Growth Mindset

Maybe it’s the impending spring but my mind is turning to new beginnings. Cleaning up the winter windblown debris collected against fences and the sleepy sluggish corners of our minds. Throwing open the once frost locked windows, finally thawed, to invite a breeze to sweep away the stale overheated air trapped inside homes and souls. Time for to-do lists with little check marks all crisp and decisive. For goals to be set. So, what if you set out to fail? I don’t mean that you’re setting yourself up to fail. No. I am asking you to give yourself permission to fail.

Have there always been things you wanted to try but thought, I’m not good at that, I don’t have any talent in that area, it’s not my strength so why waste the time… The reasons go on and on. Some might even make practical sense. I mean, in this day and age when time is a precious commodity, why waste it on something you aren’t good at? But how do you know you aren’t good at something if you don’t try it? And therein lies the crux of the problem. Fear of failure might be at the core of these reasons. And that is the biggest obstacle between a fixed and a growth mindset.

Carol Dweck, Ph.D. one of the world’s leading researchers in the field of motivation, talks about growth mindset in her book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. Watch this Ted Talk or for more information check out her site. In her book, Dr. Dweck explores the concept of ‘not yet’ a way of measurement that does not focus on failure but on the process of learning, improving, bettering ourselves, evident in a growth mindset. Adversely, a fixed mindset prevents us from discovering previously unknown territory. It keeps us safe in the familiar, never risking venturing off the path. It gives us every reason to say no.

So if a growth mindset is a way to deal with the fear of failure, what can you do to go from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset? Here are the four main points from the book and a few quotes to perhaps help anchor them deeper in your mind.

Learn to recognize when you are holding onto a fixed mindset

  1. Becoming is better than being. Carol S Dweck
  2. Did I win? Did I lose? Those are the wrong questions. The correct question is: Did I make my best effort? Carol S Dweck

Recognize that you have a choice

  1. It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities. Albus Dumbledore
  2. Every time you are tempted to react in the same old way, ask if you want to be a prisoner of the past or a pioneer of the future. Deepak Chopra

Realign your thinking to a more growth mindset track

  1. Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new. Albert Einstein
  2. You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take. Wayne Gretzky

Take the growth mindset action

  1. Life isn’t about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself. George Bernard Shaw
  2. Success is the ability to go from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasm. Winston Churchill

So, what will I attempt while exploring and hopefully developing a growth mindset?  Writers Digest is promoting a Poem a Day in April. This of course is not a random undertaking, but a focused effort to better my language skills. I will push myself, explore my gifts, and improve my skills. I will be disciplined and committed. I will be brave. But most importantly I will give myself permission to fail.

So, if you are a writer or someone who has always wanted to write, or someone who’s had that hidden, secret desire that you couldn’t voice, even to yourself, you might venture forth this April. Of course, it’s an opportunity to improve your writing, but maybe that’s not the point. At least not the only point. You might learn failure doesn’t kill you. It doesn’t define you. You can not only survive it but thrive because of it. So fail. Fail magnificently and beautifully. Fail and learn and grow.

Whatever you decide to try, perhaps a purposeful exercise in courting failure will help to deal with not just the fear of failure, but those moments in life when failure is all too real. Because failure is more than academic or theoretical or just a word on a page. It is not just an idea but at times a presence that is a formidable as a six walled room. Failure is that niggling little hand that plucks at your heart one string at a time, calling you to hear a strain you want to silence. It’s that finger that pokes you in the chest and says not you. It’s that fist that closes around your heart until you can’t move.

Maybe that’s when you need a growth mindset the most. To keep moving, one foot in front of the other. To tell yourself, hell, why not you. To remind yourself, it’s okay, maybe you aren’t there.

Not yet.

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The Big Picture

When one starts on a story, it is usually birthed from a kernel of an idea; a scene, a bit of dialogue, an interesting character, a world concept. But by the end of the first draft, that seed has sprouted. It might be easy to say it has grown into a tree, but you may find yourself in a forest, wondering lost without a path, unable to see the forest for the trees.

I’ve mentioned critique groups and beta readers and how helpful they are. Turning to them to get perspective when you are lost, seems a natural choice. The issue with this in regards to critique groups is their vision is narrowed to about a chapter at a time, with gaps in between readings. And while they can certainly tell if the moment is ringing true for the scene, they may not be able to tell me if it is doing so for the story. And while beta readers may be able to give you general feedback, they may not be able to pinpoint those specific elements of the story that aren’t working, let alone give you suggestions how to fix them. The truth is, no matter who you try to get help from, whose opinion you seek, there may be limitations to what they can do for you, because, after all, this is your story. Your vision. But then again, isn’t that the problem?

Sometimes you’re so close to your story, you can’t get an accurate look at it. So, how can you make sure all the dots are connected. How do you check that the puzzle pieces are fitting neatly into each other.  How do you pull back far enough to be able to see your story for what it is. How indeed.

Visual Organizing with Story-Boarding

Perhaps you need to see everything laid out in front of you before you can sort it. Story boarding with index cards might work for you. Index cards are great because they force you to condense the concept of a scene into that small space, but also allows for notes to be made.  Write out your story, one scene per index card, and lay them out in order on the floor or on a wall. Now you can evaluate the effectiveness of your story. You might find that certain chapters need to be rearranged. Perhaps you might need to introduce a character earlier in the story.  Maybe the middle lags because there’s not enough tension. Plot holes, inconsistencies, structure issues should be clearer from this view.

Don’t have sufficient wall or floor space? Scrivener  has a virtual cork board that allows you all the benefits to laying your cards out, without worrying that someone’s going to come along and kick them out of order. Another great piece of software is yWriter, a free writing program that allows you to make notes about your scenes and move them around with ease. Though it doesn’t offer the cork board feature, it still is great for keeping track of all the moving parts that is a novel. Either way, whether on paper or the screen, condensing your scenes, is one way to get a handle on the big picture.

Elevate your View with Mapping

Mind maps are ways to visually represent ideas and concepts and their connectivity. It can help to wrangle all aspects of your story into a picture that you can easily view. With it you can track, check and test the way your novel is ‘mapping’ out. You can do it by hand, but there is software that can help with this – again, just google it.  By creating a diagram of your story, made up of the plot, its characters, and any other key elements, you can see how they all interact. This birds-eye view offers the opportunity to tell if the parts are supporting the story.

A Guided Outlook with Spreadsheets

Weather you call them spreadsheets, checklist or tables, organizing your story and the elements of your story into this format allows you to make sure you are accomplishing what you want in each scene. There are many you can find online – just google scene tracker or plot spreadsheets or create your own template. Essentially, your plot is laid out in outline form and you assess its efficiency using certain values, deeply probing how your scene functions in the grand scheme of your story. The simplest approach you might take is the yes, but / no, and’ technique which Brandon Sanderson discusses at about the fifty minute mark [but seriously you should just watch the whole lecture because really who are you kidding – it’s Brandon Sanderson] or the ‘and so’ method which is a take on the cause and effect approach to plotting. And while these are plotting techniques, they can also be used to make sure your story is still on track.

If you’ve been reading my blog, you’ll know I’m a big fan of The Story Grid. Editor Shawn Coyne uses a tool called the Story Grid Spreadsheet to help analyze the effectiveness of your scenes. In his own words, your spreadsheet will pinpoint exactly where you nailed your best moments and where you need to do more work. Not only where to do the work, but how to do it. If you are curious, check out the spreadsheet for The Silence of the Lambs. As you can see this spreadsheet is quite extensive, really challenging you to dig deep into a scene. But whether you start complex or simple you are looking for something that can offer you a big picture view while seeing the inner workings. And what is that big picture?

Theme as Your Guiding Light.

Gaining perspective can be the hardest part of creative endeavours. You know the old writers ode – kill your darlings. When I first heard this I didn’t know what that meant. In subsequent years, I have found many interpretations. Delete any passages that sound too authorial because you aren’t being true to the voice of the story. Condense characters; if they’re too similar, do you really need them all. Lose the scene: it may work on its own, but is it pushing the story forward. Still, it’s hard to pull back far enough to see which passages, which character and which scenes are the ones to stay, and which are the ones to go.  I find that keeping my theme in mind helps to view these two key issues at the same time; the story as a whole and the parts that it is made up of. So the question becomes, is this scene doing all the things it should to further the plot, engage the reader and the like but also, in some way shining a light on the theme.

By testing the elements of your story against your theme, you might be able to nurture the root of your idea, cultivate all the branches that support the plot and produce a great story.  Your story.

The Not-To-Do List

On a previous post, I talked about how occasionally one might feel the need for a mental tidy. One of the most notorious contributors to that cluttered feeling is the T0-Do List.

We are all familiar with this sometimes growing, often never shrinking list of things that we must do, in order to keep our lives from descending into chaos. Sound dramatic? Don’t do the dishes or mow the lawn or recycle the garbage for a while. You may find yourself trapped in your house, a camera crew waiting outside and your family preparing for an intervention. I’m just saying.

But we never let it get that far, do we. We soldier on, pushing that rock on up that hill. Why? Because there’s no one else to do it? If it’s going to be done, you want it done right, and you’re the only one for the job? What will the neighbours think? What would you think of yourself?

Let’s start dissecting these arguments. You might find a Not-To-Do List surprisingly easy to create.

The no-one-else-could-do-it-like-I want-it-done Syndrome

Who else indeed. Did you know that there are entire professions, list of professionals, with the necessary skills and tools to get these jobs done? Google it. You might be surprised at how many enterprising people are providing a service for almost any task. Especially those that you might not feel are the best use of your precious time. Not only that, but as professionals they probably have standards that are even higher than anything you might be able to accomplish.

Got’em, Need’em, Trade’em Technique

Can’t afford to pay? Barter. That’s right. If you can’t afford a professional, barter with your mate, your kids, a family member, or even a neighbour. What might it take for a neighbour to mow your lawn while they’re doing theirs? You can return the favour in whatever ‘currency’ you both determine is fair. And who knows? What one person thinks of as a chore, could be a form of relaxation for another. You might be doing your bartering partner a favour in more ways than just relieving them of an undesirable task. You might actually be giving them something to do that they enjoy.

Other People Opinion Anxiety

Worried about what other will people think? Frankly they’ll probably think oh, thank goodness. I thought I was the only one. Sharing the load is something humans have had to do since we hunted on the plains. The fact that we have machines now and are isolated in our little boxed-off domiciles has made us forget that. Ask for a hand. Better yet, reach out a hand. You might find people are eager to take it and reciprocate the favour.

The Inner-Critic Visit

Now perhaps that negative voice in your head pipes up. You worry what does a Not-To-Do List say about you? It says you’re a realistic enterprising person who knows how to manage their time and recognizes the skills they have and values the skills of others. Look around your office, your neighbourhood, your home. Are there people with the skill-set, mind-set or abilities better suited to some of the tasks on your list? Are you better suited for something on theirs? Just because an item started on your list, doesn’t mean it has to stay there.

In closing

Now, there will be those jobs that just have to be done by you. Whether by necessity or circumstance, you just can’t put them on your Not-To-Do List.  If, however, you’ve re-examined these items and thinned the herd a little, maybe you won’t feel so trampled by the ones remaining.

How do you manage your To-Do List? What might go on your Not-To-Do List?

A Mental Tidy

Sometimes life is just too much. Sometimes it’s just so too much that we don’t realize it until we are sitting/standing/lying there and thinking; how did I end up here, feeling this way. Feeling…

Cluttered.

What I’m talking about is that lie in bed and stare at the ceiling sleeplessness that comes when the noise in your head may as well be a dance club complete with disco-ball and strobe lights and a nasty and extremely public break-up at the bar. It’s that multi-screen movie theatre flashing in front of your eyes as every random thought, worry, and concern vies for attention. It’s when you feel stress has come at you like a runaway wagon driven by the four horseman of the apocalypse and you are trapped under the wheels.

That’s when you may need a mental tidy.

For some, this slang intimates a minimizing or condescension of a real struggle with mental health. That is not my intent. Mental illness is a serious concern, and as such, needs serious considerations from those much more knowledgeable than me. However, I find the reality is that we all have our moments when we are plagued by worry, insecurity and fear. And while they may not be as dire as someone with clinical psychological problems, it seems to me that sometimes these more minor bouts of anxiety can have a cumulative effect, resulting in a serious impact on our lives and the lives of those around us.  Why not try to actively engage in solutions for those moments. Here are a few suggestions.

Exercise

Get your mind off the roller-coaster and move your body instead. Any physical activity that gets your heart rate pumping will do. Run. Walk. Swim. Dance. Heck, even housework would do. Plus, you get the added bonus of a clean house. Engaging in a little sweat equity regarding your body, can help to tidy your mind.

Breathe

This sort of goes along with the previous suggestion. I mean, try not breathing while you exercise. Does not work. So breathe, breathe, breathe. Fresh air is always preferable, but really the focused act of breathing will do wonders to calm and refresh, to centre and relax. Once you’re there, you can tackle the jumble of thoughts into an organized and manageable list of tasks.

Smell the Roses

No, this isn’t an extension of breathing, but rather a call to slow down. And don’t just indulge the olfactory. Treat all your senses. Go to an art museum. Listen to music. Take a walk in nature. Enjoy a meal. Better yet, enjoy these things with a friend. Slowing down enough to share these moments makes them even richer and gives your mind an opportunity to expand. An expanded mind is less likely to suffer the claustrophobia that a cluttered mind does. An expanded mind will see obstacles as challenges and opportunities for growth.

Change Tracks

Resume a hobby you enjoy. Try something you’ve always wanted to try. Take a one day course. My personal favorite is give yourself the perfect day that your ten-year-old self would have loved. Remember back then when you said when I grow up I’m going to be able to do whatever I want? Guess what, today’s that day. The beauty of this suggestion is that you can actually schedule these mental tidies before the clutter has a chance to become overwhelming. Your life will still be waiting for you when you return but your approach will be smoother as you pull into the station, ready to resume your regular schedule with renewed zeal.

Be thankful

When life is too much, we forget that our stress comes from caring about a life we essentially love. Count your blessings. Even better than counting sheep. When we focus on the positive things going on in our lives, we gain perspective on the noisy negatives. A de-cluttered mind is also so much more empowered to constructively deal with the elements in our lives we want to improve.

Have you ever felt the need for a mental tidy? What do you do to get yourself mentally refreshed, re-aligned and de-cluttered?

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.