The road to Success

So this isn’t going to be the post where I lay out my five-year plan with goals and schedules and tactics to achieve those goals. I am no prophet. This is going to be a rambley thinking-on-the-page post about shifts in mental status around writing.

*watches 99% of blog followers drift away*

Ah, my loyal spambots! Thank you for staying. 😀

So I started thinking about this post about two weeks ago, when I was going to bed dissatisfied with the productivity of the day. After I had pointed out to myself that I’d read 200 pages of a MG novel and worked for seven hours, myself realized that my subconscious has for some time now been ignoring activities that don’t involve writing in some way. The hours that fill my bank account? PSH. They are nothing. The two hours spend scanning for “ly” in a short story– now there is where my satisfaction lies.

Part of me was absolutely delighted to figure this out. I finally knew, with proof from my  emotions and everything, (exactly one year after I decided to try a workshop to see if I wanted to try this writing thing seriously), that storytelling was where my focus and love was. So yes, I went in and changed my facebook employment information to add “writer” as a part-time job.

Another part of me was closer to despair than to glee, because I knew that writing was what I want to do as my final career, and yet I have three years of 50-60 hour weeks ahead of me in school and work-for-money-for-school. My current method of devoting time to writing involves chunks of four or more hours at a time– which has not been a useable tactic as I keep having chucks of two or less hours, during which I am a starey-creature-who-stares-at-walls for at least half of that time.

You see, I am wimpy and thus I tire easily, and I don’t do well if I don’t spent time talking to/stalking the twitter/tumblr feed of at least one of my friends on the internet, and I don’t do well if I don’t get enough sleep, and so on, and so on. I know what I want to do, I just– can’t do it yet.

 

It is extremely tempting to just scream at myself for being so weak. I should push myself through writing anyways, damn the consequences. Edit anyways, no matter if I hate it and I can’t think straight and only one of my eyes will focus and all I want to do is cry. I need to get this done. I have done this before.

That is to say, I’ve gone the self-hatred route. It’s really good for producing self-hatred, not great for producing anything else. And I mean anything. Socialization drops, faith drops, work that I am being paid to do drops…

So I need to find another way forward. I need to (1.) teach myself to work in small snatches and (2.) to not fall into the habit of hating myself for my weakness whenever I can’t. (Legitimately, I asked someone if being depressed whenever I was tired was normal. It was suggested that I try being nice and rewarding myself for work done when I was tired. I literally had never considered that, as when I’m tired it’s a sign that I have failed to complete the work I wanted to and I’m giving up too soon darn it. Yeah. So that was another eye-opening realization.) I need to (3.) take advantage of my current jobs which provide exactly zero life of the mind, and use that time to ponder and brainstorm. I need to (4.) eat right so I don’t get tired sooner than is necessary, and I need to (5.) embrace the fun of writing (after all, I’ll be doing it for the rest of my life, (*squee!bounce*)).

Because writing should be fun, I have decided. I get to make things. I get to make AWESOME things. (I should stop abusing italics.) I get to think about Themes and Messages and Characters and Worldbuilding and Cultural Assumptions and Plot and Voice and ALL THIS FUN STUFF. (Note: that is an entirely appropriate use of italics.) And then I get to string them all together, using language, which I love. I love all of these things. Why would I not have fun? I’m not talking giggling-euphoria levels of fun, just that these are things that I adore thinking about, talking about, and dealing with. Seriously, I SHOULD BE HAVING FUN. If I’m not enjoying this thing which delights me, I probably have other baseline things wrong with my mindset right now and maybe I should– I dunno– eat or something. Sleep. Play Tetris. Take a shower. Sleep.

There’s so much STUFF on the internet about “write every day” and “write even if you don’t want to” and “butt in chair” and “the reader can’t tell the difference between words you wrote when you were having fun and words you wrote when you hated everything,” etc, etc, ad nauseum. The attitude seems to be that if you’re having fun you’re doing it wrong. You should be sweating blood, you know. You should feel PAIN. LIKE AN ADULT.

And I’m using my status as an adult to choose to ignore all that. Gonna have fun, gonna do cool stuff, gonna make things explode. *nch nch nch*

I am also going to find a way to explain this picture.

I feel as though in deciding this and then saying it in text I am committing a great heresy against the orthodoxy of the internet. YEAH I AM A HERETIC WHOOO.

To sum up: I have two victory conditions for achieving Success: that I write things I am proud of– that are funny and awesome and people want to re-read, and that I do not hate my life and how long it took me to get there. I need to be nice to myself while I live and write and work and get to my dream job.

See, I told you it’d be a rambling blog post. 😀

P.S. World-building note:  How WEIRD is facebook and our self-construction of our identity through it?

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The spending of money and why that gets weirder the longer you stare at it.

Also, after making this video, I am SO IN LOVE WITH TEXT-BASED COMMUNICATION. It was killing me in editing to not be able to touch up words here and there, polish phrasing, put this intro on that outro…

Yeah. Writing is better.

Using Violence for Good and Evil

So I was cruising twitter at work, as I do, and I came across this excellent article by Drew McWeeny.

What happens when we find ‘The Line’ as viewers?

In it, he talks about how, as a movie reviewer, he has seen hundreds of depictions of rape, and how he finally just snapped. He’s questioning why this happens so often, and coming to the conclusion that is essentially laziness on the part of the writers/directors, in most cases. (It’s quite a good article, you should read it.)

Anyways, I sent it to my movie-buff friend, and he came back with this.

He makes a much-needed point. I haven’t seen a lot of movies that included on-screen rape – only one comes to mind, and I’m hoping it’s only that one, because otherwise something is seriously wrong with me that I’ve just gone and forgotten the others – but the same principle applies (in a lesser sense) to other depictions of extreme violence and sexuality on-screen.

And I responded;

And it goes beyond mere gratuitous violence/sex, which is the usual accusation against pointless content. It’s just sloppy. So much writing nowadays is short-hand for emotional impact. (And I’m guilty of this too.) We need the audience to feel grief– so the child dies. We need the audience to feel horrified– so we rape someone. It angers me on two counts, because a.) it’s sloppy writing (something I feel strongly about), and b.) it cheapens the actual grief, pain and violence. Which is something I feel even more strongly about.

I thought of you when I read this, because I seem to remember you saying something like that in the past. 😀

Then Zack again…

Well, I sure hope I said something like that. ‘Cause, yeah, it’s true. I think it also indirectly leads to lack of character development, because seriously, what kind of writer would be able to write a convincing, sympathetic, well-developed character and then just casually have another character rape him/her, or the like? I mean, maybe a psychopath writer, but I sure can’t imagine doing that, and I think what generally happens is that that kind of thing is used as a substitute for character development, which ties in to what you’re saying about sloppy writing. Ironically, because the audience or readers won’t be all that attached to the character being brutalized in some way, they won’t feel the affect of the act as keenly, which, yeah, cheapens the evil on display and feeds the growing prevalence of apathy towards this kind of stuff.

And at this point I asked if I could put the conversation on my blog.
TA-DA.
And I’ve been thinking about this over the last few days, because of my reaction to certain things in books. Books about Cancer, specifically. And everyone in my internet is suddenly reading A Monster Calls and A Fault in Our Stars, both of which I’m sure are fabulous books, but ones that I am terrified of. This would be because I lost my little brother to cancer at the age of 4, and it was not a good time for me. (I’m not gonna bother to go into how bad of a time it was, because if you can’t infer it from “little brother died of cancer when he was four” then we clearly have a failure to communicate that goes beyond word choice.)
That’s not to say that stories about tragedy cannot be worthwhile. The best stories invariably DO contain a seed (or sometimes a forest) of pain. In all of my favourite books, horrible things happen, have happened, will happen, and are being dealt with. But pure content does not make a story good or bad. But pain as content is something like juggling fire. If it’s done well, it’s awesome. If it’s done badly, it is a really bad thing for everyone. I firmly believe that there is no middle ground.
And unfortunately, stories about cancer usually go down in flames; Nicolas Sparks being a prime example. Children dying is used in procedural TV shows to add a dash of pathos. The slow death of a child is used as a checkbox to elicit a brief emotional response, and then the story moves on to the important stuff– the sexual tension between leads. It worries and disgusts me.
So if I feel like that about cancer, something that touches huge swatches of the population and yet is mishandled in fiction and the media constantly, how do rape survivors feel about how often it’s used (as outlined in the article I linked to), to add some brief horror and sexiness to a film? How do domestic violent survivors feel about all the jokes about “he didn’t give me the right gift, so I’m gonna beat him up/if she doesn’t give you a sandwich give her a black eye.”
And I am not immune to this failing. It is so much easier to give a character a traumatic backstory and then never deal with it. Because yeah, I don’t want to deal with it. Pain is not fun to delve into, I’d rather add some trauma to make people edgy and badass and then have them be So Awesome™ for the rest of the story. So writing this post, and thinking about it, has made me realize that is a terrible approach to story-telling. If I want to share my stories (and I do), I have a responsibility to make sure they don’t go around throwing people’s pain in their face and telling them that it is worthless. And I do not want to do that.
P.S. Still gonna read The Fault In Our Stars someday. Just maybe when I’m feeling less fragile.

I HAVE FOUND A THING FOR YOU.

So, you know how I was talking in my last blog post about how darn useful critiquing is, as a reader and a writer? And how everyone should do it? (Well, I may not have said everyone, but it was implied, right?) I have found a position which will allow you to do almost exactly that!

The magazine I review books for, (first review forthcoming soon,) has a volunteer slush reader position open. It’s a YA spec fic magazine, so young adult fantasy, science fiction, horror and any mixture therein. And as a slush reader you’d read 5-10 stories a week, give brief feedback about whether it works or not, and why, and get an excellent add-on to put on your resume.

So, stats;

  • unpaid
  • 2 hours a week
  • excellent on your resume
  • USEFUL FOR WRITING

You want to apply, yes? Yes. Here is the link.

LINK TO APPLICATION INFORMATION.

So let’s talk about sharing stories.

Wait, let’s segue into how good I am at replying punctually to letters. (Hint: it is not at all.) Letters I am horrible at replying to. Stories I am slightly better at remembering to get to– by which I mean that I usually manage to read and then critique a story within six months of it being sent to me. Sometimes things get away from me and it takes seven or eight months.

I really wish I was exaggerating, but I am actually pulling the dates on the last few stories I critiqued. Oops.

Anyways, this lamentable tendency has in fact led to an interesting piece of learning.

In the last week, I critiqued something close to ten stories. Not a clarion-week’s worth, but still a respectable amount. And because I was close-reading so many stories at once, and thinking hard about how they were put together, I was also thinking about how I was thinking. (The byline for my blog used to be “I spent too much time in my own head.” It’s still flirting with being true. (My next business venture will be INTROSPECTION ‘R US. Tell your friends.)) I finally put my finger on an undercurrent in a story– the emotional through line– which I’d been trying to figure out but never quite managed it. And it’s not to say that I can do it with all stories, but there were a couple in a row where I was able to pinpoint emotional setup and payoff, and the line I was walking as the reader, and whether I got lost in the story and cool stuff.

And then I realized that I was learning something from critiquing.

It– shouldn’t take so long for me to figure this out. I did go to Clarion. I talked to people before about how it would be valuable, and to people afterwards about how it was valuable. But in much the way as the full import of ethics and what that does to a culture’s art took a full three years to impact in my head, this only fully clicked last week.

Critiquing, as an activity, is so valuable.

Just think about it; you are studying a story (in my life a story written by a friend) looking for ways it could be made better. So you are looking for strengths and weaknesses. You are looking for what makes a story work. You are looking for how to make a story work. For a writer, that seriously has to join Writing and Reading to make a holy trinity of “how to get better at your craft.”

A disclaimer should here be sounded, because I don’t know, maybe for you critique isn’t as useful. Maybe you get all you need to know by reading masterworks of the style of fiction you aspire to. Maybe critique isn’t useful at all; you learned everything in english class. But for me, the interaction with a story is intensely valuable. (I also have taken a grand total of two (2) english classes in my entire life. They were valuable, but not where i get the bulk of my knowledge about story.) So your milage may vary.

BUT DUDE LEARNING. LEARNING IS AWESOME. Because, you know, critiquing is a learned skill, just as writing is. It’s not as though you can walk in and sit down with a story and then every mark which proceedeth from your pen will be shining pure brilliance undiluted. Or okay, maybe that’s how it works for you. For me, it went like this.

I’ve had writer-friends for as long as I’ve been writing. (Yes, the two things are deeply connected. Correlation AND causation, you might say.) And when I joined in with the writing circle we would share around what we’d written, for fun and adoration. After all, what’s the fun of writing hilarious adventures if you’re the only one who gets to see them? Exactly. Not much point. Thank you for agreeing.

So we’d share around stories, and tell each other they were amazing and hilarious. And that was awesome. That was about Level 1 of sharing reading.

But along the way, and I’m not even sure where or when it happened, but we started offering critiques as well. Level 2! We’d read, and offer suggestions about what wasn’t working.

This was a rocky road, because a.) critiquing is a hard skill to learn to give, and b.) critiquing is a hard skill to learn to take. And I am a selfish and temperamental beast who doesn’t take personal criticism well. Anything directed at my story was suddenly an attack on myself. I had a track record of criticism taken so very well, indeed, that there was an intervention before I applied to Clarion from people who thought it would be bad for me and everyone around me. Once I was accepted, it was the one thing I was most terrified about. Writing six stories? No big deal. Having people tell me my stories suck? The night before my first crit session I barely slept, and the last time that happened was when I watched Blink and then went to bed in a huge empty house.

(Fortunately, I neither cried in class or attacked anyone physically.).

Clarion, my friends, was something like Level 10 of critiquing. I just skipped all the intermediate steps and went straight into a group of people who can tell you what is wrong with your story (everything) while making you feel proud of how good it is already, and excited to fix it with the suggestions they offer. Do you know how easy it is to take critique in that group? Very easy. Do you know how hard it is to critique like that?

VERY HARD.

Lamentably, being part of that circle of awesome did not mean I immediately achieved all the critiquing and critique-presenting skills. This is probably quite obvious from the part above, where I said I only just figured out how to identify the emotional paths of a story. But I am learning; slowly, surely and with great delight for each fragment of knowledge collected.

It’s fun.

Reading Cross-Gender.

I think I’ve been pretty clear about my tendency to read adventure stories. I read a lot, and I read a lot things which focus on adventure. However, the vast majority of books which will be marketed as “adventure tales” have another word in the genre description. They’re “Boys’ Adventure Tales.” There are exceptions, of course, but at least in most of the books I read, the main character in a perilous drama of strength and wit would be a guy.

And at first I didn’t even notice. There were adventures, I was reading them, I was seven, and so I just read myself into them. I was constantly the main character, daring and smart and able to escape and virtuous and awesome. I was AWESOME.

And then, somewhere in there, I started to notice gender. I started to notice that I couldn’t be the main character in the books I was reading. There was this divide, and I was on the wrong side of it.

I can’t trace it back to any one book, I think it was just a combination of figuring out who I was (and wasn’t), and the sheer amount of adventures, historical fiction, and books written a century ago that I was cramming into my head. Sometimes the characters said explicitly that girls couldn’t participate in the expedition, and sometimes it was the more insidious assumption that girls would never want to come along. And again, the selection of books that I was reading comes down to a lot of factors, (what was available in the local library being a big one), but I took to heart the universal message that guys had adventures and girls were the impetuous for adventures; they were either in need of rescue or there to be impressed by the exploits of the male sex.

And oh, I took that to heart hard. At first I tried to deal with it by fully taking on the virtues of a frontier woman. They were super competent and vital people, and sometimes had adventures of their own. Frontier women were the most badass of the role models available, in fact, because I wasn’t rich enough to be a Nancy Drew and I couldn’t quite wish myself into being a princess. There still exists a terrible picture I have not managed to destroy which shows that my dedication to a frontier aesthetic also extended to fashion. It’s really terrible. Anyways, that attempt worked just about until my temper came in.

Don’t worry, this is not another history of my reading habits. (We’ve had enough of that lately.) My point is that I was still looking into books for characters who were like me, and I kept slamming up against the gender barrier. So, did the writers intend that? In the case of books written 50 or more years ago, I think it’s quite possible. This is, after all, the era of Children’s Literature With Morals, and strict gender roles were certainly a moral good. In books written more recently, I think I fell more afoul of the assumption that “adventure novel” means “novel meant for boys”.

Eowyn is just here to be rescued...

And when I first started thinking about this I spent a great deal of time being righteously indignant that I couldn’t find myself in these books, just because of my sex. How ridiculous!

Er, yes. How ridiculous, self. You should look to that. Because the brainwave that hit today is a two-parter.

The first deals with the older stuff, where gender divides were specifically put in. The authors have expressed their view, do I agree with it? A swift look at reality proves that having your reproductive organs on the inside does not guarantee you a rescuer in all situations, so unless you want to be a tragic casualty, it’s a good idea to be prepared to rescue yourself. Damsel in distress– not a viable lifestyle. Consulting reality also shows that my lack of eye-hand coordination and cardiovascular capacity makes me a poor choice to bring on an adventure, at least as the muscle. Does that have anything to do with my chromosomes? Well, as far as my chromosomes indicate I have weak eyes and like reading, yes, but that’s about it. On the other hand, if an adventure needs a storehouse of trivia and bizarre information I am so there. I think the author and I can agree to disagree on the subject of their quaint gender views, and I can enjoy the adventure for its merits or lack thereof. GENDER ISSUE SORT’D.

And the second part of the brainwave comes regarding books written more recently. They tend to be free of side characters pointedly staying home to cook, so why would I have issues with them? Because I know I cannot be the main character? Yes, and that matters why, exactly?

I think I’ve been reading at a basically basic level. I’ve been looking for myself in stories and rolling around in the awesomeness of me for a while. Which is useful– after all it’s nice to know that you’re not alone in the world, there are people like you– but it’s hardly the only way to read. Only reading in this manner is like only eating chocolate. You’re missing a lot of the essential nutrients needed for living. In this case, empathy.

Because really, gender is only the most obvious and silly place to draw a line. If I say I can’t enjoy books with Male MCs, can I also not enjoy books with Female MCs who are sporty, or social, or interested in romance, or who live in different worlds, or who follow a different faith, or who have a different skin colour, or hair colour, or who don’t have to worry about being blind without their classes, or who aren’t interested in history, or who don’t like tea? I mean, it would be hard to get over the tea barrier, but if I can empathize past that I should be able to empathize past anything.

So delicious...

Ahem. What I mean to say is that I would be severely restricting myself, to solely allow myself to enjoy books “about me.” The reading of the books which aren’t about me is the joy of it! I can see someone else’s experience, and what it’s like to be human in another life. Unless I get new eyes I am never going to be able to play sports: I have neither the depth perception, the eye-hand-co-ordination or the interest in that activity. But I can read about someone who loves sports, and as a bonus I don’t have to experience the pain.

I mean, this realization opens up SCADS of new horizons. And for goodness sake, self, I read science fiction and fantasy like they are the chief balm for my soul. Imagining the reality of another type of life should not present a huge problem for me.

Grampy

My Grandfather was fifteen when the war broke out. When it ended he was a veteran of D-Day and the liberation of Belgium and the Netherlands, and less than twenty years old.

My Grandfather dropped out of school after grade eight, because his parents could only pay for the secondary education of one child. So he worked in the woods, cutting lumber with a hand saw and a team of horses. After the war he went to Briarcrest Bible College. They said as long as he had a high school diploma when he graduated they’d let him study for a degree. By the end of three years he had completed a three-year degree and four years of high school, while simultaneously working full-time.

My Grandfather spoke seven languages. I once came upon him reading in preparation for bible study, reading the recommended “The Message” paraphrase, and then going over it in Greek.

My grandparents were married in the summer of 1949. This year they would have celebrated their 63rd wedding anniversary.

My grandparents went to Africa as missionaries. First to Portugal for six months to learn the language, then they sailed to Angola. There was no dock which could take the ship they came in on, so they threw everything overboard and waited for it to float in on the tide. They drove to the end of the road, and then walked into the jungle for another eight hours, carrying their belongings and my aunt Sharon, who was six months old. Talking drums sent the message ahead; “The missionaries are coming.”

My grandfather signed up for the air force as a tail gunner. The mortality rate for tail gunners was so high that the USSR assigned the position to penal battalions– you were not expected to come back from that job. My grandfather had no lack of courage. But he did have poor depth perception, and he was ground crew instead. He said the most terrifying night of his life was the last night in Angola. He, my grandmother and my aunt crouched under a window frame while rebels fired through the window over their heads.

They went back to Canada long enough to raise funds for the passage, and then they went back. My grandfather went ahead to the Belgian Congo, across the border from Angola. My grandmother had my dad and then brought the children to join him. My grandfather build a trade college, a hospital, and a seminary, so that the refugees who were walking through the jungle away from Angola could make new lives in a new country. He taught at the trade college and distributed seed for the UN, while my grandmother taught an elementary school.

My grandfather had dementia, and his funeral was yesterday. I was not able to attend.

We knew it was coming, and we knew that his body was failing for some days before. I keep finding myself doing small, repudiative and analytic tasks– like making lists. (That would be the explanation both for this post and the ones I’ve put up in the last week.) I had a longer posts prepared wherein I blathered  about my reaction, but this blog post isn’t about me. It’s about my grandfather.

It’s about my hard-working, ferociously intelligent, taciturn, faithful, dedicated, practical grandfather. My grandfather could work you into the ground right up into his eighties. My grandfather built his own house when he retired. My grandfather lived through the depression and had a related lack of trust in banks. My grandfather told me that “sincere” came from sine cera— “without wax,” to indicate that a thing was true all the way down. It was a word with roots in Latin and Portuguese and woodworking.

When my little brother was dying, my father came up with the tradition of saying “see you tomorrow,” with the belief that we would meet again. For some of us it just might take longer to get through the day. So to my grandfather, who I love, and who I barely know, and who I am proud to think I am even a little bit like, even if it is only that I don’t talk much in the morning and also love etymology, see you tomorrow.

See you tomorrow. I’ll have a lot to tell you.