Friday, November 18, 2016

Why It’s Painful to Say “I’m a Writer”

While driving back to Boston with my cousin, she suddenly turned to me and said, “When I tell people you came to New York for theatre, a lot of them say, ‘So, she’s an actress?’”

Full disclosure, had she not been so close by to help, I’m not sure I would have been able to move to New York City. Initially, I did some research and planned on finding alternative stays, but having a relative to house me while I got on my feet has been invaluable. I came on a whim and a prayer, daunted by the inability to rent an apartment or get a job until I was actually present to view the possibilities. I just wasn’t sure what I was getting into, and having a familiar face who knew the city gave me a strong safety net.

I found my apartment through her. A friend of a friend. I’m in a safe neighborhood, close to the action, and even within my price range. Because of her effort, the move was surprisingly painless, and though I found myself physically ill with the stress, in the last week a huge amount of tension has let off my shoulders.

“I’m like, ‘Um, no actually, she isn’t,’” my cousin continued.

“Yeah. I’m always surprised about the tone that some people get when they ask about your goals.”

Any writer, aspiring or full-blown committed, can tell you which tone I’m talking about. There’s a common conversation amongst us about what happened when “outted” ourselves, wonder when is it okay to seize the label, and discuss why some people don’t ever tell anyone. Despite what people tell you about your mother liking everything you do, not everyone has a supportive family. In fact, many people talk about their books to the ones closest to them and receive nothing more than a smirk in response.

I got some derision for my choice to move. Lots of people—strangers even—telling me where I should move, like the one lovely gentleman who informed me under no uncertain terms I should move to New Orleans due to “jazz” and “sports.” If you’ve never met me, I bet you can take one gander at my picture over on the right there and presume how excited I am about those two things. Still, he cited “because I know you and I just thought…” when I finally unfriend the busybody stranger for his constant naysaying. As I drove from Wyoming to New York, I stopped at quilt shops along the way to talk to women in ankle length skirts and eighty’s housewife hair literally praying for me and offering up helpful suggestions of locking my doors.

Mostly though, I would get the strange response of, “Well, I hope everything goes as planned.”

Not only did they presume high expectations on me, but that I would fail them.

I moved to New York City because I was ready to live life, meet people, and have more opportunities to create. In that vein, be pretty damn hard for me to fail.

I’ve heard writers insist they’d never tell their families what they were doing. “They wouldn’t understand.” And I get that.

My cousin, a lawyer, seemed a little surprise by the all too familiar condescension of people in the art world. I can’t say I know for sure what it is like to tell your friends and family you’re going to be, or are, a lawyer, but I have to expect that there’s a few pieces of paper you can get to shut them up about any incredulousness about your capabilities or seriousness about it.

There’s not really such a paper as a writer.

Sure, you can get an MFA, but that doesn’t necessarily mean a lot. I once had an agent at a conference mention how she tended to assume people with degrees had more theoretical practice than actual practice in writing. And many people go to college to never write again. It doesn’t mean you’ll make money, you’ll stay true to it, or even that you’re any good, so it’s not as if it graduating with a degree with stop that smirking tone. Not even getting a book published will necessarily get people to shut up. You can look at the criticism on several popular writers nowadays and even being a bestseller won’t convince people you are a “real” writer.

In fact, I believe the biggest difficulty in admitting what you want to be doing has to do with your own disbelief in your credentials. It’s hard to say, “I’m a writer,” when you don’t feel like a writer, when you don’t know if you’re going to succeed, if you aren’t sure if you’re any good or not.

I started telling people I’m a writer when I had an answer to, “What have you written?”

“Oh, just type my name online and you’ll find my short stories.”

But still, it’s not the first thing out of my mouth. I don’t make a killing on it. My successes are extremely mild. I don’t toss them all out with the bathwater of course, but I’m not delusional about my paper-thin paper-trail of credibility.

There’s a sort of smugness when I can say to any skeptical brow-raiser who asks if I want to be an actress, “No. I’m interested in tech.”

I’m interested in producing, if I were to be completely honest. Playwriting, of course, being that I got involved in tech to meet and greet potential board members and directors. But I say tech because, while true, it is, more importantly, unusual. It doesn’t have a precedent. It wipes the smirk off their face. It puts me in a different category than the hordes of women flocking to the city in hopes of being the next big Broadway star.

Why do people fear being lobbed in with the hopefuls? What’s with the noseward sneer on people who actively pursue their dreams? Because there’s so many of us? Because we don’t want to be “that kind” of person?

Point is, the look’s there. Many of you have felt it, many of you question what makes those words so hard to say. Is it because of self-doubt? Because you haven’t done enough?

There’s lots of reasons, but I’d like to say that talking about your dreams is hard for anyone, and you’re not insane for it. Not everyone is going to be supportive.

Regardless, the nagging feeling shouldn’t deter you from pursuing it, even if you’re not sure you want to tell anyone about your plans.

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Monday, November 7, 2016

I Like Series

If I went back in time and could have a talk with younger self, I’d probably tell me to tell me to shut up. I think I had a lot more going for me when I was 18 than I do at 27. I’m not saying I dislike who I am today (exactly), but most of what I learned was about the journey, not quippy tips I could give. There’s also a lot of unlearning I need to do. I doubt that most of what I could say would help me. 

However, if I had to give my younger self advice in my writing career, it would probably be, “Don’t be a snob.”

Literary snobbery prevents experimentation and restricts us to trends. It dismisses good books for the wrong genre and, on many occasions, prevents us from doing what we want to be. It can appear in unexpected ways; we don’t have to merely dismiss romance novels and idolized literary gibberish. Maybe we hate novellas, best sellers, anything mainstream, prologues, abstract absurdity, award winners, academia, or, of course, series.

I’m a snob in that I don’t like change. I do attempt to combat that snobbery at every end, giving things a chance; it doesn’t always end well. It’s hard to listen to your gut when you’re actively ignoring your first impulses. For the most part, if I become aware of a snobbery, I will analyze why I feel that way and attempt to overcome it.

I have fifteen unpublished manuscripts right now, but none of them are series. There’s several reasons for that, a big one being I have many ideas that would be easier to sell as a standalone first. Working on a sequel while I could be working on a new novel seems to be a misappropriation of time; I’ll write a series when I’ve been already contracted for one.

However, as I pull myself out of the Great Depression of ’16, am I slowly finding my interest piqued again. I’m easy in some ways—I like beautiful covers or titles—but after spending so much time incapable of enjoying anything, I’ve started to really consider why certain things appealed to me.

People say to me a lot, “Do what you want.” When it comes to writing, I have a strong opinion on parts, but not all. I can write an entire novel only using ‘said’ for dialogue tags. Should I? Do I want to? It’s not as though I’m invested in not using it either. All I know is that you are bossing me around, so I’m inclined to do the exact opposite.

Of course, when someone tells you not to do something, it becomes very difficult to just ignore them and do what’s natural, especially if it’s not anything you paid attention to before.

There have been occasions when I stubbornly refused to do something others suggest. Sometimes I later realized I was shooting myself in the foot. Other times I would come to understand with why they wanted a change and be really, really glad I didn’t do it. Sometimes I’m make a change and be shocked with how much the work was improved. Other times I’ve had to spend months undoing the damage. Often enough, a slight, anal change didn’t do much of anything at all.

So, yes, I find it important to consider advice, and no, I don’t think, “Do what you want,” is typically a good solution when grappling with someone’s request.

Long story short, it helps to be more attentive to what works for you outside of the criticism box.

As I said previously, in recent months I have been finishing up reading a hexology (that’s six books), plus several short stories and companions all set in the same universe. I wanted to like the story so much, but there was something missing in most of them—a lot of the action happened “off screen”—for one.

I have the tendency to stalk authors. It inspires me in ways, entertains me, gives me an excuse to procrastinate from writing, all of the essentials of a writing career. I will continue to look at their pages whether I loved their books or not. There are many writers who I am a fan of even though I don’t like their work.

Sarah J. Maas is one such author. I admire her in many ways. I was drawn in by the beautiful cover of her book and the concept of her series. I was so excited to read it when it came in the mail—and very disappointed once I began to read.

I won’t go into detail about why I didn’t like it—it was the little things, not liking the character, not agreeing with Maas’ view on literature or take on catty women—but it was the one that got away for me. I wanted to love it. The book gave me a little tingling of warm inspiration when I imagined what it could be.

So much in fact that though I was not impressed with her first book, I am strongly considering giving her another chance with her next series.

I find that one of the things that draws me back to Maas and my little hexology was the fact that they were series; they had their style of writing, their rules of the world, their little niche, that was fleshed out with several successful stories.

I want to have a series.

A second reason that I don’t is that I’m not the most monogamous of writers. I can be devoted without a second thought, but a manuscript? Nah. I’ll flit from one bed to the next, one right after the other. I’ve even called protagonists by the wrong name. How embarrassing.

Sometimes I don’t always, sometimes I’ll be enamored with one and stay focused, but I have to say that our time spent together always had a light at the end of the tunnel. My characters piss me off and I want them to get their shit together. I spend a whole book trying to set them up so I don’t have to worry about them anymore.

I always considered connecting my books in some way—all the characters are reincarnations of previous protagonists, they’re the same people, but in a parallel universe, or everyone lives in the same world—but that would take a kind of commitment I don’t have in me.

I have an idea for a series. I have the first couple of pages written out some time ago. I was in a discussion with a woman about whether or not we should focus on one book at a time or write the ones we’re inspired for—I absolutely think the answer depends on your personality—but I prefer to work on scenes while I’m first excited for them because they always, always come out better for me—to which she said she was like Stephen King and believed bad ideas would be forgotten. That hasn’t been true for me. Even if the vague idea I had for a plot disappears, I still have a scene written in passion that I have used elsewhere. My favorite manuscript of all time began as a patchwork of these scenes that I workshopped into a fully formed plot.

So, I have a beginning to a book that I always thought would make a good origin story—the truth behind the myth. The characters were humans snatched from “our” world and left into a literal sandbox. I wanted to combine an idea I had for “the last author on Earth,” with an idea that I had for telling truly human stories about gods, with an idea for having each of my novels history affect the history of the others.

But I never wanted to commit to it.

I have a lot of other works in various stages of completion, plus The Stories of the Wyrd, which is a serial too, all of which take up my time and make the likelihood of me focusing on a series—especially, as I said, when selling a series upfront proves so hard—very unlikely.

People judge series, acting like the author is limited in ideas or trying to cling to past sales. Which happens, fairly often even. Cassandra Clare, the author of The Mortal Instruments, writes prolifically in one world and was accused of selling out. I found her response very profound, even prior to my ever considering whether or not I would create an extended universe:

There is a reason you see people extend successful series or keep writing in universes in which they have previously written popular books.
Because they can.
And I don’t mean because they can in the sense of "I DO WHAT I WANT!”
I mean it in the sense of “because they are really really lucky, lucky enough to get to write what they want.” Successful series get expanded and writers write more in that world because when series are successful, publishers will publish more books related to that series. This may seem blindingly obvious, but apparently not. Series that make money continue on because publishers do not publish series that do not make money. The only way you get the opportunity to continue to write in the same world is if your previous books in that world have been financially successful. 

A lot of people would prefer to write series over standalones, they just never get a chance. Is it because they’re lacking ideas? Sometimes. Is it because a sequel to a successful novel is easier to sell? Sometimes.

I like reading series. I don’t actually know where the judgement comes from, even though I too tend to assume series aren’t as rich as the standalone—wrongly, I know.

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