Humans

Yesterday, a friend shared a post from Humans of New York on my Facebook wall.

Don’t ask me how, but I’d never heard of this project, and I love stuff like this. I crave it. I have hundreds of portrait photography collections in my library. And I love hearing different people affirm that we are all so similar while simultaneously different. I love movements like PostSecret and 7 Billion Others.

But amazingly, I had not heard of this. I went to the homepage and went through the archives for an hour, totally crying at my laptop at the university library. And because this is a writing blog, and writing is about seeing and empathizing and witness and recording the intricacies of human life, I’m sharing it with all of you.

This is the HONY post my friend put on my wall (ha):

"Facebook is telling me that everyone has a house, a kid, and a dog. So I’m just trying to calm the fuck down."

“Facebook is telling me that everyone has a house, a kid, and a dog. So I’m just trying to calm the fuck down.”

I don’t even want to take away from the wonder of the the sites I’ve laid out for you to explore, so I’ll just end with a few thoughts. The great advantage of being a writer is that you can spy on people. You’re there, listening to every word, but part of you is observing. Everything is useful to a writer – every scrap, even the longest and most boring of conversations. Do stuff. Be curious. Don’t wait for inspiration’s shove or society’s kiss on your forehead. Pay attention. It’s all about paying attention. Attention is the lifeblood of ideas! It connects you with others. It makes you eager, and we need to be eager.

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Give Me That Mountain

I’m guessing this next piece of wisdom I’m about to impart is not going to come as a huge surprise to most of you, but just in case, I’m going to say it (*write it) out loud anyway: DOING HARD THINGS IS HARD.

Even though logically most of us know this and can parrot back the axiom “Life is hard!” with little thought, I think there’s still some part of us that expects our passion, our dream, our life goal to be difficult, but less difficult for us than for everyone else, and hard, but also fulfilling and beautiful in the struggle. In writing, as with any dream I suppose, this isn’t exactly true.

There are so many places to plateau, to give in, to let up some of the resistance—before we feel like “our dream” is going to crush us or eat us alive. And here I proceed with caution, because I don’t want anyone to feel badgered into pressing on if they feel like they’re on the brink of insanity. Nothing, even writing, trumps your well-being.

That being said, I now say the reason I’m writing this post: the higher the mountain, the bigger the reward. Don’t give yourself a small hill because it’s easier. I’ve been thinking about this for two reasons. A week or so ago, I went to a local bookstore to buy my friend a novel. That’s how I comfort people—not with cards or flowers or back rubs—but with books. Anyway, while I was there, I also grabbed the yearly “Writer’s Digest Handbook” and when I got up to the counter, the knowledgeable shopkeep (this is why, bookstores, you always, always hire people who actually read, thank you) glanced at the magazine and said, “Is that for you?” I told him yes and he said, “You might like this book I just read,” and wrote it down for me on the back of my receipt.

The book was this:

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It is, first of all, sort of invigorating to think of art as a battle, yes?

Steven Pressfield is basically writing on the premise that everyone who does something creatively, anyone who even wants to change for the better, comes up against something called Resistance; the book teaches writers to recognize and knock down dream-blocking barriers and to silence the naysayers within us. The War of Art identifies the enemy that every one of us must face, outlines a battle plan to conquer this internal foe.

I, for one, was simply glad to have a name for THIS THING which I could not always understand cropping up whenever I wanted to accomplish something worthwhile.

Here are a few nuggets from the book:

“Are you paralyzed with fear? That’s a good sign. Fear is good. Like self-doubt, fear is an indicator. Fear tells us what we have to do. Remember one rule of thumb: the more scared we are of a work or calling, the more sure we can be that we have to do it.”

“The artist committing himself to his calling has volunteered for hell, whether he knows it or not. He will be dining for the duration on a diet of isolation, rejection, self-doubt, despair, ridicule, contempt, and humiliation.”

“We fear discovering that we are more than we think we are. More than our parents/children/teachers think we are. We fear that we actually possess the talent that our still, small voice tells us. That we actually have the guts, the perseverance, the capacity. We fear that we truly can steer our ship, plant our flag, reach our Promised Land. We fear this because, if it’s true, then we become estranged from all we know. We pass through a membrane. We become monsters and monstrous.”

“Resistance is directly proportional to love. If you’re feeling massive Resistance, the good news is that it means there’s tremendous love there too.”

And then, right after I get done reading this book, my mom sends me a “motivational” video. My mom, as I think I’ve mentioned, is a hardcore fitness buff and the video, I’m pretty sure, was made originally for athletes, not writers. But in that moment, I felt like writing was a physical battle. I felt like a warrior, baby! And this video razzed me up a bit, I confess—as it was directly designed to do. For me, writing is not mystical. I have only very slightly above average talent, but what I do have is sickening work ethic.

So in case it might inspire any of you, I’ll share that too:

In Defense of Fanfiction

. . . and other frowned upon writing mediums.

I know several authors who sneer at the idea of fanfiction—not only the writing of it, but the reading of it. A few years ago in TIME magazine, Lev Grossman defined it by saying:

“Fan fiction is what literature might look like if it were reinvented from scratch after a nuclear apocalypse by a band of brilliant pop-culture junkies trapped in a sealed bunker. They don’t do it for money. That’s not what it’s about. The writers write it and put it up online just for the satisfaction. They’re fans, but they’re not silent, couch-bound consumers of media. The culture talks to them, and they talk back to the culture in its own language.”

fanfic

When Rainbow Rowell wrote her awesome book Fangirl, it suddenly became okay again for writers—even those functioning within professional spheres—to admit they had at some point or another written or enjoyed reading fanfiction. Of course, in Rowell’s book, the main character Cath (an avid and beloved fanfic writer) learns to find her own voice instead of relying on the Simon Snow (aka Faux-Harry Potter) universe.

I think if an aspiring writer is trying to get published, he or she has to let go of fanfiction in a large way if they want to find truth and heart in their own writing, but that’s not really what I’m talking about in this blog post. I want to bring up the argument that it’s okay to write for no other reason than sheer enjoyment. Professionally speaking, to a would-be author, fanfiction represents nothing more than a big, fat waste of time. Nobody’s going to publish fanfiction and you won’t make any money (or if you do, you’ll probably get sued for it), but . . . but.

Don’t toss it aside if you really like it.

On my desk is one of those WD-40 cans, reminding me (on the advice of George Singleton), that if I don’t write daily, I will get rusty. But writing a good, solid novel is hard work, and sometimes you just want to have fun.

Fanfiction, for me, is fun. So is narrative roleplaying (does anyone have any idea what I’m talking about with this?). Goofy letters to your family, maybe. Dungeons and Dragons! That’s storytelling, for sure.

I think there is a stigma that if you’re a professional, you set aside cheap forms of writing and you set aside cheap forms of literature, and only allow the greats into your life. I’m not saying you should turn your back on fine writing, that you shouldn’t try to absorb via osmosis the great talent and truth that has come to us in novel form, or that you should give up on laboring, sweating, rewriting, and crying with the effort of writing something truly beautiful. Keep doing those things.

But in the meantime, make sure you still like to write and that you still like to read, and that might mean writing fanfiction or roleplaying, and it might mean cruising through a bestselling paperback you’d be otherwise ashamed at enjoying. Do the things that makes stories fun for you, and it will help sustain you when you need to muscle through the difficult parts of this business that maybe aren’t so fun.

Part Two: Calm the Crap Down

This is the second half to last week’s post, “Take Yourself Seriously.” Because, let’s face it, there is a tendency among writers to take ourselves a little too seriously. Sometimes I think I’m going to grow up and look back at some of these blog posts talking about writing in this ethereal-holy-calling-of-unicorns way, and I’m going to sigh and say, “Geeez. Calm the crap down, Your Highness. It’s not bloody Shakespeare.”

Let’s talk about why we all seem to have bats in the belfry. The temptation to be a little nuts is understandable.

It’s an isolated, lonely business—which, hey, most of us like because we’re all neurotic introverts.

alone

We must toe the line between self-hatred and egotism, since you need enough humility to improve and progress and enough confidence to push forward in the face of endless rejection.

confident

Nobody actually knows what they’re doing, but everyone will tell you a different way to do it.

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Because it’s such an introverted business, we tend to be really self-absorbed. As a result, praise makes us do this:

yay

And criticism makes us do this:

depressed

Until all at once, these kind of emotional cycles are commonplace.

This:

freakout

And then this friend steps in:

pullitogether

Followed by this friend:

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So, fellow crazy-writers, I pass along the best advice I’ve heard on this subject, from Elizabeth Gilbert.

If you don’t have time to watch the whole video, here’s the best nugget that encompasses what she’s saying:

“We writers, we kind of do have that reputation, and not just writers, but creative people across all genres, it seems, have this reputation for being enormously mentally unstable. And all you have to do is look at the very grim death count in the 20th century alone, of really magnificent creative minds who died young and often at their own hands, you know? Somehow we’ve completely internalized and accepted collectively this notion that creativity and suffering are somehow inherently linked and that artistry, in the end, will always ultimately lead to anguish.

In ancient Greece and ancient Rome people did not happen to believe that creativity came from human beings back then, okay? People believed that creativity was this divine attendant spirit that came to human beings from some distant and unknowable source, for distant and unknowable reasons. The Greeks famously called these divine attendant spirits of creativity “daemons.” Socrates, famously, believed that he had a daemon who spoke wisdom to him from afar. The Romans had the same idea, but they called that sort of disembodied creative spirit a genius. Which is great, because the Romans did not actually think that a genius was a particularly clever individual. They believed that a genius was this, sort of magical divine entity, who was believed to literally live in the walls of an artist’s studio, kind of like Dobby the house elf, and who would come out and sort of invisibly assist the artist with their work and would shape the outcome of that work.

So brilliant — there it is, right there, that distance that I’m talking about — that psychological construct to protect you from the results of your work. And everyone knew that this is how it functioned, right? So the ancient artist was protected from certain things, like, for example, too much narcissism, right? If your work was brilliant you couldn’t take all the credit for it, everybody knew that you had this disembodied genius who had helped you. If your work bombed, not entirely your fault, you know? Everyone knew your genius was kind of lame. And this is how people thought about creativity in the West for a really long time.

You know, I think that allowing somebody, one mere person to believe that he or she is like, the vessel, you know, like the font and the essence and the source of all divine, creative, unknowable, eternal mystery is just a smidge too much responsibility to put on one fragile, human psyche. It’s like asking somebody to swallow the sun. It just completely warps and distorts egos, and it creates all these unmanageable expectations about performance. And I think the pressure of that has been killing off our artists for the last 500 years.”

So—calm down. Stay sane. Separate yourself from your work. Take your job seriously, but not yourself. And have fun!

Part One: Take Yourself Seriously

quote-i-think-you-should-take-your-job-seriously-but-not-yourself-that-is-the-best-combination-judi-dench-49405

This is a two part blog post. Part one is “Take Yourself Seriously,” followed by its counterpart: “Calm the Crap Down.” Both are important and I think highlight one very important truth to the writing business, that there is never a singular right answer or way of doing things.

I want to start by posing the same question Elizabeth Gilbert posed on her Facebook page a week or so back.

What are you willing to give up in order to have what you really want?

Gilbert says, “A great teacher I knew once asked me that, and it felt like the world stopped for a minute, and all the birds ceased their singing, and every car on the highway paused and the universe just looked at me and said, ‘Well, lady? Your answer?’”

It’s easy to like writing. It’s easy to say, I want to be a writer. But how seriously are you taking your desire? Do you really believe this is a viable career for you—or deep down do you already assume it isn’t going to work out? There will always be an excuse as to why it’s too difficult to write for a living. Please remember that it’s normal for there to be things you have to do before you can get to the place you want to be. No one expects a doctor to waltz out of high school, strap on some surgical gloves, and successfully remove someone’s appendix. Most of us have to go through the writing equivalent of medical school.

We aspiring writers are quick to complain that there is no way to get into traditional publishing now. No Way. Or that literary agents are only available if a writer is “connected.”

I’m calling bullshit friends, sorry.

You don’t need to know anyone special to get a literary agent. In fact, literary agents want nothing more than to find the best writing they ever read . . . from a complete unknown.

It took one my favorite writers, A.S. King, 8 novels and 15 years to get published. She got over 400 rejection letters. She started writing novels at age 24 and saw her first novel on a bookstore shelf when she was nearly 40. I’m so happy she never gave up because I love her writing (and also her, but first her writing).

On her blog years later, she wrote: “After 300 of those 400 rejection letters, I stopped and asked myself what I was doing wrong. I knew my work was good enough—not the first six novels, mind you, but the ones after that. I knew I was ready to give my agent search more than a half-assed try. I had the Internet by then. And I stumbled upon Miss Snark. I read every post on that blog in a 7-hour binge. I stayed up until 3 in the morning. I even remember the date. It was January 31st, 2006.

Up until that day, I didn’t realize how not-serious I was. I was a serious writer, yes. I was a serious reader, sure. But I hadn’t realized just how serious getting into this business is and how that package I first sent—a query and whatever sample an agent wanted to see—was an introduction to me. Up until that day, I didn’t realize that my work had cliches in it, was sometimes too out-there, was hard to categorize (even just a little), was sometimes lazily written, was simply . . . unpublishable. Up until that day, I whined about how different agents want different things. I complained that writing synopses is hard. Miss Snark’s archives made me see just what it would take to get here. Sounds crazy, but it’s true. February 1st, 2006 I became deadly serious about what I had been trying to do for 12 years.

I got an agent a few months later.”

I experienced something similar my junior year of university. I knew I wanted to be a writer, but at the time, I was an English Teaching major, which meant yes I wanted to write, but I would be a high school English teacher in the meantime to help pay the bills. I went to a popular science fiction and fantasy writing convention that year and I remember thinking to myself, “I don’t even have a finished, polished novel to talk about with these people.”

For about a month I was having trouble sleeping and concentrating and I finally I realized . . . I want to be a writer, not a teacher. When Neil Gaiman gave his commencement address to the University of Arts, he said: “Something that worked for me was imagining that where I wanted to be – an author, primarily of fiction, making good books, making good comics and supporting myself through my words – was a mountain. A distant mountain. My goal.

And I knew that as long as I kept walking towards the mountain I would be all right. And when I truly was not sure what to do, I could stop, and think about whether it was taking me towards or away from the mountain. I said no to editorial jobs on magazines, proper jobs that would have paid proper money because I knew that, attractive though they were, for me they would have been walking away from the mountain. And if those job offers had come along earlier I might have taken them, because they still would have been closer to the mountain than I was at the time.”

All the hours I would spend working to get my teaching license would be moving away from the mountain. So I dropped it. I switched my major to creative writing (an entirely unnecessary move, but in this instant, was symbolic as well as literal). Writing is serious, serious work. Sometimes it’s much harder than it sounds and sometimes it’s much easier than you imagine. It’s definitely not easy deciding whether or not the path you’ve chosen is the correct way. As Gaiman also says in the same address, “. . . you’ll have to balance your goals and hopes with feeding yourself, paying debts, finding work, settling for what you can get.”

I went to that same conference the next year (this year, February 2013), had two completed novels under my belt and stepped into the fray with my first pitch session. I now have a publishing contract and a literary agent and have signed up to teach on panels of that same 2014 conference. A friend recently said to me, “So I know a lot of people who talk about writing, but you’re the only one I know who seems to be getting paid for it in the near future—or you just actually really good, or what’s going on?” (Note how doubtfully she seemed to suggest this was based on talent).

My answer was to tell her that, no, I wasn’t that good. In fact, I was probably a lot worse than any other friends she had when they started. “I work really hard,” I said instead. “I can’t even tell you how many hours a week I put into it, how much time I spend practicing [in other words, reading and writing]. I’m a little bit obsessed.”

There are always obstacles. Sometimes it seems there are nothing BUT obstacles.

But in the end, the question is the same: “What are you willing to give up, in order to have what you really want?”

I don’t know what your answer is or would be, but I know what mine was. How about you? What are you finally ready to be?

How to Edit

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“Artistry is important. Skill, hard work, rewriting, editing, and careful, careful craft: All of these are necessary. These are what separate the beginners from experienced artists.” –Sarah Kay

Most likely, any writer also has a bit of editor in them. If not, they’re probably not particularly good writers. Good writing is good rewriting. Even if you think you’re not a rewriter, the painstakingly long process you take to write two sentences is just your brain doing the rewriting for you before it’s physically manifest.

But for today, I don’t want to talk about self-editing. I want to talk about editing other writers’ work. It’s very conceivable you will have to do this, even if you’re not by profession an editor. It will often be disguised in phrases like “feedback” and “critique group” and “your honest opinion.”

As writers, we’re told to let other people (who are not our grandmother) critique our work. So what do you do when you turn out to be other people?

Rule #1:

The Titanic Clause

The Titanic Clause is not a real thing. I totally made it up. What it means is: don’t nitpick a first draft. When the Titanic is going down, don’t rearrange the deck chairs.

First drafts tend to have big holes and general structure problems. The writer might end up deleting the entire paragraph you’re marking up for incorrect comma usage, so that kind of help is not really useful. They also might rewrite the entire chapter—provided they receive good direction from readers like you instead of comments like: “The passive voice in this sentence is really awkward. Please change.”

So give them overarching feedback and criticism, like, “Hey, next time, try and avoid that iceberg, eh?”

Rule #2:

Don’t prescribe

You are not a doctor, so don’t be handing out prescriptive fixes to what ails the piece of writing. Unless they ask. I say this, because sometimes I ask for it. Generally, even though you think it’s helpful, it’s actually more stifling and discouraging to say, “You should do this, and do that, and write it this way.” What you want to give are reactions, pinpointing particular problems. Instead of saying, “MAKE THIS CHARACTER SAY THIS AT THE BEGINNING OF THE CHAPTER,” you will say, “So, I was confused at this part. This is why I was confused.” And then they can think of their own solution to cure your confusion.

As a side note, this rule changes somewhat if you’re a professional editor. In that case, you are hired to provide creative solutions (even if the author won’t listen to you).

Rule #3:

Be nice

Don’t think of yourself as an editor. Think of yourself as an editorial therapist. You are nurturing the creative genius of the person you’re helping, not stuffing them with your own self-inflated opinion. Obviously, you don’t want to be the kind of person who just super loves everything and doesn’t offer help. But there’s always something worthwhile to find in a manuscript.

My first creative writing class ever, as a freshman in college, I handed in the first chapter of a little story called Once Upon a Nightmare for critique. It was awful. I look back on it, and I know. It was awful. But I didn’t know that. And while I did receive a lot of helpful hints on how to make it better, I also received encouragement. Sometimes I think that if I’d become aware at that point of how far I had to go and how truly terrible I was, I might have stopped.

An editor should help make a piece of writing better. But they should also be a cheerleader—the Sam to their Frodo, carrying them up the mountain, even though you can’t do the writing yourself.

Rule #4:

Separate your personal preference and your editor eye

Each of us, as writer/editor combos, have own personal style and our personal taste in good literature. It’s important not to impose that on someone else, inadvertently squashing their style that someone else might adore.

For example, I once edited a medieval romance novel. At one point, the narrator described the hero for about a paragraph, going into detail of his breeches, his shoulder length hair, the shine of his knight’s doublet . . . etc., etc. Gag. I hate all that stuff. And I hate when authors spend inordinate time on wardrobe details.

But. I know that readers of this genre expect that sort of thing. They want it. They’re disappointed if it’s not there. This is the kind of style this book is. So I left it in, and further let myself be persuaded on a few other points, because I knew it was just personal preference.

 

Finally, and perhaps most importantly—even if you’re working for free, even if this first chapter stinks like your grandmother’s socks, give each thing you agree to look at with proper attention and respect.

And then, yay! Everything you touch turns to gold!

Don’t feel bad, but probably not. Editing is a real skill that can take years to perfect. But if you follow these recommendations, you’ll greatly improve whatever you’re working on. You have done your best, which is all anyone can really ask. Not to mention, one of the best ways to improve your own skills is to edit other people’s work (after editing so many repetitious dialogue tags, I can now spot them in my own writing like a blaring siren). Good luck!

Math Things That I Need To Stop Doing

[-stands up on podium-]

Hi, my name’s McKelle, and I’m a reader/writer/artist who can’t seem to stop doing math for the things she reads/writes/creates.

Problem #1

How old were you when you first got published?

get-published

Step One: I read a book I really liked.

Step Two: I wikipedia the author and find out his or her birth date.

Step Three: I research the date of publication of his or her first novel (sometimes the one I read, sometimes not).

Step Four: I subtract the year of publication from the year of birth to determine how old the author was when their first book was published.

Step Five: I add it to the growing list of author ages, which I then average out to determine the EPA, or Expected Publication Age.

Step Six: I start freaking out because I only have SIX MONTHS LEFT to somehow make that cut off. (A FEW WERE EVEN YOUNGER THAN ME OMFG).

I really do this. It’s a bad compulsion I can’t seem to stop. And the worst part is, many of my favorite writers were publishing at my age (or often younger). But writing is unlike other professions. For one, you don’t have to get it right the first time—like, for example, a brain surgeon. For another, it’s not the Olympics; it’s not something like if you missed it by age 19, too bad so sad. It’s never too late. Your writing will only get better as you get older and wiser. As Elizabeth Gilbert says, “If you write something beautiful and important, and the right person somehow discovers it, they will clear room for you on the bookshelves of the world – at any age.”

Problem #2

How long should a book be and how long should it take you to write it?

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Step One: Determine word count of good book. Tricky. Wordcounts are not typically advertised. You can convert e-books into PDFs, copy and paste into a Word document, and check word count there. You can estimate that each page contains approximately 250 words and calculate that way. (There used to be Text Stats on Amazon, but no more).

Step Two: Compare to your book.

Step Three: Compare to your unwritten books.

Step Four: Try and calculate how long it took author to write said book (also tricky, because you have to minus out production time, which isn’t writing time).

Step Five: Freak out and beat yourself up if you’re not writing a similar pace, or if your book is nowhere near the average wordcount for the genre.

I have a mental log detailing whenever a published author announced how much they typically write in one day.

Jack London wrote between 1,000 and 1,500 words each day.  Stephen King writes 2,000 words a day, “and only under dire circumstances do I allow myself to shut down before I get my 2,000 words.”  He finishes a 180,000-word novel in three months. Raymond Chandler agreed:  “The faster I write the better my output.  If I’m going slow I’m in trouble.  It means I’m pushing the words instead of being pulled by them.” Shannon Hale kicks out a 40,000 word novel incredibly fast, and then spends all her time rewriting and rebuilding what’s there. On the other hand, Tom Wolfe’s A Man in Full has about 370,000 words, and it took him eleven years to write it. “My children grew up thinking that was all I did: write, and never finish, a book called A Man in Full.”  That many words divided by that many working days in a year indicates he averaged 134 words a day. J.R.R. Tolkein wrote The Lord of the Rings as one novel, which contains about 670,000 words.  It took him eleven years, which is 245 words each working day, or a little less than a typed page.

You see? Why do I know all of this? I have a problem. Clearly, there is no set solution, and the only way out of it is to just write the damned book. As George Bernard Shaw said, “The one certain thing is you must write, write, write every day.”