Once you get comfortable with your writing, explore genres outside of your comfort zone. Do you usually write romance? Try sci-fi romance. Usually stick to fantasy? Try magical realism. Do this, and you’ll grow as an artist.
Work a little harder. Sleep a little less. Push yourself a little further. Make your dreams attainable.
My grandmother loved to love. It was her favorite gift to give others. It was her finest skill. I come from a family that doesn’t end every phone call or visit with, “I love you.” But grandma was never afraid of expressing herself. She said those three words often, with the same fervor as the first time. Her love was like the sun—warm, bright, and total.
In fact, the earliest memory I have of my grandmother shows this: I was at her house, racing up and down the hallway. In a room near the end of the hall, I found her sitting in front of her sewing machine, like so many times before. She turned around and, seeing me in the doorway, invited me in. I ran to her. She scooped me into her lap. And together we sang her token song.
You are my sunshine,
My only sunshine.
You make me happy
When skies are gray.
You never know, dear,
How much I love you.
Please don’t take my sunshine away.
Last Saturday, my mom texted us and said that grandma wasn’t doing well. She said we may want to drop our original plans of visiting her later in the week. So we did—the three of us girls, and our father, packed quickly and made our way to Indiana. I remember trying to picture how things would go. How I would contribute, and how I could be a support for the family. I hadn’t spent much time with ailing people, and I’m not a natural nurturer. I figured, which I said aloud to my sisters, that I’d probably just stand off to the side, being out of the way, and offer kind words to the family.
But as soon as we arrived, those predeterminations crumbled. I couldn’t help but be near her. The visitors in the room were holding her hands, stroking her cheeks, playing with her hair—all things I couldn’t fathom doing. My first thought was, “Look how pretty she is in that blue top.” But I held back for fear that it would come out sounding strange or awkward.
Then I recalled all the love she showed me. Whether it was through the clothes she made, the handmade cards she’d send, or the endless “I love you’s” she’d say. I remembered how she’d wrapped me in that warm embrace in the sewing room—a hug as comforting as a sunbath. She knew how to comfort, she knew how to listen, and she knew how to love. And suddenly I wanted to give that love back to her.
So I touched her arm. And soon, I was holding her hand. And then stroking her cheek. And telling her how pretty she looked. And it wasn’t the least bit awkward.
What a gift that was to be there with her in her last days. My two beautiful sisters and myself had the opportunity to reciprocate a fraction of the adoration she gave to us. It is something I will treasure forever.
Her laughter and youth and light was felt everywhere she went. She was our sunshine. She made us happy when skies were gray. We’ll never know how much she loved us. And although she is no longer with us, her sunshine wasn’t taken away. It exists in anyone she loved—because she gave each person a piece of her. And now we get to carry that sunshine and remember her always. I know anytime the sun warms me, I will feel that same sewing room hug. I will think of her, think of her love, and sing.
Not long ago, I posted this tip about being open to criticism. I stand by it, because I believe in order to be successful in the writing world you have to be able to face criticism.
But I have an addendum to that tip.
Be open to constructive critiquing, not opinionated slights against your prose. There’s a big difference.
There are writers who will pick apart your piece because it’s different. Maybe they don’t like your tense, or your flowery words, or your sentence construction. Maybe there’s tension between the two of you, maybe this person is jealous of your talent.
Regardless of the reason, some people will try to fix what’s not broken in your book. If you want to know how to spot a bad critique, here are three things to look for:
1) They are using words like “you should do this” or “never do that”
Writers who are looking to heighten your skills will use phrases like, “I don’t want to squash your voice here, but this phrasing is confusing. Maybe you can clarify by saying it like this….”
2) They don’t give you a Critique Sandwich
The Critique Sandwich looks like this: A positive remark is made about your writing. Then come the things to work on. It’s finished off with another positive word about the piece.
3) Based on your knowledge on the genre in which you’re writing, you have never seen what they’re telling you to change
This is where reading comes in handy for a writer. Sometimes, the best way to get published is to emanate the pros. Is the person giving you writing tips you’ve never seen in a published work before? Ask them to back up their critique—how do they know what they’re saying is true? Challenge them kindly.
If all else fails, just nod your head, thank this person for their thoughts (even if you don’t agree), and move on. This is your piece. These are your words. No one else’s.
Learn the right and wrong ways to use participle phrases. A participle phrase, boiled down to its bare minimum, is an “-ing” phrase. For example, here a participle phrase:
Zipping up his coat, Herold left the car.
Why is this wrong? Because logically, this cannot happen. One cannot zip up their coat at the same time they are opening their car door. A better construction would be:
Herold zipped up his coat, then left the car.
Of course, this sentence could sound a little more polished. But this gives the idea.
If you want more information on participle phrases, click the link. Watch for these in your prose. They can work in your favor, or they can cripple your writing.
Here you are. Sitting down to write. You spent the last few hours busying your hands with other futile tasks, dreaming of how heavenly it would be to write. Dreaming, plotting—but not doing. So here’s your chance. You’re at the computer. You have a blank page. You can fill it with all the gauzy images that danced through your mind these last few hours. Write.
Your hands are poised over the keyboards. You shift your fingers. They are positioned perfectly for the muse to speak. Like a ballerina on a dance floor, black yawning around her, a hush in the hall, waiting for the music to begin.
Oh, but what’s that? You can’t. Nothing comes out. What does rear its ugly head, however, is a loud, persistent voice.
It says you’re terrible. It says, ‘Don’t bother. Anything you put on that page won’t be good. No editing will salvage the shit you scribble.’
You shift your fingers.
Your fingers leave the keyboard. You glare at the page. You scrounge up some determination. You still want to write. But… something’s not right. Is it an outline you’re missing? Maybe you need to free write for thirty minutes.
‘No. Don’t waste your time. You’ll only make pure, undiluted drivel.’
Just a sentence, maybe?
The voice sighs, peeved. ‘Why bother?’
You don’t fight the voice. You trust it. You open Facebook and scroll for thirty minutes. Then you remember the apartment needs to be vacuumed. And the living room could do with a dusting.
So you busy yourself for another hour. You find yourself dreaming again. Wishing you didn’t have to do such menial tasks—you wager if these obstacles didn’t stand in your way, you’d have piles of pages scrawled with beautiful prose.
You look at the dust and damn it to hell. You grab the nearest notebook and open to an unsullied page. You have your favorite felt tip pen. You feel the current of inspiration whirling within you. It’s exhilarating.
Okay, now write.
‘Nah. Who are you reading right now, Capote? Yeah, you’ll never sound like him. You’re destined for terrible writing.’
You readjust the pen.
‘You’re still trying this? You suck, remember?’
You shut the notebook and return to dusting. It’s just not the right time to write. You haven’t plotted anything. Your idea needs to stew. You should age it, like cheese or wine. Hm… that’s not a bad idea, you are hungry. You head to the kitchen.
Is this ever going to stop? Will you ever get out of your own damn way? You see how cyclical this is. Listening to the voice doesn’t work. You may not have the skills you seek, but dusting isn’t going to magically make you a better writer.
This is your only option: Corner that voice. Get angry at it. Tell that voice it’s not welcome here. It’s not fooling you anymore. You can see through its mask of arrogance. You know that voice is your fear—of failure, of sucking, of never getting published, of realizing your whole life was a lie and you were never meant to be a writer, that your life has no purpose, that you should just eat cheese and drink wine all day and never leave the house because who cares no one’s going to check up on you…
*Takes a deep breath*
Clear your mind. Let the voice shrink to a whisper, and allow the words to flow. You don’t have to write the next Great American Novel. Find the joy in the process again. You know there’s contentment in creation.
You got this. Write.
Is that weird? Maybe.
It all started when I learned where “drinking the Kool-Aid” originated. I spent days learning all I could about Jim Jones and Jonestown and the Peoples Temple. Then I came across the wealth of information on Charles Manson. And then ol’ L. Ron was next.
Honestly, it’s the psychological part I’m obsessed with. I lap up any documentary, novel, or podcast I can get my hands on—I dig deep into the psyche of these not-quite-sane individuals and learn about their motives. (And the motives of those who follow them.)
It can be anything as small as a famous scam artist like Jan Lewan, or a lesser-known religious leader of Buddhafield named Michel. It’s all the same fascination. I stopped counting how many hours I’ve spent glued to these stories.
What drives a person to commit heinous acts—and usually in the name of their deity? That question clicks on the light bulb for me.
At first, I believed this strange curiosity was something I should keep hidden. It’s a little odd to be engaged by something so dark, something that’s spread nothing but darkness over history.
But then I realized its purpose in my life.
I’m supposed to write about this, about a cult leader. That’s what all this fascination is about. It’s research for a character I’m to create. And so I’ve started gathering notes, started talking to people—getting thoughts and ideas around it.
More shall come on this, but I’m looking forward to cataloging how this all plays out here.
So, the moral of this story? I’m relieved I’m not going to wind up in a cult someday.