Happy New Year 2018

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What’s that, you say? It’s not even October yet? No, you must be mistaken. 2017 was a terrible year and, on my friend Aimee‘s advice, I’ve decided it’s over. Let 2018 be marginally better.

2017 was a bad year for many, many, many, MANY reasons, both local and global. In my personal sphere, my cat, who had lived with me for 19 years, was given two months to live in March. She died in May. In July, my childhood best friend, who was three months younger than me and whose triumph over leukemia was short-lived, died suddenly just a day before starting her next round of chemo. In early August, my uncle who I love very much and who I’ve been closest to of all my aunts and uncles, was diagnosed with terminal cancer. He is in hospice and has perhaps a few days left. I said goodbye to him today.

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I concur.

So yeah, I’m done with 2017, and given everything, I’m sure you’re done with it too.

Let’s see. What are my new year’s resolutions? I had a shorter time this year to achieve my goals than in previous years, but that’s okay. Let’s be real, I wasn’t going to reach my goals anyway. Here were last year’s goals:

  • Write an average of 500 words a day (for real this time)—Haha no, I didn’t achieve this. This is hard to judge, since I’ve stopped keeping track of my daily word count, but looking at what short stories I’ve finished, I’ve written a total of roughly… 34,200 words? I’m pretty sure I’ve written more than that, but not a lot more, so let’s round it up to 35,000. Divided by the 260 days of 2017, that makes about 135 words per day. That’s miserable, but a lot of my annual word count comes during Nanowrimo and oddly 2017 didn’t seem to have one of those, so I’ll cut myself some slack.
  • Finish and polish all 37 short stories that I started this year—Noooope.  I finished two of the 37 short stories. However, one of those turned into a novella, and I’ve picked away at a number of them, and I started a couple fresh new short stories. AND I sold two short stories, so that’s pretty decent.
  • If I don’t blog more often than 2016, at least don’t blog less—I wrote 19 blog posts in 2016. This posts makes an even 10 in 2017. So, goal failed.
  • Average of 7,500 steps per day—I stopped wearing my fitbit at some point because the band is uncomfortable, but I can tell you I did not walk nearly enough to reach this. I am a sedentary person.
  • ONE PULL UP. JUST ONE.—No.
  • Draw more often. At least once a month?—I did not draw once a month, but I did a little bit of drawing, and I also started a new hobby of composing music, so I’ll count that as a win.
  • Finish that cross stitch project from last year—Ok, technically I did achieve this one. I just need to fix one thing on it though, so that’ll probably take me another year. And I started a new cross stitch project that I have not yet finished.
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The MBMBAM show was one of the highlights of the short-lived 2017.

GOALS FOR 2018:

  • Write a novel during at least one of the two Nanowrimos that 2018 is projected to have, assuming 2018 doesn’t go poorly and there’s another schedule change.
  • Finish 5 short stories. Ideally more, but at least 5.
  • Compose more music. Say 5 more songs, just to quantify it.
  • Get a Y membership and start taking classes again. There’s no joiner’s fee this month, and I’ve been holding off because I’m morally opposed to the joiner’s fee and also I’m very lazy, but now I have no excuse.
  • Start rock climbing again, once I start getting active.
  • Start jogging again.
  • A SINGLE PULL UP.
  • Ideally I would say “sell at least one short story” but that’s not within my power, so instead I’ll say my goal is to make sure to have at least one story out on submission at all times. Don’t let that ball drop.

There. My goals are in place. Happy New Year, everyone!

 

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April showers bring face-melting pollen allergies

I tweeted about this a while ago but didn’t blog about it, so here: My short story, “Smooth Stones and Empty Bones,” is available in the Event Horizon 2017 anthology of authors eligible for the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer. You can download it for free up until mid-July. Check that whole thing out, because it’s 800 pages worth of awesome stuff. For FREE.

And more exciting news: I just sold a story about cannibal bandits in the weird west to Beneath Ceaseless Skies. You’ll be the first to know when I hear the actual publication date. Beneath Ceaseless Skies is SUCH a cool magazine, you guys.

So what else has been going on in my life? Mostly marshmallows. Marshmallows and head colds.

Marshmallow project
My Easter project: who knew that marshmallows were so messy?

I’m home sick for the second day in a row, and I guess at this point I have to admit that I’m actually sick and it’s not just pollen allergies, although to be honest it’s probably some combination of the two. I hate being out of work two days in a row but I’m at the nose-faucet stage of the cold and it’s just miserable to be in public with that, especially on a cold, rainy day like this.

I disassembled my standing desk setup and once again have a sitting desk. This feels a bit like a failure, since I really liked my standing desk and felt it was much better for my back. On the other hand, when you have as short an attention span as I do, the ability to walk away from your computer without a second thought really isn’t a bonus. Getting up from a desk throws a physical obstacle into the path between the twin thoughts of “Ugh writing is hard” and “Hey, what’s in the fridge?”

Daffodils
It’s stuff like this that’s making me a snot otter right now

Speaking of, it’s time to dose myself with hot chocolate and pseudoephedrine. And marshmallows, obviously. So, so many marshmallows.

Learning Paralysis

marydazzles
At the end of the Writing Excuses cruise, while we all mingled in Dazzles, drinking bellinis and rum punch and quietly envying the top ten attendees who had each written over ten thousand—and in some cases twenty thousand—words during the week, Mary Robinette Kowal got up on stage to talk to us about what was going to happen after the cruise. Don’t be surprised if you don’t write for quite some time after you leave, she said. The majority of people who leave this retreat don’t put hands to keyboard for weeks or months afterward. Writing is suddenly very hard.

The idea behind that was that now that you’ve been introduced to a whole bunch of new techniques and methods of writing and outlining, you’re paralyzed by trying to keep everything in your head at once. It’s like trying to drive for the first time after driver’s ed: your brain is so flooded with trying to remember to adjust the rear-view mirror and the driver’s seat and release the parking brake and put the car in drive and check both side mirrors and on and on that you sit there for a bit, unsure if you’ve remembered everything you need to remember before you can start to drive.

I didn’t think that was going to apply to me because I’m not exactly new to writing. Although the retreat was really helpful and I highly recommend it, I don’t think I heard anything *new* during any of the panels. Yet it’s been a couple weeks since I got back and I haven’t written a single word since the flight home.

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My rockin’ bridesmaid dress from Rent the Runway.

Okay, part of that is because what with my brother’s wedding immediately after the cruise, and then the flood upending my life and forcing me to live out of a suitcase while everything else I own is packed away in trash bags in the garage, I haven’t had a lot of opportunities. But since things have started to settle down, I haven’t been able to write a word. Even the story I started to write on the cruise has come to an abrupt standstill. Nothing feels right to me; every idea seems unoriginal. Every time I try to make myself sit down, my brain rebels against it. In related news, I’ve clocked over 140 hours in Fallout 4, 60 of those in the last couple weeks.

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The rehearsal dinner contained a surprise skeleton.
Am I using this convenient explanation as an excuse for my own laziness? Well, probably. I want to write. I just am having a lot of difficulty putting butt in chair (or whatever the equivalent expression is for a standing desk).

Nanowrimo starts in 12 days. This is going to be my fourteenth year doing it, so I can’t not do it. I need to get my act together in the next two weeks. The first step is probably going to be to take the batteries out of my Xbox controller and hide them, but after that, we’ll see.

Cold Turkey Writer

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Scene from a recent trip to Newport, RI.

Here’s a thing you must do right now if you are easily distracted like me and can’t focus on writing:

Go to Cold Turkey Writer and download the app. It’s free, unless you like it enough that you want the pro version. What it does is, when you open the app, it opens to full screen, and you cannot quit or minimize it until you reach your wordcount/time limit. And that’s literally it. Either you write, or you don’t access your computer.

In the past I used apps like Self Control, which turned off my internet for a certain length of time (my default was 6 hours). Which was fine, and reduced distractions, except I tended to turn it on and then go do something else for 6 hours until the time expired. Great for doing things like laundry; not so much for getting words done. What’s great about Cold Turkey Writer is that I can’t use the internet, or anything else, until I write the words. And cut and paste doesn’t work, so I can’t just write a bit and then copy and paste it a bunch of times to quickly get to the goal. I have to write.

My routine right now has been to set it before I go to bed. That way I don’t get up in the morning and lounge around reading Twitter and Feedly until it’s time for work, and then get home from work and do the same until it’s time for bed. Instead, I don’t get access to any of those things until I reach my goal, and if I don’t reach my goal, welp—no internet for me.

So if you have problems with productivity, check it out. It might help.

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My only regret in taking this photo is that I didn’t see the unicycle owner ride up.

In other news, I’ve been rewatching the entirety of the Star Trek series. So far I’ve seen all 79 episodes of Star Trek: The Original Series, as well as the first 6 movies. In the past, I’d only ever seen Star Trek: Voyager, since it was airing on TV when I was growing up. (And fuck you with your “Oh my condolences.” I LIKED Voyager, okay?) I already knew the major plot points, but I wanted to see all of it. The television series is entertaining, if fluffy. The movies have been pretty good except for The Final Frontier, which was terrible. (Holy shit, who thought Kirk, Spock and McCoy singing “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” around a campfire was a good idea?) I look forward to seeing the rest.

 

Decreasing distractions

I just registered for World Con/MidAmeriCon II! The hotel blocks were released Monday, so I registered and got my flight. I’ll be flying out to my friend Aimee Ogden‘s place, then road tripping it the seven hours to Kansas City, MO. We’re going to be driving through a LOT of farm land. I hope we can stop and see the World’s Largest Wooden Nickel or the Gas Station Jesus or something along the way. Aimee is really going to regret letting me road trip with her when she sees my list of kitschy roadside attractions that I want to visit.

 

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Seven straight hours of this

 

This week’s Writing Excuses was about getting in the frame of mind to write. That’s something I’ve been thinking of a lot recently because I have the attention span of a squirrel, and the siren song of my Xbox is strong. Mary said she’s started meditating, which actually sounds like it might work for me. Howard pointed out that it’s easy to keep writing regularly if you write regularly, and very easy to skip writing if you’ve already skipped writing once. Dan suggested ending each day’s writing session in the middle of a chapter so that you can pick it up easily again the next day. I’ve tried that, and it works, but my problem right now is focusing my brain for more than a sentence at a time. Every time I open up a document, I start thinking of all the other things I could be doing. Or I notice that my chair is uncomfortable and I decide to move to a better location. Or I realize that I really want some music right now, so I have to find some headphones. Or maybe I could use a coffee. Is it lunch time yet? What about snack time? Hey, has anyone said anything interesting on Twitter in the last five minutes?

 

Typically what I do when I need to get some writing done is use the app Self Control (It’s Mac only but there are others that do similar things). It turns off my access to the internet, or it blocks specific sites, depending on whether I set a whitelist or a blacklist. There’s absolutely nothing you can do to stop it until the timer runs out. This is fabulous for me, except that every time I turn it on, I start to think about all the laundry I need to do, or that closet organizing project I abandoned a month or two ago. Plus there’s that Xbox again, over which Self Control has no power.

 

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Then there’s the return trip

I’m getting a new computer soon, since my buggy old laptop has started crashing just about daily now. I’m considering setting up two accounts on the new computer, one for writing and being productive, the other for gaming and slacking off. Perhaps switching between two accounts will help me keep my brain organized. At the very least, it’ll put another road block in the way of me jumping on Tumblr the first time my mind starts to wander.

Anyone have any suggestions?

Halfway through Nanowrimo

My novel in its natural state
My novel in its natural state

I thought I’d be past the tough part of Nanowrimo by this point. I really did. I think the only time I’ve had such a difficult time was in 2006, when I was writing the second half of a novel I’d started the year before and slowly discovered that there wasn’t enough novel left to fill another Nanowrimo. This time, I still have more plot to get to, but I’m being derailed by plot hole after plot hole. I’m still chugging along, but it’s going to get really hard once my outlined plot ends.

One thing that is helping me get through Nanowrimo is my complete lack of a console that would play Fallout 4. For now I’ll have to content myself with Fallout Shelter. Is anyone still playing that anymore?

On unlikeable characters

This guy can be kind of a dick too.
This guy can be kind of a dick too.

I’m working on finishing up my most recent writing project, and as I wrote a scene today, I realized that one of the main characters in the novel is unlikeable. I knew this already because my writing group had mentioned having issues with her character, but it was only today that I began to figure out why I myself didn’t like her.

Then I thought, should I fix that? After all, it’s not a bad thing to have an unlikeable character. There’s a world of difference between an unlikeable character and a bad one. A bad character is one that isn’t developed well or doesn’t contribute much to the story. An unlikeable character can be well written and indispensable for the plot, but is just kind of an asshole.

On the other hand, I think there’s also a world of difference between a character who’s unlikeable to people in the story, and a character who I personally hate. I might not want to be best friends in real life with Darth Vader or Dexter or Dr. House, but I love them as characters and love watching them on screen. However, the character of the cowardly lion in Gregory Maguire’s book A Lion Among Men was so detestable that I will still rant angrily about him to anyone who expresses interest in reading the series.

Maybe the clearest example of this is the difference between Draco Malfoy and Dolores Umbridge in the Harry Potter series. Draco Malfoy is a jerk to Harry, but he’s a very popular character among readers, partially for the glimpses of his rocky home life. Umbridge is also a jerk to Harry, but readers universally despise her because she’s disgustingly smug and always in control.

Making a character likeable is often as simple as giving them something a reader can relate to, and perhaps a way to justify their bad behavior. Dexter is a serial killer, but he has a family to protect and he tries to only kill other serial killers, of which there are a disturbingly large amount in Miami. House is an absolute dick to everyone he meets, but he’s brilliant and he suffers from chronic pain. Sherlock Holmes, at least in the modern BBC adaptation, is also a dick to everyone he meets, but he’s a lonely genius. Hannibal Lecter eats people and cuts off someone’s face, but he’s a gentleman who respects Clarice and helps her track down another killer. Even when we see them at their most brutal, it’s usually turned against people we dislike. Dexter can violently stab someone else to death, but as long as that someone is a serial killing rapist and not a character we know and love, the viewers will root for him.

I was reading the Pitch Wars wishlist blog hop yesterday, and one of the things I noticed several authors and editors looking for was unlikeable female characters. Since women in novels are often presented as the hero’s reward for completing his quest, they’re written as nice and morally pure. Even if they kick ass, they can’t run the risk of being unlikeable because then they wouldn’t be an adequate reward. When they’re the only female in the whole work, they usually show up as the platonic ideal of womanhood. There’s not a lot of leeway in there to be unlikeable.

It follows, then, that if you have an unlikeable female, it means that her purpose in the novel is not simply to be a romantic interest and/or the representative of her whole sex. An unlikeable female can’t be replaced by a sexy leg lamp, because in order for her to be unlikeable, she has to do something that provokes emotion other than sit there and look sexy. Yes, that’s a very low bar to clear, and having an unlikeable female character isn’t the key to a great story, but it is a sign that the writer is putting a little more effort into characterization than the bare minimum. What those #PitchWars mentors want when they ask for unlikeable female characters are women who are allowed to be flawed and human; characters who don’t need to be likeable for the sake of being a romantic interest.

Your female protagonist.
Your female protagonist.

So where does that leave my unlikeable character? She’s unlikeable because she believes that since she’s the good guy, the morally reprehensible things she does are justified. Her holier-than-thou attitude is irritating. If, as the writer, I never presented a differing opinion to hers in the story, readers might think that I also thought the bad things she did were justified.

Maybe that’s the key. I’m willing to put up with unlikeable characters in stories as long as I assume that the author is intentionally making them unlikeable. I know that Rowling was making Umbridge insufferable because that was the push Harry needed to make Dumbledore’s Army. When I don’t finish a book because of its unlikeable characters, usually it’s because I feel the author is trying for cool and snarky but is failing. Sherlock, unfortunately, has been crossing this line more and more; the writers seem to think that his intelligence excuses his obnoxious personality. I much prefer Elementary, where Sherlock can be a jerk but we’re not expected to love him for it.

In my character’s case, I don’t think I’ll be making an effort to make her more sympathetic. Now that I fully understand why she is the way she is, I can write her a lot better. As long as her motivations are believable, I don’t think she needs to be anyone’s best friend.

Camp Necon and the dog days of summer

These jellyfish were very photogenic.
These jellyfish were very photogenic.

This blog has been sleeping for a little while. I wrote a long post a few days ago but finally had to admit it was too incoherent and meandering so that’s not going to see the light of day. Perhaps I’ll revise it at some point once I try to figure out what point I was trying to make.

I’ve actually been really busy in the last couple weeks, doing summery things like going to the New England Aquarium for my birthday and going to Cape Cod with some friends at their timeshare and saying goodbye to a friend who’s decided to strike out west and find her fortune there. Oh, and I went to Camp Necon, the Northeastern Writers’ Conference. I don’t know why the “wri” is silent in that acronym. Let’s talk about that for a bit.

They died as they lived
They died as they lived

Camp Necon is a very tiny conference mainly focused on horror writing, with shades of speculative fiction thrown in. This year’s guests of honor were Chuck Wendig and Seanan McGuire, who are two of my favorite authors, and since it was close by I decided to commute in every day and attend panels. I went with R.K. Bentley, who’s the head of my writing group and is also local. We were two of only a handful of newbies there, and everyone was very welcoming. The con has been going on for 35 years now and most of the people there attend every year, so it’s very close-knit. I can see why they want to keep their registration capped at 200. It’s more of a gathering of friends than a conference. Still, there were interesting panels and it was tiny enough that I got a chance to talk briefly with both GoHs, so that made my weekend.

The con left me with a massive pile of books to read, more on my list to buy, and a lot of motivation to write darker fantasy. With the pile of books I’ve already borrowed from Rob, and the stuff on my Kindle, I have my next few months booked (heh heh get it) solid. Better get to work. (Just kidding, I’m totally going to play Borderlands).

These are just the books I got on day 1.
These are just the books I got on day 1.

Oh and I booked my excursions today for the Writing Excuses cruise in September. I can’t wait!

Talent is a myth

A mid winter walk through the woods.
A mid winter walk through the woods.

Late last week, an article on The Stranger made the rounds on Twitter, shared among furious writers of all kinds. The article, “Things I Can Say About MFA Writing Programs Now That I No Longer Teach In One” purported to have advice for aspiring writers, by a former professor who had seen it all.

It wasn’t great advice. The very first tip said that writers are born with talent, and the odds were that you don’t have it. It went on to say that if you didn’t start writing as a teenager, it was too late now. If you don’t read the hardest, densest prose you can get your hands on, you’re a failure, and—in a very weird paragraph—if you write a shitty memoir about being abused as a child, the author wishes you’d been abused even worse as punishment for your crimes against language. No, seriously, he says that.

Chuck Wendig responded to the article with a couple posts. The first, “An Open Letter to that Ex-MFA Creative Writing Teacher Dude“, dissected the article point by point and is a good read. His second, “The Toxicity of Talent (Or: Did You Roll a Natural 20 At Birth?)” focused on that first point in the article, and that’s what I’d like to talk about right now.

When I was in school, I was a quick learner. I happened to be the kind of person who did very well in structured learning environments. That, paired with a terror of getting in trouble, meant that I did all my homework and read all the assigned textbooks and got straight As. I was good at school, and I got a reputation for being the smart kid.

Because of that, whenever I did something well, like write a short story I was proud of, kids would roll their eyes and say “Yeah but that’s just because you’re talented.” All that hard work I’d done on it? Yeah, no one cared. When they called me talented, even though they meant well, it was an insult. ‘Talent’ meant that the story was worth nothing, because I could have mashed my face against the keyboard and it would have been good.

So I’m going to call bullshit on the whole idea of talent right here. People do well at things because they work at them. I think the author of the original article had the wrong idea when he faced his students. He thought writers were born with talent, and the best writers he saw were ones who had started in their teens, yet he never made the connection that the ones who started writing in their teens had worked at their craft longer than the ones that started later.

Maybe you’re better at grammar because you read a lot as a child. Maybe you have a talent for dialogue because you watch a lot of movies. Maybe you’re a great artist because you enjoy sketching and people learn better when they’re having fun doing it. Those strengths didn’t spring from a vacuum. You have them because you worked for them, and the exciting thing about that is that you can develop any skill you want if you keep trying. ‘Talent’ is a myth. Start appreciating the hard work behind it.

Nanowrimo prep: Setting

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A lot of story planning can start with setting. Depending on the genre, you could come up with a whole series worth of plots, just from making a map and figuring out what kind of people live in the world you’ve created. The setting can (and should!) be a character in itself. It can help or hinder the events of the story and provide major plot points. There should be a good reason that the story is set where it is. The tv show Dexter wouldn’t be the same if it weren’t set in Miami. Buffy the Vampire Slayer wouldn’t be the same if it weren’t in California. Imagine Portal without Aperture Science. Imagine Batman without Gotham City.

Holly Lisle has a lot of good writing advice on her website, and one of the posts that I’ve found useful is her article on developing the fictional world through mapping. In it, she talks about how to make a map and how to use that to figure out a story. This is great for fantasy or science fiction stories that are set in places other than Earth, but even more local stories could benefit from mapping out a city or town.

Obviously only a tiny fraction of your research is going to make it into your story, because you don’t want to deluge your reader with information. One of the fastest ways to get someone to put down your book is to hammer them with paragraph upon paragraph of detailed description about your country’s history and system of currency and notable citizens. Those are things you can sprinkle in the story when (and if!) they become relevant. It’s okay if you come up with an elaborate system of laws and then it never comes up in the novel. Don’t try to force it in just so you don’t feel like you wasted your time.

On the other hand, you don’t want to suffer white room syndrome. That’s when your characters talk to each other and occasionally do things, all while moving around in featureless white rooms. Your reader is going to need something to anchor the scene. Visual descriptions are good, but using the other senses can be better. What does the place smell like? Sound like? What’s the temperature? The great thing is that this leads right back to character. What does your character think of the smell/sound/temperature? Are they the kind of person who bundles up in the slightest breeze? Does the smell remind them of their grandmother’s cooking? Is it always too loud for your character?

Your characters are going to be physically interacting with this setting, and it’s going to effect them directly in ways they might not even be aware of. They could have adopted the social mores and local dialect without realizing it. Alternately, they could be an outsider to the setting and come up against hostility or uncomfortable misunderstandings at every turn.

One thing I like to do in novels is consider the season and the weather. It’s a cliche to start your novel with a description of the weather, but occasionally referencing what’s going on outside can help set the scene and anchor the story in time. Is there a heat wave? Is there a blizzard forecast for later in the week? Have there been weeks of endless rain? Is it perfect spring weather outside? Mira Grant’s book Deadline, book two in the Newsflesh trilogy, has a major plot point centered around a hurricane that was honestly chilling when it was introduced.

There’s a lot more you can explore when building your setting, including time period, technology, religion, fashion, music, economy, politics, and so on. Just remember two things: try to give just enough detail to be interesting, and make sure not to get so involved in worldbuilding that you never get around to writing the story.

Next time: Themes