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Monday, September 17, 2018

Breaking Writing Rules Right: "Don't Use Passive Voice"

You may have heard the advice that you shouldn't write in passive voice. You may have even been reprimanded for doing so. But passive voice isn't always a bad thing. So let's talk about what the rule is, why it's a rule, and when to break it.

What's the Rule?

Passive voice has to do with sentence structure, not word choice. Some people get confused and think any sentence with a to-be verb in it is passive. This is not the case. Every passive sentence will naturally have a to-be verb in it, but not every sentence with one is passive.

In passive voice, the subject of the sentence is acted upon. For example:

Tony was bitten by the cat.

The wagons were pulled by oxen.

The carpet was ruined.

My bike was stolen.

Cannibalism is frowned upon by most societies.

Notice that in each of these, something is happening to the subject, the subject isn't doing the action. Also notice how every sentence requires a to-be verb in it.

Tony(subject) was bitten(action done) by the cat(what did the action).

The wagons(subject) were pulled(action done) by oxen(what did the action).

The carpet(subject) was ruined(action done).

 My bike(subject) was stolen(action done).

Cannibalism(subject) is frowned(action done) upon by most societies.

 Active voice is what we typically write in, where the subject is doing the action.

The cat bit Tony.

The oxen pulled the wagons.

Jared stole my bike.

Most societies frown upon cannibalism.

 Generally writers are discouraged from using passive voice.

Why it's a Rule

Active voice leads to stronger sentences. Reading about being acted upon, along with all those to-be verbs can make writing feel weak and wordy. Just imagine what it would be like if you sustained it for very long.

Tony was bitten by the cat. A band-aid was found by his mother and put on by his father. Cats are considered a common pet. Tony's hand had been marred by teeth punctures. The cat was no longer wanted.

Annoying, isn't it?

Passive voice can also reverse the way people naturally think. When reading "Tony was bitten by the cat," they have to imagine the cat biting Tony.

Active voice naturally carries more power. "The cat bit Tony" is more interesting. Generally speaking, we want to read stories that feel alive and active, not stories about people and things simply being acted upon.

Finally, passive voice can feel more indirect and non-specific. "The carpet was ruined." Great. But who or what ruined it?

When to Break it

1. We don't know who performed the action.

Maybe no one knows that Jared is the person who stole the bike. In that case it might be best to write "My bike was stolen."

However, an alternative to that is to say, "Someone stole my bike."

Some people oppose words like "someone" or "something" because they are non-specific. Personally, I don't think they are any worse than passive voice.

2. Who performed the action is irrelevant or unimportant.

Maybe we know who performed the action, but it's no one important to the story or the situation at hand, a character or thing so minor that to mention them specifically would be to draw too much attention to them.

"The vending machine had been restocked."

3. You want to emphasize what's being acted upon or what's being acted upon is more important than the actor.

Passive voice changes the emphasis in a sentence. So maybe a cat bit Tony. Great. That's active. But what if Tony has Hemophilia so his blood doesn't clot? (This is a BIG cat apprently.) Suddenly the fact he was acted upon and bitten is a lot more important.

"Tony was bitten by the cat" puts the emphasis on Tony and his state.

4. To avoid revealing responsibility.

The most common example of this is, "Mistakes were made." Great. Who made the mistakes? We don't know. That's the point.

HOWEVER, this shouldn't be your approach for concealing contextual information from the reader. If you are regularly doing this to try to conceal who is doing what in a scene or story, you are probably writing false tension by being vague. That's not good.

But you can use it effectively to imply or communicate indirectly. 

5. Stylistic flow

Imagine writing a paragraph about a ball. Sometimes you want to use passive voice to keep the flow of the passage or to help transition into a new passage more smoothly. We just spent several sentences talking about a ball, so writing "The ball was kicked" flows better than pulling in an actor we haven't been focusing on.

Passive voice has now been explained to you. ;)

Is it really such a bad thing? Not if you use it sparingly and for the right situations.

Monday, September 10, 2018

Creating Your Own Fantastic Beasts and Other Panels

Hi everyone! This last week I went to the FanX Salt Lake Comic Convention and was on five panels, four of which I have put up online. I got permission to record them from the FanX founder. So I'd love to invite you to listen in for this week's post--whether that's a few minutes or you have four hours to spare.

My first panel might be helpful for writers, as it's about creating your own fantastic beasts, with tips and examples on how to do that. Then I have one on Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, one on Hamilton, and one on Fantastic Beasts: Crimes of Grindelwald.

I've also uploaded a video of me painting with "Bob Ross," in case you missed it. It was so fun.

This convention is my favorite thing I do every year (and also the biggest one I do.)

I got to meet Rain Wilson who plays Dwight in The Office--one of my all-time favorite shows (a picture is coming), and listen to Gaten Matarazzo who plays Dustin in Stranger Things, also a favorite show. Evangeline Lilly who plays Tauriel in The Hobbit came to the kid section and read one of her children's books to the kiddos, who were positively adorable interacting with her.

The vendor floor was so fun (and as always, huge and crowded) and I loved seeing all the artists' work in Artist Alley. I also went to a game show called "Um, actually . . . " which was kind of hilarious and very entertaining. (Contestants had to correct a false pop culture statement by starting with "Um, actually . . . ")

I loved going to panels and listening to other creatives talk about their work and process and give advice. And of course, the costumes made people-watching a favorite pastime. Finally, I got to say hi to old friends and meet some of you in person for the first time. So many fun things!

Oh, and how could I forget? Sushi burritos--my favorite thing to eat there. Sushi is perhaps my favorite food. And a sushi burrito is essentially a big sushi roll that you eat like a burrito. I was so glad I found the stand this year, as I missed it the two previous years.

If you are wondering why I only recorded 4/5 panels, it's because one of them was a panel for kids--I decided not to record that one.

So here you go!

Creating Your Own Fantastic Beasts

Friday September 7, 2018 11:00 am to 12:00 pm

From Nifflers and Swooping Evils to Thunderbirds and Occamies, we'll discuss do's and do-not's of creating your own fantastic beasts. Not only will we refer to Fantastic Beasts (of course), but we'll consider other intellectual properties, like Pokemon and Star Wars, as well as creatures from video games and mythological beasts that have withstood time. What makes a creature’s design better than another? Why do some appeal to mass audiences while others are forgettable the moment the story ends? We’ll consider these questions and more.

September C. Fawkes (Moderator)
Brian Hailes
E.E. King
James A. Owen
Jaclyn Weist

Listen here.

20 Years of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

Friday September 7, 2018 2:00 pm to 3:00 pm

Praised for its strong themes of personal identity and its handling of racism through the introduction of pure blood politics, the Chamber of Secrets also received criticism for its portrayal of incompetent institutionalized authority. (Fudge, am I right?) Twenty years later, how did this book fail, succeed and exceed expectations as a sequel?

September C. Fawkes (Moderator)
Lehua Parker
Cindy Phippen
Sequoia Thomas
Jaclyn Weist
Lynette White

Listen here.

Hamilton: The Room Where It Happens

Saturday September 8, 2018 10:00 am to 11:00 am

All about Hamilton

Shelly Brown
Joseph Darowski
September C. Fawkes
Nicole Giles
Debra Jenson (Moderator)
Callie Stoker

Listen here.

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald

Saturday September 8, 2018 7:00 pm to 8:00 pm

The next installment of the Wizarding World is almost here and we will be thoroughly tearing apart every scrap of information given to us thus far. Locations! Characters, old and new! Possible plot points will be completely and ridiculously analyzed, including the severe lack of nifflers.

September C. Fawkes
Susan Phelan
Cindy Phippen (Moderator)
Lynette White

Listen here.

If you like any of them, I'd love it if you shared.

I realize that none of the audio is that amazing. I went by myself and so had to simultaneously record, speak at, and organize panels, etc. so it wasn't my top priority. I simply recorded off my phone near me, so you'll notice my voice is loudest. There also might be some paper-shuffling, mics moving, thumps against the table--but the important part is that you can hear all the panelists.

I'll be back next week with a regular tip!

Monday, August 27, 2018

How to use the Thesaurus Properly

Some authors say to never use a thesaurus. But guess what? I use one all the time--every week, often every day. Sometimes it's when I'm editing others' manuscripts but always when I'm writing fiction, and on occasion even for my blog posts.

Why do some authors say that?

Because a lot of people in the world use the thesaurus wrong.

At least when it comes to actual writing.

The other day I was gassing up my car while the screen on the Chevron pump advertised to me. One of the features they have at these Chevron pumps is a "Word of the Day" feature--one of my pet peeves that I love to hate. You may have heard me complain about them on here. The "Word of the Day" feature is practically useless.


Because they almost always highlight words that are useless. They're so rare, so specific, or so convoluted that they actually have no real life (or real writing) value.

Take one I'm looking at on a website right now.


Have you ever heard of that word?

I haven't. And I spend A LOT of time with words.

So I click on it.

First thing I notice, this is actually an informal Australian word. That's what it says, right on the page.

So if you are one of my international followers (love you guys ;) you may have heard of this word. But for us here in the U.S. the word is essentially useless to know (unless of course we are working on something that relates to Australia)

If I use it in one of my stories, it'd be like me writing "trainers" instead of "sneakers" when the rest of my story is written in American English. It doesn't work. It doesn't make sense.

Okay, so let's see what the word actually means.

to peer at quickly and closely

Great. (If you are Australian.) But instead of using a word that most of my audience (which is in the U.S.) has never heard of before, why not just use these: scan, notice, consider, study, scrutinize, glance, inspect . . . or peer itself.

Sure, they don't mean the exact same thing, but if needed, I can always add an adverb to capture it.

Angelica quickly inspected the advertisement.

Boom. Done. Now my target audience knows what's going on.

See, a lot of people approach the thesaurus completely wrong: They use it to find rarer and more convoluted words, because they think it makes them sound smarter and like they are an amazingly educated writer. (For the record, I'm convinced this is a normal phase that writers go through when learning to write.)

But writing is a collaboration between the writer and reader. If the author is literally writing for themselves--even into the details--then the story isn't as powerful. This is especially true when handling emotion in your story. Writers writing for themselves will try to write how they feel about that scene to render emotion, but more experienced writers know you need to instead focus on writing what will actually elicit those feelings in the audience.

Here is how NOT to use a thesaurus:

Tiffy is writing a novel.

Tiffy decides to use the thesaurus to come up with "a better word."

Tiffy replaces the phrase "facial expression" with "physiognomy."

And "breakfast" with "jentacular"


This puts the audience at a distance and disadvantage. And it does more than that. It changes the pacing and tone of the passage--and probably in ways you don't want. 

Here is how to use a thesaurus properly:

Max is writing a short story.

Max could use the word "looked,"  but it's a little vague and doesn't capture the moment as accurately.

Max decides to use the thesaurus to find a more accurate word the reader is familiar with and that will convey more than "looked" does.

Max replaces "looked" with "scrutinized."

Way to go Max!

When and How to use the Thesaurus

1. Use the thesaurus when you can't remember or come up with the EXACT word you are looking for.

Hmmmm something like "dance" but more happy . . . --> Prance

2. Use the thesaurus when you are looking for a word that carries a more accurate, more powerful, or more telling connotation or definition. (This can be important in voice, tone, style, humor, subtext, undercurrents, and evoking emotion.)

Fat --> Plump

3. Use the thesaurus to find stronger verbs or to replace an adverb + verb combination (as long as the results aren't unfamiliar to the reader)

Pulled hard --> Yanked 

4. Use the thesaurus to find a shorter, simpler, or more common word when you need to speed up pacing

Galloped --> Ran

5. Use the thesaurus to avoid awkward repetition of the same word.

He looked over and into the look on her face. --> He looked over and into her expression.

6. Use the thesaurus to find the right word for the beat or rhythm. 

[The yellow fog] Slipped by the terrace, made a sudden leap,
And seeing that it was a soft October night,
Curled once about the house, and . . . ?


[The yellow fog] Slipped by the terrace, made a sudden leap,
And seeing that it was a soft October night,
Curled once about the house, and fell asleep.

Different Synonym = Different Meaning

When you run across words that seem to mean the same thing, look up the dictionary definition of each and see how they are different if you don't know. This will help keep the integrity of what you are trying to convey and allow you to write with more precision. Most synonyms are different in some way--which is why they're different words. 

For example, "twilight" is a synonym for "sunset," but they don't actually mean the exact same thing. 

"Sunset" is when the sun is setting. "Twilight" is when the sun has just set

Other times the differences aren't dictionary related, but in their connotations.

"Stubborn" carries different emotional impact than "steadfast," even though their dictionary definitions may be the same. Which conveys the connotation you want? "Stubborn" is often used negatively. "Steadfast" is more positive.

When you first start really trying to write with precision, it can feel like a nightmare. I remember back in college sitting down on a short story assignment and deciding I was really going to pick precise, strong words like my professor talked about. 

It was so hard. 

In fact, for a while, I thought this would be how I always felt writing. 

But it passed and I'm far better off. (And have been using the thesaurus ever since that assignment.)

Wait, some of you might be saying, then doesn't that excuse some of the blunders--because I'm writing so specifically when I say "squiz"???

Like all writing "rules" there is a give and take. "Galloped" is more specific than "ran," however, if pacing is a bigger priority than specificity in that moment, then you sure better go with "ran." 

This was also something I struggled with a bit in college when I took my poetry class, after I'd committed to using precise language. I'd pick the exact right word. I remember in my first critique my professor said she wanted me to pay more attention to sound, beat, and rhythm (I mean, I guess those are sorta important in poetry ;) So sometimes those had to be prioritized over specificity. You might have to compromise in some places. 

Wait, then what's the point in learning all this if it's not set in stone? you might ask. 

Because you can't learn and understand when to do what and how x makes y more powerful until you understand and follow the guidelines.

Now go forth and use the thesaurus properly! (At least when you need it.)

Monday, August 20, 2018

What to Do When You Write Yourself Into a Corner

I actually had a follower ask me about this a while ago, but I was so busy editing and my imagined answers felt so vague that I didn't get around to writing this post (my apologies). Now I have the time, and I'm hoping in the process my answer will sound less vague.

First off, let me say, I've been there. Multiple times. In fact, if you are serious about writing and are committed to finishing a high-quality book, this is probably something you will face time and again.

What do I mean by "writing yourself into a corner?" Basically it's when the story and setup gets stuck--closed in on itself so that it's trapped and you can't find your way out of it. Imagine you have a character gagged and tied and floating in the middle of the ocean, but your character needs to get to the Sahara desert. How the heck is your character going to survive and get there without it feeling unbelievable?

The easiest and perhaps most cliche option is to have someone or something else enter the scene and help fix the problem. Sometimes this works, especially if you have taken advantage of foreshadowing it properly. Other times it can feel like a Dues ex Machina. As TV Tropes explains, "A Deus ex Machina is when some new event, character, ability, or object solves a seemingly unsolvable problem in a sudden, unexpected way." To put icing on the cake, they even go on to say, "It's often used as the solution to what is called 'writing yourself into a corner,' where the problem is so extreme that nothing in the established setting suggests that there is a logical way for the characters to escape."


Since this is typically considered a storytelling flaw (unless done intentionally for humor or irony), let's talk about alternative solutions.

If you do decide to have an event, character, ability, or object enter the scene and help solve or at least change the situation, it needs to be foreshadowed (but not too heavily) or established, weaved in, and appropriate for the story precisely so it doesn't land on the paper as a Dues ex Machina. Maybe instead of simply having this story element solve the problem, see if it can simply change the situation to then enable the character or setup to have a little wiggle room to discover the solution. It doesn't need to "fix" everything. In fact, it's usually more interesting if it doesn't. Perhaps it can just change the conditions.

The point is, it's usually better if whatever enters the story doesn't solve the huge problems easily. Maybe it helps, but also has a cost, so that having and using it has both advantages and dire disadvantages. You're exchanging one set of problems for another set, in order to get out of the immediate situation.

The other option that might be easier would be to backtrack and change the story so you don't end up in a corner. Maybe the situation doesn't need to be quite so dramatic, wound quite so tightly. Maybe you can tone it down a bit.

But, geez! Gosh! Imagine how cool and intense it would be if you kept it the same? It's so good! Right? I mean, if you've written into a corner, that probably means you have either something big and dire going on, or a lot of complex elements in play, or both.

So that leads me to the third option, which is often most difficult, but can be the most rewarding. From my experience, and from what I've heard from other writers, writing yourself into a corner can be a prelude to brainstorming some of your best story stuff. Because if you can find a believable way out with what's already in play, then dang, you're good, and usually the idea is awesome.

There is really no easy way around the third option. You have to brainstorm like your life depends on it. And I mean, you might have to brainstorm a lot. And it will not be the fun kind either. You will probably want to quit writing at some point. It can be that difficult sometimes. But when you finally find the right solution that actually works, sheesh, it's amazing. However, it might take days or weeks of legitimate apply-butt-to-chair-and-don't-move brainstorming effort, so if you are on a time crunch, this may not be a great option.

In the process, you also want to make sure you don't brainstorm a solution that is so improbable it's ridiculous. Surprisingly, real life doesn't always work off probability, but fiction must in order for it to be believable.

Sometimes you can get out of the corner by using a little of two or all three of the options above. You mostly keep the setup the same, but something small enters and changes the conditions, and maybe you also go back and tweak what came before a little.

Good luck!

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Crafting a "Body Language Voice"

So you may have noticed that I didn't put up a new post earlier this week. This is because I'm over at Writers Helping Writers as a writing coach, so instead, I'd like to direct you to their site for this week's tip.

If you like teasers, here's the beginning to get you started.


You’ve probably heard about “voice”–that elusive quality that so many editors, agents, and readers are drawn to. Years ago, I did a couple of posts about character voice, arguing that it’s made up of what the character says and how she says it. Each character should have a unique voice. Sure, their voice can have similarities with other voices, but when it gets down to it, they are somewhat different. But you know what else is somewhat unique to an individual? Body language.

So today I’m going to talk about what I refer to sometimes as “body language voice.” The reason this can be tricky is because many writers learning the craft are completely unaware of it. Instead, they simply focus on the emotion they are trying to portray to the audience–which is great, because that means they are trying to “show” how someone feels instead of simply “tell,” but one of the problems that can arise is that the writer gives the characters all the same emotional indicators. Whenever a character is annoyed, he or she rolls her eyes. It doesn’t matter who the character is, it’s the same response. Every character shrugs. Every woman puts her hands on her hips.

Write stronger emotions using your character's "Body Language Voice"To take this to the next level, you should develop a “body language voice.”

. . . You can read the rest here.

Saturday, August 4, 2018

Appealing to Wonder Powerfully in the Modern Age

You know that emotion we almost never talk about, unless you work in the speculative fiction industries? That awe-inspiring feeling you get when you see something new and cool and intriguing? It's like the way you felt when you first learned about star life cycles and dark matter or dinosaurs and the extinct Tasmanian tiger or studied how dreams and sleep affect our brains and how there are cases of people being hit on the head and mysteriously being able to speak an entirely different language after.

That's wonder.

But the way we perceive and when we feel wonder today isn't the exact same as it was even one or two hundred years ago, which is why I would argue that appealing to wonder powerfully today can be surprisingly different than it was before.

Some critics in the writing world have a problem with fantasy because "anything can happen." For those of us who read fantasy today, we'd probably argue against that statement. If anything can happen, then, of course, there is no tension. Almost always, fantasy needs to stick to its own rules and boundaries.

When discussing magic systems, Brandon Sanderson talks about how there is soft magic--magic that is not explained--and hard magic--magic that has specific rules. He's really great at explaining when and how to use which successfully, and you can read that article here.

Likewise, I would probably say there is soft wonder, and there is what I'll call medium wonder (I don't think I'd call it hard)

Soft wonder is when something wondrous is nearly completely unexplained or not understood. It might be a magical doorway into another world. It might be creatures we've never seen before. When I think of extreme soft wonder, I think of things like Disney's Alice in Wonderland--where things are strange and fantastical, but we have and get very little knowledge for why they are that way, how they came to be, or how they actually work. This extreme soft wonder was exactly the reason why I didn't like the movie as a child. It all just felt weird and had no reason to it. I know other people who still hate it. To be honest, when watching Alice in Wonderland as a child, I didn't actually feel a strong sense of wonder at all.

Earlier this year, I was watching The Men Who Built America: Frontiersmen. If you haven't heard of The Men Who Built America, you're missing out, because the series is freaking amazing (learned more significant information from it than my history classes combined. And when I saw Hamilton, I explained it to family members as The Men Who Built America as a musical, although they cover completely different people of U.S. history.) I like the original series better than Frontiersmen, but anyway . . . I was watching Frontiersman when I learned that Americans were afraid to go out West because of what may be out there, and even President Thomas Jefferson believed that mammoths and dinosaurs roamed those areas. In fact, that was actually one of the reasons he sent Lewis and Clark on the expedition, to look for mammoths. Later, he also sent Clark on another expedition strictly to collect "animal bones" (fossils).

Sounds really silly right? The president thought dinosaurs were in the West? But here's the thing. In modern times, we can't really relate to how people felt about traveling west. Today there is almost no frontier we haven't uncovered, and even those we haven't we still have a whole backlog of science and knowledge and a whole buttload of imagined concepts from movies, books, and video games that we've been exposed to. It hasn't always been that way. For most of the world's history, most people weren't even educated, let alone had access to knowledge at their fingertips. Most people couldn't even read.

In Jefferson's time, the concept that an animal could go extinct had only begun to surface. For most of the world's history, most of the feelings of wonder people felt were soft wonder experiences, because so much wasn't understood, and they didn't have the access to the knowledge we have now. Perhaps back in the day, you could write story after story of purely soft magic--of things just happening magically--and it was wondrous because that's how life was.

If you look at the best-selling, most popular fantasy today, I think you'll find that almost none of them are pure soft wonder. They may have soft aspects, but the fantastic elements are understood, somewhat. I'd argue that this is because the way human beings experience wonder today is different than it has been in times past.

A story with things that just are and just happen over and over isn't actually that interesting because it's so removed. Have you seen movie trailers like that? You know the ones. Where as you're watching the movie trailer, you are seeing wondrous thing after wondrous thing all in CGI glory and you can tell within seconds that the blockbuster-budget movie has no depth because all it focuses on is (what's trying to be) wondrous visuals? And it seems to have no great story or takeaway value? I could name a few specifically, but I think I won't.

We have so much access to knowledge, information, even imaginary concepts and ideas--far more than any civilization before us. We've seen aliens imagined twenty different ways. We've seen twelve different magic systems. We've seen 50 different magical worlds. When and how we experience wonder is different than it has been in times past.

So what makes something feel wondrous to the modern audience? Is it simply bombarding the audience with magical setting after setting, magical creature after creature, spell after spell?

No. Powerful wonder today is most likely to happen when audiences understand the magical somewhat.

Some element of wonder will always be the unknown, unexplained, and unexperienced--that's why it's wonder. But we feel wonder most powerfully when we understand something somewhat. Because that's how we usually experience it today. I mean, is there really anything in CGI that could really wow us anymore? Probably not much. (One I would argue for would be Interstellar because it provided the first ever visual example of what a real black hole looks like--but it was wondrous largely because it was based on actual knowledge and science.)

Sometimes when we are working with fantasy, we think the less someone understands about something, the more fantastical. But that's usually not the case. Furthermore, when we don't understand anything, we don't have enough context to feel tension which makes it difficult to become invested in the story.

Think about it. For us, wonder typically happens at this threshold between what we know (either through knowledge, understanding, or experience) and what we don't know. It's the cutting edge or the gateway to the unknown built off the known. It's something we understand that is somehow broken (the theory of relativity) or something we understand to an extent (dark matter).

An alternative is to work backwards. To encounter something we do not understand or relate to at all, but then to discover what it does relate to, how it works, its "rules" and boundaries, its history or how it came to be. That's what's interesting.

The spells in Harry Potter wouldn't be half as interesting if they didn't have boundaries, if they didn't relate to Latin. Middle-earth wouldn't be as meaningful to us if we didn't have its rich history. His Dark Materials wouldn't have been so riveting if its magic wasn't cutting edge. It's medium wonder.

Something entirely new and never seen before, doesn't need to be understood because it's so different than people's experiences--what they were even capable of experiencing, knowing, and imagining. (Previous audiences)


Cool concepts, new concepts, twisted concepts, that we understand somewhat. This gives tension. This makes the subject more wondrous for the modern audience.

You'll notice that in Disney's more recent Alice in Wonderland they incorporated more structure and boundaries--making more sense of what before was nonsense. This better suits the modern audience.

At least that is what I'm considering. Remember, today's generation of Millennials is the most educated generation of all time. How people experience wonder today is vastly different than in times past.


Hi everyone, over the weekend I set up a Wattpad account, so that I can post my writing tips on there. If any of you have an account and would like to follow or be friends, I'd appreciate it so that I don't have zero followers listed. Here it is.


Likewise, I'm trying to revive my Instagram account for my blog, so if you'd like to follow me there, you can.

In any case, thank you so much for reading this post!

Monday, July 30, 2018

What Does it Mean to Be Gifted?

A while ago, I ran into an article about Mozart by Mayo Oshin that was written toward creatives. You may have seen me share it on Facebook. It re-emphasized some of the worldviews that I have. I want to include the opening of that here:

In 1787, one of history’s most prolific and influential music composers had just arrived in Prague for a second time.

Over the next few days, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart would oversee the rehearsals of the first performance of his new opera — Don Giovanni.

As the final rehearsals were coming to a close, Mozart and the orchestral conductor —Johann Baptist Kucharz, exchanged words in a brief conversation.

During their conversation, Mozart made a distinct comment:

 “I have spared neither care nor labor to produce something excellent for Prague. Moreover, It is a mistake to think that the practice of my art has become easy to me. I assure you, dear friend, no one has given so much care to the study of composition as I. There is scarcely a famous master in music whose works I have not frequently and diligently studied.”

The premiere of Don Giovanni – then titled “Il dissoluto punito, ossia il Don Giovanni” took place at the National Theatre — in Prague on October 29 1787.

The opera was extremely well received by the audience — Mozart’s many years of deliberate practice on his craft was finally beginning to pay off.

“Don Giovanni” had such a profound impact — that up till today — this piece of work has been widely regarded as the greatest opera ever composed.

During his rehearsal conversation, Mozart acknowledged that his great work was simply a by-product of diligent and consistent hard-work on his craft for many years. It had taken Mozart more than a decade of developing his creative ‘talent’ to finally create this groundbreaking piece of work.

Yes, I added the bold. The more time that goes on, and the more time I spend in this industry, the more I seem to find true what Mozart said over 200 years ago. It drives me crazy when people act as if genius is simply born. As I've said time and again on this blog: Even Michelangelo had to learn his colors. Maybe some people are more "natural" at things than others, but in the end, what is natural can only get you so far. Everyone has to learn the rules and the techniques. And no one will tell you that becoming a master at anything is easy. 

You probably have some people in your life that are very talented or gifted at something. Have you ever had someone react to them as if they popped out of the womb that way? Has that ever happened to you? It totally devalues all the time and effort and practice and commitment that person put into their work.

One of the reasons I found this bit of Mozart's story interesting is because in over 200 years, human behavior has changed very little. "It is a mistake to think that the practice of my art has become easy to me," Mozart said. "There is scarcely a famous master in music whose works I have not frequently and diligently studied."

What Mozart is saying here is that even after a DECADE of diligence and consistent hard-work, he was still working hard: "I have spared neither care nor labor to produce something excellent."

This reiterates something I've been feeling for a long time. Ultimately it's diligence, patience, and perseverance that leads us to succeed. I don't care how talented you "naturally" are, if you don't exercise and develop those three qualities, your success is going to be vastly limited.

Prolific author Kevin J. Anderson has a saying that I like. Anderson has written over 50 best-sellers and has done novels for Star Wars, StarCraft, The X-Files, and Dune. Whenever people remark how lucky he is in his career, he responds, "The harder I work, the luckier I get."

Likewise, I've had a scriptural phrase bouncing around in my head lately: "Many are called, but few are chosen." Growing up, this statement didn't make a lot of sense to me. Why call everyone and then only select a few? Is that fair? If everyone is called, why can't everyone be chosen? 

I'm taking the phrase out of context a bit to relate it to the point of this post, but lately, here is what it has been sounding like to me:

Everyone is invited to make something of themselves. 

But only a few are chosen.

Why only a few?

Because the harder you work, the luckier you get. 

If everyone is called, but only a few are chosen, who do you think gets chosen?

Those who actually took advantage of the opportunity, those who acted most on the invitation, those who made something of themselves, the most

It's like an open audition. Everyone is called to try out. But only the most talented, the most capable will be chosen. 

Who gets there? Those who are the most diligent, patient, and persistent. 

How do you become talented enough to be one of the few selected?

One choice at a time.

Writer James Artimus Owen has an amazing lecture called "Drawing out the Dragons," which you can actually listen to here. It was recorded live, so you have to skip to about 49:50. There are a lot of amazing statements in it, but one of my favorites is a story he shares. One time he was looking at book auctions online when he saw his own name listed, claiming the book was his first work. Curious, he clicked on it to see if it was Starchild, a comic which he had self-published in 1990. But when it took him to the new page, he saw it was something much older: an illustrated story he'd written as a child. He'd made several different "books" and had taken them around his neighborhood in a red wagon to sell to neighbors. 

So Owen decided to bid on it. 

But to his surprise, he kept getting outbid by another user. 

In response, he bid a ridiculous amount, thinking no way would anyone pay that much for a child's hand-drawn story book. But just before the countdown, he got outbid, by the same user.

So he messaged the person, explaining he was actually James Artimus Owen himself and that he'd love to have this book.

Turns out the person he was bidding against was actually one of his friends. "If I had known it was you," his friend said, "I wouldn't have outbid you."

"So can I buy it from you?" Owen asked.

His friend hesitated. "Well . . . I would, but now I have a complete collection of James Owen books!"

Owen goes on to explain something: The only reason that handwritten, stapled packet of papers a child wrote was valuable was because of all the choices he'd made after it. 

It was the accumulation of choices--the accumulation of choices that led him to where he is today, living his dream as both a writer and an illustrator.

Similarly, I've heard several people remark how amazing it was that Lin-Manuel Miranda decided to pick up a 800-page biography of Alexander Hamilton to read while on vacation. But that decision in and of itself is really not that amazing. It might seem a bit of an atypical choice for recreational reading, but surely lots of people buy biographies to read. The only reason people are so wowed by that moment is because of all the choices he made after.

The earliest (that I'm aware of) video you can find of what would become the most-nominated musical of all time is a clip of when Miranda sang a song he was working on at the White House--six whole years prior to the musical hitting Broadway. I have kind of a love/hate relationship watching the video, because the audience laughs AT it--including the president. Sure, they are polite and give him good applause, but they still laugh AT it several times (in fact, they literally laugh at parts that people applause at today). Miranda is clearly passionate about what he's working on, and doesn't let it get him.

Compare this to when he returned to the White House post-musical to sing THE SAME SONG. For the same president. No one is laughing anymore.

Is it because the song is magically different? Not really. It's the same song, albeit with a multiple singers now.

Why is the reaction different? Because of the accumulation of choices that Miranda made which led him to where he was six years later, which led Hamilton to what it became--a huge success. Small decision upon small decision. (Thank goodness he had the passion and intuition to stick to his vision regardless of others' reactions--which is another lesson of trusting your vision.) It was his diligence, patience, and perseverance. (The song starts about 9:00 in.)

Every day we make choices. Seemingly insignificant choices. Over time, those choices accumulate to get us where we want to go. 

When Stephen King was asked how he wrote, he answered, "One word at a time."

I bet you can look at where you are now and look back and see choices, some of which were small and made over and over again, that got you here. If you don't like where you are, guess what? You can get somewhere else, one choice at a time.

Furthermore, as Owen (and Anderson) has observed, when you make those choices consistently, others will see what you are doing and will provide help or opportunity when you desperately need it. They will not let you fall.

In a talk I heard recently, it quoted former Senator Dan Coats of Indiana, who wrote: “The only preparation for that one profound decision which can change a life, or even a nation, is those hundreds and thousands of half-conscious, self-defining, seemingly insignificant decisions made in private.”

Mozart wrote one of the most revered operas of all time. Behind that performance in Prague was hundreds and thousands of decisions he made in private. 

So what does it mean to be gifted? That you rolled out of bed and wrote Don Giovanni by noon? 

It means making small accumulative choices of hard work, diligence, patience, and perseverance.

Boiled down, that's all you really need to be one of the chosen ones.



Hey everyone! I'm excited to say that a book I did editing work for is now on sale! It was a very fun project to work on, and I love the way Charlie writes. 

Here is the description:

Fablehaven Meets Wizard of Oz

Open the door. We’re off to see the genocidal wizard.

After fires kill thousands all over the world in an instant, the few survivors are left with a symbol scorched into their lives and more questions than answers. Nick falls into the system. Cindy moves in with her godmother. They try move on, to forget.

But then water begins stalking Nick around high school, awakens latent synesthesia, and applies scents to the colors of a magic he didn’t know he had. Cindy, a weaver of fire, knows more, but not enough to prepare them for the appearance of a living portal.

They will cross this threshold to find answers to their parents’ murder, what their gifts mean, and what plans a magical serial killer has for the world. With the help of a feisty sylph and a sentient door, they just might make it, but only if they can survive the angry nixies, bloodthirsty redcaps, bone-crushing trow, and the friendship of a fairy queen who may not want them to succeed.

Check out The Blue Door here!

In other news, for the first time in *ten months,* I have made it through my editing queue! So if you are interested in me doing some editing work for you soon, now would be a great time to follow up on that. You can learn all about my editing at