Misadventures in the Writing Life: Random Updates and Writer-talk

So, I had a vacation from ye olde daye job recently during which I, of course, overbooked myself. I also had an awesome time and I have to admit it was really painful to go back to work after spending most of my week with other writer/book folk.

I went to my first writer’s retreat, an event organized and hosted by Penn Jersey Women Writers. It was, to use an overused word, awesome. I fear I may now be addicted to these sorts of events, but you know, time and money factor in and after some figuring, I realized I won’t be able to attend something like this again until spring. (Which maybe accounts for some of the difficulty in returning to ye olde daye job.)

One of the most important aspects of attending an event like this is hang time with other folks who are going through the same, or similar things, that you are as a writer. Most of the time I am sitting on my mountain working on stuff alone, and sometimes this is great, but other times it helps to be reminded that I’m not alone, that there are other folks struggling with the same things in regards to the art, or who have struggled with the same thing, came out the other side and who now have wisdom to impart. Perhaps that’s just a really long way of saying that attending events by and for writers reminds you (okay, me) that you are connected to something beyond yourself. Plus, there is always more to learn. Writer-brain likes learning.

The first speaker at the conference, Megan Hart, was really energetic at an early hour, which, for me was perfect after a long, early morning drive to the event. She spoke about productivity, which reminds me of this article that’s been floating around writerly internet this past week.

So, here’s the thing. I am committed to writing four books a year. Of course, when I say that, what it means is that I am writing four first drafts in a year, it does not mean that I am also publishing four books a year. It goes, first draft, let it sit while I work on the next thing, then I finish the next thing and circle back to the first thing for first round edits. Then the first thing goes out for feedback. Then I work on the third thing and circle back to the second thing and so on. That’s just how I do it. A publishing schedule is a totally separate animal from the actual act of writing. I think what pokes me the most about the article is that it appears to conflate the two things. Anything more I could say about this has already been said by Chuck Wendig’s post responding the article. I’m with him. There are so many different ways to approach this thing that we do, and no one person has the answers. While essays like that Huffo-po piece certainly provide food for thought, and stuff to consider, nothing anyone tells you about writing is gospel. Some advice will work well for you, some of it will be useless. Take what works and throw out the rest.

So, back to vacation. I got to visit my old stomping grounds and dropped off copies of Aliens in the Soda Machine and Other Strange Tales at Webster’s Bookstore in State College, PA and Café Lemont in Lemont. You know what that means, right? IT MEANS I DRANK ALL OF THE COFFEE IN THE LAND!

WHEEEEEEE!!!

Of course, here’s where what happened to my time also gets a little bit hazy…

MMMM CAFFEINE….

 

 

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Misadventures in the Writing Life: In Which Rune Skelley Answers some Q’s!

Rune Skelley is the name of co-authors and marriage partners Jen and Kent. They write amazing genre fiction together and run a critique group that has been instrumental in my own growth as a writer. They are experts in the fine art of collaboration, which they go into in detail over at the Skelleyverse. But they’ve also graciously agreed to answer questions here.

Enjoy!

1) As collaborative authors, what would you say is the key ingredient to a productive creative collaboration?

Kent: Trust. If you don’t have that, nothing works. Your own ideas won’t get voiced if you don’t trust your partner not to dismiss or attack them, and you won’t be able to compromise, to surrender a share of control, to a partner you don’t trust. (There are lots of other things you need, too. We did a couple of posts about some of them, way back when we started our blog.)

Jen: Trust is big, but I think that even bigger is the desire to work together. Writing together entails a lot of compromise, and compromise isn’t always an easy thing. A fruitful collaboration requires both partners to be fully invested in the process, not just the outcome.

2) When did you each first know that you wanted to write? When did you first decide to write together?

Kent: I can’t remember a time that I wasn’t writing. I had teachers early on who encouraged me and built up my confidence, and teachers later on who pushed me and helped me check my ego (an ongoing project…). Role-playing games gave me a lot of training as a storyteller, too. Come to think of it, D&D is a form of collaboration — the DM and the other players are all making it up as they go. The game provides rules and structure, but it still all comes down to people being able to invent a fun narrative as a team.

As far as writing together, the way Kent remembers it: I would write shorts now and then, and I had a novel that I kept adding to, which was eventually going to require the entire known universe for hard-drive space. I thought of writing as “my” thing, because arrogance I suppose. Meanwhile Jen was part of the gaming group, and she wrote a story that I really liked and which she’d asked for my input on. So we had a good sense that we could cooperate well on creative projects. I remember she was the one who got inspired with the image that launched us into our first novel, which was the first writing project that I ever really took seriously.

Jen: I’ve always been a writer, too. I still have some stuff that I wrote in elementary school, like an odd little story about a lion who solves a mystery with his animal friends. Only this lion has 3 eyes. Not for any plot reasons. Apparently I just thought it would be cool.

How we started writing together, the Jen version: I enjoyed the RPG stuff, but always wanted to explore the non-combat parts more than a campaign would allow. So I basically shanghaied Kent into writing stories with me.

3) What comes first? Character or plot?

Kent: Both. (Heh.) Either one can serve as a seed crystal, and we talk about the possibilities and match up a plot and a character that resonate. From my perspective, I feel like I usually start with plot and Jen usually starts with character. We both feel it’s crucial that the end product be character-driven, so if the plot demands certain events that means we must compellingly set up our characters so they’ll do the things that cause those events. (Events which then impact the characters, and the wheel turns on.)

Jen: Around the writing cave, Kent is infamous for coming up with story “ideas” that are more like concepts or pretenses. It’s like, “Hey, babe, I just thought of a great story idea! It’s like the world is the same as this one, only all the molecules are rotated a quarter turn counterclockwise!” And my reply is, “So what happens?” And he rarely has an answer to that. So it’s sort of up to me to find a way into his concepts, and that way is through a character.

4) What, to you, is the most important role that fiction plays in modern life?

Kent: Wow. Escape is important, even though there’s a pejorative connotation to “escapist entertainment.” Life’s hard, and we all need a vacation now and then. I also think fiction can educate, showing us the mistakes of others that we might learn from them in safety. Fiction encompasses filmic media, but written fiction, specifically, serves a vital role of preserving literacy. The ability to synthesize images and feelings that have been encoded as marks on a page or screen protects us from mental atrophy. So, it’s very important. (Plus, it gives our tribal consciousness something cohere to, a set of shared myths that provide a basis of common understanding among humanity.)

Jen: What he said, only less pompous.

5) When did your love of speculative fiction begin?

Kent: On the first page of the first Roger Zelazny book I held in my hand. I read Zelazny without first reading any “hard” SF or “high” fantasy, and so I internalized and fell in love with his seamless blending of tropes before I knew how post-modern-adjacent it all was.

Jen: When I was little I was really into reading about UFOs and other creepy topics, trying to figure out if I believed in any of it. That’s probably where it started for me.

6) Do you believe in writer’s block? If so, how do you deal with it? If not, why?

Kent: Um, yes, it’s real. I feel like I’m way out at the lean end of the bell curve for it, that I’ve been fortunate to seldom suffer it, but it’s certainly not a myth. As we’ve posted on our blog, our partnership and process both help to buffer us from blockages. I really like having my work cut out for me, in the original sense of that saying. I like when all the materials are prepped and stacked up within easy reach, when I know how many shoes I must make and what they’re supposed to look like. I guess it’s my belief that writer’s block is 90% lack of preparation, that it has almost nothing to do with whether or not you’re a creative or talented person.

Jen: I think every writer has experienced minor instances of it. I’m lucky enough to have never been bogged down for more than a day or two. I have experienced lack of motivation, which I don’t think is the same thing. Our projects are so complicated that there’s always something besides prose composition to work on. When the words won’t come there’s always editing or other tasks to turn to. That keeps me engaged with the project while my subconscious gets its shit together.

7) Out of the novels you have completed, are there any characters you would love to meet, or run away from?

Kent: I’d run away from most of them. Seriously, even the nice ones, because we give them so many reasons to hate us. (However, I have major crushes on most of the females and would probably make very foolish choices in their presence.) If I had pick someone from our books to travel cross-country with, it’d probably be either James or Bishop. We would find lots to talk about, I’m not confused by my feelings for them, and they seem the least inclined to vengeance. For just hanging out, I gotta say Vesuvius.

Jen: You’re name-dropping characters nobody knows yet!

There are plenty of characters I would avoid. There are some that I would enjoy having a conversation with. And there are one or two that I would chase after if I wasn’t married. And if they didn’t know that I was responsible for all the bad shit in their lives.

8) For someone new to collaborating, what would you say they should look for in a potential writing partner?

Kent: The magic word here is “sympatico.” It’s not going to be enough to be tolerant of one another’s tastes and interests; you have to feel passion for the same things. It’s not that you need a clone of yourself, just that the Venn diagram’s region of overlap must contain the stuff you will be writing about, mostly. You should both be immersed in the project, both kind of obsessed with building *that* world and animating *those* characters. The partnership is bigger than either one of you alone, though. Don’t throw away the stuff in the other parts of the diagram — use it! Teach each other. Trust each other.

Jen: Make sure it’s someone that you really, really enjoy talking to. You’re going to have a ton of conversations, so make sure your partner is someone you like to spend time with. And you have to respect each other.

9) What’s next in the creative life of Rune Skelley?

Kent: We’re about two-thirds of the way through our current first draft. So, working on that for the foreseeable future.

Jen: We are also talking about the next book, which will be a sequel to the Science Novel. Right now we have a ton of ideas, and most of them are incompatible.

Kent:  Those conversations are still in the big-bang stage, coming up with more and more possibilities, after which we’ll see what starts to coalesce. We take notes about these ideas, but I find that the natural filtering process of reviewing things from memory really helps. You don’t like the thought of losing anything, but what you really want is to be able to focus on the very best, which means you have to put aside the other stuff.

Misadventures in the Writing Life: In Which Peter Buckland Responds

Yesterday, I responded to Peter Buckland about the writing life.  Pete comes to everything he does with passion and a sort of infectious joy, even when he’s tackling difficult problems, from death metal guitar riffs to poetry and fiction and then again to politics. Soon, a book of his poems will be released into the wild and currently he’s working on fiction.

For the beginning of the conversation, here’s Pete’s post.

His very gracious response to the barrage of questions I fired off is below.

Dear Reggie,

 

Those responses were great.  Thanks for sharing them. Before I answer your questions, I want to reflect on something you said. You wrote, “Nothing comes from any of it without showing up at the page every day and teasing out the story that’s there. You can’t access all of that good stuff without applying pragmatic discipline, also.” That’s something every author, poet, essayist, composer and practicing musician I’ve ever talked to (and is worth a lick) has said to me. You have to meet the page and/or your instrument(s) basically every day. It’s clear you have taken it to heart.

 

I’ll take your questions this way. I’ll start with the transition out of poetry and back to fiction. Then I’ll talk about my goals with fiction, how my life influences it and what I think/feel about the role of a writer.

 

Poetry came to me because of difficult circumstances, my growing love of my relationship with nature and my desire to evoke things in myself and others. Poetry evokes. It tugs at something inside of us and makes something small into something else. Poems create worlds of feelings and relationships from very simple means that take little time. (Usually in smaller spaces. I’m ignoring the long poems of Robinson Jeffers for example.) But I use the small form to draw something out. But with fiction, I think I end up doing much more complicated things.

 

When I write fiction I think I am really looking to understand this world and move it around. Poems, for me, don’t usually reorder the world as I want it to be or not. In fiction, I think my desire for a better world or an honest exploration of experience takes shape. This happens because I become other people who aren’t me. I’m not saying I don’t invoke other positions in my poetry. One need only read the eponymous poem from Heartwood when it comes back and you’ll see I do or even my attempt at what being a heron is in my poem “Herons.”

 

But I’m not trying to convince someone of something. The rhetoric is different. While I probably subconsciously see a rhetoric of poetry, I don’t think about it (except right now). I very consciously see fiction’s rhetoric. It probably comes from my years writing essays, polemics and writing research. The narrative experience matters and I use it to reshape my experience and—I hope—my readers. How do I do that?

 

I use my own life, my imagination of course and I’m guided by a maxim. The first two of those: There are things from my life that I draw on, things that I read about, snippets from here or there and things that I just have little idea of where they came from. And I use these materials to connect. Characters in my new project tentatively called So It Rises, there are people in the story who very much come from my life. There are four or five characters that are based on people I could see today. There’s a section that’s practically ripped out of emails I’ve gotten. And there are characters that I have completely made up. For example, there’s an astronaut who’s just landed in the ocean with a hurricane bearing down on him. That’s a challenge.

 

The maxim: In my life, Barry Commoner’s First Law of Ecology rings true: “Everything is connected to everything else.” Things probably just proceed from there.

 

There are two ways I think I create connections. You wrote about empathy. J.K. Rowling and memoirist Beth Kephart and many others have extolled empathy and compassion (which means to suffer with) as a virtue. I agree. So not only do I invite you to a different experience, I hope to expand your emotional perspective. And I want to push that beyond people and into the world. As you know, I love forests and fields, damselflies and assassin bugs, creeks and mires. The web of connections that holds these things together are the accumulated, aggregated and accreted connections between and among the things themselves. I love them. Revere them. As the Senagalese farmer Baba Dioum said, “In the end we will conserve only what we love. We will love only what we understand. We will understand only what we are taught.” Fiction is a way to educate people to know, to see others—all others—as thou. I don’t mean educate like instruct. I mean educate as “educe” or draw out as Derrick Jensen writes.

 

But when I start to write, I don’t think, “How am I going to make someone connect to nature?” Stories are not political speeches. I observe or ride my bike and let my brain wander and find things and then I sit down and just start (usually) typing. Things just happen as a story and characters and places take shape. As I go along, I’ll find themes and threads and pick up a lot of them and throw most of them away. I may have an arc or may not. But in the end, I am connecting myself to the woman who sees a doe shot and struggling and dying in the mountain laurel. That’s how I see myself as a writer—I’m a connector.

 

This gets to purposes and roles, the writer’s role. I’m not sure enough of myself to think that I know what “a writer’s role” ought to be. Perhaps I can say what I think an author’s role is not.

 

We are not here to solve problems. Quite the contrary. My friend Richard Kahn (Antioch University) gave this great speech in Oslo a few years ago on what climate change calls on educators to do. Look it up. He acknowledges that there is a lot of problem-solving to be done. At least as importantly he pushed the audience to do education that poses problems. That is what fiction does. Really great authors pose us with problems and they don’t always get a solution in the technical sense. Rather, they are resolved through the course of living and life. The resolution may involve a technical solution, but usually not. The boy in The Painted Bird, Ged from The Wizard of Earthsea nor Gatsby solve problems in the technical sense. They provide us with windows.

 

That’s the role of the writer: to show us who we are, who we could have been and who we might be.

The curs of the day come and torment him

At distance, no one but death the redeemer will humble that head,

The intrepid readiness, the terrible eyes.

The wild God of the world is sometimes merciful to those

That ask mercy, not often to the arrogant.

~Robinson Jeffers, “Hurt Hawks”

The Spotty Blog: Random Thoughts: On Being Overwhelmed

I recently had a conversation with another writer friend wherein we were talking about being overwhelmed in regards to writing. I don’t think we actually used those words, but it was the topic at hand. You know the feeling. You’re working on a first draft of a project that is large in scope and in the back of your head you might already be thinking about whether or not the work is good, will this do anything to advance ye olde writing career when it is done, should I self-publish if this one gets unilaterally rejected, and oh god if I do self-publish how the hell do I approach marketing and what if no publishing house or agent will touch me if it bombs and how will I support my coffee habit if I can’t make a go of this and will I ever be able to support myself doing this thing I am spending all of my time on and … and… and…

Dude. I’m exhausted just typing that out. I have had this feeling. It was a lot of years ago, though. (It could always happen again. You never know. I mean, I haven’t yet realized any of my wilder youthful ambitions on the fiction-writing front.) But because I had that conversation with someone who it happened to more recently I started trying to remember what I did to get out of the “What if everything’s awful?” spiral. It took a long time, and it was kind of painful but I had to remember to compartmentalize my own thoughts, separate each issue as if they were separate tasks. (It kinda turns out that they are, in fact, separate tasks.)

If I was going to have the fun of worrying about querying, publishing, marketing, distribution and  getting paid, I knew I had to start finishing things. And that once I finished that first thing, I would have to finish more things. Basically, I realized that worrying about everything that might come after finishing a draft was going to keep me from finishing a draft. By thinking about all of that other stuff before it was even close to being a real world concern I was throwing cinder blocks on my own toes as I was trying to hike uphill.

So, I did a fairly banal thing to break the cycle. I divided up my writing time in order to focus on doing the work and finishing that draft. I don’t remember the specifics, but let’s say, for example, that I had time scheduled for writing 5 days out of the week. The idea was that for four of those scheduled days, I had to work on the writing, and allow the fifth day to be spent on worrying about things that weren’t necessary yet, like queries and agents and publishers. I wrote out a list that broke down which elements concerned me, and devoted that fifth day to researching/thinking about those things. It took some time before I stopped having spillover on writing days, but it helped to retrain my brain to stop messing with me during creative time.

I don’t know if that is something that will work for anyone else, but it is the thing that worked for me. The bottom line is that it is really hard to get on with the business of creating when you are trying to hold all aspects of publishing in your head at the same time.

So I have a question for anyone else who might have gone through something similar. Any advice? How did you get yourself out of the spiral?