Category Archives: Writing Journal

6 signs your novel may be pretty damn good

Why do readers love some novels, but not others? Often we do hand wavy gestures at this kind of question, while intoning the magic word “subjective subjective subjective”. Yes, different people like different things. But there are a few qualities which many, many popular stories have in common.

There are six core qualities for a strong commercial novel, which I use as signs that a novel might be pretty damn good! I can’t guarantee that every writer, editor or publishing professional knows these, but I can say that if your aim is to create popular stories that reach a wide readership, hitting these markers certainly won’t hurt.

If you find these useful, take a look at The Rhetoric of Story, a short course exploring the 7 foundations of powerful immersive storytelling. Turn to Page 2 below to see the first 3 signs.

High Concept – the whole concept of a high concept has a bad reputation with some writers. But the truth is, if your book doesn’t have a singular focus that is original and engages the reader’s attention, very few people are likely to expend time and effort on reading it. This is clearly true of commercial fiction. Harry Potter is the story of an orphan boy who goes to magic school. Each volume is a new school year. It’s clear, and it frames everything else that happens in the story. But this is also true of literary fiction. Underworld by Don DeLillo is a multilayered tapestry of human life and politics. But stitching it all together is a baseball, hit on a home run on the first day of the Cold War, and the novel follows all the lives the baseball touches, through to the end of the cold war. A high concept and a half!

Larger Than Life Characters – most people, faced with a terrorist takeover of a jet liner, stay in their seat. Your characters are the people who get up and organise to take the plane back. Playwright David Mamet argues (correctly I believe) that the single most fascinating thing in the world is a strong willed human being. Most people aren’t strong willed. They conform to the world, rather than bending the world to their will. Your characters are absolutely not “most people”. When Luke Skywalker hear’s there’s a princess in trouble, he races off to rescue her. Again, this is as true in a small and intimate story as it is in an epic. Most people hang around in crappy, abusive relationships for years. Your character is the person who walks out the door, and your story is what happens next.

Use course code STORYTEN and get The Rhetoric of Story for…guess how much?

Small in body, larger than life by nature.

Inspiring Locations – one of the reasons we pick up a novel is to experience places and experiences unlike our daily life. There’s a reason why James Bond’s adventures don’t take him to Slough or Clacton-on-Sea. Or why Star Wars isn’t set in a galaxy quite close to home. On the immediate level, locations that have natural beauty, or even alienating strangeness, are the ones readers will gravitate towards. A tropical paradise, an urban metropolis, an icy moon orbiting a black hole, or the rolling prairies of Montana. These are places many people might like to experience. In a more granular analysis, inspiring locations tend to attract interesting people. If you want to write a political thriller, it’s not going to work set in a provincial town in Derbyshire. You simply won’t find many political power brokers in Bakewell. On the other hand, it’s exactly the kind of place you might find a retired crime solving lady like Miss Marple. There are no absolutes with location, but you do need a good one!

At their most fundamental 99.99% of the stories people love are about relationships between siblings, children and parents, best friends, lovers or lifelong rival.

Close and Intense Relationships – How many stories can you think of that are about families? War and Peace is an epic that spans a continent. But it’s really about two families. Think very hard about your life. How many people are you really, deeply and truly related to? A dozen? At their most fundamental 99.99% of the stories people love are about relationships between siblings, children and parents, best friends, lovers or lifelong rival. And if they aren’t, they are about relationships that gain equal intensity. In Red Dragon by Thomas Harris, the lead detective and the serial killer he is pursuing barely meet. But they share elements of the same pathological personality, that manifest in different ways. A profound and intense relationship.

High Stakes – is your story about saving the world? Lord of the Rings is. Every life in Middle Earth turns on Frodo’s mission to destroy the One Ring. Epic stories turn either on the fate of the world, or of a city or community of another kind. The heroes actions avert a disaster, or bring a gift, that improves everyone else’s life. And the stakes must be equally high within the context of a smaller story. Jane Austen isn’t talking trivia when she describes Elizabeth Bennet’s quest for a happy marriage in Pride and Prejudice. Every other moment of her heroines life turns on her marriage, at a time when most women were trapped in loveless unions of economic advantage. What would not have worked is if Jane Austen had based the story around Lizzy’s regular sewing circle evenings, which while fun, had little bearing on her fate. You get the point.

Multiple Points-of-View – we all see the world through our own eyes, but the world is crowded with many points of view. It’s a fundamental aspect of human psychology that our view is fundamentally self centred, and therefore inaccurate. To show us the full picture then, stories need to take us through multiple character’s points of view. Many novels do this literally, such as the hyper-succesful Game of Thrones books by George R R Martin, which dedicate one chapter at a time to each of a half dozen POV characters. Other novels stay in a single POV, through which we encounter numerous other characters who see the events of the story very differently. Either choice is fine. The important issue is that, one way or another, we see the world of the book through more than one limited, subjective set of eyes.

Think any of the above is new? Not a chance! Go read the Mahabharata, the ancient Hindu myth, and you’ll see it has all six!

BONUS.

It’s worth noting that these six points can also make a brilliant structure when pitching a story idea. Don’t try describing a convoluted plot in a few sentences. Set-up the concept, introduce the location, pin down the characters and their relationships, then hit your audience with the stakes. You’ll see film trailers do this over and over again, because it works.

Last chance. Take 5.5 hours of your life to follow The Rhetoric of Story. It’s everything I’ve learned about storytelling in a neat little package.

The 4 skills of the full stack writer

A stack of 4 core skills are key to success as a freelance writer. Mastering them unlocks huge opportunities.

I landed my first paid writing gig when I was 14. I had a paper route, and one day the local Indian restaurant invited me in, made me a chai tea, and asked how to get a leaflet into the newspaper. In the end I wrote the leaflet, got it printed, and distributed. I think I made £50 on the deal. Or, about 17 weeks of delivering newspapers!

“The internet is full of words. They all have to be written by somebody.”

Fast forward two and a half decades, and I’ve been making a professional living as a writer for most of that time. I’ve written for The Guardian, BBC, Wired, The Independent, Buzzfeed, Aeon magazine and freelanced for major London ad agencies. I’ve published dozens of short stories, won Arts Council grants for fiction writing, lectured at a half dozen universities, published research with Oxford University Press, and studied with Kelly Link and Neil Gaiman at the Clarion writers workshop. But that all grew from writing ad-copy for a leaflet.

Over the course of my pro career I’ve seen the writing industries transformed by technology. The internet is full of words. They all have to be written by somebody. And when I have a lot of deadlines, it sometimes feels like I’m writing them all! Businesses all over the world have a huge hunger for words, which has created whole new areas of work for writers. Right now I have clients in Bangalore, Idaho, Paris, Cornwall, Singapore and Shenzen. And this is a quiet month!

The gig economy, and freelance sites like Upwork and Fiverr, have opened up a global marketplace for writing services. At the time of writing I am in the top 5 “Pro Writers” on Fiverr, and in the top one or two percent of writers by hourly earnings on Upwork. The clients I have worked with via sites like Fiverr include Blue Chip corporations, tiny mom & pop businesses, famed entrepreneurs and hard working YouTube celebrities.

The most expensive content is the content that nobody reads.

The recent Payoneer report into freelance earnings recorded an average income of $19 per hour for writers. But that average disguises a gulf in earnings between two very different groups of writers.

“Content writers” churn out dozens of blog posts a day, usually to promote websites via Google search, and often earn little more than minimum wage for their efforts. But the days when Google algorithms could be gamed by high volumes of low quality content are long gone. Businesses are learning quickly that the most expensive content is the content that nobody reads.

I call the second group Full Stack writers. These writers have a wide and deep skillset that allows them to deliver, not generic “content”, but high quality writing that people actually want to read. Writing with the potential to go viral in the short term, and to create a highly engaging online identity in the longterm.

Full Stack writers command hourly rates of $70 to $100 as a baseline, and are in increasingly high demand as the competition for attention online intensifies.

Aristotle. A Full Stack writer?

What skills define a Full Stack writer?

When I’m asked how I built a successful freelance writing career, the answer is rarely what people expect. I can’t suggest any special marketing tricks. I don’t know any underhand ways to hack the system, and I have used no gimmick promotions. I won’t tell you to give away your work for “exposure” or to build a portfolio. In the immortal words of Samuel Johnson:

“No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.”

Samuel Johnson

Anyone working in startups and software development will be familiar with the idea of the “full stack developer”, a coder with a “stack” of skills that allow them to deliver complex projects single handed. The full stack developer is agile, and essential for small and medium sized enterprises innovating at high speed.

Full stack writers fulfil a very similar role, as a jack-of-all-trades; part journalist, part marketer, with the skills of a copywriter, a screenwriter, and a little dash of the poet, all rolled into one.

It’s my experience that success as a freelance writer rests on a “stack” of three foundational skills. These skills aren’t new, they have been known for thousands of years. But today they seem to have been almost forgotten. They’re rarely taught at schools or colleges, and many struggling professional writers don’t know them at all.

Mastering this trinity unlocks the path to a fourth skill that is, in my experience, the most valuable skill you as a writer can master.

Grammar.

Words and sentences. Whatever you are writing, from an advertising slogan to an epic fantasy novel, it’s made from these two building blocks. The better you know how to use them, the more effective your writing will be.

“The simplest and most powerful way to get ahead of the competition as a writer is to build your grammar skills.”

It might sound blockheaded to suggest that writers learn to spell! But sadly, many writers offering professional services don’t have a clear grasp of grammar. Instead they rely on their “instinctual” understanding of how language works.

If you’re trying to complete complex writing tasks, on deadline and to a budget IE the work that a professional writer does, day in and day out, instincts alone won’t cut it. You need to consciously understand the rules of grammar.

Consider a typical entry level writing task. You’re asked to rewrite a 500 word blog post to improve its readability. And by the way, the client needs it back in 30 minutes. If you know your grammar you can rewrite sentences so that the subject and predicate are clearly linked, reorder run-on phrases into clear cumulative sentences, eliminate unneeded adjectives, and a host of other solutions. You’ll be enjoying your coffee break while the “instinctual” writer is still struggling their way through the first paragraph.

The simplest and most powerful way to get ahead of the competition as a writer is to build your grammar skills. Train yourself in word selection and sentence structure with resources like Steven Pinker’s A Sense of Style, Building Great Sentences by Brooks Landon, or the most famous short guide to grammar, The Elements of Style.

Logic.

Writing is thinking, and good writing grows from clear thinking. While it’s rarely in the job description, the skill that will keep you most in demand with clients is the clear expression of thoughts, in a logical progression, as words on a page. Because, believe it or not, most people find this extremely difficult.

Writing is thinking, and good writing grows from clear thinking.

A major client in 2014 paid me almost 20% of my income in that year to produce a 3000 word document about their business. The unspoken job was working with the company founder and CEO to clearly define their business vision. I put many hours into logically organising all the concepts being expressed…and less than a day actually writing the finished document.

The simplest way to think about logic is as “information flow”. For a reader to understand any piece of writing, it has to introduce a clear idea, then develop the idea systematically towards a conclusion. If ideas come in an illogical or contradictory order, the reader will quickly become confused, then stop reading.

For instance, if this short essay had begun with a detailed description of logic, but only explained halfway through that logic was a useful skill for writers, this would be a failure of information flow.

Studying logic will allow you to identify and avoid common logical fallacies, produce writing that is consistent IE avoids internal contradictions, and to turn out complete arguments that convince the reader. To see logic used brilliantly, look at the work of science writers like Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene or Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Astrophysics for People in a Hurry.

Rhetoric.

Among my long term clients is a senior executive for a large international corporation. A major part of this client’s work is public speaking, either within the company or at events and conferences.

The client knows what they want to say, but wants to find the best ways to say it. The skills I use to help this client go beyond grammar and logic. As a speechwriter, the main skill I employ is rhetoric.

Put simply, rhetoric is the skill of using words to persuade. Something that humans have been doing for almost as long as we have been speaking.

In the city states of ancient Athens and Rome, over two thousand years ago, giving speeches was an essential part of public life for high born nobles. Speeches were so powerful they could topple kings and even start wars, as Shakespeare well knew:

“Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears;
I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.”

William Shakespeare.

Mark Anthony’s speech at the funeral of Julius Caesar is, as written by Shakespeare, a litany of rhetorical devices. It weaves together ethos, pathos and logos – the three pillars of rhetoric – so adeptly that, while claiming to be against Caesar, Mark Anthony actually incites a riot in his memory. Such is the power of rhetoric!

In the modern era we experience profoundly powerful rhetoric in Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech, and twisted but no less powerful rhetoric in the public pronouncements of Donald Trump. But the uses of rhetoric today go far beyond speech making.

Newspaper articles, television advertisements and viral tweets all employ the same techniques of rhetoric. And the Full Stack writer with a commend of rhetoric can turn their hand to all of these and much more.

The fourth skill the Full Stack writer must master.

Together, grammar, logic and rhetoric formed the “trivium” of the classical liberal arts, as they were taught throughout the Western world for thousands of years.

Name any great writer before the twentieth century – Geoffrey Chaucer, William Shakespeare, Jane Austen – they would certainly have been taught the trivium.

But today these foundational skills are rarely taught, replaced by more “technical” education…which is why so many people struggle to express themselves in writing.

With the skills of grammar, logic and rhetoric at your command, you can complete almost any freelance writing task. Ad copy, blog posts, feature articles, news reporting, brand identities, white papers, landing pages. There is really no end to the number of highly paid writing tasks that mastering the trivium will open up to you. For many writers, this is enough.

In a classical liberal arts education, the trivium were the gateway to even higher level skills – music, arithmetic, and astronomy among them.

Today the trivium unlocks many more advanced skills. Advanced research, technical writing and more all grow from knowing the trivium. And a fourth skill that, in my experience, is the most valuable skill a freelance writer can offer.

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Storytelling.

Grammar can make our meaning clear, logic can make it complete, and rhetoric can make it convincing. Only story can make our meaning real.

When I began to build courses for writers, I made storytelling my first focus. After years of professional writing, and a three year stint as course director in creative writing at the University of Leicester, I knew that story is the most powerful single skillset any writer can develop.

Grammar can make our meaning clear, logic can make it complete, and rhetoric can make it convincing. Only story can make our meaning real.


How many hours a day do you spend reading novels? Watching HBO box sets? Lost in an epic MARVEL superhero movie? How much time do you spend lost in stories?

Story does something quite amazing. For the time we’re immersed in a story, it can seem almost real to us. We are the protagonist of the story, and we experience the events of the story as they unfold. As research into psychology and neuroscience have shown, our brain thinks in stories.

Story isn’t a mystery. Every story that is loved and that has lasted through time relies on 7 basic elements to create its immersive effect. Understanding this “rhetoric of story” can help you tell stories about any subject, at any length, in any medium.

For the Full Stack writer, storytelling is the skill that clients are hungriest for. My most loyal clients come back time and again because I help them tell great stories; about their business, about their products and brands, about their charitable causes, about their own lives.

Storytelling is, in my experience, the most powerful and valuable skillset today’s Full Stack writer can develop.

Subscribe to my YouTube channel for insights into building a professional writing career.

Grow your skills and professional writing practice with my latest course: The Rhetoric of Story — creative writing skills. Code STORYTEN for 90% off.

Talk to me about working together using my Fiverr BYOB account for 20% off.

What they won’t tell you about creativity

“I only write when inspiration strikes. Fortunately it strikes at 9am every morning.”

We live in a time when creativity is sold as a cure-all alongside diverse other forms of self help. There are creativity coaches, handbooks of creative recovery, and creativity retreats. Being creative has superstars.

But there’s something they aren’t telling you.

Think about this from the perspective of the creativity guru.  They have to appeal to a mass market. If they’re going to make superstar status, a million people have to buy their book.

So what they aren’t going to say, won’t ever reveal, and indeed CAN’T come clean about is this.

You don’t know what you’re doing.

The basic reason why 99% of novels never get written, songs don’t get recorded, films are never made and businesses go unfounded, isn’t a mystery.

It’s not a psychological block.

It’s not a childhood trauma.

It’s a plain old lack of knowledge, skills, technique and learning about the activity at hand. The person doing the creating, does not know what they are doing.

This is a problem the creativity guru cannot solve. Because to do so, they would have to, themselves, know what they are doing. And if they knew what they were doing, they wouldn’t be a creativity guru.

The writer for who inspiration strikes at 9am every morning knows what they are doing.  Which is the universal answer to all vague creative problems like writer’s block.

Know what you are doing.

(The opening quote is of contested authorship, which either means it’s untrue, or so true no one author alone could have said it.)

Fear is the flip-side of wonder

Have you ever noticed we use the same words for fear and wonder?

Awe is both awesome and awful.

Terror is both terrible and terrific.

Our ancestors knew something we’ve tried to forget. That the horrors we fear are also the gateways to wonder.

Scared of losing your job? Failing your exams? Ending that relationship?

Flip them over and all these disasters become miracles. A new career, a different life, greater love.

Even death, the ultimate awful, might be followed by the ultimate awesome.

Boredom, anxiety, depression are the symptoms of wonder-starvation, caused by a chronic aversion to fear.

Fear is the flip-side of wonder. You can’t have one without learning to love the other.

The Targaryen queen did NOT go mad

Daenerys did not go mad.

What she did was totally sane and rational.

It’s what America did at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Hence the imagery, which deliberately evoke nuclear destruction.

Demonstrate the capacity for huge violence, to take complete power.

 

Zizek vs Peterson : why didn’t they fight?

It was billed as the “debate of the century”, but on the night Zizek vs Peterson turned into more of a love-in than a street brawl. In this new era of Intellectual MMA, who will be the Ultimate Debating Champion?

Join the Rhetoric of Story with course code STORYTEN : https://goo.gl/YDLxoH

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Mindfulness will fuck you up

Mindfulness is part of a demanding meditative path that suits only a few people. There are better ways to be happier.

I don’t recommend getting an arm cast for a bad tooth, taking ibuprofen for stomach ache, or treating a broken leg with herbal remedies. To each illness, the correct treatment.

In today’s age of the “mindfulness app”, it’s become a common place belief that mindfulness meditation can help with the common problems of stress, anxiety and depression.

While breathing exercises can help us relax, the longterm “positive” benefits of mindfulness are often a form of numbing. The meditation becomes another form of distraction, like drinking a bottle of wine, or watching Netflix. Sooner or later the stress, anxiety and depression creep back in.

But our intuition that these are, at least in part, spiritual maladies, seems right. It’s our spirit, not our body, that seems to be in pain. But there are spiritual paths that are likely to help us much more than the tough practices of mindfulness meditations like Vipassana.

“Our inner landscape is not a placid lake, but a raging hurricane, that mindfulness unleashes.”

The word “yoga” comes from the word “yoke”. The way a yoke joins a cow to a plough is the way a yoga path joins your body and spirit. The are many yogas, many paths, and hardcore meditation may not be the path for you.

Bakthi yoga is a path of loving devotion. Find the people in your life in need of love and give it to them. Devote yourself to a higher cause. Depression doesn’t survive this kind of treatment for long.

Ashtanga yoga is a path of embodiment. Place yourself in a difficult physical pose and watch how your body responds. Stress can’t prosper if you’re rooted in your body, it being a being of the mind.

Tantric yoga is a path of experience. Getting married? Going bankrupt? Making love? Facing hatred? Whatever experience you are in, learn to be in it fully and completely. It’s a tricky practice, but anxiety, just another name for fear, disappears like shadows exposed to the light.

Within yoga practices, what we commonly think of as mindfulness is an aspect of Raja yoga. It’s central to the Buddhist practice of Vipassana or Insight meditation. It’s the path of the Buddha theirself, although many of the meditation practices taught today are much later creations.

Vipassana is a remarkably hard path. It suits people who are highly conceptual, who think in abstractions, and are rooted in their mind. It can, potentially, cut through all the fetters of of material existence. But it will be accompanied with intense mental anguish, as the delusions of life are stripped away. And it can easily become a trap. The meditator becomes so enamoured of the insights they have learned that, like a satellite orbiting a planet but never landing, we miss that the insights we seek  are right there in plain sight.

A partial Vipassana practice, which is what is most often taught as “mindfulness”, can open up sources of stress, anxiety and depression that the new meditator might then struggle to resolve. It can, please pardon the language, fuck us up. Our inner landscape is not a placid lake, but a raging hurricane, that mindfulness unleashes.

I talk in more depth about some of the pitfalls of mindfulness meditation on my YouTube channel. Please subscribe for new talks, and back me on Patreon to help me put more time into writing.

The highest art of story?

Premiere! Read on for details.

After five years teaching creative writing at universities, and a decade leading writing workshops in schools, libraries, prisons, care homes and more, I saw a problem in how we teach writing.

The Rhetoric of Story is my answer to that problem. Across seven lectures I layout my best understanding of how story works. The course took me a year to create, and years to research.

Since I first published Rhetoric of Story I have gathered over 13,000 online writing students across Udemy and Skillshare. It’s a great honour and I’ve been happy to help so many people, in more than 140 countries, develop as writers.

Overwhelmingly, my students agree that the final talk in the Rhetoric of Story is the most powerful. I’ve been gradually making the talks available on my YouTube channel. The final talk, on Emotion: The Highest Art of Storytelling, will “premiere” there on Sunday 3rd March at 14:00 GMT.

The entire course will be free on YouTube for one week after Sunday. Then it will be available at specific dates and for all students enrolled in my RoS seminar groups.

I want to make all my teaching available free on YouTube. You can help me achieve that goal by subscribing to my channel, or becoming a sponsor on Patreon.

Five years. 555 runs. Five Lessons.

From zero experience, to three 10k runs a week, then back down to a regular 5k distance, running has changed my life. And taught me some valuable lessons.

It’s coming up for five years since I left the UK and began “digital nomading”. This time has been occupied with two stories, building my writing practice, and learning more about Buddhism. I write about both of those topics now and again. This is an essay about a third story I don’t mention so often.

In early 2012 I read Haruki Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running (The answer, incidentally, is writing) and was inspired to buy some Nikes and try running. I don’t remember loving it, and those early runs were often only a few hundred metres.

“I don’t know about your mind, but my mind is the biggest barrier between me, and me getting things done.”

Just before I left the UK I bought my first pair of “barefoot” Merrell trail runners. In my first test run (on a treadmill) I was awed by how much more interesting running became when I could feel the ground under my toes. The Merrell’s were also lightweight for the single, carry-on backpack that I am, five years layer, still travelling with. They quickly became a centre-piece of my new minimal existence.

Early in my travels I fell in love with the city of Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand. I stayed there for fifteen months on my first visit, and it was in CM that running really became part of my life. Freelancing full time meant I could set my own schedule, and mid-afternoons, as the Thai heat abated towards sunset, became running time.

Chiang Mai has a leafy, labyrinthine university campus where I love to run. Further out of town is the Huay Kaew reservoir where it’s possible to do a 10km circuit. There’s also the Moat Run, a 6km circuit around the city’s square moat road, negotiating crazy traffic and angry tuk tuk drivers all the way.

I did my first 10km run in Chiang Mai, and was so shocked to complete the distance that I spent the next hour lying in the shade wondering if my legs would ever work again. At one point I was running 5 to 7km daily with one or two 10km every week. It was too much, my weight plummeted so far that my 30″ waist jeans were falling off. I made a conscious decision to gear down the runs and replace them with weights, and at the time of writing have regained the lost muscle mass and added a bit more.

Today I hit my 555th run. An auspicious number in my 5th year of running. These are some lessons I’ve taken from the experience of running. Like Mr Murakami, when I talk about running, I’m also talking about something else. For me, running has been transformative, both body and soul. So these lessons are, in part, my reflections on how transformations happen.

Buy good tools.
I have often carried a poverty mentality through life. Given the option, I’ll tend to go for the budget solution to a problem. I think, with the things in life that matter, this is a mistake. I would never have run 555 runs in my squishy Nike trainers. My Merrel running shoes made all those runs much more enjoyable, and safer, I’ve had one minor injury in five years. Of course, there are all kinds of excessive and unneccesary things sold to runners, but when it comes to essential tools for any activity, I will always buy good ones now.

Quantify progress.
Nike didn’t win me with their trainers, but I have to thank them for the wonderful Nike running app, the reason I can look back and see my progress over five years. Being able to see how far and how fast I’ve run is really integral to my motivation. I like the satisfaction of hitting the 5k mark, and logging my minimum 3 runs a week. Every Sunday I take part in the Nike Global 5k race, with millions of people worldwide. Quality is important for running, as for any experience, you should enjoy the process first. But being able to quantify that process, whether it’s metres run or words written, is also a big help.

Habit is everything.
I wind down my work day about 4pm and usually run at 5. I’m lucky, of course, that I can do this as a freelancer. I’ve always found that time of day difficult, and commonly “slump” into negative thinking in the afternoon. Or did, until running replaced that old bad habit with a new good one. Habit, I believe, is everything when it comes to change. If it’s your habit to write for 3 hours a day, you’ll write great things. Anything you want to achieve, to change, or to stop in life, will be made easier or even possible at all, by thinking through the habits that feed it. It would take a lot, a real lot, to make me let go of my running habit. I’ll be 80 and on sticks, but I’ll still find a way to hobble for some distance.

Where is my mind?
I listen while I run. Music of course, but I also love good audiobooks and podcasts. I’ve learned more about Buddhism from audio recordings of dharma teachings than I have sitting in temples! And I’ve learned more about meditating from running than from sitting on a cushion. I listen because I want to keep my mind from worrying about feeling tired. I don’t know about your mind, but my mind is the biggest barrier between me, and me getting things done. My mind throws tantrums, declares defeat, cries exhaustion at the first drop of sweat. When I’m running I keep part of my mind present in the run, while distracting a different part with interesting stories and ideas. My mind is always happy to have run, so once I was able to train it to get out of the way and let my body take care of the actual running, it became much more positive about the whole endeavour.

Do what you can.
I’m not a fast runner. I average 6:30 per km. My fastest 5km is 24:30 but I’m usually well over minutes. If I held myself to the standards of competition runners I would always be failing. But by the standards needed to improve my own physical and mental health, I win every day. As a professional writer, I hold myself to standards of productivity I that would be completely counterproductive for anybody who didn’t make their living in the field. One of the quickest ways to kill any positive activity is to set lofty goals we will always fail at. I’ve done this so often in life, it feels like an achivement in itself just to value steady progress.

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Thanks for reading!

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The pro-writer’s guide to Upwork and Fiverr

Lots of people dream of building a pro career that also feeds their creativity. Online freelance platforms can be a big part of making that happen, IF you know how to profit from them.

I was surprised and more than a little honored to look at my Fiverr profile last month and discover I was the number 1 rated professional writer in Articles and Blog Posts. Along with the 100% Top Rated status I’ve had on Upwork for the last year and a half, that gives me a pretty good claim to being the number 1 writer on the internet!

Hyperbole aside, I thought it would be helpful for many of the writers I work with to put together a short course on how I use these platforms. I use online freelance platforms as part of my digital nomadic life. But I’m very careful to use them as a tool to feed my larger creative practice, which I think is key to using them successfully.

You can watch the full hour long interview on Udemy, using course code LANCETEN.

Or you can watch it and all my other courses for free on Skillshare with a one month trial.

The key to writing a great short story

All great stories have momentum.

Every line of a great joke is building up to its punchline. Every scene of an action move is screaming towards the final fight. Every beat of a stage tragedy is building tension to the revelation of a flawed character.

The literary short story, made famous by authors from Anton Chekhov to Alice Munro, contains a singular element that powers its momentum.

Epiphany.

 

“Derived from the Greek word epiphaneia, epiphany means appearance, or manifestation. In literary terms, an epiphany is that moment in the story where a character achieves realization, awareness, or a feeling of knowledge, after which events are seen through the prism of this new light in the story.”

LiteraryDevices.net

“It probably has a million definitions. It’s the occurrence when the mind, the body, the heart, and the soul focus together and see an old thing in a new way.”

Maya Angelou.

“The soul of the commonest object … seems to us radiant, and may be manifested through any chance, word, or gesture.”

James Joyce.

Taking a deep dive into the literary technique of epiphany, and laying out what what I learn along the way, has made me realise just how central the idea is to all forms of storytelling.

One of the biggest challenges in storytelling is illustrating the internal transformations of characters. The journeys that human beings take, from innocence to experience, from victim to villain, from outsider to hero, and thousands more, are the stuff of great stories. And epiphany is the key to illustrating those journeys in your stories.

Follow my creative process for writing a short story with epiphany.

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