Taking control of the I.E. (again)

As I wander my way through this month’s NaNoWriMo writing, there are days when I would be making better time if I could ignore the whispers that keep reminding me the energy isn’t being well spent — that even when revised, the end result isn’t going to be worth the effort.

This week I remembered a post I wrote back in 2009, and I decided this would be a very good time to pull it out of the archives. I need the reminding, and I hope you’ll find it useful, too.


Some days the grouch inside me  can turn me into an unpleasant-to-be-around whiner. Those are the days you hear me muttering at the computer screen as if the words thereon are animate: “What’s the matter with you? Can’t you see that isn’t what I intended to say at all? Get it right, for Pete’s sake!” The words never answer back. They just sit there and leer at me.

On her original blog, my friend Earlene once talked about the creative “entities” that invade a writer’s mind. When the wrong ones gain control and squelch our dreams, we don’t achieve our goals. In fact, a little of our writing spirit is destroyed every time they even knock at the mind’s door.

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(“Really? You think this garbage is writing?”)

Among such beings is every writer’s voice of doom, the I.E., or Internal Editor—the nagging voice that constantly reminds us we don’t know how to write, everything we’ve written so far is garbage, and the project is destined to be a failure.

So what do we do about it? Most aspiring authors recognize that we all suffer from a form of split personality, where one part of our minds is full of developing characters anxious to take on a life of their own. We welcome them as an important part of our story planning.

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(But I don’t WANT to be whapped!)

It is the negative voices on the other side, the procrastinating urges, and the don’t-write-until-the-concept-is-perfect impulses that we have to recognize and snuff out — whap them smartly with a wet blanket until no embers remain.

Otherwise the tendency will be to hesitate, to falter, to be discouraged. Then our writing ceases and we blame it on Writer’s Block. We wait it out, hoping Ms. Muse will miraculously return to our office, but it rarely happens, or at least not as quickly as we wish.

IMHO, there’s no half measure. Either we take control or we lose it, perhaps to one of those unworthy entities. And truly, I don’t want one of them authoring my books!

(With apologies to my granddaughter for stealing her photos!)

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The Unexpected in Life and Literature

With a thunderous crack much of the tree was gone, and so was our electricity. The pleasant weather we enjoyed earlier in the day had deteriorated into a nasty storm with mounds of charcoal clouds, torrents of rain, hail in some areas, and bolts of lightning.

We think the massive maple tree was hit by lightning because there wasn’t much wind at the time — no other reason for the tree to break apart as it did, flinging aside several branches all at once. One vehicle was slightly damaged, and a fence, but thankfully the tree fell away from any buildings.

Some days have a similar way of dropping the unexpected on us. My aunt would certainly agree with that! There’s not much predictability in life. Oh, of course we expect to get up, eat meals and go to work, meetings or church at specific times, but there’s no guarantee that our tomorrow will follow its anticipated schedule.

I suppose that’s why, when I’m reading a novel that drags me along on a character’s everyday journey, I lose patience. The predictable bits may exist in real life, but I don’t want to read about them. The ordinary has no place in most stories, even if the characters normally live a mundane life. It is the unexpected that jolts us out of complacency and propels us forward, eagerly flipping pages. Even in memoirs, we skip the boring bits. They may seem like useful transitions, but they also provide convenient places for the reader to lose interest and put aside the book.

Life in our neighbourhood will continue, but when the maple tree exploded, the local landscape instantly changed. We’ll all remember the moment when it happened — and that’s the kind of experience we want our readers to have … a memorable one.


“The oaks and the pines, and their brethren of the wood, have seen so many suns rise and set, so many seasons come and go, and so many generations pass into silence, that we may well wonder what “the story of the trees” would be to us if they had tongues to tell it, or we ears fine enough to understand.”

Author Unknown, quoted in Quotations for Special Occasions by Maud van Buren, 1938


“Therefore if any man is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away;
behold, new things have come.”

2 Corinthians 5:17

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The Writer’s Brain (that place where ‘the right word’ disappears)

I hate those days when I sit down to write and my brain won’t cooperate. It’s not that Ms. Muse isn’t around, but that the perfect and plentiful thoughts she provides instantly disappear, falling into the shadows of my cerebral cortex before I can secure them on the page.

It’s not dementia or writer’s block, but that infuriating bleakness in my head I call the creative wilderness. It’s a cavernous void lurking somewhere between eureka and gotcha, where amazing ideas slip away into the dark, whirl around in a vortex, and finally re-emerge, frosted with mediocrity. I had a morning like that a few months ago, when a brilliant idea shimmered for an instant, then dropped out of sight. I struggled to grasp the elusive thought but the words I eventually dug up were lackluster. Nevertheless, they provided crude building blocks, so I pinned them onto the page and continued to write.

Then during recent revisions, a glimmer of the original idea flickered into sight. The sun came out; the temperature rose; the chill receded. I wrote furiously and the scene became what I had long ago envisioned. Gotcha! Finally.

There is a moral here… something along the line of persevering even when the Muse shows me a cold shoulder. Not getting bogged down searching for the perfect words when they’ve been temporarily sucked out of reach. Believing that I can always return to make the inadequate better, but if I allow myself to get dragged to a standstill waiting for the desired words to reappear, the rest of the story may never get written.

Are you one who has to make every scene perfect before moving on to the next, or do you ‘write like the wind’, getting the basics in place, knowing that you’ll strengthen the weak spots in later revisions?


Le Mot Juste (Again)


Yesterday marked my third anniversary in the blogosphere. (Really? How can that be possible?) As I’m on the road today, I’ve selected an item from my beginning days to re-post. I hope you’ll find this piece from the summer of 2008 of interest.


I was blog-hopping recently, searching out my daily dose of writerly wisdom, and came across a comment made by the editor of Author Magazine that stuck with me. Referring to the meaning of the phrase le mot juste, the perfect word, Bill Kenower said, “Mathematicians agree on 12 x 12, physicists agree on gravity—why can’t we [writers] agree on something? Why can’t we agree there is at least one perfect phrase or word?”

But, of course, that will never happen. Even wresting a well-known word from my brain so I can utter it to the paperboy is a frustrating exercise some days, so expecting to find the exact word or phrase to perfectly convey a specific thought to every potential reader is beyond imagination.

I’ve come to the conclusion that in the world of writing there is not much writers fully agree upon. There is so much well-intentioned advice available, but no single approach to the craft that works for every person.

I’m told the best time to write is (a.) in the morning when my mind is fresh;  (b.) in the quiet of the night when there are no interruptions. The best place to write is (a.) sequestered in my office without distractions; (b.) in a coffee shop, bus or library surrounded by stimulation. The best way to write is (a.) with pen or pencil and paper for visceral involvement with my words; (b.) with wordprocessor or computer for quick capture of ephemeral thoughts and ease of editing.

I am encouraged to (a.) create first and worry about crafting later; (b.) ensure each word, sentence and paragraph is the right building block for what will follow. I am advised to (and as admonitions go, this is one of my favourites) (a.) follow the rules if I ever hope to get published; (b.) break all the rules if doing so serves my purpose.

Agreement is a fragile commodity in today’s world so perhaps it’s not surprising that writers cannot find it within their communities of communication. For writers, the perfect word will always be just out of reach.

How do you counteract the frustration when you’re not able to find just the word you need? 


Photo by graur codrin

Making appropriate use of quirkiness in our characters


Recently Jeanette Levellie had us sharing our pet peeves and Jessica Patch talked about our quirks. They were referring to those things that either annoy us or seem peculiar. The thing is, neither is unusual. Don’t we all have them?

I admit to some idiosyncrasies (only the unkind would say they border on OCD). When doors and drawers are meant to be shut, I like them closed all the way. Sliding closet doors that are left slightly ajar force me into corrective action, even when I’m already in bed. Honestly, do you expect me to sleep with that gaping void staring at me all night? Bifold doors and open drawers that snag me as I walk by, beg to be slammed shut. Cushions askew on the couch, and towels crooked on the rod? Need I say more?

If normal people have quirks (hey! I’m normal… at least in most areas), isn’t it logical that our characters not only might, but should, too?

There is a danger in creating stereotypes – for instance, looking at physical features and bronzing the hero’s brawny chest while scarring the antagonist’s cheek. A lot is written about using character flaws to make our protagonists real, but to accomplish realism takes more than simply portraying random weaknesses and strengths.

Personalities are complex – just ask anyone who has examined the results of a Myers-Briggs test. If we are to develop credible characters we need them to display the kind of strengths and weaknesses that we would find in real people but also have a few quirks to make them memorable. Not too many. Just a few, such as we all have.  (I hear you objecting, but I’m almost positive I’m not alone with mine.)

The Myers-Briggs test divides us into four main personality types that can be combined in multiple ways to create sixteen:

  1. Extrovert (E) versus introvert (I),
  2. Sensitive (S) versus intuitive (N),
  3. Thinking (T) versus feeling (F), and
  4. Judgmental (J) versus perceptive (P).

We can’t just pull quirks out of the proverbial hat and assign them to our characters. The quirks or idiosyncrasies need to be reasonably in line with the characters’ personalities.

Who’d have guessed that making our characters appear real could be so much of a challenge?

In your current w.i.p., what quirks does your main character have? Do they fit his/her personality? Are they ones you possess or have you borrowed them from people you know?


No, You’re Not Ready to Publish


Don’t you hate it when the Inner Critic is right? After years of being shoved aside and trampled, he gloats over fleeting opportunities to jump up and down and yell, “I told you so!” and it’s so annoying.

It’s not easy to admit, but many of us are probably among the 99.9% of writers who mistakenly thought our brilliantly written and endlessly polished first novels were ready for launching. In hindsight we know better, but at the time we were enthusiastic about their chances in the market.

I read of one writer who said, “Don’t tell me first novels never sell. If I believed that, why would I bother to finish mine?” When we first begin writing, the naïve mindset is like a protective cloak… “we don’t know what we don’t know.”

My husband quotes one of his professors as cautioning, “For the first ten years in ministry, don’t preach on Revelation. After that you’ll know better than to preach on Revelation.”  As writers we could use a similar admonition — something along the lines of, “Write your heart out on the first book but steel yourself to the reality that it’s only a learning experience.”

Reality sucks! But it’s not as if we expect a new surgeon to immediately perform brain surgery, or a beginning athlete to compete in the Olympics, so why do we expect our first novel should be bestseller material?

Anne Allen wrote an excellent post on “12 signs your novel isn’t ready to publish.” She directed it to those who were tempted to self-publish too soon, but her ideas make good sense for all of us seeking publication. I particularly like the simplicity and sense of her comment, “All beginners make mistakes. Falling down and making a mess is part of any learning process. But you don’t have to display the mess to the world.”

Yes, we worked darned hard on that story and we’d like to reap some benefit from the effort. Well, guess what? We did. The benefit is in the education. We read and wrote and learned. Part of what we learned is how little we actually knew before we began the process. Part of what we will learn tomorrow is how little we know today.

When more experienced writers warned me about the Inner Critic’s unreliability, they didn’t suggest how to react on the odd occasions when he might be right. I’m sorry, but there’s no being graceful in the face of his taunts.

“I’m learning with experience. So shut up already!”

If someone knowledgeable told you the book you are currently writing would never sell, would you finish it anyway, or stop where you are?


Ostrich Photo by anankkml

What I learned about writing from a crochet pattern.


Until it was finished, I couldn’t envision how the design was meant to look. It was a crocheted afghan pattern a friend gave me many years ago. I read it through several times but it still didn’t make a lot of sense. Starting with the first line of instruction I chained the specified number of stitches, and carried on, one row at a time, until a pattern began to emerge.

Computer software manuals are a little like that, too. I can read them repeatedly, but until I finally sit down at the computer with instructions in hand to work my way through the various steps one at a time, I’m boggled.

Without a pattern to guide me I could crochet a large rectangular bedcover using the one or two stitches I know and various colours of yarn. The result might provide a cozy cover but it would lack a pleasing design. I couldn’t hope to win any prizes in the Fall Fair or sell it and expect it to become someone’s heirloom. And without a manual I could probably figure out the basics of the software by trial and error, too, although many of its sophisticated features would remain undiscovered. I’d never be able to use it well enough for a business application.

“Anyone can write a book!” True enough, but few books that are written without the knowledge of good plot and structure concepts, character development and effective dialogue have any hope of finding success in today’s highly competitive publishing market.

I’ve often read that we should write our first novel from the heart, allowing creativity free rein. Then take time away from writing to read and research about the craft before undertaking future projects. We can expect to improve as we continue to learn and practice.

When I consider the future of my afghan, I realize the quality of the finished product depends not only on learning how to follow the pattern, but also on first practicing until the stitches are correct and the tension is even. I will undoubtedly be proud of my accomplishment when it’s finished, but any person experienced in crocheting would quickly recognize the piece as being made by a beginner. It takes specialized knowledge, much patience and a lot of practice to become proficient at creating any art form.

How much practising have you done to reach where you are today? As a writer do you consider yourself a novice, intermediate or expert? (Throw humility to the wind and be as honest as you like.)