Monday, May 20, 2019

Why are Australians Lime Green? (Selling to the Niche)

Erasing the Color


I lived in Australia for six months, returning my dysfunctional boyfriend back to the arms of his home country. In a sloppy, emotional manner, of course. Australia, I found, was very American-adjacent, sharing reasonable facsimiles of food and clothing and television. It was surreal, the differences just subtle enough to not fully accept the country as reality.

Many Australians asked me the main change from the United States in attempts to pry small talk out of me.

“How is America?” they wanted to know.

“Gray.”

I’ve talked about it before, but it sticks with me. The strangest thing I realized about my home country is how dull our colors are. Look around when you drive through town and see the white and black and gray cars. Sure, there’ll be a couple of reds and blues here or there, but they too tend to be on the duller, darker side. Dark colored clothing, grayish blue buildings, why is it that many of our possessions lack passion, personality, and just vibrancy?

And the answer is obvious.

It’s the same reason why it’s so hard to find shorter chained necklaces. The same reason tall, short, fat, and thin people struggle to get clothes that fit from a mall; if you want to sell well, you want to create something that will work for most people. In a way, you don't really want to stand out. Simple and well made encompasses a lot of successful business modules. Because, despite being known for our vanity, Americans these days tend to think of beauty as impractical, unnecessary, and lacking intelligence. We build perfunctory, cookie cutter houses in mass so they can be cheaper, creative heavy homeowners’ rules to protect ourselves from eyesores. We love Lululemon and Walmart where you have generic designs with a few variations. We move into white apartments with unsheeted, white mattresses on the floor, keep all our photos in the hard drive, and just generally focus on the grindstone of life instead of taking a moment to stop and make some roses.

How does this affect the writer?

We all can bitch about the common denominator movies which don’t push your mind or emotions too far, with the same story formula and actors who are probably all related, but the truth is, selling something with personality is difficult.

It’s not impossible, of course. If you note what does extremely well, whether that be bestsellers like Fifty Shades of Grey or cult classics like Edgar Allan Poe, they tend to be specific. There’s some weirdness in there, a risk that hasn't worked before, that makes it iconic, specific, and touch people right in the right place at the right time. They take a—if only a little—chance that doesn't fall in line with expectation.

This year, I finally escaped from my job as a caterer. With the decrease in stress, having more time and focus, and just being generally healthier, I started to really become determined in answer to a question that had plagued me since the graduation from college: Do I try to be a writer on the side, or risk poverty and aim to do it full time?

Of course, for a while, I had the sensible answer of you need a day job. Yet, based on my experiences and current situation, I thought, “This is prime time to not have a job!” I put so much energy into work that I didn’t feel to be important, if I could find a way to be that productive in a area I had personal investment…

Plus, more personal control over the success means having more mental stimulation. Not trapped by the priorities of people above me, I felt I could utilize my tendency to solve problems to make better decisions. Like ways to make my life easier, for one thing. 

So I began to research. Those people who get their word out there? What do they do differently?

Unfortunately, I learned some things that I didn't want to admit.

Self-publishers have often posted polls about naming their stories, series, or other things, and I’ve found that the one I liked best was… ignored. And the one that I hated? Adored! You look at those who become successful through great online campaigns, Instagram posts, blogs, and other strictly internet tacks and you’ll notice what society has been pushing all along: They’re pretty generic, comparable with each other, minimalist and focused one change.

To look professional, the best way seems to be to do the most minimal.

There are exceptions. Youtubers are typically noticed for their content and not the super-high quality. People connect with some things that, regardless of the context in which it appeared to them, they just fall in love. Love, is in fact, blind.

I guess the real trouble is that when you don’t have that “something,” you need to just not alienate everyone, and to do that by having . Which seems obvious, now that I’ve spent this time thinking about it, and frustrating because what the hell is that something? It’s definitely being genuine. It’s definitely having personality and doing something different. But if your personality and tastes don’t compensate for skills, don’t fall in line with expectation and lack the love, then people push you off with a little bit of disgust.

Or that’s how it feels.

As I try to come up with my style, a familiar vibe each time someone sees my work, I struggle with the business I like and the minimalism that appeals to many others. I struggle with the differences I see rather than the similarities others recognize. I (and this is the important part), imagine that each time someone looks at something I’ve created this whole storyline of how much I’m doing wrong, at the reason they don’t care. But while I do feel I have a long way to go in hooking in my audience, it’s important to pay attention to the facts.

Yes, my dark and busy style contradicts the successful blogs of Jeff Goins and The Bloggess, yes, I’m busier than most, and yes, I don’t want professionalism to mean simplicity, but that doesn’t mean that I’m not on the right path.

I can sell my hot pink and lime green cars to a world of beige, and even though there’s a reason most don’t, it doesn’t mean it won’t ever be exactly what someone else is looking for.

My focus is to do something I like, something I respect. And yes, gathering the skills to do that requires me to identify what others are doing “right,” but it doesn’t mean that I won’t be able to sell myself by toning me down.





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Friday, May 17, 2019

Professionalism and the Chamber of Poor Definition




Give me a lazy kid over a perfectionist any day of the week.

It’s not to say I don’t love me my little neurotics, because they definitely have personality, their projects are pretty awesome, and having arguments with them is certainly stimulating. But that’s just it; a lazy kid knows they’re wrong when a perfection is sure they’re right.

To win a fight with someone trying to do the minimal, mostly you just have to laugh and call them out on their bullshit. Children, at least, will be amused, their arguments growing more and more ridiculous as you insist, “You didn’t want that part of the painting white; you got bored and quit.”

But trying telling the perfectionist that their work is pretty damn good and please, please for the love of God, do not erase another one. That’s an argument you can’t win. Possibly because they want the praise, but typically because they truly believe that it’s Just. Not. Good. Enough.

When one of my most high-strung students drew a nearly perfect cartoon circle, she complained she didn’t like it.

“What do you not like about it?” I asked.

“I don’t know. It’s just bad.”

A typical answer. Completely useless too.

“Be more specific.”

“I just want it to be more professional.”

“Well, it’s a sketch. Professionalism has more to do with the medium; once you paint it and ink it…”

“I mean, I want it to be more realistic.”

Ah.”

I’d had a similar argument earlier this year. When two creative partners had a (we’ll put it politely) difference of opinion, they both criticized the other for not being professional, to which I realized, I didn’t believe any of us actually agreed on the definition of professional. One thought professionalism was inflexibility—having it planned out and sticking to it. Another thought professionalism was creative merit. Personally, I thought professionalism was credibility and reputation, which we seemed to be hemorrhaging from intergroup fighting.

These days it just seems to be an umbrella term for “good.” More often than not, it’s just an easy insult. There’s an, “I’ll know it when I see it,” sort of vibe.

For clarity, the real definition of “professional” is simply if you’ve been paid for the job. Many professional authors aren’t that professional looking, even half-assed self-published works making more than the painstaking story still hidden deep in your computer.

But what is it? What is it really?

The important thing is to be specific when trying to communicate, and remember that this word means different things to different people. Mostly though, the underlying definition is the difference between “someone who doesn’t know what they’re doing,” and “someone who does.”

So, this is the question for today: What makes an author look like they know what they’re doing?

Once you find the answer to that, you’ll be better at finding satisfaction with your work.





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Monday, April 29, 2019

How to Separate Work and Home


(When No Ones Paying You Jack)



“Oh good. You’re not doing anything…”

It’s hard to get it. Do they believe that writing isn’t actual work? I’m not surprised it doesn’t occur to them that we have to make sacrifices to create time for writing. Including turning down actual paying jobs. (Or, rather, jobs with guaranteed fruition.)

We skip parties, T.V., cut out video games, develop discipline without a boss or coach, turn down time/mentally consuming careers, and, most importantly, we sacrifice friendships by saying, I can’t do that, I have to work.

Why is writing not considered a real job? Many suggest because it’s not hard or it’s supposed to be fun, so it’s not respected. But I’d actually say it’s a matter of flexibility. The deadlines are self-imposed, you’re not on the clock, and you can easily move things around to fit more in. People respect having a hardass boss and bureaucratic set of policies, but not when those are self-imposed. My unpopular opinion (contradicting what I’d like to say) is there’s some truth to it; the benefit of working at home is that you can change what you’re doing to help someone else, and in some cases, you should. I’d go so far to say that the benefit of working from home is being able to be there for your friends. (I’m writing this from someone’s couch waiting for her internet guy while she’s participating in “real” work.) The problem isn’t that it must be treated like an on-the-clock, 9-5 job, but that discipline and elasticity are like oil and water, and it takes a lot of extra work to get those bastards to mix.

Do you want to be a fulltime writer? Contrary to popular opinion, it’s not the finances that stand in your way the most. It’s having the personality to be the bad guy. But then the good guy—and knowing when to be which.

Split your identity. Maybe with hats.

If you become a self-published author, or sell your own merchandise, or basically get your money directly from your customers, this becomes even more important. You need to think of yourself as both boss and employee so you have a better concept of a healthy work environment.

An example of this is when freelance authors don’t pay themselves for their work.

It’s easy to say, “Oh! I could do that cheaper!” forgetting the reason is basic slave labor. You not only have to make enough money to 1) pay the initial costs 2) invest in the company’s growth but 3) live off of. A good way to do this is to act like you’re an employee; would you consume your life for free if it wasn’t your project?

But even if you aren’t an entrepreneur—planning on traditional publication—if you’re going to work from home, treating yourself as both boss and employee can help you keep your home life and work life separate while still enjoying the flexible benefits of being in charge.

HOW TO BE A GOOD BOSS

Okay, yes, keep the employees on track.

So the obvious job as manager is to make sure lazy assholes do what they’re getting paid for. The thing is, in a healthy work environment, this is not their main goal. Instead, good bosses will know…

All work and no play makes employees go postal.                                              
When you have a loyal employee with a good work ethic, especially someone who cares a lot about the project, it’s very possible they’ll run themselves into the ground. Even if they don’t flip out, the quality of their work will decrease along with their ability to handle stress. It is important to always make sure that employees are making wise decisions—not just in being productive, but in self care.

-Give yourself breaks and honor them. A lunch break should be lunch only. Give your mind time to collect itself without feeling guilty. You can work through lunch once in a while, but it should not be a constant.

-Be reasonable about how much can be done in a day. Know how long things take, what problems might arise, and be sympathetic when shit hits the fan. Don’t overbook or admonish yourself when something took longer than you expected, or you had an unrealistic timeframe.

-On that note, try not to schedule yourself for too much overtime. Make sure you have days off. Even if writing is something you do on that scheduled day off because it’s fun, it’s important to have time to breathe, hang out with friends, and do nothing without feeling shame. As a small business owner, yeah, it’s likely you’ll work overtime, but if you have to do it constantly, it’s best to look for some changes, whether that be upgrading tools, hiring out, or cutting back somewhere.

-When you’re self-employed, it can be difficult to know if it’s okay to “call in sick.” Sometimes literally if a cold is bad enough to stay in bed? Or is it acceptable to make a vet appointment during usual work hours? Can you take that personal call? Go on vacation? Be a sympathetic boss. Simply look at things like expected output, deadlines, and whether or not you actually needed to get something done today. Think about patterns of behavior, and what will happen if you push back the deadline.

If you are more of a slacker, why-don’t-I-ever-finish-anything, type, you may need to become more of a hardass on yourself. It’s still important that you, as your boss, recognize you are a human with a life; just think about what you would expect from someone who you’ve hired and hold yourself to those standards.

For instance, if you get shit done, then putting a ban on personal calls during “workhours” is silly. But if you tend to not be very productive, you might establish strict policies for yourself, like you might in a work place.

It’s helpful to write out some expectations for yourself and your “company.”

-What MUST be done daily?

Schedule a routine so these things get done first.

-Weekly?

Plan which day you will do it on. Make sure to give yourself enough time.

-Monthly?

Do it on the same date that’s easy to remember.

-Once, at some point?

Find a slow day to devote to it in advance. Don’t schedule anything else.

-Make a list of things you’d like to do and try to find time for one each day.

Respect your schedule like it was made by someone who could fire you.

Keep in mind who you are. A good manager knows who they’re dealing with.

Do you have set work hours? Do you have a list of jobs and you’re done when you’re done? This depends on your attention span, how you’re motivated, and what other aspects of life you have to fit in.

Do you have set tasks during certain work hours? This depends on your organization skills and how to keep things under control and stimulating.

Are you allowed to text during work hours? Be on Facebook? Answer a call from your mother?

Can you schedule personal appointments during work hours?

What are the rules on breaks? Bathroom, coffee, smoking, playing with your dog, etc.

Is it acceptable to work on household tasks during work hours? Doing laundry while writing?

Make sure these are judicious. Do not make demands on yourself you can’t possibly fill. More importantly, understand your strengths and weaknesses. A good boss knows that everyone is different and sets up the situation to be the most productive. If you feel happy with your productivity while chatting on messenger and taking several breaks to do dishes, go for it. If you can’t pull away from Facebook, treat yourself like a lazy employee who will get fired if they don’t knock it off.

-Know when to hire out work.

The worst mistake a company can make is understaffing. And like any business, the likelihood of you doing so is because you don’t have the money. Yet, when you do have an extra pair of hands stress levels and productivity increase drastically; you simply have more time to do it right, even when your person isn’t half as experienced as you.

Times to hire people:

1) When you’re inexperienced in an important aspect for your work, such as graphic design. Of course, you may hire a graphic designer, or you may hire a teacher to train you faster. Self-teaching is also a great option, but you must be critical on yourself, and it takes much longer than if you have someone who has already gone through it helping you.

2) When you have too many necessary responsibilities to do within a healthy timeframe. If you are working 15 hour days and no days off, you need to start delegating your work. This may be as simple as say, having a company make your bookmarks instead of printing and cutting them yourself. It might be hiring an editor, a graphic designer, or a marketing company. It might be getting your husband or mother to come in and just do a little here and there.

3) The money saved isn’t always worth the time spent. (And homemade isn’t always cheaper.)

Before wasting your life dealing with a frustrating color printer, do your research. Sometimes companies can do it way cheaper than you think. In some cases, working for minimum wage and using that money to hire out actually is more profitable than doing it yourself.

Remember your time is worth something. Yes, slave labor is cheaper than actual labor, but cheap isn’t always savvy. If you’re really strapped on cash, there are many options to get more hands for a creative person: trade services, ask family and friends, find new talent trying to get their foot in the door, even just buying better tools can save you money in the long term.

HOW TO BE A GOOD EMPLOYEE

-It’s not about what you can get away with.

Unfortunately, sometimes we learn that “good work ethic” is “don’t piss the boss off.” Meaning that we know not to text while on the clock is because someone will get mad at us. Once you start working for yourself, however, you’re suddenly exposed to an entirely new dynamic.

A lot of businesses work on this weird sort of passive-aggressiveness. The company sets up tight boundaries that are much stricter than they need to be so when you get those boundary pushers on your team, they won’t actually be pushing them too far. Meanwhile, the employee does things in secret, only behaving enough to not get caught.

In a healthy environment, however, everyone is more communicative and upfront, honest about what is actually necessary. So it’s partially the boss’s job to make sure the employee works when he’s supposed to and not when he isn’t, but really a good employee is very self-aware and loyal to the project. Meaning that the employee does recognize when it’s okay to take a break and when it’s important that they get shit done.

The employee’s job is to take responsibility for the work. Especially for someone self-employed, the quality and progress on the project falls predominantly on the employee’s shoulders. It is YOUR name on the line. The boss acts as a support system, sort of a double check to make sure that good decisions are being made, but a good employee doesn’t need very much supervision.

-Decide on your own standards and needs, and stand up for them.

While some people struggle motivating themselves without a boss, others struggle to take care of themselves. Yes, it is important that, while working, you focus on making the project the best it can be, make good decisions, and don’t waste time, but it is also important to have a balanced life, recognize what’s going on with you internally, and be fair to your needs. Just like you would do if you had an actual boss, if something about the workplace isn’t effective, the employee needs to communicate that. He’s the one most impacted, he’s the one who will see the problem first. We might be tempted to shame ourselves for being lazy or not investing enough into our business, to treat ourselves as a skeptical, pissy manager who doesn’t understand why you can’t work today when your kids are sick, yet that’s the benefit of being self-employed—when you can figure out your needs, you have a good boss who will be willing to work with you.

If you want to be self-employed, sometimes the first step is to examine why workplaces function the way they do.

You might end up deciding that your instincts are dead on, and you’re happiest without a company motto, a checklist, and a hat breathing down your ass every time Facebook calls, but I find that utilizing common managerial methods can do wonders for your decision making and being firm about your boundaries.






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Friday, January 18, 2019

When Building a Universe, No One Wants to Decide What’s for Dinner




It’s a good thing Snow White only met seven dwarves, because learning more names than that requires a genius. It’s suggested that the average person can intake seven new pieces of nonsequential information, that multitasking drastically decreases the quality of your output, and a high mental load can cause a break long before sleep-deprivation. Feeling overwhelmed is the most impacting obstacle that prevents us from pursing our dreams.

How do I motivate myself to clean my house? Start writing a book. Things like cleaning or cooking don’t require a lot of mental taxation, especially when it’s not your first time. But regardless how often you write, telling a story—especially a fictional one—you have to constantly be making decision. And if you’re building a world from scratch, well…

Now, let’s be clear, there’s a lot of writers who love talking about what the characters are having for dinner. Hack hack hem, Mr. Martin. But that’s just it. Characters. The person who spends all day writing and coming up with new magnificent dishes and the names that goes with them does not want to think twice about what to make for dinner.

I find that the hardest time to be a writer—outside of bone crippling hopelessness—is when I’ve worked jobs requiring high mental load. Ones that I need to pay attention to detail after detail, schedule different jobs against each other, and keep track of to-do lists. The mental load is a real problem. The trick to being inspired can be to just cut down on those little things weighing you down:

-          Make time in which you won’t think about anything but writing, or let guilt get at you for putting something non-writing related off.
-          Write a to-do list of everything with a deadline. Find when between now and the deadline you’ll get it done.
-          Write a to-do list of things hanging over your head but without a timeframe. Schedule manageable chunks with breathing time in between.
-          Delegate and set boundaries at work. I find that most managers are far more understandable than my coworkers expected, especially if you have proven yourself to be a good decision maker.
-          Be honest about your work ethic. Don’t not write just because you should be doing something you wouldn’t do anyway. Don’t not write and don’t do anything else either.
-          Cut down on responsibilities. Think of jobs or promises you made out of guilt or ambition, but aren’t really directing you towards your goals.





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Friday, December 28, 2018

What’s Love S’cot to Do with Character Sheets?



If you handed any socially awkward person a list of “character development” sheets as they headed out for a romantic evening, they’d laugh their asses off at the first question. Even we know how uninteresting and uninformative questions like, “What’s your favorite color?” can be. Quite frankly, anyone who showed up with that asking about your mother’s maiden name and where you were born would probably be accused of identity theft.


I’ll admit, however, that my abrasion to character sheets came from the same pace as my abrasion to formulas, rules, and just generally being told what to do. Truth is, I'm gullible. Some advice is pretty terrible, and the vast majority of it is only good when evaluated with a grain of salt. Now, in my wise old age of 29, I think that beginners should be encouraged to explore and it is the intermediates who should be introduced to the formulas.

Joking aside, I have been writing prolifically for over fifteen years, and I've found that people who get hung up with these creative tools struggle excessively when it comes time to break free and show who they are, while those who played around and rejected outside advice have an easier time embracing (gradually) what these rules have to offer.

Because of the intense depression I experienced this year, I struggled to become inspired. My imagination was lost, gone like the wind, and I cared little about writing at all. I didn't like people, including my characters. One thought did not lead to the next, most brainstorming sessions painful and slow. I was struggling, deeply.

Part of me was trapped. I had not only spent the year getting 20 rejections letters over a lengthy period of time, I lost a small, local play contest with a total of ten participants. It didn't comfort me that I came in fourth place, nor that I respected the plays which one. I was sick of no one wanted to invest in me. I hate to admit it, but I do believe in love at first sight - or, at least, the power of the first impression - and whatever it was I did, it wasn't good enough.

So when my friend showed me the Blake Snyder Beat Sheet, I was elated. Finally, I learned something I could do differently than I had been before. Finally, I knew what was missing and where to put it.

In the last two months, I've had a surge of writing requests, needing to take the inspiration I did not feel and shove it. I became more and more engrossed in following formulas and other writing tips, and I've learned a lot.

While you will never hear me claim that writing from the heart is a bad thing, everything belongs in moderation. Those who stick solely to the rules will sound like it, but those who refuse to hear the advice of those before them will learn slowly. Having the ability to critically evaluate tools will enable you to pick out the dumb parts and find something useful. 

After my sudden immersion into character sheets - a prior tool I found completely pointless - my ideas started flowing. It wasn't just the characters I understood (in fact, probably not so much more), but the questions asked required me to better develop the world. How do they measure years? What are the proverbs in their culture? Who are the famous artists and authors and singers?

Character sheets may not ask the right questions, but they make you realize areas you're not exploring.

It made it evident what parts of their culture I hadn't developed. Simple questions for a modern day character became huge storylines. Some questions made me consider new plot ideas. Others forced me to really analyze the growth of their world. Popular culture comes across as an oddity in a fantasy land, but they too have their greats, their household names.

Mostly though, I noticed what my stock assumptions and choices were. After doing several character sheets, I had to change some things I defaulted to, having already written it into one or more other backgrounds.

And even though your mother's maiden name says nothing about who you are as a person, it does force the speculative fiction writer to understand where the name, and thus, the character, came from.

If you are interested in using character sheets, it's my recommendation to grab several. Utilize a different one for every person in your story, and at the end, take the questions most useful to you to make your own document.

Sometimes, formulas and rules about nothing more than getting you out of your box and the brain juices flowing.




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Monday, December 10, 2018

Why I Miss “Because I Said So”




After receiving four messages of, “Are you coming?” and two phone calls, I agreed to meet with a man who had taken a serious interest in me. I gave him the benefit of the doubt, even though he knew that I was in a workshop and I had told him I would let him know if I would meet with him and a group of mutual friends after, deciding that he was so anxious he just wasn’t thinking clearly.

During this lovely dinner in which no one else showed up, he proceeded to criticize me constantly, mesmerizing me with his opinions on writing, love, and the world as a whole, I finally had enough of him when he asked me to explain the plot of the book I was workshopping.

“It’s a science-fiction novel about a biomechanic who falls in love with a brainwashed member of the cult who wants him for heresy.”

“Why would he fall in love with her?” he scoffed.

“Well, you’d have to read the book.”

I understood the accusation as, of course, that I hadn’t developed a chemistry or rapport between them. But, looking back on it, I recognize some of the assumptions people have about those who “are capable” of being brainwashed, and it raised a good question about a fight that was occurring within me. What did Libra have that Raiden didn't?

There was safety in her world. She got along with everyone. She knew her goals and she could ask—and listen—to most authority figures about the best way to follow them. He was alone, constantly having to make life or death decisions with no one to trust.

There is, in fact, a lot of appeal about trusting someone enough to obey them.

Of course, there’s a reason that mentality is so criticized. Many of us have been burned by bad advice, or not being able to fit into a formula. An older friend of mine spent her entire youth doing what she was supposed to by marrying a Jewish man, being a good wife, not wiling her way on education, so on and so forth, only to be left for another woman, blamed by her children, and struggling for money to survive for the next forty years. Personally, I’ve been checking every box for depression—eating right, sleeping right, meditating, counseling, medication, socializing, following hobbies—and it feels like it’s just getting worse as I progress.

Writers know best that there is no “right” way to getting into the publishing world. Even back before the popularity of ebooks there were successful authors—Gertrude Stein, Edgar Allan Poe, Virginia Woolf—who made their start via self-publishing. J.K. Rowling got picked very quickly by an agent, but rejected by many publishing houses. Andy Weir, Cassandra Clare, and E.L. James got a following from posting free content online. Some people met their agent in person and made friends first. Others submitted blindly to the slush pile. There are celebrities whose fame got their novels picked up, and those who sold the story on the merits of their pitch alone. Blake Snyder never got famous for writing screenplays, but did manage to make his name popular after writing a book on how to write for screenplays.

The path is twisting and ever changing and that in itself makes it overwhelming.

In recent months, I’ve been seeking out an app that would tell me what to do. It would ask me all the right questions and give me instructions on how to live my life so I didn’t have to keep thinking. After all, diligence wasn’t working. I spent years writing every day, polishing a pitch, and putting myself out there to just constantly be staring into a void. Nothing seemed to progress in my life, regardless of my efforts towards it, and one day… I just quit.

Knowing what to do can be far more inspiring that being uncertain about the right path to take. What happened to the good ol’ days where we had teachers and parents telling us the right way to live life. Not that I trusted them, of course, but it would be nice.

I often feel like my biomechanic, unintentionally having stepped outside the system and no longer protected by it, wanting nothing more than reassurance that, “If you do this, this will happen.” I feel like I’m lost in a bleak world where one misstep—faith in the wrong person—can lead to terrible, lasting pain, but standing still is not an option either.

For those of us who struggle to understand why anyone would be eager to turn to a cult, how we can condemn those “foolish” enough to be brainwashed, I would like us to think back on time when we faced nothing but uncertainty and pain, and how much we would have liked to have someone we trust, someone we have great faith in, tell us what to do. I don’t think that feeling is unique.

But, it’s clear to me that any time I want someone to trust, it’s because I’m spending too much time doubting myself. I know better than anyone what I want, what I’ve tried, and what’s important to me. I can make good decisions, give myself good advice, and just because I can’t trust myself blindly doesn’t mean I should give that power to anyone else.





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Friday, November 30, 2018

Types of Sentences and the Way They Love Us




I hate wanting to love something that’s so unlovable. (Although I’ll admit that loving something unlovable is even worse.) Many times I see independent writers committing to their craft, inspiring me with their ideas and tastes, creating striking concepts and hiring excellent graphic artists, to only get to the actual story part and cringe until my insides flip. We’ve all read a fantastic concept was tainted by the clunky word choice.

Voice is probably one of the most subjective aspects of writing, and readers typically have a love-hate relationship with the stronger prose out there. From Shakespeare to Hemingway, you’ll see a lot of polar opinions on the striking styles. So, when I say that the main common denominator of cringy writing is the lack of flow, it’s notable that the other common denominator is me. (Always, whenever reading anyone’s advice, consider your actual tastes and what sorts of things you respond to.)

Facebook recently bombarded me with a webpage similar to my own. His serial online fantasy of short stories had striking artwork and alluring title. I was also seeking a frequently updated website to take my mind off of the bitterness of Reddit, so I found myself clicking the ad link many days in a row only to stop reading after the first paragraph each time, so it was the quintessential right place and right time, wrong material.

What made the writing so bad?

Well, I felt the story summarized the events without painting a picture. You have little understanding of the world or the character. It’s not that you’re overwhelmed with confusion, but that you don’t care. What’s going on within the character is unclear and underdeveloped, and, most importantly, each sentence doesn’t respond to any other’s existence. He tells the story like he’s listing events, with no sense for perspective, tension, mood, or point.

In other words, you could scramble the paragraph and it wouldn’t affect the rhythm or flow.

What does a sentence responding to another look like? Is that something that’s important? From my experiences reading amateur fiction, I’d say yeah. Understanding how sentences can connect to each other is a very simple way of improving the sound of your writing.

Standalone Sentences

A standalone sentence makes its point without implying follow-up or requiring preamble. That point does not have to be deep; “She had blonde hair,” clearly exists to give a description of the character. While it’s not enough information to be a story or interesting, it does not need more explanation before you consider the thought finished. Typically, a standalone sentence can be easily moved anywhere in the paragraph and still work. Deleting the sentences around it does not cause a comprehension or flow problem. It also doesn’t have an obvious next step. It could change subjects without it feeling like a lost thread. It also does not need to be simple, merely that the subject and action of the sentence are clear and feel finished.

There is nothing wrong with stand-alone sentences, and you will find that you use them often. The problem becomes when every sentence is independent of those around it, making the writing feel clunky as if the thoughts aren’t streamed together.

Leading Sentences

Conversely, a leading sentence implies that the thought isn’t finished, or brings up an interesting question that the reader wants answered. “Johnny hated Susie for her blonde hair,” might not go into why, but it makes the reader feel like it should. A leading sentence often becomes attached to the following sentences and they must both exist (at some point) for it to feel complete. Leading sentences, in contrast to supportive sentences, are usually concept based; their style could allow them to be placed later, turning them into a conclusion instead of an introduction, but they still often need to be kept in the same area.

Supportive Sentences

Supportive sentences give a follow up on the information already provided. They might be capable of being a stand-alone except for the existence of the leading sentence requires them to be nearby to make sense: “Johnny hated Susie for her blonde hair. Light colored eyebrows made a woman look like a chimp.”

Supportive sentences often use pronouns to reference pre-established subjects: “Johnny hated Susie for her blonde hair. It reminded him of his mother.”

Sometimes they need some information prior for them to be understood or to have proper spatial continuity: “She started cutting her nails with scissors,” may require her to find the scissors first, otherwise the audience feels like they missed something.

Contrary to popular belief, starting a sentence with a conjunction is accepted grammar in unformal writing, useful in creative fiction to convey meaning, inflection, and evolution of thought. In the same vein, there are other phrases and words that directly tie one sentence to another: “Johnny hated Susie for her blonde hair. That didn’t exactly explain why he felt compelled to follow her around all of the time.”

Why does it matter? How to apply it?

When you have a series of standalone sentences, typically speaking, the rhythm of speech is repetitive, the information is slow, it’s unnuanced and can come off as juvenile. The author doesn’t have a lot of room to play with the duration of actions, and you don’t learn anything about the characters through descriptions. It’s often too explanatory and doesn’t have a lot of atmosphere. Mainly though, when a writer has an understanding of the narrator’s P.O.V. and tells the story from that perspective, they naturally write a narrative with a smoother evolution of thought and events and organic description of the world. When they write in an object sense, they tend to summarize and be removed.

“Brandon and Kara went hiking but were unprepared for the physical challenge. ‘Hiking is hard work,’ said Kara. She cupped her hands and drank from a limpid mountain steam. They were in the San Gabriel Mountains and from their elevation could see Los Angeles and the smog in the distance. In Los Angeles city people lived in tiny apartments. The tiny apartments had tiny windows.”

I might add this author does this intentionally, admitting that he wants to be like Hemingway in his simplicity. It’s a style, but one that I’m pointing out due to the clear way it affects the flow (which is a choice you may want at some point.) The thoughts are disjointed from another and can be moved around fairly easily. The drinking of the stream isn’t what inspires the narrator to think about where they are; the author includes it because it’s information he wants the reader to know and feels it’s the right location for the bigger story, not typical train of thought. He also (intentionally) doesn’t use pronouns very often, which makes something that normally flows together (the windows in the apartments) feel like separate thoughts as well.

But, there are a good number of writers who do this unintentionally, and if you find this as clunky and Dick-and-Jane-ish as I do, then there’s a couple of ways to watch out for it.

Figure out the P.O.V. character

Writers can get unwittingly hung up on being objective. If you consciously decide to go that route for whatever reason, many writers can make it work and it certainly can serve a purpose. But most people read because they want to feel a human connection and see different perspectives on the world. Even a fantasy fiction writer will often have a much more charismatic style when the story is told through a human lens instead of a robotic camera, and readers learn more from (yes even fiction) writers who are honest about their opinions on humanity, the way the world works, and what’s important.

Who is telling the story and how do they think? Is it Kara? Charles? Another character? God? The author himself? All of the above? You are creatively free to decide whatever you like, just so long as you know whose voice is being conveyed and at what times. Description is typically not objective, and the way that Kara or Charles or God describe something won’t be the same. How the story is told teaches the reader more about the people involved than when you’re just stating facts.

Next, consider alternative ways to tell a story instead of linear events

Paragraphs of only description tend to be victim to too many standalone sentences. This is because when you’re depicting a stagnant image, the order of the objects doesn’t exactly matter, so many authors will start listing thing. Using the P.O.V. character, however, you get better ideas about how to make the description flow naturally. Kara bends down to take a drink from the pond, sees the reflection of Charles staring out at the city, and so turns to the city herself. The narrative now flows together, incorporating the descriptions naturally, and you don’t feel like you’re clinically being handed information.

Authors also don’t have to describe an entire scene first, just because the objects were there first, but can progress the events of a scene by sprinkling description throughout. Mentioning objects and places as the character notices them will make it feel more organic and less bogged down with artsy long passages of what every thing looks like.

Also, the same applies when avoiding a practical play-by-play during the actions of the scene, which is important because…

Length of sentence implies duration of action.

Telling the story in the way a person would remember it or in order of what they saw makes it easier to control the duration of an action. Punching someone is fairly quick. Driving down the freeway is much longer. However, when it takes the same amount of time to describe it, to the reader, it doesn’t feel like the timing is right and tension is decreased.

“Davi went to sleep on the second story of a large inn. Despite this, he woke up the next morning staring at the sky on a slab surrounded by debris. Half the roof sat at an angle next to him on the ground. A drop of dew fell off before the wind caught it and directed straight to his forehead.”

The major problem here really is the length—they’re all the same size despite each taking grossly different times to do. And in many cases in this story, the author “zooms in” on small, quick events like the drop hitting him in the forehead, while glossing over things that would have taken much longer, (falling asleep, traveling a good distance) and things that are much more important and interesting (like the revelation that the inn was gone.)

This isn’t inherently a bad thing, but his actual pacing consistently fights his desired tension. The jokes don’t land, the fear doesn’t grow, and the timing is generally off. The length of his sentences don’t serve a greater purpose, and they tend to lack that narrative flow I’m speaking about.

By thinking of the character’s mindset about all of this—even if the author decides he doesn’t want to describe the internal aspects—and following his train of thought, connecting some ideas to one another, the prose would be less clunky and more indicative of the mood the author wanted. Though I know it was unintentional, it was clear that he wanted each idea self-contained. Being in a large inn, waking up, the debris, and the dew drop were all separate thoughts and had their own single sentences. However, many of them should have been broken up into separate ideas and given transitions connecting them to one another. The reader needs to be given time to adjust to the normalcy of falling asleep at the inn, then comprehend it is suddenly gone, then look for clues about what had happened. Based on the speed in which the story is told, it feels like the character has already accepted the strangeness of the situation long before the reader even comprehends what exactly they are looking at.

Read the story. Out loud, but also not.

Sometimes beginning authors find themselves overwhelmed to what they’re supposed to be looking for when editing, and I never feel like there’s a lot of specifics other than forbidden words. When I started writing, it was a long and confusing path to really identify what cause contributed to what effect, without many people being helpful. Looking for the above signs and understanding how they related to each other took me longer to figure out than I wanted.

But, all that being said, most times, you will see things you can improve simply by reading what you’ve written. Most people suggest to do it out loud, and in this case, the lack of cadence really will become obvious by doing this. Mostly though, read your own writing. It’s the best advice I can offer and really doesn’t take a lot of effort. It’s less of an ego punch than being told, and most people are fairly savvy about what they need to do with their writing all by themselves—just so long as they sit down and actually look at what they’ve done.

Your story should flow from sentence to sentence, thought to thought, and how a story is told gives you just as much information about what’s being said. Check your writing for mechanical tendencies, and remember that people like people, even if it is a love-hate relationship.






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