Just keep learning the craft

The third in my just keep series is in some ways an extension of “just keep reading” because part of “just keep learning the craft” is “just keep reading about writing” (lots of grammar, editing, and how-to books). It also involves experimentation and getting feedback.

This step is how you transition from just a writer to a writer that keeps getting better. This separates the on-their-ways from the wannabes. 

The easiest part of this is to incorporate a steady diet of “how to write” content. You don’t want to inhale it, and you don’t have to accept everything you read as gospel, but as you read about writing your brain will start to fill with good techniques and you will think more critically about your writing.

I’ve read a LOT of how-to content. A few writers and how-to’s that are great to start with are:

That doesn’t even scratch the surface (my gosh I’ve read so many!). You definitely want to learn the tense and point of view  (POV) you’ve picked to write in (if “third-person limited past” doesn’t make sense to you, you better get reading). The point is not to read 100 how to write books and/or make a checklist of things you must read/learn before you can write, the point is to develop a consist habit of learning the craft. Be journey minded, not destination minded (that advice is useful everywhere).

One other great thing is that I reach a point when I’m sick of reading about writing and I scramble to my computer to get out my own words. It builds up until I can’t wait any longer. Others might not get this effect, but I do.

On degrees and classes… I say beware spending money on something that you could get for free. You can learn online for free. And practice is more important than study and that’s free too. Practice is one of the greatest tools to learning, and you can’t throw money at writing and expect to get good without practice. And much that you could learn in college about writing you could learn online.

Degrees are great for creating an external force to make you write, but sheesh that’s some expensive motivation! Maybe you could just work on building a good habit, or join a writing group where you have to turn something in weekly (writing groups are great for this, and I’ll do a post on those soon).

My college experience was not the greatest. Much of what I learned I could have taught myself (I have an English degree). I had one class on grammar that was absolutely revolutionary, but apart from that, yuck.

The most important thing to get from this post is this: consistently read how-to content, experiment with new things often, and read your fiction with a critical eye. Over years, you will find the principles and methods which help you to be a greater writer.

Go forth and have no fear!

Booyah.

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How to keep working when you feel burned out

I have a theory that there are (at least) 2 types of work. This theory has been stewing in my head for a few months, and I’ve recently tried putting it into effect. I think it works for me!

The first type is more commonly known and understood. I’ll call it exhale work. It’s when you put forth outward work, expelling energy and effort out from within yourself to some external thing. Hammering in a nail, speaking on a phone call, or typing up a report are all forms of this exhale work.

But often I’ll have times where I have a super productive 4 hours and get a lot done, but dang I need a break! Even after a 15 minute break or a 30 minute lunch, my brain is still sore.

So what do I do? I can’t just take the rest of the day off. That next report is due soon! It’s like I’ve just let out a very long breath and now I need to breath in!

The same can happen with creative work. You can only output so much before you need more input. And you can only breath in (read or watch shows) so much before you have to breath out again (write/create).

That creative analogy holds the key. I can’t have my output be writing fiction and my input is eating a sandwich (that had a very different output). Therefore I can’t expect to output research reports if my input is a YouTube video.

Now legitimate breaks have their time and place (hey man, I didn’t say the breathing metaphor was perfect). Sometimes you need to be not working at all (that’s why it’s the law to have two 15 minute breaks and one  30 minute lunch in a standard 8 hour work day), but I’m talking about something else. I’m talking about eating calories before you output physical effort. I’m talking about reading the minutes before planning the next meeting, I’m talking about casually reviewing your boss’s comments on your report before revising it.

I’m talking about inputting the raw data into myself, in a calm and stress-free fashion, with no thought of output but only thought of input. 

It’s the type of work that keeps you at the station, it uses less energy as you’re trying to recover, and it helps you keep your momentum, like jogging or walking for a few minutes when you are out on a long run.

You have to know the difference between inhale work, exhale work, a break, and a false progress activity.

The other day I thought I was doing a type of inhale work but was really doing a false progress activity. I was working on one report and didn’t want to use my brain, so I decided to just make tons of charts to “get started.” It took me hours. It turns out that when I make a conscious and strategic decision of how to present all of the data (what to not include at all, what to mention in a simple sentence, and what to put in a chart) that the work is harder mentally, but much shorter. I make real progress on outputting the report.

I have to make sure that my working breaks are motivated by exhaustion rather than laziness. When I try to be lazy, I waste time making fifty charts when I only needed ten. And if I needed some inhale work? I should have just read the unfiltered data and wrote the report later.

So, when you’ve been outputting a lot and you feel like you need to breath, the breath. Find what the intake when is for that task, and do it. If you need a break, take it. Trying to output all the time will kill you. You’ve got to breath in.

Now for me, and I am writing this at 11:16 at night, which is late for a dad. And I need a break break before I can exhale any more life.

Booyah!

Just keep reading

Although this is the second entry in my “just keep… “ series, this may be the first rule you should keep and the first rule you have probably kept.

(There are people who don’t read much who decide to write novels, maybe because they love TV or video games, but if you don’t have a passion to consume the art form you’re trying to create, I don’t think you’ll be very good.)

One of the most important reasons to just keep reading is to learn through osmosis. Passive consumption works as a form of unconscious learning. You begin to absorb the rhythms of story and prose from the writers that you read. Things begin to get embedded into your instincts and intuition that will come out in your writing. (One reason it’s important to read good fiction.)

You can also do what I call “active reading.” This is when you read fiction with a more critical eye, focusing to recognize the patterns on the page, sitting and analyzing a phrase that had a particularly strong effect on you and to trying to understand why it had that effect. If you come to learn why and how, you will then be able to use those tools and components in your own storytelling.

I find that it is very helpful to look back at a story that I’ve read and analyze it. What made me care? What made me feel? How did the writer achieve  getting me through that emotional journey? What worked for me? What didn’t? And, perhaps most importantly, what almost or only partially worked and why or why didn’t it?

As I ponder these things (and write them down), I am more and more able to use the things I’ve learned from my reading in my own writing. I let the fiction I read fill me until I just burst.

I won’t give you a random number of books a year or pages or hours a day, just that you should do it consistently.

Go forth and fill your mind with awesomeness!

Booyah.

Why “just keep writing” is the best writing advice ever

The most common writing advice I’ve heard is to “just keep writing.” When I was very new to writing I thought that such advice told me nothing. I had a million questions about writing, so why was that what I heard the most? Just keep trying? Just keep writing?

The key is that practice makes… better. The more you attempt a certain goal, the more able you become at achieving it. Each time you fail and try again, you get better. It took me years of trying and failing to build enough self control to get to the point where I was writing every single day. Not writing well, just writing at all. I wasn’t ready for more answers before then.

The natural man doesn’t have the drive to “just keep writing,” he looks for every excuse not to write. Every failure is actually a success, for each time you fail at writing consistently, you had also tried again. So keep trying, keep failing, and watch the failures become more and more spaced out. The days where I didn’t have the drive to write became further and further apart (habit tracking apps are great for helping with this).

5 years ago I would  have never dreamed that I’d be willing to wake at 5:00 AM every single day (including weekends) to write for 2 hours to meet my writing goal.

It’s what transitions you from someone who wants to write to a real writer. Wannabes talk or complain about writing. Real writers, well, they actually write. Once you have mastered the principle of “just keep writing” and you have a consistent writing habit, then you will start to discover your own answers to your other writing questions.

The next piece of advice I would offer is to “Just keep studying the craft.” you don’t have to wait ’til you master  “just keep writing” to start working on this skill, but “just keep writing” is more important. I’ll talk about studying craft in a future blog post.

So, here is you first and most important piece of advice:

Just keep writing!

What that really means is “if you fail, try again. This rule does not change.  No matter the number of failures.”

Booyah!

 

How to overcome getting overwhelmed and work efficiently

I sometimes have a problem with getting overwhelmed and feeling anxious about all that I have to do. Over time, I’ve come up with these ludicrously simple (and ludicrously difficult for someone who has a hard time focusing) rules and tools.

Here are my rules of efficiency:

1: Focus on one task at a time

Focus on one task at a time, work on it for at least 30 minutes (use a timer, it helps) or when you need someone else’s input, then make the contact (in person, set up a meeting, make a call, or send an email).

2: Focus on a task for at least fifteen minutes to get momentum

I find that if I focus on one task for at least fifteen minutes, I get into the groove and the rest of the time comes much easier.

3: List all projects and subtasks, put aside and focus

List all projects and sub-tasks needed to get those projects done. Put this list aside when focusing on 1 task (this helps keep you from feeling confused and overwhelmed because you won’t have to remember it all, there is a list!).

4: Multiply expected time by 2 or 3

Assume that everything will take 2-3 times as long as your first impression. Don’t commit the planning fallacy!

5: Listen to non-distracting music

Listen to wordless, calm music like this meditation track (it must be music that will help drown out distractions but won’t be a distraction itself).

5: Wait to check texts or emails

Do not check texts or emails until you are between tasks.

6: Take breaks

Take short breaks (5-10 minutes) every hour or two and long breaks (15-30 minutes) every three or four  hours.

7: Spend 5 minutes pre-task getting pumped up

Spend 5 minutes before each working session to plan, visualize, brainstorm, understand and get pumped up for what you are going to work on next, write this in a paragraph or two on paper. It helps you to get in the mindset.  (Thanks to Rachel Aaron for this glorious tip!

8: Be patient with yourself

Some days you can’t do it all. Forgive yourself. You’ll have to shorten your list and simplify your life as you go along. But if you stress about everything you have to do, the guilt will make you explode!

There you go! Quit lying to yourself about your ability to multitask. You can’t. Become a monotasker (someone who can actually focus). Quit stressing out about all that you have to do, and do one thing at a time. You’ll get a lot more done.

You can do it!

Booyah!

-Thomas

Note: Article Updated Mon Dec 5 2016

When the worst thing that CAN happen will ALWAYS happen (in fiction)

I hate fiction where the worst thing that can happen, will always happen.

A lot of writing books tell you “Make it worse! Did you? Now make it worse, again!” This is done as a technique to increase tension in a story.

But when the worst thing and the worst thing alone happens consistently, it starts to erode my suspension of disbelief (or, the believability of the story goes down). No matter how bad someone’s life is, no one has the single worst possible thing happen to them in every and any situation.

(Unless you’re Job from the Bible, but thank heavens that was only one story and not a trilogy!)

It doesn’t make logical sense for a character’s parents to die, then his mentor, his dog, his best friend, then his girlfriend turns evil, his leg is chopped off, (actually, this is starting to sound like an interesting story and a bad analogy). I’m trying to say it doesn’t make sense to look at all the possible outcomes of a scene and to ALWAYS pick the single WORST potential outcome. There are times, many times, where you want to pick the worst, or one that’s pretty bad. But to feel a little more REAL, you need to sometimes pick the good outcome, or, more often, the OK outcome.

This problem, however, usually isn’t enough for me to shut a book. Though my suspension of disbelief and my trust in the validity of the story are damaged, I usually see that as a plot problem. If the writer has done his most important job, I still care about the characters enough to want to know what happens to them.

The true problem comes from thinking “What’s the worst?” to thinking “What’s the next logical thing to happen with everything here?” Part of the problem is foreshadowing, but sometimes, you wonder why the enemy arrow always hit’s the throat. Or the character makes the wrong choice every time. Or the bad guy wins every time. Mix it up. Make it make sense.

And most of all, don’t feel you have to always make it “THE WORST.” Also, don’t feel you have to listen to my rules either.

 

Booyah!

How to discipline your creative brain

In short, rid yourself of the mindset that you have a Creative Brain and an Analytical Brain. Create a new mindset where you have 1 brain: A well-trained, well-practiced, and highly-disciplined Creative Brain.


In talking about Heinlein’s rules, Dean Wesley Smith says that writing is a creative activity, that we shouldn’t grind all personality out of our work by rewriting. He also says that we must read constantly; we must analyze the writing of others; we must study craft, prose, and, most importantly, storytelling techniques; we must actually write; and we must finish what we write.

Heinlein’s Rules:

  1. You must write
  2. Finish what you start
  3. You must refrain from rewriting, except to editorial order
  4. You must put your story on the market
  5. You must keep it on the market until it has sold
  6. You must study the craft (I added this, from comments Dean made)

In reading his book, a metaphor took form in my head. Currently, most people view their brains as being the creative brain and the critical brain.

The creative brain is like a hippy, wild and free, running around with no forethought, no discipline, making scattered notes on the piano or splattering paint all over the walls, all wild and random and instinctual expression.

The analytical brain is like a librarian, strict and stern, concerned with order and organization and cleaning up the messes of others, following behind the hippy and trying to find what it considers “good” music or an “artistic” paint job based off of what others have said before. Whatever fits the librarians prescribed beliefs survives, everything is muted or painted over.

This is a BAD mental model. It makes it so that the hippy bears no responsibility, and the librarian has all authority but is often following the trend so much that whatever “art” is left is drab, boring, and so much like everything else.

A new mental model is needed. Instead of two halves, there is one whole. An artist. A musician, a composer, a dancer. The artist has all the creativity of the the hippy but doesn’t lack foresight. The artist has all of the discipline of the librarian and none of the generalizing prescribed notions.

The artist finds the balance between expression and creation, discipline and focus. It is to take the hippy and offer focused practiced and study. Not to see what is commonly accepted by other professionals (like the librarian), but to learn how to create an experience for the consumer. A powerful emotional experience, tested and learned step by step, with focused practice. Not wanton splattering of random ideas nor the arbitrary slaughter of all but the most statistically accepted by values that seem to exist “just because.”

Dean Wesley Smith says:

“Rewriting is when you do a sloppy first draft with the intent of “letting it sit” (dumbest thing I have ever heard) and then “fix it” later.

This lazy attitude is the attitude of the hippy and the librarian (which actually ends up being a LOT MORE work). Have the attitude of the Artist. Dean says:

“If you tell your creative voice to do it right the first time, the story won’t be broken.”

Train your creative voice. Read a lot. Consume stories. Study how stories are written. Use that in your writing. Practice. Practice. Practice. Become the writer you were meant to be.

 

p.s. Read everything by Dean Wesley Smith. His words about the business of writing have transformed the way I approach the writing career.