Feed Your Craft


by Karen Newcombe

Writing is a craft. Every craft has tools, and every tool requires experience and practice to use. Fortunately, at this point in history, there are more resources available for writers than ever before. Many writers who have mastered their craft are eager to help the rest of us develop and hone our skills. We can benefit from their hard work and knowledge and bypass some of the thousands of hours that mastery of any craft requires. Books about writing,  workshops and classes, book festivals, and YouTube videos are now abundant. Hundreds of writers’ websites share how they have solved thousands of writing challenges. Dive in! 

The more you understand, the more competent you will be at using your tools. The more you practice, the better you’ll handle them, and the better your writing will become. 

Read every book and article about writing you can get your hands on. Many of them are excellent, offering practical insights into building a plot, creating conflict, handling multiple viewpoints, or designing a great sonnet. 

Some books offer an inside look at specific genres. Every so often an innovator turns up who can jump start a genre and drive it off in a new direction, but you can’t do that if you don’t have a solid feel for how and why that genre works so well already. I don’t care if you’re writing elegant literary fiction or sizzling hot erotica, you need to understand what sets that type of writing apart from the others. 

Explore what’s out there. YouTube has thousands of videos related to writing, from recordings of writing workshops to classroom lectures to vlogs by successful writers. There’s an entire subset of videos about NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), and hundreds of how-to videos about software tools for writers, like Scrivener. 

Every time I talk about this, someone says “Reading how someone else does it will corrupt my writing. It would dilute my vision to fall under someone else’s influence.” The reality is that life is overflowing with influences: teachers, colleagues, family and friends, drinking buddies, agents, publishers, even enemies, already influence you. You sit down with your work alone, but in your mind and heart, even your genes, is the influence of all of human history and biology, every person you’ve ever met, the books you’ve read, movies you’ve seen, news from this morning’s paper. You are a net constantly capturing influences, so you might as well leverage them to your own purpose with intention. 

James Scott Bell, whose books on writing are excellent, frequently says that he wouldn’t want a self-taught brain surgeon working on him, thanks very much, and he also wouldn’t want one who never bothered to keep up with new developments in medicine. Like every other field, writing changes over time. What made for gripping drama in the 1700s doesn’t work so well for today’s readers, so take the time to keep up as language and storytelling evolve. 

Developing your writing craft also takes practice. Do you want to write more engaging dialogue? Get out a notebook and practice writing dialogue every day. Practice plotting with index cards. Give yourself writing challenges and exercises that take you out of familiar territory and force you to grow. 

You’re a writer. Feed your craft. This is part of your commitment. If you take writing seriously, treat it seriously: care for it and nurture it. 

Study. Practice. Write.

Photo credit: .m.e.c. / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND

Simple. Difficult?


by Karen Newcombe

Simplicity isn't necessarily easy to achieve these days. 

My goal is to regain time in my life for more writing, so I seek to reduce distraction, clear my living space enough that my creativity has more breathing room – so that my space is restful and my reduced roster of belongings easy to maintain. In both a literal and figurative way, I want to get things out from under foot. 

So far I've filled my giant recycling bin three times over just with papers from my office. Old work files and projects, stacks of business magazines, boxes of business cards and stationery from previous jobs – out. 

A preliminary dip into the closet has netted for charity a large moving box and a giant bag of good condition clothes I never wear, plus a completely unused set of bed linens that I don't like. Perhaps I bought the set on clearance and couldn't pass up the price; I honestly can't remember. 

I've been shuffling this unused bag of linens from closet to closet for a couple of years, planning to use it in the guest room, or see if it looks better out of the bag. I've never done either. Today, I think I've spent enough of my life on this particular thing.  Now I'm impatient to get rid of it – I'll be driving to Goodwill right after I finish this to drop off this first shipment of stuff. 

Clothes are harder. It can be tough giving up something that was a gift, even if you've never worn it. You remember opening the gift, how happy your friend was to be giving you something they picked out, and the sentiment gets in the way of passing the unworn sweater on to someone else. Our memory is so fragile, what if we don't remember the moment of the giving if we let go of the gift? 

When I run across these things that carry sentimental value but no longer fit in my life, I'm going to take a picture and then let the thing go. When I flip through iPhoto next month or next year, I'll see it pass by on the screen and still have the memory, but I don't need to keep the objects anymore. 

None of this is an easy process. Getting rid of things – simplifying – seems to initially result in a big mess. There is is a huge pile in the hallway waiting to go to charity. I have file drawers standing open and a mass of papers I'm working my way through – keep, toss, shred. A box destined for the special recycling center is filling with old electronics, rechargeable batteries and broken cell phones. 

For the moment, the mess is worse instead of better. But I feel like I'm getting somewhere. 

Photo credit: Gorupka / Foter / CC BY

Life Without Cable


by Karen Newcombe

Yes, I'm one of those people. I cut the cable off about two years ago, and I don't miss it. That was probably the real beginning of my journey to get rid of too much stuff. 

I had three reasons: first, there was almost nothing on 500 channels that I wanted to watch. I'd spend half an hour clicking through all the listings and end up settling for a rerun of a show I'd already seen twice. Second, I absolutely hated paying to watch commercials. Third, a lot of television feels like angry strangers have invaded my home and are yelling and throwing things. 

During a lengthy run of commercials one night, I started doing a little calculating. Most one hour TV shows run about 40 minutes, and the remaining 20 minutes is commercials. So thirty-three percent (33%) of every hour is devoted to commercials. 

At that time my cable bill was just over $100 a month, or $1200 per year. Thirty-three percent of $1200 is $400. I was paying $400 a year just to watch commercials. 

I hated that I was paying to watch something I didn't want to see, and that it was chewing up hours of my time every week. how many hours was I actually losing? If I spent three hours a day watching TV (an hour of news and weather in the a.m., a couple of shows in the evening before bed) that worked out to about 21 hours per week. If 33% of that time was commercials, I was spending seven hours a week just watching commercials. Throw in a lunch hour and you'd have an entire working day every week spent on just watching commercials. 

The next morning I called the cable company and turned the thing off. 

I never missed it. 

The Wii console is hooked up to the TV, so I occasionally watch a movie from Netflix or Amazon. I can even watch YouTube videos, some of which are considerably better than anything produced by network media conglomerates. 

The angry strangers are gone, and I am more deliberate about using the TV. I don't just turn it on to fill the time, or compulsively check the weather and news, or to create background noise. My house is quieter. 

All that quiet eventually made me pay more attention to what I was doing with my time. Eventually I noticed how much of that time was being spent on The Stuff. 

What can I get rid of next? 

Photo credit: Abri_Beluga / Foter / CC BY

Too Much Stuff


by Karen Newcombe

I woke up a few days ago and felt like I was suffocating. 

There are boxes of vinyl records and photo books in my bedroom, a table saw in the living room, stuff on the kitchen counters, piles of paper in the office, boxes of tools and kid's toys in the guest room. So many clothes in the closet I can hardly get more clothes into it, so there's a pile of clothes sitting on the ironing board – all the time. 

I'm intensely frustrated at the sheer amount of stuff in my house. Every surface has at least one thing on it. 

Cleaning my house has become an immense endeavor that takes a minimum of several hours. I have to move stuff to vacuum and mop. I am constantly shifting stuff around trying to find a place where this hair tie or stack of papers or notes from a phone call or pair of shoes will stay put and out of my way forever. But the place I want to put the shoes already has shoes in it. Lots of shoes. I don't even recognize some of them. When did I get these? Have I ever worn them?

I spend so much time managing stuff that it's keeping me from doing the thing I love to do more than anything in the world: write. I love writing. I love words, sentences and paragraphs in the way that some people love their mates or their countries. But I struggle to find writing time. Stories, poems, and essays churn around in the back of my brain all night, but in the daylight, the sheer physical presence of The Stuff wins. I start straightening up, shifting stuff around again. 

I have finally realized what every red-blooded 21st Century American consumer is loathe to admit – I have too much stuff. Way more stuff than I need or want. Stuff that eats up my space and takes an immense amount of my attention.

If I want to have the time and space for my own writing, the stuff has to go. I'm 57, and I don't want to spend the second half of my life just moving stuff out of the way so I can set other stuff down.

I want my time back so I can do what I love: write, exercise, spend time with my family and friends, perhaps do a little painting. 

The stuff has to go. 

Photo credit: Keller Holmes / Foter / CC BY

© Karen Newcombe 2014