Craft Essays

Here are all the posts I’ve written with creative writing advice on topics like balancing work and life, writing and rejection, building good habits, etc. etc.


Writer’s in Disguise (originally posted 09/29/13)

As a kid, I never wanted to become a writer. Picturing someone sitting down to type up stories was a rather boring vision to my young self. Instead, I fantasized about becoming a baseball or football player like other young boys. I supposed these paths to fame and fortune seemed feasible at the time. I wrote and read in school and all, but the idea of using writing to earn a living seemed harder to fathom than becoming a sports star. The writer’s path is still hard to fathom for me.

I like to think of myself as a writer. I’ve had some stuff published and I have been writing daily for quite a few years. When people ask what I do, I usually say I work for a flour mill to pay the bills. The clear distinction here: to pay the bills. On occasion, someone will pick up on the phrase and ask further. Then I say I am a fiction writer. Seeing as I was afraid to admit this to anyone when I first started writing, there is something very liberating about saying aloud, “I write fiction.”

I work forty hours a week and sometimes more. I get a paycheck, and that’s great, but at this job, I wear a mask. I imagine artists, filmmakers, and other writers walk similar paths. The real me wakes early in order to get an extra hour of writing in, or I return home after the workday and try to sneak time in, slowly plugging away on the novel or revising a short story. After long days, this isn’t always easy, but I can say I’m always happier after I’ve written.

In graduate school, the common path for most students was to gain teaching experience and after graduating, teach introduction to English classes. This is a great path, one I sometimes wish I followed. I was never very interested in spending all my time in grad school teaching, thinking about teaching, and grading other people’s writing. Just as a cook doesn’t want to go home and cook, and a masseuse doesn’t want to go home and massage their partner, I want to save up my writing energy for my own fiction. So I work in a field completely unrelated to my degree, and say with no vanity intended, something I feel overqualified for. There is a great advantage to this.

At my job, I can often slip away to jot notes down. I get to observe people. I also do things repetitively. This creates a nice realm where thoughts can develop. I’ve had more ideas for stories while working than while doing anything else. I’m not saying your big name authors should mop a floor to get an idea, but if I’m getting paid and my body’s moving, I might as well be thinking also. Which, another advantage of a physical job, I feel its okay for me to sit on my butt at home when I’ve been active all day.

There are some definite drawbacks to such a job. I sometimes feel restless at work, especially when I have a story idea and want to plunk down at a computer for the next hour. I feel that some of my co-workers sense my occasional restlessness and don’t understand. They might even resent my desire to someday work elsewhere. I have ostracized myself from some people in the break room by mentioning that I’m writing a book or attending a literary conference. Don’t get me wrong, co-workers can be supportive too. I have shared news of publications with some and they’ve been very happy for me.

Would I give up this job in an instant if I was able to entirely support myself with writing? You betcha! Maybe that day will someday come. Maybe my job will take a different form. There are many writers out there, some who didn’t go to school, who found professions and got the itch. I was lucky to learn I wanted to write young, but not so young I had any preconceived notions about what a writer’s life should look like. I know I’m not the first, I know I’m not the last to do something for a living that isn’t what I love, but in finding time to write in between the cracks of work, sleep, and daily life, I feel as if everything balances out right.


Spinning Plates (originally posted 11/03/13)

Juggling is a concept often referred to in creative writing books. In essence, this is the manner in which a writer bounces to and from various topics in a story. Watching a performer toss a single ball in the air over and over will get boring. The same is true with stories. Having a few things go on at once is exciting and necessary to most stories. Think about three, four, five balls twirling in the air at once—one of those balls might be a bowling ball, and one might be on fire. Juggling in writing sounds easy enough to understand, but directly applying it to fiction is a little more difficult. When I first started writing stories, I had a very difficult time knowing when to bounce from one topic to another, when to fill in back story, or introduce another character. Rather than the circus juggler, I found it helpful to think of another type of performer, one who is a little more obscure these days: the plate spinner.

The plate spinner uses stationary wooden poles, and spins plates upon the tips of these. The concept is similar to a basketball on the tip of a finger. The plates are bound to gravity. If the spinner ignores one for too long, the plate will fall and shatter. The same is true with writing. Once a writer introduces a new topic in the story, they can’t just ignore it. Different than juggling though, a spinner may focus on a single plate a little longer, giving it several small taps before moving onto another one. Also, think in terms of plates lined on a stage. Most likely, a story has a main focus. Whether this is the most pertinent topic of the story or not, this topic will get the most attention, and will be the place the reader looks to most. This is the middle plate on stage. As the spinner runs back and forth, the middle plate is the one he or she will pass most often.

For example, let’s say we have a man named Joe and he is about to give an engagement ring to Jane. Surely there is more involved. There could be back story about how he and Jane met, a story about how a man like Joe afforded such a ring. There could also be something unrelated going on, like let’s say they’re at a restaurant and Joe is getting annoyed with the incompetent waiter.  The main focus would be Joe’s proposal, so that’d be the middle plate. If the back story is all blurted out in several long paragraphs, it may bog the reader down. It’d be best to sneak that stuff in with the story’s momentum. As readers learn more about Joe and Jane, perhaps the story culminates with something seemingly unimportant when Joe snaps at the waiter right before asking Jane the big question. She may have reservations about his action, or her character may feel flattered he is fighting to make everything perfect for her. If the waiter were tossed in at the very end of the story, it may seem contrived or force, and so spinning him in earlier will help build the overall story.

Similar in goal, plate spinning creates a different image for me than juggling. I can picture both subtle spins and great twists. A wobbling plate is also bound to get the attention of an audience, and leaving a topic alone just long enough to create suspense may also help build the story. Whether you are writing or reading fiction, remember the metaphor of the spinning plate. See if it helps you weave and balance the various sides of a story.


Hypnotic Focus (originally posted 01/22/14)

I used to do martial arts. When the dojo had tests for higher ranks, we broke boards. I punched or kicked through many boards (a few stone slabs) over the six or seven years that I trained. The odd thing about breaking boards, I can barely remembering doing it. Even back then, I could barely remember breaking the board just seconds later. I asked my teacher and other students in class about this and the feeling seemed unanimous. The reason had to do with being so focused on the task at hand that our minds and bodies just acted.

There are times when I write and feel I achieve this. Words flow freely and the story and characters take on a life of their own. This usually happens in a first draft phase. Sometimes the phenomena can last a few hours. Sometimes the hypnotic focus only lasts a few minutes. Usually I don’t realize how focused I have been until I look at a clock and the time is later than expected. I’ll then look at my music playlist and have no recollection of songs that played minutes before. Like when breaking boards, I don’t realize I’ve been this focused until it’s over. When I look back at the writing, sometimes I’ve written crap. Other times the scene or section seems near perfect. I’ve found the following activities help me to write with a higher degree of focus.

Follow a consistent pattern: When I write, I always use my laptop. I can type a lot faster on my own keyboard that I know and trust. If I try to write on another computer, I end up searching for keys or find myself fidgeting. When I used to write longhand, I did better writing a story using the same pen as the time before. I also preferred specific notebooks over others. Though I don’t think anyone has to be obsessive compulsive about consistency, patterns and habits help me focus on getting words and ideas down on the page. Anything you can do to cut pausing or hesitation will help your focus to flow.

Find a comfortable setting: This probably goes without saying. If you can delegate a space where you write and only write, do so. Decorate it with colors and pictures you like. Calming might be better, but if you write better with a strobe light, do that. Other people might like candles. I just prefer a fairly low watt light bulb in the lamp next to me.

Cut out background noise: I live with animals and a wife. I usually need music to write. The sound of dogs barking or TVs blaring is jarring, even if faint. Sometimes I prefer music without words and classical or techno is nice. Other times I don’t even hear lyrics and will listen to heavy metal. The genre usually depends on the particular story I happen to be working on. If you don’t want music, try a fan or a rolled up towel at the bottom of the door. Find what works to cut out distractions that are going to derail your thoughts.

Shut off the phone: Do not just silence your cell phone. A simple ring might get you wondering who it is, checking your call list minutes later, and then minutes more listening to one quick voicemail. Texts, quick and easy, take energy and momentum away from your writing. I also do not have my laptop connected to the internet. Otherwise I’d probably check my email every ten minutes.

Ask others to respect your space: Other people can find it difficult to understand why you need time and space entirely to your lonesome. If you have roommates or family around the place you write, they can often think disturbing you for one quick question is no big deal. It is a big deal if you lose the ideas, the sense of setting, or can no longer recall the dialogue your characters were saying. Try to explain how important it is for you to have uninterrupted time and then kindly remind them of this if and when they do come in. If possible, ask them if they need anything from you before you close yourself up for the next hour or so.

Limit TV time: I find it hard to focus after watching a lot of TV. I think (and there are probably studies to prove this) watching TV negatively affects attention. The same goes for video games. These things can be a nice way to relax, but over-watching will probably hinder focus. Think about how much more difficult it is to go from watching TV to writing, than it is from oh say, reading to writing.

Read: The more time one spends with words, the easier it is to recall them when we want to sit and write. When I first decided I wanted to write fiction, I stuck closely to reading what is called literature—versus the genre stuff. I still read literature, but I also make sure to indulge daily in genre stuff, graphic novels, or even the comics. These are all far better anyhow than watching TV during one’s breaks.

Start early: I prefer to start writing first thing in the morning. I might make some tea or coffee, but I find my early sessions are the most productive. In early hours, there seems so little else to worry about and so few happenings of the day dwelling in my mind. Plus it is nice to get the ball rolling. Of course, this is just my personal preference, but an added benefit is that it is usually quiet all around as well.

Try to work some or all of these suggestions into your lifestyle. See what works for you and establish a routine. One more thing about when I first attempted to break boards, I didn’t always succeed. Sometimes I really hurt my hand or heel. Over time I got better. Dedication helped, and the same is true for writing. If you have a hard time sitting and focusing to write, just keep at it. Good habits will build. Even after following the same habits for five years, I’ll admit I have some writing sessions that feel like failures. I just try my best the next time. Good luck with letting your mind drift off into the world of your stories.


The Dreaded Rejection Letter (originally posted 02/13/15)

Receiving a rejection letter is kind like when you were a kid and you’d decide to ride your bicycle straight at a road curb—intending to jump the seven or eight inch concrete barrier—rather than just riding to end of the block where the road slopes to sidewalk. When you hit, momentum is jolted. You are likely to fall, maybe scraping a knee, maybe shooting straight over the handlebars. You might be lucky enough to only smack your groin on the middle bar. Your tire of course, doesn’t even hop partway up the curb either. I used to attempt this feat on occasion. I did it because I saw cool older kids who jumped the curb and I wanted to know how to do it as well.

The impact, the hurt of a rejection letter can be memorably akin to the pain I felt on my bike when stopped by the curb. I admit I attempted the feat of jumping curbs far too many times to count. I did in fact, eventually get pretty good at jumping the curbs. Submitting stories can be a little more complicated. Despite some pain from receiving rejection letters, I keep sending stories in hopes of sharing my work and creating a career out of creating fiction. The risk of the rejection letter, whether sending snail or email, is worth it to me.

Anyone who has decided to become a writer will also unwittingly become a collector of rejection letters. The rejections are usually terse and fairly sterile. They tell a writer that their particular submitted story is not going to ever be published in _____ magazine or journal. Sometimes there is another remark about individual editorial tastes, about submitting something again in the future, and a wish of luck in placing such work elsewhere. I have seen an eclectic mix of rejection letters. Though I cannot offer writers a secret to turning rejection into joy, I can offer my own experience, and perhaps suggest a way to bounce back after the rejection.

I started submitting stories in the mid 2000s. Snail mail was still standard fare for most submissions back then. I used to await my returned SASE, watching for the postman and ruffling through a stack of letters hoping for a response from a magazine. Online submissions have made the overall submission process easier. Emails are private. I don’t have to open a letter in front of others, as sometimes happened with the physical mail. I can also usually tell I have a rejection when I open my inbox and see a new email with a first part of the message showing. Most responses are a simple thank you and something like, “Unfortunately, this particular story is not for us.” I have worked for literary magazines and one thing I can say, if you get rejection letters, you are in a majority.

The big magazines reject up to 99% of submissions, and the margin of acceptance is often far thinner than 1%. Getting published is difficult for many reasons. Editorial tastes change. Just because an editor published an awesome story about crime fighting cats once, doesn’t mean they want to publish an awesome story about crime fighting dogs. In fact, they may publish things that far different than that which they’ve done in the past. Editors change too. I worked at one magazine with around twenty fiction editors. Each person was able to singularly reject anything they deemed unworthy. This created little continuity with editorial tastes. Sometimes issues might be at a point in the creation process where length restraints are unknown to a submitter. Like, if editors are looking to accept one more story but the not longer than three pages. I’m not saying there are behind-the-scenes conspiracies out to get you, but that there are sometimes other factors for rejection.

As I said, I started submitting long ago and I’ve seen a share of rejection letters. Just like any connoisseur or collector, I’ve come accustomed to seeing seen some different responses. For my own record keeping, I have a classification system for marking responses from magazines.

The Standard: This is the common letter I’ve been speaking of, which clearly states your work has not been accepted. I prefer a short letter and I prefer to know I have been rejected in the first sentence of the letter or email. A few magazines start their rejection with disclaimers about editors, tastes, time of the year, and not giving up, etc. etc. When I open an email and see a paragraph or two, I think it’s a good thing. I race through reading only to see that it is just an overstuffed standard rejection. That’s like getting invited to a fancy dinner by a man/woman you have just asked out, only so they can tell you they want to be friends. Short and simple is better, and luckily, most magazines have perfected the art of simple rejection.

The Reject Plus: This is a standard rejection letter with the benefit of an extra note. These used to be handwritten at the bottom and signed by an editor. I remember the first time I got one. I felt happy. I felt like I’d at least impressed an editor, even if my story wasn’t good enough. If you receive a personal note, keep these magazines and editors in mind for future endeavors. A personal note means you’re writing is improving and that people who are very, very used to seeing submissions decided to take the time to give you a compliment. As for emails, notes are often typed after the standard rejection. I’ve seen personal notes range from a sentence, up to paragraphs. One magazine once took the time to tell me they loved the concept, but that I should improve a few things in my story. I took their advice and later got the story accepted elsewhere. I will always prefer these notes to a standard rejection, but there is a little frustration in knowing that a submission made it close to getting printed, but ultimately was not good enough. If a specific editor gives their name in one of these rejections, next time you submit to this magazine, mention the note and thank the editor for the comments next time you submit. Their recognition a story they liked previously, might help your chances next time.

The Reject Minus: I don’t understand why any magazine would reject a story, and then tell the writer they think their character is annoying, or that the story idea is stupid. This goes beyond telling a writer they are outside their restrictions, or submitting in a genre that the magazine is not ever going to be interested in. This seems like a magazine editor trying to slap someone down just because the story did not fit into their tastes. I have actually only seen two such letters, but I have talked with people who have received similar. (I won’t mention names of the magazines…much as I’d like to.) I will never submit to these specific magazines again.

The Acceptance: This is probably in need of little explanation. Most times, you can tell in the email subject whether you’ve got one of these or not. I just want to mention that I once got an acceptance that looked like a rejection. The email started something like, “I’m sorry, but due to size restraints, we have decided to accept your story for issue #__ rather than issue #__.” I actually put off opening the email for a day because the part of the message in the inbox showed, “I’m sorry.” I thought it was a rejection. By the way, if you do get an acceptance, contact any other magazines with simultaneous submissions of your work within 24 hours.

Like I said, there are various reasons for a magazine to reject. Sometimes it may be that the story is simply not good enough. If this is the case, then keep writing, keep revising. The path of writing is one where we learn along the way. Just as receiving a rejection letter is always a little painful, receiving an acceptance has always been a time for ridiculous happy dances and indiscernible shouts of joy. Maybe the thrill wears off a little for those established writers out there, but I kind of doubt it.

I mentioned that I have one bit of advice on how to bounce back from a rejection. My advice is to submit the story somewhere else, ASAP. Submitting feels hopeful. Whenever I first get a story circulating, I’m excited. When/if rejection comes, I am upset. Sometimes I can’t sleep or am very quiet for days. When I submit to other places though, the cycle seems to reset and I feel hopeful for some of the other magazines I have not yet tried. However, do also consider revisions when you have received multiple rejections. Receiving rejections has helped me to learn of some smaller magazines I probably would not have learned of otherwise. Rejections have helped me to revise some stories and make them better. Writing requires perseverance and the submission process may require the most perseverance of all. Whether you’re a beginner or a veteran, I hope hearing my own shared experience helps you to persevere.


Mining the Mind: Differences in Writing Nonfiction and Fiction (originally posted 07/23/15)

Sharing personally written fiction grants an author some anonymity. Fiction is open to the possibility of imagination. Most readers assume a story is made-up. Of course writers draw from their own experiences, observations, and much fiction is an author’s conglomerate of past events, imaginings, research. Sure, close relatives or friends of an author may recognize factual events or descriptions in works of fiction, but usually such moments are fleeting. Fiction by nature lends camouflage to the author.

Sharing personally written nonfiction is a whole different story. I am referring to what is commonly called creative nonfiction. Two of the most important aspects of creative nonfiction are to be personal, and to be truthful. This combination certainly doesn’t lend much anonymity or privacy. The difference between creative nonfiction and academic nonfiction is that the focus of the creative work is to tell a story. A creative nonfiction essay is informational, is full of facts, but unlike common academic nonfiction, the creative piece likely contains plot, dialogue, setting, and descriptive imagery that all aim to pull a reader into the narrative.

I’d been writing fiction for a few years before the first time I took a creative nonfiction class and found writing creative nonfiction liberating and limiting. One wonderful aspect about creative nonfiction is readers tend to care about a narrative simply because they know everything genuinely happened. A fiction story about something like say, near drowning, first has to get readers to know and feel something for their character and situation. A truthful introduction in nonfiction can state that near drowning at age ten caused fear and isolation for many summers, and also created hatred for an uncle who threw the narrator in the water. Instantly, readers feel emotional weight in such an essay. Such a statement also foreshadows further explanation and tension.

Anyone used to working primarily in fiction may discover that nonfiction essays come with some mechanical difficulties. In nonfiction, you are primarily limited to first-person perspective in past-tense. That’s not to say there can’t be exceptions, but a major point of nonfiction is to express something that happened to oneself, so why use another perspective? For the fiction author who previously was able to use first, second, or third-person perspective in any tense, and with a narrative voice that could range narrow to omniscient, the nonfiction voice might feel like being stuck looking through a peephole when you used to just open the whole door.

Another difficult aspect of writing nonfiction is sticking to the facts. (Again, there is some wiggle room to a creative writer.) With fiction, if events of a story need to be restructured to lead to a character’s confrontation with an obstacle, authors can just revise and reorder time and space in the world of the story. Let’s say a nonfiction piece is about a confrontation. The author may have wished to express grander arguments in the actual confrontation, but they can never change the facts just to make their narrative more exciting. A few infamous and published creative nonfiction writers have been caught in the act of embellishment, and some have faced lawsuits. Be truthful, at least to the best of your ability. We all see things from different angles, but should you wish to establish any credential as a nonfiction writer, truth is necessary.

Last but not least, the raw truth in nonfiction can be utterly embarrassing. Let’s say an author may have at one point thought about, or did, something fairly low on the moral scale. If they are writing an essay on this immoral thing, they may wish to omit such details in their narrative, but, any good writer likely knows the knitty-gritty details that cause a reader to squirm in their seat, are often some of the best for a story. Sometimes the whole point of a good story is getting to the revealing and the emotionally resonant moments in life. Unless the writer has committed something truly heinous, most readers will likely enjoy, and relate to reading about the mistakes of others.

Consider also, not all nonfiction work has to be shared. Writing something that is difficult might become a cathartic exercise. My advice for any writer of nonfiction is not to hold back on the bare truth in your essays. If you feel apprehensive about writing something, then consider the possibility that you don’t ever actually have to show anyone the work. There is also opportunity in such essays to make amends with former mistakes, or if sharing, to explain to readers about lessons learned.

Although I prefer the freedom of writing fiction, I do sometimes feel a desire to write truthful narratives. Learning to dig deep into my own past has helped me to create richer past experiences for my fictional characters. Also with nonfiction, I love the idea of preserving some of my own life. Most of us pass through the world without other people truly knowing what we have experienced. We all want to share. This is the reason people who never had any interest in writing suddenly churn out a memoir in their older years. Perhaps the biggest benefit of nonfiction is that it connects people. Readers get a rare glimpse at a small drop of someone’s life. Such writing can bridge the gap of time and space and connect writer to reader in a most intimate manner.


Cover Letter Catastrophe (originally posted 02/23/16)

Have you ever sent out a cover letter along with a story submission, only to later realize you have made some terribly embarrassing mistake? Wait a minute you might think, how could a writer, a person who claims to excel in use of the written word, make a mistake writing a simple letter. Sure, there might be some people out there who think such a mistake has never befallen them. Maybe it hasn’t. Lucky them! But, I’ve made mistakes in my cover letters. Maybe I’m the only one, but I doubt it.

Thanks to electronic submitting systems writers can go back and look at submissions months after sending. Actually, about the time I start to get antsy about the length of a magazine’s response, I look over my whole submission again. The submission process can be exciting and nerve-wracking. We might begin to fantasize about publication, or have other delusions of grandeur when submitting. I’ve been in a hurry a few times to get a submission out—balancing a job, family, etc.

As a general rule, I try to keep my cover letters brief. I usually just have my contact information at the top and thank the editors. Here is something pretty standard:

Dear (choose your own magazine name) Editors,
Thank you for considering my short story, _(title)_, for publication in your magazine. The word count is _____.

This should be fairly difficult to screw up. Check out this flub:

Dear ____ Magazine Editors,
Thank you for considering my short story, _____, for consideration in your magazine. The word count is _____.

The worst part about this submission was that I was sending out simultaneously. I copied my cover letter and sent out to around five magazines. I noticed the mistake months later, which equaled five times the wincing.

As for the ‘Dear ____ Editors,’ on one occasion when submitting simultaneously, I typed to the wrong magazine name. Imagine the insult such editors might feel on getting addressed for the wrong magazine. Sometimes I like to think editors would laugh off such an error, but this who wants to be the one to test the theory. On this occasion, I caught the mistake a day after submitting. The magazine had a small submission fee, and I withdrew it so that I could resubmit addressing the editors under the correct name.

On another occasion, I had a few stories out at once and though I submitted the right story to a magazine, I called my story by the wrong title in the cover letter. Possibly, no one at the magazine noticed when reading the story. Or, they saw the submission expecting a story called one thing, opened the document and got a story of an entirely different name. Regardless, the story was rejected and I’m not sure whether the confused title had any bearing. I do hope the magazine didn’t think me a complete idiot.

Believe it or not, I can top every single one of these mistakes, combined. Well, I wasn’t entirely at fault in this case. My very young son likes to play with my iPod which I use for checking email. I have a few games and apps he likes to play with. I was letting him play with it one morning. There are some very prestigious magazines where I do on occasion feel I have a shot at publication. Such was the case with an essay I sent to the Atlantic. My essay had gotten rejected. Their rejection email was accessible when my son opened the message. He typed something incoherent. Well better than describing, here is exactly what he typed.

to: Atlantic Submissions
date: Thu, Jan 14, 2016
subject: Re: Essay Submission

Xxxxraaaaaxdrtrifffaaaf,.||____–.. Axxscxcfgfxzzzcddzxx.zzszxzzZzzzzzzzzzZzzzzzzzsd
Zz. Cassandra. Dddq. B. Sdd. Sass. Ok. -__- CDs. Cccccxxxxx. !)$-‘zaszszssasllxxzd. C. CDC. Xx. Czxxxzz. Vcccc. Mm

Sent from my iPod

As much as it would have been nice to think they did not take responses to email rejections, their automatic service thanked me for the new essay submission. I’m not sure whether they think me a raving lunatic or very abstract poet. I did not write to them to explain the situation. I felt writing them would draw more attention, and also ideally writing would be unnecessary since they will probably will delete the email on sight…I hope. I’ve got to say though, the words Cassandra, Ok, and CDs really create some impressive focal points.

As much as a writer can edit and proofread, we are still only human and prone to mistakes. I hope my mistakes might make other writers feel better about their own flubs. If anyone can top these, or would like to share any catastrophes with submission letters, please post in the comments below. Maybe we writers can do a little a group therapy and share our biggest screw-ups when it comes to magazine staff, editors, agents, etc.

The Left Brain, The Right Brain, and the Writing Brain (originally posted 03/31/16)

Our brains are divided into a left and right hemisphere. Each side of the brain performs better at different functions and each side has different strengths. Both sides contribute to the creative writing process as well as pose hindrances. Understanding functions of the sides can be helpful for writing process.

I’ve known many people who have told me they will on occasion try to write a story.  They sit down, and crank out a really great beginning. The next day when they try to write more, they first want to look over what they already had, and of course they find some sentences in need of rearranging, some vocabulary choices in need of change. They spend so much time cleaning their text that when they finish, their brain is tired. The next day, they get caught in the same web.

Does this scenario sound familiar? I’ve occasionally been caught in the same trap, and I wanted to know if there was a logical explanation for why it happened.  Creating a story, free-writing, comes more largely from the right side of the brain. The left side of the brain is more so responsible for the editing, for word choice, sentence structure, and paragraphing. By starting a story from scratch, a person is in a creative mode, right brain focused, and therefore they find momentum easy. The act of reading is left-brained activity, and so by going back through text we’ve previously written, we already spark the fires of the left side.

No writer is alike, and some styles of writing may work for some that don’t work for others. Also, one side of the brain is never either off or on. They are both always on, and both always working together. One side, however, can and often does begin to tip balance toward dominance. Just try and count money for ten minutes. Once your brain gets into a mode, it seems like it takes it a minute to get out of that mode. So when I speak of right or left brain focused, I mean that we are finding a groove in working with the strengths of one side.

The left side of the brain is typically the logical and mathematical side. On first thought, the left might seem of less value to a creative writer. But, the left side gives our brain the ability to recognize symbols and meaning of language. The left controls much in way of editing errors out too. Vitally more important for fiction writers, the logic of left brain helps to create a sequence of events in a story that make sense, that progress forward and create plot. Think how many times in a revising stage, we look at our stories and think some event or action doesn’t make sense, and we therefore add a little scene or piece of dialogue to help bring the story together. Even the simple concept of beginning, middle, and end, can be attributed to the left side of the brain.

The right side of the brain is usually the side creative people tend to praise. Yes, the right side does amazing things for writers. The right side probably has dominance during first drafts. The right side helps create description and evoke emotion. The right side helps choose the images or ideas that bring the five senses into the writing. Our right side helps convey seeable images: like a man in a suit walking down the street, holding roses flower side down, petal dropping every few steps, and a long trail of red connecting him to somewhere, someone, something behind. The right side is responsible for simile and metaphor. The right side probably even thinks up the initial spark for a story idea in the first place.

So how can knowing which side does what help with our writing? Well, as for first drafts, one of the best suggestions is to simply get all the info out, to puke it down on paper.  What works for me is not reading stuff I’d written prior. Well, I might read the previous paragraph, but I also have a no-editing rule that applies during early drafts. Of course, some people also like to plot a story out ahead of time, and then switch to more right-brained function once they have more direction in mind.

There are also many times when the left side needs to be very present in early drafts or early revisions. Let’s say there is a section where you are trying to evoke something emotional. You might not be able to press onward until that emotion is truly conveyed. To do this, your left side has to be allowed in to lay some structure, some scaffolding that will allow you to really slow down and build intense descriptions, metaphors, or images. As for when to turn the right side off, well there is a point where every writer must stop and say, does this description, which I love so much, which really stands out in the writing, does it actually slow the writing because it has nothing whatsoever to do with the story?

I can’t say there are any steadfast rules for training your brain hemispheres to work as you’d like. Getting in sync with writing and with what works takes time and practice. A writer who gets into the groove of their style might be able to see how and why some manners of writing work better than others. Considering the brain, and how it works, can help a writer get better at what they do just the same as someone with an injured shoulder looking at a diagram to learn how to heal and strengthen the muscles. And though our brain is not a muscle, it does get stronger the more we use it and push it, and writing in the manner we want can be both great exercise, and an enjoyable experience.

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