Snoopy advice

Joe’s Post #166

Super busy week for me so just a few fun things for the writers out there who are struggling…

There are fewer wiser dogs than Snoopy

There are fewer wiser dogs than Snoopy

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I think I got one like Snoopy did.

I think I got one like Snoopy did.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

medium_Peanuts_Writing_Comic

It was a dark and story night

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I hope everyone is well and writing up a storm. Even a dark and stormy storm.

 

Cheers

Joe

 

Is writing child’s play?

playtime

Silk’s Post #151 — I found myself in a playful mood at the keyboard the other day, and suddenly two unbidden questions formed just above my head, like cartoon balloons.

The first was: Why don’t I feel like this more often? The other was: What’s the difference, really, between work and play?

I quickly concluded the first question would be difficult to answer, probably requiring some couch time with a mental health professional. (As it turns out, I now believe I was overly pessimistic about finding the answer, and overly self-centred in thinking my playfulness deficit and longing for more of it is at all extraordinary – but more on that later.)

On the question of the distinction between work and play, I expected to easily find received wisdom with a few clicks. Perhaps there would not be total consensus, but surely such an elemental question would have been deliberately examined thoroughly enough to have been distilled into two or three theoretical camps. Maximum.

But it was not as easy as that.

I found myself at a fork in the road, where the sign marked “play” pointed one way, and the one marked “work” pointed the other. A bit of cyber hiking revealed a lightly explored wilderness between the two camps. It seems “play” occupies a space exclusively populated by children, except in special multi-generational compounds designed for structured activities like drama, sports, or music. On the other hand, the “work” zone is, more or less, an adult gated community.

So, is that the answer, then? Play is for children and work is for adults? This seems very wrong to me. But, as a writer who has been struggling with the balance between the regimented discipline of work and the creative anarchy of imagination, the question feels important. Existential, maybe. It begs a more satisfying answer.

I mean, come on. Two little four-letter words we use every day. You can’t tell me we don’t objectively know what we mean when we say “work” or “play”.

But if there’s a simple definition about the difference between them (and their relationship to each other), I didn’t find it. Is work-play a continuum with varying degrees of combination, like a mixing tap for hot and cold water? Is there one (or more) key differentiator that separates work and play, some litmus test? Is play just practice, a learning strategy, a training ground for a life of work? Is the experience of work or play entirely subjective, all about attitude, all in the eye of the beholder?

There are some enlightened professionals around who are broadening their horizons regarding play – looking beyond childhood development, where it is well-recognized as critically important to development of physical, social, mental, emotional, moral and creative skills. There does appear to be dawning recognition of play as a vital, lifelong companion to work, perhaps in response to the age-old lament “youth is wasted on the young.”

Wouldn’t adults benefit equally from experiencing this effect of play, described in a pamphlet from Play Wales, a national organization for children’s play? …

Play is a spontaneous and active process in which thinking, feeling and doing can flourish; when we play we are freed to be inventive and creative. In play, everything is possible with reality often disregarded and imagination and free-flow thinking taking precedence.

To me, this sounds like the ideal state of mind for a writer. An interesting series of articles by Dr. Peter Gray in Psychology Today (check out “The Value of Play”) suggests these five attributes of play (paraphrased from Gray):

Play is self-chosen and self-directed; players are always free to quit – Play is an expression of freedom. We do it because we want to, not because we have to (or because someone is making us do it).

Play is activity in which means are more valued than ends – What we value most, when we are not playing, are the results of our actions (i.e., meeting a goal, solving a problem, earning a reward), while in play this is reversed: we engage in play primarily for its own sake, even though there may be intrinsic goals within the play activity itself. The corollary (an important one when play is applied to creative pursuits like writing) is that fear of failure is absent or diminished.

Play is guided by mental rules – While play is a freely chosen activity, it is not without shape and form; self-imposed rules are conceived to guide and stimulate choices, problem solving, actions, imagination and (in social play) shared understanding – all of which imbue play with satisfying (but not threatening) challenges.

Play is non-literal, imaginative, marked off in some way from reality – Play is serious yet not serious, real yet not real; it is a work of imagination – a “let’s pretend” fantasy – like a novel that is based on, reflects and experiments with reality, but is fictional.

Play involves an active, alert, but non-stressed frame of mind – Because play demands our active engagement and creativity – but emphasizes process rather than outcome – it challenges and stimulates us in a low-stress manner; play is only possible when we fully focus on the “here and now” without being constantly distracted by the past and future (i.e. goal-oriented pressure to perform, which is a creativity killer).

Gray does note that children are more capable of engaging in pure, 100 percent play than adults, citing his four-year-old son’s ability to stay completely in-character as Superman for days at a time. He suggests that adults more often experience some mix of play (imaginative fantasy) and work (disciplined reality), depending on their activity and attitude. He estimated his work-to-play ratio in writing his blog post as 20/80 – obviously a man who loves to write.

In fact, 20/80 is my new personal goal for work-to-play ratio when I’m writing!

In my December post, 5 more overlooked emotions, I suggested playfulness as an “emotion” to spice up your characters:

This important emotion is too often dismissed as frivolous. Well, it’s not. Maybe it makes you think of puppies and kittens. I believe that a sense of playfulness is the bright face of curiosity (the dark face of curiosity is usually termed “morbid”).

There’s all kinds of serious brain science behind this passion for understanding, but it starts in childhood in the pure form of play. Although psychological research into adult playfulness is apparently in its infancy (“probably because it wasn’t deemed worthy enough,” bemoans University of Zurich psychologist René Proyer), it has been highly correlated to academic performance, active lifestyles, good coping skills, creativity, and attractiveness to members of the opposite sex.

People like playful people … So if you want to make readers love your character a little more, let him be playful. Maybe some of it will rub off on you!

What I discovered when I searched for insights into adult play was that all the good quotes were, without exception, attributed to creative people. Aha! Yet another piece of evidence that life imitates art. For your amusement and contemplation, here are some of the best:

“Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do, and Play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do.” (from The Adventures of Tom Sawyer) — Mark Twain

“The true object of all human life is play. Earth is a task garden; heaven is a playground.” — G. K. Chesterton

“The supreme accomplishment is to blur the line between work and play.” — Arnold J. Toynbee

“Men do not quit playing because they grow old; they grow old because they quit playing.” — Oliver Wendell Holmes

“It is a happy talent to know how to play.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson

“We are never more fully alive, more completely ourselves, or more deeply engrossed in anything, than when we are at play.” — Charles E. Schaefer

“If you want creative workers, give them enough time to play.” — John Cleese

“Genius is play, and man’s capacity for achieving genius is infinite, and many may achieve genius only through play.” — William Saroyan

“This is the real secret of life – to be completely engaged with what you are doing in the here and now. And instead of calling it work, realize it is play.” — Alan W. Watts

“Reality leaves a lot to the imagination.” — John Lennon

So, I think I have my answers – or perhaps I should say I’ve found the inspiration I was looking for …

Why don’t I feel playful more often? As with most people whose youth is behind them, life has conspired to turn me into a work-headed adult. Goal-oriented. Realistic. Mostly serious. In the course of “making something of myself” over the decades, I’ve been taught to associate play with relaxation and recreation, not accomplishment and creation. This is a difficult thing to unlearn, as it gets hard-wired in your brain. Yet in the past few years since I’ve been trying to become a writer, I’ve (finally) gained a different perspective.

If I want to write, I need to learn to play again. Focus on the game instead of always the goal. Let fantasy push reality aside sometimes. Make fun of being serious and get serious about making fun. Is this not the most congenial prescription ever? As Br’er Rabbit cried so eloquently, “Please, Br’er Fox, don’t fling me in dat brier-patch.”

What’s the difference, really, between work and play?  The difference between work and play seems to come down to the attitude and perspective you bring to what you do. If you’re fortunate enough to have choices, and especially if you’re creatively inclined, you can turn a good chunk of your life into a playground. How play relates to writing is so obvious, I can’t believe I didn’t really “get it” automatically, but had to pursue the concept and process it in my analytical left brain before the epiphany came.

But even mundane or stressful tasks with seemingly limited opportunities for fun or creativity can be re-cast by a play-full mind. Some lucky people can turn anything into play. Peeling potatoes. Making sales pitches. Caring for a patient. Painting a house. I’m convinced of that now. And it’s an incredibly empowering revelation. Probably should be a religion. Maybe I’ll start one.

 


Note to readers:  Where’s the 5/5/5 box score? It’s a new year and a fresh start, but it’s pretty obvious that I’m just getting some traction on my writing practice again. Getting back up to speed didn’t magically happen when the clock struck midnight on December 31st. My hope is to re-start my weekly progress reports with my next blog post. Stay tuned!

5 Reasons why writers are like athletes

Tennis

Paula’s Post #112

A quick check-in from La Quinta California, where I, along with my teammates, are in the last stages of preparation for the USTA Ladies over 55 Southern California Sectional Championships in Santa Barbara California.

So, in the spirit of this week’s competition, I’d like to posit my 5 reasons why I believe, writing is also a sport, and should be approached with a competitive mindset. Caveat, this is just my made up list, but for me, a helpful reminder of the many important ingredients that go into training to be a good writer.

1. Practice – Just like in the world of competitive sports, the world of ‘competitive writing’ requires practice. And don’t think for a minute you aren’t competing (whether against all the other writers out there who want to get published or, more importantly, competing against yourself to constantly improve on your ‘personal best’). On our tennis team, not all of our players are created equal. Some are younger. Some are older. Some are slower. Some are faster. Some have finesse, some have power. Perversely, in tennis, a sport that celebrates agility and quickness and where players are considered ‘over the hill’ when they hit their early 30’s, most of the standout players on my tennis team are older. And baby, don’t forget this is senior tennis, where you can’t even get in the game unless you’re over 55. So I do mean ‘older’ in the nicest possible way. But here’s the thing: my older team mates are generally ‘ better’ because they’ve practiced more. They’ve learned certain ‘skills’. They’ve learned to keep their mind focused and avoid distractions. They’ve learned to pace themselves. They know that ‘the game’ requires both physical and mental agility. They know that by practicing, they can not only stay limber, they can get better. And for me, all these things are true about writing, too. On this note, you may want to check out my 5writer colleague Silk’s post on “Late Bloomers“.

2. The Right Equipment – Okay, even I am laughing a bit at ‘the girls’ making sure their equipment is in tip top shape for Santa Barbara. We’ve broken in new tennis shoes, have had the pro shop staff replace our worn-out grips and we’ve all been warned by our captain and co-captain to make sure that we have a back up racquet ready to go should something unforeseen happen. Just like athletes, we writers must have the right equipment. For most of us, that means a great laptop, access to dictionaries and a good thesaurus and perhaps most importantly of all, WiFi. Sure, there are exceptions, Danielle Steel has apparently written more than 100 books on her Olympia manual typewriter and Joyce Carol Oates prefers to write everything longhand, in 8 hour stretches. But they are the exception, rather than the rule. I don’t know about you, but I’m not going out on the court, carrying an old cat gut strung, wooden racquet in a pair of plimsolls. Not when my opponent is loaded for bear with graphite and ultra-lite carbon fiber. Give yourself an edge, it just makes sense. If you need a new laptop or some other vital piece of equipment for your writers world, get it! Maybe you’ll have to forego a few trips to Starbucks or some other small ‘luxuries’ but good equipment, for a writer, is a necessary as it is for a writer. It gives you that ‘competitive edge’.

3. Teamwork – Writing, as we know, is a solitary undertaking. So is singles tennis, where you alone face an opponent, one-on-one. But I’m a social being, and I play almost exclusively doubles. I like having a ‘team’ to cheer me on and support me. More than that, I like cheering my teammates on and supporting my teammates even more. We’ve said it before and we will say it again: if you do not have a great writing or critique group backing you up, get one. Your writing group helps you keep it in perspective. When you think you’ve written the best thing ever, and they tell you it is, well… ‘shite’, guess what? It’s shite! Your writing group is there to help you. To provide encouragement, cheer you on, help you get up when you’ve fallen down, celebrate your victories and console you in defeat. They are your team.

4. Support Network – This is really a corollary to 3 above, but writers do not exist in a vacuum. We have loved ones who support us. Just as an elite athlete has personal assistants, publicity agents, physiotherapists, personal trainers, nutritionists and sports psychologists, writers need a ‘support group’. If you are unpublished and laboring alone in your ‘writer’s garret’ like us, your support network may consist simply of another family member who volunteers to do the dishes or walk the dog to give you more writing time. It may be a friend who offers to be your ‘beta reader’. It may be fellow writers who provide companionship and collegiality (as we try to do for all our followers, via this blog). Point is, don’t ignore your support group. Don’t take them for granted. Thank them for all they do and for being there for you. And don’t forget to tell them why writing is important to you. If they know they are helping you to do something that is important, if they know they are appreciated, they will help you, gratefully.

5. The Mental Edge – Elite athletes rely on mental sharpness as much as physical sharpness. As an amateur tennis player competing in USTA competitive matches, I know how easy it is to get psyched out. How disastrous it can be to come to the court unprepared. Tennis is a quick game. You can lose a set in about 20 minutes if you are not careful. That’s why it is important to master nerves and keep your confidence up. Now, I admit the dangers of a fragile psyche in writing can be a little bit different, but not that much. We need to get over our stage fright. We need to be ready to share our work with others, and take criticism honestly and with a positive attitude. We writers must, just like elite athletes, become ‘tournament tough’ and ready to roll with the punches life throws our way. When we, as writers, feel we have ‘failed’ because we have didn’t win a contest or have received the latest in a long string of rejection letters, we mustn’t let that setback stop us from writing. We mustn’t stop creating. In writing, just as in tennis or any other competitive sport, we learn as much from our losses as from our wins (maybe more so) and thus must learn to use these setbacks and take all the positives from them that we can. Is your opening weak? What can you do to fix it? Did your muddled middle do you in? Go back to the drawing board and again study the three act structure and review some storytelling basics (like The Hero’s Journey). Your failures will help you get stronger.

Well, that’s my five. I could probably write down a hundred ways wiring is like competing in competitive sports. But five, as we all know, is our favourite number in the 5writers world.

In closing, I just want to share with you my feelings about ‘my other team’. The women with whom I play tennis. These women are remarkable. Most of us started playing tennis again just a few years ago, after a long absence. Most of us were rusty. Some of us were just learning basic strokes of forehand, backhand, volley and over-head. I don’t think I’ve ever laughed so hard as watching us in the first group clinic when we practiced running down lobs for the first time. It was comical.

In our first year in the league our record was 1-7:  we lost 7 games and won the last one of the season.

But then something remarkable happened. We decided to get serious. We signed up for more clinics and lessons. We studied the fundamentals of the game. We focused on sports psychology and nutrition. Our family and friends supported our commitment every step of the way.

And guess what?

We started winning. Consistently. In this, just our second season, we went 7-1. We are the Coachella Valley Champions in our division (a remarkable feat when you consider that ‘the valley’ includes the famed California tennis meccas of Palm Springs, Rancho Mirage and Indian Wells).

Some of our players are over 70. Some of our players haven’t played a competitive sport since high school. But we are going to the USTA Southern California Sectionals this week because of our team work, because of our support network, because our mental edge and because of our commitment to practice, practice, practice.

If I want to succeed in writing, I know I will need to focus on these very same things.

The subjective nature of our business

Joe’s Post #146

twilightOne of the hardest things to come to terms with as a writer is the subjective nature of our business. In simple terms, as much as we try to learn the craft, the techniques, or the tricks of the trade, it comes down to taste. Some people will like it and others won’t. Like the Twilight books. Or cucumber water.

I'll give the plot away.. it's about an ant man.

I’ll give the plot away.. it’s about an ant man.

I was reminded of this when our family went to see Ant-Man. As an editor or publisher (or agent), had this project landed on my desk, I would have rejected it. I mean, hey, it’s about a superhero who’s an ant?

What the hell?

But let’s say I bought the story. Let’s say I even made a movie with Michael Douglas and Paul Rudd and that hot chick from Lost. Let’s say I added some nifty special effects. Let’s say, by the end, I kinda thought it was good.

Well, was it?

The reviews were mixed. The youngest boy thought it was 10/10. He loved the idea of being an ant. He’s eight. The oldest boy thought (I kid you not) that he didn’t connect with the characters and all the emotional stuff seemed just, you know, thrown in. He’s 12 going on 30. The Prettiest-girl-in-the-world gave it 9/10 and for her, that’s really 12/10 since it’s a movie about super heroes and didn’t star Tatum Channing (or Channing Tatum, I can never remember).

I gave it 7/10, mostly for reasons the oldest boy mentioned, but it did make me laugh and I loved the world they brought us into.

And that’s the thing about all creative endeavours. Some people will like it and others want more Tatum.

But why does this matter? Why write about it?

It’s because we’ll always receive a butt load of rejections. Despite our best efforts, these feed all the wrongs dogs that live inside of us. Fear. Doubt. A feeling we’re not good enough.

The truth could be completely different. It’s all subjective. Maybe an editor had read 4 proposals about unicorns mating with jelly fish and yours was the 5th and no matter how good it was, they really were sick of uni-jellies. Or maybe their boss wanted a book about cave dwelling monks who fed on human flesh and you just sent in a story about loving your neighbourhood dog.

Who knows?

rhIt’s why Heinlein’s advice about writing and sending it out, then writing and sending it out, is still the best advice to remember. Get enough stories on enough desks and your odds of getting published are increased exponentially.

Cuz, you see, subjectiveness works in our favour as well.

Let subjectiveness inspire you.

************

So, back to some stuff that I was doing, but forgot about since I’m getting old. Links! Please check them out.

Robert J Sawyer. Great writer, great advice on breaking in.

SFWA – a great organization with plenty of outstanding forums

Nathan Bransford – Again, great advice on a wide variety of writing subjects.

Is writing a lonely occupation?

Karalee’s Post #116

I have been known to say that writing can be lonely. I’ve even changed my life this year  by joining a business in direct marketing to augment my retirement AND meet up with friends and talk to strangers. Lots of strangers. And many of those strangers have become friends.

My life has changed. I’m happier being more social. I’m more at peace and moving in a direction that I’m enjoying. Now, did I make this change in my life to get out of the house more because writing is lonely?

 

My answer is a resounding NO!

No that is, that writing is lonely. It isn’t. Not ever. When I think about it, I was wrong when I said that writing can be lonely. How can it be when my mind is filled with characters and places and relationships and mysteries and, and, and…. There’s so much happening when I write that there is NO ROOM for loneliness!

So where does this sense of loneliness come from?

I had to laugh when the truth hit me. I realized that the only time I feel lonely “writing” is when I’m not actually writing. It’s when I stop writing and sit there, just me and my computer, and I feel that I’m the only “real” person in the room or the house. It’s when the sun is shining outside and I think I’d rather be in the garden, or when I “should” be doing the millions of other chores in my life that suddenly become important.

It’s when my writing isn’t flowing that I can feel lonely. It’s when I have hours in my day to write and I continue to have difficulty staying focused that loneliness creeps in.

This was happening to me and I needed a change. I had to get out of my comfort zone and challenge myself. My family no longer required my full attention and I had energy to burn.

AND, I have come to realize that I am more social than I ever thought I was. I want more social interaction and if I can achieve this and do business at the same time, it’s a win-win for me. I used to own a large physiotherapy practice and I’m enjoying the challenge of being in business again.

I’m not throwing in the towel regarding writing. Not at all! With fewer hours to sit in my office chair, there’s more push to stay focused and be more productive. My “not writing” hours will be fewer and therefore not as lonely.

A change is good for my writing!

__________________________________________________

Achievements this week:

  • my garden is all planted and set to grow!
  • I’m the sole caretaker of the neighborhood traffic circle garden. I also got this area planted/weeded for the season.
  • reorganize my office/writing area. I’ve moved twice in the last three months to accommodate others in the house. Back to normal in September!
  • 1 hr/day writing. Need to get 30 pages done for July 5th!

 

Keeping balance in my life: 

  •  Sticking to the Slight Edge philosophy to achieve success in my new business and in my writing.
  • Daily meditation and exercise. I am healthy, have good energy and am staying more centered.
  • Staying in touch with fellow 5Writers every Monday (or Tuesday) keeps our group strong and supporting one another!
  • A positive attitude leads to more happiness, and more writing!

Perspective Photos:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Happy writing!

 

Is ‘not knowing’ holding you back?

Karalee’s Post #88 —

http://wallpaperwonder.com/stars-wallpaper-download.htmlYesterday was one of those days when the heavens seemed lined up and my mind in the right space to absorb new concepts and philosophical musings into my life. I’m sure most of you have had wonderful days like this too and can still remember them years later.

What happened was that I was talking to a friend that coached me to stretch my beliefs. I’ve been avoiding making some decisions (letting go of some things I believe I shouldn’t) and fear of having no concrete idea what the ramification of those decisions will really be has been holding me back. And, I would gather, this is true for many people.

For sure it’s is a control issue and a place of safety knowing where “I am at.” In reality though, even the smartest person on earth doesn’t know for sure what the future will be. BUT what I am certain of is that not making decisions is slowing my personal growth. Which, by the way, includes writing a damn good story with a hugely memorable protagonist that absolutely doesn’t fit the mold as Helga talked about in her last post!

So my friend and I talked around this issue and what popped up for me is, simply, let myself be at peace with not knowing. Simple, right? It’s not an easy mindset for me, although when I get there, somehow it is freeing. Try it yourself and see how it feels thinking this way.

In actual fact, it is quite exciting! Let go and try things and see what happens. The mystery of not knowing and going forth and seeing what is or can be, is I imagine, some of the reasons that explorers, scientists, and people doing extreme stuff, do what they do.

I’m not saying that I need to be extreme, but letting go does put me in a different mindset.

Who knows why, but the mood at dinner last night was light and talkative too, even my eighteen year old son who is in second year at university (taking commerce and computers) joined in. Now the stars and the universe must have been lined up in a particularly good arrangement! :).

He made the statement that “no one knows how humans think; how we make our thoughts.”

Now this is absolutely the reason all families should eat around the dinner table with no electronic device distractions. This is social interaction at its best! My son’s girlfriend was with us too and we had a great discussion about what is intelligence, what makes us human, etc, etc.

We had lots of ideas and discussions, and in the end had to be at peace with not really knowing the answer. In retrospect when I think about it, not knowing in the first place is what opened the door for this discussion.

So I say again, be at peace with not knowing!

Yesterday was a memorable day for me and I believe that being in an open state of mind made it possible. As writers, being in this state is our sweet spot, where creativity flourishes.

Don’t you agree?

Happy writing!

 

How to get the Big Mo on a small scale

momentum

Silk’s Post #87 — See if this sounds familiar. You’re pushing the shopping cart down the supermarket aisle when a friend sidles up to you and gives you a hug.

“So how’s the book coming?” Your friend is smiling, genuinely interested, maybe even proud to have a friend who’s writing a book. This isn’t a challenge. It’s an affirmation.

“Um … good, good.” You grin and shrug. “Not quite as far along as I’d like to be, but … you know.” It feels like a challenge.

“I can’t even imagine,” your friend says. “Where do you find the time? It would take me a year!” Your friend obviously thinks this sounds like an extravagant (and maybe ridiculous) time commitment, little knowing that many writers would kill to turn out a finished book in a year.

“Well, you just have to chain yourself to the desk and grind out that thousand words a day,” you say. At this point you’re hating yourself. A thousand words a day? When was the last time you did that for a week straight?

“Hey, I’m dying to read it,” your friend says. “When do you think it will be published?”

Aaaaarrrrrrrgh!

Since there’s no answer to that well-meaning – but loaded – question, you find yourself suddenly attracted to the two-for-one sale on industrial size cans of plum tomatoes at the end of the aisle. Better to rush off with apparent purpose than to get yourself deeper in this charade, or slink away ignominiously like the fraud that you are.

And you know that your encounter is not likely to prompt a wildly productive writing session when you get home with the groceries. It’s more likely to prompt the consumption of an entire tray of brownies. You skip the plum tomatoes and head for the bakery section.

Every writer, I assume, has had such moments at one time or another. You’re in a trough. Forward progress on your current project has slowed, or stopped altogether. Your partly-finished manuscript sits expectantly on your computer drive, awaiting your return and giving off what looks like a faint radioactive glow every time you walk past the door of your dark office.

You’ve lost the Big Mo – the elusive and magical momentum that feeds on itself and keeps the words flowing.

How do you get it back?

I’d love to tell you I have a sure-fire recipe. If I did, I’d have at least three finished third drafts out there hunting for glory in agent land – instead of one sprawling first draft that needs a lot of work, one half-finished first draft that might have some promise, and one new story concept with a (pretty good) opening chapter. Oh yeah, and approximately 85,000 words of blog posts.

But since this is a problem I’m trying to wrestle to the ground myself right now, I’ll throw out some ideas anyway. Maybe some of them will work.

The first thing is to try to understand what the Big Mo really is, and where it comes from. Originally a sports term, it refers to “behavioural momentum” that comes from victories or other affirmative experiences, and confers an advantage on the team (or political party, or economic cycle, or social movement) that has apparently “caught fire”.

The Big Mo is both real (delivering actual results) and ephemeral (in that it seems to be sustained by nothing more than confidence, hope and belief). It can be a powerful force one day, and the next day collapse into a pile of ash when it burns through all its oxygen. But sometimes it persists for a long cycle and, if continually reinforced, momentum can become resistant to change.

Newton's Cradle. Credit: Demon Deluxe (Dominique Toussaint).

Newton’s Cradle. Credit: Demon Deluxe (Dominique Toussaint).

Like Newton’s Cradle, it can appear to become perpetual.

Generally, the phenomenon of Big Mo has been thought of as a large scale mechanism, something that applies to collective behaviour. Psychologists have studied it, even developing a methodology for calculating its impact. Economists have based market theories on it. Politicians have built campaigns around it. Technology has created the social media tools to both stimulate and record Big Mo. Even physicists have gotten into the act, likening it to aspects of quantum field theory. And some of the most hilarious and quirky superstitions in the world of big-league sports arise from players’ attempts to keep their Big Mo streaks alive (never more charmingly portrayed than in the movie Bull Durham).

The question is: can this “networked” phenomenon be achieved on a small scale? Like for an individual writer? Well, why not? “Behavioural persistence” theory is apparently now being used in the development of drug rehabilitation programs, harnessing momentum to counter the prospects of relapse. (Okay, it’s not a pretty thought, but there are probably some uncomfortable parallels between addicts and writers that I won’t go into right now.)

So … since writers seem to love putting things in lists, here are my completely unproven but patently reasonable suggestions for writers who need some momentum. Warning: some of this is harsh. But you want to finish that book, don’t you?

Silk’s Top 10 Strategies for Getting Your Big Mo Back

1. Purge the filler. Examine what you actually do every day (besides writing) and make a list of your personal time wasters. I know you have them. Everyone does. Angry Birds. Television. Web surfing. Anything even slightly obsessive, even cleaning. Find ’em and just stop doing them. Or put yourself on a time-waster diet. An hour or two a day, tops. Wow! Now you suddenly have all the time you need to write!

2. Try, try, try to write on a regular schedule. This, for many of us, is the hardest thing to achieve. But most of us work (or once worked) at something that required us to be somewhere every day at a certain time and place to do a certain thing. This is no different. If we’re honest, there are three main reasons it’s hard to schedule writing. First, we put other’s needs and demands ahead of our own; we let everything in the world crash our writing schedule. Second, we don’t really think writing is an imperative, or at least not more important than, say, washing the windows or catching the latest Anthony Bourdain. Third, we use every possible excuse to avoid writing when we feel secretly afraid of failure. Okay, maybe this is just me. But you have your own hang-ups, I bet. Writing on a regular schedule is not a cure for them. But it’s a trigger for momentum, purely through discipline.

3. Every time you get a good chunk of writing (or outlining or research) done, reward yourself. If you’re able to get into the habit of writing on a regular schedule, that means you deserve at least one reward per day. This isn’t a game. We all need that positive reinforcement. It’s what builds Big Mo. Make it something that counts. Today I rewarded myself by registering for the Surrey International Writers Conference in October. Tomorrow, maybe all I’ll get is a brownie, but that’s okay. I love brownies. (I recommend against rewarding yourself with a full bottle of wine every day; see earlier reference to parallels between addicts and writers.)

4. Amplify your momentum by being part of a larger group. Big Mo is described as a group phenomenon for a reason: we get energy, positive reinforcement and contact highs from other people on our team. (Isn’t this what sports, politics and religion is all about?) Writing is an isolating profession. Even if you’re an introvert, even if you think your work is “not good enough”, even if there are all kinds of obstacles to doing it, you need to commune with other writers. Find a writers group. Can’t find one? Start one. (If it weren’t for my 5/5/5 friends, I probably would have given up long ago.) Go to workshops or classes or seminars and rub elbows. Go to writers conferences. Yes, they’re basically trade fairs that sell books and advice (and hope) to writers. Go anyway. (Surrey International Writers Conference, here I come for the 7th time!) You’ll meet people like you. You’ll come home energized. I guarantee it. Writing requires faith. Become part of a writing congregation.

5. Read, read, read, read, read. Reading is never on the list of time-wasters. Reading is learning. Reading is like drinking water for a writer: you can’t live without it. Read about writing. There is so much in print and online it isn’t funny. Even if you don’t always learn something new, you may see something you already “know” differently, and reading about writing will keep your head into writing, simple as that. When you’re not reading about writing, just read good stuff. Your favourite authors. Different genres. Fiction. Non-fiction. Everything. Learn from it all, good and bad. When you just can’t face writing your own stuff during your “scheduled” writing time, read instead. It might inspire you.

6. Cultivate your curiosity. Curiosity is an attitude of openness and engagement. It feeds imagination. It keeps your senses constantly on the lookout for novelty, insights, revelations and surprises. It stimulates the brain and the heart. It keeps you from getting bored, and boredom is a momentum killer. Incurious people are dull, and dull people don’t write interesting things.

7. Practice flexibility and adaptation. If you have to have a certain chair and a certain coffee mug and all your pencils and pens lined up north to south before you can settle down to write, you’re in big trouble. Many books encourage writers to set up their writing space to suit their work style on the theory that this leads to higher productivity. Can’t argue with that. But then there’s what I call the “bomb shelter problem”. If you’re not home when the bomb drops, your shelter is useless. People have busier, more mobile lives than ever. Keeping a regular writing schedule is harder – sometimes much harder – when you’re away from your own domain and daily routine. So you have to learn to adapt without fuss. Write in the hotel room or the airport or on the boat. Don’t wait for things to get back to “normal” to resume your writing schedule, because by then the Big Mo will be down the drain, like your tan.

8. If you really hit a wall with your main project, write something else. Writer’s block is real. So is burn-out. Sometimes your brain just needs to fall back and re-group before it’s ready to scale that particular wall. But keep writing anyway. Do a blog post. Write an essay. Try a poem or a short story. Write in your journal. Just keep writing. Attack the book again after a rest from it. A short rest.

9. Make your peace with your non-writing friends and family. Some people who are close to a writer are incredibly supportive, both in word and deed. Then there are the more normal people who want to be supportive … as long as it doesn’t inconvenience them too much. Living with a writer can get lonely. People understandably get a bit testy about missing meals, say, or having to build their own schedule around your work. Maybe they’d like a little more of your attention, or would appreciate your calling more if it resulted in some published books and income. It’s hard for a non-writer to understand what drives us, and to share our solitary writing life. Everyone’s situation is different, but two goals are pretty universal: that the people closest to you feel they have some personal stake in your writing, and that you don’t neglect their needs and wants. Fair’s fair.

10. Stay healthy. Be happy.  All that advice they give you about a healthy lifestyle applies double to people who spend a lot of time in front of a computer thinking their brains out. Eating right, keeping your body moving, spending time outdoors, getting some R&R, sleeping well, having some fun, maintaining your relationships and social life with emotional intelligence. You’ve heard it all. Take it to heart. I can’t remember which writer it was who claimed he wrote every single day of every single year, except his birthday. Somebody successful, rich and famous. I’m in awe of that level of obsession. But most of us need to have an actual life to keep up our Big Mo as writers. So, besides being good to the people around you, be good to yourself.

Habits: the good, the bad and the snuggly

Silk’s Post #78 — Quick, what’s the first word that comes to mind when you hear ‘habit’? I’m guessing that you didn’t think of ‘nun’ unless you happen to be one. I’m also guessing that if you’re anything like me (ie: conscientious but sometimes weak-willed), you may have come up with ‘bad’.

badYeah, about those bad habits. We all have them. Well, maybe you don’t. Sure you don’t. I believe you.

Mostly we hear about bad habits because people are always trying to break them. Smoking. Drinking. Bad posture. Sweets. Nailbiting. Gossip. Speeding. Procrastinating. Nosepicking. Whatever. There are too many etceteras to mention. The point is, bad habits always make for lively criticism, whether from others or self-inflicted.

But bad habits are hard to break.

goodGood habits are increasingly also part of modern discourse. Thanks so much, you do-gooders. Stephen Covey gave us his iconic Seven Habits of Highly Effective People back in 1989, and since then it seems like every doctor, nutritionist, spiritual guru, yoga instructor, fitness trainer, efficiency expert, life coach and writing teacher have tried to inspire us to adopt healthier, more productive habits guaranteed to deliver ‘personal improvement’. The point is that advice about good habits sell books, because we all live in a state of eternal optimism.

But good habits are hard to acquire.

I have no comments to offer on either bad or good habits. I personally have lots of the former and a few of the latter. I’m in a perpetual struggle to shift the balance the other way around and become a person with few bad habits and lots of good ones. So far I’ve had limited success (if you define ‘limited’ as ‘almost none’). So you’re welcome to you own bad and good habits, and let me know if you find the magical formula to change them at will.

But there’s another category of habits I call ‘snuggly habits’, and I think these are at least as important as the good and bad kind.

snuggly

There’s nothing inherently wrong with these snuggly habits, in fact they’re part of life’s delights. However, they do their part to keep us, for want of a better word, inert.        

The reason this is important to writers is that our comfort zone is exactly the place we do not want to be all the time. We need to seek a certain amount of disruption in our lives. Willingly jolt ourselves. Stop trying to be normal day in and day out. Put fun, and quality of life, and deserved rewards aside sometimes … and get uncomfortable.

Sometimes I think we need to break our snuggly habits simply for the purpose of waking up our hunger, our unease, our beastly creative spirit. Change can be a stimulant.

Listen, if you don’t need to write (or fill in the blank with your own passion), that’s perfectly okay. Most people don’t. Snuggly habits are very comforting, and very addictive, and that may be all you need to live a very happy life. Mazeltov. You have my (envious) congratulations.

But, personally, I’m fighting it. I have been for some time now. For some perverse reason, I don’t want to simply enjoy the easygoing retirement I’ve earned, and I deserve. I prefer to torture myself trying to become a really good writer. I don’t want to live in my comfort zone.

But I’m realizing that breaking those snuggly habits is as hard as getting rid of bad habits, or acquiring goods ones. Maybe harder, because no one is nagging you to do it.

So, here’s me nagging you, my artistic friend – whoever you are, and whatever habits constitute your comfort zone – to consider inserting some creative disruption into your life. Change something. Put yourself off-balance. For at least a time, challenge yourself to act like the crazy, driven creative person you could be, at the expense of the much more reasonable and comfortable person you usually are.

Easy to say. Hard to do. I’m going to give it a try, in the hope it’s nothing like sticking to a diet – in which case, I may be stuck in my comfort zone forever.

Skiathlon for writers

skiathlon

Silk’s Post #73 – In the spirit of Sochi, I bring you the inevitable post comparing writing to Olympic sports. How can you be surprised?

Getting sucked in to this spectacle of triumph and heartbreak every two years is virtually unavoidable – or it is for me, especially with the winter games. If you love drama, if you’re fascinated by amazing characters, if you thrive on story arcs that soar like the trajectories of those insane ski jumpers, then you just have to watch. And, if you have a blog post to write in the middle of it all, your topic is a no-brainer.

The question is: which winter Olympic sport best mirrors the trials and the glories of the writing life? For me, this was also a no-brainer. It’s the newfangled event (2003) called Skiathlon. If you’re a writer, see if any of this rings a bell:

Skiathlon Characteristics:

1. It’s an endurance event.
The men’s event is a gruelling 30 km (ladies’ course is half that, though if I were a competitor I might easily be talked into acceptance of this inequality). For the metrically challenged, 30 km is equivalent to 18.64 miles. Almost marathon distance. Except you’re doing it with boards strapped to your feet. If you imagine that the presence of snow underneath those boards enables a smooth glide to victory, you’d be wrong. It’s a brutal course with lots of uphill ‘skating’ work, and dozens of other competitors dogging your every stroke. Most Skiathletes collapse at the finish line, heaving and flopping like newly-caught salmon as they struggle for every molecule of oxygen they can gulp.

2. It’s complicated, has two stages, and requires multiple skills.
As sports writer Cathal Kelly noted in her humorous definition in thestar.com, “Increasingly the purpose of the Olympics is to take something simple and make it needlessly complex. Case in point – Skiathlon, a race that is half ‘classic’ (i.e. done along grooves in the snow); half ‘free’ (i.e. that exhausting-looking lunging that weirds you out every Olympics). In between, the competitors will ‘pit’ at the stadium, and switch gear.” The official Olympics description merely calls it “interesting.” Oh, and did I forget to mention competitors get to go around the whole two-stage course twice? Leave your comfort zone at home!

3. It rewards individual technique and stamina in equal measures.
Skiathlon is not for daredevils – their events are on the big, glamorous slopes. It’s not for artistes – their stunning routines on ice are beautiful but fleeting. And it’s not a team sport – you’re on your own out there. Skiathlon is won by incredibly fit, well-prepared athletes who have mastered all types of cross-country skiing, are capable of changing course in the middle of a race, and have the energy and discipline to stick it out to the end, alone in their agony. That’s discipline and determination. Like all Olympic sports, it starts with a dream and requires a stupendous amount of training and practice. But, as Helga so aptly put it in her post “Unsung heroes – here’s to you!”, the key to winning is steely resolve.

Now, let’s compare …

Writing Characteristics:

1. It’s an endurance event.
I scarcely need to explain this to anyone who’s churned their way through the planning, outlining, writing and re-writing of a 100,000 word novel. Or two, or three. Yes, there are glorious days when you’re gliding across the pages, your fingers flying and the wind in your face. Then there are the brutal uphill climbs where you stroke, stroke, stroke, stroke … and get no glide at all. The finish never comes soon enough for your oxygen-starved brain and your cramped shoulders, and every chapter is a fresh marathon.

2. It’s complicated, has two stages, and requires multiple skills. 
You could argue that writing has more than two stages, what with concept development, planning, research, outlining, writing, re-writing, then the whole can of worms which is marketing your work. But the main events are writing and re-writing, and these require completely different skill-sets. One thing is guaranteed: you will travel the course of your novel multiple times before you have a manuscript ready to pitch.

3. It rewards individual technique and stamina in equal measures. 
Many people have great ideas. Many people are highly creative. Many people are good writers. But most of them never start a novel, let alone finish one – and never mind actually getting published. The ante for a writer to get in the game at all is talent, that’s a given. And no writer gets far without having a burning desire to pursue their calling. But after that, it’s all about technique and skills, along with stamina and endurance. And most of the effort writers pour into their novels is done alone, fuelled almost exclusively by their passion for their work and their belief in themselves. Much else must be sacrificed.

Alright, I admit it. Skiathlon is by no means a perfect analogy for writing. I could have picked at least a dozen different Olympic sports and made a similar case. So call this post an exercise – writer’s practice, if you will.

Because this is what writers do: when we look around us, we’re constantly seeing plots, analogies, character studies, ironies, dramatic struggles, epic tales. We can’t help ourselves. Everything in the world is about writing. About the pursuit of story.

But those writers who successfully challenge themselves to leave a legacy of published work are as dedicated as elite athletes – and as rare. Do I have it in me? Do you?

No matter. Even if we don’t medal, the exercise is good for us. Keep writing!

My love letter to writers

sgt-pepper

Silk’s Post #72 — Writers are Beautiful Dreamers. That’s one of the things I love best about them, and I’m coming to realize that it’s probably my key motivator in choosing the writing life. So this is my love letter to kindred spirits.

This special species of human being – the Beautiful Dreamer – has always been relatively rare, except among children. We are supposed to grow out of this mentality when we hit adulthood, as though there’s obviously something more important to achieve in life than being curious, imaginative, empathetic, creative and hopeful. As though ‘dreaming’ and ‘working’ are two different planets that inhabit separate galaxies, never to come within a million light-years of each other’s orbits.

It’s no surprise that Beautiful Dreamers tend to cluster in the arts. Or that their primary motivation, and reward, is not really about making money. How many creative people were discouraged in their youth from pursuing their dream to be a novelist, a singer, a painter, a playwright, a sculptor, an actor, a dancer, an inventor? The talents for which children are lavishly praised (“What a beautiful painting, pumpkin”) somehow become re-cast as irrelevant hobbies when it’s time to choose a real profession (“But sweetheart, you can’t really expect to make a living as a painter”).

When I ran my agency, I employed many very talented fine artists who, in order to pay the rent, re-channeled their creativity into what was originally called ‘commercial art’ (later to be known as the disciplines of graphic design and illustration). Fortunately, most of them remained Beautiful Dreamers.

What especially confuses the pursuit of writing for Beautiful Dreamers is that it’s so pervasive in everyday life – a river fed by so many disparate streams.

“Everyone’s a writer,” we used to lament with a roll of our eyes in the agency business. Meaning: every client thinks they (or their office assistant or their sales associate) can write a headline, a slogan, a TV commercial. And they can. But most of the results are laughably dreadful and hackneyed (sorry, former clients, I exaggerate of course).

The fact is that everyone who’s literate does write – even if it doesn’t go much beyond emails or reports or business letters. Not everybody paints or sculpts – or even sings or dances – but pretty well everybody writes. And the special disciplines of professional writing (technical, journalistic, business, academic, scientific, promotional and other commercial writing forms) all demand high skill levels, offer some level of personal reward, and often even pay well. Lots of writers who dream of being novelists wind up in these niches.

I did.

But when I made the shift from my make-a-living career to my make-a-life career as a novelist, I had to resuscitate my slumbering Beautiful Dreamer. Believe me, it wasn’t just asleep, it was virtually in a coma after all those years of dreamless commercial writing.

My realist left brain told me that writing a novel would be nothing more than a hobby, an affectation. An amusing retirement time-filler now that my important (i.e., commercially valued) writing career was behind me. But that was just a cynic’s hangover from my many years of jaded adulthood.

After the rejuvenating therapy of attending writers conferences, working with my cherished 5writers colleagues/friends, and tentatively stumbling my way through my first novel and halfway through my second, my Beautiful Dreamer right brain has finally regained full consciousness. It took about three years. (Who expected that?)

Beautiful Dreamers believe in possibilities, even remote ones. When they’re told something is impossible, it doesn’t fling them into despair – it spurs them on. When popular wisdom dismisses freewheeling imagination and creativity as unserious indulgences, Beautiful Dreamers thumb their noses and push themselves farther out into uncharted territory, looking for—something. They don’t know what yet, but it’s out there …

… Some kind of truth, something that matters. Some different revelatory perspective. Some story that can be told in visuals, or sounds, or words – a story that will show us what it is to be human. A story with the power to make people care, laugh, think, cry, understand, love.

What sort of crazy pursuit is this? Well, not the kind many people really bother with after the age of, say, 18 or so. It violates the left-brained, adult notion that setting off without knowing your destination is folly. This ‘rule’ confuses purposeful, open-minded exploration with wandering aimlessly in the wilderness. Beautiful Dreamers may seek their holy grails, but also accept that the journey, in itself, can be a kind of destination.

What prompted all this introspection? By chance, I tuned in yesterday to “The Night That Changed America: A Grammy Salute To the Beatles,” which commemorated the 50th anniversary of the night the Fab Four first appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show back in 1964 and set off a mania.

Okay, I hear you saying “Cool,” but if you have even one skeptical brain cell, you may be automatically classifying this as nostalgic trivia. Another cheesy tribute show where all the obligatory stars come out in their spangles and pretend to be each others’ BFFs with phoney air kisses. An entertainment package aimed at baby boomers longing for their glory days, designed to sell air time to pharmaceutical companies eager to sell their target audience all manner of products to perk up their aging bodies. I’ll admit it, that’s where my mind went first.

But as I quieted my inner party pooper and listened to the music again – for the first time in a long time, truth be told – my Beautiful Dreamer got up and started dancing in my head. Not out of nostalgia for my youth. Not out of sentimentality for the flowering of my generation. Just simply because of the music itself. The art of it. The hopeful, wise, uplifting, anything’s-possible, Beautiful Dreamer quality of the tunes that made the Beatles one of the greatest bands in history.

I hadn’t realized until that night the degree to which I had dismissed them as a pop-culture artifact of the sixties. In the process of ‘maturing’ into a responsible adult, I had distanced myself from their optimistic, idealistic, yet irreverent music. Kids’ music. As I marched into the future with the rest of the gigantic (some might say robotic) baby boom cohort, I didn’t want to be ‘dated’ – stuck in what Bruce Springsteen slyly called “boring stories of glory days.” Oldies stations were for oldies. Masters (and Mistresses) of the Universe look ahead, not back.

But here I sat, listening to the old music with new ears, tears streaming down my face. Why? Because it felt so good to immerse myself in a soundtrack written by and for Beautiful Dreamers. Just as they did back when, the Beatles’ songs filled me full of hope and joy. The melodies and words still felt fresh. Timeless, in the same way that dreams always belong to the present and never get ‘dated’.

It was like waking up from a years-long sleep, and thinking – Where was I? Oh yeah, I remember. This is what I was supposed to be doing. Dreaming. Not sleeping.

Perhaps not all writers are Beautiful Dreamers. But a lot of them are, and I love them for it. As seekers, they elevate the world. They prize freedom. They are mindful. They help counteract the dead weight of skepticism, expediency, selfishness, fear, intolerance, corruption and other forms of negativity that drag humanity down to the level of our baser instincts.

In other words, we need as many of this breed as we can cultivate.

So, following the prescription that ‘All You Need Is Love’, I want to tell all you writers and other hopeful, curious, caring, creative souls out there that you are Beautiful Dreamers, and you’re close to my heart.

Happy Valentine’s Day!