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.)

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.)

Writing with Anxiety

It has taken me over twenty five hours to finally write this post. The beginning of 2020 has been quite stressful for my household, especially after we thought this month, this new year, was going to be the start of a better year. We were confident that we were going to start this year feeling good, more secure, like the ground under our feet was going to stop shifting. Turns out, we were wrong. I think everything is going to be okay, but this past week has been particularly hard for us. Lots of surprises we weren’t prepared for and we had to make some difficult adjustments to make things work. Plans had to change. Things aren’t starting off how we wanted.

So yesterday, when I sat down to write this post, things hadn’t yet resolved themselves and I was actually shaking with anxiety. My body felt like I was vibrating. I was sitting through my own personal earthquake and the ground wouldn’t settle.

Monday I’d started the day off feeling pretty secure. Those surprises hadn’t hit yet. So I was feeling pretty good about getting back to the novel I’d started during NaNo. I’d taken the holidays off and given myself time to think about the book and where it was going. I’d written to the end of the outline I’d had done and knew I couldn’t move forward until I finished the outline or, at least, gotten a few more chapters outlined. I finished reading the first 50k words and felt a lot better about how the book was shaping up, realizing it wasn’t as meandering and stretched out as I thought. Tuesdays morning I outlined two chapters.

I know two chapters doesn’t sound like a lot, but I outline in long form, by hand.

See? That takes a toll on my hands nowadays. I don’t know how I used to outline five chapters in a day without my hand killing me. But anyway. I was really happy with my new progress. I thought, hell, if I can outline two chapters a day, in five days I’ll have ten chapters ready to write!

Then new surprises exploded in our email and what we thought was going to be a calm month turned into panic and uncertainty. My stomach knotted up and I couldn’t focus on work anymore. I’d have to be okay with those two chapters while I tried to deal with new issues. My anxiety was so bad that I couldn’t really focus on anything. I couldn’t calm down. I looked calm. Oh, I can look calm like the best of them. But inside? My heart is palpating. My breath isn’t smooth. My arms feel like they’re shaking. It’s like I’m really fucking cold and can’t stop shivering. But you wouldn’t know it to look at me. I can go through the motions like a champ.

I knew things wouldn’t be settled until late morning Wednesday. And, until that happened, my anxiety brain would not calm down. Anxiety is like having nervous cat living inside you. You can try to calm it, give it warmth, sustenance, a place to curl up and relax, but any small movement, any unfamiliar noise, and you set it off and its claws are in the curtains and it is spitting and hissing without warning.

I had work to do though, work I couldn’t ignore. I had a client in the morning and I needed to get this post written. Having someone face-to-face was helpful because I had to deal with them and couldn’t dwell, waiting for news that the ground wasn’t moving anymore. But as soon as they were gone, I was left in the quiet and that cat was shaking and growling low.

Write my post. That’ll help. But no. I sat at my desk and stared, my arms still trembling and feeling like I was sitting in a freezer. Just waiting for a phone call that would tell me if things were gonna be semi okay and not just all out terrible. We were hoping the month was going to be good and now I was praying for semi okay.

I couldn’t write my post. I couldn’t think of anything to say. I actually wanted to post about NaNo and what to do now, but I couldn’t think of what I wanted to say. I looked at my outline and wanted to get the next chapter done. I couldn’t. The characters couldn’t be heard over the growling cat. I was stuck in an anxiety trap. My mind wasn’t racing like it will when I try to go to sleep. I wasn’t thinking of all the disastrous things that could and might happen—though any time something showed up in my email I assumed the worst. I wasn’t crying or balled into a corner. I was just sitting here, right where I am now, and trembling. Waiting.

Anxiety is a monster that can do many things. It can steal your energy. It can steal your happiness. It can make you angry or sad or panicked. Anxiety demands attention like a bank robber with a gun. And even if your rational brain is telling you things are going to be okay and you work things out in your head, anxiety can hold on, claws sunk so deep there’s no pulling them out until the cat is ready to retract.

But now, here I am, nearly 1000 words into this post, and no longer shaking. Things are different than what I hoped and expected in the beginning of the month, but we’re semi okay and I can suddenly move my fingers on the keys and think about this post. And my outline is waiting for me and my characters are still there, ready when I am.

I used to be a write every day kind of person, only taking one or two days off on the weekends. I was terrified of losing momentum once I started writing a book. If I took too much time off, I was scared I’d struggle to start again. And you know what? I was right. It is very, very hard to start back up. And shit like this week happens that totally derails me and I think, if only I’d been working I’d be further along than where I am and wouldn’t feel so shitty about being derailed. But it’s okay. The words will always be there when you’re ready and able to come back. It took me a long, long time to reconcile that in my head. The write like you’re afraid you’ll die before you finish served me really well these last few years, but now, things have changed and so have I. My anxiety is actually a lot worse than it used to be and I’m having to always learn how to listen to it, deal with it, and adjust for it.

If you need the break because you don’t have a choice because that cat’s claws are sunk so deep you’ll just shred yourself trying to remove them, just wait. Let the cat calm down and retract the claws. Your characters, your words, your abilities will still be there when you come back. Not everyone can work in chaos and despair, not everyone’s art flourishes in the dark, and that’s okay. Wait for the sun.

And, if you suffer from anxiety, and reading this post triggered you, let me leave with you a picture of adorable sleeping pups, using the same pillow to try to calm you back down. I highly recommend a cuddly pet if you have anxiety, btw.

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!

Of Vampires and Other Things

Back in 2015 – yikes! I’ve been blogging here for along time – I made a post called Ten Good Vampire Books. At some point along the way, that post got caught up in Google’s SEO magic algorithms and it’s had more views in 2019 than it had the year it was published.

Go me?

At any rate, when I sat down to write this post, I planned to make an updated version of the old post, except almost immediately I ran into a problem. I haven’t been keeping up on the vampire literature.

In part, that’s because I have a vampire of my own. Thaddeus Dupont is 100 years old, and he was a monk before he was turned back in 1925. He and his boyfriend Sarasija Mishra appear in the Hours of the Night series I co-write with Irene Preston. (Jump HERE to learn more about Vespers, book 1 in the series.)

Some of you have seen me post about the Hours of the Night and Thaddeus Dupont before, so maybe this won’t be news, but bear with me for a bit. There were a couple compelling reasons I chose to write a vampire character – above and beyond Irene telling me I needed to write another vampire. (She can be very persistent.)

First off, I’ve always loved stories about vampires. Whether it’s trad vamps like Dracula or naughty vamps like Bill & Eric from the Southern Vampire Mysteries (the books that inspired True Blood), I’m a fan. For a while, I made something of a study of vampire fiction, reading as much as I could get my hands on.

Did you know George RR Martin wrote a vampire novel? I couldn’t finish it.

When Irene and I first started working on Vespers, I had a good knowledge of what was out there in the world of vampire literature and some ideas about the kind of character I wanted to create. The popularity of vampire fiction rises and falls, following some unspoken cultural zeitgeist.

Victorian vampires addressed the cultural fear of death. Later in the ’80s and early ’90s, the themes were blood and infection, likely a response to the AIDS crisis. Then in the ’90s to early ’00s, vampires explored our ideas about eternal youth and sexiness.

At the risk of taking myself too seriously, when I write Thaddeus, there’s a similar theme at play. See, I’m the elderScribe, a good 10-20 years older than the rest of the gang who blogs here, and Thaddeus Dupont is my attempt to express my sometimes bewildering experience dealing with the modern world.

Thaddeus was born in 1900 and grew up in the bayou, speaking a patios of English and French, in a time and place before most of the modern accouterments we take for granted. His mildly confused response to his 21st century boyfriend is an echo of my own feelings. I try to keep up, but kids these days….damn….

There’s another, more personal reason for Thaddeus Dupont’s creation, specifically, why I gave him a strong Catholic orientation. I’m a cradle Catholic, and while my relationship to the Church has waxed and waned over the last 50-odd years, it’s currently on indefinite hiatus. The dissonance between Thaddeus’s relationship to the church and the love he has for Sara give me a place to work out my own feelings – in a hopefully-entertaining way.

Irene and I are currently working on Spooked, book 2 in our spin-off Haunts & Hoaxes series. The first book, Haunted, was written for a freebie giveaway, but readers liked the characters so we turned it into a series. I made the first cover (b/c freebie), but we recently unveiled a much-improved version that brands the series.

Isn’t it pretty?!

Haunts & Hoaxes is a mash-up of Supernatural + The X Files with naughty bits thrown in, and we’re hoping to release Spooked sometime in early 2020. Keep your eye out for it!

This post turned into kind of a ramble, but in summary, I probably know more about vampires than is good for me, I hadn’t kept up with vampire fiction b/c I don’t want it to color my own vampire, I have several reasons for how Thaddeus Dupont took shape, Irene and I are headed in a slightly different direction but will come back to HotN soon, and this is one of the longest sentences I’ve ever written.

Happy Halloween!

Oh, and…uh… I have a couple gift codes for a free copy of Vespers. Leave me a comment and I’ll hook you up. (In the off chance that I get more comments than I have codes, I’ll draw names or something.)