7 Reasons Why I Will Hate Your Book

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Happy IWSG Day! For those who are new here, I participate in the monthly Insecure Writers Support Group blog hop. This month’s optional question is: Being a writer, when you’re reading someone else’s work, what stops you from finishing a book/throws you out of the story/frustrates you the most about other people’s books?

The more I learn about the craft of writing, the more I read differently. I notice problems in other people’s writing to which I would have been oblivious before. Before, I might have noticed that I wasn’t really into a book, that the book didn’t hook me or engage me or hold my attention, but I might not have been able to tell you why. Now I can, and I’m going to proceed to do just that. Here we go:

7 Reasons Why I Will Hate Your Book

(or at least give up on it).

In no particular order:

  1. Unlikeable characters. I’m fine with antiheroes (in fact, I usually like them). I’m fine with flawed characters (no one likes a Mary Sue). But if your characters are all miserable, hateful, selfish, narcissistic, and/or annoying–and they never redeem themselves–I’m going to hate your book. I’m lookin’ at you, Gone Girl. Also Seinfeld, which, thankfully, never became a book. I don’t like to spend time with awful people–in real life or in fiction. But give your arrogant narcissist some genuine charm and vulnerability, and you’ll hook me. A great current example is Lucifer from the Netflix series of the same name (and based on a character created by Neil Gaiman). Lucifer is insufferable–but also funny and charming and adorable and emotionally vulnerable. He’s the literal devil, and he’s won me over entirely.
  2. Telling rather than showing, #1. “Show, don’t tell,” is clichéd advice, sure, but it became clichéd for a good reason. Sometimes brief narrative summary is necessary. I don’t need to see your character go through a bunch of mundane activities; just get him to the crime scene and get on with it. But beware of infodumps. Give me just as much backstory or setting or world-building as I need to understand the story, especially in the beginning. And even better, sprinkle it around, let a few vivid details stand in for the rest, and show them to me through the eyes of your viewpoint character instead of through your own. Also, beware of writing that reads like: this happened, and then this happened, and then this happened. Slow down enough to put me in the scene. Show me the setting, use sensory details to help me feel the burning heat or icy wind, and most of all, show me what the viewpoint character feels. More on that in the next item on my hate list.
  3. Telling rather than showing, #2. Telling about emotions instead of showing them. Sometimes it’s OK to tell me how a character feels, like when the moment isn’t particularly critical, but usually you want to show emotions rather than tell them. Why? Because when you show them–and do it well–I’ll feel them right along with your character. Don’t tell me your heroine lusted after your hero. Show me the goosebumps on her arm when he brushes against her. Let me hear her voice squeak when she tries to talk to him. Let me taste him when she kisses him, let me feel the heat of his hands on her body. Make me pant after him as hard as she does, and I’ll stay up all night reading your book. Same goes for fear, hatred, anger, and all the other passions that get characters into trouble. Use body language, visceral reactions, action beats, short bits of internal monologue, and even short bits of backstory to make me feel what your characters feel.
  4. Blatant racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, etc. Of course if your story is set in the past, it needs to reflect the attitudes of that time and place. But your story should accurately reflect the real world (and the real world isn’t all white, straight, cisgendered, and able-bodied) and should present a diverse cast of characters with sensitivity and accuracy. It’s easy to accidentally write a stereotype (I’ve done it myself, I’m sorry to say), but there are lots of resources to help you avoid that while still diversifying your books. Confession time: this is an area I need to work on. I tend to let my fear of getting it wrong keep me from fully diversifying my stories. I’m going to be spending lots of time on Writing the Other and looking at other resources to up my game.
  5. Bad sex scenes. I get it. Sex scenes are hard to get right; at least I find them hard to get right. What I’m going to say here is primarily my opinion, and it doesn’t apply to erotica, because that is not a genre I read or write, so I would never presume to tell anyone how to do it well. So, with those caveats out of the way, my pet peeves with sex scenes include:
    • Gratuitousness. Your characters don’t need to bonk constantly. Yes, even in romance. Let the poor things rest once in awhile, so they don’t exhaust themselves before page 100. Seriously, every scene should exist to serve a specific purpose, and that includes sex scenes. Know why you’re choosing to show these characters having this kind of sex at this point in the story. And if there isn’t a story-related reason, consider skipping it. With sex, less is usually more (at least in fiction).
    • Unnecessary explicitness. I’m not a prude. I have no problem with explicit sex in fiction–including my own fiction. But, as noted previously, it should serve a specific purpose. Why are you showing us exactly where Character A is putting his/her/their finger/tongue/purple-helmeted love warrior? (Narrator: Do not, under any circumstances, include the phrase, “purple-helmeted love warrior” in your sex scene.) We all know that flap A fits into slot B. If you choose to show the flaps and slots, make sure it’s necessary to advance plot and character. And restrain yourself, lest your sex scene sound like a letter to Penthouse written by a fifteen-year-old. I read a romance recently that I really enjoyed–great characters, a fresh premise, and lots of chemistry. The problem? The sex scenes went on for many pages of graphic description that read like bad porn and did nothing to characterize the people going at it. Such a lost opportunity.
    • Bad sex. If you want the sex to be perceived as positive, it should be fully and enthusiastically consensual (so, so many writers get this wrong). Also watch out for mood killers–silly names for body parts, blatantly bad technique, and anatomically impossible positions come to mind here. Example: a famous writer’s most famous sex scene has the female main character’s breasts, “quivering like puppies waiting to be petted.” I cringe every time I read that line. Quivering or not, puppies are not sexy. Ew.
    • Just-the-facts sex: As noted above, we all know flap A goes into slot B. It’s OK to show us that, but show us more. Show us the emotional exchange between the characters (or lack thereof, if that’s important to the story). Show us how these 2 (or however many) people relate to each other. Make us feel what your point of view character feels, beyond just the sexual sensations. If all you want to convey is that your characters slept together, send them into the bedroom, close the door, and move on to the aftermath.
  6. Bad writing. That’s a broad category, but here are some of my pet peeves: 1) a zillion adverbs per page; 2) overwrought dialogue tags that make all your characters chew the scenery (she snarled, he gritted, they hissed, etc.); 3) starting almost every sentence with a present participle–negative bonus points for creating physical or temporal impossibilities (“Strolling up to the Ferrari, she shot Thaddeus dead.” “Wiping her prints off the gun, she touched up her makeup.”) These are newbie mistakes that tell me you haven’t taken the time to learn your craft.
  7. Sloppy writing and poor to nonexistent editing: grammatical errors, typos, punctuation errors, usage errors. I know some writers can’t afford to hire an editor. A good editor is expensive! But maybe you can barter with a friend or relative to copyedit your manuscript. Try offering tacos; that technique usually works on me. Also, consider devoting some time to learning basic grammar, punctuation, and usage. It isn’t taught in school as much as it used to be. *waves cane* Back in my day, we diagrammed sentences, and we liked it! (Narrator: They did not like it.) Seriously, if you’re a writer, words and sentences are your tools. The more you can learn how to use them correctly, the less money you’ll need to spend on editors, and the fewer readers you’ll lose because they don’t want to wade through your error-infested prose.

OK, so now that I’ve spent several paragraphs telling you what I hate, let me spend just a little more time pointing you to some resources to help you avoid those mistakes. Note that the book links are Amazon affiliate links, so I’ll get a few pennies if you use them to purchase.

Happy New Year, IWSG-ers! May all your words come easy this year.

#IWSG: Gimme that sweet, sweet deadline

Happy IWSG Day! For those who are new here, I participate in the monthly Insecure Writers Support Group blog hop. This month’s optional question is: Are there months or times of the year that you are more productive with your writing than other months, and why?

I’ve been mulling over this question for a few days, and I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m more productive with my writing when a) I’m not dealing with a major life event (like moving… sigh… we’ve been here a month, and the house is still full of boxes) and b) I have a deadline. Time of year, by itself, doesn’t seem to make much difference.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m at least somewhat self-motivated. I plant myself in front of the computer and write just about every morning, no matter what’s going on. I think I missed four or five days when we moved, mostly because my computer was packed up. I could have made myself write then, too, but I gave myself a break, because moving is exhausting. I am, however, much more productive when I have a deadline.

My two most productive writing periods ever were:

  • Summer 2019. I entered my first novel in a contest, and one of the rules was that you had to be able to send the complete manuscript upon request. I, however, had not finished revising said manuscript, so I worked like a fiend all summer to make sure I had something ready to submit if they asked for it. Spoiler alert: they didn’t ask.
  • November 2019. Y’all know what happens in November, right? NaNoWriMo! I decided at the last minute (early October) to draft a second novel for NaNo, so I outlined like crazy in October and wrote like crazy in November (then collapsed in December).

Having a deadline forces me to treat my writing more like a job and practice better writing habits. When I have a deadline, I:

  • Schedule time in the day to write, usually 1-2 hours per day, and rearrange the rest of my life around that commitment. I might take a little time off work or get up earlier or make myself write during my lunch break. Whatever it takes.
  • Avoid distractions that eat away at writing time. Sit down. Open Scrivener. Write. Do not pass go, do not open my email, do not search for pretty pictures related to the novel’s setting and post them on Pinterest. Just freakin’ write.
  • Keep my butt in my chair. Yes, I’ve been writing for an hour, and my brain is ready for some distraction. Sorry, brain. We aren’t going to research cool new citrus trees for the yard. We are going to write.
  • Set up the next day’s writing before quitting for the day. Plan the next scene. Read the next scene I’ll be revising. Decide on a goal for the next day. Take a few notes about what I want to write next. Then when I plant my butt in the chair the next morning, I can get right into being productive.

See? I know what I need to do to level up my productivity. I do it every time I’m on deadline. But as soon as there’s no deadline, I start slacking, and pretty soon I’m only writing 30 minutes a day and making all kinds of excuses for not getting the damn story done.

How about y’all? Do deadlines help you? Do self-imposed deadlines work as well for you as externally-imposed ones? How do you stay motivated when you don’t have a deadline?

#IWSG: Writing, work, and the highway to hell

Happy IWSG Day! For those who are new here, I participate in the monthly Insecure Writers Support Group blog hop. This month’s optional question is: When you think of the term working writer, what does that look like to you? What do you think it is supposed to look like? Do you see yourself as a working writer or aspiring or hobbyist, and if latter two, what does that look like?

First, sorry for missing September, y’all. Please don’t kick me out of the IWSG club. There’s a lot going on in my life right now (see my last few posts if you’re interested–but, spoiler alert, I’m moving), and I couldn’t get it together last month.

Now for this month’s question. I’ve noticed that a lot of us in the writing community get hung up on our identity as it relates to writing. So, pop quiz:

I am a writer if I:

  1. Am traditionally published
  2. Am self-published
  3. Blog
  4. Write for fun, but I’d rather gouge my eyes out with a rusty soup spoon than let anyone see what I write.
  5. All of the above

The correct answer is, 5. Here’s a more concise version of the pop quiz:

Do you write?

  1. Yes. Congratulations–you are a writer.
  2. No.

I spoke with a writer friend a couple of days ago. This woman’s poetry has won awards in our statewide literary contest, but she assured me that she is not a writer. She’s a finalist in this year’s contest. She’s working on a memoir. But she isn’t a writer. She just dabbles. I should have recommended she join the IWSG. Like the rest of us, she’s mastered the insecurity part as well as the writer part, even if she doesn’t know it.

So, fellow insecure writers, here’s your daily affirmation. Strike your favorite power pose and repeat after me:

I. Am. A. Writer.

One more time, with feeling:

I. Am. A. Writer.

C’mon, you in the back row with the sunglasses and backwards ball cap. This ain’t the back seat of the school bus. Get on your feet and shout!

I. Am. A. Writer.

OK, now that that’s out of the way, let’s talk about the phrase, “working writer.” I’ll admit, that has a slightly different connotation to me. It includes the (other) dreaded W word, “work.” So, what does it mean to be a *working* writer?

Well, I dunno about you, but writing is definitely work for me. Dang hard word. Some of the hardest work I do. Even harder than packing up everything I own for my upcoming move.

But of course “work” has another meaning–the thing we do for money, our career. So which definition do we want to use? (Yes, I’m a writer–I love to play with words and their meanings.) I’ll give you my personal definition of a working writer, but I want to be very clear that it is just that: my personal definition. I am not the self-appointed gatekeeper of the writing world. My definition applies to me–and only me. You get to decide for yourself what being a working writer means to you.

So, here’s my definition:

A working writer is a writer who aspires to share their writing with others and is taking concrete steps toward that goal.

Notice: I didn’t say a word about getting paid. I didn’t say a word about getting published. I didn’t say a word about being “good.” And I for sure didn’t say a word about being self-supporting as a writer (my understanding is that most midlist published writers can’t make it without an additional source of income).

My definition implies a degree of “seriousness,” if you will. Some intent. A goal. A purpose beyond self-entertainment. And as you might guess, that ties in with my definition of, “work.” Something doesn’t magically become, “work,” just because it earns money, and something doesn’t magically become “not work” if it doesn’t earn money. Same for earning external recognition (e.g. getting published). Work, to me, means some kind of focused effort to create something for others as well as yourself. I’ll admit I haven’t carefully analyzed all possible implications of that definition, but it seems to match my view of work pretty well. Work as service, I suppose.

Work is a loaded word in US culture. We were founded in part by Puritans, who, as I understand it, seemed to divide everything into two categories: work (which was godly, had value, and demonstrated that you were one of the elect, predestined to go to heaven) and everything else (which was frivolous, ungodly, and likely to indicate you were buddying up with Bon Scott on the Highway to Hell).

Diversion alert! Play this video and crank it up. It may be frivolous and ungodly, but it’s worth it.

Official video for AC/DC’s Highway to Hell

Sadly, these ideas persist today. We are taught to value “work” above everything else and to sacrifice everything else for “work.” And “work” is usually defined as something we get paid to do and that is valuable primarily because someone will pay us to do it. If we enjoy it, and/or if we can’t assign a market value to it, it isn’t “work”–and therefore it’s frivolous and a waste of time and we might as well ask Bon Scott for a piggyback ride.

This idea is toxic. (Though if Bon Scott weren’t dead, I’d probably ask him for a piggyback ride, and he’d probably drop me, because he’d be drunk. But I digress.)

It’s toxic to the arts, certainly, and it’s also toxic to the human soul. It robs people of the ability to do something for the pure joy of it without feeling guilty–and that guilt pollutes the experience, so that it is no longer one of pure joy.

Diversion alert: I am now blasting Highway to Hell loud enough to rattle the walls of my spare bedroom. For the pure joy of it.

OK, back to work–literally and figuratively (but AC/DC is still blasting away, because who said work can’t be fun? Oh, yeah, the Puritans. But they’re dead, so screw them.) It’s hard to avoid value judgments when talking about work, and I know my definition includes an implicit value judgment straight out of the Puritan handbook: it mentions goals and doing something for others. Feel free to argue with that definition. You might convince me to change it. I am, after all, a product of the same Puritan-based culture I’m complaining about.

But I do think work involves some kind of effort that goes beyond the self, not because the self is bad, but because I believe we can find a higher purpose in getting outside of ourselves and touching the lives of others. And it takes effort to do that–in other words, work. See? I can’t escape the Puritans no matter how hard I try.

And, to bring our discussion back to writing, when we write for others, we have to dig deeper to make sure we are communicating what we intend to communicate. We have to tap into age-old methods of storytelling that resonate with other humans, create characters our readers can identify with, and choose our words carefully so they carry the meaning we want to convey. And all of that is, you guessed it, work. But it also deepens and enriches our own experience of writing–or at least it does for me.

And I finally had to turn off AC/DC, because I couldn’t concentrate on crafting this post while bouncing around in my chair to the bass line from “Thunderstruck.” Maybe the Puritans were right about having to choose between work and fun. Dammit.

#IWSG: Genre-morphing–and a question for my readers

Happy IWSG Day! For those who are new here, I participate in the monthly Insecure Writers Support Group blog hop. This month’s optional question is: Have you ever written a piece that became a form, or even a genre, you hadn’t planned on writing in? Or do you choose a form/genre in advance?

Before I get to this month’s question, I have a question for anyone reading this post: Would you be interested in a series of posts loosely related to self-help for writers? I’m not talking about over-the-top, Stewart Smalley style self-help but rather some practical ideas from self-help literature, applied specifically to writing. I’ve been looking for a focus for this blog, besides my own self-indulgence, and I’m interested in helping other writers find time to write, build positive habits, set goals, and make progress. What do y’all think? Has that topic been done to death, or is there room for more?

OK, now for this month’s IWSG question. My first novel, Vanishing, Inc., started out as a murder mystery/ghost story and morphed into a time travel romance. Both paranormal, but other than that, pretty different. I woke up one morning with the idea of a terminally-ill woman in a 19th century cottage built on a thin place. The closer she got to death, the thinner the veil would become between this world and the next, and the more she would be able to interact with the house’s spectral residents. I imagined that the ghosts would somehow reveal that a murder was committed there, and our unfortunate protagonist would have to identify the murderer before she died.

Somewhere in the early planning, my idea shifted. My protagonist became a battered wife hiding from her abusive ex in a small Arizona town. She rents a cottage built on a thin place–a fact she discovers when a man from 1910 materializes in her living room. Once I landed on that concept, the various plot pieces more or less fell into place, which is a lucky thing, because I had absolutely no idea what I was doing.

It’s now about six years later, and Vanishing, Inc. is in what I sincerely hope is the final round of revision before I hire a professional editor. Then there will be another round of revisions, and then I’ll enter query hell. I still hope to write the ghost story, but I see it being more of a novella. Someday…

IWSG: Be more confident in four easy steps

Happy IWSG Day! For those who are new here, I participate in the monthly Insecure Writers Support Group blog hop. Details and signup here. This month’s optional question is: There have been many industry changes in the last decade, so what are some changes you would like to see happen in the next decade?

I’m going to be a rebel this month and not respond to the optional prompt, because a) I’m still a novice and don’t feel qualified to talk about what’s going on in the publishing industry, and b) I want to share something I discovered last week that helped me, both in my writing life and my library life.

I’ve been trying to build personal development into my days, because it motivates me and helps me stay positive, even when life is… challenging. Until today, my university had a campus-wide subscription to LinkedIn Learning (we’re now moving to Udemy to save money, so I have a new resource to check out), and I’ve been taking advantage of that to grow my skills. Last Monday, I logged into LinkedIn Learning and saw a short session called Complete Confidence in Minutes. It was about 30 minutes long, and I wanted to walk for 30 minutes, and who doesn’t need more confidence, so I hit Play. The presenter was Selena Rezvani, a consultant and speaker on women’s leadership. I won’t try to summarize her entire presentation, but I will share her four power statements, short affirmations that may inspire you to feel more confident as you take on new challenges:

  • Today is a totally fresh start.
  • Be afraid and do it anyway.
  • I move on from setbacks completely.
  • Change is inevitable and good.

Every one of these resonates with me as both a writer and a leader:

  • Today is a fresh start. I am not bound by who I was 30 years ago or last year or yesterday. I’ve been slacking off on my writing? Today is a new day! Today I can make progress. I am not a slacker. I’m a productive writer–starting today. This idea is so liberating!
  • Be afraid–and do it anyway. Being afraid doesn’t mean you’re a coward. Fear is a normal response to risk and to the unfamiliar. Courageous people aren’t free of fear (in my experience, only drunks and clueless people are free of fear, because they aren’t able to recognize risk). Courageous people are afraid, sometimes knees-knocking-like-a-skeleton-in-a-windstorm afraid, but they push forward anyway. This kind of courage is essential for writers. Every time we let someone read our stuff, every time we create a blog post, every time we submit a story or a query, we’re taking a risk. We’re putting ourselves and the precious fruits of our creativity out into the mean, cruel world. We might get rejected. We might get criticized. We might get ridiculed. But unless we want to keep our writing locked away in a drawer for our hapless heirs to ceremonially burn in their fire pits after we’re gone, we have to face the fear and do it anyway.
  • I move on from setbacks completely. This simple statement was exactly what I needed to hear last week. I’d had a setback that, for reasons I didn’t and still don’t understand, bugged me way more than it should. Moving on from setbacks is another skill that’s essential for us writers. We’re going to get rejected. Our story that we lovingly crafted and are so, so proud of–will get rejected. With a form letter. And that will happen over and over and over. If we can’t move on from setbacks, we’ll never be able to share our words with the world.
  • Change is inevitable and good. Raise your hand if you love change. Anyone? Bueller? Yeah, didn’t think so. Change is good for vending machines. Most of the rest of us hate it or at least find it stressful. I’m a novelty-seeker, and I still get discombobulated by change. I knew how to do whatever-it-is the old way. I was competent. Now I’m not. Ugh. I suppose this statement relates to the optional IWSG prompt for this month, since the publishing industry has changed so much in the last decade and likely will keep changing. What works today will fail tomorrow, and we’ll have to learn new ways to share our words with the world. We can complain about it and dig our heels in and pitch a good old-fashioned fit, or we can learn to roll with it and–this is key–find opportunity in it. I’m trying to change the way I look at change, to stop moaning and consider how the change might be good–for me and for others. I’ll admit, that’s been a challenge in the age of COVID, because most of the changes associated with the pandemic are less than wonderful. But at the same time, I’ve managed to find opportunities for self-renewal (like Selena Rezvani’s presentation that inspired this post) and self-reflection that I almost certainly wouldn’t have made time for in my pre-COVID world.

Cheesy as it sounds, I’ve been reading these four statements as affirmations each morning, and they’ve improved my attitude and, yes, my confidence. I hope they do the same for you.

Now it’s your turn. Do you have any tips for building/increasing confidence? Any affirmations or quotes that help you step out of your comfort zone? Share ’em in the comments!

My secret: I don’t live up to my writing

Happy IWSG Day! For those who are new here, I participate in the monthly Insecure Writers Support Group blog hop. Details and signup here. This month’s optional question is: Writers have secrets! What are one or two of yours, something readers would never know from your work?

I struggled to come up with an IWSG post this month. Usually I have one done by no later than Monday, and I’m usually pretty happy with it, but not this month. As much as I try to shut out the outside world and focus on my writing and my day job and my family, it’s been hard these last few days. So much pain and brutality.

It’s a bit ironic, I suppose, because I tend to write about pain and brutality. My first novel (still stuck in the hell of interminable revision) features a character who was brutalized by an abusive husband–and that dude is intent on brutalizing her again, right into a cemetery plot. My second novel (for which I have a messy first draft from last year’s NaNo) features a villain who rapes and murders kids. The main character of the short story I’m working on accidentally shoots a kid. And the short story I wrote last year that won an award features the meditations of a fed-up wife who… well, one day I’ll post the story online, and you can find out for yourself.

So what’s my secret? Am I a closet psychopath? Have I done time for murder one? Spent my youth working as an assassin for a foreign government? Nope, nope, and nope. My secret is this: I’m an almost stereotypical mild-mannered librarian. I read. I garden. I knit. And my heart breaks at accounts of real violence. There are news stories I don’t read, even though they would make good fodder for future stories. Videos I don’t watch. Movies I don’t watch. I used to love 80s slasher flicks–Jason and Freddie and Michael Myers mowing down teenagers with various sharp objects. Now that I’m not a teenager–and now that I’m a mom–I find myself actually sympathizing with… the teenagers. Sixteen-year-old me would be mortified.

And so, though I write about murder and mayhem with glorious abandon, I cannot abide the real thing. And that’s why I struggled to come up with a post and why I’ve struggled to write or concentrate these last few days. My heart breaks for the family of George Floyd, whose loved one was murdered–slowly–in front of an audience on a public street. My heart breaks for every person of color who has grown up in a racist culture, oppressed by racist systems that limit opportunity, damage bodies and souls, and sometimes kill. I am sickened by the actions of some of our police officers and the statements of some people I considered friends. And yet I am safe from the murder and mayhem. Safe to write about violence and brutality in my nice white lady world. Safe in my rural neighborhood. Safe in my white skin.

And that, my friends, is my secret. And more and more, I find it a shameful one.

My writing ritual (warning: it ain’t pretty)

Insecure Writers Support Group BadgeHappy IWSG Day! For those who are new here, I participate in the monthly Insecure Writers Support Group blog hop. Details and signup here. This month’s optional question is: Do you have any rituals that you use when you need help getting into the zone?

I hope my fellow IWSG-ers have some great responses to this question. I need all the ideas I can get, because right now my ritual for getting in the zone is pretty simple: sit my butt down in front of my computer and get to work. I wrote about that process in a post last December.

Part of why I don’t employ much in the way of writing rituals is that I have so little time to write. There are tons of rituals that I think (and sometimes know) would help me:

  • Freewriting, like the morning pages Julia Cameron writes about in The Artist’s Way
  • Exercise. Aerobic exercise in particular tends to fuel my creativity.
  • Meditation, wonderful for clearing the mind and tapping into the subconscious.

In fact, my ideal writing ritual would go something like this:

  1. Get up around sunrise. Eat and caffeinate while writing morning pages.
  2. Go for a “run.” “Run” is in quotation marks, because I would be running for less than half the time. But some running is better than no running, right?
  3. Meditate for 5 or 10 minutes.
  4. Shower.
  5. Write.

My actual writing ritual looks more like this:

  1. Sleep later than I planned, because I stayed up too late. Again.
  2. Grab some cereal and a Diet Coke. Check my watch. Crap. Less than an hour till I have to start work (and before corona, it was, Crap. I have to leave for work in 15 minutes.)
  3. Sit down, shovel Frosted Mini-Wheats into my food hole, swig my magic elixir of caffeine and aspartame, and agonize about what to work on: the paid writing gig (boring but $$), the novel I’m editing, the novel I’m writing, the short story I’m editing, the short story I’m writing, or the blog post I’ve been putting off for a week and oh crap tomorrow is IWSG Day and what the hell am I going to say to a worldwide audience of fellow writers when I can’t even figure out a decent writing routine…
  4. Pick whichever one I think will most likely entice my muse (the drunken floozy) to put down the tequila bottle and grace me with her inebriated and slightly stinky presence.
  5. Write. Get into the zone. And realize it’s time to start my day job.

Yes, I could get my sh*t together, get up an hour earlier, and go through the ideal routine (and the once or twice in 6 years that I did it, it felt great). Or I can accept that I am the way I am and that any method that lets me get the work done is the right method for me.

How about y’all? Have you found a routine that works for you? Or is your “process” as messy as mine?

We’re all fine here, now, thank you. How are you?

How are you holding up?

Y’all doing okay?

Going crazy yet?

These are the standard greetings in the Coronazoic age. And now it’s the monthly IWSG question: In this time when our world is in crisis with the covid-19 pandemic, our optional question this month is: how are things in your world? (Want to see some other great IWSG posts? Check out the list of participants here. (Powered by Linky Tools)

So, how am I? I’m fine.

I’m a homebody by nature, and I’m very good at entertaining myself. So for the most part, I’m one of those annoying people that get ridiculed regularly in quarantine memes. I’m working at home–productively–and making time for professional development. I’m writing regularly, cooking from scratch, reading, getting adequate sleep on a regular schedule, taking walks outside, and working in my garden. Hell, I’m exercising more than I have in years. I think it must be quarantine-induced insanity, but I’ve become obsessed with my step count and hyper-competitive in the FitBit Workweek Hustle challenge I participate in with co-workers. As I write this, it’s not quite 2 PM, and I have over 10,000 steps. But I’m not in first place–damn you, Sue B.–so I need to find a way to blog and walk at the same time.

I’m also more relaxed than I’ve been in at least two decades. Call it quarantine if you want. I’m calling it an extended retreat or maybe a sabbatical.

So, yeah, I’m doing just fine.

But.

When I lie in bed at night after a long day of productivity and feeding the FitBit, I look at my husband and wonder if I’ll lose him to this damn disease. Or if he’ll lose me. If our son will lose a parent. Or (please, God, no) both parents.

I read about someone younger than me dying of this thing, and I feel the tube in my throat, hear the rasp of the ventilator. Or feel the air hunger as I gasp on a gurney in a hospital hallway, because there are no ICU beds and no ventilators.

I should make a list of all our accounts and insurance policies with passwords and contact information, so if I go, my husband and son will know what to do. But I don’t do that. I can’t do that. Because I am a coward, and if I do that, I will have to face the possibility such an act implies. And I can’t.

Better get some more steps in instead. Gotta catch up to Sue B. Does that woman ever sit down?

I contemplate the next few months–or years–and I remember my father’s stories of growing up during the Great Depression. Of going to bed hungry. Of squabbling with his siblings over the last chicken foot. Because that’s what the children got: the feet. The adults were working to help the family survive and needed the meatier pieces so they would have the strength to keep going.

Please, God, don’t let my son have to live like that.

I look at my friends list on Facebook and wonder whose page will become a memorial. Whose family will grieve. Whose spark of life will disappear from the world forever.

And I take another walk or pick up a book or watch another webinar until the blanket of denial is thick enough to shield me from the possibilities I cannot bear to face. I lounge in an oversized Def Leppard t-shirt and grease-stained yoga pants, fashion icon that I am, and grasp at whatever I can reach to keep the fear at bay, to retain some sense of control in a world running further off the rails with every presidential press conference.

How am I doing? I’m fine. We’re all fine here, now, thank you.

How are you?

 

IWSG: Traditions and addictions

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Greetings fellow insecure writers! And if you’re new here and not familiar with the IWSG, click on over there and check it out (after you read my post. You wouldn’t to hurt my insecure writer fee-fees, would you?) This post is part of the monthly IWSG blog hop. If you’d like to see some other great IWSG posts, check out the list of participants here. (Powered by Linky Tools).

This month’s optional question: Other than the obvious holiday traditions, have you ever included any personal or family traditions/customs in your stories?

My current novel in progress is a thriller set where I grew up, near the San Joaquin Delta. It includes some autobiographical details, though my main character is most definitely Not Me, and she faces lots of dangers that would have left Actual Me crumpled in a broken, twitching heap. But still, it’s been fun to season the story with settings and events from my own life. So this month’s IWSG question is timely.

My main character’s father is based loosely on my own father. He wasn’t much for holidays or family traditions, but we did have one annual tradition that was inviolable: Derby Day. My father had a gambling problem, and horse races were his absolute favorite way to lose money. Even when he didn’t have a bet going, we watched the Kentucky Derby (and the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes) every. single. year, including all the pre-race coverage.

Triple Crown race days were some of the few times I saw my father genuinely happy, genuinely excited about something. Mostly he endured life, grinding through the days, self-medicating his depression with whatever addiction currently held him in its clutches. But on race days, there was a light in his eyes, a tiny window into the charming, funny man my mother fell in love with. A man I rarely got to see.

And so there is horse racing in my new novel and even a reference or two to Derby Day. And as I write this character and her father, I am finding a new understanding of my own dad, deeply flawed and deeply wounded, yet steadfast in his love for me. Sometimes I feel like I’ve spent most of my life trying to make peace with dad, though he’s been in his grave for well over 30 years. I don’t know if we can ever truly make peace with those who both hurt us and are part of us, but through fiction, through digging deep into characters and motivations, maybe we can get a little closer to that elusive state.

How about you, fellow insecure writers? Have you ever tried working out real-life relationships on the page?

 

Writing as an act of faith

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[Lewis Carroll] understands that the text you create is an object that collides with the mind of the reader–and that some third thing, which is completely unknowable, is made. –Jesse Ball, “The Edge of Sense,” in Light the Dark: Writers on Creativity, Inspiration, and the Artistic Process (Penguin, 2017)

Tomorrow is IWSG Day, and until about 20 minutes ago, I didn’t have a topic or even an idea for this month’s post. Then I read Jesse Ball’s lovely essay on Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky, encountered the quote above, and was reminded yet again of how big a role faith plays in my writing. I don’t mean religious faith, though that too can play a big role in writing, but faith that the ideas will come, the words will come, and the words and ideas together will make something that resonates with a reader in ways I cannot fully imagine.

Like most insecure writers (Digression alert! Are there any secure writers? “Secure writer” sounds like an oxymoron.), I often approach my writing with trepidation. My brain is mush. The well is dry. My muse, the drunken floozie, is hung over yet again and not showing up for work. Ideas? I ain’t got no stinkin’ ideas. And then a movie will start playing in my head, or I’ll see a person walking down the street who practically begs to become a character, or I’ll remember some random event from thirty years ago, and I’m back in the writing groove. Some people call this magic, “inspiration.” Some people insist on waiting for it before they start writing. The rest of us like to get work done, so we get on with it and hope the muse takes a couple of aspirin and graces us with her half-drunk presence. And often enough, she does.

And yet each day, the fear creeps back in. What if, this day, the muse is passed out in some skeezy alley (Digression alert! Have you ever seen an alley that wasn’t skeezy?) instead of delivering her daily dose of inspiration? What makes me able to sit down and start typing anyway is… faith. Faith that the words and ideas will come. Faith that the muse will appear. Sometimes I feel like one of the Israelites, following Moses around in the desert and wondering if my daily dose of manna will fall from heaven. If you read that story (it’s in Exodus, don’t ask me the chapter and verse, and I’m too lazy to look it up), you’ll learn that each morning the manna fell, and if the Israelites tried to save it for the next day, it would spoil. But of course some of them tried anyway, because even though the manna fell each day, they feared that maybe the next day it would not. I’m betting some of those doubters were writers. (Digression alert! Can’t you just picture them lugging their stone tablets and chisels across the desert and grumbling about the lack of coffee to wash down their manna? Just me then? OK.)

Even when the words come, we writers face another form of insecurity: Will we find the right words? Many of us see our stories like movies in our heads, only with full sensory detail. It’s the ultimate in high-def–or maybe smellavision. But how do we communicate what we see and hear and smell and taste and feel so that the reader sees, hears, smells, tastes, and feels it just like we do? How do we get the reader to share our understanding, our insights, our epiphanies? The answer is: We can’t.

We agonize over the perfect word, the perfect detail, to create some sort of Vulcan mind-meld with the reader, but we don’t live in a Star Trek episode (Digression alert! If I did live in a Star Trek episode, I’d be a redshirt.) Instead, as Ball writes, our words will collide with the mind of the reader and create a brand new thing. That new thing will be unique to the single, specific combination of writer and reader, and we don’t get to control it. That beautiful movie playing in my head will never play in a reader’s head in exactly the same way, because the reader’s movie will be shaped by their experiences, their culture, and their identity at least as much as by the words I agonize over. Sucks, yes?

Maybe not.

If I can get over myself, I can find this truth to be liberating. Yes, I should still try for the best words, the most vivid images, the most resonant cadence I can create. But I’m not entirely responsible for the result. So I don’t have to beat my head against my keyboard for three hours, searching for the perfect word, image, or cadence. I can give it my best shot, hope I improve it upon revision, and eventually let it go out into the world, trusting that it will resonate with some reader, somewhere, in ways I can neither imagine nor control. In other words, I must have faith–in my own ability, yes, but also in my readers and what they bring to the page.

And so we come to the end of my February IWSG post, a post that came about because Ball’s words collided with my mind at just the right time and in just the right way to help me think about writing in a new way. And my manna is received, my faith is affirmed, for yet another day.

Want to see some other great IWSG posts? Check out the list of participants here. (Powered by Linky Tools).