What is a Citizen, Anyway?

I’ve recently realized there’s a large gap in my education: I don’t know how to be a citizen.

I know how to be a worker. Long hours spent in school forced to sit still and be quiet at a desk while taking orders from an authority figure prepared me for life in the 21st century economy. Years spent working for minimum wage — as a fast-food cook — or less than minimum wage — as a server — taught me crucial survival skills like Smiling at the Asshole and Let the Boss Be Right. Not to mention first-hand experience with the inherent conflict between workers and owners that lies at the heart of capitalism.

I know how to be a husband. Not always a good one, to be sure, but a husband all the same. Popular culture, family examples, and years of church gave me a plethora of role-models to choose from. There’s the drunken layabout coupled with teary-eyed professions of love (my dad’s preferred mode). There’s the stalwart family patriarch, holding everything — and everyone — in no matter what. There’s the queer model of radical equality, or the jealous hawk, or the laissez-faire bro. Lots of choices, an entire industry of self-help books, all geared around making sure I know how to play that role.

But what about being a citizen?

There was no class for that in my schooling. There’s no section of the bookstore on citizenship to read up on. No MasterClass. I can get courses on being a better cook or learning to play the cello or the exact right way to pose so my Instagram posts go viral. But nothing on how to be a better citizen. There, I’m on my own.

Is it enough to vote? I mean, I do vote, every chance I get. I scour election materials and try to sniff out which candidate is actually going to do some good. But I hear now that “just showing up on Election Day” is not enough, that we need to involved citizens.

Is it voting and protesting, then? I protested the Second Gulf War, Bush’s candidacy in 2004, and Trump’s Inauguration. I’ve marched for Women’s Day, and I’ll march for Black Lives Matter. But that too feels hollow, in a way. Not just because the Second Gulf War went ahead as (not really) planned, or that Bush got re-elected, or that Trump never got removed from office. Participating in those marches felt…good, cathartic, even. But also ephemeral. Nothing was really at risk, for me, in those marches. And nothing permanent came out of it. I came, I marched, I went back to work the next day. So when I hear terms like “performative ally-ship,” they hit very close to home, for me.

Is it being an activist? But — assuming no one can be an activist for every cause, so we should all pick one to pursue — if we all become activists, what distinguishes us from just another series of lobbies or interest groups?

So seriously, now: What does being a citizen (not just a consumer, not just worker) mean?

I suppose it used to mean, and may still mean, participating in civil society. But what’s that? There’s no Chamber of Commerce for me to join, because I work for an international company, not my own business. There’s no union, either, for the same reason. There’s no PTA, because I don’t have kids. The City Council meets behind semi-closed doors in the middle of the afternoon on a week-day, when absolutely no one that works for a living can attend.

I guess that leaves volunteer organizations. Habitat for Humanity. A food bank. The local chapter of a political party, even. Some kind of group with a concrete mission, some change they make in people’s lives, on a daily basis.

Is that it? And, maybe more importantly: Is that enough?

Keeping Score: June 11, 2021

Got another short story rejection today. This one was personal, at least; not a form letter, but a description of an historical error that threw the editor out of the story.

It hurts a little less, I guess? To know I got close enough to being accepted that the magazine’s editor read the story, and rejected it themselves. But it’s also frustrating, to have such high hopes for a story, only to see it constantly fail to get published.

And now, of course, I’m diving into more historical research, and thinking of ways to fix the error they called out, while keeping the heart of the story intact. Yet another revision to make before sending it back out.

Or perhaps it’s time to let this one go. Sometimes I think I need to take these rejections less personally. To treat them as less of a challenge, and more like little slips of paper slipped under my door while I’m working. So long as I’m producing more stories to send out, does it matter that much if one of them doesn’t work as well as I’d like? Or to flip it around: If I’m happy with a story, does it matter so much that any particular editor isn’t?

Of course I’m never completely happy with a story. There’s always something to change, some phrase to tweak or scene to re-think.

That’s the thing: I’m always ready to revise. I crave feedback, and once I get it I honor it by making changes. But is that the best way to improve as a writer? Am I making things better, or just delaying working on something new, something to which I can apply all of my lessons learned afresh?

What about you? When you get a rejection, does it spur you to keeping editing? Or do you march on to the next project?

Keeping Score: June 4, 2021

I finished the eternal section!

Finally laid down all the connective text it needed. Final word count: 34,089 words, for just that one part of the book (!).

It’s a huge milestone. Means not only that I can move on to the next part of the book, a shorter interlude before the next large chunk, but I’m about 1/3 of the way through the book as a whole: 49,594 words. I said this was going to be a door-stopper, right?

I feel like I need to take a moment and look back at where I started. Not to brag, but just to survey the view from this part of the summit, so to speak. Because otherwise the moment’s going to be lost, mixed in with all the others spent putting one word in front of the others, trudging up the slope.

When I started out on this book, last November, I had a plan in a very loose sense of the word. I knew the beats I wanted to hit, and the general shape of the story, but that was it. I didn’t really know who these characters were, or what could motivate them through these events. I also didn’t know if I could even write this kind of historical novel, where I leap from the shores of the Baltic Sea to the Central Asian steppe and back again.

But I have. I can. It might be junk, but the first draft of the steppe sequence is done. I conjured up a whole family from scratch! I worked out how to track a dragon across the plains. And discovered how a pre-teen could summon her inner strength to strike back at that dragon for her father’s death.

That’s not nothing! Again, it’s just the first draft, and I can already see that it’ll need a lot of edits. But after months of grinding away at it, wondering if I’d ever see real progress, wondering if I should just stop and spend my time doing something else, I can take heart in knowing that this piece, at least, is done. And if I can finish one section, I can finish the others. One word at a time.

So take heart, if you’ve been feeling like me! Like the work is never-ending. Afraid that none of it will be worthwhile.

Because eventually you’ll summit that mountain. And you’ll look back at where you started, and wonder how the hell you’ve come so far.

Keeping Score: May 28, 2021

So I didn’t quit. Not this week, at least 🙂

Only 686 words written so far, though, so I’ll need to play catch-up today and tomorrow, once again. I seem to end up skipping my writing for the day at least once a week, so a Friday writing marathon might end up being a regular habit. Which is fine with me, actually…wrapping up my writing in a final burst feels like a good way to roll into the weekend.

And I’ve finally got enough distance from the horror story I drafted — about two weeks — that I can go back and start revising it now. Which’ll be a nice break from the novel (again), because ye gods I’m tired of the section I’ve been working on. Writing in skip-around mode works for getting me past blockages, but makes sewing up all those missing parts kind of a drag. And it makes that connecting process a skip-around of its own, but an involuntary one, so just as I get in the flow for one area, I hit the words I’ve already written, and need to skip ahead to the next missing piece.

It’s tedious, and tedium makes it hard to push myself to get the writing done. Because it needs to be done, those missing pieces need to be filled in, lest I end up with something of a half-told story.

But it’s not very fun. The fun parts I’ve already written! That was the good thing about skipping around. Now I’m in the bad part, which is…well, something I’ve got to grit my teeth and get through.

On the other side of the tunnel of tedium is the next chapter though, where I’ve got to write about bodily trauma and some inner psychological horror as changes take hold in the point-of-view character. That’ll be fun…so long as I can convince myself I know what I’m doing when writing about this kind of physical trauma 😬 I might want to set aside a day or two for some research…

Keeping Score: May 21, 2021

It’s been a rough week for my writing.

The company I work for has had a series of cross-company events this week, and since we’ve got folks working all over the globe, they were held at a time that was convenient for basically no one. For my part, that meant getting up at 4am so I could be awake, showered, and coherent for what some days was five hours of continuous Zoom meetings.

Not conducive to writing, to say the least. I managed to throw down some words on Tuesday after work, but otherwise my brain has just been much at the end of the day. So I’ve only written 269 words on the novel this week.

The meetings are over, so I’m hoping to be able to play catch-up today and tomorrow. Reach my goal of at least 1,250 words before the sun sets on Sunday. But the shift in my schedule meant other errands have also been put off all week, and now I’ve got to juggle all of it together.

And process the short-story rejection I got on Wednesday.

This one hit me harder than I thought it would. Possibly because they’d had it for a couple months, which — once again — gave me hope that it might make it through the gauntlet this time. The form rejection I received — word-for-word the same letter I’ve gotten from the magazine before, despite a change in editors — was a bit of gut-punch, then. I guess it didn’t make it through any part of the gauntlet, after all; folks were just too busy to have even read my story (and then immediately reject it) until now.

So I’m a bit low, and questioning once again why I bother. isn’t it enough to have one job? Why am I trying to have another? Why don’t I just give it a rest, and go do something else with my time? And I don’t have any good answers this go-round.

What do you do, when you think of quitting? How do you keep putting words on the page? Or push yourself to send that story out to one more market?

Keeping Score: May 14, 2021

I finished the rough draft of the short story!

It topped out at 5,157 words, which is a little longer than I’d like. Most of the markets I want to try to sell into have a cap of around 5k. But I should be able to trim it down enough during editing that it’ll squeeze under the limit.

So I’m setting that aside for a couple of weeks, to get some distance on the story before I try to revise it. I’m picking the novel back up, meanwhile, trying to finish the same interminable section i was working on when I pivoted to the short story.

I say interminable because it seems I keep finding gaps in the story that I have to fill in now. I’ll be scrolling along, watching a continuous flow of words, when there’s a break in the narrative. And I have to stop, scroll back up, get back into the “mood” of the particular scene, and then spin a bridge across to the next one.

It’s a little tedious, but only in the sense that I can’t believe I left so many holes in the story. I’m filling them just fine, the words are flowing, thank goodness. But I’m already judging past me: Why didn’t you just keep writing the story? Did you really need to skip over writing these three paragraphs that I just put down?

The answer, of course, is that yes, I did need to skip them. At the time, I needed to leap over them in order to discover my destination. But that still means poor present-day me has to trundle along behind, paving over the potholes in the semi-paved story road.

What about you? Ever make a judgement call during drafting that you later regret, either in the same draft or later?

Keeping Score: May 7, 2021

In the spirit of being more flexible, I decided to take a break from the novel this week. Instead, I’ve been putting my word count towards the short story, pushing to get a first draft done before the week is out.

And so far, so good! I’ve written 1,076 words of my 1,250 word goal (so I’ve got to do a session today to finish out strong), and I’m currently writing the last scene in the story.

It’s a horror story, so I’m trying to use all the techniques I’ve been learning about from Writing in the Dark and all the horror novels I’ve been bingeing. Focusing on the character’s reactions to events, rather than relying on the events themselves. Sticking close to one character’s point of view, to pull the reader into the situation. Using more senses than just sight and hearing to convey the world.

And I’m leaning on the drafting techniques I’ve picked up while writing the novel. Like jotting down dialog first, or skipping around in a scene to work around a temporary block. Or working on a scene in layers, doing multiple passes to put in all the elements I want to have in a scene (dialog, thoughts, physical blocking, environment).

I feel like it’s producing a stronger first draft. One I’ll have an easier time revising later on. Not that I’m trying to be super-careful about word choice — it’s a trash draft after all — but I think the bones of the story will hold up more, when it comes time to edit. So hopefully I’ll be able to focus more on language and less on “do I need to completely rewrite this to make it more interesting?”

What about you? Do you feel like your first drafts have gotten better over time? Or have you found better ways to revise? Maybe both?

Keeping Score: April 30, 2021

Novel’s at 44,600 words! I’m still wrapping up the section I’ve been working on for weeks now, filling in the gaps in the narrative I left behind when I jumped around to write the bigger moments in it.

Wife and I brainstormed different reward methods over the weekend, and she liked the idea of a vacation savings account. So that’s what I’ve done: Setup a new, separate account, where I’ll deposit a little bit of money each week, but only if I hit my word count goal. Then — as the pandemic lifts — we’ll use that money for travel.

I’ve also shifted my morning routine a little to give myself more time to write (an hour instead of just thirty minutes). I don’t necessarily spend all that time writing, but having that time lets me relax and get into that state of flow that both helps me get the words down and takes me out of my languishing head for a while.

So far, it’s working; I missed my daily writing on Wednesday because of some food poisoning, but I was able to make it up on Thursday by using more of my hour than normal. Combined with the mini-sprint I ended up doing on Tuesday, I’ve already hit my writing goal for the week! Looking forward to making that first deposit on Saturday morning 🙂

Speaking of the weekend, I’m hoping to get back to the short story draft. I’d like to finish it, even; it’s close to being done, if I can just nail down the visuals for the last bit. Ok, I say done, but…it’d be just the first draft. Still, gotta have the first draft before I can edit it into the second.

How about you? Made any recent changes to your writing habits, good or bad? Hit a milestone you’re proud of?

Keeping Score: April 23, 2021

Found this article in the New York Times (I know) that rather perfectly captures where I’ve been, these past few weeks, and where I still am: Not depressed, exactly, but languishing.

I link to the article not because it’s got a pop-culture ready mental diagnosis, but because it also talks about practical ways to cope with it. Small goals, like finishing another level in Duolingo. And any task that takes you out of yourself and into a mental state of flow, whether it’s bingeing Netflix or playing a game with friends.

Sounds a bit like writing, eh? At least, writing in small chunks, giving myself enough time to enter a flow mental state.

I think it’s that last part that I’ve been missing, in terms of my daily writing. I’ve been trying to squeeze it in, sometimes just in 15 minutes at the end of the day. Which is one day to make sure I always hit my 250 words, but is no way to let myself fall into the story, to lose myself in the writing.

So I’m going to try altering my routine a bit. Give myself at least an hour to write. No distractions, no time limits. And no pressure to increase my word count, either. If I give myself time to really focus on the story, that’ll be enough.

I’m also going to start rewarding myself, again, for hitting that daily work goal. Not sure what to use as a reward (I’m already eating plenty of chocolate). Maybe money put into a savings account, like Jonathan Maberry does? Or maybe a new game at the end of the week, if I’ve written my total words?

What do you use, if you reward yourself for getting your writing done?

Keeping Score: April 16, 2021

I got my second shot!

Wasn’t quite as easy as getting my first. Yesterday was the first day of general vaccine eligibility in California, so even though I got there around 30 minutes early, I spent most of that time waiting in a socially-distanced line. But the folks there were all still friendly and efficient, and I made it through and out without incident.

I could feel a difference in this shot; felt like more material getting pushed into my shoulder. And about ten minutes after I started feeling light-headed. Had to put my head between my knees and breathe till it passed.

It did pass, though, and I went back to work that day. My left arm (where I got the shot) was — and continues to be — basically useless, too sore to raise up higher than mid-line. Other than that, I had the same wave of fatigue hit me as last time, shortly after I wrapped up work yesterday. Which is why I missed my daily word count for the first time in two months 😬

I might be able to make it up today; we’ll see. I feel mostly fine, though I’ve got some of the symptoms of my asthma being triggered: stuffy nose, lungs can’t quite get a full deep breath (it doesn’t hurt exactly, but it definitely feels like something I shouldn’t do too often). I don’t think I have a fever, which is good.

Will probably still spend most of the day in bed, just in case. Better to take it easy, I think. That doesn’t stop my from having my laptop in bed with me, though (as you can see). Hopefully I can get some writing done in-between doses of tea and naps.

I hope that wherever you are, the vaccine rollout continues, and if you haven’t yet been able to get it, that you soon will be. We need to kick this virus, so we can spend more of our time and energy building a better world than the one we lost in the pandemic.