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

Monday, April 29, 2019

Best Classic Fantasy (Semifinal 1)

What is the best fantasy book (or series) from before 1975? 

Our latest poll is live. And we're going to have to do some quick semifinals.

This isn't a small poll. It's actually pretty big. So big that I had to break it into semifinals. That means we're going to move VERY quickly, to get through this first part of the process. This poll will only be up a week (and another week for the second half) so we can get on with the final round. So please make haste.

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

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

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

Sunday, April 28, 2019

Basics of Submitting

A number of you have requested this list (somewhat buried in a very long post about publishing) be given its own page for easier reference. Remember to follow the guidelines of the publisher/agent/whatever that you are submitting to ABOVE ALL THINGS. If they contradict any of this, go with what they tell you. If they add in a dozen things, add those things. If they tell you to align to the right and put a stamp of a monkey on every page, your next stop is Google to find out where to get monkey stamps "near me."

  • EVERY. SINGLE. PAGE. should have your last name, the title (or one word from your title if it's long), and the page number on it in the top-right header (within the margin). If there's an alteration to this in the submission guidelines, consider it the most important piece of information you could possibly pay attention to. Having worked with people on the "gatekeeper" side of the industry, trust me when I tell you that not numbering and labeling all of your pages is the fastest way to get your shit thrown in the garbage. (After all, why start a professional relationship with someone whose "Sunday Best" behavior demonstrates that they can't follow basic instructions?)
  • Your title page should include the title of the work, the word count, copyright info (if there is any yet), your agent's name, and your contact details. Don't get cute with the font sizes on this. It should basically all be the same size–-12 pt.
  • Have a margin on each side. Whatever is done automatically by a word document when you open one is fine. (1 inch or 3cm if you're doing it by hand for some reason.)
  • In English, align to the left. 
  • If you want to look like a consummate professional, use italics and never underline. Although that one isn't likely to make or break a rejection/approval.
  • Indent new paragraphs (don't skip a line and don't indent AND skip a line––just indent). The exception to this is the first paragraph of a new chapter or section. That one should start at the left margin.
  • Use twelve point Times New Roman and only black type. (You can usually use a couple of others like Courier and Arial, but TNR will never be wrong.) 
  • Double space. 
  • Lines between paragraphs probably won't be a deal breaker, but you don't need them and they will be taken out for your ARCs. Just indent to show paragraphs.
  • Same with double spaces after sentences. It won't make or break you, but the industry has shifted to single space.
  • Begin chapters on new pages. It is more important that you be consistent with chapter headings than how you align them, but if you want a by-the-book submission, align to the center.
  • It doesn't really matter how many spaces you skip between the chapter header and the start of the chapter, but keep it consistent and don't do only one space or more than, like, ten.
  • (You may hear some other stuff like how to put a hashtag with a line at the end. It's not wrong, but it's a lot less important.)
  • And not that this has balls all to do with formatting or matters much in the age of computers, but always always ALWAYS keep a copy of some kind for yourself. You will never get back the one you send.

Friday, April 26, 2019

5 Reasons Your Submission Probably Ended Up In the Trash (And 5 It Was Rejected That Aren't Your Fault)


It sucks.


Not in the good way with smoldering eye contact and a few smiling winks. More like having your solar plexus side-kicked by the Taekwondo instructor who is just the tiniest bit tired of your mouthy bullshit every class.

Most starting writers are firmly under the impression that the only thing that will matter in a submission will be the epic-ness of their totally bad ass story. (“It’s about this farmer going up against a dark lord, but it turns out he’s the dark lord’s KID! And I’ve invented this really intricate magic system…..”)

Let me ruin this impression like the Remnant ruins the family trip to take a picnic out from the city and stargaze that one fateful evening on Hosnian Prime.

I’ve worked on the other side of this equation several times. Receiving hundreds of submissions as a managing editor of a literary magazine, and hundreds of submissions from readers each time I’ve asked for guest posts. First of all, even if your story is as awesome as you think it is (and you should check that with several people who aren’t trying to sleep with you), the things that get most submissions tossed into the trash without even being read have nothing to do with content, your brilliance, and certainly not your worth as a human.

And even if they don’t just toss your shit straight into the “round file,” there’s a pretty decent chance that you are going to get rejected. Often this has nothing to do with the work’s quality (even though often it does), and writers would do well to keep some of the concerns of venues in mind before internalizing every rejection.

1- Ignoring the submission guidelines

Honestly I could just put this and drop the mic. EVERYTHING else on this first list is going to be a special, particularly ubiquitous example of ignoring the submission guidelines in some way. 

I know what you’re thinking. “But I’m special.” “But I really need to.” “But these guidelines are so arbitrary and nonsensical. Surely it doesn’t REALLY matter.” “What the hell does this have to do with how awesome my story about the farmer and the dark lord is?”

It does. It does just because they get ten times more submissions than they can possibly even read (that’s READ…not even approve) and seeing how well you follow directions on a submission guideline turns out to be a pretty gosh-golly decent way to tell if you’re going to be a fucknugget about every other aspect of the professional relationship they enter with you. Are you going to ignore them if they send you edits? Are you going to be too good to make a recommended change? If they need you to get back to them with some information, will they hear from you in time before they go to print? Right now, you’re showing them if you’re a team player or a ream slayer. (#Idontactuallyknowwhatthatmeans)

Follow the submission guidelines to the letter. Exactly. Precisely. Unerringly. If it says no more than 500 words, don’t send in 501. If it says to put your last name in every upper right-hand corner, don’t put it on the left and think that’s pretty good. If they tell you to number your pages, number your fucking pages. If they tell you to put a hand-crafted picture of your favorite Cheat Commando in the top left corner of each page, you better get good at drawing Reynold. If it asks for a 125-word bio, don’t send one sentence stating that you live in California and have two dogs. If you must ignore the submission guidelines (and I really, really, REALLY don’t recommend it), acknowledge what you’re ignoring. At least let them know that you saw it and you’re not just ignoring it because you couldn’t be arsed. Explain why you need to break them, and cross your fingers. Usually it’ll have the same result as just ignoring them completely but maybe you’ll get lucky if everything else is in order and they like it.

2- Ignoring formatting guidelines

Don’t get fucking cute. Even if you ARE totally fucking cute (like me), your submission will be in the garbage before anyone has time to discover your cuteness if it looks like you ignored the formatting guidelines.

Use margins. Keep it professional. Use whatever font they require and Times New Roman if you’re not sure. If your story is supposed to be a formatting nightmare as part of its content, submit it according to the guidelines, describe what your actual formatting will look like and have a sample page of it far from the front where it’s not the first thing anyone will see.

3- Unedited Garbage

No one is going to edit your shit for you. Not until you’re their big fish client and getting your books to print ASAP means big money. Until then, rest assured that the wrong “its” is going to be like a giant flashing marquee that any damn one of the other three hundred submissions they're going to have to look at anyway is probably a better piece of writing.

Everyone knows a typo or obscure comma error is going to slip past even the most vigilant writer and even if they hired a professional editor to proof their copy before submission, but if it’s a trash can fire, they won’t even get to your cool farmer v. dark lord story. Most have rules like “If I see an obvious mistake on the first page, I just assume the story has the same lack of care and attention and toss it.” 

Is that prescriptive and gatekeepery and privileging of certain voices and completely emphasizing the entirely wrong aspects of writing?


Can I do anything about that?

Welcome to the party, pal.

4- Ignoring the word count

One word: don’t do this shit because it’s a lot more obvious than you think, and it shows you don’t have the slightest respect for what the venue is looking for.

If your masterpiece is ten words over their limit, find ten words to cut. If it’s 100 words over, cut a hundred words (it’ll be heart wrenching to do surgery on your baby, but it’s easier than you think and your story will probably be tighter for it). Most writers write too much and can probably make cuts on the order of about 20% of their word count, and still only be improving their prose and pacing. Around 25% and it starts to get really tough; you should probably submit to another venue. 60k words is not a short story. 200,000 words is not a novella.

The people calling for submissions have a reason they set an upper limit and if you just casually disrespect that, you’ve made it clear exactly how much you don’t give a shit about what THEY’RE trying to do. So they’re going to make it clear exactly how much they don’t give a shit about your story.

5- Complaining about other venues/agents/the publishing industry

“I have submitted this to twelve other places, but they don’t know what angels printing money looks like. This is a gold mine. Can you believe they said some bullshit about farmers and dark lords being so eighties. So I’m turning to you.”

Yeah…don’t do that shit.

Don’t. Do. It.

First of all, can you see how this kind of reads like “I asked every other person to the prom, but they said no, so I guess I have to settle for your ass.”

Secondly….you don’t want them to know how many rejections you’ve gotten because they’re going to start to think these 12 other venues maybe were on to something.

Lastly JFC, fortify a little bit. This is a steel-alloy-hard industry to break into (I totally spent 12 seconds looking “the hardest metal” up on Google, so be impressed––it would be chromium, but that's brittle), and we all know it. But fucking persevere and shit. If you whinge out some self-pitying diatribe about how your genius goes misunderstood and then start shit-talking every other publisher or venue, the first thing any editor is going to be thinking of is how you’re going to behave about THEM should your professional relationship go south.

Even if you happen to be talking about systemic problems within the publishing industry and not just sniveling that “it’s haaaaaaaaaaard,”  there is a time and a place to examine the inequity in the publishing industry (racism, sexism, and hetero-patriarchy of gatekeepers) but that time is probably not while you’re handing them a submission and that place is probably not TO the gatekeepers who you want something from. ("Hi. Have I mentioned you're all a bunch of racist choads? Anyway, here's my book.")

Part 2-  Five Reasons It Was Rejected That Aren't Your Fault

Thursday, April 25, 2019

Introducing: NOT Writing About Writing

If you've been paying close attention over at FB or watching my updates here with a keen eye, you may have noticed that I started to cross post links to a new blog that I'm writing.

Well today, our "soft opening" is over, and it is with much fanfare and the tooting of many trumpets that I would like to present:

NOT Writing About Writing

Not that I don't love reminding everyone that our narratives are probably the most powerful means of social control that exist, but trying to tie the connective tissue of every SINGLE not-really-about-writing post with "The Narrative" was wearing a little thin, even for me. So now I can just get the shit off my chest.

I won't link every post here, but some of the ones that do particularly well (for whatever value of my current average traffic "particularly well" is) I will keep in an ongoing list.

I've paired up with a developer who is trying to get something going that he hopes will be a cross between Medium and Patreon; free (as is all my writing) but with an option to support certain creators. Most of the functionality is still in its pretty initial stages, but hopefully this goes someplace interesting.

Those of you who remember back to the dedicated Social Justice Bard blog, this isn't that (although it edges a little more that way than WAW will). It's also personal thoughts, media reviews, and basically anything that's a little to long for Facebook and not really about writing.

Freeze Peach- Why freedom of speech is not freedom FROM consequence or entitlement to medium.

[Note: All the "introduction" stuff will disappear in a couple of weeks and this will just be the landing page for some of the more popular articles.]

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Best Classic Fantasy (More nominations and seconds needed)

What is the best fantasy book (or series) written before 1975?  

Lewis? Beagle? White? We need more books for our next poll, and I'm not going to let this one drag out for months, so if you have a favorite classic book or series, the time is now to pop over to the original page (very important), read the rules (including the new rules), and drop your nomination.

I'll be putting this poll together next week.

Remember, go to the original page or it won't count. Not a comment here. Not a comment on the Facebook post. Not Tumblr. HERE.

Monday, April 22, 2019

Folks Worth Checking Out

My own writing:  

NOT Writing About Writing- Another blog I write on the regular. Thoughts too long for my Facebook navel gazing and not not write-y enough for here.

Special Mention:

Jay Henge Publishing- (and Twitter) A small-time publisher/editor who just wants to do their tiny part in getting eyes on talented writers and maybe can't pay all that much (but at least a little), and does her best to maintain high quality so that that foot-in-the-door-previously-published-in-blah-anthology tag is actually beneficial. [Also the one place I have something "traditionally" published.]

Bango Films / The Grey Area- Two horror film projects by Comika Hartford (Facebook- https://www.facebook.com/comika)

Art Pages:

Laurel Grey Artistry When the time comes, they're going to do the cover art on my book!

The Art of Karen Luk

Fractalierre Fractal artistry

Holly Nelson Artist Page- intricate, richly coloured painting


Pop Culture Confessions Podcast- A podcast about movies that everybody was supposed to have seen by now. (And I'm actually a guest in one of the episodes!  Misery)

9 to Thrive- A podcast and blog about work, community, and creativity

Other Blogs:

Fen Druadìn's Blog- In Which I Say All The Things I Used To Be Afraid To Say
The Internet Meme Demolition Derby- Where Metaphor and Simile collide headlong for our amusement (by Lou Doench)
Heinous Dealings- A blog about all things SJW by an ex-Muslim who majored in philosophy (by Heina Dadabhoy)
James Fell- Everything from fitness to social justice to motivation to rants about dark chocolate and why MLMs suck and how Costco is a hellscape.

Etsy/Society6 Stores:

Theartfulscientist- Awesome queer insect art that has to be seen to be believed
Sea Gift Jewelry- Sea glass jewelry from the California coast

Editing Services:

Good Catch Writing Services

Sunday, April 21, 2019

Updated Posts

Just a quick update for the folks who follow WAW through email updates or Feedly or something. This won't go up on social media, but it is the two posts that I updated through the week. You folks in particular wouldn't have gotten an email for these since I edited old posts instead of writing new ones.

Follow Us - A list of how to follow Writing About Writing

Update Schedule - What days you can expect updates (and what kind of updates you can expect)

Friday, April 19, 2019

9 Writerly Things No One is Going to Give You (But We All Need) [Part 2]

Return to Part 1

A Detailed Roadmap 

I'm afraid no one's going to be able to tell you exactly what to do. No matter how much you want them to. And they're not just being dillholes.

They can't.

Even if they wanted to, they couldn't.

Not their personal blueprint, their personal style, their personal process, their personal circumstances, nor even personal magic is going to work for anyone but them. It won't work for you. It would like trying to order the same thing someone else does at a restaurant all the time––eventually you're hungrier than they are (or less hungry), they love cilantro but it tastes like soap to you, you don't really want something swimming in gravy, you're allergic to what they order two servings of... 

Okay...you get the idea. That metaphor is probably working too hard.

You might be able to extrapolate some useful information ("Based on careful study, I have begun to suspect that a key ingredient for a successful writing career is....actually writing! Further research needed." **Do that in a Patrick Stewart voice for maximum effect**), but you won't be able to get the same results in the exactly the same way, and you may not even want to. By the time you reach the first milestone, the entire landscape will have changed. The way they got where they're going can inform your journey, but it can't determine it.

Of course, nowhere is this incompatibility more apparent than in the advice that writers who established their careers 15-25 years ago are giving modern upstarts. While an ambitious starting writer can submit short stories to every venue until they have a cover letter impressive enough to snag an agent who will take a chance on their novel, and push inexorably toward a book deal, that is actually a far less likely path to book deal these days, to say nothing of the path to publication readers, fans, and enough income to be a working writer. Today, one can establish a six-figure career without ever encountering a gatekeeper. Frankly, these days, only discussing traditional publishing is very narrow, limited, and borderline shitty advice.

Now you have self-publishing (that is not just vanity press), print on demand, e-pub, apps, a billion online venues, blogs, and ways to monetize it all from Patreon to Kickstarter to Kindle Unlimited. Social media works for name proliferation, but do you use one (if so, which one?) or do you use all of them a little? (Because if you try to use all of them a lot, you're just going to end up being a full-time social media manager who barely has a minute to actually write.) Where is your audience and how are you going to find them? And what will you do when the social medium you like turns out to be morally reprehensible?

Even with fewer dramatic differences than traditional vs. non-traditional publishing, no one else can tell you exactly what to do to "make it." (For example, I'm not going anywhere near traditional publishing for ideological reasons, and I'll probably avoid Kindle and Amazon if I can.) The industry is changing faster than the between-the-walls dimension in House of Leaves. The path I took five years ago is already far less effective, and you wouldn't get the same traction out of it today. The market niche I accurately predicted six years ago has closed up (though there is a new one that still exists). Facebook has throttled their content so I'm not sure I'd have almost a million followers even after five years if I started today. ALL social media is experiencing huge tectonic upheavals because of its role in electioneering, hate speech, and trying to comply with FOSTA-SESTA laws. Eight hundred million people left Tumblr when they banned certain hashtags related to sexuality and porn. All the kids today think Facebook is a fossil. But Instagram is not a great place to build an audience unless you're already famous or ready to put in a bazillion hours building your "brand." And if you do go traditional, how do you separate your writing time from your submission time? How many venues do you shop something before you dramatically revise it? What is your ratio of "safe" to "stretch" submissions? Do you try to shop a novel without a portfolio (it can be done but it is much, much harder)? Do you work for years so that you get a great agent or just enough that someone new to the business knows you're serious and will take a chance on you?

It would be so great if someone could just tell us exactly what to do next. Exactly how to make the magic alchemy of success transmute effort into fans and dollar signs (or whatever it is we're after). But no one can. And no one is holding out on you if they don't. The best thing we can do is point towards the horizon and say, "Read a lot. Write a lot. Don't stop. Beware the groove."


Okay, knowledge drop: for some of us this isn't entirely accurate. There are some nice medical doctors who can give us little pills that help with the ability to concentrate/focus, so sort of some people can kind of give this to us after a fashion, so let me make that caveat through a bullhorn before we go any further.

Me, I got addicted to my pills and started sleepwalking and taking more pills IN MY SLEEP, and they made me want to masturbate all day and it all got a little weird, and so these days I have to rely on caffeine, vigorous walks, and visualization exercises, and some....uh...

You know, maybe I'm veering a little off course.

Narrator's voice: "Though told twice, he did not stay on target."

And yet, with or without pills, one of the greatest struggles a writer goes through is applying their ass liberally to the chair of their choosing*, and getting the fucking work done. Although, a determined writer might be able to write a novel, longer work, or have a successful writing career fifteen minutes or thirty minutes at a time over the course of who knows how long, most people who hit those bellwethers have a breathtakingly similar experience to report: they concentrated on their writing for hours. Multiple hours. Often (usually) LOTS of multiple hours in a row.

(*Metaphor chair could be a standy up desk. I just got one of those. It's AAAAAAAWWWWWWSOOOOOME!)

No one can hand you a can of concentration that you can chug. No one can bust out a package of focus for you to slather yourself in. You need it badly, but the only way you're going to get it is the discipline of sitting down time after time (preferably day after day) and turning a little bit of time into a little more and a little more and a little more. It will eventually become rote, then habit, then feel strange to miss, but nothing outside you can make you love writing enough to blow past all those voices that are going to try to talk you out of it.

Enough Real Talk

It's way too easy to find someone who will take an industrial-sized leaf blower, fill it with unicorn farts, and blow rainbows straight up your ass so that you become distended and rainbows come pouring out all of your mucus membranes. "If you can believe it, the universe will listen to you!" "The only thing between you and success is focusing the actualization of your imagination." "By synergistically manifesting your quantum desires, you will ebb the perturbations of the ether to obey your focalized imaginifications."

On the other hand it's just as easy to find people who apparently think they're from the distant future where we've lost the robot war, are enslaved and being milked as batteries but without the cool simulated sex party, and the only thing to do is take your dreams, jam them into an industrial mixer vat, and turn it up to fifty because there is no point in even trying. "You can't make it as a writer ever." "No matter what you do, you will fail because it's too hard." "Give up now while you can still spend your youth in gothic spandex and get laid without spending six weeks trying to coordinate your schedules."

It is ALSO easy to find a whole fucking epic metric shitton of people who are willing to "SELL" the one thing that is "clearly" holding you back. Novel formatting software? A grammar check? An ergonomic keyboard? A yoga ball for a chair? Baby I gots what you need.

Slightly harder to find is real talk. The talk that threads that needle. The talk that acknowledges a tough industry with a LOT of submissions and a crowd twenty deep outside every door who think writing is their ticket to fame and fortune. The talk that says you can probably have a modest career.....if that's even what you really want, but you're probably going to have to give up some things to get there. The real talk that tells you that some people pursue art casually or as a dedicated hobbyist or never pay a bill from their wordsmithing or make side-gig money, but never quit their day jobs. Real talk that tells you that for 99.9% of writers, it takes years of practice and probably double-digit years of reading voraciously to be a writer. But also that it's not impossible if you're willing to work hard.

Most people have an agenda. They want to get you to buy something. They want you to give up like they did. Or they just want you to keep coming back because they make you feel so inspired by talking about your dreams and never getting around to mentioning the work.

But whether it's a blog about writing, some good advice, or an editor that knows how to cleave that middle ground, finding the real, down-to-earth talk is something writers can't get enough of.


No one is going to make you want to sit down and do the work. You can get your ass temporarily ridden by external motivation if you are in a writing program and your grade depends on writing. You might get a little hit from the William-Wallace-Braveheart-speech caliber inspiration posts (especially around NaNo). Maybe your mentor or a mom who never thought you were good enough can say "You got this, kid" in a tearful scene where they finally stick something you've written on the refrigerator and it's totally not weird even though you're now in your forties.

But ultimately, all that will fade. No one can actually give you sustained motivation. You have to find that for yourself. In the nooks and crannies. In the success of others. In the faces of the children. In the sighs of lovers in some wild group sex. In untempered rage that you still have some motherfuckers to prove wrong. In the voice of that professor who told you maybe to find a more attainable dream.

Or maybe that's just me. In any case, you have to find your motivation to sit down day after day after day and keep putting in the work. In rage, and hope, and habit, and sheer force of will. No one can find it for you.



You have to have some nerve. You do. And no one can give that to you.

I mean, if you want to write for yourself alone in journals that Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman will try to piece together after your seven sins killing spree, then maybe you don't need any nerve, but if you want it out there, read by people, an audience, maybe a fan or two...or possibly a little niche, then yeah, you need nerve. You need just the tiniest bit of gritty, non-supported, ever-so-slightly arrogant faith in yourself.

All writers suffer from imposter syndrome. The ones that don't are almost always dreadful writers and often not-such-awesome people either. The rest of us have bad days and less-bad days. But at the end of those days (at whatever relative level of badness they involved), we proceed as if we have something worth saying. We continue as if somewhere out there someone wants to read our shit. No one can give this to you. No one will ever tell you for the gagillionth time that they want to read your work and then you're "over it." No one will ever take away the feeling that you are a pretentious fuck for presuming you have anything to say and assuage the need for some courage.

And even though you're absolutely wrong (pretty much always at least one someone DOES want to read you)....putting oneself out there takes nerve. No one's going to give it to you, but you need it just the same.

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Spring 2019 Update Schedule

As of October 2018, Writing About Writing has undergone a major restructuring and now updates four times a week––usually on every weekday but Tuesday. 

Writing About Writing consists chiefly of one guy with lots of fake people running around behind his eyeballs (he also takes care of a 5-year-old, a newborn, 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 get laid 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.

Wednesday and Thursday

Wednesdays and Thursdays will be our smaller posts: calls to vote or make a nomination 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 qualify than simply "big" or "jazz hands," Mondays are probably between Wednesdays and Fridays in their content and girth. They will be personal updates, smaller mailboxes, prompts, guest blogs, etc.

I'm afraid on Tuesdays I have to spend 10 hours watching a baby. The baby sleeps a lot right now and I can probably squeeze SOME work in there, but there's just no way to make commitments.

The Three-Post Goal

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 open up occasional opportunities of interest like conventions, speaking engagements, interviews, or podcasts. I'm trying to be better about the (literally) health-shattering 80-hour+ weeks I was working. That's a needle to thread when you are your own boss and you know your income depends on producing content people are willing to crowdfund. So in the cases of major schedule upheaval, I will try really hard to get three posts up. They might just be posted off schedule––Thur, Fri, Sat for example, but I will try hard to at least hit three.

Facebook Writing and Social Justice Bard

Most of my major writing ends up on this blog, but some of my throw-away thoughts don't. If you particularly enjoyed our Social Justice Bard posts, don't worry. I still do as much yelling at clouds as I ever have.

I invite you to follow my Public Facebook Page (you can friend it if you send me a message, but it might be better if you follow it for a while first––unfiltered me is not everyone's cup of tea).  I post somewhat more "political and partisan thoughts" there (rather than just social ISSUES) and also often post "proto-versions" of what later become full blog posts (if you're interested in seeing how those things develop). [There's also personal updates and nerdery there.]

I also have another blog called NOT Writing About Writing where I update usually once a week or more and where I put shorter media reviews, personal updates, and political thoughts that don't really tie into writing and aren't really short enough for Facebook. Also, fret not; there may be fewer SJB posts here on Writing About Writing since we'll be dealing with fewer available "posting slots" overall, but there will still be some.

Everything I ever write (and reruns of my best stuff) gets cross-posted to that Public Facebook Page, so join me there if you want to stalk me properly.

A Fifth Post?

There MIGHT occasionally be a fifth post in a week. Usually this will happen when I need to cover some ground on "blog business." (Like posting the results of a poll or getting up the prior month's "Best of" posts or something.) In this case you might see an extra post pop up from time to time on the weekend. Fiction will also usually go up independently of our regular schedule.


  • I still nanny for a five-year-old and a newborn––sometimes at the same time, 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. Until my Patreon pays all the bills, my reality is that I sometimes have to prioritize paid gigs.
  • This flexible update schedule should also cut down on the thing where I'm apologizing to absolutely fucking nobody that it's Thursday and I've yet to put so much as a taco video up. I know that some people are annoyed by the constant deluge of "This is why there's no post today" posts and the rest don't really care. But this also settles down my own inner overachiever. 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 only ever about my constant apologizing) and myself 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 Long-weekends at least once a month will still be a thing. Usually just the Monday (but occasionally the Friday if I'm really behind) will be cannibalized. I need the extra time to answer emails, clean up menus, catch up on editing, take care of Patron-only posts and such.

Also......folks, if 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 towards freeing up more time for writing.

Note: There's a pretty loud contingent of "Who Cares!" from the other side of the internet, and I'll give you all a nod if this isn't your cup of tea. Meta posts such as this one are my least popular kinds of posts because other than about five people, no one but me actually pays attention to the updating schedule. However, I'm not going to stop posting them. One of our mission statements is to keep "The Process" transparent and give you updates in real time as we learn them, so there will always be an occasional post about the meta here. I want people to see that someone who is making a paycheck doesn't have all the answers. I want them to see how their work/life balance matters and how easy it is to fall into working TOO much (or not enough). I want them to see that a successful blog doesn't require nine updates a week (and, in fact, that's too much) but it does require a steady, predictable output. And I want them to see how artists are constantly struggling to fiddle with the knobs and get it just right because they are at once human and also never satisfied, but also so so dang human with their incessant need to eat and have shelter and anxieties if those things don't seem secure or stable. Even if a follower or fan never ever uses this update schedule as a formula for their own success, blog, or writing schedule, let it be a comfort realizing how flawed and human working writers can be.

I want you to see how messy and non-magical it all is.

Monday, April 15, 2019

Admin Week

Need to take a few days here to catch up on emails, rerun edits, menu updates, figure out a new schedule that gives me time off but also accounts for full days of side gigging on Tuesday and Wednesday, drop a Newsletter and an Inside Scoop, and do some behind-the-scenes mojo. You might notice some posts going up on various social media, but they will be updated versions of sticky posts.

And if you only get updates here, I'll pop back in on Thursday with links to everything that has been updated.

Will be back in earnest on Friday and starting to fire up "The Next Big Thing™"

Friday, April 12, 2019

When Writers Fail

In our culture we love a success story. And if we give a hat tip to failure at all, it is only as the "hero's lowest point," just before they end up rallying.  But what do you do when you're trying to work in (or break into) an industry where the most common motif is falling gloriously, spectacularly, outrageously, and frequently flat on your face?

Writers fail. We fail a lot. We fail like woah and then go back for seconds. Arguably, there is a hazing process between a hobbyist and a professional writer that involves years of just.....fucking failing. Much of the early process of revision is walking back through all the places we failed to write clearly or well, and trying to fix them. Missed deadlines. Unmet goals. Rejections. Trying to pick up people with the "I'm a writer" line. It's possible the career exists where failing even more often is a prerequisite, but writing certainly ranks.

There are a lot of reasons. From overestimating our abilities to our mercurial temperaments, we certainly set ourselves up for failure enough. It's hard to set realistic goals when your two modes are "Fuck yeah, I'm bulletproof!" and "Any second now everyone is going to realize that I'm a complete fraud." Our goals are often running away from reality faster than our plot synopsis that ends "....except with vampire pirates."

But mostly, that's just how it goes. You can't write perfectly on a first draft unless you're Marilynne  Robinson and channel your writing chi for ten years into one spectacular "HADOUKEN" of Gilead goodness. Years of rejection will be part of the process. Realizing that the guy who sold you the Moleskine journals was lying about how much group sex action writers get is so common as to be cliché. You never really can tell what's going to stick to the wall, and some of the ideas you are most excited about will be the ones only appreciated by that person who likes everything you post.

Mine is named Matt.
I love you Matt.

I am no different.

  • In the past three years, my life has collapsed (and been slowly rebuilt from its post-apocalyptic landscape). I've written only about fifty pages on a novel that was supposed to be done two years ago. Kickstarters show up on the top of my car demanding their money back and I have to go through car washes to get rid of them. "I want my two dollars!" 
  • In October of 2017, Facebook changed its algorithm so that page admins could be squeezed for more advertising money, and my numbers crashed by about 90%. I met NONE of my goals for the year. Not pageviews, which are like the gold standard of online content. Not followers. Not new patrons. Not one.
  • I constantly talk about posts that are going up "next week" or "this Friday" or "totally soon," and then completely fail to post them. Sometimes I'm months behind. Sometimes they sit undone like a growing monument to the Patron Saint of Fail.
  • The economy is taking a downturn (probably going into recession*), and the first thing people are going to cut out of their budgets is likely to be the entirely optional budgets they allot for artists who crowdfund like me. It might not be my fault, per se (and I'm going to have to try really hard not to react by going back down the workaholic rabbit hole), but watching one's income go down steadily sure can take the wind out of your sails.
  • I have failed for two years straight to reach a new plateau on my Patreon where the increases in taxes and healthcare are accounted for. I gain a little and then fall back. Gain a little and fall back. Two years this has been going on. Each night I go to sleep, my Patreon says, "Good night, Chris. Sleep tight. I'll mostly likely kill your dreams in the morning."

*I love me some NPR, and I seem to be in my car at 4pm a lot these days, so I hear a lot of Kai Ryssdal and Marketplace

And these are just the last few years! If you go back further, some of my writing failures involve people I love and respect looking me dead ass in the eye and saying "Chris, your novel sucks. Please don't send me part three." They involve writing instructors telling me that maybe I should pick a different dream. They involve friends handing me back my writing after a page or so and saying "Don't quit your day job, dude," as a joke without realizing that was exactly what I wanted to do. They involve high school teachers saying, "I'm pretty sure writers know how to spell" to my dyslexic, ADD ass. They contributed to the collapse of a marriage––a "year off" gifted to me on faith that turned into a manuscript that wouldn't have made a dime.

Oh how I have failed.

Of course, despite our cultural obsession with it, it is not our successes that define us. It is our failures.

The moment of failure is when we discover who we are and what we really want. It's easy enough to keep going when we're succeeding and everything feels great. The moment that defines us is when we fail, and it no longer feels so good. When we wonder if we have what we need to rise to meet the challenge. When we have to have real talk conversations with ourselves about our limitations. When we have to think authentically about what it is we really want.

Framed like a hazing test, though, this moment is just one more in the obsession about success. "Will you have the courage to endure, keep going, and pull it out?" Well, maybe. But maybe you'll have the honesty to admit your limitations. Or maybe you'll have the self-awareness to realize that you wanted the trappings of fame that you thought surrounded success more than you enjoyed the work itself. Or maybe you will have the cognizance to recognize that on a trajectory of never-ending success, you liked something well enough, but really once the failures started kicking in, it wasn't enjoyable anymore. And of course there's realizing that you maybe could reach whatever bellwether you consider to be "success," but you realize that you just don't WANT to (and that's okay!)––you would have to give up too many things that you enjoy, like free time and quality family time, and that's just not you.

When we fail, we reevaluate. And maybe we rise like the phoenix from the ashes or maybe we redefine ourselves. Maybe we think of a new way to get to where we're going or we realize that we were looking for something different all along. Doubling down on something without adjustment can be as ultimately self-destructive as simply walking away from something we love because we're not automatically good at it. Failure isn't a binary (give up or keep going). Failure is where the real story begins.

I can't tell you how many writers finish that first book or trilogy (or whatever) and send it out to agents or publishers or self-publish it, and then they get those first few rejection letters (or the self-published book nets them only [low] triple figures as friends and family supportively buy a copy). And it's just such a letdown from what they were expecting.

That's the moment things get interesting. Their mercurial pipe dreams are now sitting in the garbage can and even though they succeeded in writing a book (no small task), they failed to meet their own expectations. Now they face the very real question about whether or not they like the writing enough to keep going for its own sake. Was the success (or its presumption) integral to the value of the writing, or will the writing itself be the reward through all the failures?

Perhaps the one thing that separates the vast majority of working creative writers from those with burning hopes and dreams and frustrating unmet expectations is this:

When writers fail, they keep writing.

Folks, I'm "failing" right now too. As I mentioned, the economy is slowing down, and the let's-give-money-to-artists-whose-content-is-free budget is usually one of the first to go in an average household income. Right after the tastefully-displayed-crystal-bowl-on-the-foyer-table-but-of-gummy-rats budget. While at this moment, I technically make enough from writing to NOT DIE, I need side gigs to pay for many of the things I've come to rely on like cell phones, car insurance, and premade salad mix. A lot of people have cancelled or slashed their Patreon contributions in the last few months. I'm down almost 10% from just a couple of months ago. I know it's due to the economy and the tax season and the looming threat of dystopian Hunger-Games-esque social collapse and that it's no one's fault, but it's starting to hurt. I had to take on extra kid wrangling to make ends meet. That's going to take away from writing time no matter how hard I try to ensure that it doesn't. 

You can help. If you like this blog and the writing I do, and don't want to see me having to do less of it because I'm wiping butts and cleaning litter boxes, consider becoming a small patron. I know for a lot of people, $10 or $25 is not in the cards right now. But that's okay because as much as I love my big ticket donors, it's lots of little ones that actually stabilize my income. My ideal donor is someone signed up for $1 or $3 a month who sticks with that long term and the next time I have to figure out if I'm going to commit or take a pass on a side gig, I feel like my income is more reliable. A little support each month can have an enormous impact keeping me clacking away at the computer instead of changing diapers.

Become a PATRON!

Or if an ongoing subscription isn't possible, consider a one-time donation through PayPal.

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Best Classic Fantasy (NOMINATIONS NEEDED)

What is the best fantasy book (or series) written before 1975?  

We're going back to some of our most popular polls of the past few years, but this time we're doing it with lots more voters (and we'll be keeping the results on display.) It's all part of our new Sticky Polls--the 2019 roll out for polls here at Writing About Writing.

But we're changing gears from the modern science fiction poll we ran last. And rather than just do the same time period with fantasy or the next time period with sci-fi, I decided to change both those things up since we're going to get to all of them eventually.

The Rules
(I know this is only the second round of polls we've done under the new rules, but now that we've done one with them, you can see what I mean by some of this):

  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, 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 Flowers for Algernon, I'm not going to argue that it's probably better classed as sci-fi, but YOU have to convince others if you're going to get on the poll--nevermind win.
  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 the Lord of the Rings movies were the shiznit, but thought the books were a little dry and slow, nominate something else.
  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. 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, April 8, 2019

But I AM Writing (Mailbox)

You say I should be writing, but I'm already writing! 

[Remember, keep sending in your questions to chris.brecheen@gmail.com with the subject line "W.A.W. Mailbox" and I will answer one 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. Dear god how will anyone know it's a mailbox post without a picture of a mailbox. Madness!]  

In response to the posting of this meme over on Writing About Writing's Facebook Page Clare asks: 

Legit question, how does that help get lots of fans? I feel like I can write until words come out of my ears, and half of them can even be good, but, like... no one else gives a rat's ass. Trying to build my presence on social media and I just feel like another unwanted writer babbling about books that no one asked for. THAT's what I'm struggling with. Have any tips?  

My reply:

Clare, this is a great question, and it intersects with so many important points about running a page, giving advice, and things like making memes, writing blog posts about writing and answering questions that it's worth a righteous unpacking. So buckle up. You're about to get 387% more answer than you bargained for.

Generally, the more I know about someone, their situation, their hopes, their dreams, their limitations, and frankly where their rubber meets the road on writing, the closer any advice can be tailored to answer their questions. For example, if I ran into someone who thought writing every day was for chumps and it took the sparkle fairy magic away and turned writing into a chore, I would have very, very, VERY different advice if they were cheerful and happy about their success (or lack of) as a writer* than I might for someone who was super high-key frustrated that they weren't published, making money, and on the road to fame**.

*"Sounds like you're writing just about about exactly as much as you want to be happy. That's the dream. Go you."
**"Sounds like you need to get the fuck over yourself, my good dude."

Problem is, I don't get to sit down and talk shop for an hour with everyone who writes to me, "I want to make money writing. How do YOU do it?" If I could, I could meet that person where they are. Since I can't, I stick to the basics, but nothing is going to be panacea. (Except maybe "Read a lot/Write a lot.") I can sometimes pick up a few clues in a long email and sometimes people tell me enough to really adjust my advice, but usually it's just those few clues, and I can fine tune advice a little, but I still have to be pretty general.

And as true as this is when trying to write general writing advice or even answer vagueish questions that don't include a three-page bio, it is a billionty times more true when trying to curate a content stream over on Facebook for like 850,000 people.

I know that on a page that's pushing a million, not everything is going to land for everyone. Sometimes I post memes that are for beginners. Sometimes I post memes that are for veterans. Some are there to challenge the racism and classism of intolerant prescriptivism and holding one dialect as superior.  Some are there to give a wakeup call to the hubristic dillholes who think that grammar is for lesser beings and the publisher that snaps up their great idea will pony up ten large worth of copy editing because they couldn't be bothered to learn the right homophone. Some are there for people who need a direct infusion of confidence because they don't believe in themselves. Some are there for folks who need a boot in their ass. Some are there for the folks who are frustrated that their writing career is spinning its wheels. Some are there to remind people that not everyone needs to be on a "writing-career escalator" (ever going up) to be valid. And some are reminders that writers.....should be writing. And sometimes those ideas are mutually exclusive because a meme can't meet you where you are. A meme doesn't know if you're going through clinical depression. A meme doesn't know if you've already written for the day or if you are perfectly, exceptionally happy writing once a week for a couple of hours.

This being the internet, and WAW's page being one that has begun to succumb to the laws of large numbers, people don't always just flex their scroll wheel when they're not ride-or-die about some message or another. I get complaining pretty much no matter what I post. It's not the good complaints either like where they do a compliment sandwich or acknowledge a salient point or something. It's the internet kind where they kind of say "What the fuck is your problem for even considering posting this?" One of the ones that made me laugh recently was a Sarah Scribbles about fiction being escapism, and then I got a bunch of comments sanctimoniously informing me that good fiction did not ESCAPE from reality but held a mirror to it, and how could you have good fiction without conflict––just like life donchaknow. No one told me that a core part of my writing career was going to be screaming at my computer "Just laugh at the goddamned joke!"

Perhaps no place is more contentious than the "You should be writing" memes. I try to post one a day, and most people don't know this, but I usually do so when I am sitting down to write myself. But even though I could wallpaper a bedroom with all the thank-you notes I've gotten for them over the years, they also are the source of a lot of complaints––nothing I do seems to make everyone happy. Some people complain that it's getting old if I post a bunch of the same ones. They complain that they're too imperative. They complain that they're too judgy. They even complain that the meme is trying to get them to write when they don't want to. They complain that I––that's me, personally....Chris––am trying to make writing into a chore for them by nagging them. A few have outright insisted that these were no less than 75% of my posts even though, as I said, I limit myself to one a day, not even every day, and I usually post between 10-15 other things a day. 

If it sounds a little to you like folks are bringing their own feelings of inadequacy to a Rorschach inkblot test about how often they write, you're not the only one. ("I see one of those fucking "You should be writing" memes but Jensen Ackles looks really judgemental and he clearly hates me! Why would you post this???" "Sir, this is a Wendy's. That's a napkin with ketchup on it.")

It's a good thing that being asked what my "secret" is and then having people get mad at me when I answer the question isn't in the least bit frustrating.

Before I dive into your question, Clare, let me tell you a story about the most common interaction I have by the numbers. "Hey Chris. Can I ask you some questions about writing.""Sure." "I just....I really want to be a writer. I read that you pay the bills with your writing. How do you do that? How do you have so many readers?" "Well, I write every day and––" "That would make it feel like a job." "Isn't.....um.....isn't that what you WANT?" People constantly ask me for advice but then don't like it when that advice involves a calculating look at what it would take to get to what they say they want." Or maybe they tell me they love writing more than anything else in the world, and when I poke a little I find out that they spend no more than two or three hours a month doing it.  

By contrast, here's an interaction that NEVER happens: "Chris, I'm content with where I am and don't want to be rich or famous except in the most chimerical of fantasies. I prefer binging Netflix shows and playing video games to writing most of the time. I write a few hours a week and that makes me happy. I know I'll never be famous or rich, but how can I get my fanfic a somewhat wider audience?" Do you know how fucking REFRESHING this question would be? Like someone who is honest with themselves about what they are actually willing to give and has made their peace with how that will limit them to a dedicated hobbyist. Sure I'll give them a couple of tips on social media proliferation. That's no biggie. But nobody asks me that. Ever. It's been seven years; I'm still fucking waiting. Instead, they all ask me how to "make it." And that's why my answers so often come back to one common denominator.

It's actually pretty frustrating the way this squishes right up against most people's cognitive dissonance. There's a part of them that knows you can't have a day job in art by giving it weekend warrior effort, but many of them really, really don't want to hear that. And fucking shit, does this messenger ever get shot. Blam blam blam. Take that copper. Tell me I won't be famous, will ya!

In retrospect, I picked a pretty strange job for a maladaptive people pleaser who hates making anyone feel bad.

It's a very sad story. Don't even attempt to contain your tears. 

People get mad at me––like straight-up pissed off––for telling them it might take few years of practice before they're ready to try to get an agent or traditionally publish or that they probably need to put in career-caliber effort if they want writing to be, you know....like, a CAREER. Or that if they self-publish, they might not get the sales they want if they're not ready to put more time into their craft, do a lot more drafts, or spend a ton on editing. Basically if I don't say "Oh I'm sure you're going to be the next Jim Butcher. I'll be looking for your book in next year's list of upcoming blockbuster movies. Stay golden, pony-boy!" If I suggest that maybe they might actually be happy writing less and modulating their expectations accordingly, they will become furious. It's really hard and frustrating.

How did your tear containage go?

The cold hard truth is that most people want to BE writers a lot more than they want to sit down and write. Not everyone? But so damned many that people used to being leg-humped for their "secrets" (like me), in the absence of data to the contrary or when giving general advice, tend to assume that's a good place to start. 

I'm not a baker, but I'm about to make a baking metaphor, so for the next couple of paragraphs, let's pretend, Clare, that there are no substitutes for sugar. No agave. No jam. No honey. No sweeteners. There's just sugar. This isn't a realistic world, but it will make for a metaphor with less "Well Actually...." room in it. Let's all use our big, imaginative brains and imagine that sugar is the only way to make things sweet....

Now you come to me and you say. "How can I make the best cakes? Cakes like yours?" And I tell you "Sugar. You need sugar! A WHOLE LOTTA SUGAR! Nobody ever gets enough sugar. The problem in the world is everyone wants to be a baker, but no one wants to give their recipes enough sugar." 

This doesn't mean you don't need flour or eggs or chocolate. It doesn't mean you'll never need an oven. And it doesn't mean there's not a few people out there putting in enough sugar but making shitty cakes. Or maybe some a-hole that puts too much sugar in and forgets baking powder or something. (I think I better quit stretching this metaphor before it snaps back in my face like a broken bow string.) It means you've GOT to have sugar. No matter what else you do, you will not make the best cakes without sugar. If you make a cake with no sugar or some small amount of sugar, even if you use the best flour and the finest chocolate and the most magnificent, freshest eggs, your cake is going to be gross.

Now I'm hungry.

Since this is a really fucking advanced metaphor, let me whip out my decoder ring.

When I say "you should be writing," it doesn't mean that's the only thing you ever have to do if you want an audience or wish you were making money. It doesn't mean no other ingredients will be required to make money or find your fans. It means that it's always something you have to do, keep doing, have done, relentlessly pursue.

And I'm not just riding your ass to be a taskmaster. People try ALL THE FUCKING TIME to use social media branding tricks or "SEO hacks" or something when they don't actually write consistently. They're trying to promote a dozen articles enough to kick off a patreon and are pissed that it isn't working. Or they write three short stories and a self-published book and are annoyed that it's only family and close friends buying, so they hope to just start a FB page, learn some "trick" (that they think I know), and then they'll be lighting their cigars with Benjamins for all the days to come. 

But that's not how any of this works. Unless you're one of about four writers on Earth for all of time, you have to have a robust body of work to get fans, and you have to have lots of practice before that breakout novel is going to break anything but the hearts of folks who wanted it to be good because they love you. Unless you just want folks who stumble upon your work to read what you've got and move on, you really need to keep contributing to your larger body of work. Give them a reason to keep coming back. You could get everything else right, but if you're not writing, you got nothing. And that's what this meme means. Without writing, nothing else works. WITH writing, we at least have enough sugar. 

Now we have drilled down enough that I can lay some specific wisdom on you, Clare. I don't know the kind of writing you're doing––it sounds like book reviews––but if you keep putting yourself out there, you'll find your audience. That feeling that no one gives a rat's ass: it's just a feeling. It's called impostor syndrome and even best-selling novelists deal with it. If book reviews are the kind of writing you want to do, you keep doing it and keep putting yourself out there and slowly, over years, your niche will find you. (It took me five years to get to the kind of numbers that pay bills––blogs about writing aren't exactly hard to come by.) Have a little faith in yourself. Feel like a fraud half the time, but do it anyway. And put yourself out there.

Now here comes my straight up advice (mostly for Clare, but maybe for anyone who is actually writing "until words come out their ears" and looking to find their audience):
  1. Spend an afternoon figuring out your social media strategy. It's a lot at first, but the learning curve is really gentle. Different social media work differently and often have different types of engagement. A Facebook group is very different from a Facebook page, which is very different from making an account for your author persona. You don't really want Instagram––a picture format––if you're trying to link out to blog posts or something. Tumblr's loss of 800 million users in the wake of their FOSTA/SESTA overkill make it a bad choice of time and energy unless you're already well established there. Twitter is.......well it's Twitter. Take a day of work and suss out where you'll get the most bang for your buck. A lot of writers will spend their whole time managing social media but not writing (and then we're back to sugarless cakes). You can crosspost pretty easily, but you don't want to get sucked in to more than one....maybe two.
  2. How married are you to JUST book reviews? Like two kids, looking for a house, and picking out a destination for that second honeymoon married? Or maybe more like one of you is having an affair and the other one has checked out and you haven't had sex in over a year married? Because I can work with that second one. Could you do reviews for other things? Movies? Netflix shows? Popular culture? What about branching out to other topics? Personal updates? Writing about an issue that affects you personally? The wider you cast your net, the more people will find you, and they might read other things you write––things they wouldn't normally be interested in––if they like YOU and your "brand." I've got a shit ton of readers who have NO. INTEREST. IN. WRITING. They read me because I dip into personal updates, social issues, media review, and they will read my stuff about writing because they like my style. (Now I'm having an imposter syndrome day, and I'm not sure I always understand WHY, but gods fucking bless them anyway.)
  3. Could you see making some tweaks without sacrificing your art? If you're all in about book reviews, how much could you change and not feel that you'd sold out? Could you do a lot of new releases? Because that's what's going to snag the curious. Or really popular books. People love to read reviews of things they've read to see if they agree with your take? (And if they do, they might take your rec on something else.) Could you shift your tone to funny? Because that's always a draw. People love to laugh. Threesome jokes? Political rage? Listicles? How far will you go?
  4. Are you willing to spend a little money?  I hate Facebook, and I dislike most social media because my friends can't use metonymy to say men are trash without getting suspended, but the Nazi pages live on. However, I know that every writer has to self-promote. Even Stephen King goes on a book tour and spends SO long signing copies of his books that he gets blisters. Putting books on consignment, going to promotion events....EVERY WRITER HAS TO PROMOTE THEMSELVES. It's an endearing myth that writers are above "that money stuff" and they just let the art stand for itself and pick up a paycheck in the mail once a month. Even if you get a big five contract, part of your contract will be your promotional obligations. So if you have more money than free time (like I do), you might run a promotion on FB putting your work out there. Be smart: use all the little filters so that it only hits people interested in books or reading and only in English speaking countries (and narrow your demographic even more if you want). You don't need to spend much. A few dollars on a post will get it a lot of attention (too much and it'll just keep showing up in the same people's feeds), and what you really want is someone who's going to recognize your name and give your NEXT article a try. I know there's the whole thing about money flowing towards the author (mostly last-generation's advice because of vanity presses), but I'd rather spend $10 on a targeted ad than five hours a week at a reading.
  5. It's really really tough to get anyone to follow you if you share ONLY your work unless you already have a fan base who just wants to follow your work. Carts and horses, if you catch my meaning. So if you're still in the initial phases of trying to GET those eyeballs, try putting on a bit of a show. You don't have to do 10 memes a day like me, but maybe a quote here and a comic there and some article you find. Just get people in
  6. Buckle up. This is going to take YEARS. Yes, it can be like a snowball rolling downhill, but remember what a pain in the ass it is to get those fuckers rolling. The first thousand or so followers are going to take fucking FOREVER. It's just going to be that ONE friend with the foam #1 glove (mine is named Alisha), sharing your shit for....years. But then you'll grab one more. And then another. And then someone you don't know. And slowly––so slowly––you'll start to assemble this eclectic group that likes your shit even though you won't completely understand why. And then they'll share it when you really hit one out of the park (but to do THAT you have to keep baking with sugar writing), and that's just the long, slow, unglamorous, no secret, no trick, writingful way you do it.

Friday, April 5, 2019

Not Actually a Cook (by Mary Anne Mohanraj)

Not Actually a Cook
Mary Anne Mohanraj

I was being interviewed a few days ago for my new cookbook, and I heard myself saying, "I'm not really a cook."

Which makes sense -- I didn't go to culinary school, or train in a restaurant kitchen. (Though I did put in my time as a teenager at Bickford's pancakes as a waitress, and Papa Gino's pizza, as a cashier and dishwasher, which ought to count for something.) I have no formal training. 

But on the other hand, it's ridiculous. Of course I'm a cook. I've been cooking since I was a kid, from the first time I followed a recipe to make microwave cheesecake (surprisingly effective). 

I've been a cook since my mother stood over me, as I chopped onions for her curries, the only task she trusted me with in the kitchen, and even then -- "You're not chopping them finely enough. Do it again." (That same interviewer, a professional chef, told me that culinary school starts exactly the same way -- Amma knew what she was doing.)

I was a cook in the dorms at U Chicago, when I called Amma freshman year, desperate for something other than cafeteria food. She told me how to make beef and potato curry over the phone, and I cooked it in the shared dorm kitchen, over and over again that year. It was the only thing I really knew how to cook, but I still remember how my new boyfriend dug in, how my roommates and I sat at the table with a big loaf of Wonder bread and ate steadily, greedily, sopping up every last bit of curry sauce.

I was a cook when I was a starving just-graduated 20-something, dodging my landlord in the street because I hadn't found a job in two months of looking and as a result, was two months behind on rent. (I literally ducked into an alley once, because I saw him walking towards me.) Cooking that summer was mostly ramen, with bits of vegetable and hot dog thrown in, but it was tasty enough, and more important, it kept me fed. That's cooking too.

In grad school, I figured out the rotation. Make a big pot of beef curry on Sunday, along with rice.  (45 minutes) Add a vegetable curry Monday. (20 minutes) A different vegetable Tuesday. (20 minutes) A big chicken curry on Wednesday (45 minutes). New vegetable Thursday and Friday, and now we're scrounging leftovers or maybe making a sandwich on Saturday, and getting ready for the next week. Somehow I subsisted on $20/week of grocery money, in Salt Lake City in the 2000s, and managed a slightly different dinner every night. I felt like a cooking genius!

And now it's almost 20 years later, and I've been cooking forever, it feels like. Dinners with friends, and intimate romantic dinners with my husband on rare occasion. Plenty of pots of instant mac-and-cheese with the kids when they were small. Pasta bar for potlucks every Saturday on game night, when life isn't too hectic. 

Big Sri Lankan feasts for everyone I know on April 14th, Sri Lankan New Year, and again at Christmastime, when we do a colonial Christmas, a combination of Sri Lankan short eats, finger sandwiches, trifle and fruitcake. (For those last two, I start cooking weeks in advance, and freeze as needed.) It's a way to share culture, share community, that makes my heart sing. 

Even more important, the days I cook several curries and plenty of rice, and pack them up to drop off to a neighbor with a new baby, or someone going through cancer treatment. I remember when someone did the same for me -- I will always appreciate that mac-and-cheese and broccoli that fed my kids when I wasn't able to. All of this is cooking.

So when I say I'm not a cook -- that's ridiculous. Of course I'm a cook. I'm a cook, and a mother, and a writer, and a teacher. And sometime I feel like I'm not doing a great job with one or the other of those, or sometimes not with any of them. Imposter syndrome rears up its head, and denies me the very word, the 'title.' That's when you have to stuff it down again, that little, frightened voice. 

Natalie Goldberg has an essay in her wonderful Writing Down the Bones, where she talks about giving yourself permission to call yourself a writer. If you write, you're a writer. If you cook, you're a cook. If you parent, you're a parent. And if you don't do it as well as you'd like -- well, as my daughter is probably tired of hearing me say, just practice. 

You will, I promise you, get better, if you do it. Just do the thing, whatever the thing is. Take a little care, try to do it better, but mostly, just keep doing it. Someday you'll look back at what you did decades ago, and what you're doing now, and be amazed at how far you've come.

Mary Anne Mohanraj launched crowdfunding for her new Sri Lankan American cookbook on Tuesday night, and has been astonished and delighted by how well it's done.  She's aiming towards stretching goals now!  

Check it out on Kickstarter:  https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/feastofserendib/a-feast-of-serendib

Mary Anne Mohanraj is author of Bodies in Motion (HarperCollins), the Lambda-award-finalist SF novella, The Stars Change (Circlet Press) and thirteen other titles. Bodies in Motion was a finalist for the Asian American Book Awards, a USA Today Notable Book, and has been translated into six languages.  The Stars Change is a science fiction novella, and finalist for the Lambda, Rainbow, and Bisexual Book Awards. Previous titles include Aqua Erotica, Without a Map, and A Taste of Serendib (a Sri Lankan cookbook).  Mohanraj founded the Hugo-nominated magazine, Strange Horizons, and was Guest of Honor at WisCon 2010.  She serves as Executive Director of the Speculative Literature Foundation (speclit.org), has taught at the Clarion SF/F workshop, and is Clinical Associate Professor of English at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Mohanraj’s recent publications include stories for George R.R. Martin's Wild Cards series, chapters for Ellen Kushner's Tremontaine at Serial Box, and stories at Clarkesworld, Asimov's, and Lightspeed.  2018 titles include Survivor (a SF/F anthology, stories of trauma and survival), Perennial (a breast cancer memoir / romance), and two Sri Lankan cookbooks, The Marshmallows of Serendib and Vegan Serendib.  


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