Balanced Billing

10256824_892949739505_3732630825468783304_nThere are few really great things about living with depression, but I think one of the most frustrating has to be the unpredictability of it.  One moment, you’re humming along just fine, feeling competent and capable – maybe even a little bit optimistic, if you’ve had a good night’s sleep – and then the next minute, something small and stupid sets you off, and you go tumbling into a hopeless pit of despair for the next three days, all raw edges and helpless weeping, scraped and bruised and certain that you’ll never recover yourself ever again.

It’s hard to think about writing in times like those.  It’s hard to do anything other than slog through the workday in a sludgy daze, longing only to slink into bed at the end of it, pulling the blankets up over your head and ignoring the puzzled, mournful mewing of the cat who expects his dinner. *  The day can’t end quickly enough, and the endless stretch of time between coming home and reasonably being able to turn out the lights seems like nothing but a bottomless sewer that can never be filled, no matter how many episodes of Downton Abbey you add to your queue to pass the hours.

It’s times like those, when my projects stagger to a halt under the weight of self-doubt and self-hatred, that a writer (and any person, for that matter) can feel most alone and most defeated.  It takes so long to climb back up to my feet sometimes that I wonder why I try to create anything at all.  My characters seem dull and lifeless, my plots seem frayed and directionless, and my prose seems pathetically amateur.  Nothing works, nothing sparkles, and nothing seems worthwhile.

I can’t control when it’ll happen, nor can I just snap out of it through my own strength of will, as so many people who have no experience of the matter often try to suggest.  It’s inconvenient and aggravating to be struck by sadness at the most random times, especially because I feel so completely the opposite when I’m at the top of my game.

Most of the time (well…some of the time, at least), I feel totally fine.  There aren’t enough hours in the day when I’m doing well.  Work is easy, and there’s never enough of it to tackle.  I can crank out 4000 words a day with little trouble, and they’ll be good words that are worth keeping.  I can come up with ideas for three different books at the drop of a hat, and draw maps and design covers and take great pleasure in the process of creating new worlds using nothing more than a pen and some imagination.

I’m in one of those acceptably buoyant periods right now, I’m happy to say, after a few rainclouds earlier in the month.  After doubting the direction of my series-in-progress, and taking some time to get over a few personal things that I won’t really bother you with, I feel like I’m back on the horse for the moment.  A few crucial plot points, newly revealed to me, have reinvigorated my sense of the story, and a couple of characters are finally starting to come into their own and take charge of themselves.

It’s a wonderful feeling, and in one sense, it’s made even more wonderful by knowing that it won’t last.  As difficult as it is to wait out the fallow times – because waiting it out is really all I can do – I think feeling down once in a while help me to appreciate when I’m up.  Would I enjoy a more balanced existence?  Of course.  I’d rather spread out the ickiness rather than swallow it all in one big, choking lump.  But for the moment, I’m stuck with what I’ve got, so I might as well try to make the best of it.

The point of all this, I guess, is just to mark the fact that right now, I’m doing all right.  I’m writing, I’m creating, I’m enjoying the summer, I’m nearly done rewatching Downton Abbey, and I’m feeling like it’s important to talk about the things that affect me most.  Will it last?  Not indefinitely.  But let’s get a few thousand words down on paper while it does.

 

* Don’t worry.  Oliver always gets his dinner.

"But not fast enough."

“But not fast enough…*sigh*”

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Why are writers such horrible bullies?

Note: If you missed the sneak peek of my new novel, Dark the Night Descending, that I published on Friday, you can find it here.

I’m about to say some things that you might not agree with, but I’m going to say them anyway.  I think writers are, in general, kind of mean to each other.  I think we’re one of the only groups of people that bully and bruise each other into the ridiculous notion that if you’re not doing one thing and one thing only around the clock, you’ll never be a ‘real’ member of a clan that has such a huge and varied number of standards that we’re hardly even a cohesive unit anyway.

I am taking issue, specifically, with the number one piece of writing ‘advice’ available to the novices among us, which is to sit down, shut up, turn off your world, and bang out words on the page until your fingers bleed, then keep writing.  If you’re not writing, you’re doing something wrong.  If you’re not writing right now, you’ll never be a real writer at any point in the future.  Feeling horrible?  The solution is to write.  Feeling uninspired?  Too bad.  Write anyway.  Feeling like a complete and total failure because there are other parts of your life that sometimes overwhelm your drive and focus?  You miserable little twit.  We always knew you couldn’t hack it.  Prepare to consign yourself to your pathetic twilight existence of obscurity and shame.

Maybe I’m exaggerating…but by how much?  I was curious to see if this is a real thing or just an impression I’m getting from people who are, in fact, more dedicated than I am.  So I turned to the All-Father of the Internet, Google, for some not-very-objective evidence, and this is what I found.  When I searched for “writing inspiration”, the first images were peppered with things like this:

writing

But then I wondered if other creative disciplines do the same thing to each other, and I don’t think they do to quite the same extent.  For example, when I searched for “artist inspiration”, I got a whole lot of beautiful art, like this: 

artist

And when I searched for “musician inspiration”, I got a slew of articles about musicians who had overcome physical, mental, or economic handicaps, or essays about letting music flow through you and carry you away to a land of creative bliss.  An article from the Guardian that asked for advice from creative professionals (none of which were fiction or non-fiction authors), produced interesting gems like these…

art inspiration…and they didn’t say a single damn thing about chaining myself to a chair, setting a timer on my favorite block of plastic explosives, and begging myself to finish 500 words so I could cut the blue wire just in time and save my life.

I don’t argue with the fact that many writers struggle with the idea of putting words on the page.  I don’t argue with the fact that if you don’t put words on the page, you’re not going to get very far as a writer.  But I take exception to this really harsh, disappointingly smug, and condescending way we treat aspiring writers who have a momentary lapse in concentration, or just don’t have the experience necessary to find that perfect little mental trick that gets the words flowing without fail.

Where did this bullying come from, and why is it necessary?  It’s discouraging, it’s mean, and it belittles us all as a profession, a hobby, a source of joy, and a means of emotional communication.  Writing takes dedication, practice, commitment, and self-assurance.  It takes an intimate knowledge of one’s inner self, including what is motivating and what is not – and that’s almost never exactly the same thing as your neighbor. After all, if we all wrote in coffee shops 24 hours a day, there would be never be any chairs left, right?

Some people thrive on the boot-camp method, and I would never tell them that that’s a bad thing.  It can be necessary sometimes if you need an electric jolt to get you out of a funk.  But not everyone does.  And too much electrocution will fry your brain instead of jump-starting it.  There’s no need to create this baseline of fear, exclusion, demanding expectation, and dread around having a different routine, or feeling most energized after coming back from a break, or simply having conflicting obligations that can wear you out to the point where sitting your butt in the chair seems like a torture instead of a vacation.

It doesn’t make you weak or un-creative or lazy if you can’t always squeeze blood from a stone.  It doesn’t mean you’ll never finish your novel.  It doesn’t mean you’ll never make it big.  It makes you human.  Humans don’t all do the same things, think the same ways, or draw strength from the same sources.  We should be celebrating this spectrum of inspiration instead of trying to cram it all into a single, depressing, draconian mold.

So next time someone sends you a cute little graphic demanding your undivided attention, or posts on Twitter about how you should stop reading Twitter and get to work on your manuscript, you can feel free to ignore it.  Or don’t ignore it.  After all, I’m not here to tell you what to do.

Is this a trend you’ve noticed, too?  Do you think it helps you, or is it damaging to your flow?

Worldbuilding 101: A Dastardly Plot

After running around like a chicken with my head cut off for the past couple of weeks, I finally had a little bit of time this past weekend to relax, calm down, and focus on what’s really important: binge re-watching both seasons of Pushing Daisies.  And, uh…writing.  Right?  Yeah. Totally important.

I’m getting to the meaty part of the second book in my new series, where things start to get really complicated.  Since I hadn’t been able to settle down with my manuscript for a while, I ended up sort of listlessly poking at the keyboard, jotting down a few passages that were pretty but not too relevant, trying to recapture the mood and remember where exactly I was headed.  It isn’t always so easy to dive back into a universe you’ve neglected even for a short period of time, and I was getting frustrated with my lack of direction.  So I turned to my old stand-by when I’m feeling stuck: narrative plotting.

I know a lot of people are pretty rigid when it comes to the way they plan out their books.  I’ve previously recommended programs like SuperNotecard, and plenty of people are sweet on Scrivener or EverNote to keep their thoughts in order.  But I would recommend something a lot simpler if you need to snuggle back into the warm, fluffy blanket of your own imagination – or if you’re just not sure how everything is going to come together or what to write next.

I do this…

plotting

…and I find that it really helps.  I leave the names in, though, so I know what I’m talking about.  It’s informal, easily changed, and it captures my stream of consciousness without nagging about order and perfection.  As much as I love a good old fashioned outline with bullet points and index cards and super organized color-coding, I get most of my best ideas when I’m just going with the flow.

I think I probably will end up transferring the bulk of the series’ plotting to something a little more structured as the story builds and the lies pile up, but when it comes time to figure out what the heck my characters are going to get up to next, I always turn to the simplicity of a non-judgmental blank Word document and the pleasure of free writing my way to an epiphany or two.

NaNoWriMo prep: Time management takes time off

cactusThere are two schools of thought when it comes to time management for writers.

The first camp, located in a loft inside a converted textile mill in the Berkshires, next to the magic crystals shop and palm reader on one side and the dreadlocks salon on the other, believes in the mystical muse that showers pixie dust upon the agonized writer when it fits her capricious desires, and that an author’s work is (and should be) completely subject to her whims.

Without inspiration, there is no art, and inspiration only shows up once in a while.  Forcing yourself to be creative without that tingling excitement and single-focused drive that comes from a lightning bolt of ideas is simply counter-productive, and you’re probably undoing all the good of the goji berries, Kashi, and wheatgrass that you had for breakfast.

The other side of the equation belongs to the one I like to call The Colonel.  The Colonel thinks goji berries are for sissies.  The Colonel thinks inspiration is poppycock.  The Colonel is both your best friend and your worst enemy – but he likes being your enemy a hell of a lot more.  “Write regardless,” The Colonel says as he adjusts his monocle and twirls his moustache.  “Waiting for your muse to visit is like waiting for the enemy to stop shooting.  It might happen, but it’s probably because you’re already dead.”

Normally, I like to walk the line between the two.  I like to write as constantly as possible, because otherwise I lose momentum, but I also like to recognize when I’m approaching burnout and need a bit of a break.  Full-time writers like to smugly say that if you’re doing anything other than working on your novel, you’re never going to make it in a world of professionals who have nothing else to do but bang away at the keyboard, but I think that’s ridiculous.  My life is filled with things other than my book.  Even though writing is a very high priority, sometimes I need to focus on my friends or my job or my family.  Sometimes other things come first, and that’s a healthy cay to live.

But not in November.

Carefully thought-out time management strategies take a break in November.  Because November is all about the rush.  It’s a rush that appeases both sides of the writerly divide.  In a good November, you can’t stop writing because the inspiration won’t stop flowing.  The challenge of coming up with 50,000 words in 30 days squeezes sparks out of your brain that you didn’t even know were there, and puts more pressure on you than The Colonel could exert in his wildest dreams.  It’s fantastic and terrifying and exhausting and amazing and it has very little to do with rational thought.

I love a good November.  I like the freedom of hurtling willy-nilly towards a goal set by someone other than myself.  I love the accountability that NaNoWriMo gives me, and it’s always during a NaNo month that I end up doing my best work.  When the 30 days are over, I stay energized and committed for at least another few months, and I don’t have to rely on muses or taskmasters to encourage me.  I just write because I want to, and it’s the best feeling ever.

How does your writing style change during NaNoWriMo?  Do you love it, or do you miss being able to stick to the plan?

There will always be someone better than you

treesThere, I said it.  Okay?  They’re just always going to be there.  Selling more books, getting better reviews, using prettier words, winning more awards, gathering more Twitter followers…there will always be someone who seems smarter, more accomplished, more talented, and better equipped to navigate the rocky shoals of the publishing world.

This is a thought that has paralyzed me more times than I care to admit.  Sometimes I look at my half-finished manuscript, my characters wandering into some dead-end cul-de-sac of plot, standing around aimlessly as they scuffle their shoes in the dirt and wait for me to start making sense again.

“You really suck, you know,” they say, sighing resignedly as they lurch sideways into a brick wall.

“Yeah, I know,” I reply, before getting up from the keyboard and carrying the half-eaten bag of potato chips into the bedroom, where I curl up in a ball and cry a bit.  “The thing is,” I whisper to the ceiling, “there’s always someone better.”

I can’t be the only one who has felt deflated by my Twitter feed on Hugo night, or be the only one whose demons start swarming every time I read about that peppy, pretty 20-year-old with the Eragon knock-off who just signed a six-figure deal.  Writers can be mean and jealous creatures, overly-competitive but sometimes too shy and internally-focused to do anything but beat themselves up about other people’s successes.  But that’s like feeding hemlock to your muse, and it’s both counter-productive and tiring to always feel inferior to your peers.

Because unlike sports figures who have to compete for a limited number of spots on a team, the book-reading audience is unlimited.  People don’t just buy one book, or align themselves with one author and shun the rest for the remainder of their lives.  They buy lots and lots of books, and are always looking for new writers to spark their interest.  They’ll buy top authors and they’ll buy unknowns.  They’ll take a chance on someone who might not be great, or someone who just thinks they might not be great.  It doesn’t matter if there are people better than you are, because there’s still a market for you, too.  All you have to do is capture their interest – and we all know that the quality of a book isn’t necessarily a predictor of its popularity.

So relax.  Put the potato chips away.  Learn to admire, accept, and emulate the people who are better than you are instead of dooming yourself to being defeated by them.  I know it’s hard, and I know there will always be days when I feel the crushing weight of fantasy giants and their big gold trophies and fat paychecks bogging me down.

Sure, there are people who find instant fame and a movie deal with their first book.  Sure, there are the household names who have barely gotten through puberty.  But just because I’m not the best (yet) doesn’t mean I’m not good.  It doesn’t mean I shouldn’t try.  You have to start somewhere, and it’s really hard to type when your fingers are covered in chip grease.  So get up and get over it.  There will always be someone better.  But if you close Twitter for a while and reread what you just wrote, you might find that you’re halfway to greatness yourself.