Tuesday, August 16, 2016

New Poems!

The tax sonnet is live now at Topology Magazine, here.

Enjoy! (Definitely you will enjoy this poem more than you enjoy paying taxes. Seriously.)

And there's "Fallen to Witches" at Mithila Review, here.

I've been writing witch poems this year, after learning that both of my parents have ancestors who were jailed during the Salem Witch Trials.

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Grit and the Art of Deliberate Practice

Today I’ve been reading Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance by Angela Duckworth. It’s a terrific book, and one I suspect I’ll hark back to because there are a lot of good ideas here. She talks about the sociological and psychological research around overcoming defeat and disappointment, as well as specific real-world examples of people who show grit in their lives. As a writer who regularly gets rejected, developing that resilience is something for which I’m striving.



One aspect to grit that particularly struck me is the idea of deliberate practice. We’re all pretty clear on the way that time spent in an activity leads to better results. Any writer will tell you that it’s common to run into people who would love to be writers but can never manage to make the time to sit down and, you know, write something. But in Grit, Angela Duckworth takes the concept further. She points out that it’s not enough to grind out the hours. Really successful people, the ones who overcome the inevitable plateaus in life, engage in what she calls deliberate practice. They seek to improve their performance by setting goals that will test their limits and stretch their skills, by focusing on specific areas that need improvement, and (yes) putting in the hard work that will make meeting those goals possible.

She points out that, while that hard work may not be fun, those with grit take pleasure in their accomplishments, and find joy in the process as it helps them improve. So tonight, I’m thinking about deliberate practice as it applies to the art and craft of writing, and seeking ways to put those ideas to work in my own stories.



If you’re a writer who’s made a conscious effort to practice deliberately, what techniques did you use? Did you have a mentor, take a class or join a workshop? Has your study been more self-directed? How did you mesh this practice with your writing?

In line with this, I’ve been thinking about one specific thing I’d like to improve in my own stories. (This is not to say that this is the only shortcoming I have; only that this is the one I think is currently holding me back the most.) My writing needs to be more emotional, or rather, there needs to be a stronger emotional thread in the story, and a stronger emotional connection for the reader. So I’m going to read a couple books that address that particular issue, and I’m going to read stories and think about how their authors develop that emotional resonance. Until I can understand what gives me a strong emotional response as a reader, I won’t be able to translate that into my own fiction. I shy away from emotion too much, in life and in art, and that won’t work.


What about you? What’s your deliberate practice? Where are you going next, and how will you make it happen?

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Some thoughts on goal-setting for writers

I was putting together my goals for July, and found myself thinking back to earlier days and the way my goal setting has changed—and stayed the same—throughout my years as a writer. Everybody works differently, but I suspect there are few writers who succeed without setting any goals. And I have a suspicion that setting the wrong kinds of goals can be disastrous as well. Whether the goal-setter is thinking too big or too small, the way we approach progress and mileposts can hamper us. Or inspire, on the other hand, if we do it wisely.

First of all, it’s good to have an idea of what motivates you and gets your creative juices flowing. The sad fact is, there may be long stretches of time where you’re not receiving a lot of positive feedback and outside rewards for your hard work. So figure out if a special meal, a night out with friends, or a new book might give you some much-needed joy. And then think about ways to earn that enticing reward.


Dorothy is absolutely right--but the wait can be excruciating


Break it down

The rough draft of your 300,000 word fantasy opus is probably not going to sell right off. And even if it did, you still have to write the damn thing first. You’ve got your maps, and the ominous prophecy-thingy, but now what? Shockingly, opuses don’t get written in one sitting. And you’re going to struggle.  So maybe your goal list should include something other than 1) Write epic fantasy novel. Maybe you need to figure out how to get there.

Figuring out the best approach is a learning process. Maybe you’ll outline thoroughly and break it down into scenes. Maybe you’ll calculate how long you’d like it to be and plot the major turning points and where they’ll need to occur. Maybe you’ll be pantsing the whole way and set a daily or weekly word goal. Be prepared for the trial and error you’ll need to work out your best method. Remember: everyone finds themselves stuck from time to time. It’s not a sign of failure, so much as an indication that you need to rethink the process.


Best rest stop ever, or best rest stop OF ALL TIME?


Whatever path you take, set smaller goals that mark out the way. Just like you wouldn’t drive from Boston to San Francisco in one marathon session, you’ll need figurative hotels and rest stops on the story trail, too. Treat yourself when you’ve set the hook in the opening chapter, or when you’ve finally slogged through the flabby middle part of the story and see the end in sight.

Branch out

When I started, the general advice was to begin with short fiction and break into the market that way before trying to sell a novel. That advice wasn’t terribly helpful then, and is even less so now, but there’s a kernel of value. You may have a natural form that works best  for you—I’ve been most successful with poetry so far, and my stories all want to turn into novels—but it’s not wise to limit yourself to only one thing, however comfortable that feels.



Learning to write better poetry has taught me about rhythm and pattern in language, about finding images that are vivid and unique, about compressing the necessary details and deleting what doesn’t move the piece forward. Working on short fiction has made me think about satisfying beginnings and endings, and how to convey emotion to the reader in a shorter space. And longer pieces have their own needs and structural concerns, calling for much deeper thinking on matters of theme and plot and characterization. All of those things are valuable parts of a writer’s toolkit. Even if poetry requires a different mindset than fiction (like thinking in a different language, as one writer puts it), I can use what I’ve learned in every aspect of writing.

There’s value in trying different genres as well. Too often we find ourselves locked into one particular type of story, but taking the risk of writing in a different field can bring new life to all of a writer’s work. Anyone who reads voraciously can think of favorite authors whose work grew stale over the years, as they trod the same ground again and again. So don’t be afraid to experiment. Write in a point of view you’ve never tried before, switch to a different verb tense, or even give that genre mash-up you’ve been dreaming of a shot.

In other words, don’t forget to have fun. Otherwise, you might as well be making widgets in a gloomy factory.

Build it up

The longer I write, the more clearly I see how much I still have to learn. There are ideas I have that I can’t work on yet, because I just don’t have the knowledge and experience to convey what’s in my mind and heart. (I know some of you are saying that I should try anyway—and you’re right, to a point. There’s value in taking risks, but there’s also value in gaining an awareness of the gaps in your skills and exercising patience.)

So one of the things I’m working on consciously (and semi-conscientiously) right now is to gain a better understanding of what makes good writing in various areas, to study writers who are good and work on incorporating those skills into my own toolkit. To accomplish that, I’ve set goals to read anthologies and collections and think about the stories that seem particularly effective. I’m critiquing regularly for other people, too. In the past, I’ve worked as a slush reader, and that was an enlightening experience. You know how editors will say, “I don’t ever want to see stories with X [vampires, zombies, sappy love stories]!” There’s a damn good reason for that. And you will understand, when you’ve read through every possible permutation of boring, sloppy, unimaginative vampire story that your fellow writers can come up with.


When I was an editor, it was stories about people losing it and killing their spouses. There's a lot of spousal rage out there. Seriously.



In short, there are a myriad ways in which you can build and expand your writer’s toolkit. One of the terrifying things about this work is that there’s so much more to learn. But that’s also the wonderful thing about it, too. I will never reach a point where I know everything about writing. As long as I want to, as long as I work at it, there’s always another mountain to conquer.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Reading fees: Not even once.

Posting this makes me feel a little like a cranky Luddite, but this new trend of magazines charging reading fees for submissions is really terrible. I get why contests do it--it's why I don't enter contests, but there has to be some pool from which to draw the prize money. But regular publications? No no NO.

This crab with a plastic fork conveys my feelings.

Here's the thing: writers generally write on spec. At least that's the case for beginners, and for a lot of the rest of us who don't have a multi-book contract. We have to put in a whole heck of a lot of work, up front, with no guarantee of payment. That's the burden of risk the creator bears in the market.

Editors and publishers have to sort through all the not-awesome submissions to find the ones that are both wonderfully written, and fitting for the publication. Slogging through the slush pile is not the most fun part of editing (and I say this as a former slush-pile-slogger) but that's part of the burden of risk the publisher bears in the market.



When a publisher charges a writer to read their work, that's shifting more of the burden of risk onto the writer, who is already bearing enough by working without any upfront pay. It's a crappy thing to do, and unprofessional. STOP IT.

And writers, do not pay these fees. Revenues should flow to publishers from advertisements, crowdfunding, and subscriptions. Not from the writers. The implication is that somehow you'll get a more fair read by paying for the privilege, but I wouldn't count on it. If you want to sink more money into your craft, take a class. Go to a convention and network. Hire an editor and a cover artist and publish your own work. But don't pay someone to do their job. If they can't make it work without your fees, they're probably not ready for the big leagues anyway.

Monday, June 6, 2016

Dear Short Story:

Oh shiny new short story, I'm begging you: Please, please, please do not turn into another novel.

I can't juggle another novel right now, no matter how adorable your characters are.

Love,

The Writer


Picture courtesy of my sister Margaret Bibber, who arms crabs in her spare time.

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

100 Days of Writing

I feel sort of like an addict, telling you that today is the 100th straight in which I have written something new. (Maybe I am a laziness addict. Sometimes just sitting down for the time it takes to write a page of . . . something . . . feels like a huge battle.)



Here's the thing, though: while writing every day works for me, it may not work for you. It's important that we have this discussion, because I don't want anyone to feel like they're Doing It Wrong. That's something that gets slung around a lot in the writing world, and I've learned to be wary of people who try to tell me there's One True Way of creating. That, my friends, is a load of crap.

For me, it's important to write every day--at this point in time--for a couple of reasons. One, which I consider the most important of all, is that when I write, I'm happier. Sometimes the good feeling arises just from sitting at the computer and working on a cool scene or a poem that's been gnawing at my brain. Other times, it's glorious to put in the time and feel victorious over my lower nature. Either way, it's healing. Times when I'm not writing are times when I'm not at my best.


The baby alpacas want you to be happy. Listen to the baby alpacas. Do what they tell you.


Second, putting the time in to hone my craft is one sure way I know of to get better at it. And my mind is more focused when I make a point of showing up. I have a lot to learn, and the more I work at writing, the clearer my shortcomings appear. There are other elements to learning: reading widely and thoughtfully, doing research, revising, talking about writing with more knowledgeable people. But none of those can substitute for making words of my own.

I don't work the same project every day, but if I have two or three or four going, of different lengths and styles. A blog post counts as new words. A poem counts as new words. A page of fiction counts, but no more or less than the others. When I lose focus on one project, or run into the Brick Wall of What the Hell Happens Next, the lizard hind brain has already been working on some other thing that needs telling. Or maybe it's worked out what I did wrong the last time I ran into a roadblock.

That's my process. It's what works for me. Your process may be different. Hell, my process will probably change if I ever have a non-self-imposed deadline. And that's okay. I expect at some point in the future, I'll be sane enough that writing every day will seem less important. But for now, there's a deep personal significance in letting the words out any-which-way and getting comfortable with that.



Daniel Jose Older wrote this really great post on Seven Scribes, talking about how wrong the 'write every day' advice can be. I love the point he makes right in the title, that in order to write, we have to forgive ourselves, let go of the shame that can hold us back and even destroy us. It's important advice, and you should read it, because Older says it better than I can.

Whatever form your shame takes, however it tries to take your voice, find the way to let it go. I can't tell you how to do that, but hopefully you'll forgive me for being excited that I'm learning to show shame the door--and write like my life depends on it.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

A question of strength

Today marks the 86th straight day in which I’ve done some rough draft work. Sometimes just a poem, other days I’ve written as much as 2000 words. The important thing for me right now is the act of showing up. When I do that, my moods are more even and I tend to be more creative overall. It’s the kind of streak that won’t last forever, but it reminds me why taking the time to commit to my work is important.

I'm kind of more in the blue circle right now.


That being said, I’m struggling with the work—particularly the part where I’m supposed to focus on rewriting and making the words sing, and the part where I need to send stuff out and collect rejections, and the part where I should probably make a list of agents and polish the novel query like I’ve been meaning to do for over a year now.

I’m really reluctant about that part, almost on a molecular level. Bit by bit the urge is returning, because I do want to share my work with others. That being said, writing to get published was a huge factor in the massive depression from which I’m emerging, which makes me leery of the risks involved. Not just rejection, though that’s never enjoyable, but the sense of futility and invisibility that have dogged me.


Let's face it, none of us will ever be as awesome as Helen Mirren and Judi Dench.


So here’s what I’m wondering, my fellow creative types: Do you know how to distinguish between legitimate self-care and recalcitrant foot-dragging? How do you tell them apart? Have you found a way to give yourself the courage to fail, while still making a safe space for the fragile parts of your soul?


I could really use your advice.