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Monday, April 30, 2012

The "Dark Passenger" of Writers

Most of you Dexter fans recognize the reference in the post title, but for those who aren't familiar with the show, I'll fill you in with a few research-supported facts:
  • Writers have a higher mortality rate (Cassandro, 1998; Kaufman, 2003; Kaun, 1991; Ludwig, 1995)
  •  Fiction writers (and poets) have a higher suicidal rate compared to other writers (Preti & Miotto, 1999)
  • Writers have a shorter life span than other occupations (Cassandro, 1998; Kaun, 1991; Ludwig, 1995)
  • Writers have a higher rate of mental illness, with particular tendency toward bipolar and other affective disorders (Andreasen, 1987)
I included references for those who might not believe me be interested in further research. 

These findings beg the question WHY. There are a couple of reasons, but the biggest two are below:

1) Dysphoric Rumination

This is psychologese for thinking depressive thoughts over and over. The thoughts become absorbing, self-perpetuating and definitely tax the creative process. Writers, by virtue of our profession, have to go through the process of revision. If a writer has a tendency to pull from his or her own inner turmoil (and come on, who of us don't do this?) and write about it, then when going through the revision process, we are in essence ruminating on our distress and anguish. Makes sense, doesn't it?

The health benefits of writing (which will be discussed in a later post) are undermined when we creatively write about the troubles of our life. Don't get me wrong, our torment can make for fantastic, interesting stories. But it's no secret that the seminal masterpieces of many authors/poets were their last published work.

2) External Locus of Control

I did a post just a few short weeks ago about locus of control (along with a writer's quiz to determine if you have internal or external locus of control [LOC]). If a person has a high external LOC, they believe that external forces are primarily responsible for the circumstances in their life.

In a very real way, writers who score high with external LOC are like rats in a "Skinner box." They believe they have very little control, have lots of anxiety, not knowing when the use of their services will expire or whether they will receive positive reinforcement like a food pellet (publication, landing an agent, winning a contest) or a negative reinforcement like electric shock (editorial/agent rejection, bad review, no new contract).

Let's Analyze: Do you think these researchers are on to something? Do you feel that authors who draw from their own internal well of pain and suffering are at a disadvantage when it comes to the inevitable revision process? Have you ever thought about it?

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Weekend Funnies: Reverse Psychology

Not what you thought, huh? :)

Friday, April 27, 2012

Friday Free Association Chain

The word is........


First commenter free associates with the above word. Second commenter takes the first commenter's word and free associates, and so on. Remember -- FIRST thing that comes to mind. GO!!

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Reviewing Your Reviews: How to Absorb Feedback from Writing Contests

Judging contests isn't easy. This year, I judged the Genesis for the first time. I was impressed with how the contest administration tried to even the judging field by sending out a lot of information ahead of time about what was expected of us. (The document was 12 pages long, people.)

If you read my post on Monday, then you might have more of an idea of how I tried to judge. I hoped entrants participated to learn and grow as a writer, so I wrote a lot of comments throughout each of the 7 entries I judged. I feel if a writer is going to put their stuff out there to be judged, then they need to get the biggest bang for their diminished-creativity buck.  In contrast, I know of writers who received no comments in the body of their submission and only general impressions. The learning is greatly diminished when this happens, and that's the real focus of a contest in my book.

But no matter what kind of feedback you received, you can review what was said through a lens that will do you the most benefit.

In theory, anyone judging a contest should be further along in the writing journey in general than those entering contests. When a person with greater authority or knowledge tells a novice what they should do, the feedback is more than likely evaluation, which tends to be viewed as controlling. which reduces creativity and writing for the joy of it.

If the feedback is presented in such a way, though, that it's more informative, trying to help the novice achieve their goals, then it's viewed as empowering rather than controlling. Research done on empowering feedback indicates very little, if any, impact on creativity.

Also, feedback that focuses on the work itself rather than the writer is going to cause less harm in the long run. For example, a judge who wrote, "The way that the spiritual element is manipulated in this story keeps the readers engaged" is praising the work. A judge who writes, "The way you subtly use the spiritual element to keep the reader engaged shows your talent as a writer" is praising the writer. Research shows that the first will be received better and will have less of an effect on future creativity, even though both comments were positive.

Feedback that is more specific is better to help the entrant develop skills than more general observations. Focused comments are usually interpreted as more informative rather than evaluative, and thus more likely to be seen as empowering than controlling.

So go through your comments. Did your judge come off as a know-it-all? Were your talents as a writer in question or was it just your work being judged? Were comments more specific or general?
Depending upon the answer to these questions, you should be able to determine which comments were meant to control and which were meant to empower, and what you should do with both.

Let's Analyze: Who else thinks I need to to do a preparatory class for contest judges? :)

Monday, April 23, 2012

Do Writing Contests Help or Hurt Creativity?

In the aftermath of the Genesis Contest results (contest for unpubbed writers sponsored by the American Christian Fiction Writers), I feel that it would be helpful for writers to talk about the creative writing process in general, and how a person's expectations upon entering any kind of writing contest can definitely effect their creativity afterward.

First, a few questions to keep you reading:

  1. Have you ever taken a writing course in high school or college and had a far more difficult time completing assignments than you had hacking away at your work-in-progress on the side?
  2. Have you ever signed up for NaNoWriMo to complete a novel in 30 days and had serious writer's block, but were able to knock a story out in under 30 days when not on a deadline?
  3. Have you ever entered a writer's contest, received feedback, and never wanted to pick up that story again--or even write anything, for that matter?

These are classic examples of how sometimes our inner creativity can be stifled by things like contests. Rewards and evaluations are extrinsic motivations that can actually drive out our desire to write simply because we love it, which is called intrinsic motivation. (This is the intrinsic motivation theory of creativity in a nutshell, as published by Amabile in 1983.)

Unfortunately, the same things that tend to diminish creativity are the very things that increase competence and learning. Entering contests and receiving feedback and evaluation of our work will definitely help us in the future to do something in a more creative way--and certainly a more competent way--than is possible for us currently. So it's a catch 22.

Why should you concern yourself with this? Because you can't have both enhancing creativity and acquiring skills and knowledge, at least not at the same time. 

It boils down to your goals and expectations upon entering a contest as to what you will get out of it. If your goal is to develop better writing skills and knowledge of the craft, then entering a contest is perfect for you. You'll receive feedback, both positive and negative, and you will ultimately grow as a writer. Yes, your creativity could be stifled somewhat, but contests are for those writers who are in the industry for the long haul. A little speed bump won't amount to dropping out of the race.

If your goal is to increase creativity, then contests are not for you. Perhaps not even NaNoWriMo, which has the extrinsic motivation of receiving the coveted, cool "winner" button to put on your blog. Research has shown that anticipating evaluation, even positive ones (because you think your story is so fantastic that it will win), has a negative effect on creative performance.

Let's Analyze: Anyone want to comment on the three questions I asked earlier? Help me put some actual faces and names to the research.

Be sure to join me Wednesday as I discuss how the way that writers perceive evaluation actually determines its effect. You'll be able to look at your Genesis comments in a whole new light.

And HUGE CONGRATS to the semi-finalists!

Friday, April 20, 2012

Friday Free Association Chain

The word is........


First commenter free associates with the above word. Second commenter takes the first commenter's word and free associates, and so on. Remember -- FIRST thing that comes to mind. GO!!

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Character Clinic: Italo Benetura and Anti-Heroism

Joyce's character is on the couch this week. He's a 32-year-old pirate who's got a fairly disturbed 34-year-old brother (Iachimo) who has been cutting himself for 10 years. Their father died in a raid 10 years prior, and his mother died one year later. Italo promised his father that he would take care of Iachimo and make sure his brother didn't successfully kill himself. His brother is also macabre, torturing and executing prisoners and getting perverse pleasure from it. Italo continues to work with him, though, as co-captains of their father's fleet. Italo believes that Iachimo might be anointing himself with his own blood like warrior-monks did during an initiation ceremony for worshipers of the war god Kirro. Why? Because Iachimo's fair blond hair is not red, and Italo thinks it's been dyed with blood.

Joyce wants to know: How realistic is Italo's reaction to Iachimo's clear mental problem? Am I missing something? Are there possibilities for Italo that I haven't explored? I do wish to keep him the "sane" one of the two, whatever that may be. These brothers originally started out as antagonists. Do you have any suggestions on how to keep Italo a "villain" and not have him become a redeemed bad guy by the end?

Family members of people who have a severe mental disorder are often put in this exact same position. Italo isn't doing anything out of the ordinary trying to protect his brother or keep him alive, especially given the request of his father. It's not even unusual that Italo is the younger brother, performing the "duties" of the older brother, such as protection and care taking.

It would be very realistic to have a few scenes with Italo seesawing back and forth about the decision to leave Iachimo and take half the fleet and crew with him when he does. I wouldn't say that Italo is enabling the cutting behavior....that's something that Iachimo is doing all his own. However, he is definitely enabling his brother's torturing and executing. At the very least he's condoning it by lack of action.

Since you're not wanting Italo to be redeemed by the end of the book, I'd at least consider having him work through this issue with Iachimo. Italo standing by and letting his co-captain do these things does reflect badly upon him and Iachimo, perhaps even more so, since Italo doesn't have the mental problems Iachimo does.

To keep him a villain...I've got a great scenario in my head. Let's say his brother's sadistic tendencies get worse, self-destructive to the nth degree. If Italo believed that it would be (or even not be) in Iachimo's best interests to go ahead and give up his life (either because Iachimo is so miserable or he's making Italo's life miserable), then if Italo were to sacrifice Iachimo for the greater good (or Italo's own greater good), this would be a bittersweet, anti-heroic measure.

Wow. That was a convoluted sentence. I just reread it, but it says exactly what was in my mind. I hope it translates!

Hope that this helps out. I welcome any further questions below.

Let's Analyze: What examples from fiction (movies or books) can you think of where a villain turns on someone close to him--maybe even someone he protected--to further his own agenda or to put the other person out of their misery?

Monday, April 16, 2012

Author Success: From the Inside or Outside?

I've been doing some research lately into what people in my field call "locus of control." Locus is just psychologese for location. (Go figure...why can't we just say location?) What this refers to is where people place responsibility for what happens to them.

When people interpret that what happens to them is controlled by luck, fate, or powerful others (note, very importantly, not belief in a powerful God), this indicates a belief in an external locus of control. On the other hand, if a person interprets their own behavior and personality characteristics as responsible for what happens to them, then this is an internal locus of control. In other words, they believe they can control their own destiny.

There are tons of people going through life trying to be writers, and some make it, some don't. I've read countless posts on blogs about how the timing was wrong or right for getting an agent, contract, or winning a contest. Or how one writer knew that the agents she targeted were way too busy to get back with her or the story she wrote wasn't the kind being sold right now, which was why it hadn't been snatched up.

Wondering which side of the fence you fall on? Don't worry...there's a writer's quiz for you below! For each question, select A or B, then see scoring instructions below.

Rotter's Locus of Control Scale (1966)

1. a. Children get into trouble because their parents punish them too much.
1. b. The trouble with most children nowadays is that their parents are too easy with them.

2. a. Many of the unhappy things in people's lives are partly due to bad luck.
2. b. People's misfortunes result from the mistakes they make.

3. a. One of the major reasons why we have wars is because people don't take enough interest in politics.
3. b. There will always be wars, no matter how hard people try to prevent them.

4. a. In the long run people get the respect they deserve in this world.
4. b. Unfortunately, an individual's worth often passes unrecognized no matter how hard he tries.

5. a. The idea that teachers are unfair to students is nonsense.
5. b. Most students don't realize the extent to which their grades are influenced by accidental happenings.

6. a. Without the right breaks, one cannot be an effective leader.
6. b. Capable people who fail to become leaders have not taken advantage of their opportunities.

7. a. No matter how hard you try, some people just don't like you.
7. b. People who can't get others to like them don't understand how to get along with others.

8. a. Heredity plays the major role in determining one's personality.
8. b. It is one's experiences in life which determine what they're like.

9. a. I have often found that what is going to happen will happen.
9. b. Trusting fate has never turned out as well for me as making a decision to take a definite course of action.

10. a. In the case of the well prepared student there is rarely, if ever, such a thing as an unfair test.
10. b. Many times, exam questions tend to be so unrelated to course work that studying in really useless.

11. a. Becoming a success is a matter of hard work, luck has little or nothing to do with it.
11. b. Getting a good job depends mainly on being in the right place at the right time.

12. a. The average citizen can have an influence in government decisions.
12. b. This world is run by the few people in power, and there is not much the little guy can do about it.

13. a. When I make plans, I am almost certain that I can make them work.
13. b. It is not always wise to plan too far ahead because many things turn out to be a matter of good or bad fortune anyhow.

14. a. There are certain people who are just no good.
14. b. There is some good in everybody.

15. a. In my case getting what I want has little or nothing to do with luck.
15. b. Many times we might just as well decide what to do by flipping a coin.

16. a. Who gets to be the boss often depends on who was lucky enough to be in the right place first. 16. b. Getting people to do the right thing depends upon ability - luck has little or nothing to do with it.

17. a. As far as world affairs are concerned, most of us are the victims of forces we can neither understand, nor control.
17. b. By taking an active part in political and social affairs the people can control world events.

18. a. Most people don't realize the extent to which their lives are controlled by accidental happenings.
18. b. There really is no such thing as "luck."

19. a. One should always be willing to admit mistakes.
19. b. It is usually best to cover up one's mistakes.

20. a. It is hard to know whether or not a person really likes you.
20. b. How many friends you have depends upon how nice a person you are.

21. a. In the long run the bad things that happen to us are balanced by the good ones.
21. b. Most misfortunes are the result of lack of ability, ignorance, laziness, or all three.

22. a. With enough effort we can wipe out political corruption.
22. b. It is difficult for people to have much control over the things politicians do in office.

23. a. Sometimes I can't understand how teachers arrive at the grades they give.
23. b. There is a direct connection between how hard I study and the grades I get.

24. a. A good leader expects people to decide for themselves what they should do.
24. b. A good leader makes it clear to everybody what their jobs are.

25. a. Many times I feel that I have little influence over the things that happen to me.
25. b. It is impossible for me to believe that chance or luck plays an important role in my life.

26. a. People are lonely because they don't try to be friendly.
26. b. There's not much use in trying too hard to please people, if they like you, they like you.

27. a. There is too much emphasis on athletics in high school.
27. b. Team sports are an excellent way to build character.

28. a. What happens to me is my own doing.
28. b. Sometimes I feel that I don't have enough control over the direction my life is taking.

29. a. Most of the time I can't understand why politicians behave the way they do.
29. b. In the long run the people are responsible for bad government on a national as well as on a local level.

Scoring: Give yourself one point for each of the following (some questions were "filler" so they aren't included below):

2. a          12. b        23. a
3. b          13. b        25. a
4. b          15. b        26. b
5. b          16. a        28. b
6. a          17. a        29. a
7. a          18. a
9. a          20. a
10. b        21. a
11. b        22. b

Why should this matter? Because writers with an internal locus of control are more likely take the initiative to change and improve their condition in life and place greater value on inner skill and achievement of goals. External locus of control is linked with more self-pity and depression, as well as anger and loneliness.

Let's Analyze: Besides from having faith in a powerful God, do you think that your life is ordered by chance or fate or other people/things outside your control? Or are you--and your own know-how and skill--the master of your fate?

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Weekend Funnies

This therapist funny comes courtesy of Chad Isely and Kit Lowrance. Ah, fun! And bonus for me is that the therapist looks exactly like my former supervisor. Gotta love that.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Friday Free Association Chain

The words are........

First commenter free associates with the above word. Second commenter takes the first commenter's word and free associates, and so on. Remember -- FIRST thing that comes to mind. GO!!

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Character Clinic: Saoirse Doyle and Revenge 101

Jill's character is on the couch today from her urban fantasy. Saoirse is 24. Her mother died when she was 16 and her brother was murdered when she was around 18. Her father is in prison and she's engaged to Ioan, with whom she's had a shaky past because he cheated on her early in their relationship. Saoirse lives in post-war world and harbors a great revenge toward a race of people from which her brother's killer descended. This revenge consumes her, even to the point of sabotaging her relationship with Ioan, who has mixed blood.

Jill wants to know: Is there any generic thing that needs to happen in order for Saoirse to actually overcome her need for revenge? For example an apparition of her dead brother? Although that would be hard to work in. But something of the sort? I'm running in circles trying to have Saoirse let go of her revenge, but nothing seems to be working.  

I don't know about "generic," because that wouldn't make for a very interesting read. You've got a very real problem for your heroine, and it's a problem many readers can identify with. Her brother was killed, and she's reeling from the aftereffects of that, chief of which are the emotions of grief and anger.

She's indignant, of course, and this indignation is like a fuel she's running on. It makes her feel solid and powerful, rather than frail or weak. When she has what therapist call "revenge fantasies" about hurting people from the race who killed her brother, she's reinforcing herself to have these fantasies because staying strong and powerful prevents her from being overwhelmed by what underlies her fantasies, which is the sadness, helplessness, and even hopelessness. There is a great journal article on more of this here. (Warning: it's full of psychologese, but if you can wade through it, it's really good.)

Thinking outside the therapeutic box for a second (b/c make no mistake, your girl would benefit from some intense 1:1 time!), perhaps if you have her as the target of someone else's misguided revenge, that might make a dent for her. If you had a parallel story line running alongside might do the trick. Or if her revenge puts Ioan in danger, that might also be a reality check.

Here are two quotes I like about revenge:
  • “Resentment is like taking poison and hoping the other person dies.” ~ St. Augustine
  • “There is no revenge so complete as forgiveness.” ~ Josh Billings (1818 - 1885)
In order for Saoirse ro arrive in a healthier place, she's going to either have to forgive or let go. Forgiveness would be the complete circle for her character arc, but walking away would also work for the reader to have satisfaction. She would run the risk of being an anti-heroine, though, if she can't let go of the revenge and ends up losing all the good things she's got going for her (Ioan). It would make for a tension-filled book if the reader was guessing which way she'd go up until the very end. Very dramatic.

Anyway, best of luck with this book!

Let's Analyze: Have you ever been eaten away with resentment? Can you relate with Augustine's quote about taking poison and hoping the other person dies? How did you overcome it?

Monday, April 9, 2012

When is Teen Angst Really Depression?

Teens sometimes get a bad wrap due to the hormonal surges that bring emotional ups and downs. The truth is that most teens navigate the duress and stress of being a teen fairly well with the help of supportive parents and a good peer support network.

But sometimes, more serious emotional problems will persist. Depression is treatable, but experts say only 1 in 5 depressed teens actually receive professional help. As parents--AND WRITERS--it’s good to know some of the warning signs of depression so that you can best direct and guide your child to get help.

Click here to read the rest of my April article for Choose Now Ministries.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

What Easter is All About

Hallelujah! Praise the Lord! Happy Easter everyone! Enjoy the candy and the bunny visits and egg hunts, but don't forget what Easter is all about.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Weekend Funnies: Easter Bunny's Genogram

This absolutely made me laugh out loud. I guess even the Easter Bunny isn't immune to stereotypes.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Friday Free Association Chain

The word is........

First commenter free associates with the above word. Second commenter takes the first commenter's word and free associates, and so on. Remember -- FIRST thing that comes to mind. GO!!

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Character Clinic: Jane Johnson

I've got JM's character Jane on the couch today. Jane is a fiery-tempered 23-year-old pirate in a historical action-adventure. She was found when she was 3 years old in the ruins of her hometown. Her father, a ship's captain, took her in and raised her as his own. He was often distant with her, with occasional bouts of indulgent moments. The first mate of the ship, Katherine, took Jane's maidenhead when she was 14, and Jane considers herself a ladies' girl. When she was 12, a shipmate cornered her in the hold and his intent was to rape her. Jane and her best friend end up murdering him and throwing him overboard.

JM wants to know: Would a youngster who's received a little pull but a lot of push from a parent still be so eager for that parent's attention? Could her temper and lack of patience be a symptom of that? Is her violent reaction to male attention consistent with her age 12 experience?

In all my work with foster children, one thing I've discovered truly baffles me. How can a child still cling to the hope and ideal that they will return to their biological parent(s) who beat them, didn't feed them, didn't clean them, didn't talk to them, and abandoned them?

To that end, all I can say is that this desire to receive attention is inbred in all of us. If we can't receive positive attention (in the form of hugs, verbal affirmation, etc), then we try to receive negative attention (which would be where her lack of patience and temper comes in to play). If she's doing these impulsive things, including sleeping with Katherine when she knows her dad doesn't want her to, then no doubt she receives negative attention when she does.

The adage in my field is "Negative attention is better than no attention at all." So to answer your first question, a resounding YES. And you can see where your second question might come in to play.

Your last question, about her violent reaction to male attention, is a bit more complicated. It's feasible for her to respond to all men in the same fashion. I'd consider it a form of PTSD, as she would be transported back to that helpless feeling she had moments before thinking she was going to be raped whenever a guy might touch her in that manner or toward that end. But to think she might respond that way to all men who ever touch her might be pushing it a bit. Plus, there is the consideration of her violent reaction of slitting his throat afterward...which not only shows mastery over him but also shows a ruthlessness and courage that I'd think she'd be able to draw upon if needed in the future.

So yes, it's realistic, but could do with some tweaking to make it less stereotypical, I think.

Hope this helps, and thanks for writing in!

Let's Analyze:  Have any personal reflections about negative attention being better than no attention at all?

Monday, April 2, 2012

Character Quiz: Snapshot of Life

While browsing the internet in my office (purely research-related, of course), I stumbled upon this simple little quiz from 1991 to assess a person's current thoughts about their life. It's a nice little snapshot of how a person might feel about themselves in a variety of areas, which I'll go into after I post the quiz.

I thought it might be nice for writers to get a quick sense of where their character is at the beginning of a book as opposed to where they end up at the end.

Current Thoughts Scale (Heatherton & Polivy, 1991)

This is a questionnaire designed to measure what you are thinking at this moment. There is, of course, no right answer for any statement. The best answer is what you feel is true of yourself at this moment. Be sure to answer all of the items, even if you are not certain of the best answer. Again, answer these questions as they are true for you RIGHT NOW.

Using the following scale, place a number in the box to the right of the statement that indicates what is true for you at this moment:

1 = not at all     2 = a little bit     3 = somewhat     4 = very much     5 = extremely

1.    I feel confident about my abilities.                                                      P
2.*  I am worried about whether I am regarded as a success or failure.    S
3.    I feel satisfied with the way my body looks right now.                   ☐ A
4.*  I feel frustrated or rattled about my performance.                         ☐ P
5.*  I feel that I am having trouble understanding things that I read.        ☐ P
6.    I feel that others respect and admire me.                                    ☐ A
7.*  I am dissatisfied with my weight.                                                        A
8.*  I feel self-conscious.                                                                            S
9.    I feel as smart as others.                                                                      P
10.*  I feel displeased with myself.                                                            S
11.    I feel good about myself.                                                                   A
12.    I am pleased with my appearance right now.                                    ☐  A
13.*  I am worried about what other people think of me.                          ☐  S
14.    I feel confident that I understand things.                                           P
15.*  I feel inferior to others at this moment.                                             S
16.*  I feel unattractive.                                                                             A
17.*  I feel concerned about the impression I am making.                        S
18.*  I feel that I have less scholastic ability right now than others.         P
19.*  I feel like I’m not doing well.                                                           P
20.*  I am worried about looking foolish.                                                 S

Note: The statements with an asterisk are reversed-scored items, so if your character (or you) scored a 5 on #19, then you would score it as a 1, a 4 would be a 2, and 3 stays the same.

The letter beside the box indicates the three factors that are actually being measured, which will give you some insight into your character's performance self esteem (P), social self-esteem (S) and appearance self-esteem (A).

To score, add up all the answers for each subgroup of P, S, and A. This will give you 3 scores, and the higher they are, the better your character's current thoughts are in that category.

Let's Analyze: This quiz analyzes a person's performance, social, and appearance self-esteem. These are pretty big ticket items when it comes to internal knots for our characters. What other "biggies" might you want me to unearth a quiz for?

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Weekend Funnies: How to Cure Arachnophobia

This is actually a good depiction of this therapeutic method (systematic desensitization). Love Doug Savage's chicken cartoons!

Happy Weekend!