On Professional Envy

This morning, Delilah Dawson asked a really thought-provoking question.

Hm. The answers on the “How do you deal with pro jealousy?” Q are mostly from folk who’ve found peace with it. Who is struggling? I sure am.

— Delilah S. Dawson (@DelilahSDawson) July 21, 2016

I think a certain amount of professional jealousy is healthy, just like a certain amount of fear is. Not the amount (or kind) of either that makes you act like an asshole, but a normal pricking of self-applied spurs, to push one to evolve. To finish more books/short stories/novellas/poems/whatevers. To hone one’s craft. To have more fun on the page.

It’s okay to feel “bad” emotions. It’s like alcohol, sex, or juggling–practiced in moderation, it’s good for you. Fear can keep you from stepping on a venomous danger noodle, and great things have been written with a gnawing sense of god DAMN it all, I’m going to show you how to REALLY DO THIS.

Fear, discomfort, professional envy, these are all part of a full emotional spectrum. You can feel however you want, and plumbing those feelings can help you write more evocatively and, incidentally, become a more compassionate person. Imagine trying to write someone who’s furiously jealous if you’ve never felt the green sting; it can help you understand, and understanding brings not only depth to your writing but kindness to your daily outlook. Now, please note that compassion is not–and should not be mistaken for–admiration or the condoning of asshole behavior, whether one’s own or anyone else’s. It is also not weakness, though people might mistake it for such, and then it’s time to have a big stick handy.

Feeling some amount of professional jealousy is normal. Accepting a certain measure of it robs the feeling of a great deal of shame, just as setting the timer and telling my kids they could swear as much as they wanted until it finished robbed cursing of a large measure of its “forbidden fruit” draw. Certainly you can set a timer and wallow in jealousy, too. (It might even be therapeutic, as long as one gets back to work afterward.) I think a lot of writers have the idea they’re not supposed to feel envious at all, which loads the emotion with all sorts of shame-weight and drags you down.

So how do you tell how much is healthy, and how much is toxic? Two simple metrics:

1. Are you using it as an excuse to act like an asshole?
2. Are you using it as an excuse not to write or finish your works?

IF the answer to either is “yes”, back up. Take a deep breath. Of the two, #1 is the most short-term critical, because one moment of nastiness can–and will–be dragged behind your name in publishing like an anchor, lo, yea, until the end of times. Other people have written at length about how to know if you’re acting like an asshole, so I won’t add more here.

#2 is the more insidious, and the one that you can mistake for actual effort. There are millions of excuses not to write, and the deep cultural narrative we have of the “tortured creative” actively helps to feed them and make them monstrous. I, too, have felt the seductive call of “my career is crap because it’s not as ‘successful’ as someone else’s, therefore I will watch YouTube videos instead of writing.” This is where the habit of regular writing is crucial. The discipline–ideally, or writing every day, even if only for ten minutes–will do more to get you over that hump than any amount of short-term effort.

Humans don’t like uncomfortable feelings. They’re, well, uncomfortable. Frantically shaming yourself and spending a lot of mental and emotional effort pushing those feelings away easily becomes counterproductive. Drawing their venom by letting them be what they are and continuing with the work anyway is a path of, if not less resistance, certainly more wordcount.

Over and out.

Internal Engines

jazzhands.jpeg

So apparently yesterday’s bees (look, they won’t sting me, but it is a bit concerning to pull my tank top away from my breasts and have a bee fly out, really) were carrying a night of vivid dreams for me. Which, great, I must have signed up for this sort of shit before I was born and I’ll put up with it, but really, YOU COULD HAVE JUST SENT A CROW, FOR GOD’S SAKE. (Aaaaaand this just landed in my inbox from my writing partner, who delights in doing such things.)

Anyway. Ahem. Hi. Welcome back, dear Readers. In the past couple weeks I’ve finished revising two all-new books and sent them off. While I chew on my fingers waiting to hear back (no, that’s not a typo, we’re down to actual flesh) I get to try and force myself to take a breath before going in to restructure, rebuild, revise, and just generally make CORMORANT RUN better. I wrote the zero and first drafts at such a white heat I’m surprised my hair didn’t catch on fire, and it’s a good thing I have my favorite editor around to tell me where the story in my head needs a little more clarification on the page.

Editing doesn’t have to be adversarial.

The trouble is, my internal engines are unstable and going at such high speed I stand a very real risk of pulling some mental muscles by going back into the fray before I’ve healed up. At the same time, I am aching–aching–to get some more work out the door, because the financial hit from having to shelve the Book That Shall Not Be Named because fuckwits kept stealing has been…severe. I’m not quite at the point of no return yet, but I’m definitely in Anxiety Land.

I keep telling myself that things have been truly bleak before and this is not that. I practice self-care, I am taking the long view and choosing not to do short-term flailing that will injure my ability to keep producing. At least, producing for public consumption. I’ll always write, it’s just publishing that seems to be the strangle-point. Then again, after being in this game for over a decade now, I should know that it’s cyclical.

Why do I speak about this publicly? Because a lot of people don’t. Because there are few things “new” and aspiring writers need to know more than what makes a sustainable career. Because being honest about it helps demystify the process of making a living as a creative. Also, because I want people to know and understand the consequences of thievery, and to shame those who still indulge in it. Also also, because I don’t have time for bullshit, and openness discourages yon fragrant bovine droppings liek woah.

Yes. Well. Now I have to distract myself so I don’t go blazing into the next round of revisions just yet and hurt myself.

…It’s going to be a long weekend.

Fairytales, Tooth and Claw

Kin-Lili-St.-Crow Once I had written Cami and Ellie’s stories, well, Ruby couldn’t be far behind. I had only foggy idea of what her story entailed. It was one of those situations where I just had to trust that the Muse knew what she was doing and it would turn out all right.

Red Riding Hood has never drawn much of my interest. I suspect Freud ruined it for me. “Don’t go into the woods, little girl. Those are huge… tracts of vast dark sexuality!” As a slut-shaming or even a cautionary tale, I found it objectionable. Even the violence in it didn’t move me. It took me a while to figure out that I didn’t have to listen to the (mostly male) academics (or the male-gaze dominated cartoons or movies or TV shows or or or) winking and nudging about how the wolf was a guy hanging out at the corner to lead a virginal girl astray and RUUUUUUUUIN HER.

Fortunately, my little Red didn’t have to buy into such bullshit.

Instead, her story became about different things. The pressures of love and obligation, for one. Ruby has something I never did: she was born into a tightly knit, loyal clan. It took me a long time to realize not all families were like mine, minefields of pain and degradation. I did go through a phase where I went the opposite direction and assumed other families were perfect, and mine was fucked-up because I was poisonous. (After all, I’d been told for most of my life that I was a mistake, that I made everything worse, that I was a problem.) It took a long time before I realized there was a continuum of family fuckedupness–like much else in life, there’s a gradient. Even a good, loving family is full of pressure. (Even good stress is still stress.)

Ruby spoke to me of things I hadn’t thought of since my own teen years. Boyfriends with quick fists and how they move you bit by bit through a maze until you’re trapped. Hated, necessary duties, and the feeling of being cheated upon learning which things were not necessary. The fear of adulthood, the massive change that hits once school’s over. Suddenly being on your own in a world they’ve told you is worse than what’s at home–because how would they get you to stay if you thought there was a chance of a place where you wouldn’t be beaten or screamed at by rageaholics?

The longer I wrote, though, the more I realized Ruby’s story wasn’t so much an exorcism for me as a synthesis. The structure of Little Red Riding Hood was an alchemist’s set-up, and I was distilling.

Ruby, Cami, and Ellie save each other. Sure, there are princes in their fairytales, but it is the friendship between these three young women that brings them through. It is the friendship that keeps looking for each of them when they disappear, that breaks well-meant (or not so well-meant) rules in order to keep searching, that brings each of them back from their abyss. Each of them is a reflection of the others (those doubles and triples again) and the message they carry is the same.

You’re strong enough. You’re good enough. You matter.

That’s another thing about fairytales–you can choose to find hope or despair in them. Cautionary or elevatory tales, it’s up to you.

Life is dangerous, and when you’re young, there’s a certain lack of proportion. You haven’t lived long enough to understand some things are molehills, not mountains. If you survive (psychically or physically, or both) you can eventually learn. Survival, like telling stories, is most often a bloody process. Even in the best situations, with people who have the best of intentions or who are doing the best they can, blood can be drawn and pressure can mount.

Ruby was always the character who seemed the most “together.” Even Cami and Ellie expected her transition into adulthood to be seamless. One of the more surprising things about her was that she was just as uncertain as either of her friends, she just coped differently. It’s like Madame told me once about ballet class–nobody is looking at you, everyone is worrying about their own dancing. But you don’t know that when you’re young. You don’t know everyone is faking it. You don’t know that everyone around you is as uncertain as you are; it takes a long while before you begin to suspect that everyone is stumbling along in the dark no matter HOW seamless their confidence appears from outside.

All these things came together while I wrote Ruby. All these things went into the cauldron and boiled, and the soup surprised me.

The exhaustion that hit at the end of the trilogy was some of the most severe I’ve ever had. I’ve talked before about snapback–the exhaustion that hits at the end of a book. It happens exponentially at the end of a series. The massive flywheel in your head that’s been powering yo along, pushing this boulder uphill, has too much momentum to stop right away. It has to spin down, and while it does that, your head can feel like the inside of a bombed sieve.

When you set out to tell a fairytale, you’re opening the door to forces bigger than yourself, an accumulated lightning-charge that will teach you all sorts of lessons, painful or not. I’d made it through the woods, to the castle, past the gate. I’d told the stories I needed to tell, the stories that needed me as an outlet. It was exhausting, and I grieved a little, because I knew Cami, Ellie, and Ruby had other mountains to climb as their lives unreeled. I had to say goodbye to them, because they were different people now. It’s a good feeling, but also a painful one. There’s no birth without that pain, no creation without that discomfort. Even the stories that tear their way out, red in tooth and claw, heal over.

If there is a balm to be found in the ending of fairytales, in that happily-ever-after, it’s that even the worst things can heal. It doesn’t have to be ever after, it can just be for now, and that’s okay.

A scar, after all, means you’ve survived.

Fairytales, Survival’s Price

Wayfarer My week of fairytales continues!

I’ve never liked Cinderella. The idea that one must be patient and submissive even under the worst treatment and someday, someday you’ll be rewarded strikes me as damaging at best and a culturally approved way to groom people to be abuse victims at worse. I was always faintly uncomfortable with the endings of different versions–the stepsisters cutting parts of their own feet off, shoes full of blood, casks full of red-hot nails rolled down a hill with the stepmother inside. It wasn’t the violence that made me uneasy, I knew from a very early age the world is a brutal place and safety largely an illusion. It was the feeling of righteousness welling up when I read about abusers getting theirs that made me queasy. I often wondered if those feelings made me just as bad as the stepmother and sisters–or just as bad as the people who beat me.

So when I realized Ellie from Nameless needed her own story, it irked me. I didn’t have the trouble in choosing the tools to excavate it; they came easily to hand for once.

That should have been my first clue that the exorcisms weren’t over.

I wrote Wayfarer during the Great Casa to Chez situation. About halfway through, I deconstructed under the stress, and for only the second time in my life, the words refused to come. I had no emotional energy to spare and yet the urge to write tormented me with spurs under my skin. I would sit down, look at the files open on my desktop, and slide straight into a panic attack because I was too burnt out to feel my way from word to word. Having the urge and being unable to scrape together even a single syllable was a very special kind of hell.

Buying a house is not for the weak.

Anyway, that passed, and as if in payment for keeping the faith, I fell into Ellie’s story as soon as I turned on said desktop in the new house. It occurred to me, now that I’d achieved some distance from the story (not by my own will, but still) that I wasn’t really writing about someone else.

I was writing, in some ways, about myself.

The fairy godmother doesn’t show up when Cinderella is being beaten for not cleaning something properly, doesn’t show up when she sleeps in the cinders, doesn’t advocate with her when her inheritance is stolen. Instead, she arrives before a goddamn ball. Which has always seemed to me like she’s not really very invested in dear old Cindy-Rella, but has an agenda of her own. You find out when you survive a bad childhood that escaping carries a price and risks all its own. Those who offer to “help” you often have their own agendas, and your wellbeing may be only a small (or nonexistent) priority. A few harsh lessons from that quarter and the devil you grew up with starts looking like a marginally safer bet. Some kinds of help aren’t really helpful at all. In other variations of the tale, it’s the dead mother and a Giving Tree who step in to send Cinderella to the ball, and if that doesn’t make a false dichotomy between the dark and passive feminines, I don’t know what does.

Ellie understands very well she’s trapped because she’s a minor. She puts a brave face on at school and doesn’t invite her friends further into her problems than she is absolutely forced to. “Help” isn’t something she feels is possible, it isn’t something she feels she can ask for. When she is finally driven to a certain cottage, the “safety” there is just as perilous as “home.” She does well in school until she can no longer go, understanding it’s one of her few ways out. When you’re that young, and that under siege, isolation begins to feel like your only and safest bet. You cannot trust anyone else, even those who really do want to help you. You fight even the best support, because trust is a liability you can’t afford when you’re holding together your psychic integrity under assault 24-7.

Not only that, but one can often feel…corrupted. Being told over and over that you’re worthless, evil, the worst thing that ever happened to your parent, that it’s your fault they do these horrible things to you, fucks up every sense of priorities, perspective, and worth you might have. The effects go on for years, and even therapy cannot completely erase the stain or the sting.

It can take a long time to piece yourself back together. Therapy has helped me immensely, as well as medication to get the anxiety under control. (Just give me a stick!) I have found people who can be trusted, and I have allowed myself to trust. There was no fairy godmother, even though I wished for one. In the end, it’s Ellie’s own strength, and her bonds with people who are willing to give the right kind of help, that saves the day. The latter is never guaranteed, and the former isn’t either, but I’ve spent my life betting on the latter and am, incredibly, still breathing.

I found out I was stronger than I ever suspected. Ellie’s survival is in part mine too; this is part of why fairytales stick around. Even under the trappings I care very little for–the prince, the ball, the dresses pulled from a nutshell or bibbity-bobbity-booed into existence–there is a hard kernel of truth that can ignite the bonfire I burn all the pain and rage and helplessness in. I don’t sleep in those ashes anymore, I have difference sources of warmth.

But when I go into battle, I paint my face with them, because I’ve survived. That was the story I needed to write, and I think–I hope–I did.

Fairytales, Twos and Threes

nameless One does not simply walk into fairytales. Not without an axe and a pocketful of breadcrumbs, anyway. And when you are inside, you must look carefully at every face, because it carries an echo of its opposite.

Nameless started with a single image: an injured little girl in the snow in front of a gleaming-black limousine. I was about sixteen when the image came to me, and it occurred periodically for years afterward. I didn’t write the book that went with that image for almost two decades. I wasn’t ready, and I knew I wasn’t ready. Still…the story stayed inside me, closed up on itself.

When I was ready to begin excavating, I chose a shovel. It broke, and I had to choose another. (As one does.) Over and over, every tool I wanted to use kept breaking, it took about six before I found the one that would work and settled into a rhythm. About a third of the way through–thankfully, the pickaxe was still holding up–I realized I’ve absorbed, by dint of sheer cultural saturation, the fairytale laws of twos and threes.

Snow White and the Queen are two sides of a coin, the Prince and the Huntsman (Nico and Tor) likewise reflect each other. Once I realized that, the structure of the book almost built itself. The difficulty was stepping into each character. Camille’s terror, and the abuse that robbed her of easy speech, was heartbreaking, but it was something I was familiar with. The White Queen’s fear of old age and death, and her selfishness, was arduous in different ways. It’s a lot harder to feel empathy towards a nasty, self-centered villain.

Actually, I take that back. The empathy is easy. The hard part is suspecting there’s some part of oneself that reflects the villain’s awfulness. We are large, we contain multitudes, and every archetype casts a shadow. To tell stories is to delve into those dark patches.

A character can function as a double more than once. For example, Papa Vultusino (the widowed king) and the White Queen express different conditions of authority. And the old Vultusino and the new (Papa and Nico) are in creative tension with each other, just as Cami’s own shadow-side is reflected in her acceptance, through most of the book, in her persistent feeling of being nameless.

When I was younger, the variations of Snow White filled me with a sort of antagonistic loathing. I hated that she was passive, that she bit the damn apple, that someone else had to save her. Then I went through a period of considering the entire story an allegory, with each character a part of the psyche. There was a time I thought it was about “found family” and how you could be helped by people you could trust when your own flesh and blood betrayed you.

Writing Nameless, though, became about something even more personal. I went into a jungle full of mirrors and shards of other things I’d thought the story meant, in order to answer a deep, almost-unarticulated question from my own childhood–how can a mother injure her own child? I didn’t understand it then, and as a mother myself I don’t really understand it now. It’s utterly foreign to me, but at least writing the story, with each character refracted through its double or split into threes, helped me achieve some sort of tenuous peace.

I have come to believe that retelling a fairytale is similar to performing an exorcism. If one isn’t prepared, it can go badly. The accumulated charge of these stories, told and retold, repeated in threes and sevens, is great to plug into but dangerous as well. Under each variation is a core of something halfway between emotion and truth, taking the strength of both and reflecting. Two mirrors facing each other, and a candle between them to light up the labyrinth. The glare can blind you if you don’t have a ball of thread, or pebbles to drop in each intersection, or…you get the idea.

Over and out.

Five Monday Things

000zf6sq It’s been a while since I did Five Things Make a Post! So, here they are.

* Saladin Ahmed is available to help you fix your novel. GET ON THAT. I highly recommend him. When you’re done with that, if you’re looking to self-publish, I recommend copyediting by Brian White (if he’s available) and a cover and formatting by Skyla Dawn Cameron.

* “Amazon doesn’t care about you,” we said. “But they do!” some idiots replied. No, they don’t. They fucking don’t. Kindle Unlimited is just another way to get screwed. It’s just like Amazon to drag their feet in dealing with scammers. I want to yell “I TOLD YOU SO,” but I’m going to be more polite and just leave that link there.

* I’m not sure what to think about this method of dealing with asshole gamers. I mean, I’m glad it seems to work, but I can’t help wondering if it really does work or if it somehow gets circumvented. Because plenty of assholes spend a lot of time and energy looking for ways to be assholes. Imagine, if they spent all that energy learning to be decent human beings.

* Why yes, I’m a bit of a pessimist today. WHAT WAS YOUR FIRST CLUE? It must be finishing two zero drafts in a row. I feel like my brain is made of Swiss cheese. And not fresh Swiss cheese, either.

* For my fellow runners: looks like paper surgical tape can help with blisters. I haven’t had a blister since I switched socks, but you bet your bippy I’m going to be looking for some of that stuff just in case. BE PREPARED is not only the name of the writing game but the running game as well. Now if only I could find something reasonable for chafing…

And that’s Five Things that make a Monday post. I swear to God, if Monday even BREATHES wrong on me, I’m going to use my machete.

Over and out.

On the Censor, and Finishing the Damn Book

ghandi01 Gather close, my chickadees. After a long while of not dispensing writing advice (really, most of what I wanted to say is here) I’ve had a question–or a set of related questions–reach critical mass, and will take a shot at answering them at one go.

These are things I have heard recently:

“I don’t think my work is complex enough, and that stops me from writing.”

“I don’t have a theme, and that stops me from writing.”

“My plot’s been done before! And that stops me from writing.”

“I get to the halfway point and then I can’t think of anything else to say, and that stops me from writing.”

“I’m not sure about the quality, and that stops me from writing.”

You get the idea. These are all related to a particularly insidious attempt on the part of what Julia Cameron calls “the Censor”. That’s the asshole inside your head who prefers you to keep everything safe, so there’s no chance of rejection, because rejection fucking well hurts and nobody likes that sort of pain.[1] To do that, the Censor attacks you right in the self-worth–or the perceived worth of your writing/painting/basketweaving/other art. It’s a song of “this isn’t good enough, so why even try?”

Normally I would advise kicking the Censor right where it hurts and taking a chainsaw to it, but: One, it’s an invisible psychological contract; two, it exists for a reason, even if it’s misfiring; and three, I’ve been working on my anger issues lately. So chainsaws are not allowed, for at least the rest of this week.

The Censor exists to keep you from getting hurt, in some twisted fashion. In normal functioning mode, it’s the same mechanism that might stop you from handing your beer to a friend and saying “Hey, Earl, watch this!” before you land in the hospital if you’re lucky and the morgue if you’re not. The trouble is, the Censor can so easily go haywire, and decide the best way to keep you safe is to cripple you before you try anything new or risky at all. Besides, our Censor has a couple of insidious little buddies–Anxiety and Misplaced Economy of Energy. (The latter is the sort of laziness people mistake for efficiency.) Together, they fight…well, you, and your art. (They can fuck up your life in other areas, but that’s–say it with me–another blog post.)

All that being said, the Censor has a point. Unfinished drafts are ugly creatures. This leads us to the solution, and the best way to roll the Censor in broken glass and set it on fire.[2]

Finish it.

Set your kitchen timer, set your wordcount, keep digging into what comes next for as long as it takes. But finish it.

Finish the damn book.

Complexity? Theme? Well, you won’t be able to get away from either of them. Themes will pop up in your work because you’re a human being interested in certain things, and those things will show up in any art you do. You can’t get away from it. But in order to find those themes and layer in complexity of character, plot, or the dinner-party menus your characters are discussing, you need a whole word-corpse on the table. You need to be able to see the arc of the story before you can correct it and trim here, pad there, and paint over that to make it purdy.

Sure, every plot’s been done before. But it hasn’t been done by you, and even if you do revisit a plot time and again (hello, Anne Rice? Charles Dickens? Even yours truly?) each time you do so you are at a different point in your life, and have a different constellation of words and thoughts to bring to bear on the matter. Plot matters, yes. But the point is how you perform the plot, and if you like turning out a certain batch of notes there’s nothing that says you can’t figure out how many variations to play on that theme. Finish the damn book, then start refining.

I’ve talked before about the long slow slough of despond that hits between a third to two-thirds of the way through a book. This is why writing is an endurance test. This is not about sprinting, or about how fast you can vomit up a chunk of text that may or may not be a book. This is about the discipline to sit down regularly (I recommend every day, we’ve already been over that) and keep at it until you’re done. You all know how action movies go, so consider this as the buildup to the big battle near the end. That feeling of having nothing else to say halfway through? That’s the Censor and Misplaced Economy of Energy getting together and desperately pulling out the stops to keep you from their Villainous Fortress of Solitude. Getting you to back down is the Censor’s endgame; that way you can stay in the “comfortable” tar-pit of “well, I just couldn’t finish it.”

That tar-pit is familiar. It’s safe, even if it burns and slows you down. The Censor is trying to tell you that it hurts, burns, and outright batters you less than having other people judge your work and possibly reject it. I’m here to tell you the two pains are about the same, so you might as well go for the one that has a prize attached. There’s no reason to pick the tar-pit over the scorpion-pit of getting reviews. (Especially online reviews.) Or the gladiatorial blood-pit of querying. It’s going to hurt either way, but at least with reviews, queries, and the like, you have a finished book to salve the pain. You have an achievement nobody else can take away–you finished the goddamn thing, which is more than most people who call themselves “writers” have. Once you have finished that marathon, that achievement is all yours. It’s sweet and it’s a goddamn sight better than the tar-pit.

That leaves the ever-popular, ever-famous “I’m not sure about the quality,” which is one of the Censor’s most insidious asshole moves.

Look. 99.9999999% of unfinished drafts are fucking horrible. 99.999% of zero drafts are fucking terrible too, in different ways. Most first drafts aren’t all that great either, but they’re a damn sight better than unfinished ones because you’ve had a go at shaping, trimming, and beautifying the whole corpse instead of just looking at a pile of rotting body parts and throwing up your hands before retreating to the castle cellar to moan at Igor about how hard it all is. It’s work to stitch your monster together, hard work to throw the switch during a lightning storm and attend all those dials and contacts and get the horrifying creature breathing. In the end, though, when it sits up and screams, it is proof of creation itself. All you have to do is apply some makeup and teach it to dance.

Even if your finished book does not see publication, even if it’s the most horrific steaming pile of word-shit that exited the runny bowels of a diseased mind, it is still an achievement. It is a whole book. It means you went the distance, stayed the course, and didn’t let the goddamn Censor keep you in the tar-pit. You get the marathon T-shirt and the knowledge that you can do it–you can make that monster, you can make it breathe, and you can even teach it a waltz. Nobody–not fellow writers, not your parents, not reviewers–can take away the fact that you did what you set out to do, goddammit.

It can help to know the Censor only has a limited bag of tricks, and tends to use the same ones on everyone. (Much like GamerGaters and MRAs all seem to work off the same toxic little playbook.) Fellow wordsmiths, what other insidious little tricks does the Censor use on you?

[1] Even masochists have their limits.
[2] Chainsaws aren’t allowed, but I’m a creative sort.