Theory of Blueberries

I’m not usually a fan of fitness magazines, but I found myself in a waiting room once before the era of cellphones, and I had forgotten to bring a book. I had to decide between twiddling my thumbs, staring off into space, or reading one of the magazines on the table next to me.

I picked up the magazine that was on top of the stack, which happened to be about fitness. I flipped through it and found an interesting article. It was all about the stuff you have to do to stay fit. You’ve seen the list: drink gallons of water every day, run thousands of miles, eat only organically grown super foods…  One could grow old just reading the list.

But the kicker was the conclusion of the piece. The author noted that most people can’t do everything on the list perfectly. As a matter of fact, many people read about all the things they need to do and become frustrated. They think, I can’t do all this stuff, and they give up.

But the article advised if you can’t do everything, at least do something. Their premise was to start small, then add to your fitness regimen as you get used to each step. Their suggestion was to throw a handful of blueberries on your cereal each morning. Blueberries have tremendous antioxidant properties and are very beneficial to one’s health. I read the following in an article about antioxidants on WebMD.com:

Wild blueberries are the winner overall. Just one cup has 13,427 total antioxidants – vitamins A & C, plus flavonoids (a type of antioxidant) like querticin and anthocyanidin. That’s about 10 times the USDA’s recommendation, in just one cup! Cultivated blueberries have 9,019 per cup and are equally vitamin-rich.

The theory of blueberries made sense to me. Even though I read that article years ago, I still drop a handful of blueberries on my oatmeal every morning.

* * *

Lately, I’ve been thinking about how to make a comparison between getting physically fit and getting fit as an author. There’s a lot to this writing business. I’ve heard people return from writers’ conferences feeling overwhelmed by all the information they’ve been trying to absorb: plotting, characterization, self-editing, point-of-view, editors, agents, self-publishing, just to name a few.

A new author may feel he/she has to incorporate every aspect of good writing in order to write that first novel, and may be too intimidated to try. “There’s no way I can do all that,” she says, and gives up.

But maybe there’s a blueberry way for writers to ramp up to speed. If new authors tackle one or two of the basics, they could begin to grow their skill and confidence. With time and attention to the craft, their writerly fitness would make them the Chuck Norrises of the literary community.

So TKZers: If you had to choose one or two things for new authors to concentrate on as they begin their writing adventure, what would you suggest?

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About Kay DiBianca

Kay DiBianca is a former software developer and IT manager who retired to a life of mystery. She’s the award-winning author of three cozy mysteries, The Watch on the Fencepost, Dead Man’s Watch, and Time After Tyme. Connect with Kay on her website at https://kaydibianca.com.

41 thoughts on “Theory of Blueberries

  1. Good morning, Kay. I know someone who does the blueberry thing, and occasionally posts pictures of a bowl of them prominently displayed on their kitchen table. What folks don’t realize is that the blueberries are hiding a bowl of ice cream.

    Advice? Eat the frog first. Start your day with writing. If your mornings are too busy, set your alarm early and carve out the time at the beginning of the day, not in the middle or the end.

    Thanks, Kay. Have a great week!

    • Good morning, Joe!

      I like the idea of blueberries and ice cream — the perfect couple.

      “Eat the frog first.” I’ve never heard it put that way before, but it’s great advice. I’ve noticed that if I get my writing done before noon, things go much better than if I get to it later in the day.

      (I have a feeling I’m going to be thinking of “eat the frog first” all day.)

  2. Good morning, Kay! I love the Blueberry analogy (I also love blueberries 🙂

    I began “walking the path of writing craft” in the fall of 2008, when I took an eight-week fiction writing class taught by Eric Witchey, who I’d met at Willamette Writers that August. “Become Your Own Story Doctor” looked at the elements of fiction. Tension, conflict, POV, character, stakes, story questions, etc etc.

    Each week we would take one element and practice it for thirty minutes a day. 15 minutes would be “conscious practice”–working through an exercise Eric had prepared, such as outlining the concept in action. The other 15 minutes was to write at speed. We’d pick three words at random in a book or books, turn that into a sentence to simply use as a story prompt, then we’d write a scene for 15 minutes, no stopping, no corrections, as getting down the words as fast we could type, to let our subconscious practice that particular craft point.

    The subconscious craft practice was the truly crucial part. We’d do this for a week, then we’d switch to a different element of craft and follow practice it for a week. Eric noted that when he did this, usually about month or six weeks after practicing a particular element of craft for a week or longer, he’d begin noticing that point of craft manifesting more strongly in his fiction. This approach really helped improve my own fiction.

    I did a lot of other workshops from 2008-11, and again in 2013 and 2017, but this breaking fiction craft down into its component parts and taking it one part at a time served me well.

    Now, as to what I would suggest a new writer to concentrate on as they begin their writing journey, I’d have them start first with conflict. “What does your protagonist want, how do they try to get it and what/who stands in their way?” Conflict is fundamental to fiction, and focusing on that really helped me improve my own fiction. They could use Eric’s approach and combine conscious practice (outlining a scene quickly that uses these elements), then pick three random story prompts, and write as quickly as they can for 15 minutes, just getting the words down.

    The second thing I’d have them work on would be either point-of-view or the elements of a scene. But I’d start with conflict 🙂

    Thanks much for today’s post–it hit home in a major way. Have a great day!

    • Good morning, Dale!

      I loved reading about your experience in Eric Witchey’s class. What a great way to break down the components of writing into doable exercises. It’s a perfect way for a new writer to be introduced to each concept without it being overwhelming.

      My husband and I lead a writing group in this area. We meet once a month, and you gave me an idea: we may organize next year so that each meeting is devoted to one component of writing skill. Thanks!

      Starting with conflict is a great idea.

  3. When I started toying with writing, I was in an online group that had an “Open the Envelope” every Monday, and there would be a writing prompt, such as ‘write something using a prescribed list of words, etc. The one that led to my first novel was “Write a 250 word hook.”

    If you’re starting out, tackle one thing at a time. Dialogue. Descriptions. Action. Emotion. Doesn’t matter if it’s a cohesive story. Paragraphs are fine.

    • Good morning, Terry.

      An “Open the Envelope” writing prompt is a fine way to get the brain cells working. We sometimes do a 3-word writing prompt in our writing group. Each writer has to use one of the three words in the first sentence of a short essay and the other two words have to appear somewhere in the body of the piece. They have about 10 minutes to write. It’s always interesting to see what each person will come up with.

  4. Good morning, Kay. Great question to start the day. You might sell the blueberry advice by reminding people that those flavonoids and antioxidants help people maintain their cognitive skills and live longer. It seems that each state has it’s “berry expert,” depending on what’s growing in their state. Ohio’s has (don’t know if he’s still researching) the wild black raspberry expert. I was going to say, if it’s bright red or purple, eat it, but I remembered that poison ivy has a berry that can turn red or purple.

    Okay, getting down to business, one or two things for new authors to focus on:
    1. Plot and Structure – You have to have a container to put everything else in.
    2. Characterization – We are told we connect with readers through our characters and emotion. I’m still trying to catch up on that one.

    Keep eating those blueberries. I’ll let you know when the Ohio black raspberries ripen. Hope you have a good week.

    • Good morning, Steve.

      Thanks for the additional information on berries. I find blueberries not only taste good and have all those wonderful properties, but they’re easy. No seeds or pits – just wash and eat. My kind of food.

      Great suggestion for new authors. JSB’s Plot and Structure was one of the two first books I read when I decided to write. I am so grateful that someone suggested it to me.

      Yes, please let me know when those black raspberries are ripe.

  5. This is a nice extension of yesterday’s post about what you’d tell your high school self. Even after all these years, I still consider myself a beginning writer. And boy, has it been a wonky journey. And there are a hundred possible answers to this question. But I’d tell a brand new writer:

    Sit down and write a chapter. Whatever comes to mind. Then show it to someone whose input you trust and see if the piece met it’s goal—did it keep them engaged? Why or why not? Listen carefully to their feedback and zero in on what they said. Then bit by bit, start improving those areas of your writing since you now know what you need to focus on.

    1) It gives beginner writers the advice we’ve all heard or said a thousand times–sit your butt down and write (start the habit early).
    2) It avoids finding a bunch of ways to NOT write.

    There ARE many things to consider when writing, and considering those things can become a time suck if you’re not careful (on this I’m an expert. LOL!). I’ve gone to conferences, I’ve read books, watched writing discussion videos, etc. At one time I was visiting umpteen writing related blogs a day until I narrowed it down to just ONE – TKZ.

    Don’t get me wrong–I’ve learned something from every book, post, conference, video, etc. but trying to absorb too much too soon has just been overwhelming–think about how many things there are to consider on just one topic like characterization! And I have spent way more time exploring the craft of writing than writing (just ask me how many manuscripts I’ve generated vs. how many hours I’ve spent learning about writing. On 2nd thought, don’t ask. Too embarrassing. LOL!)

    That’s what I wish someone had told me. Keep it simple, stupid. If I had kept it simple instead of overwhelming–just wrote, got feedback, wrote, got feedback, how might my output be different today?

    • Good morning, BK!

      You have brought up one of my favorite principles: Keep It Simple, Stupid. It’s a great bit of advice in many areas of life, including writing.

      Your other piece of advice, Just Write, is equally valuable. For me, it’s easier to write something and work on polishing it than to try and incorporate all the concepts up front. On the other hand, I also am a great fan of books on the craft of writing. Maybe you and I should co-write a book on the right proportions of writing and studying. We could name it Blending the Craft with the Draft. 🙂

  6. “Don’t prepare. Begin. Our enemy is not lack of preparation. The enemy is resistance, our chattering brain producing excuses. Start before you are ready.” — Steven Pressfield

    Relevant to today’s post, the above quote showed up in my inbox this morning. 😎

  7. For the true rookies–the people who are on the first steps of their long journey–my advice is to write the story as it appears in your head. Put it on the page in a way that entertains you. Create characters that you wish you knew or that you deeply hate. Don’t worry about structure or frequency of adverbs, or any of the concerns that will become important 72 steps from now. Allow yourself to fall in love with the process of committing stories to the page.

    In the beginning, write for yourself or for your kids or for your significant other. Forget about publishing for the world. Hone your craft slowly. Write a really good scene, then attach it to another really good scene. There’s no pressure. If you don’t finish, you don’t finish.

    Once you’re hooked by the endorphin rush that writing can be–once you’re to the point where NOT writing is not an option–that’s the time to turn to books and classes and conferences, if you feel such things are necessary. After you know what your own voice sounds like–or what you want it to sound like–it’s more difficult for bad instruction to break your spirit.

    • Good morning, John!

      Thank you — you’ve provided us with some great wisdom here. Every new author should pay close attention to your entire comment, especially this sentence: “Allow yourself to fall in love with the process of committing stories to the page.”

  8. Kay, thanks for a tasty post full of good mental nutrition for writers.

    Riffing on Joe’s carnivore theme,writing is like eating an elephant. Take it one bite at a time.

    Mentor Dennis Foley broke down the four elements of a scene:
    1. Develop character;
    2. Introduce or increase conflict;
    3. Move the story forward;
    4. Foreshadow.
    He recommended each scene include at least two of the above elements, preferably three. The best scenes include all four.

    Work on one element at a time. Then, when rewriting, layer on a second, a third, etc.

    Octavia Butler said: “You start out writing crap and thinking it’s good stuff, and then gradually you get better at it.”

    Don’t be afraid to write crap. Rewriting is your best tool.

    • Morning, Debbie!

      Great advice to develop the elements of a scene. I’m going to post those next to my writing area.

      I also like Octavia Butler’s comment. It’s a comfort to know everyone goes through the same learning curve.

  9. Heinlein’s Rules:
    1. You must write.
    2. You must finish what your write.

    Plow through and finish that first novel. You learn much by the doing of it. I like what Brother Gilstrap says about the “endorphin rush.” If you’re feeling that, you’re on the right track.

    When you’re finished, and after some time, you should (with help) be able to see the weaknesses, the stuff you need to learn to get to the level of professional. I’ve advised the following. There are seven critical success factors in fiction: Plot, structure, characters, scenes, dialogue, voice, and meaning. Prioritize these according to what your writing needs most. Then spend a few weeks in concentrated study on the first one…as you continue with your daily writing. Then on to the second one, etc. Improve each aspect by just 10%, and there will be an exponential lift in your work as a whole.

    • Good morning, Jim!

      Wow. Your comment is pretty much a course in writing for the beginner … and for everyone else.

      I have a copy of your book Just Write on my desk as I write this. The title itself says so much about what’s being written here today.

  10. I don’t think there’s a one-size-fits-all list of where new authors should start their writing education. I’d suggest they ask mentors/trainers/other successful authors to read something they’ve written and answer the question of what is the top single thing they could focus on to most improve their writing. When they’ve mastered that, lather, rinse, repeat.
    Every author brings different skill sets to the game. New writers see faster improvement if they focus on their greatest weakness first. There’s no way for a beginner to know what that is without feedback from people who understand what constitutes good, workman-like writing. Attending conferences and workshops and reading lots of craft books provides knowledge, but a writer still needs feedback from others to see how well the application of that knowledge is going on their page.
    As an example of the importance of feedback, my daughter spent two years in her school tennis program and untold hours outside school practicing without seeing much improvement in her game. Then we went on vacation to a resort that offered tennis lessons with an internationally ranked tennis pro. In her first lesson, he changed her grip and stroke. This simple, targeted feedback made an astounding difference in her play.

    • Great observation, K.S.

      Your daughter’s experience is an apt model for writers. This is where a good editor is like gold. Understanding what works and what doesn’t work in one’s own writing is an essential step to improving.

      Good luck to your daughter in her tennis future!

  11. This is a cool idea, Kay. I think the first blueberries would be writing flash fiction that has a beginning, middle, and end. Adding a taking-the-stairs step could be writing a full length story.

  12. I have gotten so many letters from new writers who sat down to write a simple story, realized it wasn’t so simple, and froze because they didn’t know how to learn so much craft. Here’s my answer.

    I can’t wave the magic wand of a few words of advice over you and make you a stronger writer, but here are a few things I can suggest to help you begin to make yourself a stronger writer.

    Read what you want to write. Study your favorite writers to see how they do what they do.

    Find good writing teachers to help you with the basics of writing. Read books on writing. Find other writers and critique each other.

    Sit down at the computer and write and write. If you want to be a professional writer in a traditional market, be prepared to be sitting there for years before you can start selling your work.

    And, most importantly, enjoy the writing. If there is no joy in the journey, the destination isn’t worth it.

  13. The most important skill to acquire is the ability to look at what you’ve produced on the page, compare it with the story in your head, and become self-aware of how vast the difference is when you’re a beginner.

    The ability comes in part from having read a lot, for most of us. What we see is not what we were planning on seeing; it isn’t as good as we expected.

    Without that capability, you don’t even know what you need to learn. A teacher might help. A group of some kind might get you started. And there are always the wonderful craft books with examples to educate your eye. But the most helpful part for me has always been a deep reservoir of standards – from omnivorous reading.

    • Great observation, Alicia. Many of the comments have mentioned the need to read both widely and in your own genre. Stephen King said, “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.”

  14. Late to the dance as usual.

    As a rookie scrivener and former aircraft technician and lawyer I have always though that one must comprehensively learn any skill before you find out whether you’re any good at it and how good you can be. That can take a number of years. It took me five or six years of working with one particular type of aircraft engine before I knew most of it from the inside out. Not all of course. But enough to be good at it.

    You reach a point in any skill building or craft where instead of following the recipe line by line, you break into the “broad sunlit uplands” of synthesis. And that is where you start cooking with gas as my mother said.

    Writing is like plumbing or carpentry. It’s a learned skill up to a certain point. You only reach that certain point through diligent study and absorption like osmosis of everything around you.

    And learning. I’ve always believed that failure is a far better teacher than easy success. I’ve got my first draft cemetery and I reckon everyone else does.

    The core principle I think is honesty to the story. That’s the keystone.

    • Hi Robert!

      You’re never late — TKZ is always open.

      “The core principle I think is honesty to the story. That’s the keystone.” So true.

      In his book Plot and Structure, James Scott Bell says, “The Truth is that craft can be taught and that you, with diligence and practice and patience, can improve your writing.”

      If we can combine the craft with the honesty to story, that will be success.

  15. Such good advice from everyone. I’m going back to JSB’s post yesterday and thinking about what I wish I’d done differently. I wrote in a vacuum. I lived in a small town, didn’t
    have the internet, and didn’t know any writers, so I didn’t show my novels to anyone and didn’t get feedback.

    If I had, someone would have told me I was head-hopping, telling instead of showing and I wasn’t drawing my reader in emotionally. So get out there and network with other writers–some at your level and at least one ahead of you. Get feedback.

    • Hi Patricia,

      Yes, feedback is essential. How else will we know where we’ve missed the mark unless someone (not family or friends) reviews our work. Getting an unbiased critique is gold.

      There’s that proverb (9:8) “… reprove a wise man and he will love you.”

      Have a great week.

  16. ‘Evening, Kay. I’m late for dinner but want to bring some dessert. Advice is such a huge topic, so I’d second John Gilstrap’s comment that it depends on the level a “beginner” is at. A beginning novel writer might be someone like me who spent 3 decades doing legal writing which has zero semblance to fiction. I had to deprogram to reprogram and figure this thing out.

    Fictional storytelling requires a structure. My advice to Kill Zoners is listen to our Sue Coletta (spoiler alert – Sue is my best friend aside of my wife). Larry Brooks, a KZ alumni, mentored Sue on story structure and Larry told me he “knows of no one more dedicated and committed to her craft than Sue Coletta.” Follow Sue and friend her if you want to learn storycraft structure.

    On the flip side, Sue is (for the most part) a plotster – a structured outliner. Our KZ friend, Harvey Stanbrough, is a pantster. Harvey subscribes to the Dean Wesley Smith school of Writing Into The Dark which is a go-for-it, letting-it-fly approach to releasing creativity.

    I’ve done both and loved each but there’s not right or wrong way.

    My advice – Learn the rules so when you break them you do so intentionally. Experiment, have fun. and do different stuff. But not too different so you make your stuff unsaleable.

    • Good morning, Garry!

      Thanks for bringing dessert: “Experiment, have fun. and do different stuff.” That is sweetness to my ears. I’ve enjoyed experimenting with each of my novels. Like you said, it’s important to understand what crayons you have in the box, but playing with different colors is fun.

      Have a great and experimental week!

    • Actually, Garry, I simply trust and respect my characters. That’s all it is. I don’t put words in their mouths and events in their world. (Come to think of it, I extend the same respect to other humans. I might write their stories too, but I won’t make them up in their stead.)

      Like Stephen King, DWS, Kristine Kathryn Rusch and a host of others, I simply follow theh characters around and write down what happens and what they say and do. I serve as their recorder, and I’m thrilled to be the first witness to their stories… especially considering how very drab my own story has become, sitting in a chair for hours on end tapping away on a laptop.

  17. I did a bit of legal writing as well. To paraphrase, legal writing is to writing as military music is to music, But legal writing teaches discipline and traceability and honesty-and spelling and grammar if it’s good.

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