Posts Tagged ‘writing life’

I like to tell people that one of the most important parts of being a writer is learning how to deal with the emotional baggage of writing, whatever your particular flavor of that is. And part of doing this, for me, is protecting the mental space I need to write.

This protection has been an interesting shift. Certainly when I was a music teacher, there was no need for me to defend certain mental and emotional territory in order to be an effective teacher. But writing is different. It’s tricksy. And the longer I write, the more I recognize how important it is to have boundaries in place that hold a space where I can be productive.

Focus. Photo Credit: Rein -e- Art via Compfight cc

Focus. Photo Credit: Rein -e- Art via Compfight cc

And the more adamant I become about maintaining those boundaries. If I recognize that something (or someone) is having a negative effect on my writing, ameliorating that effect jumps to the very top of my list of priorities.

For me, this manifests in several different ways:

Time. I guard my weekday daytimes with my life. What are those times for? My work. Also some life maintenance. What are those times rarely for? Lots of socializing. Granted, sometimes I have a lull in work and I have a little more spare time during the day, but when I agree to spend time with someone during the day on a weekday, that usually means I’m making them a massive priority. And I don’t do it all that often.

Explaining Writing to Me. When someone, usually a non-writer someone, decides to explain writing to me, whether it be the craft, the process, or the business, I pretty much never want to talk to them about writing again. This can sometimes put a damper on things since I care more about writing than almost anything else.

Dating. If I am dating someone and I start to feel badly about writing because of my interactions with them, I stop dating them. End of story. This is often because they want to explain writing to me (in spite of the fact that most of them are not writers and I haven’t asked for advice or feedback). Sometimes it is because they don’t think writing is valuable, or they want to tell me how some other medium is more valuable. (Like games. Don’t get me wrong, I think games can do interesting narrative things, but, um, I don’t write games so I don’t really want to talk about how they’re better.) Or we have different expectations of how my writing career should go, and then I get really stressed out even though I’m meeting all my goals and deadlines. Or they’re not even remotely interested in my writing, which is fine for a while but ultimately kind of limiting.

Talking about Writing. I tend to be somewhat careful about with whom I will seriously talk about my writing. This is one reason I find it extremely valuable to have trusted writer friends. The thing is, there are many things about writing that a person might not automatically know or understand. Like what the common emotional experience is (rejection is constant, occasional discouragement is par for the course), or what the timeframe is (sloooooow), or how the business works, or what the actual interesting parts of it are. And while I don’t think people should automatically know these things, I do find they often leap to conclusions and are more interested in telling me stuff or sharing unrealistic expectations than in learning how all these things actually work. And managing these responses takes emotional energy that, quite honestly, I’d rather spend elsewhere.

Here’s the thing about being a writer, at least for me. I have to maintain a paradoxical belief in myself and my ability to create. Paradoxical because writing typically requires a long apprenticeship that involves a great deal of rejection and failure and learning and experimentation. And no one can chart a course through that morass except me. I sit alone for long stretches of time, working on projects that are sometimes emotionally taxing to create and which no one sees for months. NO ONE. And then when someone does see it, it is for the purpose of tearing it apart so I can make it again, better. And then there’s a cycle of rejection that typically also takes a long time. Rinse and repeat. And once you get published, you’re exposed to market pressures and more criticism of your work.

In the face of all of this, a writer must hold fast to the belief that what they’re doing is worthwhile and possible. That they will improve. That someday the rejection will turn into the acceptance. That they have something to say. That their work matters.

This is not always easy. Actually, it is usually not easy. Hence the boundaries. It’s hard enough to write without dealing with other people’s baggage around it. And having a clean and safe mental space in which to do the work is invaluable and indispensable.

Of course, protecting this mental workspace is one of the things writers need to learn how to do during their apprenticeships. And over time, I’ve found it has gotten easier as I have gotten clearer.

I need these boundaries in order to write. It’s that simple.

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Writing is not glamorous.

I don’t know if there’s anyone left who thinks it is glamorous, but since there are apparently still people who think writers are all rich (excuse for a minute while I try really hard to stop laughing), I bet there are also people who believe in the glamor.

Don’t get me wrong. I love writing (except when I hate it). I’m glad I’m a writer. It suits my personality and my interests like nothing else I’ve discovered. But I don’t love it because it’s glamorous. I love it because I love story and characters and thinking hard and messing about with words and plot points and how is this emotional arc going and playing with index cards and taping them all up on my closet like some very strange modernist piece of art.

There is a little bit of glamor. Occasionally I dress up and go to an awards ceremony that most of the world doesn’t know is happening. I’ve met a few writers I really admire. In my book club, when we were talking about the motivations of the author this one time, I could say, “Well, I’m friends with her, and these were the points that seemed most important to her.” But this isn’t the bulk of my experience.

My writing uniform: jeans and a T-shirt.

My writing uniform: jeans and a T-shirt.

Talking about being a writer isn’t glamorous at all. People want to tell you about how they think they could be a writer (Awesome! Go do it.) or they had this one idea and why don’t you use it and split the profits (No thanks, I have plenty of my own ideas) or what about that self-publishing thing they read one article about that one time? They want to talk about the money involved, which I pretty much NEVER want to talk about, or they want to talk about what other job I have, which I also pretty much NEVER want to talk about. They want to know what I have published, even though even if I had a novel out, odds are they wouldn’t have heard of it. They want to tell me how they don’t read, or they used to read, or how their friend’s cousin’s husband’s mother is also a writer. Some of this is fine, some of it is less fine, but none of it is terribly glamorous.

Neither are the daily realities of being a writer. I used to spend large swathes of time in my pajamas until I moved and had to get dressed to take the dog out (although I have considered putting on a coat on top of my pajamas to get around this little problem). I sit at the computer for hours at a time, often not doing all that much. In fact, I’ve become a master starer. Also a master of switching to my browser window when I should be solidly in my word processor window.

I track word counts and pages and chapters and daily goals. I get worried if I’m not in possession of a sufficient quantity of blank index cards. I try to fix problems and then fail and eventually get frustrated and wander to the fridge, only to realize I’m not hungry. Then I go stare at the screen some more. Sometimes I stop and think about how I spend my time, and I’m simultaneously thrilled at what I do and dumbfounded by how boring it all seems from the outside.

“What did you do today?” someone will ask, and I stare in confusion for a moment before saying, “Well, I wrote.” I decide to leave out the getting the mail and washing the dishes and hanging out with the dog and reading a bunch of articles that have nothing to do with anything I’m working on but are pretty interesting and checking to see when that movie I want to see comes out. My days are all very mundane, really. The excitement happens inside my head, completely out of view of the casual observer.

No, writing is not about glitter and wealth and fame. It’s not about slinky sequined dresses every day or eating caviar out of inappropriate stemware. It’s not easy or simple or painless or uniformly pleasant. It’s not about glamor.

It is, for me, about passion, and that’s something I find altogether more interesting.

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Many years ago, when I was just starting up my music teaching studio, a friend and I would get together every Thursday morning to talk about writing. Sometimes we wrote to prompts when we were together, sometimes we shared what we’d been working on, sometimes we just talked. I was writing in a somewhat desultory way, since my main focus at the time was still music. But even so, I loved writing and I had the vision of seven-year-old me in the back of my mind.

My friend and I both read Carolyn See’s Making a Literary Life and then discussed it. And we decided to implement its advice on charming notes.

Photo Credit: LarimdaME via Compfight cc

What is a charming note? Exactly what it sounds like. Every week, each of us would choose one writer to whom we’d write a letter telling them how much their work had meant to us. We bought pretty paper on which to write these letters when we couldn’t get our hands on the relevant email addresses, and we began sending them out.

There is something very uplifting about writing to someone unknown to you and telling them something both true and kind for no other reward than the joy of doing it.

I was reminded of the charming note ritual a few weeks ago when Jonathan Carroll talked about a charming note he once sent, and the response he received. It made me glad all over again that I had written those letters, and I wondered if maybe I could start writing them again, especially now that more writers have email addresses and websites so I can avoid the hassle of buying new stationary and remembering to purchase stamps more regularly.

Because charming notes matter. I know how much they matter. Jonathan Carroll said, “It’s a very important thing to tell someone what they do genuinely matters to you. Especially artists, who work so much of the time in solitude and receive little feedback other than reviews.” It means so much to know your efforts have been genuinely appreciated. It means so much to hear how you’ve helped someone or inspired someone or given that person something to love.

When I’m working, I’m alone (except for the little dog fast asleep beside me). When I’m writing a novel, it can be months and months before anyone gets to see any of the results of my time, and even then, they are often reading it as a favor to me so they can tell me how to make it better. So much of my work goes on in my own head, a huge contrast from the days when I spent hours of my time engaged in face-to-face teaching. I often can’t see the effect I’m having with my words. So when someone makes the effort to write me a note or leave a thoughtful comment, whether it’s about my blog or a short story, they allow me to see my work from a completely different perspective. They give a new meaning to the words I have shared with the world. And they inspire me to continue to write. Such is the power of the charming note.

I wonder who I’ll write to next.


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You know that novel I’ve been talking about all year? The Academy of Forgetting, a riveting (I hope) YA psychological thriller set in the near future and full of awesomesauce?

Finished. Done. Kaput. Complete.

I’m having trouble believing it. But I am also very, very happy!

Celebratory pie! (Photo by Poppy Wright)

So what’s next, my non-writer friends ask me? Will we see your book on shelves soon? (Writer friends, bear with me here, as I’m sure you’ve received similar questions.)

The answer is NO. In fact, the book isn’t truly finished, as in it is not yet ready for publication. It is ready to be seen by agents, which means it is as good as I can make it. However, if an agent were to be interested, and if I were to sign with said agent, and then if said agent were to sell the book to a publisher, there would most likely be several more rounds of edits between the version on my computer right now and the version that would show up in bookstores.

This entire process can be remarkably time-consuming. And there are no guarantees at any particular step. The trick, I think, is to focus on what I can control, which is writing a novel that I can stand behind and be proud of.

So what’s next? I am updating my agent spreadsheet, I am working on short summaries for a potential book 2 and book 3 in the trilogy, and I am revising my query letter and synopsis. Then I will start sending queries to agents on the spreadsheet. And meanwhile, the fun will start:


Which realistically means I will spend the month of December brainstorming and fleshing out various novel ideas. If I’m really, really lucky, I’ll also choose one of those ideas and outline it. If the brainstorming goes more slowly, though, I won’t be doing the outlining until January. If the brainstorming goes very slowly, I might squeeze a short story or two in there somewhere too. (And for those wondering, no, this new novel will not be book 2 to follow The Academy of Forgetting. I’ll only write that book if AoF sells. Or if I get an agent, and my agent believes that starting book 2 before selling could be strategic, and I agree with him/her. Or if I have another particularly compelling reason.)

I am very excited about this, and it also feels weird. It feels weird to get ready to let go of this novel project that I have focused so much of my life on for the past ten and a half months. It feels strange to contemplate starting something new, with characters I don’t know better than I know my real-life friends and no limits at all until I lay some down in the outline. Soon I’ll be having new entirely made-up adventures instead of the familiar old ones.

It’s also interesting to see how finishing this novel, my third, feels different from finishing the first two. When I finished my first novel, there was this sense of euphoria because until I crossed that finish line, I wasn’t completely one hundred percent positive I could actually write a novel. When I finished my second novel, there was a sense of relief that the first one wasn’t a fluke.

But with The Academy of Forgetting, I feel more of a quiet satisfaction that I was able to tell the story I wanted to tell and grow as a writer. I already knew I could write a novel. And I know I’ll be writing another novel in the not-too-distant future. This is my life now.

And that is a truly wonderful thing.

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“So how’s the revising going, Amy?” you might well ask.

Do not be alarmed if your question is greeted with me pulling contorted faces and making strange, growling noises. But never fear; my joy in being asked about what I spend most of my waking hours thinking about will outweigh my need to do an interpretative dance to express my varied ambivalence, sheer joy, and “what was I thinking?” reactions to my current revision process.

To catch you up: At the end of April, I went to Seattle. (Did I already tell you this? I can’t remember.) Bolstered by the excellent company of my comrades-in-arms for many adventures and meals in Seattle, I resisted the urge to play tourist 100% of my time and instead read through the rough draft of my novel The Academy of Forgetting. I took copious notes, rewrote sections, and tried to make sure it was more or less coherent. Then I sent it to my most trusted novel first reader for an opinion.

The magic of revision…oh, who am I kidding? I am totally using this as an excuse to use Trey Ratcliff’s awesome Walt Disney World photo on my blog.

A week later, Daniel sent me his critique, which ran almost 4,500 words long. This was obviously not going to be a small revision pass.

So for the last month, I’ve been thinking. I haven’t wanted to dive headlong into revisions because these changes are complex enough that there is a fair amount to be figured out ahead of time. Plus a few weeks were mostly lost to injury (but oh boy, did I have a lot of time to think) and then I went on vacation, and you know. Life. But I am about ready to start writing new words and begin the simultaneously delicate and destructive task of fixing this book. The prospect fills me with both excitement and dread.

Let me give you an example of one of the changes I’ve been thinking about. There’s a plot twist at the end of the book. It is, in my opinion, a fun plot twist, and one that I looked forward to revealing the entire time I was writing the first draft. Daniel suggested that the twist doesn’t work as it currently stands. It’s not foreshadowed amply enough, for one, but he also suggested the book might be stronger if I completely cut the twist.

So now I have to decide: keep the twist or cut the twist? At first I thought I’d cut it. But then I realized that if I cut it, I’d also be cutting a key bit of information about the narrator and the narrative, which would, in my opinion, take away a large bit of the narrative depth. So then I thought, well, what if I keep it and make these foreshadowing changes, etc.? And I thought about that possibility for a while, but something felt slightly off. And then I had an exciting idea for how I can cut the twist but retain the key insight into the narrative, and I was bouncing up and down in my chair. But then I realized this idea brings up a whole new problem in terms of the plot and how I can make it work…. And on it goes.

I love the revision process because it’s challenging and interesting and convoluted and requires thinking about many things at the same time. But while I think it’s one of the most exciting things ever, it looks like me sitting in a chair and staring into space, with perhaps the occasional spurt of typing or scribbling sentences in my notebook. The writing life is often glamorous in a completely invisible way.

So that’s what I’m doing: getting ready to start a new draft, trying to resist biting my fingernails at the thought that I might demolish something that I actually needed intact, or that I might keep something that turns out to be just an old eyesore. Either of these would be fine in an isolated case, of course, but they can add up so quickly into a manuscript that simply does not work. And I’d like to make this manuscript work, if I can.

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I was all ready to write a riveting post on urban fantasy (really, this was going to be world-class stuff) when I read this interview with Paolo Bacigalupi this morning.  And I realized I had to write about it instead.

For those of you not in the know, Paolo won about a bazillion awards for his debut science fiction novel The Windup Girl; in addition he received strong reviews for his first YA novel Shipbreaker.  The entire interview is interesting, but what I want to respond to is what Paolo says at the end:

I realized I’d actually been carrying a lot of baggage from people who would make offhand comments like, ‘well, it’s not like you’re working.’

I was still accumulating some sort of psychic pain over it. You know, that all these people really did think I was a loser, and slacking around and doing nothing, basically. And when you’re writing your fifth book, and four of them have already failed, you’re obviously a joke, right?

Yes, this.  Exactly this.

As many of you know, I closed my successful business (in the arts!  how did that happen?) at the end of May to pursue writing full force.  And the kind of psychic pain Paolo is talking about here is my current reality.

It’s an insidious kind of discomfort, comprising of little pauses, supportive assumptions, and politeness.  No one comes right out and says, “But what about your real job?”  A few people have delicately inquired how my husband feels about it (I would hope the answer would be self apparent, but perhaps not.)  People get frustrated when they can’t reach me by telephone when they’re calling during business hours because it’s not like I have other commitments.  (I do.  They’re called writing.)

It doesn’t help that so much of writing does look exactly like slacking off.  I do some of my best work in the shower, or walking the dog, or sitting there staring out the window.  When I’m planning a project, I can fuss around the house for weeks trying to figure it all out.  And without a word of manuscript to show for it.  (Although maybe my reams of notes count?)

And then there’s the entire publication question.  I am at the stage in my career that is known as pre-professional.  This is the nice way of saying I have no writing credits, no agent, and no deals in the works.  I like to think of it as my apprentice stage, a necessary stepping stone if I’m ever to achieve more.  People in the arts understand this.  Other people, well … some of them understand it.  Others are baffled.

In the end, I’ll embrace this psychic pain; it’s the cost of getting to do what I love all day every day, and well worth paying.

But it sure feels good to see another writer with similar feelings getting the last laugh.

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