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Social Media and the Writer

Conventional wisdom says that in the year 2020, social media is key to getting noticed, whether you’re an author or a musician or even an artist. The internet is full of people throwing around words like “platform” and “following,” but is a platform really neccessary if you want to be published? Does having a following on Twitter help an author sell books?

The answer, as with so many things, seems to be: it depends. A social media following certainly doesn’t seem to hurt certain authors. I only read Alexa Donne’s space romance The Stars We Steal because I watch her YouTube channel. I have picked up books because I came across recommendations in my Twitter feed, usually from authors who are mutuals (that is, two people who follow each other on a platform) with the author in question. I cannot say that social media unequivocally does not affect an author’s chances at publication or their future book sales. However, for every one of these authors, there are many successful authors with a minimal or even non-existent social media presence. Certainly genre factors heavily too — Young Adult fiction writers are notoriously prolific on social media, particularly Twitter. Adult historical fiction writers, perhaps not quite as much (my favorite historical fiction writer, Sharon K. Penman, keeps a Facebook page and a sporadically updated blog as the full extent of her social media presence and yet she still has managed a long and successful career. Each genre seems to have its own social media norms, but generally speaking, the younger your audience skews, the more important social media will be.

That said, avoiding social media altogether as an up and coming writer in 2020 is probably not a realistic game plan. Sharon K. Penman, who I mentioned above, started her career in the 1980s, and by the time social media was invented, much less widespread, she was already well established as a historical fiction writer. In 2020, however, a social media presence is expected. Not only do accounts on platforms such as Twitter and Instagram give potential agents an idea about your “platform,” perhaps more importantly they give an idea about what kind of person you are and what sort of content you engage with. Do you harass teenagers in the Harry Potter fandom and generally make a fool of yourself? Are you vocal about social issues? Do you interact positively with other writers, or are you antagonistic? These things might count for more than a high follower count, which, afterall, can be a poor mark of your overall reach as a writer.

So do numbers matter? Do you need Twitter followers in the tens of thousands to get published? Certainly not. I can think of dozens of professional published writers who have followings of fewer than 10k. I can name many writers with very high follower counts who gained those followers mainly through writers’ lifts and follow for follow games rather than through genuine interaction. My own personal Twitter following is modest, hovering between 2500-3000 followers, but my interactions are genuine, and when you scroll through my feed, you will get an immediate sense of what I am passionate about. I interact positively with my fellow writers, am vocal about the issues that are important to me. I am happy with my social media presence and do not feel pressured to inflate my follower count just for the sake of empty numbers. Genuine engagement will always make a bigger impression than numbers with no interaction to back them up.

Perhaps the best advice I can give is to build a social media presence, but do it honestly. Do not stress about numbers. If you’re trying for traditional publication, you should probably be on the more popular social media platforms, but you don’t need to be a huge name with a massive following. Create a genuine following, avoid being antagonistic or overly edgy, at least on your main account, and try to interact positively in the writing community. Follow some writers and agents you admire, boost other writers during pitch events, join in conversations about what’s going on in the industry, and you might even start enjoying the process of creating your social media platform. At the very least, the process should feel less like a chore, and more like simply another step on the long road to becoming a published writer.

Fiction, General Writing

Making Infodumps Work

Like most writers, I struggle with back story. It’s often necessary, especially when writing fantasy, but how do you provide it with bringing the story to screeching halt? I’ve tried making the details interesting. I’ve tried doling out the information in dribbles and drabs. I’ve tried epigraphs at the start of each chapter. Whenever possible, I develop characters who would naturally think about certain matters. All these tactics can have limited success, the most effective tactic, I’ve found can be expressed in a single word: dramatize. Make the inclusion of the information a natural part of the story. If possible, have something else happen as the information is being given.

The simplest way to dramatize is to arrange a situation in which one character gives information to others. For example, have a student writing an essay. Place a general in a situation room, describing battle plans. Have a newcomer who needed to be brought up to speed. However, in writing any scene like this, you need to avoid writing a lecture, or of providing what TV calls “talking heads.” Such results are no better than a congealed mass of info-dump, and could mean that your extra effort to be reader-friendly is wasted.

Another tactic might be to have the point of view character overhear other tactics. The difficulty here is that it is difficult to have one character overhear everything they need to know without straining readers’ belief. It seems unlikely that your viewpoint character could conveniently overhear all they need to know.that the same character could conveniently overhear all they need to know — moreover, the overheard conversation is a cliché. Perhaps, though, you might give the cliché new life by having the viewpoint overhear a fraction of a conversation, or a few cryptic comments that they have to puzzle over, or else combine with information from another source

I suppose you could have a nervous character doing something for the first time, and muttering instructions. For example, a thief breaking into a secret room could be reminding herself, “Tenth brick from the fire place, press the acanthus leaf above it. Damn, why do secret rooms have to be so — secretive?” Similarly, a character might analyze information found in a book or in a film. So long as you establish that the character acts that way, mixing the information with a character’s self doubts and thoughts might dilute the dry, encylopedic tone of a recitation of facts.

Most of the time, though, at least two characters are needed to dramatize successfully. After all, you can hardly populate your novel with a dozen people who talk to themselves. But when you play one character off against another, the possibilities open up. For instance, imagine that it is important to your story that two ethnic groups have a hereditary feud. You might place a representative of both ethnicities together, and have them argue with each other. They could hurl insults and accusations. They could bring up the events of the past century, example being met with counter-example. While the information is being given to the reader, the characters’ argument can escalate, possibly to the point where they have to be separated before violence to begin. As they argue, the characters can also reveal their personalitiess.

To give a more specific example, recently I decided to give the history of a war through an alcoholic who fought on the losing side. He is at a dinner held by his former foes. He wants to show a generous attitude to his hosts. In his befuddled state, he concludes that the best way to do so is to stand up and praise them. However, his audience is impatient, because they already know the facts. Even worse, he is undiplomatic, mentioning incidents that embarrass his hosts. Worst of all, his audience includes his teen age daughter who is mortified by behavior. In his drunken state, he insists on not only having his say, but, interpreting the responses to him as an affront to his host, also starts scolding everybody. The situation works because the information is delivered with other purposes in mind as well: showing his character and his daughter’s, and the attitudes that linger between former enemies. If I have done what I intended, readers will absorb the information while being entertained by the dramatic cross-currents, the story being uninterrupted.

Presenting backstory as part of the story requires ingenuity. If you are like me, it may require several drafts before all the cross-currents work together. Yet, in the end, it provides a solution to one of aspiring writers’ biggest problems: giving back story without sabotaging their storytelling. Try it for yourself, and you will see what I mean.

Uncategorized

Writing the Deed: Sex Scenes in Fiction

Eventually most writers will have to decide whether or to include sex scenes in their books, and if so, how to handle them. Sex scenes can be incredibly difficult to write well, to the point that while good ones can add chemistry and passion to an on-page pairing, terrible ones can ruin an otherwise good book.

Sex scenes or not?

Not all books need sex scenes, or even romance at all. A reader is just as capable of getting involved in a well written platonic friendship as in a romance, and most readers would prefer a well written friendship to a poorly written romance. Even the writer who does choose a romantic sub-plot, or even a romantic main plot, does not need to include the deed itself. Authors who feel uncomfortable or unable to write a gripping sex scene might consider writing a sweet romance. Also consider — are the characters in question underage? Harry Potter, for instance, includes romance, but considering the age of the characters and the target audience, actual sex scenes would have been in poor taste. As a rule, Middle Grades books should be sex-free, while Young Adult books run the gamut, with more chaste romances found in books like Yes, No, Maybe So, by Becky Albertalli and Aisha Saeed, or The Betrothed, by Kiera Cass. In those books the couples in question share kisses, but nothing much beyond that, aside from, of course, lots of mutual longing and angst.

The middle-ground: fade to black

“Fade to black” is a technique that borrows its name from cinematography, when the camera would cut away from a couple, or literally, fade to black, before a sex scene as a chance to get explicit. In writing, fade to black can include details of foreplay — kissing, touching, with the action usually staying above the waist — but will generally stop short of penetration or description of body parts below the waist. Many writers skillfully employ fade to black as a way to imply the sex act without having to write more graphic descriptions. Many YA and adult authors use fade to black as a sort of middle-ground. Holly Black’s Folk of the Air books for the most part have fade to black sex scenes, as does the Graceling series by Kristin Chashore. In adult fantasy Juliet Marillier and Robin McKinley both write great love stories and sex scenes that are either fade to black, or low on detail. Keep in mind that a fade to black sex scene does not have mean that it was written for your grandmother. Many authors subscribe to the less is more philosophy when it comes to sex, revealing just enough detail to excite the reader’s imagination, allowing the reader to fill in the gaps according to their own preference. Fade to black sex scenes should be treated as any other sex scenes, and if you want the scene to be sexy, rules of consent should apply. A person being forced or coerced into sex is not appealing outside of specific kink communities, and if you’re writing for those, you’ll know it.

Explicit detail

Finally, if you’ve decided to write a sex scene, you might decide to go for broke and make it explicit. Perhaps your book has a grittier setting, and the sex scenes are not meant to be pleasant, in which case brutal detail can bring home the cruelty of the act. Perhaps you do intend for the sex scenes to be sexy and romantic, and believe the more detail, the hotter the scene. Detailed sex scenes can be hot and passionate, but they can also quickly verge into cringe territory when writers try to get overly creative with their euphemisms. What reader of A Song of Ice and Fire doesn’t remember Martin’s “fat pink mast” or “Myrish swamp?” Or Sarah J. Maas’ description in the A Court of Thorns and Roses series of her male lead’s “velvet wrapped steel?” There is something about sex scenes that turns authors all of a sudden into aspiring poets, and a cock is no longer just a cock.

Diana Gabaldon, author of the Outlander series, praised by many to have some of the best sex scenes in fiction, says in a blog post “A good sex scene is about the exchange of emotions, not bodily fluids,” and goes on to elaborate that this can mean any emotion — not just love, but anger, sadness, tenderness, surprise, boredom, anything. She suggests that one of the most efficient ways to accomplish the exchange of emotions is through dialogue, so rather than describing a play by play of body parts, who put what where, your characters should speak to each other, talking through the sex scenes. Perhaps they talk about the act itself “tell me how much you want me” (and the benefit of your characters talking it through is that the consent is explicit) or perhaps they speak about their feelings for each other, or perhaps they use metaphor to talk around important issues.

Actions can also accomplish something similar. Does character A reach up and touch character B’s face during the act? Does he rake his nails down his partner’s back? Actions can express emotions too. Most readers do not care how large your character’s member is, or how pink another character’s nipples are. The details are matter are the details that anchor the sex act to the story emotionally. Painting a complete visual picture is less important to writing a compelling sex scene than is connecting the characters to the acts through their emotional reactions to the action.

Regardless of whether you choose to write fade to black or no sex scenes, of course make sure that you do not glorify rape or non consensual sex, and be extremely careful when depicting underage characters having sex. A rule of thumb is that teenagers having sex with other teenagers is generally acceptable and can be written in a healthy way, but teenagers having sex with a 500 year old immortal vampires is unhealthy and problematic. If you want to write problematic sex scenes — sex between the lord of the manor and a servant, for instance — make sure that you depict it as problematic.

Sex scenes can be a lot of fun, and certainly writers should not shy away from sex if they feel comfortable writing, but nor should a writer feel obligated to include sex scenes. However, if you do choose to take on detailed sex scenes, write with care, because while a good sex scene rarely makes or breaks a book, a cringey one, or worse, a problematic one, can easily poison the well of what is otherwise a good book.

General Writing

Why Mood Matters in a Story

Writing about writing is hard. Everything from world-building and outlining to opening hooks and sentence length has been covered so many times that finding some useful tidbit to add sometimes seems impossible. The truth is, though, that most articles repeat the same banalities and half-truths and plenty of room remains for originality. More importantly, some topics are never covered at all. As someone who started as a poet, I particularly notice the lack of discussion about mood (or atmosphere or tone, if you prefer). Perhaps as a result of this lack, many modern novels come across as flat and distant. So far as mood is created, it is usually by accident, with little control.

By “mood,” I mean the feeling that a passage invokes in a reader. In fantasy, mood used to be so common that it was a defining feature. Fantasy was supposed to be about sense of wonder, whether of awe or terror. The classic fantasies of Lord Dunsany or E. R. Eddison were all about leaving readers breathless in their descriptions of settings and events. As late as Tolkien, mood was an essential part of fantasy. Think of Tolkien’s home-like Shire, or the twilight glories of Rivendell and Lothlorien, or the wasteland that is Mordor, and you will understand immediately what I mean. The descriptions of these places are as important as the characters and plots. They are a main reason why some readers fall in love with The Lord of the Rings. A poet himself, Tolkien offers readers a poet’s eye view of his world.

Yet as fantasy has gained in popularity, mood has been de-emphasized. Part of the problem may be the amount of generic fantasy published. By definition, generic fantasy concentrates on the more superficial aspects — imitators copy elves and orcs more often than Tolkien’s worldbuilding or writing style. Another problem may be that blockbuster movies and games have made fantasy fiction a genre of action or plot, with less attention being paid to subtler aspects like mood. When attention is paid to mood, it is usually to admire the animation or green screen effects, rather than the audience’s response to special effects. As a result, mood has all but disappeared in fiction. With the emphasis on plot, mood is viewed as extraneous to the art of storytelling.

I find this state of affairs unfortunate (by which I mean, comparable to an alien invasion or a tidal wave followed by Godzilla’s relatives arriving all at once for a family reunion). Not using mood is as odd as writing an entire novel without using the letter “e”: you can do it, but why limit yourself so arbitrarily? Especially when the result is so unsatisfactory?

If you doubt what I say, take The Return of the King from the shelf and open it to “The Battle of Pelennor Fields.” The chapter describes the siege of the city of Minas Tirith by the forces of Mordor. The city is vastly outnumbered and waiting for allies who may not come. Detail after detail accumulate to create a feeling of hopelessness. As the chapter ends, Gandalf the wizard confronts the Lord of the Nazgûl, who mocks him and promises destruction. Things could not get any worse. Then:

And in that very moment, away behind in some courtyard of the city, a cock crowed. Shrill and clear he crowed, recking nothing of war nor of wizardry, welcoming only the morning that in the sky far above the shadows of death was coming with the dawn.

And as if in answer there came from far away another note. Horns, horns, horns, in dark Mindolluin’s sides they dimly echoed. Great horns of the north wildly blowing. Rohan had come at last.

Just like that, the mood of despair, that keeps readers turning the pages with growing apprehension, is replaced by relief with a sentence of five words. The entire chapter, and especially the ending, is a masterpiece of mood control, and proof enough of the importance of mood. I would call it the best writing Tolkien ever did.

But how do you capture some of the same power in your own writing? I have no idea how Tolkien did it, but I have found a technique that works for me. I start by deciding what mood I want to create, and reduce that mood to a single word, such as grief or relief or strangeness. Then I open up the thesaurus and note all the synonyms for that word.

However, I do not use that word, nor any of its synonyms. Besides being unsubtle, that would simply not work. You do not create a mood of horror by using the word “horrible.”

Instead, as I write, I try to choose words and descriptions that create that word. For instance, to give an unsubtle example, to invoke grief I might mention shadow and night, and funeral hymns. Possibly, I might choose a viewpoint of someone who grieves. One word, one phrase at a time, I work, and, if I am successful, a reader will receive the impression I want. If I want to orchestrate a change in mood, as Tolkien does, I repeat the process, and figure how I want to make the transition from one mood to another. In effect, choosing the word is a form of outlining, but for mood instead of actions.

Sometimes, the effect is as simple as a simile or a metaphor. For instance, if I write, “Silence spread like a stain,” the comparison carries a hint of the ominous, of something out of control and wrong. At other times, the effect works through an accumulation of details. For instance, in describing a keep, I could have written simply

He remembered now that the cellars and parts of the curtain wall were older still. Built by Valicon’s legions, most said, to mark the north-eastern end of an empire.

However, I wanted to create a sense of the uncanny, so I wrote:

He remembered now that the cellars and parts of the curtain wall were older still. Built by Valicon’s legions, most said, to mark the north-eastern end of an empire. Giant-built, said others, pointing at the outsized stones. Built by others, harpers said when the fire was reduced to ember. Other folk, human only by whim.

The additional two sentences and fragment steadily move readers from history to legend, to hints of the supernatural — to ghost stories. And with their addition, a snippet of info-dump suddenly becomes more interesting.

Strictly speaking, mood is unnecessary to the story. Yet by working to create it, writers can add to readers’ experience. It may even be the case that, when readers remember a scene or re-read a story, the reason may be that they have been struck by the mood.

Queries

10 Ground Rules for Comping

Comping is the comparison of your submitted novel to similar ones in a query. Personally, I have doubts about comping — is everything a hybrid of existing works? — but comps are a quick way to give a sense of your work. In fact, many agents and publishers insist on them. Not being in a position to set the rules, I am dutifully selecting comps for when I begin to query. The process is harder than it looks — much harder, I find, than writing a blurb. So far, while I’ve made some progress, what I have most learned is how not to comp.

Here are the basic ground rules I’ve set for myself:

Favorites may not make the best comp

The point is not to gush over the books I love, but to start the process of selling my book. A basic honesty is required, since I am hoping to start a long-term business relationship (and, knowing me, I would probably get caught if I pretended that I had read a book that I hadn’t), but the goal is to attract attention, to suggest I write in a certain tradition, or have a unique juxtaposition of ideas. Some of my old favorites simply would not fit with the book I’m querying.

Avoid Mentioning Other Media

I have seen some queries reference films, games, or graphic novels. While these references may work with some recipients, I plan to avoid them myself. After all, I am pitching a book, not a film or a game. Moreover, I have noticed that the more aspiring writers reference other media, the less polished their writing is usually is. Possibly, I am overrthinking things, but I want to show my competence with the written word, not with other media.

Comps should be in the genre

Sometimes, genre crossovers work. My favorite example is Lois McMaster Bujold’s A Civil Campaign, which could accurately be described as Space Opera Meets Pride and Prejudice in a Shakespearean Comedy. However, I doubt that such a juxtaposition would be well-received from a first-time writer. While some recipients might be delighted by it, I suspect more would find it too off the wall, and conclude that I have tried something too ambitious for my level of skill that would be difficult to market.

Comps May Be About More Than Style

Most writers I’ve talked to select comps in terms of plots and themes. However, they can also be marketing potential. For example, my critique partner Jessica, who lived for years in China and is married to Chinese man, is writing a novel set in a fantasy version of China. She is thinking of comping S. A. Chakraborty’s City of Brass, partly because Chakraborty is an American writing about the Muslims and married to Muslim. The implication is if Chakraborty’s background makes her novel acceptable in the age of diversity, then so is hers.

Avoid Blockbusters

It used to be that all fantasies were described as “in the tradition of Tolkien.” You won’t find that on recent releases, though. Tolkien has become so ubiquitous in our culture that the phrase has lost all meaning. If anything, using would suggest a superficial knowledge of fantasy. The same goes for Star Wars, Star Trek, and Harry Potter.

Watch for hidden pitfalls

Selecting some books would simply send the wrong message. For instance, while I generally admire Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars, early in the book there are some anti-Muslim comments that are ignoant and hard to stomach. The last thing I would want is for an agent or publisher to think I approve of bigotry — especially if I submitted to someone who promotes diversity. On the whole, I think it’s a good idea to re-read a potential comp, just in case it has some passages that would sabotage me.

A comp can be misinterpreted

I briefly considered Patrick Rothfuss as a comp. What I had in mind was the fact that he tells a long, varied story. However, as my critiquing partner pointed out, most people associate Rothfuss with poetic prose. If I did use Rothfuss, I would have to make clear what aspect of his writing I referred to.

A comp should be comparatively recent

I have read fantasy for decades, and accumulated influences the way a ship hull accumulates barnacles. However, can I trust an agent or publisher to recognize an older reference? Could they take the comp as a sign I am out of touch with the market? At least one of the comps should have been published in the last few years.

Mentioning a major writer stakes too large a claim

I have been genuinely influenced by Neil Gaiman and Ursula K. Le Guin. Yet if I use either as a comp, my choice can be read as a claim that I write as well as those famous authors. I’d like to think I do, being as egotistical as any writer, but the danger is that instead of intriguing an agent or publisher, I may encourage skepticism. “Oh yeah?” they might imply. “Prove it!” And I would probably have the same reaction.

Tailor comps to the recipient

Typically, a query names two comps, or at the most three. However, before I start to query, I plan to have at least half a dozen ready to swap in and out of my queries. Being a recovering academic, I am researching agents and publishers and producing a short list before I begin to query. I fully expect that different comps will appeal to different recipients. If I can anticipate which comps appeal to which, maybe I can increase my chances.

The Question Continues

Am I asking too much of myself? Will I be able to navigate around all these complications? Probably not in a day, or maybe even a week. Yet if I can finish a manuscript and survive critiques and revisions, then I should be able to generate a few comps. Maybe when I have my list of comps, I’ll blog again and explain how I chose them.

Uncategorized

Twitter Pitching 101

Twitter is an invaluable tool for an aspiring writer. Not only can writers connect with each other through various hashtags such as #writingcommunity and #amwriting, but many agents and editors also hang out on Twitter, making it a great place to make industry connections and even pitch your manuscript. Throughout the year various pitch events take place on Twitter, in which agents and editors review submissions from writers and request manuscripts based upon what they see. Many authors have launched their careers after Twitter pitch events, but catching an agent’s eye with a 280 character tweet is not always easy.

Follow the rules

Whatever guidelines the pitch event has set, make sure that you follow them. Being unable to follow simple instructions will not endear you to an editor, so now is not the time to play fast and loose with the rules. If the rules say the pitch must fit inside one tweet, then fit it in one tweet. If the rules say no pictures, then do not include your mood board, no matter how cool it is. Most pitch events have very clear guidelines which are available online, so make sure you review the rules before you pitch.

Remember your goal

Your pitch is not a synopsis of your story, and you do not need to worry about including every detail. The most important thing is that you should grab the viewer’s interest, and make them curious enough to request an actual synopsis. What is the most intriguing thing about your manuscript? This recent pitch, which garnered some interest in the recent #DvPit event, for instance, starts with an intriguing hook that raises immediate questions:

“When Skjall accidentally shoots the daughter of the King, he finds himself thrown down a rabbit hole of conspiracies and blood rites. Now, he is caught between two feuding monarchs determined to destroy each other.”

Don’t be gimmicky

While I have seen gimmicky pitches work occasionally, in general, it is best to be professional and let your pitch speak for itself. Bullet lists, loads of emojis in place of words, pitches in verse — no matter what the gimmick is, agents have seen it before, and I promise they’ll be more impressed with a punchy pitch with a good hook than any attempts at being clever. If you have a strong concept, then gaining the attention of an agent or editor is really a matter of how you present it. You have 280 characters, so rather than wasting them on emojis, show off your skills. A pitch is a form of writing, and if you can’t write an intriguing tweet, how can industry professionals expect you to write a whole novel?

Comp your work

While comps are not required, they are often a good way of conveying a lot of information with a few words, and giving the reader an immediate feel for your manuscript. If possible, try to choose your comps from relatively recent publications, and avoid overly obvious comps, such as Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones, which will read as laziness. The general consensus is that movies and even T.V. shows may be used in comps as well, but they should be relatively well known. Normally you should use two works that are relatively different in order to provide a contrast, or something unexpected. If I said, for instance, that I was writing a book that was a combination of The 100, which is a gritty YA Sci-Fi about a group of teens surviving in a post-apocalyptic hellscape, and The Selection, a romance about a prince’s competition for a royal bride, there is an element of unexpected to the pairing that an agent might find intriguing. Consider if I said I was writing a book that was The Selection meets The Royal We. While those two books are not really similar in detail, nor in setting, they are close enough in genre and theme that pairing them together as comps does nothing for the pitch.

Try different tactics

Most pitch events allow you to pitch several times throughout the day, so take that opportunity to rephrase your pitch and see which version lands. You may find that some agents are drawn to one version of the pitch, while others are drawn to another. Play around with the phrasing of your pitch and see which version is most effective. If you find one version is most effective, you might re-use that version, making slight changes only. This is usually not against the rules.

Pitch events throughout the year:

January: #SFFPit — an event for science fiction and fantasy pitches

February: #KissPitch — an event for romance and women’s fiction pitches

March, June, September, December: #PitMad — an open event for all unrepresented authors in all genres

April: #DvPit — an event for marginalized and underrepresented voices in publishing, all genres

 

 

 

 

General Writing

Working with Flop-Sweat

Mainstream culture shuns anxiety. We are taught to avoid stress, and, at the first sign of unease, we are encouraged to find a remedy in the medicine cabinet. Such attitudes may explain why those attempting to write complain so often about writer’s block, or even an inability to get started. We are so conditioned to avoid anxiety that few have considered that it might actually be beneficial — a necessary requirement to do their best work.

This belief is widespread in acting circles. At the start of a new play or film, many actors experience flop-sweat — an overwhelming sense of anxiety about the new venture. Yet far from avoiding it, actors often believe that, unless they experience that nervous edge on opening night, they are unable to give their best performance.

Similarly, years ago, when I was competing in long distance running, I regularly experienced flop-sweat before a race, although I didn’t have a name for it then. The few times I didn’t, I either lost or clocked a slow time.

Maybe flop-sweat is a superstition, but I have a more logical explanation of it. I believe that flop-sweat is unfocused nervous energy. Left unchecked, it can become distraction. However, there is another alternative. If you can focus your tension on the task at hand, it can work for you, rather than against you.

In my experience, you can focus that tension is several ways. Most of them have to do with breathing exercises combined with simple visualization. In the simplest form, the tension could be focused by slow jogging while I focused on inhaling and exhaling. In a more complicated visualization, I would imagine each breath descending through me to create a pool of energy around my diaphragm. Sometimes, I would conclude by imagining one hand raising a zipper that started at my navel and went up my neck to stop below my chin.

When the starting gun went off, I would visualize that energy expanding into my chest, arms and legs. I would start the race in a burst of energy, often taking an early lead, or at least settling in near the fron the pack. Later in the race, I found I could get a second wind by repeating this visualization. My last visualization would in the last one hundred metres. Once across the line, I would often sit or sprawl on the ground, absolutely spent, regardless of what position I finished.

Of course, writing is a less physical act than running — although some dramatic or suspenseful scenes can sometimes leave me almost as tired as running five thousand metres. However, in recent years, I find that the same breathing and visualization exercises work just as well for writing. As in a race, they set me going with a burst of energy. I writer faster than normally, and less critically. Often, I write for several scenes before I start to flag. Almost always, the results are a polished first draft. By channeling my flop sweat instead of trying to suppress it, I can make it work for me rather than against.

I have no guarantee that anyone else will have the same results as I do. Possibly, you may be too conditioned for my technique to work for you. Still, the results are worth the experiment. After all, if you are overcome by writing anxiety in one of its many forms, you’re not likely to make much progress anyway.