One yes at a time: in which our heroine becomes, officially, a novelist

And now, some words that I have been waiting to say since I was eleven years old:

I am going to be a published novelist.

I have a book deal.

the Deal

Actually, I have a three-book deal. Aven has been sold to DAW Books and will be appearing on shelves in 2017.

I cannot give enough thanks and praise to my agent Connor, who took a chance on this project two years ago, shepherded me through several rounds of edits, and spent pretty much all of 2015 pushing it on sub. It’s been wonderful working with him on every stage so far, and I can’t wait for the next phase. <3

I’m also thrilled to be working now with Sarah Guan, my editor at DAW. My spare moments have already been filled with tackling the first round of notes she’s given me so that I can polish Aven up into a tighter, leaner, brighter-burning book.

It’s been a few weeks since I found out, and honestly, I’m still having trouble believing it sometimes — but seeing that notice from Publishers Marketplace sure helps! When I got the call from Connor, he had to repeat himself three times before my fuzzed brain was able to comprehend what he was saying. It’s true what they say about that call — for someone who’s dreamed of this and worked for this for so long, it’s a life-changing moment, but something so big and so hoped-for turns out to actually be a little hard to wrap your head around.

I also want to say this by way of encouragement to other writers: Aven started life in 2011 as a Nano project. It was a way of rededicating myself to fiction writing after grad school and the first year of my day job had taken me utterly away from it in favor of academic writing. But I pinned myself down and committed to the project. I wrote, I revised, I did that some more. When I thought I had something good, I took a chance and pitched to a couple of agents at a con in 2012 — and then realised I still had a lot of work to do. I revised for another five months. I spent 10 months querying before Connor took me on in October of 2013. And then I revised some more. And then we went on sub. And then we decided to revise some more. And then it went on sub again. We had some disappointments along the road, and I’d been — as readers of this blog will know — working on some other projects so that I’d have something else ready if Aven had to go on the shelf. I’d been preparing myself for that; I had resigned myself to the probability, so I can quite honestly say that this success came when I absolutely least expected it.

My point in this is: Yeah, it’s easy to get discouraged when you see how easy success seems for other writers. Of course, it never is, for anyone, but it can certainly look like that on social media — the writer who gets an offer from the first agent they query, the project that gets snapped up by a major publisher after being on sub for a week. When you’re in whatever trenches you’re in — drafting, revising, querying, subbing — it can seem impossible that you’ll ever get to share in that joy that others are celebrating.

But all it takes is one “yes”. Well. One yes at a time. A series of one yeses. One agent to say yes. One editor to say yes to the agent. One publisher to say yes to their editor.

The most important one, though? Is the very first yes — when you decide you’ve got a story to tell and dedicate yourself to telling it.

Paleontology of Plotting, Part 2

A confession: I am not very good at drafts.

writerevisewriteagainI never have been — not when it came to essays for school and not when it comes to fiction. It’s partly because I don’t write sequentially. I tend to write the start, the end, and a couple of major points in the middle, then play connect-the-dots. That lends itself to a lot of adjustment-on-the-go. Part of why I like Nano months so much is that it cuts down on that — but, at the same time, just going for the word count can also mean generating scenes that don’t end up fitting into the overall narrative.

And believe me, I know the drawbacks to working this way. It’s easy to get caught in a loop, and there certainly does come a point where you have to decide the thing is complete so you can step back, read it all the way through, and evaluate more holistically. But for my personal process, a certain amount of re-writing as I go is how I excavate — how I tell myself the story.

This is where I’m at on one of my projects right now. Probably 75% of the way through a first draft, I’ve realized there are some elements that aren’t useful. Common wisdom would say to leave them be for now, until I’ve finished the full draft, but so far that hasn’t been working for me. (Plus, not ditching the bits that aren’t working prevents me from having an accurate conception of my overall word count). I’m at connect-the-dots point anyway, where I’m finding the little things that need to chain the major scenes together, so for the way my brain works, it’s just as easy to trim and adjust while I’m in the middle of that process. Trying to work around the things I know I want to get rid of or change would mean a lot of wasted energy.

To continue my paleontology metaphor, in this case it’s a bit like there were a bunch of other bones tangled up with the frame I’ve been trying to unearth. Some characters have proved extraneous and need to be cut or else merged into others. Some scenes were total false starts. I’m not trying to fix all the nitty-gritty details right now — I’m not trying to do a full revision in the middle of still writing by any means — but clearing away the debris will help me to better shape the components that actually need to be there as I push through to getting a complete manuscript done.

The blood going to it: On Depressed Creativity

I use to write like this. It was 10 months ago. I don’t understand what’s going on. I really don’t. I’ve had slumps before. Everybody does, but this is different. I’m sorry, we don’t know each other but there aren’t that many people I can talk to about it. I don’t understand what’s happening. There’s no blood going to it. I’ve never had to locate it before. I don’t even know where to look.

That’s a quote from Toby Ziegler on The West Wing, and it’s something that’s long resonated with me.

I haven’t blogged here in the past couple of months, and I wish I could say that’s because I’ve been devoting all my typing to productive writing. Some days, that’s been true. Many days, it hasn’t been. Many days, it’s been a definite struggle to put myself in front of the laptop and get even a few hundred words down.

Part of it has been my everyday life being quite busy, both at the day job and socially. There are, after all, only so many hours. But part of it has been depressed creativity. It’s hard to find the love, to find the juice, to find the blood when you feel stagnated. Being on sub is a rough place to exist as a writer, especially one hoping to make a solid debut. (There aren’t as many posts covering the submission process as there are for querying, but there are some fairly good ones out there — and this one absolutely nails what it feels like). Writing takes a lot of dedication, a lot of perseverance, and a lot of energy. When you feel like the wheels are just spinning in mud and kicking up gravel, it’s hard to keep going — hard to feel like the words you’re carving out are anything worthwhile.

But. You have to.

More accurately, have to.

I wrote over 3000 words yesterday, and 3000 today, and all actually on the correct project, not scattered all over the place in drips and drabbles of assorted nonsense. These have definitely the best writing days I’ve had since mid-May.

It reminds me that I can. It reminds me of my ability and of my passion for the words. It reminds me that I have stories inside me that want to be told.

And it reminds me that I need to suck it up, cupcake. This isn’t a game for whiners or quitters.

Suck It Up, Cupcake: An Inspirational Playlist

I don’t know about y’all, but I find music incredibly helpful. I make playlists for projects I work on, characters I’m working with, moods I’m in or think I might be in at some point in the not too distant future — really, for anything. I probably have over a hundred built across various platforms.

The past few weeks, I’ve been in need of a particular sort of motivation. Writing’s a tough business sometimes. But if you want to be a writer, lying down and letting the challenges ride roughshod over you just isn’t an option. You have to pick yourself up and keep going. Keep writing. Keep trying.

So here you go. A playlist partially born of my own cussedness, partially inspired by “Fuck Your Pre-Rejection, PenMonkey” and other blog posts of a similar nature, designed to help you screw your courage to the sticking place, grit your teeth, dig in your heels, and get the job done. Whatever that job is for you right now — writing your first draft, getting through your edits, sloughing your way through the query trenches, or anything else — if you don’t do it, it ain’t getting done. So suck it up, cupcake. Are you a writer or not?

spotify:user:1270613493:playlist:1v4DsiuzXt5TquZRG6l1tA

Also an inspirational gif party because why not?

Elsafuckitall

Barneychallenge

TinaFeyfreeingfailure

Enjolrastothebarricade IronManhatersgonnahatePercycomeatmebro Tianaalmostthere

MarthaIamgood

The Paleontology of Plotting

As I jubilantly expressed on twitter last night, I’ve found a plot!

Finding a plot is rarely, I think, like tripping over an unconsidered trifle or discovering a lost item during a ramble through the woods. It’s more like paleontology. You know there’s something under there — at least you’re pinning a lot of hope and faith and hard work on it — but there’s no guarantee that it’ll turn out to be worth finding, or that it’ll be unique, or that it’ll be something anyone else wants to look at.

paleontology_dynamic_lead_slideFirst you dig deep, just to make sure you’re in the right place. I’ve tried starting a few different projects since finishing my last round of Aven edits, and none of the others have gotten past this stage. Sometimes you just plain realize that you’re digging in the wrong spot. That can be frustrating, but I think it’s an important awareness to have. Better to let go of something that isn’t working early, shift your location, and try again, rather than spending valuable hours of your life just moving dirt around. When I back off of a project, it doesn’t go away entirely. I just put a pin in it, hoping — intending — to return later. Aven started life in 2007 as something completely different. I never wrote more than about 10k on it, though, before I realized it wasn’t coming together at all. In 2011, I started over from scratch — and that’s the project that’s carried me through several Nanos. I tried again, and that time I struck true.

So, once you know there is something there worth unearthing, you chip away until you can see the shape of the thing. Is it the thing you thought it was? Or a slightly different species of story? Is it contorted oddly in some place? Is it tangled up with something else? Do you have as much as you thought, or are there bits missing? For me, a lot of this happens in the process of writing itself. I am, in Nano terminology, a pantser, not a plotter. I discover so much while actively writing. It’s not the framework that suits everyone, but it’s wonderful to me — it helps make sure that when I sit down to work, I’m always excited for it.

Then, finally — and this might not happen until later editing phases — you get out the tiny brushes, and you clear off every last bit of debris. Get rid of everything unnecessary so that your final project really gleams, bright and brilliant. This might take a damn long time, and it requires a lot of close focus — but the reward isn’t just a cohesive and impressive whole. You might also learn something new about individual moments, just by spending so much time honing them. I often don’t even write an outline until this point, especially now that Scrivener makes it so simple to keep notes on what happens when — but once I’ve got the shape of a thing generally patterned out, then the outline can be useful to spot gaps or places where some scenes might need to be shifted around — to line up the vertebrae, if you’ll allow me to keep extending this metaphor. (I really love dinosaurs, so it comes easily).

Last night, I jammed a shovel into the earth, and I came up with the first sign that, yes, there is something worth uncovering here.

This is doubly exciting because it doesn’t happen to me a lot. I am, in defiance of Aristotle, a writer who puts Character first. All my stories start with character — as did this one. Perhaps it’s because I am, in some ways, too much a historian. I tend to see people, and the conflict I like best comes out of them crashing into each other. Which is great in my head, but doesn’t always involve the sort of fast pace or high-stakes-drama that the genres I write in require. Fantasy wants the strong beginning, middle, and end that history rarely has — since it, y’know, goes on indefinitely in either direction. It needs, if not an explicit quest, something quest-like, something that drives the characters beyond the bounds of their normal life. So as I was moodling around this new project, I started to feel a familiar pinch of concern: Yes, Morris, you’ve got some interesting personalities milling around an intriguing setting. Some of them like each other and some of them don’t. But what are they going to do?

But, this time, in finding character, I found a new system of magic. And in finding that system of magic, I found the Exciting Incident — the first shape of an object I can start chipping away at — a cataclysmic change, really, for my main characters, something that disrupts their paradigm and forces them to construct a new one, against the ticking clock of threats from without and within.

And that, I think, shall be the challenge that drives the book.

It also gave me a working title, which is super-helpful, since naming things gives them power. So at least for now, this WIP will be called The Seventh Star.

Mind you, I’ve got a what, but I don’t yet know a lot of the how. I have some characters that I don’t know how they fit into the plot (and they might not ever — Aven had its share of discarded characters who were great in my head but never made it to a page anyone else saw). I still have a lot of tinkering to do when it comes to working out the magical system. I need to do some research about a particular kind of warfare and city defense. I’m not quite sure what the end game’s going to look like. But that’s okay. I’ll find out.

So enough nattering to you all about it. I’m off to spend a weekend digging!

A Nano Victory

50k in November 2014!

Winner-2014-Web-Banner

As I said on Twitter, 50k in a month is not, in itself, that much of a challenge for me anymore. I’ve done it enough times that I certainly know I can. But there’s still something so cool about doing it with other people, all striving for the same goal in the same time frame. And it is important to sort of reset my focus. After the heavy editing I was doing the past few months, I had sort of gotten off-track when it came to generating totally new material. Nano helped re-align my discipline.

Of course, I was also a Nano Rebel, so my discipline was perhaps lacking in that regard. Only about 30k of those 50k were on one project — a space opera that’s actually based, quite tangentially, on the very first thing I ever tried to write, at the tender age of 11. It’s a concept I return to every once in a while, reworking and reimagining. No idea if this most recent iteration will take root in a way that will be useable later, but I enjoyed playing with the main character, particularly. I wanted to take a roguish, devil-may-care, Han Solo-like figure… but make that character female, and also make her the central protagonist of a traditional hero’s journey. It’s not meshing together quite as I’d like yet, but the seeds are there, and I might be able to do more with them later.

The remaining 20k came from not one, not two, but three others — all of them in the Aven universe. One is a few scenes from the immediate sequel. I haven’t written much of that, but sometimes I was just getting the itch to spend time with my familiar, beloved characters rather than building whole new ones — so that’s what I did. The two others take place 200 years and 500 years on, respectively, and were full more of world-building than of plot or character, really. I’ve been trying to sort out how the political realities will shift and reshape over time — which may then help me work backwards to find the correct path for the conclusion of the current story. It’s a fascinating way to think, as a historian — playing out the alternate possibilities that my domino-flicking changes create. Will anything come of those? Maybe. I don’t know. But if anything, it’s giving me a new angle on the world I’ve been living in for so much of the past few years, and that’s always exciting. I don’t feel bad about being a Nano Rebel in this way, because the important thing for me is no longer to make sure I finish a single project — I know I can do that — it’s making sure I make room for writing in my daily life. Switching between projects made sure that I didn’t lose that joy. Writing is a job, for me, but it shouldn’t be a chore. Giving myself a little extra freedom, even if it was outside Nano’s strictest boundaries, made sure my heart stayed as engaged as my head.

The thing that does make this year’s win a bit impressive, in my opinion, is that I actually did it in 21 days. I was in Disney World at the start of the month, so I had an 8-day deficit to come back from. A few 4k days brought me back up to speed — but 4k days aren’t easy to come by, either in terms of time or creativity. You have to really want it. I owe a shout-out to @NanoWordSprints for helping me with that — their prompts and pushes are a great way for me to keep myself on task (and not, say, Tumbling or Pinning).

Nano2014stats

This is, if not the very latest I’ve won Nano, then pretty close. Most years that I have won, I’ve done so around the 25th. Was this year slower because of that 8 day deficit? Maybe — but I caught that up pretty fast, then just stayed right about on pace the last week or so. Perhaps it’s because the Thanksgiving break usually falls a bit earlier? It’s easier, not just to find the hours to write, but to find the brain space when I’m not sitting down to it after work. But that’s just an excuse, really — I’m perfectly capable of pounding out a thousand words even when I’ve worked 14 hours at my other two jobs (or, as happened a few times this month, after getting home from a 4 hour Star Wars: Edge of the Empire campaign session).

To all my fellow Nano-ers, whether you’ve won already or not, whether you think you’ll make it in tomorrow or not — Congratulations to you! Taking on a project like this is a success in of itself, and it makes us all a part of something pretty special.

Reflections on Revisions

So remember those revisions that I started way back in June? Last week, I finally finished them. This draft took longer than some earlier revisions had, because it involved a lot more restructuring — that “Come to Proserpina” moment did its job and forced me to really rethink a lot of the shape of the book. I had to spend a couple of months moodling — looking at my outlines, shifting scenes around, deciding that wasn’t going to work, making false starts, hitting snarls, trying again. I think the right word for the process is “detangling”. I had a lot to smooth out, particularly after I’d made the initial cuts.

Samwriting

Yeah, it went pretty much like this.

Only in the past month or so did I really start producing new material at a good generative rate. I’m estimating that I scrapped something like 70,000 words, maybe more, from the last version of the manuscript — and then added about 63,000 new ones back in. And that’s not counting the minor changes I had to make to nearly every scene to reflect the adjusted timeline and other little ripples. In a lot of ways, this revision felt like writing most of an entirely new book — and yet that wasn’t what I was doing. The characters and the world are the same; I just had to find a different angle on them.

Someone over the weekend asked me if I like this version of the book better than the last draft. It’s a weird answer to find. I’m in love with this book as it stands now. I was in love with the earlier version, too. I was in love with last year’s draft, or I wouldn’t have inflicted it upon agents. They’re just all differently shaped beasts. As the book now stands, it’s shaped much more like a fantasy novel than it used to be — and that’s good, since we have to sell it in that genre. It has more rapidly shifting highs and lows, more exciting incidents, particularly earlier in the novel, and more intense “high-stakes” moments. The magic is also a lot more front-and-center than it used to be, and that was fun to play with, because I love dabbling with thaumaturgical theory. The earlier drafts were written much more like historical novels — and I liked that about them. I like the idea of treating the magic in this book as just another component of the world, and otherwise going about as though this is straight historical fiction, with the somewhat slower pace and deeper introspection that that genre embraces. But that runs against the grain of the industry as it currently stands, and part of being a working writer is knowing how to maneuver within the system without sacrificing your story, vision, and creativity. For me, it meant not losing the important character moments (something that historical novels display so well) amid the more energetic plotline (critical to moving a fantasy novel along). I think I’ve hit that sweet spot now in a way I hadn’t before.

I did lose some material that I really adored. One major chunk took out close to 20,000 words in a single, devastating blow. It was a major event in the earlier draft, but with the changes I made to the timeline and the plot, it became entirely irrelevant. As I’ve said before, though, I almost never actually “kill my darlings”. I just defer them. I’m sure I can use at least some of that material in the second book. That’s definitely the case for another big scene that I cut, an emotional confrontation between two characters — it no longer fit with the flow of events here, but it’ll definitely make its way into the next book. Other things may not even stay in this story, but might get revived for a later project.

Revisions like this are a lot of work. Since the end of August, I think I’ve spent as many hours on this as I have at my day job. The “I can’t; I have rehearsal” mantra of my youth became “I can’t; I have revisions.” I spent two entire weekends glued to my chair (which made me viscerally aware that I need a writing chair that isn’t straight-backed and made of hard, uncushioned wood), not leaving the house, mainlining black tea and Diet Dr Pepper with nature documentaries running unobtrusively in the background. I’m super-pleased with the results of all of this focused grinding — but I am also, I confess, a little relieved that now I get to step back from the story while my agent and beta readers have at it.

Creative Idealism vs Risk Aversion

Or, how the Great Recession damaged, and continues to damage, artistically-inclined Millennials.

To have a lifestyle that allows you to put creative endeavors front and center, to prioritize art above other concerns, you need one of two things: a safety net or the willingness to fly without one. And most of my generation doesn’t have either. We don’t have security, but we’ve become risk-averse in the extreme, unwilling to sacrifice what little we have scraped together. We’ve seen what happens when you take risks, when you don’t plan well enough, or when you put your faith in the wrong institutions. As students, we trusted that education and dedication would get us where we wanted to go. “Self-determination” was the buzzword of my high school, as though being capable and wanting a thing enough were sufficient in this world.

I know so many Millennials in similar straits to mine — mostly in theatre, some in writing, some involved with music or visual arts. The ones who are more sensible than I am wised up in college and went into computer science or medicine instead (higher debts, but higher chance of paying them off, too). The ones who are braver than I am, who do strike out and try to live entirely on their art, generally have to accept a pretty low quality of life in order to do so, or else they have to sacrifice a lot of independence. And the trade-off for the rest of us, struggling to achieve some sort of satisfactory balance, is less than stellar. “Selling out” for job security doesn’t bring the boons it once did. It’s still a survival game. Entry level jobs now require years of experience, tenure tracks have disappeared, and employers of all stripes are likely to hire the candidate who will ask for the least rather than who’s best for the job. We may have our heads above water, but that’s not the same thing as success. And we have to tread pretty hard just to stay there. For all of that, we’re told to be grateful — and the sad part is, most of us are. We know our situations could be worse. The lesson we learned from the recession was that we are never safe. Financial security is elusive to the point of being mythological. Even for those of us who are successful, or who have had familial or spousal safety nets to fall back on, I think that fear still lurks for anyone that’s even a little self-aware: This could all evaporate, and then what would I do? That’s what keeps us in this limbo. As I told a friend earlier today, I feel like it’s hamstrung our generation.

Lizziestillpoor

So what does this have to do with writing, specifically?

All aspiring authors, I think, dream of being the one to land that mega-advance that allows you to set aside mundane concerns and retire to a charming nook to pen the next work of genius — then of having sales numbers so spectacular that financial survival is never a problem again. We’re not stupid. We know the reality is nothing like that. But it’s still the stuff of our daydreams.

I won’t pretend to have intimate knowledge the inner workings of the publishing industry — I’m not there yet. I’m closer and better-informed than I was a year ago, but until I am a published author, what I’ve got to go on is still speculative and observational. That said: Writing is one of the few careers in the world where you can put in thousands of hours of work, never knowing if you’re going to get paid for it or not. (Though similar ideas certainly prevail elsewhere in the arts — that you should do it for the love, be grateful just to “express yourself”, and not expect compensation for your sweat and blood and time). And even if you do get paid for it, that seems to endow less security now than it used to. I’ve read various studies and observations from individuals in the industry, tracking the decline of advances from publishing houses over the past decade.  That makes it harder for writers to justify the hours and energy it takes to create. For my peers, that means the hours scraped out of lives already dominated by multiple jobs and energy already brought to its breaking point by financial stress.

Something of a sidebar: This doesn’t entirely derive from but does relate to the ongoing dispute between Amazon, Hachette, and others. It isn’t all Amazon’s fault, and it isn’t all Hachette’s. I’m not on either side here — I’m on the side, as I must be, of authors, particularly the new and unproved, who are hurt most by the fight and the conditions that created it. Advances and royalties have been declining since before they started feuding, for a wide variety of reasons — but this particular drama encapsulates a lot of the problem. The distributor, apparently under the impression that manufacturing costs account for most of the expense of creating a book, want more money out of e-books, arguing that lower overhead for the publisher should mean more profit for them. (This is, of course, never minding that most of the expense is not in the physical object but in the labor behind it from the writer, agent, editor, graphic designer, proofreader, typesetter, marketer, etc). When distributors take a bigger slice of the pie, there’s less left for publishers to give to authors. This leads to smaller advances. I suspect it also contributes to those advances being harder to earn back, royalties-wise — thus making it challenging for writers to see continued revenue. And then all of that tangles together with how much a publisher can afford to and will choose to spend on marketing and publicity, without which even great books will flounder into obscurity.

Taken all together, there seem to be a lot more impediments to making a sustainable career as an author than there used to be. As several analysts have pointed out, this ultimately discourages a lot of writers, or at least delays them from being able to seek publication, since writing has to be crammed into the hours not spent just trying to get by — and the creative world is weaker for that. As Evan Hughes pointed out on Slate back in May, “Diet Coke has a set formula of ingredients, so the actual beverage is not going to get worse if Walmart drives a hard bargain. That’s not necessarily the case with books, each of which is a unique product. If publishers make less money on every book, they are going to pay people less to write and edit them, and talented people will decide to do something else with their time.” This crux is particularly damning for writers of my generation who have learned to be risk-averse.

And yet — I am, essentially, an optimist. That impossible daydream tantalized and provokes me, so I continue to create and I continue to hope. I will wear myself ragged balancing my cost of living with my artistic drive. If I’m to be honest here, it’s at least as much cussed stubbornness and pride as it is idealism. I refuse to let conditions beat me down. I refuse to let the gray mists of discouragement swallow me up. I will be as tough and resilient as this course demands.

It’s exhausting. But I’ll keep going.

This was heavy. Here’s a playlist that I use to keep my spirits up:

The Writer in the Woods

I don’t believe in writer’s block. Writer’s block is just code for laziness. I am an adult, and so when I am lazy and procrastinating, I am at least capable of admitting that that’s what I’m doing. I will also admit that, as a teenager, I went through those melodramatic phases where I blamed everything on “my muse” — or on my characters, as though they were capable of stymieing my progress with their obstinate independence. Also crap. Excusable then, in my youth, as I was learning and growing. Those were also quite popular fads among internet writers at the time (and may be still, in some circles), and I was utterly susceptible to the influence of my peers. But those avoidance techniques are thoroughly unacceptable for any grown human who wants to be a writer. (And therein, I think, lies the real problem — more people are interested in claiming to be writers than in actually doing the work of being writers).

It’s actually rhetorical, and it’s something you see characters in Shakespeare doing a lot. Devices like prosopopoeia and meiosis and synecdoche allow you to assign agency to an inanimate object, to an abstract concept, or to some part of your whole being, thereby excusing you from responsibility. It’s crap when Romeo blames “Love” for making him kill people, it’s crap when Proteus blames his tongue for slandering his girlfriend, and it’s crap when a writer blames a mythical block or muse for a lack of productivity.

What I do believe in, though, is a writer getting lost in the forest.

Into the Woods by Pure_Poison89 on DA

Into the Woods by Pure_Poison89 on DA

It’s possible to be incredibly productive, to be working every day, and yet to not actually get anything done from an end-result point of view. Despite hours of trekking and searching, thinking you’re on to something, you might have no luck at all in finding the right path. Dead ends will plague you, not just in the dramatic way of cliff faces and sudden ravines, but the simpler and altogether more probable way of realising the path loses definition and gets reclaimed by wilderness, leaving you just as much in the middle of nowhere as you were before. You can end up going around in circles, landing on the same point and again and again, despite how little it’s doing for your narrative. You might find lots of things — but none of them get you where you need to go. That shrubbery sure is interesting, but it’s not advancing your plot. There are a lot of trees, but you can’t see the forest for all of their branches smacking you in the face. Maybe you wander across a fairy ring. Do you step inside and find inspiration? Or does it muddle your brains and lure you into a pointless tangent? Maybe you trip up and end up in a swamp, inundated by ideas, but ideas that are rotting, stagnant, thick and heavy and sucking you down into their murky depths.

Yes, it’s easy to see this as another metaphor spiraling out of control; yes, it’s another way for a writer to romanticize her everyday tasks; and yes, writers do seem to experience a nigh-uncontrollable urge to construct narratives out of anything in life.

But the difference here is agency. You’re the one doing the wandering, and it’s up to you to find your way out of the woods. It’s not always easy, and sometimes it can take quite a while even to realise that you’re lost — especially because it can feel so good while you’re experiencing that placebo effect of false productivity.

Hopefully, eventually, you break the cycle and can step out into the clearing again, where you can organise your plot into neat, cogent patterns and solve whatever problems you’ve created for yourself. The only one who can get you and your story out of there is you. And isn’t that better, than blaming it on some block that suddenly falls out of the way, or than giving the credit to an ephemeral muse who deigns to revisit you? Isn’t it better, aren’t you stronger if it’s your own doing, your own triumph?

Now — is the moodling worth it? Are those tangents and sidetracks and wandery mountain paths worth it? The romantic view says yes, of course, it’s all about the process. The pragmatic side of me says — no. Not always. Sometimes spending time in those metaphorical woods is every bit as wasteful and self-indulgent as playing Civ V while streaming 18 straight episodes of Chuck. (Just as a, y’know, hypothetical for instance). If you’re still in the early stages with no pressure on you, then getting lost isn’t so bad and might lead to worthwhile discoveries, but if you’re staring down deadlines with other people counting on you, it’s time to drag yourself out.

Personally, at the moment, I find myself in a bit of a thicket. I’ve tried several approaches and made a series of attempts to get out, and yet I keep finding myself in some of the same snarls. So it’s time to try a different technique — retrace my steps, perhaps, get back to the last point where I thought I was on-track, and find my way out from there. Look at the outline. Look at the character arcs. Look at what the story needs and what a reader will want. Look for the gaps and the weaknesses.

I know the path exists. It’s up to me to find it.

On Perseverance

I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was 11, but as a teenager, I went through a period of time where I also wanted to be an actress. I’d always liked performing — I’d been in church pageants and school shows since the age of four, I’d fallen in love with Shakespeare at eleven, and in high school, I was getting a taste of “the real thing” (insomuch as that exists in a high school drama club). But when I was 15, my mother sat me down and said, “Honey. You’re a good actress. You’re never going to be a great actress.”

Now, at the time, I of course handled this with exactly as much grace, serenity, and wisdom as any hormonal, melodramatic fifteen-year-old would. In the years since, however, I’ve recognized what my mother was getting at, and I’ve come to thoroughly appreciate it. What she meant was that, given the choice between two pipe-dream-style careers which hinge as much on hard work, perseverance, and the ability to take a blow as they do on inspiration and talent, I needed to focus on the one that I was tough enough to endure. And she was right. I never cared about acting enough to do the things you have to do to make it as an actor. And I didn’t care in the right sorts of ways. While I liked being on-stage, liked memorizing lines and playing with characters, I could never get as much into the different techniques and methods behind that madness. I would not have done well in a conservatory. Perhaps even more importantly, I don’t think my ego could have taken the rejections, and even if I’d met with some kind of moderate success, the cycles of tension would probably not have been good for me. Actors always have to have an eye out for the next job, and I don’t know that I could have stuck with it enough to deal with those conditions.

For writing, though — for writing I could face all of that.

I care enough about writing to have spent I don’t even know how many hours improving my skills over the years. They say it takes 10,000 hours to master something. I don’t know that writing is ever something you truly master, but I’m sure I’ve spent those hours and well beyond by now. As a teenager and college student, I filled dozens of five-subject notebooks (Mead 5 Star only, I was very specific in my preferences). I still have them all, living in a box under my desk, ready to pop out and embarrass me someday (or perhaps not. I remain perversely proud of my eighth-grade Star Wars fanfiction). I got into text-based roleplaying because it flexed similar muscles. I wrote and wrote and wrote because I loved it.

The hardest point, I think, was after grad school. I’d fallen out of the habit of writing fiction, because so much of my energy had to go into academic writing while I was pursuing my degree — and then my job after school used those same skills. Making time to write creatively was hard, but finding the energy was even harder. I began to understand how people can come home after an 8-hour workday and just zone out in front of the TV until it’s time for bed. But I pushed through it. I made myself write a little each day, even if it was just 100 words, whether fanfic or original, even if they made no sense. Even if they sucked. I couldn’t afford to wait for inspiration to strike — because inspiration is a lazy little tart who generally needs a good kick up the backside to get going.

Gradually, that built up. Gradually, I was able to push myself back to writing more each day. In 2011, I won Nanowrimo for the first time in years — and that story was the earliest incarnation of Aven. And then I kept going. I used to marvel at Stephen King writing two to three thousand words a day, six days a week, wondering how it was possible. But sometime in the last year and a half, I realized that, on days when I didn’t have to do anything else, 3000 words was a breeze. (In fact, when I’m at the beach — my most relaxed environment — I can bang out three or four thousand words and still have time for a lie-in, sunbathing, a bath, and a nice dinner with the family). So I did that. I finished a draft. I edited it. I pitched it in-person to a couple of agents at a convention. Based on their feedback, I edited some more, and some more, and some more.

And then, the querying. My ego, which is an admittedly tender thing and would have been pummeled in rounds of auditions, found it could miraculously sustain itself through the querying process. Maybe it’s because the rejection feels less personal this way — the agents never see you, of course. I was able to summon the requisite dispassion to acknowledge that, no, not every project is for everyone, but I was able to keep the optimism that, yes, someday, someone was going to want to fight for this project as hard as I did. That doesn’t mean there were never moments of crisis, never moments when I wondered what the hell I was doing. There were plenty of them, in fact. Those “what if I’m just not good enough?” thoughts creep in even when you’re trying your damnedest to keep up the optimism. But I was able to fight through those, and, after almost a year of polite form letters and more than a few dead silences, it paid off.

Now, having cleared that hurdle at last, the path is requiring a different sort of toughness. Editing is a difficult beast, and for the first time, someone else’s opinions and experience have to matter, too. Which is brilliant. Having someone else whose ideas can provoke me into making my manuscript even better is fantastic. It’s honing a different skill set — focusing the somewhat haphazard creative energy that typically contributes to my writing process. That focus helps me get a lot done in a short amount of time. I had a “day off” on Monday, and I spent at least eleven hours of it working. Some of that was editing old material, some of it was creating new material, some of it was poring through reference books, and some of it was just plain staring at the Scrivener corkboard until I figured out how I needed to re-arrange the puzzle pieces. And it was a good day. It felt like a good day. I went to bed exhausted, but I felt so positive about that.

So the point of all of this is that my mother was right. It’s not enough to have talent or desire. You have to choose the path that you care enough about to fight for. Trying to make it as an actress would have been a tremendously frustrating path for me to take, and one that probably would not satisfy me nearly as well even if I did meet with some moderate level of success. Trying to make it as a writer, though, has only pushed me to be better. It’s only made me want it more. I’ve grown a little bit of a thicker skin, I’ve learned to bounce back, and I’ve developed a real sense of duty about what I’m doing. I am not a dilettante, and this is not a pipe dream any longer. This is what I work at, what I’m willing to pour countless hours of my life and brainpower into.

And, as it turns out, I do still get to act sometimes. 😉