On “Leveling up” as a Writer

As an RPG player of long standing, as well as a video game-lover, the concept of “leveling up” is never far from my brain.  When I finished my first year of teaching, I called it “leveling up.”  There’s some truth to it; every year brings new skills, new ideas.  And not just annually; leveling up can happen mid-year, too.

As a writer, I’ve always thought of a sale as the obvious first “ding” to signal a new level.  Then I went to VP, which was a level-up, as I learned new skills and made some valuable contacts (mostly with fellow students, without whom I would still be trying to finish The Widening Gyre.

So, now that I’ve signed a contract, that’s a ding, right?  Right.  And now I’ve reached a new level of enlightenment about writing professionally, right?

Well, no, not so much.

I mean, yes, If I’m being honest, there’s some nifty “taking myself seriously” going on, where I’m no longer telling myself the book is terrible and nobody will ever like it.  But at the same time, now I have all sorts of new problems to figure out.

When my sorcerer hits a new level, he gets some new spells, he learns some new things, and he’s generally more powerful.  But he doesn’t usually end up with a series of new questions, at least not as part of his new level.

But now that I have a publisher, and an editor, and a contract that lays out certain things, I’m worried about new things.  Like… at what point do I add things like a dedication and acknowledgements?  When do I pitch book 2?  Right after I plot it out and write up a synopsis?  When it’s finished?  Or do I wait and see how Book 1 does in the marketplace to see if there’s even a point to writing it?

My editor is saved from dealing with my neurotic BS by the fact that I know he’s super busy prepping for the Imprint’s big roll out of the new titles beginning in September.  And I’m waiting for the edits on TWG before I do anything else.  Get that one “in the can,” so to speak.  But it’s still all spinning around and around in my head.

So.  Level up, but be wary–just like in RPGs, the battles aren’t over yet.

Life After Viable Paradise – One Writer’s Path

The first few weeks–maybe even months–after I got home from Viable Paradise 17, I was filled with a righteous fire for writing.  Anything that got in the way of writing was crap.  I k

Viable Paradise 17. I’m the goober in the top row, second from the left, standing next to Beth Tanner. You probably know her.

new–KNEW–that it was only a matter of time before I would be signing copies of my book.

You really can’t sustain that level of hellfire.  Well, I can’t, at any rate.   That’s not to say VP left me with unrealistic goals–but I created for myself some unrealistic expectations.

As the instructors took pains to tell us, several times, Viable Paradise is not the Easy Button.  It’d be damned nice if it were, and I’m fairly certain the instructors would be just as stoked for that as the students, but publishing simply doesn’t work that way.  Even the best among us took some time to get a story published, and one of the best writers in my class (my opinion, of course) is still writing her book.  Me?  Nada.  I am still a Nobody in the writing world.  No short story I’ve sent out has been published.

As for novels, I finished mine; the third one I’ve ever written, but the first one that wasn’t pure shit.  And as I’ve rather irritatingly chronicled here, it isn’t really going anywhere yet.  Maybe it stinks, or maybe it just hasn’t found the right agent.  But the bottom line is, it’s still sitting here, unread by all but one publisher, and they gave me a form rejection.

That doesn’t mean I’m awful–but it does mean that, VP grad or not, I have the same steep hill of probability to climb as any other writer.  I have to do the same slog through Agent Search Hell that any other writer does, just as every VP student before me, and every one after me, will have to do.

Aside from that, there’s the whole “living your life” thing to do, as well.  I know some writers like to go on about how, if you want to write, you will Do Whatever You Have To to write, but the truth is, very few writers can afford to do that.  Most of us have Things We Must Do. Sooner or later, the student work you haven’t graded demands your attention.  Your daughter* still wants to play Lego Marvel with you, and she won’t understand that your book needs to be written NOW.  And of course, your spouse needs your attention, too, as do your friends.  You can put them off sometimes, but not often.  Unless, of course, you want a divorce, which… let’s just assume you don’t.  Who needs that?

In my case, I found ways to cope with the demands of life but still manage to write.  I go to the coffee shop some nights after dinner, and write.  I try to get up early on the weekend and write a bit before my daughter wakes up and fills my house with the ungodly voices of YouTube.  I take occasional–very occasional, in my case–weekend retreats on my own to write in a nice, clean, quiet hotel room (I want to do that one more often, but it gets set aside by Things We Must Do).  And, of course, as a public school teacher, I do get some time in the summer to write (and take care of my daughter, who is of course also on vacation at that time).

Anyway, the trick to surviving life after Viable Paradise is twofold: First, you have to recognize the realities of the writing life, and manage your expectations of how quickly you’re going to hit the shelves (if ever).  Second, you have to find a way to balance your life between work, family, and the needs of the muse.  Is it easy?  No.  But what else are you going to do?


*Or son. Or cat, if yours is sufficiently evolved to have opposable thumbs.  Not dogs, though.  They don’t appreciate Marvel Comics. They’re more into Image**

**Yes yes, your dog appreciates Marvel and thinks Liefeld is a terrible artist.  But most dogs think Liefeld is the shit.  So, y’know.  Ew.

What Impostor Syndrome Looks Like From The Inside

Impostor Syndrome, the belief that one is a fraud, sometimes hits a lot of writers.  Most of the writers I know, both professional and not, suffer from it from time to time.  I feel lately like I live there.  It makes writing very difficult–how can you focus on the work when you’re convinced you’re terrible at it?

I suffer from it both as a teacher and as a writer, but mostly as a writer.  And when I’m in the depths of Writer Impostor mode, these are the things that go through my mind  (In case it’s not obvious, I need to point out that every single one of these is BS and I know it):

  • I’m a hack.  My book sucks.
  • I’m not analytical enough.  All my friends are waxing eloquent about that book’s structure and plot and character, and I’m sitting here with my Literature degree thinking only “I liked it; it was a good story.”  How can I be a good writer if I don’t analyze everything I read like that?
  • Writing is hard.  It wouldn’t be this hard if I was any good.
  • Fuck (insert writer whose career I’m jealous of that day)
  • I’m good at grammar but I suck at everything else.
  • I am never going to be published.  What’s the point of bothering to put my soul into this if it isn’t going to go anywhere?
  • It would be easier to just stop and be a reader.
  • My ideas are all trite and unoriginal.
  • Taking a dump would be more productive than this writing session.
  • VP lied to me to get my money. The instructors all laughed about how bad I am.
  • All my VP classmates think I suck.  They just tell me it’s good because they like me.
  • They don’t even really like me.
  • I’m wasting time I could be doing something more fun chasing a dream that will never come true.  I’m a fool.

VP Directory Project

Fellow VPers! Some have expressed interest in a VP Alumni Directory. In an attempt to get that started, I’ve created a Google Form to collect data.

Required fields are Name, VP year, City, State, and Email. I didn’t think it was useful to let those be optional, though if people have an issue with that I can change it. Phone number is entirely optional (I didn’t put mine in).

The downside of this form is that it’s open to anyone with the link, but there’s just no way to control for that without requiring people to sign in to Google. I felt this way works.

Right now only I can see the results; my plan is to compile the information into a directory available only to VP Alums and Staff. If enough people would prefer the underlying spreadsheet be available I can do that, too.

If you have any suggestions or critique re: information sought, please do talk to me.

The form can be found at the end of this link.

Revision: How A Book Gets Better

So, I’m pretty sure this is a good book that I’m writing.  I mean, I don’t know for sure that it’s publishable, especially in the current condition, but I know it’s at least almost there.

And it’s getting better.

I’m now in Chapter 3 of the revision pass.  Last night, I saw that I ended one scene with the character leaping onto a vehicle and heading off to pick someone up, and then in the next scene, I begin when he gets there.  In reading these scenes, I realized that there’s a problem, and it’s kind of a big one:  The character makes a life-changing decision in the space between scenes.

Well, that’s clearly not going to work.  So I started writing what Jim Butcher calls a “sequel,” that is, a quiet scene in which the character reacts emotionally to the previous scene, works through his possible options, and makes choices.  They also allow (and even encourage) the reader to connect emotionally to the character.

In the process, I added several hundred words.  And I’m not even finished, yet.

It’s this ability to easily insert the scene that is why I love Scrivener so much.  Sure, I could do the same thing in Word or some other word processing software, but the way that Scrivener makes it easy is really something, and it doesn’t require me to reformat anything, move any text, or anything other than insert the scene where I want it and write.

The most important thing about this, though, has nothing to do with the tool I’m using.  It’s that even recognizing the lack means that I’m getting better as a writer.

And that’s precious.  That’s what I got from Viable Paradise, and it’s why I’ll keep telling people to apply until the day VP stops happening (may that day never come!).

VP Novel First Draft: DONE

Yep.  I did it.

Not the first novel-length thing I’ve done, but certainly the first that has ANY chance of being seen by other people.  Lots of work remains before that point, however.  I need a revision pass, then beta readers, and then another revision pass.  Then I’ll consider submitting it to agents.

This may not be the novel to get my career started, but I’m going to give it a shot.

I owe thanks to my Viable Paradise instructors, who enkindled in me the confidence to work on this novel with purpose, and not just fart around with it every once in a while, as I did before VP.

I owe thanks to my fellow students of Viable Paradise 17, who have steadfastly encouraged me and commiserated with me over the last year or so.  I realize I have a tendency toward the dramatic, but it is no exaggeration that without their encouragement, I may well have given up the very idea of being a writer over the past year, as I have so many times before.

Let this serve as encouragement to friends and other fellow writers who might be thinking of applying to VP: It’s well worth the money.  All in all, the week at VP cost me about $2000, between airfare, my room cost, and tuition.  And it was worth every single penny, and more beside, because not only did I get a chance to hobnob with people whose writing I’ve adored for years, but I got encouraging advice and critique from editors who are near, if not at, the top of their field, but I met 23 people who will be friends for years to come.

Viable Paradise 19 will be held 18-23 October, 2015.  Applications are accepted until 15 June 2015.  Go to www.viableparadise.net for details.

Viable Paradise: Day 3, Tuesday

The morning began with our breakout critique groups.  My roommate Alex was in my group, and she cried during her critique—but the good kind of tears, as her novel excerpt was amazing and everyone said so.  Not that it was perfect, but that it’s damned close.

The first lecture of the day was from Debra Doyle, on grammar and standard usage in fiction.  Not much there I didn’t already know, but then I teach this stuff. That said, I learned a few interesting things.

Elizabeth Bear gave a lecture on POV, which had lots of useful information and during which I asked a question I immediately felt stupid for asking, as the first example given as an answer is a book I’ve taught before—so should have known the answer already.  Ah well.  Nobody’s perfect.

Next up, Scott Lynch lead a great Collegium on non-expositional description.  The collegia are similar to the lectures in that information is given and one instructor leads it; however, there’s a major difference: In the lectures, one of the teachers will present the lesson, and occasionally one of the others will interject something.  The Collegia are more informal, with instructors piping up whenever they have anything to say, and sometimes the instructor mediating the session has to shut them down.  They’re great fun, and sometimes have more information than I could take notes on—so it’s a good thing I recorded most of them.

Then came my one-on-one with Steve Gould.

I am not exaggerating overly much when I say that he ripped my story a new one.  Now, two things about this: I can’t say I disagreed with anything he said, and it hurt.  But… he said nothing unkind, and I know he was helping me—not trying to help, but helping.  But when you’ve worked so hard on something, it sometimes hurts to have someone show you where you went wrong.  So I came away a little raw from the meeting.  He didn’t just show me where I’d gone wrong, though—he also helped me see what I could do to make it better.  He made suggestions that I am free to take or leave, but even the ones I won’t use pointed me in the direction I will go.

Bottom line?  He made my book better, just by talking to me.  As I processed not only my emotional state, but the information I got from him, I made several leaps of thought that lead to new ideas.  The first chapter?  It needs to be rewritten, and while I’ll keep some of it, I’ll be changing a lot of it.  But I have a much better idea, even before my critique group, on how to make it work.

After dinner was the Beer with the Bard event.  We sat in a big circle, and everyone had their drink of choice and the script of William Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor.  This has got to be one of the dirtiest of Shakespeare’s plays.  We read the play, with parts going around the circle, changing at each act.  I ended up with Mistress Page at one point, but the next time it got to me, I had Hostess Quickly, and I read her with a bored monotone voice and a Northern-ish accent, somewhat like Holly from Red Dwarf.  It was a hit, and combined with Quickly’s absurd and dirty lines, it worked.

After the play, we all scattered to our own events; I spent some time with Steven Brust, Elizabeth Bear, and Patrick Nielsen Hayden, along with Shannon, Latasha, Beth, Alex, and some others for music, then eventually returned to my room to go to bed—where instead I ended up talking to Beth until sometime around 2am.