Keeping Score: 24 June 2022

I’ve been reading Craft in the Real World and The Anti-Racist Writing Workshop, two books that both approach the issue of how the traditional writing workshop in the US — silent author, readers and teacher judging the work, comparison to an all-white literary canon — was constructed less to promote healthy writing communities and more to reinforce white supremacy in the States.

I confess it’s been hard reading, sometimes. Being confronted with the way I’ve been taught — and taught to teach others — about writing and being shown its racist underpinnings does not make for comfortable reading. But I’m pushing past that white fragility of mine, and interrogating it, and each time what I find at the root is simply fear. Fear that I’ll be the one erased, in the kind of workshop these authors describe. Fear that I’ll become the marginalized. Because the one thing all white people know, even when we don’t want to admit it, is that being in the minority in the Western caste system sucks.

When I face that fear, and name it, I’m able to move past it, and see the workshops they’re presenting as what they really are: places where everyone can take center stage for a time, where each author is empowered with the tools and the confidence to better their craft. Those tools are there for me, too, if I’m willing to listen, and use them.

So I’m testing them out, so to speak. I don’t have a formal writing workshop to go to, but I am trying a new approach with the feedback I give to the other writers in my writing circle. I’m aiming my feedback less at “I liked this” or “I don’t like this character” and more towards highlighting the choices I see them making. Like asking how scenes might play out differently if X were changed, or querying about the symbolism behind the repetition of a certain element. I don’t know if I’m succeeding, just yet, but I’m striving for the kind of centering of the author as an actively participating artist that Salesses and Chavez encourage.

I’m also borrowing some of their practices for my own writing. For this new short story I’m writing, I’ve taken to writing out the new draft by hand, in a notebook. Chavez says she insists her students write by hand, as a way to silence the inner editor and let the words flow onto the page. And so far, it’s working; writing it out has helped me get out of my own way, and make progress on the draft, when staring at the computer screen would feel like too much pressure. Chavez is right: Something about using hand and pen and paper is liberating, making me feel less like every word needs to be perfect and more like the story in my head needs to be written down right now.

As a result, the new draft is taking shape. It’s going to be longer and more complicated than I originally thought, with POV shifts and an expanded world. The side character that I had in the first draft and then gender-flipped has now become the protagonist (!) with all the changes that entails. But where I initially approached this new draft with trepidation, now I’m excited to see it come together.

What techniques do you use, to quiet your inner editor and feel free to write the stories you most want to tell?

Keeping Score: 17 June 2022

Gender-flipping one of the characters in my new short story turns out to be the best decision I could have made. Whole new story possibilities have opened up, and I’m following through on them as best I can.

Which is to say, I haven’t made any progress on the horror story I started last week.

I’m basically back to draft zero on the sci-fi piece (now gender-flipped). The story’s going to need to get longer, much longer, in order to capture these new ideas. Somehow I’m going to need to pull off switching POVs inside the short story form, which is usually a no-no.

And it might still be! But I won’t know for sure until I try it out. Maybe switching POV between scenes will be a disaster. Maybe I’ll read the new draft through and find it’s a horrible mess. But then again, maybe I won’t.

So I’m trying to give myself the freedom to explore. I’m still forcing myself to sit down at least 15 minutes a day and work on a story, any story. But I’m not judging the output of those fifteen minutes. If it’s character sketches, great! If it’s brainstorming possible plot twists, also fine. Just so long as it’s effort spent on the story, in whatever form that takes.

This weekend I’m hoping to carve out some time to do some drafting based on the notes I’ve put together over the week. It’d be nice to have a finished draft together, however messy, that I can start editing next week.

Hope your own writing is going well, and that you’re avoiding the trap of judging your work by anyone else’s standards.

Keeping Score: 10 June 2022

Started the first draft of the new horror story this week, but just barely. Managed to bang out a single scene before my brain came to a screeching halt.

At first I was scared, thinking my writer’s block had come back. But after a day to calm down, I figured it out: I still needed to edit the flash pieces I banged out last month. My writing brain — who commutes between my subconscious and Tír na nÓg, I call them Fred — wasn’t ready to move on to a new story just yet. Outline, sure, but draft? No way. Edits first.

So I’ve mostly been editing. Two of the flash pieces I wrote are ready to go. A third is on its second draft, but I think it needs a third major one before any fine-tuning passes. I had an idea for gender-flipping one of the characters that I think will make the dialog more interesting (because it’ll bring out more of each character’s personality) and easier to follow (because the dialog tags will be different).

I’ve also been (kind of) editing my prison break novel. As I mentioned before, I’ve joined a writing group, so I’m using it as my submission — 2,500 words at a time — for each session. We’re using Google Docs for sharing, which I thought would be annoying (ok, it is annoying) but has given me a chance to edit each section before I copy/paste it into the shared doc. It’s mostly cleanup edits: Fixing a typo here, reworking a bit of dialog there. But it’s making the draft stronger, and they’re giving me some very useful feedback on it (like catching that a character didn’t bother to put on a pressure suit before heading out an airlock!).

It’ll take us (as a group) a while to get through it all, but I’m hoping at the end of it I’ll have a firm sense of what needs to be updated in one more editing pass before I can start sending it out to agents. Then maybe I’ll start (finally) editing the novel previous to that one, and so on and so forth, till they’re all edited and all out on sub. Meanwhile, I can keep churning out short stories, and work to find each of them a publishing home.

Wish me luck!

Keeping Score: 3 June 2022

This week I finally started submitting stories to markets again.

I’ve been holding off, because of the writer’s block, and all the work that went into the move, but also because I was afraid. I’m afraid not just of rejection, but of being judged for what I’ve written. Afraid that even if a story does make it to an editor’s desk for reading, they’ll be put off by it, and never want to see anything by me again.

Intellectually, I know, no one thinks about me that much. My stories go in, and they get rejected, and the editors and first readers never think about me again. They’ve got lives of their own, after all.

And yet. Fear of judgement has kept me holding my stories back, worried not about how the story will be received, but how I’ll be seen for having written it. At one point, I even tried to convince myself that I didn’t want to get published, that the writing was enough for me, that making money at it didn’t matter. That delusion lasted perhaps a week before my normal ambition re-asserted itself.

All of it — the fear of judgement, the lying to myself — is a silly thing, and I know it’s silly, but it’s taken me a few months to get past it.

Thank goodness for The Submission Grinder, which (for free!) not only keeps track of what pieces I have ready to go and which markets I’ve already been rejected from, but can run a search across markets that are open to subs for each piece. That is, it knows the word count and genre, and so narrows its results down to markets that accept stories of that length and subject. It’s help me discover markets I’d never have heard of otherwise, and contests that would have closed before I had a chance to submit.

So, by the numbers:

  • 3 pieces went out last week.
  • 1 has already been rejected, and needs to go back out this weekend
  • 1 new flash piece (from last month) is ready to go
  • 3 older pieces need to be sent to new markets
  • 1 new short story needs a final editing pass (it’s currently on its second draft) before being sent out
  • 2 new flash pieces need first editing passes this weekend

…and I want to start the first draft of the new horror story. Whew!

Hope your own writing is going well, and you’re hitting your goals, whatever they may be.

Keeping Score: 6 May 2022

Time to start these up again, as well.

Other than Monday’s blog post, though, I haven’t written anything this week. I wake up tired, having slept fitfully the night before. I stumble into the shower and then into my work chair, only to stagger out eight hours later wondering if I can justify taking a nap before dinner. I never do, though; I just catch up on personal chores (one thing they don’t tell you about immigrating is how much friggin’ paperwork you’re going to be doing, constantly, forever), shovel food into my mouth, and then slink off to bed.

Rinse, repeat.

Tried to break the routine last night by going to an online meeting of the Victoria Creative Writers’ Group. Thought meeting some local fellow writers would be a nice one-two punch, both getting me out of lonely shell here and giving me a bit of inspiration.

It’s worked in the past. Every time I’ve come out of a Writers’ Coffeehouse session — run by Jonathan Maberry — I’ve felt pumped up, ready to write for hours.

But something must be truly wrong with me, because it didn’t happen this time. Felt like dropping the call multiple times, and turned my camera off so I could cry. It made me feel more isolated, more lonely, not less.

Because here were a dozen or so folks who were settled into Canadian life. Two were teachers. One was a nurse. There was one person who had moved here from Alberta, but otherwise no recent transplants like me.

And I thought: What am I doing? I had a network back in San Diego. I had writer friends, and meetings. Encouragement given and received. How could I hope to insert myself here? With every word out of my mouth I prove that I don’t fit in.

I know I’m being overdramatic. Canada is not yet so culturally far from the US. And yet.

So I’m going to look for inspiration elsewhere. Planning on taking a hike this weekend, either to Thetis Lake or just around Beacon Hill Park (neither of which I’ve seen), depending on the weather. I’ll walk among the trees, take some photos, and try to clear this melancholy from my head.

Wish me luck.

Written with: Ulysses

Under the Influence of: “Sorry for the Late Reply,” Sløtface

Keeping Score: October 22, 2021

I’ve finally made it to the other side of my writer’s block. I’m back to working on the novel, hitting my word count every day.

Thank goodness.

It wasn’t any one thing that got me through it, either.

i started reading again, sprinting through two novels that’d been sitting on the To Be Read pile for a good while. They were both excellent, they were both slightly outside my normal genre, and they were both kindling to re-light the writing fire inside me.

I leaned into my schedule disruption, which meant calling a halt to my exercise routine for a week. I know, you’re not supposed to do that; it’s the exact opposite of the advice most folks give about writer’s block (“take a walk”, “clear your head”, etc). But it helped me to relax, to feel like I had all the time in the world to write, which made it that much easier to find my flow.

And I read a few chapters in the new Pocket Workshop book by the Clarion West Writer’s Workshop. Specifically, Eileen Gunn’s chapter on writer’s block calmed me down significantly. It reminded me that blockages happen, and pushed me to interrogate it, rather than ignore it.

By forcing me to really look at why I was blocked, to listen to what the block was trying to tell me, I found my way forward. I realized that the novel section I was working on wasn’t working, really, and that’s why I was blocked on it. It was too passive, for one. Where the previous flashback section was very much driven entirely by the narrator’s actions, the current section was one where a lot just happened to her. Or where she stumbled across things, and reacted to them. It wasn’t compelling, and my subconscious knew it, but my conscious mind wanted to carry on like nothing was wrong.

So my subconscious went on strike. Writer’s block.

I spent a few days brainstorming ways to change the section, to make it driven by the narrator. And suddenly my writing brain kicked back into gear, generating conversations and visualizing scenes again. Not all of them lined up, but that’s ok, that’s part of the process.

In the end, I decided to trash the 5,000 words I’d written for the current section of the book. Goodbye, gone.

And started over.

But now, this time, the words are coming much more easily. I can sit down in the morning and get my word count in, without worrying about being blocked, or not knowing where I’m going. The narrator — the protagonist of this section — is back firmly in control of things, and that’s how it should be.

Instead of somehow wandering from Central Asia to Europe, she’s fleeing there, from the consequences of her own actions. Instead of stumbling on a town with a dragon problem, she’s seeking it out, because it’s the only way she can keep a powerful curse at bay.

She still faces constraints, of course. But the way she overcomes her challenges within those constraints is her choice, no one else’s. And that…that makes it a lot easier to write down her story.

What about you? Have you had a period of serious writer’s block, that you then worked through? How did you overcome it?

Keeping Score: October 8, 2021

I’m…well, I’m blocked.

Written perhaps 300 words on the novel in the last two weeks. No work on any short stories, no editing…nothing else.

I did finish the outline of the section I’m working on. It’s just when I sat down to start writing it, I just…didn’t. Couldn’t find my way back into the story.

Part of it is time; my morning schedule’s been chopped to bits, lately, and my afternoon schedule is gone because I’ve been working later (and as soon as I get off work it’s time to start making supper). And at lunch, well…at lunch I just want to turn my brain off for a while.

Part of it, too, is I’m just tired all the time. I wake up tired, I exercise tired, I sleepwalk through making dinner and fall into bed at the end of the day. My jammed finger from August still hasn’t healed — I have to pop it back into place every morning so I can bend it — my right thigh is sore every time I stand, and that foot will just give out without warning, sending me flailing for the nearest chair or counter to grab hold of for support.

Mentally, too, I’m worn out. It’s like the part of me that makes decisions is just done, completely finished, and refuses to make a single new one. Decide what to wear? Nope, grab whatever’s on top of the pile. Decide what to eat? Nope, get the same thing every day. Decide how this scene is going to play out? Nuh-uh, try again. Decide what other writing project to work on to get around the block? Hahaha, not a chance.

What’s really frustrating is that I want to work on the novel. I want to finish editing my short stories, and send them out, and then write the exciting scenes I’ve planned out for the book, and maybe start a new short story, and…so much. But I reach the end of each day, and nope, nothing.

I’m…not used to feeling this way. Used to feeling lost in the book, sure, given my tendency to write my way through it rather than outline. But not used to knowing where I want to go, and how to get there, but not having any fuel in my mental tank to get there.

Not sure how to get that fuel back. Maybe read more? I took a break after reading the last two books, and maybe that was a mistake. Maybe my horror movie binge for October needs to be a horror novel binge? Or something completely different, maybe I need to read nothing but cozy mysteries for a while.

What I fear is that this means I need to put the novel away for a while. I’ve heard of other writers doing that, hitting a blockage and setting the work aside for a year or two, before picking it back up again. I’ve also heard of writers that set something aside and never pick it up. The latter’s what I’m afraid of. I want to finish this book. Finishing things…it’s part of my identity. Letting that go would be very, very hard.

Which is maybe why I’m blocked? Too afraid to let go, but too tired to go on? sighs We’ll see.

Keeping Score: September 24, 2021

Zero words written on the novel this week.

The little parts I was writing last week, based on the outlining I did, ran out of steam. Turns out a single day of outlining isn’t enough for a section that’s probably going to end up being 30,000 words!

So this week I hit pause on drafting. Instead, I’ve spent each day’s writing time on outlining and research, trying to build a path forward.

Eh, that’s not quite right, either…More like, I started out the week with an idea of the beats this part needs to hit. Character X needs to meet Character Y in Town Z. There’s a Guild-sponsored dragon hunt, which both compete in. Something something something, they become friends.

Which is not a lot to go on! So this week I’ve been drilling into the “why” and “how” of things: Why is Character Y in Town Z? Why does anyone in the Town care about dragons? Why this Guild in particular? How does Character X find out about the competition? How do they meet Character Y?

That, in turn, has pushed me to do some more research into the history of the region, looking for answers about government structure, merchant shipping, relations between nobles and peasants, etc etc etc.

And it’s working! I stumbled upon an historic event that fits exactly with my generational timeline, and explains why Character Y is in town (and why they might join in a dragon hunt). It’s settled a lot of other questions I’ve had about the book — like when precisely in history everything is taking place — and even adds extra depth and drama to some later events.

So, am I ready to get back to drafting? Not yet. I’ve only got the first third or so of this section outlined so far. I need to work through the hunt itself, and its consequences, before I’ll feel comfortable putting fingers to keys again.

Hopefully that’ll be sometime next week. Wish me luck!

Keeping Score: September 17, 2021

Did I say I’d spend time outlining last weekend? How naive I was! No, last weekend was all house chores, with a single break — a fantastic break — to celebrate a friend’s new job.

So I did the outlining on Monday, and wrote Tuesday, and Wednesday was…a lost day…and went back to writing yesterday. And now it’s Friday, and I’ve only hit half my word count for the week. I’ve got some catching up to do.

And editing — that second flash piece I wrote last month needs another draft — and story submitting. It’s a lot to juggle!

But I’ve got today off, thank goodness, so there’s a good chance I’ll get some of it done before the weekend. And who knows? I might sneak some work in on Saturday or Sunday as well.

Meanwhile, the approach of fall has me feeling the need to be in a class again, leveling up my craft. I recently discovered Cat Rambo’s Academy for Wayward Writers, and its set of self-paced classes looks like just the ticket. I think I’ll start with the one on editing (since knowing when to stop editing is something I struggle with) and go from there.

Keeping Score: September 10, 2021

Steady progress on the novel this week, even though the plot of this section is getting away from me.

I had an outline for this part, I swear. But that outline’s nearly a year old now. The characters have shifted, both in my head and on the page.

As a result, they’re doing and saying things that are blowing holes in my outline large enough for the Ever Given to sail through. A single representative of a merchant guild has become an entire squabbling panel. An orderly interview morphed into an impromptu witch trial. Three characters that were supposed to be at cross-purposes are now joining up to hunt dragons on the sea (!).

I’ve managed to wing it, so far this week. But I’d like to have some time this weekend to rework my outline, and plot out the new sequence of events, given how much has changed.

I could keep winging it, I suppose. But experience has taught me that without an outline, or some kind of guide, this first draft will end up being even rougher than normal. And it’s already going to be intimidating enough to revise a novel this long. I don’t want to be creating more work for myself down the line.

So: an outline there will be, if not this weekend, then first thing next week. After all, you don’t want to go sailing in search of Baltic dragons without a map!