For Some Writers, the Fear of Success is Real

Photo by Kat Jayne on Pexels.com

Check out this week’s writing prompt: What does success mean to you? Describe it on your terms. Or write about a time when fear of success held you back from accomplishing a cherished goal. How did you overcome it?

While the fear of failure is fairly common among writers, others suffer from a different malaise:  the fear of success. That might be a strange thing to say. “How can anyone be afraid to succeed?” you ask. You’d be surprised at how many people fear success, myself included.

Fear of success might manifest in several ways. You might have an unfinished project – or two, or three or ten. You have several projects in various stages of completion but never seem to finish any of them. In your mind, finishing one of them means you’ve achieved a certain level of success. Once you get to the end, you might begin to worry about what happens next – a thought that scares you enough that you never finish your work-in-progress.

Or just when you near the end of a writing project, you get stuck. You’re faced with writer’s block, unsure how to wrap up your story.

Maybe you find other more important things to do. You get so busy doing housework and chores that you can never get around to working on that final chapter.

Perhaps you edit your piece over and over again, never fully satisfied with what you’ve written – a useful delay tactic preventing you from finishing your piece.

Fear of success is very real, but it is misunderstood, according to psychologist Nick Wignall. The fear is about the consequences of success, not the success itself, Wignall says. “Life can change dramatically when you succeed,” he explains. “You’re entering unchartered territory. Fear of success can be more debilitating than fear of failure. With fear of success, you may be projecting yourself too far into the future which can result in self-sabotage. You may not realize you’re sabotaging yourself.”

For example, once you publish a book, you may be required to go on a book tour, do interviews and public appearances and, of course, begin writing that second book. Your life changes dramatically. It’s these unknowns that can scare people into non-action, Wignall says.

If fear of success is holding you back from starting a writing practice, there are several things you can do to get back on track.

Define success on your terms. Think about what success means to you. What does it look like? It may look and feel differently to you than to your spouse or your best friend. We all carry an image of what success looks like. So be sure you are defining success on your terms, not someone else’s.

When you define success on your terms, there should be no reason to fear it because you’ve defined it on terms that are real, concrete and readily achievable. More important, they are meaningful to you. It’s when you follow the path of success that is predetermined by others or by the publishing industry that tend to strike fear in us.

Finish what you start. This is easier said than done, of course. If you have trouble completing writing projects, then stop and consider what is stopping you. Are you stuck on a plot point? Or did you get bored with your story? Or did something else interfere with it, such a sudden need to do laundry?

If you have a file of unfinished stories, go through them now. Choose one story or essay that you’ve started but never finished. Go back and work on it until you finish it. Do not, under any circumstances, start any other projects until you finish this one. Once you finish that piece, sit back and revel in your success of completion. How do you feel now that it’s done?

It might help to make that a general rule of operation: Don’t start any new projects until you finish the one you’re working on.

Remember that finishing a story, no matter how long or short it is, is a form of success. If you’re able to finish one story, imagine how good it will feel to finish all the others in your file.

Stay in the present moment. Because much of the fear of success hinges on possible future events – author readings, interviews, the next novel, etc. – you forget to stay in the moment. Fear of success – or any fear for that matter – deals with future situations that may or may never occur. Why worry about the future when you have important work to do — now? Stay present in your writing and let the future take care of itself.

Train yourself to talk about your writing. People with a fear of success often have difficulty boasting about their accomplishments because they don’t want to appear arrogant or full of themselves. But it isn’t selfish to brag. In fact, for a writer to find an audience, telling others about your completed project is often necessary. So go ahead and tell people what you’re working on. It might feel uncomfortable at first, but the more you talk about your current writing project, the more comfortable you will be with your public persona as a writer.

Share your fears with a friend or writing buddy. If fear is holding you back from finishing a manuscript, it might help to talk things over with a trusted friend or colleague. They may provide some valuable insights to help you over the hump. If you find it truly debilitating, it might be necessary to talk to a professional therapist.

Fear of success for writers is more common than fear of failure, but it can be even more debilitating. Recognizing your fear and why it occurs is the first step toward overcoming it.

How to Manage Distractions during Your Writing Practice

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

One of the most common – and annoying – aspects of maintaining a writing practice is dealing with distractions. Especially when you’re working on a deadline or immersed in your latest work-in-progress, distractions are not very welcome. They can interrupt the flow of thoughts that you need to put down on paper. They can disrupt your momentum, slow you down or make you lose your place in your manuscript.

I suppose distractions can have an upside too, although that’s rare. For example, they might help you notice a plotting problem in your story while you’re away paying attention to the distraction. Or they might inspire a new story idea. Still you need to get back to the task at hand.

Minimizing distractions is important for writers because good writing requires time and focus, writes Joyce Carol Oates on the Masterclass. Without that time and focus, the writing will lack clarity and impact.

In my experience, I’ve noticed five types of distractions.

1. Physical environment. Room temperature and uncomfortable furniture can make you lose your focus. A messy desk can be a sign of a cluttered mind. Outside noise, like construction and leaf blowers can disrupt your thoughts.

2. Familial environment. If you have kids, they may be curious about the work you’re doing, and pets may want your attention when you want to work. If you live in a condo building, neighbors may start renovations in their units that requires drilling and vacuuming. The occasional ambulance with its blaring sirens can disrupt your thoughts too.

3. Technology. Electronic devices, such as your phone and laptop, can tempt you when you should be working. You might be tempted to work with the TV on to keep an eye on a baseball game or catch up the latest breaking news. Social media is always a temptation because writers have a need to know what’s going on in their world.

4. Internal noise. These are the voices and conversations inside your head that may have nothing to do with your work. You might experience negative thoughts, replay arguments you’ve had or worry about upcoming events. You may be more focused on your worries and fears that you lose track of what you’re supposed to be working on right now.

5. White noise. Part of the background most of the time, white noise has little impact on your writing progress – or it shouldn’t. It might be the ticking of a clock, passing traffic from the expressway near your house, or the drone of a plane flying overhead.

Distractions, in whatever form they take, are inevitable. But you can minimize the impact they have on your writing practice. Here are a few suggestions to do that.

1. Identify the distractions that affect you the most. Before you can reduce distractions, you need to know what they are, according to the Author News blog at Penguin Random House. Take note of what is taking your attention away. Is it a pesky pet who insists on sitting next to you on your desk as you work? Is it the constant barrage of emails and phone calls that distresses you? If there’s one particular distraction that is bothersome, then find ways to remove that distraction. Perhaps move the cat to another room, or set aside a specified time to respond to emails.

2. Set office hours. Most successful writers treat their writing like a real job with set hours. Those steady office hours let others in your household know that you are busy during that time and cannot be interrupted.

3. Know your productivity hours. Every writer has a prime time for writing, where they feel at their most creative and productive. It could be during the early morning, or it could be late at night before you go to bed. Establishing a regular writing session during your most productive time of day can help eliminate unnecessary distractions.

4. Put away your electronic devices. This might be easier said than done. Most of us rely on our computers and phones to get our work done. But do you really need them for your writing? I’m a big proponent of writing longhand on pads of paper. I find it easier to brainstorm blog post ideas and fiction scenes that way. I can draft scenes in a heartbeat with only a pen and paper. Using a computer or phone to write or research might feel more productive – as long as you stay on task – but it can also be tempting to check your emails and your social media accounts. I recommend turning off the TV as well. The focus should be entirely on your writing.

5. Keep a neat, tidy desk. Put everything in its place and use only the materials you need to get your writing done. When writing my blog posts, I have my file with my blog calendar and list of story ideas, a lined note pad for drafting an outline, and a pen. I find that a clutter-free desk translates to a clutter-free mind. It’s also important not to have other tasks and deadlines hanging over your head, say experts at Mediabistro. Take care of those details before you begin your writing session so they don’t creep up on you while you write. Need to make a doctor appointment? Make that appointment now before you begin writing.

6. Reward yourself. If you still struggle to keep distractions to a minimum, try this experiment. If you’ve managed to stay away from the Internet and social media during your writing session, reward yourself with a social media hour or an hour of internet browsing or online shopping. If writing is your real job, then treat social media as play time. It’s what you do when you’re done with your work day. Knowing that you have a full hour of social play time waiting for you at the end of your writing session might be enough to keep you focused on the writing task at hand.

Distractions are a normal part of our work days, but you don’t have to let it ruin your writing practice. Start by identifying the pesky distractions that bother you most, then take action to minimize their impact. You’ll find you have more head space to produce better quality writing.

Learn to Recognize the Blind Spots in Your Writing

Photo by Alex Qian on Pexels.com

Do you know what your blind spots are? You know, those areas around us that are obstructed so we can’t see past them.

Drivers have their blind spots that prevents them from seeing a pedestrian crossing the street behind them. Hockey goalies have blind spots too when an opposing player parks his body in front of the net so the goalie cannot see around him.

Writers have blind spots too. Usually, it’s about some aspect of their writing skill, like a lack of knowledge about grammar or the tendency to use the same words over and over. Sometimes you’re aware of those tendencies, but choose to ignore them. Other times, you’re not aware you have a blind spot. “Your writing is just fine as it is,” you say to yourself. “It doesn’t need to be fixed.”

Then there are the blind spots that appear in our stories. Perhaps you focus exclusively on exciting creating action scenes. You want to thrill readers with car chases and non-stop fight scenes. However, there may be little written about the protagonist – their emotional side, their backstory, their desire and motivation.

Your blind spot is your inability to see that your story is one-sided. All action, and little to no narrative. Readers may love the action scenes, but feel the story is lacking. It’s out of balance.

Writers can fall in love with different aspects of their story to the detriment of others. They may hate writing dialogue and focus exclusively on internal narrative.

We all have blind spots in our writing. Acknowledging that you have blind spots is half the battle. The rest is knowing what they are so you can improve your writing.

So how do we recognize the blind spots within ourselves? Experts say it’s easier to spot them in others than in ourselves. There are several approaches to recognizing your own blind spots.

1. Take time for self-reflection. You can get so busy with the demands of everyday life that you neglect to check in with yourself. Those moments when you are alone with your thoughts can help you become more aware of what you think or feel at any time. You can develop greater self-awareness through meditation, fitness or just sitting quietly too. No matter what method you use, you can learn to look within. Don’t be afraid of what you might see there either. We all have our faults, and many times, we’re afraid to admit we have them. Nurturing self-awareness can help you learn to accept all parts of yourself – the good, the bad and the blind spots.  

2. Seek feedback from a trusted friend. Since it is so much easier to identify blind spots in others than in ourselves, it might be a good idea to pair up with a trusted friend or fellow writer. Ask them to review your work with you. They may be able to see things in your writing (and in your personality) that you may not recognize in yourself. Their input can put things into proper perspective. They can help you identify weaknesses in your writing and offer suggestions for improving your story. Be prepared to take their suggestions to heart, no matter how painful it might be to hear them say it.

3. Separate yourself from your work. As difficult as it might sound, you are not your writing. While it’s true that much of yourself appears in your writing, that doesn’t mean that you and your writing life are one and the same. At some point, you have to detach from your work and look at it from an emotional distance. Without emotion clouding your judgement, you’ll be able to see the weaknesses in your story.  

Author Tom Avitabile suggests that writers “rinse all knowledge of the story from your mind.” When it’s time to review or edit your work-in-progress, either read the chapters out of sequence or in reverse order from back to front. Reviewing scenes out of order can help you focus on each individual piece, which can help you notice problem areas.

4. Target specific areas of improvement. There may be several weaknesses in your writing that may be occurring simultaneously. Focus on one or two areas at a time. For example, you might need help building your vocabulary, eliminating redundancies in your writing or developing flat characters. You may not notice that you repeat the same conversations in your story or use the same words over and over. Once you become aware that this is happening, you can focus on one aspect of your writing to improve. If you try to fix all your blind spots at one time, it can be overwhelming.  

We all have our blind spots. But by nurturing self-awareness and learning to review your work with emotional detachment, you’ll learn to recognize the blind spots that are holding you back from being the writer you were meant to be.  

More about Blind Spots

How to Avoid Blind Spots in Your Writing
https://arimeghlen.co.uk/2016/05/20/how-to-avoid-blind-spots-in-your-writing/

Confront Your Blind Spots: 5 Strategies for Self-Discovery
https://www.recruiter.com/i/confront-your-blind-spots-5-strategies-for-self-discovery/#:~:text=A%20blind%20spot%20is%20something,re%20supposed%20to%20be%20perfect.

How Writers Can Develop Better Resilience

Photo by Ann H on Pexels.com

Check out this week’s writing prompt on the blog.

Life is filled with disappointments – the breakup of a relationship, not getting that coveted job or promotion, a cancelled vacation. But I’ve always believed that it’s how we respond to those disappointments that show who we are.

Suffering through one disappointment is bad enough. But a lifetime of disappointments (and rejections from editors) can make us feel like giving up. Fortunately, most of us don’t. Can you imagine if Stephen King or Toni Morrison had given up writing after being rejected?

Over time, those disappointments can serve an important purpose by building up a hard shell around us, so future rejections can bounce off. As Polly Campbell writes over at the Writing Cooperative, resilient writers are also among the most successful.” They learn to bounce back from setbacks and keep going despite the pain of rejection. And as they keep working, they are learning their craft and improving their writing.

“Resilience doesn’t prevent hardship or adversity, but it does help us to reframe the difficulties and move through them faster. With resilience, we become more adaptive, creative and flexible. We are less stressed, more capable. This helps us keep writing despite the setbacks,” Campbell says.

Resilience is an important behavior that writers need to develop. But it takes time. Some of us are naturally better at it than others. But like any other behavior and skill set, it needs to be developed, honed and fine-tuned. Unfortunately, that means going through some rough stretches in our writing careers and opening ourselves to disappointment – over and over again.

But successful authors says there are ways to strengthen our inner resilience beyond the school of hard knocks.

  1. Stay optimistic. It may be difficult to maintain a positive mindset when your work is constantly being rejected or criticized. The most resilient writers are able to do that. Campbell says optimism can motivate behaviors which foster improvement or better outcomes. That means keeping our eye on the prize and not letting it out of our sight. Believing in the potential of your latest work-in-progress may be enough to keep going.

  2. Not everyone will “get” your story. Whether writing science fiction, historical romance or non-fiction, recognize that not everyone will “Get” your story. They may not understand the plot, the characters or some of the action that takes place. That’s okay. There are other audiences what will understand it and believe in it. The most important person who needs to “get” the story is you. If you lose faith in what you’re doing, then you’ve lost the fight. Keep believing in the story, and others will get behind it too.

  3. Celebrate the rejections. As contradictory as that may sound, it actually makes sense. Science fiction author Alex Woolf suggests rewarding ourselves every time we receive a rejection. It’s a way of honoring our efforts. “Rejections are milestones showing you’re on your way to a win,” Woolf says. “Rejections show you are working hard to achieve your goals. The more stories you submit, the more you’ll be rejected, but it also raises the chances to get an acceptance.” One idea is to drop a dime (or a quarter) into a jar each time you receive a rejection notice. Over time, you will have built up a supply of coins that you can take to the bank, or reward yourself with a special treat.

  4. Look for positive nuggets in the feedback. Woolf says we’re programmed to focus on negative comments to the point that we overlook the positive ones. After the dust has settled and you’ve regained your composure, go back and re-read the rejection letter again. Did the editor make any positive comments? Did they make any suggestions for improving it, or invite you to re-submit something else? If so, take heart. Focus on the positive news, implement their suggestions, then be sure to respond with a kind thank-you to the editor.

  5. Remind yourself of your ‘why’. Several weeks ago, I challenged myself to list forty reasons why I write. (I actually came up with fifty, but who’s counting.) If you feel tempted to give up on writing, go back to your why. When we’re disappointed and feeling hurt by repeated rejection, it can be tempting to give up on your craft. But when you remember why you’re doing this and why you love to tell stories, it may be enough to keep going. When you keep your ‘why’ in perspective, you’ll easily bounce back from setbacks.

Whether you focus on positive feedback, celebrate rejections or remind yourself of your ‘why’ of writing, you’ll develop stronger mental capacity to deal with setbacks on your writing journey. The most resilient writers are the most successful. Don’t let rejection and disappointment deter you from your writing goals.  

Intuition May Be the Key to Better Writing in Less Time

Intuition, which is also fundamental to writing fiction, is a special quality which helps you to decipher what is real without needing scientific knowledge, or any other special kind of learning.”
Gabriel Garcia Marquez, author of One Hundred Years of Solitude


Have you ever begun writing a work of fiction with a clear idea where you want to go with it, only to see it head off in a different direction, seemingly all on its own? New characters showed up you hadn’t dreamed of, and they were more complex and interesting than the ones you had originally outlined. New scenes that you hadn’t planned evolved in your imagination that made the story more suspenseful.

Or maybe you began writing an essay about a certain topic, say a generic one about motherhood. As you began writing it though, a different idea took hold, perhaps about becoming a new mom during the pandemic. When you began writing that new essay, the process came easily, seamlessly, and the words flowed. You could almost visualize every word before you wrote it.

You can’t explain what happened in these instances or why. Only that you were guided by a little voice inside that instructed you what to write. Some describe that little voice intuition.

Ask any writer how they define intuition, and they’ll give you a variety of answers.

Colleen Story at Writing and Wellness blog calls it your “writerly instincts,” that inner knowing that you have about your work.

“When a scene works right, you’ll feel it in your bones. You’ll experience a ‘yes’ moment,” writes C.S. Lakin at Live Write Thrive blog. “Conversely, when a scene or character feels out of place you know that too. The more you try to rationalize it, the stronger the ‘No’ becomes.”

That’s why it’s important to listen to your body, Lakin says.

That inner knowing that something is off in your writing is common among writers, especially those whose level of intuition is high. Intuition is that internal sensor of what is going wrong with your writing – and what is going right. It’s there to redirect your efforts so you make smarter choices about plot structure, character and dialogue, even the right word choices.

Listening to the inner “knowing” can build your confidence too. “A well-honed writing intuition can free you from much of the emotional volatility you experience when someone is ‘dissecting your baby’. It means developing greater confidence in your work, disengage from negative emotions and response patterns because you see wisdom in the feedback you get,” writes Angela Ackerman at Writers Helping Writers.net.

No matter what you call it, intuition can serve an important function during the writing process.

Whether we believe it or not, we are all born with intuition. It’s just that many of us tune it out or don’t pay attention to it. Some writers might ignore that voice, and stick to the story line they created in their outline. Others embrace it freely, allowing their intuition to guide their choices during the writing process.

The worst possible scenario is recognizing that it exists but not trusting it. When you don’t trust that inner “knowing,” you may ignore the power it gives you to improve your story.

I can’t tell you how to trust your intuition more. That’s up to you to figure out. But there are several things you can do to enhance your intuition so that it’s accessible and sharper. For starters, you have to learn to practice mindfulness. (These suggestions are also helpful for overcoming writer’s blocks and getting out of ruts.)

1. Take frequent breaks from your work-in progress. Time and distance gives you better perspective. If you feel stuck, set it aside for a day or two. When you come back, you may notice solutions you hadn’t thought of before.

2. Enjoy the outdoors. Being in nature can help you clear your head and perhaps inspire you to write something completely different. Keep the headphones at home too.

3. Practice meditation. Sit quietly on the sofa with your feet planted firmly on the floor, or sit cross-legged if you prefer. Lay your hands in your lap and close your eyes. Let your breathing slow. Follow that breath. As your breath slows, so does your brain. Release every distracting idea that crosses your mind.  

4. Do something else for a while. Work on another piece of writing, read a book, or take a nap. Maybe putz around in the kitchen or clean out a closet. The act of doing something else will engage you brain in other ways.

5. Immerse yourself in water. As strange as it sounds, water can release the tension in your brain as well as your body. Go for a swim, wash dishes or take a bath. In astrology, water is associated with creativity. Immersing yourself in water can help you re-engage your creative side.

6. Tune in to your body. During your walks or meditation or during any quiet moment of the day, sit quietly and notice what is happening with your body. Notice any aches and pains, any stiffness, or any other physical ailments. How does your body feel when it’s relaxed compared to how it feels when you feel tension? It’ll show up in your body in places you didn’t expect. Your body will tell you when something – whether it’s in your personal life or your writing life. Pay attention to those signals that it sends you.

A funny thing happens when you trust your writing intuition. The writing seems to flow more easily, the characters are more complex and nuanced, and the dialogue more interesting. Ultimately, listening to your intuition – and trusting what it tells you – can help you write more engaging stories.

What Writers Can Learn by Attending Author Readings

Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

Writers are always looking to improve their craft. Their journey is one of continuous professional improvement, and they’ll look everywhere to boost their knowledge and understanding of publishing, and to be the best writer they can be. That learning can come in various forms – conferences, webinars, classes, self-study courses and writing groups.

But there’s one resource that can easily be overlooked: the author reading.

Author readings are live in-person events held at libraries, bookstores, schools and coffee houses where authors read from their latest works and answer questions from the audience. The events can attract hundreds of fans or as few as a dozen interested observers.

For the aspiring writer hungry for learning, author readings can provide insider knowledge of the publishing process that they may not get anywhere else.

Of course, with the current pandemic, these live events have gone virtual. But that doesn’t mean writers can’t participate in them and learn something about the writing process. While the experience is better in a live setting, you may be able to gain the same benefits with virtual readings. After all, authors have to practice speaking their selected passages no matter how or where they deliver them. They have to learn to read for the audience’s ear, not just their own.

Hearing someone read their own published work to understand their story requires a different process. According to the writer’s platform Clear Voice, how our brains process meaning from what we hear differs from how we read. We recognize words on a page, visualize words as pictures and hear them spoken aloud in our heads. But when we listen, all the visual cues littered in the pages we read don’t hold much muster. Something gets lost in the translation.

Here are a few tips for taking advantage of this educational resource.

1. Treat the event as an educational experience.
See it as an opportunity to soak up the atmosphere. Bring a small notebook to take notes – whether it’s describing the experience for yourself, jotting down sample language from the text, or making a list of questions to ask the author. If possible, chat with the author afterwards and ask about their writing process, how they come up with story ideas, and how they overcome writer’s block. While they may not have all the answers you’re looking for, and their answers may not be suitable for your situation, you can learn what worked and what didn’t for them.  Then you can decide if it might work for you.

2. Listen to the reading as a writer, not just as a fan. That means learning to develop a writer’s ear. According to communications coach Karen Friedman, a writer’s ear “can’t rewind or replay what a speaker has said…” While our eyes can browse through detailed information or re-read something that is complex in meaning, our ears need simpler language to grasp the speaker’s meaning. 

“When we talk with people, we don’t read to them. Rather, we have conversations. Our sentences are shorter, sometimes spoken in phrases and we naturally pause between thoughts. Our pitch, tone and pace automatically vary,” writes Friedman.

3. Pay attention to how the passage is presented. Listen for the way the author delivers the passage. Do they speak dramatically, or do they mumble? Remember poet Amanda Gorman who spoke at the presidential inauguration? Her poem “The Hill We Climb” was powerful because she made it powerful. She used her vocal expression to match the power of her language to make a huge impact. She enunciated words clearly and spoke with passion and emotion. If she had mumbled the words, the meaning of the poem would have been lost. When done well, presentation can be a powerful thing.

4. Listen for narrative descriptions. Close your eyes and see where the author’s writing takes you. Can you see what the narrator sees in the story? Do you feel as if you are right there at the scene with them? If you can, then you know the descriptions are spot on. On the other hand, there may be descriptions that get lost in the spoken word; they may be better by reading it than hearing it.

5. Listen for dialogue. Like the narrative descriptions, you can pick up nuances of language when you listen for dialogue. Can you tell which character is speaking? Does the author’s tone change with each character? The vocal styles of each character should be as distinct as their personality.

6. Pay attention to the author. How does the author conduct themselves in a public setting? We need to remind ourselves that they are human beings too, prone to having bad days just like the rest of us. They may be shy, retiring souls who would rather be at home doing their laundry rather than speaking to a room full of strangers. Be kind and respectful to them. Remember, they worked hard to get their book published.

The next time you’re looking for inspiration or an extra dose of education, consider hanging out at an author reading. You never know what knowledge you’ll pick up. Use the time well and be open to listening and learning from others who have gone before you.

Can Your Character’s Name Affect Their Destiny?

Photo by Magda Ehlers on Pexels.com

I remember when I was a teenager, I went through a brief phase in which I disliked my first name. For some reason, I felt it was too formal to fit my emerging identity. Thankfully, that phase was short-lived. Today, I appreciate my first name (Regina) more than I ever have before. I feel fortunate that I have my formal name and a shortened version (Gina) that my family calls me.

Other people aren’t so lucky. Thousands of individuals have their names legally changed due to a number of reasons. More often than not, it’s because they feel the name doesn’t suit them in some way.

If it can be so difficult for real people to accept their birth names, imagine how fictional characters feel about the names you bestow upon them?

“Your name is not only your calling card, it is also something that uniquely distinguishes you from everyone else and may even determine, to a large extent, who you turn out to be in your lifetime,” according to the introduction to The Hidden Truth of Your Name. “The name you ‘wear’ affects not only how others perceive you, but also how you perceive yourself.”

Take Gogol, the lead character in Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel, The Namesake, who grew up hating his name so much that he legally changed it to Nikhil when he was a young adult, believing that a name change would also change the way other people saw him – and more important, how he saw himself. 

“If you truly understood the meaning of your name in all its mysterious and hidden aspects, could you use that knowledge to affect your own destiny? Would it be possible to take advantage of the inherent power of your name to alter the direction of your life for the better?” continues THTYN

As writers, we wield a lot of control over our characters’ literary destinies simply by giving birth to their stories. What you name them matters. Some names work well; others not so much. How many times have you changed a character’s name because it didn’t quite fit their personality as the story evolved?

One true sign that your chosen character’s name works well is that it sticks in readers’ heads. So it’s important to make it memorable. Imagine if Harry Potter was named Rudolph Kristoffer?

A strong character name should establish three things, according to the Reedsy blog.

* Clarity — The right name helps readers differentiate that character from other major players in your story.
* Character – The right name reveals personality and type of character without the author having to explain anything.
* Bankability – The right name can make your character iconic.

Further, there are certain things to keep in mind when considering possible names for your characters. NY Book Editors offers these tips:

A character’s age – Some names are better suited for young adults while others are better suited for older adults.  For example, you rarely come across a Dorothy among today’s teens, while it was significantly more popular sixty years ago.

A character’s parents – Remember that it’s the character’s parents who name their child, not you. Consider what their logic may be for naming their child a certain way.

The location of the story – Names vary based on location. Mary in the United States is Maria in most Latin countries and Marie in France.

Genre of the story – Writing in certain genres may dictate different styles of names. For example, in science fiction and fantasy, the names may be more obscure and more creative. Think Katniss in The Hunger Games or Dumbledore in the Harry Potter series.

The general rule of thumb is to create names that are easy to pronounce, easy for readers to remember, and fit the character’s personality.

Other naming tips apply. Avoid names that sound alike (Kelsey and Chelsea), names that start with the same letter (Tim and Tom) or names that are close to one another (Laurie and Lauren). Make sure each character has their own unique name so readers see them as distinctive characters and personalities.

For help, there are numerous sources to go for inspiration. You can pick up a baby name book or phone book for starters, or look up the top names of the year in Google. If you’re writing a story set in the 1950s, it might be wise to research names that were popular in that year. Similarly, if your story takes place one hundred years from now, understand that many of today’s popular names may not fit that future environment. You’ll have to create a few names that don’t exist now.

Also try automated name generators, which you can find at Name Generator Fun and the Random Name Generator. Some of these sites will even provide brief personality descriptions so you can find one that suits your characters.

My favorite source is The Hidden Truth of Your Name, a compilation of names and their meanings based on three mystical interpretations: The Kabbalah, runes and numerology. The book also provides spelling variations for more unique possibilities. The detailed descriptions provide insights into the type of person/character they can become. Reading about my own name provided clues to my personality, many of which were spot on!

Naming characters takes a lot more thought than you imagine. You have to consider the type of person you want them to be, the role they will play in your book and their age and cultural background. It can be challenging, but it can also be fun.

What’s in a name? Plenty. With the right name, your characters can reveal subtle hints about who they are and who they want to become. If you’re lucky, they’ll like the name as much as you do.

Write Stories with Better Sensory Descriptions

Image courtesy of Hubspot

This week’s writing prompt: Choose a season of the year and write about the smells that evoke that time of year for you.

One thing I often struggle with in my own fiction writing is sensory descriptions. While non-fiction might address the five W’s (who, what, when, where and why), fiction deals with the five senses: sight, sound, smell, touch and taste.

Experts say it’s easy to go overboard with descriptions, which can distract readers. On the other hand, it’s also easy to forget to include them. Writers need to walk a fine line between the two extremes. However, using them judiciously in your work can make your writing shine.

Kellie McGann, a writing consultant and contributor to The Write Practice, says the key to unlocking the five senses is the question behind them. “Why does the character see, hear, taste, smell or touch something in a certain way? What do those sensations mean to them?”

If you’re writing a memoir, ask yourself the same question: what do those sensations mean to you?

McGann’s advice? “Don’t bog readers down with unnecessary details, but a few well-placed descriptions can immerse readers into the story and into the character’s world.”

You may find that some senses are easier to describe than others. For example, you may write an uncanny accurate description of the sound of a waterfall to your ears, but have difficulty describing the visual beyond just “stunning” or “beautiful.” There are other ways to make sensory descriptions work within your prose.

1. Sight – Visuals are the most important element in descriptive writing. However, it’s easy to overdo them. Masterclass writing experts suggest selecting only certain details you want to highlight. It’s not necessary to mention a person’s height or shoe size, unless those details are integral to the story. For example, a mystery where an imprint of a boot was found at the murder scene.

One way to approach visual descriptions is to describe them directly (“the sun was bright,” for example) or indirectly, which can give readers more visual interest. For example, “the light from the sun reflected off the glass windows so that they shone solid white.”

2. Taste – While sight might be the easiest to describe, taste may be the most difficult because it’s subjective. How do you describe the first bite of an apple? One person’s experience after biting into that apple, or a garlic clove, will be different than the next person’s. But if done well, it can make a powerful impression.

Remember that taste isn’t just about consuming food. Think of all the other ways we taste life. For example, the ooze of blood when we bite our lip or falling onto the ground and getting dirt in our mouth. What does that blood or that dirt taste like?

3. Touch/Feeling – Touch is usually associated with the texture of something. The sense of touch can be easy to overlook because we’re always touching some object every moment of the day. It’s a real and immediate sensation that places characters – and your readers – in the present moment.

For practice, make a note where you are right now. What are you touching? If you’re sitting down, pay attention to the chair. How does your body feel when you sit on it? Or try feeling different fabrics and textural materials. Describe how they feel in your hands or under your feet.

Remember that the sense of touch can refer to internal sensations too, such as pain, pleasure and temperature. Try describing the moist heat of a sauna, or the sharp stab of pain when you wrench your back.

4. Smell – Experts say the sense of smell is closely associated to memory. How many times have you walked into someone’s home and the smell of fresh baked break reminded you of your grandmother during the holidays? Or the scent of flowery perfume reminds you of your favorite aunt when she kissed you.

But don’t overdo descriptions of smell which can overpower your readers. Just like strong perfume in real life, a little bit goes a long way.

Try this exercise: Go to a place you know well, such as a library, a school, a bakery, coffee shop or a park. On a small notebook, make a list of all the smells that define the place for you.

5. Sound – Descriptions of sounds are often used to create a mood. Think of soft classical or jazz music playing in the background during a romantic scene, for example, or the boom of an explosion setting off panic and destruction.

Challenge yourself with this exercise: Sit quietly and listen to the sounds in your room, in your building or in your neighborhood. What do you hear? Make a note of every sound you hear and try to describe it.

When writing, it might be tempting to use onomatopoeia – words that sound like the noise they make (whoosh, boom, crash, etc.) It can help capture the mood of a scene, but again, don’t overdo it or your writing will come across as comical and insincere.

For more practice, I recommend Writing from the Senses by Laura Deutsch, which contains 59 exercises to challenge your sensory writing skills.

Whether writing fiction or non-fiction narrative, sensory descriptions can spice up your writing and help you bring readers along on your literary journey.  


Learn to Read Books with a Writer’s Eye

Recently, I read A Deadly Game of Magic, a young adult mystery by Joan Lowery Nixon, who had been a favorite author many years ago. I decided to pick up a couple of her mysteries that I had not read before. A Deadly Game of Magic lived up to my memory of her suspenseful writing. Not only did the story keep me turning pages, it scared the pants off me – more than any other book I’ve read in recent memory. (Then again, I’m easy to scare.)

Why was her book so successful in my opinion? What kept me turning the pages to the very end? How did Nixon create tension throughout the story? How did she manage to scare me (and other readers, I’m sure) without mentioning a single drop of blood or showing a dead body?

These are questions I will have to ask myself the next time I read the book.

We’ve all had those novels that we could not put down. Or conversely, we’ve read stories that bored us to tears or made us feel confused by the protagonist’s actions.

This is where it helps to know how to read a novel with a writer’s perspective. It’s one thing to read for pure enjoyment and entertainment. It’s quite another to observe the techniques the author used to develop the story. You read to notice how the story was constructed.

In other words, you read in order to learn about the writing process.

As Gabriela Pereira at DIYMFA explains: “You understand that every piece of writing has a purpose. Once we read toward that purpose, we can see how writers shape and craft their words to accomplish what they want.”

When you read with a writer’s eye, you might focus on certain areas of writing, such as:

* Plot/story structure – How does the plot develop? What is the inciting incident that starts the story?
* Emotional tone – What is the tone of the story? Is the protagonist sad, angry, surprised, or confused at the start? How does the tone change throughout the story?
* Character development – is it consistent throughout the story. Do you care what happens to the protagonist?
* Conflict – is there enough conflict to keep your interest?
* Point of view – Which point of view is used to tell the story? Are there multiple viewpoints or just one? Would you use a different point of view if you were telling this same story?
* Theme – Most stories have a theme, such as good always wins out over evil. Does it come through the story?
* Setting – Where does the story take place? Can you visualize where it is? How important is the setting to the story? For example, in Nixon’s mystery, the story takes place at an old home in the middle of nowhere that is thought to be uninhabited – but it isn’t.

So how do you go about reading with a writer’s eye? First you need to understand that writing consists of a series of choices by the author on how they will tell their story. As you read, you work to identify what some of those choices are, whether they work well or not, and whether they can work within your own writing.

Author Shaunta Grimes says as “story consumers” (I love that description), readers must first “read deeply and analytically.”

But does that mean you must study every paragraph of every chapter? No, say most writers. Go back and re-read only those sections that drew your interest. For example, was there a particular setting description that intrigued you? Or a chapter that was filled with tension? Go back and re-read those passages to study the techniques the author used.

Grimes shares a three-step process for doing a “deep dive” to study an author’s craft.

1. Choose a story you’re already familiar with. Perhaps it’s a book from the Harry Potter series, or a childhood favorite such as Little Women. When you’re already familiar with the story, you can study certain passages without getting distracted.

2. Know what you’re reading for. As mentioned previously, you’ll be looking for specific passages. For example, you may want to study how the author makes transitions between the current time and the past. Or you may want to look at the way the protagonist’s character is developed so that she feels real to you.

3. Read with a pencil in hand. Don’t be shy about marking up the book and highlighting sections that stand out. Pay attention to what works and what doesn’t, and try to understand why.

Another word of advice: Be patient with this process. It takes longer to read as a writer because you are studying and absorbing the content.  

It’s one thing to read for pleasure. But by studying the works of others authors, we can all learn to be better writers ourselves.  

Want to Improve Your Writing? Read It Aloud

Photo by Suzy Hazelwood on Pexels.com

“I believe the eye and ear are different listeners. So as writers, we need to please both.”
Jane Yolen, author of sci-fi/fantasy novels

Reviewing and proofing your writing is a normal part of your routine. But if you want to take your writing to a whole new level, try reading it out loud.

Experts say reading your manuscript out loud can help you notice mistakes in your writing that you wouldn’t normally catch by simply reading it silently and seeing the words in your head. Reading out loud can also streamline your editing process because you’ll notice the mistakes faster. That said, it doesn’t guarantee that it will catch every mistake, but it will alert you to a lot of them.

“Read a passage aloud and you’ll get an immediate sense of how it ‘should’ feel; the way the words fit together and work as a whole,” writes Robert Wood, editor at Standout Books. “The same way you can hear a missed beat or a wrong chord in music, you understand when your phrasing is awkward or unwieldy.”

If you haven’t made out-loud reading part of your review process yet, here are a few tips for making it work and what you should listen for.

1. Notice the passages where you stumble over the language. If you struggle to read sentences that are complex or contain several difficult-to-pronounce words, your readers will struggle too. Make a note in the manuscript to simplify the language for your readers.

2. Notice if sentences are overly long and wordy. They can be more noticeable when you read them out loud. Also notice if sentences are poorly constructed and confusing. Will readers understand what you are attempting to say? Is there a better way to express what you want to say? If you answer yes to any of these questions, you’ll need to rewrite those sections for clarity and conciseness.

3. Notice the pacing and rhythm of the language. Do you need to slow down the pacing, or pick it up? Do you get bogged down in too many unnecessary details that slow down the pace of the story? Reading out loud will make you more aware of the natural rhythm of the words.

4. Notice if there are misspelled words, grammatical errors and punctuation mistakes. For example, are there too many commas in your sentences? Or are they added in the wrong places, which can change the meaning of the sentence?

5. Pay attention to the tone of your manuscript. Is the tone appropriate for your piece? Is it appropriate for your audience? For example, is the tone too formal for a room full of parents at a PTA meeting, or is it too casual for the company’s board of directors?

6. Pay attention to the sequence of ideas or story scenes. When you or someone else reads your work out loud, listen to the order of ideas. Do they move seamlessly from one to the next? Ditto for short stories and novels. Note if scenes develop in a logical sequence. Also listen for transitions between ideas and paragraphs. Reading out loud can reveal gaps in story lines and thought processes.

7. Notice any repetitions. Did you explain one idea on page three, then again on page five? That’s a sign that you need to condense your content, and rewrite for better clarity.

8. Listen for filler material. Publishing expert Jane Friedman says many writers tend to add filler copy in their manuscripts. These sections and sentences don’t add any meaningful information to the reader. If you notice filler copy, get out the scissors and begin cutting. Make sure every sentence you write, or every section or scene, provides meaning and value to the overall piece.

If you have trouble recognizing these elements as you read your work out loud, it might be helpful to have someone else read it out loud to you. According to the University of North Carolina Writing Center, when someone else reads your manuscript out loud, you receive information in a different way. Most people have more experience listening to and speaking English than they do reading and editing it, the center explains. If your reading partner stumbles over the words or gets lost, those may be places where you need to revise to make your meaning clearer for your readers.

The UNC Writing Center offers the following strategies for reading and reviewing your written work out loud.

* Print out a copy to read. When you read from a printed page, you’ll be able to make notes on the page and mark the places that need revision.

* Read only what you see on the page. If necessary, use a finger to point to each word you see as you say it out loud. The brain has a tendency to “smooth over” mistakes on the page by filling in missing words or making corrections.

* Read out loud at a moderate pace. If you read too fast, you may gloss over words and phrases that need fixing. Slowing down your pace will help you notice errors more easily.

* Read one section or paragraph at a time. Covering up most of the manuscript as you read out loud will help you stay focused on only the material in front of you so you don’t race ahead.

No matter what type of writing you do – nonfiction, memoir, or fiction – learning to read your work out loud can help you catch errors you might otherwise miss. That can make you a better writer in the long run.