Tag Archives: failure

Tips on Tuesday: Nothing to Fear but Fear Itself

Easy as A, B, C . . . from BB

I subscribe to a site called Write to Done. Their blogs make a good deal of sense. This week, I received one called “How to Strike Creative Gold” by Marcy McKay. She wasMarcy-Profile-Pic reminding me that, from time to time, writers feel as if they’ve run dry. How did she know I just finished five grueling (and rewarding) days at Writing and Illustrating for Young Readers (WIFYR)? We go merrily along day after day, then out of nowhere we hit a dry spell.

I call it exhaustion. But she offered five other ideas as well. Fear, Perfectionism, Busyness, Procrastination, and Health. I encourage you to read the full blog C she has some interesting thoughts, but here, I’m going to give you my self‑analysis for these five areas . . . and here’s another thing you can do besides reading the original blog: do a little self‑analysis on YOU C especially if you feel you’ve hit a slump.

FEAR

I did like her idea that self‑doubt points us to what we actually want to do. I either am not fearful, or I have hidden it well by always keeping writing in the back (or even the foreground) of my mind as something I want to do. So I should set my priorities straight. A while back, the “in” thing was to “intend” in your life. What is my intention? To try to get published. In order to do that, I need to finish something. Then I need to submit it to a publisher, or prepare myself to self‑publish. I feel stronger (and less fearful) just putting that down on paper: I’ve made a choice, and that feels less out of control.

PERFECTIONISM

She’s nailed me on that one. Having taught English and writing for many years in Utah’s high schools and colleges, I can’t not see errors and sloppy writing. In other people’s writing. Then “others” point out some of the same errors in my writing. Why can’t I see them? And I fear that some of my friends and former students will see my failings. I’m very “critical” of others’ writings, but even more so on myself. What I need to face up to is the fact that I needn’t show my first draft to anyone. Or my second or third. I can keep writing until it’s as “perfect” as I can make it. Then I need to be humble enough to have my writing partners take a look and find the things I was blind to in my own searching for problems..

BUSYNESS

Nailed again! Only even more so. My entire adult life has been filled with places to go, people to see, things to do. But guess what? I like it that way. So I should stop letting my “schedule” upset me, make me anxious. If I don’t do every item on a list of 20 To Do items, some of them can wait, or even be deleted. It doesn’t mean I am a failure. It means I chose what was most important to me, and I let the others slide. And that’s OK.

PROCRASTINATION

For a number of years, I have said I overcame procrastination. And, in a sense, I have done so. How did I manage that? I plan to do everything at the last moment. No guilt. I do other things that are “most” important in the meantime. And when it’s right down to the wire, and this particular bit of business must be done, that’s when it’s important enough for me to “get ‘er done.” And not a moment sooner.

HEALTH

I’m working on it. Like most of the women I know, I’d like to lose some weight. And I know my health would be in better shape if I did so. And, because I’m beginning to see signs of neglect affecting my ability to do all those many things I mentioned in the “Busyness” section above, I am finally getting a handle on enough sleep, eating better than I have in the past, and getting myself moving C every day. It’s finally reached the top of the lists: it’s now or never.

Which of these five areas do you intend to work on next, to become your Best Writing Self?

See you next for Thinkin’ on Thursday!

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Thinkin’ on Thursday: How to Keep Action Taut, Dynamic

Easy as A, B, C . . . from BB

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about all the variables a writer must keep in mind while s/he writes an entire book. The number of balls in the air at any one time is staggering! Yet, we all have to do it. So I’m going to spend some thinkin’ time on a bunch of Thursdays (and maybe some occasional Tips on Tuesdays if I have some brainstorm idea to share) to examine those variables and illustrate examples from books I’m currently reading.

Today, I’m considering how to keep the action taut, tight, and dynamic. How to “keep things going.” As in: never give a reader a chance to put the book down.

Only minutes ago, I finished reading James Dashner’s The Maze Runner . . . and started The Scorch Trials (book 2 of the trilogy) . . . because I couldn’t just put the first one down and read (or even DO) something else! What made me feel like that?

(I don’t want to have spoilers in any of the books I’m using for reference, wherein Maze Runner is the first and is written in a YA dystopian‑style story.) That said, a teen boy is in a gigantic sort of elevator that’s on a long trip upward. He has no memories of who he is, where he is, why he’s on the move. By the time he gets to “the top,” he finds himself dumped into a large group of boys in a place they refer to as “The Glade”: trees, a run-down building on one side of the property, humongous rock walls that go up forever. All the boys are highly intelligent, including our hero. Yet none of them has any memory to speak of for some previous life. They don’t remember parents, family, friends, schools . . . anything. New kids arrive on a regular schedule, and supplies like food and medical items arrive weekly, by “elevator.”

So we begin the story with lots of confusion, many questions, and . . . no answers. It all goes downhill from there.

And ups the ante in terms of tension.

We see (and hear) weird and frightening and vicious creatures of various sorts, including lethal. In thinking of the boys, imagine really intelligent kids in a Lord of the Flies situation. They do pull together in Maze Runner out of necessity, because they are so intelligent. Some of them begin to have small bits of memory float back to them, so they learn ways to fight against their circumstances and work together. But one thing after another keeps happening, or going wrong, or being twisted from what they’ve grown to expect. All of that ups the tension. One girl ‑ with the promise that she is “the last,” arrives in the group — that twist alone guarantees more tension.

Now we have a twist every time we turn around: jealousy, failure of leaders, betrayal by a friend, deaths, no further “deliveries” — even of necessary supplies like food.

 

Finally, with the warning that the end is somehow coming, they are forced into making a break for it out of the Glade. New leaders emerge, but are not welcomed by all. A secret way of communicating helps some. Gross things like slime, blood, vomit may be just around the next page‑turn.

More things are discovered about where they are, leading to conjectures on what they’re supposed to learn from the experience. Possible ways to overcome are presented, then fail, or seem to fail. At every chapter, new problems or solutions or people influence the turns in the story. Take a look and start keeping track of how each segment amps up the action. How could you do this in your book?

On the positive side, new heroes emerge. But heartbreak may come with some of them. You never know . . . until you turn the page.

And that, my friends, is what keeps you turning the pages. If you haven’t read this one — don’t. Unless you have time to read all three. Or maybe all four, including the “prequel,” which Dashner recommends you read last. Oh. And you might want to read them before the movie comes out! All the while looking for how he keeps your pages turning, and how you can do the same!

See you next for Spellbinder Saturday!

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Thinkin’ on Thursday: Thinking about Success…Failure…Starting Over

Easy as A, B, C . . . from BB

(In part excerpted from “Dig In,” by Christine Clark, in The Writer, May 2014)

Ruth Reichl had been writing for years as a restaurant critic for both the NY and LA Times and had authored cookbooks as well as several best‑selling memoirs — the latter, often touted as reading “like novels.” She was also the editor‑in‑chief from 1999 to 2009 for Gourmet, which closed abruptly, as did many struggling magazines. She was devastated and felt like such a failure that the almost 70‑year‑old magazine would close on her watch and fire 60 people.

She got grounded, she claims, by going into the kitchen and discovering her mantra: Appreciate little things every day. Then she has turned to writing a novel — and that’s what her book was about.

At first, she knew nothing about “characters” — and struggled because of it — in her first novel, Delicious.

For her second novel, she swore she’d “[figure] out who all the characters are . . . know their back stories intimately.” She now finds switching to novels “taxing but rewarding.”

Asked if her next novel will be easier, she said novelists all tell her “it never gets easier. They all say you reset, you go right back to zero.” She also acknowledged that “If you think you’re going to get to a place where it’s perfect, you’re not.”

As for something else she says you can’t know until you’ve written a book is that “it’s never done. There’s never a point where you think, ‘Oh, now it’s right.” At some point in the process, you just have to acknowledge that it’s finally “done” — perfect or not.

Coming from a theater background myself, I found it enchanting to discover that when she was a food critic, she often dressed up and took on another “personality.” I loved that idea, and thought it would be fun to dress up myself — as one of my characters — and try it out. Another thought: supposing one of your characters dressed up and pretended to be someone else?

Either of the above ideas might give an interesting twist to what you’re writing now. Want to try it out? I dare ya!

See you next for Spellbinder Saturday!

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Sunday’s Snippets: But I Work Best Under Pressure

Easy as A, B, C . . . from BB

I have a bad habit: I tend to put off today what COULD be done just as well tomorrow.  Technically, this is called “procrastinating.”

I’ve been blaming it on the fact that I work best under pressure.  If I’m sure some task is going to take me 10 hours, I wait until I have only 2 hours available.  And then I get it all done.

It’s a New Year.  And I’m trying to come up with a New Me.  Well, of sorts.  So I decided I would take a look at procrastination.

Author and owner of Solutions Organizing Simple, Ranka Burzan, at http://www.solutionsorganizing.com, wrote in an article entitled “Procrastination vs. Productivity” that there are two types of procrastination.  I thought I’d better read it as I may have both types.  Deliberate procrastination and productive procrastination.

She stole the words right out of my mouth: “I work better under pressure”!  Which, she claims, seldom works because you are eliminating choices by waiting and setting yourself up for failure.  OK.  So I know how to handle that type.  What about the other?

“Productive procrastination is sneaky: You are so busy doing mundane chores that you don’t get around to those that will bring you more clients and better revenue.”  Hmmnnn.  I really DO subject myself to both types.

Her example talked about making “cold calls” which you hate doing, so you get everything else on the To Do list done first—I know the drill: purge files, dust furniture, make a snack, read yesterday’s newspaper so I can throw it out, etc.  Still, like she says, you get to look at all you DID get done!  And I’d rather do ANYTHING than to make phone calls.

We “procrastinators” probably act out of fear.  Fear of failure.  Fear of not doing the job well enough.  Lack of confidence.  Feeling overwhelmed or tired or defeated (or all three) before you even begin.  Even fear of success can cause procrastination.

OK.  Now comes the good (or maybe HARD) part: first, identify what you REALLY want to be doing.  [Do you REALLY want to do this?  Or is it a MUST that you do it anyway?  If so, read on:]  Learn everything you need to know about it, line up the resources you may need, establish a TIME FRAME . . . and (here’s the good part): a REWARD system for doing a good job.

If you’re stuck, find a way out: delegate, use skills to cajole others into helping, ask for help, learn new information, etc.  Break the full job into manageable, small steps, and work on it daily for 30 minutes until you’re done WITHIN your established time frame.

Don’t forget to create a work environment which is inviting and functional, where you’ll be more motivated to DO IT NOW!

See you day-after-tomorrow for Tuesday’s Tutor!

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Tuesday’s Tutor: Is Your MC Smarter than a Fifth Grader? Part III

Easy as A, B, C . . . from BB

In today’s final-of-a-series post, Nikki Trionfo will discuss how to make a smart character do all sorts of dumb things. (Parts I and II were published here on 10/15 and 10/25, or see her unabridged version at http://www.realwriterswrite.com/ 2013/08/is-your-mc-smarter-than-fifth-grader.html

Did I just label a character as smart? Sorry, to reiterate from Part II: no character (or human) is smart. Characters (and humans) merely do things that are smart (or not). And, obviously, they can never do things that are smart all the time and in every sphere, because smartness partially depends on viewpoint. Don’t believe me? Start with a basic Western view of intelligence using the following basic “smart” building blocks:

1.  Logic

2.  Abstract thought

3.  Self-awareness

4.  Communication

5.  Emotional knowledge

Endow your character with all of them. When this character bumps into a reader who values something else, you’ll find the character’s smart-factor starts to dip.

A.  Polynesians might mock the character’s lack of spatial awareness.

B.  Eastern thinkers might demand problem-solving using spirituality, meditation, mysticism, or tradition.

C.  Westerns might stab your character with their literary set of small knives. Who likes a know-it-all?

Even if you could make your MC do smart things all the time, why would you?

A general recommendation (for Western stories especially) is to invent an MC with plenty of smarts in their back pocket, but with an intelligence failure that can be defined clearly and early in the story. Some examples:

PRIDE: Couldn’t Rhett Butler have been nicer to Scarlett? You know, after he knew he loved her? Sure, but she would have used that weakness to mock and manipulate him. The price of love was humility. He wouldn’t cultivate that trait because Scarlett wouldn’t either, damn it.

PERFECTIONISM: Anne Shirley defined romance too narrowly and almost missed out on Gilbert Blithe.

PHYSICAL WEAKNESS: Um, can anyone say femme fatale? Hooking up with that long, cool tube-of-lipstick is asking for trouble. But plenty of characters are “asking,” if you catch my drift.

LOW SELF-ESTEEM: The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things features “larger-than-average” Virginia, who has a “plus-sized” inferiority complex. Virginia doesn’t under-stand why the guy who sometimes kisses her would want to hang out with her in public. She doesn’t get it because she sees herself from her point of view, not his. The reader can see she’s pushing away the very thing she needs most: someone who cares about her.

PASSION: If you want something so, so bad, but can’t have it without a terrible cost, it can drive you crazy (Captain Jack). You can make your character’s thoughts spin until they don’t make sense. Start the story while they’re still sane and let them spiral into madness. Or start the story after they’re loopy and give careful hints so that we see their madness is actually rational thought(?) about a desperate goal (Catch-22, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest). You can even have your character obsessed with catching a whale (Moby Dick). Reason doesn’t matter to these characters.

THE FATAL BLIND SPOT: Indulge me, because you’re about to read an excerpt from my own manuscript. In this scene, Salem is sitting in a high school class, processing the fact that her sister Carrie’s supposedly accidental death may have been a murder committed by gang members. The boy sitting behind her has just said her name:

       At the sound of my name, I snap around to look at the guy. He’s accessorized in gang paraphernalia, not caked with it. His only completely visible marking: an upside down V inked onto his cheekbone.

Expressionless, dark eyes stare at me . . .

Terrified, I whirl around to face forward.

A gang member.

And he knows my name.

Up to this point, Salem has narrated faithfully; the reader trusts her. She says the gang member Cordero is ominous—we believe. When we see evidence, later, we hate Cordero as much as Salem does. But what happens when Salem runs into Cordero’s positive qualities?

  “Cordero is dangerous,” I warn her. “He was trying to kill the guys in the car.”

  “No, no. He just chased them away,” AddyDay answers.

  “He was shooting at people,” I insist. “He wanted to kill them.”

  She cuts me off and I haven’t told her what she needs to hear. She needs to be afraid of Cordero—she needs to hate him. He took Carrie. He took everything.

  “He saved my life,” AddyDay repeats.

In this scene, Salem refuses to consider evidence—even from an eye witness —which redeems Cordero. MC-smartness flips off because the reader can see what Salem can’t: She’s got a blind spot. When it comes to Cordero, she’ll see what she emotionally needs to see.

MC’s all need to make mistakes like this occasionally. It makes them human, provides foreshadowing, and allows for personal development. In the example, it provides suspense as well. Salem trusts the wrong people. She’s the girl metaphorically walking down the lonely, dark alley and the music’s getting scarier the more the reader is able to see what she can’t.  Will Salem figure out her blind spot before it’s too late? Yes: happy ending. No: a tragedy.

This question about the MC figuring something out about his- or herself is so important it overshadows every other question—even the mystery of who killed Carrie. Attention, authors: no one cares who killed your characters, saved a dying world, whether there’s poison in the wells. Not until readers love or hate potential suspects, that world, or the drinkers at the wells. Which takes time—it can’t all be checked off in chapter one. But ten or fifteen pages is enough space to give us something we can love: a character. We love smart ones, dumb ones. Characters we know, see their potential, ache for them, put ourselves in their shoes. We love them when they make us laugh, hate them when they ruin everything. Like they’ve really hurt us. Like they’re dearer than family. Give us those characters, and we’ll stick with the story to the final page and beg for more.

Final Note: I said I’d address all the “exceptions” to my rules nixing clichés as a shortcut to establishing intelligence. There’s only one: Use clichés (dumb blond, fact-spouting nerd) to quickly introduce side characters who do nothing but advance plot.

Now I’ve addressed it.

Thanks again, Nikki!  You’ve presented us with some great ideas on creating characters who are smart, and not-so-smart, but three dimensional.

 See you day-after-tomorrow for Thursday’s 13!

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Sunday’s Snippets: Succeeding at Failing, or Failing to Succeed?

EASY AS A, B, C . . . from BB

These little gems are Snippets from Jon Winokur’s book entitled W.O.W.: Writers on Writing. It seems—from these authors, at least—that success/failure is pretty much a balancing act:

“If your first book is a smash, your second book gets kicked in the face.” ~ John Berryman

“Failure is very difficult for a writer to bear, but very few can manage the shock of early success.” ~ Maurice Valency

“Of all the enemies of literature, success is the most insidious.” ~ Cyril Connolly

“Success and failure are equally disastrous.” ~ Tennessee Williams

“The rarest thing in literature, and the only success, is when the author disappears and his work remains.” ~ François Mauriac

See you day‑after‑tomorrow for “Tuesday’s Tutor”!

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Saturday’s Softcover: My Mother was an “Elizabeth” Too!

Easy as A, B, C . . . from BB

My mother was named Margaret Elizabeth, but I never knew her to go by Margaret, or any of its wonderful permutations: Maggie, Meg, etc. In fact, she didn’t go by any of the changes to Elizabeth either—it was always full throttle: Elizabeth. And she loved movies. She felt very connected to two famous Elizabeths: Queen Elizabeth, who named her son Charles—my brother, almost exactly the same age, is named Charles. And she loved Elizabeth Taylor. So, when I saw Lu Ann Brobst Staheli’s book entitled Just Like Elizabeth Taylor, I knew I “just” had to read it.

The book is tender, frightening, angst-filled in part, funny, and ultimately— mostly—very happy,81N-fns-EuL__SL1500_ though I was in tears at the end.

Liz, named Elizabeth for the movie star, becomes Beth when she runs away from home. How will this young girl, not yet a teen, make her way on her own?  Actually, a lot better than she can do at home where her mother is too weak to give up the boyfriend who beats her, and Liz cannot fend off the boyfriend’s loathsome son.

Plucky girl that she is, she steals some money from the “boyfriend,” and runs away—but only as far as a fairly nearby town. She finds an abandoned shack at a winter-deserted K.O.A. place, where she manages to have bathroom/water/ electric amenities, ekes out her meager “savings” with school lunch and occasional lunch leavings from other students.

As the school year draws closer to an end, “Beth” must find a way to make a friend, save a lunch lady, let her mother know she is still alive, find a more permanent home, and bring justice to her “real” family, while maintaining a decent GPA so she won’t be “found out.”

At every moment, I was aware that the author had taught junior high school for years: she knew the angst, the failures, the desperation of some, the heartlessness of others, and the pluck of the brave. Just before the ending I was in tears: not because it was sad, but because I was so angry at what happened to “Beth” next: pulling all the threads together, the horrific scene had me crying for the unfairness, the drive, the caring this young girl exhibited. It was a fitting triumph, finally.

I know Liz, the lost girl. I know Beth, the loner. I know Elizabeth, the winner. I’ve taught those high school, junior high school and middle school kids too. Read it, and you’ll know them as well!

 See you day after tomorrow for Monday Moans!

A1YSS+kQ4cL__SL1500_BTW, the prolific Staheli also has a book, A Note Worth Taking, about “best” friends, surviving lost friendships, making new friends—you know, all those things we suffered in junior high or middle school. I’m reading it next—you should too: it’s on sale at Amazon for $0.99 through the end of July.

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