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

Friday, January 31, 2014

The Mailbox: Critique Groups

How do I pick a critique group?

[Remember, keep sending in your questions to chris.brecheen@gmail.com with the subject line "W.A.W. Mailbox" and I will answer each Friday.  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. I also can do multiples. Oh yes.]    

Shelia asks (my spellchecker wants to correct this to Sheila, but I checked the e-mail twice):
I’ve been reading your writing advice on the blog and thought I would ask a question, maybe two. It seems like, much against my will, I am going to be forced into a live critique group. Luckily for me I live in a major metropolitan area and will have two or three to choose from. I will also be allowed to visit twice before being required to join.
So my question is: How can you tell a good critique group from a bad one?
Can you describe a bad group?  A good group?
What criteria would you use?

My reply:
Maybe two? Maybe three? Maybe four?  (I'm using the winking voice not the flying spittle voice, trust me.) Anyway, Shelia it's cool; they're kind of all the same question in four different forms.
I should probably do an article about this, actually--in fact one of my next series of articles I'm planning after You Don't Really Have to Write is going to be on how to take criticism, and I think there will be a whole section of that series dedicated to writing groups. (I'll call it "Writing Groups: Useful for Flamethrower Aiming Practice or Too Sedentary to Be of Help?") However, I'll give you a sneak peak here since this is a really, really good question.
Writing groups can be an amazing opportunity to improve one's writing. Or they can be a cesspool of soul-sucking horror. The problem is for every group of the former, you have to dig through the dross of about ten billion groups of the latter.

In general I would recommend online groups because you can match up by genre interests, relative level of skill and commitment, and even style. (I've almost seen a writing group come to blows, and have seen one come to tears because of the differences between a "linguistic flourish" type versus a "simple and direct"type.*) The fact that you have to join a live group complicates this process.
*For the record, both types have merit, both have fans, both get published in today's markets, and both have wildly popular exemplars. 
First, I want to tell you about a friend of mine--a published author who left the SFSU writing program before she finished even the undergraduate degree. She left in a haze of anger (and went on to have her Y.A. novel published by [IIRC] Avon Flare). She used to share a story with me that I've found to be more and more useful as time goes on about people who collect crabs.

No, not those crabs. I'm talking about the crustaceans that you eat with butter. 
She said that these crab catchers just throw the live crabs into a bin, and even when the bin starts getting so full that some of the crabs could possibly reach up, grab hold of the lip of the bin, and crawl out, the crab catchers don't worry about it. They fill it until it's just a few centimeters from the top.
Because the crabs will never get out. If they start to reach up and pull themselves out, the other crabs will pull them back down into the bin. Basically it's impossible for one crab to get free. Until the bin is so totally full that a crab could just stroll away, none of them will be able to get out because the others will pull them back in. 
Until of course they have genetically engineered crabs that kill Samuel Jackson in mid-speech. Those motherfuckers could drive the boat back to the mainland. And then it's good-bye humanity. So we have to make our stand here and now against those assdouchefucking crabs!  ~cocks his shotgun~

But...uh...my friend was just talking about the regular kind. Regular crabs pull their fellow escaping crabs back down into the bin.
"This is what these fucking workshop classes are like!" she said. "Even the fucking teachers aren't about making us better writers. They just want to convince us our writing is not 'worthy of fiction'" (the last said with the most outrageous Edward Stratton II voice she could muster). "They're not lifting up writers. They're pulling them down."
"Something something something...EARN it."
I have no idea whether the crab story is even true, but she was right about the idea. The degree taught me more about writing in two years than I'd learned in the twenty prior, and some instructors helped me take my craft to the next level, but workshops seemed designed mostly to tear us down and erode what little self-confidence we had. Arming a bunch of students with just enough knowledge to identify what sucks in someone else's work without telling them how to identify what was working and then unleashing them on each other turned out to be a shitty idea. It was like the fucking Hunger Games of self-esteem.  I think it was maybe one or two semesters before I was taking as many process courses as I could and avoiding workshop classes that weren't mandatory. 
Still, even though I kind of agreed with her, I wasn't about to go to college for six and a half years and not wrap up my degree in some show of solidarity. I stuck it out, but since then I've paid close attention to the "crab theory" and discovered that it's an increasingly useful rubric for deciding who to avoid.

It's not just useful when deciding which writers to hang around. It's also pretty useful in my life.
Anyone can be a "crab." You've probably already encountered several. Friends, family, people who are just "looking out for you" with their advice. ("Oh honey, I just want you to be realistic about this!" You know what's fucking realistic? My power and heating bill. You don't need to tell me I can't eat dreams for lunch, I am WELL aware, thank you very much.)

These people are really pulling you down. And while anyone can be a crab, bad writing groups are worst. They're like bitter, disillusioned crabs who secretly hate the escaping crab for having the gumption to try to escape. Not only do you have the problem that they probably don't know how to give good feedback or care about giving rather than getting (which is actually backwards from what is most useful to a writer), but they may literally see you as their competition and attempt subtle, machiavellian tricks to sabotage you. 
Sings: "And we would all go down together..."
(You damn kids and your not-getting Billy Joel jokes.)
Bad writing groups don't have a consistent look. They don't have a single flavor. They can be overly intellectual or overly social. They can seem incredibly literary or mainstream. They can involve lots of reading or almost none. They can be really down to earth or amazingly head-in-the-clouds. They can prepare stuffed tomatoes with feta cheese or stick out a bowl of Ruffles and some Rotel dip made from Velveeta. 
By the way if you decide to ditch the place with the stuffed tomatoes, do the casual grab of six or seven of them on your way out. The trick is to grab them almost like they're your "payment" for putting up with the few minutes you were there. Then stroll out like you own the place. You won't regret it.
Here's what happens when you're in a bad literary group: they hold you down instead of lifting you up. They pull you down into their cesspool of crap--whether it's gossip or negativity or over-intellectualization. And I know that phrase is a little vague and could have a lot of expressions (and to some degree you just have to trust your instincts) but I can give you a few red flags:
  • A group where most members express a desire to be professionals, yet they have flakey attendance. (I don't think that word means what they think it means.)
  • A group that seems more suited to complaining about the failings of the publishing industry than doing any actual writing/reading/discussing. ("Oh my god, they rejected my novelization of Robot Unicorn Attacks! I guess they just don't want to make all the money ever.")
  • A group where most of the writers never seem to actually finish anything. (Watch close for people who say "I decided to start something different....")
  • If the writers argue with feedback. (Bad, bad sign.)
  • Socially toxic environments. (If they backbite about the writing of whomever isn't there or spend time gossiping then that's a gossip group, not a writing group.)
  • Gigantic reading commitments that are clearly very, very rough drafts. (This is an insidious problem among starting writers, and one of the hardest lessons both in terms of difficulty and in terms of the hurt feelings when it finally sinks in. Writing prolifically as fast as you can is a very rough draft, but most new writers have a hard time seeing the flaws in their very early drafts. It's like a NaNoWriMo draft. They need to learn to do the first stages of revision themselves--unless all they want is very rough feedback. Writing involves refining that initial product. Art is about quality over quantity. You shouldn't be bringing anything earlier than a second or third draft to a workshop. It's like asking for genuine feedback on a musical number when you've only played it once and never practiced.  Peer review fits into the writing process in a very specific place and it's not after the initial splat.)
  • If they are super-duper esoteric about talking about writing. ("Ah, this reminds me of the Dada movement in it's deconstruction of minimalism as an absolute response to surrealism, obviously.") Listen to actual working artists for a while--they don't sound like that. These people just want to flaunt their erudite bling. 
  • If they just want line edits. (These people think their content is perfect, and there's nothing you can say to them to convince them otherwise--they are the worst sorts to give feedback to or get it from.)
  • Serious interpersonal--um...how to put this delicately--fucking. (If one writer is trolling the group or everyone's switching partners like a square dance, you might end up getting your rocks off, but there's going to be some serious epic ass, not-worth-it drama in five...four...three....)
  • They tell you exactly how to fix your draft. (Such people don't want to help you be a better writer, they want to help you be them.)
  • And here's the super biggie: if they express super, uber florid desires to be writers, but they don't seem to actually produce much between sessions, then they just want to get together and dream about being writers. 
Day three. I have only broken two other members of my future competition. Five to go.
And I know that Marsha is going to be a tough nut to crack.
Creative Commons photo by James Mitchell

There are other things that can be warning signs, but most of those you'll probably not figure out within two sessions. If they seem to disdain revision, they probably aren't ready to be professional writers. If they endlessly tool the same thing over and over, there's probably some fear of failure (or possibly success) going on. Mostly though you're going to have to see how you feel. Are these people pulling you down?
As for what makes a good critique group or what I would look for, the most important is a group that lifts you up. Beyond that, it can get pretty touchy feely. A good critique group is a lot like a good psychologist. You may have a perfectly good one, but if you aren't clicking, you're not going to do good work. Anything from stylistic differences to personality clashes can ruin a good workshop and it isn't really anyone's fault. 
Here are some good things that you want to look for:
  • This group has some members doing the same genre that you are or at least is sympathetic to it. (The last thing you want is to be a sci/fi writer dealing with a gaggle of stuck up "literary" snobs who think your work is shit simply because it's set on a spaceship.)
  • However they are not universally of one brand, genre, or style of writing and all self-congratulatory about how superior that writing is. (Circle jerks are only fun at the YMCA. In writing they can be dangerous.)
  • They own their criticism. (This can happen with "I feel/I thought/My reading..." statements instead of "This is/You did this..." statements. Honestly there's a whole skill set to giving good criticism, and I don't expect everyone to know it, but I look for people who can be gentle, compassionate, and acknowledge that aesthetics are about personal taste. Giving an opinion like it's an actual opinion instead of fact is very important.)
  • These people are roughly at the same level as you are. (Not that you can't learn anything from someone with a lot less experience or get anything from a writing group that is way above your head, but they're probably not the most bang for your buck. [And you want lots of bang for those bucks. BANGING IS THE BEST!] You will not get much out of a group if you are way out of your depth or playing mentor to a group of much less experience.)
  • You have roughly the same writing accolades. (This one is a trickier version of above. If one person has been published and the rest haven't, you're going to end up with a power dynamic in your group--especially if it's not just "one short story in an obscure zine" or something. I have seen inferior writers use the fact of their publication to browbeat really creative and daring choices out of unpublished writers who were--in my opinion--quite a bit better as writers. The guy even said "Well, what would I know, right?" with dripping sarcasm when I argued with him. Unless you want your group to be led, be about about the same place career-wise. It's just the way the dynamic will end up unfolding.)
  • A group that will help you find a better way to say something in the way that you want to say it rather than replacing your voice with their own.
  • Everyone there knows the difference between critique and proofreading. (If all the group is going to do is talk about grammar, you won't become a better writer; you'll become a better copy editor.)
  • There's no sexual tension. (This one can be hard, and most groups of adults have some sexual tension, but I tend to steer clear of groups where there is an abundance--which is especially hard since I'm a raging chick magnet. Awwww yeeeeeaaaaaaah. This isn't just because of the drama that comes when everyone starts getting their freak on, but because attraction can lead to insincere feedback--people being too deferent to those they want to ingratiate and vengefully hard on their detractors. When the well is poisoned by dishonest feedback because someone want to sleep with someone else, it changes the group dynamics.)
  • Unless there's a woman there who's really hot. But not like ludicrously hot. Kind of like "Plausibly-into-me-but-I'm-not-slumming-it" hot. Then I totes go for that group.

The good news, Shelia, is that most critique groups will reveal their true character within two sessions. The kinds of problems that will sneak up on you after that are probably not the sorts you could have much avoided anyway.

Thursday, January 30, 2014


Happy Birthday Writing About Writing!!!!

My sweet little blog turns two today. Now it will be saying "no" a lot and trying to assert its independence from me. Except, of course, whenever The Contrarian is in the room, and it suddenly has no end of loving affection to share.

So this has been my day:

Where are my million followers?  You promised me a million followers.

What are you talking about? I specifically told you that was unrealistic.

I want a million followers. It's my birthday! I want a million followers and a billion dollars and groupies.

What would you even do with groupies? You're a blog.

You ask for groupies all the time! That's pretty much all you talk about.

I talk about other stuff. Just last week I complained about insane internet celebrities who don't read the whole article before responding to it--

If you get groupies, I get groupies!

Yeah, but I don't have groupies, Blog. That's the whole point. It's kind of a joke about how everyone thinks writing is kind of glamorous but--


Yeah, but you don't even have.... You're a blog. You can't even....  Eh, you know what, I'll explain it when you're older.

And in the meantime...groupies?

Sure, I'll see what I can do.

So yeah, that's been my day. I hope yours is going better. Sometimes it's tough to get this guy to acknowledge that 614,000 page views in two years is kind of awesome for a blog that isn't written by a famous person or part of a network or staffed by dozens of writers.

But Blog is a little entitled and wants to grow up too fast. I tell Blog we'll get there, but Blog wants it all to happen at once.

Now if you'll excuse me, I have to go convince a two year old that "groupies" is slang for a cocktail of Red Vines, Pop Rocks, and carbonated Energy Drinks.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Course Adjustment: Year Three

Hoping for a SLIGHTLY bigger special effects budget this year.

Captain Krik: Mr. Sooloo, turn to heading seven-eight-nine-seven-six-six-nine-six-nine-three-six-nine-four-three-eight-seven mark four-two-zero-eight-six-nine-zero-three-four-eight-three-two point four-three-seven-five-four-two-zero-six-nine.

Mr. Sooloo: Turning left sir.  

So the blog is about to celebrate its second birthday (TOMORROW!) and I'm kind of getting the hang of blogging.

One thing I don't do well is the cruise control of life.

Just about at any point that I start to feel like I'm getting the hang of life, I immediately run out and find another thing at which I can get in over my head. In what may be some great twist of cosmic irony, I have found the most miserable times in my life were those I coasted through.

This has never been about backpacking in the Himalayas or skydiving or learning to tango, and it has certainly never been about finding a better job, making more money, or advancing my career--well not the one other people think is "real" anyway. I don't want to impugn people who push their boundaries and envelopes in these ways--being human is about finding one's own meaning in life.

For me, it has always been about writing.

So Writing About Writing will be making a few course adjustments as it kicks off its third year. As a reader you can look forward to less bullshit and more awesome.

And let me take a moment to emphasize that this is because of all of YOU! I would not have the increased time to focus on writing if I couldn't have dropped one of the classes I teach. I could not have dropped that class if I weren't making about $100 a month from your generous donations (and some ad revenue). So it is all of you who have made this possible. It's not enough to pay the bills, but it is enough to give the writing a little more time and energy.

So all that more awesome is because YOU'RE awesome. And I found a macro of a dog who looks like he's pointing at the camera to emphasize that point.

So what does this course correction mean for me and the actual writing? I mean besides something vague like "less bullshit"?

  • There will be a huge round up of finishing up many of the loose threads I have hanging. Last week's penultimate offering of the You Really Don't Have to Write series. That wasn't the last time I'll be going back to things I started months (and sometimes years) ago and haven't finished. The glossary posts, the Skyrim article, the last of You Don't Really Have to Write and more will be on the block to be finished up.
  • More entries! Though weekends may be link dumps and things like menu clean ups, I expect to be doing more entries.
  • I'll be starting two new "segments." (Below)
  • One new segment will be the Pointer Sisters link pimpage that I started a while back but never did anything with. I kept finding good links and then thinking "Wait...maybe I'd want to write about that! I can't share this! People will think I'm a total fraud!" I have since realized two things. I am never ever ever ever ever ever going to run out of ideas. If the idea lobe in my brain shut down RIGHT NOW I would still have years worth of backlogged posts to write. Also, I can write about the same thing and it will be totally different because I use phrases like "drippy anal sphincter" and "totes magotes" in my writing in petulant defiance of every language controlling doucherocket out there. (Also "doucherocket".)
  • The other new segment will be the very, very basics. I'm sometimes diving pretty deeply into the artistry of writing without hitting the basics. An article about the difference in capabilities between close third limited and first person narration is awesome, but sometimes people don't know what a first person narration even is.
  • A slightly higher quality of post. I don't have the money to hire a copy editor, but with the extra time I've got, I can at least run articles past Supportive Girlfriend for a second set of English major eyes.
  • More of our popular guest bloggers from the first year, now that it has been discovered that their articles were being intercepted before submission by a virus implanted in the W.A.W. mainframe by our Evil Mystery Blogger. It has nothing to do with the fact that those posts were time and energy intensive and very hard to keep up with this last year. Nope. (Dude, I'm serious. It has nothing to do with that!)
  • Oh yeah, we're totally going to find out who that a-hole is. Oh yes!
  • More product reviews, craft of fiction articles, and generally USEFUL articles. 
  • And the biggest change: MOAR FICTION. I will be offering up more of that "(and occasionally some writing)" stuff. Look forward to at least one fiction offering each month, and possibly more. Or dread with a mortal terror--that's cool too.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Update Schedule for Fall 2018

As of October 2018, Writing About Writing has undergone a major restructuring and now updates three times a week––usually on Mon/Wed Fri.

Writing About Writing consists chiefly of one guy with lots of fake people running around behind his eyeballs (he takes care of a 4 year old, pet-sits throughout the SF Bay Area, is writing a novel and a few other bits of fiction, and sometimes even does really wacky shit like try to go on a date or play D&D or something), but this is the schedule we will generally make an effort to keep.


Fridays, for the most part, will be The Big Post™ of the week. If you're here for the hard-hitting writing advice (with the occasional examination of how language and narrative play into broader social issues), Friday is the day to tune in.


Wednesdays will be our smaller posts: calls to vote or nominate in whatever poll is going on, the best of the prior month, quickies, fortune cookie wisdom. Things I like to call "jazz hands."


Harder to quantify, Mondays are probably between Wednesdays and Fridays in their content and girth. They will be personal updates, smaller mailboxes, prompts, guest blogs,

The Three Post Rule

Some weeks aren't going to go down like clockwork and they might be front or back loaded with side gigs or other commitments. My writing career is also starting to take me to occasional points of interest like conventions or invitations to do interviews or podcasts. In these cases I will (sometimes) still get three posts up. They might just to up off schedule––Thur, Fri, Sat for example.

Facebook Writing and Social Justice Bard

If you really like our Social Justice Bard posts, don't worry! They will still be around. But I also I invite you to follow my Public Facebook Page as well (you can friend it if you send me a message, but it might be better for both of us if you follow it for a while first––unfiltered me is not everyone's cup of tea). I write almost daily in that capacity over there. Also, FB page is where I put thoughts that are more directly political and less likely to be about "narratives," "language," and things I can pour into the container of writing. I also often post "proto-versions" of SJB posts on Facebook and find that they evolve later into full posts (if you're interested in seeing how those things develop. Also, fret not; there may be fewer SJB posts here on Writing About Writing since we'll be dealing with fewer available "slots" overall, but there will still be some.

A Fourth Post?

There MIGHT occasionally be a fourth post in a week. Usually this will happen when I've written something very light and fluffy for the Wednesday post, but I also need to cover some ground on "blog business." (Like posting the results of a poll or something.) In this case you might see an extra post pop up from time to time on a Tue/Thur/Sat. Fiction will also usually go up independent of our regular schedule, and may be the fourth post in a given week.

  • I still nanny for a four year old, sometimes have more pet sitting than I can handle, and my host body occasionally succumbs to your Earth illnesses, so those three posts might not always happen like clockwork or may involve going off the rails of my usual updates
  • This should also cut down on the thing where I'm apologizing to absolutely fucking nobody that it's Tuesday and I've yet to put so much as a taco video up. As long as I get in all the entries that week, my readers (who have literally never said anything in six years about my update schedule) and I can give me a break.
  • I invoke the Anything Can Happen™ real world excuse. I usually have a couple of "emergency blogs" tucked away, but I chew through them pretty quickly when the fit hits the shan. Health complications might crop up suddenly and have me needing to do a sudden unexpected several-hour shift or even an overnight...or maybe even more. Trust me, I'm going to feel ten times worse about missing a post than all of my readers combined.
  • Admin weekends at least once a month will still be a thing–usually the Monday, but occasionally the Friday, will be cannibalized. I need the extra time to answer emails, clean up menus, catch up on editing and hang out in my  

Also you like what I do, stuff a few dollars into that "tip jar" at the top left, or even better yet sign up to be a monthly patron through Patreon and get in on the back channel discussions about posting schedules, big changes, and upcoming projects. I have bills to pay like any other starving artist, and I'm working four side gigs to make ends meet, so even a dollar a month (just $12 a year) will go a long way. However, I am over forty and have had a "real job" for exactly two years of my life, so I can't afford to be as Bohemian-carefree as my twenties about saving up for retirement or health care.

Monday, January 27, 2014

The Grind Helps Me Focus

"I am NOT!"
"Wait, did you just say I was cute?"
"In that case, yes.  Yes I am.  Carry on."
So the bloom is off the rose.

I'm not talking about the baby. The baby is still redonkulously cute.  In fact, today The Brain has to go renew some of her crime-fighting certifications through the City of Oakland and the County of Alameda, or she could be tagged as a vigilante and fined for stopping bank robberies and muggers and stuff.

Being a superhero in the SF/Bay Area is a nightmare of bureaucracy. That's why all the famous ones work in New York.

No, the bloom is off the rose of the semester.  It usually takes me a couple of weeks in to get a sense of how things are really going to go. Teachers aren't usually as bad as their students about misjudging the impact of a semester during the first week (because we're withered and bitterly cynical from experience), but it still helps to feel yourself get into the grind a little bit so you're not tricking yourself that some of that "clean slate" energy isn't tricking you into thinking you're an international rockstar when you're really part of a moderately popular county jug band.

I usually wait a week or two, at least, before I start committing to writing regimens. When I used to dive into them head first after the first week, I would often find myself, come week three, in a fetal position in the shower singing myself a lullaby in a hitching voice.

Even though I know having a baby means pretty much anything could change at any moment, I've got a sense about how writing for two other blogs and teaching are going to shake out, so I should be able to write the new schedule tomorrow.

This week has involved a lot of trouble writing. The difference between a writer and most writer hopefuls is that the writing gets done whether I'm having an easy day or a tough day. It's just the difference between taking three hours to write and taking eight hours to write.

There have been a lot of eight hour days this week.

There are a lot of reasons my week has been kind of grindy.  There were some ridiculously ignorant comments on a post I wrote for another blog that are hard for me to "just let go" of.  Hard for the same OCD-fountainhead reasons that I can sit and write for hours at a stretch and that . The Brain has been auditing my contributions to the Hall of Rectitude to determine if my contribution matches what I take in room, board, spandex, and super soldier serum (since I'm not a mutant). Since I've been watching The Contrarian a lot lately, and doing my best to keep The Hall of Rectitude from being The Hall of Wrecktitude. And I guess it's fair that she's doing the audit to save a few cents here and there that we might need on Wrecking Ball's legal fees.  (Long story short: Miley Cyrus is trying to sue him for the name even though he's been The Wrecking Ball since the 90's--probably didn't help that he started running around with a cybernetic boom box that plays that song while he's beating up criminals and villains. We get it dude. You come in like a wrecking ball. Fuck!) Anyway, since the lawsuits hit, The Brain has been pinching pennies on everything from uniform cleaning to the plasma bolt power settings in the training room. I feel a little under-appreciated when my every hour spent washing dishes is called into question. The Contrarian is also kind of having a rough time. Apparently he's right on schedule for his six week growth spurt and that means a few days of being hungrier than mom can keep up with, but he's been responding to people who've said he's tired or done eating with a lot of "I am not!"

So we're weathering a rough patch and trying to write despite it.

I would be remiss if I didn't speak of the highs as well. The blog is doing well, numbers are higher than they've been since last September. I am probably going to break 30k. Even though my Facebook Page is mostly about memes and puns, it at almost 7,000 members. And I recently had my eight (or ninth?) article on Stumbleupon break a thousand "likes." It's been a good week--just a tough one for writing.

And, there's no getting around this one, and it's a good thing. If I can come up with a realistic writing regimen for the semester when things are a little grindy, I can almost certainly keep it up when they're going more smoothly again.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Prompt: Look Down Your Own Mountain

Today's prompt is based on last week's post about looking back down the mountain. If you haven't read it, you will probably want to, as the prompt might not make sense if you don't know what I'm on about.

It's less of a creative writing prompt, and more of a creative writER prompt. It's designed to help combat the feeling that almost every writer feels that there is still so far to go and that they aren't actually making any progress at all.

I have prompts about how to define success so that you can look up the mountain and decide which peak you want to hit and how you're going to get there. I even have talked about setting small goals each day to help the march of progress.

But from time to time, a writer (or really any artist) needs to remind themselves of just how far they've come.

Prompt: Look "back down the mountain." Take a moment to list out between a dozen and twenty things you have accomplished as a writer. These don't have to be external acknowledgements (like contests won or scholarships) though they can be. They can be as concrete as a publication credit or as vague as writing successfully every day, the fact that you have multiple stories in your head, or choosing writing over something else you wanted. Don't write out every little thing you can think of ("When I was six I wrote a ten page story for Mrs. Delgado...."). This isn't an exercise in everything you've ever done, but more the things which, looking back, you can be the most proud of. Between 12-20 means you can't just list a couple of things, and you can't list everything trivial--you will really have to think of those things you have done that seem like your truest accomplishments. If you need inspiration, you can see my list here. Try to hit the things that feel like they cover distance.  When you are done, gaze in awe at your list and realize that you really have worked hard.  There may be more to go, and some days it feels like you're not getting anywhere, but you really have come a long way, baby.

Friday, January 24, 2014

The Mailbox: What Genre Should I Write In?

How does a writer decide which genre to write in? 

[Remember, keep sending in your questions to chris.brecheen@gmail.com with the subject line "W.A.W. Mailbox" and I will answer each Friday.  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. And it's really okay to ask multiple questions.]    

Jennifer asks:

I see that you are still looking for questions, so I will ask another even though I feel like I am taking advantage of you, getting your advice for free.

What are your thoughts on genre, specifically how does one decide in what genre to write? I also see this as tied up with what a person likes to read, for instance, if I like to read sci-fi perhaps I should be writing sci-fi. Somehow in my head this also ties into what I "should" be reading and writing and then I realize that I am also asking for your permission to never pick up a Dickens novel again and write whatever I want (if I only knew what that was).

My reply:

For starters, don't worry about sending me multiple questions. I live for this shit. Without questions, my Fridays are an existential crisis of staring at myself in the mirror and spitting at the reflection while saying, "Nobody likes you!  NOBODY!"

Several people who have sent in questions have sent in multiple questions. (Seriously sometimes I wonder if I just have half a dozen fans who each click a hundred times a day.) I often end up answering questions people have asked me in person or on Facebook or something to kind of fill in for weeks where I haven't actually gotten questions though my e-mail. There's still a lot of jazz hands going on at The Mailbox. I haven't actually been inundated with questions since last summer when I had that article going viral.

I'm lucky if I have the first fucking clue what I'm doing a week out.

But let's get to your question...

There are two answers to this. One would be irresponsible of me not to tell you as a writer. The other would be criminal of me not to tell you as an artist.

Let me let you in on one of the tragic "business-end" realities of being a non-uberfamous writer: it is reDONKulously hard to cross genres as a writer. This is one of those things they tell you early on if you take some sort of business of writing class or that comes up when there's some kind of Q&A with an agent or publisher.

You're basically going to be "locked in" to whatever genre you first gain traction in. Not that Stephen King can't write a fantasy saga or the world wouldn't read the shit out of J.K. Rowling's gunslinging western, but this is kind of like how Marky Mark was an "actor" before he became a "no, seriously" actor. When you're that big, you get to do whatever you want.

For most working writers, crossing genres is a no-no.

Try to imagine all life as you know it stopping instantaneously and every molecule in your body exploding at the speed of li-- No wait. That's crossing the streams. But crossing the genres is still a no-no.

It's such a no-no, in fact, that you will have more trouble finding an agent and a publisher to take a chance on your cross-genre work than you would if you were a brand new author.


Think about that for a second. MORE.

Sounds totes ridic right? Published author. Built up fan base. Probably some kind of pre-established promotional infrastructure. But if you're writing science fiction and you show up with something that's clearly more in the literary genre (banal events, deeply troubled characters, ambiguous ending, focus on linguistic flourish over story, etc...) your agent and publisher are probably going to take a pass, and any new publishers and agents are actually going to consider your existing audience a strike against you. You may even have trouble with your old publisher and agent if you go back to writing in the original genre.

And those money grubbing publishing industry people know what they're talking about too.  Fans of yours probably WILL be upset and abandon your "brand name."

Turns out all those readers expect pretty much more of the same, and they will become strange and disillusioned--pumped to the gills with bile and haterade for being forced to buy a book that was not what they expected. And can they trust your future books to be what they want or have you shaken their trust in the universe down to the foundations?

I'm on page 250 and the zombies still haven't shown up!
And this Trevor dude just kisses her and talks of undying affection.
When is he going to get his gatling gun arm, already?

A writer is kind of like a brand, and a writer who crosses genres is a bit like a McDonalds with lobster thermidor on the menu.

I'll pause here to tell you a little anecdote. Usually once or twice a month, someone takes time out of their day to tell me that, whatever the poll is for that month, it's all wrong. I have included in my SciFi authors, a writer who is clearly in the fantasy genre--how dare I! Even though the polls are reader generated, and I usually let people use their best judgement, some people decide they really need to get up in my grill and set the record straight. The take home here is not that sci-fi readers are sometimes scary about being prescriptive (they are, but they'll hurt me if out them), but rather your readers will have a sense of what genre you're writing in (perhaps even if you don't), and they will be very sensitive if you try to step out of that.

There are a few exceptions to this: you can probably write across the fiction/non-fiction divide without too much trouble, and that means something like a memoir will probably do okay, even if you're established in writing detective fiction. Also, readers seem to be pretty comfortable with writers crossing the sci-fi/fantasy genre without any trouble as the dovetail between those fandoms is enormous. You can also use a pen name. And even if it's the worst kept secret in publishing who you really are, that will––for some reason––take the curse off of it.

Are you getting the feeling your author name is your brand? You should be.

But for the most part you should be aware that in terms of your marketability on the business end of creative writing, be ready to basically be expected to stick with whatever you start in until/unless you become a household name.


And this is a big "however." It's a huge "however."  Perhaps the biggest "however" that exists within the arts.

What do you want to write?

The only thing you should be writing is what your soul burns to write. Write that book that is dying to get out of you. Write the book you're aching to read.  If that's science fiction or fantasy, write that. If it's one novel in each of six different genres, write them. Hang the industry. Trust that with passion and determination, you will somehow find a way to make the business end work (especially with all the exciting e-pub and self-pub developments in the industry).

Too many people have tried to write what sells or what they think would be popular and simply couldn't make themselves interested enough to really keep writing. They ended up with two chapters they thought were going to "make so much money" and a strange aversion to their writing desk. It's hard enough to sit down on the best of days and grit out the work you absolutely love; imagine writing something your heart isn't into. Imagine if your readers pick up on the fact that you just don't really care about what you're writing. Imagine if your lack of passion comes through each page, every paragraph, every line.

Because it will.

Writing isn't lucrative. It's not glamorous. The only reason to do anything as a fiction author is because you really, really want to. If you happen to write something that's popular, wonderful. If there's a way to market your book with a few tweaks, that's up to you. But the only question you should start with is what book are you simply dying to read that hasn't been written yet.

Now go write it.

Down the road, if you're writing novels for a living, maybe you have to make a slightly different choice–put that cross-genre book on the back burner or publish it under a pen name or something. But for now, just write what you burn to write.

Now as for your reading follow-up question, that's a little easier to answer. You probably don't want to limit your reading diet to the same thing you write. You can "concentrate" there but it will be really good for you as a writer to sample vastly different word-smithing as often as you can. Art is fundamentally about looking at things in new ways, and a writer is no exception--as many fresh perspectives as possible are absolutely essential.

(I mean imagine if Picasso never got into African art because it wasn't what he was doing himself, or never studied that "cubism stuff" that was going on in France because he was dedicated to his blue period.)

You should read constantly both in and out of the genre in which you write just to have fresh ideas, non-derivative devices, and a sense of your genre's style.  It's like hearing your own accent. It can be hard unless you spend some time listening to other accents.

Most writers you probably love are incredibly well-read. They may know their genre (though it's often funny how many of them don't) but they usually have an amazingly broad sampling of many, many other forms of writing as well--from classics to other genres, to non fiction. Stephen King probably could teach a Literature Classics course to grad students without missing a beat (and with lots of focus on the grisly deaths), but from what I know about him, he probably wouldn't know what the latest Koonz novel was about.

I suspect you might be able to skate by with a blank spot like Dickens--I have a troubled relationship with many Victorian authors myself--but in general, you should expect to read a lot outside of your genre.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

It's Really Okay Not to Write. Really. (Part 6)

The Pencil rules you.
All hail the pencil.
Even if you're writing for money, it doesn't have to be your day job.

Intro and Part 1- The Journey Begins  

Part 2- Chesslectric Boogaloo

Part 3- The Search for Sporadic

Part 4- Live Free or Write Hard 

Part V- The Expense Strikes Back

Part VI  The Half Blood Prints


It Doesn't Have to Be Your Day Job

Okay so you've decided that you want to be a writer. Really.

Wait....really?  You know you don't have to. No one is going to stand over you. No one is going to yell at you. It's okay to sort of casually imagine how rich and famous you would be without actually doing all that work (that likely would never make you rich or famous anyway). You don't need to go around looking for permission not to write or talking about how it feels like a chore or finding other writers who tell you it's okay to not write. You can even enjoy books and appreciate language and occasionally jot something down for sheer pleasure without it being about being a Writer with a capital W. There is no reason--


You really want to do this?



Fame? Fortune? Groupies? They will be mine.
I am the premier rock band recorderist.
You're not just doing it because someone told you were good at writing--probably back when you were in junior high--and you feel a responsibility to pursue your talent. You figure it's the best shot you've got at being rich and famous since you throw up during public speaking and the only instrument you learned to play was the recorder back when you were five?  This isn't how you plan to break into your real dream of being a big Hollywood director or something, right? You really want to write?

Really?  Okay.

You don't have to do it every day though. You can just do it when you feel like it.

Lots of people have hobbies that they do when they want to. It's okay to do it only when you're in the mood or you're feeling inspired. Lots of people play baseball for fun or enjoy video games when they are in the mood for them. They don't sit down every day and do them like a training regimen. It's okay to decide that you're only going to do it when inspiration strikes you like unicorn puke.

Have some fucking inspiration, motherfucker!
Photo by fluffycatheven

No?  You want to go beyond the capricious desires of your muse, and pursue writing with a greater dedication, treating it more like work. You want to improve and practice and do it even when you'd rather not, and be the best you can be.  Are you sure? Because at this point you're probably starting to be a little obsessive about it. You don't mind being like a cat lady, except with writing?

Okay then.

But of course you know you don't have to make money from it. Lots of people practice at arts and crafts to get better without thinking that they are going to make money from it. I knew a guy who rehearsed in his community choir three nights a week and practiced almost an hour a day with no intention of being a professional singer. It's perfectly okay to just write for fun without holding to the idea that some day it will make you money or be your job.

It's okay not to enter the business side of writing--which involves all kinds of non-writing crap like promotions and agents and publishers and learning the industry, but also involves a whole new dimension of not just writing for pleasure, but putting your work out there for all to see, getting feedback (most of it probably pretty negative) and just a grinding demand for constant productivity.

No? You still want to try.

Okay then.  Here's the next thing to consider when you're thinking about how it's really okay not to write. (Really.) You still don't have to make it your principle source of income. People who write have a strange sort of tendency to wish that was their main and only job. They never want to make a little money--they always want to be full time writers. You already know you're not going to get rich or famous probably ever, but certainly not by working three hour days and sipping espressos in the French Rivera. No, this is going to be actual, real work. Every goddamned day.

Lots of crafty people have little sideline businesses making soaps, knitting Jayne hats, or making jewelry. They do it on the weekends or maybe after work, and it's mostly a labor of love but they manage to make a little money doing it. They are interested in improving and doing it for money, but after they update their Etsy site or spend a day in a booth at the farmer's market they go back to their real jobs as accountants and lawyers and telephone sanitizers and make the real money they need for things like food and rent. It's okay to do it as a part time job.

I have given up my practice to sell
speckled ceramic frogs on Etsy.
Because the shit thing is, if you want writing to be your day job, you have to do it every day. And the real ass noodles is that you probably have to take a pay cut, even if you work more than a full time job.

Let me hit you with some sobering news: most fiction authors can't quit their day job, even if they wanted to. The money short stories pay out is probably not worth the time it took to write them, and royalty checks are dribbles until an author has several popular titles. Basically until you're regularly writing bestsellers or sell movie rights, you are likely going to find that your income isn't really able to support you.

Even the writers who sort of make money writing are usually faking it a little. It's some creative writing and a lot of jazz hands. They work as anthology editors or for literary magazines or as writing teachers or editors, or they are writers of a non-creative type to pay the bills. While they can say "I'm a writer" with a professional sense of pride, and probably care more about their creative endeavors, if you broke down where the paychecks were coming from, you'd find that their other job really paid the bills.

People who LOOK like it's their day job are probably faking it too. (Well, most of them anyway.) They have spouses whose income is large enough that they can afford to make a pittance, they are living in a situation where they basically have no expenses like with parents or on trust funds, they have some kooky set up like I do (where I am a househusband to a couple I live with) or they are mainly keeping the boiler lit during the winter months at a remote haunted hotel in the Rocky Mountains where evil twins and gallons of blood like to ride around in the elevator. They have managed to set something up where it's basically okay that they're pulling in less than minimum wage because it's more important to them to spend as much time as possible on their craft than to have big paychecks.

(In fact, if you really want to be a full time fiction author, you probably have to give up your expectations for an ordinary paycheck altogether. I had a mentor--an absurdly talented writer--who worked some sixty hours a week teaching at three different institutions plus a writing workshop for three hours a week (plus prep) who often felt vaguely dissatisfied that his writing career wasn't going anywhere even though he felt financially unable to give up any of that teaching time to dedicate more to writing.)

The reality of writing fiction is that it's brutally hard to make a living doing it, especially if you can't spend several years to a decade doing it in a less-than-day-job capacity. This recent Guardian article says that writers make an average of £600 pounds (a little less than $1000 USD) per year.

I've been writing 5-7 entries a week on this blog for very close to two years. My numbers are pretty good for a solo blog running for only a couple of years. A thousand hits a day is damned respectable. I make roughly $100.00 a month. Nice right? A little more than the average I sited above. Except that's about 25 hours or so a week I spend on it so, lemmie do the math here....hmmmmmm.....carry the one.....move that over....imaginary numbers.....square root of 9.....humanities major here...I took math for liberal arts.....

Ah yes! About one dollar an hour.  Or roughly 1/7th the current federal minimum wage or less than 10% of San Francisco's municipal minimum wage.

Don't get me wrong, the hundred dollars is a wonderful reminder that I'm making progress, but there's no way I could live off of it. Even at ten times that amount, I'd be struggling in most major cities.

So it's okay if you don't want to try to get to some point where you can quit your day job. That's going to take a long time, a lot of passion, and more work than you probably ever wanted to give this stupid friggen hobby. It's really okay for you to just work it as a sideline gig.  Maybe publish a short story here and there and enjoy the money it gives you to buy a video game or catch a movie. It can be a nice addition to your real income.

It's okay to not want to live in a room of a couple at forty and not have a car because you are passionate about your art. Even if you want to dip your toe into making money as a creative writer, it's okay not to give it your day job's worth of effort.  It's really okay not to write that much.


Go to Part 7 The New Blood

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Don't Forget To Vote!!

Our poll for the best contemporary science fiction author rages on.

In all the hype and pomp and circumstance of the new year and all the scheduling changes and baby stories and new blogs I'm writing for, please don't forget that the January poll only has a little over a week left in it.

There was a girl power thing going on for a bit, but then Pratchett burst from mid poll to the top. Currently Pratchett and Le Guin are in a dead tie.  However the entire top half of the poll is so close that even a few votes could change things completely.  YOU could play kingmaker!

Though I have no way to "check,"try to keep in mind that the cut off line between contemporary and classic is 1970 (chosen fairly arbitrarily), so for the authors who wrote across that divide, please consider only their works on the post 1970's side.

If, for example you thought that without Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula LeGuin's career was unremarkable, then you wouldn't vote for her since that was written in the late sixties. Also, you need to read The Dispossessed and The Lathe of Heaven for goodness sake!

Like our last poll, everyone gets FIVE (5) votes.  However, there is no way to rank your responses, so using all five votes will "dilute" the effect of each of them.  If you have one or two favorites, you should only vote once or twice.

The poll itself is on the left hand sub menus at the bottom. It's long and black and sleek like the ship of an evil overlord.

Monday, January 20, 2014

A Week of The Little Things

I will probably keep doing my "personal-ish" updates on Mondays (that way the mad fans who keep writing "MOAR DEETS!" can know when to tune in for the very best in cyber stalking, and the people who think "what do I care about this guy?" know which days to go fuck themselves avoid.

It's actually been a pretty damned good week if you forget about the fact that The Hall of Rectitude was attacked by an army of Scarecrows. We all ended up beating off the straw-men as best we could, but they just kept coming. We ended up having to strike down the psychic who was controlling them--she got away but we have a new villain named Doctor M.E. to worry about. But aside from that nasty business, it's been totes amazeballs!

This week there are lots of smallish personal and writing developments, that are rocking my socks right off my feet.  I keep putting them back on, but they get rocked right off again. Probably none of them would particularly worthy of their own post, but every single one is slightly epic.  I sort of want to put them on a t-shirt and strut down the street, and flirt with all the hotties in such a way that they can totally see my shirt.  So in honor of a week of little things, I give you one of my Posts With a Soundtrack(tm). Just hit play on the Youtube video, and then start reading.
  • I got a Fitbit for Christmas. (It's a little accelerometer that I wear like a watch and it tells me how far I've walked). It isn't that great, in that doesn't walk for me or promise me threesomes if I hit my daily goals, but it does kind of show me when I'm being sedentary. I've been walking between five and ten miles a day most days, and in addition to getting pretty close to hitting my first weight loss goal, I find that the exercise is doing really well at clearing my head for writing.
  • I had a rough week on one of the other blogs I write for. My story of The Contrarian's birth has prompted a lot of members of the Youth Crime Fighter's Advocacy Union to lodge formal protests. But I wrote another post sort of explaining it, and I kind of felt like I nailed that one. Like I sort of want to run up to my roof and yell "NAILED IT!"Actually my roof is really slanted. I'm just asking to max out my insurance deductible if I try that. Maybe I should go to Tilden tomorrow or something.
  • Writing About Writing reached another totally arbitrary--yet still totally exciting--round number. It's hard to get brain-frothingly excited about 600,000 once you've passed that HALF A MILLION point, but it's still pretty awesome.  We are on our way to the big "Seven Figures. (You have to say that in a deep booming voice through cupped hands to get the right effect.)
    There's got to be at least one or two that aren't from my mother.
  • I ALSO hit a sort of mid-milestone (but still a bit worth crowing about) on Facebook.  Facebook is sort of like the red headed stepchild of the internet--what would happen if you told someone to design the most frustrating yet useful tool they possibly could. But it has perhaps the highest glass ceiling for helping me get W.A.W. out to people who haven't seen it before.
    Only 4,500 of them are bots!
  • Though perhaps the biggest number-based excitement has more to do with how Writing About Writing is doing on an ongoing basis. Milestones are awesome, of course, but the ongoing improvement of W.A.W.'s performance is especially awesome.  After Changing the Creepy Guy Narrative died down in September-ish, I stopped breaking a thousand hits a day except maybe for once a month or so.  Usually it was closer to 700 or so.  Slowly I've crept back up to the thousand hits a day mark.  I'm still not hitting it every day, but enough get a little bit of drool and periodically check my inbox for groupie applications.  (Not yet, but soon, I'm sure.)  
    Did Chaucer get a thousand hits a day? No he didn't.
  • Obligatory baby pictures.  Drink them in while you can. The Brain isn't going to let me take pictures forever.  The Lair of Larceny is using facial recognition software in it's villainy these days, and the last thing we want is The Contrarian being targeted for conversion. I'm sure they'd have their hands full given his power, but he is also already skirting the line of anti-hero, so it could be easier than we think. Once he's old enough to have his facial features recognized later when he's in Crime Fighter School, she won't let me post any more pictures.  
  • I started work this week.  That's why we've been flying a little seat-of-our-pants-ish these last few days. Things should stabilize soon, but I'm still getting the hang of how quickly things can change with a baby in the house hall. I'm pretty sure the diapers have their own psychic powers too!  However, I am 90% sure that the new update schedule can still be awesome and be Mon-Fri and I won't have a psychotic break every Wednesday.  Maybe.  The psychotic break thing might be pushing it.

Friday, January 17, 2014

The Mailbox: Little Kid's Grammar

Check out our snazzy new Mailbox picture!
No seriously, check it out!
My kid is talking wrong!

[Remember, keep sending in your questions to chris.brecheen@gmail.com with the subject line "W.A.W. Mailbox" and I will answer each Friday.  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. I'll try to answer anything that is peripherally about writing, but my expertise is limited.]    

Just a quickie today since yesterday unsupportive girlfriend kicked open my door and said, "The Hall of Rectitude isn't going to clean itself." I tried to explain about the baby and how the dishes might pile up for two or even three days, but she was having none of it, and since she was wearing Dr. Cybertrobotic's power armor (well, the left arm anyway), I wasn't about to get into a fight.

Wendy asks:

I have a grammar issue I am working on and I am curious how you would (will) tackle it. I have a twenty month old whose vocabulary is growing by the minute (or so it seems.) One interesting issue popping up is the difference between first person and second person personal pronouns. He points at himself and says "you" and then at me and says "me" because that is what I say. I think he would be quickly distracted by the nearest shiny object if I tried to explain "you are me to you and I am you to you." Even I want to say "look, shiny!" and change the subject when I repeat that sentence out loud. I know he will get it in time but I am curious what your thoughts are. If anyone else has read this far and would like to add your two cents, please do. Thanks :)

My Reply:

I'm going to take a crack at this even though it's a little more of a language acquisition question than one of grammar in the strictest sense. This stuff gives me a nerd-boner, and I did some research before writing this reply, but it's not like I'm well studied or have a PhD in Kidtalkology. So just please keep in mind that I am neither a linguist nor an early childhood education expert; this just coming from as much as I know about either, and others can feel free to check me.

The interesting thing is that, in a way, it is actually impossible for a child to make a grammar mistake...at least in the way we tend to think of them. Of course they can say things incorrectly--they do that all the time much to our twisted, sadistic amusement. But they are either repeating exactly what someone around them said--in which case it's not their error. Or, they are extrapolating a rule they do know into an irregular situation. (Like saying that the plural of foot is "foots" or something.) While this is technically true of most adults as well (basically the reason we have dialects and local colloquialisms) there is more a sense that adults should "know better."

From what I know about this subject--which I want to reiterate is limited--I'm pretty sure there are a couple of different things going on. One is that a very young child's sense of the world as separate from themselves is completely different than adults. Adults (unless they're narcissistic jerkoffs who can't even walk past a window without checking themselves out in the reflection) have a sense that other people exist and have egos similar to their own. But kids don't just act self-centered; they are self-centered. That's not because they're all little assholes (even though they are), but because their brains are still developing. The neural pathways that understand the world around them are still in the formative stage. That's why peekaboo is so exciting to babies. As far as their little brains are able to grasp, you are literally disappearing and reappearing--they don't "get" that you keep existing when you're behind the blanket. Early lingual kids are a bit further along in this development, but they're still wrapping their heads around it. So the idea of different pronouns might be extra confusing. (I mean why would you need a pronoun that doesn't have to do with him? Why would a word change when used by someone else. There are no other people.  That's nonsense!)

The second thing has more to do with how you're using the words. It's like that old joke from Burns and Allen. (George: "Say goodnight, Gracie." Gracie: "Goodnight Gracie.") If you call yourself "I" and him "you" he's going to assume that he is "you" and you are "I." [It's actually amazing how logical small children can be.] It'll take a little while to parse that those pronouns float depending on who is using them.  Actually, you don't need to correct him at all, and from what I've read that might be kind of frustrating and confusing. Basically he's going to get it from assimilation not being "taught." (Human brains can't be "taught" language in the traditional sense until we are about 4 or 5--or basically around the time we start reading.) If you just keep speaking correctly around him, he'll get it. From what research I did, the phase usually only lasts a couple of months, at most, so if you just keep talking normally, he should get it without you really having to stop and teach him directly.

Hope that answers your question, Wendy!

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Looking Back Down the Mountain

The biggest thing around here to hike is Mt. Diablo.  Technically there's Mt. Tamalpais, but it's a longer drive, a shorter hike, and from a totally subjective opinion, the view from the top is somewhat less effective in inspiring a reaction of: "What does it all even MEAN?"

I like having existential crises when I'm looking out from the tops of mountains. That's basically the best thing about being up there. The more existential the crisis, the better. I hate getting up there and not feeling the crushing sense that I'm the most insignificant speck of mammal dust ever to crawl across the surface of a tiny planet in a backwater spiral of one of hundreds of BILLIONS of galaxies. But also that my small and insignificant mammalian ass just crawled to the tippy top of this very big thing. And fuck you, mountain, with your big enormous self, I just will-to-powered right up the side...of your face.

See Mt. Diablo is just out there in the middle of nowhere.  Hamilton. Tam. All those other mountains are lots of peaks and so you get a great view...of the peak over there.  But Mt Diablo sticks out of the middle of the ground so far from anything else that from the top, you can actually see the curvature of the Earth--in fact, its viewshed in several directions is only limited by the Earth's curve.

Existential city!

Uh....is this a blog about Mt. Diablo or was there going to be some sort of point about writing soon?

Shut up, evil italics voice.  I'm getting to that.

If you're hiking to the summit of Mt. Diablo from Mitchell Canyon, much of your upward ascent is early in your hike along a fire access road that runs something like a 16% grade on average with bits going as high as 20.

Oh, right, this is totally about writing.

Shut up.  I'm almost there.

So if you've ever hiked trails this steep, it basically feels like you're going about as "up" as you can without actually being climbing instead of hiking. Each step becomes a tiny shuffle. And even though the worst bit of it is only about a half a mile, it takes nearly an hour and causes muscles you didn't know you had to start letter writing campaigns against your decision to do such a silly thing as go climb a mountain.

Welcome to my blog everyone: Writing About Nothing.

Damn it, let me finish!

Anyway, here you are taking steps that feel like they're about an inch each, and you've been working for an hour, and your calves are screaming, and you look up and it doesn't look like you've even really moved at all...

But then you stop and turn around.

And down beneath you, you see entire cities--cities it takes you a half an hour to drive through even in mild traffic--sprawled out and tiny lines of freeway slicing through them like grey thread. You see neighborhoods and housing tracts like colored patches in a speckled mosaic. And you realize that you may not think you were moving, but you're already looking some 1500 feet down.  You just got caught up in how small the steps felt and how far you had to go.

Okay, I think I see where you might be heading with this.  Jesus, take long enough.

Even the first time I climbed Mt. Diablo, I realized how much a metaphor for writing it really was. Writers can get so caught up in how far they still have to go, in how it feels like they're just not getting anywhere, that sometimes they forget to look back down the mountain and see how far they've come.

And I think it's one of the biggest mistakes a young writer can make.

Because it can be so frustrating not to get that perspective once in a while.

So here is my look down the mountain:

  • I have been writing daily (for the most part) for 20 years.
  • I have two manuscript drafts.  They need revision but they are written.
  • I have at least six or seven solid ideas for other longer works including at least one multi-part fantasy saga rolling around in my noodle.
  • I have a degree in creative writing. Technically that's an English major with emphasis, but I learned a lot about craft and process.
  • I have been blogging for two years, and successfully writing an official entry 5-7 times per week.
  • If my blog were printed up it would be roughly 1200-1800 pages.
  • I have put three of my short stories here to great reception.
  • My fourth bit of creative non-fiction is also getting good response, and should be completed soon.
  • I made $280 in my first year of blogging.  About $1/day.
  • I made about $1200 this year from blogging.  (It's only about a dollar an hour, but it's still an improvement over last year.)
  • I have consistently, unerringly, and definitively made life decisions that have prioritized writing over other facets of life--including money, a social life, and even family.  That's not necessarily a "good" thing (or a "bad" thing) but it does show I am serious when push comes to shove.
  • I get an average of 1000 page views every day. 
  • This blog is just a day or two away from getting 600,000 page views.
  • I am more widely read than most first time published authors.  By the numbers, I am more widely read than most authors who are on their second or even third book. (Provided they did not first blog or write as a journalist or something.)
  • I still love writing. It still makes me content in a way that nothing else does.
There will always be frustration. I think with the exception of a handful of household names, most writers will always feel like they wish they were further along in their career trajectory or that they were making faster progress.  Some days it can really feel like the wheels are just spinning in the mud.

But don't forget, at least once in a while, to turn around and look back down the mountain.