Advice for Writers

This is a nice reminder, as I am frantically overhauling the mythology of my next project and anxiously awaiting responses from publishers for the novella I just sent out. Oy.

Creativity is hard–but so worth it.

The Blabbermouth Blog

photo 5Last summer, at the Writing Yoga® Retreat that I host with my colleague Stefanie Lipsey, I learned something that some might say, “No, duh!” to, but that I’d kind of forgotten. It was during one of our afternoon yoga sessions, and Stefanie was leading the yoga. She reminded us to focus on what was happening on our own yoga mat. That is to say, it didn’t matter if the person next to me could balance on one foot while wrapping their other foot behind their head, all while humming a satisfying OM to the universe, while I might be struggling to figure out which way to turn my head, where to place my hand, and how my foot happened to get where it is. Yoga isn’t a contest. It’s not a competitive sport. When I focused on what was happening on my own mat, not only was it a much…

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I have faith in humanity. I have to.

Making art is a very personal act. Visual arts, music, the written word—all of it requires the creator to briefly let down personal shields and imbue the work with a tiny piece of the self.

Sometimes, that makes creating art really difficult. Sometimes, it is so difficult it actually paralyzes the artist with fear. I mean, opening up a bit of your soul to others is a big deal. It is an exercise in faith in humanity.

Faith that your opinions are not completely crazy. Faith that your eccentricities are not unique. Faith that the darkest corners of your mind can actually be restored to light because someone else already has the candle.

The extra-sensitive artists, like myself, have an almost insurmountably difficult obstacle to get around.

Okay, I’m going to lower the forward shields for a minute and tell you a secret: I am super sensitive. I have built a quasi-functional wall around myself to ensure that I can accept criticism of my writing with grace and open-mindedness, because that is that only way I’ll improve. This wall also helps keep out irrelevant exterior criticisms, say about my fashion choices or what kind of movies I like to watch.

The problem is that all the strength is in the forward, exterior-facing wall. The inward wall, the one that faces friends and family, has not been fortified. So, if a friend or family member lobs an off-hand comment about…oh, maybe how they hate the shoes I’m wearing in my direction, it’s bad news.


Seriously, it gets to me. It shouldn’t at all, but it does. This makes it hard for me to write sometimes. Why? Because my friends and family will be the first people to see my writing. They get the first round of beta-reads; they are the “Is this total horse shit or should I keep going?” litmus test.

Sometimes, my little wall works—criticism is ingested with an open mind and helps me make the project better. Other times, it doesn’t. And then I think about all the exterior people who could possible hate my writing and I wilt. What’s the point? Why write anything? Hell, why leave the house? It’s a sneaky doom spiral and it sinks its poisonous claws into me more often than I’d like to admit.

The mantra of the ever-terrifying and totally awesome Chuck Wendig is to “harden the fuck up, Care Bear,” and he’s right.  But how do you balance the adamantium exoskeleton with the slow leak of soul-juice into your project?

How do you fortify that which you have put forward with a gooey center?

You can’t, not really. You sort of have to accept on faith, that someone, somewhere, is going to defend your work, and by extension, that tiny bit of your soul.

You have to have faith in other people. Other artists. Other soul-chips bouncing around in the ether.

My personal and current beacon of hope is Brandon Stanton, creator of Humans of New York. He is a street portrait photographer and if you haven’t seen his site, you’re missing out.

Mr. Stanton roams the streets of New York City (and Tehran, and most recently, Boston) and finds interesting people to photograph. The portraits are everything from hilarious to despairing, and every last one of them is beautiful. He asks each subject a few questions and puts the most revealing answers as captions for his photos. Some people merit full-on stories and the audience discovers how different people are, and some times, how judgmental we all can be.

Stanton’s project is interesting in that each portrait carries two soul-chips. The one that is captured from the subject by the camera, and one of his own. The people he chooses to photograph reveal something about the photographer. Namely, that he is open-minded, courageous and selfless.

Open-minded because he approaches people society would revile.

Courageous because he approaches subjects that scare him, or may put him in danger.

Selfless in that he wants to tell the stories of the people he photographs and in doing so, teaches the rest of us not to judge a book by it’s cover.

I don’t know how he balances the exoskeleton with the slow-leak of soul, but I’m glad he’s got a handle on the technique.

It helps me remember to write even though I am afraid, and sometimes because I am afraid.

Writing Mentors: Where’d they go?

Whatever happened to mentors?

I want to know what happened to the one-on-one, master-apprentice relationships people had a long time ago.

The modern equivalent seems to be an internship, which is great for vocations that are objective, like particle physics or journalism, but don’t really have a place in the world of the arts.

Oh sure, you could intern at an art studio, answering phones and designing brochures, and maybe getting the office coffee once or twice. You could intern with a creative content team and do similar stuff. You’re there for a few months and then they kick you out, sometimes unpaid, into the cold world.

But where have all the apprenticeships gone? Those artistic relationships where one experienced, successful artist cultivates a developing, still-feeling-around-in-the-dark-a-little artist? For, occasionally, years? What happened to those?

I mean, there are seminars, and workshops and retreats and classes and all manner of other resources nowadays, resources that have more or less taken the place of a true mentor. And they are great! All that information you can learn is useful and can help.

But it’s all so…fractured.  Part of my goal for this blog is to provide a consolidated list of resources, and my own experiential writing advice in the hopes of alleviating some of that broken feeling. I’m trying but it’s hard, because I’m just starting out myself. It’s the person-with-a-flickering-flashlight leading the mostly-unable-to-see around in a dark tunnel over here.

The amount of information out there on writing and publishing is overwhelming. I have a degree in creative writing and I still feel like I know absolutely nothing. My professors were encouraging, sure, and I had the benefit of an independent study class, but there was no real mentoring. There were hundreds of students in each field of study—it was nearly impossible to form that kind of relationship with the teachers.

For one semester, I mentored 17 freshmen in English and Biology. I was able to get a solid rapport going with three or four, but I had my own schoolwork to do, so I’m not sure how effective I was. And they had all their other schoolwork and parties and hey, that person is hot, etc., so even if I was an effective mentor, they may not have benefitted from it because, you know, ooh shiny.

Mentoring appears to have gone the way of the dodo because “ain’t nobody got time for that.”

I don’t know, maybe I just overlooked all the mentee opportunities that drifted in my direction. Maybe I am just woefully uninformed. The timing wasn’t right. Who knows?

Here is my proposal: If you are an expert in your field, make the time to mentor someone. Help cultivate skills and careers. Introduce new ideas. Encourage exploration. Assist in networking. Teach your little bird everything you know, and then point them in the direction of more knowledge before throwing them out of the nest.

Do this not because you are getting paid to do it (because, really, you shouldn’t be), not because you want to feel generous and loved (though, that may be a bonus), but because the arts deserve just as careful a cultivation process as the sciences.

If you, the expert, sees someone flailing around, don’t laugh or deride them. Throw them a freakin’ rope.

And you, the non-expert—the potential mentee—until you find an in real life mentor focus your energies on someone in your field that you admire, whose sensibilities jive with your own. Follow that person on Twitter. Read his blog. Stalk her on Facebook. Perform some distant Vulcan mind-meld and absorb all his thoughts like a desperate sponge.

It helps, when swimming through that muddle of information, to have a buoy to guide you. Your unknowing Internet mentor may not know ALL the ways of your art, but perhaps, that guidance will help whip your thoughts into an orderly line.

Meanwhile, is there anyone looking for an older-model mentee? Because, uh, I know a girl.


Here are some handy links on writing mentors I found:

What is a writing mentor?

How to find a mentor.

For you script writing television types, CBS has a writing mentors program you can apply for–but you have to live in Los Angeles.

Poke around on Google, and you will find other mentoring programs that are hyper-local for which you can apply. I like the idea of a more organic, one-on-one relationship, but you find what works best for you.

Good luck, my doves.

But this *is* my writing ritual

I’ve heard quite a bit about authors having “writing rituals,” things that they do to get them in the mood, or to tame all the wild thoughts in their brain.

Supposedly, these rituals help you become a better (or at least a more regular) writer.

Some rituals are just choosing a specific time and a specific place. Some rituals are as simple prepping a beverage of choice, be it tea, coffee, or booze, and grabbing a snack before sitting down. Other rituals are a little more elaborate: grab favorite pen, organize notes, do some calisthenics (stretch that hamstring! Don’t want to pull a hammie), beverage, snack, writing warm-up exercise and then, then the real writing begins.

I’d like to tell you all that my writing ritual is majestic and sweeping. I’d like to tell you all that before I write, I slip into this trance-like state and gather all my thoughts close to my bosom, gently persuading them into a neat, orderly line. I’d like to tell you all that I drink calming, herbal tea and snack on exotic fruit. I’d like to tell you all that my two cats, the loveable little fur balls, settle in a cuddle-puddle at my feet for the duration of my time at the computer.

If I did tell you all that, however, I would be lying. Through my very solid teeth.

Alas, I’m not sure that I have a particularly solid ritual. I mean, there are things I do, in no particular order and for no designated amount of time, before I start writing in earnest. I review what I was doing before. I grab pertinent notes. I turn on the computer. Aside from that? Well, let me describe the average “writing prep” that happens.

First, I decide to write. Awesome. Then, I decide about what time life will be orderly enough for me to ignore it for a few hours and choose that time to write. Sometimes, it’s in the morning. Others, at night. Occasionally, the time is designated as the completion of chores, errands, and social obligations. So, I carve out the time, and then I sit down at my desk.

I turn on the computer and realize I’m thirsty. Okay, so I go back down the stairs and turn on the coffee pot/tea kettle/pour a beverage. While I’m waiting for the liquid to brew I realize I’m hungry, so I put together a snack. Haul all that back upstairs and sit down again. I open up the document.

Well, now I have to use the bathroom. And then I have to plug the computer in because the battery is low.

Shit. Where did I leave off? I scramble around for some notes and re-read what I did. Oh, right. Crack knuckles, start typing.

Suddenly, cats! In my face. On the keyboard. Attempting to eat my food. STEALING. MY DAMN. PEN.

Ember, that’s mine. Give it back. No fetch right now. No. Give it. Retrieve pen. Shoo Raven off the keyboard.

Shit. What was I doing?

The phone rings. Hello, Mom. No, I’m writing. Uh-huh. Okay, sure. Loveyoutoobyebye.

At this point, I usually kick the cats out and barricade the door. Then I utter a desperate little prayer to whatever gods are listening and type out a paragraph.

After that, I’m usually called to do something pressing away from my desk, like, I dunno, participating in life. Or sleeping so I can go to work in the morning.

Does that qualify as a ritual? I think it qualifies as a ritual. They are the things I do before I write, so it has to be. Right? Right.

Am I alone in this insanity? Who else has….um, un-ritualistic writing rituals?

I think everyone needs to see this.

Shannon A Thompson

Quick Update: My author page is now on Facebook. Please support me by clicking here. You’ll get the latest updates, and my current status has a surprise that isn’t on my website yet! I’m REALLY excited, so check it out, and you’ll get an advantage on other readers when I offer an upcoming competition ;]

Rejection is everywhere: we break up, we get fired, we lose friends—and we survive them all—yet, when our art is rejected, many feel completely defeated, and they never get out there again. This saddens me. This is how art dies.

Rejection happens to everyone, and, if it hasn’t already, it will happen to you—but you cannot let criticism get you down.

In terms of the writing industry, many writers, professional or not, already know about the long-hated query letter. My favorite metaphor for writing one is the ballerina having to explain why she can…

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