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Writer Fail #4: Copying My Favorite Authors

Probably the most common mistake for beginning writers is to attempt sounding like their favorite author. However, this almost always comes across as duplicitous. For me, I loved old children’s Brit Lit, so when I attempted a writing project, I naturally took on the voice of Lewis Carroll, J.M. Barrie and C.S. Lewis combined.

It sounded pretentious, and put on.

I remember sitting across from my tutor, reading a piece of fanciful old Brit-style dialogue, and feeling a mite uncomfortable. It didn’t sound like me. Not at all.

My tutor stopped me mid-dialogue and said: “Now, wait. What would you say if that were YOU?” It took me a minute to dig up some honesty, and I told him. “Good,” he said. “That’s more like what your character should have said.”

The thing is – Readers are smart. They know if we’re putting on an act. They know when we’re being genuine. And if there’s one lesson I’ve learned over the years, it’s that readers read for rawness. Not all the time. But true readers do. And if we’re going to be raw, we need to speak, act and write like ourselves.

So, in a way: stop writing like your favorite authors. In another way: start letting your personality flow onto the page like they did. You’ll follow their lead more closely when you dance to the beat of your own drum.

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Breakfast Blend 08/19/14 (Revised)

Sorry this didn’t make it through correctly this morning, folks:

Amazon Vs. Hachette: A Recap – ELECTRIC LIT: “Unless you’ve been living under a rock that doesn’t have internet access, you’ve probably been hearing about the Amazon / Hachette contract negotiations. Normally, contract negotiations between two giant corporations don’t interest anyone. But for a host of reasons, from fears about the future of publishing to vocal authors (allied with both “sides”), the current negotiations are generating a lot of conversation in the news.”

Celebrating the Worst Poet of All Time – HUFFPOST BOOKS: “The official website celebrating (if that’s the correct word) McGonagall’s life and work describes him as having “discovered his discordant muse in 1877 and embarked upon a 25 year career as a working poet, delighting and appalling audiences across Scotland and beyond.” Already a failed actor and a handloom weaver in an era when his craft was rapidly being replaced by machines, McGonagall claimed that at fifty years old, he suddenly heard a voice compelling him to write.”

Words Introverts Use on Facebook - THE ATLANTIC: “Do our Facebook posts reflect our true personalities? Incrementally, probably not. But in aggregate, the things we say on social media paint a fairly accurate portrait of our inner selves. A team of University of Pennsylvania scientists is using Facebook status updates to find commonalities in the words used by different ages, genders, and even psyches.”

Keep it Simple, Not Simplistic – COPYBLOGGER: “Business, like life, can be complicated. Products can be intricate and concepts may seem impenetrable. But good content deconstructs the complex to make it easily understood. It sheds the corporate Frankenspeak. It conveys ideas in concise, economic, human, and accessible terms. A bit of wisdom from my journalism days: No one will ever complain that you’ve made things too simple to understand. Of course, simple does not equal dumbed down.”

Big, Beautiful Words You Need to Use Immediately – HUFFPOST BOOKS: “Sure, language is always changing, and sure, certain words become obsolete for good reason. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t celebrate English’s weird and wonderful quirks, regardless of their relevance.”

 

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Breakfast Blend 08.19.14

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Writer Fail #4: Waiting for the Muse

Let’s all admit it right now: writers are divas. All of us are a fussy bunch. My morning routine usually goes something like this: Get out of bed. Think about writing. Instead, get coffee. Need coffee. Think about writing. Coffee’s not right, need a new batch. Make new coffee. Think about writing. Sit at computer. Check e-mail. Think about writing. Check blogs, for inspiration. Maybe I need to read a little on paper to get “in the flow”. Start reading. Think about writing. “Maybe I just don’t feel it today.” Move on with my day. Guilty for not writing.

You get the picture. I often blame my lack of productivity on the ever-elusive subconscious muse: “I’ll write when I feel it.” Several key authors have helped me past this mindset.

One is Neil Gaimann, who in an interview noted that writing, for him, hardly ever begins with inspiration. Sometimes he writes with the wind at his back – other times, it feels like pulling teeth. “The funny thing,” he says, “Is that when you re-read what you wrote, you won’t remember which is which.” In other words: forget inspiration. Writing is hard work – whether you feel it or not, just do it. It feels like THE thing now, but later, when it’s finished, it won’t matter.

One of my favorite exercises for this purpose was created by a Hollywood therapist (I know, I lost all semblance of credibility with that, but hang with me). She said that creating art was difficult, so in order to do so, one had to “embrace the pain”. So every time one of her Creatives felt the “pain” of beginning to create, she invited them to envision a little storm-cloud in the sky, that represented that pain. Then, they were to step into it, parting the clouds, one at a time and saying: “I embrace the pain.”

Hey, artists are weird. And – it works.

Train your muse to show up for work. Starting now.

 

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Writer Fail #3: Obsession with Adverbs

Not all adverbs are bad. They’re just mostly bad. When every sentence is jinglingly ringing with “he said, knowingly” or non-tantalizingly crafted by “she ran, quickly”, adverbs become indubitably tiresome. You get the picture, swimmingly.

I confess, when I began writing, I thought adverbs were the markers of descriptive prose. Every “I said” or “he said” or “she said” was coached on by a “winsomely” or “sharply” or “sulkily”. Don’t get me wrong – adverbs have their place. But their overuse is tediously tiresome.

A well-chosen verb is worth its weight in 10,000 adverbs. And the moral of the story is: know great verbs. For example, in dialogue there is one verb to rule them all: “said”. That’s all you need. It is, as one writer put it, ‘invisible to the reader’s eye’. And that highlights just the problem with adverbs: they draw attention to themselves, and so detracts from the work, or the story. One solid verb, “said”, ought to do it.

“But!” you say. “How will they know he/she/it IS being sulky?” And therein lies the value of well-written dialogue. If they can’t deduce it from your dialogue, rewrite it. Admittedly, there are times where this will not work. For example, if a reader doesn’t have enough information about a character to sense they’re being sarcastic – say, at the beginning of a book – then maybe, hesitantly, slowly, go ahead and give your reader an adverb. So long as you cringe. And only once.

Always the better thing to do is to ask, “How can I wed this verb and adverb into a solid punch?” Instead of “left hurriedly” try “absconded”. Instead of “say flatteringly” how about “cajoling” or “wheedling”? Know your verbs, writer – it will breathe life into your work.

Now run slowly – I mean jaunt – back to your writing, and choose some great verbs.

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Breakfast Blend 08.14.14

Paper Beats Computer Screens: SCIENCE NORDIC – “Neo-Luddites rejoice: numerous studies show that when you read a text on paper your understanding is deeper and longer lasting than if you read that same text on a computer.”

Query Letter Pet Peeves: WRITERS IN THE STORM - “Ready to send your book out and contact agents? The last thing you want to do is to rush that submission out the door and hurt your book’s chances.”

Tips from an Editor on Editing: THE CREATIVE PENN – “In general, my advice to writers is to breeze through the first draft as quickly as possible. There may be times you’ll need to go back to rework sticky plot points or address other major structural issues, but the goal of the first draft should be to get the bones of your novel down on paper.”

How Fear of Failure Hurts Writers: THE WRITE LIFE: “It happens to the best of us. You completely miss the mark. You fall flat on your face. You get bad results and generally make a mess of things, despite your best intentions. You’ve failed. Now what?”

How Your Ideas Spread – WRITERS RISE: “With a billion web pages and hundreds of TV channels to watch, it’s not enough anymore to have the best ideas. It’s the ideas that stick out, the ideas that spread that win. It’s the ideas that are worth remembering, it’s the stuff that is making a dent in the universe that will prevail.”

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Writer Fail #2: Not Writing.

Malcolm Gladwell and other experts have reported that it takes approximately 10,000 hours to become a true master of anything. 10,000 hours. That’s not 10,000 hours of thinking about doing something, or “sitting on it”. That’s 10,000 hours of sitting down, and cranking away.

It takes me, at a very good pace, about 3 hours to write 5 pages. If I approximate to spend 2/3 of my time editing 1/3 of my writing, that means I will need to produce at the very minimum 5,000 edited pages of work before I can say I’ve mastered my craft. Or, if I spend an hour a day writing, that’s 10,000 days, or 27 years before I’ve truly mastered the craft.

Unfortunately, I spent most of my early years waiting for a great idea for a book to begin writing. In reality, I had to write my first book before I even had a good idea for a book – I found it in the 1% of quality I’d produced. It’s taken me years to hone that 1%, and in the meantime I’ve begun blogging regularly and writing daily. I’m incredibly thankful for all of my failed writing – it improved my skill so that when an opportunity came along (a publishing offer), my writing skills were developed enough to handle it.

But that doesn’t mean I’m a master – not even close. I still have TONS of hours to put in. But you don’t have to be a master to be published – you just have to be somewhere along the journey. And that means writing every day, plus.

How many of your 10,000 hours have you put in this week?

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Breakfast Blend 08.12.14

Robin Williams Leaves Two Completed Movies Behind: THE WRAP – “The Oscar-winning actors’ upcoming projects include a sequel to Williams’ 1993 hit “Mrs. Doubtfire” in development by 20th Century Fox and indie comedy “A Film By Alan Stuart Eisner.”

Creating a Cover in MS Word: THE CREATIVE PENN – “So I’d like to share with you something I’ve been working on for a few months: the secrets of designing a bestselling book cover in Microsoft Word, and then I’ll give you some easy-to-use Word templates so you can get started quickly.”

8 Traits of Good Teachers: DESIRING GOD – “It’s a very short book on spiritual leadership — just a booklet, really — but the walls of this small cave are lined with gold. You won’t even need a pickax to pluck off a nugget.”

Eight Famous Authors on the First Book They Loved: HUFFINGTON POST – “Below, eight contemporary authors share the first books they ever loved….”

10 Writing and Editing Stages of the Successful Novel: ADRIAN EDITING – “When you’re in the midst of writing a novel, it can frequently seem like you’re never going to make your way out of the weeds. How long do you spend on editing? When do you start? When should beta readers come into the picture? Taking those questions into consideration, I’ve drawn up a blueprint below of ten writing stages from the moment you first begin scribbling your novel to that final successful flush when you either submit to agents/publishers or publish the book yourself.”

 

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Writing Fail #1: Not Reading.

This morning I’d like to begin a new series – I’m not sure how long it will last, but I think it’s a pretty good idea and I’d like to know your thoughts (really – I LOVE when I hear from my readers – thank you to all who’ve written in the last few months especially), so if you enjoy it, let me know by sharing it with others. Or just telling me.

The official title is, “Blankety-Blank Mistakes I Made Before Being Published” – I have about 50 in mind, so we’ll see how long this goes without running out of momentum. I intend these all to be short blurbs, because come on WHO THE DEVIL wants a heavy reading assignment on Monday Morning anyway!?

I hope to post them all in e-book form soon (and of course, wonderful subscribers, I’ll e-mail it to you for free!).

Also, for the real writers out there: I realize that title sounds really self-aggrandizing and commercial, but consider this: I almost titled the series “Monday Mourning”, and I thought it not the best thing to show up in your inbox at the beginning of each week.

So, YOU’RE WELCOME.

And, without further ado – let me show to you some scars of mine. Good scars. The kind you learn from:

Mistake #1: Failing to Read.

Stephen King has wisely quipped, “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have time to write.” When I first set out to write a book, I did so having read only a smattering of popular fiction and non-fiction titles. Thinking I understood, then, how to write a best-seller, I went on to half-plagiarize a novel, which I only realized was cliché and copied drivel when it was pointed out by my tutor at Oxford University.

I’d thought my inherent talent was enough to careen me over those who’d buried themselves deep in books to produce profound works of art, but the truth is: if you don’t read, you can’t write.

Reading teaches us to hear great writing. There’s a science to writing, yes. You can read about it. But it’s a science of the ear: good writers know good writing when they read it. Can all of them tell you why? Probably. But if you know the science, and you don’t have the EAR for the science, you’re not a writer.

And the only way to develop that ear is by reading lots of very, very good stuff. And by good stuff, of course, I mean stuff you like. Because the “ear” is not universal. The ear is you. It’s what you like. It’s not what you don’t like. And, like music, there are basic rules: but these rules can be bent, and broken. But if they are, they need to be broken by someone with an INCREDIBLE ear. So you need to learn by osmosis – get reading.

But reading doesn’t just shape style – it shapes content. Being well-read provides a many-splendored pool from which we can create something truly original. Ernest Hemingway once noted in an interview that it was impossible for him to say where his ideas came from, because the mind is a deep, dark well from which things spring forth unannounced. And behind those things are ideas. Books. Stories. Things you’ve read. The less you’ve read, the less pops out of the well. It’s the art of stealing. Picasso once said, “All art is theft”. I believe that’s true – but it’s creative theft, at least.

So, the less you have to steal from – the more half-baked your work will be. The more you read, the more you have to steal, and the more original your work can be. See how that works?

Now, stop reading this, and start reading something worth reading. Go. Now. (If you don’t know where to begin, I’ve compiled a resource called “Classic Fiction – A Guide to Being Well-Read in One Year or Less”. It’s a collaboration of several popular and elitist lists of the greatest novels of all time. It’s free to all my e-mail subscribers – so, you could subscribe and get more Writing Fails. Or, you could hi-jack it from someone who has, which is totally legit and I still respect you).

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8 Things Da Vinci Taught me About Creativity

The other day I was standing in line for the DMV. Like most people, I was reading a biography of Leonardo Da Vinci. Yes, it was paper. Yes, people stared.

As I read, I was struck by his education. Not his intelligence – his lack of reading.

Da Vinci himself knew he would receive criticism from his peers for not having read many books. But, always ready with wit, he had a ready reply: “What they call intelligence, I call memory.”

In other words, Da Vinci was saying, intelligence is not the ability to remember the ideas other people have planted in your head. Intelligence, rather, it the ability to think for your self – to draw conclusions directly from reality, rather than the second-hand opinions of others.

We see this clearly in his art.

Da Vinci foregoing many classical principles, observed reality directly. Unlike other artists, he wasn’t content merely to copy the forms of others. He desired to copy the form of nature itself. So, while other men were reading books, Da Vinci was out examining cadavers, analyzing botany and playing with shadowing techniques.

And that’s what made him original.

The Stealing Tree

After I went to the DMV, I stopped at Barnes and Noble, because, as a rule, if you are within a five-mile radius of books, and have the time, you should go to that place. I picked up a copy of Austn Kleon’s “Steal Like an Artist”. The first principle I read (“steal like an artist”) was about climbing the family tree of ideas – first, find an author you like. Then, read the person they read. Then read the person they read. And go back until you’ve reached the top of the family tree.

And of course, the top of the family tree is reality.

Scripture Stealing

As I thought about this principle of looking at reality directly, rather than second hand, I thought of other great thinkers who operated by the same principle. Jonathan Edwards was one of them. In his brief biography, he is noted to have read only so that he could think – he never simply digested others’ ideas. Instead, he would write pages of notes in response to everything he read.

He did the same thing with scripture.

And if you think about it – on one level, Da Vinci looked directly into reality by looking at nature. And in a true sense, when we look directly at scripture, we’re looking at the Word the Logos: reality incarnate.

And that ought to make us the most insightful people in the world, don’t you think?

The Power of Observation

As I thought about Da Vinci, Edwards, Kleon and the life of an artist, a helpful word came to mind: “Artists are observers”. Not second-hand observers. Real observers.

And if we want to create something meaningful, we’ll need to use the art of observation better than most.

So, as I sat at the DMV, waiting to exchange a license plate, I began to observe: What were the conversations happening around me? How would I describe the person sitting in front of me? How do I feel when I first look at the guy who walked into the room? What is going on in their heads?

I jotted some of these things down, and thought: “Now, this is what good writers do.” Because suddenly in my lap I had a dozen great and realistic dialogues, characters profiles and poignant descriptions.

And they had been there the whole time. I just hadn’t observed them.

Trading Imitation for Originality

I also thought about the second part of my discovery: the idea that the Bible is the reality behind the reality, to put it in Platonic terms. I had skipped my time reading scripture that day – funny how I found time to do some reading that entertained me, but didn’t challenge me – and I thought, “In trying to read for originality, I skipped originality for imitation.”

And as I thought about that, I considered the myriad ways I needed to begin observing. All thanks to Leonardo Da Vinci. Here are a few:

1. Observe the mundane.

Even when you think there’s nothing to observe. Observe anyway. I remember doing this as a science experiment as a kid – my Mom told me to sit outside for thirty minutes, and record everything I saw. Everything I heard.

It was torturous at first, but by the time she called me in, I was scribbling away frantically to finish.

There is a lot going on in the mundane – writers observe it. They write it. They capture it, in their work. So – when all seems at ease – you need to be on the hunt.

2. Observe conversation.

Listening to and jotting down real-life conversations might just be the most helpful thing you can do to improve the realism of your characters. Listen to the broken, dialectic language of others, and try to capture it.

Listen to what people really talk about. Listen to what is on their minds. When you sit down with a friend, give them the attention of an artist – observe them. Ask them questions. See how they react.

It’s a win-win situation.

3. Observe scripture.

This, obviously, was one of my takeaways from the day. And I don’t mean read scripture without community, or without guidance. But while you’re reading – think about it. Let it be as radical as it is. Let it transform you.

Most importantly: ask questions of it. Write out your reflections on it. Meditate on it, mull it over in your mind until truth springs out like newly hatched chicks.

Let the weight of reality sink in.

4. Observe appearances.

I’m actually very weak at this. I don’t notice things.

So, the DMV was an interesting experience for me. I had to identify people’s particular features and ask myself: “How would I put that into words?” It was a formidable challenge, but one in which I walked away having an arsenal of vivid phrases.

5. Observe body language.

Body language is my favorite way to communicate emotion, in writing. I might be stealing too much from the movie genre, here, and I don’t know if everyone likes it.

But I do. I really prefer someone say, “He swallowed, and his eyes darted” than, “He was nervous.” The first preserves the idea of reader intelligence, I think. It gives us a picture, and lets us interpret. The second treats me like a child, who can’t see reality for myself.

Nor does it help me believe he is, in fact, nervous. Give me the proof, will you? Show me the body language.

6. Observe the natural world.

The great poet King David was a master at this. He looked around, and saw theology in everything – a high rock, a shepherd near a river, mountains, streams – it all said to him, “God”. As one sage has put it, “Everything is everything.” There is a metaphor for life in just about every crevice.

Observing the natural world is one way to make those connections.

7. Observe myself.

This is another weakness of mine, but I believe it is ABSOLUTELY KEY to what differentiates good writing from great writing.

For example, the other day I was watching a Netflix film about the first America Fighter Pilots. There was the cocky country bumpkin, the entitled Daddy’s boy, the token black guy, the religious zealot, etc. And as intensely interested as I was in the movie’s subject, I just couldn’t. get. into. it. AT all.

Why? Because deep down, I knew it wasn’t honest. The writer had shared with us a tin-man story: all mechanics, no heart. He hadn’t been honest about himself. He, surely, wasn’t like any of the people on that screen. He kept himself at a distance.

For writers, this is key: writing is about honesty. You can have terrible grammar, a flawed style and a plotline full of holes (ehem, see William Faulkner, James Joyce and Samuel Beckett) but if you are brutally, brutally honest, people will be drawn to your writing like a magnet.

I find journaling to be of great help in this.

8. Observe the observations of others.

Finally, do observe others’ observations. Do read the classics. Do see the world through the lenses of other book-writers.

But just don’t make it your primary planting point. See the world along with others – do steal from them, really, it’s okay.

But also climb your way up to the top, until you see reality through scripture and life. Don’t work on dialogue by hammering away, do it by going to a coffee-shop with a friend, and listening. Listening carefully. Listening like an artist.

Then hit the books with a plumb-line in hand.

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