There are times when I take a moment to simply pause and think about what I’ve done over the past few days. That’s when I realize just how quickly time passes. Sure, there are days (usually work days) when time seems to slow down, or even stop, but most of the time it blows by like a bullet train.
And what gets me is the fact that we have a finite amount of time. There’s no going back for a do-over, no repeats, no mulligans (for the golf enthusiasts). We have a starting point and an ending point. And no pause button.
Not that I’m lamenting this fact. I think it’s important to remember it because it helps me to appreciate things.
At the same time, however, knowing how quickly time passes makes me feel like I need to hurry up and do the things I want to do. There’s so many ideas and projects-in-progress that I feel like I’ll never accomplish everything. It’s similar to the feeling I get when I think about books. There are so many amazing stories out there in the world and I want to read them all, but I know I can’t Still, I’ll give it my best shot.
But rushing through things isn’t a good idea. Sure, I want to write all the stories I have in my head, I want to see them published, I want people to read them, but pushing myself to try and write them all isn’t going to end well. Art can’t be rushed. I’d rather publish a handful of stories I’m proud of than publish a hundred stories I rushed through and are only shadows of what they could be.
That’s why I remind myself to stop, step back, breathe.
There’s nothing wrong with wanting to accomplish things, to leave a positive mark on the world around you, but we’re only human and can only accomplish so much in our lifetimes. Better to go for quality than quantity.
Sure, it’s tough to accept that I won’t be able to do all the things I want to do, but at the very least, the creative projects I can finish will be done well and I’ll be proud of them.
Remember, take your time and do it right the first time. In the end, you’ll be proud of yourself and leave behind something beautiful. That’s all that matters.
Over the course of my nearly thirty-year writing career, I’ve been lucky enough to work in a wide variety of areas. I started out freelancing for a regional trade publication titled, Construction Equipment Guide. Not the most noble of beginnings, but it got my foot in the door and helped me build up some clips for my portfolio.
Since then, I’ve written for several regional and local publications. I’ve also worked in communications and marketing, written about employee benefits, did grant writing for several non-profits, and written scripts for training videos. In between all that, I’ve penned quite a few short stories.
We’re all these jobs fun? Not especially. Some were great, some mediocre, and a few were awful. But through them all I always treated my writing projects the same way. As creative exercises.
That’s how I make the best of every project I work on. It’s sort of like making them into games. I have this information I need to pass along to someone else. I always picture an individual as my audience. That’s the person I’m writing for and I need to make sure they understand.
It doesn’t matter if I’m working on a grant, a short story, or an article for a magazine. In each case I write for that one person. I don’t necessarily see them or visualize what they look like. They are the unknown reader. What I do, however, is put myself in their shoes, look at my text through their eyes. I imagine them to be an ordinary person who may not know much about the topic at hand. My challenge is to write in a way that gives them understanding.
I’ll give you an example. I was working with a national non-profit that focused on improving childhood nutrition. They had a program where they went into elementary and middle schools and taught children about home gardening, making smart food choices, and showed them how fruits and vegetables could be just as fun to eat as junk food.
I was helping this group to get a grant from one of the biggest retailers in the U.S. I assumed that the people reading this grant request probably didn’t know much about these topics. In fact, I figured they were all well off and probably never had to worry whether or not they and their families were eating well.
With that in mind, I knew I needed to get them to see these issues from another viewpoint other than their own.
So that’s how I approached the project. I had to get creative and figure out how best to explain the situation, what they non-profit was proposing, and how important it was for this giant company to help.
Sure, the material was dry. There were a lot of stats, a lot of data, and I had to massage it into something interesting and compelling. I had to flex my creative muscles.
And that’s what I did. I didn’t write the request in a sterile, by-the-numbers way that I’d seen in so similar documents. I told a story. I wrote about children in the inner-city who had never seen a vegetable garden. I wrote about kids in rural areas who were growing up with diabetes and obesity problems from eating so much junk food. I wrote about a future where the health care system is overrun with adults in poor health.
And you know what? They gave the non-profit the grant. Two-hundred thousand dollars. Not bad.
I’ve found that looking at every writing project as an exercise in creativity not only makes it more fun for me, but it also gives me a chance to do something different. Like with requesting a grant. I know the people reviewing these documents are seeing a lot of the same language, the same points, the same arguments. It’s got to be monotonous for them. When I give them something different to read, something that takes them on a journey, then it’s going to stand out from the rest. And in the end, that’s really what matters.
If you feel like you’re getting into a rut with a project, take a step back and see if you can come at it from a creative angle. I guarantee you’ll end up with something better than expected.
I’ll admit it, I’m a sucker for a good fantasy book series. The problem is that too many of them follow overly-familiar tropes. There’s the orphan who finds out they are actually royalty and must retake the throne. Or there’s the ancient evil that is returning and a plucky group of misfits have to learn to work together to defeat it. I mean, I’ll still read those stories, but in limited quantities.
But every so often a writer comes along and tries something new, a little different from what I expect. That’s the case with M.H. Thaung’sNumoeath series. The first two books (which I’ve reviewed here and here) were well-written, well-plotted, and overall fun to read. The characters were believable. No one was perfect, they all had some baggage they were carrying, made bad decisions for the right reasons, and basically behaved like real people.
The second book, Restitution, ended in a way that made me wonder what Thaung was going to do in the third book. It was somewhat of a cliffhanger, but even more so, I was thrown by an unexpected twist with the fates of several characters. Honestly, I thought the second book was dovetailing into a nice, clean ending. I was pleasantly disappointed. In fact, the ending of the second book stuck with me for several days after I finished it. I like it when an author can keep me engaged even after the last page.
The third book, Posterity, picks up immediately after the second, and expands on some of the history of this land and this world. I was hoping for that. Thaung does a wonderful job of building the world in the first two novels, but she doesn’t delve into too much of the history, leaving that for the final book. Was I happy with the payoff? Absolutely. In fact, even though she answers many questions and expands on the world-building, there’s still so much more left for her (and hopefully, us) to explore.
Luckily, Thaung has also written some additional pieces that take place in this world. It excites me to think about world-building from a writer’s perspective. It makes me wonder how much she planned ahead of time, like, was Thaung piecing it together as she wrote? Or did she focus on the geographical area where the main story takes place, and now she’s slowly exploring the rest of the world? Either way, I find it all easy to visualize, easy to immerse myself in. It’s a world that comfortable and familiar, but still different than ours.
As far as the overall story is concerned, I think it’s good. Very good. There’s a potential coming crisis, but throughout the story questions arose about the legitimacy of the crisis. As a reader, I wasn’t sure who to believe in the story. Everyone had their agendas, some good and some bad, but even then I could understand why the characters did what they did. Basically, I understood their motivations even if I didn’t agree with them. That’s good characterization.
If I had to point to something I felt didn’t work, or could have been better, was the initial ending (there’s a nice wrap-up after the main story finishes). Not that the ending was bad or needed to be different. I just felt like it was rushed, that the final couple of chapters could have been stretched out a little bit more, a little more tension, a little more risk, and maybe a little more loss.
But hey, this is a fantasy story, fiction, so it can be whatever the author thinks is appropriate. I was still happy with how things turned out. It was a worthwhile read, a great story to immerse myself in, and as mentioned above, I continued to think about it long after the last page. If nothing else, that’s the sign of a story well-told.
I was recently reading about the power of our personal decisions and how even the smallest choice we make can change the course of our lives.
For example, a person bought a new pair of shoes and wore them to work in a bar. Halfway through the night, one of the soles came loose. This prevented him from going out with his friends after the bar closed. He could have, but he figured he’d rather not deal with the damaged shoe the rest of the night. He instead went home, went online, and met a young woman in a chat room. Two years later they were married and having their first child.
So if his shoe hadn’t fallen apart and made him decide to go home instead of out partying, he never would have met his future wife.
I read another example about a guy whose best friend was about to move across the country for a new job. The night before his friend left, they went out and got drunk, then later the guy decided to buy a one-way airline ticket and join his buddy. The job ended up not working out, so the friend returned home, but the other guy decided to stay in the new city. Seven years later he was married, had two kids, and a great job.
Again, a simple, spur-of-the-moment decision changed his life forever.
It blows my mind when I sit back and consider all the decisions I make on any given day. I decide what to eat for breakfast, what clothes to wear, whether or not I need to shave, what route I drive to work, what I’m going to have for lunch. The decisions are constant and never ending. And each and every one of them changes the course of my day, and potentially my life.
Using myself as an example, when I first moved to Tallahassee I met a guy at a restaurant where I had recently gotten a job. He invited me back to his apartment complex to hang out and meet some people. One of those people was a young woman. She and I would run into each other on and off over the next seven years, until finally one day I asked her out. We’ve now been married for twenty-seven years.
So if I had turned down the offer to go to this apartment complex and meet these people, I probably never would have met my future wife. Amazing, isn’t it?
There’s a theory in theoretical physics that suggests every decision we make creates a new timeline or a new universe. Every single one. That’s an idea that keeps me awake at night considering the possibilities and wondering how my life would be different if I had worn a green shirt today instead of black, or if I’d smiled at that person I passed on the sidewalk instead of staring at my phone screen.
That’s one of the things I think about when working on a piece of fiction. There are so many possibilities to consider – although I try not to overthink when writing fiction, otherwise I may end up in the weeds.
But still, as I’m writing I’m making decisions with each sentence, even every word, that I type on the page. With my writing style, which is akin to absolute and unplanned chaos, I really don’t know where my stories are going to end up. I usually have an idea of where I want it to go, but the protagonist, or maybe a supporting character, will more than likely make an unforeseen decision and the story takes a left turn into unchartered and unconsidered territory.
Not that it’s a bad thing. I love the unexpected in fiction. I think that makes it more like reality, like life in general. We get up in the morning with plans for the day, but how often does it all work out the way you expect it to?
And from a writing standpoint, I like it when my characters take the lead and show me things I hadn’t thought about or considered. As the saying goes, “No surprises for the writer, no surprises for the reader.”
I’m always surprised when I hear writers discussing word counts. There’s nothing wrong with the occasional humble brag. I’m guilty of that, especially when I pound out 2,000 words in a couple of hours. It’s akin to running a marathon, and if runners can brag, then so can writers. Luckily, I’ve never pulled a hamstring working on my MacBook.
But what I’m bothered by is when writers put an emphasis on word count. For example, when they seem to focus on how many words are in a story rather than the content.
It’s weird, particularly in fiction. I understand that word counts matter when it comes to categorizing a story. Flash fiction is generally under 1,000 words. Short stories cap out around 8,000 words. Novellas run anywhere from 20,000 to 50,000 words. Novels pick up after that.
Maybe it’s a badge of honor to some writers. Like a competition. “How many words did you write today?” “Oh, about 1,000.” “Only 1,000? Man, you’re a light-weight!”
I don’t think I’ve ever asked another writer how many words they wrote that day. Or on any day. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever asked a writer what their final draft totaled up to be. Why should the number of words matter?
The only thing that should matter to a writer is whether or not they told the best story they could, that they poured their heart and blood into it, and that they were honest (telling the story the way it should be told without forcing it into a specific direction).
I can understand paying attention to word count when writing. If a writer is working on a novel, then they want to shoot for 50,000 or more words. But, and I’ve mentioned this before on this blog and in my podcast, it still shouldn’t matter. A story is going to be as long or as short as it needs to be. If I start off thinking I’m going to write a short story and it ends up at 10,000 words, I’m not going to be disappointed as long as I stayed true to the story and didn’t fill it with a lot of stuffing just to make it longer.
Same thing goes the opposite direction. If I plan to write a novel, but the story ends up in the novella category, I’m not going to worry about it as long as I’ve told a good story.
The story itself should determine the length. If you can tell it in 2,000 words, wonderful. If it takes 20,000 words, go for it. We shouldn’t try to pad a story or slice and dice it just to force it into a category. Let the story decide.
When it comes down to it, the only time word count matters is when you’re ready to sell your story.
I’m sure you’ve heard of art therapy and music therapy. In fact, art has been used in therapy for over a century. Initially, it was used as a form of “moral therapy” for psychiatric patients, it’s evolved over time to something that can be utilized in a wide variety of situations, from helping Alzheimers patients with their memory issues to physical therapies where patients are relearning how to use their arms and hands.
But on a more personal level, I’ve found that art therapy, or creativity in general, can be therapeutic for everyday life.
Obviously, I’m not a mental health professional or physician, so take my words as simply personal experience and nothing more. I’m not suggesting you explore this in lieu of seeking professional help. Nowadays, it’s best to clarify before someone gets the wrong idea.
For me, creativity has always been mainstay in my life. From writing and drawing comic books as a kid to writing and self-publishing fiction as an adult, it’s been there for me as a way to express myself. However, it’s also been a sort of companion for me. Those long summers on my uncle’s dairy farm where I was the only kid for miles, my creativity and imagination kept me company. I created all sorts of adventures for myself as I wandered the hay fields and thick Wisconsin forests. That old gnarled tree stump became a troll. The wind whispering through the leaves were sirens trying to trick me into sailing my ship into the rocks. And that old abandon car helped me escape after I robbed the Bist Bank and Trust of all their pinecones.
Trust me, it all made sense when I was a child.
As I grew matured (which is questionable), so did my use of my creativity. The aliens and pirates moved onto the page and became stories, and along with that, so did my hopes and fears. As a teenager I found that writing was a way for me to work through my hormonal angst. I filled spiral notebooks full of poems about unrequited love, dreams of the future, and images from my dreams. I actually still have a few of those notebooks and occasionally take them out to thumb through. It’s interesting to look back and remember how I used to be and how I used to see the world.
Later, in late teens, I began to journal. That’s when I found the outlet I needed, the sympathetic ear, the judgement-free listener. Journaling kept me going through bad relationships, family drama, love and loss. Even now, I still write in my journal almost daily. Sometimes it’s just a page, sometimes it’s several. But regardless, I always walk away from the page feeling a little bit better.
Why is that? Because it’s a way to clear the clutter from the attic. Speaking for myself, it’s easy to get caught up in my own little world, to become self-absorbed and see things from only one perspective. Writing in my journal allows me to work things out, to explore my thoughts, my experiences, and to see them from another perspective. There have been many occasions where I was thinking along one track, only to realize after writing in my journal that I was wrong. And admitting I’m wrong on the page makes it a lot easier to admit it to myself.
Journaling isn’t the only creative therapy I participate in. I also cook. Every day. Most of it is survival cooking, meaning, I cook because it’s time for breakfast, or lunch, or dinner. We need sustenance. But I do like to explore the creative aspect of cooking. I like to try new recipes, or read about different ways to cook something, like a chicken, then come up with my own method.
I find that when I’m in the kitchen, watching something in the sautée pan while deciding what spices to use, the rest of the world falls away. I forget my problems and worries. I lose myself in the motion of manipulating the pan, the smells of garlic and onion, the endless possibilities. Because cooking requires thought, imagination, and attention, it’s a wonderful way for me to unwind in the evenings. Weekends, however, are my prime cooking time. A bottle of wine helps, too.
In my opinion, one of the biggest issues in the world today is mental health care. There’s just not enough of it and there’s often a stigma attached to people to seek it out. That’s why I think encouraging people to use their creativity as a form of therapy could be a partial solution. Just having a way to express ourselves can make a huge difference in how we manage our mental state.
Consider this: You have a terrible coworker or manager. They make your workdays difficult. They make you angry, anxious, frustrated, but there’s nothing you can do about it. Situations like this can take a toll on your mental and emotional state. Some people are lucky enough to have access to decent healthcare and can go see a professional to learn coping mechanisms and ways to deal with these people. Others aren’t so lucky. In fact, I’d wager that most people don’t have that kind of healthcare.
But if you have ‘one of those days’ and arrive home with your head spinning, you can decompress by doing something creative. You can write about it. A journal can be your best friend. Or maybe use fiction instead. Write a story about your nemesis getting their comeuppance. I’ve done that. Or you can immerse yourself in trying out a new recipe in the kitchen, something new and exotic. Or you can pull out some paint brushes and a canvas and lose yourself in a landscape or something abstract. If you’re feeling restless, then put on some music and dance your heart out. No one is watching, so let yourself go.
We all have issues we deal with, and some of us handle things better than others. There’s no shame in needing a release, a pressure valve for your head or your heart. Professional therapy is great, but it can also be expensive and far too many people don’t have easy access to it. Creative, however, really doesn’t cost much. A pen and a spiral notebook. A paintbrush, some paint, and something to paint on, like a piece of scrap wood or cardboard. Music and dancing are free.
No, it’s not going to be for everyone, but there’s no harm in trying something new, is there? The next time you’re having a bad day, you’re stressed out, angry, hurt, confused, try doing something creative. It’s not a perfect solution, but it might just be enough.
It’s been a few months since I’ve written any fiction. A few scribbles here and there, but nothing of substance. It wasn’t on purpose. My partner and I were caring for some elderly family members and that took up most of my time and effort. Afterwards, there was a lot to sort through. Not just estate-related issues, but also the PTSD of losing family.
But I didn’t completely shy away from the written word. I filled up a 240 page journal during that period, and I continued to post here on my blog. Just not as frequently. Fiction, however, was out of reach. I just wasn’t feeling it.
Until last night. I was laying in bed, half asleep, listening to the soft rain and wind outside my window. I was relaxed and straddling that fine, misty line between consciousness and sleep when a random thought caught my attention. You know how it is when you’re laying there in bed, drifting off. All those random thoughts and memories slip by like smoke in a breeze.
I saw a guy sitting at a bar in a sleazy pool hall. He was nursing a drink, cheap bourbon, and stealing glances at a redhead sitting in a corner booth with two men. I let is slip away for a moment, but then it returned, like my imagination didn’t want me to miss it.
The scene replayed several times, then began to expand, unfolding like a piece of origami.
I don’t know how much time passed, but the entire story was there behind my eyes. I sat up and grabbed my phone, typing out as much info as I could while half conscious. I’ve lost too many story ideas by being lazy at night and not taking the time to write down some notes before drifting off.
And this morning, when I woke up, the story was still there, ready to go.
It felt good, invigorating. I think a small part of me was worried that I wasn’t going to write again. Not anymore. I have a solid story ready for the page, a return to form. I’m excited.
It goes to show that writers have to trust their imaginations, have to trust in their own personal creative process. I wasn’t done as a fiction writer. I just needed time to heal, to clear my head, to move on.
If you do get in a rut, feel uninspired, used up, don’t give up hope. Just be patient. The muse will return and you’ll be back in the saddle before you know it.
There’s a lot to be said for instruction from professional artists. Their advice can help you to steer clear of issues they encountered on their journeys. They can offer support and encouragement, maybe a little insight and motivation.
Over the years I’ve read many books about writing that were written by writers. Many were insightful, giving me a glimpse into the author’s background, what inspires them, what their process is like, and I’ve often tried following their routines and advice to see what will work for me. Some things have worked, other things haven’t. The point, however, is to try.
Recently, as I was straightening up my book collection, I started thinking about all the advice I’ve read and how much of it has guided me on my writing journey. And with that in mind, I thought it might be useful to other writers to share some of this. So here are some of the books on writing that I’ve read and garnered some useful guidance (in no particular order). I hope you’ll find some insight in them, as well.
Zen in the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury. This is my favorite book about the writing process by one of my favorite authors. Bradbury mixes bits of personal history with an overall view on the process of writing, even managing to throw in a few humble brags (like writing a story every week for most of his life). The man was a writing machine, passionate about the craft, and never at a loss for inspiration and ideas. If you only read one book about the writing process, please make it this one.
Making Shapely Fiction by Jerome Stern. Stern was a beloved creative writing instructor at Florida State University and was incredibly passionate about fiction. In addition to writing essays for National Public Radio and heading the Creative Writing program at FSU, he also founded the World’s Best Short Short Story Contest (250 word limit). He was a proponent of the spontaneity of the writing process, encouraging his students to “not overthink”, but instead let inspiration guide them. A great read for writers who want to break the rules.
From Where You Dream by Robert Olen Butler. An excellent book by the Pulitzer Prize winning author of Good Scent from a Strange Mountain (which is one of the best short story collections ever written). Butler’s view is that fiction does not come from ideas, but from our dreams, or more precisely, from the same place where our dreams originate. It’s an interesting concept and one I appreciate. Imagination is the starting point, hidden in our unconscious minds. Reading this book got me thinking deeply about where my ideas come from, and it’s the reason I keep a pad and pen next to the bed so I can write down my nocturnal thoughts.
On Writing by Stephen King. I think it’s safe to say that most writers, especially younger ones, have read this book. But if you haven’t, it’s definitely worth your time. King writes about his story-telling journey, interspersed with his thoughts on the process, other writers, and the publishing industry. A must-read.
On Writing by Eudora Welty. Another Pulitzer Prize winner and an interesting, if slightly outdated, look at the writing process and what it takes to be a writer. On Writing is actually an excerpt from a longer work entitled, The Eye of the Story, but this slim volume focuses on the fundamentals of fiction. This is a book that discusses the rules in a concise fashion, and although originally written in 1942, much of the advice is still pertinent. And for what it’s worth, Welty’s book came before King’s.
The Art of Fiction by John Gardner. This is arguably the most technical book on the list. Gardner, a best-selling author and creative writing instructor, offers a clinical and straight-forward approach to writing fiction, even going so far as to use graphs, geometric charts, and sentence diagrams to illustrate the process of plotting, development, and rhythm. While not necessarily a fun read, The Art of Fiction provides a technical view of the process. I found it educational.
I believe there’s a lot to learn from other writers. Everyone has their own personal take on the process, with a little overlap here and there. But still, in my opinion, it’s important to explore the craft, to see what other writers do, to learn new tricks and tips, and maybe even improve your own writing along the way.
We all live in a sort of bubble where we are the main protagonist of the story and everyone else is a supporting character. On paper it sounds selfish, but in reality it’s simply what we do. We live inside our own heads, hear our own inner monologue, make decisions based on what’s best for us. It comes with being human. The illusion that we are the center and everything revolves around us.
But sometimes we can get caught up in that illusion and lose focus on the big picture. What I mean is, we get so self-absorbed that we fail to realize – or recognize – how our words and actions can affect others. In a way, we can end up being the antagonist in other people’s stories.
It’s not that we do it on purpose or with ill-will. I know that in my head, I can get wrapped up in my thoughts and forget to think of my actions and reactions. What I mean is, I don’t take into account how my actions and the way I react to things affects others, the people around me. For example, I can get wrapped up in being angry about something trivial (as we all do on occasion) and not realize that I’m allowing that anger to taint my interactions with my partner. I may snap at her when she asks an innocent and unrelated question – without realizing that I’m doing it – and that, in turn, may ruin her mood or her day.
I’ve been trying to keep this in mind with the short fiction I write. My stories revolve around a protagonist and how they deal with a situation, or several situations. I write about how it affects them and how they react to it. But what I don’t think about is the bigger picture, like how does my character’s situation affect those around him or her. My protagonist doesn’t necessarily need to see this or recognize this, but for the reader I think it’s important to show the bigger picture, the ripple effect.
It’s like throwing a rock into a still pond. The rock breaking the surface is the catalyst of the story, and the ripples are how the event affects everyone. Those closer to the point of impact are the ones directly affected because that’s where the ripples are the biggest. The further away a character is from the impact, the less they are affected, but they still see a disturbance in their world.
In other words, we ourselves can be the rock that disturbs the stillness of those around us, just like our main characters can disturb the supporting players, or vice versa. Everything is cause-and-effect. Everything is connected.
With fiction writing, we can focus on the main character and get so wrapped up in them that we can lose sight of the world around them. Even if the story only has one character, their actions and reactions are going to affect the world around them. The same applies to us. We should try to keep in mind how our moods, our attitudes, our actions, can affect the people around us. It doesn’t matter if we know them or if they’re strangers, we will still have some degree of impact on their lives.
I’ve been working on that lately, mostly in my personal life, but I’ve also been trying to apply this to the way I write my stories. I don’t want to be complacent either as a human being or as a writer. I want to work towards being the best version of myself in both areas.
The key is self-awareness, as an individual and as a writer. In my life I’m trying to think ahead, to consider my words and deeds and how they can affect others. The ripple affect. This isn’t to say that I’m not selfish. We all are to some degree, but we can manage the impact we have on the world around us by being cognizant of the ripples. Self-awareness allows us to better understand our motivations, our feelings, our desires and fears. The same applies to the characters we create.
As a writer, I’m working at being more aware of how my protagonists impact the worlds around them, and how the worlds impact them. It also helps me to better understand them and their motivations. This doesn’t have to mean implications for the plot or narrative (although it can, if need be). I’m thinking in more subtle ways, to make the story and characters seem more real, more believable.
Will I succeed? I sure hope so, but I think this is one of those situations where the “Under Construction” sign will never be taken down. A work in progress. Shattering the illusion piece by piece.