Monthly Archives: March 2014

Self-Directed Learning for Writers

Today I met a fiction writer who is utterly alone in his writing. He doesn’t have contact with any other writers, doesn’t know what to do with his book, and when I offered to tell him about resources, he politely declined. He is an outlier among writers I know.

Fiction writers are a distinctive kind of learners. They create illusionary worlds and to do that they draw on their imagination and any resources they can accumulate. Most do research on their characters, settings, and story. Some make up their stories out of whole cloth.

For some, creative writing programs help them with learning the basics of their craft. But even those who have creative writing college programs behind them must pay their dues. I don’t know of any writer who started at the top.

For those who didn’t go through a college program, they must develop their own writing program. Their own program may include learning about the writing craft per se, learning about their genre, and learning about marketing and publishing. As we say in Texas, that’s a tall drink of water.

Most writers learn by doing as I do.

Year before last, I read a number of books on writing Science Fiction. This year, I am reading on writing itself and editing. Here is my reading list for 2014 so far:

Elizabeth Lyon, Manuscript Maker: Revision Techniques No Fiction Writer Can afford to Ignore.

Elizabeth Lyon, Writing Subtext: How to craft subtext that develops characters, boosts suspense, and reinforces theme.

Alice Munro, Dear Life: Stories

Gotham Writer’s Workshop, Writing Fiction: The Practical Guide from New York’s Acclaimed Creative Writing School.

Don McNair, Editor-Proof Your Writing: 21 Steps to the Clear Prose Publishers and Agents Crave.

Renni Browne and Dave King, Self-Editing for Fiction Writers: How to Edit Yourself into Print.

Scott Nicholson, Write Good or Die: Survival Tips for the 21st Century.

Eddie Jones, A Novel Idea: Story Structure Tips for the Break-out Novelist

It is not my intention to say you should read these books, although I do recommend them. My point is you should have your own plan for informing yourself about writing as a craft and writing in your own style.

I also attend a monthly workshop for writers. Usually we have successful writers as presenters. We have an opportunity to ask questions, and then talk about what they have presented.

Finally, I attend a workshop or two per year. That’s where I get to meet other writers and share ideas about writing, publishing and other areas of interest.



Eight weeks to go in the semester. This last week was Spring Break. I had to make a tradeoff between work and writing.

I could have written this week and satisfied my creative urges, or I could have worked on my classes, and my honey do’s. What did I do. Worked on my classes and spring gardening. By doing so, I will be open most nights and weekends for the rest of the semester.

Hopefully, I can catch up on editing work as far back as November a year ago and continue working on new projects. I have promised myself I will not get over committed at the university again.

After almost two years of over commitment, I am happy to slow down everything except my creative writing which has suffered because I couldn’t say no to my colleagues who told me how badly they needed me back in the classroom. If I’m not available, they will find someone. So, I’m no longer available.

I am acutely aware that no one made me agree to the commitments I made, but I’m easily hooked by  deans and department heads who look heartbroken when I tell them I’m not going to teach anymore. Whey they start with their, “what am I going to do?” I start backpedaling.

I was ready for them this semester. When one a Dr. H. said, “I know this has been a tough semester. I wouldn’t blame you if you didn’t teach for us again.” I took the opportunity and said, “That’s good, because…”

A few days later she asked me if I would reconsider. I told her no. Still, I’m a little disappointed I didn’t tell the other department chair I would teach no more. She has a St. Bernard puppy dog look. Those sad eyes got me once again.

But, I’m down to a manageable one class, and that one requires no preparation.

How Many Edits are Enough? (How many hours do I have to study for an A?)

This posting disappeared, so I am duplicating the intent, if not the exact words.

How many edits should you have for your work? That’s difficult to say. Here’s what I do: After I write a story, or a chapter, I go over it for basic grammar errors, spelling, and misused words.

Next, I reread the story to see how it flows. I correct as I go along. If I encounter a sentence, phrase, paragraph, or section that doesn’t work for me, I rewrite.

Then I run Word’s grammar checker and Grammarly, a proprietary grammar checker. It not only checks grammar and spelling, but offers suggestions for words. I don’t always use its suggestions, but I consider them.

Next, I use Excel voice. This software converts text to word. I read along as it reads to me. Everyone who writes knows that they often read what they think they wrote. By having the computer read to me, this type error jumps off the page. Yes, I do go through the whole document doing this.

After I do a final read, I send the document to two readers. My readers are skilled in grammar and spelling. One is a journalist, the other is a very well read professional transcriber. If they have many questions, I send the document to a Ph.D. in English, and a Doctorate in Theology. The latter has read more than anyone I know.

So, back to the original questionHow many edits are enough? The answer is, “Until you are done.”

The answer to the second question is similar. How many hours do I have to study for an A? Answer? Until you know the subject. Works the same.

Succeeding vs. Failing; Winning vs. Losing

I have had a strong interest in the question of who succeeds and who fails. As an educator, the subject interests me to no end. As a martial artist and a master of the art, I have wondered the same thing.

I’ll pose my question like this: if you have a group of, say, fifty people who aim to become students in graduate programs while in their late 20s, 30s, and 40s and they all have demonstrated high levels of intelligence, why is it that a few succeed and many fail? Statistics on graduation rates in doctorate programs suggest 50% do not finish. That’s after they spend thousands of dollars and years of work.

The question intrigues me. Likewise, I am intrigued by authors who spend years working on writing projects and either leave them or hide their work in a drawer.

I found in one of my management classes in graduate school that the fifty students in my example often have the same goals. The people who don’t finish often stop when they face the most trivial of barriers. Those who finish often stay with insurmountable barriers.

Over the years, I have watched academic students and martial arts students come and go. I always see a large number of students in the fall, then the numbers dwindle in the ensuing months. No one ever starts a year of college or signs up for martial arts with a strategy of throwing away their time and money. So, what gives?

Likewise, among writers, I see those who struggle to get started, work on the same book for years with sketchy progress. They remind me of Sysyphus, the Greek King of Ephyra who was punished for deceitfulness by being compelled to roll a boulder up a hill, only to watch it roll back down, and to repeat this action forever. They work and organize, struggle and fight, and lose sight of the top, then tumble back to the beginning.

What about the ones who succeed. I think they are different in several ways. First, their inspiration comes from within. They have decided for themselves what they want to learn to succeed, and teachers, administrators, parents, and other authority figures have minimal impact on them in their focus on goals.

Let me share an example. I had a student I will call Sim. He began school with little purpose. He had no academic plans, no direction, and perhaps more importantly, no degree major. One day as he was attending class, he woke up for a few moments and listened to a professor and another student in dialogue. He had never thought about succeeding as a student as a personal goal, he just drifted along. As he listened, he decided that if he didn’t set some direction for himself, he was going to flunk out or drop out of college. He decided then to pursue a degree in business leadership.

Sim, father, by the way, was a Mexican farmer, as were his grandparents. No one in his family had ever had a degree in anything. I followed him after he finished his degree. Within months, he had been promoted, and months later, he was placed on a management track.

The difference between Sim and other students was that his direction was guided, not by external influences, but from within.

I think the same pertains with writers. If you are writing for yourself, you will succeed, in a sense because you can’t fail. If you are writing to please someone else, you can never succeed.


Character Development using Scrivener

There are many websites that talk about character development. Just as many provide forms you can complete when developing a fictional character.

I have used Scrivener, a software program for writers, to develop my characters. When I’m in the process of writing a story or novel, and I need a new character, I start by creating a posting a ‘3X5’ on my Scrivener ‘cork board,’ under the heading, “Characters.”

Then I give the new character  whatever attributes I want him or her to have. The first things I write are the usual demographic characteristics like age, gender, height, and a general physical description. Then I add something that makes them unique. Their uniqueness may come from how they dress, how they look, or how they act, it may be anything that allows the reader to have a clear image of this character.

Then, over time, I add information about their personalities. To that, I add information about their past. I have found some writing tip blogs that suggest that as it fleshes out a character view. It also helps me to ‘stay in character’ when I’m writing about that person. Next, I think about where they will surpass, what they can do better than others, followed, quite logically, by flaws, weaknesses, or problems they have.

Some writers have a tendency to produce ‘perfect’ characters, but that is becoming passé as writers want to make their characters sound and act real. No one knows anyone, in fact, who is perfect.

Finally, I recognize what drives them. There should be something that compels them toward their goal. For example, in a novel about a hero, the protagonist usually starts without a goal. Then, as conditions change, he or she encounters some circumstance that requires them to make a life changing decision. That is their first test. Often, they refuse the test, but are compelled, by even more dynamic changes, to accept the challenge.

Once I have a role developed I put them in difficult situations. Using the past I’ve created for them, I create how they would respond to situations.

Occasionally, upon rereading my work, I will find that I’ve let my character off the hook too easily. I go back to that scene and rewrite it to up the climax or make them work harder to save themselves. That’s what readers want. Giving a character an easy road does not make for entertaining reading.

Once I have a firm grip on my character’s attributes, then I go to Google Images and look for someone that resembles my character. When I find someone I like, sometimes I go back and adjust my descriptions to match the picture.

Once I’ve done this work, I keep my character description available on Scrivener’s binder so I can click on him or her whenever I want to view them. This is especially useful with secondary characters. I may not use them enough to remember the unique characteristics I gave them. But, if they are available with a click, I am much happier than if I have a character sheet somewhere else that I have to load. By stopping my writing to find a character description, I lose where I was. Using Scrivener, I can find them with a quick click, and go back to my writing.