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)

 

 

 

 

 

 

Announcing: TEA PRINCESS CHRONICLES!

It’s finally time! I’ve been working on this in secret for a while, and I’m so excited (and, not gonna lie, a bit terrified) to announce I will be launching a free web serial next Thursday, June 8th, 2017.

(AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHH!!!!)

TEA PRINCESS CHRONICLES follows the shenanigans of Miyara, a princess who escapes her meaningless life and goes into hiding, finding her place in the world serving a struggling community by running a tea shop that sits on the edge of a magical disaster. I have three serial novels planned, but as this is something of an experiment for me the first will function as a stand-alone—we’ll see how it goes! =D

 

What do I mean when I say “web serial”?

Essentially, this means I’ll be posting a novel online in sections, each of which will be long enough and ideally have enough character/plot arc movement to feel like a satisfying read. Some serials do each released section episodically, more like a classic TV format where each episode can be watched in any order. The bulk of what I’ll be doing is putting up a chapter, about 3-4000 words apiece, of a book (and it will be fantasy book-length) weekly.

Up-front, I’ll post the first four chapters all at once to give people a sample of what they’re getting in for, and also because that’s the necessary introduction for people to enjoy the other side of this project: side scenes that can be read in any order about Miyara’s adventures running the tea shop, each of which will feature a different fantasy-ingredient tea blend. The novel portion is going to be freely available online, and I’ll write new side scenes as the Patreon I’ll be launching reaches new goals.

Basically, I’m going to give you a free book, and every Thursday you can read a little more of it!

 

Why am I writing a serial?

A lot of reasons! Ultimately, it’s a gift to myself.

First and foremost, it’s for my own sanity. In the months spent over the last year working on a serious and messy revision, having one day each week where I could work on something that was fun and easy reminded me why I do this—that it isn’t always awful, and that I’m actually pretty good at this writing thing in general, even if I happen to be working on something hard. That bright spot was a great motivator, because feeling more competent helps me actually be more competent. I need something easy and reliable that replenishes me creatively and doesn’t generate more work and expectations than I’m prepared to deal with right now, and this is what I came up with.

It’s also because I’ve put a lot of time and effort into writing, and I want to have work of mine available to point people towards! I’ve had enough feedback from professionals in the field to feel pretty confident that (while I certainly have growing to do and always will!) I’m writing at a high enough level to be traditionally published. But although I’ve written ten novels (a few of which, it must be said, aren’t worth editing, let alone publishing, and exist firmly in the “learning experiences” category), I don’t have any novels published yet. Even if I magically had a book deal tomorrow, it would be another year or two before the book was out, and I don’t write short stories to try to get published in the interim. A serial, at least the way I’m doing it, is what I like to call “novel-adjacent”—there’s enough overlap in craft skills I’ve already developed without interfering with an actual book launch down the road. Serialized fiction also has some added bonuses in terms of getting to interact with readers and what they care about, which I’m hoping to make the most of through Patreon!

And, I can’t lie, I do hope the Patreon I’ll be launching alongside the serial generates some money. It’s not my primary goal, but last year—between moving, surprise medical expenses, car accident, and sudden job collapse—was hard on my emergency fund. (And my car is 16 years old. While I hope it makes it out the year, I have Concerns.) I’m not in such dire financial straits I need to change my work situation, but if a similar conflation of expenses hit now I am not in a good position to address them. While my work arrangement is wonderful for many reasons, it’s not ideal for replenishing a savings account fast. And, again, even if I had a book deal tomorrow, publishing income is not steady or reliable, and it would great to have a more regular source of writing income. Backing the Patreon is absolutely not required to access the serial or for me to finish writing it, but I would be beyond thrilled to have any income from this craft I’ve worked so hard on.

 

Why am I terrified?

This is the first fictional work of mine that I’m making public. Like, ever. O_O I haven’t even posted fanfic, and soliciting beta reader feedback or submitting to workshops and critique groups isn’t at all the same.

It’s not edited. I’m posting my first work in public without any editing. I mean, I will certainly be proofreading, and I know how to spell and how semicolons work and such. But that’s not the same as a) other people’s eyes on the work or b) developmental editing.

No one has even read it. My wonderful critique partner Camille Griep commented on the first four chapters, but all the rest is going up without my having any idea what people will think of it. Maybe it will be bad! Maybe people will hate it! Maybe no one will read it at all! WE’LL SEE.

 

Why am I excited?

I’m having so much fun.

That’s it, really.

I worked really hard to set reasonable expectations on this project (I do not, as a rule, do reasonable expectations for myself >_>) for how much work I can put into this on a weekly basis and have it be rewarding and not draining, which is my primary goal. And it’s already paying dividends, because I’m snickering in glee every time I go to work.

I’m writing this for myself. I’m not asking anyone to pay for it, I’m not planning to traditionally publish it, I’m beholden to no one’s sensibilities but my own, and I can do whatever I want. This means if I want to write unreasonable amounts of dialogue and however little physical description I care about, NO ONE CAN STOP ME. I can write scenes that are totally silly even if their relation to the actual plot is slim just for the sake of fun. I can fill my world with all the magic and snark and female friendships, elevate tea to a sacred calling, make dragon and cat BFFs, and EVERYTHING IS GOING TO BE GREAT.

The story is light, warm, and fun. I. And every time I sit down, it’s a joy to play with.

It’s the kind of story I’ve been craving to read, and maybe I’m not alone: maybe that’s what you need, too. I hope you enjoy it even half as much as I’ve been.

I’ll be back next week with links to the website and Patreon for anyone who wants to check it out =D. In the meantime, if you have any questions, feel free to ask in the comments!

Choosing Reads

A few weeks ago, I realized I didn’t want to read, which is a huge red flag for me. I’d had a stretch of books that either weren’t great or required more emotional bandwidth than I had handy. Since “not wanting to read” is pretty antithetical to who I am, it was time to employ emergency measures:

I picked a book to re-read. A book I already knew I loved, and a book I was sure would be exactly what I wanted.

A sad consequence of doing most of my reading on an e-reader is that I don’t re-read as often as I used to, because I can’t wander around my shelves and wait for a moment of yes, THAT’S what I need to read right now in quite the same way. But even scrolling through the e-reader library, I have that aha moment when I pass the right one, and it occurred to me that moment itself is telling.

I know there are people who never re-read, but it mystifies me. For me, choosing a given book to re-read says a lot about my mood, for one thing, and what my brain is working on—particular questions of identity, grappling anew with themes addressed in a work, a reflection of the mood I’m experiencing or feeling the lack of. And re-reading these books is a way of reaffirming myself, what matters to me and who I am, and I find re-reading to be an immensely clarifying, cleansing, and centering experience.

(Also I can skip to my favorite bits.)

In this case, the books I re-read (five novels and three novellas from Meljean Brook’s Guardians series, for the curious) underscored a trend not just in what I’ve been drawn to in re-reading, but also the kinds of books and writers I’ve been reaching for.

My to-read pile of books that are denser, require more time or thought, and especially ones that I know will require more emotional bandwidth (hello The Fifth Season, which I’ve started and is AMAZING and is also still waiting on my nightstand) are piling up. I’m in a state as, I think, many are, where I’m just about at my capacity to deal with all the awfulness going on around me. I have about as much challenge as I can stand, and I want more escapism.

Which is not to say I’m reading books that don’t deal with serious or complicated issues; I have perhaps less patience than ever for books with, for instance, unacknowledged sexism, or books that are fundamentally stupid or depend on me pretending to be. But one reason I realized I’ve been picking up book after book by Martha Wells is that I can trust I won’t be smacked in the face with unanticipated sexism when all I want was a transporting read.

These days the books I’m craving, the books I’m reaching for, aren’t just good, nor are they just thoughtful or inventive, as if those weren’t already rare. They’re comforting. They have optimistic outlooks and happy endings. They contain deep personal growth and beautiful friendships, adventure and exploration of worlds and ideas, and I don’t have to worry about being side-swiped by sexism, racism, queerphobia, ableism. They’re warm, welcoming, fun, and if not precisely light, then at least not grim. They’re hopeful, at a time when I could use more hope.

And they’re hard to find, because that’s a tall order. I’ve developed my own list of authors and books I trust, and no doubt yours won’t look the same, because we all pull different things from stories and need different things at any given time.

But, as I’m not just a reader but also a writer, it seems only logical that I should be writing the kind of stories I want to read, because maybe other people need them, too.

I’ve been vague-tweeting about a Secret Project for a few months now, but I’m nearly ready to share it with you all. So look for more details here next week… =D

Easy Winter Beverages

 

I am COLD. In fact, I get cold more easily than anyone I know!

I am also always thirsty and drink on a semi-constant basis.

The solution to my problem here is clear.

 

So I bring you my five favorite easy and warm beverages to make in the winter!

All beverages on this list are nonalcoholic, largely due to the fact that I rotate them throughout the day. And I use “make” loosely, because I do mean easy–I am among the laziest chefs and also have books to write.

Without further ado:

 

  1. Chai.

    Tea in general is excellent in the winter, but if I must choose one, at the risk of waxing endlessly, chai is my favorite. Add in some milk and sugar and chai is probably the only reason I get out of bed.

    (No, really. I have to move out from underneath a cat. This requires extreme motivation.)

  2. Honeycrisp Apple Cider.

    I will accept other varieties of apple cider, of course, but honeycrisp apple cider is available by the jug here in Washington and it is AMAZING. I like heating it up with a mulling spice packet or cinnamon stick, but it’s good on its own, too. Honeycrisp apple cider is a permanent fixture at my house between November and February.

  3. Honey Lemon Tisane.

    This one’s especially good for when you’ve had enough caffeine for the day but don’t want to drink anything too filling. Put a couple dollops each of lemon juice and honey (do adjust dollops to taste–I am fond of sugar and err on the side of more honey always) into a mug, add a cinnamon stick, fill with water, heat, and stir. Done!

  4. Steamed Milk.

    A misnomer, but that’s how I learned to call it, and it’s a straightforward comfort drink after a hard or cold day. Add some honey to a mug of milk, heat, then add a couple drops of vanilla and stir. It’s that easy.

  5. Hot Chocolate.

    Last but not least, the classic. Adding marshmallows is traditional, but these days I love the variety of packets that come with salted caramel, cinnamon, or peppermint flavors. There are a thousand ways to do hot chocolate; you know what you like!

 

Combine warm beverage of choice with fleece blankets, a fireplace, and a comfortable cat or two, and I may make it through winter yet.

Let me know if you have suggestions for more winter beverages!

Bring on 28

This year is a wrap! Let me review what I’ve been up to.

 

I did finish editing AFTERSTORMS. It’s on submission, and so far that’s going well. I drafted one new book this year, which I consider the bare minimum; I aim for two in a year. There are a couple reasons I didn’t make that goal this year.

 

The first is that I moved. Not just moved, but set up an entirely new house. There were a number of challenges even getting into the house, and I will spare you those details, but suffice it to say a lot of unnecessary time was spent dealing with the consequences of the developing company’s questionable management. And then there was actually moving–sorting, packing, trashing–as well as acquiring a lot of furnishings besides. Here’s a teaser:

 

Ground Floor, with Bonus Cat!

Ground Floor, with Bonus Cat!

 

Now that I’m a little settled I’ll post about that more, but going from zero to fully outfitted house before hosting twelve people (including the first meeting of parents for my partner and me O_O) for Thanksgiving took some doing. It wasn’t that long ago I lived in a 390 square foot apartment; fully furnishing an empty house (to my satisfaction) just plain took a lot of time. (It’s never just about the big pieces of furniture; it’s the half a dozen small trash cans for various rooms.) But I’m really happy with it, and the space feels like mine, and that matters a lot to me.

 

The second reason is that I’m in the process of doing a serious revision on one of my novels, more extensive than any I’ve done before. Normally a round of edits takes me one month; this is going to take considerably longer. The revision is alternately exciting and terrifying. It’s a good thing I’ve leveled way up at editing in the last couple years, because it’s going to take a lot to pull this off.

 

On the bright side, not finishing another novel this year doesn’t hurt my long-term writing plans (I keep having to remind myself of this). I’ve reached the point where I’m literally finishing novels faster than agents can finish considering them, and unlike with short fiction there’s no benefit to shopping multiple novels around at once.

 

Which is not to say I’ve slacked off by any means! But this is as good a time as any to have a sizable revision project. And I’m also taking this opportunity to set the wheels in motion for another, sort of novel-adjacent writing project. I’m trying some new things with this one that I’m really excited about, and I hope I’ll have it enough underway to start telling the world about it soon.

 

And of course the real reason for this post: annual birthday flying adventures are still happening! For my 28th birthday flying adventure, I went ziplining in Thailand. The ziplining trip also included some abseiling, so it’s practically a double win.

 

Mid-ziplining selfie!

Mid-ziplining selfie!

Mid-abseiling selfie!

Mid-abseiling selfie!

 

The reason I went to Thailand was not specifically to go ziplining for my birthday. For years I’ve been seeing pictures of Yi Peng, a lantern festival, and I wanted to see it with my own eyes.

 

I have no good pictures, lighting being what it was. I released a lantern lifted by the smoke of its own fire into the sky, and from any distance I could see the trail of released lanterns like a river of stars climbing into the night. But my friends (thank you, Nicole and Christian!) did manage to get a picture of me at the festival worth sharing.

 

This is me, having done everything right to get the lantern ready but still terrified I’m about to set something on fire and going for it anyway:

 

Yes, that's a metaphor.

Yes, that’s a metaphor.

 

Getting this trip together took a lot of doing, but I’m so glad I went; having the privilege of participating in Yi Peng is not something I’ll forget. But there has been more than one occasion this year where I’ve wondered if the universe was spiting me for daring to imagine I could organize my life and have things actually go as planned. Moving was one, and this Thailand trip was another.

 

It all worked out. But if I’ve learned nothing else this year, it’s that you do the work, as well as you can, and that matters, and sometimes life goes sideways anyway. It’s important to take precautions, but it’s just as important to know when to take a leap and go for it.

 

In any year wrap-up it would be disingenuous to neglect to mention that this recent election has made me angry and afraid, and I have a long habit of being goaded into action by anger. Amidst everything else I’m taking some time now to start figuring out how I’m going to cope with the election aftermath. There’s an alarming amount of work to do. It still matters. And I will be a part of that. I will do what I can to fight.

 

Next year I’ll also be finding a new job–that’s a whole other story, but the bottom line is while this state of affairs is suboptimal in the short term in the long term I’ll be better off. I’ll research and plan the shit out of it, because that’s what I do. Then I’ll take a leap, and I’ll roll with whatever unexpected challenges it brings. Which is not, really, so different from how I write. Here’s hoping I can make some happy news happen next year.

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.

We’ll See Where We Land

Friends have been asking where I’m at with writing and editing at the moment, and it occurs to me that I’ve let my blog languish. An unexpected side effect of living with people again is that when I feel ranty or something noteworthy happens I just, you know, argue with a living human instead of blurting it out on the internet. Alas for the regularity of my posting here.

So an update on my current projects for anyone curious:

Recently I’ve been writing a new YA fantasy novel I’m calling Sealed, and I just finished the first draft last week! It’s a story with female friendship at its center, along with quests, underground monasteries, demon invasions, political machinations, undignified and vicious floof friends, and magic.

I’m tentatively (I am rarely sure of anything when I first finish a draft) pleased with how this one came out. It took me a while to get into it — I tried a lot of new things and was coming off a looooong stint of editing and not drafting, so that’s not shocking but was still frustrating — but I think it’s come out approximately book-shaped.

Normally I’d do a quick clean-up and send it straight to readers for feedback, but this time I need to do a more thorough edit pass first. I have a document full of notes I jotted down while drafting of things I already know I need to fix, so I’m going to address those first. My manuscript needs to be in the best shape I can get it in before I ask anyone to put their time into helping me make it better.

I’m taking a brief (possibly too brief?) break to do some beta reading myself before diving back in, letting my mental gears adjust a bit from the mode of CHURN OUT ALL THE WORDS (I was writing 6-8k/day towards the end there — I did eventually get into it) to a place with enough distance where I don’t get caught up and can edit more effectively.

On the beta reading note, I think I’m going to have to officially close to beta reads for a while. I just counted, and I have four full beta reads and three partials already this year. I love beta reading, and I always want to be available for writers who’ve beta read for me in the past, but at least through July I’m booked on that front.

Next on the agenda is finishing up the final round of edits for Afterstorms, the adult fantasy novel. I’m actually excited to edit it, so I know taking a break to write something new was the right choice for me. And I’m really excited to get it on submission — honestly while I’m invested in being published I’m not usually so enthusiastic about the prospect of querying — and the submission packet is almost in its final form. This book is ready to soar into the wild, and I can’t wait to see how it flies.

So, to recap, this is where I’m at.

recently: wrote a new book
now: beta reading
May: first round of edits on the YA fantasy
May and maybe June: last round of edits on the adult fantasy
by June: submitting the adult fantasy

Why the rush? In part because I’m anxious for these books to go on to their next steps. But also because I’m going to have travel commitments coming up at the end of June and early July — con, wedding, etc. — and I don’t want to be interrupted after getting into the flow.

And after those I won’t be able to just pick back up, because in June and July, construction disaster notwithstanding, I will be moving at long last. I will be moving into a new house and furnishing the whole thing, and I am reasonably sure that getting settled to my satisfaction is going to take all my creative energy for a few weeks at the minimum.

SO. It’s been a busy spring, and it’s shaping up to be a busy summer! After that, we’ll see where we land.