How To Propose to A Writer

For the past five years, Halloween has carried extra meaning for me. Because on October 31, 2010, Mr. Aetherhouse (Austin) and I officially became what kids these days call “a thing.”

Last Saturday was our 5th anniversary. It’s hard to believe that I’ve been with Austin since I was 18 years old. That I’ve wanted to be with him since I was 16. Maybe even 13 if you count the fact that I thought he was cute when we first met. We’ve known each other a long time and it’s almost uncanny how well we still get along. He’s pretty much the only person I could ever live with, because I never get sick of him.

On Saturday morning, I was messing around upstairs while he made bacon and Millennium Falcon shaped biscuits for breakfast (you can find the mold here). I scribbled my long treatise on our relationship into my fancy handmade greeting card and grabbed the anniversary present I bought him – a BB-8 Alarm Clock. (He gave me an R2-D2 bathrobe earlier this month saying that it would be my present, so I reciprocated the droid theme.)

Only to find this waiting on my living room desk when I came downstairs. Way to be upstaged!

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A Royal 5 Typewriter, over 100 years old, just like the one in my favorite game Heavy Rain. I’ve never owned a typewriter before, but this one is clearly in good shape. All the keys are there, all the etching is still readable.

Then I read the note, pretty aware of where this is going.

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My response: “Of course.”

He later told me that he’d had lots of proposal ideas throughout the years, but most of them concerned things I liked rather than what I was. The fact that he acknowledged that I’m a writer, that he bought me a working typewriter instead of a ring, was pretty special to me. It’s a part of myself that I can’t deny, but I know it makes me a difficult person to be with. Most of my flaws can be tied to it – that I’m a flake, that I let the house fall apart around me because I prioritize fiction over almost anything. That I make him read my works in progress, that I’m constantly living with one foot in fantasy. That I plan excessively, that I’d rather stay inside, that I like my solitude. I need stupid amounts of space in order to be happy as a writer, but by giving me this typewriter, he can be with me while I write.

I will probably not be typing actual fiction on this thing, as I would hate to transcribe a 100k word story into a word processor after typing it! But I generally hand write notes, brainstorming, outlines, etc in physical spiral bound notebooks. I think the typewriter is a nice alternative to that, because I’ll easily be able to scan the pages and the clean typeset will make up for my atrocious handwriting. So this thing will definitely get some use. Once I fix the draw band and get a new ink spool on it, I’ll be ready to go. Hopefully that will be soon, because I’m really itching to use it.

And of course, the message inside – I’m excited about that too, but in a much more reserved way. I take marriage very seriously, and I’m content to let that desire grow more with time. If I’m going to marry anyone, it can only be Austin. And I’m happy that an engagement validates our relationship on a deeper level, particularly after 5 years of commitment. But I am the child of parents who are each twice divorced, and I know one must be careful when they make a lifelong commitment. Austin is worth marrying a hundred fold, but am I? I think I need some time to figure that out first. Hopefully the me I give into marriage is a lot closer to my Ideal Self.

Still, I’ve already got some Pinterest boards going, despite only wanting a cocktail reception and no actual ceremony, because I am a bit of a cliché. I’m torn between a Pacific Rim theme or a Lovecraft theme. Hmm….:)

Eight Ways I’m A Not A “Real” Writer (And One Way I Am)

There are a lot of clichés about how similarly writers behave, and I’m not sure I respond to all of them positively. Every “You Know You’re A Writer If You Do This Stuff!” list never seems to resound with me. Sometimes it actually makes me wonder if I am a “real” writer, or if my personality isn’t actually suited to this craft. How can I be so disconnected from something I’ve done literally all my life?

1. I don’t care about strangers. You know the image of a writer on a park bench, eyes flitting around and observing people, scribbling character ideas and dialogue in her notebook? It’s not me. At all. It’s so incredibly unlike me that I wonder if such people actually exist. Sorry, I may be a writer since birth but that isn’t going to overcome misanthropy and social anxiety. I don’t like strangers. I definitely don’t want to spend 100,000 words worth of headspace with them, nor do I want to pay any more than passing attention to them. I tend to only find people interesting once I actually know them. Most of my characters are based on things that are familiar to me and that I already care about.

2. I don’t care about tea. Or coffee. Aside from a daily latte to get my butt out of bed at 6:00 AM and awake enough to do chemistry, I have no interest in hot caffeinated drinks. There is no correlation between drinking caffeine and writing/creativity to me. I tried, but I just found it distracting. I was trying too hard to down the coffee before it went cold, which led to about twenty minutes of coffee drinking and zero minutes of actual writing.

3. I can’t write in public. This combines 1 and 2! How can anyone write in a coffee shop when you have both coffee AND strangers to distract you? :P Even with headphones, I can’t help but look over my shoulder, hoping no one is spying on my laptop. This extends to airports, airplanes, lobbies, etc.

4. I don’t like prompts. I’ve actually written a whole post about that one before. I understand that a flash fiction writer will need prompts in order to be prolific. But the whole “writing exercise prompt” thing always felt inorganic to me. If it’s not my idea – something that I elected voluntarily to write about – I’m not going to care. And if I don’t care, the writing will appear forced. My post about prompts offers a pretty decent hypothesis for why I am this way – I’m a plotter and a stewer, and prompts simply don’t give me enough time to build a convincing piece.

5. I don’t take rejection personally.  Many of you have submitted queries to agents or publishers and you became disheartened after 5 or 10 of them sent you form rejections. Darlings, do not stop there: you’re just getting warmed up.  Maybe it was a really extensive and frustrating job hunt that hardened me up, but I see any response as positive response. I’d rather cross an avenue off my list than have it sitting open on a spreadsheet, waiting to be confirmed or denied. Plus, I think many writers discount the sheer volume of queries one must make in order to pitch a novel successfully. It took me 60 applications just to find a job in a STEM field – and only 5 of those got ANY response, positive or negative – so I expect it’ll take at least double that to convince an agent to sign me. I can certainly imagine frustration that you’ll never get published after a couple hundred failed submissions – and I’ve felt the sting of beta readers’ comments directly –  but I don’t know why a handful of form letters has such a way of hurting writer feelings.

6. I’m not an avid reader. Out of all these, I’m the least proud to admit this. I do enjoy reading, and I find it informative/inspirational as a writer, but it isn’t like oxygen to me. I don’t need to read a book every week to survive. I’m usually too busy writing to have much time reading. I hope to find a better balance between the two in time, but I will never be the introspective bookworm who’s always curled up with some tea and a blanket. I’m more of a film person, actually – an admission which often earns offended gasps in the writing community.

7. I hate wearing glasses. They may look cute on you, but they don’t on me. They don’t make me look smart or creative. They’re just a veil over a face that needs all the help it can get. Especially because my prescription is so bad that I can’t buy cute frames. And because of my job, I don’t have the option to wear contacts to work. I’m going to a LASIK surgeon as soon as I can afford it.

8. I don’t believe the book is always better than the movie. Sometimes it isn’t.

And the one way I am a real writer?

I love telling stories. That’s it. That’s all the romanticism and reason I need. Maybe it’s the fact that I’m a filmmaker in a novelist’s world, or maybe it’s that I have the emotional range of Ron Weasley (aka, a teaspoon). But even if I’m not the stereotypical hipster in a sweater and glasses, with no desires outside of writing and living in a city apartment I can’t afford, the muse for telling stories and creating worlds has burned within me all my life. At the end of it all, I don’t care that I’m not the writer people think I should be – and you shouldn’t care about what people expect of you either. Honestly, I’d say the person that actually is all eight of the above probably doesn’t exist. Or if she does, somehow she’s been made an industry standard :P

What other clichés about writers do you reject? What romanticism would you like to see vanish? What assumptions do people make about you as a writer?

When An Old Project Surprises You

It’s never fun to shelve a project. To admit temporary defeat. To say “all this work I’ve done isn’t paying off in the immediate future, if ever.” But in order to keep improving our craft and using our time wisely, it is a necessary part of being a writer. But the fun part is picking up such an unfinished story a year or two later and saying “Wow. This is actually really good.

The project I speak of is The Shadow of Saturn, a dramatized memoir about my time as a NASA intern. I cranked out 50,000 words of it for NaNoWriMo 2012, rewrote most of those 50,000 words (see Thomas, I do sometimes stop in the middle of a draft and go back! :P), then shelved it indefinitely. I just wasn’t ‘feeling’ it anymore. I was feeling Paradisa more, so I started Paradisa and didn’t look back.

This book was my first attempt at writing after a three-year hiatus. I cringed at every word. I hated writing it because I felt so self-conscious about my style. Which is why I was so delighted to pick up that unfinished draft yesterday, flipping through it, unable to stop reading, constantly thinking “This is actually a decent start.”

I already have a full outline finished for this book, although it is way too long. One of the reasons I never finished it is because the outline puts it at about 150,000 words. That is longer than this novel has any right to be. So maybe I’ll futz with the outline some this week. After my Paradisa edits, of course :P But I’ll need something to work on during my next beta round so…perhaps this is a worthy side project.

As I read, I just kept thinking, “I want other people to read this book.” And because it’s a memoir, I need to get it all down before my memory starts waning. I’m already three years removed from the experience. I don’t want it to grow much longer.

Anyway, thought I’d chime in with a happy Monday post ;) You can see my scene counter has gone down slightly in the sidebar. Just 11 more to go. How was your weekend, Pressworld? And have you ever dusted off an old project with delight?

Writing To Blog?

We have not had electricity at work this week because our plant is going through a shutdown. So, I haven’t had much focus or ability to post new entries on my blog. At home, I’ve been focused on my Gamora cosplay, which is actually turning out pretty well (I might devote one day a week, probably Fridays, to posting progress for anyone following the Gamora cosplay tag. Might help them build their own). I’ve been outlining the NaNoWriMo novel some too, which I have to ask myself some hard questions in order to finish. Like yesterday, I made a brainstormed list of “Why Are People Afraid of Death?” just to keep my themes straight and my plot propelled. Tough stuff, yo.

Anyway, today I propose a simple observation that’s cropped up in the past few weeks: when I don’t write, I don’t feel like blogging. Most of my blog entries spring from thoughts I’ve had on my writing journey – thoughts about the editing of my book, the beta process, the character development, outlining, marketing, etc. Every day I work on my book, I walk away with more questions. And even better, I walk away with more concrete awareness of my Personal Writing Philosophy, which I enjoy sharing.

I like to think that my blog covers topics that you don’t see much on writing blogs. For instance, I am not going to write entries about “How To Write A Hook” or “The Three Act Structure.” Not only have such topics been beaten into the ground by hundreds of bloggers before me, they’re also common knowledge. Or, at least, very accessible knowledge. Even more, it’s knowledge given by people with credibility, whereas I am still unpublished. The best I can give are my opinions and philosophy.

Instead, I cover topics like why writing full-time isn’t that obtainable, why I write with my mind instead of my emotions, why I never delete my work, and defending unpopular topics like present tense and book-to-film adaptations. None of this comes out of the blue. A lot of it comes from other people’s posts that spark ideas in me, and a great deal of it comes from working on my book.

I’ve been lax on Paradisa lately. It’s just such a massive revision, and it’s one that I have faith in, but that doesn’t make it easy. I have other artistic priorities tugging at me this month. I have another book I’m outlining. But I’ve noticed that the more I put off Paradisa, the more my blogging suffers. The less I have to say on here, because the less experience I’m having as a writer.

Do you feel the same way? Is your blogging interest directly proportional to your writing strides?

What’s your sign?

No, I’m not being ironic. I am curious about your literal Zodiac sign, and how it might relate to your writer personality!

Sure, I’m a lady of science and reason, so I don’t normally subscribe to astrology. But as a spot-on Pisces, it does pique my curiosity. And it’s fun! My boyfriend Austin is also a textbook Libra – probably the most even-tempered and “balanced” person I’ve ever met – although my dad doesn’t live up to the Libra description much. Unless, technically, we consider his black and white extremes balanced!

I’ve heard that Pisces is the best sign for artists to be born under, because it’s the sign with the most creativity. Sure, that’s true for me, but there are obviously artists and writers born under every sign. Here’s my totally unskilled interpretation – based on sign summaries from http://www.psychicguild.com –  through the lens of a writer. I want to hear what your sign is and how it may influence your art :D Am I getting warm with these predictions, or am I way off?

  • Aries (March 21 – April 19): Aries are leaders, do-ers, adventurers. But one of the things fueling their aggressive approach to life is their constant capacity to hope. They believe that things will “always get better” and they make that a reality. No dream or challenge is too big. I’m not sure what to make of their creative side, but an Aries writer probably has a great chance of success because of their nonstop determination.
  • Taurus (April 20 – May 20): The Taurus is all about security and planning. While they may seem social, most of their feelings are locked inside and they dislike change.  They’re stubborn when it comes to advice they don’t want to hear, which probably makes them handle rejection or naysayers well! Due to their withdrawn emotive nature, they may also use writing to express pent-up feelings – making their work particularly sensual and deep. I imagine that their obsession with planning ahead may make them “plotters” rather than “pantsers.”
  • Gemini (May 21 – June 20): Geminis are eager to learn and experience new things. They have a “Jack of all trades” personality and they may be adept in multiple spheres. They’re also very talkative and are sometimes known to be writers or experts in foreign language. Overall, they’re very multidimensional creatures. They’re probably the type of writer who can cross genres, write non-fiction, and always have a new idea for a book.
  • Cancer (June 21 – July 22): Eccentric, erratic, and a walking contradiction. They can have a tough outer shell with a soft inside. They’re very focused on romantic relationships, which might spark an interest in romance writing for them. They seem a bit similar to the Taurus to me, but I think Cancers yo-yo to even more extremes.
  • Leo (July 23 – August 22): Leos are best at commitment, but they’re also full of charisma, social skills, and a good attitude. They’ve got a bit of an ego and a longing for fame, which could help or hinder their path to writing success.  They don’t take critique well…but their strong will can tear down all obstacles in their path.
  • Virgo (August 23 – September 22): Virgos are one of the most empathetic signs, which is an essential skill in the writer’s toolbox. Virgos are compassionate, never cynical, and creative. I think if all this is true, Virgos would write the most realistic, likeable characters because they understand the human soul so well.
  • Libra (September 23 – October 22): Librans are down to Earth and have obtainable dreams. They go with the flow, and their passions are quiet and easy to please. The Libran writer is one who isn’t concerned about fame or even publication – they write simply because they love it.
  • Scorpio (October 23 – November 21): Scorpios, like Aries and Leo, are determined to triumph. This is the sign of the wise “old soul,” the passionate, enigmatic, and powerful people who almost always win. A writer with the passion of a Scorpio cannot be stopped, and their talent probably comes effortlessly.
  • Sagittarius (November 22 – December 21): Sagittarians want to change the world for the better. They’re optimistic, loving, and free-spirited. I could easily see a Sagittarian writing a world-altering nonfiction book, a travel memoir, or an experimental work of metafiction. And if they ever soared to fame, I doubt it would go to their heads.
  • Capricorn (December 22 – January 19): Capricorns seek admiration and achievement, but often never realize when they’ve “made it.” Each effort is more and more extreme, higher and higher, more grand and risky. They’re the best organized and the hardest workers, which make them the workhorses of the literary world. They’re the writers who can probably knock out a novel in 12 days.
  • Aquarius (January 20 – February 18): Aquarians are the star children, the weirdos, the most unusual and original. For this, they often set trends, which may vote them “Most Likely To Write The Next Big Thing.” Aquarians are most likely to be famous, but they’re also most likely to end up in a mental institution….so their eccentric nature can be a gift and a curse. Their writing is probably the most bizarre and interesting – which can sometimes strike gold. (This made me curious if Chuck Palahanuik is an Aquarius – turns out, he’s born February 21, so he’s on the border. Not a shock!)
  • Pisces (February 19 – March 20): Torn between different talents, the Pisces has many paths in life. They’re adaptable, but like Aquarius, they’re as likely to be criminals as they are to be millionaires. But they have a strong sense of inner world-building, which probably makes them good fantasy writers ;) They also tend to see the world in rose-colored glasses, which would make them poor at writing gritty, realistic stories without a tinted bias.

What do you think? Does any of this sound like you? Do you normally connect with your sign, but think I got your “writer personality” wrong? Hit me up in the comments!

In Defense of Present Tense

Most defenders of the present tense say “it makes things more immediate” or “it makes the story more suspenseful.” Those are fine reasons, but they’re not mine. I could give a hoot about whether the story happened or is happening. As a reader, I don’t care. On the first page, I want an author to 1) show me someone interesting, 2) doing something interesting, and 3) write it well.

Reason #3 is why I write in present tense – it makes me a better writer. When I write in past, my mental mouth is full of cotton. It’s garbled, it’s clunky, I use too many words. Present tense cuts through the noise and modifiers.

Present tense is just “real” tense. Some say “I don’t like when present tense slips into past, it’s jarring!” Sometimes that’s a legit mistake, but sometimes it’s necessary. If your characters are working in the present, that means they still have a past. Like real people, your characters can have a ‘now’ and a ‘then.’ If you’re flashing back to their childhood, or even earlier in the story, you almost need to weave in past tense.

I can also show character growth by working in this “real” tense. In an early draft of Paradisa, my characters Clara and Hephaestus become instant friends upon meeting. In the first half of the story, the narrator explains that “Clara trusts Hephaestus.”

Later in the story, after Hephaestus betrays Clara’s feelings, the narrator explains that “Clara trusted Hephaestus.”

That distinction is much more profound when you start in the present and can play with some past tense verbs. If your whole story is in past tense, the best you could say is “trusted” and “had trusted”….and I have a personal aversion to putting “had” in front of any verb.

It’s not the tense and it’s not a gimmick – maybe it’s just bad writing. Those who turn their nose up at present tense often construct paragraphs like the following, in order to show how staccato and unnatural it is –

  • Anna crosses the room and opens the door. She looks out at the bright summer morning, admiring the cleanly cut grass and smell of leftover dew. She goes to the mailbox and grabs her mail, then goes back inside. She hears the phone ring. She picks it up.

Yeah, I’d roll my eyes at that too. That paragraph isn’t bad because it’s present tense. It’s bad because it’s poorly written! If you read the same paragraph in past tense –

  • Anna crossed the room and opened the door. She looked out at the bright summer morning, admiring the cleanly cut grass and smell of leftover dew. She went to the mailbox and grabbed her mail, then went back inside. She heard the phone ring. She picked it up.

– it’s almost equally abysmal. The past tense does make this piece of drivel a little more tolerable, but should past tense be desirable because it masks bad writing? Or perhaps, present tense is just harder to convey effectively. The first paragraph sounds distinctly like someone is giving you a play-by-play, because that’s what you get when present tense is butchered. The second just sounds like a weak narrator.

Play with psychic distance. But it’s also very obvious that the second paragraph was converted from present to past. Many authors think differently when they’re writing in present tense, and therefore they write differently. This is largely due to psychic distance. When you’re new to present tense, it’s easy to set your psychic distance over-the-shoulder for the entire story. Don’t do that. Remember you can still get inside a character’s head, or step very far back into the corner of the room. You can reflect on what a character is thinking and feeling, not just what they’re doing. You can also reflect on previous feelings and future worries. It doesn’t have to be constant “right here, right now, action.” The story world is still your three-dimensional oyster, in both time and space.

I’m no expert, but here’s a paragraph from Paradisa. I think it’s a decent example of how to avoid the play-by-play mistake of my “Anna” paragraph, mostly because I avoid standing over Connor’s shoulder moment-by-moment. (A little ironically, I also managed to talk about the past here while still using the present. But if I did it this way too many times, I think it would get tiresome.)

  • He doesn’t remember the moment of impact. Just before – listening to his younger sister prattle about her thermodynamics homework – and after – airbags exploding like popcorn, lap belts clinging, their car spinning with a screech. Now Connor stands outside the wreckage, somehow, unable to recall jumping out.Night swallows the edges of his swarthy silhouette. Before it makes him disappear, Connor’s words regain decibels.

Point of view matters. Finally, we should acknowledge that Third Person and First Person make a big difference.

First-person present can fall into the play-by-play ditch or it can be flawlessly conversational. In order to achieve FPP, your character needs a good voice. A boring character talking about their day – “I pick up the phone. It’s my best friend, Jenny. She asks me if Johnny is going to the football game tonight” – is an awkward snooze. But if your narrator is Holden Caulfield – “If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth” – the tense is invisible.

Third-person present is my favorite way to write. To me, just write it like you would past tense. My thought/creative process doesn’t shift with either. The present tense just allows me to say what I would in past, except more succinct and rhythmic.

So, that’s my weird rant on present tense. Of course it can be done poorly, but I’m sick of the detractors using poor writing as examples of why present tense fails. Like anything, it just depends on how you use it!

Your Least Favorite Thing To Write

If you don’t like writing it, why would anyone want to read it? Well, as I said last week, not everything that’s good is easy. I think every writer has a certain “type” of scene that trips them up. We know that sex sells, but erotic scenes can be very difficult to put on the page. Some folks struggle with the ‘quiet moments’, because it can be hard to craft interesting fireside chats between characters. I’ve heard of people struggling through climatic scenes before. And even though action-packed adventures are fun to read, by God can they be hard to write.

That’s my hair-pulling weakness – action scenes. unfortunately, I imagine my books like summer blockbusters, so they’re full of sword fights atop train cars, courtyard battles, exploding stained glass windows, car chases…you name it. And I enjoy reading them later. If I’m a one-in-a-million author who has her work adapted for film someday, those sequences would be fantastic on the big screen. I can’t write quiet literary yarns about the human condition. That ain’t how I roll.

But writing action is excruciating. It takes weeks. Action means movement, so for at least a full chapter, my characters are in constant motion. All five of them. And that motion has to mean something. The action cannot be sword-fighty fluff that doesn’t result in plot. The end of every fight or car chase or battle has the change the story in some way. A major character has to die, the villain has to gain strides towards their nefarious goal, a MacGuffin needs to be stolen, a protagonist has to make a heartbreaking choice. Something.

So you can imagine why this is hard! At least with erotic scenes, you’re only handling two characters (well….most of the time!). And while love scenes sometimes change the story, they can also pass as quiet interludes or fanservice. They’re usually rather brief. But action scenes can only be appreciated when they have a strong point. To write a fanservice action scene, where the characters get themselves into trouble to no real endpoint, feels empty. It feels like a waste of time. In my stories, action arcs take up 1-3 chapters at a time. 10% of my book – and your book – cannot be fluff. The action IS the plot. It cannot be an aside.

What are your least favorite scenes to write? Action? Sex? Quiet conversations? Endings? Openings? Transitions? Let me know in the comments!