Archives: writing

The answer inside a turkey sandwich

There are things we know we are supposed to do. Floss. Get enough sleep. Eat regular meals. Eat healthy meals. Exercise.

And yet, inertia and incorrect priorities always make us sacrifice the important things. We eat crap and wonder why we feel sluggish. We sleep 6 hours a night and wonder why we are slow and snappish. We don’t floss and wonder why we bleed and get lectures at the dentist office.

And when we feel rather bad or low or like we’re the worst writers in the world, it’s often good to look away from the writing and see if you have covered all of the important things. If it’s been 8 or more hours since your last meal, or you got 4 hours of sleep, or you’ve got a cold coming on, those are all things other than your manuscript that can bring you down. We don’t like to admit it. We don’t like to think that the key to our novel lies inside a turkey sandwich. But our emotions are volatile little toddlers that can explode unexpectedly for reasons we don’t quite understand. And we take it out on unsuspecting things, like our work, or loved ones, or other drivers on the road.

So: you wake up. You’re convinced you’re shit. The world will chew up and spit out your prose. If you ever finish what you’re working on. But you won’t. Because you’re shit.

Hold up: how did you sleep last night? Have you had breakfast yet? Take the dog for a walk. (I do realize that suggesting this on the eve of a huge cold front about to freeze the eastern US solid is bad, but this post is technically evergreen.) Get a shower, get your head on straight. Hug your kids, tell your significant other that you’re grateful for them. THEN look at your work.

It’s possible it’s still shit, sure. I’m not saying all writing is magically better once you eat some eggs. But your attitude about approaching it will be better, and your endurance with writing and editing will be greater. We have to take care of ourselves if we want to accomplish anything.

(That said, you want to explain to me that medical doctors who prove time and again that the brain needs 7-9 hours of sleep a night, often pull 24 hour shifts?)

Fear- The Ugly Cry

This is not one of those inspirational posts that talks with sanitized optimism and comfort about golly gee we all have fear and it’s important to overcome it. No, I’m going to talk about my own fear, my specific and ugly fear, and show you all the snot and the blotchy face and the sobbing. I’m baring my soul so I can have the cathartic experience and perhaps move on.

I’m afraid of starting new projects. I think I’ve gotten to a placid feeling in my life of having plenty of projects due – book contracts or school assignments or story requests – that I have gotten lazy. Nine years ago I had no audience, no readers, and I thought, hey, let’s do this podcasting thing. A project that had no money, no reward, just This Might Be Fun. And it was.

I don’t think like that anymore.

In my own defense, if I have a contract, it takes precedence. I shouldn’t blow off school work when I get a wild idea. But you know what? Right now I’m between contracts. I’m about to graduate from school. I have limitless potential. And I’m fucking terrified.

  • I’m afraid of failure.
  • I’m afraid of succeeding and not knowing how to handle it.
  • I’m afraid there are more eyes on me than ever and I’m open to more criticism.
  • I’m afraid of starting something and fizzling out and slinking away, ashamed. That’s probably the biggest one, the fear of my own lack of motivation.

I know that everything I say on I Should Be Writing is true – that you have to put fears in the Happy Box, that you have to strangle the Inner Editor, that you have to understand that failure, rejection, criticism, none of those will kill you. You can look at authors and other creatives who have tanked their careers (I often marvel at Hollywood in this case) and then five or ten years later rise from the ashes like the phoenix, stronger and better and more popular than ever.

But that stuff is hard to internalize. I feel its truth when I’m saying it on the show, but during the dark times, when I’m not podcasting, when i’m sitting here going AH GAWD I AM A FRAUD AND EVERYONE WILL FIGURE IT OUT ANY TIME NOW, that’s when I’m not on the mic, and I’m not saying the truths, and it’s when I need to hear it the most.

So this is my baring of the soul, the open look at the ugly cry. The truth is I’m so damn afraid of every project I have in mind. It is still hard to look at feedback and critique as helpful instead of “THIS IS DRIVEL QUIT NOW AND GO BACK TO MAKING COFFEE FOR A LIVING.” It’s hard to look at failed projects and think, “OK, what did I learn from this?” instead of “FAILURE MEANS I SUCK AND SHOULD QUIT.”

My subconscious always speaks in all caps. Little punctuation. I know it’s annoying, shit, I live with it every day.

When I’m feeling low, I can’t even look at successes without seeing downsides. I’ve written every day for 393 days? Well, somewhere around July I stopped hitting my big daily wordcount goal (which was something like 600 a day) and went back to hitting minimum 250. Sometimes I do more, but I haven’t been able to work up a good streak of writing over 500 words a day. I won an award? Well, that was for potential. I can easily not live up to THAT expectation. I got a book deal? Great, but those books are done and finished. What is in the future for me?

The absolute worst part of the fear is that when I speak them or write them down, they sound illogical and whining.

I don’t feel like I have the right to have these fears.

I did have a well-received book, I did win an award, I am about to graduate with my MFA. My career is going great. The answers to these fears are clear and obvious.

Airing these fears makes me feel ashamed. But I don’t feel as if I can work through them if I let them fester, so here they are.

I’m afraid nearly all the time. I hold back creatively nearly all the time.

It feels hypocritical since I give advice to deal with this stuff. But that’s one reason I give the advice; the problems of writers are so obvious to me because I feel them all the time. I don’t know if it will make you feel any better, knowing you’re not alone if you feel this way. It could make you feel worse since you might hope that these things go away once you get a book deal/the book comes out/you win an award. For me, they didn’t.

You know when you’re walking down the street and you stumble and flail like an idiot, and you look around and see no one saw, you have that sense of relief that kind of washes over the embarrassment? That’s being a new writer and writing something that doesn’t work. Doing a project that no one cares about. Getting a rejection. Yeah, you stumbled, and that can be disappointing, even disheartening but who cares? No one saw.* Try again. Next time you won’t be as likely to stumble.

The thing is, when you have eyes on you and you stumble, well, it’s a little more embarrassing.

If only we all had the humor and strength to deal with it as well as Jennifer Lawrence did.

And so, now that more eyes are on me, I’m terrified of stumbling; I have held back. And my cold logical stern mind says yeah, but if you don’t walk anywhere, you don’t go anywhere. You take the risk of stumbling when you take that step. And the rewards are worth that risk, dammit.

So there is my ugly cry. I’m afraid of new things. And I’m airing this on New Year’s Day to be cathartic and hopefully push me into realizing that these fears, while very real, are also very stupid, and I need to just create and get it done and over with, and move on. 2004 Mur would be appalled if she saw how I hold back today. We don’t want to appall our past selves.

Now, to create.

Happy New Year!

* And if you’re thinking, “THE EDITOR SAW, MUR!” I promise you, it’s rare the editor formed any opinion about you when they rejected you. They probably didn’t even register your name, unless they’ve seen it many times before. And EVEN THEN you’re still a new writer, and all new writers are expected to submit and be rejected. It’s part of the process. You see it as huge,** that the editor is singling you out to reject you, while you’re just a part of the process to them. You can see this as a positive or a negative. I try really hard to see it as a positive.
** And it is huge. I remember the sting of rejection, and still experience it. But there’s the sting of rejection and the humiliation of public failure, two different feelings, two horrible things.

Guest post: Should I Be Writing?

Freelance writer, novelist, award-winning screenwriter, poker player, poet, biker, roustabout, Travis Heermann is a graduate of the Odyssey Writing Workshop and the author of the Ronin Trilogy, The Wild Boys, and Rogues of the Black Fury, plus short fiction pieces in anthologies and magazines such as Fiction River: How to Save the World, Weird Tales, Historical Lovecraft, and Shivers VII. As a freelance writer, he has produced a metric ton of role-playing game work both in print and online, including Legend of Five Rings, d20 System, and the MMORPG, EVE Online. He teaches science fiction literature at the University of Nebraska at Omaha and speculative fiction writing at the Lighthouse Writers Workshop in Denver.

Back in January, I wrote a guest post hereabouts on defeating the Procrastininjas. Now I’m going to talk about one of the most powerful Procrastininja clans.

One of the fundamental questions for any writer trying to make a go of it today is this: how do I balance writing time with promoting?

Since I went into this writing gig full-time in the Summer of 2012, my biggest struggle has been finding the balance between time spent writing and time spent promoting.

First of all, I hate marketing. I hate being inundated by it, day in, day out, being unable to go outdoors and not see marketing messages slathered all over every tree, board, building, and light post. I hate the intellectual numbness it inculcates, and I hate the way it so often assumes people are stupid, thus creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. And I hate the way it feeds and reinforces the blind consumerism that lays waste to vast swaths of our planet. I digress, but only just a little.

Being a self-employed artist must also make me a businessman by necessity. I have a product to sell. As I’m a writer, my product is Story. Story is conveyed in a number of ways, but mostly still by physical books and packets of 1s and 0s. I want people who like to read to buy my Stories so that I can eat. In the case of my current project, I want readers to help fund the creation of OTHER people’s stories (but we’ll get to that in a moment).

The bottom line is: if no one ever hears my name, no one will ever buy my Stories. With how publishing has evolved in the last few decades, the overwhelmingly vast majority, teeming hordes of writers, must market themselves to get their work into the hands of readers who will pay them money.

This requires marketing. And thus, my love-hate relationship.  My feelings about marketing make it a very steep hill to climb when I think of adding my own trickle of marketing to the immense, crashing ocean of it already out there. Most of the time it feels like screaming into 180dB noise.

Are there any authors in the U.S. who do not have to market and promote themselves to maintain a living? Sure, and they can probably be counted on your fingers and toes.

Let’s take two authors, of similar quality, with similar publishing contracts, with books of equal mass appeal. Those who succumb to their innate resistance and eschew marketing and promotion are much more likely to swirl away and be lost in the constant upswell of new talent (and for some, “talent” is a euphemism). The thing with hot up-and-comers is that they produce an equal number of forgotten down-and-outers.

So. Heavy sigh. Whether we want a traditional contract or readers for our indie-published work, we have to market ourselves. It’s part of the job description.

I don’t know about you, but sometimes it is immensely easier to go and do some marketing busy work than it is to face the blank page. Even when the Story is flowing, it can be a hair-pulling, leather-chewing, smashing-your-pinky-in-the-car-door load of anguish.

There are some who say that the best form of marketing is simply to write another book, another short story. There are other writers who are marketing machines, blasting away with tremendous loads of ammunition—and they seem to get results.

These are opposite ends of the spectrum. So who’s right? Most people would agree that there has to be a middle ground.

The first half of 2013 resulted in paltry little fiction output. I was running a successful Kickstarter and taking care of its results, teaching a university class in science fiction literature, and I was beating the bushes at a number of marketing approaches. And all this on top of family and friend interaction. I was dissatisfied with my fiction output, which left me crabby, surly, curmudgeonly. So I changed the balance of time. My girlfriend found she liked it when I disappeared to write for great stretches of time. I was around less, but we all liked it when I was in a better mood.

Finding a good middle ground is a constant struggle for me, but here’s something that helped me find the balance. It was introduced to me by other writers, and I have found it a useful tool.

The WIBBOW test. Would I Be Better Off Writing?

When I apply this very simple test (created by Kris Rusch and Dean Wesley Smith) to whatever I am doing that is NOT writing, unhelpful activities get highlighted quickly. This includes things like trying to set up book signings, convention appearances, social media (egad, what a time sink!), sending out piles of review requests, everything that is not the composition or revision of new fiction. Not all of these things have passed the WIBBOW test, but they were all part of the learning process that has helped me weed out what does and does not contribute to my mental well-being.

If finding balance is a daily struggle for you, try the WIBBOW test.

So what about this guest blog post? Does it pass the WIBBOW test?

In the case of this guest blog post, which Mur has been kind enough to host, I happen to be working on a fantastic anthology project as the editor. I’m really excited about Cars, Cards & Carbines, so I’m delighted to be putting the word out. If a high-octane, multi-genre, speculative fiction anthology—in which Mighty Mur is one of the lead authors—gets your fuel pumping, please give this a look. The Kickstarter campaign ends on December 19, 2013.

So does shifting my creative gears temporarily into not only editing, but also putting together and running a Kickstarter campaign pass the WIBBOW test?

Yes. Putting oneself in the shoes of an editor is an eye-opening experience in many ways, not least of which results in becoming a better writer. The chance to work with the lead authors we have on board has also been a tremendous experience. So the chance to put this anthology together required a crowd-funding campaign, which requires marketing. All of these things pass the test, regardless of whether the campaign funds successfully.

So the bottom line is this: if you’re not writing, does what you’re doing have value for your career, make you a better writer, increase your network of resources and contacts, make you feel more fulfilled, or help pay your rent?

If so, keep doing it. If not, get your butt back to the blank page.

Keeping track of wordcount. NaNoWriMo participants, take note!

I caught a neat thing on MediaBistro the other day: a writing pacemaker.

Not something that will kickstart your writing if you slack off – man, there’s a golden ticket idea – but instead you input into Susanna’s Pacemaker your wordcount goal, your deadline (if you don’t have a deadline, it’s a good idea to make an internal deadline, by the way), and couple more options, and then you see a graph or table with your daily wordcount goal listed.

The tool is interestingly flexible; it asks you if you want to keep the wordcount steady every day or increase your wordcount a little bit daily as you go. It also takes weekends into account: are weekends days you want to take off, or will you binge write because you’re not at work? You can even ask for a “random” wordcount goal, and it will give you some days with a goal of 64, and other days with a goal of 1300. I wouldn’t recommend that for a project, but in theory it’s kind of neat.

It also has an “intensity” option, which has no description but I figured out means you can write steady and then binge at the end (low intensity) or write more every day and end up with a couple of days with 0 wordcount goal (high intensity.)

Me, I’m a slow and steady girl so I have a simple 45 degree angled graph. If I were a weekend binge writer, it would look like this. (The “write MUCH more” weekend option seems broken though, as it has me writing 4 words per week day, and 3000+ on Saturday and Sunday. I don’t think I could hold a story in my head writing 4 words a day.)

Susanna's Pacemaker: Binge writing at the start, then tapering off.

Susanna’s Pacemaker: Binge writing at the start, then tapering off.

I think what’s lacking here is a place to input your personal wordcount so that you can see how well you’re following your graph. If you write more words, it would be neat to see your dot above the projected graph for the day (and if you slack, the dot in the lower area would be good to shame.

Pacemaker is a neat tool, but I probably won’t use it because the Scrivener wordcount function is so robust now.

Scrivener wordcount

If you’re using Scrivener, I highly recommend this tool, as it helps you track your goal and automatically adjusts your word goal for the day based on how many words you have left to write. If I write 2000 words today, tomorrow’s graph will show that my daily target has dropped to 836.

Admittedly, I only know the Mac keyboard shortcut for calling up this tool – Shift+Command+T. From there you can hit “Options” to fill in all your information like wordcount goals and deadline.  You can learn more about this tool, and many other Scrivener tips, at Super Producer Patrick Hester’s blog.

There are other tools for when you want to spent time and effort keeping track of wordcounts and not writing, like I’m doing right now. One of my favorites is from Writertopia. They have several very simple tools to put your wordcount on your site, and all they ask is a link back. That’s WRITERTOPIA. They’re awesome.

We have the no frills picometer:

But if you feel like a writing potato, and who doesn’t, from time to time, you can go for the larger and more creative one.

The best part about the writing potato is s/he has moods:

There are eight moods in all; I won’t spoil them for you.

The toolbox page at Writertopia has all the information on how to put this on your site. It’s super ultra mega easy. All of the tools default to a goal of 50,000 words, but changing the goal is simple, and they explain the tiny tweak you must do to customize it.

Here’s the difference in the image tags: (included for reference)

And (included for reference)

Then of course if you’re doing NaNoWriMo, that site has its own dynamic tool that grabs your wordcount from the server. This won’t work any other time of the year, but since we are near NaNoWriMo season, it makes sense to include it for you crazy 1,667-words-a-day kids. Like the Writertopia widget, you just put a little image tag on your site: (included for reference)

(Huh. On editing this and reloading the page, I noticed that the image changes every time. Clever!)

Unlike Writertopia, you don’t need to update the image every time you write. So if you’re doing NaNoWriMo, this is the best tool. It’s also extremely versatile, where you can view your wordcount as a simple line, a calendar listing your writing days, a word war with another writer, or a word war with your region vs another region.

So there you have it, folks. I have spent a great deal of writing time procrastinating by researching these tools for you, SO YOU WON’T HAVE TO.

Now go write or something.

COMING SOON- I’m downloading a bunch of iOS and Amazon apps to track wordcount, I’ll review them here soon.

Help Fund My Robot Army!

I was thrilled this summer to get an invite to be in an anthology edited by John Joseph Adams, using a theme that is dear to my heart: Kickstarter. Author Keffy Kehrli wrote a story for Lightspeed magazine that was entirely in Kickstarter terms, and JJA liked the idea so much he wanted to do a whole book based on it. And of course he had to fund it via Kickstarter.

It’s already funded, but consider it a pre-order, or helping reach stretch goals.

Why Point of View is so damn important. AKA: Go, eagle, go!

Breaking Bad spoilers below.

I’m a tangential watcher of Breaking Bad. We don’t have cable so I’ve watched via Netflix, and usually while doing something else. Jim fills me in. I did get a chance to see last week’s episode and watched with fascinated horror at The Phone Call. Many people have apparently been talking about The Phone Call, trying so hard to whitewash Walt into remaining a hero, doing things for his family, how he said things to try to throw the blame off Skyler, and how Skyler is a bitch and deserved it anyway, etc. This article says why that’s stupid, why that’s making the show as stupider than it is. (also because sexism, but that’s not the point of this post.) Like real people, Walt is neither Good nor Evil. He loves his family and hates his wife and does horrible things for what he thinks is a good reason and has killed and rescued and poisoned and caused the death of his brother-in-law and mourned that death. He is capable of many things, good and evil. He’s complex.

So why, asks the article writer, do some people so desperately want Walt to be the “good guy” – why do they justify his actions? Part of it, yes, is the fact that we liked Walt in the beginning, and we are good people (in our own eyes), so we can’t be evil, so Walt isn’t evil.

This is the same justification people use when they say racist things. “Racists are bad. I’m not bad. So what I said wasn’t racist.”

But the real reason we can root for bad guys is point of view.

Several years ago I was watching a nature program and suddenly saw through the careful emotional manipulation – in a freaking NATURE program – that they plunge the viewer into. They’ll talk about the migrating bird that flies thousands of miles and gets maybe a mouthful of food along the way but OH NO HERE IS A HUNGRY EAGLE, RUN MIGRATING BIRD!!!

In another scene we’ll get a view of the mama cheetah who has been kicked in the face by a zebra and will soon die, as will her cubs. Fuckin zebras, man. Poor cheetah family.

Even though the nature shows show the prey’s POV a majority of the time, and therefore we find ourselves rooting for the antelope to get away, sometimes we see it from the predators’ point of view, and suddenly we feel for the wolf who hasn’t eaten in days during the lean winter months, and the hungry babies, poor puppies!

While in the scene above we easily felt for the poor migrating bird who was nearly starving and wouldn’t eat until it reached its destination a billion miles away, like a dad who won’t stop to pee on a long trip to grandma’s in Kalamazoo, the scene could have been told from the POV of the hungry eagle, who perhaps had an injured wing and had chicks to feed, and maybe one had fallen out of the nest or been eaten by a snake, and the narrator would have been all GO, EAGLE, GO! EAT THAT BIRD!

We have seen most of Breaking Bad from Walt’s POV. We have seen his professional despair, his cancer diagnosis, his denial of coverage, his controlling wife. Then we see him take control of his life and his money and then do that thing that always makes us like a character- he does something well. He does something better than anyone else, and that’s cook. We see him start to try to help his family by doing horrible things. We know he loves his family. We know he even loves Hank. We know he goes into every horrible thing he does with, if not reluctance, with a grim sense of “this is the only choice I have.” All of these things can make people believe “it’s not his fault.”

MINOR spoilers for A Song of Ice and Fire series:

George RR Martin has masterfully used POV in A Song of Ice and Fire. He sets up Jamie Lannister to be reprehensible early on. We don’t start getting Jamie’s point of view until a few books in when he begins to look sympathetic, and we see his change from inside him. We can even start liking him a little, or at least rooting for him, even when we’re reminded that he’s a complex character who is not embracing the “good” way of life by any stretch of the imagination. (Remember the threat he made against an infant in the Tully family? Yeah, he’s still a Lannister.)

Back to Breaking Bad, imagine the story from Skyler’s POV. A woman whose husband is getting screwed in his job and then diagnosed with cancer and then denied treatment, and bam, unexpectedly she turns up pregnant. That’s a lot of shit to deal with. Then her husband begins to cook, and she has no idea, but knows that Something is Up. When she finds out, she is forced to decide whether to keep her family together or high tail it out of there. She becomes his accomplice, still not knowing the depth of the shit he’s gotten into, until enough people die that she starts to notice. She’s seeming pretty sympathetic to me right now.

While we never want the Lannisters to win in ASoIaF, we do want Tyrion Lannister to succeed, because we see his sympathetic POV – this made the Blackwater battle a complex one because we hated something to happen to Tyrion but wanted Joffrey’s city to fall. A lot of people complain that Sansa is a bitch for not liking Tyrion even though he did the very nice thing of not raping her, but they forget that Sansa thinks the Imp is evil, still believes he tried to kill her brother, he fights for the Lannisters, hell, he IS a Lannister, etc. We want her to see the good in him that WE see, because we’ve seen his POV, but we forget that a) he hasn’t told her the truth of anything because b) he (rightly) thinks she will never believe him. Sansa can’t have Tyrion’s POV, so she hates him. When we see him through her eyes, he’s a horrible, ugly man who is an attempted murderer, part of a family who has nothing but horrible people in it, a drunk, a frequent visitor of brothels, incapable of decency or love.

Anyway, the way to get people to like or sympathize with a character is to show the character doing something well (Remember Italians said that Mussolini made the trains run on time?), or doing a kindness to someone, or see them mistreated.  But also give them a POV so we can see their different layers, the shades of gray that make up everybody’s soul, and remember, like Walt, like Jamie, we all do what we do because we believe it’s the right thing, or the only thing to do.

Pound Cakes Need Flour

I can’t take credit for this. This is taken directly from a conversation I had with Ursula Vernon, who was trying to give me a “buck up little camper!” talk.

Damn but I love me some Fire Emblem...

Damn, but I love me some Fire Emblem on the DS…

See, what happened was I was procrastinating and playing my DS and doing laundry and watching The Office when there was something work-related I had to do. When I finally got my head straight and did what I was supposed to, I killed it, efficiently, well, and even got a compliment from the client. But as I was walking to lunch, I still felt lousy and unaccomplished because I’d wasted that time. I thought, man, if I could be productive like that all the time, I’d be unstoppable.

Ursula gave me a great metaphor for this (well, no, first she said, “if you did that all the time, you would die.” Then she gave the metaphor): traditionally, a pound cake needs a pound of butter, a pound of flour, and a pound of sugar. The thing that makes it really good is the butter, right? * So if butter is the best part, why not make a butter cake? THREE POUNDS OF BUTTER. CHURCH LUNCHEON, HERE I COME!

Three pounds of butter? You’d die.

The butter in this metaphor, says Ursula, is the time that you work and you’re on top of it, you’re nailing everything, you’re creative and clever and productive and awesome. But if you ate just butter, if you were so on fire creatively all the time, you’d die. The flour is the boring stuff in your life, the laundry and the gardening and the cooking and the driving. It’s boring and tasteless, but the butter needs it for support to make a cake. **

Your mind needs downtime to process awesome creative stuff. You need time to wind up the clockwork toy that is your brain, and the winding up is the part of your life where you’re not sitting at the computer (or notebook or easel or drawing pad or musical instrument, etc). How many ideas do you have when you’re away from your computer? Driving? Showering? Shopping?

This is why I worry when someone says they can’t wait to quit their job so they can “write all the time.” I have no day job, thanks to the economy, and promise you, people who write as their day job don’t do it all the time. Just like we don’t eat butter all the time. We need procrastination, manual things to do, times where our brain clicks off to let the subconscious play for a bit. ***

One thing the day job and parenting gives you, besides all the negative stuff I’m pretty sure you’re thinking of right now, is structure in your life. You have a time you need to be at work, you have a time to get home, you have a kid who needs its own schedule. While this can give you a sense of being overwhelmed, you can look at your schedule and see where your holes are. If you fill the holes up with TV and video games (I don’t judge; I do the same thing) then think about removing those things and writing.

Because right now, I look at the day, and the time I have to write is a huge lump that procrasti-brain decides can be pushed back further and further, and suddenly it’s 9:30pm and I should be relaxing but I haven’t written yet and HOW CAN THIS BE WHAT EVIL CREATURE HAS EATEN MY DAY?

I think I’m talking about two different, but linked, things here. The point is, time doing things other than creating is necessary. Wishing for a full day with nothing to do but write, well, be careful what you wish for. If, right now, you are finding other things to do than write when you have 30 min of free time, you will do the same thing if given 8 hours. I promise.

So. Pound cake. Turns out the flour is necessary. I’m going to go do a load of laundry now.

Work in Progress: MIND THE DRAPES (working title)

* Note-  I could argue that the most important thing was the sugar, but that’s a moot point in regards to her argument.

** Note- if I am completely honest with myself I will admit that DS playing is not really flour in my life. It’s not much of anything except for dopamine hits to my easily-addicted brain. Maybe it’s Cheetos.

*** Note- While procrastination and the like are necessary, remember what happens if you have too much flour and too little butter. Yuck. Don’t go overboard.

Another comment on “those popular crappy books”

TL; DR – shut up about bad books getting published.

With the release of Dan Brown’s new book, I expect to be getting more email from people complaining of HOW could he have gotten a book deal if he writes so poorly? How in the world did EL James make a shitton of money off of fanfic BDSM? Then undoubtedly they will point out why the books are so awful. Or mock them.

And I get it. I feel the jealousy, I get all Christmasy green and red with jealousy and rage. “So all I have to do is shit on a page and send it in and they will buy it? Is that it?” I say through a gin-soaked olive. (Then my editor calls me and tells me under no circumstances am I to send her feces.)

Tobias Buckell recently had an amazing blog post where he was talking mainly of book bloggers and pro reviewers, but it applied to authors as well.

1) When you get to a point where you’ve read an amazing number of books, you change. You’ve read so much that what may seem new or interesting to most (and even to the writer of the book you’re reading) is just a variation to you. Your expectations regarding the work change.

Due to subjectivity being what it is, many writers can mistake what’s happening and view it as the books getting worse, not their own aesthetic changing. Two things can happen. One, despair at what they perceive is the dying of quality. You see this a lot with people who hit a certain number of books read: they begin to rail against the dreadfulness of everything. It can lead to bitterness, cynicism, and outright hatred of something they previously loved.

This hit home so hard. I know the “rules” of storytelling, I can spot lazy sexist writing (Hello, Jim Butcher, hanging a lantern on Dresden’s lecherous eye doesn’t make it any better), the lack of a strong conflict, cardboard characters, weak motivation, and the classic “let’s save the big gun till the end instead of using it at the beginning and saving us all this trouble” (hello Iron Man 3, Babylon 5, and every episode of Power Rangers ever.) This distracts and annoys me. And I want to stand up and shout, “Does everyone else not SEE that Bella is suffering from emotional abuse? Why can’t you understand that Harry Potter telling us something “dully” in every goddamn chapter is weak writing?”

They won’t listen. My friends and colleagues will listen, toasting me with their drinks or their tubes of cookie dough or their drug of choice, and will sit and wonder why the “good” books go unnoticed. But the world at large? They won’t listen. Because they’re enjoying themselves.

And now we come up against the common battle between entertainment and art. But we have to admit that book selling is a business, and the publishers wish to make money. And, frankly, so do artists. Entertainment is what fits the majority of people. There will always be a place for the “important” literature, don’t get me wrong. But the entertaining stuff sells whether it sticks to the rules or not.

Because people want to be entertained. And the average person is not going to critique a book or a movie, they’re just going to watch, experience, and probably tell a friend if they loved it or hated it. If it didn’t move them at all, then you’ve got a problem. But Brown, James, Meyer, and whatever other author would sit accused in the court of your authorly opinion, only they’re busy counting their money so they didn’t answer their subpoena, they move people. And that makes people buy books.

So crap is getting published. Yeah. Happens all the time, and will continue to happen. What can you do about it?

  1. Shut up and write.
  2. Whine to people about how bad books get published. Which accomplishes both jack and shit.
  3. Get one of these “horrible” books from the library and find out just what it is that caused the books to sell in the first place. Brown spins a good, tense yarn with kick ass pacing, I understand. Stephanie Meyer learned how to perfectly encapsulate the feeling of being fifteen and in crazy love, and put it on the page. Rowling built Hogwarts and a ton of fun characters. They each hooked people and made them pay attention to their books, flawed or no.
  4. Did I mention shutting up and writing was an option?

Here’s the horrible secret: if your book follows every rule, gets rid of adverbs and passive voice, has grammatically perfect sentences and a solid three act arc, no one will care* if the book doesn’t grab them in some way.

John Scalzi said it better than I did. Also his new book is out and I highly recommend it.

* Your mom will. Also, your English teacher will be pleased you know how to use a semi-colon.

A look into the scary mind of Mur. And some confidence I found.

I’m going to go all stream of consciousness on you right now. Hold on tight.

[Something happened, which I will explain after I discuss the emotions involved.]
  • Huh. That happened. That’s interesting. I should blog about it. It’s a look at the writing life I’ve not experienced before.
  • No, I shouldn’t blog about it because it’s bragging.
  • What the hell is wrong with you? You’re only allowed to blog about your fears and anxieties? You can’t proudly say that you feel good about something? DON’T YOU SEE THAT THIS REACTION IS WRONG IN SO MANY WAYS?
  • …You’re right. 

So here I go.

I was solicited to do a novella. I spent the last week researching and brainstorming, and last night I wrote my outline. As I was writing it, I felt good, it went a lot smoother than any other outline I’d experienced. So i have a character in a setting. What happens to her? What next? What next? What mistakes does she make? What next? How does it end? BOOM- 1000 word outline. Done. LIKE A BOSS. (link NSFW)

I checked it over a couple of times, all the while feeling a slow sinking feeling. This was drivel. It was predictable and weak and trite and lacked any depth at all. They were going to hate it and regret asking me to write for them. They would take my gin away. And my puppy.

Then I had an epiphany. I realized the following things:

  1. The text was predictable because I FREAKING WROTE IT. Of course I knew what was going to happen. The damn thing happened in my head. I knew the beginning, the end, the twists, etc.
  2. It was trite because I had to write it in my own style. I don’t think my own style is exciting just like I don’t think I’m particularly pretty and I think my voice is lousy. This is the same me, same face, same style, that I wake up with and go through my day. Of course it’s trite, contrived, and appallingly boring — to me.
  3. And lack of depth? It’s a freaking OUTLINE. Outlines don’t have depth, as a rule.

So once I remove the watermark of MUR WROTE THIS THEREFORE IT IS SHIT that I place over every story I write, and look at the story as a standalone, it might, you know, be good.

Half an hour later one of the editors contacted me. He really liked it. Mur the gladiator got a THUMBS UP and lives to fight write another day!

So this thing I wrote might actually be OK.

So this thing I wrote might actually be OK.

And the crowd goes wild.

And then Mur stressed about whether she should blog about this newfound confidence.

Sequels are hard

I know in your world, my “next book” is The Shambling Guide to New York City. (io9 calls it one of the “astounding summer books not to miss” – and you can preorder it now! – not that I’m squeeing like crazy or anything.) But in my world, I’ve been soaking in the Palmolive of New Orleans and Zoe’s next adventure. I just finished The Ghost Train to New Orleans, the second book in The Shambling Guides.

So many sequels, so little time! Carrie Vaughn's Kitty series, I can only hope The Shambling Guides will last this long.

So many sequels, so little time! I’m on book 4 of Carrie Vaughn’s awesome Kitty series. I can only dream of such a successful series.

Sequels are hard. There are so many things that can go wrong:

  1. The beginning. You have to balance the first chapter carefully to appeal to both new readers and people familiar with the series. If someone just picked up the book, the story must stand on its own while it can’t deny the plot points of previous books. You also don’t want to deluge existing fans with boring backstory that they already know. (Small shoutout to the legendary Liz Hand and the incomparable Jim Kelly and my fellow students at Stonecoast who helped me deal with starting a sequel.) What I eventually did: Picked up one of Carrie Vaughn’s Kitty books and read the first chapter again (I’d read the earlier ones; I’m a fan.) Then I wrote down what happened, roughly, in the chapter. I literally wrote down, “Emotion. Setting detail. Emotion. Backstory nugget. Detail.” This established the character in her emotion, a small piece of setting, and the backstory that put them there. Then I wrote my chapter one using the same broad road map. It helped out a lot.
  2. Sophomore efforts are often weaker than freshman efforts. You can spend years writing a first book, because no one is waiting on you. You submit it, get it rejected, tweak it, then submit again. You constantly polish it. Then, if you get a 2-or-more book deal, the time given to write the sequel(s) is much shorter. Unless you build in ample time for beta readers (I didn’t this time around, except for early chapters I workshopped at Stonecoast), you won’t have the failure/feedback/rewrite step that, while painful, was so important for the first book. You spend years trying to write a book and work toward pro, and then when you get that coveted deal, you realize that often pros are expected to turn a book around a hell of a lot faster than you wrote book 1. What to do: trust in my editor that she will help me make it as strong as possible.
  3. Expectation. Now I know I’m sounding like I’m complaining that my diamond shoes are too tight (that saying is from this scene, not this one), but here is an emotional response that I had to a recent event.
    • Kirkus reviews on SGTNYC: “The hip, knowing and sometimes hysterically funny narrative, interspersed with excerpts from the guide of the title, lurches along in splendid fashion.”
    • Me: “Hot damn! I’m hysterically funny! Yay!” … (1 minute later) “Oh SHIT that means book 2 has to be funny and it’s not funny it’s awful there’s not a damn funny thing in this** oh shit oh shit oh shit!”
    • /me falls down
    • /me cries into the gin
    • What I did? /me takes the compliment and gets over my damn self and writes the damn book.

All of that said, I’m pretty happy with the book, except when a rush of overwhelming fear comes over me and I think it’s absolute crap. But I’m pretty sure I am experiencing a very common feeling*** to being done with a book, so I just tell myself it’s natural and have another cookie.

** I admit that yesterday I wrote a scene that made me laugh out loud, which I figure was a good sign, but still, for someone like me, I suppose any early review of book 1 can paralyze your work on book 2. If someone says something bad, then OH SHIT I AM A SHIT WRITER WORTH SHIT I MAY AS WELL QUIT AND SAY SHIT AGAIN. SHIT. If someone says something good, then OH SHIT I HAVE TO DO IT EVEN BETTER THE SECOND TIME. PRESSURE! PRESSURE! You can’t win. And by you I mean me. Perhaps this has something to do with my own psyche. Huh.

*** I just spent 20 min searching Neil Gaiman’s blog for something he wrote about feeling like his books are shit every time he gets about halfway through them, but the guy has such a huge blog and I can’t remember the appropriate keywords, so I’m at a loss. If your Google-fu is better than mine, knock yourself out.