Writing is like Cooking

I like food and I like food analogies. So, here’s a good one.

To put it otherwise: once you got the basics about making sure vegetables are tasty, meat is cooked, and seasoning can be fun, you’re good with experimenting.

Baking, on the other hand, is a chemical process that can easily be thrown off if you mess with the ratios, so don’t experiment unless you’re experienced.

Bread-making is an esoteric process control by ancient chaos gods, it doesn’t matter how experienced you are, if you experiment you may end up summoning the Devourer of Worlds.

People think that writing is like bread-making: pray to the gods and maybe sacrifice a goat beforehand, and there’s no guarantee of success.

However, I would argue that writing is more like cooking: once you’ve got a few elements under your belt, you can experiment to create something knew. Sometimes, it’s awful, mostly, it’s pretty good, and occasionally, you’ve created the next worldwide food craze.

So, what are the elements of good writing? I’d say there are seven.

Setting

Setting is where the story takes place. It can be as specific or as vague as you want so long as it provides the arena in which the story can unfold. Maybe it’s “Somewhere in the desert at night” or it’s “October 16th, 1972 in the bedroom Helen had shared with her husband for fifty years, in the house on Mulberry Street in the small town of Haven, New Hampshire.”

The setting is kind of like your cooking vessel. It provides the environment in which the story can happen. It can set the mood and be a touchstone to help orient (or disorient) the reader.

Certain vessels are better suited to certain cooking types – and certain settings are better suited to particular stories – but I can tell you from experience, you can still saute onions in the bottom of a stock pot if you don’t have a saute pan.

Theme

When you’re cooking, you really need a fat to grease the vessel. It makes sure nothing sticks, makes the good you’re cooking tastier, and adds satiety to your meal. You might be able to go without when cooking, but it really improves your food.

Similarly, a theme is sort of the background “thing” that your story is actually about. It’s “what’s at stake.” It’s the story you’re trying to tell outside of the plot.

Try to write down what your story is about. Not a summary of the plot, but what it’s really about. That’s the theme. For example, on Monday 7/14/19 I’ll be posting a short story called “The Curse of the Bear.” I love that story, and what it’s about is “You can’t overcome the pressures of society until you can accept yourself as you are.” That’s the butter. Or olive oil. Or whatever.

Now, look, you can go without a real theme. Just like you can just boil chicken and steam broccoli, but you’re not going to get a very tasty meal.

Conflict

Conflict is the heat. If you’re going to cook something, you have to apply to heat to it. Or, in the case of ceviche, acid. But sushi doesn’t need cooking. Neither does salad. How does conflict apply to stories here? Shut up, the analogy isn’t perfect, besides, sushi rice isn’t raw and please don’t slap raw meat onto your salad. Also, roasted nuts and seeds are far tastier on a salad than raw ones, so try it.

Anyway, conflict is the heat. It’s what keeps your readers hooked. It creates tension and anxiety. Conflict is what has to be resolved in order to have a plot.

Incidental Comics has the best example, frankly.

Characters

Here we get to the meat and potatoes.

Characters are the food you’re cooking. They’re the ones getting cooked by the conflict and they’re the ones being processed through the plot.

Now, all characters are going to have certain qualities: history, motivations, personality, and development. You have the protagonist and most of the time you have an antagonist, but maybe not, unless Nature or Self become a separate character in those conflicts.

You can have a lot of characters or only two, or maybe only one. And different characters are suited to different conflicts. Just as a tough piece of meat does better with a long, low heat, a character with a lot of issues is going to do better in a conflict of Person vs Self.

Plot

Plot is the process of cooking. Okay, this is where the metaphor gets really iffy.

There are certain steps you have to take when cooking, and they have to be taken in a certain order. You can mess things around sometimes, but, there are certain ways you cook that will get you to a particular dish. For example, if you’re going to make gumbo, first you need to make a roux.

Now, Christopher Booker argued there were nine basic plots, but only seven were worthwhile. This is a really good article about it if you want to read it, but briefly, they are:

Overcoming the Monster (eg, the movie Fern Gully)

Rags to Riches (eg, Cinderella)

Quest (eg, Odyssey)

Voyage and Return (eg, The Road to El Dorado)

Comedy (eg, A Midsummer Night’s Dream)

Tragedy (eg, Medea)

Rebirth (eg, Beauty and the Beast)

Mystery (eg, literally anything by Agatha Christie)

Rebellion against the One (eg, The Giver, or really any dystopian fiction)

Pacing

Each food you cook is going to take a different cooking time. Potatoes take longer than spinach. A thick pot roast is going to take longer than scallopini chicken.

Your story is going to require careful pacing in order to get a good meal out of it. Or… something like that.

Pacing is where you build and relieve tension. A story that goes by too quickly exhausts a reader, but one that goes by too slowly bores them. Pacing also allows you to give the reader a break. Maybe you need to give the reader a laugh after so much emotional anguish. Does it break pacing? No, it creates it.

Point of View

Finally, POV is the seasoning. Now, don’t act like I’m just throwing this in here because the metaphor is getting away from me.

Let me tell you a story: my brother-in-law grew up without eating any seasoning. His mother never used any seasoning whatsoever when cooking. Mashed potatoes? They were were boiled and mashed, and that was it. If you wanted salt or pepper on it, you could add it at the table.

My sister moved in with them while they were looking for a place to live, and BIL started taking over cooking. His parents so enjoyed his cooking that they begged my sister and him to stay even after they purchased their home.

You need to season your food when you cook, of you’re going to have a very sad meal. If you don’t have the right POV, you’re going to have a very confused story.

Now, you can have multiple POV characters, you can have first, second, or third person (limited, multiple, or omniscient). You could have past, present, or future tense going on. You could have an unreliable narrator.

If you’re going to make a great curry, you need like a million different herbs and spices, but all you need for a good steak is salt and pepper. If you’re telling a simple, linear story, you may only want a single, first person POV. If you’re telling a complex story with a ton of actors, you may want multiple first person POVs, or omniscient third person, or multiple third person.

Having the right POV only improves a story.

So what are you supposed to do with all of this?

Every story needs every element listed above. That’s that.

But, not every scene needs every element.

I saw a tweet this week which is why I’m writing this article at all. The original tweet asked if the author should cut a chapter that didn’t drive the plot. A lot of the responses were they, indeed, they should. If it doesn’t drive the plot, cut it without mercy. (and I’m sorry, I can’t find the tweet.)

I argued otherwise. I argued that as long as the scene does at least two of the seven above (establish setting or POV, set pacing, create conflict, develop character, enhance theme, or drive plot), it’s worth keeping.

A story that only has scenes that drives plot screws with pacing. A story with scenes that only develop characters has no real plot. A mess of POV creates a disaster, but without characters development or conflict, no one will care.

A well-crafted story, like a well-crafted meal, has every element, at least once, in the process.

Good luck, my friends, and just keep writing.

© Ainsel Greenwood and AinselGreenwood.com, 2019. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Ainsel Greenwood and AinselGreenwood.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Write What You Know

When I was in 1st grade, my teacher had us make a little 12-page book using cardboard, paper, and duct tape, and we each wrote our own little story in it. That was when I realized I wanted to be a writer.

By the time I was 10, I was writing novels – none were very good, but boy-howdy could I pump out a word count! It was then that a teacher gave me advice that I think all of us have heard: write what you know.

Even then, I knew that wouldn’t work: what the hell does a 10 year old know?

I feel that advice is a little misplaced, though.

I like fiction. I like fantasy, sci-fi, and horror. And, as you may have noticed from other posts on this blog, that’s what I write (shut up, I did write those words). And a lot of what I read (and write) doesn’t take place in any real universe. So, here’s the question: how can I know anything about a world that doesn’t exist?

I want to re-think the Write What You Know advice.

Write What You Invent

The great thing about the fantasy/scifi/horror genres is that you don’t have to know anything; you can invent it. All of Narnia is made up – C.S. Lewis famously included a lamppost in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe to prove to Tolkien that, yeah, you totally could include that in a fantasy story because you can just make it up!

Tolkien, obviously, took it the other way. Entirely. He created a vast and intricate world, with centuries of history and just… multiple languages. I’ll never get over that.

Absurdist literature works this way, too. All of Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events is the greatest modern example of absurdist literature out there, and if you haven’t read it, seriously do. Does any of it make sense? Not really. Is it still wonderful? Absolutely.

However, I think it’s worth noting that, even when you make it all up, there does have to be a central string that holds it all together.

The greatest fantasy/scifi/horror stories take place in a world with an internal logic. It doesn’t have to make sense (see Lemony Snicket) outside of its world, but it does have to make sense within it. And the story you’re trying to tell has to make sense in the world you’re telling it in.

Tolkien was telling an epic story about the struggle of good and evil, and how that struggle is not always as simple as it seems it should be – we need a vast, intensely detailed universe to tell this story.

Lewis was retelling Christianity in Narnia. Like Tolkien’s, these stories are also about the struggle between good and evil, but the lines are obvious and it’s obvious whose going to win. Narnia is an allegory; it has to be told in a world where heavy symbolism can exist side by side.

Snicket, on the other hand, is telling the story about how “good” and “bad” may not be good divisions at all and that part of growing up is navigating a world that may not always make sense. An absurd world allows Snicket to examine these themes through many lenses.

If you’re going to make it up, be prepared to dive deep down into that.

Write What You Research

Or maybe it’s research what you write, but I wanted to keep the format.

Anyway, part of the great thing about writing is it can be what you want. But, let’s admit, if you’re not writing in the fantasy/scifi/horror genre, you can’t always just make it up.

If you’re writing a historical fiction, you’re going to want to be well-versed in whatever historical fiction you’re writing about. If you’re writing in a real world setting, you might want to brush up on what that place (and the culture where that place is) is like, you know, where things are and what it looks like. That sort of thing. Words.

Bernard Cornwell pumps out historical fiction all the time. His The Saxon Stories are somewhat fictionalized story of one of Cornwell’s paternal ancestors. A great deal of the story is made up. The protagonist is fictional, but based off a real person. Many of the characters in the book existed, but they’re actual character is shifted to fit Cornwell’s own imagination, and Cornwell’s played with the actual historical timeline.

But what no one complains about is how it is historically inaccurate. The series is amazing, well-researched and incredibly immersive.

Alternatively, you have his book Stonehenge. Stonehenge is nearly entirely made up. We have no idea why people built Stonehenge, but Cornwell writes one possible explanation while creating an immersive world using research he’s done on what we know about the people of that age.

Important Note

You may also choose to write a character or characters who are a different race, religion, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, or so many other qualities. I would encourage it: the value in creating characters who are not like you both give people who they are like a chance to see people like themselves (representation matters, yo), but also helps teach others to empathize with them.

But, do you research. Talk to people. Ask questions, LISTEN. Read up on people’s lived experiences. Make use of sensitivities readers. They’ll help you understand things you may never have before, pointing out areas you need to research more, and creating characters that are multidimensional and far more real.

Research is also a shockingly good place to find inspiration. Learning more about the characters you’re writing and the places where they live can create new avenues of storytelling you’ve never thought of before.

Write What You Learn

Writing is a great learning process.

I mean, not just the mechanics of POV, pacing, etc. Those are all important, and everything you write will help you teach that, too.

No, I mean, think about your WIP. What are you trying to say with it?

So, some of the best advice I ever got was to tell your story in a single sentence. Not a synopsis. But a summary.

In my first article, I described a story I had spent years writing about a girl who had been kidnapped by fairies as a child. It was a fantasy story, but it dealt with a lot of the psychological scarring she had experienced after losing her family and being told for so long that what she thought had happened hadn’t.

But, the story was about how sometimes, the only person you can save is yourself.

Ultimately, when I was writing the story, that was what I was exploring. That was what I was trying to learn.

The project I’m preparing for NaNoWriMo (can’t start preparing too early, right?) is about how growing up is as much about what you leave behind as what you take with you.

You may not know what you’re trying to learn as you’re writing. Sometimes, you have to get it out on paper. You may have to go through a couple of drafts.

Ultimately, though, when you’re writing, you’re trying to say something. You’re trying to explain something. There’s something you’re trying to learn and that you’re trying to teach.

That’s what you need to write about.

Conclusion

Write what you know is fine advice, but I don’t think that’s what it really is trying to tell you.

Write what you invent, what you research, what you learn. Or rather, know what you write. Even if you know it because you made it up, researched it, or learned it as you write.

Whatever you do, just keep writing.

Rejection Sucks

And I’m not going to give you some saccharine-sweet truism about how every time your piece gets rejected is another step toward it being accepted. Yeah, you can learn from rejection, when the rejector actually gives you some criticism. But, rejection still sucks.

And it’s a kind of suck that you don’t really get used to.

You can experience rejection in all manner of ways in every aspect of your life, and yet, whenever it happens, you can’t help but feel disappointed.

It’s something that you’re told to expect as a writer. And you will get it. It can take many forms, too, not just rejection from publishers. Rejection from readers hurts just as much, even more so. And don’t get me started on critics.

Rejection in all its forms, whether it’s “We won’t publish this,” “We won’t read it,” “We don’t like what we read,” or, “What we read really sucks, and here’s all the reasons you should never read Ainsel’s stuff again,” hurts.

It’s also a part of being a writer, because even when you’re on top of the world like J.K. Rowling with the Harry Potter series, you’ll end up the scorn of your former fans, like J.K. Rowling with tweeting weird things she never included in the canon about her characters.

You can let rejection tear you down. You can let it stop you. And I can see why you would want to. More than once a week, I wonder if I should keep writing. So I get it. But, may I suggest an alternative?

Acceptance.

There’s a form of cognitive-behavioral therapy out there called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). It’s got a pretty zen feel to it, arguing that the problem isn’t that we have thoughts and feelings that make us unhappy, but rather, that we fuse with them.

Think of fusion like this: Let’s say you take a fashion risk and wear a shirt you wouldn’t normally do. Someone, apropos of nothing, tells you that your shirt is hideous. Maybe it’s a shirt you like. Maybe you spent a lot of money on it. Whatever, you start thinking, “I have a horrible sense of style. I should never have worn this shirt.”

You’re embarrassed and disappointed, and you decide not to try any new styles.

You have fused with your thought. You have taken the thoughts “I have a horrible sense of style” and attached your identity to it.

What ACT argues is that the thought “I have a horrible sense of style” is just a thought. It has no real meaning. Is it true? According to ACT, doesn’t matter if it is. The question is, Is this thought helpful? If it’s not helpful, you need to defuse from the thought.

When it comes to writing, it’s really easy to “fuse” with your negative thoughts. It’s really easy to see that you’re not the next Stephen King, and think that you’re a terrible writer. “I’m a terrible writer,” is just a thought. It has no real truth to it, and you don’t have to fuse with it.

Similarly, when your short story or novel or poem or piece of artwork is rejected, it’s really easy to fuse with that and feel that you were rejected.

So, what do you do?

There are plenty of exercises that help, but I prefer the following:

When I noticed I’m having a harmful thought, and that I am fusing with that thought, I stop and say to myself, “I notice that I am having the thought that I have a horrible sense of style. I want to thank you, Mind, because I know you are trying to help.”

Usually that’s enough to distance myself from the thought.

And when I experience an authorial rejection, I find myself saying “I notice that I am having the thought that I’m not a good writer. I want to thank you, Brain, because I know you are trying to help.”

“I notice that I am having the thought that I could only write twenty words today and that I will never get published. I want to thank you, Brain, because I know that you are trying to help.”

“I notice that I am having the thought that because my story was rejected by a publisher that I am never going to be a real author. I want to thank you, Brain, because I know that you are trying to help.”

You see, your brain regularly throws out random thoughts to try to identify dangers. Is that a snake in the weeds? Is that a tiger by the water? And that’s great when you’re actually surrounded by danger. But when you’re surrounded by office settings and research notes, it can make you feel pretty trapped.

ACT argues that you will always have these negative thoughts. The point is to accept that you have them, allow them to pass, and move on with you life.

The next part is commitment. While you can get a “values worksheet” to help you write out all your values, let’s assume that you’re visiting this blog because you want to write, so writing is a value for you. So, you commit to writing.

When that niggling feeling comes that you want to quit writing because of the rejection, you ask yourself “Does quitting writing help me live a value-driven life, when writing is one of my values?”

That answer should be self-evident.

So, rejection.

1) Accept rejection will happen.

It just will. The most popular authors still experience rejection. They still have readers refuse to read their writing, publishers refuse to publish it, and critics calling it garbage. Accept that it will happen.

2) Learn what you can from the rejection.

Maybe the publisher will tell you why they rejected the piece “the viewpoint keeps shifting,” “there’s nothing at stake for the character,” or “this is a cooking magazine, please stop sending us your Star Trek slash.”

Take the advice that is helpful.

3) Learn that some rejection will not be helpful.

My mother loves me, and she believes I am a very good writer. She, however, likes neither fantasy nor horror. She will never regularly read anything I write because I insist on writing in genres she just doesn’t like. It’s a form of rejection. It’s not a form that will help me learn anything.

And sometimes you just get a form letter saying something about how this just doesn’t fit them at this time and they wish you the best in the future, feel free to submit again!

That’s going to be a lot of the rejection you experience. Learning to decipher which is helpful and which isn’t will help you going forward.

4) Write

That’s it. Commit to writing and write. Take a deep breath, recognize when you’re fusing with a thought that you shouldn’t, and move on. 

But, Ainsel, how do I write when I’m so miserable over a rejection that I feel like my world is caving in?

Start at the beginning. First, if rejection makes you so miserable that you feel like the apocalypse has landed on your doorstep, that means that you are fusing with the rejection. You are thinking you’re a terrible writer who will never be published, and you need to work a bit on your self-awareness and re-examine that. 

Take a deep breath, take ten, notice that you’re having these thoughts, and let them pass.

Then, well, let your imagination run for a bit. Maybe do some daily writing prompts to prime the pump. Maybe read through your ASeOWME IDEAS! folder to remind yourself that you are a good writer. Maybe toy with a pet project for a day or two. I have a comic I play with (not that I can draw to bring it to life, but I can still use it to inspire me) in my darkest times.

Then get back to your project and write.

And just keep writing.

Inspiration, Motivation, Dedication

I was once on a fitness forum in which someone posed the question “How do you get the motivation to run every day?”

I love giving advice, and I like running, so I started typing.

Try as I might, though, I was having a hard time expressing my experience, because it went something like this: I would get a sudden desire to do it, and so I would do it for a while until such a morning came that I really, really didn’t want to go but I forced myself to do it anyway.

The former was motivation, but the latter was something else.

Finally, I wrote something like this:

“You’ve probably been motivated to change a million times, but after a month, a week, a day, it disappears. Dedication is what keeps you going after the motivation disappears. It’s the part that looks at your urge to stay in bed instead of running and says, ‘Staying in bed doesn’t help me reach my goals, so I will get out of bed and run.’”

Writing adds another element: inspiration.

There are plenty of times in my life that I have been inspired to write. Suddenly, the muse is upon me, and I can pump out thousands of words. I once was so inspired that I wrote out more than 6,000 words in one sitting on a story I wasn’t even working.

And, Blessed Saint Francis de Sales, it’s wonderful when that happens. But, the muse is a fickle master, and trying to guide the flow of her inspiration is more likely to dam the river than direct it. Relying on inspiration to make your writing career is like waiting for dinner to fly into your mouth. Or, as Confucius probably never actually said, “He who waits for a roast duck to fly into his mouth will starve.”

Of course, connected and disconnected at the same time, I will get the motivation to write. I will decide that I will hit that 2,000 word count daily or die trying. A few days go by when I am successful, and then, just as suddenly, I’m staring at a blank computer screen and hating every word I have to punch out just to get to my goal. And those words are not good words. Not good words at all.

If you really want to write – or run or learn a new language or climb mountains – what you need to cultivate isn’t inspiration or motivation, although those will be incomparable tools you can use. What you really need, the gas that will power your writing engine, is dedication. It’s the dedication to sit down and write every day.

Dedication is the part of you that says, “I see that I don’t want to write today, but sitting here playing Stardew Valley isn’t going to help me finish my novel.”

Inspiration makes you love writing, motivation makes you want to write, but dedication is what makes you write.

How to cultivate inspiration

I’ve mentioned my Awesome Ideas folder, and frankly, I think it’s an invaluable tool. I love going through stuff I’ve written – maybe some purple prose, maybe a scene that doesn’t belong anywhere – and think “ah, yes, I am a writer.”

I have a tumblr account (yes, I’m on that hellsite) that I use to help accumulate and curate inspiration. Pictures, writing prompts, bits of historical facts. I tag them all so that I can sort back through them later. This account is a sort of digital Awesome Ideas folder.

Tumblr, Instagram, and Twitter can all be great tools where you can accumulate inspiration. Quotes, writing prompts, pictures, just ideas that people share, you can save things that make you feel excited about writing. Use those tools.

If you see a picture in a magazine that gives you an idea, cut it out and put it in an inspiration box. If you see a quote that enthuses you, copy and paste it into a doc. If you read a story that fills you’re shriveled little writer’s heart with joy and light, link that shit and re-read it.

I have digital and physical Awesome Ideas folders, and I happily use them both. You can even create different Awesome Ideas folders for different novels. I once found myself watching Howl’s Moving Castle nearly every day because it inspired me to write a story I was once working on. When it comes to The Blackwells, watching BBC’s Pride and Prejudice miniseries usually does the trick.

And if there’s ever a time when I just can’t bring myself to work on whatever main project I’m writing, I fiddle through my Awesome Ideas folders to find something else that inspires me, just to prime the pump.

Get into the habit of reviewing things that inspire you. The more you do, the more inspired you’ll get by just about anything.

Inspiration is a spark – you need it before you can start the engine of dedication. Learn to turn your shriveled little writer’s heart into a flint.

How to cultivate motivation

Motivation is, I admit, very similar to inspiration. But, I think it goes a bit like this:

When I see art someone has posted somewhere, or I read a good book, or I spot a quote that makes my mind race with ideas, that’s inspiration. When I want to start putting those words down on paper, that’s motivation. Inspiration makes you want to think; motivation makes you want to act.

Motivation is hype. Motivation is seeing people on Twitter gearing up for NaNoWriMo and wanting to be part of it. Motivation is seeing the advice “put aside fifteen minutes a day to write” and you put an alarm in your phone for tomorrow.

Cultivating motivation is a little harder than inspiration, because it can be the flipside of de-motivation.

I cannot tell you how many times I’ve heard some story or advice that I supposed to me motivating only to feel utterly demotivated.

Sometimes, seeing that someone you knew growing up has published a book, you can feel pretty deflated. Sometimes, seeing that Michael Crichton writes 10,000 words a day makes you want to throw your laptop out the window. Sometimes, seeing some true book that you know is nowhere as good as your writing (I won’t name names) is getting published just makes you feel like none of this is worth it anymore.

Things that should be motivating can become de-motivating pretty quickly if you’re in the wrong state of mind for it. So, what do you do?

Time for some brain-training.

The first you think need to do is be aware. Be aware of what you’re thinking and what you’re feeling. When you notice that hearing “500 words a day is a reasonable goal” but all you can think is “I can’t even get 500 words a day out, I’ll never be a writer,” you need to stop. Call it out. Say to yourself “I notice that I am having the thought that I will never be a writer.” Name your thoughts and feelings.

You need to be aware what you’re thinking and feeling, and you need to spell those thoughts and feelings out to yourself.

Once you’ve done that, you can then remind yourself that it’s just a thought, not reality. You didn’t get psychic all of a sudden. Let yourself feel that feeling, recognize it is just a feeling, and then let it pass.

Now, spite can be a decent motivator, but it isn’t the only one, and probably not the healthiest. Lots of things should motivate you. Inspiration can motivate you! But, frankly, the idea of writing should motivate you.

My best advice: when you see something about writing, remind yourself “I want to write.” Just say it to yourself. Out loud. “I want to write.” Keep your brain thinking that.

Idiot from high school is published? “I want to write.”

Inspiration strikes? “I want to write.”

Read an article about writing? “I want to write.”

How to cultivate dedication

You can have inspiration without motivation – that’s daydreaming. You can have motivation without inspiration – that’s writer’s block. Writing, though, writing takes dedication.

Dedication is looking at the endless void of a white page and punching something out anyway.

I can’t give you much in the way of pretty quotes for this section, but I can give you some tips to help you out. Because, really, this is the brass tacks of it. This is where we want to be.

1. Create a writing environment.

I don’t mean a room filled with your inspiration. I mean, create a separate space and time that is  your “writing space and time.” Don’t just sit in front of your tv or at your kitchen table. There needs to be something in the environment that tells your mind “now is writing.”

Changing into specific “exercise clothes” can help remind your brain that “now is exercising.” Sitting at a dinner table creates a different feeling in you than plopping in front of the tv with a hot pocket. You need an environment that helps flip that switch, too. It can still be on the sofa or at the kitchen table. But something needs to be a cue that says “this is different, this is writing.”

It could be a set of clothes, a piece of music you play, or just a chair you don’t normally sit in. It just has to be different.

2. Get rid of distractions

Don’t watch TV, don’t have Youtube playing in the background, don’t keep social media open in a different tab. You need to focus.

When you are struggling, you’re brain is going to try to find something else to do. It’s not interested in what you’re writing, so it wants to pay attention to something else.

Don’t let it.

Take a deep breath, take a drink of water (or tea or coffee, or something stiffer; as the saying goes, write drunk, edit sober), and then say to yourself, “This is writing time, and I want to write.”

George R.R. Martin writes in a DOS word program to write. And hell if that isn’t a distraction-less way of writing.

3. Try different tricks

I had read somewhere that white was too intimidating of a color, and that you should try turning the page green instead. And I did. And I do.

Someone else pointed out that using Comic Sans as a font makes it less intimidating. And if that works for you, great.

There’s that one program that will delete everything you write if you don’t keep typing, and if that starts your engine, go for it.

Experiment. Play around. See what works for you, and once you find it, abuse it maliciously.

4. Aim for time first, than word count

Back to running, there are multiple “Couch to 5k” programs out there to help you get up and running that 3.1 miles. Funny thing is, you don’t start with distance. You measure and extend the time you spend running. Once you can run for half an hour, then you start working on distance.

NaNoWriMo makes you think word count is all that matters, but I gotta say, focusing on time first is a better way to start. Set aside 15 minutes or half an hour a day. That is the time where you will sit in your writing environment without distraction using whatever tricks you like until that time is up. Even if all you’re doing is staring at a blank screen for the whole time.

Word count is great if you can get a reliable word count out, but sometimes you just can’t get it out. Aiming for a goal you can never hit is just training yourself to fail. But, all of us can set a time limit and wait for an alarm, so start there. Once you see that you can reliably punch out 500 words in that time, only then can you aim for a word count.

Conclusion

So, there you have it: inspiration, motivation, dedication. You need all three, and it wouldn’t be a bad idea to cultivate all three. Whatever you do, though, just keep writing.

© Ainsel Greenwood and AinselGreenwood.com, 2019. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Ainsel Greenwood and AinselGreenwood.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Worldbuilding and Language

Many and many years ago, I attended a Passion play told from the point of view of Pontius Pilate as he tried to come to terms with having to crucify this uppity Hebrew guy named Jesus. At one point, as he’s soliloquising about this, he gets interrupted by some dude, and he shouts, “Jupiter, Mars, and Venus, what do you want?”

To this day, that is the only part of the play I remember.

Language is an important part of worldbuilding. Not just how your characters speak, but what they say helps build the world they live in. Language informs and is informed by the history and culture in which it exists. Sure, you need to have a landscape, a climate, a culture, and that’s the “meat and potatoes” of worldbuilding. Language is the spices.

So, here’s some useful ways to add a bit of garlic, cumin, or cinnamon to your world.

Profanity

There are plenty of reasons not to use profanity, just as many as there are to use it!

Profanity is linguistically and culturally based, and I think that the difference in cussing between the United States and the United Kingdom is illustrative. The obvious place to go here is to look at the different curse words themselves. “Bloody” is a common enough one used in the UK that is only used by anglophiles in the US. I was in my twenties before I learned that it might be referencing “the blood of Christ,” which would make sense in a Christian society.

Moreover, certain words are offensive in one location and not so much in another. “C*nt” is a common term used throughout the United Kingdom, but is considered one of the worst cuss words you could use in the United States (which is I was censored it – I don’t want to have to upgrade this post to “over 18”). Jackass, on the other hand, is used frequently in the US, but is not often heard in the UK. In other words, you can get a sense of where you are by the cuss words being used.

Additionally, Americans have an interesting relationship with profanity that is reflective of the US’s puritanical history. While profanity can be rife in certain movies and music genres, using profanity in public and by public figures is still intensely taboo. So much so that even I, who regularly cusses like a drunken sailor, felt uncomfortable when reading Stephen King’s It because of how much the children protagonists cussed. Brits, on the other hand (having historically kicked out the Puritans that moved to America), are far more fluent in profanity, to the point that travel guides warn Brits to censor their language in the US less they offend the natives. But that’s part of it – the relationship with profanity is reflective of the history. A puritanical culture will be more uptight about profanity.

In writing, you can create profanity that makes sense in the context of the world your building. While it isn’t necessary to create profanity, having character-appropriate profanity adds an additional layer of “realism.”

In Dan Abnett’s Gaunt’s Ghosts series (written in the Warhammer 40k universe), we have a military unit from a destroyed world, serving the Emperor of Mankind, fighting an endless war across the universe against the forces of Chaos.

“By the throne!” or “Golden throne!” are common refrains in the massive universe of Warhammer 40k – minor profanity nearly on the level of “for Pete’s sake.” The Emperor of Mankind is, essentially, a corpse, kept alive by a massive life-support system called The Golden Throne. Though considered mildly blasphemous (did I mention the Emperor of Mankind was worshipped as a god?), it’s a common phrase throughout the Imperium.

Dan Abnett goes a bit deeper with his Ghosts. The Ghosts have a particular curse they use regularly – “feth” – and only men from Tanith (their destroyed world) use the term. At some point a couple books in,  we learn that Feth is actually the name of a fertility god that was once worshipped on Tanith. So, you can imagine what “feth” is supposed to mean. When survivors of Vervunhive join the Ghosts, they bring their own local curse word: gak (no, it’s not as good, but how can you really surpass the simple elegance of feth?). Abnett goes so far as the have Gaunt even muse that he knew the new and old recruits were really bonding when they started using each others’ profanity.

Now, each character doesn’t have to use profanity the same. A young mother (in the US anyway) might never curse in front of her child and would scold anyone who does (this has literally happened to me in real life), but the teenager trying to sound tough is going to drop some f-bombs pretty frequently, and might throw a c*nt in there if they’re feeling extra spicy.

Idioms

Once, in Spanish class, we had an assignment about writing a short paper in Spanish about our vacation. My vacation that summer included going to hole-in-the-wall restaurants to eat clam chowder and drink beer, so I found myself trying to find a way to say “hole-in-the-wall” in Spanish. I got points off, because, in Spanish, that literally translating that phrase made no sense. Similarly, when translating a German paper into English as a final exam, I had to try to explain a German idiom, something like “if you invite the Devil to eat at your table, use a long spoon.” Despite hours of googling, I’m still not entirely sure what it’s supposed to mean.

Idioms are metaphors – they mean more than the words themselves mean. “Meat and potatoes,” which I used at the beginning of this article, is barely an actual dish. As an idiom, it means that it’s the basic, fundamental part of whatever it is you’re referring to.

Idioms have a cultural and historical basis. “Meat and potatoes” doesn’t make sense in a culture where many dishes are not meat (pork or beef) based and potatoes aren’t used. Another common one “pot calling the kettle black” doesn’t make sense if kettles aren’t ever used, and, frankly, probably doesn’t make sense to most people now since pots and kettles are usually stainless steel and therefore silver!

Like profanity, because idioms draw from cultural and historical environments, adding idioms to your world creates an extra dimension to it. Some idioms can be understood even without much context. For example, the Polish idiom “Nie mój cyrk, nie moje małpy.” Literally, it means “not my circus, not my monkey,” a phrase I’ve heard occasionally in English. Even if you’ve never encountered the phrase before, you know what it means: it’s not my problem.

Some idioms are really indicative of the culture, like the German “Alles hat ein Ende, nur die Wurst hat zwei.” Or, “everything has an end, only the sausage has two.” Germans are known for being big sausage eaters, so having an idiom referring to sausage makes a lot of sense. And, you can probably decipher the meaning as “everything comes to an end.”

Finally, some idioms make no sense at all outside of their cultural context, like describing something as “hole-in-the-wall.” If you’re not already familiar with the term, it’s actually difficult to explain even in English. It’s referring to a restaurant or shop that’s small, probably family-run, it’s not fancy. According to Etymonline.com, it may have been the name of a public house at one time?

George R. R. Martin is great about sprinkling idioms into his writing. “Words are wind” for example. Look at that. That world has language. That world has nuance. That world has a culture that has created a high level of language! We can guess what those idioms mean at first glance. “Words are wind” means “talk is cheap.” And it’s not just the words of one wise person, but a phrase used by multiple people. We see a small example of a shared culture.

Similarly, J.K. Rowling models wizarding idioms after common ones we may already know. For example, “don’t count your owls before they are delivered” is a version of “don’t count your chickens before they’re hatched.” The value of manipulating commonly used phrases to make sense in your world is that it creates a world-specific idiom that still makes immediate sense to the reader already familiar with it.

There are a few rules for creating idioms.

  1. It has to make sense in the world. An idiom like “cat’s got your tongue” would feel awfully forced in a world where there are no cats.
  2. It has to say more than just the words themselves. Idioms mean more than what they are saying because they’re metaphors. “To let the cat out of the bag” means more than letting a literal cat out of a literal bag.
  3. Most importantly, it has to make sense pretty quickly to the reader. Sure, in the real world, you have idioms that take a lot of explaining to parse out, but if you have to create an entire half-page footnote to explain an idiom you’ve decided to make up for your world, you’re risking breaking immersion for your reader. The only instance I’ve seen where a footnote doesn’t break immersion is with Sir Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels, but then, Discworld is built in such a way that that sort of meta-narration makes perfect sense.

Memetic Language

Ah, memes, the language of the internet.

Actually, memes are creating an interesting linguistic change in the modern world. We can communicate using simply pictures or phrases, and, if you know the meme, you can understand exactly what is being said. It’s more than just an idiom – memes require so much more referential knowledge to grasp.

I can say to just about any of my friends “Look at them, Anakin,” and they know what I’m saying. Hell, I could just show them this picture, and they know.

“It’s “I don’t give a f*ck.” Because look at all the f*cks I don’t give. Look at them, Anakin.”

Individually, that’s even more meaningless than an idiom! Those words can’t be deciphered in anyway that actually makes sense beyond the literal. You can’t guess what that means just by the context. Sure, “words are wind” is a great idiom, but you and I can guess that it means the same thing as “talk is cheap.” “Look at them, Anakin,” requires knowledge of the franchise and a previous iteration of the image.

Truly, the greatest example of memetic language as a worldbuilding device is in the Star Trek: Next Generation episode “Darmok.”

It’s really one of my favorite episodes, so indulge me while I ramble.

There is this race of aliens called the Tamarians and no one is able to communicate with them. Oh, the truly miraculous technology of the translators are able to give the crew members of the Enterprise a translation of the words. But, even with that, the things the Tamarians say make no sense!

But, the Tamarians are desperate to communicate with the Federation, so they kidnap Captain Picard and throw him on a planet with their own Captain Dathon, in a last ditch effort to force someone in the Federation to speak plain Tamarian ffs.

The Tamarians speak in phrases, like, “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra” or “Temba, his arms wide.” Dathon says this to Picard who just stares at him in confusion. It takes Dathon being nearly killed by an invisible predator (hey, come on, even then they had a limited special effects budget) for Picard to really understand what’s going on: the Tamarian language is entirely referential. They communicate in phrases that refer to their myths and stories.

Deanna Troi makes an analogy, it’s like describing love by saying “Juliet, on her balcony.” Or, I suggest, like describing you don’t care about something by saying “Look at them, Anakin.”

The Tamarians speak in memes. And that’s a hill I’m ready to die on.

Obviously, you need to be even more careful with memes than you do with idioms, but it’s a language form that can and does work in a world.

Can you go too far?

Obviously, you can mess up anything suggested above. Profanity is going to be more than culture-specific, it’s going to be character-specific, too, because not all characters cuss and not all characters cuss the same way. Idioms have to be understood rather rapidly by the reader in order to be useful in writing while still holding a cultural legacy, and memetic language is actually going to require you as the writer to explain what the meme means without breaking up the flow of the story, which is why it’s the most difficult and least used tool in this toolbox.

But, can you go too far?

All I’m saying is that while you could be a linguist and literally create separate, whole, unique languages to help build your world, it’s not entirely necessary. Looking at you, Tolkien. (No, this section isn’t just an excuse to take a potshot at one of the most beloved authors of all time, shut up.)

Conclusion

Language is a great way to add a bit of depth to your world. Profanity, idioms, and even memes help to create a world and culture that exist beyond the surface of the plot of your story. There is a world bigger there than just what your characters are experiencing, and it has a deep and lasting impact on the characters themselves. Sure, it’s not a substitute for a well-built world, but it’s hard to build a well-built world without it. Like garlic.

© Ainsel Greenwood and AinselGreenwood.com, 2019. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Ainsel Greenwood and AinselGreenwood.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

On Ownership

Who owns the story you’ve written, you or the audience?

Well, legally, you do, that’s how copyright works, but that’s not what I’m getting at.

But, who gets to decide how a story’s gonna play out?

Recently, the SyFy series The Magicians experienced some pretty severe fan backlash about a season finale when one main character committed suicide. Well.. chose to die in order to save his friends. This character was canonically suicidal, so the move wasn’t out of character, but the problem was that the character was also canonically bisexual. His suicide, then, was a trope, specifically, the “Bury Your Gays” trope. Also known as the Dead Lesbian Syndrome, if you see a non-straight character, that character is gonna die.

The showrunners argued that it wasn’t suicide – there was even a scene when said character asks if he sacrificed himself to save his friends or if he’s just using that to excuse suicide? Obviously, the canonical answer is, “Nah, bud, you saved your pals!”

The response has been intense, with the episode’s rating tanking and the viewership shrinking. Many saw the “sacrifice” as just an excuse to, well, Bury The Magicians’ Gays. And those viewers who saw the character as representative of themselves were incredibly hurt.

The question always comes up when there’s a huge fan backlash: should The Magicians change their season 4 finale? Should any artist be change their art in order to please the people who look at, listen to, watch, read, or otherwise experience their art?

Meaning is in the Interpretation

So, who owns the meaning of any piece of art?

The creator? The critic? The academic? The observer?

Really, it belongs to the interpreter.

Art is supposed to have meaning, and the meaning that anyone finds in a piece of art is going to be based on their own experiences and cultural background.

Wendy Griswold main this argument in “The Fabrication of Meaning” from all the way back in 1987 in The American Journal of Sociology. In this, Griswold examines the interpretation of George Lamming’s novels in the US, the UK, and the West Indies. She found that each area interpreted the novel differently based on their own cultural background: the reviewers of the West Indies read a lot of questions about identity, American reviewers focused on the issue of race, whereas reviewers in the UK were mostly focused on language.

In other words, what Griswold found was that the cultural artifact may retain a particular coherence across cultural lines, but the meaning comes from the interaction between the cultural artifact and the culture of its viewer.

Let me give you an example.

In Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, you’ve got two sisters (well, three, the the third is too young to get married, so who cares?). The oldest sister Elinor is serene and calm; she does not allow anyone to know her emotions, even after learning that the man she loved was already engaged to someone else. The younger sister Marianne is a Romantic. She’s dramatic, reactive, and obsessed with Romance poetry and Romantic ideas. She makes a spectacle of herself, to the point that rumors start to fly about what the relationship between herself and Mr. Willoughby really entailed.

Generally, everyone agrees that Elinor and Marianne are foils: Elinor is reserved, Marianne is emotional; Elinor is stiff, but Marianne is lively.

Now, modern interpretations see the main character development is the two sisters coming to a sort of middle ground: Elinor needs to become less reserved and Marianne less emotional. Elinor needs to loosen up a bit; Marianne needs to calm down. This is obvious in both the 1995 film version and the more recent 2008 BBC mini series (themselves, interpretations of the original work), in which, once Marianne has learned to calm down and becomes engaged to the colonel, Elinor bursts into tears when Mr. Ferrars finally proposes.

That’s not what happens in the book, though.

Elinor never bursts into tears. She never learns to loosen up. When Mr. Ferrars proposes, Elinor accepts him placidly, always composed and reserved. Early interpretations argue that, yeah, the sisters are foils, but that’s because Elinor is everything a woman should be and Marianne is very nearly everything they shouldn’t be.

That’s all well and good and interesting if you’re of the academic bent, you might say, but, Ainsel, what about creator intent?

Creator Intent

Robert Frost wrote the poem “Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening” in 1922. It’s a pretty poem about a guy who… stops by the woods on a snowy evening. I’m a fan of it, myself, and a lot of Frost.

I’m sure we’ve all heard what the meaning is supposed to be: suicide. The man who’s stopped by the woods on a snowy evening is contemplating his own death, even suicide, during this dark night. I know that that’s what I was explicitly told when I was first learning how to interpret poetry.

Funny thing is, though, Robert Frost didn’t agree. He argued he wrote it because he’d sort of hallucinated it after a night of writing a different poem. It’s not about death, let alone suicide, Frost said. Categorically.

Funnier thing is, no one cares. No one cares what Frost was trying to say when he wrote “Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening.” Readers have found their meaning, and that’s where it stays.

Earlier this year, Amélie Wen Zhao pulled her debut novel (she’s publishing it again) over accusations of racism. The book in question, Blood Heir, includes depictions of slavery that some have called insensitive. I haven’t read the book, and since most of us probably haven’t yet, so we’ll have to wait and see. Zhao is hardly the first or only author accused of racism, and she won’t be the last.

But, here’s the thing: she clearly didn’t mean to write a racially insensitive depiction of slavery, she said so. We can all agree she was genuinely trying to be sensitive with her novel. But… that doesn’t mean she was. And, ultimately, it’ll be up to her readers to decide whether or not she crossed a line.

In other words, creator intention is fine. Creators make canon, after all, but ultimately, their voice is just another in the conversation.

Writing as a Conversation

And ultimately, that’s where we are. Any art, but especially writing, is a conversation.

For anything to be art, it must contain some cultural significance. When we paint, sculpt, write, or anything else, we’re trying to say something. We are trying to express something when we produce art. It may not be much. It may not be important. It may be as simple as “I wanted a happy ending.” Or maybe it’s “I just think dragons are cool.”

In whatever case, you’re saying something in response to an ongoing conversation – even if it’s just “there aren’t enough stories with happy endings or dragons.”

Because it is a conversation, you are the writer (or artist) aren’t just screaming into a void. You’re having a conversation with your readers – which means you’re going to have to shut up and listen occasionally.

Famously, Charles Dickens changed the ending of Great Expectations after backlash to the ending. Originally, Pip is alone and Estella is married to someone else. Author Wilkie Collins hated the ending. It was so bad that Dickens released a second ending that left the possibility that Pip and Estella could marry. Not everyone is happy with that, of course, but it was fan response that made Dickens change his novel.

Similarly, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle straight up resurrected a character. Sherlock Holmes was supposed to die Reichenbach Falls. Holmes wasn’t supposed to have some complicated Rube Goldberg plan to fake his death and survive – “The Final Problem” was supposed to be the final short story in the Sherlock Holmes series.

It was the fans that convinced him to bring the detective back from the dead. Holmes’ heroic sacrifice became the type of overly complicated scheme Holmes is now famous for.

What about artistic integrity? you may ask. If an artist creates something, shouldn’t they stand by it no matter what?

Allow me to discuss The Mist, both a novel by Stephen King and a movie.

*Spoiler warning? Do I need a spoiler warning for a book from 1980 and a movie from 2017?*

Movie is, for the most part, faithful to book. A mist rolls into town and there are monsters in it. It’s a story about trying to survive… that. The book has a pretty anticlimatic but still very chilling ending: the characters have run out of gas, and are stuck in a car surrounded by the titular mist and the monsters within it. And that’s it. The movie, though…

Ho, boy.

Once the crew realize that they’re done for, they all agree that they’d rather go out with a bullet to the head rather than by monster attack. Protag David shoots each one, including his son, but finds there’s no bullet left for himself.

Moments later, the military swoops in, having successfully closed the portal the mist was coming from and rescued a bunch of people. The group was moments away from rescue, and David has killed them all for nothing.

That is a huge shift from the ending in the book, where no rescue is in sight and potentially the world could be coming to an end. It changes the tenor of the whole thing: now we’re not worried about the ultimate doom of our protagonists, but devastated at David has done.

And Stephen King loved it.

Artistic integrity is important – and if you have something you can’t drop from a story without it changing everything, well… You ought to keep it. I mentioned in a previous article that you need to know how far you’ll bend a story before it’s broken, and that includes how important a controversial decision is to your story.

But, you don’t lack artistic integrity if you realize that you didn’t communicate the thing you were trying to say well enough, and it’s okay to realize that you made a mistake.

Conclusion

As many of us move toward self-publishing, we’re going to be more at the mercy of our audience than traditionally published authors are. We are going to have to be responsive to our audiences, too. Fortunately, the internet has made that easier than ever.

I think it’s time that writers, and artists of all stripes, embrace the art-as-conversation idea. Know what you’re trying to say, say it, and prepare for the conversation you’re going to have with your audience. Together, you can make something even greater.

So, who owns the story? Everyone does.

© Ainsel Greenwood and AinselGreenwood.com, 2019. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Ainsel Greenwood and AinselGreenwood.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

How to Leave Work at Work

A chosen few in this profession can support themselves writing; the rest of us have to keep a day job to survive. They certainly do get in the way, though.

No matter how close or how far from work I have lived, I’ve found that I often couldn’t get work out of my head so that I could write once I got home. The stress from my jobs kept bleeding into my evenings so that I could barely get myself to do more than microwave a dinner before I went to bed.

I’m sure plenty of you have felt this, too. Writers, as a general rule, tend to be rather neurotic, and I know I am no exception.

Back in the mid and late 00s, I pursued a degree in the academic study of religion, and I learned something that might help with this. Allow me to get a little academic hear.

Liminality and Rites of Passage

Liminality is an anthropologic term derived from the Latin limen, which means threshold. Way back when, Arnold van Gennep came up with the idea of liminality in reference to rites of passage. For those who don’t know, rites of passage are rituals that move a person from one role in society to another.

There are three distinct portions. First, there’s the pre-liminality where the subjects “dies” from their previous role in society. Second, you get the actual liminality. Here, the subject of the ritual exists as a sort of non-person because they are transitioning from one role to another. Finally, there is the post-liminality, where the subject is reincorporated into their new role in society. The rituals here break down the subject and then, sort of, rebuild them into a new person with a new role in society. Van Gennep developed this theory of ritual mostly for coming-of-age rites of passage, but it works for just about any of them.

Think of wedding ceremonies. The pre-liminal rites, the ones that move one out of the social role of “single,” is the hair and make up and putting on clothes that are unique from your everyday items. The liminal rites are the wedding ceremony in general, where vows are taken, name are changed, etc. This bit moves you from one social role into another. The post-liminal rites, which reintroduce you to society in your new social role, include introducing the new couple at the reception, everyone partying, and watching the new couple drive off together.

Or graduation. Or the bar and bat mitzah.

Okay, Ainsel, interesting. Seems pretty heavy for just getting your head straight and writing after work, but okay.

But there’s a reason Van Gennep used a term for threshold when he described this. Thresholds are hugely important to the human mind. It’s a physical separation of space, and it’s so symbolically important that it’s the reason that we forget what we were doing when we walk from one room to another: we know a threshold is important in reordering the mind.

You can use this knowledge to create a sort of ritual that turns work off and turns writing on.


Pre-Liminal

It’s the end of your work day. You’re ready to go home. You throw everything into your bag or briefcase and run for the door.

But wait! If you’re running home immediately from work without thought or intention, then you’re just carrying your work home with you, subconsciously. You aren’t breaking down your pre-liminality role as “employee.”

You see, Work You is one social role, Home You, or more importantly Writing You, is another one. You need to transition between those two roles.

So, how do you break down your social role of Work You?

You need to create a little ritual. If you work at a desk, consciously and intentionally put all your work away. Turn off your computer. Gather your things. Tell yourself you’re leaving work and going home.

Changing clothes is a helpful physical reminder that you’re leaving work, too. If you wear a uniform at work, try changing into and out of it at work, if you can. I have to wear a sweater at work, so I have one that I only wear at work. I put it on when I get to work, I take it off when I leave. I refuse to wear it on the way home, and often I even leave it at work. Changing shoes is another option.

It can be any little ritual you do intentionally every day that reminds you that you are leaving work.

Liminal Rites

Commuting can be hugely stressful. It used to take me two hours to get home from work, so I’d arrive home frustrated, angry, hungry, tired, and in no mood to write.

The commute is the time when you are in liminality. This should be a role-less you, an amorphous not Work You, not Writing You, but a You that lacks any real role in the work-writing worlds.

What can you do in the commute that would help you? Something not involved in work or writing at all.

I started listening to audiobooks. In fact, I have certain audiobooks I only listen to when I commute. It’s a way for me to just listen and drive. Reading often sublimates my ego: I don’t am a passive participant, rather than an active actor.

You could listen to good music you enjoy or even no music at all. Perhaps you can just take the time to breathe deeply and take notice of the view around you. You know, meditate, if you’re walking, riding the bus or train, or biking to and from work.

Do not listen to the news or talk radio, as that will likely get you upset. And make a conscious effort to enjoy the commute home, either driving or riding the train. Let it be a time for you to decompress.

This is a time in when Work You transitions into Writing You. You’re preparing yourself for getting home and writing. Doing stuff that makes you upset and stressed won’t help.

Personally, I really like the idea of going to the gym between work and home. Aside from the fact that I enjoy going to the gym (I know not everyone does and at the moment, I can’t actually afford a gym membership and not everyone can, so…). I like it because you’re going to be wearing different clothes than work or home clothes, and you’re going to be doing something physically that wears you out.

Whatever you do, it has to be a thing that isn’t Work You and isn’t Writing You yet.

Post Liminal Rites

Once you’ve arrived home, it’s time to move from the liminal stage to Writing You. You are taking the role-less You and rebuilding You as Writing You. There are a couple of great things to do.

First, be present once you’ve gotten home. Greet whomever is waiting for you – your dog, your cat, your family, or your goldfish. Even if nothing but your home is waiting, say hello. Then, put your things away – your wallet, your purse, your bag, your coat – and if you haven’t changed out of work clothes, do so. One of the first things I do when I get home is put take a shower and put on lounge-y clothes.

Take your time to relax. If you have kids, you probably won’t have time to write until they’ve gone to bed anyway, so why not use the time to distance yourself from work a little more. If you do have kids, just take that time to enjoy being with your family. Take the time to recognize that your kids will one day grow up, and then these times will be just memories. Don’t mar them by being angry and frustrated.

If you don’t, you still probably got a few things you can do to relax a bit further. Make dinner. Take a shower. Clean up a bit. Whatever. You’re about to transition into Writing You, and just like you need a definite transition from Work You, you need a definite transition into Writing You. It could be a sweater you wear for writing. Or a room that you go into when you’re writing. Or put on music that you listen to while you’re writing. You need the threshold.

Once you’ve got into your writing clothes, sat down in your writing chair, and started your writing time, do it. Write however long you need. Even if all you’re doing is just staring at a blank page, do it for as long as you have allotted.

If You Need to Vent

Do so before you leave work. If you need to sit in your car and scream for a few minutes, do so. If you need to burn some frustration out of your system on the way to the train, do it before your commute actually starts. Venting anger and frustration from work needs to be part of your pre-liminal phase. If you carry that anger with your through your liminal and post-liminal phases, you’re not actually moving from Work You to Writer You. You’re still stuck as Work You.

Taking some time to do relaxation exercises is helpful. Margarita Tartakovsky has some great ways over at PsychCentral. Check those out. Again, I would suggest do those before you leave work. If you feel you still need to, repeat them again before you enter your home.

If You Work At Home

Some of us telecommute. Some of us run businesses from home. How do we deal with that when work and home are the same place?

Well, liminality works here, because you can create a liminality of space as well as time.

Think of temples, churches, graveyards, libraries, any place that feels qualitatively different inside from the outside. Think of the path leading up to the doors (a long walkway or a staircase), the large doors, the foyer. It’s all to signal to you, subconsciously, that this is a different space. Thoughts, behaviors, they need to change.

You can do the same thing at home, even if you work from home.

If you have the room, have your home office in a separate room that you can shut once you’re done. Do not write in this room if you work in this room. If you can’t have a separate room, try to make some sort of physical barrier to the space you are using. If you can make it permanent, perfect. If not, then at least don’t do your work on your bed or your couch. Those are places for relaxing.

If you have the separate room, have the desk face the door so it’s the first thing you see when you enter. Decorate in such a way that it’s the centerpoint. That image will tell your subconscious that this is for Work You, not Writer You.

Set aside time for the work you do at home, and do not allow yourself to work beyond that time if you can at all avoid it. Once you are done, leave the room and don’t go back until it’s time to work again. If you don’t have a separate room, put everything away so that you’re not seeing it constantly. If you are wearing specific clothing (like a nice shirt for video conferencing), change.

Just remember, the best thing for you to do is to create a physical and temporal barrier for yourself. Passing that, and creating tiny rituals for you, can help your subconscious shift gears to move out of the Work Mode and into the Writing Mode.

Good luck. And remember, just keep writing.

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