Igniting Inertia

“Igniting inertia” — sounds confusing and contradictory, doesn’t it? By definition, something inert is: 1) lacking in the power to move; 2) very slow to move or act: sluggish; 3) deficient in active properties.

Considering all this, any plan to ignite inertia sounds almost doomed to failure. And yet, to be honest, inertia is an all-too-familiar foe — and one that we have to wrestle with and overcome if we’re going to make any real progress with our writing projects.

Sure, it’s great when we wake up in the morning, supercharged and ready to tackle the page. Or when that flash of brilliance hits us and we are off and running — and working overtime to keep up with it. And when we polish up a paragraph that really sparkles, the energy unleashed can be amazing.

But, let’s face it, moments like these are memorable and precious precisely because they don’t come along all that often. Day to day, we’re more likely to encounter inertia than to be struck by inspiration. This is true of most creative disciplines and why persistence and emotional stamina are so essential to survival and success.

Back to inertia. Just writing the word makes me feel sluggish: It’s like a balloon when all the air fizzles out of it. Limp. Lacking in energy. Languishing. Lackluster. Lazy. Better get off this train –
it’s stalling.

What to do, what to do? When inertia invades and drains the energy out of us, how can we respond most productively? Here are a few strategies that I’ve found fruitful:

As a first step, see if you can pinpoint the source. Sometimes a lack of energy can be traced to something as simple as lack of sleep. When I don’t get enough rest, it’s very hard for me to get my mental motor going and concentration is a problem. So, if I’m really tired, I’ve found that the best approach is to tackle a relatively undemanding part of a project rather than trying to wrestle with something very challenging. I focus on being as productive as I can and on getting a better night’s rest so I can be fresher the next day.

Use the “15-minute Rule:” This invaluable advice comes from my friend and mentor Dr. Rob Gilbert’s Success Hotline (973.743.4690) — and it’s saved many a soul. As Rob often says, “It’s the start that stops most people.” If you find yourself stalled, then simply commit to working on something for 15 minutes and after that time, give yourself permission to stop. More often than not, you’ll keep going.

Play around. In my experience, one of the best ways to outfox inertia is to shift into play mode. You can try mind mapping, for example, just free associating and jotting down whatever comes into your head using different colored pens. I have a pack of rainbow-colored index cards and sometimes I jot a few sentences on them instead of using a piece of paper or my computer. Some people find that doodling loosens them up. Whatever path you choose, playing on the page can often give you just the energy jolt you need to get moving and creating.

Are there any techniques you’ve found helpful when inertia deflates you? I’d love to have you share them
as we all write on.

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Building Characters

“When it’s possible to ‘think inside someone else’s head,’ we know we’ve succeeded in breathing life into a fictional person. Once this happens, we can stand back. The character can control his fate.”

“But like dreams, there’s an endless supply of characters waiting to be created and named.”
Alice Hoffman

Characters are the heartbeat of truly memorable fiction, whether they appear in novels or short stories. How do you find that beating heart so you can reveal its inner music with your readers? Alice Hoffman, a widely admired novelist, shared some helpful advice:

Find “the story within the story” about your character — even though it may remain “deep” background that readers will never see. “A character’s interior trauma or past experience is the core around which everything else is built.” Create a rich back story for your character and it will enrich and enliven what your readers see on the page.

Give yourself permission to explore the characters you want to explore. As Alice puts it, “…if a writer knows the inner truth of an emotional experience, he can write about it in every setting. As fiction writers, we can be inside the experience of every situation and every character.”

Find your own method of character building. Alice, for example, begins creating her characters “from the inside out.” She doesn’t focus on their physical traits, but rather on their emotional life and psyche. “What does he fear? Does he run from lightning or rush toward it?”

Step your characters out into the world. One of the techniques that Alice finds useful when crafting a novel is to “live inside the characters — to take them with you into the outside world.” See how they would respond to and interpret an experience as it occurs in real time. Who knows what you might discover!

Let yourself go. Strive for the moment when you become so immersed in your character that you lose yourself. As Alice says so beautifully, “At times, during the process of writing, it’s possible to experience the disintegration of the self. This is the ecstasy of writing and of art, of losing oneself in the process of creation.” Write on!

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Rookie Mistakes

Here’s something none of us want to do: make a “rookie mistake.” That’s how a top athlete recently described a meltdown he had: He forgot to load up on carbs prior to a tough day and ran out of gas. This isn’t the kind of mishap a seasoned pro should experience.

The same goes for us as writers: making rookie mistakes pegs us as amateurs, when we want to be viewed as pros. I just came across an article featuring a panel of agents. At one point, the interviewer asked this question, “Tell me some common problems that you see in the work of beginning writers.” Here are some of the mistakes they pinpointed based on their personal experience:

Lack of narrative momentum: You can have great characters,great dialogue,and great ideas, but if your plot wanders aimlessly, it’s not going to find an audience. As one agent said, ‘…if there’s no real story anchoring it, who really cares, at the end of the day?” Your story has to be propulsive; it has to have narrative energy and carry readers forward.

Fuzzy openings: Getting the opening right really matters. Some books don’t really start until page five or even page fifty. Agents and editors aren’t going to be all that patient about a murky beginning because they know that many readers won’t stay on board all that long. Worth remembering here: Some readers and agents are fans of action openings and others love a slow, world-building start. But whatever approach you choose to tell you story, craft it with care and polish it until it shines.

Focusing on publishing, instead of polishing: Most of the agents on the panel agreed that many writers don’t put enough time into polishing their books before they jump into the submission process. Revise your book, then put it away, then revise it yet again — that’s what one seasoned agent counseled.

Be professional: Once you land an agent and an editor, always remember that they are extremely busy and that their time is valuable. Don’t waste it by bombarding them with emails. Another tip: watch what you blog about. Anything you put out on the Internet has a long life and enormous exposure. Agents and editors who are thinking of representing you will check out your online presence.

Valuable advice from seasoned pros: Let’s use it to sharpen our stories — and write on!

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Upcoming Contests

Every month, there are a whole new set of competitions available to both new and established writers. One of the best sources of online information is WritersMarket.com, which lists hundreds of contests for writers of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, writing for children, and more. Here are a handful with August deadlines:

Comstock Review Jessie Bryce Niles Chapbook Contest: Offers publication, a prize of $1,000, and 50 author copies for a poetry chapbook. Submit 25 to 34 pages of poetry. The submission fee includes a copy of the winning chapbook. Deadline: August 1.

Aesthetica Creative Writing Awards: Offers established and aspiring writers and poets the opportunity to showcase their work and reach an international audience: previous entrants have gone on to achieve success and recognition across the world. There are two categories for entry: Poetry and Short Fiction. Prizes: £500 prize money for each winner; winners and finalists will be published in the Aesthetica Creative Writing Annual; selection of books from Vintage and Bloodaxe Books; and subscription to Granta, a quarterly magazine of new writing. Deadline: August 31, 2014. Finalists announced on November 30, 2014 and winners announced December 6, 2014.

Gival Press Short Story Award: Unpublished original short story in English; must be approximately 5,000 to 15,000 words of high literary quality. Top prize: $1,000 and publication. For submission guidelines, visit givalpress.com. Deadline: August 8, 2014.

Writers Digest Self-published E-book Award: Annual prize for the best self-published e-book. There are a variety of categories, including mainstream/literary fiction, genre fiction, nonfiction, inspirational, life stories, children’s picture books, middle-grade/young adult books, and poetry. There is one grand prize of $3,000 cash and a featured interview in Writer’s Digest magazine. Each category winner also receives $1,000 cash and recognition in Writer’s Digest magazine. Early-bird deadline: August 1, 2014.

If one or more of these competitions sounds enticing, why not throw your hat in the ring? Write on!

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Something Wonderful

Here is something lovely to inspire us as we rest and rejuvenate ourselves:

Native American Prayer

I walk with beauty before me.
I walk with beauty behind me.
I walk with beauty above me.
I walk with beauty below me.
I walk with beauty all around me.

My words shall be beautiful
My thoughts shall be beautiful.
My actions shall be beautiful.

In beauty it is begun.
In beauty it is finished.

May beauty always be within and all around you. Write on!

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Entertainment Value

“When I tell aspiring writers that they should think of themselves as part entertainers, they don’t like to hear it — the word smacks of carnivals and jugglers and clowns. But to succeed you must make your piece jump out of a newspaper or a magazine by being more diverting than anyone else’s piece. You must find some way to elevate your act of writing into an entertainment.”
William Zinsser

This comment from William’s classic guide, On Writing Well, appears in the final chapter, called “Write as Well as You Can.” While the book focuses on writing nonfiction, it’s full of advice and ideas that we writers of fiction can benefit from.

I love the notion that one aspect of writing as well as we can is to divert and entertain our readers. Here’s a concise and direct definition of the word “entertain:”: “to provide with amusement or enjoyment.” When I think of books that I’ve really cherished and returned to over time, the word “enjoyment” certainly springs to mind. These books have captivated me and given me pleasure in deeply satisfying ways. They’ve taken me into new worlds and given me a window into the minds and hearts of memorable characters — and made my life richer and fuller as a result.

How can we make our writing more entertaining — more enjoyable and fulfilling for our readers? Our boy William has a few helpful suggestions:

First, we can introduce the element of surprise into our stories and offer something unexpected and/or unusual. This can take the form of an anecdote, a paradox, an outlandish detail, or a plot twist that shakes up our characters, shifts the path they take, and creates anticipation.

Second, we can use humor — moments of levity and lightness that let the reader rest for a moment, even in the midst of a tragic story. Flaubert’s deft touch with details and his exuberant dialogue in Madame Bovary come to mind. Though his tale is anything but light, some of the moments and characters sketches Flaubert provides are fun and witty.

Third, a writer can entertain through style — through “his personality as he expresses it on paper.” “Given a choice between two traveling companions — and a writer is someone who asks us to travel with him — we usually choose the one who we think will make an effort to brighten the trip.”

So, whether we’re laboring in the vineyards of fiction or nonfiction, let’s make sure that we give consideration to one of our fundamental jobs: offering our readers entertainment. And then, let’s write on!

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Thomas Triumphs

When I think of someone who triumphed over tremendous odds, Thomas Edison often springs to mind. Over the course of his career he held 1093 patents in his name (see Truth Teller).While many of these were collaborative inventions, there can be no doubt that our boy Thomas was an imaginative phenom. He also had an inspirational bent. Today, I came across some of his gems of wisdom that I wanted to share with you:

“Being busy does not always mean real work. The object of all work is production or accomplishment and to either of these ends there must be forethought, system, planning, intelligence, and honest purpose as well as perspiration. Seeming to do is not doing.”

Wow! This really hit home for me. Sometimes I am not as focused as I should be and I could certainly spend more time planning than I do now.

“Restlessness is discontent and discontent is the first necessity of progress. Show me a thoroughly satisfied man and I will show you a failure.”

This is promising. So if we’re constantly striving to improve our craft and compelled to tweak words on the page, we’re actually moving in the right direction — we’re not just obsessive, we’re also progressive!

“Just because something doesn’t do what you planned it to do doesn’t mean it’s useless.”

A super-encouraging thought. Has this ever happened to you: You spend a lot of time working on a sentence or a scene only to realize that it’s not working the way you want it to? Well, it’s happened to me, and I’m heartened to know that Thomas believes that all that work has some value.

“To invent, you need a good imagination and a pile of junk.”

To write, you need a good imagination and a pile of words — that’s it! That’s all Shakespeare had.

“Everything comes to he who hustles while he waits.”

Waiting and hustling, hustling and waiting: isn’t that what writing is about?

“If we did all the things we are capable of, we would astound ourselves.”

What a wonderfully uplifting view of life and our awesome untapped potential! Let’s take this to heart and astonish ourselves — and the world — by writing on!

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