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

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Best of Jan 2020

I held back for a couple of weeks on posting some of my January admin posts, so that I had some "jazz hands" to put up during my most labor intensive moving days (which are happening right now). The weird irony from January is that at the time I had NO idea I was probably going to be building more Ikea furniture very soon.

Ikea Furniture Assembly, Writing, and You
Writing is a lot like building furniture. Wait, what?

"The 'Writing About Writing' Guy"
After eight years, the bio was badly in need of an update.

Internal Critics and Other Voices [Part 2 of 3]
Though parts one and three were in other months (the very end of Dec and the very beginning of Feb respectively), part 2 came in as one of the month's best.


Honorable Mention
A Bump In the Road

Apparently, I'm getting pretty good at writing appeals posts. This would have been the #1 slot if I allowed appeals posts to "count" for the month's bests (I also ignore the polls and all the various nomination and reminder posts). For those of you trying to get the wording right on an effort to crowdfund something––or those of you who are hoping to help Writing About Writing struggle on with it's limited success––this might be a decent post to check out.

Thursday, February 13, 2020

What Advice Is There OTHER Than Write Every Day? (F.A.Q.)


[Note: Everything in brackets will disappear in a few days.

This is the final entry in our 2020 F.A.Q. update. Many have been the folks sick of hearing that they need to write every day (or worse that they need to have BEEN writing). Isn't there some OTHER advice there we can talk to? Yes, that advice does exist.

It is also going to have to be two days worth of posts. Tonight is my late night. Tomorrow I work 10 hours as favor to the daytime nanny, and while I was trying to spend this afternoon writing a post for tomorrow, I got a LOT of edit marks on this one that were more than just missing commas. I really wanted to get it RIGHT since it's going to be in the F.A.Q., so I used up my "tomorrow's-post" time doing big changes. Saturday I pick up the keys and sign the lease on the new place, so I can't just make up for on the weekend either. This'll just have to count as mailbox AND "hefty" post––which honestly it kind of is.]


TL;DR: There's a LOT of advice that isn't "write every day" even about how frequently one OUGHT TO be writing, and you certainly should write only as much as you derive meaning and satisfaction from, but the reason you're likely to hear this one a lot is because people who are unhappy with their lack of writing career constantly ask working professionals how they "made it," like there's a trick to doing something professionally. Read a lot, write as much as you can, trust the process (particularly including peer review), be deliberate with your writing (and reading), and check in with some folks who've gone before you so that you're not spinning your wheels quite so much.

Longer answer:

The devil's due:

Even as an explicit question about advice that is NOT write every day, it is worth taking a moment to explain why this is such common, such good, and such conventional-wisdom-esque advice among working writers. Basically, I can't give you all the "other" advice without a massive, thirty-foot-tall disclaimer with flaming letters that the best damn thing you could possibly do if you want to be a novelist or some kind of working creative writer is to set aside as much time a day as you possibly can at the same TIME every day and sit down and write.

1) Because it works. There are few skills at which one can improve so quickly and predictably as writing, and there are really NO paths to prose improvement that do not involve consistent work. Creativity is like a muscle. With the exception of some folks with neurological limitations, if you set aside the same time each day to do something creative, you WILL get better at it in an entirely predictable way––starting to have ideas about 10-15 minutes before your "session" begins. You can kind of "aim" it and it sort of obeys your command, but it's not entirely under your control. (This is why I sometimes call it The Force. "You mean, it controls your actions?" "Partially. But it also obeys your command.")

I could wallpaper a room with all the testimonials I have gotten since I started blogging that writing every day turns out to work amazingly well, that people found their muse, finished their shit, and were able to write consistently when they sat down. (Though, admittedly, if I kept it in 12-point font, it would have to be a very small room.)

2) Because it's metonymy. Look, if you don't tell the writers' cabal of my transgression, I'll let you in on a little secret. You don't have to write EVERY day. "Write every day" is just an easier slogan than "Write five or six times a week unless you're sick, but it's really good to do a little something on those off days if you can, and....." Well, you get the idea.

Most of the writers with careers that people envy write every day, but you can make a living doing six days a week. Maybe even five (though by conventional successful-writer wisdom, that's REALLY pushing it). You can spend a couple of days a week writing for a couple of hours instead of five or six. (This is what I do. I have weekends.) You can take a couple of hours writing three really long emails and call it a day. You can be distracted by the news, write six hefty Facebook posts, and then give up on doing something on your novel or blog. (It was still writing even if you were distracted.) What you're going for is the practice; it doesn't have to be a five-hour session on your work in progress. But also you don't want to lose that mental connection you have between ideas and the words that bring them to life, and like anything we practice at constantly where we are using a skill to turn our ideas into an expression other people can experience (say, like a musical instrument), you'll get rusty faster than you think. That's quite a mouthful; "Write every day" is easier to remember.

3) Because no one ever asks working writers how to be contented hobbyists. What working creative writers get asked is how the questioner can also be a working creative writer. Our success gets "probed" by people wondering about agents or publishing nepotism or our social media marketing strategies like there is a secret. Yes, there are influences that are unearned advantages of birth and cannot be controlled like being white, raised middle class or higher, having formally educated parents, being cishet, being male, and being from an anglophone nation (the last really only because of the sheer amount of publishing that comes out of New York). There are a few things that are like "force multipliers" like having social media outreach, nepotistic connections in publishing, or some entirely-unrelated-to-writing fame, but no one ever EVER got there without working outrageously hard and probably pretty close to daily.

Writers actually have a very "Do as thou wilt!" approach to other people's writing. You do you. You decide your own level of involvement. If you don't want to write every day....don't. I'm very clear that creative writing is not a path to riches or fame for 99.999% of those who love it. At best it is a long and arduous path to a very modest but fulfilling living where you will be tempted by the kinds of writing that pay better money (like technical writing, ghost writing, and even content writing). You can ARGUE with the fact that we writers have consistently noticed that every one of us who's crested the more-than-a-cell-phone-bill plateau or "made it" in some sense that the world considers meaningful tends to write daily or almost so, but it's not going to make it UN-true. Our advice is descriptive and empirical––we're not, like, holding back on folks until they haze themselves with daily writing. (And those that do treat this advice in this way are probably being ableist.) The fact is, most writers who make a tidy living (and particularly the ones that make a splooshy one) are the folks who are out there fiddling with their schedules, trying to find and justify MORE time writing, not less. But hey, you know, maybe getting mad might work THIS time.
The more you think of your brain as akin to a musical instrument, taking your ideas and emotions and converting them into a form others can appreciate, the more quickly you will realize that it is a skill that will atrophy with disuse, that you need lots of practice to be proficient, more to be "good," that being a hobbyist is okay if it makes you happy, but that being exceptional or "making it" will take constant training like most folks wouldn't believe. 
OTHER ADVICE 

Remember, this isn't advice that's exclusive to people who can't write every day. It's just the other Very Important Advice™ that will create working writers. So if you can get to the page every day and ALSO do these things, you will advance even faster.

Write as much as you can: Okay, you can't, won't, or don't want to write every day. Fine. Do it as much as you can. Come close. You don't get better at anything by NOT doing it. If you want to get better at writing, write MORE. Write five days. Write six. Write as much as possible on the weekends but at least a fat paragraph during your lunch break three days a week during lunch. Whatever, just get as close as possible.

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 time to just do the writing part. Don't do that. Trying to only write is like trying to only breathe OUT.

Occasionally read things you wouldn't normally: Tough books. Nonfiction. Western canon lit (if that's not your normal jam). 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.

Think about writing: Let me be honest with you. I hate this advice. Even though I have to grudgingly give it a half nod. I hate this advice because it has fueled so many fucking "Why don't I have a book deal yet?" entitled a-holes who tell you in that supercilious way that they don't NEED to write every day because they THINK about writing. (For some reason, I always imagine them taking a drag of a cigarette right between those two clauses.) And every last one of them was exactly the sort who was turning in that same retooled vignette in their capstone classes that they showed up with and workshopped on their first class of the program. This is just way too many pretentious wankers' "out" when it comes to applying their ass to the chair and doing some goddamn work. And I just fucking HATE that it might be tempting sincere and dedicated writers into losing a valuable habit. So if you can't write, think about writing. If you have a choice, though, pick the actual writing.

Also, this is not "I had a passing thought about my writing earlier today, so now I'm good." You want to actually spend 10-15 minutes considering word choices and elements of craft. Consider a character arc. Think about how exactly your setting could subtly reinforce your theme. Think about how to have emotional and personal stakes in your climax instead of just external ones.

Figure out EXACTLY 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 set––you get down into the guts of the sentence structure and specific word choice and see what made that meaning happen.

For a casual reader, it's fine to just read something and sigh wistfully. (Such beauty. Much prose. Wow!) Who amongst us hasn't pressed Victorian literature to their chest in desperate wanting? Well, actually I haven't but whatevawhoodles. However, to read "as a writer" means to pause when a passage takes your breath away,  take a moment to look at exactly what moved you, and THEN ASK HOW? How is it doing what it's doing? Is it the language? If so, which specific 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? Consciously 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 private writing tutoring session. 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. I try to emulate it in prompts or when I'm writing on some draft.

However, when I'm writing for publication (especially a stretch goal publication and not a "safe" publication), I TEND to focus more 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 definitely want practice sessions to include speed drills so you work on that weakness and get better. However, in a competition with your crosstown rivals, you'll want to play to your endurance as much as you can 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."

They know it, but they still don't....GROK it. They still insist on a contiguous experience and have the hardest time making cuts. It's okay to sit down and write the ONE scene you keep thinking about, even if it's near the end or even if it's just floating around and you're not sure when it will fit in. Just get it out. Perhaps it's future fodder, but maybe it's just practice. But the likelihood is as you start to get THAT scene out, that fucking loop in your head will stop, and suddenly you'll be thinking of ANOTHER scene. 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.

Writing is a recursive thought process because it is literally impossible for you to write faster than you think. You will have ideas as you write, and some of them will be really good.

Routine!: Try to develop a daily routine in as much as that is 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. There are options for those who simply don't have the life that fosters routine, but getting as close as possible to one is the better choice.

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). Your brain is an organ. It's pretty awesome, but it has never NOT been a part of your body.

Trust the process––no, REALLY: This one might be the hardest for starting writers. Half the reason they sit frozen at their opening sentence is because somewhere inside they don't actually believe that they'll end up changing everything. They want to nail it on the first attempt.

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 won't get some harsh feedback. You're not the messiah of writing who won't have to practice for years. The process is long, messy, and sometimes really painful but the less you trust it, ironically, the more it gets longer, messier, and even MORE painful.

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 and the most common mistakes to be wary of in your own writing.

Read this blog: No, I'm not kidding. That's why I'm here. I write a blog about writing––maybe you've noticed. Given that this is literally what I do for a living, and I make enough to not die, I can't recommend me enough. Poke around. Put your feet up. Try the roasted vegetable polenta I just made for lunch. There's LOTS of advice here: writing prompts, craft advice, many many questions for the mailbox. You can't avoid hard work by reading a blog, but sometimes I can point out a pitfall or a shortcut and save you some time and frustration.

Okay, fine, or a blog LIKE this one. Or really any deliberate writing advice. The point is that you probably don't want to just write while sequestered away. You'll make the same mistakes over and over again, and while you will get better, your learning curve will leave a lot to be desired. You want to practice (as much as you can) but also try to make your progress deliberate. A self-taught writing expert isn't quite the anomaly that a self-taught concert pianist might be, but both probably could have saved themselves hundreds of hours of practice back at the beginning if they'd had someone show them a better way to do something basic.


For the would-be working writer or the ambitious hobbyist who dreams of one day "making it," there is no advice BETTER than "write every day," but there is a bit of advice OTHER than "write every day." I hope this helps. While it is likely to be a lot slower if not combined with the daily part, it may even get you where you want to go.

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Best Classic Science Fiction Book (or series) Nominations Needed

What is the best science-fiction book (or series) written before 1975?  

We're still grinding through the giants (S/F, Fantasy) since the sheer number of nominations last time around meant I needed to separate them by time frame. Yes, I know I have a long day ahead when I finally compile the results. My tightening budget means I can't farm some of this busy work out, and I'm back on the hook for it. Alas. That weekend is gonna suuuuuuuuuuuck. But I'm moving the next couple of weekends, so I'm going to have to keep doing jazz hands for now.

In the meantime, we need nominations. (Be sure to leave them on the blog and not as a comment on the social media where you saw this cross posted.)

We have two "slots" left in our more-comprehensive sci/fi and fantasy polls.  (This one and contemporary fantasy). Then we'll mix it up with some other genres.


The Rules


  1. There is a new category of nomination. It is NOT a nomination for the poll. It is an UNDERSUNG HERO nomination. Basically it is for books you think are great, tragically overlooked, NEED to be read by everyone yesterday, but maybe not necessarily the besty bestest best. I will be listing these books along with the poll results. However, if you nominate a book for our poll it will not be considered for the undersung hero list and if you shout out something for an undersung hero, it will not be counted as a nomination for the poll. (Someone else can nominate it.) Think about if you want to give a book few seem to know about a shout out or if you're tossing your fave into The Hunger Games.
  2. As always, I leave the niggling over the definition of genres to your best judgement because I'd rather be inclusive. If you want to nominate Sarah Canary (and I'd be with you on that one), you have to show your work that it's not fantasy if you want to convince others to second the nomination, nevermind to do well in the poll.
  3. Your book must be copyrighted 1975 or earlier. If it is a series, the ENTIRE SERIES must have been written before 1975.  Of course you can nominate the earliest novel in a series if you are trying to work around the rules, but not the series itself unless it's entirely published before '75. No small number of shout outs to Discworld have included only the books from the appropriate time frame. Why should we stop now? There will be other polls for newer books.
  4. You get to mention two (2) books (or series). That's it. Two. You can do ONE nomination for the poll and ONE UNDERSUNG HERO.  Or you can do TWO nominations. Or you can do TWO undersung heroes. But two is the total. If you nominate three or more I will NOT take any nominations beyond the second that you suggest. I'm sorry that I'm a stickler on this, but I compile these polls myself and it's a pain when people drop a megalodon list every decent book they can remember of in the genre. It is up to you how to divy your TWO choices. TWO.
  5. Did I mention two?
  6. You may (and absolutely should) second AS MANY nominations of others as you wish. THEY WILL NOT GET ONTO THE POLL WITHOUT SECONDS. You can agree with or cheer on the undersung heroes, but they won't "transform" into nominations unless someone else nominates that same book as "best" (and then they get a second). Also stop back in and see if anyone has put up something you want to see go onto the poll. 
  7. Put your nominations HERE. I will take nominations only as comments and only on this post. (No comments on FB posts or G+ will be considered nominations.) If you can't comment for some reason because of Blogger, send me an email (chris.brecheen@gmail.com) stating exactly that and what your nomination is, and I will personally put your comment up. I am not likely to see a comment on social media even if it says you were unable to leave a comment here. 
  8. You are nominating WRITTEN genre fiction, not their movie portrayals. If you thought Blade Runner was a spectacular movie, that's great but thought the Alan E. Nourse book was not that great except for as inspiration source material.
  9. This is probably well known by vets of this blog by now, but there will be no more endless elimination rounds. I will take somewhere between 8-20 best performing titles and at MOST run a single semifinal round. By "performing" I mean the "seconds" to the nominations. So second the titles you want even if they already have one. (Yes, I guess that would make them "thirds," "fourths," etc...) The competition on this poll might be fierce. You may have to get your friends involved. Buy them a pizza. Make it real. 

Monday, February 10, 2020

Drumroll Please

Mondays (and Wednesdays for the month of February because I am moving) are not normally posting days, but I owe everyone the post that was supposed to go up on Friday. I finally got around to compiling all the 2019 greatest hits. It took less time than I thought (I always dread it more than it deserves––it's like doing the cat box that way). Still it takes a couple of hours at least, and even though it took me seven years to learn the lesson, it's one of the many admin things like newsletters that I should take a day off from the regular posting schedule to take care of. Let that be a lesson to all of you about going professional. You might think it's just going to be even MORE rainbow unicorn love, but actually there ends up being a lot of stuff you have to do that ISN'T writing.

So here are 2019's Greatest Hits by Month

And here is the Greatest Hits Menu updated with 2019's results.

Friday, February 7, 2020

Metapost

Today's post (besides this little thing) will go up on Monday. Not that I'm procrastinating, but the work that needs to be done is all "behind the scenes" and admin crap. It's going to require about three hours and change of collating data down inside the guts of Blogger's analytics, me with a pen and paper matching up five figure numbers that are only different by one digit until my eyes cross, and finally hours of cutting and pasting the end results into their proper format.

See, there is ONE more thing I need to do to wrap up the 2019 year, and that is dig through ALL the best articles by month, REMOVE the 10 best articles of the year, and then figure out what the NEW three best articles are for each month. I hate this part and I always procrastinate. One year it was March before I finally got it taken care of. I could probably farm it out to a computer program, but it would have to be able to "skip" appeals posts and polls, and sometimes I have to decide whether something that was really a throw away post ("I'm sick. See you tomorrow.") but somehow did really well is worth immortalizing in the Greatest Hits menu.

But this year, with February barely getting started, I'm practically early.

If you're watching VERY closely, you might notice some menus getting updated in real time, but on Monday I'll make a very simple post with some links pointing out where all the updated shit landed.

However, as long as I've got you here, let me also mention that I'm going to need an extra day off each week through February. Probably easiest to just declare now that it will be Wednesday.  That means a maybe post (or possibly NWAW) on Monday. Something admin/short/meta/etc on Tuesday. Then a mailbox on Thurs, and something heavy on Fri.

I'm moving. (And I'm moving into my own place!!!! *SQUEEEEEEEEE*)

All the "YES!!!!!" 
The extra days are for packing, moving, hooking up utilities in the new place, and stuff like that. Fortunately, being a writer, I don't need to take off the EXACT days that I'm doing whatever the thing is, unless I'm up against a deadline like a baryon sweep. (I'm doing rather well on that front since the new schedule kicked in.) 

Thursday, February 6, 2020

Danger, Will Robinson! Danger! (Mailbox)


[Remember, keep sending in your questions to chris.brecheen@gmail.com with the subject line "W.A.W. Mailbox" and I will answer one or two of them every week or so. 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.  My comment policy also may mean one of your comments ends up in the mailbox. Let me know if a question is urgent because the queue turn over is getting up around months right now.] 

Hey Chris,

I’m writing the climactic battle at the end of my WIP. My crit group says I have to kill a good guy to underscore the danger of the climactic battle. As a note: my WIP is set in Latin America and all of the characters are Latine. I’m a white US citizen.  

Problem is, of the 10 good guys in the battle, three are walk-on characters and the others are significant, named characters, most of whom I need for the sequel. At this point it only makes sense for one of three characters to be killed.

1)  A black, female walk-on character

2) A black, male significant character

3) A significant Latina character

I don’t want to kill either of the black characters because I don’t want to use a black person as the sacrificial death. It makes me uncomfortable as a writer. If there was a situation in which a lot of good guys died, I’d be okay with it, but just one? No.

I don’t want to kill the black woman because she is a walk-on and it wouldn’t be emotionally significant to my readers. I don’t want to kill the black man because I want him in the sequel. I don’t want to kill the Latina because she had this huge arc regarding healing from trauma and this is the first time she’s been seen as anything other than ‘trauma-chick,’ and to kill her now would send a message I’m not sure I’m comfortable with.

So here are my questions.

1) Is killing a character the best way to underscore the danger in the climactic battle? Is there anything else that I could do instead?

2) Am I overthinking this?

Sign me,

Uncomfortable with my own writing

My reply:

Hi, Uncomfortable.

You're right. That's a lot to unpack. But I don't make an average of roughly minimum wage for nothing!

*finger guns*


First of all, I don't think you're overthinking it. I wish more writers took a moment and considered what they were doing with this degree of care. I think this is exactly what writers should be thinking about. How do our stories contribute, in whatever small way, to the zeitgeist of cultural perceptions and to a gestalt of bad representation. Writers have a tremendous amount of power when it comes to reinforcing or questioning storytelling conventions, tropes, and representation; these things, in turn, shape cultural perceptions and have a very powerful impact on how we treat folks.

Not a racist who walks this Earth does not justify their behavior with STORIES. Not a single misogynist. Not a single transphobe. Not a single bigot. It might be stories their parents told them. It might be lies repeated so often they accepted them as truth. It might be narratives they never unpacked that come from poor representation in media. But it's stories all the way down, and that is part of the reason fiction can be so fucking powerful. (It's also the reason bigots somehow all magically know precisely when to start complaining about "everything being so PC" when something has really good representation of oft-marginalized groups. They know EXACTLY how dangerous good representation is to their world view.)  And if we're not taking that charge seriously and letting our stories perpetuate tropes with an unexamined nonchalance, we are upholding the status quo with a LOT of power.

So I kind of agree that you don't have a good sacrificial lamb of the three characters you mentioned. Particularly, you probably want to be very careful about anyone who just showed up. Don't forget that killing characters JUST to raise the stakes has kind of a dubious literary precedent, especially if they aren't very well developed characters. (And especially especially if they are women or BIPOC.)

You might have to have no character deaths if you need all your characters in place for your sequel. And that's okay. If you want to sit with your reasons for needing the other seven characters to live, that might be worth a good think or three. Are these your darlings? Do you need to be killing them? Wanting them from a significant literary point of view might be different than just having you picture a handful of cool moments they have coming up. (The latter you can almost certainly figure out how to give to another character.) The most tragic and heart-wrenching deaths in fiction are the ones that happen to characters who are A) ABSOLUTELY on a character arc (in other words, not "walk-on" characters) and B) who never get a chance to finish that arc. The cliche of this is of course the person who finally decides which person in a love triangle they want to be with right before a toilet falls from orbit onto their head, or someone who realizes the error of their ways and goes for redemption but gets shot by a kitten trebuchet moments later. So it might actually be BETTER for the tragical tragidiferousness of it all if one of your other seven characters bought the farm.

All that said....the ass I'm really going to kick today is the crit group's. Okay, I know you like them, so I won't ACTUALLY kick their ass, but I think they're giving you advice that is more mainstream Hollywould-quickfix wisdom than actually good literary writing advice.

Death in fiction can be emotionally wrought or a casual throw-away sentence. It can rip you apart or barely make you blink. But outside of a murder plot point, if a writer has to kill someone to properly reflect the emotional stakes of what is happening, then they have already failed. You shouldn't need a body count to underscore that your climactic battle is srs bzns.

Will your reader feel that your characters were never in any real danger? Sure.....if you never put them in any real danger. But that's also going to be true if you basically fridge exactly one character but never put the other nine in any real danger. How your readers will receive that will be to think that the character died to emotionally manipulate them. And they will be right.

And I'm sure you've encountered more than a few stories where a character's death put mortality on the table of a climactic scene, served the meta narrative almost perfectly, perhaps even gave the work a thematic catharsis, or even arguably performed a strange sort of reader interactive experience by bringing the audience viscerally along with the sudden realization that "the ride was over." And yet it STILL seemed sudden, unearned, emotionally manipulative and didn't really raise or lower the stakes of the storytelling that had been built around it at all.

And don't you just want to curse that author's sudden but.....
OH IT'S STILL TOO FUCKING SOON!

I recently rewatched one of my favorite childhood cartoons, X-Men. Each season they have some major overarching plot come to a massive resolution. (Crap, I think they were doing it before shows like Babylon 5 or Buffy were even on the air.) And....I want to make sure I'm clear about the following: The dialogue in this show is not that great. The fights are formulaic. The plots are simplified so that the kids watching can keep up. The animation is pretty meh even for a '90s cartoon. They ALWAYS use the same goddamn song for every episode's final fight. This is not tour de force cinema we're talking about here. Also....to get back to the topic, no one ever really dies. At least none of the main characters. (A couple kind of do, but they come back because that's how comics work.)

Yet even two decades later, these are some of the best climactic endings to story arcs I've seen. Because one thing they nail is that the stakes are clear. Emotionally, personally, and externally, all the stakes are well laid out.

In Lord of the Rings, after Boromir, not ONE member of the Fellowship dies. Not ONE. Gandalf "falls" but he gets better (*cough actually a LOT better cough*). In fact, very few named GOOD characters die at all. But did you ever have some inability to really imagine they were in danger at Helm's Deep, or Minas Tirith, or the Cirith Gorgor pass? (The only battle that was kind of low stakes was Isengard and that was probably because it was skimmed over in favor of basically saying "The Ents kicked ALL the goddamned ass." [In the books it is told by Merry and Pippin after the fact and they mention a single casualty, and in the movies it is only two minutes of Ents kicking the ever-loving PISS out of orcs that takes place after the movie's Helm's Deep climax, basically to be a part of the "hold onto hope" Sean Astin voice over montage.])

So let's put your characters in real danger, not just artificially inflated danger. Don't be nice to them. Fuck them up. Hit them where it hurts and make them face the things they're NOT good at handling. Make them deal with opponents who are definitely better than them, and they have to scrape by on their wits. Make them face their biggest fears. Jack their fucking shit UP, yo.

Plus, don't forget, death is just the final step in a series of increasingly dire "real" consequences to a character. If they are all badly wounded and maimed by the end, the danger will be plenty underscored. Rip limbs off. Tear eyes out. Break bones like woah. Plus you can pull some of the sneaky writer tricks if you want––like impale a character, have them slump over, and then move the narrative on to someone else. (But then later it turns out they are still alive, but might have to eat soup through a straw for the rest of their days.)  What about capturing one of them? How about hurting things they care about? Hit them where they live. What about blowing up the car that is the only thing Character Y still has of his brother? What about using their phobias against them? What if they've got it until the most powerful protagonist is deliberately PTSD triggered? How about if the most vain character gets their face peeled off? Any one of these characters might survive for your sequel, but part of them also died, and the danger was very clear. You're the writer. You can put these characters in SO much danger without actually killing them that your reader is screaming "LOOK OUT BEHIND YOU!!!!" at the books. You could make death a sweet release and the LEAST of their concerns.

[Full disclaimer, I know a LITTLE bit about the story in question and the author may have even MORE options to jack up the characters since they might have some supernatural healing going on.]

You can use pacing to speed up and slow down the scene for effect. Mark Watney doesn't die in The Martian, but the moment Weir begins the multi-page description of the depressurization of his potato room, you KNOW exactly how much danger he's in.

You can also raise the stakes without offing someone just by making the stakes extremely clear. Is it very, very clear exactly what happens if they lose? How bad is it gonna get? (The answer doesn't have to be world devastation or the death of half of all life in the universe––actually that gets a little melodramatic. It can be as simple as "the girl we're trying to rescue will end up with her abusive father" or something.) How many times in a story have you thought "Why don't they just leave?" or "Why would these people care so much?" These are unclear stakes.  With clear enough stakes, there is NO reason you have to kill a single character to convey how important it is that the protagonist succeed.

Though not a "no kill" example, one of the reasons that Star Wars always is listed in the top ten movie climaxes is because the stakes are so mountain-spring-lake crystal clear. The Death Star is going to destroy the rebellion, including two main characters who are on the planet, and (at the time-ew) Luke's love interest. Plus the Empire are a bunch of fart weasels and they will win, but honestly it's the "The Death Star has cleared the planet..." when they realize THEY'RE going to die (not that the rebellion is in trouble) that brings all that climactic energy home.

You can raise the EMOTIONAL stakes by investing personal stakes for the characters. Rather than just a fight scene with large-scale stakes, there is also something personal going on. It's not just about Spider-Man beating Doc Ock. It's about Peter Parker helping someone he knows isn't a bad person stop and think for long enough to find their own redemption.

You can nuance the consequences of the character's actions. Okay, I'm sure you have thought of X happens if they lose and Y happens if they win. But then, do they just line up and pound it out until everyone on one side is dead? That's basically NEVER the way things happen. What are other outcomes? What happens if the protagonists don't fight? (How might that be desperately appealing to some or all of them?) What happens if SOME of them don't fight?  What happens if Character X can't overcome her demons and face Character Y? What if one of the antagonists ties a "consequence" to their deaths? ("If you kill me, you'll never find out about your mom.")  What happens if one antagonist gets away or they all just LEAVE as soon as it's clear they might lose? Remember, most people aren't going to stick around if they hit a certain threshold of mortal danger without some kind of training or a reason like protecting their young––morale is a thing. If half of them get away, will they just start the whole nefarious plot over again from somewhere else? Do they know the location of a protagonist's family? What are the stakes to partial loss?

Or here's perhaps an even more interesting question: what about the consequences of their victory? Riding into the sunset is great if you're in a spaghetti western, but most of the time, if you are at the point where you're in a life-or-death fight with another group, "winning" is seldom going to be the end of it.

You can add a time limit. Obviously a bomb of some kind is the cliché but it doesn't have to be a bomb. It could be as simple as needing to wrap up the fight before reinforcements show up. Or before the next radio check in from the guy with the gun to the hostage's head. What happens if they win the fight but it takes too long? What happens if two knocked out characters are waking up at the same time and they both want to get to the gun in the middle of the room? You can raise the stakes basically by encouraging your reader to be thinking "Come on! Hurry the fuck UP!!!!!"

Let me remind you of a final battle scene you've probably come to know and love where no one dies. Now this is not a Disney movie (though a few of those might be good examples of how to raise stakes without death). Many MANY characters have died before this final climactic scene. What was at stake prior to this final, climactic moment was arguably more important. But in this scene you understand EXACTLY what's going to happen if the protagonist fails. Viscerally. All too clearly. And it becomes pins and needles the whole way through. THIS is the climax.

"Get away from her, you bitch."

Did you get chills? I got chills. And I'm writing the article.

Emotional stakes at maximum. No raise-the-stakes death needed. One character gets totally fucked the fuck up in the opening move (Queen takes Bishop *rimshot*  Pause for laffs.), but turns out to survive. The stakes were raised even higher than the everybody-dying-one-by-one earlier parts of the film because of the PERSONAL stakes established in the relationship between Ripley and Newt. Pacing is slowed down and sped up with MAMMOTHIAN artistic licence. (The Queen didn't say "If that door's going to fucking take ten full seconds to open and she's going to take another twenty to walk over here and drop her line, I'm just going to pop this kid with my tail a few times while I wait.") We know Ripley could probably get to the weapons cache and grab the two pulse rifles she would need to dual wield in order to win in about five seconds, but then she loses Newt who she has bonded with after the loss of her daughter. And even though they drove away from bomb-on-a-timer a scene earlier, this scene is also full of moments where delay will cost (getting to Newt on time, getting up the ladder fast enough).

Here's the rest of the scene if you need a refresher.

Ask yourself how emotionally invested the characters are in the outcome of your climax. If they are pretty much along for the ride, that's what it's going to feel like to your reader whether you kill no characters or nine. How much does achieving their goal matter to them? If they could take it or leave it, so could your reader.

You don't necessarily need a death to show your reader it's dangerous. What you need is clear, emotional stakes (not necessarily high, but very, very clear), and then actual danger.

Wednesday, February 5, 2020

Shifting Fortunes

It's been a tough day here at Writing About Writing, but we aren't going to let it slow us down. However there is something we need to take care of before moving on. And it has to do with big news on the horizon.

Chances are if you know any freelancers or self-employed folks (which working writers are), they are starting to look towards mid April with and chew their bottom lip a bit. I recently also had some incredible news as I stumbled into a situation of a place of my own I could actually afford, but moving out of a roommate situation IS going to mean a decent hit to my budget.

Today is the first of two times a month (once a month directly to social media and once a month here on the blog) that I humbly ask you to help me keep the rent paid and the lights on. Right now I can't quite make all the ends meet with just writing alone (I won't die, but only just barely), and I have to work as a nanny to make ends meet on things like health insurance. Plus, folks are constantly redoing budgets or reassessing finances, and crowdfunding art and entertainment tends to be one of the first expenses that gets cut (and as someone with my own tight budget, I completely understand), so I'm sort of in need of a constant influx of new patrons to make up for a bit of a revolving door.

I'm already starting to post more, you may have noticed, as part of my new writing schedule, but the cost is a lot less of those nanny hours that help balance the budget. And even though finding my own tiny place is amazing, an additional expense couldn't have come at a worse time. I also have taxes coming up, and those are really expensive if you didn't have an employer taking a little out all year long.

Remember, you don't just get Writing About Writing. There are some personal and political thoughts along with media reviews over at NOT Writing About Writing, and I often use my personal Facebook page for bite-sized thoughts and proto-versions of things I'm thinking about. And there's "the show" on the Writing About Writing Facebook Page––where I share memes, humor, articles about everything writing, and puns all day. And anything else I write for other venues will end up here as well. Always free as well as (I hope) ad free but it takes 25+ hours a week to keep it all going at a minimal level and is a full time job if I really want to do it right.

At this time, I depend completely on donations and patrons for my writing income. As with most donation-based media, the tiniest handful of folks (less than .1%) are paying for the experience that the other 99.9% get to enjoy. I know it's a tough time right now. Despite being told that the economy is great, I don't know anyone who isn't struggling. However, if even 1% of everyone who regularly enjoyed a post gave a dollar, I would be able to write full time without a side gig for years to come. If a couple dozen people pledged at the $3 level, I'd be heading into tax season writing an even more robust writing schedule and not needing to worry about trying to find freelance work, add more hours to my nanny schedule (at the expense of my writing), or dipping into my savings to stay afloat.

I know most people will ignore these appeals. But if you like my work and want it to keep seeing it (and more OF it), please take a moment and see if you can't spare a couple of dollars.

There are two ways to help.

I prefer if you become a Patron through Patreon. Even a small donation goes a long way, and with Patreon, I can budget and plan for the future. Plus, it doesn't take much to get in on some of the most active and robust reward tiers.

Or if an ongoing donation is not in your cards, of course you can always make the one-time kind through Paypal. Or Venmo (at chris.brecheen@gmail.com) This would be particularly helpful with my taxes coming up.

Lastly, these posts will never do particularly well organically, and it is the nature of social media that I cannot reach everyone who wants to see my content. If you don't have the financial means to support us financially, but still want to help (or would like to help doubly), please engage with this post. (Shares and GIF comments are particularly good for the algorithm.)

Thank you all so much,

Chris

Tuesday, February 4, 2020

F.A.Q. How Do I ACTUALLY Start Writing?

[The part in brackets will disappear in a few days. Today we are answering one of our frequent questions for the F.A.Q. I've also got some news that is going to see me needing an extra day off each week for February. My $3 Patrons will get an update in the next newsletter (this weekend), and the rest of you will find out by mid-month.]

Short answer: Establish writing as a habit instead of a single creative endeavor, learn to trust that the process is messy and involves lots of rewriting and revision instead of trying to get it right on the first shot, take whatever logistical steps you need to help you, and if all else fails, kick start your writing with someone else's writing. 

Longer answer: First of all, sympathies. Starting can be really hard. Unlike some condescending memes, I don't think writer's block isn't REAL. I just think it is inherently not a creativity problem. It is inherently a psychological problem, usually with wanting to get the writing right without trusting that one will have to go through the lengthy process of rewriting, revision, and editing. Once that process is more fully trusted and the "Make myself be creative" straining (complete with agonized grunting) is replaced with simply sitting down to work and having the words and ideas come in a generous flow, you will probably find that the only problem you ever have is having more ideas than you could ever write down, and having to choose the best of them to work on.

Secondly, the way out is through, but it's kind of a long trip. I wouldn't expect to be spinning around on gentle European alive-with-music hills by this time tomorrow. Entirely new approaches to writing need to be learned, techniques practiced, and habits established. It can take.....well there's no upper limit to how long it can take, but even if you're going pretty fast, it's not likely to happen in less than a couple of months, and probably more like six.

Of course, at any point in this process, if the words are coming, you can go back to what you were doing. The risk is that you'll end up stuck again. By far, the main reason writers get writer's block and sit for hours in front of a blank page is because they are gripped by the overwhelming need to get it RIGHT. They are having trouble thinking of a good first sentence or the perfect thing to happen next. If you go back to what you were doing because you basically thought of something to write, you might end up stuck again at the next place you feel you must get right. What you really want is to learn a whole new approach to writing––one that is habit based instead of goal based. One where the faucet just "turns on" when you want it to.

I will tell you some jump starts though. I'm nothing if not versatile. If you just want a fix for RIGHT NOW, today, try the following:
  • Skip ahead. (Start on page 2 or Chapter 2 or whatever. You can come back and write the perfect first sentence.)
  • Turn off all your devices and leave them off. (Distraction can keep you from going deep into your creative imagination.)
  • Spend a set amount of time NOT writing. (Don't go do anything else, but sit there for a half hour or so and just let your mind wander. Don't end early. No matter how many good ideas come.)
  • Try to write BADLY (Quit trying to make it good. Try to make it the worst you can imagine. Self-indulgent. Purple. Hackneyed. Clichéd. Make it the worst.)
  • Caffeine. (Look, I know it's not exactly kosher to suggest drugs, but caffeine is a mild stimulant and it can start neurons firing without making you too high to write. It's also a habit-forming drug (as mild as it is), so be fully informed. It's also not going to do much if you're already a six-cups-a-day type. But every once in a while, it can really kick-start a slow session...)
  • Pick up a book that is a little like what you want to be writing. Open the book and start writing the words you see. You will want to "take over" with your own words probably within five to ten minutes. (You simply CANNOT write as fast as you think and so your brain is going to be playing with the ideas you're writing and start to come up with thoughts of its own. You've also "ruined" your beautiful blank page, so you might as well just write whatever now. If you end up writing a masterpiece, you'll still have to go edit the beginning [since you didn't write that part and it would be plagiarism], and that may help give you the feeling of freedom enough to write on your own.)
However, if you are more interested in never having writer's block again, and consistently being able to write easily each and every time you come to the page, you may have to invest a little more time in something a bit like a "writing training regimen."

  • First you're going to do morning writing. (Get up early if you have to and write in the morning. This is FREEWRITING, so don't work on anything in progress. Write whatEVER comes into your head even if it's about how hard you find it not knowing what to write.)
  • The first few days, you will establish a baseline amount for how much you can easily write before the ideas start to peter out and your brain sort of gets tired. Double That Amount. (This time might be 30 minutes or it might be an hour. You want to keep doing this morning writing until that amount pretty much DOUBLES. [So if you find you are able to easily write for 30 minutes when you start before running out of steam, you want to keep doing this morning writing exercise until you can easily write for 60 minutes.] It may feel like you will never get to this point, but it will. This is such a vital part of the process that it is not an exaggeration to tell you to keep writing in the mornings until this happens even if it takes years.)
  • Discontinue your morning writing for the next part. You should be almost overflowing with ideas basically all the time and maybe feeling a little "psychically" uncomfortable.
  • Now establish an ability to do a floating half hour of writing at ANY time. (This will NOT be easy. Pick a different half-hour slot every day and sit down and write during that half hour AND NO OTHER. You may try to weasel out of the writing for "just today," you may try to shift the slot around because "one half hour is as good as another," or you may want to just do an hour the next day. No matter what, you must do the half hour and at the time you picked.
  • At this point, you should be able to draw upon your inner wellspring of creativity any time you sit down. The words will come at your command.
  • Do your best to write every day. Or six days a week. Or at least every weekday like a job. 
  • Establish a daily writing time if there's any way you can. Despite the incredible versatility of being able to sit down and write at any time (especially if you have kids), you will get better, more consistent creativity from your "muse" if you can sit down at the same time every day. You'll start to have ideas FLOWING about fifteen minutes before a "session" starts. Your muse knows it works for you, and not the other way around, and it's bringing you The Good Stuff™.
  • In general, read more. I can't underscore enough how much reading (and I mean a LOT) will help keep your creativity tank "topped off" both with ideas for stories and with ideas about how to write them.
Between your quick fixes and your New Habit Regimen™, you should be able to (actually) start writing at any time you want to. And now you can approach the page as a matter of routine and regimen instead of a single act of gotta-get-it-right creativity. Once you have a creative flow that essentially obeys you (you controlling your muse instead of your muse controlling you--if you are okay with that metaphor), your writing sessions will feel much more like sitting down to just do your thing for a few hours (or more).

Friday, January 31, 2020

Inner Critics and Other Voices [Part 3 of 3]


We're jumping right in here from Part 2, or you can go all the way back to Part 1

Some techniques for dealing with nasty little voices.


Visualization-

One of my favorite writers has a very involved visualization technique that involves imagining each of these voices as tiny mice. Then, one by one, they put those voices into glass jars, visualizing the mice under the jars trying to get out, but now silenced.

I could never make mice and jars work. What works for me is picturing some sparkly vampire, who I really don't like, saying these things. (Let's call this one "Robert" for no particular reason.) I picture Robert talking shit about how I am not good enough and how I'll never be a real writer. Suddenly, my naysaying voices are practically motivational. "Fuck you, Robert. I'm goddamned, AWESOME! And you were the one who thought you were terribly clever for sticking your head in a toilet to fix your hair."

Uh....or...um...maybe that's too specific. Whatever works for you.

I also sometimes picture a work scenario when it comes to my inner editor or certain other voices. "Oh, I'm sorry. You're totally early for your shift. We're still putting together the first draft. We're going to need you when we are doing revision. Six hours at least. Come back then." Then I imagine the editor happily going to go catch a movie and grab some lunch.

One of my particular tricks (got this one from a first season episode of Red Dwarf) is to actually imagine Overconfident and Self-Effacing as two actual characters. So whenever I'm feeling a little too "I am the best writer ever!" or "I suck and everything I write sucks!", I just imagine the precise voice is actually in the room with me. And then I call the other one in to have a little chat.


Logistics-

The voices can be big and overwhelming and kind of take out your Jenga tower of belief in yourself like a Muay Thai kick to the lowest level. Sometimes the voices are all broad brushstrokes and no specifics. It can be useful to confront such a broad and overarching voice with logistics.

"Exactly what is the problem? Go ahead, big doomy doom-song voice. I give you permission to tell me all about it. Be very specific. Don't just tell me no one is going to love it. Get right down into the reasons. Character development? Purple prose? Too much discussion of defecation making it the wrong sort of "gritty"? Chapter four?  It's chapter four, isn't it? What is it? Let's work on this together?"

You may find that your voice has something worth saying, or that when you ask it for specifics, it becomes more of a five centimeter fear demon repeating one "scary" phrase over and over again with nothing new to add, and no specifics to bring up.


"Listen, I'm not going to let you talk to you like that."
The Friend Trick-

The friend trick is a tried and true favorite when your voices are just fucking mean. Instead of seeing ourselves as Shit By The Foot Roll-Ups who NEED to be reminded that a sentence isn't perfect or that we're not the next Toni Morrison, and responding to our inner voices with slumped shoulders and despondent resignation, what if we gave ourselves the same basic respect we would demand from any of our loved ones? We tend to be our own worst critics and our own harshest task masters, but we also ALLOW these voices to talk to us that way. How long would you put up with that shit from someone if they were talking to a friend instead of you? Or if you had some constructive criticism for a friend, would you ever in a million years deliver it in the way that you let your inner voices talk to you?

Think about would you would tell your friend? How you would treat them. What kindness about their writing would you give your friend that you're not giving yourself. If your friend were dealing with internal critics, maybe you'd be far more kind and encouraging to them. Perhaps you'd tell them they better shut their fuckpickle word holes with that negative claptrap and admit that they are thirty-one flavors of awesome? If you felt they DID have some salient criticism, you'd probably say something like, "Well, that might be true, but you're getting better and you're really good at the other parts." It's very unlikely you would look deadass into the eyes of a friend and say, "Yep, it's all true. Quit now."

("Hey, if you've got something to say, say it, but no one treats my friend this way.")

Why not give yourself at LEAST as much kindness as you would a friend?


Agreement! And nuance ("Yes and..." instead of "No but...")-

Go ahead and agree with your little voice. ("You're right. This is a terrible chapter." "This may actually be the single worst first sentence I've ever written in my entire writing career including first grade.") But then add the nuance of what that means or where you might go from there. ("I will be taking an extra good look at this during revision." "I may cut all this out, but I really want to just get the first draft down.") Or that you agree, but you have to sit here and work for two hours no matter what. ("You might be right, but I'm stuck here for two hours.")

By basically opening a dialogue with your little voice that says "You're absolutely right and here is what I'm going to do about that problem," suddenly your little voice has nothing more to say. ("That sentence sucks!" "Yeah, I know. I'll come back and fix it."  "Oh....well...um....okay then...I guess.  Carry on.")

Even if it thinks you're no good at X skill, you can just agree that you need more skill training and/or practice in X.

That little voice isn't all knowing. It's just you dressed up as an asshole. It's just standing right on top of your anxiety and screaming it at the top of its little inner voicey lungs and poking a pointed stick in your self-confidence. By talking to it, you can find a lot of nuance that it may have a point and you will be particularly careful about that.


Counterpoints/Hyper-accuracy-

Have you tried arguing with that voice?

Not like getting mad or saying "Shut up," or shit like "I am TOO a writer! I am! I am! I am!" I mean like straight up disputing what it's trying to sell you like you might if it were some shitty mediocre white guy mansplaining to you why the writing industry is harder than you can imagine and you probably can't make it even with a lot of hard work (despite being a computer engineer that hasn't written fiction since a writing assignment for high school English). I mean giving this voice what for!

("Listen, asshole, would anyone who sucked at writing have won the Slater Ultimate Mystery Writing Award three years running? I don't think so. I think maybe you're just a little stormcloud that's full of shit and just trying to damage my calm.")

Basically try yelling back. See what happens. It won't always work, but like a bully, your internal critic sort of counts on you to run in fear, cower, fall to pieces, give up and go home, and never really stand up to it.

What would happen if you did?


Trickery-

Turns out some versions of those internal critics and mean voices aren't.....well....super clever. They are aspects of you, of course, but also they're kind of like one-trick ponies manifesting a single facet of your anxiety, yelling the same thing over and over again. They don't have a lot of ability to adapt to trickery.

You might get a lot of mileage out of just kind of TREATING them like a screaming two-year-old who is demanding something unreasonable. ("Okay, let's talk about this after I finish this chapter." [But then don't.]) ("Well, Mommy needs to get this part done, so why don't we put this on the list of things to do for next week, okay?" [Haha. Like you're going to remember this conversation next week.]) ("If you are still feeling this way at the end of my session, we can talk.")

Having trouble getting started because that voice won't let you just WRITE the first sentence/paragraph/chapter? Start on the SECOND one. It's okay. You were probably going to edit most of it anyway.

You can also use some wicked reverse psychology on it. A lot of writers think they suck...until someone says they suck. Then they get a little bit defensive. And this trick can sometimes work on one's self.

Admit to not even knowing how to write a sentence. ("Yep. I am far worse than the other writers who can write sentences." Watch as that voice does a sudden reversal, "Wait. No. You can totally write sentences! I just meant that.....now SEE HERE!"

If your voice is nitpicking, you can just agree that you should give up writing forever* and go learn to play canasta. Sudden reversal! "Hang on there, buddy. Let's not be HASTY!"

(*This one might backfire if your voice is saying you should give up writing forever. You most likely want to try it if your voice won't shut the FUCK UP about the little problems. Learn to read the room.)


Ego separation-

This is a pretty "harsh" take on you and your little voices, so you might want to skip this one if you need a more compassionate and loving approach to dealing with self-doubt, but for some, a more taskmaster/drill sergeant approach might be effective. Some days you need to be cherished and loved just the way you are, and some days you need someone with a boot that has been outfitted with a tapered butt plug, so that it is specially designed to fit up your ass.

And here's the thing: the only reason you have that mean little voice talking shit to you when you sit down to the page is because you have an ego. Egos don't want to get hurt. Egos want everyone to love you. Egos want to be further along in the progression of your learning curve than you are. Egos have an idea in their head of how effortless it should be.  Egos don't want you to have to face that you have some hard work ahead. Egos would rather you give up and not try than fail and have to face that you're not the best at something.

One way to deal with the voice that says you're not good enough is to recognize that it's coming from a place of ego. (Only an ego would have a sense of where you OUGHT to be.) We all selfishly want to be better than we are, never be criticized, and never be seen as anything but a total genius, but without working for it.


Ignore it-

This is subtly different than the "Pretending not to hear it" that you've been doing. Imagine it more like you're the really shitty customer service in a Rom-Com...played by Beth Grant. ("Oh okay, thank you SO much for your feedback. I'll be sure and bounce that right along to top men. TOP MEN.") Or the woman who totally pretends she's listening to a dude mansplain that privilege doesn't really exist over the phone. ("Uh huh. Uh huh. Yep. You're absolutely right. Can you repeat that? No, I was listening, I just didn't quite grasp it. Maybe you can simplify it a bit?  Uh huh. Oh yes. Yep." *meanwhile solving a crossword puzzle or balancing the budget of a billion dollar non-profit on Excel* "Oh yeah...you're so right.")

It's not just burying your head under a pillow. This kind of ignoring is more like art. Smile and nod at your voice like it's your heteronormative aunt you can't stand giving you dating advice.

Then do your thing anyway.


Self-Compassion-

Your little voices are you. Some of them go pretty far down your personal rabbit holes, but they're still you. Have you had lunch? Did you get enough sleep? Are you taking it easy once in a while? What would it feel like to meet those pernicious little fuckweasel voices by holding space and pouring overwhelming (self) kindness upon them?

Give yourself a fighting chance.....by being incredibly gentle with yourself. Not about whether you SHOULD be writing or not, but about how it's going. Every writer you have ever read sucked until they didn't.


Utter distraction-

Your little voices are immediate and urgent manifestations of some kind of emotion (usually anxiety or self-doubt of some kind). If you simply interrupt that thought flow, you may be able to "short-circuit" the emotion that it's riding.

Try doing some difficult division problems* every single time your voice reaches the point where it's distracting. When you can't hear it any more, get back to work.

*Or recite poetry you've memorized. Whatever....

Therapy/Medication/Professional Interventions-

As I mentioned above, there are issues with intrusive thoughts and "internal critics" that go past the scope and ability of one creative trying to coach another though pedestrian self-doubt. If you are finding that your voices wish you harm, go on even when you're not doing trying to write, or doubt your entire existence has value (and not just your ability to write), you might be dealing with authentic intrusive thoughts. (Like clinical, I mean. Not that your other thoughts aren't authentic.) And while some of these techniques might be the same ones you use, you should probably do so under the guidance of a mental health care professional who can help you figure out what's working, what's not, and if your brain might not be making the right chemicals which will mean you need the store-bought kind (WHICH IS FINE).

This list is by no means exhaustive. Particularly I find wide variations on a theme. But it has many of the main approaches. Think of this list as more like the basics. Not all wrenches are an adjustable crescent wrench, so you may need a bit of a personal touch. And if you'll let me not so much MIX my metaphors as whip them into a smoothie, don't be afraid to combine two or more techniques and season to taste.

Thursday, January 30, 2020

Just One of Those Things (Day Off)

Folks, I apologize, but I'm going to need to take today off from blogging. Hopefully it's just the one day––it depends on how quickly I heal. (Although there's something already written for tomorrow that just needs to be formatted and tidied up, so the blog will be back up and running even if I'm not.) I'll catch up with my update schedule on the weekend.

One of the more ridiculous things about being a writer (at least one who uses a keyboard) is how the tiniest of cuts in just the right place can bring the whole operation to a halt. On the pad of my right middle finger is a cut that is maybe....MAYBE three millimeters long and was so shallow that it only let loose a single drop of blood. But it's RIGHT in that perfect place where my finger comes down onto the keys. So I can type only if I'm slow, methodical, and exceedingly gentle. The longer I type, the more it hurts.

I've still got writing I can do. Longhand might be the "Out of missiles––switching to guns" of writing, but it'll get the job done. I have multiple things I could be taking notes on for the coming weeks. A few blog things that require more formatting and mouse work than typing. And of course I can type a little before it starts to get annoying, so I'm probably going to be working piecemeal all day. But I won't be able to put up an official blog post.

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Eight Years Old!

Writing About Writing is eight years old!!

This is why we've been rushing to get all the admin posts updated for the new year. Now we can hit year nine at a clip.

Technically the birthday is tomorrow, but we've got an article planned, and I usually forget and celebrate late, so this year we're going to blow out the candles a day early.

Blog is feeling down despite the cake. Facebook throttling in fall of 2018 meant that there wasn't a single goal we hit*. We're still struggling to reach an income that doesn't require a side gig to make ends meet. And all the fun bellwethers to obsess over like page views and Facebook page likes have slowed down to growth at only a glacial rate.

*We technically hit about half of the self-contained goals, like number of posts written, but Blog wants big and flashy.

Blog will cheer up when Big Time is on its tenth or so loop, and will start saying things like "This will be the year we'll pay for medical insurance and taxes without side gigs!" or "This will be the year we hit a million followers." I will try to tell them that slow progress, baby steps, and measured expectations are probably more wise, but blog will be flying on ambition and cake.

Here's to more shoehorned listicles, mailbox replies, and maybe even a craft essay or three thrown in for good measure. Hopefully this year with a lot less cancer, death, and loss, and maybe even some kind of good news on the romance front. (That's for me, not blog. Although if you know a blog that wants to do the occasional play date....)

Blog: "What would you say if I told you this is the year we're going to average 40,000 page views EVERY month."

Me: "I'd say you haven't paid any attention to analytics in the last year and––"

Blog: "NEVERMIND YOUR NAYSAYER BULLSHIT!! Get to work writing the good stuff. We're on our way. We're making it."

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

The Patron Muses (2020 and Endless Gratitude)


There are a few supporters of Writing About Writing who have supported us in ways that are hard to fully express. They act not only as patrons of the arts (well, at least THIS artist) but as my muse as well.

This sobriquet is not hyperbole. There are days I want to take off, give up, go do anything but apply ass to chair and write, and I think of them. I think of their unswerving support that has made it possible to keep doing what I do, and I can try to sing their praises, but it will never quite be enough. When my going gets tough, it's them I think of as I'm pulling myself out of the mud and standing up to keep going.

The most common way folks have become patron/muses is through a sizable ongoing donation through Patreon. While I love and deeply value the foundation of folks giving a dollar or five a month, it is a small handful of folks who have opened up opportunities to quit day jobs, then second jobs, then side gigs all to keep writing more and more. A few patron/muses have come forward with huge one-time donations that have made my mouth go dry. However, financial support is not the only thing the patron muses have contributed. Some have showed up to social events with their entire family dressed in Writing About Writing t-shirts, some help my posts proliferate despite the ever tightening Facebook algorithm, by engaging with almost every post in the most algorithmically beneficial way, and at least, in one case, hundreds and even thousands of hours of uncompensated time helping me be a better writer than I am with editing.

Right now there are 15 patron muses (but always room for one more). Julia, Margaret, John
, Pol
, D, Ginger, Kelly
, Alisha, Hélène, Anna, TM Caldwell, S, Alex, another––more different––Alex, and two Anonymouses.

I can't say enough good things. Without these folks, I'd be lost. Thank you so much.

Monday, January 27, 2020

"The 'Writing About Writing' Guy"

Having been introduced more times than I'd care to admit as "The Writing About Writing guy," I vacillate between being thrilled that my work precedes me and mortified that no one seems to know who I really am. 

I'm Chris Brecheen. This is my blog.

While I no longer feel quite the same need to justify my presence in the blogging world as I did when I first started or to defend what business I have telling other people how to write, occasionally someone still whips out the ol' "Why should I listen to you?" (Hint: It was never going to be the shrimp puff recipes.) Usually they don't realize I'm a working writer, and on at least one occasion they insisted that if I really wanted to write, I should check out Chris Brecheen's blog. Yep, I got hipster stret-creded about my OWN work.

I really need to remember to get screenshots if that happens again.

But perhaps a FEW accolades won't go amiss. Just so you don't think I showed up last week, dropped into the world on a whirlwind of rainbow sprinkles, started writing for a living, and BAM, was paying the bills later the next day.  I've been writing for thirty-five years. My average writing "day" has gone up from perhaps twenty minutes as a kid, to an hour as a hobbyist, to between three and five hours as an aspiring [working] writer, to around eight to ten hours, these days, as a working writer. So I’ve logged in my “ten thousand hours” writing, and at this point I’ve clocked in a second ten thousand just to be on the safe side. I think I'm working on about my fourth or fifth set, honestly. That doesn't mean I'm perfect. I’m not above error. My first drafts are shitty. I use myriad as a noun. I will use the wrong your if I'm not paying attention. Occasionally I write a Facebook post and half my friends find some eldritch multi-clause sentence I tried to write as confusing as all hell.

And apparently, I'm a big fan of writing sentences where I leave out.

Still....it’s pretty safe to assume I know what I’m doing when I start stringing words together.

I have a degree in Creative Writing. (Technically that's English with emphasis in CW, so I did my share of literary analysis.) I graduated Summa Cum Laude from SFSU in Spring 2012. Though it's  their MFA program well regarded, I sat in many of the same classes, came to all the same panels, and a lot of my friends were graduate students who wished that they could be in the more structured undergrad workshops.

I know some people take Creative Writing for an easy degree, but I looked for the professors who demanded excellence and had a reputation for eating undergrads. When I found them, I took everything they taught. I didn’t get a 3.94 because I was coasting. I also didn’t eke out my degree as fast as possible and then wave good-bye with a hearty "Smell ya later." In fact, I was 21 creative writing units over what I needed to graduate and my dean was basically shooing me out the door with narrowed eyes since I was on a Pell Grant. ("Sure, Detective Fiction can fill in for your Poetry or Drama requirement. Go fucking graduate already!") The point is, I was there to learn, and learn I did.

Plus, I actually got the “Ethan Frome damage” joke from Grosse Point Blanke.

Really.
This is like UBERwhite fiction.
It's the Wonder Bread of fiction.

I’ve been a managing editor of a literary magazine. It wasn't the happiest time of my life, I had the director bait and switch me to cover a position I didn't want with the promise of something she NEVER intended to consider me for, and I'm pretty sure my EIC was actively trying to make me cry, but I learned a lot, especially about the business of publishing.

I've also taught ESL and Developmental English for years (and only recently gave it up when writing started paying the bills). It might seem like that wouldn't overlap much with writing, but being worried sick about grammar is SUCH a powerful force in the lives of would-be writers. So many unpublished writers think of grammar as their white whale when really it's just something they mostly already know, and will get better at with practice and not some class or book.

I actually am published. Technically. It’s not anything you could pick up at a Barnes and Noble, and most of it (that isn’t blogging) happened before the ubiquity of having an e-version of nearly everything, but it’s out there. It exists in a few different dark and hidden corners. Sometimes it’s easy to forget that the Rubicon of almighty “publication” can be technically passed with a whimper in a way that feels like it doesn’t “count.”

This will be my eighth year blogging. I make money. It covers the bills, though I need a side gig to keep and maintain a car. I've tried to break down the mystique, but a lot of people still don't want to hear that they need to work hard every day for several years.

When I was ten and in fourth grade, we got a writing prompt that was a paragraph start to a story. It was up to us to end it. I wrote twenty-one pages. It was the best feeling I’d ever had. I knew then what I wanted to do with my life. That day, I decided that I wanted to be a writer.

And I never looked back. I've been writing ever since.

Badly.

So very, very badly.

I "wrote books" between the ages of nine and twelve, but they were usually about twenty pages long, and often bore a striking resemblance to the last movie I'd seen that I really enjoyed.

I tried to be Stephen King when I was 12, writing stories of self-willed big rigs chasing little kids all over pastoral New England towns only to viscerally describe them being run over with as much Kingian attention to the crunching sound and color of brains as my limited skills could muster. It was crap of course, but if you've met the average Creative Writing program student at SFSU, you would know that it is actually probably a really good thing I worked my "I'm going to be the next Stephen King" phase out of my system before I hit a college-level "Short Story" workshop.

I started writing works of 100+ pages in seventh grade. These were not, by any stretch of the imagination, good stories, but looking back on them, I'm actually a little impressed at how well I had picked up on narrative arcs. I finished my first real manuscript in eighth grade. It was a little 120-page high-fantasy "novel" with a bunch of characters, based (with painful obviousness), on my friends.

In high school, my friends started wanting to read my writing. I was pestered over whether or not I had written any more. My work was passed around and giggled at. By my junior year, I hit another bellwether: a 100-page TYPED manuscript. A friend of mine read the chapters serial-style as I was writing it, but when I was done he asked for the whole thing so he could read it...again. "I want to make sure I didn’t miss anything," he said.

I wouldn't know it for years, but that feeling was better than sex.

Despite a number of signs that I could be a pretty good writer when I worked at it (like winning the UCLA Comm board awards against a bunch of junior and senior UC journalism students.....without actually having gone to UCLA....or at that point, even college yet), I still bought into too many cultural myths of how to find happiness. I took the (bad) advice that writing wouldn’t pay the bills and struggled through one unhappy “fallback, safety-net” job after another. I married for all the wrong reasons (and divorced some years later for at least a couple of the right ones).

I played the game by society’s happiness playbook, and it made me miserable.

So in my thirties, I burned that playbook. I let the Joneses pull WAY out ahead and dedicated myself to the things that bring me a whole frikton more meaning in life than big screen TVs and slick-ass cars. I change diapers and write whenever I can.

Now I'm writing the writing advice!


So I may not know every last detail of the publishing industry or where you should personally go with your Gothichopepunk Vampire Love Triangle story, and I certainly don't seem to be able to write the OKCupid profile that brings all the milkshakes to the yard, but here's what I do know:

I know how to be an unsuccessful writer.

I know how to not make it.

I know how to write day after day and not make a damned dime. Or to make a pittance.

I know how to keep going for nearly thirty years, and never even consider throwing in the towel.

I know how to write because not writing feels wrong, and that the parts of writing that are cathartic and meaningful and wonderful come in the act of writing itself, not in the acquisition of an agent or the painful negotiation of a book deal.

I know how to be artistic and creative for its own sake and to never let the world tell me that I “need” a white picket fence and a sensible car even as the sweet siren song insists upon it over and over again.

I know how to set up my life to feed my art addiction, without dejection over the unfulfilled fantasies of writing the Great American Novel and fat royalty checks and travelling the talk show circuit.

I know what it means to write when there is no incentive to do so except the sheer love of transforming twenty-six letters and fourteen pieces of punctuation into meaning.

I know how to crawl slowly from making no money to paying the bills with writing. I know how frustrating and breathtaking that can feel.

I’m going to keep right on writing. I'm going to do it with forty thousand followers or four or four million and with ten page views or ten zillion. I'll do it if I make no money or enough to quit all my side gigs and be a sustaining member of NPR. I can do MORE of it with your help, but I'll never stop.

So come along if you want. Join us. The one thing I can say is that it's never been boring.


Even more about me

The Buy-Me-Lunch Answer About My Gender
The Buy-Me-Lunch Answer About My Sexuality