It happens often in the book world–sometimes it seems every other week these days. An author, usually a white woman, releases a book relying on the misguided use of a racial trope. The writing community of color calls her on it. She issues an apology which, knowingly or not, glosses over the real issues, and the community of color responds with more ire. And people look at the apology, and shake their heads, and ask, “How hard can it be to say you’re sorry?”
How hard can it be?
Yesterday I wrote a preface for my book, The Parting Glass:
(In 2010, when I wrote the first draft of The Parting Glass, I was a good deal less aware of issues of race and cultural appropriation than I am today. Considering myself a fairly decent and enlightened person, I thought drawing on my own experience of life was enough. Consequently, I made some choices for the book that make me cringe when I read it today. The character of John Stonefeather relying heavily on the trope of “alcoholic Indian” is one, as is Timber’s practice of something I refer to as “Native American shamanism,” and even Sage’s role as the sassy Black girlfriend. It isn’t enough to say I didn’t intend to be disrespectful in any way, or that I did draw from and embellish people and situations from my real life. I made bad choices I would not make today, and I’m sorry for that.
I can’t rewrite the book at this late date, and I’m not going to pull it from publication because despite the flaws I’m still proud of it and I like the story of how Caitlin and Timber first met, which is central to the book and unfortunately relies on the more problematic elements. But I have tried to do better since writing this book, and I will continue to do so. It’s important to me that marginalized voices be heard, and that bad stereotypes not be perpetuated.
Thank you for reading this.)
I added it to every edition, and most of them are already available. I did it, not because anyone called me out on the book’s problematic elements–no one has; the book hasn’t a far enough reach to cause a stir of any proportion at all. I did it because as I gained awareness of the issues involved, the fact that I unthinkingly used bad tropes bothered me more and more, until I couldn’t let it go any longer without doing something.
How hard could it be? I’ll tell you: It was hard.
When I wrote the book, from 2010 – 2012, I considered myself fairly enlightened. It was only as I got more involved in social media, and concurrently social justice, that I began to see how very problematic some of the basic premises were. This was after I’d already published the book, and I didn’t want to let it go.
Again, I wasn’t involved in any confrontation; all of the relevant conversations happened in the “what if?” space of my head. What if someone called me out? What if I got attacked? What if? What would I say?
My first instincts were not the best. At least I didn’t dismiss the inner challenge out of hand, but that’s the best I can say of myself. I got defensive. I justified. I told myself, “Yes, but I based this character on a real person and I based this experience on a real experience! I only embellished and made it bigger, so it would be story-worthy.” I told myself since I knew a Native person with substance abuse issues in my past, putting one in my book was okay. Likewise with white people who had studied with Native teachers, likewise with every other problematic thing in the book. I also told myself since the core of the story isn’t about those problematic tropes, it was okay. (Spoiler: It kind of is and it kind of isn’t, and it’s not okay.) I told myself the Native people I know personally assure me I’m a good person, so I couldn’t be doing something really out of line.
After I told myself all these things, I ignored the problem. I said I’d address it if it ever became an issue. And I tried to forget. For four years, I tried to forget. In the meantime, I turned out three more books, each getting a little more aware, and a little more diverse, and a little better regarding the kind of world I want to portray and the kind of world I want to see manifest. It’s been a bit of a challenge, considering the realities of the geographical setting of my book series (rural Colorado, which I know well since I live there). But gradually I’ve added more People of Color, more LGBTQ+ representation, more diverse viewpoints. I hope I haven’t done it too badly.
Currently, I’m rereading my own books to refresh myself on the world and the overall series arc before plunging ahead into book eight. Saturday night, I started The Parting Glass. It’s always been a joy for me to read that particular volume, as it’s one of my favourites. This time, however, I hadn’t got through the first chapter before I started cringing. Could I really have used those tropes in that way? Yes, yes, I did. Wow. I wouldn’t do that now.
A book is a moment in an author’s life; it shows how they thought, what they considered important, and perhaps how they felt at a particular time and place of life. People learn, and grow, and change, and I did all three more than I had thought. I couldn’t bear the idea of someone picking up the book with its problematic elements without my making a public apology. So yesterday I wrote the short preface above.
How hard could it be? It was hard. It took me four years of growth before I did it, and even when I sat down to work I wasn’t sure I could say I was sorry and mean it. I think I managed. And one last time, I came to this without people riding me and demanding I grow all in an instant, while supportive friends of color told me I wasn’t a bad person. I like to think if I’d been confronted earlier I would have stepped up to the plate, but I know myself too well for that. Probably I’d have dug in and become even more defensive, reached for more justification.
This isn’t to say people should let authors alone and not challenge problematic elements in books; they absolutely should do so, because if people stay silent, others never learn at all. When I acknowledge how hard it was for me to come to the point of apology, it’s to say to other authors that I get that it’s hard. AND because it’s hard, we have to practice. Practice listening. Practice saying, “I did a wrong thing, and I’m sorry.” Not “I’m sorry if I offended anyone…” or “I’m sorry, but this is what I really meant…” Just, “I’m sorry. I will do better in the future. I will do my best.”
When learning an instrument, you don’t practice scales because you’re ever going to perform scales for the public. You practice scales because they teach your body the way your instrument works and the combinations of notes you’re likely to find in a piece, so when you are performing you can do the right thing without thinking about it. In a similar way, authors need to practice apology. If and when someone confronts you, don’t react at once. Don’t take it personally if and when someone calls you on a problematic element. Take a breath. Refuse the urge to justify and dig in. If you can, ask for clarification, but realize this may not be possible. When you do respond, just say, “I’m sorry.” Ask how you can make it better, and offer to do so, if that’s possible. If you can’t make it better in the moment or in the near future, promise to do better. That’s it. Marginalized people don’t want our justifications; they’ve heard way too many already. If you have privilege in an area–if you’re white, cishet, able-bodied, neurotypical–it’s incumbent upon you to listen and do better.
How hard can it be? Hard, and that’s okay. What’s not okay is refusing to learn.
I’ve written seven novels in my Caitlin Ross series now, and unless the coming release of The Well Below the Valley changes things, the one that has prompted the most divisive opinions among readers is The Parting Glass. There are a lot of reasons I’d expect this to be the case–my PoC characters rely too much on tired tropes, for example. But that’s not what I hear. Simply put, reader response falls into two camps: Those who like Romance novels love it, and those who don’t, don’t. They see the entire second act, which focuses on Caitlin and Timber’s developing relationship, as a distraction from the main story. If they’ve started at the beginning of the series, which most have, they’ve read three books of magic and action by this point. They want more magic and action, not this icky love stuff, thank you.
This interests me.
When I started the series, I didn’t set out to write Romance. In fact, I set out NOT to write Romance. (I didn’t set out to write a series, either, but that’s beside the point, I guess.) I did, however, have two specific agenda. First of all, I wanted to portray a true-to-life Witch rather than a sensationalized one. As you’ll know if you’ve read the books, I did end up giving Caitlin some extraordinary powers because doing without them became far too complicated and adding them kept things interesting. For the most part, though, I stick to the thought process, actions, and world view one would expect from a long time practicing Pagan. I also wanted to present exceptional Tarot readings, because at the point where I began I was sick to death of every Urban Fantasy author inserting an obligatory Tarot scene when they obviously knew nothing whatsoever of the subject beyond reading the little pamphlet that comes with the deck.
Second, I wanted to show a realistic relationship between a stable, long-term couple who, though they disagree and even argue from time to time, actually communicate pretty well. That’s why I started the series with Caitlin and Timber several years into their marriage. I wanted to avoid the inevitable “sorting out” period every relationship goes through. In fact, I didn’t want the book to be about their relationship at all. I wanted the relationship to be part of the setting, like the house or the town: an interesting backdrop for events, rather than an event in and of itself.
I had numerous reasons for wanting to do this. I enjoy the occasional Romance, especially those that are well-written and/or have an interesting premise. However, stand-alone Romance novels tend to rely on certain tropes I’m not fond of. Even those with “strong” heroines often fall back on traditional gender roles. The hero may start out as kind of an asshole, at least on the surface, and it’s up to the heroine to pierce his soft center and get him to recognize her equal standing. Disagreements can usually be traced to lack of effective communication. I find this frustrating. I don’t mind when characters have secrets like “Honey, I’m from the future,” or “I conned my way into this social position.” Major revelations require a level of trust not usually present at the start of a relationship. But refusing to share pertinent information because the author needs to sustain the conflict is a sure turn off for me.
I created Timber MacDuff as a man who specifically does not balk at communicating. He has his share of flaws and secrets, sure. But when it comes to his relationship with Caitlin, he talks openly and honestly. He has to, because Caitlin is more than normally sensitive to nuance and hidden subtext. If she fails to call him on obfuscation, it’s because she has her own issues clouding the matter. More, they’re both self-aware enough that they don’t need the constant release of fighting over trivial matters to prop up avoidance of underlying conflict. If Caitlin reminds Timber to please rinse the sink after trimming his beard, he doesn’t take it as a personal affront and need to escalate to the point of a power struggle. He just rinses the sink. On the other hand, if Timber recommends against a course of action, Caitlin may not like it, and she may do it anyway, but she doesn’t question his motives. She trusts he has her best interests at heart, and isn’t trying to exert dominance by controlling her. I made their partnership as equal as I possibly could while grounding it in reality. Caitlin’s forthrightness and practicality balances Timber’s occasional emotional outbursts, and Timber’s wisdom tempers her tendency to take risks.
So what does all this have to do with the topic of this post, writing the female gaze?
With the exception of Demon Lover, which alternates between Caitlin’s point of view and Timber’s, I write the series from the Caitlin’s first person perspective. Being inside her brain, as it were, it doesn’t take long to see that she’s Timber’s equal sexually as well as intellectually. Getting back to The Parting Glass, the first time she lays eyes on him she goes weak in the knees. She thinks he’s hot. She wants him. We see this in other books as well. When the series begins, they’ve been together almost eight years, and the fire hasn’t burned out. She likes looking at him. She makes no bones about it. He has a fantastic ass; it turns her on. It’s not a huge part of any of the books except for The Parting Glass, but it’s there. And I’ve received more than a handful of reader comments leading me to believe that people find this uncomfortable. Things like “Caitlin objectifies Timber too much” and “Timber only exists in this book as a sex object.” None of this feedback, by the way, came from male readers, of which I have several. They all came from women.
Now, I’ve read a great many books where the male protagonist thinks or voices similar opinions of the female protagonist, and unless it’s taken to extremes, very few people comment on this behavior when it’s coming from a man. From a man, it’s flattering, expected, even admirable. I’ve never been criticized for Timber expressing his desire for Caitlin. He can throw her over his shoulder and carry her to bed or say outright that he wants her and means to “have” her, and no one raises an eyebrow. This leads me to wonder if the underlying reason for people’s discomfort is not the expression of desire and attraction in itself, but the fact that it’s coming from a woman.
We all know–or at this point we should know–that most entertainment media caters to the male gaze, the cisgender, heterosexual male gaze in particular. Female characters possess a specific kind of beauty, the big-boobed, small-waisted variety, with or without a shapely booty, depending on preference. Most leading women are under the age of thirty. Even those marooned on mysterious islands without modern amenities or stuck in the middle of the Zombie Apocalypse have mysteriously smooth legs and armpits. Male writers of “strong female characters (TM)” dwell on details like the sensation of moving breasts and the slide of silk over newly-washed skin in a way real life women seldom do. Men can be loud, dirty, and combative without much personal consequence, but women can’t. Not and remain “attractive.” A dirty, loud woman is presented as flawed. A woman stepping outside the role of peacemaker is ridiculed; a woman reaching for power falls; a woman acting upon her sexual desires is punished.
But women have sexual desires and urges. Women look at men they find attractive (Disclaimer: I’m speaking specifically of het women). They like butts, and abs, and shoulders. They like bellies and beards and feet. Anyone who’s spent any amount of time around a group of women knows this. Anyone even peripherally aware of the many, many fandoms revolving around shows with gorgeous male stars–Outlander, Supernatural, and Arrow, to name a few of the current ones–should know this. Men can be beautiful. Their beauty takes infinite forms, just as women’s beauty does. People in sexual relationships are attracted to one another. Isn’t it about time to admit it goes both ways?
Caitlin thinks Timber is beautiful. Sure: It’s the first thing she notices about him. Haven’t you ever seen a stranger and thought, “Wow, what a hottie!” I know I have. It’s Caitlin’s first impression, and it’s all she knows. As they come to know each other better, however, she adds to that first impression. He’s smart, talented, a craftsman, a shaman. Caitlin’s attraction doesn’t cause her to discount those things, as it would if she saw him as no more than a sexual object. And familiarity, if anything, deepens her attraction rather than diminishes it. After years of marriage, she still thinks he’s hot. It’s as much a part of their relationship as the magic.
It may be that women critique Caitlin’s sexuality and the way she views Timber because women are more overtly aware of sexual objectification, being more subject to it. I think, though, that there’s an aspect of internalized sexism in the act. All too often we still cram women into the virgin/whore dichotomy. We expect our female characters to behave certain ways around sex, to be the one acted upon rather than the actor. A woman who’s up front about her sexuality, who picks and chooses and directs instead of going along, is a challenge to our self concepts and our own relationships with carnality. In claims that Caitlin treats Timber as a sex object, I hear the echo of a patriarchal standard warning us that if we own our bodies and our desires, we must necessarily treat the men in our lives the way women have been treated: as lesser beings, unfit to be equal partners.
When you release a book into the world, you lose control over it. People interpret stories differently than you intended. They project their own issues onto your characters and read deep meaning in the most innocent actions (One reviewer had a real problem with Caitlin not wearing makeup on a regular basis because it was “obviously meant to show she’s superior to other women” and decided that despite Caitlin’s relative insouciance about her appearance “the reader is supposed to know she’s always the hottest girl in the room.”). I know this, and yet the claims of Timber being objectified because his wife likes the way he looks and enjoys having sex still bother me. They show we have a long way to go before women’s points of view become normal and women’s sexuality, in all its many forms, becomes as acceptable as men’s.
If you follow me on social media, you already know I participated in #NaNoWriMo for the first time this year. I swear I thought I had written a blog about my decision to do this, but I looks like I didn’t. In case you’re unfamiliar with the term, NaNoWriMo (or just “NaNo”) stands for “National Novel Writing Month.” It’s an event that falls every November, not just in the US but around the world, in which participants set a goal to write 50,000 words over the course of the month (50K being the minimum length for a book qualifying as a novel). People don’t always stick to the novel idea. Some write essays, or poetry, or short stories–whatever takes their fancy. The only stipulation for “winning” is that one write 50K words of whatever.
I hit 50K last Friday. For me, this word count doesn’t represent a finished novel. At the moment, it looks like this is going to be a shorter work, more along the lines of She Moved Through the Fair than A Maid in Bedlam. So I have maybe 30K more to write to round out the plot. But okay: I did it.
As I said, I’ve never participated before. I don’t think the reasons for this are important. I went back and forth about participating this year, and eventually elected to do it because my writing process needed a boost. I’d spent over a year muddling around with book 7 of the Caitlin Ross series, tossing plot after unworkable plot. All of them stalled out at about 25K; I got bored, or the book didn’t move, or some weird shit took control that detracted from the story. I think it’s possible that any of those stories could have been made to work with time and effort, and I’ve kept a lot of my notes. But I’m not good at making progress when I feel like I’m dragging a ton of bullshit behind me. Even though my brain said, “Just get through it and fix it in edits,” and even though a couple times I asked for outside (meaning not my husband) opinions and heard “It’s fine!” I couldn’t follow through. I kept going back to the beginning, over and over again, fiddling with the opening chapters and trying to pull them into some kind of shape that excited me. After doing this a number of times, I got lazy. I hate using that word–it has triggering connotations for me–but it applies. I used any excuse at all NOT to write: “Oh, I’m just not in the space,” or “I kind of don’t feel well,” or “I have to wash my hair.” And while I’d like to emphasize that ANY of these is a valid reason not to write and no creative person is obligated to be creative at any time, I recognized that, for me in this situation, they weren’t doing me any favors.
So I started over with NaNo, and I got through. The last few weeks of October I took some time to noodle around and rediscover my protagonist’s voice, which I’d lost. I found a plot I felt more passionate about (“more” being the key word here; my ability to feel passion for anything remains lower than I’d like). I wrote every day, even when I had a minor headache, even if it wasn’t any more than a couple hundred words. I passed the 25K disaster mark and went on. I relearned how to let the story unfold and how to keep out of my characters’ way. I stifled the urges to prove my worthiness through promoting a political agenda and write a bunch of tripe that served little purpose but to show I’d done my research on things I haven’t personally experienced.
What kept me going more than anything was the event website (and I hope next year, if I participate again, they have an app, because really). In the same way Weight Watchers has hooked me in the past with its charts and tracking widgets, NaNo hooked me with the ability to earn badges and chart my progress. I liked updating my word count every day. I liked posting my running totals to the Twitter hashtag. I have a more competitive nature than I like to own, and the website helped me compete with myself and push past all the little foibles that I’ve allowed to stand in my way.
I didn’t feel a lot of community support, but I think that’s mostly about the way I work. I didn’t participate in any events or frequent the forums. Trying to write in public, like at a write-in, distracts me. And when I’m working a plot, I prefer just to focus on it.
Before I started, I heard a lot about “You’ll feel so great when you hit your goal!” and “The sense of accomplishment is worth it!” I don’t feel either of those things. Some of that is because I simply don’t feel a huge amount of excitement or accomplishment about anything. When I do something, even something others think is amazing, at best I feel, “Okay, I did that.” It doesn’t seem any great cause for celebration. (And yes, this is something I’m trying to address in therapy.)
Right now, what I feel is tired. I worked on my new book every day for a month. I have a fair way to go. I’m not really looking forward to it. A few days ago, I saw a post to the Twitter tag that said (in essence), “The lesson of NaNo is not just that you can write every day one month out of the year, but that you can do it ALL THE TIME!” Um, yeah, for me not so much. As I said above, NO creative person has an obligation to be creative every day–in fact, I think the idea that we must create every day in order to justify our creative identities is harmful. I did learn that I can do more than I usually assume. And I also acknowledge that doing so takes a lot out of me and I need time to recover.
Was participating worth it? hard for me to judge, but on the whole I’d say yes. I’m closer to finishing an actual book than I’ve been in over a year. I need a day or two off, I think, but I’ll get there. Will I participate again? No idea. Depends on what’s happening this time next year.
A little over a year ago, I released the sixth book in the Caitlin Ross series, Demon Lover. As you might know if you interact with me on any kind of social media, I’ve been trying to write book seven ever since. It’s not going at all well.
I had an idea for what came after Demon Lover. Six chapters into it, I realized it wasn’t working. I got another idea that interested me more. I tried that idea. Couldn’t make it work. Went back and tried it another way. And another. STILL couldn’t make it work. Tried another idea, which ALSO didn’t work, and another, and another. Every time, I got 200-odd pages into it and didn’t feel right about it. Nothing worked.
I got another idea. This time, I thought I really had it! But it got harder and harder, and yesterday, after only 100-odd pages this time, I took a good, hard look at it. I realized a couple of things about it, the main one being I didn’t have a believable conflict. I had a bunch of semi-interesting events, but they didn’t build or lead anywhere. My antagonist wasn’t doing anything evil enough, or even problematic enough, for my characters to get involved. So I lost interest.
I think this has been the problem all along. Michael says I’m usually good at conflict (which astounded me, because I feel like I’m terrible at it). But I’ll tell you, when you have a world view as out of the ordinary as mine, it’s hard to get riled up about any of the major ones. Murder, okay, I can do that. I’ve done human trafficking and involuntary possession and breaking magical rules in a way that has disastrous consequences. But drug dealing? I don’t think drugs should be criminalized at all, so I can’t get into a lather about it. Breaking THE LAW? I’d have to look at circumstances. I can’t even bring to mind other kinds of BAD THINGS.
A helpful–I mean this non-ironically–person on Twitter just suggested “Give the character a goal and stick an obstacle between him and the goal.” This is great advice. I can’t come up with a goal for any of my characters, either. What do Caitlin and Timber want right now? Since they had a baby in the last book, I expect what they want is to settle down and live a relatively normal life for a bit while they adjust to being parents. This is not the stuff of epic storytelling. In one way, literally anything I came up with that interfered with their lives would be a conflict. In another, it still has to be believable that they’d give two shits about it. And I’ve already established that a happening has to be pretty big for them to get involved. Or have personal significance. Preferably both. But I feel I’ve tapped out the personal significance vein. I’ve got three more things I plan to do in the series arc, as far as that goes. I don’t think any of them happen yet. So I’m stuck.
Part of the problem is Timber (male protagonist, for those of you unfamiliar with the series). He went through some traumatic shit in the last book. Truth be told, he goes through a LOT of intense shit. Sure, he’s a hero, but that kind of shit leaves a mark. I don’t think I’ve given enough attention to the affect it may have had on him. I don’t WANT to. But it keeps coming up, even when I don’t intend it to. I don’t want to spend another book dealing with Timber’s trauma; that was the whole plot of book 3, and I can only play that so much. In order to skip it, though, I have to advance the series timeline about a year and a half. This is something I intended to do anyway, AFTER book 7. I’ve been giving Caitlin and Timber two adventures a year, or thereabouts. The result is, the series timeline lags six years behind real life time at this point. I don’t like this because it becomes increasingly difficult to work with as certain issues of the historical past become more and more irrelevant and difficult to keep track of. I want to catch up to real time better, so the series doesn’t become unbearably dated.
So one question on my mind is, will I be doing a disservice to the characters, and to my readers, if I skip over the personal consequences of book 6? This is something I worry about, because a critique I often see of serialized entertainment is, “You put so-and-so through this awful thing in the last episode and then next episode it’s like it never even happened!” I’m loath to do that.
Speaking of things I worry about, I’ve also developed a tendency to self-censor more than I have in a very long time. I can trace this difficulty directly back to following and interacting with lots of writers and people in the publishing industry. Now, the writing community is mostly great and I’m glad I found it. But it can also be strident and divisive. This sort of thing affects me. I wish it didn’t and I try to have strong boundaries, but the truth is, I don’t have a strong sense of self and I really, really want people to like me. So I often absorb other people’s opinions more than is good for me. For at least the last year, there’s been a lot of talk about how the publishing industry needs more diversity. Yes, great, I’m all the way down with that! I’ve looked at my work in that light and found I could do better. At the same time, however, some people have an issue with authors writing characters from marginalized populations when they are not, themselves, a part of that population. And as a writer who isn’t part of a few marginalized populations I’ve been trying to write about, I’m always second-guessing myself, wondering if I’m doing it right, or at least right enough. Plus, in the writing attempts of the past year, I’ve included some characters who are Native, or LGBTQ+, or PoC, because they might as well be those things as not. But then, I have to devote a huge number of words to explaining that. I mean, if you want two male secondary characters to be gay, you kind of have to point out that they are in order for it to have any relevance. Otherwise, they’re just two guys, because that’s the default in most people’s minds. But if the story isn’t about their gayness, then devoting so much verbiage to secondary characters actually detracts from the story. Or, at least, this has been my experience over the last year.
I kind of wonder if I should table the diversity issue for this series. At least, not try so hard at it. The main characters of the Caitlin Ross series are a het, cis, white couple. So sue me. I have other ideas for other books with different kinds of main characters. I have secondary characters already who are Bi, and Gay, and Lesbian, and PoC. Maybe I don’t need to go out of my way to include more. I don’t know. I don’t know what’s enough, and the second-guessing is doing a disservice to my getting actual words on the page.
On top of all this–and what follows is mostly a rant I need to get out of my system, so bear with me or not–almost everyone I know on Twitter is sharing today’s blog by a popular author/blogger about how you shouldn’t sit around waiting for motivation, because writing creates its OWN motivation. Which is just this kind of thing I want to read when I’m sitting around feeling blocked and unmotivated. I have mixed feelings about this author/blogger on the best days. Often he has good things to say. I can’t stand the way he says them. He adopts this tone that I guess is supposed to be funny, but to me it reads as a weird mix of authoritarian and condescending, like some kind of inspirational drill sergeant. I often feel alienated when I read his stuff, because so many people think it’s so great and I want to scream, “Yes, and you’re a heterosexual, able-bodied, neurotypical DUDE!” who treats this obvious stuff as some huge revelation. Kind of the same feeling I get when well-meaning people say, “But haven’t you tried…(Insert alternative healing method) for your depression/migraines/whatever?” Like, “Oh, gee. in forty years of dealing with this I NEVER ONCE THOUGHT OF THAT THANK YOU SO MUCH!” If simply sitting and writing created motivation for me, I’d never run out.
So, anyway. This is stuff I’m dealing with. Thanks for tuning in.
Okay, I’ll bite. There’s a Twitter game going around, #7Lines. The rules: Go to page 7 of your current WIP (page 7 of chapter 1, for those of you who, like me, start a new document for each chapter). Count down seven lines and post the NEXT seven lines (i.e., lines 8-15). Then tag seven writers to do the same.
I went a bit over, just for context. But here are seven lines from page seven of The Mist-Covered Mountain.
“What kind of trouble?”
My steps had faltered and my stomach had dropped into my toes as his words caused the past months’ vague unease suddenly to manifest. I’d prayed it never would. He’d been doing so well.
“What happened last winter…it’s preying at my mind, ken. It’s gnawing at my soul.”
I’d noticed. In the six months since our daughter’s birth, he’d grown less spontaneous, more meticulous, as if making plans and following them to the letter reassured him.
I tag Jennie Davenport, S. A. Hunt, Louise Gornall, Krisitne Wyllys, Marie Hogebrandt, Luther Siler, and Katie Bailey.
It’s common wisdom for writers that an effective story contains three things: Character, plot, and stakes. A person risks something to accomplish something. An author works hard to make queries, pitches, and blurbs reflect all three in the least number of syllables. For example, “When (Character) discovers (Plot Point 1) she must (Plot Point 2) or else (Stakes).”
I’m going to come out and say it: I hate working with stakes. As far as my technical ability goes, it’s probably the thing I understand least and do the worst job of. For a long time, I thought I was worst at plotting, but I was wrong. A plot is simply what happens. It can be any sequence of events: “I went to the store, and the store was closed, so I got on the bus and went to another store. I bought some orange juice, because I like orange juice.” That’s a plot. But it’s not a very good one, because there aren’t any stakes. As far as we know, there is no risk to the narrator. There would be no consequence of NOT getting orange juice, except, possibly, mild disappointment.
I have a hard time with stakes partly because of my world view and partly because of my writing process. For me, writing is an attempt to express a gut feeling or mood; at least, I began that way. I usually start with a character and try to put them in a situation that evokes the mood for which I’m aiming. In my teens, I wrote a lot of pieces–I suppose they might qualify as prose poems–that spoke of smells and sounds and sights and memories without anything actually happening. When I branched out into longer fiction, I knew something had to happen, but for the most part I inserted random events that seemed like they would be “cool” without being able to link them in any coherent fashion. Or else, I stole plots from other authors. I generally ended up with a bunch of still slides of emotional high points, through which my characters moved without much rhyme or reason. Stuff happened because I said it happened. But my characters didn’t make a journey or evolve.
In fact, it wasn’t until much later, when I started querying and pitching, that I ever heard anyone refer to stakes. It gave me a kind of “slap my head” moment: “Oh, of course, that’s the hook. Duh.” But then, when I considered my work, I couldn’t find the stakes to save my life. I thought they were there, but they often were very subtle and only rarely did I articulate them in any coherent way. Sometimes I did all right. “Unless she finds a way to heal him, both will lose their souls.” Those are pretty good stakes (in my opinion). Other times, not so much. “Unless she interferes, the world will be changed.” Um, okay? Mostly I think, “So what? Why is that a bad thing?” And I have a hard time answering. Especially in a 140-character pitch.
I even have a hard time finding the stakes in other authors’ works. Or caring about them. “If he doesn’t make the basketball team, he won’t get the girl.” So? Why don’t you find another girl who doesn’t require you to become someone you’re not? Which is another novel altogether, I suppose. Maybe choosing between trying to change yourself to suit someone else and learning to accept yourself and eventually find the way to happiness would make a good story, but what are the stakes there? I don’t get it. How would you turn that into a hook?
In Fantasy–in other words, in my genre–stakes are often huge: Death, Dismemberment, Apocalypse. I have a hard time caring about those standard tropes. Everyone dies, and the world as we know it won’t last forever. I’m interested in smaller things: personal trials, family problems, past trauma. Okay, maybe those aren’t categorically SMALL, but it’s hard to convey them in a few words. You have to care about the characters FIRST. THEN you’ll care about their experience. This is a difficult thing to express in a pitch or a blurb.
An early reader of She Moved Through the Fair told me she didn’t think Caitlin had a good reason to get involved in the plot because she wasn’t personally attached to the murder victim. There wasn’t any threat to her if she didn’t personally solve the murder; in fact, getting involved created the threat. I thought about that for a long time. Caitlin got involved because magic was the murder weapon and she was the only person aware of that fact. If she didn’t look into it, no one else would. In the end, I decided that was good enough. Her character, her sense of responsibility toward others within her particular field of expertise, was enough. Besides, the book isn’t really a Whodunnit. It’s about a load of other things, like wishes, and consequences, and desire.
I get tied up a lot because I don’t like making antagonists EVIL. Usually they have valid desires of their own; it’s their methods that are problematic, or they make stupid mistakes that put people at risk. The one time I invented a really evil antagonist, the whole time I was writing the book I kept thinking, “This is so stupid.” It’s my most popular novel so far.
A lot of authors take positive delight in doing horrible things to their characters. I don’t. I’ve gotten good mileage out of traumatizing my male protagonist, but I can’t keep doing that forever. I know I need to so something awful to a secondary character people care about soon, and I don’t want to!
I still haven’t found the stakes for book seven. I have a vague idea of something I might do, but once again a part of me is thinking, “It’s so stupid. I can never pull that off.”
Like everyone else on the planet (it seems), we’ve been watching the adaptation of Marvel Comics’ Daredevil on Netflix. It’s an excellent series, with great acting, great writing, character development for EVERYONE, even the villains, and better treatment of women than any of the other comic adaptations, big or small screen, that I’ve yet seen. (Netflix did not pay me to say this.)
I never followed Daredevil the Book, although I must have seen the character around in other books or read about him or something, because when the Ben Affleck movie version came out (I liked it. So sue me.), I already knew the basics of the character. In fact, I must have learned his origins early on, because when I read the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles origin story, my first thought was “OMG, they came out of the same accident that made Daredevil!!!!”
Anyway, one thing I didn’t know was that a central theme of the Daredevil mythos is, “Is it okay for the hero to kill, or does that make him as bad as the villains? How do you accomplish your mission without crossing that line?” I’ve nutshelled the idea here, because it’s a complex question that would take me many more words to properly express. In comic books, as well as in much literature in a contemporary setting, the heroes DON’T KILL. It’s part of what defines them, the reluctance to take a life and the willingness to turn criminals over to the law. They might beat the crap out of them first. They might maim and mutilate. But they don’t kill.
In the mid-eighties, when I was doing my heaviest comic book reading, several heroes crossed this line. Green Arrow and Batman both come to mind (I was mostly a DC reader), but there may have been others. There may be others now. And for the purposes of this post, I’m talking about straight-up superhero books rather than darker anti-heroes or horror books, where people got killed all the time.
I started thinking about this again, watching Daredevil, because it’s a question I had to face in my own work: Can the hero take out the villains and still be a hero? When I was writing A Maid in Bedlam, it was one of my central problems as an author. I wanted him to do it, without question. I wanted him to do it because I’d given him a sword and I wanted him to use it. Because the idea of staging a giant bloodbath on the Pearl Street Mall in Boulder tickled me. And, frankly, because a big, well-built guy competent with a sword is a huge turn on. But it made me queasy, because the bad guys were humans, not supernatural entities. I didn’t know if letting Timber kill them would be okay.
Except, if he didn’t, the problem would remain. You couldn’t keep most of these people in a jail; I established that early on. Not unless you denied them any kind of human interaction pretty much forever, which would be inhumane. Well, long story short, I had my bloodbath. My central issue became keeping my protagonists out of prison. And none of my readers rose up to complain about my choice.
“Violence isn’t always the answer, he knows. Some would say it’s never the answer. “Violence begets violence,” goes the old saw. It feeds on itself and is never satisfied. When you’ve had your revenge, wiped out your enemies, what then? It’s a letdown, a disappointment, coming off that energy. Like after sex, when things go dark for a time, and you feel as if there really should have been more to it. So you keep after it, keep after that transcendent feeling, until you wear yourself out, and then, at least you can sleep.
Lots of heroes kill. They kill the villains in Epic Fantasy and Historical Fiction, in Science Fiction and Thrillers and Paranormal. Luke Skywalker and Han Solo killed Stormtroopers and TIE fighter pilots. Jamie Fraser kills his uncle and numerous English. Rand al’Thor kills people (though at times he feels really bad about it). So why not the heroes of Contemporary and Urban Fantasy? Why not those heroes who are larger than life, who populate THIS world? Oliver Queen spent the entire first season of Arrow putting down criminals and getting vilified for it. Then he had a change of heart. But has it made him any more effective in pursuing his mission? Has it made him any more popular? Current events in the series point to no.
There are several good reasons not to kill your villains off. In serialized fiction, the obvious one is you might need them again in another story arc. Creating a good villain is hard work! Don’t dispose of them unless you absolutely have to. Another reason not to kill your villains would be that it doesn’t serve the story. I’m still mad that Lursa and B’Etor were summarily dispatched in the travesty that was Star Trek: Generations. But why balk at getting rid of horrible people you don’t need?
By the way, I’m not proposing any definitive answer one way or the other. I’m just looking at something that interests me.
One question that comes up when you raise this topic is: “How long can you keep doing that before you become the thing you’re trying to stop?” Another is, “Can violence lead to lasting peace?” (And thanks to Kris Holt for raising both of those on Twitter when I was exploring this question there.) My personal answers are, I don’t think anything leads to a truly lasting peace, because everything is ephemeral. It’s probably no good to stir up conflict or to go looking for it, but being prepared to meet it? Sure. Of course, this raises the question of “How do you know when you’re prepared enough?” which can lead to arms races and all kinds of tricky stuff when you take it into a larger sphere. But I’m talking about a personal level, rather than a governmental one. As for the first question, I personally don’t believe it follows that one thing necessarily leads to the other. All kinds of things make a difference: Motivation, Ego, Mindfulness to name a few. It’s true that when you train in a martial art, MOST of the practice is learning to balance the Art with the Martial. Learning to cross the street when you sense danger, rather than take on the gang. Or so my Sensei used to say.
I’ve also got a cop-out answer: The question isn’t really applicable in my books, because my hero isn’t a vigilante.
He’s pretty sure Caitlin would tell him violence isn’t the answer at all. She has a soft heart. She feels bad about killing slugs in the garden. But Caitlin never had the experience of the world that he had. She turns inward; he turns outward. Everything he is, he shows to the world, even if the world finds it an affront. She has secrets at Her core that no one can penetrate. She protects Herself from the world, and he flies in its face. So he’s learned that there must be violence, sometimes. After all, the slugs in the garden must be killed. They’d take over, else.
Of course, context matters. In a historical novel, we can say that killing each other in the year 1233, or 1842, wasn’t uncommon. People lived closer to death. In Science Fiction, in Epic Fantasy, we get to define the terms. Plus, those villains we choose for our heroes to kill could often be replaced with cardboard cutouts. We know them only as antagonists, not as people. I’ve noticed when authors delve into their villains as people, examine what motivates them instead of simply saying “Bad Guy,” the characters are much less likely to meet their Fates at the hand of the hero. Because then the hero would be killing a human being rather than a trope. And it’s not okay to kill human beings, or to “humanize” the alien species we mean to kill. We know the Cave Troll in Lord of the Rings is a danger. We never hear about the Cave Troll’s childhood or the Cave Troll’s mother.
I do this myself. It’s hard for me, because I never have been able to subscribe to notions of absolute good and absolute evil. One reason I like my first book less than others is that the antagonists are less fully developed (and I still had a problem with disposing of one of them). I do believe that people aren’t inherently one thing or the other, but that circumstances make us what we are. So, in order to justify getting rid of them, I have to dehumanize my villains. I don’t explore them enough as people. And I still have a horrible time coming up with actions bad enough to merit a death sentence.
I believe that we like to think of our contemporary culture as more civilized, and that in civilized societies we don’t go around killing people out of hand. Not up close and personal. War doesn’t count. The rhetoric of war allows us to dehumanize vast numbers of people, be they of a different culture, religion, race, gender, or what have you, the better to slaughter them. When you kill someone up close and personal, it’s “murder,” no matter what your justification. Now, I don’t have a problem with this (I’d hope it would be obvious that I’m not encouraging terminal solutions to arguments). I’m not even a supporter of “capital punishment” (lovely euphemism). The justice system is, in my opinion, too flawed in many regards to hand out death sentences. If new evidence comes up afterward, it’s too late. If a capital charge is proven beyond doubt, the appeals process is so drawn-out that it becomes its own punishment. I do believe that some criminals probably need to be removed from society on a more or less permanent basis. I also believe their numbers are smaller than we think, and even of those possibly quite a few would do well on some kind of frontier planet, where “less civilized” actions might be an actual life skill. Pity we don’t have one.
But the question remains to me: Does the choice to apply terminal justice make a person less of a hero? In the case of Timber “He-Man” MacDuff, I don’t like to think so. He’s not arbitrary. He does what he has to and no more. When he’s killed, it’s been to protect those less able to protect themselves, and it’s always the last possible solution (except for those couple times when he was younger and more hot-tempered). He remembers every face.
As far as writing goes, I think you can choose one way or the other and still make your character sympathetic. It’s a matter of balance, in the character and in the story. Timber is both a swordsman and a healer. His blade has two edges: One to harm, and one to heal. Sometimes surgery is necessary. I expect the question of who made him Judge, Jury, and Executioner will come up again in a later book (actually, I know it will). For now, I thought it through and gave him leave to do what he felt necessary.
Some people think they have no right to judge. To label this one a slug, and this one not. To make the choice between life and death. He’s not one of them.
The other day on my Twitter feed, I stumbled into a conversation about writer’s block. I’ve addressed the topic before in other blogs, but never here. And I wouldn’t have decided to address it here, excepting that the conversation shed some light on an issue I’ve been peripherally aware of for a long time: Whether or not writer’s block actually exists. (Spoiler: I believe it does.)
If you want, you can read some articles supporting the idea that writer’s block is a myth here, here, and here. You can even reference this Google search. All of the articles dismissing writer’s block as a real phenomenon say pretty much the same thing: It’s an excuse people make for not doing the work. It’s lazy and you should “just power on through it.” Sometimes people will acknowledge that maybe there is some other thing–life stress, a change in the weather, self-doubt–interfering with a person’s ability to write. But writer’s block as an issue in and of itself…no, that’s not possible.
All right: Nothing exists in a vacuum. Writer’s block as I have experienced it is intimately related to many other factors, and the presence of those other factors may make writer’s block more likely to appear. (In disease theory, this is known as “co-morbidity.”) But dismissing writer’s block because other things may contribute to it is like dismissing someone’s depression because they also suffer from hypothyroidism. Treating the second does not necessarily cure the first. Also, I’m going to come right out and say that any time I hear anyone say “It’s a lazy excuse and you should just muscle through,” or if I read those words, my head explodes. It’s an ignorant and judgmental stance. “Lazy” is a word meant to shame, both when other people use it toward you or you use it on yourself. It comes from a reality where everyone must be engaged in productive industry all the time, where work for its own sake is accounted the highest virtue. After all, you don’t want to go to hell like those naked heathens who pull fruit off the trees and lounge naked on the beach all day! White Westerners have a tendency to believe that any easy path is invalid, and it shows up in attitudes toward making art as well as in everything else. And as for “just muscle through,” that advice may be wonderful for healthy folks in ideal situations. It’s not the reality of most people most of the time.
So what is writer’s block?
I actually think about this a lot, because although I have “been a writer” virtually all my life (okay, since first grade), when I add up all the years, I have spent a great many more of them not writing than I have writing. Sometimes it’s been through choice, and sometimes not. Sometimes I’ve had ideas that fizzled when I tried to put them on the page, sometimes I’ve had ideas too distant or uninteresting in the moment for me to put them in any coherent form, and sometimes I’ve had no ideas at all. All those experiences are subjectively different. So are all of them writer’s block? Some of them? None at all?
I think any discussion of writer’s block needs to begin with defining what it means to be a writer. My handy dictionary tells me “writer” means “1. One who has written something” or “2. One who writes as an occupation, an author. ” This is practically useless, because it encompasses just about every literate person on the planet. If I go to “author,” the results aren’t much better. I find 1. “The original writer of a literary work,” 2. “One who practices writing as a profession,” and 3. “The original creator of anything.” I could go on unpacking by looking up “literary,” or “profession,” or even “creator.” It wouldn’t be helpful.
Looking at my writing friends and my life experience, my personal definition of “writer” is as follows: “A person who is dedicated to the process of making art with words as their medium.” I find this a useful definition, because it encompasses both those who write as a profession and those who don’t (or don’t yet), those who are currently engaged in “writing behavior” and those who, for one reason or another aren’t. “Writing behavior,” to me, describes the Gestalt of the writing experience and can include research, plotting, thinking about what happens next, and even sitting in your recliner staring into space while things gel as well as the act of setting words on the page. Since every person’s process is different, everyone’s writing behavior is also going to look a little different from everyone else’s. AND THAT’S FINE. It’s up to every artist to find their own definition of success, and their own way of achieving it.
Digression: This is the main reason I have an extremely hard time with “writing rules.” Rules–especially rules about art–presuppose everyone has the same process and that there’s some magic code for unlocking success. It ain’t true. I have a particular dislike of the biggest rule of all: Write Every Day. What other profession requires of its practitioners that they go to work every single day, whether they feel like it or not? You don’t hear “Paint Every Day” or “Do Spreadsheets Every Day.” Granted, working in the arts differs substantially from working in an office or as a physician. There are times when you DO engage in your art every day, especially if you’re learning a new technique or absorbed in a new piece. And since art, and one’s relationship to it, is ever-changing, it’s a good idea to keep your hand in. But once you reach a certain level of skill and professionalism, writing simply to write every day can be a waste of energy. [N.B. As far as arts go, music and acting are a bit different because they’re more body-centered. When I don’t play the flute or sing for an extended period of time, I lose skill. I get rusty. I don’t experience the same thing with writing. Even so, taking a weekend or a few days off from scales and tunes actually makes you better when you pick up your instrument again, because you’ve had a chance to absorb the practice. And in this case, the experience of writing is the same.]
Will you PLEASE get to the point?
Okay, fine. Writer’s block. In my experience, there are three kinds. I’m not saying these are the only kinds, mind. But these are the ones I’ve been through personally and feel competent to discuss: Depression-related, Fear-centered, and Wrong Direction. They can occur simultaneously (there’s that co-morbidity factor again) and in any combination of intensity.
Depression-related writer’s block is both the easiest and the hardest to deal with, and it’s the one that’s most interfered with my engaging in writing behavior. When I first started writing in a serious way, around about eighth grade, it was all joy and puppies. Writing was my escape and my haven. I loved the process of letting the story unfold, the time when I entered a different world where nothing hurt me. I loved the feeling of doing something I was good at. I looked forward to opening up my notebook and taking up my special pen and seeing what happened next. It was delightful and it was easy. I didn’t have to struggle the way I did in my non-writing life. Every contest I entered, I won first prize, and that was pretty keen, too.
And then my depression got worse and the words dried up. Just like that. One day I opened up my notebook, more out of habit than for any other reason, and I felt nothing at all. The story didn’t come, the characters didn’t speak, and I didn’t see the landscape. I’d stopped caring.
For at least five years after that, I didn’t write at all. Not a single word. Not even in my journal. I didn’t agonize over it, because I was too sick. I wasn’t even sure I’d live to see the next day–no one was–so whether or not I wrote wasn’t important. When I came out of that first bad episode, I remembered my writing self, and for the next ten years or so I sometimes wrote and sometimes didn’t. I dropped into and out of degree programs in writing and turned out the occasional short story when the spirit moved me. But mostly it didn’t move me. I got down on myself for “being lazy” and “waiting around for inspiration,” both of which I had learned were the wrong way to go about writing. But the truth was, when I didn’t have any inspiration, I didn’t have anything. I lacked the spark, the thing that made me write in the first place. So I figured I wasn’t a writer at all. I did some other things. I got a degree in Dance Therapy and worked as a counselor in a women’s shelter. I facilitated workshops on women’s spirituality. I developed a radio show.
In my better times, the times when I felt most alive, I still wrote. I actually finished a couple first drafts of novels (including the one that would become The Unquiet Grave). More often, I got halfway through a story, lost my impetus, and stopped. Not because I didn’t want to do the work. Because I didn’t care.
In the mid-2000s, my depression got debilitating again. I did virtually nothing for five years but sit on the couch and stare into space, and I ended up hospitalized and over-medicated. Eventually, late in 2009, after trying about every antidepressant medication on the market and many combinations thereof, my doctor prescribed me a new one, and it worked. Before that point, I had never believed the stories of antidepressants changing people’s lives, but that one did. By January of 2010, I had started writing again. It wasn’t hard or unnatural. I didn’t have to think about it. I just opened up the manuscript of The Unquiet Grave and began to work, as if I had never left off. Since then, I’ve taken a few breaks (some lengthy). But I’ve never again lost the ability to write at all.
That’s what it looked like when I couldn’t write because of depression (and I want to make it clear that I mean the debilitating mental illness and not just feeling blue and out of sorts, or even lacking energy because of other life factors). I couldn’t “muscle through” because there was no muscle and no through. It was the hardest thing to conquer because it took thirty years of trying different medications before anyone even invented one that worked on my brain chemistry. It was the easiest because I’d also done thirty years of therapy, so once the meds kicked in everything fell into place. I didn’t have to work or try–not very hard, anyway. The words returned in the same way they had dried up, suddenly and without warning.
If you are clinically depressed or believe you might be, GET HELP. Find someone to talk to. Use your support system. Talk to your doctor or another person you trust. You may want to try the medication route. Keep in mind that psychoactive medication does not work for everyone, and even when it works, it takes time.
Fear-centered writer’s block is the one I believe most people think of when the term comes up. It’s probably the most common, and it may be the most responsive to the advice to “power on through.” The tricky thing about it is that we don’t always know what we’re afraid of, or even that fear is the thing keeping us from writing. Fear is a difficult emotion to process, and our culture doesn’t make it any easier by painting fear in a negative light, as something only weak people experience. So when you have a fear-centered block, it can present a lot of different ways. It might be a lack of interest or an inability to focus. It might be that the ideas you came up with in the coffee shop, or on your daily walk, or lying in bed at night dribble away or vanish when you try to put them on the page. You might make excuses for not writing, like not having time or other things in your life being a priority right now. This is when turning writing into a discipline by setting aside a dedicated time to write regularly and sticking to it whether or not you feel like it can actually be helpful. And for some people, this works.
The problem is, when you “power on through,” you haven’t actually faced the fear that’s causing the block in the first place. And when you don’t confront a fear, it finds ways to come back and bite you in the ass. So while it might work in the short run to work on your discipline, in the long game it’s possible that writing will become harder and harder until you’re banging your head against your desk because you simply can’t make it work. Or you get stuck on writing the same page over and over, “making it better,” because every time you look at it you only see the flaws. And this reinforces all the negative self-talk that likely is the source of your fear.
In this case, what you need to do it take a deep breath and ask yourself what you’re afraid of. Try to be honest. Some fears are common. People fear the empty page. This is one I’ve never had to deal with personally, so I’m afraid I’m not really sure what it’s about–maybe the idea that YOU’RE ABOUT TO CREATE SOMETHING AND IT HAS TO BE SIGNIFICANT takes over. To this I can only say, nothing has to be anything. Loosen up. A description of your cat sleeping or of your lunch is still writing, even if it isn’t the Great American Novel that will win awards and earn millions. Let go of your expectations of yourself. Give yourself a break. Every writer churns out thousands and thousands of words that never see the light of day, much less publication, and that’s fine. Or maybe you have an image labeled “WRITER” somewhere in your brain and the idea that you might not measure up terrifies you. In that case, too, it’s maybe a good idea to go back to the simple dictionary definition: A writer is a person who has written something. There’s no value judgment involved. If you’ve passed notes in school, you’ve written something. Maybe someone–or multiple people–has dismissed your ability, or your dream, or sneered at the idea of you being a writer, and you want to prove them wrong by making a success at it. Maybe there’s a quiet voice in your brain telling you “maybe they were right all along!” This is a lot of baggage you’re bringing along to your work. I’ve found an effective technique for dealing with it is to make a pact with yourself, and with that doubt, that you’re not going to bring that baggage into your writing time. You write for you and not that voice. So what it thinks doesn’t matter.
Another thing I’ve discovered about fear-centered writer’s block is that it often strikes when you’re about to get better at writing. Remember how I described writing being easy and full of joy, way back in the long ago (both of my life and of this blog post)? A lot of that writing, from a critical standpoint, wasn’t very good. It was derivative and it rambled. The characters didn’t have clear motivations, and I had no idea how to plot. Later, I discovered that good writing is actually work, and that it doesn’t happen quickly. My joy level diminished exponentially because I was no longer able to fall right into a different world. I had to think about it. And when my joy level diminished, I began to wonder why I was writing in the first place. Not being able to answer this question kept me from writing at all. I had to make a leap of faith, convince myself that whether I experienced joy in the moment or not didn’t really matter, because the act of writing mattered. When I realised this, I started writing again and the writing was better. I’ve gone through this cycle over and over again, and I’ve learned that some days are great and some aren’t; some days I’m “in the zone” and some days I’m not. And this is okay. I miss the joy and the spark when they aren’t there. I feel frustration on the days when writing is drudgery. But I don’t waste time on longing for it (not much, anyway), or berate myself for not experiencing it.
In the end, you have a lot of power over fear-centered writer’s block, because you’re the only one who can figure out the nature of your fear and what you need to do about it. If sometimes that means stepping away for a while, that’s okay. (Yeah, it becomes more frightening and problematic if you’re operating under a deadline. But even in that case, taking a reasonable break usually does more good than harm.)
I guess Going the Wrong Direction may not be a type of block on its own, but I mentioned it, so I’m going to talk about it (even though this blog is already 3000 words long and shows no sign of ending anytime soon). It has a lot in common with fear-centered block, and is sometimes a result of it. I experience it often, both in regards to pieces of projects and projects as a whole. What happens is this: I start out great guns one a book or a chapter, and the writing gets slower and slower and harder and harder until I give up. Then I sit around on my ass for a while. I complain that I don’t like what I’m doing. I complain that it doesn’t make sense, or it drags–this is a HUGE indication–or it doesn’t feel right in some indefinable way. I can’t think what happens next. I can’t see the scene or hear the characters talking. I’m not THERE. I’m stuck. I piss and moan to my husband for a few days, and eventually something clicks. And inevitably what I realise is that I am going the wrong way. I’m writing the wrong book, or the wrong chapter. I have to back up and start over.
This, incidentally, is why Book Four of the Caitlin Ross series is a prequel instead of a story that continues the internal timeline. After finished A Maid in Bedlam, I tried to go right on into the next book. I wrote 400 pages and stopped because something was off. I cut 200 pages and wrote 200 more, and stopped again. I abandoned the project and didn’t write much for the next year because of life. When I did start writing again, I wrote The Parting Glass because I had NO IDEA how to deal with the next events in the timeline. After finishing The Parting Glass, I went this way and that way–tens of thousands of words that were fine words, but they just didn’t work. Finally I realised I was starting the book in the wrong place. I had jumped too far ahead in the continuity, and I needed to look at an earlier point. By a strange coincidence, this earlier point took me to a story I had thought of before but was afraid to write for various reasons. Out of fear, I made a conscious decision NOT to write the story that needed written. Once I faced the fear and decided to write the story anyway, the block dissolved. This is a good example of how fear-centered writer’s block and going the wrong direction can work in concert.
There’s always a reason not to write, and many of them are valid. Not all of them constitute writer’s block, and most of them have to do with a writer’s particular process. Some people can come home from working a day job eight hours and jump into another five to six hours of writing (I have a suspicion these people are extraverts, and I have no idea when they sleep). Some people don’t have the energy or even the desire to write after working a day job, so if they want to dedicate time to writing they need to find another way. Both these paths are legitimate. There’s no one right way to be a writer; in fact, thinking there is and trying to fit yourself into a box where you don’t belong probably causes more writer’s block than anything else.
In writing, being your authentic self is the best way to be. Depression, fear, and mistrust can interfere with your ability to be that self. Developing awareness can help you chip away at all those things and become better able to convert your writer’s block to dust. And sculpture, of course.
For the past two weeks I’ve been sick. Not raging fever and completely incapacitated sick. Just sick with this year’s respiratory virus. You know the thing. It comes around every winter/early spring, knocks you upside the head with a sore throat, congestion, and maybe a cough. In the normal flow of events, it runs its course in a couple weeks and then moves on to its next victim. Time passes, and you forget you ever had it.
This year’s crud, as we call it, features exhaustion. For the first week, it was all I could do to move from the couch to the toilet when I needed to pee. Even after it began to let up, minimal effort tired me out. I’d feel fine for a couple hours after I got up in the morning, but after noon or so I had to lie down and recuperate.
Being tired is difficult for me. I guess it’s difficult for everyone. For me, it’s difficult in a particularly annoying and frustrating way. See, I devote a LOT of energy just to being okay. By “being okay,” I mean ignoring all the internal programming and belief systems that tell me how terrible I am, both as a person and as a writer. The ongoing internal monologue with its myriad voices insisting I’m no good, I don’t do things the “right” way, no one will ever read my books, everyone hates me, etcetera. Over the years, I’ve learned to disconnect from those voices, let them, in the words of Natalie Goldberg, be “the sound of distant laundry flapping in the breeze.” When I’ve had enough rest, maintaining that distance is no great problem. But when I’m tired, the shields I’ve built disintegrate. After a bad night, or an illness, or even an especially long day, the voices get louder and louder until they’re the only thing in my reality. I get anxious. I question myself. I ask my husband for validation, over and over: “Are you mad at me? Am I in trouble? Am I bad? Do I have worth? Do my books suck? Is everyone lying to me?”
“No, no. no, yes, no, no,” he says. It doesn’t quiet the voices, but it gives me something to hold onto until I get some rest and can go back to ignoring them.
Over the last two weeks, while I’ve been sick, I haven’t been writing. Now I’m feeling better and I need to get back to it. Notice how I said “need” there instead of “want.” I need to get back to it because I’m only about a third of the way through the first draft and I had planned an early summer release (HAHAHAHAHAHAHA! Yeah, right.). I need to get back to it because the story needs to progress. But right now, I don’t really want to go back to it. I’m having a horrible time getting motivated to sit down at my desk and open the Chapter Nine document, which is where I left off. Some of this is no doubt due to the fact that I’m not entirely over this crud. But most of it, I fear, is due to my inner critic.
Book seven has been an interesting journey so far. When I finished book six, I thought book seven would be an entirely different story than the one I’m writing now. In fact, the plot I thought would take place in book seven hit me in the head when I wasn’t very far into the first draft of book six. (This happens often. I know I need to concentrate on the current story or task, but these other ones seem so much more attractive and exciting! I gather this is common for authors.) I even churned out the first scene of that plot to append to book six when I released it. And after the obligatory break to recover from my book release, I plunged ahead. About six chapters in, however, I realised THAT book did not belong at that place in the overall series arc.
Well, okay. I had another project in mind. For about a year (ever since I got addicted to White Collar, if truth be told), I’d wanted to write a book about a confidence game. It’d be fun, and it would give me an opportunity to show Timber in a different light. The desire only got stronger when one of my husband’s construction clients turned us on to Leverage. So, fine. I had long cons and grifters nudging my brain. I decided to do the con book NOW instead of in some distant future (I’d originally slated it for book nine).
I tossed the idea around for a while until I came up with a plot I thought would work. I hadn’t started with any plot, just this vague notion of “Hey, you know what would be great? A CON!” I began writing. And although I felt certain I’d made the right choice as far as the series arc–if you’ve ever grappled with trying to shove a decent book into the wrong timeline you’ll know what this feels like–the new story gave me trouble almost from the start. Not because I questioned my writing ability; I’ve grown confident about that over the years. But because my inner critic woke up and opened fire.
To put it in simple terms, I am experiencing more doubt and judgment of this story than I have of any I’ve written in a long time, maybe ever. It takes a particular form. I think the story is stupid. No, I don’t really think that. But that’s what the inner critic keeps telling me. The story is stupid. I don’t get any more than that. Nothing concrete, no reasons it’s stupid. Just stupid by virtue of existing. Every time I open the document–whichever chapter I happen to be working on–the chant starts up in my brain. “STUPID. IT’S STUPID, STUPID, STUPID!” Sometimes I get a bit more: It’s unrealistic. No one will be able to suspend their disbelief about this. It’s off the deep end. It’s too farfetched. I even went as far as to enlist a second Alpha reader to give a look at the first act and give me a straight opinion. She did give me a few tips about things that needed addressed. But none of them was an outright dismissal of the setup as “stupid.”
Yet I keep hearing it.
To complicate matters, as a writer I am a “Pantser” rather than a “Plotter.” In case you don’t know these terms, here’s a brief definition. A “Plotter” is a person who plans everything in the book in advance, before embarking on any of the creative writing portions of the task. They make meticulous outlines of every chapter, sometimes every scene. They know every rise and fall of the script. When characters interact and what happens when they do. Where those interactions lead. You get my drift. A “Pantser,” on the other hand, writes by the seat of their pants. For me, this means I start out with an overall idea, a set of probable characters, a beginning, and an end. If I’m lucky, I get a middle too. Usually when I start a chapter I have an idea where I want to end it, but not always. Sometimes I stumble on a chapter ending unawares. Sometimes the unimportant transitional scene I thought I could cover in two pages turns out to be WAY more vital that I guessed and ends up taking a couple thousand words. And that’s okay. I trust my process, and I work better with a loose set of guidelines than with a strict playbook. And sure, sometimes I get stuck. Then I stare into space a lot and try to hear/see/feel what happens next. Or I get my husband to take me out to dinner and we hash things out over a meal.
Anyway. I had less of an idea than usual going into it what this new book seven would be about, and it’s taken several turns along the way. What I thought would be the main theme turned out to be irrelevant to the story I’m telling. A character point I thought I could cover in very little space turns out to be major. Characters I hadn’t planned at all keep appearing and influencing the story, and some of them aren’t who I thought. A scene I thought would be a major plot driver looks like it has no purpose and no motivation behind it except that it’s “cool.” And so forth. And every time something like this happens, the inner critic screams at me. “STUPID, STUPID, STUPID!”
I know what this is about. It’s about fear. Most obstacles I have to overcome in my writing are about fear. I was afraid of writing explicit sex scenes. I was afraid of making my heroes violent. I was afraid of killing antagonists. I was afraid of being judged for stuff too close to personal experience. This time, I’m treading unfamiliar ground. Most of my books are driven by relationships. This one is driven by events. Most of my books have a strong magical component. This one focuses more on mundane skills. I love stories about cons and capers, but I’ve never tried to write one before. I’m unsure of where all the twists and turns are leading, and of whether I can pull this off. I’ve taken my characters out of their comfort zone, and so I have taken myself out of my own comfort zone. And in those places where I’ve allowed myself a modicum of comfort, I question it. “Are you reallyusing thatplot device again? Isn’t that a bit much?” “Well, yes,” I tell myself. “It does looklike that plot device. But really you’ll see that it’s totally different.” This doesn’t help. Even when I got really Meta and had a couple characters comment on how the device keeps popping up, it didn’t help.
I’m not sure why my fear manifests as “STUPID,” however. Probably some messed up shit from my childhood. Both my family and my peer group put a high premium on intelligence. Being smart was virtually the only way I got any validation. It’s the personal quality I feel most secure about and the one I value most. So convincing me that I’m stupid, that what I’m doing is stupid, is my inner critic’s surest way of getting me to abandon the project.
That’s what it wants. That what the inner critic always wants. It wants you to stop. It wants you to give up. Doesn’t matter whether we’re talking about a creative project or personal growth. The inner critic abhors change of any kind. It wants you to stay comfortable, not to challenge, because your comfort zone is where your inner critic has the most power. Horrible, but there it is. It’s true especially for people who have been damaged, because the inner critic is part of what helps damaged people, or people in dangerous situations, survive. It keeps you safe by steering you away from actions that can hurt you. By reminding you what happened last time. By warning you away from shaky ground. By hurting you–just a little, so you don’t get a bigger hurt later. By calling you stupid.
It makes you a nice, cozy nest where nothing harms you and nothing challenges you and nothing changes.
But you’re not the same person now. I have to keep telling myself this. I am not the person who had to tread carefully. I don’t live in that world any more. It’s a memory. It’s not NOW. And in the NOW, I want to stretch out. I want to challenge myself. I want to go places I haven’t been and see things I haven’t seen. I want to grow, and I want my writing to grow. And I can’t do that by giving into the inner critic and staying in my nice, cozy comfort zone.
Of course, when I come to this place, the inner critic gets louder and louder. It hurts me more and more, trying to keep me from taking the next step to the place where it won’t have so much power. I have no real idea how to combat this, except by slow steps, with the occasional burst of frenzied activity. But I move on in the faith that, eventually, I will move beyond the range of that voice.
Having a down day today–didn’t sleep well last night because my brain refused to shut off, “woke up” rather late to discover that with daylight all those great ideas had vanished into the fog of dealing with a disturbed sleep cycle. I get judgmental of myself when this happens. In some part of me, I don’t care how my personal schedule fits in with societal expectations or doesn’t. In the part that becomes more conscious at these times, the fact that I didn’t get out of bed until ten o’clock this morning, and that it is now one in the afternoon and I have just managed to get dressed and think about doing something productive really bothers me. Especially in winter. I think, “Shit, it’s going to be DARK in four hours! How can you WASTE DAYLIGHT this way?” Even though my work doesn’t depend on the presence of daylight, as long as we have functioning electricity.
So what does this have to do with the challenges of being a self-published author? Well, I get judgmental about my work, too. Which is kind of funny, because just the other day one of my writer friends, who was having some doubts about the direction her work wanted to go, asked me, “Don’t you ever go through this?” And I answered, “Oh, no, not me! Of course not! I always trust my work!” or something like that. I see now, of course, that this is bullshit, because all morning I have been thinking things like, “This new book is so stupid, the premise is ludicrous, no one is going to buy it, and I can’t believe I ever thought it was a good idea.”
I have to remind myself I chose this. I didn’t choose to be a writer; that’s something I HAD to do. But I chose to go with self-publishing. I chose it for a lot of reasons, some good, some maybe not so good. I chose it because I believe in my work (most of the time), and I believe there’s an audience for it out there, somewhere. I also chose it because I’m impatient, and the traditional publishing path takes A LOT OF TIME, and requires jumping through hoops I don’t like jumping through. And yes, I chose it because I have trust and control issues–especially around my current series–and I had a hard time even imagining giving up control to an outsider who might not share my vision (although my traditionally published friends do, for the most part, seem to support the idea that part of the process is finding a “match,” i.e., an editor or agent who shares your vision and helps shape it, rather than turns it into something else altogether). I chose it because I have some real health issues that would inevitably pose a problem to my ability to meet imposed deadlines, and that is stress I just don’t want to deal with. I chose it because I write in a genre that’s a “tough sell” these days, and because by the time I figure out how to write an effective query letter I had already published three books in the series. Some day, when Caitlin Ross and Timber MacDuff give me a break, I intend to explore some of the other ideas I have on the back burner and shop them out in the traditional way. Some day.
I see my decision to go with self-publishing as a good one, for the most part. But every positive, as they say, has a negative. A lot of people may not notice this about me, because I tend to be more vocal when I’m in a negative mood, but I do try very hard to be positive. Unfortunately, on days like today, the positives about my life choices get swamped by an overwhelming gut sensation of bitter failure. I feel like Sisyphus rolling his rock uphill. (Side note: how awesome is it that my spell-check recognized “Sisyphus” just now?). Some days I believe I’ll get that damn boulder to the top and coast down the other side. But some days I lose my grip, and I spend all my energy running after it as it careens back down to the bottom. And I wonder if it’s really worth the struggle to get my shoulder under it again.
In self-publishing, I get to keep control and work at my own pace. But self-publishing is lonely. Several of my traditionally-published friends have released books recently, and I am so envious of the support systems their publishers provide. A good editor and/or agent can be a cheering section and a source of encouragement on those days when you wonder why the hell you ever thought you could write in the first place. A publisher can send out Advance Reader Copies of your book to reviewers, schedule Blog Tours, and get your work into the public eye in a way that it’s very difficult for a self-published author to match. They handle the interior formatting and cover design and all those details of production that a self-published author has to look after for herself. (Some self-published authors do have budgets for hiring those things out, but I don’t.) You have a basic guarantee of getting a professional product that people will take (mostly) seriously.
I had to learn how to do almost all this stuff. I don’t regret it. But I always have questions. Does the interior flow properly? Should I change the header font? Do my covers work? I started with still life photographs, a couple of which I liked and most of which I didn’t. I always knew they were a temporary measure, and earlier this year I contracted an artist to redo them. But the questions didn’t go away! I love my artist and I love her covers. All the same, I can’t help noticing that they don’t look like most covers in my genre. And I wonder if that matters. How can I tell? Since the cover redesign started, a couple of people have told me they prefer the original ones. One magazine editor with whom I investigated advertising looked at my IAN page (which at the time showed a couple of the new covers and four or five of the old ones) and told me point blank not to put money into a display ad because my covers wouldn’t sell. Do I believe her? Do I not? I’ve seen all kinds of covers, and all kinds of warnings about bad cover art. Am I wrong to like the ones I paid for? Should I be more concerned with my books “fitting in?” I don’t think the contents “fit in;” why should the covers?
I question my writing process. Without a publishing house handing out deadlines, I can keep a schedule that suits me and allow myself to function “at the level I’m at,” as my dance teachers used to say. Do what I can, but not force myself to push the energy where it doesn’t want to go. Except, a lot of the time I wonder if this is a good thing. There are many days I don’t write at all because I’m not in the headspace I need to be in to sit at the computer and put words on a page. Maybe, instead of practicing self-care, I’m just lazy and lack dedication. Maybe I don’t have what it takes to make this work. Maybe I’m a dilettante. Maybe I chose to self-publish because on a deep inner level I realize I’m not willing to do what’s necessary to succeed.
Maybe I’m not a real author at all.
This is the kind of thing that runs through my head day after day.
I wish I had a team. I wish I had “people” designated to look after some of these things, so I didn’t have to think about them. I wish some kind soul would take it upon themselves to send out my books and make sure they got reviews and attention. I sure don’t seem to be able to manage it with any success. I promote to the best of my ability, but most of the time I don’t see any result. I have my small knot of fans, and that’s nice. I have a few people I can count on for reviews, and that’s nice, too. But I can’t manage the kind of reach that gets books into the charts anywhere. I’m not talking about the New York Times Book Review, here. I’d just like to create a buzz on Goodreads or Riffle. How do self-published authors do that? I haven’t a clue.
Don’t get me wrong: My “Tribe” on Twitter is a huge support system and I’m grateful for them. But they have their own struggles with their own books. It’s not their job to promote me, nor should it be. It’s not their job to prop me up and give me pep talks. Many of them do anyway, and still, sometimes it’s not enough. I wish for a cheering section I could keep in in a bottle and summon on the days I’m feeling low. I wish for a genie to magically navigate all the book promotion sites on the Internet, sort the worthwhile ones from the less worthwhile, and pin a neat list of the ones I need to investigate on my cork board.
I am thankful for advances in POD and e book publishing that have made it possible for me to make my books available. I am thankful that these same advances give others the same opportunity and contribute to creating a publishing industry where small presses and flourish and we’re enabled to address some of the issues with the Big 6 publishing machine. I’m thankful that advances in technology make it possible to ignore the Big 6 publishing machine, if we so choose.
But sometimes, sometimes like today, I wish I had chosen the other way.
The life of a writer can be lonely, especially if, like me, you don’t “play well with others” in real life and find writing groups more irritating than helpful. The life of a self-published author can be doubly lonely (I’m sure this is why so many writers hang out on Twitter all hours of the day instead of getting down to work.). I encourage you, if you’re making the choice between the independent path and the traditional, to take all the time you can to examine your options. Remember, self-publishing is NOT a path to a traditional contract (not for most people, anyway). It’s a publishing method of its own. One that supplies its own benefits, true, but also one that requires dedication, knowledge, and strength in many disparate fields. One where, in many ways, you’re on your own and must continue through force of will when the going gets tough. You have no obligation to make your book available as soon as it’s finished. The words will still be there. In fact, you might pull them out in a couple years and see ways of making them better. Take all the time you need to examine your options.