Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Small Changes and Big Differences

Louis Martinez

Sometimes, changing a single word can make a world of difference. It can drastically shift the connotation of your character’s statement, and elicit different responses in a reader’s mind. Changing one word can alter the implications of how your character feels and acts. Take these following two statements into consideration.
“I didn’t find the time.”
“I didn’t have the time.”
Both might convey largely the same turn of events: something was meant to be done that was not. And in truth, both statements could mean the same thing, without any differing connotations, depending on the character’s speech patterns. However, the difference between “find” and “have” may also be indicative of the character’s feelings toward the topic at hand.
For example, a character who states they did not “find” the time may indicate they tried to fit whatever it was into their day, but were ultimately unable to. They may have started the task, maybe even multiple times, but were continuously interrupted. More pressing matters kept getting in the way, and the task was never done.
However, a character who states they did not “have” the time for something may indicate they never attempted it. Someone may have asked them previously to perform said task, and the character disregarded it, never intent on taking the time out of their day. And now that it’s been brought up again, the character is vocalizing the perceived irrelevance to the task-giver by implying they do not have room in their life for such trivial matters.
The connotations of these two statements could be reversed; altered from what is defined here; or dismissed altogether, depending on the character’s development and personality. Changing one word for one character may elicit a different meaning than it does for another. There are infinitely more twists and turns the meanings of words can take.
Give it a try. Write a sentence, and change one word to another that fits. As you’ll see, the message conveyed can change substantially. This effect may be confounded by different characters with unique personalities. Use this phenomenon to your advantage when crafting those intriguing plotlines and foreshadowing dialogue segments. Soon, you’ll master the art of making small changes and big differences.

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.