The Importance of Critical Thinking in the Digital Age



The Thinking RobotI’ve been spending some time trying to clean out my digital ‘closet,’ in addition to the real closet.  I’m shocked at how many files I’ve accumulated, and moreover, how many files I downloaded and then never paid attention to again.

It’s all clutter that wears on me, so I’ve been zapping it into the recycle bin as I find it.

But it’s amazing the amount of information that is available to us.  We can go online and look up Eddie Mannix (a fixer for MGM in the 1940s) and even post something that we know for everyone else to read.

Which is also a problem.

There’s so much information available that we have to sharpen our critical thinking skills.  They’re more natural for me as an INTP, where logic is the first place I head, but even it’s hard for me.  It’s easy to get taken in, especially when the other person is saying what we want to hear.

When I was on writing message boards, this type of attitude ran rampant.  People actively said, “I can learn something from other beginners,” and dissed best-selling writers as not knowing what they were doing.

The result is not questioning enough of the right things, which I see everywhere.

 

The messages coming at us are so powerful that people actually question what should be common sense.  

 

It seems worse for writers.  They want validation or to have a best seller so they can quit the day job.

So it’s easy to listen to the emotional messages from people who are good at selling, but not skilled as writers.

Some examples:

Description is boring.  Get rid of it all.  It’s not important.

I’ve hard variations of this one in many places.   Common sense should be to head to a best seller like Michael Connelly and see if he’s left off the description.  BTW, he has wonderful descriptions of Los Angeles, all told from the opinion of Harry Bosch.  Michael Connelly has also got something 20+ books.

What’s bad is that when writers flock to other writers and get critiques, the comments are generally that their description is boring.  It probably is because they just tossed in obligatory description without a thought about what they could do with the characterization.  So everyone says get rid of it, not fix it.

I interact with a traditionally published mid-list writer.  She advises writers to keep the description to a minimum—and no one questions this (except me).  It all fits into the narrative that description is boring, not that it needs to be done well.

And that writer has a series set in a place I went frequently when I was growing up.  You wouldn’t know the place from any other generic place.  No description of it.  Kind of sad.

You must outline.  Pantsing doesn’t work.

Yeah, I had to get this one in here.  It is a hobby horse for me because I ran into so much of it.  The group think veers to outlining and pressures everyone to conform.

What’s bad is no one checks out the source of this particular piece of advice.  It nearly always comes from two sources: Other beginning writers recommending it to each other and developmental editors.

Other beginning writers haven’t worked out their process yet.  And they’re giving advice on how to write a book.  Hmm.

Developmental editors are likely to see only the messed up stories of first time writers who are still learning craft and attribute it incorrectly to not outlining.

Race through the first draft and don’t look back.  You can fix everything on the revision.

Honestly, this one really needs a critical thinking Gibbs head slap.  Think about this:

You write the story and do it stream of consciousness.  Just leave out all the punctuation.

Now you come to the revision and you now have to spend a lot of time fixing that–and chances are it will never be right.

If we don’t have enough time in the first place, why do it in such a way that it takes even more time?

It’s terribly easy to go on auto-pilot, especially with all the digital clutter of the world.  Critical thinking is also a difficult skill to master, not only because it rewires our brain…but because there are so many things that keep challenging it.

Writing with the Spiders


Blond woman holds out spider. Eew!

This week, the weather in Washington DC finally decided it wanted to be spring.  We started out in 60 on Monday, it went to 70 on Tuesday, 80 on Wednesday…and then we’re veering in what might be summer weather with the 90s.

But good for going outside at lunch and doing some writing.  I have a Surface with a keyboard, which is very good for something like this.  There’s a nice picnic table by a pond, so I get the sound of the water and the gorgeous blue sky.

And the spiders.

I think they must come from the trees.  They’re gray and small–smaller than my thumbnail. And they LOVE my Surface.  They’ll be on this otherwise empty picnic table, and the minute I sit down, one of the spiders will want to crawl all over the Surface.  If I see them coming and move, they make a beeline for the Surface.

Spider sabotage!

I started “The May Project,” a mystery on May 1 and have a total of about 3,000 words so far.  I did about 300 and 400 respectively at lunch and the rest in the evening, after work.

I thought I picked a good main character name, but into the first chapter, I was mixing him up with his father’s name.  Oh dear.  The father’s name clearly feels better than the main character’s name.  So I’m still writing with a placeholder name.  Have a last name though…saw it on a real estate sign.  Plucking the names out of empty air.

And there’s the usual chaos and panic of starting a new story.  I know zip when I start, and the idea for this one was: Private Eye> Hollywood > 1940s – Mystery.  New clue what the crime is yet.  No idea how it’s going to end.  No idea what happens next.

Elephant on a tightrope
This is what pantsing is sometimes like.

Sometimes it feels like walking across a tightrope.  It can be really scary.  So I’m trying to ignore the critical side that’s now panicking, going, “Ack!  I don’t know where this going!  How do you expect me to work with it?! Ack!”

Dave Farland had this tip out this week, which kind of spoke to me:

Others . . . well, maybe you just want to work on your writing. But guess what? That comfort zone includes writing. Are you comfortable writing only one kind of story, or writing in one style? The truth is that you’ll be more valuable as a writer if you learn to write in several genres and in various styles.

 I’ve got spiders.  He’s got hermit crabs.

On to lurk with the spiders again today.

The May Project and the Muse is Running in Circles



A man is chased by a giant ape!
Run for it!

I was stumbling around around trying to write a short story and suddenly reminded myself that my goal for 2018 was to do longer fiction.  Short stories don’t sell that well.  Cursed Planet, #3 in the GALCOM Universe series, is in with the copy editor.

I have ideas for at least two more GALCOM books.

And…

I’m thinking maybe I need a bit of genre diversity.

I kept circling back to mystery, because I do like mysteries.  I read Nancy Drew and  Trixie Beldon when I was growing up.  Phyllis A. Whitney was one of my favorite writers then, too.  And I read Michael Connelly, J.K. Rowling, and Lee Child.  In fact, it’s hard to get science fiction or fantasy in Washington, DC.  The library tends to stock more mysteries.

Yet, when I wrote my first novel, it was a fantasy.  My second, third, and forth were science fiction.  I’ve only done two mystery short stories.

Muse is running in circles, a little panicked.  I’m actually not sure why.  It might be that my first novel, the Novel That Must Not Be Named, was a mystery.  I had a terrible time with it.  I hit that 1/3 point, got stuck, figured something was wrong with the beginning, and revised the beginning.  Then I would get stuck at the same point again.  Rinse, repeat.

It went on for years.  Coming up with ideas was hard then.  I didn’t have any other ideas that could be a novel, and besides (I told myself over and over), I already invested so much time in it.  So I wandered between the novel and short stories (see the pattern?  I fell into again. 😦 ).

Then there’s the second issue…

This  book is going to make use of a long neglected research area that I know very well:  Hollywood.

1940s.

This is mainly because the 1940s-1970s in the time that interests me.  Today’s politicking celebrities and gritty productions–Pfff!

But 1940s is historical.

Historical is SCARY!

My association with research for fiction was writers who approached it from a position of fear.  Fear that they were being graded like in college.  Fear that a reader would call them out on an obscure fact.  I remember one writer bragging–actually bragging–that he researched the weather on a specific day 50 years ago.  I’m more of a big picture thinker and though I could never write at that level of detail.  Never mind it made Muse want to hide.  Just not creative friendly.

A workshop on research for fiction writers helped a lot.  Though I need to get my feet wet…actually I need to bellyflop right in.

Then there’s the third issue…

Which is to finish the story in 30 days, starting May 1.

That’s got Muse in a panic, too.  I’ve never actually been able to finish a book in 30 days–and this is finishing with cyclical writing so that once I reach the end, it’s done.  I’ve said before that I would finish the story in 30 days and then I got stuck (that 1/3 point) and it took six months.  I got it down to three months.

So we’ll see what happens with The May Project.

 

 

 

The Pen That Can Write a Mile


Everything in the military is created with careful thought.  My battle dress uniform had buttons on the fly because, in the field, you could sew on a missing button.  If a zipper broke, you’d be in trouble.

And the pants themselves were designed to be turned inside out and worn that way…which I had to do when I was on a painting detail.

Similar careful thought went into the design of the Skillcraft pen which celebrates its 50th anniversary.  Every soldier I knew had a love-hate relationship with it.  If you had one, it was likely someone else would walk off with it.  One of my platoon sergeants reported that he had a class at one of his schools on “The Care and Accountability of the Skillcraft Pen.”

Some features you won’t find with your Bic:

  • Can write in a war zone (natch!)
  • Can write a linear mile before running out of ink.
  • Small enough to fit in a uniform pocket

Check out the history and specs of the Skillcraft pen.

 

Naming Names and Other Muse Misadventures


Computer sticking a tongue out
The muse be misbehaving

I confess.  I hate naming characters.

 

I’ve working on one short story this week (Story #2, about superheroes) and looking at doing two others.  The week started out trying to find names for Short Story #1 (a fantasy story).

The naming process involves looking at the setting and picking the names based on that.  So a secondary world fantasy is going to have names of a certain origin, and a contemporary story will have modern names.

Meaning?  Phht.

The INTP part of me has never understood writers who look for names based on meaning.

The reader me scratches her head.  How would the reader know the importance of it?  It’s not like I would see the name Mary and run to a baby book to look it up to see if I could figure out any hidden meaning that might lurk in the story.

But naming I must do, and even the muse concedes that they have to picked at some point…

Story #1 is a secondary world fantasy (which I optimistically thought I would write first, but muse had other ideas). I used to use a baby name book.  The problem is when people see me reading the book.

“When are you expecting?”

“Is it a boy or a girl?”

Sigh.

My process has always been to scan through the names and write down a handful of that I like until something clicks.

Muse nearly always tries to head for the Ks.  It really likes K names.  So it looks at some of the other names and goes, “I don’t like that name.”

So somehow the result of this is that I start the story without the name.  Muse is like “I don’t care,” so I wind up with XX for the main character–do you know how hard that it is to type?!

It won’t take very long before muse grudgingly realizes the character does need a name.  It does have an effect on how the character develops (the cool, nerdy stuff muse likes).

But muse wants to spend almost no time on it.

We both agree that surfing baby name sites is really annoying.  They usually have this tiny window where you scroll through the name while all these ads for baby products flash at me.  An ad with a cute baby pops up over my name searching, asking me if I want to sign up for a newsletter.

I’ve been known to hop over to the Navy website and grab last names from the admiral’s list.  It includes all the retirees, so it’s quite long and a diverse list.  First name?  If I’m at work and need a name, I open the newspaper and start looking through the writers.  This is hit or miss, given that most of the writers are men, so I’m missing out on half my characters.

So muse pops a placeholder name in the story, intending to change it later.

Sometimes that happens.

Sometimes the doesn’t.

And sometimes the placeholder name annoys muse, so it changes the name to another placeholder.  For the superhero story, I end up starting it in first person so I don’t have to deal with the name.

Except that I do.  The reader me always finds it annoying when a writer does first person and never mentions the character’s name.

Muse sighs and plops a nickname in it.

But that gets all manner of questions, like why the character has it.  And that’s not important to the story.

Muse sighs again and plops another name in.  Adds a last name from the newspaper.

I’ll probably change it again before the end of the story.

Or not.

 

Recalcitrant Muses and Sometimes Writing Misbehaves


Dog standing in front of a fan
I wish it were this warm in DC. We’re still bouncing around in very un-springlike weather.  The cherry blossoms are blooming and it’s 30 degrees in the morning. Yeesh!

This week I finished the redraft of Cursed Planet (previously 49er Planet).  A redraft is pretending like the first version doesn’t exist and starting new…in this case from what I learned in the Novel Structure, Teams in Fiction, and Secondary Plots workshops respectively.

Did I mention after all that learning, I thought my head would explode?

I hit a certain point in the story and my muse declared that it wanted to cycle through the whole book.  For me, cycling is usually going back through a chapter or two and shaking out the wrinkles in the story.  It’s not revision–everything’s done in creation.  I might add more description, take out a stub (an idea that came in that didn’t go anywhere), and continue shaping the story as it evolves.  When I do a full cycle of the entire story, I’m about to finish it.

For this, I also did a reverse outline.  It’s different than a normal outline because it’s done after the scene or most of the story is done.  It also doesn’t focus on plot.  I wanted to do it because I had some gaps and I wasn’t sure where I was going to fill them in.   I also wanted to learn more about my secondary plots, since that was a new thing for me.

Muse jammed on the brakes.  Whoa! Outline!

And it wanted nothing to do with one. You’d think I was taking muse to the vet.   So something that really should have taken me a day or so took over a week.

Worse, I had to change the chapter numbers at least three times.  I started out splitting one in half (one of the gaps), and I’d go through and label the next one as Chapter 12A.  Then once I cycled to that one, it became Chapter 13 and the next one 13A.  Then I found two previously unaccounted for chapters that I somehow managed to skip over in my numbering.

And then there was the chapter would not die.

As I was writing towards the ending, muse put in this chapter.  But I didn’t quite know what to do with it, so I just noted the two character names and went to the next one.  It nagged at me to be finished, and then when I went back to do it, muse was like “What do you want me to do with it?”

So I took it out.

Muse prods me.

Muse whispers:  The chapter needs to be in there.

I put it back in.  Muse looked at me and said, “What do you want me to do with it?”

This time, I thought about it for a while, turning it over and over.  I don’t do the final validation scene until the whole book is pulled together.  This chapter that wouldn’t die was the only thing holding the validation back.  So whack.  I chucked it, renumbered the last few chapters and did the validation.

So far, muse has wandered off to go sniff something else (it’s thinking it would like another workshop), so hopefully that chapter really is dead.

Muses be fickle.

The 1 Missing Tip for Finding Time to Write


Golden retriever and a pile of puppies
Really, do I need any other reason besides puppies?

It’s the eternal question, isn’t it?  Joanna Penn has this topic up on her blog this week.

I’m in the long-tail of the ending of my book Cursed Planet (a redraft of 49er Planet), so it’s very close to be done.  My deadline for it is March 31, so I’m trying to hit that.  Either way, it’ll be a win.  I’m trying to cut my time on books down.

Meanwhile, there are two anthology calls I want to submit to.  All I can do right now is think about what I might write for them, so I can focus on finishing.  I also passed by one that is closing on March 31 because getting Cursed Planet done is the most important thing.

But there’s a skill that everyone misses when they talk about time management, even among the gurus on the topic.

Learning Skill Gaps

I just spent the last few months filling in some long-standing gaps.  Craft books certainly didn’t teach them (if you aren’t aware of it, most craft books exist simply to get a new writer through a first book.  Most classes are the same way).

Skill gaps can hold us back.  I think that sometimes we have to be really ready in our progression to take on a skill gap, as well as ready mentally.

The first was how to get ideas.  That had been a sticking point to even writing a new book.  I took a class on it, and…wow!

Then there was the part of my progression I wasn’t ready for.  I had to be dragged into it kicking and screaming…setting and the five senses.  I knew I needed to do it and it took at lot of learning, and a lot of time.  Three years, actually.  It was also a spaceship sized gap that did need to be fixed before I could progress to what I really needed, because everything connected together.

It was frustrating because the writing took longer than I wanted.  This skill wasn’t as intuitive for me, or rather I had to make sure I would do it because if I didn’t, I would skip over it.   I got to the point where the creative side flags me pretty fast if I forget rather than me blowing through a couple of chapters before I realize I left the setting out.

So it shortened the writing time a little as I filled in the gap.

Over the last few months I took Research for Fiction Writers; Novel Structure; Teams in Fiction; and Secondary Plots.  All of those were a progression of filling in a big skill gap for me: novel structure.

As I hit the end of my story,  I can see how all of this learning has played out.  Sure, I’ve gotten stuck on the story, but it’s not the debilitating one where I have to stop and regroup.  It’s more like a quick stop for a few hours, and then it’s “Ah, so that’s the problem.”  Very different experience.

It’s weird because I’ve read a lot of time management books, and they don’t talk about skill gaps as a time management tool.  Yet, if you have a report you’re building every week in Excel, learning more about Excel will help with ways to shorten the process and manage the time better.

Target a skill gap today and make your creative side happy!

I’m attending the Writing Superstars next February.  If you would like to attend, you can use this code LADAMS.  This is a marketing focused writing seminar with big name writers that you’ve probably read.  By April 30 though–after that, the cost goes up.

 

 

World Building Pantser-Style


Woman with umbrella walking across plaza in the rain
Since we’re getting rainy (and snowy) weather, I thought I’d share that with you with a picture.

A few years ago, I went to a panel on world-building at a con  I was kind of cautious because my experience with any kind of world-building always started with this recommendation:

Buy a 3-right binder and a pack of tabs.  Take this list of questions and answer every single one about your world.  Only then can you write your story.

Pretty much a huge turn off to a pantser like me.  It was one of the reasons I didn’t do speculative fiction for a long time.  By the time I did all that recommended world building, I’d have lost interest not only in the story but even the world.

But this panel did something different, and I was reminded of while I was working on a scene.  They said, first just start writing the story, then world build…because otherwise it’s possible to never get around to writing the story.

They also said to think about why cities or towns were built in a particular location, and this got really interesting because I hadn’t thought of cities like that before.

With a lot of the modern cities, it’s not always that obvious.  If you walked out to Alexandria, VA today and looked around, you would never know that it was site of bustling tobacco trade in the 1700s.   Now pleasure boats are hooked up to the docks and people feed the ducks.

There are also ruins in Egypt for places that no longer exist because the Nile changed course and that part of the world dried up.  Clive Cussler did a novel called Sahara with something similar where there was a river in the 1800s and a Confederate ironclad got into the river.  Shipwreck in the desert!

Still one of my favorite books.  But I digress.

I wandered in this direction today because in my scene I have a town that’s kind of in the middle of nowhere.  And it really is about connecting the dots and making sure all those connections get into the story.  I was surprised at how many pieces were already there…creative brain was just sitting back and laughing at me until I figured it out.

For your reading pleasure, some interesting reading on why cities are built where they are.

 

 

Writing Guides


I thought I would never do any writing guides, because I feel like I still don’t know enough yet to do one. But sometimes there’s so little information on a topic that it calls to a writer, and both of these did that. Links to blurbs are still being updated.

Writer's Guide to Military Culture
This started as a class for Forward Motion.  It was quite challenging…how do you explain the military to people who aren’t in the military?

 

Cover for Pantser's Guide to Writing showing a lightbulb over a book
This grew out of my frustration at how little there is on writing for people who don’t outline.  When I wrote this there were only 2 others on the topic ever published.  Now there are 4.

 

 

Aspiring Upward, not Sideways


The tree is getting ready to bloom

The arrival of spring in Washington, DC is kind of a strange thing.  It’s like it’s pressing up against winter–c’mon, c’mon, c’mon–and then it’ll explode all once.  Almost overnight, we’ll have green and flowers everywhere.  The first step is the cherry blossoms and dogwoods.  Those are already blooming.

 

One of the things that caught me really off guard once I joined writing communities online in the Gold Rush days of the internet is how many writers aspire sideways.

Aspiring sideways is…

…When all the craft advice the writer is getting is from other people at their level.

…When a writer puts down best selling writers as not knowing what they are doing.

…When a writer consciously or unconsciously tells other writers not to try to be better.

That last one seems kind of shocking, considering all the writers who go online and to writing groups and ask for critiques.

Sometimes what we hear is hard to comprehend.  When I went to the first ThrillerFest, I attended a workshop with best-selling writer James Rollins.  He’s a wonderfully funny speaker.  One of the things he said was to “Be specific” in your details.

It sounds easy, and yet, it wasn’t.  At the time, I thought I understood what he was talking about and I didn’t, not at all.  It took me years and years to grasp it, which included at least five workshops that pushed at me to do it more than I was.

He wanted to help, for the people who wanted to listen.

And then there were the others I’ve run across.  Some pass along information they got sideways…another writer telling them to do something or to not do something.

Or a writer being influenced by his own biases and didn’t realize it, like one who didn’t like description.  Therefore all description was bad and should be avoided.  One writer had this top ten list, and almost everything on his do not list was probably keeping him–and others who followed it–from being published.

Then there’s one writer who was  on one of the writing message boards I used to visit.  He’d been rejected a lot and was bitter about it.  So he actively worked at keeping writers from aspiring up.  If they had come on and talked about James Rollins, he would have said, “He’s a big name writer.  He can get away with that.  You can’t, so don’t even bother to try.”

“Successful people do what unsuccessful people are not willing to do. Don’t wish it were easier; wish you were better.”  — Jim Rohn

The dynamic changes drastically when we start looking upwards, at who’s successful and see what they do.  People in business do it all the time, studying a CEO or a manager they think does it right.  This seems elusive for some writers.

But that leap off into the unknown can be terrifying.

Penguins leaping off into the sea

Everyone goes into writing thinking, “My book is going to be a best seller.”

But it’s very hard to attain that kind of goal by veering sideways, instead of looking upwards at the writers who are best sellers.

One of the best things is finding writing advice from a writer that you realize you’ve read and enjoyed.  I recently picked up a copy of David Gerrold’s Worlds of Wonder.  I found it originally at the library and when I read it, I felt like he treated me as if I was an adult.  I didn’t realize it at the time, but he assumed that because readers picked up his book, they aspired higher.

It’s so much being better with the eagles.  Who is a writer you aspire upwards to be like?

American Bald Eagle in flight