The humbling process of learning to write

Sometimes I have a hard time writing a post because I fight with what I want to say vs. what is truly going on in my head and heart.

I wanted to write about how mortified I was by my old blog posts when, years ago, I declared my novel done, or that I was ready to find an agent, or that rules were stupid and stifled my creativity.

Honestly, though, I can’t find the energy to be embarrassed. I might not even be embarrassed. Doesn’t everyone think the first draft of their first novel is perfect? I remember the day I wrote the last line of “Six” in Sugar Lump coffee shop on 24th street in the Mission district. I wanted to stand up and announce it and have everyone cheer. I almost did, and they might have, because people are nice.

Why not enjoy that feeling of triumph? It is a big deal to actually write the first draft. Some people never get that far. I remember chatting with a woman at a literary event and after about half an hour of listening to her blab on and on about her book, I discovered she hadn’t written one freaking word. She didn’t even have the plot figured out. A good friend of mine talks wistfully of wanting to write but being too afraid. He said he’d never show the work to anyone.

So, good for me for being ignorant and optimistic and actually putting way too many words on paper and thinking the thing was done.

The next step was to force my friends to read it. And the thing was HUGE. I later broke it into two books, but this was all of it. My friends are amazing and they did read it and I learned another very important lesson. I’m a pretty self-sufficient person and asking for help at first made me feel uncomfortable, but I knew I absolutely needed it, and what I was asking for would take hours and hours.

Asking for help and getting it…“owing” a debt, all this made me feel unexpectedly more connected and bonded with my friends. We’re in this for the long haul, and we’ll give and get help as we need it.

It also clarified my goal as a writer: to amuse and delight OTHER PEOPLE. Which meant I had to take their critiques seriously. I’m trying to communicate ideas and if they don’t get it, it’s on me, not them. Though my skin isn’t as thick as I’d like it to be, I’m pretty open to honest responses to what I write. The trick is to decipher the root cause of, “I didn’t like the ending,” which might be a problem with the beginning.

Of course the next step was confusion and frustration. The novel started to look like it might have a few loose ends. Someone pointed out that my main character cries a few times every chapter. In fact, everything was too dramatic. Everyone yelling and leaping around and casting sly glances and adverb-ing.

I started to revise, and also write and submit short stories. The rejection letters trickled in. I got annoyed, sure there was some conspiracy. Whoever read the story was too _______ to get it! I was so annoyed about one of my stories being rejected I googled the guy that read it and, because we can learn way too much about people with zero effort, (which I find scary) I had it all figured out. He was young, and unmarried, and lived in Brooklyn so of course he wouldn’t like a story about an unhappy marriage.

Heh, I’m starting to feel some of that embarrassment I couldn’t muster at the beginning of this. The drafts of stories I submitted at this stage did deserve to be rejected. I forgive myself for this phase, but it does seem crazy now.

The problem with some of the conferences and talks I attended was that, in an attempt to encourage writers not to give up, the speakers outlined the many reasons why a story might be rejected even though it is a perfectly great story. As a beginning writer, I grabbed on to those reasons and held tight, and they prevented me from fixing broken stories. I’d get a rejection and think, “I guess they just accepted another story about telepresence tourism.”

When my friend recently won an award, he thanked his parents for telling him there were things he didn’t know that he didn’t know. That’s what we all struggle with when we start something new, and it’s probably a protective shield that allows us to move forward undaunted. Though, at some point, exuberance isn’t enough and ignorance isn’t a shield, it’s a ball and chain.

Then, thank god, I was accepted into the Gunn Center Speculative Fiction Writing Workshop last summer. A slap in the face just when I needed it–as well as a helping hand. As I detailed in another post, it was very straightforward information about how to write from Famous Authors.

What I hadn’t realized was that there is a difference between developing the thick skin we all need to have to handle rejection–and a deaf ear.

I heard critiques by peers (the same kind of all-over-the-place critiques I give!) and learned time-tested “rules” developed by the masters–given to me by actual masters and not “the internet.” I heard, over and over again (to paraphrase), you have to know the rules before you break them. This time, the rules were curated and given to me by people I trusted.

I understand why I was afraid to open the fire hose of rules when it was just me in the attic with the internet. It’s too much. I’m so thankful for patient, real-life teachers, including my weekly writer’s group.

I’m becoming a better writer and hope to continue to improve. In a few years I’ll laugh at this post, and that’s okay. I’ve got a couple of lame analogies about writing I’ll share. It’s like juggling. I was only doing one ball at first. Now I might be up to three on a good day. Pretty soon I’ll be doing five without even thinking about it. Also, and I’m thinking of this because we’ve been watching the California reservoirs overflow, it’s like water. When I first started writing the story was a raging river and I was a leaf. It carried me and I typed and typed and tried to keep up with no idea where I was going. Now I think of the story as water, and me as a hydrologist. I’ve got the water and I’ve got to control it and decide where it will go, how fast, how deep, how wide, and where it will end up. That’s my job.

Litcrawl 2016

or, A Kind of Graduation

My writer’s group gave a reading at Litcrawl. This is a huge deal for me. I probably said it before but I will say it again, a few years ago I stood outside an overcrowded venue wondering how those lucky authors got to read at this event. I didn’t know any authors. None of my friends wrote. I went to a couple writer’s conferences and learned some good stuff but didn’t meet anyone who was a good fit for a critique partner.

viewfromstreet

Then my husband saw a posting in Bernalwood (local blog) about a writer’s group looking for members. A group that met two blocks from my house. What are the odds?

I went, it worked out, and I’ve been in the group a couple years now. I feel so very lucky. The group is great. None of us are English professors but we muddle along, helping each other out. Everyone is kind, thoughtful, and I gotta say, pretty resilient and willing to take criticism. I’ve learned so much from the critiques I’ve gotten as well as from reading other people’s work and trying to articulate why a passage isn’t working for me.

Doing a public reading at Litcrawl is the culmination of our “writer year” to me. This year especially, it felt like I’d graduated from wanna be writer to actual writer. The event went so well. City Art is a great venue–floor to ceiling windows and plenty of room. We had a big crowd despite the rain (thanks to my friends that showed up!). Everyone from the group read interesting passages, I wasn’t too nervous, I made eye contact and tried to move around a bit, and since no one read after us we got to have a reception.

mmatlitquake2

Something about the evening really clicked with me. We weren’t faking it, we were really doing it!  We had a book table, our group name was in the program, I was drinking wine and eating cheese with friends after doing a reading in San Francisco…at Litcrawl. WOO!

 

Leaving on a jet plane…

…to Kansas City

I’m in terminal 3 at SFO waiting to take off. I applied for a two-week speculative fiction writer’s workshop about a month and a half ago. I never thought I’d get accepted. They only take 10 people max and it was the last day to apply. What the hell, I figured. No harm in trying.

When I got the acceptance email a week or so later, I almost couldn’t decipher it. Chris, the workshop leader, wrote a long, newsy letter with comments on the story I’d submitted as part of my application, gave me some tips on how to improve it, and somewhere in the midst of that said if I was still interested, I was in.

I’ve gotten so used to rejection letters I almost missed that sentence, especially since it was buried under the story critique. When I finally spotted it and believed it, I whooped! I jumped up and down. I ran around the house.

I’ve never done anything like this. I felt like Lena Dunham in Girls when she went off to the Iowa workshop. This is the right time for this for me. I’ve been in the Alabama Street writers group for almost two years now and I’m getting the hang of giving and getting critiques. I’m freelancing so I can get away. I have a couple stories ready to go. It worked out perfectly.

yardinspring

Now I’m at the airport feeling a bit melancholy about leaving home and maybe a bit nervous as well, which is a surprise, because I am so stoked for this. I’ll be corny and honest and say I’ll miss my husband. I love crawling into bed with him every night. I’ll miss my yard. It is spring and everything is in crazy bloom and hanging out there reading and writing is heaven. I’ll miss my friends & family. I’m also bummed that I’m missing most of the Bay Area Book Festival this weekend. I got tickets to a bunch of talks before I knew I was going away.

I got up early today and managed to see one talk, “Subversive Speculative Fiction” with panelists Jewelle Gomez, Ayize Jama-Everett, Carter Scholz, and Johanna Sinisalo, and moderated by Charlie Jane Anders. It was a great panel and I said hi to Carter Scholz–an author I’d met before at SF in SF.

A member of my writer’s group, Jennifer Ng, rented a booth space in “Literary Lane” to promote her book Ice Cream Travel Guide. I stopped by and bought a copy. Another friend was volunteering at The Center for the Book booth – where they had two small presses set up so people could print a small notebook.

jennifericecream

I hated to leave. The festival was just gearing up and it seemed like everything was geared towards me. Information about writing and editing classes, conferences, editing and coaching services. I had tickets to six other talks, including one by Jonathen Lethem, that I had to give away.

I walked back to the BART station, accompanied, literally, by sad violin music.

Now I’m in terminal three. I’ve got time to kill because there was no line at security. No line at all. I’ve never seen anything like it! The man scanning tickets was almost asleep he was so bored. I walked to the far end of the terminal to a secluded area with a great view north. I couldn’t quite see Bernal Hill–but almost. I stress ate a chocolate chip cookie and began to write.

Then the flight attendants arrived. I’d stumbled upon their secret hangout. A group of eight men and women sat down to my right and began to gossip as if I wasn’t there. “They aren’t going to put me on disability due to mental issues.” “I said you want to evict me? Go ahead!” “They put everyone in first class but me, and she said it was based on seniority and I said I KNOW that girl started after me and she said I’ve worked here for twenty years and I said girl you old. Super old.”

I forgot to be sad as I listened to tales of layovers and lipstick that matched nail polish and being raised in Kingstown, Jamaica.

We are all made of stories. I’m going to learn to write mine better!

The Future is Coming…

New Year’s Eve, December 31, 2015

I worked steadily this year, both in writing and at my day jobs, and it’s hard to romanticize either. I wish writing were more dramatic but editing Six is like building a brick wall–one I’m not sure how high or long to make.

San Francisco Sunset

The last sunset of 2015, as viewed now from the attic where I write

The book is actually in good shape. My writer’s group has given extremely helpful critiques and I hired a professional editor give me a high-altitude review of the whole thing. I’m fine-tuning it now and will send this draft to a couple more beta readers, then begin to shop it around in earnest.

I wish I could pat myself on the back for achieving a couple of milestones this year, but I can’t. I feel I haven’t gotten enough done. I think that is the real challenge–getting used to never being done. I’m working on Six, a couple short stories, and a side project in a totally different genre to clear my head. All this is how it should be and preferable to not having anything going but I need to focus on getting more of the pieces finished and out the door.

Enough of my whining. On to…

The Highlights of 2015!!

Shakespeare and Company, Paris.

Shakespeare and Company CatIn January, I almost attended a writer’s group at Shakespeare and Company in Paris. I showed up, as did half a dozen other people, and then a clerk came up to our attic room to tell us it was cancelled.

I was bummed, but I met a couple of interesting people. One women from South Africa had a book published years ago, and to some acclaim, though she now talked of it disparagingly. She was in her mid-30’s so the book must have come out when she was in her 20’s. I was dying to know her name and the name of the book, but I had to be “cool” because she was going out of her way not to mention either despite some pretty obvious hints from me. Another woman had come to Paris “to write.” She wanted to finish her wine-themed memoir. I didn’t say anything but I think going to Paris to write is a terrible idea! Go to Paris and have a good time and then go somewhere boring to write.

Anyway, I felt super writerly just being there. There are things that should be on my to do list that I can’t even imagine until after I’ve already done them, and this was one of them. Writer’s group at Shakespeare and Company. DONE!

She’s Geeky Conference, Sunnyvale California

A great un-conference for women in tech. I was intimidated when I went the first time but everyone assured me that they want to add the “A” to STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math). I highly recommend this event.

South by Southwest, Austin, Texas

Film, Interactive, and Music. We did it all…and I didn’t get catch a cold. Though I did sprain my ankle pretty much as soon as we arrived I didn’t let that stop me. Saw and heard amazing talks (the future of human computer interaction, future crimes, surveillance’s threat to liberty, a look inside DARPA, book publishing and new media, what privacy means now, digital ethics, and of course Bruce Sterling’s famous closing remarks), saw amazing movies (including the world premiere of Ex Machina with a Q&A with the director and cast, and a screening of Mr. Robot, with Director and cast), went to a biohacking party, saw bands, drank too much. The usual! I meant to do a post on this but blogging often feels a lot like procrastinating.

mrrobotcastThe cast and writer of Mr. Robot. I was too shy to get a photo with Christian Slater.

Shoreline of Infinity comes out

My short story See You Later is published in a Scottish science fiction magazine – and I got paid for it!!

Bay Area Book Festival, Berkeley, California

This was the first year for this event and it was PACKED. I’d meant to attend many talks (all free) but most sessions were full. I did get to hear John Scalzi speak, and I introduced myself to Paolo Bacigalupi. I felt bad for him. I was super red and sweaty and looked the crazed fan part perfectly. Said hi to Ransom Stephens who I met a few years ago at the San Francisco Writer’s conference.

Paolo Bacigalupi signing booksPaolo Bacigalupi signs books while his wife waits patiently

Neil Gaiman in conversation with Stuart Brand, San Francisco, California

I blogged about this.

Yes and Yes Yes, Palm Springs, California

My first time at this unconference in Palm Springs. They can explain it better than I:

“A gathering of…

  • thinkers/futurists/nerds/weirdos
  • voracious consumers of and generators of ideas and information
  • creatives that like to engage in conversation about their creative pursuits & the concepts behind them
  • people comfortable with & excited about their own obsessive interest in their odd corner of the world”

Right up my alley. I had a really great time until it was time to fly home and the plane overheated on the runway and we were stuck in the closed-down airport for hours and hours.

YxYYI know this looks like voracious consumers of beer, not ideas, but we found we could do both

EFF anniversary party, San Francisco, California

Yikes…this was an intimidating crowd. Everyone was so smart. Lawyers who argued the such and such case, professors, authors. I met Cory Doctorow (again) and Will Wheaton (what a gracious guy) and gave them both SomaFM t-shirts. It’s tough for me to introduce myself to public figures. It feels really intrusive. OTOH, they are in public so random people like me coming up is an expected annoyance. I’d rather not do it, but it is important for me to close the gap between screen and real, and to gain more empathy for people that put themselves out there in the media. It is a tough job.

EFF and Cory DoctorowI really like Cory Doctorow’s jacket

DEF CON Hacker Conference, Las Vegas, Nevada

DEF CON was great. I finally felt comfortable and not like an impostor the way I did last year. I went to sessions. Parties. DJ’d. Drank. More on this in a future post.

DefConBedside table at a party at DEF CON

XOXO, Portland, Oregon

This was my first time at this “experimental festival celebrating independently-produced art and technology.” Very interesting sessions, interesting attendees, and crazy hot weather for Portland.

I met author/illustrator Jason Porath. He seems to be a friend of a friend and we ended up at the same table at a food truck court. His book, http://www.rejectedprincesses.com/ should be coming out soon.

I got my novella printed at Powell’s Books via an on demand printing machine. It was really cool to see it go from virtual to physical.

Powell's books Portland

I met Carl Steadman and Joey Anuff of Suck. They were a big deal to my crowd back in the day. I talked to Joey Anuff at length about his stint at MTV as well as other things. He was a really nice.

Eclipse

eclipse3

Our writing group read at LitQuake’s LitCrawl

I wrote about this in another post.

Huh, I guess I did a lot this year in addition to working and writing. I didn’t realize until I put it all in one place. If it seems like I go to a lot of conferences, this is true. I spend 95% of my time in front of a computer screen either writing or doing design–and not interacting with people or getting a sense of “the next big thing,” which I’ve got to have a handle on if I’m writing near-future fiction. Going to these kinds of creative conferences allows me to get face to face with people and see what they are excited about.

Also, I need to visualize the next step in my writer career by interacting with successful, published authors and this is a challenge because they aren’t wandering around in the wild. If I wanted to become a programmer or a social media consultant or an architect or a teacher I could walk down to the coffee shop right now and grab one for a chat. It’s harder to find a science fiction writer! Thus, the necessary but awkward introductions at conferences and lectures. I don’t know if all writers would find this necessary but for me it is a great motivator.

My goal for 2016 is to do even more, be even more productive, and GET SIX PUBLISHED.

Happy New Year!!!

A series of Fortunate Events

Saturday night marked a huge milestone in my author career: I read at Litcrawl! Last year the events were so crowded I couldn’t even make it into the audience, let alone imagine being a reader. I was really discouraged. All those venues, all those authors. Would I ever be one of them?

Shortly after this, I saw an announcement in Bernalwood, my neighborhood blog, that the Alabama Street Writer’s Group was looking for new members. Not only that, they met only two blocks from my house. It was too perfect. I’d been wanting to join a writer’s group. I tried the San Francisco Writer’s Workshop, but so many people attended that not all could read, and there wasn’t time to think or give any kind of cogent feedback.

I sent in a story and was invited to join. I’ve been going every week for almost a year now and the experience has been great. I’ve gotten so much helpful advice from the other members. I am learning to really listen, with a completely open mind, because I trust that the people around me love reading and writing and truly want to help me polish my stories. I’ve heard stories about mean writer’s groups with rude and cruel people and thank god no one in this group is like that.

I really enjoy the diversity of writing. We’ve got fiction, memoir, horror, sci fi, YA. The challenge is to not think, I can’t critique this, this isn’t my genre, I don’t know anything about ____. We have to set aside our theoretical ideas of what we do and don’t like and dive right into every piece and help the author realize his or her vision. Plus, every time I analyze someone else’s story it helps me see the weaknesses in my own.

That we would get to read at Litcrawl was an amazing bonus…and as the day approached, a source of some anxiety as well. I’m not much of a public speaker. I’d read in front of people exactly once. I’m not a huge fan of my own voice. I did my best to get over this by reading my story (See You Later – it is the one published in the Scottish science fiction magazine) VERY LOUDLY when no one was home. MANY TIMES. This was good.

ASWG_litcrawl

Oddly, all my nearest and dearest friends and family were out of town or busy the night of Litcrawl. I was pretty annoyed at first. I mean, seriously?

A few deep breaths later I realized I was lucky. Zero people I knew meant zero pressure. I intend to keep at this for years and years and hopefully do many readings. Everyone can’t come to everything and I’ll be a lot better at this when I’ve gotten more practice.

City Art Gallery was a great venue. Good lighting. Super nice staff.

I was second to last to read. I thought I’d get more and more nervous but I was okay. Nervous but not paralyzed. We had a good-sized crowd but no one I knew, so what the hey! Instead of being worried my face would be super red and I’d stumble over words, I worried that people would be bored–which is a huge step in the right direction.

I have no interest in being a performer, however, I do want my stories to be heard, which in some cases will entail me reading them. I’ve got to allow the audience to concentrate on it and not me. I can’t be nervous or that will make the listeners uncomfortable.

I don’t know if I did it well but I did it! And next time I’ll do it better…and maybe some of my friends will show up.

MMreading2

 

 

 

 

Neil Gaiman on Storytelling

Funny how when we try to elevate our minds, we get sidetracked by our bodies.

The Castro Theater was hot. I dunno if they have air conditioning. Most buildings in San Francisco don’t. The average temperature here is probably 62 degrees so we don’t need it. The theater was sold out and the seats are “old-timey” – not super narrow but not the loungers we’re getting used to in the new places. Meaning, the guy next to me dominated the armrest and his thigh squished against mine. Also, we had to get up half a dozen times to let people into our row.

The Long Now Foundation was true to its name. The 45 minutes we waited for the talk to begin seemed like FOREVER.

I mention this to explain why I wasn’t as receptive to the first half of the event as I might have been if I’d been at a two-top table with a fake LED candle and a Manhattan.

I felt like I was at a sermon. Or a college lecture. No offense to Neil Gaiman because I’ve seen him at a couple of other events (at SXSW) and he was great. Is great. In this case, his slow, practiced lecture voice, the podium, the notes, me thinking I’m-not-sure-where-this-is-going, and the spotlight that illuminated him and left us in the dark…all I could think was, oh yeah, interesting, good point. Fuck, dude, get your thigh off me. Can’t you retract?

My favorite part of the lecture was when Gaiman described what it’s like when you try to relate a dream to a friend or partner. How their eyes glaze over. I won’t try to retell it. Very funny. Also, he made a clever comment about (paper) books being something you can drop and they still work afterwards (vs. Kindle). Made me laugh, but didn’t work with the theme of stories having a life of their own and living 2000 years regardless of medium. I felt like Random House or whoever publishes his paper books stepped into the room.

NGSB

Once the conversation with Stewart Brand of the Long Now Foundation started, all was good, though still freaking hot. I’m a huge fan of this format. This is when moments happen that could never happen at any other time. I love listening to smart people converse.

Strange moment though. Brand asked Gaiman if his view of death had changed now that Terry Pratchett died (of Alzheimer’s). I don’t know what his view was “before” but this didn’t seem a very appropriate question to ask in front of 500+ people. You might ask at a weekend getaway with friends after too many drinks and most everyone else has gone to bed. Though Gaiman hit this head on, with anecdotes about Pratchett, his protestation that the only time he’d ever feared death was when he had the only copy of drawings for one of his graphic novels with him on a plane rang false and incredibly true at the same time. He worried that creative output would be lost. I can only assume he’d be just as protective of the creative spark inside his own soul.

I don’t know what you are supposed to say when a guy trying to build a 10,000 year clock asks you what you think about death. Offer a cheery high-five to distant future kin? Being in a hot theater left me thinking about nothing but the next five minutes. I guess I’m not a good candidate for membership in this foundation. : )

Great News!

A couple months ago I got a standard email rejection for one of my short stories, and then I did a double take. It wasn’t a rejection. I had to read it three or four times to be sure. Then I screamed, very softly, because my husband was still asleep, and then ran down and woke him up to tell him.

SOIcoverMy story, “See You Later” will be in the first issue of Shoreline of Infinity – a new science fiction magazine from Scotland (e-pub and PRINT!!).

I waited so long to write about this here because I couldn’t quite believe it was happening. Yes, I had the acceptance letter and a signed contract, but I still wasn’t sure. Today I got an email from the editor with the cover…WITH MY NAME ON IT. In the same block of text as Charles Stross. !!!!!

I wrote before about not feeling like a “real” author, so looking at this is like standing up too fast.

Over the past few years I’ve been to many conferences and author readings and other events and tried to make sense of how words make it onto the pages of professional publications. What I’ve heard, over and over again, is that there is no formula. And no objectively “good” story. One woman, compiling an anthology, found almost no consensus among her ten editors. Each had one or two stories they liked very much (not the same stories by the way), and were lukewarm about the others. Not only do you have the issue of personal taste, an editor might have just published a story with a plucky robot hero and won’t want to publish yours, even if it is great.

There are too many reasons why a perfectly good story doesn’t fit in a particular publication on a certain day. I’ve had to hear that from many people before it really sunk in. The story itself isn’t flawed, it is round and the magazine needs square.

The real trouble as an author is figuring out whether or not the story is “perfectly good” and just hasn’t found the right spot, or is not that great and needs work–because the standard rejection gives absolutely no clues.

People told me this writing thing was hard, but I misunderstood why. I thought it was hard to write the book. Hard to carve out the time and then hard to stop when I was in the groove but *people* wanted to do things like eat dinner with me. I thought it was hard to edit. To slash passages I really liked. To decipher what my smart beta readers mean when they say something is too long or too short or confusing. They point out a problem and there are a hundred ways to fix it.

The really hard part is sending a piece out into the ether and hearing nothing. No praise, no derisive laughter, no whisper of someone reading aloud in bed, no crinkle of paper as a printout is balled up and tossed into the recycling bin. Everyone has a different place they need their thick skin and this is where I’m building up mine. Facing a sea of apathy and being willing to dive into it to find the handful of readers who will read my story and be glad they did.

I’m not sure why I focused so much on rejection when I’m feeling so very happy and buoyed by this acceptance. It is really great that my story fit with this editor and this publication.

Thank you so much Shoreline of Infinity for making this happen!