Writing is Madness

There’s always a new article/post/thread calling people out for either being too sensitive or not sensitive enough, and, although of course I’m biased, I find it’s especially true in writing circles. We’ve all heard the advice to “develop a thick skin” to get by in this world and not let every little thing faze us on one hand, and on the other how important it is to listen to other people’s experiences and take them to heart. These two imperatives seem paradoxical, but in general–specific cases vary wildly–the crux of the problem is both matter.

And this is my theory for why people pursuing creative endeavors are often a bit bonkers, at least when it comes to their creation. (Well. One reason why, anyway.) I’m going to talk about writing, because it’s what I know, and it goes like this:

There is the story you want to tell, and there’s the story you do tell. There are the words on the page, and there’s the story readers glean from them.

Bad news: they don’t match perfectly.

Good news: that’s one of the beautiful things about art, that we all take different things from it. Reading the same book at different times in our lives can make for vastly different experiences.

But for the author, it’s complicating. Because you want them to match as closely as they can. The story in your head is the asymptote the words on the page get infinitely closer to but never fully reach.

Because no two readers have the same experience. But how much of that is because of what the reader is bringing to the text versus what the author has put into it? How do you know when you’ve gotten it right?

You can’t, because there’s no such thing as right. There’s better. There’s the best you can do. It’s craft, which means you work and whittle and hone your skills. But there’s no such thing as perfection, because it’s also art.

The fact is that no one else can tell your story. As the creator, you have the strongest vision of your own work and what you’re trying to do.

But you don’t have the strongest sense of how it’s working outside your head. You need feedback to tell you when something you did on purpose failed, or something you did on accident is Very Bad.

But readers disagree. Periodically I see the advice to get good readers, but I’m here to tell you that intelligent, experienced, skilled critique-ers don’t all agree either. They never will, because people want and need different things from books.

Which is great in the scheme of things! It means there are markets for lots of different kinds of stories, which is lovely, because it means we have an incredible variety to choose from.

But it also makes it hard to determine, for any given project, whether feedback has more to do with the one person’s read or with the words on the page.

So you get lots of critiques to make sure you’re not just revising to one person’s tastes–unless you are, which simplifies things–but then you really can’t take all the feedback you’re given even if you wanted to, because that would make the book incredibly disjointed. Maybe if lots of people agree you pay special attention to those notes and disregard that one person’s particular bugbear–but maybe that person also caught something incredibly important that everyone else happened to miss.

Some critiques you’ll read and be like, YIKES you are absolutely right I can’t believe I did that THANK YOU for bringing this up so I can fix it O_O. And some you’ll look at and go …woooow this is super off base, wtf?

You’re not always going to agree. Sometimes the crit is right anyway. Sometimes it’s not.

Which means the author, although they need feedback to make their books better, shouldn’t take all critique to heart. Taking every piece of criticism given can be just as bad as taking none of it.

It’s impossible to make everyone happy. Every change will make the story better for some people and worse for others. It’s choice after choice with no objectively correct answer. So how do you choose which change that’s hard should be taken to heart, and which discarded?

IT DEPENDS.

*jazz hands*

You have to be able to be open to readers’ experiences in order to make your book better.

And you have to be able to close off and hold on to what you want for the story in order to make your book better.

And you have to be able to do both together, and this is why authors are bonkers.

 

(but at least we have help)

 

 

 

 

 

 

Flexibility and Strength

I’ve been doing physical therapy for the last couple months. Long story short: I twisted my ankle a while back, and when it failed to heal as quickly as I thought it should, I mentioned it to my doctor. I explained how I used to twist my ankles on a regular basis during adolescence, which is why I had a metric for what recovery should be like, and she looked at me in horror and recommended me to a physical therapist.

So I made an appointment, and on the way to an examining room my new physical therapist confirmed that I was there about repeated ankle sprains. After about a whole minute in my company, she said, “We’ll do a couple tests, but just by looking at you I think I have a pretty good idea what the basic problem is.”

“What do you mean?” I asked from where I’d sat casually on the exam table, propped up on my hands.

She pointed at my arm. “Your elbows are hyperextended. Also, your wrists are bent past a ninety-degree angle. I’m guessing all your joints are unusually flexible.”

I glanced down at my arm askance, as it of course looked and felt perfectly normal to me. I’m a dancer, and I’m aware that my muscles are flexible. My joints, though — perfectly obvious in retrospect that they’re unusually flexible, too. But while my muscles are naturally flexible, I’d consciously worked to increase their flexibility to do things like the splits. Not so with my joints; they just came that way.

Further tests revealed, unsurprisingly, that my ankles have a much wider range of motion than normal human ankles really should.

As we worked through exercises, my physical therapist explained, “It’s not that your ankles are weak,” which is what I’d long thought. “It’s that because of their ridiculous flexibility, you need corresponding strength to control their movement. We have to work with the body you have. We can’t decrease your joint flexibility, so we need to increase your strength even further. ”

At any rate, I love my physical therapist (which is INCREDIBLY rare for me with doctors), and this process has been both a hilarious discovery of things I didn’t know about my body but also working.

But what occurred to me while I was doing my first set of PT exercises today is that there’s a loose analogy to the writing process — and life — here. (I know, I know, of course this is where I’m going with this. Bear with me?)

Greater flexibility necessitates greater control.

As my writing craft improves, I have more skill to do more things with words and stories. But what should I do? That’s the crux of the difficulty with receiving critique, especially when readers suggest solutions: plenty of people have good ideas for what I could do with a story, but they’re rarely in line with what the story needs.

In my experience, a lot of writers new to receiving feedback (myself included, back in the day) get caught up in the feedback from people who are excellent writers or editors in their own right and lose track of what their story needs. It’s easy to get blown off course. And sometimes you need to be to find the right course, but learning how to tell the difference is hard. Learning what your artistic instincts are even telling you is hard, let alone learning to trust them.

There are endless ways a story could go. What makes it my story is not just where I choose to go with it, but how I choose to go there, and that choice matters. As writers we learn what our strengths and weaknesses are, and we learn to work with what we have, the artistic cards we’re dealt, be it a natural gift for or tendency to rely too heavily on voice or story structure or one of the myriad other tools in the writing craft box, and we learn to improve what we can.

The more I level up, the greater narrative control I need, the stronger I need my vision to be for what my story really is at its core. There will always be people who wish for something different from a story. In the end, though, if I’m the author, the onus is on me to make sure I’m writing my story, the way I think is right. And the ability to do that is a skill, and also, I think, a form of artistic strength.

Now, back to the editing mines.

Taking Editing Ranks

Oof, it’s been a while, hasn’t it? *waves hello*

My last few months have basically consisted of a combination of friends’ wedding events and editing. Much, much time in the editing trenches. Oh, and my YA space opera manuscript is DONE. =D

While I regret my silence around these parts, the good news is that I think I’ve leveled up in editing. I’ve found a process that works for me in terms of getting edits done in a timely fashion, figuring out what edits need to be made in the first place, and going about making them in a way that actually improves the manuscript.

It surprised me to learn that editing is emotionally harder for me than writing. While writing for sure has a hefty share of madness associated, the challenges are not the same.

The key difference is that when I’m writing a first draft, I know it doesn’t have to be perfect, because I can fix it later. But once I’m editing, the pressure is on: now I have to make it right. I have to figure out how, and I have to be able to do it, and if either of those were easy I’d have done it right the first time.

Now, the wonderful thing about beta readers is that they give me feedback on how a story is being perceived by people outside of my own head, so I can tell which parts are working and which aren’t. The problem is that not only do beta readers disagree with each other, they can be wrong — which has nothing at all to do with their reading or analysis and everything to do with the story I’m trying to tell. What different readers look for and react to in stories varies; the story they would tell with the same premise is different than the story I would tell, not just as a matter of content but also of style. I have had AMAZING beta readers, but in the end the story is mine to fix, not theirs.

Even with beta readers I trust, I can never take all of their feedback. From a relatively small reader sample, I have to weigh concerns. When beta readers disagree, it makes me especially aware that any change I make can improve the story for some readers and derail it for others. Obviously, I have to choose whichever changes are best for the story, but — well, if I could tell what changes the story needed that easily, I wouldn’t need beta readers.

Essentially: without outside feedback I can’t tell how the story is working, but the feedback doesn’t always clarify matters; sometimes it just gives me more to worry about. So not only do I feel pressured to get it right, when I’m editing it’s often hard to tell if I’m actually making the story better.

The final problem for me is with tracking progress. Part of how I motivate myself to write is with deadlines and word count quotas. The tracking is key, though, because I never feel like I’m doing enough; numbers and spreadsheets are how I prove to myself that I’m being productive, which in turn makes me feel productive, which then causes me to have an easier time producing.

I can still give myself deadlines for editing, and I absolutely do. But for me, tracking editing word count is nonsensical. I’m not necessarily striving to add or take away words. I could try and edit a certain number of words each day, but depending on the type of editing I’m doing (line edits, rewrites, structural overhauls…) some chapters can fly by, and some take hours or days. I could edit four chapters one day and half of one the next. Unlike writing, I don’t edit in chronological order. Some changes have to be made throughout the text, and sometimes I don’t know to fix something earlier until I’ve made a change later.

I’ve found a solution that works for me in terms of tracking progress — I won’t detail it here, but the main thing is that there is a list of daily tasks that I can cross off once accomplished or, like with word count goals, that roll over into the next day. They don’t go away if I don’t do them, but once I have, I have evidence that I have been useful. That makes the whole process easier, and anything that makes it easier matters. Then I can marathon the work and if I’m lucky collapse in a heap of books for a week or so afterwards, as one does.

Even after the book is drafted, the work doesn’t get easier. If I’m doing my job right, the story gets better, but editing is every bit as much of a skill as writing. All I can do is put my fingers to the keyboard and work on leveling my skills and my story up.

Making Magic

I’ve been thinking, lately, about how many stories — often portal fantasies, sometimes urban fantasies — talk about how there is no magic in our world. Or how the magic has been leaving our world, often due to the growth of technology, like the fae vanishing due to the presence of iron, as if in the pursuit of scientific discovery we sacrifice magic.

The idea that I might live in a world without magic, or with dying magic, made me sad. Because of course I’ve always wanted to live in a world with magic. Sure, magic can be terrifying and devastating and maddening, but it’s magic, and it is exciting and wonderful and inspiring. It can break or it can build or it can fail to serve any useful purpose at all, but its existence — I have always wanted magic.

I wanted to be a sorcerer, wielding magic with my hands, shooting out beams of sheer power to shake the world, to defeat my enemies, to change people’s minds and heal their hearts.

And I thought of the role of the scop, once upon a time, or the bard or minstrel in different ages and cultures. Storytellers who were revered not just as sources of knowledge and wisdom, but for how they shaped the tales and the words within them, for how they delivered them, and how those tales shape us.

And I thought about how, once upon a time, writing was a rare and mysterious skill. The ability to read runes, to take symbols from a rock or sheet and make them into messages, to make sense out of nothing, was a kind of magic.

And I realized, shockingly belatedly, that this is why I write: because storytelling is magic.

The act of writing is an act of creation, my pen is my wand. And without my wand, how can I take magic from intangible idea into a physical reality? No wonder I have always thought my fingers understood story better than my brain.

Writing is an art, but it is also a craft. What it feels like to have magic can’t be taught, but how to wield it must be learned. Because we all know what happens when the arcane summoner misses a critical symbol in their circle: they will fail to contain the demon. The sorcerers that never learn their power will cause critical damage to the world, to the people close to them, or to themselves.

Like magicians, we learn to use smoke and mirrors to shape and direct our stories. I may not be an adept magic user yet, but I am devoting my time to training, and it consumes my life in a way I recognize from archetypes of mad alchemists fascinated not just by the magic itself, but by how it works, by the possibilities. That it takes time, but that I can love the work even when the exterior results are frustrating or incomprehensible to people who are not mad alchemists.

Writers are the sorcerers: words are the vessels for our magic, stories our spells. And if our magic and spellcraft are strong, they act upon the world. They seep into the hearts and minds around us, and they open new worlds. And every story is another act of magic, and every time we cast them into the world we fill the world with a little more magic, and we draw more people into the circle. We inspire more people to make magic in their worlds, in our world.

Magic was once rare. But little by little, we bring it out of everyone. The quantity of magic may vary from person to person, as well as their skill to use it, but the magic is here. It’s everywhere, for those who seek to find.

My world is full of magic, and I am a sorcerer.

Critique and Target Audiences

I spent last weekend at Cascade Writers Workshop and had a blast. Thank you again to my critique group for being awesome and insightful. I have a solid idea of where to start editing not just in this section, but the broad strokes to keep in mind all through the novel and in other projects.

I love critiquing and reviewing, though the one should not be confused with the other. In critiquing, my goal is to help the author identify how they can edit to match their writing with the story they want to tell. Note, that is not the same as telling the author what they should or must do, nor is it fixing the story for them, nor is it recommending ways to change the story to one that I would like better.

In reviewing, my goal (and this differs greatly among reviewers) is to help readers find books they will like by promoting the novels, the particular aspects that worked for me or didn’t, and why. This is also not the same as writing what I think the author should have done or be doing with their story: it’s what works for me, and why.

That why is the critical bit. That’s what tells me what needs to change and how, if at all. For instance, if you don’t like the protagonist because they’re clearly a bad person, well, if that’s what the story needs I’m not going to change it. If you don’t like the protagonist because you don’t understand their motivations or stakes and thus don’t care about their character arc, that’s something I need to address.

In receiving feedback, it’s important for me to get multiple points of view, because often two people will totally disagree with each other’s assessments. If multiple people are pointing out problems in the same area, even if their “why”s are different, I know where to look for the bit that isn’t working properly.

For me, the very best kind of critique is when the reader is able to understand what I’m trying to do (without any direction from me outside of the text) and can tell me whether it worked. If they say, I see what you’re going for, but it’s not quite there, because of x reason, that is THE MOST HELPFUL THING. This is why I usually request feedback from fellow writers, to help me identify the “why”s when something is off with the craft.

My second-favorite kind of critique is from people who are not my target audience.

I get the impression that’s not common? And I understand that there are some forms of feedback that I’ll take with grains of salt from, for instance, non-genre readers, because it may be a trope or tone issue throwing them out that’s totally fine. But it might also be something that I haven’t explained sufficiently. It might be a world-building issue or plot hole that a genre reader will gloss over but that causes the non-genre reader to cease suspension of disbelief.

Target audience, though, can be complicated, because it goes beyond subgenre. In fact, writing with a group of other reviewers at Fantasy Book Critic has been an object lesson in target audiences for me. My reading tastes overlap with several of our reviewers: a few of us will often read the same epic and high fantasy, or the same urban fantasy, or the same YA books, even if our thoughts aren’t all posted on the site.

And yet the three of us can read the same book, write a joint review, and have COMPLETELY different opinions on why it worked or didn’t.

(This has actually come to be a recommendation marker for me: if two of us actually agree on a book, I tend to trust that assessment, because it’s very much not the default. Mihir and Liviu’s joint review got me to pick up The Thousand Names, for instance.)

Just because we’re readers of the same subgenre doesn’t mean we’re looking for the same things in our stories. Target audience is more complicated than whether someone wants or hates vampires in their stories. It’s about the kind of story and how it’s told.

It’s also why I think it’s important in reviewing to isolate that I’m talking about “why”s, because even within the genre reader tastes vary. Huge amounts of expository detail, for instance, are not my thing. There are only so many trees and hills you can describe before my eyes glaze over (I’m looking at you, Tolkien).

Some readers LIVE for that sort of detail, and that’s fabulous for them! But when I write my review, I will mention that for me it slowed pacing down, but I won’t call it a bad book, or say that the author doesn’t know how to write exposition. I don’t think my role is to judge; it’s to analyze and isolate parts that will help readers decide whether a book is a good fit.

And in critique, I will point out concerns, issues to consider, places that don’t work for me, and why, so the author can judge for themselves how much weight to assign to any piece of feedback. Awareness, for me, is the key. Maybe the author is dead, but their stories are alive in the hearts and minds of readers.

They’re different animals, reviewing and critiquing, but I love them both and I hope people find my feedback helpful. It makes me appreciate even more when people are willing to take the time to consider artistic work carefully and thoroughly, because I think it helps us all as a community to push ourselves to be better, to expect better. And especially, thank you again to all who have critiqued or given me beta feedback. You’re the best =).

Our Archetypal Hero

I want to try to recapture the essence of a conversation over dinner at 4th Street Fantasy before any more details seep away. (I call on dinner companions Jen, Steve, Nicole, Aliza, Lydy, and Skyler to supplement if I miss something important or get this horribly wrong.) If you’ve never had the pleasure of meeting Skyler White, one of the things you should know about her is that she asks the most interesting questions.

Here’s the basic premise: different ages invent and popularize different archetypal heroes in relation to fears and values within the context of their times. Take, for instance, Sherlock Holmes: emerging into the public consciousness at a time when our understanding of science fundamentally changes along with the philosophy of rational thinking after the Age of Reason, Sherlock gives us a hero who can use science and deductive reasoning fluently. Moreover, in a time becoming increasingly centered in cities and crime rising accordingly, Sherlock applies skills and mindset unique to his time and place to solve societal problems particular to that time and place.

So the question, then, is what is our archetypal hero?

I submit two archetypes for consideration.

The first is the conman-as-hero. They’re all over the place these days, in our books (for instance, The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch) and our TV shows (“Leverage,” “Burn Notice”…). I could list contemporary examples forever. What conmen are doing specifically is manipulating identity. In a fast-paced, rapidly changing, increasingly surveilled world, conmen-heroes can change their public identity as needed while still maintaining a firm sense of self, private and separate from their public personae. And they use this ability to fight the powerful on behalf of those abused by power with no viable (legally, financially, etc.) recourse. (I trust I don’t need to elaborate on why that problem resonates in our culture?)

The second archetype I propose is the tech-savvy (cool/hipster) nerd. These are the characters (like Hardison on, again, “Leverage,” or Tony Stark, or let’s not even get me started on SFF book examples) who are hyper-competent at using technology that the general populace is surrounded by but doesn’t really understand, anything from robotics to coding. These tech-savvy heroes navigate technology adeptly and successfully for largely the same reasons as the conmen-heroes: subverting power. In the wake of increasing awareness of how technology is abused and used to infringe on our rights by our own government and massive corporations, the notion of being able to use the tools available to us to protect our date and our selves also really resonates.

What do you think?

Dinner at 4th Street

Writing Rules(ish)

I don’t even know how many lists of writing rules there are out there. It seems like everyone has one. Some are lists for the writing process, some are in regard to tropes. Humans really seem to like lists; maybe it’s the notion that we can somehow impose order on our world with sequential steps. Writing has never been the straightforward for me.

A lot of people trip up over the very idea of writing rules. What are the rules of writing? Which rules are the right ones? If you don’t know them, do you have no hope of writing well? Oh, but if this famous person said it, it must be true. If writing rules don’t matter, why do so many people talk about them? Art means you can do anything, so aren’t rules just constraining to creativity?

It’s approaching the topic the wrong way, I think. In my opinion, there’s exactly one writing rule that matters, and it’s this:

You can do anything you want, as long as it works.

And even that needs to be qualified, because in a first draft, it doesn’t even have to work. Or maybe playing with that thing does exactly what you meant it to do, and it didn’t work, and you’re okay with that and just going to trunk it, and that’s fine too.

If you intend to publish it, though, it does have to work. And if it doesn’t work, nobody will care how cool your idea was. And just because you do something on purpose does not mean it works.

Writing “rules” are collections of things that authors/editors/readers have found tend to work. They’re safe, tried and tested, which is not at all the same as easy. This is not to say that you can’t break those rules gloriously and with abandon, or that you have to know the “rules” before starting, but at least being aware of them, and breaking them intentionally, will leave you far less likely to stumble around into a stupid mistake that a list of eight bullet points could have warned you about.

It’s a lot like grammar in prose — you can break grammar rules, but if you just don’t know how to use semicolon or how to properly place your modifiers, you’re setting yourself up for trouble. Poor grammar, at least, is pretty easy to fix, if sometimes time consuming; story is harder.

If you look at one of those lists, you’ll be able to think of stories you love that have broken all of them, and that’s part of what made them work. And also stories that broke them and failed horribly, and stories that followed them and worked, or didn’t.

Use whatever works for you. If a rule doesn’t help you write your story, then it’s not a useful rule for you. It probably is for someone else.

Writing rules really are guidelines, but I feel like that term has gained an unfortunate connotation since Pirates of the Caribbean, in that people think that means you can disregard them entirely, and I think that’s a mistake.

More than following them, rules tell you a lot about how people think of stories, and that is always fodder for even more stories.