Monday, March 19, 2012

Re: Why I'm AWOL

In the next few days my son has his last day at kindergarten, first
day at school, two parties, a church orientation, and lots and lots of

See you next week. I hope.

PS - I'm reading Stephen King's "On Writing" and it's Ah. Maze. Ing.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

A STWL FAVORITE: Where Do You Sit on the Writing Scale?

I wrote this post a little over a year ago and it's proven to be one of my most popular - and one I get a lot of queries about. I'm reposting to reignite the conversation, because I think it's a useful one to have...

My CV reads like a patchwork quilt of careers. (I'm told this is common in creative, right-brained types).  But buried among the list that includes Recruitment Consultant, Project Manager, Marketing and Government Assistant, is one job I ended up doing twice:  Trainer.

Turns out I'm good at teaching people how to do their jobs.

I tell you that, only because it's the context in which I was taught the following learning scale - and it's something you probably need to know.

It looks like this...

...and it's going to tell you how far you'll get as a writer:

UNCONSCIOUS INCOMPETENCE:  You Don't Know What You Don't Know

(Or, "As far as I know, I know everything!")

This is where every writer starts. Whether or not you're naturally gifted, the first time you embark on telling a story in words you're incompetent. Accept it.

Roadblock Attitude: "I know enough to do what I want to do... why should I put the effort into learning the craft?"

The entire point of "Unconscious Incompetence" is that you don't know what you don't know. And if you aren't willing to learn, you'll never know it. 

I'm beginning to see many writers never move beyond this point.  Unwilling to learn, they don't recognize they're just plain incompetent.  They never achieve, and never understand why.

CONSCIOUS INCOMPETENCE: You Know You Don't Know Enough

(Or "This is Harder Than I Thought!")

Conscious Incompetence is just that: the learner has learned enough to realize they're incompetent.

Roadblock Attitude: "Just because it's always been done that way, doesn't mean that's the way I should do it." 

1.  As a writer, you aren't only competing with yourself for success.  There are people out there who do this professionally already.  They've already been through the learning curve.  Their stuff is already 'great'.  When your talented-but-unrefined work goes up against theirs it always loses.  Learn the rules first, then you'll know how to break them.

2.  There's no doubt some people can learn 'on the job', but in the overall picture of your career it will take longer to succeed.  Consider the time used up front as your investment in your own future!

CONSCIOUS COMPETENCE:  You Know What to Do... But It's Work.

(Or "Why Is This Still Hard?")

My former agent once said writers who were just getting a grasp on the craft reminded her of one of those American Idol contestants. You know the ones: They listen to the judges, take the advice - and work so hard to get it right that everything comes out robotic.

Roadblock Attitude: I'll never be good at this.

Never fear, eventually what's in the head sifts down into the soul.  That's when American Idol contestants sing like canaries and writers paint pictures with words that leave people gasping.  It's because they've reached...

UNCONSCIOUS COMPETENCE:  Oh, That's Right - This Used to be Work.

(Or "What do you mean, that's amazing?")

The whole point of learning the craft, listening to those more experienced, and emulating those who've been successful is that one day it just happens... Without even thinking about it, you sit down to write a first draft and it comes out great.  (Or at least, a version of 'good' that is much, much closer to 'great' than most can achieve). 

There are no roadblocks, except those you raise for yourself, becuase you're there. You're good. And you don't even have to think about it.

That's why Stephen King can put out a book a year.  That's why Diana Gabaldon can cross-genres.   That's why I want to be like them:  Because I know if I'm patient and hard working... one day it won't be work anymore.


This:  Most aspiring authors are in the first two groups.  It's unavoidable.  I suspect there are certain things we can't learn until we're under contract and working with an editor. But if you imagine each of those boxes in a graded scale... well, you can also imagine where most of the 'aspiring' are sitting when they turn into 'author'. 

Just some food for thought.

Your Turn: Where do you think you sit on the scale?  Are you doing anything to move further along?

Saturday, March 10, 2012

What Watching Game of Thrones Taught Me About Beginnings

This blog was originally a guest-post I did at Brianna's Soloski's
blog: It went up while I was on
vacation last month.

A few months back, when Game of Thrones first appeared on television,
I heard a lot of good things - about the show and about the books.
Although I knew nothing of the actual plot, I was excited to get a
glimpse into this apparently extraordinary world. So I sat down
eagerly to watch the first episode with the understanding I was about
to embark on a tale of medieval-esque fantasy and political intrigue.

Imagine my surprise then, when the show opened with a gory
dismembering of a dozen bodies, the murder of two men, and apparently
undead people.

I scoffed "Huh, zombies. Been there," and turned the show off because
it wasn't anything like what I'd expected. I was irritated and
disappointed, surprised so many people raved about it. Wasn't this
technically "horror"?

Then a few weeks later a close writer friend began watching the show
online at the same time another close writer friend started reading
the books. At one point they both raved to me for a solid hour about
how much I would love this story.

"But," I said, "I tried to watch it. It was just a gory, freakish
bunch of zombie-types tearing men apart."

They both screamed "NO!" and jumped into simultaneous and heated
explanations about how I'd gotten the wrong impression. They worked on
me for weeks until I finally agreed to persevere with a single
episode. And of course, they were right. I loved it.

But the thing they didn't know was that, to me, the opening sequence
had completely misrepresented the story.

Oh, don't get me wrong, I now understand the importance of those
scenes. But taken in isolation they give a very different impression
of the story than, say, the next scene - which introduces a very
unique (in my opinion) family and set of "fantasy" circumstances.

While there's no doubt the opening scenes gave a foretaste of
something we're headed toward, to this uninitiated mind they were
confusing - and seemed to tell a totally different story.

I'm disappointed that if my friends hadn't known me so well, I never
would have discovered this world that I adore. (I plan to buy all the
books. ALL THE BOOKS).

But this isn't a blog post about my taste in fantasy. Or whether The
White Walkers were appropriately introduced.

This situation got me thinking about something I think we writers are
often prone towards:
Writing to "grab", rather than working to serve the story.

The problem with this approach is that if it doesn't appeal to your
primary audience, you'll grab the wrong people - and they'll drop your
story halfway through when they realize the opening was a dupe.

There's no doubt the beginning of a story needs to draw the reader in.
But this experience brought home to me how important it is to be true
to your whole story, not just the most shocking part. That initial
taste of your book builds an expectation in your reader of what's to

So, give me a true taste, friends. Don't open with dessert at the
beginning of a steak meal. Mold my expectations of what's to come with
depth and trust your writing and your story to draw me in. Don't take
the shock and awe approach unless it's starting as you mean to
go on. Then no-one will have to combat the wrong impressions on your behalf.

(Though, in the event they do, pray you've got readers as loyal as my
friends to fight for you!)

Your Turn: Have you ever started a story, only to find it wasn't
anything like you expected? Was that experience good or bad.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Writers: Are You Your Own Worst Enemy?

We writers are a creative lot. We like it that way. But if you talk to non-creative types, you'll often hear the word "creative" used as a euphamism for "emotional", "idiosyncratic", "erratic", or even (occasionally) "unreasonable".

I know this because I used to work with a guru in advertising who explained to me what he'd learned after thirty years dealing with "talent":

"Aimee," he said, "soothing the artist is something you have to work into everything - your timeline, your budget, your deliverables. Because artists need to have their ruffled feathers unruffled. A lot. And if it's your project, it's your job to make sure they have what they need."

At first I thought he just meant performing artists - you know, actors, models, celebrities. But when I said that, he laughed.

"I have to spend time talking the designers through the client feedback. I have to find a way to tell the photographer he didn't quite catch what I was looking for. I have to go through edits with the scriptwriter..." And he continued.

Then he really dropped a bomb on me:

"...And sometimes I have to talk you down from shooting yourself in the foot."

He took a quiet sip of his coffee while I coughed and spluttered on mine.


He nodded. His smile was gentle, but serious.

"You're an artist at heart," he said, which in the context, flattered and offended me in the same breath.

He then went on to, very gently and diplomatically, give me a few examples of how I tended to show my dramatic side and get in the way of my own success. Things like:

- Getting defensive in the face of critique or criticism.
- Telling myself I could dismiss feedback from any client (or co-worker) if they didn't communicate it nicely.
- Calling, emailing or otherwise reacting while I was emotional rather than letting myself cool off first.
- Getting precious about my ideas or projects, rather than considering whether someone else's idea might improve on, or even exceed my own.
- Spending more time coming up with ideas than I spent delivering on them (which included being reluctant to commit to an idea - often coming up with new ideas after we'd already settled on an approach).

He told me how these things made other people reluctant to discuss my work - which meant my work wasn't as good as it could be. Because the adage is true: two heads really are better than one. And I was knocking any skull that came within cooee of mine.

Given my artistic sensitivity, you can imagine the internal struggle I had during that conversation. Discussing my flaws kicked my head and heart into exactly the tendencies he was describing! How did I argue the point without sounding defensive, or precious? How did I explain the extenuating circumstances without seeming to dismiss his kindly-intended advice?

In the end I just kind of spluttered and frowned and simmered. Because how was I supposed to answer the accusations without being seen to "react emotionally"?

And the worst part? He kept smiling at me like he knew exactly what was going on in my head. It was infuriating!

At the end, he patted my arm and gave me a bunch of compliments which I thought were just lip service, intended to make me feel better. I was so wound up, I just gave a kind of "Yeah, yeah" response.

He frowned for the first time and said "See? You artists are so busy getting upset about the problems, you don't let yourself take the good when it comes."

My first thought: "Seriously? You're dissing my ability to take a compliment too?"

My boss told me he wanted to have coffee at the same time the next week, and he didn't want me to approach him to discuss the conversation before then.

I almost swallowed my tongue.

But here's what happened:

After a couple days not talking about it, I was able to admit to myself that he was right about a lot of it. There were a couple points that still tanned my hide though, and man, was I going to give him an earful about those when we talked...

A couple days after that I felt calmer. Maybe I'd just point out the errors carefully...

By the time we spoke again I'd realized just how right he was. I'd recalled situations throughout my life that demonstrated the very patterns he'd described. And I realized those "extenuating circumstances" were really just my emotions. When I didn't feel good about something, I saw that as an excuse to react or dismiss.

In short, I knew he was right, and I told him so.

He smiled, then reminded me about the compliments he'd offered. "I was right about those too," he said.

For the first time in my life I asked a person's advice without waiting for their opinion to match my own. I really listened while he shared coping mechanisms, mitigation strategies and the pearl of wisdom "sometimes you just have to suck it up and let someone else think they're right when they aren't."

And he was right.

I'm sharing this with you because I've recently watched two or three situations where writers have hurt each other because of these exact kinds of problems. I wish I could transport them to that cafe, and to my old boss, and let them see the truth.

Because in the end, the emotional energy we expend on being precious, or angry, or dismissive would be so much better spent in the writing... Wouldn't it? And since most people don't understand "Artists" as completely as my old boss, sometimes the most important lesson of all is the last one.

Suck it up, my friends. Suck it up.

Your Turn: Have you ever been your own worst enemy? What do you do to try and avoid it again in future?

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Character Currency - Writing Motivations That Read Real

I'd like to thank my almost-five-year-old for crystalizing this lesson
for me. (Thanks, son. I'll make you an ice cream).

If you're anything like me you've read a bunch of character / plot
development advice. At some point in any book or blog series you'll
hit the inevitable "make your motivations believable". And, if you're
anything like me, you go "Well, duh." I mean, who sets out to write
unbelievable characters or plotlines?

But, if you're anything like me, you'll also have hit a point
somewhere in your story that you know you're stretching for
credibility... or a crit partner will have identified something they
just didn't buy.

So, how do you make sure your character motivations (which have a
tendency to drive plot) are realistic?

One word: Currency.

Currency is the thing that has value to a character - and it will be
different for every character in your book. But by determining what
each character's currency is, you'll always have something to fall
back on when you find yourself at a point in your story where you know
where you need to go but have trouble figuring out how to get there.

If you want to get a character from one place to another, or one
emotional state to another, use their currency.

For example: In my current WIP there are two main characters. One's
currency is secrecy. She knows things she believes could be
detrimental to the person she loves most. So if I want to move her, I
need to threaten her with loss of her secrets, or reward her with
retaining them.

The other main character's currency is value in the eyes of her peers.
Nothing means more to her than proving she's loveable. If I want to
give her a legitimate reason to move or change, all I need to do is
give her hope of winning friends, or threaten the loss of the few
friends she has.

Can you see how that would work?

Consider your villain. Their currency is most likely something that
harms the protagonist. If you need to corner them, find a way to make
them believe putting themselves in place for defeat will actually do
the opposite.

I hope I've explained this clearly enough. Feel free to ask questions
in the comments!

Your Turn: If you are stuck with a way to move your character or
story, tell us what you think their currency is. Maybe we can help!