Powered by INTJ Dreams and Lily Allen

Know this song? It’s by Lily Allen. It’s called The Fear and it’s pretty relevant to my life right now. Actually, a lot of Lily Allen’s songs are, but this one in particular. It’s about messed up expectations and wanting things for the wrong reasons. It’s about having your hopes in the wrong place. It’s about becoming a product or a machine of art instead of a person. It’s about losing perspective to fear, and all the irrationality that comes with that.

The other day, for the first time in my life, I thought “I should give up writing.” Literally, that is the first time in my LIFE I have thought that. Writing has always been a part of me. Its continuation has been an inevitable and dependable guarantee for my future. I thought my eyes would turn from brown to blue before I’d stop being a writer.

But then I asked myself why. Why is writing so important to me when it seems so much more vastly important to other people? All these people who write from the base of their guts, and who pour their blood into it. They use writing as a medium for their originality and brilliance. It’s a compulsion for me to tell stories, but mine have nothing new or important to say. My work can be exciting, I think, but it’s a strung together timeline of set pieces with no thematic glue or beautiful language or…anything, really. It all feels so empty when I compare it to the truly moving works of greatness. Greatness has to change the world, but what would I even change?

I could end up successful. I still believe I could get published, or even be famous. But it hit me, upon reading some really beautiful work that I don’t even have the capacity to emulate, that I will never achieve real greatness. On a scale from Michael Bay to Cecil B Demille, or from Stephanie Meyer to Vladimir Nabokov, I might eke out the Bays and Meyers. But I just don’t see myself becoming legendary, and letting go of that dream is tough. I don’t like settling, but I feel like I’m at this stage where I need to accept that publication has to be *enough* for me.

I’m an INTJ, you know. Also known as “the soulless visionaries”. We see beautiful things for no reason. It’s like there’s this wall there preventing my mind from being deep or creative. It’s like I can physically feel my own lack of intelligence. As a personality type, we’re too literal and emotionally shallow. We can’t effectively communicate our ideas. We’re so socially crippled that we can’t even get along with other “misfits.” I feel my personality like a weight on me daily.

Did you ever hear of “The Inklings”, which was a writers group with C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, among others? I always wanted my own Inklings, but it seemed like a pipe dream. I feel like all the gates are up and against me, that I’m not right enough for anyone. That there is just straight up something wrong with me because of the rarity and controversial nature of my personality type, which cannot be fixed or changed or even masked.

Which brings me to an interesting discovery I made while writing this post – C.S. Lewis was an INTJ. C.S. Lewis, who created Narnia in all its hope and beauty. So were Jane Austen and Emily Brontë, who wrote vivid and emotionally moving works of romance. So was Lewis Carroll, who created the extremely imaginative world of Alice in Wonderland. So was Isaac Asimov, one of the greatest science fiction writers ever born.

I wonder how they overcame it. Maybe they used it to their advantage. A lot of advice tells us that we should use what makes us unique. That being different is a way to stand out from the masses. I’ve always thought of my differences as more of a liability – there is such a thing as bad differences, after all. Every time I hear that we should accept ourselves for who we are, I think, but what if you really are terrible? What if you’re a real monster?

I’ve been desperate all my life to be like everyone else. But at the same time, I’ve never wanted a mundane or ordinary life. Finding a way to work with my differences will probably be a constant struggle for as long as I live. I go back to the reason I write – because I can’t not write – and I ponder why I was bestowed with this compulsion if I’m not meant to use it. Obviously I’m supposed to find a way to work with this. I don’t really believe in fate or divine paths, but I do believe in quantum attraction. I think we are naturally drawn to what we can do best, and what our “purpose” is. I’ve always wanted my own sense of purpose to have a larger purpose – to actually influence the world in some way – but maybe my own happiness is enough. Maybe you don’t have to be great to have a great life.

So no, friends, I’m not throwing in the towel. But I still wrestle with the fear every day, as Ra wrestled each day with the darkness. And while I wish I could fast forward to the part in my life when I don’t have to worry about stuff anymore, maybe learning to deal with myself is part of the path.

My Experiment With A Writing Journal

No, not a blog, my friends. Not a composition notebook by your bedside table where you jot down ideas that strike in the middle of slumber. Not a list of “Cool titles I might use one day” or “writing prompts” or “neat character names.” A writing journal can have all of those things…but what a writing journal should be is a foundation for what it means to be human. A way to store all the emotions you feel on a daily basis, reflect on them, and then summon them at will when you want to use them in a character. A place where you keep progress of your work in order to keep yourself accountable. A place where you work out the chaos in your head by simply turning it into an alphabet.

I haven’t kept up with my writing journal for very long, nor have I reached the habit where I write in it every day. But already, I see why it’s beneficial. Pouring out the bad emotions and weird thoughts and worried delusions and speculation of my future is a great way to encapsulate my humanity – a humanity that, often when I’m writing, I wonder if I really have. I’m not frequently emotional. I worry that my work is often bland and shallow and devoid of character because I don’t pull at the reader’s guts every other page. I’m a commercial writer, I admit, but I appreciate a blend between commercial plot and loveable, heart wrenching characters a la Doctor Who.

I have that journal in front of me and I can go back to a day where I felt fully in love, or inadequate, or fat, or useless, or uneasy, or lucky, or curious, I can relive what it means to be those things. I can use my prior self as a vector and fill in my character, or whatever plot thread I’m trying to twist.

On a less personal note, I can write down all the weird “what if?” thoughts I had throughout the day, thoughts that both disturbed or elated me or struck my curiosity. I can write down funny anecdotes from work, funny things Reggie said that I might use later in a character like him, or amusing people I saw at dinner. I can talk about news stories that angered me, scared me, or made me shake my head. I can log trends in the universe that I observe as a way to predict what’s next in fiction. I can write about books I’ve read, movies I’ve watched, and games I’ve played to dissect what I loved and hated about them, and why the story worked or why it didn’t. I can count my submission response letters and make note of journals who were particularly kind or helpful in their rejections. I can preserve – in ink, in something tangible – the moment when I actually get accepted to something.

When I first read about the habit of keeping a journal, I thought, “I don’t need to do that – I have a blog.” Or, “I don’t need to do that, I have a plot bunny journal.”  But after giving it a try, I see why this is different. Because the writing journal is not a place where you wax about your writing philosophy, as my blog is. It’s not a place where you simply tinker with ideas, like my plot bunny book. It’s a place where you can keep track of experiences that are so important in building authorial maturity. It’s a place where you sketch out who you are, and that identity will define what you write about.

And let’s face it – it would make a mighty fine auction item if you ever became famous one day ;)

A Slow Start To NaNoWriMo

The bad news? I only wrote about 1700 words this weekend. Cheers to a weak, hobbling start to NaNoWriMo, ha! But the good news? I knew I’d have some sick days, so it’s not like this puts me too behind.

However, starting this novel for real gave me a…perspective on how undercooked the concept is. I must have rewritten the first paragraph six times. And not just futzing with the wording, but futzing with the location, the atmosphere. At first I opened with my character naked on the floor of her childhood bedroom. Then I just put her in the bed, dressed, in her childhood bedroom.

Then I put her on the moon, and went from there.

It’s all so haphazard right now. So many sidebars and ramblings because that’s the sort of book this is, and I don’t have a great grasp on how much my protagonist remembers about before. It’s all sort of a mess, and I’m not fond of how I achieved the narrative beats in Chapter One but…I think the intro to this book was one of the hardest parts and I’ve crossed a hump. My fingers feel much more comfortable now that I’m in Chapter Two and the book’s path is clearer.

The hard part about this book is knowing that the dust hasn’t settled in my mind yet. Knowing that I’m still not sure what I want it to BE and how I want my character to discover it. It results in a lot of backspacing, not because I’m doubting myself or editing but because I’m constantly having better ideas that merit massive changes. I’ve told you before that my stories have to cook a long time in my head before I’m ready to write them, and this has not cooked long enough. Only last week did I make the eleventh hour choice to set most of the story in a desert instead of a Portal-esque puzzle lab, which massively changes how it all comes across.

So. Difficult new challenges, that’s for sure. Not sure if I’m going to win NaNo this year with this type of book on my plate, but we’ll see. I found that once I got going with it, the word count really poured out of me. It’s just finding the path that’s hard.

On the positive note, I made a book cover for it which I’m pretty proud of. I’ve only got the blurry thumbnail below, but I’ll try to upload a hi-res version later. I also changed the title from Wake to Figments, as I wanted the title it to be….less spoilery :P

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Author-Reader Trust: The Key To A Great Book

This weekend, I went to the library’s annual book sale. Most of the books I bought, I’d never heard of – but the synopsis looked interesting, or they dealt with topics/genres that I’m currently involved in. The only book I was curious about previously was Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend + Short Stories. I like that many of Matheson’s stories are about being alone, which is relevant to my NaNo novel, and he’s just a classic pillar of sci-fi.

Anyway, the book I actually started reading was Dreamhunter by Elizabeth Knox. Knox is revered as an elegant author and the series has supposedly decent world-building.

I’m 40 pages in and I’m constantly editing her prose in my head. On the very opening page (of a prologue -_-), I’m like “I DON’T CARE ABOUT THE TREES. This description is awful! You’re just throwing pretty words into a run-on sentence with places and other Proper Nouns that you haven’t defined!” About three paragraphs in, she brings in a sentence with a setting’s name, a main character, what they’re doing, and some intriguing aspect of their situation, and I’m like there. Why isn’t that your opening line? Everything that came before this doesn’t matter, and THIS is your good sentence.

I have this problem with a lot of books. In fact, it leads me to abandon many these days, and almost table-flip reading entirely. While I recognize that Knox writes like a professional, I find myself overly critical of her. Why? I’ve never even heard of her. All I know is her writing in this one book. And I’m not enjoying it.

It’s not just because I write fast-paced commercial fiction. I’ve also read slow, cerebral novels I’ve enjoyed enough (like Never Let Me Go) because what they lack in action they make up for in intrigue. And there have been some recent reads that my mental editor did not mind. As much as I disliked Hazel and Gus in The Fault In Our Stars, I never mentally edited Green’s prose.  I also enjoy House of Leaves – and so far, I can’t think of anything that I would change about it. Just when you think Mark is going on some tangent about nothing for three pages, his concluding paragraph relates it all together and you’re just like “AHHHH.”

What does this come down to, really? Why can I be patient when Dashner takes his time setting up questions in The Maze Runner, but I’m desperately waiting for Knox to spell out her world in Dreamhunter? Why do I give Mark Danielewski the benefit of the doubt during his tangents, but in other books, I would skim such rants? Why can I look past the poor prose of some novels if I enjoy the characters and story? It’s because for some unexplainable, astral reason, the ‘good’ authors are the ones who gained my trust. They successfully created enough of the fictional dream – the verisimilitude – for me not to care about what rules they break.

I’ve also been reading Gone Girl. The first chapter is awful. It’s boring. It’s clunky. The prose tries way too hard, making you far too aware of the author. The narrator, Nick, is just whiny cardboard.

Then, the second chapter switches tenses, time, and narrators, and suddenly the book is interesting. I’m left wondering why this isn’t the opening chapter, because Amy’s voice is actually interesting. It’s natural. There is motion. I’m less doubtful of Gillian Flynn now. I trust her a bit more, because chapter two proved that she can write. And that’s why I keep reading.

I can’t pinpoint what makes me trust an author. In the end, I can’t say I really enjoyed Never Let Me Go or The Fault in Our Stars, but I did finish them. I finished them because the authors kept me gripped enough by….something. Some sense of trust and investment in them. So, one of my continued exercises is to figure out how readers can trust me. My main tool is a strong opening and an attempt at strong voice. I also try to be really direct. I want to give the sense that the world is deeper and broader than what is on the page, but I don’t want the reader to ask questions every second line.

In the end, you can’t please everyone. My father and my friend Greg both read Paradisa. Dad complained about the book in a very specific way – a way that made me realize he did not trust me. He questioned everything from line one, while Greg kicked his feet up and just ‘went’ with it. In the end, Greg understood the novel nearly as well as I do, and Dad was left lost and bitter about ‘the worst thing he’d ever read.’ How can one truly be ‘right’ if the other one exists?

I think we all have different expectations out of an author we trust, which is one of the primary influences on our ‘taste.’ It’s the reason we gawk at how some books were ever critically acclaimed. It’s the reason we sometimes enjoy stories that most of the population scorns. For whatever reason, those authors gained our trust, and I believe that’s the foundation for a subjectively great book.

Pre-Nano Month Begins!

It’s here, folks. October. The month where Fall truly begins, the month of cosplay and Halloween, the month of great weather and food that is unnecessarily flavored with pumpkin spice. For the past few years, October has also represented the month where I plan my next NaNoWriMo novel.

Let’s talk about NaNoWriMo itself for a sec- why do I bother? Any good writer should be able to pump out a novel any month they choose, right? And yeah, we know NaNo is full of inexperienced hacks who think a high word count = a novel they can send to an agent on December 1st. Why would any legitimate writer want to associate themself with an amateur hour like NaNo?

Personally, I enjoy participating in a well-known, organized, public challenge. Think of it this way – a common goal for many people is to run a marathon. In order to achieve it, you have to slowly work yourself up to running 26.22 miles, which means you probably have to run a marathon on a treadmill or around your neighborhood before you can compete in an official one. Or at least, you have to know you can get really close. “I know I can run 10 miles, so I can probably run a marathon” won’t cut it.

So if you run almost 26 miles around the block, why aren’t you satisfied? Why does it not feel official? You’ve accomplished it right? You ran the length of a marathon. But that’s not the important part. The important part is being there alongside everyone else. Waking up early to get to the start line, cheering as everyone runs across the start together, pushing it out for 26.22 miles where everyone can see you, and then hearing the cheers when you cross the finish line. Having a physical, solid, official finish line to cross. That’s when you feel you can tick that box on your bucket list.

Now, it’s a little different with writing novels. If you complete a novel during any time of the year, you still feel pretty accomplished. But ideally, it takes me about a year to write a novel, edit it, and get it potentially publishable. Why not start that year every November? Because that’s what NaNo really is for me – a start on a new project. A start that I cannot delay or avoid. November 1st is going to come and I can either hop on the bandwagon and get going, or I can keep pushing it off until I’m done with Paradisa, which will be at least another six months.

I also like to challenge myself a little bit farther every year. My first NaNo was in 2010, when I was in the midst of Organic Chemistry and Calculus II. I got to 35,000 words and lost. My first successful NaNo was in 2012, when I just eked past 50,000 words. Last year, I resolved to write 100,000 words – actually completing a novel instead of half a novel. I believe I got to 70,000, which was still pretty impressive. This year, I think my goal is going to be 75,000, which should be the completed version of the novel I’m outlining. I’m a little afraid of how short this story might turn out, but this might also be one that I consider self-publishing. So word count may not be as crucial.

I also like the prizes NaNo offers. And NaNo’s word count and statistics software are top-notch. I really wish it was available all year. Tracking words in a spreadsheet myself just isn’t the same.

Plus, I don’t think there’s shame in needing a little bit of peer pressure to get the gears turning. You certainly shouldn’t pump out 50,000 every November and then never look at them again, or abandon being a writer for the other 11 months. Ultimately, we should write because we love it, and that’s why we’re participating in NaNo in the first place. But I dunno…I find it very fun. I don’t participate in the write-ins or the forums, but I keep tabs on my friends who are doing it. H.K. Rowe and I have NaNo’d together for many years. It’s sort of tradition at this point.

But, as you all know, I’m a plotter. So October is training month for me. It’s the month where I brainstorm and throw down all my thoughts into a legal pad and try to make sense of it. That way, on November 1st, I’m ready for the marathon. Lehgo!

Writing About Your Hometown

Stephen King writes about sleepy New England towns. Candace Bushnell writes about New York. Audrey Niffenegger wrote about Chicago. And the bestselling authors I’ve shared a zip code with – Bret Lott and Sue Monk Kidd – write about Charleston. When writers “write what they know,” setting is often the first thing they zoom to.

On the other hand, Robert Jordan lived in Charleston all his life, but The Wheel of Time didn’t involve Rainbow Row. Between Lott and Jordan, I’m the latter. Not just because I’m a fantasy author, but because there’s something awkward about setting my books in Charleston. It feels too personal, too self-inserty, especially because my characters can be very different from me. They could experience a side of the city that I’ve never seen. I have enough friends and coworkers to know that Charleston is what you make of it, and you can find any adventure you wish to have. Charleston can be the setting of a cozy, beachy romance, or it can be the setting of late-night college hijinks.

(Personally, I’d like to see the wild side of Charleston in books/movies. Nicholas Sparks does not have a monopoly on this town! Then again, I guess that’s what Southern Charm is, and we all wish that show would go away.)

I feel like I simultaneously know Charleston very well and not enough. I don’t know Charleston as much as I know “Michelle’s Charleston,” a subjectivity that does not lend itself well to setting. Plus, I think it would be distracting for my local beta readers, the same way it is for actors to watch themselves in movies.

At the same time, I am tempted to start off Paradisa in Charleston for one perfect reason – Clara. Clara is an engineering student. She is the daughter of a retired Marine commander. Her brother Connor was a Navy SEAL. The girl has soldier veins, yet I don’t want to put her in the military. I want her to be technical minded with mere undertones of that gung-ho spirit.

The only engineering school in Charleston is The Citadel.

It would be the perfect school for her to go to, and it would give her character an excuse for resilience that she sorely needs. She could have that soldier spirit instilled in her while still being the “smart” one, and not being hampered by actual military service. After college, she could become an officer, or she could leave the military life behind. She hasn’t chosen which, and that internal struggle could be a subplot. Simply changing the setting to Charleston would solve so much of Clara’s character that I can’t resist. Plus, since Connor is a chef, it’s more believable that he could eek out a bearable living at one of our award-winning restaurants downtown.

Connor and Clara’s hometown is mostly irrelevant because they leave it in Chapter Two. I think my knowledge of Charleston does more good than harm in this case. But I could never set an entire book here. Making a few references to street names and schools in the opening chapter is one thing, but navigating my characters through the Peninsula for 300 pages would grind my nerves. I’d be so worried about getting minute details wrong, or presenting my town in some incorrect or negative light. It’s funny how I don’t have that problem when writing about places I’ve never even been, but maybe my attachment to Charleston means I handle its presentation with extra care.

Do you enjoy writing about your hometown, or do you prefer to play in a setting that’s foreign to you?

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!