Category Archives: My Experiences

The problems I’ve encountered and how I dealt with them

The Writer’s Koan: Show don’t Tell

Show don’t Tell is a writer’s koan. A koan is a paradoxical anecdote or riddle, used in Zen Buddhism to demonstrate the inadequacy of logical reasoning and to provoke enlightment. A writer’s koan works in the same way.

Easy-peasy-lemon-squeezy? Then why do writers, myself included, continue to ‘tell’ readers instead of ‘showing’ them? Answer? First of all, this writer’s koan is frustrating. After I heard it a dozen times, I wanted to throw things. I just didn’t get it. It is not intuitively understandable. And people who say this never TELL you what it means except through vague examples. So, how do you fix writing that tells by changing it so that it shows? Show means to evoke the reader’s senses, sight, hearing, taste, smell, touch, and orientation. Which is then interpreted in their imagination (my definition).
Telling closes off the reader’s imagination; it goes no further than what appears on the page.
One of the first ways is to look at your verbs and decide if they are colorless. What are some colorless verbs? Look for: was, put, placed, sit, stand, walk, look, have, seem, feel, see, is, went turned, and began, and verbs in the passive voice.
Also, check your verbs for internal, unseen, dialog words, like: think, know, understand, realize, believe, want, remember, imagines, desire, and a hundred other similar colorless verbs.
Examples.
“I was mad,” is an example of a colorless verb. The verb ‘was,’ your first clue to the lack of color. Second, what have we given the reader to visualize? Nothing. People do different things when they are mad; this character ‘does’ nothing as far was we know.
Let’s change that to:
“I flailed my arms in sweeping gestures and jerked my head toward Sally. Then I put my nose an inch from hers.”
With these sentences, you don’t have to tell the reader I am mad. The reader intuitively knows the these are clues of anger. I’ve shown the reader enough that he or she interprets my story’s intent correctly.
“Jones was excited and nervous at the same time. He looked at Bill and said…” Again, there is no color in these sentences. The reader may get half the way to visualizing what Jones looked like, but he or she is having to do the heavy lifting. They have to guess. I haven’t given them anything they can visualize.
So let’s change the sentences about Jones and Bill to:
“Jones’ voice increased in volume and he fanned himself. He paced the room, then grabbed Bill by his arms and held him as he said,…”
The reader has something to see. I’ve given enough visual clues that he or she can use to conjure what is happening. I’ve sparked their imagination.
Colorless verbs lull the reader to sleep. Their imagination becomes so torpid, they don’t want to continue reading. By changing your verbs to ones with color, you make your writing come alive. The reader’s response to your writing is spirited. Colorful writing is the stuff people are talking about when they say, “I couldn’t put the book down.” Colorless writing is good for putting folks to sleep.
As writers, our goal is to engage our readers, so their imaginations become animated. We want them to feel strong emotions about or with our characters.
Here’s how I check my writing: I use my ‘Find’ toggle in Word and enter the word I’m looking for. When I find an occurrence, I read the sentence. And then consider alternatives sentences and words. Finally, I decide if I want to change the word or sentence. I don’t try to cut all colorless words, but go for a balance of words. I’m looking to stimulate the reader’s imagination. But I don’t want to overwhelm him or her with verbal chaos—visual cacophony.
I was listening to a famous author talk about writing recently. She said she knows she has something good when she responds to it emotionally. If she writes a scene and her hands sweat, it’s good, for example. Or, if she is writing a love scene and her heart beats faster. She has the response she wants to evoke in her readers.
Good luck.

How to Get Unstuck

Let’s say you are writing well, working every day, and then you hit a snag and stop. Struggle as you will, you can’t get yourself started again. How can you fix that? First you must understand your own thinking. Most people think using Single Loop Learning. They begin with assumptions, develop their Goals, values, and Techniques (their action strategy), and then get Results (consequences). They review their results and go back to their Goals, etc. Often, that approach does not lead them to get unstuck, or further down the road. They stay stuck, or are able to get some things done after a time, but get stuck again.
Double Loop Learning is quite different from Single Loop. Here, instead of going back to Goals, etc. you check your own beliefs about yourself and what you are doing to question your Underlying Assumptions. If you are successful in getting past your own Defensive Reasoning, and really doubt your Underlying Assumptions, then you can re-check your Goals, etc. and get different results. If you are successful in re-evaluating our Underlying Assumptions, you can at the same time question your theory of action, the stated reason you have for undertaking something.
It is not unusual for us to have a public, Espoused Reason, we are doing something, but a different Theory in Use, what we actually do. We are able to deceive ourselves into believing they are the same, when more often than not, they are different.
For example, Rodney wants to be a Christian writer to show his love and affection for humanity. His writing reflects his disdain for others with his patronizing attitude. He talks down to others. He has not been successful in publishing anything but pretends to fellow writers he is on the verge of a ‘big breakthrough.’
If his fellow writers talk to him about the voice he is using in his writing and point out readers may feel like he is talking down to them, he gets angry and defensive.
It’s easy to see that Rodney is going to get no where if he continues like he is. He must get past his defensiveness to look at his underlying assumptions to be successful in writing.

For a diagram see the following website:
http://infed.org/mobi/chris-argyris-theories-of-action-double-loop-learning-and-organizational-learning/
Another way of looking at this is to understand that most people have a negative evaluation process they have learned that leads nowhere. It usually goes like this. They write something and their internal critique starts picking their writing apart. This leads them to punish themselves, telling themselves things like, “Why do I even try. I’ll never be a good writer.” Or “I should have studied harder in school; I just can’t remember the rules of writing.” Then they worry about their writing and can’t get out of a worry loop. Even if they succeed in stopping themselves from worrying, they go back to being over critical and start the loop again. This process leads to nowhere. It wastes your time.
An alternative to this negative process is a more positive one that goes like this: As you work, you evaluate what you’ve done. This leads you to consider options you have identified for making your writing better. Then you develop a plan taking the best of your options and using them. Now, you loop back to evaluating what you are doing. This process leads to making your writing better over time.
Once you understand these processes, you can find where you are within the processes. Once you’ve identified yourself, you can stop yourself and switch to a more active process. So, if you find yourself being stuck, you can use one of these processes to get unstuck and make your writing better.

Pumping a Dry Well

Every once in a while, my get-up-and-go gets up and goes. Coming up with ideas becomes hard, my mind seems to be blank, and projects that enthralled me yesterday are as dry as a cow’s skull in the Chihuahua desert. What to do?

People have many ways of dealing with writer’s block. One of my favorites is to walk away from whatever I’m working on and do something else that’s creative. I may start an entirely unrelated story; research an idea, exercise, or cook, anything that takes me away from the dead spot.

I used to race sailboats. At times, there are calms and you sit dead in the water, but there are things you can do. The best of those is to look for a spot where the water is rippled. That tells you there is wind there. You point your boat to where there is some activity and hope it will get good winds. The same applies to writing. You can sit in a dead space forever, but if you go to where there is some activity, you can get started again.

Another thing to do is to change your mindset about what you are doing. When it comes to writing there are several categories of activity, among them are: creative writing, rereading your work out loud, having someone else read it, scanning your work for known errors, designing book covers,  writing endnotes, preparing your book for epublication, and marketing your work.

I believe each of these activities use different ego states, different ways of thinking. When you go from creative writing to editing, for example, you change your perspective and use different parts of your brain.  Creativity requires childlike ideation; editing requires adult thinking. It is almost impossible to do those two activities at the same time.

Putting heavy demands on yourself when your creativity goes—when you dry up, hardly ever works. Why? It’s like telling a bored child to stop being bored and play. They sullenly stare at you like a zombie waiting for you to tell them how to play. You have to distract them by having them do something else, only then can they get back into their playing mode.

The problem is the same with many writers. If you tell them to just be creative, they give you the same look as a child you’ve told to play. You have to change your view of life if you’re stuck.

I believe this so strongly that I worked it into my lectures at the university where I worked. I didn’t intentionally include it. When I retired, my students gave me a plaque that read, “Change your thoughts and you change your world.” Each of us can change how we look at the world at will.

Retiring and Writing Full Time

Tomorrow is my last day of employment. I’m retiring for the fourth time. Really this time. I’m not going back.

Imagine my surprise when this morning I asked my wife what she was doing. She was busy writing a long list of notes.

She explained she was preparing a list of things for me to do in retirement. Maybe I’ve forgotten if she did that before. I’m not looking for someone to plan my time, tell me what to do, make sure I stay busy, or any other way of saying the same thing.

I remembered a song from a few years back: Sunshine, by Jonathan Edwards, not the theologian, the singer. The song is from 1971. I reminded her of a couple of lines in the song: “He can’t even run his own life; I’ll be damned if he’ll run mine, sunshine.” Then I left to go to a bookstore. I do that on Sunday afternoons; spend a few hours browsing books and magazines at my local bookstore. I even buy something from time to time—they are an endangered species.

When I got back home, the list was gone. Hopefully, it is gone away forever.

That’s a problem with retirement.  Not having all your time structured by something ‘productive’ is distressing to working people. They ask with real angst, “What will you do?” When you answer them, they say, “You’ll get bored,” or “You’ll be back.”

If I answer them with “Nothing,” that causes them more distress. Doing something that may or may not be ‘productive’ like writing, or thinking, or playing music for no other purpose than enjoying those activities surely can’t be construed to be ‘productive’. Part of the reason for that is that people endure their work most don’t really enjoy it. They just endure. Hanging on is not living.

 

Some Things I’ve Learned Along the Way to Becoming a Writer (That Have Little or Nothing to do with Writing)

Writing is a craft and art. But, I’ve learned a few things outside of writing that has improved my writing. In no particular order they are:

Years ago, I reached a plateau in my martial arts. Others were being promoted, but I was being passed over. I studied my forms, worked on my punches, kicks and throws, but my master instructor passed me over again.

There was another martial artist; I secretly called him Crazy John, who would work for hours on one tiny move. Once he mastered that, he would go on to another small move. It took him days to get through a 25-step kata (memorized stylized fighting form). I laughed at him behind his back for his obsession with details.

As I was watching him work out one day and chuckling to myself at his detail work, the master instructor called to John. He told him to prepare for his next test. I didn’t want to look directly at the master. I didn’t want him to know how badly I wanted to try out for my next belt. He said nothing to me.

As I watched John return to his workout with a satisfied look on his face, I thought, Maybe John is not crazy. Maybe it’s me.

I immediately began to work on small details found in every move. Shortly after that, my master instructor asked me to test.

My lesson was this. If crazy people are advancing at something you want to do, watch them. They may be doing something right. If you think they are, emulate them.

After that, anytime I had difficulty with martial arts, I went back to basics, breaking the moves down to their most elemental parts.

Another lesson I learned from martial arts is this: There was one kick called a tornado kick in my school. It is a leaping kick that includes a 360-degree spin. I couldn’t do it. No matter how I tried, it just wouldn’t come. I decided to work on the kick every Saturday for one hour.

I worked on the tornado for two years. In the back of my head, I began to believe it was physically impossible for me to do this particular kick. Even though I kept working, I had no expectation of being able to do it.

On Saturday, I was stretching before working on the impossible kick. One of our young champions came out of the dressing room and in my peripheral vision, walked up to the bag and executed a perfect tornado. His foot slapped the bag like he’d hit it with a bat. The bag jumped on its chain, flying wildly away from him.

Something in me said, “Oh, that’s how you do that.”

After the champion was through warming up, I went to the bag. With a clear visualization of the kick in my mind, I executed it perfectly. There was a resounding slap, and the bag jolted away from me. As I went back to my ready position, everyone in the gym applauded.

I incorporated visualizing my techniques in my learning.

These influenced my writing by telling me (1.) to go to basics anytime I have difficulty and (2.) visualize myself succeeding.

More on life’s lessons later.

 

On Being Criticized

“I can’t stand it when I see a comma misused.”

“If a writer changes POV too often, I just stop reading.”

“See, he repeated this word he used five pages ago.”

“That’s okay, many new writers make this common mistake, and we can fix it.”

Let’s face it. There are some readers who search intently for any error in writing and throw up their hands when they find one. They stop reading.

The first time I met this phenomenon, I was making a presentation. A man in the group said under his breath, but loud enough for everyone to hear, he misspelled X. If he doesn’t care enough to check his spelling, I don’t care to stay. He picked up his notebook and left.

While anyone can stand to lose a reader now and again,  this man was important to my presentation being adopted by the group. Luckily, the group liked the presentation enough to adopt my position. But he taught me an important lesson. While I was not stressed out over a ‘small spelling error,’ he was. I concluded that some people are so strong in their opinions about errors they stop reading when they find one. I as a speaker and author had to pay enough attention so that I didn’t lose readers because of mistakes.

After that, I began working on learning my errors and correcting them. When I finally got to write novels, I discovered an entirely new set of rules that stood between successful writing and me.

When my secretary found out what I was doing, she told me I had about twenty-five words I consistently misspelled. She had made a list of them for me. I was spelling them as I pronounced them. With my regional accent, that didn’t work. I posted the list in front of me. After a few weeks, I could spell those words correctly.

I actually like to learn from computer programs. When my computer highlights a misspelled word, it places a red line underneath. I can click on the word and the correct spelling pops up. I’ve discovered that the computer is neutral in its corrections. It doesn’t curl its lip and look at me with disdain while saying, “You don’t know how to spell that?”

I learn better, when a problem is pointed out to me in a nonjudgmental way. If there is a hint of disapproval, I react more to that than trying to change.

As computers progressed and began providing grammar checkers, my writing improved. I still have readers and use an editor, but I prefer the soft corrections from uncritical computers to hypercritical humans, no matter how much they believe they are helping me by being supercilious.

I am in a critique group as well. I carefully selected this group to be a no-holds-barred group where members feel safe to critique and be critiqued. The important distinction for this group is that the critique is focused on the writing and never the writer.

Why Critique Groups?

What’s the value of a critique whether individually or in a group?

I flew solo for a few years when I began writing. My critiques were from friends. One was a Ph.D. English professor who was a creative writer. Another was a advanced reader who held a doctorate. The second one was a voracious reader of philosophy, science fiction, and religious works. He has read more than almost anyone I know. I had a few others, but they mostly read one or two things then didn’t volunteer to read more.

My two favorite readers shared the same flaw when it came to my writing: they were both ‘soft’ in their critiques. The English professor offered the toughest critiques, but he stopped short of giving a full evaluation. He would say when he wanted to analyze no further, ‘Other than that, there are a few mechanical problems.’  The mechanical problems he skipped were the types of problems that kept editors from publishing me.

The other reader was so kind, he couldn’t bring himself to offer sharp criticism.

Here’s the rub. Without good feedback, I continued to have the same problems. Since I didn’t know they were problems, I didn’t correct them. I would write a story, my friends would vet it as ‘beautiful fiction,’ and no one would publish it. The short of this story is that unless your friends are professional writers, you can miss the step of having your friends read your work and save a lot of your time.

After a few years, I connected with a critique group. The people in this group are nice friendly people, and they don’t shy away from pointing out critical errors that would keep me from being published. They have backgrounds that including being published and what editors are looking for.

The most frequent criticisms I received were:

“You are too wordy; you need to tighten this up.”

“You are changing POV’s too often – head hopping.”

“How could the character who’s POV you are using know that?”

“This sentence should have a comma, no comma, a semicolon, no semicolon, no period goes here, but a question mark, there should be no question mark, you left off quotes, etc.

Any one of these problems would be enough to cause a publisher to reject my work. (I have my rejection notices hanging on a shelf right above where I write.) By listening to critiques of my work along with critiques of others, I began to analyze my work until the frequency of negative evaluations dropped.

About six months after of attending the critique group, I went to a party sponsored by one of the members. I heard the most published author, who had missed the last meeting, ask one of the other published authors about who had read and how their works were.

She answered by mentioning my name and saying, “He has improved significantly.” Even though the comment wasn’t meant for me, it made me feel as if I was progressing in my writing.

As for being published, I sent a manuscript to a ‘real’ editor who agreed to read it. She sent me back comments on almost every page with corrections. I had to start over at a new level.

I understand that some writers get hurt feelings by critiques. I even know one who refuses to have his work critiqued because his feelings were hurt by an editor. I look forward to an excellent review. How else can I grow?

 

 

Editing Backlog and Writing Style

I started another book. Foolish of me. I haven’t finished editing several others. I put off starting as long as I could tolerate not writing. I just couldn’t put it off any longer. I even have another book waiting in the wings, anxious to get on stage.

As some know, I continue to teach classes at the University as I write fiction. The two are roles not compatible. Routine work, the college courses, tend to drive out time for nonroutine work, the waiting writing. It’s always the writing that suffers. I work it in when I can.

I have a plan this time. My classes start at 2:00 pm. If I arrive at the University at 11:00 am or so, I can carve out a few hours to get some writing done – at least on class days.

Letting editing pile up is like hiding dirty laundry. Eventually, you have to do it. When you do, you have taken what could have been a small task and made it into a herculean one. I keep doing that to myself – must be a character flaw.

I have finally taken the advice of a friend of mine and write in smaller amounts, write slower and edit as a go along. I write 500 words a day, the next day, before I begin creating, I edit the earlier day’s work. That way, I don’t have an ice dam of working piling up, threatening to break and flood me.

Part of learning how to write is learning what works best for you. No two writers are alike and one way of writing won’t work for another. That’s why I half listen when I go to writer’s workshops and conferences and pundits shares their way of writing the Great American Novel. It may have worked for them, but not work for me.

Sometimes, however, I pick up things. For example. I went to a workshop where I heard a western writer talk about the process he used. As he told about his practice of going to specific geographic locations where events occurred, I thought, that won’t work for me. I write fiction. How can I go to a fictional place?

Even as I was dismissed what he was saying, a part of me suggested I could find an image on the Internet that looked  like what I had in mind. That has worked for me. Shortly after, I was writing a story about a cave, Pavi’s Cave. I got a picture of a cave’s opening, then different chambers within, and used those as the basis of my descriptions.

Additionally, I thought I could do the same with characters. I can find a character that looks something like the one I have in mind and use them as my fictional character. That worked too.

More on Music and Writing

As I study music, its subtlety and nuances continue to surprise me. This year, I have listen to Christmas music. That’s because I’ve been playing it and hear it on a different level than I have before.
One of the subtleties that corresponds to writing is this: Music usually begins and ends with the same note. In writing, whatever is introduced in the beginning must be tied up on the final pages. For example, in one of my stories, the heroine’s mother is insane and has very pale white eyes. That’s an oddity, but in the last few pages of the story, the heroine’s eyes turn white, and if she doesn’t complete a task, she will go crazy. There you go. The beginning is tied to the end in an unexpected way. It does tie everything up and explains the unexplained found in the beginning.
On an even more fundamental level, the pathway to playing better music is playing scales, going to the basics. The path to better writing is knowing the basics and being able to go there.
In ancient music, there were frills and extravagances that are no longer there in modern music. The same is true of writing. The ornate, flowery speech of the Victorian era has been replaced by more vernacular speech. Even colloquial speech, like Twain used in his Tom Sawyer stories, has been replaced with more minimalist writing. One or two words from the vernacular are used as signposts to indicate the speaker’s culture and level of education. The full use of vernacular is no longer expected or required. One must remain consistent, however.
I recently read a work where the writer switched between one or two words in the vernacular and more formal writing for the same character. The effect was suspension of disbelief evaporated as I began to pay attention to his difficulty in keeping the character on one level of speech or another.

Now that You have a Book, What Next?

A few hours ago I took my fourth book to a local office supply shop to have it printed. I think most everyone agrees that somehow words look differently on the printed page than on a small screen. I always find problems with the written text that I didn’t see on my computer screen.
Now that I have a new book, the question becomes: What will I do now? As I dropped it off and started back home, I was thinking about my next steps. I’ll have to get my book to an editor to get someone else’s perspective. However, before I do that, I’ll have a last edit of my own.
When I get it to the editor, I know she will find problems that I didn’t see. I just accept that. It is always true. That doesn’t mean that I always agree with her, but I certainly give her edits serious consideration.
Next, I’ll get it ready for a ‘proof’ copy. I’ll look at that again and have several other people look at it. Then, when I’m satisfied that it the book is near perfect, I’ll either send it to an editor or indie publish it.
The next phase will be to let the world know it is there. This is where things get complicated. I will make my new book and my earlier ones free on Kindle. Then I’ll announce on my blog and social media they are available for free. Prior to that, I’ll let the organizations I belong to know I have a new book. I’ll also let the local media know.
Hopefully, the book will be available on Kindle and CreateSpace at the same time. The reason I’ll make it free is so that the numbers requested will go up. That should create interest in the book that sales alone will not.
At the same time, I will update my old books and Internet references to include my new book and cross-reference them. I want to make it easy for readers to find my other works.
Finally, I’ll make a circuit through several venues where I take my books with me and sell them direct to the public.