The Room And The Will

Crossposted to the Deadline Dames

A friend of mine is considering moving. “I just want to live on my own,” she said to me this afternoon, while the wind made my chimes ring like rattlesnakes. “I want to be able to sit in my underwear with pizza and a beer and a book. I just need it, you know.”

“Oh, honey,” I said, squinting in the sunlight, “I know.”

Virginia Woolf said that money and a room of one’s own is a prerequisite for woman writers. I tend to agree. Certainly getting one’s career to a place where one can comfortably support oneself, or not having to worry overmuch about food and rent, is a marvelous thing.

But I didn’t start out with it.

I have learned to write in any situation imaginable. I started in school writing furiously at every moment I could steal from classes. One of my teachers let me keep a box of spiral notebooks in her classroom over the summer, since I didn’t have hiding places at home. I exercised my youthful ingenuity to hide my diaries and stories at home when I lost that opportunity, used friends’ houses and employee lockers to keep my words safe from prying and punishment. When I left, I hid my notebooks in closets and other places, just to be safe.

I stole moments to write plot outlines on notepads at several jobs. I spent my lunch hours and breaks writing furiously in spiral notebooks between bites of whatever I could afford–or just writing because I couldn’t afford a snack. I learned to write with toddlers around, one half of my brain scanning constantly to anticipate their needs or any danger to them. I learned to write in a house full of shrieking “LOOK AT ME! I DON’T EXIST UNLESS YOU LOOK AT ME! LOOKLOOKLOOK!” (Note: only two of the people screeching that were under 10. The rest…well. Whole ‘nother blog post there.)

I’ve written on trains and planes, I’ve written on buses and in parks, I’ve written in libraries, I’ve written in casino bars, other bars, in bathrooms late at night while the people I’m staying with are asleep. I’ve written in classrooms, coffee shops, head shops, cafes, community centres, all-night restaurants, even in the closed-down delis of major supermarket chains. Finding a space to sit down and whip out my notebook–or lug my laptop to–has become somewhat of an art form.

Do it where you gotta has been by mantra for a long time. Now that I have a house and a chair and a lapdesk, where I can sit cross-legged and pound out text while the whole place is silent because the kids are at school…

…well, it’s been a shock. I’m used to concentrating fiercely in the face of distraction. The silence of the house is a type of distraction I’m not insulated against. I used to keep music on to provide a thread under the other sounds I could jack into and ride while I typed. Now I play it because sometimes the empty house makes me start up in almost-terror sometimes, thinking the kids are Altogether Too Quiet and Up To Mischief.

My productive hours are in somewhat of a flux now. I used to be a champion insomniac, first because I’m built to be a night owl and second because the wee hours were the only damn time nobody needed anything from me. Now I’m finding different chunks of my “day” to be productive, because I finally have space and solitude.

Which brings me to something I consider a Rule. All applicable disclaimers, etc., etc., but here it is:

If you WANT to write, you will more than likely FIND TIME to write.

Yes, I know. “I’m too poor/busy/tired/something! I don’t have time! I can’t find a space!”

Often I hear this from people who are overscheduled or who don’t set boundaries instead of truly being unable. I am willing to concede that whoever, whatever their situation, may be too tired/busy/whatever to write. Billions of people don’t write, and they get along just fine.

I am not one of those people who gets along fine without writing.

I wrote while effectively homeless. I wrote while being a single mother working full-time and going to school. I wrote while raising two small children and cleaning up after a Very Large Child. I think one of the main reasons I’ve achieved a sort of quiet success is because writing has always been a priority to me. I felt I would go mad if I didn’t write. I put writing in with my basic needs of food and shelter, and that is a component of the psychotic persistence several writers (don’t really) joke about being necessary to get published.

It was necessary for me to continue writing. Being paid for it is where I’ve ended up, and that’s just fine by me. I like it that way. I would still be doing this if I didn’t have a room of my own and a lock on my door. In fact, for the rest of my life, putting words together is something I’m going to be doing. I can’t help it.

I say this so you will understand the advice I am about to give. This advice is free, so take it or leave it.

Finding time in a day to sneak writing in, learning to pick up a story and dive in when you only have five or fifteen minutes, getting your wordcount out rather than watching the telly or playing that video game, is essentially saying “This is important to me.” I don’t promise that you will get published if you train yourself to make writing a priority and set boundaries around your writing time. I can promise that your chances of getting good enough to have a reasonable shot at being published will go up with every minute you spend making writing your priority.

If that’s where you’re aiming, okay. Do it where you gotta. Write down the activities you participate in on a daily basis and figure out which ones are essential (like paying rent or eating), which are very desirable (like maintaining your relationship with your real friends, or what-have-you), and which are just desirable (playing a video game, watching television. Note these are just MY examples, yours will be different.). Move writing from the “just desirable” category into the “essential” category, the things you make time for because you’ve just plain got to–or even into the “very desirable” category. Find the time by cutting it elsewhere, if you’re serious. If you’re not serious, it’s OK. There are plenty of other things to do in this wide varied world of ours. Go do them and be merry.

This is why I say I “tend” to agree with Virginia. Of course, I have the benefit of being in a culture and of a socioeconomic section where I have certain advantages, and I realize that. However, I was not always in this socioeconomic or cultural slice, and many other successful writers I know weren’t (or aren’t) either. The room of your own is nice, and the money is damn nice.

But it is the will to find a way that is essential. Without it, the room is just a room.

It’s up to you to fill it.

Over and out.

Posted from A Fire of Reason. You can also comment there.

I Never Know

Crossposted to the Deadline Dames.

Reader Melissa P. asked earlier this week:

So MY question is, how do you know it’s good enough? Especially if you’ve never been published?

How do you know if your writing is Good Enough? How do you know if you have any chance at all?

The short answer is also the most brutal:

You don’t.

The longer answer…well. I get hate mail calling me the worst writer in the world, even though I’m making a living at it. “Good enough” is highly subjective. Plus, there’s the Inner Censor and various other considerations inside one’s own head. There has never come a point where I’ve considered anything “good enough”. Each time I’ve turned in a contracted book, it’s with the same nail-biting fear of rejection I felt when I was submitting to slushpiles. I have never felt “good enough”.

A published writer takes the critical step of submitting despite that fear. Even more importantly, this is a writer who has kept writing, despite that fear. The chances of getting published are sometimes Not Very Good, but they become Astronomically Better when you Actually Produce and Learn, not to mention Submit Your Shit Professionally.

If there was a magic pill, I would tell you. The point of this whole thing is not to get “good enough”. The point is to keep trying and learning. This ups your chances of getting published, and once published, ups your chances of having a sustainable career.

Look, every single goddamn time I send a manuscript in I’m afraid that my editor will be very quiet for a little while, then send me a request to have the advance mailed back because what I’ve sent them sucks so hugely. (This is a normal feeling, I guess, since I’ve had it every damn time.) Rationally and reasonably, I absolutely know this will not happen. (If for no other reason than my agent would strap on her bandoliers and make them Very Sorry. *snort*)

But it doesn’t stop the huge, nagging, overwhelming fear that my writing–and by extension, I–will never be Good Enough. Each time I hit the “send” button to turn in a first draft, I hear the roulette wheel spinning. It scares me to absolute death.

I’ve just learned to do it anyway. Part of it is because I have to, because, well, I like eating.

You can depend on certain markers to tell you that, if you’re not Good Enough, you’re certainly moving in the right direction. Some of those markers can include personalized rejection notes or the approval of your critique group or beta reader (though I have some mixed feelings about groups). In the end, though, I don’t know if any writer ever knows if it’s good enough; I don’t know if any writer, even the most “successful”, ever gets rid of that nagging fear. If they do, good for them–but I’m talking about my own experience here, and I’ve never gotten rid of it.

The trick is to do it anyway. You can feel the fear all you want. It’s okay (not to mention reasonable and natural) to feel fear. Writing is a tricky business, and writers get rejected. A lot. Rejection is a fact of life, and it’s dialed up to 11 when you’re a writer, especially if you submit your work to the cruel, cold world. Fear is okay.

You just have to kick the fear in the nuts and run for it. I do not know of another way around this. Set yourself the task of always learning how to be more professional, keep reading and studying your language and its rules, and try to view mistakes and setbacks as invitations to learn. Bloody, painful, messy, nasty, scar-making invitations, to be sure. But if you’re easily whipped or easily frightened, professional writing is so not the career for you.

If, on the other hand, you are stubbornly (almost pathologically) determined to do, then let the fear be itself. It can actually even turn into a friend, an engine driving you to learn more and be better. You can use it as a spur, as a wheel, as torque to pull yourself up.

Just don’t turn tail and quit writing.

How do you know if you’re Good Enough? You never do, my friend. But you can choose not to let the fear matter, and be as good as you can be. After all, that’s the way any great discovery or genius is made.

Over and out.

Posted from A Fire of Reason. You can also comment there.

Why I Do This

Crossposted to the Deadline Dames!

This Friday’s writing post is a bit late because, well, life happens. As it is, I was taking a cake to a sixth-grade classroom this morning (long story, don’t ask) and I ended up giving an impromptu Q&A about the life of a working writer for about an hour and a half.

Oh, my God, you guys. Sixth-graders are brutal. I think the second question was, “What do you make a year?” The kid asking it was genuinely curious. The teacher looked horrified, someone else said, “You don’t ask that!” and I grinned and took it as an opportunity to explain just how much of the cover price an author actually gets from each book, how an advance works, and how many books have to sell before a profit is made.

The kids were fascinated. Their faces squinched up as they did the math, and I could see comprehension spreading through them. They were overjoyed to have a Real Live Writer in front of them, and asked about everything

I got a lot of questions about writers I knew–”Do you know X? What about Y?” And there was one young man who bonded with me over The Breakfast Club, of all things.

I love talking to kids, especially about writing and the writing life. They have great questions, they’re not afraid to ask a single one, they’re smart, and once they relax they’re hilarious. I loved watching them put the math together about how many books would have to sell to earn out a $60K advance. Oh, and we talked about genre, what it is and what it isn’t. I was able to tell about the bad and the good parts of being a writer. And no, I didn’t cuss once.

I also got to tell them why it was OK to not finish every story, and why I never have a problem finding stories. That the world was full of stories, and that a book I write about werewolves is not going to be the book they write about werewolves, because we’re different people. That people are unique, and the odds of us all being alive together in the same room are so astronomical that everyone in there has to have a story. To never doubt that they have a story to tell, something unique and marvelous inside them that deserves to be told. That telling a story is an act of faith, a line thrown into darkness–and reading a story is catching that line, from inside your own dark hole.

It was a great morning.

Then there was a trip to Ikea to get bedroom furniture for a certain Princess. Afterward, at lunch with the Selkie, there was sharing of plot points and much trash-talking and nuts-and-bolts talk.

It’s absurdly awesome to spend almost the whole day talking and thinking about writing. The sixth-graders were so awesome, and there’s nothing quite like getting a platter of Indian food and hashing over plot, continuity, human foibles, grist for the story mill, and war stories with your writing partner. I haven’t spent a more enjoyable day in a long while.

Writing is a very solitary, self-driven art. At a certain point, there’s just you and the words. You can’t get away from long hours spent with just the words and the people in your head to keep you company. The social part of a writing career–not making a fool of yourself with editors, agents, marketing people, and just generally acting professionally at conventions and otherwise–takes up a lot of time too, and sometimes it’s work instead of pleasantry.

And then a day like today comes along, where I get the chance to talk about something I love, something I am so passionate about. That class full of kids, so full of wonder and courage, reminded me of the other part of why I do this job. And trash-talking with my writing partner is another way for me to talk about the down and dirty of something I love with someone who understands, someone who gets it and speaks my language.

Now I’ve got some wordcount to get in. I get to go back to the solitary part of my job renewed and energized. And feeling pretty damn good about this whole gig. It’s great to share my passion–and it’s also great to be able to go home and find that passion still waiting for me. A most enchanting lover built of words and scenes and raw beautiful emotion, always here and always just a few moments of concentration and effort away.

Come in, the stories say. Come in and settle down.

We’ve been waiting for you.

It’s nice to feel wanted.

Posted from A Fire of Reason. You can also comment there.

If I Could Do That, I Can Do This

Yesterday I did my very first three-mile run. I’m informed that three miles is the breakover point–once you reach three miles, you can pretty much train for any distance effectively, or something like that. Everyone was cheering me on–funny, running is so solitary, and yet my Twitter and Facebook blew up with “Go Lili!” “You can do it!” “Those miles don’t stand a chance!”

I was so grateful for the cheering, you guys. It was like I had a whole crowd urging me for the finish line.

I did finish. I stood there, sweating and victorious, and actually yelled, “HA! I GOT THE KNIFE! NOW TURN ON THE GODDAMN LIGHTS!” (That is one of my favorite movies…)

Since I was doing this at home, the only thing I accomplished was scaring two cats and laughing like a loon while I folded up the treadmill. The cats eventually forgave me once I’d taken a shower and refilled their food bowls. (They’re like that.)

So. Three miles. When I started this a long time ago, I would walk for six minutes and run for one minute, and I dreaded those single minutes with a passion. I did that for two solid months. I took everything else in similar baby steps–walking for five and running for two, walking for four and running for three, all in two or three week (or even month-long) increments. Then came twenty-minute runs. Twenty-two minute runs. Adding a couple minutes every couple weeks. Then two-mile runs, upping speed; two and a half, two and three quarters.

And now, here I am. Running three miles. I did it again this morning.

There’s this list that I keep in my head. It’s a List Of Things I Never Thought I Could Do, But I’ve Done And Actually Kicked Ass At. I think everyone needs this sort of list. Most of the time, it’s filled with things that I never thought I could do and I did only because I bloody well had to, it was That Kind of situation. I do very well thrown into the snakepit, apparently.

Every time I think something’s going to knock me down or out, I mentally get out that list. “If I can _____,” I say grimly, “then I can do this.” It’s amazingly effective, at least for me.

Anyway. Also today I got a bunch of spiderwebs tattooed on my back, bringing together all the pieces I had before. The web are about three-quarters done. Soon I’ll be going in to get them finished. Grayscale work hurts, and the long lines the webs depend on, ouchie! So I spent a significant part of today clutching my hands together, breathing through it, and thinking if I can run three miles at a time, I can get through this.

It worked like a charm.

Posted from A Fire of Reason. You can also comment there.

If You Need Permission, Babe, You’ve Got It

Crossposted to the Deadline Dames.

It’s Friday again! Which means, time for another Friday writing post. I suggest you click back a day and read Dame Toni’s most excellent Brain Frozen, Need Help! Because she says it better than I could.

Today I’m resurrecting a Golden Oldie from my blog vaults. This post went up in July of ‘07, and is taken from an actual email I wrote to an actual young writer’s desperate call for help. I think it’s held up pretty well, in conjunction with my other advice to young writers. So, without further ado, here’s something I wrote pretty much two years ago and reread this morning. It fired me up all over again. Oh, and please note: there are four-letter words ahead. If that bothers you, stop now.

Read the rest of this entry »

I Am Not Them, But I’m Just As Scared

Cross-posted to the Deadline Dames, a year old and still going strong.

I can definitively state I AM NOT MY CHARACTERS.

Most of them–Danny and Jill spring immediately to mind for some reason–come from a pretty dark place. Others, not so much. I’ve had some scary experiences in my life (and something tell me I will have still more, life being what it is.) Some of those scary experiences are fuel. Others are just…there. They don’t go into books, they’re too personal. I have to come to terms with them in other ways.

Using the fuel of scary experiences can be good. It can help you process, it can help you deal. There are several different types of artistic fuel, however, and getting hooked on one to the exclusion of all others is a chancy proposition. Art does not live by one fuel alone–and trying to make it can have bad effects on you.

Case in point? Well, me. I’m in a state of highly personal, highly charged change right now. Some of the fuel I was using while I was miserable five years ago, or two years ago, or six months ago is no longer around. I don’t have that whip to push myself on. I am, to put it bluntly, afraid that if I get healthier or happier I will no longer be able to peer into those dark places or face them with the courage needed to pull those characters out of the shadows.

Most of me knows this is silly. As someone wise recently told me, “Those miseries were ways you had of coping and surviving. They worked to keep you whole and protect you. They’ll still be there if you need them again.” I know it’s true–I can put them back in my toolbox and get them out if I need them.

But, dear Reader…I’m scared. I’m scared the characters won’t talk to me if we don’t have the pain-points in common. I’m terrified that I’m a one-trick pony. I’m scared that getting healthier and happier will change something in my makeup and send me spinning and careening off into the woods, where my career will die a lonely death and I’ll end up hungry on the street.

I know it’s not rational. I know I’m feeling this because change is inherently frightening. When you add personal change to the cauldron of insecurities writing can and does uncover, it’s about as comfortable as bathing in a tub full of very angry cobras.

So how do you get through? How do you reassure yourself the words will still be there even if you change?

I suppose a simple answer is faith, with a large helping of stubbornness. I did not get to where I am today by listening to the fear or letting the rejection stop me. The words have been there during every other damn change in my life; this one just feels different because I’m suffering it OMGNOW! Time will add a measure of perspective that will drain my panic.

None of this helps with the agony of indecision, fear, and agitation I am experiencing, yea even at this very moment.

Which gives me hope. Over the course of a book, I take people apart. I feel their agonies while I whack away every single solid thing they rely on and put them through the wringer. They risk everything because they have no choice. It’s who they are, and living requires the courage to do no less.

I guess we’re not so different, my characters and me. Which brings me to my bone-deep stubbornness again. If they can make it through everything I can throw at them, I can make it through this. Jill would set her chin, glare out of her mismatched eyes, and stride forward. Danny’s thumb would caress the katana’s guard, and she’d wear that little half-smile. Kaia would grin and brace herself. Even Theo, the calmest and sweetest person I’ve ever written, would fold her arms and get that determined little glint in her eye.

No, they’re not (and never will be) me. But the strength to write them is and always has been mine. If I’ve lost the fuel of misery I’ll find something else to burn. If I’ve kept the fire going this long, I’ll likely find something else to throw on it. I have to trust–not my gods, not my characters, not other people. I have to trust in my own willingness to let the words come through me. I have to trust that I’m still interesting even when I’m not broken. That this will only make me stronger and better.

I’m not my characters. They can still teach me something. And I can look back on creating them and know there’s no shortage. Remember? My job isn’t to make the magic. My job is to show up every day.

I can do that. No matter how scared I am.

Posted from A Fire of Reason. You can also comment there.

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.

Posted from A Fire of Reason. You can also comment there.