Just Enough Success to Learn the WRONG Lessons
I'm still under orders to keep mum concerning the details regarding my recent sale of "First Breath," unless by some chance said orders have been rescinded without my knowledge. Playing it safe, I assume that not. But apparently it's never too early for a success to turn me into a stupidly immobile writer-wannabe hack. I shouldn't be surprised; it takes so very little to do that. Besides, we all know how success itself can turn around and cause writer's block. I should have seen this coming.
Now, first off, I feel pretty weird referring to the sale as "success." A success, yes. A very important success, very true. A landmark I've wanted to reach since, oh, age 14. But, nevertheless, a single short story sale cannot be considered Success With A Capital "S" Or A Definitive Article, not when the long-term goal is to be able to support myself and my family by making stuff up and writing it down.
This is why I keep saying, "Time to write the next thing!" Which is... a lot of pressure, oddly.
Because here's the thing: I keep catching myself trying to write not simply the next thing, but the next thing that this editor will buy. Instead of simply looking for another idea I can turn into a story, I've been searching for the idea. You know the one. The one that will turn itself into a story by dint of yanking the hapless author out of bed and plunking her down in front of the typewriter with an inviolable command to Write! and Write now! and Not To Stop Until It Is Finished!
If that's what I've been doing, it's no wonder I'm not getting past "I don't know what to write" these days. Because that idea? That idea is a myth. It is a fantastic creature. It is--
Well, wait. That's wrong. I know it's wrong, you know it's wrong, every writer who ever had an idea haul them to their daily work by the scruff of the neck or had fictional characters insist they take dictation knows that it's wrong to say that such an idea is mere myth. It exists, all right. Really and truly--but only insofar as, given a working writer's full attention, every idea is that idea. It's the difference between "There are no such things as unicorns" and "Of course unicorns exist, duh. Here's a picture of a narwhal."
(For the record, I absolutely believe unicorns exist. Unconditionally.)
There are a lot of wrong lessons to learn from having sold a story. Among them are "Write something else JUST LIKE IT!" and "Save your energy for writing stories that obsess you, like that one did!" It's all well and good to make your ideas compete for your attention and only work on the one that succeeds in grabbing it. But to wait, sit there with your pen or keyboard motionless, until the right idea appears? No.
Any lesson that takes the writer out of the driver's seat is the wrong one.
A better lesson is, "See what you did there? Take the next idea you have, and do it again." Do what again? "Give it your attention. Feed it to your right brain. Dream on it. Spend time typing about it." Take an active role, and turn the next idea into that idea.
Which will turn around and hijack you.
Enjoy the ride.
(...I'm not sure I'm OK with that metaphor, really. Perhaps tomorrow I'll have a better one. Sleep tight, kids.)
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I'm only up to chapter 3 of the re-type? Really? Really?
That... ain't right. For serious values of "ain't" and "right." Maybe what I'm calling Chapter 2 is really, really long and ought to be divided into two or more chapters. Or maybe I'm just slow.
Well, if so, the "serial publication" aspect isn't going much faster. Got to appreciate these small blessings.
On the Pressures of Serial Publication
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I think I know a little how Charles Dickens felt. At least insofar as to do with publishing a novel serially.
Today I finally finished the retype of the chapter where Melissa finds the upstairs room of the castle. That's one more chapter safely written, one more ready to be delivered to its audience. Its audience of one.
Both my husband's birthday and our latest anniversary have passed us by, so I'm not finishing the novel retype in time for either of those. And I've given up on using my code from winning NaNoWriMo 2009 for a free proof copy from CreateSpace, because the deadline for that is at the end of this month, and I don't want to do a rush job. Besides, Amazon is pretty much dead to me these days.
So instead, on the evening of our anniversary, I read the prologue and first chapter aloud to an audience of one: the man I've been happily married to for twelve years. Because he's so amazingly supportive of me and my crazy idea to be a writer when I grow up. And because this is his book.
Now I just have to stay at least two or three chapters ahead in the type-in as we continue reading our way through this work-in-progress. This may be the deadline that finally gets me to move! If not, my "editor" is bound to be more forgiving of my lapse than I will be.
The Mobile Office, Downtown Boulder Edition
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From the Amtrak to the BX, from the station straight to work. John and I just got back this morning on a train from Chicago, having spent a fantastically action-packed Memorial Day weekend there. A night spent in sleeping accommodations meant we were well-rested and ready to get back to our respective jobs pretty much the moment we pulled in.
For both of us, since May 17, our respective jobs are primarily in downtown Boulder. Which is to say: John took a position with a small programming start-up in a location he can bus, bike, or even walk to (in good weather and with 45 minutes to spare), and I happily rearranged my own writing routine such that I accompany him there most days. He goes to the office, and I go to some place quiet and endowed with electrical outlets and wi-fi. Maybe I do my Morning Pages on a bench by the creek, maybe pull out the laptop and do some freewriting, until the Boulder Public Library opens at 10:00. (Once I gave into temptation and spent the pre-library hour at Tee & Cakes. Hard on the wallet. Easy on the yummm.) Maybe I spend the hours until lunch working on Demand Studios articles in the upstairs quiet zone. Maybe I meet John for lunch, if he has time. Maybe we try a downtown establishment with an interesting lunch special. Maybe we make lunch. (I bought bento boxes! I want to fill them up with Stuff!) Maybe I go to Atlas Purveyors for the afternoon stretch, working on short stories and blogging gigs if there's time.
That's a lot of maybe. The definitely is, I go to work. And I work.
It helps to leave the house to go to work; I don't end up running errands or cleaning the house or chasing the cats instead of writing. It helps even more to leave in the company of someone who's heading to work himself. Self-discipline is largely a matter of mindset, and the morning go-to-work routine changes a mindset. Also, this is my first time since 2004 working roughly in the same location as my husband; I'd forgotten how much I'd missed commuting together, going to lunch together, simply being nearby rather than at opposite ends of a highway.
Today, we got off the BX, walked to his office, stowed our luggage, and then went our separate ways: he to renew his Diet Coke supply, me to order a pot of pu erh at Atlas. I had a lot to do, so it was best to spend the day all in one place. Atlas are very hospitable to all-day work sessions, even bums like me who buy one pot of tea and re-steep it all day long.
(Atlas recently got a hilariously absurd negative review on Yelp.com. The owner blew it up, printed it out, and enshrined it on the wall-to-wall chalkboard for all to enjoy.)
It felt weird how normal everything felt today, being back in Boulder, getting back to work. I mean, last night I went to sleep somewhere in Nebraska. Yesterday morning I woke up in Chicago. I guess traveling has to bring you back home sometime, but the transition was so seamless that I barely noticed it, making Boulder feel a strange place to be.
Then I thought, "You know what's really weird? That 'normal' means calling this cafe my office for the day, watching people walk by, writing stories half the day and paid article gigs the other half. And calling somewhere else my office tomorrow."
Then things got really circular. I stopped thinking and went back to writing.
Today's fiction task: write down the zombie story I've been entertaining in my head all weekend long. If you followed the links above, you'll have found one to Tee & Cakes's short story contest (here's their original announcement). The three words that were the story prompt put me in mind of nothing so much as Popcap.com's "Plants vs. Zombies" game (though I admit playing it during any downtime with John this weekend helped). So it's a bit of a pastiche on that, and a bit of a spoof on popular expectations about the inevitable zombie apocalypse. It also incorporates something I learned about chickens a couple weeks ago at Abbondanza.
The result is now in Tee & Cakes's inbox. If it doesn't make the cut, I think I just might send it to Weird Tales.
And that's the news.
On Hardware and Software and Shifting Writing Environments
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I'm an hour into today's work on the Melissa's Ghost retype, which took a surprising amount of tech savvy to enable. The why of that may be summarized thusly:
Running Word Perfect 5.1 (for DOS) on Windows 7.
I got a new laptop recently. It's another Dell Inspiron 15. It differs from my previous Dell Inspiron 15 in that it meets certain required criteria such as having a CD/DVD-ROM that functions and a chassis that isn't coming apart at the corners and video drivers (I think it's the video drivers) that do not cause the computer to crash when I switch from AC power to battery power. Also enough processor speed and memory that simple multitasking doesn't bring the whole system to a crawl.
These are important concerns. And then there's this other key difference: the new laptop is running Windows 7. My previous ran XP. The world of 64-bit operating system is entirely new to me as of May 2010. And it became a scary, scary place when I copied over WP 5.1 from the old laptop to the new and discovered that it would not run.
I should have been prepared. I should have read this article. I hadn't. It's on my to-do list.
At this point, it's not unreasonable to ask, as some have, why I persist in using WP 5.1 in the year 2010. Well. The answer is somewhere between "Because it is a superior piece of word processing software" and "Rawr you kids back in my day rawr get off my lawn." It goes something like this:
It's 1992. I'm a sophomore in high school. I'm taking as an elective course a semester-long writing workshop in the fancy-dancy computer lab. The computer lab is full of Macs. The computer my parents just bought is a PC running Windows 3.1. To work on the same document at home on Microsoft Works and at school on MS Word for Mac requires a very clunky conversion process. I complain, I am overheard, I am soon the proud owner of a quietly pirated copy of Word Perfect 5.1. MS Word for Mac can convert from and to WP 5.1 for DOS. Life is good.
Almost 20 years later, just about everything I've ever seriously written is in WP 5.1 format. Open Office will read that natively, sure, but I don't want to use Open Office as my writing studio. I'm 20-years familiar with WP 5.1. I've got it's weird commands mostly memorized. I am accustomed to a mouse-free, keyboard-only environment. The blocky, monospace on-screen font fades into the background for me. And the mental shift I get from writing in a DOS-based environment helps stave off the distraction of knowing that the entire Internet is waiting for me to drop in and waste the day away.
Put simply: I'm used to WP 5.1, I'm comfortable there, and it's as close to the bare essence of words on a page as I can get while still using a word processor at all. That's the experience I want, and I don't care if Windows 7 is going to be all snobby about 20-year-old software.
So I spent a bunch of time on Google, discovered DOSBox, then figured out how to reconfigure its keyboard commands so it would quit stomping on Word Perfect's keyboard commands, and then belatedly discovered the above-mentioned website with its clear and sophisticated instructions on how to do what I did only much better and more easily and felt very, very silly. But that doesn't matter! I get to do this!
So that on the left is yWriter, the novel-editing software I spent most of November 2009 inside. On the right is DOSBox running WP 5.1, in which I'm typing up the new draft. And running along the top left is FocusBooster, a timer application.
And that's my current writing environment. Ta-da!
O hai ther viral gastroenteritis! No, no really, you shouldn't have.
Seriously. You're a great pen-pal, an exemplary long-distance acquaintance. I hadn't seen you in the flesh since, oh, 2003 or so, and that was actually really truly OK. When you visit, things get... messy. Uncomfortable. It doesn't help that you send no warning, that you stay some 16 hours, and that it takes another 36 to clean up after you. Look, email next time, OK?
(Then I can hide until you leave again.)
So, yeah. Dearth of blogging has many sources, but the most immediate was TEH SIXXOR. But now I am, if not all better, then much improved. Dressed and showered. Active. Had some caffeinated tea this morning and took a walk outside in the sun, both for the first time since onset of symptoms Tuesday night. Am contemplating foods not on the BRAT-plus-broth diet.
Writing may actually happen today. *gasp* Stay tuned.
Funny thing is, all day Tuesday I couldn't seem to motivate myself to do anything beyond some necessary household chores. I suppose the lack of energy wasn't just due to the all-day rain and my personal species of seasonal affective disorder, but possibly also to the oncoming infection. Next time I have one of those days, I'll try paying attention rather than beating myself up for getting nothing done.
Not that beating oneself up for failures is ever a good idea, understand.
Acceptance Letters! They Make Writers Happy!
"First Breath" has sold. To a professional market, even. Which is a first for me. (Come to think of it, Ideomancer was my first semi-pro sale of fiction this decade. Damn, 2010 rocks!)
On the one hand, this means that the ongoing worldbuilding discussion with my friend is unlikely to result in a significant revision. On the other hand, that's totally OK and I know she'll understand.
This weekend: Floating on euphoria, squeeing to my nearest and dearest, having an extremely short attention span because squee!
Tonight: Angsting over writing the requested bio. What the hell does anyone put in those things? I mean, when they can't say "is the best-selling author of this, that and the other novel."
Tomorrow: Working on the next thing, because there is always a next thing.
And I'm not sure the Ant thing will be the next thing, because if there's something I've learned from this experience, it's this: Write at the intersection of passion and fear. That story that won't get out of your head, that you're kind of ashamed to let anyone else see? That's the one. Get to it.
Bonus points if it came to you in a dream.
I am thinking of another story that matches that description. And, while there's something to be said for the comic relief of something like that Ant thing, that other story does match the description. Which means now it won't get out of my head.
But tomorrow I get to see a bunch of writer-type friends downtown for my usual Tuesday Lunchtime At Atlas thing, and I will probably squee at them a bit more before settling down to writing the next thing. Also! I have a new laptop! It isn't falling apart, and its CD/DVD-ROM works, and it doesn't crash when I unplug it! Tomorrow is totally going to be show-and-tell day.
Inside the Story Factory
Remember yesterday's overwrought, overstretched metaphor? "So it's like a seedling nursery, right? Only it's in suspended animation." It's exactly like that, actually.
So I do the Twitter thing. My blog posts broadcast there via RSS, and I get downright tweet-headed when I'm on a train or at a convention. And sometimes I tweet the "Story Idea du Jour"--for example, this.
The Story Idea du Jour comes directly out of this daily routine I'm working on, where I sit down with the task of writing something new, something so brand-new that I don't even know what it's going to be until it's done. It is very self-reassuring to come up with a shiny new story idea daily. It reaffirms the known but hard-to-keep-hold-of fact that story ideas don't run out. Truly they don't. Ideas are not only a dime a dozen, they're growing on trees. And the more I force myself to come up with new ones, the easier it is to come up with new ones.
"Coming up with ideas" isn't quite right. I'm coming up with ideas all the time without even trying. I'd wager tomorrow's breakfast that we all do. The trick is recognizing them as ideas and not reflexively rejecting them. Morning Pages are also good for fomenting the habit of recognition and breaking the habit of rejection: Keep the pen moving. Don't stop for three pages. Recognize each thought and transcribe it. Don't audition your thoughts against some "worth writing about" yardstick. Write them all down. So with story ideas. What's in your head right now this second? That right there, yes, that, that's a story idea. Pay it some attention. Play with it.
When I started my 25-minute timer, I was also timing some cupcakes in the oven. (We had a cupcake-designing party for April Fool's Day. We had some icing left over. How do you use up leftover icing? You make more cupcakes.) 25 minutes to freewrite on some idea or other; 25 minutes to bake cupcakes. Isn't it great how these things work out? But in any case, after beating together flour and sugar and milk and shortening and so on, after pouring out batter into little paper cups inside the six spaces on a muffin tin, my head was full of cupcake. In fact, what my head kept saying was, "The little cupcake that could."
Isn't that awesome? "The Little Cupcake That Could." That's awesome. But--what the crap is it about?
Twenty-five minutes later, it was about some esoteric ingredient masquerading as extra flour, bought at a questionable shop that happened to be convenient on the way home from a particularly hassled day at work, that got baked into cupcakes, that got served at a ten-year-old's birthday party, that changed the lives of the birthday party attendants forever. Years later, something terrible happens to one of them, and this brings the whole group together, and they have to find out what has been done to them and what it means in their lives now and what choices it puts before them all too soon.
Those little cupcakes? They could.
And then, after 25 minutes, I click "Save and Exit." I forget all about it (except maybe to tweet it, or blog about it briefly) and I move on to another task. I've done my job for the day, as far as the cupcakes are concerned. I've planted a seed in the nursery. You don't sit there watching the ground covering a seed, waiting for it to sprout. You water it and put it somewhere warm and sunny and then you leave it alone.
One day I will look through my file full of Story Ideas du Jour, and the cupcake one will go ping! I'll print it up, make notes, and type a brand new draft about those nefarious cupcakes and those hapless ten-year-olds (and the hapless 20-somethings they became). It'll become the novel or screenplay it was meant to be.
But not today. Today, I'm still working on a story that got planted back in June of last year, that I selected out of the nursery late last week. The one about giant sentient Ants and a rather progressive barista learning how to talk to each other and turn a profit at the same time.
Or something like that.
It's a work in progress.
More Farm Metaphors For Writing: Thinning Seedlings
The broccoli were planted on March 17. Some twenty days later, they're getting their first real leaves. It's time to thin the seedlings.
Typically they're planted two per cell. Seedlings like to germinate in company. But they like to leaf out in private, so at this point we go through the trays and snip, snip, snip, leaving one sprout per cell. The remaining seedling flourishes, gladly filling out the freed-up space, and will be all the healthier when it's time to transplant them to the field.
This morning, I mostly just put the culled sprouts in a compost bucket. Some of them I ate. Broccoli sprouts are sharp and tasty, and the variety seen here is insanely nutritious. But last year, later in the season when we were thinning tomatoes, I saved six of the plants, pulling them out carefully rather than snipping their stems at the surface. I brought them home in small plastic pots filled with good Abbo soil mix, and I planted them in the self-watering bins on the balcony. And I enjoyed actual home-grown tomatoes for probably the first time since moving to Colorado.
Thinning seedlings could be seen as another (yet another) metaphor for writing. Ideas are a dime a dozen, but not every one of them turns into a story. You pick the one you can develop fully, leaving the others by the wayside. The more brain you spend on the one with potential, the better you do by it; whereas if you tried to give all your ideas equal attention and grow them all, they'll probably never get beyond that spindly, skeletal phase.
But unlike in farming, ideas you don't develop don't get snipped and tossed onto the compost. Well, they compost, yes, but that's where the metaphor breaks down; actual literal compost is composed of dead organic matter, where as composting ideas are very much alive, or perhaps pre-born. Anyway, the ideas that don't get developed now might come back with greater urgency and potential at a later date, having done some growing on their own when you weren't really looking at them. So it's less like this morning's broccoli culling and more like last year's tomato salvaging. Except the idea that gets transplanted is the one you choose, rather than the one you pass by.
Imagine if you could sort of put all your seed starts in stasis. Just, zap! all those 200 cells of broccoli go into suspended animation. Then you inspect them, each one of them, and you say, "That one. That one right there has potential." You gently uproot it and transplant it into its own cell, and then you hit the RESUME button. It grows and thrives and flowers. You enjoy a fantastic broccoli stir-fry. Then you go back to the seedlings in stasis and choose another.
It would be a terribly inefficient way to produce broccoli, unless I suppose you did this with three acre-long rows of broccoli at a time. But it's a pretty good way to write stories.
How To Eat French Onion Soup
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Writing metaphors! They're not just for breakfast anymore! In fact, they're what's for dinner. Also lunch for the next three days, because we cook in quantity.
So on Wednesday John and I had our first Cooking Date of the year. We made French onion soup and insalata caprese. It was all a spectacular success, and, as implied above, I've had leftovers to eat every day since then.
Today at lunch I sat down with a freshly broiled toast-and-cheese top on a rewarmed crock of our awesome soup, and, apropos of nothing extraordinary, I finally figured out how to eat the dang stuff.
Pause. Rewind. Replay a Wednesday night in Metairie, Louisiana circa 1988. Maybe it was a Sunday, I don't know. Once a week, or maybe just once a month--memory is hazy here--a group of neighborhood ladies got together to sing barbershop harmony. They had hopes of founding a brand-new Sweet Adelines chapter. Mom met with them and brought me along, and this was when I first got pegged as a baritone. (Yes: I was a Type A at the age of 12.) But where I'm going with this trip down memory lane is down the road from the neighborhood home in which we rehearsed to the local Ruby Tuesdays for late night appetizers. Where I always, always, always ordered the French onion soup.
And I always made a mess trying to get through that toast-and-cheese lid. And Mom and all the other grown-ups enjoyed great and gentle amusement at my exasperated expense.
It's not simple! A spoon isn't sharp enough to get through that thick swiss cheese. And even if it was, the toast is floating; you can't very well slice it with a knife and fork. There's no leverage. Best I managed to do was poke at the edges of the cheese until I had a hole through which to sip the broth down to a less perilous surface level, such that mangling the toast and cheese no longer caused catastrophic overflow.
Even John asked the question when we sat down to dinner: "Now how do I eat this?" "I have no idea," I told him. "You just muddle through and make a mess. It's why I put the soup crocks on plates."
But today at lunch, I got it. If you just let the soup crock sit, all patient-like, until all components are cool enough to eat without burning your mouth, the soup will have soaked into the toast and softened it up. Then you can push... not too hard... very very gently... at the cheese-topped toast with the edge of your spoon, until it gives way. The cheese will try to glue it together, but once the bread breaks, the cheese will stretch thin and you can bite through it when you eat the broken-off bite of bread.
After that, everything's much easier.
So this was my discovery. And I thought, "That's another metaphor for writing, isn't it?" (Yes. I know. Everything's a metaphor for writing. Shut up, I'm making a point, it's an effin' marvelous point, it's bloody brilliant. Because I say so. Hush.) Of course I thought that. I was in the middle of my writing day, and I was trying to figure out how to get my mental spoon through the thick cheese topping that was keeping me from going deeper than babble draft into anything.
The plan was to spend a good hour moving an unfinished short story closer to submission-ready. Only I didn't know which one. "First Breath" was done and out the door (though it may yet see further revisions pending an ongoing conversation a colleague and I are having about its worldbuilding details). "Lambing Season" also hit the slush again yesterday. A number of stories are in the post-critique "almost perfect, but not quite" stage, but none felt... permeable, if you know what I mean. None felt accessible. I spent half an hour going through my files, looking for some half-baked idea from a freewriting exercise that might spark itself into a full-blown story. Nothing went ping.
Finally I latched onto a "scene" from the Daily Story Idea yWriter file. It had to do with sentient, human-sized Ants coexisting with humans. One of them goes into a coffee shop and orders a cappuccino. As story ideas go, this one was light and fluffy and funny and nothing at all like "First Breath," and it amused me to read it. I had no idea what to do with it, though. I didn't even know what to call it. ("The Ants Go Marching Latte-ward, Hurrah" is very much not a working title. It's an "I have to call this something and I mustn't take it too seriously this early in the game" sort of for-now title.) I set the timer for another half hour and attempted to figure it out where this thing was going.
I pasted that ridiculous excuse for a working title at the top and printed out the not-yet-a-story. Then I read it again, letting its broth soak in and soften things up. Then I got out a pen and began making notes as tentative as the spoon's assault on the toast-and-cheese. "Barista shouldn't be too enlightened; anti-Ant prejudice shouldn't all be big bad boss's." "Would Ant use mandibles for speech? How would Ants speak?" "What barista thinks but doesn't say parallels what Ant doesn't say but telegraphs with her antennae." Several of those notes put together became a solid story development idea, like a nice big bite of toast that lets you finally get your spoon into the soup. And after that, everything becomes much simpler.
Really, everything about writing that looks scary and impossible tends to seem less so once you take that first nibble. But then, isn't that the case for most scary and impossible tasks?