2/27/2011

Writer Traits: Self-centeredness

I wrote last Friday about one of the necessary traits of a writer, which is nonconformity. It’s important, but I suspect it’s not the most important trait a writer must have, in order to succeed. The list below was taken from creativity coach, Eric Maisel’s book, Creativity for Life.


Intelligence
Introspective stance
Discipline
Honesty
Empathy
Self-centeredness
Self-direction
Assertiveness
Resiliency
Nonconformity

Maisel asked readers to think about one of the traits, to define it for ourselves, and to determine its relative strength or weakness in our personality. He suggested also that we look at two traits together, and ask if we might need a different balance of them, whether a slight difference, or a radical one.

I suspect that having enough intelligence, honesty, empathy and being able to introspect are qualities that most writers have, in at least adequate quantities. I don’t worry about these in myself. I’m also not terribly worried about my relative conformity or nonconformity.


But I can see where not having enough discipline, self-direction, assertiveness and yes,
self-centeredness, could derail a writer’s progress toward his or her goals. Lack of sufficient resiliency would contribute to the same. It’s obvious, when you think about it.

And as much as we don’t want to even think of ourselves as self-centered, much less to actually be that way, if we don't make a point, every day, to prioritize our writing goals (without being totally selfish), we won’t get anywhere in our writing.

I should know. I’m the age that I am, and still unpublished. Like most women, I've always put everything ahead of my writing. In the name of Selflessness. I believed it was far more important for me to give of myself to my family. I thought that if I helped them to succeed, my "lesser" needs, i.e. my writing dream, didn't matter so much. But guess what? The kids grew up, and still had their own problems. My husband and I had, and continue to have, ordinary marital struggles.

If we say we're sacrificing ourselves for our families--or even if we wouldn't dare give voice to it--who likes a martyr, anyway? Did our families ask us to sacrifice ourselves for them? Do they really expect it of us? Absolutely not.

Also, we need to ask ourselves, is this the real reason we’re putting their needs before our own? Is it really the admirable trait of Unselfishness?

Or is it a handy excuse, when the real quality lacking in us is a healthy belief in our own self worth? I.e. a little more self-centeredness?

If we truly believe in ourselves, we would assert our needs. We would be disciplined enough to prioritize our writing time and to stick to it. We would be self-directed and self-centered enough—not too much, but enough—to overcome any and all blocks toward achieving our dreams.

I’ve been working on it. I’ve come a long way from where I was throughout most of my life so far. I’m still available for my family whenever needed, but I’m no longer going out of my way to try to solve their problems when problems arise. Thank goodness for that. I don't want to be labeled a martyr, and I certainly don't want to be deemed meddlesome.

Maisel said, “The writer not equipped with necessary arrogance will be repeatedly sidetracked or subverted by others’ agendas. He will lack a sufficient sense of purpose, will frequently stall and block, and will bring a nagging passivity to his writing career. His desire to make art will remain only a potent idea in his body. He is likely to accomplish much less than he otherwise might, support others rather than find support for himself, attempt the small rather than the large, and rebound less well from rejection.”

I like this quote too: “If asserting yourself makes you feel anxious, frightened or guilty, you will hesitate to argue with the editor whos failed to deliver on her promise to champion your new book. You will be unable to aggressively forge new art. You will not be able to take risks. The more fearful and conforming, the more you’ll see danger as you approach art-making.”

Maisel’s words are worth serious thought. They're a call to action, and not just once in a while. Not daily. Hourly, if need be. Be on the lookout for things that will stop you. Even in the name of selflessness.

How much is being published worth to you? Is it worth being selfish once in a while, and feeling a little uneasy about it?

2/25/2011

Creavity and Nonconformity

In his book, Creativity for Life, writing coach Eric Maisel talks about traits that are necessary in varying degrees for a writer. The list includes the following:

Intelligence
Introspective stance
Discipline
Honesty
Empathy
Self-centeredness
Self-direction
Assertiveness
Resiliency
Nonconformity

He asks the reader to single out one trait that is most important for him or her to better understand, and to ask themselves if they need more of it? Less of it? Or does it depend?

I decided I needed to examine nonconformity. I feel so vanilla. But am I? On the outside, maybe. On the inside, not so much. Because I write for young adults, I decided to think about who I was when I was in high school.

In high school, when 498 students in my class of 500 bought Saddle Shoes because it was the latest trend, I didn’t, if only because everyone else did.

When girls ironed their hair to make it straight, I got a short curly perm—and took more teasing from adults than classmates!
I’m not writing a paranormal novel, but I “get” feeling so odd and different from the rest of humanity that I used to dream regularly that I was evil or bad. (Me? I’m as mild-mannered and unassuming as they come.) But I “get” a teen’s interest in the paranormal, as well as their feelings of alienation.
I never ran in the popular crowd. I had friends, but I never really ran in any crowd at all.

My husband once said I’m one of the strangest people he ever met. It was a compliment. We share an irreverent sense of humor.


Maisel says, “Powerful writers are always nonconformists and rebels. Writers who rebel the least may fit neatly into their society, but may not speak or know their minds.”

Where do you fit in the continuum between conformity and nonconformity? Are you able to know and speak your mind?

We’re here to contribute what is uniquely our own. Our honest self-expression is the greatest thing we have to give. Don’t be afraid to step forward and tell your truth.

2/19/2011

Road Trip: Eastern Washington to Sacramento, CA

We spent the first night in Bend, Oregon, where we happened by a bed and breakfast called the Mill Inn. It was within walking distance of Old Town Bend and about six blocks from the Deschutes Brew Pub (picture at left), where we planned to eat dinner. We’d already visited the Deschutes Brewery, and after having more beer with dinner, we weren’t about to drive anywhere! It was risky enough as we made our way back through a blizzard and slipped and slid on icy sidewalks. 

The main industry in Bend is tourism. If you love vacations that include hiking, fishing, camping, skiing, snowmobiling and beautiful scenery, this is the place to go.

Between central Oregon (Bend) and Redding, CA, we drove on compact snow and ice. It was tedious to say the least, and besides that, a blizzard made visibility poor. I would’ve loved to have seen Upper Klamath Lake when the sun was shining, and also Mt. Shasta. Maybe on the trip back.

When we finally got through what we thought was the end of bad roads, we stopped at Weed, CA, for a latte and a sweet treat and to congratulate ourselves. Little did we know.  

Our misery had only just begun. We started up a little hill, which turned out to be a major mountain pass, and were stuck immediately in stalled traffic. Literally, miles’ worth, and literally hundreds of semi trucks had stopped on the road, as they were required to chain up. Cars didn't need to, but neither could we get through the traffic jam. When we finally got over the pass, we saw the same thing in the opposing lanes, only the lines of trucks went on for many miles more.

We’re now in Sacramento for the business part of our journey. Monday morning, we’ll head to San Francisco, about an hour away. We went to SF for our honeymoon, and would like to revisit Fisherman’s Wharf and see if we can order Lobster Thermidor in a swank restaurant. It probably won't cost $7.00 this time. We’ll visit the Redwood Forest and drive up into Napa Valley wine country. We'll pretty much retrace our steps, except we decided UC Berkeley wasn't on our list. The Hippie movement and Vietnam Protests have been dead and buried for decades. No need to see what's up at Berkeley ... 

My single, most important “must see” is the ocean. It’s not warm enough for swimming, but my astrological sign is Cancer. I am a moonchild who loves the sea. I live on rolling wheat fields and when the wheat is tender and the wind blows through it, it looks like an ocean of grass.

Even so, I like to see water as often as possible. It's the perfect objective correlative for our subconscious minds, inspiring right-brained thought and deep insights.

2/18/2011

Three Tips for Overcoming Blogger’s Block

It was inevitable. I always knew the day would come when I wouldn’t know what to blog about. It isn't that I have nothing to say about the writing craft or the writer's journey. But I am suddenly experiencing stage fright. After over a year's worth of blogging. Why now?

Here’s why: I signed up for Rach’s Platform Building Crusade. All last week, I watched my followers grow. The number doubled. Thank you everyone! Squee! But now I suddenly feel as though the expectations are greater than before.

I also started following many Crusader blogs, and discovered some really awesome blogs and bloggers. I can appreciate the time that you all are putting into your blogs. Believe me, it shows.

So then I sat down to write my next blog post, and spent three hours trying to work something up. This has never happened to me before. I tried to write about three separate ideas, and gave up on each one.

I decided I needed to figure out how to deal with this new and frankly annoying problem. I’ve come up with three answers that I hope will work for me in the days and weeks to come. If you’re experiencing Blogger’s Block, I hope they’ll be useful to you as well.

1. Develop a Blogging Routine: I work on my novel every day, same time, same place. I'm at my computer by 7:00 am, seven days a week, which gives me 1-2 hours to work on my novel before leaving for work, depending on the day. I never suffer writer’s block. Working on my WIP is often the highlight of my day. I LOVE showing up for the work, and cannot wait to do so. Perhaps if I set up a time to blog every day, same time, same place, an equally delightful groove will form in my brain for blogging.

2. Don’t Expect Too Much of Ourselves: Know How Many Hours We Can Spare for Blogging; Spend that and Nothing More: The hours I’m able spend on blogging are limited. I work full time and, since last September, I've been working on my WIP for 15-20 hours a week. That leaves precious few hours for blogging. Someday there will be more. But until then, time spent blogging occupies the appropriate place on my priority list. I need to accept that limitation and not stress out about it.

3. Remember Why We're Blogging: I’m not blogging to win awards. I’m not blogging to earn money from it. I don’t feel compelled to teach or advise people on how to write, although a writer’s blog has to be about something. Ostensibly, writing. My biggest interest is in getting to know other writers. I love to discover what's on their minds and to comment on posts.

Do you ever suffer from Blogger’s Block? How do you deal with it?

2/16/2011

On Finishing a Novel


Stephen King in his book, On Writing, suggested that we think of our writing as a job, rather than an art. Looked at this way, writing becomes easier. We are crafters and laborers who are assembling words instead of, say, building a cathedral or an airplane. And in the same way that an stone mason or a pilot one day finishes his project, we will finish our books. 
   

This is one of our airplanes. It's a kit-built Van's RV-7. It took all of my husband's spare time for six years to build. We flew it unpainted for two years. Then last May, he took another five months to paint it.

I'm really proud of him!

I also enjoy being a craftsperson working on my novel, although sometimes it feels like it'll never be done. I've already been working on it for two years. How much longer?

Then I think about Stephen King's analogy. And I think about my husband's labor of love in building our airplane. I don't know if my finished product will fly, but our airplane sure does. 

We're leaving this morning for a 10-day vacation in Sacramento and San Francisco. But we're not flying. Regrettably, the weather's too bad. So we'll drive on bad roads instead.  

2/14/2011

Operation Ratio: Results!

Last Friday, I mentioned that I'd found something interesting called Operation Ratio, in which you could test the Visual Picture making strength of your prose by finding the ratio of concrete to abstract nouns.

To discover if you have a Visual Moving Picture, you count the verbs in a piece and discover how they're weighted between weak, generic and strong.

I promised to try this out and let you see the results. I was working on a particularly mental section, and decided to run the ratios, and then to make some changes to enhance the Visual Moving Picture. Here are the results:

Sample #1, unedited version: (This is a Young Adult WIP):
I sighed. If there was ever a time I could’ve used my trusty little 10,000 Reasons to be Happy book, it was then. I hoped it was where I’d left it, but it seemed doubtful. Kids walked by those steps all the time. Someone would’ve taken it. Maybe some poor fool like me. So maybe I was a little anal about finding five reasons every day.
That day, sitting alone in the hospital cafeteria, waiting to find out if Mom would live or die, finding reasons had never felt more insane. Yet, there were reasons. Daddy would be proud. I’d found some, and as I looked up from the napkin I’d just crumpled in my fist, I saw a few more.
Rylie and Hayden, who were in Drama with me, and Chad O’Rourke, had just walked through the doors. They all had big grins painted on their faces—literally, grins made with face paint—and they were walking toward me. Chad carried a single red rosebud in a budvase.

I'm not an expert at this, but I came up with the following: 175 words. Ratio of concrete to abstract nouns = 3:1. That's an okay result. Verbs: 23 weak; 7 generic and 0 strong. Ouch! That's the problem with mental scenes.

Revised:
I sighed. I needed my trusty little 10,000 Reasons to be Happy book. I hoped it was where I left it, on the steps across from the high school. But kids walked by those steps all the time. Surely someone picked it up and stuffed it into their own backpack. Maybe some poor fool like me. Someone who found reasons every day, no matter what.

I stared through the window at the pond. A wafer thin layer of ice sheeted it. Bad news if you stepped on it. Would Mom live? Or would she die that day? I twisted around and blinked at the napkin. I had scribbled two reasons on it. I needed three more. Finding reasons felt insane. It never felt more insane.

Yet, there were two. Daddy would be proud. I picked up the napkin and crumpled it in my fist. Two. And by the end of the day? How many? One?

The sounds of laughter caught my attention. I glanced toward the cafeteria entrance. Rylie and Hayden, who took Drama with me, and Chad O’Rourke, stepped through the doors. Big grins spread across their faces—literally, grins made with face paint. They walked toward me. Chad carried a single red rosebud in a budvase.
This version took a few more words: 214. The concrete to abstract noun ratio went up a little, to 3.4:1, which is still fine. The more concrete to abstract, the better. The big difference was in the verbs. Now there are only 11 weak, 16 generic --- and 6 strong.

What do you think? Is it an improvement? Or not?

2/10/2011

Operation Ratio

I've been looking at this book lately: The Weekend Novelist Re-Writes the Novel (A Step-by-Step Guide to Perfecting Your Work). I say "looking at it," because I am not connecting with it in a big way. Don't let it stop you from taking a look at it, especially if you're seriously into process. I'm quite left-brained myself, however most of this book is too much, even for me.

That being said, I did find something intriguing in it, which is what Mr. Ray calls, "Operation Ratio." The language of fiction is word-pictures. Word pictures are created from strong verbs and concrete nouns. He suggests that you take a sample of your writing and circle the nouns and verbs.

Then create a running list of the abstract nouns in one column and the concrete nouns in another. Do the same for verbs: weak versus strong. Finally, run two ratios: concrete to abstract, and weak to strong.

The ratio of concrete to abstract nouns should be at least 3:1, but 6:1 is better. In three sample sentences of Hemingway’s prose, the ratio was 9:1.

What's the difference between a concrete and an abstract noun, you might ask? (Although I hope you don't. As writers, we should know that, right?) You can see, smell, taste, touch, hear, or feel a concrete noun. Good writing has three classes of concrete nouns: objects, body parts and landmarks. Abstract nouns are things that can’t be sensed, for example: time, year.

Then there are verbs. Weak verbs come in several types. For example, “He thought,” or “He wondered.” There are the “would, could, should,” verbs. There are infinitives, which attatch “to” to the verb, and there are passive verbs, where the person who’s doing the action in the sentence becomes the object of the sentence. Your prose might be full of verbs, but if the action generated is more mental than visceral, a word-picture isn't being created in the reader's mind.

What else does Ray suggest? Get rid of adverbs, which suffocate word-pictures. It’s far better to show the action, rather than to "tell" it with an adverb. Adverbs are nothing more than placeholders for better word choices.

If your pages are full of bland adjectives (such as the word "nice"--nice day, nice girl), abstract nouns, adverbs, and weak verbs, you are not creating strong word-pictures.

It's great food for thought. Tedious as it sounds to circle verbs and nouns in a scene, and then to run a ratio on them, I intend to try it. I suspect that this man is on to something ...

On Monday, I'll post a sample paragraph from my WIP, and then the improved version.

What about you? You're probably already looking for excess adjectives, adverbs to eliminate, and verbs to strengthen, but have you taken it so far as to run an Operation Ratio? Did it make a big difference in your prose?

2/04/2011

Are You Writing a Breakout Novel?

First of all, what is a Breakout Novel? Agent Donald Maass, who's been reading unpublished manuscripts for over 30 years, wrote this book (How to Write a Breakout Novel), and his workbook (Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook), close to ten years ago.

At that time, a breakout novel was a work that was bigger and better than typical midlist fiction. Since that time, and especially in the past couple of years, I've noticed a distinct and sweeping difference in the quality of Young Adult novels that are being published.

As a librarian who buys almost everything that's published each year, I would have to say that there are very few, if any, "middling" books anymore. If a book was published by any of the big-six New York publishers, they are all quite astonishing in concept and/or quality.

Perhaps what was considered a Breakout Novel in 2004 is the new norm.  Anyway, if you haven't read How to Write a Breakout Novel or The Breakout Novel Workbook, they are well worth your time, as well as Maass's more recent, The Fire in Fiction

I'd bought Maass's How to Write a Breakout Novel Workbook back in 2004, but wasn't writing at that time. I never got around to reading it, although I did read How to Write a Breakout Novel. After a reader commented recently that she was using the workbook to revise her WIP, I pulled it off my shelf and started reading it.

Maass shows the writer many ways to make his or her work stand out from the crowd. In fact, if you were to do all of his suggestions, it's something like 503 ways to improve your manuscript, which he issues as a checklist challenge on the last page. Do them all, and you will have a breakout novel on your hands. I think I just might take him up on his challenge, or a close approximation ...

How about you? Have you read one or both of these books? Are you interested in pursuing his suggestions with your current manuscript?
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