Detours Writing Life

Passing thought

Some thoughts on body comfort & dealing with aging and generally coping with the reality of being a lump of replicating cells that creep daily toward death.  Inspired by all the “oh, body, how you betray me as I age,” posts all over the social sphere on the one day a week I’m allowed to surf.

The bleak humorous posts come mainly from people in their 20’s and 30’s. I can sympathize with their shock and unhappiness, oh, yes. It’s aggravating to discover you can’t do something as easily as you once could.

There’s often a sense of resentment about it, though, and I can’t fathom the bitterness.

First, I don’t remember ever having an expectation of navigating daily life without pain or risk of injury. Maybe as a toddler? No, there was the top bunk incident and the 16 stitches in my chin (blood swirling down the drain, my parents talking over my head with the doctor about possible facial scarring… I was 3, I think?) I knew life was a contact sport wherein any action could bench me with injuries before puberty hit. Tying my shoes and “sitting wrong” have always been hazardous. No biggie. Deal & heal.  I honestly never realized it wasn’t like that for everyone until college. (There are reasons I was teased for being The Oblivious Child)

Second, resentment springs from a sense of betrayal, and that relies on an adversarial relationship with physicality I can’t grok. My body isn’t an enemy or even a frenemy. It’s a housecat.

No, really. It cannot care for itself without my help, it wants lots of things that will do it harm, it’s always finding new and creative ways to break things, and there’s no ignoring it when it needs attention. It’s my responsibility to monitor its behavior and keep it from hurting itself, and we are both happiest when I give it extra pampering. It’s totally a cat.

And yeah, sometimes I’m displeased with my body. (I REALLY didn’t like that phase in my teens when my neck and spine grew first and my legs took time to catch up so I felt like a teeny, clunky giraffe, but hey. I did even out. eventually.)  I’m sometimes displeased with my cat, too. Like when he decides my bedside is just the place to vomit up hairballs.

But I digress. My body is mine, and sometimes it purrs, and it tries to be good, and so I can’t imagine resenting it for things it can’t help.

I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with resenting your body. I’m an all-out supporter of doing whatever works to keep yourself going. No such thing as a One True Way etc. I can’t see that it would ever work for me, that’s all I’m saying.

Anyway. Gonna go give myself a treat and a brushing now.

Book reviews

Review: The Bigtime Series by Jennifer Estep

The Bigtime Series by Jennifer Estep
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Goodreads always asks me, “What did you think?”

This series of four books-plus-extras is best enjoyed with a minimum of thought. I think of them as mental cotton candy. I love Jennifer Estep’s Spider Assasin series, so when I saw this omnibus edition on a freebie sale from Kindle, I grabbed it up and gobbled right through all the stories in order. They melted right into my brain with barely any effort at all.

When I was done, I had an odd taste in my mouth, plus I felt a little sticky and bloated. Cotton candy.

Don’t get me wrong. I enjoyed these tales of super-heroines and their crime-fighting romance misadventures.  I liked these with a good, solid three-star like. (That’s what I give my own books, for the sake of comparison.) They’re fun, and light and fluffy and oh-so-sweet. I don’t finish books I don’t enjoy. I have no problem putting down a story after 10, 100 or even 1000 pages. (Looking at you, Mssrs Sanderson and Martin. I’ll revisit your worlds when the end of your series are in sight and not a moment sooner. But I digress. Again.)

My only warning is this: just as a steady diet of cotton candy will rot your teeth and encourage diabetes, a steady diet of books like these would rot your brain and have serious intellectual repercussions. There’s not enough substance to sustain thought. They’re fine for a quick treat, but don’t expect the ideas to stay with you much longer than it takes to lick your fingers clean.

The premise, that superpowers are real, that masked superheroes are an accepted part of society, is explored only in the most superficial ways. I don’t know that I would’ve enjoyed it half as much if I wasn’t already familiar with the tropes, types and themes of a four-color world. Since I do have a solid grounding in that genre, I appreciated the attention to detail and had a ball spotting all the references. Nearly all the characters had Golden Age alliterative names. Lulu Lo. Bella Belluci, Carmen Cole. The protagonist in Karma Girl comes from a small town called Beginnings, but she moves to the city when her career takes off. The city’s name? BigTime, of course.

The protagonists are well-written — no cookie-cutter characters from Jennifer Estep, no sirree — but they have all the depth of sheets of paper. This works, given that the world itself is so thinly sketched, but it makes their conflicts as predictable as the plot of a network sitcom. There’s no space wasted on development. Everyone falls neatly into their niche: shy nerd, plucky reporter, suave socialite, temperamental artist. Every detail has a purpose. Every action will have significance later in the plot.

Plot? Similar for all the stories. They’re romances in the most traditional sense, despite the atypical setting. Girl with quirks and a problem meets Boy with secrets. (Secret identities are a running theme,. All the inhabitants of this world have huge blind spots until the plot device starts working.) Girl and Boy dance through a courtship involving a contrived meetings, shocking revelations, and comedic moments. (And steamy sex! These are R-for-romance rated.) Major dilemma surfaces. Girl and boy must make Big Choices. Love conquers all. With capes.

In summary: fun, frivolous romance fluff, written tightly and traditionally, with an entertaining setting and clever use of classic comic book plot elements.

View all my reviews

Writing Advice

Word Counts, and Why I Hate Them

I hate word counts. No, not the counts themselves. I like to know how much time I’m about to invest. When I’m looking at a physical book, I can tell at a glance. (Thick? Thin? Tons of photos? None at all?)  When “pages” don’t exist as a physical limit, then counting the words is the only way to measure what’s between the beginning and The End.  This trick doesn’t work well, mind you — poetry and graphic story-telling take far more time to ingest and digest than basic narrative, for example — but it’s better to have a rough idea than none at all.

So, word counts aren’t inherently evil.  They have their uses.  Measuring artistic achievement is not one of them.

If you’re a writer who uses your word count as an ego boost, if you take solace or find cheer in the number of sentences completed, if you regard output as the goal of your creative endeavors, then I implore you to please stop reading now. The exit is right there. If it works for you, then I won’t judge you. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in a lifetime of storytelling, it’s that no one trick, technique or system works for everyone. If counting words helps you keep your fingers on your keyboard and your mind in the creative groove, good for you. Count on.

I will plug my ears, avert my eyes, and grit my teeth. Word counts make me ranty.

For me, it sends the wrong message. How on earth has prose fiction wandered so far afield from the basic concept of wringing the most out of every single word that people feel that they need to produce words for words’ sake? Think about it. Did  e e cummings ever write a piece longer than 500 words? Some of his poems are worth hours of contemplation. The Sandman volumes by Neil Gaiman clock in under 5K words per story. Each one deserves an extended episode of existential pondering. Words are not the point. GOOD words are.

I hate this recent trend that characterizes volume production as a sign of artistic achievement. I loathe it. What is — at best — a raw test of text size is now regularly presented as a precision measurement of productive worthiness. I hate the way word counts have become an obligatory social media mention for authors, as if quantity alone could be a compass guide to progress towards completion, a bragging right, and a point of pride all rolled into one.

“Oh, just write!” That’s what so many guides and experts say. “Don’t over-think it. Don’t censor yourself. Don’t edit as you write, your creative juices will dry up. You can fix errors in the next draft. Get to the finish line. Go-go-go!”

The common wisdom holds that more writers crash on the shoals of self-doubt than drown in a sea of words. Let the font of inspiration flow, and filter it later. There’s a huge problem with this analogy. Creativity isn’t a fountain or a river or a sea. The whole reason for honing wordcraft with intense discipline and dedication is that ideas won’t hit in a steady current. Creativity is a weather system. You want to be ready to capture plenty of water in your cisterns when a gullywasher hits, but without control, you’ll have ooze in the basement and the house will smell like sewage.

There is a difference between “let the story flow” and “clog the page with words.” There is a happy medium.  Focusing on quantity over quality leads to another current trend I like to call Long-string Redundancy. If a description is worth giving, it will be repeated, often with twice as many adjectives as needed, because they all sound good, and word count rules.

In case you can’t tell, I’m not a word-count producer. I can go weeks without generating a single worthwhile page of storyline. I will tackle it every day, I will work at it…and I will throw 99% of it in my discards file, over and over. Clunky descriptions, bad dialogue tags, awkward transitions –they’re all like screaming death traps on the page. I cannot move past them. Every session starts with unraveling and reweaving prior progress.

So, for days at a time, no counts worth admitting. It gets aggravating. It’s painful. I know the mantra, “One Should never compare Self to Others,”  but let’s face it, that’s bullshit advice because it’s human and we all do it. Yes, you do. Liar.

Despite my Inability to Produce, I’ve written 10,000 words of publication-worthy prose in the last month. (Okay, actually, someone told me it was fucking brilliant, but that’s another story.) 3 weeks at zero. Smash. 7K. A week at zilch. Bam. 3K. Plus blog posts, editing, and correspondence, a part-time job and volunteering work.

Blarrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrgh. That’s the gibbering sound I make while mentally running around in circles pulling out my figurative hair, because word counts DONT MATTER.

Do you know the song called “I Don’t Like Mondays?” It’s by the Boomtown Rats, aka Bob Geldof’s backup band, and once you’ve heard the earworm melody and the unhinged lyrics that go with it, you never forget them. It came out in 1979, which is practically the Stone Age.

The song is a catchy pop masterpiece based on a horrific event. If you aren’t familiar with it, go absorb some story here. Yes, there is a Wikipedia entry, but I like Mental Floss. There’s even a link to the Youtube video at the top of the article, so you can infect/reinfect yourself with the earworm.

It’s all about going crazy, about mental switches flipping to overload, and wanting to commit violence just to liven things up. “Tell me why I don’t like Mondays,” the song demands, and then admits, “I want to shoot the whole thing down.”

That’s how much I hate the use of word counts as a measure of writing success. When I see them posted, usually with exclamation points and emoji attached, then  “Tell me why I don’t like word counts” runs through my brain.


Maybe I’m the only writer in the world who feels this way, but I doubt it.

I’m relieved that I developed my writing style before this trend started, because it would’ve crushed my confidence. If I didn’t already know that I could finish a 100K novel and edit it to a decent standard in less than a year, then my lack of forward progress during the early stages might have dissuaded me from trying. They made me crazy now. They would’ve been lethal then. I hate knowing that there are probably good writers out there who have the potential to become great, but who think they’re bad simply because they aren’t prolific.

This is my manifesto and my reminder to myself and the world: do not judge yourself or anyone else by output alone. Here’s a reminder that quality cannot be weighed in a scale or counted on a ruler.