Control Your Inner Critic: The power of a name

Naming things gives you power over them. Years ago, my father got sick. His illness progressed from a persistent cough to weakness to dementia-like symptoms. He lost weight, got easily confused and forgetful, and fell asleep all the time, sometimes in mid-sentence. He had to stop driving, stop working, stop exercising, stop socializing. Doctor after doctor saw him but no one could name the disease. We were certain we were going to lose him. Finally, my mother dragged him to the ER in the middle of the night when his fever spiked yet again, and a young doctor there said, “You need to see Infectious Diseases right now” and called in the specialist. The diagnosis: strep infection in his heart valve.

The name gave us power. We, and the doctors, finally knew what to do. Thanks to that name, he is with us today, still running in 5Ks and playing tennis with his buddies.

My anxiety therapist told me that some people use the technique of naming their anxiety. Giving their anxiety a persona—a name—allows them to have control over it. Just as you can argue with another person, resist another person’s advances, they can push back against their anxiety persona. It also helps to remind them that their anxiety does not define them—it is only a part of them. And by thinking of their anxiety as something outside themselves, they can sometimes push it away, hang up on it, and slam the door in its face, at least for a while.

I never named my anxiety, but I wonder if I should name my inner critic–that little voice that tells me how bad my writing is and how I’ll never get ahead. You know the one I mean. You have one too. Don’t pretend you don’t, all writers have one. It came with your “I Am A Writer” starter kit.

Would naming your inner critic help you control him? Perhaps being able to call your critic by name would make him think twice about messing with you. After all, some demons can only be banished when you know their true names. By isolating the inner critic from your essential self, you are able to give yourself distance—and distance enables you to hear the lies he often tells.

I think my inner critic’s name is Shut Up. At least, that’s what I hear in my head. “Shut Up, I’m not listening!”  “Shut Up, I’m trying to think!” “Shut Up, I don’t need this right now!”

So what would you name your inner critic?

Top 5 Reasons to Cultivate a Writing Community

This week, while preparing the Author Chronicles’ Top Picks Thursday, I read an article from an antisocial writer who really didn’t want to participate in the writing community. Many writers are introverts, so being hesitant about reaching out to others is understandable. I am a raging introvert myself, but when I think about the writing community I am part of, I cannot imagine pursuing this career alone. Here are 5 reasons why:

Craft – Your community can help you hone your craft before you spend money on editors. From critique partners to beta readers, they will give you honest feedback and handy tips to bring your craft to the next level.

Companionship – If you are like me, it takes a lot to drag you out of your house. Offer me a Writers’ Coffeehouse, a Philadelphia Writers’ Conference, a workshop, or a critique group, and I’m there. Plus, writers are good at being alone together. It is not uncommon in my area to find a group of writers sitting together at a Wegman’s or Starbucks, completely silent except for the  furious clicking of their keyboards.

Camaraderie – This is different than Companionship, in that it references the deeper emotional support we get from our writing community. Who but other writers understand the frustration of not finding the exactly right word, or the pain of being rejected for the 100th time, or the elation of placing your first story in even a little-known publication? The emotional lift we get from other writers revs us up and sends us back to our writer’s grottoes ready to face the next challenge.

Collaboration – Usually we think of this in the creative sense, where two or more writers work together on a project. A writing community certainly fosters this, because how else can you meet people to collaborate with? But there are other types of collaboration, such as helping you negotiate a publishing issue or brainstorm a marketing strategy. Two heads are very often better than one.

Connection – Our writing communities are an invaluable resource for networking. We can find editors, agents, publishers, experts, beta readers, critique partners, marketing opportunities and collaborators through our community. The community can help spread the word when we have a new book out. Our community keeps us abreast of the latest news in publishing, the latest scams to beware, and the latest accomplishments of our friends.

I am forever thankful for the people in my writing community: the Writers’ Coffeehouse, the Philadelphia Writers’ Conference, workshop-mates, and of course my critique partners. There are so many people who have cheered me on, cheered me up, and made this journey so much more enjoyable.

Walk this path alone? Inconceivable.

Summer Reading 2018

A lot of people associate reading with summer, perhaps because we all have this vision of summer somehow being a more relaxed or leisurely time of year. Calling certain types of novels “beach reads” is a prime example of the summer reading mentality. Plus, many people have more time in summer to read, as this is traditionally a popular vacation time. People read while kicking back at their destination, and while they travel to get there. I don’t get much reading done on vacation, since my 8-year-old keeps me hopping!

It’s been an “indoor” summer here. We have had several heat waves, and now the rain greets us every day. Hot, muggy, and rainy—staying indoors is preferable. And reading is a great indoor activity, especially when you are trying to stay away from screen-time (or keep your child away from the screen).

My daughter has a summer reading contest through school (and the library). She’s coming up on 120 books read this summer. I don’t think she will match her total from last year (316), but that’s to be expected. She’s reading longer books, so it’s taking longer to finish them.

In my summer reading, I’ve actually read a lot of the books my daughter is reading, because I’m not looking for long, heavy reads right now (and I like to see what she’s reading). I did also join an online book club. Our first book was Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan, a novel about a young woman coming of age during WWII. We’re now discussing our second book, Dead Man Walking by Sister Helen Prejean, a nonfiction about the death penalty in America. Quite a wide range of topics in this group! But that’s okay, I joined in part to read outside my usual genres.

On the whole, my summer reading habits don’t vary much from my regular reading habits. Do you find that you read more, less, or the same in the summer as in the rest of the year?

Genetic Genealogy: Proving the paper trail

All my readers know genealogy has been a passion of mine for many years now. I’ve even written a book about my father’s side of the family (yes, Mom, your book is coming!). The advent of genetic genealogy has revolutionized the hobby and opened up secrets long kept in some families.

I have been using my DNA genealogy to try and confirm my long-established paper trails. My goal is to connect to all 8 of my great-grandparents. One more great-grandparent and I will have all 8. I also already have DNA matches that support 12 of my 16 great-great-grandparents.

My father’s side turned out to be laughably easy. Matches to him abounded, and in what seemed like no time at all I had matched through all 4 of his grandparents.

Then there was my mother. Her Scottish lines popped up rather quickly, but her Irish side…nothing. This was understandable, but frustrating just the same. You see, in order to really get anything out of DNA genealogy, you also need paper genealogy. You need names, places, dates, so you and the people you match with can figure out where your connection is. Scottish records are abundant. Irish records literally went up in flames, making anything much past the late 1800s almost nonexistent. Yet many of our DNA connections occur past the point where records exist, leaving us wondering how and who we connect to.

I had a specific group of matches who all matched each other—called Shared Matches. There were 6 of them: JW, BN, ME, FR, SC, and KN. I sent messages to all of them, and waited. I finally got an answer from JW—and we were able to find our link! Not only that, but it turns out JW was the first known connection to my mom’s Irish Hayden side. Yay!

So now I knew the other 5 must be on the same line, since we all matched each other. But none of them had trees posted, so once again I was stumped. I sent another message saying I believed they were on the Hayden-Bergin branch of my tree. And I waited. Just a few days ago, BN messaged me back! Not only did she know how WE were related, but she had personally known JW when they were kids, AND she knew how the remaining 4 testers were related to us. Whew! A ton of information in one fell swoop.

So now I know for certain that my mother’s mom was not an alien from outer space. Well, I know that at least half of her is human, LOL. I am still searching for that elusive Irish Sutton-Gorman line.

Perseverance and patience will bring answers, I am sure. Meanwhile, I will keep on with my paper genealogy as well, to expand my tree and make future connections easier to find.

What passion do you pursue when you step away from writing?

Summer Writing: Wading into the Words

It’s no secret that when you are a parent and the child is home, it’s harder to write. Harder to do anything, until they reach a certain age where they can take care of themselves. So I haven’t done much writing beyond blog posts this summer. To be honest, it’s been a while since I did any creative writing—ever since I finished the last project I’d been working on.

Part of that is normal. Once I finish a book, I need some down time to recharge the brain and fill the creative tank again. But I let it go too long, got busy with other things, and suddenly 5 months had gone by without any real creative writing done. I needed to get back on track…but then summer arrived.

However, last week I managed to have a real vacation for myself. I got someone to cover my work blogging for the week AND my daughter was away at sleep away summer camp. Free time! Actual free time!

I slept, of course. And did some cleaning (another chore that’s easier to do with no child around). But I also WROTE! I rewrote the first scene of The Oracle of Delphi, Kansas, which I had wanted to do for a long time. Although complete, the whole book needs to be reworked. I had it out on submission a couple of years ago, and something was not clicking with agents. I think I know how to fix it now, so that is a project I want to get to.

I also started outlining the second book in my Veritas series. I’m not normally much of an outliner, but this book will have three POV characters (as did the last one), so I know I need more forethought before I jump in.

Altogether, from then until now, I’ve put up about 3,000 words. Doesn’t sound like much to some writers, I know, but to me it’s a good number.

It’s certainly more satisfying than zero.

How is your summer creativity faring?

United We Stand?

I don’t need to tell you how divided our country has become. How polarized. How there seem to be two different Americas today, each living in a parallel but very different reality from the other. How people feel free to spout the most vile language, to dehumanize their neighbor, and to throw away the very values of America while claiming to cherish them.

There was a day, not so very long ago, where we truly were the United States of America.

I hope someday we can find ourselves there again—but united in joy, not grief.

The Towers Stood

by Kerry Gans

 

One summery September morning

Death flew out of the clear blue sky.

 

In Manhattan, papers and people fell like rain.

In Washington, the Pentagon crumbled.

In a Pennsylvania field, a plane of heroes crashed.

 

And still the Towers stood.

Flaming like the torch of Lady Liberty,

They stood in defiance of hatred.

 

The enemy envisioned immediate collapse,

A domino effect of death.

But still the Towers stood.

 

American strength saved 16,000 people that day,

Although 2,977 perished, sudden soldiers

In an unexpected war.

 

On that day of death, there was no North or South

No coasts East or West

No difference between old money and new immigrant

No African-American, Asian-American, European-American, Native-American.

 

On that day we were simply American,

United in anger and pain.

On the day the towers fell,

America rose.

Blog-cation: A lazy week

This week I am taking the week off. My daughter is finally done school, so we are hanging out and relaxing for a bit. I’ll be back next week, as usual! Meanwhile, enjoy the view.

Character Motivation: The “Why” That Keeps Readers Turning Pages

What motivates you to do things? Sometimes it is as mundane as necessity, other times it might be a higher ideal like justice. Every single thing we do in our daily lives has a motivation behind it.

Which leads to our characters—everything they do must have motivation pushing them. Some motivations go without saying: someone who is eating is probably hungry, for instance. But an unusual action needs explanation. Why does someone run into a burning building to save someone? Why does someone pay for a stranger’s meal in a restaurant? Those are the motivations readers want to understand.

The same situation will prompt different reactions from different characters. If they find $100 on the street, one might try to find the owner, one might immediately pocket it, and a third might donate it to charity. Their reactions will show the reader what these characters are like at a deeper level—and give a clue to what motivates them.

The overarching motivation for a character should be consistent. Most people are driven by a deep belief that rarely changes. A person is not going to give money to a homeless person one day and kick him the next—and if he does, then that’s a story in itself. A consistent motivation will help ground your character, and therefore your readers.

Of course, many stories are about character change, and as a character changes, what motivates him or her might change, too. A self-absorbed career man motivated by ambition might put ambition aside after having a child, becoming motivated by his love for his child. As their guiding belief changes, their motivation can change, too.

If your characters’ motivations are going to shift from the consistency they had in the beginning of the story, then be sure to let the reader in on the change as it happens. Take them on the journey, let them live the experiences that change your character. That is, after all, the story—and that’s why the readers came.

For many readers, the question that keeps them turning the page is not only “what happens next”—but “why”. Why your character does what they do can fascinate the readers as much as what they are doing. So when you think about your character, think about the “why”—the motivation.

Do you consciously consider character motivation, or does it just flow naturally for you?

Philadelphia Writers’ Conference 2018: My Biggest Takeaway

Complexity and Connection at the PWCThis year’s Philadelphia Writers’ Conference filled my head with new and exciting information, leaving me both exhausted and exhilarated. Now that I have had a few days to let all the swirling ideas settle, one of the main things that stuck with me is the complexity of our craft.

I’m not talking about plot complexity. Even the simplest story is complex in the way I mean. What I mean is how every element of your story impacts the others. In our character workshops, we also crossed into plot. In our plot workshop we also delved into character. Every word choice and point of view feeds into the elusive element of voice. Everything interconnects, playing off each other and driving the story in different ways.

That same complex interconnection often makes revision a mind-bending project. Change one thing about a character, that can change the plot. Change POV, and your voice skews. Change the language and that might suggest a change in structure. Every change, no matter how minor, flows downstream all the way to the end of the novel. Riding those rapids can exhaust you.

This complexity of story comes from the fact that stories reflect the complexity of life. This helps stories translate across different media. The same story can be told orally, in print, in graphic novels, or on a screen large or small. Although the formats differ, the story fabric can be cut and tailored to each one to convey the same meaning and soul as the original story. The interwoven complexity of story gives it both strength and malleability.

Given the complex nature of writing and all its elements, is it any wonder that the craft of writing is so hard? The work of weaving a tale can take an emotional, psychological, and even physical toll on writers. To combat this, we need connectivity of our own—a network of friends and supporters who understand and can help lift us over the obstacles we encounter. This is one of the values of conferences like the Philadelphia Writers’ Conference. There we meet and connect with other writers and form bonds that last.

Thank you, PWC, for 70 years of helping writers connect so we can weave our stories together.

Pantsing Through Life

In writing, we talk about pantsers vs. plotters. A pantser writes with only a basic idea of where they are going, while a plotter makes a detailed plan before they even start writing. I am somewhere in between, making me a “plantser”. I usually know the beginning, end, and several important plot points in between, but not exactly how I will get from point to point. My old writing partner used to refer to my middle section as “miracle happens here”.

I got to wondering if writers follow the same organizational scheme for life as they do for their writing. Do pantsers just go with the flow, while plotters make a detailed To-do list for their life?

This question came to mind because I am in a place in life where I feel I really need to make time to sit down and plan out certain things. I need to start a meal plan if I want to eat better. A marketing plan for when I re-release my book. A blog plan to focus what I write about. I know that if I get these plans in place, I will follow them, because I follow plans well. But I haven’t brought myself to actually do the lists yet.

Is this because of the same creative process that makes me a plantser? Or is it a form of procrastination because I really don’t want to do these things?

So what say you, fellow scribners? Do you find you plot or pants your way through life, according to your creative process style?

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