Last week, while in San Francisco for a writers conference, I was walking with my young daughter on Geary Street near Mason, not far from Union Square, when I noticed him: a towering, disheveled member of the city’s vast legion of homeless people, keeping pace behind me.
I deliberately altered my pace—already considerably slower than the rest of the people who were streaming past since I was holding the hand of my toddler—to let him pass. But instead of disappearing into the upstream swim of pedestrians, he slowed, too.
Angling myself to keep him in my periphery, I took him in: 6’4, solidly built, and dressed in a green zippered hoodie with bulging front pockets. With eyes that darted around as if they were tracking an invisible swarm of bees in front of his face, he mimicked my movements. When I walked on, he followed. When I slowed down, he did too. I crossed the street and sure enough, he was right there behind me. It was only when I had stopped completely—pretending to point out something of interest in a store window to my daughter—that he finally seemed to have disappeared. Believing my new unwanted friend to have slipped back into the anonymous flow of pedestrians, I stopped briefly into a Starbucks to buy my daughter a promised hot chocolate before continuing on to Union Square.
Living in Seattle, there’s nothing like a warm, cloudless California day to flush the rainy Pacific Northwest gloom from the system. There was an art fair happening in Union Square, and my daughter and I decided to camp out on the steps in the plaza and soak it all in. But we’re only there a few minutes when I felt a presence behind me. I turned around to find our stalker hovering over us. I sprang to my feet, placing myself between him and my daughter and asked him what the fuck he wanted.
“What do YOU want?” he hissed. His posture changed, and he became aggressive, the ambiguity of his intentions dissolving before my eyes. He was no longer following invisible swarming bugs but was instead focused directly on me. At one point I kicked over my coffee and he laughed sinisterly. Then, looking at my daughter, he asked me if she belonged to me. He actually used the word belong. I looked over to where two women were sitting nearby.
“Excuse me,” I called out to them. “Can you take my daughter for me?” The women only made brief eye contact with me before quickly looking away. A man walking past pretended to be oblivious to what was happening. As a former cop, I’d been in enough fights with the mentally ill and drug-addled to know that I’m outmatched. When you’re psychotic or drugged out of your gourd, the pain is muted. Reason is fleeting. And to top things off, I’d been struggling with my self-confidence all morning ever since it had been pointed out to me that oily White House hopeful and Boston Strangler-lookalike Ted Cruz owned a red-checkered button-down shirt just like the one I was wearing at the moment.
By now, my aggressor was making quick, jerky, jumpy motions toward me like he was about to hit me. He was standing in an elevated position over me and the way I saw it, I could either keep standing there and wait for him to kick me in the head, or I could act now, drag his legs out from under him before he could react and start smashing his head into the concrete.
Just as a physical attack—one way or the other—seemed inevitable, the guy abruptly stood down. As I maneuvered myself up to where he was standing, he slinked away and ran off. Within moments a uniformed Union Square security officer appeared and asked if I was okay. I explained what happened—that the guy had been stalking my daughter and I for blocks—and he took off after him.
When it was all over, I glanced around at the people who were seated nearby when all of this was happening. Whether out of guilt or out of fear, not a single one will make eye contact with me. At some point, the women I had implored to safeguard my daughter have crept away from the scene altogether when I wasn’t looking.
In every plan I was making to do great bodily harm to my would-be attacker in defense of both my daughter and myself, I failed to take the good ol’ bystander effect into consideration. I should have known that rather than have someone do me a favor by safely removing my daughter from the danger at hand, we stood a better chance of having our beating deaths idly filmed by a couple dozen people with their cell phones.
Like it has in Seattle, the lax regulatory policies on homelessness in San Francisco have created a crisis for the city. In both cities, and others like them, the drug culture, mild climate, liberal approach to social services and high cost of housing has created a favorable atmosphere for the homeless. In Seattle; a 100-acre expanse of greenbelt beneath a section of the city’s I-5 freeway known as the “Jungle” has been turned into an encampment of homelessness and crime (https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2016/02/05/3-boys-charged-with-jungle-murders-were-collecting-moms-drug-debt-cops-say/).
Since the incident, I’ve been reading up on aggressive panhandlers and learned that I may very well have been the target of a “soft mugging”; an extortion-like tactic where a panhandler will essentially stalk and follow a target menacingly until the target pays him to go away. In all my experiences with homeless people and/or panhandlers, this guy was undoubtedly the exception, for in all the number of times I’ve been hit up for cash on by panhandlers, I’ve never been straight up menaced.
I’m not going to pretend to be ignorant to the complexity of issues that ties into homelessness in America. Arguably, better access to mental health treatment and drug abuse intervention would be a great place to start, but I’ll leave the dissection of that social issue to the experts. For this is intended as a cautionary tale.
The radioactive decay of my Flint, Michigan upbringing had no sooner reached its half-life, you might say. I dress more conservatively these days. I’m not as grumpy as I used to be. And on a few occasions, I’ve even caught myself believing that most people are inherently good. But the incident in San Francisco has derailed me from my Doodles Weaver complacency. It’s a fact: we’re a hypocritical society; one that bemoans the changing mores of social decency while being gleeful consumers of its modality. While waiting for a New York City train in 2012, 58 year-old Ki Suk Han was pushed onto the tracks of the subway by a deranged homeless man named Naeem Davis. As the train was bearing down on him, Han’s last images weren’t of helpful bystanders scrambling in vain to pull him to safety, but rather the incessant flashing of a New York Post’s photographer’s camera capturing his final moments of life (http://nypost.com/2012/12/04/suspect-confesses-in-pushing-death-of-queens-dad-in-times-square-subway-station/).
So, you see, it’s important to keep in mind that even when surrounded by throngs of friendly bystanders, you shouldn’t rely on anyone to come to your aid when you’re being pummeled to death for the five bucks you have in your wallet.
You’d be better advised to just smile for the cameras.
Guest Post by Jo Linsdell
Author Jo Lindell presents advice on preparing for the November Writing Challenges
Just as the calendar year winds down, three November writing challenges help writers jump-start their creativity. You can choose between NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), WNFIN (Write Nonfiction in November) aka NaNonFiWritMo (National Nonfiction Writing Month), and PiBoIdMo (Picture Book Idea Month).
Not everyone, it turns out, is choosing just one. Guest poster Jo Linsdell, of WritersandAuthors.info and organizer of the annual online PromoDay event plans to do all three. She takes “plans” literally, so we’ve asked her to share how she preps to “put a jet pack” on her productivity.
Even if you’re “just” doing one challenge, or partially participating, you can learn from her attitude and pre-challenge tactics.
I love a good challenge. I’ve never been one to do things lightly though. I have a go big attitude when it comes to setting goals for myself, and this year is no different. I’ll be taking part in, not one, but three different challenges this November. I’ll be doing NaNoWriMo, WNFIN, and PiBoIdMo.
Right now you’re probably asking yourself “Is she crazy?!” The honest answer here is probably “YES”.
As I have two small children, work part-time as a teacher, have several blogs, and have various events to attend throughout the month, it’s a huge goal to try to reach.
A 50K novel, a non-fiction book, and 30 ideas for children’s picture books, all in the one month is a LOT of work. It is doable though.
How do I know?
Simple. I’ve done it before. And yes, I collected my winner certificates 😉
Preparing for the November Writing Challenges
So how does someone prepare for such a writing frenzy?
The key is organization, and preparation.
NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month)
The first thing to do is pick and idea. In my case, the idea usually picks me—I tend to have an over-active imagination. I go with the one that I think about most. When it takes over and starts to build itself in my head, I know it’s the right one to go with.
Next I brainstorm and work out a plot outline. Nothing too detailed, but enough to give me a basic timeline of events to get me from start to finish. As I do the outline, the main characters usually already start to define themselves. They develop personalities.
The next step is writing up a quick character sheet (click for free download) for each of them. Again nothing too detailed. Part of the fun is seeing where the characters take me.
Finally, I like to create a draft cover for the novel. It makes the book seem real. Envisioning it as a final product can be very motivating.
WNFIN (Write Nonfiction in November)
The first thing to do is to pick an idea and brainstorm on it to make sure it’s enough to become a book. This is important because some ideas are better suited to being blog posts, or a short series of blog posts, than a book.
Once I’m sure I have enough material to work with, I expand my brainstorming into a rough table of contents. This way I know the structure the book will take and what I need to write in each section.
If there are any parts I need to research further I do that next. Things like looking for quotes to include also fall into this category. These are all saved to a word file called WNFIN prep on my computer. I can then hop over to it as needed during the challenge.
I use a template with includes title page and other front matter, the table of contents, and pre-formatted chapter lay out. This saves me loads of time later on and helps me see the book as a finished product as I’m writing it. That way I just have to write the book.
As I do with NaNoWriMo, I also make a draft cover for WNFIN, for the same reasons.
PiBoIdMo (Picture Book Idea Month)
I’ve participated in this challenge for several years now and each time I go over the 30 idea goal. Having two small children around is an endless font of inspiration!
The only preparation I do for this challenge is to make an idea sheet (click to download) where I’ll track the number of ideas I get throughout the month.
So what about the non-writing related prep for the November Writing Challenges?
Yes, that’s just as important. Actually, it’s even more important than the rest of it.
If you’re going to be in a writing frenzy for 30 days you need to make sure you have a plan of action.
When will you write? Can you fit in big blocks of time on some days? Or will you be doing word sprints for the whole month? I tend to have a mix of these. I try to get bigger chunks done whilst the kids are at school in the morning as this is usually when I have more free time. I then word sprint through out the day where possible..
Where will you write? Find the best place for you to take on the November Writing Challenges. I work best from my home. I try to limit these interruptions is by telling everyone I’ll be doing these challenges and warning them that if they interrupt me for silly reasons they are likely to be turned into a character in my NaNoWriMo novel and then killed off. I’m writing a thriller this year 😉
I also plan food in advance. I do a big food shop the last day of October so I’m nicely stocked up with healthy, and easy to prepare food. Supplies of tea, coffee, and hot chocolate are musts, as are chocolate bars, and fruit for snacking.
In the last days of October, I make sure all the washing and ironing is up to date, and give the house a deep clean. This makes it easier to stay on top of housework throughout the month. I also prepare a few activities for the kids to do should I need to keep them busy.
That’s it really. Get as prepared and organized as possible before the challenges start.
If you’re taking part in any of the November Writing Challenges, tweet me a shout at www.twitter.com/JoLinsdell. I’ll be doing lots of word sprints throughout the month. Maybe you can join me for some?
Jo Linsdell is an award-winning, and international best-selling author and illustrator. She is also the CEO of www.WritersandAuthors.info. For more information about her and her projects, visit www.JoLinsdell.com.
You may have noted that TRLW writers have literally been on a road less written for a few weeks. Hopefully, we’ve been conspicuous by out absence. Laura took a month to travel and John is taking a couple of months to change day-jobs and move across the country. There are, of course, stories in that, but Justin has been up to something that might be interesting for a lot of us: podcasting.
As any “emerging” or veteran author knows, you can’t do it all. Authors have to decide where to focus their energies. Writing their book, blogging, generating an income, promotion, speaking, and staring into space all vie for their time and creativity. Justin is currently focusing on podcasting (in addition to being a family man, screen writing FOR PAY, promoting his books, and the other things that we all juggle.)
Personally, I think Justin’s decision to let others literally hear his voice is a great fit. If you listen to the podcast embedded below or have heard any of his radio interviews, you’ll note that his voice has a warmth and openness that’s hard to convey in non-fiction blogging. Self-Publishing Answers (SPA) podcasts at www.writehacked.com allows him and his entertaining cohorts, Kevin Tumlinson and Nick Thacker to present helpful advice in a friendly, mentoring tone.
The podcast page is embedded below. (Scroll down to find the play button.) This one happens to be about where to focus your energy as a first-time author. Give it a listen (as you do your work) and see what you think. Could podcasting work for you?
Visualization isn’t just visual. Writers engage all the senses as well as the imagination.
The term “visualization” is a misnomer. And so is “visual aids.” Visualization isn’t just visual and visual aids aren’t just for speakers.
The more my writing life intermingles with my speaking life, the more the lines between the two skill sets blur. (See How Public Speaking Can Make You a Better Writer.) There are more similarities than differences when it comes to sparking audiences’ imaginations. And, though it sounds counter-intuitive, there’s a lot writers can apply from the concept of a visual aid.
Visualization Isn’t Just Visual
We think of ourselves as painting pictures with words. Again, the bias towards our audience’s sight obstructs the meaning. For instance, if you want readers to think of a campfire, do you want them to form a mental picture of logs arranged in a radius with orange flames licking out of them? Or would you rather them to remember sitting by a campfire with the acrid smell stinging their nostrils or eyes? The smell of something delicious cooking? The taste of s’mores? The warmth of the flame during a chilly night? The magic of being away from all the indoor pursuits and enjoying the company of family or friends? Visualization isn’t just visual.
Visualization manages readers’ expectations.
When I was known as “The Science Lady” at my kids’ elementary school, I would go in classrooms to demonstrate fun scientific principles to the kids. My favorite involved blindfolding a volunteer, cutting an orange in half, and letting them smell it. Then I’d offer them something to drink—milk. The kids would always respond with surprise or even disgust. When they were expecting an orange, most kids hated the milk.
Just as our olfactory sense prepares our taste buds for what is to come, our words to manage our readers’ expectations of what they are about to digest. Writers can present the landscape much like a screenplay, letting them see every detail or focus their “visualization” on the part of the story we want them to conjure up. Our words become precision optics.
Visualization engages the imagination.
Good visual aids, like good writing, engage the imagination. In one of my favorite books, Talk Like Ted: the 9 Public Speaking Secrets of the Worlds Top Minds, Carmine Gallo asserts that “It is all about storytelling.” Since storytelling is my passion, I didn’t need much convincing, but Gallo backs up his premise with new brain research. Through functional MRI scans, researchers have discovered that our brains are more active when we hear stories.
I believe that’s because stories activate the imagination. Readers wonder what will happen next. They wonder what they would do, or how the facts apply to their situation. That engagement is like a hook, but not just for its ability to grab. As we engage readers’ imaginations, their neurons fire, embedding that hook (in a nice, painless way) and keeping them with our stories.
Good visualization engages the emotions as well.
Engaging the imagination can engage emotions as well. Take, for instance, neuroanatomist, Dr. Jill Taylor, one of the first TED Speakers to have her talk go viral. She uses a visual aid, but it’s far from visually appealing. Dr. Taylor uses a human brain, complete with 17” on spinal cord attached. It affects listeners’ visceral sense and their emotions much more than it affects their sight. Though she disgusts her listeners, she grabs their attention as well as their emotions. Particularly with teens, it makes a memorable moment, as she holds that brain aloft and tells them, “This is your brain. This is your instrument. This is your power.” (See Dr. Taylor’s TedEx Youth talk.)
When her listeners’ emotions are involved, her words, like that brain she holds out, have power.
It goes beyond “Show Don’t Tell.”
Without question, “Show, Don’t Tell” makes writing better. In fact, Dennis G. Jerz does a great job of illustrating how showing engages not only the senses, but also readers’ emotions in his Show, Don’t (Just) Tell post
But it’s not all craft. That kind of writing comes naturally when we write with passion. That passion, like an attention grabbing prop, engages readers’ senses and their imagination. As important as all the craft of writing well is, so it the art of pouring a bit of yourself onto the page.
Words act as visual aids.
We can’t hold a human brain under our readers noses, but, through our words, we can accomplish what good visual aids do. We can engage our readers’ imaginations–and that can be quite a gift.
Try wearing one of these! If you’re like me, You’ll find that speaking can make you a better writer.
Want to become a better writer? Try speaking.
Speakers, of course, often go about things differently than writers when communicating. However, the more public speaking I do, the more insight I get into my writing. I find more parallels than differences.
In fact, I’m convinced that writers can learn a lot from speaking.
How Public Speaking Can Make You a Better Writer
1. You Practice Engaging Your Audience
Before you think “thank you, Captain Obvious,” think of the “Wonk wonk wonk wonk….” drone of Charles Schulz’ adults in Charlie Brown. That runs neck and neck with a major wardrobe malfunction as the worst fear of every speaker.
Of course, writers aim to engage, too. It’s what drives us. Yet, we sometimes lose sight of that. Schedules, due dates, and word counts obscure our view of our audience.
Speaking can make you a better writer because speakers don’t have the luxury of losing sight of their audience. They know as they speak who is paying attention and who is doodling. It sounds intimidating, but as you write for listeners that will be in the room with you, you visualize them. It’s easy to keep them in mind. You know you don’t want to see them playing with their phones and it comes through in your writing.
2. You get Better at Storytelling
Speaking is all about storytelling. In Talk Like Ted, Carmine Gallon includes “Mastering the Art of Storytelling” as one of the “9 Public speaking secrets of the world’s great minds.” (This is a great book for authors and speakers!) According to Gallon, stories break down walls. They open minds by touching hearts.
I’ve haven’t latched onto this, simply because I’m into storytelling. Whether you’re writing or speaking, storytelling works. There’s no doubt in my mind that speaking can make you a better writer by honing your storytelling skills. In fact, good storytelling drives many of the following points.
3. You Have to Speak with Passion
I wonder if Nietzsche was inspired to write this by a bad speaker….
As Friedrich Nietzsche asked, “Is not life a hundred times too short for us to bore ourselves?” Passion is, in short, what makes our writing or speech interesting. It’s what conveys emotion. Speakers do it with their voice.
Writers do it with that other voice. Public speaking can help writers make sure they don’t edit the passion out of their voice as they perfect their style. Remembering the importance of passion can also help writers choose what to write about. Both speakers and writers fall flat when they chose a topic that doesn’t interest them. Passion is a hard thing to fake.
4. You Perfect Your Hook
Bad in golf, but excellent for writers…
I recently attended a Toastmasters “live coaching event.” Speakers started their prepared speeches and were interrupted by a champion speaker who analyzed what worked and what didn’t work. The process evoked a strong sense of Déjà vu—back to the San Francisco Writer’s conference with the first page critiques.
“Your hook was 30 seconds into your speech…” Sounds familiar, right?
Lance Miller, a former Toastmaster’s world champion, didn’t just focus on grabbing listeners’ attention. Rather, he advised them to help listeners engage emotionally. Which goes back to #1, #2, and #3. Hmmm.
5. You Learn to Speak (or Write) with Confidence
A writer’s audience can’t tell if the author’s fingers shook as they wrote, but they can sense our authority on our topics. Public speaking can make you a better writer by helping you develop that authority. Your confidence will come through your voice.
6. You Have to Be Authentic
Every audience wants a reliable narrator, whether they are in the room with them or not. If readers trust you and like you, they’ll stay with you. If they understand where you’re coming from, your viewpoint is more digestible to them.
Speaking authentically also brings home the writers’ mantra of “Show, Don’t tell.” For instance, my Toastmasters colleagues will quickly catch over-abundance of drama. Emotion is great. Drama, for drama’s sake isn’t. In fact, you’ll hear member suggest a tone of voice implying that the speaker’s emotion is kept under control, but with great effort. Again, you become a better storyteller. Which brings us to #9.
7. You Become Aware of Body language
In speaking, you do show with your body language and hand movements. Speaking drives this home. You won’t tell an audience that you were mad. You’ll show them with your voice, your stance, you facial expression and your gestures. It’s good practice.
8. You Improve Your Organization
Good organization is critical in a speech. Unlike readers, listeners don’t have the luxury of referring back to previous paragraphs or looking at bullet points.
Speaking can make you a better writer. As you prepare for speaking, you become hyper-aware of your talk’s organization. You learn to make sure you audience understands where you’re headed and any turns in the road.
9. Your Become Intentional about the Appropriate Amount and Type of Detail
Authors have the luxury of making their writing as “long as it needs to be.” Within limits, through the way they weave their story, writes can provide a wealth of background and backstories.
This is more challenging for speakers. First, they usually are operating under a time limit. Secondly, due to their length, speeches seldom offer the type of structure that lends itself to much back-story. Speakers need to provide detail that will engage readers in the story or setting, but not so much details that their listeners hear “wonk wonk wonk.”
They have to pick and choose which detail to use, which isn’t easy. Many times, it comes down to the listener’s ability to visualize the situation. Other times, it goes back to engaging. Which details will engage? Add humor? Increase impact? Public speaking can make you a better writer as you become sensitive to what details you include.
10. Strong Endings are Easier
As a non-fiction blogger, myself, a strong conclusion is often the hardest part. Perhaps it’s my internal distaste with ye ole “call to action.”
Somehow, in speaking, crafting a strong ending isn’t as hard. Perhaps it’s the immediacy of my audience, but when I end a speech, I beholden to help them figure out what they can do with any edification they gained by listening to me.
See if speaking can make you a better writer. Try your hand (voice). You can take a public speaking course or join a Toastmasters club. You’ll gain great insight into your writing.
Last week, I turned 42. In a society as age-centric as our own, you’d think I’d be freaking out about it. After all, the half-century mark is creeping ever closer. The faint etchings of age around my eyes are slowly becoming fault lines. And the old knee injuries of youth have come back to haunt me. It ain’t all bad, though. I’m actually in better shape now than I was 20 years ago. My vision is still 20/15. And when I look at turning 42 as simply having seven 6th birthdays, I trick myself into thinking it’s not such a hard thing to deal with.
Inevitably, however, there comes a day when the lights will go out. When the flame will get snuffed. When—not withstanding a person’s personal religious beliefs—we’ll all be spending the eternity drifting and tumbling through a moist, black void of non-existence. It’s the worst blow of all to the human ego to think of our minds—our consciousness—as nothing more than the mesh of a functioning brain; our bodies simply a bag of tissue and enzymes.
No artist can ever truly explain the drive to create. It’s a maddening, arduous process to sit there before a blank page and try to give some tangible form to artistic expression. Aside from the hours of thinking and ruminating and spelunking deep into the oft-treacherous caverns of the mind comes plenty of self-doubt and second-guessing. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve championed what I thought was the perfect set of paragraphs, only to glance at it the very next day and consider it all just complete garbage. A hobby like golf or stamp collecting would be much easier on the psyche, for sure. But that’s just it: a writer, and I mean one who writes with the desperation of someone trying to take air, doesn’t see writing as merely a hobby. It’s not something you do because you have an hour to spare. It becomes something you must do. A need to be fulfilled. We write to beat the Devil and that’s the point. Whether it’s painting a canvas or writing a song, sculpting a garden or writing a story. It may sound like a stretch but the basic goal of creativity is to compete with the inescapability of our mortality. We long to create something that’s bigger than us. Leave some part of us behind that will, at least in a pragmatic sense, remain timeless. Does that mean that all artists are narcissistic? Who exactly does longevity and timelessness matter most to anyway? The writer, or the reader? On any given day it can be either.
When you nail a sentence, it takes you to euphoric heights. Flub one, and it sends you plummeting to crushing depths. But that’s how it goes. You take the good with the bad. You follow your instincts while not always knowing what the instinct is saying. Because with every valley comes a peak. Ignore the value judgments of others and write only what is truthful. For when you create something you can be proud of, then you’ve already beaten death.