The Struggles of a Self-Conscious Writer

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Looking back on when I began writing and what I wish I had known, just one thing comes to mind: that it was okay to make mistakes.

Like I’ve said earlier on this blog, I was raised among avid writers and readers. My father, my aunt, my 2nd cousin, my grandmother, my great aunts, they are all very skilled and published authors. I grew up surrounded by people who constantly consumed and produced literature. Because of this, I quickly learned how to read and began devouring book after book. Attempting to write was just a part of the natural course. My family encouraged my creative efforts, always supplying praise and support with gentle instruction.

Unfortunately, I was a very self-conscious child. Every time my grandma put her red pen to my latest draft, I cringed, embarrassed and ashamed. At every mistake I thought, I should have known that. Why did I make such stupid mistakes?

So I self-imposed an unrealistically harsh standard for my writing very early on. If something didn’t meet my expectations, I trashed it. For many years, I wrote and compared and shredded most of my work. Slowly, my frustration and embarrassment manifested in my writing process.

I stopped showing anyone my works-in-progress. I gave finished products only – and a very specific selection of those. If anyone walked by while I was writing, I thought they might be able to see what I had written, and made it a habit to slouch over my paper and block the motion of my hand with my other arm, while checking on the people around me – to make sure they weren’t reading my work. That became exhausting and unproductive, so instead I wrote only if I was completely alone, without even the chance that I might be disturbed. Yet, even within this isolation, I continued to berate myself for my mistakes. At some point, I could no longer write freely. I stared at my paper or monitor composing and discarding and editing sentences in my head before daring to put them on the page.

I became so self-conscious of my failure that I almost stopped writing entirely.

During this time, I began writing poetry. I’m still not quite sure what it was about poetry, but I found I could write it without incurring the full weight of my criticism. Perhaps it was the inherent subjectivity of the medium, or the drastic structural differences between writing and poetry – whatever it was, poetry became the thread that kept me connected to writing. For the first time in nearly a decade, I was writing something I was proud of. It began as a tiny sliver of confidence that gradually grew strong enough to push me back into attempting creative writing.

I sometimes catch myself deleting things, even though I know they’re fine, allowing that glimmer of self-doubt back into control. As soon as that happens, I pause to collect myself, rewrite what I erased, then deliberately ignore it and move on to the next part. Sometimes, all it takes is the decision to move forward.

If any of you feel similarly about your writing, my advice is this: keep writing. It sounds simple, but I know it can be extraordinarily difficult. Don’t let that stop you. Write something, write anything. If a fragment of a scene is all you can do – that’s incredible. Write it, save it, and do it again.

Good luck,

Plutark

What kinds of things do you struggle with in writing? Let us know in the comments!

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Paradise Lost: Behind the Postcard Veneer of Hawaii

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Hello all,

Plutark here to talk more about a fantastic book called Boi No Good (Chris Mckinney), Mckinney’s ability to create incredible characters (and not vehicles for his opinions), and a bit on local culture in Hawaii.

It took me a lot longer than I anticipated to complete Boi No Good. While it was an excellent read to the end and my recommendation remains, I found I had to put it down relatively frequently and force myself out of the story to keep from being overwhelmed by the despairing situations in the novel, and their accurate reflections of Hawaii today.

This book interested me initially because of the summary – three abused children, the development of their identity, their struggle to reconcile who they become with who each other became – all of that is spot on with my interests (psychologist-in-training, clinical interest in children and adolescents, research focus on traumatic stressors during childhood). However, I didn’t expect this book to be able to pull me in so deeply to issues unrelated to the characters’ childhood struggles.

The book takes place in contemporary Hawaii, beyond the idyllic palm trees and beaches of Waikiki, and explores our current struggles as a society and a state, from views that many (even in Hawaii) are unfamiliar with. Mckinney bridges that unfamiliarity with ease and is able to get the reader into the minds of each of his characters, allowing us to not only understand, but to empathize with their plights, actions, and beliefs. But nothing is ever “right” and no character is hero or villain. Despite being deeply engrossed in the main character’s story, I was simultaneously validated and disgusted by him – an experience I felt with most of the characters.

Mckinney allows the reader to explore controversial issues without coloring the experience with his personal opinions (a very difficult thing to accomplish), giving his story credibility and incredible impact. I found myself reevaluating things I thought I was set on, that I thought I understood. In particular, I found Mckinney’s exploration of Hawaii’s complex racism to be well written and well represented within several disparate and fascinating perspectives.

I could write a very lengthy and very complicated (and probably very boring) post about this last note, but I will refrain and briefly mention it for any others who might be interested. One theme that persists throughout the novel is the question, what does it mean to be local? In Hawaii, being “local” is something we value, something we use to create our cultural identity. But in a multi-cultural environment, with a changing racial and socio-economic demographic, how do we continue to define “local”? Mckinney leads us through several characters’ attempts at understanding what it is within our society that we consider local, and what it is within ourselves and others that make us local.

Have you ever read a novel that made you question your perceptions about your culture/city/state/country? I’d love to hear about it in the comments.

Prompt: Every night after putting him to bed, a young boy’s father makes sure his closet doors are shut. His father tells him that if you leave it open, monsters come out of it at night. One night, the closet stays open. Tell me about what happened. 500 words.

-Plutark

Bout of Books Day 3

Day 3: I am now more than three-fourths of the way through Boi No Good by Chris Mckinney. I think I’ll finish it tonight.

In short, this book is heartbreakingly realistic in its portrayal of drugs, violence, homelessness, racism, classism, and the many other social issues plaguing Hawaii. If you would like to experience what it can be like in Hawaii, beyond Waikiki’s oceanfront hotels and picture perfect beaches, this book is a must read.

It follows three Hawaiian children, rescued by social services from their abusive drug addicted mother, and adopted into three different families. Glorya, the oldest and the only daughter, is sent back to her mother and her new step-father, who is even more abusive than her mother. Shane, the middle son, is adopted by a very rich family, and given every opportunity, every want in life. The youngest son, Boi, is taken in by a taro farmer and his wife.

Shane tries to reconcile his rich boy upbringing with his desire to be “like his people”, like a local, and be street tough. Boi spends his life trying to figure out how he can keep himself from exploding with the constant rage drowning him from inside. Glorya, whose trauma didn’t end when they were rescued, is a wanted criminal who will do whatever she must to remain free. Amidst drugs, murder, political schemes, an ever growing number of hotels and foreigners, and a law that could change everything Hawaii is, the kids meet again as adults and struggle to figure out who they are to themselves, within a changing Hawaii, and to each other.

I have so far found the book to be surprisingly unbiased in its presentation of many of our current controversial issues. Each of the characters are complex and rich, whichever side of an issue they fall on. The writing is excellent and I look forward to reading more of Chris McKinney’s novels.

 

Bout of Books Challenge:

For me, Boi No Good goes with ice cream. In my childhood neighborhood, there was an ice cream truck that would come through every once in a while. All the kids would pool into the street and chase the truck, giddy and excited even though most of us couldn’t buy anything. It’s one of my fondest memories of that place. Boi No Good opens in that neighborhood and much of the turmoil throughout the novel stems from the difficulties the children faced there. The ice cream doubles as a balm for my soul (have I mentioned that this book is sad?).

 

-Plutark

Bout of Books

Cya and I will be participating in the Bout of Books for this week. I will be reading “Boi No Good” by Chris Mckinney and “The Annals of Tacitus”. Cya will be reading “The Name of the Wind” by Patrick Rothfuss and “Half-Hearts” by Kealohilani Wallace, with a stretch goal of “A Man without a Country” by Kurt Vonnegut.

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-Plutark

 

The Bout of Books read-a-thon is organized by Amanda @ On a Book Bender and Kelly @ Reading the Paranormal. It is a week long read-a-thon that begins 12:01am Monday, May 12th and runs through Sunday, May 18th in whatever time zone you are in. Bout of Books is low-pressure, and the only reading competition is between you and your usual number of books read in a week. There are challenges, giveaways, and a grand prize, but all of these are completely optional. For all Bout of Books 10 information and updates, be sure to visit the Bout of Books blog. – From the Bout of Books team

 

Bout of Books

 

 

The Art of Speaking vs. Writing

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I thought a lot about where I should start my first “technical tips” post. I wanted to jump straight in to talking about prose and how/why/when we should analyze it, but realized that might be jumping a bit too quickly into the deep end. Instead, I am going to start with topics that will help you figure out what prose, style, and voice are and how you may use them in your writing. Here we go!

One thing I have often observed in beginning writers is a tendency to write as though they were speaking.

It is an understandable mistake, as speaking is a skill we develop fairly naturally as we grow, where writing is more foreign and requires intent, instruction, and practice to properly develop. So why wouldn’t (or shouldn’t) we write the way we speak?

The main thing to understand is that we, as humans, interpret information differently from each source.

When we speak, there are many verbal cues that we rely on to relay our messages to others. For example, when asking a question, we lift our voices up in pitch. When we want to communicate intensity or shock, we raise the volume of our voices, and we use silence to indicate breaks in thought. Beyond the audible aspects, there is a lot of flexibility in the order or structure of our speech. We can speak in slang, with variations in sentence organization, or with filler words or sounds (“umm”, “uh”).

But when we read, we can’t hear or listen, so we bridge that distance with formal structure, punctuation, and detail. We organize ideas into paragraphs and sentences to guide readers through our thoughts. To indicate pauses or breaks, we use commas and periods in place of silence, and follow a fairly rigid set of conventional formatting rules (grammar). Then, perhaps most importantly, we supplement the main content or plot with detail. Good writing will not simply tell you it is late at night, it will make you feel the nighttime chill and see the pale twinkling of the stars.

EXAMPLES

SPEECH: There was this boy, he looked maybe seventeen or eighteen-ish, anyway, he was out late at night trying to cross the street with his dog, when all of a sudden this crazy car came out of nowhere and almost hit him!

WRITING: It seemed especially dark that night. A young man was out walking his dog despite the late hour. He stopped at the end of the sidewalk, letting his dog roam the small patch of grass next to the fire hydrant. After a few minutes, the man tugged on the leash and stepped out into the crosswalk, his dog following loyally behind. He didn’t have a chance to register the sudden blazing headlights before a car sped past him, just barely missing him!

You might notice that the writing version is a lot longer. This is because we need to provide a larger amount of information when we write, to help immerse the reader into our story. The speech example is somewhat exaggerated so I could fit in some slang and unorganized thoughts, but would be perfectly acceptable in casual conversation.

Writing and speaking should differ from the moment we begin to construct it. If we try to write our speech, it comes across as unengaging, scattered, and confusing. If we speak the way we write, we can sound detached, repetitive, and slow. However, how you speak is often indicative of patterns and tones that may help you shape your writing voice. Think about yourself and those around you. You use mostly the same words and phrases as everyone else, yet each person has a distinct way of expressing them. Try listening to how you speak or how those around you speak, and think about what makes your speech different from those around you.

To any readers: how does your speaking voice differ from your writing voice? For me, I’m much wordier in writing, although whether that is a result of the difference in mediums or the fact that I’m a quiet person has yet to be established  🙂  Please leave your answer in the comments below!

-Plutark

Prompt #1 EDIT

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This was a very imaginative prompt fill. Unexpected setting, but very awesome. My edits are below in bold. I hope you find them and the accompanying commentary helpful 🙂

Note: My style is much more verbose than yours, Cya, so where I provide examples, don’t feel like you need to be as excessive in your word usage. Just follow the main principle I’m illustrating.

“You did a great job.” A thick mittened hand patted my back unexpectedly, pushing me forward into the cold, metal ladder. Instead of using “cold”, which is a very general descriptor, you could go into specific details about the ladder that help create a more vivid picture of the environment. “…metal ladder, [insert some detail].”

I mumbled [something incoherently] as I climbed up the side of the boat. It had been a grueling few months and winter was fast approaching. I was ready to go home. [ ]: Similar to my notes above, this was overly generic and missed out on an opportunity to give the reader a better look at the narrator. If you changed it to something such as: “…under my breath, my tired body unwilling to fully form the words, as…” We get a much clearer picture of the narrator’s condition and a glimpse into his/her character. In interest of space or word limits, you can shorten phrases to fit (“under my breath, tiredly”), but especially when dealing with word constraints, you want leave as much of an impact as possible, so try to avoid being too general.

Throwing the last of (unnecessary info) my equipment off of my back up before me (provides a better sense of space), I clambered onto the deck. [Something] I chuckled as I realized I looked like one of the Weddell seals I had been studying. [Something]: you need to draw a more direct comparison to the motion or action of the narrator and the seals. This was a good way to intro story information, but I’d like to see a more seamless connection. Right now, you are breaking the story flow. I understand what image you are trying to convey, but it was one I had to create independent of your content. So what is it about his “clambering onto the deck” that made him remember the seals? Did he slip on a ladder rung and have to sidle onto the deck, the ill-fitting winter layers burdening him/her with unaccustomed girth, resulting in a short bout of awkward flailing? Now, as we left, I hoped all the pups were doing well. You might consider moving this sentence further down. You’ve introduced the seals and given us context for our narrator’s current circumstance, which is perfect for this section. In having the narrator reflect here, you bring him/her out of it in the next paragraph, and then plunge him/her back in at the end. It would be more consistent and save word space to reorganize a bit.

The sun flashed a bright orange across my eyes. Could use a sense of direction here. Our narrator has just climbed onto the deck, which implies his/her back is facing the railing/the land from which he/she departed. In the next paragraph, the narrator views the sunset from the railing, looking out over the land. It had been a friendly presence these past few months, even if I couldn’t feel its warmth. With its slow descent, my exposition came to an end and I wasn’t sure if I was more happy or relieved that it was finally over. The long, cold days had been hard. , but it was the biting wind that was the worst.

The boat blew a loud note, signaling our departure. I walked slowly to the rail to look back at what had been my home these past months. [The stark Antarctic landscape was lit up in an array of colors. The bright yellow had turned into soft oranges that caressed the harsh ice, while the deep blue of the sky started to darken around the edges.] I think this section can be condensed some. You introduced the sun/sunset earlier, so you’ve got a bit of flexibility here. Example: “The sun’s bright yellow had dimmed into soft oranges that caressed the stark Antarctic landscape, while the deep blue of the sky started to darken around the edges.”

Seals watched my departure. They would stay through the long night, even as we left. Insert: I hoped all the pups were doing well and I hoped that one day, I would made it back to see them.

Others (might want to define who the others are) had joined me to say a farewell. There was only one sunset and one sunrise here every year. This sentence could be made relevant, but as is, should be taken out. Water started to well in my eyes.

Just for a moment, above the cold, unforgiving land, [there was a flash of pink]. Someone gasped from my side. Pride swelled in my chest as I witnessed the most beautiful sunset I had ever witnessed before.,It had been made all the more sweet by the desperation that came with living and researching here. Watch word repetition (witness). [flash of pink]: Instead of just stating this outright, consider going into a more sensory description of it. This can be achieved through something as simple as verb choice: “a flash of pink burst across the sky”.

With the sun finally gone for the year, we turned in, turning over our fate and safety to the experienced sailors. As I walked below deck, I turned, one final time, to look at the night sky. (repetitive word usage)

“I’ll come again,” I whispered into the dark, [letting] the wind carrying my promise through the salty air.

 

Great work!

-Plutark

Great Expectations of the Blog

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Hello, Plutark here to talk a little more about my background and my goals for this blog.

First, I would like to point out that the title for this post, and likely all to follow, was Cya’s “great” idea. She is prone to bad puns and corny jokes. Please don’t hold it against me 🙂

 

I was raised in a very rural area, where my main sources of entertainment were the outdoors, my imagination, and books. Relative to my older sister, I was incredibly untalented in physical activities, and instead of competing with what I perceived as the pinnacle of athletic ability, I gravitated towards what I was good at: reading. I started early and simply never stopped. By the time I was leaving elementary school, I had exhausted my school’s small library, as well as much of the combined collection of my immediate and extended family.

 
My first literary love was the classic adventure novel. Fueled by their stories, I wandered the mountains behind my house searching for abandoned train cars, leading scientific explorations through imaginary volcanic tubes, scouting the oceans for pirates from the tallest tree I could climb, and running with my ragtag band of orphans through the bustling streets of London.

 
Soon after, I discovered Great Expectations by Charles Dickens, which showed me just how beautiful written English could be. This set me on the path to reading as many great works of literature as I could find. In addition to entertaining plots and characters, I looked for and learned to examine the writer’s ability to construct elegantly complex prose and found my first voice through their teachings.

 

My interest in the structure of writing lent itself to great technical writing, but I found I struggled with the more creative aspects. As many members of my family were writing, I gained experience editing their projects and found that I enjoyed that process much more than I did attempting my own creative works. Editing allowed me to focus on the aspects of stories that I am most interested in. In general, I hope that through my edits, people will learn more about how the structural choices they make throughout their writing affect the product, beyond basic grammar.

 
I hope that my posts will be accessible to writers of many different skill levels, but I will be focusing much of my content towards topics I think will be most helpful to beginning writers. If you have any specific problems you are encountering in your writing, please feel free to let me know.

My next post will be about the differences between writing and speaking and how the two should influence and interact with each other.

 

Prompt: 500 words, A flash of pink above a streak of cold blue.

 

-Plutark