Critique Groups and Beta Readers

At some point in your writing journey, you’re going to need someone else to read your work. And I’m not talking about agents or publishers or editors. I’m not even talking about your mom or dad or your second cousin twice removed. I’m talking about beta readers and or critique partners.

In my mind I sort of separate these two categories, though I’m sure others would disagree. The biggest distinction for me is that critique partners, often found in a critique group, are other writers, while beta readers don’t necessarily have to be writers themselves. Both are helpful though in taking your stories from drafts to publishable novels. And while you can pay a professional editor, you might benefit from taking it first to a critique group.

A critique group are fellow writers who will read and critique your pages for you

The parameters of these groups can vary. Some choose to remain genre specific. The benefit to this is you have other writers familiar with the conventions of your genre. You also have discussions about well-known writers and can reference their work for easy examples. Sometimes it’s just fun to geek out and have someone actually get your weird Firefly reference. On the other hand, having other genre writers read your work, a mystery writer reading an epic fantasy, say, might allow for unexpected and mind-expanding insights into your work. If you write poetry or short-stories, the form may be a more important distinction than the genre in regards to the critiques. Again in this situation you have other writers familiar with the specific needs and parameters that the form requires and are able to read your work with this in mind.

Some established group have scheduled weekly sessions. This can be the needed kick in the butt to write and submit (lather, rinse, repeat) on a regular basis. These groups often have very specific rules of conduct with word count limitations and procedures on how to conduct the actual critique. There are some groups that require the author to remain silent during the critiques or only to ask a few questions of clarification. Others are a bit more loose.

The advantage to having an established group of writers is they are in it for the long haul and able to give valuable feedback on novel size work. The only down side might be the time it might take to get through an average 80,000 word story, as turns are rotated among the members. So depending on how many members are submitting and the diligence of the meet-ups, your novel may take a year [or several] to finish. Usually keeping the group between 5 and 7 members allows for the occasional and understandable absenteeism while maintaining a useful amount of feedback on your work.

Critiques are on a quid pro quo basis; you read and critique chapters or scenes from their work and they do the same for you. Having another writer catch your grammar and punctuation gaffs, point out your inconsistencies and notify you of structure speed wobbles, are just a few of the obvious benefits to a writer.  But if you go into it only thinking of the feed back you are getting, you are missing out on the opportunity to improve your ability to critique. This is an important skill to have and one that can make you a better editor of your own work. Besides which, if your critique partners aren’t feeling as if they are getting a fair exchange, you might find yourself with less and less people interested in spending the time on your own work.

Critique meet-ups operate more on a members-drop-in sort of approach

Meet-ups tend to be monthly scheduled open door affairs. Attendance is come when you want and writers wait their turn to read their pieces and are given feedback on the spot. This works for writers who may have difficulty committing to a schedule or are only dipping their toe into the writing world or perhaps only need feedback on short pieces or scenes from novels. Usually these groups are quite big and are a great place to meet many other writers and to hear a variety of styles and genres and in turn stretch your critiquing abilities. Sharing industry news and views and networking is another advantage. It might also be a great place to meet like-minded writers in order to create a smaller dedicated critique group.

Online critique groups are virtual communities

This is a great opportunity to get a lot of feedback on your work. Online could work for writers who have not been able to find writers in their immediate city or town. Online communities are often arranged by genre, again with the benefits that garners. Although from first-hand experience I find that meeting face to face and the subsequent conversations that erupt over the critiques is extremely valuable both as a writer and a critic, one can’t underestimate the value of feedback from multiple writers actively involved in an online community. Not that it is a guarantee, but often these writers are a little more comfortable navigating the internet and may offer valuable direction there for a newbie. In order to manage these large groups, some communities have strict rules of conduct and mandatory critiquing before you can submit. This can manage those that want something for nothing, but not gage effectiveness of critiques. You might have to weed through several to find feedback you can use.

That of course is the key element to whatever critique group you become involved in; feedback. As writers, we want to make sure our story is coming across and the only way to do that is to have the story read. Having said that, once you feel as if you are getting down to that publishable novel, you might need to find yourself some Beta Readers.

Beta Readers

Beta readers is another term used for critique partners, but in my mind, I think of them as your genre guinea pigs. They are those die-hard genre fans that have a lot of reading under their belt and while they might not write themselves, know a well-constructed story when they are reading it. They might not be able to give you all the help a fellow writer might be able to give, using all that writerly jargon, but they will be reading the story as a reader reads it. And after all, isn’t that who we are writing it for?

It might be a good idea to give a beta reader an entire draft, maybe even (dare I say it?) a paper copy, allowing them to make notes in the margins as they go. These notes can be as simple or complex as they are capable of giving. Even a comment on the likeability of a character or when they get board or felt like skipping a part, or when the gravitational pull of a small satellite doesn’t jive with the spacecraft trajectory, can give a writer great feedback on what they need to look at in the next draft. Did I mention genre? Make use of their love and appreciation of it; which means don’t give a military sci/fi fan a romance novel, unless something big gets blown up and not just a relationship. Also, make sure your novel has already been extensively revised and copy-edited and is definitely not a first draft. Respect the reader and their time. After all, they are doing this, usually, for free.

Critique groups and beta readers are easy things to find out about. There are several articles that you might find helpful. I suggest you start with this article from Writer’s Digest. It explores the whole critique group concept. A must for writers venturing out for the first time, it is also a touch point for those who have been at it for a while. Another one to check out is this one from Jane Friedman‘s website. There, Brooke McIntyre of Inked Voices invites you to evaluate where you are as a writer/critic, shares what to expect, and offers suggestions on how to go about becoming involved in a critique group. And because I try to be balanced in my view, here is an article from Kristen Lamb that might make you more aware of some of the pitfalls.

Not all critique groups and beta readers are created equal. You may have to go through considerable trial and error to find ones that work for you; offering feedback that you can use, in a manner you can digest. You’ll want to be challenged to improve but not so overwhelmed you quit writing. Remember, you’ll be part of a community. You’ll need one that is a good fit with your personality and writing style.

Know that it is worth it. All you need to do is check out the acknowledgements page of your favourite book. That author had a community around them. They didn’t do it alone. Why should you have to?

Turning The Legitimacy Corner

What do you do when something you do, that you are passionate about, that occupies your every waking moment, is seen as a hobby by others but a vocation by you?

How can you expect people to take you seriously, when your job is described as playing?

When do hobbies turn the ‘legitimacy corner’ and become jobs?

Not only do I consider myself a writer but I am also a musician. Awesome. Double-whammy!

I can’t tell you how many times, after I’ve shared my musical and authorial endeavors, I have been told that’s a nice hobby. Each time, I would have to grit my teeth and bite back a response. I wanted to explain my situation, defend my position, justify my stance. Maybe it’s my age, but now I just smile and nod and make my deposit, or cough and wait for the stethoscope to move to another spot on my back, or kiss my family member on the cheek. I suppose it’s hard for others to appreciate that although this ‘music/writing thing’ is not my day job, it is my career. I treat it as such. I have in fact been paid for it in the past. I endeavor to one day be paid for my efforts again.

This is often the case with art; you create and hope that at some point you might be able to make money from it. This is not as unusual as it may sound. And it certainly isn’t unusual to me. Art as a vocation is fraught with rejection. Rejection means that for whatever reason they don’t want what you’re selling. And when that happens, whether it is losing out on a gig or not finding a publisher for your story, you don’t get paid.  There are no guarantees that any of our efforts will be financially rewarded. That’s just the way it is.

The difficulty is the average person doesn’t have a frame of reference for this. They go to work and every two weeks, there’s a paycheck. Easy, peazy, lemon squeazy.  There is a clear line of sight between work and remuneration. So not only don’t they understand what it takes to do what you do, they don’t understand why you are doing it. You aren’t famous. You aren’t making lots of money. Why bother? Even the mere existence of your day job calls into question whether you are really committed. So, to be fair, the confusion of friends, family and strangers is understandable. It’s just not helpful.

Perhaps they don’t see the uncertainty and confusion that we wrestle with every time we step up to the easel, sit down to the computer, or strap the guitar around our necks. They aren’t there as we struggle to find the right word, or melody, or inspiration. For the most part, if we’re lucky, they only see the end result, a finished (or nearly so) piece of art without all the messy false starts, crumpled up pages and plethora of profanity that goes along with the previous. Often, the one thing we are sure of is that we are quite sufficiently skilled in doubting ourselves and our art. And the biggest doubt is about where the heck is that legitimacy corner and when will I turn it.

So if you are feeling exceptionally doubty in the deep, shy, insidyness of you, check out this podcast from Shawn Coyne and Tim Grahl. Shawn has a way of putting your doubts, if not to rest, at least to their room for a nap. You might even share it with a friend or family member. Listening to it might help to give them perspective on what it means to be an artist and to relieve some of their own misgivings about your endeavours.

Regardless of others’ opinions, in my heart of hearts I know my art is my true vocation. I am in good company. Many great artist have had to support their art with day jobs. Some art didn’t make any money  until well after the artist’s death. Not that that is something I’m hoping for, but it does, in a strange way, help me to keep the faith (and eat my vegetables and get exercise so that I can live long enough for others to appreciate what I do). And regardless of whether or not I make boatloads of cash, (enough to be able to tell all doubters to suck-it) I know I am treating it as my profession.

Look – you are not going to be able to convince everyone that your art is legit. They’ve got their own baggage. And really why would you want to. You are too busy working your craft, improving your skills and fueling your inspiration. They don’t have to take it seriously. Only you do.

Artist With A Day Job

I have mentioned that I am an AWADJ –  Artist With a Day Job. And the truth of the matter is that until Blockchain Technology or some system that can ensure compensation for intellectual property comes into play, most of us while endeavouring to secure paid work, probably have other forms of employment. But I’m not here to complain about that. The reality is artists or artist-preneurs or author-preneurs or whatever label seems apt, must often supplement or support their vocation/career with a ‘day job’. This also includes jobs that are shift or at night. In fact the new paradigm might be to have multiple jobs at the same time and we artists have been doing this forever. So instead of bemoaning the fact, I have chosen to look at it as a welcome reality.

Reasons Why We Need You

Money – duh. You can easily google stats on what the average artist makes a year and without supplementing or supporting our art, it isn’t a living. There is however another advantage to the artist than the money and stability [and maybe even health benefits] a day job offers; the outside world. We can get so locked into what we are doing that we forget about the world. Not only is this harmful to our mental health it is harmful to our art. Without some inspiration often found just outside our door, it is hard to create. Where better for the writer to find inspiration for that twisted character? Where else can the musician experience angst for that poignant lyric? Where else can an actor study people? A day job forces an artist to step through their door and into the world.

Reasons Why You Need Us

Some artists have day jobs in the same field as their vocation. A musician might teach music in a school. A writer could write copy for an advertising firm. A visual artist might be a web designer by day.  Here, the benefit to an employer is obvious.  Some artist however opt for something that allows creative energy to be saved for after work.  What’s the benefit to the employer here? Someone happy to do a mundane task, satisfied that they are getting paid to do something necessary to the success of the company but perhaps not the most glamourous of jobs. Don’t however overlook these employees. Even while sorting mail or answering the phone, an artist might see problems differently, and in so doing create a solution using outside the box methods that bypass the group think that can manifest in some industries.

What You Might Have To Put Up With

You might be worried about artists being flighty or non-committal or easily distracted. Other words for these are creative, adaptable and curious.  These are key soft skills most employers site as desirable. Now, I’m not saying all artist will absolutely bring these skills to the table. Artist are as diverse as any other group of people. However, by the nature of being an artist, they do tend to engage these soft skills. Of course, there are other real dangers to having an artist in your employ. You might find yourself cornered in the lunch room with requests to see our play, buy our cd,  come to our art show, or read our story but as any of these art forms take a long time to produce, it’s not like we’d be hounding you every week.

If only we were lucky enough to gig that often, well, we wouldn’t need the day job now, would we.

Advice You Give Yourself

I’m a big believer in lists, plans and notes to self. Ironically not because I necessarily follow them, but because when I’ve got something down on paper it’s easier to make a change. And often that change is in my own approach to the problem.

Case in point, last post I mentioned my appalling lack of get up and go [it got up and went – again I’m dating myself – thank you, School House Rock]. I found however that writing my angst down in a blog post helped me to work it out. In actuality, I was forced to take my own advice and in that moment I had an epiphany. A blog can be advice you give yourself.

So over the past few weeks I have been trying to change my perspective, challenge myself and shake things up.

Shaking things up

I had just come out of a November that had me elbow deep in words and story, and while that was successful, the burn-out was inevitable. Not to mention the previous months of plotting and planning for NaNoWriMo, that is a different kind of exhausting all together. Then December hit with a month load of work to be done in three weeks. Then there’s Christmas vacation that offers its own pressures. So what did I do to shake things up? I didn’t write. You might be wondering about that. That’s shaking it up? Doing nothing is shaking it up? Exactly. And for me that is a big shake.

I don’t do nothing. Nothing is hard for me. Please understand. This is not one of those job interviews where they ask ‘and tell me what’s your biggest flaw’ and you give some lame answer like ‘I work too hard and am too devoted to my job’. No. I only do nothing when I’m sick. Bed-ridden sick. So the fact that I wasn’t sick and still didn’t write is about as unusual as if I walked around on my hands all day and cooked dinner with my feet. ‘Cuz I don’t cook. The outcome? I ended up coming back to my WIP with a revelation about the ending that I don’t think I would have arrived at without the break in my writing routine.

Shaking things up means just that – doing something against your grain – that you don’t normally do – you being the operative word.

Challenging myself

When you go from your day job to your career, day in and day out, every night, and on the weekends, maybe the last thing you need is yet another challenge, but the problem is that everything you do carries with it an enormous amount of weight. I love to craft and for me engaging my hands crafting is a welcome change from all that typing. Playing around with something tactile is a break from all the mental gymnastics that my brain has to do. So when I found out about this abstract painting using what they call a ‘dirty pour’, it felt like just the thing to try.

You can check it out yourself if you google ‘fluid acrylic painting’. It was just the right amount of planning and chaos that I needed. So I watched how others did it and followed their instructions. Bought the supplies and got to it. My hands got all gunked up and I got to play around mixing paint and putting it on the paper and canvas. I challenged myself to make something, but I didn’t get too hung up on the results. I challenged myself with learning something new and focused on the act of creating. I challenged myself to not listen to negative self-speak and to be kind to myself. That was a big challenge.

Challenging yourself does not mean succeeding – it means doing something you’ve never done before – or that you find difficult.

Changing my perspective

One of the best ways to change your perspective is to see the world through another’s eyes. As writers, we sort of have to do that to write engaging characters. We employ empathy and our imagination but even then, we are still stuck in our heads. One thing I have been doing over the past little while is listening to a podcast at Story Grid. This site is, in my opinion, one of the best for writers. The podcast is, in its own words – a show dedicated to helping you become a better writer. And how do they do that? You get to be a fly on the wall as Shawn Coyne, the creator of Story Grid and an editor with over 25 years’ experience helps Tim Grahl, a struggling writer, figure out how to tell a story that works.

This is a rare opportunity. This is a beacon to all those writers who have submitted their stories and received a form rejection, or worse, no response at all and are left wondering what am I doing wrong. While Shawn helps Tim craft an outline and then scenes you hear not only what could work for Tim’s particular story, but what works in story in general. Changing your perspective from the understandably narrow view of your present WIP to someone else’s story and also getting the perspective of someone like Shawn with his wealth of knowledge and experience is eye opening.

Changing your perspective – to see something from a different vantage point – is an opportunity that must be sought out – it takes effort and mindfulness.

Now I just want to say, I promote other sites because I am just another artist looking for inspiration and information and when I find them, I want to share. And perhaps like me, you are finding these gray winter days hard to take and are in need of a little inspiration yourself. Why not try shaking things up, challenging yourself or changing your perspective. It just takes a little gumption from you. Those opportunities are out there.

Happy searching.

Winter Blahs

It’s like the hamster running the wheel in my mind is curled up in the corner of the cage, staring at its toes. In other words, I’m finding it hard to get going.

I don’t know if it’s the weather. Overcast with only rare hints of sunshine that I can never quite time right to appreciate anything outdoors. It makes me feel less then enthused about getting out. Maybe it’s going to and from work at what has been described as dark o’clock. I don’t think I have SAD but I do find myself tired – like – all the time.

Not that I would ever suggest giving up any vacation time, but sometimes the Christmas break only reminds you of how much you’d rather not go to work. Adversely, you find yourself missing the routine because all that freedom is daunting. As an AWADJ you may be filling in all your free hours with all the stuff you can never seem to get to and you’re suffering from burn-out. No matter the reason, it’s hard to pull back far enough to see things accurately.  It’s a dismal case of can’t see the forest for the trees.

Trees? We’re talking about trees now? What trees? All the trees that contribute to that lost in the woods feeling; not knowing which way to turn, what direction is the right one and whether or not you should just stay put and not move at all. So in an effort to dissect that feeling, let’s look at some trees.

The Birch has a relatively short lifespan in the tree world. You might be feeling that time is running out, getting away from you, slipping through your fingers. I’m hearing like the sands in an hourglass, so are the days of our lives… But I am dating myself so let’s move on. Birch however grow in temperate deciduous forests which experience drastic changes both seasonally and climatically and are populated by diverse wildlife. Perhaps you need to mix things up, change your routine, do something new. That just might shake you out of your mood.

The Pine seems so perfect, all triangular and smug in their never-ending greenness. Are you waiting for the perfect time to do… whatever? When you’re in the mood? When there’s enough time? When you’ve had enough sleep? When it’s quiet? Pine grow in boreal forests where, on the surface, circumstances are less than perfect. They however can not only withstand harsh conditions, but thrive in them. Maybe you’re not giving yourself enough credit for your hardiness or you ingenuity. Maybe you need a challenge. Don’t wait for the perfect opportunity. Create it.

The Kapok tree is the tallest in the rainforest, that’s saying something when the canopy may be over 100 feet/30 metres above the ground. Imagine the view from up there. And maybe that’s what you need; a different view. Can’t see where you’re going? Look up. Look around. Change your perspective. Trees reach for the sun. Try to do the same.  This time of year, that can feel impossible, but you don’t have to do this on your own. Seek help, company, inspiration and vitamin ‘D’.

So as we consider forests and their trees, remember trees also rest. The natural world has an ebb and flow that we as humans and our 24/7 lifestyle so easily forget. If you are finding it hard to get going – maybe don’t do something – do nothing. That includes beating yourself up. You are a creature of nature and just as the trees take their time to rest and replenish, maybe you should too.

I’m thinking I’m going to have to take my own advice and pencil that in – like – now.

Better Beginnings

At this time of year my thoughts turn to beginnings.

Beginnings are hard. There. I’ve said it. Stated it right up front. Right from… well… the beginning.

And if you’re a writer who has decided that this is the year you are going to start that novel you might know what I mean. You might be sitting there staring at a blank page or more likely a blank screen and wondering shouldn’t this be easier than this? Well, the answer is no. Beginnings are hard because they have a lot to accomplish in not a lot of time.

Beginnings promise.

When a reader starts in on a story, they enter into an unwritten contract with the writer. The writer says come along with me. I’m going to take you somewhere. The tricky thing is the reader doesn’t want the writer to come right out and tell them where they’re going. Where’s the fun in that? Why would the reader keep reading? The writer is going to hint. The writer is going to with tone, and imagery, with sentence structure and form, illustrate that promise. At the same time, the promise is full of expectations that, if not significantly met will disappoint a reader.

Beginnings are hard because you make a promise without saying exactly what it is, but hinting enough that the reader is trusting that it is a promise they are going to appreciate, and that you are going to keep.

Beginnings introduce.

When a reader starts to read, they want to know the main character. They want to know what he or she is like, what makes them tick, what they want, what they’re afraid of. They want to care; to be engaged in the main character’s story. The reader wants to know what the story is about; what is the theme. They don’t however want you to tell them these things. They want to be shown why they should care, why they should invest the time and energy to read what you’ve written.

Beginnings are hard because while the reader wants to know about the main character and their story more importantly, they want to want to know.

Beginnings entice.

Whether through exciting action or intriguing mystery, witty dialogue or engrossing setting, the reader is compelled to turn that first page. But you only give them just enough. A reader wants to be teased into reading. The reader wants their curiosity piqued. You give away just enough to have a question form in the reader’s mind. The final kicker is you must determine what that just enough is.

Beginnings are hard because there is no one way to entice a reader to read on. There is no paint by number or magic formula, no ‘cool button’ that you can press.  Doubt me? Do a little digging. For every ‘rule’ you want to hold tight to, for every ‘don’t’ you avoid, for every example of a successful beginning, another, doing seemingly the same thing, falls flat.

How do we accomplish a beginning that is promising, engaging and compelling? Frankly, that is the main cause of much hair pulling and bad language on my part. One thing I’ve discovered is that to work on your beginning, you need to have a whole story. You need to know what your story is about.  Yes, to write an effective beginning, you may need to know how your story ends.

Great. And here you are staring at a glaringly blank page one and I’m telling you to write a whole novel so that you can write page one. Thanks. For nothing. But hey, doesn’t that put the whole stymied page one issue in perspective? Think about it this way; you have a whole novel to help you figure out what your beginning is.

Written your novel and still need some help with your beginning? Read other writers’ beginnings and analyze which ones you think work. The more you can recognize a good beginning in another’s stories, the better chance you have of analyzing whether yours is working or not. A great website that does just that is Writer Unboxed with Ray Rhamey’s Flog the Pro blogs. Check out his site for a checklist that you can use to help guide you toward a better beginning.

Good luck and happy writing.

Persistence

At this time of year, thoughts turn to resolutions. My response? To consider persistence hunting.

Persistence hunting is a theory that explains the technique of using running, walking and tracking to pursue prey. This earliest form of hunting goes hand in hand with our evolution from tree climbers to endurance runners. Running down our prey, until the antelope or some other fleet quadruped dropped from exhaustion, is how we managed to feed our developing big brains with the necessary proteins.  Of all the animals, man is best equipped for persistence hunting. Apparently, our bodies are made for it.

Interesting thoughts, no? But, you say as you read this, why should that matter to us? Aren’t we more developed, more advanced, more sophisticated than primitive man? Short answer? No. Not really. Our brains have certainly advanced, and in so doing we have the wonderful tools, gadgets and some might say toys we have invented. We can’t deny however, that the human body hasn’t changed all that much. And why should it? Didn’t it, along with our beautiful brain, raise us to be the dominant species of the planet? Hasn’t it done for us? Shouldn’t we do for it?

And while one may feel that there is a considerable amount of ‘persistence hunting’ in our daily lives, whether that be for missing socks, misplaced tools or the occasional lost thought, it is not the same. We spend an inordinate amount of time on our collective backsides. This, we are not made for. Don’t believe me? You don’t have to look very hard to find statistics on this. Better still, remember how you stiffened up after that long car trip or the soreness at the base of the spine after too much binge watching? Even as I type this, I am suddenly and disturbingly becoming aware of the poor posture, that I am no doubt going to pay for later today. Yep. I can certainly speak for myself. I can spend a lot of time in front of various screens. My mind may be racing a mile a minute, but my body… not so much.

Once more we turn to face a new year, keen on getting healthy, exercising and eating better. Perhaps what we should really be thinking about is how we can improve our mindset. Remembering that we are the culmination of a complicated evolution of the human species due in part to persistence hunting, might help. And persistence might be the key element.

That persistent nature, that dogged resolve, plus our unique biology, had us chasing our prey across the plains.  Perhaps that effort, not just the added protein in our diet, was the opportunity for growth and improvement that our species needed. So looking forward, perhaps the resolution should be to be more persistent. The hunters didn’t give up the hunt after the first fifteen minutes or fifteen miles. They didn’t say well we haven’t caught anything, so we may as well give up. Had they done that, you could imagine where the human race would have been.  Still at the starting line.

So when you fall short of your resolution, as we so inevitably do, remember it is about persistence. Be in it for the long haul. Don’t give up after setbacks; see them as opportunities to exercise persistence. And until we evolve past the need for bodies and can safely store our brains in jars and speak telepathically, or upload our consciousness to live virtually, riding neon cycles through the ether, we may want to get up off of that chair every now and then. It could be the first step, literally and figuratively toward better health.

Holiday Traditions – The Gift of Time

When you look back over the years, what do you remember about the gifts you got this time of year? Probably not much. But you might remember the friends and family visiting, the special meals or even photos with Santa.  Holiday traditions anchor us to the season and to each other. From the food, to the lights. From the music, to the hugs. Memories are made at every turn, engaging all the senses and making them all the more vivid and unforgettable. Traditions give us a link to our past and something to always look forward to from year to year to year. They can be an extremely personal matter, yet a shared event that enrich our lives and the lives of those closest to us.

Imagine all that enhanced with true communication, real sharing and more closeness with friends and family.

The holidays might be the one time of the year when everyone gets together. And if you come from a large or extended family or perhaps gather with your friends, you are dealing with a lot of bodies. There is something joyous about the raucous chaos of holiday gatherings, but in the excitement of sharing a year’s worth of your life, you might not be listening to what is going on with anyone else.

I mentioned emotional intelligence in a previous blog. Empathy is one element of emotional intelligence and perhaps the most difficult to tackle. One way to employ empathy is to practice active listening. In active listening, you pay attention to what someone is saying.  You listen to understand. You engage your heart and your mind and even your body. Everything about you should be saying, I’m here to give you my full attention. If you are interested in getting more specifics about active listening you may want to check out this site.

But maybe you’re thinking you don’t need to work on this. How can you tell if you haven’t been listening? Cast your mind back to last year.

  • If the only thing significant from an encounter is the memory of the hideous reindeer sweater your brother-in-law was wearing, you might not have been listening to what he was talking about.
  • If you can recall your meal to perfect detail but not so much any stories about your friends’ kids, perhaps you weren’t as engaged as you should have been.
  • If the only thing you can remember is how shocked everyone was at your office drama, maybe you weren’t asking enough questions about what was going on in their lives.

In the fast paced rumble tumble of holiday festivities, it’s hard to get to everyone, to have those intense moments of one on one. Heck, sometimes it’s impossible to finish a sentence. Giving everyone adequate soapbox time feels as impossible as serving a perfect holiday meal, but maybe, like a meal, all it takes is a little planning. Maybe all it takes is time.

Perhaps create a game where everyone is given a moment to talk about a significant personal event and everyone else engages in active listening. What about using a talking stick or a candy cane or a giant Toblerone bar that you pass around? What about drawing names and at certain times through the night, each person shares something that they are grateful for to the group? What about using mistletoe for something other than kissing? Or a necklace of tinsel? These ideas might seem silly, but I’m sure when you get together, there are people who dominate conversation and those who can’t get a word in edge-wise. Using some sort of game might give everyone a chance to talk, and everyone a chance to practice active listening.

Active listening can be the beginning of a new holiday tradition and the greatest gift you can give. So give your loved ones your time. Listen. Be attentive. Be empathetic. Being generous of spirit will cost you nothing, but an investment like that in your friends and family could pay-off richly throughout the year in deeper more meaningful relationships.

And to that, I wish you all the best and see you in the new year.

Inspiration

For some of you who have been reading my blog, firstly I want to say thanks so very much.  It’s a little overwhelming. As I told a friend, I’m such a newbie (and a touch paranoid) that when I got notice that I had people actually reading, let alone following my blog, I panicked. I’m all like – hey – what are you doing there – what do you want from me – what’s going on? Oh… You just want to read my blog. I guess that’s okay then. Just don’t forget to take off your shoes before you come in.

See what I mean? Freaked out.

I had to do one of those resounding smacks to the forehead. Of course people are reading my blog. Isn’t that why I put it up there in the first place? If I didn’t want people to read it, I would have written in a little book with a unicorn on the cover and a flimsy metal lock that can be opened with a fingernail, and a key that one always misplaces. But to have actual, real live people reading my words… [oh crap – are they live – are they real – is it Skynet?] Did I say it’s a little overwhelming?

Of course now that November and NaNoWriMo is over, I start to have a little panic about keeping up this whole blog thing. Time is precious. The research on how long it takes habits to form is not precise. So even though I’ve been doing this for a few weeks now, it is far from a habit and I am far from comfortable. I also wonder if I’ll have anything worthwhile to say.  So what I’m thinking about is inspiration.

I knew I wanted to talk about what I am interested in, what my life is about, what life is about, but other than that, I have no plan as was so resolutely declared in My First Blog Ever. What freedom. Ya. Right. Then the panic steps in. How am I going to find enough inspiration to keep going?

My answer after considerable soul searching? Don’t find it. Be it.

Be inspired. Be curious. Wonder. When you view the world that way you can’t help but find inspiration. It’s right there in front of your face. It’s everywhere.

I didn’t know I was going to write that blog about Effort, until I saw that picture. All my blogs about NaNoWriMo were obviously inspired by what was happening in my life. Even being an AWADJ (artist with a day job) presents paths of exploration that I might not have taken otherwise. There are others out there too, curious, thoughtful others who talk about interesting things, things they are passionate about sharing. My blog on Happiness was inspired by that. So in a way I borrowed someone’s inspiration and made it mine.

But still, is my shameful bout of navel gazing interesting enough for anyone to read? Am I kidding myself? Is this just a futile exercise, a lone voice in the wilderness, a grinding scream into the darkness of the void? Ironically, this void is full of stars; all shining, all glowing, all doing their best to entice many telescopes to swing their arm in their direction. How does anyone manage to hold a gaze long enough to accomplish this.

Yet some do. And for as many reasons as there are stars in the sky. Because humans at their core are curious creatures.

So all I can do is write about what inspires me. All I can seek is my own inspiration. In my writing and in my life. All I can try to be is inspired. And I thank you for your patience as I indulge myself and try to find my voice among the night sky of twinkling lights. Most of all I thank you for sharing my journey.

EQ – The Holidays – and You

What would it take to successfully get you through the looming holiday season. The perfect gift? The best turkey? The ability to be in two places at the same time? Instead of looking for outer solutions (or impossible ones) what about inner ones. Exploring your EQ might just give you the skills you need. Emotional quotient or EQ is a term used to gage one’s emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence covers key aspects in personal and inter-person skills. Just the thing you might need to foster healthy happy relationships. And isn’t that what the holidays should be about?

So what exactly are the characteristics of emotional intelligence?

Self-Awareness

In the heat of the moment are you capable of determining what has set your blood to boil? Can you pin-point the reasons behind feelings of frustration or anxiety?  Are you able to step back and analyze what you are feeling and why you are feeling it?  This is often the most emotionally charged time of the year. We are fraught with worry and anticipation about plans to come and burdened with an over-packed Louis Vuitton set of baggage from our past. Being able to sort through your jumble of emotions and accurately evaluate the feelings you are experiencing may help you to deal with them in a more constructive manner.

Self-Regulation

Are you able to stay in control when you are angry or jealous? Do you become overwhelmed, caught up in your intense emotions, or can you pause and think before you react? The ability to self-manage your emotions means that you are not at their mercy. For instance, instead of lashing out at your significant other because they haven’t wrapped the presents yet, can you acknowledge that you might actually be feeling frustration and inadequacy that yet again here’s another Christmas and you are overwhelmed?  At this time of year when the pressure comes from so many angles, it’s important to work toward equilibrium for your sanity and for the sanity of everyone around you.

Motivation

Do you easily get stalled or de-railed? Are you filled with anxiety when tasked with something new? Can you step back and see a set-back as momentary, a problem as an opportunity and a challenge as a chance for personal growth? Can you stay focused on the goal through the difficulties? Keeping motivated for the long-haul, and deferring immediate results for long-term success is another indicator of emotional intelligence. The last point may be the most important one to keep in mind in the next few weeks of holiday shopping. You might try reminding yourself that, though that sweater looks really great on you, it pales in comparison to the peace of mind you’ll get paying off all your bills come January.

Empathy

Do people say you are a good listener? Perceptive? Understanding? If you engage in active listening and observe body language well, you are on your way to honing your empathetic abilities. These skills enable you to get out of your head and into the heart of the person in front of you. Being able to imagine, understand and empathize with other’s feelings is a fundamental people skill and an important step toward emotional intelligence. And at this time of year, here’s an opportunity to see if you’ve been paying attention to the people in your life. After all, the present you’re buying isn’t for you. It’s for someone else. Being empathetic and getting someone a gift that speaks only to them is the greatest sign that you truly care.

Social Skills

The previous four elements culminate nicely in the final category of social management. If one can recognize the emotions in themselves, and regulate them, that person becomes more appealing, approachable, and amenable to others. If they can see your positive outlook and motivation, you can better inspire. If you can recognize the emotions in others, being empathetic to their situation, you can better relate. Strong social skills of rapport, effective communication and developing trust are all signs of emotional intelligence. These, hopefully, can lead to better relationships with loved ones throughout the rest of the year.

By these indicators, the development of your emotional intelligence would go a long way to making you a happier and more productive person in all facets of your life, but especially at this time of year, when you might need it the most.

Want to take steps towards being more emotionally intelligent? Perhaps start here at MindTools. You might have noticed it over on my blog roll. They have a great quiz to test your EQ.

Or get yourself (or perhaps someone who you think might benefit) the book by Daniel Goleman, Emotional Intelligence. Check out his site for more information.

I’m wishing you all peace and joy!