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!

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.

Disciplinary actions will be taken

Discipline. Self-control or orderly conduct, according to the ancient Webster’s New World Dictionary residing on my bookshelf. Extremely useful when you’re a writer, and something that I have trouble with on more than one occasion. As one of my friends has said more than once when we play D & D, “You rack the disciprine.”

Martial-arts movie quotes aside, he may be on to something there. Writing does require discipline–you have to make yourself sit in the chair at the computer/typewriter/paper, for starters. You must then put words on the page to get an idea across, and edit what you produce, if you’re at all conscientious. A market or agent must be selected and the work sent out, and tracked. Even when you’re successful, there’s correspondence and marketing and selling to be done. Without discipline, the process breaks down.

I think my error has been on two fronts–believing that the process should always be easy and fun (which it sometimes isn’t), and that it should only occur when “inspiration” or “the mood” strikes me. I know these ideas are unhelpful and detrimental to getting things accomplished, and yet they persist. The truth of it is, writing can be hard work. Notice how this addresses both fallacious ideas in one fell swoop.

So what can we do? Show up, for starters. Put your butt in the chair and grab something to write with. Set yourself a goal, whether it’s a particular length of time or word count, and do your darnedest to achieve it. A word of caution, here–don’t try to make yourself do 10 pages or 4 hours straight, because you’re setting yourself up for failure and even more problems down the turnpike. Make it easy to achieve, so that you get that feeling of pride and confidence and WANT to do more! If you chronically over-schedule and pressure yourself to complete Herculean tasks, come up with a goal and then cut it in half. Yes, you heard me right, you overachieving perfectionists! Foster a feeling of confidence and trust in yourself, so that when writing is difficult or you don’t “feel” like it, those feelings and the good habit of consistently writing will carry you through the rough patches.

And do try to inject a little fun into it, if you’re struggling with getting started! I hate the thought of anyone white-knuckling it as they grimly peck out each joyless word. Play music, have desk toys to stimulate your creativity, and let yourself follow up on that idea that simply captivates you right now. Be silly, be zany, be gross, but be certain that discipline does NOT mean the absence of fun and individuality. Self-control does not mean you’ll be bringing the iron curtain down and running yourself like a totalitarian regime (besides, no one, not even me, would buy me as a dictator of any kind). We get to write, remember? It’s a privilege, not a duty.

So look upon “disciprine” as the doorway to greater fun, productivity, and rewards of all kinds. Even we flaky writer-types need a little now and then…in moderation, of course.

Pro/crastination ≠ pro/ductive

Hi, my name’s Michele and I’m a Procrastinator. There, I’ve gone and done it, haven’t I? Taken an actual step toward facing one of my worst personal demons. I might call him Mr. Noitanitsarcorp, because trying to work with him inhabiting my soul is like working in reverse (and it’s kind of a cool demon name, you know?). How to exorcise a demon of this particular ilk? By discovering what powers him–and for me, that’s fear.

Fear is an extremely powerful human emotion and is quite constructive under many circumstances, except when it prevents you from being productive and prolific. Procrastination is one manifestation of fear, although there might be other reasons a writer puts things off or makes excuses not to write, submit, network, or promote his or her work.

So if you find yourself not sitting down at your computer/typewriter/laptop and not writing/editing/submitting/answering correspondence, stop for a moment and listen to what you’re thinking, what you’re feeling. Are you scared? Bored? Frustrated? Write down the thoughts and reasons that might be contributing to those feelings, then address them.

Do you hear yourself saying “I’ll never make it,” “no one gets my writing,” “it’ll take too long to get a career going,” “what if I fail?” or other negative statements? Fight back! Talk back to that pessimistic voice–“I will make it,” “I believe in my work and so do others,” “doing what I love is worth the time I spend,” and “I will succeed!” Short, sweet, and positive–make it your mantra and thumb your nose at that cranky, grumpy, fearful, uninspired part of yourself.

A few excellent resources are “The Artist’s Way” by Julia Cameron and “A Writer’s Space” by Eric Maisel. These two books can assist you in recovering your creativity, productivity, and self-confidence using a variety of helpful exercises and techniques. And if you need additional help, don’t be afraid to seek it out–during my years of training in psychology, I went to counseling and found it quite helpful in rediscovering my most passionate dreams and working to achieve them.

Moral of the story: well, I try not to moralize! But seriously, if you love writing and creating, don’t let anything stand in your way. Identify what’s getting in your way and remove it however you need to (although anyone who’s not a Mythbuster or trained professional should steer clear of high explosives). May you be pro/lific and pro/ductive!

War of the Worlds: Frontlines has arrived!

A few days ago I received my contributor’s copy of War of the Worlds: Frontlines. Came at the best time, too, because I had a terrible day at work and wanted nothing more than to go home, shut the front door, and collapse in front of the TV set for a few minutes. Healthy and constructive, no. Quick and easy, yes.

But there it was, a small book-sized package waiting for me on the front porch. And I knew instantly what it was, dropped my satchel and tote and purse and simply ran from car to house to rip it open (carefully, oh so carefully, mustn’t damage the long-awaited prize) with mildly trembling hands.

Beautiful. Glossy cover, elegant font, and my name in the table of contents. MY name, you understand? Turning the pages, there was my story, “Tequila Sunset,” on page 150. Sounds silly to say, but I was goggling over having something I created in an actual, real, professional-looking book that other people will read. Maybe they’ll like it, maybe they won’t, but if even one person gets it, that’s enough for me!

As a kid, I was a voracious reader. Couldn’t seem to get enough of sci-fi, horror, fantasy, and yes, even the occasional romance. I read the classics and I read complete and utter trash. Hell, I even read the backs of shampoo bottles (not that I’ve stopped, mind you)! There weren’t enough words in the world to fill me up. And now I get to feed others, which is a huge honor that I don’t take lightly.

I was listening/watching some clips on YouTube yesterday about writing and the whole business of it, and one author encouraged writers to think about why they want to write…to teach, to move, to stimulate thinking, to shock, to elevate? I thought about it and responded, “yes.” Maybe that’s not wise in this culture of marketing yourself and finding a niche, but then again, I really believe that successful writing involves using yourself as the tool. And I mean to achieve all of those things in the reader, maybe not all at once, maybe not every single time, but on the whole, that IS who I am. I trained to be a psychologist, so why wouldn’t all of those fit?

When I read my first published story, I see so clearly that writing from a place that’s solidly Who I Am and not catering to what’s Out There is working for me. I could chase after the latest pretty-vampire fad, but that’s not me. All I can say, gentle readers, is that many things become easier when you embrace yourself and your gifts (although many other things get more difficult, but that’s for another day). If you want a window into a little piece of my soul, think about picking up a copy of WotW: Frontlines and turning to the 14th story. And thanks for listening (watching) me ramble!

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.