Let Me Tell You a Story #32: Procrastination

When does giving myself a project break, letting my manuscript rest, become procrastination?

I’ve been missing blog posts this month. Since I’m not writing much, and I’m not reading that much either, I’ve felt like I had less to say worth putting in blog-post format. I rationalized that by saying, “It’s okay, you’re working a lot more than you did at your old job, or even at this new one over the summer. There’s only so much time in the day, and something has to give somewhere.” I still mostly stand by that, because the other half of my rationalization is that I blog more often/regularly than most of the other authors whose blogs I follow. I’ve even considered formally cutting back on my blog schedule, because that way I could spend more time “writing.” Still on the fence about it.

Except I’m not writing, either. I’m doing the bare minimum to keep my 4thewords game streak going, by typing up book reviews and these blog posts and some journal entries, and not “writing.” At first, I was waiting for my beta readers to finish their feedback. Well, I’m not waiting anymore, I’ve had it all for two weeks now and I still haven’t really started the new rewrite draft.

I’ve been playing a lot of Skyrim. I know that’s semi-random, to go back to a game first published nine years ago, and explaining how that became my video game of choice would require so much of my gaming history that doesn’t really matter to anyone else that I’m going to skip it and just say, it’s giving me what I want right now from a gaming experience.

But, although it’s always easier to boot up Skyrim and spend an hour hitting things with swords than it is to start rewriting, it’s not really the game’s fault. Sure it’s fun, sure I’ve spent a lot of time playing over the past three weeks, but if I hadn’t reinstalled it I’d probably be reading instead, or starting a new cross-stitch project, or something else that’s not writing.

I’m avoiding it actively now. I can tell, because I keep promising myself I’ll start tomorrow, when I’m feeling more up to it, and yet, I never do.

I’m procrastinating.

So I spent a little time wondering why. I’ve gotten pretty darn good at conquering procrastination when it comes to chores–the consequences of putting off doing the laundry too long, or letting the dishes pile up into a mountain that it seems impossible to fully clear out, are obvious to me from past experience, and I’m not willing to put up with them. I’ll even use doing the chores now to avoid writing!

But starting a new draft is an open-ended, formless task. I can impose structure on it by working chapter by chapter each day, or working for a specific amount of time, or whatever. I’ve done it before. But it’s so huge, and intimidating, and that makes it hard to get started.

Also, I’m feeling down about it because when I started the year, I’d hoped I’d have another published book by the end of it. I put out a book every year from 2015 – 2017, and I missed last year because of many, many reasons, but I’ve made my peace with that. I was really hoping to get back into a yearly cycle, and #spookyromancenovel is just not going to be ready. It still needs so much work. While I understand that’s not failure, and there’s nothing wrong and everything right with not rushing something out the door that’s not up to my standards, it doesn’t inspire me to get started.

If you get right down to it, I’m even procrastinating by writing this blog post. I could have woken up this morning, eaten my breakfast, and dived right into Chapter 1 revisions. I didn’t. I chose to write this instead, to sort out my writing-related feelings and let you guys know why I’ve been less consistent than usual about my blog, and also nearly radio silent on social media, for those of you who follow me there as well.

I don’t have an answer yet. I could go read yet more articles on overcoming procrastination, but like most of them say near the beginning, I’d just be using them as another form of procrastination, even under the nominal guise of research and self-help. When I write the last word here, schedule the post, and close the page, will I go right to #spookyromancenovel and finally get started? I should. I’ll try. I don’t know how well it’s going to go, but I’ll try.

Let Me Tell You a Story #31: My First Fanfic

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I didn’t see the original Star Wars trilogy until I was around eleven or twelve, which makes the year 1991 or 1992. I remember watching Star Wars from a VHS recording my parents had made from an edited-for-TV broadcast, so it had commercials to fast forward through and everything.

We had all three movies, but something about Star Wars on its own made me love it so much that at first, I didn’t want to go on with the story. It was enough the way it was, at first, and it provided such a rich environment for my brain to play around in. While I was riding my bike that summer, I staged lightsaber battles in my imagination. While I was helping out with the household chores, I was reciting the lines in my head, but getting them slightly wrong and then letting the story unfold along a new path, because if Obi-wan had said this instead of that, what would Luke have said in response?

The other half of the story setup: I’d gotten a calligraphy set from my parents for my birthday that spring. I’d been practicing my letters on the little guide sheets they gave me, but I hadn’t tried to write words, really, because that required spacing the letters neatly instead of just doing them however. I wanted to write something readable, rather than doing the alphabet a dozen more times.

So I wrote a few pages of what, technically, was my first fanfic.

It was about Azure Skywalker (I was obsessed with that name right about then, because an older girl had just moved in down the street, and she was really pretty, and that was her name.) Azure was Luke’s long-lost sister. (Remember, I hadn’t seen the other two movies yet!) Azure was looking for him, because she’d only just found out he existed. She came to Tatooine before Luke left, and they went through the rest of the basic movie plot as it was, except that Azure was there too, with all the changes my amateur little writing brain thought were needed to make that work.

I wish, I wish, I had photographic evidence that this existed, that I wrote out a Star Wars fic with one of the most blatant self-insert characters ever, in calligraphy, in a mix of blue and red ink as the little cartridges ran dry, on that horrible fake “vellum” that calligraphy kits come with. (Came with? I haven’t bought one since.)

It was extra, so very extra, long before that was part of our vernacular. I would show it to you, if I could, because I know this sounds so ridiculous I’ve got to be inventing it to make an interesting post. I’m not. This actually happened.

I never let anyone read it. I’d already written “books” at this point–we actually had a class project in second grade where everyone wrote a book sometime during the year, because my elementary school had just bought one of those machines to make the curled plastic bindings, so why not use it? I wrote my first “book” about a bunch of snack foods that lived in my pantry and were friends and the pretzels made fun of the Zebra Cakes because they were too big and fluffy to move around easily. (Little Debbie Zebra Cakes were a staple of my lunches in those days. Instant nostalgia if I eat one now.) My second book was a collection of ghost stories I mostly plagiarized from Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, with a few twists I threw in to make them “better.”

So I wrote original fiction, and stole original fiction, long before my first fan fiction. Which, to hear dedicated fic writers tell it, is unusual. What’s my point? Fan fiction gave me a new method to explore story ideas. Instead of feeling like I needed to invent something entirely from scratch (like the living snack foods) or tell someone else’s stories, but my way (the ghost story book,) fan fiction gave me ground to stand on while I said “But what if this happened instead?” and explore what that meant.

Without having those examples to set in front of you, because they’re long, long gone, the distinction between my plagiarizing and my fan fiction might seem small, almost nonexistent. Let me assure you, anyone who read my ghost story book would recognize exactly where I got every tale, there was no fan fiction about it. There was no exploration of a different aspect of the story, taking a direction it didn’t go, like with Azure Skywalker and her white lightsaber and my version of Star Wars where Leia was not Luke’s sister, because I had no idea that was coming.

My fan fiction roots never went deep. I don’t recall writing much more than that–I think there was a crappy retelling of Snow White in high school–but it taught me to look at a story that already existed, to take inspiration from it, to play with alternate ideas and create something new from it.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again–in the broadest sense, the What We Need series began as fan fiction. The original inspiration was The Walking Dead: The Game by Telltale Games. Then I forgot to add zombies, so it morphed into fan fiction of Stephen King’s The Stand as well.

The stories I published, after much work and so much polishing, aren’t fan fiction anymore–they’ve diverged enough to be their own thing, inspired by those story worlds rather than set in them. (Also, I never borrowed characters, as straight-up fan fiction does in almost all cases.)

I don’t consider myself a fanfic writer. I don’t cook up AUs about my favorite characters from my favorite books and post them to AO3. But fan fiction was a part of my journey as a writer, and I think for many of us, it’s an important step in that journey. Some people never move past it–but some people never want to. I wrote mine in calligraphy at eleven or twelve years old, and never showed anyone. I’m glad the Internet lets us share it, instead.

Let Me Tell You a Story #30: The Fear of Failure

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Early yesterday morning, I woke up from a nightmare.

I’d been taking a test. My high school physics teacher paced the front of the room, while all around me, the other students were talking. Nothing my teacher said would quiet them, and he was growing increasingly frustrated.

Behind me, a guy was alternately asking me for answers and mocking me. Beside me, my husband was taking the test as well, and he whispered, “Don’t say anything.”

I didn’t.

But the students had gotten too noisy again, and finally, my teacher snapped. He ordered us all to turn in our tests and he would grade them unfinished. Then he left the room, slamming the door on the way out. (Not very logical on his part, but remember, this is a dream. Mine are rarely even this coherent, narratively speaking.)

Instead of taking mine up to the desk, as the others were doing, I filled in the blank bottom of the page I was on with a combined plea and complaint, that I should be allowed to finish the test or retake it, because I hadn’t done anything wrong, and collective punishment is a war crime.

Then I set my test on the top of the stack on the teacher’s desk and left the empty room.

What happened next is fuzzy, but at some point, I’m walking outside the school with my husband, silently fuming about that class and trying not to cry. Before I reach the school buses, my physics teacher calls out, and I turn, and he’s there. He’s got my test in his hand, and he tells me I can’t retake it. He tells me I was the one talking. He tells me I was the one asking for answers. I turn to my husband, and he nods.

I start to cry, and that’s when I wake up.

I’ve never believed in dream symbolism in any mystical sense. My dreams, weird as they can get, never seem so hard to analyze that I need to rely on something esoteric to understand them, like the idea that seeing a hamster in a dream represents “underdeveloped emotions.” (Yeah, I just googled that. Weird, right?)

When I woke, I took a few moments to examine the nightmare. An authority figure and a loved one conspiring to gaslight me while simultaneously denying me the completion of an accomplishment? I don’t need to dig very deep to see that dream was all about failure. I failed to finish the test, I failed to convince my teacher his treatment of me was unfair, I failed to find the support I needed elsewhere. (No real-life shade thrown at my husband, though–this is my subconscious talking, not at all an accurate depiction of him.)

With it all cut and dried before me, my next thought was, “Ursula would have this dream.”

Ursula is a minor character in the novel I’m failing to rewrite. Every day I should be working on it–every day, something prevents me. Not enough time. Not in the mood. A mountain of dishes, a string of errands that needs to be run, staying late at work, meaning to set aside half an hour to sit down and write but never quite getting to it.

Yes, Ursula would have this dream, and in a flash, I knew exactly why. I had already imagined her struggling with inadequacy issues because of her family, because of her mundane line of work clashing with her lofty ambitions of power and influence.

This dream I had, this nightmare of failure, has connected me to a character who otherwise is wholly unlike me. This is the small piece of my soul and my self that Ursula will inherit when I write her story. Because every character of mine gets at least one.

Having a revelation like this doesn’t entirely erase the underlying fear I have of failure. I’m not sure that anything ever will. But finding this small spark of inspiration has already pushed me to work again, when I had temporarily misplaced my motivation. It’s a small silver lining from a pretty big cloud, but you’ve got to take what you can get, however it shows up.

 

Let Me Tell You a Story #29: Writing is Like Making Horcruxes

Someone I know, who hasn’t read any of my work, asked me something rather rude a while back when they found out I wrote romance novels, and it’s been on my mind ever since. “So which one of your characters is you?”

Plenty of authors (especially of the Old White Male variety and/or in so-called “classics”) write themselves into their novels blatantly. Hence the joke, What do you call a male Mary Sue? The protagonist.

But this question, in the particular tone of voice it was delivered in, was a piercing arrow that I had to pretend didn’t hurt me. The assumption that, because I am a woman writing romance, my heroines were all somehow “me” struck me as crass. It’s not an uncommon attitude towards writers in the genre–that we’re all lonely single women or unfulfilled housewives who write escapist fantasy lives for themselves.

Here’s the thing I wish I could explain to these critics and naysayers: All of my characters are, at least a little bit, me.

I give one character my hair color, and a different one my eyes. Another gets my need to hug something (a person or a pillow or a stuffed animal) when I’m really upset. Someone else gets my sarcasm, yet another character gets my tendency to stammer when I’m flustered.

One character likes yoga, another likes running, quite a few like to sing in the shower. One wishes she had enough time to really, really devote herself to improving her art instead of dabbling.

They’re all me.

At the same time, they’re all someone else, too, because the best way to avoid the dreaded self-insert character is to mix up your own traits, those feelings and drives you know so well as a part of you, with observations and knowledge taken from other people in your life. A close friend, who has read my work, said she can see where I stitched together myself with other people in Paul, the hero of my What We Need series. But he’s only a little bit me. (Which is good, because there’s no way anyone would mistake me for a six-four man who can play piano. I am none of those things.)

Fortunately, splitting up pieces of your soul for writing doesn’t involve painful and horrific sacrifices–the Horcrux metaphor doesn’t hold up that far–but with conscious effort (in rewrites, when necessary!) any character that you find is too “you” can be dialed back, and any character that feels flat can be fleshed out with a little piece of your soul, to give them authenticity they may be lacking.

Let Me Tell You a Story #27: The Line That Changes Everything

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(Spoilers for Avengers: Age of Ultron, but for some of you, this is probably very old news.)

When I was in college, I took a creative writing seminar. The format was one three-hour class a week, and the dozen or so students in it wrote a short story for each session, printed copies for everyone, and passed them around to be read before the next session.

So every week, we produced a new story and got feedback on the previous one.

One of my classmates wrote this zany little plot about a guy who was paid to guard a billboard, one of the big ones you see on the highway. I don’t remember why–I think it was something controversial that had been vandalized previously so the organization hired him to guard it. In a way, the premise seemed preposterous, especially when the unmarked black helicopters showed up, but the tone of the piece was serious, very matter-of-fact. Overall, we all (professor included) considered it to be a strong story.

For our final assignment/exam, the last week of class, we were told to revise one of our previous stories instead of writing a new one, based on the feedback we’d received.

My classmate chose that particular story to revise and managed to make it worse, according to the professor, by adding one line of dialogue addressed to the main character, Mr. Billboard Bodyguard:

“You’re paranoid.”

I didn’t catch that, when I read the new version and put together my critique. I was woefully inexperienced at picking apart stories to see what made them tick, and as soon as the professor launched into what I can only describe as a diatribe, a light bulb burst in my brain. It can only take one line to ruin a story.

Having a character question the mental stability of the protagonist put the entire narrative in a different light, when the author clearly hadn’t meant it to. The unbelievable plot we were originally forced to accept by the serious tone of the piece, reporting everything as if it were fact, came completely unraveled by the suggestion of paranoia. The narrator became unreliable, so nothing could be viewed as real, which altered the fundamental intention of the story.

I hadn’t thought about this in years, and then, I watched Avengers: Age of Ultron. Which, on the whole, I thought was a decent movie. But I only saw it a few weeks ago–my husband and I have embarked on a project to watch all the MCU films in order, because I’d only seen a few, and out-of-order at that, so some of them made NO SENSE WHATSOEVER. When it came out, I did hear vague rumblings on the Internet about the movie’s treatment of Black Widow, but since I wanted to avoid spoiler territory, I didn’t know what, specifically, the issue was.

Comparing her forced sterilization to Bruce Banner’s Hulkitude, calling herself a monster? For shame, Joss Whedon (both director and screenwriter). For shame.

I see what the intention was, and I don’t entirely disagree with it. BW was trying to connect with Banner by revealing an aspect of herself, her body, that caused her emotional pain, that was outside of her control. On those levels, presented with that reasoning, there are parallels between her and the Hulk. It could have worked.

But simplifying all of that into a single line: “You still think you’re the only monster on the team?”

Directly equating an inability to have children with being a monster? Not cool, Joss Whedon. I see now why you lost some of that feminist street cred you were famous for (though arguably didn’t always deserve, even before this.)

Now, what that line did to her character doesn’t undermine the entire movie the way the line about paranoia did my classmate’s short story, but I hope my point comes through. These types of game-changers should be used sparingly and intentionally. If you want to throw the story on its head with a twist, go for it, but do it on purpose!

Because when something slips by you like that, it could be the line that ruins everything.

Let Me Tell You a Story #26: The Power of Asking for Help

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I went to the library yesterday, after receiving a notification I had a book waiting for me. (I’ve been on hold for A Court of Mist and Fury since just before its release two months ago.)

I took my writing journal along, because I hadn’t done an observational entry in the library yet, but I ended up writing about how nervous I was to be there.

That’s not a typical reaction to a library for me. Yes, I’m an anxious person in general, but libraries? One of the best, most soothing places on earth to me. All those books.

I wrote myself a pep talk, to work up my nerve to go to the desk and ask about the process of getting my novel into circulation.

I’d already read numerous articles on the Internet about the process, and they all offered various forms of advice, from sending a formal query directly to the purchasing department, to having friends and family request the book through the system until enough attention accumulated to prompt the library to make a purchase.

Most didn’t recommend walking in with a copy and handing it over, because even if the book is a donation and doesn’t cost them money to purchase, it does cost them time and money to process and get on the shelves–not all libraries have that extra bit of time and money.

But I’m not my best via email, even worse on the phone (anxious, you know). I’m great in person, when I can see who I’m talking to. Especially since I’m a regular at the library, if not on a first-name basis with any of the librarians yet.

So I took a copy of my novel, just in case, and told myself I was on a fact-finding mission.

I happened to have the head librarian wait on me at the desk, which made my mission even easier. While she was checking out ACOMAF for me, I asked, “If I were an independent author and wanted to get my book into circulation, how would I go about doing that?”

She answered, “Bring in a copy, tell us it’s for the collection rather than the book sale, then we look up all the information on it we need to make the bib, and get it onto the shelves.”

I blushed (I know I did, I could feel it) and pulled the copy out of my tote bag, explaining that I hadn’t counted on it being so simple, because of the Internet articles, but I’d wanted to be ready.

We chatted a bit about the process, and she offered to talk my book up at the next branch meeting, and I thanked her profusely, probably a little too profusely, but she understood. She said, “It’s harder sometimes to ask for help than it is to get it.”

Ain’t that the truth.

Fellow authors, I know it’s hard for some of us; self-promotion isn’t a skill that comes naturally to everyone. But make friends with your librarians. They’re generally lovely people, and they do want to help.

(She also brought up the idea of me hosting a book talk at the library, “not promising anything yet” but recommending I think about it, maybe in time for the holidays when “hordes of grandmas come in and want to know what books to send off to their college kids for Christmas.” I’m not at all ready for that now–I didn’t even know I’d get my book on the shelves that easily–but libraries love events, and they love local authors. I’m nervous, but if I can, I think I’d like to do it.)

Let Me Tell You a Story #25: The 29 Rules for Proper Comma Usage

When I was in seventh grade, waaay back in the early ’90s, I had an English teacher who is almost single-handedly responsible for everything I know about commas.

Now, I can’t say I hadn’t noticed the rules of proper comma usage before. I read, and I read a lot. But some of the niceties had undoubtedly been escaping me.

I will never forget that class, because it was the first and only time my tests have been blank sheets of paper.

The teacher was already elderly, nearing retirement, when I had him twenty-odd years ago, so his teaching methods seem antiquated now–even by the time I reached my senior year of high school, teachers were moving away from strict memorization to applied learning.

For the most part, I think that’s great. But I am forever thankful I learned punctuation “the hard way.”

We had spent the week going over the rules for commas in our grammar books. (I’ve tried and tried to remember what textbook it was, and I thought it might be The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation–the teacher called them “your blue books,” and I remember the awful baby-blue cover with ’70s-esque font in darker blue. But quick research turned up that TBBoGaP isn’t old enough to have been my textbook. I’ll probably never know what it truly was.)

On Friday, we sat at our desks, bare except for a single pencil, and waited for the blank sheets of paper to be passed out.

Then we wrote down every rule we’d learned for comma usage, word for word.

I don’t remember exactly how many there were–my mind jumps to 29, but that could be because I’ve been telling this story to my friends over the years, and hyperbole has crept in. It was probably closer to 20 than 30.

Any student who didn’t get them perfect had to take the test again the following Monday, while the rest of the class read the next short story we’d been assigned in our other textbook.

Most of the year went like that–a week of intense focus on a single grammatical concept or the rules of a particular type of punctuation, then a week of reading. (Oh, and we had to do a 500-word “persuasive” essay every week. I laugh to think how hard 500 words was, back then. I’m pretty sure one of mine was “People Should Grow Roses.”)

Fast forward to now. Could I write out all 29 (or however many) rules again, word for word, like I did in seventh grade? I’m sure I couldn’t.

But every time I read a book that never sets off forms of direct address in dialogue with commas (“What are you doing Ted?”) I cringe, and remember how I know doing needs a comma after it, and think of those blank sheets of paper.