The Lies It Tells

A couple weeks ago, I had to get up early to go to a doctor’s appointment. The appointment was at ten-twenty a.m., but it was in the next big town, seventy-five miles away–about an hour and a half drive. Since I need a little time to get going in the mornings–and by “a little time” I mean a couple of hours–and we’d have to leave by quarter of nine, I asked my husband to wake me up at seven. (I don’t drive. I haven’t driven a vehicle in over ten years, I guess. I probably could if I had to or if I had my own car. But it’s been so long, and I hate the car we have, with its sticky standard transmission and awful steering. So when I have to go somewhere farther than I can walk, my husband drives me.)

I ended up getting up on my own at about six-thirty, which is an ungodly hour for me. I generally get up around eight, later if I’ve had a rough night, which is often. It wasn’t as awful as I expected it to be. As i drank my coffee and showered and got ready to go, I found myself wondering if I could make a habit of getting up earlier. If I set an alarm and got up earlier, I’d have more time. I could do more things. When I got to feeling physically better–I’ve had a recurring sinus infection for over a year that drains me entirely of energy when it hits; that’s what the doctor’s appointment was about–I’d have time to do yoga and clean my house and still be able to devote several hours to writing. I could even join the gym, maybe, if I could scrounge the extra $35 a month for the membership. Joining the gym, being more active, getting in better physical shape, is something I’ve been daydreaming about for a long time. Because of the recurring infections and the subsequent lack of energy, I’ve been largely sedentary for several years. I’m in the worst physical shape I’ve ever been in. I used to do Pilates and walk three to five miles five or six days a week. Now walking half a mile downtown to check the mail has me in a sweat and dragging my heavy body–I’ve gained almost 100 lbs, being sick–back home up the hill requires me to lie down for half an hour to recover. I don’t like it. I want not to be this way.

The notion of getting up earlier, having more time, lingered around the edges of my brain as we got in the car and drove out of town. As we passed the gym, I look through the windows and saw people using the weight machines, and I thought, “I could be there. I could be one of those people.”

By the time we hit the next town over, though, this idea had been replaced with a question: “Why? Why would I want to do that?”

And it was a question I couldn’t answer.

I’m not necessarily averse to the idea of more time. But I hate getting up to an alarm. I have ever since I was in junior high, maybe before; I can’t remember when I started getting up on my own instead of waiting for my mom to wake me. Getting up to an alarm has always meant getting up to face a day full of things I hate, from the horrible private school I attended, where the other kids made my life hell, to the string of garbage jobs I dreaded going to, day in and day out. Jobs that never paid enough, that had no future to them other than to repeat the same actions day after day until I could finally escape and go home to sleep and get up and do it all over again. Imagining getting up to an alarm, just IMAGINING it, gives me a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach.

And what would I do with that time? Do yoga, join the gym? Why? What would that get me? Would being in better physical condition make any difference in my life? Not really. I’m too old to believe it would make any difference in my life. I’ve been there, done that, more times than I can count. I’ve been in good shape and bad shape. I’ve been thin and I’ve been fat, and it doesn’t make a difference. Being in better physical shape isn’t going to do anything at all to relieve our constant money troubles, the worry every day that this is the day I won’t be able to keep us afloat and we’ll end up living out of our horrible car. It isn’t going to miraculously restore my fertility so I could have the child I’ve always so desperately wanted. It isn’t going to make me less afraid or less lonely, or make my husband more romantic. It won’t make my books sell.  That extra time, the things I could do with it: I don’t believe any of it would give me one damn thing that I want. And since it won’t give me one damn thing that I want, there is no reason at all for me to challenge my aversion to waking up to an alarm.

By the time we hit Rogers Mesa, about fifteen miles out of town, I was in tears. I realized I don’t believe anything in my life can change in any meaningful way. I have no power here. It’s a constant struggle to no beneficial end. It might be different if the things on which I considered spending that theoretical extra time had any value to me in and of themselves, but they don’t. I don’t like exercise for its own sake; I never have. I don’t get any kind of endorphin rush from it. It’s just tedious and emotionally loaded. On a good day I can do Pilates or yoga, and it’s okay, and sometimes the stretching of cramped muscles feels all right. On a bad day, there’s no question of forcing myself through the resistance. I’ve done that, and it only makes matters worse. Yeah, I like having a clean house, but what is a clean house going to get me? A prize? I hate dealing with it, and the mop makes my back hurt, and it all has to be done over again eventually. Losing the extra weight I carry around might be nice, but it wouldn’t change anything, not really. I’ve known that since high school, when I thought all my difficulties would disappear if I weren’t so fat, and I lost weight, and nothing changed, so I lost more weight, and more and more and more until I had to be hospitalized.

Nothing will change my life. I have no power. This was the moment when I realized I was in a bad depressive cycle. It had been coming on for a while, maybe all summer, certainly since the last round of sinus troubles laid me out. But that moment on Rogers Mesa was when I saw it. When I looked at my life and saw it would be the same forever and there was nothing at all I could do about it, and I could never have any of the things I want. And there’s really no reason at all for me to continue. Feeling this way, the idea of getting up an hour or two earlier every day seemed distant and laughable. Why in the world should I do that? Better to take the small pleasures I can count on: the softness of the pillow, the warmth of blankets, the safety of home.

Depression lies. Everyone in the mental health field says it. When I spoke of some of this struggle on Facebook, one of my friends said it. Depression lies. Sometimes, when I’m not in a depressive cycle or teetering on the edge of one, I believe it. But in the moment, I don’t believe it at all.

It doesn’t feel like a lie. It feels self-evident, like the awareness of gender or sexual preference or the shape of my mouth and eyes. Or deeper, like the faith that summer leads to autumn, which leads to winter, and the knowledge that the sun comes up in the morning and sets in at night, and will keep doing so no matter what I think about it. I don’t know how other people experience it, but for me it’s visceral, almost tangible, this truth. I am constantly, painfully aware of the pain in my center, a tight, nauseous feeling bordering on pain. The sensitivity of my skin, the way everything is too loud and too bright and too much. The way I want to curl into a ball and pull the blankets over my head to shut everything out.

I’ve done every cognitive therapy under the sun. The wisdom of the mental health professions would have you believe that you can change your depressive state by changing the negative thought patterns that lead to it. But it doesn’t work. At least, it doesn’t work on me. Because this isn’t about my thoughts. Yes, one might say that “nothing will change” and “I’m powerless” are thoughts. But you know what? Cutting that off and replacing it with, “I have power” and “I can change:” THAT feels like the lie. It’s like repeating an affirmation every day when you know it to be untrue. The belief, the understanding of my reality is so bone-deep, I can’t change it to something else any more than I can change the shape of my nose by wishing. It doesn’t work like that. It might be different if I had any experience at all of being able to make a concrete and lasting change that led to something better. But I don’t. Like Sisyphus pushing his rock uphill, it’s a constant struggle leading nowhere. And at the end of the day, the rock rolls right back down to the place from which it started.

I do my best. I try to be there for people. I try to converse, be supportive, have normal conversations. And yet, I am invisible. This is a demonstrable truth. No matter how many times I cook dinner for friends, no one ever cooks dinner for me. No one ever thinks, “I haven’t seen Kele in a while, so I’ll get in contact with her and see how she’s doing,” and then does it. If I mention I’m having a bad day, people might say, “Oh, I’m so sorry, I wish I could do something.” And if I tell them something they could do, they say, “Yes, yes; of course,” and then they never do it. If I need something, I can’t count on it coming from anywhere but myself. It doesn’t matter if it’s something as small as the garbage needing emptied. I can’t rely on it to happen if I don’t take care of it. I don’t seem to make a mark. Sometimes it seems my own husband forgets I exist. Sometimes it seems I shout all my words into a well that returns echoes, but never answers.

I don’t know how much of this is the depression speaking and how much is the truth, right now. Right in this moment, I feel the truth of it like a lead weight in my stomach. I know a lot of it is early trauma, the way I was raised not to be loud, not to cause trouble, not to present problems or ask for help or get in the way. Raised to be negligible. Invisible. The way I faded away and nobody I should have been able to turn to for help even seemed to notice, until the day my mother came downstairs and found me asleep on the couch and thought I was already dead. And then she freaked. Not when it could have done any good. But after she believed it was too late.

Here’s a story: This weekend was the weekend of a festival in town, one with craft booths and music in the park, and wine tastings and studio tours and whatnot. This morning I thought, “Maybe I should get dressed and go tot he park. I mentioned it to my husband. We both thought it would be good for us to get out, get some air. I thought this in an abstract way, like it was something I should believe but didn’t really. When I imagined getting dressed and leaving the house, I felt sick. Still, I tried. I took a shower and put on a pretty dress. And then I sat on the toilet and cried and cried and cried. I came out of the bathroom and sobbed on my husband’s shoulder that I couldn’t do it, it was too much, all the sounds, the light, the people talking and enjoying the fair: They all pressed on my skin, physical, tangible. They hurt me, and I wasn’t even there yet. The pretty dress felt like I was wearing a stranger’s skin; it wasn’t me. It hurt me. It hurt me to pretend. I felt like I was being tortured, wiped out.

Eventually I took off the pretty dress and put my pajamas back on. I sat on the couch with a blanket over my body, and it didn’t hurt as much. I read a book, tuned out the pain. My husband brought me gyros and French fries from a diner. We watched TV for a while. I still hurt, especially when I focus on it, but it’s at a manageable level. I can sit here and write this. I can drink a cup of tea without drowning on my tears. I can decide that I’m in a bad place, and that Monday I’ll call and make an appointment to tell my doctor my meds don’t seem to be working as well as they once did. I can tell myself that depression lies, and I probably ought not to believe what it says. I can monitor my thought process and try not to dwell on the bad bits.

But in my heart, in that space in my chest at the center of my sternum, I still hurt. I breathe knives. I swallow the razor blade. It’s there, in my throat, and it’s not a lie. I swallow it, because there’s nothing I can do.

Again, and again, and again.

 

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The Mashed Cauliflower Incident

Today, someone I follow on Twitter decided I am a judgmental bitch because I don’t like mashed cauliflower. I’ve tried all morning to let go of the incident, but I don’t seem able to do that. So I’ve decided to write about it, as I do.

The other day, this particular person was tweeting about making a pizza with a cauliflower crust. Another friend of mine and I got involved in the conversation because it sounded interesting (at least, it did to me; I can only assume it did to my friend). So the first person was kind enough to engage with us and share the recipe. Which involves mashing cauliflower.

I happen to love cauliflower. It’s a versatile vegetable, tasty both as itself and as a component of other dishes like curries and pies. Mashing it up to put in a pizza crust is an intriguing idea. Right on!

The versatile cauliflower.
The versatile cauliflower.

Well, that should have end the end of it, but the topic came up again this morning when another friend of mine, who had been absent from Twitter most of the week, mentioned making mashed cauliflower as an alternative to mashed potatoes. This sounds vile to me for a couple of reasons: First, when I imagine mashed cauliflower, when I taste the texture and flavour on the tongue of my mind, I go “EWWWWW!” And second, I’m not a huge fan of food masquerading as other foods. It’s something you see a lot when you’re involved with diets and food plans and health alternatives, as I have been for most of my life. As far back as I can remember, I’ve seen things promoted as being replacements for other things that make you fat or raise your blood sugar or otherwise aren’t as good for you, or cost more, or simply aren’t available. My parents grew up substituting things for other things during the Depression and during World War II. They used margarine instead of butter and made “Mock Apple Pie” out of Ritz crackers (I’m old enough to remember the recipe that appeared on the back of every box well into the seventies). Later on, health gurus hailed spaghetti squash as an alternative to pasta, carob as an alternative to chocolate, and so on and so on.

In my experience, these things never turn out well. When my mom served spaghetti squash to my constantly-dieting family in place of semolina pasta, the mass of yellow vegetable fibers covered in tomato sauce had neither the texture nor the taste of the real thing. Everyone knew it, but we gamely soldiered on, exclaiming how good it was and what a wonderful substitute it made! When I got a carob bar at the health food store instead of the chocolate bar I wanted, I choked it down and told myself it was so much better, almost like the real thing! Later, when I did Weight Watchers as an adult, I made their modified recipes for Shepherd’s Pie and Moussaka and told myself they were excellent and I’d learn to cook this way always. But I didn’t, any more than I kept eating vegetable fiber with sauce instead of spaghetti. (Aside: Some of the Weight Watchers recipes really were quite tasty, and I still use them even though I no longer subscribe to the program.)

The problem is things trying to be other things. Spaghetti squash as a vegetable is fine (I like it with salt and pepper), but it’s not pasta and never will be. Carob as carob is good–I used to go to a place in Ann Arbor for a cup of hot carob on winter days–but it isn’t chocolate. I personally would rather not have the spaghetti dinner than have a pretend spaghetti dinner. And I would rather not have mashed potatoes at all than eat mashed cauliflower because it’s “close.”

This is my deal; I get it. When I have a substitute thing, I feel more deprived than I do if I just skip having the thing it’s supposed to imitate. I’d rather drink my coffee and tea black, which I do, than use artificial sweetener. If I want an occasional dessert or if I want to eat a mound of mashed potatoes every once in a while, I go ahead and do it. It’s better for my health, both physical and mental, in the long run than mournfully reminiscing about pasta while forking in a mouthful of squash.

I tried to explain this on Twitter, how I don’t like things trying to be other things, like fake meat and cauliflower pretending to be potatoes. My two friends in the conversation understood my point, I think. But the original poster of the cauliflower pizza crust took offense to the tune of a multi-tweet screed, which I will now quote:

Wow, I don’t know where to begin. Let’s start with “fake meat.” I haven’t had meat since I was 13, b/c I genuinely don’t like it. People call vegetarians preachy about their diet, yet it’s okay to criticize vegetarians? No, that’s not how that works. How about letting people eat what they want and accepting that different people like different things. The reason I eat veggie burgers and mashed vegetables is because I like the texture. I don’t miss meat, or want it. I like the texture of a veggie burger and mashed cauliflower. People crave texture over taste. There is plenty of information out there about nutrition, and the facts are greatly disputed, but whatever you believe, if you see a person is trying to better their health, maybe instead of judging it, you can research it, or at least leave them to it.

She certainly put me in my place.

I am angry about this. I tweeted back to the original poster, saying that I think she took me wrong, trying to clarify that I was speaking of personal preference, that I was a vegetarian for many years and I still will choose a veggie burger on occasion over a meat burger because I LIKE THEM, and I was sorry that what I said triggered her. Because to me it was obvious she was triggered, probably because she gets shit for her choices and she’s ready to see getting shit for her choices when someone expresses a different preference. I understand this and I am still angry that this person went off on me because she read something into my words that I didn’t put there. I am still angry, and I still apologised. It was the right thing to do. I haven’t received another reply, or even an acknowledgement. And it burns my fat butt.

The original poster doesn’t know me. She doesn’t know what research I may or may not have done. She doesn’t know my health problems or my history with food. I follow her; she doesn’t follow me. She’s not one of my circle. And yet, she felt competent to accuse me of being judgmental because I used some words she didn’t like.

I am trying to let go of this, and I am finding it extremely difficult. Sure, there are some lessons in here. I probably should have stopped tagging her in the interactions this morning when my second friend joined in–in fact, I considered doing so at the time–because she’s NOT one of my circle. But I never imagined being subjected to this unreasonable tirade. I should remember that Twitter is a difficult place to have a meaningful, nuanced conversation, particularly with someone you don’t know well. I should have remembered that Internet interactions are prone to being misinterpreted because you don’t get the body and tone cues that you get in personal conversation. People who know you can supply them; people who don’t, cant. I didn’t think of most of that stuff, because it was Friday morning and I was drinking my coffee.

I’m beyond bummed that neither of my friends, who DO know me and who were both tagged in every post of that screed, stood up for me, too.

What I’m left with, again, is the slap-in-the-face feeling that comes from someone having an intense reaction to something I found completely reasonable. That feeling that I have to guard my speech, my aspect, my opinions, my voice, to keep from being attacked, because I cannot trust other people to own their own shit. It’s a crappy feeling. It’s one I fight every day in order to be able to have any social interactions at all. And every time something like this happens, I wonder why I even bother. I honestly do want to make friends and be open about who I am. I just seem to get the message so much that who I am is unacceptable.

And yes, I am fully cognizant that this is my shit.

So that’s the story of the Mashed Cauliflower Incident. And I will get over it eventually. But remember, social media can create a false sense of intimacy with people.  The Internet is dark and full of terrors. Tread carefully.

 

Self Editing: It’s a Mindset

I follow a lot of writers on Twitter. Many of them post loads of writing advice–#writetips–some of which is useful and some of which is less so. One thing I see on an almost daily basis is: “You need an editor. You CANNOT edit your book by yourself; you’re too close to it.” This is particularly aimed at Independent or Self-Published authors. I have no special problem with the basic thrust of the statement. It’s an unpleasant truth that, while the rise of easy-to-use publishing platforms like Kindle and CreateSpace have both helped many authors make their work available and aided in de-stigmatizing the choice to self-publish, a high proportion of self-published works could benefit from editing. (If you want to read a fascinating article about this, look here.)

one-does not-simply-edit

However, I am a self-published author and I have never hired an editor. I have a number of reasons why I haven’t, the primary two being that I’m poor and that I have major trust issues. So when I see these posts about how an outside editor is absolutely necessary and you SIMPLY CANNOT do it yourself, I get nervous. I wonder if I’ve done the good job I think I have, or whether I’m deluding myself out of ego. Maybe my books aren’t really as good as all that, and all the positive reviews I’ve gotten are from people who don’t know any better. Never mind that two of my biggest fans are, themselves, professional editors and I’d think if my work called for criticism in that regard I’d certainly hear it. It’s easy for me to question my experience of reality and to think that what I believe to be the truth may not, in fact, be accurate.

So, last week, when this question came up, I took an informal poll of my readers. “Do I need to hire an outside editor?” I asked. Every single one who responded said NO. No, there’s the occasional typo, but every book has those. No, the editing in your books is professional quality. No, stop second-guessing yourself, you have an amazing sense of what needs to go where.

All of which reassured me, of course, and also made me wonder how it is that I do what I do. Because it is certainly true that many books I have read could have stood editing and many writers I know don’t feel up to doing it themselves. I don’t know how much of my ability to edit is learned skill and how much is inborn talent (or how much of the learned skill part comes from having to survive truly traumatizing events). But I told my friend, Jennie, I was thinking about a blog on the subject, and she told me she thought a lot of people might find it helpful. So, here it is.

Become-a-writer

In this post, I am going to assume a certain level of technical skill. I’m not going to address spelling and syntax and the difference between a verb and a noun. I get that lots of people are publishing books without seeming to have any grasp of these things. I also have a sneaking suspicion that the people who are doing this are not the ones who are going to be reading this blog with any kind of open mind. If you get consistent feedback that your writing lacks technical prowess, or that you need to revisit spelling and grammar, just go do it. Although I love language, I’m not a great teacher, and I have no interest in writing a blog devoted to remedial English.

Every writer needs to develop some editing skill. That should go without saying. Unfortunately, it doesn’t. I have been to far too many poetry readings where more than one person has graced the audience with lines their Muse granted them mere minutes before, and I’ve known far too many people who think the act of setting words down on a page means those words are golden. (My husband tells a story about a writing workshop where one woman, when the professor asked to see her work in progress, said, “I don’t show my work to anyone until it’s finished.” When the professor then asked to see some of her finished work, she said, “When it’s done, it’s done. No one can improve it.” The professor had some valid questions about why she’d signed up for the workshop in the first place.) So, step one is recognizing the value of the editing process. No matter how good your manuscript is, it can ALWAYS be better. I can pick up a book I published years ago and say, “Shit, I could have said that more clearly” or “Why did I use that word so much?” There’s always room to improve.

This is a delicate concept for most writers for a number of reasons. Many writers are in the habit of under-assessing their skills and privileging their flaws. A lot of this is probably due to the subjective nature of the publishing industry. In traditional forms of publishing, validation in the form of editor or agent attention is in great part a matter of luck: getting the “right” story in front of the “right” person at the “right” time. The writer has some control over this, but less than any of us would like. So we tend to reach for ways of controlling the outcome (because most people would rather believe they’re in control than admit any system is subjective and chaotic). One way we try to control the outcome is to blame the quality of the project, and rewrite over and over again, ad nauseam. Sometimes we get stuck writing the same introductory paragraph over and over, less because we’re trying to get it perfect than because we’re afraid to go on. And this can all too easily lead from “this project sucks” to “I suck.” It puts writers in the invidious position of needing a thing on a soul level (self expression through words) that makes them feel worse and worse about themselves the more they do it. Not unlike many addictions, as a matter of fact. A lot of writers I know dread and/or hate going back over their work because they can’t look at it without thinking how terrible it is, and how much they love this thing that they have no talent for, and “Why did I ever think I could write?” etcetera. Or they’re afraid that’s how they’re going to react, which amounts to the same thing. Incidentally, feeling insecure about the work and needing outside validation is one of the things that makes writers fall prey to shady business practices, bad contracts, and fraudulent publishing companies. I think that’s another blog.

Yes, it can feel like this.
Yes, it can feel like this.

So, after you give validity to the editing process, the second step is: “Let go of I Suck.” Whatever it takes to get those thoughts out of your head, do it. Call it thinking and return to the breath, if you happen to subscribe to some form of mindfulness meditation. Go outside and scream and jump up and down and call yourself names. Step back and do something else. Whatever you have to do, keep those thoughts out of your workspace, because if you let them in, they’ll contaminate everything. The more you think you suck, the more mistakes you’ll make and the more it will reinforce I Suck. So just don’t go there. If you don’t have a particular writing space, make a rule that when you pick up your laptop or notebook, “I Suck” doesn’t get to play. If you find yourself dwelling on it, put your laptop or notebook down and GO SOMEWHERE ELSE.

Once you’ve given “I Suck” the time of day, you’re ready to get down to the work. Different people have lots of different processes for editing a manuscript. Some say “never edit as you go along; just get the first draft down.” That doesn’t work as well for me, so I do it differently. You’ll find your own way. However you decide to do it–if you keep everything to yourself until the whole MS is complete or if you like to share chapters with a critique partner as you go along–this is a place where getting outside feedback is vital. Lots of other people have written about how to find a critique partner, so I’m not going to go into it here except to say it’s vital you enlist someone you can trust, and preferably someone who understands the genre you write in. Otherwise you run the risk of hearing that the monarchy in your Epic Fantasy can’t function the way it does because of the Medici AND I AM NOT MAKING THIS UP. Getting critique from someone who doesn’t have a clue does more harm than good.

On the other hand, a good critique partner who knows your genre can be invaluable, especially if he or she has some pertinent esoteric knowledge about particular story items and props (e.g., handguns, sword fighting, herbalism, livestock). If your CP does have this kind of information, USE THE FUCK OUT OF IT. This is where the “Kill Your Darlings” thing I hate so much comes in. You cannot afford to be so attached to some cool scene that you ignore someone knowledgeable who tells you it can’t work that way. If a longbow hunter tells you your heroine would bleed out from an arrow to the lung long before she could drag herself to the trailhead, believe him. Use the information you have been given to bring the scene in line with reality. If you absolutely need your heroine to suffer lung damage, find another way to do it.

darlings

The person who reads your MS first is your ALPHA READER. I have a specific list of questions I want my Alpha Reader to keep in mind (I want my Betas to keep them in mind, too. In fact, I want everyone to keep them in mind). Here’s a handy little mnemonic for you. Think of the four “Cs”: Concept, Character, Clarity, Continuity. These are the questions I ask:

Does the CONCEPT make sense?

Can you tell the CHARACTERS apart and are they consistent?

Are you CLEAR on what is happening?

Is the sequence of events CONTINUOUS and logical?

All of these questions fall under the heading of “Content Editing,” and answering them should be your first step.  Because a writer is the god of his or her book, Concept can be pretty fluid: if you say something happened, it happened unless it defies the laws of physics, and even those can bend in fantastic realities. The most important thing to bear in mind is You MUST Support Your Concept. If your story hinges on a reality where objects fall up, you need to explain the places where this doesn’t happen. If everything else falls up, you can’t take for granted that your characters are excused from this law because they need to walk around on a planet’s surface. Explain it. Likewise, Characters need to be real and consistent. If your villain does something not villainous, give him a reason. If you have a large cast, try to give each character an individual voice and something that makes him or her stand out from the pack. Clarity becomes particularly important in action scenes and magical realms; your amazing system won’t serve your story if no one can understand it, and your heroine’s battle skills can become cumbersome if you don’t know how to get them across. And Continuity keeps your plot focused and allows the reader to suspend his or her disbelief enough to get lost in your world. For me, continuity errors are the thing most likely to throw me out of the experience. If you have stated your heroine is a virgin and she turns up pregnant without either having had sex or you providing a damn good reason how that could happen, your continuity is flawed. Likewise, a character you killed in chapter three should not appear in chapter twenty-three unless you explain how that happened.

I count fixing all of the four Cs as part of my first draft. In fact, I have the kind of mind that can’t make progress in later portions of the book unless all the earlier parts make sense, so there are times when I may write three or four versions of chapter four until I get one that works, and then bring the succeeding chapters in line before going on. Not everyone works this way. Some people have to keep going from beginning to end, and some people have to skip around. The important part is answering the questions.

editing llama

After you have a complete first draft, it’s time to look at your actual language use. Doing this requires a certain level of self-awareness and often a thesaurus. Go over your work, check for specific words you overuse, and highlight them. Common offenders are “was” and “that.” I also mark “just,” “could,” “back,” and the suffix “-ly.” Sometimes I mark other things as well. My protagonist likes to use a lot of qualifiers: “That was really gross” or “John is pretty awesome.” More often then not, you can drop the qualifier. If you overuse the verb “to be” (i.e., was, were), your manuscript gets a static feeling, so it’s good to examine how you might rewrite to include action-oriented verbs.

The reason I say this part takes a certain level of self-awareness is that you need to be able to distance yourself from the fact that you’re looking at SOMETHING YOU WROTE OMG enough to recognize repetitive word use. If you put yourself aside, you’ll be more able to see where you might improve, and this, in turn, will enable you to learn what to look for next time. But it’s always important to remember that repeating words or using static verbs says nothing about you and nothing about your skill. In other words, you STILL DO NOT SUCK. Everyone repeats words in early drafts. Everyone uses static verbs. Everyone uses qualifiers. We do it because that’s how we talk, and it pops into our heads, and IT’S EASY. Nothing wrong with that. The error would be in not learning, in not improving what can be improved. There is a vast difference between conversation between friends hanging out and literature. Learn what it is. (This can actually help you improve your use of voice, too.)

Once I reach this stage, I start sending chapters out to Beta readers, and the whole process repeats itself. If possible, I like to recruit several Betas of different backgrounds and areas of expertise, because each one of them will have different concerns. A paragraph that is clear to one person may not be to another. Of course, you can’t please everyone. Do your best to weigh the advice you get, take what you find valuable, and let the rest go.

And then, put your MS away. Go have a life. Okay, if you have another story beating at the gates of your brain, you can start something new. I like to get away from writing altogether for a while. Some people will let a MS rest for six months; I generally make it one or two. But letting your MS rest is an important part of the editing process, because it helps you get perspective. And you need the perspective because the last part of the editing process is forgetting you’re a writer and re-visiting the story as a reader.

editing-meme

I think most of us write what we’d like to read. And I think most of us have opinions on what we read: what works and what doesn’t, how a sentence should have gone, what words we would have used instead of the ones the author chose. Whether that 200-page underworld sequence was absolutely necessary, or whether she REALLY would have married him after all that. If you can learn to view your work through a reader’s eyes, editing becomes much, much easier. This is the part that proponents of the “It’s impossible to edit your own work” school of thought believe a writer can’t do, and I’m not going to kid you: It’s not a simple shift to make. You have to give up any ego investment in the story. Stop thinking it’s going to make you anything or get you anything. Whatever it is you think will change in your life because you’re a published writer–fame, money, escape, recognition, freedom–forget about it. This is the place where the story is an independent entity that works or doesn’t, that has to stand or fall on its own. It isn’t yours anymore. The fact that you wrote it no longer matters. It sweeps you up, or it doesn’t. Either way, it’s a moment in your life. If you like it, if you don’t, it doesn’t mean anything about you.

The secret to self-editing is being able to move at will between being a creator and a voyeur and having no attachment to either role. If you can develop that mindset, I guarantee you your work will improve. And keep improving. It will make your work better, it will make your process more pleasant, and it will make things like querying and marketing easier. Which is a good thing, because a writer’s life is hard enough. Anything that can relieve the stress and help you remember why you started writing in the first place is a thing to be cherished.

White Girl Confessions

I try. I try really hard to listen and believe and recognize my own privilege and not take liberties. I try not to tone police. I try not to practice colonialism.

But you know, sometimes it’s really, really hard. Sometimes when I see WoC ranting about “White Feminism” and “White Feminists” on my Twitter stream, it upsets me. Because it gives me the feeling that every white woman is being tarred with the same brush. Now, maybe some PoC would say that’s just Karma, and maybe it is. It seems pretty unfair to me, though, that the people at whom this legitimate anger is directed are so rarely the ones to take it to heart, or even pay it any attention. One time, a Feminist of Colour tweeted, “It doesn’t need to be said, but there’s a difference between White Feminism(TM) and plain White Feminism.” I thanked her for pointing that out. I think it does need to be said, and said more often.

I don’t like the attitude of “We’re screwder than you” that I see so much. It reminds me of junior high. I don’t like being ignored when I ask honest questions trying to get information. Sure, of course, the voices of PoC have been routinely ignored. And one justification I hear is, “It’s not our job to educate you because the information is out there and if you really cared you’d find it.” It’s a justification Feminists use too, and I have to say I don’t agree with it there, either. It’s one thing to respond that way to a troll, and another to hand it out to all and sundry. I do really want to hear individual people’s voices. I don’t want to rely on questionable internet sources for answers to important questions like, “How, in your personal opinion, can we find common ground? Is there even any common ground?” Because those answers can’t be found through a search engine.

Sometimes I want to scream. I want to say, “The word ‘shaman” derives from Tungusic and was originally used by Russians interacting with the Indigenous Peoples of Siberia. Native America people don’t have a monopoly on it, or on Spirit Journeys, or on Totem Animals.” My ancestors were also driven out of their homes and off their lands, and starved, and raped. Their languages were taken from them. Their children were forced into conquerors’ schools. Maybe not in recent history and maybe it’s not still going on. But maybe it is, and it’s wrong to dismiss all that history because my people were (mostly) white.

I have no intent to dismiss the anger of People of Colour. I am aware that I am unlikely to be arrested because a cop thought I was a prostitute when I kissed my husband in public. I am aware that my words are more likely to be listened to. I am aware that (mental health issues and poverty aside) I have more opportunities than Indigenous People and People of Colour. But it gets really hard for me to listen and remain silent when it seems no matter what I do or what I say someone is going to attack me.

I just needed to say these things and it was too long to post anywhere else.

The Work In Progress Writing Tour

Hello, and welcome to another Blog Tour post! This week it’s the “WIP Lines” tour. My friend Sonya Craig tagged me to follow her post from last week. Sonya is one of the foundations of my Twitter crew, a funny, talented, and creative lady who writes Old School Science Fiction with a spunky and snarky heroine. She’s also an amazing artist and you should definitely check her out.

Sonya Craig's take on yours truly.
Sonya Craig’s take on yours truly.

So, what is this WIP tour? Well, it’s a chance for me to tell you about what I’m working on at the moment and share some lines–the first line or two of each of the first three chapters, to be precise–to get all you fans excited, so that you, in turn, can haunt my Twitter feed and encourage me to keep going. Or possibly make scathing comments about how I don’t write fast enough, but I’d prefer the former.

I happen to have a special treat for all you readers: I’m working on not just ONE WIP, but TWO!!! So I’m going to tell you a bit about each of them.

The first thing I’m working on these days is a trio of novellas about everyone’s favorite Scottish shaman, Timber MacDuff. Depending on whether or not you’ve read any of the Caitlin Ross novels–and depending on which ones you’ve read–you may know our estimable Scot was rather a problem child in his youth, who started running away from home at the age of twelve and left for good at fourteen. For the next three and a half years, he lived on the streets, until the man who would become his teacher dragged him 0ut of squalor by the ear and knocked some sense into him.

Timber as a character has always fascinated me. I find that writing primarily in the first person, as I do, the stories become as much or more about the people the POV character interacts with and how she feels about them as they are about Caitlin herself. So, in a way, we come to know Timber very well. And yet, he retains a certain mystery. I’m not one of those authors who sits down and writes a huge back story for every character; I let the back story reveal itself as needed. And although I knew Timber had had a difficult time as a young man, I never knew quite why someone with a loving family like his would go the way he did. I wanted to explore this in more detail, so in May of 2013 I started writing.  I’ve been working on this project in fits and starts since then, and am currently about halfway through the third novella, tentatively titled “Eyes Full of Stars.” Early versions of the first two novellas, “How He Left” and “Into the Void” are available under the Timber MacDuff sidebar of this blog, in case you’re interested. The three stories explore the circumstances that caused Timber to leave home in the first place, a series of events that shaped the person he would be for the next few years, and, finally, Mitch’s rescue and Timber’s decision to embrace the shamanic path.

The Lines

How He Left

“For the Lord’s sake, Timber! Will ye not at least get a haircut?”

He scowls up at his mother from beneath the lock of hair that always seems to be falling into his eyes. It annoys him, but he’s never going to let her know it.

“I dinna believe Jesus Christ gives a damn about the length of my hair,” he says, watching her cross from stove to sink.

Into the Void

He stares in the mirror and thinks about how he’s aged.

It’s not in his face so much. He’s thinner, so his face is thinner, too. But that’s only made his features finer. His cheekbones stand out like blades. A pimp in the Tenderloin broke his nose last month. He caught the bastard threatening one of the girls he knows and called him on it, which was stupid because the bugger was armed and could have done him worse damage if he’d cared to.

Eyes Full of Stars

Summer in LA: Hot and dry, with a dust-filled wind whipping around the corners of buildings and ripping crumpled newspapers from overflowing trash bins, sending them skittering down the streets like artificial tumbleweeds. A smell on the air of gasoline and baked asphalt mixes with the brown fug of exhaust and smog. Somewhere to the west, the ocean rolls in ceaseless breakers up to beaches where sun-warmed girls in bikinis flirt with the waves and bleached studs play volleyball, showing off for the girls.

My first Fan Art: Timber as seen by Sonya Craig
My first Fan Art: Timber as seen by Sonya Craig

The other thing I’m working on is the seventh book in the Caitlin Ross series, Death and the Lady. It’s October, eight months after the events of Demon Lover. Timber is still trying to cope with the trauma of having been imprisoned and raped, Caitlin is tearing her hair out over Timber’s reluctance to confide in her, and both of them are dealing with the realities of being first-time parents. When a wealthy acquaintance approaches Caitlin about putting a band together to play at her autumn wedding, Caitlin doesn’t feel she can refuse. And it turns out to be a good thing she and Timber are there, because when a friend collapses on the dance floor, Timber’s able to bring him back from the dead. What neither of them know, though, is that saving their friend is the beginning of a series of events that will reunite many of the supporting characters from previous volumes in a rush to solve a series of bizarre crimes before the energy of the Samhain season fuels a vendetta with Caitlin as its target.

I’m not very far into this one. In fact, when Sonya asked me to participate in this blog tour, I hadn’t yet written chapter three! But I got it done, I’m into chapter four now, and so, for your enjoyment, here are some introductory lines.

Death and the Lady

Chapter One

It began at a wedding.

It began with a death.

Autumn exploded through the Gordarosa valley in a burst of crimson and gold. The Harvest Festival at the end of September made way for an October of brilliant, warm days and crisp nights. The summer’s hay and corn had all been gathered in, signaling the season of yellow pumpkins and trees bent under the weight of apples and pears. All around town, anxious gardeners plucked tomatoes bursting with juice and crossed their fingers against the first frost, praying for the green globes yet on the vine to ripen before it arrived.

Chapter Two

Timber roused enough when we got home to heave himself into the house and stumble upstairs, where he fell full length across the bed and passed out again without removing his boots. After the long day and its spectacular end, I felt like joining him. My energy had plummeted as soon as our house had come in sight, leaving me shaking in every limb, with black spots in the corners of my eyes.

Chapter Three

I hadn’t seen Zee—nobody used his legal name, Josef Zdrojkowski, for obvious reasons—in seven or eight years. A wanderer who never stayed in one town longer than it took for him to figure it out, he’d left Boulder a few months before Timber and I had. We wrote, but rarely; keeping track of him was too hard for regular correspondence. Now and again a postcard reached us from some far-flung region of the North or South American continent, and once he’d sent a package from a village in Peru. But he’d never visited.

So there you have it: My two works in progress. Are you excited yet?

Next up on the WIP Lines Blog Tour is Angelina Williamson. A bleeding liberal and expert at using power tools moderately well, Angelina writes a variety of things including YA Dystopia. In addition to her Better Than Bullets personal blog, she keeps an urban homesteading blog at Stitch and Boots, and sells neat stuff in her Etsy store, for which I unfortunately don’t have a link at hand. She’s an amazing gardener who knows what herb will save you in case of a Zombie Apocalypse, and if she were a man, her balls would be skinned peaches. Just sayin’. Next week she’ll be sharing her WIP Lines with you, so be sure to check her out!

This blog composed to Poliça Radio on Pandora.

They’re Not Your Friends

A couple months ago, my celebrity crush got a new girlfriend and his (female) fans LOST IT.

I have, for the most part, sat on the sidelines watching the situation escalate. But it occurred to me this morning, with the latest series of nasty Facebook rants on a particular fan page, that what’s happening here is representational of both gender inequality in popular culture and the false sense of intimacy we get when our idols are accessible through social media. Hence this blog, which I am writing simultaneously to drinking my morning coffee, so please bear with any incoherency.

Celebrity Crush–yes, we all know who he is, and if you don’t you can go check out a couple past blogs where I mention him by name. But for the sake of at least paying lip service to the principals’ right to privacy, I’m going to pretend no one knows. Please humor me and play along. Celebrity Crush is a big, buff guy known for playing über-masculine roles and speaking out about what it means to be a man in the modern age. If you’re familiar with the concept of Alpha Male, both in real life and in fiction, he’s it. New Girlfriend is an interesting choice for someone like him, or at least for the person his fans assume him to be. She’s an attractive actress who violates all expectations because she’s 1. Older than he is by a few years, 2. More successful and well-known than he is by a HUGE margin and 3. Not a red, white, and blue-blooded American or native English speaker, but was born in another country.

I’m going to come right out and say that I like them together and I think Celebrity Crush shows massive brass balls by defying expectations and dating a woman with more status. In fact, he seems truly smitten. I can’t know this, of course, but it looks that way to me. He’s admitted several places to having had a crush on this woman for years. So he’s living the dream, and more power to him.

To hear many fans talk, though, he’s lost whatever attraction he once had by falling for this woman. Plus, they claim, he’s on the fast track to major disappointment. When the story of their relationship first broke, people refused to believe it. Many still don’t. They insist it must be a PR stunt, because obviously two attractive people could never have real feelings for each other when the woman has more power. They minutely examine photos for evidence that they’re posed. They point to minor details of expression and body language as proof that the two have no real attachment and that Celebrity Crush is unhappy.

New Girlfriend is routinely subject to both sexist and racist calumny. She’s a hag, she’s fat, she’s ancient. A while ago a rumor started the rounds that she and Celebrity Crush have talked children. My gods, you’d think they planned the destruction of the world as we know it. How dare she?! She has an adult son! She’s MUCH TOO OLD AND DECREPIT to have kids and has no right even to consider it–this despite the fact that she seems healthy, she had ova frozen because she KNEW she wanted to have another child later in life, and she’s an adult perfectly capable of making decisions for herself. She “barely speaks English,” no one “can understand a word she says,” and her family “are all drug dealers.” Another fan of Celebrity Crush who called people out on their racism was bluntly informed “you know what those people are like” and besides, “they joke about that themselves, so it’s not wrong.”

Elrond-Facepalm

Celebrity Crush, meanwhile, has been photographed buying roses and holding hands with New Girlfriend, and “Sources Close To The Couple” say he’s truly in love and intends to study New Girlfriend’s native language so he can communicate with her family better. Recently, he tweeted a picture of a “Share a Coke” can with his name in New Girlfriend’s language. Now, I personally think this is sweet. But other fans saw this as a sign of impending holocaust, at the very least. Because Celebrity Crush pays attention to New Girlfriend, he’s “Not an Alpha any more.” Because he wants to learn her language, he’s “pussy-whipped.”

What better example do you need of the dangers to men in our society in ACTING LIKE FUCKING HUMAN BEINGS? When people you don’t even know can take away your “man card” because you’re nice to your girlfriend, it takes an exceptionally strong man to stand up to that shit and do what he knows is right.

Oh, but “she obviously doesn’t care as much about him as he does about her.” He waits on her hand and foot and calls her the perfect woman. She says “what’s not to like about him?” and “my mother approves.” Surely if she had real feelings she’d say more! For gods’ sake, people! Have you stopped to consider that 1. English isn’t her native language and she might not have the words you want or even the cultural context to apply them? and 2. It’s NONE OF YOUR FUCKING BUSINESS? What if the genders were reversed? If Celebrity Crush shared few words about his relationship and put a lot of energy into his career while New Girlfriend gushed and waited on him, what then? I suspect you’d think this normal, and a confirmation of his Alpha Male status.

In the last couple of weeks, fans have actually been tweeting at Celebrity Crush to tell him the error of his ways. In case this isn’t enough “I Can’t EVEN” for you, these same people are bitching and moaning when Celebrity Crush reacts in the obvious fashion and blocks the fuck out of them. Now he’s “grown an ego he didn’t have before” and “isn’t treating his fans right” and is “alienating the people who made him what he is.” I’ve got news for you: He isn’t your friend. He doesn’t owe you anything because you went to his movie and bought his t-shirt. It’s not your right to say mean and hurtful things virtually to his face under the thin veil of being concerned. I’d question your right to do it even if he were your real life best friend. Celebrity Crush and New Girlfriend are public figures, true. They’re also adults who are perfectly capable of making decisions for themselves that don’t involve you. A social media presence may create a sense of intimacy with stars that the days before Facebook and Twitter lacked. But you need to keep in mind that it isn’t real. Okay, I have many close friends I’ve met through the Internet. None of them are celebrities. All of them interact with me on a personal level on a daily basis. Celebrity Crush has re-tweeted me fairly often, and once he even addressed me. And I get heart palpitations every time. But I have no illusions that this gives me any right to comment on his personal life.

If you have nothing better to do with your life than whine and complain because a guy you once liked has taken his personal life in a direction you don’t like, I have a few words of advice for you: GROW A PAIR. You need them more than he does.