7 Author Lessons From the Artist We Knew As Prince

purple_rainPrince (1958 – 2016)
has been my favorite musician and entertainer since I was nine years old and first heard “Delirious” and “Little Red Corvette”. I’ve never heard another artist seamlessly blend rock, pop, funk, soul, R&B, and occasionally hip-hop, into such an eclectic and often surprising mix of delectable ear candy. And yes, the purple prose in that last sentence was intentional (smile).

I loved Prince. My heart wept when I heard he passed away last week. I never met him personally, but I knew I’d lost a kindred spirit; a fellow poet and artist for whom words held meaning. Prince wrote songs that addressed every existing emotional experience. Love (Adore). Hate (I Hate U). Envy (White Mansion). Remorse (In This Bed I Scream). Desire (Insatiable). Pure humor (Movie Star). Devotion to God (God, The Cross, The Word).  Statements about society (Money Don’t Matter Tonight). Wonderful, crazy fun with friends (It’s Gonna Be a Beautiful Night). Rebuttals to critics (Hello). The list goes on and on. His songs could help you come to terms with the love you lost, the love you have, the God you worship, and the fun you wish you were having.

Watching and listening to Prince taught me a great deal about art, writing, and persistence. Here are seven author takeaways from the artist who will forever be known as Prince:

BRAND YOURSELF WELL
Prince’s brand was established and identifiable long before sales and marketing gurus started talking about the need to create a brand. When you hear the name Prince, you think purple and symbol, and sometimes purple symbol. The purple and the symbol make you think of his eclectic music, and sometimes muse about a certain movie containing horrible acting and electrifying concert sequences.

WRITE, WRITE, WRITE
writingWrite as much as you can. Some of it will be great. Some of it will be crap. Don’t worry if anyone will like it. Just write. According to reports from his friends and former band members, Prince wrote songs and played music daily. He won American Music Awards, Grammys, and critical acclaim for the music he created that was brilliant. The not-so-good stuff? Locked in a vault somewhere in Minneapolis. You get the point here. Just write. Participate a critique group where other writers will help you separate the good stuff from the crap. Save the crap in a file because you may revisit an idea later. Publish the good stuff.

BE WHO YOU ARE
Prince was Prince. Period. He was inspired by musicians who came before him, and he acknowledged this. James Brown, Little Richard, Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Wonder, even Joni Mitchell…they all influenced his work. Inspiration is one thing. Copying is another. When anyone tells me they want to write, I always want to know who they are reading. But if anyone says they want to be the next Stephen King, Anne Rice, John Grisham, or Terry MacMillan, I just walk away. Why? You can only be you. Your originality must shine through in your artwork. You should study good writing, but when you touch the keyboard, you gotta be like Prince stepping to the mic. You might push the mic stand down and pull it up slow like James Brown, but turning around and jumping off of a piano in high heels? That should be all you, baby!

EXPERIMENT WHEN THE MOOD HITS YOU
Prince was not a jellyfish, chicken, or wimp. He loved all music so he experimented constantly. If he felt like rocking out, he rocked out. If he wanted to get funky, he got funky. Time for a power ballad? He was all in. Here’s my point, if you’ve written a novel, but you feel like pulling together non-fiction or poetry for your next project, go for it. Don’t limit yourself. Agents and professional folk may try to gear you toward a genre, but I’ve seen surprising and delightful work from people who break out of the genre trap and do something different. My favorite Stephen King book is actually On Writing; I love his non-fiction voice. Anne Rice wrote Interview With a Vampire but she also wrote erotica in Exit to Eden. Maya Angelou wrote songs, poetry, autobiographical books, and even cookbooks.

USE RHYTHM AND BEATS IN YOUR WRITING
When Prince wrote Sign of the Times, he could have written this as a lyric:
“This past fall my cousin smoked marijuana and now it’s summertime and he’s doing heroin.”

But no. He had rhythm in his writing and the lyric became:
“September my cousin tried reefer for the very first time. Now he’s doing horse. It’s June.”

Do you feel the difference. Good writing has rhythm. So when you write your prose, don’t just tell the reader what happened, design the sentence so the words have maximum impact. And the last line of your chapter? It better sound like you just dropped the mic.

GIVE YOUR CHARACTERS DISTINCT VOICES
The Kid. Camille. Victor. Gemini. Christopher Tracy. Jamie Starr. Prince fans know these names. These are the names of various personas…characters that Prince created. These characters would show up on certain albums and sing songs. The Camille character, a female persona, had a distinct voice. When you heard the voice, you knew the character. These were NOT Prince, he was just the author.

When you write, make sure that the dialogue you create matches the character for the story. It’s called voice, and it’s hard to do. Study the writers who’ve done voice well. When you create your characters, besides knowing if they are male or female, make sure you spend time getting to know them. Don’t just get stuck on appearance (tall, female, fashionable, etc.). Write the internal character (has lots of fears, won’t take risks, whines a great deal, does not talk on the phone), and that way, the character will determine for his/herself what they will say or do in a scene. Add some distinguishing marks to the WAY they say things and you can grasp voice.

LET YOUR LOVE OF GOD SHOW
Prince loved God. He believed in Jesus Christ. You can hear this clearly in quite a few of his songs. For a rock/pop/funk musician, he would often get criticized for being too religious. Luckily, if you write books, you can pretty much do what you want. If you are a Christian writer, showing your heart for the Lord is easy. But let’s say you are a mystery, romance, or crime novelist. What do you do? You assign faith to one of your key characters and you let your faith channel through that character. Do all of your characters have to believe? No. They actually shouldn’t because that’s not the world we live in. But you can show the glory of God in your art unapologetically.

Great writing takes risk. Sometimes you’ll have to write what you need to write and forget the naysayers and the critics. That’s not a pass to write junk. Write your best material, but after that, publish it and move on. Then keep moving. Prince in 2016 was not the Prince from 1985, he kept his art fresh and new. When he died, his fan base was so large, he didn’t need radio hits anymore – he still played to sold out stadiums.

Write daily.

Take risks.

Keep moving.

Rest in peace, Prince Rogers Nelson.

Shut The Laptop Down NOW: The Thing About When To Stop Editing

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“When you write a book, you spend day after day scanning and identifying the trees. When you’re done, you have to step back and look at the forest.”
― Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

Editing! Death by a million cuts! But editing is a major part of any writing journey. Heck, most of the writing job is editing. I estimate spending at least 6 or more hours editing a chapter I spent 90 minutes writing.

Now how does that happen? Well, because in the rush and the ecstasy of getting the content down/idea out of your head/sandwich out of Pandora’s lunch box, key things are always missed. These are things I clean up in a long editing session. For example:

  • Typos
  • Grammar
  • Passive voice
  • Wordiness
  • Punctuation

And nasty things like:

  • Missed words (The quick brown fox jumped over lazy dog.)
  • Wrong words (manager and manger can look a lot alike when you type 100 words per minute)
  • Using the same noun, verb, or adjective twice in the same sentence (which is more of a technique thing and may only bother novelists, though it must not bother Kanye West because I’ve heard him rhyme “did” with “did” too many times to keep counting)

And smooth stuff authors like to change up so our writing looks cool. For example:

  • Replacing weak verbs with strong ones
  • Alternating long sentences with short ones
  • Replacing a sentence with one word to emphasize something. You. Feel. Me.
  • Killing the wizard of “was”
  • Removing the word “that” in all sentences where it is not absolutely, positively needed
  • Killing excess adverbs, adjectives, and other words in order to prevent purple prose

So yes, I do all the above, then I turn around and look at the forest by reading the story through. Does the forest (in other words, the story), pulls me in and hook me to stay in there? Did something knocked me out of the reading zone? If not, then I know editing is done and it’s time to shut the laptop.

But…if the story still isn’t pleasing to me, before I go back in for another round of edits, I ask myself why I wasn’t satisfied. I ask that question because editing isn’t about rewriting or creating a new story. So, the answer to the blog title is, stop editing when you’ve gone through the bullet points I mentioned above and you aren’t trying change the plot and write a new story.

The End.

Once You Get Started: The Thing About Momentum

You gotta act!
You gotta act!

Back in January I started a running habit. I’d made a resolution to myself to build up my endurance again (after many months of skipping hard exercise, but that’s another story). Making a resolution wasn’t enough though. I also downloaded the free 5K runner app onto my iPhone. Not only did the app track my runs, it also reminded me to run at least twice per week. What else did I need to do other than get up in the morning, lace up my Nikes and show up at the Planet Fitness?

It turns out…not much. I would show up at the gym with my “trainer” in tow, step onto a treadmill, turn on the app and go. Twice a week. Every week. For several months. By the end of April I’d made it to running 4.5 miles per session, I’d dropped ten pounds and lost a pants size.

Ladies and gentlemen, showing up is ALWAYS half the battle.

Its the same way with writing. Half of the job of finishing a novel is just having the strength to keep showing up in the same spot every day and taking the same set of actions.

Like the picture of the metal balls at the top of this blog post shows, any action you take is going to set off another action. Momentum means keeping those actions going. If you want to write, or run, or climb, or ANYTHING, after you take that first action, just keep going. It doesn’t matter how slow your pace. Each day your actions will add up to something.

What action do you need to take today? If you took the action, how do you plan to show up again tomorrow? How will you keep your momentum going?

Got writing tools? No? Well get some tools, man!

Tools!
Tools!

Ten years ago, when I was a naive, young lass, I set forth on a journey to write the Great American Novel. After all, I loved to write! I loved to read! I loved to read great writing! And I wanted to move beyond corporate writing and see my name on a cover for a change. All I needed was a story premise, time, and a reliable computer. That’s all any writer needs. Right?

Insert crazy, maniacal laughter here!

I found out the hard way…if I wanted to complete my life’s work and get my name on the cover of anything, I had to be serious about it. I needed more than a computer equipped with Microsoft Word. Novel writing, script writing, non-fiction, even regular blog posts, require organization, concentration, and technique. You can learn technique from books, conferences, seminars, blogs and so on. But enabling yourself to get organized, focus, stay on track and do the work? That, my friend, is a little harder.

But never fear dear writer, your friendly Documentation Diva is on the case! Peek into my toolkit and see what goodies can help you to produce your life’s writing work.

Tool For Making Time to Write: Apple iPhone Calendar

You’ll never write anything if you don’t schedule time blocks when you are doing only that. During a writing block, you don’t dawdle, you don’t doodle, you write. To keep myself on track, I enter a daily time block in my iPhone. I include an alert in it. It dings 15 minutes before the block to tell me, “Get your butt in the chair and write…now!” I’m sure Android has an equivalent calendar but I don’t know what it is because I’m an Apple disciple not fluent in Droid.:-)

Tool For Concentration: Focus @ Will

I tell people about this service so much you’d think they paid me to squawk about it. This is a music service (think Pandora or Spotify). But, it is no ordinary music service. This music HELPS YOU CONCENTRATE. How can I describe it? You know what? I won’t. Here’s a quote from their site:

Focus@Will’s has a unique library of instrumental music that you won’t find anywhere else. Every track has been remixed, re-edited and scientifically remastered specifically for focus enhancement. We’re soothing your fight or flight mechanism, engaging your brain’s limbic system, to increase your attention span and general concentration.

Engaged ya’ll! Focus ya’ll! This service is worth it’s weight in gold, but will only cost you $5.83 per month (based on their most popular yearly pricing). I know what you are thinking. Special music just for work? No, seriously, try it for free for 15 days and you’ll get hooked. And for writers like me who have a hard time disengaging from kids, distractions, and life in general, it’s a godsend.

Tool For Staying In My Chair: The Pomodoro Technique

You can read all about Pomodoro here. I’ll break it down into a few simple doable steps. Get a timer (any kind will do, even a kitchen timer, or an online timer). Sit down in your writing area. Make sure your writing tools are available (laptop or iPad or pen/notebook or green crayon and cocktail napkin). Set the timer for a 25 minute interval. Start the timer. Write. Keep writing until the timer goes off. After a writing interval, either stop for the day or stretch and set up another interval. You can write ANYTHING this way, and by the end of the week you will have made progress.

Tool For Organizing Long Writing Projects: Scrivener

Scrivener is a latecomer to my toolkit. I used to write everything in OpenOffice on Mac (because Microsoft is the devil). I would save multiple drafts of everything, and I’d have folders on top of folders. I ended up with finished work, but I knew I could do better. Then, I wrote my shorter blog pieces and eBook content using Evernote (another great tool). When I discovered Scrivener it made me fall head over heels back in love with creative writing. Scrivener has templates for every type of output you can imagine (novels, ebooks, non-fiction). But where it really helps a writer is with organizing. Scrivener organizes your characters, plot, summaries, notes, chapters, and research. It even stores images. Boy! The first time I wrote a character sketch then included a thumbnail picture of what the character looked like, I started to see my story as a budding drama waiting to unfold. And when you can see it, you can achieve it.

Tool For Blogging…what else: WordPress

In case you are new to the blogosphere, WordPress is the way to go. Yes, this is my opinion. No, you do not have to take it. But, if you are new to blogging, I recommend WordPress for three main reasons. One, they have awesome free templates with crisp, clean design. Two, its relatively easy to use and you want to spend your time BLOGGING, not fiddling around with web widgets. Three, did I mention, its free?

So, ladies and gentlemen, these are my main tools to help me git ‘er done. Do you have a tool you use for productivity? Post it here in comments! Thanks!

Escape to Autumn: A Mommy Post

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I have three children. Harvard. Sweetie. And Crazy. They live with me and my husband in a house close enough to Philadelphia to pop in for a cheese steak at any time, and far enough away to experience absolute quiet except for birds chirping in the early morning. Writers need quiet. It’s a thing with us. Anyway…

I love the kids.

I love the kids.

I love the kids.

So now there should be no doubt in anyone’s mind that I do not care for these young ones before you read what I am about to write.

School just started. All summer my three offspring were my constant companions. We’ve done vacations, day trips, movie marathons, gardening, and casual drives galore. We had great moments. We made memories. And…I am now thoroughly grateful for the institution called SCHOOL!

I’ve returned to writing and contracting full throttle and I’m grateful. After three months of no blogging or major work getting done, I grew so tired of my kids that by late August I broke out in a sweat whenever I heard one of them opening a bedroom door in the early morning. I know…I know…what kind of Mom am I?

An honest one. We live in a culture full of Facebook pictures filled with frolicking kids having a good time, mommy blogs, parenting sites, and so on. And there’s nothing inherently wrong with any of it. But I believe in balance.

There was a me before the three of them came along. There is a me now. I’m a mother all the time, but I’m not “mommy” every single moment of the year. There are moments when I’m a worker, or a writer, or a volunteer, or a neighbor, or a dancer (yep, still addicted to line dance…and I will be…forever).

I have fun with my daughters and son. But on this day, I am happy they have the chance to go to school, enjoy their friends, and learn well. At the end of the day I will see them and hug them and joke with them and they will ask me if I wrote. And I will say yes. And I will smile.

On Writing Down the Bones

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A few years ago I went to the Greater Philadelphia Christian Writer’s Conference. While there, I bought a book called Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg. Why? Because more than four conference lecturers mentioned the book, I figured it would help me insert greater detail into my prose.

I went home.

I read the book.

I thought about the book (which, by the way, was very well written).

Tried to apply the information from the book.

Did the book make a difference in my writing? No.

What I found out after buying way too many books at conferences, is that very little written material will help you complete a novel.

What does work? Sit in the seat and write. Then sit in the seat and edit. Then send the writing out to be read. Then sit down and cut out the crappy parts and rewrite the scenes that don’t work and put in the details that truly need to be there. And how do you know what needs to be there? Your beta readers/writing group/folks who read the work you’ve brought them will graciously tell you.

And will you come up with a perfect book?

Nope.

Will you have written down the bones?

Maybe. Hopefully. God willing…

In The Morning Time

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Be at rest once more, O my soul, for the Lord has been good to you. ~Psalm 116:7

If I could, I would do everything valuable in the calm quiet of the early morning. Devotions. Writing. Exercise. Even paying bills or cleaning. For me, there has always been, in the beauty of the sunrise, the power of hope. Before the day truly begins, I have hope for how the day will turn out.

I’ve battled anxiety for the better part of my adult life. I’ve never had to take medication, and I’ve never been prescribed anything, which is likely a blessing. Negative thinking, anxiety, depression…you can battle it back but you never really overcome it. It’s kind of like having asthma or bad allergies. You learn what to do to keep it from raging out of control. If you are wise, you avoid excess sugar and caffeine. If you are a believer, you connect to the God that controls everything and place your worries in His hands. You learn to keep yourself fit and to move a bit each day (dancing and running have been lifesavers for me).

I woke up this morning, and before I opened my eyes, the negative thoughts were there. Early morning. Before the day truly started. So, I got up and got myself downstairs and I connected with the Lord. And that’s where I got today’s scripture. The words of the Bible speak to me…and today’s scripture reminded me that the Lord has been good to me. He is there for me. In the morning time, and always.