Monday, March 14, 2016

Falling in love with a new voice

Starting this post off with a weird admission:

I've never fallen in love.

I've grown to love many people, but I've never experienced that thing people talk about, an instant connection of sorts, a hyper-awareness, an overwhelming desire to be with/around that person (we use the word 'fall' for a reason) whether you consider that to be mix of chemicals flooding through the brain or something more*. People write books about falling in love, they compose music and paint and do all sorts of creative outpourings to define or explain it.

And since I've never experienced it, that's probably why the stories I gravitate towards tend to focus on family and friend relationships. Or... weird relationships that don't cleanly fit into a neat 'love' box.

(those are my favourite)

BUT: a new voice? A new character? A new story? That is the closest feeling I can imagine to the thing people talk about: an instant and all-consuming desire, a scary sensation like teetering on a ledge and unsure whether to take a hasty step back, or lean forward and commit to the fall.**

This is why, in any new story, the first 10,000 words are always the easiest for me to write. It's the 'falling stage' where I don't have to do anything in particular, just relax into the voice and let it happen. After that is when I have to shake my head out of the fog of entrancement and think about the darn thing. Think, where is this going? Am I in this for the long-haul? ...and a few less-love/relationshipy-questions like: How can I break this character's shell of safety/control?

If you stalk me on twitter you may already know that I've fallen... and this one, oh man, this is a hard & fast fall.

...and it's unusually scary because this MS is all about love...

(but of course nothing that fits cleanly into an easily defined box. I may have stomped that box flat on page 3)

This MS is going to be messy. It's already messy and I don't quite know what it's about yet. I apologize to my CPs/writing buddies in advance because, well, I'm going to be messy & you're going to have to deal with me*** I'm afraid and excited and annoyed and... and swinging from 'what the hell am I doing, I should throw my laptop out the window' to 'oh my goodness, this is the best feeling ever and I never want to stop'.****

(I'm never this messy... so get ready for a lot of apologies, and maybe some outright bribes)

...also, I think I broke a piece of my brain on page 11 and I'm not sure how I'll recover...

(y'know that box I stomped flat on page 3? I may have folded it into an origami bird and set it on fire)

So, since I'm already rocketing head-first towards the sidewalk, this is now officially Project #8 and it currently has no title other than a self-mocking one:

"I Never Intended to Write a Love Story"

(all my titles change after I finish the first draft and figure out what the heck I was trying to write, but until then, I need something temporary to save/organize it)

When I'm closer to 20,000 words I'll probably know enough to write a short blurb & throw it up onto my website, but I'm still in that 'falling' stage and can't quite shake my head clear enough to think about character/plot arcs or even try to take that stomped-flat box and attempt to glue it into some semblance of a recognizable shape...

Oh no, wait, I set fire to it already, didn't I? So maybe I need to build a new box to put this in...

What I'm working with so far:

The problems that arise when someone has too much empathy

Shakespeare references

Something that resembles a love-triangle, but it's, uh, I really have no idea what the hell it actually is, but it's definitely not a love-triangle. Or maybe it is. Really, I don't know yet, but not an equilateral triangle for sure.*****

A character named Huntyr (yes, with a 'y', mostly so I can make a joke about it -> maybe not on the page, but for sure in my head)

Small children at a pool

Parents who are living/involved/actually show up on the page (I know, crazy, right?)

The gloriousness of minimum-wage jobs

Also: CPR saves lives. This might be important, but not in an obvious way considering I already mentioned a pool & small children

What's not in there (yet?):

A nausea-inducing vomit reference (there is one, but since it involves a mini-van I'm not counting it)

A character with a name beginning with 'J' (can I finally break this weird J-name streak?) ...and now there is one...

A cat reference

Also I'm pleased I only had to write about 8,000 words before figuring out my MC's name :)

(but I might change it because it's a Shakespeare thing and this is not a re-telling and I don't want to set up the impression it IS a re-telling... or I might be overthinking this too much and need to dunk my head in a bucket of cold water before my brain overheats & shuts down)

* Although I do have really good instincts about whether I'm compatible with someone, generally within moments of meeting them, but that is different from the 'love' thing.

** I'm like this with reading too... there's something amazing about opening a new book and falling in so deep you shake yourself awake & realize a couple hours have passed.

*** seriously, guys... no matter how annoying I am, please don't tell me I'm pretty if this story is the literary equivalent of a turquoise mumu that makes my ass look as wide as Texas...

**** I think I might be craving this messiness after coming out of edits on TRoRS which has such an emotionally stunted MC. My writing-brain now wants to run around in circles screaming like a hyper-active toddler in the candy aisle.

***** I know, I sound super confident about this, don't I? Told you this story is messy...

Monday, March 7, 2016

So, I owe someone a post about 'control'...

...and boy, has this post been kicking my ass...

I've never spent so much time writing and re-writing a single blog post before... On-and-off I've been working on this since the middle of January, and this is the 5th time I've completely deleted/re-written everything because there are a lot of angles I could come at this from, and none of them really worked.

BUT, I promised someone I'd write this and I don't like breaking promises, so here it is.

In the end, I think this is the best I can do, and I'm also going to apologize in advance because I switch between 'voices' in this post, from my 'casual voice' to my 'nerdy post voice', which is going to make it feel choppy, but I hope the thought process flows in a logical-enough way that it's easy to follow.

This isn't intended to be just a writing-related post, this is more of a lifestyle thing, a state of mind I continually work towards, and that's one of the reasons I found this so difficult to write... combining how I see/understand the world with the world of writing.

And, as always, this is 100% opinion, right? And yes, I believe in the fluidity of growing/changing opinions. This is what I believe today, while writing this, but tomorrow or next week, these thoughts may evolve in a new direction.

So, what's my deal with control? I'm kindof obsessed with it, especially when writing characters. One of the first thing I figure out is, what they have control over, what they don't, how they deal with both sides, and what coping mechanisms they might have.

Strangely enough, thinking about control so much doesn't make me a control-freak...

It's actually the opposite. Understanding control is why I joke about being so 'zen' and how I'm always looking for the silver-lining, because the thing with control is, we have way less of it than we think, and by accepting that, it's easier to focus on the 1% we do have control over and not stress about the other 99%.

And, think about it. As a writer, what do we have control over?

Words on the page.

And very little else.

A while ago I posted a somewhat nerdy series about the difference between risk and uncertainty which, at its heart, is really about how little control we actually have because our lives are filled with uncertainty, even though we want to pretend that uncertainly doesn't exist.

You don't need to re-read that linked post (or the entire series of posts that follows it), but I'm assuming you remember the difference between risk & uncertainty, so here's the jumping off point:

By definition, you can't plan/manage/expect uncertainty, so rationalizing and blaming others isn't helpful. They are both self-comforting mechanisms to convince yourself that you have more control than you really do. Being out of control is scary, and usually that makes people panic and get angry.

The idea I want to start with is that we get scared when things are out of our control, but I also think part of that is because there's this false idea floating around telling us that, to be successful, we must have active control over as much as possible. We tell ourselves and we tell others that, if we failed, it's because we didn't work hard enough, or we weren't talented enough. We're so completely terrified of things being out of control that we pretend that uncertainty doesn't exist, so if something goes wrong, it must be someone's fault.

But that's a load of BS.

If we can first recognize that uncertainty is a reality, accept that much of what affects us is completely out of our control, and that there's an innate impulse to blame others or rationalize when we feel out of control/scared, we can try to stop this bad behaviour before it starts.

Because blaming someone else for something they have no control over is just as bad.

It's only when we stop reacting that we have the ability to learn, to transform 'uncertainty' into 'risk', and if it's a 'risk', that means we can act rather than react.

So, what started me on this obsession with control that zenned-me-out?

Haha. Yup, dyslexia.

A learning disorder doesn't necessarily make you blame others, but it can make you blame yourself, which is probably more damaging in the long term. When I was younger I didn't know what dyslexia was, so when I couldn't keep up with my classmates or made absurd mistakes, I was afraid because, no matter how hard I worked, I couldn't gain control and stop making those mistakes. When given a test that didn't "work" for my brain, my teachers thought I was lazy or rebellious because I would score perfectly on other tests and because I have a pretty high IQ.

(seriously, you do not want to look at my high-school Math or French grades... and I started, and transferred out of, Chemistry 11 three times)

I think if I did poorly on every test, in every subject, it would have been easier. I would have just accepted I was stupid and quit trying so hard.

...but it was those success-highs interspersed with the failure-lows that drove me crazy because it made that simple, easy answer illogical, and therefore impossible to accept... how could I be both stupid and smart at the same time?

And because I never actually got a proper answer, I don't think I ever stopped trying to figure it out, and I think that's kinda what saved me.

Somewhere within the suffocating frustration, despite the crippling and relentless kicks to my fragile ego, I got really bad at giving up and really good at testing/pushing my limits, and from there, I learned to give myself permission to fail when I recognized something was out of my control.

(like Math, Chemistry, and French...)

The hardest thing for me to accept was the fact that hard work doesn't equate success because that's always the lesson we get from the time we're children. We're told to work harder and our failures are usually blamed on us not working hard enough. From a young age, we have it pounded into our heads that we should have control over our successes and failures. We are taught that uncertainty doesn't exist just as several hundred years ago we were taught that the earth is flat.

So, first I had to un-learn that load of BS.

Then I had to learn that someone else's perception of my successes & failures didn't mean squat. I was the only one who could (somewhat) objectively determine whether I was being lazy or whether I was trying my hardest.

And I had to accept this:

If we can’t tell the difference between risk and uncertainty, we aren’t able to adapt or make choices that will position us to adapt in the future. In other words, we are more likely to rationalize/blame others instead of accepting that uncertainly is a reality which happens to everyone.

If we believe it's someone else's fault, it'll remain an 'uncertainty' for us instead of a 'risk' we could manage better in the future. So we're less likely to learn from it and less likely to anticipate a similar situation happening in the future. History repeats itself, yes?

(from this post)

Really, we have very little control over what happens in the world, even what happens to us directly, but another thing we do have control over is our attitude. If we refuse to accept that uncertainty exists, we'll continue to get angry, frustrated, blame others, or rationalize. That's the same as hitting a wall, falling over, getting back up and doing it all over again. We are not learning from our mistakes, we are not looking to better position ourselves for the future so we don't hit the same wall and fall down again in the exact same way. If we only focus on what went wrong, we don't look for what could go right if we made a few adjustments to our strategy.

For me, adapting meant creating a lot of work-arounds and accepting that I had to ask for help when, for example, I couldn't read a teacher's handwriting on the board. I think this probably makes it easier for me to accept criticism of my work because I know all too well that I'm fallible, I understand there's no such thing as perfection, and I've learned to put aside my ego and ask for help when I need it.

And that's a really hard thing to do... be honest about our failures.

(but I already wrote a post about that :p)

I try to keep this in mind with every aspect of my life, but let's keep to the particular example I've been using: my dyslexia. I'm 'zen' about it because I accept that the larger issue, the learning disability, is firmly out of my control. Just like I can't control the weather, I can't control gravity, heck, half the time I can't even control my beagle!

So, what am I going do, worry about it all the time? What does that accomplish? All that would do is stress me out and make me feel like a failure over something I logically have no control over.

(so, exactly like being back in elementary/high school again...)

Should I also feel like a failure because I can't control gravity?

Another thing I learned was, when you're stressed about everything that is out of your control, that's when you get overwhelmed with negative thoughts/feelings and flounder. That's when it's easy to blame someone else or rationalize the situation, to try to push a little responsibility onto someone else's shoulders.

...but that goes back to the 'reacting' vs 'acting' thing again. Unless we first accept that uncertainty is a reality that happens to everyone, we can't let it go. We can't look at a situation, step back and ask, "can I realistically do something about this or not?" ...and 'if not', let it go.

So, I'm not worried anymore about gravity or about being dyslexic. Well, not most of the time at least. I endeavour to only worry about the things I can actually control and focus my energy there. Of course, this is not a fixed decision. It's easy to say, but in practice it's about asking myself every day, about a million large and small things, "can I actually do something about this or not?" ...and if it's a big/complicated thing, ask: "if I break this into smaller pieces, can I do something about one single piece?"

...and when I can't, it's about doing my best not to hang onto it and the frustration I might feel at not being able to fix/change whatever it might be. It's about reminding myself that there's only 1% that I have control over, so I shouldn't waste my energy on the other 99%.

It's a state of mind that you have to 'actively' choose until it becomes second nature.

(like driving stick shift)

I think a healthy life is about managing your own expectations for yourself, learning and testing your own limits, and being honest about those expectations and limits, both with yourself, and with the people you live and work with.

And winding back around to the whole writing thing, yes we have control over our words, but we have absolutely no control over what other people think when they read our words.

We write our first draft, but we have no control over what our beta readers/critique partners think about it. If we don't accept it's out of our control, it would be easy to get angry, it would be easy to blame those readers and say, "you just don't understand".

But is that helpful? Is it really the reader's fault if they don't get what we're trying to say?

No. When you blame someone else, you push the responsibility onto them. You willfully give up a fraction of that 1% you DO have control over.

(seriously, why does anyone drive automatic when they could drive stick?)

So what we can do is step back and try to ask intelligent questions like, "what didn't you understand and why?" We have to take the attitude that, if something isn't coming across on the page, it's because our words aren't clear enough. And then we have to re-write, re-write, and re-write again until our readers understand what we're trying to say. That's on us, as writers. That's all we have control over: the words on the page.

And I think the same is probably true at all levels of publishing.

We have no control whether an agent will like/connect to our query letters, but we can re-write our words until they are as clean and clear as possible, get others to read them and ask, "what didn't you understand and why?" The same with editors, and again, with readers if our books ever hit the shelves. We have no control over what they think. That's the 99%. Our 1% is the next book we write.

And in the end, we have to accept that hard work doesn't equate success. Not everyone is going to understand what we tried to put on the page and not everyone is going to love it.

(...and I don't know about you, but I certainly wouldn't want to be one of those authors who feels the need to 'explain' to readers who 'didn't get it'...)

So, part of the reason I re-wrote this post so many times is because this is a really hard topic for me to talk about seriously. It's much easier to joke about the dyslexia thing, but in all honesty, it's something that I'm still learning to be okay with, still learning to accept that some people are going to assume I'm lazy or stupid if I make mistakes that appear silly, and yeah, that assumption still hurts.

Knowing that people are going to wander onto my blog, or into my twitter feed, and leap to that conclusion without all the facts, yeah, that's an ongoing struggle.

But that's one of the main reasons I started blogging in the first place and why I (finally) got a twitter account, because the more I'm honest about it, the more mistakes I make, and the more eyes that see those mistakes, the less stressed I'm going to be. It's going to be less 'uncertainty' and more 'risk', because with experience, I can learn to manage my reactions and adapt.

One of my online writing buddies recently told me that I always sound so calm in my emails and blog posts, that it seems like nothing really bothers me, and I kinda laughed... because yeah, I have the ability to edit blog posts and emails. I can go back and correct my wording, clean up my sentences, and erase as many mistakes as I can before sending it out into the world.

And maybe there's something inherently dishonest about that... editing words so that I give the impression of being calmer and more in control than I really am.

But there's something honest about it too. First drafts are known to be messy and ugly, but editing is about finding that core of beauty, the heart of the story, and pruning away the excess.

I am okay with admitting my words need pruning, perhaps a little more than others, because that's where my control ends -> with the words I put out there, so I should take the time to try to make them as clean, as clear, and as honest as possible.

Your impression of them, and of me, is your own.

And I'll admit that some of these blog posts are a way of taking a storm of thoughts and trying to distill them into a teacup, to make an idea more manageable for myself. Even though I think about control a lot, in writing and in my daily life, I still found it a struggle to turn those thoughts into a coherent blog post, and I don't think I entirely succeeded today...

BUT, I did my best. I kept my promise.

Sorry if it's messy & ugly, but that's just the way I am ;)