Category Archives: The Writerly Life

Posts about the writing craft, publishing industry, social networking, etc.

In Memoriam W. Tim Bartlett, Jr.

Tim photo

It was two years ago that my beloved Mr. Brian Jacques passed away. Now, I find myself saying goodbye to another man with a more personal connection to my life.

For the past twenty-eight years, my mother has worked with Mr. W. “Tim” Bartlett, Jr., owner of Bartlett’s restaurant in Austin. Since I last posted, I began working part-time at the restaurant as a greeter, but I grew up knowing Mr. Bartlett more as a friend than as a boss.

On the morning of February 2, 2013, Tim passed away peacefully in his sleep at only 61 years of age. I had spoken to him less than 24 hours before my mom broke the news to me on Saturday morning, and– needless to say– the announcement has been quite a blow to all of us at the restaurant.

Mr. Bartlett was “the best boss in the world,” according to many who have worked under his command, and I can personally attest that he has always taken care of not just my mom for her service to his business, but everyone who makes up the larger Bartlett’s family. Despite being the owner of a successful, upscale restaurant, Tim was always present in his place of business, never above helping out with a broom and dustpan or personally attending to his regular guests who came to support their favorite local restaurateur. Just a few weeks ago, while I was in the process of buying my first car, Tim was only too eager to connect me with his used-car dealer friend, even offering to go look at vehicles with me.

The suddenness of Tim’s death is, I think, both a blessing and a curse: the former because he was up and about in his restaurant, chatting with regulars just the day before he went instead of languishing through a terminal illness; the latter because of his youth and our inability to properly bid him adieu.

Mr. Bartlett’s death has reminded me of this quote by William Penn, founder of the colony of Pennsylvania:

“I expect to pass through this world but once. Any good therefore that I can do, or any kindness or abilities that I can show to any fellow creature, let me do it now. Let me not defer it or neglect it, for I shall not pass this way again.”

I am happy to say that in all the years I knew him, Tim embodied this philosophy to a “T.” His passing has reminded me of the fragility of life and its fleetingness, of the words we will hear next week on Ash Wednesday that “you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” and of the importance of doing our very best, expressing our love, and living our lives with energy and passion as did Mr. Bartlett.

Thank you, Tim, for everything. We will miss you even while your spirit carries on in the restaurant that bears your name here below, but I can’t wait to join you with the best of company at the eternal feast soon.

You can read Mr. Bartlett’s obituary in the Austin-American Statesman here.

Balancing Big Picture Brainstorming with Getting Down to Brass Tacks

Photo via ecooper99 Flickr

Some people can’t see the forest for the trees, but have you ever felt that you couldn’t see the individual trees because you were too occupied taking in the whole forest?

Sometimes, in the brainstorming phases of writing, the ideas are flowing, the big idea is clear in our mind’s eye, and we have no problem seeing the overall theme or message we want to convey. We might be going along with our day when we get a cool idea for a story; initially, everything seems to make sense, but when we sit down to really begin planning each scene, the going can get pretty tough.

It’s not often that I’ve liked getting into the details of any project, whether it’s planning a retreat, crunching the numbers on a new purchase, or even plotting a book. My high school English teacher once told me that I was a “big picture” person or an “ideas” person, which explains my aversion to doing math, and it’s true that I have always found mathematical concepts fascinating– whether I’m learning calculus or discussing quantum physics with my engineering friends– but I simply can’t be bothered to actually work out the details. This is hardly surprising, as I am an INTJ (Introverted, Intuitive, Thinking, Judgemental) personality type on the Myers-Briggs personality test, and my intuition and preference for holistic thinking lends itself to generating concepts rather than concrete details.

This way of thinking is necessary for most endeavors, especially writing; after all, you have to know what you want to say before you can properly say it.

However, there is a Japanese proverb which states,

“Vision without action is a fantasy… action without vision is a nightmare.”

There are a lot of would-be writers who seem to have no shortage of ideas for the next big thing but who never seem to act on that vision and write. On the other hand, a quick trip through Amazon’s indie published titles reveals that there are just as many people with the ability to hammer out a book but who seemingly have no vision directing their writing.

It would be too easy to say, “Well, I’m a visionary. I’m just no good at the nitty gritty.” And frankly, this seems rather lazy. Writing is a particular business, and it takes a rare breed of person– one who possesses both the free-spirited creativity necessary for generating ideas and the analytical, no-nonsense practicality of organisation and discipline– to do it well.

It’s true that we all have differing balances of right and left brain proclivities, but there are ways we can leverage our strengths to help shore up the areas where we’re weak and to trick our brains into thinking they’re playing when the task at hand would normally seem like work.

For example, yesterday, while I was feeling particularly stuck with plotting my current WIP, I did something I’ve never done before. Usually, I resort to mindmapping, but this time, I just began writing down impressions and words connected to the scene I had in mind without circling or drawing connections between them. In this way, I created a sort of “cloud” where I could see the overall “feel” of the scene I needed to write, but I didn’t bother trying to draw connections between them until my subconscious tired out and the flow of ideas dried up.

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In the past, at this point, I would have probably tried to jump into writing the scene, but the problem is that I still only have an impression: I can kind of see what the scene needs to be, but it remains shimmering, effervescent, and vague.

So instead, I then turned to a new page in my notebook and, still in that creative state of mind, began writing in linear fashion the progression of events in the scene. I was still pulling ideas from the air, but now that I had an impression of what the scene would be, it was easier to focus my creativity into coming up with individual events that would be plausible within the scene. Now, I have a list of targets to hit as I progress through writing the first draft.

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I like to think of this method of brainstorming as “telescoping,” much the same way you can go to Google Earth and look at a map of the whole United States to get the big picture, then you can zoom in to your particular city to see the roadmap of where you’re going, and finally, you can enter Street View to get an on-the-ground perspective.

Similarly, we can first come up with the big idea for what we want to write, then we can organise those ideas into something resembling a roadmap for the draft, and finally, when it comes time to write the prose, we put ourselves actively into the scene and fill in the details on the level of sentences and paragraphs.

I’m going to tweak this method and see how it works for other scenes, but for now, I feel much more prepared to write the first draft.

How do you go about planning a piece? How would your process differ for blog posts versus fiction? Do you prefer to work backwards, writing scenes from the ground up and later organising them into a big idea for a story?

Going Pro in 2013

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Image via Nemo from Pixabay

I came back from France on December 20 planning to spend Christmas taking it easy with my family with the intention of starting my search for work in earnest after New Year. So far, I’ve gotten the “taking it easy” bit crossed off my list of things to do for 2012, but it’s 2013 now, and I’ve got a whole new list of things to accomplish this year.

Much to my chagrin, we’re already a week into the new year, and I have barely written anything. Despite my weak start to pursuing my writing resolutions, I did have an epiphany the other day while I was writing some more on the current WIP:

If I want to go pro about writing– and I do– I’m going to need a better system. Actually, to put it more accurately, I’m going to need to be more disciplined. For so long, I’ve admired the authors in my Twitter feed selling their books on Amazon or fellow bloggers like Kristen Lamb and Matthew Wright publishing post after post, chastising myself for my limited productivity, but– oddly enough– not doing much to improve said abysmal productivity.

In fact, Kristen’s recent post about talent being cheaper than table salt struck me particularly hard when she was recounting an encounter she had with an old acquaintance. He kept lamenting that he couldn’t be an author because he was “so ADD,” but in typical Kristen fashion, she told him point-blank,

This time, instead of trying to help or agreeing with his excuses or offering to be his support buddy to make him stay on task, I said, “No, you don’t have ADD. You lack maturity and discipline.

They say the first step to correcting a problem is admitting you have one, so I hereby publicly confess to you:

I have a time-management problem.

Happily, I also have a plan to:

  • Keep a professional work schedule

Photo courtesy of mnapoleon
Photo courtesy of mnapoleon

When I was working full-time in Paris, I had to get up around the same time every morning and make sure I was on the metro by 9:00 a.m. or else I’d be late to work. I may not have a job to go to at the moment, but for now, I’m making writing my full-time job while I look for other ways to generate an income.

In the past, I’d take a stab at writing whenever I’d have free time, but I hardly ever produced anything, and I never produced anything on a consistent basis. Now, I may not have a boss breathing down my neck, but I’m treating writing with the same responsibility I would if I still had to get on that metro every morning. Getting my mom up to speed on Downton Abbey this past weekend didn’t help this morning (sacrifices must be made…), but from now on, I’m getting in bed by 10:30, lights out by 11:00 at the latest. That alarm goes off at 6:30, so I’d better be out of bed by 7:00 at the latest.

  • Use my calendar and timer

CalendarAnother aspect of my full-time job at the embassy entailed working five days a week on many different projects with varying deadlines. I’ve had this nifty little app on my computer since I got it, and I’ve barely put it to use. Now, I’m filling in my writing schedule alongside other things like choir practice and job interviews exactly as if it were my personal planner at my previous job.

Speaking of deadlines, it’s astounding how much more productive you can be when you have a looming deadline– even a tiny one. While I was writing a new scene for my WIP the other day, I was using ten minute magic, where I set my little egg timer for ten minutes, set my Scrivener window to full screen, and just wrote. Lo and behold, I actually wrote a little over 1,300 words in an hour thanks to that little kick in the pants. In the past, I would sit down at my desk and try to write, and often, I would end up writing nothing after several hours– usually because I had gotten distracted– which leads me to my next goal…

  • Kill Facebook

what-could-kill-facebookI’m appalled by how often I find myself lost in the endless tracts of Facebook’s newsfeed. I usually have hardly any notifications, so there’s no real reason for me to visit. Now, when it’s writing time, the book of faces will be shut. Come to think of it, the whole internet will be shut.

  • Set measurable goals

One of the things I loved about NaNoWriMo was the plethora of word-counting widgets and progress bars, and I was thrilled to discover a similar built-in feature of Scrivener. Now, when I start a writing session, I can set my wordcount goal and watch the bar move while I type. Even when I’m not writing the actual prose for a WIP, I can set goals to “brainstorm X number of scenes by Wednesday” or “interview the protagonist and supporting sidekick by the end of today.” This way, instead of dithering in the face of the seemingly endless task of writing a story, I can constantly be aiming for and completing a series of more immediate goals.

How do you plan to go pro in 2013? What are your methods to the madness of time-management?

To WordPress, With Love

Close the laptop and open the stationery box. You won’t regret it.

Dear reader,

When was the last time you picked up a pen and actually handwrote a letter to someone?

Yeah, don’t feel too guilty about that. Up until about five minutes ago, I think it had been at least a year since I did it, and that was when I wrote a letter to my grandmother. But a lazy Sunday afternoon in Paris seemed the perfect opportunity to crack open the little box of stationery I bought just before leaving the country, and I’m so glad I did.

Living abroad has been lonely at times, but thanks to Skype and Facebook, I have felt remarkably close to my friends back home. Still, the rare occasions when I have opened my mailbox to find a real, handwritten letter were some of the most touching moments where I felt a physical connection to someone I cared about. Yet, in an age of digital everything, the act of sitting down for a couple of hours to hand-craft a personal letter doesn’t even cross our minds as a possibility, much less as an archaic– if romantic– anachronism.

One thing I have noticed about France is that, despite its position as a modern, wealthy, Western nation, the people here do not quite rely on their technology as much as my American compatriots at home. Of course, iPhones and tablets abound, and the country is even several steps ahead of the United States in terms of public transportation and credit card security, but when you go to a cafe, you see people in wicker chairs turned out to face the sidewalk instead of hordes of solo Starbucks-sippers absorbed within their cocoons of Macbooks and earbuds. French websites tend to look like they were designed at the turn of the century, and people are much more likely to plan to host a dinner weeks in advance rather than firing off a text to whoever is available to grab some fast food at the last minute.

All of this is to say that as a young American, it has been eye-opening living in the Old World, where even amongst 21st century modernisation, life still moves at a pace a bit more becoming the 19th century. It’s undeniable that there are French people just as technology-saturated as their American cousins, but I have found that theirs is a culture that still respects the human element, the personal connection, the intimate encounter. And spending my afternoon putting pen to paper to reconnect with old friends was a therapeutic way to ease some homesickness as well as commune with the spirit of a city rich in literary history.

To stop and consider that there was an era where people would cross the ocean literally never to be seen again and the only means of communicating with them was to entrust a scrap of paper to a courier once a year… well, that is a humbling thought. Fortunately, we don’t have to resort to such ancient methods today because we have webcamming and instant messaging at our fingertips!

Then why is it that I still have a hard time scheduling even these digital encounters? Quite simply, I believe it is because we live in a culture of consumption instead of production. To reach out to someone through any medium demands a certain amount of effort and sacrifice on our part, but that’s the beauty of human social relations: communicating with another human being goes beyond the level of mere animal need and can be an act of love in itself.

Especially to my writer readers, shouldn’t the title of writer encompass the most humble and basic form of writing beyond all the work we do blogging, querying, authoring, and social networking? If you want to really lay claim to the title, I challenge you to go old school and break out the quills and parchment.

If you have been feeling the urge to reconnect with someone, or even if you are reaching out to a new acquaintance– be it a potential business partner, romantic interest, or neighbor who just moved in down the street– why not do it in ink?

In case your letter-writing skills from elementary school are a bit rusty (do they even teach the art of writing a friendly letter any more?), here are some tips:

  • You might want to draft just a couple of points on a scratch piece of paper beforehand to gather your thoughts.
  • The weather is nice to mention, but your space is likely limited. Try to dig a little deeper and open up. Remember this is a personal letter, so why not use the opportunity to recount some personal events (whether good or bad) from the past year?
  • Don’t fret about making mistakes. Actually, handwriting forces you to write at a slower pace, so your thoughts will be constrained to accommodate your hand instead of racing to keep up with your mad typing skills. Besides, before there was a “backspace” button, there was this little thing called “whiteout;” a couple chicken scratches here and there give it character, too.
  • “Sharing” links or photos on Facebook is so mainstream; you might consider using this opportunity to include some actual photos, personal drawings/doodles, newspaper clippings, or even small gifts that can fit in the envelope.
  • Don’t treat it as a chore or something on your never-ending list of things to do; rather, look at it as the first step in a personal conversation with someone you care enough to write to.
  • Tell your friends– better yet, write to your friends– and revive the lost (but not yet dead!) art of letter-writing.

I hope that you enjoy rediscovering a traditional art form and that it brings a richer dimension to your writing and your life.

Commenting: A Followup

Before I say anything else, I would just like to express how honored I am to be Freshly Pressed a second time and how touched I am to receive such positive feedback from all of you. Thank you to everyone who contributed to my recent post about commenting and to everyone who now follows my blog.

I actually read every comment that was posted, and I’m still getting several streaming in. Several of you asked some very good questions regarding commenting, so here are some of the most common questions along with my responses.

You mentioned that the blogger should respond to comments to interact with his readers. Should the blogger respond to every comment?

  • The answer is an emphatic “No.” While it is important to maintain a relationship with readers, the blogger’s primary responsibility is to provide good content for his audience. The combox is a great way for the blogger to clarify points or chat with readers, but usually, it serves as a place where readers can generate their own discussion about the material. Especially on posts with hundreds of comments, it is simply impractical for the blogger to reply to every single post. It is my opinion that the blogger should only reply to comments as he sees fit, but most importantly, he ought to remember that while social interaction is a key component to a successful blog, his primary objective as a writer is to provide the main content. Too much time spent commenting detracts from that responsibility.

You encouraged us to comment even when we feel shy or when there are many comments before ours, but I’m hesitant to appear boorish by repeating what may have already been said.

  • In the case where there are several hundred comments, it is unlikely that a reader will sift through every single one to determine what has already been said, nor should he be expected to. Thus, even if what you write has already been said, perhaps in skimming the conversation, a new reader will see your post instead of a previous one and be able to keep the ball rolling from there. And besides, great minds think alike, so consider it less like appearing uncouth and more like bolstering an argument by reaffirming a common truth.

It’s difficult to track a conversation and be able to contribute meaningfully, which is why I often do not bother.

  • I agree that it can be mind-numbing to try to hold a combox argument coherently in your head while formulating a cogent response. While my previous post exhorted readers to comment whenever possible, remember that Prudence is the auriga virtutum (the charioteer of the virtues), and that often, it is “better to keep one’s mouth shut and be thought a fool than to open it and prove the fact,” as Benjamin Franklin said. If you do not want to join an ongoing conversation or are unsure of what has been said already, you can always leave a positive note of encouragement for the blogger, since those will never go to waste.
  • Additionally, if you would like to follow a certain thread of conversation in the comments section, there is often an option when you post a reply to receive alerts of followup comments via email or the hosting platform itself (Blogger, Livejournal, WordPress, etc.)

As you can see, I could not reply to every post, but because so many people were willing to leave a comment– even at the risk of sounding repetitive– I got a good sense of what the general blogging population was thinking, and in so doing, your input led to the creation of this blog post. See how even when you think no one can hear what you have to say, you are helping to build the blogosphere?

What other topics would you like to see discussed regarding writing and blogging? Are there other questions you have about how to become a better blogger? If there are other experienced bloggers reading, how do you balance the social and creative demands of being a successful blogger?

Is This the Most Productive Use of My Time?

That’s what my friend used to hang on the wall above her computer in her dorm room last year.

Today is Ash Wednesday, the start of Lent, a period in which Catholics and other liturgical Christians observe 40 days of penitence, fasting, increased prayer and almsgiving. Traditionally, as part of the fasting aspect, Christians will “give up” something for Lent. In the past, I have given up chocolate, sodas, and Pop-Tarts, but last year, I took a bigger plunge and abstained from Facebook. This year, I’m doing it again.

It’s important to remember that the things we give up are not always bad in and of themselves, although some people do use the time to attempt to break a vice such as smoking, swearing, or eating unhealthily. More often, though, they are perfectly acceptable good things, but the theological implications of detaching ourselves from temporal, earthly goods is to refocus our attention on our dependence on God, who is our source and end and our ultimate Good.

But there are practical implications, as well. While Facebook is an excellent way to keep in touch with distant friends and relatives as well as promote your brand or network with other writers, for me, personally, it has become something of a vice. Networking is good, but actual writing is even better, and honestly, I was spending far too much time on Facebook (not even networking, at that!) to the point where it detracted from my writing.

A writer for Al Jazeera actually recently wrote an article about how Facebook is purportedly changing the way we interact and even the way our brains function. And a Slate article from last January claims that Facebook is specifically designed to showcase only the positive aspects of our lives, which can cause us to overestimate others’ happiness and increase our own feelings of inadequacy. And I’m well aware that it’s a very small sample, but speaking from my personal experience, three of my five roommates do not use Facebook at all, and they seem less anxious or unhappy overall.

So this Ash Wednesday, I’m logging out of Facebook until Easter, and I’m actually eagerly looking forward to the positive benefits I believe it will bring me. In the time I would be wasting on Facebook, I’ll be writing more blog posts and working on my novel. While I’ll certainly be making an effort to spend more time in meditative prayer, for me, writing is also a form of prayer— a talent and passion I have received from God, and one which I gladly offer back to him as a way to brighten my corner of the world and share his love with others.

If you made a New Year’s resolution– whether to write more, eat more healthily, become a more generous or kinder person– but it has fizzled out, even if you’re not Christian, I’d like to invite you to join thousands of other people in casting off something that might be holding you back from self-improvement and renewing a resolution to better yourself.

Have you ever thought of ditching Facebook, even for a short period? What are you giving up for Lent this year? Or, more importantly, what are you replacing it with that’s even better? If you are of a different faith tradition, how do you integrate your writing with your spiritual life? And if you don’t belong to any particular faith, how does writing help you to become a better person?

P.S. I haven’t given up on Twitter since I don’t spend much time on it as it is, but you might see my Facebook page update since it is tied to both Twitter and WordPress.

No Comments from the Peanut Gallery!

How many times have you felt the impulse to leave a comment on an article or blog but then thought better of it and moved on?

Whether the piece is sheer brilliance or more internet garbage, there is almost always a section where readers can leave comments (often referred to as a combox). I have mixed feelings about the combox, but until I read Kristin Lamb’s recent post about “improving your likability quotient”, and Bob Mayer’s thoughts on your internet presence, I must admit, I wasn’t an avid commenter.

Here’s the thing: As much as I often think I have important things to say, when I see several hundred comments, I often feel like adding my voice to the fray won’t be a worthwhile contribution.

Oh how wrong I was.

I’m not sure about you guys, but I know I have a tendency to size up the world in an “all-or-nothing” mindset far too often. Here are a few of my usual inner monologues:

“If my blog post or comment isn’t going to rock the foundations of the literary world, well, then… I may as well not comment at all!”

“Oh, look at the flame war! I thought I smelled smoke over on WordPress… This fire has clearly burned itself out. Nothing to see here, folks. Move along.”

“This guy clearly doesn’t have a clue, but he’s obviously too stupid to consider anything I have to say. I think I’ll go preach to the choir where I know people will listen to me.”

Smiley from the sMirC-series. facepalm

 No, no, no.

You see, it’s called social media for a reason. Even when it appears that your thought may be lost in an ever-deepening sea of other comments, you never know who might read it. At the very least, the blog author will get another alert letting him know that you thought his post was worthwhile reading, and while busier bloggers can’t always read or reply to every individual comment, you have just given him a digital high-five of sorts and spread some internet cheer. We bloggers like being “liked.”

Secondly, whenever you leave a comment on a blog, you are leaving a virtual trail of breadcrumbs back to your own blog. As Nicola Morgan points out, Google loves it when you make its job easier. Every time you comment somewhere else, you leave a veritable trail of metadata in your wake, making your blog more likely to show up in search engines and, in a sense, casting your nets wide into the sea of the internet.

And lastly, while the internet is a big place, you are an important part of it. Sometimes, it might seem as if your contribution to the free flow of information and ideas is nothing but a drop in an ocean, but the ocean would be that much drier and shallower without your thought. As they say, “Rome wasn’t built in a day” (an aphorism of which I am in constant need of reminding). It was, rather, each individual stone in a Roman road which comprised the network that allowed the empire to stretch across Europe. And it was each individual citizen who came to debate in the forum which allowed for the republic to flourish into the classical civilisation to which we still look today.

Ready to join the legions of intelligent, articulate blog commenters currently amassing to redeem the internet?

I thought so.

To bloggers:

  • DO enable commenting on your blogs. Most platforms have sufficient spam blockers to keep the bots at bay. If people cannot participate in your blog, then you are basically having a conversation with yourself, and we all know that writers do enough of that outside the blogosphere as it is, right? 😉
  • DO reply to comments within your own blog. This shows your adoring fans that you do, in fact, care about them and take the time to read what they say. Nothing builds rapport between a blogger and his audience better than mingling amongst the commoners conversing with his readers.
  • DO write thought-provoking posts that encourage conversation. Hell, write something controversial if its gets people talking! You might try leaving an open question at the end of your posts or inviting a guest blogger to provide a counter-post.
  • DO take the time to read and comment on other bloggers’ posts. Far from fraternising with the competition, you just paid the favor forward and brightened someone else’s corner of the internet. If anything, he might feel indebted and comment back on your blog, but at the very least, you have shown that what you consider worthy enough of your time to read is also worthy of your time to contribute to, as well.
  • DO NOT FEED THE TROLLS!

To readers:

  • DO read articles and posts carefully and analytically. Take the time to craft a thoughtful, genuine post that shows the author you have heard what he has to say and want to collaborate with him via a shared experience or constructive criticism.
  • DO forward links from other relevant blogs in your comments if you think they will contribute to the conversation. Just be careful about appearing… spammy.
  • DO click the “Like” button if you don’t have time to write a whole comment. This will at least let the author know that you read and enjoyed his work.
  • I repeat DO NOT FEED THE TROLLS!

So, was this a cleverly-designed trap to lure readers into commenting on my blog and boosting my ego?

Perhaps.

But really, it’s not about me (although notifications are gratifying most of the time). It’s about making the internet a better place for everyone. If you have been shy about joining the fracas, there’s no time like the present! So, please, take up that seat in the peanut gallery and fire away!

I’d love to hear your thoughts on your commenting in the blogosphere and what ideas you have to improve the experience. It seems to me that one of the huge problems confronting us is the general lack of civility in the comboxes. Thoughts? Opinions? Reactions? Criticism? Viewpoints? Convictions?

I’m all ears.