Silver Wordsmith: An author's journey
I would like to discuss buts. No, not those kind, and not because my kids are going through this phase where every villain from the books they read ends up being renamed to “Poo Poo Butts”. I would like to discuss the innocent conjunction “but”.
We all have our crutch words when we write. Whether they sneak in to our dialogues as borrowings from our own specific way of talking, or into our prose, which ends up cluttering it and acting as a distraction, these words are a natural occurrence for any writer. I’ve discussed how part of my editing process is aimed specifically at weeding out crutch words as much as possible by using word clouds. “Just” is one of mine, for example, and I found during editing that about 70% of the time the word doesn’t actually add anything in terms of meaning, and sentences read much cleaner without it.
“But” on the other hand, seems far less sinister. It’s a lowly conjunction. One would hardly go about trying to eradicate every mention of the word “and” in a story. So what kind of kooky mechanical advice in the same vein as “no adverbs ever under penalty of torture” is this?
I’m not advocating for the elimination of ‘but’ – it’s simply something I’ve noticed I use in my writing as a crutch, specifically for sentence construction. My recent bout of editing, from my novel, to my sci-fi serial to my short stories, made me a little too aware of using the simple addition of ‘but’ to put sentences together. Again, by itself, that’s not a problem. Anyone telling you to never use ‘but’ or to never end your sentence with a preposition are out to lunch, but that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t have awareness of how you construct your complex sentences.
It’s like the classic advice about varying your sentence length. I know for me if I ever encounter three 10-13 word sentences in a row I know I’m in for at least ten minutes of trying to break these up into a more varied rhythm. Same with the use of ‘but’ to build sentences. In one particular short story I’d recently completely, I found three instances of the clause-but-clause sentence in a single paragraph that contained only four other sentences. There’s nothing glaring about writing out a sentence like that, but the human eye and brain is a keen pattern-finding machine, and repetition like this stands out. It feels unnatural, it feels lazy. Try saying three sentences like that in a row, and realize that they need to be spread further apart for that effect to dissipate.
Although it was a little jarring finding this tendency about myself, and adding yet another thing to the ever-growing editing checklist, it’s not entirely surprising why I lean in this particular direction. I find that one of the things I enjoy about my writing is creating contrasts and oxymorons. A lot of this can be found at the micro-level in sentences – a small twist in the direction it was taking, or else created specifically to highlight a juxtaposition. The conjunction ‘but’ is a natural fit for that kind of writing since by its own nature it is intended to create some kind of contrast.
So, with the reason out of the way, let’s not let it become an excuse. None of these contrasts or juxtapositions, as I put it, would land right if the reader was rolling their eyes at another lazily built sentence. So how do we go solving this problem?
The important caveat is again – there’s nothing wrong with using the word, all we’re looking for is breaking apart any clusters of them. The easiest way I found to do this is to search my work for any instance of the Word ‘but’. Newer versions of Word highlight the searched-for word in the entire work, which makes visually scanning pages for clusters really easy. I ignore pretty much every use of the word ‘but’ unless a see several highlights in close proximity. That’s when I stop my quick scrolling and try to figure out how to edit my way out of it.
Sometimes I’m tempted to replace ‘but’ with something similar, like ‘yet’ or ‘though’ and I’m fully aware that this is essentially cheating. So I use this technique sparingly and rather try to pick which of the sentences is the best candidate for revision and focus on that. Usually one, or at most two, sentences from the cluster actually need tweaking, so it’s not the most time-intensive aspect of my editing process.
The best part about editing like this, which is what I found in my campaign against “just”, is that this leaks into the writing process as well. I find myself less inclined to use “just” as I write, and I expect I’ll experiences the same thing with my sentence structure as well.
Sometimes it might not be the most comfortable thing to recognize faults in our writing, but without realizing them, accepting them, and tackling them, there’d be little room for us to grow as writers.
The internet can be a powerful and versatile tool in the arsenal of a writer. And I’m not just talking about Googling weirdly specific forensic questions that in the eyes of a law enforcement algorithm make one indistinguishable from a serial killer. The amount of research a writer can do from their comfort of their own living room is incredible, including visiting faraway places without ever having to leave the house. Or, in my case, revisiting long-shuttered corners of my memory in full colour.
One of the novels I’m currently working on is set in Moscow, and though that was the city of my childhood, I hadn’t been back there in almost twenty years. My main character shares a lot of the same places that I had grown up around, so you’d think it would be easy for me to replicate the setting.
Honestly, if I’d relied on memory alone, it would probably be passable. Any reader who’d never been to Moscow would certainly not know the difference, and even lifelong Muscovites, unless they specifically visited the neighbourhood I was describing, might not immediately notice that something was amiss. That is, won’t notice anything amiss with respect to the general locations and the broad stroke descriptions.
Once we dig down to the details we discover the little problem inherent in the passage of those twenty years. The problem is further compounded by the fact that the protagonist finds themselves uprooted from a life as an immigrant to Canada, and placed into an alternative universe existence where he never left Russia. A lot of the novel therefore revolves around the changes that had happened in Russia and Moscow since he moved, and the contrast to the expectations he had of his homeland after a long separation.
Memory alone would not permit me the experience to write this well. Short of going back to Russia for a tour myself, something that is presently not possible for me, all I’d have to rely on is hearsay. Not only would someone familiar with Moscow likely see through the inevitable missteps, but it would compromise one of the integral themes of my novel and would be a slap in the face of an ever-changing home city and country with which I share a complicated relationship.
So out came Google Maps. I touched on this process in an earlier post about the novel, but this time, I took a stroll through my own neighbourhood, taking intermittent moments to catch my breath while nostalgia and the slightest touch of what could probably be best described as homesickness gripped my chest. Following the path of my protagonist who traced my own childhood steps not only allowed me to remark on what has changed and what stayed the same, but also lent some more ephemeral elements to help with storytelling. A little old lady captured by the Google Street View camera would turn into a side character; a specific piece of graffiti would inspire an internal monologue in the protagonist. It almost felt like plagiarizing real life.
Each of my own observations could be downloaded into the protagonist, since he was essentially experiencing what I was – taking in familiar surroundings after a long separation. When it comes to the first draft, I’m pretty much throwing everything and the kitchen sink at it – every observation, every unlocked memory, gets tossed into the narrative. It’s probably too much at this point. As the novelty wears off and the novel eventually enters subsequent drafts, I’m sure a lot of these tangents would be pruned. In the end, I’m hoping the result is something close to an authentic experience that combines vague memories with refreshed visuals to create a picture of a city.
It’s sometimes easy to forget the kind of information available at our fingertips these days. This is an opportunity that just wasn’t available to our predecessors. To write even remotely believably about a place, the writer had to either absorb a multitude of first-hand accounts to paint their own picture or actually be present there physically. Now, for any major city around the world, a simple click of a button and we’re looking up at world-famous landmarks, sneaking around forgotten side streets, or cruising through the countryside. It’s a convenient and reliable way of providing support to a setting we may not have personally experienced.
A word of caution is that this is in no way a panacea. I’m not entirely convinced that this method of research would be sufficient for an entire work taking place in a setting that the author has never visited. Visuals go a long way but the feel of a place is harder to pin down through a computer screen. Not to mention the flow of life, its people and its culture. More serious research is required here, though I believe a reasonable product can be achieved here as well, made that much easier by all the other research tools that are brought to us by technology and the internet.
The need for proper research, and perhaps some self-reflection as to the advisability of the story/setting combination in the hands of the author, is heightened for certain settings, depending on their relationship to the author themselves. An ethnically WASPish North American author sitting from the comfort of their desk chair may be able to set their whole story in a rural Indian village or the streets of Caracas, but should they? A special sensitivity to place, culture and people is required here, and a reminder that technology is just that, technology, a tool, not the end all and be all of human experience.
So like any literal tool in a handyperson’s toolbox, tools should be used with caution and for their intended purpose, but I encourage playing around with dropping yourself into a setting you’ve never been before, and using that to grow your writing.
I got a bit of a nasty surprise this weekend. As I’ve mentioned in recent posts, my buffer of chapters for my science fiction web serial is growing and I’m gearing up to start releasing installments in the next couple of months. Since I feel like the project has taken on an unprecedent level of seriousness for me, I figured I’d do some additional due diligence before I truly commit. For years, I had been referring to the project as “Drops of the Black Sun”. I had vetted it earlier as the full phrase, and found no similarities, so I went ahead and reserved a domain name, and have been using the name consistently ever since conceiving of it.
This time around, I decided to scrutinize its constituent parts, so I googled “Black Sun” as a separate entity. What I found was that the Black Sun is the name of a crime syndicate in the Star Wars universe. A small issue, I figured. My “Black Sun” didn’t refer to an organization, and even though there’s significant overlap in genres, the crime syndicate formed a relatively minor part of the overall Star Wars lore. I concluded that this wouldn’t be a huge deal.
The other use of “Black Sun” is as a Nazi symbol that is widely associated with neo-fascists and neo-Nazis.
Cue me whispering several bewildered obscenities.
To say that this is a “problem” would be a colossal understatement. Whatever connection works for Star Wars – a crime syndicate being associated with some of the worst villains in human history seems at least somewhat appropriate – there was no way I was going to be associated with this. Not only would I not want the title of my work in any way related to such repugnant ideology, I also wouldn’t want my work to get a signal boost from those searching for the symbol, or vice versa.
I admit I probably should have done more vigorous research at the time I decided that this was the name I was going with, but I knew I had to correct this oversight immediately.
So I had signed up for a new domain name, and scoured my blog for any mention of the original name, replacing it with the shorter and crisper “The Bloodlet Sun”. This was a team effort between myself and my family over the weekend. Even the kids tried to help though their suggestions never made it into the final product.
So in case you’ve been following this blog, and suddenly have noticed this name change, that’s the story behind it. And if there’s any mentions of the original name that I missed somewhere on this site, please point it out to me so I can delete them as well.
As for the new name, I’m glad I got pushed into another brainstorming session, because I quite like it, even though it hasn’t had a chance to grow on me yet. It’s shorter in terms of number of words and number of syllables, and brevity does tend to serve catchy titles best. I retained the image of an ominous sun, though I admit I cheat there a little bit. To use “bloodlet” in the way I use it hear isn’t entirely grammatically “proper” but I like the unusual use and the imagery that it might invoke.
It also allows me to use the longer concept of the Drops of the Bloodset Sun to describe the actual objects in my world without clogging up the title of the work with unnecessary words.
So here’s a lesson to us all – do your due diligence. You never know what might be lurking out there that you simply aren’t aware of that would cause you to send the worst kind of wrong message. I’m just glad I caught it in time, and had a chance to right this mistake.
Last week I mentioned that I’ve been riding a wave of productivity over the last month. The result of this is perceptible progress on all my projects, including the completion of Chapter 2 of The Bloodlet Sun. The only reason I haven’t started posting again is because this time I want to build a bit of a buffer first (not that a buffer would save me from a similar year-long hiatus that I’ve experienced since concluding Chapter 1, but I’m trying to be a little optimistic here). I’m already in the process of editing Chapter 3, and have also almost finished writing the first draft of Chapter 4. I’m hoping to start posting DoBS at a fairly regular weekly schedule in a month or so.
The fascinating challenge I’m facing with Chapter 4 is character naming. A lot of characters get introduced here, and even though I’ve worked on some of them for years, their names have never been set in stone. And I’m finding out that names are a big deal.
Han Solo, Kosh, Daenerys Targaryen, examples from some of my favourite works of sci-fi/fantasy fiction are memorable, punchy and evocative. In the case of the former, can be short, and easy to pronounce, in the case of the latter, longer, and a bit more of a tongue-twister depending on how many drinks deep you are into trying to forget Season 8. A character’s name is a far bigger deal in fiction than it would be in real life. Nothing in the real world is stopping Bill Jones from being the best he can be, but fictional Bill Jones is not going to amount to anything more than being an accountant in a room of other non-descript throwaway accountants preventing Stalactite Sinclair from financing her coup against a brutal dictatorship. So I’ve taken my approach to names seriously, although if my brainstorming of the last few weeks is any indication, perhaps a little too seriously.
In a way, naming the alien characters is a whole lot easier – there are fewer constraints to work with. There’s the species’ or culture’s naming conventions and phonetic inventory to consider, while also keeping an eye out for acceptable syllable structure, but otherwise, the rules here are entirely in my head. Just don’t spit out something with five syllables, three-consonant strings and multiple apostrophes like Shr’ulia’akrgi, and you’re golden. I break, or come close to breaking, the first rule with Thorian naming conventions (as you’ll see more in Chapter 2), but generally I also subscribe to shorter is better. Just look at some of the examples from J. Micharel Straczynkski’s Babylon 5: Kosh, G’Kar, Vir. All three are single syllables that are both palatable to the English speaker, but that could sound alien nonetheless.
The lay of the land for human characters is entirely different. Maybe if I was working in a pure fantasy world, I can be as unconstrained as with my alien names, but I’ve created for myself a specific setting and I have to try to play by the rules of this setting. Without going into any spoilers and simply borrowing from the general description of DoBS – it takes place approximately two thousand years from now, about the same amount of time from a great planetary disaster.
Thinking back on how human society, culture and demographics have changed over the last two thousand years, without a great calamity on top of that, I realize my puny human brain can hardly comprehend that many years into the future. So any “realism” here would be purely aspirational. Not to mention that in my perceived future the Earth has become a far bigger melting pot than it is today, and suddenly using names that exist across our world right now doesn’t seem too appropriate.
At least my inspirational golden standard, Babylon 5, was set about two hundred and fifty years in the future, so names like John Sheridan and Susan Ivanova don’t seem that far out of place. Crank the time scale by a factor of 8 and add all the waves of human migration, and “John Sheridan” might not seem too out of place, but if everyone else’s name was similarly familiar, it would seem like a cop-out.
Granted, I think I could get away with giving those names – I doubt the readership would judge me too harshly for it, but it doesn’t feel right in my own head, and I need to be fully immersed in my own world if I am to bring it to life for someone else. So, let’s take a look at the parameters I set for myself in deciding how to formulate human names in DoBS:
So now that I laid the parameters out, comes the actual hard part. Even though I have those “rules” for my naming conventions, I still need the names to come out naturally. The character rises out of my imagination – they have a personality and a history and first and foremost they are people who are alive, you know, as much as a fictional character can be in my head. Applying some sort of rule-based or flowchart-based approach to their names is mechanical and artificial.
Not only that, but developing a diverse cast of characters based on what would essentially be a checkbox exercise, isn’t exactly progress, it’s lip service, and not at all how representation is supposed to work. I can hardly claim that my characters are people first when their identity came about out of their names, rather than the other way around.
While I don’t want my cast of characters to look like Game of Thrones, or, face it, most of Star Wars, I also don’t want to blunder into this thinking that I already know exactly what I’m doing. I’m terrified of making mistakes, but I’m more terrified of continuing to be part of the problem just for the reason that I don’t want to stick out my head. This preference to do this from the comfort of one’s own experience is what has allowed systemic problems to continue unabated for so long and let’s face it, the fact that I’m even in this position is already a sign of privilege.
So, perhaps the solution is to shut up and write it, and if I mess up, to shut up and right it.
I’ve been working from home for almost three months now, and though challenges remain, the emotional weight of the virus has gradually shifted. Some places are doing better than others and I’m happy that my country, and even my Province within my country, are doing reasonably well. That is not to say there’s any reason to let up, the fight is far from over, but there’s plenty of reasons for hope – that we can come together (with notable exceptions that need not be elaborated on) and make sacrifices to keep each other safe.
Now the world, or at least, more of the world than ever before, is starting to come together to bring the Black Lives Matter movement to the forefront, hopefully to the point that it will enact long-lasting changes.
Exercising my own voice in my writing seems so small in comparison to the global events of this year. The voices that have been silenced and have historically not had a chance to speak are not my own and the stories I’m personally working aren’t the ones that need to be shouted from the rooftop right now.
As part of that, I think it’s also crucially important for white authors to read more works by people of colour and for male authors to read more works written by women. I’ve read some excellent literature last year that I would highly recommend, and will make more of a concerted effort to broaden my own experience in the future. I’ve been very interested in the works of N. K. Jemisin and have put her works on my short-term reading list.
With my own writing, I have been a busy beaver for these last few weeks.
I’ve slogged through the “saggy middle” of my novel, which I still think needs some rewriting, or else serious deleting, and have been going through subsequent chapters at a good pace. Hoping to incorporate some beta reader feedback in the next draft, but otherwise seeing a light at the end of this particular tunnel.
The novel that is currently partway through the first draft has also been gaining steam. I’ve had the unfortunate experience of opening up my original outline for it, which I haven’t referred to in more than a year, and now I’m questioning all the choices that led me to veer off the chosen path. As I’ve alluded to in my recent entry on pantsing versus plotting, I just have to trust the process.
The Bloodlet Sun has enjoyed steady progress as well. I’m currently building up a buffer of chapters, and dealing with some interesting problems when it comes to naming characters, which I will discuss in an upcoming post.
I’m writing a short story that I intend to submit to a publication by June 30. I’ve never been the best at deadline work when it comes to my creative writing, but the first draft is about three quarters finished and I’m optimistic I’ll make it. It’s a local publication themed to writing that was inspired during the COVID-19 pandemic, and draws a little bit on the magic realism themes that sometimes crop in my writing.
Speaking of short stories, there’s one I completed recently that draws on my experiences in Russia that I have the audacity to think I can submit for consideration to the New Yorker. There’s really nothing to the process yet somehow the very notion terrifies me and I haven’t been able to click ‘send’ yet. Hopefully that comes in the next week.
Seeing what I can do with my Russian inspirations, my wife recommended I try my hand at my own story – something about the relationship with my dad and how it influenced my identity and journey as an immigrant. I haven’t even cracked a thousand words with this, but already the level of introspection is a little uncomfortable. Lot’s of heavy shit to unpack.
Evidently, I’ve had a lot to say recently, and that goes hand-in-hand with questioning what I have to say as well, which is an active process that any writer in a position of privilege should not neglect. As you can imagine, the environment that gave rise to my Russian-inspired writing was not the most diverse place, the lack of which actually informs some of that writing. So exclusively “writing what I know”, particularly if focused on the first 13 years of my life, would result in my writing continuing to be part of the problem, which is another reason why I prefer to have multiple projects on the go and to challenge myself at every stage of the writing process.
I do hope that as I continue to pursue my passion for writing, I would be able to positively contribute in some way, and if I take any missteps, I fully intend to learn and be better.
With the current events unfolding in the United States and this week, it seems trite to talk about anything.
As someone from my background I can never understand; I can never appreciate the pain, the suffering, the frustration with a system that refuses to change. I never have to have the fears that face communities on a daily basis and there is no word for that other than “privilege”.
What I can do, what I’ve been trying to do and wish to do better, and what so many in a position of privilege are refusing to do, is to listen.
Refusing to listen, or declaring your own personal job done because you’re not as bad as your racist Uncle Joe whom you only see at Thanksgiving, or thinking you’re not part of the problem based on your own personal lens, amounts to making a conscious decision to continue being part of the problem. Everything that’s happening right now, everything that has led to this boiling over in the last week, the systems and society that has not only allowed but encouraged the problems to persist, confers an advantage to those that benefit from a system.
On a societal scale, the benefit is obvious. On an individual scale it may not be obvious, it may be tangential, it may be smaller for some than for others, but it exists. Denying otherwise is becoming a willing accomplice. Like I’ve tried to explain to my own kids, if you get an advantage from someone else doing something bad, that doesn’t necessarily make you bad, but if you are fully aware of the advantage, and you do nothing about it, then you’re being bad. My kids seem to get it. There’s no reason why an adult shouldn’t.
So it’s imperative to start by using our ears. Listen to the very people who understand the situation better than you ever could. Don’t talk over them with your “yeah but”s – build up your understanding so that you can empower your voice.
And then use that voice that you’ve been given. I don’t mean use it to spew the warmed-over vomit of platitudes such as “all lives matter” or “why don’t we all just get along” – see the part above about being a willing accomplice at this point. And don’t just be content with sharing things on social media or otherwise shouting into the void. The problem runs deep and it runs wide.
Work with those closest to you – your family, your friends, your coworkers. If they’ve shut their ears to the voices that need to be heard then be that voice, try to open that door in their mind that will allow that change to take root. It will be uncomfortable, but if you think that discomfort is not worth your effort, then repeat step one again – listen, and try to understand why your discomfort is inconsequential in the grand scheme of things.
You will make mistakes. You will get called out on those mistakes. And there’s no shame in being humbled. Don’t stop listening just because no one’s putting you on the pedestal for finally trying to do something. If someone is injured and you’re trying to help and they tell you you’re hurting them in the process, are you going to argue? Are you going to drop helping altogether and walk away in a huff? This is no different.
It’s not about you, or your ego, or your inconvenience. The moment is not about you, but it is long overdue to make the moment part of you. Don’t let the next news cycle wash this away – you may have the ability to walk away when the channel changes, but that is not how it works for those who have to live it.
Make it a part of your life, and maybe everyone else’s will improve, too.
On the scale of “plotters” versus “pantsers” – where plotters are those who rely on heavily outlining their stories before they proceed and pantsers are those that prefer to fly by the seat of their pants and see where the story takes them – I am confessed plotter. In fact, my tendency to plot (or is that overplot?) sometimes needlessly delays my projects because I want everything to fall neatly into place first. That is not to say I’m on the extreme end of the scale either. I don’t need to labour over every single plot point, and my short stories mostly get away with a mental roadmap to how it’s supposed to progress. But both the novels I’m working on have started as paragraph-long chapter outlines, and some works are in my version of “development hell” because I’m not comfortable with moving forward until more pieces have fallen into place.
Something needs to be said in favour of being a pantser though. Even with those novels that started as full outlines, both in the writing and editing stage there was significant divergence that perhaps could have been cultivated better with no outline. In fact, some of the newly “off the script” scenes have become some of my favourites, and at least one beta reader agrees with me. As another example, one of the short stories I’m currently finishing up was born as what I thought was a fully-baked idea, but some shower time musings have produced a twist on the ending that I then ended up weaving back through the entire story. Now I’m wondering what is even the point of that story without the new ending – that fully-baked idea seems at best half-baked.
All this makes me wonder if this propensity to outline is more useful or detrimental to my writing. Given the amount of time I spend in the editing phase reworking the plot, and adding and deleting major scenes, is the inordinate amount of time I spend on outlining those scenes in the first place a waste of time? Would I be better served if I just used that time to jump into the writing, let the story take care of itself, and then make the same investment in the editing process that I do now? All food for thought.
I don’t think I’ll ever be, nor do I want to be, a full-on pantser. I can’t just start writing only to discover that the story is going nowhere. It may take a different route, or change its intended destination along the way, but it can’t leave the house without knowing where it’s supposed to end up. I’ve heard of authors, well-established authors, who get a spark of an idea and then just set out to write a book. And then these authors, who’ve written plenty of books in the past, reach the approximate quarter-way mark, realize it’s going nowhere, and just dump the idea altogether. I mean, I get abandoning a project when you realize it’s not quite what you intended, but to have no intention at all and then drop it because it never formed, the thought makes me shudder.
Though the high-risk life of a full-time pantser is decidedly not for me, I’ve been slowly disavowing my overcommitment to plotting. Just last year I decided that if I go the full plotter route, the sci-fi story that had been forming in my head for over a decade would never see the light of day, and since I never intended to be exclusively a genre writer, I thought I’d start releasing here as a serial with a much thinner long-term outline than I’m usually comfortable with. I’m also loosening my restrictions as to how much I edit-as-I-go – prefer to fix plot-related changes in the editing stages instead of constantly rewriting the first draft.
Being able to relax about structure is already paying dividends in the sense that I feel like the writing is growing organically instead of being pushed into some kind of mold by me. It’s kind of weird to think about – I’m the writer, shouldn’t the story follow exactly what I say? I’ve been learning that it’s not exactly the case. If anything, it’s been a historic weakness of my writing – where I want my work to “say” something and I sacrifice quality for the message and come off being preachy. I’ve written a bit about this phenomenon in my post about writing dialogues.
Sometimes though, the story bucks against this original intention, or ends up arriving at the same intention but in more subtle ways.
Recently, I experienced this on a chapter-level as I set out to write Chapter 4 of The Bloodlet Sun. I had only the vaguest idea of what was “supposed” to happen in the chapter – something that could hardly fill a page of writing. But instead of overtly planning all the character movements and dialogues, I tried to imagine myself in the setting, digging deep into the POV character for that chapter. Then I tried to set him in motion, and observe. Some writers say that’s all they need for their writing process – just peek into the room and write down everything that happens. I don’t quite have their powers of being able to drift into alternate words, but it’s the closest I’ve come.
I still had to ask leading questions. What’s the character’s general perception of their situation? What’s their current mood? What’s their primary worry? What’s their short-term and long-term goals? Have they spent too long in this particular setting, so should they keep moving? And so on.
Sure, there’s was a little poking around in the dark involved and a few times the chapter stalled and I had to come away and do something else. But eventually, the chapter grew its own conflict – it told me what the character tensions would be instead of me deciding what the particular tension was going to be.
At the risk of a little hyperbole I have to say it was a weird and exhilarating feeling. Like watching your child take their first steps after you’ve been carrying them around for their entire life. Or better yet, having that child grab you by the hand and lead you somewhere.
I’ve gained a lot out of the experience. Not the least of which is a little bit of confidence that I can write myself out of a wet paper bag. Writing is an art, and by and large, art has no rules, and neither should artists themselves. If you catch yourself that you have certain rigid rules or habits as a writer, perhaps it’s time to push yourself out of your comfort zone a little, and you may find yourself better off for it.
Another month gone by of this madness and I wanted to check in on something else I’ve been seriously unmotivated about, so that I can let you know you’re not the only ones out there who aren’t quite feeling yourselves during quarantine (actually, it’s to make me feel better about all my productivity failures – if I’m being productive about not being productive, it kind of resolves part of the problem). I’ve been pretty much neglecting my publication efforts for the last two months.
If I’m being perfectly candid with myself, the lack of acceptances over the last two years probably has something to do with it. I often come on here to encourage folks to push through the wall of rejections and just keep trying in the face of adversity, but it wouldn’t be adversity if it didn’t have any adverse effects. Sure, I’ve had my share of “good” rejections including one that said my story was in the final fifty for consideration. These are the blinking lights at the end of the tunnel (or the flame that attracts the moth, whichever way you want to look at it), but overall since my last publication in Nashwaak Review in December 2018, things have been pretty grim. And the grimness does get to you.
Whether as a result of the lockdowns or because the academic came to a close, but I feel like editors have been very active since March, and in that time I’ve accumulated about two dozen short story rejections. Normally, these get processed into my big glorious spreadsheet of submissions, I make notations of when I can next submit to a journal, and makes plans for the next rounds of submissions. Currently, this stack is sitting neglected next to my desk, and I haven’t opened my spreadsheet in over a month.
This makes me a little bit sad. Despite the minuscule ratio of my works that have been accepted, I usually enjoy playing the game – organizing journals, figuring out which stories are appropriate for which ones, customizing cover letters, sending my babies off into the real world where they inevitably get smacked around a little bit. It helps that I’m also a chart fiend, as evidenced by my light bullet journal addiction, so updating this gives me a certain pleasure based on that alone. Plus there’s always the promise of success – the more I send out, the more chances there are of being published no matter how small. So when I don’t find joy in something I normally do, it leaves me with a troublesome feeling.
I apologize if I’m being a bit of a downer. If the previous trend has been any indication, the moment I complain about something here is pretty much when I turn it around and start doing it again. Despite my lamentations a couple of weeks ago, I’ve slowly been getting back into editing my work, which is a good sign for finally completing Chapter 2 of The Bloodlet Sun (it’s been over a year, I should be dead of embarrassment but it helps I have very little shame) and a couple of short stories that have been “almost complete” for quite some time.
So too I think in the next week or so I’ll rip off that Band-Aid, update my chart, and start planning out my next flurry of submissions. I guess, in a time where we have to tell ourselves ‘no’ so much for the greater good, it’s hard to keep hearing ‘no’ from an additional source, particularly when it chips away at one of the core parts of your identity. Sure, each rejection is like a mosquito bite, but as someone who once went to a beach in Cuba after nightfall, I know that a having a few dozen simultaneous mosquito bites is a whole different ball game.
I guess what I’m trying to convey is that to be a writer, you need to have thick skin. But having thick skin doesn’t mean it’s impenetrable. Some things will get you down more than others, and right now I’m in my down. I know the next ‘up’ is right around the corner, and if you’re in a down, I hope you find yours too.
When I set out to do this blog I hadn’t expected that my highest traffic would come from entries about my bullet journal (I use the term “traffic” very loosely – imagine a dusty country road which sees a couple of horse buggies and a pickup truck pass by every week). But it does seem that bullet journals, or “bujos” are still pretty popular and I’d be happy to share one of my favourite entries – my reading tracker:
I always think it’s pretty self-explanatory until I show it to someone and they greet me with a “wtf” face, so I think this one needs a little bit of explanation.
Firstly, the title “Kindling” is easy to miss since it runs across both pages both pages. This is a result of a very corny metaphor that came to me around the time I turned thirty (which is when I started my bujo) and refers to the fact that I think reading is the kindling that starts the mind’s fire. I’ve posted before about how important I think reading is to a writer, so this shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, though perhaps as an eye-roll moment.
The basic premise of the entry is based on Tetris. Each colourful piece represents a particular reading medium (yes, I count audio books and will fight anyone who argues otherwise). Usually the threshold is about a half-hour of reading in the specific category, the notable exception being short stories where a single block represents a single short-story, even though it might take me anywhere between five and forty minutes to read one. The grey block that’s “blog/misc” is the loosest category, and I usually count this only if the reading is particularly involved or informative, but really it’s whatever I feel like (as you can see, I don’t often count it so it’s not exactly a “cheat” category).
One of the wonderful things about the way this graph is set up is that I use it as a way of self-manipulation, specifically exploiting my competitive nature. It’s a point of pride for me to avoid any gaps between the pieces until the last possible moment and to leave as few as possible before the “play area” fills up. Based on this, not only do I sometimes need to read a particular genre or medium in order to make sure I don’t leave any gaps, but sometimes I intentionally place pieces in order to push myself towards doing something.
For example, if I find that I haven’t read a short story or a graphic novel recently, I could place an audio book or novel piece in such a way that the only pieces that would satisfy the remaining gap are the short story or graphic novel blocks. Boom! Suddenly I’ve found additional motivation to reach for those. Not to mention what’s going on in the far right part of the player area, where I leave an empty single block wide column that’s quite familiar to Tetris players. The only way to fill this one is with my most often neglected medium – poetry. I’ve never been a poetry connoisseur, and most of it admittedly flies right over my head (feel like the proverbial swine before a whole pile of pearls), so I tend to steer away from it. That said, I do occasionally enjoy it, and I find it to be a valuable literary exposure, so I have to find ways to read it, or I will be left with an unsightly gap in my log. This has worked out great over the last couple of years as I’ve discovered that I quite enjoy the poetry of Pablo Neruda and Wisława Szymborska, and I’ve got a lot of others on my to-read list.
A couple of interesting observations from the spread that I included above:
It’s hard to imagine that just over a month ago, I chose to drive to campus and forgo public transit, and then called my mom and said that bringing the kids over that weekend might not be such a good idea. Within days, my commute to work was resolved with a “Work from Home” directive from the university, and my decision to not visit anyone outside our household was no longer just a precaution, but an expectation for the public good. These six weeks have certainly stretched for many of us the definition of what “normal” could be, and I hope all of you are doing as well as you can under the circumstances.
As for myself, in a previous entry I mentioned how I was having a rough go of it, but it’s been getting gradually better. I’ve made progress across multiple projects (as I’m prone to do, since I can’t seem to commit to any specific thing for too long) and it’s less of a chore to sit down and force myself to write. One would think since I enjoy it so much I should just be turning to it for comfort in difficult times, but as I’m sure many of you have also discovered this doesn’t seem like the case. The stresses and anxieties of the current situation have knocked us out of ourselves and it’s going to take a while to feel normal again, and probably not until the situation stabilizes. I’m looking at my sister-in-law as well who knits like a fiend but has completely dropped it for last month. She recently bought new yearn, so maybe she feels the same slight thaw that I do.
And it’s okay if you’re experiencing no such thing. I think there’s an unfair perception out there that because some of us suddenly have way more time on our hands we should all come out of this as world-class bakers, or pianists or polyglots. That’s a whole lot of aspirational baloney that doesn’t take into account the fact that we’re all human and that our flight-or-fright response had been perma-activated for weeks on end. I’m yet to even touch editing. I can get myself into putting down new words on the page but even the thought of rereading my writing for the purposes of improving it is giving me anxiety.
Dealing with my mistakes is a future me problem.
Michael is a husband, father of two, lawyer, writer, and is currently working on his first novel, at a snail's pace. A very leisurely snail. All opinions are author's own.