Vacationing in the Hybrid-Ease

Sun reflections in blue waterI’ve been on quite a long hiatus from this blog–my apologies to anyone who might have been hanging around for updates! Between work and family stuff and trying to develop new and interesting skills, I haven’t made time like I should have. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned, life takes you to strange places, some wonderful and some terrible, others just plain bizarre.

Sometimes it’s all three…but when you return, you’re the richer for it.

You might be wondering about the title of this post–what the heck does “Hybrid-Ease” mean? Well, I’m awful about wordplay and punning, it’s true. While I’ve been away, I’ve kind of struggled with my compass spinning, and figuring out what it means to be a generalist in a world of specialists. I’ve always been this way, good or bad, helpful or not. Do I look like a flake? Yep. Do I seem like a butterfly, flitting from one topic to the next? Probably. Am I indecisive? I don’t know (ha ha).

In other words, I’ve been trying to make peace with being a hybrid. And honestly, I don’t know why that should be such a bad thing. I mean, hello, Leonardo da Vinci? Benjamin Franklin? Michelangelo? I want to be a Renaissance woman! Writer, artist, programmer, developer, designer, entrepreneur. Why do I have to choose? Finding a way to become great at all of those things and make a living doing it may not always be easy in an age of specialization, but it’s well worth the effort.

So like the Hebrides, those beautiful, wild, strange islands off the coast of Scotland that have inspired poets, scientists, artists, and travelers for centuries, I’ve decided that my career can be a unique blend of many things and still exist in the world. Perhaps not what everyone’s looking for–I’m no Fort Lauderdale or Cancun–but I’m sure to please those searching for something a little bit off the beaten path :)

Pitch Perfect

So my first agent pitches are over. And although it didn’t result in a page request, I got some honest feedback, which is what I really needed. That’s a good thing, in my opinion–because I need the truth to improve my work.

It didn’t feel awesomely wonderful, but then again, it wasn’t meant to. Critiques are critical, designed to point out what’s not working. Warm fuzzies are not going to help, right?

Good news? I can solve the problem! Not an easy fix, but a fix nonetheless. As the old saying goes, “Kill your darlings.” Well, I’m getting the cleaver out and trimming the fat from my manuscript.

The long and short of it is, a fresh pair of eyes is a good thing. We writers tend to fall in love with our creations, not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s less than helpful when we need to tighten our prose, streamline it, and keep the tension humming on each and every page. Having someone totally objective to say, “Your word count is HOW much?!?” or take me to task for overwriting was incredibly helpful.

Afraid to show a fellow writer your manuscript? Terrified of talking with an agent? Do you cringe at the thought of sending out a query letter? Here’s my advice:

Do it. Take the plunge and steel yourself for what comes next, no matter how much you want to puke at the thought. You’ll get some truly amazing feedback that will help you grow as a writer and editor, moving you one step closer to publication. You’ll learn that agents are simply people looking for a well-written, engaging story, not horrible, soul-crushing demons who laugh maniacally and gleefully at your work. You’ll find friends and colleagues who want nothing more than to have supportive companionship and constructive input for their writing, too.

You’ve got this. And eventually, when you’re “pitch perfect,” you’ll realize it was all worth it, every breathless leap off the cliff of your fear, when you begin to fly.

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…

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!

Spam–or, Very nice stuff here hopefully I learned from it

I miss the days when Spam was a good thing. Not that it ever really was good FOR you, but I thought it was pretty tasty stuff as a kid. Spam sandwiches, fried spam, diced spam in salads, you know the drill.

Now there’s Spam 2.0–virtual Spam. Totally tasteless stuff, literally AND figuratively. I log on to WordPress and find 14 new comments, all of the spam variety, and groan. A platoon of messages from hair removal product peddlers and work-at-home opportunity pushers that tell me how wonderful my blog is, how interesting, how useful…all couched in such generic terms, I feel like I’m reading my horoscope. The perverse side of me imagines that someone’s blog about satanism and how to perform human sacrifices for maximum magical effect is receiving the same crap, and I wonder what the author thinks. “Very nice stuff here,” the spam reads, “hopefully I learned from it.”

But the worst part of it? The cheerfully atrocious spelling, grammar, and punctuation of these missives make me cringe. Imagine someone beating you over the head with a baseball bat and screaming, “So you wonderful! You wonderful! I not know what you saying but you write I like!” then being amazed that you don’t seem to like them very much, because they’ve been so dreadfully clever. Ugh.

I don’t mean to complain (okay, well, maybe I do) but it seems to me that spam accomplishes nothing more useful than pissing off people you’ve never met. Under the right circumstances I can get behind that, you understand, but haven’t we had enough junk cluttering up our lives already? My fragile, overworked synapses just can’t take any more.

Perhaps I’m being too cynical–maybe hairremovalgal42@gmail.com (any similarity to actual email addresses is unintentional and coincidental) really did learn something from my blog post about creating an emotional connection to her characters. I’ll wish her well as I delete her message and indulge in a fresh Spam sandwich to celebrate my contribution to her intellectual advancement.

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.

Have Patience…demand $5 million ransom

Patience. Not pushing the river. Letting go and letting God. Sounds good, doesn’t it? If only it was that easy! I seem to have spent what little I had during my training as a counselor. With my first published short story, “Tequila Sunset,” coming out this month in the War of the Worlds: Frontlines anthology, I’m all about the now–and patience is nowhere in sight. I have to practically sit on my hands to keep from sending my poor publisher email after email asking whether the anthology has been sent out for printing yet, has he received contributor copies yet, and when does it go on sale? In short, being an annoying nag that nobody wants to work with.

I don’t know that I can blame myself for being excited, though. I’ve dreamed about other people picking up something I wrote and being taken on an adventure, for a long time. I don’t care so much about seeing my name in print or the money, although my goal is to someday be able to support myself through only my writing and quit my day job(s). I get impatient for that, too. If you’re a writer who’s had his or her first taste of success, or maybe still writing and submitting and hoping for someone to publish your work, you can probably relate.

I’m thinking it might be helpful to use some of my knowledge from my past life as a psychologist-in-training and not only write articles about how to succeed and get published as a writer, but also on how to cope with the inevitable rejections without getting depressed or giving up, how to stay well, and how to keep on believing in ourselves. I mean, I can list resources till the cows come home on how to get published, but there are others out there who are farther down the road and know more than I do about that side of things.

So bizarrely enough for a dark fiction writer, I’m contemplating putting up wellness tips, exercises, and affirmations along with some of my stories under the “Freebies & Miscellany” section on my website, so maybe we can ransom Patience back without paying the $5 mil, and focus on writing instead. ‘Cause I sure don’t have the money to burn! Would love to hear what others think would be helpful.

Bloggity blog blog blog

I’m sitting here, staring at the blank space where I should be writing  fascinating things but mostly stuck on how to get my website to look less like someone wrote the XHTML code with their feet and more like an actual professional designed it. I’m wondering if I should have swallowed my pride and used one of those prepackaged websites instead, like someone watching smoke billow out of their kitchen as the Chicken Kiev burns to a cinder and thinking too late that a bag of Bertolli’s might have been a good idea.

But the thing is, learning something new takes time. No matter how bright or skilled you are, the harsh truth is that you’ll most likely fail and, very probably, make a horrible mangled mess of what you’re attempting to do before you get better at it. Have I blogged much? Nope. Am I making a mess of it? Maybe. Who knows?

I went to my first writer’s workshop a few weekends ago at Ball State University, ironically enough where I did my internship for my doctorate, and listened to published writers discuss how to get serious about writing. Kelsey Timmerman, one of the speakers, said something that seems incredibly simple, but makes a lot of sense–the more you write, the less you suck. What’s the takeaway lesson? Keep going. You, gracious reader, may also be a writer or follow a different career path, but I imagine you’ve had brushes with burnt lasagna or birdhouses that should be condemned or speeches that left you wishing for a portable black hole to escape into, and can sympathize. So I’m going to keep going, and I hope you stick around as this little site and I evolve over time. Maybe you’ll find things here to keep you going, too.

Thanks for coming to visit, and for being patient.