Craft and Practice with Jeff Bowles – Writing for Catharsis

Craft and Practice

The third Wednesday of each month, writer Jeff Bowles offers practical tips for improving, sharpening, and selling your writing. Welcome to your monthly discussion on Craft and Practice.

Writing for Catharsis

Writing is a hard enough gig without the existence of one persistent, unceasing fact: things change, nothing lasts, and all things pass away. You could make a decent mantra out of that, couldn’t you? I mean it’s true enough I don’t even really have to repeat it. I will though. Several times, in fact, because I’d like to impress upon you the urgency of a world in desperate need of good, personal, dare I say it, emotional storytellers.

This month’s Craft and Practice will be a little different. We’re going to talk about our feelings. Wait! Don’t click off! You can’t run from them any more than I can. Things change, nothing lasts, all things pass away. And if you and your incredible writing superpowers are needed anywhere in the world, it’s quite possible they’re needed at home most of all.

You see, people can recognize the transience of life without too much effort, but they’re either too locked into their own experiential tangents to do anything about it, or they simply keep their stories to themselves. Writers don’t have that luxury, and nor should we be afforded it. It’s our job to comment, profile, report, extol, condemn, codify, decode. If not for everyone living today and for a hundred generations beyond, then at least for ourselves, right here and now. What does this all boil down to? We can write about all the crazy stuff that happens to us and call it catharsis. Neat, huh?

I recently released a novel called Love/Madness/Demon. It deals, in part, with a psychotic episode I experienced four or five years ago. Now at that time I didn’t know or understand what was happening to me. If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health issues, I urge you seek qualified help, because once I was able to do so, once a true diagnosis came my way, things slowly began to turn around for me. But I knew as I started recovering that what I’d gone through—what I’d put my loved ones through—it constituted serious traumatic territory, and I also knew that it might make me feel better to write about it someday.

It did. That’s the long and short of it. Moreover, spending sufficient time with my story as a finished manuscript tended to help even more. I had to tread, retread, and re-retread the same ground again and again. The worst moments of the ordeal tended to lose their hold on me. Now writing as catharsis implies you’ve repressed or buried something. Some people haven’t done anything of the sort, though I’d wager that to one degree or another, the vast majority of us have. This is life, after all, the greatest bare-knuckled, knock-down cage match of them all. If you’ve taken a few lumps in recent years, you aren’t alone.

I think it’s best to approach cathartic writing from a place of complete honesty. What are you doing it for otherwise? And realistically, you’ve got endless literary modes available to you. I chose fiction because it’s what I’m most comfortable with, but maybe you prefer poetry or nonfiction.

Nonfiction may be the best way to approach the craft for the sake of healing because you can just write the truth as it seemed to you. Now, you may have to wrestle with legalities, ditto with fiction, but I tend to believe most of the advice given to writers about these things are of the overblown, cover-one’s-own-ass variety. Can you write about things that really happened to you? Of course you can. Who says you can’t? What you can’t do is drag someone’s name through the mud in the process, but I’ve got a good feeling about you. You’re not interested in hurting others with your writing. You’re a paragon of humility and moral excellence. I mean, I can just tell by looking at you. What a punim.

I hurt after my psychotic break. A lot of people around me did. Because I was delusional, because I didn’t understand what was happening to me, I lashed out frequently and did things it’s taken me a lot of time to try and get over.

But your experience with cathartic writing will be wholly different. I hope and pray you haven’t got any major traumas in your direct experience. But if you have, and if you’re lucky enough to have been given an aptitude for the written word, I highly suggest putting your emotional self on the line and trying to do a little self-evaluation and self-nurturing. Even if you intend on never letting another soul read it, the initial intimacy and privacy of the act are paramount. I’d never suggest a person try to write their pain away rather than seek the help of a licensed professional, but I’ve found that a good therapy program lines up very well with cathartic writing. In fact, there were times in my recovery I didn’t have the ability to engage in counseling, so the writing of Love/Madness/Demon was even more crucial to me.

I feel better now. I don’t feel perfect. In fact, I still have a lot of bad days. But it was worth it to me to at least try to alleviate some of the pressures of everything I’d gone through. Maybe you can do the same for yourself. I hope you can. Things change, nothing lasts, all things pass away. It’s sort of a very painful time for many people out there. Writing about what ails us? There are worse ways to cope.


Jeff Bowles is a science fiction and horror writer from the mountains of Colorado. The best of his outrageous and imaginative work can be found in God’s Body: Book One – The Fall, Godling and Other Paint Stories, Fear and Loathing in Las Cruces, and Brave New Multiverse. He has published work in magazines and anthologies like PodCastle, Tales from the Canyons of the Damned, the Threepenny Review, and Dark Moon Digest. Jeff earned his Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing at Western State Colorado University. He currently lives in the high-altitude Pikes Peak region, where he dreams strange dreams and spends far too much time under the stars. Jeff’s new novel, Love/Madness/Demon, is available on Amazon now!

Love Madness Demon Cover Final

Check out Jeff Bowles Central on YouTube – Movies – Video Games – Music – So Much More!


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Hot Off the Press! “Ask the Authors” is now available!

ATA Cover

It has been two years in the making, but I’m pleased to announce that the WordCrafter Q&A anthology, Ask the Authors, has finally been released. This anthology has its origins right here on Writing to be Read back in 2018, when I ran a twelve week blog series of the same name. I compiled those interviews to create a valuable author’s reference, with writing tips and advice from seventeen different authors on all areas of writing, craft and promotion.

Contributing authors on this project include Dan Alatorre, Tim Baker, Chris Barili, Amy Cecil, Chris DiBella, Jordan Elizabeth, Ashley Fontainne, Janet Garber, Tom Johnson, Lilly Rayman, Carol Riggs, Art Rosch, Margareth Stewart, Mark and Kym Todd, Cynthia Vespia, and R.A. Winter. Single and multi-genre authors combined, write fiction for both Y.A. and adult readers, in a multitude of genres: medical thriller, science fiction, commercial fiction, action/adventure, crime fiction, weird western, romance, steampunk, fantasy, paranormal fiction, murder mystery, thrillers, speculative fiction, pulp fiction, literary fiction, humor, nonfiction, dark fantasy, and western. Subject matter includes all aspects of writing from process and inspiration, to craft and practice, to publishing, to marketing and book promotions. This is one writing reference no author should be without.

Get your copy today!: https://books2read.com/u/mdzvwO


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Jeff’s Pep Talk: The Long-Term Effects of Rejection – No is Never the Final Answer

Jeff's Pep Talk2

The Long-Term Effects of Rejection – No is Never the Final Answer

By Jeff Bowles

Every month, science fiction and horror writer Jeff Bowles offers advice to new and aspiring authors. Nobody ever said this writing thing would be easy. This is your pep talk.

To begin with, this article is written with the upstart in mind. The midnight worker, the weekend toiler, the writer who’s still slaving away in obscurity, penning story after story, unpublished novel after unpublished novel, and for whom the word ‘rejection’ has become a special kind of poison.

When I seriously started writing almost fifteen years ago–and by “seriously” I mean “cared enough to finish a single story and try to publish it”–I discovered pretty quickly that receiving rejections was almost as common as losing at a rigged carnival game. I couldn’t figure out why my writing wasn’t good enough, in what areas it was deficient, and to tell you the truth, it would be several years until such things were even remotely clear to me. Regardless, the absolute worst part of it all was receiving the rejections themselves, because I’m kind of a sensitive guy, and damn, they really tended to bruise the old ego.

Writers vary pretty wildly in how we respond to rejection. Some of us never seem fazed by it. Regardless of how often, how impersonal, and how heavy a solid “no” is, these guys seem to take it all in stride. I’ve never been able to tell if the impressive shrug of their shoulders is a put-on, but I do know one thing for certain: I cannot count myself amongst them. When I got rejections, I’d mope and whine and pout for hours or even days. Just ask my wife, who was my new girlfriend at the time. I’d turn into a real bear, and it was because it hurt so much. Like I said, sensitive guy. Plus, no one could get through to me about one very crucial thing: this is the way it’s supposed to be.

If you’re like me, and you tend to take rejection hard—or even if you’re not like me, and moving on to the next story submission is the easiest thing in the world—might I recommend a little tried and true advice. Accept your rejection phase as a given, and if you can go just one more country mile with me, learn to welcome it as a friend. Your rejection phase is helping to make you the writer you’ve always wanted to be. Your rejection phase is purifying your desire to write, and in so doing, allowing you to really decide if a writing career is what you want.

Because if it is, no amount of rejection will ever dissuade you. I thought I’d quit a million times. Now I realize there is no quit. No is never the final answer. And anyone who’s been publishing work for years and years will tell you rejection doesn’t end. Sure, you’re likely to receive less and less of it as you progress, but it’s not the kind of thing that disappears entirely. I know it hurts. Trust me, I’m with you on that one. But unless you plan on going all-indie, it really is a necessary part of your growth as a writer. Kind of a raw deal, I suppose. But then again, nobody ever climbs Mount Everest because it’s easy.

Now a brief word on indie publishing. A lot of older writers—and I don’t necessarily mean older in years, but rather older in experience level or maybe in their stance on traditional publishing—tend to believe that self-publishing inherently makes for worse writers. The idea being, of course, that without the resistance provided by steady rejection, a writer can never become all he or she is meant to become. I came up this way. I’d published dozens of times before I ever self-published on Amazon. The thing is, I don’t necessarily find it to be the case.

Sure, there is a lot of disposable material indie-published on the internet. And yes, I also believe adversity makes us better. But a writer can pick up all sorts of lessons and professional techniques in all sorts of different ways. Every time an indie author publishes something online and gets a few bad reviews, it’s not entirely unlike receiving a standard form rejection. In other words, the negative reinforcement can still become a positive.

All of this might lead someone to ask, what are the long-term effects of rejection? Well, this can go one of two ways. The majority of people who try their hand at writing will never even finish a single manuscript. Statistically, that is absolutely the case. Of those who finish, few will ever submit their work for publication. Now, those who do submit their work (or as the case may be, self-publish it) are likely to meet up with a little adversity. I’d say 90% of them will cut and run as soon as rejection gets too much to bear. But that remaining 10% will soldier on, and they’ll likely receive quite a bit more rejection in the months and years ahead. Is there a long-term legacy of rejection? Yes, there is, but it’s seldom a negative one. I think you’ll find one day that you treasure all those formal beat-downs you received.

Here’s what I would say. No matter how you ply your craft, regardless of whether you choose the path of the traditional publisher or the indie upstart, continuous work, practice, blood, sweat, and tears, are the only things that will make you better. Rejection is at times the name of the game, true enough, but it never has to be the final word on anything. Right?

Right.

Until next time, everybody!


Jeff Bowles is a science fiction and horror writer from the mountains of Colorado. The best of his outrageous and imaginative short stories are collected in Godling and Other Paint Stories, Fear and Loathing in Las Cruces, and Brave New Multiverse. He has published work in magazines and anthologies like PodCastle, Tales from the Canyons of the Damned, the Threepenny Review, and Dark Moon Digest. Jeff earned his Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing at Western State Colorado University. He currently lives in the high-altitude Pikes Peak region, where he dreams strange dreams and spends far too much time under the stars. Jeff’s new novel, God’s Body: Book One – The Fall, is available on Amazon now!

GB Cover

Check out Jeff Bowles Central on YouTube – Movies – Video Games – Music – So Much More!


Want to be sure not to miss any of Jeff’s Pep Talk segments? Subscribe to Writing to be Read for e-mail notifications whenever new content is posted or follow WtbR on WordPress.


“Hack Your Reader’s Brain”: Using the science of brain chemistry to create bestsellers

Hack Your Reader's Brain

We’ve all seen the eBooks and courses out there that claim they can show you how to make your book a best seller. Many of them aren’t about writing at all, but rather about playing tricks with Amazon algorithms, padding the front and back mater of your book with promotional materials. Hack Your Reader’s Brain, by Jeff Gerke takes a different approach to making your book a bestseller. Gerke suggest that you write a good story that people will actually want to read, rather than relying on gimmicks to propel your book into a brief moment at the top.

Now, I can hear you saying, “Ugh! Not another grammar tutorial.” And you’re right. Books on proper grammar can put you to sleep before you know it. They are not exactly engaging reading. But, Gerke says that grammar isn’t what’s important. Poorly written books become bestsellers all the time. He asks how many Amazon reviews list good or bad grammatical practices as the reason for their rating. All I could think was that while many of my own book reviews may be based on the quality of the craftsmanship, most reviews that I’ve read are not. They are based on how the book made the reader ‘feel’, and how engaged they were with the story.

Hack Your Reader’s Brain shows you how to craft your story so that it delivers what your readers want – to be swept away into the world of your story and the lives of your characters temporarily. This is the one thing all readers want, whether because of a desire to escape our own world or one to seek entertainment, we all want to be engaged by the story. It’s why we picked up a book in the first place.

Jeff Gerke provides quality writing advice on crafting a novel with the potential to be a bestseller, and he does it in a laid back manner that feels authentic, putting you at ease and makes you want to listen. I give Hack Your Reader’s Brain five quills.

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Kaye Lynne Booth does honest book reviews on Writing to be Read in exchange for ARCs. Have a book you’d like reviewed? Contact Kaye at kayebooth(at)yahoo(dot)com.


Weekly Writing Memo: All About the Setup

Weekly Writing MemoOne of the most important elements of a story for it to work is for everything to be set up properly. Your plot, your characters, and your resolution all need to be set up in such a way that your audience can believe them. If the audience doesn’t believe it, or “buy in” as it’s often called, then they won’t enjoy your story and may not even continue it. So how do you properly set up everything in your story so it works?

What does your audience need to know?

Think about your plot, your characters, and your world before you start writing. What does your audience need to know about each of these in order for them to understand your story? If needed, make a list. Add to it anything that needs to happen in order for your plot to unfold, and decide in what order those things need to happen.

The things on this list are the things you need to set up in order for your audience to get into your story. Does your character have a mental problem? Then even if you don’t reveal it right away you need to show signs of it, foreshadowing what is to be revealed so when the reveal happens the audience believes it. Does your world involve superhuman mutants? Then again, this is something that needs to be set up in your story so your audience understands the world. Even if you don’t want to reveal the mutants, you need to reveal that there is the possibility of something supernatural going on. Think of all these sorts of elements that will be in your story before you get writing so you have a clear image in mind of what you need to do. You don’t have to make the elements obvious or spell it out blatantly, but do find ways to at least hint at these details so they don’t throw off your audience when they come into play later.

When do they need to know it?

The second part of setting up a story is know WHEN to reveal things. How much do you need to set up right away, and how much can you hold onto and reveal later? You don’t want all these details to come out in a list when you’re writing. They should come out in small doses as necessary. For example, your audience needs to know right away that your character has an enormous scar if it plays into how people react to him/her throughout the story. However, your audience doesn’t need to know right away how your character got the scar. In fact, the audience may never need to know how the character got the scar unless it plays an important part in the story for some reason.

The common mistake I see when people are setting up a story is mainly not mentioning something until it is needed to move the plot forward. For example, if your character needs to know complex mathematics, but your entire story she never once uses math, it’ll seem awfully convenient if the moment she needs it she busts out some calculus. Anything such as this that is key to moving the plot forward, or key to solving a problem, should be established in advance of when the character needs it. If it is something that is constant, then it should be established right from the beginning. If it’s something minor, then it just needs to be established a few scenes or so before it becomes relevant.

How can I show it?

So how do you show these minor things in your story without them coming off as listing or uninteresting? Something like the mathematics example would be boring if the character just said “I’m good at math.” Instead, you could simply have a short moment where your character does some impressive mental math for some reason, or even have something subtle like a math diploma on the wall someplace. These kinds of small details, or small moments, can be a way to establish important elements without taking too much story time.

For anything minor, the quicker you can establish it and move on, usually the better. Anything that is a key element of the story can be established by doing continual small touches throughout the story as it unfolds. For example, if you want to establish someone has anxiety about something, you can have them behave in increasingly anxious ways until their full anxiety is revealed.

Final Notes

Ultimately, there will be three stages of setting up your story. The first is the things you’ll know right off that you need to establish before you even begin writing. The second will be the things you discover as you are writing. When you come across these things in the second stage, it’s important to remember to not just throw them in when they come up. Take a moment to sit back and think about where that detail could naturally fit into the story. If you just put it in where you think of it, will it seem like something that conveniently pops up to solve the story conflict?

The final stage of setting up your story will come after you get feedback. Whoever you use as your beta reader should be able to tell you what doesn’t make sense, and you can use that as a sounding board for what in your story needs more setting up, and what you can do less on. No matter how obvious you think something is, people will always have different viewpoints so if you can find a subtle way to set it up a tad more, it’s probably a good idea to do so.

Robin Conley offers great writing advice most Wednesdays on Writing to be Read. If you just can’t wait until next week to find out more, you can pop into her blog, Author the World, for more tips, or a weekly writing prompt.


Weekly Writing Memo: Know Your Theme

Weekly Writing MemoEvery story, whether intentional or not, has a theme within it. A theme is not necessarily a moral or lesson, but rather it is what your story is about at its core. Finding the theme of your story can sometimes take some work, as can making the theme come through in your writing, but it’s not as hard as it might seem.

What is your theme?

To find your story’s theme, ask yourself what your story is about. Maybe you won’t be able to break it down into a neat answer, but as long as you can answer the question you have the first step to finding your theme.

For example, let’s say you’re writing Die Hard. Your story would be about a cop who travels to visit his wife out of town, and ends up having to stop a terrorist plot. So what is the theme of this story? Well, it can be broken down in a lot of ways if you think about what the general terms of the story are: good triumphing over evil (cop vs villains), one man against the world (John vs the terrorists), or even how greed can lead to your downfall (the terrorists refusing to give up even though they’re losing because they’re determined to get the money).

The key to figuring out your story’s theme is to think about the larger concepts and the plot of your story, then try to break them down into simple terms as shown above. These larger ideas are the core of your story, and they help tell your audience what type of story it is. If you’re doing this and you are having trouble deciding what the main theme from your options is, ask yourself which potential theme if removed would completely change the story. The one that can’t be removed, and the one that is the biggest overall concept of the story, is your main theme.

How to show your theme?

Showing your theme throughout your story should not be hard. In Die Hard the theme of good triumphing over evil happens consistently. John is determined to do what’s right and to stop the bad guys, and despite all the trouble and missteps that happen, he ultimately always comes through. Even when he loses, it’s just further motivation for him to come back at the bad guys with even more vehemence so he can win. So for your own story, think of what your theme is and how your main character can represent that theme in some way.

Other ways to show your theme is to use something called mirroring. This is when you show the theme through minor secondary characters throughout the story. Sticking with the Die Hard example, you can see some minor mirroring of the theme “one guy against the world” when you look at the local cop who is stuck outside the building and is trying to help John. This cop is fighting against all the others to get John help and is the lone voice in the crowd. By showing your theme through these small mirroring acts you are also adding another layer of plot to your story.

You don’t always have to have the minor characters experience the same outcome as your protagonist either. You can use minor characters to show what the other possible outcome of your theme could be for your protagonist. For example, if your theme is good triumphing over evil, you could have a minor character lose to the evil to show the consequences if your character fails.

Can you have multiple themes?

As is clear with the Die Hard example, there is always a potential for there to be multiple themes in your story. Of course there should be one main theme that is the core of your story, but there can also be some minor themes that help build up your story as well. Maybe good vs evil is your main theme, but then you have themes involving love or, like in Die Hard, greed. These kinds of minor themes can contribute to your plot, as well as help deepen your characters, and many of them will appear without you having to force them into the story. If you look at your subplots, you should be able to see some of the themes that are present in them and bring them out a bit more so they are stronger.

Final Note

In general, it’s a good idea to know what your theme is before you start your story so you can keep your writing consistent. Sometimes, however, the theme comes out and is discovered as you write the story. Alternatively, you can also start your story thinking the theme is one thing, but as you write you discover it is really something else. This is fine, and happens all the time, but if it happens this way make sure you go back once you’re finished writing and make sure everything is consistent throughout the story. The most important thing about the theme of your story is that you’re consistent, and the clearer the theme is in your mind when you start writing, the easier this will be to do.

 

Robin Conley offers great writing advice most Wednesdays on Writing to be Read. If you just can’t wait until next week to find out more, you can pop into her blog, Author the World, for more tips, or a weekly writing prompt.


Weekly Writing Memo: Networking

Weekly Writing MemoSorry I have been missing the last few weeks. As you might have seen on  Author the World, I unexpectedly moved to Los Angeles and haven’t had a lot of time to do posts. This week’s post is all about networking. Networking is a major element of having a writing career, and it takes some practice to really learn the right and wrong ways to network.

The most important thing to remember when networking is that you shouldn’t be doing it to use people, and you shouldn’t be doing it to be selfish. Good networking is about being genuine. The best way to network is to approach each networking relationship you make with the attitude of how you can help each other, rather than focusing on how they can help you. The best kinds of networking relationships are mutually beneficial, and maintaining this kind of attitude helps these relationships stay healthy and fulfilling.

Building your Network

You can build your network literally anywhere, it’s all about meeting people and learning about them. If you know who people are, what they do, and what kinds of people they know, you can keep them in mind for later if something comes up they can help with. For writing, often times you can make networking connections in writing groups, classes, at conferences, or even in random places like coffee shops and hair salons. The important thing is to keep your eyes open for people you can help, and for people that may be able to help you. Remember, things need to go both ways, and sometimes the act of offering help to someone can lead to unexpected connections. Ultimately, all networking contacts break down into four different types that can each be beneficial in their own way.

The Introducer

The Introducer may not have any work for you, and may not be someone who is going to offer you advice, but they do know people you want to know and they will help you meet them. These kinds of contacts are always useful to maintain because they help broaden your network, and they can help introduce you to other parts of the writing world you may not be familiar with. One of the best way to meet new people is through a middle-man who can introduce you because it can cut out the awkward process of trying to force a meeting with a stranger. If you’re going to be the Introducer for someone else, remember to make sure you give each person’s name, and then try to share what they have in common or why you think they should talk so you can help jump start the conversation.

The Mentor

The mentor is someone who has been where you are and knows a lot about the business. They are the perfect sort of person who can offer you advice, and give you guidance that will make navigating the writing world easier. Maybe they won’t be able to get you a job, or introduce you to new people, but they will help you find answers to the random questions and issues you run into. Just make sure you don’t burden your mentor by asking too much of them, or wasting their time with easy questions that you could have found out anywhere. They may only have so much free time, so make sure to figure out how much help they are willing to give you and to stick within that range. If you are going to be a mentor, be clear up front what you are willing to do for the person you’re helping, but also try to remember what it was like when you were where they are.

The Helper

The Helper is someone who has an opportunity for you that could potentially help your career, whether it’s a job or an interview doesn’t matter, it’s someone that can put you in line for a job or a writing sale. These kinds of connections are incredibly valuable because they are what give your career a boost. The important thing to remember when meeting people who offer you these types of opportunities is to make the most of them, and to make sure you don’t misrepresent yourself to the person setting it up, because if you waste it or lie it could prevent the person from ever offering you another opportunity again.

The Teammate

In some ways, these are the most valuable networking connections you can make. The Teammate is someone who is going through the same stuff you are at the same time. They are someone you can bounce ideas off of, or trade writing with. They are on your side and you are mutually trying to help each other reach your goals. For writing, having people you can talk writing with is incredibly important, as is having people around who understand what you’re going through. If you are a teammate to someone, make sure the help isn’t going one way. If you find yourself asking too much and not doing anything in return, then try to find a balance.

Final Notes

Ultimately, networking is about broadening the connections you have in your industry, and maintaining those connections by trying to keep things mutually beneficial for all involved. Even if you can’t help someone the moment they help you, always try to keep them in mind and return the favor when you can. One of the most important elements of networking is that the people around you see that you are a part of the cycle of helping, and that you aren’t just a vacuum sucking up all the favors you can get without returning anything. People will quickly notice if you only ever seem to receive help, so the more you can be a part of the cycle the better.


Weekly Writing Memo: Overcoming the Blank Page

Weekly Writing MemoSometimes when it comes to writing, the hardest thing to overcome is the simplest. One such example of this is to overcome the intimidation of a blank page and to simply get started. Those first moments when you sit down in front of the page and tell yourself you’re going to write can be huge, and overwhelming. All sorts of thoughts can pass through your head that make putting the first words down on the page near impossible. Am I good enough? Do I have anything to say? How do I do this? Will anyone want to read it? Etc. These kinds of thoughts can stop your writing in its tracks before you even begin. Knowing how to overcome the blank page can be vital, and while there isn’t a method that works for everyone, there are several things that I find work well.

Free Write First

One of the easiest ways I find to get into writing is to simply allow myself to free write for a while. Even if I have a specific story idea in mind, I will sometimes think of my character or my setting and just write whatever comes to mind. It doesn’t always flow in a pretty way, or even make sense, but it does allow me to explore the characters or setting without restrictions and it gets me writing. Once I start putting words on the page, focusing them becomes easier. I also find that just getting started on the act of writing makes some of the tension around writing dissipate. So however you do it, get started by freewriting and getting words on the page. Even if you have to start by writing about your day or something, see where the freewriting takes you. Once you no longer have a blank page, it’s easier to focus on creating something cohesive that you can turn into a story.

Copy Someone Else

This is a method that has been around for a while, and was even used in the movie Finding Forrester. When you are just getting started writing and struggling, try grabbing a random book and copying down the first paragraph of it. As you are writing, let your mind wander, and when you’re comfortable, stop copying and start making it your own. Sometimes using someone else’s work to get you started writing can help you transition into your own work. Just remember to go back once you finish and to change the beginning so it is no longer copying the original author’s work. The key to this is that it gets words on the page, and in making what you write your own.

Make A Rough Outline

When I have a specific story idea in mind, but am struggling to get started, I find that writing down 3-5 bullet points of where I want the immediate section of story I’m working on to go helps. Usually I will do this when I start each chapter. I grab a piece of paper and jot down the 3-5 key moments of the chapter that form the arc of it, then when I write I have “goals” to write toward. It’s just enough outlining to keep the story focused while I’m writing, but not so much that people who hate outlining will feel like they’ve over planned anything.

It works for me because I prefer abbreviated outlines, and it allows me to discover how the characters get from one big moment to the next as I write. So take a few moments to create a small arc for what you want to write, and then let yourself write to those points. It’ll help you visualize what you’re planning to write, and it’ll give you points in the story to write toward. Just try not to make your bullet points too broad, or you can end up feeling lost as to where to start again.

Try a Different Medium

One of the last things I try when I’m struggling to write is to switch mediums. Sometimes I find that I just can’t write a certain story at the computer, and instead I end up writing with a notepad and pen. It seems silly, but just switching mediums like that can actually help get you started. Sometimes I think the notepad works better than the computer when I’m struggling because the notepad feels less permanent and professional. I’m just jotting down ideas! Not writing for real! Which isn’t true at all, but it feels that way. So allow yourself to try a different medium and see if it changes anything. At the very least, switching to something like a notepad where you can do things by hand can allow you to doodle and jot ideas to brainstorm while you are working on getting to the real writing. Which can be just as productive.

Final Notes:

The final thing to remember if you are stuck on the white page is that you don’t have to start by writing right away. If writing simply isn’t working, trying outlining or researching or brainstorming for your story. If you do those things, you’ll still be working on your story in some way, and maybe it’ll help you feel more confident so you can get started. Just remember, at some point you have to stop doing these things and get to the writing, so don’t procrastinate too long!


Creating Story Equals Problem Solving

Writing Equals Problem Solving

Writers are problem solvers. That’s what we do. Solve problems. It doesn’t matter whether you’re fleshing out a plotline for your latest novel or working up a beat sheet for a screenplay, our job is to figure out how to avoid or circumvent any obstacles that prevent your characters from reaching their goals. Of course, we also create some of the obstacles on purpose, because that is another thing that we do. We put our main characters through hell.

But, that’s not all. I’m also talking about things like faulty logic, which makes it impossible for your characters to do something you need them to do in the story, or things that don’t make sense or pull the reader out of the story, or when there’s too big of a stretch, too much disbelief to be suspended. These are the hurdles we, as writers, must overcome to not just tell the story, but to tell the story well.

Problem solving. That’s what creating story comes down to, and it’s our job, as story creators, to shape the story to make sense, have plausibility and flow smoothly. It’s our job to think through plot lines and make the story work by our clever crafting of words. It’s our job to make sure each character completes their personal story arc, and ensure that the main story arc flows through to the desired conclusion. It’s our job to help the main characters face their fears, overcome their fatal flaws and conquer any obstacles we throw at them along the way. And, it’s our job to be sure the story is believable and makes sense.

Does a story have to have eloquent language? No, although some do.  Does it have to have a happy ending? Only if it is a romance. Does it have to make us laugh? If it’s a comedy, but humor is allowed in almost every genre.

There are things a story does have to have. Every story does have to have a beginning, middle and end. At least the main story arc and those of your main characters must be completed, moving the story along and showing character growth and transformation.

A story does have to have a certain logic to it, and it has to have characters who are relatable enough to make your audience care. There are ways to do both, and so much more, if you know how to write a well-crafted story. Robin Conley has made some great suggestions on how to make your audience care in her Weekly Writing Memo, each Wednesday, (or Thursday), here on Writing to be Read.

So, the next time you’re applying for a writing gig, be sure to put down problem solver as one of your many impressive skills. You won’t be lying. Creating Story = Problem Solving.


Who is Robin Conley?

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It occurred to me that although I introduced Robin Conley as my cohort in the M.F.A. program when she first began doing guest posts for Writing to be Read, I really didn’t give a lot of information about my friend and former cohort, who happens to be a very talented writer with a sharp eye for what does, or doesn’t, make a story work.

When she was introduced in my M.F.A. cohort at Western State of Colorado University, there was one amazing thing about her which stuck in my mind. She had challenged herself and her writing abilities by writing a short story a day for a year, and called it Project 365. Not only did she challenge herself, but she took it public. She got the idea as an undergraduate at Western Michigan University in 2010. Robin explains how Project 365 came about,

“ …we were reading a book of plays called 365 Plays/365 Days by Suzan-Lori Parks… her work inspired me to try something like it for myself to help me push myself to write every day, and to try new styles of writing. There weren’t any rules except that I had to write a complete story every day… as long or as short as necessary to tell the story, but the purpose… was trying something new. I played with genres, new characters, new styles (minimalism, surrealism, literary vs. genre, etc.) In order to keep myself on track, I started a twitter account (@Jminspirations) at the same time and a blog, and forced myself to post every story on the blog and then put a link on my twitter account.”

I found this to be amazing. Talk about inspirational. Wow!

At the time, that’s how I thought of her, the amazing girl who did the short story challenge. But over the past four years, I’ve gotten to know her better and she’s become a good friend to me, and in a way, she’s become my writing partner. We are working together in some of our writing endeavors, including her guest posts here. Through our Etsy store, Writing the World, we offer critiquing and proofreading services. Robin does guest posts for us, besides writing for her own blog. In addition to her own writing, she currently does writing for hire, volunteers as a script reader, and is teaching a couple of classes in screenwriting. (I think she may do some babysitting, too.) Besides being skilled at the craft, she’s smart and witty, and a she has a wonderful sense of humor.

I wanted my readers to know a little bit about Robin, so you’ll have a better idea of who you’re getting your weekly writing tips from. There’s no better way to tell you about her than to let her say it in her own words. The post runs a bit long, but Robin’s answers were so good, I couldn’t bring myself to cut much of them. I’m hoping after reading the following interview, you’ll be able to see a little bit of what I see in Robin, who I’ve come to know and consider a friend.

Kaye: We’ve already talked some about Project 365. How has that writing experience helped shape your writing career?

Robin: Project 365 was a strange part of my life that really pushed me to be a better writer. Every time I thought I wouldn’t be able to come up with a story idea, I somehow found one. It was stressful, and there were a lot of days where I wanted to do anything but write. Sticking with it taught me more about my writing than anything else I’ve done. By the final few months, I’d learned a lot about my process and my writing and I learned how to write no matter what else was going on.

So far, at least 2 of the stories have sprung into novels, and there are at least a dozen others that I also plan to turn into novels when I have the time. Many others I’ve revised and am working on sending out to publishers in hopes of finding a home for them. Of course, there are several that are just pretty crappy and probably won’t be used for anything other than as a “learn from my mistake” sort of thing, but that’s to be expected when doing so much in such a short time.

Kaye: What works have come out of the 365 stories?

Robin: One of my favorite stories that sprung from the 365 challenge is my Tour Guide that was part of my thesis novel, Labyrinth of the Dead, which I wrote for the MFA program. The world she is a part of was a pre-existing place I’d written about before, but the Tour Guide was a new character that I decided to play with while doing the challenge. She works in the underworld as a guide for the newly dead and leads them through the orientation process, so to speak.

Another story that came from the challenge has become a mystery novel, Indecision Killed the Cat. It’s about an anxiety-riddle woman who believes her troubled brother is missing, but no one believes her because of his past history of running off, and her irrational and unreliable way of thinking.

Kaye: In what way, if any has the challenge helped bring you to the point you’re at now?

Robin: Doing the challenge helped me grow more confident in my own writing. It let me explore genres and stories that I had been thinking about, but hadn’t tried writing in.

One of my main goals with the challenge was to help me focus. Before the challenge, I often found it hard to work on longer projects because I had so many ideas in my head and I felt overwhelmed by them or distracted… Now when I go to write I know exactly what I need to do in order to get started, where before I’d waste a lot of time. It really helped me be the writer I am today.

Kaye: What kinds of things influence your writing?

Robin: I’m influenced by everything. I love learning how things in the world work: people, jobs, cultures, nature… I love learning and I love watching how things are interconnected. When I write, it’s all about taking little details and connecting them in such a way that they tell a story. Every part of my life, every little thing I’ve interacted with every day, helps me tell stories.

Sometimes the smallest thing can inspire a story for me because it’s all about perspective. The way someone holds a beer bottle can be significant and inspiring. I know, it sounds silly and dramatic, but it’s true. It may inspire me because of the attitude, or the way the person is interacting with the bottle. Are they gesturing with it like it’s an extension of themselves? Or do they carry it like it’s nothing more than object? These kind of small details can make me start to wonder about a person, and before I know it, I’m no longer thinking about that person, I’m thinking about a character. Every character has a story, and I love finding out what it is. So once I have a glimmer, I have to delve deeper. Essentially, the answer to where stories come from for me, is simple: they come from curiosity. I want to know more, so I write until I find my answers.

Kaye: What’s your favorite genre to read? To write?

Robin: About 60% are books recommended to me by friends or family. I have several people who pretty much give me everything they read because they know I like to check out all types of stories as research for writing. If someone I know wanted to read it, I’m curious to see it for myself. My preferred genres are the classics, urban fantasy, horror, and anything involving zombies. In general, though, I’ll pick up any book that either has a character or plot that catches my attention, and I usually read several books at once. Right now I’m currently reading:

  • David Copperfield by Charles Dickens
  • The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz
  • 21st Century Dead Edited by Christopher Golden
  • House of Leaves by Mark Danielewski
  • The Tools of Screenwriting by David Howard & Edward Mabley

In writing, I seem to lean toward telling stories that involve some form of fantasy, or something involving horror or supernatural elements. While these types of stories are my favorite, I end up writing in a wide variety of genres because what usually draws me to wanting to write a story is the character or a particular conflict. I like to follow the story and take it wherever it leads me instead of trying to focus too much on one genre or style.

Kaye: Like me, you hold a duel M.F.A. in Creative Writing, with emphasis in both genre fiction and screenwriting. What prompted you to spend the extra year to add that additional screenwriting emphasis?

Robin: I love telling stories, and I love absorbing stories in any form (movies, music, oral storytelling, plays, books, etc.) When I took my out of concentration course for the fiction program I decided to take Screenwriting because it would help me expand my ability to tell stories. The more mediums I am familiar with, the more options I have when I choose to tell a story. Plus, when I took the Screenwriting class I just really fell in love with the visual format and wanted to know more, so I decided to add the extra year in order to learn as much as I possibly could about screenwriting before I graduated.

Kaye: What is the biggest challenge for you when writing short fiction?  Or when tackling a novel length work? • What is your biggest challenge when writing a screenplay? • Have you ever played with poetry?

Robin: Short Fiction – condensing the story. I love getting lost in characters and worlds, and finding a short story is often hard for me. I really have to force myself to focus on one small part of the story and make it matter, without getting lost in the bigger story.

Novels – I think I most struggle with the outlining and preparing to write stage. I hate the pre-writing stuff and always want to just get started, but I find that the pre-writing really helps me write faster and clearer so I force myself to do it.

Screenwriting – During my first drafts I really focus on the plot and getting that to work on the page first, which means my protagonist’s personality often gets lost even though I know it well. Future drafts are often all about bringing that personality out and fixing character stuff, which is a slow and tedious process for me.

Poetry – It was my first foray into writing. It was awful stuff that will hopefully never see the light of day again. These days I simply appreciate poetry and admire those who have the skill. It’s not my strong suit.

Kaye: Which is your favorite type of writing? Short fiction, genre fiction, or screenwriting?

Robin: I’m kind of torn on this these days, because I love the visual format of screenwriting, but I also adore getting lost in the world of a novel. I think for me, which is my favorite really depends on what story I’m working on at the given moment and which medium it seems to fit best.

Kaye: Is there anything unique or unusual about your writing process?

Robin: The main thing I can think of is that in my first draft I really focus on getting my plot down first and writing the motions of the story, while drawing character out comes second. I know my characters in advance before writing, but they don’t always come out on the page well in the first draft since I’m focused on plot. Doing it this way helps me write faster, and gets the plot all out on the page so I can look at it and see what is and isn’t working, because sometimes you can’t tell until it’s written.

I look at it as being similar to drawing. First you do a rough sketch to plan the drawing (outline), then maybe you do the structure of the drawing in black and white (plot), and then you go through and add color (character and finer details). Writing this way lets me really focus on my plots and make sure they are logically sound before I really delve into bringing out the character elements and some of the smaller details that help bring a story to life. The key, though, is knowing your characters really well first so they fit the plot.

Kaye: We’re offering some proofreading and critiquing through the Etsy store. What’s your worst pet peeve when reading or critiquing a book or story?

Robin: 1. When the author writes a character doing something for the sake of getting the plot to go where the author needs it to go, rather than staying true to the characters.

2. When critiquing and someone sends me something that is clearly a first draft and I can tell they haven’t read it over. It’s one thing if we’ve talked about sending the first draft for some specific reason, but it’s another to send something to someone asking for a critique when you haven’t even done a basic revision pass. You may only get one critique, so don’t waste it by sending something that is filled with mistakes you could catch on your own!

Kaye: What do you like to do when you’re not writing?

Robin: I have a lot of random hobbies and like learning new things, so what I’m up to is constantly changing. Lately I’ve been teaching myself to knit, and relearning some Spanish. In general, I love reading, movies, anything involving animals or nature, traveling, and photography.

That’s it, folks. I hope this interview has given you a better idea of who Robin Conley is, and instilled confidence when she offers writing advice. If you have questions for Robin, leave a comment to this post.

Robin Conley offers great writing advice most Wednesdays on Writing to be Read. If you just can’t wait until next week to find out more, you can pop into her blog, Author the World, for more tips, or a weekly writing prompt.