7 Reasons Why I Will Hate Your Book

Insecure Writer's Support Group badge

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.

Most popular posts of 2020

I’m still trying to find my niche on this blog, so I thought it would be fun to look at my top 91 most-liked posts of 2020 to see if any themes emerge. Here they are:

#SoCS: Clearing the clutter and creating a fresh start17
#NaNoInspo: Write Badly12
#FOTD: Nymphaea ‘Perry’s Almost Black’12
#IWSG: Genre-morphing–and a question for my readers11
#FOTD: Rocky Mountain Bee Plant (Cleome serrulata)11
#SoCS: A skeezy wrestler, a skeezy pickup line… and me11
#SoCS: chirurgie11
#SoCS: What am I attracting?10
#SoCS: The pros and cons of time travel10

I’m the first to admit that those numbers are not particularly impressive, but this blog is a work in progress, and I’m also the first to admit that I didn’t spend a lot of time trying to grow an audience. I have limited time outside of my day job, and ever hour I spend on my blog is an hour I’m not spending on my fiction. But I’ve met some wonderful people in blog-land and had fun creating content for an audience, however small. It’ll be fun (or not) to see what my list looks like for 2021.

  1. Why not top 10? Because there were several with 9 likes, so I would have ended up with a top 12 or something. Life is messy like that.

Looking Back on 2020, Episode 1: The Phantom Plans

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, we all made plans for the bright, shiny new decade. New year, new you! Set some goals! Live your best life!

Uh, huh.

Man plans, and God laughs.

In the immortal words of Aerosmith: Dream On.

Or, in psychological terms, a lot of us spent most of 2020 orbiting the bottom sections of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. In my case, I spent most of the year orbiting my laptop, held in place by the tractor beam of Zoom meetings.

Could I strain a little harder for those metaphors? I bet I could.

But I won’t.

I promise.

Seriously, despite what the too-positive-to-exist types had to say about taking advantage of quarantine to learn how to spin your own wool or invent cold fusion or learn Esperanto, most of us spent 2020 putting one foot in front of the other, trying to get by, maintain ties with people we couldn’t see in person, and avoid catching a deadly virus. And folks, if you managed to do those things, congratulations: you won 2020. Hell, if you’re still on this side of the dirt with even a little of your sanity intact: congratulations, you won 2020.

The funny thing about 2020 is that even when I accomplished stuff, it didn’t feel like it. Each day blurred into the next one, until it seemed like all I did all year was sit in front of my computer on Zoom meetings. If I’d written an annual Christmas letter–which I didn’t and haven’t for several years–it would have contained a full-page picture of the Zoom logo. That’s it. Just a giant Zoom logo.

Or this:

But then I started thinking about the year in a little more detail, forcing myself to remember what I actually did, and it turns out that I did not, in fact, spend the entire year as a Zoom Zombie. I accomplished some things, including a few of the things I set out to do back in those innocent, halcyon days of yore (January and February).

Back in January, I wrote a post on goal-setting and included my writing goals for the year. With great fear and trepidation, I decided to revisit that post earlier this week. No, I didn’t accomplish everything I set out to do. But I did make progress–and I made that progress during a global pandemic while also applying and interviewing for a new job, getting that job, starting that job, relocating to a new city for that job, trying to learn that job, trying to get to know my new co-workers (on Zoom), and learning my way around a new city. Oh yeah, and selling a house, buying a house, packing, moving, unpacking, and organizing a new home. That’s not nuthin’.

I encourage you to make a list of what you accomplished this year. It may not be as long a list as you hoped, but I bet it isn’t as short as you think. We need to celebrate our successes rather than lament what we didn’t do, especially in these hard times.

And in case anyone cares (c’mon… pretend you do), here’s how I did on my 2020 writing goals:

Goal 1: Finish the first draft of Delta Dawn by February 1. Finish the first round of revisions (fixing plot holes, reordering scenes, cutting out unnecessary scenes, filling in transitions between scenes) by June 1. Finish the second round of revisions (scene edits) by August 1. Finish line edits by November 1. Send to at least 2 beta readers by December 31. Status: I was delusional. I’m almost halfway through the first round of edits, which I’ll finish by the end of February if I’m lucky.

Goal 2: Submit 4 short stories to contests or for publication: revise Collateral Damage and submit it to the Arizona Authors Association annual literary contest; submit Proof Text for publication; write 2 new stories and submit those. Status: I did a little better here. I submitted Collateral Damage to the Arizona Authors Association annual literary contest, and it won first place! I submitted Proof Text to a flash fiction site, and it was rejected. Bummer. I wrote a new story called Open House, and it’s on submission now.

Goal 3: Polish Vanishing, Inc.: Continue submitting chapters to my critique group and revising based on their feedback (throughout the year as the group meets); send the entire manuscript to at least 3 beta readers by May 1 and revise based on their feedback by November 1. Status: I have continued to submit chapters to my critique group, and they will have seen the whole story by the end of January. Instead of beta readers, I decided to pony up some cash for a professional editor. The manuscript is in the editor’s hands now, and I should have her feedback by late January. I also submitted Vanishing to Pitch Wars, and while it wasn’t chosen, two mentor teams asked me for my full manuscript, and one team sent me some positive feedback.

Goal 4: Write a flash or short creative nonfiction piece about my mother’s dementia and submit to a contest or for publication by December 31. Status: I wrote a piece about my mother’s last Christmas and submitted it to Chicken Soup for the Soul’s annual Christmas book, but it wasn’t chosen. I’ll try to find another home for it. (There’s an early draft here on the blog if you want to read it).

So, how about you? What are you most proud of doing in 2020? Big or small, doesn’t matter. Let’s celebrate that we made it through. We’re still here! We survived! And new possibilities await.

#SoCS: What am I attracting?

My husband’s big rolling magnet

This post is part of the Stream of Consciousness Saturday blog hop. Linda Hill posts a prompt every Friday; this week’s prompt is, “magnet.

I pondered over this week’s prompt for a bit, thinking about magnets, like the big rolling one in our carport that my husband uses to pick up nails in the gravel around our new-to-us house. The house isn’t actually new. It was built in 1946, and my husband has made a hobby out of rolling the magnet around, gathering nails and screws and other objects that might puncture our tires. He keeps all of them in an old wastebasket in the carport next to the magnet. They are an oddly fascinating time capsule–74 years of building hardware, excavated from our driveway.

Here’s his collection:

But I didn’t start this post with the intention of writing about historic hardware (isn’t stream of consciousness great?) I started this post with the intention of writing about what we attract. Don’t worry, I’m not going to go all law-of-attraction on you, though if that’s your thing, that’s fine. I don’t think there’s some cosmic force in the universe that gives us whatever we decide we want (I don’t believe in Santa Claus). I do believe, though, that when we decide to strive for something, the tools to achieve that something are a lot more likely to come our way. Why? Because we have primed ourselves to a) work for it, and b) notice opportunities. I also believe that we usually attract what we put out in the world, because attitudes and emotions are contagious, because we are social primates who mimic and respond to the actions of our fellows. None of this is magic, but it sure can feel like it.

Want to attract something wonderful in your life? The first steps, in my experience, are awareness, closely followed by intention. What do I actually want? What are my most important goals? And what am I actually doing? What’s my attitude? How am I behaving? How am I treating others? That’s the awareness part. And then: What am I going to do to make success more likely? What steps am I going to take? What attitude am I going to have (because attitude is a choice)? That’s the intention part.

If you want to attract old screws, buy a big magnet and roll it around your driveway (and buy an old house). If you want to attract success or happiness, be just as intentional. Be your own magnet.

Happy holidays, y’all! May they be restful and joyous even in these tough times.

#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?

#SoCS: Our choices make our lives (with bonus pics from Saguaro National Park)

Saguaro against the deep blue of an Arizona sky

This post is part of the Stream of Consciousness Saturday blog hop. Linda Hill posts a prompt every Friday; this week’s prompt is: “opt.” Use it as a word or find a word with “opt” in it and base your post on that.

Yesterday my husband and I opted out of unpacking, organizing, and cleaning. Instead of doing those responsible adult things, we opted to explore the western unit of Saguaro National Park, about a half-hour’s drive from our new home in Tucson.

Cholla forest

I read a lot of self-help books, because I want to be the best version of me than I can, and I have a lot of dreams I want to achieve and maybe (if I’m lucky) about a third of my life left to achieve them. One theme that runs through much of the self-help literature is that our lives are the summed-up consequences of the choices we’ve made, especially the small choices we make multiple times each day: the choice to take a walk instead of doom-scrolling social media for another 30 minutes; the choice to eat the banana instead of the Cheez-Its (I fail this test regularly. Extra Toasty Cheez Its are swoon-worthy.); the choice to say something kind instead of something angry; the choice to write each morning instead of spending half an hour browsing online for Little Free Library designs (not that I actually did that this morning. No, not me.)

Tl;dr: our choices–even the little ones–matter, because taken together, they make up our lives.

Sonoran Desert noir

Like everyone else, my family has had a… challenging year. Not a bad year, no, not really. In fact, speaking only for me and mine, 2020 was a pretty good year in many ways. But the global pandemic has limited–or at least affected–everyone’s choices. Thanksgiving really brought home those limitations, as so many of us had to weigh the risk of gathering with family and friends against the loss of those connections, those opportunities. And if you have elderly relatives–or are elderly yourself–the risk that you might not get another such opportunity. Even everyday choices seem more fraught: do I visit a crowded grocery store to grab the thing I need for the dish I want to make? Do I risk Home Depot on a holiday weekend to get the part I need to fix whatever broke on my old, cranky house this time? (spoiler alert: it’s the plumbing) Do I? Should I? Will I become one of the people we read about in the news, whose dying words are that they wished they’d taken COVID more seriously?

It’s exhausting. The pandemic is exhausting. 2020 is exhausting.

And moving to a new city and taking a new job in the middle of this mess? You guessed it: exhausting.

Up close and personal with a saguaro

We don’t have family to visit, and I cooked enough food on Thursday to feed quite a few nonexistent relatives, so yesterday we were looking at 3 days of unstructured time, the longest break we’ve had since we moved into our new house a month ago today. 3 days to unpack. Organize. Clean up the Thanksgiving dishes I was too tired to wash on Thanksgiving.

“Let’s get some unpacking done today,” I say to my husband.


A half hour passes. I’m still puttering away at the computer, pretending I’m being productive. “Almost ready,” I say.


More puttering. A trip to the bathroom. A snack. Back to the computer.

“Let’s go somewhere outside,” I yell from the den.

“OK.” More enthusiasm this time.

And 30 minutes later we are out the door for our desert adventure.

Baby saguaros sheltered by rocks. Aren’t they adorable little pincushions?

This morning, the Thanksgiving dishes are still in the sink. The boxes are still full. The carport is still full of stuff we need to sort and clean and bring in the house.

And I don’t care.

I don’t.

Because our lives really are the sum total of the choices we make, and yesterday we chose to sink our roots a little deeper in our desert home, to look a little closer, to embrace the beauty and wonder of a place that is still new to us but already becoming part of us. And when I’m on my deathbed, I doubt I’ll give a thought to the dishes and the boxes and the messy carport. But maybe instead I’ll remember choosing to spend a clear autumn afternoon wandering among the saguaros with the love of my life.

#SoCS: What a day! (rinse, repeat)

This post is part of the Stream of Consciousness Saturday blog hop. Linda Hill posts a prompt every Friday; this week’s prompt is: Find a word containing “jour” or use it as is. Bonus points if you start or end your post with that word.

Jour is French for, “day.” I thought so, because the phrase, “du jour,” is pretty common, but I Googled it just to make sure, because God forbid I make a bigger idiot out of myself than usual… in print… on the internet. If you’d like to learn more about the word, see the Wiktionary entry. Yes, I am a librarian. Why do you ask?

So… day. Days. This week, these last 2 weeks or so, have held a series of big days in my life. There’s the obvious one, Election Day, which is now transforming into Election Week and we won’t talk about that because it’s exhausting and excuse me for a minute while I go reload WaPo and FiveThirtyEight and…

Yeah. Right. We aren’t going to talk about that. Here are some of the other big days the last three weeks or so have held for me:

  • October 19 – the day I started my new job. I love my new job. It’s demanding and intellectually challenging and sometimes leaves me exhausted, but I love it. It’s going to push me to learn and grow professionally, and that’s something I need right now.
  • October 28 – the day we moved into our new home here in Tucson. We camped on air mattresses till our furniture arrived and ate entirely too much takeout, and now we are trying to figure out where our stuff should go and why the hell we have so freaking much stuff and can’t we just throw it all in a dumpster and start over. Well, OK, that’s me. The husband is busy cooing soft nothings to his stuff and reassuring it that the Big Bad Wife will not slip it into the trash bin the moment his back is turned. Tell me again why opposites attract.
  • November 5 – the day I learned my short story, “Collateral Damage,” won first place in the Arizona Authors Association annual literary contest, short story division. That’s 2 years in a row! Woo! Last year I devoted a whole post to squeeing over my first ever contest win. This year… well, I don’t know. There’s too much going on to squee over any one thing, which is a shame. At some point, though, I may devote a whole post to squeeing over the comments I received from one of the judges who read my work. I’m going to frame that piece of paper so I can look at it whenever I get discouraged.
  • November 7 – today! – the day I learned that I did not get chosen by a mentor in the Hunger Games Pitch Wars. I did have 2 mentor teams request full manuscripts, which was honestly better than I expected, so I’m still encouraged, while also being disappointed (and that kind of sounds like how I feel about the election, but we aren’t going to talk about that).
  • November 7 – still today! – when I received a very polite and helpful rejection from a horror anthology I’d submitted to. Being rejected was a bummer, but the editor gave me some great feedback to make my story stronger. I’m going to revise and send it somewhere else and keep trying to get better.

So, yeah, that was a lot in a three-week period (and helps explain why I haven’t blogged in awhile). I’ve been really feeling the exhaustion this week, and I still haven’t established a routine in the new place. One night I went to bed at 11:30 (that was the night we aren’t going to talk about), the next night at 8:30. Sometimes I was up at 5 (the morning after the day that shall not be named), other days at 7. I know I’ll settle in, but for now, I’m still on the rollercoaster. Bring on the excitement du jour…

#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.

#SoCS: Old and new

The home we’re buying in Tucson

This post is part of the Stream of Consciousness Saturday blog hop. Linda Hill posts a prompt every Friday; see https://lindaghill.com/2020/10/02/the-friday-reminder-and-prompt-for-socs-oct-3-2020/. This week’s prompt is “new/old.” Use either or both of the words “new and old” any way you’d like. Bonus points for starting and ending with either one.

Old house, new house, old job, new job, old place, new place. This weeks’ prompt is timely. As I’ve written in my last two posts, I’m in the process of relocating from Flagstaff, AZ to Tucson, AZ for a job at the University of Arizona. This week I became more seriously focused on wrapping things up at my old job. My office walls are nearly bare, my desk is nearly clean (truly a shocking sight), and my email inbox is nearly empty. I have about 3 more days. People have started saying goodbye, an oddly impersonal experience in the age of COVID. There’s that moment after everything has been said, when we would normally hug but instead stand there awkwardly before giving a small wave and going our separate ways. It reminds me a little of middle school dances, with boys on one side of the gym and girls on the other, awkwardly approaching each other but not too close. My wonderful colleagues are planning a farewell party for me next week–in person with masks and distancing and also on Zoom. Maybe if I pull my mask up high enough, my co-workers won’t see me cry.

My email is set up at my new job, and I’m starting to think more about it, about what I want to accomplish in my first day, first week, first month. I’m excited and nervous as I always am when I start a new job. In some ways, it’s like the first day at a new school: Will they like me? Will I make a good first impression? Will I make it through my first day without saying something stupid? (answer to that last one: almost certainly not).

This weekend we need to pack like fiends, because I start my new job in 2 weeks, and we move in 3 1/2 weeks. It seems like every part of packing takes longer than I think it will. Find the right sized box, find the tape, figure out the perfect tetris challenge of fitting everything into a box that’s just slightly too small… rinse, repeat. We’re also sorting through 6+ years of accumulation to figure out what will fit in the new house, where it will go, whether or not we need it in this new chapter of our lives.

We’re having a run of spectacular fall weather here, warm days, crisp nights, aspens turning golden, cottonwood leaves crackling in the breeze. We walk each day, drinking in as much as we can of our beautiful rural neighborhood, our view of the San Francisco Peaks, a night sky that puts a planetarium show to shame, the scent of ponderosa pine with undertones of skunk. In less than a month, we will be city dwellers again. Our new neighborhood is cute and conveniently located, but it isn’t 2.5 acres at the foot of the highest mountains in Arizona. On the other hand, trips to the grocery store won’t require nearly an hour of round-trip travel time. And winter will be sunny and 75F, not windy and 15F. We’ll trade snow-flocked pine trees for a saguaro strung with Christmas lights–if I can figure out how to put Christmas lights on a cactus without skewering myself. I expect I’ll be a human pincushion by the time I’m through. So, tradeoffs.

But, to close on a philosophical note, all of life is a series of tradeoffs. Tradeoffs that shift as our priorities change, as our bodies age, as our interests become more focused. Out with (some of) the old to make room for the new, for the things that are a better fit for who we have become.

And now I need to sign off, so I can pack some of the old into boxes that are just slightly too small.

#SoCS: Boxes, boxes, boxes!

This post is part of the Stream of Consciousness Saturday blog hop. Linda Hill posts a prompt every Friday; see https://lindaghill.com/2020/09/25/the-friday-reminder-and-prompt-for-socs-sept-26-2020/. This week’s prompt is “container.” Use the word “container” any way you’d like. Or think about a container of some kind and write about it. Enjoy!

I almost didn’t do a Stream of Consciousness Saturday post today, because I am super-busy. Then I looked at the prompt and had to write, because the prompt connects nicely to why I’m super-busy: I’m moving, and I’m supposed to be putting stuff in boxes. And, duh, boxes are containers.

I could wax metaphorical about how moving makes you put your whole life in containers or how going to a new place frees you from the metaphorical box you’ve built for yourself in the old place, but I don’t have the bandwidth to pull any of that off effectively. I will say, though, that I enjoy moving to new places, because relocating provides an opportunity for me to hit the reset button on my life. New place, new job, new house, new friends, new activities… I can rethink what I want in my life at this time and design my life in the new place accordingly. This move in particular feels like the beginning of a new chapter for my husband and me. Our son will live in a guest house on our new property, so he (and we) will have more independence. We won’t quite be empty-nesters, but it’s a step toward that. I’ll have less land to cultivate and take care of, which will be a challenge for an obsessive gardener like me but will also be liberating. No more finding someone to water while we’re on vacation (new yard will be small enough to put everything on drip irrigation with a timer). No more spending hours on weeding and watering and tidying up. I’ll still get to garden, but it can be more about fun and less about being a slave to outdoor chores 9 months out of the year.

As I age, I find my interests changing and want to prioritize my time differently. I’d like more time for writing and travel, which means I need to cut back on other, lower-priority tasks. I hope the new place will help me do that. I hope it will be the right container for the life I hope to build.