The Need For Speed

So, I write a lot. You may have noticed this from me everywhere.

I also write fast, or at least I do when circumstances cooperate and I can sit down and bash out some words. This contributes to the impression that I write a lot; on a bad day I can usually grind out 500 words or so, and on a good day I can get up to 8-10k, sometimes 14k on different projects? I think that’s my upper limit. I did this by breaking myself, in the way that you can shape bones and bodies when they’re young and malleable by breaking them. I dont’ recommend it, and I’ve gotten into it in more depth elsewhere on my blog.

One of the ways I do write fast though, that I do advocate, is because I have learned to both shut up my inner editor and to use her to my advantage. I recommend starting with gagging your inner editor, sitting them in a corner, and telling them to think about their many and varied sins and how you’re not going to have anything for them to complain about if you don’t finish this first draft. Once you and your inner editor have gotten into that routine (and if you have you might know what I’m talking about here) you can begin Phase 2 of becoming Even More Awesome.

Look, if you ground out a first draft you are an Awesome Writer by my way of thinking. Drafts are hard. So we’ll work on being Even More Awesome.

My mind is, eh, I don’t want to say a finely tuned instrument but more like it’s a government institution. Which is to say that it has inertia on its side, it works sluggishly at times and way too fast at others, and both of these times are the least convenient. (I refer you to the perpetual phenomenon of Ideas In The Shower.) It has many rooms and offices that each perform functions, another thing I’ve gone into more detail elsewhere about which rooms perform what functions. Today we’re going to be looking at the Inner Editor’s office. It’s pretty empty most of the time, after all she’s not very useful in getting the draft out, but some things do live there with reasonable permanence.

The first thing that comes to mind as I write this is also the latest thing: the shelf of weasels. Occasionally these weasels will be retired and new weasels will show up. Not the typical kind of brainweasels, these are what Editrix calls the “weasel words,” the ones that I’ve started using as conversational filler like ‘almost’ and ‘at least’ and so on. And in some places they’re justified, but most of the time they dilute the writing and wear down the impact, so I leave the weasel cages on a shelf to remind me to cut that out. Every paragraph or page or so I go back and look; did I use them? Could I take them out? No? Good. Stay in your cages. The whole process takes about thirty seconds if I don’t have to make any changes, and then I’m on writing the next chunk of text. Sometimes I can catch them before they escape their cages and pee all over my text, which is ideal. Nobody likes watery weasel pee-soaked text.

Another thing I do is I have a few coats hanging on hooks. If I’m doing detective pulp I’ll have a detective coat on my hook and every few minutes I’ll do an internal check to make sure I’m in that mode. Clipped sentences, vivid description. Hints scattered here and there. How’s the tension? If I’m doing something more along a fantasy line I might keep a simple or a fancy cloak, and do an internal check there as I write. I want something that flows well and has a lyrical quality to it, without being so heavy in the phrase or word choice that I weigh myself down and can’t move the story at all.

I use visual metaphors to describe this because that’s how I think. What I’m doing is getting used to keeping these concepts in mind as I write, but separating it out from the part of my brain that worries over everything. I refer to it often as hanging things on hooks in my head, and it’s complicated at first but gets easier with practice. It helps to do a few test runs of writing shorter things at first, keeping one or two things in mind as you write and otherwise just going as fast as you reasonably can while maintaining coherence of story.

The other thing I do, unrelated to my Inner Editor’s Office, when I sit down to write is I have an idea of what the scene is. I’m afraid this may just take practice, or if there’s a method to learning how to do it I haven’t picked it out of my head yet. I’ll sit down to write a scene and I’ll know, for example, that this is the scene in which a father tells his daughter his life story. I’ll know it starts with a meal, and in the kitchen, and that the immediate family will be there. I’ll pick a point before the action starts and I won’t stop until I’ve completed the scene goal and gotten everyone to where they need to be, or until it’s become obvious that I’ve run so completely off the rails that I need to stop and go back and start again, or reassess what I need out of this scene.

As with all useful skills, it takes practice to do this. It takes a lot of practice to write well, fast, to get things up to 50% right on the first try. Which honestly is about as high as I’d try to get on the first try, so tell your inner editor to can it. But it’s a skill worth developing if you’re one of those people who has a lot of stories you want to tell and a limited amount of time in which to write.

I know this torment. Trust me. I have a to-write list a mile long. Speed writing is the only way I get things done without becoming an eternal scream of frustration.

If you don’t have a lot of stories to tell or you have as much time as you feel you want or need to write, don’t worry about practicing this! But for those of you who are like me, who have so many stories in your head and are typing at the speed of light to get this out before you have to go someplace or do something or wrangle a child or a pet, I hope these tricks work for you.

The 2%

At this point I’ve been writing so long that there are things I don’t notice about the ways I write. They just are. My brain just works this way, it doesn’t strike me as odd or patterned until someone else points out hey, I’ve noticed this thing about you. Case in point, this tweet chain that started off with an observation my Editrix made about me several days ago after I’d just finished the second near-final draft of a novel of this year.

The novel I just finished, by the way, was not the first draft that was over 50% correct. That honor goes to Turing Shrugged, which as of this blog post is in submissions and so y’all may not see it for some time. I’m sorry! I swear it’s a really good, fun novel. Even if I did kill off one of my favorite characters to write.

This is a new phenomenon for me. For all that I write, and if you’ve read this blog for any length of time or looked at that twitter thread, you know I write a lot. I wrote out a whole post as to why! (Dumbassery. Is the short version, I was an idiot.) I’ve gotten better over the years about finishing things I write even if I don’t always finish them immediately and a lot of times if there’s six months between starting and finishing the end won’t resemble the beginning very much. And not in a sequential way. So. In the twitter thread I estimated that I write about ten items every year, fifty items every five years. One or two of those will be novels, one or two will be novellas, and the other six or so will be short stories. This might be a conservative estimate given how often I’ll hear something that my brain will interpret as a prompt and go off cackling into writer-land, but we’ll go with it. Ten works a year, fifty works in a five year. And only one of those will be over fifty percent correct the first time. Which works out to 2% and roughly means every work has a 2% chance of being that one.

(I may be doing probability wrong here, by the way, it has been a very long time since I reviewed math on a regular basis.)

I tell you this because hating your first draft is a feeling that never, ever goes away. Because even experienced writers, especially when the drafting is novel length, have the soggy middle that starts whispering you suck you have no idea what you’re doing this entire novel sucks go lay brick somewhere. Yes. The first draft sucks. It’s supposed to suck. That is the point of a first draft.

No, I’m wrong, that’s not the point of a first draft, the point of a first draft is to take a trial run at the novel and see where the edges are, how close you get to dealing with it, where your problems are going to be, and if this is a thing that should exist by your hand or by someone else’s.

You’re not going to find out any of these things if you don’t write it. If you don’t finish it.

You’re not going to find out how long it’s actually supposed to be. You’re not going to find out that it’s supposed to be in third person instead of first, or vice versa. You won’t find out that you’re actually telling three different stories here. You’re not going to find out that it’s not supposed to be about exams and stressing over your future, it’s supposed to be about intergalactic conspiracy and dealing with feelings getting in the way of ambition. You’re not going to find out that no, there really is no way for that character not to die. You won’t find out that the ending is like the gasp of fresh air and burst of sunshine on the eyeballs when you crawl out of that three mile tunnel of shit and sewer water. And you won’t find out that this is a story you have enough passion and drive and imagination to tell. Or, perhaps, that this isn’t a story for you to tell and should be handed off to someone else. Not that there’s any guarantee that someone else will write it but the point is you don’t know until you’ve completed that first draft.

First drafts suck. They’re very rough sketches, sometimes they’re outlines in prose form. Sometimes you veer off south when you should be going east, ask me how I know and about the novel I rewrote literally half (45k words or so) of because the first time it got stuck in a boggy mire and I floundered around for 40k words. Sometimes you get distracted. It happens. Without that first draft, you will never know that the work wasn’t supposed to be this, but that. You can’t have the fix until you make the mistake. And you can’t polish the thing until you have something to polish and can see where all the nicks and stains are.

Ask me how I know. Ask me about the novel I’m about to start again that I’ve written four goddamn times. I think four, by now. I’m not sure. Somewhere around eight or more years ago this one character dropped into my head and put his feet up on my mental desk and not only has refused to leave, has refused to cough up a coherent novel four times. So, periodically, I keep throwing myself at the fucker in the hopes that it’ll work this time if I do this one thing differently. I think I have it now. We’ll find out by the end of the year.

First drafts suck. You have my permission to hate your first draft. You have my permission to feel like it’s the most arduous task on earth if you need it. Not that you need my permission for anything. But my support and reassurance then, you have it, because your first draft is going to suck. My first draft is going to suck. Stephen King, Neil Gaiman, and George RR Martin’s first drafts are all going to suck, because a first draft is figuring out all the places the story isn’t. It’s only when you get very lucky that 2% of the time that a first draft is when you find out where the story is. The rest is sifting through mud and sewage looking for its shiny buttons.

Line by Line

Oh good gravy I haven’t updated this thing in over a year. Hi! How’s it going. I bet y’all missed getting email notifications from me about rambling blog posts, didn’t you. For the record, I think in the future I’m going to try to do a less rambly more long-form version of the twitter screeds I’ve been writing, which may at least keep me writing regular blog posts since I abandoned this blog thinking I have nothing to talk about.

(This was a blatant falsehood on someone’s part. Probably my brain lying to me again.)

So. Someone asked me if I could describe how I do line edits, and it looks like I’ve done a post on selecting an editor or when to know an editor is right for you, and a post (mostly) about the emotional weight and journey of editing, but not how I do line edits. So here is a very rough nuts, bolts, and widgets post about what happens after I finish a first draft.

Step 1: Fall over. Don’t write. Watch TV. Paint minis. Sew something. Knit or cross-stitch. The time immediately after having finished something is a time of putting that part of the brain on standby to recharge. If it’s a short story typically this means an hour or so of television, a book, doing something else for the rest of the day. If it’s a novel I do something else for the rest of the day and work on something else for the next six weeks or so. I try not to pick up a novel for at least six weeks after the first draft. It helps you relax, recharge, get some distance, let those neurons have a break from firing off ideas all the time.

Step 2: Fortify before reading. I get comfortable, make sure I haven’t skipped any meals recently and have had food at all the right times, make sure I have water. I want to eliminate all possible outside sources of malcontent so I don’t mistake being dehydrated for the headache that comes from incoherent writing. And I try not to eat a lot of sugar or otherwise get worked up in ways unhealthy for me. That’s not good either.

Step 3: Re-read. Sometimes I don’t re-read the whole thing, sometimes I skim parts (and note what I’ve skimmed and why, because if I’m bored a reader will be too, conversely if I’m skimming because I’ve already re-read that part umpteen million times that may be a good thing) but I re-read. And my best Editrix reads over too, not always simultaneous, and gives me a pile of notes either in email or at the beginning of the document for me to go over. So part of this re-read is reading her notes and jotting down how to implement her ideas or if I have other ideas how to fix it.

Step 4: Consult. The first rewrite isn’t always a complete tear-down (sometimes it is but thankfully these days if that happens it’s only because the book is ten years old) so generally what I’m doing here is talking with the Editrix and saying okay, so how much parrot do I need to put in, I can include the parrot here, here, and here. Or, hey this is suddenly very topical, I could redo the ending and adjust it so that there’s this private discussion instead of a public shaming. Or what have you. Most of the time I’m consulting on the major edits so I can work them in as I rewrite on the minor ones.

Step 5: Line edits. Now I’m finally going through the novel line by line, paragraph by paragraph, and fixing small things like phrasing, typos, punctuation, run-on sentences, unclear sentences, unclear antecedents, etc etc. Passive voice to active, or more rarely but it still happens, active voice to passive. Editrix keeps a list of words or phrases I overuse to beat me with periodically, so I get to rephrase to take those out too. While I’m doing line edits I also add in larger chunks of text, or sometimes take it out, to deal with those major or as we call them macro edits. Any text that are a sentence or longer get added in in a different color so Editrix can see what’s changed and decide if that’s better or if I should go back to what I just took out. Deletes are marked with a strikeout before they’re fully deleted.

Step 6: Repeat the last two steps basically. Consult, see if there are any more macro edits to be done, if the story’s in good shape for the overall construction of it, if all characters and action are properly paced. If all Chekhov’s guns have gone off. (And if you don’t know what that is Google or I will be happy to explain.) If there’s more macro edits, we do another round of that and then another round of line edits because there are inevitably large chunks of text that need line edits.

Step 7: Editrix and I both do one last read-over once it’s done for small line edits, the last fiddly bits, and take out all strikeouts and fill in all bracket notes. Simultaneous to this or just prior there will be a re-read for timeline check, and depending on what’s happening in the novel there might also be a closer read of some scenes for choreography and blocking. Just to make sure one character isn’t moving an extra hand they don’t have. This is actually the last step before publication, so when I talk about clearing line edits, this is usually what I mean. Last lingering strikeouts, the final sticky typos that were somehow missed all previous versions, bracket notes [bracket notes example here] that I haven’t fixed or cleared because I have no idea what to do with them. Usually these are names of people or places, I hate that part.

Step 8: … party? The novel’s pretty much done now, so it’s time to party before I realize I have to write promo copy in five different lengths, find cover art, so on and so forth. Groan. The perils of self-publishing.

February 2016

In addition to trying this whole blog weekly thing, I’m going to try this thing where I keep you updated on what I’m working on. If nothing else, it ought to give me a headspace where I keep organized and keep things going. And possibly keep me from getting as behind as I did last year. Oops.

The Long Road – Oh my poor baby. This story’s been with me a while, but I think I might finally have figured out how to write it in a way that I’m happy with. So I’m drafting this story based originally in the premise of: if one of the oldest forms of magic is name magic, what do you do when a valuable heir to a faerie empire doesn’t have a name? The young prince grows up completely unaware of his heritage, makes friends, lives a very long life before his father comes looking to bring him back to his purported kingdom. But by this time, he’s not any sort of prince the faery kindom would recognize.

White Lightning – The long put off sequel to Black Ice because I had no idea how hard and complicated writing an entire anthology on my own would be. Hint: Very. I don’t recommend it. I do, however, recommend Black Ice because it’s fun and there are premeditated moose. White Lightning takes place a short time after, dealing with a different set of characters and focus mostly on the fae and how they interact with the world today. This anthology is mostly drafted, I’m just working on edits at this point. Long, long edits.

Will Shakespeare: A Play – A group of college students, still living in the same area after school, find themselves somewhat adrift. To combat this, a few of them decide to write and stage a play to bring them back together and remind themselves that despite the grinding monotony of their day jobs, they are still brilliant at the creative work they used to do and still love. The play, of course, stars Will Shakespeare as an aspiring playwright, and the main authors of it are a young couple named Romeo and Juliet. I blame tumblr for this entirely. And various friends for encouraging me. This isn’t even in drafts yet, so I wouldn’t look too hard for it.

Sandborn – A novel of the Blasted Lands, a world where magic was the ruination of the land and the people in its path, reducing everything to desert with more and more viable land being used up every generation. Unto this wasteland a child is born with the stubbornness of her father and the insight of her mother and the magical ability of both. Not that she knows it until someone comes a-hunting and the only folk standing between her and an unpleasant death are the wandering carnival she just met. In the final stages of edits, and hopefully to be out soon.

The Queen and her Parliament – This was originally supposed to be a novella for paid release. But after January, that doesn’t seem right. The serial numbers have been fairly well filed off, but the origins of this story lie in what should be a very recognizable movie. Your clue: a parliament of barn owls.

It’s Got Anxiety

I am doing too many projects too close together, in too much of a state of near-readiness (okay to be fair one would be in too much of a state of near readiness) and I am taking all of these self-imposed deadlines way too hard. I can tell this because I’ve turned myself into a living embodiment of the “it’s got anxiety” meme. Do not do this.

It’s not as though I didn’t have warning. The entire back half of last year was spent doing twenty things in a day and muttering to myself that this incessant need to be productive, to justify things that are not productive (watching TV, playing Diablo) with finishing absolutely everything beforehand. It’s not even as though this is uncommon! I don’t know off the top of my head what any of the technical terms for it are, but I know it’s not uncommon. (Editrix: f we’re talking SUPER technical that’s totally in the OCD family of anxiety; workaholism, superwoman complex, my desperate need to go stab John Calvin in the face?) (Thank you, my dear, the swords are in the garage loft.)

Let’s have a breakdown, pun entirely intended, of what’s going on now. I’m writing this blog post so I don’t have to look at Sandborn and deal with the last few edits before it goes off to the Editrix for a second pass. After which it’s entirely possible that all the major structural edits will be done and all that’s left is typos and word choices before it goes to publication, so there’s that anxiety. Then there’s White Lightning, which is so far behind schedule it’s come all the way around to potentially be on schedule a year later, plus trying to balance this with finishing the draft of Long Road so that can sit and percolate. I’m studying Arabic and Hindi and making slow progress, which is great, but I’ve started these languages for the third time. All of last year was wheel spinning. Not the crafty fun kind. I’ve picked up guitar, which is going fine except for not managing to do regular exercises in the exercise-a-day book the way I want to, I’ve started drawing which… no, actually, that may be the one thing that doesn’t have a caveat attached to it. So I have that going for me. But my online course in bio is semi-comprehensible at best and I seem to attach the same kind of importance to that as I do to classes I took in real live school, so that’s not helping. We’ve got a fair amount of blog-work to do that, given the timeframe, is not awful but needs to be addressed before it becomes so. Plus martial arts, plus eating healthy, plus dressing myself and keeping a budget, plus plus plus.

And part of this is almost definitely that I’m still wobbly on time management and the very small margin for exhaustion I leave myself. And part of this is that no, I do not have a deadline on the progress I make in the umpty-million languages I want to progress in, I do not have a deadline on the guitar or the drawing, if I do not get the practice in every night it’s fine. If I take a night to do nothing but write and play Diablo, that’s fine too. If I go to bed early and skip Arabic and Hindi for a night, that’s okay. If I decide to up and quit either or both of those languages, no one is going to penalize me but me.

This is where one of those we are our own worst enemies. We give it coming and going, coming with the scheduling and going when we inevitably realize that we’ve fucked ourselves over and there is no room to breathe here, we forgot to allow ourselves time to be human. To have nervous fits, to have bad days, to catch colds, to have something break. Ourselves or the material we’re working with, pick one. We’re not machines. We get tired.

I don’t know why this is such a hard concept for me to grasp. I try to comfort myself by telling myself this isn’t just me, I’m not the only one that does this. Whether or not I believe myself is a whole other story again, because see also anxiety and the chaos in my head tends to eschew sensibility in favor of whatever is most dramatic at the time. Normally this would also be the part in the blog post when I offer a pithy solution, but I don’t have any of those either.

The only solution or saving grace I have to offer is this self-examination. Good habits, and several years of reminding myself that downtime is just as important as productivity. More so, because it gets left by the wayside so often. Sleep, as my doctor recently reminded me, is essential to good health. Rest is, also. Anxiety and memes and compulsive need to measure up to ridiculous standards aside, my worth as a human being is not measured by how many amazing and useful things i can get done in a day, and neither is yours. We can be our own worst enemies, or we can breathe and take a moment and be our own allies the way we would for any other friend.

There are enough things in this world trying to tear us down, tear us apart. Let’s try and not be one of them.

Make It And Break It, or Drawing Lessons

As part of my whole new year new me plan — that’s sales pitch speech for I took advantage of the collective concept of transitional space to fold in a bunch of new lessons and skills into my day — I picked up some drawing supplies and drawing lessons. No particular reason, it was a thing I have vague memory of enjoying and decided to try doing again.

It’s going pretty well! For a given definition of well, I mean, it’s going, I’m persisting. But I’m running into the same problem I did when I was a high school student, I can’t draw what I see in my head, I certainly can’t draw up to the degree that other people I know can, therefore what’s the point in even trying, and I put it down. Or I stop, or I put off practice and I put it off and I put it off.

This week I haven’t been doing much of it because it’s been a very rough week and I haven’t been doing much of anything, so I expect to run into this again. But on Sunday I had a fit of wanting to avoid it somewhere on the scale of I was almost more ready to pay the monthly bills than I was to do drawing practice. And this was something I was excited and ready and bouncing to do even before the appointed time of starting regular practice, so clearly something was wrong. I didn’t even have to do much mental digging to figure out what was wrong, this idea that if I can’t do it perfect right the first time I shouldn’t bother trying at all is far too familiar. In a lot of kids it happens because they’re told they’re gifted. They’re told they’re smart, they’re brilliant, they should live up to their potential, they should do ten different things in a day in addition to their regular schoolwork and they should be brilliant at all of them. I wasn’t told I was especially brilliant, especially gifted, or put in any G&T programs. I still got a good-sized dose of the everything is easy and perfect the first time or it is crap.

That whole concept is crap. It is bullshit of the first water.

I didn’t get the full dose of this toxic crap and I still have to remind myself that making mistakes, drawing a thousand bad things, awkward people and poorly shaded lilies and bowls of things that might if you squint real hard be fruit, all of these things are what makes a good artist. Making mistakes, writing stories that I look back on ten years later and twitch, this is what makes me a good writer. Playing Wish You Were Here or, heh, Ziggy Stardust and Space Oddity right now, playing them a thousand times, in bits and pieces, and making twanging sounds that made me glad I picked guitar instead of violin (seriously, have you ever heard the beginning stages of getting beautiful music out of violin, it’s not fun), this is what will make me a musician. And that means making myself draw the feather, shade the lily, sketch the stupid damn fruit. And watch myself doing it. And learn from my mistakes, and try not to get into the habit of making them, but do better the next time. And better again. Bit by bit, in slow steps that will be noticeable later even if they aren’t right now.

It’s hard. I hate it. I hate failing. I hate having to push through it to get to where I want to be. It’s hard and it’s exhausting and I hate making myself do it even more when I’m tired, when it’s been a rough week. But I do it, I make myself do it even if it’s just for five minutes because five minutes usually turns into fifteen as I start to do it and enjoy it even when I know it’s not going as well as I want it to, and I remember why I decided to make myself practice regularly in the first place. I make myself do it, we all have to do it, even educated fleas have to do it to get that treasured ‘educated’ status. Making mistakes is how we learn, it’s how we get a thousand sayings that all mean that, from “fail better” to “anything doing is worth doing badly.” A lot of badly. A thousand times of badly.

So I figure I’ll give myself a thousand days of drawing practice, and we’ll see where I’m at at the end of it. That’s a little under three years, isn’t it? Give it three years of trying, and failing, and learning, and trying again. And then we’ll see.

The Stars Look Very Different Today

So. David Bowie.

I didn’t believe it for about an hour after my boyfriend told me, half awake and staggering towards the shower, and now all I can think is, this isn’t right, it’s not supposed to be this way. We’re not meant to live in a world without David Bowie (Yes I know we managed perfectly well for many centuries but dammit.) I don’t get how this happened. He’s supposed to be here floating around with that little smile of his, showing us all how to be serene in our differences. We’re … I don’t know. He didn’t die, he just changed incarnations. This one happens to be the first one not on this earth.

I don’t get it. I disbelieve. I spent the first hour of the morning disbelieving and then the second hour a sobbing mess on the couch instead of doing my morning routines. Really, it’s amazing I got dressed and got something for lunch and got out of the house at all, at this point. I’m kind of amused and touched and comforted to see so many people also going wait, David Bowie’s dead? he can’t die. he’s not mortal like the rest of us. Someone on Twitter had a good quote:

And that’s exactly how I feel. I’m not yet used to a world without David Bowie actively in it, and I don’t know if I ever will be. Hell, I’m not yet used to a world without Christopher Lee or Leonard Nimoy actively in it. I was watching Stargate last night and realized how much I missed Don Davis. I’m still not sure how Robin Williams is gone.

There are these people, and they are so influential in so many people’s lives, their presence is so big that they’re everywhere. And then they leave us, and we’re all left staggering. As a global collective, we reel and wonder, where do we look to now? Here was a giant part of our lives, now gone, what do we do? How do we keep moving after we’ve been gutted like that?

Well, but he’s still here, isn’t he. We still have all these hours of video, all this music.  We have the moment we saw him on stage and couldn’t believe anyone would do that, could get away with that. We have the moment we saw him on screen and didn’t entirely believe he was real. We still have Jareth and Nikola Tesla and Thomas Jerome Newton and the walk-off from Zoolander. We still have this.

I’ve been doing a lot of looking back this morning and boggling at just how much of my writing is influenced by him. (And mostly Labyrinth, to be fair, me and at least a third to half of the girls in the English speaking world around that time wanted the Goblin King to come and take them away.) The entire Sorcerer, Sam, the mysterious gentleman of manners and deep, deep issues who was so very bad for you and yet kind in some peculiar way, who touched you in the core of you and made things all right again and who could break you just as easily, that was all Bowie. And I don’t know how to deal with the real-world person being gone, it feels like all that stuff that he inspired in my head should be gone too even if it isn’t. And it isn’t. See above.

I think, from what I know of him (he was not that cruel in the last decades of his life and I don’t think he ever really meant to be although let’s face it, he had issues for a while), that he’d remind me that what’s in my head isn’t gone. That he’d like to remind us, this is still here. How we felt, how we responded, what we made of ourselves. What I built with his words, his music and his image, that’s not gone. And that’s how people live on, isn’t it? They live on because we remember them and carry them with us, so there’s his immortality.

So I’m going to close my eyes, and I’m going to sit down and have a talk with the Bowie in my head who maybe looks more like the Thin White Duke right now, but give it an hour I’m sure that’ll change. What’s the point of having your own head-Bowie if he doesn’t go through whimsical and yet carefully thought out transformations? And we’re going to have a good cry. Tonight I’m going to eat my feelings, they taste like buttercream frosted sugar cookies. And then, when we’ve had our cry and gotten the most of that out, we’re going to pick up and keep on being weird and bizarre and alien, keep on being proud and confident and defiant, keep on being a rebel. Keep on being a hero.

We love you, David. We always will.

The Mule

I had occasion to dig up Elizabeth Gilbert’s TED talk recently on your elusive creative genius. And I don’t remember where I found this in the first place, I don’t generally subscribe to TED talks as a thing although like any thing they can be useful. I found her talk to be extremely useful to go back and remind myself of from time to time. And so I dug it out again and sent the link to a few friends in case they wanted to watch it, and put it on again myself.

Periodically, usually around Nanowrimo, I see a number of usually forum posts about how writing is hard, how do I (the general and more personal to the poster I, not I, Kitty, in specific) write, how does this work, writing is hard. And my answer in my head whenever I read these is oh my sweet summer child. And then if it’s a general question I try to come up with an answer on paper or screen that at least is concise and hopefully applicable and helpful to their point of view, or at least some alternatives to encourage.

A funny thing about her TED talk: she describes her process in terms of discipline, but also in terms of connection to something other or divine. She calls it a genius. Stephen King calls it, I think, the Basement Muse, which is a term I like and appropriated for mine when I’m not calling him “that asshole.” I’m not terribly polite to my muses, no. My muse is a little more complicated than a single entity. I’ve discussed it elsewhere, I think? My muse is a workshop with looms and clay and things, and each type of project whether it’s worldbuilding or writing the actual text or discovering and shaping a character is a different skill. And in my workshop I have workers, like the Basement Muse, or the Tiny Goddess, or the Anteater of Death, or various other characters who wander in and out of things. And there are times when I’m juggling many projects, and I have too many ideas and I have to close my eyes and start hanging them all up on hooks. I have to look inward and gesture at all of these hooks with all of these projects and “Okay, can you come give me a hand with this? Make sure this stays here, build on this somewhere back there, make sure it doesn’t go away? This, I have no idea what this is, see what you can do with it, though, it looks promising. I’m going to be over here, working on this, I’ll check back with you soon.”

I like this idea that she describes, that many many people have had over years and centuries. Separating the worker from the work is something that happens more often in non-creative enterprises like car assembly or grocery cashiering. Not that grocery cashiering involves as much individuality and interpretation as ballet, or better yet choreography or writing, but still the accountant gets the benefit of being separated from her work in a way that the artist doesn’t, necessarily. She can put away her books and go home, and no one will ask her how the accounting was with the expectation that it was hard, grueling, she had to struggle to do three columns of sums, In the arts, however, people have the strange dichotomy of insisting that artists must be tortured and insisting that writing or drawing or what have you must be easy, and in order to put out good work you must be talented rather than skilled.

She describes herself as a mule. I like that; I’m a mule too, I’m obstinate and I persevere in the strong and sincere belief that writing involves ass in chair, fingers on keyboard. (Or pen on paper, whichever floats your taco.) I try, I’m not always successful but I try to write a certain number of words per day, to only juggle a certain number of projects so I don’t start twenty things and never finish them, to keep track of everything in a spreadsheet so that I know what I’ve been working on and what could use some more focus. It’s less work than it sounds, honestly, and it’s worth it to keep me from starting twenty things and never finishing them.

But there’s also the work. There’s the work, and there’s the work. There’s the labor, and there’s the inexplicable source of the sequence that goes from idea to planning (if you’re a planner) to drafting and the choosing of words, to realizing that doesn’t at all line up with the plan and finding out where it diverges. Taking a brief detour through the boggy middle of this was a stupid idea why did I ever think it would work. To the realization that this could work, to more choosing of words and editing and taking this out and finding time to write this other piece and cram it in sideways, to finished product. It’s a bit like watching a tree grow. You started out with an acorn and an idea, and somehow over time little barely tangible things like water and sunlight and the fertility of the earth combined, and one day you blink and realize you’ve got a fucking sapling in your backyard. Hey, where’d this novel come from? Days and weeks and months and sometimes years of work.

So, okay, fine, I’m a mule. I plod along. I do my thousand, two thousand words a day, I put one word in front of the other if I have to, reminding myself every five minutes that that is how things get written. And if I don’t call the more nebulous part of what I’m doing in any way divine, I will call it ‘other,’ because I have no idea how my brain is able to seize upon a collection of news articles or words or ideas and smash them together and call them a novel idea. I doubt the most knowledgeable neurosurgeon does. It is an Other. Sometimes I’m on good terms with it. Sometimes less so. But it does help to give me a degree of separation to the process to where I can put it down, walk away, and play Diablo for an hour if I have to.

(P.S. The obvious caveat here is, for all that the inspiration or idea process may be other, I am the one choosing to put the words down and put them into the public view. These words and works are ultimately my responsibility, the Basement Muse is not holding a gun to my head. If he were, I would have infinitely more problems. Starting with the fact that a fictional character would be holding a gun to my head.)

Post Camp Nanowrimo 2015

Well, that happened. That was a thing that I did.

And I learned something about myself! I learned that I can, in fact, draft a novel in a month. I would probably have been even more able to draft a longer novel in a month if I hadn’t come down with flu for four days or had to work a day job. Which is moderately terrifying. Of course, the idea of churning out 12 novels in a year is somewhat tempered by the knowledge that no, this novel is in no way shape or form ready for publication, and you do have to sit down and edit the thing before you do publish, and that will take a few months at the very absolute pushing-myself-ridiculously least. But I guess it’s gratifying to know that I can do that? Maybe that puts it at three novels a month, one for each Nanowrimo, and then I can spend the rest of the year editing and putting out dime novels. Certain People are going to kill me for saying that now.

Anyway. So. Nano happened. I wrote a little over 80k, eighty thousand words, which when put together with what I’d already written before I started this, makes almost 100k. A good sized novel. And about a third of that is going out the window already, because it’s filler, it’s me kicking stuff around while I get to know the characters if not the world in and of itself. Insufficient prep! I mean, at this rate by the time I write Long Road for the third? Fourth time? It might even be worth something, or very close to a final draft by the end of it, and on the other hand oh dear god you mean I have to cut 33k of the Demon Hunters draft and write it all over again?

This is what it’s like to be a writer, folks. This is why they say, if you can do anything else, anything at all, and get the same kind of fulfillment, do that instead. You get the elation of having finished a draft followed by the horror and dread of realizing that you have to rewrite huge chunks of it. This is also why, not incidentally, I put off editing until six weeks minimum after I’ve finished a novel draft. Because in the moment of being elated and in despair and over-emotional, I’m likely to cut out the wrong things. Or just scrap the thing entirely when there was a workable novel there.

(I wonder if agencies and editors have the same problem with Camp Nanowrimo as they do with Nanowrimo, given that the focus is more on writing in general and less on writing a novel. After Nanowrimo has become known, as Nano has become more famous, as the month of the killer slushpile. Poor agencies and editors.)

Right now, post Nano, I have a frillion and one projects. It’s almost comical. I’m picking up a dime novel I had mostly drafted and finishing it, I’m finishing up the edits on Sandborn where I’d gotten line edits done and now I have to filter in some scenes I’d only elided before. I’m picking up White Lightning and shaking it out for what needs written and what needs edited. I’m prepping for two more things including my next Camp Nanowrimo novel, and I’m eyeballing another dime novel I was in the middle of that I was trying to get out as quickly as possible, which naturally means that it’s coming along slow as uphill molasses and half of what’s coming out is wrong anyway.

These things I do to keep me busy after Nano, and also to keep my mind in shape for writing. When I go for a week or more without writing, the muscle gets atrophied and the discipline gets tossed out the window, and with every day it gets harder to start again. I may not be able to focus on writing directly, not as much after several days of 5 and 6k per day. But I can do writing related things. I can world-build. I can do edits, I can fill things in, and I can sort through and read over and make notes. Slowly, over time, I can build back up so I’m writing 3 and 4k per day again. As with any muscle, once you give it a hard workout you need to let it rest and rebuild. So too with writing.

And for that matter, I can write down what I’ve learned. Writing, as with most skills, is always a moving target, there is always something you can learn from what you did and improve on the next pass. Editrix spent Nano looking over my shoulder every now and again and pinpointed one of my problems for the third time, which means it’s likely a recurring problem I’ll need to work on for future novels: Get to know the world and the characters before you start writing. In a way, I need to prep by writing fanfic of my unwritten worlds, I need to have the patterns in place before I can start writing decent stuff, so I don’t spend half the time spinning my wheels on the page. So I guess one of the things I’ll be doing to rebuild my writing muscles will be drablets and flash fiction to figure out who the characters for the next Camp Nano novel are. Ah, my life.

The Great Grumpy Mire

So, that story I just finished is definitely one of the reasons why writers sometimes dole out the little gem that, if you can do anything else, do that instead.

I’d love to blame the endless string of shit that’s been piled down through January and into February (long, tiring story) and that I only managed to climb out of in March, but in reality it’s also just the writing process. The sad reality that sometimes, the inspiration doesn’t last, what you’ve written down isn’t enough to keep you energized through the whole thing, and all you’re left with is the notes and a hope that when you’ve put it all together and written it out, you’ll have something people want to read. Right now that’s a fainter hope than I’d like to run with. Which means it’s going to be a long, painful editing process. And no one likes that either.

By contrast there’s two other things I’m working on that are flying out of my fingertips, and not only are they easy, I’d judge that they’re actually pretty good. I’ve got the rhythm of it, I’m managing to get words on paper at a pretty good clip. Well, on screen. And I’m stringing words together in a way that’s not repetitive, that’s true to the setting and the characters, and that seems at least to be engaging enough to keep going. It’s a good sign when you’re interested enough in your own book to keep reading it and writing!

This doesn’t, by the way, have anything to do with fleshing out the world or the characters. In fact out of the three stories, the one I’ve been struggling with is at least as detailed if not more so than one of the two that’s chugging right along. If I knew what this endless mental morass and slog did have to do with, well, for one thing I wouldn’t be slogging through any of my stories anymore. I don’t think anyone does know. It’s just One Of Those Things.

This is the part where discipline comes in. This is why, whenever anyone asks for advice on how to write or finish a thing, my first advice is always, get your ass in that chair and write yourself into a routine. The only way to know, ultimately, if you’ve got a winner or a jumbled mess in your hands is to finish it, go back, look at it, and try and bash it into some sort of shape. Sometimes you do that and look back and it isn’t worth the struggle. Believe me, there are works I’ve drafted that I wish I’d abandoned halfway through. Sometimes, I had this happen to me recently, sometimes you get half or three quarters of the way through and it’s been a hell of a slog through the mud and the suck, and all you want to do is give up. And then everything falls into place, not just because you’re close to the end but because suddenly you know exactly why she did that, you know why he’s being an asshole, you know everything and you can’t get it onto the page fast enough. Sure, you have to rewrite the first 30-50 thousand words, but who cares? You’re on fire! Sometimes that moment happens in rewrites. Or on the third draft (had that happen recently, too), and sometimes it never happens, you finish the damn thing, put it out there, and fifty people swarm all over it claiming it’s the best thing they’ve ever read. That’s another thing you should do, if you have something but you’re not sure about it, show it to a few other people and see how they feel. I can’t tell you how many authors go “Huh, they picked the one I was least excited about.”

People, man. You can’t predict what they’ll like, you just have to do the best you can, put it out there, and hope they enjoy it.

But this is why I stress discipline as a part of writing for serious hobbyists, career writers, what have you. This is why people say, god, why would you want to be a writer. Do something else. You don’t even have the benefit of tangible improvement the way you do if you’re a craftsperson or an animal trainer or an underwater basketweaver. You can’t look at a line of baskets and say, yeah, the first few sucked, but that last one, man, look at that work of art! After a while you get the mechanical details of the craft down but that doesn’t insure you against screwing up epic-time in one of the big details down the line. Or just writing something that never, ever finds its audience.

The thing I do know, though, is that you will never find any of that out if you don’t at least get a few first drafts you, even if you hate them. Even if you look at the editing process and think “oh god I would rather do my taxes than deal with that” (go on guess what I did the morning I wrote the first draft of this). You don’t have to finish all of the drafts, that’s a pernicious lie that even I tell sometimes, you can’t edit what isn’t there but sometimes, yes, it is better just to put it down, say ‘screw you, story’, and walk the fuck away. And sometimes you have to push through it, and push through it, and keep pushing, and use that discipline to the fullest. And only you can make that judgment call.