As I’ve said before, I make no promises about the accuracy or usefulness of what I say here. I’ll discuss some of my approaches to the writing process and I invite you to use what you can and dismiss what you can’t. Here you will find free advice, not asked for, and worth exactly what you paid for it.
If you follow me, you know I’m doing the Women’s Forum in about two hours. I gotta go get dressed, but I want to make sure all you people who give a shit hear what I have to say today, so I don’t care if it’s perfect. I’ll come back and edit it later if I need to. For now, buckle up. Today, shit’s gonna get real.
(“What do we say to Death?”
Download my slides here. (If you use Google Drive, it should work fine for you. No promises if you’re anti-Google, sorry. Ain’t nobody got time for that today, and let’s be real, I probably won’t get back around to this because Life. If you want to see the slides today, just use the damn Google for once. It won’t bite.)
Below is the “script” of my talk. I always write my presentations as blog posts first because Writer. I ad lib as needed from them in person. So, if you want to hear one version of this presentation, you can download the audio here. If you want to hear the live version… well, you should have signed up for the Women’s Forum. Catch you next time, loser. (jk, I love you guys.)
So, with no more ado. Here’s the audio, and I’m off to the Forum. See you soon.
p.s. you’ll find my “stage notes” still embedded in this blog post, so if you pay attention as you read, it will tell you when to progress to the next slide. Some information will be the same on “different” slides. That’s on purpose because Visuals help people not look at little ol’ me while I’m talking. It freaks me out. So pay attention, move the slides when it says, and it’ll make sense. Also, one of those stage notes is sure to make you laugh, which why I decided to leave it here. Have a good one, folks. :D
Creativity and the Authentic Self
Using art as a means of activism and self-discovery.
I have this friend, an old cowboy type, who never asks people how they are. Instead, he saunters over and drawls, “Whatcha know?” I like that because it invites people to connect intellectually, and not on such a visceral level. Most people answer, “How are you?” with, “Fine.” Come on… we know most of the time that’s a lie, or at least an oversimplification. Even if you tell me how you are, there’s no guarantee I’m going to understand your experience. Maybe you have a cancer. Maybe you have three children. Maybe you’re Hindu. I wouldn’t know what it’s like to experience life through any of those lenses, but I’d still like to hear about them. What is it like being you? What have you learned in your time here?
When I was an angsty teenager (oh come on, we’ve all been there), I had the idea to write a list of things I’d learned that year. Mostly because I had no friends and my parents went to be at 9:30, and I wanted to stay up til midnight. But damn, New Years is boring alone! It’s amazing what you can make when you’re bored and lonely. Anyway, I’ve done this every year since I first started in 2001. At first, it was every day things like, “got my learner’s permit, started learning to drive” or “today, I learned the oldest organism on Earth is a colony of quaking aspen named Pando, estimated to be over 80,000 years old.” (That’s true, btw.) Cool information, but anybody could learn those things. Today, most of life’s questions are only a google away. As I got older, I started drifting away from the information, and more toward philosophical observations about the world around me. In 2008, I wrote, (slide) “we’re not as big as we think we are.” (Clearly, I got kicked around a little that year.) In 2010, (slide) “I am beginning to think the meaning of life is infinite. I’m sure there is meaning, but it will manifest itself differently in each individual piece of the whole.”
It was around this time that I started writing things more personal and important to me. That was the point where I started to really come into my voice as an artist. Some of you, I think, have heard me speak before. You may know me as the author of a young adult fantasy series called The Seven Wars. You may recognize Lask– this guy [Vanna White the book cover images, because marketing, and they’re pretty, so they won’t look at you– and your broke ass needs the money. Someone might actually buy one today. Dammit, Elanor. Do it right.].
These are, as the name suggests, fanciful works for young people, but in writing them, I learned something about myself: (slide) I feel distinctly out of place, while simultaneously believing everyone and everything belongs here and is part of a much greater whole. This is the paradox of the creative spirit, I think. Artists are inherently weird people. The ability to produce art stems from an innately warped view of the world, for better or worse, and the practiced skill of being able to share your warped view with others through the use your chosen medium. I also learned you have to ask the right questions. And sometimes those are hard questions to ask… and even harder to answer.
You have to learn to acknowledge, accept, and enjoy your own weird company. This is a challenge for anyone, but especially someone the world thinks is already abnormal– your body is too big, you’re too tall, too short, too pale, too dark, you have social anxiety, you have ptsd, you have an eating disorder. Nobody’s normal; we all spend our lives feeling like freaks.
A lot of people shy away from getting to know themselves altogether. They take more shifts at work. They argue with the people around them. They lose themselves in the mindless scroll of social media. They take their existential anxieties out on the world around them, vent their fears into arenas that feel safe, pin the blame on things that are tangible. We distract ourselves with constant entertainment– our technology puts all the knowledge of humanity at our fingertips, and also offers a font of endless distraction. It’s easy to avoid coming to terms with yourself by never letting your mind wander deeper than the current spectacle at hand.
As artists, life doesn’t always let us sharpen our craft in the ways we think we should. We don’t have time to paint; we have day jobs, and meals to cook. There’s not enough quiet space to write, children make incessant noise, we have people calling us, showing up at our doors, pinging our phones with social media notifications. How can we be creative in a world that demands our attention be spent outside of our own heads?
I think a few of you attended my workshop here last year, so you may already know where this is going. Being an artist, a true artist, colors everything you do. Creativity is a lens through which we view life, and if we practice it regularly, sharpening your craft becomes a way of life. At it’s root, any creative work is simply thinking and feeling– the art produced is just the expression of the thought or feeling. Therefore, even when you’re too busy to put pen to paper, if you’re consciously practicing mental awareness, thinking critically about things around you and in your own head, considering the emotional and universal aspect of an experience you’re part of, you’re practicing the most crucial skill to any art form, and when you do have time to pick up your pen, you’ll be a better artist for it. Any artistic technique takes practice, so if you want to be good with a particular medium, you’ll have to make time to practice the technique eventually, but the technique is worthless if there’s nothing to express with it. Real art takes substance, and you can only learn to produce things of substance if you yourself are substantial. In order to become substantial in a way you can use creatively, you have to first exercise your intelligence and come to understand yourself as an artist, where you stand, and what you actually think about anything. In order to do that, you have to brave the nitty gritty of being honest with yourself.
Many people are afraid of silence. They’ll do anything to avoid it– play music in the background, leave the tv on all the time, turn on noise machines. Why are we afraid of silence? What do we hear echoed in the stillness that so frightens us? Maybe it’s simply the unknown of our own beings. It’s a scary thing to examine what’s in your head. It’s never comfortable to take a thought, pull out your magnifying glass and tweezers, and ask, “Why is this here? How did this come to be in my head? Is this even true? Why do I think that? Should I let it stay? Should I indulge this thought?” This picture here is a self portrait that I took three days after I came home from the hospital; I had been battling numerous infections, and was depressed and anxious about everything I was juggling at the time, I literally went crazy for a night. Police came and dragged me to the hospital in handcuffs. That’s what this crazy world will do to you if you’re not careful. I’d never experience anything like that. It was terrifying. Humiliating. It broke all the relationships in my life that were important to me for a while. Some are still broken. It’s the price we pay for the pain we carry just living here.
When I came home, I took week off work because I was too embarrassed and shaken to face my coworkers. I had sent raving lunatic emails to some of supervisor, sent the most random pictures to people who hardly know me, and myriad other things that will forever being shoved into my Closet of Shame.
But a few days into this shame-ridden vacation, I was looking for ways to take my mind off things. I’m a millennial. We’re big into selfies. I decided I’d see about snapping profile picture for Facebook. So, I picked myself up off the couch, put on real clothes for the first time in days, did my make-up, and took this picture. I just walked over to the window for light, held up the phone and pressed the button. Did a little editing afterward on the lighting and stuff, but overall, this is a fairly candid shot of me on that day. And it startled the hell out of me when I put my phone down to see what kind of shot I had gotten. I didn’t intend to take this picture, but yet… this is a dangerous woman. She’s standing there slightly bowed or cowered, with her arms tucked back, like she’s still feeling the bite of those unforgiving metal cuffs, and yet she’s looking up at the world like, “when I get out of here, I’m gonna kick your ass.” That’s a powerful photo. Especially when you the story of that woman on that day. But it’s also a selfie. It’s also art. There’s nothing wrong with embracing modern culture if you can use it to help yourself or someone else. Even if just taking that selfie helps you better understand what you’re going through, it’s still art, and it’s still productive. It doesn’t matter what you’re creating, even if it’s as vain and vapid as a good selfie. If it helps you think and express yourself, then it’s a good thing.
People are afraid to think. It leads us into uncharted territory, brings up unanswered questions, and people don’t like those. Makes ‘em squirm. Makes ‘em feel threatened. Threatened people get mean. Our amygdalas encounter fear and scream, “Oh god! Puff up! Yell! That’ll scare it off!” Why, though? Why are we afraid to think about things we don’t know and don’t understand? We like to know things. We’re all secretly nosy. Knowledge is power. For some people, knowledge is even moral superiority. Reality, faith, truth, these are things most people base their daily lives on. If you pull a loose thread in one of those, people start worrying the whole thing will unravel, and everything they know and love will come crashing down around their heads.
But here’s the thing: it doesn’t work that way. Thoughts are free. Nobody knows what goes on in your head (put down that tinfoil hat), and the only judgement you’ll get for it is what you give yourself. So don’t judge yourself for the things that go through your head. There’s nothing wrong with you for thinking, for using the brain that God gave you. That’s what it’s for; God will be proud.
History has shown ignorance is far more dangerous than knowledge. By not thinking, by letting ourselves be distracted into complacency, we walk, oblivious, through a world we take no part in, and that’s a sad way to live. By not thinking for ourselves, we give control of our minds to whatever entertainment or resources we consume. Thinking, truly thinking, is a deep and personal activity. Your mind is like any other tool; you have to practice often and diversely if you are to use it well. Mastering any skill requires you to learn about yourself, your abilities, your handicaps, what you can and cannot do. In terms of your mind, this requires you to address your own biases, your influences, your beliefs, what you will compromise, and what you will not. It’s an ugly process, but I promise you’ll be a stronger, more beautiful, more loving, and more creative person because of it. Sometimes you will overstretch yourself, feel too acutely the pain of the world, and come crashing down in a flood of tears and dismay. Sometimes you will disappoint yourself. Sometimes you’ll make people spitting furious. Sometimes your own hostility or prejudice may surprise you. You won’t always like what you find, but you don’t have to.
That’s the part I think people miss: learning who you are, becoming who you’re meant to be, it’s not about becoming perfect, or even better at something. Being yourself just means knowing who you are, all of who you are, and accepting it as part of your life. You don’t have to like it all, but you do have to accept that it’s there. The man who was born without legs has to accept that he won’t move around this world like most people. Likewise, some things in your mind you just have to learn to work around.
For some of us, that means accepting our minds don’t work like other people’s. I would even say it works that way for all of us. Regardless of whether or not your struggle is compounded by things like mental illness or trauma, you’ll still have to accept that you’re never going to be like “most people” because no one is exactly like you. None of us are. None of us can be. Normalcy is a myth perpetuated by people in power to keep you from realizing the power of your own uniqueness.
This picture was taken about eighteen hours before those cops dragged me out of my house last year. Even when I was going crazy, I was snapping pictures, scribbling writing notes, and sketching like mad. It’s like my brain was searching for anything to help it understand what was happening, but that it time it was a biological problem and no amount of soul-searching would save me.
That’s where art comes into our lives. Art touches us most at the moments we are most alone, hurting, and vulnerable. That’s why I personally believe it’s an instrument of God; Art is the one thing that can bring Light to someone no matter where they are or who they are. Art is one of those rare things that serves as a bridge between the single human mind and the vaster horizons of the world. Art gives us a safe way to explore what is within us, and share it with minds outside of us. It allows us to indulge whatever questions, feelings, beliefs, frustrations, or dreams we have. It means that even though we are alone, we don’t have to feel alone. There is no facet of the human experience that cannot be communicated in art. Whether it is through writing, or painting, or music, dance, acting– anything that provides an outlet for the creative mind allows us to share some part of our experience, and part of ourselves, with each other. That’s what makes art so personal and so powerful. The art is unique to the artist, and yet it tolls a familiar chord somewhere in the hearts of others. Art taps into the numinous force connecting us all, (slide) wait, no… (slide) the thing great psychologist Carl Jung called the “collective unconscious,” the shared humanity between people from all places. The ability to communicate through shared emotions, symbols, and experiences is art’s greatest power, and the tool that has the greatest potential to unite us as a community of human beings.
True art can only be made through the exploration of the human mind. Art is, at its a core, a communication. Whether you believe it is divinely inspired or not, art is the medium through which the abstract, the universal, the “form” (to quote Plato) (slide) is transferred into the physical world where others can experience it. If your art makes someone feel or think, then you have successfully created art. It may not be the best rendered art, you may have room to improve your technique, but if you are communicating yourself, the things that you think, then you are an artist, and the world desperately needs you– or if not the world, then the handful of lonely people who think and feel similarly to you.
I don’t think anyone can look around right now and say the world is a place of love and unity. It never has been. Probably never will be, since so many people prefer the comfort of their familiar mental boxes rather than actually getting to know each other, but if the world has any prayer at all of becoming a better place, then art is going to make it happen, because art is the place where we can unite in our shared humanity. It’s also the most effective medium for sharing our own experiences. Only by sharing our individual experiences, listening to what the world looks like to other people, learning from the experiences of others, will we be able to fix the things that divide us. Art is the most efficient and powerful way to spread what you believe and experience.
Art slaps us to attention when we are being complacent, and it soothes us when we ache in our souls. That’s what makes it such a dual force for social change, and self healing. If you can still make art, you’ll be fine. It doesn’t matter what you make. You don’t have to sit down to write a novel. Just write. Write a letter to someone, a few lines of verse, a few hundred words of a scenario you imagined in the shower. Doodle on your meeting notes. Arrange your fridge magnets into silly faces. If you still have the strength to make something, no matter how small, it means your soul is still kicking and you’re going to be ok eventually, even if it takes awhile. Sometimes life gets really complicated, deep, and heavy. The pain becomes immense at times, and some days, you question whether or not you even want to keep living. But it’s going to be ok. All you have to do is survive, and keep reaching for the will to create. Busy yourself with your work, and just live it one day at a time. You will survive, and it won’t suck forever. There’s no way to make life easy, but you will find you are strong enough. You won’t think so going into it. Every day, you’ll wonder if this will be the day that breaks you. But it won’t. Keep breathing, keep putting one foot in front of the other, keep making things that express you, and it will pass. You can cry, you can scream, you can hide or run or sleep, whatever you need to do to pass the emotion of the moment, those things are all ok, but it will pass.
Life won’t always be pretty. That’s what makes art an act of defiance and resilience. Art, for a moment, helps us remember that a bad day, a bad year, a bad stretch of years, doesn’t mean it’s a bad life. With any luck, we’ve got a lot of life left in us. Sometimes, you’ll be in the trenches, and you’ll be fighting. You’re not fighting for your spouse, your kids or your family. You’re not fighting for your career. You’re not even fighting for your art. You’re fighting for yourself, because that’s all you have at the end of the day. It’s the one thing nobody has any right to take from you, and the one thing nobody can. Fight for the life you want, the life that calls you, not the one anyone else thinks you ought to have. Live boldly. Create fearlessly. It doesn’t matter who you are, where you are, or what skill level you have achieved so far in your craft. Take pride in yourself, know yourself, and live by the things that feel true when it’s silent and you’re alone. Your art is your mirror and your megaphone. For some of us, it’s the only weapon we have, whether we’re fighting the world or what’s in our heads. If we want to stay alive and keep doing good while we’re here, we have to keep it sharp.
Computer messages that shouldn’t be annoying any sane person right now– and here I am, having to schedule a restart for 9:15 AM (when I’ll be at work in the morning) so I can keep pecking at my keyboard undisturbed until I finally drag myself to bed when the creatively-exhausted stupor sets in– if I drag myself to bed at all tonight. I love my brain, I love watching this process of expressing ideas and stories unfold, but I do wish it were willing to show some sympathy to MY schedule, which pays the bills.
Don’t let anyone tell you being a writer is easy, and don’t let anyone make you feel like your work as a writer is in any way less than a “real job,” even if it doesn’t earn you a penny. Coming up with ideas can be easy, letting words flow onto a page can be easy; on rare and treasured occasions, even feeling somewhat confident in your work is easy, but the lifestyle of a true writer is never easy. In the throes of creativity, you will be exhausted. You will be isolated from the rest of humankind in the strangest and most inopportune ways, leaving you to wonder if you are an undiagnosed madman. You will sometimes cry with frustration or sheer exhaustion from not being able to keep up with the speed and scope of your own mind while doing your thoughts justice through hurried words or brushstrokes. But if your soul is meant to write, there is a secret corner of your heart where you are somehow able to enjoy every minute of the all-consuming creative disease, even through the stretches where the process threatens to break you with its demands. If you can weather that process, if you can tough it out through the exhaustion, you will have produced something that is true art (or has the potential to be, with some proper polishing). So next time you feel like your creative projects are crushing you and not worth the trouble, just keep typing. The exhaustion will pass, and eventually (perhaps years later) you will have a piece of true art, produced from your own hands and mind– a piece of art which is somehow simultaneously beautiful, compelling, and uniquely you.
Art is the only way through which people are able to communicate mind-to-mind, heart-to-heart, and soul-to-soul, regardless of personal identity or time. Art enables two people (the artist and the art consumer) to share a moment of thought that passes only between those two minds– it’s the closest thing to a Vulcan mind meld you’ll probably ever experience. Your art is the best way to pass your experiences, your perspectives, and the lessons you’ve learned from your own life on to others, including future generations. If done right, and with a little luck, your art will be a vessel for your soul long after you’ve moved on from the world. (That’s right: your art is your own personal hopefully-less-malignant horcrux. Make it a powerful one– shred your soul to make that art.) Your life is unique, therefore the things you learn are unique– you may put pieces of thought together to produce a conclusion about the world, God, or just a simple but relatable quirk of human nature, that literally no one else can conclude because no one else is you. Just by living and thinking, you collect unique information about yourself and the world. No one else has your experiences (your data) to analyze the craziness of life and come to the exact conclusion you will– a conclusion that just might be the bright idea that actually changes the world.
No one knows who will come up with the ideas that truly create change, because no one knows what other humans can create (whether for good or evil). Therefore, live. Think. Process your experiences. Tell them to others in whatever form works for you– writing, art, music, mathematical equations that explain our universe, whatever!– and you might just be the one who strikes the first note to change the entire chord of humanity. You never know who will start that change (often change comes out of the most unlikely of circumstances), so whoever you are, whatever your skill level: never stop creating. Never stop honing the talents that enable you to communicate your life to other people. Between the 7+ billion people on this planet, we should be able to work out some solutions for this mess we call the modern world– we just have to find ways to talk to each other in a world where the technologies of communication are greater than they’ve ever been, but human understanding of each other is at an all-time low. Art can speak where conversations fail. So whatever you can create, make sure you create it, because if you have the courage to weather the creative process, to stick with your art to the end, your dedication alone means your art has something worth saying.
Below is the transcript of a talk I gave at England Run Library on April 12, 2015. You can download the accompanying slides here.
Hello, my name is Elanor Hope Kindred, otherwise known as E. H. Kindred, author of The Seven Wars series, artist, and graphic designer. When I agreed to do this presentation, I’d originally thought I would give you all the usual shpeel about writing, polishing your work, researching publishing options, marketing yourself… but I’ve talked about that a lot in the past few years. My first book came out in 2012, and since then, I’ve given a lot of talks about how I did it, what kind of publishing platform I use, what kind of marketing techniques I employ, but that’s not what I do. I’m not a publisher. I’m not a marketer. I’m a writer. I write things. The rest is secondary, and to be perfectly honest, half the time I can’t be bothered with the marketing stuff.
So, I’m going to talk about writing, in the purest and simplest form. Writing really doesn’t have anything to do with money, or typesetting, or book signings, or giving talks like this. Writing is about you, a page, and some ink– or pixels, if you prefer to write on a computer, which most of us probably do these days. Ernest Hemingway once said, “There’s nothing to writing. You just sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” And that is the truth. If you don’t feel like your words are part of your life force, then they’re not the words you should be writing. You should write what calls you, not what you think people want to hear.
So what makes a writer, really? It not just someone who puts words on paper. Most people do that multiple times a day– we write grocery lists, and e-mails, and Facebook posts. Being a writer doesn’t always involve putting words on paper at all. Some people write one book, and never write another word. You don’t stop being a writer if you stop writing. So where is that line? What separates a writer from the rest of the population? I would argue that the state of being a writer is a lens through which one sees the world, and that’s true of any kind of artist– and writers are artists, wouldn’t you say? Artists see the world differently than the average joe. They look at everyday life, and they notice things about it. They see something ordinary, and it makes them feel something profound. Often, they don’t really know who they are. Writers are weird people. You may have noticed. F Scott Fitzgerald even said, “Writers aren’t people exactly. They’re lots of people trying to be one person.”
Writers are lots of people. We have a hard time defining ourselves, and sometimes we wear a different identity for each day of the week. Often writers have to write to find out who they are. Flannery O’Connor said once, “I don’t know what I think until I read what I write.” That’s probably true for a lot of writers. I took scads English and writing classes in school, and majored in English. In just about every writing class I had, someone would tell me something along the lines, “Don’t be afraid! You have things to say! That’s why you write!” That terrified me, because the ugly truth is that I don’t think I have anything to say. I never go into a writing project feeling like I have something to say. It’s only after I’ve started writing, after I’ve submerged myself in those words for while, I realize there are things that I’ve said worth saying. I didn’t intend to say them, or know what they’d be in advance. Just like this talk I’m giving now. There was a moment when I decided I didn’t want to recycle an old powerpoint and notes about “go get ‘em!” marketing. I sat down at my computer, and typed the words, “I’m not a publisher. I’m not a marketer…” and away I went.
A writer approaches life in a way different than the average person. We fill our time with different things, we look at people differently, we hear conversations differently. We have to do that in order to keep our creative reservoirs full. You should always be reading something. I’m always reading a book, even if I can only read a few pages a day. You have to read. See movies whenever you can. Listen to music. Go to that school play in town. The more you interact with art, the more you’ll find art inside yourself.
So, how does one approach a story? Where do stories really come from? There’s an ancient concept of creativity called the Muse, which is practically forgotten in the modern world. Sure, people reference it now and then when they want to be quirky, and say, “Oh, the muse is smiling today” or “You just need to get in touch with your muse!” But that’s not the Muse. The Muse is wild, like the wind. It doesn’t wait for you to send a letter. It doesn’t come when you call. It cannot be summoned. Like Gandalf said of wizards, the Muse is neither late nor early. It arrives precisely when it means to, and no amount of groveling or flash fiction exercises will make it show up any sooner. To truly court the Muse, you have to live like the Muse– on your own time, with your own mind, and based on your own passions. The story will come when it’s ready, and you have to be ready when it does. For me, it feels less like coming up with an idea, and more like I’m just waiting to catch one when the Muse decides to throw it at me.
I don’t outline, not at first anyway. The only time I ever make outlines is when I go back to rewrite books I’ve already written, which (by the way) is something everyone ought to do. When I outline then, it’s mostly so I don’t leave out something important in the fervor of rewriting. My Young Adult Fantasy series that’s in the library, and for sale online– I re-wrote each of those books at least three times, more for some. In the last iteration, when I knew I was writing to polish them for publication, I sat down, read the previous manuscript in its entirety, and outlined what was most important. That’s a useful tactic for rewriting. It helps you boil down all the fluff to what’s really important. When I’m starting a new project, though, I never outline. I just sit down and write, and half the time not even in order.
When you pick up a book, you leaf through it, and all the pages are in order. All the chapters are in the order they’re supposed to be in. There’s a beginning, middle, and an end (usually), but books are never neat like that when you’re in the thick of writing them, and if you try to write the book like it’s already finished, you’ll suffocate. Often my books start as a single scene, and that scene is rarely the beginning. Sometimes, the first scene I write for something new doesn’t even end up in the finished product. It’s not about where you start in a project, it’s the fact you start at all. I don’t write linearly. I don’t start at the beginning, and write through to the end. Some days I feel like writing action. Some days I feel like writing dialogue, some days a little exposition. I just go with it. I never tell myself, “No, no. Today we need to work on this.” If you feel like writing something, write it. Because you won’t feel like writing it later, and if you try to force it later, it won’t be nearly as good as what you could have done if you’d written when you had the fire for it.
That’s how the Muse works, in my experience. The Muse never delivers a finished book. Often, the Muse doesn’t even deliver something that looks like a book. It’s like buying furniture at IKEA. The Muse delivers fragments of some crazy idea, and it’s your job to take the fragments as they come, and then figure out how they fit together. Don’t fight it. Just go with it. Your writing will be a lot healthier and a lot richer if you don’t try to cram it in a box, or organize it into an outline. Not in the beginning stages. In the beginning, just let the words go where they will, let the story be what it wants to be. You might be amazed what will come out if you just let go and don’t try to rein it in with an outline.
There’s lots of resources in the world that claim to teach people how to write. There are tons of books, classes, webinars– all kinds of things– that can teach you techniques for writing, but they can’t teach you to create. I think that’s a mistake a lot of new writers make. They check out all the writing books they can get their hands on, they go to writing groups, they take Creative Writing classes, then they get horribly frustrated when they sit down at their own word processor and can’t seem to write one word. You can study technique all you like, but no one can teach you how to create. You don’t need to be taught how to create. Everyone has creativity that came into this world with them. Your Muse was born the day you were; you don’t need to look to the outside world to find it. You just have to tune out all that noise, all that education, and just be an artist. Let things flow as they will. Don’t worry about whether or not you’ve organized the plot properly, or whether your subject and verbs agree. At the beginning, just create. The editing will come later, and that’s the place to apply the education you have. Don’t teach yourself out of your innate creativity. Write whatever you want, whenever you want, in whatever order you want; that’s how you’ll write something worth reading.
Naturally, there comes a point where you have to sit down write all the connecting pieces, and rewrite things into something other people can understand, and that’s when it’s good to have some discipline. Find a pace that’s realistic and reasonable for you. I usually aim to write 1000 words a day, when I’m actively working on a project. I arrived at that number after years of writing, and getting to know myself as a writer. Start small. Try for 300 words. If that feels too easy, bump it up to 500, 700, 1000, 1500. You want something that makes you devote time and effort to the work, but not something that’s going to drive you crazy. For me, 1000 words is a happy medium. Some days I do double or triple that, and those are the days when I can lean back in the chair and go, “Yeah… I’m good.” Other days, I can barely force out 500 words. Those are the days when I have stop and think, “Why isn’t this working?” Usually, it’s because I’m trying to write something I’m not inspired to write at the time. If I shift to a different scene, sometimes it goes a lot better. Sometimes you just have off days– your day job fried you, your cat barfed on your bed while you were gone, your partner forgot to replace the trash bag again, and don’t even get me started on the people in Wal-mart when I just needed to buy shampoo! Life happens. You’re not a failure when you’re stuck dealing with real life. You’re not a failure if you take time off from writing to just live. The real trick is figuring out how to manage life in such a way that you still have energy left for words.
It’s tragically easy to sabotage yourself when it comes to writing. It’s easy to procrastinate, to put off writing until writing is no longer a habit. I went for a stretch where I didn’t write for nearly two years. That was hard to shake out of. It’s easy to feel like you’re not good enough, easy to convince yourself not to waste your time. I think all writers get to that point sometimes, and it’s a real writer who can shake herself or himself out of that.
I don’t like NaNoWriMo– that’s National Novel Writing Month, for those unfamiliar– and I’ll tell you why. NaNoWriMo is too big for the novice, and too restrictive for the pro. Anybody who finishes a novel can tell you that it comes in its own time, and forcing it doesn’t usually help. I once wrote a novel in three weeks. There’s another that I’ve been working on for three years that’s still not finished. There’s nothing wrong with either of those scenarios. Sure, it might be more impressive to be able to say you finished a novel in three weeks, but the time it takes to complete a book doesn’t have any bearing on what’s between those pages. If everything comes pouring out of you in a flood and you finish your book in a matter of weeks, awesome. If the words only come like a drizzle and it takes a few years for them to all trickle out, that’s fine too. NaNoWriMo can be decent motivation for people who don’t have a lot of practice self-motivating, and it’s true every now and then you hear about a gem that came out of it that made it big time in the publishing industry, but from what I’ve seen, that deadline usually only causes unnecessary stress and obsession, makes people feel guilty or like a failure if they fall behind, or it instills false confidence in the people who do make it on time. Whether or not you can finish a book in a month is no indication of whether or not you can write a book, even if you succeed in writing the right number of words by the end of the month. You might churn out 60,000 words in four weeks, but that’s pointless if it’s not something worth reading. You might get down 15,000 beautiful words in that month, and then give up because you missed the deadline and lost your motivation. How many true writers, how many good books, have been discouraged and lost because they missed a deadline and felt like they’d failed something?
NaNoWriMo is the one month of the year when everyone and their brother jumps on the “I’m a writer!” bandwagon. Let’s be honest, a lot of those people aren’t writers. You can enjoy writing, but that doesn’t inherently make you a writer. If you only put pen to paper once a year in November because of some contest, you’re not a writer. That idea offends some people, and I’ve had people get very upset with me when I’ve said that, and it’s true there’s not any one thing that makes someone a writer, but you know when you’re talking to a writer and when you’re not. You know when you’re talking to someone who genuinely sees the world through a creative lens, and when you’re talking to someone who just thinks playing “writer” is fun. That’s not to say you should be a snob to people. I always encourage people who tell me they’re doing NaNoWriMo– they might be one of the people who finds success that way, and it’s not for me to tell someone what’s going to work for them. I always encourage the people who come up to my booksigning tables and say they’re aspiring writers, even if they haven’t written a single word yet. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say everyone has the potential to be a writer. It’s up to you whether you use that potential to turn yourself into a writer or not.
There’s something of a poet in all of us. There’s at least one moment in every life when someone looks at something and thinks about it in beautiful words. Bursts of eloquence come at the most unexpected times and unexpected places. A writer is someone who learns to take advantage of that. To net the words as they fly through us. Words are around us all the time. The world is made of them. A writer is a person who can sift through them and bring out the good ones. And often, that happens just by living life and talking to people.
You have to talk to people. That’s the hardest part for me. I’m the biggest introvert you’ve probably ever met. Phone calls are the devil, and just going up the street to Giant because I’m out of milk is like having to psyche myself up to swim the English Channel. But you have to watch people. You have to talk to people. People are strange, funny, tragic, beautiful creatures, and the only way you can ever write about them is if you study them, all of them, indiscriminately. Sometimes I just stand at my office window and watch people moving on the sidewalk, or in the parking lot. Sometimes I stand in line at the grocery store, and watch the other people waiting. Why do they move the way they do? Why is that woman missing an earring? Why is that kid’s shoelace broken? Why does that old man wear a college ring where a wedding band should be? Where did that girl learn to say “cattywampus,” when her father just said “catty-corner”? How did my cashier get that little scar over her eye? People are full of stories. The littlest detail can lead to a vast story most people never see. That’s the lens of being a writer. You have to watch, you have to listen, you have to see things about the world and the people in it that most people don’t think are important. Often, the things people don’t normally see are the most compelling.
The most important thing about other people, though, is that they read. In a way, you must collect words from the world around you, then give them back to world after you’ve pieced them together into art. It’s pretty pointless to pour weeks and years of effort into something, and then never let any eyes but yours see it.
I was a bespectacled third grader when I first started writing. Eight years old, I wrote short stories. I kept them in box under my bed. As I got a little older– ten, eleven– I graduated to writing novellas. I also kept them hidden under my bed. One time, my mom was cleaning and pulled the box out. I don’t think she realized what it was– she probably assumed it was schoolwork– but in that moment, I was swept with such terror. I remember wishing I had a way to make myself just drop dead right then. Child-me couldn’t bear the thought of someone’s eyes on those words.
Why is that? All writers are kind of like that, aren’t they? Maybe not to the dramatic extent children are, but we get all antsy when people read our words. That’s because we are our words. Those words are a piece of you, and someone else is getting a look at a piece of your soul. That’s scary. It’s especially scary if you have social anxiety like me. I live my entire life feeling like I’ve just come out of the cafeteria lunch line, clutching my tray, surveying the room, feeling like no one is going to want me to sit with them. Imagine how frightening it is to hand someone a manuscript I’ve labored over, which contains so much of me, and wait. What if they don’t like it? What if it sucks? What if they think I’m some kind of freak for even thinking of the stuff in this book?
It’s scary to put yourself out there, but you have to do it. I have six books in print, and it’s still scary. I wrote the first draft of my first novel when I was fifteen, and for a few weeks after it was done, I just sat on it. I couldn’t bring myself to show it to anyone. Then I realized how sad that was, what a waste it would be. So, I let people start reading. Today, I mostly don’t think about people reading my work. It’s part of being a writer, and sometimes it’s nice. Sometimes people have good things to say about my work, and that’s always a nice ego boost and sense of validation. Sometimes people have bad things to say about it. That’s ok, and also part of being a writer. You have to learn to take the praise and the criticism. Sometimes it’s hard, but it’s unavoidable. You can’t reach your potential as a writer unless you share your work, and you can’t share your work without getting feedback. A book is a conversation between a writer and reader. If you don’t allow space for the reader to respond, then it’s not a conversation, and the book isn’t doing its job. You want the reader to respond, you want to make them feel things– even if those things are negative. If your words can make someone else think and feel something, then you’re on the right track as a writer.
One can’t be a true writer without a reader. Writing is often a solitary profession, but writers need people. We get material from people, we get feedback from people, and most importantly, we get read by people. In exchange, we share our artist’s lens with non-writers. We enable people to see the world through the lens of a writer for a brief time. Reading the words of another person is the closest our world can get to a Vulcan mind-meld, and it’s that kind of connection between minds that can bring about growth, change, and a better world.
The world needs artists, needs writers, because we see things through that creative lens. Artists provide a much-needed perspective on things. Often you can’t solve a problem without getting a different perspective, and that’s something that you as a writer can provide to the world. Never underestimate what you can do with your unique perspective, and the words you put on paper.
Not long after I released my first book, I started doing book signings. They are a great way to hawk your new releases, get exposure for yourself, and generate buzz for your work. However, I found there was little information about what to actually expect during them. I found plenty of resources about what to bring to them, how to sit or stand or pitch, but I could not find anything about the real interactions with people I could expect, and being the socially awkward person I am, that was the information I most needed. So having completed (or maybe survived) my first dozen or so book signings, I thought I would share some general observations. Perhaps it will help someone find the information that I couldn’t before my first signing, and maybe it will give some veteran book-signers a laugh. So, in no particular order, here are some observations from behind the book-signing table.
1) Many people will be too lazy to even glance at the back of the book. This was one thing I did not realize, so when people started coming up and asking me, “What’s this about?” I fumbled for a good synopsis I could deliver quickly and naturally. Be sure to have a well-practiced summary you can pitch in under 20 seconds. 30 seconds is when most people will start to give you that glazed fish-eye look, so keep it short, simple, and try not to let it sound too rehearsed.
2) See what people like, and tailor your pitch to fit. My usual tactic is to talk to passing people and say, “Hi! Do you like fantasy?” If they say no, I don’t bother them any more. If they say yes, I’ll usually ask what kind of fantasy is their favorite. I’m pretty well-read in the fantasy genre, so I try to draw parallels between my book and the ones they say they like. I find this to be a very successful tactic, because it’s both a sales pitch and a conversation, so it encourages them to linger and look over my table.
3) Some people will be a little too chatty and sometimes about nothing to do with anything you’re selling. Occasionally, I will have people talk to me just because I am there, and since I’m tending my table, I can’t escape. I’ve had people stand at my table for 20-some minutes to tell me about everything from sports, their phone, the trouble in the Middle East, to (my personal favorite) the local cicada population. Try to be polite, but be aware the longer they stand there, the more likely it is they are keeping potential buyers away. I notice a lot of people look at my table with interest but will not approach if there is someone else there actively talking to me. Be polite, but if they’re not talking about your work, try to find some other business to take care of that will encourage them to move on, such as checking your inventory or needing to answer a (possibly fake) phone call.
4) If you have candy, any kids in the venue will return like boomerangs, often for 2-3 pieces at a time. I have a small candy dish on my table, and I wouldn’t say it helps my sales, but it’s nice to have something to offer the people who approach, even if they don’t buy anything. Adds a certain sense of hospitality. However, be prepared to cut off candyholic kids after their second or third visit to your table. Parents are not amused if I have provided their kid with a sugar high for the afternoon, and since parents are usually the ones with the money, I want to keep myself in their good graces. Also make sure you mention what kind of candy it is, in case a child has allergies.
5) What age range? If you write anything other than adult books, be prepared to give an age range for your book, because you will be asked many times. I tell people mine are for 12+ unless the child is an advanced reader. I often ask the parent if the child has read Harry Potter, and if yes, then they could probably handle the reading level of my book. So, try to have an age in mind, and something on a similar reading level the parent might be familiar with.
6) People will ask very personal questions. How are your sales? How much did it cost to do this? How much have you made? For the sales question, I usually just answer, “can’t complain.” As far as I’m concerned, no one needs to know my sales numbers or my profits but me. Not until I can brag about one million copies sold or something. Anything short of that probably won’t impress people, so there is no reason to share. For the cost, I’ll answer that honestly, since putting out a book through Createspace really doesn’t cost me anything other than the time to prepare it. I can pay for extra services, and I occasionally do, but that’s another thing that’s not the average passerby’s business. Be polite, but respect your own privacy.
7) Who’s the publisher? Since I’m self-published, this can be a tricky question, as some people will snub self-published work and others will celebrate it, so I usually try to size up the person to guess what they would respond to better. Sometimes I will answer, “I do it myself through Amazon,” other times I will say, “An indie publisher, Sun Hawk Press.” Neither of those statements is untrue. This is one instance where it pays off to buy your own ISBN numbers and establish your own publishing imprint.
8) How long did it take you to write it? I feel like for a lot of authors– myself included– this is a difficult question to answer, because many of us spend our whole lives working on our craft, and go through multiple drafts/total re-writes/revisions of any given book. Sometimes I still fumble with this question because the first version of my first novel was written as a short story when I was 8, the first novel version of it when I was 14, and then I re-wrote it from scratch twice between age 16 and 22, so I honestly have no idea “how long” it took me to “write” it. I usually just tell people the series has been a work in progress for most of my life.
9) People will ask if (or assume) it’s free. I find this to be especially true in libraries. People will occasionally pick it up, look over it and then try to walk away. Many of these people will act surprised or indignant when I ask them to pay for it. Make sure to keep a close eye on your wares.
10) People will be surprised to know that you wrote it, especially if you are young like I am. Many people mistake me for an employee of the venue, a representative of a publishing house, or just some random person sitting in the lobby for a rest. When I tell them I’m the author, they’re stunned. Even with a large sign on my table that says “Visiting Author” many people still don’t realize it’s me until I tell them. So, make sure the people you talk to know who you are.
11) “So it’s like…” When I say I write fantasy, people automatically assume that makes it like Harry Potter, or Lord of the Rings, or whatever fantasy book they are familiar with. While this can help you sell your book, you also need to be able to tell them what distinguishes your book from other things they have read.
12) Some people will disapprove of your work even though they know nothing about it. This seems to be especially true for fantasy. Even though my books have spiritual and Christian undertones, some people assume that all fantasy is Satanic, corrupts the youth, and promotes witchcraft or other “sinful” acts. Generally I do not engage these people, just politely bid them a good day. There have been occasions where I had a particularly persistent visitor– I once had a woman berate me for “pandering the devil’s propaganda” and say of my red-eyed protagonist, “anything with eyes like that is no creature of God!” These people can be difficult to handle, but do stick up for your work, and make sure you know how to reach the venue’s staff and security if need be.
13) Some people will ask you for money. Sometimes these are homeless people, other times they are kids wanting something from the vending machine, or sometimes they won’t even tell you what they want it for. I have only ever given someone money on one occasion. The rest of the time I apologize and tell them I need the cash in my box to make change for my customers.
14) People will say they are interested in buying your book and are going to get their wallet/purse/money and then never come back. I guess some folks are too embarrassed to say my book didn’t interest them, so they try to ditch me instead of just saying “no, thank you.” Some people actually are going to get their money, but get sidetracked on the way and take half an hour or more to come back. Sometimes it’s hard to tell who’s ditching you and who will actually return. This can be very inconvenient if they do this when your signing is soon to end, so be sure to tell them you will wait for 10 minutes or so, but you’ll have to be leaving soon.
15) Have cards people can take. Some people will be very excited to meet you and really want your book, but will not have the money at the time. Have something you can give them with the titles, your website, etc. on it so they will be able to find and buy your book later. You can also give these cards to people who may not like the book themselves, but know someone who would. I’ve also been asked to sign these cards by children or occasionally adults who want my signature, but can’t buy the book at the time. Just for reference, I use Uprinting for all of my cards, flyers, bookmarks, etc. I find they have the best prices and provide excellent quality.
16) Don’t display what payments you accept. I got a Square credit card reader for my phone recently (which is very cool; I highly recommend it) and was very excited to be able to accept credit card payments. Square sent me two nice-looking stickers with the accepted credit card logos, and I thought it would be great to advertise that I offer that form of payment. Wrong. I realized an hour into one of my signings that this sticker was tanking my sales. I took down the little “payments accepted” sign and sold a total of 20 copies in the remaining two hours I was there. People seem to balk if they immediately see you want money. Lure them in with your display and charm and then tell them how they can buy it.
17) Offer bundle deals. This encourages people to buy more than one of your books. I’ve offered a 3-for-$25 deal and have had lots of success selling the first three books that way.
What to bring
1) A tablecloth, because most places do not provide one, and your table will look much better if it’s not just sitting there naked.
2) A minimum of 5 books for each hour you will be at the venue. Most of my signings last about 3 hours, so I bring around 15 copies of each book. I also keep a box of extras in my trunk just in case. I’ve had to go for the extras only once, but I was glad I brought them.
3) Extra copies of the first book if you have a series. I either sell sets of my series or just the first book. It’s rare that I sell single copies of the later books.
4) Decorations for your table. I have a few pages of scrapbook paper I set my books on, and a number of little trinkets and charms that I scatter across my table. There are endless varieties of paper and other things you can get at craft stores to spruce up your table for a low cost. An aesthetic table with lots to look at will draw in more curious people.
5) One large, eye-catching thing. Some authors use a large poster of their book cover. I have a life-sized cutout of my main character, which I had made with Party Standups, just for reference. People love him (except for easily frightened children, and the close-minded people mentioned in #12 above) and almost always come over for a closer look at him.
6) A locking money box (and the key!), and your credit card reader, if you have one.
7) A sign or counter card stating who you are, and flyers or cards with your titles and website on them for people to take.
8) If you’ve appeared in any newspapers, magazines, etc. try to incorporate them into your display.
There’s a lot that goes into preparing for a book signing, and a lot of different types of people to handle, but I’ve found if I have an appealing display and make an effort to engage the people who walk by, the signing will be a success. I typically sell anywhere from 10-20 books per signing (which tend to last 2-3 hours). I have also met some wonderful people by making these appearances. I have been invited to speak to school groups and forums, and made connections I would have never had if I had not been out engaging the public with my work.
Above all, one of the biggest perks to doing book signings is a feeling of legitimacy. For new authors, and self published ones in particular, sometimes one doesn’t always feel like a “real” author. There are few things that can cure that like meeting a child who tells you you’re living her dream, or having an elderly man tell you that people like you give him hope for the future. That feeling alone is worth putting in the work to make public appearances.
I discussed this idea with a fellow writer not long ago and was surprised that not many people seemed to have thought of it. So, I’m posting it here for your consideration.
I rarely write in a linear fashion. I’ll start into the book on page one, but it doesn’t take long before I start to get bored. You writers out there will know what I mean; you just don’t feel like writing a particular scene, and your mind is preoccupied with another scene that you just know is going to be awesome. Thus, I say: write whatever you are compelled to write at the time. If you don’t want to write a scene, or you don’t know how to get from one scene to another, SKIP IT. When I’m working on a manuscript and get to a section like that, I just make a line break put “Insert (whatever) here” and move on.
If there’s a scene you’re really fired up to write, write it! It doesn’t matter if it’s chronologically time for it to happen in the book or not. Write it in a new document and save it for later. I have a whole folder on my computer called “Fragments” for such files. Just write it, stash it away for later, then when it actually comes time for it to happen in the manuscript, all you have to do is paste it in. Similarly, you’ll need to go back later and fill in the holes where you skipped things earlier. However, I’ve found that it’s sometimes much easier to figure out how to get from one scene from another if you’ve already written one that comes later. If you already know where you’re going, it’s easier to know what you’ll need to do in order to get there.
Some of the most important parts about the actual act of writing is forward movement and staying excited about what you’re doing. If you are bored with what you’re writing, chances are, your readers are going to be too. If you don’t feel energized when you’re writing a scene, it’s likely going to feel forced and flat, and you’ll lose your momentum with the project. You need to harness your creative energy when you have it, don’t waste it on something the Muse doesn’t want to do; do whatever the Muse directs you to do at the time, and your work will be much better because of it. If your Muse is a bit ADHD like mine, you’ll just need to go back and string all your pieces of genius prose together later.
You have to realize that you’re not going to be in a writing mood every day, so don’t beat yourself up when that happens. My creativity tends to come in cycles, and I’ve met a number of other artists who say the same thing. When I’m on the writing side of the cycle, I hold myself to a certain quota a day. For me, I shoot for a 1000 words a day. If I hit that, I can go to bed satisfied, if I do any more, I feel extra good about it. You should set your quota to something reasonable based on how much time you have to work, how fast you type, etc. It should be a realistic expectation; you don’t want to depress yourself by aiming too high. You might want to start out at 500 words a day, and if it seems like that’s pretty easy, try for 700, and so on (but make sure you cap it eventually). You want your quota to be somewhat challenging, but not enough to be daunting. What that number is will depend on the individual writer. Once you’ve figured out what it is, stick to it, don’t decide, “I’m going to challenge myself and try to do MORE each day this week.” Or try to play catch-up when you fall short one day. That’s how you burn yourself out. Find something comfortable, stick to it, and it will eventually become a routine. And, in meeting my quota, that doesn’t mean I write 1000 words for one particular spot. I might write a 300 word scene, then a 700 word scene to be saved and used later in the story (see: “Skip the Boring Parts”). I write what compels me at the time, and as much (or as little) as I want for a particular section— my quota is cumulative for the day, not how much was done in one sitting or for a particular spot in the book. The quota is how you keep yourself feeling like you’re accomplishing something. Your page length might not be growing much, but if you keep track of your daily word count, you’ll know you’re moving, and it’s the movement that’s important.
Similarly, give yourself time to rest. There will be a few days, or week where you just don’t feel the drive to write. That’s ok— don’t panic, it doesn’t mean you’re stalling out. When I’m not feeling up to writing, I usually will do something creative that ties into the story somehow, but doesn’t involve actually looking at the words. I might do an illustration, or write some music, or just put together a playlist for it. You could try sketch a map, or a costume, or a weapon, or maybe write a musical theme for a particular character, event or place. Or you can do some research to get further ideas or to gather details to make your story more intricate. Creativity is a bit like a muscle, you don’t always have to (and shouldn’t) exercise it in the same way; as long as you consistently use it, it will stay strong. Many times, I’ll get an awesome idea for the story when I’m not trying to write; it will come to me as I’m drawing, or working on music, or something like that. Sometimes I’ll draw something and go, “It looks a lot cooler this way” and then I’ll adjust the story just so I can use the picture.
The writing drive can also be influenced by other things that require writing. I have a harder time working on my book when I’ve had to write a lot of papers for school, or if I’ve been writing a lot of intensive e-mails or forum posts or something. It’s like the linguistic part of my brain gets tired; even though I haven’t been writing creatively, I just feel drained of words. So, it’s something to be aware of. Even though you might not be writing creatively, you could still be expending that written energy. Not to say you should avoid other writing, it just means if you feel tuckered out verbally, don’t beat yourself up. Go work in another creative medium for a while and let your words replenish.
The important thing is, don’t stress yourself. You shouldn’t go into your novel thinking you have to prove something, or that you have to make it work. Write because you want to, because you have a story to tell. Don’t worry about if it’s going to be good or worthwhile— if it’s got you excited enough to write about it, if it’s been on your mind this much, it’s worth it. And when you write, you write what you do for a reason. If you don’t know why you’ve written something a certain way, don’t doubt yourself. You can change it later if you need to do, but just try to go with the flow, especially the first time through. And don’t write thinking you’re writing a novel. You’re writing a story, it just has the potential to be a big story. Don’t worry about page numbers or the total word count; it will be finished when it’s finished.