Short and Sweet

I was gone for a bit. My apologies for never saying goodbye. But I want to return.

New post coming soon.

Does Writing Count If It Isn’t Challenging?

A journal should not be the main channel for your writing. The truism that tells us writers to write everyday doesn’t specify what kind of writing we should be exercising. Does blogging count? Journaling? Or is fiction the only kind of writing that will really put our skills to the test?

I would never speak ill of journal writing. Of course it has its value. I definitely do not think it’s a waste of time. Journal writing is an important and useful medium of expression (particularly for the introverted types).  But is it an effective way to practice your writing?

When I read my diary’s past entries, I think what nonsense, what gibberish. But if I were to stop and try to edit my own journal, it wouldn’t be a journal at all.

Maybe journal writing doesn’t have all the benefits of fiction writing when it comes to feeding the creative self. So what? Journal writing is just easier and when you’re feeling like you don’t have the time for anything else, it’s the best alternative. But if I want to keep those creative muscles strong then journaling is not going to fly.

Lesson learned: Write everyday. Write everything and anything — as much as you can.

Positive Psychology: Building on Your Strengths

Have you ever heard of a thing called positive psychology? I just learned about it today. Positive psychology is, as I understand it, a great therapy based on building strengths and thinking positively. The people who came up with it thought that psychology should be more than just a focus on problems. They believe in a balance between troubleshooting our weaknesses and maximizing our strengths. I think it’s a wonderful concept. Why not continue working with what you’ve already got instead of desperately trying to conjure up a characteristic that’s just not in your nature?

So, I got to thinking about a writer’s skills and I wondered what were my skills? I came up with the following categories:

Theme: Is the theme fluid throughout the story? Is the theme universal?

Plot: Is the plot structured well? Is the reader clear on what’s happening? Is the story compelling? original? Is the story paced correctly for maximum effect?

Descriptions: Of characters? Of setting? Of action? Are they from the right perspectives? Are you showing not telling? Or are you telling in a compelling way? Are you flooding your writing with too many adjectives/adverbs? Is everything important/relevant to the story?

Language: Too many big, unnecessary words? Are you using the right words?

Voice: Is there one loud and present voice throughout the story?

Time and Place: Is the setting being used appropriately? Does it bring out plot, action, and character?

Conflict: Are the obstacles believable? Is there depth to antagonist? Are the stakes high enough for the reader to care about the character?

Character(s): How well have your characters been developed? Is there depth? How interested is the reader? Is their purpose/desire made clear? What about relationships with others? Is the dialogue intriguing and fluff-free? Are the conversations natural? Believable?

What are your strengths and how can you work on them further?

As of yet, I’m not really sure what my strengths are. When I write with confidence, I usually have a steady and strong voice. When I write with a foundation/outline, I usually structure my plot well. My strengths are dependent on a number of factors. I think I can say that I am generally an original writer. I’ve heard that from a bunch of my readers and I’m definitely okay with taking their word for it.

But then there are other things to consider: Do I write everyday? Do I read everyday? Do I finish stories? Hm… no. But! I’m going to force myself to not focus on that. Let’s see if this positive psychology thing works…

What are your strengths and how can you work on them further?

All About Creativity

Inspiration is one thing, but what happens once you’re inspired? Let’s say the inspiration has lead you to something of value. A writer’s job is then to take that raw inspiration and make something of it — and this calls for creativity. Creativity happens when the artists makes new connections and associations between existing ideas. According to recent findings, creativity actually has very little to do with that sudden spark of ideas (cognitively speaking). Creativity is about figuring out solutions to problems. Ironically, the most effective way to solve a problem can sometimes mean taking a break from it. Once we’ve removed ourselves from that problem, our brain opens up. When we stop focusing, our brain relaxes and it is easier for ideas to roam around — networking with other ideas, thereby developing new solutions.

Why is it then that some people can think creatively while others seem to have a mental block? Creative people don’t have any inborn cognitive advantages, they don’t have better childhoods, and they’re not smarter. It is not nature and it’s not always nurture either.

Creativity is a skill that you can practice. For example, creative people generally have schedules that serve to maximize creative thinking. They shift between work and rest, so that their mind can reboot. Creative people know where they work best. In public, noisy environments or in quiet, seclusive environments. They also know to always keep a specific objective in mind. Even if they don’t have an exact picture in mind, they will have, at the very least, an idea of what they want and that will keep them focused. Of course, I also believe that sometimes not knowing what you want can lead to great artistic things. But that’s kind of the lucky exception.

But most of all, creativity is about having a free flow of ideas. Creative people are more creative because they have more ideas. And I think maybe that’s the key separator between talented and mediocre. Many of those ideas will be worthless, but it is up to the thinker to decide that. They filter their inspiration like a sieve and they work with the few ideas they’ve found viable.

Ways to Unleash Your Creativity

1. Shift to another project – When you get can’t work any longer, you’ve reached a normal, practically inevitable, point. One solution to writer’s block is to move around that road bump and start working on another project. I have one big WIP, but every other month I stop writing it. I’ll stop thinking about it too. But I’ll continue to write. Prolific writing is important, but no one said you had to stick to the same story. Try some writing prompts to kick you off. Write some short stories instead of trying to conquer another full length novel.

2. Exercise – Adding a physical hobby to your daily schedule can refresh your mind. In addition to the physical benefits, there are also psychological reasons to work out. It can improve mood and help with anxiety. A clearer mind might help you focus on your writing. I know that when I’m depressed and worried, I don’t write very well.

3. Classical Music? – Yeah. It’s good for the intelligence of your baby and it’s good for your adult mind as well. Try it out. And if classical music isn’t your thing, try soft or sweet lyric-free music.

4. Bathtub, Bed, Bus – The three most common places to be struck by inspiration. “In creativity research, we refer to the three Bs—for the bathtub, the bed and the bus—places where ideas have famously and suddenly emerged. When we take time off from working on a problem, we change what we’re doing and our context, and that can activate different areas of our brain. If the answer wasn’t in the part of the brain we were using, it might be in another.” (

5. Think Big – According to the Construal Level Theory, people are more creative when they think in distances. That is to say, when we think of anything that is not occurring in the here and now. If we look through another lens, from someone else’s perspective, from another culture’s eyes, or if we imagine things not of this earth — we’re more likely to create something new. Thinking big promotes global processing which allows your brain to open so that creative thoughts can connect to each other and produce new and interesting thoughts.

6. Tagline/Logline –A logline is that one-sentence summary that a writer will use to sell his story. But before the novel is even finished, a writer can use a logline as a guiding light. The logline is to a writer what a walking stick is to a blind man — it keeps us on track. To write a logline, ask yourself the following questions: 1. Who is the main character and what he/she want? Who/What is standing in the way? What makes the story unique? Use action words to intrigue and descriptive words to create a lasting image. Advice from

Photo: Flickr alicepopkorn

In creativity research, we refer to the three Bs—for the bathtub, the bed and the bus—places where ideas have famously and suddenly emerged. When we take time off from working on a problem, we change what we’re doing and our context, and that can activate different areas of our brain. If the answer wasn’t in the part of the brain we were using, it might be in another.

Discovering an Author and Handling Disappointment

There’s this author by the name of John Muir. Heard of him? Probably not. When I read about him on the Library of America website, Story of the Week, I had such high hopes. I thought He’ll be my next favorite author. Move over Steinbeck,Fitzgerald and Cather (yeah, I’m big on American writers). All the signs pointed to FAVORITE.

  • According to LOA, he was the next Thoreau.
  • He loved nature and I love nature. One of the first serious things I ever wrote was an Ode to Water.
  • “He rebelled by becoming a vagabond, and by asking powerful questions about the orthodoxies of his day and ours, especially the notion that people stood at the center of the universe.” And that just screams awesome.
  • He shares my belief in worldly interconnectedness. And by that I mean that everything in the world is related to everything else.

But then I read his short story, A Wind-Storm in the Forests, and it dawned on me that… nature writing kind of sucks. It was a terrible epiphany — it didn’t feel good at all. It was as though I was tearing off a part of my identity.

Here’s an interesting tidbit though… I really enjoyed reading his story at first. I thought Wow, what powerful writing, what descriptive language. Thing is — that kind of language and writing style is very distinct and too much of it gets boring fast. It’s like when you hear one note for an extended period of time. You’ll either get annoyed or you’ll stop hearing it all together. His nature descriptions were wonderfully written but they needed to be weaved in with plot, with people, with… more than just setting. I couldn’t even concentrate long enough to find out what the plot was. Ugh, it was so sad.

But now I must pick up my disappointment and move on. Hm… what to read next?

Good Grief: Setting the Stage for the Five Stages

I love psychology and sociology. They are useful and interesting in life and in fiction. While there is an expansive pool of issues to choose from, I have been thinking a lot about one topic in particular: grief. Grief is the reaction to any great loss — be it a person, place, object, position, etc. It is a trademark of life. Most people, if not all, will experience loss in their lifetime. And everyone deals with it differently.

So how does one write grief? Obviously each person will make grief their own, but some scientists believe that there is a basic grief formula (that will bend and twist as needed for the individual). The Kubler-Ross Model is a cycle made up of five stages that victims of loss tend to go through as they cope with their grief. Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance (in that order) are the emotions that make up the Kubler-Ross Five Stages of Grief. Some doctors believe that these stages happen one after another in ascending order, like steps. Other doctors disagree and maintain that the average person is complicated and will go through the five stages (or states) in their own way. Either way, I think I’ve found a consensus. Everyone seems to agree that the five basic emotions are the make up of the common reaction to loss.

Personally, I agree with the more contemporary view that says that the grief cycle is not so much steps or phases as they are states. “Rather than distinct, sequential stages of grief, it may be more accurate to conceptualize proposed stages as multidimensional grief states that evolve and diminish in intensity over time” (Prigerson, Maciejewski). But since “stages” is the more common terminology for this kind of thing, I’ll stick to that.

The Kubler-Ross Five Stages (or States) of Grief in Detail

1. Denial — The refusal to acknowledge the situation. Characters avoid feeling anything relating to their loss — sometimes characters will avoid feeling anything at all. If we refer back to the Johari Window, denial would be everything that you hide from yourself, what you keep inside your blind spot.

2. Anger — This is the point where things start getting complicated. Instead of a void of emotion, there is an explosion of emotion. And often, those emotions will contradict with each other. At losing a loved one, for example, a character might get angry at them but still love them.

Beware that each character will have a different voice. While some will shout their anger out loud, others will bubble up and boil within. Also think about how healthily your character is able to express their anger. Will they channel it through art or therapy or will they act out? Note: Acting out is usually a good fit for a weaker character, who easily gives into pressure. Does your character attack and push his discomfort onto others? Consider your options.

3. Bargaining — Here, your character gets desperate. In seeing that anger does nothing to help the situation, the character will break down and try to think of anything that will get them/it back. The character will believe that maybe if he stops drinking or starts going to church, his wife will come back. After the loss has occurred, it is usually a private process, worked out between the character and his Higher Being – a series of what if’s? will ensue. What if I had been kinder? What if I had worked harder? But other times, particularly before the loss has actually happened, it’s a process that happens directly between the character and his dying love (a job, a relationship, a dying parent, etc). You can see that there is a tinge of denial in this stage when you look at how the character is either convinced that he can stop the loss before it happens or undo what’s already been done.

4. Depression — Given up yet? Denial didn’t make it go away and neither did anger or bargaining.  On feeling abandoned and helpless, a character will retrieve into himself. This is when the character finally breaks down and mourns. Characters finally face the reality of the situation. This stage is the stage most commonly associated with grief. Whenever I hear about someone losing a loved one, I think about how upset they must be.

5. Acceptance — This can take a lifetime to reach. But it is a highly rewarding feeling to finally accept a loss. Sometimes people even walk away from grief feeling like they have bettered themselves through the process. Your character might feel themselves wiser, kinder, or more understanding.

As each day passes, you close your eyes and let your grief slide through your fingers, one rough, cold link after another, until your loss settles deep inside you. It is a give and take between you and your grief, a tension that rolls your emotions back and forth. And at first you are certain that your life is going to capsize and you will drown. Eventually, the grief will ground you and give you stability in troubled times.

Michael Newland on This I Believe

Grief is an obstacle I find very interesting in fiction (and in life). It tests our abilities to cope and establishes who we are under pressure.

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We Can Work It Out: Using Research in Your Fiction

Research is very often a necessary, or at the very least it’s an advisable, step in your writing process. The old adage still holds true that a writer should ‘write what he knows’. But sometimes writers want to explore unfamiliar worlds and so they turn to research.

Recently, I wrote about following your gut. But sometimes research must be done. I don’t mean research about craft (although that too is important). I’m talking about research relating to your plot.

My current WIP is about a girl who struggles with reconnecting with her neglectful father one last time before his death. Although I knew, before I began writing or researching, the basics of what my characters were going to experience, I felt a greater confidence once I had the support of some research behind my writing. There’s always something to be researched, to be double checked. In my case, I wanted to know about how a young girl might deal with grief.

I don’t know that many people who’ve died and I also don’t know that many people who have lost loved ones. So this isn’t really a subject I’m comfortable with (thank you, God). Whenever you feel uneasy about anything you’re writing — look it up. Go to your local library, use the internet, investigate a new setting personally, and/or talk to people who might know more about that subject than you.

For that audience you couldn’t have expected, now you can be sure that you have your facts straight. Sometimes your audience will know more about your character’s type than you and they’ll recognize when you’re depicting your character incorrectly. And if you’re thinking to yourself How could I depict my own creation incorrectly? It’s easier than you think.

Here’s a few tips and suggestions as to how to go about your research.

1. In terms of the internet, don’t be afraid to go beyond Google. Explore! Curiosity will be your greatest guide. Researching through other, specific search engines can be more beneficial to your needs. Here’s an expansive Directory of Open Access Journals. This way, you can feel confident that what you’re writing makes sense. No matter who reads your writing — nobody will find any factual flaws. Are you writing about an American criminal? Here’s a page on outlaws.

2. Research before you write. This way, you won’t feel bogged down by interruptions and your writing will probably come out more fluid.

3. Your research will take the shape of an hourglass. Start with broad questions, focus in on specifics, and then expand again. According to Research Methods Knowledge Base, it’s important to start with general questions and finish with general conclusions, but somewhere in the middle you are discussing and thinking about the mechanics of your topic. This method is geared more towards non-fiction writers, but it’s a technique that can be molded to the needs of fiction writers as well. In my story, for example, I start by asking: How would my MC grieve? Then, as I find out more and more about the subject, I can ask more specific questions like: What does angry grief look like? How are her friends and family affected? As I observe and take notes on everything, I’m able to compile a certain set of knowledge. In my story, I might not use everything, but I now I have a general perspective on the subject.

Do you have any research tips?

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