This is Alex, our Barn Owl. We got him when he was only four weeks old, and now he’s just shy of three months. My husband, the Falconer, is teaching Alex to do owlish things, such as flying at night and hunting for mice in grass. Already, Alex has learned to fly away and return to the glove, which is a real milestone in training birds of prey. So far, so good.
by Meg Dowell You don’t know which projects are going to succeed, and which ones are going to fail. Many people assume that because I’ve been writing for a long time, I now do so professionally, and I give advice on my blog, I’m the expert who knows it all. And with that […]
I got an email rejection letter today. It’s not the first.
I printed it out for posterity. Stephen King tacked all his rejection slips to the wall. He thought it was important to keep them, so I will, too. (Not that I’m in the same class as Stephen King.)
“By the time I was fourteen, the nail in my wall would no longer support the weight of the rejection slips impaled upon it. I replaced the nail with a spike and went on writing.” from On Writing
By the time I was fourteen…
Wow! I need more rejection slips!
They are proof that I’m actually writing and submitting. Rejection letters are not signs of failure, but records of my effort.
Not dead ends, but detours to different paths.
Stories abound of famous writers who were rejected but persevered, winning literary prizes and becoming best-selling authors. Hemingway. John Grisham. Madeline L’Engle. Rudyard Kipling.
Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was rejected twelve times before publication. (Not that I’m in the same class as J.K. Rowling either.)
Rejection letters can be excellent motivators, unless you consider them the last word on your manuscript’s value, which you should not do. And they should never be used as an excuse to quit altogether.
Creating is hard. So is trudging through the Sahara without a canteen. If you’re in need of a cool drink, pick up a copy of Cartoonist Stephen McCranie’s book, Brick by Brick: Principles for Achieving Artistic Mastery.
Beautiful and wise, Brick by Brick has taught me about the creative mindset in a way few other books have. It’s packed full of insight and whimsical artwork drawn in soft shades of peach, brown, and aqua.
The title comes from the idea that a tower is built one brick at a time. “That means your measure for success is not how tall your tower is, but whether or not you’ve laid your bricks for the day” (p. 16).
In the introduction, McCranie says the comic essays stemmed from what he’d learned in his first two years as a professional cartoonist. He realized his experience might help other artists, but rather than tell artists how to create, this would be a “book about how to be a creator.” More than a “how to” manual, it’s a “how to be” book.
The comic format, a harmony of illustration and prose, grabs me in a way other books on the creative process have not. It’s written with honesty about his own failures, his struggles with self-doubt, and the principles that got him on the right track.
With a hearty dash of humor (I love his “deadlinosaurus rex”), he warns us to set realistic goals, break them down into small steps, and plan “backwards so you can live forwards” (p. 29). He offers tips to improve your craft and stay motivated while avoiding potholes along the journey.
The most helpful chapter for me (though it’s difficult to choose just one) is “You Are Not Your Art” – a pep talk for anyone who has invested too much of their identity in their creative pursuit.
“Hug the Elephant” is an insightful peek into the nature of beauty. “Practice Doesn’t Make Perfect” explores how to improve your skill by studying the experts in your field, and he gives tips to learn through imitation.
Other section titles include:
“Turn Your Pain into Plans”
“Planning for the Possible”
“Two Fallacies to Watch Out For”
“Taste is your Teacher”
“Be Friends with Failure”
“Know Your Artistic Lineage”
“Diversify Your Study”
“Get Stuff Done”
“Fun Gets Done”
“Divide and Conquer”
When I flip the last page of the “Conclusion,” my vision is sharper, and I’m motivated to follow McCranie’s advice: “Go outside and look for dragons.” Creatives of all types will find Brick by Brick amusing and inspiring.
Writers, artists, dreamers, read this book. It’s nothing short of powerful. You can buy it on Amazon or on McCranie’s website doodlealley.com where you’ll find more resources and see a sample of his drawing style.
Update: Yesterday, I received a copy of McCranie’s newest book, Space Boy. If it’s half as honest and uplifting as Brick by Brick, it will be well worth the read.
Ah, there’s nothing like being infatuated with a new story idea.
I’m over-the-moon excited when a fresh tale is brewing in my mind, because this one will be the best ever! I’m prone to rush headlong into my manuscript, hitting the juicy highlights of the narrative. But the devil is in the details…
The Problem of Weak Writing
“Details.” That’s what my literature professor said I lacked when I (tearfully) asked her why I couldn’t earn more than a B on my papers. What I thought were precise essays were actually vague. And boring.
The fix? Brainstorming. For the next essay, I chose my topic, then I made a list of all the relevant ideas I could think of beforeI sat down to write. The result? An A.
Details — especially those involving the senses — breathe life into a story and cast a spell of verisimilitude that pulls in the reader: The hour-glass birthmark on your antagonist’s forehead. The leaning tower of books in the den and the frayed fabric on the easy chair. The way your protagonist’s mouth quivers before she answers her opponent.
Without them, characters are lackluster, rooms are empty, and plot holes abound.
How can you imagine all those necessary details?
Draw from everyday experiences.
Even mundane items — small things — can lead to big developments. For example, simple clues — a ladybug tattoo, a missing key, a white pill — may identify the murderer in a who-done-it.
I like to carry a notepad in my pocket as I go through my day and jot down my observations, or record them in a voice memo on my phone.
Here are a few little details I noted while doing my morning chores. I may use them in my new masterpiece novella:
Outside my kitchen window, the yellow faces of sunflowers swayed in the wind.
Bacon popped in the microwave, and the aroma filled the room.
I accidentally hit the lever on the mixer while it was in the up position. The paddle spun at high speed and slung muffin batter all over the kitchen — and me.
Upside-down bats lined the wooden frame over the barn door.
I might use the mixer episode in a humorous scene as my protagonist tries to impress a potential love interest who works as a chef. Or the image of the bats would enhance a gloomy, suspenseful atmosphere in a mystery. You get the idea.
Natalie Goldberg says this in Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within:
“Life is so rich, if you can write down the real details of the way things were and are, you hardly need anything else….Using the details you actually know and have seen will give your writing believability and truthfulness.”
How do you mine your everyday life for ideas? Let me know in the comments.
Have you thought about giving up this writing thing?
Have you wondered if you should devote so much time to this endeavor? Whether you should risk your sanity for it?
Is it worth all the SACRIFICE when you get so little in return? So little validation. So many rejection letters.
No money. Nil.
Or perhaps your half-finished story has never seen the light of day. You’ve hidden it in a drawer or on a hard drive, too afraid to show anyone. Too afraid to finish.
Meanwhile, your writer friends publish their work, get noticed, climb the rankings on Amazon. A few have published with the Big Five, won Pulitzers, and made millions. These may or may not be your personal friends, but they write the books you read.
You suspect your writing is not on the same level as theirs. You feel like a dandelion amongst roses. Like Ira Glass explained, a gap exists between what you admire – your taste – and your ability.
Should You Quit?
Perhaps the better question is, Can you quit?
Discouragement sets in because writing is hard. Believe me, crocheting is much easier. Or knitting.
Can you give it up and keep your sanity? If the answer is yes, then you can take up a more rewarding hobby. Like knitting. (I’m not knocking knitting. I have two projects going right now.)
Or maybe you’ll choose to do the hard thing because you want to write. Or you need to write. And you hate knitting.
And maybe you’ll decide that success isn’t measured by rankings or money or even popularity. Maybe success means making a small difference in the world.
Your Mission, If You Choose to Accept It
STAY THE COURSE. Don’t give up.
No one else can write with your unique perspective, with your experiences, your voice.
You might object, “Too many voices are clamoring to be heard already!”
But none of them are yours. You are the only one who can write your way. You are the only one with your voice.
If you study the craft, if you do the work, you WILL inspire someone else. If your story, poem, picture or post can help one, anonymous person, is it worth it?
Keep writing. Accumulate a body of work, and your influence will grow. You may not win a Pulitzer. You may never make a bestseller list. But you will reach the right people – your people – with your authentic words.
One bright morning, my husband and I flew in his little Maule MX-7 from our crooked, grass strip to his parent’s house sixty miles away. As we cruised toward the sun, a few cotton-ball clouds dotted the patchwork of fields below us, but the skies above were clear.
Ten minutes later, a solid white blanket cloaked the ground.
Fog is intimidating when you’re on the road, but it’s downright hair-raising from the air, especially for this white-knuckle flyer.
After vowing silently never to fly again, I pointed out the obvious to my husband. “We can’t land in this!”
“It’ll lift before we get there,” he said, his hands firmly on the control wheel.
We followed the straight line on the GPS screen until we reached the destination point — his father’s farm. We circled the area and searched for an opening in the clouds but found none.
Anxiety taunted me: What if the fog doesn’t lift for hours! The plane will run out of fuel!
We circled again. I prayed, HARD. After one more go-around, the summer sun burned a hole in the fleecy cover, and we were able to land.
Despite my doubts, my husband knew what he was doing. He had studied the forecast and knew the weather conditions – dew point, temperature, and wind – were improving.
How Are Your Writing Conditions?
Sometimes, even the most conscientious scribblers inadvertently create their own WRITING FOG — a hazy state of confusion and bewilderment. Momentum slows, and finishing — or starting – a project becomes a tricky prospect.
If this occurs while you’re working on a story, you can’t see where the plot is heading. Or maybe your theme becomes fuzzy.
You may encounter Writing Fog between projects: one work is complete, but your vision for the next is blurry. You become disoriented, panicky, uncertain of your goals. You’re afraid you’ve lost creative energy. You’re afraid of crashing.
What Causes Fogginess?
Lack of planning. When I was a homeschooling mom, I was a dedicated (compulsive) planner. I scheduled every thirty minutes of my day. If I didn’t, I couldn’t get the laundry done. Or the meals. Or anything.
But I reached a point where my ever-increasing To Do list was making me nervous. So, I swung to the opposite extreme and NEVER made a schedule. No plans, no calendars, no lists. This also had its problems, such as missed appointments, late bills, and a serious lack of focus.
Winging it with your writing will give you similar results. That’s not to say you must write a fifty-page outline before you draft your story. And it’s okay if you can’t envision exactly what your next project will be. But a little planning can prevent you from getting lost. Think of it as GPS for authors.
This condition is a symptom of the never-ending, futile quest for Perfection. It’s a trap. A labyrinth of circular thoughts which leads right back to Start, or worse, to No-man’s-land. When you over-think, you edit beyond the point of practicality. Is revising your work for the thirty-ninth time really going to make a significant difference? Or are you simply stalling? Finish the thing already. Excessive analyzing stems from not trusting yourself, which leads to another pitfall…
Too much advice. I love my writing podcasts, blogs, vlogs, courses, books, and #writingtips. But they can be too much of a good thing. All the brilliant but conflicting voices become a jumble of blah, blah, blah, until I don’t know what to believe. One expert says to create extensive character profiles; another says to allow characters to grow organically. Who’s right? In the end, you should go with your gut.
Over-dependence on others’ advice makes you passive. Passivity leads straight into the pea-soup of self-doubt and indecision.
If you’re in a muddle, and you can’t see the next story, the next scene, or the next sentence, consider whether one of these three conditions is to blame. Here’s hoping the mist will clear and bring your thoughts back into focus.
Yes, I’ve been too busy to write much this week. And here’s the reason why:
This is Alex, aka Owlex. A four-week-old Barn Owl that we got from the Avian Conservation Center near Charleston, SC. My husband is a falconer, so he knows quite a bit about birds of prey, but this is his first owl. So far, Alex is eating well, taking small bites of mice from the Falconer’s hand. And he sleeps a lot (the owl, not my husband). It was easy to fall in love with this little guy.