book review: the art of empathy

The Art of Empathy: A Training Course in Life’s Most Essential Skill by Karla McLaren

I know, I know–you’re probably wondering how a psychology book founds its way onto my reviews of writing books.

But here’s the thing I love about psychology and sociology books. They teach us about ourselves and others, and isn’t that like one gigantic, never-ending character study?

In short: yes.

Empathy, argues the passionate author McLaren, is the sum of your emotional intelligence expressed in myriad ways. All our emotions are gifts to guide us through social interactions and everything else in life–anger to warn us that our boundaries have been violated, shame to warn us to avoid confrontation, fear heightens our senses to protect us. These emotions, and our skills in dealing with them, are key to our survival and to resolving conflict.

I enjoyed this book. The language is accessible and assumes nothing of the reader, save a desire to learn. It handles tough relationships with a gentle, caring hand, and offers emotional honesty. Like I said, it’s a self-help book for people who want to handle their emotions better, but all throughout I saw great information for writers. I have another tool in my toolkit and a new lens to focus my people-watching–the gifts of our most basic emotions, and how everyone deals with them.

Verdict: check it out from the library!


last chance for the self-publishing seminar

If you are interested in the Self-Publishing Seminar on June 13th at Fondulac District Library, there’s one spot left. It’s not too late to sign up, but do it soon if you want to come!

Registration and Event Details for Self-Publishing Seminar

writing against the clock

The older I get, the more I realize I will never have enough time.

I’m not even ‘old!’ (And I’m definitely not complaining).

There is no ‘I’ll get to it later’. There is no ‘just a few minutes, then I’ll begin.’ With a toddler on the loose, a pile of laundry, and two hours before I have to be at work, there is only now.

I need to get better at managing my time. Do I have an easy answer for you that will solve all our time problems? Hah, I wish. There is no easy.

With Camp NaNoWriMo coming sooner than I want to admit, I realize I only have two options: drop my current revisions and start afresh with new words, or use revisions as part of my Camp project. New words are fun. Putting a project on hold is not. I still don’t know what I’ll do — in true Barbarian style, I’m waiting till the last minute to decide.

The spirit of NaNoWriMo isn’t really to ‘write fast’. If we’re writing against the clock, it’s not a words per hour metric. We each have twenty-four hours in a day, and it takes gumption to write when there are chores and meetings and other obligations. It takes courage to say no, I can’t do that favor for you because I have to write today. It takes willpower to keep plodding along when the end is not yet in sight.

But we do it anyway, because we’re all writing against the clock.

story trumps structure: a review

Story trumps structure: how to write unforgettable fiction by BREAKING THE RULES

by Steven James

This book’s title is telling. On one hand, yes, story trumps structure. A good story trumps all. I’m on board with that. But the rest reads like a gimmick.

What this book means by ‘break the rules’ is actually this: ignore all those other rules, but follow MY rules (and we’ll call them principles so it’s totally not the same thing hahaha aren’t I clever?) and write your novel without any ‘structure’ at all. Just use this other kind of structure which we will not call structure, we’ll call it more principles to guide you, see, still clever!

75% of this book you can find in other writing books. Full stop. The ideas might get different titles, but they’re there. This book rehashes concepts like tension, conflict, plot twists, escalation, and story promises–all of which are familiar territory to anyone reading other contemporary writing books.

The other 25%, if you’re a quote-endquote organic writer, might actually be useful. Most professional writers who have written writing books are the organized, plotting types, so this is the first place I’ve seen this kind of in-depth discussion of writing by the seat of your pants and making it work. However, I still have a couple of quibbles…

For one, the plotters are not at war with the pantsers. There is no war. Got it? Okay. I hate the dichotomy of you’re either this or this, especially when it comes from writing teachers. If you’re a student of writing (and we’re all students of writing) what works now might not work in ten books. And ten books from then, you’ll probably have new methods and prefer different techniques. And that’s how it should be. I pants a lot more than I did when I was writing my first book, but I still love my outlines.

I don’t buy into the attitude that if an outline didn’t work for you once, that must mean you’re not an outliner so just throw it away and be freeeeeee! No, no, no. I’ve had so many outlines that didn’t work because I wasn’t good at outlining yet. It’s a skill, one of many. There is no war between plotters and pantsers. We’ll get along just fine as long as I get that last cookie.

Some of the advice for organic writing is simply not sustainable–such as rereading large chunks of your novel before you sit down to write every day. I want to know how to to enter this mythical universe where hours of solitude and privacy are handed to me every day. I eek out my writing time a few minutes at a time. Being a plotter helps because with an outline or at least a clear idea of where I’m going, I spend a bit less time exploring. But where in the laws of the cosmos does it dictate that organic writers can’t be organized like their plotting peers? All writers, regardless of process, can benefit from tools such as lists, journals, and a side-document filled with ongoing questions, concerns, and ideas.

Like many others, this book is rife with casual sexism. Heroes are hes, unless they’re mothers or really want to get married, then they’re shes. If you want to hurt your protagonist, hurt his wife or some other woman that ‘belongs’ to him. And it seems a bit pointless to complain, because hey all the other writing books do it, too, right? But it doesn’t have to be this way. Considering that more than half of writers and readers are women, why do male authors assume that other men are the default of their audience? Using gender-neutral pronouns is so laughably simple and would include everyone–not just men and women.

This book doesn’t make it on my recommended list, for the obvious reasons. If you can snag a copy from your library, Part II (organic writing) is worth a read, but otherwise, the rest is a gimmick to make readers think they’re ditching the rules, when really they’re just learning the rules under different, flashier names.

Oh, and the troubleshooting chart in the back is downright insulting. I appreciate these kinds of charts for baking, but for writing, not so much, because they assume I’ve already figured out the problem. Do I need a chart to tell me that if my problem is ‘too many flashbacks’ (pg 286), the answer is to cut them? That isn’t helpful. How about a chart that makes me answer questions about how important each flashback is, so I can actually determine if it’s needed to tell the story? Obvious chart is obvious.

nano what now?

Happy December, writer-types!

I hope your NaNoWriMo went well. And even if it didn’t, I hope you’re doing alright yourself.

We have big plans for 2015, and we’ll have some more details for you as we get them figured out! But for now, let me leave you with some of our big ideas:

Workshops: we’re going to shift our focus from less of Barb talking at you, to a round table. In January, we’ll talk about self-editing, giving/getting feedback on your work, and the likes. Then in February-April, we’ll be discussing the Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins from a writing/story perspective. You should be able to follow along without reading (or at least watching the movie), but to get the most out of it, I hope you’ll read the book.

Critique Circles: Once a month, we’ll try to meet and share each other’s work! We’re still working out some of the details on this, but look for us to update the guidelines page for an idea of what to expect within the group. A friendly reminder on critiques in general: the more you give, the more you get out of these experiences. So get involved in the group and be prepared to learn!

Seminars on publishing, self-publishing, querying, formatting: you asked, we deliver! Look for some events to be scheduled in the next few months that touch on how to get work from document to paper.

Happy Writing!


Need to know more about our write-a-thon? Keep reading!


November 22nd, 2014

9 a.m. – 9 p.m.

Fondulac District Library, Civic Complex

Come write with us! We’ll have donuts and coffee and snacks to get you started and keep you going.

The Civic Complex in East Peoria. It’s adjacent to the library, in the same building. There’s plenty of space and places to plug in your noveling device. Wi-fi is available.

Come and go as you have time! While the library is open, (9 a.m. to 5 p.m.), the doors are open and we’d love to have you for as little or as long as you can make it. After 5 p.m., we will move to the Conference Room inside the library, and we’ll finish out the Write-A-Thon lock-in style (participants may leave, but re-entry will not be allowed). Throughout the day, we’ll be hosting friendly word wars (fifteen minute spurts of writing frenzy) and ice-breaker style games to keep your energy levels up.

What about food? There are a ton of places to pick up lunch and dinner near the library in the new and growing Levee District. We also have a sign-up thread going on the official site for people who volunteer to bring easy-to-eat foods and snacks. At lunch and dinner times, we will also organize a meal order, so if you wish to participate please bring some cash and include tip for delivery.

Please join us! We’re keeping track of all the words we write—our word count poster will grow and grow and grow all day.