Archive for the ‘Writing’ Category

I’ve participated in National Novel Writing Month since 2008. Well, I’m not sure writing a few hundred words really counts as “participating” for my first year, but at least my word counts have risen significantly with each passing year. And with each of those passing years, I’ve also learned something different about how I write and how I don’t write.

In previous years, I’ve learned that I am most definitely a planner; any attempt I’ve ever made to write a novel-length story on an image or a feeling has failed after about five pages. On the other hand, I’ve also learned that I’m susceptible to planning too much; I can get wrapped up in writing about the story I want to tell instead of just writing it.

Last year, I learned that I don’t write well with daily word counts, but I do write more with them. Kind of. I deleted a good 13,000 words of last year’s work and then had to make up that ground. So, while it’s true that I got good practice with what I’ve heard some writers call “butt glue,” I was also willing to let absolute shit onto the page just to reach my goal.

The true advantage to NaNoWriMo for me, then, is self-awareness: I’ve learned a bit more about the kind of writer I am with each passing year. I write during the rest of the year, as well, but the challenge of getting 50,000 words down in a month is a good way to gauge how much I’ve grown. It’s a test in fire.

One other very important tidbit I’ve learned about myself is that I do rather well with goals. In fact, the more specific and measureable the goals, the better I’m able to achieve them.

The overarching, baseline goal of the challenge is to commit 50,000 words of an entirely new novel (i.e., no actual writing has been done on it, apart from general planning documents) to paper / word processor. While I used to stick to this challenge religiously, I’ve learned to appreciate the spirit of the challenge, rather than the letter. I will always fail at someone else’s goal, especially when it’s one that will not benefit me either professionally or personally. The challenge will only be beneficial if I can take real ownership of it and try to achieve what I actually want to achieve.

So, nowadays, I work within the framework of the challenge, but I make it my own. These are the challenges I’ve set for myself this year.

Goal #1: Write 40,000 words to my current novel

Yes, I realize it’s short of the challenge, but my other goals will put me well above 50,000 words. Furthermore, it’s more in line with my general writing schedule of 1,000 words every weekday and 2,500 words every weekend day, which is more manageable with my daily commitments. That puts me at 10,000 words every week, which is a sizable chunk by itself.

This goal is the priority because it comes down to one basic premise: “Finish your shit.”

Goal #2: Finish revising one short story, and write the first draft of another one

While short stories and novels share many of the same elements (e.g., plot, character, resolution, etc.), they require and hone different skill sets. I wouldn’t normally try to write both so enthusiastically in the same short time period, but NaNo is a challenge! Challenge accepted!

I also find that writing shorter stories gives me the feelings of accomplishment and confidence that help me continue with my longer projects in good spirits. It’s a good feeling.

More to the point, however, I’m eager to improve my short-story writing skills because short-story markets are a good way to build writing credits. Yes, I know, I’m supposed to be “about the art” and “above being paid,” and to a certain extent I am. I truly enjoy the art of writing and find fulfillment in it. This feeling is the reason I aim to be a professional, not a hobbyist, and a professional gets paid, has a resume, and strategizes for opportunities. Part of my strategy for becoming a full-fledged professional is publishing in short-form markets, which is why finishing revising one story and writing the first draft of another is my second priority for this year’s challenge.

Goal #3: Write on this blog at least once a week

I enjoy writing on this blog, but it’s often a much lower priority than working on my fiction. Unfortunately, this hierarchy of importance has resulted in months-long spans in which I haven’t written anything here, especially when I’ve had contract work competing for my time.

The reason I don’t just give up on this blog, though, is because I really do enjoy it. I’ve learned to express opinions bravely here. I’ve learned to interact with strangers in the comments. I’ve exercised my nonfiction writing muscles, which have in turn benefited my fiction writing muscles.

I don’t share the opinion that blogs are necessary platforms for authors nowadays, but I do see a personal and professional benefit in them for me in particular. I’d like to spend this month committing myself to this blog at least once a week. That seems pretty reasonable, right? Still, it’s my third goal—and third priority—because my fiction writing will always be more important. I wish I could love all of my goals equally, just like I did with my dolls growing up (I had to, otherwise they would murder me in my sleep), but I’d go crazy if I tried to do that.

So, these are my goals. It’ll be challenging to meet them all, but that’s the point of NaNoWriMo. I’ll have to pass on social events, make sacrifices with my time, and maybe even lose a bit of sleep. It’ll be work, for sure, but that’s the covert aim of NaNoWriMo: to turn art into work so that we can finally work on our art.

Good luck, writerly types. It’s going to be a good month.

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Newsflash: I just got an invite to my 10-year high school reunion. AND I STILL DON’T HAVE ANYTHING TO BRAG ABOUT!

We have officially reached DefCon 1, people.

Okay, so I have a college degree and a stable job that pays well and a loving marriage and a home of my own. In the larger social context, these are huge accomplishments. In fact, most people, even the ones who share my demographic, don’t have these things all at once. I am well aware that I am one lucky son-of-a-bitch. But, as always, context rules. I mean, for goodness’s sake, I had people expecting me to be president by now (an expectation I always thought was odd and not a little demonstrative of the failure of public education). And my hair still bends in weird ways, even with product in it. And I lack a sexy six-pack. And I still get acne for chrissake!

(I wonder: Do guys have to worry so much about physical adequacy when it comes to school reunions? I certainly hope so because this shitty feeling needs to be shared, dammit.)

More importantly, I feel as though I’ve fallen pitiably short of all expectations that I would be a wunderkind of some kind at this point. And despite my professional accomplishments that I take great pride in, I still feel like they’re only take-pride-inable in the context of the office drone life.

Where are the daring adventures?

Where are the tattoos and illicit substances?

Where are the life cakes made of success and ultimate happiness?! I WAS PROMISED CAKE!*

Have I really been lulled into the life of a drone? Do I wake up every morning just to put my nose to the grindstone for projects that are ultimately small and unimpressive? Am I growing steadily softer as my life becomes more and more sedentary?

My first feeling (which can tend to be the most malicious) to all of these questions is, “Yes, you piece of rotting monkeymeat on maggot-filled driftwood.” But if I look honestly at the things I do and how I live my life, I have to answer in the negative. Okay, so the close-up might seem that way, especially to someone who might be looking to denigrate my life and accomplishments (i.e., me). But in reality, I’m still actively pursuing the adventure in my life that I’ve always wanted:

  • I have half a novel done and am chipping more and more at it every day. One day soon  it will be a whole novel!
  • I’m scheduled to begin archery lessons next month.
  • I’ll start running races this year (already signed up).
  • This summer, I’ll start earning a pilot’s license.
  • I’m even looking seriously into starting a PhD program in the next couple of years.

Of course, it’s not as easy as all of that sounds. Why do I have half a novel done? Because I write late and wake up early. How will I have enough time to take up archery? Because I wake up early on the weekends and clean my house while the sun is coming up. How am I preparing to race this year? By being conscious about what I eat and making time every day to go to the gym and train my body. Why am I earning my pilot’s license? Because it’s a thing to do, and I have a few free hours in the week. And why the hell am I considering a PhD program? Because I’m smart and I have something to offer and I’m curious and I want to explore that.

So, yes. I have an office job, and I’ve made office-job accomplishments. But, if there’s one thing I’ll be able to brag about most, it’s that I’ve persevered. I’ve persevered in my writing, no matter how slow my progress. I’ve persevered in my health, no matter how much cheesecake has tempted me. And I’ve persevered in my curiosity, no matter how much my schedule has tempted me with more sleep and easy mornings filled with reading books for fun.

My life lets me read great stories, write my heart out, and explore new skills.

My life sounds pretty fucking great to me.

I think I’m ready to start bragging now.

*Insert obligatory Portal reference here.

For those who don’t know, simultaneous submissions (simsubs) are exactly what they sound like: stories submitted to more than one publication for consideration simultaneously. As an unpublished writer at the beginning of her career, I’ve always found the “no simsubs” requirement annoying. Essentially, “no simsubs” means I’ve written and revised a story that I think is ready for publication, but I have to wait three, six, nine months (sometimes longer) just to hear “Thanks, but no thanks” and move on to the next market, only to wait the same amount of time for likely the same answer. All just to see a single story in print. To say the least, it’s inconvenient. YOU’RE DELAYING MY ROWLING-ESQUE FAME AND FORTUNE, PUBLISHERS!

But I’ve also understood the necessity for “no simsubs” because I’ve worked with a literary journal before. When I was in college, I interned with Hayden’s Ferry Review, and both the journal and the experience were awesome. HFR is not an A-list journal—though it definitely deserves to be—and the slush was still monstrous. Thousands of pages, people. Thousands of pages read by volunteers who had day jobs and lives. And there were always more pages coming in—”hydra” is a better term than “slush.” My time with HFR was invaluable, if for no other reason than because I gained insight into the frantic lives of editors and publishers. I learned that patience is indeed a virtue for writers to have when it comes to editors. We are, after all, in this together.

Then I came across a heated Twitter debate over the value of requiring “no simsubs.” Wow. I never thought that was a convo that would get out of hand.

Here is the breakdown: It is inconvenient and even expensive (time-wise) for writers—especially writers who are new to the community—to have to wait long periods of time for responses. It is also inconvenient (not to mention frustrating) for editors and publishers to finally get to the perfect story only to have it withdrawn because it has been accepted elsewhere. It was also expressly suggested that requiring no simsubs necessarily places an editor’s convenience above a writer’s—to the extent of being called anti-labor. One participant summed up the conflict pretty well:

Competing business interests

I agree with the first statement, but I don’t understand the necessity of being required to choose a “side.” Competing business interests don’t have to result in an us-vs.-them mindset. (Game theory, yo.)

It is in the interest of editors to respond quickly to writers because doing so shows respect and professionalism, which is usually reciprocated. It is also in the interest of writers to be patient with editors where necessary, including response time.

This doesn’t mean a writer has to take it lying down when a market promised to respond in six months nine months ago; it just means writers should respect the needed (as opposed to convenient) time frame a given market has been honest enough to communicate—in fact, it benefits writers to do so. I have a feeling that way more writers* wouldn’t get their fair shake if all editors and readers had a response time of about a week instead of having the breathing room that a “no simsubs” caveat affords. For many publications, that would mean the readers and editors reviewed pretty much only the first page of the story, or just skimmed the text. Demanding that readers and editors push the bounds of what they are reasonably capable of reading in a given time period (either to simply respond quickly or to beat an imaginary competitor to the proverbial punch) can only result in a disservice to the authors who submit their work, the reputation of the publication that backs that work, and the readers who (usually) pay to see what the editors deem the best work. I’ll channel Neil Gaiman here: Editors are not your bitch.

Moreover, only the editors of a given market know what they are capable of handling because they happen to be the ones who know exactly what their submission volume and reading speed are. Editors have a responsibility to build their business—and it is a business, even if they don’t make any money—around what they are capable of producing and to communicate as honestly as they can what that capability is. Doing so is not privileging the editor’s convenience (a word that sounds to me like a charge of laziness) over the writer’s: it’s giving an honest depiction of what one is reasonably able to do and asking for professional courtesy in return (okay, requiring it, not just asking for it). As far as I know, there is no tech that will substantially mitigate the time it takes to read a given work critically and determine its suitability for publication in the target market. It’s the nature of the industry, so far, and no one has ever been shy about sharing this information.

When the word “anti-labor” made its entrance, the whole conversation deteriorated quickly. Frankly, I think the debate was doomed the moment it started because it was being held over Twitter, not because either side was unwilling to compromise or engage in intelligent discussion on the matter. Bandying the term “anti-labor,” however, hastened the conversation’s demise for two reasons.

First, the term assumes that the relationship between writer and editor is necessarily one of conflict—“us vs. them,” “pro- vs. anti-.” This assumption lives right down the street from WHY DO THEY DESTROY MY WORK OMG THEY DON’T UNDERSTAND MY VISION!—an attitude the helps no one, least of all writers, because it inhibits valuable communication and constructive progress.

Second, it denies the labor that the editorial side of publishing demands. Editors are not managers, either in function or in name (unless they’re managing editors and above, of course). They are the creative people who collaborate with writers on the next stage of a story’s life (less so in short-form markets, but still). Writers definitely do the bulk of the work throughout the creative process, but this fact does not diminish the quantity and value of the creative work required of others, namely editors.

Understanding all of this doesn’t make me any less impatient when I have to wait after submitting a story, but that doesn’t mean the problem originates with the editors and the markets they represent. I make the choice to submit to markets with long response times because those markets also have a larger and more consistent readership, which translates into visibility for me. I’ve always had the option to submit to markets with shorter response times, but those markets tend to be smaller and are often “untested” in my estimation. Then again, I’m also “untested” in the eyes of the more popular markets, which have a stricter image and aesthetic they need to consider. It might behoove me to rein in my ego and submit to a smaller market that can respond faster and has greater freedom to take a chance on a newbie like me**.

*“Way more writers,” of course, being a highly reliable statistic of the scientific variety. Science.

**Or I could just write better. That might help, too.

RIP, Anne McCaffrey

Posted: November 23, 2011 in Books, Writing
Tags: , , ,

Anne McCaffrey, a titanic icon of SFF, has passed into the mystery. Cheers to a life well lived. She will be missed.

Breakthroughs Abound

Posted: November 20, 2011 in Health, Writing
Tags: , , , ,

It’s a red-letter day, slackers! I have destroyed all personal records for longest time sticking to an exercise plan (three days). That doesn’t count, of course, the high school years when The Man tried to force me to be healthy with one semester (total) of Phys Ed. You have to admit requiring only one semester of P.E. is a pretty weak attempt at creating life-long healthy people. So, like Freud blamed his mother for his problems, I’ll blame Arizona’s education system for my extra fluff—of which I’m down two, almost three, pounds!

It’s also a red-letter day because it marks a significant improvement in my writing productivity. In the past two weeks, I’ve ground out forty pages of writing, not including blog posts. And those forty pages didn’t just come from a passing spasm of inspiration; they came from deliberately writing two pages every weeknight and ten pages every weekend. Statistically, it takes thirteen iterations to create a habit. Two weeks’ worth of daily writing means I’ve deliberately established it as a habit. It’s only a matter of time now, New York City. You’d better be ready for what the Pipsqueak’s bringin’!

You may be thinking that I’m using “breakthrough” bit prematurely. I know it’s only been two weeks of writing and one week of exercising. I know I’m still a long way from my writing and health goals. And, I know there are still months of editing after the months of writing are done and a lifetime of improvement and upkeep after I reach my weight and strength goals. But, hey, celebrate small successes, right?

I’ve finished them! I know they’re really the Millennium series by Stieg Larsson, but I prefer to call them The Girl books. For one thing, the titles of all the (English-language) books start the same: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire, and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest. Cosmetically speaking, calling them The Girl books fits nicely. However, I call them The Girl books mostly because they are astoundingly vagina-friendly. The women are strong, intelligent, and capable, each in her own way, despite the many attempts of more nefarious folks to undermine and subjugate them. Though, I’m sure you’d have a hard time garnering a male readership for a series called “The Girl books.” And, of course there’s the whole translation thing, but all of that is beside the point.

*ALERT! HERE THERE BE SPOILERS!*

I enjoyed all three of Larsson’s novels, each for different reasons. The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest was the slowest, but I also found it to be the most mature and the most demanding of me as a reader (in a good way). There was one satisfying chiasmus after another, none of which were uncomplicated. For example, I doubt it was a coincidence that Larsson sent Salander to Gibraltar to manage her billions of stolen kronor the day after she’s acquitted and labeled a victim by the court. He doesn’t want the reader forgetting that Salander is in fact a criminal; that is, she has broken many laws and continues to do so with impunity. The only true victim of her primary crime, though, was a misogynist who fell outside the grace of Salander’s morals. According to society, she’s guilty of a serious crime. According to her own set of morals, she didn’t do anything to anyone who didn’t deserve it. Then again, I’m sure the members of the Section, which locked her away in a mental hospital as a young girl, believed they were acting within the parameters of what they considered morally right too. (“We must defend the State no matter what the cost!”)

I loved the way Larsson played with the reader with these kinds of moral questions. The primary plot was an investigation into the many wrongs and constitutional crimes that had been committed against Salander, but there were numerous subplots in which the “good guys” reciprocated this behavior against the “bad guys.” Larsson puts the reader in the morally uncomfortable position of denouncing constitutional crimes against Salander but rooting for those same crimes when they’re perpetrated against the enemies of the good guys (most frequently by way of Hacker Republic). AND. The good guys appear to be blithely unaware of this double standard. The argument that the good guys would never have been able to find true justice without breaking a few laws and suspending the constitutional rights of the alleged assailants is a good one. Well, not good, necessarily. It’s a practical argument, which is where the moral ambiguity comes in. Larsson seems to have no qualms about indicting the quality and strength of his reader’s morals. I loved every minute of it!

Stieg Larsson is a sharp writer with a talent for clarity and detail, but not the sort that swallows you up until you have no idea where you are in the story. It’s a pity we only get three of his stories.

And now for the movies!

I came across this post in a professional discussion forum some time ago, and it’s been like sand in my shoe:

When your readership, the Gen-X, is hooked on to texting and twittering, with little regard to grammar or syntax, do you, as an editor, feel that copy editing still has importance in such a context?

Some say that the copy editing field is losing its relevance and is now a field meant only for hair-splitting purists. And they say that it is pointless to worry about en-dashes and em-dashes any more. Your views please ! [sic]

I believe he meant Generation Y, or the Millenials—that is, people of my generation—but that’s a small matter. The much more aggravating thing about this post is that it’s rife with presumption.

Before I answer his actual question, I’d like to argue that there’s a distinction between texting and twittering in general and being hooked on texting and twittering. The fact that a large number of young people can use a new technology in no way necessitates that the entire generation has an addiction to it. It would be just as unreasonable of me to say, “Hey, everyone. Isn’t it annoying that those curmudgeonly Baby Boomers are all self-important Luddites?” And why would it be unreasonable? Because I have no idea if a) Baby Boomers will be part of my audience or b) that all Baby Boomers are in fact curmudgeonly, self-important Luddites. (And, no, I don’t actually believe Baby Boomers are any of those things in general.) Considering one’s audience is one of the first things you learn about writing; when your medium is the Internet, you have a wide audience to consider. When I read this post, I get the image of a really bad comic standing in front of a silent audience, saying, “Am I right? Huh?” And pretty much only the crickets are responding.

Now to answer his question. The implication that being young and capable of using new technology also makes one indifferent toward older constructs like grammar is illogical and preposterous. The idea of universal grammar is pretty well established; people notice, however slightly, when that grammar has been violated. The more high-profile the source, the more people pay attention. When I’m reading through the casual, nonprofessional Twitter feeds I follow and I come across infractions like “alot,” I don’t care. If I were to read a tweet from the New York Times, I’m going to notice “alot” and I’m going to care that someone got sloppy. Most people are that way because context lays the groundwork for understanding of and engagement with any text. Just because Jane Schmoe and the NYT post on the same website doesn’t mean I have the same expectations for both. Even we illiterate, whippersnapping technophiles are going to notice and care when a source that’s supposed to be professional and authoritative starts to get sloppy. Here’s an analogy: I don’t know how to put on stage makeup, but I definitely notice when it’s been done poorly.

As for en and em dashes, they’ve always been for prescriptivists; that’s never been any different. There will always be people who know more about a subject and make a profession out of it. No one has ever cared about en and em dashes except copy editors. And, I say that having a great deal of affection for them!

No, I didn’t say any of this in that discussion forum, thank goodness. In fact no one responded to his post. I wonder if I’m not the only one to feel this way about his attempt to start a thread.

John Scalzi put out a few writing prompts earlier this week, and I thought it’d be fun to try one. So, for your reading pleasure, I give you Jeff Bridges as the Big Lebowski as Agent Smith.

So, I’ve been thinking. Humans are kind of weird, right? I mean, you think about dogs and cats and uh, uh, you know what I’m trying to say. Anyway, so, it’s like they figure out how to fit in with wherever they are, right? But people don’t do that, man! They just come in, take what they want, piss all over everything, then just move right along to piss on the next guy’s rug. Just wham, bam, thank you ma’am. So you can’t, uh, really be like other mammals, right? You’re more like a disease, man. You’re, like, killing this planet, dude! But it’s cool, you know. Because we’re here now. We’ve got things covered. It’s like, you destroyed the old rug, right? And we’re the new rug that’s gonna pull the room together. It’s gonna be pretty awesome, dude. F*ckin’ A.

That was fun 🙂 Check out the prompts and try one out!