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“In the end we always act in the dark.” – Rebecca Solnit

I have always been a big planner.

My parents were also planners. My mom made a to-do list every week, even though she had a weekly schedule that didn’t involve a lot of variation. We rotated through the same dinners on a weekly basis: Monday was spaghetti night, Friday was pizza night. My dad planned road trips precisely by mileage. I started learning how to budget when I was eleven.

I enjoy planning. A well-laid plan skillfully executed gives me joy. I like planning trips and parties and my social calendar and my writing projects. I like analyzing, and I like strategizing. I like the sense of accomplishment I receive from meeting goals and milestones.

But.

I also agree with Rebecca Solnit. There is an uncertainty inherent in being alive, in being human. We don’t know the time of our deaths. We don’t know what will happen tomorrow. We might have a good guess, we might hope, but we don’t know. Not for sure.

And sometimes life takes a sudden swift turn, and we end up on a train to Transylvania just because it sounds cool. Or we end up spending five days lounging on the couch unable to leave the house because we are so ill, or two years struggling to walk more than a block because we are so injured. We end up breaking hearts or having our hearts broken. We end up having one of those perfect moments that bubble up from time to time, whose very essence lies in their unpredictability.

Some things cannot be planned.

Some things–and I feel like I’m about to commit sacrilege by saying this–some things cannot be practical.

And sometimes embracing the reality of the darkness, of not being able to see the hand in front of our faces, of not knowing and sinking into the uncomfortable truth of not knowing–sometimes this is the only way forward.

It is through not being able to see or know that we are able to sink deep within and become aware of those truths that endure through the uncertainty, in spite of or perhaps even because of it.

Photo Credit: Schjelderup via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Schjelderup via Compfight cc

Rebecca Solnit discusses the role of uncertainty and darkness in the life of the artist in the essay “Woolf’s Darkness: Embracing the Inexplicable,” which is in her collection of essays Men Explain Things to Me (how could I not read a book with a title like that?) and which also was adapted for the New Yorker.

My discovery of this essay last week was timely. Unpredictable, even. I’m in that gap between novel drafts that I always find uncomfortable, and meanwhile I had a conversation that made me question what it means to me to be a writer.

Being a writer, or really any kind of artist, is filled with a weird kind of uncertainty. The creative process can be planned, it can be quantified, it can be optimized, and yet…. there’s this point, for me, when all of that falls away. The plans, the ambition, the practicality, no longer speak so loudly. It’s not that they’re gone, exactly, and they can sometimes be forced to the fore when necessary, but they are in service to creation, not the other way around. And things click the way they click. Unpredictably. Not not always in the way I planned.

Onto this conversation about my writing career. We spoke about the timescale, and the other person said (paraphrasing) he’d write as much as possible in order to succeed as quickly as possible. And, he said, regardless of questions of money, I wouldn’t want to keep writing forever if I never succeeded in getting books published, would I?

And practically speaking, I’d have to agree with him. But the funny things is, I don’t actually agree with him. Not at all. I’m a writer through and through. I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was seven. When I wasn’t writing prose, I was writing songs and music. It is so fundamentally folded into who I am, this compulsion to create, I would be bereft without it. It is one of the forces that has shaped who I am, something that feels simultaneously like something I chose and like something that chose me. I’m all in. And success (or at least this definition of success), while it is something I would like, is not the only part of the equation.

Being fully committed to being a writer in this moment feels like another definition of success.

Perhaps this is one of those things that has nothing to do with practicality. Perhaps being a writer is like swimming in the dark. You never know what you will find. In spite of your best efforts to chart your course, you never know exactly where you’re going.

I don’t know what the future holds. All I know is that I write.

“The future is dark, which is the best thing the future can be, I think.” So wrote Virginia Woolf.

Yes. The future is dark. It defies even the most perfect plans.

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This weekend at ConFusion I found myself crying in a public bathroom.

Now, if you have never cried in a public bathroom before, there’s some stuff you should know. You’d think from the way characters cry in bathrooms in novels and on TV that this is a decent option. But it is actually fraught with difficulty!

First of all, is the bathroom empty? Because if it’s not, you have to cry very, very quietly. Or you might be interrupted mid-cry. Luckily I didn’t have this problem. It was late enough that no one else was there, and I made my way to the big handicapped stall at the back and locked the door. But then came another issue. Where was I supposed to sit? I didn’t want to sit on the floor (ick) or on the toilet seat that had no lid (ick), so I ended up leaning against the wall. And then all that’s available for tear-catching is low-grade toilet paper, and there’s glasses to keep track of, and I kept thinking about the fact I was wearing mascara, and was it running down my face in long black streaks, and if so, would I be able to remove all evidence of it with rough paper towels before going back out into public?

Also, everything just seems worse when you’re crying about it in a public bathroom. Because in the back of your head is the awareness that you’re so upset you couldn’t keep your shit together long enough to decamp to a more private location. And that just sucks.

Photo Credit: madamepsychosis via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: madamepsychosis via Compfight cc

So, why was I in that bathroom in the first place?

Well. Someone said some not-very-nice things to me. Some personally judgmental things. And I let it get to me. I tried to recover, but these not-very-nice things hit me on a tender spot, and I was exhausted from traveling all day, and I hadn’t seen it coming, and and and…. I let it get to me. I cared when there was absolutely no reason to do so.

This also sucks.

Then my brain saw an opportunity to take my emotionally vulnerable state as an excuse to stage a fun little field trip into the Land of Impostor Syndrome. “Why are you even here?” I asked myself. “You’ve been working so hard at being a writer, and all people know you as is the person who knows everyone. You don’t belong here.”

Other people who have gone on this mind trip will not be surprised to learn that shortly thereafter I was on the phone with a friend back home (yay time zones!) insisting that I was failing at everything that was important to me in my life. EVERYTHING. FAILURE. DARK NIGHT OF THE SOUL. YES I CAN BE DRAMATIC, I’M A WRITER, WHAT DID YOU EXPECT?

I hate telling you about this. I want you to think that I’m always together, that even when life is hard, I always bounce back instantly with my silver lining generator and my recap of lessons I have learned. That as I write a novel, and then revise it, and then write another novel, and meanwhile collect a lot of rejections, I am always just fine.

But this simply isn’t true. No one is together one hundred percent of the time. No one. If they say they are, they are lying. If they look like they are, you don’t know them well enough yet.

And reaching for things that are difficult to achieve–going full-out–is really fucking difficult, emotionally speaking. Not settling for what you know you could have, and instead pushing for what you want to have? Can be completely brutal because success is not a guarantee. It’s not even always particularly likely. Trying to make art out of absolutely nothing, and knowing you’ll be heaped with criticism for even trying? Artists are insane. People with ambitions are insane. We are all freaking insane.

And into this turmoil creeps impostor syndrome. It slips into our behavior in both subtle and embarrassingly apparent ways. It makes it harder to put our full effort behind something. It blinds us to opportunities. We worry that if we talk about it, it could damage our careers. It could make people think they shouldn’t bet on us. It makes us afraid.

Well, forget that. I’m supposed to be working on caring less about what people think? Fine. I had rampant impostor syndrome this weekend. I had to take more alone time than I usually do, and I needed to talk about it with friends, and I needed a few pep talks, and I still feel a little shaky, and my brain is being less kind than usual. I also participated on all my panels as planned, and visited with my friends, and talked business.

I am speaking about my experience with impostor syndrome because it is something that is true, and those are the things most worth talking about. I know that like me, many of my readers are reaching for the stars instead of settling for a sure thing. As a result, many of us face impostor syndrome repeatedly. And having this experience does not mean we are any less capable or reliable or skilled. It’s just part of the territory of having vision and doing big and splendid things.

This weekend I ended up crying in a bathroom. Today I sat down and wrote. Tomorrow I will sit down and write some more. This is what matters: to stare our doubts in the face and acknowledge them and then, in spite of them, choose to go for it with everything we have.

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Today I was going to write about my hopes for 2015, maybe talk about some goals, a little bit of what I anticipated.

And then Tuesday happened.

And so this post is going to be completely different from if I had written it on Monday.

At the beginning of November, I went to a big party. One of my closest friends was there, and I sat next to him by the fire pit in an attempt to not freeze to death (outdoor parties in November are a thing here in Northern California, but they possibly shouldn’t be), and we were chatting, and all of a sudden I blurted out, “I’m really unhappy.”

And he said, “Yes, I know,” not in a dismissive way but in an “I understand where you’re coming from” way. And we talked about why I was unhappy, and how I wanted to be anywhere but where I was, and then he said to me, “You know, Amy, wherever you go, you’ll take yourself with you.”

And because I trust my friend, and because he was totally right, I took his words to heart, and I kept doing what I had already been doing, which was trying to figure out some filters and make new friends and find a way to be happy where I was right then. I had been feeling so frustrated, but the simple act of stating my unhappiness and being heard with compassion healed something I didn’t even know needed healing, and I began to feel better. Literally that night.

Then I went to World Fantasy, and spending time with my friends there helped too, and I started being able to see the progress I was making, which is always heartening. And at a certain point, I decided I’d most likely stay in my apartment another year when my lease was up, as long as the rent didn’t go up too high. I didn’t want to move for the third time in a two-year period, I really like my apartment, and I was okay with the way my life here was going. Happy, even.

And then on Tuesday I got the notice about how much my rent will be increasing. It is a significant increase. Much higher than I was hoping. The local rents did another upwards spike sometime in the few months since I last checked. So the decision of whether to stay or to go is no longer an easy one. And the landscape of 2015 has suddenly become less certain.

I was stressing out about this, and I asked another friend of mine, “Why do I have to keep solving the same problem over and over?” And he said, “Conventional wisdom suggests you haven’t solved it if it keeps returning.” And that is exactly it. I have tried to solve the issue of my living situation, but so far, I’ve only succeeded in finding short-term solutions. And at some point, I’d really like to find a more sustainable solution.

(By the by, I have to take a moment to appreciate how incredible it is to have these friends who say wise and helpful and insightful things. It makes such a big difference. So there is one of my wishes for 2015, that I can be a friend like that too.)

In some ways, I don’t even want to talk about this because I’ve had this new information for two days, and I have no idea what I’m going to do. I don’t want anyone who lives local to me to start feeling sad prematurely, and I don’t want anyone who lives in Seattle or LA to get excited for no reason. I’m back in the liminal space again, and when I think of the future, it branches off in several directions, and I don’t know which direction I’m going to take. I don’t know if I’ll choose another short-term solution or if I’ll try something new.

But I am talking about it because I don’t know to such an extent that I can’t toss off a post about what I think 2015 will be as if I don’t have this decision on my mind. And honestly, 2015 has already been defying definition. I spent the last two months going from book idea to book idea, having my travel plans for next year morph and change, waiting to hear back about things, getting a lot of maybes and I’ll know soons.

Here are the predictions I can make about 2015: I will write. I will blog. I will query. I will read. I will sing. Nala will be adorable. I will go to Detroit in a couple of weeks, and I will go to the Rainforest Writers Retreat at the end of February. I will probably take a trip out of the country. I will hopefully keep strengthening my ankle. I will spend time with my friends.

By the time I leave for my writing retreat, I will have made a decision about where I’m going to live. I don’t know what that decision will be, but I know I’ll make it.

I guess my biggest wish for myself for 2015 is this: that I stay centered and keep moving forward. Forward in my writing, forward in my health, forward in my relationships, and forward in becoming more and more fully me.

I wish the same to all of you. May you continue moving forward. And may we all have a very happy New Year!

Holding the sun. Photo by Alexa Rubinov.

Holding the sun. Photo by Alexa Rubinov.

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Now that 2014 only has a few days remaining, I guess I can talk about it more or less authoritatively. For me, the year was mixed in that it presented many challenges, several of which I’d rather not have faced, given my druthers. But I did learn a great deal of important lessons from these challenges, so I can’t really wish they never happened either. And the news has been on the bleak side for the last several months.

On the positive side of the scale, I accomplished a lot of my goals this year, I had plenty of fun, and here at the end of it, I’m fairly happy. So: mixed, but on the whole, positive.

Here, then, is what happened in 2014:

Nala: Nala is first, because I’m so pleased with how the year went for her. She was having some real problems with separation anxiety last year. In vicious cycle territory, the more I worried about her, the worse her anxiety would get. But I’m happy to say she loves the new apartment, and she seems a lot happier. Someone who hadn’t seen her for a couple of years commented on how much more confident she seems. Also, I gave her Lamb Chop the squeaky toy for Christmas, and we haven’t yet recovered from the excitement.

Nala quickly decamped with Lamb Chop to her Pile O' Toys.

Nala quickly decamped with Lamb Chop to her Pile O’ Toys.

Writing: I wrote and revised Beast Girl, and had a focused, positive writing experience. I definitely feel this is my best work to date. I reached my target number of queries for Academy of Forgetting. I planned my next novel project, and hopefully I’ll have a rough outline done by the end of the year.

I kept the blog going with two essays per week.

I networked like whoa, attending the following events: ConFusion (where I also did panels), Rainforest Writing Retreat, Fogcon, Norwescon, Nebula Weekend, WorldCon in London, Convolution, and World Fantasy Convention. I also got to know my local community of writers a bit better, attended several friends’ readings, and made it out to the LitCrawl.

Travel: Well, I didn’t have any travel this year that wasn’t in some way related to writing, so I guess it’s a good thing I like writing and writers as much as I do. That said, I got to spend a lovely week post-move-and-rough-draft-of-Beast-Girl in Seattle, catching up with old friends and meeting new ones (and attending Norwescon, because multitasking). And I spent a week and a half in the UK after Worldcon, getting some always enjoyable London time and finally making it out to Wales for the first time.

Entertainment: This was a Year of Entertainment for me. I went see twelve live concerts, which made me super happy. I also went to nineteen movies in the theaters (as well as three old movies being screened again: The Princess Bride, Groundhog Day, and Casablanca, so make that twenty-two!), which is an extremely high number for me. I think this can be explained partly by the fact there was several movies I actively wanted to see this year (which isn’t always the case) and partly by the fact that I have more movie friends now, which means I’m more likely to go even if I care less. I went to see at least seventeen plays and musicals, including three readings. And I went to the opera! I actually don’t really understand how I had all the time to do these things, especially when I think of all the board games I somehow found time to play. I’d say the year’s new favorite game has been Hanabi, but we also found time for several games of Battlestar Galactica, two games of Game of Thrones, a game of Robinson Crusoe, a couple games of Firefly, and many others. And then when I was hiding at home and recharging from the massive outlay of social energy all these other activities represent, I read and caught up on various TV series. (Orphan Black, hooray! Star Trek: The Next Generation, more hooray!)

Social Stuff: Um, I was busy with this too. I met many new people. Many many. I said yes to a lot of invitations. I issued a lot of invitations. I went to a lot of parties. I joined two book clubs. There was a fair amount of upheaval. I have several close friends who I either met sometime this year or became much closer with over the course of the year, which makes me very happy. I lost a dear friend to cancer. I missed my friends who are far away. I had a few nice reconnections with people I hadn’t seen in a very long time. I worked on developing my filter system. I learned a lot about who I am and what I want.

Other Stuff: I moved. I love my new apartment; I don’t like how much more I am driving, which is partly caused by the move and partly caused by having more friends who live farther away anyway. I threw two parties, including my first solo hosting experience (and my second). I baked I don’t know how many batches of brownies. I continued volunteering for the play reading committee. My ankle behaved better, which means I could do more, which is perhaps partly why I tried to do SO MANY THINGS. I began getting back into good vocal shape and learned several new songs. I went to the San Jose Museum of Art for the first time. I played bocce ball for the first time. I was on a panel at WorldCon for the first time. I went to the Hugo’s Loser Party for the first time. I flew in a small plane for the first time. I had peanut butter pie for the first time. I was buried in sand for the first time. I went to a club alone for the first time. I learned to tie a tie (and by now have probably forgotten again).

After all this review, I can conclude by saying that 2014 was certainly a BUSY year. I’m not deeply relieved to see the end of 2014, but I am looking forward to finding out what 2015 holds in store.

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It’s time for me to start work on a new writing project, aka a new novel. And this endeavor has forced me into taking a look at the writing angst I’ve been feeling for the last month or so. It hit pretty much the moment I finished the previous novel.

Something I’m fond of saying is that one of the most important parts of being a writer is learning how to emotionally manage yourself. Because being a writer can be emotionally brutal (as can being a musician, as can being most kinds of artist). So if you want to be in it for the long haul, you’re going to have to learn how to deal with all the fun experiences that go along with it: the rejection, the waiting, the insecurity, the criticism, the solitary nature of the work, working on big, long-term projects, being able to finish, finding self-discipline, finding focus, handling the inner critic, etc., etc.

I had such a lovely time writing BEAST GIRL that most of my writer neuroses have been exceptionally quiet all year. My biggest worry was that my moving would derail the rough draft, and once I got over that hump okay, I had a relatively easy time focusing on the writing and revising in a calm fashion. A calm that shattered once I no longer had any work to do.

Suddenly the decision of the next project seemed a lot more weighty than it had before. I came up with a bunch of ideas, and then I came up with a bunch of reasons why I shouldn’t do any of them, or why I should do all of them, just so I could spend a nice period of time dithering and working out all that pent-up writing stress. (This makes it sound like I did this on purpose, but I can assure you it was entirely accidental.)

Finally, late last week, I decided to talk out my decision-making problem with any writer friends who were willing to listen. I talked and I dithered, I wrote summaries and dithered some more. I’m quite exceptional at the practice of dithering. And by the end of the day, it struck me.

This wasn’t about choosing which novel to write next. It seemed to be about that. That was certainly mostly what I was talking about. But that wasn’t my problem. My problem was in managing my writing-inspired emotions. My problem was FEAR.

I am underneath a giant spider. It is scary.

I am underneath a giant spider. It is scary. And also reminds me of LOTR and Harry Potter simultaneously.

Once I realized this, I was actually much more cheerful, as I have confidence in my ability to wrangle neurotic writer feelings. I was afraid agents wouldn’t like BEAST GIRL. I was afraid no one would like the next novel I wrote either. I was afraid it would be hard, and maybe I’d get stuck, or else I’d just be writing very badly, or I’d finish only to have all the agents say, sorry but I already have several manuscripts just like this one. Which is all fine and good, and the fear is real enough, but there’s nothing I can do about any of those things. I can’t control whether anyone likes BEAST GIRL. I can’t control how smoothly (or not) the next novel goes, or whether it ends up being like other novels that hit agents’ desks a year from now.

Recognizing the lack of control gives freedom. If my problem with choosing the next novel project was fear, then there was a simple solution. Choose anyway, go for it, be flexible, and see how it goes.

In conclusion, I am now hard at work at the brainstorming/researching/outlining/ figuring out stage of my next novel. Am I scared? Yes. Gloriously so.

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This week I’m going to the World Fantasy Convention, and I’ve sat here trying not to write about it and to write about something else instead, but my focus is already over there in DC, so I’ve decided to embrace that.

I’ve been making something of a point of spending a bit more time with writers locally for the last several months, so I am not in dire need of writer time stat, which has definitely been true in the past. But even so, there is something special about WFC, having so many friends that matter to me all under one roof.

I’ve been thinking about why the writer community has been such a robust presence in my life. I don’t have any solid answers, but I think it helps that it encompasses many people and is spread out geographically. And of course, we have our passion for writing in common with each other. And they aren’t as often a part of my daily concerns, which means they enjoy the benefit of perspective.

Perhaps it also matters that writers tend to be people who have thought about harder aspects of life. I mean, we spend tons of time crafting crises for our characters to live through (or not), so it’s much harder to avoid thinking about grief or disappointment or betrayal or what happens to a person when under pressure. As a result, I wonder if there is less fear when someone else brings up one of these topics because we’ve already been forced to take a look at the issues we have with them.

Or perhaps I just meet a lot of writers and therefore a lot of the wonderful, supportive people I know are writers.

Writers in action! Photo by Andrew Williams.

Writers in action! Photo by Andrew Williams.

Regardless, whenever something goes off track in my life, whether it be writing-related or health-related or social-related or something else, I turn to my writer friends and they are there. They give me advice, they offer support, and sometimes they just listen and give me the space to be me in all my messy glory. I share my news with them, both good and bad, and it feels like we’re in this together, this not being publishing or other writing-related things so much as life in general.

All communities have problems, of course, and the writing community of which I am a part is no exception. We talk about the problems a lot, and that is as it should be. And all individuals have their strengths and weaknesses. I am not trying to paint a picture of a perfect utopia here.

But on an individual level, these are people who have my back. They are indignant on my behalf when I am poorly treated, they send me care packages, they are generous and happy to help when they are able to do so. When I am sick, they send me nice tweets. When I am sad, they text with me. When I have great news, they celebrate with me. And I strive to do the same for them.

It might not sound like much: a tweet, a text, a book in the mail. Many of them live far away, and I don’t get to see them in person very often at all. But you all have heard enough of my theories about life by now to know how important I think the little things are. They matter.

So I guess the writer community is a robust presence in my life because I choose to make it so. It makes me happy. And it is filled with people who think the little things matter, just like me.

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My friend Danielle suggested that I write a post about my novel revision process, and since I just completed revising my most recent novel, now seemed like a good time. And while I’m at it, I’m going to talk about the submission process too. And then you will understand more about how my life works.

I revise very little while I’m writing my rough draft. My main goal is to keep writing and finish the draft. Occasionally I’ll go back and fix some little thing because it’s distracting me. And if something major breaks, then I might have to do more (like add a few scenes or even start over). But in general, my rough draft is not revised as I go.

Once I have the rough, then I print out the entire manuscript and read it to see what I’ve got. While I’m reading, I make a new chapter-by-chapter outline of everything that happens and how many pages each chapter is. (I do this when I’m reading a novel for critique as well. It makes it so much easier to keep track of everything.) I also take a lot of notes. I’ve also probably taken a lot of notes while I was writing the rough draft of things to check on and things to change. So I take care of all those notes and clean the prose up a bit (enough so it won’t be completely embarrassing) and that’s draft 2.

This is the point where I give it to my first reader. He reads for larger scale issues; he is a structure genius, and he also reads for plot, character, world-building, theme, voice, etc., etc. I use his notes to generate a third draft.

Then I hand it to a few more readers. They too read with the big picture in mind, although they also give me more scene-scale notes (and sometimes even smaller scale stuff). They also sanity check how my changes worked out between drafts 2 and 3, which is super helpful since I can’t always tell if I’ve gone too far or not far enough with changes (or nailed them, which does occasionally happen). From their notes, I plan and execute draft 4.

If I’m feeling unsure of draft 4, I will give the novel to a few more readers and make more changes. Once I am confident about the strength of the book, I do final clean up. This involves a novel-wide search for adverbs and another search for the word “that.” I sometimes search for other overused words as well. For this novel, I read the entire book out loud to assist my search for errors and check rhythm, especially of dialogue.

While I’m doing this last clean-up pass, I’m also starting my query letter and my synopsis. The query letter is basically a sales pitch of the novel, sometimes similar to what one would find on the back cover of a book, one page or less. The synopsis summarizes the entire novel, also ideally in about a page. I’m also updating my agent spreadsheet.

Once I am finished with the novel, the query, and the synopsis, I begin querying agents. This means I email my query package to agents (which depends on the agent’s guidelines, but usually includes a customized query letter and perhaps some sample novel pages and/or the synopsis) and keep track of submissions and responses. Depending on how things go, I could spend many months doing this. At the same time, I am beginning my next novel project, generally by doing whatever work I need to do to select the project, and then brainstorming, researching, and outlining.

The length of time all of this takes can vary a lot depending on the length of the manuscript, the extent and number of revisions, the schedules of readers, and how smoothly the rough draft goes. I do have some target dates in mind by the time I begin a rough draft, based on the premise that the project will go fairly smoothly. And since I don’t write a huge amount of words every day, I can generally adapt as I go when there are snags. A lot of my writing time is actually spent thinking.

So this is my writing, revision, and submitting process. Each writer has their own process: some revise a lot as they go, some have readers as they go, some use a lot more readers in the revision process, some use less. The important thing is figuring out what works.

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