Is “Motivation” Useless? Are “Opportunities” Overrated?

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I hear all the time that “motivational stuff” is crap, that cheerleading is useless, that all those books and speeches are there simply to take our money. What is success? Well, I don’t believe that success is worth giving up everything. Life and love are more important than being the best. And, to an extent I will agree.

Motivational Stuff is Crap

I don’t know about you guys, but I love The Container Store. Every year I set my New Year’s Resolution and it always…always includes this phrase. “Be more organized.” This morning I was hunting for the cat food. I’d apparently hidden it from myself. In the bottom of my pantry I spotted one of those white-board weekly organizers…still in the WRAP.

*hides head in shame*

Exactly how well is that weekly organizer working for me tucked in the back of a pantry? Yes, The Container Store really does exist simply to take my money. They aren’t going to do a home visit and make sure I actually hung that calendar on my WALL. It is not their responsibility to make sure I applied that product for its intended purpose.

Same with motivational stuff.

Original image courtesy of flowcomm, via Flickr Commons

Original image courtesy of flowcomm, via Flickr Commons

Thing is, motivation alone is useless. Motivation is like food. If I buy a bunch of organic veggies and leave them in the fridge to die a slow, lonely death, they do zilch nada for my health and energy levels. Yet, my health and energy levels will suffer without them. I have to make the effort to ingest this fuel so my body can put it to use.

If I don’t feed my body it gets sick and weak and could eventually die. So then how effective will I be if I never feed my spirit?

Motivation is fantastic, but it is worthless unless applied. It is potential energy that we must convert into kinetic energy.

The Mind and Will are POWERFUL

If motivation wasn’t powerful, then why do we remember Ghandi, Churchill, Kennedy, and Vince Lombardi?

I love crime shows and after you watch a few thousand episodes of Law & Order or Hannibal or whatever, they kind of all blend together. But, there was one episode of Criminal Minds that affected me deeply. It actually wasn’t the goriest or the most gruesome of the killers. In comparison to some of the crime scenes from Hannibal? It paled.

Why did it disturb me so much?

I have looked for which episode it was and can’t find it, so here goes.

The team is discovering victims who clearly were abducted and held captive, but there is no clear reason why they are dead. They simply are.

What the team uncovers is the killer abducts a victim and holds them. Day after day they are fed, given what they need to survive (physically) and the killer brings in the one thing that keeps them hoping. In one case, it is a young mother. He wheels in a TV with video of her children as they are growing up without her. Day after day she sees the one thing that keeps her pressing.

Then, he stops. He continues to bring food and water, but no more footage of her children.

Without hope, the woman simply one day rolls over and dies.

When the team captures the killer and gets his backstory, he talks about being a boy and running across a young woman who’d fallen into a well on their property. She is treading water and screaming for help. He bent over and reached out a hand to help her and her face lit up. Then? He pulls his hand back and simply watches her. The moment she realizes she has no hope of being saved, her eyes change and she lets go and lets herself float down and die.

It was that look, that moment he craved. The moment in his vicim’s eyes when they gave up. When hope simply evaporated and there was no WHY to carry on. He managed to kill all his victims without ever laying a hand on them.

Though I saw this episode at least eight years ago, I still remember it. And it still freaks me out.

Granted, this is an extreme dramatization, but is it? We have all kinds of stories about people who survived POW camps, concentration camps, disasters, etc. who shouldn’t have. Why did they? They kept hoping. The mind and will were far more powerful and able to go beyond the limits of the physical body.

Success is Personal and It WILL Cost Us

When I talk about success, I am using very broad strokes. Success has to be defined by US. I actually have no interest in being a billionaire. Granted, it would be fantastic if it happened, but I am unwilling to have money at the expense of people and relationships. People are my WHY, not money. Success to me is then measured in those around me, not necessarily my bank account.

But that is ME.

Success of any kind has a price. To be a “successful” mother, I have to sacrifice. It is way easier for me to let The Spawn go feral and forage off chips for breakfast. It takes time to make him a healthy meal. It takes time to watch documentaries with him and teach him to swim and help teach his Jiu Jitsu class. But, I am sacrificing to invest in him. In our relationship and in his future.

A great marriage will cost us. A clean house, a tidy yard, a balanced bank account, a trim waist, etc.

If we want to be “successful” at this writing thing, the bare minimum requirement for “being a successful writer” is words written down…which will cost us time we could be spending watching Criminal Minds  :D .

No One Else Can Define It 

Original image courtesy of Flickr Creatinve Commons, courtesy of Ali Samieivafa.

Original image courtesy of Flickr Creatinve Commons, courtesy of Ali Samieivafa.

First, I will say we have to take the wheel. What my success looks like and what YOURS look like are vastly different things. For years, I allowed others to define my success. I spent years reaching for outside approval that never came.

If you read last post, I told y’all I was a high school drop out twice over. I worked my tail off to win an Air Force Scholarship to become a doctor and I did. Why did I do it? After years of being a disappointment to all those around me, I wanted my grandparents to finally say they were proud of me.

When I came home to tell my grandparents the news I’d won, my grandmother’s first words were, “Well, they must have been short on their quota for women.”

*Kristen dies more than a little inside*

Later, I graduated from TCU with a degree in International Relations. Actually, it was Political Economy of the Middle East and North Africa. You know, one of those easy fluff degrees ;) .

I did this hoping they’d be proud. Ehhh, no.

Then, I landed a premium job in sales hoping they’d be proud. Nope.

Then I got into law school. Nope.

Finally? I gave up trying to make others give me that atta’ girl and did what I loved. I became a writer. All those years I was reaching for dreams that weren’t mine, I was sick and miserable because I had the wrong WHY. When I finally went after MY dream, eventually I no longer cared if they were proud of me or not.

Definitions are Personal and Ever-Changing

When we read motivational stories or watch videos or movies, it is easy to feel like a loser. But, we all start where we are. When I was a baby writer, I remember thinking, Wow, if I could write 500 words a day, then I will have made it. Now, I write a thousand words before breakfast, but that took YEARS and YEARS.

But if I’d started with a goal of 2-3,000 words a day? If I’d beaten myself up because I only wrote 500? I would have given up a long time ago.

When was smacked with Shingles last year, my definition of a “successful day” had to change if I was ever going to get better. And I would love to say that I didn’t cry and whine and complain and throw tantrums. I did. Shingles involved month after month of pain piled on pain piled on even more pain.

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Actually this is a pic after it was a LOT better….

I hated everyone. I hated myself, my family and probably hated kittens and puppies, too. If Zig Ziglar had visited me? I might have just punched him in the face. It was hard to admit that “success” during that time, might have just involved getting out of bed and wearing a bra (the Shingles were all down my ribs).

But eventually we must adjust what is a “win” or our mind will devour us.

Of course, now that I am in remission from Shingles, I need to adjust. Wearing a bra is a noble goal, but I kinda should be past that ;) .

No One Else Can DO It

Original image via Flikr Creative Commons, courtesy of Crossfit.

Original image via Flikr Creative Commons, courtesy of Crossfit.

We have to do the work. We have to define what we want and why we want it. Then we have to do the work. There is a lot of talk about giving others the right opportunity. I used to believe in that, but now? Not so much.

I was president of a writing group for years. They complained the reason they didn’t attend was the meeting place, so I got us a nice meeting space. None of them showed. Then, these folks griped that they couldn’t attend because we met at an inconvenient time, so I managed to find a second meeting space on Saturday mornings for those who couldn’t make a weekday evening.

Again, none of them showed. The handful of complainers who did sporadically attend never wrote anything.

Members complained when I recommended craft books. Was I suggesting they didn’t know how to WRITE? Most refused to go to conferences or take classes. They groused about the speakers. They didn’t have time to write the novel, but they had plenty of time to craft long e-mails complaining about some new thing I wasn’t doing for them.

Week after week, year after year, I showed and tried to add more “opportunities” to no avail. Finally, I learned a tough lesson I hadn’t wanted to believe. Talk is cheap. Though being part of that group was painful, I wouldn’t trade it for the world. I thought I’d overcome my addiction to approval when I told my family to “Pound sand” and became a writer.

Ah, but did I?

Nope, I’d simply shifted my addiction from my family to a local writing group. I was still just as addicted to people pleasing and I needed others to “approve” of me and my dreams.

I had to learn that I could not expect average people to be extraordinary. Also, I could no longer hide behind their lack of approval as an excuse of not moving forward. I had to leave them behind and risk failing alone. I could not hand them enough opportunities and definitely could not motivate them into success.

Motivation is the fuel for the soul, but we have to light the spark and WE have to take charge of using and directing that for forward momentum. Like approval, motivation is wonderful, but not entirely necessary. Sometimes, we simply have to dig deep and keep going even when there is no outward sign we are doing anything right.

Writing is NOT an Easy Job

We don’t clock in and clock out. We don’t have a boss looking over our shoulders who will send us to Writer Jail if we don’t make word count. No one will discipline us if we don’t take any Continuing Education. Most of what we DO, others don’t see (or even value). This is a very unique profession that probably requires us take care of our Spirit Self more than other jobs.

Take time for yourself. Feed your spirit, but then put that fuel to work. Just like craft books do us NO good collecting dust on a shelf, motivation is similarly useless if not put into action. Opportunities are meaningless if we ignore them.

What are your thoughts? Do you find yourself falling into approval addiction or people pleasing? Do you have to revisit your goals because you’ve let others do too much influencing when it comes to what “success” looks like? Do you rely too much on motivation? Heck, I am guilty. Do you forget that your mind and will need nourishing too?

I love hearing from you!

Quick Announcement: 

Due to popular demand, THIS SATURDAY I am rerunning my Hooking the Reader—Your First Five Pages at the end of the month and I am doing something different. Gold Level includes me looking (and shredding your first five) but I have added in some higher levels and will look at up to 20 pages. This can be really useful if you’re stuck. I can help you diagnose the problems. It’s also a great deal if you have to submit to an agent and want to make your work the best it can be.

Again, 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). 

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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No Success Without the GRIND

Image via Flickr Creative Commons, courtesy of Anamorphic Mike.

Image via Flickr Creative Commons, courtesy of Anamorphic Mike.

What do you want? How badly do you want it? What are you willing to sacrifice? These are the questions we must ask not once, but daily. There is no success without the GRIND.

Or perhaps, the G.R.I.N.D.

Give

Every day we have something to give that will keep propelling us forward. I love, love, love the movie Rocky. This is among my favorite quotes:

The world ain’t all sunshine and rainbows. It’s a very mean and nasty place, and I don’t care how tough you are, it will beat you to your knees and keep you there permanently if you let it. You, me, or nobody is gonna hit as hard as life. But it ain’t about how hard you hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward; how much you can take and keep moving forward. ~Rocky Balboa

Life does hit hard. I’ve been there more times than I can count.

Some of you know I was a high school drop out twice. I had the chance to simply get a GED but I chose to go back and finish even though I was embarrassingly older than my peers (19 in a class of 14 year-olds).

I worked hard at a community college until I won a full Air Force scholarship to become a doctor. Before I could enjoy that? I fell in an ice storm and broke my back.

My free ride was over. I took a job in a tiny mall store that sold motivational material. At the time, I couldn’t walk without a cane and while my coworkers spent the slow times chatting with friends on the phone, I read every single book in that store over and over and over.

knew physically I was a mess, but I also appreciated that this was a meantime. It was the span of suck before my breakthrough. What could I do for my will? For my mind? How could I keep my spirit healthy while my body mended?

Life hits and worse, it will sucker punch you. We may not always be able to do the big stuff, but we can keep pressing with the small stuff because greatness is not a singular moment. Rather, greatness is the cumulation of a lot of hidden moments that have no glory.

We give our best because our energy is seed. We plant our dreams and faith in the world and in others and trust that eventually it will bear fruit and eventually give back.

If I don’t have enough or something? I give it. That is a huge reason for this blog. Today, I need encouragement, so I am giving it. Want more love? Give it. Want more skill? Help others hone theirs. Want more passion? Give it.

Life is an echo.

Relentless

Moments before Kristen gets her tail kicked….

Moments before Kristen gets her tail kicked….

You want to do anything remarkable? Learn to be relentless. I heard someone once say that the richest place on earth is a graveyard because we cannot imagine what we’ve lost; the dreams, inventions, ideas that people took to their graves because they were afraid of failure.

One of the reasons I’ve always been such a pit bull is that my father was an extraordinarily talented man. Probably far more talented then I ever was. But he died penniless and working for $8 an hour in a bicycle shop. Why? Because the second anything got hard or gave pushback, he folded. For all we know, we lost one of the greatest writers of the 20th century because his fear was bigger than his faith.

One of the greatest lessons I have learned is that the harder life is pushing back? The better. Usually that is a sign we are doing something right.

Look back at your own life and I will guarantee you’ll see those times. You had a goal, a plan, and were actually seeing forward momentum then?

The AC in your house died, the car broke down, the kids got sick, the family decided to all go crazy simultaneously. You went from being ON FIRE to putting out nothing but grassfires.

Truth is, that’s a good sign. Keep pressing.

Invest

Image via Demi-Brooke Flickr Creative Commons

Image via Demi-Brooke Flickr Creative Commons

Invest in yourself. Talent is natural but it isn’t anything all that remarkable. Talent is nothing if it isn’t paired with skill. Skill is only something we can earn with blood and sweat and pain. We can’t earn skill on the sidelines, only on the mats. Hammering on our will, our mind, our craft day after day after day.

Skill only comes with failure.

Skill only comes with getting back up knowing we could fail again. Skill only comes when we appreciate that if we aren’t failing, we aren’t doing anything interesting. Skill eventually rises out of the ashes of our failures because we have made all the wrong moves and so we begin to recognize the right ones.

Skill comes from reaching out to those who are better, wiser and asking for help. Skill comes from humility. Read craft books, take classes, ask questions then do it again and again and again.

No

No is one of the most powerful words in human language.

We must learn to say NO. We have to say it to ourselves. Right now I am training for my blue belt in Jiu Jitsu. After being sick so long my cardio is less than stellar so I am cycling in the mornings. Trust me, it ain’t easy being a chubby girl on a bike … which is why I am glad it is dark :D .

When the alarm goes off at 4:30 a.m. and I want to sleep? NO. When I want to stop at 5 miles instead of 15? NO.

When I’d rather putter around the house and clean than edit or write my blog or research? NO.

I tell myself that I have a choice. No to now or no to later. I must give up what I want now for what I want most.

Learn to say no to toxic people. They will always have more drama they want us to fix. Learn to say no to the small leaks deflating your energy. Quit expecting average people to help you accomplish the extraordinary.

Conversely? Don’t take NO.

Back when I was in sales, my managers could not get over how good I was at cold calling. Most salespeople loathe cold calling with the power of a thousand suns because it is 99% rejection. Why was I successful? Because when they said “No” I heard… “Not yet.”

A lot of you are attending conferences. You might be pitching agents or sending out query letters. Expect rejection. Rejection isn’t always bad. Rejection isn’t NO. It is “Not YET.”

Go back and fix what you can. Move forward. Invest in your skill and then ask again. And again. If they won’t budge and you’re ready? Go around. Find your YES.

My book Rise of the Machines—Human Authors in a Digital World was with a major NYC agent for over a year. New York was unwilling to publish a book about social media even though my book didn’t rely on technology. I wrote it in such a way that it would always be relevant, and so didn’t have the typically short shelf life of this type of book.

I didn’t wait for them to change their minds, I published it anyway.

Aut inveniam viam aut faciam. We will find a way or we will make one. ~Hannibal

Dare

I hate those scams on late night TV that promise vast riches with no risk. That’s bunk. Our rewards exist in direct proportion to our risk. Risk big win big. Risk small and…yeah.

When we risk big, we can lose big. But we can also learn big. If we never fall from that kind of height, how can we learn to roll out of it? Dare daily. Dare to do something different, something meaningful. Nothing miraculous ever happened in the comfort zone.

When we dare to push ourselves outside of what we believe is possible, we discover talents we never knew existed. Yes, invest in your future but remember that today, THIS day, is the only one that matters. Because THIS day adds up. The only question is…

How are you going to use it?

Do you find yourself making excuses? Heck, I do. Do you find yourself spread too thinly “helping” others who are unwilling to help themselves? Are you afraid of failing? Do you feel selfish going after your dreams? Do you find yourself “waiting” on others? Does success seem unreachable? What dreams or goals have you attained that you never thought possible? What did you do? Sacrifice?

I love hearing from you!

Quick Announcement: Due to popular demand, THIS SATURDAY I am rerunning my Hooking the Reader—Your First Five Pages at the end of the month and I am doing something different. Gold Level includes me looking (and shredding your first five) but I have added in some higher levels and will look at up to 20 pages. This can be really useful if you’re stuck. I can help you diagnose the problems. It’s also a great deal if you have to submit to an agent and want to make your work the best it can be.

Again, 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). 

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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Lies, Denial & Buried Secrets—How to Create Dimensional Characters

Image via Flikr Creative Commons courtesy of Zoetnet.

Image via Flikr Creative Commons courtesy of Zoetnet.

As mentioned in a previous post, one of my all-time favorite series is True Detective. There is a line that’s repeated in the series and it is SO perfect for our purposes today.

Sometimes your worst self is your best self.

It’s tempting for us to create “perfect” protagonists and “pure evil” antagonists, but that’s the stuff of cartoons, not great fiction. Every strength has an array of corresponding weaknesses, and when we understand these soft spots, generating conflict becomes easier. Understanding character arc becomes simpler. Plotting will fall into place with far less effort.

All stories are character-driven. Plot merely serves to change characters from a lowly protagonist into a hero….kicking and screaming along the way. Plot provides the crucible. 

Plot is the push that drives the change. Without the plot problem, the protagonist is never forced to face weakness and can comfortably remain unchanged. Plot forces the protagonist to face the worst self in order to eventually unveil the best self.

One element that is critical to understand is this:

Everyone has Secrets

To quote Dr. Gregory House, Everybody lies.

All good stories hinge on secrets.

I have bodies under my porch.

Okay, not all secrets in our fiction need to be THIS huge.

Secret #1—“Real” Self Versus “Authentic” Self

We all have a face we show to the world, what we want others to see. If this weren’t true then my author picture would have me wearing a Batman T-shirt, yoga pants and a scrunchee, not a beautifully lighted photograph taken by a pro.

We all have faces we show to certain people, roles we play. We are one person in the workplace, another with family, another with friends and another with strangers. This isn’t us being deceptive in a bad way, it’s self-protection and it’s us upholding societal norms. This is why when Grandma starts discussing her bathroom routine, we cringe and yell, “Grandma! TMI! STOP!”

No one wants to be trapped in a long line at a grocery store with the total stranger telling us about her nasty divorce. Yet, if we had a sibling who was suffering, we’d be wounded if she didn’t tell us her marriage was falling apart.

Yet, people keep secrets. Some more than others. Most of us have secrets we keep even from ourselves ;) .

In fact, if we look at The Joy Luck Club the entire book hinges on the fact that the mothers are trying to break the curses of the past by merely changing geography. Yet, as their daughters grow into women, they see the faces of the same demons wreaking havoc in their daughters’ lives…even though they are thousands of miles away from the past (China).

The mothers have to reveal their sins, but this will cost them the “perfect version of themselves” they’ve sold the world and their daughters (and frankly, themselves).

The daughters look at their mothers as being different from them. Their mothers are perfect, put-together, and guiltless. It’s this misperception that keeps a wall between them. This wall can only come down if the external facades (the secrets) are exposed.

Secret #2—False Face

Characters who seem strong, can, in fact, be scared half to death. Characters who seem to be so caring, can in fact be acting out of guilt, not genuine concern for others. We all have those fatal weaknesses, and most of us don’t volunteer these blemishes to the world.

In fact, we might not even be aware of them. It’s why shrinks are plentiful and paid well.

The woman whose house looks perfect can be hiding a month’s worth of laundry behind the Martha Stewart shower curtains. Go to her house and watch her squirm if you want to hang your coat in her front closet. She wants others to think she has her act together, but if anyone opens that coat closet door, the pile of junk will fall out…and her skeletons will be on public display.

Anyone walking toward her closets or asking to take a shower makes her uncomfortable because this threatens her false face.

Watch any episode of House and most of the team’s investigations are hindered because patients don’t want to reveal they are not ill and really want attention, or use drugs, are bulimic, had an affair, are growing marijuana in their attics, etc.

Secret #3—False Guilt

Characters can be driven to right a wrong they aren’t even responsible for. In Winter’s Bone Ree Dolly is driven to find her father before the bail bondsman takes the family land and renders all of them homeless.

Ree is old enough to join the Army and walk away from the nightmare, but she doesn’t. She feels a need to take care of the family and right a wrong she didn’t commit. She has to dig in and dismantle the family secrets (the crime ring entrenched in her bloodline) to uncover the real secret—What happened to her father?

She has to keep the family secret (otherwise she could just go to the cops) to uncover the greater, and more important secret. She keeps the secret partly out of self-preservation, but also out of guilt and shame.

I’m working on a fiction series and currently outlining Book Three. But in Book One, my protagonist takes the fall for a massive Enron-like scam. She had nothing to do with the theft of a half a billion dollars and the countless people defrauded into destitution. Yet, she feels false guilt. She feels responsible even though she isn’t.

This directs her actions. It makes her fail to trust who she should because she’s been had before. When she uncovers a horrific and embarrassing truth about someone she trusts and loves, she withholds the information (out of shame for the other person) and it nearly gets her killed.

This embarrassing secret is the key to unlocking the truth, yet she hides it because of shame. Shame for the other person and shame that this information reveals her deepest weakness…she is naive and has been (yet again) fooled.

Be a GOOD Secret-Keeper

This is one of the reasons I HATE superfluous flashbacks. Yes, we can use flashbacks. They are a literary device, but like the prologue, they get botched more often than not.

Oh, but people want to know WHY my character is this way or does thus-and-such. 

Here’s the thing, The Spawn wants cookie sprinkles for breakfast. Just because he WANTS something, doesn’t mean it’s the best thing for him. Don’t tell us WHY. Reveal pieces slowly, but once secrets are out? Tension dissipates. Tension is key to maintaining story momentum. We WANT to know WHY, but it might not be good for us.

The Force was more interesting before it was EXPLAINED.

Everybody LIES

They can be small lies, “No, I wasn’t crying. Allergies.” They can be BIG lies, “I have no idea what happened to your father. I was playing poker with Jeb.” Fiction is one of the few places that LIES ARE GOOD. LIES ARE GOLD.

Fiction is like dating. If we tell our date our entire life story on Date #1? Mystery lost and good luck with Date #2.

When it comes to your characters, make them lie. Make them hide who they are. They need to slowly reveal the true self, and they will do everything to defend who they believe they are. Remember the inciting incident creates a personal extinction. The protagonist will want to return to the old way, even though it isn’t good for them.

Resist the urge to explain. 

Feel free to write it out for you…but then HIDE that baby from the reader. BE A SECRET-KEEPER. Secrets rock. Secrets make FABULOUS fiction.

What are your thoughts? Questions? What are some great works of fiction that show a myriad of lies from small to catastrophic? Could you possibly be ruining your story tension by explaining too much?

Quick Announcement: Due to popular demand, I am rerunning my Hooking the Reader—Your First Five Pages at the end of the month and I am doing something different. Gold Level includes me looking (and shredding your first five) but I have added in some higher levels and will look at up to 20 pages. This can be really useful if you’re stuck. I can help you diagnose the problems. It’s also a great deal if you have to submit to an agent and want to make your work the best it can be.

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). 

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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Advantages in DISadvantages—Does Our Culture Really Value “Normal”?

Image via Amber West WANA Commons

Image via Amber West WANA Commons

Last time, when we talked about Barnes & Noble, I mentioned a book by Malcolm Gladwell David & Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants.  This is a really interesting book because Gladwell peels apart our common perceptions of what an advantage really is. Sometimes, that which others claim is undesirable really isn’t.

It is merely different.

Right now I am at a weird crossroads and admittedly I am a bit scared because I am deviating outside the “accepted.” For those who don’t know, my son The Spawn (Age 5) has had an interesting road. When he was two and a half, he had all four front teeth knocked up into the maxilla and had to have them surgically removed. Twenty thousand dollars in maxo-facial surgery later, we had a little bat.

This created some problems. Obviously, his speech suffered the most. His third word was dinosaur. Before the accident, I figured he’d be like I was and be speaking in full sentences before the age of three.

Yeah.

The best laid plans of mice and men and all. Anyway, his speech has obviously been delayed. Then, on top of this, he is incredibly analytical like his father.

When Spawn was a baby, we had a family friend living with us for a time. I’d discover advanced puzzles all over the house neatly solved and tucked away. I assumed she was picking up after Spawn (the toddler). Only later I discovered that he was solving them. Though they were meant for far older children, he solved them with ease.

Spawn writing his memoirs.

Spawn writing his memoirs.

He also plays XBox and can beat a game at the most advanced level in about two days. The same games it took his father and I weeks to unravel.

But good luck understanding him.

When he was barely four, he was “fired” from preschool because he liked zombies too much.

Teacher: We had an incident on the playground. Your son was pretending to be a zombie and it was freaking out the other kids.

Me: Was he biting them?

Teacher: No.

Me: Was he grabbing or touching them?

Teacher: No.

Me: Well then what exactly was he doing?

Teacher: Wandering around with a blank look and moaning.

Me: Sounds like every bureaucrat I ever met. What’s the problem?

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Anyway, he is supposed to go off to Kindergarden this year and I am going to homeschool because I feel our culture labels anyone who does not fit neatly into a standardized bell curve as “disabled” or “disadvantaged” or with a “disorder.” The reason I know this is that my own school years were hell because of this type of thinking.

Before we continue, know that these are MY opinions and MY beliefs from MY own experience. As I stare at my baby bat, all I can think of is the nightmare that school was for me.

Kristen was/is NOT Normal

Before it went BOOM!

Before it went BOOM!

Though I was gifted verbally, I was in trouble all the time. Seriously. ALL the time. I don’t even remember my third grade classroom. I remember the HALL. I had a terrible time paying attention to one thing at a time and sitting behind a desk.

Guess what? Thirty-five years later nothing has changed.

My mom was rather revolutionary in her parenting. She didn’t care if I did my homework hanging from the curtains wearing a tutu so long as I got it done. Results were all that mattered. Typically, I would spread all my books on my bed, play Tchaikovsky really loudly (over and over and, yes OVER), and do all my subjects at one time. I would do a math problem or two, then flip over to science, then color, then more math. I was most productive when I was doing a lot of things all at one time and I always made perfect scores.

I found that if a math problem was giving me a fit, that shifting subjects helped. I could do something right-brained (write an essay) and my subconscious would often sort out the answer to the math problem (a left-brained dilemma).

Then I would get to class. *head desk*

Kristen talks too much.

Kristen doesn’t use time wisely.

Kristen doesn’t pay attention.

Kristen Circa Third Grade

Kristen Circa Third Grade

I had to be moving in order to think. I still do. My brain doesn’t work as well if I’m still.

I asked “Why?” too much. In fifth grade, when the other kids were content to gulp down that no life could possibly exist in the Hadalpelagic Zone of the ocean because there was no sunlight for photosynthesis, I questioned

What if there are creatures that don’t need sunlight? Creatures that have some other source to convert into usable energy? If various combinations of salts can power a lightbulb, why couldn’t a living organism do something similar?

***Yes, I was ten at the time of this debate and ended up in the hall….yet again.

Imagine how vindicated I felt when years later, scientists discovered there were lifeforms that used volcanic vents and employed chemosynthesis to survive in such an extreme ecosystem (converting chemicals into usable energy).

I remember later in the fifth grade I got into an argument with the same teacher who gave me an F. She’d handed us a maze and the object (per the instructions) was to solve the maze. I began at the end and worked to the beginning and solved it in less than ten seconds (while the rest of the class had barely begun).

My teacher claimed that was cheating and failed me. I told her that the instructions never said which WAY I had to solve the maze, only to solve it.

Anyway, long story short, I am the reason for the current Texas truancy laws. My teachers were nothing short of cruel to me. Rare was the teacher who appreciated my energy. I was a high school drop out twice and labeled as a person with a learning disorder. I scored so low on my SATs they had to check me for a pulse.

A learning disorder.

So because my brain doesn’t work like everyone else’s I have a “disorder”?

Advantage in the “Dis”advantage

What was fascinating about Gladwell’s book, is he talks about the staggering percentage of successful “geniuses” who suffer from dyslexia. A recent study puts it at about a third and the list includes people like Richard Branson, the British billionaire entrepreneur, Charles Schwab (financial genius), Craig McCaw (cell phone pioneer), the founder of JetBlue David Neeleman, John Chambers the CEO of tech giant Cisco, etc. Einstein was a dyslexic, so was Walt Disney.

Y’all get the point.

Toss in ADD, ADHD, Asperger’s, etc. and I would venture to say that “normal” isn’t very “normal” among the extraordinary. What I find so perplexing is that it seems every parent wants a “child genius” but the second it looks like the kid might not be “normal” in come the meds and therapy.

Two hyper peas in a pod.

Two hyper peas in a pod.

Which leads me to ask: Are we medicating out the very genius we say we value? I know in my late 20s I conceded to meds to “control” my “disorder” and it was hell. All my creativity evaporated and I was lost. I fell into deep depression.

Finally, I just accepted I was Abby Normal and rolled with it. I left Corporate America because I simply did not do well sitting behind a desk. Instead of staying in a traditional job (where I was also in trouble ALL the time), I changed tactics and became an entrepreneur.

I am the person who wrote almost a half a million words in one year. I’ve written almost two million words in blogs alone. I run two businesses and blog and write and teach. I also am almost a blue belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and I help teach the kid’s BJJ class three days a week (Mommy-Spawn time). Rumor has it, sometimes I even clean my house :D .

Yet, I appreciate that while my “Disability” comes with a number of advantages (high energy, high creativity) it has some downsides. I have to be extra careful to be more self-disciplined and finish what I start.

Anyway, when it comes to The Spawn, I hope to give him the same freedom to be uniquely HIM that my mom did for me. Frankly, had she not been so free with me at home, I probably would have grown up believing I was damaged (like the schools told me). Ergo my decision to homeschool.

What Does the Future Hold?

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This does make me think. The public education system was created in the Industrial Revolution to create educated workers for the future. But the system was educating future employees of a factory-model system. Now that factories have gone to China and Mexico, how wise is it to discount those who are nonlinear thinkers? How much advantage do we gain retraining them to think in “accepted” ways because it is easier?

We live in a multimedia society that demands multitasking. In fact, most jobs require that we do more than one thing at a time and that we be able to shift tasks quickly and easily. So what exactly do we gain by claiming something is wrong with a kid because he/she can’t focus for an hour or more on ONE thing?

And I am not saying there is anything “wrong” with “normal”, only that maybe it is idealized too much. Also, I more than resent being told I have a “disorder.”

Our culture is biased against introverts the same way. Because a kid isn’t super social and chatty and prefers to be alone, something is “wrong.” We encourage all this talking when the world would be a far better place of people did more listening. We idealize the extrovert at the expense of the introverts. Similarly, we idealize “normal” and anyone who is outside this model has a “disorder.”

Which is utterly ironic because the most valued innovators in human history were anything but NORMAL. In fact, I wonder if “normal” won’t go extinct in the next 20 years.

Before the advent of the printed word, humans had prodigious memories and learned orally and kinesthetically. Then, sure, once we ventured into a print paradigm and an industrial model, paying attention to ONE thing for long periods of time and thinking/learning linearly and via print were advantages.

But what about in a multimedia world?

Are we seeing a rise in learning “disabilities” or are we seeing evidence of the human brain’s amazing plasticity? That the brain is simply adapting to drastic social change?

We try to make kids “normal” but we VALUE those who are different. We also say we value creativity, but then label or medicate anyone who is different. Seems we are conflicted, to say the least.

Definitely food for thought.

What are your thoughts? Do you have a learning “disorder”? Does it bother you to be labeled in such a way simply for being different? Do you think our culture is Janus-faced? We “say” we want innovators but then we label them as something undesirable?

Quick Announcement: Due to popular demand, I am rerunning my Hooking the Reader—Your First Five Pages at the end of the month and I am doing something different. Gold Level includes me looking (and shredding your first five) but I have added in some higher levels and will look at up to 20 pages. This can be really useful if you’re stuck. I can help you diagnose the problems. It’s also a great deal if you have to submit to an agent and want to make your work the best it can be.

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). 

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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99 Comments

Barnes & Noble, Dead Nooks, and Brave New Branding

Screen Shot 2013-03-05 at 6.12.56 AM

The big news in publishing this week is Barnes & Noble’s plan to ax the Nook. After losing over a billion dollars trying to make the Nook a contender, it seems B&N’s new CEO is ready to just cut bait. According to Michael Kozlowski over at Good E Reader:

The NOOK segment (including digital content, devices and accessories) had revenues of $52 million for the 4th quarter and $264 million for the full year, decreasing 39.8% for the quarter and 47.8% for the year. Device and accessories sales were $13 million for the quarter and $86 million for the full year, declining 48.2% and 66.7%, respectively, due to lower unit selling volume. Digital content sales were $40 million for the quarter and $177 million for the full year, declining 36.5% and 27.8%, respectively, due primarily to lower device unit sales.

All I have to say is…OUCH.

I’d like to say I find this news shocking, but I don’t. Of course the question will be, what happens next? As an expert, often others ask us to offer up some predictions. Back in 2009 the Nook was new and doing fairly well, so I gave Barnes & Noble ten years before it would be gone.

If B&N did survive, it was going to be through the Nook which I figured would probably just be bought out by Kobo or Sony or some bored Saudi American prince. I adjusted my prediction in 2012 to five years or less and with the recent news, sadly, I might be correct.

So why is B&N still hemorrhaging?

Understand Your Consumer

#PARTY

#PARTY

One reason many major brands have become casualties in the Digital Age is that they failed to understand that customers now expect business (products and services) to come to them, not the other way around. Consumers liked downloading a song instead of traipsing to a music store. Consumers preferred digital photos over dropping off film. Instead of Tower Records and Kodak leading the way to a new model of service, they became casualties.

We are either architects of the future or artifacts in the future.

Now books…

Before e-books, if we wanted to read a book, we made a trip to the bookstore (or library) because that’s where we could buy books.

Complicated stuff, right?

B&N was very predatory in the 90s until about 2007. They made sure to build fancy mega-structures on every corner complete with coffee shops and discounts as deep as their chairs and they didn’t lose sleep over the independents they drove into bankruptcy.

Yet, this was smart. Consumers of the time were fascinated with megastores and this was a good plan that worked for a while. But, business is organic. It grows and contracts and changes and shifts and anyone in business is wise to remember this.

Bigger is better…until it isn’t.

Image via Flickr Creative Commons, courtesy of Keith Nerdin...

Image via Flickr Creative Commons, courtesy of Keith Nerdin…

What is REALLY an Advantage?

Malcolm Gladwell has a really cool book called David & Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants where he explores how elements we perceive as advantages are often serious disadvantages.

The bible story David and Goliath is the ultimate underdog story. Back in the day armies, in order to avoid suffering major casualties, would agree to simply pit their best fighters and winner took all.

Most of you know the story. Goliath the Philistine was highly trained, heavily armored and the size of a TRUCK, who also happened to be armed with a javelin, spear and sword. Yet, he was beaten by a shepherd boy with a slingshot. At first glance, this seems nothing short of miraculous, but if we dive a bit deeper?

Not so much.

If David had taken King Saul’s armor and sword and fought conventionally we likely would never heard this story. David would have been toast…or more like the jelly smeared across the toast. BUT, David refused to fight in a conventional way. A slingshot might not seem like that big of a deal but slingers were the precursors to our modern concept of an “artillery.”

In the Old Testament Book of Judges, slingers are described as being accurate within a “hair’s breadth”. An experienced slinger could kill or seriously injure a target at a distance of up to two hundred yards. ~Malcolm Gladwell, David & Goliath

This is a long way of saying that sure, Goliath was heavy infantry, but David’s sling and stone had the equivalent effect of Goliath being shot in the face with a fair-sized handgun. David refused to play by conventional rules and he won. Goliath’s fatal mistake was in assuming the conventional rules of engagement would apply.

In a marketplace governed by being leaner, meaner, faster and more convenient, propping up Goliath-sized stores was just a bad plan. Sure, Nook had the potential to rescue B&N out of their predicament, but it didn’t. Why?

Because the Nook was still acting like a Goliath.

B&N…HELLOOOOO?

B&N…HELLOOOOO?

The company had an identity crisis and failed to make the full transition away from being BIG. Instead of leading the charge to being small and lithe, they tried to use Nook only to prop up the same old way of doing business.

In my opinion, this is like a partial heart transplant. Either be fully committed or forget about it.

They remained married to Big Publishing and bloated price models, were less than supportive of indies (even though those were SALES), and they were still scope-locked on brick-and-mortar.

And before anyone laughs, I think it is pretty safe to bet that Blockbuster Video would still be among the land of the living had they introduced the Redbox technology first. But, instead they kept doing the same old same old and tried to use on-line video only to buttress the lackluster stores that were growing weaker by the day.

And now?

Screen Shot 2015-07-10 at 10.17.00 AM

Brave in a Brave New World

We live in amazing times where branding happens at the speed of light. We cannot afford to be idle. A lot of the big brands are feeling this in a major way. This is not limited to publishing. I know this because I work with a branding firm and most of our major accounts have been reinventing what one would think of as firmly established brands.

Sure, in a consumer market where there are only a handful of beer companies, it is safe to use the same kind of marketing. But what happens when the marketplace is deluged with microbreweries and boutique brands? When the young people prefer to enjoy an Ugly Pug Lager or a Buffalo Butt Amber instead of a Miller Lite? How do you not only remain relevant, but convert the youth into being the next generation of loyal consumers?

We have to be brave. We have to fight like a David.

Writers are the ultimate Davids. The indies are responsible for altering the publishing landscape. Writers have unimaginable creativity and resilience. Writers understood the business was about stories, not paper. We didn’t care how readers partook of our books (paper, digital, smoke signals, carrier pigeons), we only cared that they DID. Writers embraced the power of social media and a lot of folks in publishing are now eating the words, “You don’t need social media. All you need is a good book.”

When all the smoke has cleared and B&N either reignites or fizzles out, it won’t matter. Writers will still remain. It just seems funny to me that the very people the Book Goliaths so recently wrote off (writers) probably could have taught them a thing or two ;) .

And what we can take away from all of this is that we writers have to stay frosty. Books are not about us, they are about the reader (code for consumer). We can look at what might appear to be a disadvantage and look at it in a new way. In the end, it takes grit to do what we do. So stay BRAVE.

What are your thoughts? You think B&N is just buying time until the end? Do you think they could rally back? How could B&N reinvent in a way to gain your loyalty?

Quick Announcement: Due to popular demand, I am rerunning my Hooking the Reader—Your First Five Pages at the end of the month and I am doing something different. Gold Level includes me looking (and shredding your first five) but I have added in some higher levels and will look at up to 20 pages. This can be really useful if you’re stuck. I can help you diagnose the problems. It’s also a great deal if you have to submit to an agent and want to make your work the best it can be.

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). 

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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84 Comments

Time Management—Are We Busy or Fruitful?

Image via Flikr Creative Commons, courtesy of elaueverose.

Image via Flikr Creative Commons, courtesy of elaueverose.

I do a lot of stuff. Actually too much stuff but I am totally woking on that saying “No” thing. Hey, I’m getting there. Two days ago I finally earned my fourth stripe on my white belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. For those who don’t know, in BJJ, you are a white belt forever. It takes anywhere from a year to a year and a half to earn a blue belt. My next level is blue belt and I am stoked. 

In BJJ, the blue belt is almost as big of a deal as black belt because most people never get that far.

My Jiu Jitsu brothers.

My Jiu Jitsu brothers.

But I constantly hear people say things like, “Oh, I’d love to write a book. I just can’t find the time.” “Wow, I’d love to do Jiu Jitsu. If I could only find the time.

I am no angel. My life gets out of control, too. But, I can say that these periods are far shorter than they used to be because I have learned solid principles that work. When my life feels like it has been tossed in a blender? It means I am no longer in the driver’s seat. I am allowing other people’s agendas to bleed into my life and I am mistaking the urgent for the important.

Here’s the deal…

We live in a society that feeds us a lot of lies. The biggest one is about TIME. Oh, if I only had more time, then I could (fill in the blank). The truth is we are all given the same amount of time—24 hours a day. Of course the next big lie that’s easy to believe (and I’ve been guilty) is Well, if I only work HARDER, that will get me where I want to be.

That’s crap.

More time doesn’t equal MORE AWESOME.

Thus, today we’re going to look at some of the lies and time-stealers and ways to be masters of time, not slaves to it. We need to be vigilant and proactive so we don’t fall into Hamster Wheel Management. We’re called to be fruitful NOT busy.

Original image via Dan Derritt Flikr Creative Commons

Original image via Dan Derritt Flikr Creative Commons

We Can’t Find Time, We Can Only SPEND Time

One of the most common phrases in the English language? “If I could only find the time…”

Okay, sorry to break the news but time isn’t hidden in the couch cushions like loose change, Cheerios and that remote control we haven’t seen in a month. We can’t find time. We’re given time. How we spend it’s our choice.

Via Flikr Creative commons, courtesy of Tax Credits.

Via Flikr Creative commons, courtesy of Tax Credits.

Write a Clear Mission Statement of What We WANT

Feel free to have multiple mission statements: Faith/Spiritual, Family, Health, Finances, Work (Writing). For templates of how to do this, I recommend Habits of Highly Effective People.

Mission statements are a lot like the log-lines for our novels. No log-line for a novel—ONE sentence that clearly states what our book is ABOUT? Easy to drift off down a bazillion rabbit-trails because every wild idea that pops in our brain seems worth giving a try. In the end, we’re more likely to end up with a mess than a masterpiece.

Same in life.

Without a clear picture of what we want, it’s impossible to spot the time-wasters versus the sound investments.

Make at Least TWO Lists

We’ve talked before about the Pareto Principle, also known as The 80/20 rule. Twenty percent of all our decisions will have 80% of the most return. This is a fairly universal rule. If you have employees, 20% will produce 80% of the output. If you run a volunteer organization, 20% will do 80% of the work.

Conversely, 20% of employees (customers, friends, volunteers, family members) can create 80% of our headaches. Limit time with psychic vampires and focus more on spending time with those who add value. Even being alone is better than leaking 80% of our time on stressful, counterproductive people/activities.

With the 80/20 Rule in mind…

List #1—The Boulders

The boulders are the BIG stuff. These are the actions that will make 80% of positive impact. Being a career author (need a finished novel). Becoming debt-free (need a budget). Possessing a healthy spirit, family, mind, and body (need boundaries and rest).

With a clear action plan, anything that gets in the way of these big goals can be easily spotted, rerouted or removed. No plan? We are reactive, wasteful and spend most of our time treading water.

No item on the BIG LIST can be done in one day, but we can write out steps that get us closer to that BIG goal every day. Remember, small actions over time add up. Those steps to our BIG GOAL are what we tackle FIRST.

Every day, I have a list of 2-6 BIG things that need doing, often stuff I dread. But the day isn’t complete until these items are knocked out (so many pages of research, writing so many words, writing a critical e-mail, creating a spreadsheet, etc).

In the meantime…

List #2—The Pebbles

The BIG LIST are boulders. They will take steady chipping away over time. Between time? Pebbles are easy. Too many people focus all their time on pebbles—which NEVER go away—at the expense of a few whacks on the boulder. Or they focus all on the boulder, then wear themselves out and become overwhelmed and discouraged because they’re buried in ignored pebbles.

Or they ignore/avoid the boulders AND the pebbles with useless activities that will never bear fruit.

Pebbles are small, worthwhile tasks that take less than 20 minutes to complete (most about 5).

Every day, when my main blog is finished, I call my mother and close friends. I believe in healthy relationships. But, while on the phone, I tackle a bucket of pebbles (stuff on my #2 List).

I sort laundry (5 minutes), empty the dishwasher (5 minutes), put a chicken in the crock pot for dinner (15 minutes), tidy the silverware drawer (5 minutes), sweep (5 minutes), or wipe down a counter or two (5 minutes), and have great company while I work.

If I have to pay a bill and they put me on hold? I read research, fill the cat bowl, or jot down ideas for blogs. I know I can’t write 12 hours a day and that being active keeps the tendonitis away. So, I take Brazilian Jiu Jitsu with Spawn. We get a good workout and Mommy-Kiddo time.

5 minutes a day reclaimed ADDS 30 hours a year

10 minutes a day reclaimed ADDS 60 hours a year

15 minutes a day reclaimed ADDS 90 hours a year

30 minutes a day reclaimed ADDS 120 hours a year

60 minutes a day reclaimed ADDS 340 hours a year

It’s easy to waste an hour a day 5 minutes at a time. Take those minutes back, and we can add 31.6 eight-hour workdays to our lives (Via The Art of Getting It DONE). And all this time we wondered where our vacation time went? ;) It’s leaking away unless we are proactive at plugging holes.

I’m not here to make you guys multi-tasking robots. I’m here to help you invest in the future you want.

Time with family, naps, relaxation, downtime, vacations and rest are essential for genuine success (the kind that doesn’t have us living off energy drinks, Xanax and screaming at the kids). If we’re conscious to be fruitful instead of busy, we’ll find we accomplish far more with less effort.

Focus increases confidence, offers a sense of authentic accomplishment and relieves anxiety. Focus will also free up time for more fun stuff (and more writing). Activity can be diffused like white light, or it can be a laser.

Do you feel eaten alive by your life? Is your To Do List a Frankenstein monster wrecking your life? Do you feel discouraged and overwhelmed? Have you learned to prioritize and set boundaries? What are some tips that have helped you regain control?

Announcements:

Before we go, my log-line class will be TONIGHT  Your Story in a Sentence—Crafting Your Log-Line . This class will include me gutting your log-line in class (or via e-mail if you’re shy) to make it agent ready. We should be able to tell others what our story is about in one sentence or odds are we have a big problem. Class is recorded and the recording and shredding are included.

Also, due to popular demand, I am rerunning my Hooking the Reader—Your First Five Pages at the end of the month and I am doing something different. Gold Level includes me looking (and shredding your first five) but I have added in some higher levels and will look at up to 20 pages. This can be really useful if you’re stuck. I can help you diagnose the problems. It’s also a great deal if you have to submit to an agent and want to make your work the best it can be.

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). 

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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56 Comments

When Dreams Go Bad—Dream Sequences, What Works & What Flops

This GORGEOUS image via Flickr Creative Commons, courtesy of Aimannesse Photography

This GORGEOUS image via Flickr Creative Commons, courtesy of Aimannesse Photography

In the past several posts we have been unpacking the “flashback.” But, over the course of us talking about flashbacks and how to deliver backstory, a lot of people have asked about dream sequences. Before we continue, I will say this again “Anything can be done.” Writing rules are always being broken but to break them well we need to know why they exist in the first place.

Thus, today we are going to talk about dream sequences and why they don’t work and look at instances where the do (which are rare, btw).

Dream Sequences to Hook

Often new writers will begin with some cool fantastical scene to hook the reader then POOF! The character wakes up and  “Ha, ha. It wasn’t real. It was a dream.” This backfires for a number of reasons. First of all, our first five pages are some of our most critical. They are the best selling tool we have for an agent, an editor and even a potential reader.

Think about your own book-buying adventures. When we browse a book store, what do we do? We read the first page or two to make a choice. If the first five pages don’t entice us, most likely we will move on.

As an editor for years, the first five pages are also a pretty good litmus for the overall writing. It’s like a cardiologist doesn’t need to crack open your chest to see if you have a bum ticker. Often the blood pressure, pale skin, sweats and dizziness are more than telling enough.

Same with the first five pages. I don’t need to read the entire book to tell every bad habit. I usually need five pages and almost never need over twenty.

Trick at Our Own Risk

Jester Baby from Scarborough Faire

Jester Baby from Scarborough Faire

This said, dream sequences that “trick” the reader will usually tick them off. Our job as authors is to manipulate the audience, but the audience should never “feel” manipulated. We have to be subtle.

Since the first five pages are telling about the rest of the work, if a writer has tricked me in the beginning, I realize that I can’t trust anything else that follows. Since I don’t trust, it can prevent me from being submerged into the fictive dream.

Reminds me of my dad trying to teach me to swim. He had a sadistic sense of humor and found dunking me when I didn’t know how to swim funny. Problem was, I needed to be able to trust so I could relax enough to learn. Since he dunked me the first time and left me choking for air? Fool me once shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.

Aaaand that is why MOM ended up teaching me to swim.

We have to be very careful about breaking the reader’s trust if we hope to submerge them in our world.

Dream Disorientation

Also, dream sequences are very jarring. The reader is in one place and one setting with one group of people. Just about the time the reader is oriented (hooked), POOF! The scene, setting, etc. all change and the reader needs to orient all over AGAIN. Any time we shift like this and a reader has to adjust, we’ve provided a great place for a bookmark (which is bad).

Dream Double-Duty

When we hook with a dream and then shift, we then have the job of hooking again. Hooking once is already tough. Why make more work?

Dreams in Movies

Dream sequences might work well in movies, but remember we are dealing with a very different medium. Movies often will employ dream sequences because movies are at an inherent disadvantage. Movies only can use two senses; sight and sound. Movies are not only lacking three other senses, they also can’t relay what is going on inside a character’s head. This means they need to do things differently than a novel and that’s why dream sequences in a movie are more acceptable than in books.

An example would be the movie Gladiator. In Gladiator there are a couple of visually stunning scenes where Maximus dreams of his family and seeing them in the Elysian Fields. In this instance, a movie can get away with this because this feeling/sensation can’t be relayed in narrative like a novel. Additionally, since movies are visual and passive, it is clear we are in a dream so we don’t get the same disruption.

But I will add that even in screenwriting, writers are strongly discouraged from relying on dreams.

Dreams as Training Wheels

Dreams are more often than not in the same category as a “training wheel flashback.” It is a ham-fisted way of dumping backstory. Or, it is deus ex machina intervening to bail the writer out of a major plot problem.

The protagonist is in a real spot but then she has a DREAM and POOF! the answer appears.

Remember that the protagonist must do the hard work. The protagonist begins with a “normal.” This “normal” is then shattered with the inciting incident that introduces the story problem and shifts the protagonist’s world out of balance. The entire plot is the protagonist working to restore a “new normal” but the protagonist must do the heavy lifting.

Thus dreams that passively supply answers count as cheating more often than not.

Killing Our Page-Turning Tension

Remember when we talked about backstory and how telling too much could actually ruin tension and conflict because it makes the reader comfortable? The same thing can also happen with dream sequences.

Readers turn pages because they crave answers. Tension creates momentum.

And the thing about dreams is that if we (the readers) know this is a true dream, we aren’t worried for the protagonist because we know dreams aren’t real. If it is only a dream, there are no consequences. Dreams are by definition passive. Passivity kills story tension.

Kills it. Dead.

Now that we have talked about all the reasons dreams can go sideways, we will discuss how they might be used well.

Dreams as a Device

Often in paranormal stories we are dealing with someone who might have psychic abilities. Yes, dreams can be used, but make sure the dreams are generating more questions than answers and are propelling the plot forward. In this instance, dreams become part of the story.

For instance a psychic who has a dream of a murdered girl and the dream is what puts her eventually into the investigation. But in this case, the dream is a literary device, not a prop.

In this case the dream should be used sparingly. No convenient dreams to give clues or offer clear direction. That’s cheating.

Dreams as Plot

In The Cell the entire story involves a therapist traveling into the dreams of a serial killer using advanced technology that can put her into that world. The dreams are part of the story and there is no story without the dream world.

In the beginning we get these fantastical scenes when social worker Catherine Deane is in the dreams of traumatized children. Eventually she enters the dream world of deranged killer Carl Stargher to locate a girl he abducted before he fell into a coma. The goal is to hunt for clues in the dream world to help the FBI find the girl in the real world before the victim dies.

Yet, I will say that from Act II on, this would not be a dream sequence because the actual STORY is taking place in the mind of the killer.

If I were to recreate such a story in a novel, I would not italicize but I might add a chapter heading that denotes real world from dream world and then structure accordingly. The reason this can work in a novel (and a story) is that there are life and death consequences for Deane in this dream world. If she falls too deeply into this twisted reality, fear can kill her.

Anyone else thinking about Freddy right now? And we wonder why every kid of the 80s suffered insomnia O_o .

Dreams to Propel Plot

The movie Cake with Jennifer Aniston did a pretty good job of using dreams (and there is a tad of a spoiler so you were warned). Aniston plays Claire Bennett, a woman who is suffering from severe chronic pain. The movie opens with Claire in a support group for those who suffer chronic pain and they are trying to cope with the suicide of a fellow member of the group.

It is clear from the beginning that Claire is very bitter and extremely angry. She doesn’t handle death well at ALL.

Then she dreams of Nina Collins, the woman who committed suicide and left her husband and young son behind.

Nina actually serves as another character who propels Claire along the plot and character arc. Claire has never grieved her son who was killed in the accident that has left her crippled. Claire has pushed away everyone she loves and numbs the pain with drugs. She is a woman trapped. She is too angry and frightened to move forward which means she is neither living or dying.

Nina (dream/hallucination) doesn’t conveniently supply answers, but she does shove Claire out of her comfort zone. Claire is propelled to understand why she is dreaming/hallucinating about a woman she barely knew and the answer is that Nina is a manifestation of her own internal desire to end her own life. Nina challenges her to make a choice and get out of limbo.

Live or die.

But, if she is going to choose life, it will be painful emotionally (grieving her son, letting go of guilt, repairing her wrecked marriage) and physically (painful rehabilitation and drug withdrawal).

There is nothing “convenient” about Dream Nina and there is no story without her.

Delivering Dreams

First of all, if you do have a dream sequence, make it clear it is a dream. Often dream sequences will be clearly sectioned off and in italics. Also, work to keep them SHORT.

If the dream world is part of a setting, make sure there are consequences. If I am just going through some harrowing adventure and I know the characters aren’t actually in any real danger? Snoozefest.

In the end, make sure the dreams are necessary because they are risky. Yes, we can envision these fantastical worlds because we built them. For someone who isn’t creating this dream world, it could just be jarring and confusing. Make sure the dream isn’t there to simply supply backstory and convenient plot clues. Make the characters work.

What are your thoughts? Can you think of books that used dream sequences well? I really couldn’t which was why I used movies. Most of the dream sequences I’ve seen that used dreams either were Eh writing or if the dream worked it was because it was another world with real consequences and thus not what I would call a “dream sequence” (since it is simply a shift in setting and bad things CAN happen).

Announcements:

Before we go, my log-line class will be Wednesday Your Story in a Sentence—Crafting Your Log-Line . This class will include me gutting your log-line in class (or via e-mail if you’re shy) to make it agent ready. We should be able to tell others what our story is about in one sentence or odds are we have a big problem. Class is recorded and the recording and shredding are included.

Also, due to popular demand, I am rerunning my Hooking the Reader—Your First Five Pages at the end of the month and I am doing something different. Gold Level includes me looking (and shredding your first five) but I have added in some higher levels and will look at up to 20 pages. This can be really useful if you’re stuck. I can help you diagnose the problems. It’s also a great deal if you have to submit to an agent and want to make your work the best it can be.

June’s Winner Christine Ardigo. Please submit your 5000 words via a WORD docx attachment to kristen at wana intl dot com and CONGRATULATIONS!

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). 

 

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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