absorbing writing advice

I’m currently trying to finish a big overhaul second draft on my 2017 book. Every day I change my mind over whether it’s horrible or pretty good, but I’m forging ahead because I made a commitment to always finish my edits. Partly, because the book always improves, duh. And partly to train myself into good habits, because a writing career means you can’t lose interest and wander away after the first draft.

I’m at the 75% point…and…I’m being hit with a tidal wave of nextprojectphilia. This thing I’m working has been chopped into pieces. The SHINY NEW THING, on the other hand, is still shiny and new and maybe if I take everything I’ve learned and start working on that outline instead of these edits, it’ll be even better and I don’t have to look back–!

Yeah that’s a lie. The shiny new thing is always shinier, and when I’m 75% of the way through that one I’ll start staring longingly at the next one. Hence my resolution to always finish my projects. Otherwise I’d have a big digital drawer full of three-quarter-edited manuscripts.

At times like this I ramp up my consumption of writing blogs/books/podcasts, and slow down my consumption of fiction–mostly because I will gnash my teeth and wail and demand to know why my UNFINISHED book isn’t as good as this PROFESSIONALLY POLISHED book?!

The thing about writing advice is that it can strike you anew every time you read it. You think you absorbed it the first time, and to an extent you did. But fast forward a year and a manuscript later, and suddenly that exact same advice will make sense in a new way. Because now you’ve got some actual content to apply it to! You also get better and better at discerning which bits of writerly prescriptions advance your goals, versus which bits you can discard as irrelevant to what you, in particular, are doing.

Advice only matters if it helps you convey your story effectively. It might be perfectly good for one project, and useless on another. Also, you can always translate “never do this” to mean “never do this poorly.” (Nice reminder here.)

With this in mind, I’ve been working my way through the archives of the great 15-minute Writing Excuses podcast and taking notes. I’m still on season one, but there are already plenty of bits that I know I’ve heard before…but which are striking me all over again when delivered in concise, focused episodes, using honest-to-god SFF examples instead of canon literature. *cue holy trumpets*

Will I finish this manuscript by the end of the year? Yeeeeeaaaaarrrggghhhhhh I’m not sure. I’ve been sidetracked by Christmas cards and holiday baking and top secret Santa projects and–GASP–real short story edits from a real editor, which naturally take precedence over my unpaid practice edits.

So I’ll be back in a week or two with some entertaining family Photoshops, but writing news will probably be light until the new year.

ONWARD AND UPWARD.

writing is a scourge

I’m writing this in a noisy Starbucks, while getting mentally prepped to finish a short story. I’ve been making agonizingly slow progress on it all week, so fingers crossed that today is rough draft completion day. I don’t much like sitting in noisy coffee shops, but my library is closed on Sundays and I had to run other non-Sunday errands yesterday instead. I am so tired I feel queasy, but it’s my only chance to get this thing done!

I go out once a week for a chunk of uninterrupted writing time, and I only miss it for ill babies or a truly overwhelming confluence of family functions. I got up every 1.5-2 hours last night and feel like week-old roadkill, but oh well, it’s writing day! I’ll just slap my face a couple times and have some coffee!

Every once in a while it occurs to me that although writing is my absolute favorite endeavor, it is also the biggest burden in my life, and everything else I do would be far easier without it. All of my angst comes from constantly fretting over whether I’m writing enough, whether what I’m writing is good enough, whether I’ll hit xyz goal by the end of the day/week/year. When I prioritize writing I feel like a bad mother/wife/sister/daughter/friend. When I don’t prioritize writing I feel like a sham.

I’m in Year One Mom Zombie stage with my second kid, and I know my schedule will relax over the next 6-9 months, but instead of weathering the storm and watching all of those TV shows I didn’t have time to watch last year (or better yet, napping when the baby is napping), I’m trying to plant the seeds of a SFF writing career. Whyyyy.

And I am making progress! I’ve sold two stories to professional SFF magazines (both out in 2018, stay tuned!!), which is absolutely thrilling and some much-needed validation right now. But every few weeks I melt down and spend a full day laying on the couch, full of angst about the minutes ticking by, under-utilized. Hell, I’m already getting agitated because I’ve spent 20 minutes on this blog post so far, and that means 20 fewer minutes of Writing Day.

The trouble with writing is that it’s a hobby that requires brain power. It isn’t actually relaxing. It’s work. Work that I love, but still work.

So why do I persist at this? Honestly…I have no idea. I’ve wanted this since I was 7 and my second grade teacher told me I could actually write stories for a living one day. (Whether you can actually make a living at it is beside the point.) The periods of my life in which I regretfully set aside writing for Real World Obligations (need that graduate degree for that backup career yo), my desire to tell stories never faded. They just built up, and built up, and built up, and I filled notebooks with ideas I didn’t have time to expand yet, and I felt like my real life was on hold. And then writing again was agony because you get rusty and have to grease your way back in, but it was also an indescribable relief because I was finally telling those stories, and my ideas were so much better after I got a few more years of living behind me.

My last big writing gap was the latter half of 2015, when I went back to work after baby #1 and was basically clinging to consciousness for three months. I haven’t tolerated a gap like that since, even when I know it’s burning me out, because life is short and I have things to say.

So I’m still going. Even though I lose much-needed sleep over thorny world-building problems. Even though I cry with frustration over edits. Even when it’s something I immediately trunk and never let anyone read. I try to write every day, even if it’s just a few sentences or a paragraph of summary for the next day. If I can’t write then I read blogs about writing, or listen to podcasts about writing, or read book after book to analyze the writing. If you know me in real life, you know I’m incapable of doing anything by half. If I’m in, I’m ALL IN.

Writing is a scourge, but it’s my scourge. The joy of creating something, the satisfaction of typing the end, the nervous thrill of giving somebody a copy to beta read– it’s addictive. Maybe that’s all there is to it. It’s cathartic. It’s rewarding. It’s fun. And when you finish a project after months of torment, it’s a victory.

But that’s enough chatter. Back to work!


ETA: I realize in my fatigue and haste to write this post, I failed to give real examples of what I mean when I say prioritizing writing ruins everything else. Here is what I can’t accomplish, since I always pick writing instead:

  • I can’t maintain an exercise routine and have major writer bod. 30 minutes… EVERY DAY??
  • I can’t add much variety to my diet. I have a set of really quick meals that are moderately healthy, but anything better would require devoting more time to cooking.
  • I can’t develop any other hobbies. Used to have an Etsy shop– gone. Used to sew my own costumes– it’s been years since I made a new one.
  • I don’t make new friends easily. I chat with my siblings online every day, I have a monthly book club, and I have maybe two other people I see a handful of times per year. But I was that coworker who never went to staff events, and if we’re not related I probably won’t make it to your birthday dinner.
  • I’m constantly behind on pop culture. What’s out in theaters? What’s on TV? Maybe I’ll binge that show one day, when it’s all wrapped up and my friends assure me it ended well and is worth my precious time.

I think next week I’ll talk about why writing is worth the sacrifice. So far, I’m not really selling it, am I? XD

motherhood and creativity

breastfeeding

The daily struggle

This article by the Atlantic has been making the rounds recently, positing a lot of interesting questions about motherhood and creativity. Studies of rats (whose brain functions are very similar to humans) show that female rats become remarkably more creative, adaptable, and focused after giving birth, and that the benefits last long after their offspring grow up.

This, of course, raises the question about how humans’ brains are affected by giving birth and caring for children. And the article contrasts the potential benefits against the discouraging messages that women artists receive: namely, that having children is incompatible with maintaining a successful artistic career, that kids are a distraction, that you can’t pay attention to both. When in reality, for many women, the result is the opposite. The trouble, as with any second job, is time management.

Obviously there are plenty of creative people with and without children, and some mothers shift gears to childcare more than others, or find they hate childcare entirely, etc etc. But wow, yes, for me this is 100% true! I had a good number of ideas before, but after having my first baby I felt like I was suddenly exploding with them (plots, characters, structures, emotional story arcs, worldbuilding) in a way I wasn’t before. In particular, my best ideas now incorporate a better emotional climax into the plot/action climax. The frustrating part is not having nearly enough time in the world to write it all, so I have to pick and choose what to develop and then eke out chunks of time each week to plug away at whatever my current WIP is.

Part of it is life experience in general. I’m older. I’ve got a decade more reading and philosophizing and socializing and paying attention to current events under my belt than 21-year-old Sam did. I have more to say, so it’s easier to slip a theme or character arc into a story that previously was based entirely on explosions and banter (that said, you will pry my explosions and banter from my cold dead body).

But it’s also mommy brain, I’m convinced of it. I’ve had to learn how to multitask and focus like never before. If I want to write at all, I have to keep a story buzzing in my brain at all times so that when a 30-minute chunk of nap time becomes available I can jump right in and work like crazy till it’s over, and then immediately shift gears back to the baby. I wrote a book last year while I was massively sleep-deprived (my first kid took 13 months to sleep through the night!) and working a part-time day job. I wrote at 4 a.m. and 9 p.m. and during 1 hour naps on the weekend. The first draft was feverish but fast, and I actually liked my stream of conscious prose better than when I used to agonize over every sentence and take all day to write a scene. Editing, of course, was a nightmare! But man it felt good to be working on something.

Anyway, I think the article is worth a read! Here are some of the bits that struck a chord with me, regarding creativity itself and the unique guilt/shame that comes with carving out time to write.

Regarding rat moms:

Even as her offspring grow and learn to fend for themselves, the neurological changes of motherhood persist. She will experience less memory decline in old age, and have quicker navigation skills than non-mothers, outsmarting them in mazes. She is more efficient, making fewer errors. She finds new and unusual ways to get tasks done—problem-solving approaches she had not considered before giving birth.

From artist Hein Koh, in response to another artist who insisted there is not enough energy in one person to split between art and children:

“Becoming a #mom (of twins no less) has personally helped me become a better #artist—I learned to be extremely efficient with my time, prioritize what’s important and let go of the rest, and #multitask like a champ.”

Because yes, the multitasking is unreal, and the need to be efficient in all things at all times is all-encompassing. I gave up basically every other hobby and casual social events in order to make time for the things I wanted most: writing and spending enough time with the baby.

Regarding problem-solving:

Creativity requires making unusual connections. At its core, Jung said, creativity is original problem solving. This is an evolutionarily derived process that is important to survival. Humans who achieve high creativity usually have endurance and grit, Jung said. Creative people take risks, Jung said. They are bold, and adept at finding new and unusual ways to get tasks done.

There is enormous guilt in taking time away from your kids (I am sitting in my local library right now, during my once-a-week block of free time, and every week I feel the need to apologize 20 times while walking out the door). BUT, I am also so much better during the rest of the week when I take this break.

I am a better mother, a happier mother, when I am also able to carve out time to write. I am a better writer, a happier writer, when I am also an involved mom.

That is basically where I’m at right now. I’m trying not to feel guilty about splitting my time, but splitting my time is essential for my happiness. Sometimes I overdo it on both fronts and have a complete meltdown, but the weeks where I achieve a good balance are enormously rewarding.

Now let’s see how the dynamic changes as baby #2 gets bigger, and nap time ends. TWO TODDLERS COMPETING FOR ATTENTION? Get me the smelling salts, for I have collapsed.

“the little frog!! and the little girl!!”

Last week I sold my first short story to a professional SFF magazine! I’ll post more when it comes out in early 2018. For now, suffice to say: I’m super excited and want to get some momentum going! Since I’m in the baby dark zone and utterly failing to edit the novel I finished this spring, I’m churning out some short stories instead to join the other three I have on perpetual submission. The agent hunt is only temporarily on hold, till I’m getting just a BIT more sleep.

It’s time for another 7-year-old writer Sam flashback! I told you all about my first real narrative tale, “What Hapend March Ninth!!” Now let’s dip into the writing frenzy that followed as I became not just author, but illustrator as well. Here is one of my first staple-bound construction paper illustrated shorts. It’s pretty clear that I had only recently encountered commas and silent ‘e’s.  And, true to this day, nothing is worth saying if it isn’t worth saying with! an! exclamation mark!

Behold the adventures of a girl and her beloved pet frog, aptly titled:

frog1

The little frog!! and the little girl!!

frog2

There ones was a girle! the girle! ->

frog3

There ones was a girle frog!!! The frog!

frog4

The girl, met the frog. Hi! Hi!

frog5

The girl, took The frog home,

frog6

They played, and played, and played

frog7

The girle, got a pool for the frog! Yaa!

frog8

They swam together!

frog9

They did lots of fun things together, They were happy together, and They were happy They met, They were so, so, happy.

frog10

They were best friends, They told evry body that they noo, if they were not to far away. They went for trips together, They calked rocks together, big or little rocks.

frog11

One day it got cold so it was winter, togethe they made a snowman, withe the girles Mom!!!! Ice >

frog12

The End!

 

formative years

I was wandering around the house like a very helpful poltergeist in the wee hours of this morning, tucking a sick toddler back under his blanket, patting a baby, starting a pot of coffee. And I started thinking about those first five years of life before school creates a clearer timeline of memory and you just exist in a blur of Mom and Dad and Sibling(s) and Home, punctuated by the occasional birthday party or trip to the park.

Scan0008I’m the second of six kids, but until I was seven there were only three of us. I was pure, unadulterated Middle Child. Middle kids jonesing for attention have two options: act out, or become overachieving people-pleasers. Ding ding ding for option two! Though I’ll note that I largely grew out of the people-pleasing, and am now obnoxiously insistent on doing everything my own way. Except even that is a backlash against the early people-pleasing! See? There’s no escaping. And I’m definitely still a hopeless workaholic.

Those early years are SO FORMATIVE. And yet, you barely remember any of it. I have some faint, ghostly memories of jumping up whenever we were asked to do chores, or experiencing anxiety at doing something wrong, but it’s hard to tell if those are real memories or the secondhand memories you form when your mom repeatedly tells you what your childhood was like. Do I remember my fifth birthday party, or just the home video of my fifth birthday party?

So now I’m looking at my own kids and wondering what I’m doing right and what I’m doing wrong. You can’t escape a bit of both. Am I raising them to be assertive but not bullies? Self-confident but not egotistical? Sensitive but not fragile? Appreciative? NICE? How much depends on their predispositions and innate potential, and how much is trying to push a boulder uphill?

And how does the sibling dynamic change things? What is the dynamic of raising one boy and one girl, as opposed to one boy and a boatload of girls? I’ve always been surrounded by sisters. My childhood was exceedingly loud. We’re still constantly up in each others’ business, and talk basically every single day via instant messenger. Will my kids be this close to each other? I hope so.

I don’t have a conclusion here, so I’ll turn the subject to writing. Any time that I’m grappling with a facet of my own life, I’m mentally filing it away for future character-building consideration. Writer friends, consider the sibling dynamic when building your characters’ backstories, even if it will never be explicitly mentioned in the main plot. What was this person like at five years old? Did life reinforce those personality traits, or dampen them, or strip them away? Why?

And don’t shy away from siblings. Fiction is chock-full of only children. I’m guilty of it, too. It simplifies the backstory and the choreography of plots that do involve family members, and let’s be honest, it’s hard to maintain the brooding allure of your anti-hero if his sister calls up and says, “Remember that time you pooped your pants at Jenny’s birthday party?” But he did. He totally did.

Big families lend themselves to comedy and sprawling epics, but they don’t have to be confined there. Maybe your brooding anti-hero was the oldest of eight and co-parented them through poverty. Or maybe he was the youngest and is trying to earn his way out of the shadow of many older siblings. Or maybe he was right in the middle and they all think he’s an asshole because he never calls home. Whether you mention the reason or not, he’s rooted in those core personality traits.

So. Who were you when you were five?

change in the house of books

In exactly four weeks, I’m leaving my day job.

Gahhhh, it’s official! Well, blog-official. It’s been work-official for a month and a half because I always give excessive notice, and it’s been life-official for more months than that because I am the queen of agonizing over change. In the end, if you’re lucky enough for life to present you with options, you’ve got to pick something and stick to it. Time to move forward… the samtastic way!

This decision came with a lot more agonizing than usual. I love being an archivist. I love organizing old documents, learning useless local history trivia, and helping researchers find answers. Every day is full of little mysteries! I’ve made people cry with joy! I’ve been spontaneously hugged! (Sidenote: don’t spontaneously hug your archivist.) And I only ever made it into one book acknowledgement page, dangit.

But, barring financial emergency, the archivist career is going on hold for a few years and I’ll be focusing on the home front. The hubby’s been working the night shift for about eighteen months and will now be moving to a day shift, so hey, I might even see him once in a while! And though childcare is far more intensive than my day job ever was, I’m going to eagerly embrace the chunks of free time I do get to focus on the writing career. And, you know, enjoy my babies.

Since I’m a hopeless workaholic, you know I’ve got a battle plan, not least of all the recently mentioned Plan of Agent Attack. (Note to agents: not really an attack.)

To Do List:

  • Finalize the Grand Agent Submission Spreadsheet
  • Finish polishing Book Submission #1, a.k.a. my western/fantasy mashup full of cowboys and mermaids and a living earth that chucks people loose if it doesn’t like them, generously peppered with observations about cultural identity and commitment.
  • Put it on submission!
  • While that’s on submission, polish up Book Submission #2, a.k.a. my more conventional fantasy full of winged warriors, a working class rebellion, and the difficult process of overcoming a long-term manipulative relationship.
  • If Submission #1 fizzles out, go back to the top of that spreadsheet with Submission #2.
  • Start working on the next book!

The next book has been on my backburner for two years. It had a pretty solid outline from the get-go, but it was narrowly edged out by the winged warrior tome last year and now I’m impatient to get back to it. This one is a weird portal fantasy about the forest where lost things go, full of bow women and taxidermy and all the different ways that people process grief. But don’t worry, it still has some laughs!

I’ve got a couple other projects bubbling in the pre-outline stage, i.e. loads of unorganized notes that are rapidly taking on the shape of plot. One is an epic fantasy involving an army of golems versus an army of the dead, and mothers who will do whatever it takes to make sure their kids are the ones who survive. The other one is a Mad Max-ish dystopia taking place on an Earth that’s been partially terraformed by aliens, following an unlikely duo who’ve been cast into the wild and are trying to break into a human colony to obtain desperately needed healthcare. (That second one has suddenly become…too real.)

Even less well-developed, but no less niggling at my brain, is a knight-in-shining armor fantasy based on medieval French romances, which lemme tell you, were full of cross-dressing and social commentary and magicians being dicks, all of which is sadly left out of the average Arthurian screen adaptation.

And that’s not all!!

Gah, why can’t I just abandon sleep entirely and work an additional eight hours per day? I WANT TO WRITE ALL THE THINGS. SPECIFICALLY, ALL THE VARIOUS SORTS OF FANTASY THINGS.

Anyway. That’s what I’m going to be up to for the next few years. What’s on your docket?

returned from the pit: spreadsheet madness

Whoops, I didn’t realize quite how long I’d ignored the blog. I’ve been busy, busy, busy in work and life and writing aspirations, though a great big scheduling toss-up is coming soon that’ll change the equation.

You guys. I’ve entered a new phase of Sam’s Grand Writing Plan. I’ve entered… agent research hell! Next comes query hell. Then comes the great unknown (probably still closely related to hell). I’m excited, but also a little nervous. 16-year-old Sam is aghast that it’s taken me this long to reach this step. 31-year-old Sam is older and slightly wiser and knows this step could take anywhere from a couple months to ETERNITY OF FAILURE.

(Before any helpful suggestions are made: I do not, at this point in my life, have the skills, knowledge, or money necessary for effective self-publishing. I’m going to exhaust the traditional route first before reconsidering.)

For the last couple of weeks I’ve been scouring reputable agent listings and cross-referencing them against industry sites to generate a list of legitimate professionals with recent sales in my genre. I’ve also been doing scavenger hunts for names in books I like, and next I’ll take a broader look at recent and upcoming releases by publishers I like.

Woooo spreadsheets.

No, really, spreadsheets are my jam! My years of cataloging and organizing information have come to personal fruition. I’m going to scour the print and web worlds until I have a list of 75-100 suitable agents. Then I’m going to agonize over my query package. And then it’s go time! AKA hours and hours of prioritizing lists and tailoring the query to a bunch of different specifications and updating my spreadsheets with the results.

I figure if I get rejected 75-100 times, then that project is simply not meant to be (yet), and I’ll start back at the top of the list with the next book. I’ve got two books I think are suitable for shopping around, and I’ll be working on the next one during the long months of waiting for rejection. (Or, dare I say it… not rejection!?) My hopes and dreams aren’t ever pinned on just one thing.

I’ve already spent many hours at work on the Great Agent Spreadsheet. It’s been a royal pain in the ass to compile, but it will save me a lot of headache later.

And… that’s what I’ve been up to lately. Thank you for joining me on this self-pep-talk of a post. This is my way of marking the writing timeline on my blog and also telling myself: oh wow, I’m not just reading endless industry blogs for fun anymore, I’m honest-to-goodness ready to embark on this ride.

!!!!