Reduce Stress, Increase Joy & Productivity—Why Is Simple So HARD?

Image via Demi-Brooke Flickr Creative Commons

Image via Demi-Brooke Flickr Creative Commons

Funny how we get the same lessons in life over and over and…over. Maybe not you guys. Maybe y’all are sharper than me. But the thing I keep returning to is “essentialism.” Boil everything down to the basics. Focus on one or even a few key areas with all you have. THAT is the key to success.

So why is simple so hard?

Last week, I blogged about what writing and Brazilian Jui-Jitsu had in common. Much of any martial art is mastery and focus on the BASICS.

Which is why I am no longer LOSING EVERY round. I’m even winning a few *happy dance*.

But I know my life goes through these crazy times. You’ve been there.

The Transition

It happened when I went from being single to married. I am a tad…ok, more than a tad OCD. I once moved and the movers called me, “The House that Rubbermaid Made.” Everything was organized and labeled and it took less than five hours for them to move me and less than four hours for me to completely unpack.

***Note: This phenomena hasn’t happened since *whimpers*.

Why? After that move it was no longer only ME.

I had to adjust to being a writer living with my mom who keeps EVERYTHING, then a wife of a man who is adorable but KEEPS EVERYTHING. Then I became a mom of a newborn and then a toddler, and now that he’s a preschooler? Yeah, I’m happy if I can keep the floors virtually hazard-free and my house not smelling like a crime scene.

But am I happy?

Original image via Melissa Bowersock WANA Commons

Original image via Melissa Bowersock WANA Commons

The Trouble with “Happy”

Am I happy?

I’ve had to ask that A LOT lately. In the end, happiness (in my opinion) should never be our goal. Why? Well, because the word is tethered to “happenstance.” It’s too wonky. Rather, I choose to do what is right knowing it will eventually produce joy which has a much longer shelf life. Am I happy being up at 3:30 in the morning because the cat coughed up a hairball on me in the middle of some weird dream about The Golden Girls and a money-laundering scandal?

No idea. That was a weird-@$$ dream and good reason not to eat too close to bedtime. BUT, I do know that I’m up for some reason…even if it is to make you feel totally sorry for me :P

Happiness and Joy

I am a NAZI when it comes to language. Seriously. Since we have lost SO many family members in two years, I finally went to a grief counseling group at our church and while it IS awesome and I have made a lot of progress (like finally CRYING) I nitpick about the Scripture. And not to be preachy here, but if you aren’t a Christian, just work with me and roll with it.

We use a lot of the Beatitudes. The translation they use in the group makes me nutso. It isn’t, “HAPPY are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” Happy? That makes NO sense to me. I prefer other translations that are closer to the original text, which tell me, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”

I am NOT going to feel “happy” mourning. It’s awful losing people you love. But, if I learn to cry, let go, remember the good stuff and latch onto the gifts that those people’s lives gave me? I am definitely BLESSED.

Many times we are blessed yet miserable. 

I can think of a lot of super tough times that made me howl to the heavens, WHY ME? Looking back? Those were the times I grew the most. Though I was NOT happy, I needed the lesson. I needed the growth. I needed to let go of baggage, people, situations that I didn’t realize (at the time) were toxic.

I needed to realize my purpose wasn’t selling industrial paper.

Like, seriously.

Actual image of Kristen's Guardian Angel

Actual image of Kristen’s Guardian Angel

So, I do think semantics are key. We live in a world where everything is supposed to make us HAPPY. Well, kiddos, I hate to say it but most of the stuff that is good for us in the end will NOT make us happy. “Happy” is fleeting, joy is far deeper.

Letting Go

I like to believe I am an Essentialist at heart. I lose sight sometimes. We all do. Don’t believe me? Look in your closet O_o. But life isn’t static. We are slaves to entropy. We are changing and growing and shifting and we are wise to stay on top of what is going on. I cannot DO things the same as a Mommy-Writer with an infant who slept most of the day as NOW when I’m homeschooling a zombie-obsessed preschooler who abducts Cheerios in the wee hours and sprinkles them in my couch.

The goal is to always focus on what is essential. DO NOT COMPROMISE. And you will, but you can regroup. Breathe.

WANA has always been essentialist in nature. What is the point of social media? When we realize the core point, it’s clearer that we don’t have to rely on gimmick, automation or camp on top of “our brand.” The CORE of all social media is simply to create relationships. Takes away a LOT of pressure.

The weird paradox is that the more we let go, the more we can hold. We live in a world that tells us we can have it all. We can’t. Not really. There HAS to be a trade-off if we hope to do anything well (and remain sane).

For instance, I can have an immaculate home or a happy child. My son won’t remember that the house was dust-free in his childhood. He WILL remember playing at the pool with Mommy, or wrestling and playing “Attack of the MOMBIE.” He will remember the times at the park. He will remember Mommy suiting up with him in a gi to go learn martial arts.

The dishes? Eh, not so much. And if he does and this scars him? Well, shrinks need to eat too.

He can talk to his therapist...

He can talk to his therapist…

Choose Wisely

Okay, if you are anything like me you will likely goof this up and need retraining. Why? Because in our New-And-Improved-World, EVERYTHING is important. So give yourself some grace if you get it wrong the first couple tries. With all the options flying at us telling us we can HAVE IT ALL, we might struggle with discernment. That’s OKAY. Remember, life is not static. Just change direction. Make a different decision.

Go AROUND the leaf….

But, if we can look to the CORE of life, what is it? Health, Wealth, Relationships (not in any necessary order), priorities become clearer. As a fun fact, the word priority came from the Latin word a priori which was SINGULAR. It wasn’t until close to the Industrial Revolution that the word was ever pluralized into priorities. What this means to me it that most companies have their collective heads up their butts I need to work on discernment.

What is WANA’s priority? Empowering Writers of the Digital Age. Simple. We have classes, conferences, our own social network and all the tools to do ONE thing…empower. We give low-cost and digitally accessible classes and conferences, then we provide social media outlets so anything we can do can be magnified. Anything that does not align with Empowering Writers of the Digital Age? Not even a consideration.

Not that everything’s been seamless, but it’s sure been simpler.

With my life? Which things are priority? I can make a list—oh, can I make LISTS—but I’m better off focusing everything into a singular CORE a priori.

What is my GOAL as a mother and wife? As a writer? As a teacher?

Believe it or not, it’s all the same. Empowering. I can’t do Hubby’s job for him, but I can make our home a place of respite and peace that empowers him to do the best job he can each day. I can’t force Spawn to learn any faster than he does, but I can empower him to learn the best way for him.

Sigh, yes, even if it involves…zombies.

The Spawn LOVES "Mommy School"

The Spawn LOVES “Mommy School”

I can’t write your books for you or do your social media, but I can teach you all the craft and publishing stuff that tied my brain in knots for years. I can empower you to write faster, cleaner and better and also have a social media brand without going crazy. I can empower you to make the best decisions for your personality and book(s).

Something To Take Away

I am a Work In Progress. We all are. WE ARE NOT ALONE. We have to battle this entropy thing until we die, so what are some tips to keep life simpler? I’ll give a few and maybe we’ll expound later.

No Meddling!!!!

We all have family and friends who seem to collect disaster faster than black pants gather cat fur. BE UNAVAILABLE. I can’t even measure the time I’ve wasted trying to solve other people’s problems when they weren’t interested in solving it themselves. You know who I’m talking about. The people who cry and wail and want advice…and then do what they were going to do anyway and then it BLOWS UP and they need help?

No. JUST SAY NO. Back away. This is just never going to end well.

Screen Shot 2014-07-30 at 10.42.33 AM

When we meddle, we are NOT HELPING. We’re stealing this person’s power. We are stealing the lesson failure provides as well as the feeling of victory they will have by solving their own problems.

And, because most of us stink at priorities and think everything is an emergency, it is likely those around you do as well. So while they’re screaming FIRE!

…it isn’t.

Put down the firehouse and back away.

Take a Day Off

Sunday is my day of rest. Period. I’ve actually only fired a couple of people, but one? She couldn’t follow instructions. Every Sunday she was e-mailing and calling and wanting to talk business despite many times being told DO NOT CONTACT ON SUNDAY. Everything was a priority!

Failure to prepare on your part, does not constitute an emergency on mine.

Rest is WORK

In fact, rest is the hardest work we will ever do because we live in a world that frowns upon it. We’re supposed to be doing a zillion things all at once 24/7 and be available all hours all days. And then others wonder why quality suffers.

We have no problems putting gas in our car, plugging in our phones or laptops into a power outlet. Why are we last on the list? We need JUICE, TOO. Recharge and stop running on 3% battery.

Just so y’all know, I have one finger pointed at you and the rest pointed at ME. Lately, I’m learning to say no, turning off phone, doing more yoga and taking more power naps. I NEED for my brain to just chillax.

What are your thoughts? Do you struggle and have too many “PRIORITIES”? Do you lose your focus? Do you struggle with energy vampires who always have some new drama? Are you learning to put down boundaries with yourself and others? Do you feel guilty resting, taking a nap or even—GASP—A VACATION! YOU SLOTH! Have you gotten better at making you and your WRITING a priority? THE PRIORITY? What tips or tools could you share?

I LOVE hearing from you!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of JULY, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

ANNOUNCEMENTS:

For those who need help building a platform and keeping it SIMPLE here’s my newest social media book, Rise of the Machines–Human Authors in a Digital World is NOW AVAILABLE. Only $6.99.

I have a new class series GOING PRO—Craft, Business and Brand. Take one or all three for a discount. Also use WANA15 for $15 off. Each class discusses the CORE ESSENTIALS. What is the essence of great writing? What is the heart of a brand/social media? What are the basics of publishing when so many options are available?

, , , , , , , , , ,

41 Comments

Why Are Zombies Consuming Our Culture?

Screen Shot 2014-07-25 at 8.07.00 AM

This poster for sale HERE.

Eh, it’s Friday, so we’re going to have a little fun debate. ZOMBIES. I never actively intended the undead to be part of my author brand, but strangely? It fits. Just take one glance at an author trying to make deadline (hmmm, word choice?) or someone who’s been through Revision Hell? The term “Walking Dead” fits. These poor souls shamble around moaning. They wear stained clothes, coffee mug in hand and have that creepy thousand-yard stare.

Don’t shoot! Well, unless it’s a tranquilizer gun because that is the only way many writers in these stages are going to get any sleep.

Jokes aside, why have zombies invaded pop culture?

The Spawn and Zombies

Screen Shot 2014-07-25 at 10.31.51 AM

It started out kinda cute. It was Halloween and Spawn was three. But first, a tad of backstory so y’all have context.

When Spawn was slightly less than two, he began to speak…beautifully. His third word was “dinosaur” and it was as clear as if an adult said it. I was so excited. He was talking! And just like every child I’d cared for in the past, he was speaking early, intelligibly and articulately. Then he was in a terrible accident and knocked his four front teeth into the maxilla. $20,000 of emergency maxo-facial surgery later? I had a baby bat who rarely spoke and hid his face.

Back to Halloween, 2013.

So Hubby and I were thrilled when all of the sudden, from the back seat, we hear this tiny voice say, “ZOMBIE.” That is SO OUR BOY!

Everything became about zombies and we’re still not exactly sure how since it wasn’t like we’d done anything to actively introduce him to the topic. I was addicted to documentaries about physics at the time.

Anyway, Spawn began making up zombie songs.

My husband loves heavy metal. All the sudden, I hear a growly toddler voice “singing”:

Zombies and BABIES

Zombies and BABIES

Meet you in the dark. Eat you in the park.

ZOMBIE! ZOMBIE! ZOMBIEEEEEEE!

….ohhh-kay

I confess, I laughed. I encouraged it because at least he was talking and singing. Then one day I hear him singing the Zombies and Babies tune, but the lyrics changed.

New song?

Zombies and Pears

Me: Zombies and pears?

Spawn: Yep.

Me: What kind of zombie eats pears?

Spawn: *matter-of-factly* Vegan Zombies.

And HOW do you argue with THAT?

And the ZOMBIE SAGA Continues…and CONTINUES

Screen Shot 2014-07-25 at 10.37.10 AM

At first it was cute, then adorable. But after almost a year of nothing but zombies? I’m a bit weary. But, the only time I can even understand half of what he is saying is when he talks about zombies. He tells stories, makes up songs, asks lots of zombie-related questions, makes zombie rhymes.

And for those who have followed this blog, my four-year-old son was fired from preschool for his love of zombies. No, he didn’t bite or attack anyone, he just liked to wander around the playground with a blank stare and moan. Clearly the school didn’t see he was BORN to run for government office.

So now Mommy is homeschooling (unschooling actually). What I’ve decided is if he wants zombies, that’s what he’ll get. Think of all the topics! ZomBIOLOGY 101.

Prevention, pathology, epidemiology, history, plagues, prions, viruses, the CDC, ethics, and on and on. Either I will burn him out and he’ll find something new, or at least I can have fun, too.

But it does beg the question…

Why Are Zombies SO Popular?

My friend Kevin Lucia is a horror author who’s taught for WANA International and guest-posted here about this often misunderstood genre. One particular Lucia post was fascinating because he spoke about how “horror” often reflects much of what we’re facing as a society. For instance, after the invention of the A-Bomb, radioactivity was all the rage. Movie theaters and comics offered up all kinds of radioactive spiders, lizards, superheroes, super villains etc.

Texas Chainsaw Massacre came on the heels of the Vietnam War, a war which decimated accepted rules of combat and exposed authorities as flawed, corrupt and untrustworthy.

Now we exist in a world where we are no longer fighting countries or governments, we’re fighting ideas/behaviors—The War on Drugs, The War on Obesity, The War on Terror.

War of Words

Screen Shot 2014-07-25 at 9.36.04 AM

 

Most of these “wars” are rife with ambiguity. Which drugs are the enemy? We’re Janus-faced. Our government burns poppy fields while doctors hand out Oxycotin like candy. The DEA torches marijuana fields, but then we can order “special” brownies in Colorado. Meth is evil, but then elementary schools are swimming in amphetamines (ADD meds).

Talk about confusing.

Then there is The War on Obesity. Sigh. I’m close to 170 pounds, but I wear a size 8. I fired my last doctor because he kept sending me for tests to figure out why I was so “morbidly obese.” Despite the fact that all my tests came back the picture of optimal health and my diet is gluten-free, dairy-free, soy-free, soda-free, low in sugar and no processed carbs, organic, non-GMO and I work out constantly, I was “fat.”

Ironically, if I wasn’t a white female, I’d be “curvy.” The African American nurse was my strongest ally and thought the doctor had four holes in his head. She made it a point to tell me I was beautiful and to ignore him.

But this is a fair question. What IS fat? In a world where J.Crew is offering up the NEW Size 000? Who the hell knows anymore?

The Shapeshifting

The terrifying part (for me) is that ideas are malleable and can be redefined. “Terrorist” is all about perspective and personal value systems. I’ve had people on Facebook call gun-owners domestic terrorists and viscously attack me for having guns. Of course, the interesting part is many of them live in major metropolitan areas. Politics aside, a large portion of these detractors don’t live in places where their definitive position at the top of the food chain not is static.

Image courtesy of Texana

Image courtesy of Texan

 

We’ve had nests like these (above) at our property, even beneath the HOUSE. I’ve nearly stepped on a rattlesnake countless times. Also at our ranch, we’ve been battling a MAJOR wild boar infestation. Wild boar can weigh hundreds of pounds. They’re viscous, invasive, aggressive, territorial and have long razor-sharp tusks that rival a French chef knife.

Cell phones rarely work out there, and even if they did, it would take at least 30 minutes for outside help to arrive.

New Kinds of War

Also, these days there is NO way to really know or see the enemy. The enemy (like Vietnam) can be anyone and everyone. It isn’t a soldier dressed in a blue or red or green uniform. Men, women, children, babies, elderly are all potential killers in many parts of the world.

Interesting how this parallels with the idea of zombies. However infected, the zombie is just as much a victim as its prey. A virus “recruits” universally and doesn’t discriminate.

A Universal and Politically Correct “Enemy”?

Original "Red Dawn"

Original “Red Dawn”

I was a child of the 70s and 80s. We were a seriously un-PC generation. We fought the Russians daily in our backyard and all watched the 1984 Olympics with more enthusiasm than any Olympics since. Our goal? BEAT THE RUSSIANS. Then the Iron Curtain parted, the Berlin Wall fell and a world with two major axes of power crumbled.

Also, with an increasingly globalized world most of us live in very heterogenous populations. I live in a relatively small satellite community in DFW. I see Vietnamese, Koreans, Indians, Muslims, Africans every time I go to a grocery store. This notion of we are ALL in this together? Clearer by the day.

Sure we witness human-against-human war all the time on the news, which is why I limit how much I watch. But my opinion? The biggest threats we will face in the future are not people, but biology.

Beat the Russians Bugs

In the 80s and 90s, doctors threw antibiotics at EVERYTHING. We’re seeing all kinds of superbugs emerging. I was an early adopter and contracted Swine Flu the year before it paralyzed the US. I’ve never been so sick in my LIFE. I had a boiling fever (104-108) for two weeks and it took THREE MONTHS to fully recover.

Add in SARS, Bird Flu, Mad Cow Disease, MRSA, Flesh-Eating viruses, Tuberculosis, The Kardashians and Honey Boo-Boo?

It makes sense that zombies would be part of the national consciousness when every time we get sick we need GODZILLACILLIN to tame a simple ear infection.

Zombies—A Social Observation? How We Feel About Others

Image via Pink's Galaxy Flickr Creative Commons

Image via Pink’s Galaxy Flickr Creative Commons

Zombies. Mindless. Unaware of anything but their own hunger.

A couple posts ago, I mentioned going to yoga to decompress and have quiet time away from the noise of our fast-paced world. The woman next to me texted THE ENTIRE TIME. She couldn’t set down the cell phone for an HOUR.

REALLY?

Fifteen years ago, if a car was going 20 mph in a 50 mph zone and weaving through lanes? Probably a drunk. NOW? Likely texting or looking at a phone.

I was at a 7-11 trying to buy water to bring to the park. I happened to be behind this young 20-something with his pants nearly to his knees….on a PHONE. The poor clerk kept having to redo the transaction because this guy was chatting away and kept hitting the wrong buttons on the swipe pad.

It took everything for me not to rip the phone out of his hands and yell, “I’m happy you are wearing underwear, but don’t need proof. Please pull up your pants, hang up the phone and give this person working to HELP you the respect enough to be present. You are not the only one in this world and there is a line of people behind you who’d kinda like to buy stuff too and not stare at your @$$ any longer than necessary.”

How We Feel About Ourselves

Screen Shot 2014-07-25 at 10.33.50 AM

I can’t speak for all the world, but I can speak for Western culture. Every time they give us a new “time-saving” tool, they just pile on more stuff to do on our heads. When I was in the corporate world, there were people who bragged that they hadn’t taken a vacation in a decade.

Please do, because you are a worn out jerk and everyone HATES YOU.

If you took a vacation, it was frowned upon and not-so-subtley punished. Even taking SICK DAYS was punished. When I worked in paper, I got pneumonia. They forced me to come to the office (loaded with paper fiber) and we were located next to a concrete plant so the air was full of concrete dust…but then had NO IDEA why I wasn’t getting better.

Many of us deal with workplaces that would rather us lumber in with 103 degree fever than take a day off.

Screen Shot 2014-07-25 at 10.28.05 AM

Thanks for infecting the rest of us.

So why ARE we fascinated with zombies? Many of us spend a lot of time burned out and surrounded by stupidity. We’re medicated, caffeinated and indoctrinated. I don’t know about you, but I seriously miss my BRAAAAIIIIINS. I also miss when Spawn loved NASCAR. Sigh.

What are your thoughts? Why have zombies taken the place of Godzilla and Giant Spiders from Outer Space? Do you think the zombie craze is a reflection of our social angst? Or maybe we relate to the poor zombie more than we’d like to admit?

It’s Friday, let’s have some fun and be Armchair Anthropologists and Sideline Sociologists!

I LOVE hearing from you!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of JULY, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

ANNOUNCEMENTS:

For those who need help building a platform (HINT: Start as EARY as possible) here’s my newest social media book, Rise of the Machines–Human Authors in a Digital World is NOW AVAILABLE. Only $6.99.

TOMORROW!!!!!

SATURDAY is my ANTAGONIST CLASS. NYC Time 12:00-2:00. Use WANA15 for $15 off. Have an idea for a book? Stuck and can’t move forward? Keep starting books you can’t finish? THIS class is the cure! You get two…okay usually more like three hours of instruction, the recording, detailed notes AND you can upgrade for personal consulting to help you repair or construct your masterpiece.

 

, , , , , , , , , , , ,

70 Comments

What Brazilian Jui-Jitsu Can Teach Us About Going Pro as AUTHORS

Screen Shot 2014-06-19 at 9.17.03 PM

Some of you may know that (for stress relief) I practice Brazilian Jui-Jitsu. Being a teacher and a writer, I see lessons in everything. Strangely, our dojo is not known for BJJ. It’s mainly Shito Ryu Karate and those classes are always packed. There’s a plethora of black belts and they earned it. Many are kids, and they’re a wonder to behold.

Our Jui-Jitsu class? Right now we are down to five people—two out with injuries, one went off to med school and two are on vacation. This can feel weird when the next class over is packed wall-to wall with students.

Last night we were talking about why our group was so small. Why are people not as attracted to BJJ? Why do so many sign up then quickly leave? I’m being careful here, because over my many years, I’ve studied four forms of martial arts and two styles of fighting—Tae Kwon Do (Korean), Karate (Japanese), Wing-Jitsu (a fusion one Wing Chun Kung Fu and Jui-Jitsu), Japanese Jui-Jitsu, regular boxing and kickboxing.

All have strengths and weaknesses.

I have my preferences. I liked Wing-Jitsu the best because I really love doing throws and I love the hand to hand combat. But is it better than any other? Depends on the fighter.

***Hmmm, like genre preferences?

So Why ARE We So Small?

First, in BJJ you are a white belt for a looooooooooong time. The minimum time is 18 months. When people in other classes are blowing through the belt-rainbow faster than a Skittle commercial and we’re still sporting a white belt? Can be tough on the ego.

There is no “outside badge” of what we know.

Image via Flikr Creative Commons, courtesy of GollyGForce

Image via Flikr Creative Commons, courtesy of GollyGForce

Also, since we’re mostly on the floor grappling, there’s a lot of nuance outsiders don’t see. We aren’t doing the fancy kicks and things that look “cool.” And, bluntly, BJJ is a tough, tough, tough sport. It’s hard on the body because we mostly fight. BJJ is also something that is pretty much impossible to do alone. We can’t hone our skills with a punching bag. We must have others to practice with. Since we’re doing a lot of throwing and joint locks and wear no pads, injuries are commonplace. In two months I’ve broken my nose and two toes.

Just goes with the sport *shrugs*.

***And, for the record, all of my MAJOR injuries were NEVER in a dojo. Soccer, icy pavement, and evil coffee tables hurt me worse than any martial arts.

Last week, I fought the guy who broke my nose. He made a comment about being easy on me and I chastised him. If I wanted to go through life with no pain I’d take up scrapbooking and I sure as hell wouldn’t be a writer.

What BJJ and Writing Can Teach Us

Image via Flikr Creative Commons, courtesy of Kristina Zuidema

Image via Flikr Creative Commons, courtesy of Kristina Zuidema

This brings me to my point. I see a LOT of parallels in BJJ and us choosing to go pro as writers. BJJ is easier if we go into it understanding the realities of the sport. We set our expectations correctly. Too many newbies don’t, which is why they quit. They think they will be the special case, the person who’s only a white belt for a month or that they can compete without pain.

Same in writing. I’ve been guilty. I didn’t need craft books or classes. Ptht. *rolls eyes* When I wrote my first “novel” my biggest concern was how to choose an agent when all of them said yes and were fighting over my book. Talk about an awkward cocktail party. I so wish I were kidding. Yes, I was an idiot. Laugh at me. I do. The query letters agents make jokes about? That was ME.

At first I was discouraged in my writing career. I wanted to give up daily. The more I wrote, the more I was rejected, the dumber I felt. I believe much of this could have been avoided had I understood the realities of what it meant to go pro. Then my expectations would have been more reasonable.

Image via Flickr Creative Commons, courtesy of Sally Jean

Image via Flickr Creative Commons, courtesy of Sally Jean

What to Expect

We WILL Be Tempted to Judge Ourselves by Outside Opinions

Like BJJ, most of us will be white belts a LONG, LONG time. What most people fail to appreciate is there is a massive disparity within “white belt writers.” In BJJ, a white belt who’s been in class for a month is NOT the same as one who’s been fighting/training for over a year. But bluntly, outsiders will all see the same color belt and, since they haven’t been on the mats, they can’t possibly understand.

Same in writing. A writer who’s just stepped out to attempt writing a novel is often regarded the same as a writer who’s been working hard for a year or two. Just like outsiders don’t understand that the process for gaining belts in BJJ is slooooow, regular people believe the second we finish a book, it should be shelved at B&N the very next week and on the NTYBS list by the end of the month.

They have NO concept how slow the process is for writing a novel and getting that book to market (even if we were freakish savants who wrote the World’s Perfect Book our first try). Often when we’re new, even WE don’t understand this.

Regular People: So, can I get your books at a bookstore? No?

Subtext: You aren’t a “real” writer.

This is why humility is such a vital trait in life, martial arts and writing. We need to be open to not knowing “everything” and seek help from those stronger and more seasoned. We also should give ourselves permission to be new, to be learning. We get too focused on the “belt” (getting published/selling lots of books) and that’s when depression sets in and we’re tempted to give up. It has to be about LOVE of the sport (writing) and less about the recognition if we have any hope of sticking to it long enough to enjoy the fruits of our labor.

Writing is ALL About Endurance, Tenacity, and SENSITIVITY

Grappling will test the limits of the human body. We spar 40-50 minutes straight with one-minute rest breaks for water. Then, the next round and the next….and the next. It’s why a lot of people quit. It’s hard work and nothing like TV or the movies ;) .

Same with writing. The Modern Author has A LOT of work ahead. Most people don’t “get” that we are going to write probably about a million words before we even know what we’re doing (then add in branding, business, social media and LIFE).

Screen Shot 2013-03-20 at 9.18.48 AM

***Btw, and if you happen to get a clue before the million words and are the exception, GO YOU. But if we go in knowing how hard this is, we’re less likely to be over-critical and give up. I know it took me at least a quarter million words to unstick my head out of my own butt.

Also, in BJJ, most people can’t see all we are balancing at the same time. Attacking, defending, calculating physics nonstop and at top speed; using hands feet, knees and mind all simultaneously. It’s a sport of strategy. It’s VITAL we learn to feel the body of the opponent, to anticipate the next move. It’s less about me and more about others.

Readers often don’t appreciate all the countless nuances of what we do, because if we’re any good, we MAKE it look easy. But we’re balancing character, plot, dialogue, subtext, symbol, description, etc. etc. Excellent writers focus on others. We feel the ebb and flow of the human condition and relax into the reality that what we do takes a lot of time in lonely places with no cheer squad.

The late David Eddings said it best and here is the extended quote:

“My advice to the young writer is likely to be unpalatable in an age of instant successes and meteoric falls. I tell the neophyte: Write a million words–the absolute best you can write, then throw it all away and bravely turn your back on what you have written. At that point, you’re ready to begin.

“When you are with people, listen; don’t talk. Writers are boring people. What are you going to talk about so brilliantly? Typewriters? The construction of paragraphs? Shut your mouth and listen. Listen to the cadences of speech. Engrave the sound of language on your mind. Language is our medium, and the spoken language is the sharp cutting edge of our art. Make your people sound human. The most tedious story will leap into life if the reader can hear the human voices in it. The most brilliant and profound of stories will sink unnoticed if the characters talk like sticks.

“Most of all, enjoy what you’re doing. If you don’t enjoy it, it’s not worth doing at all. If hard and unrewarding work bothers you, do something else. If rejection withers your soul, do something else. If the work itself is not reward enough, stop wasting paper. But if you absolutely have to write–if you’re compelled to do it even without hope of reward or recognition–then I welcome you to our sorry, exalted fraternity.” (David Eddings R.I.P, Christchurch City Libraries Blog)

Master the BASICS

Screen shot 2012-01-30 at 9.48.41 AM

 

Never underestimate the power of the SIMPLE. Mastery is only attained by achieving a sound foundation of fundamentals. Make them second nature. Basics are CRITICAL. When people are injured in BJJ, it’s often because they forgot basics.

Stay on the balls of your feet so you can maneuver. Relax. Roll into an attack and use the opposition’s momentum against them. Don’t post a leg where your opponent can grab it.

When I studied Jui-Jitsu, you know what we did the first two months? FALL. Over and over and over. That was it. Nothing fancy. But if you don’t know how to fall? That’s when bones get broken.

Many writers run to self-publish and they get popped because the BASICS are botched or even missing—POV, proper grammar, punctuation, dialogue, etc. Instead of starting with foundational stuff and building ART from there, they hurry or try to be “fancy”. Don’t. Basics are cool.

To make this point, here is a GREAT, GREAT laugh from my hero, Weird Al Yankovic…

What are your thoughts? Do you compare your progress too much with your peers? Do you find yourself rushing? Is it discouraging when outsiders act like you are some poseur because they haven’t seen your book as a movie yet? Do you go back to edit and realize you forgot to stay simple and harness the basics? It’s okay. Did you start out writing as clueless as I was? Then beat yourself up because you “failed”? Do you have a tough time celebrating the small victories?

It’s OKAY. I am guilty of ALL of these. This stuff doesn’t go away, it’s why vigilance is important. It’s also why I blog more about my failures than successes. I want you guys to see the REALITY of what we do, not some Photoshopped unreality.

I LOVE hearing from you!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of JULY, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

ANNOUNCEMENTS:

For those who need help building a platform (HINT: Start as EARY as possible) here’s my newest social media book, Rise of the Machines–Human Authors in a Digital World is NOW AVAILABLE. Only $6.99.

THIS SATURDAY!!!!!

SATURDAY is my ANTAGONIST CLASS. NYC Time 12:00-2:00. Use WANA15 for $15 off. Have an idea for a book? Stuck and can’t move forward? Keep starting books you can’t finish? THIS class is the cure! You get two…okay usually more like three hours of instruction, the recording, detailed notes AND you can upgrade for personal consulting to help you repair or construct your masterpiece.

 

, , , , , , , , , ,

47 Comments

Writing, Caregiving & Confessions of a “Recovering” Control Freak

Screen Shot 2013-04-01 at 8.16.28 AM

It’s funny how life has this way of pointing out our weaknesses. We have this delusion that we can keep doing things the way we always have and it will work…and that’s when the pressure piles up. I admit it. I am a control freak and a perfectionist.

I grew up in a family of chaos where the rules changed daily and the only thing I could count on was nothing could be counted on. My family was also rather stoic (likely because we are mostly military and medical workers).

I still tease my mom that she had a saying, “Come home with your lunch kit or ON it.”

Growing up, we went through a lot of bad times and crying was highly discouraged. Second place was the first loser. Failure was not an event, it was who you were.

When Life Lands in the Blender

I try to always walk my talk. When I advise getting out of the comfort zone? I mean it, and I do it. Starting WANA International was terrifying for me. What’s interesting was up until that point, life had been pretty uneventful, even awesome. We’d had wonderful, almost stress-free three years and I ran my life and writing with the efficiency of a Swiss watch.

Then it was as if the second I filed the LLC to start my own business? The Gates of Hell opened.

Now? I’m lucky to have my underwear on correctly. A lot has gone right with WANA International, but just as much has gone sideways. I’m learning a lot about just how much I don’t know. Seriously humbling. I also MUST stop comparing how I ran things before life changed. Sure keeping an immaculate house and meeting deadlines was easier when Spawn was in a PLAYPEN.

But just like our novels run our characters through a crucible to (hopefully) change them for the better, life can do the same to us.

While a lot of what’s happened in the past couple years has been HARD (even devastating) it’s amazing what I’ve learned and how it’s forced me to come up higher and grow.

Learning I am NOT ALONE

Original Image via Flickr Creative Commons, courtesy of Mike Spasoff

Original Image via Flickr Creative Commons, courtesy of Mike Spasoff

I began the idea of WANA (We Are Not Alone) because I knew what it was like to have a dream of being a writer and be alone with no support. Deciding to become a writer was probably the first time I stepped out in faith that I could DO something remarkable….and it was a beating.

That trial taught me how much support networks are vital for success. They keep us pressing and give us people we can lean on when we’re about to fall apart. I felt writers needed help beyond social media or craft. Writers are people with a lot of stress and life can make us give up the dream. And WANA was born.

We still need to keep stepping out and doing stuff that scares us. I have always been such a workhorse/caretaker that I forget to ask for help. I know none of you have this problem, but I will cop to it  ;) .

In May, (after six deaths in less than two years and two more pending) it all became too much, so I joined a weekly group at my church designed to help those dealing with grief. My pride had kept me away for too long. It’s been…weird. Stripping away the gallows humor. Learning to feel when I’m in the habit of running an endless list of things to do through my head to avoid feeling.

I remember when my dad suddenly passed away, I showed up for work the next day. My coworkers were horrified. WHY are you HERE?

Um, because I am scheduled to work? *confused* It never occurred to me I should stay home. I had obligations.

Control is an Illusion

SO ME!

SO ME!

Part of what I’ve learned is control is an illusion. Often it will get us sidetracked on things that really don’t matter (um, refer to above image) at the expense of doing things that are meaningful.

Yeah, I was in denial. I made jokes about being OCD or a control freak, but recently it’s hit me how BAD I really was (am). So, again, I made a decision to do things differently. So much energy had been focused on the sick, deceased or dying, I forgot to focus on the living. I began doing a lot more with The Spawn, taking him to the pool or the park and enjoying it, instead of working while he played. I joined martial arts with him so he’d have Mommy as a teammate. I abducted Hubby to learn to play D&D.

The Spawn LOVES "Mommy School"

The Spawn LOVES “Mommy School”

I made friends here locally and have become more comfortable asking for help.

It’s odd how we don’t honestly see ourselves and how that parallels with writing a good protagonist (they really ARE their own worst enemy in the beginning). Last Friday, I was in a rush and my foot met the wrong end of the glass shower door giving me a BAD puncture wound in my foot.

I rinsed it with antiseptic and taped it together and headed out for the church potluck because I promised I’d be there. As I was enjoying the food and the company, my new friend Shannon simply got up and refilled my drink and plate and tended The Spawn…and it stunned me.

People can help…ME?

Weird, I know. But even though I was hobbling around, my nature was to be up refilling and cleaning and helping everyone else. The fact that another person naturally did that for ME?

BIG eye-opener.

Confessions of a Yoga Nazi

Another thing I’ve done differently is I’m back going to yoga. I needed a place to relax mind and body before I imploded from stress. I came from two years of doing Bikram, which is Sparta of Yoga. Very strict.

I’m now doing gym yoga—hot yoga, which is only an hour and only 98 degrees. It’s a lot faster. But people come in the room talking away. Two days ago, I was in the middle of the workout and a woman next to me texted through the entire class. She had her cell on silent, but it did this weird strobe thing when a text came in, then she’d drop to the mat and text back. (In Bikram they would have booted her from the class.)

*me twitching*

It really took a lot of discipline to just let it go and not let her poor manners ruin my peace.

The hot yoga really is metaphoric for what I’m learning. Yes, structure is great, but true emotional or mental discipline doesn’t come from being told everything to do in a controlled environment. It’s having the ability to maintain the calm despite. It’s ignoring the people talking, laughing or texting inappropriately and still choosing peace. Because LIFE is anything but a controlled environment.

Having a Good Cry

Image courtesy of Cellar Door Films WANA Commons

Image courtesy of Cellar Door Films WANA Commons

What I REALLY like about this hot yoga, is the teachers will bring in lessons for the day. One hit home with me. It was about crying. When we stuff emotions and refuse to feel them, these emotions GO somewhere. They don’t vanish. She spoke about the benefits of crying.

Crying, in ways, doesn’t make sense. We feel sad or hurt and our eyes leak?

Apparently scientists tested different types of tears. Tears from cutting onions are very different from tears released when watching Bambi’s mother die.

Emotional tears are extremely high in toxins and hormones produced due to stress. It’s our body’s way of releasing the “bad stuff” and it’s why we feel better “after a good cry.” This made me think a lot about our society. Being emotional is discouraged. Crying is often viewed as weakness. Maybe that’s why a lot of us are too close to crazy these days. We are in a non-stop world moving from task to task to task and never stopping to feel or to even —GASP—cry.

Also caregivers are in a weird position. We have to be strong for others. If we aren’t careful we slap on a smile even when we’re crumbling. Often we aren’t even AWARE we are crumbling. I’m learning that it’s okay for me to recharge. I can’t help others if I’m empty.

Screen Shot 2014-07-17 at 9.54.19 PM

I left yoga yesterday and saw two quotes that spoke to me.

Nature does not hurry and yet everything is accomplished. ~Lao Tzu

Blessed are the flexible, for they shall never be bent out of shape. ~Anonymous

What to Take Away

When we step out to do something remarkable, expect disaster. Expect failures.

I don’t mean to be a Debbie Downer here, but like our protagonists face trials and threshold guardians when they accept the adventure, we will too. It might be life testing us to see how badly we want the dream, but it’s more than that. Failures and setbacks are simply logical. We’re doing something different and unknown. We’re learning. Failure is part of that. I like to say, Show me a person who isn’t failing and I’ll show you a person who’s not doing anything interesting.

Quitting is easy. Anyone can do that.

Additionally, life doesn’t PAUSE when we decide to reach for our dreams. We must learn to maintain peace in the storm and to remember storms do eventually pass.

Oh, and another storm will come eventually ;).

Resting doesn’t make us lazy. Asking for help or even crying doesn’t make us weak.

My dishes will always need washing and my e-mail will always be a monster. The Spawn won’t remember that the house was perfectly organized, he WILL remember a day at the pool playing Water Zombies with Mom.

Also, some setbacks or bad events in life are worth having a good cry.

Peace is a decision, not a destination.

I’ve learned that $#!& happens. Me freaking out that the AC overflowed and flooded the attic doesn’t change the hefty bill or the mess to be cleaned up. Besides, most of the crap we fret about 1) never actually happens or 2) does happen and in five years we don’t even remember it.

Never underestimate how important you are. The little things are the biggest of all.

The comments on a blog, the funny pics on a FB timeline are all the small actions that keep a lot of us together. Never buy the lie that your actions don’t matter because they are “too small.”

Remember to rest, to cry, to laugh and to BREATHE. Hey, it’s life. None of us get out of it alive :D .

What are your thoughts? Have you been through stressful seasons and realized you were too focused on the problems and not enough on the joys? Do you find yourself holding your breath? Are you a caretaker and feel guilty doing anything for yourself? Do you forget to ask for help? Are you overly critical of yourself and learning to give yourself a BREAK? Can you think of hard times that nearly crushed you, yet when you came out the other side, something in you had changed for the better?

Hey, I am right here with you. We can trade notes :D .

I LOVE hearing from you!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of JULY, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

ANNOUNCEMENTS:

For those who need help building a platform (HINT: Start as EARY as possible) here’s my newest social media book, Rise of the Machines–Human Authors in a Digital World is NOW AVAILABLE. Only $6.99.

Announcements:

If you feel you might have the vapors after reading all of this, no worries, I offer classes to HELP.

July 19th is my First Five Pages Class  and use WANA15 for $15 off. If you can’t make the time, no worries, all classes are RECORDED and come with notes for reference. Upgrade to the GOLD level and I will look at your first five pages and give DETAILED analysis. This is NOT simple line-edit. This is a detailed, how to start your story in the right place and in a way that HOOKS analysis.

Also my Antagonist Class is coming up on July 26th and it will help you guys become wicked fast plotters (of GOOD stories). Again, use WANA15 for $15 off. The GOLD level is personal time with me either helping you plot a new book or possibly repairing one that isn’t working. Never met a book I couldn’t help fix. This will save a TON of time in revision and editors are NOT cheap.

, , , , , , , , , , ,

63 Comments

The Seven Deadly Sins of Prologues

Image via Flikr Creative Commons, via Mikko Luntiala

Image via Flikr Creative Commons, via Mikko Luntiala

To prologue or not to prologue? That is the question. The problem with the prologue is it has kind of gotten a bad rap over the years, especially with agents. They generally hate them. Why? In my opinion, it is because far too many writers don’t use prologues properly and that, in itself, has created its own problem.

Because of the steady misuse of prologues, most readers skip them. Thus, the question of whether or not the prologue is even considered the beginning of your novel can become a gray area if the reader just thumbs pages until she sees Chapter One.

So without further ado…

The 7 Deadly Sins of Prologues

Sin #1 If your prologue is really just a vehicle for massive information dump…

This is one of the reasons I recommend writing detailed backgrounds of all main characters before we begin (especially when we are new writers). Get all of that precious backstory out of your system.

This is a useful tactic in that first, it can help us see if a) our characters are psychologically consistent, b) can provide us with a feel for the characters’ psychological motivations, which will help later in plotting.

I have a little formula: background–> motivations –>goals–>a plan–>a detailed plan, which = plot and c) can help us as writers honestly see what details are salient to the plot.

This helps us better fold the key details into the plotting process so that this vital information can be blended expertly into the story real-time.

Many new writers bungle the prologue because they lack a system that allows them to discern key details or keep track of key background details. This makes for clumsy writing, namely a giant “fish head” labeled prologue. What do we do with fish heads? We cut them off and throw them away…unless you are my mother’s Scandinavian family and then they make soup *shivers*.

Sin #2 If your prologue really has nothing to do with the main story.

This point ties into the earlier sin. Do this. Cut off the prologue. Now ask, “Has this integrally affected the story?” If it hasn’t? It’s likely a fish head masquerading as a prologue.

Sin #3 If your prologue’s sole purpose is to “hook” the reader…

If readers have a bad tendency to skip past prologues, and the only point of our prologue is to hook the reader, then we have just effectively shot ourselves in the foot. We must have a great hook in a prologue, but then we need to also have a hook in Chapter One. If we can merely move the prologue to Chapter One and it not upset the flow of the story? Then that is a lot of pressure off our shoulders to be “doubly” interesting.

Sin #4 If your prologue is overly long…

Prologues need to be short and sweet and to the point. Get too long and that is a warning flag that this prologue is being used to cover for sloppy writing or really should have just been Chapter One.

Sin #5 If your prologue is written in a totally different style and voice that is never tied back into the main story…

Pretty self-explanatory.

Sin #6 If your prologue is über-condensed world-building…

World-building is generally one of those things, like backstory, that can and should be folded into the narrative. Sometimes it might be necessary to do a little world-building, but think “floating words in Star Wars.” The yellow floating words that drift off into space help the reader get grounded in the larger picture before the story begins. But note the floating words are not super-detailed Tolkien world-building.

They are simple and, above all, brief.

Sin #7 If your prologue is there solely to “set the mood…”

We have to set the mood in Chapter One anyway, so like the hook, why do it twice?

The Prologue Virtues

Now that we have discussed the 7 Deadly Sins of Prologues, you might be asking yourself, “So when is it okay to use a prologue?” Glad you asked.

Virtue #1

Prologues can be used to resolve a time gap with information critical to the story.

Genre will have a lot to do with whether one uses a prologue or not. Thrillers generally employ prologues because what our hero is up against may be an old enemy. In James Rollins’s The Doomsday Key the prologue introduces the “adversary” Sigma will face in the book. Two monks come upon a village where every person has literally starved to death when there is more than an abundance of food.

Many centuries pass and the very thing that laid waste to that small village is now once more a threat. But this gives the reader a feel for the fact that this is an old adversary. The prologue also paints a gripping picture of what this “adversary” can do if unleashed once more.

The prologue allows the reader to pass centuries of time without getting a brain cramp. Prologue is set in medieval times. Chapter One is in modern times. Prologue is also pivotal for understanding all that is to follow.

Prologues are used a lot in thrillers and mysteries to see the crime or event that sets off the story. Readers of these genres have been trained to read prologues and generally won’t skip. The serial killer dumping his latest victim is important to the story. It’s a genre thing. Yet, still? Keep it brief. Reveal too much and readers won’t want to turn pages to learn more.

Virtue # 2

Prologues can be used if there is a critical element in the backstory relevant to the plot.

The first Harry Potter book is a good example of a book that could have used a prologue, but didn’t (likely because Rowling knew it would likely get skipped). Therese Walsh in her blog Once Before A Time Part 2 said this:

J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone is told in a close 3rd person POV (Harry’s), but her first chapter is quite different, told when Harry is a baby and switching between omniscient and 3rd person POVs (Mr. Dursley’s and Dumbledore’s). Rowling may have considered setting this information aside as a prologue because of those different voices and the ten-year lag between it and the next scene, but she didn’t do it. The info contained in those first pages is critical, it helps to set the story up and makes it more easily digested for readers. And it’s 17 pages long.

This battle is vital for the reader to be able to understand the following events and thus would have been an excellent example of a good prologue. But, Rowling, despite the fact this chapter would have made a prime prologue still chose to make it Chapter One so the reader would actually read this essential piece of story information.

Food for thought for sure.

Yes, I had Seven Sins and only Two Virtues. So sue me :P . That should be a huge hint that there are a lot more reasons to NOT use a prologue than there are to employ one (that and I didn’t want this blog to be 10,000 words long).

Prologues, when done properly can be amazing literary devices. Yet, with a clear reader propensity to skip them, then that might at least make us pause before we decide our novel must have one. Make sure you ask yourself honest questions about what purpose these pages are really serving. Are they an essential component of a larger whole? Or are you using Bondo to patch together a weak plot?

But, don’t take my word for it. Over the ages, I’ve collected great blogs regarding prologues to help you guys become stronger in your craft. These are older posts, but timeless:

Once Before a Time: Prologues Part 1 by Therese Walsh

Once Before a Time Part 2 by Therese Walsh

Agent Nathan Bransford offers his opinion as does literary agent Kristin Nelson

Carol Benedict’s blog Story Elements: Using a Prologue

To Prologue or Not To Prologue by Holly Jennings

If after all of this information, you decide you must have a prologue because all the coolest kids have one, then at least do it properly. Here is a great e-how article.

So if you must write a prologue, then write one that will blow a reader away. Take my First Five Pages class (below) and I can give you some expert perspective of whether to keep or ditch or if you want to keep your prologue, then how can you make it WORK?

What are some of the questions, concerns, troubles you guys have had with prologues? Which ones worked? Which ones bombed? What are your solutions or suggestions?

I LOVE hearing from you!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of JULY, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

ANNOUNCEMENTS:

For those who need help building a platform (HINT: Start as EARY as possible) here’s my newest social media book, Rise of the Machines–Human Authors in a Digital World is NOW AVAILABLE. Only $6.99.

Announcements:

If you feel you might have the vapors after reading all of this, no worries, I offer classes to HELP.

July 19th is my First Five Pages Class  and use WANA15 for $15 off. If you can’t make the time, no worries, all classes are RECORDED and come with notes for reference. Upgrade to the GOLD level and I will look at your first five pages and give DETAILED analysis. This is NOT simple line-edit. This is a detailed, how to start your story in the right place and in a way that HOOKS analysis.

Also my Antagonist Class is coming up on July 26th and it will help you guys become wicked fast plotters (of GOOD stories). Again, use WANA15 for $15 off. The GOLD level is personal time with me either helping you plot a new book or possibly repairing one that isn’t working. Never met a book I couldn’t help fix. This will save a TON of time in revision and editors are NOT cheap.

, , , , , , , , ,

78 Comments

Want More Conflict in Your Novel? Go DM & Balance the Party

Screen Shot 2014-07-10 at 8.20.24 AM

Recently, I’ve added homeschooling The Spawn to the list of what I already do. Blog, write books, teach, run two small businesses and keeping a house clean, the yard mowed, and my family fed. As an introvert who works from home, it’s easy to realize you no longer leave the house and are talking to yourself way more than is healthy. Thus, I’ve been on a mission to break some patterns and do what might scare me (talking to other people in person).

Btw, writers don’t count.

Welcome to Nerd Land

In the spirit of this “Doing Stuff Differently” I joined some friends for a monthly game of Dungeons and Dragons, and took Hubby as a hostage teammate. I hadn’t played D&D since I was in high school so there is a learning curve. But one thing that struck me is how being an author had changed my perspective. The first duty I had was to choose and create characters for me and Hubby.

When I looked at who was playing what, I spotted a big problem. The existing party was far too homogenous, so the only real conflict was going to come from whatever bad creatures they happened to fight. What did I do? My writer’s mantra.

THROW A ROCK IN IT.

Image via http://www.kencyclopedia.com/kender/art/page7.cfm

Image via Lui Yanqing

 

Instead of playing a ranger as I always had, I chose a Kender (Halfling). Kenders are loved and despised. They are tiny and childlike and have an affinity for anything shiny (yeah, it fits). They can pick locks, spot and disarm traps, and they have boundless curiosity paired with sticky fingers and that can land them in hot water.

Since Kenders place no material value on anything, stealing to them is more…”borrowing.” Also, they have no social filters and say whatever they’re thinking. One of their strongest powers in a fight is “the taunt.” They can get the enemy so riled, bad guys don’t think clearly and make mistakes. They are a chaotic good character, emphasis on the chaotic.

Now pair this Kender with Hubby who is a Lawful Good Paladin. BOOM!

Hey, I only “borrowed” his sword. Was totally going to give it back *rolls eyes*.

But what was interesting about our first game with the other party members, is that they all groaned and wanted roasted Kender. Apparently a Kender played poorly is simply a pain in the a$$. Like any D&D character, it is up to the person playing the role to breathe in life and to dig below the surface and harness strengths and weaknesses. By the end of the game, everyone (including the barbarian) was yelling to the Kender for help.

***My name is Idgy Thistletuft—or IT for short :D .

Case In Point

For instance, Kenders are fearless in regards to their own lives. Instead of staying with the party, I decided to run off and climb a tree. Very popular move when everyone was “strategizing.” Ah, but once up in the tree, I spotted enemies over the rise. I used the powers of taunting to draw the orcs and goblins all to the base of said shiny tree and then FOCUS their anger on me…then the party had an easier time defeating them.

Also, Hubby being a Paladin added even more conflict. Our mage put the goblins to sleep, but a Paladin will never kill an enemy (even an orc) who is helpless and will actively stop others from doing harm to a helpless foe. It isn’t “noble”…so we used me to distract Hubby while others whacked sleeping orcs.

This is SO Hubby...

This is SO Hubby…

But the game was FAR more fun, since now the conflict was being generated within the party itself. Each character is guided by a code, a background and a personality. When those conflict? Fun times!

Why do I mention D&D? Because I believe Dungeons & Dragons ™ offers a litmus that is HIGHLY useful in creating great characters.

Alignment

Screen Shot 2014-07-10 at 8.33.36 AM

When I used to run writing groups, I would challenge participants to explore their character’s alignment which is basically a way to categorize a character’s moral and ethical perspectives in relation to the greater societal framework. The Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd Edition Player’s Handbook. TSR, Inc. breaks down character alignments into the following:

Lawful Good     Neutral Good      Chaotic Good

Lawful Neutral     Neutral Chaotic     Neutral

Lawful Evil       Neutral Evil          Chaotic Evil

These nine classifications are used to help determine how a character will act (or react) in any given circumstance.

***And, yes, my fellow nerds, I know they have since whittled this list to five, but the original classification system, I feel, is more useful for crafting characters. So delete your e-mail correcting me :). Or add some wisdom in the comments.

Anyway…..

We as writers are tasked with creating characters that can easily be mistaken for living breathing people. In order to do this, we have to develop “people” who act in ways consistent with their backgrounds, experiences and beliefs. In other words, we must assign “alignment.”

Also, most of our conflict will not come from the core antagonist, rather it will come from allies and those closest. Anyone who’s ever been to a family reunion or been forced to do a group project knows I’m correct.

In our novel? If too many allies are agreeing? Something is wrong. 

Back to Dungeons and Dragons

Each D&D alignment is associated with an archetype which we see reflected in literary examples.

For convenience, the following definitions/excerpts/examples are taken from a Dungeons & Dragons Alignment article in compliance with the Terms of Use as stipulated by Wikipedia. This hyperlink will take you to the complete article, where you can learn more about alignments in greater detail. As a former D&D acolyte, I can (sadly, LOL) attest to the accuracy of the following information, and I hope it helps guide you in your writing.

Lawful Good

Screen Shot 2014-07-10 at 8.34.48 AM

“Saintly” or “Crusader” alignment. A Lawful Good character typically acts with compassion, and always with honor and a sense of duty. Lawful Good characters, especially paladins (knights), may sometimes find themselves faced with the dilemma of whether to obey law or good when the two conflict – for example, upholding a sworn oath when it would lead innocents to come to harm – or conflicts between two orders, such as between their religious law and the law of the local ruler.

Literary Examples—Superman, Joan of Arc, Olivia from Law & Order.

Neutral Good

Screen Shot 2014-07-10 at 8.53.53 AM

Neutral Good is known as the “Benefactor” alignment. A Neutral Good character is guided by his conscience and typically acts altruistically, without regard for or against Lawful precepts such as rules or tradition. A Neutral Good character has no problems with co-operating with lawful officials, but does not feel beholden to them. In the event that doing the right thing requires the bending or breaking of rules, they do not suffer the same inner conflict that a Lawful Good character would. A doctor who treats soldiers from both sides in a war could be considered Neutral Good.

Literary Examples—Zorro, Spiderman, Elliot from Law and Order.

Chaotic Good

And….me :)

And….me :)

Chaotic Good is known as the “Beatific,” “Rebel,” or “Cynic” alignment. A Chaotic Good character favors change for a greater good, disdains bureaucratic organizations that get in the way of social improvement, and places a high value on personal freedom, not only for oneself, but for others as well. They always intend to do the right thing, but their methods are generally disorganized and often out of alignment with the rest of society. They have no use for those who would try to push them around and tell them what to do.

While they do not have evil intentions, they often do bad things (even if they do not necessarily enjoy doing these things) to people who are, in their opinion, bad people if it benefits their goal of achieving a greater good.

Literary Examples—Starbuckfrom Battlestar Galactica , Malcolm Reynolds from Firefly, and Robin Hood

Lawful Neutral

Screen Shot 2014-07-10 at 8.55.16 AM

Lawful Neutral is called the “Judge” or “Disciplined” alignment. A Lawful Neutral character typically believes strongly in Lawful concepts such as honor, order, rules and tradition, and often follows a personal code. A Lawful Neutral society would typically enforce strict laws to maintain social order, and place a high value on traditions and historical precedent. Examples of Lawful Neutral characters might include a soldier who always follows orders, a judge or enforcer who adheres mercilessly to the word of the law, a disciplined monk, or a cowardly commoner.

Characters of this alignment are neutral with regard to good and evil. This does not mean that Lawful Neutral characters are amoral or immoral, or do not have a moral compass; but simply that their moral considerations come a distant second to what their code, tradition or law dictates. They typically have a strong ethical code, but it is primarily guided by their system of belief, not by a commitment to good or evil.

Literary Examples—James Bond & Odysseus.

Neutral

Screen Shot 2014-07-10 at 8.48.12 AM

Neutral alignment, also referred to as True Neutral or Neutral Neutral, is called the “Undecided” or “Nature’s” alignment. This alignment represents Neutral on both axes, and tends not to feel strongly towards any alignment. A farmer whose primary overriding concern is to feed his family is of this alignment. Most animals, lacking the capacity for moral judgment, are of this alignment. Many roguish characters who play all sides to suit themselves are also of this alignment.

Some Neutral characters, rather than feeling undecided, are committed to a balance between the alignments. They may see good, evil, law and chaos as simply prejudices and dangerous extremes.

Literary Examples—Lara Croft & Han Solo.

Chaotic Neutral

Screen Shot 2014-07-10 at 8.57.26 AM

Chaotic Neutral is called the “Anarchist” or “Free Spirit” alignment. A character of this alignment is an individualist who follows his or her own heart, and generally shirks rules and traditions. Good and Evil come a distant second to their need for personal freedom, and the only reliable thing about them is how totally unreliable they are.

They typically act out of self-interest, but do not specifically enjoy seeing others suffer. Many free-spirited adventurers are of this alignment. Alternatively there are madmen whose actions are chaotic, but are not themselves inclined towards evil.

An unusual subset of Chaotic Neutral is “strongly Chaotic Neutral”, describing a character who behaves chaotically to the point of appearing insane. Characters of this type may regularly change their appearance and attitudes for the sake of change, and intentionally disrupt organizations for the sole reason of disrupting a lawful construct.

Literary Examples—Jack Sparrow Pirates of the Caribbean. Al Swearingen, Deadwood 

Lawful Evil

Screen Shot 2014-07-10 at 8.52.07 AM

Lawful Evil is referred to as the “Dominator” or “Diabolic” alignment. Characters of this alignment see a well-ordered system as being easier to exploit, and show a combination of desirable and undesirable traits; while they usually obey their superiors and keep their word, they care nothing for the rights and freedoms of other individuals. Examples of this alignment include tyrants, devils, undiscriminating mercenary types who have a strict code of conduct, and loyal soldiers who enjoy the act of killing.

Literary Examples—Boba Fett Star Wars & X-Men’s Magneto

Neutral Evil

Screen Shot 2014-07-10 at 8.38.03 AM

Neutral Evil is called the “Malefactor” alignment. Characters of this alignment are typically selfish and have no qualms about turning on their allies-of-the-moment. They have no compunctions about harming others to get what they want, but neither will they go out of their way to cause carnage or mayhem when they see no direct benefit to it. They abide by laws for only as long as it is convenient for them. A villain of this alignment can be more dangerous than either Lawful or Chaotic Evil characters, since he is neither bound by any sort of honor or tradition nor disorganized and pointlessly violent.

Examples are an assassin who has little regard for formal laws but does not needlessly kill, a henchman who plots behind his superior’s back, or a mercenary who switches sides if made a better offer.

Literary Examples—X-Men’s Mystique. Spike from Buffy the Vampire Slayer (TV Series).

Chaotic Evil

Screen Shot 2014-07-10 at 8.43.59 AM

Chaotic Evil is referred to as the “Destroyer” or “Demonic” alignment. Characters of this alignment tend to have no respect for rules, other peoples’ lives, or anything but their own desires, which are typically selfish and cruel. They set a high value on personal freedom, but do not have any regard for the lives or freedom of other people. They do not work well in a group, as they resent being given orders, and usually only behave themselves out of fear of punishment.

It is not compulsory for a Chaotic Evil character to be constantly performing sadistic acts just for the sake of being evil, or constantly disobeying orders just for the sake of causing chaos. They do however enjoy the suffering of others, and view honor and self-discipline as weaknesses. Serial killers and monsters of limited intelligence are typically Chaotic Evil.

Literary Examples—Joker from The Dark Knight. Stargher’s evil half in movie The Cell (2000).

An author’s task is not easy, but it can be simplified. Alignment is just one of those tools that can help us get a better idea of who each of our characters are. Once we “know” them, it then becomes far easier to craft scenes, because we know how each will act/react in any given situation and within any stipulated context.

Once we understand their moral compasses (or lack thereof), we can then plot their courses accordingly. Alignment is also valuable for understanding character arc, goals, and motivations and priceless for crafting conflict that will test and fire their mettle.

What are your thoughts? Other than yes, we can all argue what alignment certain characters are (I.e. Batman). But it really is that tension in the “not knowing” that is fabulous for CONFLICT. Think of the characters above and how they not only interacted with their respective antagonist, but also how they interacted with allies and you’ll see that casting our novel is a HUGE deal. And BIG THANKS to Wikipedia for the help. also a HUGE thanks for people with enough free time to create such AWESOME memes.

Any fellow D&D nerds players who might have another perspective or additional insight? Never heard of D&D? Or maybe you’ve heard of D&D and now are unsure we can be friends because I told you I play D&D?

I love hearing from you!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of JULY, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

Announcements:

If you feel you might have the vapors after reading all of this, no worries, I offer classes to HELP.

July 19th is my First Five Pages Class  and use WANA15 for $15 off. If you can’t make the time, no worries, all classes are RECORDED and come with notes for reference. Upgrade to the GOLD level and I will look at your first five pages and give DETAILED analysis. This is NOT simple line-edit. This is a detailed, how to start your story in the right place and in a way that HOOKS analysis.

Also my Antagonist Class is coming up on July 26th and it will help you guys become wicked fast plotters (of GOOD stories). Again, use WANA15 for $15 off. The GOLD level is personal time with me either helping you plot a new book or possibly repairing one that isn’t working. Never met a book I couldn’t help fix. This will save a TON of time in revision and editors are NOT cheap.

, , , , , , , , ,

64 Comments

Description—How to Make Readers Fall In & Never Escape

Sidewalk chalk art near Regent’s Canal in London.

Sidewalk chalk art near Regent’s Canal in London.

Today we’re going to address a topic that—GASP—I don’t believe we’ve ever covered in almost 800 blogs. Namely because it is a tricky one to address. We’re going to talk about description. For those who never use description or very sparse description? Don’t fret. That’s just your voice. Readers like me who looooove description will probably gravitate to other books and that is OKAY.

Personally, I’m not a fan of austere modern houses with stainless steel everything and weird chairs no human could sit in and most cats would avoid, but? There are plenty of people who dig it. I also don’t like a lot of knick-knacks and clutter. Makes me want to start cleaning.

Same with books. Not too little or too much. Yeah, I’m Literary Goldilocks.

Plain fact? We can’t please everyone. Description (or lack thereof) is a component of an author’s voice. BUT, if you are a writer who does like description, maybe I can offer some tips to make it stronger.

Avoid “Police Sketch” Description 

Er?

Er?

I assume most of you have watched TV. A witness is asked to give a description of the mugger, murderer, whatever. Well, he was tall, with dark hair and dark eyes. Very muscular.

She was short, blonde and fit.

The reason I (as an editor) don’t care for this kind of description is a good writer is a wordsmith and we should be able to describe characters better than someone who’s been at the wrong end of a purse-snatching. Is there anything wrong with this description? Nah. Just it’s something anyone can do. It isn’t anything unique.

Avoid the “Weather Report” or “Google Maps”Description

Weather can be vital and even its own character (which we will get to). But putting in weather just to tell us it’s a hot sunny day? Again, surface. Same with describing a location. Cities, streets, stores can come alive with the right description.

Avoid “Info-Dump” Description

I was really bad about this when I was new. I described everything in a room. I believed the reader needed to know all the positions of the furniture, what was on the bookshelves and end tables, the colors of the walls, just to “get” what I was talking about. They didn’t need all that and likely lost interest in the point I was trying to make anyway.

I didn’t give my readers enough credit and most of that information was for me anyway. Novels are for the reader not for us, which is important to remember and easy to forget.

Good description doesn’t automatically mean MORE description ;) .

What Makes GOOD Description?

Again, this is subjective, but I read…a LOT. I need a 12 Step Program for the sheer number of books I buy. Since I dig description, I often highlight it when it’s done WELL (which is why I cannot check out books from the library or EVER yell at Spawn for coloring in books). The common denominator I see in great description is it delves beyond the surface and evokes some kind of feeling.

In this post, I’m merely giving some of MY favorite examples (from many different genres). I recommend that, if you want to use description, go to those stories that spoke to YOU. Those highlighted spots can be telling about your voice, preference and style. You don’t need to copy, but you can deconstruct how the author did something WELL. And likely, if you are a fan of that kind of writing, others are too and you might share the same kind of readers.

Characters

One of my favorite authors is Jonathan Maberry. He describes people in a way that instantly evokes a visceral resonse. Sure there is a tad of physical description, but not much. Most is left out and yet we SEE these people.

For instance, Rot and Ruin (which is a YA series about our world 12 years after the Zombie Apocalypse. A teenage boy is the protagonist and my entire family is now INHALING this series, too).

Screen Shot 2014-07-01 at 10.10.56 AM

This is a scene in the first book when the young protagonist Benny goes to hang out with his zombie-hunting hero, Charlie Matthias:

“It was a 1967 Pontiac LeMans Ragtop. Bloodred and so souped-up that she’d outrun any damn thing on the road. And I do mean damned thing.”

That’s how Charlie Matthias always described his car. Then, he’d give a big braying horselaugh, because no matter how many times he said it, he thought it was the funniest joke ever. People tended to laugh with him rather than at the actual joke, because Charlie had a 72-inch chest and 24-inch biceps, and his sweat was a soup of testosterone, anabolic steroids, and Jack Daniels… (Page, 24)

In this example, other than the size of Charlie’s muscles, we get very little literal description. Everything in this is “feeling oriented.” We get a real sense of who Charlie is and who he might be. As a zombie-hunter, he seems the epitome of who we’d want taking out the undead, but there is an undercurrent of tension that makes us (readers) uneasy.

To me, this is far more powerful than:

Zombie-Hunter Charlie Matthais was well over six-feet tall with bulging muscles and wild red hair. (Zzzzzzzzz. Btw, I have no idea what color C.M.’s hair is, but did I really need to know?)

For the Literary Folks: Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men:

Screen Shot 2014-07-01 at 10.12.21 AM

(Sheriff Bell) came across a hawk dead in the road. He saw the feathers move in the wind. He pulled over and got out and walked back and squatted on his boot heels and looked at it. He raised one dead wing and let it fall again. Cold yellow eye dead to the blue vault above them.

It was a big red tail. He picked it up by one wing and carried it to the bar ditch and laid it in the grass. They would hunt the blacktop, sitting on the high power poles and watching the highway in both direction for miles. Any small thing that might venture to cross. Closing in on their prey against the sun. Shadowless. Lost in the concentration of the hunter. He wouldn’t have the trucks running over it (Page 44-45).

In this story, a good lawman is after a soulless criminal who is nothing short of pure evil. This above description is important. The red tail hawk is a parallel of Bell. Bell is also a hunter who’s in danger of being so caught in the pursuit, it could get him killed. Even though the lawman is tracking a criminal, he takes time to honor a fallen hunter even though it’s “only” a bird, something the psychopathic antagonist, who has NO VALUE for any life, would ever do.

Part of that “Show, don’t tell” thing ;). We don’t get a description of what Bell looks like, but through action, we know who he IS.

If you are into the “Less-Is-More-Description” here’s an example from Daniel Suarez’s cyber-thriller Daemon:

Screen Shot 2014-07-01 at 10.13.20 AM

Merrit stopped short and turned to glare at the man—a federal bureaucrat type, late twenties. The kind of person you forgot even while you were looking at him (Page 242)

Short, sweet and we all know this kind of person. We fill in the blanks and it’s emotive (or rather non-emotive, which is the point).

Weather/Setting/Information Without Being Info-Dump

For the sake of time, we’ll bundle three into one. Depp does a fabulous job of weaving weather, setting, and information in a tight cord of emotion. This selection is from Daniel Depp’s Loser’s Town.

Screen Shot 2014-07-01 at 10.13.58 AM

The protagonist, Spandau, is a P.I. is following a Hollywood agent to a movie set to meet a client who’s being blackmailed:

Spandau smoked, and thought the city gliding past was much like an overexposed film, too much light, all depth burned away and sacrificed. All concrete and asphalt, a thousand square miles of man-made griddle on which to fry for our sins. Then, you turn a corner and there’s a burst of crimson bougainvillea redeeming an otherwise ugly chunk of concrete building. Or a line of tall palm trees, still majestic and still stubbornly refusing to die, stubbornly sprouting green at the tops of thick dying stalks, guarding a side street of bungalows constructed at a time when L.A. was still the Land of Milk and Honey….There was a beauty still there, sometimes, beneath all the corruption, like the face of an actress long past her prime, when the outline of an old loveliness can still be glimpsed through the desperate layers of pancake and eyeliner. (page 23)

In this description, we get more than a play-by-play of the L.A. streets he passes. Additionally, I feel the description is very telling about the character. Note the contrasting biblical references or even the tension inside the character. He hates this place, but can still see the loveliness that tears at him and keeps him there, keeps him coming back.

The description is an extension of the feel of the city—no depth, manmade, hardened, lost (but still something beautiful worth staying for).

Note the description is processed through the feelings and backstory of the character. Instead of sounding like a travel brochure, there is emotional flavor adding depth. We pretty much know the weather—bright and hot. We experience the place rather than just “seeing” it in a boring “and then he turned on this street and then that street” fashion.

The description also shows us Spandau is likely an excellent detective—he sees more than the surface and instinctively searches deeper.

Again, description–how to do it, how much, how little—is subjective.

But, I believe that good description can make the difference in a caricature verses a “person” or “place” so real we’re sad to say good-bye when the book ends. Also, I hope I’ve given examples of how we can describe a character or a place without “describing” it.

Are we describing with the same depth as any literate person with a laptop could do? Or are we digging below skin and into marrow?

What are your thoughts? Do you find yourself skimming description and didn’t know why? Do you highlight great description, too? Or are you a minimalist? There aren’t any wrong answers, btw. Who are some of your favorite authors who ROCKS description? What are maybe some tips/thoughts you have that takes description from blasé to beautiful?

I LOVE hearing from you!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of JULY, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

Winner of JUNE’S COMMENT CONTEST: Linda Maye Adams. Please send your 5000 word WORD doc to kristen at wana intl dot com in an attachment, please. Or, if you prefer, you can send a 500 word synopsis or 300 word query letter. Your choice which one. Congratulations!!!! Thanks for being part of the discussion that makes this blog so much FUN.

ANNOUNCEMENTS:

THIS SATURDAY is my  Antagonist Class  PINKIE-SWEAR!JULY 5th). Use WANA15 for $15 off. This class will help you guys become wicked fast plotters (of GOOD stories). The GOLD level is personal time with me either helping you plot a new book or possibly repairing one that isn’t working. Never met a book I couldn’t help fix. This will save a TON of time in revision and editors are NOT cheap.

For more help with your social media/author platform/author brand, please check out Rise of the Machines—Human Authors in a Digital World.

, , , , , , , , , ,

98 Comments

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 36,948 other followers

%d bloggers like this: