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.

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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.

 

Let The Light Shine Through

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Let The Light Shine Through by Cheryl Owen-Wilson

Throughout history story has spoken. From papyrus pages, to the blue light of the electronic devices of today, story speaks.   And it speaks in many voices.

First there is the actual story. It’s spoken through the words woven together by the author. It will have a protagonist, an antagonist and hopefully an interesting plot.

The second story is spoken within the recesses of the readers mind. It speaks through the many filters of the reader’s own life experiences.

The third story remains silent, waiting for the reader to understand its language. It is the hidden voice, the underlying message, the writer intended the reader to receive beyond the story itself.

In my vision of these three scenarios I first see words dancing on a page. They line up perfectly to create the original story. But as they enter the readers mind, they rearrange and become filtered through that reader’s knowledge creating the second story. I visualize the final story as a bright light shining through each blank space on the page. This bright light is the underlying message the author hoped to convey to his reader.

A very simply analogy for this would be the story most every child has heard “The Boy Who Cried Wolf”. The light shining through this story is quite simple. Don’t lie.

What is the bright light shining through your story?

The words written above were to serve as my very simple blog for today. However, I felt compelled to add the following.

Today, many of my writing friends are struggling with creative paralysis.   Said paralysis is due to the aftermath of our Presidential Election of last week. I was also paralyzed for several days. So, I will address this strictly from my perspective.

I had a very visceral reaction to the headline in my local paper on November 9th. I knew when I went to sleep the night before, what the outcome would be. I did not anticipate my severe reaction upon seeing it in huge black lettering splashed across the front page. Such is the power of the written word. I’m not going to go into the “whys” of my reaction. But I do feel my journey to understanding and ultimately breaking through my paralysis bares relevance in regards to having an artistic block of any kind.

After my initial reaction to the newspaper, I attempted to plug ahead. I tried placing words on the page for my current work in progress. But the voices in my head, my muses, my friends, would not speak to me about my WIP. No, they were a mess, confused, angry and yes very depressed. I tried silence them, but they wouldn’t listen. So I sat down and listened to them. They had a lot to say. Then I did what I always do. I wrote what they had to say. What came of it was this poem. Not a great poem, but I hope my message does shine brightly through the words.

I Believe

I believe in equal pay, for an equal workday.

I believe in a woman’s right to choose. It is her body. It is her views.

I believe no one should dictate whom you can, and cannot choose as your life partner. With love there is no compromise, no barter.

I believe Mother Earth needs more tender loving care. Climate change is here. Just look. It is all around us. It is everywhere.

I believe the seeds of hate are sown through fear, and some wield it like a victory spear.

Above all I believe in the innate goodness I see shining from every face. Regardless of its color or its race.

Finally, I believe, it is what we believe that shines through between the blank spaces in our stories.

Once my voices felt heard, they settled back into the rhythm of my current WIP. However, when I started placing words to page, I realized I had a new, hyper sense of being. I recognized my antagonist had become darker, and my protagonist more determined in her quest. My plot had grown more complex and strewn with innumerable obstacles. When I began, I had a vague sense of a positive resolution in my story. While that hasn’t changed, I now know it will be quite a long road before the final victory.

Then there is the flip side of my creative mind. It is my painting world. I can’t wait to start placing color, much color.   You might even say a rainbow of color over large patches of red.

Yes we artists speak in many ways. We have many voices.

What is the first thing a civilization saves when it is threatened? It saves the writings and art created by that civilization, because it is the only way to record for all eternity the diversity of so many.

So dear friends if you’ve found yourself, if not blocked, at least at odds with your current environment, I encourage you to write. I encourage you to paint, draw, and create. Let your voices be heard, let the light shine through speaking loudly.

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“Story Time” Original Art by Cheryl Owen-Wilson

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:

The Accidental Blog

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By Cheryl Owen-Wilson   Following is how this blog was born, even though I tried to blow it off. I really did try. I’m on vacation, I reasoned. I deserve an entire day of no obligations. I’ll do it tomorrow, what difference will one day make? You get the idea.

So there I sat mid-day today reading my friend, Lisa Alber’s newest book, “Whispers in the Mist”.  I was quite content in the fact that I could just let the blog go for the day. I’d intentionally kept this book unread until I had time to spend an entire day immersed in the misty fogs of Lisfenora, Ireland, where the book takes place. And I was there, happily reading away, when the atmosphere in her novel caught me, spun me around, and said, the weather in this book is as much a character as the actual humans are. So I blame you Lisa, for giving me a perfectly good idea for a blog, that I now have to write so I can get back to finishing your amazing new book.

“The storm starts, when the drops start dropping
When the drops stop dropping then the storm starts stopping.”
Dr. Seuss

Here are just a few of the many ways weather can enhance your fiction:

Atmosphere or Mood: My writing contains many references to the Deep South of Louisiana. From heat that flows around you like cane syrup, sticky and sweet, to rain that hits so hard you have welts on your skin for days. My characters are steeped in the slow pace caused by my home state’s oppressive heat. Lisa used the fog and mist instantly associated with Ireland to draw readers into her evolving mystery. Many horror writers use storms under the cloak of night to create the appropriate atmosphere. What type of weather could you use to draw your readers in?

“Summer in the Deep South is not only a season, a climate, it’s a dimension. Floating in it, one must be either proud or submerged.”
Eugene F. Walter, The Untidy Pilgrim

“The rain thundered down so heavily that Pritam could imagine that space itself was made of water and was pouring through rents in the sky’s tired fabric.”
Stephen M. Irwin, The Dead Path

Tension: My writing mentor forever lives in my brain. This is one of many things she whispers while I write. “Just when you think you have enough tension in your story, make more.” My characters are human with human limitations. I have to give them plausible situations, believable responses. But when I throw the unpredictability of weather into the equation, well, that is a whole different set of rules. Hurricanes have been featured in my stories. They’ve possessed gale force winds that left fathers dead in branches of the only cypress tree left standing, and chickens flying past second story bedroom windows. “Twister” is one of my favorite movies. Given the recent weather in my home state, which caused extensive flooding, I now have a new story percolating. Imagine what creatures a spontaneous flood could unearth! What natural disaster might befall your characters? What would they learn about themselves, or others, as a result?

“Dark and pregnant clouds gave birth and fist-sized stones of hail hammered the earth.” ― Michael R. Fletcher, Beyond Redemption

“The November evening had a bite; it nibbled not-quite-gently at her cheeks and ears. In Virginia the late autumn was a lover, still, but a dangerous one.”
J. Aleksandr Wootton, The Eighth Square

Irony: It doesn’t always have to be nighttime and raining when the bloody corpse is discovered in a field, amongst trees who’s naked limbs reach to grab any passers by. What if it’s a perfectly beautiful day and your protagonist is strolling leisurely through a field of wild flowers? She’s just reached down to pick a flawless daisy when she notices the ruby red liquid dripping from its white petals and looks around to see severed limbs nestled within the field of vibrant spring colored flowers. A bright, sunny spring day filled with bloody body parts makes a very interesting contrast. So next time you go for the dark and stormy night switch it up a little, and see where it takes you.

“It is a common fault of men not to reckon on storms in fair weather.”
Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince

 

“It’s so dry the trees are bribing the dogs.”
Charles Martin, Chasing Fireflies: A Novel of Discovery

 

In conclusion remember, unless atmosphere/weather happens to be an actual character in your novel, don’t drown your reader with too much of it. Small doses interspersed to give the proper setting, or steer your character in the right direction, are all that is needed.

 

“one day you stepped in snow, the next in mud, water soaked in your boots and froze them at night, it was the next worst thing to pure blizzardry, it was weather that wouldn’t let you settle.” ― E.L. Doctorow, Welcome to Hard Times

 

I do hope you write a vicious storm, snowy blizzard, sun-baked day, torrential rain…the variations are endless, into your next story. As for me, I’m going to cozy back up with Lisa’s book. The atmosphere outside where I am vacationing, here on the Oregon coast, is perfect. A fog is rolling in and I can literally feel the waves pounding below my balcony.

 

Have you found other ways in which weather has enhanced your own writing or a favorite book?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

-4

Creation Creates Us, by Eric Witchey

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Photo Source: iStockPhoto, dschaef

Creation Creates Us, by Eric Witchey

The world creates writers; writers create the world.

On the quantum level, scientists, specifically my brother, Dr. Nick, who is an actual Ph.D. Particle Physicist, say that our perceptions and expectations may actually influence the manifestation of phenomenon. They definitely influence experimentation.

Much has been made of this concept in the fields of science fiction and fantasy. It’s not a new idea. Writers have been using and abusing it since the thirties. However, we rarely step back and think about the concept as a social phenomenon. Self-help gurus twist it around and talk about it a lot. The Secret movement of ten years ago is an example. It touted the law of attraction and the power of visualization, but it forgot to mention the correlation of success with long, carefully considered, constantly focused hard work. It also forgot to mention the long list of ethical, moral, and legal shortcomings of the people it presented as champions of the program.

None-the-less, the long-recognized value of visualization as a predecessor to success has value. Even Olympic athletes work hard to see themselves performing and winning as part of their training. Of course, we also know that if ten athletes visualize themselves on the top slot of the podium, only one of them will actually end up there. That doesn’t mean the others didn’t perform better because of their visualization. It just means that in the end, we, as a people, prefer to recognize dominance rather than contribution and performance improvement.

Hm… I suppose a strong case could be made for visualization manifestation as a trope of fantasy magic systems.

However, I want to talk about Steve Martin.

No, it’s not a digression. I admit, however, that people who know me and my ramblings shouldn’t be chastised for jumping ship now because it very well could be a squirrel I’m about to chase, and that squirrel could end up climbing a tree and laughing at my readers.

But it’s not.

You see, Steve Martin, whom I’ve never met and who, as far as I can tell, is not related to George R. R., has been a part of my awareness of comedy, writing, and film since he first went on stage wearing an arrow through his hat and picking a banjo. His career has spanned decades and gone from early, totally silly stage performance to serious writing and acting that has enriched our culture.

Also, I long ago read somewhere that he likes inline skates. So do I. So, I admire him.

Because I admire him, I paid attention to an obscure interview some years ago. In it, the interviewer asked him how he came up with his particular brand of zany comedy all those years ago in the 70s. His response floored me. He said that as an aspiring comedian, he came up around the angry comedy of the Civil Rights and Viet Nam era. This was the period of comedians like Lenny Bruce and Richard Pryor. Mr. Martin said that during that era, the era of the civil rights movement and protest against unnecessary militarism, military-industrial government corruption, population suppression (Kent State, Watts, and Chicago), and outright political corruption (Watergate), he saw a time coming when people would be exhausted and want a kind of humor that was lighter and more superficial. He invented his stand-up character with the silly hat, over-the-top delivery, and banjo in anticipation of that moment.

The moment came. The war ended. Nixon left office. The riots died down for a while.

Steve Martin leapt to the stage with happy energy dancing like King Tut and yelling, “I get paid for doing this!”

And, once again for people who follow my little essays, we come to the moment when we ask, “What the hell does this have to with writing and quantum theory?”

Right now, we live in the land of the political, ecological, military industrial train wreck we can’t stop watching as it happens. Most of us are sick to death of the endless wars, the obvious political corruption, and the corporate harvesting of our hard-earned money. Personally, I have lost two retirement accounts to corporate corruption, and for five years I fought with the banks to keep my house because I made the mistake of following their instructions in 2009. My trust landed me squarely in the debacle of fraudulent foreclosure scams. I was lucky. I was able to spend many thousands of dollars fighting. In the end. I managed to keep my house. Most did not, but that’s another story.

The point is that I’m not alone. None of us are. We are all just exhausted by the inefficient, ineffectual human stupidity all around us.

We are ripe for Steve Martin.

When I seek a new book to read, my emotional exhaustion means I don’t seek out the latest, greatest somber tome on social justice or personal triumph over childhood trauma.

I don’t seek out the classics unless I’m doing research.

I look for something that will make me smile and laugh. I look for a book that will give me a sense that the world can be right even though I know it is not. More and more, I look for books in which small groups of people, communities, come together to create actual, personal bonds. Better yet, I look for stories that show me those connections and make me laugh out loud.

So, this climate of emotional exhaustion and compassion fatigue is real. We live in it. We know it. We do what we can to fight it. We also, all of us, crave a kinder, lighter sense of life, community, and the world.

This deep, massive, underlying hope is an expectation, a proto-visualization of what could be—of what we want to manifest. As writers, we can give this nebulous hope form and put these visions out into the world as tiny seeds around which a new reality can crystalize.

Steve Martin may have once presented himself as “a wild and crazy guy,” but he also presented a sense of joy to the world, and around that sense of joy, others rallied. As his art matured, what began as silliness became satirical humor. His joy for life became both balm and social reform. It became a sort of call to action that people could embrace because laughing and joining together in common jokes let people address real problems in their hearts, their families, and the world.

Some weekend, when you are set up to binge a bit, walk through the progression of his acts and films. Go back and watch The Jerk, The Man with Two Brains, Roxanne, L.A. Story, Planes Trains and Automobiles, Father of the Bride, and Baby Momma. Watch the movement from the predominately silly with social undertones to the socially poignant with comedic undertones.

Do the same with the tales of Sir Terry Pratchett or with the progress of novels from Christopher Moore, to whom I am forever grateful for the greatest zombie line in all of literature, “First brains, then Ikea.”

Are these comedic writers created by their times? Are they creating their times? Are we, as writers, manifestations of the larger consciousness of the world around us, or are we creating the world around us by providing centers around which new visions of self and culture can be organized?

What we visualize can clearly influence our ability to perform. What we manifest in story can clearly influence the visualizations of the people around us. So, does our today’s project bring both salve and escape from our fear, anxiety, and fatigue? Can it? Can it be funny and provide insight and solution that creates a new world?

By all the muses, I hope so. Just for today, I hope my world includes something silly—something that makes me smile and laugh. I hope that my writing influences reality—creates an opportunity for others to visualize a better world in which people can look at one another’s differences, smile, and laugh because we all know we are all hurting and, in the end, we are all in it together.

-End-

Postscript: For people who are interested in taking a March 30th full-day class in Corvallis, Oregon from someone who does a very good job of manifesting humor and social consciousness, check out this link to a seminar offered by Willamette Writers on the River:

https://www.eventbrite.com/e/the-nuts-and-bolts-of-writing-and-selling-short-stories-tickets-21469413594