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Breaking the Habits

You can probably search the internet and find plenty articles about the good habits that a writer needs to have. You can probably even find some blockbuster (writer’s block busting that is) ideas to get you writing in ways you never thought possible. Maybe you even found this post in one of those searches.

But what happens when you have habits that are interfering with your ability to start new habits? In this case, the habit of writing regularly. As they say, “Old habits die hard.” But why is that? What makes us stick to our old ways over the new? Even if we enjoy the new, we tend to fall back into the past way of doing things.

I’ve read articles that say a lack of passion or a lack of dedication are to blame for this. They’ll tell you that if you want something you need to be dedicated, and if you’re not achieving it you must not be dedicated enough. Your passions are misplaced.

BULLSHIT!

These people make you feel as though you’re not good enough. You must not really be the writer you thought you were. Worse of all, they offer little more advice than to pull yourself up and get it done. And after a number of years of feeling in a slump with my writing I realize there is little truth to the idea that I lack passion or dedication to the desire to write and be a writer.

So I thought I would take a moment to offer my perspective and how I am working to get myself back on track and break down my old habits. Will it work for you? I promise nothing.

First, identify what it is you wish to achieve. This may sound simple, but don’t make it about a large goal. Make it about a simple solution. Rather than, I want to write 10 novels this year. Think, I want to write X minutes a day. You may think, I want to market myself more. But instead think, I will dedicate one hour twice a week to self promotion.

Next is recognition that you’re not achieving what you want to accomplish. Time gets away from us all and it can be very hard to recognize your missing opportunities to improve. Don’t confuse this with procrastination, which is actively putting things off. When you say I want to write X minutes a day, it can be easy and the end of the night to not even realize you didn’t accomplish the goal. You didn’t intend to miss out, you didn’t even notice, but it still keeps happening. The problem is, one day turns to one week, turns to one month, and next you know, nothing you hoped for was done.

Now that you know what you want, and you recognize you are not achieving it, take a look at what it is that is keeping you from doing it. What takes up your time and keeps you from that goal? Identify the pitfalls, but also recognize what you have no control over. Don’t expect to change things you can’t change. You won’ t ever be successful if you do that. But what you can look at is your other obligations, and see if there is a balance. You can even find some you’d rather not do anymore and work towards elimination of those roadblocks.

Now for that difficult part, the breaking of the habits. What are things you do that take up time that you could be working on your goal of writing? What are some mental habits you have that prevent you from getting started? What isn’t needed in your day? Be realistic with yourself. Don’t say you’ll make the kids eat PB sandwiches for dinner every day so you don’t have to waste time cooking. But instead evaluate other areas you use your time. Especially those where you lose track of time.

There is no magic trick for making bad habits go away, and there is no way to magically get rid of those things you’re doing instead of your goal. But once you see what you’re doing rather than getting your dreams done, you can tell where to start. Humans are species of comfort and habits make us feel comforted. It may not be daily habit, but a response habit to a stimuli.

I spend most of the last quarter of 2020 looking at this and trying to determine why I wasn’t writing. My goal was to write more. But that was too grand. Some days words just won’t come out. Other times the day just gets away from me. So I broke it down further. I just want to write more. Still not well defined. So I broke it down to, I want to dedicate time to writing.

I recognized why I wasn’t achieving that goal despite wanting to do it. First, I was depressed, and feeling a bit disgraced, from the closure of Factor Four Magazine so I retreated, subconsciously, away from writing and reading Science Fiction. But also, I was filling my time with scrolling Facebook, again and again and again. Seeing nothing new, but still doing it. I realized that was because of the lack of social connections I was feeling. And finally, I filled my time with video games, something I enjoyed. That was all in addition to my obligations to work, feed my family, help run the home, and getting my kids to their respective events.

I realized that if I dedicated 2 hours, between when I get off work until when I need to start cooking, to writing projects, I could accomplish more writing. But I worried about those days my wife wasn’t at work I’d rather spend the time with her. She has a preference to gaming. So I scaled my goal back a bit more. On the days she was working, I’d dedicate the 2 hours to writing. On her days off, I could use the time to game. I also didn’t want to eliminate gaming from my routine on any day because I enjoy it. So after dinner, on any day, is dedicated to free time until 9 pm. This allows me the time to game, or scroll Facebook.

At 9 PM it is time to wind down for bed. And so I dedicate the last two hours of my day to reading a book. One, I recognized I wasn’t reading enough to be happy. Two, I know how well writing and reading go hand in hand. And three, it allowed me the chance unwind in a way that is conducive to better sleep in comparison to checking my phone.

By putting this into a schedule I created some definition around my day. By piggybacking off of a required schedule (my work day) it was easy to transition from one into the next. And my wife calls me on her way home from work, giving me the perfect stopping point to begin working on cooking dinner. It creates the definition I needed to get started. And I already find myself running over from time to time.

Now the trick is not to fall into old habits. I caught myself scrolling Facebook during reading time just the other day. And it wasn’t until I was going to bed that I realized I never started the next book on my “to read” list. Don’t beat yourself up, recognize the need to fix it and try again the next day.

I have this weird idea that everything needs to start on a Sunday or Monday. So when I’d mess up on Monday, I’d think. I’ll just start it next week. Well, then I’d never get it done. This is another reason why I went with my wife’s schedule to start. She works a rotating schedule, so it didn’t have to by Monday to start.

I am still working hard to break the old habits. Today work ran late and I thought about skipping out on writing. Instead I realized I could write this blog post and still accomplish the need to work on writing related stuff. But I just as nearly said I didn’t have time and chose to walk away. It took the conscious effort to work out a solution. Dinner became chicken strips and fries, so I could throw them in the oven and finish this post up.

I hope this process helps you some along your path to achieve your goals. And I hope that it works for me. What are some of the tips and tricks you use to stay on point with your goals? Share them in the blog comments. I want to hear them!

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Critiques

One of the most important parts of the writing process is the critiques.  I am talking about the step where you get trial readers to look over your work in progress so that they might catch things you missed.  You get a lot of valuable information from good critiques, but bad critiques can be useless.

Let me clarify that.  When I say good critiques I don’t mean positive feedback or five star reviews, I mean a critique that provides the author with feedback that useful (though not always positive).  And a bad critique provides the author with little help in their quest to polish the work in progress into a final draft.

I have had my share of bad critiques.  Some have just had useless comments that give me no help.  While others were just downright mean and hurtful.  I realized there are a few guides out there on how to properly critique another author’s work so that they get the most value from your reading.  After that, I will talk about how to accept the critique with an open mind.

How to be a better sample reader:

I prefer the term “sample reader” over critic, simply because it provides a more accurate description of what the real job is.  Your job is to provide your fellow author with the perspective of a reader.  For some reason, we authors tend to keep our author hats on when we read a draft copy of a manuscript.  We want to point out ways we would have written it differently, sometimes pointing out matters of style rather than structure.  Or worse, we want to provide our own rewrites.  Instead we need to put on our reader caps and try (as hard as it can be) to look over the manuscript as a reader.  We need to look it over as a reader would and find things that make a reader stumble.  Of course, we have advice to offer as an author and you can add it is correctly (I’ll get to that) but think like a reader first.

Well, shall we get started?  You have a draft manuscript one of the writers in your group has shared with you.  So where do you start?  First, read the Turkey City Lexicon.  I have read it at least ten times, and I continue to look it over as feel the need.  Not only does it help you learn what to avoid in your writing, it also helps you look out for these things when reading to help other authors.  Remember this:  Just because it is listed in the Turkey City Lexicon, doesn’t mean is necessarily always wrong.  I have read some really great stories that had one or two of these “no-nos” in them, but overall it worked for the story.  The author was right to keep them in there.

Start with the opening lines.  We call this “the hook” in my writers group.  This is the first thirteen lines of a manuscript (that is formatted at 12 point courier font with one inch margins all around).   On a short story that is usually what is seen on the first page of the manuscript.  Therefore, it has to be strong enough to get the editor to turn the page.  The bottom line here is, when you read these thirteen lines, are you ready to read on.  Is turning the page a must for you?  Is the pacing strong, does it establish a setting and a voice?

For longer works you will want to break the next steps into sections.  For novels, I suggest going a chapter at a time.  For short stories, I tend to be able to do it all at once.  Perhaps with Novellas you may want to break it down by significant scenes.  It is easier to manage your comments in smaller chunks rather than trying to comment on a whole novel in the end.

I use the comment feature on Word to make comments line by line as needed.  I don’t comment on every sentence, that would be tedious and useless to the other writer.  I only highlight areas I think are exceptionally strong, I had trouble understanding, or otherwise catch my attention.

Here are some things to add in your line by line comments:

  • Areas where you tripped up on reading.  This might be a confusing sentence, a long piece of exposition that loses you, or an area that just doesn’t seem right.  It is okay to simply put “This line tripped me up and I had to reread it, but I don’t know why it tripped me up.”  This at least lets the Author know you had a problem with it.  Other readers may have seen it to and can better put it into words.  But you would be doing a disservice if you didn’t mark a line because you didn’t know why it bothered you.
  • Areas that don’t seem to belong.  Perhaps you read a sentence and it just doesn’t seem to be part of the story.  A random mention of a character’s memory that seems to have no bearing on the story (in your opinion).  Or it could be something that seems to belong in another part of the story.
  • Pacing issues.  All stories have a pace and that pace changes as the story goes through.  But if you are reading a fight scene and the author stops to tell you about the scenery, that should be marked.  Or if you are reading an action scene and suddenly a sentence or two seems to be too long and disrupts the pace.  The reverse can also happen, a slow dramatic scene that is suddenly interrupted with bursts of short sentences.  The fact is, you will notice when the pacing of a story suddenly changes, and it will jar you from the reading.
  • Thrown into the real world.  Anytime you are reading a good story or book you will get wrapped up into it.  It is all you’re thinking about as you read it.  Your mind is pulled into the story and you are in its world.  Anything you read that jars you into the real world should be marked.  Did your mind wander at a particular section?  Did you suddenly become aware that you were reading?  Again, it is okay to tell an author that you don’t know why you were brought back to reality.
  • Inconsistencies.  The main character has blonde hair all story long, and suddenly there is a reference to his dark hair.  Or, the story seems to take place in one area and you read something that doesn’t fit the scene.  Anything you read that doesn’t seem consistent with the rest of the story should be pointed out.
  • Unrealistic.  This is a tough one in the Science Fiction world.  We like to write things that are just a tad bit unrealistic.  But, there are things that simply make you shout “OH COME ON!”   There are certainly unrealistic elements in the worlds we create.  So remember to look for things that are unrealistic it the world the story is told.
  • Don’t forget the good.  Did one particular line stand out as a real strong one?  Do you really identify with a character’s situation?  Was there a scene you found especially moving?  Mark those and let the author know.  Anything you think is really good; let them know you appreciate those points too.

You may have noticed I made no mention of punctuation in the list above.  All too often people confuse critiquing with proofreading.  The point of a good critique is to offer the author a perspective of a reader.  So, unless an author specifically asks for punctuation, I only point out the punctuation that confuses me as a reader.  Proofreading is best left for later.

After the line by line comments are put in, I always write an overall critique of the story as a whole (or of the chapter for novels).  This is my overall thoughts of the characters, the scene, and the tale.  This is where I put any thoughts that don’t fit in the line by line critiques.  Again, put the positive in there too.

Be polite and be nice.  All too often I have got critiques that were simply uncalled for.  Things like “this is terrible” and “you don’t know what you are doing.” will not help anyone get better.  It fact, it is just downright hateful.   That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be honest, but if you are not going to be constructive, leave it off.  There is no room for hate, or just being mean in the writing world.  Be constructive and be fair.  The overall goal of any critique is to make the writer’s work better.  Keep that is mind.

Accepting Critiques

So many authors cannot seem to accept critiques.  Perhaps it is our natural defense against being hurt, or perhaps it is the feeling that we know our own work best.  So here are some tips on accepting critiques from your fellow writers:

  • This is not an attack.  The goal of the critiques is to make your work the best it can be.  Not to attack you or your writing.
  • You want readers, right?  Remember you want people to enjoy your stories.  You didn’t write them just for you?  If you did you wouldn’t be looking into publishing them.  So remember these are readers too, open your mind to their ideas.  After all, if they are having trouble with something, chances are other readers will too.
  • Be receptive.  I have heard this a lot from writers.  “They want to change my style.”  or “That is just my style of writing.”  And most of the time I have heard that, they were not talking about style at all.  Style is the way you right, the type of narrative you use, ect.  The goal of any critique is not to change your writing style, but to strengthen it.  If your “style” is confusing it needs to be refined.  Most of the time “style” is used as a way of closing off to other people’s thoughts.  Be receptive to their ideas.  Chances are if people are pointing it out it needs changing (see below).
  • Don’t respond to a person’s critiques.  There is a need for us to defend ourselves.  When someone points out a flaw in our writing we want to tell them how wrong they are.  The problem is they are a reader expressing their opinion.  It can’t be wrong because it is what they thought.  And, chances are they are right… you just aren’t ready to see it.  And if you don’t want to change it, don’t.  But you don’t need to argue with them.
  • You are the Author.  This means you get final say in what you change and what you keep.  Just keep this in mind.  If the majority of your readers had trouble with something, it is likely something that needs a second look.  If even just one person has an issue with something, it needs a second look.  In fact, I can only think of two times I did not change something sample readers had an issue with.  Otherwise, I have addressed every concern as best I could.
  • Move on.  I haven’t ever gotten more sample readers on a piece after the first round.  It is my preference.  I move on to proofreading.  You may want to make the changes and have a second set of readers look at it.  If you do that, move on to a new set of readers.  Don’t use the same readers for the same work more than once.  The effectiveness is gone.

More tips for Authors:

If you want to get the most from your sample readers, ask them questions you want answered too.  Don’t just let them do all the work.  Do you wonder if a character is likeable?  Do you wonder if someone understands a particular concept?  When you send out your manuscript to the sample readers, give them a list of questions.

Some of you may know, I really took interest in the craft of writing after reading Orson Scott Card’s How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy (among others).  It that book he talks about teaching your sample readers (I paraphrase but you get the point).  After reading that, I used some questions of his and added some of mine to create a list of questions I wanted answered by my readers.  Feel free to use some of these if you wish:

Questions about the story (or chapter).  Please answer these after your first reading of the draft.  Please put your first thoughts on these questions.

  1. Were you ever bored?  Did you ever find your mind wandering?  If so, can you tell me where it was you lost interest?
  2. Without looking back at the story, name some Characters from this story.  What do you think of them?  Did you like them, hate them, and why?  Did you confuse any characters or forget any?
  3. Is there anything a character did that seemed out of place for that character, against his/her nature?
  4. Did any dialogue seem excessive or not realistic for the situation or character?
  5. Is there any section you didn’t understand?  An area you had to reread? Did anything confuse you?
  6. Was there any time something happened you didn’t believe?  What was it?  Any time you thought “oh come on!”?  If so what was it?
  7. What do you think will happen next?  Is there anything you are still wondering about?
  8. What name might you give this story (or chapter)?
  9. Are there any other comments that can help?

In summary:

If you want to be a great writer, you will need sample readers to look over your works before you get them sent out to the editors.  But, you will also need to be a good sample reader.  I have learned more from the critiques I have given then the ones I have received.  That is why it is important the writer knows how to accept the critiques of his peers while also knowing how to effectively writing critiques of his own.

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New Short Story Out

Today Cygnus Journal of Speculative Fiction published Issue 1, which features my story “Dream Job”.  I am excited about this publication for two reasons:

First, this is the first short story I have written since my choice to be a published writer.  I did write a short story in High School that people seemed to like, but its long gone.  So really, I consider this my first short story.  I am blessed that it was published.  I know many very talented authors whose firsts are still awaiting the acceptance letter.

Second, it was chosen to be in the first issue of a new publication.  This may not seem like a big deal, but when a magazine starts up, there is a lot of pressure to be good (if not great).  Editors have to choose the stories they publish in their first issues carefully, as they set the bar for the entire publication.  That doesn’t mean publications don’t grow and become better.  It just means that you want to make a good first impression when you start up.  So I feel privileged that “Dream Job” was chosen to be among those stories that represent the start of Cygnus Journal of Speculative Fiction.

The Editors have also chosen to provide the electronic copy of their first issue free on Smashwords (Kindle, Nook, PDF and more).  It is also available on the Amazon Kindle Store for 99 cents, but I am sure you would prefer free.  So please, click here and check out “Dream Job” as well as the other works published in Issue One of Cygnus Journal of Speculative Fiction.

Then come back here and let me know what you thought of the story and the Characters.  I would love to hear from you.

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