Writing Advice

Theory of Mind (and why your perspective is a unique snowflake)

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We went out to dinner the other day with Ben’s parents and as we were standing outside of the restaurant some guy passed us and told me he loved my bag (because my bag is pretty awesome—see above photo for proof).  My mother-in-law looked surprised and stared at the guy as he walked away, then looked at me like I should be shocked and impressed.  I smiled (because it’s always nice to both get a compliment and make someone smile), then shrugged because frankly that happens to me all the time; it’s a part of my personal landscape.  People constantly approach me on the street about my clothes, they ask to take pictures, chase me down to ask where I got my shoes, hell I’ve even had people jump out of a car to snap a pic with me.  I’m like a Toronto landmark, sometimes the only hint of colour for miles.  But the point here isn’t my attention grabbing style…it’s the fact that my mother-in-law was surprised by my experiences out in the world.  I experience the world in a completely different way than she does—and that’s fascinating. 



When we’re young, it takes some time but we eventually develop something called theory of mind.  Here’s the Wikipedia definition (which is way better than mine would be):

“Theory of mind (often abbreviated “ToM”) is the ability to attribute mental states—beliefs, intents, desires, pretending, knowledge, etc.—to oneself and others and to understand that others have beliefs, desires, and intentions that are different from one’s own.”

Now you may think that theory of mind is something you’ve always had (because who could imagine their lives without it?) but it’s actually something we have to develop and learn.  It’s not innate.  Which would explain why we sometimes struggle with it.  I know I do.  Sometimes I expect that someone will just get what I’m saying or how I’m acting without having to explain myself.  Sometimes I expect the world to just fall in line with my mentality and I wonder why it doesn’t.  It’s a problem of intellectual laziness to be sure, but it’s also (in those moments) not using my theory of mind.  Forgetting that other people are well…different from me; that they see the world from a completely different perspective, that they can’t always understand my perspective just as I can’t always understand theirs.

So that leads me to writing.  


For a long time I struggled with my most recent book (What it means to be a man) because it is partially auto-biographical.  It’s based on my (sex) life and my relationship with Ben and when I finished writing it (then re-writing it) I hated it because I was positive everyone would be bored with hearing my own, personal, internal voice.  I have to live with it, I hear my own voice in my head every day.  I struggled and generally reviled the book…then I remembered theory of mind.  Just because I have to listen to my own voice yammer on and tell the same stories of my life over and over, doesn’t mean everyone else has.  To people who don’t know me (or at least to people who aren’t close enough to me to have heard all of my sex stories and know every detail of my relationship with Ben) this story is completely unique.  It’s a perspective they’ve never heard before.  It’s my mother-in-law standing on the street in shock as a man talks to me about my backpack.  

So what’s the point?


All of our personal stories are unique fucking snowflakes.  

All of our perspectives are our own, completely and totally.  No one else lives in our minds, so to the world our stories are fresh and new.  

I used to worry that people would be bored of my stories and that I absolutely had to make up brand new ones about characters I never knew in order to be interesting.  But now every time that fear kicks me in the gut, I kick it right back with theory of mind.


POW!

BAM!

THAWK!

You’re a unique snowflake dammit so go forth and tell your stories with confidence!

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Finding your place

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The publishing world is harsh.  It’s cold and full of rejection.

You write a story, get excited and send it off with hope in your heart. Pick me! Pick me!

And more often than not they don’t.

And then they don’t some more.

Recently I’ve had a good run, six acceptances in a cluster! I cheered: Hooray! They picked me! But once all the celebration sushi had been eaten I started wondering: where did all this acceptance come from?

I’ve been actively trying to get work published for over a year and a half now with some publications and contest wins here and there, but nothing like my recent successes. So what have I been doing differently?

The one major change I’ve made is finding my place. I write magic realism and because I often have speculative elements in my stories I was sure I would find success in the world of sci-fi/fantasy, but that just hasn’t been the case. So as I’ve stumbled along I’ve refined my searches, sought out literary magazines with a subtle (or obvious) surreal/magic realism slant and really aimed as opposed to shooting in the dark. I’ve learned from my rejections.

I spent a lot of time trying to slot myself into the speculative fiction world because I thought it was the most appropriate place for me, but I’ve learned that’s not the case and it’s a good thing to know, because now I can really focus and hopefully hit the mark more often.

When I was an actor years ago I got the best piece of advice about rejection I’ve ever heard: they aren’t (necessarily) rejecting you because you’re bad, they’re rejecting you because you’re not right for the part. Don’t take it personally.

I’ve tried to keep that same advice in mind as I go through the process of becoming a published writer. I need to find the places that are right for me and that takes work, but it’s worth while when you start hitting the right note with the right places, because it can lead to amazing connections and great publications!

The moral? Buck up and focus on getting your work into the right hands. Just because you get a rejection doesn’t mean your story is bad, it just means you haven’t found your place just yet.

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NaNoWriMo advice from a fast writer

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I’m a fast writer.

Seriously, short stories take me an hour or two (maybe) and a first draft of a novel has yet to take me more than a month and a half (at most).  Fast is just the way I’m built.  I think fast, talk fast (much to my parent’s confusion), hell I even do dishes fast.  I’m impatient to get on with life, so I get’er done.  To me this is a blessing, although some might see it as a curse.  Once I was in a writing group and one of my group buddies told me that one of my short stories should be revised and revised and that I should work on it for months.  I laughed in his face then quit the group (okay so maybe it wasn’t as dramatic as all that, but I still did disagree and eventually leave because the pace of the group was too slow).  Fucked if I’m going to work on a short story for months, I have things to do with my life.  Don’t you?

Sure you do.  We all have things to do with our lives and we want to get on with it.

So you’ve decided to jump into NaNoWriMo have you?  You think you can write over 50,000 words in one month?  You think you can get a first draft of a novel done in 30 days?

You’re damn right you can.

Here’s a list of my best advice for people who need to write fast this November:

Let go of slow

I feel as though writers have this romantic image of themselves more often than not.  Imagine a secluded space, a darkened cafe or a mountain top, or a secret garden or a dusty library.  There the writer sits, rolling up their sleeves, dipping quill into ink pot and writing the most romantic words of all time, the words that will make the world shiver with delight and quiver with depth of meaning.  There’s writerly advice all over the place suggesting we slow down, take some time and delve into the ‘true spirit of writing’; this pen/pencil/quill in hand idea of what writing really means.  I’ve heard writing compared to meditation, a slow unravelling of self onto the page, a long, deliberate exploration of your inner thoughts.  Does this sound perfect to you?  Do you want to be the hermit writer on the mountaintop slowly penning the perfect prose?

Forget it.  You know what’s boring?  Meditation.  I tried it once and it sucks.  There you are sitting alone in some room or some park when the world is getting shit done.  And please, the idea of writing by hand not only makes my carpel tunnel flare, but it also makes me want to stab my eyes out with pencils.  Who said self exploration has to be slow?  Who said good things take time?  Life is short folks, embrace speed.  Thanks to technology the world is moving faster and faster.  You’re keeping up, so why not your writing?  Forget the notion of slow and deliberate and open yourself up to the creative chaos that is breathless speed, the kind of speed that doesn’t let you pause and think, or ruminate on your success/failure.  The more you think (or over think) the slower you are likely to be because the thoughts and nit picking will slow you down.


Get busy

Schedule other things in your life, fill it up.  The more you have to do, the better because the more you will want to/need to cram into what little time you have left to write.

Also, the act of being out in the world is damn inspiring, walking inspires genius (so does working out – I’m pretty sure physiologically working out is good for your brain).  Taking time to let your mind work away in the background can be the very thing you need.  Don’t shy away from a social life, be inspired by it instead.  The more you force yourself into the writing without breaks or time to think the more clunky your thoughts will become.

Always schedule time to breathe.

Get bored

I bore easily.

As Ben can attest to, I need constant entertainment.

This is probably one of the main reasons I write so fast, because I get bored of my stories.  Not because my stories are boring (at least I hope not) but because there is only so long I like to linger in one spot.

So try getting bored.  Get bored of the word you are struggling with and move on.  Get bored of the sentence and keep going.  Get bored of the chapter, the situation and keep it fresh.  The more bored you are, the less you are likely to hang out with the same ideas forever.  Moving on is the best remedy for boring situations.

Relinquish attachment

I like to move.

I have changed apartments once a year for the past six or seven years.  Each time I move I toss out everything I possibly can (or sell it) and go into the new space fresh.  It’s liberating.  Stuff is just stuff, it means nothing in the grand scheme of things.  This state of mind, this relinquishing of attachment serves me well in writing too.

Words are just words.  They can be tossed out or rearranged like furniture, depending on your needs.  My ability to throw out things, items, objects, that I may have found important once allows me to quickly cull my words.  If a sentence isn’t working, I’ll cut it and start fresh with just the idea.  This allows me not only a certain amount of brevity, but a lack of attachment that I find speeds up my entire process.

Note:  If you have attachment issues and still want to try relinquishing as an experiment, just save drafts so you can go back and linger over your lost words once you are done NaNoWriMo.

Plan, a little

I’ve been running through the opening line for my NaNoWriMo project for the past week.  Just the first line.  The rest is broad strokes, open ended but with a vague idea of where I’m going.
I find a little bit of planning goes a long way, but too much can spoil the fun.  I’m writing a project with my Mother-in-law during the month of November which necessitated more planning than I’m used to.  But I don’t mind.  In my head it seems to be working out.
I don’t want to get stuck.  I don’t want an insurmountable surprise hurdle half way through.

A basic structure is a good idea and knowing the end is key.  Just enough to be ever so slightly bored.  To feel as though the story is slightly written, but still be left with some unexpected moments.

Dream big & positive

Before I even start a book I tend to think big.

I like to think about my potential audience, if I can sell it.  How it will be appreciated.

I don’t write to be famous or make loads of cash and I certainly don’t think anyone should (because good luck with that).  But it’s nice to imagine that some day your work may be read, enjoyed and even awarded, because who doesn’t like to be recognized for their talents and efforts?

I give you full permission to dream big, to imagine your adoring fans and your book/movie deals starring the hottest movie stars you care to imagine.  Because who knows?  And it’s always nice to have a little extra incentive to get writing.

Fuck your word count goals

Keeping track of work count is fun, but it can also be bad.
You have a story to tell, not a word count to achieve.

When Ben and I work out, Ben knows he has to work out for half an hour at least.  He used to watch the clock and as soon as it hit half an hour he would start feeling tired and give up.  So he started turning the clock around and magically he went for longer.

I’m not a psychologist, but I reckon that seeing your daily word count goal achieved will make you more likely to slow down once you’ve hit the mark and that’s just not good enough.

Try re-working the goal in your mind here’s some ideas of new ways to frame it that will probably get more out of you:

• Start writing after breakfast and write until you are genuinely hungry for lunch
• Give yourself a chapter goal – a chapter a day for example (especially good if you have a more concrete story outline)
• Write until you can’t physically write anymore
• Write until the idea is complete

Get competitive

I recently heard someone referring to completing their NaNoWriMo goal as ‘winning’ and I thought: fuck yeah.  I want to win the hell out of this thing.

I’m very competitive though, some people don’t care as much about winning as I do.

But in my heart I believe everyone cares at least a little about winning.  Find that time when you cared about winning something, whether it was the swim meet in grade 3 or the heart of your lover.  Find that and remember that feeling.  The elation, the high of competition.

Then go for the gold.

Win, win, win!

Open the document

This is the first hard part.

This is the one that gets me sometimes.

If you’re afraid to do it, it will never get done.  So just open the damn document and get typing.  I promise it isn’t as bad as you think.

So there you have it.  Some tips from a fast writer.
Have any more?  Let me know below!

P.S. If you actually want to be a writer, don’t use NaNoWriMo as a crutch – read THIS to catch my drift.

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Don’t settle

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Ben and I had a great idea for a book a little while ago.  It seemed like it would be perfect, right up my alley.  We decided we would make a plan for it, unlike the last book which was a bit of a free-for-all, so we sat down and worked it out.

We figured out the whole story, plotted the chapters and I was completely, terribly uninspired.  It was confusing, because the concept was interesting, the characters were compelling, but my my interest in the book was painfully flat.  I hated it.

There’s something about making a plan that makes me feel like I ought to like what I’m doing.  Like I would be a flake if I just called a timeout and changed horses mid-stream.  It’s a weird feeling.  I guess it’s partially to do with the investment of time, we spent a great deal of time coming up with the story, discussing it, being excited about it.  But as the idea of actually writing the damn thing drew near, I couldn’t bring myself to do it.

In the end I finally said ‘I hate it’ out loud and we gave it up, put it aside.  Maybe I’ll like it in the future, who knows?

When I’d finally accepted the fact that I didn’t give a fig about the book I was going to write, Ben and I went for a walk on the beach and worked out a new book in about half an hour and I was instantly inspired to go home and start writing.  I am now ten thousand words in and going strong.

The point is sometimes things don’t fit and here’s a solid piece of advice that can be applied to absolutely every aspect of like (including writing): don’t settle.  A story should reach out and grab you, bite you, shake you, gnaw at you in the night.  I always say to Ben that I know it’s a good story when I get up in the morning and don’t want to go back to sleep because there’s too much to write.  Writing should propel you, inspire you, make you cry and laugh and all those good things about living.  If your story isn’t doing it for you, don’t force it.  No matter how much time you invested in the outline or world or making a new language for the alien species on your world it doesn’t matter because it will feel flat and lifeless unless you love it with a passion.

I want to write things that I can’t wait to write more of, that I need to write, that I love to write and I’m not willing to settle for anything less.

Screw settling, write it like you mean it!

Tell me about a time when you refused to settle.

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Advice for new writers (or old ones that need some inspiration)

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The Short

Just write.  Writing isn’t about being good, it’s about being passionate.  Don’t let anyone tell you how to write or what to write, just keep writing and don’t stop till your arms hurt and your eyes refuse to focus on the page.

The Long

Each time I sit down to write and stare at an empty page, a void opens up in front of me.  It’s a wide expanse that alternates between self doubt and emptiness and I peer into it with wide eyes and half a heart.  Sometimes it lasts a fraction of a second and other times the seconds march on into minutes, but either way, it’s my job to leap over the void and into the story.  Each time it’s my job to overcome my boundaries and write.

Art is an act of bravery and writing is an act of art.


When we put words on a page it exposes us, our hopes and dreams, our darker side, our interests and passions.  We are exposed to whomever might be reading our words, but more importantly, we are exposed to ourselves.  When we write honestly and openly, there’s nowhere for us to hide and that can be a scary thing.


Try it now.  Open a word document or a journal (of you like writing by hand) and write a series of statements about yourself.  Each one should start with ‘I’.  Write until you come to a natural end.

Did you do it?

I did:

I am tasting the water.
I am speaking with fire.
I am opening my eyes.
I close them too often.
I am thinking of something I don’t want to do.
I dream of things I’d rather not speak of.
I wish for little but hope for everything.
I am waiting for summer to arrive.
I wish I could see the moon on the lake every night of my life.
I want to write well.
I want to be good.
I need to be real, or else what am I?

So what does this mean?  Maybe something, maybe nothing.  It’s just words on a page that came from my mind.  Sometimes it is more meaningful than others but if we spent our whole lives trying to read into the words that we conjure, we wouldn’t get anything done now would we?

So my advice is to write…but how to write?

Write like no one’s reading


Because no one is.  Sure you’re reading, but you know yourself right?  So it’s not all that bad.  The more you write for other people, the more you will veer away from what you are passionate about and what drives you.  If you aren’t writing for you, you will probably get bored of it mighty fast.

Write like there is no good

There are so many different kinds of writers (and readers) out there, who’s to say what good really is?  And even if there is a good and you’re not it, as long as you are doing what you love, why should it matter?  If you’re writing for fame and fortune, it’s a long shot anyway, even for people who are really crazy amazing.  So best stick with the love and try to go from there.

Write with curiosity

Try new things.  I’ve always written urban fantasy, but I have a great deal of respect and passion for truly well written high fantasy (which I believe is scarce), so I’m going to give it a try.  I’m curious to see if I can write high fantasy well.  Don’t limit yourself to what you think you’re good at, try new things, because they may surprise you and if nothing else, the challenge will hone your skills.

Write free

People will try to tell you all sorts of shit about your writing, I promise.  Everyone will have a different opinion.  Some people will love it, some people will hate it and, unfortunately, some people might even try to read into your psyche through your writing. This is about as effective as a psychic reading (meaning not effective at all).  Sure writing exposes you and opens you up to your inner voice, but trying to make sense of that in any psychologically profound way is nigh impossible and ridiculously fruitless.  Write free.  Don’t read too deeply into your writing.  As humans we are great at (and love to) find patterns.  We will even find them when they are vague or nonexistent.  So don’t cling to patterns and let yourself believe they mean things about your subconscious, and for the love of all the gods, don’t let anyone else do it either.

Write with the knowledge that you can always edit later

Everyone has a different way of doing things, but I like to get a full thought out before I edit.  Whether it’s a paragraph, a chapter or a whole story, if you’re in the flow don’t chicken out and go back to check if everything’s al good.  The past is the past and it isn’t going away, so move into the future as far as you can before venturing back.  But please don’t forget to venture back, because it isn’t perfect back there, not yet.

Write with passion

Write for the love, not the money (because the money will either be slow to come or will never come at all).  Write because you can’t stop yourself.  Write because it makes you happy (or makes you miserable not to).  Write because you’re curious and you want to try.  Write because beauty is possible.  Write because life is too precious to go without mentioning.

All of the points above are well and good, but they all have one thing in common.  The word ‘write’.  So at the end of the day, the take home message is, was and always will be: write.  Just close your eyes, jump over the damn void and write like hell.


Tell me about your challenges and share your ‘I’ lists!

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This is a post for www.writesofluid.com’s blog writing challenge.  One blog post a day for all of June!  Check it out at the website or on twitter: @sofluid or #wpad!

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Unfinished Business

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When I was around 17ish I wrote 25,000 words of a Harlequin novel.  I just found it the other day in my old files and started reading it.  Hilariously it wasn’t that bad.  My main problem though, was the sex.  I got to the sex part, they got it on and then I got stuck.  I didn’t have a plan beyond the coitus, which was probably pretty silly.  There was still the conflict and the dramatic make-up that needed to happen.  Instead there my protagonist sits, with a rose in her hands and new love in her heart, awaiting her climax and resolution.  It’s kind of tragic really, the unfinished tale of her love with the dashing prince (seriously I think the dude’s actually a prince).

It turns out I’m not really into writing romance novels, I just thought I would try it to see if I could.  Although it may not be my passion, it still got me to thinking about all the unfinished business I have lying around.  Stories without endings, or unedited tales waiting patiently in the form of 1’s and 0’s.  Just sitting on my hard drive.  I was spurred to explore my unfinished pile and I found a whole lot of it.  Tales of my lustful and daring adventures around the world, stories of magic and immortals and witches.  Not all of it is gold, but some of it certainly is interesting and worth recollecting and exploring.
What concepts did I find fascinating in my teenage years?  What themes are reoccurring?  What can I harvest?  What is worth resurrecting?

I encourage all writers, when you have a moment, to reflect.  Go back, don’t be embarrassed (hey if I can appreciate my Harlequin you can at least look at your unfinished business).  In reflection perhaps we can have the opportunity to recall things that were once important (and maybe still are), we can remember the days when we were at our most earnest (for good or ill), we can maybe mine some gold and if nothing else we can have a good laugh and feel good about the fact that we have grown in style and substance.  Because we have grown…haven’t we?

Tell me about your unfinished business!