Author Toolbox, April Edition: We’re All In This Together

Tags

, , , , , ,

shutterstock_173293271

I just did a Google image search for the word ‘writer’, and the results were exactly what I expected: a lot of pictures of typewriters, or notebooks with fancy pens on them, some laptops, a handful of cups of tea or coffee and a dozen pairs of glasses. Most of the pictures don’t have people in them. Some have parts of people: hands on keys, an arm holding a pen. When you do get to see a whole person – or at least, enough of one to be recognizable – they’re almost always sitting alone in a room, staring either absently out into space as they plan their next bestseller, or directly at their screen or page with a look of furious concentration. The backgrounds are nondescript. The writers themselves are often nondescript as well; some of them are just silhouettes, some are blown out by filters until the models probably wouldn’t recognize themselves.

Writers are solitary folk. Continue reading

Writing the Unknown

Tags

, , , , , , ,

shutterstock_176605295

Note: this piece was first published at The First Rule of Write Club, which is a podcast I highly recommend (and not only because it’s mine).

There’s one particular piece of advice that I’ve been hearing for as long as I’ve been an aspiring author: “Write what you know”. The premise being that an author needs to have an honest connection with what they’re writing, or else the entire thing rings hollow.

It seems eminently sensible, from an academic point of view, and it’s also been something that I’ve struggled with since I was about 13 years old.

The problem is that I want to write fantasy, and that’s always seemed to make ‘writing what you know’ sort of impossible. I don’t live in a preindustrial society, for one thing (although I am working on a modern-era epic fantasy series) and I haven’t been in a massive battle. I don’t think the authors I liked to read have either, and they seemed to get along just fine. “Write what you researched a lot” seemed to be a reasonable substitution.

As I got older, I started thinking about it a different way. I really value characters and relationships in books, regardless of genre. It doesn’t matter if someone’s a college student or a pirate, they still have wants and needs and friends and enemies, and that’s something I can understand. “Write what you know” started becoming about figuring out how people worked, went where they did, doing what they were doing with the people they were with. The writers I admired had characters who felt like they really existed.

And it still felt wrong. Continue reading

Up Close and Personal

Tags

, , , , , , , , ,

shutterstock_498338959

I’ve been having some trouble lately, and I’ve had a hard time pinning down exactly why. I’ve gotten some pretty good (I hope!) advice on what I should be trying to do, and it sounds sensible and reasonable, and yet I keep finding myself running up against a wall.

Funnily enough, quitting most sugars has actually been the easiest thing I’ve done lately. I’ve had one serious misstep (there was a leftover Reese’s Christmas tree that I couldn’t bear to throw away) and other than that I’m pleased with myself. My wife’s been great about not eating the sweet things I love right in front of me, and it’s gotten a lot easier to sigh regretfully and move on when she has a sweet snack.

No, the harder parts have been the weird little things that I would have expected to be easy.

I’ve wanted to get into a decent skin-care regimen for a long time, and since I’m radically changing everything around in my life anyway, I figured why not add this to the mess as well? Surely washing my face in the morning is going to be an easy little add-on, right?

Apparently not. Continue reading

Ghosts of Writing Past

Tags

, ,

writinghorrorstories-715x400

You’d expect this to be about looking back at old work and cringing at how bad I used to be, right?

You’d be wrong.

We’ve all got our learning pieces, the stuff we wrote while we were trying to figure out the very basics of how to string ideas and characters together, and of course those pieces are terrible. I cringe at them when I find them, and try to pretend that they don’t exist as soon as they’re out of sight again, but that’s to be expected.

You don’t normally get to be good at something without being terrible at it first, unless you’re Harry Potter and the “something” in question is Quidditch.

No, the ghost I’m talking about is the ghost of brilliant writing. When you pick up something you wrote two, five, ten years ago, and it holds up. Not only holds up, but actually outshines a lot of what I’m writing right now.

I skimmed through an old WIP about a week ago, and I felt the bottom drop out of my stomach. And then I went back and actually read it, and I wanted to cry.

“Why can’t I write like that anymore?”

I felt the shadow of that four-year-old piece of writing falling over me for the next few days. I’d start to write something, and then I would remember the old piece and think “what’s the point, since what I write today won’t match up?”

And then I’d write it anyway, and it wouldn’t match up, and I’d feel grumpy and also vindicated, but mostly grumpy.

The piece in question was the beginning of a fanfic that I’d been planning on writing, and I’ve poked at it since then and discovered that I’m still interested in the idea. I also discovered that I’m not the worthless inept failure that I sort of felt like I was; once I got into the flow, I found that writing voice again, and I’m quite pleased with what I’ve been able to get out.

But I still haven’t quite gotten over that feeling of crushing disappointment, like I’d reached my peak without knowing it and it was all downhill from there.

Has anyone else been unpleasantly surprised by past brilliance? Were you able to make something useful out of it? How did you get past it? WILL I EVER BE GOOD ENOUGH?

😀

The First Step is a Jerk

Tags

, , , , , , ,

493471862

I love old sayings.

Idioms, proverbs, bits of folk wisdom passed down, and basic common sense, they’re all so comforting and familiar, little reminders that other people have gone through similar situations and lived to pass on their advice. Even the ones that are chronically misused – “blood is thicker than water” actually means “screw your biological family, the people you struggle through life with are more important” and “carpe diem” is about not procrastinating – still add to the sense that there’s order in the world, that other people have stood where you stand now.

The problem with the sayings, though, is that no matter how well I think I understand them, now matter how many times I repeat them to myself, by the time any one of them is actually relevant it almost always feels woefully inadequate.

Case in point: “the first step is the hardest”. Continue reading

It’s a Brand New Me (?)

Tags

, , , , , , , , , , ,

1447195472-cheerios

This blog is in no way endorsed by Cheerios. In case that was somehow in question.

It seems like I’ve been in some kind of fight with my body for as long as I can remember. I’ve been on the edge of being overweight since high school – in spite of having an eating disorder for two third of my undergraduate degree – and I’m also hyperelastic, with ankles that roll at the drop of a hat.

I can and frequently do trip over absolutely nothing – in fact, I can’t actually remember the last time I tripped on something. It’s always just a smooth flat surface and then all of a sudden I’m face-planting.

I’ve got Ukrainian and Scottish heritage, which means I’ve got hairier legs than a lot of guys I know. Shaving lasts me about three hours, waxing gives me a week and a half, if I’m lucky. On top of that, some of the hair decided my face must be lonely, so I’ve been fighting with a mustache, sideburns, and a goatee since I was fifteen. On the plus side, I’m pretty damn good with a set of tweezers and those do-it-yourself wax kits.

On the negative side … I don’t really have to elaborate on the negative side, I guess, except to say that the whole positive-negative imagery makes it seem like maybe they should even each other out in the end, and if that’s the case, whoever’s in charge of my scale is definitely asleep on the job.

I could go on, and on (and on). I won’t, though, because this really isn’t about trying to feel sorry for myself; it’s the context for what comes next. Continue reading

365 Days of Writing – January

Tags

, , , ,

Startup Stock Photos

Since I’ve publicly expressed my resolve to write every day, it seems only appropriate to have some sort of equally public accounting of my progress. It’s easy to lose track of a day here and there if you’re keeping it all in your head, and too many of those make it start feeling like the entire thing is hopeless.

So, for the next (hopefully)  365 days, here is what I come up with: Continue reading

The Stupid, Little Things

Tags

, , ,

resolutedetermination

Is there a word like “scrooge”, except for all holidays instead of just for Christmas? Hallowe’en, Valentine’s Day, Thanksgiving – hell, even my birthday, most of the tI’m not a curmudgeon, and I wouldn’t say I’m a kill-joy; I have no problem with other people having fun or getting into the spirit of whatever season we’re dealing with.

I just personally have a really hard time matching my feelings to an arbitrary calendar date, whether those feelings are supposed to be spooky, romantic, thankful or, in this case, resolute. I also don’t really like fireworks, and I can’t really drink anymore, and I am not a fan of standing in the cold or watching other people stand in the cold on TV. Suffice it to say, I’m not so big on New Years.

And I’ve always hated the idea of New Years Resolutions. They almost always feel contrived and artificial, born out of a sense of obligation to social norms rather than out of anyone’s real desires or needs, and we all know that nobody follows through with them anyway. The idea is so prevalent that the “buy a three month gym membership so that you can start in January and give up in March” thing is a running cultural joke.

“Aha,” we say. “It is the 1st of January, all of a sudden I see with perfect clarity and will create a plan in the next five minutes that I will adhere to for the next 365 days.”

Yeah, right.

ON THE OTHER HAND …

I am a really big fan of hacking your brain to get it to do what you want, and taking advantages of resources that are available. That isn’t going to work when the goal is something that everyone expects to fail; “I’m going to try to eat better” is basically pointless, because you were either going to do it already or you’ll start failing when the people around you start giving up. Same thing with “I’m going to lose x pounds” or “I’m going to wake up early and make breakfast every day” … no one around you is going to hold you accountable to that sort of promise, because so many people mean well and then drop out that you’re just another statistic. And if you know that nobody else cares, you lose any external assistance with meeting your own goal.

Likewise, resolving to do something that you think you should do but don’t actually want to do is pretty much dead before it begins. Either you’re the sort of person who can motivate themselves with willpower and a sense of duty alone (if you are, can I have some?) or you’re the sort of person who wants to be better than they are, but can’t actually ever seem to make it happen because willpower and a sense of duty are great but when you’re spending those things on being a productive member of society or being kind to your family or getting through the day without dissolving in a puddle of depression, your willpower already has its work cut out for it.

But there are some things that can really benefit from some New Years attention. Little things, usually, the kinds of things that seem harder than they are, that will actually lead to concrete, observable improvements in your life without costing more than you have to give. The sorts of things that just need a little push to get going, and maybe some loving attention for the first steps of the journey. Maybe “take the stairs at work at least once a day” or “dump the spare change in my pocket into a savings jar at the end of the week”.

Yes, they seem small and kind of stupid … and that’s probably because they are, because sometimes the small kind of stupid things are important, and at a time when everyone tends to think in these grand sweeping arcs, paying attention to the little things is especially important.

They’re also useful, because it’s often easier to bring people in to help you with the little things. It’s a lot easier to convince a roommate to dump their spare change sometimes than it is to convince them to go vegetarian; coworkers might take the stairs with you sometimes when they wouldn’t be willing to give up going out to lunch every day.

There are a lot of things that I want to accomplish in the next year: make a certain amount of progress with my writing, do some paid work, get my health into a better place and keep improving my diet. I’d like to build my sense of personal style and learn how to wear bright lipstick again. None of those things are resolutions, though. They’re important, and if I work at it, I’ll be able to achieve what I can, and no amount of arbitrary promises will keep me from failing if something really gets in the way.

I am, however, going to make two resolutions:

  1. I will write every day.
  2. I will try keeping a journal and see how that goes.

Now, writing every day doesn’t mean that I’m going to end up producing something that will go into a novel. It might be a blog post, or maybe a character sketch or a ‘what-if’ scene or some kind of self-insert wish fulfillment fanfiction, I have no idea. The point isn’t what gets written, it’s that anything gets written at all. The only way to get better at something is to practice, and I know that, and so now I’ve gone and made it official. Maybe I’ll start some kind of hashtag thing so I can keep track for myself, and then people can pretend they care when they follow me on twitter!

😀

As for the journal … I have no idea how that one will go. I’ve never been the kind of girl who kept a diary, and I’m definitely not going to start that now. But I’ve seen enough writers I admire talk about how jotting things down each day helps them with their work later on that it seems like it’s worth trying, so I’m going to give it a shot! No hashtags for that one, just a crappy spiral-bound notebook that I bought for Spanish class and never ended up using.

At the end of the day, I guess I see the beginning of a new year as a chance to check in with yourself and see what you struggle with, what you’re striving for, and what’s important to you. It’s a chance to be honest in a kind of way you don’t get very often, and if you use it wisely, it can be a chance to take yourself by the hand and give yourself a little push in the right direction.

So don’t waste it on a gym membership or a juicer, I guess.

UPDATE: see how it’s going here!

The Perfect is the Enemy of the Good

Tags

, , , ,

193a08640efb13de2286e02cef95037f
Photo © SARAH HOBBS

Or in my case, maybe, of the mediocre? I’m not really all that superstitious, but at this point I don’t really want to jynx anything by getting too far ahead of myself.

This is something that all writers have to figure out how to come to terms with, I think; at least, I’ve bumped up against it in academic work, and I’ve heard a number of published authors talk about it with regard to their novels, so I think at this point we’re in “truth universally acknowledged” territory.

That is: the thing you’re writing is never going to be perfect. It’s not even going to be close. In his intro to the 10th-anniversary edition of American Gods, Neil Gaimon referenced an old saying: “a novel can best be defined as a long piece of prose with something wrong with it”. In the last apartment I was in, I remember I actually printed that out and pinned it to my corkboard as a reminder.

Unfortunately, looking at an inspirational phrase is not the same thing as really believing it.

I managed to successfully finish my 0-draft – what I’m calling my “Sketch” – of my novella during NaNoWriMo, and pulled together the courage to send that off to friends and also to my mother and my mother-in-law for feedback. The good news is that nobody said that I was horrible or that I should go and die in a ditch somewhere.

Not that I was really expecting anyone to say that.

Not really.

The other good news was that everyone had some really constructive things to say, and they all seemed to have heard my explanation that this was just a quick scribble draft, and no one got too hung up on the writing.

The bad news is that the deadline for submissions at Tor is January 12th, which is only 21 days away, and 21 days is not a lot of time!!!

Of course, I knew I wasn’t going to have a lot of time to do this. My last entry here was about pretty much just that. But there’s a difference between knowing it and feeling it, and right now I feel like I’m all but drowning in the understanding of how little time I have and how much I need to do.

The problem is that there’s more feedback than I can act on in the timeframe that I have. I only had a month to conceptualize this entire thing, and that definitely shows in some areas that are underdeveloped. I knew I had areas of weakness, and I thought I was okay with that, but having readers come back and point them out to me makes me want to sit down and try to rework everything from the ground up, and I don’t have time to do that.

On the other hand, it feels irresponsible to blithely continue going when I know there’s a problem. My brain’s super-helpful solution to this dilemma is to just stop functioning; if I can’t write the perfect thing, clearly I shouldn’t write anything at all.

Well, that’s obviously nonsense. The only thing worse than writing a flawed story is not writing a story at all because it’s flawed. You don’t learn anything from holding back. If you wait until you’re perfect before you try something, you’re just never going to do anything, ever.

So, with that said, I’m trying to push forward. It feels like I’m running in molasses and I’m fairly sure I’m going to be disappointed by the result, but I’ll be damned if I let that stop me.

Still, it’s a challenge.