We Deserve to Live Well

As I write this, a wriggling 8 month old is trying to see how far my bottom lip stretches. The 3yo has a cape on. My son is shooting nerf arrows onto the roof. I see no reason to interfere.

In this time of global crisis, the school-aged children are home for the foreseeable future.  They’ve turned to me, I who am disheveled, pajamaed and anxious, to run their school day. Ha! This is what streaming content is for. Don’t want to do your math today? Fine.

Productivity. I define myself in terms of my creative output. Being an artist and a writer is like being a sponge: I am either wrung out or brimming. I can’t expect my children to work diligently if I myself cannot even muster the will to plan a project.

I’ve realized that I need to think differently. What is productivity, right now? Closures of schools and workplaces, cancellations of events: it all feels dark and very scary. But, what is happening is a collective social sacrifice. Solidarity. We are coming together in our isolation from one another, oddly, in order to give our medical workers and institutions a fighting chance. We are saving the lives of our fellow citizens.

That is worth doing.

Why does that feel strange? I don’t think we like working, but we’re afraid not to. Capitalism is not amenable to a collective slowdown. I make money for no one when I decide to bake bread and paint or read a story to my children. Previously I’ve had to decide whether or not I deserved those activities. Did I get enough done in any given day to justify slowing down at the end of it?

What I hope we all realize is this: we’ve always deserved to rest, to eat well, and to enrich ourselves with the development of domestic skills. We are owed this, to be treated with dignity and to live well. Currently the necessities of life are acquired through wage slavery: I cannot eat, live, or receive medical care unless I work. If I cannot work, I suffer. Is it foolish to wonder if this crisis will force us to re-imagine the way we live?

I will continue to let my children play whenever they want. The guilt I feel has been planted there by the greed of a collapsing system, and I will instead try to live in a way that upends it.

In Anticipation of Reluctant Spring

So I hear it’s March. I’m still writing “2018” on checks and school permission slips and paperwork at doctor’s offices, even thought I know intellectually that it has been 2019 for several  months.

I am tired.

March solidifies everyone in amber. Time stops. Normal life seems inadequate. “Never make life decisions in March,” an old friend once told me. Wait it out. I understand that now. This time of year makes me impatient. I feel burdened by my lack of progress, my goals far outpacing my actual abilities.

I know it’s not just me. My Latin students forget their declensions. They look at ut clauses and offer feeble interpretations, and mix up all the ablative uses because really, there are too many of them. They are smart, and they do good work, my students. They are merely tired. I announced no homework over the weekend, and the collective sighs of relief confirmed I’d made the right call.

I feel kinship with them. I finished revisions on a novel draft of 100k words  last month. I feel as if the life has been sucked out of my bones. I now stare at that blinking cursor in Word, and will myself to write anything before closing the laptop an hour later. My art studies have hit a similar wall. I’m working in charcoal, and there’s no rushing it. I spent weeks on a color study that should have, by my standards for myself, taken an evening.

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There’s nothing to do but wait. Replenish. Shovel the snow even when the sun is out, even when it feels like winter has overstayed its welcome. Clean the house again. Make some tea. Read a book for fun, for pure indulgence. We Catholics started Lent this past Wednesday, and so I’ve imposed upon myself a routine of prayer and reflection that I find regenerative.

I am learning to give myself a break. To wait for spring with hope instead of frustrated dissatisfaction.

You should too.

Art and Writing and Latin, Oh My!

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“After the Bacchanal” 9 x 12 Oil on linen

I’m prepping for an eventful summer full of painting, writing, and Latin translation!

I finished a still life (pictured above) in oils this week, hit 30k on the Fantasy novel (planning for 100k), and secured a Latin teaching position starting this fall that I’ll be prepping for.

Fiction writing is a slow business, but I have some good news to report on that front. I recently signed a contract with The Daily Science Fiction, and have a piece forthcoming this year. Every other story I’ve sent out is being held for consideration, so here I sit. Nothing to do but research for the novel and add to the word count! Wait, write another story, you say? HA!

I’m still reviewing short fiction for Tangent Online, and this May I reviewed Beneath Ceaseless Skies’ May 10th and May 24th stories. That magazine is one of my favorites. I envy people who can weave pretty prose.

I’m still painting, and the gallery is updated with recent works. I’m thinking about selling prints soon, and it’s turning out to be a rather complicated pursuit. This July I will be painting my first full size portrait under the tutelage of an artist who studied in Florence. I am intimidated but eager for the challenge. Excelsior!

In personal news, my children are growing like weeds. I gave them no such permission, the curs. My youngest turned 2 this month, and now I fight a trembling lip whenever I see her baby pictures. I was in a car crash yesterday, and while unhurt, I’m reminded keenly of my mortality.

It all goes by so quickly. Onward in virtue.

What I learned from Ursula K. Le Guin

Some writing books are for beginners, but I found myself hungry for a book about narrative prose that assumed I was already working hard on my craft and needed the next step. Lots of authors write books about writing: they give financial advice, formulas they use to chart plots, etc.

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Thing is, some of that advice didn’t work for me, and I found myself buffeted by a fusillade of opinions I had no ability to judge. It was Ursula K. Le Guin’s book that I found immensely helpful.

When I decided to try to write fiction professionally, I picked up Orson Scott Card’s book and did a write-up on this blog to internalize what I learned. I’d like to do the same for Le Guin’s book here.

So here’s what I learned from Steering the Craft: A 21st-Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story :

Rhyme isn’t rhythm; and your prose should sound nice when read aloud. Narrative momentum and pacing are very important to story, and a key way to achieve this is rhythm. Read your writing out loud! Does it sound right? Trust your ear a bit, and if you suspect your own ear then read good writing to get a sense of how a good narrative sounds. Onomatopoeia, alliteration, repetition, dialect, just write paragraphs practicing these without using a meter or a rhyme, and see how you do.

Grammar is beautiful! Punctuation tells the reader how to hear your writing. Pauses have to be in just the right spots. The wrong choice alters the meaning; punctuation choices should be deliberate.

Don’t be afraid of repetition. Don’t run to the thesaurus all the time; skillful repetition gives power to prose and gives the themes of a story solid ground. Repeat words, images, and phrases to drive a dramatic point home. If writing humor, repetition can be a tool that sets up reader expectations and consistently delivers catharsis over the course of a long work.

Try some self-editing that removes all adverbs: Figure out what your bad habits are. A first draft is always terrible, reading like a surreal fever dream on the second pass. So deliberately practice wording things in different ways. Are you using adverbs or adjectives as a crutch? Using superlatives too often? “She’s very pretty and so nice!” is weaker than “her eyelashes caught the light as she helped the child off the ground, dusting his jacket while telling him he was brave for not crying over a scraped knee.”

Imitation isn’t plagiarism. Imitate great writers in order to learn. Artists and musicians copy the masters, so writers should too. Just remember that imitation is for practice, and an essential learning tool! If you show it to someone else, say the piece is “in the manner of so and so” and that’s fine.

The book is full of exercises and assignments that can be completed on your own or with a peer group. I’ve done a few of them twice, three times, and learned something new every time. I’m still a “baby writer” in the sense that my latest work is better than my earlier stuff (as is natural), and I’m just starting to break into publishing after a few years of hard work and several failed attempts. The hard work is paying off! One of my short stories was recorded for an episode of Starship Sofa last year, and I have a few short pieces forthcoming with other outlets. (Hopefully published this year!)

This book is going to be a staple of my writing diet. I can’t recommend it enough!

Avoid These Story Mistakes: As I judge A Short Story Contest

PAPERI’ve been helping evaluate short story submissions for a contest, and I’m on the hook to give meaningful feedback to young writers. It’s been fun! I’d like to share some common mistakes I’ve seen cropping up in aspiring writers’ prose in this post.

Don’t crowd a story with too many concepts 

When writing, the ideas flow: have fun! See where it goes! But then, edit. Focus on one idea and flesh out it’s implications in a meaningful way. If you start the story about a robot, follow through with it. I’ve seen several stories that start with once concept, and then they split off into completely different concepts that don’t make sense. For instance, a robot story becomes a story about a pirate who steals it, which then becomes about a ghost watching over them, and ends with a serial killer. Don’t create new elements to get yourself out of problems. Readers will know you’re fudging. In a short story you have time for one idea. State the idea in the opening, and then complete the arc.

Give readers command of the world and the characters right away

If you’re writing an alternate history, a fantasy in your own made-up world, or about the near future, the reader needs to know right away. Readers will get frustrated if there are no clues about the setting. I’ve seen several stories that didn’t establish a sense of place until they were halfway through the tale. That’s sloppy, and gives the impression you were making it up as you went. That’s fine for a first draft, but your readers want the polished end product. This will make them trust you.

There’s no narrative arc

All stories have a beginning, middle and an end. Spaceships aren’t interesting unless we’re made to care, and the engine of making a reader care is conflict. You might have a great idea, but nobody will care about it if you don’t get your protagonist in trouble because of it. Here’s a basic breakdown of an arc’s structure:

a.) Beginning: conflict

b.) Middle: fallout

c.) End: resolution/catharsis.

These are the basics. Don’t submit your brainstorming notes: mold that idea into an arc.

Some basic prose/ grammar tips

A metaphor is a complete idea that compares unlike things. It’s not enough to say, “Paul is an ant” and leave it at that. Why is Paul like an ant? What are the implications of such a comparison? Never obfuscate for mystery, because chances are you’re just being unclear. “Paul is an ant: diminutive, better in groups where he can disappear into a collective effort.”

Be careful when jumping from one internal monologue to another. Point of view should be cohesive. Is it first person or third person? (Does the narrator say “I” or does it pull back and say, “Mike did X”?) Make that decision before writing each draft. The reader should never feel jarred.

As always: read more. Learning how to develop a prose style is essential to writing anything well. Be sure to read the basics: Dorothy Parker loved Elements of Style , or pick up William Zinsser’s On Writing Well.

And never self-reject! Write and submit to as many contests and magazines as possible. You’ll never get better if you don’t keep working on it. Get as many eyes on your work as possible.

** The original version of this post claimed that Parker wrote Elements of Style; that was a mistake. (Written by Strunk)

I Have Some Good News This 2016: Published!

So yea, 2016. This wounded artery of a year.

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But, I am able to share good news for once: I sold my first short story, to be published in a Science Fiction Anthology either this Dec or Jan.  The contract is signed and the publisher working away on the printing.  I’ll share the details once it’s put up for sale.

Honestly, this is amazing news. I’ve worked very hard to get here, and hopefully this is the start of a writing career. I have several other subs out, so I’m hoping to keep up the momentum!

This particular story was rejected 6 times- but the sub times were long. One publication held it for five months, so I lost some time there. I finished the story in March 2015, after it went through eight drafts. The rewrites were helped along by Critters (I’ll report to them this “Woohoo!” once published) and one last, very incisive critique by a major magazine editor.

Making art is hard work. Lots of rejection, lots of technical and creative skills required, many late nights spent just trying to hit a word count so that they day can be considered well spent.

So, here’s to my little story. Hurrah!

I have Fun Crits This Morning…

Just had a story make the rounds through Critters, and boy are the reviews mixed. I’ve got people tripping over their tongues as though sozzled, the tintinnabulation of their praise ringing to the stars! Write more! Write often! You are a wizard with words!

And then there’s the Dark Side, the turgid fusillades at my disregard for SCIENCE! Don’t I know better? Don’t I know that people only bothered to read this story because they were dedicated to giving a crit? That if the readers were not dedicated, they’d print my story only to be able to set fire to it since my opening line was SO BAD? DON’T I KNOW I’M KILLING TREES?

And then, there were three people that struck the Golden Mean. The types that said, “this is good, here’s what I think about this since I’m a Scientist,” or the “This will be a harsh crit, but it’s better to hear this now, trust me.”

You guys. We’re cool.

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I Unpublished My FB Page

I unpublished my Facebook page- not my personal page, just the author one. I have a blog and Twitter, and that’s been helpful in connecting me with writing pals without the extra medium. In fact, it was just redundant… people who became personal FB friends were linking the page, but not too much traffic otherwise.

Plus, I just shared my author page with my friends anyway, so I was starting to feel silly.I see so many established authors using their personal pages as a way to connect to their friends/ readers, and I’m more comfortable with that approach.

So I’ll just keep writing and editing and being a fandom nerd-gal and see where that goes!

 

Never Talk Back to Your Beta Reader

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An actual tire fire. Curtesy of Mstyslav Chernov

So, say you’ve asked someone to read over a story you wrote.  What you’re looking for is reader reaction: how much enthusiasm does the average reader have for what you’ve written?  If something doesn’t work for them, they need to tell you so that you can figure out how to fix the problem.

It’s not a beta reader’s job to fix what didn’t work for them.

Read that again. Seriously. A reader is going to bring all of her own experience to your writing and it is going to form her opinion. If you get a bad review, better you know about it sooner than when that draft on the professional market. As you get better at writing, you are also going to be able to discern between actual problems with your story and an unreasonable misreading of your ideas.

And your job is not to fight a reader about their opinion.

And yea, that happens. I critique a few stories a week. Some authors are better than others, so if the author is pretty good I focus my review on their concept and point out things that I don’t think fit, always with the caveat of, “this is just my opinion.” And sometimes I get emails back from the author contesting my opinion.

Don’t. Do. That.

I don’t care if the opinion is rude, or says something insensitive like, “This story is a tire fire. Give up writing and go into middle management.” Beta readers are giving you their time and energy so that you can improve yourself.

The only things you need to say is THANK YOU, and then move on.