Friday, August 18, 2017

Gatekeeping is a Bi-Product, Not the Goal

Every once in a while I see complaints about self-publishing, or for self-publishing, and there’s one commonly thrown about idea that completely contradicts my experience in the writing world: traditional publication was created to filter out bad writing.

But was it? Because I don’t see anyone who would willingly subjugate themselves to that. Why the hell would I let someone randomly designate themselves the gatekeeper of literature and put my book through that process?

Traditional publication was created due to a need, not some self-imposed judge saying, “I will now decide if you’re good enough to be read by others.” Even today when we have a variety of options, no traditional publishing house considers itself the filter of good and bad. It just says, “This is what I want to invest in.”

Books cost money to make. Self-publishing became popular when ebooks tore down the majority of required costs. Nowadays, it’s entirely possible to get a manuscript to the public without spending one dime, though many people would question the wisdom of that budget. Fact is, money is key.

The evolution of “traditional” publication was all about the green. In order to get books out there, you had to be able to avoid a means of printing and the paper it went on, bare-minimum. Those with the talent or energy often didn’t have the funds to do this, so they pitched their work to those who did, convincing them to either support the arts, or that they could make their money back. Very symbiotic, quid-pro-quo type relationship. It became a standard due to the mass expense of publication. To this day, a large traditional publisher can easily spend 50,000 dollars per book launch, outside of the writer’s advance.

Travel writer Laurie Gough wrote a piece titled, “Self-Publishing: An Insult to the Written Word,” arguing, “The important role that publishers fill is to separate the wheat from the chaff. If you’re a good writer and have a great book you should be able to get a publishing contract.”

Except I’ve never had an agent or acquiring editor say that was their job. In fact, I’ve heard many, many say the exact opposite.

The agents I’ve spoken to admit that they would pass on books they liked or books they thought they were good. Sometimes it was by chance, “I just signed something else too similar,” or it was not right for them, “I wasn’t passionate about it.” The most common argument is that many agents and editors aren’t just looking for something well-made, but something they can sell. If they can’t think of a pitch for it, many won’t sign it. They are not issuing their stamp of approval on each and every manuscript; they are looking for people they want to work with, for manuscripts they care about, and something that can make pay everyone’s bills.

There are a select number of slots for each agent. Think 5-7 books picked up a year by an agent who receives 400 submissions a month. They’re going to pass on things that are good, even if they loved it. They need to bite off only what they can chew, and the less books they have, the more dedicated to each they can be to each one.

And think about it: imagine depending your entire year on making six sales alone—living in New York no less! You had better have faith in them instead of wasting your time on something that gets you nothing. Agents make money only when authors do, and most of them don’t have a “day” job to supplement a failed sale, so they have the world to choose from, they’re more likely to make a safer bet or something they really, truly love. A merely good book isn’t necessarily going to cut it.

I’ve never heard someone claim they see themselves as a gatekeeper of literature. I’m positive they’re out there, but many agents recognize their weaknesses and strengths, understand subjectivity and personal tastes, and will admit that even if they had picked up Harry Potter, they might not have been able to make it hit the big time like it had; a lot of success is about timing and luck. Who knows what might have changed if J.K. Rowling had a different agent or publisher?

I see a lot of villainizing of the traditional route, and while I admit it’s not all sunshine and kitty cats—and for some the worse option—it’s not this clinical series of pretentious evaluators telling you, “HOW DARE YOU TRY AND BE AN AUTHOR?!” It’s a business filled with all different types of personalities, different goals, and different methods, and it’s important to try and find what is right for you. Not all agents are good at their jobs, not all publishing houses make good offers, and it’s important to be savvy rather than idolizing or demonizing them.

Self-publishing isn’t this magical process in which true art is made either. Lots of it is half-baked, impatient people rushing through plots, skipping over character arcs and editing, ending whenever they hit some arbitrary, low wordcount to slap it up online. Despite that not all traditionally published books are good, picking up a random novel from Brown is not going to be the same as picking up your friend’s debut novelette written in a week. There are some self-published writers I am absolutely devoted to, far, far better than the mediocrity I’d find in from a random grab in a bookstore, but the vetting process and gatekeeping of traditional publication does give me an initial boost of trust that indies struggle with. In traditional publication, when it’s bad, it’s bad, but in self-publishing, when it’s bad, it’s a mess of delusional gibberish.

I mean, the gatekeeping gives a little more credibility to the authors just by virtue of the process. Several people had to see something in it while no one—not even the author—might like a self-published work. Yes, just because you can’t get a manuscript published doesn’t mean it’s not any good, and just because something got picked up doesn’t mean that it’s something special, but there is a sort of Russian Roulette of taking a chance on a self-published book that isn’t the same for traditionally published.

Regardless, I hear both self-publishers and traditional advocates claiming that the gatekeepers were put into place to filter out the crap, and I don’t think anyone’s actually made that claim. I, for one, would not trust a person who said, “I have chosen the good books for you,” as evidenced by my reaction to my school assignments in high school. Who gave them the right? I would have to see the gatekeepers have gatekeepers before I took a system like that seriously.

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Monday, August 14, 2017

Who the Hell is Elmore Leonard?

I vented to a friend last night, as I am wont to do.

“I’m intellectually constipated,” I said.

“What does that mean?”

“Every time I try to talk about a problem, instead of a flow of ideas or a sounding board, I get dismissed: That’s not a problem. The solution to that is easy! Why don’t you just… You’re making things more complicated than necessary. Here’s what Google has to say about it.”

“Writers, man, huh?”

I knew that she wasn’t the right person to talk to about this. She is a massive advocate of the rules, a screenwriting student who loves Hemingway and won’t read the Hunger Games because it can never match up. But she was interested in writing, and at least had opinions.

When it comes to advice, people tend to stick with the quippy and repetitive, telling me not to use said or adverbs, ignoring more important issues like what actually happened in the text. They miss the fact the gun disappeared mid-scene because they obsess over whether or not to say ‘lightly’ or ‘slightly.’ Even if you do oblige them, doing nothing that they normally criticize, they’ll spend your time together saying, “Oh, you don’t do that thing that I always look for! Let me tell you why it’s bad anyway.”

They’re a one-trick pony.

About a year ago I went to a writers conference in which a woman started out by handing me a plot formula. She had only read the first few pages, but decided that backstory absolutely couldn’t be in them—because the formula said so. She was the sort of person who thought science fiction began and ended with Star Wars, and incorrectly insisted that the movie didn’t have any backstory in the first act.

“Its backstory dump is actually pretty iconic,” I said.

For a reference, she was one of many, many people to read that work, and the only one to complain about discussing the character’s history. It was an intentional later addition too, proposed to help build the world. The story starts in a limited place, but by showing images of his past, I could quickly—and in the most successful way so far—tell the audience what kind of world it was without too much editorializing. After adding it in, complaints on confusion and world building slowed down massively. She wasn’t a good reader, asking questions that were answered more than once in the text, and over time I just had to accept that we just didn’t have the same writing philosophies.

She too was a big rule follower. Her small press book was most criticized (well, for the typos in the Hawaiian vocabulary, but we’ll ignore those) for her “juvenile” and simplistic style. The rules these days enforce minimalism. She spent a good portion of our fifteen minutes I’d paid for pointing out each and every adverb, saying which ones were okay, criticizing the one where she misinterpreted the subtext of the dialogue.

On her sparse blog, she has one post featuring Elmore Leonard’s writing rules, which summed her up all together.

Debbie, my dear—I wanted to say—I came to you to hear what Debbie has to say about my work. Not what a writer fifty years ago said about writing in general. Not what a Western writer has to say about the first three chapters of a science fiction book.

For that matter, who is Elmore Leonard? Why should we listen to him? Do I like his writing? Do YOU like his writing? These are important questions to consider.

I have to say that in my experience, people know Leonard best from his writing rules, not his actual fiction. Mentioning him, no one seems to recognize him, or if they do, his advice comes up.

So when I said to my friend that day I complained about my intellectual constipation, “Who the hell is Elmore Leonard?” it was no surprise when she replied. “Oh, my boyfriend and I were just talking about him! He has some pretty good advice!”

No, I said. He has some pretty generic advice.

The first time I looked him up, he seemed successful enough. He’s written quite a few novels, some made into movies, and while I haven’t personally heard of him or any of his works, I’m not really a Western girl.

“Well, it’s good advice for screenwriting,” she amended.

“Don’t use prologues or synonyms for said is good for screenwriting?”

What frustrates me most about the obsession with Leonard’s writing rules is two-fold. One is that I don’t particularly find his ten writing rules useful.

1. Never open a book with weather.

2. Avoid prologues.

3. Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.

4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said.”

5. Keep your exclamation points under control.

6. Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.”

7. Use regional dialect, patois sparingly.

8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.

9. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.

10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

What’s wrong with them, you ask? Well, nothing. It’s not that I necessarily disagree. The foundation of the ideas can be pretty useful for quick sprucing up or an easy fix. It’s just that I consider them to be more or less irrelevant on a larger scale. Not when you’re really trying to improve yourself.

They gloss over the point. They don’t get to the foundation of the issue. They don’t help someone who’s starting for nothing understand what they’re trying to do. Teach a man to fish…

Don’t start with the weather? Well yeah, in that people don’t care too much about it. You’re not going to get someone emotionally invested by talking about the rain instead of people. But the important part isn’t the weather, it’s why the weather is boring.

It feels like I'm being pedantic, but I passionately believe that specific 'don'ts' cause more problems for new writers than they solve. For one thing, people tend to either reject advice or take it too seriously in the early stages, and good advice will tactfully encourage someone who doesn't like being told what to do to listen while giving permission for those who tend to play it safe to experiment. Most people, adults especially, need to go back to their inspiration and envision the world, not nitpick over punctuation. Not in the early stages. All writers must be brave and take risks. Those risks, and mistakes, are what they'll learn most from.

You’re not going to write an excellent book by following these rules. For one thing there’s thousands of other ways to screw it up. In fact, you can make the exact same mistake the advice really means by following it to the letter. This is like training to be a doctor and someone continuously harping on not leaving a quarter inside your patient. True, but aren’t there a few other things a student needs to know to perform surgery well? There are more important factors at hand. If your dialogue sucks, it's not because you used 'exclaimed' and simply using 'said' isn't going to make you shine. Bad dialogue does not come from exclamation points or full-sentences; it comes from bad characterization and meta-motivation. If you understand the characters' moods, history, and priorities, the way that they think, if you truly see it before you and feel what they feel, see what they see, you're naturally going to improve your punctuation to convey that. In fact, thinking too hard about the writing is going to draw you further from your imagination, which is going to make you more stilted and mechanical.

When someone's struggling with making good decisions, telling them merely what not to do just causes them to seize up when really they need to relax. Most times writing is boring because it's perfunctory and impersonal - giving goals instead of restrictions helps them find their true voice. Helping them focus on what they do want instead of what they don't want cuts away some of the overwhelming options in mass, organically, while merely making a few specific decisions for them only cut away those specific decisions. And not always to the success of the piece - you have to be clear if you and the writer actually are trying to write the same vision. Some people don't like Elmore Leonard's way of storytelling and will be less satisfied when adopting his voice.

On that same note, over years and years of writing, I’ve slowly begun to realize that my glossing over of visual details is my biggest hold-up. People need to know if it’s night or day pretty early on, and weather adds ambiance. As a science fiction and fantasy writer, my worlds would be more fascinating if I didn't skim over the descriptions, but went into detail about what the culture looks like. What the person is trying to write matters a lot when deciding how they should go about it, and, surprisingly, many critics don't consider that not everyone likes the same books. These rules are not universal or self-explanatory enough to be used as a 101 strategy, rather learned advice that needs to be discussed at length instead of just insisted upon without comment. They are not only “breakable” as people recommended, but a lot of them are more about balance. While some people need to do more, advisers tend to assume that you’re already overdoing it and could stand to cut back, despite never seeing what it actually is you've done.

Personally, I’ve seen these sorts of opinions to be counterproductive, providing writers with a weird ideology of quality and a false sense of security. They get this belief about how writing should be, supported by these quippy clichés, and they think they’re golden.

If the worst thing about your dialogue is the tags, you’re doing pretty well. I argue that focusing on the meta-mechanics, like whether to use said or not, is actually distracting from the real issue. I have seen people painfully overuse the word, and there are times in which synonyms are far more effective and less invasive than other means to convey mood.

“Learn the rules to learn to break them,” they say.

“Learn the rules by breaking them,” I say.

Or rather, it’s important to experiment. It seems so many people who make orders to follow the rules have yet to understand when or why it’s okay to “break them.”

"Why say 'he blinked rapidly' when you can just say 'twice'?"

Misinformed about what an adverb is, the speaker is insisting that the horrible ramifications of using an adverb will be fixed by... using another adverb.

The best teachers know exactly what will happen when not doing what they suggest because they've made the mistakes for themselves. Many people who insist on not using adverbs aren't willing to discuss it at length because they don't really know what the problems it causes are, never having tested or thought critically about the results of disobeying. And in my opinion, the rules aren’t actually defaults. They’re very successful tools to fix already existing problems, not prevent you from making bad writing in the first place. So if your sentence isn't great, try taking out the adverb, but don't write the first draft being super conscientious, always asking, "Is this okay?" It takes you out of the scene.

One man I once had a disagreement with insisted that good dialogue was all about being “realistic.” When I pointed out examples of successful dialogue that wasn’t remotely like we speak, he, of course, immediately said that because those authors were great, their techniques didn’t apply to the newbies. Aspiring authors have to try and be normal first. (Not his actual words). My point was, I said, is that realistic dialogue does NOT equal good dialogue, and no, I don’t agree that when you’re first developing your style you need to write in one specific way.

You want to write like Shakespeare, it doesn’t make sense to restrict yourself to only writing like Hemingway. It’s better to play around with both styles, but if you had to pick one… obviously you should be practicing with whatever voice you ultimately want to have.

You don’t learn the rules by obeying them. You don’t wait until you’ve applied them successfully to know when to ignore them. You learn them by screwing around. You try to write the way that you want to, analyze if it was successful, and then play around with it some more.

No one believes that writing rules are going to make masterpieces. It seems, at times, it’s for the amateurs and the amateurs alone, to keep them in their place. But really, I find, is that people enjoy giving and getting quick and easily applied tips rather than getting to the nitty-gritty of it all. It's easier to say, "Only use said," and honestly see some decent results than it is to apply, "What does your character think of the person he's talking to?"

My real issue is that rules like Leonard’s discourage play and gloss over intention. If I could give one piece of advice to a writer, none of these would be on my top twenty. I find them ineffective, especially taken too literally. Just because you don’t have a prologue doesn’t mean your beginning works; there’s a lot more important factors to make that happen.

As for the other reason Leonard’s repeated writing rules bother me, it’s about the question of results.

Leonard is known for immersive and hooking writing, which is great. Looking at it from that perspective—to get a book going from the start, avoid things like the weather and prologues—it makes it more specific, enabling the listener to piece out what those things have in common and therefore how they should start a book. But his followers don’t listen to that advice.

Do. Without context. Just do.

Once I sent a pitch to my Hemingway-loving friend. I had rewritten it until my eyes bled and I was pretty sure it didn’t make a lick of sense anymore. I asked her her opinion: Is this confusing?

“Yes, it kind of is,” she admitted.

“Okay,” I said.

“Why don’t you just write like Hemingway?” she asked.

The insult was multi-layered. She knew damn well I am not among the fanatic lovers of Hemingway like those in her college classes. Hemingway is a manly man of few, simple words and subtle meaning in seemingly mundane situations. Am I impressed by his ability? Certainly. I recognize it’s hard. But I don’t like his style. It’s noticeable, non-immersive, even, I’ll admit, cringeworthy at times. His view on women makes sense for his time, but I find them uninteresting or even obnoxious. His obsession with masculinity doesn’t tie in with my world view. His experiences are hard for me to relate to, and his priorities aren’t mine. I recognize he’s a good writer, but that doesn’t mean he works for me.

But more to the point, and this ties us back into who the hell is Elmore Leonard, her request; did not make sense for what I was trying to do. I was writing an encompassing one-sentence summary of a sci-fi novel’s plot. Hemingway writes deep, subtextual meaning into seemingly insignificant, contemporary objects during mundane events. The goals, and therefore strategies, are different.

Who is Elmore Leonard? I don’t write Westerns. I don’t know of a Elmore Leonard. I do know my friend, I do know the writer I paid for feedback. Neither of these people admit to reading his work, and yet they push first and foremost his ideology onto me instead of questioning what will be most useful in my situation.

You’re not going to push writers’ abilities further with “don’t use anything but said.” You’re not going to get them to write excellent dialogue, make them think, force them to dig deep. You’re not going to challenge them, or teach them “how to fish.” You’re going to give them an easy way to cover up the real problem.

The issue isn’t really about who Elmore Leonard is. It’s about recognizing that people have different tastes, different goals, and especially different weaknesses or strengths. It’s important whenever giving advice to reflect on who you’re speaking to, and consider the source of your advice. Use examples that mean something to them and help them write in the way they personally like. Name dropping may give your opinions some credibility, but if you really want to be helpful, speak from the heart at hand, don’t just repeat something that sounds good. If Elmore Leonard’s advice can help me, spend some time talking about the effect it will achieve, not just telling me to be like someone else.

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Friday, August 11, 2017

There and Back Again: Why I'm Coming Home

“I’m moving to New York City,” I said, walking down the sidewalk of my small tourist town at 11 o’clock at night.

“You keep saying that…” the actor replied.

It was the summer of 2013, one and a half years after my college graduation. I was a starving artist in the recession, and so returned home for survival. I never planned on staying that long, but facing reality is hard when you don’t have to. And, in fairness to me, I kept getting work at the local theatres that would stave my plans to leave for several months. It was gratifying to have them beg me to come onboard, my reliability and low value of my time irreplaceable. Plus, I enjoyed it.

Something carnally bothered me about not being believed, and ever since I can remember, I have been determined to finish what I set out to do. I suppose it has to do with people’s tendency to write me off, or my mother’s insistence that because I had a fibbing problem at three, I’m probably lying now.

I was procrastinating, that was true. I only knew that I didn’t want to live in Jackson. I didn’t think I’d want to be a New Yorker for the next fifty years. At the time, the only things I wanted out of life was to write and have a family. Be warm. Not have to shave ice off my car in the morning. I didn’t particularly want to raise children in an urban environment, and I could write from anywhere.

After that conversation, I met someone. He was Australian and intelligent. Shy and introverted, a reader who was in the middle of The Wheel of Time series. I wasn’t into the bad boy look, not a fan of a smoker or tattoos, yet something about his mix of masculinity and femininity and geekishness—he liked cars and theatre and A Game of Thrones—appeal to me. He stopped short when he first saw me, and I felt intensely flattered by the way he looked at me. He was a talented actor, and as I observed from afar I saw a lot of pain and sensitivity. I don’t know why I was mesmerized with him, but I was. I remember saying to myself before I asked him out, “What’s the worst that could happen?” Funny.

After an exciting first two weeks, he made me miserable. He ignored me. Claimed to be busy. Jerked me around in a way I’d never seen someone treat another before, so I gave him the benefit of the doubt and listened to his excuses. When we were together he was happy. Excited to see me, showed me off to his friends. When apart, it was like I didn’t exist. I did think another woman might be in the mix except the small town status and the fact that we went to all his haunts made it seem hard to believe.

I’ve said in the past I didn’t want to go into the events because it’s not just my story. Those of you who have been following me have seen some emotional turmoil and pretty severe anger in what followed for the next three years. The end results were me in Australia, me considering what I really wanted out of life, recognizing that I would have to give up so much to be with the man that I loved.

A part of me was deeply upset that I had never lived in New York City like I had wanted. Yes, some of it had to do with telling people. Some of it had to do with the fact that I always thought it was an option. There were many things, I’d come to realize, that by moving to the “Loneliest City on Earth” as Perth is lovingly called, I had limited myself from.

When I left my ex and returned to Wyoming with no money, dog, or house, without a financially sustainable career and a pile of unpublished manuscripts that may never see the light of day, I was at the lowest point in my life. It wasn’t that I felt my worse… I just didn’t feel anything at all. It occurred to me that all of the things I thought I would have, all of the things I thought would make sense over time, might never come to fruition. I’ve always struggled to feel crushes or infatuation, and the deep, irrational love that I had for him was something I didn’t think I was capable of. One year later and I realize that I may never feel it again, especially with my shut-in lifestyle and intense anger at the obsess-and-discard attitude prevalent in dating these days.

The decision to move to New York as soon as possible was based off my complete loss of desire. I didn’t want to be limited. I wanted the world to be open to me. I wanted something interesting in my life. I wanted people to take me seriously. On that same note, despite wanting all these things, I at the same time wanted nothing specific. What was I looking for in a partner? What place could I find peers who would inspired me? Collaborate with me? Share the need for challenge and risk while having the savviness of when I’ve taken it too far?

The fabric store closed down. The art supplies were gone. The music store didn’t have a golden E string.

New York was filled with aspiring artists. It had people of all walks of life. It had every job imaginable. It was busy, energetic, alive. I didn’t know what I was looking for, so it seemed like the best place to be.

I spent the first few months stressed, sending my resume out into the void, beginning my querying process seriously for the first time in fifteen years. I felt alone and worried about money, but optimistic just the same. I got my job and relief washed over me. I met up with friends. I got into a long distance relationship with a younger man who, despite being the carbon copy of my ex a decade removed, actually enabled me to come to terms with the condescension and inadequacies my ex made me feel. This time, when—unbeknownst to me—another woman caused his odd behavior, I reacted to his emotional distance and noncommittal ways by writing him off and moving on. There was no satisfaction when I found that the girl in question rebuked in him a humiliating way, but there was the ability to forgive, and a sense of empowerment that I didn’t put up with his bullshit even lacking all the information.

That’s where things started to change.

After online dating in which I met some nice men who didn’t know to brush their teeth before a date, regardless of how casual, and long hours of bemoaning the massive amounts of selfishness a person can bring down on someone, I began to acknowledge not only that I may never have a family, it wouldn’t be as big of a deal. This year, my goals have drastically changed. I went from desiring stability and security to seeing the benefits of freedom. Both my prior relationships were merely emotional vacuums with little reward. When the younger man came to see me in the city, anything romantic he attempted was ruined by his conditional attitude afterwards. “Next time it’s your turn!” he’d make a point to tell me, even though I’d beyond demonstrated my generosity. The quid pro quo attitude that men presented to me tended to ignore the more subtle gestures, often more difficult and time consuming, I did for them, while giving no appreciation towards any of the grand gestures where I went out of my way to make him feel secure and wanted. While being in a relationship prior to all of this felt rewarding and stimulating, today I associate it with being responsible for another being who will often resent you.

I have wanderlust, I realized.

I love New York City. In the last couple of months my social anxiety has dispersed into thin air. I still have my awkward moments and tend to retreat into my mind instead of acknowledging people in stressful or embarrassing situations, yet the actual act of making eye contact, joking with a stranger in the elevator, and just being around people in general is a thousand times easier. I’m not a fan of making small talk any more than I was before, but I don’t feel like the same intrusion that I did just a year prior.

I like how I can walk down the street and get milk. I like the people here and their general attitude. I have found multitudes of aspiring artists who seem to understand my creative curiosity. It’s expensive, but when you don’t drink, it’s doable. I like dog walking. I like the animals themselves, the sunshine and the exercise. I like being on my own with my thoughts.

The atmosphere is wonderful and exciting. But I feel a little trapped.

Being without a car is hard, even in a city with good transportation. Taxis make me instantaneously motion sick, plus the expense. The subway is typically fine, but unreliable, limited, requiring a great deal of walking. And when you’re schlepping something back from downtown, it becomes immediately apparent just how far five miles really is.

My belief that things would be more accessible to me here was incorrect. In Jackson, it would take me an hour one way to drive to the closest store to get batting for a quilt. In New York? Still a forty-five minute long trip, and instead of getting in your car, putting on cruise control, and listening to an audio book, you’re walking fifteen minutes to the subway, fifteen minutes from it, riding on a subway car that smells like grime, squashed in between two people and trying not to get motion sick as you read your ebook. Whatever you get, you have to carry it back, and you can’t just do all your errands at once.

Oh. And you actually might have an incredibly hard time finding what you’re looking for. Partially because all the store names are different out here, but they don’t have many “Walmarts” or superstores to just walk into grab all the items you need and leave. The batting was ridiculously difficult to come by. I called and walked into numerous stores before I got the only kind offered, paid an arm and a leg for it, and was recommended to try buying it online.

If I wanted to buy things online, I’d live in Wyoming.

A big reason I wanted to move to NYC was the theatre. I enjoy producing, and I wanted to get in on networking with a wide variety of artists. However, since my producer time in Los Angeles, things have changed. I’ve learned how one successful project does not make the next easier, I have little desire to commute down to the theatre district every day for a show, and I’m broke, exhausted, and don’t have the time or money to dedicate myself to a piece like I used to. I don’t feel inspired to produce right now, and getting the point where I had the resources to do so would take a few years of actively spending most of my time in the theatre. Right now, I feel more inspired to make my novels into something and not so excited for the plays.

I also came here to take lessons that would be offered to me… except I don’t have any money. Yes, I would love to do stage combat, but it’s over a grand a month, and I don’t have that. My new habit in the violin already is emptying my wallet.

Jackson has a wonderful dance company, and other classes that I haven’t taken advantage of. Why did I need to come here?

But the decision was made for me when I started watching Girlboss, and subsequently bought the autobiographical book by Sophia Amoruso.

I have been bemoaning how my starving artist lifestyle and wanderlust makes my resume look like crap. All over the place, switching jobs every two years or less, even though I have the best recommendations you can ask for, I look like a flight risk. Which, I am.

As I stated, last summer I had little to show for myself. Skills, yes, but more or less useless ones in terms of benefiting society. Anything I was good at would only be profitable for my own business or as a teacher. I left my puppy with my ex. I left our beautiful (rented) house in Australia. I left my image of our life together. We had plans for a wedding, names for kids, a future. All of that was gone.

A few months ago I got a call from my old job offering me a title and a salary.

“I hear you’re coming back!” my manager said after I had merely mentioned it to a select few individuals.

What the…? Goddamn small town… I muttered to myself.

“If you want your job back, we’ll make it worth your while!”

Out in the Wild, Wild West, my parents also had a piece of property I would one day inherit and my dad, a contractor, suggested that if I come back, he’d help me build a small house on it. The promise of having a home—even if I ultimately didn’t decide to live in it—perked me up. It would be a potential permeant space, but not only that, it would make getting a dog in the next few years possible.

After my stint in Ireland, I’ve been making expensive plans to go to Morocco (which changed to Cambodia), as well as any other place I can find a means to. Traveling breaks the monotony of my life and creates good memories, along with a feeling of living my days to the fullest.

So with all that promise, the ads for Girlboss hit me right at the best moment.

Girlboss tells the true story about Amoruso who started her own ebay company selling vintage clothing by having the right eye for style and showmanship. She began it out of necessity, needing funds to survive. It reminded me of Amanda Hocking, whose success as an author started when she self-published her book to afford tickets to some concert.

I wanted to do that. I wanted to see more funds come from my writing and sewing and artwork. I wanted the freedom to travel, to create, and to do things that I’ve always wanted without being tied down to a job. If I’m not going to have my husband and children, then I’m going to take advantage of the silver lining. At first I wrote it off as a pipedream of everyone’s, but I’ve spent years honing my presentational skills that I’ve never really tested out. Not only did Amoruso’s success make it seem possible, a good friend of mine from college recently quit her job due to her successful Etsy business.

I decided to move back to Wyoming on a whim. It came in June after a coworker went out of his way to lecture me on how he thought I should have handle a certain situation. I didn’t disagree with him necessarily. Yet, his drastic oversimplification and unfamiliarity of what occurred, his melodramatic way of speaking, and his need to spend a condescendingly long amount of time on something that was more or less obvious in hindsight pissed me off just enough for me to consider what I really wanted to do come my lease’s end in September. He was tactless on a somewhat trivial matter that I’d already learned from. I didn’t really plan on quitting, knowing it was a temporary problem, but once I began to analyze the possibilities, it just felt right. If you know me, rarely does anything “just feel right.”

Without the assumed children to support, my starving artist lifestyle has a longer stainability. I don’t need to plant roots when it’s just me. I don’t need as much financial security. I am much more flexible in what I have to do to survive. I had previously considered that if I’m going to live in a small room with no money to stay at home and write, then wouldn’t it be better to take a part-time job somewhere cheaper and give myself more creative free time? The location in Wyoming offers a ridiculous amount of space for a lot less money, giving me a better ability to create. More to the point, I’ll have my cat back and the potential of getting a dog on my own. I’ll be able to set up a workstation. In Wyoming, more of my money can go to what I really care about. I can take classes. I can travel. I can buy better equipment. I can start looking into marketing and professional editors to help me push my work further. I’ll be closer to friends and family, and the limitation I felt there is smaller now that I realize being in the city doesn’t necessarily mean things are available to you.

I want to have creative space, funds for my actual career, the ability to play my violin when I want (without the practice mute), my cat, a real fridge, an oven, a functioning toilet.

Unfortunately, I don’t think I want to live in Jackson forever. It’s cold and isolated. But it’s not the end of the world if, in two years from now, I decide to flee again. Not if I turn focus to less conventional means of financial freedom.

I love NYC. Coming here has done more positive things for me than any other decision I’ve made in adulthood. I feel stronger, wiser, and freer. But it also helped me realize that perhaps I really don’t want to be tied down to an expensive apartment in one singular city.

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Monday, August 7, 2017

Five Writer’s Flaws You Absolutely Need to Have

How are your New Year’s Resolutions coming?

I think about mine often, feel bad for failing them, good for achieving them, enjoying seeing how I changed over the years based on what I want to be true for me and my life. It’s starting to get closer to my birthday, and though January is way behind us and October is still some months away, I start to think about how I can make next year better.

But what I find interesting, what I question, are the common things people think they should alter about themselves. As I hear people complain about their life, I sometimes find myself thinking, “But that’s what I like about you,” or, “But don’t you know the good of it?” As writers, we all know that balance is key, but I’ve found that some of the things that we wish would go away to be very vital to the process.

The need for praise.

For a short period of time, I once didn’t need praise. I wasn’t very productive.

In the months when I was fully confident in my writing, when I knew that I had at least some of the skills to write something to my own tastes, that, at least a book could eventually get where I wanted it to be, I stopped working. I stopped trying to improve.

And there were times in which I wasn’t happy with myself, but I didn’t take praise seriously either. In fact, it actually kind of hurt. It embarrassed me, forced me to question the sincerity. I refused to let my hopes get up. That made it very hard to convince myself writing was enjoyable when I damn well knew it wasn’t.

On the other hand, when you do let yourself enjoy the compliments, you can look forward to them. It can motivate you through the bad times. Getting praise is about getting a little thrill of happiness. Those small moments of validation are important to an otherwise unforgiving, painful, and slow process. You have to feel joy at your own accomplishments, feel good when someone likes your work.

More importantly, it is one option to gauge quality. If you never cared what anyone ever thought of your books, you wouldn’t know when to push yourself harder, or when you need to stop criticizing yourself and appreciate what you've made. It becomes very difficult to admit to yourself if your manuscript really is what you want it to be when you would really like it to be over with. A lot of writers claim they don’t care about praise in a fit of self-doubt, but I often find that if, instead of shaming themselves for wanting something they “shouldn’t,” and instead of avoiding self-analysis out of fear, they might realize that by asking why they’re not getting praise might be the very thing that improves their novel.

When it goes wrong:

But yes, seeking praise does not always encourage good writing. In fact, we all know it can do the exact opposite.

Problems arise when a writer wants everyone to like his book, and so constantly makes changes, turning it into an inconsistent, homogenized mess. Manuscripts like that tend to not be unified in thought, take the thrills out of its risks, or just read like the writer is pandering to a hypothetical (dumber) audience. People are excited by confidence, they trust it.

Plus, many times, what will garner verbal praise isn’t always what will garner meaningful reaction. Keep in mind that people’s compliments and criticisms aren’t always indicative of what they’re actually reading, or what honestly affected them. We can say we love Hemingway, but be tucked away with Fifty Shades.

Notable works were not immediately complimented because something genuinely new will get a response of trepidation (even rejection) before people trust it enough to invest their emotions.

There is nothing wrong with seeking praise, and it’s a good idea to at least reflect on why you’re not getting it, just so long as you don’t let it overcome what’s really important to you and who you really are.


So the big controversy stirring since the popularization of ebooks and self-publishing is writers who are pumping out books much faster than the traditional publishers. Why is it a point of contention? Well, there’s the honest factor that motivation strongly influences results, and so when an author is impatient, the book will read like the author is impatient. Some books are rushed in pace, aren’t very well edited, and just not brought to their full potential. There’s also the unfortunate factors of jealousy or a feeling of being handicapped by your trained patience or slower methods, and of course fear that the standards of protocol and production are changing, and it may very well become expectation that someone is ridiculously prolific and fast.

Both sides have their points. As I say, there are no right answers in writing because someone will tell you you’re wrong no matter what.

Yet I bring up impatience as an important flaw to have because it pushes writers to actually do their work.

For many authors, especially debut ones, especially for the first draft, there are no deadlines. You are on your own. It gets done when it gets done. But if you’re a procrastinator like me, this can be problematic. Waiting until the last minute doesn’t work if there is no last minute.

I have found impatience to be the greatest reason for me to get shit over with. “I want this book to be finished!” It often takes me much longer to do what I want than I think it will, and by giving myself a pressing and sometimes unrealistic deadline, I have the motivation to work on it, where as if I let myself off the hook, I’m more likely to leave it alone, even abandoning it.

In my experience, patient writers who give themselves a long, reasonable timeframe never complete it. I am, of course, speaking of specific individuals and assume there’s a lot of people who go against this generalization. Yet, I stand by my belief that impatient people tend to be far more productive, and those who don’t pressure themselves to get it done take much longer than they even scheduled themselves for.

Also, for writers like me, a manuscript is never good enough, never completely really, and sometimes the only thing forcing you to actually put it out there is being so goddamn sick of it that you’re wondering if Belgium is far enough.

When it goes wrong:

It’s not the impatience but the priority of it that cases mistakes.

When the author starts to cut corners, refuses to analyze results, and doesn’t allot themselves time to do it right, that’s when this flaw becomes a huge obstacle.

Impatience bleeds through a novel. Everyone can tell when something is truly written in haste. Impatience works when it forces you to sit your butt in the chair to get it done. It backfires if it encourages you to call it done before it’s ready.

Delusions of grandeur.

Every writer has dealt with some deluded asshole at some point. Probably me, if you’re reading this. It can be so frustrating to have someone, an unhappy someone at that, proverbially plugging his ears to every piece of advice simply because he believes he is too good for it.

However, I find that some sort belief in being “The Chosen One” is one of the most effective philosophies in not getting discouraged.

I’ve met people who genuinely recognized their insignificance in the world. They were logical about the statistical unlikelihood of being a successful artist and accepted it. If I was lucky, it just caused them to aim low. In most cases, it made them stop creating all together.

These are talented and intelligent people, mind you.

But like the seeking of praise, motivation requires hope for some sort of reward. It doesn’t have to be superficial—rewards can mean good memories, changing the world, etc.—it just has to be something that 1) means something to them, 2) outweighs the pain, and 3) could possibly happen.

To be clear, not all artists want fame and fortune. I know people I genuinely believe would hate that.

When I say “delusions of grandeur,” I am referencing a powerful belief in yourself, a belief that you can do something that will mean something despite a lack of irrefutable proof. That belief doesn’t come from logically analyzing the reality around you, just a strange sense of faith in your own abilities.

Ever wonder why most successful people seem batshit crazy? It’s because those who do something do it because they didn’t know they couldn’t. Reasonable, rational people aim for what they know they can get. Deluded people have no idea what they can get, and so aim for what they want.

When you aim higher, you get higher.

When it goes wrong:

Delusion becomes a problem when it either prevents the person from actually working, gives them unrealistic expectations, or entitles them to poor behavior.

In one severe case, I had a screenwriter who so strongly believed God would give him a career, he thought that someone would happen across him and ask for his script. He did, at least, write them, but he never submitted them anywhere, refused to even type copies of his handwritten screenplays, and when a friend did bring him an offer of 10,000 dollars for one, he said, “This script is worth 100,000 dollars.” (That’s the kind of money you’d make if a company like Paramount or Universal got into a bidding war over it, for comparison’s sake.)

Yes, there are a lot of times in which people are so deluded in their abilities they don’t bother to ever write anything, put themselves out there, market their books, or take any actual actions. They think their work is so fantastic—even the hypothetical kind—they once they do get around to writing it, it will immediately be picked up and become a bestseller. They are those who admit to slapping up a book online with no intention on telling anyone about it and expecting it to go somewhere. (Though, of course, they claim, “I don’t care if it sells or not.”)

Unrealistic expectations are different than just aiming high and having big dreams. When it starts to become a series of restrictions on those dreams, without any foundation in what typically happens, the Grand Writer sets himself up for failure and the overwhelming demoralization that comes with it. Instead of researching how to go about it, what to expect, and paying attention to what those around him are doing, he makes ridiculous demands or decisions believing he will be the exception. Fate or luck will put him in the right place at the right time. He doesn’t take the path right for him, he takes the easy one.

Being critical.

People say to read great books when to improve your writing. I say read a lot of crap. The classics are fantastic, but the reasons for their successes aren’t limited to just what is written. There is an important backstory to every well-known novel that factors into their popularity. Who they know, who they were being compared to, how much publicity had they received beforehand, when in their life they actually became successful, what politically and economically was going on around them… all of it factors into why their writing was noticed, why the style worked for the people when it did. Bad writing is fairly limited to the actual words on a page.

I’m the first to say that giving criticism can be empowering, that despite what many will tell you, it can be completely self-serving. But even if you get a high out of it, for most there’s still that horrible, bittersweet feeling. Even when you say nothing to the person in question, being critical can be exhausting, dirty, overwhelming, and infuriating. For this reason, I sometimes wish I couldn’t be so critical.

Yet it’s extremely important for everyone involved.

Now, I don’t believe in giving criticism to people I don’t know without their request. I think it’s extremely rude. Also, I do sometimes get off on it, so I’m extra careful to avoid it being that it's hard for me to gauge my intentions. But not actually stating criticism and not thinking it are two very different things. Even when you have no interest in being negative, when you have an honest reaction to something, it’s best to let yourself reflect on it.

Being critical of other authors is how we define our own personal philosophies and goals, how we determine the best and worst tactics for ourselves. Being critical of ourselves is how we learn to take control over our lives. Judging someone else’s decisions is the best way to make better decisions for ourselves in the future. I've learned the most about writing by reading books I didn't like and really analyzing what about them didn't work for me.

The other thing to remember is that being critical effectively is a learned skill. It takes time to train yourself to notice your feelings, dissect them, understand them, and then articulate them. When someone wants your opinion, which they will eventually, having practiced criticism for yourself will better enable you to give it to someone else.

When it goes wrong:

When you don’t know when to keep your mouth shut. Including when you’re talking to yourself.

Criticism has a time and place. Sometimes it’s a good idea to put your critical eye aside and let things be free to grow as they will. Being too critical can inhibit the creative process. It can also lose you friends, fans, or even just peers. Speaking it too much will come off as insecurity; thinking it too much will cause insecurity.

While critical thoughts is an important part of the process, so is knowing when to speak them and when to keep them to yourself.


I can’t stand being jealous, especially if it’s a writer I wish the best for. Envy is a painful, exhausting, belittling feeling that does no one any good. 

Or does it?

While I would gladly give away my ability to be jealous, I have found two good things come from it. One, it is a great motivator.

A friend of mine got picked up by an agent… right after he had sent me some notes on my manuscript no less. Now, I really like him, want the world for him, think he’s a very talented writer, but this bothered me. Of course it did. I hated that it bothered me. Yet, on seeing that someone who I had been writing partners with manage to get an agent, it motivated me to buckle down and get to work. It reminded me that it was possible for me to do it, and my competitive side demanded that I rise to the occasion. And I did.

Jealousy is a great way to tell you what you want, that you can get it, and force you into action.

Jealousy also makes me a better person. Mostly because I demand it to. I realized as I was not completely happy for someone I very much should have been, I needed to do something about it. After that, I made it a point to always support an author who had good news—even if I hated them. I would do so subtly, an action of the same magnitude as my feeling. It ranges anywhere from a comment on a blog, a like on a Facebook page, buying their book, or even donating money to their project.

This enabled me to feel better about myself, brought us a little closer together, and even by just acting supportive, I felt supportive.

When it goes wrong:

It’s fairly obvious. Jealousy tends to make asses out of us all. It taints our view, warps our ability to be objective, causes us to be mean, and in the worst scenarios, brings out our insecurity. It goes wrong when we let it control our actions, when it festers inside us. It goes wrong when we treat others like dirt. ‘Nough said.

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Friday, August 4, 2017

Five Things People Assume About Writing (That May or May Not Be True)

Beginning writers are delusional about how good their writing is.

While I’m absolutely positive I could find someone who is like this, I don’t think I’ve ever actually met someone who didn't have a little sense of doubt mucking things up. Not even myself.

Delusional, yes. Uninformed, yes. Hopeful, hell yes. But even when considering the most arrogant writers I’ve met, I would argue that every biased writer I’ve talked to leans in the direction of hating their own work.

Not that all writers do hate their work (I put a lot of weight on my ability to analyze my own writing before giving it out for external opinion), but when I see extreme delusion, it’s against the writing, not in favor.

Yes, I’ve had people who were bad at taking criticism, and I’ve definitely experienced writers who act like they are in love with themselves, that they’re the biggest expert in the room, and that they are superior to everyone around them. But, I never got the vibe they really, truly believed in themselves. Their insistence of quality seemed to come from fear, not confidence.

It was hope and insecurity that leads to inappropriate attitudes. The worst were often the people who said, “I’m too hard on myself too.” Which translates directly into, “I think/hope my work is better than I think it is.”

Sure, I’ve changed my mind about pieces, liking them one moment and not the next. And then sometimes I’ll go back again. Sometimes I’ll feel like something is in good shape until I’ve put it away for later and then I’m like… no this needs more work. But being completely confident? No.

Even those writers who send out their unpolished manuscripts claiming they have the next bestseller, even those who go ballistic at criticism and tell the critic they’re batshit crazy, even those who seem to be filled with an undeserved ego don’t necessarily think highly of themselves. In fact, it’s likely that they have a lower self-esteem than average. Some people like their writing fine, and this discourages some to push it to being the best piece it can be, but for the most part, writers have at least a modicum of lingering doubt about their abilities, no matter what they say.

Your family is too nice to give you constructive criticism.

Most writers come to me in shock about the lack of support they get from their parents, siblings, and friends. No, they probably won’t buy your book even if they said they would. They probably won’t read the one you give them either. And it’s likely that they’re going to be harsher on your writing than anyone else. They know you, they remember when you were too stupid to figure out a toilet, and they’ve seen the “behind the scenes” just as much as you have.

Now, it’s not impossible for families to be too nice. If I had to speculate (and this is only speculation), I’d argue it’s a 3:7 ratio of too nice to too critical (from the conversations I’ve had). Meaning that your mom’s praise might shouldn’t be taken super seriously, but it’s more likely she’s going to end up making you cry.

That doesn’t necessarily mean that they’ll be giving you useful feedback, but it’s important to realize that having your family not too interest in your work is probably the norm, not a sign of your ineptitude.

Reading good books will help you become a better writer.

Well, yes. They do. It helps. And I would recommend it to anyone who is looking for the fastest way to improve. The mistake is where people push “good” books and don’t give enough credit to what reading unpolished or outright bad fiction can do for you.

For starters, there’s the issue of what is a good book.

Academia is filled with teachers saying, “No, Lord of the Rings is not a classic,” and “You’re naïve if you like Twilight.”

“See these books you don’t like? That are boring and unrelatable? Those are good books. Oh, but you don’t try to write like them. You’re not good enough yet to break those rules.”

There is a huge inconsistency. The books you like are bad, often the books you don’t like are good, and in the end, it doesn’t really matter because you really aren’t allowed to write like either.

We give people examples like Melville, Hemingway, Joyce, Shakespeare, and Austen, but got forbid you actually attempt using their styles. And the writers who do start their career by mimicking voices usually come off as force, stilted, and unoriginal. I’ve read a lot of unpolished fiction, and you can always see the Hemingway copycats. Their style usually doesn’t do well with people for a variety of reasons.

One, predominantly, being that it did not come from an organic and personal place. The writer is often “trying too hard.” Two, however, is that if you want to learn from the greats, you have to learn all about the greats.

Hemingway did not get away with a lack of punctuation because some editor immediately recognized his genius. He got away with it because he was in the right place, right time, and knew the right people to convince them to give him a chance. He wasn’t just some guy in your MFA class chopping sentences down to the bear minimum, he was a friend of Gertrude Stein, a war hero and longtime journalist.

If you want to learn from the greats, you have to do more than read their work. You have to understand what books they were being compared to, how networking helped them, what publishing credits they had beforehand. You need to know the world, their biography, and a thorough understanding of the current literature.

More importantly, good artists make things seamless, effortless. Parsing out word choice from theme is more difficult than in a half-baked short story by a teenager online.

If you want to learn from an unpolished manuscript, on the other hand, you can just look at what they’ve done, consider why it does or does not work for you, and move on. It’s more likely to be consistent with what other people think, bad writing being easier to define than good.

Self-publishing is for those who couldn’t get published.

People self-publish for many reasons, and I don’t plan on judging them for that. I respect people’s choices—as long as they don’t expect me to compensate for the pratfalls. (Yes, I recognize your right to publish your typo ridden draft. No, I will not buy it. No, I am not policing you. No, I don’t owe you anything.)

I think that having this new method of literary distribution is a good thing, though I will argue that statistically speaking, I don’t pick up a self-published book with the expectation to enjoy it.

So, yes. Most of them suck. Self-publishers know that better than anyone. People are publishing unfinished, unedited, pieces of a manuscript that they’ll never finish and charge you the same price as a well drafted novel. It’s irritating and too common for my taste.

But most people didn’t get rejected before self-publishing, whether or not they would have.

Many authors were traditionally published prior to the ebook boom, they didn’t like the process, and realized they could make more money doing it themselves.

A lot of self-publishers tell me they chose this route because of a fear of rejection. They never even gave someone the chance to tell them no, but went to self-publishing in the first place.

Manuscripts often get rejected by publishers and agents, not because they’re bad, but because they don’t think they can make the investment back, it didn’t touch them personally, or unfortunately because they have a limited amount of stories they can work with and they chose someone else’s.

Which is to say that good books get rejected by agents all of the time. And the agents will often even admit that they turn down many ideas they liked due to time management and marketability.

I will admit that many people self-publish out of laziness or impatience, but the assumption that’s the only reason someone would do so isn’t always accurate.

Writers have a lot of free time on their hands.

If you can write professionally without having a day job, yes, it is true that you get to design your own work schedule. But keep in mind that unlike regular hourly wages, authors make money from the creation of the product—the same amount of money whether it took a month or ten years to write.

We don’t price books by quality (publishers’ advances do to a certain extent, I guess), and honestly time taken does not always mean quality. Which means that you might spend hours working on a scene that will get replaced for one that took you five minutes.

Time is valuable to the author. Writing takes a lot of hours. I can read a book in three days that would take me three months to write. And, if you’re working traditionally, everyone is waiting on you. They can’t edit certainly until you’ve finished the first draft, and they often shouldn’t market or start designing until the story is a more sure thing.

Plus, no matter how dedicated you are, staring vacantly at the screen for a period of time is a part of the job. You have to take into consideration your inability to focus for the hour you’ve allotted to writing and really assign two to it. I could write five pages in an hour and fifteen minutes, but it’s probably going to take me two and a half.

So, while we can “get out of work” easier than someone with a boss, it doesn’t mean that we should.

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