I'm a published novelist and freelance writer, editor, and audio tech. Check out my journal for creative writing tips, short stories, and news. To learn more about my books or my services, navigate using the links above. 

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Entries in writing advice (9)


Taking People at Their Word


image via freevintageillustrations.com

It’s easy to get discouraged. The truth is, creating is scary and difficult, and we’ll cling to any excuse that tells us not to create, share, or reach out, if it saves us the pain of rejection and embarrassment. Even for those of us with a powerful creative drive, this can be a near-constant struggle. One of the subtle ways we “get out of” this painful business is to pre-emptively imagine rejection where there isn’t any (yet).

For example, if someone offers to help you, follow up with them. Don’t let it slide because you’ve told yourself they were only saying it to be nice and didn’t really mean it. Similarly, if someone asks for news about your upcoming events, send it to them (add them to your email list, for example, and don’t be afraid to send messages to that list when you have something big coming up). A lot of people I know seem afraid to use their email lists, because they don’t want to bother people, but if people signed up for the list, it was because they want to hear from you. Take them at their word. As Jennifer and Julia of iCadenza explain in their great book, Awakening Your Business Brain, many artists are afraid of being "that guy" who promotes himself too much, but the reality is they often overcorrect in the other direction, despite direct requests from fans to hear more from them!

Similarly, if someone turns you down for something, take them at their word when they tell you why. If you detect a pattern over time, it means you probably need to change something; but if someone simply says they’re too busy, try to accept them at their word (and reread my blog post on rejections). Attempting to read the tea leaves to find the hidden reasons behind a simple rejection won’t result in an improvement in your work; it will only paralyze you further. Even if it is a reflection on your work, there’s too little information in the polite and vague rejection to make a meaningful reassessment; instead of trying to read your rejector’s mind, ask a trusted friend to look over your work and give you honest feedback. (This is great advice that I received from another author friend.)

Finally, if an agent or a venue or another place you want to reach out to has an open call for submissions on their website, take them at their word that they want to hear from you! That doesn’t mean you’re guaranteed success, but it does mean there’s no use sitting on your hands, asking yourself if they really want to hear from you (as long as you meet the stated guidelines of what they’re looking for).

In short, don’t say no to yourself on anyone else’s behalf. Not only will this enhance your creative career, it will also strengthen your relationship with your audience. Self-doubt and uncertainty come with the territory for many creators, but we have to find ways to work through those emotions (sometimes with professional help) so they don’t seep into our interactions with fans in a negative way. It’s okay to expose our fragility, and let our fans “see the brushstrokes”--there’s something beautifully human in admitting to your readers that you’re struggling. But there's a fine line between being beautifully honest, and outsourcing your self-care to your audience. The former can bring you closer together, while the latter can leave audience members feeling drained themselves.

This is where our creative communities become so important. They are the key to balancing our need for reassurance, our demands on our audience, our abilitly to be honest about our struggles with insecurity, and our courage to take risks. You are not weak or stupid for feeling insecure, even in the face of affirmation. You are also not weak or stupid for seeking help in overcoming those feelings. Here are a few ways to learn how to better take people at their word:

Prioritize self-care. Artists of all stripes are infamous for neglecting their emotional health and even living in a cycle of self-abuse. But you don't have to be that way to be a good artist. If you struggle severely with self-doubt and insecurity, seek professional help, be it from a therapist, counselor, life coach, or support group. It's okay. Think of it like learning how to train a muscle, or taking an exercise class to improve your form.

Appoint a few cheerleaders. I've mentioned "creativity cheerleaders" before. It's important to have a few people who can offer you praise and excitement. Sometimes we get that from our audience, too, but at our lowest moments it helps to have a small, personal community of "cheerleaders" to turn to privately when things seem dark and audience response is uncertain. Don't be afraid to ask someone, "Hey, can you read this short story and give me some encouragement?" Try it.

Live up to your own offers to others. It helps us learn to trust others more when we emulate the behavior we wish to see in them. If you're feeling down about something, instead of stewing on it see if you can go out and be the kind of person you wish to encounter more often. Offer to read a friend's manuscript or attend someone's event. Support a local artist by sharing their work, or simply offer them a few encouraging words of your own. You may discover yourself in the center of the creative community you'd been seeking all along.

My assignment to you, dear readers, is to go back into your memory bank and think of one offer that you were afraid to accept--you know there's at least one--and follow up on it this week. Don't be afraid if it's been a while. Maybe the offer has expired. But let the offerer be the one to tell you that. Be gentle and respectful, but also be brave.

Every Wednesday, I share action-oriented tips for building arts communities. View all the community-building posts here. 


Letter to Students: Positive Techniques for Busting the Exposition Trap

The latest session of Writing Games begins TODAY at Capitol Hill Arts Workshop! Sign up here.
Every week of Writing Games class, I send an email to my current students with a few extra thoughts on writing and the themes or techniques we explored that week, plus take-home exercises and more. The Letters to Students blog series collects highlights from some of these emails. To sign up for a Writing Games class, visit my Events page.

Last week's Letter to Students featured some emotional techniques for dealing with the "exposition trap" and self-limitation. This week, I offer three concrete, stylistic tips for reducing or transforming exposition in our work.

This week we did three short games to explore three common sticking points for writers. The overarching theme was fighting the tendency to get lost in exposition instead of slowing down and creating scenes instead of flying past them with expository prose. We have three tools to fight Creeping Exposition: dialogue, action, and the creation of incident/filler scenes/transitional scenes.

Dialogue: How many times in your writing have you skipped past an opportunity to write out a dialogue scene? I recently experienced an example of this. In my current work in progress, a teen sneaks out all night to participate in some scary supernatural stuff. When she returns in the morning, her mom catches her and asks her where she was. Her alibi is that she snuck out to sleep with her boyfriend for the first time. As I was revising my first draft of this book, I realized I'd just written something like "And then we had an awkward conversation about sex," and then moved on to the next scene. Looking back at it, I thought, "Um...I need to write out this dialogue."

Action: The same thing happens with action -- action can be as difficult to write compellingly as humor. It's easy to skip past it without even thinking, too: "They chased the hero down the alley. It was a close one but he made it out." That could be: "The turned, chasing him into the long, dark alley. He dodged behind a dumpster, holding his breath. They shuffled down the alley with muffled steps, hoping to surprise him, looking for any sign of his presence. He held in a sneeze, clenching his fists. They got to the end of the alley, rattled the chain-link fence in frustration, and then marched out again. The hero waited until the sound of their steps was far away, before taking a deep breath." To break the habit of skipping past action, err on the side of too much detail; it'll train your brain to think of action sequences as a series of small and distinct actions.


Creation of Incident: Often we imagine stories in the form of a synopsis, hitting on the major peaks and valleys, and then we sit down to write and realize we have to fill in the gaps with incident, and we're stumped. My suggestion for this challenge is less of a technique and more of an attitude change. If we approach these transitional or filler scenes as unique opportunities to create "mini" stories within the story, they no longer seem like a boring chore, and they become a fun writing experience within themselves. See if you can approach your own work that way.


To view all the Letters to Students, click here. 



Join us for the 2016 CHAW Writing Showcase!


 image via freevintageimages.com

Join us for the 2016 CHAW Creative Writing Showcase, on April 21 from 6:30 - 9pm! The Creative Writing Showcase is held open-house style, so stop in for as long as you like, or stay for the program of student and instructor readings from 7pm - 8pm. Admire the latest art installation in CHAW's gallery while you enjoy:
  • Free wine and snacks
  • Readings by students and instructors
  • Announcements about upcoming writing classes
  • Social time with your fellow writing students
  • The opportunity to share your own work!
WHAT: CHAW Creative Writing Showcase 2016
WHEN: April 21, 6:30pm - 9pm
WHERE: Capitol Hill Arts Workshop, Front Gallery
545 7th Street SE
Washington, DC



RSVP Here 



Letter to Students: Come Play With Me

Writing Games is returning to Capitol Hill Arts Workshop on April 18! Time is running out, so sign up to secure your spot now. Click here to register!

Every week of Writing Games class, I send an email to my current students with a few extra thoughts on writing and the themes or techniques we explored that week, plus take-home exercises and more. The Letters to Students blog series collects highlights from some of these emails.

image via freevintageillustrations.com

Writing Games is based on the idea that the biggest thing holding you back is the voice in your head that tells you, "Don't write that, that's stupid." The belief that one doesn't have any inspiration is just a result of listening to that voice for too long.

In class, we play rapid-fire, collaborative games to try to overcome that voice. How can you continue to do that at home, without the timer, the team atmosphere, or the crazy prompts?

There's a reason that I try to give you take-home assignments that include things like "try something new" or "write a friend a long email," in addition to the more traditional prompts. Overcoming that negative voice isn't just a matter of writing technique; it's an entire attitude shift. It's deciding that you don't need permission from anyone to write. It's embracing the belief that your ideas are valid and worth expression. It's also a willingness to make mistakes and try something, even if you know you'll do it imperfectly, or it may be uncomfortable at first, because trying is how you learn and improve.

When a guitarist wants to get better at guitar, they practice. Yet, so often, when writers want to improve themselves, they sit on their hands, unwilling to sacrifice a good idea to a weak phase in their career for the sake of learning through experience. I'm not quite sure where we all expect improvement to come from if we don't try, but for many writers, the wish for improvement is paralyzing.

Don't fall into that trap. Come play with me! The newest session of Writing Games at Capitol Hill Arts Workshop begins on April 18. Sign up here to secure your spot today!

To view all the Letters to Students, click here. 


The Sound of Silent Rejection


image via freevintageillustrations.com

If you create for long enough, you’ll encounter something just as devastating as a scathing rejection: none at all. The silent rejection can do just as much to undermine our confidence as heavy-handed criticism, and sometimes more, because our imaginations fill in the worst possible explanations for non-response.

I’ve been challenging myself to reach out to potential collaborators more, and climb out of my Lonesome Writer box to create experiences that cross boundaries between the arts, combining writing, music, visual arts, and more. I’ve found the biggest challenge isn’t coming up with ideas, or identifying potential collaborators--it’s finding the courage to reach out to those people. Let me tell you what happens:

Every time I write a pitch for a collaboration, no matter how meticulously I craft it or how much I believe in the idea, for a brief moment after I hit “send”--especially on cold calls, but even when I send to friends--I am transported back to high school. I’m the really weird kid who seems to have friends but isn’t sure how she got them. I am never quite cool enough, and I’m always in danger of “trying too hard.” I immediately berate myself for even assuming the idea was worth sharing in the first place. I worry that I’ll come across as full of myself or delusional for thinking I had a chance at convincing that person to collaborate with me.

The truth is, those fears don’t go away. But after that flare-up, they die down to their background levels. That is, until the silent rejections pile up. In that silence, my imagination goes back to all those fears, assuming that they are the real reason I’m not getting traction.

The second-worst part about silent rejection is you’re never quite sure when the door is completely closed. It’s easy to say that, after a month (or insert arbitrary unit of time here), you can consider it a “no.” But it all depends on the industry and the ask. In publishing, many agents and editors will tell you to wait at least eight weeks before following up. I sold my first book about six months after submitting it to its eventual publisher--and I’d even formed a false memory of receiving a rejection from them! (A good reminder to keep meticulous records of my submission history.)

For out-of-the-box situations it’s even harder to say when the silence means a “no.” One time, I nearly wrote off hearing from someone, only to get a reply about six weeks later--they’d been traveling. Other times, I’ve been surprised that someone who hadn’t replied to my initial query at all wound up proactively seeking me out for a different opportunity much later. While these may seem like reassuring incidents, they can also feed the uncertainty and self-doubt about when to move on.

Realistically, I know that a lack of response often has more to do with a person’s busyness or other priorities than it does with the merits of my project itself. After all, I have no right to expect anything from a person I am approaching, unsolicited, with a request for their time, energy, and ideas. And, like them, I’ve had to turn down collaborations at times when I’m simply too busy to add another project to my schedule. It’s rarely personal. But the voices of self-doubt have no time for that reasoning. They tell me, “They probably saw it and thought, ‘What a crock of shit.’” Or, “They’re probably embarrassed for you that you even sent this.”

I tried for too long to fight the negativity I associate with silent rejections by denying my feelings and talking myself down. I tried to tell myself, “Don’t be silly,” or “They’re probably not thinking that.” It didn’t work.

What does work?

Accepting that it’s natural to feel hurt.

Accepting that taking a risk, and reaching out to someone (as long as it was in a respectful and non-harassing way) is worth the pain, because I can continue to grow and learn from the experience.

Accepting that it’s okay to surround myself with people who affirm my creative worth, as well as those who challenge it. Seeking affirmation and validation doesn’t make me weak, nor does it undermine my commitment to growth and improvement. In fact, in order to grow and improve, we all need encouragement. Parts of the writing world seem to have an ascetic attitude when it comes to encouragement and praise as learning tools; but in addition to teaching students how to accept and use criticism, I think we should teach people how to accept and use praise, because not only will it improve our writing, it will also give us the courage to seek more learning opportunities. My community of “creativity cheerleaders” has done more than anything else to give me the strength to face silent rejections.

My “creativity cheerleaders” give me the confidence to say: “So what if the rejectors really are thinking I should be embarrassed by my efforts to reach out to them?” I’m proud that I’m willing to embarrass myself a little bit, in order to learn and grow. It doesn’t make silent rejection painless, but it does make it conquerable.

In that spirit, I encourage everyone reading this to make at least one big "ask" that makes you nervous this week. Whether it's querying an agent or editor, asking a friend to read your work, reaching out to a potential collaborator, or something else entirely, do it with respect and optimism. You may be turned down. Or, you may get a slightly different answer than you were hoping for (perhaps someone can help, but not right now, or they want to collaborate, but in a different way). You may not hear anything back at all. But you will continue to hone your asking skills. And as Amanda Palmer taught us in her book, asking is an art.

Every Wednesday, I share action-oriented tips for building arts communities. View all the community-building posts here.



Letter to Students: Showing, Telling, and Self-Limitation

Writing Games is returning to Capitol Hill Arts Workshop on April 18! Time is running out, so sign up to secure your spot now. Click here to register!

Every week of Writing Games class, I send an email to my current students with a few extra thoughts on writing and the themes or techniques we explored that week, plus take-home exercises and more. The Letters to Students blog series collects highlights from some of these emails.

image via freevintageimages.com

This week we explored various ways to "bust the exposition trap," which is a writing habit many aspiring authors fall into. The exposition trap is when we rely too heavily on descriptive or analytic prose instead of placing readers directly in the scene or world we're depicting. Some people call the remedy to the exposition trap "showing instead of telling," but I think that distinction has limited usefulness because really compelling writing combines a bit of both showing and telling. However, as we explored in our exercises, sometimes to break the habit we have to overcorrect, and challenge ourselves to write something that exclusively "shows" (like our action verb game) in order to stretch those underused creative muscles.

I've taught a few classes on the exposition trap so far, and each time, it makes me pause and reconsider a lot of the writing axioms that we learn, such as "show, don't tell." Like any proverb, it's about 70% true, but it's so neat and tidy that it's easy to reach for it all the time. After all, it makes our writing decisions for us! When any piece of writing "wisdom" is treated dogmatically like that, it winds up having the opposite of its intended effect--it can just serve to create another issue. So rather than focusing on telling you what not to do, I tried to design this class to help you see all that you can do--rather than setting up a false dichotomy of "show, don't tell," why not learn to do both really well, and have twice as many tools in your writing box?

There's a big difference between self-awareness and self-limitation. We all have these fears about our writing: am I telling too much, and not showing enough? Am I not original enough? Is my material not serious enough? Not funny enough? Am I copying too much from my own life, and not inventing enough?

Self-awareness means being able to recognize what needs improvement and what works about your writing, and learning that even the areas that require improvement are open doors to development, experimentation, and new efforts--not shut doors of "forbidden technique." I think writers suffer especially from this attitude, inculcated by workshops and even our pop-culture images of writers as tortured and self-loathing: that self-improvement means self-limitation, self-flagellation.

But what I've learned through personal experience and observation is that growth and improvement come much more rapidly when we focus on what we can do, not what we can't. Even if it results in error, I think it's much easier and more productive to reel in an overly ambitious or adventurous style than it is to try to pry ourselves out of the clutches of self-consciousness and self-limitation. I hope this week's exercises helped.

To view all the Letters to Students, click here. 


Letter to Students: Get Some Action

Every week of Writing Games class, I send an email to my current students with a few extra thoughts on writing and the themes or techniques we explored that week, plus take-home exercises and more. The Letters to Students blog series collects highlights from some of these emails. To sign up for a Writing Games class, visit my Events page.


In our last class, we played a selection of games to explore plot development, writing action scenes, and writing endings. A quick take-home challenge: if you find yourself struggling to write or imagine action scenes in one of your stories, try our action-verb-only exercise. (Every sentence must contain at least one action verb.) It might not result in a scene you want to use in your final draft, but it should help jar you out of your doldrums and start thinking in terms of physical action, and how to keep things moving forward briskly.

Another neat exercise, just to stretch your creative muscles, is to "novelize" an action scene from a movie. Pick a movie you like a lot, and then try to write out one of its action scenes as a story. Explore the pace and type of language you use to describe the scene. See if you can carry that tone over into your own work.

To view all the Letters to Students, click here. 


The Ballad of the Pleather Jacket

Last week, Seth and I made a killing at Goodwill, dragging home a big bag of cheap fashion finds. On the way home, we talked about how we used to feel like we weren’t “cool enough” to wear the clothes we really liked. We talked about the different ways we came to embrace the idea that we were “cool enough” to finally wear the fashion we loved, because “cool” wasn’t a matter of what others thought of us at all--it was a choice we each made, to wear fashion confidently until that confidence seeped out of the clothes and into us.


In that spirit, as I was getting ready to go see Seth perform with Maryjo Mattea that night, I took out a white pleather jacket I’d bought five years ago, but only worn out once before. I’d liked the jacket too much to give it away, but I’d been too afraid of how bold it was to wear it often. Many, many times I’d tried it on over an outfit only to reject it for something more conservative. But that night, I loved how it contrasted with the flowy blouse I wore, and it didn’t seem too over-the-top after all.

Then I started noticing the flakes. At first, I thought just a small patch on the shoulder was peeling, and I’d be able to fix it up. Then I went to the bathroom and noticed that the entire back of the jacket was peeling, too. My plans to salvage it went down the tubes, and I realized that the second time I’d worn this jacket in five years was going to be the last.



That made me really sad. I realized that even though I’d come a long way in terms of confidence and self-expression, I’d still been so afraid to wear a really cool jacket that I actually liked a lot, that it had literally rotted away in my closet without ever seeing the light of day.

We let that happen to creative ideas, too. I’ve had many students who’ve told me about the ideas they’ve been sitting on for years, afraid they aren’t good enough writers to tackle them yet. I’ve also been approached by many friends with story suggestions, when I can tell that the reason they’re suggesting these stories to me is because they’re afraid to write them themselves. I also help a lot of students deal with a crippling self-consciousness that holds them back from writing with the kind of abandon they dream about, resulting in stories that feel stunted and unsatisfactory to them. And then there are the people who quite simply don’t think they’re “cool enough” to pursue art at all. We all have a lot of cool pleather jackets moldering away in our creative closets.

Sometimes I’m afraid I sound manic when I share all the ideas I have swirling around in my head--events I want to organize, stories I’m writing, collaborations I’m pursuing. But I’m learning not to be afraid of sharing my ideas anymore, because I don’t want to let any more pleather jackets turn to dust before I get a chance to wear them out. It sounds like a superficial problem, but losing that jacket hit me hard, because of all that it represented to me.

This applies to participating in a creative community, too. It can be hard to approach other people with our work, because it opens us up to criticism and humiliation. The criticism is hard enough to deal with, but at the heart of the humiliation is the fear that people will look at our work, or listen to our ideas, and think, “Oh, you really thought this was good enough to put out there? That’s pretty foolish.” So we let our ideas rot in the closet, because of this contradictory fear that we are not cool enough for the jacket, and the jacket itself isn’t cool enough to wear out of the house. It’s a really efficient way to never make anything.

But if you’re a maker, you have to find the courage to fully commit to it. I’m not talking about quitting your job or getting into debt to pursue your dreams. I mean it in the emotional sense--you have to be willing to take those ideas out of your closet and wear them around, because they won’t get better by sitting in there forever.

Every Wednesday, I share action-oriented tips for building arts communities. View all the community-building posts here.


Letter to Students: Giving In and Giving Up

Every week of Writing Games class, I send an email to my current students with a few extra thoughts on writing and the themes or techniques we explored that week, plus take-home exercises and more. The Letters to Students blog series collects highlights from some of these emails. To sign up for a Writing Games class, visit my Events page.

image via freevintageimages.com

So, this week we just had an intro to Writing Games and the ideas and techniques we'll explore together. We focused a lot on the idea of quieting the voice in your head that says, "Don't write that, that's stupid." We also talked about lowering the stakes, so that when you write you aren't freighted down with self-imposed expectations. Trying too hard to prove that internal voice wrong is really just another way of giving in to it--that's how we sometimes get that feeling of "charlatanism." If anyone in class has practiced meditation, they may be familiar with the idea of not being for or against a feeling, but simply dwelling with it. That's sort of what happens when we stop trying to prove the "stupid voice" wrong, and simply ignore it instead (like an annoying yappy dog), focusing all our attention on writing what makes our hearts sing, and not what sounds good or smart or unique or edgy. If you do that long enough, that voice of inhibition will shrink to a tiny whisper.

Whether you're an aspiring career writer or just having fun, I highly recommend this article by Matthew Weiner, the creator of Mad Men, on his writing life:  

Artists frequently hide the steps that lead to their masterpieces. They want their work and their career to be shrouded in the mystery that it all came out at once. It’s called hiding the brushstrokes, and those who do it are doing a disservice to people who admire their work and seek to emulate them. If you don’t get to see the notes, the rewrites, and the steps, it’s easy to look at a finished product and be under the illusion that it just came pouring out of someone’s head like that. People who are young, or still struggling, can get easily discouraged, because they can’t do it like they thought it was done. An artwork is a finished product, and it should be, but I always swore to myself that I would not hide my brushstrokes.

...The most defeatist thing I hear is, "I’m going to give it a couple of years." You can’t set a clock for yourself. If you do, you are not a writer. You should want it so badly that you don’t have a choice.

Even if you're not looking to start a career in writing, I like what he points out about "hiding the brushstrokes." I think there's a general impression of writers, that true geniuses nail it on the first draft. Nobody nails it on the first draft. Let's just remove that expectation right up front.

For those who are interested in a career in writing, I think the second paragraph I quoted is very powerful. While I don't agree with him later on in the article when he says you shouldn't get too good at your day job, I do agree that if you set a deadline for writing success (however you define it), you are already resigning yourself to failure. You're basically paying out the time until your deadline, which, face it, is much less frightening than going for what you really want and dream about.

To view all the Letters to Students,click here.