Utilizing Criticism

A few weeks ago, I accomplished two firsts as I writer: I submitted a story to a literary journal and I received a rejection letter from them. I can’t say I was not disappointed by the second, but I am not discouraged or dissuaded in my journey as a fiction writer.

In the rejection email, which I did not expect to receive, the editor mentioned he could offer some critical feedback on my story and why it was rejected if I wanted. Knowing this was a rare opportunity, I quickly shot back an email thanking him and asking for his criticism. A few days later, he sent an email outlining some of the areas to improve in my story, and now I have fresh ideas on areas to rework in my story.

None of us enjoy receiving criticism, but the benefit of criticism is not about the enjoyment. If my goal is to feel good in the short-term, I should not seek out criticism. But if I want to progress as a writer, if I my aim is for long-term development, I need people to critique my writing and tell me their opinions, specifically what needs to improve. It is from others that I best learn what my strengths and areas of growth are. My greatest moments of development as a writer have always come as a response to feedback from others on where my writing needs work. My critics were able to offer me new perspectives and ideas I had not thought of. Perhaps, if given enough time, I would have made these same discoveries on my own, but either way the criticism sped-up the process. It may not be easy to have people tell us what needs improvement in our writing, but such feedback offers us the opportunity to grow.

Another major challenge to receiving criticism is making sure we are seeking out good criticism. This can be the disadvantage of working with other writers and people who are not familiar with your genre. Fellow writers may be happy to share their ideas, and we should welcome this, but we should be careful that our friends are offering advice on how to improve our story and story-telling skills, not rewriting our stories into their stories. Likewise, others who are not as familiar with our genre may give their honest opinions, which can be helpful, but it will not be as effective as the perspective of someone immersed in our genre. This is when it may be valuable to hire an editor who specializes in your genre. With this background knowledge, he or she will be able to offer advice related not only to writing or storytelling, but your story’s genre and style. Our job, when seeking criticism, is not only to listen to the feedback we are offered, but to also sift through the criticism and sort out what to incorporate and what to set aside.

For example, some of the feedback I recently received on my story fit more into the genre of literary fiction rather than high fantasy. It was fascinating to see how the editor suggested adapting my story, but I do not plan to follow this specific advice because my goal is not to write literary fiction. 

In order to improve as writers we need to seek out good honest criticism. My dedication to my development helps me overcome the uncomfortable nature of criticism. I am happy to have tried and I will definitely keep trying.

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Goals for 2018

It’s already February and I am finally publishing my goals for 2018. Last year one of my goals was to write monthly blog posts on this blog, but considering that was the last blog post posted in 2017, you can tell how successful I was with that goal. Overall, I succeeded at many of the goals I had for 2017, but there were many that I gave up on before the year was over. I had learned from previous years to limit the number of goals I set for myself, but many of the goals I did set were too large to be accomplished amidst life and busyness of last year. For more on what constitutes a good goal, check out the Wikipedia article on SMART criteria.

This year, I am resetting goals for myself. I hope these goals will be manageable and quantifiable enough to be achievable in the next eleven months.

  • Write 3+ short stories
  • Write quarterly posts for each of my blogs
  • Finish editing my book
  • Self publish something
  • Read 12+ books
  • Read 1+ French books
  • Read 1+ book by an indie author
  • Study French for 1 hr./week
  • Compose a piece of music
  • Practice ukulele once a week
  • Learn a new skill
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New Year and New Goals


We are already two weeks into 2017. Every January, when the year is brimming with potential, I like to set concrete goals for myself. It’s a helpful tool for pushing me to take steps toward my larger dreams, especially with my writing.

In 2016 I set sixteen goals for myself, but I later abandoned three and completed eight of the remaining thirteen. My biggest accomplishment as a writer was having my first novel professionally edited. It was a wonderful and challenging experience, and I learned so much about writing and areas I need to grow in as a writer. As the year progressed, I realized that I had chosen too many goals for the year. Sixteen objectives spread my attention too thin rather than enabling me to focus on a few important ones. Learning from this, I have decided upon only eight for 2017:

  1. Read 12+ books
  2. Read 1+ book in French
  3. Write 3+ short stories
  4. Write monthly blog posts
  5. Self-publish something
  6. Compose a piece of music
  7. Learn a new skill
  8. Practice ukulele

I don’t know what this year will hold, but I hope to continue learning, growing, and challenging myself. I hope you will too. What goals have you set for 2017?

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A Writer’s Side Project


Today’s post departs from the normal topics of story, genre, or language to share another fun writing related project of mine.


Our neighbors have a pecan tree which overhangs our yard. This time of year it drops pecans, which are not really worth eating, into the yard. This abundance of nuts inspired me to find a good use for them. I knew walnuts can be used to make ink, but what about pecans? Turns out they can.

To make pecan ink, all you need is:

  • 1 non-food grade pot you don’t mind staining ugly black. I bought mine at a thrift store for a couple bucks
  • 2-3 handfuls of pecans with the fleshy husks on
  • Water
  • Fire source (preferably outside in case it overflows or sputters)
  • Old sock or other cheap strainer
  • Storage jar
  • 1 tsp salt

Every website and blog I consulted made sure to warn THIS WILL STAIN, THIS WILL STAIN, CREATE AT YOUR OWN RISK, so I feel compelled to pass the warning on. I made my ink on the gas burner of our barbecue and had no problems.


Pound pecans until broken up. Add to pot. Add water to pot until half full-ish. Put on heat and bring to a boil. Let simmer for an hour. Remove from heat and allow to soak overnight.


Remove pecan debris, return to boil, and simmer. The more you let this reduce, the darker the ink. When reduced, pour through old sock into storage jar and add salt (to prevent molding)


Now, dip a quill in your homemade pecan ink, and start writing!

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Verbs for Time


We all know the power of words; they affect us every day. Our words influence others and ourselves. This is the inspiration for those of us who want to become writers; we want to use the tool of our words to tell good stories. As a writer, I am aware of the effect word choice has on the mood, character, and framework of a text. The words I use, and their connotations, create the imagery and the tone of my writing.

Three years ago, my wife and I moved to Grenoble France to work with a student association. We taught an English course while we were learning French. It was fascinating to examine these two interconnected languages side-by-side. Something I noticed between them was the difference in the verbs for the usage of time. In English, we use economic verbs: spend, waste, or invest time. In French, the dominant verb is to pass (passer). Anglophones spend time together while Francophones pass time together.

This observation, in conjunction with Keith Chen’s TedTalk (view here) in 2012 about the effect our native language’s word choice has on our thoughts and behaviors, made me think about how our language and our verb choices for describing time affect our perception of life.

To spend time with someone or devoted to a task has a connotation of finality. When we spend money, it’s gone. This can imply that time is spent and then over. While the linear progression of time is true, I cannot help but wonder if a different verb would be beneficial.

I have decided to modulate my verb choice for time from “spending” to “investing.” I believe the concept of investing better articulates my views of time usage. When I invest time in having coffee with a friend, I retain the reward of deeper friendship. My investment is not gone; in fact, I am richer from that usage of time than I was before. Similarly, when I employ time to the development of a skill or a leisure activity, I am enriched by of these choices. I have long believed that time is a terrible thing to waste. I try to invest my time well, and I see the fruit of my labors as the return on my investment.

The idea of word choice affecting our perception is not limited to the subject of time, but I want to start with this significant topic before exploring the effects on other matters. What other words that we commonly use influence us? Can you think of alternate words to choose? If so, please leave a comment. I would love to see what you all think of.

Thank you for your investment in reading this post, I hope you feel encouraged. Now go invest time in something.

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A Writer’s Bestfriend


When we got our dog, Hobbit, a year ago, I was worried having a puppy would be a huge distraction from work and writing. Puppies take a lot of time: playing, walking, feeding, taking out to use the bathroom, cleaning up after accidents, and more. As it turned out, Hobbit demanded more time than I imagined.

But even though Hobbit took so much of my time, what she gave me in return was far more valuable. As I discovered, when Hobbit would interrupt my work (I often work from home) or my writing time, it provided me with free time to think. My schedule is dominated with mental activities: writing, emailing, reading, teaching, organizing events. Having to regularly step away from my work and engage in a short physical activity: walking, cleaning, standing around waiting for the dog to pee presented my mind with opportunity to disengage from whatever mental task I had been preoccupied with.

These mental breaks give my mind the rest it needs to maintain productivity. It is amazing, I am able to focus more and get more done when I take time to walk Hobbit. Longer walks also provided me with the opportunity for ideas to rattle around my head and percolate without my active effort. It is amazing the clarity, creativity, and productivity that comes during these times away from whatever I am working on; so much so I have learned to always have a note-taking device with me when I step away from my computer.

While puppies are a cute option for a distraction/time-sink, any rhythmic disruption will suffice. Perhaps you can set alarms to remind yourself to stop working and relax. I need someone else to prompt me. Now if you’ll excuse me, Hobbit wants to play fetch.

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Getting Back into Writing


We’ve all been there; life gets crazy and an embarrassing amount of time passes between our present moment and when last we were crafting our “current” work in progress. A week, a month, a year: all of it can feel like it’s an eternity since we last sat down to write our story.

This summer my wife and I had an intercontinental move and now, as the dust is settling, it has been over eight weeks since the last time I wrote/edited/hung out with my characters. I have been here before. Many people say that if you cannot write each day, to at least read over what you have written to keep it fresh in your mind. By now, I am way past that. So what do I do? How do I get back into writing and getting reacquainted with my characters and where the story was when I disappeared?

Perhaps you can dive right back into the midst of everything. Personally, I cannot jump straight into my story. I have to get my feet wet and wade in one step at a time. But this time does not need to be wasted.

I have found these times of warming back up to writing are great opportunities for writing short stories, flash fiction, blog posts (like this one) or general world building.

Maybe my main character is a bit shy or feels abandoned since I left. Another idea is to “have coffee” with my main characters. I open a word doc, imagine I am at my favorite cafe with my character, and write out a dialogue between us. I try and shoot the breeze with my characters to help them feel comfortable and bring them back to my mind. This conversation is private; I won’t post it (but I would perhaps recycle bits). The purpose is not to write story material but to pick up where I left off.

Here is the list of questions I ask my character while we grab coffee:


Describe the café: what is the décor (colors, style, furniture)? How loud is the room?  What are the aromas? Who are the people around us (age, profession) and what are they doing (talking, writing, studying for the MCAT)?

Where do we sit?

What is the character doing? Fidgeting? What are his/her mannerisms?

  • What drink does he/she order? What do I order? Does he/she order a pastry?
  • Is he/she happy to see me?
  • Is he/she mad at me?
  • Does he/she feel abandoned?
  • How do I explain why I have been gone?
  • Is he/she understanding of why I have been busy?
  • Did this time away stir up any fears or insecurities in him/her?
  • How is he/she feeling now?
  • What do we talk about?
  • Is he/she talkative, guarded, subdued, snarky, bored, tired, etc?
  • How does he/she feel about the story/where we left off?
  • Is he/she ready to jump back in, or does he/she need more time (side quest or backstory)?


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