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.

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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.

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 Random.org, 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.

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

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.

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

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