I’m Starting the New Year the Same Way I Ended the Old One–Softly

I think it was my cousin Alex who posted a meme in her Instagram stories about why we go on about ending the year strong when we should be ending the year softly -resting, recuperating, relaxing. I’m paraphrasing it badly, but it still spoke to my soul.

When I saw this I was in the homestretch of a brutal marathon of projects. I was doing Book ’em, Danno, Here, Watch This with Shann, and covering three shows on Eventually Supertrain with Dan. I also had Five Minutes to do for Patreon. I was finishing up the prep for my program that I’ll be giving later this month at work. I was also working on a couple of library podcast episodes so I could have the comp time to cover my traditional birthday week vacation. And then there was NaNo, the page-a-day, the Sunday story, and blogging. Full disclosure: I did this to myself and I regret none of it. I could have said “no” to most of these things, but I chose to say “yes” and I’m glad I did. It’s just that I once again overestimated myself and as a result their were consequences.

I burned myself out. Oops.

By the time I saw this random message, I was more than ready to embrace it.

I decided to end 2022 as softly as I could.

Deadlines and schedules being what they were, there was only so much I could control. I made the executive decision not to do any blog posts for the month of December. That gave me a little less stress and a little more time to do other things. I also finished as much of my audio work as I could before December. Another thing that freed up some time and lowered the stress levels.

After that, it was all about scheduling, balancing work with rest, which to be honest, is something I suck at and should be doing anyway.

For my part, I think I did well. Even with the Grinchmas shopping, crafting, shipping, and baking, I did not end the year feeling frazzled, completely bereft of energy, patience, and will to live. I ended the year somewhat softly and it made a huge difference in how I entered 2023.

I chose to enter the new year softly as well.

I tend to ease into January anyway. After all, I’m usually exhausted and dragging myself into a new calendar. This year I’m purposely going in softly. I am continuing my practice of being mindful about my schedule. I’m taking it easy, but being productive. What are my deadlines? What is my schedule? What can I control? Where can I be soft?

After doing so much audio last year, I plan to scale back this year. I still have projects with deadlines that will get done, but it’s a matter of not letting my schedule become so overwhelmed with it. I need to pace myself better and this means saying “no” or “not right now” sometimes, even if it’s something I really want to do. I need to let myself be booked sometimes.

It was in the latter portion of 2022 that I realized how much I miss writing. After years of creativity and productivity issues, I hit a sweet spot last year that I haven’t experienced in a long time and my schedule was so crowded that I felt like I had no time to indulge in it.

This month, my birthday vacation is also going to be a writing vacation. No library work and no audio projects. Just me and writing words. No deadlines or productivity goals. Just me writing.

And if it goes the way I think it will go, that is to say well, then I play to making writing vacations a thing for the year. Find those weeks were I can just write without expectation or interruption.

I’m hoping that ending the old year and beginning the new year softly will teach me something about how I approach my scheduling and my projects and maybe help me figure out a better work/rest balance.

Let this not be one of the times I insist on learning the hard way.

2022 NaNo Winner!

Number 19 officially went into the books on November 23rd and that’s when the story was finished, too. I pushed a little to get it finished before Thanksgiving, but for the most part, kept a constant 2,000 words a day word count. I tended to make the most productive progress doing 500 word sprints in between playing rounds of a puzzle game. It just seemed easier to write that way when I was giving my brain little breaks rather than trying to push straight through. It’s not the first time I’ve used this distraction/sprinting technique. I do whatever I need to do in order to make the words happen.

Thanks to me being less than smart with my scheduling, I ended up writing most often after work. Or at work, in some cases. I’m a dedicated employee. Anyway. That was different from previous years as my goal was always to get as much, if not all, of my writing before my shift. But since I had a few other projects going on, I had to rearrange my priorities. I will readily admit that this was one of the more stressful Novembers I’ve had in a while. I got through it, but I’m in no hurry to do something like that again.

The final first draft of Leave Well Enough Alone is something of a mess, naturally. Maybe it wouldn’t be if I’d done a slightly more solid outline. And by slightly more, I mean anything better than the vague game plan I went in with. But that’s not how I live my life.

I realized about two-thirds of the way into the first draft that I borked my timeline. Not long afterwards, I realized that I probably should have written the story differently. As I mentioned, I wrote alternating timelines. I think I might have been better off writing the 1976 timeline first in its entirety and then tailored the present day timeline to better fit it. Also, neither timeline turned out the way I thought it would, but that tends to happen when I don’t have a more robust and solid outline.

It was also about the time I realized I borked my timeline that I realized that Trix and Miggy should have had different jobs and objectives, but whatever. That’s what revisions and rewrites are for.

And when I get around to them, there will be a lot. Most likely starting with writing the 1976 timeline out in full so I know better how to make the present day timeline work.

But that’s future me’s problem.

Right now, present me is savoring yet another NaNo victory.

The Muses

I wrote ages ago about muses and how I didn’t have one. However, I recently realized that I do have a muse. I have several of them, in fact. It’s just they’re not what I thought they’d be.

A muse, according to the dictionary, is “a person or personified force who is the source of inspiration for a creative artist”. I have always interpreted this to be more of the figurative meaning, an imaginary being that sprinkles creative dust on my head, which infiltrates my brain and gives me ideas. And in that respect, I never had a muse. I was never blessed in such a fashion.

As it turns out, though, I have been blessed with multiple muses over the years. I just didn’t realize it at the time. I was looking for fairies when what I got was people, places, and things.

My muses are concrete nouns.

For example, there’s a tree across the street in my neighbor’s yard. I don’t know what kind it is. It’s just big and it’s been there for years and it’s very pretty in the fall, but the wind strips its leaves pretty quickly. It’s usually bare by Halloween.

That tree has been in several of my stories and at least two of those stories came from ideas I got from that tree, from wanting to write about it. It was a muse.

There are places that I’ve used the same way. The library I work at has popped up in my stories long before I started working there. I wouldn’t be writing Defending The L right now if the library hadn’t inspired the story. The local lake, the house across the street, the zombie car wash, all inspired stories. They were muses.

And, yes, there are people who’ve served as muses. People who I think would make excellent characters so I build stories around them. People I want to give starring roles. People who I will absolutely not name here nor will I name of any of the stories they inspired. But they were all muses.

The thing about these muses, the real thing that I think tripped me up in seeing them for what they were, is that I thought of muses as more of something permanent. The fairy that was always there, flitting about with their creativity dust. As it turns out, muses are more impermanent than I previously thought. I don’t think that they’re always supposed to stick around. They serve their creative purpose and then they return to being the nouns they’ve always been.

Of course, muses, like inspiration and creativity and all of those other intangibles, are highly individual. I’m sure some people have muses that stick around forever. Maybe one day I’ll be lucky enough to have that happen.

And I’m sure there are some people who are lucky enough to have the fairy kind of muse, sprinkling creativity all over them. I know that I’ll never be lucky enough to have that.

I’ll have to settle for the nouns that happen to catch my attention.

Page-A-Day and Sunday

As I mentioned, I’m currently writing a page-a-day novel as well as something I’ve come to think of as my Sunday novel. I’ve been doing them both for a few months now, long enough that I’m ready to talk a little bit about each project, but more importantly talk about how different the processes have been for me, particularly in light of working on a NaNo novel at the same time.

NaNo, of course, is NaNo. I’ve finished it in 12 days, I’ve finished it in 30 days, I’ve totally failed it. My goal is to write 50,000-60,000 words in a month, about 2,000 words a day. After years of this, I’ve found a happy medium between outlining and pantsing, giving myself a basic blueprint of the story with room to wild out and surprise myself. It’s been a winning formula for quite some time (when I’m not cheating, obviously). The resulting first drafts vary from needing a lot of rewrites to just needing a few rounds of revisions.

Blasting out that first draft as fast as possible has been my way of writing for a majority of my writing career and it’s how I’ve done most of my projects.

Defending The L is not my first page-a-day project. A few years ago, I decided to shake up my creativity by writing one page a day every day for a year because as the adage goes, if you write a page a day, by the end of the year, you have a 365 page novel. At the time, I was looking for some kind of creative productivity boost. I had a general idea of the story, a few scenes I knew I was writing towards, and I just sort of let it unfold, day by day, page by page.

My current page-a-day is a little different. I started writing Defending The L this way because I wanted to write this story, but didn’t have time to devote to it to do it NaNo-style, nor did I want to wait until NaNo. I also don’t have the goal of writing a page a day for a year, just until the story is done. As of this post, it’s right around NaNo length of about 50,000 words and into the third act of the story, which takes a bit of a horror turn.

Defending The L also has the dual purpose of being a bit of a catharsis piece. It’s set in a library, so I’ve been able to vent some of my frustrations with the job through the story.

Like the previous page-a-day (which still doesn’t have a title and I haven’t looked at since I wrote it) and much of my NaNo work, this one is going to need some revising, but more than likely not any heavy re-writing. Of course, I’m not finished yet, so fingers crossed.

My Sunday story, That’s Punk, is an entirely different beast and honestly, it’s a little scary.

First of all, there’s nothing horror or fantasy or otherwise genre about it. It’s straight contemporary fiction, which for me is way out of my comfort zone.

Second of all, instead of writing this first draft as fast as I possibly can and getting it all out in one hunk I can shape through rewrites and/or revising, I’ve only been able to work on this story on Sundays. And when I do work on it, I go back and re-read what I wrote the previous week, revising anything I’ve decided needed changing while it’s simmered in my brain since the last time I looked at it, and then I add new material. There’s also no goal before I call my day on That’s Punk done. No word or page counts. Once I do my rewind and revise, I decide how much I want to get done that day. Usually, it’s a scene, or maybe not even that. I stop where it feels good. I’ve been working on this story since the end of August and I’ve only got about thirty pages written.

It’s so weird on so many levels for me. I’m writing something I don’t normally write in a way I don’t normally write. And you know what? I think I like it. There’s something indulgent about being able to take my time with a story, revise it as I go, and keep my goals fluid. There’s something luxurious about having this dedicated time to work on something on a day with no other expectations. I’m not rushing to get anything done because I have to go to work or I have errands to run or dinner to make. I don’t do anything on Sundays by design. Writing this story on my lazy day has turned into a form of relaxation for me, as strange as that sounds.

November has been an interesting writing month for me for years thanks to NaNo and the challenge of writing a 50,000 word novel around daily life. But this November, writing three different novels, three different ways…it’s been eye-opening.

One thing about being a writer…I never get bored exploring and developing my craft.

“What Are You Working On?”

This is a trick question.

“What paranoia are you on about now?”

Hear me out. This is a trick question in two ways.

Number one, the person asking the question is more than likely just being polite. They don’t really care about what you’re working on. They’re just trying to pretend to have interest in your little writing hobby because they want to be supportive, but they’re really not that invested. You can tell by the way their eyes glass over and they nod along, not really listening, just waiting for you to finish so they can say, “Wow. That sounds great. I can’t wait to read it.” And we all know they’ll never read it. Because they’ve never read anything you’ve written because *insert reason here*.

The only correct answer to this question is to say what kind of project you’re working on.

“Oh, I’m in the middle of revising a short story for a contest.”

“Oh, that’s great. I can’t wait to read it. I hope you win!”

“Thanks.”

And scene. Small talk achieved. Everyone leaves with their egos intact. To go into any further detail about whatever you’re working on is to risk that glazed look and feeling your enthusiasm for your project/writing career deflate. And we don’t want that.

If they attempt to engage further by asking for story specifics, don’t panic in the face of this unanticipated interest. Simply demure, saying you try not to talk too much about your projects when you’re working on them.

Which brings me to the second tricky point.

If you do find someone who is genuinely interested in what you’re working on, then talking about the project, no matter how enthusiastic you are about it, can drain some of that energy you have for it. I don’t know why this is. But it seems like talking about the story you’re working on, particularly in the first draft stage, makes it less engaging to work on. It’s like the magic is escaping the bottle and it’s escaping because your dumbass keeps taking the lid off of it so other people can see it.

It’s true that sometimes talking about your work can help you see and/or fix problems with it, but if you’re not specifically looking for that feedback, then uncovering problems you didn’t realize you had when you’re enthusiastically telling someone about your great idea can be both jarring and demoralizing. Now you have to cover this realization because you don’t want the person you’re talking with to think that you have no idea what you’re doing. And god forbid if they’re the ones who point it out to you because you were oblivious to it. How embarrassing. Thanks for letting me know. I’ll fix that immediately.

And by fix it, I mean throw the story directly into the trash because I won’t be able to look at it without feeling the searing heat of shame.

You also run the risk of being told that your idea isn’t that great. Think about it. You’re absolutely jazzed about this idea and you’re thrilled with how it’s been going and someone finally asks you about it in a way that suggests they’re actually interested and not just being polite and you launch into your spiel and they just…don’t react. They smile. They nod. And then they say, “That’s nice.”

I’d rather be told my idea is shit than be told it’s nice. Nice is dismissive. At least disliking an idea is an actual feeling.

But you’re still left with that empty feeling of doubt, wondering if you’ve been wrong and this idea that you thought was a sure thing is really just another bust and maybe you should have realized that because it seemed so good and you never get good ideas that flow so well. Clearly, this was a trick of the writing devil, that prick.

And now you’re not feeling the idea so much anymore. Good thing it wasn’t really that good anyway.

Now do you see what I mean? A trick question.

So, never ask me what I’m working on.

I know you don’t care and I won’t tell you anyway.

NaNo 2022

I’ve decided that for this year’s NaNo I have enough of an idea that I can actually work on a novel this time and not have to cheat.

Maybe.

So, the idea I have is actually a combination of two ideas. The first is idea is about a character I’ve had kicking around in my head for a while named Royanna McKee who comes from a family of con artists and her attempts to break free from her family causes problems, particularly with her twin sisters, Claudine and Bernadette.

The other idea features a couple named Trix and Miggy Herrera who also have interesting families (particularly Trix) and as a couple they’re commissioned to write books about niche history topics. For example, Trix is supposed to be researching the history of a local courthouse, particularly the corruption related to its construction, when she comes across an article about a woman who went missing in 1976 and decides she’d rather research that.

Naturally, I thought those ideas could mesh together well in a timeline switching read, going back and forth from 1976 and 2022-ish.

Am I good enough writer to successfully pull that off? Probably not. But it’s NaNo, so it doesn’t matter. The only thing that matters is that I FINALLY came up with a title. Leave Well Enough Alone. It’s not great, but it’ll do.

The challenge of this NaNo (aside from the questionable outline I put together) is that while I will be NaNoing away, I will still be working on my page-a-day project, Defending The L (have I mentioned that here yet? I’m too lazy to go back and look) and what I think of as my Sunday project (which I did mention in this post) called That’s Punk. So, I will technically be working on three novels at once during November. But so long as the words are flowing, I’ll only be logging the words from the official NaNo project.

Unless it falls apart and I need to cheat.

This is my 19th NaNo. It’s far from the worst way I’ve bent the rules.

Besides, after this many years what do you expect?

50,000 words is 50,000 words.

It’s Been A While Since an Idea Ate My Brain

There I was, minding my own business, fixating on something else entirely (if I’m going to be completely honest, it was something to do with one of my odd famous person crushes), and then out of nowhere, a scene from a story popped into my head.

It was a perfect, fully formed scene. I knew exactly how it was going to play out, but I didn’t have much other context to it. No big deal. Happens often. All part of being a writer.

Over the next few days, the context came to me unbidden. The characters revealed their names, their circumstances, their stories. It was just something that would happen when my mind would drift. Another piece of the story puzzle would be discovered and slotted into place.

The story buzzed around my brain, consuming it. By the time I hit Friday night, it was firmly lodged in there. Which proved to be a bit problematic in the dead hours of the night when the Friday night insomnia hit, a phenomenon that plagues me periodically as a nightshift worker who works Saturday mornings. If I’m able to fall asleep at a decent hour, I’ll wake up after a good two or three hour nap and then be awake for at least an hour if not more. The Friday night insomnia routinely adds up to only 3 to 4 hours of sleep for my Saturday shift. And that Friday, those awake hours I was supposed to be lulling my brain back to sleep, I was writing the damn story in my head.

Late that Saturday night, I spent forty-five minutes outlining the entire story, beat by beat.

I slept better than night.

And every night since.

Outlining the story seems to have quieted the idea. Oh, it’s still very much so in there. I can pull it up whenever I want to ponder it. But it’s not insistently gnawing on my brain anymore. Which is kind of a good thing since I do like my beauty rest.

It’s been a long time since I’ve had a story idea eat my brain like this. I get ideas that I’ll think about off and on, jot down, maybe half-ass outline if I’m feeling ambitious. But I can’t remember the last time a story has actually kept me up at night. Or come out so perfectly formed in an actual outline. Even my best stories tend to have gaps. Sometimes they only have one scene and that’s what I’m writing toward and by the time I get there, I know what the story is.

This story was just there. It might have taken me a week or so to have it fully come to the surface, but it had my grey matter in its little fists while it did, yanking itself out of the folds of my brain noodles by my synapses.

It made me itch to write it because I knew it would just flow.

I held off, though. Mostly because of other commitments. I’m up to my eyeballs in projects right now. I’ve thought about doing it as a second page-a-day project, but I honestly think that once I start, I wouldn’t be able to stop at just one page. On the flip side, I don’t think I can wait until NaNo to write it either.

I found a compromise in making Sunday -usually my work-free day- my guaranteed writing day. I’m not going to set any real goals for the day. It’s just guaranteed time for me to work on the project, however much or little I want to. I wasn’t going to start until the first Sunday in September, but…I gave in and started a week early.

I had to.

Before it started gnawing on my brain again.

The Instant Gratification of Writing

I know what you’re thinking. There is no instant gratification in writing.

First you have to get the idea. Then you have to write your story. Then you have to revise your story. Then you have to revise it again. And probably again. Then you have to shine it up real nice. Then you have to sell it. You shop it to the pubs or agents and rack up the rejections. If you land an agent, then you probably have to do more edits before they shop it around for you. Then you finally land it somewhere. Then you have to edit it again because whoever buys your story likes it, but it just needs a little (or a lot of) tweaking. Then it finally gets published and you have a finished story in your hands that someone actually paid you for.

There is nothing instant about this process. It takes months, sometimes years from start to finish. It is an arduous journey that can be frustrating as well as exhilarating. And it takes forever.

One thing that’s always been a challenge for me is getting an idea that I know is dynamite and then making peace with the fact that it’s not going to be done NOW. I’ve got this neato idea in my head and I know how it’s going to look on paper and I just need it to go straight from my brain to the page without the time consuming middleman of actually typing and agonizing over word choice. I need to project the images in my head onto my docx.

And that is not how any of this works.

I know there is a distinct chance that I will cool on this idea before I even find time to get the first sentence written. I know that it might turn into a slog. I know that it could take days or weeks or months to get the first draft written. I know that, for me, I have to have a cool down period between a first draft and the revisions. Depending on how I feel about the first draft when I revisit it, the revisions can take a couple of days for a short story or a couple of years for a novel. It just depends.

And even after all of that there’s no guarantee that it’ll ever see the light of day. I may not be able to sell it. Or I may self-published it and it will never sell on its own. All of that time and effort…for nothing.

I know all of this and yet, I also know there is a sort of instant gratification when it comes to writing.

Let me tell you, that first dynamite idea is a rush. When the bits and pieces of character and plot and setting all comes rushing together and you can see certain scenes and you can hear bits of dialogue…holy hell is that a high. Things just click and you jot it all down and you’re excited at the prospect of living in this universe for a while. That is an instant gratification of writing.

When you’re working on a first draft and everything is just zinging and you get in the zone and time just zips by and you surface an hour or two hours or even fifteen minutes later feeling like you’ve just come up from a deep water swim because you were so immersed in your story, that is an instant gratification of writing.

When you’re in the slog of revising and you untangle some plot knot and everything falls into place, that is an instant gratification of writing.

When you’re reading over the story and you hit on a description or a turn of phrase or a bit of dialogue that just thrills you and you can’t believe you actually wrote something so good, that is an instant gratification of writing.

Okay, maybe it’s not really instant gratification in the classic sense, but it is something that happens in an instant, a bell ring of a successful note.

Those instant gratification moments are scattered throughout the long, maddening, entertaining journey. Those moments of immediate satisfaction that tickle those dopamine receptors and make you go, “Ah, yes, this is worth it” are the dots you connect that keep you going from one point to the next until the drawing is complete.

It’s what makes you do it all over again.

The instant gratification of writing.

That’s How the Story Goes

“And then what happened?”

I get that questions sometimes after people read some of my stories. The end satisfies the narrative, but not necessarily the reader’s curiosity. So, I’m going to answer that question once and for all.

I don’t know.

That’s where the story ends. I have no idea what happens beyond that for the most part.

Someone once asked me if the protagonists in one of my novellas hooked up after their ordeal and I told them no, but the only reason I had an answer to that question was because of the narrative itself. I had never intended on them becoming lovers at any point. Their relationship was purely platonic and surviving the night didn’t change that.

Those questions I can answer. But things like, “Did the leaves come back the next day?” “Did that shadow haunt the brother?” “Where did he go?” I don’t know. That’s where the story ends. I have no more story in my head after that.

This is all in the same vein as “This short story should be a novel” or “This should have a sequel”. While I appreciate the compliment that you love the story so much that you want more of it, I regret to inform you that there is no more. That’s the story in the form that it’s supposed to be. That’s it. That’s all of it. There is no more.

I don’t know what it’s like for other writers, but for me, the story is the story and that’s how the story goes. I’m not much of an overwriter. I don’t tend to have some huge, detailed backstory that I’m not putting in my fiction. I’m not one to do detailed outlines of my characters lives and their likes and dislikes. I don’t have a need to go much beyond whatever the context of the tale I’m telling is unless it pertains directly to the tale.

I start where the story starts and I end where the story ends and I don’t know much more about it than that. That’s all the story there is.

Of course, knowing this doesn’t stop me from wondering “and then what happened” about some of the novels and stories I read. I don’t ask the question out loud, obviously, because I know the answer (or what my answer would be), but I’m still compelled to wonder. And my imagination takes me in all kinds of directions and I come up with all sorts of answers for “and then what happened?”

I think that would be a better go-to answer for me. “I don’t know” is accurate, but invites negativity and accusations (“What do you mean you don’t know?” It’s a story, not an alibi for murder. Calm down). What I should do is answer that question with the question, “What do you think happens?”

Because most likely the person who asked that question, already has an answer in mind.

Sending Out Good Writerly Vibes Into the Universe

Last month I submitted two pieces to two different contests. One was a 500 word story for a 500 word story contest. I revised a flash fiction piece I’d written during NaNo called “Haunted House”. It was originally over 1,000 words and kind of garbage. I cut it in half and I think that made a better story out of it.

The other piece was a poem that I submitted to Writer’s Digest’s Annual Story Competition. I’ve submitted all sorts of pieces to this contest over the years and I’ve place twice: 10th for genre short story and 5th for script. I’m really looking to reclaim my glory of placing second in a state poetry contest back when I was a sophomore in high school.

I wanted to submit an essay for this contest (it has a variety of categories), but it just didn’t work out for me. That’s something I need more practice on.

I was also going to submit a non-genre short story to another short story contest, but I changed my mind at the last minute. I think the story is fine, but I just have no confidence in my non-genre stories. I’m not a literary writer by any means and my few journeys into that territory have been less than stellar. That story -while not bad in my opinion- will never see the light of day.

To be honest, I don’t have the highest of hopes for either of my entries. I like them both and I think they’re good, but I’m not sure that they’re good enough, you know? But winning wasn’t the main point of me submitting to those contests anyway (thought it would be super swell if I did, don’t get me wrong).

I did it to cultivate good writerly vibes and to send those vibes out into the Universe.

I know how stupid that sounds. But as someone who’s been struggling to write consistently, let alone anything of quality, submitting something -anything- to anywhere is an act of defiance against the issues I’ve had. It’s an offering to the writer gods to show them that I’m still serious about this business, even though I haven’t been as enthusiastic or productive as I’ve been in the past.

It’s about putting those good vibes that I cultivate when I’m working on a piece and I hit that sweet spot groove that I yearn for out into the world and hope that I’m repaid in kind.

It’s an act of faith, in a way. That if I can submit something I’ve written to a contest today, then I can submit something else to an anthology or a magazine tomorrow. It’s a reminder to myself and to the Universe that I’m still game for this even on the days that I doubt myself the most.

It’s just another part of the craft that requires practice. Putting myself and my work out there, valuing my work enough to put it out there, requires repeated attempts until I get it right. Because eventually, I’ll be rewarded.

In the meantime, it’ll be worth the contest entry fees.