Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Speaking Advice from Ralph Waldo Emerson

Ralph Waldo Emerson began his career on the lecture circuit in the mid 1830s and continued giving lectures until his death fifty years later. This included several European lecture tours. As with Mark Twain, Emerson’s speaking activities had a two-fold purpose: to supplement his income and to promote his writings.

Some of Emerson’s best advice on speaking actually precedes his experience on the lecture tour. It comes from a July 15, 1828 letter from Emerson to his younger brother, Charles, in which Emerson commented on Charles’ valedictorian speech. We don’t know if the letter was ever sent, and given its tone it may simply have been Emerson’s private outlet for his feelings. Either way, the letter has a lesson for all speakers and is as relevant today as it was almost 200 years ago. Here are selected passages.

There is very good management of the voice, fine tones, varied and delicate sounds—some that are music to hear; there is very elegant and very nervous [i.e., sensitive] gesture; and these are used to convey beautiful and forcible periods indeed a very finished oration—to all who have a mind to hear it. There’s the rub—you may hear it or not as you choose. The orator leaves you to your option. He does not address you. He has chalked round him a circle on the floor and within that he exhibits these various excellences to all the curious. . . . So Mr. E. with noble elements for eloquence, was all but eloquent. I felt that that voice should have thrilled me as a trumpet. I only heard it with pleasure. I felt that he should have made me laugh and cry at his will. He never touched me.

* * *

Instead, therefore, of feeling that the audience was an object of attention from him, he felt that he was an object of attention to the audience. This of course is the reverse of what it should be. Instead of finding his audience—like other orators—an angry master who is to be pacified, or a sturdy master who is to be cajoled,—and in any case, one whose difficult regard is to be won,—he takes it for granted that he has the command.

* * *

Let him remember that the true orator must not wrap himself in himself, but must wholly abandon himself to the sentiment he utters and to the multitude he addresses;—must become their property, to the end that they may become his.*

Your main purpose in speaking may be to sell your books, but that shouldn’t be the focus of your speech. Don’t just know your audience; get into its mind and give it what it wants. To paraphrase Emerson: if you give yourself to the audience, it will belong to you.   

This mini-series concludes next week with some more remarks from Mark Twain.


*    From First We Read, Then We Write: Emerson on the Creative Process by Robert D. Richardson, pgs. 66-68. The bracketed notation and italics are from the book.


The picture at the head of this post is based on an albumen print from Southworth & Hawes, which was created around 1857. It is in the public domain because of its age.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Storytelling Advice from Mark Twain

As mentioned last week, Mark Twain used lecture tours to promote his books and supplement his income. These tours took him around the country and even around the world. But nobody would have paid him to speak if he hadn’t known how to tell a story.

The advice in this week’s blog post is taken from a short piece appropriately named “How to Tell a Story.” In it, Twain distinguishes between what he calls comic and witty stories (and which we would call jokes) and the humorous story, which he labels as uniquely American.  As you read, don’t forget his penchant for irony. For example, he says that the humorous story strings “incongruities and absurdities together in a wandering and sometimes purposeless way,” but in fact nothing is purposeless—it all works together to create the effect he wants.

Mark Twain’s deadpan approach may not work for many writers, but the pause has a more universal application. Enjoy these selections and take from them what you can.

The humorous story may be spun out to great length, and may wander around as much as it pleases, and arrive nowhere in particular; but the comic and witty stories must be brief and end with a point. The humorous story bubbles gently along, the others burst.

The humorous story is told gravely; the teller does his best to conceal the fact that he even dimly suspects that there is anything funny about it . . . .

Very often, of course, the rambling and disjointed humorous story finishes with a nub, point, snapper, or whatever you like to call it. Then the listener must be alert, for in many cases the teller will divert attention from that nub by dropping it in a carefully casual and indifferent way, with the pretense that he does not know it is a nub.

Artemus Ward used that trick a good deal; then when the belated audience presently caught the joke he would look up with innocent surprise, as if wondering what they had found to laugh at.

* * *

To string incongruities and absurdities together in a wandering and sometimes purposeless way, and seem innocently unaware that they are absurdities, is the basis of the American art, if my position is correct. Another feature is the slurring of the point. A third is the dropping of a studied remark apparently without knowing it, as if one were thinking aloud. The fourth and last is the pause.

* * *

The pause is an exceedingly important feature in any kind of story, and a frequently recurring feature, too. It is a dainty thing, and delicate, and also uncertain and treacherous; for it must be exactly the right length—no more and no less—or it fails of its purpose and makes trouble. If the pause is too short the impressive point is passed, and the audience have had time to divine that a surprise is intended—and then you can’t surprise them, of course.

Next week we will hear from Ralph Waldo Emerson, who also used lecture tours to promote his books.


The picture at the head of this post was taken by A.F. Bradley in 1907. It is in the public domain  because of its age.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Speak to Promote

Many writers promote their books by giving speeches. But speaking also requires different skills than writing does, and it isn’t as simple as getting up and talking. The next few posts will contain advice from Mark Twain and Ralph Waldo Emerson, both of whom promoted their books (and supplemented their income) by going on speaking tours. But first, here is a reprint of an earlier post on the IWC blog. It was originally published on April 17, 2013 and has been modified to remove outdated information.

Speak to Promote

You've published a book and want to promote it. Or you haven't published anything yet but plan to develop a platform. Have you thought about becoming a speaker?

If you are used to talking to groups, start by deciding what topics you will offer. Then consider joining one or more speakers' bureaus.

But what if you lack experience and are too nervous to follow through? Maybe that writers’ conference you plan on attending has a session or two on public speaking. For more extensive training, check out speech classes at local colleges/universities and park districts. Or join a speaking club from an organization such as Toastmasters International.

Belonging to a Toastmasters' club gives you the opportunity to speak in a non-threatening environment while learning how to prepare and present speeches. Members range in experience from other beginners to people who command significant fees for speaking engagements. They'll all help you gain confidence and become a polished speaker.

New Toastmasters members receive a beginning manual that covers everything from organizing a speech to vocal variety, gestures, and using visual aids. After completing the first manual, members proceed to advanced manuals focused on various types of speaking, such as Persuasive Speaking, Humorously Speaking, and Interpretive Reading.

To find a nearly Toastmasters' club, go to and use the meeting finder at the top of the home page. Guests are welcome, so you can attend a meeting or two before deciding to join.

If you want to speak to promote, you have options.

Use them.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Believing in Yourself

Louis Martinez

This past year, I’ve managed to find made my way past many self-defeating hurdles: restrictions imposed upon myself through my own refusal to believe. Before, I was unproven, and I don’t mean to the world. I was unproven to myself. I hadn’t found a reason to believe in myself and the things I can do.
Thankfully, the people I’ve surrounded myself with have helped lift me up and over many of those hurdles in recent months, one of which was the self-doubt I carried along that weighed down on my writing skills. I’ve still got a long way to go, but now I realize there’s nothing other than myself holding me back from getting to where I want to be.
I realized I had a gift for writing during my teenage years. Once I did, I was eager and enthused. I had finally found my thing, that special talent everyone has that allows them to do something effortlessly when everyone else seems to struggle with it. Everyone has a gift. I had found mine.
Young and reckless, with too much energy for my own good, I thought I could do it all. I tried writing a novel at the age of eighteen. I failed, miserably. I could pump out short stories like it was nobody’s business, and I foolishly believed crafting a long story would be no different.
Everyone has a gift, but everyone also has a breaking point. Attempting to write a novel at such a young age bumped me down to mine, draining me of my will to continue as I tried to craft something my underdeveloped mind could not possibly understand.
I exhausted myself over the same story for years (no exaggeration), refusing to give up on something I started – another hurdle I’ve passed is knowing when to move on, and how that’s different from giving up. I just couldn’t get it to work. I couldn’t understand how to make a plotline span such a length.
For me, writing a novel was an insurmountable feat. Eventually, I gave up. I didn’t move on after realizing it was simply not something I was prepared to do at the time. I gave up. I quit. I fell into the misguided belief that my inability to do something right then and there meant I was attempting something I could never possibly achieve.
I didn’t move on. I gave up. I quit.
I held that belief for several years and am just now starting to see past it. Thanks to my amazing mentors, I now realize writing a novel is something I’m simply not ready for. It’s not something I could never accomplish. I’ve learned I have a lot to learn, but it’s no more complicated than that. I just have things I still need to learn, and I am learning them.
Why do I say all these things? Why do I tell this story? What’s the point?
The point is if I could feel the way I did, there’s a chance many other people are feeling the same way. I tell this story so anyone out there who’s not writing because they don’t believe in themselves might happen upon this post. I tell it because it just might be the very thing they need to hear. Self-doubt can stifle creativity and potentially prevent someone from telling an amazing story, and I don’t want that to happen.
That’s why I tell this story.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017


Judith Lachance-Whitcomb

When I read a book, if it is a good one, I fall in love with the characters. We all do. We even begin to care about the bad guys. When the book ends, I don’t want to leave those folks I’ve gotten to know through the author’s ability to bring them to life.  I’m realizing that I get the same pleasure from my own characters that develop along with the story.
I’ve always felt guilty because I don’t do character studies, at least not in an organized way. I don’t have a card file with descriptions of characters and locales. I don’t have character sheets, and even on my Scrivener I’m not using the character sheet template. As my characters grow, I construct their sketches based on what they’ve revealed of themselves.  I’ve come to realize, however, that there is a file box tucked somewhere in my grey matter. As a great observer of people, risking being arrested as a stalker, I can watch people for hours. In a restaurant, I eagerly try to hear their conversations. Watching people while at the beach, I note the variety of shapes, sizes, etc. of their physique and the bathing gear they use to enhance (or not) those physiques. Looking at two people having a conversation that I can’t hear, I make up stories in my mind of what is going on based on their body language. So, it’s not that I don’t pay attention to character traits, I just don’t do what many how to write sources suggest I do with developing a character study.

I find that my characters develop with the story. When I begin a story, I have a situation or general plot in mind. I know where I want to be at the end of the story. I have a general idea of who the main characters are, but many of the details emerge as they travel through the storyline. Minor characters are even less defined as we begin our adventure together.  

Sometimes my research brings the character to life. One story I wrote  was about an adventurous little Emperor penguin. He gets lost and ends up in the North Pole.   Even though the story is fiction, I wanted it to let youg readers know penguins are only in the southern hemisphere. I had the character penguin, Fidget,  firmly in my mind but I needed another animal to help  him figure out where he was.  I wanted an animal who would be familiar with both poles.  A little research and I found out about the Arctic Tern that travels between them.  The description of the actual bird helped me develop Tipper . You met both characters through their picture at the beginning of this blog.

Currently I’m working on a fiction story about Queen Guinevere (of Camelot) when she was a young girl. In the story an unlikely friendship develops between her and Emma, who is the complete opposite in position, manner, dress, and certainly grace. The story could be called historical fiction but I’m afraid it isn’t quite. To begin with, it’s hard to gather actual facts on the Arthurian period that seems to be mostly fiction as it stands. Also, the time of the story would be before the middle ages. I find very little information of that time, or at least information that would make my story more interesting. For example, castles weren’t what I was lead to believe as I read and watched all those books, plays (I loved “Camelot”), and movies. They were more like earthen and wooden rather than huge and stone structures. So, for the sake of my story, I’ve pushed Guinevere and Emma into the middle/later periods of the Middle Ages.
Anyway, back to my point. I wanted a very minor character to be Guinevere’s teacher. In truth, she probably wouldn’t have had one but my story needed it. There are many choices for a character like that: old, wise, young, handsome, brilliant, snobbish. Other than being a minor male character, he had very little definition in my mind. Needing a name for him, I began by going to my reference sheets (which I can conveniently store on my Scrivener) that contain first and surnames that would be common during the middle ages. I spent a good half an hour or more playing around with various combinations. I finally landed on one that screamed to me, “I am that teacher character.” The name?  It’s Umfrey Urry.  Isn’t that delicious? It was a name that could thoroughly confuse Emma and immediately shaped his looks and manner for me. As I introduced him to the story, he came alive in his snobbish dead-pan way. He makes Guinevere, Emma, and myself laugh – behind his back, of course.  Here is the paragraph when he enters the story:
Stop this commotion, I say!”   A path appeared through the crowd from the door to the interior of the castle. The path was made by someone or something whose long, upturned nose appeared before the rest of him did. “I, the Royal Teacher, must prepare the lessons for Her Majesty - the Princess!”  The mouse voiced speaker, now clearly in the center of the circle and the center of attention made sure his complaint was accompanied with a snobbish swish of the long, black curls that hung well below his bony shoulders. “Her Majesty will be furious when you have caused her lessons not to be ready for her!”

I will continue to seek out advice about how to write from as many sources as I have time to find. What I’m learning, though, is that there is no cookie cutter “how to write”. Our approach to writing has to be the one that works for us. I can try the suggestions I come across but in the end I have to find the ones that work for me. One of my current mentors is Stephen King through his book, On Writing. I was pleased to read his take on character development and especially resonated with this statement, “For me, what happens to characters as the story progresses depends solely on what I discover about them as I go along…” That works for me.

I’m not a published writer, at least not in the way that some folks I’ve met in writing groups consider “published.” I have a number of educational works that were published and a chapter in a book. I have my fiction work in group publications like Hoosier Horizons and the Edge of the Prairie. That’s it. But I am a committed writer. As I wrote about in a previous blog, I write because I can. I write because I enjoy the adventures my characters and I experience. I write because I love my characters.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Tech Tools for Writers

Dr. Anastasia Trekles

Even if you are an author who abhors having too much technology clogging up your writing space – as many people do – we all know that computers, the Internet, and other devices can make our work a lot easier. What you may not know, however, is that there are some cool, specialized apps out there that can really save you time and effort. While there are literally dozens of products out there for writers, authors, and publishers, here are a few of my personal favorites that can address some of those troublesome writerly issues.

1.     Scrivener ($45 with a 30-day trial, Mac/Windows/iOS) is a tremendous app. You can write with it. You can arrange scenes and chapters with it. You can construct outlines, create character and setting profiles, and brainstorm with it. You can organize research with it. You can even work on the same file from multiple devices (like a computer and an iPad). Scrivener might stop short of cutting julienne fries, but it does pretty much anything you’d expect from a full-service writing suite. If you’re willing to spend a little money and are looking for something more than what a typical word processor offers, this is something to check out, particularly if you write novels or other long-form works. Scrivener is designed to help you sort out the chaos of developing things like books and dissertations in a relatively easy-to-use interface.
2.     Google Drive (free) is Google’s free set of office apps that includes Docs for word processing, Sheets for spreadsheets, and Slides for presentations. Now, while none of these apps has quite the same level of sophistication as their equivalents in the Microsoft world, they offer the ability to collaborate with other people very easily, and without cost. With Docs (or any of the other tools), you can share your document to others and allow them to add comments, edit, and assign tasks to one another. You can always track what changes have been made so that you can see how the document developed over time, and you can go back to previous revisions if needed. So, no work is ever lost forever in the digital abyss, even if your partner accidentally deleted those crucial last three paragraphs.
3.     Dragon speech-to-text products (pricing varies from free to $300 depending on product and device) allow you to boldly go where people in Star Trek and other sci-fi venues go when they work with their computers – speech-to-text. It’s a technology that’s been around for a long time and has progressed a lot over the years, yet outside of communities such as persons with disabilities, you still don’t see too many people talking to their computers. Maybe it’s because it’s still less than socially acceptable to have a conversation with your laptop in public. Or, maybe it’s because voice interfaces take a little getting used to. Either way, if you have trouble typing, don’t like to type, or just need to move around more when you have a really good idea brewing, Dragon NaturallySpeaking (PC/Mac, full-featured) or Dragon Dictation (mobile) can be lifesavers.
4.     Calibre (free, Windows/Mac/Linux) isn’t so much a writing tool as a formatting tool, but it can fit a special niche for many authors, especially those who self-publish. Calibre allows you to create e-books from any document in a variety of formats, including MOBI, EPUB, PDF, and Kindle, and gives you full control over all settings. You can set up tables of contents, manage your metadata, and even test everything out to make sure it works, all in a relatively simple user interface. I recently used Calibre for a textbook project I was working on, and it made short work of ensuring that the MOBI and PDF documents – with an extensive table of contents – were accessible to readers. A cool added bonus of Calibre is that it can read any e-book file, so if someone sends you a document in an unusual format, you can open and read it right there, no extra tools required.
5.     Grid Diary (free version or add Pro features like cloud sync for $4.99 – currently iOS only) came into my life recently when I was looking for a tool that would encourage me to write a little about something every day. Sometimes, looking at the expanse of my half-written novel in Scrivener is a bit overwhelming; on days like that, I need some extra motivation. Enter Grid Diary, a cute, innovative app that presents you with a series of blocks that ask you questions each day, such as: What are my goals for today? What would help me have a better day tomorrow? What am I grateful for?  You can customize your grid, or let Grid Diary provide you with a template for your daily diary, but either way, it’s extremely easy to use, and the unique configuration gives you a chance to step out of your normal “zone” for a bit and just write about whatever comes to mind in response to your prompts. Who knows, it might be just the thing to get you out of that pesky writer’s block.

So, there you have it, some neat tech tools that can ease the work of any author out there. Will they take the words out of your head and put them on the page for you? Nope, computers aren’t that smart (yet). But, even if you normally plug along with pen and paper – or a digital equivalent – these tools may help fill a niche. But keep in mind that these are just the top five that I use in my own work, so I can attest to their overall usefulness. There are many more out there that might be even better for your needs, and spending time doing a little research is highly recommended!

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Getting Started

You have an idea for that novel or poem or short story or personal experience article, but you can’t seem to get it down on paper. Or you look at what you’ve written and weep because it’s so bad.

So do you give up?


Here is some inspirational advice from experienced writers.

On Writer’s Block

“If you’re going to be a writer, the first essential is just to write. Do not wait for an idea. Start writing something and the ideas will come. You have to turn the faucet on before the water starts to flow.” Louis L’ Amour

“Don’t think and then write it down. Think on paper.” Harry Kemelman

“You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.” Jack London

“There’s no such thing as writer’s block. That was invented by people in California who couldn’t write.” Terry Pratchett

“Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration. The rest of us just get up and go to work.” Stephen King

“I don’t wait for moods. You accomplish nothing if you do that. Your mind must know it has got to get down to work.” Pearl S. Buck

“Perhaps it would be better not to be a writer, but if you must, then write. If all feels hopeless, if that famous ‘inspiration’ will not come, write. If you are a genius, you’ll make your own rules, but if not – and the odds are against it – go to your desk no matter what your mood, face the icy challenge of the paper – write.” J.B. Priestly

“The way to write is to throw your body at the mark when your arrows are spent.” Ralph Waldo Emerson

“If the artist works only when he feels like it, he’s not apt to build up much of a body of work. Inspiration far more often comes during the work than before it, because the largest part of the job of the artist is to listen to the work, and to go where it tells him to go.” Madeline L’Engle

“When the work takes over, then the artist is enabled to get out of the way, not to interfere. When the work takes over, then the artist listens. But before he can listen, paradoxically, he must work.” Madeleine L’Engle

“Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” E.L. Doctorow

 “I think new writers are too worried that it has all been said before. Sure it has, but not by you.” Asha Dornfest

“To write something you have to risk making a fool of yourself.” Anne Rice

 “If I waited for perfection, I would never write a word.” Margaret Atwood

On Writing the First Draft

“You don’t have to be great to get started, but you have to get started to be great.” Les Brown

“If you don’t allow yourself the possibility of writing something very, very bad, it would be hard to write something very good.” Steven Galloway

“It is better to write a bad first draft than to write no first draft at all.” Will Shetterly

 “First drafts are for learning what your novel or story is about.” Bernard Malamud

 “I’m writing a first draft and reminding myself that I’m simply shoveling sand into a box so that later I can build castles.” Shannon Hale

“Every first draft is perfect, because all a first draft has to do is exist.” Jane Smiley

So start writing.