Archive for the ‘ Writing Process ’ Category

On Structure

I write a lot about structure. Here is where I write about it more. CN: anxiety, emotional abuse, self-abusive thoughts, blood, needles, food/eating.

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In case my many mentions of it are lost to the mists of the Internet, I thrive on structure and ritual, as a creator, a gamer, and a person. Some of that is my anxiety disorder; some of that is a result of emotional abuse at various hands, which often comes with a difficulty with spontaneity; some of that is probably just who I am. It’s not like it’s easy to separate those three things, anyway.

That love for structure is fine with me; I need what I need, even if that need changes, and it is not “wrong” or “broken” of me to structure my life, as long as I am not edging out others’ needs. But sometimes life necessitates me abandoning that structure, and yesterday the damage that can do came due in a big way.

This week is my yearly physical, which as anyone who has been following me for the past year knows is an anxious time, given that last year’s physical turned up Type 2 diabetes (and we then had to check on subsequent diabetic check-ups for kidney damage and cancer — neither of which were positive, thank goodness). So yesterday was blood draw time, which is its own microcosm of anxiety, and to do that I had to fast for twelve hours. No biggie; I packed a snack, ate it and drank some water once the draw was over and done, and got ready for brunch with a relative and a game of T.I.M.E. Stories. Things were looking up!

Except then my meal schedule was totally thrown off. I need to keep an eye on my carbs, and I need regular intake at set times (relative to each other, anyway). I got breakfast/brunch and a mid-day snack, but then didn’t really eat again until dinner, partially because nobody else seemed to want food and so I did not discuss the idea  until T.I.M.E. Stories was over (at around 7pm). By then, my blood sugar was so low (we think — I left my testing kit at home) that I could not rationally figure out what I even wanted for dinner; I felt like any choice I made was going to make others mad, and besides, if I made the wrong choice and the food I picked wasn’t satisfying, I’d be more upset because then I had to wait a couple hours to eat something that was satisfying, and Oh God maybe I just won’t eat ever again. That will be easier, right? At least if I lapse into a coma from malnutrition or something I don’t have to make decisions?

We wound up having sushi, sashimi, and tempura, which was about the right amount of carbs, with some protein and fat to help my system normalize. I felt better the instant I ate my complementary salad and miso soup. I was able to admit I was on emotional overload, and why. My food schedule was thrown by the fasting, and with it the entire axis of my day was out of alignment and what mental defenses I had for the buzz of life with anxiety were out of joint with it.

It did not help that T.I.M.E. Stories can be complicated to track in a way that find highly satisfying, but can be annoying for others (and possibly also easier for them to track mentally), so there was some negotiation between my need to obey game structure as rigidly as possible and others’ need to skip over things they saw as unnecessary — negotiation that did not happen, because when I am feeling anxious I instinctively assume my needs will not be met, and so just don’t say anything and get resentful instead. So I ended a session of one of my favorite games entirely focused on my personal statistical failures and how it could have gone better and just feeling like my day was wasted, even though realistically I actually had fun and the parts that were not fun were a matter of needing to make needs known, not anyone doing anything to me. And I thought I had handled that, so I let myself relax and sleep in, and I figured the next day I would wake up and…

…have the exact same mental collapse about breakfast that I had about the previous night’s dinner. Seriously, I stared into the fridge, my head hanging bonelessly off my neck, and almost stomped out of the house to the garage to go write until I passed out. Thank goodness I do not live alone or that might have happened (or I might have eaten an entire dozen donuts and a whole pot of coffee and done damage the other direction). Sonya made me a toaster waffle and some yogurt, and I was able to get my head screwed back on straight and start back down the road to recovery.There was no self-harm, no yelling, and the one outburst I started to have I caught myself, admitted I was melting down, and calmed back down. (The Superman wristband I wear really does help me refocus when I start the gesticulations that preface a meltdown; I highly recommend you do whatever works for you, no matter how weird.)

My takeaway here was difficult to find: how do you figure out how to make your needs known when half the problem is that you feel you’re a bad person for making your needs known? But, find it I did. In numbered list format, in the name of my own love of structure:

1. From now on, if a game has bookkeeping that needs doing, I will make sure it happens. If that means I am doing all the bookkeeping, that’s OK with me. I can even sit and get all the bookkeeping done while other people make dinner or take a smoke break or whatever they need; I can eat with one hand and roll dice with the other if I have to. But it’s happening. I have less fun if it doesn’t.

2. I will not book myself for any plans that occur within 2-4 hours of a medical test that requires fasting, unless those plans expressly involve a meal and occur in a location that I know I can get to in time to eat brunch and still have a reasonably timed snack, lunch, dinner, etc.

3. I will also preface any plan that occurs on those testing days with a statement that I have to get tests done, and that may mean I am too anxious/depressed afterwards to be around people. That may mean people, for the sake of their own time or stress management, need me to say No to plans, because I cannot be sure of a Yes. I am OK with that, because being sad about missing out is better than feeling the way I did going into dinner yesterday.

Anxiety is a maze it can be extremely difficult to find your way out of; some days, it can be tempting to end things like the final scene of The Descent, just wrapping yourself in your damage and letting the light flicker out. But thanks to my friends, my wife, and my own hard work, I think I have a map.

So yeah. How was your weekend?

On Deadlines

I’m not shy about being a creature of ritual, but it’s really coming home to roost this week.

I’ve been working overtime a lot lately — not as much as some co-workers (my work-life balance is fairly inflexible), but a lot. I came back from vacation into a maelstrom of overtime that is just now letting up (and possibly only temporarily, based on how my next project is looking). The worst part is, with system delays and impromptu meetings and the ensuing long periods where work can’t actually get done, it has thrown my schedule into utter disarray. My coffee break isn’t happening at the right times; my lunch is often off-set from its usual flow; I don’t always go home at the same time; it’s not great. I’ve been made of anxiety for a week now.

Two good things have come of the darkness, though. One: I now know I have mastered my worse anxiety impulses. I have not had the kinds of meltdowns I used to have before I recommitted myself to mindfulness and self-care; there have been periods of neat-freakishness, of stuttering, of grumpiness, but nothing explosive like there used to be. So, while I don’t like testing the strength of steel by running over it with a car, it’s nice to see that the material is resistant. (That metaphor needs some work…)

Two: I know, for sure, that it feels good to be writing on a deadline. I mentioned that, post-New Novel, I found a superhero-related open call that is due mid-September? I’ve been routinely getting 1000+ words down on that every day this week, even skipping one of my two writing days off to keep working on it. I was worried, as the overtime came rolling in at the Day Job, that I would burn myself out both doing that and trying to make a writing deadline, but the truth is, it’s helped. I’m more energetic, more creative, and more focused with a deadline staring me down, and I’m outputting higher-quality material than I might have were I just noodling. Not that there’s anything wrong with noodling — I plan to do some after I’ve submitted to Behind the Mask and before New Novel comes back to me — but after months of editing, to reach into my creativity and pull out some gems, even uncut ones, is a really good feeling.

Besides giving me a highly productive avenue for self-care, this has also taught me a lot about how to judge freelance creative work moving forward. There are times when creating is hard — I have no doubt that “Good Fences” and I will see those dark days soon, possibly during first-round edits — but there is a difference between “hard” and “actually a bad idea.” That’s where things re changing.

See, the concept of “bad idea” can be extremely difficult for me to pin down; an idea can be bad in multiple ways, not always obvious. Sometimes, a project is a bad idea for logistical reasons: the deadline is too soon for the work required, or the material too far outside my area of expertise (to the point where I will be faking my way through the content). Sometimes something about the environment or the conditions rubs me the wrong way: the market/client is squirrelly about pay rates, or the contract is oddly worded, or they have expectations  that seem odd in one way or another.  And of course, sometimes, the story idea is bad on my end: it hinges on a contrivance, or it’s problematic when examined for subtext, or it is simply something that I am not currently capable of executing with the skill and care required to stick the landing. Seeing the way I am reacting to a tight deadline but a good story concept is helping me do some emotional echolocation. I’ve already had an idea for a story that I looked at and said “OK, so this isn’t a story yet. That’s fine. I can work on this later after I’ve done some research!” Five years ago, I’d have swan-dived into the story, floundered around for a week or so, and then declared myself the Worst Writer Ever and cried myself to sleep. (You may think I exaggerate, but…)

So, bottom line here is, it’s been a rocky August, but for the improvements to myself I’m seeing, it’s a price I’m willing to pay.

Man, two blog posts in one week? I’m a rock star!

On Focus

One of the few rules I’ve been taught about blogging — besides “avoid religion and politics” — is “don’t call attention to the fact you haven’t been blogging for a while.” So yeah, I just broke that rule, because this post is about why. Don’t worry, it’s all good news.

I recently took a one-week vacation from my day job; my vacation time was in serious danger of maxing out, and I was kind of crispy anyway, so I figured, why not? The vacation started with two family plans: a board game day with my parents, and a day at the beach in Santa Cruz with Sonya’s family.

Zoom in. At the beach day, I wind up spending a lot of time with my niece and nephew(-in-law). One of them is hitting the early teenage years, and is experiencing the horror that is middle school, and in discussing Pokemon Go and anime with them, they confide in me that they sometimes feel weird about admitting to the things they like, because they feel like it’s “silly” or “too young” for them.

Being me, you can imagine I didn’t take this comment lying down. I told them: “As long as you aren’t hurting anybody, you can like whatever you like.”

I can now say I both stunned a teenager into contemplative silence, and was told that I said something inspiring. That’s a nice way to start my free time.

Zoom back out. This is where that conversation becomes an ironic echo.

In the process of this vacation, I realized three things: I actually like being a house-spouse, a lot; I am capable of a truly monstrous amount of creative productivity if that is my only “job,” even if I am also being a house-spouse; and I have been badly oversocializing myself.

I used to think I was an extrovert, and in many ways, I am, but lately I’ve become more introverted. Some of that is me embracing the fact I have a social anxiety disorder and socialization costs me mental energy; some is me getting treatment for said disorder, and realizing how much of my socializing was a need to feel included and accepted; and some is just me getting older and being a busy adult with many important things to do. At the start of my vacation, a friend messaged me about doing something over the vacation, and I locked up and realized that doing something social — with anybody, not just them — sounded like the worst thing in the world.

So I spent my vacation alone, except for some IM conversations and the company of my wife (and one Pokemon Go hunt, because heck yeah Pokemon Go). Every morning, I drank my caffeine (sometimes with a walk to the local coffee shop first), read part of Marvel’s Annihilation Omnibus, and got down to creating and cleaning. I played video games and board games when I was done. And I came back to my day job the next week, feeling more refreshed than I have in months.

I altered a teenager’s worldview by saying that liking whatever they want is not wrong, but I didn’t apply the same idea to myself until I really listened to what my brain was telling me. Games and wrestling help me look at different ways of telling stories while also relaxing me, and let me see the problems of a creator from a new viewpoint. Cleaning and cooking make me feel productive, and quiet the capitalism-fueled anxieties that both insist leisure is a societal ill and that art is not a worthwhile pursuit. Comics are not only a great way to experience stories, but are also easy for me to focus on and digest in large amounts, which is perfect for days where my anxiety is bad enough that I do not have any attention span. Being alone whenever I need to be alone is a valid way to spend my time, and I actually don’t like having too many plans. And whatever people tell me about developing my platform, it’s OK if I don’t blog for a while.

And I have not been blogging lately, it’s true, but that’s because I’ve been working on fiction instead. Since I last put text to WordPress:

  • I have finished both pre-alpha-reader edit passes on my current novel project (the unnamed “New Novel” that I have been hiding the title of out of nothing but anxiety*).
  • While amidships on the edit passes, I also sent a writing sample to Onyx Path Publishing to be considered for inclusion in a collection of Changeling: the Dreaming fiction.
  • The day after finishing the second edit pass, I hit Duotrope looking for open submission calls, and found a call from Meerkat Press due on September 15th that is right up my alley (I mean, superhero stories? Yeesh, twist my arm…). I despaired of the total lack of possibility that I might make that deadline, right before churning out a story idea and an outline over the next two days. I’m now about 2000 words into my rough draft of “Good Fences,” and am really liking where this is going, though I recognize that the Editing Saw will need to be deployed without mercy to make word count.
  • And…I have preliminary ideas penned down for a sequel to New Novel; the kernel of another short story that is for no anthology or open call in particular; and the very rawest, freshest seeds of another possible novel series that needs some research and development before I start outlining anything.

(I also still kick the tires on comic scripts here and there, though I need to start out with something less sweeping than my The Shoulders of Giants concept. I’m waiting for a short work to appear in my head that would work well in comics instead of prose so I can focus on short, “single-issue” works and perfecting the scripting form before I attempt to do something longer. (I had an idea last night, but I want to let it germinate for a bit.) It’s a whole different way of writing than I’m used to, and taking baby steps is perfectly valid (topical!).

I still have Twitter and Facebook to keep my name out there and boost the signal as necessary — arguably, those are more effective for me than WordPress, judging by the response I got for the No Sh*t, There I Was Kickstarter. If I make myself blog, I’m going to wind up writing endless columns of writing advice someone already covered, or glom onto controversies about which others have already spoken expertly. I might start curating links to those sorts of reports, actually — it’s worth boosting the signal, especially when the voices involved are typically marginalized — but in the meantime, if I don’t have an idea for what to post here, that’s OK. Lessons in self-marketing may teach me that not blogging is dangerous for my brand, but but if I want to talk about fiction writing, it’s probably best if I do some of it..And if that’s what I like, and I’m hurting nobody…that’s OK.

*I’ll reveal the title once I’m shopping it to agents and publishers. Promise.

On Leaving It Behind

The Ways Giving Up Helped Me Move Forward

Late last year, I made one of the most important decisions of my entire writing career: I gave up on a project.

A personal project, lest I sound unprofessional; and actually, two of them. I had two novels in the works (read: on their third and fourth deep edit passes, respectively) that just were not clicking. There were germs of good ideas there, some wonderful turns of phrase, some characters I adore; but in both cases, the whole was lesser than the sum of its parts.

I rewrote one, and started rewriting the other, examining them for what was not working. The rewrite of the first one of these two was incredibly fruitful, teaching me a lot about what I was doing wrong in my writing at the time I wrote it and giving me a chance to move past it. The second one…not so much.

I mean, I saw I was doing wrong, but I had done so much wrong that trying to undo it left me like a kitten tangled up in string. I was trying to find my way out and continuously making it worse, with no capacity to get enough distance from the problem to actually perceive the whole. I kept slogging onward, re-plotting and re-outlining and doing every other form of hacking and cauterizing I could think of, until I realized one fateful weekend that I had been dreading going back to writing after one of my twice-weekly days off from the creative process, and that the dread was all because of this project.

I’d had this revelation once or twice before, that I was hugely burnt out on rewriting this novel, but I had powered through, operating under the axiom that you need to write when you don’t want to if you want to be a professional writer. But this time, it was different. This was not writing being difficult; this was writing burning me out and sapping my joy for creation. I sat back and examined why that would be the case, and I had the next revelation (a true Apocalypse over here, I tells ya): these novels were part of my million bad words.

It’s an old adage, one I need not repeat exhaustively, that every writer has to write a proverbial one million bad words in order to get to the good ones. It’s a fancy way of saying that in order to do something well, you have to do it badly first. That’s part of learning. It’s not something my culture really teaches anymore (though the Internet is getting that lesson out there pretty effectively), but it’s the truth. Few people (possibly no people) are instantly good at something; at best, they have raw talent that needs to be refined. Writing these novels, especially this one I couldn’t salvage, was an important part of that refinement for me — but that does not mean it is worthwhile for me to go back to them right now.

Some day, I may need those ideas, those characters, those plots. I may need them to make another attempt at saying what I was trying to say, but this time with a much more skilled hand; I may need them to say something completely different, but still said best with those people and those situations; I may just love some tidbit of description or dialogue and want to plug it in to something else. But I was not doing myself any favors with this rewrite: I can’t get through my million bad words by trying to redo 100,000 of them. I realized it was best, as heavy as it made my heart, to recognize what didn’t work and move on.

So I did. And friends, I feel so free.

Since letting those novels go to their long sleep in the depths of my files, I have tried writing in new formats. I have pushed myself to write about new kinds of people, to inject new themes, to push my boundaries in every direction I had the opportunity to push. I have written a story that an editor told me haunted them, and yet ended with a little ray of hope that things could get better for these people after the words “The End.” And I have written a zero draft of a new novel that honestly might be my favorite thing I have ever written. Someone who reads a lot of my work, who is kind enough to review my work constantly, has told me how much more they like my writing now than my writing from a few years ago, and there is an obvious dividing line between the last story they mostly liked and the first story they loved: the latter of those two not-so-great novels.

I do not generally recommend giving up on a creative project. Giving up is a bad lesson to teach yourself, most of the time. But at the same time, it’s invaluable to give yourself time to be bad at something so you can become good at it later; and that is the most valuable lesson of my creative life to date. So in this way, those novels were not failures, not at all. In fact, arguably, the novels I have moved on from are the two most important pieces of creative work I have ever done.

For now.

On 2015

I am 4.5 hours away from beginning the celebration that will put 2015 firmly in my rear view mirror, and therefore, it is time to reflect on the year.

“Mixed bag” defines most years in a human life, but in many ways this year has been one of extremes in that regard. I’ve had some of my lowest lows this year, but also some of my highest highs, and the latter often came as a result of the former.

Low point: Being diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, a manageable disease, but still a disease, and a chronic one there is currently no way to cure, only to avoid being hurt by (and that partially with a little luck); having my wife, the most important person in my life, receive the same diagnosis a month before I did. Realizing both diagnoses only came because she went in to have something unrelated checked up on, and that if we hadn’t checked we would have kept eating in a way that was ruinous to our health and potentially deadly long-term. Dealing with the tide of internal and external fat-shaming, diet-shaming, and general feeling of screwing up that comes with a type 2 diagnosis, along with the feeling that somehow this was life laughing at me after I decided to take charge of my mental and physical health this year.

High point: Going in for our first quarterly check-ups on the disease only to discover we have them totally under control with diet and exercise, we have praiseworthy amounts of willpower and discipline, and barring a curveball we should be able to avoid complications for our entire lifetimes. People told us we were an inspiration, and we learned that we are capable of a level of courage, self-discipline, and mutual support that will serve us well in every aspect of our very long, very healthy lives.

Low point: After resolving to submit more stories and novels, batting a perfect .000 for submission acceptances from January to December.

High point: Learning that I’m not the only one who goes through fallow periods like this; the hardship forcing me to learn things about my writing strengths and weaknesses that I might not have seen had I met with even moderate success. I’m finding my writing voice in a  way that I never have before, and I’m relaxing into the act of writing in a way I never have before. I’ve also figured out how to set reasonable goals for myself creatively and, as a result, in other aspects of my life. While I am not a financially richer writer after this year, I am a richer writer in every other sense.

Low point: My anxiety went off the rails at the beginning of the year, with multiple explosive crying jags, only further exacerbated by the discovery of the diabetes issues.

High point: The explosions were finally bad enough that I had some conversations with Sonya about our relationship that were absolutely necessary and strengthened our bond as friends, partners, lovers, and teammates — there’s no steel without fire, as I think they say. From that came the decision to grab hold of my mental health as well as physical, and from that came a relatively saner Tyler; not one free of anxiety, because that demon is never truly slain, but one who can take a step back and assess his problems and deal with them rationally in a way he never could before.

Low point: I found a safe space for social justice-minded folk like myself, and promptly said something truly terrible and followed it up with a series of anxiety-riddled mistakes and outright bad behavior that ended in me needing to leave said safe space and in fact helped catalyze a general fracturing of it, losing myself at least two friends and leaving my Internet social media experience awkward to say the least.

High point: That huge screw-up and wrongdoing on my part forced me to confront problematic aspects of myself and my relationships, forced me to accept that there are consequences for my actions in a way that was frankly a little abstract before (being as I am a very privileged person), and took me down the road of learning a whole lot more about how to be less problematic and how I need to comport myself in public and in private. And I did keep a few good friends out of that, who though they are wholly digital right now, are an important part of my support network going into 2015.

High point: I rediscovered my love of comics, especially superhero comics, and broadened my artistic tastes in all fields.

High point: I navigated the waters of how to relate to my friends and family, and how and when and why to identify people who are unhealthy for me and keep them at the necessary distance.

High point: I celebrated a year in a fantastic marriage with Sonya, who has helped me learn to be a better person and has helped me learn just how happy I can be. I love you, sweetie. Hail Hydra.

High point: I recognized, eyes wide open, how truly lucky I am to have the life I have, and how valued my contribution to the world really is.

High point: I made mistakes and still have friends and loved ones. Forgiveness can be so important.

High point: I learned how to be diplomatic when angry.

High point: I got to hang out with my new nephew and niece (marriage grows families in the most unexpected ways) and watch them continue to be interesting and smart and engaged.

High point: I had a tweet liked by Squirrel Girl.

High point: There are way more high points on this list than low points.

2015 kicked me in the bojangles more than once, and it did its level best to get me on the ground and bloodied; but in the end, the scars left by this year are scars I can bear with pride. I’m a better person, a better writer, a better husband, and a better Tyler all around than I was last December, and that is a treasure that will never tarnish.

Next year’s resolutions:

Keep up the writing schedule.

Attend more cons, as a guest and as an attendee.

Keep working on excising problematic language.

Take time for self-care.

Go on more dates with Sonya, and recognize that sometimes, time at home quietly reading is the best date night of all.

Play more board games, especially ones I have not played before.

That said, play more Sentinels of the Multiverse and Red Dragon Inn.

Watch more wrestling that is not produced by the McMahons.

Go to more Fathom Events.

Have a really good beer when the carb count is available.

Love Sonya.

Love my friends.

Love myself.

Now if you’ll excuse me, two friends and their wonderful son are coming over soon to hang out and play some, oh yes, Sentinels of the Multiverse. I cannot think of a better way to start saying goodbye to 2015.

I love you all. Keep reading, and I’ll keep writing.

Happy 2016,

Tyler

On Mary and Also Sue

tl;dr: As of today I am going to make a conscious effort to use neither the term “Mary Sue” nor the term “Gary Stu” any longer, as after reading some very smart posts from my very smart friends and colleagues, I believe the roots of those terms to be misogynistic, misguided, and mean-spirited.

Disclaimers:

  • This all got started in my brain thanks to a Facebook post from a friend of mine. I want to give him full credit for inspiring me here, and to say that the root ideas here are his; I’m only not naming him because I don’t yet have his permission to do so, and it’s the Internet.
  • Trigger warnings: mention of violence, rape, racism, homophobia, transphobia.

Longer form commences. It may get a little essay-format in here. I have tried to avoid spoilers and do not mention anything about Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

So.

Mary Sue.

For a definition of the term(s), I turn to the august Web sites Wikipedia and TV Tropes.

From Wikipedia’s entry on “Mary Sue”:

Mary Sue or, in case of a male, Gary Stu or Marty Stu is an idealized fictional character, a young or low-rank person who saves the day through extraordinary abilities…”Mary Sue” today has changed from its original meaning and now carries a generalized, although not universal, connotation of wish-fulfillment…the “Mary Sue” is judged as a poorly developed character, too perfect and lacking in realism to be interesting…

From TV Tropes’ entry of the same name:

…the term “Mary Sue” is generally slapped on a character who is important in the story, possesses unusual physical traits, and has an irrelevantly over-skilled or over-idealized nature.

Okay. That’s enough to go on.

Let me sum up my feelings: this is garbage.

I say it is garbage not because bad writing and wish-fulfillment do not exist; but because bad writing and wish-fulfillment should be allowed to exist, and shaming people for involvement in them is simple cruelty.

(Well bad writing should not be allowed to exist without criticism…I’ll follow up on that later.)

Life is hard. Life as an oppressed class of person (woman, person of color, LGBT, etc.) is especially hard. Wish-fulfillment, escapism, and fantasy are perfectly reasonable responses to how hard life is, and legitimate ways of coping with getting through the hard parts of life.

We could argue back and forth all day about how much escapism is too much escapism; we can throw around words like “addiction,” and maybe even ableist nastiness about discerning fiction from reality; but the bottom line is that basically everyone, in every culture, sees the value of living and learning vicariously through entertainment, whether that’s a win by your sports team, a painting that speaks to you, seeing a fictional character succeed in the face of adversity that looks a lot like your own, or seeing someone who looks like you be socially accepted and noticeably successful.

Let’s hang on that last line for a second. “Seeing someone who looks like you be socially accepted and noticeably successful.”

You don’t have to look far to see the kinds of venom that are spit daily at women — say, rape and death threats when they criticize any form of media in any way — or at people of color — a potential Presidential candidate calling for all “Muslims” to be banned from the country or forced to sign a registry — or at LGBT people — the entire Westboro Baptist Church. I’m not going to link to real examples, because those monsters do not deserve the attention, but they are out there and easy to Google or ask your friends about.

If you have to deal with that on a daily basis, you probably want to see a ray of light somewhere, right? Some indicator that it is possible for someone who is like you to be a badass, strong in the face of difficulties, successful in the face of insurmountable odds? Hell, you probably want to see that on your harder days, even if it does not involve being threatened with sexual violence, right?

And you acknowledge the idea of “different strokes for different folks,” yes? You recognize that your wish-fulfillment/stress relief/enjoyment/whatever does not necessarily look like the method of achieving said state that works for spouse, or your best friend, or your next-door neighbor, right? If nothing else, do you understand intellectually that when your team plays the rival team, your idea of “fun” is probably going to look a lot different than the idea of “fun” held by most fans of the other team?

OK. Great.

So, assuming no-one is actually being hurt, and I mean actually being put in an actual negative place that lessens their actual quality of life…

Where do you get off deciding that another person’s way of having fun and feeling better about themselves is bad?

That is one of my three root issues with the term “Mary Sue.” No-one should be shamed for enjoying wish fulfillment. No-one should be shamed for wanting to have a good time, so long as that good time is not coming at the cost of the well-being of others.

I’m going to tap into that last statement in a moment, but I want to finish up my issues with “Mary Sue” first. My second issue with the term “Mary Sue” is the inherent gendering of the term. Yes, we have now come up with “Marty Stu” and “Gary Sue”; yes, people talk about how the term is not gendered; but, as TV Tropes says, “The prototypical Mary Sue is an original female character,” and if it looks like a duck and sounds like a duck…

The term grew out of Star Trek fanfiction (specifically, it “comes from the name of a character created by Paula Smith in 1973 for her parody story ‘A Trekkie’s Tale'” [Wikipedia]), and it’s an accepted if not concretely observed notion that fanfic writers were, initially, largely female. It is also overwhelmingly applied to original female characters who get to be as important as canon male characters — and as it has grown into a term used in fiction at large, it has continued to be disproportionately used to describe female characters. The only male character that I hear routinely get called a Sue/Stu is Wesley Crusher from Star Trek: the Next Generation; other male characters who are just as obviously given a disproportionate chunk of the spotlight (e.g., Wolverine and Cyclops from the X-Men franchise) or just as obviously get to save the day when the chips are down despite not being the only ones canonically capable of same (e.g., Batman in any DC universe fiction), either do not get slapped with the label despite qualifying, or get the label alongside so many jabs at either their “feminine” traits or their sexuality that it’s hard not to see this as being about shaming women for wanting to have rad protagonists available to them.

And that’s gross, people. Gross.

And now, my third and final issue with the term “Mary Sue”…it is generally used as a hallmark of bad writing, right? We are all agreed on this point? Well, bad writing needs to exist.

Writing bad stories is the only way you figure out what doesn’t work and get to good stories. Just like every hockey player (except maybe Wayne Gretzky) had to play some truly terrible games of hockey before they figured out how to reliably play well; just like every baker’s first-ever batch of chocolate chip cookies was likely inedible; just like if I went out today and tried to run a marathon, I would wind up calling someone to come pick me up in my new superhero disguise as the Human Cramp; every writer has to write bad stories. Most of us even keep doing it, because everyone has their off days!

Even if something is bad, it may represent the absolute best a person can do right now, not because they are in any inherently bad, but because they are still learning how to be good. Criticism is a part of helping that person to grow, but dismissive criticism may snuff out their fire while it is still just sparks. Also, not everybody is ready to be put on blast just yet; that’s why I don’t publish every rough draft I ever write on my blog, and that’s part of why fan-fiction communities exist. We need safe spaces to figure out how to be the best us we can be. Why invade and dismiss that just because you don’t think my How to Train Your Dragon/WWE crossover fic is the next Aenead?

Now, there are forms of (or elements present in) “bad art” or “bad escapism” that are truly, objectively bad. Those that uncritically glorify rape, racism, murder, or other forms of violence and hate. Those that reinforce negative and problematic social narratives, like the idea every rape victim “kinda enjoyed it” or that a person of color is “asking for trouble” by behaving in a certain way. Those that stir up hatred toward a real-world group. Those that encourage hateful and destructive urges rather than offer a catharsis that prevents the need for actualizing those urges. In short, things that actually hurt actual people, even if only by making it seem OK to hurt those people. And those do need to be taken out behind the woodshed sometimes, and called out as either “problematic” or even sometimes outright hate speech.

But…

Don’t deride people for doing their best, just because their best isn’t the same as somebody else’s best.

Don’t deride people for liking things that aren’t hurting anybody. Liking things is cool.

And don’t ever forget that everything is problematic in some way, and that criticism and dismissal are not synonymous.

Like stuff. Make stuff.

Figure out how to be you.

Figure out what doesn’t work.

Figure out how not to hurt people.

The world will be a better place.

That, in a 1700 word nutshell, is why I will never, ever again call any character a Mary Sue.

On Impostor Syndrome

10:18. Restate my assumptions.

I’ve had a very bad week for impostor syndrome. Not worse than any other bad week for impostor syndrome I have had in the past; but on par with some of the worse weeks. We’re somewhere near the place where I think writing is a waste of time because I am so bad at it; I would be happier if I didn’t try to write anymore; I should give up and accept I will never be as good as the awesome writers I am reading. Most of the thoughts revolve around those three key tenets. This is pretty typical for my impostor syndrome, really; it starts as a tickle of doubt about my skills, grows from there into direct comparisons to writing I am impressed with, and ends up in me calculating exactly how many more video games I could complete if I wasn’t writing. (The answer is a lot, for those who are curious.)

I’m not writing this down to weave a sob-story for you, but more to harness a period of lucidity into some insight on what my impostor syndrome feels like, what common triggers are, and what I can do to fight out of those common triggers. So this is going to go from a little introspective to a lot introspective. Those who are not interested in taking a look at my thought processes…probably shouldn’t have been reading this blog in the first place? But, still. You have been warned this will be a richer mixture than most.

There are clear warning signs that impostor syndrome is coming. Typically, the first clue is me having to ask my wife, directly, if I suck at this writing thing. I may also direct that question to my beta-readers. Or just tweet that I am feeling down. Usually this means the wave has just started to crest on the horizon; after that, I’ll generally find myself reading or viewing an amazing piece of narrative craftsmanship/wordsmithing, and immediately after the first thought that it’s amazing will come a thought along the lines of “I will never write anything as [sad/funny/creative/poignant/sexy/whatever] as that.” That’s when I know my brain cells should be evacuating the beach.

But what do I do about it? How do I try to minimize it happening? And, if trying to minimize it does not prevent it — it’s a thought, after all, and so can openly be controlled so much — what do I do when the wave does come crashing down.

Well, that’s kind of where this post came from. This week, it has become increasingly obvious to me that there are also situations and behaviors that are likely to result in a bout of impostor syndrome. Call then increased risk factors, I guess. (Talking about impostor syndrome like it’s a viral infection is probably the best way I can categorize it, in terms of my own approach to it. An infection is something you can work to prevent, and something that, once you have it, everyone agrees it’s best if you treat it and try to let it heal itself.)

Naturally, I am at the highest risk for it after a rejection letter; and sometimes, beta-reader feedback can trigger the same thing. That doesn’t seem particularly odd — of course being told you have something to improve can spark a small flame of doubt! — but it’s worth saying because sometimes what’s prosaic to one person is arcane to another. And bviously, neither of these is a negotiable part of my writing experience, unless I suddenly become a cash-cow writer (and God, doesn’t that sound like the best possible nightmare?), so the best I can do there is try to remember the feelings these situations can enkindle and act accordingly.

But, there are other things that cause me trouble. They all go under roughly the same heading: putting myself in writing situations that will lead to writing being very difficult, or that put pressure on me to do something besides write. From least to most terrible, the ones I have identified are:

  1. writing with social media active (i.e., I don’t have to open a new tab or pick up a device to look at Facebook)
  2. writing when I have a time-sensitive problem or opportunity to address (e.g., I need to get a bill in the mail by 5pm)
  3. writing something on a self-imposed, specific schedule (e.g., every Friday)
  4. writing when I have a hard time limit on my time (e.g., on coffee breaks)
  5. writing while intoxicated
  6. writing while tired

All of these can be addressed, but all of these can also be a challenge to address. Well, not all; #1 is pretty easy for me to fix. (Though I am of course writing this with Twitter and Facebook open on either side of it. Yeugh.) #5 is also easy to avoid; it’s not like I get paid to be drunk. #6 can be handled with some lifestyle and habit changes, as can #3 (you’ve already seen that with my decision to excise mandated Friday blog posts). #4, though…dear God, #4.

I realized this week that I have not been making enough time in my schedule for writing. My current schedule has been that I get Friday and Saturday off, and write Sunday through Thursday. I have a minimum word count, doubled if I am on a deadline, doubled again for editing vs. writing new prose. I have a whole schedule worked out of what projects I am working on, with backup projects for days that a given literary pursuit or narrative voice is just too much for me to handle for whatever reason. The last two parts work great; the Sunday-Thursday schedule is not working so well, and for a very weird reason: more of my social life takes place on weeknights than weekends these days.

My friend’s Legend of the Five Rings game is on Mondays. My Wild Talents campaign is on whatever Tuesdays my players are available. Another pair of friends meet sort-of-weekly-ish on Wednesdays to try out a variety of games. Our only constant, standing engagement on weekends is an anime/Marvel Cinematic Universe night with one of our friends. All of the above of are of course not weekly in any sense, and all of the above can also tolerate having to skip a week or two when people have had bad days at work or kids are sick or what-have-you. But what this means is, my weeknights are very much not free most of the time, and my weekends tend to be busy with stuff that it is much easier to move around in my daily schedule. I need to catch up on grown-up stuff, but it’s OK if I do the dishes late at night, or if we run errands first thing in the morning. I can also find time for writing on weekends even when we have plans with friends — noon-time tabletop game? I can get up early and write, or write after I get home. WWE pay-per-view in the evening, possibly necessitating I be up late? Lunch and prose at the same time! God, even just writing that is filling me with joy.

I think the Friday-Saturday days off is an OK default, for weeks where I do not have significant weeknight obligations and so can write in the evenings; and in particular, having Friday off is a good idea most of the time, because five straight days of work can be draining and having a day where all I do is finish my day job and come home to rest can be valuable for my sanity. But for weeks like this upcoming one, where I may be out with friends for four of the seven nights available to me, I should really be considering the need to write on Saturday. Really, I am overjoyed at the thought of writing on Saturday, which is all the sign I need that I should be making it a default. I really think that this schedule — as rigid as the Progress Update schedule, in its way — was a byproduct of a different time in my life, when weekends tended to be the absolute busiest times and we were getting stuff done on weeknights. That is not this time, and the rush to get writing done on weekdays. during coffee breaks and such, is affecting both my day job focus and my writing focus, and increasing my bouts of impostor syndrome.

And when impostor syndrome does hit — and inevitably, it will hit sometimes, no matter what I do — what should I do about it?

Well, self-care, I guess. Work on writing that is “easier” for me, or that is just for me (for the time being), so I can avoid trying to feel so critical about it. Do writing exercises so I feel like I am working on improving myself. Drink lots of water. Eat my favorite salads. Drink a mango Gatorade. Play some Sentinels of the Multiverse. Read some Unbeatable Squirrel-Girl or Saga. Do things I love that do not take energy and refresh me and inspire me to write again. And if it really comes down to it…I guess take a few days off, and wait for the fire to rise in me again. Because it always does. That inexorable fact is the thing that always keeps me coming back to writing — I can tell from the way I react that regardless of profession success, writing and getting better at writing are things I absolutely need to do.

I had some thoughts about my quest for my writing voice, and my need to unleash my id a bit more in places; but those can go in a separate post, when I have not already written 1500 words and when I am feeling more focused on those concepts. For now, I think I have made some good changes, and gotten together a good list of problematic situations and behaviors. So, this coming week, I am going to let myself have some time off during the week itself — not every day, but a day or two; and then when the weekend comes, I can reap my word count in earnest. I may also give myself Friday off, but we will have to see. Putting things in stone is clearly not the best idea for me.

I hope reading through all this was helpful to someone; and I look forward to blogging at you again very, very soon.

On the Other Kind of Progress

I have not known what to write for the past several days.

There’s been a blog post in me, I know it. About the suicide of Robin Williams. About the militarized insanity going on in Ferguson and the failure of the mainstream media to report on it. About the bloodstained tension drenching Palestine, about the minimum of three other people of color who have been shot by police while we’ve been watching the Ferguson police department turn their streets into Jericho fanfiction, about my own sense of helplessness and fear, and about everything else that seems to be going on in this world. But I’ve had no idea how to write it.

It’s not just about being blessedly and accursedly separate from these issues by virtue of the privileges accidentally granted to me. It’s not just about being afraid of offending someone, or about being afraid to stand up and take part in what may well be a revolution. It’s about just not quite knowing what to say, or what to do. I want to help. But all I have is my little blog, and my little writings, and I’m not clear on where to put those that might help blow a kneecap, Spider Jerusalem-style, off the craziness of this world.

We can better than this. I want to help us be better than this. I want to reach out to those who want to do what Robin Williams did, and if not stop them, at least let them talk to someone before they decide ending it is the right decision. I want to stand up and say, somewhere the police and the government will hear it unavoidably, that the Ferguson and St. Louis County police are the enemy of a free and just society, not the protectors. I want to grab the world by the roots and drag it up into the light, despite the many people who would see us crawl and scrabble in the dark. And I want to believe that somewhere inside me are the words that will make that happen, the long enough lever and the stable place to stand that will move this god-damn planet and all its wonderful and horrible inhabitants.

That’s a lot to put on myself. But it’s also a burden that I think writers need to bear. Not that we need to preach to you in everything we do – let’s look at how well that worked out for the Left Behind series – but that we need to be aware of the world we are portraying in the entertainment we produce, because that world is more real than the world in which the entertainment is digested. I’ve said it before: stories are how most humans approach the world, even if they aren’t stories packaged with title pages and bylines and the trappings of literature. The stories we tell need to be stories of a world that is better than this, of a world where more is expected of its inhabitants. And for now, that is what I can do. I can tell those stories.

Sonya and I were talking last night, on the way to pick up my clothes for our wedding (our wedding!). We were discussing a recent themed call for submissions by a magazine we both like, and how we would each approach the story. We agreed that her idea was more interesting, and my idea was both a little more prosaic and a lot less progressive (also more than a little cynical). This wasn’t a judgment on anyone’s part, just a fact of the ideas as laid out. But seeing it laid out made me start thinking.

Up to now, looking at my published writing, my biggest successes have been my most progressive and socially aware – even though I wasn’t really meaning to do that, and possibly even because I wasn’t meaning to do that. “And She Walked” was about trying to make a good world out of the world you live in, rather than expecting to magically fix it. “Act Natural” is about racial profiling. “Riding Westbound” is about the power of stories to change the world, and about the disaster of cultural mores not catching up to physical and economic realities fast enough. “Vote Your Conscience” is a flashbang condemnation of the single-issue voter. And my latest few are about the Othering of people whose capacities scare you, and the things that oppression and segregation “for one’s own good” do to a person’s psyche. The one that sticks out as politically neutral is “Live from the Serpent Room,” which is mostly an exploration of what an underground society of magicians might actually look like, a glimpse into the kinds of people who would actually dwell there – appropriate, since that’s the theme of the connected novel, but that’s a novel I have struggled to get off the ground. And that’s the thing that clicked today.

The thing I can do for this world, that my particular position affords me the power to do, is to write stories about how we can be better, not just about how we are bad. Stories that include people who tend to not be included; that talk about experiences that tend to be talked over; and that portray a world where, even if the good guys don’t necessarily win, even if the hero doesn’t end up better off than they were at the start, there is value to the journey and victory in the struggle. I can comment on it and I can say more than “this is horrible and the world sucks,” the stance of so much mainstream pabulum.

I’m not saying everything from here on out needs to be preachy. I’m not saying my next short story is going to be “THIS IS THE SITUATION IN FERGUSON MISSOURI EXCEPT THE COPS ARE NOW WEREWOLVES.” I’m not saying I will never write anything fun or funny. I am not saying I do not need to stay informed, to protest when I believe I need to protest, to sign petitions and donate money and yes, to get my feet on the ground and help enact change. I’m not saying that I am suddenly going to stop focusing on telling stories first. What I am saying is that I know now what I can do for the world with the skills I have developed and the talent I’ve been given. I can help write our way to a better world at the same time as I find ways to go out and make it happen off the page.

To merge my money and my mouth: If you need to see better coverage of the situation in Ferguson, follow @AntonioFrench on Twitter. If you want a real education in dealing with being black in America from a woman with an enormous brain, check out @LEHLight. If you want to give your gaming money to a company that endorses progressive and inclusive policies, check out Machine Age Productions. And if anyone reading this needs someone to talk to about coping with the world, send me a message and I will listen. It’s not a lot; but it’s a start.

Now excuse me. I need to make some tweaks to literally everything I’m currently writing.

On Selfishness

So, as you may have seen on Twitter, I’ve been struggling lately with my writing voice.

It may be a sign I’m a tyro; or it may just be a natural fear, a progression of my writing to a point of self-awareness where I can’t help but notice that my narrative is sometimes constipated, sometimes warped and buckled in my search for the perfect word, the special phrase, the depth of field that is missing from my poor beleaguered main character just trying to eat his god-damned cereal. (Don’t tell me a shot of someone eating cereal can’t be full of emotion and subtext; go watch Breaking Bad.)

I told Twitter about my panic, as is my wont, and was surprised at the responses I got. I got some helpful encouragement from fellow writers that riding the line between sounding natural and crafting your prose is just something writers have to do and get used to, a universal experience. Another friend suggested a project: If I’m having trouble sounding natural, write poetry.

Brake squeal.

Write poetry, she says. Write poetry that is just for me. Write something that is entirely for myself, to be shown to no-one, and see if it helps your writing voice. Give yourself room to experiment.

Hmm.

See, I also recently had the concept of “morning pages” explained to me. In the morning, first thing, write yourself about 750 words. It barely matters what they’re about; the objective is to get yourself writing, to uncork all the thoughts that built up in you, to get used to the idea of writing every day the same way you get your body used to taking a little jog.

I shrugged the idea off.  I don’t have time, I said; I already write every day, I said; I couldn’t possibly…and in the morning?  I need to be working on my actual writing, the writing I only have time to do before work and on my lunch break! What’s this “morning pages” stuff? Why would you put this on me? Why, world?

Maybe I just needed to hear it from a friend. I had the same reaction to the poetry idea, at first; but last night, as I was sitting down after a day of picnicking and board games, thinking that I had yet again neglected my word count, that my life was one day closer to 40, to ending, to whatever and I had not spent time on my career; as I was reading a friend’s post about doing what you love and cringing; I looked at Done with Mirrors; felt the lack of inspiration; and went “what the hell?”

It was awful. I mean, serious doggerel. It was Done with Mirrors-related in its tone, though I would never publicly associate the two; it was angry and cynical but with a touch of magic. It only flowed inasmuch as a crack in the side of a bathtub counts as “flowing.”

But as it went on, it got better. Line breaks started appearing in my head. Phrasing started coming more naturally. Little twists of description, little shots in the dark that found their targets. It was improving. Maybe I really was writing poetry. Maybe I could do this every day.

I wound up with 980 words. But more importantly, when I woke up this morning, I felt like I had to do it again.

It was only 350 words this time, but as I thought about it, that feels somewhat reasonable given the limitations of my schedule. I do not have time in the morning for 750 words, not without massively shifting my schedule around (or buying a device that lets me type on the train) or cutting into my schedule for Actual writing and my schedule for reading, which would be equivalent to helping yourself eat better by studying nutritional guides instead of shopping for groceries. 300 words of “morning pages” in a day is an attainable goal, and won’t significantly cramp my brain for the attempts at 300 to 1000 words of for-publication prose plus the occasional 300 to 1000 word blog post. Maybe giving my vocabulary an emetic once a day will help me. Maybe this is how you find your voice. And hey, maybe some day, 750 words in a morning just to get myself started will feel doable, be doable, be something I have the time and the latitude to do for myself.

One more thing to add to the dream.

On How to Do It

No, not that. Jesus.

So, a couple weeks back, I retweeted something said by none other than Nick Mamatas, thus marking something like the second time ever I have retweeted something said by a person whose books I recently read.  The tweet in question was headlined, simply, “Ten Bits of Advice Writers Should Stop Giving Aspiring Writers,” and linked to this blog post from Mr. Mamatas’s spleen-crushingly popular LiveJournal account.  I’ll wait here while you read that.

We good?  Alright.  No doubt, my writing friends disagreed with at least one of his points and agreed with at least one, too.  For me, my favorite points are that “show don’t tell” is oversimplified drek and that you don’t need to write every single day.  But mostly, it left me pondering exactly what advice you should give aspiring writers; or, more to the point and with fewer pretensions to objectivity, what advice I feel like I would give aspiring writers.

Of course, I may not be the greatest authority on the subject, really.  I have not won any awards or garnered more than a handful of anonymous reviews.  I’m not well-known.  I would not consider my success in the writing business to date to be any kind of reasonable rubric for success, beyond the fact that I have done more than most people have in terms of getting my writing published.  However, I have also heard advice that I find to be roundly, resoundingly terrible, the worst of it said with good intentions.  So were you to ask me, and you probably won’t, here’s what I’d tell a newbie about writing.

It’s not going to get you famous. Well, maybe it will.  Maybe you’ll become Stephen King or Robert Jordan or even, if you’re incredibly lucky/cursed, Ernest Hemingway.  But most likely you will make a small-to-modest sum of money at it, supplemented by other work you are good at besides writing, and maybe you’ll get to speak on some panels at some cons.  It’s not that you shouldn’t shoot for the stars, but you need to accept that not earning a Hugo Award or whatever is not “failing”; you’re a success if you get published at all, trust me.  Make perfection of your craft, to the best of your abilities, your goal.

If you want to be a writer, write. Do workshops if that’s your bag, or network at cons, or blog, or whatever; but don’t expect the fact you are marketing yourself to overshadow the fact your craft is unpolished, and don’t think that blogging about writing is a substitute for actually writing.  The people who succeed despite their craft being bad are sometimes people who succeeded because their blog was popular or because they met the right person, but more likely, they got lucky and caught a rising trend that the publishers wanted to get in on.  Write, damn you.

Submit your work. When you think a story is ready for submission to a magazine or a publisher, find the right market for it (I recommend duotrope.com and agentquery.com for magazines and agents, respectively), write a boss cover letter, and send the damn thing out.  Being published posthumously is unlikely to feel anywhere near as good.

You’re going to screw up at some point. At some stage of the game, you will accidentally send an email submission in the wrong format, you will send horror to a fantasy magazine, you will write a really crummy cover letter.  You won’t do all of those things but you’ll do one or two of those things, and that’s life. Learn from it and move on.

If you get rejected, you really do need to consider that you didn’t write a good story. My rubric is this: I’ll send a “final” version of a story out no more than three times.  If all three times result in rejections, I make myself take a serious, critical look at what I might have done wrong.  Sometimes I went for markets that don’t traditionally like the kind of thing I wrote; but more often, I had written crap.

Everyone writes crap. I have a short story on my hard drive that is utter drivel.  I wrote it when I was about 22, and in my hubris at age 25 I paid a professional editor to read it.  The scourging I received at his hands was entirely deserved.  I keep it around to remind me of the simple fact that sometimes, I’m forcing it.  Sometimes, my idea wasn’t that good.  Sometimes, my head just wasn’t in it.  And that’s OK.  Don’t beat yourself up, don’t decide everything you do is crap.  Accept you wrote crap, and move on.  Learn from the experience if you can stand to.

Do not get into it with your critics. If you do get published, you may get a critique of your work published somewhere, and that critique may not be very nice.  Let it go.  (I actually recommend you don’t read your reviews, but that’s a personal taste.)  Do not be Anne Rice and detonate publicly.  Especially not now when blogs are so popular; you are not impressing your readers by flipping out about this stuff.

So there you go; some writing advice from some writer.  Read in good health.