A (Writing) Year in Review

Someone once pointed out to me that I never take any time to celebrate my accomplishments because I am always anxiously, frenetically focused on the next thing I'm supposed to accomplish. The end of 2016 and first half of 2017 were pretty bad for me-- I was sad and didn't quite realize it, and I worried that my obsessively reading the news or working was going to cut into my ability to be creative. I don't think that turns out to be the case when I look back at what I did this year. 

In 2017 I queried two different novels, both of which continue to get requests. Regardless of what happens with them, I still love them both and they're both an accomplishment I'm proud of. 

Although I wrote a sci-fi novel last year, in 2017 I started writing my first sci-fi / speculative fiction short stories. (er.. novellas/ novelettes). Terrorcry is sci-fi noir I wrote as part of the Jenny McKean Moore fiction workshop at GW. Shortly after I finished Guava Summer which I can't really say is a sequel, but has the same characters and gets into some themes about totalitarianism. When I was at Breadloaf I attended a seminar on "Tell, Don't Show" which was SO UP MY ALLEY. I was tired of the parroting of "Show don't tell" in workshops, because sometimes telling is awesome. I became obsessed with the idea of having an entire story that was all telling, no showing. (to be fair I think the line between the two is fuzzy). I wrote Even the Precession of Earth Must Come to an End, which is all telling and takes place over about 7.5 billion years. Then one day I went to brunch and left a little drunk, wanting an ice cream sandwich. I went to this place that has good ice cream sandwiches but when I got to the counter she said they were all out. For some reason I can't explain, this is exactly the sort of thing that would embarrass me, so I ordered a cappuccino which I didn't really want. I don't drink caffeine that often (maybe once a week) because it makes me batshit, and because I don't drink it that often, it has an even stronger effect on me. So then I was pretty drunk AND really wired, and came home and wrote an entire story just based off the title which popped in my head, I Saw Goody McDerry With the Devil. 

Another awesome thing that happened? I went to VONA this summer, a writing conference for minorities. My class (genre fiction) was all girls AND THEY WERE ALL AWESOME. I had so much fun getting to know them and had so many conversations at that conference that I haven't had anywhere else. Black poets continue to blow my mind. I ate an entire Philly cheesesteak myself. I had some beers. We talked about how we were or weren't addressing race in our works and I hadn't really thought about it before. We danced really late into the night. Fun was had. 

A story that was accepted last year, The Derecho, got published. It's about a catfish catfishing a catfish, and is part of a growing pile of stories I've written that take place in DC. In other DC news, through contacts I made at various conferences, I started to meet other writers and go to readings in the area. I knew there were writers here, but for some reason hadn't tried connecting with them before. 

On the submission front, I started sending out my speculative stories, and judging from the response I'm getting from them, I'm confident they will be getting picked up soon. I wasn't sure if being a novelist (published, anyway) was necessarily in my future, but when I got back from VONA it occurred to me that I had enough short stories to form a collection. So I did that! And I like it! I'm starting to send it places! For some reason I never thought of putting them together before, but now that I have, it's interesting to see that 1) I have enough for an entire book and 2) how they fit with each other. Some of the themes are the same, even if the content is radically different. Some fit snugly into the standard literary realist tradition and some involve people getting their detached heads reattached. 

Then in the fall came the equivalent of an unplanned pregnancy. I must have been thinking of the Goody McDerry story. Or this thriller I had written a third of but put down for a while.  It took place in college and I continue to love books that take place in college.  My friend from Boston was visiting and we were walking home and I said, "What if there was like an entire school filled with psychopaths?"  I suddenly wrote a novel. It just appeared, like an unplanned pregnancy, and forced itself out with a really short gestation period. I write really quickly once I have plot figured out. The characters and voice lent themselves to a plot that seemed to write itself. I have to say, it was my first time using Scrivener, which I was initially really skeptical of. (Kind of like how I was super skeptical of anyone who bakes but doesn't mix things by hand. Only last week I bought my first Kitchen Aid). I liked the ability to move scenes around without it being a pain in the ass. The visual representation of scenes and chapters made plotting easier. I'll try it for my next book and see how I feel. The program isn't that expensive, and I definitely don't use all the bells and whistles, but I guess I would say it's worth the cost. 

So now that I think about it, I did get a lot accomplished this year. I plan on chilling out for the next two months. Doing some baking, some editing, maybe beta reading for someone. Relaxing, I guess. 

How to Write Fast

1. Stop being precious. No, it is not the case that you can only write if you have 3 full hours, perfect silence, a 110 degree latte, and Mercury is in retrograde. Sit the fuck down and type. 

2. You do not have writer's block. That is not a thing. Writer's block= "I can't muster the will to write." Write something-- it doesn't have to be your current project, or the scene you need to write. Write a book or restaurant review, a character sketch, anything. 

3. Write an outline. I'm firmly against the "seat-of-your-pants" method of writing a book. Yeah yeah, everyone has their own process, but if your process is writing 85,000 words before you realize there's massive plot holes, I would argue that your process sucks. An outline is effectively a to-do list. I have a full-time career in an unrelated field--I do not have time to dawdle in front of the computer wondering what to write. I have a list I have to get through. Which leads me to...

4. Write out of order. I feel odd saying it because I thought everyone did, but I have met some people who feel like they can only write in order. That they must work on Chapter 3 before they can work on Chapter 4. Write whatever strikes your fancy and fill in the gaps later. 

5. Utilize "yaddah- yaddah". Say you're breezing along. At the end of this scene there needs to be a pretty cut-and-dry convo-- like "Why didn't you go to the police when you found the dead body?" Maybe you know the answer or maybe you don't, but right now you don't care. Just write "blah blah" or [they have the convo about the police]. Go back to it later. 

6. Establish healthy boundaries with respect to research. Either do A or B. A is research something moderately to thoroughly before you write anything about it in your book. B is make shit up. What you don't want to do is be happily chugging along, then come to the part that takes place at the (real) Mayflower Hotel in DC, then spend two hours straight learning everything about it, including what type of mortar was used to hold the bricks together when it was being constructed. Either do it before or just make it up--just make it good whether the facts are real or fake. There's such a thing as doing too much research. For example, this strange place, the McMillan Sand Filtration Site, is the location of a set piece in the novel I'm revising right now. I already knew what it looked like from having driven by it. I knew what it was basically, and spent about 5 minutes doing research to find out when it was built, when it was operational, and when it stopped being operational. Did I need to know the architect or how exactly the water was filtered? No. If the story was actually about the Site itself, maybe, but there was a level of "need to know." If you can't go to the Mayflower and you don't know what the staircase looks like there, you can either spend a bunch of time trying to find out, or you could make it up, or just say "staircase"--and the more important thing would be to have one or two details about something else that feel real even if they aren't. You're writing fiction, not history. (um, unless you write nonfiction.) 

7. Don't write what you know, write what you love. Stuff you find fun will always come faster. The harrowing tale of your own personal trauma--that's not going to come out quickly. But think of your guilty pleasures. The tropes you love in both "good" and "bad" TV, movies, and books. 

8. Don't show your stuff to people, including yourself. You need to be able to produce material even without the threat of a deadline imposed by a critique partner. You need to be free from voices which doubt your direction. (I am pro-beta reader, but increasingly skeptical about workshopping as a need as opposed to a form of socializing, and I'm not sure about critique partners while you are still drafting.) Don't go back and revise your writing--or at least no more than a page or two. 

9. Block off time when you are specifically not allowed to write.  I once heard something about psychologist Viktor Frankl. He had a patient who worried constantly. He told them, I'm assigning you to worry as much as possible between 9 and 10 am. Lo and behold, the person did their assignment so well that they were actually sort of burnt out on worrying after that.  This is the obverse of that. In thinking about your work day, don't look for time to write--block of time when you are specifically not allowed to write. For weekend days, don't let your calendar show a gaping open space all day that just says "write book." I wake up early and go to work--so no potential free time until 4:30, 5. I have a dog to take care of, my own maw to feed, and I have a specific time where I like to get to the gym. I write between dinner and the gym--I stop at the predesignated time, no matter how hot things have gotten. If I have what appears to be an empty weekend day, I block time off for things other than writing--weightlifting, leisurely walk with my assistant editor (dog), chores from 1-2:30, 2:30-3 panicking about the increasing meaninglessness in the world, reading 5 to 6, social event from 6 to 10 pm. Which means I only "get" that bit of afternoon time to write.  When you have a bunch of stuff going on, you don't have the luxury of time. You have to be efficient because you have no other choice. You are assigned to write then, and no where else. You don't have to stay home from a social event because you are (tragically) working on your novel--you'll just write faster and harder the day before and the day after. Time is a commodity. If you have too much time to write, time has no value. You won't get anything done. 

10. Think about your ideal reader.  Don't think about publication. Or agents. If you will offend someone. About Comic Book Guy tweeting about how you got some detail wrong. Your ideal reader is a lot like you. She's excited about your characters and story. Your idea writer is not your mother. Or your judgy aunt. Or Snarky McSnarkface from your MFA. This book is for you and no one else right now. The only notes to hit are the ones you want. 



In honor of NaNoRiMo-- which I'm not doing, I'm going to try to blog once a day for the rest of the month. In particular, I'd like to focus on the "I'm not a full time writer" thing and how you can still make it work. That said, I might just end up writing long blog posts that are actually just hypercritical reviews of Assassin's Creed starring Michael Fassbender. 

Not that you need to be told this but no, you don't need to write every day.

Someone published a "writing advice" article about how you need to write every day otherwise you are a fail or whatever.  "Write every day" is one of those perennial things which appears in writing advice nuggets.  I don't believe in that piece of advice, and not just because that method doesn't work for me.

I used to feel guilty about not writing every day, or having long stints of time where I am not writing and am instead binge watching Friday Night Lights on Netflix (which I've already seen) or engaging in my endless search for a lobster necklace on Etsy.  Then I did the math on my productivity.  It takes me about 6 months to write a novel.  Just the draft.  Which I then put away, then rewrite however many times.  But the actual bulk of the work takes 6 months, which is a decently fast clip.  I'm new to novel writing--most of my writing life has been spent as a short story writer.  I tended to think about stories a lot before I ever sitdown to write them, so when I did finally sit down, they more or less come out in one long stream.  However much time I have to type that day, that is.  Similarly for novels, I work out my plot outlines and just plow through it.

Which means I have a high amount of productivity during a short burst of time, then a word desert for weeks or months.  You know what though?  My productivity is fine. 

I can't find the article, but when I was training for a long running race, I read something by a marathoner who said that his absurd finishing speeds (I don't know--anything less than 12 hours seems fast to me--but I think it was 3 hours) were not hindered, but actually helped by the fact that he took breaks to walk.  This goes against logic in some sense, how can going slower help you go faster?  Even when you're doing it during a race, you feel a pressure to start running again because people are passing you.  A guy dressed like the Statue of Liberty juggling three balls is passing you (yes this happened to me.).  Ultimately, taking walking breaks became a structured way for me to complete races in increasingly faster times. 

Similarly, I'm a weight lifter and anyone who lifts weights knows that you can't work the same group on Monday and Tuesday.  Lifting causes tiny damage to your body--you need that time to recover.  And protein in the form of mediocre-tasting powder-based drinks.  Lifting more is not lifting better if it results in your being injured, or working inefficiently.  More is not better.  Ask anyone who does interval training. 

I get the sense that "write every day" might be something that some people need to be told in order to get their butts in a chair, because otherwise, they won't write.  Well. . . if you need to be shoehorned into doing something, maybe you don't really like doing it?  Yeah writing involves some components that you don't like--maybe it's revision. Maybe it's copyediting.  But at some level, you should want to work sometimes, and you should be able to without having a rigid structure imposed on you by some arbitrary guideline.  Often people lament that they don't "have the time" to write because [insert whatever].  Jobs.  Kids.  No quiet space.  But the fact is that people with jobs, kids, and loud spaces all find a way.  They learned to write in small bits of time they did have, or when the kids were screaming. They did it because they wanted to.  And the shape of how they did it differed. 

Do what works for you.  If it's not working, stop.  "Not working" can also mean not hitting the quality goals you want because you're burning yourself out.  Things that are "not writing" are actually writing: targeted reading, reading for pleasure, going to readings, admin stuff like sending to magazines or researching agents or publishers, consuming things--which includes TV, movies, meditating, running, baking, or whatever puts you in a thoughtful mood.