Defeat Writer’s Block the WordPress Way

WordPress pencilsIf you’re a writer, that first blank page can be daunting. The blinking cursor awaits. What do you have to say? Do you really have what it takes to write a whole book?

Yet, the same writer, when put in front of a friendly blog interface, will immediately start writing. After all, it’s just a blog. It’s not serious. Blogs are for cat photos, cappuccino comparisons and lists of your favorite films.

Writers and readers love blogs because they are:

Ephemeral. It’s not permanent media, imprinted on a page. They exist here and now but could be gone in a year or two.

Timely. Blogs do not have six-month long publishing lead times, like books and magazines. They are about what just happened.

Social. Blogs are social. Feedback is immediate. Content is shared, rated and commented upon.

Bite-sized. You’re not reading Ulysses on a blog. Posts are a few hundred words, designed to be written and read in a sitting.

People who say they cannot write a book will write blog posts. They will write scores of them. They will write so many that, when you add them all up, they’ll have written a book without realizing it.

The solution to writer’s block to tell yourself that you’re not writing. You’re blogging. It’s not serious – it’s just a blog, one that you can revise, change, edit and even delete if you want to. No one even has to see it.

Take the outline you have for that Big Serious Book. Use it as a blueprint for your blog. Take the items on the list and write a blog post for each one of them. Do one a week. Remember, a blog post isn’t final. Think of your post as an exploration of a topic rather than the last word on the subject. A blog post is a chance to try out ideas, conduct research and get feedback from a live audience (if you want).

Dealing with a sensitive subject? You don’t have to make your blog public. Create a blog on WordPress.com and it keep it private. Share it with a few people – or no one. It’s up to you.

More comfortable with email? Did you know that you can literally mail it in? Post to your WordPress blog by email, if that’s more comfortable or convenient. You can also update your blog with your favorite mobile device.

Afraid to hit the “publish” button? WordPress has a solution for that. You don’t have to publish immediately. You can schedule a post to run on the date and time of your choosing. You can write your scathing expose of daycare regulations, leave the country and then have it publish when you’re safely overseas.

Are you more organized than most people? WordPress can accomodate that. Rather than creating posts organized by date, create pages and sub-pages by subject, matching them up with your undoubtedly elaborate outline. Use tags and categories as a kind of index for your document. WordPress is underrated as a tool for organizing text.

Looking for a popular topic to explore? Check out what’s fresh on WordPress to find something to talk about.

Really stumped? WordPress has tool for that. It’s called Plinky. Every day, it provides a new prompt to get you writing, a question to consider like, “What was your favorite toy as a kid?”

The key to overcoming writer’s block is to tell yourself that you’re not writing. You’re blogging. It’s not serious. It’s just a blog. And with the help of the friendly WordPress blog interface and a few simple tools, you can defeat writer’s block.

Tell It Slant: The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards

The Unchangeable Spots of LeopardsLiterary fiction gets a bad rap. It doesn’t have to be ponderous, inscrutable, unreadable. Literary fiction doesn’t have to mean some doorstop of a book that will be earnestly discussed in quiet voices on NPR, the kind of thousand-page novel that everyone buys and no one reads. Literary fiction can be more than just a marker of elite taste – literary fiction can be fun, inventive and playful. It can have a plot. It can be enjoyed.

Authors like Michael Chabon, TC Boyle and Gary Shteyngart demonstrate that you can write sophisticated fiction that’s loved by the public.

Kristopher Jansma shows how its done in The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards. This debut novel, now available in paperback, follows the worldwide travels of the ultimate unreliable narrator. It’s like ten books in one – a Southern coming of age story, an academic farce, a New York excursion and an expat’s tall tale – propelled forward by neatly contained chapters (which are like stories within stories). The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards is compulsively readable, filled with oddball characters, strange situations and sudden turns of fate, all told by a sort of Nick Carroway, looking on enviously at the Gatsbys all around him.

My only criticism: The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards switches scenes too quickly. Plot threads are picked up and dropped. Sometimes, you want to know more about that couple in Dubai. You want more – a good sign in a novel.

Ultimately, The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards is a book about stories, the ones that are true, and the ones we tell ourselves. “Tell all the truth, but tell it slant,” Emily Dickinson says, a mantra that runs throughout this novel. With their ability to tell it slant, novels contain truths that you won’t find in the newspaper.

The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards demonstrates the power of literary fiction to provide enlightenment through entertainment. Great storytelling is a kind of trick, an ancient one that we’re programmed to enjoy. Like listening to some stranger’s shaggy dog tale, we know that what we’re hearing is not technically true. But we have to know how it ends. Great literary fiction is like that, wrapping us up in an engaging story that tells it slant.

Imperfect Art is Better Than No Art at All

Artomatic, 2008
Artomatic, 2008

Artomatic is ten floors of bad art. Held every couple years in an abandoned office building, it’s a multi-week, multimedia arts event held in the Washington, DC area. Artomatic is non-juried. Pay a small fee and you’re given a section of wall to hang your work on. Like some sort of bizarre department store, Artomatic is home to thousands of square feet of slapdash painting, crude sculpture and out-of-focus photography. Added to this joyful mix of mediocrity are garage bands, freelance DJs, teen dance crews and deeply personal works of unwatchable performance art.

It really sucks. But that’s the key to its success. There’s an undeniable energy to the experience that you won’t find in some staid museum. No curators organized the art for you. The lighting is harsh. There is no audio tour. And around the corner could be anything – photos of Keds, a male nude or some impressionistic take on your home town that you fall in love with.

Artomatic celebrates the artist. It is about the messy process of art, as you struggle to achieve perfection with the most imperfect of materials: yourself.

As the author of two novels, I’ve met plenty of people over the years who say they have the perfect idea for a book. It’s so brilliant that they hesitate to even tell me about it. Maybe it’s the next War and Peace.

But we never find out because they never write it.

There’s a great chapter in The Up Side of Down by Megan McAardle about writers, procrastination and the fear of failure. We put off work because we’re afraid that our work won’t be perfect. We have the perfect manuscript – in our heads – but in writing it down, it will inevitably be corrupted by our imperfections, ending up like one of the misbegotten pieces hanging on the walls of Artomatic.

Yet, despite the psychological peril, writing gets done. Novels are written, screenplays drafted, poetry composed. Why?

“Work finally begins,” says Alain de Botton, “when the fear of doing nothing exceeds the fear of doing it badly.”

McArdle has her own advice for writers: you have permission to suck. Your first draft doesn’t have to be perfect. It can be terrible. But get it done and get it on the page. You can fix a bad first draft; you can’t fix nothing.

Letting go of perfection is freeing. Tom Wolfe’s career began with a case of writer’s block, after being hired to write an article for Esquire:

I was totally blocked. I now know what writer’s block is. It’s the fear you cannot do what you’ve announced to someone else you can do, or else the fear that it isn’t worth doing. That’s a rarer form. In this case I suddenly realized I’d never written a magazine article before and I just felt I couldn’t do it. Well, Dobell somehow shamed me into writing down the notes that I had taken in my reporting… so that some competent writer could convert them into a magazine piece. I sat down one night and started writing a memorandum to him as fast as I could, just to get the ordeal over with. It became very much like a letter that you would write to a friend in which you’re not thinking about style, you’re just pouring it all out, and I churned it out all night long, forty typewritten, triple-spaced pages. I turned it in in the morning to Byron at Esquire, and then I went home to sleep. About four that afternoon I got a call from him telling me, Well, we’re knocking the “Dear Byron” off the top of your memo, and we’re running the piece.

You have a unique story to tell. But only if you share it. Let go of perfection and write it down in all its messy glory. It’s not going to be the idealized version in your head. It’s going to have rough edges and jagged corners. It might lack supporting beams and doors and windows. All of these problems can all be fixed – but only if you have the raw material to work with. You can’t reshape illusions.

Your work may be as flawed and imperfect as the art hanging on the walls of Artomatic. But it will be real. It will exist in the world. And imperfect art is better than no art at all.

The Up Side of Down by Megan McAardle

The Up Side of DownMegan McArdle has failed. By her own admission, she has failed multiple times, from her love life to her career choices. Which makes her the perfect person to write the book on failure.

The Up Side of Down argues that we all must learn to fail a little better, a little faster and to, most importantly, learn from the experience. There is no growth without failure, whether we’re talking economies or individuals.

McArdle bolsters her case with examples from business, medicine, physchology and economics. Discussing everything from the learning styles of children to the Solyndra debacle, she offers a kaleidoscope-look at the varieties of American failure.

And she makes a really important point on failure – we’re a nation founded by people who couldn’t hack it in the Old World. It wasn’t comfortable lords who built this country but starving peasants willing to risk a sea voyage for the opportunity to start anew. These failures created the greatest nation on earth.

One of the best chapters in the book discusses the plague of long-term unemployment, a problem once unique to Europe that has become an American scourge. McCardle writes with great compassion about people who have been unemployed for longer than a year, and the cruelties of the job market that keep them that way. She likens unemployment to a dark room that you’ve stumbled into. The people who get out are the ones who keep moving, pursuing multiple opportunities in hopes that one of them will pay off.

The Up Side of DownMcArdle’s career illustrates this principle. An MBA who was jobless following 9/11, she (among other activities) started blogging, which led  to positions at The Economist, the Atlantic and Bloomberg View. Blogging was just one of several different options that she pursued during unemployment.

It is to our benefit that she found success as a blogger. McArdle is one  of the best explainers of economic ideas (far better than the needlessly wonky and overrated Ezra Klein). She takes the dismal science and puts it into terms anyone can understand, using examples from her own life.

For example, her desperate pursuit of a man who didn’t want her illustrates the idea of “sunk costs.” She had put in too many years to give up, having invested too much emotionally to just walk away. The failure was so devastating that she left NYC, moved to DC, and found her future husband – an example of the positive aspects of failure.

Interestingly, she cites surveys where many people cite failures – getting fired or divorced -as the best thing that ever happened to them. These calamities prompted people to try new things and find love elsewhere. We are “failure machines,” willing to try different solutions until we find the one that works. As Winston Churchill said, “Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.”

We need more failures. Like Steve Jobs. Prior to the Macintosh, he failed with the Lisa, an overpriced personal computer that no one wanted. And before the success of the iPhone, there was the ignominy of the Newton. Jobs kept iterating, coming up with new ideas and new products, undaunted. Taking lessons from each failure enabled Jobs to find his way to success

McArdle discusses young journalists who sabotage their own careers by just giving up. So afraid of turning in a lousy manuscript, they write nothing. But a terrible first-draft can be fixed; one that doesn’t exist cannot. McCardle tells writers that they have permission to suck, realizing that this simple bit of advice is key to unlocking creative potential.

America needs to regain its taste for failure, something we have lost in the malaise of the Obama Economy. Risk-taking needs to be encouraged once again. Failures are learning experiences. Failures indicate confidence in the future – we’re willing to try new things, to make investments, to take chances.

“We have a strategic plan. It’s called doing things.” I love this quote by Herb Kelleher, founder of Southwest Airlines. It perfectly expresses the optimism and can-do nature of the American spirit. We’re going to keep trying things until we find what works. Even if that means failure. Especially if it does.

The Up Side of Down is an overview of failure. We must embrace failure, treasure it, and, most importantly, learn from the experience. The secret to success is rooted in the hard lessons of failure.

Mentoring at DC Shorts

writers at DC Shorts Mentors

For the second year, I’m going to be a screenwriting mentor at DC Shorts Mentors. I’ve been a judge for the DC Shorts Screenwriting Competition, won the Film DC screenplay competition and interviewed filmmakers for On Tap, so I’m glad to share my knowledge with budding screenwriters. I’ll be speaking on a panel on March 8 with other writers.

What I like about DC Shorts Mentors is that it’s 100% focused on the practical elements of filmmaking. This is not a class on theory. These weekend sessions are led by people who have made award-winning films. If you want to learn how to write a script, work with actors, light and shoot a film and then market it to film festivals, then DC Shorts Mentors is for you. These are workshops – not just a sit back and listen experience – where you will be expected to write, work with perfomers and share your ideas.

The objective of DC Shorts Mentors is to develop the skills necessary to create outstanding short films that can be accepted into film festivals. Workshops are designed for filmmakers of all levels and take place over four weekends in March. All for just $200.

Classes are small and take place at the super-hip Gibson Guitar Room. Last year, there were people of all ages and experience levels – everyone from retirees making documentaries to webisode-crafting millennials. If you’re interested in joining DC’s indie filmmaking scene, DC Shorts Mentors would be a good place to start.

Guest Post on Digital Book Today: Want to Be Productive? Get Thee to a Coffee Shop

Fueled by caffeine, surrounded by low chatter and the hum of background music, I am at my most productive. Something about being in a coffee shop just makes me want to get to work. I wrote my first novel, Murder in Ocean Hall, in a couple of downtown DC coffee shops. I prefer Caribou Coffee, particularly stores that are populated by freelancers and grad students. Being around the studious makes me feel like I better get writing.

Check out my guest post – How to Be Productive? Get Thee to a Coffee Shop – on Digital Book Today. It’s about the link between coffee shops and getting things done.

Digital Book Today was founded by a book industry veteran. Its mission is to help readers find new authors in the digital world. It focuses on e-books and provides a great list of free new e-books every week.

Friday Photo: The Wallace Line Edition

The Wallace Line
Printers Row journal with The Wallace Line standalone supplement.

There is a special thrill to seeing your name in print that electrons will never be able to replace. Books and newspapers are physical objects. They are permanent. And they exist in the real world, not the virtual one.

Which is why I was delighted to get this awesome package in the mail. It’s my short story, The Wallace Line, which was printed as a standalone booklet in the Chicago Tribune’s Printers Row. My tale of a trip to Komodo that goes horribly wrong was a finalist for the 2013 Nelson Algren Award for short fiction.

And my name above the fold in Printers Row! That was a wonderful surprise that I will cherish for years to come.

You Do Not Need an Expensive SEO Consultant

SEO Consultant. $2k a month minimum.

This advertisement popped up on top of my Gmail. I saw this and thought: I am in the wrong line of work. Apparently, search engine optimization is so much in demand that you don’t need to state your qualifications or the benefits of your service – you just tell customers what they’re going to pay.

As someone who has worked on web sites for more than 15 years, I’m going to tell you a secret:

You do not need an expensive SEO consultant.

The practice of search engine optimization is based upon the belief that you can optimize web site content so that it shows up higher in Google’s search engine rankings. This is correct. There are simple things that you can do to improve your rankings, such as clear writing, good page titles and being consistent in how you describe your content. Most of the SEO practices that work revolve around words – the content of your site. Why is that?

You cannot outsmart Google.

Over the years, a variety of discredited practices have been employed by unscrupulous SEO consultants and shady web site operators to improve their site rankings. In the beginning (the 90s), this meant hidden text, where you hid a bunch of text in your site, visible only to search engines. Later on, it was the manipulation of meta-information, the descriptors of your site. Then, most maddeningly of all, it was keyword stuffing – where you repeated the same keyword over and over again in attempt to convince Google that your site was the authority on that keyword. For example, “The Acme Hotel is the best hotel in South Beach among all South Beach hotels, all South Beach hotel experts agree.”

A whole industry grew up around this practice called content farms – they produced low-quality, repetitive content that succeeded (for a time) in garnering top search engine spots on almost every topic.

But then Google changed their algorithm, killing off this industry.  Their mission is provide searchers with the best content. They don’t want to send people to crap. They employ some of the smartest techies on the planet, much smarter than a content farm owner or a slick SEO consultant. There is only one way to beat them:

Write content that people want to read.

This is a simple idea that’s rarely practiced. Instead of investing in good writing, organizations post dry reports, self-serving press releases and jargon-choked product descriptions. They end up with a web site no human would want to read and then wonder: how come we’re not #1 in Google? It’s an outrage! We need an SEO consultant!

You don’t need a consultant. You need a writer. You need someone who knows your customer, someone who can look at your organization from the outside and determine what it is that people want. This information can be found in your site’s analytics – what are web site visitors searching for? It’s probably not your annual report but is instead something simple, like a price list or store locator or if a widget comes in blue.

Start there, with this unsatisfied need that visitors have expressed. Write pages that answer these questions. Skip the SEO consultant and, instead, write content that people want to read.

 

Writing a Novel? Get Thee to a Coffee Shop

Never too hot for a cappuccino!

It is a truth almost universally acknowledged that everything is better with coffee. And even better in a coffee shop.

I wrote Murder in Ocean Hall in a coffee shop. I reported every morning, as if I was going to work, and sat there writing away from 8-12, telling myself that I was not allowed to leave until my time was up.

I aimed for 2000 words a day but most of the time wrote 1100 or so. But the important thing was to be there, to be present, and to keep going.

Why are coffee shops so productive for me? A recent New York Times article says it’s all about the background noise:

In a series of experiments that looked at the effects of noise on creative thinking, researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign had participants brainstorm ideas for new products while they were exposed to varying levels of background noise. Their results, published in The Journal of Consumer Research, found that a level of ambient noise typical of a bustling coffee shop or a television playing in a living room, about 70 decibels, enhanced performance compared with the relative quiet of 50 decibels.

The article goes on to profile Coffitivity, a web site that provides the sounds of a busy coffee house anywhere.

But it’s not just sound that makes coffee shops productive places. When I would report to Caribou (and I thought of it that way – reporting to work), seeing all those people all typing away on laptops made me think that I better get to work. Call it peer pressure or socialization. Seeing others work made me think that I better get to work. I better start working on that novel.

And don’t underestimate the power of caffeine. It’s not alcohol that makes writers – it’s coffee, with the cheery, well-focused buzz it gives you. Coffee houses have given birth to sprawling novels, symphonies and Western Civilization. Not bad for a simple bean.

When people ask me how to write a novel, I tell them to go to a coffee shop. My advice:

  • Pick a store populated with grad students or freelancers – you want lots of people sitting alone at tables, with a minimum of talking.
  • Slow or no wifi is a good thing, because you’re supposed to be writing.
  • Put yourself on a schedule and commit to it.
  • Reward yourself with as much coffee as you want.

Habit is a powerful thing. If you spend one hour a day writing, imagine how much you could accomplish in a year. Plus, you get to drink coffee. Writing and drinking coffee – is there any better way to spend your time?

First Post for Medium: We Need a Facebook for Failures

I am profoundly ambivalent about Facebook. It’s an interesting peek into the lives of others. But it’s also a source of much angst and drama, an extension of our high school lives into adulthood. I really hate it at times.

Which is why I wrote We Need a Facebook for Failures. In this short article, I call for people to be honest on Facebook rather than showing only the best of all possible worlds.

I wrote the piece for Medium, a new blogging site by Ev Williams, co-founder of Twitter. It’s a collaborative blogging environment with a distraction-free design that lets you focus on words.