On all kinds of muscles.

Published October 31, 2019 by mandileighbean

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“i keep fixing every habit//that i break.”

I made a promise to myself at the start of the summer of 2019 to stay physically and mentally fit. I developed schedules and regiments to read more and eat better and move more and write better. As I update this blog, I unfortunately have to admit that most of those plans fell through or were modified to basically continue my current, unhealthy lifestyle. I lack willpower; that’s obvious. I give up too easily. It was gross and misty this morning, so I didn’t go for my morning walk. I rolled over and went back to sleep, defeated. I gorged myself on pasta at dinner, making a million and one rationalizations for such piggish behavior. I’m tired and I’m always battling my depression and it’s rainy and work was hard: all those complaints become justifications for my bad behaviors, but I don’t want to live like that anymore. I have the desire, but sadly, that’s not enough. I
N E E D willpower.

What is willpower? The American Psychology Association defines willpower as: “…the ability to resist short-term temptations in order to meet long-term goals.” That is precisely what I struggle with, so I did some more internet research and luckily, I stumbled upon an awesome article titled “The Science of Willpower: How to Train Your Productivity Muscle” by Oksana Tunikova. In that, she writes, “Simply put, willpower is our ability to delay gratification. It is our self-control that helps us resist distracting impulses and persevere.”

Without getting too science-y, I wanted to understand how scientists know what they know about willpower. The concept has been studied numerous times, but those in the know seem to agree that there are three key studies that tell us everything we should know when it comes to willpower:

  1. Stanford Marshmallow Test by Walter Mischel: “Children were asked to choose between getting a sweet reward right away or having a double-portion after waiting for around 15 minutes. Kids who managed to delay gratification were believed to have stronger willpower (an obvious conclusion). The study, however, did not stop there. The young participants of the Marshmallow Test were actually subject to long-term evaluation. Over the course of years, it turned out that those who were able to delay gratification as kids had better life outcomes as adults. Life success was measured in terms of education, performance at work, health, and other metrics” (source).
    But what does this mean? To put the findings of the study in practical terms, to apply them to my own life, I realize that willpower is essential in meeting absolutely all of the goals I’ve set out for myself. If I’m able to make a schedule and stick with it, then I will be able to do anything technically.
  2. “Roy Baumeister is another important figure on the willpower-science scene. In collaboration with other scientists, Dr. Baumeister discovered that our will, just like a muscle, can be fatigued if we spend too much time on activities that require self-control. According to Baumeister, the strength of our willpower depends on the level of energy available in our brain at a given moment. To support his point of view, Baumeister ran an experiment that involved hard-to-resist foods. Participants had to withstand the temptation of eating chocolate and complete a series of mental tasks afterward. Those who managed to resist food temptation appeared to be more fatigued and performed worse in mental tasks” (source).
    But what does this mean? This helps me relax about relaxing. I really have to accept the fact that “all or nothing at all” is not a concept that can apply to my life. When I fall, or when I fail, it cannot be enough to defeat me. I have to remember that it is natural and normal to fall short and in bouncing back is how I will strengthen my own willpower. It seems contradictory, and maybe even ironic, but still, it makes sense because we cannot know darkness without light and we cannot know success without failure. So instead of rolling over and being defeated, I need to begin again.
  3. “Back in 2010, a study conducted by Stanford University researcher Veronika Job and her colleagues suggested that our own beliefs about willpower might play a key role. A series of experiments proved that when we believe that our willpower is limited, it becomes limited. Meanwhile, those who believe that willpower is not fixed and cannot be depleted, demonstrate greater self-control and are not likely to lose will under depleted circumstances” (source).
    But what does this mean? When I was going to therapy regularly, my therapist stressed the importance of loving myself (and so did my priest). I’m beginning to understand that loving myself includes believing in myself. I need to be nice to myself and tell myself that I am lovely, that I am strong, that I am capable of great things, that I will be published again, that I will lose the weight, and that I will be loved,.

So throughout my research, it became obvious to me that willpower is important, if not crucial, in determining success in any endeavor. Based on the three studies discussed above, it is apparent to me that willpower is as important as I believe it to be, and that it can be developed. To develop willpower, it is best to think of it as a muscle. “To strengthen a muscle, you have to exercise” and “When you overwork, muscles get tired and will need time to recover” (source). So, again, having one cheat meal a week is okay, but it is key to not let that cheat meal turn into a cheat day, which turns into a cheat week because I am not disciplined enough. But when I feel tired, I can rest, because indulging in being lazy twice a month is actually an effective way to give my willpower and self-control time to recover and “…restore its energy levels” (source).

But what does this look like in practice, in real life?

  • Exercise daily. “The trick, however, is to start small and build up” (source). Walking every day is fine to start with and I plan on continuing to do so even while I’m on vacation next week in Florida. But I’ve been walking for two months and my weight loss has slowed and while I fear it might be mostly because I’ve been slacking in counting calories, I might also need a physical boost. I remember reading somewhere that a person should change up her exercise routine after a few weeks. Upon returning from Florida, I am going to start running but I’ll walk if I need to.
  • Feed your brain the right food. “Willpower and decision-making are closely related. .. Studies suggest that poor diet makes you inclined to make more emotional choices than if you were well fed. To this end, the same advice to start small goes a long way” (source). This was another validation for me; I’ve been investigating The Mediterranean Diet for some time now and it’s time I got started. I have an entire cookbook and even more recipes printed from the internet. I could just start with breakfast, or a dinner once a week, because the article advises to “Keep changes small so that your brain doesn’t realize a change has been made. In no time, you can build up your willpower skills” (source).
  • Develop your own reward system. “If you break your big goal into a few smaller goals and assign a valuable reward for each small goal achieved, your willpower will be activated” (source). My original weight loss plan did have goals for incremental weight loss. For example, if I lost five pounds, I would treat myself to a movie. And if I lost twenty pounds, I’d get a hair cut. It’s time to find my original list and hang it up on my fridge so losing all the weight I’ve gained will seem more possible and I’ll have something to look forward to along the way.
  • Train your willpower, but don’t overdo it. Hence why cheat meals and lazy days are so important, and that helps me breath easier.
  • Work on your stress levels. “According to studies on the connection between stress and willpower, goal-oriented behavior suffers when our fight-or-flight signaling is on” (source). My stress has always been difficult for me to manage. Before I developed better coping skills and healthier habits, I used to suffer from severe, complex migraines. They seemed like small strokes; I wouldn’t be able to talk or remember things, and one side of my body would be numb. The vision in my right eye would resemble a television screen with static. There’d also be blinding, horrible pain. Exercising helped, but I want to implement a yoga regiment and spend much more time reading and writing. I also need to continue turning my home into a cozy sanctuary, even if it is little by little due to financial constraints. I should put fresh flowers in different rooms. I also need to start seriously planning my garden.
  • Set realistic goals. “Set goals that are big enough to be motivating but still doable. Alternatively, break your goals down into sub-tasks and work on one smaller goal at a time” (source).

When I get down on myself, I need to remind myself of the following things:

  • Willpower gets stronger with regular use. You can train your willpower with small things like making your bed every morning or choosing a fruit over a cookie at least twice a week. Start small and scale it up as your self-control skills grow.
  • Willpower is a muscle you can train. “Hear this: You are not forever bound to your bad habits. Of course, some poor habits might be hard to break, but as long as you keep your goal in mind and work on strengthening your willpower, nothing is impossible. You can become a better version of yourself; the power to make this happen is always within you” (source). I WILL READ THIS EVERY SINGLE DAY.

It is also helpful to remember that: “21 days is the minimum time needed to build a new habit” (source). That’s three weeks; that’s not so bad! I will give myself time. I will love myself. I will be patient with myself.

Next week, I’ll share my three-week plan for kick starting my plan to become a strong, more motivated woman. Will you join me? Do you want to become more motivated? Have you ever thought about how to be the best version of yourself?thesecrettostayingmotivated

On music, the muse.

Published October 24, 2019 by mandileighbean

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Welcome to another edition of “Typist Thursday”! I need a better title, I know, but for some reason, I’m having a hell of a time updating on Wednesdays. To be honest, I’m having a hell of a time staying on schedule for nearly everything in my life, whether it be working, writing, reading, or exercising. I’m not sure if it’s a bout of depression I have to work through, just being tired, or something else. Maybe it’s just this time of the year? Whatever the reason, one surefire method to help me out of any funk is listening to music.

I listen to music when I do anything and everything: drive, cook, sleep, exercise, and even read. I N E E D music – it is my outlet, my muse, my salvation. I only wish I were musically inclined. I can’t sing a note, I can’t play a note, and I have no real ear for it. But oh, how I love it. I know I’m not the only one who loves music, and I know I’m not the only one who uses it for inspiration.

I H A V E T O listen to music when I write. I just have to. When I was writing Her Beautiful Monster, my first novel, I used specific song lyrics for inspiration which were then featured at the start of every chapter (that list is featured below). And as I move onto other projects, I keep the same system – certain lyrics really inspire a scene or a character or even a type of mood. Here’s what I’m currently listening to as I work on a new manuscript:

  • “Iceman” by Bruce Springsteen

    “my baby was a lover and the world just blew her away//once they tried to steal my heart, beat it right outta my head//but baby they didn’t know that i was born dead.”

    The new manuscript I’m working on (or at least one of them) is greatly inspired by my love for the one, the only, the true hero of the great Garden State, Bruce Springsteen. I’ve been listening to The Boss for almost as long as I’ve been writing, and his voice has been irrevocably and inextricably linked with my own. To pay him homage, I’ve made my protagonist an aging rockstar endeavoring to return his career to its former glory by embarking on a tour comprised of intimate shows in small venues of the beaten path, a sort of grass roots movement to reconnect with his people.

  • “Get Hurt” by Gaslight Anthem

    “and I came to get hurt//might as well do your worst to me, hey hey//have you come here to get hurt?//have you come to take away from me, from me, from me?//might as well do your worst to me.”

    While trying to reconnect with his fans, he gets more than he bargained for when he meets a starry-eyed young woman who asks for his autograph. She’s the only one to do so at the venue, so they talk more than they should about more than they should. And that gets the protagonist into some trouble as he’s married and significantly older.

  • “High Dive” by Andrew McMahon In The Wilderness

    “you dance with your headphones on//and i could watch you all night long//dancing to someone else’s song.”

    The age difference between the aging rock star and his young fan becomes too much for the relationship, and the young fan decides to try a romantic relationship with a young man closer to her own age. This drives the protagonist insane with jealousy. And, just to make things even more interesting, the young man is hiding a dangerous secret that could endanger the lives of everyone involved in the sordid love affair.

  • “The Thing About Things” by Amanda Palmer

    “the thing about things is that they can start meaning things//nobody actually said//and if he couldn’t make something mean something for me//i had to make up what it meant.”

    I’m not entirely sure how this particular set of lyrics inspired me, but OHMAN they resonate with me. I had a failed relationship that I’m still sore from, and I have mementos stashed in the back of a tiny drawer in my writing desk (a deck of playing cards, a hotel room key, a pair of socks) that remind me of when I was happiest, of the possibility of love and romance. I imagine the young fan would hang on to mementos of her fling with the aging rockstar in a similar fashion, which is why despite her new relationship, she can’t quite let go, and that adds to the conflict and the complexity of the narrative.

  • “Things Ain’t Like They Used to Be” by The Black Keys

    “she’s got the kind of love i need//the kind that’s never good on me//it doesn’t mean a thing to me//it doesn’t mean a thing to me//and it’s about time you see//things ain’t like they used to be.”

    This song reinforces the same ideas as the previous song, but does so from my protagonist’s point of view. I want his relationship with his fan to be somewhat toxic, and even though those involved recognize the relationship as such, they cannot leave the other alone. Personally, I believe we all fall victim to a relationship like that at one point or another- we know the person’s bad for us, but we can’t stay away and even though we’re not necessarily good for the other person either, that person can’t let go.

  • “Unsteady” by X Ambassadors

    “if you love me, don’t let go//if you love me, don’t let go//hold//hold on//hold onto me//’cause i’m a little unsteady//a little unsteady.”

    SPOILER ALERT: There is a death of a major character at the resolution of the story. To get into a somber, pleading mood, I’ll listen to this song. There’s an optimism to the lyrics that is tinged by a desperation that comes from the melody, and that contradiction is powerful. After all, power lies in contradictions for all characters and storylines.

  • “Atlantic City (Cover)” by Ed Sheeran

    “everything dies, baby, that’s a fact//but maybe everything that dies someday comes back.”

    Another epic by Springsteen that expands upon the idea of love never really dying, just ebbing and flowing because of outsider influences and/or extenuating circumstances.

  • “Kansas City” by The New Basement Tapes

    “and i love you, dear//but just how long//can i keep singing the same old song?”

    Those caught up in the love affair that drives the plot of this story are going to try and fit themselves back into familiar roles, even though that’s no longer possible because of the discoveries made and the decisions made because of those discoveries.

  • “Monster” by Mumford and Sons

    “so fuck your dreams//and don’t you pick at our seams//i’ll turn into a monster for you//if you pay me enough.”

    The aging rockstar’s wife discovers the affair and the decisions she makes based on that information seal the fate of all those involved.

And as promised:
Her Beautiful Monster playlist:

So what do you listen to when you want to be creative? Or when you want to feel brilliant, beautiful, and brave? Share your playlists in the comments!

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On stars and herons.

Published October 16, 2019 by mandileighbean

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I saw a shooting star and a beautiful, proud, elegant egret egret when I was walking the boardwalk this morning. Naturally, I wanted to know what those two sightings meant – you know me, always looking for signs. The first website I found was a blog with questionable credentials, but it said: “Shooting Stars symbolize Good Luck, A change or big event is coming towards your life, it can also be a symbol of endings. … They can also be a symbol of reaching one’s ultimate destiny” (source). I immediately thought of all the personal and professional upheaval from last year, and for the plans I’ve been making recently (the trip to Ireland, starting a new manuscript, and getting mentally and physically healthier). I wanted this to be true and somehow verifiable, so I hunted the internet for a more reliable source.

According to HowStuffWorks.org, “Shooting stars, also known as fallen stars, send streaks of light across the night sky before burning out into a point of inky blackness. Superstition has it that simply spotting one of these stars as it falls can bring good luck, though the rationale behind this custom changes based on who’s telling the story. Some cultures claim that fallen stars represent souls that have been released from purgatory, allowing them to finally begin the ascent to heaven and peace. In Britain and other areas, a shooting star represents the soul of a new baby falling to Earth, ready to begin a new life [source: Murrell]. Either way, the shooting star is said to possess a bit of magic, which means positive vibes and good luck for anyone who happens to gaze upon one.” This makes me happy because I could definitely use some good luck. I’m trying to get my work published, I’m trying to study in Ireland, and if I’m being really honest, I’m trying to fall in love. Hoping the falling star is really a precursor to good luck and prosperity, I kept reading. “Some shooting star superstitions can affect your life without any action on your part, but the type of luck you end up with could depend on something as random as where the star is positioned in the sky. If you spot a fallen star on your right, it means good luck, while one on your left indicates misfortune will follow. If you’re quick, you may be able to shift position as the star travels in an attempt to change your luck [source: Dillon]. Shooting stars also bring luck on the road. Spot one while on a trip, and your voyage is guaranteed to be a success [source: Goldsmith].” Luckily, the shooting star I saw this morning was in front of me, although it did fall to the left. But optimism is the new cynicism, eh? Let’s make being happy cool again. I’ll start by ignoring half of this explanation.

I kept reading (I’m a nerd; it’s what I do) and found some tidbits that could make for really interesting short stories. For example, “Counting the stars may be a good way to pass the time on a clear night, but superstitious folks should skip counting in favor of other pastimes. Counting the stars has always been considered a surefire way to bring on bad luck, and some legends state that if you attempt to count the stars in the sky, you’ll die when you reach 100 [source: Dillon]. Some believe that this superstition stems from ancient people who worshipped the sun, moon and stars, while others argue it’s a more recent custom [source: Roud]. Of course, with at least 200 billion stars in the galaxy, it’s likely that you’d die of natural causes well before you could get very far into your count, lending this superstition an air of credibility [source: NASA].” I don’t think I’ll take that risk; I’m bad at math anyway, and I like just looking up at the brilliantly lit heavens and thinking about how weird and wonderful it is just to be alive at all. But imagine if that actually happened, like if there was a stretch of shoreline where countless people had died because they’d stretched out on a blanket and tried to relax, tried to count stars. Imagine other people heard about the phenomenon but didn’t believe, only chalked it up to urban legend, so people started trying and testing it out and BAM! People keep dying. That might be a good start of something….

Another section had to do with “Love in the Stars,” and it said: “It’s well established that attempting to count the stars can be unlucky or even fatal, but one superstition holds that it’s OK to count under very specific circumstances. According to folklore, only an unmarried person looking for love can keep a tally. Even in this case, the unmarried person can count a maximum of seven stars on seven consecutive nights. If you do this, the first person of your preferred sex that you shake hands with on the eighth day is the one you’ll marry. For those struggling to find the one, it seems like a harmless way to not only locate love, but also a chance to finally count the stars without fear of inviting bad luck into your life [source: Radford and Radford]” (source).

To add to the good omen of seeing a shooting star, I was P U M P E D to find out that egrets (more commonly known as white herons, apparently) are also signs of good things to come. According to a YouTube video (which I know is not the most reliable of sources), “This great bird, talked of throughout ancient history and many cultures, is also commonly known as the Great White Heron. … A double headed Heron in Egypt is symbolic of prosperity. As a Chinese symbol the Heron represents strength, purity, patience and long life.” I found this information to be reassuring. Even though I am not Egyptian or Chinese, I have been working at becoming stronger and relying less and less on validation from others. I have been working at becoming purer and removing people and activities from my life that make me or keep me toxic. I’ve always been patient even though it mostly drives me insane. It took me two years to find a full-time teaching job after graduating from college. It took me two years to publish my novel after completing the manuscript. It took me two years to close on my home. It seems like two years is my typical wait time for things, but I’m not keen on wasting any more time in finding love. Though the heron also symbolizes a long life, I don’t want to wait forever to be loved. I think being hyper-focused on fostering a romantic relationship has hurt my writing in the sense that I am constantly distracted and prioritize being with potential partners over writing alone in my room.

So the key, as always, is balance. How do I balance being a productive writer with being fully connected to other human beings? There is some isolation required in being a writer, and I’ve read countless interviews with authors of varying degrees of success and fame who acknowledge that the writing life is a lonely one (though just how lonely depends on extenuating circumstances, I guess). But as the year 2020 nears, I’m going to work on loving and trusting myself, and going just a little bit fucking Gatsby.

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On routines.

Published October 11, 2019 by mandileighbean

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So I’ll be completely honest – despite all the declarations I made in my last post, I am still having a hard time with prioritizing writer … which explains why this week, I’m not updating until Friday (which I have no cutesy, alliterative title for). But every day is a new day, no?

And I have been *thinking* about writing. I have a couple of ideas for a couple of new projects kicking around and with the help of a particularly awesome beta reader, I’m sure I can make them all realities. And I do some of my best thinking while walking in the mornings. Every morning, I wake up between four o’clock and four-thirty and I immediately make my bed. I’ve read time and time again that developing both a morning and evening routine helps with anxiety, and that incorporating the making of your bed is essential. I wrestle with the sheets and tug the comforter until it’s even, and then I head downstairs and change into workout clothes. I make sure my wireless headphones are charged, turn on Amazon Music and Map My Run, and take off for just over two and a half miles. I walk the boardwalk just a couple of blocks from my home. My pace suffers when I brave the shadowy, far ends of the boardwalk, but my brain never slows. I feel enchanted by the moon glittering on the water when it’s full and hanging low in the sky. Sometimes, an egret will be poised with magnificent dignity in the water but more often than not, I’m praying to avoid the skunks which seem to overrun my sleepy, seaside town at particular times throughout the year. When I get back home, I shower and eat breakfast before doing my hair and makeup. I grab my lunch from the fridge and fill my thermos with coffee, and then I’m out the door and on my way to work.

I’ve tried to get to work early enough where I can write, but as of late, I’ve been having trouble meeting that go. I’ve been lazy and slow-moving in the mornings. It’s a goal to incorporate writing into my morning routine since reading is a crucial part of my evening routine.

What about you, dear readers? Are you night owls or early worms? Let me know! Do you have any tips for a solid morning or evening routine? Feel free to share in the comments!

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On remembering your why.

Published October 2, 2019 by mandileighbean

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Anyone who’s been reading this blog for any length of time will know that I am
A L W A Y S open to signs from the universe. I mean, who doesn’t want validation and reassurance that she is on the right path and making the best decisions, no matter how mystical that validation may be?

I was worried about starting the school year. I knew my professional life would be challenging, but I also knew my personal life was in upheaval. I wondered if I would be lonely, if the feeling of being an outcast would follow me into the school year. Luckily (or as a sign from the universe – you decide), my colleague took it upon herself to start an initiative in the building where groups of teachers engage in fun activities together to improve school climate and to improve building morale. It’s been a success so far and I know that I feel more connected and more supported. I asked for a safety net and the universe delivered from the unlikeliest of places. If you knew this colleague a year ago, and I told you she would be the one to bring the building more together, you would have laughed in my face. It makes me so happy and proud to see her growing and neglecting the negativity so she can focus on what she wants. Thus, it seemed fitting when my group intention was “Remember Your Why.”

I’ve been struggling to “Remember My Why” for writing. I miss the writer I used to be, scribbling every second I could steal, and tirelessly inventing and transcribing scenes. But lately, my writing life has been nonexistent. I’m tired after work, but that’s no excuse. I know I need to make time for what I am most passionate about, for what I love. At home, I sit at my desk, but the words won’t come. I’m just focused on feeling tired and uninspired, which is especially frustrating since not too long ago, I was in Manhattan surrounded by brilliant Irish writers and feeling rejuvenated. I’m desperate to get back to that place, to get back to who I was in so many different facets, and I believe remembering my why is an essential part of that journey.

Earlier today, I grabbed my notebook from that conference I mentioned, and I flipped through the pages. I remembered that Professor Sarah Moore Fitzgerald had kicked off the weekend with an absolutely wonderful lecture about writing in general and the writer’s life. Part of that dealt with writer’s block, and Professor Fitzgerald emphasized that the demon of self-doubt MUST be banished! She freely admitted that process is cyclical because the demon always returns, but to remember that self-doubt is mundane and that doubts are the least interesting things about anyone because e v e r y o n e has doubts. She encouraged all of us to remind ourselves of our reasons, to be reflective, and to figure out our W H Y. So I’ve been asking myself, what’s my why? Why have I written in the past? Why do I want to keep writing?

And if the self-motivation is lacking, Professor Fitzgerald also encouraged us to find inspiration by constantly reading anything and everything – canonical literature, all sorts of poetry, all sorts of stories. Doing so is a beginning to connecting with the creative self, which is a long, contextualized, complicated, and complex process. It’s important to
S W I T C H  O F F, which I KNOW I need to start doing more of. She told us what none of us really want to hear, that there is NO SUCH THING AS MULTI-TASKING. To that end, I’m planning on starting a pretty serious garden, and I’ve researched more ways to practically embrace a more Bohemian lifestyle in this demanding, technological, modern age.

I’ve been bitter about some recent success of some writer friends of mine, and that’s so messed up. I need to remember Professor Fitzgerald’s words, that writing is collaborative and NOT competitive. It’s important that all writers share with and support one another. There’s room for everyone because I am the O N L Y person who has seen the world the way I see it. I need to tell my stories, whatever they may be, and bask in the “beauty of exuberant imperfection”!

She told us that perfect happiness is when what you’re doing and what you’re thinking about are the same thing.

Professor Fitzgerald knew what she was talking about on SO many levels. She was participating in a research project about why writers write, and she shared that ultimately, there are seven reasons why writers write:

  1. ESSENTIALITY (it’s a need, part of their identity)
  2. WORK (they’re disciplined, committed to a routine)
  3. MAGIC (writing is a kind of enchantment, gives life to dreams)
  4. LIGHT (writing brings comfort, joy, love, safety and sanity)
  5. DARKNESS (writing can safely explore madness, pain, trouble, and struggle)
  6. COMMUNICATION (writing makes sense of the world)
  7. PLAY (writing allows writers to experiment and takes risks)

As I sit here, writing this blog post, I realize I need to discover my why, my reason for writing. Then, and only then, can I really grow and feel better. I need to remember why writing is a large part of my identity.

And then, I need to get started on writing.

ca. 1900 --- Woman Reclining at Desk Next to Typewriter --- Image by © CORBIS

On passive and active voice, and a problem I didn’t know I had.

Published September 25, 2019 by mandileighbean

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Finally! A timely blog post for Writer Wednesdays! I know this isn’t impressive since I skipped posting last week, but last week was my 31st birthday, and I think that’s a good reason to alter a schedule.

I was successful in my search for beta readers, and I am pleased to announce I’ve already received useful feedback! What’s interesting is that both a beta reader AND a potential publisher mentioned I use the passive voice too much. At first, I was shocked. How did that happen? When did that start happening? Is it because I’ve been reading a lot of European fiction? What’s going on? So I decided to do some research.

According to a potential publisher (who rejected my manuscript because it was written in “7.6%” passive voice), American audiences have been more inclined to purchase books in active as opposed to passive voice. The publisher in question didn’t attach an article or a summary about where exactly the numbers came from, nor did the publisher explain its computations for arriving at the figure 7.6%. But that’s my pride whimpering because one of my beta readers mentioned that the passive voice I used at the beginning of a short story made it confusing. The good news is that the publisher said it would consider the manuscript if I rewrote it in more of an active voice. Deciding my next move, and facilitating my next stage of evolution as a writer, led me to investigate the debate (not that there necessarily is one … but I digress) between passive and active voice.

In active voice, the sentence of the subject performs the action. According to Purdue OWL’s Writing lab, “Using active voice for the majority of your sentences makes your meaning clear for readers, and keeps the sentences from becoming too complicated or wordy” (read more here). In such sentences, “The action is performed upon the sentence subject, meaning this sentence is passive (indirect)”. So sentences written in passive voice are less clear and less concise than those written in active voice because they need more words to express the action. Purdue OWL elaborates on this problem with passive voice:

Sometimes the use of passive voice can create awkward sentences…. Also, overuse of passive voice throughout an essay can cause your prose to seem flat and uninteresting.

And I feel like that is a major problem with my prose! I was re-reading (and revising and editing) my new project, and I was thoroughly unimpressed by my opening. It was coldand impersonal to a fault. Oh no! I have lost my writer’s voice!

Then again, choosing passive voice is sometimes an option. “While active voice helps to create clear and direct sentences, sometimes writers find using an indirect expression is rhetorically effective in a given situation, so they choose passive voice.” But this should only happen in certain writing situations. “The passive voice makes sense when the agent is relatively unimportant compared to the action itself and what is acted upon.” Passive voice is okay when emphasizing action, but after doing my bit of research, it seems like it’s more trouble than its worth to use passive voice.

1. Avoid starting a sentence in active voice and then shifting to passive.

Unnecessary shift in voice:
Many customers in the restaurant found the coffee too bitter to drink, but it was still ordered frequently.
Revised:
Many customers in the restaurant found the coffee too bitter to drink, but they still ordered it frequently.
Unnecessary shift in voice:
He tried to act cool when he slipped in the puddle, but he was still laughed at by the other students.
Revised:
He tried to act cool when he slipped in the puddle, but the other students still laughed at him.

2. Avoid dangling modifiers caused by the use of passive voice. A dangling modifier is a word or phrase that modifies a word not clearly stated in the sentence.

Dangling modifier with passive voice:
To save time, the paper was written on a computer. (Who was saving time? The paper?)
Revised:
To save time, Kristin wrote the paper on a computer.
Dangling modifier with passive voice:
Seeking to lay off workers without taking the blame, consultants were hired to break the bad news. (Who was seeking to lay off workers? The consultants?)
Revised:
Seeking to lay off workers without taking the blame, the CEO hired consultants to break the bad news.

3. Don’t trust the grammar-checking programs in word-processing software. Many grammar checkers flag all passive constructions, but you may want to keep some that are flagged. Trust your judgment, or ask another human being for their opinion about which sentence sounds best.

So the question now becomes: how do I fix my problem with passive voice? I realize that using it makes my sentences longer, makes my voice cold and impersonal, and makes my meaning unclear. I think this problem with passive voice started with my second manuscript because I wanted to talk about things that happened before the story technically started, so I wanted to use some kind of past past tense. I got into a bad habit of using passive voice to play with tense, but now it’s time to break the habit.

What writing rules/concepts do you still struggle with? Comment below and let me know, and I can feature a mini-clinic on this blog!

 

On the difference between critics and beta readers.

Published September 12, 2019 by mandileighbean

I know I announced last week that my blog would be updated every Wednesday, but in light of what yesterday was – the eighteenth anniversary of September 11th, 2001 – it seemed in really poor taste to try and peddle my poetry and blog post when minds and hearts should really be focused on the anniversary of the day that changed everything. I’m humbled and completely knocked off my axis when I think about the enormity of that day, from the tragedy to the heroics to its function as a clear and distinct demarcation between a world that was and a world that is.

9.11

So this week, I update on Thursday.

And this week, I’ve been thinking a lot about critics. I was fortunate to see “IT Chapter 2” the night it premiered with Dad and I LOVED the film (and this marks the second time a trip to the movies to see a film based on a work by Stephen King has brought Dad and I closer). It was brutal in its violence and in its tragedy, but it was also beautiful and refreshing in the way it honored the essence of King’s original story. That novel has always held a special place in my heart. Forgive me if I’ve shared this experience before, but I can vividly remember where I was when I read the last page of the novel: I was in my parents’ old van on my way to my twin sister’s softball game at our high school. It was uncomfortably crisp outside, so Mom and my little brother and me were all waiting in the van until my twin sister got up to bat. I was stretched out along the backseat and I was sobbing. I was crying hard enough to cause my mom to turn around and try and comfort me in her unique, no-nonsense way. She said to me, “Mandi, you know those aren’t real people.”

And I laughed, but what I really wanted to do was launch into an impassioned, breathless declaration about the heartbreaking genius of it. I wanted to tell her that it was all real and true in the sense that to be brave, loving, and selfless adults, people need to stay the faithful, simple, and vulnerable children they started out as. And that life is all about connecting deeply with others and staying true to those connections no matter the peril. And I wanted to tell her I was so moved because I belonged to no such club, not even one for Losers. I felt no cosmic kinship with anyone and were I to face a demonic, child-eating clown in a damp and filthy sewer, I’d have no one to call. I realize now that last bit is not entirely true – and never was – but it felt true at fifteen.

So when I read reviews by people who had seen the film and criticized it for not being scary or for being too long, it annoyed me because I wanted to assume they just “didn’t get it,” like I could degrade them into people less intelligent and less empathetic and less open-minded than me. I felt the same way after I saw “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood.” I was almost offended that people in the theater weren’t as enthralled as I was, that they weren’t blown away by the gorgeous cinematography and the originality in creating a modern fairy tale.

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I had to stop myself. I had to remind myself that art is for everyone, first and foremost, and that everyone is entitled to their opinion. And my enjoyment of a film (or album or novel or whatever) should not be diminished or lessened by someone else’s displeasure. I was turning into the very thing I hated: a critic. Sometimes it seems to me that critics purposely dislike what is popular just to preserve an elitist status and perpetuate the notion that critics knows something the rest of us don’t. And maybe that elitism works both ways, in the sense that those that rally against critics (myself included) do so in defense of the “general” viewer (or listener or reader or whatever). Separating the “casual” imbiber of art from the learned intellectual critic serves both sides because with sides, someone can always be right and someone can always be wrong.

But that’s not the purpose of art or entertainment, is it?

Do what you like with critics, but that doesn’t mean a writer shouldn’t get opinions about her work. Writers should have a couple of trusted, honest beta readers (like critics in a milder, more individualized form) that can help them hone their craft. I have two, but am looking for a third. I am looking for a passionate reader to read my works-in-progress and share their opinion on the work.

Anyone interested? Comment here.

Until next time, friends ❤

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