writing

Introducing…The Secondhand Inspiration Project!

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What is The Secondhand Inspiration Project?

It’s a new mission I’ve developed over on Medium. Periodically, I pull together a post that starts with a motivational quote and goes wherever my musings lead. The idea was born out of my obsession with inspirational quotes and self-help books. This, mixed with a need to sometimes use prompts for my daily writing practice, sparked this initiative.

I already have several entries at Medium for The Secondhand Inspiration Project. My goal is to post some links to catch everyone up on this relatively new pet project. From there, I’ll be sure to update this blog after every new entry.

The first entry of The Secondhand Inspiration Project, Go Farther, was based on a famous quote by Wayne Dyer: "It's never crowded along the extra mile." Check out this post and just maybe it will provide you with a little secondhand inspiration.

https://medium.com/@adrianpotter/go-further-a7413df120a4?source=friends_link&sk=fbf834d3db736379c3c4c5ff057bec48

5 Quick Daily Writing Exercises You Can Practice

It’s not unreasonable to say that the number one problem most writers have is that they just don’t write enough. Writing, even professionally, is often treated as a side venture, or something that is inherently doable at a moment’s notice. The truth though is that it’s a skill, and like any other skill it must be practiced and nurtured to be its best. In other words, anyone fancying him or herself a writer needs to find a good excuse to write creatively and/or intellectually every single day. ‘'

Because of this, there’s actually a fairly strong market of prompt and exercise books aimed at writers. The thinking is that if you simply have an idea in front of you, you won’t have trouble putting pen to paper. As helpful as these books can be though, they’re not strictly necessary. With a little creativity you can come up with some daily exercises of your own, and help to ensure that you get at least a little bit of practice in every day.

A few ideas to get you started….

1. Just Write Titles

Sometimes you just don’t feel like you can get the words down to do anything substantial, and while some writers contend that you need to force through those times, there are other solutions as well. One is to simply write titles of things you’d like to write. It’s simple and quick enough that you can turn it into a daily exercise, even if that means just 10 or 15 titles a day - be they for stories, books, essays, or even films or songs. It’s not a robust writing exercise by any means, but it does activate that part of your brain, and it can give you some ideas of things to work on.

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2. Go For A Jog, Write About It After

Writing just about a jog isn’t the most exciting thing in the world, but if you go running outside chances are you’ll see other people out, pass by interesting places, or even see animals or other elements of nature that intrigue you. These are the kinds of things that can inspire any writer, and it’s a worthwhile idea to practice your observational skills anyway. Throw in the fact that exercise can chemically stimulate creativity as well, and it’s actually an excellent way to put yourself in a writing mindset. A quick jog and then a series of stories or vignettes about the things you observed while out can be an excellent daily, or at least near-daily activity.

3. Play Daily Fantasy, & Write Up Recaps

This is an idea that will make sense to a lot of people who play fantasy sports, because some of the leading sites have started writing automated recaps of contests. You can turn this into your own exercise by turning to daily fantasy, which involves a range of contest styles but more importantly runs every day. That means with each and every night you can have a contest to recap creatively, the way a sportswriter might do it. It seems somewhat random, but the idea is to have something fresh to discuss and shape into written thoughts on a daily basis. Plus, if you’re a sports fan at all, it’s quite a lot of fun to do.

4. Find Launch Points

One of the most common writing practices out there is to base your work off of somebody else’s (provided you’re not intending to sell that particular work of course). You might pick up a favorite book, open to a random chapter, record the first few sentences and then close it and continue the story your own way, for instance. That’s just one example, but wherever you can find these “launch points” for a story, you should give it a shot. At a certain point, repetition - the act of writing a story every day, no matter how small - is the best practice.

5. Try A Dream Journal

There’s a lot of pseudoscience behind remembering, analyzing, and recording dreams. You can try different ways of remembering your dreams though, and if any of them work you can simply start writing about your dreams in the morning. Waking up an extra 15 minutes early (easier said than done, of course) gives you time to write a few words about what you remember or what you think about it, or even to write a little story about it. This is a particularly fun exercise if you can make it work, because it’s almost like your own brain is feeding you prompts.

Really, it all comes down to creativity and resourcefulness. There are many ideas beyond these that can lead you to daily writing in a very effective way. Just be sure to keep that pen moving day in and day out, and you’ll become a better writer for it.

Process: Things I Write About

People, when they discover I’m a writer, often ask what I write about. I used to roll my eyes and explain how writers use everything as material. But I was thinking recently about the subject matter of various poems & stories either published or underway and what themes are at work.

  • grief
  • social issues
  • discontented relationships
  • insomnia
  • entertainment and pop culture
  • racial identity
  • the blues
  • transgression
  • danger
  • urban legends
  • inclement weather
  • political unrest
  • fighting
  • sports and exercise
  • b-movies
  • illness
  • alcohol
  • making ends meet
  • marriage & domesticity
  • politics
  • love poems
  • abandoned buildings
  • the apocalypse
  • the Midwest
  • hip hop

Some subjects are barely projects, or unfinished stories that are underway but stalled out, and a couple things are just one or two poems into what I envision will be a longer series. I've also been thinking about the difference of approach when it comes to compilation (mixtape) books and project books and how the latter seems to be driven by intent from the start and the former slowly take shape during the process. But I suppose that's a blog entry for another day.

Writing a Killer Essay Conclusion.

Crafting conclusions to essays can be challenging. It takes skill to end on a good note and drive your points home one last time. It’s the final chance to impress and give readers understanding as to why your essay matters. The style of the conclusion that's most effective will vary depending on the tone and point of view of your essay. However, there are some key points that apply no matter what style of essay you're crafting.

A good essay conclusion restates, not rewrites your thesis from the introduction. It usually consists of three sentences minimum. And it concludes thoughts without presenting new ideas.

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One standard structure I've used is to Restate, Review, Connect, and Combine (I remember it as R-R-C-C):

Sentence #1: RESTATE the thesis by making the same point with other words.

Sentences #2-4: REVIEW supporting ideas; summarize how they prove the thesis.

Sentence #5: CONNECT back to the essay's main premise and relate your closing statement to an opening thought; make it relatable to impress a reader and give them something to contemplate.

Lastly, COMBINE these sentences into a conclusion. Eliminate redundancy. Add a transition word or phrase to make it clear you're concluding. Just try to be more inventive than the standard "In conclusion..." or "In closing..."

There are pitfalls to avoid. Resist the temptation to write any new information; focus on summarizing the thesis and statements. Try not to share personal thoughts unless it's a first-person opinion piece. Don’t attempt to restate every detail - that's what the body paragraphs are for. And finally, don't use boring, mundane words. Choose concise but vivid language instead.

To end an essay in a strong manner, consider its type and audience. A conclusion is your last chance to impress readers. R-R-C-C can be effective, but don't be afraid to take a more creative approach if it presents itself...just avoid the pitfalls I mentioned.

What are some tips for writing articles or blog posts quickly?

Save the introduction for last. This tactic helps. I don’t write the intro until the rest of the article or blog post is finished. By doing this, I push right into the info readers want, and I don’t waste words on a long intro that’s often expendable anyway.

Focus on what readers want. If a piece is supposed to provide “5 ways to do X”, the bulk of the text must be about those 5 ways. Don’t spend too long on your intro or explanations. Drill down on what readers need, and don’t give too much extraneous info.

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Formulate an outline. It doesn’t need to be extensive. Often I create a quick-and-dirty one such as:

  • Introduction
  • What Is X?
  • 5 Methods (list each solution)
  • Conclusion

Research to find support for the meat of your article or blog post, and then list those sources in the outline before you start writing. It will help you write faster by linking the sources to the point they are supporting.

Writing the Perfect Blog Post.

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If you’ve ever struggled with establishing a strong methodology for creating content on your blog, then you should check out this awesome post from Jeff Goins’ blog called “4 Essential Elements to Writing a Great Blog Post.”

Goins contends that by establishing a little bit of structure in your blog writing process, you will become more creative within the constraints and be easily able to produce great articles and ideas for your blog, Check it out.

https://goinswriter.com/great-blog-post/?inf_contact_key=a694018da6be3a2bfe50ab0764726b362c9514135db615b95b291840f52c2b73

What makes a great writer?

To me, great writers need to be efficient and committed. They force themselves to be productive under time constraints despite the distractions of daily life.

Great writers do good research. Writers often include fictitious details in the tales they create, but they do enough research to make their work believable. They gather enough knowledge to sketch an authentic picture in readers’ minds.

Great writers possess amazing imaginations, They can do exercises to bolster their imaginative prowess, but having the preexisting talent to imagine & invent is a huge benefit.

Finally, great writers have confidence. Putting your creative vision out there for others to criticize can be scary. But writers must be brave and willing to take risks in order for their work be distinctive enough to make a mark.

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Quirks.

Let’s be real - writers are an interesting breed. Creatives are often a little weird. And most of us revel in our own personal version of eccentricity…whatever that may be. I encourage you to accept the quirky preferences you have when you write. Relish them, embrace them, nurture them. Just make sure you keep writing!

Jack Milgram developed an entertaining infographic about 20 famous writers and their most bizarre habits. I think you’ll find it interesting. You can check it out and other infographics by Jack at Custom Writing.

Everyone has something “different” they do when they create. Or maybe it’s something they don’t do. Some oddity that defines their process and influences their art. So…what are your quirky writing habits?

https://custom-writing.org/#famous-writers

Writing Cover Letters.

To get short stories or poems published, a good cover letter is important. It’s the first part of your submittal that an editor sees, and therefore can make the difference between a great first impression or getting lost in the slush pile.

As an editor at 2 Elizabeths, Elise Holland has seen countless cover letters - some good, while others could use improvement. Check out Elise’s guide on how to develop a simple, yet effective cover letter here.

https://2elizabeths.com/2017/10/how-to-write-a-cover-letter-advice-from-a-lit-mag-editor/

Revision.

Writing is a process that goes through many stages. Revision is the catalyst that helps it progress from stage to stage. It’s not just changing a few words, adding a sentence here or there, or deleting material that’s unnecessary. Revision is a chance for a writer to actually re-vision a piece…in other words, to see a piece with new eyes and visualize it in a different way, all with the hope of seeing improvement.

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Seven Questions.

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There’s a short list of questions I ask myself when I’m writing and editing, whether it’s poetry, fiction, essay, or other. These questions help guide me towards clarity.

  • What is it that I’m really trying to say?

  • What words will express my thoughts without ambiguity?

  • What analogy, metaphor, or simile might make this concept clearer?

  • Are the images vivid & fresh enough to have an impact with readers?

  • Can I say all of this more concisely?

  • Am I using big fancy words just to use them?

  • Have I said anything that’s offensive? If so, can I eliminate it or soften it and still get my point across.


It’s not a perfect list, but I believe maintaining the habit of going through these questions improves each piece of my writing.

Motivation & Writing

My motivation comes from acknowledging my writing has value, making a commitment to write, and making sure I find time to do it. This has culminated in me building good habits that help me write consistently, whether I feel a surge of inspiration or not.

It’s easy to blab about writing you’re going to do someday. I’m guilty of talking about a novel I claim I want to write, but doesn’t exist even in outline form. But if you’re always yapping about writing and never actually doing it, then your goals will never get accomplished. You must sit down and write consistently to build a habit.

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Some experts say you need to write daily. That’s a good idea and one that makes it harder to forget to write, but it isn’t easy. Other habits can also work. Choose to write every other day, on a half day on a weekend, for thirty minutes of weekday nights after everyone else is in bed, or as part of a lunch break at work.

It’s not about following someone else’s concept of when and how much you should write. It’s more about building a routine that works for you and keeps you writing consistently. Once you build this habit, writing gets easier, and you’ll fall into a productive mode more quickly and easily – which is a beautiful thing.

At times motivation arrives with fanfare and magical forces guide my pen or keystrokes. But those times are fleeting and rare. If I waited around for that blessed inspiration, I’d never produce new material or content. My advice is to develop an ongoing habit as a substitute for an emotional flurry, then take advantage of your uber-motivated moments when they do happen. Developing a consistent routine is a practical form of motivation that pays dividends.

What is the most important step in writing?

To me, the most important step is finding your own original voice.

I went for years following the guidance of teachers, blatantly mimicking the cadence of writers I admired, trying to be the next [insert name of cool author or poet]. And don’t get me wrong - studying the work of others and incorporating parts of their style into yours is good for growth. But it cannot replace the spark that happens when you find your own voice as a writer.

Voice in writing blends several factors: word choice, formality, sentence length, the proportion of dialogue versus description. It involves every aspect of writing. These choices all mix together to create both pizazz and substance.

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So developing a writer’s voice - in general and for individual characters - can be a struggle. One thing that helps is reading as much as you can from varied authors. Check out a variety of strong voices - like sampling a bunch of ice cream flavors from a tiny spoon. Identify voices you like, try to reverse engineer their essence, and then sprinkle in your own peculiarities.

Once you have fine-tuned your own voice, you are no longer pretending. You will be confident, free, and authentic. To find your voice, you must shed any fears being different. You want to be different, to be more than another creative writing clone. The literary world needs originals. Originals who dare to produce value. Originals who bring out our better nature. Originals who connect us with something larger than ourselves through the conduit of their wordplay.

Some folks find their voice right away. For others, it takes years of hammering away at their craft. But once you discover your creative voice, you will have taken a huge step towards becoming the writer you’ve always wanted to be.

Is Writer’s Block a Warning Sign?

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I sometimes discover having writer’s block is a caveat that I need to fix some other aspect of my life.

Writer’s block is horrible and unproductive. We all hate it and bitch about it. But part of it could just be that your mind or spirit is in a really bad place at a certain point in life. If you’re in a shitty mental state because of money problems or relationship issues or day-job drama, it doesn’t matter how much effort you put into writing or creative endeavors. You have to fix bigger things than your writing and then go back into it with the passion it deserves.

Talking My Way Out of Writers’ Block.

I try to not rely on writer’s block as an excuse. My writing voice is virtually the same as my public speaking voice, and through my consultant work, I do some form of public speaking daily.

So I look at it like this - I’m rarely at a loss for words. I never get speaker’s block. I don’t wake up, discover I have nothing to talk about and sit around silently, for days or weeks or months, until inspiration arrives, until a moment feels perfect, until all the crap life throws at me has somehow died down. Nope, I keep on talking, and I probably talk too much for my own good.

So if I have to, I use my speaking voice to pull me out of writer’s block. I give myself random speaking prompts - much like Table Topics in Toastmasters - and challenge myself to speak for 1 to 2 minutes on a subject. That often sparks an idea verbally that can translate to writing something new. Yeah, I probably look silly talking to myself in a room all alone, but I don’t care. If it gets me writing again, it’s well worth the cost of seeming a little bit crazy.

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What makes a good writer good?

You could ask fifty different writers and get fifty different answers. Yet we all know bad writing when we see it. Bad writing evokes zero emotion. It fails to connect ideas. Bad writing may tell a story or make a statement eloquently, but it fails to make that narrative or point something a reader can relate to.

That foreshadows my answer to what makes a good writer good. I believe a good writer uses their skill to connect a reader to the story (or point of the essay, or meaning of a poem, etc.).

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Good writers build their writing in a manner that can be understood. They write in their own unique voice - not mimicking someone else, or saying things that seem stylistically acceptable to stodgy intellectuals. And good writers don't always play it safe...they take risks to make that connection with their target audience, even if it means saying or doing something not politically correct or trendy.

So what do you think makes a good writer good?

What’s Your Biggest Writing Challenge?

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Mine is unclear thinking. Clarity clears a straight path between A and Z. The story, poem, or essay feels consistent and clear. When it seems like one train of thought, and not a mash-up of parts done at different times and moods, a finished work feels cohesive. Some obtain cohesion via many rounds of editing.

Unclear thinking makes messes. Unclear thinking yields awkward, ineffective, meandering trails of ideas that abandon readers in the woods, lost and confused, or in the desert, thirsty and begging for water. These messes are hard to tidy up and are sometimes unfixable.

I need help and hacks to achieve clarity of thought. Sometimes I make mental maps, outlines, index cards, cover walls with post-it notes, or keep journals for specific writing projects with pages of character, setting, and plot developments.

But whatever you do, however you do it, I believe that structure needs to be there to avoid the scourge of unclear thinking in your writing.

So what’s your biggest writing challenge? How do you overcome that obstacle?

Fight Procrastination by "Chunking" Down Goals

The start of the new year is the season of big goals. And with these lofty expectations undoubtedly comes chances for procrastination to occur – especially with writing. “Chunking” down goals is a strategy I’ve used to dead procrastination in my creative life, especially with larger writing projects like manuscripts.

Achievers sometimes bite off more than they can chew. Procrastination is when you look at what's sitting on your plate and think: No way! It's too just big. I can't finish it.

I said plate figuratively, but let’s think about goals as if they are meals. Whenever you have too much to swallow, do what you’d do if you had ordered a large meal at a restaurant. Cut it up. Chop it into smaller portions. Eat it one small appetizing bite at a time, one manageable portion at a time. If needed, take some home to finish later - you don’t have to down the whole meal in one sitting, despite the peer pressure from others. But break that meal down to pieces you can handle.

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Like that meal, take intimidating goals and slice them into smaller chunks. If you look at those portions and they still seem overwhelming, cut them into even smaller chunks. Keep going until you get to a bite-sized morsel where you think, "yes, I can finish that." Then just eat it one chunk at a time. And keep going until you've finished the whole thing.

When you have a project that seems too big and you’re tempted to procrastinate, break it down. Then attack it one bite at a time. Savor each piece and appreciate that portion of the larger meal (goal). Swallow and progress on to the next chunk.

In Defense of Laziness

Last week I didn’t do as much for my overall writing practice as I had planned. Not nearly enough freewriting, zero blog posts, just a bit of editing, and I only sent out a handful of submissions to journals. With all the pre-holiday hubbub, I wasn’t feeling a creative spark, so I decided not force it.

Society has sold us this concept that people should always be busy, and that when we’re not busy we should keep ourselves busy preparing for when we will be. We’re told inaction is inherently bad. We’re challenged to prove our worth, and worth is measured by how much we accomplish.

Overachieving employees and students are sleep-deprived workaholics (me included). We feel guilty when we say “no” to social outings & party invitations. We apologize when we can’t take phone calls or make meetings. We act like it’s bad if we sleep in or stay at home - unless we’re organizing or cleaning.

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Bullshit. Laziness is okay at times. Often the problem isn’t that we don’t do enough. It’s that we do too much of the wrong stuff and not enough of the right stuff.

Laziness is okay…in moderation, like everything in life. Inactivity can be our default mode. This is where we can remain, contemplating and resting, preparing our minds and energy until the right action becomes obvious. But be mindful of when the next move becomes apparent; cease being lazy and take that action so you don’t miss opportunities.

Just this morning I’ve already pre-written a few blog posts, edited a story I’ve been working on, did some freewriting, and sent out a submission. I am convinced this is because I took a little time to rest and “be lazy” in moderation. My mind has responded in kind, and now I’m poised to seize the opportunities in front of me.

It’s something to think about – maybe your next move shouldn’t be to force things just to keep up the appearance of staying busy. Perhaps you need a little time to be lazy to recover and get yourself back on track.

My Writing Game Plan: Pessimistic Optimism

Over the years, I’ve been blessed to meet many writers, in person and online. Some have been successful following different paths. One thing they all have in common is they are all pessimists. The other thing they all have in common is they are all optimists.

I understand this might be confusing. How can two incongruent viewpoints exist in the same individual simultaneously? But the equation makes complete sense when you consider time as a variable: they have made themselves short-term pessimists and long-term optimists.

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What I mean is this: they expect each and every discrete project they take to fail because the reality is, most things never get completed or published. They are acknowledging reality, and have zero emotional response when a fiction plot gloriously fizzles to nothing, a poem concept just doesn’t work out, or their personal essay fails to ever get published.

Yet they are long-term optimists because they know if they work on enough writing projects, several of them will succeed, making up for all the ones that failed. And yes, that is also reality.

The eternal optimist who thinks everything they write will “work out” is soon ground down by reality. Their beliefs don’t match up with the results, they start to question themselves, and constant disappointment hinders their ability to shake it off and move onto the next project. They become snakebit, and eventually bitter – which is never a positive trait for a creative.

The constant pessimist never takes any action on their writing endeavors because they automatically expect everything they do to fail. And because they never really act, they do fail. They stay loitering on the sidelines moping, never actually getting in the game.

In writing, mindset is very important. But it must be a reality-based mindset, with hard-nosed expectations, not pie in the sky fantasies or pouty tantrums. The more you do, the more you fail, yet paradoxically the more you succeed.

The pessimistic optimist is armored against constant failure and rejection, and it bothers them not.  But they also expect success to occasionally interrupt failure, which is why they write and compete in the first place.  Become the pessimistic optimist writer, and you will evolve into a winner in a literary world full of losers who love losing.