Caution: Learning Curves Ahead

by Christina Lay

So you’re thinking about self-publishing, or possibly other-publishing and you’re getting ready to take the plunge. The whole world knows how easy it is these days: write an amazing novel, proofread the heck out of it, maybe pay a professional editor, get it into a printable format, cajole an artistic-minded friend to create an awesome cover, upload the docs, and voila, your book exists.

Depending on your goals, for some people the process can be almost this simple. If what you care about most is getting the book out there and you aren’t overly concerned about how it looks on every device, availability across various markets, the overall professional quality of the end product, building a reputation as either an author or a publisher or both, selling in bookstores and at conferences, the degree of control you have over your product, etcetera, etcetera, then creating a clean Word document and an eye-catching cover will be your main hurdles.

However, the chances are that once you dip your toes into the world of publishing, you will be swept away in a tide of choices you had no idea existed, and the decision making process is not made any simpler by the fact that the rules and the markets are always changing. Be warned, if you know some authors who are self-publishing and decide to ask for their advice, they will all tell you something different. Any topic you Google will bring up several blogs with conflicting opinions. Know this, and prepare yourself for a wild ride.

The most important thing you can do for your sanity is to set some clear goals for your project. Is this a one-off, something you’re doing purely for your own satisfaction? Then a lot of the decisions won’t torment you too much. You can happily use Create Space and all the easy-peasy options they offer. If you are building a career or a business, then things get trickier.   Are you content with selling ebooks only, with maybe a few print-on-demand sales on the side, or do you want to get into bookstores, organize readings, sell your book at conferences? Answering one of these question will inevitably lead to several more.

Because I am naturally a benevolent sort, I thought I’d organize my recent experiences in launching the Labyrinth of Souls fiction project and write-up a short list of things you will need to understand and make decisions about. The short list quickly became long, and so this post is a very abbreviated overview of the business side of things. A shot across the bow, if you will. I won’t even get into design and formatting issues.

First of all, why not use Create Space for your print book? (KDP is the ebook side of things). Amazon’s self-publishing print book service is very user-friendly, and Amazon rules the world, so many people consider using any other option akin to shooting oneself in the foot. But there are other considerations. For instance, the rest of the bookselling world sees Amazon as a Borg-like entity and everyone else as a loosely knit Federation of booksellers valiantly struggling against being assimilated, so not everyone plays nicely with Amazon and therefore your innocent Create Space book might never escape its Amazon.com orbit. So what, you might ask? 97% of book sales happen on Amazon, right? The answer, which is actually a question is, do you want your book in bookstores? Barnes and Noble won’t order Create Space books, or at least, they wouldn’t when I put out ShadowSpinners Press‘ first book, A Collection of Dark Tales. Amazon promises expanded distribution, so imagine my surprise when I lost the chance at a B&N book signing because they couldn’t (read, didn’t want to) order from Amazon.   The lesson I learned (don’t forget, things are always changing, so I’m giving you my latest experience only) is that if you want to do readings and have your book carried at conferences, you need to go through Ingram.

Ingram? What the hell is that? Well, they are the major source of print books for the print book buying world, and most bookstores order through Ingram’s catalogue.   If you’re an indie publisher (read, poor) then Ingram Spark is the way to go. Lightning Source is Ingram’s program for the big boys (once upon a time indie publishers were allowed to sign up with Lightning Source, but now they will politely direct you to use Ingram Spark). The final word on the Create Space vs. Ingram Spark debate seems to be you need to use both. Yup, both, because you don’t have enough logins and passwords to keep track of yet. This of course doesn’t get into the issue of The Others; Smashwords, book services like Book Baby, and so on. You’ll need to make the service provider decision separately for your ebook. Again, KDP is not the only game in town.

Here are some articles on ebook and print on demand services I found helpful:

http://www.newshelves.com/2016/05/21/why-you-need-lightning-source-and-createspace/

https://kindlepreneur.com/smashwords-vs-draft2digital/

http://selfpublishingadvice.org/watchdog-ingram-spark-vs-createspace-for-self-publishing-print-books/

If you decide you want to go with a plan that includes print books in bookstores, you’ll need an ISBN for each book. Again, Create Space will give you one for free, or sell you one that gives you a little more control, but Create Space will always be listed as the publisher, which again, could lead to issues with bookstores. If you want to be listed as the publisher and be viewed in a more professional light, you’ll have to bite the bullet, go to Bowker and purchase an ISBN. A single ISBN costs $125. Ten cost $300. A hundred costs $500 and so on. So you can see it’s a scam in which the big boys get a great deal and the little guy gets screwed. But it’s important, so don’t blow it off. By the way, Bowker will try to sell you a barcode. You don’t need it. Create Space and Ingram will automatically generate one for you when they produce your book.

Here’s a pretty good break down on the ISBN question. https://selfpublishingadvice.org/isbns-for-self-published-books/   Have fun with that rabbit hole.

Here’s another fun conundrum: Pricing and Discounts. Opinions are all over the place on this one. Low prices draw more buyers, but you want to make money, right? You want to be able to offer a discount to bookstores, right? This is something that only research and a clear-headed look at your own finances and goals can answer. Ingram has a pretty good break down of the discount issue here: http://www.ingramspark.com/blog/heres-why-you-should-discount-your-book

And a publisher compensation (royalty) calculator here https://myaccount.ingramspark.com/Portal/Tools/PubCompCalculator

Create Space has one too, of course. Most of the POD services have pretty good resources available.

As you can see, this article is already pretty long and I haven’t even touched on these questions:

*Keywords and Categories: How to position your book so the mighty search engines will find them.

*Online marketing: Virtual tours, FB and Good read ads, social networks and how to exploit them without losing all your virtual friends, and so on.

*Copyrights. OMG, do I really have to fill that out?

*Fun with Legal Questions and Taxes. Am I a business? Do I need: a lawyer, a Tax Identification Number, to register my business name, to write contracts, to issue 1099s, and so on?

*Webpages and domains. Should I use WordPress or Go Daddy or Bob’s Discount Web Pages, hire a professional to build it, buy my own domain name, buy every .com, .net, .org I can get my hands on? Become an Amazon affiliate? Sell books via my website? Use Paypal or Square?

All right, I can go on and on, and maybe someday I’ll write down everything I’ve researched and learned, but for now, I hope this gives you a helpful glimpse at the many learning curves ahead. If you’re still crazy determined enough to move forward, you can start making decisions before you start the publishing process, and therefore not break your brain in a rush to make all the right decisions,  like I fear I might have.

Good luck and Godspeed in all your publishing endeavors.

Burn the Scarecrow to Keep the Reader Awake All Night

scarecrow on fire(image source sanniely istockphoto)

Burn the Scarecrow to Keep the Reader Awake All Night

by Eric Witchey

I write fiction, and I teach fiction writers. In fact, I teach a lot. One of the recurring frustrations I have is that students talk about their long-form manuscripts under development in terms of chapters.

“Well, Chapter 7 is about how she stands up to the bully in her gym class…”

As a teacher, I have two problems with statements like this. First, it is an event-driven description of the story content. That’s a topic for another time. Second, and this is the point today, the student is describing their story in terms of chapters rather than dramatics.

Chapters aren’t really part of the development of a story. They are part of the final polish, and a sharp writer will use them for pacing by placing the chapter breaks carefully at spots that will force the reader to keep reading.

Given the student’s desire to improve by discussing their story and the above statement, the frustrated teacher me must start asking a long string of questions about character, premise, psychology, sociology, emotional arcs, intermediate emotional states, opposition of will, and on and on and on in order to figure out what dramatic story elements are in play at the moment under discussion.

So, this essay is a bit of self-defense. While it doesn’t describe the myriad issues implied or named above, it does take a look at just exactly what chapter breaks do.

Writers who write enough come to realize that the dramatic scene is the building block of all stories. I’m not going to go into all the variants and exceptions here because that’s not what this essay is about. Rather, I’m going to talk about how story questions and chapter placement influence the reader’s immersion and need to keep reading.

Before I go there, I want to define what I said above. A classic, dramatic scene transforms character emotion through conflict. The Point of View Character (POVC) or Main Character (MC) enter the scene carrying an emotional state and a personal agenda of some kind. Note that I said “or.” The POVC may or may not also be the MC. That’s a topic for another day, but think in terms of the narrative difference between Hunger Games and Sherlock Holmes. Hunger Games is in first person, present tense from the POV of Katniss. She is both POVC and MC. Sherlock Holmes is Watson telling the stories of Homes. Watson is the POVC. Holmes is the MC.

Where was I? Oh, yes. Ignoring the POVC vs. MC difference for now, the POVC enters the scene with an emotional state and an agenda. They then proceed to encounter opposition to their agenda. Like any normal human being, the have an emotional shift because of opposition.

Think about what it’s like to be having a good day on vacation until you try to pay for lunch and discover that your debit card has been cancelled because the bank thinks your lunch in another state is unusual activity. Emotional response to opposition of your agenda, yes?

Okay, so the POVC goes through a few attempts to get what they want. They try some different tactics. Their emotions change. They might succeed. They might fail. However, they leave the scene with a new emotional state (or the same emotional state for different reasons).

All good. However, a scene is not a chapter. A scene is just a dramatic unit in which character change is caused. Sometimes, a scene is a whole story. Sometimes 70 scenes make up the whole story. That’s one of the differences between flash fiction and a novel.

So, why is it that most of the time the first scene of a novel is not able to stand alone as a short story? Emotion happened. Conflict happened. Change happened. New emotion came out of it.

There are a number of reasons a first scene probably doesn’t stand alone. I won’t address them all here. Here, I’ll say that the first scene of a novel includes material that causes the reader to feel a sense of curiosity or urgency about what will come in the next and subsequence scenes. The text installs “dramatic story questions” in the heart/mind of the reader.

For the sake of brevity, I’ll define dramatic story questions types as 1, 2, and 3. They are, respectively, 1) short-term, 2) mid-term, and 3) long-term.

Long-term story questions are questions installed in the heart/mind of the reader very early in the story. They will not be answered until the end of the story. “Will Dorothy ever get home from Oz?”

Mid-term story questions are questions installed in the heart/mind of the reader in any scene in the story. They will be answered in some subsequent scene. “Will Dorothy make it from the Munchkin village to the Emerald City?”

Short-term story questions are questions installed in the heart/mind of the reader in a scene. They will be answered in that same scene. “Will the Cowardly Lion eat Toto?”

The scene is the dramatic building block. It changes character emotionally and psychologically.

The story questions keep the reader reading (assuming many other things have also been done well).

Assuming the POVC and MC are the same character, as they quite often are, their path through the story is scene-to-scene. Each scene generates questions. The first questions generated will be very short-term. “Why is Dorothy worried for Toto when she gets home?”

Before that question is answered, a mid-term question is launched. “Why are there storm clouds on the horizon?”

Before or at the moment the short-term question gets answered, a new one is launched. Before or at the moment the mid-term question is answered, a new one gets launched.

Now, here is the very important bit. If at any time all the short-term and mid-term questions have been answered at once, the reader will leave the story. Mind you, they might come back and pick it up to see how the long-term question comes out. However, that’s not a good bet.

Here’s where the chapter problem arises. Writers who talk about their books in terms of chapters tend to place their chapter breaks at the moments where several short-term and at least one mid-term story question have just been answered. It’s like they are placing their chapter breaks in the best possible way to release the reader from the story.

Placing the chapter breaks after the story is completely finished allows the writer to choose the moments just after a new story question has been launched. In other words, the writer will set the Scarecrow on fire and end the chapter.

Consider a reader who is in bed reading and has decided, “Well, I’m up too late. I’ll just read another three pages—just to the end of the chapter.” In the last page of the chapter, the Scarecrow is set on fire. Chapter ends. New chapter opens with the battle to put out the fire. Essentially, the chapter ended right smack in the middle of a scene. It ended right after a powerful story question was installed in the heart/mind of the reader. However, the climax of the scene is only a page away.

The reader justifies: “One. Little. Page. More.”

By the time that fire is out, a mid-term question has been launched. “Can Dorothy and her friends overcome and malice of the Wicked Witch of the West?”

The reader turns another page and decides that they will just read to the end of this chapter. It’s only seven more pages.

Okay, the example I used here is a classic sort of cliff-hanger, but the concept is not at all limited to cliff-hanging. Social and psychological story questions are often more compelling than such action-oriented, life-threatening story questions. It’s just easier and more fun to set the Scarecrow on fire in this essay than it would be to describe the deeper identity dissonance of a character’s realizations about themselves and whether they will take responsibility for damage to the fragile psychology of a child under their care.

Chapter breaks are pacing tools. They are not dramatic units.

-End-

Our Stories Can Save Us, by Eric Witchey

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Our Stories Can Save Us, by Eric Witchey

Human survival depends on how we manage our relationship with four, fundamental variables. The variables aren’t really in dispute, but the amount of time we have in which to change our relationship to them is. Simply put, the four variables are as follows:

  1. We live in a fragile, closed system, a little blue marble called Earth.
  2. Earth has finite resources: biodiversity, air, water, minerals, fossil fuels, etc.
  3. We have unchecked population growth.
  4. We rely on growth-based economies.

Yes, yes… I know. Solar radiation enters the system. There’s some hope there. However, we aren’t making new materials. We aren’t adding iron ore to our planet. We aren’t increasing the amount of natural gas and oil in the ground. We aren’t somehow magically manufacturing more water to add to the poisoned water and water ecosystems in a way that will fundamentally change the direction of the deterioration arrow.

The four variables stand, but we argue endlessly about what we should do to lengthen the time we have before those four variables result in an extinction level crash.

Note that I say extinction level crash and not the end of the world. As my astute Physicist brother once told me, “Human beings aren’t going to end the world. We will only end ourselves. The planet was here long before we were, and it will be here long after we are gone.”

And now you’re wondering how the four variables relate to writing.

Well, it’s like this. Telling stories is an ancient tradition that goes all the way back to the beginnings of language use. We erect monkeys have always told stories. We tell them to ourselves to justify stealing bananas from one another. We tell them to our friends and family to create bonding in social systems. We tell them to one another to make sure mistakes aren’t repeated and to ensure that our tribe thrives. One of the most common themes in the stories we have told throughout time is the theme of our village being better than their village. Every hero has a nemesis.

Want to see that theme playing out in a modern social context in America? Go to any Friday or Saturday night high school football game in the country. Observe the cheering, the colors, and the parking lot fights.

Harmless, right? Maybe. The value of team sports debate isn’t what this little blog is about. The point is that the “us vs. them” story is there to see. You can even observe the symbolic battle over land resources playing out on the field.

Don’t get me wrong, here. I love a good game. That’s really not the point. The purpose and value of story is the point.

Story telling is the easiest thing we do. It is also the most complex thing we do as human beings. Putting together a solid narrative, especially on paper, has more in common with interacting wave forms on the surface of the Pacific Ocean than it does with the linear, deceptive advice given to creative writing students. We put the little black squiggles in a row, and that creates an illusion of linear activity; however, the squiggles are just the medium of transfer for the story. The story in one mind is transferred through the little black squiggles into the mind of another person. Minds, unfortunately, are not so linear. They are messy places. They are endless impulses layered and ever changing, arranging, and rearranging into patterns that somehow magically become mind—thought, personality, memory, dreams, hopes, beliefs, learning, and maybe even soul.

Okay, I’m not all that sure about the last one. I have some opinions on what soul is, but I won’t go there in this blog entry. Maybe another time.

Story is, however, the human mind generating a dream-like experience based on sensory input. No two people read the same story quite the same way. No two people write a story quite the same way. Let’s just set aside the fact that no two people have the same life experiences. That, by itself, is enough to prove the last point. However, the endless shifts in levels of neurotransmitters, the organization of dendritic networks, the infinitesimal distances between axons and dendrites, the hormonal and electrical potentials, and the endless layering of all of these things and many more means that it is impossible for each of us to experience what any other person is experiencing when we hear or read a story.

Yes, we all tell stories. We all know that stories are essential to our survival. We all know that we are alive today because someone, somewhere way back in the dim past figured out how to tell a story that included the idea that a sharp stick held at the dull end can keep you alive a little longer than no stick at all.

We told stories to keep our families alive. We told stories to keep our tribes alive. We told stories to make sure everyone in our tribe knew how to behave to ensure that we would thrive. We told stories to explain things that made us uncomfortable because worrying too much about the bright lights in the sky meant we weren’t planting and reaping and breeding. We told stories to make sure that members of our tribe didn’t kill other members of our tribe, but it was totally okay to kill members of any other tribe trying to kill our mammoths.

These stories are part of who we are. They must change if we want to survive.

Every person on Earth lives in a closed system with finite resources, unchecked population growth, and growth-based economies. Any decision, personal or political, that does not mitigate or eliminate one or more of those four variables is a tacit agreement to genocide.

Sadly, we still tell ourselves stories that reinforce tribal behaviors like breeding means healthy tribes, acquisition of resources means more for us, control of territory means we are strong, and us vs. them.

Yet, as there has always been, there is some hope because of story tellers, shamans of the written word, wizards of the wave form and the mind.

If a corporation, government, or individual is telling a story that supports the use of growth-based economy in an ever-shrinking world, they are telling a story that asks millions of people to sacrifice their futures for short-term profit. If any organization tells a tale of policy that will increase population growth without providing compensating increases in resources for the new human beings, they are telling a tale of death for others. If we see a story on the news or on our feeds and it talks of the terrible crimes of protestors attempting to stop pollution, then we are seeing mercenary story-tellers attempt to shorten the time of humanity on this little rock.

For those of us who tell stories for entertainment and edification, fiction writers, we have an obligation to create stories that become viral in a way that suggests new modes of survival.

Heroism has at times been described as the successful search for the grail, and the grail has always been associated with healing and abundance. The stories of today, no less than the stick-holding stories of ten thousand years ago, are about creating visions for survival of the tribe. The only real difference is that the tribe is larger and more complex than it has ever been. We are one tribe that spans the entire Earth.

Story telling and story receiving are more complex than the interaction of wave forms on the surface of the Pacific Ocean. However, human beings have always been built to do this amazing thing—to share tales that will help us all survive. Those of us who tell the tales must step up and tell the stories that lead the imaginations of the members of our tribe to an understanding that holding the blunt end of the new pointy stick means having the ability to embrace people who don’t, and physiologically should never be expected to, think the way we do. We must tell the tales that show that every drop of water on this planet is sacred, that every hole we dig hurts us, that every child we force into the world must be fed, and that taking in order to have more means hurting people who will, by direct causal effect, have less.

Look carefully at every story produced and presented. Find the four variables in each tale. Does that story help slow population growth? Does that story reduce our dependence on the market growth that drives economies? Does that story slow the rate of use of nonrenewable resources? Does that story open the world to distant horizons so that our system, and the minds within it, are no longer closed?

-End-

Be The Reader

by Christina Lay

There’s no shortage of people who want to give writers marketing advice.  The problem is that given the ever shifting reality of the publishing world AND the world of marketing, what is true today might not be true tomorrow.  What works for one person might prove worthless for the next.  And then there are simply a lot of ideas out there based on guesses, conjecture, what worked for that guy, and advertising hokum.  We have to remember that from the e-mag mavins who sell ad space to the speaker/gurus who sell workshops, advertising is a business, and we are the target audience. They worked out an angle or pitch and then try hard to convince us theirs is a sure fire path to the bestseller list. The bottom line is the bottom line; buy my book so you can convince other people to buy your book.

lotsofbooks

The particular pitch that caught my eye and then made me slightly queasy was about turning readers into “fans”.  Fans are the super-readers who will buy every release, write glowing reviews, tweet about your appearances, and possibly stalk you at conferences. Every writer dreams of having a few.  In this particular workshop, they promise you will “learn how to serve them (fans) better” and also learn how to love “providing content and service”.  This is where my introvert writer self reaches for the antacid. I love how writing a novel is now “providing content”,  lumped in right along with all those endless bog posts, interviews, how-to articles, timely newsletters, fascinating tweets, friendly Facebook posts, eye-catching Pinterest pins, on-trend tumbler shares, and so on, and so on.

Without a marketing budget in the thousands, it’s true that all of these outlets are the best avenues open to writers to get the word out and let readers know you exist.  But how effective are they? This is the question that no one really has an answer to.  I do most of these things, and I do know without a doubt that it is better than doing nothing.  Writers can no longer rely on their publisher (if they have one) to do much of anything.  So yes, providing content beyond the books is pretty much a have-to if you want readers to know you exist.

About this business of “serving” your readers, I have to ask; do readers really want more than a good book? I’m no more of a guru than any of the people claiming the title, so I decided to look at my own habits as a reader, because I’ve been a reader longer than I’ve been a writer.  And I polled some friends.  Do we really want to be served by the writers we read? If so, how?

The most overwhelmingly common way a reader finds a new book is through recommendations by friends.  And, as far as I can tell through my very unscientific study this is still mostly done via face-to-face chats (in the three-dimensional world known as “reality”) and occasionally, through book clubs.  So one way an author can serve readers is to be willing to make appearances at book clubs.  This is something many gurus will poo-poo because instead of creating “thunder claps” with thousands of shares you might create a friendly murmur among dozens.  I’d argue, however, that the murmur ends up having a much more significant impact than the tweet that is lost among a sea of pointless twittering.

So what about friends’ recommendations via Facebook?  I honestly can’t remember ever following up on a post about a book, but I have had friends comment that they were interested in a book that I shared.

I’ve also never taken note of a book recommendation on Twitter. I do follow a lot of writers on Twitter, but it is only as a fellow writer, not a reader.  I get the impression that some fans do track their favorite authors this way, but I also sense that they are looking for giveaways more than book recommendations. The nice thing about Twitter is that it is free and relatively painless. If you’re blogging anyway, automatically posting on Twitter is a no brainer.

And what about blogging?  This is the most time-consuming, content-providing marketing activity a writer can engage in, but is anyone reading your posts? This one is harder to untangle, because I am constantly reading blogs as part of my activities online as a writer.  Would I be reading them if I wasn’t a writer looking for info and connections? I don’t know.  I can say this is the main way I’ve found new-to-me writers.  Specifically, an engaging excerpt is by far the most effective “content” as far as getting me to click that Amazon buy link.  I participate in a lot of blog hops and so end up reading a lot of short excerpts.  So what makes a writer stand out?  Simple— excellent writing.  It helps to have a professional looking website and easy to follow links to book blurbs and buy links.  It is also essential to always come across as a nice person.  If you go this route, you’ll find that most of your visitors in the beginning are other writers looking for connections, so be responsive, be helpful and whatever you do, don’t hide any weird viruses in your website that automatically sign people up for your newsletter, or any other creepy reverse stalking cyber-tricks (yes, this is based on actual experiences).

According to my survey, one of the most popular ways to find a new book is via the dreaded Amazon recommendation widget.  Dreaded because it is based on an indecipherable-to-the-common-human algorithm of great mystery and awe.  Skipping over that whole morass of conjecture and hoodoo, let’s just say your book actually makes it onto the line up of recommended books; what then? The cover is very important—make sure it’s professional and eye-catching.  Nothing turns me off quicker than an amateurish cover.  And then, once again the most important thing you can do is make a sample easily available, make sure it is perfectly edited and once again, excellent.  The definition of excellent is of course up to you and the reader, but you know what I mean.

What this all boils down to is that while you can bury fans in all sorts of giveaways, FB parties, chatty tweets, photos of your hunky heroes and on and on, what it really comes down to, in this reader’s opinion anyway, is–prove to me you can write.  All the social networking might catch a reader’s eye, but once the eye is caught, have an intriguing excerpt or sample chapter available for them to enjoy.

To wrap up, I’d say when faced with the overwhelming landslide of “Must Do” marketing activities, channel your inner reader and ask yourself what you want from a writer, and how you find them.  Then put your most excellent face out there, and keep on writing.

 

Creativity and Brain Hacks, by Eric Witchey

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Eric Hooked Up and Meditating

Creativity and Brain Hacks, by Eric Witchey

A few months back, several people suggested that I write more blogs about “your brain hacks.” At the time, I found that sort of amusing because all the writers I know do the best they can with what they have. We are all born with our physiological predispositions (talent), and we all work hard to adapt body and mind to the tasks we value (skill). So, I sort of figured everyone has their own brain hacks. I still do.

Recently, I made a little speech in Eugene, Oregon about how writers can use tempo tools to influence their creative states, idea production, and writing speed. After that speech, a good friend reminded me that I had promised to write about brain hacks. So, I took a look back at my world and my experience and considered what things I had to learn to do in order to write stories.

Here’s the thing. When I teach, I can’t teach things I do but don’t know I do. I can’t teach things that come to me intuitively. I can only teach the things I had to consciously learn. Whether by luck or by some perverse curse, I had to learn a lot. Again, whether by luck or curse, I had to learn to overcome certain physiological limitation of mind and temperament. Many writers do. Mindfulness meditation has been a huge help in overcoming my personal limitations, but that’s another essay.

So, here’s a brain hack I had to learn.

Creativity is a learned skill. It is a verb: to create, created, creates, creating, will create, had created, have created, will have created.

The brain is a pattern matching and inferencing system. It recognizes patterns, cross-references them, and correlates them to experiences. The activity in the brain can be, somewhat erroneously, described as interacting ripples of potential. When rippling troughs meet peaks, they cancel out. When peaks meet peaks, they amplify. When amplified ripples reach a certain threshold, we become aware of the “thought.”

So far, so good. That’s all automagical. We don’t even know it’s going on.

However, many people, writers included, believe without consideration that if the thought they have more-or-less fits the shape of a problem they have, they are done. Sometimes, they are, but my brain was a bit bent out of shape from the start, so I had to learn to express a thought, abandon it, and find another one, and another one, and another one… I had to learn to keep finding new ideas until I found one that would work really well in text in a story that would then be interpreted by the pattern-matching inferencing system riding around in the reader’s head.

Many writers call this “finding the third alternative.” Personally, I wish I only had to find three.

Instead of the normal three, I have to find ten, twenty, fifty.

Enter a guy I’ll call Brian the Brain Guy (BBG). He’s a psychologist who hooked me up to an electroencephalograph in order to study the ripples in the brain during creative activity. I won’t go into the tech or what happened, but I will say that it caused me to look at my creativity tool, my brain, differently than I had. I stopped thinking of it as a piece of standard equipment that either worked or didn’t, and I started looking at it as a tool that could be modified, sharpened, and improved. I learned that it could be trained.

So, I started ringing a bell every time I began writing. That is, I started to type, then I rang the meditation chime, then I continued typing. I typed as fast as I could, and I worked furiously until I fell into that magical trance of creativity called a flow state.

Fast forward a few years, and my brain has been trained to enter flow state when I ring a bell.

Here’s another hack.

I took a page out of one of my teacher’s playbooks and started using a metronome during brainstorming sessions. I start it slow, and I have to come up with an unjudged new idea for each tock of the metronome (an app on my phone now). Then, I increase the tempo. Automatically, the brain that has been delivering an idea per tock at slow speeds ramps itself up to present new ideas at the new pace. For the brain geeks who want to try this, I start out at a tock every ten seconds: six per minute. My fingers can’t keep up anymore at about fifteen per minute. My brain is willing, but my fingers are not fast enough on the keys. Considering that my original, uninfluenced pace was about one new idea per fifteen minutes (and sometimes per week), that’s a huge improvement.

Because when BBG had me hooked up he was observing and measuring particular wave forms, I started paying attention to biofeedback tools for inducing and maintaining those wave forms. This was particularly important to me because it helped me reduce the amount of medication I needed in order to manage the bent brain problems I mentioned above. Back then, it was hard to find such tools. Now, they are freely available on the internet. Here’s a link to one such “entrainment video” I use. Try it. Relax. Just let it run quietly while you are creating.

Don’t let it run while you are editing. Different brain states. Oh, and run it very quietly. The brain doesn’t need it to be loud. In fact, the brain will pick up on it even if you think you can’t hear it. I’m running it right now at volume 1 on my headphones. I have to concentrate on it in order to hear it.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EbU8rndchsk

Caveat: Some people experience mild dizziness the first few times they listen to a recording like this one.

Finally, I will give away the biggest, best brain hack I have ever learned.

Intuitive writing comes from the subconscious mind. It flows effortlessly through the fingers to the screen or page. It requires no thought, and when we come up for air from successful, intuitive sessions, we have no sense that time has passed.

Conscious writing requires self-aware thought, planning, execution, and repetition. We know we are doing what we are doing, and time drags out like the slow-motion shootout in the Matrix.

Before I give you the big brain hack, I want to say something important. In my personal experience, there is no quality difference between the two modes of production. Conscious, intuitive, or mixed, each has a distinctive, physiological feel. The results of the different creative modes are different in content. However, my records show that, at least for me, the revision time needed to take raw text to a sold story is exactly the same either way. The techniques applied are a bit different, but that’s all.

Okay, here’s the big brain hack.

The subconscious makes use of everything we are exposed to. EVERY FREAKING THING.

The more we consciously understand writing and creativity, the more the subconscious has to work with. People who avoid reading about writing, reading other writers, or studying creativity are limiting the raw materials available to the subconscious. The more we expose ourselves to grammar, punctuation, meta-descriptions of story, methods, processes, and techniques, the more likely those skills are to manifest in our flow state sessions—drawn straight up from the subconscious mind.

My best advice to the writers I meet at the conferences, seminars, and lectures I do is to constantly learn about the craft of writing. Immerse yourself in it. Practice techniques until they become part of the deep self from which dreams flow. Then, let it flow!

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Eric’s Upcoming Speaking Events:

How Do I Pitch MY Genre? by Eric Witchey

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How Do I Pitch My Genre? by Eric Witchey

After teaching a class, volunteering to help Timberline Review sell subscriptions, and signing my newly launched novel at this year’s Willamette Writer’s Conference, I was walking along a hallway minding my own business and wondering if I could get back to my room to take a nap before I had to face another room full of 100 people. A personable guy said hi and caught my attention. He was a volunteer gate keeper outside the pitch and critique room where aspirants bring their hearts and souls for fine tuning before presenting them in ten minute chunks to agents and editors looking for commodities from which to make a living. Making eye contact, I became aware of my surroundings and realized that the room was understaffed and several people were waiting for a chance to get what might be critical advice. So, I volunteered to take a few pitches and help hone them.

Mind you, there’s actually plenty of help for this kind of thing. The conference ran pitch practice sessions before the conference. They ran pitch practice sessions at the conference. Most of the people pitching had practiced with friends, family, and crit groups. And, as a last chance for final revision and preparation, the conference had a pitch practice room, into which I walked.

I sat down, and the kind people at the conference showed four nervous writers my way—one at a time. I had fifteen minutes to help each.

The four writers had been coached to provide half-page synoptic summaries of their books, and each showed up with pages that did that. The idea, as I understood it, was to give a sense of genre, of character, of content, and of market potential.

Well, that list seems pretty obvious to most people. After all, a science fiction adventure isn’t the same as a historical romance, right?

Wrong.

What was not so obvious is that these people were terrified and clinging to every bit of advice they had ever been given in the hope that it would touch the hearts of jaded professionals and give up a result that would change the writers’ lives and let them connect their hearts through their words to the world.

Can you say, “TERRIFIED?”

One had a fantasy romance. One had a historical novel. One had a non-fiction book on how to talk to kids about sex. One had a cryptobiography. All had decent concepts that could fly in the market. Mind you, I hadn’t read the stories themselves. I only had access to a few pages of pitches and the problems the writers had encountered in trying to sell their stories.

So, we got to work.

In three of the four cases, I realized I didn’t have much to add to the long-form pitches the writers had honed. However, I did have the communication consultant skills and personal experience of 25 years of freelance work. So, I gave all three exactly the same thing.

Emotion.

Twenty years ago, in 1996, I pitched my first novel—a novel that later sold in Poland, but that’s another story. While practicing with my good friend Gail McNally (no, not the actress), I was proud of what I had done and of the fact that I had memorized my pitches cold. Gail listened kindly—eyes closed, nodding, pinching her nose. When I was done, she said, “That might work if you put the emotion in.”

Huh? Obviously, she had missed something because I knew it was a brilliant pitch. After all, I had read about pitching. I had talked to other people. I had carefully crafted my pitch. I had a 30 second pitch, a three-minute pitch, a full page pitch, a five-page synoptic outline, and a full synoptic outline. I was freaking loaded for literary bear.

What the hell does emotion have to do with selling the product?

So, long story short, I lost the argument and rewrote it all with an emphasis on character emotional change.

My first time pitch nailed an editor and let me choose between several interested agents.

Why? I now know it was because stories are not about things or events. Stories are about how people change emotionally and psychologically. Things and events only facilitate the changes.

Yes…. The things and events have to be “interesting and unique,” but they are only truly interesting in that they are connected to emotional change.

So, I helped each one of my three fiction charges fashion a one- or two-line pitch that captured the three Cs:

Character, Conflict, and Change.

You could say it is really only two Cs because Character is really made up of an emotional/psychological state, and Change is really just the character as they appear after they change because of the conflict. So, really, it’s just Character, Conflict, and Character, but that’s a bit confusing and doesn’t really sound right in a culture that likes to think in threes.

Essentially, we put our heads together and came up with statements like:

Soul and psyche torn down to nothing by the murder of her family, outcast 1940’s gay homemaker Millicent Monroe faces insurgent Nazis in the Iowa farmlands and consequently discovers deep connection to the community, land, and country that persecuted her.

Okay, that’s not really one of them, but maybe I’ll write that book. We’ll see.

Anyway, three of the four walked away with a similar statement and some communication consulting advice about how to speak, how to make eye contact, when to pause, and how to manage the transition to their larger already prepared pitch.

One, however, didn’t. That one makes the other three all the more interesting. The fourth person had career as a sex education lecturer, consultant, and therapist. She had a values-neutral book about how to talk to kids about sex. Her problem was also emotion, but it wasn’t the emotion of the book and characters. Her problem was that every time she pitched the book, people’s “sex stuff” came up and interfered with their ability to see the product she offered. Her problem was that she needed to disarm her audience’s emotions in order to allow them to look at her work.

That was interesting, so we worked the same problem from the opposite direction and provided her with language that identified her platform and established a context in which the content created result for the readers who bought the book. We brainstormed keywords that would frame the conversation in terms of platform, product, and market. I also recommended that she add an additional agent I knew to her pitch list.

Results?

Over the following couple of days, one-by-one, each of the four sought me out to share their excitement and success. Each one hit—and not just once. They all got requests from every agent and editor they pitched. All of them.

Why?

Here’s the bit that isn’t as obvious. These writers had been prepared by professionals to walk in and deliver fairly lengthy pitches that made use of the time available—ten minutes. Those pitches might have done fine by themselves without my help. However, agents and editors don’t take pitches in order to hear the story that takes a book-length manuscript to tell. The take pitches to filter the masses through sieve in order to find the writers who control character and story. If a writer truly controls the craft of presenting character and story, then the writer can state character, core conflict, and change succinctly.

Conversely, if a writer can state character, core conflict, and change succinctly, it is likely that they control craft well enough to deliver story. When a writer succinctly states the emotional core of character, the conflict that changes them, and the new emotional makeup of the character, agents and editors hear much more than is stated. The result is that they sit up, quite literally, and start to ask questions that can only be answered by reading the manuscript. So, the pitch creates a conversation that leads to a request for pages.

In the unique case of the non-fiction writer, the emotionally charged material wasn’t the problem. The problem was to help people see the product rather than let their emotional response to product become the primary experience of their encounter. It is really a mirror image of the same problem.

But it’s different for different genres, right?

Nope. Genre doesn’t matter on the heart and story level. Never has. Never will. Genre is marketing category. Yes, you don’t pitch space opera to a commercial woman’s fiction editor. Don’t be entirely daft. However, genre isn’t story. Genre is only a taxonomic label for expectations concerning things and events. Sometimes, genre influences the mix of techniques used for telling a story, but genre has nothing to do with heart and soul and hopes and dreams. The story comes from the writer’s heart and seeks to touch the reader’s heart. Pitching is about letting a potential buyer know that the writer understands heart and controls story craft well enough to deliver emotion to the reader.

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Tools of the Trade

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By Cheryl Owen-Wilson  

I think we can all agree—writing is a most solitary art form. While I can paint with a room full of other painters exchanging ideas and telling stories, when I write I require either complete silence or music of my own choosing. There is no one sitting behind me handing me ideas as my fingers fly over the keyboard or whispering suggested words when I am stuck in the middle of a too often used, tired cliché’. Close your eyes and visualize your picture of a writer. I’m certain they are sitting in seclusion, even in a noise filled coffee shop, brow furrowed, possibly staring at a blank white screen/page or hopefully they are frantically writing before the words disappear “poof” from their brain’s frontal lobe.

So given the seclusion of writing, I was quite taken aback when attending a recent event in which the speaker, an author, eschewed the benefits of “Writing Critique Groups”. Said author went around the table of attendees and asked. “Who belongs or has belonged to a writing critique group?

Of the roughly sixteen people in attendance I quickly ascertained most were new to the writing community. Three of us said we benefited from our writing groups, one said they did not, and the remainder had, as I mentioned, no experience. The author then proceeded to give a lengthy dissertation as to why she did not think writing groups were beneficial—her two main complaints were—too much socializing and not feeling her writing benefited from any critique another writer could offer. She also placed writing conferences in the same bucket—adding cost to her other arguments listed above. I sat stunned for the remainder of her presentation.

When I left the building my mind would not stop rebuking me for not speaking up on the benefits I personally have received from my 20 plus years in and out of writing groups. I kept envisioning those new writers in attendance who might—given the speaker’s vehement aversion—never know the many benefits I and many published authors I know, have obtained over the years.

Without  writing groups and conferences I would not have the readily available support of a wide community of writers, not to mention the value of life-long friendships. If you are at the beginning of your writing life, I feel these are valuable tools that will save you many hours of trial and error. With the way the industry is evolving I feel it’s more important than ever to have a strong, core network, and that can start at conferences or within writing groups. Following is a very brief synopsis of how my writing groups have benefited my continuing evolution as a writer, and artist:

Cheryl’s Writing Groups

The first 8 years—“Wild Women’s Writing Group”—We were four very green individuals who have remained friends to this day. Both fortunately and unfortunately we fell into the biggest pitfall—as mentioned by the guest author above—we became more of a social group. However, two of us have continued writing.   One of the four was only eighteen when she started, and may not have the 10+ books she has published today if not for this first writing group.

The next 12 years—“The Inklings”—While there have been months where this group did not exist it always rekindled and began again. Different individuals have populated it, but two of us have remained through it all. I can now count myself a published short story author, published illustrator and creator of a book cover. None of which would have happened without this current writing group. I can’t speak for them individually, but I can say they are each published as well. One member in this current group, began a career in a new genre due to the success another member was having in the genre.

I can also say, at this very busy stage of my life—family, day job, artist—without a writing group to hold me accountable to put words on a page I might not achieve even the small—by comparison to the others in our group—word count I do manage to turn in at each meeting. After each meeting—critiques in hand—I feel I’m one step closer to completing a short story—one step closer to finishing a novel—one page closer to having a larger audience read my stories.

Long ago I was given a very simple outline on how to begin a writing critique group. Here is how it has evolved over the years:

  • Meet the same time, same day of the week—weekly, bi-weekly, monthly—whatever works best for the group.
  • Keep the group number to 4-6 attendees.
  • Set a maximum word count based on the size of the group, and how long you wish the meeting to last.
  • The meetings are no host meetings. You are there to critique not to socialize—as I mentioned this is the biggest pitfall to a successful group.
  • Each member is to submit via email, what they wish to have critiqued by a specified date prior to the meeting.
  • Come to the meeting with printed copies you have already read, and which you have written your critiques upon.
  • At the meeting your submission will be read by another attendee—this is fabulous not only for individuals who have a hard time reading their writing in public—but there is great benefit in hearing your writing in a voice other than your own.
  • The person who reads will critique the piece first. You will then go around the room and each give additional commentary. If necessary have a timer for each critique. Please remember to comment on what you like as well.
  • The author is then given each copy—with the name of the person, who gave the critique, in the event they need further clarification—to take home so they can begin the fun of editing of their story or not. Remember your writing group is for your benefit.

It’s as simple as that. You say you’re not ready to have anyone critique your work? That’s fine too. But I personally think you’ll be missing out on what might be a lifeline to sanity. There really are other people out there who have voices in their heads wanting to live on the written page. Now, you can still go back to writing in solitude and seclusion and ignore everything I’ve just said, but I felt it important to say it.

Before you go, please give me your positive or negative experiences/thoughts regarding writing critique groups.

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