Creating Outside of Writing

We maintain this blog to talk about the art and craft and work of writing. You, presumably, come here to read about that. But today I’m going to talk to you about when you’re not writing.

A lot of time, no matter how far you may be into your writing career, we often feel guilty when we take time off of writing. And no matter how often we tell each other that taking time off is not only okay, it’s necessary, we struggle to take that to heart when it applies to us. I can tell my writing friends they deserve time off, that we all need to decompress, go get yourself a little water for that well, but when I’m taking time off I have to keep saying, “It’s okay. You deserve this.”

But I don’t always feel like that’s true.

It is true. It’s as true for me as it is for you. But my guilt doesn’t care about true and fairness.

So, if you struggle with that as much as I do, when you do take time off from writing, make it worth it. Have it fill your well. Your well is that source of creativity inside of you–your well of inspiration. Think of it as a literal well from which you drink, but it doesn’t have a natural source refilling it–you have to refill it from time to time.

I’ve made no secret of the fact that I have been struggling to work on my new project and I finally accepted the fact that I needed to step away from it and reconsider what I’m going to do. But I needed to do something creative to fill the space not writing has left.

So, over the last 3-4 weeks, I’ve been working with my hands. My husband and I have been doing a major (for us) landscaping project. We have limited outdoor space and we’ve been trying over the years to make it into something that we can really enjoy but, because of the odd placement, the way the sun hits it, a bunch of other factors, everything we’ve tried has eventually failed. It’s succumbed to poor planning, weeds, the drought, etc.

We decided this time we were going to do it right. I knew the reason we hadn’t done it “right” before was because it was going to be so hard. Like, physically hard. Hard, back breaking work. And I was right; it has been painfully hard.

We’ve torn down the termite damaged wooden structure. Shoveled at least a dozen wheel-barrels full of dirt. Dug out massive, hidden chunks of cement. Built garden boxes. Dug a 3.5 foot post hole and cemented a new post in. Spent long hours into last Saturday night laying out 35 sixty pound pavers. And we’re still not done. The good news is, we’re done with the heavy labor. The stuff that made my back and hands ache for days, it’s all done. We’re down to small things, like making it pretty, and building a bench to finish it. Not easy, necessarily, but not 35 sixty pound pavers either.

I made it a point to pull equal weight to my husband–not leaving all the hard, heavy things for him to do. Yes, he definitely lifted more pavers than I did, but I made sure I shoveled more dirt than he did. I wanted this to be an even division of labor. When I sit out there with a cup of coffee and my outline, I want to feel the same amount of accomplishment as he will.

And, Sunday morning, when we woke up and walked outside to get a good look at what we’d finished the night before in the light of day, I finally felt relief. We’d done something and we could actually see the progress finally. It was the same feeling I get when I get hit the 3/4 mark in a manuscript. It’s not quite done, but damn, I have made it through the difficult parts and the end is in sight. And, if I focus, I know I can finish the last couple of chapters fast and furiously.

We did hit a roadblock and an idea we had to make it pretty completely crashed and burned. And I was really upset about it. It wasn’t an expensive letdown but it was something we’d put a lot of time into and it just didn’t workout and all I could think about was all that time and energy wasted. But that’s something we face in writing all the time. Sometimes you write a whole book only to realize at the end, that book isn’t going to be published. It wasn’t right or good or something. But we have to put it in a drawer and let it go and start something new. So I let that frustration go, tossed the ruined materials and marched back down to the hardware store today and got new supplies. And you know what? This is going to be 100% better than that scrapped idea and now I know that. In all actuality, I couldn’t have known our first idea wasn’t going to work until we tried it. Which, again, is a lot like figuring out a book. All you can do is try and fail and try again until you figure it out and get it right.

I don’t know for sure, but something in my gut is telling me, when this project is done, I might be able to get back to the book. I’ve been thinking about it more and more and with less dread and disappointment. Maybe doing something creative and difficult that wasn’t writing was just the thing I needed to unblock my water source. Maybe my well is filling back up. Or maybe I needed to be reminded that I can create things from scratch so I can do it again.

So if you’re stuck, maybe do something else with your creativity. Create something else, watch it form from your hands, and remember you’re an amazing artist who deserves time away from the pages and keys and voices. Quell that guilt.

(And yes, I have been taking progress pictures, I just haven’t posted them. I want the whole thing done before I post anything so you really get the full effect of the transformation.)

Doing What You Love

There’s a saying I hear a lot as a writer that I’ve come to really hate. It goes: make a career of something you love and you’ll never work a day in your life.

*incorrect buzzer sound* Wrong answer! In fact, whenever confronted with this annoying adage I usually argue the opposite is true. Because I have pursued my passion as a career, it actually means more to me than the average day job. Which is not to denigrate day jobs, of which I’ve had many. But I’ve invested not only time and effort into becoming an author, but also a bit of my own soul made manifest in paper and ink and many, many words.

Writing is work. Hard work. But what I think that saying is driving at is this: when you make a career out of something you love, you should be able to find some measure of joy in it every day. And sometimes I wonder whether I’ve lost the joy that brought me to writing in the process of trying to monetize my passion.

I’ve written for as long as I can remember. My mom recently found a handwritten story I wrote when I was six or seven–illustrated and bound with yarn–about a clever farmer’s wife who tied chickens to pigs in order to trick her useless husband into doing chores. By the time I was nine, I was filling notebooks full of rambling tales about a warrior princess named Jade and her faithful unicorn steed. By twelve or so, I somehow acquired an old typewriter and spent long hours clickety-clacking away on its half stuck keys (I’m sure my parents were sooo proud). In high school, I wrote such excellent essays that my Lang/Lit teacher frequently asked me to read them aloud to the class (why yes I was the teacher’s pet, why do you ask?).

Writing was a hobby, a passion, a joy, a solace–something I did in my spare time because I wanted to. Because I loved it. Hardly anyone read anything I wrote, and it didn’t occur to me to want it any other way. Because I wasn’t doing it for anyone but myself.

And then I took a fateful elective Creative Writing class my junior year of college. And when we workshopped my first short story, all the other students loved it. They compared my writing to F. Scott Fitzgerald, my favorite author at the time. Words like “provacative” and “professional” were thrown around. And when the professor returned his feedback he stapled a list of literary journals to the front with the suggestion that I submit to them when I was ready.

And so a monster was born. Suddenly, it wasn’t enough to write for just me anymore. I kept writing–private diary entries and short stories no one read and the seeds of some of the books I would later write in earnest–but it wasn’t quite the same. A voice in the back of my head kept whispering: what if you could do this as a job? And suddenly, the reason for writing shifted, minutely at first and then irrevocably, until I wasn’t doing it for myself at all but all the faceless people who might one day read my words.

I’ve written about my journey to publication in other posts, so I won’t reiterate here. It was a long trek, and a lot of hard work, and I’m proud of everything I learned and everything I accomplished. I’m not complaining. I feel incredibly fortunate to have been able to pursue my passion, and reached some measure of success with it.

But success is a funny word to define. I remember when I first started seriously writing, I used to tell myself: if I can just finish a novel, I’ll be happy. That seemed enough. Later, when I was neck deep in the query trenches trying to get my first few novels published, the mantra became: if I can just sign with an agent, I’ll be happy. Eventually, that too came to pass. Then it was: if only I can sell a book, if only I can sell its sequel, if only if only if only if only…

When does it end? When will it all finally be enough to “make me happy?” If my books hit the NYT Bestseller’s list, will that be enough? If my books are translated into every human language, will that be enough? If my books are ejected into space as a symbol of the sum of human arts and culture for visiting extraterrestrials, will that be enough?

Enough is enough. The more I think about it, the more I think it’s time to get back to basics. I have to find a way to make writing about the writing again. It’s going to be hard–the fact of the matter is, I am a published author now. Other people do read my writing and will continue to do so (at least I hope they will). I’m not sure I’ll ever really be able to forget that my words don’t belong just to me anymore. But I want to try to have them start out that way, at least.

Why did little Lyra write stories about clever farmer’s wives and spunky princesses and talking unicorns? I don’t know. But she didn’t do it because anyone was going to read it. She didn’t do it because the plot was marketable or the characters were trendy. She didn’t do it because she was on deadline and just had to write something. She did it because she loved it.

I want to learn to love what I do again. I don’t know yet what I’m going to write, but when I do write it…I think it might have to be just for me.

Writing outside my lane

Image from Unsplash.

So I did something sneaky. In this year’s New Years Resolution post, I only listed ONE action item:

I hereby resolve to use my planner.

When it comes to the planner, so far so good. The “sneaky” part comes from what I didn’t say, the one or two other ideas I didn’t share.

For instance, I vowed to take a writing class, something I’d have to commit to and that I’d learn from. I kept that resolution secret, a little something just between me and my laptop because I didn’t have a firm plan at New Years. In early January, however, I stumbled over something good.

I found Writing the Other: Deep Dive into Diverse Characters, which is a month-long class given by Nisi Shawl, Tempest Bradford, and Piper J. Drake.

The foundation for this course is the book Writing the Other by Nisi Shawl. (I’ve linked to Amazon but it’s available from B&N and the publisher as well.) The course teaches character development through a framework that strives to avoid stereotypes and offensive characterizations when working with characters of different gender, race, &/or orientation.

Here’s a bit from the course description:

Representation is fundamental to writing great fiction. Creating characters that reflect of the diversity of the world we all live in is important for all writers and creators of fictional narratives. But writers often find it difficult to represent people whose gender, sexual orientation, racial heritage, or other aspect of identity is very different from their own. This can lead to fear of getting it wrong–horribly, offensively wrong–and, in the face of that, some think it’s better to not even try.

But representation is too important to ignore. And it is possible to write characters who represent the “Other” sensitively and convincingly. This four week course will provide authors  with a solid foundation in how to craft characters from any background, no matter how different they are from you.

I’m sharing all of this both because I’ve learned a lot so far and because growing my skill at writing outside my own experience is a crucial part of my development. I’ve published nine novels/novellas with gay or queer protagonists, so I’m working outside my lane all the damned time. I need to make sure I’m not stepping on people’s toes – or damaging their sense of self – when I do.

We’re only halfway through the class, and so far I have a couple of take-homes. First, I think some – possibly younger – people are a lot more comfortable with labels than I am. In the course introduction, we were asked to share how we fit the dominant paradigm and where we differed from it.

All my intro said was “I am the dominant paradigm.”

I’m a cis-het white woman with no chronic health or emotional issues. I’m neurotypical and I’ve never I experimented with alternative lifestyles or genders. Compared with most of the other intros, mine was SHORT.

Having the language to identify yourself as queer or neurodivergent and the comfort level to share ongoing mental health challenges is a truly beautiful change in our culture. I grew up with a much more limited vocabulary:

You were straight or (whispers) gay, a boy or a girl, and if you felt bad you went to a therapist but you damned well didn’t talk about it.

My theory – based on observation alone – is that it’s a generational thing, but I could be wrong. Either way, I count it as progress.

The other take-home from the course has to do with the how of it. How does an author avoid creating hurtful characters?

Do your homework.
Ask yourself honestly if you’re the best person to write this story.
Diversity is important, but I’d be very careful of writing a PoC character where the story was about their experience as a PoC. You’re not here to save anyone.
Get to know people who belong to the group you’re drawing from.
Read and research, looking specifically for works created by group members, not by others writing “authoritatively” about them.

Hire a sensitivity reader.
Although it’s not one person’s job to speak for the many, a good sensitivity reader can help you avoid the most obvious pitfalls.

Respond to feedback with an apology and a promise to change.
Because you’ll make mistakes. I sure as hell have. In one of her comments, Tempest said their goal is harm reduction, and that’s about all I can hope for.

Taking this course has slowed down my word-count, but it’s time well spent. I choose to write outside my lane for a complex mix of reasons, but since I’ve made this choice, I want to do the very best job I can.

I don’t want people hurt by the stories that come from my heart.

Here’s another link to the Writing the Other website. In addition to the Deep Dive course, they have a number of different offerings that I encourage you to check out.

Silence Hurts

As a rule, I stay out of the comments. You know, the chunks of opinion that follow most on-line articles, left by concerned and thoughtful citizens.

Or by trolls.

Sometimes it can be hard to tell the difference.

Over the last month, I’ve generalized that “no comments” standard to the active forums on the RWA website. (RWA = Romance Writers of America, one of the largest writer’s organizations in the country.)

See, exactly one month ago today, on 12/23/19, RWA censured & suspended author Courtney Milan, charging her with ethics violations and suspending her membership for a year. They also banned her from ever again holding a leadership position in the organization.

Now, some backstory…

Courtney has a long history with RWA. She’s a past board member, and at the time the ethics complaints against her were filed, she was the head of the ethics committee. She also received an award at last year’s national conference for the work she’d done promoting diversity in the organization.

She also has a huge social media following, and if the RWA board thought they could drop their little bombshell and sneak away for the holidays without anyone noticing, they were…um…wrong.

To say the shit hit the fan might be one of the biggest understatements of all time.

The board said that Courtney had violated RWAs standards by calling out a 20 year old book as a “fucking racist mess”. They said her critique caused the other author to lose a book contract, which simplifies things a great deal and is also simply wrong.

For a hit-by-hit look at how this last month has gone down, Claire Ryan has put together a timeline that is absolutely worth the read. For a nuanced look at why this has all happened, Kelly Faircloth’s article at Jezebel is a good source.

The underlying issue is racism, something RWA has been wrestling with for the last several years. (In April of 2018 I blogged about the #ritasowhite kerfufle involving the RITA Awards, RWA’s version of the Oscars. At the time, no black authors had ever won a RITA.) The RWA Board that took over in September ’19 was the most diverse in the organization’s history, which a lot of us took as a good sign. Progress made. Go us.

We couldn’t have been more wrong.

Which brings me back to the forums. They’re a mechanism for discussion, a private place where RWA members can exchange views. Things can get pretty heated, and whether intentional or not, a number of my RWA colleagues have let their racist flags fly.

It’s a testament to my own privilege that I was able to say, “nope, not looking” when I started to hear how awful some of the comments were.

It’s also a testament to my privilege that I can say “yeah, don’t need ’em” and plan to let my membership lapse.

I’ve spent the last two years as treasurer for the Rainbow Romance Writers chapter of RWA, an on-line chapter that supports writers of diverse romance in learning their craft and in having a place to network. Our membership is predominately white, and while the board wanted to give queer authors of color a safe place, I’m not sure how close we came to accomplishing that goal.

Wrestling with my own internalized racism is difficult, whether in the context of a wider organization or in my daily life. I could have followed those forum conversations and added my voice to the chorus of people who were willing to take a stand and call out those who were being shitty.

Instead, I’m writing a blog post. Again. Encouraging you all to look for books by diverse authors to push yourself beyond your comfort zone. To speak out.

I’m listening.

(Here’s a link to the WOC Romance website book list to get you started.)

It’s that time of year… #NewYearsResolution

So, I’ve got a funny story for you. You know last December, when my Scribes post listed all the things I meant to accomplish in 2019? I can proudly report that…

I might not have done so well.

Or at least I’ve been telling myself I didn’t accomplish much. Getting ready for this post, though, I looked over the list from last year – you can find it here if you’re curious – and I didn’t entirely suck.

  1. I didn’t write another book for my agent to send out on submission, but I did self-publish Lost & Found (previously known as L’Ami Mysteriuex), so I get partial credit for this one.
  2. Last January I’d written ~ 1120 #PostcardsToVoters, and today I’m at ~ 1850, which means I’ve averaged ~ 15 postcards per week. My goal was 20. Close enough.
  3. I said I’d spend 15 minutes a day teaching myself French.
    HAHAHAHA.
  4. I meant to write another Trevor story. He’s the hero in The Clockwork Monk & The Christmas Prince (which is still a free download for the next week or so), and while he’ll get another story, it didn’t happen this year.
  5. Next was rewriting the Creepy Doll story. Funny thing, that. I started a rewrite, changing the time period from 1940 to 1900. Then I cut the vampire. Then I moved the location from New Orleans to Seattle. Then…uh…I cut the doll. And then I had to admit I was writing an entirely different book, but it was my NaNo project and I’m about 10k words shy of finishing the first draft.
  6. I promised to keep my senators on speed dial, and I have.
  7. I didn’t get back into Weight Watchers, but I’ve been going to a weekly spin class and taking yoga a couple times of week, so I’m going to count this as a win, too.

Looking back, there were only two resolutions I really did no work towards (and yes, Babbel, I’m looking at you). Here I thought I was going to write a 500-word mea culpa, but in reality, I did pretty good.

Go me!

Now I guess I should figure out what to do to capitalize on this success. A clever person might make another list of resolutions and since I’m nothing if not clever, here goes…

  1. I hereby resolve to use my planner.

Guess you could say I’m aiming to quit while I’m ahead. I do have a mental list of what I want to accomplish, and tbh, using a planner is a pretty big step that will allow me to translate my mental list to action. I’ll let you know how it goes!

I hope your holidays were happy, however you chose to celebrate. Thank you so much for reading along!!

There’s only ONE MONTH left….

It started with a tweet (I think). A tweet that, as of this evening, has 22.5 thousand likes. I couldn’t coax twitter into showing me the number of responses, but quite a few of my friends tweeted their accomplishments, and it’s even filtered over onto Facebook. People are sharing what’s mattered most to them since 2010.

So, uh, I decided to use the tweet as a point of departure for this blog post.

So, without further ado, here’s a brief summary of what I’ve done since 2010.

  1. The husband and I got two kids into and out of high school. They’re both in college now. The house is quiet. I’m beyond proud of them.
  2. We brought Burnsie home about seven years ago. Ed-the-dog joined him about three years later. I discovered I’ve secretly been a dog person all along.
  3. I left the employer I’d been with for 20+ years to go to work for UWMC. They think I’ve been with them ten years; I’m pretty sure it’s only nine. Either way, I still love taking care of babies.
  4. I transitioned from church musician & front person for a cover band to author. I decided I’d sung all the songs I needed to sing – although if you wanna go to karaoke some night, I’m down.
  5. At the risk of turning myself into a stereotype, I have discovered a deep-seated belief in democracy. Unfortunate that it took an existential threat to prompt this discovery. If you need me, I’m writing #postcardstovoters or getting ready for another demonstration.
  6. I always knew I was going to be a writer when I grew up, and while it took me almost 50 years, I published my first novella in January of 2012. Since then, I’ve published six novels, five novellas, and nine or ten short stories. Two of the novels and two of the novellas were co-written with Irene Preston, and I’d count her friendship as another accomplishment all on its own.
  7. I’ve lived in the same house with the same husband for over twenty years now, and we’re ready for many, many more. I’m a lucky girl.
  8. ETA….I also changed hair color rather substantially…
    (A couple years ago I wrote a post about letting my hair go gray. Here’s a link.)

In the interest of getting back to my NaNoWriMo project, I’m going to end here. I hope you enjoy the last few weeks of 2019, and that the ’20s give you all the reasons to dance!

Surviving Criticism

In the play Lady Windermere’s Fan, Oscar Wilde’s Lord Darlington famously says, “A critic knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.” This assessment may seem harsh to some, but I would wager that anyone who has ever created anything for public consumption might be nodding their heads just a little.

As a writer, reviews of the negative persuasion are more or less inevitable. And as I approach the one-year anniversary of my debut novel and the upcoming publication of its sequel, I’ve been reflecting a lot on the role of critics in the creation of art, and my relationship as a creator with that criticism.

I’ll be honest–when my book first hit shelves, I obsessively read every review I could find. Kirkus. SLJ. Booklist. Amazon. Goodreads. Book blogs. Bookstagram. If someone was writing about my book, I was going to read it. And honestly, most of the reviews skewed toward the favorable–not all bestowed glowing 5 stars, but most were decent. But every now and then I’d find a real stinker–you know the kind of review I’m talking about. The kind of review that says they would have cared more about the characters if they’d all died. The kind of review that implies the only good thing about the book was when it ended. The kind of review that obsessively lists everything the reader hated about it, in vicious detail.

And I started noticing something. Every negative review I read counted for more in my head than every positive review–it was like the bad completely outweighed the good. And every negative review I read made it that much harder for me to write.

So I put on my big girl pants and stopped reading reviews. I blocked Goodreads in my browser. I asked my editors to stop forwarding me trade reviews. I deleted the google alert for my book title. And I breathed a sigh of relief. But simply going out of my way to not find reviews doesn’t mean they don’t find me. In this age of social media and author-reader interaction, it’s really hard not to stumble across criticism. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve been tagged on Twitter or Instagram for really scathing reviews. It can be almost day-ruining to click on a lovely bookstagram photo, only to scroll down to the caption and get slapped in the face with vitriol directed toward a novel you spent years of your life and buckets of love creating.

And I’d be lying if I said that hasn’t taken a toll on my writing. I’ll be in a flow and a really great metaphor will pop into my head. But now, that metaphor will be accompanied by all the critical junk I’ve read: the penchant for metaphor is distracting or ugh, I can’t stand purple prose or the writing was so flowery I DNF’ed 10 pages in. Dialogue, character development, action sequences–it’s gotten to a point where it’s a challenge not to second-guess every element of my own writing.

Okay. Deep breath. And…segue.

I listen to the local classical music radio station a lot when I’m in the car. Recently, the radio host shared an anecdote about the composer Rachmaninoff. Apparently, Rachmaninoff’s first symphony to be publicly performed was received so poorly by critics that he fled the concert hall amid catcalls. One critic compared the piece to the ten plagues of Egypt. “If there was a conservatory in hell, Rachmaninoff would get the first prize for his symphony, so devilish are the discords he places before us,” newspaper critic Cesar Cui sneered.

Rachmaninoff was crushed, and stopped composing completely.

“Something within me snapped,” the composer wrote. “All my self-confidence broke down….A paralyzing apathy possessed me. I did nothing at all and found no pleasure in anything.”

It was three years before he was able to compose again. It was ten years before he attempted another symphony. But the piece he composed after his depressed hiatus was his Piano Concerto no. 2, arguably his most famous piece and incidentally, my favorite. He would continue composing for another 45 years, right up until his death.

I’m not sure I’ll ever totally get over receiving negative reviews. But that’s okay. I just need to learn to pick myself up after getting knocked down. To turn the other cheek. To let the good outweigh the bad, instead of the other way around. And most importantly, I just have to keep writing. Because the only way to drown out the critics is to let my work speak for itself.

“Once in a golden hour 
I cast to earth a seed. 
Up there came a flower, 
The people said, a weed.” 
― Alfred Lord Tennyson