Babe Emboldens

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“Every strike brings me closer to the next home run.” Babe Ruth

An interviewer once posed the following question to the immortal Bambino: “Babe, what do you do when you get in a batting slump?” The Babe replied: “I just keep goin’ up there and keep swingin’ at ‘em. I know the old law of averages will hold good for me the same as it does for anybody else, if I keep havin’ my healthy swings. If I strike out two or thee ties in a game, or fail to get a hit for a week, why should I worry? Let the pitchers worry; they’re the guys who’re gonna suffer later on.”

Now consider this: For years, Babe Ruth’s amazing record of 714 home runs was unapproachable. But what most people don’t know is that he had another unapproached world’s record: He struck out more than any player in history. He failed 1,330 times.

Think about this for a moment: One thousand three hundred and thirty times the mighty slugger got up to bat, struck out, and endured the humiliation of walking back to the Yankee dugout after getting up to bat, swinging … and missing. But he never let the fear of failure knock him flat. In fact, when he struck out, he didn’t view it as a failure, but as effort – a step in the right direction that was bringing him close to his next home run.

The law of averages worked for the Babe and it can work for us, too. Somewhere out there, some of us are struggling with our creative work. We may be striking out, not on the baseball diamond, but on our field of play – the page. You may be one of them.

We may be struggling to complete a story or novel, but feeling lost.

We may feel muddling through another round of revisions that aren’t going well.

We may be submitting stories to journals or publishers and getting turned down.

We may be searching for an agent to represent our work and coming up empty.

Whatever we’re facing, we need to make the law of averages work for us – we need to keep on slugging. The more we put ourselves in play  — the more exposure we give ourselves — the closer we come to hitting our own personal home run.

I know, it’s tough. Getting up to bat and striking out is no fun. But it helps to remember that each strike-out – each rejection, each pass, each bump in the road — isn’t a failure but a step forward. And the more we get up to bat, the sooner that home run comes our way!

So let’s take a tip from the Babe: A strikeout is just a set-up for a home run. Write on!

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Finding Focus

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“In summary, creating the practicing mind comes down to a few simple rules:

  • Keep yourself process-oriented.
  • Stay in the present.
  • Make the process the goal and use the overall goal as rudder to steer your efforts.
  • Be deliberate, have an intention about what you want to accomplish, and remain aware of that intention.

Doing these things will eliminate the judgments and emotions that come from a product-oriented, results-driven mind.”

— from The Practicing Mind, Thomas Sterner

How I came across this handbook is lost in the mists of time, but I’m glad I did! The full title says it all: The Practicing Mind: Developing Focus and Discipline in Your Life. What a pithy, valuable guide! For me, the biggest takeaways from the book is the power of the present: focusing on what we’re doing when we are doing it. Let’s briefly unpack the four steps above:

Keep yourself process-oriented:  Focus on the journey, not the destination. Focus on the act of writing and creating, not what you want or have to produce.

Stay in the present:  Be where you are doing what you are doing. If your mind drifts off, gently bring it back to the task at hand.

Make the process the goal:  Let go of any stress about achieving or making something happen. Don’t create any boundaries around what you are doing – focus on doing.

Be deliberate:  Think in terms of intention, not goal. A goal is a point in time you are striving toward. An intention is about the desire to develop a skill, to improve and grow.

Finding focus is challenging, but doable. Let’s make it our intention as we all write on!

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“Ace” it!

“It is easier to act your way into a feeling than to feel your way into action.”   Ed Agresta

“Well done is better than well said.”   Benjamin Franklin

“Ace” = Action cures everything.

We’ve all been there. We’ve felt stuck, in a rut, not sure which way to go or what to do and so we end up doing nothing, which only makes us feel worse. There’s a simple antidote for this common creative malady. It’s captured in three words: Action cures everything.

Wherever we are and whatever the job at hand, there’s always an action we can take – and the simple act of taking action can pry things loose. When we act, we exert power, we influence situations, we make things happen — exactly what we may be struggling to do.

Ace – action cures everything. Let’s look at what this can mean to us as writers:

Taking action gives us forward motion which can quickly turn to momentum. When we move forward instead of looking back or staying stymied, we pry things loose. We shake things up and signal to the universe that we are focusing on progress, not the past.

Taking action helps us deal with our doubts and fears, which make “traitors of us all,” as Shakespeare says so well. They can hold us back and make us feel that we don’t have what it takes to succeed. When we act in site of our doubts about our ability or our fears that our work isn’t good enough, we move into the land of possibilities — an empowering place to be.

Taking action frees us to learn and be curious. “The work itself will teach you” – I love this old Estonian proverb! When we take action, we brush away the cobwebs from our minds – and make space for new ideas and approaches to take center stage.

Taking action creates energy — and energy unleashes creativity. When we’re feelig sluggish and immobilized, just taking one step and then another, one simple action after another, can give us the mental and emotional fuel we need to keep going and growing.

As motivational speaker Ed Agresta says so well, “It’s easier to act your way into a feeling, than to feel your way into an action.” Don’t focus on your feelings. Act your way into feeling whatever you want to feel: energized, curious, creative, capable.

“Ace” it – action cures everything. Three powerful words to remember as we all write on!

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Revision Roadmap

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Whatever writing project you’re working on, at some point you’ll face the need to revise and polish your work. If the project is short, then the revision process is likely to be intense and relatively quick. But if you’re tackling something longer and more ambitious, like a novel, then you have a much tougher row to hoe.

Some writers prefer to stop-and-start precision revision: they like to rewrite and polish as they go, though this can seem painfully slow. Others prefer to barrel on from beginning to end: they like to get everything down on paper and then circle back to the beginning and reshape their prose from start to finish.

One very useful approach to revision — especially when you’re working on a meaty short story or a novel — is to approach it in waves by segmenting key elements of your story and then looking at them from an editing standpoint. Using a segmentation strategy for revision can make it a much more manageable and coherent process. Breaking it down this way also makes revising a long piece of work seem less daunting:

Make a dialogue pass: Isolate all the dialogue you’ve built into your story and review it. Is the dialogue for each character written in a consistent style? Does it sound believable and colorful? Does it advance your plot and/or reveal character?

Make a description pass: Isolate all the descriptive passages in your story and review them. Do the passages vary in length and pacing? Are some of the passages too long and overly complex? Are they repetitive? Do they create a strong sense of place or are they more decorative?

Make a plot pass: Look at your story structure from a plot perspective and isolate and list all the key plot points in your story. Do they unfold in logical progression? Does each plot point provide forward motion? Does your plot structure provide a satisfying springboard for action and character development? Does it build toward a satisfying climax?

One approach I’ve found helpful is to use different-colored Magic Markers to box or highlight chunks of dialogue and description in a chapter. I might use green for all my dialogue sections and blue for all my descriptive passages, for example. This is an easy and visual way to check whether a chapter strikes a good balance between dialogue and description. Hope you’ll try this and let me know if it works for you. Write on!

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Something Wonderful

In celebration of Valentine’s Day, a lovely meditation:

A Birthday

My heart is like singing bird
Whose nest is in a watered shoot;
My heart is like an apple-tree
Whose boughs are bent with thickest fruit;
My heart is like a rainbow shell
That paddles in a halcyon sea;
My heart is gladder than all these
Because my love is come to me.

Raise me a dais of silk and down;
Hang it with vair and purple dyes;
Carve it in doves and pomegranates,
And peacocks with a hundred eyes;
Work it in gold and silver grapes,
In leaves and silver fleur-de-lys;
Because the birthday of my life
Is come, my love is come to me.

Christina Rossetti

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Heartfelt Art

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“One’s art goes as far and as deep as one’s love goes.”   Andrew Wyeth

“Something very magical can happen when you read a good book.”    J.K. Rowling

Happy Valentine’s Day! A joyful, heartfelt valentine to writers and our readers:

On my car radio I once heard that the gift people treasure most on Valentine’s day is a handwritten note. I love it! Even today, when we text and email oceans of words, the ones that matter are handwritten ones. Something about reading a handwritten note touches and inspires us — like reading itself. Consider the benefits that our readers will reap when they cast their eyes over and dip their hearts into our stories:

They’ll be emboldened to achieve their goals: Just reading about a character who fights through obstacles and goes on to achieve his or her goals can inspire us to keep going when we hit rough patches in our own lives, according to Ohio State researchers. Think of feisty Jane Eyre or embattled Odysseus and all the quest stories you’ve ever read and the struggles that characters go through — it’s the same in life!

They’ll stay mentally alert and nimble: Reading keeps our brains supple and  vibrant. Losing yourself in a good book and fully inhabiting the imaginary world it creates  actually keep your brain younger! That’s right — younger! One study found that people at risk for Alzheimer’s who read regularly are less likely to develop the disease.

They’ll form better, stronger relationships:  Studies show that people who love reading fiction aren’t just enhancing their capacity for enjoyment, they’re also gaining greater empathy for others. In fact, people who get into the heads of characters in the novels they read grow more adept at understanding what others are thinking in their actual everyday interactions and more skilled at reading and reacting to other people’s emotional cues. Amazing — no wonder book clubs are so popular!

They’ll increase their intelligence: Readers of all ages who enjoy delving into the worlds that we storytellers create to entertain and enliven them are constantly exercising their imaging capacities and igniting their curiosity about people, places, and things. They are also building their vocabularies and honing wordsmithing skills. Kids who read learn 50% more words than TV watchers!

OK, we’re on a mission: Our readers need us to keep their brains sharp and hearts full. So let’s all eat some chocolate, enjoy some flowers, pen notes, and write on!

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Suppressed Energy

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We’ve all done it at one time or another, haven’t we? Stayed up late, even all night, reading a page turner – a book that we just couldn’t put down? A story that propelled us forward, drawing us in because we just couldn’t wait to see what happened next. Sometimes it’s the plot that draws us in, sometimes it’s the rich, lively language, sometimes it’s both. But whatever craft the author uses to engage us, whatever the blend of action and art, you can be sure there’s one ingredient in the mix: suppressed energy.

What is this mysterious quality and how do we bring it to the page in our own writing? Suppressed energy is a sense of restrained excitement bubbling just below the surface of your story, a wave of unexpressed emotion that carries your reader along from sentence to sentence, page to page. There’s a fine line between excitement and anxiety – and if you hit this “sweet spot” in your writing, it can be irresistibly attractive and take your readers exactly where you want them to go. Here are a few ways to create this feeling:

Think “transfer of energy” –  Whenever we connect with someone else either in real life or on the page, there’s a potential energy exchange going on. We either boost their energy or deplete it. In some cases, nothing happens and we have no impact at all. If you think of the page as a source of energy for your reader, it can help enliven your prose.

Create questions —   One of the best ways to trigger excitement and engagement in your readers is to simply raise questions. Fuel anticipation and keep them off balance by giving them the sense that “Something is happening here. I don’t know what it is, but I need to find out.” Withholding and releasing information sparks interest and anxiety.

Vary your sentences:  Short, choppy sentences can be effective in agitating readers and making them edgy – they’re the stock and trade of action scenes. But they can also quickly lose their impact — a verbal bombardment can be fatiguing. One way to avoid this is to vary your writing rhythm and energize it by shifting between short and long sentences. This create an ebb and flow, pulling readers back, then pushing them forward.

Give verve to your verbs:  Take full advantage of the action and energy that flow from rich, colorful verbs. Make it a point to “sprinkle a little magic” in every paragraph as Raymond Chandler said so well. One of the best tools in your writing kitbag are verbs that energize and ignite your prose. Make sure your verbs sing and dance on and off the page.

Confuse your characters:  One of the most effective ways to spark energy on the page is to let your readers tap into the energy of the characters you create by confusing them. Make them ricochet emotionally between excitement and anxiety in tense, stressful situations. Don’t hold back – give them all the yeasty emotions you might feel yourself.

Energy on the page – what a gift it is to our readers! Let’s tap into it as we all write on!

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