Permission To Create “Bad” Art

Crossposted to the Deadline Dames, who have a shiny new website!

I’ve spent the last two days heaving blindly into whatever receptacle I can find. My stomach staged revolt, right when I had revisions under a tight deadline. So I’m going to bring out an old Midnight Hour writing post for this Friday’s offering. This is from April 25 of 2008, and I don’t think I’ve ever put it here before. Enjoy.

Permission to Create “Bad” Art
April 25, 2008

True to form, life hath served me my Friday post. Last Wednesday I was at a signing for for Elizabeth Lyon and saw some of my old writing students; we chatted a little bit about this very thing. And I’ve been reading f-listers’ thoughts about this particular issue all week. A lot of people seem to be struggling with it, so I’m going to give my two cents.

Coffee? Check. Comfy chair? Check. Idea firmly in mind? Check. Settle in, dear Reader.

Here’s what I want to say in a nutshell: It is perfectly okay to write dreck.

I’ve seen a lot of people lately agonising over the ‘fact’ that they write, well, crap. The plotting is clumsy, pacing nonexistent, they see the book so clearly in their heads but then go back and look at what they’ve written and it seems pale. Spiritless. Stupid. Pointless. They might as well just give it up because it’s not perfect or even very good. After all, they’ll only get rejected. Or they’ve gotten rejected several times already. And it’s horrible, but they’re starting to question this whole writing thing.

And I reply: God, don’t stop. This is when you’re getting better.

Assuming you are consistently practicing your writing, about every six months, stop and look back over something you haven’t touched for the past half-year. Open up the document and read it. And notice what you’d do differently now. When you’re in the wilds of practice, concerned with camping on the plain of the story every night, you don’t have time to notice how far you’re walking, how far you’ve come. You do have to stop and look back hard to realize it, and to realize how your ‘muscles’ have hardened and your craft grown more sure.

The willingness to engage in consistent practice is the willingness to learn. You’re going to have ‘crutches’ and things you rely on. (Like “that”–one of the most overused words in the English tongue–and dialogue tags, my particular follies. But I digress.) That’s why an editor and a good beta are worth their weight in gold and platinum. (Again, I digress.)

Practice has to start out somewhere. We all start out not knowing a story from a scene, the right verb from the wrong adverb, a passive action from an active one. And we all start out, from Chaucer to Hemingway, writing utter crap.

That’s why I call it writing “practice.” It’s just like dance class or tennis practice or even practicing your scales on the piano. You’ve got to make mistakes and stumble in order to learn.

Writing is a little odd in that we see the finished product on the shelves–the months and years of work that went into it are invisible. It takes far, far less time to read a book than it does to:

1. Write the first draft.
2. Get critique/let the manuscript sit
3. Write other drafts, from one to ten
4. Submit and get rejected a million times
5. Get accepted, wait for contract, wait for revision letter
6. Write other revised drafts
7. Arrive at final draft
8. Get copyedits
9. Get proof pages
10. Wait, biting nails, for the book to come out

That process–of a manuscript becoming a book–is so long and complex, and it allows a book to get better. It also grants a book a stamp of reality the half-finished noddles on my hard drive don’t have, the imprimatur of someone actually paid money for this.

Is it any wonder writers feel uncertain? Especially unpublished ones?

Which brings me, in a roundabout way, to the point I started out wanting to make. This is what I used to tell my writing students.

The first million words are practice. They can be as bad as they want to be while you’re learning. It is not important WHAT you write. It is important THAT you write, and write consistently, and keep looking for ways to make your writing better.

As long as you can open up something you wrote six months ago and see that you’ve made some progress, don’t sweat it so much.

You are going to have to accept that you may be too close to your own work to judge it for what it is. Most of the time, this leads to harsh self-judgment, not a clear-eyed appraisal of the work. Plus, the whole system of: crit readers who have egos to feed (possibly at the expense of yours, since there are bullies everywhere), toxic writing groups and classes (not all of them, but we all know my prejudices on this point), rejection by the bucketload (because publishing is a business; it is not about craft but about money, but writers often forget that and think it’s about Them Personally), even more rejection (because your manuscript may be meat to one agent/editor and poison to another), and EVEN MORE REJECTION (insert all other types of rejection here)…well, even the sanest, most thick-skinned writer could be reduced to a bleeding wreck twitching in the water by the end of it, you dig?

You have to find a way to write through all that. You have to give yourself permission to write something that may not be perfect. Even the Grand Old White Men of Litrachur had stinky-ass half-finished pieces of fanfic in their attics. We just don’t hear about those because the books they wrote after ages of practice are now taught in high-school classes. And not only that, but some of the Auld Classics are even crappy books. I can’t read Faulkner to save my life, and some of Dickens’s stuff bores me to tears. I love Dumas but I know lots of people who would rather shoot themselves in the head than read Louise de la Valliere. Even the classics are not immune from bad writing.

If Hemingway, Dumas, Faulkner, and yes, even Shakespeare (dude, have you READ some of the historical plays? YAWN.) struck out occasionally, what makes us think we won’t? Even Heinlein and Bradbury had their less-than-stellar moments. We just didn’t get to see the really horribly dreadful ones while they were learning their craft.

One of the most liberating things I ever read in Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way was this: you have permission to create “bad” art.

Yes, we try to be as good as we can, and a certain level of technical achievement is necessary to get published. But you will never reach that level of technical achievement if you’re not willing to make mistakes. Mistakes will teach you much more than noodling over an easy, perfect piece. Every mistake is a chance, every stumble an invitation to create a new dance step. You are allowed to do something badly while you are learning to do it.

Christ, I struggled with this. My parents were insistent that I had to do everything perfectly the first time–which is, I’ve come to learn, par for the course in abusive or dysfunctional households. Just wrapping my lips around the concept that I could write total crap and have it be okay was a brain-bender right up there with the nature of suffering and the existence of the Divine. It still is. I still get wrapped around the axle of “this can’t possibly be good enough.”

Especially when I’m about three-quarters of the way through a Book That Will Not Die, under deadline and short of sleep, and the entire world seems designed to drive home to me how inadequate I am as a writer and a human being. That’s when it’s hardest to give myself permission to just write the damn thing, get the corpse out on the table and then cut it up and prettify it.

Yeah. Like that.

But that’s another blog post.

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

Cleaning Up

Well, we found out how many people it takes to pack up a bookstore in under 24 hours. The fire was Thursday evening, serious packing started at about 3pm on Friday, and by 2pm on Saturday the owner and I had locked up the empty store. There’s still things there that have to be counted and inventoried for loss, but everything that could possibly be salvaged–around 14 tons of books, shelves, furniture, counters, even Shirley the plastic penguin–is gone. Oh, the espresso machine and pump is still there; a servicing by regular company should clean both of those. Also, I’ll be taking the plants and seeing if I can’t rehabilitate them.

But, yeah. The darling Scupperlout came out and worked her buns off, the owner’s husband is a Mason so plenty of his buddies came by and worked their buns off, and a group of very nice boys from Servicemaster came out. They had no buns to work off–I wanted to feed them, they were all the rangy type. I settled for giving them doughnuts. BUT, they worked hard and in about 24 hours, the entire place was stripped.

“It’s kind of terrifying,” the owner said to me as we headed for our cars in the parking lot, breathing deep.

“At least we know now what happens after a fire. It’s all material,” I replied.

I think she probably wanted to hit me before she saw my tired grin and realized I was messing with her.

The most annoying thing was the vultures and lookie-lous. People would just wander in past the yellow fire tape. “Oh, are you guys closed?” I mean, there’s no electricity. The place is being torn apart. There are signs up front saying “THERE WAS A FIRE. DON’T COME IN.” But in they came. Oh, and people trying to take stuff from the pile out back while the Servicemaster guys were loading. What is wrong with people? Jeez.

Anyway, I’ve been smelling smoke since, even though I immediately washed up when I got home and got what I’d been wearing into the laundry posthaste. It’s weird that smoke-reek lingers so long; we kept having to bug people to take breaks and stand outside to clear themselves out. (My snot’s been gray all weekend. Yeah, TMI. I know.)

It’s weird, but I was too busy to even realize the emotional impact until the Servicemaster guys were carrying out the very last pile of stuff–water heater for the espresso machine, whiteboard I use for my writing classes, miscellaneous things–and I suddenly felt like crying. The store’s been a Safe Place and a home away from home for years now. It’s where I go to give good news and celebrate, and where I go when I don’t want to go home but I need to sit and collect myself in a friendly environment. The books in there are all friends, and I know every inch of the place. To see it all empty and dark because the power’s off, ceiling tiles crumbling onto the floor, everything reeking of fire and the carpeting swelling from water still seeping through, already looking sad and abandoned…that was rough.

Still is.

I don’t know what’s going to happen yet. So much depends on the insurance and if there’s a viable way to get the shop up and running again. The owner and I are already talking about the reshelving party–beer, pizza, and a whole ton of people to get the cleaned and revivified books back up on the shelves. “Careful,” I warned her. “I’m hell on wheels when it comes to inventory, reshelving, the whole deal.”

“You be bad cop,” she said with a grin. “I’ll be good cop.”

Which is pretty much the way it works out anyway. At least some things are eternal.

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

News, And A Little Process

Crossposted to the Deadline Dames. Check us out!

You can see the pictures from last night’s Educator Appreciation shindig here; many thanks to Jason of Bluewater Comics for manning the camera! He makes a great paparazzo. I got a chance to hang out with Darren Davis of Bluewater as well, who is just the most darling and scorchingly funny man since Mark Henry. (Which is high praise, believe me.)

In other news, the building that houses our very own favorite indie bookshop, Cover to Cover, caught fire yesterday. Smedley the cat is fine and currently lounging at his summer home well away from the hustle and bustle, none of our employees were hurt, and we’ll be working on getting things squared away over the next few months. It’s a hell of a thing, and if there’s a call for help from C2C I’ll pass it along here.

Last but not least, I am pleased and proud to announce that today I horked up a big 6K chunk of wordage…and finished the zero draft of Angel Town, the final Jill Kismet book. It needs work before I can turn it in as a reasonable first draft, but I have time to do that now before deadline. Which is a huge relief to me.

That’s a part of process I’m going to talk about today, but very briefly because my brain is dry and squoozled. My deadline for this book is two and a half months away, but I need that time for revision and was stressing over getting a zero draft out in time. Part of process is learning what you need in order to turn in publish-quality work, which is not just the first draft that claws its way out of your cerebellum and lands squalling and bloody on your laptop. It pains me to ask for the month of padding I generally need to let a work rest before I can go back and hammer it into first-draft form. There’s always the temptation to bow to the pressure of getting it in sooner, which naturally editors like. Compounding this difficulty is the natural aversion I have to saying “no”.

I’ve learned that a little discomfort when one is negotiating deadline dates is well worth the feeling of having enough time.

I was terrified that I wouldn’t be able to get this book finished, ever. That’s also a part of my process–that long trudge three-quarters of the way through the book, when it seems like the damn thing will not die no matter how much you stab it, that you’ll be writing this forever, that every ounce of your brain is squeezed dry and it’s an unfinishable monster, you’ll miss your deadline, it’s all crap, GOD THE WORLD WILL END AUGH!

The only cure I have found for this is putting my head down and bitching and moaning while I plow straight through. Discipline is essential.

At some point, I will hit a dry spot where I can only produce a couple hundred words a day, but I’ll go back and tighten what’s happened before. This phase frustrated me to no end before I realized it was my engines winding up for the big push. Because sooner or later, after a couple weeks of frustration, suddenly I’m catapulted forward and I’ll have a string of 6-10K days. This won’t stop until I hit the end of the book, at which point I sit there, blinking, and have to shake my head and stare some more to verify that I have, indeed, finished the zero draft.

The first few times, the dead spot in the middle and the frustration phase literally reduced me to tears. I thought I was Doing It Wrong. It wasn’t until it dawned on me that this had happened with every book I’d finished that I started to treat it as just a normal part of the process, for me.

This does not ameliorate the pure frustration or the tooth grinding. It just makes me less likely to give up.

I keep promising you guys process posts, and this one is rather short, but I suspect lots of other writers (or creators) have the same frustration, perhaps at different points in the arc. It might help the tender new writers–or even the slightly more grizzled–to know someone else suffers it too. So, my dears, do you have a similar frustration point, and if you do, where does it occur?

And now I need to go soak my poor head in a bucket. Tune in next week for more SquirrelTerror, and another Process Post!

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

Tonight At Barnes & Noble…

I’ll be at the Vancouver Plaza Barnes & Noble from 4-6pm today, for the Educator Appreciation Night.

We celebrate all sixth through 12th grade educators with prizes, goodie bags, treats, special deals and popular teen author Lili St. Crow and graphic novel creator and publisher Darren Davis! Homeschoolers welcome.

I’ll be giving (as far as I know) a short talk, then doing a Q & A. I believe Mr. Davis will be doing the same, and I’m looking forward to it. Come out and see us, if you like!

There’s more to be entered into the annals of SquirrelTerror, but not until next week, because tomorrow is the Friday Writing post and today I’m already behind and flying low to catch up. Plus I’ve got six miles to run, especially since I’m going to be engaging in public speaking tonight. The terror at such a prospect is wonderful fuel for physical fitness, let me tell you.

Catch you later…

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

Battle of the Pine Boughs

I was just ho-hum, tossing some carbohydrate largess to the avians, when the bombs started falling.

It was early in the morning, after my usual five-mile run, a couple of days after my fence had been fired. I had a largish store of crusts to crumble for the feathered friends, and I was waiting for the local murder to figure out I was scattering calories for them. They usually sound the alarm, but Mercutio!Jay is always the first and bravest, swooping down after the crows start making their distinctive “OMG FOOD!” calls.

Anyway, there I was, humming a little song, looking forward to going inside and getting a fresh hot cuppa. All of a sudden, there were little plopping sounds.

What the hell?

I looked up. The sounds continued, and I finally realized I was under attack. Pinecones were being hurled from the trees in my neighbor’s yard, and an angry chittering broke the morning hush. Not one of the cones hit me, though they came awful close. I stood there with three plastic breadbags in one hand and a fistful of almost-molding potato rolls in the other, staring at the pine trees.

“Neo,” I said, out loud, “your aim sucks.”

I should not have taunted the rodents.

Then Mercutio!Jay arrived, screeching his head off. A flash of blue, feathers flying, he streaked across the yard from the opposite direction. He was utterly heroic. As close as I can figure, he was yelling, “TO ARMS! TO ARMS! FAIR LADY, FEAR NOT! TO ARMS!”

Well, of course, the crows heard his racket, began making a racket of their own, and they swooped in too. That’s when things got interesting.

So there I am, sweat still drying on me in the middle of a ring of breadcrumbs, jaw agape, the pinecone barrage halting as the crows flailed into the pine trees. Mercutio!Jay was in a perfect ecstasy of rage, hopping from foot to foot in the pussywillow tree and screaming “GET IN THERE, FELLOWS! TALLYHO! SPANK THOSE RODENTS!”

I started laughing. I couldn’t help myself. The pine trees looked like they were caught in a high wind, thrashing and cawing and chittering issuing from the darkness still caught in their branches. Then the pinecones started up again, and I learned something valuable: they hadn’t been trying to hit me.

No, I was just the bait. Because a tiny pinecone hurled out of the tree and smacked Mercutio!Jay, who make a strangled ulp! that might have been funny if it hadn’t sounded like it hurt. I gasped, he went over in a flurry of feathers, and the next thing I know he’d zoomed past me, flapping furiously, still screaming. “GODDAMMIT WOMAN GET UNDER COVER! IT’S ARTILLERY! MURDER! FIRE! ANARCHY! HALP!”

I stumbled backward, still laughing breathlessly, and I again discovered they weren’t aiming at me. Because I tripped over Tuxedo Kitty, who was belly down in the dew-laden grass, watching all this. I hadn’t even noticed him creeping out behind me, and I almost went ass-over-teakettle. Tuxedo Kitty squawked as I almost-stepped on him, and he shot off to my left toward the fence. On the way he was peppered with no less than three pinecones.

Squirrels are crack shots, apparently. Bombing me had just been to get everyone’s attention. I don’t know whether to feel grateful or insulted.

So there I was, regaining my balance with a dance step Ginger Rogers might’ve envied, dropping the rest of the potato rolls and furiously waving the plastic bread bags to signal distress, the ship’s going down, someone do something, while the pine trees thrashed and the crows made an absolutely unholy noise and the squirrels gave their rallying cries.

Then he showed up, winging majestically across the yard in his Capulet blue. It was Romeo!Jay, Mercutio’s best friend, the strong silent type. (Well, as silent as a bluejay ever gets, but still.) He nipped smartly into the pine trees’ recesses, and the tumult reached a fresh pitch.

I was still backing up, trying to look everywhere at once, and Mercutio!Jay circled back to me. He didn’t seem to be any the worse for wear, but he harried me across the yard until I was reasonably safe by the sunroom door. Then he wheeled about and zoomed up into the pine trees.

The Battle of the Pine Boughs lasted about ten seconds after that. Abruptly, a battlefield silence fell. I found out I was actually hugging myself, and my tongue was dry because my mouth was open, I was out of breath from helpless laughter, and I was cold. I watched the pine trees nervously. Nobody is going to BELIEVE this, I thought. Seriously. Squirrel artillery. What next?

The jays appeared first, fluttering down and landing in the middle of the bread. “DUDE,” Mercutio was saying. “DUDE, DID YOU SEE THAT? DID YOU? YOU WERE ALL, POW, AND BARTHOLOMEW!CROW WAS ALL LIKE ZAP! AND THOSE SQUIRRELS, MAN. DID YOU SEE WHAT THEY DID?”

Romeo!Jay shrugged, pecking at the bread. Both of them ignored me.

The crows came down one by one, (Bartholomew the largest was first, as usual) and the usual feeding-scrum developed, with Mercutio yelling at the crows and them laughing at him and eating anyway. I felt for the doorhandle, slid the French door open, and stepped inside to welcome warmth, backward so I could keep an eye on the yard. There was no sign of poor Tuxedo Kitty, who I had almost flattened. (It was his own damn fault anyway.)

A tiny movement caught my eye as I was bracing the door closed with a dowel. (Just to be sure, you understand.) I straightened, quickly, my back giving a twinge and gooseflesh all over me.

There in the back corner, perched on the fence behind a screen of blackberry leaves, was Squirrel!Neo. His tail was twitching furiously, and his beady little eyes were fixed on the birds. His little mouth moved, and even at that distance and without much knowledge of squirreltongue, I figured out what he was saying with little trouble.

“You bastards,” he was mouthing. “You bastards. Just you wait.”

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

Book almost done. Send bazooka.

Can’t talk. Busy with apocalypse. Tune in tomorrow (at least, I hope) for the next installment of the Saga of Squirrel!Neo, in which we learn that squirrels are crack shots with teensy pinecones. And where Mercutio!Jay saves me from myself like a true feathered gentleman. Also, the appearance of Romeo!Jay.

Back later…

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

Heaven’s Spite Teaser

I know I promised another in the ongoing series about my writing process, but the Deadline Dames are running a snippet extravaganza this week! So, I’ll be writing more about process next Friday.

Today, you’re going to get a peek at an upcoming book. I went back and forth for a long time wondering which book I should excerpt here. Generally I don’t give excerpts, because I don’t like spoiling books. I prefer to have the story whole, laid out in front of the reader in its complete form as much as possible. Plus, I feel very strongly that each event in a novel, each scene, each piece of dialogue, is integral to every other piece. Taking one out is akin to playing a very dangerous game of Jenga and risking a collapse of the work as a whole.

I take these things too seriously. But then, that’s my job. Anyway.

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