Frustration…and Failure

IMG_0163The stars (mis)aligned, I think, and I didn’t get my IWSG newsletter/prompt.  Dagnabbit!  I actually look forward to those things!  Ah, well, I’ll tackle a writing-specific post, anyway.

Now, if I’m honest, most of my blog posts can be rather, erm, random.  In general, they reflect mostly what I’m thinking at whatever particular moment I sit down to write them — which, most often, is when I’m taking a break from other stuff.  I DO try to tie all (well, most) of my posts back to writing, but sometimes the rest of my brain decides to just take over and write about other stuff.

Damn my (tiny) brain!brain1-e1312872869675-281x300

So, since today is the first Wednesday of the month, what to write about for IWSG Day?

Oh, hell, why not?  Let’s go with it: frustration & failure.

Oh yeah.

Oh freaking yeah.

Simply put, writing is the most frustrating thing I’ve ever done.

Look, I play hockey at a (fairly) high level.  I do my best to ignore reality and play with folks who once made the sport their living (and some who still do).  And you know what?  The frustration and difficulty in THAT is a whole lot less than what comes with writing even a single story.  To be embarrassed by a player young enough to be my child is easier to take than those days when the words just won’t come…those days when, in sports terms, I just “don’t have it”.

In all honesty, there are those days when I wonder if the words will ever come again.  Kinda like the last two months.

Kinda like right now.

Yeah, I’m in the middle of that frustration.  I’m fighting myself.  I’m fighting the vision that was once so clear…and is now, to all intents and purposes, gone.  I have, to return to the sports motif, lost my confidence.  And not just a little — I’ve lost all of it.

To put that statement in context: aside from these blog posts, and a handful of small freelance projects, I’ve had only a handful of productive writing sessions since the middle of January. I’ve written fewer (fiction) words in the last 2 months than I expect to turn out in a single day when things are going well.

So…let’s talk about frustration, and about failure, shall we?

I mentioned once before, in a previous IWSG post, that momentum is everything in writing.  That writing involves pushing that Sisyphean boulder up the hill.  Well, I stopped pushing…and the damned thing ran me over.

So how do you deal with it?  How do I deal with it?

Hemingway and a host of others aside, the answer is not to crawl inside a bottle.  Nor is it to retreat from the world, just as it isn’t to run off and join the circus.  Not anymore than it is to rant and rave and blame the universe itself for the blank screen on my word processor.

I’ve given the advice to others…more than once.  I just can’t seem to give it to myself.  For me, the answer is to go simple, to “navigate small,” as I put it another post.  I know that.  I know it very well.

But can I?

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Maybe I should’ve waited a week — or a month, or a year — to write this post.  Maybe I should’ve waited until I’d actually fixed the damned problem, but, well…

I don’t talk about my own failures very often.  Hell, I don’t generally talk about them at all.  I’m far too proud, and far too private, to (generally) dive into that particular pool, but…

But, there’s always a but…

But, no one learns from having things go right.  No one learns from having all the answers. In sports terms, once again, no one learns the drive it takes to win without also learning what it’s like to lose. And right now, I’m not just losing, I’m getting my ass kicked.  Too many of my fellow writers out there can sympathize with that frustration, and that failure, so why hide it?

Besides…if writing blog posts and microfiction is where the words are at this moment, who the hell am I to argue?

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Reward The Little Things

IMG_0163Celebrations.

More specifically: what are the celebrations I give myself for achieving successes and milestones in writing?

Okay…so, first off…I write in the taproom of a brewery. One could (quite reasonably) argue that every single one of my writing sessions is a “celebration”. And that’s even before you get into the philosophical considerations of the mental and emotional rewards of writing…

Okay, okay, I freely admit it — I do use my “office” for a certain amount of…err…self-reward. And, no, that’s not nearly as dirty as it sounds. What it does mean is that I’m a very goal-oriented person in anything I do professionally.

I have a specific, concrete goal for each and every writing session. Now, it helps to keep in mind that I design my outlines, and my stories, based on “scenes”, and each scene is intended as a goal to be accomplished in one writing session. It doesn’t happen every time, but when I am successful in achieving that goal, I reward myself for achieving that day’s goal with a mini-celebration. I reward myself — at the least — with a beer and a quiet, internal little “Yeehaw!”

But it gets more complicated from there.

I think most writers are aware that some sessions — like some scenes, and some ideas — are just more “successful” than others. For those, something special is in order. For those times when I get done and I know that everything just clicked — for those times when I have that feeling that says “oh yeah, nailed it!” — a celebration, or at least a (ahem) self-reward, is definitely in order. Those are the times when I don’t reward myself with a beer. Nosiree, those are the times when the bottle of 14-year-old single-malt might just happen to come out…

The bottom line isn’t giving yourself a drink as a reward. Just as it isn’t any other form of self-indulgence. No, the bottom line is that you have to motivate yourself…and anyone who has spent more than five minutes managing in Corporate America knows that motivating involves not just the stick, but also the carrot.

Dangle yourself a carrot — allow yourself a reward for the small victories as much as for the large.

Sure, when you sign that five-book-deal with a major publisher and are preparing your acceptance speech for a major award, you reward yourself. Of course you do. And if you don’t? Well, disfunction is its own reward, I suppose.

But what about when you absolutely nail a scene?

Or, hell…what about when you finish a chapter?

Or you take a new direction with a character?

Yeah, “writing is its own reward,” you say. And I get it…I really do.

But…

…but you have to give yourself those little extras — those perks — that tell your subconscious, “hey, this is worth doing!”

If you don’t reward yourself for the little victories, why would your subconscious believe that you’re going to do a damned thing for the big ones? Would you believe a boss that did that to you?

I know I wouldn’t.

If you’re like me, writing is who you are, far more than it is what you do…but that doesn’t mean you can treat yourself like shit.  It doensn’t mean that you’re slave-labor. Quite the opposite in fact. It means you have to keep yourself motivated and working; it means that you have to reward yourself for the little victories as much as for the big.

That five-book-deal, by the way? That reward is set and waiting…and it involves a velvet couch, a bow-and-arrow, and a bunny-suit.

You don’t want to know.

The Stories I Want To Tell

IMG_0163IWSG Question o’ the month: what do you love about the genre you write most in?

Nice question, folks!  It’s especially appropriate since I’m looking at the stories I want to write after I’m done with the Dockrat series.

I’ve talked before — a bit — about writing sci-fi.  First and foremost, it’s important to remember that I’m a nerd.  I’m a major nerd.  Sci-fi and fantasy have been tied for my first love since I was old enough to turn that jumble of big words and strange spellings into understandable stories.

The first time I read The Chronicles of Amber…my first encounter with Mote In God’s Eye…the day when Left Hand of Darkness started to make sense…Downbelow Station and Lord of Light and Hyperion Cantos and A Canticle For Leibowitz

Watching Star Wars and Outland and Excalibur and Alien(s)

Yep, I’m a freaking nerd.

But — and this is the big BUT, for me — writing is different than reading.  Very different.  I might love to read sci-fi, but that isn’t why I’m currently writing it.  Not at all.  Hell, I’ve mentioned before my shameful, only-talked-about-in-private love of Downton Abbey, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to write soap operas about the early 20th century English aristocracy…

No, the stories I am currently writing (Wrath, Silence and Flicker) are sci-fi not because I love the genre, but because it serves the story.

I have, in all honesty, been asked and challenged as to just WHY Connor’s story is written as sci-fi when it could, just as easily, be set in 1970’s Boston…or 1980’s Marseilles…or Long Beach, or Brooklyn, or any of a dozen other “real” cities.15_gal_copper_1_1024x1024

Honestly, the story is sci-fi for the same reason I love the genre: it’s not a lens, nor a dream, nor a filter…it’s a still.

Sci-fi lets the writer take dynamics and issues and problems from the everyday world, and distill them down.  You distill them, mix them with other dynamics and issues and problems, then release a concoction that intensifies and combines everything into one (hopefully) coherent liquor.

Connor’s “world” in Wrath very intentionally distills the willfully insane socio-economic disparities with which I grew up (thanks, Los Angeles!), then mixes it with manifestations of the ever-growing problems I see plaguing the US today.  Dockside’s asian cultural and linguistic elements were then added as “seasoning” in order to foster a sense of otherness for my US-based readers.

That combination of elements would not be possible without the…errr…”lubricant” of science fiction.  That, as a writer, is what I love about sci-fi.  Oh, the ability to take on any and all themes is nice, as is the ability to take ideas and settings and, well, space-magic, and just run with them…but none of those compare with the flexibility and fun of building a world built to say what you want to say.

Quite simply, there are stories you can tell only in a sci-fi setting.  Oh, I don’t mean alien invasions and grand space battles…I’m talking about commentaries on societies and cultures and peoples.  The Forever War tackled the Vietnam War in a way not really possible in other genres.  The War With The Newts, Brave New World, Frankenstein, The Time Machine, (just to name a few of the oldest) all used sci-fi to tell stories about so much more than they were about.

When you get right down to it, the genre of a story is nothing more than one of a writer’s many tools.  It sits right there with setting and tone and language as a way to tell and define the story.  If sci-fi does not serve a particular story for me — or anyone else — then something else must be used.*  None of the future stories I’m toying with are sci-fi for much the same reason that Dockrat is sci-fi: each has a genre that best fits the story.

*But, use something else or not, sci-fi and fantasy are still my first loves — and, as we all know, you never really get over your first love!

When you get right down to it, what I love about sci-fi is what I love about writing itself: telling stories.  More precisely, telling the stories I want to tell.

I’ve been asked — more times than I can count — “who are you writing for?”

Now, look…I’m an ex-sales and marketing weasel.  I can bullshit with the best of ’em.  A question like that all-but FORCES me to bullshit.  But, sitting in a quiet pub with a nice drink, and some quiet conversation between just you and me, the truth comes out: who am I writing for?  Me.  I’m writing for me, and for the stories I want to tell.

And if those ghosts fluttering around the back of my mind, waiting to tell their stories, all have a sci-fi or fantasy bent? So much the better.

By the way, the next round’s on me…2017_08_18_31194_1503028826._large

Keeping Momentum

IMG_0163This blog was once intended as a practical, “behind-the-scenes” view of the writing process.  It has, I’ll admit, morphed away from that intent.  I still, however, do have that underlying urge to occasionally share my own hard-won experience and advice in writing.

Today’s IWSG topic gives me an excuse to play to that (occasional) urge: “What steps have you taken to put a schedule in place for your writing and publishing?”

To tackle this one, I have to — with more than a hint of sad revulsion — briefly put on my big-boy pants and flash back to my days as a sales and marketing monkey.

In the old days, when I used to manage staff and projects, I would create timelines and plans with all kinds of measurables and delivery dates.  I knew, every time I checked that schedule, exactly where any project stood at any particular moment.  I also knew, within reason, when any element, major or minor, was going to be finished.

I do something similar with the writing.  Err, I try to do something similar.

At the end of my normal prep process, I have a detailed timeline and a list of all the scenes in that particular story.  That list includes the day/date of the scene, the setting and the characters involved, as well as notes on things like tone, perspective, and some background on what has gone before.

After I create that plan, however, the schedule is…well…the schedule can pretty much kiss my ass.  Hey, I left the world of cubicles and meetings and schedules for a reason, goddammit!

I write whatever scene strikes my fancy at any particular moment.  I’ve found that jumping around the story like the caffeine-addled squirrel that I am allows me to match the scene to my mood and inclination.

As strange as it may sound, that little tic actually makes the entire project go faster.  Recently, I tried forcing myself to write things in order, and it turned out to be a serious failure.  A failure from which I am still trying to recover, I might add.  Writing a fight scene when I was feeling mellow and laid back…writing a love scene after a bad day…writing exposition and setup when there was chaos around me…these things were not a recipe for success.

Now, the above is pretty idiosyncratic to me, but there is something in there that can apply to almost any writer: don’t write to your word-count, write to your story.

If your plan is solely to write 1000 (or 2000, or 5000) words a day, then that is exactly what you are going to do…write words.  Whether or not you advance the story is another thing entirely.

It is far too easy — and far too common — to get so caught up in the “measurables” that you lose sight of just what those those measurable really represent.  Call it the writer’s version of “forest for the trees.”

Thinking of my story in terms of scenes, however, is something that works quite well.  Each scene is (roughly) a day’s worth of writing, and represents a discreet and significant unit of the story itself.  If I stick to the plan of writing one scene a day, I am certain to advance the story…and to get my necessary work done.

Honestly, it also plays into psychology…or at least into my particular psychology: finishing a scene provides a more significant sense of accomplishment than simply ending the day with 2,500 more words written.

My last bit of advice on this, and perhaps the more important one, is this: momentum is king.  Writing — again, at least for me — is very much a game of momentum.  A regular rhythm of producing at least one scene per day builds not just your story, but also your confidence and the flow of your words.  Break that momentum?  Stop that flow?  Not only do bad things happen, but you make it vastly harder to start again.

Look, for most of us writing isn’t all that different from pushing the Sisyphean boulder up the hill. Take a break and that damned rock can roll right over you on its way back down.  But if you keep pushing…

…if you keep pushing, you find the next hill.  And the next hill, like the next story, is always better.