3 Types of Nonfiction That Can Improve Your Novel

Bharat Krishnan, Author

We’ve all had to do it at some point in our academic and professional careers: the Dreaded Personal Statement™. Why do you want to join this university? Why do you think this job is right for you? And going beyond personal statements, some of you might have even written an online dating profile. I know I did, and it led me to my wife. Finally, every day we write emails to colleagues, friends, family, and even strangers.

What if I were to tell you that by mastering the art of the personal statement, the art of the online dating profile, and the art of email, you could become a first-rate author? You’ve probably had plenty of practice doing these things anyway, so why not tell yourself that spending time doing this stuff counts towards your daily word goal so that you don’t feel so guilty spending time on Tinder or Gmail?

Here’s how it’s worked for me, and how it could work for you, too.

Personal Statements 

Writing about yourself is hard, and many authors want to compartmentalize their writing as just one aspect of their multi-faceted lives. But the thing about writing is that it begs to burst from your soul. You write (or at least I do) because you just cannot keep the words inside of you for a moment longer or you’ll explode. Writing is intensely personal, then, and there’s no need to be embarrassed about that. The first short story I had published was about my alcoholism. Anybody can sit at a computer and type on a word document, so what makes your writing stand out is that it is YOU writing it. You are telling a story that only YOU can tell, and you owe your readers the answer as to why that is. Why can only YOU share this tale about two brothers searching for revenge in a desert? Why can only YOU pen this tale about a girl who just wants to go home?

The thing about writing is that it begs to burst from your soul. You write because you just cannot keep the words inside of you for a moment longer... Click To Tweet

My first book was essentially a 150-page personal statement. In 2016, I wrote an autobiography based on 10 years of working as a professional political campaign manager; being able to tell my personal story in that medium turned out to be a massive help over the next several years of my life. In 2017, I had to write a personal statement to get into an MBA program and, thanks to months spent refining my “less is more” style of weaving a personal narrative in a few words that still manages to captivate, I got a full scholarship to my top choice. It turns out that when you learn how to write about yourself in an interesting way, writing about other things in ways that captivate the soul becomes much easier.

Online Dating Profiles

Growing up in that awkward period — when the internet wasn’t quite yet a thing in grade school but everyone had an AIM screen name by 6th grade — I became well-acquainted with just about every dating app available by the time I hit my 20s. OkCupid, Tinder, Hinge, and – what finally worked for me – Coffee Meets Bagel. Just as in writing a personal statement, when writing a dating profile you’ve got to explain things succinctly.

Unlike personal statements, though, online dating profiles require HUMOR. Just think about that – why do you swipe right on someone’s profile? How much can you really learn about someone given a few words and a couple of pictures? Enough to make you feel safe and happy enough to want to spend an evening with them? Perhaps our inhibitions drop and we’re convinced of a person’s authenticity when we know they can crack a joke: humor is a cheat code. 

What I mean is that when you can make someone laugh, they start to think less logically and more emotionally. All your favorite stories – from Harry Potter to Star Wars to the Avengers – have inconsistencies in them. Why don’t Deatheaters weaponize polyjuice potion? How can Leia remember her birth mother in Return of the Jedi? Why doesn’t Thanos just double the universe’s resources? We don’t mind these inconsistencies because, by the time they’re introduced, we’re thinking emotionally. And one surefire way to make sure people react emotionally about your writing is to make them laugh.

Perhaps our inhibitions drop and we’re convinced of a person’s authenticity when we know they can crack a joke: humor is a cheat code. Click To Tweet

There’s Always E-mail 

I never knew there was an actual term for what I often do: “ping-ponging.” I frequently will respond to a just-sent email with a few words, and then follow up with a few more words, and then follow up with a few more words. You’ve now received 3 emails from me in the span of five minutes, and it’s all because I couldn’t just chill and read your entire email in one go. 

You’ve now received 3 emails from me in the span of five minutes, and it’s all because I couldn’t just chill and read your entire email in one go. Click To Tweet

When writing anything, you want to gather all your thoughts in one go and then succinctly do the thing. This way, you can make sure your writing is compelling and to the point. You need to write something that fully addresses all the questions your reader might have, but isn’t needlessly long. As authors, we might have less than 500 words to convince a reader to buy our book instead of just reading the free preview on Amazon. 

Improving your email etiquette could make you a better author by ensuring that each word in your novel is justified.

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Bharat Krishnan is currently working on his third book in four years, and during that time he decided he wasn’t quite busy enough so he also got married and graduated with honors from LSU’s Flores MBA program. He lives in Columbus, Ohio as a philanthropic consultant, and loves to cook when he’s not writing or working out.

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pink neon sign says, "discover, embrace, be you."

Hashtag WritingCommunity: Emma Lombard on Building an Author Platform

 

Photo of writer Emma Lombard in her post on social media and followers

When I ventured into the Twitterverse, I was terrified. Having witnessed how quickly situations could turn toxic on social media, I didn’t want to involve myself in this world. But a huge part about being an author is putting yourself out there and social media plays a big role in that these days.

I resurrected my Twitter account in 2018 (dormant since 2010) and I most fortuitously tripped across the #WritingCommunity.

Tentatively Venturing into Social Media

I spent months fumbling my way around Twitter, feeling insecure and unsure about what to do – or more importantly, what not to do. I didn’t want to step on any Twitter toes. I started posting Twitter Tip threads that garnered a lot of thanks and praise from those still learning themselves. I ended up with so many Twitter Tips threads that I decided to put them together as my first blog, TWITTER TIPS FOR NEWBIES. It has turned out to be a big hit with folks, as have my follow-up blogs in the series.

I’m no expert in social media, in human relations or in the publishing industry – I have a little more knowledge than some folks and a whole lot less knowledge than others. I share my own experiences. Sometimes, all folks need is to know they are not alone on their journey and that others are experiencing similar challenges.

Sometimes, all folks need is to know they are not alone on their journey. Click To Tweet

 

Figuring Out How Social Media Ticks

I research blogs and online marketing sites for advice. Social media is an evolving platform, so I figure that reading the most up-to-date news about its functions from those in-the-know is the way to go.

Interestingly, I found some marketing websites better and easier to understand than Twitter or Facebook’s help sites. The best sites for me are the ones with pictures or videos. Bless all those guys and gals who know how to record this info and upload it!

One thing I like to do on Twitter is to boost those who have fewer than 1,000 followers. I don’t do this to encourage folks to play the numbers game. I do it because Twitter analytics don’t seem to give any traction to the posts of those with fewer than 1,000 followers. This came from my personal experience – I found that once I tipped over the 1,000 mark, I popped up on people’s feeds and they interacted with me more.

One thing I like to do on Twitter is to boost those who have fewer than 1,000 followers. Click To Tweet

 

Taking Care Not to Be Overwhelmed by Social Media

pink neon sign says, "discover, embrace, be you."

One huge job for me is screening new followers on Twitter to decide if we’re compatible. I don’t blind follow (I made that rookie mistake in the beginning). As part of my daily Twitter housekeeping, I do a quick screen for bots – they’re easy to spot – and I block them instantly. For everyone else who’s a real person, if they interact with me on my feed and I see that they are following me, I screen them for compatibility and if we’re a good fit, I follow back.

This process keeps me supporting and following new folks while not being overwhelmed by a large number of followers. I realise I’m in a fortunate position and I can only thank the lovely peeps in Twitter’s #WritingCommunity for making this happen.

I’ve taken my time about building my author platform, only extending myself into new areas once I was comfortable with a certain niche. I began with Twitter, then branched out to blogging and my most recent endeavour is my Facebook author page.

 

Should Writers Have a Large Social Media Following?

Hoo boy! This is a loaded question with so many varying opinions, including from editors, agents and publishers! From my understanding, it is essential to have a decent social media following if you are planning to self-publish or if you are going down the traditional publishing route with non-fiction. The jury is still out in my court whether a large following is essential if you’re planning to be a traditionally published fiction author – some agents say you do, some say you don’t.

From my understanding, it is essential to have a decent social media following if you are planning to self-publish. Click To Tweet

I think folks need to do what they are happy and comfortable with. Not everyone is comfortable with having thousands of followers because they don’t feel they can connect with that many people, while others feel it’s important to have that broader base to work with when it comes to their marketing strategies.

barefoot person sitting on a big pile of books readingHowever, I will add that I’ve not yet seen a hard-sell marketing campaign on Twitter succeed in any sales; but I have seen dozens and dozens of books bought by folks who have a relationship with authors. The key factor, whether you have 100 followers or 100,000 followers, is positive engagement and interaction, which is integral for building those relationships.

 

Lift Others Up


Genuinely engaging with folks online (aka, your potential readers) takes time and energy but if you are planning on building a supportive following, you need to put the work in – it’s like anything in life really. If you are only in it for the numbers, most people will spot you from a mile away. I believe you
earn your true followers through engagement. Having thousands of empty followers isn’t going to make people buy your books, read your poetry or sign up to your blog.

Genuinely engaging with folks online (aka, your potential readers) takes time and energy but if you are planning on building a supportive following, you need to put the work in. Click To Tweet

I’m not on social media to compete with other writers, I’m here to share in their journey and share mine with them. By lifting other writers up in Twitter’s #WritingCommunity, I have been lifted, supported and loved tenfold by so many wonderful folks.

 

What the Pros Have to Say

That’s my rookie two cents’ worth. Here’s what the publishing pros have to say about building your social media platform as a writer:

  1. A great Twitter thread from Megan Manzano (@Megan_Manzano), YA Editor & Book Blogger – Agent Apprentice @CorvisieroLit – 1/5 of @WriteCraftQuest and #Pitchwars Mentor: tips and tricks to help build your social media platform
  2. A one-hour-long vlog from @WriteCraftQuest – A collective of #editors supporting writers on their publishing adventure @Maria_Tureaud @SouffleLumiere @Megan_Manzano @Justine_Manzano: Social Media Dos and Don’ts for Writers

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Emma Lombard was born in Pontefract in the UK. She grew up in Africa – calling Zimbabwe and South Africa home for a few years – before settling in Brisbane, Australia nearly 20 years ago. She writes historical fiction and keeps platform-building authors on their toes as the #WritingCommunityMum

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Traveling with the Luck of the Irish

OK, OK… We know everyone’s Irish on St. Patrick’s day but we’ve got announcements that may extend that for you. First off, we hope that all local folks know about today’s party at the BookLoft featuring Nancy Blanton and her new release The Earl in Black Armor.

Are you Irish enough... oops... we meant lucky enough to travel to Ireland with author Nancy Blanton? Click To Tweet

But besides that? Readers everywhere will want to know about Nancy’s latest adventure: she’s leading a trip to Ireland. An intimate group of about 16 adventurers will wind through many of the sites featured in Nancy’s delicious historical fiction — and she’ll be on board to talk to you about them.

Click the link below to get all the details.

BLANTON Ireland TOUR

It’s Pretty Much Always Love – interview with bestselling author Diana Gabaldon

This month the Amelia Island Book Festival welcomes Diana Gabaldon as one of the headlining, bestselling authors. She is already well known to many in our community. But for the rest of you, she’s the Arizona-based author of the Outlander Series—compelling historical fiction set initially in Scotland, featuring mystery, adventure, love and war, and even time travel between the 18th and 20th centuries.

More than 20 million copies of her books have sold worldwide, and the books—eight, so far—also have been adapted to an addicting television series on Starz. But that’s not all.

Dr. Gabaldon (pronounced GAA-bull-dohn—to rhyme with stone) holds three degrees in science: zoology, marine biology, and a Ph.D. in quantitative behavioral ecology. She also has an honorary degree as Doctor of Humane Letters. She worked as a university professor before turning to fiction writing. She and her husband have three adult children: two daughters and a son.

Now working on the ninth novel in the Outlander series, “Go Tell the Bees that I am Gone,” Diana graciously agreed to an email interview prior to her arrival in Nassau County. After the hundreds of interviews she’s done in the past year or so, many of which can easily be accessed online, I offered questions I thought would be of particular interest locally. 

NB: Amelia Indie Authors is thrilled to welcome you for the annual Amelia Island Book Festival. It is a wonderful event surpassed, just only slightly, by our Isle of Eight Flags Shrimp Festival. I’m sure readers are dying to know: how do you like your shrimp?

DG: Tempura fried. Or cocktail style, with horseradish-laced cocktail sauce.

NB: I noticed in your “Want to watch me write?” post on your website, you are accompanied by what appears to be a stalwart black dog. And there are two canines in your Thanksgiving 2017 photo. We are mostly dog lovers here. What is your daily writing routine, and what role do your dogs play in it?

DG: Unfortunately, one of my dogs died on New Year’s Day (complications resulting from a freak accident), so I have one standard dachshund right now, named Homer. The dog(s) mostly just sleep at my feet while I work (I work mostly in the middle of the night). 

NB: Can you describe your writing routine for us?

DG: Well, it depends a bit on where I am in the book (it normally takes me two to three years to write one of the enormous historical novels). In the beginning, I don’t know much about the story, nor the specific background, so am doing a lot of research and thinking, writing relatively little—but writing every day; if you stop, the inertia builds up and it’s hard to get going again.

As I move further into the story and begin to know more, I write more. “Walking pace” through the main part of a novel is roughly two single-spaced pages (about a thousand words) a day; some days I make more, but if I get that much, I’m satisfied.

And then, as I get near the end, and know almost everything, I’m not having to do much research, but am writing madly; the story develops “critical mass,” sucks me in, (and people are calling up from New York, yelling about where is this story), and we enter what I call Final Frenzy. In this stage, I’m writing for as long as I can sit at the computer, maybe twelve to fifteen hours a day, and barely eating or sleeping.  Luckily, this stage never lasts more than two or three months, or I’d die.

During the long middle portion of a book, though, my daily routine is more or less this:

Get up around 9 AM, exercise, take the dog for a walk, then go upstairs, answer email and do my daily list, to get a foothold on the day. Lunch with my husband, then an hour or so of actual work after lunch, followed by whatever business or errands need to be done, then gardening, dinner-shopping, dinner-making, dinner-eating…then a spell of family time; watching Perry Mason reruns, reading while husband watches football, whatever. My husband likes to go to bed early, so I tuck him in around 9 or 10 PM and go lie down on the couch with a book and the dog. If no one needs me (and now that the kids are all adults, the chances that someone will are substantially decreased, but it still happens now and then), I’ll fall asleep after a bit, and nap until about midnight.  Then I wake up, stagger back upstairs with a Diet Coke and work until around 4:30 AM—that’s my prime writing time.

That said, I don’t think there is such a thing as a normal day in this profession.  Every day the email brings me astonishing things—this morning I was invited to come to Ottawa in November and give a speech at the Canadian War Museum, to be a featured guest on a cruise, and to appear at three different conventions. This is in addition to all the email about books, contracts, and Extremely Odd business suggestions (like a line of scarves adorned with quotes from my books, to be made in India).

NB: From studying pinyon jays to writing comic books, and then to marine biology and scientific computation, you made the leap to your true calling. Do these past work experiences inform your writing, or do you ever find modern-day technical information invading your prose?

DG: Well….no. Why would it? So far as I know, everybody has an assortment of language styles that they use for different things; if your mother calls you on the phone, do you talk to her as though you were one of your ancient Irish characters? <grin>

As to experience—everything a writer sees, hears, thinks, does, is, and has been, informs your writing to some degree, but it’s seldom directly autobiographical.

NB: It takes a lot of courage to write and publish fiction—not to mention the amount of work—because the writing is much more personal. From the start of your fiction-writing career, what has required the greatest amount of courage? How about in your life?

DG: Just starting. Anything. Once you start, the most difficult thing is not giving up. But that’s basically how you do anything: start, and don’t stop.

NB: In a recent interview, you said some scene writing could be “like chiseling rocks out of a hill and then pushing them uphill with your nose.” I love this and have experienced the pain. What would you say is at the heart of this struggle? And, are there any remedies that help you through it?

DG: It’s just hard work. Parts of everything you do are hard. You just do it anyway. What does help is the knowledge that you’ve done this before. Hard as it may be now, you can probably do it again.

NB: The central characters of Outlander (Claire Beauchamp, an English WWII nurse, and James Frazer, a Scottish laird) and the conflicts around them are so intriguing they have hooked millions of readers. In a recent podcast, you were asked whether you’d been surprised by a character or had said ‘no’ to a character. With other authors in mind, would you talk a little about how such surprises can enrich a story? And perhaps about the role your surprise character Mr. Willoughby played to enrich Voyager?

DG: I have no idea which characters might have been surprises to any other authors, so can’t really answer that one. Don’t know why a character that was a surprise to the author should do anything different to a story than one who wasn’t, though.<grin> 

As for Mr. Willoughby…he’s an outsider (a real outsider) in the culture he accidentally found himself in. The parallels to Claire, an outsider by token of her time-traveling, are pretty obvious, though, in this instance, she chose to come to a strange place. An outsider, though, always provides one or two specific things: an empathetic connection with the reader (who is also an outsider to the story), and thus a way of providing information about the strange circumstances in which they find themselves, and/or commentary on social situations/conditions (often it can be subtle (or not-so-subtle) commentary on contemporary conditions, as well as on the historical/fantastic conditions of the story).

NB: Your pirate villain Stephen Bonnet in Drums of Autumn rings some bells on Amelia Island, where local lore claims, “the island was so full of pirates that at one point, most of the 300 or so vessels anchored in the harbor were pirate galleons.” What might you suggest to an aspiring author who wants to weave one or two of these plunderers into a novel? After the initial trip to the library or local museum for general pirate information, how would you proceed?

DG: Well, look. There really isn’t a formula for doing this. You’d just let the information you’ve picked up inform what you write (i.e., you’d know what his ship might look like, how he (or she) might dress, how pirates of your specific time period conducted their affairs, etc.), choose a name for your pirate and turn him loose (unless you’re the sort of writer who plans things out ahead of time—perfectly OK, mind you; it’s just not how I work).

NB: Writers naturally improve and change over time and with each project. Since your first book in the Outlander Series, how has your writing evolved, and what has affected you most? Has constructive editing been important? Or has your growth as a writer been mostly internal? 

DG: Nothing affects writing as much as the act of doing it, believe me. <grin> I’ve never had an editor tell me anything about the actual writing; such revisions as we do are almost entirely to do with the structure of the story (e.g., an editor feeling that someone’s motives weren’t entirely clear, or that such-and-such a situation might be misinterpreted by the less sophisticated sort of reader <cough>, or pointing out places (there are always a couple of them, owing to my individual way of fitting pieces together) where I’ve repeated a scene in two different locations, and asking where I actually want it—that sort of thing).

If you keep on writing, you grow older and you have more life experiences, and your critical mass of information increases and your perceptions deepen. Your writing will naturally reflect your personal growth, in terms of what you see and what’s important in your work.

NB: You were beloved and famous as an author long before the Starz Outlander Series. How has the increased hype over the past few years affected you? 

DG: Well, now it takes me four years to write a book…

There’s just more of it—more fan involvement, more PR, more travel, more social media.  I do have a physical involvement with the show itself, though (as opposed to hype): I’m a consultant to the show, which means, essentially, that they show me everything they do—script outlines, scripts, revisions, daily “roughs” while filming, and the edited episodes as they come together. I comment on whatever I usefully can, and while they don’t invariably do what I suggest <grin>, they generally do at least listen to me.

During the nine months (or so) while the show is filming, that means the show is getting one to two hours of my time, four or five days a week.  And this is not counting the increased fan attention with concomitant growth on social media (but see below) or the absolute deluge of invitations (even turning them down politely takes work), or the intrusion of constant travel arrangements.

Anyway…social media. Social media kind of grew up around me; I stumbled into the Compuserve Literary Forum (and the wonderful world of “online”) back in 1985. As other innovations—like AOL <grin>—came along, I’d try them out, but I didn’t keep connections with anything that wasn’t immediately useful. Twitter and Facebook are useful, so I keep those accounts primed. I don’t do Instagram—there’s no real benefit to me in putting up photos (I do that on FB and Twitter when I have something worthwhile) and the need to do it every day would just be a burden. Instagram comments tend to be worthless, in terms of interest to other users, and lend themselves to stupidity and trolls, so why bother?

When the news of Sam Heughan’s casting as Jamie Fraser came out, all the Outlander-focused social media naturally exploded. In the midst of this, he emailed me and said, “Your fans are crazy. How do you deal with this?” So I told him—

Take ten minutes, once or twice a day, no more. During that time, read your Twitter-feed, as many messages as you can manage in that time. If someone says it’s their birthday, stop and tell them happy birthday; if someone says their dog died, stop and say you’re sorry. If someone says something witty to you AND you can instantly think of something witty in reply, say it. If someone says something negative to you, don’t touch it with a ten-foot pole.

Social media is a Good Thing/Tool for a writer, but it’s a bad master. You keep it under strict control, or it’ll eat you alive.

NB: Do you have a mission, a core driver that transcends all the work that you do—often described as ‘the one thing’ that gets you out of bed every morning? What is it and how does it sustain you?

DG: Nothing gets me out of bed in the morning (it’s NOT my time) except a vague sense that if I do go on sleeping, I’ll later regret it because there won’t be enough time to do what-all I want to.

I generally take the dog(s) out, and blearily scan Twitter while waiting for them, then come in, turn on the TV (news, if there’s anything other than The Tedious Usual happening, Outlander re-runs if not) and do my exercise (if I’ve got up early enough to have time for it before the first Thing of the day happens). That’s a mix of yoga, pilates and light weights, routines done according to whim, need and time available.

With luck, I’m actually conscious by the time I finish this and get dressed, and the momentum will usually get me through ‘til lunch (dog-walking, appointments, email, whatever…).

But overall, barring things like having to take children to school or the house being on fire, it’s pretty much always love.

Research, Intrigue and the Internet

I write spy thrillers. I invent devious characters and spin tales about terrible events and I have free reign because my books are, after all, fiction. But I also inject real places and actual events into the body of the story to add a sense of realism. And because readers expect accuracy with regard to anything that is real-life, I do my best to meet their expectations. I have traveled extensively and have visited most of the locations that I use in my novels, but those trips don’t always coincide exactly with the time frame of the story. The challenge, then, is to fill in the gaps between what was and what is. Research becomes the order of the day.

LM Reynolds writes spy thrillers, inventing devious characters and spinning tales about terrible events. Click To Tweet

My latest novel has a backstory that takes place in the early to mid-nineties—in Bosnia-Herzegovina, a country that emerged from the breakup of Yugoslavia in 1990. A total of six (or seven, depending on who is counting) other countries surfaced out of the chaos, along ethnic and religious lines that exposed long-simmering hostilities.

I visited Sarajevo when the city hosted the Winter Olympics in 1984—when it was still in Yugoslavia. Shortly thereafter, I coached a few dozen young Yugoslav men and women who had been hired by Pan Am. Eight short years later, the entire region was at war and Sarajevo had become the capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina. The city was also subjected to the longest siege in modern history, from 1992 to 1996. No food, no water, no medicine, no electricity, no fuel, no escape. Nearly 14,000 of its residents perished—over one-third of whom were civilians.

When I was in Sarajevo, it was a lovely and welcoming place; I enjoyed it immensely. I liked the people, especially—warm and embracing and kind. A decade later, nearly every building bore evidence of the mortars and rockets and sniper fire that had rained down on the city for four years. The scarring of the inhabitants, both physical and psychological, was even more disturbing. Families were decimated and men, women, and children maimed. They lived with terror for years and many still have a well-founded fear of open spaces. I was, and am still, saddened and horrified by the events that took place there. I think I knew, even back then, that I would write about it someday.

One of my characters is a Bosnian man who, after a particularly tragic experience, decides to flee Sarajevo and make his way to his family’s home in a town about fifty miles away. But how did people escape from the surrounded city? Not easily. The city lies in a slender river valley that runs generally east-west and is hemmed in by sharply steep hills to the north and south. Hostile Serbian forces occupied nearly all of the territory around Sarajevo, save for a narrow corridor at the southwest—just beyond the airport—which led to land occupied by Bosnian forces. To escape, one had to cross not only the runway but also the open grounds around the airport—at night, through an area laced with coils of barbed wire—and risk being caught in a sniper’s scope.

I was not enthusiastic about my character’s odds of making a successful escape via the airport crossing—too many real people had died while making the attempt. Click To Tweet

I was not enthusiastic about my character’s odds of making a successful escape via the airport crossing—too many real people had died while making the attempt. I considered having him wait it out until a peace agreement was reached. My storyline, however, demanded that he leave the city in 1993, and the Dayton Accords were not signed until late 1995. Time for Plan B. I had a vague recollection of hearing about a tunnel, so I dug in (pun fully intended) to learn more about it. In early 1993, the Bosnians had dug—by hand—a half-mile tunnel to bring supplies into the city. The northern entrance was in the garage of an apartment building, in a neighborhood on the southwest side of the city. From there, the tunnel ran generally south, dropping beneath the runway, and extending to the cellar of a private home to the south of the airport, with Bosnian-held land just beyond. It was a remarkable feat, a perfect display of human resilience and ingenuity.

The owner of the house has since restored part of the original tunnel and today the family runs their own private museum. It has become one of the most popular tourist spots in the city. I needed to learn everything that I could, so, in addition to all of the technical research, I visited travel blogs and other travel-oriented sites and looked at hundreds of photos. As I explored, however, I kept running across references to the private dwelling that hid the north end of the tunnel. I was thoroughly confused. I checked and double-checked. All of the published maps clearly showed the names of the neighborhoods where the entrances were located (Dobrinja to the north, Butmir to the south), that the airport was to the southwest of the city, and that the house and its museum were south of the airport—not north. What on earth was going on? How could so many people have misstated the location? Was I just going crazy?

And then, light bulb! The museum’s collection of artifacts includes a map, designed to provide a visual explanation of how the city was surrounded, and to show the entry points and route of the tunnel. It is a pretty map, a photogenic map—a map that thousands of people have captured on their smartphones and posted and shared on the web. It is also a map with which the artist took a small liberty—by inverting it. The museum map shows the mountains and the Bosnian-held territory to the northeast, along with the airport. With the mountains at the top and the valley at the bottom, it is probably a more aesthetically pleasing composition. Or perhaps the artist was just gazing out at the snow-covered peaks while creating the picture. Regardless, thousands of people automatically associated the map’s top with North and its bottom with South. Thus, if you were using it as a real map, it would only work well if you looked at it while standing on your head.

Whew! I was relieved to know that I had not yet lost all of my marbles. Instead, I had encountered a classic example of how misinformation spreads on the web. It was not malevolent, nor intentional, but it certainly had legs! As a longtime consumer of web content, I have learned which sites to generally (note the disclaimer) trust when I am seeking factual information. But even if one employs the journalist’s technique of verification from multiple sources, one can still be led astray or led to question established fact. While the internet is a glorious place to find information, at your fingertips, in an instant, it can also be a perilous place to wade, with sharks of every description homing in as you splash in the surf.

Make sure that you have your wits about you, that you know which way is north, and that your map is pointed in the right direction! Click To Tweet

The moral of the story is that, if you are conducting research on the internet, be careful about accepting statements at face value. Check your facts, explore multiple reputable sources, use your common sense, and throw in a healthy dose of skepticism. And for all of you digital-map explorers out there, beware! Before setting off on a journey to an unfamiliar place, providing directions to lost travelers, or planning a military invasion, make sure that you have your wits about you, that you know which way is north, and that your map is pointed in the right direction!

~~ LM Reynolds

 

Maintaining Motivation

Maintaining motivation over the course of any large project or goal can be challenging, and that can be especially true when you are writing. As the author of three books and the co-author of half a dozen more, I know that I’ve had to be really focused on the outcome. I’ve had to utilize all my “keep it going” tricks to get the project done. In case this has been a stumbling block for you, I wanted to share a few of my strategies that helped me see things through to completion.

Maintaining motivation over the course of any large project can be challenging, Click To Tweet

Focus on the End Goal Strengthens Motivation

The first book that I wrote was entitled Marketing Ideas for the Wild at Heart and I wrote it because I had customers who wanted to buy a book from me and I didn’t have one!

Here’s what happened. After earning the top title in my direct sales company’s compensation plan I was asked to speak at events all over the United States. I wasn’t earning very much speaking at events, and it was taking time away from my own business and my family. I wondered whether I could earn money speaking, so I joined the National Speakers’ Association (NSA). There I  earned professional status by doing 25 paid speeches within a year. As part of my membership, I was able to network with other speakers and attend local meetings.

Earning from the Back of the Room

It was there that I found out that speakers earn much of their income from “back of room” sales: books they have authored or co-authored. So, I decided to write a book. That first book ended up selling about 4,000 copies over the next several years. Because I self-published the book, I earned enough on each sale that I achieved my end goal. Speaking became profitable for my business. Figure out what your end goal is and work toward that fuels the motivation to continue.

When I was stuck during the writing and publishing process, I focused on my goal of making speaking profitable.

Be the Reader

All the books I have authored have been instructional in nature, so it has been vital that I put myself in the reader’s shoes. I imagine the same thinking would work for fiction as well. The reader is our customer and for them to “get it” is the goal of our writing. Whenever I got stuck, I imagined the reader. I took my motivation from her. I saw her taking the ideas, working them and being successful. I imagined that examples in my book helped the reader take their business to a higher level.

Knowing that my book might help another direct seller earn more money made it easier to keep going. Someone could more easily feed their family or pay their mortgage or allow them to send their children to a better school. It is likely that what you write, whether non-fiction or fiction, will make someone’s life better. If you are a fiction writer, you help the reader escape or bring them joy or provide a thrill. Your contribution makes a difference. “I have a book inside me and it’s not right to keep it there,” I would say to myself. I believe that taking full responsibility for our lives means using all of our gifts — including writing.

The reader is our customer and for them to “get it” is the goal of our writing. Click To Tweet

Feed Your Inspiration

I find that I can be a better writer when I seek out things that inspire me. Listening to music is one of my motivation go-to’s.  I have a long playlist downloaded on my phone that I can tap in to. My current musical obsession is the soundtrack to the movie “The Greatest Showman.” I like to start my day listening to it in the shower and singing along.

I also find it inspirational to travel and do things out of my ordinary routine. For example, I am writing this article from a hotel room located just 18 miles from my house! My daughter and her friend are attending a local ComicCon, so I decided to get a room for the night. I chose this option so they can have a place to take breaks and change outfits — and I can stay in the room and write.

Even though it is only 18 miles from home, I don’t have the same distractions: no household chores waiting or someone calling or coming to the door. I can concentrate on my writing while looking out the 12th-floor window at the city below.

The girls and I had room service together this morning before they left for the event: it was special because I have worked hard and earned the right. That feeling of accomplishment is inspirational, too.

Focus on the end goal, be the reader and feed your inspiration. I hope these thoughts will help you see that project through to completion.

 

Focus on the end goal, be the reader and feed your inspiration. Click To Tweet

 

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When Inspiration Eludes: Finding Your Muse

CAROL K. WALSH

This morning I took my usual walk around our little local lake. I love my morning walk because it helps me connect with my inner muse and energizes my creative juices. There is no better way for me to trigger inspiring ideas.

Today as I walked, I realized how much I hate feeling creatively stuck. During those moments inspiration feels as stubborn as a two-year-old boy, whose first response is “no,” and as reticent as a pre-teen girl in her bedroom. Neither wants to listen to our needs. Both children need to be tricked into showing up for us. Our task is to find ways to entice him or her to do what we are asking – in this case, provide us with some inspiration.

Inspiration (which comes from the word inhale) is the most frustrating, unpredictable part of the creative process. Even if an inspiring idea shows up, it doesn’t mean I’ll like it, or that it solves my problem. As an artist and author I can desperately wish to be inspired about something I am writing — like this blog post — and instead, ideas will flood my brain for works of art. Sometimes I do lose patience. 

Just Let Go

Bringing forth inspiration requires us to repress our natural tendency to force it to happen. Instead, we need to let go of control and make the emotional, energetic, physical and intellectual space for inspiration to appear.

Today after my extra-long walk I entered my studio, a sacred space, which automatically sets the creative stage. (We all need a sacred space, even if it’s a corner of a room.) Once in my studio, I can more easily shift into a state of self-awareness that helps me focus and connect with my inner self. While I need to trust the process, I must also do the footwork. That includes: 

  • Engaging in a ritual of mental, emotional and physical readiness. 
  • Emotionally trusting the process — knowing that something good will come of my efforts. 
  • Shutting the door on negativity, self-doubt and the external world. 

Remember, we cannot force inspiration, but only create the space for it to occur. 

 The creative process is a process of surrender, not control. ~ Julia Cameron, The Artists’ Way Click To Tweet

Tricks to Tickle Your Muse

When inspiration continues to hide, I have a few other helpful tricks:

  • Change your medium. For example, if you are a writer, then doodle or paint.  
  • Move your body. Dance, walk or go to a yoga class. 
  • Brainstorm with creative friends.
  • Do a guided imagery. With closed eyes, begin with your stuck spot and visualize five different outcomes. Be as ridiculous as you can. 
  • Think of three or four unrelated words and put them in a sentence, i.e. toaster, red, couch, clouds. Then, take one of those words – like the color red – and write about everything you associate with that word. 
  • Go to a gathering place (store, coffee shop, park) and notice what you see, hear and think. What draws your attention? Write about your reaction. 
  • Take a one-day creative vacation. Do something playful without expectations. 
  • Watch for synchronicities. Carl Jung defined synchronicity as a “simultaneous occurrence with meaning.” For example, when I was writing my memoir I needed a scene demonstrating my mother’s temperament. In one afternoon I saw ads for candy, someone talked about fudge, and I was given a piece of candy. I went back to my studio and wrote scenes containing my mother and candy. 

In Andrea Patten’s inspired book, The Inner Critic Advantage, she suggests naming our self-shaming inner voice. Likewise, I suggest naming your imaginary muse and call on her when you need help. For example, before you go to sleep at night ask your muse to give you an idea. When you wake up, stay still for two minutes, which allows you to stay in that hypnagogic state, when ideas more readily float up into your consciousness.  

Finally, whenever an inspiration arrives, greet it with gratitude and express confidence that more creative ideas will come. 

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Carol Walsh LCSW-C   is the author of  Painting Life: My Creative Journey Through Trauma

                                                  

                                                                     

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The Art Connection — Part 2

SPECIAL GUEST POST: This is Part 2 of an inspiring talk presented by Linda Hart Green, one of the principals of The Shady Ladies Art Gallery on 8th St, in Fernandina Beach. Click here to see Part 1.

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We also internalize messages about who we are and what we are supposed to do from others. As someone trained to understand people and organizations from the perspective of family systems theory, I encourage you to spend time reflecting on the patterns of communication and relationship in your family of origin.

There we will find both the seeds of our inspiration and the weedier messages both overt and subtle that can impede our artistic vision. My family has a very strong work ethic and there is nothing wrong with that. But I did not learn much about when it was OK to stop and rest or play and that such time was equally valuable. Our deep Protestant roots added a strong sense of the imperative to serve others. There is nothing wrong with that either. But does one serve others at expense of the self?

Those of us who came along in the wake of the Greatest Generation of WW II and those who were reared by those who came through the tribulations of the Great Depression may especially have to wrestle with internal questions like, “Is being a writer a selfish pursuit? Is painting a real job? We have also heard it said in our presence sentiments like: “Poetry is nice but it doesn’t feed hungry people.“ The arts are for those with leisure time.” You can add your own messages to this list. We each have to do the work of integrating our backgrounds, our life experiences, our family responsibilities with our internal yearnings. We are our best selves when we first honor our deepest longings and are true to our own hearts.

I ask your indulgence as I give you an example using theological jargon! It’s my occupation hazard! One’s “espoused theology” is what one says one believes. One’s “operational theology” is what one’s life says about what one believes.
For most us, getting espoused theology and operational theology to line up with each other is a life’s work. We have to practice what we preach!

True spiritual maturity is the integration of the two. I had to realize that while I preached that all are equally loved and accepted by the Holy One, I acted toward myself like I had to work to earn that acceptance. I preached that we are each co-creators and that creating honors the spark of the divine in each of us but making art wasn’t OK for me. The preacher had to bring her espoused theology and her operational theology into alignment or…start practicing what she preached!

I would love to be able to tell you that my creative journey has been a straight line of growth and success for the last 20 years. Truth is, I went back to the pastoral ministry full-time and full-tilt in 1999. At first, I took time to take some classes but then I let my schedule be crowded by other responsibilities. I set up a room in my parsonage, but it fell into dust and disarray. I dabbled with art in fits and starts. I injected the arts wherever I could into the life of my congregation. But there was more work for me to do. I had another profound shift ahead of me.

By this time, it was 2005 and I had weathered the storm of a church fight and a divorce and had met and married Harry, a Unitarian minister! Scandal! I was really kicking up my heels. We went together to our ministry and career counseling center to discuss our future life together. There I was blessed with another caring person important to my journey.

My counselor told me that I was ignoring the artistic side of who I was at my peril. Every test, every exercise, every question and answer session pointed to the fact that I was as much an artist as a minister. With that encouragement, I began to reintroduce art into my life. Seven years later, I took another leap of faith and retired early and we moved here. At first, I made art at home and worked for several other artists on the island. Last year, my 3 other art partners and I opened our own place, Shady Ladies Art Studios.

I am indebted to many for inspiration along my creative journey. Some names you know like Julia Cameron, author of The Artist’s Way workbooks. A theologian I want to mention is Matthew Fox. Those of Roman Catholic background may know of him and that he is a controversial figure who was censured by the Vatican and removed from the Dominican order. He is now an Episcopal priest and prolific author and teacher. In 2002, he wrote a systematic theology of creativity, entitled: “Creativity: Where the Divine and the Human Meet.

He is known for reimagining the biblical stories and teachings in a way that shows that they speak of humanity’s original blessing, not original sin. From that original blessing flows our passion to co-create along with the divine.

He writes that it is the task of artists and writers to lead not only ourselves and our communities but also all of CIVILIZATION by growing our hearts, deepening our compassion, and calling out what is unjust and ugly. Artists and writers are the ones who can help guide others through perilous times of cynicism, boredom, and despair. (written in 2002!) Even more true today!

Thank you for allowing me to share some of my personal and professional journey with you, my fellow creative people! Our mediums may differ, but I can affirm to you, from my own experience and from what I have learned that you are made with original blessing! You are here to see with open eyes and open hearts and open minds. The world needs to know what you see and to benefit from what you create in response.

As you write, may you be filled with the energy and joy that comes from participating in the flow of creativity that permeates the whole world.

The Art Connection -- Part 1

The Art Connection — Part 1

SPECIAL GUEST POST: Not long ago, Writers by the Sea, the local chapter of the Florida Writers Association, was treated to a talk by Linda Hart Green, a member of the Shady Ladies art co-operative. She spoke about the connections between creating visual art and writing. She graciously agreed to share her thoughts with us.

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Naomi Shihab Nye is a Palestinian-American poet who began writing her own poems at the age of 6! She is often asked how she became a writer. She put her response into a poem entitled, “Please describe how you became a writer:”

“Possibly I began writing as a refuge from our insulting first-grade textbook. “Come, Jane, come. Look, Dick, look.” Were there ever duller people in the world? You had to tell them to look at things? Why weren’t they looking to begin with?” ”

My guess about you is that no one has to tell YOU to look at things! My guess is that you have been looking all of your lives. You know no other way to be in the world. Looking brings you both joy and pain. But you will not turn away. Feeling the need to look and to record what you see is why you write and why I paint! Those of us who are compelled to look wish we could take a break from it. Turn it off for a while. But we know that price of NOT looking is too high. We want to see the world in all its beauty, diversity, humor, irony and pain.

Henry David Thoreau said, “The question is not what you look at but what you see.” What is the difference between looking and seeing? When you see, are you fully present in mind, body, and spirit? When you look, are your eyes working, but your mind is several steps behind or several steps ahead of where you are?

For artists and writers, that just won’t do. Poets and artists need to be fully present to what they see so that they can be awake to connections, analogies, and metaphors that help explain and to give meaning to life’s journey. This kind of seeing can bring needed insight to a difficult situation or it can take something simple and see in it a thing of transcendent beauty.

A poet who is a well-practiced seer is Mary Oliver. In her book of essays, “Upstream,” she recounts her lonely and difficult childhood. She took refuge in nature and in the world of literature and writing. Her lifetime of quiet and patient observation in nature has opened deep insights that ring true.

In her poem, “When death comes…” she sums up her life’s goal: “when it’s over, I want to say: all my life I was a bride married to amazement. I was the bridegroom taking the world into my arms.” Writing and the visual arts connect in their creators’ desire to be married to amazement! To not take a single thing or a single day for granted. We want to see those things that bring us an “aha” moment or cause us to draw in our breath.

If we allow cynicism, anger or indifference to what we see dull our amazement and shut us down, then we forego the opportunity to contribute an insight, observation or story or image that the world can have only through us and only if we share it. Only if we share it. It is one thing to see. It is another thing to put what we see “out there.”

Here is another point of commonality between artists and writers. We desire to put what we see “out there.” “Out there” can be very scary. Self-disclosure involves risk. We have to detach from our desire for approval, recognition, and credit and become immune to rejection. We have to validate our own vision and learn to accept constructive criticism. That is so difficult! When you have a drawer full of pink slips or a closet full of paintings that were not accepted to shows, it is tempting to withdraw into a cocoon of self-protection.

NOT giving voice or vision to what we see is also scary. We risk squelching that spark that makes us each uniquely who we are. When the temptation to withdraw comes as it will, we can tackle it by focusing on process over product. Process over product. We can find enjoyment in the act of creating not just the results. Morning pages, doodles, poems in the margins, sketches and silly rhymes are all part of the process.

In 1995, after twenty years in the professional church ministry, I came to a point in mid-life and mid-career where I really felt the need to do something radically different. Sure, I had put myself out there as a woman in a profession traditionally dominated by men, but I had not given my artistic desires any room to breathe and grow. I had always loved art and had always drawn and done creative projects but I had not fully blessed those inclinations with devoted time and practice. As happens with many, I had let my career take over my life.

After a year of contemplation and planning, I resigned my job which at the time was as a regional consultant for our denomination with the 300 Baptist churches in Massachusetts. I took an unpaid personal sabbatical and returned home to New Jersey with my former husband.

All but my closest friends were shocked. “What about your career track? You will have a gap in your resume,” they warned. All those voices wanting me to change back were very loud. You have heard them too. I needed to heal from my overwork and begin to correct the perfectionist tendencies that constantly told me I needed to do MORE. Instead, I needed to listen to my deepest inner voice that said, “You are enough.”

I left my unopened moving boxes and practically ran to sign up for my first art class. At that first class, I got out my new supplies, put my paper on my easel and FROZE. I just sat there immobile, staring at that blank pad of drawing paper. I imagine all of you know exactly how I felt.

I will never forget the kindness of that first teacher. My fragile new art self could have been dead in the water at that moment in the hands of the wrong person. That kind of life-draining teachers or “shadow artists” as Julia Cameron calls them in The Artist’s Way are out there and we have all run into them. But this teacher did not scold or scoff or berate.

After giving our instructions, he casually walked around the class. He saw my dilemma and came up behind me and quietly whispered in my ear, “Start.” What a gift! And…I did! Of course what I drew was tight and didn’t nearly fill the page. And I erased a lot. Over the next weeks and months, as I did the exercises he taught and started to feel less self-conscious, I could relax more, take more risks and start feeling the freedom of learning new ways to record what I see.

As writers and artists, we need to overcome our hesitancy and simply start! We can’t feel worse than we already do! I got better at seeing and recording what I saw, too. I had doubted my ability to make my hands create what my eyes saw. My vision in my left eye is poor due to a birth defect and I have terrible depth perception. I felt embarrassed about it as a child who wasn’t good at sports and ashamed when I was a klutzy teenager. How could I be an artist? We all have internal messages of self-doubt that we mentally rehearse. We can let them hold us back and define us or we can put mental brackets around them and stop listening to the negativity.

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Linda Hart Green is the Shady Lady pictured on the far right. Part 2 of her article will be published here soon.

 

Writing Tips from Robert Dugoni

Creative Writing Tips from Robert Dugoni

Not long ago I had an opportunity to attend a creative writing seminar series on getting your novel started, and it happened to be led by Seattle author Robert Dugoni.

He is the best-selling author of 13 novels and legal thrillers including the Tracy Crosswhite series and David Sloane series (both set in Seattle).

Dugoni offered a number of suggestions to budding authors. First, start with the action. This is recommended by many authors of thrillers, suspense and mystery, and you’ll hear it at every writers’ conference you attend. You’ve got to hook your reader right away.

Another of Dugoni’s recommendations was to make sure you create a question in the reader’s mind with the first paragraph, and really with every paragraph. That’s how you create a page-turner. Keep the reader eager to find out what happens next.

When telling your story, Dugoni said it’s best to avoid the use of flashback. If you need to go back in time, you’ve got to put the reader right in that time. Flashbacks stop the story.

And, a famous quote from Dugoni:

“Whether you’re an unpublished novelist or a sixteen-time New York Times bestselling author, you can always improve your craft. You can always become a better writer.”

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