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: 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: May 27, 2022

Steady progress this week. I’ve set a reminder to write, every day, and I force myself to do it. Even when I’m exhausted after a day like Wednesday, where I had a solid block of meetings from 7am till 1pm. I grab my notebook, set a timer for fifteen minutes, and don’t let myself do anything else till the buzzer sounds.

I’m not always drafting during that time. Sometimes, like this week, I’m brainstorming, looking for ways to punch up the current draft of the new story. Sometimes I’m outlining, like I’ve been doing for a new story that’s brewing in my head. But no matter what, I’m working for those fifteen minutes.

As a result, I’m about ready to do a second draft of the piece that started out as flash, and has grown into a short story. I’m also ready to do a first draft of a new piece, a horror story that first unlocked for me last year during a Clarion West online class, but sat on the shelf while I worked through my writer’s block. (Oddly enough, the current approach I’m taking to the story came to me during another Clarion West class, on Sunday)

Oh! And I wrote two more flash pieces last night, based on some prompts given out at the Victoria Creative Writing Group meeting. One of them is a fun little thing I might polish a touch and then send out. The other is yet another story I’ve been carrying around without knowing how to approach, and the second writing prompt of the night gave me exactly the right angle. I think this one might be a longer piece when I’m done, but at least I’ve got a first draft now, something I can edit into shape.

How about you? What do you do to keep yourself motivated (I take classes, apparently, and join writing groups)? Are you making good progress in your current projects, or does your writing process need a shake-up?

Keeping Score: 20 May 2022

Writing slowed this week, but didn’t stop. I got through “Draft 1.5” of the new short story, which brought it to a healthy 2k words, inching out of flash territory.

I already have three areas I want to touch up next. The ending, in particular, I think needs to pack more punch. But these will be smaller changes, so I’m letting the story cool on the shelf, so to speak, before coming back to make them.

Meanwhile, I joined a critique group! After a meeting of the Victoria Creative Writing Group, one of the other new members put out a call for folks to join in critiquing each other’s writing on a regular basis. We had our first meeting last night, and I think it went really well 🙂 It’s a small group (there’s just four of us total) but that means we each get plenty of time to give and get feedback. At the end of this first session, we even had time to do a 15 minute writing exercise, and I got another flash piece out of it!

I feel so lucky to have been accepted into the group. Many thanks to the organizer, and to the VCWG for bringing us all together.

Written with: Ulysses

Under the influence of: “Never Let Me Go,” Placebo

Keeping Score: 13 May 2022

I’ve written a new short story!

Last Saturday I turned a corner, mood-wise. After not being able to write for six months, I sat down and hammered out the first draft of a new flash piece. The story is something I’d been mulling over for a while; I had the genre (noir/crime) and a line of dialog, but that’s it.

But Saturday morning I sat down and told myself to write something, anything, even if it was crap. And the whole story came tumbling out of me.

It’s a huge relief, to know that I can still do it. Even if the draft is terrible, it exists, it’s mine, and that means I’m not hopeless as a writer just yet.

I’ve spent the week since working on a “Draft 1.5”, as I’m thinking of it. I’m still too close to the story to properly edit it into a second draft, but as soon as I was done with the first draft I started seeing areas where I needed to go back, add depth or look for a more creative angle.

In particular, the motive for the crime bothered me. The one in the first draft felt too pat, too cliché. Not real enough.

So one morning I took out my little notebook and went through the characters in the story, one by one, and wrote a description — personality, circumstances, and appearance — for each. I had only vague ideas of the characters when I started, but by the end of the exercise I had them firmly fixed in my mind, along with a better motive, and plot changes to reflect that.

Thus I’ve begun another draft to incorporate those changes. I know there’ll be more drafts after this one, including a proper second once I’ve let the story sit for a couple weeks. But for now I want to make this first draft a little stronger.

If you’re struggling with writing, and not sure you can hack it anymore, let me reassure you: You can! You might just need a break, or to try a different genre, or a different format. Me, I needed all three, including permission from a writing instructor to drop my current project altogether. It’s scary to contemplate, but liberating in the end.

Go forth and write messy drafts, write bad dialog, and create some one-dimensional characters. Whatever it takes to get the words out, to get your mind working on the story. You can always, always, clean it up later, but you can’t do anything without that first draft. So get to it 🙂

Written with: Ulysses

Under the influence of: “Model Citizen,” Meet Me @ the Altar

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

The Great Pottery Throw Down

I’ve fallen in love with the Great Pottery Throw Down.

It’s exactly what it sounds like: a pottery version of the Great British Baking Show. It’s got all the elements you’d expect: ribald puns, diverse UK accents, creations both whimsical and twee.

But that’s not why I love it.

I love it because it celebrates amateurs.

I know that word has negative connotations to American audiences. We say something is amateurish as a way of calling it rough or unpolished. We use amateur as an insult, implying a lack of experience or motivation.

But that’s not the way I’m using it. And it’s not what the contestants on the pottery throw down are. I mean, there are folks that first picked up clay eighteen months before going on the show, sure. But there’s also people on there who have been throwing all their lives, with decades of experience. And they’re really good! They just never made a living at it.

That’s the real line that separates amateur from professional. It’s not the quality of the work. It’s not the dedication to the craft. It’s simply whether you earn money doing it.

There’s a lot of reasons a contestant might not have “gone pro” with their pottery. For some of them, it’s confidence, a lack of faith in their work that would allow them to put it (and themselves) out there (seeing some of the contestants cry when the judges praise their work, like it’s the first time anyone’s said something good about it, makes me choke up, too). For some, it’s a lack of time: they’re too busy taking care of ailing family members (or children) to be able to launch a career in pottery. For many, it’s a matter of money, because it takes a good deal of it to be able to quit your job and shift into something else.

It reminds me of writers, and how many of us (myself included) often don’t feel like “real” writers if we’re not doing it full time. Or if we’re not writing novels. Or if we’re not selling every story we write.

And I think we’re doing ourselves a disservice. We can be just as dedicated to our work, and just as exacting, just as precise with our editing polishes, if we’re producing it early in the morning before the day job starts, as any full-time author. It might take us longer, sure, but it’s the same craft, using the same tools. We can be, we should be, just as proud of the results.

So if you’re not writing for a living, embrace it! Embrace the freedom that comes with being an amateur, with being able to write what you want and then stick it in a drawer or try to sell it or just send it out to friends and family for their enjoyment.

Take the craft seriously, not the career. Maybe the career will come, maybe it won’t. But it’s the same act of writing that runs through it all, and it’s that act we can always work to improve, no matter our status.

Dune: Part One

There’s a moment in Jodorowsky’s Dune where the titular director, discussing how Hollywood canceled his version forty years ago, pulls a fist of euros out of his pocket and shakes them at the camera. “This system makes us slaves,” he cries, “With this devil in our pocket. This paper…It has nothing inside. Nothing!”

In the moment, the gesture feels melodramatic. A bitter cry from a man who was denied his chance to ascend to greatness. But after watching first Lynch’s Dune, and now Dune: Part One, it seems prophetic.

Where Jodorowsky’s version of Dune sought to change the consciousness of its viewers, and Lynch’s Dune tried to convey the weirdness of a future as far from ours as we are from the inhabitants of ancient Sumer, Dune: Part One is seeking to…tell us the story of Dune.

Yet even with this lowered ambition, the film is a failure. Dune the book fascinates in part because of its many colorful factions, all vying for power. But Dune: Part One doesn’t have enough ambition to be a Game of Thrones in space. Mentats here are just bland, faithful servants, denied even their name to let the audience know how special — and central — they are. There’s no mention of the Space Navigators’ Guild, leaving Spice’s centrality to space travel just an abstract thing, a line a character says while standing in the right spot wearing the right clothes, and nothing else. The Spice itself is barely present, looking more like someone turned a glitter filter on than a thing worth killing over.

The result is a film with no depth and no stakes, the world of Dune flattened to something completely mundane. It is a clockwork universe, made with stunning special effects and actors moving in expensive costumes.

In his past films, Villeneuve’s lack of interest in the human was an asset. Both Arrival and Blade Runner: 2049 benefit from a style that is distant and alien, the former because it seeks to convey an alien perspective, the latter because it centers on an unfeeling android. But Dune doesn’t work unless the galactic stakes are connected to the personal, the planetary drama interlocked with the familial. Dune: Part One leaves the galactic stakes mostly untethered, and the family drama unexplored. We get an adaption that is faithful in every sense but those that matter.

If only there was something human at the heart of it all, some emotion, some sense of life and purpose. But Dune: Part One is content to just let events play out, with no rhyme or reason behind them, just toys — beautiful toys — going through the motions, propelled by money, and rewarded with the same.

Short Book Reviews: October 2021

It’s been a while since I’ve done one of these, hasn’t it? checks calendar winces Way too long.

Part of that was the grind of the Book That Wouldn’t End. Not the novel I’m writing, mind you, but the book way down at the end of this list, the one that took me all of August and most of September to finish. And it was good! But very dry and dense in an academic way, and so reading it was like shoving day-old oatmeal into my brain. Healthy, for sure! But not fun.

And part of it has been simply time. I’ve neglected this blog, I feel, mostly because somewhere between July and now everything seemed to speed up, all at once, and I suddenly had no time for anything. It definitely contributed to the writer’s block I’m just now climbing out of. And it meant certain things — like these posts — just got dropped.

But! I’m on the mend, mental-health-wise (I think. I hope), reading again, and writing, so it’s time to pick things back up here.

As always, reviews are posted in reverse chronological order, with the most recent book I finished first.

Lovecraft Country, by Matt Ruff

Finally got around to this one. And I can easily see how it could become a TV series; not only is the book very visual and quick-moving (in terms of style), but each section forms its own little “episode” where a different character takes the spotlight and has a supernatural encounter (of various kinds). It all builds to a climax that’s so perfect — and perfectly justified — I’m looking forward to re-reading it just to see all the threads coming together again.

The Likeness, by Tana French

Jesus, this one sucked me in. The Irish lilt to the dialog, the immersive descriptions of the country house where most of the book takes place, the personal history of the characters…Can you want to live inside a murder mystery? Because damned if I didn’t want to spend more time with this one. Expertly done, from start to finish.

The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, by Stuart Turton

Ok, this one had me with the title alone. I was worried that it couldn’t deliver on that promise, but I needn’t have been. It’s a cross of Groundhog Day and Quantum Leap, mixed with some classic Agatha Christie, topped with a powerful message about forgiveness. I don’t want to say anything more, for fear of spoiling it, but if that sounds like your bag, pick it up; you won’t be disappointed.

Luminferous, by J Dianne Dotson

The finale is here! A series literally decades in the making (the author wrote the first draft of what became the second book in her teens) finally gets the send-off it deserves. I won’t spoil anything here, just to say that this fourth book continues the trend of each one being better than the last.

If you’ve enjoyed the series so far, there’s plenty of twists and turns to keep you hooked. If you haven’t read any of them yet but enjoy old-school sci-fi (think classic Star Trek or Anne McCaffrey) you should check them out!

The Field and the Forge, by John Landers

The book that almost killed me.

It’s a survey — just a survey! — of the kinds of physical restraints an organic economy imposes on technology, culture, and warfare. It’s incredibly eye-opening, and completely ruins any sense of “realism” you might have felt lingered in shows like Game of Thrones.

Also, nothing makes me appreciate modern life more than thinking about how just to transport food (say, grain, or fruit) to a market in pre-industrial times, you were usually transporting by animal, but just to get there you had to bring food along for yourself and for the pack animal, which meant traveling more than a few hours (let alone more than a day) was simply not viable (because at some point the animal is carrying just food that’s going to be consumed along the way, making the trip worthless economically).

There’s some theory packed in there, which Landers is gracious enough to admit is completely bogus but serves to illuminate different aspects of these complex phenomena. The interaction between population, production efficiency, and military size is especially instructive. Ditto the possibility for certain inheritance schemes to lead to a surplus of “second sons” that have nothing and thus no stake in society, causing all kinds of trouble.

Anyway, I’m glad I read it, I might refer to it from time to time, but ye gods I will never be re-reading it.