you can get more words on the page when you have a specific topic or project to work on when you’ve practiced writing whatever comes to mind. You might also be interested in something like the “Five-Minute Friday” Link Up. Each week a very large group of writers will tackle a five-minute write on a single word topic. Give that a shot!
  3. Try the 10,000-foot view if you have to. You can’t land in “Pantser Land” with writers who just discover the plot (twists and all)? Back out of the project with an open mind and try outlining several different options for your work. Choose the one you like best, or ask someone to help you choose. I like to ask friends for ideas on plot or content when it’s possible or they are willing.

I won’t overwhelm you with a ton of ideas, but there’s at least three you might try. I know I sometimes just need encouragement to push forward in a project, so my “bonus idea” is—find another writer to chat with. See if you can talk shop (or not), if you need it.

Keep on keepin’ on, writer tribe!

~J

Hey Writer—What Exactly is Failure?

Snowflakes and Superpowers

I guess I’m coming out of my hidey hole a little behind the headlines these days. There’s some buzz about an author who determined that two rejected novels equals failure. Of course, that would be painful! And I can empathize.

My thoughts? This is a sign of the times.

In our culture, we tell our kids they are special snowflakes in a gentle flurry. They are perfectly brilliant crystals drifting in November flurry. We grant them superpowers and tell them they can do anything. Parents want to give children the time to discover themselves and their abilities. “Talk all the time you need—or want,” we say. There’s no deadline to this discovery, of course.

Part of the above is true. We may be leaving out important details, though. I think reality may be closer to a snowflake in a blizzard. The struggle to succeed can feel more like being up against gale-force winds to the point of burnout. The “grit” part is missing from our narrative, and that’s surprising given the grassroots Americans who have worked so hard for generations.

The truth is each of us is a unique and powerful individual! Without work or a solid work ethic, it’s likely to be a hard road that may just be easier to walk away from. Writing is hard under some of the best conditions. Pour your sweat on the page or bleed all over it, and it’s personal. I get that. Maybe technical manual writers can say there’s no emotional investment in their writing, I don’t know. We write for personal reasons, and we offer something of ourselves in every sculpted sentence on the page.

But there’s something that’s not so personal. The reality is there are a myriad of writers composing works. We can respect that, but when we start writing, we speak into a very large body of water. All our thoughts may be excellent, but there is competition for the readers’ eyeballs (mainly getting in front of them) and their wallets, honestly. If I write well, that’s awesome, but that isn’t the end of the story. There are so many other parts.

I’m learning so much about the Millennial generation. As a Gen X-er, I’m curious about what’s up and coming in the culture, but I’m also aware of what’s common to humanity. Learning the hard truth about hard work—timeliness, deadlines, and being one of many in a very large pool—is part of life. And life is a tough teacher. Dismissing the “rules” doesn’t make the efforts for naught, but it sure reinforces that the efforts and opinions of everyone else are a factor. Where best-selling authors collected and practically honored the hundreds of rejection letters in their early writing years, we’re dejected and depressed in the single digits.

I get it. I’ve balked or chosen to walk from the hard stuff in life many times. I won’t lie. I preferred ease, comfort, praise, and success (in that order). But the good things, things worth , are rarely gifted to us. Instead, they are hard-fought battles more often than not. If it’s worth having, it’s worth fighting for, isn’t it?

God willing, I’ll persist in the writing challenge that lies before me. If I really have a story, a message, and an audience that needs to hear my voice in the conversation, I can’t balk or walk. It’s my raison d’etre. Dare I say, it’s my calling? I think so.

And that’s when I decide to answer the 5 W Questions of writing, the biggest being my “Why.” I wrote about that here.

Regarding the parting shot in the original article: I’m working on something, and I probably won’t be quiet about it. You see, my “why” flame is bigger than something a publisher, editor, or critic will snuff out. If my God leads me to it, He’ll lead me through it, no doubt.

Thanks for reading along. I love to share thoughts and kick them around with others. What do you think about this article that’s getting some attention? Have you responded to the post on your blog? Share below, of course!

~j

“Please, Fence Me In!”

Blog—picket fenceHave you read this yet? Jeff Goins has a way with words, and sometimes he grabs my attention with a topic that arrives right on time. I’ve been mulling a couple of the points from his post. I don’t disagree with the post. The truth is, I’m not thinking about marketing when I’m kicking around potential titles. I know some would say I should be more concerned about that, but I’m really thinking about a lovely white picket fence.

Sure. It’s all about marketing, and I get that. But it’s about content.

For me, the title is the neat, welcoming picket fence that defines my boundaries. When I’m drafting the gate is open to almost any and all words, but eventually some of those words are shown the sidewalk when I know which ideas, scenes, and sentences play nicely in the yard with the others.

But that fence. I guess I need a plat survey to know where the posts will go before I can seriously evaluate what stays or goes. It’s the granddaddy of all college term papers in my mind sometimes. Writing needs a raison d’être. I’m on the hunt for that.

The nugget I needed in Goins’ post was this: choose an argument.

We called this a thesis for college papers, but it never goes away in our writing. This argument is the work’s reason for being, the lifeblood of the work itself. To be honest, a storyline is a beautiful thing (especially in memoir), but I need to consider the why behind the story. Why tell it? Why should my reader invest time and emotional energy in the story? The tension in the argument makes all the difference, and it’s still there when the content is “just a chronological story.”

There’s a big idea out there somewhere. It may be entertainment, but I think there’s something deeper. Stories have purpose. They draw us in. They teach us. They engage us. They sit with us in a kind of conversation (usually while I sip mug after mug of java). And stories also have a life of their own, flowing at their pace and following their chosen path. The reader rides the current, and the current is the story. But that’s no excuse for words traipsing all over the page without restraint in my mind.

I have a favorite title in mind, and I haven’t been able to shake it. In a moment of brilliance—at least I hope it was!—I saw a connection between the main character’s name, her understanding of her identity, and a couple of different meanings of that name. We’ll see if White Wave Crashing remains when all is said and done. I definitely need to take a closer look at my work’s purpose, audience, and argument because these are posts or pickets in the fence that defines my book.

Goins makes a fantastic point about marketing. An author has one chance to grab the reader’s eyeballs in order to get their fingers leafing through the pages. He’s right about the marketing, and if I could see just a little further down the road—

What do you think?

Does the author let the work grow at its own pace? A sculptor might say the rock speaks, and he merely responds by removing whatever is not part of the piece it wants to be. Maybe authors are like that. Maybe I am a little like that, too—on a good day when I am not self-editing the self-edits or plotting every curve, rise, and fall in the WIP.

I say, “Fence me in, please!” I’ll be working on this in order to have a loose framework, but I don’t expect to write a final draft the first time through. This is a process. Even knowing what the book is not is a very good thing.

What has helped you in choosing an argument? Can you share an argument you used in a sentence or so? If you write memoir, how do you think this plays into that genre? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

~j

Hey Writer—What Do You Want in 2017?

Ally Bishop at Upgrade Your Story offered a brilliant challenge to writers in 2017, and I took time to noodle it and respond. If you’re a writer who doesn’t get excited about New Year’s resolutions (short-lived or beaten into submission for months on end) this idea may be encouraging. Take a peek at the question:

What do you personally want out of your writing this year? This is just for you. It’s not word count, a finished manuscript, or sales. What do you want from the craft?

As a writer, I want to craft authentic, believable characters on the page, the kind that draw readers in and captivate them for a while. A story can be plot-driven, but there’s no substitute for meaningful characters we fall in love with, cry with, or want to support and protect in light of the events or other characters in the story. A character whose temptations and choices make a reader say out loud “No-o-o-o, you don’t want to do that!” or “Yes-s-s-s! I’m so proud of you!” really works on the page and has the potential to make a difference in the reader’s life.

Real people have real, felt impact on others’ lives. For better or worse, lives are changed by relationships. (I want to write about that!) The characters on the page interact with one another, with me (the writer), and the reader. There’s powerful potential right there! But life isn’t scripted, and it’s not narrated as like some play-by-play scrawled on the page. A reader needs enough detail to construct a sensible scene, and their grey matter takes it from there.

One skill I’d love to master is telling a good story with these kinds of characters but giving just the right amount of detail. In the name of “clarity” I spell everything out. (I can almost hear myself say it—“No reader is going to misunderstand me!” ) Goodness! Readers are ever more clever than I give them credit for. If I tell them everything—which requires more words than a reader could possibly want to invest in—I’ll just end up boring them to death.

Now, all that up there is awesome, but there’s one little monkey wrench in the whole thing. My WIP is a memoir. So, the another part of this craft “focus” for 2017 is connected to embracing reality (I’m writing a familiar character, me!), finding the significance in the story (Why should a reader invest their time, mind, and heart in this?), and exploring the purpose of the story (A story has powerful potential, and I want to unleash that!).

I try to guard against the ugly places a memoir can go. This isn’t the time to craft cathartic “yack” on the page. But I don’t want to ignore the significant people, events, and experience that could benefit others. As I think about it, this is the time to explore the potential in my story and discover its shape, size, and weight.

Ally suggested writing vignettes to process pieces of story (changing the POV from my own to someone else’s), and I think that might be the perfect solution to some of the memoir mayhem. I tried it once and liked it—the difference between I and she was stark and wonderful. I’ll let you know how that goes.

Let’s see where the rabbit runs in 2017…

Thanks for reading along! If you’re planning writing goals for this year, I’d love to see what you’re thinking about. Let me know where you’re sharing them so I can take a little look-see.

~j