Monday, September 24, 2018

Guest Post from Descript

How to Overcome Writer’s Block with Automatic Transcription

a guest post from Descript

If you’re a writer — of books, essays, scripts, blog posts, whatever — you’re familiar with the phenomenon: the blank screen, a looming deadline, and a sinking feeling in your gut that pairs poorly with the jug of coffee you drank earlier.
If you know that rumble all too well: this post is for you. Maybe it’ll help you get out of a rut; at the very least, it’s good for a few minutes of procrastination.
Here’s the core idea: thinking out loud is often less arduous than writing. And it’s now easier than ever to combine the two, thanks to recent advances in speech recognition technology.
Of course, dictation is nothing new — and plenty of writers have taken advantage of it. Carl Sagan’s voluminous output was facilitated by his process of speaking into an audio recorder, to be transcribed later by an assistant (you can listen to some of his dictations in the Library of Congress!) And software like Dragon’s Naturally Speaking has offered automated transcription for people with the patience and budget to pursue it.
But it’s only in the last couple of years that automated transcription has reached a sweet spot — of convenience, affordability and accuracy—that makes it practical to use it more casually. And I’ve found it increasingly useful for generating a sort of proto-first draft: an alternative approach to the painful process of converting the nebulous wisps inside your head into something you can actually work with.
I call this process idea extraction (though these ideas may be more accurately dubbed brain droppings).
Part I: Extraction
Here’s how my process works. Borrow what works for you and forget the rest — and let me know how it goes!

  • Pick a voice recorder. Start talking. Try it with a topic you’ve been chewing on for weeks — or when an idea flits your head. Don’t overthink it. Just start blabbing.
  • The goal is to tug on as many threads as you come across, and to follow them as far as they go. These threads may lead to meandering tangents— and you may discover new ideas along the way.
  • A lot of those new ideas will probably be embarrassingly bad. That’s fine. You’re already talking about the next thing! And unlike with text, your bad ideas aren’t staring you in the face.
  • Consider leaving comments to yourself as you go — e.g. “Maybe that’d work for the intro”. These will come in handy later.
  • For me, these recordings run anywhere from 20–80 minutes. Sometimes they’re much shorter, in quick succession. Whatever works.
Part II: Transcription
Once I’ve finished recording, it’s time to harness ⚡️The Power of Technology⚡️
A little background: over the last couple of years there’s been an explosion of tools related to automatic speech recognition (ASR) thanks to huge steps forward in the underlying technologies.
Here’s how ASR works: you import your audio into the software, the software uses state-of-the-art machine learning to spit back a text transcript a few minutes later. That transcript won’t be perfect—the robots are currently in the ‘Write drunk’ phase of their careers. But for our purposes that’s fine: you just need it to be accurate enough that you can recognize your ideas.
Once you have your text transcript, your next step is up to you: maybe you’re exporting your transcript as a Word doc and revising from there. Maybe you’re firing up your voice recorder again to dictate a more polished take. Maybe only a few words in your audio journey are worth keeping — but that’s fine too. It probably didn’t cost you much (and good news: the price for this tech will continue to fall in the years ahead).
A few more tips:
  • Use a recorder/app that you trust. Losing a recording is painful — and the anxiety of losing another can derail your most exciting creative moments (“I hope this recorder is working. Good, it is... @#*! where was I?”)
  • Audio quality matters when it comes to automatic transcription. If your recording has a lot of background noise or you’re speaking far away from the mic, the accuracy is going to drop. Consider using earbuds (better yet: Airpods) so you can worry less about where you’re holding the recorder.
  • Find a comfortable space. Eventually you may get used to having people overhear your musings, but it’s a lot easier to let your mind “go for a walk” when you’re comfortable in your environment.
  • Speaking of walking: why not go for a stroll? The pains of writing can have just as much to do with being stationary and hunched over. Walking gets your blood flowing — and your ideas too.
  • I have a lot of ideas, good and bad, while I’m thinking out loud and playing music at the same time (in my case, guitar — but I suspect it applies more broadly). There’s something about playing the same four-chord song on auto pilot for the thousandth time that keeps my hands busy and leaves my mind free to wander.
The old ways of doing things — whether it’s with a keyboard or pen — still have their advantages. Putting words to a page can force a sort of linear thinking that is otherwise difficult to maintain. And when it comes to editing, it’s no contest: QWERTY or bust.
But for getting those first crucial paragraphs down (and maybe a few keystone ideas to build towards)? Consider talking to yourself. Even if you wind up with a transcript full of nothing but profanity — well, have you ever seen a transcript full of profanity? You could do a lot worse.

This article was originally published by Descript.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Interview with Acclaimed Author & Motivational Speaker Amberly Lago

I am so thrilled to welcome Amberly Lago to the blog today! I read Amberly's book TRUE GRIT & GRACE in a matter of days and was so inspired and moved by her story. This is a book that will change the way you see yourself and the world -- it will open your eyes to the possibilities before you, and will help you tap into the grit and grace inside yourself. 

Amberly was kind enough to stop by the blog today (in the midst of her busy schedule and book tour!) to answer some questions about not just writing and publishing, but also strength and resilience. Grab a mug of tea, turn off your cell phone, and sink into her insights and words of wisdom. 

It is such a pleasure to present to you... Amberly Lago!

Can you tell us about you that you’d like the readers to know?

I was an athlete and professional dancer turned fitness trainer when a horrific motorcycle accident severed my femoral artery and shattered my right leg almost beyond repair. Months in the hospital and 34 surgeries—along with plates, pins, and sheer will—eventually spared my leg, despite the initial recommendation to amputate. As a result of the trauma, I was diagnosed with an incurable nerve disease called Complex Regional Pain Syndrome, dubbed “the suicide disease” because it is ranked highest on the pain scale. But giving up was never in my wheel house. By embracing gratitude, acceptance, and self care, I found the ability to thrive despite living in constant, chronic pain.

I started sharing my story of hope and inspiration to small assembled crowds and then before I knew it, I was being asked to speak at conferences, schools, and institutions. My heart was instantly filled with joy the more I shared my story and made connections with others. Although I had never written a book before, I was passionate about writing my story in hopes of giving others a shift in their perspective and to leave them believing in themselves a little bit more. I wrote True Grit and Grace: Turning Tragedy Into Triumph and it was published earlier this year by Morgan James Publishing and launched on the Megyn Kelly TODAY Show.

Take us through your writing and publishing process. 

The thought of writing a book was a little overwhelming and I knew I needed help. Although I always did well in school, I didn’t even have a college education. I started asking around if anyone knew of a writing teacher. Three different people told me about an incredible teacher named Jack Grapes. I looked him up and enrolled in his Method Writing class. Method Writing is an organic approach to the creative process, a way of finding your deep, authentic voice. The Method does not take the traditional approach, which emphasizes structure and form; instead it focuses on truth and organic process. Method Writing deals with the inner voice and how it can be used to create unique works of art, true to your own voice and style, true to your own vision and point view, and true to your own life experience—whether writing a book, poem, recipe, Instagram post, or ransom note.

So along with writing every day in my journal, I made an outline for my book, and used Jack Grapes Method Writing class as a way to start writing. I wrote every day, even if it was just a page, and it took two years. I had to find the time to write between working, being a mom, being a wife, and trying to have any kind of social life. There were a lot of days I just wanted to keep pushing the snooze button, but I would wake up at 4:30 every morning to get my writing in before my day officially started.

It took a total of two years to finish my book, and then came time to find a publisher. I attended a conference called “Author 101” where I learned about everything from publishing to marketing and literary agents. Although I left there feeling even more overwhelmed, it’s also where I ended up finding my publisher.

What is your favorite thing about writing? 

My favorite thing about writing is getting things out of my head and onto the paper. When I was in the hospital and stuck in the hospital bed, writing was a way of coping with my situation.

I opened my journal and immediately began a gratitude list—that is, all the things for which I was grateful. So instead of staring into darkness, I focused on what was light in my life, and as the list grew longer, the less depressed I became. This was my medicine and it worked. Psychological depression, as opposed to biochemical depression, doesn’t occur in a vacuum. It occurs in negativity, when “what I don’t have” seems greater than “what I want to have.” We human beings rarely know how to value what we have until we lose it. And I was determined to beat those odds by listing and acknowledging all my blessings. Gratitude turns denial into acceptance, makes sense of our past, brings peace for today, and creates hope for tomorrow. Writing a gratitude list keeps me in a place of gratitude, and when you are grateful you don’t have room for self-pity. Writing down all my emotions is healing and takes me out of my head and keeps me in my heart.

Your writing is so authentic, honest and vulnerable. How do you push past fears, doubts, or self-criticism that is inherent for so many of us in the creative process?  

I try to write like I speak—straight from the heart. Sometimes I will read a post I have written for social media and I think to myself, what was I thinking writing that?? But it is how I was feeling at the time. I have found when you own your story and accept where you are on your journey it strengthens your resilience and allows you to make meaningful connections with others. Plus, it’s much easier to write when you are just keeping it real and letting the words flow.

Do you have any advice for other writers, or for anyone going after their dreams? 

Write from you heart and write vividly, using all your senses. Keep it real. I think readers can smell when you aren’t authentic. I started writing my memoir like I was telling a story and it was less intimidating for me to get started. The secret is to just get started. This is your perspective on life and events, and if you can share what you think, feel, and have gone through, others gather the wisdom and benefit of your experiences. No matter what, keep writing every day.

Can you share a few of your favorite books or authors? 

One of my favorite authors is Brene Brown and I love her book The Gifts of Imperfection. I start my day by reading several of my favorite spiritual books to center me before my day gets crazy. Some of those books include Each Day a New Beginning: Daily Mediations for Women, published by Hazelden; I’ve Been Thinking: Reflections, Prayers, and Meditations for a Meaningful Life by Maria Shriver, and The Wisdom of Sundays by Oprah Winfrey.

What inspires you? 

My two daughters inspire me to be my best and my biggest motivator is anyone who tells me I can’t do something.

 What are you working on now? What’s next for you? 

I am still on my book tour and have one last stop in Charlotte, North Carolina at Barnes & Noble. Next I will be delivering a keynote “Claiming Your Resilience When Living In Chronic Pain” at the annual RSDSA conference and also leading a 5K fundraising walk “Fight the Flame” to benefit those diagnosed with CRPS. I am launching an online inspirational fitness course soon, and my dream is to do SuperSoul Podcast with Oprah AND a TED Talk—Hey! I always say if your dreams don’t scare you, then they aren’t big enough!

Anything else you would like to add?

What I have learned is that life is a series of choices we make regardless of our circumstances. I could either make the choice to give up and let my life be determined by my circumstances, or fight to create something positive out of my situation. My choice is to notice the gifts life offers, which are particularly plentiful when you look for them. I believe in seeing the good in every situation and learning form it.

I believe we can have the life we always imagined, even if our circumstances have narrowed our possibilities. My sincere wish is that my book will help each reader claim their own power and belief in themselves and their dreams, and find their own resilience to move forward and choose a life filled with laughter and love, even when things don’t go as planned. We can’t choose what life throws our way, but we can choose to be happy and live a full life, despite our circumstances. Through our trials, we can embrace our challenges, connect to our innermost resilience, and change our perspective on life. We are strong, but together we are unstoppable.

Connect with Amberly:

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Interview with Young Author Macy Li

I am delighted to feature an interview today with talented young author Macy Li. I have known Macy since publishing her short story "Teaching Helen Keller" on Word Smorgasbord two years ago. She was a superb writer then, and I have been amazed at how her writing continues to grow and evolve ever since!

Macy just recently published her first book, a fabulous collection of poems, stories, essays and plays titled Shards. (Order your copy on Amazon here!) Macy has won many writing contests, including: Gold and Silver Keys in the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards, Honorable Mentions from Stone Soup magazine, the Best in Class Award for the Growing Up Asian in America Contest, first place in the Art Tales Writing Contest, and prizes in the Palo Alto Writing Contest. Next week, she will be featured on the Palo Alto Podcast. She was kind enough to stop by the blog today to answer some questions about her writing process, finding inspiration, creativity, and more!

Hi Macy! What would you like readers to know about you as an introduction? 

My name is Macy Li, I’m thirteen years old, and I grew up in Sacramento, California. Other than writing, I enjoy playing piano, dancing, and reading. I’m also interested in biology and Latin. My favorite genre to write is poetry, because of the amount of emotion and meaning that’s able to be expressed in every line.

Take us through your writing process when you were creating Shards. 

Shards is my collection of poems, stories, and plays, consisting of pieces from a year ago until recently. Each piece started out as a spark, an idea, a message that I wanted to share. I laced my thoughts and feelings into tales, hoping to express them in abstract ways that I loved. And so sometimes my words flowed into poems, stories, and plays. Other times, my pieces just didn’t work out. But through these experiences, I came out with a collection of my writing that I felt expressed the most of my emotions. Each word is like a shard, a hint to something bigger, completing my collection.

What do you like most about writing? 

My favorite thing about writing is that I can do anything with it. In the real world, there are people I can’t stand up to, things that I can’t do, and lives that I can’t have. But when I write, anything is possible for me. When I write, I finally feel free -- I feel happy. When I write, I escape from reality and drown in my own world. The bottled up emotions spill out, and I can paint worlds from my imagination. Sometimes, I feel weak and lost in reality, but writing gives me a power: a power to create. Writing is something I love.
You write in a variety of different genres -- poetry, short stories, drama, nonfiction. When you get an idea, how do you decide what form it will take? 

When I get an idea, I think about which way it would be most powerful when presented. Some ideas are stronger as plays, others as poems, others as stories. I like to use poetry to communicate more abstract ideas and feelings, and I like to write plays to create closer connections between the characters and readers. I use stories to tell more vivid tales, ones which I like to pack a lot of description and emotion in.
Do you have any advice for other writers, or for other young people going after their dreams? 

I want anyone who’s interested in writing to know that in every piece of writing, there is always something special and beautiful about it, because reading someone’s writing is like hearing someone’s words from his or her heart. These words are special and amazing. My advice is to just let go when writing. Just relax and let whatever’s on your mind spill into a story. In order for your words to come out, they have to come from the heart. Never be afraid to write out your feelings into tales.

Can you share a few of your favorite books or authors? 

Some of my favorite books are The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, and Mapping the Bones by Jane Yolen. I like to read historical fiction, realistic fiction, and a little bit of science fiction.

What inspires you? 

I’m inspired by happiness, laughter, and love. I’m inspired by failure, rejection, and hurt. I’m inspired by mean people, by nice people, by people who make me cry, by people who give me hope. I’m inspired by the words people say, the feelings people feel. I’m inspired by anything that fills me with emotions, thoughts, and ideas.

What are you working on now? What’s next for you? 

I’m continuing to write poems, stories, and plays of all kinds, and simply enjoying the art of writing. I hope to be able to compile another collection soon.

Anything else you’d like to add?

Never give up, because there is always hope until you give up. This is the most important thing I’ve learned. If you want to do something, you can do it. There is always a chance.

Thank you so much, Macy!

Dear readers: you can purchase your own copy of Shards on Amazon here!