Awesomely Utter Zaniness Is About To Commence

I got SFF Hero Conan the Barbarian dedicated to me, first thing this morning. That will put a GREAT shine on anyone’s day. Plus, I’m getting more work done, about to see if I can bump up my morning runs to 2.5 miles, and just basically looking forward to a day that is going to kick a ton of ass.

So, while I’m off humming the waltz that was playing while James Earl Jones turned into a giant snake (oh, my God, I love that scene), you could read Scalzi’s Why Publishing Will Not Go Away Anytime Soon, a very nice little three-act play. You could try to imagine the point at which I completely lost it and started laughing hysterically while nodding vigorously and screaming “Yes, YES!” so loud I’m sure the neighbors think I’m Up To No Good.

Yes, I’m in that particular stage of hyper where I can tell a book is going to break loose soon. It’s probably going to be revisions on Heaven’s Spite, which took a left turn while I was weaving in some plot tangles. I have to think about this, and I’m sure when I go back to finish it I’ll lunge through the next hundred pages of revision at warp speed and somehow discover I’ve added another 2-3K words. That’s how these things usually happen.

So, today will be a day of awesomely utter zaniness for me. I hope yours will be just as fun.

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I Don’t Wanna

First, announcements, then the meat of the post, then Damiversary giveaways. That is the order in which things will occur this Friday. I declare it. Hey, the Muse is just sitting there filing her nails, so I’ve got to be a petty dictator where I can.

Announcements! You can find a taste of my short story Best Friends over at FlamesRising! The story is in The Girl’s Guide To Guns & Monsters anthology, available just around the corner in February. Also, you can find a short preview of my essay Ambiguous Anita for the absolutely fabulous Ardeur: 14 Writers on the Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter series, which will be coming out in April. It was a pleasure to be included in both.

I still have other good news that I’m having to sit on. It KILLS me. But them’s the breaks.

And now, the meat of the post…well, don’t take this the wrong way. But I don’t wanna.

Seriously. I started out yesterday with a huge honking attack of the I don’t wannas. It’s only gotten worse today.

Any disciplined activity you put serious time and energy into–dieting, writing, dance practice–goes through periods where it temporarily gets harder to do. The reasons can be manifold: stress, life changes, boredom, the urge to rest for a bit, what-have-you. It goes in cycles, especially when you hit a plateau right before a leap forward.
I write a lot here about discipline and habit. Think of them as bowling bumpers, keeping your ball in the lane. During good times, when you’re excited and happy to be writing, the discipline is easy to maintain. Your motivation’s high. But there will come times when you just don’t want to, for a variety of reasons. It will get harder to keep a consistent schedule and keep writing a priority. Just like it gets harder to stick to calorie restriction or dance practice when your motivation goes down and a stack of Netflix DVDs plus a box of Entenmann’s are calling your name. (OK, I could be projecting here. Just a touch. But you still get the idea.)

I bump up against the hard edges of the habit of spending several years writing damn near every day occasionally, when the I don’t wannas attack. Sometimes I do slow down a bit and take a rest. It’s hard to differentiate between loss of motivation, just plain laziness, and approaching burnout. I’ve evolved a few questions that I ask myself and a process to tell if it’s burnout, but I sincerely doubt my methods will work for anyone other than me. Part of the difficulty of consistent creative activity is that it is so personal, and the methods of motivation and differentiating burnout from laziness differ from person to person.

Yes, I have trouble motivating myself sometimes. The advice I give is partly because I struggle to keep that consistent discipline and practice. Maybe for some people, it’s easier. I don’t know. The important thing is to keep the habit of discipline strong, so that when the I don’t wannas attack, you have nice strong bumpers keeping your ball in the lane and a fighting chance of getting to the pins.

My motivation to write is pretty simple: I have rent to pay and kids to feed. And yet, still, some days I struggle. It might be worse for people who aren’t depending on their writing to bring home the rent. I suspect it is.

No matter how hard I don’t wanna, I’m still in the habit of doing it every day. So I suppose I’ll just poke at a few things and see what happens.

And now, the giveaway! To celebrate the Damiversary, this time I’m offering 2 T-shirts from my CafePress store. (I really need to get some more designs up…) All you have to do is comment here at the Deadline Dames by midnight Saturday (the 30th).[1] If you can’t think of anything to say, tell me what you do to get going when your own motivation suffers. I’m always looking for more techniques to steal, ahem, I mean, good advice to follow. I’ll pick the winners from, and the Dames will announce them next week along with this week’s winners.

Speaking of which, we still haven’t heard from some of last week’s Damiversary winners! Make sure to go and see if you won something, and look for other cool prizes that were announced earlier this week as well.

Vive les Dames!

[1]Comments are closed on this post just to make everything fair.

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Keep Showing Up

There comes a point in every book where one realizes one is not writing the damn book. The damn book is taking shape under one’s fingers, according to its own will and desires. You might as well just be a tube the words are coming through. Although the story needs the tube to contain it–and to work to put it on the page–it certainly doesn’t, well, obey.

I think this frightens a lot of people who want to write. The sense that they might not be in control, or that the story might be coming through them, is a scary one. It’s like having an alien in your brain. Others fight the organic life of the story and end up with a mess, where the reader can tell the writer fought tooth and nail to retain control instead of letting the story take shape. It’s sad to read–it’s like looking at a limping, broken thing that once used to soar.

Even writing to spec requires some submission to the story’s desires. There’s the focused daydream of planning the story, where chunks of the narrative arc come out of the mist and loom inside one’s head like frigates, and then there’s the day to day writing, where you have to get to a particular plot point, but the pleasure resides in deciding how.

This may be different for other writers, I don’t know. For me, it’s an odd tandem: the discipline to sit down and be present every day and the gift of the story taking shape of its own accord. I decided a long time ago that coming up with the story wasn’t really my job. That’s the Muse’s job. Mine is being present in front of the keyboard every day, ready, willing, and Mabel. I give the Muse the vague specs and she takes over. She needs my hands and my willingness, and I need that damn fairy dust she sneezes out. We’re a symbiote, but it requires work.

Anyway, I’ve reached the point in the current book–around 30K, sometimes a little later–where I sit back to think about what comes next and I realize I am not steering this train. The tracks are laid and they’re taking me somewhere through that wall of fog. It’s equal parts terrifying and downright exciting.

Terrifying because I am counting on this other thing to produce the story needed for me to continue working and earning money. Exciting because it’s a rollercoaster, and you know…she’s never let me down yet. The Muse is a fickle, tricky, nasty little wench. But she is also faithful in her fashion, and as long as I’ve shown up she’s never taken a sick day. There’s a certain amount of comfort in realizing that as long as I’m doing my best, she’s going to keep slugging away too.

So, I’m about to turn on the foglamps and charge forward into that white cloudbank. There’s always the risk of running off the edge of a cliff. But if I haven’t yet, in over thirty finished books and God knows how many short stories and slush bits…well, I’ll take my chances and trust the Muse.

She hasn’t let me down yet. All I’ve got to do is keep showing up.

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Optimism Proceeds Apace

First, the links: there’s a giveaway of Flesh Circus over at NL Berger’s place. And here’s an opinion piece about how the Internet does not mean the death of publishing. Oh, and nuts in Texas might be affecting the textbooks your children will use. (This last one is why I’m so glad I have a great deal of information and supplementary reading for my kids just hanging around the house.)

It’s been a time of big changes here at Casa Saintcrow, and we’ve just accomplished one of the biggest. Which has required a wrenching in our personal habits–now we’re all getting up between 6 and 7 AM. This is not cool for my biorhythms, man.

I have always been a night owl. Always. Given my druthers, I’d be completely nocturnal. Unfortunately, life won’t allow that. So I’m stuck on a schedule that my entire body rebels against. It’s hell for the first half-hour or so of my day, until I can get enough coffee in to trick my flesh into believing that it should be vertical, not to mention ambulatory and thinking.

Fortunately, the Little Prince and Princess are both so excited, they adore the new schedule and are quickly falling into a routine. And getting up this early leaves me with a shoal of time in the early afternoon that’s turned quite productive. (My productivity has also been helped by a number of stressors Going Away.) So, it’s got its good things.

The “make 2010 MY year” Optimism Experiment is going full steam. I’m fitting into size 14 jeans. While this does not sound like a lot, if you’ve ever lost a significant amount of weight, you know what it feels like to hit a milestone. Which this size definitely is, for me. I have even more grounds for optimism, in that there’s been nothing so far in the past two months that I couldn’t handle. I am beginning to feel okay about things, another huge step up.

On the other hand…I think I have to ditch about 1K I wrote yesterday evening. It’s a great scene, but I think it belongs a touch later in the book. This is why having a slush file for each book is so important for me. Of all the slush piles, the one for To Hell And Back is most extensive, because I had two or three different fully-finished versions of the book. That was a lot of work. Damn.

In any case, it’s time for the treadmill now. I am feeling cautiously, faintly optimistic about this entire 2010 thing. Which is way, way better than the alternative.

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The Mystery of the Mask

Crossposted to the Deadline Dames. Check us out!

Let’s talk about magic.

Plenty of magic[1] is the utilization of more-or-less psychological principles to effect a change in the practitioner. Where there’s belief, there’s a sword to be used. Swinging it effectively takes practice and self-knowledge. The things you believe about yourself and how the world works, especially those core beliefs you hold on a unconscious level, affect your daily (and indeed, the rest of your) life to an incredible degree.

This does not have to be a bad thing. There are thousands of tools for uncovering, reshaping, and altering those beliefs. Some of them are self-help, some of them are psychological theory, some of them are occult, some of them are just plain common sense. You’re bound to find something that works somewhere. The key is to practice consistently enough, to not fall prey to the ersatz jolt of accomplishment that simply learning about a principle provides. You also have to use the principle for a long enough period of time to discover if it works for you.

There are a few principles, however, that are as close to guaranteed as you can get with a tool meant to affect complicated human beings. One of them is the principle of the mask.

A very wise man once told me, “Beware what you pretend to be, because if you pretend long enough, you’ll become it.” It’s one of those cliches built around a grain of truth. The longer you wear a mask, the more it becomes your real face. It’s just one of those things about the way we’re wired. It is also an invaluable tool.

Say you want to write for publication. The best thing to do is to start treating your writing like you’re already published.

Note: I do NOT mean that you slack off, or think that you’re God’s gift to the written word and no editor shalt touch thy purple…prose. That’s a fast track to Never Getting Published, also known as Being Such A Speshul Snowflake You Shoot Thine Self In Thine Own Foot.

No, what I advocate is practicing behaviors that get authors published and keep them finding new work. Here’s a (by no means comprehensive) list, to show you what I mean:

* Act as if writing is a priority, and make time for it.

* Act as if you are open to revision, whether it comes in the form of a rejection letter or a (gasp!) personalized rejection letter[2].

* Act as if some part of your income depends on you being professional, pleasant, and well-informed about writing for publication.

* Act as if your writing time is precious and meant for writing, not for checking email, playing video games, or talking about writing.

* Act as if you already have a professional relationship to lose when you interact with other professionals. (Don’t know what I mean? Read this.)

* Act as if editors, agents, and publishers are your fellow soldiers, in this to make money from providing quality, just like you are.

* Act as if your fellow writers are colleagues, not enemies or ladder rungs. Colleagues are not buddies and they are not enemies, they are people you are in a professional relationship with.

* Act as if it is your JOB to WRITE. I can’t say this enough. So many times I see “writers” who don’t make it a priority to get the words out. This is not professional behavior. And guess what? Not writing is a really sure way to not get published.

Notice any trends?

Do I guarantee that you will get published if you start acting this way? No. I do, however, guarantee that your chances of getting something published will rise exponentially, if not astronomically. I do guarantee that making writing a priority will force you to produce more, which is one of the only sure ways to learn enough to start producing quality. I do guarantee that treating your writing career as an arena where you have a professional reputation to lose will help you avoid a few mistakes, not to mention some pain and grief.

A funny thing starts happening once you start this kind of pretending. There’s a few months where it feels like ill-fitting shoes–not quite natural. Then it becomes habit, which is your best of servants or worst of masters. The mask begins to feel natural, and it’s then that the magic occurs. It’s subtle at first, but it gathers strength the longer you practice and the more ingrained it becomes. Your chances of getting published, and getting published again (which is the trick to producing an income stream) go up to the point where you can start taking advantage and playing those odds effectively.

The mask, the pretense, becomes your real face.

Of all the metaphors I use to belabor the point that writing makes a writer, this is the one the majority of my students has found most useful. Like all useful tools, it isn’t as complex–or as simple–as it appears. What you get out of it is in direct proportion to how much effort you put into it. I cannot guarantee you publication, but I can tell you that this is a way to maximize your chances most effectively.

I like my magic to have a practical side.

So, Happy New Year to you, dear Readers and fellow writers. What mask do you want to wear this year? I suggest you make it one you like.

Now, if you’ll pardon me, I have some writing to do. Over and out.

[1] I am not talking about conjuring tricks here.
[2] A personalized rejection letter, or one with a personal note about what was wrong with the story, is one of the last wickets before acceptance. Oddly, it is also one of the wickets where a majority of people get discouraged and stop trying.

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Oh, Louisa May. You go, girl.

It’s funny–the further along I go, the more the Universe steps in to help out. I could also view it as my thinking changing so I can take better advantage of opportunities. Potayto, potahto. Like I told the Princess when she asked me if the gods are real: whether they’re psychological constructs or actual beings, the net effect is the same–and you need to be just as careful about what you believe.

Anyway. The Selkie sent me this great link about Louisa May Alcott this morning; the American Masters episode is on tonight. (I will probably not watch it; our telly is DVD-only.) Of all Alcott’s work, I liked A Long Fatal Love Chase best; Little Women irritated me beyond bearing but I persevered because it was a Classic. I did like Jo the best out of all the March sisters, true. It was impossible not to, really. I wanted to slap Meg and send Beth to a hospital. And Amy? I’d slap her twice.

The thing that strikes me in this article about Alcott is that she decided what she was going to do, and she wrote what would sell because she wanted the money. This is treated as a revelation, because in our society artists (and women artists in particular) are not supposed to be in it for the filthy lucre. Money is at bottom, implicitly supposed to be the preserve of men. (As Ann Crittenden points out, when Motherhood started becoming sacred was when mothers started getting really economically screwed.) It’s news that Alcott was a hack, yet the fact that Poe, Dumas, and Dickens were hacks lacks a certain power of titillation.

Reading the Alcott piece, and listening to the interview, I was struck with a single vivid scene: Louisa May, like Scarlett O’Hara, swearing she or her folk would never be hungry again. Louisa May wrote to sell because her family was hungry, and instead of bemoaning it and dying gracefully she decided to do something about it.

Nobility is hard to come by when you’re starving. We have these myths of the Noble Poor, and that’s what they are–myths. I’ve been poor, and there’s nothing noble about it. It’s terrifying and dirty and ugly. When people are frightened and hungry, nobility is the exception. You can’t count on it.

Louisa May Alcott “resolved to take fate by the throat and shake a living out of her.” (Amen to that.) There was none of this “I’ve been rejected so I’m going to give up and bemoan that Editors don’t want my Precious Prose.” Instead it was, “I’m going to find out what they want, and I’m going to give it to them the best way I know how, and they are going to pay me for it. And if it takes me getting rejected fifty times, why then, I’ll get rejected fifty times. Or a hundred. Or a thousand. But they’re not going to lick me.”

Oh, Louisa. Over a hundred years ago you decided this, and you’re still an inspiration. You go, girl.

As for me, dear Reader, I’m gonna go take Fate by the throat and shake some more. Care to join me?

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No Choice

First, the links! An octopus who loves his Mr. Potato Head. Lauren Leto’s screamingly funny Readers By Author. And Bitten By Books is discussing the Jill Kismet series today.

And now, for the Friday post.

Not everything in my life centres around writing. It just looks that way.

I’ve lost a considerable amount of weight lately. Part of that is stress, another part of it is exercising six days a week. Also, a couple weeks ago, I picked up a book about using cognitive therapy to help normalize your relationship with food and weight. Yes, it has the word “diet” in the title. I believe it’s a fact that DIET’s first three letters are a warning. But it’s equally true that I have a messed-up relationship with food. I know cognitive therapy works for me, so I’m willing to give it a go.

Several of the exercises in this book centre around “answering sabotaging thoughts”, especially when it comes to the “it’s not fair” portion of life’s program. Yes, it’s not fair that our bodies are built to store extra against famine, and it’s not fair that during times and societies of plenty we get obese and shorten our lifespans. It’s not fair that I can’t eat the way I want, be sedentary, and be as physically fit as I want to. It’s not fair that I have to drag myself to the treadmill and that I have to write down the calorie counts of what I’m eating. It really, truly, is not fair.[1]

But that is the way it is.

One of the strategies for answering these sabotaging thoughts–because that’s what they are, they’re little saboteurs–is an index card with the words NO CHOICE printed on it. Every day, when I read my reasons for putting myself through calorie restriction and exercise, the NO CHOICE card is also there, and I read it too. If I want to become as physically fit as the goal I’ve set for myself, I don’t have a choice.

Which brings me to writing. My Friday posts are about making a living writing for publication. To me, this involves the discipline of writing every day (something I’ve caught quite a bit of flak for saying) and acting professionally and reasonably even in the face of rejection and bad reviews. It involves putting up with shifting deadlines and making the effort each day, every day. Sure, I’d rather sit up in an ivory tower and be a Speshul Snowflake, but that won’t feed the kids OR get me invited back to be published again.

There are several times during the day when that little NO CHOICE card flashes through my mind. As Dr. Beck points out, there are rules in everyone’s life. You don’t struggle or agonize over brushing your teeth, do you? (At least, I don’t. And neither do my wee ones.) It’s just the way it is.

Here’s why this is valuable: if sitting down to write every day is a rule, you don’t struggle with it. You make time to do it because it’s a priority. You have no choice. Getting into the mindset that this is important and you don’t have a choice about doing it increases your chances of getting published exponentially. Because you’re treating it seriously. If you can make time to catch that TV episode, you can make time to write every day. If you can make sure you have a latte every morning, you can make sure to write every day. Getting into the habit of considering daily writing a fait accompli is your first step.

Once you have a good solid discipline of writing every day, you can do what a lot of professionals do and take the occasional day off. Your busy little brain, in the habit of working through stories, will still be working all through your “day off”. Plus, once you have a good solid disciplined habit, it’s easier to get back into it after a holiday. But discipline is like a muscle, it must be used or it atrophies, and I have not met a single professional writer who doesn’t need to exercise that muscle and spend effort to start it back up again after a holiday.

Viewing this as a “no choice” thing frees up a lot of energy I would otherwise use bitching and moaning about it. It gives me a lot more energy to just concentrate on what I’m doing. It’s the same reason I find rollercoasters relaxing–from the moment I’m strapped in and the car jolts forward, I’m in the hands of the gods. I can’t do a single thing. It’s a submission to the inevitable, and it works for me.

So here’s my advice if you want to write for publication: get yourself an index card and write NO CHOICE on it in the biggest blackest letters you can. Read it twice a day, and really think about the things you make time for, the priorities you have. If writing is not on that list and you want it to be, do it. Just say “it’s not fair, oh well, I have no choice, I HAVE to write today.” Set your kitchen timer for ten, fifteen, twenty minutes, and go to.

You’d be amazed at how those two little words–both the “oh well” and the “NO CHOICE”–open up time where you thought you had none. It’s not fair, you’re right.

But that’s the way it is, and it’s the best advice I can offer.

Keep writing.

[1]Somewhere David Bowie is snarling, “You say that so often, I wonder what your basis for comparison is.”

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