Heather and Patrick were having coffee together and a conversation about a novel came up. American Gods by Neil Gaiman. “I love that book,” said Patrick, to which Heather responded with a disgusted grunt. “I didn’t like it.”
Patrick was a little shocked because they often enjoyed the same type of entertainment. “Why?” he asked.
Heather thought about it for a moment, recalling some aspects of the story and said, “Hmm… I felt that Gaiman was just trying too hard.”
Patrick was not satisfied with that answer, “Shouldn’t a writer always try hard?”
“Oh,” said Heather, with no desire to continue the conversation. “I just didn’t like it…”
Patrick, not wanting to spoil their afternoon together decided to drop it. But the thought lingered in his mind. “Trying too hard.” Shouldn’t that be a good thing?”
While Heather failed to articulate elements of the story that she disliked, “trying too hard” is a common expression to describe a piece of writing — or a creative work of any kind — that didn’t register with the audience. This is especially noticeable when the work is something as big and bold as Neil Gaiman’s American Gods.
Nobody would deny that it was a piece of ambitious work. It’s a story about life and death, mythology and beliefs, new America, and sacred lands. It has a massive cast of characters and a climax as epic as any other notable fantasy. But surely that cannot be a bad thing. Can it?
A writer gives off the impression of trying too hard when the effort put into the work is not only visible but excessive. Although this can all be a matter of personal taste, Heather must have found the references to mythology and religion, the metaphor of media and technology as deities, and the usage of real-world geography and imagined realms too much. Each one of these unique elements added another flavour to the story that she simply wasn’t familiar with. It felt too experimental and it failed to capture her imagination.
When a reader finds that a writer is trying too hard to impress her, it can be off-putting. Unnecessarily large words, similes that miss the mark, flowery language with no purpose, humour that lacks the wit, and cliffhangers at any opportunity given are all elements that leave the reader feeling like the writer was trying too hard.
Of course, Patrick didn’t think Neil Gaiman was trying too hard. He found American Gods to be an entertaining and thought-provoking novel. Over 450 pages of thrilling action and adventure. He found the story to be a fresh take on a familiar genre and proved to him that Gaiman was a writer that continually pushed the limits of his own creative and literary capabilities.
One could argue that Gaiman wouldn’t have written something that impacted Patrick so significantly if he didn’t write something that Heather would consider trying too hard. Because one can only believe that Gaiman was trying hard. All writers should try hard. They should all try as hard as they can. They should push their imagination and their writing to the full limit of their potential.
As far as “Trying too hard” goes, it’s not a completely negative critique. There are some merits to be given. An A for effort. When someone tells you that you’re trying too hard, know that you are heading in the right direction — perhaps a bit of refining is needed — but don’t let what one reader says hold you back from your next epic story. Try hard and keep improving.
If you enjoyed this article, please check out the What Is… of Writing series:
No real writer likes what she’s writing ALL the time, or even MOST of the time. The important thing is to stick with your story until the end. That’s when the magic happens. – Meg Cabot
It’s so easy to give up on a project. You’ll get stuck and bored, and you’ll want to stop. You get another great idea and you’ll want to chase it. But finishing the story you started is so important, here’s why:
Respect the project:
When you start a project, you’re responsible for it. A project is like a child: it’s born, it needs someone to take care of it and help it grow, and then one day, when it’s developed, it’s sent out into the world. It’s your job to make sure it survives and prospers once you release it, making you proud. You gave the project life and now you have to take care of it. If you don’t, if you’ll simply let it die on the shelf, you’ll rob it of its potential.
Respect your time:
Think of everything that you could have done if you weren’t writing. You could have spent time with your pet or talked to your spouse. You could have watched a movie or read a book. You could have napped or gotten drunk. There was a lot you could have done, but you chose to write. You chose to spend your limited time on Earth doing this activity. You’re investing your most precious resource into this. It’s like paying for a membership for the gym, showing up, and sitting there for an hour without using the equipment and going home, then being upset because you aren’t seeing any results. Respect your time. Finish your work.
Okay, let’s say I convinced you and you’ll pull out that half-finished project and write to the end. But where is the end?
Honestly, you can end a story anywhere (even in a mid-sentence), but that would be disrespecting the audience — unless it’s a really good half a sentence. When the reader starts reading your work, you’ve made a promise that you will give them a sense of resolution, enjoyment, or fulfillment. You don’t want to disrespect your reader’s time either. You want them to come back one day and read your other works. With an honourable completion in mind, there are places that make sense to end a story.
And as the writer, you get to decide: do you want your story to have an explicit ending or an implicit ending?
When there is nothing more for the reader to know, when all the questions are answered, then it’s an appropriate ending. This type of ending is a nice little bow on a wrapped up story.
I like to think of these as success or failure stories:
Did Rocky win his match? Did we save Private Ryan or kill Bill? Did the lovers get together? If your story is about a specific mission, then at the end, the audience should know whether it was accomplished. Did the hero get what he or she wants? Did good conquer evil?
These types of stories tend to leave the reader satisfied.
The other type of endings are…
Often known as open-ended stories, these endings leave the resolution up to the reader’s interpretation.
One main example is a…
Which leaves the reader wanting more.
As one mission ends another begins! What adventures are your characters up to next?
A cliffhanger can have the character literally hanging off a cliff, Or it could be done subtly:
The last scene can be of a man calling his ex girlfriend. Throughout the story, we learn that the man is overcome with guilt. He wants to make amends with his past lover. The story ends before she picks up the phone. The reader wonders, did she answer? Was it the right phone number? If not, what would the man do? The reader draws her own conclusion.
These types of stories will leave your readers thinking about it even after they’ve put the book down.
If you are struggling to finish, aim for one of these two endings. Yes, they’re broad, but they will give you a lot of room to make adjustments and edit when it’s done.
Write to the end (even if it’s bad):
It’s going to be bad. There’s no avoiding that, so you might as well get over it. After all, that is what editing is here for. The faster you write to the end, the faster you can start editing. Wouldn’t that be nice?
Remember as the writer, you are the first reader. The first draft is a discovery. You don’t really know what your story is about before you get to the end. You don’t know if it’s going to wrap up nicely or leave the reader wanting more, but having a target gives you direction.
Let yourself discover, because that is some times where the best words come from. Don’t give up on your writing, no matter how small the project is. Write to the end.
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Even though fantasy was a genre I’m familiar with, this project introduced me to a whole new world of stories I wouldn’t have found otherwise.
In doing so, I read some novels that surprised me and some that disappointed me. Having to share my thoughts about the book during and after finishing it helped me understand what I’ve enjoyed and what I didn’t. In the end, I read 10 books across the spectrum of fantasy, and here 10 nuggets of insight I’ve unearthed from them.
1) Use Creative Verisimilitude: (American Gods by Neil Gaiman)
One way to colour your story is by bringing realism into your writing. This can be as simple as having your characters drink Coca Cola or eat at McDonald’s, but in American Gods, Neil Gaiman showed that you can push verisimilitude to the limits by understanding common human habits and traditions. Some things never change — at least, it doesn’t change that much. Take something that exists, something we all understand, and warp it a bit. Traditions have roots in every country and every culture. In American Gods, the characters find themselves in a town with a Groundhog Day-esque tradition. A beat-up car is driven out onto a frozen lake and citizens take bets on when the car will fall through the lake, and thus commencing spring. If you told me that such a tradition existed, I’d believe you because it’s as crazy as some of the traditions that do exist.
2) Leave Parts Open For Interpretation: (Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carrol)
While a good story is believable that doesn’t mean you can’t include mystery and surrealism to it. Like life, not every aspect of your story needs to be explained. Leaving parts up for interpretations creates intrigue and gives your readers something to ponder after they close the book. Nonsense, when crafted in a way that’s interesting, becomes a puzzle for your readers to solve. Readers today are still offering their own interpretation of Alice’s Adventure in Wonderland. Take for example the riddle posed by the Mad Hatter: “How is a raven like a writing desk?” It’s never answered in the story, so it’s up to the reader to figure it out on their own, almost like a mental souvenir of the story.
3) Comedy is Best When It’s Relatable: (The Colour of Magic by Terry Pratchett)
If you want to write comedy, then you need to relate to your readers. This doesn’t mean you need to know all your readers’ interests and hobbies, but rather share an experience that is common to your audience. You know why stand-up comedians always make jokes about airports? It’s because most people have been to an airport. If nobody had been to an airport… it wouldn’t be funny. Nobody would “get it.” While reading The Colour of Magic, I found that the parts that made me smile and chuckle were the parts where I could relate to. For example, Twoflower is an insurance salesman on vacation in a magical world — I know what it’s like to take time off after working an unglamourous job to travel to a tumultuous destination. And for Rincewinder, the wizard, he’s always reminiscing about his time in university, which is an experience of my modern life that I too think about often. It’s with these relatable connections that support the comedy.
4) Use Foil Characters: (Soon I Will Be Invincible by Austin Grossman)
To show off the strengths and weaknesses of a character, you can use another character with opposing traits to highlight the differences. These are called foil characters. In Soon I Will Be Invincible, a story about superheroes, we find that the hero and the villain are both intelligent, but it’s how they’re treated by their high school peers that sets them apart. Corefire was popular, while Doctor Impossible was an outcast. This helped develop the relationship between those two characters as well as establishing the roots of the characters’ motivations.
5) Every Character Serves a Purpose: (Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal)
When we think of fantasies, we often think of epic worlds with an enormous cast of characters, but I respect a story that has restraints. Being economical and ensuring that each character and each scene moves the story forward is a mastery that I hope to achieve one day. Shades of Milk and Honey is a localized story and each character (some of them foil characters) does exactly what’s needed to provoke conflicts, reveal details, or address solutions. There is no wasted energy or time introducing a character for the sake of it… there is always a payoff — and that type of creative control, I respect.
6) How to Show the History of a World: (Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Maas)
It’s easy to get carried away with world-building, especially in a fantasy novel. There is so much to deal with: the geography, the history, the language, etc. How do you share these scenic aspects of your story without pulling the cart completely off the rails? Well… in Throne of Glass, the story begins with a travel scene and then is continuously interjected with the character studying the history of the world. The world-building is scattered throughout the novel and is never unloaded all at once. The readers aren’t responsible for consuming the details on their own, but rather, they’re seeing their world from the character’s eyes. The discovery happens alongside the character as opposed to straight-up exposition.
7) Challenge Your Readers: (Swordspoint by Ellen Kushner)
Give your readers the tools, but don’t build it for them. There is something gratifying when you read a complex story with a bunch of stray dots and you’re able to connect them on your own. It’s like building a piece of IKEA furniture perfectly. A story that treats the reader as an intelligent person and reveals only the details necessary — leaving little bread crumbs or clues — without hand-holding offers a reading experience that feels so much more than merely an escape. As a writer, we should have confidence to challenge our readers. Don’t be afraid of tripping them up now and then as long as you can trust your writing to catch them before they fall. In Swordspoint, something as simple as giving different names to the same characters is enough to add another layer of complexity to the story.
8) Use Different Format: (The Wind-up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami)
I often think of a novel like a musical album. It’s a collection of different songs with different styles created by the same artist. That is why I love it when a novel includes different prose or poetic styles. In The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, we see the story being told in letters, interviews, text on a screen, etc. These change-ups in the middle of a novel can behave like an act break or even create an unsettling feeling for the reader. Change is often unnerving and this type of disturbance is effective when applied at the right place and at the right time.
9) Transition Between Time: (It by Stephen King)
If nothing else, It was a great textbook on how to make dramatic timeline shifts. Going from present-day to flashback in a seamless way — especially repeatedly through a thousand-page epic — is not an easy feat. What King did was find unique ways to blur the time jumps. Instead of making a hard cut in-between time, what you can do is mimic the technique King used and that’s by transitioning right in the middle of a sentence. Have a character do or say something that is connected to something they will (or they have done) do or say in the future (or the past), and cut right at the end. This technique is common in movies (often known as a match cut) but it’s not that common in books.
10) Limit Your Scenes: (Stormfront by Jim Butcher)
Don’t overload your readers with too much information in the first act. In Stormfront, during the first half of the novel, each chapter took place in a single location and had the main character, Harry Dresden interacting with another key character. This type of confined scene establishes the relationship between the characters and their environments. How Harry Dresden relates to one character is different from another just like how we wear different masks in different situations. Slowly, one chapter at a time, the reader gets to go one layer deeper into the character and the plot.
There you go, those are 10 writing tips I learned from reading 10 fantasy books. I am continuing with my reading journey. Currently, I’m in the throes of reading the sci-fi sub-category with the suffix “punk.” Such genres include cyberpunk, steampunk, etc.
Follow me on YouTube to see how everything unfolds. And if you want to recommend some fantasy, “punk,” or any other genre of books to me, please share in the comments!
All writers need notebooks. Even if you do the majority of your writing on the computer, you’ll want something physical to jot down your ideas. I find notebooks to be a fantastic way of qualifying an idea. It’s how I decide whether there is juice in it worth squeezing.
If you talk to 10 different writers and you’ll find 10 different ways of using a notebook. But what is the best notebook? Two brand comes to mind: Moleskine and Leuchtturm1917.
I’ve always wanted a really nice notebook, but I’ve never allowed myself to splurge on one — and I know a lot of you feel the same way. But then I thought, hey! I’m a writer. My expenses are pretty low (pen and paper, is really all I need), if I can afford it — and I feel like I’m going to use it all the way through, why shouldn’t I have a nice one.
So, if you have that thought as well, now you get to pick: Do I want a Moleskine or do I want a Leuchtturm1917? Well… I did splurge and I bought both of them and I want to share my experiences so far with you.
This is the Moleskine Classic Collection: Plain Notebook with 240 plain pages at 13 cm x 21 cm (or 5×8.25 inches). It cost $24 CAD retail price
Behind the label, it has this area for you to record your travels, so this notebook is clearly designed for someone traveling… although they didn’t market that on the front. It has one string bookmark and a foldable pocket in the back with a pamphlet that includes the history of Moleskine.
It feels nice in my hand and is pretty solid and sturdy. I’m sure it can take a beating in my bag and survive, but honestly, the texture of the cover is a little underwhelming. Perhaps I expected it to be a bit softer, but maybe that’s just me. It has the standard elastic band strap to keep the book closed and like I mentioned the pages are all blank, which as a writer with messy writing, it’s not super ideal.
When I open it, I find that the binding is a little tough. But I’m being knit-picky with that as the more I use it the more it’ll give. The paper, however, is a little thinner than I hoped for, but once again, I’m knit picky. Overall, it’s a pretty good looking notebook. $24, I don’t know.
This is the Leuchtturm 1917 notebook with 251 dotted pages, and here’s the bonus: the pages are numbered. It’s 14.5 cm x 21 cm, so it’s slightly bigger than the Moleskine. The retail price is also $24 CAD.
It also includes a lot of features including a table of contents, which I don’t think I’ll ever use because my notebooks are never organized in any logical way, as well as: 12 perforated sheets, 2 bookmark strings, stickers, and expandable pockets, much like the Moleskine.
Honestly, off the bat, I like the feel of this one a lot more. The cover does feel a bit softer which is what I like. However, I don’t necessarily want it to be bigger, but it is… The texture of the pages is less smooth than the Moleskine one so I can grip it and turn it a little bit easier. And the dots does help me write straight. I also feel that it folds open a bit better than the Moleskine one too, which is nice because I don’t have to break it in.
I’m very impressed by this Leuchtturm1917 notebook to be honest. I hear a lot of good stuff about Moleskine, but for writers, I think this one may be my go to from now on. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Let’s put these two books through the pen test.
I used 5 different types of pens on the book to see how each of them performs.
Classic blue Bic ballpoint pen
Papermate Ultra Fine felt pen
Papermate erasable gel pen
Energel metal point rollerball gel pen
Pilot Kakuno fountain pen
Surprise: The Bic ballpoint pen wrote delightfully well on both notebooks. It’s almost surprising how well it performed. If you spend all your money on this notebook, you don’t have to worry about the pen.
Disappointment: The erasable gel pen was unpleasant to write with on both notebooks. Unless you are really worried about the condition of your notebook that you need to erase things instead of scratching them out like a chaotic good person like me, then go with another writing tool.
Best: The best writing experience is with the Energel metal point rollerball gel pen. It’s so smooth, it looked and felt like I was writing with the fountain pen, but without the mess that comes with the fountain pen.
However, with the pages, this is the ultimate test, the ghosting on the other side. If you plan on writing on both sides of your notebook, then this is important to know which holds the ink better.
Here is what it looks like on the Moleskine. As you can see, all the pens are visible, but the one that got through the most is the Energel metal point rollerball gel pen.
On the Leuchtturm1917, to me, performed a little bit better. The Energel metal point rollerball gel pen was still the one that got through the most. Overall, it’s just a little bit fainter than the Moleskine.
At $24 CAD each, these are two pricey notebooks. To me, it is clear that the Leuchtturm 1917 gives me much more value for the same price. I feel like Moleskine has a lot of clout, maybe because they have a brand name that is easier to say, I don’t know. But when I’m done using these two books and I was to get another one, I am certain I will get a Leuchtturm 1917 again.
As a writer, it’s everything I need and more. I’m really looking forward to filling it up with my dumb thoughts.
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Writers have to live through a lot of uncertainty. We need constant reminders that we are not BAD writers. One small criticism can cripple our frail confidence. We put so much of our humanity into the craft that sometimes we can lose ourselves in the process and feel we have little worth when our writing doesn’t turn out the way we’ve imagined. When those feelings grab a hold of us writers, it can be a slip down a dark and scary slide of sadness.
One technique to combat this feeling and gain some perspective is by going to Amazon, clicking into a well-known, well-respected novel, and scrolling down to the 1-star reviews.
By reading these reviews, you’ll see where a lot of criticism comes from. Most often, it’s not even from the emotions evoked from the work… but rather, the critic’s own personal demons. This shows that no matter how harsh criticism can be, it is always simply another person’s opinion and you cannot take it for full value. In fact, you shouldn’t take it for anything.
In this article, we’ll look at some 1-star reviews that I screen captured from Amazon and examine why the reader wrote what they wrote — and maybe give some cheer to writers who are currently in a slump with their own works.
1) Everybody is Stupid But Me
Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone:
I call this the “Everyone is Stupid But Me” critique, because instead of looking for qualities in the writing and story, which had drawn in millions upon millions of readers, this critic chooses to belittle those who’ve enjoyed the book. This critic wants you to know that if you like this, then you are an idiot. Yes, it comes across as petty and envious. A good review doesn’t attack the audience or the fanbase, but give examples of where the story is flawed. All this critic did was address the unoriginality of the story, but never offered any examples of what the story was derivative of. These types of critics are bullies and it’s best to ignore them completely.
2) Bad Memories
Pride and Prejudice:
There must be this book from your past where you felt so much anger towards that you stopped everything you were doing to go online and write a bad review. There must be! Or maybe not. Still, books can do that to people. It’s like a bad relationship. Suddenly you remember that horrible argument you had with an ex and you just want to go on social media and tell everyone what an awful lover he was. Wait… did you even remember it right? Maybe it was he that broke up with you… Whatever, the memory isn’t important. What’s important is that I’m angry and I’m going to take it out on Jane Austen’s book sales.
3) It Doesn’t Match My Reality
I kind of like this review because it’s full of optimism. The thing is, there is no way to argue with critics like these because they’re already set in their beliefs. They have a representation of what is an acceptable novel in their mind and if anything doesn’t match that then it’s deemed poor writing. This is a closed-minded person, unwilling to join in on a conversation — a conversation that is completely relevant today. This is an attack on building dialogue and sharing ideas. In the end, this reader implores us to let Orwell’s writing die just as an experiment so that the world only contains literature and other art forms that are suitable for this reader’s reality. What this critic is suggesting is book burning, which is a tactic used by some of the most malicious dictatorships in history. Just saying…
4) How Dare The Author Makes Money
Game of Thrones:
There is a lot being criticized in this review, but I want to focus on the sentiment that an author should be able to tell a story in “1,776 pages” and nothing more. Otherwise, you’re a greedy writer. This reader cannot believe the galls of a writer trying to make a living with his craft and doesn’t realize that George RR Martin had in fact written many standalone novels. This is an attack on the author’s merits, but knowing that George RR Martin spends up to a decade working on a novel in this saga, the sensible person knows that it was never about selling more books. When you put a piece of work out there, people will begin to question your intentions and come to their own conclusions about you. The moment you try to sell your work, some will consider you no longer an artist who performs a craft for the good of society, but rather as a sneaky capitalist out for their money. In comes this hero to warn the unassuming public of what is happening. There is more to say about this review, but I’ll leave it at that for now.
5) I Like It, But I Hate It
Of Mice and Men:
Okay, so I’ve been on the fence about giving a service or product a five star or a four-star review, but I’ve never debated whether to give a one or a five star. That’s what the range of five stars are for. In this review, the critic claims to have found the story well-written and praised its honesty. The only reason the book got one-star was that it made the reader depressed. In this reader’s opinion: if a book makes one sad, then it is not a good book. This reader does not understand the range of star ratings or the range of human emotions and how sadness is reasonable, in fact, an important emotion to feel. Additionally, the reader does not want to view the world unless it is through diamond-studded 3D glasses. It’s worrisome to know that many are like this reader and will opt for entertainment that keeps them in their comfort zone.
No matter how polished your writing is, regardless of what topic it is about, or how long or short it is… someone will have an issue with it. Of course, everyone has a right to give their opinion, however, we should understand where opinions stem from. Most of the time, it’s not even about your work, they simply have this little darkness in them that they need to share — and they’re using your work as the vessel… which is important.
You’re doing important work.
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This is my YouTube channel. I make videos about writing, about authors, screenwriters, and filmmakers — you know, creative stuff. Why? Why would I do that when my ultimate goal is to write stories? Shouldn’t I focus on writing stories?
There is certainly a lot of advice out there from experts and “successful” people talking about the importance of focus. Focus on one thing, get really good at it, and then transition to something else after. I’m certain that is a great strategy for many, but I also learned a lot about myself over the course of my life. I’ve discovered that I need a balance of inspiration and motivation to keep me productive. I can genuinely say that if it weren’t for my YouTube channel, I might have stopped writing completely.
Here is how making videos have improved my writing:
Pairing: By doing two things that are semi-related, such as writing and making videos, I use one to push the other one forward. Writing supports my passion for making videos, because each video needs a script and a story.
Community: I’m not lucky enough to have a core group of people with time to motivate me, so I want to create one. Making videos and posting them online allows me to reach people across the world that have the same interest as me. Instead of waiting for someone to invite me to a workshop or anything like that, I get to create my own platform and anyone who is interested is welcomed.
Accountability: It forces me to be a part of the culture. It forces me to be accountable to not only enjoy entertainment but analyze it critically. Making video allows me to not only be a passive consumer but become an active critic. It forces me to think critically and creatively while analyzing a piece of work be it a novel, as I would do in a book review video, or about a creative choice, as I would in my longer-form research piece such as my exploration of The Shining adaptation video.
Presentation: It forces me to read my writing out loud. Reading and communicating is a skill and it takes practice. What is art but a means of communication? In the grand scheme of things, I want to be a good communicator and one of my most powerful tools as a storyteller is my voice. Unfortunately, I don’t have a live audience to listen to my tales so, in order for me to train for my eventual TedTalk, I must make videos and read my words out loud.
Pleasure: I enjoy making videos as much as I enjoy writing. It’s two things I enjoy doing. I would not be completely happy if I’m not doing both. If I never end up being a successful writer, because I spent too much time making videos, that’s fine, because I spent my days doing something I enjoy. But let’s be honest, I don’t think I’ll be writing if I’m not making videos about it. That’s simply self-awareness on my end. Maybe it comes across as not being focus to some.
Read a lot and write a lot. That is the hot tip established writers will tell aspiring writers. Except, how do you balance the two? Should you split your reading and writing time 50/50?
So here’s the dilemma, you have this idea for a novel… but you also have that book over there that you want to read. What would be more valuable for your time? Reading? Or Writing?
This is a problem I have because my TBR list keeps growing and so does my list of story ideas… I’m known for biting off more than I can chew. Nevertheless, here is how I approach balancing reading and writing.
I like to think of it in the same way as exercising and dieting.
Ask yourself, what is your goal? Is your goal to finish writing a novel or submit to a writing contest? If so, then prioritize writing. Or is your goal to more intuitive? For example, if you want to write a blog that requires you to make commentary, then perhaps you need to read more to be perceptive.
Just like your physical health where you have to decide whether you are losing weight or gaining muscle, you need to start aligning your reading/writing habits to meet those goals. If you want to lose weight, you wouldn’t just be working out and if you want to gain muscle you wouldn’t just be eating salads.
First, figure out your goals and then slowly design a routine that enables you to write and read in order to meet it.
Reading is the healthy food you eat. TV or surfing the Internet or playing video games are less-than-healthy food when you are trying to be a writer. You can have your cheat days, but on most writing days, you need to refuel with a book.
So the two activities have to work together. It doesn’t have to be a perfect 50/50 balance. You can write more and read less one day and then read more and write less another. The key is to cut out all the other activities that don’t nourish you or doesn’t motivate you to write.
When you wake up: write, when you are on lunch break: read, when you get home from work: write, before you go to bed: read. Find little pockets of time here and there to commit to becoming a better writer.
Drain the well and then refill it. Exercise and then eat a hearty meal. Don’t think of your reading time as time you should be writing, but rather a necessary part of the writing process. You only have 24 hours in the day, so it’s not about picking one or the other, it’s about eliminating the other activities so you have more time to read AND write.
I like to read a few different books at the same time. I find it helps me motivated to read more and it generally inspires me to write a lot.
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Writing at a coffee shop — cliche, yes, perhaps, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t some symbiotic relationship between the two acts: writing and drinking coffee. There is something beautiful in it.
Additionally, working at a coffee shop is often a departure from the household distractions that many remote workers and freelancers have to face. If I’m at a coffee shop, I have to focus on writing, not on the dishes and other chores.
So, in an effort to find some nice local coffee shops to work from this NaNoWriMo, I visited 5 of Vancouver’s popular coffee houses. Here was what my experiences was like:
WiFi: (5/5 stars) Yes! You have to go up and ask for the password, but once you have it you should be all set. I didn’t have any issues with it and overall, it was a pretty solid experience.
Coffee: (4/5 stars) The most delightful thing about the mocha at Propagenda was that they served it to me in a glass. There is something salacious about drinking caffeine from glass — all of a sudden it becomes a cocktail and I’m doing six shots of tequila. Although this glass of mocha didn’t get me wild, it was a nice treat. Certainly not the best mocha I’ve ever had, but it’s pretty good. Not great, but good.
Comfort: (5/5 stars) Propagenda is an incredibly comfortable spot to work. It has a wide-open space so that nobody is bumping into you as they line up or have to maneuver around a series of obstacles in order to bring the coffee to the table. However, glancing around, I didn’t see any power outlets, so you might want to bring a fully charged laptop. In fact, always bring a fully charged laptop.
Noise level: (4/5 stars) It’s the usual coffee shop sounds: espresso machines, conversations, and the tapping of keyboards. Even when people are talking it isn’t that loud. There weren’t any obnoxious laughter or anything like that. It had a lot of nice wooden finishing and a nice balance of communal seating, lounge-y seating, group of four seating, and higher stool seating by the window. Overall, it’s a chill place to work.
WiFi: (3.5/5 stars) Yes Buro does have WiFi, but it’s a pretty weak signal for such a high foot traffic place. We sat at the far end at first but had to move closer to the bar to get a better signal, and that put us in a less comfortable spot.
Comfort: (3/5 stars) Buro has a few comfortable seats, such as the corner window alcove right beside the pastry area, but it is also a lot of seats in this place and not all are created equal, especially when it gets crowded.
If the WiFi signal was better, we did not have to move to the other end of the coffee shop where we had to sit right in front of the awkward bathroom where people kept coming and going, confused because they had to get the keys to open it.
Noise level: (3/5 stars) It wasn’t particularly busy when we were there, but the noise tended to echo, so when a few groups of people were talking, the volume increased a lot. We were also sitting in the narrow hallway, which causes the noise to funnel in towards us. Overall, it was not easy to focus.
Coffee: (3/5 stars) I got the Spanish Latte and my wife got an Americano. It’s not particularly pricey, and they do offer two sizing options, which can make it a bit more expensive. But the thing is, the coffee wasn’t amazing. The first sip of my Spanish Latte was good, but over the course of the drink it felt too sweet, so maybe there was just a bit too much condensed milk in it. However, my wife found her Americano to be a little watery, which is kind of unacceptable.
This was not an enjoyable working experience. It didn’t feel like a treat; it felt like a place I would go to if I didn’t have another choice. Like I said, it’s in a high foot traffic area, so there are a lot of people coming and going. There are tourists, there are locals, and it is just not the best laid out coffee shop to concentrate.
WiFi: (5/5 stars) The WiFi was solid. And on top of that, it didn’t even require a password to log in. There was a guest account and it was seamless. In this day and age, that is a nice experience. Especially when there were so many people using it in the coffee shop.
Comfort: (3.5/5 stars) Matchstick was very busy when I got there. It’s a popular spot but it’s also strangely laid out. One side there was a communal desk and a couple of stools and on the other side there are some comfy seating and then some two seaters — and a weird bench area. We had to wait for a bit, which was totally awkward in a coffee shop. But eventually someone did and we were able to sit at a two seater. The tables aren’t that big; it’s not great for two laptops and the chairs were pretty stiff. It’s nicely designed and I love the homey feel, but there were a lot of people there.
Noise level: (4/5 stars) The bar is at the center of the shop, so there wasn’t anywhere you can go to avoid the noise of the espresso machine or the people ordering. Matchstick also serves food so people will be eating a meal near you. I feel that if you are at the communal table, it’ll be more quiet, however, if you are on the other end, where we were then it’s a bit noisier because that’s where people were hanging out and having conversations. However, it was never at an overwhelming or unpleasant level. Still, there is a lot of movement in this coffee shop because it was busy.
Coffee: (5/5 stars) One of the reasons why I think Matchstick is so popular is because they serve great coffee. I got the mocha and it was phenomenal. It was the perfect amount of sweetness and the milk was super soft and smooth. It was like drinking a chocolate cloud. For it’s price, it was certainly worth it.
WiFi: (5/5 stars) Finch’s Market had excellent WiFi. They post the password in visible places, so I didn’t have to ask, which is wonderful because I’m an introvert. The WiFi was consistent and there was no issues to mention.
Comfort: (4.5/5 stars) Finch’s is a cozy and homey place. I enjoyed all the old-timey decorations hanging on the wall, as well as the wooden aesthetic. It gave off the atmosphere of a rural cabin and there are few places more comfortable than a cozy cabin.
Keep in mind that this place is also a store, you can buy fruits and milk. It’s not only a place for coffee, it’s also a restaurant that serves some pretty awesome fresh sandwiches, salads, and soup. I recommend not going there during lunch hours as it’ll be a bit busier, but while I was there, it was pretty chill. I got a whole four-six seater dining table all to myself, so I was pretty comfortable. I would have been more productive, but I was writing about a pretty challenging part of my story, so I didn’t get as much written as I wanted, but it was still a really chill place to work.
Noise Level: (4.5/5 stars) I was there during a quiet time, but even then, there were people coming in and out and there was a group of girls having lunch. However, none of that bothered me. It’s not a big space so now and then someone who is ordering would talk loudly or move around and bump into a chair at your table,, but overall it was pretty chill.
Coffee: (3/5 stars) At this point, I thought I should stay consistent with the coffee I order, so I got a mocha again. Well, also because that is my drink of choice. Anyways, how was it? Honestly, I was a little disappointed. It was probably the most photogenic cup of mocha yet but it wasn’t that creamy. It didn’t taste like I was drinking a chocolate cloud like it did at Matchstick. Also, they had two sizes, and I got the smaller one, which was indeed small. It was served in one of those diner coffee cups, which made it feel like it’s not the best deal. I should have gotten the large, which was also a double shot as opposed to the small single.
Overall, I had a wonderfully pleasant time working at Finch’s Market and it’s definitely a place I see myself coming back to work soon.
WiFi: (5/5 stars) Kafka’s does have WiFi and it was a pretty solid experience. No problems to speak of, but I had to ask for it as it wasn’t displayed. Besides that, it was great.
Comfort: (5/5 stars) The way Kafka’s is laid out in a very organized fashion. There are a bunch of two-seaters up against the wall, a few larger tables closer to the window along with a comfy couch, and a big communal table close to the bar. I thought about sitting at one of the two-seaters, but then decided to be selfish and take up one of the big communal table since nobody was there at the time. I had my front facing the rest of the coffee shop. To me, that was the best. I don’t like having someone right behind me, in my blind spot, it’s unnerving and definitely affects the comfort level. But this time, I was really comfy.
Noise Level: (4/5 stars) When I first arrived, the coffee shop was pretty quiet. An hour later, it started to pick up and it got pretty busy by the time I was ready to leave. Kafka’s is located at the intersection of two of the busiest streets in the city: Main Street and Broadway. Therefore, it surely experience a lot of foot traffic. While I was there a lot of parents brought their children along, so that increased the noisiness.I anticipated a very noisy environment, but even at its busiest, it wasn’t that bad. It wasn’t great and got a little distracting, but not to the point where I couldn’t work.
Coffee: (4/5 stars) With the coffee, I shared the review with my friend, Billy from YouTube channel, The Best of 604 who will give his thoughts on his oat milk latte. If you want to hear what he thought, check out the video here.
Best of 604 is a channel about the best places to get pizza, wings or any other type of delicious food in Vancouver. I recommend checking out Billy’s channel if you live in or plan on visiting Vancouver.
As for me, I got another mocha. There was a lot to like about it, especially how they filled it up to the very brim. However, I feel one area that it didn’t completely nail was the chocolate flavour. It was subtle — and even though, I do like subtle flavours in my drink — I felt that this one was almost too light and could really use one more level, a slight turn of the dial in chocolate up.
Vancouver is full of unique coffee shops and I look forward to visiting more. If you have one you like to work at, please let me know! Startbucks are cool too!
If you like this article, you might consider buying me a beer (or a coffee), it helps to keep me writing.
I used to write a lot when I was younger. I used to stay up all night and hammer out three to four chapters. When I had a week off from school, I would dedicate a few days to do nothing but write. I participated in the 3-Day Novel Writing Contest three times — and even self-published one of them, The Past In Between, just for kicks. I knew the well of my imagination and inspiration was never going to run dry. However, something else did…
It wasn’t my motivation that got depleted, it was my time. Regardless of how successful you get as a 20-year-old, eventually, as the number increases, you will find that the free time in your day to do what you want will decrease. By the time I reached my 30s, my free time to work on my own projects were sparse.
Now, I don’t want to make a rant about how busy I am, because being busy is lacking priority. If you don’t have time to do something, it is simply because it isn’t a priority. Working on my short stories or my novel isn’t a priority anymore. I have a full-time job, I have friends that I wanted to see, I have a dog I want to take on walks when the weather is nice, and I have a wife that I’d like to spend the prime of my day with.
Those days that I used to block off simply to write are few and far in between. There are zero days in the year where I can just write. Even when I don’t have any plans scheduled with, I will still need to walk the dog, cook food, and maybe do some chores in preparation for the upcoming week.
Yet, I haven’t stopped writing.
Writing is still a large part of my life. It is a critical part of my identity. I still try to fit it in whenever I can, but it is hard to do. You know the saying, “The hardest part is starting.” And it is absolutely true when you are writing. Sitting down and getting to work is the hardest part. I believe it only gets harder when you don’t have an empty schedule to commit to it.
Expectation: How I Like To Write
In my ideal world, I would have a day fully committed to writing. I would wake up with a fresh cup of coffee and hunker down and immerse myself into my work — deep work, as author Cal Newport would refer to it. I yearn to get into the flow where my writing is essentially pouring out of me like hot water from a kettle.
I enjoy having the little distractions and blocks in between. I enjoy allowing myself to mill around the apartment for a moment thinking of the direction to guide my characters in.
I would usually have a movie playing in the background, something I have seen a million times before, just to keep me company. Pulp Fiction is a good one. Honestly, anything by Tarantino will do because it’s long… and it works to track how long I’ve been writing.
This was how I wrote in my 20s. It was something I looked forward to like a vacation. But now… when I do take a vacation, writing is not what I want to do. Writing is fun, but writing is also work. When I have to prepare for a week at the office, I don’t necessarily want to put myself through a fifteen-hour write-a-thon.
Reality: How I Write Now
Today, I write the same way I do a lot of other things. I squeeze it into my schedule. There are a few days in a month where I can commit myself fully to creative writing, but they are often hijacked. I’m not sacred with those days — although I should be.
I write whenever I can, fifteen minutes before I head off to work in the morning, thirty minutes during my lunch break, or ten minutes as my dinner finishes cooking in the oven. Any spare time I have, I add it to my projects. It’s my way of making the most out of the little time that I have.
I find these little sprints incredibly hard, but with everything going on, if I don’t have them, I might not be a writer at all. So I sprint.
I used to be a writer who needs a few minutes to warm up. This can mean sitting at the desk and getting into the right mind frame or it can mean rereading some of my previous writing, which is necessary if I’m working on a longer project. When I only have fifteen minutes blocked off to write that doesn’t leave me a lot of time to get into the groove. I need to start writing. There is no time to hum and haw about where to begin. I simply need to begin.
Arguably in four scattered fifteen-minute writing sessions, I will probably get more words down on a page than in a 1-hour session, simply because of the urgency, I placed on myself. This had led me to the hypothesis that perhaps writing a first draft should best be done in a series of spurts, rather than one long marathon. This is an experiment I am curious to perform.
There May Never Be An Ideal Time to Write
What I’ve discovered through these past few years as my time has been segmented and divided between all the people love and responsibilities and obligations I have is that there will never be a perfect amount of time to write. Just like how there won’t be a perfect amount of time to work out or practice an instrument. If you want to do something, you will need to fit it into your schedule. It doesn’t mean you can’t do all the other things in your life, it simply means that when you notice an empty slot in your day — which believe me, if you look, you will find it — take advantage of it. Make the most out of it. Don’t sit there and think about doing it.
Remember, starting is the hardest part. So whenever you think that there is time to write, start. It’s that simple. Open up your project file, scroll down to the spot where you left off, and continue. Do this every time you have a break in your day and eventually, you will chip away at a project that you were waiting for a perfect time to work on.
There is no perfect time. There are no better or worst time. There is only time.
I’ll admit it, in my short time on this planet, I have created a lot of content — content that I have little interest going back and enjoying. While one reason can be that I have way too much to do now: creating new material and reading, watching, and listening to other (more talented) people’s work; another more restraining reason is that I’m not convinced that it’ll be enjoyable.
I believe that anything I create creatively, I make for myself, I’m the first audience member. That is how I pick my creative projects. I want my investment in time to pay off down the line. I create it with the intention that one day in the future I can enjoy it again as an audience member who has lost all connection with the initial creation process.
While that is my encouragement to put in the time and effort — blood, sweat, and tears — I don’t know when it is safe to return to that piece of work. I worry that I’ll cringe. I worry that I’ll get critical. I’ll worry that I will see all the mistakes that I’ve made before and become unable to let go. Yet, I want to look back and see how far I’ve come. I am pulled and tugged by how I want to approach my corpus of old work.
I start to wonder what successful creators and artists approach this aspect of their work, the revisiting phase.
The Producer: Don’t Treat It Like A Job
Perhaps the most famous incident of an artist claiming to have not seen his own work is Johnny Depp in an interview with David Letterman.
Johnny Depp: In a way, once my job is done on the film it is really none of my business. […] I stay as far away as I possibly can. If I can I try to stay in a profoundest state of ignorant as possible. […] I just don’t like watching myself. I prefer the experience — I mean, making the film is great. The process is all fine, but then… he’s up there. You know what I mean?
To me, there is a sense of freedom to that: to be able to create without the need to critique his work. As a copywriter, I can personally relate to that. I have a workman’s mentality to a lot of stuff I create. I don’t write a blog post to necessary go back and enjoy while sipping mai tai on a beach. I write it. I got paid for it. My obligation is done. Obligations are not enjoyments, and if you see your work as such… you might lack the fulfillment in your craft that can propel you forward.
Perhaps that’s why some may think that Depp’s work today is derivative of his best from the past. If you start treating your creations as simply work, then yes, there is never a personal reason to go back and watch it. Then again, you should think about the work you are picking.
The Fan: Make it for Yourself First
Then on the other side of the spectrum is Samuel L. Jackson. There is a reason that Jackson is in so many fantastic movies, it’s because he has a brilliant philosophy for his work.
In an interview with GQ magazines, Samuel L. Jackson said, “I like watching myself in movies….if I am channel surfing and I pass a movie that I’m in, I’m watching it no matter what. I have a drawer of nothing but my DVDs, so if nothing else, I can just go in and pull one out and put it in.”
When asked why some actors don’t enjoy watching themselves, he responded, “That’s bullshit! Actors that say, “I can’t stand to watch myself”, well if you can’t stand to watch yourself then why the f*** do you expect someone to pay $13.50 to watch you?”
Like chefs who cook food for others, that they would not eat themselves, an artist who is unable to enjoy their work should be viewed with slight suspicion. As if to say, “Oh, your work isn’t even good enough for you?”
The Critic: Identify Errors
Sometimes you look back at your work and all you can see is the mistakes you’ve made. And in some pieces, the errors stand out more clearly than others. However, it’s sometimes better to bite the bullet, watch what you’ve made, and analyze why you dislike it.
In a 2011 interview with Time Out, Lady Gaga speaks about her current relationship with her hit Telephone: “I hate ‘Telephone.’ Is that terrible to say? It’s the song I have the most difficult time listening to. I can’t even watch the ‘Telephone’ video, I hate it so much. Beyonce and I are great together, but there are so many ideas in that video and all I see in that video is my brain throbbing with ideas and I wish I had edited myself a little bit more.”
Trust in your taste. If you don’t feel the way Samuel L. Jackson does when reading, watching, or listening to your own work, ask yourself what you dislike about it. If you are blatantly ignorant, you may never learn to improve. And if it is more than just a paycheque for you, like it clearly is for Lady Gaga, then you must analyze the errors and do better next time.
The Exhausted: Take A Long Break From It
If the idea of consuming your old work is causing you to cringe, it might simply be the fact that you haven’t had enough distance from it yet.
Talking to Rolling Stone back in 1993, Kurt Cobain stated: “It’s almost an embarrassment to play [“Smells Like Teen Spirit”]. Everyone has focused on that song so much. The reason it gets a big reaction is people have seen it on MTV a million times. It’s been pounded into their brains… I can barely, especially on a bad night, get through ‘Teen Spirit.’ I literally want to throw my guitar down and walk away.”
Like eating the same meal over and over again, creating content or performing can feel repetitive. As a filmmaker, after spending so many hours in the editing room watching the same scenes over and over again, getting it just right. Once it is completed, the last thing you would want to do is sit down with a bag of popcorn and watch the movie from beginning to end. The same goes with a writer writing and a singer singing.
If you don’t take the time to put that piece aside, hide it in the dark, then you will feel fatigued from it. Your creation might be as delicious as chocolate, but if all you’ve been eating is chocolate for the past three months, maybe a piece of celery is what you need to cleanse the palate.
The Historian: Treat Your Old Work As Snapshots of Your Life
When you create something, you create in the present. You put your current emotional state into it. You choose words and form sentences in the way you currently know how. You tell stories and evoke emotions that relate to the person you are. When you look back on it, you are certain to see the changes, not only within the work but in yourself as an older writer.
“It was interesting to come back to something I’d made and find how much it had changed,” writer, George Saunders tells New York Times about revisiting his collection of short stories CivilWarLand in Bad Decline. “Though we think we are making permanent monuments against which our egos can rest, we’re actually making something more akin to a fog cloud. We come back to what we’ve made and find out it’s been changing all along. We’ve changed, the artistic context around the story has changed, the world has changed. And this is kind of wonderful and useful. It made me remember that the real value of the artistic act is not product but process.”
Like looking at an old photograph of yourself, for no other reason, revisiting your older work is a powerful way to understand the person you once were. The thing this exercise can achieve where simply looking at a picture of yourself can’t is that a picture can only show you what’s on the surface, but a piece of writing can show you want is underneath it all.
At this time, I am debating with reading some of the work I have written, that I have worked so hard on: mainly those that I have published on Amazon. They haunt me in a way… but I think I might crack it open soon and see all the problems I made, my ability to entertain myself, and the younger man who was simply trying to express himself.
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