2015 in review

My friend and colleague Allie Drennan wrote up a post like this, and it got me to thinking. A lot of people have been talking about the year 2015 in qualitative ways, and for me… well, 2015 was nothing if not full of extremes.

The beginning of the year was grim, with me missing out on our family’s vacation in Whistler, BC. Being home alone for a week offered me a chance to write, but it also left me bumping around a house that had no laughing child and no smiling husband. The only good thing was my story “The Gaijin & The Butterfly” was published by Oriental Excess.

Later, in March, I got to go to Norwescon and take the panels seriously. Three fourths of my writers group were there with me, and we were organized. One of my writers group, James, even introduced me to an excellent writing opportunity. I was flying high and feeling invincible.

So, when I lost my job in April, you can imagine my surprise. I wandered in the weeds as I tried to find a job, only to be roundly neglected by everyone I applied with. Finally, it came down to a harsh truth. I had capped out on what I could do on paper, and if I ever wanted to get out of call centers, I was going to have to go back to school.

I published my book Bento Box in all of this excitement, and tried to learn more about the marketing side of writing. I wrote a short story, “Bits & Pieces,” and it was published by Luna Station.

I then took my planned trip to Wyoming. When I came back home, it was a matter of days before both Toby and I went to school.

School hit me like a load of bricks. I was a good student, but I wasn’t anticipating the amount of work it would be to do school. I fell behind in my classes a little and struggled to catch up. The last time I was in school, I didn’t have as many responsibilities as I have now. I still managed to churn out thirteen short stories over the course of the year. One is submitted to a contest, one is submitted to an anthology, and the rest are in stages of doneness before I figure out where to submit them.

A little ray of sunshine hit after I registered for winter quarter. Turns out, I had more credits from going to college as a high school senior than I thought I did. It was a bright spot in a month full of flooding and replacing our floors.

I passed my classes, which is probably better than I deserved after floundering as hard as I did. I learned a lot though, some directly from my classes and more indirectly.

The most important thing that I learned from 2015 is that I got comfortable. I stopped striving. I didn’t push my body; I didn’t push my mind. I just accepted that life was going to be as it was, and I was okay with that. As soon as I got to that point of acceptance, life turned a huge corner and my life shook down to its foundations. Now that I am striving for something again, things are going in the right direction, and while it’s hard, it’s good.

I also learned that if you have a small, dedicated group of people on your side, working towards similar goals and willing to trade help for help, you can get so much farther in life than trying to go it on your own. Support is vital to success, and the more support you have, the better off you are.

I learned a hard lesson this year. I also had Allie, who has been with me through this whole rough year, cheering me on and keeping me focused on the prize. We’ve been friends for over a decade but our friendship was strengthened this year quite a bit. We have plans to publish more stories, and to get our names out there. It’s good to have a shared dream; no one motivates you more than the person who is just as invested as you in the goal.

And now, on to 2016, and the challenges that await.

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80/20

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It has been said that in any project, eighty percent of the work will take twenty percent of the time, and twenty percent of the work will take eighty percent of the time. I haven’t been keeping clock hours, possibly because there’s no one to bill for them, possibly because I don’t want to think about how long I’ve been pouring into my project. I will say this though.. to write a book is a project, but to publish a book is another project all together.

I have finished my rough draft! Which, of course, is misleading. I have stopped typing raw material, I guess is the best way to put it. I’ve amassed a group of willing beta readers who will read the work, and hopefully not burn it completely to the ground.

Which is pretty self-deprecating. I’m proud of this work. I’ve written two books before that I have felt moderately so-so about. It’s lovely to have a story that I feel good about. It’s a rough draft, so it still has a way to go, but that’s okay too. Developing a story is part of the fun. It would be lovely to have every word I type turn into gold, but rarely is anyone talented enough to just roll out of bed and start writing prize-winners.

It’s a bitch to write a novel. A novel is like an iceberg. For the ten percent that a reader sees, there is a vast, ninety percent that a reader doesn’t. It’s hours of toil, spent over days, weeks, months, depending on the kind of time the writer can dedicate to the story.

However, I’m finding that the other side of the novel is the tough part. I have sent out my rough draft to beta readers. While I do have people who enthusiastically supporting my effort to become a published author, these people also just happen to have lives. They have time to read, but they also have work to do, errands to run, and free time to enjoy. It’s not that my beta readers aren’t awesome. It’s just that they are busy people, like I am. I can’t finish a novel in one sitting. I don’t expect them to, either.

Then, there is the other work involved. I have had a bizarre first experience with publishing. Basically, a friend of mine wanted to learn how to publish to take the pressure off of his writing friends to do it. It wasn’t self-publishing, because I didn’t publish my book, but it’s glorified self-publishing, because we went through KDP and CreateSpace and all the self-publishing tools. I learned a lot that way, and it’s doubtful I would have gotten this far without a friend to take me by the hand, but the one way I did not go was a traditional publishing house.

I hear some of you, booing and hissing. I predate the Internet. I still respect publishing houses. I want an advance. I want someone to do my distributing. Take your pick of reasons, it’s worth it to me to at least shop my book around before I break down and run back to Amazon’s program.

Of course, this runs directly into the realm that all artists of any strip dread… the business portion. Putting together a list of arguments as to why my book rocks socks sort of goes against my personal grain.. but fortune favors the bold, and if you don’t put yourself out there to be noticed, it’s a guarantee that no one will notice you. Speaking as someone who waited their whole life to be called by a publisher to get published.. it’s better in your head. I thought I was safe, I thought that I was going to be fine because a really good friend wanted to forward my career. He did a great job, but between his inexpertise and mine, we ended up doing everything wrong. So, even if you do get the situation exactly the way you dream it to be, it’s not going to turn out the way you think it will.

Hence, why I’m working so hard this time.

So, here’s to the final twenty percent of the project, which will now take eighty percent of my time and energy. Hopefully all this work will pay off. As long as I learn something about the process, then it won’t have been a waste of time. And with luck, all my hard work will pay off.

How Do You Eat an Elephant?

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I started writing Bento Box in July 2013, depending on your perspective. In April of 2013 I wrote a catchy short story that raised all kinds of fun questions, which I then decided to explore. I also decided I was going to experiment with plotter techniques; prewriting, outlines, figuring out the end before launching into the beginning. It wasn’t just a challenge, it was several challenges at once. I was so nervous about doing it right, that I paid my editor fifty bucks to edit my outline and see what she could add to it.

I don’t know if I could have said it clearly then, but now I see I was exhausted from the endless rewrites of my second story, Best Served Cold. For whatever reason, that story was simply not coming together coherently, and I had to put the concept to bed, if only to get a break from it.

I did end up ignoring my editor’s suggestions, mostly because it was obvious that she wasn’t a fan of the science fiction genre. I think she’s a fantastic person and she taught me a lot over the time we worked together with Best Served Cold. That aside, I haven’t found the genre that I’m going to settle down with yet, I’m still in the process of experimenting. And now I’ve learned, it’s important to get an editor who loves your genre as much as you do.

Two weeks ago I made it to a major milestone – the climax of the story. And let me tell you how surprised and excited I was that it went exactly as I’d outlined. Before you get too excited, that’s probably the only portion of the outline that survived contact with what actually got written, but working so hard and seeing all that work, 75 thousand words, culminate into the section I wanted it to be was very rewarding.

Previous success does not guarantee future success, however. The climax is not where you end the story. It’s where the crescendo happens, but not the denouement. So in I went again, realizing that while I had so very carefully decided where the story was going to climax, that I had no idea where it was actually going to end.

So I wrote stuff.

It was the last thing I wrote last night, so after I folded in for sleep, I didn’t think anything of it.

Consciously.

In the morning, I woke up to what I was convinced was an ending that sucked. It had all the tells of me being tired with a thing – flippant, sloppy, more like a sulk quit than a rage quit.

However, it was there. I could read it. I could see my hallmarks of badness. I could sift out the things that were good, lift them free, rinse them off, and start fresh with them. Before, “The End” was just a nebulous tag that I slapped on to the butt of the Heroes Win! Now, I had something to work with, even if it was to destroy it utterly and start again. I saw what didn’t work, and I could now avoid those pitfalls and use the pieces of my destroyed work to build up.

Which is of course, not what I want to be doing. I don’t want to be grown up about it. I want to fall on my couch face first like my six-year-old did when I told him his homework was only going to get harder as he got older. There’s nothing easy about writing a goddamn book. Anyone who writes to make it sound like it is easy to write a book is selling you something and wants your money. It is tough as hell to write a whole books worth of interesting characters, situations, and ideas. A novel is a lot like an iceberg. You see about 10% of what the writer’s written to make the story happen.

And only about 10% of their insanity, as well.

 

The Magpie and the Starlings

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I made an art form out of not fitting in when I was younger. I marched to the beat of my own bagpipes, and was spectacularly awkward at it to boot. Fortunately I grew out of this when I reached my teen years and moved to Washington. I found a group of like minded, awkward, funny, brilliant individuals who bonded with me strongly and gave me the social framework I rely on today. During the time I was with them, I didn’t write a single word that wasn’t related to my drama groups and gaming that I involved myself in. I had given up my passion forever, and I was just fine with that.

Now, I’m older, and my friends have spread out from the central mass we had in college. I don’t see everyone every night, in a week long frenzy of hanging out. Obladee, obladah, I found quieter ways to spend my time, one of them being writing.

The problem with writing is that while it is a wildly creative and interesting endeavor, it’s just like any other past time. To the right people, it’s fascinating. To most of the rest of the world, it’s great if they’re in a bookstore, browsing. But no one wants to talk the craft.

I get it. I have five fast friends who are fierce knitters, and they discuss wool quality and needle gauge and patterns they’re longing to try, as well as how many projects they’ve left abandoned in their closet of shame. I can’t add anything intellectual to these discussions, because despite my beloved grandmother’s constant and patient attempts, her granddaughter proved to be a hopeless case with anything yarn related. So I smile and nod, because I know eventually the discussion will turn to other topics.

Today I went out to lunch with a person who may become a friend. I think she will, or obviously I wouldn’t have gone to lunch with her. I’ve only met her twice before, so I only had an introduction to her, but one of the things I knew was that she too is a writer. She contacted me on my FaceBook author page, asking me how I went from a pantser to a plotter. I invited her to lunch to discuss it, because the idea of typing up nine months of experience was much too daunting. People have written books about less.

I sat down and talked to her, at a pho restaurant not far from my work. We caught up a little bit, talked about people we know in common, established some basic communication. Naturally the conversation drifted into waters that bled into ink. She talked to me about her work in first person, the dual genres of paranormal romance and urban fantasy, how she poured herself into her story. I told her about how I’d done similar things, and how I’d come out displeased with my first two works. How I knew I could do better, but trying to frame an entire novel in my head was simply too much for me to manage.

The hour went by *much* too fast, and I realized that for the first time, I’d really felt allowed to speak about my craft. I had an audience who was genuinely interested in me, in the workings of what I did. I’ve joined writer’s groups around the area before, it’s not as though I haven’t tried. However, despite the three groups I joined and rapidly backed out of, I couldn’t find a group who genuinely cared about my work. They were each people who cared about their own work, and looked forward to getting their feedback, and were willing to give feedback if it meant getting what they wanted. I made no connections, and generally left feeling deeply disappointed in the communities I’d found. One was certainly came close to what I needed, but even then, I was a magpie amidst starlings.

Just before this, I had gone to lunch with two close friends of mine that I’ve known for many years. We all bemoaned our writing group experiences, when Allie hit upon the idea that we should join forces and start our own group. It’s small, and private, and exclusive as hell. It’s so new we haven’t even had a chance to talk the craft yet, despite the fact that we’ve all been writers since our early years.

It’s genuinely wonderful to find like-minded spirits to discuss the craft with. I felt like such a lone, lonely loner for such a long time. I finally feel like I’m part of a collaboration, that I fit in and can share my geek and not have to apologize for being socially awkward because I care about things like outlines and plotting.

It’s nice to come home.

 

Find the Spot and Hold On Tight

Some of the best writing is some of the hardest to do.

There are times when you are writing and the words are flowing and you think you know how a scene will turn out. You have the goal in mind for the piece and the character arc. Then, when you’re watching the way the story unfolds, you’re looking left, the truck is on your right, and it plows into your proverbial story line and spins you off the freeway of free thinking.

This happened to me recently. I was writing a scene, it was a romance scene between the protagonist and her love interest, and after a courtship where the characters were forced to be restrained, the love interest decided to press some boundaries. Now, I’m not a big romance writer, but relationships make stories go round. However, just before the big fade to black, my stomach lurched and I realized the protagonist was Telling Me Something. The poor love interest chose poorly, and the protagonist felt fear towards his approach instead of lust.

Now, I waited for YEARS for Mulder and Scully to kiss. Years. I hated that ‘never quite the time’ that was the secondary theme of X-Files. I wanted them to kiss. I *needed* them to kiss.

So, here I am, finally getting to a point in the story where the protagonist and the love interest get to consummate their relationship, and the protagonist tells me that somewhere in her history, she’s been hurt before. This wasn’t something I knew about her earlier. And the love interest, through circumstances, has never shown her this side of him before. It’s always been there, but the story arc has forced him to not show that side.

And instead of the sexy sexy, I get the spin away, the wounded look, the “You should go,” and the defeated interest feeling like a monster and wanting to drown his sorrows.

And the wounded protagonist telling me her back story.

This was so hard to write! First of all, I want these characters to get together. I’m a rather impatient person, and I’ve been waiting patiently, all that set up, for this.

Secondly, it deals with a lot of feels. Historical feels, present feels, confused feels, hurt feels. Love Interest isn’t a monster; he just misread his lady’s signs. He actually feels quite bad for his mistake, which he recognized as a mistake very quickly. Protagonist isn’t a tease; she wasn’t expecting her White Knight to be a Bad Boy and the transition scared her. (The reader knows he’s been behaving for her since the beginning, and only just decided to trust her with who he is.)

 This, by the way, is *much* more of what my thought process is now, when I’m writing, as opposed to when I wrote The Corsican. When I wrote The Corsican, I didn’t have character arcs planned out for the characters, I just knew what I wanted to happen in the stories. The two are interdependent, but I didn’t examine them very closely. I am only now learning enough about my craft to be critical about my work. Critical enough, at least, as opposed to before when it was just a challenge getting pen to paper.

Now, to keep finding these moments.

Learning

The CEO of my company called a meeting in which I was required to attend. What I learned while I was there had nothing to do with software. It had to do with decision making speeds and failure recovery times.

 My CEO is a charming, intelligent, intense man. He led the meeting, taking control of the whiteboard at once. He started giving us scenario rundowns. As soon as he concluded that the scenario was no longer pertinent, he discarded it, changed gears, and picked up the next case. Not one moment lost to the fact that he worked it out to that point, not even an explanation behind his motivations, just an about face, forward march.

 His decisions were just as lightning fast, and unforgiving. It was quite scientific, for being so ad hoc. He split down ideas to their tiniest parts, unrelenting in his direction.

 I have been agonizing over a manuscript since 2009. I have rewritten it eleven times. I spent money on a professional editor to clean up and improve the quality of my work. And I then last night, I sat down and talked to her about my story.

 Nothing about my stories is particularly well thought out. I’m a pantser – I ride the waves of my imagination and fill in everything as I need it. This doesn’t allow for certain basic tricks – foreshadowing foremost among them.

 I have a good story, I believe that. However, to make it a great story, would require me to bust back down to scraps and rewrite it AGAIN. This time, with a goddamn plan.

 Now, here’s my decision. Go forward and spend around a year once again reworking a story that has eluded my grasp for almost four years? Or abandon a work that I’ve invested a few hundred dollars and a lot of hours into?

 My decision came to this: I’m going to walk away. I have been working on this work for a long time, and it was my practice run. It’s a fun story, I feel it can be something. But, if I choose to put it down today, I can come back to it in a year or two, and look at it with fresh eyes. I can take what I’ve learned and apply it to fresh stories that haven’t worn grooves in my head, and keep it moving.

 My editor gave me something that I never had before – her undivided attention and professional know-how. I have had my work edited before, by friends with talent of their own, but they were doing the work for free, and consequently everything had priority over what I’d written. Working with her went far beyond me handing her money. She gave me feedback, perspective, and an education. A one-on-one teacher just for me.

 Now, though, I feel the pressure to produce; pressure from myself, pressure from my friends, and from my readers. I want to put out a book a year, but I don’t have the skills quite yet to churn out that kind of product. I feel the loss of this work, even though I have a get-out-of-jail free card and can change my mind at any time, and it makes me sad.

 This was a big step for me, deciding to step away from the sheltering arms of my talent and walk into the light of learning a skill. The stories will always be mine, but I’m ready to take them as far as they need to go.

My final thought here is that I am learning from my CEO. Today I’m dropping my manuscript, tomorrow I’m picking up the pen again for a new project.

 

 

Full Circle

Once upon a time, I met a magical girl with a singular talent. My fairy godmother directed her my way, and when she approached me, she said, “I heard you write.”

A beautiful relationship was born. The magical girl was called, HG, and she could draw like no one I’d met before. She followed her talent into the arms of a kingdom known as Disney, but she liked having pet projects, and I was one of those.

Then, alas, like all fairy tales, the challenges mounted, and HG and I both had more and more come between us. Work, family, obligations, there was never enough time for our poor project and it slipped into the slumber of forgotten dreams.

This would normally be where the story ends. I have been a party to many projects that ended in a puff of smoke and a sigh. It’s how we learn. Projects are almost always ill-advised, and we try them anyway, learn what we can from them, and then take it with us.

In this case, that is exactly what happened. HG learned project management while she was drawing, and I learned how to strategize a story before writing it. It is not enough to be a writer or an artist any longer. In order to produce a product, there must be a plan.

Plans scare artists of every stripe. Plans are the bane of the creative mind. If you let them be.

Last night I reconnected with HG. We talked about how we’ve grown as artists in the past year. Almost as if this was part of ‘The Plan,’ we picked up our project where we’d left it, waking it up from its long sleep and getting it ready for the day.

And they all lived happily ever after.