The First Step is a Jerk

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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 (?)

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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

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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

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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

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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.

December means Go!

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So a friend of mine told me in mid-October that Tor is accepting open submissions for novellas until 01-12-2017.

Great! I said.

I’ve never written a novella, and I’ve only read a handful of them; I like my fantasy series to have a dozen books, so I can really roll around in the universe. A 20,000-40,000 word limit is more intimidating to me right now than a 10,000 word History essay ever was in high school.

Well, comfort zones are for getting out of, right?

They’re looking for stories that are either: epic fantasy, sword and sorcery, high fantasy, or quest fantasy.

Great! I said.

I’m sure there are people who can write a 20,000 word Epic fantasy masterpiece, but I’m pretty sure I’m not one of them. Similar problem with high fantasy. Sword and sorcery is fun to read, but I’ve never really been the type to play a fighter or a barbarian. Clashing shields and fireballs, not so much my thing.

Good thing I’ve always wanted to write a quest!

That is a lie. I have never wanted to write a quest; I find them frustrating a lot of the time, mostly because my life never follow such neat paths and I have a hard time believing it for anyone else. But that thing I was saying about comfort zones is no less true now than it was four paragraphs ago, and with NaNoWriMo looming, I figured it was at least worth a shot, right?

I honestly wasn’t sure I was going to be able to make it through NaNo. The story I had was unlike anything I’ve ever tried to play with before, the format was short and strange, and of course life had no intention of pausing for a month to let me get my feet under me, because life is a jerk. I spent most of the month 7,000 words behind quota, and realized half way through that one of my three characters had about as much personality as cardboard. Thanks to the never-ending support of my wife, my cat, and my Appa plushie, I managed to push through and get the first draft finished on November 30 at 8:30 pm.

Cue celebratory hot chocolate, kitten snuggles, good night sleep.

Spend a couple of days getting caught up on schoolwork, groceries, the whole post-nano deal.

And then, of course, I wake up and realize what I’ve done: written a first draft.

Right!

So now I guess it’s time to roll up my sleeves, get the big mug in off the shelf, and see how quickly I can turn a first draft into a decent second draft, and a second draft into something that’s worth submitting to a publishing house.

Honestly, one of the scariest things I’ve ever contemplated doing, but if I can get it right, it’ll be worth it.

Fingers crossed! Here we go!

Quickie – One Salt Sea

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Just finished One Salt Sea by Seanan McGuire, and I’m falling more and more in love with each brutal gut punch she writes.

Anyone interested in my thoughts should feel free to wander over to my review on Goodreads. Anyone interested in a good book should consider checking out my review of Rosemary and Rue, which is the first book in the October Daye series, and then should go and pick up the book and read it themselves and maybe even let me know what they think!

 

Unlikely Sources …

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A friend of mine is starting an Estonian class, and she amused herself tonight by reading through the glossary at the end of the book. We aren’t quite sure when the textbook was made, or by whom, but the words they evidently think are crucial for a potential student to know are endearingly bizarre.

She pointed out that they might make some entertaining writing prompts, so I’m writing them down before I lose them all in a blurry facebook messenger haze.

  • Nighthawk || Grey-black grouse
  • Grammofon
  • Bat
  • Mink || Sable
  • Emerald
  • Smoking jacket || Tails
  • Displaced person, exile
  • Offer of marriage || Single, unmarried || Honeymoon
  • Ancient fortified stronghold
  • Harvest festival
  • Danger of drowning
  • Brassiere || Panties || Petticoat
  • Rye bread || Sauerkraut || Head cheese || Sandwich || Christmas sausage
  • Potato
  • Large quantity or amount
  • Lipstick
  • Gentleman || Woman, wife || Girl, maid
  • Weather bureau
  • To pound or nail
  • Milk store
  • Stallion
  • Carnations

Possible prompt: A young unmarried woman (dressed in her panties, mink bra, and sable petticoat) hopes to lure a gentleman into making an offer of marriage by cooking him sauerkraut and potato and Christmas sausage at the Harvest festival.

I’ll link to the results if I ever actually follow through with this.

R&R

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I’ve been thinking.

I haven’t been writing much lately – and by “writing much lately” I mean “writing at all since the beginning of December” because things came up, as they probably inevitably do, and sometimes I can fight back and get work done anyway, and this time I couldn’t.

have been reading, though. Kindle and Audible have a sharing system between them that means you can bounce back and forth between reading and listening to a book, and that apparently solves the problem I’ve been having about not having enough time to either exclusively read or exclusively listen to things. I took the chance to read a few old favourites, because nothing makes me feel better when I’m having a tough time than going back to old universes and reliving old stories.

But I just realized that just because I’m rereading old things doesn’t mean I can’t still use my brain. There are a lot of things that I read that I never reviewed at the time that I first read them, so for the next while, I think I’m going to turn my attention to fixing that problem. I won’t go as far as to retroactively review everything I’ve looked at in the last three months – surprisingly, I actually got through quite a bit.

What I will do, though, is chronicle my adventures through the Wheel of Time the second – second and a half? – time around. I read up to about the 9th book a decade ago, and then I read the entire thing three years ago, and it’s a really different experience rereading the first books with such a recent memory of the last ones in my head. I’ve never tried to do a rereading review, so it will be an interesting challenge, and it will also have the added benefit of reminding me that just because I’m not doing all of my proper work, I’m not actually sitting around like a useless lump the way I feel like I am. If they’re any good, I may post them here. Otherwise, though, at least my Goodreads account will be able to feel a little bit more loved  than it has in a while.

On Specificity

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I was thinking today about a problem I have sometimes. It’s come up in pretty much everything I’ve ever written, throwing wrenches around when I’m least expecting it: I’ve got this interesting scene going on, with characters I’m interested in and a plot that’s going somewhere nifty, and all of a sudden I look at what I’ve been producing and realize that it’s terrible.

Which, all right, there are a lot of things that can result in bad writing. Most of the time, it probably has something to do with the fact that I’m tired, or I haven’t planned things out very well, but a lot of the time I think it has something to do with specificity. The thing is, it’s fairly easy to come up with an interesting protagonist, home base, sidekick, fortress of solitude, whatever. The A plot and the B plot are usually fine too – that’s why I’m writing the novel.

But I find that no matter what story I’m telling, I ultimately end up at a point where I have to have characters going somewhere I wasn’t explicitly expecting, moving around in a large social setting, referencing past events, and all of a sudden, things start getting generic. A tavern with a bartender and wenches and ale, a manor with fastidious servants, uptight noblewomen who’d rather die than step in mud – or if you’re not in fantasy, maybe a girlfriend who assumes her guy’s cheating on her every time he looks at another woman. Whatever, it’s all the same thing, the kind of character tropes that show up everywhere, the kind of backdrops that get rolled in and out any time someone gets lazy. All of a sudden I’ve got my characters hanging out at Ye Olde Random Bar, talking with That Old Man With The Sword and the Wench With The Sad Brown Eyes, and there’s a reason I didn’t design those two in the first place. And then “the two of them bond” turns into “the two of them have the same conversation everyone has”, and again, there’s a reason I didn’t set out to write that when I was planning it at the beginning.

I think part of getting over that is just getting better at writing … but I’ve also developed a new rule to work with. Every time I’m setting out a scene, I’m now trying to explicitly say what makes my version of it different than the versions I’ve seen before. What about this bar’s design makes it My Bar as opposed to Anybody’s Bar? What makes this person distinct? What does that street smell like? The books that make the biggest impression on me – I’m thinking right now of Mistborn and The Lies of Locke Lamora – are the ones that take me somewhere I hadn’t been before. They’re the books that hand-paint each detail, the ones that put something surprising around every corner, even the corners that aren’t plot points.

If I’m going to make an evil empire, I’d probably better not give it a name that has lots of Vs and Ks and Js in it, because those are the letters everyone seems to throw around when they’re trying to make something kind of evil sounding, and I don’t want to get lost in the crowd. Meetings should maybe start happening in factories or warehouses or quays, instead of in the same five taverns. Not every town needs to have a square with four folksy buildings and a fountain. There’re probably a dozen more things I should start paying attention to, that I won’t notice until I realize I’ve gotten it wrong. In the meanwhile, I’ve got some noblemen to redesign.