Counting My Blessings

While I’ve neglected this blog, I have been a busy little writer bee lately. I hit thirty pages for the new version of my ongoing novel project (I lost track of how many versions there’s been so far). On top of that, a freelance gig assigned me new blog posts that are longer than the ones I previously wrote for them. All good things, but between that and recovering from my knee surgery, I haven’t had much motivation left for this blog.

As usual my recovery has been the standard roller-coaster of emotions. My knee is a lot less stiff than the other one was because the surgeon completed this procedure in half the time. On the other hand, I had much more trouble walking this time around. Before I wasn’t so concerned about walking correctly because I still had one knee left to do. When trying to “be good” over the past month, I could barely out-shamble a zombie and couldn’t for the life of me figure out why. Thank God for the hospital’s physical therapist, who I saw for my belated four-week appointment on Saturday. Apparently I should be leading with the surgery knee instead of the recovered knee (wouldn’t you think it was the other way around??). The therapist made sure I had the technique down pat and showed me exercises to make sure my “muscles fired.”

I’m so grateful to be on the right track again. On Saturday night I went to my aunt’s house, my first social outing since the surgery (though I’ve had visitors every week). I’m still struggling a bit but I’ve improved more these last few days than I have the entire month. I’m also glad I didn’t miss dinner at my aunt and uncle’s house because I got to see my cousin and her new husband after their destination wedding last week. Although, watching their wedding video made me wish I could’ve gone to Jamaica! At least I wasn’t the only relative who couldn’t make the trip.

I’ve had a more positive outlook these past few months. Instead of cursing my misfortune of needing two consecutive surgeries, I’ve been grateful to have the opportunity to fix knees that have bothered me my whole life. Still living at home at my age turned into a blessing because I didn’t have to worry about giving up an apartment and moving back home post-surgery. I’m grateful for my two best friends who have visited me every weekend in the last month. I’m even feeling optimistic about my writing again. While I still doubt I’ll make a living selling books, I’m hopeful about eventually publishing my current work-in-progress.

That said, I still dread getting back behind the wheel of my car in a month or so. I just have to remind myself of all those hours I wasted taking public transportation.

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Filling the Void

(Or, Why We Don’t Write When We Finally Have Time to Write)

I never thought I’d be the type of person who hates being home all the time. When I had school, or work, or something to focus on, all I wanted was a couple days to stay in my pajamas and write. I never minded if some weekends turned out to be less full than others. The more time I had to myself, the better.

These days I have all the time in the world to stay in my pajamas and write. This drastic change in schedule alters my perception of what’s “work” and what’s “play.” Writing a novel and creating blog posts are now the things I should do, not the dreams that get me though the day. Focusing so much on hobbies then puts more pressure on producing an actual result. Without external motivation, or milestones achieved, it’s harder to delude myself into thinking my hobby will lead anywhere.

The absence of external stimuli creates another problem. Writing becomes much harder when thoughts calm. I think it’s why a blank page intimidates us. An average day provides us with menial tasks and responsibilities, so when we find something shiny to distract us (like a story idea), we grab onto it. That motivation is nowhere to be found when we finally get home and sit in front of our computers. Again, writing becomes the responsibility, not the distraction. We want to relax, and in that particular moment, small accomplishments like chores feel more satisfying than a few pages that probably won’t be any good anyway.

Hell, maybe this is just my version of “writer’s block,” aka “I don’t want to put real effort into my writing so I’m blaming the world.”

It’s partly because I’ve been writing for such a long time. I feel like I should have several stories published already, if not a novel. Once in a while I have to step back and remind myself there is no “deadline” in life, that everyone achieves at their own pace. A couple months ago I posted some of my original work to Scribophile. This might not seem like an accomplishment to anyone else, but it is for me because I never sought out constructive criticism like this before. Sure, I’d post on websites where I barely got readers, or send it to friends. Scribophile was the first place where I submitted my work for professional-quality criticism. All readers had good things to say but they also made me see that publication was a long way off, even further away than I’d thought.

But then, I suppose you could call that a milestone. It only took more than fifteen years to submit my writing for detailed feedback. Maybe I’ll submit to a publishing house in another fifteen years. I’m sure tons of writers are published for the first time in their 40s. How old was J.K. Rowling again?

This uncertain time in my life is messing me up. It looks like a chance to start over and finally start a career in writing, but in reality, it’s whatever I make of it. If I’m not ready, if things don’t work out, I have the rest of my life to try again. A writing practice happens without formal guidelines and restrictions, so I think sometimes our brains settle into a rut. We hold ourselves to outdated standards and forget to re-evaluate our goals. To use a smartphone analogy, it’s like we’re trying to operate a new phase in our lives without updating the software.

Going back to the blank page after a busy day, I think self-imposed timelines tie into  the “work vs. play” dilemma. It’s easy to fantasize about writing when we can’t actually sit down to write. When we do sit down in front of a computer to type up a masterpiece, we subconsciously pressure ourselves to write something good. We have limited time so we want to be productive when we do write. What we don’t realize is that, when we aim for perfection, we don’t write at all to avoid failure.

Maybe we should redirect this pressure. Maybe it’s time to view the blank page as a bigger failure than bad writing, that typing out crap is better than not typing at all. If we make an effort to write crap on a semi-regular basis, we might eventually produce non-crap on a regular basis. So for the moment I’m forgetting about publication, ignoring all my experience,  and aspiring to crap.

I feel like I’ve been on a mental vacation for the last week or so. After not seeing some relatives since before the surgery, I finally stayed with my aunt and cousin for the weekend. I looked forward to it like I was going to Florida or something because I’m not going on any “real” vacations this year (they live in Staten Island, an hour away for me). Then I had a follow-up with my surgeon on Tuesday. All good news and I don’t have to go back for three months, but still no writing Tuesday night.

This is partly because of Scribophile. While grateful for feedback on Define Reality (and a short story I posted), it made me realize how much writing and editing I still have to do. Readers enjoyed the characters and had some encouraging words, but underneath that, they helped me realize the story structure needs a lot of work. I have ideas on how to fix it but I also want to finish the entire anthology first. So my plan right now is to write the rest of the novellas in the anthology, figure out how I want to fix the story line, then edit thoroughly (or possibly rewrite).

Writing and editing the first draft will take months, maybe over a year. And that’s if I don’t get sidetracked. Acknowledging this made me…frustrated, to say the least. I’ve been writing since middle school, and after more than fifteen years of this, I still have a long way to go.

My past lack of – or misguided – ambition is the main cause of this, I think. It goes back to high school when I didn’t take creative writing seriously and signed up for the newspaper because “it’s writing.” I carried that philosophy into college, where I majored in journalism even though I had no intention of being a real reporter. “It’s writing so I’ll like it,” I convinced myself. “You can be an editor while working on your own stories.” After The Intro to Creative Writing Class Incident, I gave up on original work for years and played around with fanfiction. Then after college I wasted a few years thinking I could actually become a TV writer. I even wrote specs and entered contests/fellowships. Does it surprise anyone that I never won anything?

I finally found my stride a few years ago when I finished the first draft of a novel. It all clicked for the first time ever, and I saw why I could never finish past stories. Unfortunately this only happened after wasting years in between on projects that weren’t going to lead anywhere. I guess you could say The Lost Years led to this point, but I would be much further ahead if I just took some helpful creative writing courses in college or even high school. These days I’m too jaded to listen to one random novelist/”professor” who may or may not know how to teach.

So while Scribophile will be beneficial to my writing, I’ve realized once again that publication is much further away than I thought. Maybe I’ll find a job related to editing/media/communications and only write stories for myself.

This tweet I retweeted a while back sums it up nicely:

 

Writing Tips from an Unpublished Writer

Title says it all. If it helps, I started writing almost twenty years ago.

Yeah, that doesn’t help.

We won’t talk about the numerous commitment and confidence issues preventing me from querying agents. Instead, I’d like to mention something else: I give good advice. This talent doesn’t usually work on my own life, but I’ve helped countless others over the years. I’m like those psychics who can’t predict lottery numbers. If I wanted to take out more student loans, or listen to people talk about their problems all day long, I could easily be a therapist. I’d rather be an unpublished writer.

Anyway, you clicked on this post for the potentially-helpful advice that you might remember five minutes from now. F-Y-I, this is all from trial and error. If I went to college for writing or joined groups, maybe I would have learned this sooner or drawn different conclusions. All I know is that they’ve helped me…not get published. You’ve been warned.

  1. Write. I know, every advice article tells you this, but it’s for a reason. You won’t get better unless you write a whole lot of crap first. Thousands and thousands of words of pure, glorious crap. Oh sure, some of it might be grammatically correct, and your mom-teacher-friend-random person online might think you’re a natural. I’ve been there. Keep going. There is no conclusion to this point because the process doesn’t end. Your writing style has a life of its own. The way you write will develop five, ten, fifteen years from now. It’s an incremental change that results from individual decisions. You’ll get what I mean the first time you notice sentence length, or how often you use adverbs.
  2. Read. It took me a long time to get this. Logically you’d think writing and reading are inseparable, but sometimes, they drift apart. You get so wrapped up in producing that you forget how important it is to consume. Picking up a paperback, losing yourself in the story for hours, not stopping until the next chapter break…all of it reminds you why you write. I’m a firm believer that it doesn’t matter what you read. Read an interesting book/article/comic/etc., and you’ll want to write.
  3. Have a reason. This is another one that eluded me for years. A key element missing from my writing was emotion, and I could never figure out why. Why did all my original stories fall flat? Why was it so much easier to write fanfiction? I  couldn’t tell you my exact light-bulb moment, but in the last few years it finally clicked. The way I created stories needed adjustment. Characters and plot are important, but I should spend an equal amount of time on the message, the purpose. Why do I want to write this story? What do I want to tell readers? A story doesn’t have to be preachy, but it should have a theme. It will help when you lose interest in the middle and don’t know where to go next. This brings up my next point…
  4. Write however you want. I prefer to start at the beginning, but you don’t have to. Are there scenes you can’t wait to write? Write them first. For one novel (the only draft I actually finished), I skipped ahead to a collection of scenes between two of the main characters, which ended up in the middle of the story. That reminds me…
  5. Not everything will be usable. I’ve abandoned countless stories, written dozens of pages no one else will ever read. It’s okay. Sometimes you need to write scenes to get them out of your system.
  6. Shake up your routine. If you haven’t worked on your Super Important Manuscript in weeks, work on something else for a while. The novel that’s going to make you famous will be there when you’re ready for it. Sometimes, the new project you start becomes Super Important too. On the other hand…
  7. Don’t give in to “Writer’s Block.” Raise your right hand and say it with me: “Writer’s Block is an excuse. I could write if I really, really wanted to.” If it’s a schedule thing, make time. Wake up earlier or go to bed later. If it’s a story thing, ask yourself why. Are you dreading the next scene? Write another one (see Tip #4). Is the next scene necessary? Should you write it from a different POV? Turn the story around in your mind until something works. If you don’t have a story, then…
  8. Brainstorm. This is different for everyone, but it works best for me when I branch off from a topic (see Tip #3). Other pieces fall into place after that. What plot would best relate to this topic? What characters would this plot have? Eventually you zoom in on a main character.

 

Fresh Air

The crankiness has passed. My birthday was a surprisingly good day even though I never left the house (and I’m 28 now…). This morning I woke up wanting to move, so I walked with my crutches on my own and even sat outside for a few minutes. It was my first time out of the house since getting home from the hospital last Friday.

I’m also writing. For the past few months I’ve been working on a novella, but it’s really the current incarnation of a concept that’s existed for two years already. (I don’t want to admit that, but yeah, the earliest document was from 2014. I wrote it as a script then but put the idea on the back burner for a year while I wrote my first novel. Yes, the completed first draft of a novel written by me exists, but I doubt it will ever see the light of day again.) I went back to this concept since I was looking for a “new” project. My original goal was to turn it into a series of short stories, but that didn’t work so I landed on the novella format.

So I don’t know exactly what I’ll do with this. I love the characters and this particular world I’ve created, but I don’t love the idea of stretching this into a novel. It works just fine as a novella based on the script I wrote two years ago. I also have more ideas for these characters that would work perfectly as novellas. (Since it started as a drama pilot I’m still thinking in “episodes.”) I plan to put each novella on Wattpad, but I’m not sure what to do beyond that. Individual ebooks seem like a logical choice if I want to publish them separately.

Another option is to consider each story part of a larger novel. Authors divide novels into Part I, Part II, etc. all the time. If I want to go the route of traditional publishing, this might be the best tactic.

Maybe It’s Time I Actually, You Know, TRY to Get Published

I’ve said in more than one post how I feel more confident now, how I believe in myself and my writing skills more than I ever did. I’m even serious about freelancing and getting paid to write for the first time ever. Now I’m realizing this is the perfect stage in my life to focus on my life’s goal – being a published author. Like, literary magazines and query letters-type publication. The thought is terrifying but when else will I have the chance to do this?

At the very least I’m more comfortable taking steps in this direction. Freelancing is mostly an unknown, meanwhile I’ve looked into the process of publishing for years. My current project is a novella/part one in a novella anthology, so I could submit that to contests and publishers, maybe even agents. I could also write short stories in between and submit them to magazines. I also like the format of Wattpad.com so I will post my novella anthology there too, or at least the first part.

Okay, this is good. I’m feeling good about this.

Why I Haven’t Taken a Real Creative Writing Class Yet

First, let me clear up what I mean by “real.” This isn’t a debate about online classes versus college programs.

I’ve been writing fiction since middle school, but I didn’t apply to my college’s creative writing program. The thought terrified me even at an age when it’s easy to be braver about something like this. I applied to the journalism program instead because hey, it was still writing, and I worked on my high school’s newspaper for two years (the most you could do at my school). I will say now that my journalism degree did help sharpen my skills.

In the back of my mind I planned to take whatever creative writing courses I could. There was no set minor, but they did have an “Intro to Creative Writing” class. I took it as soon as possible.

Big mistake. Huge. Julia-Roberts-telling-off-that-saleswoman HUGE.

Worst thing I could have done. The professor was out of his mind. While it might be normal for a class like that to switch from one form of writing to another (poetry…not my forte…to short stories, screenplays, etc.), I didn’t enjoy it at all. He insisted that I put more emotion in my assignments but offered no guidance on achieving this. How could I pour my heart into vague assignments that weren’t my favorite in the first place? He’d tell us to “write a poem” or “write a short story,” then give us a minimal critique before moving on. After a while I stopped trying altogether. Made me feel stupid for thinking I had an edge because of how much I’d written over the years. By the end, I felt like the worst one in my group.

The group critiques were useless by the way. The first five people would say something different, then the rest of the class would either agree or disagree with them.

(That’s what I meant by “real.” There’s this type of class, then there’s classes that focus on novels  or short stories. Taught by a professor who actually teaches.)

I mostly wrote fanfiction for years after that disaster. I’ll give Professor-What’s-His-Name (really can’t remember) that it was always difficult for me to connect with stories/characters emotionally. Maybe that’s why I never went the extra step to improve my writing in high school. At first glance I was better than average for my age, and I constantly thought of story concepts. One of my flaws – in writing and in life – is that sometimes I don’t follow through. Dozens of novels and short stories weren’t finished, or if they were, I didn’t go back to edit much. At most I showed a few short stories to very patient English teachers.

It was safer to write stories than to edit…or actually show them to people in my life. I’d rather do what I loved than have others tell me I should quit while I’m ahead.

This “secrecy” is probably why I haven’t published anything yet even though I’ve been writing for about fifteen years.

As for my current writing practice, I have gotten better on my own. Things finally clicked for me on that “emotional” level. Instead of focusing on the surface elements (plot, setting, characters), I started thinking of what I wanted to write about. What topics held my interest? What message did I want to send to readers, if anyone ever read what I wrote? How can you build a story around that? What characters do you need for that story, and what kind of plot would draw them together?

finally get it and it feels amazing now.  About damn time.

Maybe I’d have gotten my act together sooner if I’d taken some real creative writing classes, branched out, improved my craft instead of letting it plateau. I do regret it in hindsight.

Believe it or not, I’m still reluctant to take real writing classes. These days it’s because I’m stubborn and jaded. I don’t want some random “professor” or “expert” telling me what to write, or how I’m doing it wrong. Maybe that’s the wrong perspective but I can’t help it. Then there are my old insecurities. What if the class I pick turns out to have a crazy professor and indifferent students?

I might reconsider this if I find the right class. For now, I’ll keep working on my first draft.