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Using Word

Posted by on Sep 18, 2014 in Busybird | 0 comments

microsoftwordMicrosoft’s Word, despite all its idiosyncrasies, can be a powerful tool for any writer when used correctly.

Unfortunately, most writers don’t. They use it as a typewriter, instead of taking advantage of some of the benefits that it has to offer – and it does offer benefits.

Let’s look at a few.

Oh duh. Yes, duh. A lot of people don’t even bother to run a spellcheck, because they trust their spelling infallibly. That’s great. But the reality is nobody’s questioning your spelling (or just your spelling), they’re questioning your typing. Every writer will suffer from an occasional typo or two, particularly when revising over existing text. Always run a spellcheck when you’re done.

Grammar Checker
This is actually one of Word’s dangerous features because it gets stuff wrong, misunderstanding context. Trust in Word’s grammar checker, and you’re likely to introduce errors. The best way of using the Grammar Checker is to strip back what it actually checks. Here, it can become an invaluable tool.

Page Breaks
Some people manually insert their page breaks, hitting ENTER/RETURN until they get onto the next page. Great? Nope. Because if you insert or remove anything from previous pages, it’ll affect where that new page begins. If you needed to hit ENTER/RETURN ten times to begin a new page, then remove two lines on an earlier page, that new page will be elevated two lines (and possibly brought back up to the previous page).

You can enter hard line breaks, (which can be found in the ‘Insert’ or ‘Page Layout’ menu, depending on which version of Word you have). You also have an option of what sort of page break it’ll be. You can force Word to start that next page on an odd number (useful, for instance, if you have section breaks in a novel, which would always begin on an odd numbered page), and to delineate that a new section has begun. There’s a lot to play with here, and it ensures if you make revisions later, your page breaks remain exactly where they’re meant to be.

Headers & Footers
Useful for running headers of the chapter title, the book title, your name, the page number, or any information you require to appear throughout whatever your working on.

A strength of the running headers is if you use hard page breaks, you can have different headers/footers in a new section, whilst linking up things like the page number, so that runs continuous. This is useful for a big work, such as a book, which might have different titles for the chapters. You can also have a ‘Different First Page’, so you might have a fancy chapter title for the start of a chapter, but running headers through the rest.

This is the most – the most – powerful thing about Word and something everybody should learn to use. If you’re not using Styles, you may as well be using a typewriter.

Styles help determine the way your text looks, and you can define different Styles depending on what you want each to do. You can have a Style for your book title (on your cover page), a Style for your chapter titles, a Style for your chapter subtitles, a Style for your body text – there are no limits on how many Styles you can set up, although if you’re writing a story or a book, you’d probably only need a few (e.g. chapter titles, and a couple for the body text).

Again, depending on which version of Word you’re using, the location of Styles moves. Usually, you’ll be able to find it in the ‘Format’ menu. On the newer versions of Word, the Styles can be found as icons in the ‘Home’ menu.

When you go to add a new Style, you have a variety of options to play with, amongst which are:

    • Name: whilst self-explanatory, it’s worth prefacing the names of all your Styles with an ‘x’, e.g. ‘xpara’, ‘xtitle’, ‘xchaptertitle’. This means that when they’re sorted alphabetically (as Word will do), that they’re all clumped together, and won’t get lost amongst Word‘s default styles.
    • Style Based On: if one of your Styles contains characteristics of another Style, choose that Style here. This might be useful if two Styles are similar but for one thing, e.g. ‘xpara’ might be for your indented paragraphs, ‘xflush’ for paragraphs that are aligned flush left (which traditionally open chapters or resumptions from section breaks). If you were defining ‘xflush’, choose that it’s based on ‘xpara’, and just remove the indentations. Everything else is otherwise the same.
    • Style for Following Paragraph: this option is not to be undervalued, because it makes writing so easy. If you’re defining a Style for your Chapter Title, you could define the Style for the following paragraph is ‘xflush’ (your standard text, which is aligned flush left). After the ‘xflush’, you could determine the next Style is ‘xpara’, which is for the body of your text. So all you need to do is choose ‘xchaptertitle’ when you open a chapter, type in your title, hit ENTER/RETURN, and it’ll automatically catapult the cursor into ‘xflush’. Finish that paragraph, hit ENTER/RETURN, and it automatically goes into ‘xpara’.

There’s also a lot of stuff you’d expect, like the font type, the font size, the line spacing, the text alignment, and if you choose the ‘Paragraph’ option from the ‘Format’ tab (usually in the bottom left-hand corner), you can choose your indentation, and whether there’s any spacing between paragraphs, etc. There’s also an option with a checkbox that says Add to Template; this determines whether that Style will be available whenever you create a new document, or whether it exists just for this document that you’re working on.

The reason to use Styles is because of the total power they give you over your document. For example, you might’ve written a three-hundred page book with twenty chapters, each chapter with a title in Times New Roman 20pt font, and then decide you want something snazzier, and with more space between the chapter title and the commencement of text. Without Styles, you’d have to manually change all those titles. But with Styles, you just go into the relevant Style, make the changes you want, hit ‘OK’, and everything using that Style instantaneously updates to your new choices.

Another benefit of using Styles is that you can automatically generate a contents page from specific Styles. For example, let’s say the Style we’ve used for our chapter titles is called ‘xchaptertitle’. We can point Word‘s ‘Table of Contents’ feature to be generated from any text where the xchaptertitle Style has been applied. Thus, we get a list of all the chapter titles, as well as their corresponding page numbers. If we make changes later, we can update the contents, and it’ll adjust everything accordingly. If we wanted different levels of contents (e.g. chapter title, chapter subtitle, as well as headings throughout the chapter), we can stipulate we want the contents generated from several Styles, and even specify how they appear (e.g. font type, indentations, etc.).

Word generally isn’t the industry standard for professional writers. Most would use software like Scrivener. But Word does have enough tools for your needs if you just know how to use it right.

It’s worth experimenting with to familiarise yourself with its features. Once you get to know them (and particularly the Styles), you’ll wonder how you ever got along without them.


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A Writer’s Morale

Posted by on Sep 16, 2014 in Busybird, page seventeen | 0 comments

sea-turtle-356125_1280Following on from my last post, it’s worth having a quick word about the mindset that comes around in being a writer constantly attempting publication.

Because, honestly, it’s gruelling to have to endure rejection after rejection, sometimes in one great big dry run that doesn’t seem to have an end to it. All writers have had it at some point. And not to be the doom-and-gloom guy, but any writers who haven’t had any dry runs – well, chances are that they will someday. Maybe years from now. But it’s a pretty sure thing.

The emotional reasons for writing are varied. Some may write for emotional release and catharsis, or simply because they derive pleasure from telling stories and using imagination to create scenarios. With so many different emotional footprints, there often isn’t a lot connecting different writers universally on an emotional level aside from the desire to put words to a page.

I won’t try to profile and address every writer who practices the craft for personal gratification or relief. But for all writers seeking an audience, there are two unifying factors – hope, and morale.

Both these ideas are pretty self-explanatory. Hope is the dream, and the ambition, of fulfilling one’s expectations – in this case, publication and acceptance. Morale is the motivational force that allows you to continue hanging on to that hope – it’s the fuel that gets you through the lows so that you can taste the highs. Hope is nothing without the morale to accompany it.

And that’s where people lose their drive. The hope doesn’t fade – the morale fades. That’s the most frustrating thing – you still want it, but it becomes harder to act upon it. Or, at least, that’s one of the more common illustrations of morale running dry.

Morale is normally tied to a group mentality – companies talking about how they can bolster the morale of employees as a means of boosting productivity. But what can an individual writer do, if the morale is running low?

Never forget the times you did accomplish something. Sounds easy on paper. But any publications you’ve already had, no matter how long ago or how minor – they’re all forms of acceptance. They’re all reminders that your work has an audience. Remember the praise and the constructive criticism. Remember the little moments that made you want to push yourself further as a writer. Those moments and milestones can see you through.

Get away from the desk. You might not even realise how much you’re bashing your head against the notepad or keyboard. At some point you’ve gone past perseverance and started chasing your own tail. Find something else to do. Something else to worry about. It can be boring worrying about the same thing all the time, after all.

Take care of yourself. You’ve surely heard all the benefits about eating well and taking the time to keep fit. Blah blah good hormones blah blah. You won’t listen to the science coming from yet another commentator. Just tell yourself, if you’re not doing anything to keep a varied diet and be active on a regular basis, that you really should. If you need more incentive, well – it gives you superpowers. I’m not supposed to talk about it, but honest-to-god superpowers. Just keep at it and you’ll get X-ray vision someday. And if you don’t, at least you’ll be fit enough to kick my arse for (allegedly) misleading you.

Try something new. I know – I keep bringing this up. But a new project with fresh challenges can be invigorating. A fresh angle on something you’ve tried before. A completely new genre or style. The trick is that if you’ve written outside your comfort zone, and that particular piece doesn’t garner results either, take that outcome with a grain of salt. It might not be your best work. But anything that expands your comfort zone is a stepping stone to refining your future work – and can be a fun challenge on top of everything else.

Share with others. A tough one, especially if you don’t already have a solid network. But there are so many people out there who will have their own wisdom to offer on how they got through their own rough periods.

These are only a few introductory ideas, but they’re a starting point to ensuring you can keep your motivation even during the tough times. There’s nothing more frustrating than hope without morale, so always be aware of your own drive and when extra measures are required to keep yourself on track. What do you do to keep your morale up as a writer?

Beau Hillier | Editor, page seventeen

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The Story Behind the Images

Posted by on Sep 11, 2014 in Busybird | 1 comment

kevwalkwithmeThe Walk With Me book has evolved over time from a simple record of my trip to a full-colour collection showcasing Nepal in all its glory.

Before I left for Nepal I was feeling anxious about the trip and how tough it might be. I’d heard quite a few horror stories from people of either not making it or feeling horrible and struggling at the high altitudes. It seems it’s not how fit you are or how much you might have trained, but whether your body genetics will or won’t allow you to climb to those heights.

I had a real mixture of emotions and although some were about the trek itself, I stressed a little about the book and my ability to capture images worthy to show off on my return. I also had 70+ supporters who had pledged money to the project and I was too proud to come back and say, ‘I didn’t quite get there.’ It wasn’t an option for me but I kind of knew it might be out of my hands.

Upon arriving in Kathmandu, my friend and travelling companion, Norm, and I based ourselves in the busy centre and set off shooting the locals. You realise quickly that you stand out and aiming the camera at people was way too obvious and didn’t allow for natural photos. The trick is to find a corner, base yourself there, hide in the shadows and quietly shoot away as life goes by. Norm and I loved doing this and had a ball finding amazing corners to observe and shoot.

After landing at Lukla (the most dangerous airport in the world) and heading off into the mountains, Norm and I realised this wasn’t going to be the type of photographic opportunity we had imagined. We had thought there might be times to stop, set up a shot, wait for the light or subjects to be perfect before shooting. Instead, it was shoot and run, photograph as you walked, no time to stop as it’s go, go, go. The sherpas would allow you a little time to stop now and then but the group as a whole really needed to stick together and keep moving.

Photographing the local village people was tough as well. If any caught you aiming a camera at them they would approach you angrily, asking for money or just stop what they were doing and hide. I ended up taking photos sneakily by presetting the camera, aiming generally at them with the camera down beside me, and shooting a few frames hoping they wouldn’t hear it clicking. Sometimes this worked and sometimes it didn’t. It really was the only way because even if you asked them permission they would yell NO.

The weather was also a factor. We assumed after reaching camp most days mid afternoon, we could go off and explore the area and do sunset pics, etc. Not the case. At the time we were there in March/April, the mornings are always crystal clear but by 1pm the cloud and mist sets in and it’s a whiteout by early afternoon. After trekking for nine hours a day we were mostly too tired to go off and explore more anyway. As you can imagine everything is either up or down in Nepal and, with weary legs, climbing a hill for maybe a nice photo was not going to happen.

Photographing along the way was also a challenge as compensating the camera’s exposure for the changing conditions and scenery – like snow and dark deep valleys – meant a constant manual compensation variation in exposure for each photo. It’s not easy trying to expose for bright snow at the top of the photo and dark shadow valleys at the bottom, so it was a case of guess the amount of compensation and have faith in your judgment. What also made it tough was I was wearing polarizing sunglasses due to the bright sky, which meant the screen went black and I couldn’t see what I had just photographed or the change in my settings quickly.

Another problem was I only had limited camera batteries on me and chances to recharge them was unlikely or expensive, meaning constant previewing of photos on the camera would be out of the question. I had three camera batteries that lived on my body for the entire trek day and night, either in my pockets in my under-layers of clothing or down my pants. You really have to keep them warm all the time or the cold will drain them in minutes and then you are stuck.

All of these obstacles really made it a ‘shoot on the fly’ type of assignment and added to the pressure. I was always walking and thinking I need this type of shot or I need that, and constantly looking for something different. As the trek went longer and longer, knowing I needed more but hadn’t got it yet was always playing on my mind.

The cover for the book was a tricky one. I was always looking for that HERO photo as the standout cover pic and although I had shot a few I thought might work it wasn’t until halfway back from Base Camp that I thought of setting something up at Dingbouche one crystal clear morning. I asked Norm to model for me and I lay in the dirt and snapped away. The cover to me describes all that my trek involved: the trekker on a path, dirty boots and dust flying up, the snow capped mountains, the Nepalese Stupa and prayer flags nearby. I loved it as soon as I shot it.

Once I got back I found I had over 3000 photos and I had to whittle them down to around 300. This was tough, as I liked so many of them and it’s hard when you have an emotional attachment to an image. I also drew ten or so illustrations along the way and wrote some silly poems to describe what I was feeling while drawing, which I expect will add to the experience of flicking through the book.

I hope that mixing all these together and presenting it in a classical, bright and large format book gives the reader a real sense of the beauty and the adventure that is Nepal and the Mt Everest Base Camp Trek.

Kev Howlett.

  • If you’re interested in pre-ordering Walk With Me, check out our page here.
  • If you’d like to learn more about CMT and how CMT played a part in the book’s development, check out our page here.
  • And if you’d like to see some outtakes which didn’t make the book, check out our page here.
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Questioning Your Writing

Posted by on Sep 9, 2014 in Busybird, page seventeen | 0 comments

telescope-300339_1920So a piece of work has been finished, or at least laid out to reasonable comprehension. There’s a sense of relief. Then anxiety. Then out-and-out despair. Because so much of it seems wrong, wrong, wrong. Or, on the other end of the scale, it’s a full and complete piece that’s been rejected on multiple occasions, and you just can’t work out what to do with it anymore – what else can be done to make it commercially viable.

You get the idea – we always second-guess our own work. We should. That’s how we evolve as writers. I think the worst thing is when we look at something we’ve written, we know it needs to be improved, but we don’t know how to improve it. We don’t know what questions to ask when we place the storylines, characters and themes under scrutiny.

So let’s go over a couple of the common questions and maybe a couple more that aren’t asked often enough. This quick list isn’t necessarily the definitive list of questions to be asked; every piece of writing comes with its own set of virtues and potential problem points. But this might act as a decent enough launch pad.

What’s it about?

Easy, right? Not always. Because it can be about several different things. But the trick is to be able to identify what the crux of the story is and lean against that as your main infrastructure – your support post. The components that define the entire story.

A more exact way of asking this question might be: What can’t be taken out? Sometimes characters and themes can be removed, and it may affect the storyline and destroy certain scenes. But the work itself can be repaired and still be essentially the same. Sometimes the ‘main character’ can be removed and events still play out in a similar fashion. Nick Carraway was mostly irrelevant in The Great Gatsby, despite being the sole narrator – the one thing that held the book together was the story and character of Gatsby. Everything else could have been changed or removed, but to remove Gatsby would have been to tear the roots out from the story.

Once you identify the components that can’t be deleted, you know what the story is about and how to arrange everything around it to service that lynchpin.

Who’s/What’s the main character?

Often it’s a no-brainer. Sometimes it might be a grey area as to who benefits the most from having the spotlight.

It’s tricky in ensemble pieces. Most characters will undergo their own arc in a collective span of time – or they have no arc or road to change at all, which in itself might be part of the story. If we take a scenario of a family gathering for a holiday, a la The Corrections, there could be an enormous bundle of stories, themes and character arcs to focus on here. So who needs to hold the narrator’s lens? Who is the most important character – if it’s not the narrator? Who deserves the attention?

Every story takes a perspective, regardless of whether the core lynchpin is a character or theme or story element. Every piece of writing has a lens – and every character you could potentially use as the reader’s avatar will have a different-coloured lens. Review the options and be sure you’re choosing the right lens.

Where should it begin and end?

Most emerging and experienced writers have heard the diatribe at some point about how in a first draft of any piece of prose, the first page is the most expendable. This is where the exposition is most commonly dumped to allow the writer to gain a sense of the story’s direction and to pick up momentum. This is where material can be most efficiently cut. Obviously it’s not a hard and fast rule, but it illustrates how important a meaningful starting point is to the effectiveness of a piece of writing.

The start should set the tone. Both by the emotion, and the opening event. Sometimes it’s not necessarily the first event in the sequence of storyline events – maybe it’s just the most important of those events. The one that embodies the conflict taking place. The moment in time that’s going to echo through to the closing sentence.

So the ending is important too. The best endings carry that echo from the beginning, and give the impression that there is little more to tell that is relevant. In many ways the ending is a stylistic fingerprint of a writer – every writer has their own way of ending something. It might be neat and final. It might be mostly resolved with a couple of threads to indicate continuity beyond the final words. It might be totally open with ongoing conflicts and issues, as long as the main focal point of the story has been brought to a relatively satisfying dénouement.

The beginning and end are, in many ways, more important than the middle. You might have complains about a sagging middle or juggling too many (or too few) events, but that’s because the beginning and end need to be redefined, and in turn will wash over everything that happens in between.

What’s unique about it?

Maybe I’m getting a little heavy-handed here. But this is an important one for me, as a short story writer – being able to identify what stands out for each piece as being just a little different from anything else I’ve written before. It might be the theme I’ve chosen; it might be the types of characters I’m writing about. It might be a certain genre, style or tone. But something is unique.

By constantly asking this question you’re pushing your boundaries, expanding your skill set and, most importantly, keeping it interesting and challenging for yourself. Any writer can fall into a rut. Making a conscious effort to avoid that rut can make any new piece of writing an exciting new challenge, a new focus. It doesn’t have to deviate too far from your standard pathways, and you can still write about what interests you and what you’re comfortable with.

And finally, keeping a mentality that favours new possibilities and options means that you’re more able to see the ways in which the above questions can be applied. How the lens of the narrator can be changed, and how the end can be redefined the better serve some of the central ideas of that particular piece.

What about you? What questions do you commonly ask when you’re placing your work under the magnifying glass?

Beau Hillier | Editor, page seventeen

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Finding the Words

Posted by on Sep 4, 2014 in Busybird | 0 comments

findingthewordsNever take the easy option when writing.

We all do, on occasion, through our own inexperience (not realising that something better may be required), through laziness (whizzing along, and taking the first option that comes to mind), or because we don’t understand that, with a bit of thought, we can do better (and that one explains itself).

Here’s an exercise to try: imagine stepping out of your house and into a cold winter’s day. Go ahead, write a paragraph – see what you come up with. Try and write this paragraph as you normally would, (understanding that the existence of the exercise in this blog is going to automatically change the way you think about it).

Well? How’d you go?

Potentially, some of you may have written something like this:

      It was freezing when I stepped out of the house …

This is the easiest solution. The existence of the word ‘freezing’ (or any synonym you might’ve used) does all the work for us. We all know what ‘freezing’ is, right? But what does it tell us? – And it does just that: it tells us (the reader) exactly what we’re meant to know.

Try this same exercise again, but avoid using the word ‘freezing’ or any of its synonyms (cold, icy, bitter, etc.). Think about it. How do you write this same premise and convey that it’s freezing to the reader?

Give it a try.

How did you go?

Some ways you might’ve communicated the cold:

    • misting breath
    • rubbing hands together/putting hands in pockets
    • wrapping arms around oneself
    • zip up/button up jacket
    • you shiver/gasp
    • teeth chatter
    • have goose bumps

This is just a small sampling of things we might feel when walking out into the cold. It’s also descriptive writing that both paints the scene and also puts the reader directly in the head and body of the character, which is much more evocative than simply saying, ‘It’s cold.’

There are always different ways to say things – ways that aren’t our fallbacks or tried and true methods. Something else this applies to is to the delivery of information as it relates to characterisation or the plot.

Try this example: a character comes home. Their partner left them a fortnight ago after ten years of a relationship. In fact, the partner ran off with their best friend. Now your character is hurt and embittered. How would you write this scene?

Give it a go.


How did you go?

A lot of people fall into the trap of writing something like this:

      Pat came home. The house seemed so empty after Mary had run off with George. Pat and Mary had been together ten years and, like that, it was over. Pat didn’t know what he’d done wrong. Sure, there’d been some fights, but which couples didn’t fight?

We get all the information in exposition, and we get it all at once. Some writers can wield exposition both engagingly and fluently, but often it feels as if the narrative is put on hold whilst the author arms the reader with all the information they require to go on. Some authors offer exposition and then, within the exposition, digress and offer more exposition about some facet of the original exposition. Some writers do this repeatedly, like a reflection inside a reflection inside a reflection. Most times, it’s an off-switch – at least for myself as a reader.

Think about how else you could write the previous exercise without straight out telling the reader what they need to know. As with the cold, there are symptoms for this premise. They might not be as obvious as they are with the cold, but they do exist.

Give this exercise one more try.

Now. Go ahead.


Here’s some ways we could’ve conveyed the circumstances of this situation:

    • empty house/oppressive silence
    • calls out to partner out of habit
    • photos
    • a closet may be half empty
    • answering machine message that hasn’t been changed

And the emotional resonance:

    • character drinks
    • character cries/fights back tears
    • character struggles entering quiet of house
    • character lies on bed facing empty side

These are just basic examples but, again, they’re descriptive. They paint the scene for us and put us in the head and body of the character and we get to experience what they’re experiencing.

As far as exposition goes, you won’t always be able to escape using it, but if you’re going to, think about whether that’s the only way to convey the information you need to convey. Also, think about how much information the reader actually needs at any one time. Often, it’s much more engaging to seed the information gradually, building a premise around the reader, rather than just dumping everything on them at once.

Think about what you’re going to say and how you’re going to say it.


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The Toxic Idea

Posted by on Sep 2, 2014 in Busybird, page seventeen | 0 comments

symbol-34338We’ve talked about the prospects of the evolving idea. We’ve identified the intimidating idea. Let’s also spare a moment for the revelation that all writers dread – that the idea or story they’ve invested time and energy in is a dead end.

Or, at least, it feels like a dead end. It’s been tinkered with for as long as anyone can remember. It’s been redrafted multiple times. Every piece of feedback has been taken on board. And it’s still in the grind. It’s gotten rejected. And rejected, and rejected. Or, it just still has a league of problems you can’t see your way to fixing before submitting is even considered. And you just can’t see what you can do with it anymore.

This happens a lot with novels and larger bodies of work, where the minor issues can pile up across a larger word count – but short stories and poetry can suffer from the same grind. On the surface, the general advice is that every idea has a grain of potential, and it just needs the right implementation in order to be a potentially successful piece. It can take a lot of work to get to that point. But maybe there’s a new thought that stands in the way – the creeping realisation that maybe, just maybe, this specific idea simply isn’t worth putting that much work into it.

That’s a tough conclusion to come to. And it’s also an immensely difficult judgement call to make – what’s stopping one more draft from making this idea one of the success stories of your writing? As with anything else in writing, it’s a subjective decision. One that can be agony to come to if it’s a project you’re so heavily invested in, but so burnt out on that any more revision seems futile.

I call this scenario the ‘toxic idea’ in that it sometimes feels like a specific project can be unhealthy for you as a writer. It’s taking away from you more than it’s giving back. Whether it’s in the redrafting or the pile of rejections it’s already accrued. You just don’t know what to do about it anymore. Does this sound familiar?

The obvious recourse is to step back and allow some time for a new solution to present itself. But that, of course, will have diminishing returns the more often you have to shelf a piece of writing for a lengthy period of time. What if you never have the nerve to get back to it? What if it’s easier to just call it quits and save the trouble later on?

All compelling questions. The trouble with being a writer is that it’s often a very emotional gig – and we get attached to our works in a parental fashion. We want to see them succeed, no matter how much we have to bleed for it.

But let’s look at the picture we’re presented with. A short story, novel or poem that seems endlessly problematic and exhausting to even think about, let alone continue to work with. What are your options? (Assuming you’ve already gotten a variety of feedback during the long process.)

  • Endure. Keep hacking away at the project until something gives and you see some yield from it. The least desirable option, in a lot of ways – some will call it being steadfast, others will say it’s a waste of time. You’re the only one who can provide a personal answer to that question.
  • Flee. Take what’s left of your sanity and run. It’s the most attractive option if you just can’t look at it anymore. But of course, it’s the least satisfying. But never destroy your writing, even the aborted projects. Just keep it in a folder marked ‘Abandoned’ or ‘Unfinished’. One day, there might be some use for it – even if just as a cautionary tale.
  • Cannibalise. Tearing the idea apart into components that could be used in other ways. As a personal example, one of my ill-fated attempts at a full-length manuscript ended up being boiled down into material for a couple of unrelated short stories – one of which was published in an anthology a couple of years ago. It’s often a way to extract some value from an otherwise bogged-down project – but opens up new challenges in itself.

Whatever you choose, there’s one thing that’s always the same. You need to decontaminate yourself. All that frustration will stay with you and irradiate other stories if you’re not careful. Have something on hand that can give you a sense of accomplishment – preferably not related to writing. Maybe it’s your day job, but one bad day can make that dangerously frustrating as well. Physical exercise is probably one of the best recommendations I can give, but you might find something else that works for you. But when you know that you’re working with a toxic idea, you need to quickly act in two ways: figure out how to deal with the hazardous material, and then decontaminate yourself.

It’s tough to work with material that you just can’t seem to get right. Sometimes all the feedback in the world doesn’t provide a clear path – and investing yourself in your writing is a two-edged sword. The stronger your connection to your writing, the more dynamic it can be, but also the more frustrating when it’s just not working properly. Know when you’re working with toxic ideas – the ideas that can sap you of your resolve. And have your preconceived safety measures in place that allows you to keep your general momentum and your sanity.

Beau Hillier | Editor, page seventeen

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Writing Self-Help

Posted by on Aug 28, 2014 in Busybird | 0 comments

selfhelpA popular field of writing is self-help. So many people apparently have the solution for what ails us, and whilst many might scoff at the credentials of whoever the latest guru might be, everybody deserves their chance to get their message out there.

Our experiences, the choices we make in our lives, and the way our lives evolve from those choices, make us unique. No matter how alike we might be when compared to somebody, we are not alike. Even identical twins aren’t alike. Thus we all have something unique to say.

It may just be that our lives have equipped us to speak with authority about self-empowerment. For example, somebody who’s suffered from depression all their life, and then built a successful and happy life, may be perfectly qualified to write a self-help book about depression. An abused spouse who leaves their partner and rebuilds their life personally and professionally may be perfectly qualified to talk about surviving spousal abuse. A life coach who’s turned their life into a success and done the same for plenty of others could write a book about getting your life on track. There’s a genuine likelihood that anybody can draw on their life to produce a self-help book.

But the question is should we?

The market is saturated with people hoping to be the next Tony Robbins or Louise Hay. Read many of these books and what you’ll discover is nothing you couldn’t have worked out for yourself, given the time and inclination. So if this is a field you want to enter, where you want to make a name for yourself, you need to stand out.

How does one accomplish that, though?

Arguably the most important thing that an author needs to do is be original. Originality isn’t necessarily a prerequisite for fiction. If you think about bestsellers, they’re usually focused on a relationship (romantic or just a friendship), an action template, or a genre. The setting or some other aspect (or aspects) of the book might be original in themselves, but you can usually classify the type of story they’re going to be.

Look at The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak. A young girl, Liesel, lives with foster parents during World War II. The family harbour a young Jewish man, and the girl discovers a love of reading at a time the Nazis are burning books. The story itself is narrated by Death, who touches upon the girl’s life early by claiming her brother’s life. Lots of great ideas there which haven’t necessarily been mixed before but, effectively, this is a coming of age story. You’ll find fiction, in general, is classifiable. The Book Thief sat on the New York Times Bestseller List for 230 weeks.

Self-help books, though, are either original or derivative. Now if a self-help book is going to be derivative, then readers might as well go to the source they’re deriving. Why bother with a copy? It might provide a different slant on the same message, but that’s all it’s going to be – a slant. It’s important if you’re aiming to deliver a message, it’s a message only you can deliver.

And whilst you might use other gurus as validation, your arguments, ideas, and exercises do need to be wholly your own. There’s little point writing something like, ‘Tony Robbins has a great exercise which I like to use, and it goes like this …’ Excuse me? Whilst you might be well-intentioned in why you’re citing this passage, you’re unlikely to get permission from Tony Robbins (or whoever the quoted author might be) to use their material. In this case, you’re impinging on their intellectual property. Most importantly, if I want to read an exercise that Tony Robbins is proposing, I’ll go read a Tony Robbins’ book or watch one of his DVDs. I’ve picked up your book because I want to know what you have to tell me.

This might seem to curtail you in your writing, but if all you have to offer is a composition of other peoples’ material, then either you don’t have anything original to say, or the only way you can articulate your ideas is through being derivative. You need to challenge yourself. Don’t articulate what you have to say as others have said it. Find what you have to say and discover how you want to say it. Consider avenues that are new and original and, most importantly, you. This doesn’t mean rephrasing those passages, but producing your own material.

Before you begin, sit down and map out what you want to say, produce exercises you want to use (and that are uniquely yours), outline the structure of how you’re going to deliver your message, and think about how all this is going to sit in your book. This isn’t something you can put together slapdash. You need to seriously think about it, delve within yourself, and if you find you’re being derivative, delve further.

There’s no formula on how to write any type of book. If somebody tells you there is, they’re trying to sell you something. There’s no ideal length to a book. You may be given guidelines that you can adhere to, a template you can wield into something manageable for you, but ultimately you have to find what’s right for what you want to say, and then work towards it.

If this is a field you’re planning on entering, don’t aim to become just one of the pack. You may have one shot at getting whatever message you have out there, so make sure it’s your message and your message alone.

Tony Robbins, Louise Hay, and all those self-help gurus didn’t get to where they are by peddling somebody else’s messages. They are who they are because they dared to be themselves, to find in themselves the message that was uniquely their own, and deliver that message to world.

If you do want to follow in their footsteps, make sure you do the same.


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