Adventuring into My Prime!

Adventuring into My Prime / Casey Prime!

Here we are: another year passed, a new decade launched, and I am in my prime.

(I’m now 31 years old and clearly still a huge nerd.)

Last year I talked about taking a step back and figuring out how to get what I want out of life without killing myself. I was ready to fully embrace embarking on and furthering the kind of adventures that matter to me.

I, uh. Went a little fuller out than I anticipated?

I started listing out the things I’ve done in the last year that might merit mentioning in my annual birthday round-up post, and. I mean, I’m always busy, because I am very bad at not doing. But I’ve apparently gotten much better very quickly at doing meaningful work, because there are way more exciting life happenings I want to talk about here.

The big thing this year that I can’t possibly not start with, given its scope and how much of my life it took this year in sheer energy not to mention time, is that I successfully planned a fantasy wedding full of dragons and achieved marriage. It was such a project, and while I’m delighted it is done with forever—hard to overstate this, truly, I am Very Done—I’m happy with the work I did and given all the same information would make those choices again.

Casey in her wedding dress.Picture from behind of Casey in her backless dress and Django in his cape walking hand-in-hand away from ceremony.

On the story front, which I’m thrilled to be able to effectively prioritize again (honestly can’t recommend planning a wedding on your own and also trying to write books and do dayjobbery, it is a suboptimal combination of time commitments), I think this may be the first time in at least five years I haven’t finished drafting a book since my last birthday writing?

That said, I’ve still written upwards of 100,000 words on two different books*—for my non-writer friends: this is a significant number of words; pertinently, it’s well more than a book’s worth—and that DESPITE PLANNING A DANG INTRICATE WEDDING, so. I’m cutting myself a bit of slack for once in my life. The writing is occurring, I’m growing as a writer, and I’m happy with the work I’m doing: that’s what matters.

(*Passed 80k on one and 50k on the other! I’ve learned in an ideal world I shouldn’t try to write two books at the same time, but I am nevertheless writing two books at the same time in a substantial way.)

I did have a book launch, my very first! I have a short story in an anthology of fantasy chase scenes called Swift the Chase, which is particularly exciting for me because I’ve read work by literally all the other authors and honestly loved them all. (If you haven’t checked it out, it is designed to be friendly to people new to everyone’s work!)

As for the work that supports my continued ability to work on stories, the very recent adventure is that I left the traditional workforce and launched my freelance career! Since that was, uh, last week, I have little to definitively report other than that I’m excited about this as a substantial life change for myself. This falls firmly in the category of adventures that set myself up for the future I want, and I’m looking forward to exploring where this takes me.

Business logo enclosed by teal circle, with leaf design and text "Casey Blair Virtual Assistant"

A theme for this year all around has been my improving at both prioritizing and setting—and enforcing—boundaries. The difference that has made is in my being able to live my life attending to what I care about, to put my time and energy into what matters most to me.

There are so many other projects I’ve touched this year that are firmly trending toward that future. My final project at the bookstore was a culminating event on so much of what I’d worked toward during my time there, an inclusive panel with romance writers talking about reclaiming history that our community loved and that even got a write-up in the newspaper.

Because outside of all that, I’ve done work I’m proud of, and care about. Earlier this year my essay “Women Are Already Powerful: The Problem of Privileging Masculine Modes of Power in Fantasy” was published, and getting to dive into analyzing the relationship between gender, power, fantasy, and storytelling in a big way is, like. A Lot of what I’m passionate about, so that’s me maximally #backonmybullshit and loving it.

It’s always validating when other people also think I have important insights to contribute, and Sirens Conference, which I have so much respect for, is bringing me on as faculty next year to do just that. I’ve done programming there before—including this year!—and got a taste of running a workshop stepping up this year at the last-minute to fill in after a cancellation, but it’s different to craft a long-form program in advance, and to be confident I’m delivering an experience that will fundamentally change people’s understanding. Teaching in this field has always been an aspiration of mine, and I could not have been more thrilled by this invitation. I’m already plotting.

Bringing my ideas to bear to craft experiences has been something of a theme this year. At 4th Street Fantasy, I’ve officially taken over programming. This was the first year I was largely responsible for that core of the conference even though I wasn’t in charge, and I’m excited to buckle in and work on shaping ways for us to explore ideas pushing genre and writing boundaries in exciting ways. I learned a lot this year, and there’s only, always, more to come.

And of course, there’s the annual birthday adventure! Last year I thought I was going to switch from flying to travel adventures, but I decided to do this a differently. There are always things—activities, experiences—I’ve been meaning to try that are just never enough of a priority for me to get around to. That’s part of how I got started with skydiving!

So instead for my birthday every year I’m going to give this gift to myself: trying something new, something that I’m excited about. A regular reminder, no matter what else is or isn’t happening in my life, to make my life adventurous; that life can always be an adventure.

This year? I tried out a capoeira class.

Somewhat to my surprise—I thought it might be a good fit for me, that’s part of why I’d wanted to try!—I really loved it, way more than I anticipated. Even starting from nothing, it felt fundamentally right from the start. So suddenly now I’m working on making this particular adventure a regular part of my life. (No picture this year, sorry. I have some videos, but I’m not sharing. =P)

Adventure abounds, and this decade has opened with them all around! My life this past year has been more fulfilling than at any time I can remember: both more focused but also filling into all the areas of my life I want to spend more time in: essays and teaching, building inclusive communities, seeing and valuing the people in my life and myself included, writing the stories that matter to me, and always learning and growing and becoming more myself.

I’m spending my life doing the work I care about, be it professional or personal or somewhere in between. And that will always be its own adventure.

I’m flying inexorably toward the future I want for myself, and I can’t wait to see what route I take next year.

Measuring Writing Progress: Beyond NaNo

National Novel Writing Month, also known as NaNoWriMo, and its offshoots are wonderful. Many novelists have gotten their starts with NaNo or have made use of it to great effect later in their development, and it’s that second part I want to talk a little more about.

NaNo is designed to target one particular writing problem that afflicts a huge percentage of people, particularly beginning writers, and it targets it very effectively: that challenge is actually writing.

NaNo is built with tools to give you access to a community of fellow writers to help you through or keep you on track. It gives pep talks to keep you going. It gives you a deadline that isn’t fungible. What it’s especially known for is keeping track of your word count, how many words you’ve written that day, how many you have left, and how many you need to write each day on average to hit that mark.

In essence, it provides a support system to teach people how to write novels in the sense of literally sitting down and producing words.

Here’s an incomplete list of what NaNo doesn’t teach:

  • Writing craft.
  • Finishing.
  • Editing.
  • Pacing (yourself, as a writer).
  • Adaptability.

This is not a flaw with NaNo–it’s not trying to teach these things, and targeting a particular and wide audience is smart! But it’s worth noting that the tools it teaches for writers who need help just finally getting the story in their heads out are not always still useful to that same writer as they evolve.

Which is to say, if you’re serious about writing, NaNo’s tools probably will not continue working for you forever, at least not without some changes. This is good–it means you’re growing. So if you’re not meeting a NaNo goal, or if you’re struggling to meet it, don’t beat yourself up about it. The set of tools it’s teaching may not be what you need to learn, and you’re the only one who can judge that.

Let me give some specifics, because one of the things NaNo has been great at is undercutting all the excuses people make for all the reasons they can’t write a novel. (In particular, being busy. Everyone is busy. But I digress.)

Traditional NaNo sets the goal of writing 50,000 words in a month. Plenty of people can figure out how to manage this for one month by putting a lot of other life to the side. Learning how to prioritize writing is useful, but if the things you’re putting aside are your share of chores, doctor’s appointments, or things you do for fun and your emotional well-being? They can’t be put off indefinitely. Ultimately that hurts the writing by hurting the writer. So people who want to make writing a consistent part of their lives often benefit by not setting a goal this high–not because it’s unattainable, but because it’s unsustainable.

Camp NaNo is an iteration of traditional NaNoWriMo in spring and summer that has more flexibility. You can set whatever word count goal you like, or you can set a goal in terms of hours worked on the project, the latter of which is very useful if you’re primarily editing.

(Because editing typically does not produce consistent increases in word count, it can be harder to measure and track productivity. This isn’t how I personally measure editing progress, but it’s a great adaptation for NaNo.)

Unfortunately, you can’t select both hours and words, so this doesn’t work well if you’re writing one project and editing another. This April I’d set a writing goal, but even knowing I’d been editing for a week, looking at the flat section of the bar graph made me feel like I hadn’t been working.

NaNo also doesn’t teach writers how to manage multiple deadlines. If you have more than one ongoing project, and one becomes a rush job, everything else in your schedule has to shift to accommodate. I had to change my word count goal in April for a similar reason, and it was hard not to feel like that wasn’t a kind of failure. Not because NaNo’s word count tracking system didn’t allow me to change my ultimate goal, but because it couldn’t account for the context involved.

The same is true if you’re collaborating, or an editor’s schedule changes, or you have publicity commitments. It’s not just life that affects your writing schedule: it’s other realities of writing.

And, like with editing, often writers aren’t trying to get just any words on the page. They’re trying to get the right ones. NaNo teaches people to produce, and that is very useful, but only to a point. People who are serious about writing will at some point need to move beyond this one way of measuring progress, because it’s designed to measure a particular kind of progress. I already know I can produce lots of words quickly, so a system designed to encourage that locks me into a pattern that makes me feel like I’m making progress rather than helping me grow in different ways.

Exactly when you need to learn other tools to keep yourself on track, and what tools those should be, varies for every individual person and sometimes for different projects. I still use elements of NaNo word count tracking in my own projects, because it’s a great jumping-off point–deadline motivation works particularly well for me. But it’s elements, adapted to my needs. NaNo is a great template for a starter system; it’s not the be all and end all.

If you’ve found NaNo restrictive or unhelpful–or even easy–consider what you’re trying to use it for, and consider if it’s serving your interests. It’s great for specific uses–namely, again, actually writing–but context matters. If you already know how to reliably get words written, NaNo metrics alone probably aren’t what you need. Don’t set yourself up to fail by forcing yourself to use a system designed to solve problems that aren’t your primary concern.

It’s not failure if you can’t reach a system’s goals when the system isn’t designed to work for you. As with any writing advice: take what helps you and discard the rest. And know that as you evolve as a writer, your process will too.

The greatest challenge to my writing process is these two cats being unreasonably adorable in my office.

DOOM

You haven’t heard from or seen much of me lately.

I’m sorry about that. It’s become a matter of self care. I need to novel like the wind before I explode, so I hope you can bear with me for the time that’s taking, because anything that could add to my crazy (and stressors are often not intuitive) is getting pushed down the priority list.

On days when the writing goes well, I am resigned and angry that I can’t get more done, can’t do it better. On days when I fight for every word, let us say that my emotional and mental state is Not Great and leave that there as an understatement of gross proportions.

However, I am finally, finally at a place where I can see the end of this book looming on the horizon. Sometime in March I declared to a friend that if I hadn’t finished this book by the end of April I was going to start indiscriminately punching things. I said it mostly in jest, and then I realized I meant every word.

Desire to avoid indiscriminate punching aside, I am holding myself to that deadline. Some self-imposed deadlines are easy to break, but not this one. This one I believe, because if I’m not done with this book I’m going to go crazy. I’m sure, because I’m already going crazy.

I have finished whole other books in the time I have not drafted this one. This is going to be the roughest draft I’ve ever finished, but by god IT WILL BE DRAFTED. And then I can spend May writing something else, ANYTHING ELSE, without this story looming in my subconscious, worming its way into other stories where it has no business, prodding me with an increasingly pointy and fiery spike into writing it.

This is not a book that is going to get to beta readers before I’ve done a rather more extensive pass than usual. I tend to draft sparingly and flesh out later (say, 60k becomes 80k), and even so, I’m past the 135k mark on this monster. That’s not completely out of the realm for fantasy, but if I scale up those numbers and estimate I’ll be tacking on about 60k, well. Not ideal.

I’m thinking hard about what arcs I need to get done in the intended sequel and comparing to this monster, and I’m increasingly convinced that I’ve actually written two books, not one, and on one hand that’s reassuring, because it goes some way toward explaining why I’m not done drafting the damn thing yet. On the other, it means my pacing is totally off and I’ve been weighting motifs and layering subplots incorrectly, so editing will be a mess.

I know I’ve been dropping the ball on communication, and projects and commitments have gone on hold. I’m sorry. The very fact of STILL NOT FUCKING DONE is stressing me out more than I would have believed possible; it’s certainly not been true of any other books I’ve written. But then, no other books have been as big (I don’t just mean in length of words, but in the time it’s taken me to learn how to write it, in scope, in difficulty).

Maybe I’ll post more detailed metrics later — I keep them for myself anyway, because tracking my productivity at least helps convince my brain that I’m actually being useful. But for reference, that is over 85k written since I went part-time in February (in 2 ½ months). I am pressing right the fuck along.

I have two scenes to do today before I’m allowed to sleep. Talk to you soon.