Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Rules to Live By

Dr. Anastasia Trekles

There’s a lot of interest lately in the brain – how it works, how it keeps us thinking and doing stuff and being productive day after day. However, even after research from just about every angle imaginable, there are very few clear-cut answers. The brain, turns out, is pretty darn complicated.

The latest brain research does give us some pointers on how writers (and everyone else) can be more creative and productive. First things first: you can’t multitask. You might have heard someone tell you this already, and you probably ignored them. We have too much going on in our lives, quite frankly, and most of us are unable to turn off all of our distractions, even for a little while. Our phones are our lifelines to our families and our social circle. Our email is our link to the people who need us most, and it tantalizes us with ads and newsletters about various cool stuff. We just can’t turn these things off for an hour – think of what we could miss!

But all of those things wind up keeping us from our real work. Some scientists even think that all this multitasking we do as a society is having a long-term impact on our brain function. When we switch tasks and attention so frequently, it tends to have the effect of reducing our concentration in such a way that it temporarily lowers I.Q. by a few points, requiring about fifteen minutes before you can become deeply engaged in a task again. That means that when you’re writing that next chapter and an email comes in with that familiar “ding,” you just lost at least fifteen minutes of productive work.

Dr. John Medina gives us some concepts to help this all make sense. He calls them the “Brain Rules,” twelve things that neuroscience has taught us about how these valuable and mysterious things on the top of our shoulders really work (probably). In short, these rules include:

·       Survival: Our brain is wired to keep us alive, and that means that if something alerts us, it tends to draw our attention away from everything else. That’s great when the alert in question is a man-eating tiger chasing us across the plains, but not so great when it’s your son texting you to ask what’s for dinner.
·       Exercise: Take a brisk walk periodically. Do a yoga pose. Hope on the stationary bike. Your body and your brain will thank you.
·       Sleep: Yes, we all need to get more rest. Many of us have trouble with that, since those distractions from our daily life often seep into our nightly life, too. A great deal of research has shown that people who get more sleep are more productive. And before you ask, no, you can’t “catch up” on lost sleep.
·       Stress: Stressed brains don’t learn very well. When you’re feeling overwhelmed by thirty emails and texts to answer while simultaneously feeling guilty about working on your writing before you answer, you are less likely to be productive. So stop that.
·       Wiring: Everyone is different. What works well for me might not work well for you. Be your own judge when someone gives you new strategies to try to “do more, learn more, be better!” To that end, a companion Brain Rule, Gender, reminds us that men and women think differently. They handle stress and emotion differently, too, which can in turn impact attention.
·       Attention: As we’ve said already, we need to focus to be productive, but also tend not to pay attention to boring things. So if you’re not that excited about sitting down to work, don’t force yourself. Wait for a better opportunity
·       Memory: “Practice makes perfect” is an age-old favorite for a reason. Repetition can be extremely helpful in helping us learn and remember.
·       Sensory integration: Stimulating more of your senses tends to make you a better worker and learner. So, when you work, try lighting a scented candle and surrounding yourself with things that comfort you. You might even try another Brain Rule, Music, and play soft music in the background while you’re working. Research says it can increase your attention and productivity, but only if it is not so enjoyable that you find yourself distracted by it.
·       Vision: Pictures tend to be very helpful for learning. Writers can benefit by finding pictures based on their characters or settings, to help give those ideas a more concrete form. For example, I use an app called Sutori to create timelines for my stories, and insert concepts of characters from photos I find online. Pinterest is another great option.
·       Exploration: If you spend more time than you budgeted looking for pictures that match your hero, that time is not necessarily “wasted.” Sometimes setting daily page or word counts can be counter-productive and limit your creativity. Don’t be afraid to go where the journey takes you.

So what’s a modern writer to do about all this? Balancing your tasks and setting timers can be helpful to keeping yourself in touch with the outside world while staying productive. For example, set a timer for twenty minutes when you start writing, and at the end of your time, get up and exercise. Or go ahead and check that inbox. Then, start another twenty-minute timer and get back to work. Working in these short blocks of time may sound counter to how a lot of people operate, but in the long run, it is much more likely to be productive.

Have a problem with keeping those distractions away while you work? There’s an app for that! Many programs have “distraction free modes,” including popular apps like Scrivener and yes, even Microsoft Word. Or if you’re on the go or looking for something cheap, there’s the free ZenPen. Even WordPress has a distraction free mode for you bloggers out there. In each case, everything of “interest” on the screen is pulled away and you’re left with a full screen of your page, where you can type away without infiltrations from email programs, Facebook, Twitter, and even your writing program itself with all of its shiny tools, buttons, and notifications.

These programs won’t turn off your phone for you, of course, but if you can’t bring yourself to do that, try an app called Forest. You plant a tree and set a timer, and when you’re on task, your tree grows. But if you wander off and start looking at the latest cat video your aunt posted on Facebook, your tree will die. That’s right – multitasking kills trees. Think about that the next time your email dings in the middle of Chapter Three.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

A Conference Panel for Everyone

In past years, attendees at the Steel Pen Creative Writers’ Conference listened to a brief welcome and then headed for the first breakout session. The 2017 conference will change that pattern and begin (after a brief welcome) with a general session panel titled “That’s Not What My Grandma Said: Preserving Regional Stories.”

People die, memories fade, and cultural history is lost. With them go the color and flavor that make any region unique and the seasonings that add authenticity to our written stories. So how do we keep cultural history alive? Join Jane Ammeson, Heather Augustyn, and Roland Cohen for a panel discussion on preserving regional stories. Kathryn Page Camp will moderate the panel.

The bios of the three distinguished panelists follow.

Jane Simon Ammeson is a freelance writer who specializes in travel, food and personalities. She writes frequently for Northwest Indiana Times, Edible Michiana, AAA Home & Away, Heartland Boating, Lakeland Boating, Cleveland Magazine, Long Weekends Magazine, Travel Indiana and the Herald Palladium. Her Bindu travel apps include Michigan Road Trips and Indiana Journeys. She’s authored ten books including Hauntings of the Underground Railroad: Ghosts of the Midwest, Murders That Made Headlines: Crimes of Indiana, A Jazz Age Murder in Northwest Indiana and East Chicago. She is a James Beard Foundation nominating judge for the Great Lakes Region.

Forever a Harbor girl, Jane attended E.C. Washington and worked after school and during the summers at the E.C. Public Library, a job she got through nepotism as her mother was employed there for a half century.

Heather Augustyn is author of Ska: An Oral History, McFarland, 2010; Don Drummond: The Genius and Tragedy of the World’s Greatest Trombonist, McFarland, 2013; Ska: The Rhythm of Liberation, Rowman & Littlefield, 2013; Songbirds: Pioneering Women in Jamaican Music, Half Pint Press, 2014; Alpha Boys School: Cradle of Jamaican Music, Half Pint Press, 2017; Dragon: The Story of Byron Lee, Ambassador of Jamaican Music, Half Pint Press, 2017; and Bob Marley: The Music of Pain and Promise, Rowman & Littlefield, 2018. She has been a correspondent for the Times of Northwest Indiana for 12 years and she teaches composition at Purdue University Northwest.

Ronald D. Cohen is an emeritus professor of history, Indiana University Northwest, Gary, Indiana, where he taught for 34 years. He is the author (or co-author) of numerous books, including Children of the Mill: Schooling and Society in Gary, Indiana, 1906-1960; Gary: A Pictorial History; Moonlight in Duneland; Rainbow Quest: Folk Music and American Society, 1940-1970The Pete Seeger Reader, and numerous others. He lives in Gary, Indiana, and is a member of the Gary Historic Preservation Commission.
This year's conference will be held on October 28 at the conference center at Fair Oaks Farms, just off I-65 near Renssselaer, Indiana. To learn more about the keynote speaker and the breakout sessions, go to You can find the registration link on the same page. Or, if you have additional questions, contact us at

We're excited about this year's conference, and we hope to see you there.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

How to Break Through Writers' Block

Heather Augustyn

We’ve all been there. Fingers are poised over the keyboard, coffee at hand, kids occupied and dog sound asleep and the muse just isn’t visiting. Writers’ block can be an evil foe and there really isn’t a surefire way to get the juices flowing, but here are a few ideas to help.

1.     Read
Pick up anything, anything at all—Harry Potter, a copy of The New Yorker, an old journal. You never know when inspiration will come and reading other people’s words seems to help get those synapses firing.

2.     Listen to an audio book or podcast
Again, this is activating the language sectors of the brain, and creativity can strike from anywhere!

3.     Take a walk or a leisurely drive in the country
Our brains are designed to work in the conscious and subconscious, so even when you’re not noodling an idea, you are still noodling an idea, and so a step away is a great way to keep the conscious occupied so the subconscious can strike!

4.     Bake a cake or work in the garden
The idea here is to do something totally different, something that is constructive, brings something to fruition, that doesn’t require the same kind of thinking as writing.

5.     Write about something unrelated to your project
Pick an object in your room—a vase, a television, a plant—and tell the fictional history of how that object came into existence. Any kind of similar prompt can help in a number of ways, either by creating something useful for a future project, creating a solution to the block on your current project, or just writing for the sake of writing.

6.     Phone a friend
If you talk through a story, the friend can offer you their ideas which can either be great, so steal it, can spark a thought that takes you closer to what you need, or can create the opposite of what you’re looking for so you have something to push against and form your own ideas even more strongly.

7.     Sketch
No, not a character sketch or a story sketch—a sketch sketch. A drawing. Draw the scene, draw the setting. Sometimes accessing the information in a different way can open the floodgates of creativity.

Heather Augustyn is an author, journalist, and writing instructor. You can connect with her at,, or @HeatherAugustyn.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

My Expertise

Judith Lachance-Whitcomb
Every time I get the email reminding me that I signed up to do this week’s blog, I ask the same question, “Why did I sign up for this?”  Contributors to the Indiana Writers’ Consortium blog always have such excellent writing expertise and they are willing to share it with us.  I often think that someone wanting to get into writing would just have to go through our blogs and they will find a great writing course.  A person can find everything from legal advice to ideas for writing to words from experts, great resources, and even what to do with writing blocks.  Hmmm, wait, I do have an expertise – writing blocks!  Surely, I have had more than anyone else around.

Does that make me an expert?  I don’t know.  Some may believe I live in a writer’s block. Some may even wonder how I can consider myself a writer when I spend more time blocking than writing. However, I am a writer with expertise in blocking. So, let me share some things I’ve tried to overcome this writer’s malady.

Research – All writers know the importance of research so I began to research whatever I could about writer’s blocks.  First, I found out that many well-known authors went/go through writers’ blocks, so there’s good company for those of us who block.  Then I found numerous suggestions for overcoming the blocks.  In a previous IWC blog, I reported some of the techniques and their impact on my blocks.  (December 18, 2013, "All I want for Christmas").

Therapy – One time, when the Evil Block arose again, I resorted to my knitting hobby and created two polyfill pencils. The larger one was used to hit my head while blocking, the smaller functioned as a worry stone.  Did that help?  Not much, but I do have to say there is something therapeutic about hitting my head without danger of major harm.  Also, knitting was a good excuse to avoid the writing block – I just didn’t write.

The Real Deal – If I am a writing block expert, I should be able to suggest something really beneficial in the Block Battle.  Here it is:  NETWORK.  That’s it.  I’ve found that the best way for me to work through a block is to immerse myself into the writing community.  The support, advice, and encouragement from fellow writers ignite the writer-me.  Where do you find that?

There are excellent writing critique/support groups in Northwest Indiana. A number of them are listed on the Indiana Writers’ Consortium webpage (  Often when I was in a block, I would miss my groups’ meetings.  When I returned, my block dissipated.  If you don’t have a critique group, find one. 

Other opportunities for networking are writers’ conferences.  For me, the conference that is in my own backyard, so to speak, is the annual IWC Steel Pen Creative Writers Conference.  I’ll share an experience that I had at last year’s conference.

I hadn’t been writing.  The block was winning.  I went to the conference hoping for a push to work through my block.  The first session was good, explaining how this author developed her characters by giving them depth through detailed character sketches/files.  Mulling over the next set of sessions, I couldn’t make up my mind.  I just wandered into the nearest room.  Realizing it was a session on writing memoirs, my heart sank.  Memoirs are not a genre that I read and definitely not one that I am interested in developing.  As I turned to leave, the presenter smiled and invited me to join the group already in a circle.  Not wanting to insult him, I sat.

The presenter, Marc Nieson, began by having us visualize. His calm, inviting voice allowed each of us to go into ourselves.  The session progressed and I was totally engaged.  After the session, I headed directly for the IWC bookstore tables and purchased Marc’s book, School House, lessons on love and landscape. Can you believe it?  I actually bought a memoir. 

As the conference was winding down with hors d'oeuvres and mingling, I spotted Marc.  I had already taken my books to the car.  I said, “Marc, I wanted you to sign my book but I don’t have it with me now.”  He grabbed a piece of paper and wrote the following:

To Judy,
With great thanks and affection, looking forward to your words in whatever bloody “form” they take.
In ink and arms,

Memoirs are still not my favorite reading feast but Marc’s book is.  Like his session it bore a huge hole through my block. Sharing his journey with me via his book, he created a collage of memories, people, nature, and writing that made me eager to pick up my pen (I should say mouse) again.  During the next session of one of my writing groups, Magic Hour Writers, I was extolling Marc, his book, and the effect it had on my writing energy.  They suggested that I put Marc’s note up near my computer.  I have done that, and Marc’s words help me fight my blocks. I have written more this past year than I had in the previous two.

My best advice for conquering blocks is to network.  Actually, my advice for writing is networking.  The support of people who understand the unique writer persons we are is crucial not only for helping us to work through blocks but aiding us in developing our craft.

If you haven’t done so already, be sure to take advantage of a prime network connection by signing up for the 2017 Steel Pen Creative Writers Conference.   Go to the IWC webpage for details. 

Until then, wishing you block free days and happy writing, I’ll see you at the Conference.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Plotting the Plot

Heather Augustyn

This summer I have been teaching a few classes for teens, and what better way to learn about your own writing than by teaching kids. They make you think of every aspect of writing, deconstructing it piece by piece in order to understand it from all sides. One of the classes I taught was about plotting the post-apocalypse, a tremendously popular genre among teens and, frankly, all readers. From Wall-E, to War of the Worlds, post-apocalypse seems to be pretty relevant these days!

Anyway, it had me thinking a lot about plot. So this week I bring to you two voices on plot—one from a favorite writer of mine, Kurt Vonnegut, native Hoosier, who I had the pleasure of interviewing just weeks before his death. In this video clip, he humorously and sardonically offers his thoughts on plot trajectories. See the clip here:

Next, I offer a list of possible plots in an article by Ronald B. Tobias called, "20 Master Plots, and How to Build Them," which he wrote for Writer's Digest Books in 1993. They are as follows and hopefully with these two bits of information from Tobias and Vonnegut, you will find inspiration for your own work!
1. Quest
The hero searches for something, someone, or somewhere. In reality, they may be searching for themselves, with the outer journey mirrored internally. They may be joined by a companion, who takes care of minor detail and whose limitations contrast with the hero's greater qualities.
2. Adventure
The protagonist goes on an adventure, much like a quest, but with less of a focus on the end goal or the personal development of the hero. In the adventure, there is more action for action's sake.
3. Pursuit
In this plot, the focus is on chase, with one person chasing another (and perhaps with multiple and alternating chases). The pursued person may be often cornered and somehow escape, so that the pursuit can continue. Depending on the story, the pursued person may be caught or may escape.
4. Rescue
In the rescue, somebody is captured who must be released by the hero or heroic party. A triangle may form between the protagonist, the antagonist and the victim. There may be a grand duel between the protagonist and antagonist, after which the victim is freed.
5. Escape
In a kind of reversal of the rescue, a person must escape, perhaps with little help from others. In this, there may well be elements of capture and unjust imprisonment. There may also be a pursuit after the escape.
6. Revenge
In the revenge plot, a wronged person seeks retribution against the person or organization which has betrayed or otherwise harmed them or loved ones, physically or emotionally. This plot depends on moral outrage for gaining sympathy from the audience.
7. The Riddle
The riddle plot entertains the audience and challenges them to find the solution before the hero, who steadily and carefully uncovers clues and hence the final solution. The story may also be spiced up with terrible consequences if the riddle is not solved in time.
8. Rivalry
In rivalry, two people or groups are set as competitors that may be good hearted or as bitter enemies. Rivals often face a zero-sum game, in which there can only be one winner, for example where they compete for a scarce resource or the heart of a single other person.
9. Underdog
The underdog plot is similar to rivalry, but where one person (usually the hero) has less advantage and might normally be expected to lose. The underdog usually wins through greater tenacity and determination (and perhaps with the help of friendly others).
10. Temptation
In the temptation plot, a person is tempted by something that, if taken, would somehow diminish them, often morally. Their battle is thus internal, fighting against their inner voices which tell them to succumb.
11. Metamorphosis
In this fantastic plot, the protagonist is physically transformed, perhaps into beast or perhaps into some spiritual or alien form. The story may then continue with the changed person struggling to be released or to use their new form for some particular purpose. Eventually, the hero is released, perhaps through some great act of love.
12. Transformation
The transformation plot leads to change of a person in some way, often driven by an unexpected circumstance or event. After setbacks, the person learns and usually becomes something better.
13. Maturation
The maturation plot is a special form of transformation, in which a person grows up. The veils of younger times are lost as they learn and grow. Thus the rudderless youth finds meaning or perhaps an older person re-finds their purpose.
14. Love
The love story is a perennial tale of lovers finding one another, perhaps through a background of danger and woe. Along the way, they become separated in some way, but eventually come together in a final joyous reunion.
15. Forbidden Love
The story of forbidden love happens when lovers are breaking some social rules, such as in an adulterous relationship or worse. The story may thus turn around their inner conflicts and the effects of others discovering their tryst.
16. Sacrifice
In sacrifice, the nobler elements of the human sprit are extolled as someone gives much more than most people would give. The person may not start with the intent of personal sacrifice and may thus be an unintentional hero, thus emphasizing the heroic nature of the choice and the act.
17. Discovery
The discovery plot is strongly focused on the character of the hero who discovers something great or terrible and hence must make a difficult choice. The importance of the discovery might not be known at first and the process of revelation could be important to the story.
18. Wretched Excess
In stories of wretched excess, the protagonist goes beyond normally accepted behavior as the world looks on, horrified, perhaps in realization that “there but for the grace of God go I” and that the veneer of civilization is indeed thin.
19. Ascension
In the ascension plot, the protagonist starts in the virtual gutter, as a sinner of some kind. The plot then shows their ascension to becoming a better person, often in response to stress that would defeat a normal person. Thus they achieve deserved heroic status.
20. Descension
In the opposite to ascension, a person of initially high standing descends to the gutter and moral turpitude, perhaps sympathetically as they are unable to handle stress and perhaps just giving in to baser vices.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

The Balancing Act of Realism

Louis Martinez

Realism can be used to enhance a reader’s experience with a story by making the fictional world feel less fictional. For example, a character who has been deprived of water for several days could start to suffer from dehydration – a deceptively dangerous condition. Rather than continuing to perform physical tasks at an optimal level as if water isn’t something humans need, the character will grow weaker and slower as their body comes closer to expiration. This realistic portrayal of such a scenario can help a reader become more immersed in the character’s situation.

Unfortunately, realism may also have the opposite effect by conflicting with a reader’s expectations. For example, when the hero puts a suppressor on their rifle, the reader will probably expect the firearm to make a barely audible “poof” when fired. Realistically, this would probably not be the case. The suppressor would offer more space for the gases to cool and expand before hitting the open air, but unless the hero is using some sort of subsonic ammunition, the bullet will still break the sound barrier, thus still resulting in a quite audible little “boom.” But this isn’t what many readers would expect, so realism is often sacrificed in such a scenario by many writers.

And at times, writers may even neglect realism in favor of progressing their story in a certain image, however unrealistic it may be. Another fine example is when swords enter the story. A writer may display a grandiose scene where the hero and the villain dance around with swords for several minutes, all the while having a conversation. A real sword fight likely wouldn’t last more than a few seconds. The characters would draw their swords, pumped up on adrenaline, and then someone would get cut to ribbons in an instant. And thus, a realistic portrayal of a sword fight may often be so anticlimactic it never even occurs to a writer’s mind (or a reader’s) that their epic scene is in fact, quite outlandish.

So then, what to do about the problem of realism. That depends on the story you’re trying to tell. If it’s meant to be far-fetched, then you might want to avoid realism to give the reader a sense of outrageousness. On the other hand, is this tale meant to be taken seriously? If so, you should consider researching anything and everything you put into your story that you’re unfamiliar with.

Does your protagonist wield a firearm? Do your homework. Decide what type of weapon they have, and what ammunition they load it with. One “pistol” could act completely different from another, and two different cartridges could produce wildly different results, even when fired from the same weapon. Did the hero incapacitate the villain by shooting him once in the arm? If so, the hero must’ve been dreaming, because that’s not how it works in the waking world. Research ballistics and the effects of gunshot wounds on the human body, as well as the probability of accurately targeting someone’s arm.

Find a way to balance the realism in your story. Consider the tone and purpose, the message you’re trying to convey. A safe way to determine the amount of realism your story needs may be to measure how seriously it’s meant to be taken. The more serious the story is, the more realistic it should be, and vice-versa. But this is entirely up to you.

At the end of the day, what’s most important is to do your research. No matter how realistic – or unrealistic – you want something to be, you can’t accurately portray what you don’t understand. So, before your character puts on those boxing gloves or picks up that sword, be sure you read up on the material yourself. Make sure you know what your hero is getting into.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Too Many Choices, Part III

The last two posts described six of the nine breakout sessions at the 2017 Steel Pen Creative Writers’ Conference, and this post will cover the remaining three. Each of the workshops listed below is designed to help writers sell their books. Read on for more information.

They DO Judge a Book by Its Cover: Cover Design 101 for Authors

When readers aren’t familiar with your work, what draws them to your books? The beginning paragraphs are important, but potential buyers must open the book to read them. The cover is usually the first thing that catches readers’ eyes and makes them look inside. Self-published authors are responsible for designing or selecting their own covers, so how can you make your cover stand out in a good way? This workshop uses discussion, exercises and examples to share sure-fire methods for creating great book covers.

Rod Martinez is the recipient of the 2017 Jerry Spinelli Scholarship from the Highlights Foundation. He writes middle grade fiction and has published a half dozen books. To view his book covers and find other information about Rod, go to 

Online Marketing: Using Your Website to Maximize Sales

It’s common knowledge that every author needs a website, but what do you do with it when you have it? J. Steven Young’s session answers that question and provides advice on simple and economical ways to enhance your website and build your marketing platform.

As a writer, Steven has authored over a dozen books ranging from early childhood activity books to YA fantasy. As a marketer, he utilizes cost-effective and free tools to boost exposure and sales and to streamline the self-marketing process. Steven combines his technology training with his love of writing by holding webinars, providing individual training, and engaging in consulting work to show authors how to brand themselves and sell their books in a digital world. You can learn more about him at  

Picking Up the Mic: Using Performance Storytelling to Enhance Promotional Opportunities

Do you give library presentations or school talks, or are you looking for a way to increase attendance at book signings? Performance storytelling can generate interest and add value to those promotional opportunities. In this workshop, Mary Dean Cason and Gregg Fraley will help writers find their spoken voice and will provide essential tools and techniques to be better story performers.

Mary Dean Cason teaches the art and craft of live storytelling and has performed at venues throughout Chicago, Northwest Indiana, and Mexico. She is the founder of Wine, Women & Stories, co-founder of Indigan Storyteller, and co-creator of Michiana Stories. Mary Dean is the author of What Solomon Saw and Other Stories, the recipient of the Pinch Literary Award, and the winner of the University of Chicago’s 2008 Writer’s Prize for Fiction. For more information, check out her website at

Gregg Fraley is an author, speaker, creativity consultant, and radio host. His program, “Michiana Story Hour,” airs on WRHC in Three Oaks, Michigan. You can find out more about him at

As noted in the first post in this series, the Conference Committee hasn’t set the actual schedule yet, so it is too early to know which of the nine breakout sessions will conflict. But with this lineup, you can’t lose.

Registration for the 2017 Steel Pen Creative Writers’ Conference is now open. Sign up at and join us at Fair Oaks Farms on October 28.