Caryn McGill

Author's details

Name: Caryn McGill
Date registered: August 13, 2013


Caryn is a former high school science teacher, school district administrator and adjunct college professor.

Latest posts

  1. No Pain No Gain: Persistence in Selling Your Manuscript — December 4, 2014
  2. A Thanksgiving Pause — November 27, 2014
  3. Renewed Optimism: Pitching Your Novel — November 20, 2014
  4. Moody Musings: Shopping My Novel. Again. — November 13, 2014
  5. The Artist as Master: The Fictional Process — November 6, 2014

Most commented posts

  1. Self-Editing Redux: Spot Checking — 11 comments
  2. Done! We Survived the A-Z Blog Challenge — 11 comments
  3. I is for Improvement: THE BOOKSHELF MUSE — 10 comments
  4. U for UnderCovers: Writing the Erotic Romance — 8 comments
  5. Friday Inspiration: D is for Dreams as Inspiration — 8 comments

Author's posts listings

No Pain No Gain: Persistence in Selling Your Manuscript

Persistence. KeyboardPersistence can be defined as the firm or obstinate continuance in a course of action in spite of difficulty or opposition.

It seems that whether you’re an aspiring writer, or one who’s well established, there is always self-doubt. Times when you feel that no one will love your story as much as you and your beta readers do. Sometimes there’s good reason, you’re being arrogant and stubborn and refuse to listen to professional criticism. Or you’re just going with your gut and refuse to waver, not arrogant, but maybe blind to the faults in your manuscript. We’ve all been there, in all those crappy places.

But persistence is one of the most important weapons in the writer’s armory. I keep telling myself that rejection builds character, pain makes us stronger. You know, no pain no gain? Well I’ve lived by that mantra at the gym all these years, now I just have to transfer that to my writing life. And I don’t think it stops after you’ve had your first success. Look at writers like J K Rowling and Stephanie Meyer. It’s almost like they have no chance of publishing another successful manuscript. No matter how good their new books might be they can never reach the popularity of what they’ve already published. Both of their series have reached exponential and legendary status and it is nearly impossible to live up to a legend, even your own, because it has taken on mythical standing.

So in order to develop this habit of persistence I’ve started something new. I’ve anointed Wednesday (Hump Day) as Submission Day, to keep me over the hump of getting a query started. I’ve committed to sending out one submission a week. It’s reduced my anxiety over hours of exhausting work and whittled it down to a simple task that keeps the rhythm going, especially because in most instances your submission will languish for months before you receive a reply, if you receive one at all. Maybe it ‘s just like throwing things at a wall, if you keep it up eventually the odds are that something will stick.

Here are some links for finding agents and small presses to keep those doors open and those submissions flowing. All are easily accessed online.

  1. Karen Fox’s Site
  2. Preditors and Editors
  3. Poets and Writers
  4. Agent Query 
  5. Query Tracker
  6. Writer Beware

And here is inspiration for being persistent:

  • “Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not: nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not: the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.”   Calvin Coolidge
  • “Ambition is the path to success. Persistence is the vehicle you arrive in.”   Bill Bradley
  • And lastly, I’m a huge fan of Chuck Wendig. I love his blog. He’s irreverent and blunt, and curses a lot. He makes me laugh and throw things. But everything he says rings true for me. Here’s his advice:


Writing. Finishing. Editing. Publishing. Selling.

We want everything fast but sometimes it’s slow because it needs to be slow.

        I write fast. I can churn out a book that doesn’t suck in a month or two. I also write a lot. In just over two years I’ve published ten books — one of which was self-published. Some of these books seem well-regarded, though I can’t speak to their actual quality, only to their quantity. I had a short film show at Sundance. I had a script go through the Sundance Labs. Worked on games and transmedia stuff and now comics and somewhere north of 115,000 tweets. I’ll probably write diner menus and the product description on the back of a bag of donkey chow next.

It’s a strong quantity of words. Quality, I dunno. But definitely quantity.

And to that quantity I have been referred to at times as an overnight success, which is true as long as you define “overnight” as “a pube’s width shy of 20 years.”

Because that’s how long I’ve been writing.

Twenty years.

Read more here:

The other day I watched The State of Play on HBO: Examining the Science of Happiness. It reminded me that it’s Message in bottle on beach. Creative hope and faith concept.not usually achieving the goal that makes you happy, or satisfied, it’s the journey. And that happiness is something you have to work at, you’re not at the mercy of your genes or your environment. In most cases optimism over pessimism is a choice. So I’m choosing to think positively and appreciate the wild ride I’m on. And I’m starting to see the results of my persistence. This round of submissions has produced more interest from agents and editors than I’ve had in quite some time. I’m hopeful, and don’t worry, you’ll be the first to know if I publish. So remember, don’t quit and enjoy the ride!


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A Thanksgiving Pause

I’m taking the day off from blogging today to sit around the Thanksgiving table with my family. I’m stowing away the laptop and focusing on the real world for a change, giving my characters a day off too. I intend to be mindful of the simple things that give my life meaning, making sure to tell everyone around my table how much they mean to me.

So take a minute to reflect on this special day in our American calendar and enjoy its traditions, a day where we pause and give thanks, and hopefully manage to stay out of the stores. Shopping for those holiday presents can wait another day or two.


Thanksgiving Quote

                                                                                                                           Happy Thanksgiving!

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Renewed Optimism: Pitching Your Novel

Isolated on white empty, half and full water glassesOkay, so I know I was being a crybaby about pitching my newest project at my last posting. I shouldn’t be. I’m old enough to handle pain and rejection. I had two babies without so much as a Tylenol. But when it comes to rejection, well, it’s always painful. I’ve talked about the biology of rejection before and I understand that some of it is unavoidable.

The other interesting research I stumbled upon is that once an optimist always an optimist. People who suffer traumatic injury, after an initial period of depression, always revert back to their hopeful personalities. So, in synchronicity with my research I awoke last Monday with my glass brimming over with optimism. I’m going to tell you what I learned in my most recent round of submission requests—okay, I just had a revelation. Submission is a terrible word. To submit is to accept or yield to a superior force of authority or the will of another person. I get that agents and publishers probably have their fingers on the pulse of the industry—the market, but how will they know when something new, something that will challenge the accepted genres, can break out and find a new audience? I’ve written before about crossing genres, breaking the rules, and coming up with something different and exciting and I’m sticking to it. I’ve been paralyzed before by experts who told me “don’t do this” or “don’t do that” because agents will reject you before you know what hit you. But I’m done with that and just like Kathy, I write the story I want and when and if an agent or publisher signs me, well then I’ll consider story edits.

What do you think woke me from my dread-of-submission-coma the other morning? I decided to sit down and read my most recent project from start to finish, looking for typos and other inadvertent mishaps. My sister had offered to proofread for me, but she’s been so busy lately that she just hadn’t gotten around to it. It had been months since I’d given it a full read, so I dug in last weekend, which just happened to be rainy and cold, my favorite climate for reading, and well…I found three typos and one place where I’d opened a car window twice. But the best part…I fell in love with the story all over again. I thought, someone else has to love this story as much as I do.

I began to search for agents and small presses who were interested in my type of story and quickly realized that there are tens of  thousands of literary agents and publishing houses out there, so to be put off by twenty or thirty who don’t embrace my vision is just plain stupid. “Buck up! Girlfriend,” I told myself. “There’s someone out there who will want your story.”

I sent out 9 queries to both agents and small presses and will probably try for a few more in the next few days now that I’ve got a rhythm going.

Here are my tips for submitting your manuscript:

  1. Read my posts on writing the perfect pitch and query for added tips to sharpen your skills.
  2. Do your homework. I thought querying small presses would be easier than querying an agent. Not so. Hone your pitch, synopsis, and query letter before you begin. You can trim and edit as needed, based upon each press’s requirements.
  3. Don’t fret yourself into inaction. The first hour I started this I was obsessed with proofreading, fearful of a typo or grammar error. Attend to detail, but at some point just let if fly. Give it over to the universe. If someone really connects with your story a typo won’t put him or her off.
  4. When querying agents, don’t let them intimidate you. They need you more than you need them. You’re selling your manuscript, you’re not selling yourself. This is just business, not a reflection of your self worth.
  5. Seek out fledgling agents. They’re hungry and looking to build their client list. Writer’s Digest often posts new agents and what they’re seeking. If you buy their book “Writer’s Digest Guide to Literary Agents” you get a year membership to their newsletter for free.
  6. Check out these sites with “Agent Wish Lists” for additional leads.
  7. Strengthen your author platform. Some asked me about my followers: Twitter, Websites, etc. If you haven’t jumped into the online community of authors you might want to. Don’t overlook affinity groups on Facebook—special interest groups that might be a theme in your book. They provide support and can serve as beta readers and people you can ask for an honest review.
  8. Map out a marketing plan. No one has asked me for one yet but Sharon had to provide one on several occasions. Read her marketing post.
  9. Avoid the agent drama. Go online and look for small presses where you can submit without an agent. Although some of them aren’t so small. Harper Collins lets you submit without an agent through their imprint Avon Books.
  10. Keep the faith. Persistence pays off. After 5 years of continual rejection, Agatha Christie finally landed a publishing deal. Her book sales are now in excess of $2 billion. Only William Shakespeare has sold more. Dr. Seuss’ first book, And to Think I Saw It on Mulberry Street, was rejected 37 times. JK Rowling and Stephen King Writing have similar stories. The Help was rejected 72 times. For more on famous author rejections check out this site. “Publishing is even harder than writing,” according to Stephen King, “and the sad thing is, many writers bail out before they make it to this stage, sullenly stomping off to shove their manuscript into some drawer, never again to see the light of day.” Remember: Rejection is a test of one’s character. 

I’ll keep you posted on my newest journey to sell a manuscript. I haven’t quite arrived on the threshold to self- publishing, not yet. Maybe you’ll read about that in a future post. The worst part? Most reply with an auto message reminding you that due to the overwhelming number of submissions, it takes up to three months before they will respond. Maybe I’ll get a great birthday present in January, or a Valentine’s surprise, perhaps a reason to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day with added enthusiasm and an extra shot of Jameson. I’m hopeful, thank goodness. Again.



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Moody Musings: Shopping My Novel. Again.

Isolated on white empty, half and full water glassesI feel a little down this week, or maybe I’m just being reflective. Perhaps it’s because the holidays are right around the corner, or because I’ve had a crappy few years filled with injury after injury. Being sidelined on my couch is good for writing but not so hot for the rest of my life. I know I’ll snap out of it. I always do.

Consequently, I’ve been thinking a lot about writing and concluded that it’s all about story. I know this is no great revelation and maybe it’s not so much a conclusion as an appreciation. As a writer I think about this all the time, whether I’m watching something on television, film, or reading a book. Stories fascinate me, like when you see something for the first time: your newborn baby, the Grand Canyon, a hummingbird… the awe, the wonderment, the thrill. I admire the imaginative minds that draw me into the story in the simplest of ways. How the writer found a story in an everyday situation and grabbed my emotions and tangled them into a knot and then either blew them up or slowly dragged me back to reality and sanity.

I saw two movies in the last several days: St. Vincent and Interstellar and realized that love is the theme I enjoy the most. Not necessarily a romance, but a love story. In St. Vincent it’s the love between a young boy and a cranky old guy next door who teaches him about life. I actually sobbed out loud at the end. Twice. In Interstellar it’s the love of a father and daughter. And I’m a little ticked off at writer and director Christopher Nolan, because he stole his theme from my first project as stated by one of my characters…

                 “There are fundamental forces of physics that bind the universe: electromagnetism, nuclear interactions, and gravity. But what binds us? Love. Love is powerful in small spaces, yet has profound effect on distance. Love defies time, outlasting both its source and its object. Love is faster than light, for light requires time in order to travel through space. But love reaches its object instantaneously. Love journeys forever into infinity.”

I’ll cut him some slack as I guess I’m not the first writer to embrace this theme. It really was a stellar movie, pun intended, and pretty much blew my mind. Being a die-hard science nerd, I totally embraced his depiction of black holes, worm holes, and the time-space continuum. I’d characterize it as “A Space Odyssey on Steroids.” It was a really wild ride. At one point I exclaimed loudly, “Holy Shit!” just as the movie went from ear-splitting noise to complete silence. Awk-ward…

Anyway, a few months back I announced that it was time to shop my newest project and I was girding my loins for the onslaught of expected rejection. Of course, then I was sentenced to three months of healing and rehab after rotator cuff surgery and I fell into a funk. It’s been six weeks and I’m finally able to type well enough to begin the process anew. Then I stumbled on a workshop titled “Publish Your Novel” at the Visual Arts Center where I’d just completed a workshop on Narrative. I was overjoyed! The instructor promised to hold your hand through the process, help you hone your pitch, synopsis, query letters. I quickly signed up, thrilled to have another set of objective eyes reviewing my cache of all of the above and felt a sense of relief at the approaching task.

I just received notification that the class was cancelled due to low interest and I plummeted back to earth. On my own. Again. I know. I’m whining. But sometimes the glass is full, sometimes it’s half empty and well, other times it’s dry as a desert. I just need to pull up my big girl pants (which keep getting bigger and bigger the longer I spend on this couch), fill up that glass with optimism and get the job done. I will.

So I’ll keep you posted this time. I’m thinking of trying a few Indie presses in addition to the usual cadre of literary agents. Wish me luck!


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The Artist as Master: The Fictional Process

This is my final post in this series. My intent has been to make the case for Fiction as Art. To that end I have expressed my thoughts on the definition of art, the search for aesthetic absolutes in fiction writingthe neuroscience of creativity, and finally, mastery of craft. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading as much as I enjoyed writing this series. 

The most creative imaginings in any media will never find an audience if the artist isn’t able to master the craft. A painter must transfer his image to the canvas, a musician must master his instrument(s) and a writer must master Young artist painting an autumn landscapethe written word on the page. Without mastery of the artist’s media the world will never enjoy and appreciate what the artist has to offer.

As a writer our task is to pen a vivid and fictional dream. Through our words we make the reader see the setting, characters, and events. We do not tell our reader but give them images that appeal to their senses. Anything that takes the reader out of this experience, awakening him from the “dream,” counts as a mistake and the writer must hone her skills to avoid these errors. Whenever the reader thinks of you—the author—or the writing, you’ve made a mistake.

Learning this craft takes many hours of writing, rewriting and editing. When I wrote my first novel I was possessedString orchestra performance with the story and wrote nonstop until I finished it with little care to craft. My proficiency level with the written word was of the college/masters thesis level and I figured I had sufficient vocabulary and grammar skills to complete the task. I consulted novels I had laying around for the proper way to write dialogue and I used many online resources to learn the fictional process. That’s when I discovered there was a lot more to writing effectively and efficiently than I ever imagined.

Frustrated young writer having writer's blockI won’t presume to tell you how to write and if you’re looking for guidance please read our archives as we have a host of posts to suit your personal style, most notably our pantser vs. plotter methodologies as we can count some of us on either side of the debate.

The more I explore fiction writing, the more complex and multi-layered it becomes. I’ve compiled a list of quick tips from countless sources to help you hone your craft and many are outlined in more detail in our archives, so feel free to browse.


Writing Tips

Before Your Write:

  • Read, a lot, especially in your genre.
  • Analyze stories you love.
  • Know the three-act structure.
  • Know the Hero Model.
  • Practice writing dialogue.
  • Cultivate your voice. Know your narrator. Practice in first and third person and past and present tense to see what feels right.
  • Consider your theme: life and death, redemption, sacrifice, rebirth, destiny? It should infuse your story with richness.
  • Decide on a setting that is vivid and realistic, even if you make it up.
  • If you’re using a real-life location, research it and see it for yourself if possible.
  • Don’t write for the market. Tell the story that’s in your heart.
  • Make an outline even if it’s sketchy. Some need it before they can write a single word, others not. It will provide you with a roadmap, should you get lost.

While You Write:

  • Exploit the human condition.
  • Use real life. Jot down anecdotes that get your attention. I got delayed in an airport recently and wrote down one of the funniest things I’ve seen in years. One of my characters will benefit from it.
  • Use unusual detail. Give your character a bizarre ailment or a crazy backstory. Your reader will remember a character has a lisp and couldn’t give a hoot about his hair color.
  • Characters are flawed. Tell us what’s bad about your hero and what’s good about your villain.
  • Remember that your reader likes to slip into your characters so avoid lengthy detail, which will make this more difficult. Rely on action and interactions to define your characters.
  • Use lots of obstacles. Make your characters suffer which will make the victory more satisfying.
  • Consider pace. I tend to write at a fast pace because I cut my teeth on YA novels. In order to keep teens tuned into your story you need to be plot and action focused. Description is the death knoll for a YA book. Use fight scenes, love scenes, think conflict, conflict, conflict!
  • Symbols and imagery can create a beautiful story but take care in crafting them and where you place them. Use alliteration, onomatopoeia, metaphor, and other literary devices to make your sentences sing and dance.
  • Focus on building tension, then give it an unexpected twist.
  • Consider subplots and tangents so that there’s a lot happening at once.
  • Throw in a red herring to send your reader down a dead end.
  • Blur the lines of your genre. A drama can have funny moments and a thriller can have a bit of romance.
  • Don’t underestimate the intelligence of your reader, let them follow the dots and trust that they will arrive at the destination.
  • Let readers use their imaginations. Provide a few choice details and let them fill in the rest of the canvas with their own colors.
  • Use descriptive words that engage as many of the readers’ senses as possible.
  • Remember your character must change. Transformation is key to any great story.
  • Make the ending satisfying. There’s nothing worse than sticking with an author for three hundred plus pages only to feel unfulfilled at the end. You need emotional and intellectual payoff. I’ve actually thrown a book at the wall under circumstances such as these. (Ill-advised if you’re using an e-reader.)

After You Write:

  • Don’t confuse rewriting with editing. Rewrite your story for accuracy in details, story holes and the like, then edit for grammar, spelling, and punctuation. The fewer typos in your final draft, the better.
  • Think lean and mean, cut every unnecessary word—kill those darlings!
  • Find beta readers: a critique group, a fiction workshop, or hire a professional. And listen to them!
  • Never send out a rough draft. I made this mistake big time. I thought I had a polished draft and got lots of interest from agents on the story premise but got killed by the same comment repeatedly: “No thanks, it needs serious editing.”

 But the most important tip of all is: Have fun! If you’re not enjoying yourself, fiction writing is not for you.

Good Luck!



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Death: The Highest Stake for a Writer

I’m postponing the next installment on my series, Fiction as Art, as we’ve embarked on a Halloween themed week. 

Hand Inked Grim Reaper IllustrationThe Grim Reaper broke into my house on a frigid January night  when I was five and stole the body and perhaps the soul of my four-year-old brother. I had no understanding of death at such a tender age and society had no intention of explaining it to me. Consequently, I had a nightmarish fear of death well into my teen years, constantly looking over my shoulder for the arrival of the sinister harbinger of death, waiting for his scythe to slice my soul from my body and take it to…well… I had no idea where a soul went.

Most of us can describe the image of The Grim Reaper, having seen depictions of him in folklore and movies. It puts a human face on death as the black-cloaked, skeletal, scythe-wielding entity who collects the soul at the moment we die. He escorts our soul to the other side, acting as a guide, often called a Psychopomp, and helps us make the transition to the afterlife. Some accounts say he just touches the person to pop their soul so they don’t feel pain when they die, but most say he uses that sharp blade to slice the soul from the body. According to the Book of Revelation (6:1-8) he is considered to be the fourth horseman of the Apocalypse.

The Grim Reaper is known for not saying much, always having a grin on his face, able to turn his head completely around a la Linda Blair, vigilant lest someone try to cheat him. He rides in a rickety old coach drawn by white horses that makes a horrifying noise because of the stones he carries in it. When he takes someone’s soul, he drops off a stone. If we browse through medieval history we can see that the figure of death as a skeleton might be linked with the massive deaths that occurred between the late fourteenth to early fifteenth century as a result of the Black Death.

The biological definition of death is the total cessation of life processes that eventually occurs in all living things.  Life and death are inseparable and inevitable parts of this world’s existence. But we humans crave to know more, to understand what that means and thus, our obsessive fascination with death. We want a vivid picture, someone to come back and tell us what’s on the other side. Profound questions arise: Is there really a God, Heaven, Hell? Does Satan exist? We want to know what it feels like to die, what we will see, where we will go, if we’ll meet our loved ones again. And since most of us are terrified of death, we put a scary face on it, whereas we could have made The Reaper a friendly guide to help us make this important transition.

This fascination results in a fertile field for artists. The presence of this frightening entity has captured the imagination of storytellers, writers and artists for as long as man has existed on this earth. And as writers there is no greater stake in our stories than death, in all its scary and magnificent forms. Crafting the visage and the fear into a manuscript is an exciting way to produce tension because it is universally felt. Your protagonist must save the town, the country, the world, or even the universe from annihilation. She must reverse the evil antagonist’s plan to murder innocents and set the world on its path to destruction. Or, maybe she just saves one life: a child, a lover, a parent, a stranger. Your story can evolve from the result of an unfortunate accident, or death can be used as the ultimate sacrifice or punishment. Killing characters has become very popular in modern fiction, be it film, television or novels. TV actors often lament that they don’t get a script until the moment of the table read and they quickly go to the last page and read backwards to determine if they survive the episode. No one is spared theses days, not even a lead character. One of my favorite editors constantly quips when reviewing my stories: “Who dies? We’re writers! Someone must die!”

My first book, which morphed into a trilogy because I had so much to say, is the result of that first encounter with the Grim Reaper. I’ve always been interested in what happens to the energy in your body after death. The science of physics teaches us that energy cannot be created or destroyed, so it must go somewhere. Is it a cohesive entity? Is that what we call a soul? Is there someone or something in control of it? These questions have walked me down many pathways in my life as I explored, studied, and questioned religion, astrology, reincarnation, and the science of death. Unfortunately, I have no answers. No one does, and most of us rely on faith in some form to help us cope with the scary notion of death.

The concept of the Grim Reaper is a chilling reminder that death is a reality that we all must face. However, he can also teach us much. He reminds us that life is short and we should make the most of every moment. So, eat dessert, sing and dance every day, tell your loved ones how much they mean to you. Because one day, when you least expect it, he just might crook that bony finger at you and say, “Come, my pretty. Time’s up!





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Imagination and the Unconscious: The Neuroscience of Creativity

This is the next installment in my series on Fiction as Art.

The other night, my writing workshop instructor handed out a reading assignment on crafting dialogue. Ho-Hum, I thought, I know how to write dialogue. But buried near the end of this article came a golden little nugget that blew me away. Paraphrasing the author, American novelist and non-fiction writer, Anne Lamott: The nature of most good writing is that you find out things as you go along. You create characters and figure out little by little what they say and do. You find them in your psyche. But this all happens in a part of you to which you have no access—the unconscious. This is where creating is done. I actually think I gasped.

Silhouette with idea concept designImagination is vital to the artist. The action of forming new ideas, images, or concepts of objects not present to the senses; creative power, vision, fascination, passion, curiosity… all of these contribute to the ability of the mind to be creative.

I thought about this all week and decided to do a little sleuthing about the part of the mind that imagines things. I stumbled on a YouTube lecture given at PopTech 2013 by Scott Barry Kaufman, Director of The Imagination Institute at the University of Pennsylvania. It’s on the Scientific American Blog Site entitled Beautiful Minds-Creativity. In it, he explains much of the brain science linked to imagination and creativity. I’ll attempt to highlight the essence of his speech and then give you some insights into how to access more of your creativity.

Now don’t go all googly-eyes on me. Having been a science teacher for many years I fully grasp the national, irrational, terror regarding math and science. But I’ll go easy on you, I promise, so hang in there!

Dr. Kaufman explains that creativity isn’t as simple as left brain—realistic and logical (the downer side) vs. right brain—emotional and expressive (the upper side), but instead is a function of how well we integrate our “Looking Out Network”, which manages outside stuff we don’t really care much about, and our “Looking In Network”, where we daydream, think about the future, and run an inner monologue of what we’re doing at the moment. Our Looking In Network is most active when we’re idle or at rest. I suggest we rephrase that old adage “An idle mind is the devil’s workshop” as “An idle mind is creativity’s workshop.”

In reality these two networks are antagonistic to each other, so being forced to focus on one, detracts from its counterpart. Dr. Kaufman makes a valid criticism of our educational institutions in that teachers demand our constant attention and therefore leave little room for students to look inward, consequently robbing them of accessing their creative network. The stream of clutter that constantly bombards us in everyday life is counterproductive to creativity and inhibits our imagination. He quotes Edgar Allen Poe—“…Those who dream by day are cognizant of many things which escape those who dream only by night.”

Dr. Kaufman has identified what he terms the Theory of Flow, which is when creativity is at its peak. You are away from the stream of daily clutter, focused inwardly, and your inner critic has miraculously vanished. You find yourself immersed in the absolute joy of working on a task, when you look up and realize you’ve been at it for six hours and totally lost track of time. You were in a flow state of creativity. And I don’t think any of us can deny the thrill of that experience. . . I’ve been there many times.

Additionally, he has observed that a large number of famous artists, be they musicians, visual artists, or writers, often access this state of mind more easily somewhat later in life, maybe in their 50s. The burdens on their left brain and their Looking Out Network have lessened—work is less stressful and demanding, kids are launched, finances aren’t so worrying, even to the point where some of their left-brained functioning has lessened due to the aging process. This frees up the right side to access more of its creative functioning.

Now, how does this all translate into amping up your creativity?

  1. The Pomodoro Method: Sharon’s recent post shows us how to free ourselves for precise periods of time to focus on the creative process and keep all other distractions a bay for that time period.
  2. Walking: There’s evidence that walking helps us think and is an excellent method for tapping your creativity. Walking is a simple task that requires little “looking outward” as long as you are in a place where you don’t have to concentrate too much. So avoid the busy street and look for a more bucolic setting. Let your thoughts drift and see what pops up. In general any mindless activity can work here.
  3. Sunrise and Sunset: When I’m heavily invested in writing a story I find it difficult to put it to bed before I go to bed. My characters talk to me and on many occasions I find an amazing plot point or insight pop into my head just before drifting off. This also happens as I wake. The trick is to write it down before it slips away in that stream of clutter as I look out at my day.
  4. Dreams: This is a continuation of the point above. When my story is so heavily on my mind it often permeates my sleep and I have vivid dreams that can take my story to a wild place I never imagined. I came upon the climax to my first book in just this way. Thus, I really get that creativity and imagination live in the unconscious. So keep that notepad on your nightstand to write down crazy thoughts.
  5. WOS Posts: We’ve written tons of posts on how to construct the right-write mood for accessing your creativity. Peruse our library.

In general, anything you can do to chase away the distractions that force you to look out will help you access that inner genius. Be childlike, jazz around. Children aren’t bogged down with the need to plan and they have few distractions. Being sophisticated and mature should play no role here, instead creativity requires inexhaustible imagination and the desire to just… make magic.

Up next: My final post in this series. The Artist as Master: The Fictional Process






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The Art of Fiction: Where to Begin?

This is the next installment in my series on Fiction as Art. Thanks for all the well-wishes after my shoulder surgery. Typing one-handed is a bitch, however.
Super heroine character

“Ignorance is bliss,” my mother used to say. It turns out my lack of knowledge about writing was a blessing because nothing stood in the way of my creativity and the story just spilled out of me. Then I set my sights on mastering the skills I needed to polish it.

When beginning a story we often think in linear perspective, my protagonist starts here and winds up there. But I contend it is more of a loop: the state of perfection—to the state of imperfection—then back to perfection again. Typically a story has rising action, a climax, falling action, and a denouement. We throw in emotional, psychological, and physical movement, littered with metaphors, symbols or other representations to make the reader see what we mean more clearly, and dream up a killer setting that will whisk the reader away to a place he’s never been before.

Here are some ideas to consider when beginning your first novel:

1.  There’s Only One Story. It’s often said there is only one story: There is a journey. Life starts out fine, then a series of obstacles arise, life becomes terrible and the protagonist either steps up and clears the obstacles and life is good again, or she fails and life remains terrible. The Hero Model is the typical way many stories are written, resulting in the expected “happy ending,” but there is also the choice of an “unhappy ending.” Avoid the “nothing happens” ending at all costs! Read my review of Blue Jasmine. 

2. Know Your Genre. One of the best pieces of advice I ever received was to know your genre. I hadn’t thought much about this before. I soon understood that there are specific tropes associated with various genres. But here is where I found this advice to also be dangerous. Yes, readers have certain expectations and when you deviate too far from them you can really upset your readers. For me, that would be Gone Girl. You can read my review here. Ms. Flynn had me captivated with her mystery, caught me off-guard more than once with her twists and turns, her divisive plotting, only to turn me off with the ending. Not that I needed a happily-ever-after ending. It was a modern day take on marriage, and we all know there are many unhappy endings is that regard, what really angered me was that there was no sense of justice. Both characters had done terrible things but in the end there was no accounting for either of them. A writer must ask the question: Would this really happen? I say no in the case of Gone Girl.

3. Truth and Honesty. I can’t see these characters resigning themselves to the denouement put forth in Gone Girl. Remember what I said last time about truth and honesty? Even in writing fantasy, where you ask your reader to suspend belief; convincing her it really happened, and what you’re proposing might be believable is paramount. You do this by a voice that expresses genuine emotions, by using precision of detail, you charm and lull your readers into suspending their beliefs. You use vivid detail, making your world come alive. And description is important, but treat it like 12-year-old scotch: sparingly and only on the proper occasion. Description works best when you don’t just describe a sunset you do so through a character in a particular mood.

4.  Consider Crossing Genres. On the concept of genre, I contend that some of the most provocative art, be it music, visual, or narrative art, is at its best when you blend genres. Remember, Tommy, the Rock Opera? Or Gone with the Wind, an Epic Romance? Magical Realism? Dark Comedies? Be brave and venture out of the trope-ish world of genre fiction. Know your genres and their tropes well, master them, then blend them! Break those rules!

5.  Write What You Like. It’s often thought that we write to express ourselves and we should write what we know. But I say no. We write because we have a story to tell and the expression part happens organically. I wrote my first novel, a fantasy about what life after death might be like, because at the age of five I always wondered where my four-year-old brother went when he died. Was that really the end of him? Or was he out there somewhere in a different form? Could he be reborn as one of my children? I found these thoughts scary and fascinating and resulted in a story about a young girl who dies and what happens to her on the other side of mortality. I had no theme, no important message to impart to my reader, that wasn’t my objective. Did I express my opinion now and again? Of course. But that wasn’t my reason for writing this story, it just happened. My conclusion being not ‘write what you know’ but write what you like. I love fantasy and magic and I’ve read a lot of it, so that’s what write what you know means to me.

And once again I contend that other than learning the fundamentals of freshman composition there shall be no rules, not absolutes. Of course artists study each other, deciding what they like and don’t like, mastering their craft, but essentially writing should be fun, exhilarating, revelatory! Those days where you forget to shower, or consume anything other than coffee because you can’t write fast enough. You look up and it’s 3 a.m. and you haven’t spoken to another human being and that’s okay. That’s what a true artist does. Immerses him or herself so deeply in the creativity that nothing else matters.

Just make sure that you remember to connect with the real world now and again…otherwise you’re getting creepy.


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Retro Caryn: Writing Erotic Romance

SEXCaryn is down for a bit after some minor surgery. Today we’re running one of her best-loved posts on the trials of writing erotic fiction. We know you’ll love this post and Caryn will be back with us all in no time.
When Fifty Shades of Grey crashed into the publishing world, everyone was aghast. On so many levels. Talk shows brought in therapists and psychologists— specialists on sexual abuse and relationships, and quickly labeled it mommy porn. Stuck home with my first broken ankle and nearly dead from boredom, I couldn’t resist the idea of reading something so risqué in the privacy of my own home. And thanks to the instant gratification that Amazon provides I fired up my eReader and was reading in less than five minutes. I’d never read anything like it and can’t deny it ambushed my libido in about a nanosecond.

It soon became the hot topic of conversation among my reader and writer pals. We debated and confessed: we loved it, we hated it, wanted to hate it but didn’t, wanted to love it but didn’t. The quality of the writing came up, which always annoys me. If you don’t like the writing, then stop reading. I don’t criticize other people’s writing unless they ask me to. Just like you don’t comment on someone’s clothing or haircut unless they petition you for your opinion, and even then I tread lightly. It’s different if it’s a crit partner, then the need for complete honesty is paramount, although I always bench my comments with a reminder that it’s just one person’s opinion, and other than technical errors, it’s up to the author as to whether they should take the advice to heart or not.

Conversation among my writer pals and my editor heightened. “Someone should jump on the bandwagon and write an erotic romance novel!” they all agreed. “It’s a huge new market and a great opportunity that shouldn’t be passed up.” Hmm…I thought. That sounds kind of cheesy, like rushing to write a dystopian novel because of the success of The Hunger Games, or getting on the Vampire and Zombie train, it’s just felt wrong. Writing to Market is a topic of many a pitch conference, but doing it intentionally just to follow a craze seemed well, again, just wrong. We write the stories inside us, the ones we want, not one designed to please others.

But my mind started to wander. I discovered there is a whole world of books that follow the BDSM lifestyle and I began to read them. Confined to my couch, I had nothing much else to do. I’d write for some part of the day, but I was pretty much limited to reading and TV to amuse myself for months, especially after I broke my other ankle. I read a lot. And my mind wandered some more. Using my usual What if…? prompt when I went to bed at night, a story took shape. I furthered my musings, day after endless day. The debate and near-hysteria among my friends continued until one day a writer pal said to my editor (who was desperately trying to convince one of us to write such a novel) “Caryn’s the one! She can do it!” Well, I wasn’t sure how I felt about that. Was I insulted or pleased that I came to mind?

I soon confessed that I thought I had such a story in me and decided to give it a shot. The story came easily enough, romance not too difficult to write, but the sex scenes? Well, they were rough, and I’m not just talking about the sex. One of the trickiest parts for me is the language. I’ve written before about writing a love scene and Jenn has tackled the mechanics of writing sex, but this was on a whole new level. One of the reasons I liked FSG so much was that her language didn’t make me cringe. Some people like to talk dirty, but it’s just not me. I do have quite a potty mouth, but it doesn’t seem to find it’s way into the bedroom. I have no idea why. Maybe it’s left over from my good-girl Catholic school days, or my mother’s indoctrination about being a lady. In seventh grade she told me not to dance the twist because the Blessed Virgin Mary wouldn’t do it. It made me angry then and of course I disobeyed her, now it makes me laugh. Okay, TMI, I’ll stop.

Crafting a BDSM sex scene without going too far became my aim. And, of course, my female protagonist is never going to become a wimp or a true submissive, even if she’s involved in that world for some ulterior motive as an undercover FBI agent. And so UnderCovers is finished, and in the hands of my editor, who has been incredibly enthusiastic about it’s possibility for success. We’ll see. I had a blast writing it and even if it never sees the light of day, and it remains ‘undercovers’ forever, I had a ton of fun. The only thing that still makes me uncomfortable is: do I publish under my name or use a pen name? Not sure how my sons would feel about this endeavor… Yikes!

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Do as You Like: A Lesson from Michaelangelo

Unfolding of the MindYou know I’ve enrolled in a writing course at the Visual Arts Center in my neighborhood. I’d been looking for an art class but inadvertently stumbled on their writing program. The first meeting was good, the second, not so much, but the third? Well, awesome. We critiqued each other’s first drafts of a short story and although the range of expertise varied (okay, I’m going with THE RULES here) the enthusiasm and creativity knocked me over. Listening to each writer express their passion for their story, writing without restraint, energized and enlightened me. They didn’t worry about dialogue tags or formatting (both easy to fix), they wrote with their hearts and imagination.

But that’s not even the best part! The instructor handed out an essay written by Flannery O’Connor. I admit I’ve never read any of her stuff and she did die in 1964 when I was thirteen and had no inkling that writing, or literature, would play any part in my life. What did Ms. O’Connor talk about? The aesthetic qualities of writing, or fiction as art. I would have hugged her if I could. (Ms. O’Connor, not the instructor.)

Ms. O’Connor spoke at a course entitled “How the Writer Writes,” where each week a guest author addressed the class. The essay, titled, Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose is a summary of her remarks and worth a read. It’s apparent that Ms. O’Connor is not a fan of formal writing education and that puts her in the company of many other iconic authors. Ernest Hemingway was vehement in this regard and yet it’s well known that he had “private tutoring” from both Gertrude Stein and Sherwood Anderson, pretty great crit partners by my estimation.

As beginning writers we want a set of rules on what to do and what not to do when crafting fiction. But the search for aesthetic absolutes is dangerous. Every true work of art should be judged primarily by it own rules. I’ve researched the words “art” and “artist” and cobbled together my own interpretation. The Greek word “techne” is often translated as meaning art, but it actually implies mastery of any sort of craft, thus, I believe an artist is a follower of a pursuit in which skill comes by study or practice through experience not necessarily in the classroom.

I believe the most important trait for a writer, a narrative artist, or any artist, is a talent for telling the truth. Ignorance makes for bad writing. The Grapes of Wrath, although considered a classic, has one huge flaw. It is one-dimensional because Mr. Steinbeck, although knowledgeable about the Okies and their drive to find work in California, never bothered to research or understand the plight of the ranchers who employed and exploited them. No objectivity, no fair-mindedness. He oversimplified and didn’t tell the “whole truth.”*

If you think about it, by the age of four you’ve experienced everything you need as a writer: love, pain, loss, boredom, rage, guilt, fear of death. Life experiences are more valuable than time spent in any classroom. You need to understand human values, emotions and beliefs. A good piece of fiction has a lot to do with the character and personality of the artist who created it, their truth, their beliefs, their experiences. But in order for that work to be unique, the artist must also master the art of breaking the rules. Everyone knows about Chekov’s gun. Don’t put a loaded gun on the wall if you’re not going to use it. But there’s also the Red Herring, throwing your reader off the trail by tricking them. It is important to justify the journey your reader takes with you, so you must tie up loose ends and plot your story effectively and truthfully. Your reader will abandon you if you don’t. But do it your own way, not according to a formula that’s been imparted to you by seeming experts.

As writers we generally accept that often there may not be anything new to say: the old adage that there really is only one story—but there is always a new way of saying it. Having an eye for what works, coupled with mastery of the craft by writing over and over again, creates the habit of writing. But when the artist sees his work with no rules, no limits, no restrictions, he is free to create anything he can imagine. Take the Sistine Chapel, a seemingly impossible task on so many levels, but Michaelangelo had the ability to dream something that no one else could and after fighting at length with papal architects as well as the reigning pope, was finally permitted to “do as he liked.” And the result takes your breath away.

The scientist has the habit of science, the artist the habit of art. I consider writing a narrative art, which relies heavily on the idea of drama, the novel being a dramatic unit. To the great artist, anything is possible, invention paramount. We must write to express ourselves, not to fill our pocketbooks. We need truth, imagination and mastery, not cataloging the rules, in order for our creations to become true art.

Next: There’s Only One Story: Where is the beginning writer to begin?


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