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.

Obligatory #NaNoWriMo Post – 2019 Edition

Welp, here we are: the first week of Nano! Tomorrow is obviously the first full week, but we post on Thursdays so deal with it.

So. How’s it going, boo boo?

At this point, this morning, to be on par you should have hit that all-important 10k word milestone yesterday, looking at hitting 11,669 by the end of the day. But if you haven’t, don’t despair; there is still time. And, honestly, as long as you’re writing, it doesn’t matter if you hit par or if you “win” at the end of the month.

Nano doesn’t work for everyone, but I personally love it. I’ve been participating in Nano or Camp Nano since 2012 when I wrote my first Matilda Kavanagh novel that month, well, the first half of it anyway.

And that’s one of the reasons I love Nano, I love the jump start it gives me on a project. I’ve used it many a time for the push I needed to get into writing.

Take this year for example: I took most of the year off from writing, since about February, and was terrified I wouldn’t get back into the groove of writing again and be back at square one. But the pressure of Nano mounted for me in October and I managed to get thirteen chapters outlined before November first so I had something to start with when the big day came. And, so far, I am slightly over par.

“I don’t need time, I need a deadline.” – Duke Ellington. I feel you man. This is so me.

I like to write more than I need if I can on a given day so when I come up on days like today yesterday, and I can’t quite write the 1633 words I need, I’m still okay on the overall word count.

How do I do it, you ask? Well, henny, sit back and Auntie Shauna will give you a few tips and tricks that work for me.

As I mentioned above, I love an outline. When I was a baby writer, I didn’t outline and that led to meandering, massive manuscripts (say that three times fast) that needed 4-5 rounds edits before they were decent. With an outline I have a map I’m following to help me focus and leads to much cleaner and tighter manuscripts at the end. Yes, I deviate, and that’s okay, but the next page in the outline helps me remember where to pull back on course. Like, this story for example? My MC was giving me serious Carrie in the Library vibes as I was writing, but not when I was outlining. So, it’s in the story now and I’ll adjust as I go along. You can add things that weren’t in the outline to begin with, it’s fun to discover things you hadn’t thought of. So don’t look at an outline as set in stone, look at it as Google Maps that keeps “recalculating” as you turn down this road and that to see different attractions or get a coffee.

I also need a soundtrack.

I like to curate a playlist for every book/story, but I also have a playlist that is just soundtrack scores if I need that kind of big, fast energy without lyrics. It helps me tune everything out and zone in on the writing. Some people need silence and that’s hard to come by, so maybe just put your headphones in but with nothing playing and the soft electronic buzz might help.

Now to get the word counts. I’ve written quite a few books, so the idea of getting 1633 words a day isn’t particularly daunting, but I do NOT sit down and think, “Okay, I’m going to type until I hit 1600 words before I stop.” Nope. That’s a recipe for failure for me. Now, I just might get that many in a sprint/session, but I’m not doing it intentionally. I like to break it into pieces. I’ll tell myself I’m gonna get 500 words and then take a break—which might net more like 600 words. Or I’ll see that I have 20 mins before I have to go do something, so I’ll just get what I get in that 20 and it just might be a full 1k words. You decide if word goals or timed sessions work better for you.

Day-to-day, outside of Nano I may not go for multiple writing sessions. If I have time in the morning and over the course of an hour or two, if I get 1500-3000 words, I’ll call that good for the day and not come back in the afternoon or evening. But during Nano? No. If I have time to get a second session in, I will. Even if it is less than 30 mins. That’s how I stay over par. That’s how you get 2-3k words a day when you don’t have a couple of hours in the morning to do it all.

That’s also you hit par. If you get in your head that you HAVE to get those 1633 words all at once, you may be creating a creative blockage in your system. The anxiety, the pressure, that just steals the fun of this.

You’re writing with literally millions of other people. You’re writing with me. You might be writing with your favorite author. Even if you’re not sprinting actively with friends, if you’re doing this on your own, we’re all doing this with you! It’s a fun, friendly competition where we all want to win, but we’re excited to see you winning too! Nano is like the writer community Great British Bake Off! We’re all clapping for you and saying “Well done!” So don’t work yourself up thinking it all has to happen in one sitting.

I mean, look at this:

See that graph? So I “only” wrote 1334 today yesterday. And I did that in 2 sessions, not one. But I was just so tired and felt kinda grumpy all day; I didn’t have those 300 extra words in me. But I was already over par because of how many words I got the day before. Ups and downs are normal and there is always time to catch up. Do not kill yourself doing this. It’s meant to be encouraging and fun so try to keep that in mind.

You’re doing great. I promise!

One other thing I make sure I do is not end right after a climax. If I wrote a particularly exciting scene, maybe a fight or something intense and there’s a natural end to that scene, and I’ve hit my goal for the day, I will still make sure I start the first couple hundred words or so of the next scene. There’s something about starting a new chapter at the very beginning that kind of feels like starting at the very beginning again and you have to sort of find your momentum again and it can be a little hard. It may eat some of your writing time figuring out how you meant to start the next scene. But if you flow right into it and get a couple of paragraphs, you’re setting yourself up to get right into it the next day. If you haven’t done this before, try it, see if it helps.

One last piece of advice from Auntie Shauna. BACK UP YOUR WORK! Seriously. Email your manuscript to yourself every damn day. Do it after every session if you want—even if that means you have 3 or 4 emails in one day—I don’t care. JUST EMAIL IT. BACK IT UP. DO IT! DO IT NOW!

Outlining With Index Cards

I’m sure I’ve mentioned this before, but on the continuum of pantser to plotter, I’m pretty far down on the pantser scale (as in, by the seat of my pants, meaning I don’t do much in the way of outlining). I do try to outline–really, I do! I’ve read a number of craft books promoting the practice, from Story Engineering by Larry Brooks to Save the Cat! by Blake Snyder. I’ve downloaded beat sheets and mapped pinch points.

But for some reason, outlining has never quite clicked for me. I’ll get half-way through an outline for a project, only to get so excited about the project that I abandon the outline and just start drafting. Or, I’ll outline all the way through, but then once I start drafting I’ll realize some plot point isn’t working, and instead of going back to the outline and working it out that way, I just say eff this! and figure it out on page. Usually, by the time I’m done with a novel and go back to look at my original outline, the finished manuscript looks absolutely nothing like the outline I started out with.

And honestly, that’s worked out okay for me so far. I’ve written mostly first person narratives that move linearly through time (well, one was close third person, but that’s almost the same). I’ve never pushed myself to work with multiple POV characters, different settings or times, or even too many subplots.

Until now.

I’m really excited about the project I’m about to dive into (no spoilers yet!) but I’m self-aware enough about my own creative process to know that my usually laissez-faire style isn’t going to cut it. With 4-5 POV characters, two parallel timelines, and plenty of intertwining plot lines, I need to do the diligence of actually outlining. Which means I think I need to change my method of outlining in the first place, since nothing has really worked for me in the past.

I’ve been doing a lot of reading in the past few days, and I’ve finally decided to try out using index cards to outline! It’s not a method I’m totally unfamiliar with–several authors (including Caraval author Stephanie Garber) who I follow on social media use it to outline their books. But I never knew exactly how. Apparently there are numerous methods, but all of them focus on the basic principle of writing scenes, character arcs, plot points, conflicts, etc on single index cards, then adding, removing, or rearranging the index cards until they begin to resemble the coherent plot of a novel.

I’m not positive it will convert me from my pantsing ways, but I’m hopeful for a few reasons:

First, it seems like a very tactile method. Before I actually start drafting on my laptop, I really enjoy brainstorming, jotting down ideas, and fleshing out characters longhand. But in the past, I’ve done my outlining digitally, either on a word processor or in a program like Scrivener. I’m hoping the index card method will be a more organic way for me to explore my ideas.

Second, there’s plenty of flexibility. Like I said, the second I feel boxed in or off base with my outline, I go off script in the draft. But with index cards, if something isn’t working I can just get rid of the card or write a new one. I don’t need to have a sense of pinch points, character arcs, or even linear plot in advance of jotting down scenes and seeing how they fit together. I’m hoping this will stimulate my creativity while still providing structure.

Finally, it seems new and fun. Hey, I’ll admit it–I can be a bit of a dilettante! But sometimes, exploring a new method or element of craft can be just the thing to keep you moving forward and learning new things.

If you’re interested in learning more, here are a few of the resources I tracked down:

Holly Lisle–Plotting Under Pressure

Writer’s Digest–Create Structure in Your Fiction Using Index Cards

Greenkeys–How to Plot a Novel

Have you ever outlined using index cards before? Do you want me to report back on how it turns out? Let me know in the comments section!

The Struggle is Real. And That’s Okay.

I intended to write this post yesterday so it would be up and in your mailboxes this morning, but like so much that has happened this year for me, life got in the way and now I’m writing it way later than I intenended.

I didn’t even know where to start with this post because I’ve been struggling so much with writing that I’m not sure if I’m the right person to be writing blog posts about writing. But I have a commitment to this blog so I am here.

All morning I’ve been trying to think of a subject that I haven’t already covered as I’ve tried to show you both my worry about writing and effort to stay positive about my slump. But the more I thought about it, the lower I felt. But that seems like a post on its own, right?

Hear me out.

I went back and double checked to see when I finished writing my last book: February 15, 2019. Yep. Nearly six whole months since I last wrote new words. And I don’t mean the edits or revisions of said book, just daily words of a new book.

I’ve posted about how many words I’ve written in the past few years and how burnout is a real thing and that I needed a break. And how life can be so stressful and demanding that expecting yourself to be able to be creative isn’t always reasonable so it’s okay to step back. And all of that is true, but there came a point where guilt also set in. Guilt over not writing. Guilt over not producing new content. Guilt over calling myself a writer even as I continue to not write. People I don’t see all the time ask me “how’s the writing going?” or “what are you working on now?” and I cringe and want to snap at them that I’m still on a break. But they don’t deserve to be snapped at. I mean, it’s nice to have people interested, but I don’t want to have the same conversation over and over again about taking some time off. I mean I have double digit titles out there, don’t I deserve a break?

Of course I do. But that doesn’t stop the guilt from eating my brain.

And if you’ve written millions of words in less than a decade, six months off isn’t all that long really. So I know I shouldn’t feel guilty, but it’s like telling someone in a depressive episode to just cheer up! I like magic spells, but these don’t work.

If the words aren’t ready, the words aren’t ready. Even if six months feels like a lifetime, like I’m falling behind, like the book sales won’t come when I do finally decide I’m ready again. So I dug my heels into the break.

If you’ve been following along, you know I’ve been talking about a new book I wanted to start for some time now. During my break I’ve been trying, desperately, to get that kernel of an idea to blossom, but I haven’t been able to. And it’s been getting to me, ngl.

I write as a job. This is what I do. I should be able to make this happen. And I do have some skeletons of characters and I think I know it’s a revenge story but revenge for what? No idea. Big Bad in the book? Who knows. It is not flourishing like it should.

So I gave myself permission to stop thinking about it. That was hard. It kinda sucked and made me feel even more bummed out about writing than I already did.

But then something kind of amazing happened.

I heard a new voice.

A new character blossomed in my mind. Exploded, really. She’s nothing like the characters I’ve been trying to develop. She doesn’t live in that world or even one next to it. But then her new BFF showed up. Full of sass and jokes. And they had a conversation, then two, and suddenly I know they’re teenagers and the MC has two dads.

I don’t know the full plot yet, but I can see the mistakes being made, the adventures going wrong, the danger looming for them and… I might be kind of excited to write this story?

When I first started out writing I had an idea for a book. It was a story about stuff I know nothing about, but thought it sounded cool. So I tried to write it. I only ever got about 30k words written. And it took me three years to write that. When I finally gave myself permission to give up that idea I had the idea for Earth: Book One in the Elemental Series and the first day I put my fingers to the keys to write that book, I wrote over 9k words. In one day.

This feels like that did.

I haven’t written anything yet. I haven’t even outlined yet. But the guilt is receding. Hope is returning. A new book feels possible again.

And who knows, maybe getting this book out will free up my brain to let me write that other book.

So the moral of the story post? Sometimes you need time not writing to be able to write and that’s okay. Or something like that.

Building Characters, One Verb at a Time

Sometimes it’s hard to see the forest for the trees…

Last October I heard Damon Suede speak at the Emerald City Writers Conference. He’s a terrific speaker who wraps a lifetime of knowledge and experience in an entertaining – like, LOL funny – presentation.

Damon could explain this a lot better than I will, but the basic premise to his master class was this: a reader gets to know a character by the character’s actions. Period. And those actions make it on the page in the form of verbs. So, rather than spend hours developing a detailed character biography, pick a handful of verbs and a few adjectives and make that the template your character grows from.

(If you’re curious, you can read about his approach in Verbalize: Bring stories to life and life to stories.)

And you know what? It works!

I recently wrote a holiday novella, the first piece I’d started from scratch since hearing Damon’s presentation. Over the years I’ve done my share of character biography worksheets – the more detailed, the better – but this time I came up with names, chose half a dozen verbs and the same number of adjectives, and wrote simple goal-motivation-conflict statements for each of the two main characters.

Here’s the beginning of my character worksheets for Bo and Jon, the heroes in my holiday novella:

Bo Barone – the crafty one: Adjectives & verbs: bright, shiny, quick, glittering, smiling, laughing, glowing, self-assured, patient, detail-oriented, crafting, inspiring, protecting, intimacy issues, performing, caring

Background: big family, Italian, local Seattle, Midnight Mass at St. James

Jon Cunningham – the artist: Adjectives and Verbs: dark, deep, methodical, dedicated, passionate, reserved, commanding, distancing, consider, create, observe, listen, measure, perform, practice, reflect, teach

Background: Seattle family, missed out on much of high school, studied at Juilliard, Dad had a stroke

Can’t you just picture them? Instead of pages of detail, I had a few lines, yet I felt it took me less time to get a handle on Bo & Jon than just about any of my other characters. I’ll admit things morphed a little during the writing process, particularly in terms of their goals/ motivations/ conflicts, but the characters’ essence, who they were, was pretty solid.

That essence was captured in the verbs and adjectives I chose for them.

Happy Hydrangeas!

Whenever I wasn’t quite sure how a character would respond or what they’d do next, I had my list of verbs and adjectives to guide me. Even though both my heroes changed over the course of the novella – because that’s what the plot is for – still, their core remained constant.

You’ll have a chance to see how well I did, because Dreamspinner offered me a contract for the novella, so A Holiday Homecoming will be released ~ 12/1/19. If you have the change to hear Damon speak, do it. You’ll learn a lot. And the next time you’re stuck with on a character, focus on their verbs and see if it helps.

Hybrid Tea Rose Tequila Sunrise. Cheers, mate!

Writing Research

We often hear writers talk about researching something for hours, maybe even days, just so one character can say one, off-hand comment naturally, like an expert. And trust me, that is a true thing. If you’re a writer and haven’t had to do that yet, just wait.

When I was writing the last book in my apocalyptic trilogy, I was lucky enough to be Twitter friendly with a cool scientist chick who I messaged to ask a few science questions and she was kind enough to loop me into a group email with other scientists to were willing to answer my laundry list of Science-For-Dummies questions (and subsequent follow ups because, I was definitely an English major) so I could figure out the cure for the plague in my story.

But that’s what a dedicated writer should do. Whatever it takes to make the non-fiction in the book as correct as possible. Readers who are familiar with subject matters know when a writer screws up and gets something wrong. There’s nothing worse that being absorbed by a book or other media only to have the creators get something obviously wrong to throw you out of the magical fiction trance.

There’s an art to naturally threading references into your narration so the reader becomes familiar with the characters’ vocation, expertise, etc.

For myself, I’m doing something new for a potential character. I have this creature in my head. She’s interesting and intriguing. She has magic and skills. I’m trying to get to know her so I can get her to tell me her story so I can write it down. I see her, walking in her boning and brocade and frock. But I also hear the tap of her cane on the cobbles. And I can see her using that cane for more than support.

I always say the two most impressive things a writer can do well is to write something scary or something funny. But, if I’m honest, another incredibly difficult thing to write well is fight scenes. They can be so boring. Almost like reading a complicated, dry math problem.

Which is why I’ve always, when I could, actually acted out my fight scenes. I’m incredibly lucky that my husband is a weapons expert and self-defense instructor. So I can go to him and ask if something is realistic. If a particular wound would be fatal or not. And for him to let me act out a fight scene on him. That way, when I go to write the scene, I can describe it in more than just fists and blows. I can describe the whirlwind feeling, the false sense of time, the confusion. There’s always more to physicality than you realize.

So I’m going back to that well and I’m going to be taking cane fighting lessons from him. We’ll no doubt add in sword and dagger and some other fun things, but I’m really looking forward to learning this almost-lost art. Even just talking about it unlocked some ideas in my head about this new, possible story.

Writing research, real, dedicated research is so important to creating a rich, detailed world for you and your readers. It’s a another way to refill your well when you think you’ve run out of ideas. I know my well has run dry and I’ve had difficulty thinking of something new and fresh to write, so if you’ve found yourself in the same boat, it may be time to start researching, learning something new–you never know what it may trigger for you.