Category Archives: Process

Writing: practice resurrection

image courtesy of erichhh

image courtesy of erichhh

I wrote this the other day for my Tumblr but I feel like it fits here as well. So here it is.

  • Write.
  • Read.
  • Accept that your first draft will probably be shit. Accept that it can be shit. It doesn’t make you a bad writer. It makes you a writer. You’re writing.
  • Fear editing. Do not let your fear of editing stop you from editing.
  • Recognize that creativity is a muscle and becomes stronger with exercise. Don’t wait for inspiration; you screw yourself that way, because inspiration is fickle and also does not like you or support you emotionally as a person. Your brain is plastic. You can literally train it to produce words on command. It’s not necessarily easy and they aren’t necessarily going to be good words, and everyone is different. But it (probably) can be done.
  • You’re going to have periods where nothing you produce feels good. Where it all feels bad. Where you’re sure you would do the entire world a great favor by no longer producing words at all. It’s okay. It almost certainly won’t last. Try to look at it like the flu; let it run its course. If you can, keep writing anyway.
  • You’re going to have periods where you can’t write at all. Try to write anyway. Stop when it really starts to be painful and/or upsetting. See above re: flu.
  • Be kind to yourself. Give yourself permission to take breaks. Give yourself permission to take vacations. Eat healthy. Drink enough water. Get plenty of sleep. You’re working with your brain but your brain rides around in your body and you need to take care of one to take care of the other.
  • Don’t let things sit. They will become terrifying.
  • You will never be the writer you want to be. Ever. Probably. Regardless, get comfortable with the idea.
  • Under no circumstances should you compare yourself to other people. It kills you. *points to chest* Here.
  • Recognize that you’re going to compare yourself to other people anyway so don’t beat yourself up about it too much. You are probably going to resent other writers, great writers, who are also your friends, and you’re going to feel like a jerk. You’re not a jerk. At least, you’re not any more of a jerk than they are, because I guarantee they are doing the same thing. Very possibly at this very moment they are resenting you.
  • Focus as little as possible on what you “should” be writing. Write whatever the fuck you want to write and worry about the details later, if indeed the worrying needs to be done at all (probably it doesn’t).
  • Seek the advice of other writers. Take whatever advice they have to give with entire mounds of salt.
  • Embrace criticism. Remember that it will always hurt.
  • Embrace rejection. Remember that it will always hurt.
  • It is a sad fact that quality doesn’t always equal attention. You’ll probably write great stuff – stuff which you know for an objective fact is great, and people won’t read it. While at the same time they’re all reading and raving about something else which is frankly not very good. No, I don’t know why. People are baffling. Make your peace with that.
  • To the extent that you can, don’t write for the sake of attention. This is something else which you’ll probably do anyway; just recognize that it usually doesn’t go anywhere productive.
  • If it comes to attention? Pay attention. To everything. Writing is about the process of paying attention.
  • One of my favorite quotes is from Wendell Berry’s fantastic poem “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front”: Listen to carrion – put your ear close, and hear the faint chattering of the songs that are to come. Life is temporal. Life exists and moves through time. Words and the process of producing them is the process of creating static points of meaning in that time. Things will arrive unexpectedly, from places you never regarded as productive. This is where paying attention becomes important.
  • That said, don’t take writing seriously. It’s ridiculous. It’s just a completely fucking ridiculous thing, as ridiculous as anything human beings have ever done.
  • Do it anyway.
  • Write.

What I’ve learned so far in 2014

Yesterday I finished doing something I’d never done before: Scrapping 95% of a book and rewriting it from scratch.

Initially I was committed to not doing so at all. I wanted to tell myself that it was about principle – dammit, it was the story I told and it was the story it was going to be – but I now recognize that stance as being augmented with a  jengahealthy amount of terror, as well as a lot of ego. Because it is terrifying, looking back on something you’ve spent weeks and even months on, recognizing that it needs a major overhaul, and diving in. In some ways I think it’s much less terrifying – or at least it was and still is for me – to start something entirely new. Extensive rewriting feels almost like a sadistic game of Jenga, wherein you’re shifting pieces around, stacking and restacking, and one wrong move will bring the whole thing down. Which isn’t true, of course – nothing you can do can collapse a story beyond repair, unless the foundations of the thing itself are just no good – but it still felt like that when I started out, and I wasn’t sure I could really pull it off.

But I was determined to try.

I finished the first version of Fall and Rising (Line and Orbit 2: Electric Boogaloo) last year, and it was a very different book from its predecessor. It was focused on different characters, and it was nastier,  more emotionally brutal, and possessed of some potentially uncomfortable politics. When it was done, I was very adamant that it wasn’t going to get toned down or lightened up – but then I had trouble selling it. And after a couple of rounds of that, I realized that I had to admit to myself that the problem was not necessarily the publisher – as in finding the right one – but instead the book. It was a good story – I still believe that – but it wasn’t the right story. It wasn’t the right successor. It needed to be something different.

It was really, really hard to admit that to myself. But it was liberating when I did, and that feeling of liberation did a lot to blunt the fear when I went back and hacked it to pieces. It remained as I started rebuilding, and it carried me through until I truly began to feel like I was working well inside the world of the book. It was like giving myself permission to take all the work I did and all the time I put into it and declare to myself that none of that mattered.

What mattered was writing the right story.

I didn’t have to hold onto the book just because I worked hard. I didn’t have to hold onto it because of all the time I spent. I sure as hell didn’t have to hold onto it because of some stubborn, misguided idea of what my art should look like. I didn’t have to hold onto it at all. I could let it go and just start (mostly) fresh. It was okay. I was okay.

So yesterday I finished it. For those who care about length at all, it’s about 115k words long, close to the length of Line and Orbit and in fact a good bit longer than Fall and Rising’s initial version. But way more important: I think it’s a better book, and it’s one that wouldn’t have been written if I hadn’t sucked it up and murdered my darlings.

I’d been thinking that the whole murder your darlings thing applied to small sentences and passages and turns of phrase. It does, and I suspect a lot of why I thought that has to do with the fact that I’m still more experienced with short stories than I am with novels. But it also applies on a macro scale. It applies to books, and to massive chunks of books. It would be difficult to overstate how major that was to realize.

What else has this process taught me? Marketability is not a dirty word. Changing something up in order to be able to sell it more easily is not (necessarily) a dirty thing. I didn’t initially start thinking seriously about a rewrite for artistic reasons, I did it because I wanted to sell the damn book and get paid. That line of thinking led me to the realization that I could make the book better, but I might not have gotten there if money weren’t also a concern. I’m in this game because I love it, but also because I want to someday be able to make (at least most of) a living off of it. That’s not something I need to be ashamed of. I’m embarrassed by how long it’s taken me to internalize that, and I’m still working on it.

So mostly what I’ve learned so far in 2014 is that I don’t need to be afraid of those things. I shouldn’t let them stop me from getting shit done. I shouldn’t let my own ego get in the way of producing good work that people want to pay for. I need to continue to work on getting out of my own way.

None of that is exactly new. But I think it’s all good stuff to start the year on.

Gatekeeping, “professional” writing, and are you kidding me with this

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Moving is done. I am moved. For the moment I am no longer moving. If you want to see pictures of what the new place looks like, I posted some over here.

It’s a good place. It feels good. I am by no means in a position where I can select a space in which to live purely on the basis of how I think it’ll affect my creative productivity, but if I were, I think this might be the kind of place I’d choose. It’s roomy but not too roomy, which is great since I’m largely responsible for cleaning it. It’s bright and there are lots of windows. It’s secluded, far back from the road and not really very visible. It has a vaguely cottagey feel.

I’ve been giving myself a bit of a writing break – which means that I’ve cut my minimum wordcount back to 1000 a day, and not always every day – given that it turns out that moving is one of those Traumatic Life Events that gives you headaches and wibbly muscles and bad skin. As of right now I’m working on Ravenblood (the Crowflight sequel), and a short story, which feels like a light workload for me. What else am I doing? Reading. Listening to audiobooks. That sort of idle, meditative cleaning that can be so good for restorative inactivity. Napping. Watching movies. Poking at my dissertation. Gearing up to teach again in the fall.

Something else has happened, which looks sort of unimportant on paper but which has turned out to have some emotional repercussions: I gave myself permission to skip ASA this year.

For those of you who don’t know, I’m a PhD candidate in sociology and ASA is my discipline’s gigantic annual meeting, sort of Worldcon for sociologists except nowhere near as fun (you may note that I’m not going to Worldcon either). ASA is professionally important – though I’m starting to think it may not be as important as they want you to think – not just because of the panels and the networking but because it’s a feature of one’s professional identity. You’re a sociologist? You go to ASA. It’s one of the ways you know you’re a sociologist. Or so it’s been sold to me.

So I’m not at ASA this weekend, and that nasty little jerkbrain voice – the one that insists that I only passed research statistics and my comprehensive exams because it was too much trouble to fail me – is hissing you are not a real sociologist you fucking fakey faker HOBBYIST

My own brain is enough of a jerk to engage in professional gatekeeping of the most abusive kind. I can’t escape the suspicion that this is because it’s been trained to do so by others.

In the past, I’ve made no secret of how unimpressed I am by gatekeeping of most kinds. There’s the good kind, the kind that ensures actual quality of a product and makes it easier to locate good things, but then there’s the kind that’s purely ego-based, that exists to keep the riffraff out so those of us on the inside can feel better about ourselves. The classic example of this is the carefully policed boundary between “literary” and “genre” fiction, but there are others. There are others that have little or nothing to do with fiction. The most destructive forms of it are the kind that betray the people who buy into them, that set them up to fail in their own eyes. This is one of the reasons why academia has become so rife with abuse, both of grad students and non-tenure track faculty: our identity as academics is so important that many of us find it difficult to leave, even when our conditions are horrible: crippling overwork, awful pay, no benefits, no real opportunity for advancement. We don’t want to be “fake” or “hobbyists”. As long as we remain in the academy, we can be “real” academicians. In fact, suffering through awful conditions can become part of how we know we’re “real”.

I am unimpressed by the very idea of “real”, for the most part. It hurts people. It makes them doubt themselves. It makes people more concerned with ticking little identity boxes than actually doing what they need to be doing. And it makes people more inclined to look down on others, to maintain outmoded and outdated – and often racist, sexist, and homophobic – borders and boundaries. It makes people unkind. Women can’t be “real” scientists or “real” science fiction writers. SF with feelings or romance is not “real” SF.

Enter Lisa Morton’s piece on “real” professional writers.

I’m late to the party, and the article has been rebutted handily elsewhere. John Scalzi’s take is good. Brian Keene’s take is excellent. But as usual, especially given the direction of my own thoughts lately, I wanted to toss my two cents into the pond.

Essentially, Lisa Morton offers an unhealthily stringent, privilege-soaked, rigid picture of what a “professional writer” looks like and what it takes to be one. Apparently writing is the single most important thing to a professional writer. Apparently a professional writer sets aside everything that is not writing. Apparently a professional writer has no time for restorative inactivity or recreation (re-creation, people, there’s a reason why it’s called that; we need it to be whole). A professional writer never steps away, never rests, never calls it quits. If you can’t adhere to these standards, you’re not a professional writer but a “hobbyist”. Doesn’t matter whether or not you get paid. Doesn’t matter whether or not you can support yourself/your family writing sans day job – a truly awful measure, since very few of us are fortunate enough to be able to do that, no matter how hard we work. Doesn’t matter. You goddamn hobbyist.

It’s entirely possible that Morton didn’t mean all of this the way it comes off. How she comes off is profoundly dickish, but I’m willing to bet she’s actually a lovely person. But I don’t know her as a person, so all I can talk about with any authority is what she’s written, and what she’s written is dickish. It’s also hurtful. The kind of lifestyle she’s advocating – not only advocating but presenting as ideal – is not only wrong-headed but, as I said above, probably deeply unhealthy for most people. I couldn’t do it. I wouldn’t want to do it. No one I know could do it or would want to.

So in the interest of really plumbing the depths of the thing, let’s take her quiz.

1. Is your home/work place messy because that time you’d put into cleaning it is better spent writing? No. Like I said above, having a clean, attractive workspace is an important component of the mental and emotional state that allows me to be productive. I can’t work in squalor or disorder because I’m not comfortable in squalor or disorder. Also I like cleaning.

2. Do you routinely turn down evenings out with friends because you need to be home writing instead? When I turn down evenings with friends, it’s because I’m feeling fragile enough that being social feels overwhelming. Even then, I try not to. Interacting with people makes me mentally healthier, generally. Being mentally healthy helps me to be more productive. I like having friends. Friends are important.

3. Do you turn off the television in order to write? I can’t write with the TV on, so I guess yeah, I do, but I also like TV shows. I watch TV shows. You bet your ass I’ll be watching Breaking Bad tonight. When Supernatural and American Horror Story start back up again, I’ll be setting aside time to watch those too. Yesterday I spent the evening on Frontiere(s), which I’d been wanting to see forever, and it was a blast. It’s also worth pointing out that consuming stories helps one to write stories, and TV/movies are not exempt from that.

4. Would you rather receive useful criticism than praise? I recognize that useful crit is usually more valuable. But praise is valuable too. Feeling like you’re making people happy and doing something right is a huge motivator. Of course I want praise. Of course sometimes I’d rather get praise. I’m not a robot.

5. Do you plan vacations around writing opportunites (either research or networking potential)? My vacations – the few real ones I ever get to take – are vacations. I don’t write during them, or I try not to. I don’t work at all. I vacation. Again – and I can’t emphasize this enough – doing so helps me to be more productive when I get back to work.

6. Would you rather be chatting about the business of writing with another writer than exchanging small talk with a good friend? No. Why would anyone feel this way? I mean, your mileage may vary and everyone is different, but seriously.

7. Have you ever taken a day job that paid less money because it would give you more time/energy/material to write? This is one I might say yes to, because when I’m just absolutely fed up with grad school and being poor and feeling like I’m in professional limbo, the fact that it allows me abundant flexible free time in which to write keeps me where I am. I recognize how lucky I am in that. I intend to take full advantage. But I don’t want to do that forever.

8. Are you willing to give up the nice home you know you could have if you devoted that time you spend writing to a more lucrative career? See above. Also see above in that I actually have a nice home. Again, my privilege.

9. Have you done all these things for at least five years? I’ve only been getting paid to write consistently for four years. Thanks for introducing a completely arbitrary time threshold. That’s very helpful.

10. Are you willing to live knowing that you will likely never meet your ambitions, but you hold to those ambitions nonetheless? Honestly? Yeah. I know I’ll probably never write as well as, say, Cat Valente, but that doesn’t stop me from wanting to try. But I think that’s true for most people with a dream. That’s sort of what a dream is. I’m not sure it has a whole lot to do with the rest of these measure of professionalism.

This is bullshit. There’s an addendum at the bottom of the piece that suggests that Morton didn’t intend to include people who have to work day jobs to support themselves, but I think that’s kind of bullshit as well; the whole thing reads – to me – like Morton is including all writers, and then declaring the vast majority of them, for whom this is all basically impossible and entirely undesirable – not real professional writers for not wanting/not being able to perform to her standards.

I don’t know what to call that other than bullshit.

“If you’ve already glanced at these questions and scoffed, you are a hobbyist. And that’s okay, as long as you don’t call yourself a professional. At least around irritable me.

Okay, Lisa. Sure. Hi, I’m Sunny, and I’m a hobbyist.

I wrote a post that sort of dealt with this topic a while ago. I said that a writer makes sacrifices in order to find time to write, but that’s not all a writer does. A writer reads, goes out and experiences life, does whatever they need to do in order to be able to write, including things that are not writing. Do you get paid for your words? Congratulations: you are a professional writer. Now get back to work. Even if “work” for you right now consists of TV or staring into space.

I’m going to end this with a quote from Brian Keene’s rebuttal, which I think gets to the heart of it.

A professional writer is not deemed so by how much they get paid per word, or how many words they produce, or how many awards they’ve won, or what position they hold in a writer’s organization, or how much networking they do at conventions. A professional writer does one thing — they treat their writing professionally. They produce. They edit. They constantly strive to get better. They sit their ass down in a chair and put their fingers on a keyboard and they type.

A professional writer spends more time writing than they do talking about writing.

Me and novels and writing: a FAQ

John Scalzi did a novel FAQ today, which was both informative and entertaining – par for the course with him – and it also looked kind of fun, so I thought I’d steal the idea and do one of my own.

novel-writing-ideasBecause clearly I don’t need to be putting my entire life in boxes so we can move next week or anything.

How many novels have you written?

Oh, God. Um. Something like six? And I’m working on a seventh. Two more are in the planning stages. Of those, two have been picked up for publication (Line and Orbit and Crowflight) and two more are likely to be (the sequels Fall and Rising and Ravenblood). One (Wordsinger) is out trying to land me an agent. The other two written novels have been shelved. The moral of the story is that sometimes you have to do this multiple times before you start getting not-awful at it.

Where do your ideas come from?

Everywhere. Seriously, I don’t even know. They just come. At least the first ones do. Sequels clearly come from somewhere in particular. I should also say that when I’m writing something that I know will have a sequel, I usually have at least a very rough idea of where the next book will go, and while I don’t subscribe to hard-and-fast rules in writing, I recommend that.

How do you know if your idea is a novel idea or a short story idea?

Some ideas just feel bigger. When I get ideas for plots the very basic idea tends to come in mostly complete form, and from that it’s generally easy to get a sense of how long it’s going to have to be to let me do what I want. Sometimes I do get fooled, though. At least two short stories that I’ve written have ended up being either planned or actual novels.

Do you plan everything out ahead of time? Or do you make it up as you go?

A little of both. I like to start with a basic outline of the trajectory of a story, and then the details come as they come. I find that more enjoyable, because it means that I’m continually surprised as I write, which makes it more exciting for me. The one novel that I really did plan out scene by scene – which became Crowflight – ended up being underwritten and frankly felt less organic, though I did manage to finish the first draft in only a month. I suspect that not doing excessive planning means that I’m not equipped to handle really complex plots, but I have faith that once I want to write a story like that, I’ll muddle through. Again, even after six of these I’m still learning how to do it.

How did you get your novels published?

Research and time and patience. I mean, the obvious most important initial step is to write the best book you can, but after that there’s still a huge amount of work to be done. You need to know the market. You need to get a sense of what the best  home is for what you’ve written. If you want to go the agent route – which is probably still the best one for most people, if you really want to make money doing this – you need to know about agents as well. Once you know where you want to send it, you need to be ready to repeat the process multiple times, because odds are, you’ll get rejected more than once. And rejections add up to a lot of time. It may be quite a while – months, years – from when you finish your novel to when you actually sell it. And then longer than that to actual publication.

I should note that to date, I haven’t sold a book via the agent route because I don’t yet have an agent. There are some benefits to doing it the way I did. There are also a lot of drawbacks. That might have to be another post.

How many words a day do you write? When do you do your writing?

I try to do at least a thousand words a day, which is twice as much as my minimum used to be. When I’m working on more than one long project simultaneously – which I do not necessarily recommend – I try to do a thousand words a day on each. When I was really burning through the end of Fall and Rising, I was doing between five and nine thousand words a day and it was exhausting.

I try to get my writing done early in the day, before noon if possible, simply because I’ve found that I suffer from brain fatigue as the day gets later. It can also serve as additional motivation – I can’t do anything else until the day’s work is done. I should be clear about the fact that I’m hugely privileged to be able to write that way – one of the pluses of being in the kind of PhD program I am. One of the reasons why I try to write so much right now is because I’m very aware that this state of affairs won’t last forever, and I probably won’t be able to be this consistently productive for more than another year or so.

How long does it take you to finish a novel?

Depends. Line and Orbit took approximately nine months to finish, and so did the two novels I wrote after that. Then Crowflight took, as I said, only a month, and both Wordsinger and Fall and Rising took four or five months. Generally I’d say I’m getting faster, but speed depends on so many different variables, many of which have little or nothing to do with writing itself.

How many drafts do you do?

Generally no more than two or three before I submit for publication. I’m incredibly lucky in that first drafts for me tend to emerge almost fully formed, and usually don’t require a tremendous amount of initial work. As I said, Crowflight was underwritten, and I ended up adding about 30k words to it, but the basic form was fine. The two novels that I’ve shelved were complete as far as it went, but I also just didn’t think they were all that good, and I didn’t feel like I was invested enough in putting in the extensive work that would have been required to make them better. It just seemed like a wiser use of my time to move on to other things.

How do you feel about fanworks based on your writing?

Go for it.

Here’s my very inspired and productive writing process

For a variety of reasons mostly having to do with dissertation work, the Sunday Linkdump is on hold, though I anticipate being back to it by next Sunday. I’ve Writers-Blockrecently completed the final draft of my dissertation proposal (I defend on the 14th) and I gave myself the weekend off on account of the brain needing a recharge.

But today I’m back on the writing horse, so of course I’m putting off doing any actual work on anything with a blog post.

I’ve talked a lot about my writing philosophy, and even some about how my personal stages of novel-writing work, but I’m not sure that I’ve really outlined the details of my particular process. So, to that end, here’s how I usually do what I do.

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I have opinions: What’s a writer?

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I’ve been publishing SF for almost half a decade now, but I still feel like I’m only just figuring out what the hell I’m doing. Therefore, it always makes me slightly uneasy to put myself in a position where I’m giving anyone else advice about writing and how to do it – both the mechanics and the practical elements – and even more uneasy when I’m talking about definitions of anything. and I’m sort of intrinsically uneasy with categories anyway. Given all of that, please let me go into this with the caveat that this is just my understanding of a thing, and it shouldn’t supersede anyone else’s understanding of a thing that may differ from my own.

All that said, I think “how do you know you’re a writer” is a very interesting question to consider.

I’m not sure when I first started thinking of myself as a writer, but I know that I was long before I started getting stories published in places. What changed is that I started to be more comfortable calling myself a writer, and doing so in mixed company. What I wrote for a long time before original fiction was fanfiction, and I think most of us know and would agree that fanfiction is still verboten in many circles, and a thing to be looked down upon. And I don’t think that’s entirely fair.

I do think it’s fair to call fanfiction a different kind of writing from original fiction in a number of fundamental ways. Those differences are subtle and not necessarily clear across the board – as with any system of categorization I think we need to leave room for a lot of boundary-shifting and liminal space – but I do think they’re there.

Different is not worse than.

So what does a writer write? I’m pretty much with John Scalzi on this one:

A writer…chooses written words, and chooses them not just for mechanical and practical reasons, but for (or also for) esthetic and artistic purposes. Writers want to write, rather than have to write. In presenting an idea, the medium they intend for it to be in is the written word.

Intent is what matters here, to my mind. Not publishing – necessarily – and not whether you’re writing with characters you made up. I think insisting anything else is categorical gatekeeping, and I’m not really a fan of that practice because it makes our collective world smaller and narrower, and therefore less fun. It also makes it more hierarchical. Hierarchy is generally bad.

So besides intent, what – in my estimation – makes someone a writer? Here are a few things:

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Five things fanfiction taught me about writing as a career and five things it didn’t

I got my start writing fanfiction.

Actually, that’s not completely true: I got my start in writing as a six-year-old by putting together a series of stapled colored-pencil picture books about a magic flower. Also by concocting long and extremely involved epic storylines with my model dinosaurs and my Lion King action figures. But after that: fanfiction.

I get the sense that writing fanfic – in one’s past and even more in one’s present – is still a somewhat stigmatized activity among professional fiction writers. Probably less so than it used to be – more and more authors are coming from backgrounds in fanfiction, or are at least willing to talk openly about it – but still, I feel like admitting that I’m one of those amounts to making a slightly uncomfortable confession. Oh, you’re one of THEM. Like it’s something that I should be embarrassed by.

The truth is, fanfiction taught me a lot. The truth is that fanfiction has probably played a huge contributing role in getting me where I am now. I met my Line and Orbit co-author through a pan-fandom roleplaying game on Livejournal; we learned to write together through playing with each other’s characters, and we learned that we enjoyed it enough to embark on something original and novel-length. So it hasn’t been a waste of time, and it hasn’t been without value.

But the truth is also that there are several very important things that fanfiction didn’t teach me. That it couldn’t teach me. And I think anytime we’re discussing the value of fanfiction in writing fiction in general, we also need to be very clear about its limitations.

So here’s some of what it taught me – and some of what I had to learn on my own.

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