Posts Tagged Rise of the Machines Human Authors in a Digital World

3 Simple Ways to Improve Your Writing & Increase Sales

Image from the movie "Office Space"

Image from the movie “Office Space”

Today, I’m going to give you three ways to instantly improve your writing and sell more books. I’m blessed to have a broad base of experience/expertise which includes corporate consulting and branding. I also spent years in sales and can honestly say, Coffee is for closers. 

What Do You DO?

Last year, I accepted a leviathan project to redo copy for a website and rebrand a struggling company. I first explained my plan and reasoning in a detailed SWOT analysis. The owner was on board and signed off. The existing copy was outdated, bloated, confusing, and failed to appreciate the vast changes in our millennial culture.

I hacked through, reduced as much as possible and reshaped until the site showcased a truly fabulous company. To my horror, the owner came back and wanted me to add a deluge of changes which included mass amounts of extraneous information, charts, etc. and all of this content grossly deviated from the agreed rebranding.

I politely declined and we parted ways.

***What’s funny is the owner never got around to changing the site from my version and was recently approached by a Richard Branson-type investor for potential partnership. Ironically, part of what piqued his interest was the site ;) . Unlike the competition, the site I designed was visual, brief, and powerful, whereas the competition was like reading Wikipedia Articles from Hell.

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This desire to cough up too much and “oversell” is common (namely because regular people believe writing is easy and fail to hire a pro). Business owners are passionate and so they want to tell EVERYTHING about their services, industry, product, whatever. Also, overselling is a mark of the insecure. Think “padded resume.”

Attention spans are shrinking. The average time spent on a website is roughly 3.5 minutes. I’d wager most people give a website 3.5 seconds to catch their attention and that 3.5 minutes only applies to those browsers who happen to stay.

We can apply these business lessons to our writing, because we writers also have something to sell.

Our job is far tougher because 1) discoverability is a nightmare 2) less than 8% of the literate population are devoted readers 3) the remaining 92% equate reading with homework and a chore. Thus, we have the task of convincing 92% of the population to spend time they don’t have engaged in an activity they believe they dislike…and spend money to do it.

The other 8%? Sure they like to read books, but why yours?

Omit Needless Words

“Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell. ”~ Strunk and White

Trust the reader. If a character opens a door, we know he “reached out his hand” to do it. We assume he isn’t blessed with telekinetic powers unless we’re told otherwise.

Resist the Urge to Explain

Image via "Office Space"

Image via “Office Space”

This tenet applies in a lot of areas. We don’t need flashbacks or lengthy details of why a character thinks or acts a certain way. The more we leave to the imagination, the better. Hubby and I have fallen in love with a new mini-series Defiance. We ate through Season One and began Season Two.

Interestingly, Episode Zero was a compilation of all the flashbacks cut from Season One—the explaining how and what and why…and it was painful. I just wanted to hit stop and move onto the new episodes. The flashbacks added nothing and only wasted my time. The series was better without backstory being spoon fed to me.

I got it.

This over explaining happens a lot with characterization, but sci-fi and fantasy can be particularly vulnerable. I recently had a client who took four hours to explain all her world building. Most of this information was for her, not the reader. She didn’t have to explain how this world had humans and elves.

It just did.

Think about cartoons. Kids accept that a group of dogs can be public servants, talk and operate heavy equipment (Paw Patrol) or that a sponge with tighty-whities can work a burger grill at the bottom of the ocean (Spongebob Square Pants).

Belief is already suspended.

Value the Reader’s TIME

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Get to the point quickly. The first sample pages of any book are our greatest selling tool. When I hear, “Oh, well the story really gets going by page 50″? My instincts tell me we probably need to cut 49 pages.

Remember earlier I mentioned that we’re artists, but we also have a product to sell. In fiction, we’re selling escape. So think of it this way. How are you helping your customer escape reality?

Route One

First, my dear (potential) reader, I need you to pack this list of gear, then sync this app on your smartphone. After that is downloaded, I’m going to text you coordinates for a geocache. Use the app to locate the cache, dig up the key, catch the L Train, wait for a guy with a blue hat and the code phrase is, “Duck, duck, goose.” He’ll then hail a cab and take you to a wonderful place you will enjoy.

Route Two

Open a wardrobe and step through.

Which would you choose?

What are some ways you refine your work? Are you guilty of overwriting? I know I’m working super hard to lean down all my writing. It is NOT easy. Are there areas you could condense? Stage action or explaining that could be chipped away?

I LOVE hearing from you!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of AUGUST, 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:

Back to School!

Upcoming Classes: NEW!!! Going Pro Series

Going Pro Craft, Going Pro SocialMedia/Branding, Going Pro Business, Going Pro All the Way! (ALL THREE).

For those who need help building a platform and keeping it SIMPLE, pick up a copy of my latest social media/branding book Rise of the Machines—Human Authors in a Digital World on AMAZON, iBooks, or Nook

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Making Writing a Priority & When Helping is Hurting

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The weird thing about the new paradigm of publishing is the Digital Age Author is a very different creature. She might be a single mom trying to squeeze in a couple hundred words before the kids wake up or a husband struggling to fit in a writing burst during a lunch break. It can be a dad striving to finish his book while still caring for his family. Maybe it’s a retired person balancing FINALLY pursuing that dream of writing…while caring for grandkids.

Which is to say that a lot of part and full-time writers are also caregivers. Many of us wrestle with guilt. I do. I love writing SO MUCH and it is SO FUN.  But if I write instead of finishing laundry I am “bad” :( .

I’ve learned a rather weird lesson lately and I believe it’s worth pondering. We talked about workaholics the other day. It is no great feat for us workhorses to take on MORE WORK. The true challenge is when we’re given the choice of a great opportunity and a nap and we are directed to take the NAP.

AAAAGHHHHH!!!!!

I am learning the same thing with givers. WANA is truly unique and I don’t say this because I started it (because frankly, I didn’t). WANA was actually birthed by people who took my classes. They were natural givers. The only “special” thing I did was spot this phenomena and then nurture it. WANAs are SO generous and kind and supportive and it is the greatest collection of amazing individuals one can find.

But lately I’m starting to see the dark side to giving. Every strength has a blind spot. Remember this when creating characters ;) .

And the easy blind spot for givers is that we overdo it and wear ourselves out. Yeah, I saw that too. But one that snuck by me is that giving is not always good. NOT GIVING can be the greater gift.

I grew up with a Scandinavian mom and Norway is the motherland of OCD. Work was what we did and we made it fun. But I recall being 4 and making my bed. Mom would praise me, then remake my bed so it didn’t have all the lumps and the bedspread was even. Later, when I was 8, I loaded the dishwasher. Mom would thank me…then rearrange the dishes to wash more efficiently. I’d organize a closet and she’d be THRILLED…then redo it. Finally, in 2009 I made a Christmas dinner and Mom tasted it, and then reasoned everything and I snapped.

Why must you redo everything I do? Why isn’t what I do ever good enough?

My mom was speechless (which she’s like me so that’s actually a HUGE deal). In her mind, she’d been “helping” me.

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I have family and friends who are in real rough spots these days, people I sacrificed A LOT to “help.” In retrospect, I should have left it alone. By helping, I didn’t allow them to fail and learn lessons when the lessons were far smaller and the consequences for failure far less painful. I also stole the possible victory they might have enjoyed if they’d accomplished “whatever” on their own.

I didn’t mean to. I was “helping.”

So what I’m challenging all of us to do is to look for ways to give by NOT GIVING. Write the book. Don’t “fix.” Don’t “do” beyond the writing. Once the words are down, have at it.

The other day, I sent Hubby to the store instead of doing it myself. Did he shop the way I would have shopped? No. I can make a penny scream. Hubby pays retail *twitches* But he did it and I kept my mouth shut when I SO wanted to tell him how he could have saved money by doing this or that or go to this store instead of that one and NEVER THAT one, they gouge!

I also asked Hubby to help Spawn with his martial arts in the evening so I can write. And this is excruciating because I taught martial arts for years. I need to mentally duct tape my mouth shut and not correct how Hubby’s teaching him and show a “better or easier way.”

Me doing everything is not a gift. It’s control. It can disempower others. It also steals the joy of contribution and the thrill of accomplishment.

When a friend has a problem, resist the urge to fix. Instead, say, “Wow, that’s a huge challenge, but I know you can figure this out. You can do it!”

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This morning, I let Spawn make his own PBJ sandwich instead of making the “perfect” sandwich served on an adorable clean plate with decorative garnish. I even said nothing when he piled on half a jar of jelly. I merely smiled and exclaimed, “Great job!” ….then walked away before I scraped most of the jelly lump back in the jar.

Writers crumble at building a brand or doing social media and writing. Why? We fail to see we have help. Outsource. Maybe see if there are ways that we can make our family part of our publishing team. Let the teenagers find the funny memes or videos to use on a blog. Let them be part of the success instead of shouldering everything alone. Let Hubby go check out book covers and see which ones catch his eye. Maybe let a family member do some research for you. Also, let them know that when they leave you to write, they are helping write the book. They are helping the creation process.

This is a lot to ask. Of you of me…and OH DEAR GOD SPAWN IS NOW MAKING A JELLY SANDWICH WITH NO PEANUT BUTTER! HOLD ON! ….*breathes* I’m cool. Still here.

What are your thoughts? Do you suffer from Compulsive Helping Disorder? Are you struggling to let others help YOU, to ask for help? GASP! Did you ever think your helping could be hurting? I didn’t until recently so it’s okay. We are all friends here and I have jelly in my curtains and I am OK with that.

****Please pray for me *head desk*

I LOVE hearing from you!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of AUGUST, 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).

Will announce July’s winner later this week.

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?

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94 Comments

To Win We Must Lose—Sacrifice, Boundaries & Reaching Our Dreams

Image via "Fight Club"

Quote via “Fight Club”

This post is not a Plate of Cupcake Lessons. It’s a Bowl of Spinach and Kale Lessons. These lessons/habits are probably going to feel very un-fun for a while, but they’re essential for any kind of success. So many want to make success more palatable with sugar-coating and sprinkles. We live in a world of “effort-free, guilt-free, payment-plan options that require no work or pain on our part.”

And like P.T. Barnum once said, There’s a sucker born every minute. 

First, we need to define a few key ideas before we dig in.

What is Our Definition of Success?

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Before we can apply any “lessons” we have to accept a castor oil spoon of TRUTH. If we don’t make our own decision, we’ve still made a decision by abdicating making our own decision. If we don’t define success or happiness or what’s important, we leave a vacuum that other people and things will fill and they’ll be happy to define what our success should be.

A common result of abdication is we end up “living by default” which generates stress because it’s coming from a place of perceived powerlessness.

“Success” is all around us. We see it in magazines, television, on-line. We have more choices than any other time in human history (*cough* publishing). One of the reasons I hate going to Central Market is I can’t just buy SALT. There’s Himalayan Pink Salt, and Grey Celtic Salt, and Hawaiian Black Volcanic Salt, and White Truffle Oil Salt and…*head explodes*. While it IS a blessing to have a lot of choices (especially if one has as many food allergies as I do), all these options can put our brains in a knot.

On top of the plethora of choices, there’s another factor many of us might not appreciate. Due to the interconnectedness of our world, there is far more peer opinion about our choices. Peer pressure is at an all-time high.

The same factor that can be a positive force for selling books can be the same force that keeps us from finishing them, too ;) .

Back to success. What does it mean to YOU? What does it look like? In fact, in my book Rise of the Machines—Human Authors in a Digital World, I spend an entire section having readers succinctly define what their success would be. Your vision of success is as unique as you are. Being specific in our goals is what’s going to make building a brand simple.

Remember Our Definition of Success Can Be Malleable and SHOULD Be

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Baby Spawn. Cutest priority EVER.

Life situations change. We go through seasons of growing and seasons of drought and seasons where it seems that life is trying to KILL US.

Before I was a wife and mom, being a NYTBSA was the epitome of success. That goal stayed paramount for a long time. Then Hubby had orders to deploy to Afghanistan and we would be without his income. Starting a small business took priority over being a NYTBSA. But, The Spawn was in nursery school six hours a day so this was doable.

Now that I’m homeschooling? I have to revisit “success” yet again. For me, there is NO SUCCESS that can take precedent over my mental, physical and emotional health. PEACE, for me, is paramount. If I cannot have peace, then everything will fall.

I’ve lost sight of this in the last 18 months, largely because of a lack of rest which will scramble discernment. When we aren’t rested, we’re reactionary. I’ve been trying to do what I did back before other responsibilities were on my plate. This is akin to trying to weed 1000 acres of an industrial farm using a garden hoe because, “Well, it worked fine in my backyard’s tomato garden.”

This is why it is so vital for all of us to clearly define success. Then we can more easily define priorities, which makes it simpler to discern when to say yes and when to say no. Also revisit those goals. They will evolve. And when life stacks more on top of us, we can give ourselves more grace because we’re viewing life from the appropriate lens.

I’m not a failure because I’m no longer writing 4000 words every day. Life is different. I’m no longer single and writing full-time. I’m a Mom with a high-energy child and a small business. And maybe I can still get in 1000-2000 words a day, but where am I willing to sacrifice?

Ah, sacrifice, that dirty word. Yep, despite what Madison Avenue says, we cannot have it all.

Choices

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I have a nice home, but many of the rooms still need to be painted and bear murals done by Baby Spawn. My furniture is old and my clothes are tattered and mostly from Walmart. I cook almost all our meals and “eating out” is usually a trip to In-N-Out Burger or maybe a pizza. It’s hard sometimes when I go to church in pregnancy pants under a nice top, when I’m surrounded by so many women who look like they fell out of a North Dallas boutique.

But, we have very little debt. Very little (and I am working on NO debt). We work hard to pay cash for everything or simply learn to do without. The only extra expenses we’ve been willing to take on cost far less than Spawn’s Pre-K tuition and they are only activities that will strengthen us as a family. Martial arts and the gym.

We have a neighborhood directly behind us. HUGE, GORGEOUS homes with unbelievable landscaping and back yards straight out of magazines. Deliveries from high-end furniture stores are the norm. It’s easy to feel the niggle of jealousy, but I have to remember…

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Funny thing is that often Pippa will wake me at three in the morning because she has to go outside to go pee. There are at least four homes behind us where it is extremely common to hear knock-down-drag-out fights until the wee hours of the morning, which saddens me greatly.

I have no idea what the fighting is all about, but I find it tragic that these families aren’t even enjoying a home most of us would love to have.

There Will Be Trade-Offs and Pain

One lesson I’m learning is to “count the cost.” Yes, I can press on and become the biggest NYTBSA EVER, but if I do this at the expense of my relationships, health and peace? Is it worth it? To me? No. My child living in a peaceful home with love and play and joy is a bigger priority. To warn you, this is NOT easy. I love to write. I could stay at a computer for hours, but now I have to work on being more fruitful with less time.

This morning, I told Spawn to let me get my work finished by X time and then I would take him to the pool. I hold to my word even when it hurts. But the pain of not finishing a chapter is less than the pain of Spawn being neglected.

There Will Be Push-Back

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Boundaries are really tough these days. We’ve been trained to be people-pleasers. Standing up for ourselves is “being mean.” I’ve learned the hard way to just put down boundaries early. There is no winning with toxic people, so save the energy.

Cases in Point…

I remember being in a writing group many years ago and no one was attending. I believed that by being president I could change things and make the group stronger. It was a nightmare. I had entire folders of hate mail. Never once in e-mail or person did I respond emotionally or even hatefully to the constant attacks. I simply set boundaries. I had people in meetings scream some of the most cruel and vicious things about me and to me, and I never responded in kind. I think once I cried and left the room (and resigned soon after).

But, when I no longer wanted to be president because the constant mental abuse was too much? I was “mean” for quitting. When I didn’t want to keep driving 90 minutes both ways every single Saturday for 95% of the group to no-show? I was mean.

I had the same thing happen in a community service group where (again) I was made president. *rolls eyes* Yay.

Though our membership had dropped so low we almost lost our charter, I received nothing but venomous e-mails calling me everything but Kristen. Often they attacked me in person and in front of guests and speakers. And while it seems I was a glutton for punishment (and perhaps I was), I’m grateful for those experiences.

These tough times honed my ability to remain professional when I was crumbling inside. To maintain peace. To stick to something even when it was extremely uncomfortable until my term was up.

As the saying goes, A smooth sea never made a skilled sailor.

Anyone can quit when things aren’t fun. Pros keep their word. If I signed up for a year, then a year was how long I would remain. On the other side of that coin? If things don’t change, let go. If the horse is dead? Dismount.

Most importantly, these experiences helped me hone discernment. Just because someone asks us to be in charge, doesn’t mean we should say “yes.”

Most People Want it ALL and DO NOT WANT Change or Sacrifice

Image via Wikimedia Commons

Image via Wikimedia Commons

If we accept this reality, relationships and boundaries become simpler. Reality dictates we can’t have or do everything, but plenty of people will be there to tell us we can.

When it came to the civic group, our membership numbers had dropped off a cliff because we’d been meeting in a hospital conference room for roughly ten years. Originally, the room was easy to access until a major hospital remodel.

Then guests needed a team of sherpas and a GPS to find the room. Membership plummeted from about 45 to around 12. If I suggested moving? I was a jerk. If I made ways we could stay? I was a jerk.

If I said no to 20 different projects we’d once done and tried to pare it down to 5? I was a jerk and a dictator. No one wanted to give up doing what had once been done with 45 members and accept we only had 12. We could do A LOT of things poorly or a few things well. Again, I spent another year filling my folder with hate mail and eventually left an organization I once loved dearly….and was a jerk for leaving.

Why was I a “jerk” in these groups? No one wanted boundaries. They didn’t want trade-offs.

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They couldn’t understand that if they wanted the writing group to continue, we needed people to attend. If they wanted this civic organization to regain members, we had to move. 

Toxic People Use Guilt

When we decide to become writers, we must 1) define success 2) set priorities, then 3) enforce boundaries. All three of these work together. If one falls the others do too. While most humans shy away from change and sacrifice, toxic people do this to extremes. This said, when you decide to make writing your main work priority, you will get grief when you set a boundary. Stand your ground and feel good about your choice. You aren’t being mean, you are being a professional.

If your critics eventually understand and respect your decision, they’re worth having in your sphere. If they’re bitter and hateful and still resent you five years later? Dead weight. Be happy that setting that boundary early culled them out before they could do more damage.

You matter. Your dreams matter. Your peace matters.

And notice I used the word simple through this post, not easy. Simple is NOT easy.  It can, however, become easier with practice.

What are your thoughts?

Do you find yourself chasing your own butt only to realize you haven’t rested? That maybe you need to take some time to redefine priorities? Are you struggling with learning to set boundaries? Are you learning to say “NO”? Are you struggling with feeling guilty that you can’t be and do everything? Have you been through some tough and toxic times where you learned to let go sooner?

Is it tough to not be jealous when you see others who look like they have it all?

I LOVE hearing from you!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of AUGUST, 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).

Will announce July’s winner later this week.

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?

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45 Comments

The War on Fun—How Modern Culture is KILLING Creativity

Moi with the AWESOME Chuck Wendig...

Moi with the AWESOME Chuck Wendig…

Since homeschooling The Spawn, life has shifted dramatically as I struggle along this uncharted learning curve. For instance, it is a gorgeous summer this year. I’ve lived in Texas most of my life and never witnessed weather so balmy and beautiful. This morning, I step out to let the dog go bark at every thought scuttling through her brain (instead of going pee) and it’s oddly quiet. No kids. No squeals of riding bikes or rollerskating or plundering trash piles for construction materials for some ramp or fort or weapon.

When a Kid Could Be a Kid

When I was Spawn’s age, the second cartoons were over, we’d have been out the door for the entire day…willingly. Even though it was always triple-digit heat. Weather like THIS? We might have skipped the cartoons.

Okay, we’d have watched the good ones and not hung on for the crappy kiddie shows.

I’ve started to pay more attention now that I have my son home all day. The other mothers? Working moms have kids in daycare full-time. But even the Stay-At-Home Moms befuddle me. It’s as if they’re the Carnival Cruise Activity Director all summer. They take the kid(s) to the gym to play two hours, then gym camp, then swimming lessons, then karate, then multiple play dates across the city then church camp and voice lessons and Sylvan….

My head is spinning.

And so much of it is college-prep stuff. Like, preschool isn’t just playing and learning lessons like “hitting and eating glue is bad for one’s social life.” PRE-K is preparation for “real school”, which is part of why Spawn was fired. His imagination was far less valuable than reading retention. HE IS FOUR.

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Every other game out there is “educational.” Summer is no longer even summer. We used to have THREE MONTHS off to simply be kids and play. Now? There are learning centers lurking on every corner chanting things like, “You wouldn’t want your kids to be behind, would you? You aren’t a BAD parent. Not YOU….”

In the early 80s, my mom could keep a clean home, cook all our meals, cultivate a beautiful garden and sew our clothes because my tail was outside and I had little brother in tow as soon as he was close-enough-for-government-work potty trained. My mom spent time with us, but not every waking moment. We played our guts out every day after school for hours and solidly for three months a year. Sure, after vacation, we had to catch up some in September, but I still graduated college with honors and so did Little Bro.

In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if the literacy rates were higher back then.

What Happened to PLAY?

Play comes naturally to humans. Just watch the glee on a baby’s face when he discovers OMG I HAVE TOES! THEY FIT IN MY MOUTH!

I recall all the things I used to do as a child for FUN—write, read, draw, color, roller-skate, dance, play make-believe, do cartwheels. And I’d just bust out dancing or doing the splits anywhere and it was okay. I was a kid.

I’m no longer allowed back in Home Depot *hangs head*

EPIC WIN!

EPIC WIN!

I really was kicked out of a Toys ‘R Us one time for racing through the store aisles on a Hoppity Hop.

Remember ME?

Remember ME?

My art and writing were all encouraged until I hit about the age of ten. Then I needed to start being serious. I had adults asking me where I wanted to go to college, what I wanted to do with my life when I grew up. Teachers asking me this.

Of course, me being me, I said I wanted to be a rich man’s wife. And Mom was promptly called up to school. Sarcasm wasn’t appreciated then either.

But WTH? I was TEN and that was a dumb question. Most adults still don’t know what THEY want to be when they grow up an yet they put that off of a kid? And there is an “acceptable” answer. When I said I wanted to be a writer, that was cute.

Now what was I going to do to earn money?

As we grow older, play is demonized, called trivial and labeled foolish and unnecessary. Yet, studies in neuroscience have demonstrated that play, “leads to brain plasticity, adaptability, and creativity…Nothing fires up the brain like play.” ~Stuart Brown, Play is More than Fun, TED Talk.

I’m reading a cool new book called, Essentialism—The Disciplined Pursuit of Less (and am learning a lot about what I’ve been doing wrong or even right).

The word school is derived from the Greek word schole, meaning “leisure.” Yet, our modern school system, born in the Industrial Revolution, has removed much of the leisure—and much of the pleasure—out of learning. ~Author Greg McKeown, Essentialism, page 84.

We’ve talked about this on my blog before, how our public schools were designed for the main purpose of training future  factory workers. The Industrial Revolution was all about efficiency and mass production. Educational institutions patterned much of their structure from the military. As McKeown points out, we even see military vocabulary in our workplace. In the trenches. On the front lines. Even the word company is a military term for a military unit (McKeown, page 85).

A Changing World

So here we have this school structure that is designed to produce a force for manufacturing when most manufacturing has largely been outsourced to developing countries. If we are to have any economic future, it will come from fields requiring imagination—computers, programming, art, writing, design, etc.

Yet, most of the school activities that foster imagination are the first on the cutting block—art, music, drama, band, recess. We even have new schools being built with no playgrounds.

Even when there is play, it seems it is never just for the sake of play. Kids are learning piano or playing football not because it is fun, but because “they could one day use that to pay for COLLEGE.”

Many of the greatest human innovations have been birthed from leisure and play. Shakespeare played constantly with iambic pentameter. DaVinci was known to be a flake who’d run off chasing butterflies or tinkering with machines instead of finishing his paid “job.” Newton uncovered the Law of Gravity while resting.

Our most successful companies—Google, Pixar, Apple—encourage play and rest. So why then do we have SO many companies who measure keystrokes and phone calls and enslave employees to metrics?

And while we are doing everything possible to kill imagination and play and vilify vacations and rest, we simultaneously wonder why we’re losing our edge?

The Power of Play

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Play has all these great benefits to the brain. Why? One big reason is play is AMAZING at reducing stress. When we’re stressed, our body defaults to reptile brain. It’s impossible to use higher thinking centers because the brain is in survival mode.

Yet, instead of doing some cartwheels, we chug energy drinks and coffee and work later into the night to “catch up.” We sacrifice sleep and play first. Then, we’re foggy-headed and disorganized. So we drink some more caffeine because naps are anathema and play is a pariah.

And the cycle continues…

We’ve created this culture that prides itself on getting no sleep and taking no time off. Even our words reflect our values.

I LOVE cleaning house, because I make everything a game and always have. I set timers and see if I can clean ALL the dishes before the buzzer goes off. I dance with the mop. I “race” Spawn picking up toys.

But we call them “chores” and wonder why everyone groans. We go to the gym to “work out” then are befuddled why we resist. I do Brazilian Jui-Jitsu because it’s FUN. I used to wrestle and play-fight as a kid. I’m not at a dojo to eventually make money competing in the MMA. It’s simply…FUN. Maybe one day I’ll get a black belt, more likely I’ll get a black eye.

But will I have STORIES to TELL!

Writing, Social Media and Blogging, Oh, MY!

I wrote this book to help writers…but mostly so I cloud finally be a CYBORG.

I wrote this book to help writers…but mostly so I could finally be a CYBORG.

Often, when we decide to become writers there is a LOT of social push-back. We don’t have a “real” job. Why? Because we actually have FUN. Is this what makes others itch with envy? When I created the WANA methods for blogging and social media, the goal wasn’t to sell books or measure algorithms. WANA is simple. HAVE FUN and others will be drawn to you. You will ENJOY it, so you’re more likely to DO it. Others gravitate toward the light so be the light.

Blogging? Have fun! Invite others in. That’s it. No gadgets, plans, gizmos or algorithms.

Facebook is FUN (maybe it’s why people get all snooty about it). Social media is recess for adults. It’s Show-And-Tell. “Hey, check out this cake I baked!” We share jokes and funny memes and smile and laugh…a lot.

Oh, but how is this directly impacting your book sales initiative? Are you targeting the right demographic to gain click throughs and meaningfully drive the curve of boring-as-hell?

No idea. And don’t care.

Play is anything we do for no gain other than we enjoy it. Is this why we have such a hard time being writers? Why are we swayed from fun to factory so easily? Everyone assumes the second we’re writing a novel, our goal is to become a NYTBSA. WHY? Can’t we just write something for the sake of fun? Maybe put it up for sale because we want to share our art project? Why do we need to monetize everything?

Children are investments, adults are assets and the elderly are losses and there is something terribly, horribly wrong with that.

The Play Challenge

Do ONE Thing Silly Per Day

This morning, I stepped outside to the cool soft grass and…did cartwheels. I’d forgotten how fun those things were. They added nothing tangibly to my word count and my laundry was still here when I returned, but cartwheels were strangely…liberating. Since Spawn has been home, I’ve been doing a lot of silly things. Chasing zombies with NERF guns, clearing rooms. Swimming. Tickle-fighting. And I was fretting over all this “wasted time.”

Pthththththt to that.

Last night we watched Mega Shark Versus Mecha Shark. Why? Because it is FUN. It’s so bad it is AWESOME.

Pay Attention to Words

I’m going to stop using the phrase “working out.” Makes me stressed. Maybe call it “recess”? We ran and ran as kids and didn’t need to slot time to do it. We jumped rope and walked everywhere and not one of us counted how many calories we’d burned before we could stop.

Seek PLAY and FUN

This is NOT goofing off. It’s good for you, so watch. I guarantee you the next minute and fifteen seconds will improve your day dramatically….

I am actively working to seek rest and fun. It’s good for the imagination. Go write a story you have no intention of marketing. See if you can combine things that don’t go together. Put a cup full of genres in one jar and nouns in another then draw—sci-fi, knitting, nuclear device. Whatever. Go color, do a cartwheel, play a video game. It IS work. Workaholics aren’t challenged by working more, they are truly challenged working less.

What are your thoughts?

Do you think our culture has gotten a collective stick up its hind end? Are you vexed that kids don’t get enough play? Are you annoyed that everything has to be “educational” or “college prep” and that we seem do frown on anything that doesn’t make “business sense”? Have you had a hard time playing, napping, having fun? Do you feel guilty that you should do more, but the list never stops? Do you find that your creativity improves after rest and fun?

Have you worked fun into your life? Are you guarding your fun and recreation and rest? Do you get pushback? Do you MISS having THREE MONTHS OFF with nothing to do but PLAY? What would you do if given that opportunity as an adult?

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?

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96 Comments

Why Are Zombies Consuming Our Culture?

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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.

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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.

 

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72 Comments

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

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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 NYTBS 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).

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***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

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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.

 

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50 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:

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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.

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