Receiving Constructive Criticism

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Can you handle a little constructive criticism? How about a lot? How about so much that all you do is sit in a room and say nothing while everyone else talks about your work? If so, then congratulations, you have successfully mastered the skill of receiving constructive criticism (and would, or have, survived a college-level workshop). If not, then don’t worry. Just like giving constructive criticism is a skill that takes time and practice to learn, so too is receiving it. 

If receiving any kind of criticism is hard for you, know you are not alone. We’re all human, and we all want to be good at what we do. The great thing about art is that you’re good at it simply by doing it. The essence of art is in the creation. If you created something, you did good art. Now, of course, art as we understand it also has “rules”. I.E. If you’re writing in Iambic Pentameter, then all your lines should be in Iambic Pentameter. How you react to someone pointing out that a line isn’t in Iambic Pentameter is what’s important, as well how you turn that point out into a positive change in your work.

Hopefully the kind of feedback you get on your work follows the guidelines I set up for giving constructive criticism in my last post. If not, these points can still be helpful, and I hope you’ll use them to find some positive outcomes from negative feedback.

Opinion VS Trend VS Fact: Gather all the fact

When it comes to receiving constructive criticism, the key ingredient is receiving a lot of it. It may sound scary, and that’s fair. It’s a lot easier to imagine being told what doesn’t work about your art from one person you trust than from a bunch of people (trusted or not). But at the end of the day, art is subjective. Even if you’re writing poetry in a specific rhythm, the one line where you don’t follow the rhythm could be a statement, and it could land well with some and not so well with others. The more feedback you receive, the easier a time you’ll have sorting out the difference between opinions, trends, and facts. And thus, the easier a time you’ll have improving your work to something more spectacular. 

So, what is the difference between an opinion, a trend, and a fact? 

Let’s start with the easy one: fact. A fact is something that relates to those “rules” art has. The one line in your Iambic Pentameter poem that doesn’t fit the rhythm. The horizon that falls above the proper ‘rules of third’ line in a photo. The one brushstroke that goes in the opposite direction of the others in a painting. Breaking these “rules” is a technique in and of itself. But if it’s not something you intended to do, and if it doesn’t add to the work overall, then it’s a fact that needs to be changed. Otherwise, it’s a fact that proves a point.

Now, opinion and trend are sort of the same thing. They’re both subjective. You write a story with a character that hates grapes but loves grape juice. You paint a monochromatic painting with just one object off in a different color. You create an abstract sculpture that curves in weird and unusual ways. You did all of these for a specific reason, none of them breaking any “rules” (or at least breaking them to make a point). You ask that one person you trust what they think about it. They don’t like it. Do you change everything you made because one person doesn’t like it? How do you know if that’s just their opinion or if the oddity is really detracting from the rest of the work?

You gather a lot of data, that’s how.

You should have as many people critique your work as you can get if you’re truly interested in improving it. (Art does not, by nature, need to be improved. If you’re happy with it, you’re happy with it. Only seek critique if you desire it). The more people you get feedback from, the more data you’ll have to sort through, and the more obvious the answers to your questions become. 

If only a few people point something out, then they just share that opinion. If more than half of the responders point something out, it’s a trend, and you’ll want to look back at it and consider if it’s worth altering.

It’s important to know the difference between trend and opinion. Everyone who views your work will have a different opinion. And I guarantee you that at least one person somewhere (but most likely more) will not like something about it. But that’s their opinion. And if you changed every little thing, to match every person’s opinion, you’d never be finished, and you’d be going back and forth between options for all of eternity. 

It’s not you, it’s your work.

Receiving critique can be especially hard if you also battle with rejection sensitivity. Even if you don’t, it’s still difficult to hear what seems off in something you did. I’m a subscriber to the notion that people want to be good at what they do. So, when something crops up that challenges your work, it’s easy to take it personally.

Not taking something personally is easier said than done, I know. 

But if you think about constructive criticism in the right frame of mind, then it’s easier than you’d think. 

Hopefully whoever is giving you feedback is well versed in the skill of it. Getting feedback from a quality source is the first step, as the overall set-up for constructive criticism is based around solid ideas that relate to your work, not your person. If not, these tips will still help keep you centered as you prepare to go into the lion’s den.

  • Remember you want to get better. 

Chances are, you’ve gone seeking constructive criticism for your work. Theoretically, this means you are seeking feedback that will help improve the quality of what you did/made. If your reasoning for asking for constructive criticism was not that (such as simply wanting to share something you made or fishing for compliments) then I suggest you first rephrase your request. 

If you are genuinely looking to improve, just keep that in the back of your mind as you read (or hear) what everyone has to say. They are there to help you. They are there to help your work. They are there to make things better

  • Take a hot minute

Never respond to critique right away. Just don’t do it. The brain’s natural first response to a critique is going to be bad, no matter how good you are at receiving it. You will most likely want to argue against some things, or go off on something else. This is okay. This is normal. But this is not what should be used to handle revisions. Because then nothing will change. 

Before you respond to feedback or start working on changing things, take a step away, do some deep breathing, distract yourself with something else for a little while. When you do come back to it, your head will be in a better space. You will be removed from your brain’s initial response mode and will be able to see what really does need arguing, and what was rightfully said that your brain just didn’t want to admit at the start. And being in a calmer state of mind will also help keep your conversations with your critiquers civil, thus preserving that relationship.

  • Separate the art from the artist

Yes, that means you from your work. Another thing that’s easier said than done. It seems impossible to create a work of art and not put a bit of your heart and soul into it. That’s the point of art. But it’s important to recognize that that little piece of your heart and soul is not you. It’s a tiny, microscopic part of you that broke off and grew into its own being. If it grew a little funky or lopsided, that doesn’t mean the piece of you was wrong, that’s just how it grew. 

Another way to look at it is that your art is a reflection of you, but the critique is in the building of the mirror. If the image is distorted, that’s because the glass is off. You aren’t distorted. A critique on your work is about the craft. Not the idea. Not the passion. Not the creativity. But the process. Art is a skill that is always growing. And you can only learn what’s best, by learning what isn’t.

You are never done growing, but you will slow down.

The last piece of wisdom I leave you with is simple. Art is a skill that is always growing, and you will never be done growing. You can make art for 100 years, and read every craft book, and study every classic, and still have something to learn. What’s important to keep in mind, especially for newer artists, is that the learning curve does level off, it just doesn’t stop. 

You will learn a lot when you start off. Your constructive criticism could be pages long of all the things that need work. It will be daunting. But you will reach a point where you’ve learned more and practiced more and have become skilled. 

And for the veteran artists out there, reality check: There will always be something you don’t know. There will always be a way something could have been done better. Your art will never be perfect. Someone will always have a critique. And with enough practice, you’ll take it like a pro.

Giving Constructive Criticism

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I have seen a lot of criticism in my days. And not all of it is constructive. Criticism is simply the expression of disapproval of someone or something based on perceived faults or mistakes. But the expression of that criticism, and the goal in expressing it, varies. Criticism given without the intent or delivery to help, is not constructive. There’s a notion going around that if someone responds negatively to criticism they just ‘can’t handle a little constructive criticism’. If you criticize something someone does and they take it ‘badly’, consider that maybe you’re not being as constructive as you think. 

But that’s alright. Giving constructive criticism is a skill. And like any skill it’s something that needs to be taught, practiced, and grown. In an attempt to help bridge the gap between the criticizers and criticizees (yes I know that’s not a real word), I would like to run you through the basics of how to turn criticism into constructive feedback. 

Rule One: Only Offer When Asked

This, obviously, does not apply to things such as a job. If you are a boss, and your employee does something incorrect, you need to step in and fix it, regardless of if they want to know about it. (They probably do, you’d be surprised, as most people like to do their best work). For art, however, not everyone putting something out into the world is asking for critique.

Sometimes, as often happens, you just make something kinda cool or fun and just want to show it off. Like when a kid draws a stick-figure version of their family. They aren’t asking for their parents to sit them down and go over proper proportions and color theory. No, they want their parents to say “Hey, you made something, and that on it’s own is pretty neat,” and then stick that drawing right up there on the fridge. Art is a skill that needs time and practice to grow. You may now know someone’s skill level. They may just be at the point where they want you to say “Hey, you made a thing, and that’s cool!”

The act of sitting down and making anything is, by nature, pretty dang awesome. So unless someone has shown you something and specifically asked for honest, critique-like feedback, just be in awe by the very fact that they sat down and devoted the time to making something that didn’t exist before. This person has made themself vulnerable by sharing their art with you. And that alone is quite the accomplishment. 

Rule Two: Start With the Good

Nothing, and I mean nothing, is ever without an inherent goodness. Art, work, relationships, everything has a positive outlook to it. I’m reminded of an episode of Friends, where Joey’s character was in a pretty lack-luster T.V. show. After watching the pilot, the rest of the characters sit around trying to dool out what small compliments they can muster: It had good lighting, the costumes were good, oh, the marvels of modern technology. Although small and seemingly non-relative to the overall ‘goodness’ of the show, there’s still a goodness to be found. 

If you can’t find something to compliment someone on for a task or piece of art, then you may not be looking hard enough. A worker comes to you and says they messed up placing an order? “Thank you for coming to me first instead of trying to fix it on your own or letting it go unnoticed. I appreciate your honesty and willingness to admit your mistakes”. A child’s stick-figure drawing of their family? “I can tell you really care about your family because you spent the time to specifically pick out their favorite color for each of them and that shows a real awareness of what they like”. A friend calls you ten minutes before you were supposed to meet to cancel your outing? “Thank you for calling me instead of just sending a text or not even contacting me at all. I know you’re busy and I appreciate you letting me know”.

There’s a good spin to everything, and finding it and explaining it helps the critique go well. A spoonful of sugar and all that…

Why before and not after?

You may be wondering why you wouldn’t want to start with the bad and end on a good note. Get the bad news out of the way and then you can go off listening to the good. I don’t know what it is about the human brain but good news and bad news don’t hold the same lasting effects.

For whatever evolutionary advantage it brought about, the mind tends to linger on the bad more than the good. And, worse yet, being in a state of bad-lingering makes it harder to see anything good. 

If you spend ten minutes telling someone everything that didn’t work in their piece and then end with ‘hey but your use of rhyming was cool’. They probably didn’t even hear that last part. They’re too busy obsessing over everything else. 

However, if you start with ‘first of all, I love how you used rhyming in this’, and then went into what needed some work, the person is going to remember how you liked their rhyming. They may even use that to help work on the rest of the issues. And, they’ll have been so happy that you liked their rhyming, they might not take as big a hit from the rest of what you said. 

So, please, start with the good.

Rule Three: Change Your Language

No, I don’t mean start speaking Russian or Cantonese, (unless you already speak Russian or Cantonese, in which case don’t start speaking French or Italian). I mean re-frame your state of mind, and the state of mind in the person you are critiquing, by changing certain words you use. You’ll notice I have yet to use the word “wrong” in this posting. I used incorrect. Inaccurate. Lack-luster. But never wrong. Never bad. 

Because good and bad are subjective. And critique needs to have an objective tone to it. An objective style helps battle RSD (rejection sensitive dysphoria). By removing your subjective indications, you tell the artist/worker/etc. that this isn’t personal. Granted, it’s hard to talk about certain things, especially art, without some kind of subjective opinion. But the overall tone should be factual-based.

Re-shaping how you say certain things plays a good note in the human mind. You can think ‘it’s bad, horrible, awful’ all you want. But don’t say that. Think first, and ask yourself how hearing what you would say would make you feel.

Here’s a handy list of some common critique languages and their less-intense counterparts:

This is bad  –  This doesn’t have the same weight and effect as the rest of the piece

This is wrong  –  This part could use a little work

You’re bad  –  You’re still learning

I don’t like this – I find this bit a little jarring

This is too *insert adjective here* – This area is a little heavy handed, maybe some subtlety would serve it better

This is stupid – This doesn’t stand up to your usual quality of work

Here’s how you should do it – May I show you a different way that might work better?

The argument for sugar coating:

You catch more flies with honey.

But in all honesty, Mary Poppins was right. A spoonful of sugar does help the medicine go down. You can ‘tough-love’ it out all you want, but not everyone reacts well to that. In fact, I’m not sure how many do react well to tough-love, but I’m betting it’s a little lower than you’d think. I’ve come to notice that a lot of people who claim that tough-love toughens a person up, are actually really bad at receiving criticism themselves (be it constructive or not). Now, I’m no psychologist, but I’m betting it’s some kind of cycle. Everyone was hard on me so I’ll be hard on everyone

Now, I use the term ‘sugar coating’ here because I can guess some people (who made it past the first section without quitting outright) might look at this list and say something about special snowflakes. But it’s hardly a secret that being in the right frame of mind makes learning something a lot easier. It’s why breakfast is the most important meal of the day. Being well-fed, well-rested, and generally well taken care of eases your day. 

And the same is true for receiving constructive criticism. If you tell me something is bad, I will feel bad, and I will not be in the right state of mind to learn what is good. But if you tell me something is good and just needs a little work to be better, I’m all ears. I’m eager. I want to learn, and I want to be better. 

And that’s the ticket.

People want to be better. Everyone wants to do their best, and the closer they are (or, importantly, think they are) the harder they will work to reach that better goal. But if they think they’re already bad or wrong, their motivation lessens. They see a longer stretch of road before them and sometimes they just don’t have the strength or energy to deal with all that. 

So shorten that road and help them along.

Rule Four: For the Love of All That is Holy, Please Be Specific and Give Examples

Imagine this: You are tasked with building a lego house. You are given a pile of bricks and set about your business. You build a truly awesome house. It took you hours. You are really proud of that house. 

Then the person you told you to build that house comes along, says, “No, that’s not right, fix it,” and then walks away.

Fix what? How?

If you are going to criticize someone, you should be ready and willing to offer advice on how to be better.

Let me repeat that, just in case you skimmed over it.

If you are going to criticize someone, you should be ready and willing to offer advice on how to be better.

Critique, by nature, implies that the critic knows what they are talking about, one way or another. Maybe they spent years in school learning how to be a manager. Maybe they’ve published seven best selling novels. Maybe they’ve just watched a lot of movies and interacted with other viewers to see what was ‘good’ and ‘bad’. For whatever reason, a critic has some factor of authority on the matter at hand. Therefore, if you feel you are in the position to offer constructive criticism, then you should know why the things you’re pointing out don’t work and ideas on how to fix them up.

The flip side to this is if you are not actually in a position to be properly critiquing something, but the person who made that thing or did that job is asking for your feedback. In this case it’s even more important that you offer some kind of advice with your comments. Harder, of course, because you may not know the answers. But you should at least be able to vocalize why something doesn’t feel right or fit. For example: you may not have the poetic knowledge to understand that every other line of a poem is written in iambic pentameter but one line isn’t. But you do know something is off about it. The rhythm doesn’t flow. You can pinpoint. And all good constructive criticism pinpoints. 

This act of specifics and advice goes back to the concept of humans wanting to do better. You really wanted to build a good lego house. You really wanted to impress that person and knock their socks off with how cool it was! But they didn’t think it was cool. And you have no idea why. You’re lost, and each time you try to fix the house they keep saying ‘it’s wrong’. How many times do you try before you give up?

Now imagine that person comes back after that first house building. They say, “This is a cool house, but I need that lego house to have a pointed roof, not a flat one.” How many tries would it have taken you to figure that out? But now, you know. You can build that roof they wanted and finish the task with a job well done. 

Apply that policy to any piece of art or job that needs to be done. No one can read your mind. No one can read the mind of art. (And if we could, I guarantee you it would be scary in there). Everyone needs a little direction or, at the very least, a little indication. If an employee fills out a form wrong, show them how to fill it out right. If someone shows you a painting that feels off-balance, point out where in the composition things are askew. If your roommate keeps putting the dishes away in the wrong spot, show them where the right spot is (or get together and decide as a team where things should go). 

Pinpoint, explain, advise. 

Giving good constructive criticism is hard, and it takes a great deal of time and effort if you’re going to do it correctly. But doing it correctly is the number one way to make sure it is well received and, in the end, helps the person you’re critiquing. And if your goal in criticizing someone isn’t to help them improve, then I suggest you don’t criticize them at all.

It can take a while before you naturally start to get the flow of giving constructive criticism, but keep at it and soon you’ll find that it comes easily. 

Remember this, most of all:
Constructive criticism should be more constructive than criticism. If your feedback doesn’t pave a proper path for improvement, then it’s not constructive enough. Re-frame your language and point out specifics with advice on moving forward.

New Article and Workshop!

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Check out my article ‘Endings: Bitter, Sweet, and Everything Inbetween’ on SavvyAuthors!
https://savvyauthors.com/endings-bitter-sweet-and-everything-in-between-by-anna-denisch/

And there’s only a few spots left in my workshop ‘From Premise to Plot’
https://savvyauthors.com/community/classes/from-premise-to-plot-with-anna-denisch.1473/

Hope to see you all there!

Surface Stereotyping Syndrome and the Catch 22

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Here’s the rundown: My mom and I used to hang out a lot more. It was inevitable, we did live together. But then she moved out (yay low rent from living in your mom’s old house) and we didn’t see each other as often (boo mom now living an hour away). But another interesting thing happened. 

I stopped feeling like I was constantly being judged.

And I know what you’re thinking: wow, her mom judged her a lot. But that’s not what happened here. My mom judged me the normal amount a mom judges their daughter as a form of self-projection. Probably less so since she actually let me continue doing the things she deemed not worthy. But the reason I felt less judged really had nothing to do with what my mom thought about me. It had everything to do with what she thought about other people.

If you know my mom, or get to know her, you’ll find that she is one of the kindest, most caring people in the world. I say this because it’s important to me that you all know that everyone is human, and my mom is no different. 

My mom has what I like to call ‘surface stereotyping syndrome’. For example, she does not actually believe that girls can’t like, or shouldn’t like, Star Wars. She has a daughter that was obsessed with them for goodness sake. But on the surface, she’ll default to Star Wars = Boys. A prime example: We were watching one of those shows, where the contestant had X amount of time to run around and grab as many toys or whatever they wanted and they got to keep it all for Christmas gifts. The woman with the cart ran straight for the Star Wars aisle and started piling up everything. I had no reaction to this. My mom said, “Oh, she must have boys.”

You see? It’s not that she doesn’t believe girls don’t like Star Wars, she just relies on stereotypes, judges things based on them; probably something she got from her own mother. Had I been a child or pre-teen instead of the completely well-adjusted adult I am today, I might have heard that and thought that girls couldn’t like Star Wars because ‘she must have boys’. SSS is a dangerous pit. 

But SSS is deeper than that. SSS is also the tendency to judge (and openly judge) other people, especially if you’re with your friends. Humans are social creatures, and, by definition, are all xenophobes. It’s nothing to be ashamed of. It’s natural. It’s always ‘us vs. them’. What does matter is how you define ‘us’ and how you define ‘them’. And how willing you are to let ‘them’ become ‘us’.

But enough theoretical mumbo jumbo let me explain with an actual real-life thing that happened.

My mom and I pull up to J.C. Penny. She parks the car and we wait for a moment, drinking some refreshing water and getting ready to face another store. It’s not Black Friday or anything, we’re just champion shoppers. 

Two women walk out of the store. They are tall, thin, with gorgeous hair. (I remember because it was windy but even blown around the hair looks amazing. I kind of want to ask them what hair products they use and if I can steal it from them). They look like they could be in a magazine for beauty. 

My mom sees them as well. With a mocking little voice she says, “Oh look at us, pretty girls with our little Sephora bags.” Then we get out of the car and go to buy things at Sephora.

I wish you knew my mom so you wouldn’t be reading this going, “Wow, what a bitch.”

But that’s SSS for ya. These two women had done and said nothing to us. They probably didn’t even know we were looking at them. For all we knew they could have been literal saints. But as far as my mom could tell, they were the ‘them’. They were the skinny, beautiful, conventionally attractive women that made life difficult for us and our thunder thighs. 

These women did nothing but had been surfacely stereotyped. Stereotyped because they looked the way they did, surfacely because for all we know they were probably really nice and had just gone to get more of whatever magnificent hair gel kept them shiny and strong in the wind. 

This is the reason I felt horribly judged all the time. Not by my mom, but by everyone else. I realized that most of the people I knew suffered from SSS. (Or actually really were just bitches). I started paying attention, listening and observing the conversations of those I hung out with. 90% of the time there was at least one judgement passed on a complete stranger. 

Humans have this weird tendency, I’ve noticed, to think everyone thinks like them. Not to say anything about opinions of course. We all know everyone is different. But we think that humans are also incredibly similar. You may think this form of judgement comes from an “everyone judges me so I’ll judge them back” but it’s the opposite. What your brain is really processing is “I judge everyone, so everyone judges me”.

And most of the time, you judge everyone because everyone around you does.

Catch 22 anyone?

Once I stopped living with my mother, and I stopped hanging out with my one best friend, I was lonely. It’s hard not to be. But I was also happier. I no longer felt like simply existing gave reason to judge. I wasn’t afraid of simply being in the world anymore. (Granted there were still a lot of things I could do that would get me judged, but that’s anxiety for ya). I realized that being around other people who were judging made me see the world in one way: Full of people who judge. 

But I don’t judge people out in the wild. Until this freedom I thought I was the only one. Because so many people I knew suffered from SSS. But I hung out more with people that didn’t. And we were too busy talking and having fun to notice anyone else, let alone have the time or thought to judge them. And I started to realize, hey, everyone else in this restaurant probably is also too busy to judge. Somehow, my mom and old friends had become ‘them’. 

Nobody likes to be told they stereotype. But that’s just the way human brains process information. There is nothing inherently wrong with it, as long as you don’t hold your stereotypes to be true, and as long as you don’t hurt someone by having them. 

If you do have to continue to be around sufferers of SSS, the number one way to keep their habits out of your ‘truths of the universe’ is to call them out on it. I did this with the game show.

“Oh, she must have boys.”

“Or girls that like Star Wars.”

My mom nods and agrees. I win.

I did not do this with the women at Sephora. Probably because we were in public, and I wasn’t sure how amenable to the ‘super models can be saints, too’ argument my mom would be. 

Let’s take another example under wing, for fun. 

Assume you are an artist. You genuinely hate every piece of art made by every other artist. (I don’t know, maybe you have a superiority complex). I can almost guarantee you you will never accept a compliment from another artist. Especially if you’ve lied about liking their stuff before. You hate all of their art, therefore they all hate your art. You are the solo ‘us’ and the other artists are the ‘them’. 

I have seen this happen in real life. A few times actually. Surface Stereotype Syndrome is a deep pit. It’s hard to climb out of, especially because the pit grows with the more people you have in it. 

We assume humans think the way we think, because we are also humans. It’s not true. But knowing this is a problem can help you fix how you feel about yourself. I do not judge, therefore no one judges me. 

Block Scheduling: It’s Not Just for Dentists

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A bit of history on the title, first:

My mom is the business manager for a dentist. Nearly a year ago they set up a system to help them maximize profits. They had their schedule set up in blocks. The early morning was reserved for easy, non-drill procedures, the afternoons for new patients and high-cost production. This alleviated full days full on low-cost appointments. It was a system that helped them make more money, and it’s a system I put in place to help with both my writing and everyday life.

Block scheduling. 

If you’ve been following along since day one (or went back and read the first blog post of mine), you’ll know by now that I have ADD. And even though the medicine makes life exponentially better, there’s still some issues. I have a lot of habits I picked up to deal with/give-into the problem that I now need extra work on to fix. 

What that means is I’m really bad at doing things and now there’s no excuse. 

I still have a tendency towards laziness because my unmedicated brain needed it and now I’m just used to it. Whereas before it was a necessity, now it’s a choice. And it’s one that I’m working on every day to change. And block scheduling has really helped.

The wonderful thing about block scheduling is that it’s super easy to customize and personalize to fit your lifestyle, needs, and activities. Science tells us that the ‘average brain’ (as if there’s such a thing) can only focus for two hour intervals before it needs a break. (Someone ought to let schools in on this knowledge). But each person is unique, and so your ‘focus’ time may be different. You could last as long as three hours or as little as ten minutes. But that’s what’s great about block scheduling. You get to create the sizes of the blocks.

Let me show you what mine currently looks like:

Morning:
-Up between 8-8:30
-Breakfast and phone games (I have a lot). Done by 9
-Clean up or work until 10
-Hyperfixation time til 11
-Clean up or work until 12

Afternoon:
-Take medicine around 12 or 1
-Hyperfixate until hungry/1
-Lunch and phone games. Done by 2
-Clean up or work until 4
-Hyperfixate until hungry/7
-Whatever the heck until bed around 10/11 (It takes me a solid hour to fall asleep)

Do you see how much wiggle room I even gave myself? That’s the other joy of block scheduling. There’s always room for that last-minute emergency patient that just has to be seen at 10, or that 45-minute drill procedure that ended up taking an hour. The walls of your blocks aren’t stiff and straight. They’re flexible. They’re more like rolls of clay you can smoosh about day by day as you need. 

Here’s the thing I’ve noticed about schedules. You either love ‘em or you hate ‘em. 

I hate ‘em.

I can’t tell you why, but the very concept of a ‘routine’ makes me want to die. Doing the same thing every day for all of eternity is torture. And that hasn’t changed with the medication, I’m pretty sure that’s just a part of my personality. 

But this is…routine without routine. That’s a thing. By creating blocks for myself that I can stretch and smoosh as I please, I’m making space for getting things done, while also allowing the freedom to do what I want as the fancy strikes me. 

From 9-10 I have to clean or work. But I can choose what I want to do. One day I might do the dishes and clean the counters. The next I might work on some writing. Maybe I’ll apply to more freelance jobs (I am for hire. Call me). Or maybe, like today, I’ll start on a blog post because it’s been a while since the last one and I’ll be so into it that it’s now 10:38 and I’m still working. 

Block scheduling is mainly there to get me to do something on days when I want to do nothing. I even consider proper human socialization as work (of course, with our current need for social distancing) so I might spend that hour skyping with a friend or talking with my roommate. Anything that accentuates my well-being or gets my work done belongs in those squares. And I’m free to mix and match as I please. 

Of course, if you’re one of those people that loves schedule and routines (who may be an alien I’m still figuring that out), then you can make this schedule as tight and rigid as you’d like. You might have it set up so that from 9-10 you write, and nothing else. You might even go so far as to break that block into smaller blocks and say from 9-9:30 you work on one project and from 9:30-10 you work on the other. Or you might just say from 9-11 you’ll write and just work on whatever the inspiration is for that day. 

It doesn’t matter. There’s no wrong way to do a block schedule. 

Okay. That’s not completely true because there is a sort of…hypocriticalness that falls into the schedule. But I promise you it’s one that’s actually good for you.

For those of you who don’t know, people with ADD and its variants have these things called hyperfixations. Others get them too, but with the brain of chaos, it’s a lot more intense, and can actually last months if not years. Having one of these is torture. Because literally all your brain can focus on is that thing. It can be a show, a game, a book, your cat, a new friend. Doesn’t matter. What does matter is that’s all your brain wants and doing anything not related to that is akin to being tortured for information, only you don’t actually know what it is they want to know. 

I don’t recommend it. 

As I said before, medication has helped a lot. But there’s still that intense need and desire that pops up when something new and good shows up that makes my brain do the ahhhh and makes doing anything else really hard. Not impossible, but difficult. 

So, the point. 

In my schedule you’ll see I’ve carved out time for my current hyperfixation. If you’re between fixations right now, or simply don’t get them, you might fill this in with whatever free time/relaxation activity you enjoy, be it reading, sewing, or making chairs from toothpicks. Whatever it may be. 

I use my hyperfixation (currently Animal Crossing, big surprise, I know) to get my work done. I essentially hold it hostage. This is where the ‘doing it wrong’ part can occur. 

If I take, as I am now, an hour of my fixation time to finish work, I haven’t really done anything wrong. All work and no play may make Jack a dull boy, but stopping the workflow you’ve got going on to play makes you a little crazy and is not conducive to a good work-ethic. 

However, let’s say your current fixation is a T.V. show. It’s got those hour long episodes that are really 45 minutes long. It’s 10. You start an episode. It’s now 10:50 (maybe you took a pee or snack break). The episode is over. You have 10 minutes until you’re supposed to be cleaning or working. You think ‘it’s okay. I can just start the first bit of the episode. I’ll totally stop at 10.’

Next thing you know it’s midnight and you’ve done nothing all day. A great deal of this requires you actually stopping the thing you want to do to do the thing you need to do. A lot easier, for me, with medication, but still hard. 

Another way you might break the system is by not doing the thing you want to do until it’s time, but not doing anything else. I haven’t really been super productive one day if I sat around doing nothing from 9-10 just waiting until I’m allowed to play. I only get to play/rest if I’ve actually done something

Of course, flexibility is still a factor. 

As example: I painted some of my kitchen cabinets the other day. As you can imagine, my muscles were pretty much dead for a while. (Still kind of are). This means my work and clean times were considerably shorter and less intense, because I was recovering. 

The thing about block scheduling is changing it up as you need to fit what’s going on. It provides enough structure and routine to help you get things done, but it allows for enough change that you don’t feel bogged down by certain tasks or stuck in a rut. And you can even have different schedules for different days (particularly useful for if you’re in college). 

But I’m not going to lie and pretend like this isn’t easier for me to pull off because I have no kids and work from home even when there’s not a mandate to do so. But it can still work, for everyone.

If you do have kids, a lot of your schedule is going to revolve around their own. But fret not! There’s still time in the day for relaxing. In fact, there’s lots of ways to unwind and relax with your kids. Play a board game with them, watch a movie together. Read to them. If they’re older maybe they can share an island with you in Animal Crossing. If they don’t need any help with their homework, take that half-hour (in an ideal world right?) off and put your feet up for a bit. 

And this schedule can help with work too. (I assume, anyway, I haven’t been able to actually try it out). With most jobs you have a list of things you need to do, either projects to complete or daily tasks to repeat. Schedule them out. If you have to re-fold shirts, take note of the time and do it every hour. Schedule in your own mini-breaks to get some water or go for a quick walk. The work day is, unfortunately, not conducive to actually getting work done. But you can still take control and set up blocks for yourself to keep focused and productive. 

I’ve been at this schedule for about three weeks now, and it’s worked. I haven’t gotten a lot of writing done, but that’s for an entirely different reason. I’ve been keeping up on cleaning, painting cabinets, and getting in the hyperfixation fix! 

So give it a try. Flex and mold as you see fit. You may be surprised by how un-routine your new routine feels!

Living in the Subjective World, or: How to Deal with Rejection

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Today I participated in Pitmad on Twitter. By the time I publish this post, it’ll be long over, but it really got me thinking about something. One of the struggles with being a writer and going the traditional publishing route is that the whole business is subjective. 

Now, let me preface this by getting a little depressive. 

A long time ago, nearly two years, I had my first manuscript finished. It was cleaned, edited, it had passed and gave me my M.F.A. I took it to a conference I was going to with my friend. We only went to this conference specifically because they were holding agent and editor meetings, where you had five minutes to pitch and talk about your book to up to 3 agents or editors. 

I struck out with the first two cause my book didn’t feature a lot of romance (and of the agents and editors in attendance, about 90% were romance people). But the third one got interesting. The third one hit me with that ‘go ahead and send the full manuscript over, this sounds really interesting’. 


And for those of you not in the business or who are just starting out, that’s a pretty big deal. Rarely does a meeting like this end with a full manuscript request. I remember rushing out of the room and immediately going to my laptop and sending it off. 

After the eons of waiting it takes for anything to happen in this industry, I got the reply. You can probably tell it wasn’t going to be a good one. But it was worse than that. It was a fill-in-the-blank, enter-name-here kind of rejection. I figured, hey, if they wanted the whole manuscript, they might have had something to say about it. 

But no.

Was I going to let that stop me? 

Okay, maybe briefly, but I got back up again.

(Insert long interlude featuring a not-to-be-named agent who ghosted me)

For the last four or so months, I’ve been sending this book and two others out to anyone who would even remotely be interested in their genres/concepts. I’m going to make a chart of the responses so far. It’s fun, trust me.

That’s a total of 27 queries. Well, there were 28, actually. But this one response was so unique it couldn’t possibly fit into any other category. (As it turns out, it is possible to start a story too close to the start).

For a little clarification, Response limbo are queries that I haven’t heard back from that either didn’t have a ‘if you don’t hear from us by’ date, or just haven’t reached it yet. 

I highly encourage everyone to keep a record of the response times and reasons for rejections. On the one hand, it gives you something to do while you’re waiting/working on the next manuscript. It also provides amazing insight. 

For example, I have gotten six responses that were along the lines of: I didn’t connect/like this story as I had hopped. Which got me down to thinking that I’ve maybe got a good idea for something here but my writing is just terrible.

(That’s a fun rabbit hole to go down, I don’t suggest it).

But this chart here shows that that kind of response isn’t even a full quarter of the responses! (22.22% for those wondering). 

Now I’m not going to go on a rant about how I don’t think it should be all that hard to send a simple rejection back. (I’ll save that for later). But I do want to get back on track, finally, and look at those 10, Not Fit for List responses.

THE PUBLISHING WORLD IS SUBJECTIVE. AND THAT’S REALLY TERRIBLE.

Okay, got that out of my system. 

What do I mean by the publishing world is subjective? Well, it should come as no surprise to fellow veterans of the pitch wars that agents and editors both feel the need to fall in love with a book. Which is totally valid. 

They need to love the book so they can get the urgency to promote and sell it. You want them to love your book. You need them to love your book so they’ll do all they can to get it out into the hands of other people who will love your book. (And pay you for it, of course).

So yeah, it makes sense that an agent is going to look at your query, think, “okay this is kind of interesting I see where they’re going with this, but, eh, not my cup of tea.”

This doesn’t mean they don’t think your book can sell. This doesn’t mean they don’t see an audience for it. It just means that they aren’t the audience for it. Which is why:

IT’S REALLY TERRIBLE.

Alright, I lied. I had more yelling in me.

The thing is, there’s this connection in your brain that starts to happen as you get rejections over and over again. You think your writing isn’t good. You think your idea is crap. You think there’s no one out there in the world who will ever read your book because agents and editors are supposed to know the market and if no one is taking your book than clearly there’s no market. 

Listen, our brains aren’t stupid. They may be dumb but they’re usually logical. And with all the stuff you hear from everywhere about agents and what not, it’s easy to see how they got to this conclusion. (I wrote it down in the paragraph above in case you missed it).

So that leaves us with a precarious problem. What do you do when you keep getting rejected and you want to scream and/or give up?

Here’s what!

Get a grip, first of all. Start keeping that log of the amount of time a response took and why it was rejected. Go through old emails and query tracker responses to check. Make a chart or graph. Study it. Learn from it. Discover your common response. (And make note of the fun, unique ones).

You’ll probably see that a certain response or type of response isn’t as big a deal as you thought. 

Secondly, remember this phrase. Don’t worry, I won’t shout it this time.

The publishing world is subjective and that’s really terrible.

Say it to yourself. Make it a mantra if that’s your jam. Write it on a post-it and stick it on your monitor. 

Third: Do some math. Pick a popular book. The book you hold in your hands at night weeping over because you’ll ‘never be that great’ and you wished you had written it instead. I’m going to use Harry Potter because, well, it’s Harry Potter.

Some quick, possibly factual google searches later…

The last major milestone that the series, as a whole, hit was 500 million copies in 2018. Keep in mind, that’s over a 20 year span, covering 7 books, and includes the rise of fame via a movie deal.

Let’s math it up. Not every book sold the same amount, but for simplicity’s sake, let’s say they did. That rounds down to 71 million copies sold per book. 

Sounds like a lot huh. That’s a lot of people who have read that book, huh?

But really, lets look at the bigger picture. There’s 7. whatever billion people living in the world. But you’re right, you’re right. Not all of them read, and not all of them can afford books. So let’s say, for this example, that we’re only going to look at people in the developed world and we’re going to pretend they’re all adults capable of reading. 

If you believe everything I read on the internet, there’s about 1.16 billion people who fit that bill.

More math. Isn’t it fun.

Divide the 1.16 billion people who live in this section of our world by the copies of books sold. Yes, I know some books were probably shared among people and we can’t account for library reads, but who said math had to be precise?

It’s 16. 

So, theoretically, the audience for Harry Potter is 1 out of every 16 people. And that’s for a cultural phenomena with a movie deal and 20 years backing it. 

I’ve sent out 28 queries. If I was querying Harry Potter as it’s known now, I’d still have only, theoretically, gotten 1 response. (And that’s 28 spread out among three books, keep in mind.) 

Do you see what I’m getting at here?

For every person that does own a singular Harry Potter book, there’s 15 that don’t. 

So do the math. Find out your favorite books percentage. See how big their audience actually is. Realize that yours is going to be smaller, especially at the start. 

(This can also be accomplished by trying to find out how many times your favorite book was rejected. Harry Potter’s was 12, which is only four off our statistical estimate. It also means my most queried book is only one away from the magic number).

The last, and final step.

Now that you’re tired from all the math, do some research. On self-published authors.

And I don’t mean get discouraged and go look up how to do it yourself. I mean go find them and read their blogs or tweets. Heck, you can even try to reach out to them for an interview. Find out why they self-published. Discover what kinds of rejections they got. Realize that they’re selling copies like hotcakes because, and here’s the kicker: there’s a market for everyone and everything

Yes, even your book with it’s X number of rejections. Yes, even my book with its interesting concept but terrible execution. (I may still be stuck in the rabbit hole. Toss down a rope, would ya?)

The point of this constant rambling is: don’t lose hope. Keep up the good fight. You just gotta find the one agent that is part of your audience, and then you’ll get to watch it spread. (Or be your own audience and self-publish and inflict your greatness upon the world. Either way works).

From Premise to Plot: What to do When ‘Stuff Happens’

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Here’s the problem. You came up with a really great premise for a story. You have a kick-ass opening that sets up an amazing world and fantastic characters. You might even know exactly how it’s going to end. You get right to work. But then you hit that section of your planning that just says ‘stuff happens’. You can’t figure out what stuff happens. Your story never gets finished. 

It’s a common issue. The middle of a book is often the hardest part. You want to keep readers interested and attentive, or else they’re going to leave your book unread. There’s a lot of pressure there. But figuring out how to fill in the holes isn’t all that daunting of a task. And it can work for both plot-centric and character-centric stories. Here are two sample premises to walk us through the process.

Scenario A: The hero of a kingdom returns from war. In a celebratory parade, they publicly assassinate the king. A scullery maid overhears that the hero killed the king to stop him from betraying their neighboring kingdom and attacking them unprompted. The hero is put to death, and it’s up to the maid to stop the new king from finishing the job the old king started.

Scenario B: A 30 year old office worker is in a happy relationship, and feels like a proposal is coming up. She goes to a party, only to find that her boyfriend is making out with someone else. They break up, and she has to navigate the remains of her life.

Needs and wants

The first step in creating your middle is recognizing what your character needs and wants. 

Often your character only has one need. This is the main plot you’re working with. It’s what you hope will be accomplished by the end of the book. This is something you can easily pull from your premise. 

Your character can have as many wants as you want. But it might be easier to just pick one or two big wants that you can work with for the process. Your wants can also be born from your premise, but if you’re having trouble coming up with something, fill out a character sheet to get to know your main character (MC) a little bit more to find out what they want.

Sometimes your character is going to want what they need. In this instance, find a secondary want to use for this process. Sometimes, your character may not even know what it is they need or will want the opposite of it.

A- What the character needs: To stop the king
    What the character wants: To stop the king/To be recognized as the new hero
B- What the character needs: To learn to be happy single
    What the character wants: To get revenge on her ex

Blockades

The majority of your main plot is going to come from blockades to what your characters want and need. 

Need based blockades are going to deal with the main plot. It’s going to be anything that can possibly happen to prevent your character from getting what they want. It can be a physical blockade (such as being placed in jail) or an emotional one (such as learning new information that changes how a character feels about something/one). Most often, these blockades will be overcome.

Want based blockades are going to be personal, and often will tie into the main plot as well. They can be physical or emotional, just as the need blockades can be. Depending on what your character wants (and how it relates to what they need) a want based blockade can end positively or negatively.

Try to list as many blockades as you can. You don’t have to use all of them, and don’t worry about going too into detail for each one yet. Just think of anything that could prevent your character from getting what they need or want. 

Here are a few sample ones from our scenarios.

A- Needs: Imprisoned, finds out that someone who did her wrong lives in the other kingdom, King gets suspicious and puts a watch on her
These blockades all prevent the MC from saving the kingdom. Being imprisoned and being put under watch are physical, where as finding the past abuser is emotional.


Wants: accidentally does something that makes people hate her, purposefully does something that makes people hate her
Both of these are emotional blockades, casting the MC in a negative light, taking her further from her heroic goals.


B- Needs: Mom asks when she’s getting married, Friend sets her up on a blind date (that goes well), she catches the bouquet at a wedding
These blockades crack away at the MC’s confidence that she can be alone. They are all emotional, in that they change something about the way she views her relationship status.


Wants: Sees the ex and his new date really happy together, tries to pull a prank that backfires, finds old pictures/letters from her ex
Seeing the ex with his new date and finding old letters are emotional blockades that lower her desire to revenge. The prank backfiring is a physical blockade that prevents her from accomplishing her goal.

Turn into scenes

Now that you know what’s going to stop your MC, it’s time to turn these blockades into scenes. There are three things to think of when making a scene.

1. How does this scene unfold?

A – Finds out that someone who did her wrong lives in the other kingdom: MC agrees to join an ambassador trip to the other kingdom for a week to see if she can learn more information about the situation. While she’s serving dinner, she sees someone that harmed her. She runs and hides in the kitchen.

B – Friend sets her up on a blind date: MC’s friend learns that she has broken up with her boyfriend. She suggests the MC goes out with her cousin, who she’s been trying to get her together with for years. The MC agrees to go, only to get her friend to shut up, but ends up having a really good time.


2. How does the scene move the plot forward or develop character? (It must do one, ideally both)


A – Alters Character Development: This scene will change the development of the character. By seeing the old abuser of her past, the MC has to overcome her own past and prejudices to save the rest of the kingdom.


B – Moves Plot Forward: This scene provides a large burst of pushback against the character’s needs. She needs to be happy alone, but she’s just had a really good date, and is rethinking getting back into the dating world.


3. Is this a positive (helping plot or development) or negative (harming plot or development) scene?


A – This scene is currently a positive, providing a growth moment for the character. But it can be a negative if the MC sees the guy and decides not to forgive and forget. This would create another blockade for the main plot, and could possibly create a mini-plot. 


B – This scene is currently a negative, pushing against what the character needs and taking them further from that goal. It can, however, be a positive if you decide that the date goes awful instead, and reaffirms her desire to stay single. 

A good plot will have a nice mix of positive and negative scenes, without going back and forth regularly. A sweet ending book will have more positive scenes, while a bitter ending book will have more negative scenes.
If you feel like your book has too many of one kind, look over them and see if you can find a way to twist it around to be the opposite.

Try to make scenes out of all your blockades. If you find yourself really struggling with one (i.e. you can’t think about it moves plot or develops character) it’s a good idea to put that one to the side, and keep it as a just-in-case backup.

Mini plots

Mini plots are different than side plots. In a marathon, mini plots are the legs of the race, where side plots are other runners keeping up with your main plot. To find where your story has a mini plot, look back over your blockades, and see which ones need follow-up scenes, or which ones could be drawn out to cover a few scenes instead. 

A mini plot should be treated just like the main plot. The only difference is that your character is only going to have a want or a need, not both. To create them, think of what your character wants or needs, and then discover the blockades that stop them. 

Instead of turning those blockades into scenes, create resources that will help the plots resolution. (note that the resolution does not have to be good for your character/can work against what they want or need).

A – The character gets imprisoned. Now the character has to get out. This is a need-based plot.
Need: Break out of prison
Blockades: Heavy duty/new locks, overlapping guard changes
Resources: Other prisoners, friends in the serving class
Resolution: MC gets the other prisoners to cause a distraction, while her friend slips in and steals the guard keys in the chaos


B – MC tries to pull a prank that backfires. This is a want-based plot.
Want: Fill her ex’s car with fish
Blockades: Woke up late and most of the fish at the market were sold. Box is too heavy to carry by herself and friend won’t help
Resources: Primal desire to get revenge, Determination to see her plan through (even though she knows it’s terrible)
Resolution: The MC is trying to lift the box up to spill it into the sunroof of the car. Instead it tips backwards and spills all over her. Also, her apartment smells like fish from storing them there all day.

Mini plots work best as one chapter, or possibly two. Any longer than that and your mini plot has turned into a side plot that has hijacked the whole story.

Scene order

Now that you have all of your main scenes written out, it’s time to organize them. 

Look over your scenes. Group them up. Do you have a lot of scenes that deal with animals? That’s one group. Have a bunch of issues dealing with bad days at the salon? There’s another. You’ll find that some scenes can fit in multiple piles, and others might be by themselves. Don’t throw these scenes out, you might discover that they make the perfect connecting scene.

Once you have your scenes grouped up, see what order you could put them in. Sometimes two scenes will be one after the other perfectly, and others might have some time pass between. At this stage, let that space exist. This is not the point A to B to C outline. This is just linking things together in a logical order. 

A – Let’s see how the character from scenario A got imprisoned. We already have two scenes that involve her doing a bad thing. So, early on she accidentally does something that catches negative attention. This causes the King to put her under watch. Later, she does something on purpose that catches negative attention. This leads to her being jailed. 

B – In scenario B, we have a lot of marriage related scenes. Let’s put them together. The MC gets a call from her mom right after she broke up with her ex. Unknowing of this, the mom asks if he proposed. Later, The MC’s friend sets her up on a blind date, and after it goes well, she says she can already hear wedding bells. Finally, at the wedding, the MC catches the bouquet. Her date from before is there, and they make eye contact. Her mom (who she brought as her last-minute +1) makes a comment about it. 

Side plots

Side plots are going to be long-running issues that aren’t about your MC or the main plot. They’ll often involve other recurring characters. 

Side plots are necessary. They break up the main story and give your reader a bit of breathing space. They also often relate to the main plot in some way, doing behind-the-scenes work to slightly alter your MC’s perception of the world. 

Each side plot should only have a handful of scenes in the book. Too many scenes will make it seem like a second full plot, and can cause your reader to lose interest in what’s really going on. Ideally, you have two side plots per novel. You can get away with one or three, but two is the sweet spot.

Take a look back over your scenes. Is there a running theme that could be a good side plot? Or perhaps there’s a character that keeps popping up? Maybe there’s a big event at the end that could need some planning. All of these are things to look out for while trying to find some side plots.

A – The MC has to have some friends for her to get out of jail in the end. Let’s say one of her friends was a maid that married a nobleman. They still find time to talk sometimes, but her friend is having trouble adjusting to her new life. People don’t want to see a maid as a noblewoman.
This causes tension with what the character wants. All this time the MC has hoped that she’ll be able to become the new great hero, but now she’s thinking people won’t want to see her like that.


B – We established that there’s a wedding, and a pushy friend. So let’s say the pushy friend is the one getting married (and why her cousin who the MC dated once is there). And let’s say that she and the MC are best friends. The MC is the bridesmaid, and has to deal with her friend’s wedding plans, listening about how great and wonderful marriage is going to be.
This causes a tension with what the character needs, pulling away at the MC’s idea that she can be happy alone. 

Write down as many side plots as you can find. Then pick and choose based on which ones you think pair well with the character’s wants and needs.

Ending

Every book has an ending. But not every ending is the same. If you don’t already know how to wrap up your book, use what your characters want and need to figure it out. There are four basic endings you can give your MC, based on whether or not they got their wants and needs.

Sweet Ending – Gets what they want and what they need. 

The character in scenario A manages to save the kingdom and goes down in history as the greatest hero of all time. 

The character in scenario B gets revenge on her ex, and leaves the situation happy to never have to be with someone ever again. It’s not worth the drama.

Positive Bittersweet Ending- Gets what they need, but not what they want. 

The character in scenario A saves the kingdom, but someone else takes all the credit for it/it’s not publicly known that it happened at all. 

The character in scenario B learns to be happy alone, but she lets go of her revenge mission on her ex.

Negative Bittersweet Ending: Gets what they want, but not what they need. 

The character in scenario A ends up becoming a hero, but by turning sour and helping the king destroy the kingdom. 

The character in scenario B gets her revenge on her ex, but by doing so becomes an insecure and jealous person who can’t keep a relationship and is terrified of being alone.

Bitter Ending – Gets neither what they want nor what they need (and often the opposites happen). 

The character in scenario A fails to save the kingdom, and in doing so ends up becoming a villain on the run forever. 

The character in scenario B doesn’t manage to get revenge on her ex. However, not being able to do so makes her obsessed with him, until she becomes a crazy wreck that simply can’t live without him. 

(If you keep hearing that rumor floating around that people are tired of happy endings, they’re really saying they’re tired of Sweet Endings. The fad these days is creating a positive bittersweet ending, one where the character accomplishes their goal, but gave something up along the way.)

With all your scenes written out, you should now be able to put them in an outline order. Fill in the spaces with your stand-alone and side-plot scenes as needed. Adn go back to your blockades if you’re running short.

If you don’t like working with outlines, put all of your blockades in a hat. When you reach the stuff happens section, pull one out and see how you can turn it into a scene and then write that. Do this block by block until you’ve finished your draft (then go back and reorder as needed).

Telling a Story Vs. Writing One. Or: How Rhetoric Saved my Writing

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A few years ago I decided I might like to try my hand at writing a screenplay. I adore movies, and I thought that writing one would be a good addition to my many projects. The problem was: I didn’t know how to write a screenplay. I wasn’t sure how to transfer my novel writing style to a screenplay style. How much action did I put in? Should I describe the setting or the characters? Did I need to place any indications of how words are said? What did I write down and what did I leave up to the director or designers?

I sought out answers in the form of a three-day screenplay writing workshop being offered at my school. I showed up early, excited and ready to get a head start on learning this new form of writing.

We spent the entire first class dissecting the hero’s journey. 

I can’t even tell you how many times I’ve dissected the hero’s journey before, in both writing and literature classes. I didn’t need to know how to plot a story. I didn’t need to know how to tell a story. I already had that part down. I need to know how to write a script

Needless to say, the next two classes weren’t much help either. (I did learn that there were different types of script depending on what stage the movie is in that has variations on how much detail is in there. But this was briefly mentioned and what those differences were or how to utilize them was not covered). I felt discouraged. Even more so when I picked up a screenwriting guide book a few years later for a different class, only to find much of the same thing.

Here’s how to tell a story.

Thanks. Got it.

Clearly I wasn’t going to find the knowledge I sought. I decided to do what all great people do when faced with the looming fear of not being able to figure out a problem: I quit. (Okay all great people don’t do that {at least not often} but let me dream). 

And I stayed quit for about two years. I stayed quit when my dad bought me another screenwriting craft book that might be useful since it was written by William Golding. It’s still sitting untouched on my bookshelf. I’ve been hurt too many times before. 

But then, the internet came to me, speaking words of wisdom. I received a piece of practical advice on writing. Granted, I already knew this trick of the trade, but there was a glimmer of hope in the future. A book. A craft book. On rhetoric. That had taught this other person what I figured out by futzing about. 

I bought it. 

If this was a tragedy, it would have been full of terrible advice or things I already knew and would have thrown me into despair at never finding anything useful. Thankfully, that didn’t happen.

I did get angry, but more on that later.

This book was a dang eye-opener. It was simple, and told in a relatable and easy to understand way. I think Mark Forsyth was born to teach. (I also think he’s my spirit animal. Or I’m his. We’re connected somehow). Every other line made me laugh. He referenced things I never thought I’d see referenced in a craft book. He actually explained why things work and how to make them work for you.

I very nearly wept with joy.

(Didn’t help with the screenwriting issue but I’ll solve that one day I guess).

After I finished, I told all of my writer friend’s to get it. I gushed about it on Facebook. I even talked about it to people that didn’t write. 

Then I got angry.

Why the heck did most of this not come up in my classes? I even took a rhetoric/composition class in my freshman year as part of the mandatory general education classes. Where was this information? Sure we talked about egos, logos, and pathos, and all that. But who was out here telling me that making a deliberate grammatical/spelling mistake was called enallage and is actually a real thing that will draw attention to an important sentence? Probably not the teacher whose job was to teach us grammatically correct writing forms.

But my writing classes? The upwords of five workshops I took? The six or so literature classes I endured? I read “Heart of Darkness” twice (don’t ask) and no one thought to mention that hey, that line at the end with the missing word is one part ESL kid speaking off but also a purposeful tactic to make that line and moment hit harder?

(Well, maybe they think to mention it but didn’t/couldn’t for whatever reason).

And how many times did I suffer the snooty comment of “Well, [inanimate object] can’t actually be [human emotion].”? How often did I try, and inevitably fail, to argue that it’s a form of personification before giving up and changing the line? Why did I not know that applying an adjective to the wrong noun is a transferred epithet and makes the world around the characters come alive? Oh, how many times I could have left that discussion powerful and certain of my actions rather than weary of writing another word in the future.

Writing, to me, is a bit like a math problem. Stick with me on this.

You have a problem: write the story.
You have a solution: story has been written.

In math this is the equivalent of saying something like 2x=6. X=3. 

But if you turned that in to your teacher you’d get the C grade with the comment ‘show your work’. Anyone can stumble upon the right answer in a math test. Anyone can stumble upon a polyptoton in writing. 

Except in math you did learn how to divide each side by 2 to find what X is. If you’re like me, you didn’t learn that in writing, at least, not in a way where it was specifically explained to you in detail. Someone asks you why X=3 and you’re standing there going, “Well, uh, cause it does,” which is not a very convincing argument and leaves you stuck with that C. 

Rhetoric devices are so commonly used, we kind of tend to just pick up on them, is the thing. So maybe that’s why people don’t think to point them out or discuss them. It’s a lot like the english rule of adjective order. We all know there’s a proper order, because it sounds wrong when out of order, but not many people could tell you it off the top of their heads. 


But being able to explain your choices in writing is necessary for many reasons. It lets you win arguments against people who think they know better. It lets you explain yourself and teach others these tricks. Most importantly, if you figure out/know how you did it once on accident, you can do it again, purposefully, in the future. 

All of this to say:

If you want to learn to tell a story, pick up a writing craft book or take a class.
If you want to learn to write a story, study rhetoric. 

The start of a journey. Or: how I learned my brain was broken

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Let’s roll back the clock, say, 8 months. Imagine, if you will, a young woman. She’s sitting on the floor of the bedroom with her back to the door while her cats scratch at it because how dare she have the audacity to want a little privacy. She’s on the phone with her mother. She’s crying. She’s realizing that one day she’s going to be forty years old, stuck in a cubicle somewhere, thinking back on her youth with thoughts like, ‘what happened to all those dreams’. She’s seen Walter Mitty one too many times and she doesn’t want to wait.

Why, yes. That girl is me. How did you know?

Needless to say, I was depressed. And despite the fact that I was poor, my mom was poor, my dad was poor, my grandfather was not poor but also not about to spend any money on anyone or anything, she told me to go to a therapist. Sure. Okay. Yeah, that’ll help.

And it wasn’t like I didn’t believe in therapy. I knew it was good, and useful, and practical to a lot of people. I even knew, inherently, that it would be good for me. But when you’ve only had bad experiences in the past with this sort of thing, it’s hard to give it another go.

I have been to one therapist appointment (technically two but that was a family thing that also ended in disaster) and one psychologist. The psychologist was in middle school because my sleep schedule was so out of whack my mother thought there was something genuinely wrong with me. (Spoiler alert: there was). I spent two hours in that office and left with no answers. 

A few years later I became aware of the fact that my mother was seeing a therapist (and had for a while now). I asked, out of blatant curiosity, if I could go, too. Fun Tip: if you can avoid it, never go to therapy with a parent present unless the point is your relationship. It was an awkward kind of session I don’t remember anything of other than the lion hat I was wearing to prove that I was cool and unique, and in the end the only insight that therapist had was ‘she might be gay’, which was said not even to me but to my mother in private. (Disappointing spoiler alert: I’m not).

All of these led to the concept of: Therapy good-just not for me. But I humored the concept and I looked up therapists that were in my healthcare plan. But choosing a therapist isn’t like choosing a physical health doctor. You can’t just go to a list, look up the closest ones to you, and pick them based on reviews or convenience. You have to jive with your therapist. And I wasn’t jiving. So I put it off and spent another month being miserable.

I eventually got tired of being miserable. Trust me, it’s not fun. So I decided to look at therapists near me that weren’t in my plan. Best and worst decision ever.

Right there on the first page of the list that came up was someone I immediately felt drawn to. We’ll call her Maroon. The instant I read her profile I knew she was the one. It was a gut feeling that just said yaaaaaaas. But I was poor and everyone was poor except for the person who was stingy and I put her name away and spent another month being miserable. (Those of you who are astute might be able to guess my problem).

Finally. Finally. August. I’m done with this nonsense. I talk to my parents and they agree to help me pay for the out-of-plan therapy. It’s only going to be once a month, I tell them and myself. Just a session here and there to get some things off my chest.

Boy how wrong I was.

The first session goes well. I have this thing where I can’t talk about my emotions to people, not even family and close friends. But I am proud of how much I did reveal to her. After all, I’m paying for this; I better get talking. I think to myself that was nice. A good venting session. Do this once a month I’ll be fine.

She wants to do a test.

Maroon is a licensed art therapist. She has me come in for an hour and a half and draw. I feel a bit like a kid who has to draw because they don’t understand their emotions and the only way to know what’s going on is through their art. The problem is I know my emotions I just refuse to talk about them. So it’s kind of the same thing.

But this isn’t about my emotions. This is about the chemicals in my brain.

Picture one: Draw anything you like.

We’re off to a great start. She gives me some time to think about it but my mind blanks. I have no thoughts. Have I ever even seen anything before in my entire life? I don’t think I have.

I eventually tell her to start the two minute timer because I don’t want to seem like I can’t think of objects. She starts it. I do turn into a child. I draw a happy lil plant and a happy lil sun. And the time is still running. So I turn them into an angel and a demon because I’m obsessed with Good Omens. I tell her as much.

Picture two: Draw a person, anyone you like.

Did I mention I’m obsessed with Good Omens? Well, really, I’m obsessed with Jon Hamm. So I draw him. He doesn’t come out half as handsome. He doesn’t have a nose, he doesn’t have feet or hands. And his eyes, meant to look warm and inviting, look like they’ve seen a ghost. 

I’m doing great so far.

Picture three: Draw the opposite of that person.

“What do you mean by opposite?”

“Whatever you think opposite means?”

Clearly one session with my therapist did not tell her that I need direction and can’t be left to muse about in the wind. She gives me time to think about it. My first thought is Danny Devito. Because he is short, round, and conventionally unattractive. The opposite of Jon Hamm.

But I don’t want to seem shallow to my therapist. What would she think if that’s the reasoning I gave, hm? 

So I decide to take opposite in the meaning of ‘playing opposite of’. As in Gal Gadot played opposite of him in Keeping up with the Joneses, another obsession of mine. I explain this to her as she looks at my second noseless, handless, footless, scared-eyed drawing. She nods and gives me a look that seems to say ‘yeah I know this wasn’t your first thought’.

She’s onto me. I start to sweat. (More than I already am).

Picture four: Draw something you and your family do for fun.

This is where it gets interesting. Because I sort of have two. And as much as I love my mom and can never let her find out, fun happens more easily with my dad. I like to just say that it’s because after the divorce he saw us less often so our interactions were bursting with fun things and there wasn’t time for bad stuff to happen. But there could be something more deep and underlying to the reason. Who knows. I got a once-a-month therapy session to talk about it.

Anyway, I decide to opt for the movie theater, because it’s the one place that the majority of my family gathers together for fun. (I was gonna do our yearly beach vacation but my brother hasn’t gone in ages and I’ve had to stop once school existed). I draw the seats, me squished between my brother and dad from that time I saw War of the Worlds as a kid and had nightmares for weeks. I draw a snake on screen with skittles surrounding it from that time we saw Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets and I got scared and spilled my skittles on the floor. Three of my five minutes are up. 

I add in a projection screen with the little words next to it from when my dad told me about how you could look at it in your watch for subtitles if you were deaf. I draw more seats to make the page look more like the actual old theater we used to go to. With this drawing I’m running out of ideas, not time. I fill in random people in the other seats until the timer goes off, freeing me of the hell that is thinking.

Picture five: Draw anything you want.

Goddamnit not this shit again. Haven’t ye learned by now, woman? You want me to do more thinking after all of that? Who do I look like? A functioning member of the human race?

There’s a picture of a sailboat sitting next to my therapist’s head. I latch on to that.

It’s a pretty simply boat, curved bottom and triangle sail. Yeah I was a fool to think that would take two minutes. I slap a crew on there, add some clouds and birds. A fish. I put a giant octopus under there cause they’re fun and cool. 

Time’s up. Lets see how crazy I am.

Turns out that I’m not they kind of crazy she thought I was. 

“Well the good news is, you don’t have OCD,” she tells me. Which is obvious, as anyone can tell from the scribbles. 

So what’s the bad news, I think, aware of enough social interaction etiquette to know where this is going.

“I’m glad we did this,” Maroon continues. “I never would have guessed based on our first meeting.”

Guessed what?

“You have ADHD.”

Well. Mark me down as confused and surprised. And she didn’t really just come right out and say it so blatantly. She suggested it, because to be really sure I had to see a brain doctor. But she was pretty sure all the same.

“But I was always really good in school,” I argue. I do not line up with the poster child for ADHD. Probably because I’m H-removed. Rather, I’m internally H. I’m really good at pretending, basically. 

I knew I should have gone into theater.

“Kids with ADHD who are smart can make it through school undetected easily,” Maroon, and later my psychologist, explains. 

Over the next few weeks I learn a lot. And I learn it by going to therapy once a week. Because going undiagnosed causes a lot of trauma over 25 years (remember the eyes). I learn that not everything but nearly everything wrong with me came from this. From building up bad habits to overcompensate or deal with it. 

It’s another few weeks before I can muster up the courage (and let’s face it: money) to get to a psychologist. To get drugged up, as I refer to it because I’m funny like that. (Reminder to self: strangers will not get it when you tell them ‘it’s the drugs’ in response to something).

Things are going to change. I know this. I can feel it happening. I haven’t even gotten the medicine yet at this point and already I can feel it. Just knowing the problem has made things clear. 

I’m not lazy. I’m not bad. I’m not a terrible excuse for a human.

I just need drugs.