Here’s an important creative lesson that I learned a long time ago but still often forget: Drop your pen the second that applying the finishing touches turns into fussing.
Contrary to what this portrait of him implies, my bun buddy Frodo is a fairly light sandy brown. This must be his goth persona. I got mad about the proportions of his head and couldn’t let it go, and the more I worked to try and fix it, the more definition got lost in all the shading. I don’t hate it, but I do think it was better before I tried to fix it.
This probably applies to just about every creative endeavor, although not all art forms are so mercilessly devoid of delete keys. Part of what I love about pen and ink drawing is that, no matter what happens, there’s no going back. You can only move forward or stop. It’s the knowing when to stop part that can sometimes be a challenge. Or, actually stopping when you know you should, which is more often the case for me. I can usually feel the moment when I start fussing, but sometimes I lie to myself about how if I just darken a few shadows and add a few extra details it’ll be even more finished than it is now.
I am almost always wrong. Once a thing is finished, fussing usually doesn’t make it better. It’s as good as it will be. Maybe it’s as good as it should be.
I don’t know how to define the line between editing and fussing, but I’m certain that a lot more cool art and stories would reach the outside world if there was some sort of magic invisible hand that slapped the pens out of our hands whenever we crossed it.
I’ve been walking a lot more, lately. It seems kinda vital to take advantage of these last bits of nice weather before things get truly wintery and unpleasant. Walking is my favorite form of exercise, and it’s been recommended by a surprising number of successful writers throughout history as a form of meditation when inspiration is lagging. It’s peaceful, the scenery provides stimulation for the imagination, and moving around is generally pretty good for the whole system. I’ve known for a long time that people with ADHD in particular tend to have better focus when they get exercise, but it has to be somewhat consistent to be effective, and consistency is difficult when you’ve got ADHD. Somehow, though, I’ve managed to get something like a routine established.
There’s a beautiful bike path around a lake near my place, and I love going out there, even though my dogs absolutely lose their tiny minds at the sight of all the fat and insolent squirrels who taunt them from the sides of the trail. It takes us a lazy hour and a half to go around the lake, and I don’t usually spend the time specifically thinking about anything in particular. I think it’s been helping with my general mental clarity, which makes it easier to choose to keep going out, and to make choices about what to do with my time without getting overwhelmed. I’ve always unconsciously classified walking in pretty places as “the stuff I do when I should probably be doing the dishes or writing.”
That was not great. Jogging around the neighborhood will never be my thing, even if it might seem more efficient, or like a “better” form of exercise, or whatever other judgement I had in the back of my mind about the whole thing. It’s boring, it hurts, and my dogs would rather tie their leash into a bow around my legs than trot faithfully at my side. It just doesn’t work for me, but walking in a spot with some good trees and water does, and I can do it for a long time before I get bored or tired.
We’re often taught a very adversarial approach to exercising our bodies, but healthy movement really doesn’t have to be any kind of a punishment to be beneficial.
There’s a lot of debate about the merits of daily writing. It’s definitely good to write regularly, and writing every day basically guarantees more rapid improvement than if you only rarely make time for it. There are some ableism issues if it’s framed as the best or only way, since many people literally cannot write every day. Lots of the arguments against it sort of boil down to “but then it’ll feel like work.” If you’re trying to make writing a career, then letting it feel like work is probably a necessary part of that. If not, then it’s probably just fine for it to be a fun hobby that you only do when you feel like it. I think a lot of the time the issue is when people don’t want writing to feel like work, but do want to improve dramatically and be “successful” without putting in the effort.
I’m kind of stuck in a weird middle place. I struggle to finish projects, and I always have. Finishing my first, first draft was one of the biggest accomplishments of my life. It took a huge amount of dedication, and I’m proud of it when I remind myself to be, but I still didn’t work consistently and I constantly got down on myself for that. It took a lot longer than it could have. Feeling guilty about not writing consistently made me want to quit, pretty much every day. I was probably more consistent about berating myself for not writing than I was about writing, which I would not recommend as a motivation strategy. It is less than effective.
I’ve always had really nasty drops in mood because of depression and they randomly knock me on my ass. I used to (and still sometimes do) fantasize about not bothering to get back up because it’s just exhausting to know that it’ll happen again and again, but I always do get up. The weight just lifts, or the right person says the right thing, or the right song comes on, and I manage to tweak my mental state back into something functional. I’ve developed tricks that help, if I remember them when I need them which is never guaranteed. My dogs help, because the imminent threat of floor wetting and canine starvation is motivating in a way that kind of sidesteps my emotional issues and gets me into pants and a shirt and usually shoes.
One shitty thing about mental illness is that it makes things impossible, but they never feel like they should be impossible. I don’t sit in front of the laptop scrolling mindlessly through Facebook for hours because I know for a fact that I can’t write. I always feel like I’m just on the cusp of working. It might be executive dysfunction stopping me, but physically I could do it. My hands are on the keyboard. The manuscript is there. The fact that looking at it for a few seconds made me feel sick and panicky doesn’t register as anything other than weakness. I have no perfect or even consistent solution for this problem, really.
Building a habit helps, because it lowers the initiation energy required to get moving. It’s hard to build a habit, though, and easy to break it. Building a habit requires consistent effort in the first place, which is unbelievably draining if you’re already dealing with mental illness.
Sometimes I can just push through it, usually around 3am, and then I’m often surprised by how easy it feels once I get into the zone. Then, the next day, I’m shocked by how hard it is when the flow doesn’t come.
Prioritizing writing over basically all my other tasks feels impossible, but it seems to be one of the biggest barriers I’m facing right now. It’s a little easier to take out the trash and do the dishes than write a challenging scene, but if I try to do all three in a day, writing is almost always the thing that gets bumped off the list when I run out of energy. If I have to socialize, that burns me out, but I don’t want to admit that or disappoint people.
The only really solid advice I can offer to anyone who wants to write but is dealing with something like this is not to let it stop you from picking the story back up again, no matter how long you stall, or how bad you think it is, or how disappointed you are in yourself for missing those days or weeks or months in between. I’d love to be able to write every day. Maybe someday I will, because I have been slowly improving my skills and reorganizing my life and I have supportive partners who encourage me, for which I’m really grateful. But for now, just picking it up again after a week of feeling miserable about it is more important than doing it every day. It’s been a while since I went a month without working, and I think part of the reason for that is I don’t spiral quite as hard into all the guilt and feeling bad about it. I’ve made a conscious effort to prioritize something over perfect or even good, even though that idea feels like nails on a chalkboard to my brain.
I wasted a whole day on Minecraft and laundry, but Somnolence is sitting there at the bottom of my to-do list, do I:
A. Tell myself I’m garbage and stay up super late to punish myself?
B. Promise myself I’ll do it tomorrow and write today off as a lost cause?
C. Literally open it for five minutes and rewrite one sentence so I can cross it off my list?
It’s silly, but C is usually the most daunting option for me because it means facing that scary mountain of stuff I need to do and just doing this one tiny, inadequate, little thing and every part of my personality rebells at that. A sentence is still better than nothing, though. I don’t write every day, but I have managed to produce a blog post, albeit often an embarrassing full day late, every week for a few months now. Late is better than nothing, too. The only way to guarantee that it never gets done is to put it down and never pick it up again, but every day is another chance to try again. If I pick it up again enough times it will eventually be complete, and that is truly the best I can do right now.
P.S. I did not feel like I had any thoughts to share when I opened the page to write this. I thought it would just be crap, but damnit, I showed up with my crap anyway and I’m proud of that.
P.P.S. The breed history in that Frida Kahlo link is totally wrong, but it has cute pictures of her and her pups.
Recently, someone in a writing group I follow asked for advice on good words to use when writing a sex scene. They got a lot of answers, many of which could be broken down into two categories: strangely clinical* and childish euphemisms. I feel like it all missed the point, though.
Even beginning writers generally know that they need to develop a distinct voice for each character. Failing this, the characters all sound exactly alike and it won’t be believable. A teenager probably shouldn’t sound the same as a fifty-year-old ex-mercenary. Although, if they do, that could be a pretty distinct character voice right there, provided they’re surrounded by people with contrasting speaking styles.
I think the issue when it comes to writing sexy scenes is that people get nervous and stiffen up. (Heh.) They’re afraid they’ll sound silly, or they’re afraid the subject matter itself will spark a negative response, and they want to word it perfectly. It’s also kind of hard to toe the line between a sexy, romantic scene and straight up porn. Not that there’s anything wrong with the latter, but it may not be what the writer is going for. I’m sure a list of suggestions can be very helpful in this situation, but it won’t do to just pick and choose an array of words that sound good to the writer.
The writer is piloting the characters, and the characters still need to sound like themselves. Even if the story is in third person, it’s best to use words that the POV (point of view) character might use. This draws the reader in and makes them feel close to that character. It sets the tone. There are times when distancing the reader is fine, but a romantic or sexy scene really isn’t one of them. That’s exactly when you want that closeness, so the reader is emotionally invested in what’s going on.
In first person, this is even more vital. The writer absolutely has to choose words that suit the character. It makes no sense for them to switch into a different mode as soon as things start to get steamy. The biker can’t go from cursing the air blue to referring to their partner’s genitals as their “tenderness.” It’s just weird. If the character would use terms that make the author uncomfortable, the author is gonna have to deal with that or wind up creating a very inconsistent narrative. The words should also go together well. Switching tone mid-scene is confusing and will push the reader out of immersion.
So, what would the character say? That’s it. Asking around for inspiration is great, but it all has to be filtered through the character in the end.
* Anatomy tip: The vagina is on the inside and the vulva is on the outside. Unless there’s penetration involved, no one is doing anything to the vagina. I was a little concerned by the number of people who suggested penis and vagina as the only terms any writer really needs for a solid sex scene. For a number of reasons.
It seems extremely odd to me that handy little lists off of Tumblr, such as this one below, inspire as much ire as they do from members of the writing community.
Few things seem to piss off some writers more than telling them, even indirectly, that, while they’ve diligently studied the art of creating a solid story arc and researched medieval warfare extensively, their lesbian character might need some serious work to be anything other than a walking cliche. For some reason, every other aspect of writing is craft, and we generally accept that we should work hard on it to improve, but when it comes to characters and world-building, suddenly it’s all down to the ineffable and unquestionable work of the muse.
It’s interesting to note that the aspects of writing which are most rigid and subject to strict judgement are the parts that make it more difficult to succeed if you’ve not had access to an extensive education, you don’t have the funds to hire an editor, or your habitual speech patterns aren’t considered “proper english.” It’s also interesting to note that the areas where creativity and the muse are allowed to reign supreme are the parts that make it easy for those with social privilege to ignore the real experiences of people unlike themselves, while still using their identities as spice for their fiction. This indulgence allows writers to freely rely on lazy stereotypes and racist, sexist, homophobic, ableist narratives because art.
The thing is, the characters who pop into your head are not coming from some magical artistic inspiration. It’s your brain that cooks ’em up, and when they pop into your conscious mind already formed, it was your unconscious expectations and cultural programming that made them what they are. That means that, in spite of all the little details you may change to make them interesting, they’re just different pieces of you and your experience. If your only experience of asexuals is seeing them portrayed as damaged or confused, you’re going to be inclined to default to that tired, harmful trope. This does a disservice to everyone. Stereotypes are boring, they hurt vulnerable people, and they drag down the quality of their creator’s otherwise hard work.
In response to these helpful but oddly controversial lists of suggestions and warnings, the advice I often see is to ignore all that SJW crap and to just write the person first and then basically slap the label you want on top of the personality you’ve created. I think the basic intention here might be good. You don’t want to fall into the trap of making your character’s entire personality revolve around one aspect of their identity. The opposite pitfall, though, lies in the myth of the “real” person hiding underneath all the things that make people unique. Every aspect of every person affects their view of the world, including whiteness, maleness, heterosexuality, being able bodied, and all the other default character settings that too often go unchallenged. Yes, we all share a great deal in common and we can draw from that, but there’s an important difference between trying to imagine someone else’s experience so you can empathize with them, and imagining that they’re really just like you underneath all the things that make them who they are. Doing the latter results in characters that have maybe stretched a little, but can’t be much more than reflections of the way you already see the world. Doing the former involves listening to the lived experiences of others and respecting what they say, and it opens up a whole realm of possibilities you literally couldn’t have come up with on your own. That’s where the magic can really happen.
It’s probably equally scary to share a finished manuscript with people, but I haven’t had that pleasure yet. Two of my beta readers finished reading last week within a few days of each other, and that’s the first time anyone other than me has read the whole thing through. My readers are super awesome people, and all the feedback I’ve gotten so far as been really constructive and helpful, but I still get this little jolt of panic every time I see an update from one of them.
I feel like this whole process is a crash course in developing stronger confidence, though. Not because anyone has been anything less than helpful so far, but because showing it to anyone when I know it’s nowhere near finished was a pretty difficult step for me. Handing it over to the editor was similarly intimidating, even though it’s literally her job to take unfinished things and help develop them into better things. Every step is gonna be scarier than the last, but that seems like a good thing in the long run. It’s hard to make good art while also being too scared to take risks.
Plus, without the risk it’s not possible to get the super sweet responses that make it feel totally worthwhile. ❤
While I wait for Somnolence to come back from the editor, I’m working on some older projects. At the moment, I’m organizing a story that I started during national novel writing month a few years ago. I did get to around 50,000 words only to discover that I actually had two books worth of story on my hands, and I had only written about half of each of them.
I’ve been using Scrivener for a while, now. It has tons of features, many of which I’m sure I haven’t figured out yet. At the moment, I’m using it for outlining the material I’ve already produced and filling in the blank spaces. It allows me to make a virtual cork-board and to organize my plot points on it as little index cards. It’s pretty cute, and it works nicely.
Behold, this beautiful sample creation.
*Obviously, I don’t own these lyrics. They’re from Crazy Ex Girlfriend, which is the hilarious creation of Rachel Bloom. I watch a lot of TV. Like, a lot. Too much.