Technical Difficulties

Technology. So incredibly useful, and so incredibly annoying at times. I don’t know about other writers, but I’m blown away by how many cool new apps are out there to help me market my work. Social media sites abound, creating your own blog is a snap, and the submission process has sped up, largely due to emailing subs instead of snail-mailing them. It really is amazing.

And then I try to update my website, like this morning, and want to bang my head against my laptop in frustration. So many choices, so much to learn about setting up automated mailing lists and RSS feeds and Google Analytics that I want to run to the nearest non-wired spot deep in the woods and clear the tech-fog from my poor little brain.

How do we manage it all without throwing up our hands in despair? I honestly don’t know, because I’ve done exactly that several times as I’ve struggled to master HTML and CSS and favicons. That’s why I’ve decided that I need help! I’ll be heading to the Midwest Writers Conference next week, where I’ll be receiving some one-on-one social media tutoring from an expert. Whew! I plan to share what I learn after I come back, which I hope will help other writers facing the technological juggernaut.

If you’re a writer who’s mastered the art of balancing the tech and art of writing, I want to hear from you! What do you do to make it all work out? The floor is open for discussion…

Monkey

Monkey

Monkeys aren’t always this cute…

Cute little buggers, aren’t they? Adorable as they are, they can also stand for an addiction or a problem you just can’t seem to kick. A bad habit. A burden.

How do you get rid of the monkey, or at least keep it manageable? Like any problem, the first step is to acknowledge what it is. Although I have several that cling to me, correspondence seems to be one that I struggle with on a routine basis. Phone calls, letters, emails, tweets, you name it, I’ve let it slide. A few days or even a few weeks later, I’ll be playing catch-up and apologizing for my absence. That’s a serious problem, because writers need to keep those communication channels open and information flowing freely back and forth.

So that’s the problem. Probably doesn’t seem too daunting to you, but for me it’s a constant annoyance and something I want to change, because it could stand in the way of succeeding as a writer. I could lose opportunities to network, opportunities to submit or publish my writing, if I don’t fix it. The question is not only am I WILLING to change, but how COMMITTED am I? Here’s where you sit down with yourself and really think about what’s at stake if you don’t change. Is it important to you? Why?

Change can be difficult. Period. Please don’t go overboard and try for perfection, here! Set small, manageable goals at first and step your way up to where you eventually want to be. For example, my goal is to post a blog entry this week. Success! And I’m feeling pretty good about that. Perhaps I’ll add another small goal in another area, such as answering tweets within 24 hours, and see how that goes. If that’s too much, I’ll know I stepped up too fast and have to back that expectation down a bit. Even if you don’t make it, treat it matter-of-factly instead of chastising yourself—remember, the goal is not perfection and beating yourself up never helps. You might even want to stay at a certain level for a few weeks and allow that to become comfortable before bumping it up a notch.

And if you totally derail along the way? You’re not alone! Relapse is common when you attempt to make a change. Take a deep breath and give yourself the gift of a clean slate before trying again. Examine what got in the way of continuing your new behaviors and think how you might address that. If you need help, get it—pride’s great and all, but if whatever you want to change is important enough or damaging enough, throw pride out the window. I know it’s tough, how well I know—but you can do it!

All right, no more monkeying around—time to show this monkey who’s boss!

Leggo my ego!

LEGO Eggo

Writers eat criticism for breakfast!

Nope, not a misspelling–I really did mean ego. In this case, I’m referring to it in the vernacular as a sense of self-importance, such that we believe our work and the products of our imagination are unassailable.

This is where the trouble begins. How do you improve your writing? By hearing and acting on constructive criticism. But let’s be honest, shall we? Hearing that criticism can be agonizing, threatening to our egos when we aren’t sure of ourselves. I know I’ve wanted to run away from it sometimes or clamp my hands over my ears as I babble “la la la la la, can’t hear you!” And I know this isn’t productive–not everyone is going to think our writing is the best thing they’ve ever seen, as beautiful and porcelain-perfect as babyskin. If that were the case, all of us would be instant New York Times bestselling authors, right? Well, I don’t see my name on that list. Not yet, anyway.

Writing is an intensely personal process in many ways. Our ideas, our thoughts, and our feelings are poured out into written form, an imperfect translation of the soul, and when someone critiques that translation it can be crushing. We respond violently, defending our ego from the external threat. “They just aren’t able to appreciate me,” we bluster between licks of the wound, “why can’t they see how talented I am?” So we tune out the criticism and slog along, no wiser.

Did you spot the fundamental flaw? What is being critiqued, anyway? Words on a page. Execution. The match with another person’s unique taste. But you, the person? Hardly. It’s like saying a picture of you is the same thing as the living, breathing you and that because someone doesn’t enjoy that picture, you are worthless. And that’s baloney, because there never has been and never will be anyone else like any of us, ever again. As much as we’re all alike, we’re different–and that means you have something to offer.

So let’s turn the process around. Instead of letting our worth depend on someone’s judgment of words on a piece of paper, unhook the two. Start with remembering what you want to say, the joy you take in writing, all of the great things you are. Write it on a piece of paper in fruit-scented markers and hang it over your desk, record it as your mantra and play it back after the twentieth rejection slip comes in, tattoo it on your forearm if that works for you (and please don’t take all my advice literally, thanks very much–I don’t want hordes of angry family members coming after me to demand monetary compensation for the laser removal treatment), whatever works best.

But DO listen to constructive criticism. Does your story’s pace seem slow or draggy? Cut material or use more active verbs. Too much of a trope? Tropes are hard to avoid, but try for a twist that no one would’ve expected. Comma junkie (my personal problem)? Edit the crap out of your piece and yank the commas out as ruthlessly as weeds from your flower beds. Be honest with yourself and consider feedback not as an attempt to brutalize you, but as the means to becoming a superlative writer. How else do you think you’re going to achieve that goal?

And remember, even the most successful writers still receive criticism throughout their careers. Get used to it. It’s part of the gig. Pour syrup on it and swallow it down as you leggo your ego–bon appétit!

Special thanks to Eric Hunter at The Art of LeGogh for the spectacular photo of one of his awesome LEGO creations!

Balance and blunders

Yoga practitioner by the water

Finding balance can be tricky.

Balance. Everyone talks about achieving it, but how does a poor, beleaguered writer get it? What does that even mean?

I’ve been writing fiction for only a few years now, but I’ve learned a few things along the way. Mostly by making mistakes, much to my annoyance. For starters, I had this zany idea that I could quit my day job and write full-time, get my book done and published within a year, probably with one of the first few publishers to see it. Whoops.

First and most important lesson: don’t quit your day job. Writing is probably one of the most difficult ways to make a living out there, when you’re competing with so many other things for people’s attention. Strike a balance between working a job that brings home the bacon and the job that brings you satisfaction. Eventually, it could be the same job, but a lot of hard work and time may pass before that becomes your reality.

Which brings me to my second point: is writing your job or your passion? Work or play? For money or for love? Can it be both? Although some folks have managed to have their cake and eat it too, the paradox is hard to resolve: developing a career in writing takes a lot of work, but it’s the passion, playfulness, and love that gets you to that point. If you’re doing it for money or glory, prepare for disappointment. Short stories commonly sell for 1 cent per word, if at all, and should you manage to sell your novel, don’t expect tons of money in return. Much better to get a small advance and sell enough books to at least cover it, because unless you have a gigantic audience willing to plunk down money on your book (usually not the case), your publisher isn’t going to be too happy with you. Careers are built steadily over extended time periods. I also had to learn the lesson that making writing your job too quickly can kill the fun and your imagination, if you’re not careful. Taking that pressure off yourself and enjoying the process is important.

Having an outside life and interests is important, too. Although writing on top of a day job sucks up lots of time, you probably aren’t going to be too happy if you never see friends or family, become a couch potato, and obsess over your chances of becoming Stephen King. Regular exercise, quality time with your spouse/kids/friends, and gardening or some other healthy outlets are important for a happy life and, I would argue, rich, well-developed writing.

Writing is both art and craft, which is yet another balancing act. You can study, you can read, and you can analyze your performance to improve, which makes this a craft. But it’s also art, something that can’t be captured in a mere how-to book, and that’s what makes it so difficult and so breathtaking. Chasing after the elusive best-seller in a paint-by-numbers approach might achieve temporary success, if you’re seeking fortune and glory, but I suspect authors taking this path tend to fall away and sink from view, leaving little impression on the hearts and minds of others. For me, that’s just not an option.

What’s the takeaway lesson? Balance isn’t easy to achieve, especially when you’re a writer, but it’s well worth the effort. It’s taking a look at the relationships and activities that contribute to your happy life and then devoting time to each of them in a way that works for you. If you need to buy that organizer and pencil in time for exercise, time for a weekly date night with your husband or wife, time to write, and time for work, DO IT! Ask yourself what you need, write it down, and try to incorporate that into your life. I’m not saying it’s easy, we all know that would be a lie, but balancing the scales makes it easier to sit down and let the words issue forth in a clear, easy stream. Writing is enough of a tightrope already!

Shadowboxing

Shadows.  Areas where light cannot penetrate, when obstructed by an object. That part of ourselves that we repress and try to bury, reluctant to admit that it exists at all. Why do I bring this up?

I came face-to-face with my own today. And I was disturbed, to say the least. Generally, I like to think of myself as a good, decent, and relatively soft-hearted person. Someone who tries to do what’s right, and sticks up for the underdog.

The problem is, people like that don’t write the things I put down on paper today…or do they? According to Jung, “in spite of its function as a reservoir for human darkness—or perhaps because of this—the shadow is the seat of creativity.” Okay, I suppose I can buy that, although I’m still uneasy with it.

I wrote this piece, a short story about demons and demon possession, specifically for a particular anthology. I was trying to disturb the reader, to shake them up, but I didn’t expect to feel it myself. And in turn, about myself. We all have the persona, or mask, that we show to the world, reserving our truest selves for our most intimate relationships; and, I would argue, there’s always some part of us that we never share. For me, a lot of that is shadow material, some of which spilled over today into my conscious and even public life, a dark earthquake sending out temblors to rattle my self-image.

And how others see me. I’m quite good at keeping my and others’ secrets, and I can’t say whether that’s fortunate or not, because secrecy is sometimes essential to preserving trust. People used to tell me things, you see, and they often weren’t very nice things–but that’s what I signed up for, when I did counseling. I worry about someone, perhaps a former client or current friend/family member, reading what I’ve created, seeing my darkness, and wondering how in God’s name they ever thought I was a good person to have any sort of relationship with. Because in every story I write, there’s some part of me being brought into the light.

Jung wrote that “everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is.” So I suppose that by writing this story and presenting it to others, making it conscious, I’ve let a little more light into the blacker depths of my psyche. In any case, I’m being honest. And I believe that’s truly important when writing, just like it was when I was doing counseling (although I think I’m more honest now), because it improves the instrument I’m working with–me.

So although I’m doing a little shadowboxing today and fussing over what that means, I don’t think I’ll be stuffing that part back down anytime soon. Stretching the boundaries of the self might be painful and letting the darkness out into the light scary, but I agree with what Shrek says after belching: “Better out than in, I always say.”

Ogres are so wise.