“If they weren't solidly real dragons... it wouldn't have been worth doing.”
Jo Walton

author: Nicole J. LeBoeuf

actually writing blog

The Friday Fictionette for July 27, 2018 is belatedly available. Cover art incorporates original photography by the author.
the good news is we don't have to go deeper
Mon 2018-07-30 23:07:41 (single post)

Today we're gonna talk about procrastination. Or, rather, avoidance; procrastination is merely a common visible symptom of avoidance, Avoidance that, in my case, leads to further avoidance. Contagious avoidance that infects previously unaffected tasks. Recursive avoidance. Self-referential avoidance. Meta avoidance.

(If you just said "Avoidance inception! We must go deeper!" then you need to go sit in the corner with a dictionary and think about what you've done. The popular Leonardo DiCaprio movie about dreams within dreams within dreams notwithstanding, all "inception" means is "the starting point." Also, when it comes to avoidance, no we must not go deeper. We do not ever want to go deeper. We'd kind of like to surface, please. Soonest. Thank you.)

The avoidance is made up of more avoidance. Hypothetical solutions to the avoidance get bitten by the avoidance bug. Take the task I'm avoiding apart into its component steps, and those steps into baby steps, and there's avoidance attached at every level, all the way down.

Avoidance, my friends, is fractal.

Here is how that works in my brain:

  1. There is a task I am avoiding.
  2. In an attempt to make myself stop avoiding it, I put it first on the day's to-do list. That means I have to do it in order to get to the rest of the day's work.
  3. Stupid monkey brain says, "So if you keep avoiding task number one, then you never have to do tasks two through fourteen, several of which you are also avoiding."
  4. NOTHING GETS DONE. I SUCK.

Ah, but I see that dynamic coming a mile away, and I want nothing to do with it. I flip things around! Back to front and upside down! But as it turns out, avoidance is not only recursive and contagious but also transitive and commutative:

  1. There is a task I am avoiding.
  2. In an attempt to salvage the rest of the day, I decide to do all the tasks I'm not avoiding first. That means at least something will get done. And maybe the uplift of "I did a thing!" will help me approach the much-avoided task at last.
  3. Stupid monkey brain says, "So if you don't do all the other tasks, you won't ever have to do the much-avoided task. You just won't ever get to it. The problem simply won't arise."
  4. Bonus: All the other tasks get tainted with the miasma of avoidance clinging to the much-avoided task. Now I have more much-avoided tasks.
  5. NOTHING GETS DONE. I SUCK.

If life were like a sudoku puzzle, the conclusion would be really depressing. See, there's this strategy for solving extremely difficult sudoku called "forcing chains." It can be summarized like so: Find a candidate in a cell and examine the consequences of it being the answer for that cell. Now examine the consequences of it not being the answer for that cell. If in both cases the same result obtains elsewhere in the puzzle, then you can confidently include that result in your solution. For instance, if a 5 in J9 forces E1 not to be a 6, and J9 not being a 5 also forces E1 not to be a 6, then you know that, whatever else may be the case, E1 simply can't be 6.

Likewise, in both the case where I put the much-avoided task first, and the case where I don't put the much-avoided task first, the same result obtains: NOTHING GETS DONE AND I SUCK. Therefore I should just resign myself to nothing getting done. And sucking.

Thank goodness life is not a sudoku puzzle.

PS. I finally uploaded the Friday Fictionette for July 27. It's "Highlights for Creator Gods." Ebook and HTML here, audiobook here. And if I am very good and it doesn't slip my mind, the freebie for July gets announced tomorrow.

PPS. I submitted another story today. I DON'T SUCK.

Cover art incorporates public domain image created by NASA
this fictionette had to make it up as it went along (and takes its waking slow)
Fri 2018-01-19 23:59:59 (single post)

On time this week, by a hair. "The Education of Baby Rocket" (excerpt for all, ebook and audiobook for Patrons) is now available for your perusal. It's about fear, mostly, but also homesickness, and what exactly we mean by "home" in the first place.

I lost a 4thewords battle for the first time today. Let it be known: Not a single loss until Day 67! Lesson learned: I can do 800 words in half an hour easy if I'm drafting but not when I'm revising. Second lesson learned: No naps with a battle deadline less than two hours out, Mr. Rabbit. That's how Mr. Tortoise beat you, remember? Alternately, don't start a two-hour battle if you think you'll need a nap before you're done.

Speaking of lessons, sometimes I think a writing life primarily consists of learning not so much a long series of lessons over time but rather a small handful of lessons over and over again. This is probably true of life in general, come to think of it. But it's certainly true of writing.

Here's the lesson I had to relearn this week: I don't know what I'm writing until I've written it.

It's less that I forget it and have to relearn it, and more that I keep discovering situations where it's relevant. Still makes me feel stupid, though. Like, "Ohhhh! The swimming pool is wet! Because all water is wet. Dammit, I knew that."

This week, the application was, Because I don't know what I'm writing until I've written it, not knowing what to write isn't a reason not to write. Also, and very importantly, "I don't know what to write" is a perfectly cromulent first sentence to write on a brand new fresh blank page. It helps lube the word-making engine, and I can always erase it later.

It came up while I was working on the Author's Note for "The Education of Baby Rocket." Well. That's rather overstating things. It came up while I was staring at the blank new document upon which I had tasked myself with writing the Author's Note. Staring at a blank page is not conducive to getting the Friday Fictionette released on time, but that's what I was doing: Staring at a blank page and thinking, "I don't know what to write."

Fun fact: Thoughts circle around and chase their own tails, but words written down are done. No amount of thinking "I don't know what to write" was going to get me anywhere. But typing "I don't know what to write" allowed me to move on to another thought, another sentence. It sort of forced me to really observe and acknowledge what I was thinking, you know? Like Morning Pages do. "I don't know what I'm going to write for this, so I'm going to just babble until I figure it out. I'll start by telling myself the story of how the writing prompt turned into the first draft, although that's not enough for an Author's Note by itself because really there's only so many weeks in a row the Author's Note can be 'here's the prompt, and here's how I got from prompt to story idea to first draft to finished story'...."

And off I went for, oh, several paragraphs. Three or four at least. Then something went click. I knew what I was going to write because by then I had already written it. Now I just needed to tidy it up and then delete the bits of babble that wouldn't be part of it. Don't get me wrong; that babble was essential. As in the Buddhist metaphor, it was the little boat that got me across the wide river that had separated blank page from finished draft. But it had done its job. It was no longer needed. I could leave it behind me on the shore and walk away.

As the poet said, "I learn by going where I have to go." As another poet said, "We make it up as we go along." I don't really have much to add to that except to testify that it's true.

and then jerk-brain tried to drink up all my rocket-fuel but i said
Thu 2018-01-11 23:56:32 (single post)

There's another side of the Jerk-Brain vs. Gamification battle I didn't talk about yesterday because, frankly, that post had already gone on long enough. That was a post all about what happens after the writing that determines whether I get to actually feel accomplished. (It was also, briefly, a post about fruitcake, because I am a multidimensional being.) This post here is about what happens before the writing that determines whether I wind up writing at all.

It's the question of motivation.

The motivation aspect is a lot simpler than the External Validation Brain-Hack Machine. It's what gets talked about more. Almost every new member of 4thewords mentions it in their introduction post on the forum: "This is giving me so much motivation to write!" Motivation works in opposition to avoidance, the way thrust opposes drag when you're flying a plane. Motivation pushes you toward writing; avoidance pushes you away. It's never a matter of not having motivation; if you want to write, you've got motivation. It's a matter of which force is stronger at any given time.

To be clear, when I say "avoidance" I don't simply mean procrastination. I mean anything that acts to push the writer away from the act of writing. The looming difficulty of finding time and energy after a hard day of work, the inevitable drama of stealing back time and privacy from a demanding and unsympathetic family, the feeling that time spent writing is time stolen from more important pursuits. And yes, the temptation of just one more game of Two Dots. If motivation says "I want to write," avoidance says, "but I can't/won't/shouldn't right now."

Jerk-Brain is very good at strengthening avoidance and whittling down motivation. It says that whatever you're contemplating writing isn't important enough to be a high priority. It says you're selfish for demanding that people leave you alone to do it. It says that freewriting and other forms of writing practice are just busywork, that drafting new stories is your excuse for of abandoning other projects as soon as they get difficult, that the story you want to revise is pretty much awful and unfixable and no one's going to want to read it so why waste your time.

Jerk-Brain tells poisonous lies with lips all stained from drinking up all my rocket fuel to keep me from achieving anything like escape velocity.

Enter gamification. When natural sources of motivation fail, gamification is pouring a gallon of 100% Synthetic Motiviation in the gas tank. In the case of 4thewords, that motivation is generally something like "I still need 300 more words to beat this monster and only 5 minutes to do it in!"

Well, usually it's something less high-pressure, like "I'm on a quest to make a bunch of stone blocks, so I need to defeat a bunch of Grult since they drop raw stone. Then I need to find rope somewhere. I could buy it, but that's hardly satisfying. Guess I've got to go back to Mama Tree and fight a bunch of illi." But today after my fictionette work I got distracted watching Team Colorado's bout against Team Kansas and only remembered belatedly that I was still in a battle with the aforementioned Grult.

So I was all like, "Shit! I'd better get to it! Five minutes! Go!"

And it was like I was running at full-speed and then flying (thrust and lift beat gravity and drag!) while way back behind me on the ground Jerk-Brain was all "But, but, but, I was talking to you, I was saying--" and I wasn't listening anymore because I HAD ALL THE WORDS TO WRITE HURRY HURRY HURRY--

And that's how the bulk of tonight's blog post got done.

working around a broken gold star dispenser
Wed 2018-01-10 23:56:50 (single post)

Announcement: I have begun to mail fruitcake to people! This involved taste-testing it, of course. (Also I hadn't had breakfast yet. My taste-test was rather thorough.) Past taste-tests indicate that rum really isn't the right flavor for fruitcake, at least not in my opinion. It's just too sweet. The right answer is cognac. Brandy will also do. I used cognac to re-booze the cheesecloth wrap a few days ago, and the flavor is much improved.

I was trying to remember what went into the fruitcake so I could list the ingredients on one of the accompanying greeting cards. Raisins, black and green; currants, black; ginger, candied; dates, pitted because there are limits to how much work I'm willing to do. But... was that all? I mean, yes, and slivered almonds, of course, but--no other fruit? Maybe dried cherries, but--no, I remember in the grocery store thinking, "Not both cherries and strawberries." But I certainly have no memory of julienne-slicing several ounces of dried strawberries by hand. If I had done it, I would remember. Trust me. Having done the same to the dates and the candied ginger was extremely memorable.

Well. Guess what I found in the back of the Volt this afternoon. That's right. A sealed pint container of dried strawberries. From December.

It's cool! It's fine. Dried fruit is fairly shelf-stable. But I'm thinking, dang, that's a lot of oatmeal I'm going to be eating those strawberries with.

OK, so, anyway, what I came to blog about the first time: Writing Gamification and Brain Hacks, Part Lots of Many.

Writing is not a job with a lot of external validation. Not at my stage of the game, anyway. There's a lot of time spent churning out words that no one cares about but you. There's a lot of story submissions that result in mostly rejection letters. There may be some self-publishing but very few eyeballs successfully attracted.

Common wisdom says that, for this reason, this is not a job for someone who needs external validation. The only validation that counts has to come from within. You know that what you're doing has worth; that knowledge has to be enough to keep you going. And if it isn't, maybe you aren't really cut out for this writing gig. Many people aren't. It's OK.

Y'all, common wisdom is mean.

I think most of us really do need some form of external validation. We're not robots, for goodness sake. Simon and Garfunkel's "I Am a Rock" isn't self-congratulatory; it's ironic, and the irony is bitter. We're not rocks, we're not islands, and if our internal validation process doesn't get the benefit of an external reality check from time to time, at least a little, maybe we start to doubt.

And what if your internal validation process is broken? See, I'm not actually very good at telling myself a did a good job and believing it. I'm much better at finding reasons why what I just accomplished doesn't count. Look, I've been spending more hours writing per day, or doing affiliated writing tasks that need doing. My daily word count has gone up. I'm submitting more stories more frequently. Two of my previous publications will debut in podcasts this year! The writing is going great...

And yet that little self-sabotaging voice in my head says, You're just making yourself a lot of busywork so you can feel accomplished.

It says, So how many of those 4,000+ words went toward actual publishable works?

It says, Easy to surpass five hours in a day when that's how far you are behind schedule.

It says, But what are you submitting lately? Not new stories. Not full-length stories. Certainly not good stories. You're scraping the bottom of the barrel in order to check off the Submissions Procedures to-do list item on a technicality.

There is no private workday writing-routine accomplishment so great that that little self-sabotaging voice can't tear it down. It will find a reason why the latest thing I did doesn't count.

So if I'm not getting external validation from acceptance letters and reviews and fans and stuff like that, and I'm not getting internal validation because that self-sabotaging jerk voice is overwhelming any sense of legitimate accomplishment, then where am I supposed to get any validation from at all?

Possibility one: Self-administered gold stars. Respond to the accomplishment by awarding myself some small tangible pleasure. It can be a literal gold star sticker, a small piece of chocolate, a walk in the sun, a few minutes playing a fun game. Main thing is, it's enjoyable. Self-sabotaging jerk-voice can make me question my right to feel accomplished, but it can't stop chocolate tasting good or gold stars being shiny and cheerful. Establishing a pattern of "accomplish something--get a yummy treat" can over time help dislodge the pattern of "accomplish something--realize it was worthless." Or at least give it some healthy competition.

Possibility two: Self-initiated external validation systems. Otherwise known as--you guessed it--gamification.

Take 4thewords as the example, since I'm using it right now this minute. 4thewords doesn't care if the 1300 words you defeat a dust-zombie Villager with were story draft, blog post, freewriting, or even a bunch of incoherent babble. Write 1300 words, defeat the Villager, get rewarded. You'd think that this would further fuel the Jerk-Brain--It would have rewarded you for pasting in 1300 words of lorem ipsum, so it doesn't mean anything--but, weirdly, that doesn't seem to be the case. Possibly because I know that I wouldn't just paste in 1300 words of lorem ipsum and call it writing. Possibly because the incoherent babble has a purpose.

And definitely because it's like that piece of chocolate: It still tastes good. It still feels good to see the pop-up that says "You WON a battle against Villager. You received 4 dust and 136 XP."

That last bit is the brain hack. It's magic. It should not work. I'm the one pulling the marionette's strings. I'm the one starting the robot on its preprogrammed sequence. And yet when the sequence completes and the robot says "Good job!" I react emotionally like my old Null-kitty getting belly rubs. Because even though I'm the one awarding it to myself, chocolate still tastes like good.

Basically, I've installed an artificial connector between "write a bunch of words" and "feel good about having written a bunch of words" to replace the built-in connection that got broken somewhere along the way. It's actually "feel good about the game quest that writing a bunch of words enabled you to complete," but it doesn't matter. It is still a direct line between writing and feeling good, and that line is vital to keeping me motivated to write.

Now, there's a whole 'nother speech Jerk-Brain likes to give me about what a pathetic specimen I am for needing all these brain-hacks and artificially induced belly rubs and chocolate when Real Writers Don't Need Tricks to Get Themselves to Write... but that speech, at least, I've learned to shrug off. "That may be so," I tell Jerk-Brain, "but I'm still writing."

pathological multitasking strikes again or maybe bowls a strike i don't know yet jury's still out
Thu 2018-01-04 23:08:56 (single post)

I had no idea what to blog about today, but I had some 650 words left on a battle with a Tylu (they're tough!) and only half an hour to finish up in, so I just started babbling to myself about my day so far in hopes of stumbling across an appropriate blog subject.

Welp, it worked. Here's the topic du jour: MULTITASKING! Does it help or hurt? And does it matter? IT IS WHAT I DO.

There's a topic that shows up sometimes when writers get together online to talk about writing. (It may show up when they get together face-to-face, too. I don't know. I am very rarely in face-to-face conversations with other writers. It's kind of sad and I'm working on it.) That topic is, "One project at a time, or several?" And it seems to me that, more often than not, the consensus is, "One. Dear Gods, one. I can't even imagine switching back and forth in the same week, let alone in a day. I'd lose the thread."

Maybe it's confirmation bias on my part to think that this is the answer in an overwhelming majority of cases. And goodness knows the universe of writerly conversations I have witnessed is not by any means a statistically meaningful representative sample. But after babbling descriptively about today's activities, and then letting that babble sift into my hindbrain during tonight's scrimmage (writing doesn't get a place in the forebrain when the immediate concern is "jammer in lane two, jammer in lane three, jammer in OH GOD I HAVE OFFENSE HELP ouch")... I got to thinking.

I got to thinking that "one project at a time" isn't remotely what I do.

So here's a condensed version of some of that babble. We'll skip the boring bits where I whine about what a late start I got and why that might have been, and go straight to an itemized list of actions taken on January 4, 2018:

  • Dream journaling (15 minutes)
  • Freewriting (15 minutes)
  • Story rewrite toward converting a once-submitted, never-published drabble into a 1,000-word flash piece (50 minutes, 800 words)
  • Submission procedures: logging some new response correspondence in the database
  • Fictionette Artifact production (only 25 minutes/one typewritten page because holy shit I've only got 30 minutes left to defeat this Tylu)
  • Pre-blog babble (17 minutes, and yes, I did prevail in battle)

And now I am working on this blog post, and afterward I plan to...

  • Finish revising the Jan 5 Fictionette
  • Get started taking notes toward revising the NaNoWriMo novel

That is by no means "one project at a time." It is emphatically several. I went from "somehow I never manage to get any fiction revision into my workday" to GET YOUR ASS IN GEAR AND REVISE ALL THE THINGS RIGHT NOW. This on top of my latest trick, which is multithreading fictionette production so that I am revising this week's offering while drafting next week's in the same day. (That, at least, I've decided is maybe not such a good deal, if only because it crowds out time I could have used to revise stories for commercial submission.)

Is it a problem? Is it just my process? Is my process an acceptable process or am I getting in my own way? I don't know. The question may be moot at this time; everything I'm revising today has a deadline coming up. But going forward, maybe I need to figure this out.

No doubt, hopping from task to task is my natural inclination. I start to chafe if I spend too many hours on a single thing. I start to feel trapped and a little desperate, like dear Gods in alphabetical order, will this thing never be done? But I don't entirely trust that I'm simply gravitating toward a process that works best for me. I experience it rather as a failure to persevere and stick through a thing and see it through. I wonder if my tendency to keep a bunch of balls in the air is an indication less that I'm good at juggling and more that I tend to shy away from a task the moment it becomes hard work.

But, then again, can I really trust my evaluation of the situation? I'm notorious for being terribly down on myself, not to mention depressive and anxious. I have no reliable yardstick for diagnosing this mess.

It may be that my best bet is to wait and see what the results are. I mean, who cares if I'm running toward or away, so long as I successfully get all the crap done on time?

I can at least speak to the obstacle my colleagues have mentioned, that of failing to keep the threads of multiple projects untangled. That, at least, has not appeared to be a problem. I'm not distracted by one project while working on another, nor do I find myself mentally lingering in the wrong fictional world. But! (Yes, here comes more anxious wibbling.) But is that really because I'm just preternaturally good at multitasking, or because I don't let myself sink as deeply into any one fictional world as art would require? Am I in fact producing shallower work?

If so, I can't entirely drop the multitasking, not if I'm going to keep up the Friday Fictionette project. And I'm not going to just do the Friday Fictionette project. Even if by some miracle I had enough subscribers that it paid as much as I could ever hope to earn as a freelance writer, it's not enough for me artistically. I have longer stories to tell. So I will, for the time being, be working on at least two projects in a day. And doing my freewriting and dream journaling and morning pages, because those are good for my skill set, my idea flow, and my mental health. So...

Maybe the question really is moot. I'm clearly not going to stop cramming multiple writing projects into a single workday any time soon. The question is, how many projects? Two? Three? It depends? And what's the best way to juggle them? How can I best organize my day around the current projects so that my writing life continues sustainable and meaningfully productive? And still leaves room for me to be a competitive roller derby skater and a responsible adult householder?

See, this is why I keep spreadsheets.

all this and hot water too
Tue 2018-01-02 23:55:06 (single post)

OMG you guys. I took a bath today. In my own bathtub. With hot water and everything. And the new furnace is working great. The big open vents in the laundry room, rendered obsolete by the new units, have been capped off, making things a lot warmer on that side of the house. And the new thermostat is really cool too--we spent a little extra to get a 7-day programmable one so that we can differentiate our derby weekdays from our regular weekdays from our Sunday with derby in the morning from our Saturday with nothing scheduled at all.

The systems that support our comfort and energy efficiency are greatly improved. Today was a good day.

(Also, that bath was just as sorely needed as I expected. After so many missed practices due to holidays and/or weather, my body was not ready for all the plow-stops, hockey-stops, and sprints. My adductors, y'all. My adductors are very, very angry with me. My ribs aren't too pleased either, but they're not what's yelling at me every time I sit or stand.)

So. Writing? Yes.

Yesterday I said, a little of each of the things in every workday: drafting, revising, submitting. And while it's true for yesterday and today, it takes a bit of a stretch to see it. Drafting--no problem. The daily gottas take care of that handily. Submissions--more or less OK. Today I mentally paired up a market with an existing story, but the story is at this time a drabble and the market wants flash of about 1,000 words in length. So that will require some rewriting. But it still counts as submission procedures, by golly!

Editing, however... Well, I'm trying to stick to my mantra of "If I can't do a lot, I'll do a little." And what with the eight hours of appliance installation labor going on in my house today, I couldn't really do a lot. That dang brain glitch struck again: I felt paralyzed by being "on call" all day, obliged to remain AVAILABLE while the technicians were working. I worked through it, sure, but it was there to work through. It slowed me down. It especially made difficult the transition from one task to the next.

So I did a little.

In the case of the NaNoWriMo novel, and specifically the task of preparing the first 4,000 words for submission to the 4thewords contest, "editing" has so far only consisted of reading the first few scenes to remind myself what I wrote. What I wrote was a mess. I think when I finally get something concrete done, it won't be editing so much as notes toward editing. I'll go through those first few scenes and just catalog what information is being communicated by the text on the page. Then can I decide what information needs to be communicated and what information does not. Not to mention what information is being communicated redundantly; when I draft with daily word-count targets in mind, I'm not exactly terse. So, once I've done that, I should be able to cut whole swaths of unnecessary gabble, clearing the way for brand new draft.

In the case of this week's fictionette, it, too, got merely reread yesterday. But today--while I was in that lovely hot bath, bliss!--I revised the first half of it substantially. I'm still well on target to release it on time, if not early. Well, I mean, not release it early. But finish it early, and upload it early, and use the SCHEDULE feature so that it will go live on time with no further input from me.

The Fictionette Artifacts for November 2017 went into the mail today; the ones for October went a few days ago. I am all caught up. As long as I send December's on time, which is to say by the end of this week, I will remain all caught up.

So even with a little stretching, I think I can say that, two days into the new year, I am still on point with my New Year's Resolutions, such as they are. Two whole days, y'all! Let's go for three!

Cover art incorporates public domain image sourced from pxhere.com
this fictionette forgot that writing doesn't prompt itself
Fri 2017-12-15 23:34:41 (single post)
  • 1,022 wds. long

The Friday Fictionette release for December 15 is up and available for your perusal. It's called "The Youth Fairy." Here's the ebook and audiobook links for $1/month and $3/month patrons, respectively; here's a little teaser for the rest of everybody.

This one began as a response to a Magic Realism Bot tweet, "An opera singer makes a fortune trading in adolescence." Only I skipped right past the literal idea of adolescence and went instead after the more general fantasy trope of someone who sells youth. How do they manage that? Well, they must be some kind of supernatural being, a fairy or suchlike. Where do they get it from? Well... probably from people who don't want it: young people who are in a hurry to grow up. "Youth is wasted on the young," the fictionette begins, and it goes from there.

Writing from prompts is something I always assumed everyone who was a writer did, because it's an exercise that all my writing teachers going back to elementary school would assign me. Not everyone did it, I knew that, but everyone knew how to do it. Right? Only that's putting it too strongly, know how to do. That phrase implies a skill that you have to learn and practice, like knitting or calligraphy or touch-typing. Writing from a prompt, that's just something you do. Right?

Well, I've had roller derby trainers who thought that things like keeping your eye on the jammer or staying near your teammates wasn't so much a skill you learned as just something you did if you weren't totally stupid. And they couldn't understand why, in my very first few months after passing my skills and safety assessments and being allowed to play the actual game, I didn't just do it. And they got impatient with me, and I felt stupid.

But as it turns out, pack awareness is an actual skill. Teaching it is tricky; it's not like a skating skill where you can demonstrate the individual motions that make up the maneuver. But it's still a skill that one has to learn and practice and develop. Kind of like, oh, defensive driving. In both cases, you've got a list of things to be aware of and stay aware of, simultaneously, at any given moment, and you've got to be able to process that data and make split-second decisions because of it. Teaching it might involve things like, oh, periodically redirecting the student's attention by asking them questions during the activity ("What color is the car in your rearview mirror?" "Where did the opposing jammer position themselves before the whistle?"). And, safety permitting, the trainer needs to give the student a bit of mental space in which to work out how best to wrap their personal brain around the challenge. I mean, it's their brain and all. They know best how to operate it.

So different individual brains will process the skill differently. And some brains will glom onto the skill more readily than other brains will. But it's still a skill, not an instinct that you just magically have waiting within you that you can tap when the time comes, just by virtue of having a brain. It's a skill. You have to spend time learning how to do it before you can be expected to do it.

Same with writing skills. There are skills I've been practicing so long that I've forgotten that they are skills, but they are. Writing from prompts is a skill that can be taught and learned and practiced and developed. And clearly there is an audience who want to learn, or else there wouldn't be so many articles online purporting to teach it. Heck, here's a wikiHow about it.

For me, in my own personal practice, there are three basic steps to working with a prompt.

Choose a prompt. Depending on the prompt, I might choose one or several. A common "spread" might be a couple random words (watchout4snakes is a good source) and one image (e.g. tarot card, InspiroBot poster). Or one Magic Realism Bot tweet, which tends to be just complex enough to stand alone.

Give the brain space to respond. The first minute or two isn't for conscious, directed thought, and it's certainly not for passing judgment. It's for watching the brain bubble. Whatever passes through my brain goes directly onto the page. It's somewhere between free association and automatic writing.

Ask and answer follow-up questions. Questions will arise, either in response to the initial brain bubbles or in direct response to the prompt itself. "An opera singer..." Why an opera singer? Which part do they sing? Buying and selling youth... OK, how do you even do that? What price do you set on youth? Who sells it to you in the first place? What's the effect of selling youth to someone--does their driver's license actually show a more recent birth year, or is it just a physical appearance thing?

These questions are, more or less, new prompts; the brain bubbles up answers in response. And those answers spawn new questions. Questions! Questions are, arguably, the atom-unit of story. Why did they do that? How will the other character respond? And then what happened?

There's actually a fourth step: Then write a scene. This step is sort of like "And then a miracle occurs." At some point, the prompts and the bubbles and the questions coalesce into story. The trick is recognizing that moment and then getting out of my own way and letting it happen. Sometimes it happens very early, the first sentence writing itself in direct response to the prompt. Writing down that sentence and continuing on to the next one is a kind of leap of faith. But the moment I'm starting to get even a little narration, it's time to stop babbling, bubbling, and free associating and just start writing.

What's the worst that can happen? I can get stuck. No big deal. Getting stuck generally happens because I ran into some questions I didn't have answers to. So I stop a minute and ask those questions and throw some answers at the wall and see what sticks.

The important thing in a timed freewriting session is not to interpret getting stuck as a reason to stop writing. I have to write until the timer goes off. When the timer goes off, I stop. Or maybe I keep going. Maybe I can see the whole rest of the scene and I want to get it down. So I do. And then I stop, reluctantly, and mark the session as "To-Do." Those are the sessions that turn into flash fiction, fictionettes, and full-length short stories.

And there you have it: How a writing prompt becomes a story inside my personal brain. Your brain may vary. Void where prohibited. Please do try this at home.

we're all perfectly ok here
Tue 2017-10-31 21:02:37 (single post)

I had great plans for Halloween night. I was going to go down to the French Quarter, strap on my gear, and skate in and around and through the festive chaos for several hours. Turns out, though, that doesn't work so good if I wear myself out earlier in the afternoon. Note for the future: If I want to party all night long (on skates), I have to be a little more cautious about the prospect of using up all my oomph with a full daytime itinerary that involves a tough workout (on skates).

So instead I stayed in and binged Stranger Things 2 instead.

Some brief, spoiler-free thoughts (spoiler-free concerning Season 2, that is; you're on your own for Season 1): While I don't think it necessarily succeeds on all fronts, Stranger Things 2 makes honest attempts at some very admirable things. Primarily it's a story about families, about the dynamics of different families, the families you get and the families you choose, and struggling to find the healthiest way for a family (noun) to family (verb). It examines the ways families succeed, the ways they fail, and the ways they try again.

It's also a story about aftermath. It's a story that happens after the triumphant and bittersweet ending of the first season. It doesn't attempt to reset everyone to We're All Perfectly OK Here except maybe in the ironic sense. All the major characters, and all the families they comprise, have gone though some amount of trauma. It is clear from the very first episode of Season 2 that they're all still dealing with that trauma. I can't overstate the importance of that. The show gets so many gold stars with me just for starting there.

And, if I can get a little meta here, part of the trauma for some characters is having to keep that trauma a secret from certain of the other characters. This is an element of supernatural horror that I'm not sure I've seen as directly addressed since the first season of Torchwood (but admittedly I have a lot of TV to catch up on, so take that for what it's worth). There's so much extra pressure on a survivor if the nature of their trauma simply can't be discussed with their usual support network. It's almost as though characters like Will and Joyce and Hopper, upon escaping the Upside Down, came back to a different Rightside Up than the one inhabited by the rest of their friends and neighbors. The world of the people who consciously survived the dimensional incursion is not the same world as the one inhabited by those who only touched it briefly and/or unknowingly. Those two worlds stand in relationship to each other similarly to the relationship between the Upside Down and the Rightside Up--they're barely a breath apart and yet impenetrably separated, and the one is constantly threatening to eat the other up bones and all.

After that, the meta gets a little personal.

So, my major plan for the afternoon was to meet a high school friend for lunch in Covington, then skate the Trace from Covington to Abita Springs, then have a beer at the Abita Brew Pub. These plans were indeed enacted (mine was a Pecan Ale), and were the primary reason my Halloween Night plans pooped out. But those plans also had to absorb Dad's plans, since we only had one vehicle between us and that vehicle was his.

Thus, before we headed across the lake, we stopped to pick up Mom.

I've mentioned this before, but Mom has been on the downward slope of some sort of non-alzheimer dementia for several years now. Well, a few weeks before my visit home, Dad bowed to necessity and moved her into the memory care unit of an assisted living community.

I was already prepared for certain changes, as it's been a full year since my last visit, and I knew the dementia was progressing rapidly. Over the year, her phone conversations with me got briefer and briefer. She used to at least ask how I was doing, ask me if I'm still doing that thing, with the skates, what is it called again? and recite me her New Orleans Pelicans fan version of the Merritt doggerel. But most of this past year she seemed less enthusiastic about talking with me on the phone, even to some extent unsure about what to do on the phone. Dad would hand it to her, she'd say "Hello," I'd ask "how are you?" and she'd say, "Good. OK, let me hand you back to your Daddy." After awhile, Dad didn't try to put her on the phone because she was asleep. She was going to sleep earlier all the time, pretty much as soon as Wheel of Fortune was over.

About a week before I came to town, I heard Dad say to Mom, "Niki's on the phone, you want to talk to Niki?" and I heard her say, "No," and he said, "Do you know who Niki is?" and she said, "No."

I'd prepared myself for that, though. It wasn't a huge blow. I knew it was coming. It wasn't a landmark; the Mom I knew had already gone away long before, and I had already mourned her. What it was, was awkward. I didn't know how to address her when we picked her up at the assisted living community. Dad tells her, "This is Niki, she's your daughter," but it doesn't mean anything to her. So should I still call her Mom, or would that confuse her? Should I call her by her first name instead? Does it matter what I call her, if she doesn't really respond? Like I said, awkward. But I was prepared.

What I wasn't precisely prepared for was how old she looks now. She looks a lot like Grandmama did when we visited her in the nursing home less than ten years ago.

She likes to go for rides in the truck. Dad shows up, immediately she wants to know when we're getting in the truck and going for a drive. She follows Dad around wherever he goes, like a duckling after a mama duck, because she knows he's going to take her for a drive. Also because she just wants to be with him; that's one of the few complete sentences I heard her say: "I just want to be with you. You're so good to me."

At one point, just before we left the memory care unit, Dad remembered he needed to fetch something from Mom's room. He told her to wait with me. I held her hand--and then I had to firmly hold onto her hand to keep her from following him. That was a disconcerting first, having to physically restrain my mother, however gently.

Sometimes she says things that sound perfectly normal. Except "perfectly normal" refers to what became normal over the first few years of her noticeably exhibiting symptoms of dementia. "Normal" has changed; post-dementia Mom is the new normal. Nine times out of ten, when I dream of her, I dream of her like she is now, even in the dreams where I'm back in school and never lived anywhere but my parents' house.

I'm OK. I'm pretty sure Dad's not OK, but he puts a good face on it. He talks to Mom the way he used to talk to the kids at his pediatrics office. This is an improvement, actually, from when he talked to her the way he used to talk to my brother and I when we were young and misbehaving--frustrated and angry with us for making mistakes and expecting us to learn from them. He's very patient now and will gently repeat whatever needs repeating as many times as she needs him to.

There are moments, as we leave the building, after we've said goodbye, when I can see some of Dad's not-OK-ness glaring through. After we brought her back to the assisted living community, and as we were driving out the gate, the radio started playing a song whose main line was, "Take me back to the night we met" or "I wanna go back to the night we met." And I just about lost it, thinking about how Dad must be feeling. This is the woman he loved and wooed and wed and made a home with and raised children with--how very far time has taken her from the night they met. I stared out the window until the danger of tears had passed; I didn't want to set Dad off, or have him feel like he has to comfort me.

I guess the comparison with Stranger Things, 1 or 2, with the nearness yet almost totally separateness of the two different worlds depicted therein--of any two of the different worlds depicted within--is going to be left as an exercise for the reader.

Sorry to end on a downer. Come back to tomorrow's post for roller derby fun and games! Bonus content: a woman in her 40s will struggle to resist being compelled to regress to her teens! Also there will be kimchi! Yayyyy.

successful coping strategies are a work in progress
Wed 2017-10-18 00:46:02 (single post)

So every once in a while I question my routine. I ask myself: those things I do every morning, my "daily gottas," are they worth it? They're my whole so-called morning shift, two hours of the day's writing in fact, and other than the bit designated Submission Procedures, they do not contribute tangibly to my career. If I honestly consider how very many days I never actually get to the so-called afternoon shift, the period of time designated for the actual career writing, must I not conclude that I'm wasting all my time and energy on what amounts to warm-up routines and busywork?

I may be asking myself this because, in the back of my head, at the ripe old age of 41, I still have those toxic voices, the ones I mistook for mentors, damping down my enthusiasm:

Me: "I get to write full time now! Bliss! I get to make my own schedule! Freedom! It will look like this..."

Them: "My dear, after you've done all those 'writing practice' sessions and 'morning pages' and the rest of all that new-agey hoo-hah, when will you have time to, I don't know, actually write?"

It's tempting, on a day like this--a day when not a whole heck of a lot gets done--to feel like I'm proving those voices right.

Except I'm not, and I will tell you why. I'm going to take the long way around, but hold tight; we'll get there.

Lindsey, as in Real Name Brand Lindsey ("None of that generic crap"), has a blog post, which you will find if you go ahead and click that link right there, about depression. It is an amazing post, actually, just a really frank and honest and detailed description of experiencing severe depression. And there's a bit of it I resonate with hard.

(To be clear, this is not because I have been diagnosed with depression myself. It may be that if I took myself to see someone with the appropriate knowledge, I would be diagnosed with depression, or anxiety, or even chronic fatigue, or something else I don't even know to anticipate. I may have just about gotten to the point where I'm ready to acknowledge I should make such a visit and find out, so I can get some help devising coping strategies. But my point is, whatever I've got, it's relatively mild. I don't say that out of some valiant but misguided attempt to minimize my own struggles because others have it worse. My struggle is real, and others have it worse. These are not mutually exclusive statements. Anyway...)

I don't have the suicidal ideation she describes. I don't have that fog, that disconnect from other humans or joy and beauty. What I do have, that she and her commenters mention, is a bucket of self-loathing that drops on my head at the least provocation, this weasel-brain voice constantly telling me that I am the worst and here's why.

A huge portion of the "evidence" for the weasel-brain's argument is, as Lindsey puts it, a sporadic inability to do.

There was a time, a season, maybe half of a year, when things were very bad. Day after day, I couldn't seem to get out of bed. Anything productive I could have done with the day (i.e. writing) seemed impossible, dreadful, horrible, threatening, inconceivable. If there was something I'd promised someone else I'd do, I'd eventually drag myself upright sometime in the afternoon to do that. I'd get myself to appointments. I could be motivated by external consequences, but the internal motivation wasn't there. There was plenty angst over knowing what I should do, and plenty self-loathing when I got to the end of another day without doing it, but I couldn't seem to find the impetus to actually do.

It's hard for me to place exactly when this was happening, or how that era ended and I returned to some semblance of a productive life. My memories are vague, very much as though I were half-asleep and experiencing that time as a sort of painful, shameful fever dream. The way my memory works in general, I triangulate: X must have happened at Y time because Z was also going on. In this case, I can't identify Y because there was no Z. Hell, there was barely any X. The whole alphabet was more or less impossible.

I know this much: It was after I quit my full-time web developer job, because there's no way I could have gone through that and held down a full-time job. It might have begun while I was part time staff for that non-profit I was volunteering for at the time, such that it began eating up my days off. I know we still had the cats, because they'd curl up in bed with me through it all, and that the cats were both still healthy, because Null's intravenous fluid administrations weren't something that dragged me out of bed.

It was well before I started skating roller derby. Which isn't to say I haven't had isolated days where I only got out of bed in time to go to roller derby practice. But they've been one-offs, infrequent enough that I can tell myself that "I must have needed a day of hibernation. Well, I've rested now, and tomorrow I will work." But roller derby helps. Regular exercise is known to mitigate symptoms of depression, right? Roller derby may have been one of the factors that helped bring that era to an end. It may be a factor in preventing a new onslaught. But I can't say for sure.

Today, instead of having days upon days of inability to get out of bed, I have days--in isolation or in batches--where I experience the inability to get started. In the spirit of full disclosure, I'll admit that today was one of those days.

I've adopted a strategy to help keep those days at bay, and to help limit the damage when they hit.

The strategy is to have a routine.

I have a clearly defined process involving several discrete steps, each small enough that, when avoidance/depression/anxiety hits and my brain slides right off the idea of getting writing done and into yet another hour of hitting refresh on some piece of the internet, I can say, "That's cool, I hear you. Life is hard and work is scary. That's OK. All I want you to do is this one little thing."

Just make some tea. Just water the plants. Just open up your notebook. Just get out your favorite fountain pen--isn't that nice to hold? Just jot down the time and date in the upper left corner of the page. Just write down what's on your mind. Good. Now another sentence. Now another. Now another page. Now another.

If you said "That sounds like Morning Pages!" then you win a prize.

The daily gottas are my routine. Each task follows the previous in mechanical succession, so that the automatic process of one step after another can provide its own momentum when I can't seem to provide any of my own. And that, for your information, O toxic voices from 2004, is the worth of morning pages and freewriting exercises and all that new-agey hoo-hah. It damn well is actually writing. It gets me actually writing. So you can go take a long walk off something short and made of wood that dumps you somewhere wet and full of sharks.

(And the Friday Fictionette project? That's the external-consequence-motivated activity. External consequences remain more motivating, for all practical purposes, than internal ones. But then I have this blog here for converting the internal consequences to external ones by saying HEY YOU GUYS THIS IS WHAT I PLAN TO DO and then I don't want to have to come back and say I DIDN'T DO IT I'M SORRY. So that's OK.)

So the reason I have trouble getting to commercial fiction in the afternoons is, I don't have a reliable ritual for getting back to work yet. The morning shift routine starts pretty much the moment I wake up, but the afternoon shift is... whenever I get off lunchtime chores and errands? Feeling like I haven't really had a break yet? Which makes me want to take just a little time to read blogs and play games... The train never leaves the station and avoidance corners me in the terminal.

And the reason nothing got done today at all was, the morning routine got interrupted. I had to take the Saturn in for diagnosis and maintenance. I was going to just initiate morning shift at the tea house down the street, and could have done, but somehow... didn't. Once the train gets derailed, unfortunately, avoidance/depression/anxiety/etc. sees its chance and pounces, and it's hard to get out of its clutches.

It's the failure state of all writing rituals--what happens if you lose your Special Pen, or you can't be at your Magic Desk, or you are otherwise denied the ritual? My goal is to keep tweaking the rituals until they a reliably undeniable. Until they don't depend on where I am, what time it is, or what I was just now doing. Until the ritual is, in its entirety, "Time to get to work."

Until then, I'm working on having compassion for myself, and I'm repeating the mantra, "I must have needed a day off. Well, I've rested now. Tomorrow I will work."

On the plus side, I did discover what a harmonic damper is, and why it may need replacing just shy of 200K miles on the odometer.

So that's OK.

but these words are also words
Tue 2017-08-15 01:23:31 (single post)

This is a blog post about self-accountability, self-appreciation, and word count. What words count? All words count. Because I wrote them, and I can count them.

Someone in one of my Habitica guilds created us a new guild Challenge--a set of Habits, Dailies, and To-Dos for us to add to our personal dashboards and compete with one another in completing. Or, more likely (knowing us), compete with ourselves and root each other on. These were, of course, writing challenges--hence my bothering telling you so. The hope was that as a result we'd also see more activity in Guild Chat, which had been mostly hitherto abandoned for Party Chat. This was unfortunate, because not everyone in our Guild is in the Party. Some of them are in other Parties, and you can't be in more than one Party at one time. So our friend created this Guild challenge.

The Challenge included some Habits which were daily word-count milestones: 100 words, 250, 750, and 1500. I wanted to participate, but up until then I hadn't really tracked word count per day--not outside of NaNoWriMo, anyway. I was only tracking hours per day spent on each day's writing tasks.

So I started tracking word count. I added a new column to my timesheet and started noting the amount of words written as well as the amount of time spent on each task.

Purely editing tasks weren't compatible with this, but it's amazing how few of my tasks are purely editing. I started noting how many words I'd added to that week's fictionette. I started noting how many words happened during freewriting. I even started jotting down the word-count of the daily blog post.

And I felt a little uneasy about this. Should I really "count" the words written in freewriting or blogging? Shouldn't I only count words written in new story drafts? Seriously, wasn't I just gaming the system?

Well, no. Not so much. What I was actually doing was giving myself an extra incentive to do my daily writings tasks. Furthermore, I was giving myself an excuse to celebrate having accomplished those tasks. And I needed that excuse, because the very fact of my questioning whether they "counted" revealed a nasty habit of self-sabotage.

I had convinced myself that some writing "didn't count." I'd convinced myself that I didn't deserve to feel proud of myself for accomplishing certain tasks. I could feel guilty for failing to accomplish them, but I wasn't allowed to celebrate succeeding. They didn't "count" as accomplishments.

Basically, it was the same ugly attitude I remember in my grandmother. I was very young and, in the way of the very young, acutely aware of parental injustice real and imagined. In this case, I maintain even now, it was real. I had noticed that she was swift to punish me for breaking her labyrinthine rules of etiquette and politeness, while my behaving well earned me merely neutral treatment. Basically, the best I could hope to earn with my very best behavior was not being punished. This seemed unfair. My very best behavior wasn't easy! I just wanted to know she appreciated the effort. But she said "Why should I reward you for doing what you ought to be doing already?"

(To be fair, this is the same argument we feminists use against men who demand gratitude and and a steady girlfriend as a reward for not having raped anyone. To be even more fair, these men are adults and theoretically no longer in the stage of childhood where they still need to be taught what good behavior is, or where they feel rewarded by any attention at all and so it behooves parents to reward good behavior with positive attention. Also, we aren't their parents.)

So, yeah. I'd come to define certain writing tasks as "what I ought to be doing already," so when I did them, I didn't think it much to brag on. Doing them wasn't enough to save me from the self-loathing of "Call yourself a writer? When did you last work on a salable story, huh? What have you done for your career lately?" ... it was only enough to reduce the self-loathing to "Well, at least you did something. You're not totally hopeless, I guess."

Which is no way to live.

At one point a while back, I had a big difficult email to write--lots of effort, difficult topic, project I had no enthusiasm for---and I resented the way it was going to crowd out my real writing hours. I decided that since it was writing, of a sort, I might as well count it toward my daily timesheet. If I had to do it, I might as well consider its hours as counting toward my 5-hour goal rather than bemoan its putting that goal out of reach.

Today I also had a difficult email to write. And I had a similar epiphany: Maybe I could break through the resistance by reclassifying it as one of this afternoon's writing tasks. I would put it on my timesheet, log the hours spent writing it, and also log the word count. Then I'd actually get something out of the ordeal besides the frustration of having lost the time I could have spent working on, say, my new story for Podcastle's Halloween-themed submission window.

So that's how an extra 3 hours 15 minutes and 1600 words got added to today's tally of writing done and words written. They weren't easy words or hours, so I'm damn well going to count them. (Also I spent about 20 minutes and 400-some words brainstorming on the Halloween submission, so win-win.)

I'm not going to get silly. I'm not going to start counting my hours spent and words written on reading blogs and writing comments thereon. But I'm not going to discount writing accomplishments anymore simply because they aren't the right shape. All the words count because I wrote them. I wrote them because they were worth writing. If they were worth writing, they damn well count. OK? OK.

This blog post is 1,051 words long and took 45 minutes to write. And that was worth writing, too.

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