I’m taking an online class this year, How to Think Sideways: Career Survival School for Writers from Holly Lisle. It’s a six-month class with a lesson each week. Since this is turning out to be a terrific class (like all of Holly’s stuff, really) I’m going to give you a review each month of the material we’ve covered and how it worked for me.
Week 1 – How to Break the Thinking Barriers to Your Success
In this lesson Holly addresses four areas of thinking that will hold you back from achieving the success you want as a writer. We all know that a lot of our success is built on our attitude. If you have a negative attitude and give up easily, you aren’t going to achieve much. Holly zeroes in on four specific thinking problems that writers face – Safe, Perfect, Victim, Feel. Perfect is my barrier. I think I need to make my stories perfect from the beginning. Even though I consciously know that, there is a small, nagging voice in the back of my head that says, “You could do this better. You should do this better. If you aren’t going to make it perfect, why are you writing?” And before you know it, I’ve stopped writing, or never really started on a project, because I’m defeated before I even begin.
Holly gives practical exercises for each of the four barriers to help you break through them. For Perfect, she advises using a ten-minute timer and practicing just writing–no corrections, no rethinking, just keep writing the entire ten minutes. Tell the Editor in your head to shut up and let your fingers fly.
Week 2 – How to Discover Your Writing “Sweet Spot”
I loved this lesson, but it was HARD. The basis for this lesson is on how you define yourself as a writer. If you define yourself as a writer of Westerns, what did you do when the Western genre dried up and rolled away like a tumbleweed? Same thing for the horror genre, unless your name was Stephen King. Holly advises that instead of defining yourself in terms of a specific genre, you uncover your “Sweet Spot” material. This is the material that resonates with you, that is unique to you as a person. It can be objects, themes, sounds, sights, tastes–anything.
Here’s an example. Holly provides six prompts to get you started. One is “I am drawn to”. On my Sweet Spot diagram, I have listed outer space, sparkly things, sad songs, sacrifice, tragedy, rain, and blank journals. If the science fiction genre dried up tomorrow, I could still write stories about outer space by using that element in a different way. Maybe my contemporary romance character is an astronomer, or maybe just a head-in-the-clouds stargazer. The themes or elements of sacrifice and tragedy can be found in any genre.
What Holly is doing here is giving you the key to being able to continue writing material that means something to you, no matter what the publishing world does. This week is priceless, in my opinion.
Week 3 – How to Generate Ideas on a Deadline
For this week, we got to practice listening to our Muse to get ideas. We “seed” our minds with our Sweet Spot material, not picking anything deliberately, but just reading over the diagrams to plant the items in our head. Then she recommends you walk away and do something else. Anything else that is NOT writing. Don’t deliberately try to come up with ideas for a story. Just let your Muse throw up ideas to you as it decides to.
It might seem a little hocus-pocus, new agey, but haven’t we all experienced that moment when you’re busy working on something and out of the blue you get an idea for a story? What Holly is trying to do here is to train your mind to be receptive to those ideas that your mind comes up with, instead of shutting them down immediately with a “That idea’s no good” or “I hate Westerns. Why would I want to write about a cowboy?” Negative thoughts shut down the Muse, so Holly shows you how to work with your Muse to keep the ideas coming.
Week 4 – How to Recognize and Build on Good Ideas
In this lesson we learned about the Sentence. I’m sure you’ve heard other writers talk about how you need to be able to state your story idea or premise in one sentence–the 10-second elevator pitch, if you will. Holly shows you how to construct a sentence first, before you start creating background and doing worldbuilding for your story. If you don’t have the Sentence, all the worldbuilding you do is for nothing. Holly learned this by personal experience with her Korre series (Talyn and Hawkspar).
If you want to be able to “sell” your novel to an agent or an editor, you need to be able to capture the essence of the story in the Sentence, so they “get it”. If you can’t, good luck selling your story, no matter how finely detailed and crafted it might be.
Holly is teaching from the standpoint of starting a brand-new novel, but all of the material is applicable to a current work-in-progress. I find this especially helpful as I’m currently rethinking the science fiction novel I’m working on. I’m a bit lost in a muddle and I think it is because I don’t have the Sentence worked out for it. Give me another month of lessons and I’ll be well on my way.
If you’re interested in signing up for How to Think Sideways, you can check it out here. And check back in a month for the next report on Month 2.