My drug of choice is writing––writing, art, reading, inspiration, books, creativity, process, craft, blogging, grammar, linguistics, and did I mention writing?

Thursday, February 28, 2019

The Working Artist and Exhaustion (Personal Update)

Credit to:
Exhaustion hit today. Hard. For me, exhaustion is usually a little like being sick except that there's no symptom other than being so tired you can't think straight, and after a nap, it only takes about an hour or so before I'm that tired again.

I should say that that's what it looks like these days. Believe it or not, this is the "much better" version. I've been doing much better. No sleepwalking. No physical illness brought on by lowered immune system response due to stress. No falling asleep at tables in the middle of meals. No doctor putting their hand on my arm and saying, "I need you to hear this. You're killing yourself. You're just doing it slowly and pretending it's virtuous hard work. But this is a form of self-harm." If you've been following me a while, you know that I'm not always great about getting quite enough sleep, and that the cocktail of reasons includes some avoiding emotional pain from a bad break-up, some absurdly high-level work ethic instilled by a mom who sent me to school actually sick more than a couple of times, and the messages of a world that our value as humans has to do with how "productive" we are. I've been trying to be kinder, gentler with myself. I made some lifestyle changes. It's a process.

I'm not sure why I ended up with a sleep debt that prefers kicking open the door and smacking me on the head with a sledgehammer instead of just those rings people get under their eyes. Still if I stop paying attention to whether I'm getting eight hours a night like clockwork, a few minutes a day can add up fast.

The world we live in has some powerful cultural messages that are pretty rough on artists. And that's before you have to walk past six gagillion employers and government officials saying "I only really care about STEM" on your way to a humanities class. At every turn art and artists are devalued, or valued only for their ability to convert their work into monetary gain.

I could go on a tear about capitalism (trust me), but I'll tuck that into my pocket for another time. Suffice to say that without a universal basic income or at the very least a budget for art endowments that is bigger than forty cents a year per person (that's here in the US), most creative folks are not being creative. They're not out there making the world a more cultural and beautiful and entertaining place for you and me to live. They're not nourishing their souls. They are working a day job (or two) to meet their very basic needs.

The art they do make has its own messages of value (or lack thereof) if it does not have a monetary value easily expressed by how much someone would give them to own their creations. And the gulf between art that can't make money and that can is often a Grand Canyon expanse. Thousands of hours of effort that might not be "worth it" because of what that even means: to give up one's precious downtime from the toiling required to survive for years, perhaps decades, in the singular hope that one might build up a skill to the point where it is monetizable.

And if they are working artists, chances are if they are not trust-fund babies or independently wealthy, they are probably working hard.

I'm in that second category. I work 40 hours a week just writing, have two main side gigs (one sitting for pets and the other nannying for kids) and do tutoring, editing, and freelance writing any time they come up. I pull in enough to afford a discount room that I found through sheer luck with a person who could easily pay their rent without me, but happens to like horses and ends up needing an extra several hundred a month for their upkeep. The bills get paid, but after a perfect storm week, I'll have worked 70+ hours.

And you can love what you do to the fucking moon and back, but that's still an ass-kicking schedule.

And I STILL spend a lot of time worrying about how productive I am. Am I doing enough to gain Patrons and retain them? Am I entertaining people enough? Was that post too fluffy? When's the last time I did some good writing advice? A product review? Social Justice? Wait...am I doing TOO MUCH social justice? I know damned well that I wouldn't be making the money I do if I weren't weren't working so hard; thus, even after I agree to three posts a week, I almost always try to do four.  And yes, I know I write BETTER when I'm well-rested, but that feeling that you're not doing enough to do right by the people who are PAYING you (and for your worthless ART no less)....that's a tough cultural message to deprogram.

I wish I had some great way to turn this into writing advice. All I can say is two things. 1) The Internet has restored some ability for artists to make SOME money in that gulf between pure hobby and "I can quit my day job now." It's "non traditional" and it might feel less legitimate to those who want a book contract and a gatekeeper's nod, but it is there. You don't have to struggle penniless until you get "the call" anymore (and then still probably for years more until royalties start being more than advances). 2) One of your most important attributes is going to be tenacity. The world shits on art and artists, so the people at the finish line are going to be the ones who refused to stop. You have to just keep writing (or arting in whatever way you art) for YEARS without making money until there's a chance you do. It's a hazing process that has nothing to do with talent or creativity or sometimes even skill. Those things all matter, but not to whether you have the sheer dogged determination to slog through. And in the end your sheer ability to keep suiting up and showing up ends up being just as important.

Most months, my appeals posts go for the hard sell, but given how I started this post, I don't want it to come across like I'm holding a gun to my own health and demanding money. Let me just say that if you want to help this artist and entertainer breathe a little easier about working a little less frenetically in a world with a lot of messages that grind artists into powder, even the smallest ongoing donations over at Patreon (or one time donations to Paypal) make a big difference. Phasing out pet sitting, being able to take fewer hours of nannying, and even not having to jump on those tutor/freelance/editing opportunities will all help me have a more predictable schedule and thus an easier time with my sleeping schedule.

As always these posts tend to do poorly on their own merits so if you want to help but can't spare a dime, giving us some engagement on social media (likes, comments, shares) will help us be seen despite an algorithm that tries to hide original content so that artists and entertainers will pay to be seen.

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Best Contemporary Sci-Fi

What is the best science fiction book or series from the last ten years? 

Our latest poll is live.

A few fewer titles than usual, but enough to make it work. The books I've read are power houses and the books I've not had the pleasure yet are already uploaded to my Kindle for the next few weekends. Also remember that the results of this poll will be "permanent." (We'll keep a link to the results in a menu until the next time we run this poll.)

Everyone gets three [3] votes, but as there is no way to "rank" votes, you should use as few as you can stand.

The poll itself is in the lower left at the bottom of the side menus.

If you're on mobile you can scroll ALLLLLL the way to the bottom and click on"webpage view" to see the side menus and get to the polls.

Friday, February 22, 2019


So when a hawk drops dead of pesticides or a tuna dies of mercury, it's not because they found a big ol bowl of pesticide or mercury and said "That looks fucking TASTY!"

It's called biomagnification.

Tiny amounts of toxins start to concentrate the further up you go in the food chain. The watershed forms a plume, the grass that drinks the water is okay but has a little, the mice that eat the grass and drink the water are mostly okay, but have a little more, the snakes that eat the mice (and drink the water) are usually okay, but have a little more, but the raptors that eat the snakes (and drink the water) get so much from the effect of biomagnification that it's toxic.

The thing is, the animal at the apex of that food web did not INTEND to eat toxins. It didn't wake up thinking "I sure would love some fucking petroleum based pesticides on this fine afternoon!"  And if you could ask them about it, they would just say "Wait...poison? I never ate poison. All I ever ate was snakes." (And that would be true.)

Folks who care about social issues should probably invest in understanding this CONCEPT particularly in light of the active disinformation that is no doubt going to find fecund soil in misogyny, racism, homophobia and plenty of splash damage. It doesn't take one person actively, intentionally being hostile to a marginalized group to create a critically toxic environment of bigotry. They don't have to knowingly be partaking of misogyny or racism or transantagonism or homophobia or any other forms of bigotry to be getting a toxic dose every day.

The news doesn't just get beamed into your brain in fact form. It goes through multiple layers of filters first. A society with largely unexamined double standards, a media with a bottom line that runs stories it knows will sell just a LITTLE bit more, journalists who haven't examined the way they've always written about things and write just a LITTLE bit differently about certain groups than cis-het white men, a social media fueled by the content of friends and friends of friends––some of whom have some thoughts they don't talk about at parties. A few friends who are just a bit quiet in the face of bigotry, a little bit slower to decide some act of sexism or racism "counts," and a little quicker to tone police or demand nuance and empathy when systematic institutions are in play.

At each level there is bigotmagnification for what information ever even REACHES us. We're swimming in an ecosystem where we cannot consume anything that hasn't been tainted. We can gorge ourselves on a poisoned diet without ever intending to consume that toxicity if we don't question the sources and filter and refuse to consume the worst of it. And if we're not careful to filter and purify what we consume first, we will see the world through that double standard and walk out in the world magnifying it further, filled with poison, and filling the world with poison without ever intending it.

And just so you know, there are absolutely people knowingly, consciously, deliberately pouring poison into our watersheds.

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

The Very Best of 2018

Rounding up the best of 2018 presented its own particular challenge. It would be easy enough to just round up the ten posts with the most pageviews (a bit time consuming, but not particularly hard).

This year, I had to account for Facebook's fuckery. If I just took the ten highest viewed articles, they would all be from before mid-October (when FB engaged its hugest algorithmic throttle to date in an effort to squeeze page admins). But what I wanted was the best performers not just the highest numbers, so I had to kind of look at how the posts after the throttling did compared to all the ones around them and pick out the few that performed well relative to the others.

Actual Protip: Don't Do This 
When you work in traditional publishing, it's not a good idea to drag members of the creative team that helps you come up with your final product.

Words Fucking Matter
When the president calls asylum seekers at our southern border "animals" it matters.

The Buy-Me-Lunch Answer About My Gender 
There's the "Hi, we just met" answer, and the one I take the time to explain over club sandwiches.

"Why Didn't You Report It At The Time?"
As a survivor of rape, the Kavanaugh confirmation hearings were PARTICULARLY difficult.

Won't Someone Think of the Straight White Males (Mailbox)
The Year of Diverse Polls are over, but boy they pissed some people off.

Duck Shaped Bigotry 
A phail shaped like a duck is not a real duck and no one is fooled that there isn't liquid inside by naming it.

Narrative Distance 
Point of view is just the beginning.

Ten Flavors of Gamergate Fail
A rescue from another blog. A few years old but it didn't keep people from checking it out.

Fake Geek Girl: Misogyny not Elitism
Another rescue from another blog.

15 Things Dungeons and Dragons Taught Me About How to Write (Part 1)
Get your geek on and learn some valuable writing lessons. It's time to roll for initiative.

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

BioShock Infinite: Your Argument is Invalid (Part 4 Subtext in Art)

Two quick reminders:

1- This is part 4 of a multipart article, and I’m jumping right in without much of recap.

You can go back to Part 3 

Or go all the way back to Part 1

2- While I’m not decoding the end or discussing the plot directly, there will be spoilers. (I’m also going to be doing some minor spoilers for Alien in this post.)

We’ve shown that Bioshock Infinite has a theme that is important to the human condition and that the internal elements of the game help reinforce this theme. We’ve shown that the technical execution of the game is superb.

What about subtext? Does Bioshock Infinite have any of that?

Subtext is one of those things in art that is a little hard to explain, but it is easier to describe.

Imagine you’re watching an old married couple:

"Wanna get something new on your pizza?"

"I know what I like."

"Oh I just thought maybe you might like to try something different for a change."

"You're welcome to get your own."

"I don't want my own....pizza. I'm just tired of the same old thing and never trying anything new."

Now, you know for sure this conversation isn't REALLY about pizza. That's subtext. Deeper meaning. Something beyond what the superficial appears to be. A layer beyond. In music without lyrics, this can be as nebulous as feelings evoked by the minor falls and major lifts and resolving Nimrodian chords or as deliberate as "This is a song about war. It's called Mars, the bringer of War."

Let me give you an example in film: Alien. Alien is a movie about a mining crew that finds an egg and the alien runs around the ship kicking the crap out of them until Ripley, the protagonist, blows it out the airlock and then fires thrusters...in its face.

Sup art world!

And how many times has this plot unfolded exactly in the same way in a million forgettable movies? Horror. SciFi. Scifi Horror. We’ve seen it done over and over and over again. Why is alien one of the most praised horror films of all time?

Because Alien is steeped with subtext about something else—specifically about rape. (Okay so here is the content/trigger warning for the next couple of paragraphs of discussing Alien's subtext, so if you want to meet after the picture of the bunnies below, I’ll see you there.)
Last chance to skip ahead.....

This deepened subtext of Alien not only taps into deeper primal fears, but flips the script gender wise to do so, creating intense anxiety around birth scenes, using crew members to procreate, and causes a shudder when we think about it choking Kane and threatening to kill him if it is removed “before it’s finished.” But even beyond that, it gets into even deeper social commentary when you realize that the ship's name is “Mother” and the thing with that parental name was what forced them into the position to be violated. (OOOOooh what’ll really bake your noodle is if you realize that the gender switching of alien violations means that "Mother" can actually be read as a social commentary on FATHERS and how they put their daughters into danger.) And you thought that alien mouth shooting out was just kind of cool. Its phallic...dripping...mouth. Okay, I think that point's been made!

That is subtext. On the surface it’s a movie about an alien with a second shooty mouth. Under that, it’s about much more.

"Is it safe to come out now?"

Now there is a lot of subtext within B.I. that I could analyze, but again my goal here isn’t to write a master's thesis article about everything going on and put all my readers to sleep. Cages, birds, corsets, free will, religious imagery, and even the writers’ attempts at social commentary (which we will get to next time) all play into a deeper subtext that challenges the ostensible action on the screen. Once you get past the convoluted plot about multiple dimensions and the “what really happened” analysis, B.I. has so much more roiling beneath its surface. But in order to continue proving that video games
have the capacity to be real art, we need really only examine a single successful (albeit ubiquitous) symbol that is pervasive throughout the game.

So let’s talk about water.

You step into Columbia (having come from a lighthouse in the middle of an ocean) and you are literally inside a fountain. The water spills across the floor in a shallow pool, it flows down the
stairs in defiance of every reasonable safety precaution. There isn’t even a handrail! (I hate to think whose job it is to clean up the blood spatters and twisted bodies of everyone who slipped on this
breathtaking display.) Water covers the floor in not one, but two chapels with spectacular stained glass, and then you go down the stairs along a single walkway of waist-high water with candles floating in it. (Just consider for half a second the pragmatism of the upkeep of something like that.) Throughout the story, despite the fact that you are in a city floating miles above the earth, water is all around you—beaches, traitorous falls, near drownings, and of course the brutal end of several characters.

Let me point that out explicitly. In a game about a floating city—where it would be easier in every way to just leave water out of the game—the game designers took great pains to explain and put it in.
Dismissing its significance is absurd. A case can be made for water as a symbol for life or death or
even both simultaneously. Three major characters die in water. Being “reborn” within the waters of baptism is not only a major part of the plot, but is essential for Booker to enter Columbia (but not without saying he “nearly died”). And of course, there’s the unambiguous end in which both life and birth come from the single act of Booker’s willing but forced asphyxia at the hands of his own daughter(s). However, an even more interesting subtextual meaning for water is as an allegory for choice—the game’s principal philosophical conundrum, and we can track this by paying attention to how deep the water is during any given moment.

When Booker arrives in Columbia, he is confronted with a thin layer of water over everything—and there is only one way he can possibly go to enter the city. In fact, he must be baptized within these waters “for that is the only way to enter the city.” Later it is during his plunge into deep water that he almost is free
 of Songbird the first time, but he wakes up, on land and his first words are of Anna.

It is no coincidence that the water kills the songbird at an almost comically shallow depth (for a construct of such ferocity). The one part of Booker’s life that he can’t seem to overcome to regain his agency and free will (“Songbird always stops you…”). But the deeper the water goes, the more choice he seems to have. Underneath the water’s surface, his agency is restored him.

Comstock is basically drowned in a few centimeters of water within a birdbath as a tender waterfall flows near him from some
infinitely recycled source. Indeed, his fate was sealed the minute you walked in the room.

And of course it is Booker being plunged into the waters of baptism, but held beneath them (a final moment foreshadowed during his arrival to Columbia), that is the only way to end the vicious cycle of becoming Comstock and building Columbia over and over again. He must let himself be held under the surface to find the only choice he can still make. Like Songbird, he is killed at an almost comically shallow depth (barely over his knees) and in doing so his agency is restored to him.

Even small details within the game mechanics themselves help to reinforce this relationship: the control you can exert over enemies via water with the Undertow Vigor borders on ridiculous.
This is also why in the scene that takes place in the deepest water in the game—a brief foray into the setting of Rapture (an underwater city) – Bioshock’s earlier incarnation – a moment of
truly infinite choice is opened up as Booker DeWitt casually uses a "bathysphere"—the use of which by Andrew Ryan is a major plot point of the original game and a genetically coded device.  (Now go back and look at the little sisters and Elizabeth again.)  In the deepest of water, the full scope of “infinite” within the Bioshock universe becomes clear as it is implied with almost diabolical subtlety that Rapture may be an echo of Columbia. Deepest water—infinite choices. [2019 NOTE: less "diabolically subtle" since the release of the Rapture DLC, but certainly at the time of the original article.]

Consider in this context the imagery with which the game opens. Literally leaving the ocean of choices behind by heading towards a lighthouse—a beacon that is ostensibly land jutting out from the water but also represents the end of Booker's choices and the beginning of Booker’s predetermined path. And in the end, you wind up back at the same lighthouse, walking across water (but unable to enter it) as you go from one lighthouse to another, the illusion of choice revealed not to matter, and the destination right back where you started.

Subtext?  Yeah, it’s got some of that

(Next time, I’ll enrage white middle class geeks everywhere as I talk about some of the ways Bioshock Infinite spectacularly failed in its quest to be politically and socially poignant and what that means to its claims of artistry. )

On to Part Five...

Friday, February 15, 2019

I Need Advice! (But Not "Write Every Day")

See, it's multiple mailboxes since I get
this question all the––you know what, forget it.
Image description: 12 stacked mailboxes and
a package nook
(like from an apartment complex)
I want advice on writing, but not "write every day."

[Remember, keep sending in your questions to chris.brecheen@gmail.com with the subject line "W.A.W. Mailbox" and I will answer a couple each week.  I will use your first name ONLY unless you tell me explicitly that you'd like me to use your full name or you would prefer to remain anonymous. I have a metric buttload of questions in my backlog, though, so make 'em good if you want them answered before 2031.]

I'm looking at my inbox from yesterday:

Do you have any piece of advice for someone who'd like to write a story/book/whatever? Not the obvious "write every day" type of advice.

There's another one that I got a few days ago that is a little more pointed. "I want to write this. Please don't tell me the only way is to write every day for ten years before I even start."

I get some version of this question on the regular (perhaps a new FAQ question is in order), and sometimes it lands like "I already know and am writing every day, so what's next?" and sometimes it's more like "Is there someone else here I can talk to? Maybe a manager? I want different advice."

It's writing advice, not a goddamned salad bar, people. You don't take what you want and leave the rest when it comes to the fucking wisdom of the ages. You don't come into MY house on this, the day of my daughter's wedding, and tell me my tried and true wisdom is not GOOD ENOUGH for you. Y'all fuckers need to get yourself some basic common fucking––

*hit by a tranq dart*


*shakes head*

Okay, okay. I don't know who did that, but fair enough. I'll take it down a notch.

So before I get into my answers about the next most likely advice, I'd like to ever-so-gently unpack some of this epic fucking Holy Grail advice questing shit that is so cheesefucking BASIC––(*hit by second tranq dart*)....uh, I mean somewhat more ubiquitous than in many other industries.

Naturally this isn't for all of you. It's just for people who want to kind of "get around" that pesky writing every day (or almost every day) part. And for a moment, I need to put on my "Not Amused 'Uncle'" face that I use when the five-year-old won't stop running towards an intersection or kneeing me in my groin while playing Ninjago.

Are we ready?  Okay. I'm srs now. This is srs bzns.

Srs face.
You're NOT going to "make it" without a shit ton of work, and there is a really good reason that "write daily" is at the top of the list of advice that Every. Single. Successful. Author. gives all the damned time to people who want to know how to "make it." Other than reading, no single bit of advice is more ubiquitous.

Let me make an imperfect metaphor and compare being a successful working writer to being a doctor. I'm not talking about a world-famous brain surgeon; I'm talking about your run-of-the-mill doctor. 4 years of undergrad. 4 years of medical school. 3-7 years as an intern/resident. Now has a little practice that makes a bit of money. That's an awful lot like the timetable of your average fledgling writing career. You don't have to have a college degree in liberal arts (particularly English), but a quick scan of successful authors without them shows that it sure helps*. 4 years of additional ARDUOUS unpaid practice honing one's craft is almost universal. And then 3-7 years of very-low-paid, onerous work to establish oneself in a way that might pay the bills. Yep, that sounds about right.

*MFA's are about 60/40 among published fiction authors (with slightly more authors NOT having one), but four-year degrees in liberal arts are around the 95+% range. 

Again, this metaphor is imperfect as most doctors have to be able to read and write competently, but applying a band-aid is where most writers' ability to practice medicine ends; the levels of OFFICIAL training are very different (generally, you wouldn't have a medical doctor who was vaguely incompetent, had an unofficial clinic that scoffed the AMA as a bunch of "fucking prescriptive blowhards," but was really good at social media self-promotion); there are ways to do your "four years of medical school" while getting paid––like jobs in non-creative writing. Plus writers will never quite make that sweet, sweet attending doctor money (unless those writers REALLY hit the bigtime, which has more to do with luck than ability). There are a lot more doctors in the world than professional writers. Perhaps the biggest difference is that tenacity is important, but it isn't the most important thing in medicine. You aren't really the person who gets to decide whether you keep going in a medical program. You either pass or you wash out. It's not a choice every year whether to abandon all your invested effort or keep trying for something you may never achieve. But the long hours and the many years of training kind of line up, so I hope you'll indulge me without too much pedantry.

Now what would you say to someone who said, "I want to be a doctor, but I don't want to have to go to medical school and be an intern every day for years"?

Weird, right? Like...you would suddenly physiologically transform into a character from anime so that you could just stare at them and blink loudly a few times. Very likely, you would REALLY encourage them to maybe possibly perhaps rethink their seemingly limitless passion for that end goal if they weren't willing to go to med school.

And if you were feeling super generous, you might ask them some really tough questions like what they wanted to get out of being a doctor and find alternative paths to the things they found compelling. Like maybe they want to save lives, so being a paramedic would satisfy them and that's a lot less training (though it is not easy or particularly well-paid). Or maybe they want to help people in pain feel better and being a healing massage therapist would scratch that itch. Perhaps they could get on some slow track where they were able to broker a slower-paced education with the administration of the various institutions and not come every day, but it would take them twice as long (nearly twenty years) to get to the end. But if they really wanted to be a licenced medical doctor, you wouldn't see a way around those ten or so years and a lot of hard work.

You would react the same way if someone said they wanted to be a professional basketball player, but not practice every day. Or be a paid musician, but not rehearse.

Same goes for writing. If you just want to be published, there are ways. (You might not get more books sold than you have family and good friends, but you can be "published.") If you want that ONE story published traditionally, you can probably get there. (It might take you twenty-five years and a small fortune in editing, but you can probably do it.) Want to be read by millions? (You might have to write smutty fanfic or a blog where you take extreme positions on social issues, but it can be done.) If you want to make a lot of money writing, you can. (You might have to have a day job doing business or technical writing, but it is certainly feasible.)

But if you want to be a successful working creative author, there aren't shortcuts. I'll write until my fingers bleed that you don't need to write every day to be a writer and it's ableist to prescribe daily writing as a metric for "realness," and you alone define what success even means, but you can't get around what working creative writers have in common. There's no "trick" to get you around all those years. There's no way to skip the queue on all that work. It's not like Super Mario Brothers where anyone who wants a shorter game can just pop over to the warp zone and the only reason folks haven't heard it yet is because writers refuse to release the craft version of Nintendo Power. When people try to write and get frustrated by their lack of success, it is almost always because they don't yet have the technical skill or the voice to use the alchemy of their craft to transmute what's happening in their mind's eye into clear, crisp language.

And there's only one thing to be done about that: read a lot, and write a lot. A LOT!

There just isn't any other way. None that I know of. None that other authors ever speak of. None that has ever been whispered at the Working Writer Secret Conferences™ any kind of meetings, not that writers ever have such meetings––and I will swear an oath to that effect. None that I have ever seen  in all the books I plumbed by shockingly transparent authors as I went spelunking for the One True Advice™ that would transform me into a writer.

It doesn't exist.

Okay.....that was long but now I can relax my srs face.

Whew! Being srs for that long is exhausting*.
Time for some threesome jokes!
*Also tranq darts

Okay, now on to the part for people who just want MORE advice. The next logical step. The folks who are "writing daily [or mostly], but now what?"

Write more: Look, you don't get better at anything by NOT doing it. That's why I'm really good at World of Warcraft battlegrounds but epically n00bfail get pwned at Overwatch. I could read Overwatch theory until my eyes popped out of my head, and watch tutorials and talk to Overwatch masters, but what I really need is to practice playing someone other than Torb for a goddamned minute and only him for a couple of games a month. So if you want to get better at writing, write MORE.

Read (or keep reading): A lot of writers stop reading. Like they kind of figure they read all the books they'll ever need early in their life and now it's THEIR turn. Don't do that. Trying to just write is like trying to only breathe OUT. You will be a better reader if you're writing and a better writer if you're reading.

Occasionally read things you wouldn't normally: Tough books. Nonfiction. Western canon lit. A Pushcart anthology. A genre you don't usually dig. Once in a while take a stroll on a new path and see some new sights. You might learn a few things and get some WONDERFUL ideas.

Figure out why you like writing that you like: One of the reasons literature majors and creative writing majors spend about 90% of their time in the exact same classes is because the "close reading" of literature and the "how did the author make me feel this way" of creative writing are basically the same skill––you get down into the guts of the sentence structure and word choice and see what made that meaning happen. For a casual reader, it's fine to just read something, press the book to your breast, and sigh wistfully. (Such beauty. Much prose. Wow!) To be a writer who is reading, though, pause and take a moment to look at that sentence or passage that moved you. WHY THAT LINE/SENTENCE/PASSAGE? How is it doing what it's doing? Is it the language? If so, which words? Is it the sound it makes in your head? Is it the imagery? Is it the sentence construction? Or maybe the way long and short sentences weave together? Notice what is going on. Unlock its secrets. Let that author teach you their tricks. Be the ready student and the master that is that writer will reach across space and maybe even time and give you your very own writing lesson. Read consciously.

Practice outside your comfort zone, but also practice writing that plays to your strengths: I love writing dialogue, and really hate trying to write about FEELINGS. So I often pause when I read good descriptions of feelings (above) and pay attention to that and try to emulate it in prompts or when I'm writing on some draft. My more final versions though....TEND to be focused on dialogue because I want to go where I'm strong. Consider some of the writing you do like practicing for a sport. If you suck at speed but are super good at endurance, you want practice sessions to include speed drills so you work on that weakness and get better. However, in a competition, as much as you can, you want to play to your endurance and avoid situations requiring raw speed.

Start wherever (beginning or maybe not): Perhaps the weirdest thing about starting writers is they know but still refuse to accept that they're absolutely NOT going sit down and write their magnum opus book from beginning to end and then just go "clean up the grammar." But they still insist on a contiguous experience and have the hardest time making cuts. Go ahead and write those disjointed scenes (or even just one). Write that scene in your head even if it's floating in primordial timeline ooze somewhere in the middle of your grand narrative. Just get it out. Perhaps it's future fodder, but maybe it's just practice. Writing is a recursive thought process because it is literally impossible for you to write faster than you think. We're an intensely imaginative species, and swells of music and emotion can evoke powerful creativity. The harder part is wrangling those into some form like language (writing). That's why so much practice usually has to happen first. Most of us can do it a little, but it takes a while to learn how to really bring someone else along for the ride. Besides, by the time you have finished writing scene 4, scene 13, and scene 22, you've probably thought of scene 7, 3, and 12. Then you can work backwards, sideways, upside down, or whatever timey wimey way you want.

Routine!: Try to develop a daily routine if that's possible for you, even if (or perhaps especially if) that routine involves a lot of rest and relaxation. It might be counterintuitive at first, but the more sort of...BORING your outside life is, the more your creative life tends to flourish. That doesn't mean you can't go on a vacation or something (though maybe you still try to wake up and do a half an hour every morning except for the day you're actually GOING to Disneyland). It means you embrace as much routine as you can. If you can come to the page at the same time every day, it's going to turn your creativity up to eleven. That's just the way our brains work. I know it's not possible for everyone. I myself have had to learn a more guerrilla style (and the jury-rigging process is here), so I can sit and write creatively at any time regardless of a certain five-year-old (and now a newborn), but I cleave to routine as much as I can.

Treat yourself well: We treat our brains like they're these psychic entities that live on other planes of existence that can only be reached by astral projection from the psi-vortexes within our skulls but our brains are right there with us not getting enough sleep, hurting from stress, and feeling kind of overloaded after that triple cheeseburger with greasy fries and a shake. Exercise a little (if you can). Eat decently (if you can). Drink enough water. Take your meds (if you can).

Trust the process: This one might be the hardest for starting writers. Half the reason they sit frozen at their opening sentence is because somewhere inside they believe it's got to be perfect and aren't trusting that it will probably be completely different––they may not even keep the entire first chapter.  See, you're going to have to write many drafts. You're going to need peer review. You're going need to change some stuff.  You're not the chosen one who won't need to rewrite your book and make huge changes. You're not the special snowflake who is going to get no feedback that doesn't hurt your feelings at least a little. You are not the messiah of writing who won't have to write a few years before you're good enough that people want to pay you to do it. The process is long, messy, and sometimes painful but if you don't trust it––implicitly trust in all its imperfect chaos––ironically, it gets longer, messier, and even MORE painful. And that goes for the larger process too––processes like how many years of practice it's going to take. Processes that must be trusted.

Do peer review: A special shout out to the part of the process people tend to trust the least. It's gonna sting. You won't like it at first. You're brilliant and why can't they see that? Seriously they didn't notice that thing you did? Who are these clowns anyway? But you have to get you some, and even more importantly you have to GIVE you some. In the getting, you will see all the things you think you're doing well that you're not. You'll learn what you need to work on. In the giving, you'll learn more about how to make your own writing deliberate and conscious. Without peer review, you'll skip happily along, thinking you are brilliant until you hit a gatekeeper, your first review, or (if you self-publish) really, really shitty sales. It's not easy, but it's peasy. Feed back some feedback on your....um.....back.

Have fun: Remember fun? Back before the frustration that you weren't published and making money? Back when you just wrote because you loved it? Because books were magic and you wanted to cast your own spell? Go back. Fall in love all over again. Plenty of writing is hard and not fun so try to find joy where you can. Write something you'll never publish. Catch yourself giggling. Play with the words. Toss out a scene and see where it goes, knowing you'll most likely kill it in the morning. Laugh at your own jokes. Have FUN again! Back off all that big-picture pressure about who's going to read it and what publisher might pick it up and for how much of an advance. That's way down the road. For now, just remember that quiet joy that brought you to the page in the first place. Joy is so....joyful and joyous. Joy.

I know this guy who has a blog: Seriously, this is what I do. I write a blog. Look....here it is! Poke around. Put your feet up. Try the shrimp puffs. See if you can watch your cells on the back of your hand doing mitosis like I can. There's LOTS of advice here: writing promptscraft advicemany many questions for the mailbox. I'm still working on a lot of that stuff but it's only been seven years––don't fucking rush me. I do a lot of stuff. But given that this is what I do for a living, and I make enough to live on, I can't recommend me enough. I'll eventually extrapolate on all these things and more. This is some good shit, my friend. Zzzome gooooood shiiiiiiit.

Oh my. Oh, I do apologize.  Well.....if you'll excuse me, I'm coming down off of an adrenaline high, and I can feel this tranquilizer is.... kicking in. So I need to sign off and take a––*thud*

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Ch-ch-ch-changes: The Dragon Sisters

Book 6 in the Toki-Girl and the Sparrow-Boy series is just about ready to go out to my wonderful coterie of Beta Readers.  Based on their feedback, I’ll do a revision and then it’ll go to its editor. I have interesting things planned for the covers and illustrations and this book will come out on schedule, around the time of the summer solstice. Hurray for my incredible production team!

I’ve been thinking about and referring to this book by the working title Renko’s Challenge since its inception.  I thought the book was mainly going to be about the teenaged Dragon-Girl confronting her draconic and human natures, her European human appearance and her cultural identity in Japan. This is truly hard for Renko. But her older sister, Otohime, also dual-natured, is wrestling with her anger at their father and finally facing the way she’s become stuck in a particular tragic period of her life. Trapped together in a cave-in that robs dragons of their powers, they come to grips with their difficulties and find ways to move on in their lives and grow as dragons, humans and always themselves.

Of course much more happens in this book. There’s a growing ensemble cast  who all face opportunities for personal growth as their world changes around them. “May you live in interesting times” is a Chinese curse. These characters definitely do.

Starting out with a title and a fixed dramatic arc is like wielding a two-edged sword.  It cuts no matter which way you swing it, and sometimes it cuts what you hadn’t planned it to. I tend to be what’s called a “pantser,” a writer who doesn’t outline extensively, who writes, at least to some extent, by the seat of her pants.  I usually know my first line and my last, and have a rough idea of major conflicts and the history that will bring them forth. I set fictional and folkloric characters in a very real historic period. I use these literary devices to explore and expose authentic Japanese history and character in a way that’s more accurate than most fiction and more fun than any history book.

As I write, things change. Characters insist on telling different stories, on growing in surprising ways, on exploring different kinds of folklore and different aspects of history. Characters I thought had moved out of the series come back with new adventures to explore.

Don’t get stuck in your preconceived notions. No matter how much you like your outline, your character arcs and your plot points, don’t become wedded to them. Let your story and your characters talk to you. Listen when your victim sits up and tells you she’s your murderer, when your romantic hero isn’t the least bit enthralled by his designated love interest, when your dutiful maid decides to set fire to the hay barn, steal the horses and lead a serf rebellion. You can only transcend genre if you let your work dictate to you rather than constraining it with your expectations.

That’s why Renko’s Challenge is now The Dragon Sisters, and is now a much better book.  I hope you’ll think so, too.

Also check out Claire's blog and FB page and available books here (book one in the series is always free!!!):



Facebook:  The Toki-Girl and the Sparrow-Boy

Amazon:  http://www.amazon.com/The-Toki-Girl-Sparrow-Boy-Claire-Youmans/dp/0990323404/ref=cm_cr_pr_product_top?ie=UTF8

If you would like to write a thinly veiled promo for your own work guest blog for Writing About Writing we would love to have an excuse to take a day off a wonderful diaspora of voices. Take a look at our guest post guidelines, and drop me a line at chris.brecheen@gmail.com.

Friday, February 8, 2019

Best Contemporary Science Fiction (Seconds and More Nominations Needed)

What is the best science fiction book (or series) written in the last ten years? 

Definitely need more books if we're going to run a poll, so if you have some feelings about the last ten years of science fiction, the time is now to pop over to the original page (very important), read the rules (because there are some totally new variants for the new year), and drop your nomination. 

Our hardcore admin/behind-the-scenes work continues, but we have a guest blog for next week to help do some of the heavy lifting, some quality jazz hands, and a mailbox I'm working on. Plus new parts of serial articles I've been working on and our next big revamp project coming up.

Remember, go to the original page or it might not count. Not a comment here. Not FB. Not Tumblr. HERE.