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)

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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.

Draft! New Draft Complete, New Draft Beginning

I finished the first draft of a new novel! It’s a secondary world urban fantasy, clocking in at about 75k. So I promise I’ve been silent around these parts for a good cause. I’ll have to refine my pitch once I’m closer to querying, but this is the basic idea:

To protect her daughter and friends, a mage and professional adventurer has to stop the sorcerous storms tearing a city apart. But to save their lives she’ll have to sacrifice a piece of herself and become what she’s always feared — and even if she survives, she can never go back.

I’m really excited about this one, and I’m teeming with side novella and short story ideas for these characters. I mean, I’m always excited about my stories, but usually when I finish a draft I’m overcome with the feeling of OH GOD EVERYTHING IS TERRIBLE I’VE DONE ALL THE THINGS WRONG PEOPLE WILL HATE ME. This time, I’m worried because I still feel good about where it is at the moment. I don’t know what I’ve done wrong.

Fortunately, this is exactly what alpha readers are for. And I’m especially fortunate, because a lot of very smart, skilled writers volunteered to help me out with this. I’m honestly blown away by how supportive this community can be and has been for me.

Lest I fret myself silly over the likelihood of one of them coming back and saying, “Nope, everything’s wrong, you’d better burn the whole thing” (no one has ever done this, but there’s a part of my brain that is always ready), I’ll be pressing right along into other projects.

Beyond the general catching up on life tasks that I’ve been pushing for the last couple months in my haste to get this underway, first on the agenda is to put together proposals for  Sirens programming. If you want to collaborate on something, let me know!

I’m also going to get moving on edits to the last novel I drafted, the YA space opera, since reader feedback has been waiting for me for longer than I’d meant it to. Unfortunately, although I’d meant to be done with the draft of Afterstorms by March, I lost most of February to moving. It ended up taking about two and a half months to draft, which in the scheme of things is not too shabby: I was averaging about 1000 words per day.

I am pleased to report that for the first time, I have successfully drafted a novel continuously — by which I mean, no break at the 20-30k point where I go, “HMM, quite a predicament you’ve got there, characters! I wonder how you’ll get out of it? …hmm.” And then I work on another project for a few months while I ponder, fail to magically arrive at a solution, and come back and outline my way out of the wall.

Anyway, I think the YA space opera will need another round of beta readers, so I’m hoping to have that ready to go out by the beginning of June, before I spend basically the entire month traveling. After that, I’ll be back to editing Afterstorms, possibly neck-deep in a novel collaboration, and probably figuring out what my next novel project will be. The fun never ends!

Editing Month: Defeated!

I HAVE DEFEATED EDITING MONTH.

I have two new novels edited and out in the world. I fell off the submission bandwagon for a while, so it’s both past time and also extremely satisfying. (With some accompanying panicflail, naturally.)

This is probably the best editing experience I’ve had, actually. On one hand, I did more extensive edits in a relatively short timeframe; on the other, working closely with these manuscripts again reminded me why I love these stories so much, and that made the whole process less grueling. I’m also organizing my editing, which has the advantages of making the process more logical and giving me tasks to cross off of lists. That helps me budget time and also track progress.

In the midst of all this I started a new part-time job as a tutor, and it’s been great to get back to teaching. It also means that I now know far more about standardized testing than I did when I was actually taking them. The fact that the SAT is relevant to my life is some sort of cosmic joke, but I’m loving getting to work with students again.

I have another novel to review and get back out on submission, but since I’ve been exclusively editing for the last month, I decree I’m allowed to switch back to drafting. Because shiny project!

(And because my writer brain is clearly feeling neglected: it has sent me a steady stream of dystopian action dreams for the last month, and since I refuse to go there I need to write something else.)

Now I get to pick up my YA mecha novel, because space battles with giant pilotable robots justify themselves, right? Right. SO EXCITED.

Gymnastics, and Falling

I’m not normally interested in watching sports, but I have always loved women’s gymnastics.

Some of it is the story, understanding the arcs by knowing where these women came from, what they’ve faced, and the real drama is that you can know the part of each gymnast’s story and how it relates to the rest, and so every loss and gain is charged and bittersweet.

Some of it is envy and awe, with a twinge of nostalgia. I only had a brief stint in gymnastics when I was younger, since it was apparent early on that I wasn’t committed to building the necessary arm strength, and also that I would be too tall. No matter, I happily moved into acrobatics, but I am also really competitive, and that part of me is drawn to that aspect of gymnastics.

It always strikes me, though, that one of the things announcers always talk about with high-level gymnastics isn’t skill level or even artistry, but mental toughness. That it’s not just about disciplining the body, it’s about disciplining the mind. Focus.

It seems self-evident, but then you see a gymnast that you know has done this skill on the uneven bars thousands of times perfectly, so many times she’s probably dreamt it, and yet somehow in competition it goes wrong, she falls. There’s that flash of surprise, like she can’t believe that actually just happened, but quickly hidden; there’s no time to dwell because she has to get back up on that bar and finish the routine. Muscle memory, pushing through.

Yao Jinnan at 2013 Worlds

Yao Jinnan at 2013 Worlds

And it’s the bars, so it’s over pretty quickly, but more often the fall is on the beam, that great equalizer. Some gymnasts get back up on the beam after a fall and get through the rest of the routine with only a few minor balance checks, but more often they’re so intimidated by the apparatus, confidence shaken enough that the balance checks are too big to recover from, and no matter how tightly their toes grip that beam they can’t push through the routine.

Aliya Mustafina at 2013 Worlds

Aliya Mustafina at 2013 Worlds

Is the difference really toughness? Is it an ability to focus down and see only what is right in front of you that very instant, to not dwell on the past? How do you ignore something that happened moments before, or if you let it push you, can’t that adversely affect your performance too? How can you prepare for that, because training in the gym is never going to be the same as competition?

I think I could get through the routine. But in an all-around competition, there’s a next routine, and gymnasts have to somehow put egregious errors behind them and come back from that. Some can; others spiral.

But if you fall in a world championship, that memory is with you forever. No matter where you go, you’ll always have that. I can’t imagine any gymnast thinking, “Oh, well I did okay on the next one, so that one fall doesn’t count, doesn’t matter to me anymore.” Especially in gymnastics, where perfectionism is practically a requirement in the sport.

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe gymnasts are better adjusted to failure. But I think that’s really where the toughness comes in: the knowledge that you have, sometimes literally, only one shot to seize everything you want, and only you can mess it up. That the odds are in favor of reality never matching either your training or your dreams. That no matter how good you were, someone was better, or other people thought they were better. That you will have to live with that one moment for the rest of your life.

And going out there and doing it anyway. 

On a completely unrelated note, as much as it can frustrate me, one of the most wonderful things about the writing process is that you have the chance to edit.