The One Thing Writers Miss When Trying to Improve

Hi guys! Colleen M. Story is posting with us again, and she always has good food for thought when it comes to flexing our creative muscles and growing as writers. Read on!

Writers do something rather unusual on a frequent basis: they ask to learn more about their weaknesses.

Whether submitting a story to a writer’s group, editor, or contest, writers frequently volunteer to be told what they’re doing wrong. Then they go back and try to improve upon those flaws, with the goal of creating a stronger, more effective story, and eventually, a stronger, more effective writer.

Does the process work? Most would agree it does. Why else would writers continue to follow this path? Personally, I’ve learned a lot from writing critiques, and I’m grateful for the feedback I’ve received.

But—and this is a big but—I’ve learned over the 20 years I’ve been a professional writer that in the midst of all these critiques and edits and focusing on flaws, there’s something important that’s missing.

Without it, many writers never get the chance to succeed as well as they could. In fact, some writers are deeply scarred by going through the “find your flaws” journey when this one thing is left out.

what are your writing strengths?

What is it?

A focus on one’s strengths. And not just as a side thought—as a primary focus.

Strengths Should Matter to Writers

I’ve asked a number of writers to name their top three weaknesses. The answers come quickly: “My dialogue isn’t realistic. I have trouble with plot. My pacing is too slow.”

But when I ask them to then name their top three strengths, I get a totally different response: blank looks, frowns, and maybe a hesitant answer or two.

The situation is badly unbalanced, to the point of being dangerous. If you don’t know your strengths—in fact, if you aren’t very familiar with them—your chances of becoming the best writer you can be are minimal.

Bestselling author Paul. B. Brown said, “You are far better off capitalizing on what you do best, instead of trying to offset your weakness. Making a weakness less of a weakness is simply not as good at being the best you possibly can be at something.”

Writers Focus on the Negative

As human beings, we’re wired to focus on the negative. Think about it. Whenever you get a writing critique, it’s likely to contain good comments as well as constructive criticisms. But which do you remember more?

Odds are, it’s the critical comments. Even from an early age, we’re wired to pay more attention to bad news. Scientists have found that infants respond most powerfully to a mother’s negative or fearful facial or vocal cues, compared to her positive or neutral ones.

We’re not born this way. Infants younger than six months, for example, were found to focus longer on pictures of happy faces than fearful, angry, or neutral ones, and to respond more to happy voices than angry or sad ones.

But somewhere between the ages of seven and 12 months, that behavior changed—infants were more likely to look longer at fearful than happy faces, and to respond more to angry and fearful voices.

This negative bias continues as we age. In a 2013 study, Vaish and colleagues noted that adults, when faced with both positive and negative information, to focus “far more” on the negative, using it to guide learning and decision-making. (Source)

As you focus more on critical comments than praise, your energy goes toward fixing the problems in your writing, but meanwhile you miss out on the chance to use the positive comments to get a better idea of what you’re doing right.

This can be dangerous to your writing career. Psychologist Paula Durlofsky, Ph.D., writes, “Focusing on weaknesses while ignoring strengths creates feelings of discouragement, failure, low self-esteem, and can even contribute to depression.”

Writers Must Focus More on Their Strengths Than Their Weaknesses

Who are you as a writer? That’s a deceptively simple question and the answer may take you years to truly discover. That’s okay, as long as you start focusing on your strengths right now.

This doesn’t mean ignoring your weaknesses. In fact, you may find that focusing more on your strengths actually helps you improve on your weaknesses. Writing coach Amy Benson Brown stated as much when she wrote, “I’ve found in coaching writers that…getting clarity on your strengths ultimately helps you improve weaker areas of your writing.”

Focusing on your strengths is a strategy for discovering the unique niche that separates you as an artist. When you focus on your strengths, the following also tends to happen:

  • You more easily build confidence.
  • You feel more energized and motivated.
  • You have more positive emotions surrounding what you’re doing.
  • You’re more likely to feel inspired to get back to work.
  • You’ll feel less stress and anxiety, and happier in general.
  • You’ll experience faster growth as a writer.
  • You’ll be more likely to find what’s unique about you and use it to increase your visibility.
  • You’ll be more satisfied with your writing career.

How to Zero In on What Makes You Special

Begin by going back through your records and gathering up the positive comments you’ve received over the years. Copy/paste them into one file, and see if you notice patterns. What do people like about your writing? What do they comment on the most?

Next, see if you can write down your top three strengths as a writer. What do you feel sets you apart?

Finally, make it a habit to start focusing more on your strengths than your weaknesses. Remember—all writers have a negative bias. That means if you focus more on your strengths than your weaknesses, you have a better chance of attaining a balanced viewpoint.

Why not get started today? List your top three writing strengths right now. If you struggle to do that, ask your writing friends for help, and then start keeping an eye out for other signs signaling what you do well. When you start looking for them, you’ll be sure to find them!

For more information on how to use your strengths to build a noticeable author platform, check out Colleen’s new book, Writer Get Noticed! Get your free chapter here.

Colleen M. Story inspires writers to overcome modern-day challenges and find creative fulfillment in their work. Her latest release, Writer Get Noticed!, is a strengths-based guide to help writers break the spell of invisibility and discover unique author platforms that will draw readers their way.

With over 20 years in the creative industry, Colleen is the founder of Writing and Wellness and Writer CEO. Please see her author website or follow her on Twitter (@colleen_m_story).

Posted in Balance, Focus, Guest Post, Uncategorized, Writer's Attitude, Writing Craft, Writing Groups, Writing Lessons, Writing Resources, Writing Time | 6 Comments

Plot, Inner Change, Evocative Writing—What Really Rivets Readers?

Here’s a counterintuitive fact: Writers spend way too much time obsessing about “the writing.” They sweat over the words, the technique, the language, the flow, the use of metaphor, and hey, are there enough sensory details? 

Fact: In and of itself, the writing doesn’t matter.

Here’s another counterintuitive fact: Writers spend way too much time thinking about “the plot.” They lay awake into the wee hours wondering: is it externally dramatic enough? Is it fresh enough? Is something big happening? Do the plot points even add up? 

Fact: In and of itself, the plot doesn’t matter.

This isn’t to say that they don’t matter at all. Of course they do. But both the writing and the plot are secondary. Heartbreakingly, you can execute both beautifully and still have written a novel that is flat, uninvolving, and thus nothing but a bunch of things that happen. In other words, the fate of most manuscripts. Not because the writer didn’t give it her all, but because she focused on the wrong things. Not on purpose, but because that’s what the writing world has told her to focus on.

So, what should you focus on instead? The story. The story is not about the plot or the writing. The story is what gives the writing and the plot their meaning. It’s what makes them involving. What is the story about? The story is about how your protagonist changes, internally.  

Here’s a myth the writing world would have you believe: The narrative 
throughline—that is, the logic thread that binds the novel together—refers to the plot. No, no, no! The narrative throughline is the 
evolving internal narrative the protagonist uses to make sense of what’s happening in the plot.

Quite simply, the writing and the plot are there in service of your protagonist’s inner change, not the other way around. 

The question is: how can you be sure that the writing and the plot aren’t hogging the reader’s attention, boring her to tears? 

First, by focusing on what does rivet the reader, according to brain science, no less. Here’s the skinny: fMRI studies reveal that when we are grabbed by a story our brain instantly, innately searches first for the protagonist. Then it laser beams in on her inner narrative as she struggles, scene by scene, to make sense of what’s happening and what the hell to do about it, given her overarching agenda. In other words, we’re not focusing on the external “what” (the plot, the writing). We’re hungry for the internal “why.” 

Here’s a simple “proof” you can use to make sure you’re giving the reader what she comes for. And it’s not math, it’s psychology. It is how, as humans, we navigate the world. Each and every one of us is trying to bring our agenda to fruition, and so we’re constantly trying to decipher the “why” behind what other people do, the better to figure out if they’re going to help us or hurt us.

Okay, so how do you get that onto the page?

Here, step-by-step, is how it plays out: expectation, comparison, meaning, realization, conclusion drawn. This isn’t formula, it’s how the brain rolls. Let’s break it down:

Expectation

The protagonist goes into the scene expecting something that will affect her story-long agenda, and you need to let us know what that expectation is. On the page. Clearly. Concretely. Knowing what she expects is what gives us readers a yardstick by which we can gauge the emotional impact of what’s happening, and so experience the urgency. And since stories are about what happens when our expectations aren’t met, chances are the protagonist isn’t going to get what she expects. Or, if she does, it’s going to feel very different than she expected. And, always, it will bring unintended, unanticipated consequences.

For example, when Kamala’s boss, Rashida, calls her into her office, Kamala is exuberant because she expects that she’s about to get the promotion she’s been working toward for months. Walking to Rashida’s office, Kamala is picturing the relieved look on her mom’s face when she tells her that the extra money means they won’t be evicted next week after all. 

Comparison

But when Kamala doesn’t get the promotion, she’s going to think back to conversations she and Rashida have had about it over the past few months. Come to think of it, just yesterday Rashida told her the promotion was a done deal. Instantly, Kamala will scramble to figure out what the hell happened.

Meaning

Could it be that Kamala did something to somehow screw things up? She’d mentally race through a list of possibilities, but then . . . wait a minute, how come Rashida looks so uncomfortable, and why can’t she meet Kamala’s gaze? Hmmm . . .

Realization

Hey, wasn’t Rashida’s slacker nephew, the one who was just hired a month ago, angling for the position Kamala was about to get? She and Rashida had laughed over his hubris. But now, it’s blazingly obvious that Rashida buckled under family pressure and gave him the promotion instead.

Conclusion Drawn

Kamala has to admit that Rashida plays a good game, but she’s not trustworthy. Clearly, trusting people, even a good friend, to put hard work and fairness above family is foolish. Lesson learned. But since Kamala is just as dedicated to her mom as Rashida seems to be to her slacker nephew, now Kamala will have to undermine both the nephew and Rashida—because that promotion was hers, and she’s going to get it.

Notice how the conclusion drawn plays forward? But hey, does Kamala know for sure that the slacker nephew got her job? Of course not. The point is, when her expectations went belly up, she instantly tried to figure out why. What rivets the reader isthe meaning the character reads into what is happening—especially when they’re wrong

Because while it’s true that Rashida’s nephew got the job, it was only because Rashida knows he’ll blow it spectacularly in about a minute and then she can fire him and finally get her family off her back. But that’s not why Kamala was passed over. The real reason is because there’s an even bigger job coming up in a month that Kamala is perfect for, with way more money, too. But it’s top secret, and Rashida has been told she can’t breathe a word about it until then, which is why she seemed so uncomfortable. Uh oh!

Now, let’s take one minute and imagine that scene without Kamala’s internal narrative. It would look like this:

Rashida calls her into her office. Kamala goes in smiling. Rashida tells her she didn’t get the promotion. Looking gobsmacked, Kamala leaves her office. No matter how beautifully written, no matter how many sensory details were thrown in, no matter how polished the prose—who cares? Even though the plot point—Kamala doesn’t get the promotion—was met. Flat, flat, flat. Not even a well-placed metaphor would help, nor a bit of perfectly rendered body language. Why? Because without the internal narrative, we’re locked out of the story. 

Make no mistake: the story the reader comes for is the protagonist’s internal narrative—expectation, comparison, meaning, realization, conclusion drawn. Everything else is gravy.

Lisa Cron is the author of Wired for Story and Story Genius. Her 6-hour video course Wired for Story: How to Become a Story Genius can be found at CreativeLive.com, and her TEDx talk, Wired for Story, opened Furman University’s 2014 TEDx conference, Stories: The Common Thread of Our Humanity.

In her work as a private story coach, Lisa helps writers of all ilk wrangle the story they’re telling onto the page. For a library of her free myth-busting writing tips, and information on how to work with her one-on-one, you can find her at: wiredforstory.com

Posted in Character Arc, Characters, Empathy, Resident Writing Coach, Writing Craft | 16 Comments

Occupation Thesaurus Entry: Coroner

Jobs are as important for our characters as they are for real people. A character’s career might be their dream job or one they’ve chosen due to necessity. In your story, they might be trying to get that job or are already working in the field. Whatever the situation, as with any defining aspect for your character, you’ll need to do the proper research to be able to write that career knowledgeably.

Enter the Occupation Thesaurus. Here, you’ll find important background information on a variety of career options for your character. In addition to the basics, we’ll also be covering related info that relates to character arc and story planning, such as sources of conflict (internal and external) and how the job might impact basic human needs, thereby affecting the character’s goals. It’s our hope that this thesaurus will share some of your research burden while also giving you ideas about your character’s occupation that you might not have considered before.

Occupation: Coroner

Overview: Coroners are elected or appointed officials responsible for investigating deaths to determine what caused them. In addition to performing autopsies, a coroner’s duties include collecting evidence at a crime scene, conducting investigations, speaking to eye witnesses, testifying in court, studying medical records, establishing identities, filling out death certificates, and arranging for the notification of next of kin. The coroner’s duties will be determined by their jurisdiction and their training.

Necessary Training: While many coroners hold a college degree (usually in a medical or science field), it is not a requirement in most jurisdictions. Most will be required to pass a test proving basic necessary knowledge, and it helps if their resumé includes medical or investigative work. Their education, experience, and other factors will determine their official job title, such as that of a medical examiner (physician). Many people in this field start out as deputy coroners and complete an apprenticeship, of sorts, before moving up to the official coroner position.

Useful Skills, Talents, or Abilities: Empathy, exceptional memory, gaining the trust of others, good listening skills, reading people, strategic thinking, talking with the dead

Helpful Character Traits:

POSITIVE: Adventurous, analytical, calm, cautious, confident, cooperative, courteous, curious, decisive, diplomatic, discreet, efficient, focused, honest, honorable, intelligent, just, meticulous, objective, observant, organized, passionate, patient, persistent, professional, responsible, sensible, studious

NEGATIVE: Morbid, nosy, obsessive, pushy, suspicious

Sources of Friction: Tension with family members due to one’s 24/7 on-call job, evidence that has been tainted due to inept collection techniques, pressure from influential people to lean a certain way in one’s decisions for a case, suspecting foul play but being unable to prove it, arriving at a crime scene and recognizing the corpse, being unable to determine a definitive cause of death, working in a small jurisdiction and being faced with a case one isn’t qualified to solve, a contentious election, being smeared by a rival, losing an election to a less-qualified candidate, being tempted to tamper with evidence or make an unethical call in an effort to see justice done, having to testify in an emotional or disturbing case, suffering from a mental or physical ailment that impedes one’s ability to do one’s job (memory loss, nerve damage in the fingers, etc.), finding a cause of death that suggests the beginnings of an epidemic

People They Might Interact With: police offers and detectives, other coroners or medical examiners, a deputy coroner, lawyers and judges, public health officials

How This Occupation Might Impact One’s Basic Needs:

  • Self-Actualization: A person in this position who, due to lack of education or opportunity, is unable to perform all the duties associated with the job may begin to feel that they’re unable to live up to their full potential or help people as they’d like to.
  • Esteem and Recognition: A coroner with fewer credentials and job responsibilities may begin to feel inferior to medical examiners or forensic pathologists who are able to do more.
  • Love and Belonging: Many people might look down upon someone who works with dead bodies, believing the job to be morally reprehensible or just gross. If this puts off potential love interests, this need could be impacted.
  • Safety and Security: While precautions should always be in place, contagion could become an issue in certain cases for a coroner who cuts corners or is distracted.

Common Work-Related Settings: Alley, ambulance, backyard, car accident, cheap motel, construction site, courtroom, empty lot, hiking trail, hotel room, juvenile detention center, living room, parking garage, police station, prison cell, run-down apartment, truck stop

Visit the other Occupations in our collection HERE.

Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

Critiques 4 U

This first quarter of 2019 has been a whirlwind, for sure. I can’t believe we’re already into April. I’ve just returned from an exciting weekend at the WisRWA conference in Wisconsin where Angela and I were able to present together, be schooled in the world of cheese curds, and spend some quality time just hanging out.

Now that I’m back, I have no firm deadlines for the first time in I don’t know when. So I’m excited to catch up on stuff and get back to my regular duties, which includes some much-needed critiquing.

Critiques 4 U!

CONTEST CLOSED!

If you’re working on a first page (in any genre except erotica) and would like some objective feedback, please leave a comment. Any comment :). As long as the email address associated with your WordPress account/comment profile is up-to-date, I’ll be able to contact you if your first page is chosen. Just please know that if I’m unable to get in touch with you through that address, you’ll have to forfeit your win.

Two caveats:

  ▪    Please be sure your first page is ready to go so I can critique it before next month’s contest rolls around. If it needs some work and you won’t be able to get it to me right away, let me ask that you plan on entering the next contest, once any necessary tweaking has been taken care of.

  ▪    I’d like to be able to use portions of winning submissions as illustrations in an upcoming presentation I’m creating on first pages. By entering the Critiques 4 U contest, you’ll be granting permission for me to use small writing samples only (no author names or book titles).

Three commenters’ names will be randomly drawn and posted tomorrow. If you win, you can email me your first page and I’ll offer my feedback. 

We run this contest on a monthly basis, so if you’d like to be notified when the next opportunity comes around, consider subscribing to our blog (see the left-hand sidebar).

Best of luck!

Posted in Uncategorized | 42 Comments

5 Character Tools You Absolutely Need to Know

Angela here, happy to welcome Savannah Cordova from Reedsy back to the blog, who has done some sleuthing to find some interesting tools that might help you with your characters, everything from those that help you play around with ideas of who they might be to tools that will help you take a deep dive into their backstory, personality, and the forces that drive them to achieve meaningful story goals. Please read on!

We all know characters are the beating heart of any good story. No matter how original or exciting your plot is, readers simply won’t be able to get invested unless they care about the people (or robots, or animals, or whatever your characters are!). That’s why before you start writing — possibly before you even figure out your plot — you need to create characters that are well-rounded and compelling.

It’s this prerequisite of character development that makes features like the occupation thesaurus so valuable. Because when creating characters, you can’t leave anything out! We’re all “round” in real life, after all. So if some of your characters are mysteriously missing careers, motivations, or discernible personalities, readers are going to notice.

Luckily, there are plenty of stellar tools to assist you with character development and profiling. Here are five character tools you need to know, each one designed to serve a different purpose (and listed in the order that you’d most likely need them).

1. The Character Creator

Though this tool is titled the rather general-sounding “Character Creator,” it really encompasses just one aspect of the character: their physical appearance. However, it’s the most useful tool I’ve discovered for this particular function. Though there are plenty of “physical appearance” generators out there, they tend to just spit out a combination of traits (“curly brown hair/green eyes/freckles”) rather than actually showing you what the character would look like. I find it much more helpful to have concrete visuals of your characters as you’re writing about them —  plus it’s just fun to experiment with different physical traits and see how they manifest.

Of course, you can always comb through head shots on sites like Backstage, or use images of your favorite actors or models. This may be best if you need a visual for a character who’s especially tall, short, fat, or skinny; the main drawback of Character Creator is its lack of diverse body types. But everything else is intricately customizable, from face shape to hairstyle to the wide range of accessories. (If anyone’s been able to find a more inclusive, body-positive character maker, please let me know in the comments!)

2. Reedsy’s Character Name Generator

After you’ve checked off character appearances, Reedsy’s character name generator should be your next stop. In the name (get it?) of full disclosure, my team created this tool, so I might be a bit biased as to how cool it is. But seriously — it’s divided by language, archetype, and even various countries’ mythologies, with over a million potential options for character names.

If you want a strong moniker for your protag, you can try out the hero name generator to find one that means something empowering, like “fighter” or “radiant.” Or say one of your characters is Korean, but you don’t speak Korean: you can use the relevant language generator to produce some authentic names. In any case, for those who agonize over picking out character names (and are sick and tired of baby name websites!), this generator is your lifeline.

3. RanGen’s Personality Generator

Now we’re getting into the meat and potatoes of your characters: their personalities. You’ve probably already thought about how your characters will behave and interact with one another, since character dynamics are often pretty intertwined with plot. However, you may not have considered how their outward behavior actually relates to their personality. For example, you might have a character who’s always loud, energetic, and the life of the party — but do they act that way because they’re actually very confident and secure, or because they crave attention and approval? This is where personality comes into play.

As you’re coming up with character personalities, you may wish to consult a personality generator like RanGen’s. It provides lists of qualities pertaining to a character’s friendliness, confidence, emotional capacity, intelligence, and other attributes. But of course, true to the “RanGen” name, this is a random generator — which means the traits may be completely arbitrary in relation to the characters you’ve started constructing, and even in relation to each other. For instance, I got a profile where the character’s friendliness was “callous,”yet their agreeableness was “harmonic” (needless to say, not the most compatible combination).

While character personalities don’t need to be perfectly cohesive — to paraphrase Whitman, they can contain multitudes — you probably shouldn’t have traits that clearly contradict one another. And you definitely don’t want your characters to seem cobbled together at random, especially because their experiences and environments affect them in very specific ways, which a generator cannot take into account. As a result, this tool is best used for brainstorming, rather than creating full-on character profiles.

4. Springhole’s Character Motivation Generator

It’s designed for roleplaying, but this character motivation tool can definitely be applied to the characters in your story. You might have to rephrase certain motivations for them to make sense (for example, instead of “character wants to bring glory to their planet,” you might say “to their family” or “to their community” instead), but otherwise it’s a pretty nuanced tool.

Again, as with character dynamics, you probably already have some idea of your characters’ motivations, as they’ll relate closely to your plot. However, for any characters you’re unsure about, or who might need additional motivations to make them more complex, this generator can really help. It might even spark a subplot or spin-off for a secondary character, who suddenly gets a lot more interesting with the help of motivations!

For more motivations (and indeed descriptive characteristics of all stripes), you can of course check out the motivations list over at One Stop for Writers. Which brings us to…

5. OSFW’s Character Builder

Naturally, I have to give a shout out to the OSFW super-comprehensive Character Builder. For those who haven’t tried it already, this is no average character template. Rather than merely providing the minimum number of blank spaces for you to fill in, the Character Builder walks you through the whole process and highlights the importance of connection among every aspect of your character.

You’ll start with the basics: your character’s backstory, which will emphasize how their past experience has led to their current vulnerabilities. This foundation allows you to build their personality, behavior, and motivations much more intuitively from there. Indeed, the Character Builder’s greatest strength is that it truly helps you breathe life into your characters: while all the other tools on this list will give you ideas, the Character Builder will enable you to hone those ideas into consistent, realistic, in-depth characters.

Want to see the Character Builder for yourself? Join Becca for a tour:

Yes, all these tools have their own individual strengths — but they’re best used in conjunction with one another. The whole here is definitely greater than the sum of the parts, because the whole is ultimately the character themselves, and that character has limitless potential.

Do you have a favorite character tool? Please let us know in the comments!

Savannah Cordova is a writer with Reedsy, a marketplace that connects authors and publishers with the world’s best editors, designers, and marketers. In her spare time, Savannah enjoys reading contemporary fiction and writing short stories (and occasionally terrible novels).

You can read more of her professional work on the Reedsy blog, or personal writing on Medium.

Posted in Backstory, Character Arc, Character Traits, Characters, Experiments, Guest Post, Stereotypes, Tools and Resources, Uncategorized, Villains, Writing Craft, Writing Resources | 9 Comments

Occupation Thesaurus Entry: Geologist

Jobs are as important for our characters as they are for real people. A character’s career might be their dream job or one they’ve chosen due to necessity. In your story, they might be trying to get that job or are already working in the field. Whatever the situation, as with any defining aspect for your character, you’ll need to do the proper research to be able to write that career knowledgeably.

Enter the Occupation Thesaurus. Here, you’ll find important background information on a variety of career options for your character. In addition to the basics, we’ll also be covering related info that relates to character arc and story planning, such as sources of conflict (internal and external) and how the job might impact basic human needs, thereby affecting the character’s goals. It’s our hope that this thesaurus will share some of your research burden while also giving you ideas about your character’s occupation that you might not have considered before.

Occupation: Geologist

Overview: Geologists study how the earth has formed over time, including how landscapes evolve (mountains, volcanoes, earthquakes, plate shifts, oceans, and other phenomena). Businesses and other agencies hire geologists to better understand the environmental impacts of different initiatives (projects in the oil, gas, and mining sectors, building dams, etc.) or to consult for environmental protection, reclamation, understanding climate, etc. as well as many other things.

Geologists research by studying rock structure, water flow, and by taking soil and rock samples. They may also map out areas using aerial photos, ground penetrating radar, surveys, and other equipment. In the lab they may analyze these using microscopes, GIS, software analysis, and then prepare surveys and reports with their findings.

Necessary Training: Geologists need a bachelor’s degree in Science, and a master’s degree if they wish to specialize.

Useful Skills, Talents, or Abilities: A knack for languages, basic first aid, exceptional memory, knowledge of explosives, mechanically inclined, photographic memory, predicting the weather, strategic thinking, wilderness navigation, writing

Helpful Character Traits:

POSITIVE: Adaptable, ambitious, analytical, centered, cooperative, curious, efficient, focused, independent, industrious, intelligent, nature-focused, objective, observant, organized, perceptive, persistent, proactive, professional, resourceful, responsible, socially aware, studious

NEGATIVE: compulsive, fussy, perfectionist, workaholic

Sources of Friction: working with people on a project hoping for specific geological findings who may try to steer or manipulate the study parameters or put a spin on results, poor weather conditions that make tests more difficult or the landscape unstable and dangerous (an early thaw creating higher floodwaters, an unexpected snowfall, active volcanoes or earthquakes, mudslides, etc. ), frequent travel, sometimes to remote locations or requiring stays in work camps, being required to carry a lot of equipment while out in the field, frustration over the inability to get definitive answers as the data is mostly interpretive, managing different personalities on a project, running into conflict of interest situations, having to keep up with technology advances (retraining and education) may add pressure, trying to do one’s job when certain safety rules or red tape might make this more complicated

People They Might Interact With: other geologists, students, safety officers, laborers and engineers, company heads, project managers, environmental groups, special interest groups, government officers, indigenous peoples

How This Occupation Might Impact One’s Basic Needs

Esteem and Recognition: Geologists who uncover data that is important (say, changes in ocean currents, or climate-related changes) may be limited by a non-disclosure agreement with employers in the private sector and be unable to share their findings with a wider audience, especially if they have far-reaching significance but there is pressure to repress the findings as they may delay a project or threaten its bottom line

Safety and Security: Geologists who need to travel to areas that are unstable could encounter conditions that could be dangerous (flash flooding, exposure, accidents in remote areas, etc.)

Common Work-Related Settings: abandoned mine, airplane, airport, ancient ruins, arctic tundra, badlands, beach, boardroom, bridge, campsite, canyon, cave, desert, grotto, hiking trail, hot springs, lake, landfill, marina, marsh, meadow, mountains, ocean, office cubicle, old pick-up truck, pasture, quarry, rainforest, river, swamp, teacher’s lounge, university lecture hall, university quad, waterfall

Visit the other Occupations in our collection HERE.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Emotionally Intelligent Writer

I’m a psychologist, so I like to believe there are a set of characteristics that can predict author success. Sure, like any subset of the population—and I’m going to define ‘successful authors’ as those who generate a full-time income from their writing—there’s always going to be diversity, surprises, and outliers. But like any good bell curve (that wavy line that most psychometric tools are based on), there are going to be some characteristics, some traits, that are predictive of the majority.

That’s what every author dreaming of success wants to tap into.

To be a writer who generates a decent income from your creations, you need to do two things. Firstly, you need to craft a story lots of readers will love. The most successful authors have woven together all the intricate pieces of a good story so well that millions of people pay to experience their literary offerings. Secondly, you need to get that book in front of enough readers for it to hit critical mass. Whether you’re trad, hybrid, or indie, marketing and promotion is a challenge every author will face.

Writing and marketing are two essential and interdependent skills you’ll need to reach successful author mecca.

So, could there be a cluster of traits that predict which author can reach those heights? I’m proposing that one such cluster is emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence is the capacity to monitor your own emotions as well as the emotions of others, to distinguish between and label different emotions correctly, and to use emotional information to guide our thinking and behavior and influence that of others. Emotional Intelligence (EI) has been found to be correlated with better social relations, being perceived more positively by others, better academic achievement, and better psychological well-being.

Now, you’re probably wondering how this relates to writing, while at the same time, already seeing some links to your author life. Fascinating, huh? Let’s break down EI into its components, and explore them in terms of a successful author.

According to Daniel Goleman (one of the founding fathers of EI) there are five components of EI:

Self-Awareness

The ability to recognize and understand our own emotions is infinitely useful as a writer because emotion is a central part of any good book. Emotions are what drive your characters, and therefore your plot. How are you going to label, capture, and convey emotions on the page if you struggle do it in real life? What’s more, to be a writer in the long-term takes a particular mindset. Successful writers have passion and perseverance, and look after their psychological well-being. To do that, you need to be self-aware.

Self-Regulation

Anyone who has written beyond the first flush of excitement of an amazing-gotta-write-it-right-now story idea, knows that writing is hard. It’s takes a whole lot of time and a whole lot of perseverance. To keep creating, day after day, week after week, a successful author knows they need to regulate and manage their emotions. There are times when getting words out and onto the screen is like pulling teeth (the molars waaaay at the back), when vacuuming is more enticing (I’ve even cleaned toilets rather than write), and rejections and negative reviews are downright demoralizing. Those days, successful authors will demonstrate self-control, conscientiousness, and flexibility.

Motivation

There are two types of motivation: extrinsic—being motivated by external rewards, which in the land of writing would include riches, fame, and a spot on the Ellen Show; and intrinsic—motivation powered by personal reward, which looks a whole lot different. Writers high in intrinsic motivation are driven to return to their writing cave over and over because they gain personal satisfaction from the process of creating. The successful author? Well, they’re totally wanting to regularly milk the cash cow, but that’s not their only driving purpose. They wouldn’t dream of silencing the characters in their head because they’re driven to share and to give. The process of literary creation is a reward in itself.

Empathy

Empathy is defined as the ability to understand how other people are feeling, and recognizing, on some deeper level, how you would feel in their shoes. You need to empathize with your characters, so you can capture the nuances that are part of any emotional experiences. Writers who do that convey rich and authentic experiences. They blur the line between reality and the story world for the reader. Empathy is also a great skill to have when we engage with readers and fellow writers…  

Social Skills

The final piece of the EI puzzle, social skills are possibly the component that seems least relevant to being a successful author. After all, we write alone, right? The truth is, every word we write has been influenced, motivated, or touched by another human being. The truth is our creativity is a product of community. And so is your writing success.

Social skills allow people to successfully navigate social situations. Successful writers, those high in EI, are great communicators (on and off the page), they can successfully negotiate and resolve conflicts, they build bonds and nurture instrumental relationships, and they collaborate and cooperate. Every successful author I’ve ever spoken to has talked of the connections and support they received from writers and non-writers. They often attribute their success to them.

The great news is that EI can be harnessed and developed. Consider any of the following strategies to improve your emotional intelligence:

  • Getting fluent in the “language of emotions,” or learning how to identify, differentiate between, and explore different-but-related emotions.
  • Observe how you react to others, making a concerted effort to put yourself in their place. Note how you can use this with your characters.
  • Examine how you react to stressful situations and work on staying calm, collected, and under control. Note when you’re motivated to stop writing, and why (and then keep writing).
  • Consider why your write. What are the extrinsic motivators, but what are the intrinsic motivators? The intrinsic motivators are the ones that will keep you writing over the long haul.
  • Notice how you engage with others. Does this help your writing career? How can you capture these social interactions on the page?

What do you think? Do you know any successful authors, and do you think they are high in emotional intelligence? I don’t suppose you’ve spent time with Stephen King or Nora Roberts, and wouldn’t mind passing on my details for a little study I’d like to perform…?

TamarSloan is a freelance editor, consultant and the author of PsychWriter – a fun, informative hub of information on character development, the science of story and how to engage readers. Tamar is also an award-winning author of young adult romance, creating stories about finding life and love beyond our comfort zones. You can checkout Tamar’s books on her author website.
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Posted in Marketing, Promotion, Resident Writing Coach, Social Networking, The Business of Writing, Time Management, Uncategorized, Writer's Attitude | 13 Comments

Occupation Thesaurus Entry: Actor

Jobs are as important for our characters as they are for real people. A character’s career might be their dream job or one they’ve chosen due to necessity. In your story, they might be trying to get that job or are already working in the field. Whatever the situation, as with any defining aspect for your character, you’ll need to do the proper research to be able to write that career knowledgeably.

Enter the Occupation Thesaurus. Here, you’ll find important background information on a variety of career options for your character. In addition to the basics, we’ll also be covering related info that relates to character arc and story planning, such as sources of conflict (internal and external) and how the job might impact basic human needs, thereby affecting the character’s goals. It’s our hope that this thesaurus will share some of your research burden while also giving you ideas about your character’s occupation that you might not have considered before.

Occupation: Actor

Overview: This is one of the few professions that is so familiar that it needs little defining. Actors play the roles of various characters. While telling the character’s story, many actors strive to entertain, inform, challenge, or emotionally move audiences. Actors can work in television, movies, or the theater.

Necessary Training: While there is no formal education required for this career, it’s a cut-throat and oversaturated business, meaning it’s a good idea to gain any advantage one can. To this end, budding actors may take acting classes or attend drama schools to attain necessary skills.

While talent is needed, this is an industry where who you know is extraordinarily important. So aspiring actors will spend a good amount of time networking and trying to catch the eye of an agent. And because no one starts at the top, actors need to be willing to cut their teeth on lower-entry-level jobs such as acting in commercials, doing voiceovers, or working as extras.

It’s also important to remember that on-screen work is only part of the job. Actors will spend much of their time rehearsing lines, researching their characters, practicing their skills, and even working out to maintain the physique that is often necessary for success in this field. And having multiple talents can help an actor get gigs, so they may spend time honing other skills, such as singing, dancing, or script writing.

Useful Skills, Talents, or Abilities: Charm, good listening skills, making people laugh, multitasking, photographic memory, promotion, reading people, strong breath control, writing

Helpful Character Traits:

POSITIVE: Adaptable, adventurous, ambitious, bold, charming, confident, cooperative, creative, curious, enthusiastic, extroverted, flamboyant, focused, friendly, funny, generous, observant, passionate, patient, pensive, persistent, persuasive, private, quirky, resourceful, responsible, sensual, socially aware, spontaneous, spunky, studious, supportive, talented, uninhibited, whimsical, witty

NEGATIVE: Evasive, extravagant, impulsive, materialistic, melodramatic, mischievous, obsessive, perfectionist

Sources of Friction: Working with pretentious or self-involved co-workers, too many actors competing for too few roles, losing a role to a rival, blowing an important casting call, creative differences among co-workers, working with a difficult or unrealistic director, being typecast, sexual (and other kinds of) harassment, not winning an award one thinks one deserved, poor contracts, getting fleeced by an agent, addictions, getting romantically involved with another cast member, not being taken seriously in the business, being blackballed by influencers, being asked to do something in a role that one finds morally reprehensible, having no privacy, clashes with paparazzi, being stalked, being slandered by a rival or a money-grubbing fan, being misrepresented in the media due to one’s personal beliefs, skeletons in the closet coming to light and threatening one’s career, challenging work schedules causing problems at home, having to choose between pursuing a career or having a family, wondering if a potential love interest can be trusted, fame driving a wedge between oneself and former friends

People They Might Interact With: Other actors, directors, producers, agents, makeup artists, stylists, a personal assistant, a personal trainer, members of the crew (camera operators, writers, set designers, electricians, etc.)

How This Occupation Might Impact One’s Basic Needs:

  • Self-Actualization: Actors who get pigeonholed into certain roles or kinds of acting may begin to feel stifled, believing that they’re unable to reach their full potential.
  • Esteem and Recognition: If an actor’s career doesn’t gain traction, he can begin to doubt himself or his abilities.
  • Love and Belonging: Actors work difficult hours and spend a lot of time traveling, which can cause doubt and jealousy to fester. Successful actors may have reason to doubt the sincerity or intentions of anyone who expresses romantic interest.
  • Safety and Security: A number of factors in this career contribute to addiction and substance abuse, as well as unhealthy dietary practices. This can lead to safety and security concerns for the actor’s physical and mental wellbeing.
  • Physiological Needs: An actor’s physiological needs can be impacted if any unhealthy physical or mental practices go untreated and begin to escalate. Stalkers can also impact this need.

Common Work-Related Settings: Airplane, airport, alley, beach, big city street, black-tie event, cheap motel, green room, hotel room, mansion, marina, newsroom, performing arts theater, public restroom, recording studio, small town street, subway train, subway tunnel, taxi, waiting room

Twisting the Fictional Stereotype: So many stories have been written about actors that stereotypes do abound: the vapid bombshell that’s only good for sex appeal; the absent-minded method actor; the corrupt agent; the perfectionistic director; the washed-up actor so desperate to stay in the business that they’ll take any role.

To avoid stereotypes, examine the character as a whole and make sure they’re well-rounded and unique. What are their positive attributes and negative flaws? Where do they draw their moral lines? What motivation is driving them to this profession? Considering these factors and making sure there’s something different about them is the key to setting your actor apart from the common portrayals.

Visit the other Occupations in our collection HERE.

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Using Writing Sprints for Consistent Results

We’re far enough out from New Year’s that our excitement over making and meeting writing goals may have waned, and we find ourselves slacking. You know what can help boost your output? Writing sprints. Whether you choose a goal based on time or word count, working in sprints can maximize your time and build consistency into your daily writing routine. Paul Bonea is here to show us how they work.

One of the more difficult things to do when it comes to writing is to maintain consistency and structure to your schedule. This is especially true if writing isn’t what you do (yet) for a living, when regular jobs and chores can quickly sidetrack you. 

One solution to reach daily consistency with your writing is to work in quick sprints, with firm but easy-to-reach objectives. Once you reach these objectives, you’ve finished writing for the day. How ambitious your objectives are should depend on your own circumstances, such as how much time you have, energy levels, time of day, etc.

The objectives themselves can be set up as either time based, where you allocate a certain amount of time to write each day, or word count based, where the goal is to write X amount of words daily. 

Time-Based Sprints

The greatest advantage to writing a set number of hours or minutes per day is that it is psychologically sustainable. You don’t feel pressured by a hard word count you must meet and instead can just apply yourself at a comfortable pace in order to find that right combination of words.

This is especially useful when writing difficult scenes or passages, where the wording is critical to create the right impact. It’s easily possible for one such passage or scene to slow down your writing from 800-1000 words per day to 200-300. During these slow days, a daily word count target can be stress-inducing since it can make you feel you’ve made very little to no progress.

A time-based approach bypasses this issue by measuring your efforts instead of your results. Even a bad writing day (with little inspiration and ideas) can feel rewarding—like a step in the right direction—if you know you’ve hit your 60-minute or 90-minute writing time. 

A pitfall to this method is that distractions can quickly eat up your allocated time. 3-5 minutes spent browsing social media, another 5-10 while you eat something can quickly add up and defeat the purpose of setting time limits. The only way to counteract this and prevent you from stealing your own hat is being disciplined to stick to the clock. 

Another potential issue you might face is the inconsistent amount of actual writing you produce. In three consecutive days, you may write 300, 1000, and 100 words. When you measure performance in effort rather than results, it’s easy to trick yourself into doing just the bare minimum to qualify. 

Word-Count Sprints

The good old words-per-day system is the traditional measuring stick because, in the long term, it works (as long as you stick to it).

A word-count sprint has simple principles: you set yourself a target amount of words to write for the day and don’t stop until you’ve achieved that. The major challenge when using this method is to figure how much or how little your can write on a daily basis. This is entirely dependent on your own personal circumstances, writing style, and even personality. 

A quick Google search will show that many big-name writers hover around 1000 to 2000 words daily. 1000 words might not sound like a particularly difficult target, but unless you write full-time you might not have the time nor the energy to produce this amount of output. 

Setting up too-lofty goals and not being able to achieve them is a guaranteed way of frustrated yourself. The point of a daily word-count sprint isn’t to force you to write as much as possible as quickly as possible; instead, it’s supposed to foster consistency in your routine. In an ideal situation, you want to create a sustainable word-count target that is challenging but easy enough to reach every day, any day, for as long as you want without burning you out.

However, one possible concern with this method is that you just churn out the words to hit your target while tossing quality out the window. Many a good book has withered by drowning in needless words, passages, and redundant explanations.  The only way around this solution is to be aware of any tendency you might have of fattening things up and then cut things down in editing. 

On the flipside, the gentle stress of a word count can actually stimulate your creativity to the point where most of your output is solid.

What System Does This Writer Use?

Over the years, I’ve used both of these systems with great results. From personal experience I can say that time-based writing sprints are great when you have a tight schedule and cannot commit yourself fully to writing. While it’s not much, finding a 30-minute or one-hour block and squeezing in as much writing as possible can lead to a few hundred words here and there. However, over a two- or three-month period, they quickly stack up, and before you know it, you’ve made real progress.

When my schedule is clear and I can fully focus on writing, I almost always default to word-count sprints. I have found that overall, they help me cover more ground much faster than timed blocks, even if they can be more mentally draining.  

And now, it’s your turn. Have you used writing sprints in your daily routine? Which do you prefer, and why?

Paul Bonea is the author of Hasty Reader, a blog centered around books, self-improvement and science articles, where he reads and extracts the most useful information a reader can use in his life journey.

Posted in Goal and Milestones, Time Management, Writing Craft, Writing Time | 6 Comments

Critiques 4 U—with a BIG Bonus! ~CONTEST CLOSED~

It’s time for our monthly critique contest, and boy do I have exciting news for you! Former Resident Writing Coach Sara Letourneau, who has her own editing and coaching business, reached out to see if she could maybe do some critiques on our next contest, and I jumped at the chance. I mean, a professional editor providing you guys with feedback on your first pages? Absolutely, 1000 times, yes!

If you’re game, here’s the amazing person you’ll be working with:

Sara Letourneau is a poet, freelance editor, and writing coach based in Massachusetts. At her company Heart of the Story Editorial & Coaching Services, she offers editing and creative coaching packages for authors, poets, and other storytellers. Her editing offerings in particular range from in-depth manuscript critiques and developmental editing to basic copy editing and proofreading. She specializes in fantasy, speculative fiction, YA, and literary fiction, though she’s happy to work on other projects that seem like a good fit. You might also recognize Sara from her previous posts as a Resident Writing Coach here at Writers Helping Writers, or at her bimonthly column on literary themes at DIY MFA.

Visit the Heart of the Story website to learn more about working with Sara, or her writer website to read some of her poetry and freelance writing.

Contest Guidelines

This month’s contest will work exactly the same as it usually does, only Sara will be the one contacting you if you win.

If you’re working on a first page (in any genre except erotica) and would like some objective feedback, please leave a comment. Any comment :). As long as the email address associated with your WordPress account/comment profile is up-to-date, Sara will be able to contact you if your first page is chosen. Just please know that if she’s unable to get in touch with you through that address, you’ll have to forfeit your win.

Please be sure your first page is ready to go so she can critique it before next month’s contest rolls around. If it needs some work and you won’t be able to get it to her right away, let me ask that you plan on entering the next contest, once any necessary tweaking has been taken care of.

Three commenters’ names will be randomly drawn and posted tomorrow. If you win, Sara will be in contact to get your first page and offer her feedback. Best of luck!

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