O, Frabjous Day

In a week I get to post a sign over my desk that reads, “I’d rather write” and dial back social media presence to pre-publishing levels. I am antsy with anticipation. I’ve already axed Facebook and Twitter apps from my phone and tablet. Next I re-install the blocker on my laptop. Happy dancing will ensue, I assure you.

When I committed myself to mastering what I call “Authoring” (all the non-creative elements of self-publishing)  I knew the task would pull me away from writing. Authoring doesn’t only eat up time, it fills the brainspace needed for dreams and ideas.  I have only missed two writing days the whole year, but I’ve produced mostly ephemera (correspondence, posts, tweets, blog entries) and paddled around in the shallows of creation–revising, formatting, designing graphics etc. The demands of marketing, networking, advertising, and administration sapped my creative energy and shattered my attention span. I knew they would, from past experience with juggling jobs. I knew, and I knew how badly the loss would scrape at me, but I did it anyway.

I had to try, to see if I could. I’m a sucker for a challenge. I also had to make the investment to know if my words were worth it. The publishing world is flooded with writing. I had to breach the inherent barrier of visibility to learn if my work had appeal.  Would it attract readers who came across it by chance or through secondary recommendation? (Spoiler alert: yes. Color me with blushes.)

I know I’m supposed to write for myself, but it’s not how I’m built. No point in lecturing me about external validation. Deaf ears. I’m a competitor by nature. The drive to be best, to claw my way to the top of any ranking, isn’t about winning over anyone else. It isn’t about putting others down. It’s internal all the way. I can know I am good enough all day long–but I will never believe it until I hear it from someone with no reason to placate, pity, or pander to me. So I went hunting.

Turns out I have an audience. My work has fans. I got out there and self-promoted and networked and learned about marketing tricks and channels and shared all I learned in turn.  My audience isn’t big, but its members are passionate, and I cherish them. Their enthusiasm–their willingness to not only make time for my words but also to share their enjoyment with others–inspires me. In a word, they rock.

So here’s the thing. I gave full-time Authoring a year, and I have visibility. I’ve started a fire in the darkness. The flames in the kindling are flickering nice and bright.  I could toss in more branches, promotionally-speaking, and build it higher until my visibility has a bright, wide reach. Or I could bank the hot, glowing coals and let them burn low and slow on their own for a while. Guess which option leaves me time and energy to write. Ayup. I’m banking those fires.

All my major travel for the year is finished. My summer/fall schedule, packed with family obligations, required events, and constant activity: completed at last. Best of all, my resolution to spend a whole “Year of Attempting Authoring” is almost done. This doesn’t mean I become a hermit. I have authoring plans for next year already. (I have postcards to hand out, dammit. And a game I want design) It only means I dial back on authoring distractions and manage the rest with an emphasis on efficiency.

Bottom line: I’d rather write than author. And as an independent artist with little prospect of ever profiting from my work, that’s a choice I have the luxury of making.  So I’m doing it. I’ll stoke my creative fire rather than see my name in lights.

Not this kind of fire. A figurative one.


When I say I don’t want compliments….

Today in Uncomfortable Self Awareness Revelations: I have finally figured out why I end up feeling worse after asking for feedback than when I struggle in solitude. In the immortal words of The Captain from Cool Hand Luke, “What we have here is a failure to communicate.” It’s a problem of definitions. To me, feedback means “providing facts, data points, specifics, examples, ”  To so many others, it means, “Say something nice and/or encouraging.”  I ask for honest feedback. I get praise. It makes me weep.

Generalities are like grains of sand inside my mental shoes. They chafe and grate and rub me raw. They require interpretation and are filled with irritating, incomprehensible nuance. I love interpreting nuances of meaning as an intellectual exercise, but as soon as my emotions are engaged, the stress builds high.

Facts are solid, sturdy things that can easily be passed from person to person without much distortion. Praise is fragile and slippery, so it all too easily falls into the deep emotional hole labeled “polite lies said by people who secretly pity you and want you to go away.” Once it’s in that pit of despair,  it feeds the flames of self-doubt.

Facts seal doubt away, burying it under a solid flow of data. The flow will sometimes hammer my ego to the floor at the same time, but that pit of doubt? It’s still filled. 

I cannot reliably interpret general compliments, however honest they may be. They’re indistinguishable  from polite lies or veiled insults regardless of their objective truth. I can’t tell them apart from their painful cousins, so they end up in the same place. The emotional moat praise must cross to reach my heart is life-deep.

Building a bridge over that gaping pit takes a lot of specific fact-bricks and a LOT of trust. I have to deeply trust people before I believe praise from them–and that trust has to be built and rebuilt with lots and lot of fact bricks every time an ego quake brings all the confidence crashing down. It takes tireless effort to build a bridge strong enough for compliments to safely cross over.

I can only think of five people who’ve built a bridge like that, ever. I married one of them.
I can adult when necessary. Except in extreme circumstances, I will manage courteous thanks and a polite semblence of gratitude for praise-y generalizations. But since you’ve gotten this far, I’ll tell you a little secret: I’m usually not thrilled. I’m not grateful.  I’m often bruised deep inside, and my trust will take a long time to heal.

Give me specifics, or give me silence. I’m entirely unreasonable that way. 

Writing Advice

Chip off the Ol’ Writer’s Block

The information in this post comes from an SFWA panel on writer’s block I attended in June 2015. If you’re a speculative fiction writer and can afford to attend the SFWA weekend in June 2016, I highly recommend the experience. I learned a lot in this session and others, and I met a lot of great people too. Now, about that block…

What’s that? A blockage? Let me at it.

Authors Nancy Kress, Sarah Pinsker, Jack McDevitt, and Jack Skillingstead began the session with introductions and a definition of what writer’s block would mean in the context of their discussion. That’s more important than it might seem on first glance. See, the creative dry spells writers usually mean when we talk about being “blocked” are frustrating, but they’re actually not the debilitating condition a psychologist would call writer’s block. Everything here is directed towards problems of the  “where do I go from here?” “I’m stuck,” or “what happened to my motivation?” type rather than deep-seated avoidances and phobias rooted in “I’m scared. I can’t face it.”

Point 1: There’s no one cause or type of block, and writers can be blocked for more than one reason at a time or over time.  If I’m blocked I might be:

emotionally or technically unprepared for a specific project
distracted by life’s other necessities.

unsure what comes next, plot wise.
buried under too many voices/advice/info on how to. 
suffering from”Tolstoy syndrome” (mired in the emotional swamp of “If it’s not as good as why bother?”)
having an episode of blank page panic
overwhelmed by discouragement.

(to name only a few common issues) 

Point 2: Nothing works for everyone. Nothing works for anyone every time. The suggestions below have worked for some people some of the time. Trying them out is one way to find what works for you. 

Go back to the last place in the story you were excited and re-write from there.
Refuse yourself writing or even words (even talking, if that’s practical) until the ideas start to flow again.
Go be physical (run, walk, garden…)
Free-write: start typing thoughts from a characters standpoint, riff on a keyword related to plot, anything that gets random words on paper
Keep away from the work area and think until start is set in mind before sitting down to the blank page.

Deny self TV/ reading/Facebook/other entertainments until work is done.
Keep multiple projects in play and switch between them whenever the energy on one wanes.

Point 3: Some general tips help writers avoid blocks and ease the work of grinding them down:
Know what you need to do to get the brain settled. Rituals and routines help.
Know your rhythm; work when your mind is sharper. Morning, evening, whenever.
Set smaller goals when you can; focus on writing a paragraph, not a novel
Recognize that each scene is a thing–helps clarify n move ideas
Write into the next scene, try to not end a session on an end
Set a far goal aim, even if it’s not the goal you end up hitting
Reread or read work aloud to find tiny changes to make

Suggestions from the audience at this point included:
using a spreadsheet (the panel wasn’t enthused but agreed it was a good motivator for those who feel motivated by word counts. Petty counting-hater that I am, I silently cheered.)
Opening new files for free writing with the thought “this doesn’t count” in mind
Rewriting other people’s work
Write a bear into the scene. Literally. Just to see what happens.
Outline a scene, if you usually don’t, and when dialogue or description starts happening on its own, go with it.

The panel then digressed into a neat conversation on types of stories: gifts vs shitting rocks. Some stories come wrapped in excitement, others have to be bled from a vein.
And then they meandered into discussing their approaches to writing & rewriting (free vs critical first drafts, some like rewriting, some despise it, etc)
The session ended with commentary on critiquing and the results and how it can both cause and cure blocks, which leads to the last point.

Pointers on using criticism as a springboard to renewed motivation:
Don’t get annoyed. (Silent tears of mirth on my part, on hearing that. Might as well suggest people stop breathing. In fairness, I think the idea was more to recommend getting over being annoyed, without responding. That whole side conversation is what inspired the whole Critiques Are Like Road Trips post.)
Find a good critic who won’t hold back but also won’t indulge in toxic superiority
Find a simpatico readers who are looking for the style and content you create.

Find people who are better than you when it comes to craft and technique.
Find people who aren’t interested in scoring ego points on you.

There. I think that covers my notes. I hope someone else gleans some useful ideas from this. I know I did. 

Biting the Hand That Feeds

This week’s navel-gazing manifesto. (tl:dr version: I am a weird, bitter person. Run while you can.) 

 Once I’ve reached the point that I admit I am feeling needy, I’m nearly unreachable. Any good thing said to me at that point is only being said because I whined.  It isn’t real. It’s false kindness offered out of courtesy, obligation, pity, annoyance, a desire to shut me up. 

Is that true? Rationally I can say no. Intuitively, I can’t feel otherwise. This is what early emotional damage does. The residual effect doesn’t wear off. It distorts praise the way a carnival mirror warps images.  It turns positives into negatives. It leaves only narrow channels of contact. 

No amount of positive thinking will eradicate those scars (which is one of many reasons I dislike those who insist happy thoughts cure all ills.) The Tower of Pisa will lean. The foundation is askew. IT can be shored up, it can still be beautiful. It will never be straight. 

 All I can do is work around the problem as best I can. I can accept praise, even if I cannot believe it. I will hug it and cherish it, and wish that someday it becomes real like the Velveteen Rabbit. I hoard it up against future need, hoping that maybe I’ll believe it next time. (Not so far, but there’s always tomorrow.) But remember what I said about narrow channels? Not all prise is created equal.

I don’t care to hear that I’m good at anything, including writing. Being good is meaningless to me. It’s praise based on the past. The past is over and done. It’s a compliment, I will say thank you, it’s a nice thing, but its purpose will roll off me like water off a duck’s back. It doesn’t penetrate. It can’t. There’s nowhere for it to go. 

 I rarely fret about “being good at something” anyway.  I am secure in state-of-being sense, in my general abilities. That much, I preserved. My fears will always be specific.  I worry about whether particular things I’ve done are bad or good. I worry about specifics with a deep anxiety involving tears or panic.

When specific fears are met with general encouragement, the reassurance has a paradoxical effect. Vague praise feeds doubt. Thumbs-up and warm fuzzies are proof that the problem is so bad no one dares address it directly. Or, tangentially, that it’s thought a lie, a false flag operation, a cry-wolf.  Positive hand-waving creates a vortex of deeper fears. 

Fear of this response is one reason I fight so hard to not admit I’m consumed by doubt at all, even when I’m being eaten alive by fear. (also known as “being awake” some days.) The cure can be worse than the original injury. I would rather suffer in silence than fight the force of the whirlwind.

The other reason I’m reluctant to speak is that resistance builds up to even the most sincere, specific praise.  That scar is tattooed with the words, “Yeah, yeah, you’ve said that before.” After a few repetitions,  opinions stop mattering.  It’s the inverse of a superpower.  The most interested, enthusiastic fan on the planet would be no match for my ability to think I’m being humored out of pity. I struggle against this, but again, when the foundation is cracked, things leak out. I would beg people to keep trying anyway, but…I can’t be cruel like that. I totally understand and sympathize when people give up on encouraging me. 

So, in conclusion, I am super-duper-overwhelmingly jealous of all the people whose friends offer words and specific encouragements without prompting. Yes, you, friends. All of you.  I love you all.  I am also sick and green and rotten with envy, and i don’t care who knows it. You all have lives, you all have much better things to do than talk to me about things that make me fret. I get that. I do. I don’t care. I want people to talk about me, all the time. 

People are reluctant to get involved with me when I’m needy. I bite the hands that feed. 

The hands that feed are holding inedible things or offering me flax seed when I need raw steak, but that isn’t what matters.  I’m peevish and ungrateful and selfish.

And I write about it because…well. Because I write about everything. 


Winter is Coming

 Working in an environment that fluctuates with the seasons the way retail does, one tends to notice recurring annual patterns. One of my personal patterns is a cycle of seasonal moodiness. Maybe it’s my Irish/Welsh/Scots heritage shining through. The astronomical calendar claims that winter won’t arrive until late December, but by the old Celtic counting of days, we pass from autumn to winter at the end of October. Every November, right on schedule, I sink into the delusion that absolutely no one on the face of the planet gives a flying fuck about anything I say or do.

 I know rationally that this is untrue. I know renouncing membership in every current Facebook group and purging my friend list of all but the small, loyal handful of people who respond to my posts is a crappy strategic move for an independent author. I know that social media are an important source of contacts and connections. My reality is not always rational. Not in the days of dwindling light. From November through the Ides of March, my life is a daily struggle against emotional entropy.

This is not Seasonal Affective Disorder. You want to see me get truly eloquent in my rantiness? Pull that cranky old cat out of its bag and wave it at me. There’s more to this than light. I crash almost as predictably in May when the days are stretching towards their longest, and to a lesser degree in late August, at the peak of the year’s heat and liveliness.  Yeah, I know my moodiness that well. I’m not exactly a spring chicken. I’ve sung this chorus enough times to know when it’s coming ’round on the guitar again. And no, my moodiness isn’t a self-fulfilling prophecy either. Where’s my brightsider hammer? I know it’s around here somewhere….

Anyway. When a car is skidding towards a wall, predicting the collision isn’t self-fulfilling prophecy to know it’s about to crash. It’s an exercise in basic observational skills. I am observant. Knowledge is a weapon against the night-bleakness, not its cause. I leave my social media keys in the hands of others, I read more and train myself to avoid the sharper corners of the interwebz.

I complain. And I mope. And I withdraw to protect my wilting, drooping self from the accidental, inevitable breakages caused by rubbing along with other lives. I do all that to keep myself sane, but all the while, like Calvin snarling and griping from room to room in my favorite comic strip of all time, I live in hope that someone will understand that it means I need more hugs than usual. I’m an optimist, underneath it all.

Lastly, yes, I do know that this admission and my behavior generates annoyance or avoidance rather than sympathy. Historically and socially, I have found that admitting I hate life and behaving like Eeyore leads like night following day to confirmation that I am, in fact, a failure.  Faint praise,  perky aphorisms and awkward silences are the result that I have come to expect when not exhibiting Proper Social Positivity. I can recite every liturgical phrase from memory: cheer up, it isn’t that bad; count your blessings; smile more; appreciate what you have; look at all the good things in the world; stop focusing on the negative; complaining isn’t a solution; think of how much worse it could be. And so on. Ad nauseum. Nothing makes me want to hide in a corner and cry more than being told that feeling like crawling into a corner to cry is another thing that I do wrong.

Gonna share a secret here, with anyone whose self-awareness is high enough to recognize their voices echoed in those cheer-up phrases. They are not helpful, friendly bits of advice, no matter how good the intention . They’re emotional rocks. They hit with force, they pile up in a smothering weight, and they damage hearts, sometimes irreparably. If I don’t tell you when I feel awful, it’s a sign that I fear being pummeled senseless by happiness.

I’m far from alone in feeling the way I do. I am in a minority that is learning to speak out and defend my right to air my unhappiness instead of letting myself be buried alive.

Don’t stone others into lonely silence. During the darkest days, when lights are sparkling and the world is full of cheer-cheer-cheer,  please allow others their black thoughts and their dirty, messy negative emotions. If you can–and I beg you to try–be light and warm and open instead, as I try to be when my own inner fire is burning high enough to spark a real smile. Don’t push the positive. Pressure kills. Heat rises. True happiness uplifts.

That’s all I’m saying.

Little lights in the darkness. I am not subtle.