So Bad, I Had to Burn it

Writing as a full-time profession can be very challenging. It is no less daunting for a free-lancer. I know this from experience. Whatever stage you are in, there are dry spells that emerge periodically. They are expected and happen to even the greatest talent. Writer’s block is well known in the field and most of the time it disappears. You get more rest or go on vacation for a change of scene. You might be exercising more and eating better. You leave that pesky boyfriend or girlfriend who doesn’t understand you.  If you are about to launch a career, don’t let scary writer’s block deter you. You can deal with it. If you have honed your craft and enjoy a rich imagination, you will prevail. I work at it daily and some work is better than others. I am my own worst judge. If this is the case for you, it is best to give friends or family your rough drafts, so you won’t be too hard on yourself.

There are those amazing times when I simply love what I have written. I think it is the best thing on earth. I can’t wait to show the world. It is called being published. Then there are moments when the work is so bad that I cringe. I can’t accept a single word and I want to erase it all and start over. When this happens, I often print out the article or story and set it aside, so I can re-evaluate it later. Sometimes when you get in a better mood, suddenly your work seems superior. You see it with fresh eyes. At these times, I feel most productive. I can’t leave the laptop. I wish I could say this happens most of the time, but it doesn’t.

Recently, I printed out something that was so bad I wanted to burn it right on the spot. It didn’t have any redeeming qualities. Not even an in-depth rewrite could salvage it. The story was dull, and the tone was off. Sure, it was fine in terms of spelling and grammar and the word usage was fine. But something didn’t ring true and the characters and plot were not compelling. It was just bad, bad, bad. I didn’t do my usual ritual of setting it aside. You know what? I threw it in the stainless-steel kitchen sink and lit a match. I watched it smolder, blacken, and finally go up in small flames. Only a charcoal residue remained. I turned on the Kohler faucet (one of these) that can handle any challenge and I doused the embers thoroughly. I scooped them up and tossed them in the trash. The story was gone, mercifully, and I could move on.


Physical Activity Breaks Writer’s Block?

I fancy myself as a professional writer and I have high hopes for a bright future in print. Fellow writers can certainly relate to the trials and tribulations of a creative endeavor that challenges every brain cell in your head. Sometimes I am full of ideas and at other times, writer’s block takes hold. Its firm grip is not easily released. I can battle it by taking a nap, going for a walk, or inviting a friend over to watch a ball game or movie. Most of the time it works, and if not I just try something else. I can sit quietly and meditate or get active and go to the gym. I often choose to listen to my favorite music or try something new in the kitchen. I don’t have a lot of hobbies because they can interfere with the creative process if they are too frequent. Nothing should deter me when I am on a roll. It is a precious time that doesn’t come as often as I would like.

Thus, writing is very challenging as a profession or a pastime. It doesn’t matter whether you are penning novels, informational articles, poetry, blogs or non-fiction prose. It is all a wonderful occupation because it touches on the realm of art and human self-expression. It can be a career and be lucrative once you reach success. Even part time work is economically productive. With this in mind, let me get back to writer’s block. The other day it was knocking at my door and I had to get out of the house and abandon my computer. A friend and I decided to go and read trampoline reviews online, something I had never done before. Isn’t this for kids? Well, let me tell you that it is not so. We also went and tested some models ourselves, bouncing up and down and we had a rip-roaring time. I was laughing a lot as I lost my balance and went from side to side precariously and perhaps in peril. Ha! Not a chance. The best part of the day was that after a while, I believed that the trampoline activity had knocked some ideas loose. I knew this to be true because that night, words poured from my head and my fingers were racing on the keyboard to get it all down.

I wrote pages and pages thanks to the trampoline. I had never done this before after physical exercise. The idea was certainly not a bust. The next time I am clogged up, I am going again. It has other benefits. It burns calories and help keep you fit. It is a lot more fun than the treadmill at the gym. If you go with a friend or family member, it is a veritable outing and a great time for bonding. It feels like a celebration just to be among other happy people. It is a great choice for a kid’s birthday or just for buddy time.


Decisions, Decisions

As a writer, I critique everything I read no matter who the author is. It could be an article in today’s news, a blog, a bit of simple information on any topic, etc. While many Internet authors are quite good, and I learn alot there are as many who are not. I am a silent editor for these people waiting in the wings to attack. I can’t abide bad grammar, poor sentence structure, misuse of words, and the like. Non-native speakers should not be penning stories unless they know English perfectly. I hope that I am good enough that no one feels the same way about me, but then, I am a native speaker. We all make mistakes, but I go over my material again and again to make sure it is flawless.

I wish I could say the same for some of the product reviewers on the Web. You search for something – like the best handheld back massager – when looking for a gift for a friend. You pull up the best sites with the most inventory and the best prices. You start reading…and then you choke. Here is an example of a poorly-written review that I found and what I thought was wrong:

Handheld Massagers: best selection, best prices (so far so good)

Product name: xxxxx

The xxx Pro Massager With Heat offers an invigoration massage for the tired worn body. The rubberized comfort handle entails easy gripping alongside a front grip for an easy, guidable action. Features like three different sets of massage points as well as a variable speed control of three different speeds this handheld massager allows the user to customize your experience with ease. There is an optional heat setting that allows for easy relaxation. (how many times does he have to say “ease?”)

So far not so good. Boring and repetitive and no idea how to use commas!

  • Dual head percussion penetrates tight muscles for ultimate comfort and soothing
  • Variable speed control, 3 speed settings allow you to enjoy a gentle and soothing or an intense massage
  • Soothing heat for added relaxation
  • 3 Sets of massage nodes offer pleasant customization of your soothing massage experience
  • Front grip makes it easy to guide the soothing action
  • Rubberized comfort handle for easy grip

This writer likes the word “soothing.” You get the picture. Why not look in a thesaurus for alternatives?  comforting, calming, alleviating, relieving, tranquilizing, palliative….

At least the reviewer knows to include benefits that describe why a certain feature is important. He or she is just not an experienced writer of product descriptions. You want to encourage people to buy and this is an art. The description must be short and factual, but loaded with reasons why you need this item—right now! I won’t reveal the customer reviews because these people aren’t expected to write perfect English. We just want to know if the bloody thing works well and the benefits are true.


Writing Vacation

Writing is my vocation and I try to do some every day. This is rule number one to be a successful author. Recently, I had been too busy to practice what I preach, so I decided to take time off for a home vacation so I could do nothing but write. I felt it was perfect timing as I was in an inspirational mood. If I went away, say to the mountains or the beach, I would feel obligated to indulge in maximum recreation or socialize, thus interrupting my train of thought. Instead, I would confine myself to the indoors and be productive. By the end of the designated week, however, despite a good output of work, I started to feel a bit depressed. I wondered if I had SAD, or seasonal affective disorder since it was winter. But I had never experienced it before. It was just a temporary lack of sunlight in my opinion. I read that this can cause depression for a while. I knew that I had been so into my writing, that I hadn’t seen the light of day for some time.

While too much sun is bad for you (it can cause cancer), a deficit can be more harmful. We all need a certain amount of vitamin D or we can develop heart disease. Imagine that! I might have made a big mistake in taking a stacation, but it was only one time. It is a known fact that lack of sunlight can lead to clinical depression (source: Be Right Light), especially if it is for long periods of time. The afflicted can feel mood swings, sleep problems, anxiety, or even suicidal thoughts. I had not gotten to this point fortunately. But I felt I had to get outdoors. I vowed to take a walk every day for my health. It would be an absolute requirement for my good health.

People who live in dark climates like Norway or Finland need light therapy I am told. It can restore their sense of well-being and promote renewed happiness. I would use natural light to help me fight my depression. I read a study done at the Medical University of South Carolina that concluded that this condition arises from a disruption of the body’s internal clock or circadian system. The dark mood inducing effects of lack of light leads to changes in the brain to the areas that regulate mood.

The walks were a brilliant idea and I felt better after a short time. It made my return to the computer easy and more fulfilling. I started to produce some of my best work. If I hadn’t been attentive to treating my low mood, I might have fallen into a writing slump. Talk about depression! It would have sent me off the edge for sure. Instead, my vacation was a success and I can do something similar every year. In effect, I will go on a writing blitz.


Helping Out a Friend

I enjoy a variety of clients providing me with a wealth of interesting writing assignments. I am trying to hone my craft at fiction, non-fiction, blogs and posts. I write emails, novels (other than the romance kind), letters, and web pages. If I get a plumb job, I can really augment my income. But there are times when you must do pro bono work for friends and family. I will edit their own writing or ghostwrite something for them. I have done greeting card poems, college admission and job applications, and so much more.

I wasn’t busy a few weeks ago, so I was happy to help a friend whose father had just died. No one in the family had prepared an obituary and it was past due. It has a certain format and style so I wanted to pitch in. I only needed to speak with him to get a sense of his father’s life. You want to list the key points about career milestone, wife, and offspring. It isn’t supposed to be too flowery but it should be light in tone and not overly lugubrious.

His father had been a welder most of his life, a career professional who had worked on many local projects of note. After I composed the obituary in standard style, I felt I had to add a touch of humor. These short paragraphs can be so dull. To give it some life and to please the relatives who remember him fondly, I mentioned his Lincoln welder from here which was a part of the family. He kept it at home in the backyard shed and used it to repair all kinds of household plumbing problems. He had even taught his son the craft.

My friend was more than pleased when he saw the obituary published the paper. It was also placed online by the funeral home. He loved the part about the Lincoln and he laughed out loud, for maybe the first time in a long while. “I could tell you so many stories,” he offered, and I listened. There was the time when the two of them, he and his father, worked together on the bathroom pipe. The welder got out of hand and burned his mother’s precious area rug. “I hated it anyway,” he said, “and so did my dad. I wonder if he did it on purpose. My mother was not happy and rushed out to replace it with the exact same one.”

There was also the time when he loaned the welder to a neighbor and it didn’t come back. He needed it as a backup at work and went to fetch it. The neighbor was on vacation so he raided his garage. The police came and questioned him. He thought he would be arrested for stealing his own stuff, kind of like O.J. Simpson. Fortunately, he didn’t have to go to prison, not for one single day. The policeman left and cautioned him, “Next time wait until your neighbor comes home.”


Working on a Plot Point

As a writer, I am always trying to dig up new subjects. I prefer at this point in my career to create novel plots and characters and not to rehash the same old stuff. Never give the reader something expected. It is a real challenge and I look to my everyday life for inspiration. I don’t want to copy other authors. I pride myself on originality. I want to try my hand at something new, and so I have come up with the idea of working on a mystery short story.

Mysteries at any length are challenging as there is a kind of formula for success that you have to follow. You want the crime up front, of course, but some delay in revealing details and clues. The reader wants to be excited about continuing on to reach the climactic end. Thoughts are rolling around in my head and I will test them out with a few initial paragraphs. I will feature a certain kind of odd criminal who will be caught because he cleans up his crime scenes using his victim’s own supplies. Now that’s a twist! I hope it is intriguing. What supplies? Maybe it would work well to have him use the victim’s vacuum cleaner so that forensics could find clues in the bag. The question is whether the criminal is smart enough to take it with him. So, the victim must have a bagless model in his closet. I see the killer searching about to find it, then “aha.”

If I opt for a bagless unit like the ones on The Vacuum Challenge, I then must be sure to have the hapless criminal leave something behind. Do I tell the reader immediately or do I wait and have forensics scour the crime scene? Which will have better punch and enrich the plot? These are the kinds of questions that writers ask themselves. There is no one uniform answer. I can do it both ways. As a matter of fact, I just might do that and test different versions with family and friends. Sometimes when I am lucky, stories practically write themselves in a few hours. This time it is a mystery which is quite a different animal. It takes concentration and careful structuring to excel at this genre.

Criminals always leave the weapon behind so that road is too frequently traveled. They drop hairs that contain DNA and are found under furniture or in a corner. It takes a while for the inspectors to notice it, making the tension build. How about leaving something different and less obvious. Let me think….

A cufflink? A wallet? A coin he had touched? He would be too careful to pick up something before, during, or after the crime. Now I have it: a contact lens. This is tiny, hard to see, contains residual eye fluid and therefore DNA. It can be identified by brand as well. This is how it will be lined to the killer. When he is caught, the authorities will see that he wears contacts. They will go back to the scene of the crime and search for one.


Dealing with Writer’s Block

What do you do when you get writer’s block? I succumb to this “disease” often when I have been working long and hard, especially on several projects at one time. If there is a deadline looming, I can go into panic mode. Fortunately, this is not that often. It is a great joy when you get inspired and the words flow. It is a gift which makes people writers in the first place. There are a few things you can do to help the situation and get things moving along:

Relax and meditate to clear the mind. Find a dark quiet place with no one around. It will probably be at home. Any time of day is fine as long as you are not distracted. Don’t watch the kids, leave something on the stove, or have obligations.

Read someone else’s writing and absorb the vocabulary and style. It happens automatically and takes you away from your own blockage.

Take regular breaks from writing. Some people have to work on a schedule but there is no need to be obsessive about it. It is fine to try to write a few hours every day, but don’t be a slave to your self-imposed regimen. It is stressful to sit in front of a blank page on your laptop.

Reread some of your old work. It will make you realize that you can achieve success.

Exercise at least a few days a week to get the heart rate going and to pump up your energy. I like to play basketball when I can find someone to shoot hoops for practice. I can’t commit regular time for a team.

When I can’t go out as I am on a roll, I pretend that I am playing because I have installed a mini basketball hoop in my home office. I throw all my crumpled-up pages of bad writing through it.

It feels like you’ve accomplished at least something. Ha! I know it isn’t really true exercise and I even have a small ball in my desk as a kind of mockery of the real sport. When I have writer’s block (I call a mental cramp), this makes me laugh and I move on.

My biggest piece of advice is not to fall apart when writing seems impossible, like you never wrote a story or article before. Don’t let it get you down. Mood is really important when this is your profession. You need to be relaxed when sitting at your desk or table, stress free and ready to begin. Know that words don’t come in one second or two. Newbies take note. Veterans don’t expect miracles. They can text friends, read emails, listen to music or watch a little TV, either before or during their writing activity. You can’t force things. If you are not a natural writer, you need to learn to get in the zone. Good luck and happy writing.


Storytelling Throughout the Ages

Storytelling has always existed and it probably always will. However, the nature of storytelling has changed throughout the span of human history. To a large extent, storytelling has been affected by the medium.

The stories told through oral tradition are the most fundamental to human culture in general. Cultures that did not have a written language will tend to pass on stories through a legacy of community storytellers. Oral tradition stories tend to be full of archetypes that people across many different cultures will recognize. This gives them a broad appeal. However, it is very difficult to create complex themes, characters, and plots in the form of oral tradition stories. Even remembering all of these elements is difficult for the storyteller, and oral tradition stories are more or less told in the manner of plot exposition.

The written word more or less transformed storytelling. People could create very complicated stories and plots. However, many written stories will have more of a niche appeal in a lot of cases. It’s not possible to make long-form works that will strike the same notes in the same way as oral tradition stories. There is more material, which makes them less easily consumable. There is also the fact that rhetoric is more important in the case of oral tradition stories, while written fiction can get away with being much more meandering.

Plays, television shows, and movies are forms of storytelling. These forms of storytelling place more of an emphasis on dialogue than almost anything written ever will. People can see what is going on when they watch a play, movie, or television show. Narrators don’t have to tell them about it. Plays, movies, and television shows have scripts that more or less consist only of dialogue, which is how the story happens.

Since these forms of storytelling are spoken aloud, the dialogue has to be believable. In this way, these newer forms of storytelling seem to combine a lot of what people like about both oral tradition stories and written fiction. People like the rhetoric of oral tradition stories and the complexities of written fiction. They can get both with visual and interactive storytelling. Written fiction still exists. However, the dialogue is now more similar to movie dialogue or television dialogue than it was in the past. All of these art forms exist today, and they have gotten to the point where they can all influence each other.


The Benefits of Writing Workshops

Lots of people are nervous about writing workshops. They don’t really want to put themselves out there, which becomes more or less a requirement at certain points during writing workshops, depending on the format. A lot of people are worried about getting their writing criticized or evaluated in a large group. However, if you want to be a better writer, there are certain things that you have to do as a matter of course. In many cases, you’re going to need to show your writing to someone else at some point or another in order to get feedback. A writing workshop is often a good environment for this part of the process.

At a writing workshop, everyone is there to try to improve his or her writing skills. You all have a common purpose. Most of you have some experience with writing already, and you’re all probably readers. These days, you have all probably reviewed something online before as well. As such, you all have a lot of experience that you can bring to the table when it’s time to get a sense of other people’s work. Benefiting from other people’s experience will often automatically make you a better writer.

Writing workshops also just help in some cases because they give people more practice. It has been said that writers have to write a million words of pure garbage before they can create something that’s good. People often have a hard time motivating themselves to move forward in that regard. A writing workshop can give you the motivation that you need in a structured environment that will truly allow you to advance. Your other writers can encourage you literally or figuratively.

A writing workshop can also help you network with other writers, which is one of the practical considerations of a writing workshop that a lot of people don’t discuss. Getting anywhere in writing is very difficult. Writing workshops that will really allow people to meet other writers can make all the difference in the world for the people who are trying to move forward as writers at all. Even if you don’t plan to write professionally and you just want to see if it is possible for other people to read your stuff and like it, a writing workshop can help. Just getting someone to talk about your book on Twitter can help, and you will meet writers who might do that for you at the writing workshops.

Writing workshops are not without their flaws. In some cases, people are too polite or disinterested to offer any real feedback, which will not help you grow as a writer enough. In other cases, people will go in the opposite direction and they will be too critical to actually offer people any real advice or assistance. Having all of your stuff praised all the time is just as unhelpful as having all of your stuff criticized all the time. There are going to be people in all writing workshops who will play the part of the kindergarten teacher or the caustic critic, and part of the skill of getting something out of writing workshops involves ignoring them.

However, you will encounter both groups when you are actually a writer in the first place. It is genuinely useful to try to learn to tune them out when you are still at the writing workshop stage in a lot of cases. You need to start learning which sorts of criticisms to understand and which to tune out, since you are going to get constructive and reductive criticism when you are actually a writer in any capacity at any point in your life. Writing workshops can help make you a better writer in terms of the craft and in terms of the persona that it requires.


Documenting Family Stories

One of the most valuable ways that people can remember their families involves documenting family stories. When you think about yourself and how you want to be remembered, you might specifically think about your accomplishments and the things that you’ve done with your life. Of course, every single one of these accomplishments has a story behind it, and that’s what a lot of people will remember when they talk about it. They might be benefiting from the results, but they will still care about the story.

You might also want people to remember specific anecdotes and stories about your life. There are lots of different key moments that you might think of when you try to conceptualize yourself and your identity. All of these different moments have been technically lost to time, but you remember them. In all likelihood, you would prefer if other people remembered them as well. In all likelihood, other members of your family and other people’s families feel the same way.

Identity is complicated, but people are at least partly the sum of their memories. We can’t preserve those memories in another mind. However, we can at least share those memories with other people and keep them going that way. This can make all the difference in the world in many cases.

There are lots of ways to document family stories. For one thing, you can just write them down in the form of a journal, interviewing members of your family as if you were a professional journalist. Some people are more visually inclined, and they might want to make collages, scrapbooks, or video blogs about their family members in order to really keep track of them. Of course, some people might want to do all of the above, knowing that keeping a lot of different records is often the best strategy if you want to make sure that some piece of the family history will truly stand the test of time.

Historians tend to have a fondness for the historical figures that kept detailed records of their lives and the lives of others. These people create documents and works of art that can quickly become the sort of primary sources that a lot of other people will use when they’re trying to study the entire time period.

Your family stories might not become important to historians. However, they will certainly be important to anyone who remembers your family or who cares about your family. Your family also certainly left its mark on the world in its own way. Trying to keep that going is worthwhile. The more you write and the more you create, the better.


Why We Like Scary Stories

There’s no doubt about the fact that people really like scary stories. There is some speculation that the very first stories that were ever told around the campfire were ghost stories or variations of them. We haven’t always grouped all scary stories together in one genre before, but we obviously like stories that make us scared.

All cultures have scary stories. Individual people might vary in terms of their appreciation for scary stories, but there have been few communities where people just completely avoided scary stories altogether. Even in cultures were almost all stories were suppressed for ideological reasons, people clearly still liked them and they still liked to be scared.

However, the nearly universal love of scary stories might seem to be somewhat counter-intuitive. After all, fear is an unpleasant emotion. It’s true that the scary stories are not actually real. However, if the only real comfort is that the stories aren’t real, so what is their appeal? People might wonder why anyone would even bother going through the process of feeling scared in the first place if glib reassurance is your only reward.

When it comes to understanding why people like scary stories, people need only look at the complexities of human emotion. People like to experience powerful emotions in general. When people listen to scary stories, they get to experience the sheer thrill of being in those situations, since people will tend to project themselves into the stories. However, since these are just stories, people will not have to actually experience the consequences of anything going on in the stories.

Most events that cause fear in real life do indeed have terrifying consequences. When people find out that they don’t, it comes as a relief. However, it’s different in the case of stories. People get to just get the spike in adrenaline, which is not dangerous thanks to the actual circumstances. Adrenaline spikes are fun when people get them on the roller coaster, but they’re terrifying if they happen when people lose control of their vehicles. Similarly, events that would be terrifying in real life are entertaining in the form of stories.

Scary stories can have other benefits beyond the sheer visceral experience of fear. They form a contrast to the real world. When people create stories that are more terrifying than their own lives, there’s a sort of comfort in returning to the real world. It makes the real world seem less imposing than it would be otherwise. There’s a strange sort of comfort in creating scary stories based on the contrast between people’s worst nightmares and their realities.

There is also the fact that a lot of people just find horrifying situations fascinating on some intrinsic level. A lot of people are just curious about that which is dark and macabre. They obviously wouldn’t want to get close to it in real life, since it would be dangerous. However, experiencing it in the form of fiction is completely different.

Fear is a valid emotion to explore in fiction. Fiction doesn’t have to be entirely sunny all the time. A lot of people feel that exploring fear adds a touch of realism in general, and this can improve the experience of the reader or the listener. Scary stories have a lot of different functions, and they should endure forever.


Lessons Encoded in Fairy Tales

Fairy tales are rarely simply fairy tales. A good portion of them have little lessons written into them. In some cases, these lessons appear to be largely intentional. In other cases, it’s hard to guess the true intentions of the original writers.

Fairy tales are often part of a culture’s oral tradition. They were designed to be spoken aloud, and that means that the nature of the plot, the characters, and the themes must be conducive to being recited in the first place. If you’ve ever tried to read a complicated novel aloud to a lot of people, you know that it’s a difficult way for anyone to experience a novel. A fairy tale is something that was intended to be received and remembered in this way, and that will have an effect on the nature of the lessons embedded in these tales.

A lot of fairy tales are about the danger of the forbidden. Many of them involve naive and overly trusting characters who ended up falling victim to the wrong person. Fairy tales tend to be from more conservative cultures. Conservatives often have a pronounced fear of that which is unknown, and the stories that they write tend to reflect that fear.

Many fairy tales stress the importance of family, especially biological family, in one way or another. The fact that fairy tales tend to privilege biological mothers over stepmothers is a classic example of this tendency in action. Some fairy tales have a religious bent, at least subtly, trying to encourage the power of belief. Many fairly tales emphasize ‘virtuous’ behavior in women and ‘strong’ behavior in men, with male heroes and female victims.

However, fairy tales are ultimately very diverse. In a lot of cases, they will ultimately reflect the values of the cultures in which they were created. This means that a lot of fairy tales will vary from one culture to another, even if there are some archetypes that will seem to unite them.

It is true that fairy tales across cultures have a tendency to be conservative. These tales were written for the mainstream, which means that they will tend to reflect what seemed normal to the audience. If this is a historical audience we’re talking about, that means that their mainstream is conservative by the standards of today. However, fairy tales are still capable of evoking the sorts of powerful emotions that are truly universal, regardless of your political bent. The messages are typically subtle enough that people can be subtly influenced by them, or they can dismiss them altogether. Either way, these stories have survived for centuries for a reason.