Apologies

I must apologise to those of you who read my post, Meet the Crew last week; I’m sorry I had a menopausal mental blip and put Emerson instead of Whitman as the author of ‘Song of Myself’ in the header quote. A dear friend pointed it out in an email. On a wordlover’s blog, it’s not just embarrassing but mortifying.

It happens every week now…the names Dawn and Gail, Fiona and Heather; in December it was kitchen and Christmas; on Friday it was Musketeers and Mohicans. Somewhere in my brain, they become lexically interlinked and sometimes, frighteningly – for a linguist – interchangeable.

I wonder if word brain cells can get used up? Over the years, I’ve been fluent  – lived – in several languages not my own and studied four others for school and university level exams; so many words for every thought, every stick of furniture, every change of the wind, emotion and morsel of food; so many songs, emotions and colours… the names of hundreds of students over the years. Songs learned by heart, poems and extracts for exams, coaching Proficiencies and Masteries, conjugations, declensions, plants and spices, a word-obsessed life that thrives on details and will choose squirm over wriggle for an embarrassed adult on a sofa…. The cracks are showing now, and words – whole memories – are slipping through, getting stuck in my brain’s filing cabinets, fouled up between brain and fingers, thought and voice. Cruel, really, that plummeting hormones can cause such crevasses, such crises and earthquakes of self.

Or maybe it’s hearing my ninety year old dad telling me the same stories over and over and over again, every day, every phone call, every visit, watching him fade like a photograph, pixel by pixel as he clings on to his dignity, his humour, his independence and sense of self… maybe it’s seeing his multitudes thin out, pack up and wander slowly home that’s frightening me more than Whitman and Emerson, my crippling perfectionism and my bouts of word loss.

Who would we be without the words that frame our thoughts? It doesn’t bear thinking about.

How to Write like Adam Lambert (revisited)

Sorry I haven’t been writing or visiting blogs for a while. The volcano in Iceland turned a spur of the moment week away into an expensive and traumatic travel saga! We were very lucky; hundreds of thousands of people were stranded further afield in much more difficult circumstances, but the two day journey across France, the English Channel, England and Scotland was exhausting and we’re still a bit disorientated from the effects of sleep deprivation. It’s chastening to remember that most of the planet’s inhabitants are this tired all of the time and never have the luxury of a holiday in the first place.

We did have a fantastic time on the actual holiday, though, and I hope to share some highlights with you, but posting will have to wait while I decimate dust bunnies and catch up on email, laundry and sleep…

In the meantime, for those of you who are enjoying my blog-birthday wanderings through the archives, here’s another post from my first month of blogging in April last year. It’s one of the best pieces of advice to blogwriters I’ve ever written. Coincidentally,  Adam Lambert was recently a mentor to this year’s hopefuls on American Idol, and he gave some excellent advice. He’s a consummate performer and his voice thrills me, really hits the spot.

See you soon. ~ Janice

 

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adam lambert

How to Write like Adam Lambert.

We watch American Idol every season, a small nuclear family sitting in a Scottish living room, eating pizza, my husband and I drinking wine, all of us enjoying not only the talent, but the stage-managed drama and entertainment of it all.  It cuts across the age gap and gives us common ground to discuss.

This year, Adam Lambert has been our favourite from the start. But here’s why he got me thinking about writing the other day.

Talent alone is not enough.

Millions of people want to sing or write,  to touch hearts with their voices. Millions would love to make masses of money from doing it, too.  But what makes some people stand out?

Adam Lambert started young, that’s clear to see, and I reckon he’s had the support of his loved ones since the moment he figured out what he was born to do. I loved when his dad pointed out, against a backdrop of childhood photos of Adam dressing up and performing, that he was never much into sports.

He’s not a new phenomenon. He’s put in hard graft, earning a living from delivering Broadway performances every night, week in, week out. Maybe he even failed a few auditions along the way and learned from those, too.

He’s honed his talent with hard work and determination, and has learned how to command a stage, create presence and connect with an audience.

He chose to go the American Idol route, confident that the time was right. Impeccable timing and choosing the right platform are crucial for all artists who want to take their work to a wider audience.

He came to the show, daring not only to be different, but to be himself and different. The hair, the earrings, the painted nails, they’re simply symbols that say I’m not afraid to be me.

And just when we were getting used to that, the hair got slicked back and the image changed, just to mix things up.

He’s been versatile, experimenting with a variety of styles yet always, always letting his unique brilliance shine through.

Sometimes understated, sometimes over the top entertaining. That clear, haunting, passionate voice, that core of self-belief and keen sense of what he wants to do, where he wants to go and who he wants to connect with – it comes out in everything he does.

My teenage daughter sings, writes and acts. Some Idol performances get her ranting or raving, others leave her indifferent.  But Adam Lambert’s performance of ‘Mad World’ – a song that she herself sings – stunned her, left us all transfixed.

We felt we’d had a glimpse of genius. The pain, the passion and the experiences he distilled into every syllable connected straight to that part of the soul where empathy lives. He made an already beautiful song his own. He made it an anthem.

He sang like a part of his very soul would die if he didn’t. I wish more people would aim to do that in their writing.

Some days I feel myself wanting to scream at fellow writers that it’s not all about the money, the fame and the glory. When you’re hard-working, passionate, driven to hone your talent, your gift, your life’s work, till it’s gem-bright and brilliant, the money follows.

Make people cry. Make them smile as they sit alone reading your words. Stun them into silence. Make them say Wow! with wide open eyes and gaping mouths. Don’t settle for mediocrity or pander to the people who pay. Be brilliant. Be yourself. Be your best self.

Some Insights on Editing…

In this post, from April 5th 2009, I explore what editing – and editors – mean to me,  as a wife, columnist and life coach. I also offer some tips on writing – and editing – with authenticity.

A Faithful Hand

Oh, the comfort, the inexpressible comfort of feeling safe with a person; having neither to weigh thoughts nor to measure words but to pour them all out, just as it is, chaff and grain together, knowing that a faithful hand will take and sift them, keeping what is worth keeping, and then, with the breath of kindness, blow the rest away. ~ George Eliot

driftwood-heart-wreath-These words smiled up at me when I first discovered them, slipped a hand in mine, waiting to be taken home and shared with my husband.

I rarely write about him; I often refer to him, and to incidents in our family life, but to write about my love for him would be to go too deeply for comfort into the depths of my own being. After decades of devotion, it would damage something precious to try and unpick and examine the threads of the tapestry our life has become. Sometimes, words don’t go far enough.

Imagine the holy place that speaks to your soul in sacred silence, the sun, the sky, the sea, the earth, the breath of inspiration beneath your wings, a parent’s unconditional love, a child’s smiling eyes full of unquestioning faith and devotion, the way your best friend feels like home. The precious details of your day that make you rejoice to be alive.  Anything that gives you a glimpse of God and can only be expressed in a prayer of gratitude.

That’ll give you some idea of how blessed I feel.

Is there anything or anyone you feel you can’t do justice to with words?

My favourite editor…

It’s no concidence that my husband is the first person I trust if I need the pre-submission draft of a longer piece checked. There are no ceilings when it comes to his belief in me. I could get a million negative comments from others, but as long as I liked a piece and he liked it, I wouldn’t wobble and crash.

He’s  more well read than I am, and devours books on every topic without prejudice. He has a sharp eye, a longing for clarity and an ear that appreciates writing that flows effortlessly, regardless of sentence length. He likes authenticity and originality, passion and purpose.

One thing he does hate is pretentiousness. To hear him say “It’s good. You write well.” makes me feel like I’ve come home, and if he doesn’t like a word or a phrase, I just say, OK, and go to work on changing it. No fuss, no pain, no ego.

My Child Writer…

I write now like I did when I was a child. I have no cruel inner critic when it comes to my writing. I get the same pleasure when I edit as I do when I’m spring cleaning, redecorating a room, gardening or packing essentials into the smallest bag possible, ready for the simple pleasures of a beach holiday. I edit my own work like a child joyfully knocking down sandcastles, knowing the sand and the sea will still be there tomorrow. And when a piece is done, my heart knows it like a child does when a colourful crayoned picture is finished and handed over, and a sweet voice says this is for you.

My problems begin when someone else wants to edit my work.

What I need from an editor…

I can only work with editors who have talent but no egos, people who are so comfy in their own skins that they don’t need to get any gratification or power trips from suggesting changes to another person’s work. I like editors who edit for the same reason I write – because they care, and would find it impossible not to.  Coaches want to see a person become the best they can be; good editors feel the same about a piece of writing.

But that’s where personal opinions make editing a minefield for me. In most cases, if you have an editor, it means they have the power to choose whether or not one of your pieces gets published. If your main aim is to be published, then you have to accept that they’ll be superimposing their own paradigm of “the best it can be” over your work, using their preferences and their criteria.

That’s OK if they love the bulk of your work, expect even more from you and agree with you about what you consider to be the best you’ve done so far.

What works for me…

I’ve had four editors in VOICE, the coaching newsletter I write for. Three have brought their coaching talents to editing, which has both raised my game and spoiled me for other editorial styles.

As editors, they’ve had important things in common: they share their praise and support easily, they have all accepted that I hate tracking, that I freak out if they write their own suggestions all over my work and that the first thing I need to have before I’ll start re-editing a piece  is their gut feeling about it. If they don’t love an article, it’s much, much easier for me to create a new one from scratch; I hate having to make so many changes to  a piece that it no longer feels like it’s mine. I’ve been lucky enough to receive a lot of editorial  emails beginning with “I love it! There are only one or two things I was wondering if you could maybe consider changing.”

The editor who ‘fired’ me, a coach whose own edgy, sarcastic writing I didn’t enjoy, loved writing her ‘improvements’ all over my pieces with tracking, but didn’t like lyricism, long pieces, Scottish spelling or me. One of my favourite pieces, Birdsong, was published intact because I’d got to the stage where I said to her “Take it or leave it but don’t dare change a comma or a word.”

My favourite editors have discovered how I operate best. They’ve learned that I will edit happily for days for the fun and the dialogue, but that I don’t respond well to blunt criticism of my work or changes I haven’t made myself; I react like a fiercely protective parent and the stunned, hurt child whose crayon drawing  has had red pen corrections scribbled all over it.

This is why I’ll probably never be able to be a copywriter, a ghost writer or a freelancer. I know this attitude may make me look like a primadonna, but please believe me, I’m not. I love hacking my drafts to bits and trying to polish them to perfection but I stop when it’s no longer fun or when I feel like I’m ripping the heart, authenticity and spontaneity out of a piece. I know all novelists and freelancers need good editors but I think a special kind of editing is necessary when the writing is deeply personal as well as creative self expression.

That’s why I would happily adhere to a blogger’s requests for me to change something in a commissioned guest post. As a blogger, you are your site’s creative parent; you’re reponsible for whatever goes out on your site, and I respect that.

Be your own editor…

  • Before you send a piece anywhere, be your own editor, your own supportive coach who asks good questions. Editing is writing, an inextricable part of it, so find your own metaphor for helping you love it. Imagine chipping away at a sculpture like Michaelangelo, trying to reveal the work of art you know is within. Imagine it’s like gardening, or packing a small suitcase for a holiday or spring cleaning your house from basement to attic. Before we pack or garden or declutter, we need to know why we’re doing it, and what we hope to reveal or achieve.
  • Who are you? Clean up your own personal stuff. The hidden you, the real you, will be revealed through your writing, whether you want it to happen or not. Is this a person you’re happy for the world to meet?  Ask What does this piece say about me? every time you write, even when the piece is based on the needs of your reader. Remember that everything you write on the internet will be visible for all time. Write something that your grandchildren won’t cringe at.
  • Ask yourself if your writing is a vehicle for passing on useful information or if visitors enjoy the experience of being with you and your work  as much as the information they take away. If it’s the latter, don’t be too quick to edit your quirks, personality and passions out of your presentation.
  • Learn where your own lines are drawn and how far you’re willing to cross them to have a piece appear in print. Integrity is priceless.
  • Imagine that everything you write forms part of your resumé. It’s OK to see proofreading as part of your editing, but fresh eyes and ears and leaving some time and space before proofreading  is vital. I find it helps to print a piece off then go through it with a pen, pretending that it’s not my work.
  • Be clear about who your reader is; honour the bond you create with each and every individual who takes the time to read your words.
  • Love and respect yourself with the same unconditional devotion you give your loved ones.  A piece of the divine universe is trying to recreate itself through you and your writing. Scrub up and let it shine through.

How do you feel about editing and being edited?

(This was supposed to be a birthday ‘card’ for my husband, a simple quote, but as often happens, something flooded in and overflowed. He didn’t mind, though…he’s my very own Colonel Brandon.

The  current  IAC VOICE editor is Linda Dessau, a writer, creativity coach and expert on music therapy. My previous VOICE editors were Angela Spaxman, IAC President and leadership coach, and Barbra Sundquist, a respected coach certification mentor coach.)

101 Slightly Unpredictable Tips for Novelists and Screenwriters

Writing is writing, and the means by which it finds wings is still the product of,  for better or worse, a process. This book is all about empowering that process.  ~ Larry Brooks

Every so often I discover and resonate with a new blogger. It’s not just because of the concepts they convey in their content or comments; sometimes we share a common life view or I find their personality engaging and I start to care. Most of this happens through the medium of writing, with the odd photo or podcast thrown in.

Does your writing engage folk like that?

Can you lead readers into your life, make them hungry for the skills you share, inspire loyalty and cause them to care if you reach a crisis point in your blogging or your life?

Larry Brooks of Storyfix.com, a guest writer at Write to Done and Copyblogger, can help you do that with your writing and your blog. Better still, if you want to make your living as a writer, he can help you boost your creativity and sell what you write. The first draft of Larry’s debut novel was bought and published ­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­- with only slight revisions – and went on to become a minor best seller. His screenplays have been optioned.

storyfixebooksmallHe’s recently published an ebook called 101  Slightly Unpredictable Tips for Novelists and Screenwriters: Innovative Ways to Jack your Creativity and Sell What you Write.  I’d recommend you buy it, print it off, study all 141 pages and scribble notes all over it. Unless, of course you have a shelf full of published novels, a portfolio of produced screenplays, an enviable life style paid for by your writing and an agent who adores you because you make their life easy.

Larry’s writing voice is strong  – often humorous – and the ideas are clear, fresh and easily applied. His ebook and blog posts have inspired my teenage daughter to write better stories for school by giving her structural templates she can explore and experiment with; they’ve enabled her to tap into her love of film and TV drama in order to analyse what makes a compelling story.

Many tips struck me as innovative, some are classics worth rediscovering and there are a few I disagree with. Most of the ideas, though, resonated with me, made a lot of sense or inspired me to action. Here’s a random sample of the kind of chapters the book covers; most of the topics provide rich material for bloggers as well as help for budding novelists.

  • Less really is more.
  • Pay attention to song lyrics.
  • Watch Dr.Phil.
  • At any point in the story you need to be able to answer this question: what is the reader rooting for and caring about?
  • Forget most of what your high school creative writing teacher taught you.
  • Imagine your novel as a movie. Or imagine your screenplay as a novel.
  • Nothing you write is ever wasted. Ever.
  • Don’t sweat your prose. Do sweat your story.

You’ll find an even more detailed list here:

This isn’t a how to of grammar, punctuation and slick prose. You’ll still have to work hard on your own style and hone your skills – but you do that already, right?  It will encourage you to discover what makes you special as a writer and show you how to learn from writers who have that special X-factor. It will help you structure your writing in such a way that you can’t fail to improve everything you write, from a paragraph to a screenplay.

At its heart is Larry’s belief in structure – the architecture of good writing – and the importance of constructing a story with pivotal points, drama, conflict, tension and emotional resonance.

The term “story architecture” refers to the sequence of an unfolding story according to an accepted – and expected – sequence, complete with certain milestones, timing and criteria. In effect, a blueprint.

Mess with it and your story will suffer. As will your readers.

Music has architecture. Sculpting and painting have architecture, even the most obscure pieces. All art is based on some form of structure, even if the lack of structure is what defines the art.” ~Larry Brooks

I’m a fairly organic writer, but I know the value of structure. I’m not a novelist or screenwriter – my background is language study, translation and song writing – but an awareness of essence, empathy and emotional resonance has been vital in everything I do.

For a story to work, it must have stakes. You can have character and plot without stakes – stakes are what makes the reader care – but if you do, what you won’t have is a book contract or a movie deal.” ~ Larry Brooks

Larry’s belief in the importance of knowing what’s at stake in any piece of writing drew me to his work. That, and his passion for incorporating music into the writing process.

Great writing has rhythm to it. A lyrical sensibility. And nothing says rhythm and lyrical sensibility more than music…

…And in case you think I’m speaking only to screenwriters here, you’re wrong. Novelists need visualization and emotional resonance every bit as much. In fact, because novelists have to paint the sky with words instead of stage direction, music can be an even more powerful tool for getting there.” ~Larry Brooks

I’ve watched movies and good TV series all my life and I’m a consumer of the kind of novels that sell millions of copies. I can tell in five minutes if a film will bomb. Most of us have an innate understanding of the structures that sell; we all know the kind of heroes who engage our empathy and create our concern.  Larry’s blog, ebook and tips show us how to craft that unconscious competence into something we can leverage in our own work.  Even if we baulk at the idea of formulae and structure, he articulates how we can blend the organic and the structural to marry art and craft.  

I could say more about what’s in the ebook, but I don’t want to spoil your pleasure. It is, after all called 101 Slightly Unpredictable Tips. I wish this book  – and Storyfix.com – had been around when I taught creative writing classes. If I could have written an ebook as succinct and practical as this, trust me – I would have. Larry’s work has got me reaching for my old screenplays and manuscripts, thinking “I wonder…”

This ebook could be exactly what you need to make some of your writing dreams come true. It may take less than you think.

May you find at least one idea that helps you move forward toward the birthing of the best story you can write. If I can deliver that, then you won’t be asking for your money back and we’ll both be delighted with the outcome.

That’s any writer’s dream. If you can touch one heart outside of your own, you have succeeded. ~Larry Brooks 

How to Breathe Life Into Your Writing

sunset grassesIt doesn’t matter what kind of writing we do: whether it’s personal insights or practical tips, posts about happiness or blogging, coaching or parenting, serenity or simple living, there comes a time when we need to freshen up our writing to stop our topics becoming stale. Stories, descriptions and daily details can enhance and illustrate any piece of prose. Poetic power can make our writing soar. I enjoy breathing life into my writing by indulging all of my senses and inviting in the elements.

I tend to do this instinctively because I love sensual, lyrical writing and nature inspires me, but it can be learned. My post Writing to Connect:Does Your Writing Stink? investigated preferred sensory perceptions, and encouraged you to explore your under-used senses, bringing fragrance and mouth-watering aromas into your writing.  Today I’d like to share my love of the wind, of balmy breezes and fresh air. Harness the wind in your writing and you create one of the most invigorating forms of movement.

Look out of your window right now…

Even the slightest breeze will stir a leaf, make a stray strand of hair dance and flick around someone’s face. Notice what the wind does – really focus – then describe its effects; your readers will feel it on their faces as they follow your gaze and line of thought. The following is from my post Transcendental Trolleys  in which I observed the effects of a gale in a supermarket car park; it’s a purely visual description because I was standing in the shelter of the supermarket .

I looked out onto the car park and surveyed a surreal scene; unaccompanied trolleys whizzing and clanging into cars, a tiny bouquet of cellophane-wrapped tulips buffeting and skidding along the road trying to take off,  newspapers flying around like kites, and people batting off litter and flying brochures with their flailing hands like a scene from Hitchcock’s ‘The Birds’.

I saw people struggling with overloaded trolleys, trying to swing them around like rollerblading partners, outstretched arms in a spin. Others lurched for small light items snatched by the wind and watched in alarm as their liberated trolleys trundled off to freedom.

Be attentive to descriptions of winds, breezes and storms in other people’s writing.

They’re often symbolic as well as evocative and scene-setting.

I wrote the following poem to describe a powerful moment of transformation I experienced while hanging out wet laundry; it later became an introduction to my piece called Life Laundry. Blue skies and a sunny breeze can symbolise so many things. Here, the breeze evokes fresh thinking, inspiration and the promise of a new phase of life; it’s the wind that fills the sails of the ships that carry us to unexplored islands when we’re ready to let go and free ourselves of whatever’s holding us back.

Pegging out laundry
Damp and fragrant in the sun
She lifts up her face
Listens to the sheets flapping
In the breeze, surrendering
Ready to set sail

In the following lines by Randi of Foreign Quang, taken from a comment she left on my post called Rapt Attention, Gifts and Rain, I stood beside her as she showed me the vista with a sweeping gesture of an outstretched arm; I became the watcher, scanning the scene, zooming in and out with telephoto lens precision. I could see the bright, beautifully coloured kites dancing on a breeze, but more than that, because of how she has juxtaposed the images, and carefully used the phrase “grown men” I could feel the men’s boyish joy and pride, the soaring unfettered promise of moments free from the stresses and cares of everyday responsibilities. It’s a beautifully crafted piece that evokes innocence and simple pleasures, stirs the senses and recreates movement, life and dance.

What gifts would I share from my hometown? My hometown is in Iowa, so if we met there I would show you the miles and miles of lush green cornfields and let you smell the wet dirt. Then I would take you to a beautiful park on the Missouri River, where grown men fly very expensive but extremely beautiful kites; where little children roll on the grassy hills, play on the swings, and get sand in their hair; where blushing brides have their outdoor weddings under a dance pavilion canopy; where bike riders, roller bladers and skateboarders zoom back and forth on the ten mile riverfront trail; and where couples in love sit on the grass holding hands while watching water skiers send up a spray of water behind them.

Fan flames, breathe life and listen to the howling of the wind…

The following extracts, taken from Face the Fire, the third in Nora Roberts’ Three Sisters Island trilogy, show how the elements can be captured in a few deft brush strokes.

…The breeze had her hair dancing in fiery spirals.

…All around her the irritable wind swirled, snapping at her cloak until it billowed up like wings.

…So she turned from them, from the cliffs and the sea. Her cloak whipped behind her as she ran toward the lights of home.

Notice the descriptive verbs of movement, and the use of onomatopoeia – how ‘whipped’ and ‘snapped’ echo the sound the cloak makes. (I used ‘flapping’ in my own poem above.)

Notice how anthropomorphosis is used in the second quote to turn the wind into a threatening, elemental creature. Notice, too, how the colour and movement of the protagonist’s hair evoke an image of flames being fanned, and how the allusion to wings, to a creature snapping and something whipping behind her suggest the imminent flight of an elemental, ethereal creature, driven by or fleeing from the fear of pain.

Discover and recreate the rhythms of wind and movement…

leaves dancing in the windPoetry often captures the rhythm of buffeting winds and gentle breezes. In Shelley’s Ode to the West Wind the visual image of the leaves being blown around is reinforced by the rhyme and the swirling, sweeping rhythm.

O wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn’s being,
Thou, from whose unseen presence the leaves dead
Are driven, like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing…

In To a Skylark, Shelley invented a new stanza form to replicate the swooping and ascending flight pattern of the lark on currents of air, and to echo the pattern of its song:

Hail to thee, blithe Spirit!
Bird thou never wert,
That from heaven or near it
Pourest thy full heart
In profuse strains of unpremeditated art.

Wild winds, balmy breezes and sea spray…

In the following extract from Coleridge, we can see alliteration used to brilliant effect. The image is of a ship ploughing its way through wind and waves. I can almost feel the wind in my hair and the sea spray on my face.

The fair breeze blew, the white foam flew,
The furrow followed free;
We were the first that ever burst
Into the silent sea.

The rhyming lines and  internal rhymes, blew/flew, first/burst, replicate the regular dipping of the prow into the waves. The plosive ‘b’s in ‘blew’ and ‘burst’ echo the power of the boat cutting through the waves. The succession of stressed syllables with an initial ‘f’ is a deliberate and appropriate way to summon up the sound of the wind; fricatives are made by blowing out air through partly closed lips. The sibilants in ‘silent sea’ and the long vowel in ‘sea’ evoke the sensation of gliding through a vast expanse of ocean.

I could have found thousands of phrases describing the wind from many of the books and poems I’ve enjoyed, but I hope you’ll enjoy discovering  – then creating – your own.  

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  • How many words can you think of for winds?
  • How many verbs come immediately to mind when you think of storms, winds or breezes – the sounds, smells, feel and movement?
  • Take some time today to watch the wind or to bask in a sunny breeze.
  • Try capturing a breeze or a breath of fresh air in something you write.

Photo 1 by zen
Photo 2 by trekkyandy

Writing to Connect: Does Your Writing Stink?

hyacinths and freesias at the kitchen windowIs it pungent, reeking of ripe stenches and rotten odours? Or is it fresh and fragrant, evocative, scented and sensual?

Both are good. The bland sterility of written anosmia, on the other hand, eventually leaves me cold. Anosmia in real life terrifies me. I’ve experienced it.  (Please read Coming to My Senses – I had to learn how to reframe and re-experience my life.)

Smell is the sense of memory and desire. ~ Jean-Jaques Rousseau.

We all have different ways of processing and representing information, our own preferred sensory perceptions, and we can unconsciously lean towards our own preferences in our writing.

Many writers are comfortable in the realms of the abstract, dealing more in concepts than any sensual representation, but if we want our writing to resonate with as many readers as possible, it’s vital that we incorporate all of the senses  – without overdoing it.

The majority of people have a strong preference for processing visually, aurally or less frequently, kinaesthetically – which involves movement, physical sensation or emotions that evoke physical experience.

Many bloggers include only visual imagery in their writing. Maybe this is because so many writing books  say Don’t explain..show. The advice is good; leading our readers through an experience, allowing them to recreate it for themselves is more powerful than telling them how to feel and overexplaining our own thoughts and feelings. But ‘show’ is an inherently visual word.

When we write, we also connect with our inner voice, reproduce the rhythms of speech and the world around us, manipulating our readers’ breathing responses and reading pace through the sounds, punctuation and spacing  we use. There’s often a crossover with the kinaesthetic experience here.

We’re also encouraged to use action verbs to create a sense of movement. These connect with our visual memory and our body’s memory.

Combine the three and many people assume it means that the best writing is journalistic or evocative of comic strips, sequentially building the frames of a surround-around film.

I personally believe we shouldn’t underestimate our sense of taste  and smell, two of the most evocative senses. They can bypass logic and trigger the deepest of associations, longings and memories, bringing any piece of writing to life. For me, fragrance, like music, can connect straight to the soul.

Not the senses I have but what I do with them is my kingdom. ~ Helen Keller

How can you discover what your sensory preferences are?

Look at three of your previous posts or pieces of writing. Print them off. Get a selection of highlighter pens. Look out for evidence of visual, aural, kinaesthetic, gustatory (taste) or olfactory (smell) preferences and descriptions and highlight each in a different colour. For example one person may say “I see what you mean. This piece has clarity.” Someone else may say “I hear what you’re saying but it doesn’t ring true for me.” Some people find a concept obscure where others may think it sounds crazy or something just doesn’t fit.

What is your lead representational system? Does it show up in your writing?  Try exploring your ‘weaker’ senses.

If you have a distinctive leading preference, try translating the thought into another representational system. For example, ‘as comforting as the site of my own front door’ could become ‘as comforting as a hot chocolate’ or ‘the sound of a mother’s voice’. It’ll help you empathise with how other people process the world. In western Europe and North America, there is less preference for gustatory and olfactory expression than in other parts of the world. I was much more comfortable talking with wild abandon about food and fragrance experiences in Greece than I am in Scotland.

Sensual accuity makes for good writing; mixing it up makes for vibrant creativity. In my coaching, I also learned through neuro linguistic programming that people can jar and clash if they are completely unaware that other people process information differently. Parents sometimes forget how much childlike wonder and innocent vivacity comes from children’s sensual experience and processing of the world; adults seem to be constantly busy trying to fill their heads with information and logical concepts – disconnecting them gradually from the most basic and beautiful pleasures of life.

How can you use the senses to improve your writing, your coaching, your parenting and your life?

Simple. Experiment with your senses. After you read this, go and have a snack and really savour it. The colours, taste, aroma and sound of it and the way it feels in your hand and in your mouth.

However, while the two aspects of the sense of smell — memory and desire— are past-and-future-tense prompts, the soul of scent is only truly discovered when we delight in its myriad pleasures every day. Scent is at its heady best, like life, in the present moment. ~ Sarah Ban Breathnach

Deliberately explore those senses you underuse. Spend the whole day today being aware of how you process the world. You’ll find yourself suddenly, gratefully in tune with details and a sense of wonder if you deliberately feel, smell, taste, listen to and see the world differently.

Disconnect from your computer and your head for a while. Luxuriate in your senses and try and recreate the experiences in your writing.

If you’re a coach or business person, become very, very aware of how your client processes language. It’s no coincidence that advertising presentations, hypnosis, fairy  tales and trance inductions all use a combination of sensual descriptions and representational systems to make you imagine, see, hear, smell, taste and feel. You’ll connect with more people if you cover all your bases.

I’m obsessed with sensual writing and synaesthesia – poetry and lyrics are infused with it. I suspect I’ve just discovered this week’s theme! I won’t ask you what your favourite aromas are; that’ll keep for later…if they’re rising to your mind as you read, jot them down for later!…

But today, I’d like you to think of one smell, scent, aroma, fragrance, only one, that sums up each of the seasons for you. If you had to evoke the memory of a season in a haiku, poem or piece of writing, which one scented detail would capture it best and evoke it for your reader? (Winter for me is mulled wine – apple and cinnamon!)

What does your home smell like right now!?

 

Silence for the Writing Soul

Why do we constantly fill our ears with noise and our lives with speed, leaving no time for those we love? Day after day, our oppressive schedules and mechanistic expectations drain yet another increment of joy from our souls. We rush from task to task, feeling guilty if we take any time for ourselves or for simple listening. We are tired from this hectic pace. We need to retreat into a time of rest and silence. ~Candy Paull

Are you blogweary? Even though you adore reading and maybe even earn your living from writing, are you tired of feeling you have to read dozens of blogs daily just to be able to market yourself and keep up? Are you tired of writing endless posts and comments for seemingly little return? Please don’t despair. Over the next few weeks, I’m going to show you how you can use your writing, reading and championing skills to to excavate the real you and make your life and your writing shine.

How can you connect with someone else’s heart and soul if you’ve become a stranger to your own?

Drink in some silence.

God is the friend of silence. See how nature —trees, flowers, grass  — grows in silence; see the stars, the moon, and the sun, how much they move in silence… We need silence to be able to touch souls. ~ Mother Teresa

You may be sitting in a silent room, hearing only the clicking of keys on your keyboard, but as long as you’re writing, you’re not silent. As long as you’re reading this and hearing my voice in your head, you’re not silent. Sometimes, without realising, we are thirsty for silence. That absolute stillness where suddenly, the solitary song of a bird enters our world loudly, suddenly, and with it, a dog barking in the distance. Suddenly, there’s the realisation that we are spending far too much time away from nature and the real, tangible world.

Try this:

Walk away from the computer right now. Go outside, or to a window if you can’t. Listen for the birds. See how many different songs you can single out. See which noises interfere, invade. Focus on one sound. Shut out everything else. Imagine its story…listen to the silence between the sounds, the silence between your thoughts.

Then come back and write it all down in a real notebook, with a real pen…

Did you do it?  If you didn’t, could you try it later?

I did something similar last year, and it led to me writing Birdsong, one of my favourite pieces ever.

Twittering is no substitute for the glory of a real dawn chorus.

How can silence help? Retreat from Twitter for a few days. See how much time you save and how much energy you didn’t realise you’d been investing in it. I’m not a Luddite – I know its value to community building and marketing. But I’m only talking about a few days’ silence. Will your followers leave you? Your followed ones forget you? Your tribe move on and leave you behind?

If you live in fear of those things daily, are you surprised you’re blogweary? If you constantly feel like you’re fighting for your life and your survival, are you surprised that ‘more popular’ blogs depress you? That other people’s ‘Followers’ statistics make you despair? Are you surprised that your muse has left you? That you feel you spend more time making noise than you do making art?

The notes I handle no better than many pianists. But the pauses between the notes — ah, that is where the art resides. ~ Artur Schnabel

I prefer quality to quantity, and I often find that a brave determination to cultivate one leads to the other. I prefer inspiration to motivation. For me, motivation is about pushing and is often fear driven, whereas inspiration is spirit led and synonymous with doing what we love. Inspiration comes from somewhere we can’t control, but it’s a never ending source. Our part is to be prepared, to listen. To believe that the power of revelation is as awesome as the power of motivation and drive.

Sit with some silence and decide if you’re driven by fear and motivation or led forward by inspiration and love. Some of us are a mixture of away and towards people. There is no right or wrong here, bad or good, but its important to know if one of those is dominant in your life. Too much self-motivation and fear can lead to anxiety and burnout, a feeling of never getting where we’re aiming for and an inability to rest.

A total dependence on inspiration without doing the daily work to harness it can lead to writer’s block or existential depression and angst, if for some reason, you can’t ‘feel’ it or capture it.

To make the right choices in life, you have to get in touch with your soul. To do this, you need to experience solitude…because in the silence you hear the truth and know the solutions. ~ Deepak Chopra

Your real colleagues and friends will notice your silence if you take a few days off from blogging, commenting and tweeting. They will ask. If no-one does, then that’s even more reason to get out into the real world and invest your love and care and talents in people who will notice.

If you’re earning very little from your pro-blogging, what’s stopping you going out and doing some charity work in the way that suits you best? No schedules, no obligations, just contributing love, time and energy. Let your computer sit silent for a while.  You won’t be any worse off financially, but you’ll have tales to tell and a heart that’s had a workout.  If you don’t blog for money but to contribute and support and entertain, then why on earth don’t you just take a break!? Come back refreshed?

Try this:

In your journal, explore what fears and feelings you felt in the silence. If you’re blogweary and have read this far but have decided that you can’t  – or won’t  – be silent for a few days, then I’d love if you could share your reasons with us.

If you do take a break, please come back and share what you learned.

In the coming weeks, I’ll be looking at more ways of rediscovering and refreshing yourself so that you can revitalise the way you support, nurture and connect with others.

In the meantime, if you haven’t already checked out my article Birdsong, please do. I feel it’s one of my best pieces and many people have written to say it inspired and helped them.  It’s a piece I’m very proud of.  Shaking off the Shoulds also explores the themes of overwhelm, inspiration and silence.

If you think you maybe just need a blogging spring clean, please have a read of  my post How to Beat the Blogging Blues.

Go placidly amid the noise and haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence.

How to Write like Adam Lambert

adam-lambertWe watch American Idol every season, a small nuclear family sitting in a Scottish living room, eating pizza, my husband and I drinking wine, all of us enjoying not only the talent, but the stage-managed drama and entertainment of it all.  It cuts across the age gap and gives us common ground to discuss.

This year, Adam Lambert has been our favourite from the start. But here’s why he got me thinking about writing the other day.

Talent alone is not enough.

Millions of people want to sing or write,  to touch hearts with their voices. Millions would love to make masses of money from doing it, too.  But what makes some people stand out?

Adam Lambert started young, that’s clear to see, and I reckon he’s had the support of his loved ones since the moment he figured out what he was born to do. I loved when his dad pointed out, against a backdrop of childhood photos of Adam dressing up and performing, that he was never much into sports.

He’s not a new phenomenon. He’s put in hard graft, earning a living from delivering Broadway performances every night, week in, week out. Maybe he even failed a few auditions along the way and learned from those, too.

He’s honed his talent with hard work and determination, and has learned how to command a stage, create presence and connect with an audience.

He chose to go the American Idol route, confident that the time was right. Impeccable timing and choosing the right platform are crucial for all artists who want to take their work to a wider audience.

He came to the show, daring not only to be different, but to be himself and different. The hair, the earrings, the painted nails, they’re simply symbols that say I’m not afraid to be me.

And just when we were getting used to that, the hair got slicked back and the image changed, just to mix things up.

He’s been versatile, experimenting with a variety of styles yet always, always letting his unique brilliance shine through.

Sometimes understated, sometimes over the top entertaining. That clear, haunting, passionate voice, that core of self-belief and keen sense of what he wants to do, where he wants to go and who he wants to connect with – it comes out in everything he does.

My teenage daughter sings, writes and acts. Some Idol performances get her ranting or raving, others leave her indifferent.  But Adam Lambert’s performance of ‘Mad World’ – a song that she herself sings – stunned her, left us all transfixed.

We felt we’d had a glimpse of genius. The pain, the passion and the experiences he distilled into every syllable connected straight to that part of the soul where empathy lives. He made an already beautiful song his own. He made it an anthem. 

He sang like a part of his very soul would die if he didn’t. I wish more people would aim to do that in their writing. 

Some days I feel myself wanting to scream at fellow writers that it’s not all about the money, the fame and the glory. When you’re hard-working, passionate, driven to hone your talent, your gift, your life’s work, till it’s gem-bright and brilliant, the money follows.

Make people cry. Make them smile as they sit alone reading your words. Stun them into silence. Make them say Wow! with wide open eyes and gaping mouths. Don’t settle for mediocrity or pander to the people who pay. Be brilliant. Be yourself. Be your best self.

Write Like Grissom, Feel Like God

The great creator lives within each of us. All of us contain a divine, expressive spark, a creative candle intended to light our path and that of our fellows. ~ Julia Cameron

We’re so much more than our taglines and Google stats, our comments numbers and subscriber lists.  In our online lives, we can choose to name ourselves as elaborately or as simply as we like.

Are you a writer, a blogger, an entrepreneur? A technical expert, a website designer? An enabler, an inspirer, a motivator, a chronicler of  lives and times? A teacher, a homemaker, a supporter of souls, a connector, a silent but loyal reader?

I don’t think of you as ‘traffic’ or a ‘lurker’ if you read my blog but haven’t subscribed or commented. You’re a person who, for reasons of your own, simply hasn’t commented or subscribed. My identity, happiness and personal definition of success aren’t inextricably linked to a new set of numbers in my life. I’m just glad you’re here. For this moment  is all there is, and right now, we’re connected.

We can choose to feel as powerful or as powerless as we like.

We can choose to use our powers wisely for the good of others – whether it’s to serve, support, sell, entertain, teach, present facts or inspire. 

If you, too, are a writer, you share in the god-like process of creativity. In some ways, all life is dead already – yesterday, a moment ago… gone. But if you’re rooted and fly in the present, you keep the whole world alive.

When we write, we use the same skills as CSI’s, crime scene investigators, sifting through the details, recreating moments, lives, motives. We may be presenting facts and evidence, but if we write non-fiction, they’re our versions of facts. If we write fiction, they’re not even versions, they’re entire worlds of our own creation.

So how can we have that greatness, that god-like creativity at our disposal and ever feel powerless?

Write a loved one back to life today. Let us smell the food they savoured, touch what they touched, see the worlds they watched, feel the breezes they walked in. Paint their passions, show us the part of them that shone. Be content to be the mirror, the crystal that reflects, the jug that fills to overflowing, and they – and you – will live forever.

(If you haven’t had the chance to read And the Angels Sang, please take a moment. )

A Faithful Hand

Oh, the comfort, the inexpressible comfort of feeling safe with a person; having neither to weigh thoughts nor to measure words but to pour them all out, just as it is, chaff and grain together, knowing that a faithful hand will take and sift them, keeping what is worth keeping, and then, with the breath of kindness, blow the rest away. ~ George Eliot

These words smiled up at me when I first discovered them, slipped a hand in mine, waiting to be taken home and shared with my husband.

I rarely write about him; I often refer to him, and to incidents in our family life, but to write about my love for him would be to go too deeply for comfort into the depths of my own being. After decades of devotion, it would damage something precious to try and unpick and examine the threads of the tapestry our life has become. Sometimes, words don’t go far enough.

Imagine the holy place that speaks to your soul in sacred silence, the sun, the sky, the sea, the earth, the breath of inspiration beneath your wings, a parent’s unconditional love, a child’s smiling eyes full of unquestioning faith and devotion, the way your best friend feels like home. The precious details of your day that make you rejoice to be alive.  Anything that gives you a glimpse of God and can only be expressed in a prayer of gratitude.

That’ll give you some idea of how blessed I feel.

Is there anything or anyone you feel you can’t do justice to with words?

My favourite editor…

It’s no concidence that my husband is the first person I trust if I need the pre-submission draft of a longer piece checked. There are no ceilings when it comes to his belief in me. I could get a million negative comments from others, but as long as I liked a piece and he liked it, I wouldn’t wobble and crash.

He’s  more well read than I am, and devours books on every topic without prejudice. He has a sharp eye, a longing for clarity and an ear that appreciates writing that flows effortlessly, regardless of sentence length. He likes authenticity and originality, passion and purpose.

One thing he does hate is pretentiousness. To hear him say “It’s good. You write well.” makes me feel like I’ve come home, and if he doesn’t like a word or a phrase, I just say, OK, and go to work on changing it. No fuss, no pain, no ego.

My Child Writer…

I write now like I did when I was a child. I have no cruel inner critic when it comes to my writing. I get the same pleasure when I edit as I do when I’m spring cleaning, redecorating a room, gardening or packing essentials into the smallest bag possible, ready for the simple pleasures of a beach holiday. I edit my own work like a child joyfully knocking down sandcastles, knowing the sand and the sea will still be there tomorrow. And when a piece is done, my heart knows it like a child does when a colourful crayoned picture is finished and handed over, and a sweet voice says this is for you.

My problems begin when someone else wants to edit my work.

What I need from an editor…

I can only work with editors who have talent but no egos, people who are so comfy in their own skins that they don’t need to get any gratification or power trips from suggesting changes to another person’s work. I like editors who edit for the same reason I write – because they care, and would find it impossible not to.  Coaches want to see a person become the best they can be; good editors feel the same about a piece of writing.

But that’s where personal opinions make editing a minefield for me. In most cases, if you have an editor, it means they have the power to choose whether or not one of your pieces gets published. If your main aim is to be published, then you have to accept that they’ll be superimposing their own paradigm of “the best it can be” over your work, using their preferences and their criteria.

That’s OK if they love the bulk of your work, expect even more from you and agree with you about what you consider to be the best you’ve done so far.

What works for me…

I’ve had four editors in VOICE, the coaching newsletter I write for. Three have brought their coaching talents to editing, which has both raised my game and spoiled me for other editorial styles.

As editors, they’ve had important things in common: they share their praise and support easily, they have all accepted that I hate tracking, that I freak out if they write their own suggestions all over my work and that the first thing I need to have before I’ll start re-editing a piece  is their gut feeling about it. If they don’t love an article, it’s much, much easier for me to create a new one from scratch; I hate having to make so many changes to  a piece that it no longer feels like it’s mine. I’ve been lucky enough to receive a lot of editorial  emails beginning with “I love it! There are only one or two things I was wondering if you could maybe consider changing.”

The editor who ‘fired’ me, a coach whose own edgy, sarcastic writing I didn’t enjoy, loved writing her ‘improvements’ all over my pieces with tracking, but didn’t like lyricism, long pieces, Scottish spelling or me. One of my favourite pieces, Birdsong, was published intact because I’d got to the stage where I said to her “Take it or leave it but don’t dare change a comma or a word.”

My favourite editors have discovered how I operate best. They’ve learned that I will edit happily for days for the fun and the dialogue, but that I don’t respond well to blunt criticism of my work or changes I haven’t made myself; I react like a fiercely protective parent and the stunned, hurt child whose crayon drawing  has had red pen corrections scribbled all over it.

This is why I’ll probably never be able to be a copywriter, a ghost writer or a freelancer. I know this attitude may make me look like a primadonna, but please believe me, I’m not. I love hacking my drafts to bits and trying to polish them to perfection but I stop when it’s no longer fun or when I feel like I’m ripping the heart, authenticity and spontaneity out of a piece. I know all novelists and freelancers need good editors but I think a special kind of editing is necessary when the writing is deeply personal as well as creative self expression.

That’s why I would happily adhere to a blogger’s requests for me to change something in a commissioned guest post. As a blogger, you are your site’s creative parent; you’re reponsible for whatever goes out on your site, and I respect that.

Be your own editor…

  • Before you send a piece anywhere, be your own editor, your own supportive coach who asks good questions. Editing is writing, an inextricable part of it, so find your own metaphor for helping you love it. Imagine chipping away at a sculpture like Michaelangelo, trying to reveal the work of art you know is within. Imagine it’s like gardening, or packing a small suitcase for a holiday or spring cleaning your house from basement to attic. Before we pack or garden or declutter, we need to know why we’re doing it, and what we hope to reveal or achieve.
  • Who are you? Clean up your own personal stuff. The hidden you, the real you, will be revealed through your writing, whether you want it to happen or not. Is this a person you’re happy for the world to meet?  Ask What does this piece say about me? every time you write, even when the piece is based on the needs of your reader. Remember that everything you write on the internet will be visible for all time. Write something that your grandchildren won’t cringe at.
  • Ask yourself if your writing is a vehicle for passing on useful information or if visitors enjoy the experience of being with you and your work  as much as the information they take away. If it’s the latter, don’t be too quick to edit your quirks, personality and passions out of your presentation.
  • Learn where your own lines are drawn and how far you’re willing to cross them to have a piece appear in print. Integrity is priceless.
  • Imagine that everything you write forms part of your resumé. It’s OK to see proofreading as part of your editing, but fresh eyes and ears and leaving some time and space before proofreading  is vital. I find it helps to print a piece off then go through it with a pen, pretending that it’s not my work.
  • Be clear about who your reader is; honour the bond you create with each and every individual who takes the time to read your words.
  • Love and respect yourself with the same unconditional devotion you give your loved ones.  A piece of the divine universe is trying to recreate itself through you and your writing. Scrub up and let it shine through.

How do you feel about editing and being edited?

(This was supposed to be a birthday ‘card’ for my husband, a simple quote, but as often happens, something flooded in and overflowed. He didn’t mind, though…he’s my very own Colonel Brandon.

My current IAC VOICE editor is Linda Dessau, a writer, creativity coach and expert on music therapy. My previous VOICE editors were Angela Spaxman, IAC President and leadership coach, and Barbra Sundquist, a respected coach certification mentor coach.)