Earning It

I am mistress of procrastination. Madam of the misspent minute. I am a writer who has had the edits for my novel sitting here for a month. They are good edits, worthy of incorporating into the book, and I am thankful to have them. Yet in the past few, blissfully obligation-free days, I have tried almost anything to avoid editing.

I did most of my Christmas shopping on Amazon, and told myself it was to save money with the Black Friday deals. I have walked the dogs in the rain, and told myself it was to prevent them from bothering me when I sat down to edit. I have let a sip of wine become a glass,  become an evening watching movies. I have gone out in search of the perfect jasmine green tea, despite the fact I cannot read the Chinese, Japanese, or Korean on any of the packaging. I have taken naps. Long naps. Hour devouring naps. I have walked the dogs, again. I went back to Amazon and started looking for new welcome mats because, well, it’s hard to edit knowing that the Texas sun has had its way with the welcome mats and left them brittle and faded. I logged onto my non-writer Facebook profile for the first time in months. I visited etsy, to do more holiday shopping (no deals there, too bad). I did the laundry. I painted my nails. I swept the floors. I drifted over to other writers’ blogs and left comments. I have opened this post and started typing.

I am on page 155 of 259.

you earned this!

My youngest nephew, who was here for Thanksgiving, brought along a golden Buddha statue for me. The Buddha was a gift given to his father, and I will be returning it when we make the pilgrimage to their home for Christmas, but for now Buddha is keeping me company. When I asked my four-year old nephew why he brought me a Buddha, he said, “You have earned this!”

I’m earning it now, Jazzy, I promise.  I intend to finish this final revision by the end of Sunday, 12.04.11. Send me luck, links to cute welcome mats, and any hints you have on where to find the best jasmine green tea!

 

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Perfection Killed the Dinner Party

Part Six

How to Complete a Novel

Tonight friends are coming over to your house for dinner. You had every intention of getting the house cleaned and doing the grocery shopping yesterday, but you spent the whole day beautifying the yard. Never mind the fact that your guests will arrive after dark and no one will see your effort. You just couldn’t stop yourself; you moved from task to task, and each new task led to another unanticipated task until the day was consumed by work unrelated to the upcoming dinner party. Now it is the aching dawn of party day and you’re forcing your tired body to mop the floor. The radio is  tuned to the local indie station. Mellow  rhythms intended to sooth hangover regrets seep into the mop’s wet patterns. A bit of relaxation steals into your soul; you have all day to finish your chores, purchase food, and cook a meal to astound an epicure. Then your dogs come crashing in through their dog door, tracking dirt across the Nirvana clean of your floor. Relaxation? Gone. Anger, frustration, and fear that you won’t have everything done in time? Oh, yeah.

worst dinner party. ever.

I’ve just described myself, circa 2009. I have always had perfectionist leanings, but as I moved into my thirties, those leanings morphed into something closer to a disability. In my quest to achieve absolute completion of any given task, I failed to enjoy the activity of accomplishment or reap any benefits from my unending quest.  I have a real thing for cleanliness and order, and life has a real thing for entropy! I was taking on the universe and losing on every front.

In the party prep scenario, the pressure stems from believing I can create the perfect experience for my guests. I want them to arrive to a house that has a manicured front lawn, even if they will have to intuit it rather than actually see. I want the inside of the house to be so clean that if they were to move the sofa or look under the cushions, they could find no fault with my housekeeping. I wanted to prepare not just a good meal, but one that would ‘astound an epicure’.  I was insane.

Friends don’t come to your house to find fault. The come to spend time, hopefully to laugh a bit, eat some good food, drink some wine, and  to enjoy the company of other people outside the proscribed lockstep of corporate structure. Real friends come to see you and would rather you have fun with them than spend the whole evening striving for some heavenly concerto of expertly timed food service.

Do I think you should leave the stuffed animal guts and the chewed sticks the dogs brought in scattered on the floor? Or dirty dishes piled in the sink? No. But I also think it’s okay to “settle” for a tidy yard rather than a perfectly landscaped one, a clean house rather than a figgen monument to OCD, a wholesome and tasty meal rather than an elaborate feast that does more to showcase your talent than give people something they really want to eat. The environment and the food are accompaniments to the fellowship. Don’t allow the cleaning and cooking to suck the enjoyment out of having house guests or you will stop inviting people to dinner. Most of us want to avoid stress, but it’s important to identify the difference between negative stress and positive eustress.  The stress associated with preparing for an evening of conversation and friendship should be one of anticipation and excitement rather than a fear of failure.

As you might have guessed, the sixth suggestion I have on how to complete a novel is:

Step Back from Perfection

Perfection is the enemy of good enough.

The phrase is a slight misquote of Voltaire, and it is one I often hear software developers repeat. What they mean is that producing bug-free software is impossible, and that finding and fixing the last 20% of edge case bugs isn’t worth the cost that will be incurred by delaying the product ship. This maxim can be applied to writing. Do not aim for perfection in the first draft. In fact, don’t aim for perfection. Instead, work to make each revision better than the last in ways that you can express clearly to yourself or anyone who might ask. Unburdened by the impossible goal of perfection, you can enjoy the process of writing. Give yourself permission to make the ‘mistakes’ that will lead you to things greater and more creative than the narrow confines of perfection.

Check back soon for another post in my ‘How to Complete A Novel’ series!

 

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Odds’n’Ends

Comment spam is really something! I have received spambot messages extolling my insight, articulation, and brilliance. Then they try to sell me the GUCCI LOUIS VUITTON ELECTRIC CIGARETTE ANTIDEPRESSANTS and I realize spambots talk like that to all the blogging girls. Despite feeling a bit cheapened by the experience, I still find some linguistic gems hidden in the broken, discordant and illogical messages.  Here are a couple of examples:

“… mimics the act of tobacco smoking from building a inhaling air supporting this real emotion.” No way!?  Not only do these e-cigs have “novelty, seasonings, and maybe overstated claims regarding safeness,” they build an inhaling air supporting real emotion!

Another spambot tells me that “Both girls and boys really feel the impression of just a moment’s pleasure, for the remainder of their lives.” This could have been the dark conclusion to an ad for condoms, or the happy conclusion to a dating site ad, but I think they were trying to peddle antidepressants. I don’t know about you, but a complete lack of clarity in any advertisement makes me want to approve their link as a comment on my blog & go to their site &  friend them on Facebook & follow them on Twitter me & invite them over for dinner!

Penrose tiling via Wikipedia

When not engaged with Philosophy of Mind, Penrose does math things.

When I’m not partaking of spammy goodness, I’m reading The Emperor’s New Mind by Roger Penrose, physicist.  Penrose takes a stance against proponents of strong artificial intelligence (AI) circa 1989. To oversimplify, strong AI holds that the act of performing an algorithm is synonymous with understanding. If a sufficiently complex algorithm could be created , and if there were computational machinery that could carry out the algorithm, strong AI would hold that the machine would experience an understanding indistinguishable from the understanding of a human mind carrying out the same algorithm. Penrose found this viewpoint to be absurd as well as dangerous, at least in the sense that it would distract research away from areas that might reveal something closer to the essential truth of mind. I’m only into the book about 40 very slowly read and very densely intellectual pages, but already I’m hooked. That’s a good thing, considering this is research for my next novel. I think that after finishing The Emperor’s New Mind, I’ll skip ahead a couple of decades in philosophical inquiry and read everything I can by Nick Bostrom and other members of the Future of Humanity Institute. Ray Kurtzweil, some robotics, a bit of William Gibson and I’ll be as ready as I can be to write. This is going to be fun!

I am also reading The Imaginings by Paul D. Dail. I don’t want to give away any spoilers, but there are scenes that take place in the underground tunnels of a partially constructed, possibly cursed mansion  that combine psychological anxiety and good, old-fashioned scary. I haven’t joined GoodReads yet (shame on me, I know, but Facebook just about broke my spirit and made me wish I could write novels for a different species), but I plan to join and make a review of The Imaginings one of my two first reviews of indie horror. The other book I am going to review? The Well, by Peter Labrow. He manages to combine so many different types of scary without losing sight of the humanity of his characters.  I read (half of) another indie horror book by a big-name in the biz and that one didn’t come close to matching the complexity or creepiness of either The Imaginings or The Well. Yet another reminder that big sales don’t mean big time enjoyment for this humble reader.

I need to start updating my manuscript with the edits I got back from my efficient, friendly, and very professional copy editor. Why am I dragging my feet, ya’ll?

“The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.”

– William Gibson, opening line of Neuromancer.

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Can I borrow your hotel?

Part Five

How to Complete a Novel

Quick, how many movies can you think of where the main character is a writer who goes someplace isolated in hopes of getting something written? Three that came to my mind are Deadline, Half Light, and The Shining. How many people do you know in real life who have an isolated cabin or entire hotel they can borrow when they need a little space to write?

I couldn’t think of any, either.

I can think of writers who have come up with creative solutions to the problem of finding a physical space to use as a writing area. I have heard of writers who use the tiny balcony on their apartment, writers who journey to a favorite coffee shop, writers who rent a space in a communal writer’s loft, and writers who are fortunate and persistent enough to get accepted to a colony for uninterrupted months of writing. I have my own ‘office’ now, but there was a time when I did not because my husband and I lived in a small apartment. My solution was not to find someplace outside of our apartment, but to use the space we did have at different times. Like timing  when to leave the house in order to miss rush hour, I timed my writing sessions to occur when I could take over the shared spaces in our house and treat them as my own. It was an effective solution, although I still harbor Yaddo dreams. That might even more awesome than having an entire haunted hotel in a remote and snowy location!

Physical space is not the only external condition that must be satisfied before you can write successfully. It is one of the most obvious, though, and can present a real obstacle to getting started on and completing your novel.  The fifth suggestion I can make on how to complete a novel is :

Identify Resources

Resources come in many forms:  space, time, software, human, and financial. If you know that you’ll need to do most of your writing on the subway, then you have identified you need a portable writing device which, yes, can be as fancy as pen and paper. If you know that you can’t stop yourself from surfing the net during your writing time, you’ve identified that you either need a writing spot with no connectivity or a program that locks you out of the internet. If you know that you won’t have time to mow the lawn and do your writing, you’ve identified that you need to ask for help. When it comes to publishing, figure out what funds you will need. Most importantly, identify the people you can go to for encouragement or a swift kick in the pants, because you’ll need both at some point or another when writing your novel.

Check back soon for another post in my ‘How to Complete A Novel’ series!

 

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Expectations, East and Elsewhere

Society provides us with a variety of canned expectations that we are acculturated into accepting as our own. Take the expectation that a long term relationship will end in marriage and children.What about the expectation that hard work will result in promotions? There are a slew of writing-related expectations, too: that you need an agent, that publishing only counts if it’s traditional, that you should write what sells. How many of these things do you want or believe, in and of yourself, separate from what society has programmed you to think?

I have a day job. My choice is to limit my emotional and time investment in my career and put more effort into my true calling, writing. Most of the year, I don’t question this; I agree with Joseph Campbell that “your art is what you would call your work” and “your employment is your job.”* Then my boss gives me my Annual Performance Review. The experience triggers an upwelling of self-doubt and even shame. If it is my choice to do my job well, but not pursue any definite paths to advancement, where does my discontent originate? Why does the review make me feel bad about living and working the way I feel is right for me?

When I was in college, I worked at the dining hall. After one year, I decided to apply for the position of supervisor.  I went to the interview and was sent an odd rejection letter. I kept the letter because I was outraged by it, but now I realize that my interviewer saw a truth about my nineteen year old self that I struggle with to this day. I quote:

“You have proven to be an excellent addition to the Dining Hall staff. However, it seemed in your interview there were two Anikos, one to the East — confident and eloquent, and one someplace else — uncomfortable with the image of you as a figure of authority and longing to escape.”

I am East and elsewhere. I have always lived with this division, and it is only recently that I have begun to understand the problem. On most days, I feel like I’m living my life very well because I manage to stay true to my core values and still make money working in a fun environment with great people. Then comes my review. It forces me to measure myself on the Eastern scale of my employer. My lack of advancement stings because I am internalizing society’s  expectations of how life is ‘supposed’ to go. I feel pain because I am applying a system of measurement that I have already chosen to reject.

I should not succumb to the dark euphoria of pitying self-flagellation when I do not measure up to an arbitrary standard I was never even trying to reach. It’s easy to whine and rage and flail. It is difficult to accept the call to follow one’s own path. Ultimately, I know that that my real reward is to live my life in accordance to my own truths, not a canned set of aspirations. I remind myself of what Epictetus wrote, “Men are disturbed not by things, but by the views which they take of things.” I am bothered by viewing myself from a corporate perspective, not by some real problem with me. I may be capable of being ‘East,’ but ‘elsewhere’ is my true place.

Turmoil and angst are generated by focusing your attention through a framework that is a mismatch for your core values. I think this is why so many writers struggle with the decision to go indie. There has long been the idea that publishing is only legitimatized if a work is carried by one of the big New York houses. This was the case in the past merely because there was no other affordable avenue to publication and distribution. Yes, many writers or supporters of writers started their own small presses: Bill Bird’s Three Mountain Press and the Woolfs’ Hogarth Press are two examples. Today you don’t even have to bother with buying and operating a hand-operated press; you can format your novel on a cheap laptop and set it up for publishing on demand or deliver it to readers electronically. The reality of publishing has changed, but societal expectations and judgment are slower to adjust course than is the technology that sweeps us into an egalitarian publishing era. I know the most common question I get when I mention my novel is, “So you found a publisher?” Lay people and writers alike are struggling with the perspective shift. The important thing is to be aware of the expectations, perspective, and framework you are using when you evaluate your choices for publication. Distinguish between you want and those expectations that have been sold to you as being what you “should” want. Then do what is right for you as an author.

Sources:

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She pitches and… scores?

light, tunnel?

I have been working on my novel pitch. I expect to use the pitch for my back cover material and as the ‘product description’ for online vendors. This is important, especially at the outset and before there are many reviews, because the cover and the pitch are the two pieces of information that will be available to help readers decide if they want to read STOLEN CLIMATES. You all have been helpful in giving me suggestions, but I would like to acknowledge Meg, Paul and Nick for their specific contributions. I think I have something that incorporates all of the good bits from the 5-sentence pitches and cuts out the wordiness of my initial attempt. Please drop me a comment and let me know what you think! Without further ado or any more of my agonizing, here is the revised pitch:

Genny thought her hallucinations were from lack of sleep. Then her daughter started hearing the trees talking, too. Now they are being hunted by a cult who wants to use them in a deadly ritual to ensure the continuation of ancient ways. Their only hope of escape is a single ax and an acquaintance with his own set of debilitating issues. As Summer Solstice nears, carnivorous vines grow out of control, the sacred orchard dies of blight, and it isn’t safe after dark.

Mother Nature isn’t just a metaphor.

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The Moon and the Runner’s Lie

Part Four

How to Complete a Novel

my moon!

I am 34 years, 7 months and 7 days old.  In my lifetime, the moon has passed through her phases approximately 451 times. As a child, the moon followed me everywhere. It didn’t matter if I was in the United States or somewhere in Germany, the moon was always chasing along behind me. As an adolescent, I appreciated the light of a full moon, but came to understand the regenerative power of the solitary darkness represented by the new moon. As a woman, I learned to correlate my body’s moods and cravings with the moon. As a dog owner, I learned that it is true what they say: dogs do howl at a full moon. They howl, they bark, and they mistakenly think it is breakfast time at 3AM. As a dreamer, I imagine going to the moon. I imagine that I can breathe there, that there is the perfect still like that experienced during the early morning hours after a tremendous snow storm. As a writer, I track the moon’s passage across the bit of sky I can see from my writing desk. I say hello to the moon whenever I see her, even if there are other people around and especially if she is making her crossing during the daylight hours.

The moon and I, we go way back.

Back even to that once upon a time when I was a distance runner. When you run more than six or seven miles, especially if you are a slow runner like I was, you learn that there are certain things you must take into account. First, you need to refuel: liquids, simple sugars.  Second, you need a way to keep yourself going when it gets boring or tough. I found that by combining the two needs, I could break a long run into smaller segments that gave me something close enough to attain and far enough to keep me putting one foot in front of the other.  When I completed a segment, there was the reward of fuel. On days when I felt strong and light, that was enough. On bad days when it felt like an impossible effort to go a mile, let alone ten, the segments were too far apart to keep desperation from setting in; I had to come up with another tactic. That is when I learned to lie to myself.

Surprised? I was, too. Both that I could be so convincing and that it would work. Before I describe my technique,  I want to note that none of this applies if you are sick or injured! Unless you are being chased by some terribly trite horror movie villain,  push through discomfort but stop if you feel pain. Otherwise, go ahead and lie to yourself. Tell yourself that you only have to run to the next stop sign and that once you get there, you can walk the rest of the way. If you have to, promise yourself that when you get to the stop sign, you never have to run again, period. Then, when you get to the sign, check in with your body. Is it complaining, or is it just your will that’s flagging? If your body still feels strong, lie again. Tell yourself you only have to make it to your next refueling station, and then you can quit for the day. Lie, run, repeat until you cross the finish line. I logged hundreds of miles using this technique. It’s useful for other tedious tasks, too, like reformatting the chapters in your book in preparation for print or making it through reading a novel you don’t love, but want to finish because you appreciate what the author is trying to do.

In the first post of this series, we began by visualizing the final phase of the writing project. Then we shared our dream with others and negotiated the time and space in which to complete our work. Now it is time to define intermediate phases that give you something to work towards and that you can use as a lifeline. You can base project phases, or milestones, on word count, pages, chapters, scenes or whatever works best to motivate you. Once you decide on the ‘phases,’ choose  a way to reward yourself. Although you can, you don’t have to pick the actual form of the reward at the outset; just commit to doing something to celebrate the completion of each phase. I like to choose my reward when I reach the milestone, mostly because my desires and moods are mercurial! White wine sounds good now, but I might want beer by the time I finish the next three chapters! If writing to the end of the first phase seems daunting, employ a variant of the runner’s lie and tell yourself you only have to write one chapter. If that is overwhelming, tell yourself you only have to write one paragraph. If it seems like the pressure to write a perfect first sentence is overwhelming, tell yourself you’re just penning a  practice sentence, and don’t have to consider it the one, true First Sentence. Tell yourself whatever you have to in order to get yourself writing. You’ll reach your milestones and get pretty good at coming up with delectable rewards, too!

As you may have guessed, the fourth suggestion of How to Complete a Novel is:

Define Milestone Events

No matter how monolithic a project appears, it can always be broken into phases. In writing a novel, you can define initial phases by draft. Later phases might include getting a copy edit, working with a cover designer, or sending agent queries. Decide in advance what you want to consider a milestone event. It relieves a lot of psychological pressure if you can focus on a smaller goal with a shorter in timeframe that won’t overwhelm or discourage you.

Check back soon for another post in my ‘How to Complete A Novel’ series!

 

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