Monthly Archives: May 2013

Brainhacking, Or How I Became My Own JARVIS

When I first saw Iron Man I wanted Jarvis. So, I think, did almost every other computer geek I know. Certainly a lot of geeks of various kinds who work with things that require simulations or diagrams or anything like that, because having the ability to diagram in 3D around your head, and be able to manipulate the diagram just with a gesture? Not to mention the AI controlling all this can tell when you’re just wiggling your fingers and when you’re doing something on purpose? I mean, I love my Dragon NaturallySpeaking, but it has not as yet developed the capacity to tell when I’m making thinky noises and when I’m dictating to it. Alas. But Jarvis? I want one.

Before Iron Man came high school, and getting through that. I’ve been hacking my brain for a good long while, I don’t remember where I learned meditation techniques but I’m betting it was here in the mountains, at summer camp run by the parents of one of my best friends. This particular one was a technique I didn’t learn there, but I think I pulled out of a fiction book. Or at least got the idea from it. Take a red sphere, visualize it well, and send it into an orbit. Then take an orange sphere and do the same, without losing track of the red one or its orbit. See how many spheres you can get up to. Simple. Not easy, not by a long shot, but simple. I would pull this one out whenever my mind was racing too fast for me to keep up so I had to focus on something, maybe multiple things. This was before my cool-down meditation of putting my mental workshop back in order, of course. I practiced it for several years before for some reason it fell by the wayside.

So. We have Jarvis from the Iron Man movies, we have the Maerlyn’s Rainbow meditation exercise (no, it doesn’t come from Stephen King, but the notion amuses me), the third part of this is the blogging I was doing last night. Adsartha and I were chewing over the last chunk of this week’s episode of Grimm to finish that out for posting this morning, and since this week’s episode was a metaplot heavy one, there was a lot of chewing. A lot of moving parts. We were supposed to discuss the Royal Conspiracy aspect of the metaplot in more detail afterwards, but by the time we were finished it was late and she was tired, so she went to bed and I found myself upstairs in bed, mind churning. All I had was my netbook, so I didn’t have any of the diagrams we’d worked up to keep track of all the freaking moving parts. But I’d just been looking at it downstairs, I had it in my head, so, sure, I pulled out some visualization and I started working on it.

Just with a couple parts. At the end of the day and right before bed, I didn’t think I could keep it all in my head that well. It had been a while since I’ve done any purely mental exercise like this, with no text in front of me, no video, no graphical or textual notes to refer to, just mind work. So I put Person A in the middle, then a couple of his allies, then group B off to one side. And I fiddled with them a bit, trying to figure out who was on who’s side for real and who knew what, and I added in group C which was related to Person A but against group B, because they’re very integral to the plot by now. And eventually I added in Person D, who is at least tentatively working with Person A not that Person A or his allies trust Person D, but Person D also has access to group C’s itinerary or at least part of it, when even one of Person A’s allies who is close within group C doesn’t know… you see how complicated this gets?

And five minutes later or so I realize I’m juggling about six balls in the air, I’ve created sort of a giant mental orrery to keep track of everything, and I’ve become my own goddamn Jarvis. Just with my mind, and without a ‘save’ button, sadly, but with my mind able to keep track of a fair number of moving parts. Or, if you prefer, colored balls. Because thanks to the original format in which I’d put all this information to start with, all of the representations of these people and groups came out as spheres. With labels and slightly different colors. Literally, I was juggling mental pictures of about six colored balls, spinning them around, grouping them together, fingers waggling in the air as I directed my inner Jarvis to shift this over there and move that closer to that, ponder the information, relocate, start again back two steps. It didn’t yield any massive new insights, but it did clarify a few things and offer a few more avenues to go down for new theories. And, really, it was five minutes before bed and I should probably have just gone to sleep early.

And now I have to wonder, if that’s what I do when I’m punchy and half asleep, what could I do awake? Could this be the start of a whole new method of planning out novels? Could I do this for Black Ice? (Answer: Oh god I’m not sure I even want to try.)

Meditative techniques are amazing things. They pop up in the strangest of places, being helpful in the strangest of ways. I haven’t thought of that exercise in years, I certainly haven’t practiced it since around high school, but when I got bored and had no resources and needed a Jarvis, out it came. And your mental filing system and murderboarding method might be different! You might prefer to associate concepts with sounds to create harmonies, or scents, or something else. You might prefer the memory palace technique, and yes, that works. That’s pretty much this technique on a larger scale and with much more practice, and trust me, it works. But I cannot recommend highly enough the practice and regular use of meditative technique. Mental organization. Start small, build up, and eventually you’ll be able to hold a number of interlocking, separate, moving concepts in your head and manipulate them at will, without pen and paper or keyboard or other support. And once you can do that? Once you can manage that and then add the support back in, if nothing else for nifty things like save buttons? Well, who knows where you’ll go from then.

Selecting An Editor

Editors are necessary. That’s just a fact. An outside perspective will help your writing, albeit not just any outside perspective. And editing is a sad, painful necessity. Nothing comes out right the first time, no matter how much you wish you were done when you type those happy six letters “The end.” Believe me, I know.

The first thing I’m going to tell you, of course, falls under the heading of do as I say not as I do. Don’t tap your friends. Unless you’re very sure of both your ability to handle any criticism they might give and how they would give it (how is important!), as well as their ability to trust your reception of their suggestions, just don’t go there. Friendships are not always as sturdy as they seem, and editing is a hard test, and a good breeding ground for resentment with as many emotional and esteem issues as crop up for both writer and editor. So don’t talk to your friends about reading over your work for deep edits. There are two exceptions I’d make here: first of all, if you’re used to writing fan-fiction and you use your friends regularly as (what the fan-fiction world calls:) beta-readers, discuss it with your friends and give it a shot if they’re agreeable. There’s some difference in writing and editing fan-fiction as opposed to original, but not so much that it wouldn’t be worth it to try. The second exception is if you’re asking your friends to be first readers more than editors, to read your work and see if it’s overall a thing they would like to read, see more of, etc. Their general feelings rather than the detailed edits. It’s always good to have a few first readers. Just make sure your friends do read the type of thing you’re writing! (Unless it’s so idiosyncratic as not to have a type.)

My editor is also my best brain twin because of a long series of convoluted circumstances. Mostly, I think, because we started out reading and critiquing each other’s work, and realized eventually that I liked writing fiction more than she did, and she was better at editing than I was. We’re freaks. Don’t  go by us as an example.

The second (and third, and fourth) thing(s) I’m going to tell you are crucial: Make sure you are comfortable talking to your editor. Make sure you feel comfortable defending or explaining, and mostly explaining, your narrative decisions, your characters, your work as a whole or in any given part.  Your job as an author isn’t just to write the work and present it, but also to answer any questions your editor may have, and a good editor will inevitably have at least a few questions. You need to make sure that you’re willing to be there to answer questions, and you need to make sure that they know that, too. Which leads into the next point.

Make sure they are comfortable talking to you. A lot of people are afraid to give criticism because they’re afraid of how it will be received. Don’t be that person. You are asking your editor to look at your work and judge it on the strengths you have given it, acknowledge that. Either you trust that they’re able to put aside bias and that they have the skill to make good calls, or you don’t. If you don’t, don’t ask them! If you do, let them know that you’re comfortable either with whatever criticism they’re going to dole out, or that you’re comfortable with only a certain level of criticism. They then have a choice between agreeing to cover only what you’re comfortable with, or saying that they’re not comfortable with those restrictions and walking away. As is their right. It’s your right to pick your editor, no one should wade in and start marking up your work without invitation, but it’s also your obligation to remember that you’re asking for a service, and to treat the person giving that service with respect and courtesy.

And in the beginning there’s going to be a lot of “you want to do this this and this” “No, but I meant to do this this and that.” That’s fine. That’s why the next step is to make sure that you two are good communicators with each other. Ask questions! Answer questions! Maybe you’re not comfortable having your narrative decisions questioned but this one person is able to gently walk you through the good and bad points of what you’ve written without making you feel like you should give up on everything, so you’ll accept it from them whereas you wouldn’t from anyone else. Maybe you’ve been burned in the past by people whose favorite comment is “No! This is wrong! Redo it!” with no indications whatsoever what the hell they’re talking about. These are things any prospective editor should know about you. Likewise, maybe you write primarily romance and erotica, and the editor you really like isn’t comfortable reading that. Maybe the editor you think would be great for you isn’t comfortable reading for English grammar. Maybe they’re not confident in their ability to find holes in your timeline, and that’s something you wanted to work on. These are things you should know about your editor. Talk with them! Share a lunch or a chat or a movie, or a chat about a movie, or a movie about lunch, or something. Get to know how you two will interact, if you run into a lot of communication roadblocks or if you understand each other pretty well, because smooth communication is a wonderful, irreplaceable aid to the editing process.

Aside from three paragraphs of communication is good, people, make sure you are comfortable that they know what they’re talking about. You can ask for their bona fides, you can ask for their credentials or ask them to read over a short work (make sure it doesn’t take up too much of their time!) as a trial run. And remember to be humble. You’re admitting that you need an editor, and that’s a big step, but you also need to know and be willing to show where your weaknesses are. I’m relatively good at timelines but I’m horrible at remembering to put in physical descriptions. I’m also very used to pulp but when I switch styles my run-on sentences get atrocious. It generally helps an editor to have some idea of what they’re dealing with, or at least, knowing what you think they’ll be dealing with, then they can have some idea of whether or not their capabilities match up. This goes double if you’re entering into a formal, paying contract (which you most likely will be), anyone who you decide to pay money for a service, always always always check their credentials. Check their reviews, talk to people for testimonials. Check Editors and Predators or other, similar sites. Make sure you’ll be comfortable with the quality of their work or the time/money you’ll be losing if you aren’t, in the end. But be humble. Don’t pull that diva crap about how an author of your caliber requires the very best editor; at that point you’re not shopping for an editor, you’re shopping for validation. What you’re looking for is a qualified person who can find your mistakes and help you fix them. That’s it.

If you’re not paying them, if you’re shopping around in your writers’ groups, among your friends even against recommendation that you not, make sure their time limitations line up with your requirements. It is Not Nice to impose upon someone for a favor, and it is really not nice to do so when you’re not compensating them for their time and effort in any way. I freely admit to having guilt weasels every time I go into a spate of writing short stories, and (less weaselly) I try not to fling them all at her for immediate editing, because she has a life and obligations, too. Whether or not you’re paying your editor, keep in mind that they do have limitations and other pulls on their time. If you’re paying your editor, ask what their expected schedule is so you know when to nudge them about the work you’re paying for. If you’re not paying your editor, have a dialogue about time and schedules and how fast they work, how much work they’re expecting to be able to do, etc. In both cases, again, communication is key to figuring out timeframes, how much asking is over the line into nagging, etc.

Once you develop a good working relationship with someone, having an editor will improve your work by leaps and bounds. Once you get used to working with them, having an editor takes some to a lot of the burden off of you, because you’re no longer having to switch between hats. Or brains. One of the hardest things for me to learn, and I’m sure I’ve mentioned this before, is to step the fuck back and let the Editrix do her work. It took us years and years and a lot of talking things out to get this way. But it’s a good place to be, and I strongly recommend that you find an editor or two you can work with easily and well. A good editor is definitely worth her weight in gold. Or, as I pay my Editrix, chocolate.

When In Danger When In Doubt

So, Gods and Monsters is launched! Yay! Confetti! Booze of some party kind! Little square cakes with fancy decorations for everyone!

Actually Gods and Monsters launched last week and today is the second week of it, but the big difference between last week and this week is that this week I have twenty plus people on my mailing list who have no idea who I am (I think), who came here on the strength of one advertised piece of sample writing (I hope) and who have no idea that I can’t actually write (I lie). Last week I had a bunch of friends and my mother and one person I don’t think I knew previous to starting this blog, on my mailing list. And the wolves gnawing on my backbrain insisted I was making macaroni art but that’s okay dear, your mother loves you and will hang it on the fridge anyway.

I can’t make macaroni art anymore. Oops.

This is the wolf pack of a lot of different insecurities. Imposter Syndrome at its finest, telling me that I only got this bunch of new followers because I faked being able to write really well and now they’re all going to find out I don’t know what I’m doing and pfft, bye. This is Stage Fright, with which I am annoyingly familiar for someone who turned her back on a dream of a career dancing on Broadway. This is insecurity and stress, this is the jitters that come with trying something new, this is a lot of things for a lot of reasons. Fortunately, some of the reasons and most of the ways it manifests are familiar. Old enemies, fear and panic. I’ve got a lot of weapons for these buggers.

My primary weapon is a double-edged sword, myriad of potential puns intended. At the moment, oh, let’s count how many balls I have in the air, shall we? There’s Black Ice which I’m in the final section of first-pass rewrites at the moment. There’s White Lightning which I’m still drafting for some godforsaken reason (that’s another blog entry, but let’s just say I won’t be doing this again). There’s Sandborn which I’m on first-pass rewrites as well, but that’s due a few months later than Black Ice so the urgency is less. There’s my blogging for Unspooling Fiction. There’s keeping a house, which is its own kind of time consuming, I have a day job wherein we recently went to a trade show and did a pretty good bit of business, there’s my garden, and there’s Gods and Monsters that I’m going to be continually writing for the rest of my natural life. Or for the next couple years anyway. There’s Dragon*Con costumes to make in between everything, and various other crafty projects that also go with keeping a house. There’s… no, I think that’s it for now. I could panic, but I’m too damn busy. I have too much shit to do! And I’ve spent many years hacking my brain to the point where panic lasts for about two or three minutes, and then I latch on to the next thing in my list to do. So, that’s equal parts having several projects to do and practice.

My subroutines also come in handy here, the ones that punch things in the face. Human minds like patterns. Probably most living things that have minds do, but since the current theory is that I’m human I can only speak to human minds. And for the last handful of years I have spent considerable effort and some time developing the following patterns of thinking:

“Oh my god I can’t do this I can’t do this I can’t…” “Do you know the steps?” “Yes.” “Do you know the technique?” “Yes.” “Then do it.”

“Oh god this is terrible no one is going to like this oh my god this sucks why do I even bother…” “Because you can’t imagine not doing it. Now take a breath, get your ego out of the game, and go do it.”

And other such things. And typing this out is a little like showing the video of your opening night performance of West Side Story, it looks beautiful and put together and everyone got their cues right, but that doesn’t show you the weeks and months of preparation, rehearsals, sewing the sleeves on the costumes on wrong, ruining a night of practice because you and your co-star couldn’t stop giggling, missing cues, running your hand through with the nailgun, falling off the A-Frame, etc. If I seem well-put together, it’s because I spent weeks and months giving up, crying, and shoving my laptop to the other side of the couch every time I got a bad comment or a rejection letter. Weeks and months pushing against the wall in my head that told me I was a bad writer like this one woman claimed long ago, and that’s why she’s an award-winning published author today and I’m not. Months and years of terror, sobbing, and lying in bed all day munching white cheddar popcorn and watching reruns. Even when I had a job there were days I did that on my day off rather than write, or sew, or do other such things.

So, panic happens? Yeah, bring it on, I can deal with you, I’ve had practice.

For me, panic is the sudden realization that I’ve done something. And that, too, is a weapon I can use to beat it back with. Yes, I wrote that. Yes, that person said something nice about my writing. Yes, they’re an actor in a wildly popular TV show. So? Panic happens at the weirdest points sometimes. Twitter is the biggest culprit here, enabling me to make contact with people who are what I aspire to be, or who awe me in other ways. And then if they say something nice, panic time! Oh god, they noticed me, oh god, they’ll hate me, oh god they’re saying something nice what do I do now, oh god oh god. It seems counterintuitive that good things like that should evoke the same reaction as all the bad things, the fears and self-doubt, but there you go. Climbing higher in my achievements only means I have further to fall, so let’s panic and suffer vertigo. The hell with that. And the next time the wolves start gnawing on my ankles about how my writing sucks and nobody loves it or me, I can pull out those tweets and go “Look. They’re impressed. They like it. Shut up.” “But… but they were lying.” “Well, let’s put this bit of writing out there and see.” And once I’m at that point I’ve won, no matter what happens.

So, Gods and Monsters is launched. And the next week as far as that project goes will no doubt look like this: pull next section notes from overall outline. Write next section. Realize some things about the overall outline, make notes in the appropriate document. Write some more. Send off to the editrix. Count the days till it goes out, relax. Get it back covered in green. Panic over edits. Start edits, realize this isn’t that bad, relax. Finish all but the last edits, become so familiar with the text that by now it’s banal and stupid. Panic that everyone will see it’s banal and stupid. Toss revised version to editrix, get final edits or thumbs up. Panic about now having to post it. Panic about every little thing going wrong with formatting. Panic in the last 10-15 minutes before it goes out because I’m a crap writer and now everyone will know it. Panic in the 5 minutes after it comes out because nobody’s reading it.

Realize I still have three other projects I should be working on right now that are due in X time. Panic about that. Get back to work.

The end.