Ten Imagination-Building Exercises

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Think Differently: Ten Excercises For a Better Imagination

I don’t have much truck with writing exercises. I think your main writing exercise is, and should always be, writing something. Just ‘doing an exercise’ is essentially giving yourself homework, and it’s giving yourself homework with the automatic assumption that what you’re doing is just an exercise, so it doesn’t really count for shit in the first place.

Success will never be had, in these circumstances. Most of us have a limited amount of time to sit down and write anyway; using some of that time ‘just for exercises’ isn’t helping you. Your aim, every time you sit down to whatever it is you sit down to, should be to create something you can eventually publish.

This is not, I note, the same as saying you should never experiment. Want to try writing a story with no adverbs in it? Be my guest. Want to do one of those cheesy ‘your character writes a letter to X’ things? Letter onwards. But only do it if you have an idea. Only do it if it’s something that strikes a chord with you. No good story was ever begun with the phrase ‘I’m going to write something today that never uses the word ‘said”. It was begun with an idea: ‘hey, what if there was a monk who lost his rosary?’, and then, if you please, you can shout, whisper, murmur, and belt your way to the conclusion.

Had to get that off my chest. The reason being, of course, that I’m about to offer you some everyday writing exercises. Ain’t I a hypocrite?

Not really. Very few of these involve actually putting pen to paper. What I’m offering, instead, are more thought exercises–ways to expand your mind, man. Imagination is key in good writing, and I see few ‘writing exercises’ that flex those particular muscles.

Because, yeah, you need inspiration to write. If you try to just churn it out, what you’ll churn out will be page after page of drivel (if you haven’t been keeping up with my NaNo experiment, I proved this to myself last month).

Here’s the deal with inspiration, though. You can’t just sit there and wait for it to come to you. You have to set out manfully into the West and find your inspiration, and lasso your inspiration, and drag it back to the paddy and break it like the wild motherfucking thing it is. There are a lot of thoughts floating around in your cranium bubble, and recognizing a good one–catching it as it passes you by on its gossamer wings–is a lot harder than all our talk of muses and inspirational writ suggests.

To find your inspiration, you have to start thinking differently. We’re humans–we’re hardwired to focus on our own survival and happiness. And that’s not a bad thing, when you aren’t doing something creative: when you are, though, it’s time to expand your fucking mind. A good idea doesn’t capture some great universal truth, it captures the little daily truths, which, if arranged correctly, might echo something that resonates. It’s why we show, not tell. Which is more powerful: the phrase ‘everyone died but me’, or the lifeboat in the middle of the ocean with five life vests still in factory ties?

These exercises are intended to help you find life’s little truths, the details we miss when we start thinking about How The World Is Today. Imagination is limitless–which is awesome, yeah, but also kind of terrifying. Here’s me helping you use your imagination.

1) What coins do you have in your pocket? Look at them, examine them. Some are old and ugly, some are shiny and new. How many other people have touched these coins? What situations have they been in, to give them the scars they do (or don’t) have? Got an older coin that’s still in shiny shape in there? Why do you think it is that way?

2) Find one thing in the course of your day that doesn’t work. A cooler at the convenience store, an out of order vending machine, that sort of thing. Speculate on why. Speculate on how long it’s been that way.

3) Notice ten people of different ages and backgrounds. Now ask yourself: what kind of underwear are they wearing? If you feel like getting arrested today, go ask and see how close to right you were.

4) Read a book by an author from a different country. The less you know about that country, the better.

5) When you overhear two strangers arguing (and trust me, you will if you pay attention) pick an arguer to side with. Then, justify the point of view of the arguer you disagree with. (Handy dandy note: don’t do this out loud.)

6) When you’re watching TV: pick a scene. Imagine what went on when the camera wasn’t rolling.

7) Name three ways in which you have been lazy today, including why they are lazy. (I’ve already got one for you. I’m all rainsplattered and damp because, in the long run, it was easier to walk in the rain and get wet than it was to use my umbrella. Yes. I am that lazy.)

8) Take the first two words that come out of this random word generator. Now, write an eight hundred word flash piece using both of them. Don’t go over the word limit. (For extra credit, share your creations in the comment section.)

9) Take those same two words and write a second eight hundred word story. Don’t reuse anything–characters, setting, plot, theme–from the first one.

10) When you pass a building under construction, take a second. Imagine the amount of money that went into building it. Who’s putting up the cash? Why is it being built? Did anyone really not want that bulding to be there, and if so, who? Is this building some architecture student’s first job, or some world-weary master’s triumph?

How to Critique Correctly

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How to Critique Correctly

At this point, as an indie writer, I’ve done some critique swaps and critique groups, and I’m going to be honest: nobody likes doing them. Constructive criticism is a necessary evil, and nobody likes receiving it or giving it. Doing it well takes time and effort, and you pretty much know you’re ruffling somebody’s feathers a little if you have a lot to say. And, of course, then there’s the end where YOUR feathers get ruffled: I feel like the emotions involved there pretty much need no introduction.

Here’s the thing, though: there are right ways and wrong ways to critique, and knowing how to do it right will serve you well. The members of your critique group are, after all, your allies–they’re not trying to hurt you, and you aren’t trying to hurt them. Handling your critiques carefully can save time AND animosity, and is a necessary skill in group editing situations.

1) The Compliment Sandwich

I learned this–and you’re going to laugh–at creative writing camp as a kid. Yes, they have creative writing camps. But, kid or not, it’s a very useful and painless strategy, and simple to employ:

Sandwich your criticism in between two breadslices of positive feedback, the first complimentary and the second constructive.

It’s that easy. For instance:

This was a great story, and I enjoyed your dialogue especially: it flows well, and you pass important information along with no stiffness or hesitation. However, you might want to back away from using so many emdashes: after a while, all the emdashes made it difficult to tell who was speaking. If you want characters to seem like they’re interrupting each other, emdashes are a good way of making it happen, but you might want to consider adding more speech tags to denote who’s who.

See how that worked?

You begin with an undisguised, unabashed compliment. Even if you’re NOT feeling it, do it. It’s just polite. You’d want others to do the same for you. (‘Why do I need to possibly lie to make some thin-skinned writer’s ego happy?’ some of you might ask. My answer: ‘is typing ‘that was a great story’ really so goddamned difficult? Are you betraying your core values that much? You don’t belong in a group critique.’)

Now, find a SPECIFIC thing you liked about this story. Compliment it honestly. Come on, there’s something.

After that, narrow down to your critique. ‘I really enjoyed your dialogue, BUT.’ Remember, as you critique, that you’re trying to be helpful here. State your problem specifically, and, if you can, offer a constructive solution. If you don’t have a solution for the problem, it’s best to mention it anyway: you can’t have all the answers, after all, but if you think it’s a problem then it probably is. (‘I don’t know how to tell you to fix this, but I really feel like Castor and Pollux sound out of character in the fifth chapter.’)

2) Consider the Writer.

An established writer, or, really, anyone who’s been doing this for a while, has a certain style. Consider, as you critique, whether or not your critique is style related. A writer who’s been writing short, terse sentences since 1978 probably isn’t going to expand into flowery page and a half long sentencegasms just because you advise it, and, furthermore, is probably going to get a little bit pissy over you suggesting they try.

Even if you think it’s an issue, basic style concerns aren’t going to change. Only comment on these if it directly affects the clarity or effectiveness of the story: for instance, if your page-and-a-half sentencer is writing a noir novel, it might be time to mention something.

3) Do YOU understand what’s going on?

Also: before you critique, please Jesus, make sure YOU understand what the author is saying. I’ve gotten a lot of critiques in my time from people who plainly only read the story once, and then not too carefully, and lemme tell you, I mostly just throw these out. The critique writer hasn’t made the effort to read my story, why should I read their critique?

A few years ago, someone criticized a story of mine pretty strongly because a girl was running, jumping, and climbing trees in a petticoated dress. This would have been absolutely fair criticism, if I hadn’t devoted the better part of a page to the girl changing her clothing early on in the story. Guess the critiquer just skipped around a little, eh?

A note: if you read the story carefully and still don’t get it, then yeah, the problem isn’t with you, and you need to mention it. You might not be the sort of person the story was written for, but, hell, any sort of person can read a story, and the author would probably like to know what makes sense to whom.

4) Watch your language.

Don’t curse at your writer friend, obviously. But, more specifically: choose the words in which you give your critique carefully. Avoid accusatory statements, such as ‘you didn’t —” or “you shouldn’t have —“. Actually, I’m tempted to tell you to avoid second person as a form of address altogether, except I don’t think that’s quite right, either: referring always to the writing and not to the writer can leave your critique sounding cold and impersonal, and besides, you know how it is. You insult a writer’s baby, you insult the writer anyway.

My final thought: try and employ second person more in the compliment parts of your critique than the negative parts. Just…try. It also helps to emply first person often: ‘I felt that —‘, ‘when reading the second chapter, I noticed–‘. I’m not sure why this is, maybe it just adds in a personal element, but it makes the medicine go down a little easier for me.

Long story short, avoid accusative statements, and loaded generalized words such as crazy, bad, mistake, stupid, lazy, etc. Comments that include these words aren’t constructive, and you can put in better feedback without using them. (For instance, instead of saying ‘first person was a poor choice for this story’, try saying ‘I think this character’s motives would be a lot clearer if the story was written in third person’. Not only is your point more concise and reasoned, but it comes across as a lot less negative).

5) Remember your goal.

Your goal in criticizing a story is NOT to tear someone down, or prove how great at giving advice you are, or just get through it so you can get your own critiques. Your goal is to HELP. It is to provide useful, directed advice that will, in your mind, make this story better. And, to that end, you want to be as clear as possible, without offending. After all, statements like ‘this story needs a lot of work’ don’t help anyone, do they? If it needs a lot of work, list the things that need to be done. As you’ve agreed to provide critique, this is quite literally your job.

Angry critiquers, who feel like this is ‘pussyfooting’, I would like you to note the things I have NOT asked you to do here:

1) Hide your opinion.
2) Lie, except in the most innocent general way.
3) Cover up your problems with the story (in fact, my method allows you to state them more completely).

The fact is, a proper critique should NEVER leave a writer with even an eighth inch of skin thinking their story is bad. (Yes, there are some super-sensitives out there. They don’t belong in group critiques, either).

How, you might ask, is this possible, if I have ten pages of negative critique to bestow?

My answer is, no critique should be downright negative. Constructive, yes. But not negative. It costs you very little to let the words ‘good story’ escape your lips, and it might make your ten pages of critique slide down a little easier. It might, even, be good for the story to compliment–a writer who doesn’t feel mortally offended is more likely to take your advice.

Next post, we’re going to do the version of this on accepting criticism with grace.

Yours,
E

Finishing NaNoWrimo: Last Thoughts

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Finishing NaNoWriMo

So I just, less than an hour ago, finished NaNoWriMo.

I wrote 50,076 words, at final count. I had to fluff a little to get the last bit out and make it 50,000 words. With how I write, this’ll some day turn into a 100,000 word novel, so I’m not too upset about it.

But I feel a little funny.

Y’see, after all that effort–after all that work–I’m not sure it was worth it.

I know. Betraying the cause, etc.

But here’s the thing. I’m a professional. (If I keep chanting that to myself, it’ll one day feel like it’s true). I’ve written over 50K in less than a month before, and it wasn’t during NaNo. So the wordcount honestly doesn’t mean much to me. I already had proof of my own productivity, long before I did this.

The hard truth of it is, I don’t know if this is a story I would have finished, if not for NaNoWriMo. And I don’t mean that in an ‘I would’ve fucked off because I never finish anything ever’ way.

I mean it in a ‘this was not my best story idea’ way. In the last 25K, it lacked inspiration.

Editing can cure a lot, but I don’t know if it can EVER cure a lack of inspiration.

There’s a lot of talk on writing blogs about inspiration not being a real thing, but I think, deep down in our hearts, we all know that isn’t true. Inspiration is what happens when you write the good stuff, and yes, some of your stuff is better than other bits of your stuff.

You can still write without inspiration. I think I just proved that for about 25K words. The question becomes: should you? Really–should you?

I’ll be honest, I usually pick up the pen whenever I have that ‘a-ha!’ moment. Whenever I’m sitting around, thinking about that scene I left my characters in, and I suddenly know what should happen next. This isn’t to say I’m not a productive writer–I’m plenty productive. I know how to force the in-between moments when they need to be forced. In addition to my NaNo novel this month, I wrote two 6K stories, about 5K worth of blog posts, and, oh, we’ll say about 10K on a beloved side project. I can make the numbers add up no problem.

But, in the end, I don’t think NaNo quite leaves you enough time for those ‘a-ha!’ moments. And, while I think being able to force out 50K in a month is a good exercise, and might help folks who have trouble with it with productivity, I don’t know that it’s the right way to go about things for me.

Creative writing isn’t about cranking about copy. That’s an element of it, sure–but it’s an element in the same way composition or perspective are elements in the artistic process. Is it important to understand these things, and be able to use them? Yes. Undoubtedly. You wouldn’t get very far without them.

But a simple understanding of perspective does not a masterpiece make. Like good writing, good art is extremely subjective–and illusive. Long story short, if you don’t think you’re going to paint a masterpiece, don’t stretch the goddamn canvas in the first place.

Because, trust me. If you can’t fool yourself into thinking you’ve got a masterpiece in you, you sure as hell won’t fool anybody else.

With the last half of this one, I haven’t fooled myself, and that is NOT a good sign.

So we’ll take our sad little NaNo novel, and we’ll let it rest for a month. And then, when the holidays are over, we’ll see if we can edit it into the story it should have been. More likely than not, it’ll have to be rewritten: but there’s the germ of a good story in there, and Rome wasn’t built in a day, etc. etc., aphorism aphorism.

So I won NaNo, but I don’t FEEL like I won. And all the chirpy little automated NaNo messages in my inbox–‘OMG u finished! Wow! We’re so proud of you for some reason!’–wind up ringing false.

I’m hard on myself, a little. But what I’ve done WASN’T an incredible thing, and writing isn’t about wordcount.
And that’s just how it is.

See you on Friday, kids. Happy Thanksgiving to my American followers.

What’s Up With Me, III

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Sooo. I’m writing a brief post, basically just to tell you I’m not posting today. Why? Because I have SO MUCH on my plate right now. So very. Fricking. Much.

I’ll be back with you on Friday, when I’ll hopefully be done with my NaNo Novel–we’re at about 43,000 words right now, so the end is in sight, if I don’t run out of steam before I get there (highly likely. I’ve always been bad at finishing things). Once I do that, I have an anthology story to finalize, and another to start (luckily, with no crunch, but I know me and I know I need to start it now). I also need to get Little Bird out–I know, I know! I’ve been dragging ass on that one for a while now. I’m also trying to crank out enough blog posts to keep this blog going during the month of December, when I usually spend every spare moment I DON’T spend sleeping at work.

I’ve also got Thanksgiving to think of, and a house to clean for friends coming over, and all the stuff everybody else has to do. I feel like if I can just push for two days or so, I can get the most pressing stuff (NaNo, anthology story) out of the way.

So, long story short, regular programming can’t be regular today. Sorry, folks. I just need a little bit of time to get my stuff done.

Xoxo,
E

NaNoWriMo: The Tough-Love Pep Talk

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NaNo Pep Talk: Tough Love

I warn you, NaNo brothers and sisters. This isn’t the pep talk you want. This isn’t the pep talk your fifth grade teacher gives you, along with a certificate for participating. This isn’t the pep talk Coach gives you, when you might not win the championship but thanks to Jesus, you’re learning all about your community and how to be a winner at life.

This isn’t the pep talk your girlfriends give you, when you feel like you’re fat but you’re such an amazing person ohmigawd don’t EVER talk down about yourself, like EVER.

Oh, no. This is an Emily pep talk.

To rephrase, for those who don’t know me as well: if I don’t lose followers on this one, I’m doing something wrong.

We’ll start at pissoff level and work our way forward from there. Here we go:

NaNoWriMo is not hard.

I know. You’ve already smashed your coffee cup against the battered edge of your writing desk. There are tears in your red-rimmed eyes.

You’re making this harder than it has to be, and that’s one of the prime reasons people fail at things.

Nano is 50,000 words in thirty days; or, roughly 1,667 words a day. Thousands look scary, right? I mean, if words were dollars, I could just take December off. However, look at it this way:

This post, so far, is 220 words. (Which, for the record, is utilities. So if words are dollars, I’ve paid my utilities for the month already). 

It’s taken me, like, ten minutes to type. So, if I do that eight more times–about eighty minutes, or 1780 words–I’ve done it, and a little extra.

Eighty minutes isn’t a lot of time. That’s lunch break time plus a few minutes while you’re waiting for dinner to cook in the oven. That’s two cigarette breaks at work and that hour you spend around seven on Facebook. I take a bus to work, so I use my time there to write, and guess what? A lot of times, I make my word goal on the fricking bus.

Some people’s daily word count takes longer to type than others. Some people take two hours to my hour and a half, some people take four hours. Some people take forty-five minutes.

You know yourself. You know about how fast you write. Can you do 50,000 words a day? Ask yourself honestly. Think of your day to day life.

Can’t make the time? Don’t do NaNo.

Maybe that sounds cold, but it’s true.

I’m not saying what folks’ll be assuming I’m saying with that: it has nothing to do with how serious a writer you are. It has nothing to do with how good you are, how dedicated, how strongly you’re bound to your Craft, or whatever faux-artiste chicanery you want to spread on the NaNoWriMo Wonderbread.

If you make a commitment, it needs to be a commitment. If you can’t make that commitment, you need to figure out a commitment you can make. But you knew that, right? You’re an adult.

For those who feel it’s a possible commitment:

NaNoWriMo isn’t a fun game, and it isn’t just a chance to finally blorp out that novel you’ve been swishing around for twelve years (though it can be that too, if you’re serious about it). It isn’t another badge on your Girl Scouts sash. It isn’t an artistic endeavor in which your plot needs both arc and trajectory. It isn’t Mount Everest, and you don’t need core training and special gear to climb it.

It’s learning to write a reasonable amount of words, every day. It’s learning to move past perfectionism and into the desert of the word-cruncher. I see a lot of happy blorping on the NaNoWriMo website about your ‘inner editor’, and, while that’s a very cute metaphor, let’s not personify our problems, shall we? Putting faces to our hangups just makes them more human, and Jesus, isn’t that the last thing you want them to be?

Your ‘inner editor’, much like your ‘muse’, comes from the same place as everything else you think. It comes from you. So turn it off. Learn to write slush, if that’s what gets you through. Writing slush is an important learning experience, too: your mind will run places you never thought it could run. And in that slush, after several hard months of editing, are unexpected gems you wouldn’t have come across any other way.

NaNoWriMo isn’t a heartfelt epic quest. You don’t pit your powers against an evil wizard, learn something about yourself, have a heartwarming denouement with medals and wine and dancing. You’re not throwing the One Ring into the fires of Mount Doom, Frodo. You’re just writing a novel. Not even a real novel: you’re writing a first draft of something that might someday become a novel. Think you’ve done something special? You haven’t. Unless you’re in a graveyard sitting between two tombstones, or in a preschool, the person to your right or left could do it, just the same as you.

Why do it, then?

Because not everyone cares enough to do it. You do.

Because you made the commitment: to finish the story, to get the rough stuff out of the way. To try. There are no trophies for participation (well–no real trophies) but there is the trophy of having that finished first draft at the end of the month, and knowing, should you decide to do something with it, that all it’ll take is some tweaking and editing. And, also, there’s the power of knowing you did it, and could do it again.

So don’t even ask yourself if you’re going to finish. Jesus, stop worrying about that. It’s only day eleven, why’re you freaking out about failure already?

Don’t worry. Just write.

Get into it. Write something stupid. Write five straight pages of dialogue. Take a scene to its ridiculous utmost limits. Who cares if it’s twenty pages before you hit your next page break? It’s just NaNo. The writing world’s ultimate freewrite. Enjoy yourself.

The more you enjoy yourself, the more you’ll find your wordcount doubling.

The final draft might be crap, but that’s what NaNoEdMo is for. (Don’t do National Novel Editing Month? I don’t blame you. I’m not sure it exists for anyone other than me, but it’s what other folks call January.) Just enjoy yourself.

I can’t say it enough. Just enjoy yourself. Writing is what you do, right? You’re not getting paid for this, you’re doing it for fun.

So why make it harder than it has to be?

Fright Week Flash Fiction VII: The Alternative

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Photo by joe burge at freeimages.com.

We’re ending Fright Week on a spooky yet blackly funny note–and we’re talking about the scariest thing in our modern world, student loan repayment. Ooo-wee-ooooo. Might not be the most startlingly original story in this collection, but it’s my favorite.

Hope you’ve enjoyed the week of spooky flash fiction. Have a happy Halloween.

The Alternative

“If your loan goes into default, your paycheck could be garnished up to fifteen percent,” the nice lady on the phone tells me, concern infused in every syllable. “If you get refund money at tax time, the government can take that, as well.”

I stare at the wall. I know I need to do something–something–but what can I do? I have rent and utilities to pay, just like everybody else. My parents won’t give me a cent. I’ve pissed off just about every friend I have.

I need to pay off my loan. I know I do. But I also need to eat.

“I just…I don’t have any money,” I mutter. This conversation is probably being recorded–don’t they record them? I want to scream, and curse, and throw things, but she’s a thousand miles away in some cubicle, and besides, she’s just doing her job. And it’s probably a shitty enough job already. I’m sure a lot of people do scream and curse.

“Times are pretty hard,” the lady says. God, that concern. Do they train them in the precise inflection necessary to make us scumbags feel like total wastes of breath? Do they play recordings of someone’s mother to them, educate them that way in disappointed sighs?

But what she says next catches my attention. It’s something no one has said before.

“Of course,” my loan lady says, “there’s the alternative.”

“What alternative? Bankruptcy?”

“We’re starting a program. It’s called A Pound of Flesh–you can look it up on our website, if you’re curious.”

“I’m curious.”

“Well, it’s one of our charity initiatives. If you’re lower income–if you make less than 15,000 dollars a year–you can donate a part of yourself for forbearance time. A piece of your liver earns you six months, an eye or a lung earns you a year. If you’re interested in loan forgiveness, you might want to look up our Kindly Kidneys initiative. The parts go to your local hospital, where they’re donated to a lucky person in need.”

I’m glad she can’t see me. I can feel my jaw hanging open. “You’re kidding me,” I say at last. “You people are accepting body parts in lieu of payment? Is that even legal?”

“We want to provide everyone the opportunity for good credit,” my loan lady says. Which isn’t exactly an answer.
I shake my head. I know she can’t hear me do it, but I imagine she’s had this conversation enough times to know it’s happening.

“Shit,” I say at last. I don’t care if they’re recording. They deserve to hear someone cuss over this–deserve to hear how ridiculous it is.

“I’ll email you one of our Pound of Flesh information packets,” my lady says, voice cheerful and carefully modulated. “It’s a good option, for someone young and healthy such as yourself. You won’t be disabled by the loss of one kidney, or one lung, or one eye. And the organs, I promise you, do go to a good cause.”

“Wait–how do you know I’m healthy?”

“Medical records.”

I don’t think my jaw can sag any closer to the floor without falling off. Hell, I kind of wish it would–then I could just give it to them and get some money back.

“I’m not interested,” I manage to say at last. “I’m–holy shit. I’m so not interested.”

And, for the first time, I hear a hint of personality in my loan lady’s voice. It’s sly, and amused, and I don’t like it one bit.

“That’s what they all say,” she tells me. “At first.”

“I’ll call you back once I’ve looked at all my options,” I tell her. I hang up.

For a while I just stand there, phone in hand, looking around my apartment. Dark, this late–I try to save money by only turning on one light at a time. Blank walls, unmade futon, empty mac n’ cheese boxes lined up like dead soldiers on the kitchen counter. The steady drip-drip-drip, from the bathroom, of a leak maintenance hasn’t been by to fix for two months. I hear money in that drip. With every liquid splatter against the sink, I hear a penny clinking, never to be seen or heard from again.

I sigh.

I open up my laptop.

*****

A few week later, I wake up in my own bathtub, surrounded by ice. Someone has placed a Sandy March Loan Company bathrobe on the toilet seat for me, next to a chocolate bar and a big glass of water. And, of course, a stack of papers. Seems like there’s always a stack of papers.

I can feel the stitches, like burrowing worms, in my abdomen. The ice has a pink tinge to it, a strange antiseptic smell–when I breathe the smell in I’m reminded of the medical personnel who filed in here a few hours ago, green scrubs bearing the Sandy March logo, full of smiles and good cheer and reassurances.

“You’re doing a great thing,” the doctor tells me. “Thanks to you, some kid’ll have kidney function for the first time in years. He’ll have a future away from hospitals, dialysis machines, doctors. He can go to college like a normal person. Now just sign here. And here. And here.”

Going to college, I want to tell him, is what got me into this mess. But I sign all the papers, I shake their hands.

What else can I do?

What other choice do I have?

“Enjoy your year of forbearance,” the doctor tells me, smiling. He slides the IV needle into my arm and there’s a little pinch, a few moments of waiting, and then–

–well. Then, I’m here. Strangely peaceful, lying in my tub of ice.

And the worst part about it is, the doctors were right. It doesn’t hurt so much, and I don’t feel any different.

And I’ve still got most of my liver, a lung, and a kidney to spare.

How and When to Fail

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As promised.

How (And When) to Fail

I know. You’re looking at the title of this post, and and the noble glitter of self-sacrificing patience has come into your eye. “Emily,” you say gently. “I don’t think I need help failing. It’s the succeeding I could use some help with.”

Well, surprise surprise. I think you’re wrong. (I always think you’re wrong. Haven’t you been reading my blog? Don’t you know that?)

Every writer, my dears, has a slush pile, and every slush pile exists because every writer isn’t churning out Nobel Prize for Literature winning palimpsests every palimpsesting second. If you continued writing every story in your slush pile until completion, you would

A) Have wasted a shocking amount of time, and
B) Have produced a shocking amount of things to start fires with.

And I note that ‘produced your masterwork’ is nowhere in that description.

For real, though, let’s talk about this. Some stories–well, they’re failures. You started them, something went wrong, the magic went somewhere else, you got distracted. The question is, should you let them rot in the wastes of Slushpilia? When–and why–is it okay to fail? The answer is simple:

When the Magic is Gone.

I want you to note: I am NOT talking about ‘when it gets a teensy eensy bit hard to write it for a day or two’. When this happens, slog on.

I’m talking about that moment you realize you’ve patched fatal holes in your plot so often your story is more plothole correction than story. When you read a few pages out loud to somebody, and they nod and smile and ask you “so what happened, again?” If you’re juggling so many corrections your outline looks like a football play, it’s time to consider giving it up and starting from scratch. You don’t need to edit, again. The damage is too great for a mere edit. You need to rewrite. Whether the story is worth rewriting, I can’t tell you–only you can decide that.

Being a writer is a little like being a magician in some regards: you put a lot of work into something, a whole hell of a lot, but the last thing you want is for someone to see where you’ve been working. Your story has to look as effortless and instantaneous as a big stage illusion–when people can see where you’ve had to work for something, it loses credibility as a world of its own. If you can’t patch it seamlessly, don’t patch it. Rewrite it, or leave it to moulder.

Speaking of rewrites:

If You Like It, Don’t Be Afraid to Write It Again.

Rewriting is tough. It sucks. You start to question your own usefulness on this planet, whether you’re going to be writing the same story, over and over again, until you finally die, and whether or not hell is going to be a sad Sisyphean endlessness of the same goddamn story from here to Ragnarok. (Do you like mixing mythologies? I sure do.)

But rewriting is useful. I actually like to do it, on some things–when my first draft, for instance, went in a direction I wasn’t expecting in the first few pages. A rewrite brings everything together–you’re writing, after all, in full knowledge of what’s going to eventually happen (I’m a pantser. No outlines for moi. Have I mentioned that?). When you rewrite, you automatically have more control over the story. And, oftentimes, a story you were unable to complete the first time winds up being a VERY good story the second time around, when you’ve had a chance to iron out the plot or what have you.

Again, though, I’ve got to tell you:

I don’t know when you’ve failed.

Only you know that, Skipper. But you can feel it in your bones–trust me on that one. And what you do after that is up to you. Trick is,

Failing is Always a Learning Experience.

There are some times when you’ve had a terrible idea, and your execution was terrible, and you’re just going to leave those five or ten pages to molder on your hard drive until the kingdom comes, and that’s just fine, kthxbye.

But even those shitty ten pages happened because you had an idea. And you’ll have that idea, should you need it, forever.

That failed novel idea about the laudanum-guzzling sailor with a speech impediment who solves petty crimes? It might not’ve worked out, me matey, but perhaps you could use him as a supporting character somewhere else. Perhaps, in your steampunk adventure novel, your main character needs to be told the airship’s moving hard to thtarboard at least once. My main trilogy character, Jin, was actually a supporting character in a failed novel I wrote about ten years ago–and part of the reason it failed, I realized when I looked back on it, was because Jin (then named Jinnever) and her unlikely husband were actually far too interesting to be side characters. They stole the show whenever they came onto the scene.

So they got their own story. A much better story than the one I abandoned, all those years ago. I stopped working on the old story and moved on. I’m glad I did.

Because failure isn’t the shitty thing it’s painted to be. It’s a learning experience, and a damned good one. Even when you’ve failed utterly, you’ve still created something, and there’ll come a day–maybe a week from now, maybe twenty years from now–when that something will come in handy.

And if you keep trying to hash out your failures forever–if you buy in to the whole ‘never give up’ mentality–you’ll write glossy, completed failures. And nobody wants that.

Only you can tell when something is working, once more: but trust me. You can tell. And it’s worth rewriting a few thousand (possibly tens of thousands) of words just to make that happen. No one likes failing–certainly not I–but if it has to happen a few times to make your successes possible, then that’s just how it is. Failure is a part of the writing process. A big one.

Why You Should Write Short Stories

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Hey, guys. Sorry this post is so late, but it’s been a busy morning. I made it. That has to count for something.
Anyway.

It’s been a busy morning because I’ve been finishing up and editing a story for an AU anthology (and waiting fifteen minutes for a damned cup of coffee, but that’s irrelevant). Doing it got me to thinking about something I hear from a lot of writers:

A lot of us–a damned big-shame lot of us–never write short stories. Or: we try to write short stories, and they turn into novels.

Why is this such a shame? Because short stories are like the Adderol to your novel’s cocaine. (Insert some less offensive metaphor here, if you can think of one that’s still apt). Finishing a short story might not give you quite the buzz finishing a novel does, but it’s still damned fun, and it’s a good deal less involved. You can crank out a five thousand word short story in a day, if you feel like it. You can crank out two, if you have nothing else to do.

And writing within a word limit can teach you a loo-oooot about plot pacing.

Think of a short story as a novel without all the fluff. You need a complete story–a complete plot, rounded characters, a believable setting–but you need it in a fairly small amount of words. You need, my dears, to learn the art of economy to make it work. You need to make your action–and your other stuff–fit the size of your undertaking.

So here’s some stuff to think about, as you write:

1) Choose an idea that fits your word limit.
If it’s one hundred word flash fiction, the action can be something as simple as dropping a flower. If it’s five thousand words, we want to know why the flower was dropped, what happens before and after, why the flower is significant, and all the action that descends from this flowerful droppage. If it’s more than five thousand words, we want more action. Honestly: we probably want more action if it’s over five HUNDRED words.

But there needs to be action. There needs to be plot. There needs to be character. And it needs to fit the size of your story.

If you pick a plot that’s too simple for your word limit, your story’s going to be fluffy and dull. If you pick one that’s too complicated, it’s going to be confusing (and, therefore, dull). Character-based though much of my writing is, even I have to acknowledge the importance of plot as infrastructure–if you don’t frame your dwelling soundly, no matter how pretty it is, it’s going to fall down.

2) Keep within your word limit.
We’ve all done it: you started out to write a 10,000 word story, and you wound up writing a 500,000 word trilogy. Whoops! Tee hee! Aren’t you an adorable little overachiever? Doesn’t that just prove you’re soooo totally committed to your cause?

No. It just proves you can’t write a short story.

For those of us who tend to literary effusiveness, the short story is a tool, and one of some worth. It teaches us to trim, to cut, to cinch in our literary verbosity. It teaches us not to use three words (like I did in that previous sentence–natch!) when one will do. I started a novel, once, with some stunning (to me, at least,) visual imagery and a plot that moved like treacle. It took me owing something to a publication on VERY short notice for me to look at that half-finished novel and realize: all that time, it had been a short story. It didn’t have enough of a plot to work as a novel. So: I relieved it of its pretense and rewrote it as it was meant to be. And it was much better.

Valuable lessons learned.

3) What’s important?
This is a subset of item two, really, but it’s worth mentioning in a separate context. To keep within your word limit, you’re going to have to think pretty hard about what’s important in your story and what isn’t. Short stories will teach you how to kill your darlings, and they’ll teach you how necessary that sometimes is.

In a work of fiction under 10,000 words, the main question you need to be asking yourself is:

Does this scene do two things?

Does it show your main character’s bravery and get the toothpaste in the picture for that cavity-fighting scene that happens later on? Does it provide a crucial amount of the mother’s backstory while casually reinforcing how hard it is to find a good dentist in town?

If it doesn’t accomplish at least two purposes, you could probably use those limited words a little better. People say every scene needs to mean something in the course of your story, and yeah, that’s true. Otherwise, you just rewrote Tropic of Cancer. In a short story, however, take that advice and double it: now everything needs to have two purposes, and you need to be a literary Macguyver.

4) Experiment!
The other great thing about short stories, kids: you’ve got a LOT less editing to do when you’re finished. It’s easier to stay in control of a shorter story. There’s less time, as it happens, for your faults as a writer to boil to the surface. You can think about the bare-bones mechanics of the story a little less, simply because there are less of them.

Therefore: short stories are a great place to experiment. Been debating an attempt at second person present for a while? Write a short. Just kind of curious how a story written from the POV of a dying star would look? Dabble all you like. Want to write a circular tale where the end and beginning lines are both the onomatopoeaic sound of an elephant’s ear wax dribbling down a concrete wall? I reckon that sound is sshlrrp. Have fun. If you find something you like, you can craft a heavier plot and novelize later.

5) Learn to accept defeat.
I know, nobody likes to see that one. But there are times–a LOT of times–where the thing you’ve been trying so hard to save just isn’t going to work. You’ve tried to patch it up so many times it’s more deus ex-type patch than story. There’s a plot hole that’s too big, a character inconsistency that’s too prominent. And in these cases, you have two choices: either put the thing down, ostensibly to give it a rest but really probably never to pick it up again, or start over.

I’ve had to start a TON of short stories over, and while it’s never pleasant, let me say this: it gives you the experience to recognize when this needs to happen with a novel, and it gives you the courage to LET it happen. Not everything’s a keeper. Everyone has a literary slush pile. Don’t be ashamed, but likewise: don’t be afraid of the work. If you really feel like there’s something in there that could be saved if you just start over, start over.

Wow. That’s probably going to be my next blog: When to Quit. It’s an important thing and it never gets talked about.
At any rate, love.

EFR

Writing: Keeping a Notebook

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Okay. So that picture isn’t of my current notebook. That is, actually, a notebook of mine from college, a million or so years ago. I found it in my studio when I was going through some drawers. Looking through it, sampling its fascinating combination of French homework and pretentious teenaged bullshit–well. I guess it’s finally served its purpose, in that it inspired me to write something. Namely, a blog entery ooo-oon….

Using A Notebook

Let all that meta sink in, if you will.

Anyways, I think using a notebook is important, but not for the reasons a lot of people say it is. When I’m trying to think of something to write, I almost never thumb through mine. The statement ‘Ooh, I know I had a good idea, but I can’t remember it–thank God I wrote it down!’ has possibly never been uttered near my word processing device. Good ideas I usually remember no problem.

If you’re one of those people who tends to think of something really, really worth doing and then promptly forget about it, I guess it might be worth your time to have a notebook for the above reason. But, if this doesn’t happen often:
why write shit down?

Well, for one, I hope the big brawny ideas that come striding, lumberjacklike, out of your writerbrain aren’t the only reason you keep a notebook. I keep mine f’rinstance, mostly for minutae–names I like, facts I didn’t know, words I don’t recognize. Those things (along with  shopping lists, reminder notes, and confirmation numbers scrawled in the top margin) make up the majority of my little notebooks.

Are these things important, overall? Maybe. Probably not. But they give you a good and writerly habit: the habit of curiosity.

Good writing–dependable writing–is twenty percent genius and eighty percent follow-through. A notebook encourages you to explore the things that’ve made you curious–find definitions for new words, find out the history of funny names, look up a process or an item that you found interesting. If you’re not sure about a detail (such as: how much control does a game designer have over the game’s final content?) write it down so you can look it up later. This serves the excellent double function of making sure you remember things you might be writing incorrectly, and indulging that curiosity habit I’m talking about. Looking these things up might, after all, show you that you need to take your story in a new direction to make it work–or give you mental fodder for other stories, later on down the line.

Again: keeping a notebook doesn’t have to be a super-organized thing. It doesn’t have to be something you live or die by. But when you have a chance, it’s good to indulge.

My notebook from the Distant Collegial Past doesn’t look much different from my notebooks now. I still use the tiniest notebook I can write in comfortably–small enough, preferably, to fit in a back pocket. No, I don’t give a shit if they’re Molskine. I’ve got a whole slew of them in the studio: cheap drugstore notebooks, the kind you used to be able to buy at CVS for fifty cents. They’re not particularly organized, and once I’ve looked up what I’m going to look up from them I rarely look back at them, except when I’m cleaning or feeling reminiscent. They’re undated, because I’m not a damn scrapbooker, but I can usually figure out which ones are from when, more or less.

But the process of writing down things you notice, even if you never look at them again, will help you remember them better. That alone is a good reason to keep a notebook. And I have to say, though I know a lot of people are going to disagree with me:

How you keep one matters, too.

I know, I know. You’ve gotta do what works for you. I’m not going to stop you, but I do have to say: I don’t think it works as well to do it on your phone or tablet or what have you. I think it makes the whole process take longer, and speed is what you want–if writing stuff down in a notebook is going to be difficult, you’re not going to do it. A bitty book and a pen, in easy reach in your pocket or the confines of your purse, is faster than a six hundred dollar electronic device. Also, if it rains, your pen and paper will forgive you in a way your phone won’t.

So, once more: my notebooks don’t contain the genius-bombs that hit at four in the morning. Contrary to popular belief, those’re usually pretty easy to remember. They don’t contain lines of unabashed beauty, the unfinished sestinas of public transit induced anguish (at least, the ones past college don’t). They contain, mostly, a wilderness of strange names, snippets of conversation, odd questions (‘who makes slaughterhouse bolt guns?’, says one page of my college notebook). And, of course, phone numbers, shit in French, and life stuff (‘Remember toilet paper PLEASE PLEASE.’. Or, most mysteriously: one page with the word DACTYL written on it in block caps).

There are no fun clues to the person I used to be in there. No tinsel-sparkles of effervescent young genius. I rarely look at the notebooks, because they’ve already served their purpose: simply by writing this shit down, I remember it better. Most of the notes are meaningless to me now, useless (such as this random picture of the Pimp Coat of Christ, which I couldn’t for the life of me give you context for present-day:)

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But it helped me to do it. It gave me a reason to explore the world a little bit more, for a little bit longer. And for that, it’s worth doing.

How about you guys? Do you keep notebooks? How? What do you write in them? Do you feel like it helps you?

Why I’m Glad I Don’t Write For a Living

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Why I’m Glad I Don’t Write For a Living

Since I was a very little girl–six, maybe, or seven–I thought I wanted to be a writer.

Of course, I had a very romanticized view of what ‘being a writer’ was. Especially in high school. It involved writing longhand and leatherbound books and having a study, whatever the hell that is. It involved typewriters and Hemingway in Cuba and suffering, which is like black licorice crack for Troubled Young Artists. It involved suffering for art, which is like black licorice crack coated in doughnuts and unicorns.

I guess I was more realistic than some. Instead of imagining my Pulitzer prize and immense popular appeal, I imagined myself in some barely-heated Parisian garret somewhere, imagining my Pulitzer. It was all very meta and clever. I smoked a lot of clove cigarettes for that dream.

But I’m an adult now. I’ve supported myself for a while. I know that starving isn’t romantic, and it isn’t pretty, and it isn’t fun. And it isn’t proud, either–you beg your friends for twenty bucks. You beg your parents for twenty bucks. You think about payday loans. You see the interest rates, you know what a royal screwing it is, and you still think about payday loans. Your power gets turned off, you remember that oh yeah, electronic writing devices don’t work without a charge, and you discover that writing longhand by the light of a single candle is not only irritating, but it also hurts, like, a lot, and there’s a reason word processing is a step up, and boy your hand is, like, burning.

So here’s the thing. I can pay my water bill with writing, and that’s enough for me.

People often, I think, confuse the idea of ‘writing professionally’ with the idea of ‘taking writing seriously’. They are, in fact, independent concepts, and one can very much exist without the other.

I take writing seriously. There’s nothing I take more seriously, except possibly soft-boiling eggs (which is a serious subject. Pull them fresh and cold out of the fridge and put them into about 1/2 inch of water in a saucepan at med-high heat, rolling boil. Cover, obviously. Put them in there for exactly six minutes and thirty seconds; pop ’em out and run them under cold water for half a minute or more. Crack and peel with the soft puckered fingers of a baby angel. This gentleman got it absolutely right, and it’s the only thing I’ve tried that works every time.)

Anyway, digressing.

Writing professionally is sitting down at your word processing device in the morning with the intention of making rent. It’s trying to pay for your fashionable Parisian garret, your two-pots-a-day coffee habit, and all those cloves with that 800 word article about dog shaving you wrote last week for the Indy, which took two weeks to research. It’s squabbling over the exact worth and value of your craft with people who’ll make a lot more money off it than you will, and discovering that (surprise!) these people who’re making money off it don’t think your art is nearly as valuable as you do.

Me? I like the illusion my art is a priceless pearl in the oceans of crude commerce. Do I know it’s an illusion? Oh, yeah. Trust me, I do. But I like it.

So I’m content to halfass. I get that royalty payment, I smile pleasantly, and I go on about my workday. Because I have a job for paying my bills–one that I like fairly well, one that doesn’t keep me stressed out or working at odd hours. I have this low-stress job because my bills are small and my needs are simple, and it gives me time to do what I love doing.

When you want to write professionally, a lot of times what you really want is to look your friends and family in the eyes and say ‘I’m a writer’ when they ask you what you’re up to for work. And that’s awesome. Trust me, I wish I got to do it. I hear it helps you talk to people at bars.

But that isn’t my dream. Am I owed payment, for what I do? My answer, surprisingly, is: no.

Because I’d do it even if I didn’t get paid. In a lot of cases, I do do it even though I don’t get paid. Because not making your dream your profession is a luxury and a blessing, even if there’s some stigma attached to it. It enables you to write what you want when you want to write it.

Mind you, I write every day. Probably somewhere between 1,000 to 5,000 words a day, seven days a week, depending on the time I have and how I’m feeling. If we take a low median average and say I write 1,500 words a day, that makes for 547,500 words a year. It’s probably more than that, but you get my point. I’ve been doing this since I was a kid, so I can say I’ve got Heinlein’s (or whoever’s–who did say that first? Ms. Woodward over here did some research, God bless her), million words pretty well covered, several times over.

I’m prolific. I’m clever. And I’m pretty damn good.

Am I a hobbyist? Yes. I don’t pay rent with my writing. But I’m a damn dedicated hobbyist. And I take my little hobby very, very seriously.

And I think, maybe, happiness for a lot of young ‘unsuccessful’ authors lies in a similar place. Don’t worry about other people taking you seriously. That’s, well, always been unproductive. Don’t worry if your resume can list ‘freelance writer’ as an occupation. Should writing be a hobby for you, or a profession? I don’t know. I can’t make that call for you. But I can tell you that, either way, it demands attention and respect.

So stop freaking out about how ‘professional’ you and your ‘author platform’ look. Worry about how good your writing is. Worry about what you’re learning, what you’re gaining, and not whether you deserve to be called an author. Nobody other than you cares about that. Trust me.

And if you can’t pay the bills with writing–and you won’t be able to, at least not at first–find yourself a job. Starving conditions leave your mind awfully full of ways to cook the three hot dogs remaining to you on a piece of tinfoil, and shockingly empty of plot devices and clever synecdoche. If you respect your goddamn art, you won’t do that to it. Writing with no power on is, let me tell you, not the primo environment for ars poetica composition. It’s not the primo environment for much, in fact, except cooking on Sterno cans and going to bed when the sun sets.

Job going to cut into your literary time? Sure it will. Make more time.

Because the illusion that not having a job will allow you to ‘make more time’ for writing is just that–an illusion. Unless you happen to have a patron who believes in you, the alternative is starving, which leaves you about seven days of time before you’re too weak to do shit.

So good luck to all of you. Write well, and don’t waste away while you’re doing it.