Monday, March 13, 2017

In Which I Reveal That I am a Panther (and other writing things)

Last month I applied for some summer writing workshops and one of them required that I send a chapter of my novel, along with a detailed (2-3 page) novel outline.

This is gonna sound like Writer 101, but I hadn't really written a detailed novel outline yet. I had been working from a three-act structure outline (a great breakdown of this, and other plot structures, on Janice Hardy's blog here), but as far as a scene-by-scene outline ... nope. Didn't have one.

I'm a panther; this baby is my book.
This is fine. Writers often divide into plotters and pantsers--people who plan ahead of time, or people who write by the seat of their pants. I'm kind of in-between. I had the major beats charted out but when it came to writing the bits that connected those beats, I was a pantser. Note: my computer wants to autocorrect that to "panther," so that is my new official writing type.

When I wrote this detailed outline, I realized a couple things.

First, SO MUCH HAPPENS IN MY BOOK. It is kind of breathtaking all the shit that goes down. Which, on the one hand, is good. Fun, action-packed, complex novel, right? On the other hand ... holy wow there are like 4 major plotlines that I need to weave together so that events, themes, motivations, etc. converge at just the right moment.

Second, I have so much to gain from a scene-by-scene analysis of my book that I'm stunned and slightly guilt-ridden that I didn't do it earlier. How much stronger would my book be if I knew how scene 23 connects back to what's already happened, how it moves the plotlines forward, and how it sets up for events that will happen later?

But there's no sense in beating myself up for what I didn't do yet. This is my first novel; I'm learning.

What's really exciting is that I can suddenly see, like I'm Sherlock hallucinating diagrams in mid-air, how to make my book so much better. It's already good, but I'm about to make it kick-ass. And I can't wait.

Friday, February 17, 2017

The Spiritual Hunger of the Young Pope

HBO has given me two gifts in the past six months: Westworld and The Young Pope. Both totally obsessed me from the moment I started watching them, taking up space in my brain in a way that TV doesn’t usually manage to. While I thought Westworld was incredible, ultimately The Young Pope, created and directed by Italian filmmaker Paolo Sorrentino, was more meaningful to me.

It made me miss believing in God.

This may strike people as odd, given that there has been a fair amount of criticism of The Young Pope’s non-reverential attitude towards the church. It has been accused of being sacreligious, Christophobic, Catholic-bashing, and “a disgusting insult to Christians.” If all you watched was the first or second episode, or only saw the (many! wonderful!) online memes, I might get that. Jude Law’s titular character, Lenny Belardo or Pope Pius XIII, is not anyone’s role model. He’s vain, power-hungry, and unfeeling in the model of many other TV antiheroes—and claims not to believe in God. He is surrounded, moreover, by conniving, grasping cardinals, eager at first to cement their role in his new administration, and then later blatantly deceptive to their pontiff when they see his effect on a dwindling church.

So, no, The Young Pope does not treat either the papacy, the Catholic church, or religious authority in general as beyond criticism, not by a long shot.

But if we can separate the show The Young Pope from the character of the young pope, the show itself is obsessed with God—His presence and His absence—in a way that feels genuine and reverential.

For one thing, the show is interested in exploring the idea of religious calling, the moment when a priest or nun feels as though God is telling them to pursue ministry for their life’s work. Lenny asks several of his closest friends to tell them about their calling and each story—often shown in flashback—is given the weight that such serious material demands. These callings, vividly recalled, are watershed moments in people’s lives, portrayed with subtlety, emotion, and no hint of mockery.

The show is also fascinated with religious visions. Lenny himself has several. Granted, their content sometimes borders on hilarious. In one vision, Lenny is surrounded by his predecessors, all decked out in the specific papal garb of their time period, and he asks them for guidance. When they respond with platitudes, he asks “Do you have anything better?” But the visions are more often lovely and serious, as in Cardinal Gutierrez’s repeated vision of the Virgin Mary and Lenny's encounters with the Blessed Juana.

While Sorrentino’s slow pace and lush aesthetic lends a dreamlike quality to what we watch, nothing about the lighting, the music, or the cinematography, diminishes the importance of these visions. To me, this means the show isn’t asking us to question these visions or their provenance. Instead, it asks us to accept them—whether as indicative of the character’s personal obsession (like Lenny’s repeated dreams of his parents) or an actual communication from the divine—as meaningful. The Young Pope doesn’t care if the visions are “real”—what it cares about is that they are real to the characters.

Here’s where I’ll argue that Lenny himself is not as much an unbeliever as he claims. Sure, he says in the first episode that he doesn’t believe in God. But the show makes it clear that he’s not necessarily questioning the objective existence of a deity; he’s really asking whether or not God has abandoned him. God matters to Lenny, maybe more than to anyone else in the show. And that, to me, is what The Young Pope is about—one man’s struggle to reconnect with God.

The fact that Lenny is not, by many definitions, a good person makes the show even stronger. It asks if someone can be unlikeable, even bad, and still be used by God? Can someone have a relationship with a God they don’t quite believe in? Is struggling to believe in God worth it?

Lenny seems to believe it is worth it. And he is able to access God to help the world—though his version of helping the world is fraught with casual violence, from dropping the newborn baby he helped conceive through the power of prayer, to causing the suicide of a young aspirant to the priesthood whom Lenny’s anti-gay policies excluded. There’s a lot of casualties in this show, including a kangaroo (RIP, kangaroo!), Lenny’s best friend, Cardinal Dussolier and Sister Antonia, a corrupt nun who Lenny asks God to smite. The show doesn’t let Lenny off the hook for the violence he inadvertently causes, although it does soft-pedal more than I wish it did. For instance, his punishment of serial child molester Cardinal Kurtwell was the kind of TV poetic justice that is only poetic, not actually justice. Dude needed to be kicked out of the church and subjected to criminal charges, imo.

(And, while we’re talking about ways The Young Pope fails, I hated its portrayal of the character Girolamo, a young man with cerebral palsy who basically just functions as a sympathetic sounding board for the devious Cardinal Voiello. Nicole Cliffe writes very convincingly and not a whit too critically of this treatment here.)

But on the whole, this show impressed me with its treatment of spirituality. It showed a wide variety of experiences with the divine and expressions of religious devotion. It acknowledged how life-changing religious belief can be, and the pain when that belief goes away. The show’s dreamlike quality itself replicates the ambiguity of spiritual experience—you feel that something important has happened, but you can’t quite explain it.

I can relate to that. I often felt, when I was younger, that God was speaking to me—through music, through literature, through prayer. Nature uplifted me; I used to talk to the moon, imagining it as the benevolent face of God in the sky. I’m no longer a Christian. I lost my faith in my late 20’s. But I don’t doubt the sincerity of my spiritual experiences growing up, or the fact that they shaped me into who I am today. I felt those things and they mattered.

And I still feel them today, although I don’t know if I believe there is a divine power motivating them. I’m comfortable with that ambiguity, though. I’m comfortable hungering for spirituality without knowing for sure if there’s a divine. And so, it seems, is Lenny Belardo.

Sunday, February 05, 2017

How to Grow New Ideas

I got a rejection last week that put me into a minor tailspin. "We liked this story a lot," it basically said, "but it didn't do enough new and different with X-plotline."

I wasn't upset about the individual rejection. It was kind, clear, and encouraging. It was also the 101st rejection I've ever gotten so, by this time, I'm a little less touchy about rejection than I used to be. These days when I get a rejection, there's less obsessing*, more ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ and "So it goes" and sending that piece out to a different venue.

What set me back was that it tapped into my deepest neurosis as a writer: that I'm not original.

Don't get me wrong; I have my strengths. I write beautiful setting, because setting is the first thing I notice in the real world. My first-draft prose is pretty clean, often lovely. I come up with funny names, I can structure tight scenes.

This fear isn't about the mechanics of writing. It's that I'm not saying anything new.

This is one of the reasons I haven't pursued writing literary criticism, although it's pretty much a requirement to progress farther in my profession. Forcing myself to write my dissertation was one of the hardest things I've ever done, partly because I don't think I have anything new to say about the writers I study. I haven't written any academic articles since then because the very idea makes me sick to my stomach: not an auspicious sign.

Writing fiction is easier because I enjoy it. It's fun. It's challenging. And the stories I tell are meaningful to me. Toni Morrison said, "If there's a book that you want to read but it hasn't been written yet, then you must write it." That's what I try to do.

But what if the stories I want to read--and thus want to write--are boring? Derivative? Trite?

(These are the words the ugly voice whispers.)

The thing with a fear like this is that, no matter what anyone says, you still believe it about yourself. I've talked about it with several other writers, all of whom say "I love your stories; you're brilliant; you're beautiful; we'd follow you into Mordor, etc." Y'know, normal encouraging friend stuff. Encouragement like that is kind and necessary--in this vocation, we need all the affirmation we can get, even if it feels like a bit of an echo chamber.

But it doesn't really address the fact that I can see what that rejection is talking about, and I don't know what to do about it. In my worst moments, I look at my work and all I see is lesser reflections of authors I love.

Which brings me to grappling with the central conflict: how do I have better ideas? Is it possible to make your brain better at having ideas? Or is the brain you're given the one you have, and you make do with the ideas it gives you?

My poet friend Molly (whose excellent book The Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded comes out in March) gave me at least a partial answer over the weekend: read widely. Watch widely. Experience widely.

Basically, in this model, the brain is what you feed it. If you keep feeding it the same raw material--if you watch the same kind of shows, perhaps, or read in only one genre or style, or only visit the same restaurants and stores--it will continue to churn out the same end product.

Or in a different metaphor, I can learn to grow better ideas by planting different seeds. Maybe watching a documentary instead of rewatching Buffy for the fifth time. Reading poetry, or biography, or science journalism, instead of the umpteenth Johnlock fic. Visiting new countries, new cities, or driving a new route home.

And even, as Molly suggested, trying to see the same places I always go--we both live in a small town, after all; there are only so many places--with new eyes.

*Although I still engage in a bit of rejectomancy just to see if my stats bear out my feeling that I'm getting better as a writer. And hooray--it looks like I am! My pro rejections have lately tilted towards more personal than form, with a few luscious "your submission has been shortlisted" plums to savor. It's the little things that keep us going through 101 rejections ...

Thursday, November 17, 2016

How to Deal

It's been a week and some change since the 2016 US Presidential election, and it's probably not a surprise that I wasn't excited about the results. I am, specifically, sad that we have lost a potential 4+ years with HRC's experience, level-headedness, and compassion at the helm; angry at injustice in our electoral system; and fearful of the future under the new administration, especially for people of color, immigrants, refugees, Muslims, LGBT+ folk, and the disabled, to name only a few. (If you want to learn more about why this election specifically threatens people of color and what you as a white person can do about it, this list of resources is incredible!)

These emotions are real and I want to give myself space to feel them, and to respond to them.

But alongside these feelings, I've felt despair. A sense of doom. A feeling, deeper than fear, that things will never get better and that I am helpless to stop what's coming.

For me, this emotion isn't helpful. It makes me want to roll over, to give in, to bury my head in books and TV and any other distractions. To turn the music up loud and scream "La la la, I'm not listening," so I don't have to deal with reality knocking at the door.

Because I'm fairly privileged--it's not my door that reality will come knocking on first.

But I know myself. I feel better when I make a plan. (Apparently I'm not the only one: HuffPo has a list here, as does Forbes.) What I'm doing now is thinking in circles of influence, starting with my closest circle, myself, and working outwards. The lists below represent actions I will take to help myself and others around me. And when I feel despair, I will look at this list and say "There's your action, darling: go forth."

For me, I will:
Eat and drinking healthy stuff.
Keep a regular sleep schedule.
Take medicines I have been prescribed.
Do mindfulness exercises for 5 min. each day.
Keep going to counseling.
Spend time outside 3x/week.
Figure out a helpful "social media diet" so I can find a balance between staying informed and educated, and finding hope (my friend Andrea's blog post particularly helped with the hope part).

For my household, I will:
Spend less money so we can have more in savings, in case we have an emergency.
Encourage my partner to get all his medical needs met in case ACA is overturned.
Hug and cuddle my partner and pets.

For my close friends and family, I will:
Reach out, ask how they are doing.
Listen and not dominate the conversation with my own feelings.
When changes hit them, I will support with my words, my presence, and my finances when able.
When violence threatens, I will offer safety.
Not let them off the hook when they make thoughtless or bigoted statements, but call them out with kindness, as the Southern Poverty Law Center has outlined here.
Take responsibility and apologize when I make thoughtless or bigoted statements, as Maria Dahvana Headley urges here.

For my students, I will:
Require them to respond to each other with care and kindness.
Teach them to read and consume media critically, and to express themselves with nuance and thoughtful language.
Teach every class about the bystander effect and its corollary, and how to get past it.
Continue carrying my Black Lives Matter bag to show support for my black students and raise awareness of the movement on campus.
Be a safe space, a listening ear, and an advocate for my students' concerns.

For my community, I will:
Vote in local elections.
Volunteer or donate for local campaigns I believe in.
Attend rallies for causes I believe in.
Spend my money at locally-owned establishments.
Work with my Unitarian Universalist congregation to promote inter-faith dialogue.

For the greater state/country, I will:
Volunteer or donate for campaigns and organizations I believe in (here's a list of 10 that are in particular need right now; and since the environment/climate change aren't on that list, here's a few more).
Call my representatives about issues that matter to me (check out the "We're His Problem Now" call sheet.)
Donate $5 each Friday to a cause that I care about.
Write the best damn stories, essays, and poems that I can.
Promote the voices of other writers--especially those in marginalized communities.

This is my call to action. If you're feeling scared, make a list, or borrow mine. Use what works for you, and jettison what doesn't--and feel free to share.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

WriteFest Exercise 3: Fan Fiction

For this exercise, Cassie asked us to pick a minor character or villain from a story we are familiar with, and write a scene from their point of view.

I chose Terry Pratchett's Death of Rats.


The Death of Rats picked his way through the spilled corn on the floor of the granary. In some shadowed, spiderwebbed corner of his mind, he remembered corn, remembered the feel of the kernels as he sheared through them with his teeth, the sweet dribble of juice that spilled down his throat as he chewed. But Death of Rats had not eaten corn in lo these many eons. He was here on other business.

Hanging from the rafters of the granary amid dusty beams of sunlight, a cage spun slowly. Three rats were inside, scurrying around. He heard their squeaks of fright, a scuffle of aggression. He examined the round structure, wondering how he’d get up there. The stuccoed walls were criss-crossed with wooden scaffolding. He slung his scythe over his shoulder, narrowed his eyes until only two slits of otherworldly blue showed beneath his hood, and began his climb. SQUEAK, he called up to the rats above, letting them know he was on his way. They lay silent and still on the floor of the cage.

At first, climbing the scaffolding was enjoyable. He was able to stretch his long legs and arms in ways that his job didn’t usually require of him. A lot of standing around, it was, interspersed with moments of riding his pale white rat-sized horse. It was rare that he got to be active. It was rare that he got to scurry.

He was scurrying now, though, leaping from beam to beam in an effort to make it to cage before the rats inside expired. Probably poison, he thought. It’s usually poison. He could hear their labored breathing slowing. If he didn’t make it there in time, he wasn’t sure he’d be able to guide them into the Rat Waiting room. Rats often had the mistaken impression that he was in charge of deciding whether they went into Rat Heaven, or Rat Hell. SQUEAK, he reassured them. Those decisions were made farther up the chain. He was only the guide.

This scurrying was taking too long, so he decided to make use of one of his privileges as the Death of Rats and leaped out into space. He did not fall, though, but instead ascended quickly in a column of blue light until he hung just outside the door to the cage. SQUEAK? he asked, knocking gently on the wire. He liked to be polite.


Monday, March 14, 2016

Writing, Twitter Anxiety, and the Myth of Production

This past fall, I became much more active in the SF/F writing community on Twitter. Almost immediately, I fell into one of the deepest and toughest bouts of anxiety I’ve ever faced.

Anxiety is treacherous and terrifying, and it is much more than just normal, day-to-day stress. And my anxiety wasn’t just caused by Twitter; it was also caused by an aggressive and demanding schedule at work, and my own tendency to equate my self-worth with my ability to produce writing in my spare time. But Twitter certainly exacerbated it.

Why did I join Twitter in the first place? I wanted to follow writers I admired, to get a glimpse of what they were doing that I could imitate. It was as if writing was learning how to knit or fix a tire, and I just had to follow the steps to success. So I followed several up-and-coming writers and started to take mental notes on where they were submitting, who they were following, what conversations were dominating the field.

I was quickly overwhelmed by how much competition I felt. Before, I’d been writing mostly in a vacuum. Now I had the freedom to compare myself to other writers 24/7. They were selling more than me, writing more than me. How were they writing so much when they were on Twitter all the time?

I didn’t feel as charming or as interesting as everyone else I followed. Outside, I was all “jokes jokes jokes” and inside I felt lonely and afraid and worthless. I was afraid I’d be pushed out of the community before I really got a chance to be in it. I was afraid that I’d do something wrong or bad or stupid online; I couldn’t really tell how I was being received, and it was intimidating. I felt pressure to produce, pressure to be funny and clever and to have something to say about the movie I was watching, book I was reading, music I was listening to, burrito I was eating.

Beyond that, I felt anxious about the platform itself. I wanted to get retweets, likes, comments, and follows. Was it okay if I commented in a friendly manner on someone’s Tweet, or was I annoying them by crawling up in their mentions? If I said the wrong thing, would I be made an example of?

In comparison to the anxiety and tension I felt on Twitter, Facebook suddenly felt like a warm bath.

This all coincided with my feeling of rejection in general. I had been writing fiction for a year and a half. I wasn’t having much success selling my stories, but I was generally optimistic about the outlook. For most of that time, when I got a rejection, I told myself that my story was just one step closer to finding a home. I imagined myself as an awkward but friendly duck, and the rejection as one tiny drop of water, rolling off my back. But soon after I became active on Twitter, I didn’t see rejection as a tiny drop anymore, but as the giant lake surrounding me.

I developed shoulder pain, an eye twitch, and an ulcer, all before I had my first panic attack in November.

Once I realized that my interactions on Twitter were a source of stress, I managed it. I only let myself have three Twitter check-ins per day, and I wasn’t allowed to check in at all before I wrote my words in the morning. I also unfollowed people—some of them the very people I had come on Twitter to follow, people I liked and respected—because they were stressing me out by being so good at their jobs.

A reasonable person probably would have quit Twitter at this point. But I hung on for dear life, knowing that it can be a useful tool to writers. Twitter is where I hear about calls for stories, get notifications from journals about when their reading periods open, find out about current SF events and topics of conversation. I went to a workshop I heard about on Twitter, one of the best choices I’ve made for my writing. And I met people to share my work with, creating a network for smart, plugged-in beta-readers.

Ultimately, the problem is with me, not with Twitter.

When I approach it the right way, Twitter is a great support system, a really kind and loving place. I’ve seen strangers give each other virtual hugs, tell each other that they’re wonderful, to keep writing and fighting in the face of sadness and fear and the crawling ooze of mortality. @posisailor tells her followers every day that they are worthwhile and that they can achieve their dreams. @gaileyfrey asks her followers to tell her about their successes, and then tweets affirmations. @matthaig1 writes kindly and transparently about struggles with depression. In short, I’ve seen love there.

And I want to be a more loving person. More loving to myself and more loving to others. I want to be a champion for others’ successes, and for my own.

But even with these guidelines and good intentions, Twitter can push my buttons. And the reason why comes down to the myth of productivity.

Let me give you an example. I posted a story of mine a couple weeks ago, and got some retweets by some authors who I *seriously* admire. And I was euphoric about it. Nothing feels quite as good as getting a compliment from someone who doesn’t know you in person. They only know you through what you produce and, in a way, these are the most powerful compliments of all—entirely merit-based (or so it feels).

But this is a trap I fall into too easily. Equating myself with what I produce. I’m only as valuable as what I’ve managed to accomplish in a given day—and not even that! Going to the grocery store, or a doctor’s visit, or taking a walk with my dog? None of these entirely-necessary duties contribute to my sense of productivity. Only writing-related work—writing, revising, editing, or submitting—matters to this mentality.

This is my bad mental habit. And it is contributing to making me sick.

I know I’m not alone here. I see this mentality on Twitter, among my friends who post their word-counts on good days and lament when they haven’t written anything on bad days.

But we are more than what we produce. I feel shitty when I don’t write, when I don’t have things out in submission, when I haven’t updated my blog in a while because those are measurable levels of “how I’m doing” as a writer. But regardless of how I'm doing as a writer, I have worth. I matter ... WE matter ... no matter what.

Monday, March 07, 2016

WriteFest Writing Exercise 2: Non-Human Characters

For this exercise, Cassie let us pull 4 random characteristics that real animals have on Earth, and then combine them to create a new character. And it had to be sentient. My four characteristics were:

1) Has antenna

2) Mother can birth one litter of babies with multiple fathers

3) Gills to breathe in water

4) Can see clearly in the dark

So welcome to the "cave-creepers."


Margarine huddles on the side of the subterranean lake, her antenna twitching incoherently as she expels streams of goo into the water from her mouth. Around her, seven male cave creepers flutter, their antenna brushing hers and each others. They radiate excitement and concern. As this is the first time they have witnessed birth, they worry about her health. Should she be this pale, her skin this dry? As they have all just become fathers, they are jubilant and relieved. Our children, the movements of their antenna all but shout, our children are healthy, and alive!

Silhouetted against the soft glow of the lake, twenty-two newborn cave creepers flit in the water. Their bodies are soft, slick, translucent. To the fathers, these babies look so vulnerable, so exposed. But they stretch their wings and fluff their neck-ruffs of fur in pride anyways, bragging to each other through flicks and swishes of antenna: See how fast that one swims? She will be a hunter, for sure. And the thickness of his hind legs? He will certainly win his year’s race to the surface.

Margarine, her wide eyes bleary with exhaustion, gazes blankly at her children. Her lovers settle around her, gently herd her up the rocky bank to the nest they have prepared. Here she will rest, here she will be fed and pampered through her recovery, while the seven fathers take turns watching their young ones grow and develop in the water. When the baby cave creepers have developed lungs and the thin membrane of their wings begins to stretch from wrist to side, they will crawl from the lake and it will be Margarine’s job to teach them all she knows. But for now, it’s the squish of fat grubs and the crunch of tender minnows that she looks forward to. A month or more of nothing, she manages to communicate. How delightful!