Tired and Down and Out

Tired? Me, too!

It seems that I’m tired all the time. I’ve noticed a small but significant number of posts recently from people saying that they’re stepping away from genre or from writing. This may be something that happens all the time but was just not something of which I was aware. But, just like when you hear a new word or an unusual name for a baby, all of a sudden you start seeing/hearing it everywhere.

You know where this is going, right?

I’ve felt worn down a lot lately. I’ve become tired of writing and editing in general and more specifically of the genre field for the better part of six months now.  It’s to the point where I do not enjoy reading genre and I barely enjoy watching genre. At least with watching it’s something I can do with my family so that’s still fun.

I haven’t gotten tired of reading genre to my kids. It’s fun to experience books again through their eyes.

But I rarely feel like writing. Once I get started I’m good and ideas flow on to the page. But it takes a lot of doing to get myself in the chair.

What happened?

I wrote a fair amount in genre in 2014 and 2015. I started using Trello to keep track of ideas and my progress as a writer. I buckled down on writing and got some words on the page. In August of 2014 I wrote six short stories, outlined the first book of a quartet and the synopses of the other three books in the quartet. Over the rest of the year I made good progress on a novel. NaNoWriMo helped me get a nice chunk of the novel on the page.

I attended my first writer’s workshop last summer so leading up to it I was finishing up my novel (it didn’t happen) and reading/editing my co-attendees manuscripts (happened to some degree but not fully). I continued to get short story ideas down and revised a few stories. I bought some software specifically geared towards writing and cleared my desk of clutter and made it a clean work space for writing.

I was energized coming out of the workshop but I knew that my novel needed major revisions. The main protagonist and antagonist didn’t have clear motivations, there was a lack of tension, and some of the major plot points were muddy and unclear. The good thing was I had a ton of great ideas from the workshop that would help these issues. The bad thing was I had too many ideas to know where to start.

I was overwhelmed. Since I had no deadline other than something arbitrary I set for myself I decided to set the novel aside. I needed a break from it. I continued to roll the big ideas around in my head, but I wasn’t making any real progress on them.

NaNoWriMo rolled around again so I dusted off a manuscript that was more than ten years old and started bashing it into shape. It is not genre. It’s two friends on a road trip. It’s very personal. I doubt that I’ll ever share it with anyone. So why am I writing it? I’m hoping to have that figured out by the time I finish it.

What does that even mean?

Who knows? Writing this book is very therapeutic. It doesn’t feel very complicated—we’re not talking David Foster Wallace—but I find that it suits me. I continue to have short fiction ideas—even revisions to existing short stories—so I open Trello and input my thoughts. I can’t bring myself to open a document to work on a story, but why lose the idea?

Mostly though, I’m just tired. I open Twitter and just feel this crushing weight as I scroll through what people are saying. Facebook is alternately angry and cats; sometimes angry cats. There’s a reason I’ve been reading about Mr. Rogers a lot lately. I’d given serious thought to deleting my social media accounts but there’s a piece of that I need for work and there’s another piece that’s people I want to stay in touch with so I kept it.

I didn’t write a post about my feelings because I’m not looking for sympathy but that’s what such a post would evoke in people. And then I saw more and more people talking about how they were tired of genre or writing or some such thing that they used to be passionate about. So I decided I wasn’t wrong in what I was thinking and that maybe I should share my thoughts.

So what now?

I’m keeping up with genre at a minimum. I’m picking up novels and short-story collections from authors I like. I’m not reading them. I can’t motivate myself to do so. I listen to a fair amount of short-fiction podcasts and I really enjoy those. I also devour literary fiction these days. I can’t get enough of it.

Maybe it’s just a change of pace. If I ate pizza at every meal I’d eventually get sick of it and want something, anything, else.

I haven’t gone to a convention since World Fantasy in 2014. (I don’t count the writing workshop or my annual day trip to Wiscon; if I don’t stay overnight it’s not like I’m at the convention) Before that I was attending at least two conventions a year if not four or more. That’s certainly given me a chance to view the field from a distance at the same time that it creates some distance between me and the field.

It’s not a bad thing. While I miss the people a lot I do not miss conventions.

I need to finish my road trip novel. I have to know that I can finish a novel. No matter how bad it is.

After that? Who knows, maybe some more poems!

My personal life

You may notice that I don’t talk a lot about my personal life here. Sure I talk about the fact that I have two kids, but I rarely mention my job or other things about my life. I have a steady, well-paying job that I love. I know that a lot of people aren’t that lucky. I work with a lot of amazing people. That plays a lot into my current feelings. There’s a big part of me that just wants to drop everything else and focus on my job.

Not that there aren’t issues with work. It’s a job. There’s going to be ups and downs. Right now one of my co-workers is out for an extended period of time so I’ve picked up his work in addition to mine. We’ve had a series of IT issues (which is my responsibility) that have been going on for months.

Even with all that this is the best job I’ve ever had.

My wife accepted a full-time teaching gig this past fall which meant that everyone in the house had to pitch in considerably more on maintaining the household. We all have less time together now than we used to but that’s the way life goes. Weekends tend to be running errands which isn’t always fun but you need food in the house.

We also recently listed our house for sale which adds a weird type of stress while you keep your house spotless and hope that some stranger likes it enough to buy it. You know, because there wasn’t enough other stuff going on.

It all adds up. It adds up mostly to me being tired and not motivated to do more than turn on Sportscenter and fall asleep waiting for highlights for my teams.

2016 Writing Resolution: One Poem Each Week

My New Year's resolution: The Storymatic

My 2016 Writing Resolution #1

In the past, I made your typical New Year’s resolution. You know: lose weight, eat better, exercise, get more sleep, etc. Most of the time I failed to keep said resolution. I feel like they consist of things I should be doing anyway and I often fail at them only to make the same resolutions again and again. This year I’m taking a different tack. My resolution is to write a poem each week in 2016.

I’ve already been writing a poem each week for about four weeks now, so it’s approaching habit but I want to sustain it for the course of the year. Now, do I have ideas for 52 poems? Not really. That’s where the Storymatic comes in to help me keep my resolution.

The Storymatic

Often billed as a party game, I’m using the Storymatic as a series of writing prompts. The box contains two sets of cards: gold cards, which set who the protagonist is; and copper cards (I think they’re yellow and orange, but hey…) that set the scene/setting. You draw two of each cards (I draw them with my eyes closed) and there’s your writing prompt.

I remove the cards from the box so I don’t draw them again. There are hundreds of each type of card. There are also wild cards, but I ignore those.

Also, you’re supposed to abide by the Two Laws of The Storymatic:

  1. Your main character must change from the beginning of the story to the end of the story.
  2. You cannot kill your main character.

I’m not necessarily following those as I write poems. I generally spend some time coming up with an opening line and then I write until I’ve covered all four cards and it feels like I’ve got a complete arc written.

My Prompt for Next Week

For example, these are this week’s cards (also in the photo):

  • Dropout
  • Singer
  • Bad Directions
  • Last day of school

The poems will be published on Monday along with my new words if you want to play along. This week got away from me so it’ll be just a few days from now. Yes, I’m already veering towards failing at this resolution. Actually, that’s not true. I’ve been doing the writing, just not writing this post. But since getting the post up on Monday is part of the resolution, I need to get on it better. Things should get on a more regular schedule after this week.

At the end of each month I’ll take a poll as to which poem you think I should revise. These poems are first drafts. They are not rough drafts, i.e., I have not done any revising or editing on them. You’re getting what I put down on the page as it comes to me.

The Prompt for Last Week

Last week’s words:

  • Person who refuses to fit in
  • Aging clown
  • Restaurant
  • Attacked by squirrels

The poem:

There was a time when we weren’t pariahs
When the young and old looked forward to seeing us
We were a star attraction
Crossed over to television
Could find work at the drop of a hat
That was the world I wanted

Fourteen-year-old runaway looking for excitement
Learning from some of the best
The artistry of the makeup
The creation of a persona
Becoming someone else and becoming free

We were something to behold
Holding audiences in thrall at every stop
Whether it was under the lights
Or when the lights were turned out
We found something everyone could enjoy
Men, women, whatever, we never turned anyone away

They took us to restaurants
Invited us into their homes
Asked us to perform at their schools
We knew it would bring people to the main show
So we happily said yes
As did our audience

For a long time life was beautiful
Then people couldn’t tear themselves away from their screens
They’d rather watch a video of a squirrel attack
Than watch a genius create
New worlds whole out of cloth
Open their minds to amazing experiences

The show is filled with motorcycles
Extreme sports
Dangerous animals
There’s no room for someone funny
No need to bring a smile to someone’s face
When you can shock them instead

My mentor encouraged me to look into parties
And haunted houses
Trade in on the scary angle
Practically begged me to try something new
Afraid my path would mirror his
End in death and disease

Changing who I am won’t avoid death
Changing won’t avoid disease
Becoming something new to make more money
Isn’t better if it makes me less happy
Struggling is part of life
I won’t change just to make things easier

My Belated Review of 2015

Ribbon Board filled with a Review of my 2015 Memories

2015 in Review

Every January I think about writing up a review of the previous year and I start to organize my thoughts. It quickly becomes March and then a review seems fruitless. I’m still later than I’d like to be—it being more than halfway through the month—but it’s still January so I think I’m good to go.

Part of why I’m inspired to do a review is that I keep a ribbon board above my desk. It keeps some things that are current/upcoming (there’s business cards for dentist, mechanic, insurance agent and the like) but mostly it’s where I slot things after they’re done.

It’s become a ritual I do every year right around New Year’s Eve. I empty out the ribbon board and review all the things I did throughout the year. Then I pack everything in a Ziploc bag and store it. The oldest one I have is from 2009 so I haven’t been doing this forever but we’re approaching ten years.

2015 Ribbon Board

If you look at the photo above you can see that it’s jam-packed with stuff (some might say loaded with shit, but let’s keep it clean). What’s on the board? Among other things:

  • Exploding Kittens packing slip
  • Expired passport
  • Movie ticket stubs
  • Theater ticket stubs
  • Business cards from writers, magazines, and restaurants
  • Post cards from writers, publishers, librarians, and more
  • A bunch of miscellaneous notes from my kids (including hand-made Valentine’s)
  • A paper cutout robot from my son
  • My door tag from the Wyrd Words writing retreat
  • Name badges from UW-Wisconsin Writers Institute, Wiscon 39, Southeast WI Festival of Books, WLA Conference

St. Louis

We took a family trip to St. Louis this past year. We try to go somewhere new for the kids. We aren’t traveling far though; previous years we went to Minneapolis and Chicago. The trip was fun. We saw the Arch of course and we also took in the zoo. We did not go to a Cardinals game which confused most of the people we met. We hit up the City Museum which is crazy. Think of an interactive House on the Rock. It was Fourth of July weekend so it was actually pretty quiet in St. Louis. This year we’re looking at going to Tucson to visit family which will be nice.

SFWA Bulletin

I see a few SFWA things there which reminds me that at this time last year I was the editor of the Bulletin. In a lot of ways, it was a great fit. In one very important way, however, it was not. I could not figure out a way to fit editing the Bulletin into my schedule with any consistency. This lead to delayed issues and extra stress on me. In the end we decided on some mutual deadlines that I was not able to keep. While there were a lot of good things about editing the Bulletin, it was a relief to hand the job over to someone else.

Library

If you don’t know, I work full time as a librarian. So in addition to librarianship taking up the majority of my day most of the year, there were some extra things from the year.

The literary council hosts an annual spelling bee and the library typically has a team. Since I help organize the team I don’t have to get up and spell. In addition to the formal spelling bee they also have a written spelling bee during the evening. I typically win this so I decided I wouldn’t enter this time. To my surprise, the words were all Scripps National Spelling Bee winning words from over the years, which meant they were words from the anthology I edited, Logorrhea, so I would have done even better than normal!

We also had an edible book contest where people ‘re-made’ books into cakes or fruit displays. I made “The Game of Scones” but did not fare well in the competition. All my material was too fresh so it collapsed.

Writing/Wyrd Words/NaNoWriMo

For the past 18 months or so I’ve been working on writing over editing. I’ve been using the magic spreadsheet for some time (although my attendance on the spreadsheet has been sporadic as of late) but I’m too easily derailed. Then I feel guilty for not writing. Which makes me not write. Which adds to the guilt. You see the circle.

This past summer I was fortunate enough to take part in the inaugural Wyrd Words writing retreat. It was amazing. I’ll be honest; I wasn’t as prepared as I should have been but many of us weren’t. Still, there was a ton of great energy and great isolated conversation about writing that I left with a clear focus on my novel. I was all set to tackle a quick revision during NaNoWriMo.

Except the more I went through notes the more the novel needed to change. It lacked focus, characters lacked motivation, major ideas weren’t fleshed out. It wasn’t something I could quickly revise. So I took an old road trip partial manuscript I had and did that for NaNoWriMo.

It’s also unfinished.

But it’s something that I should be able to get a relatively fast first draft done. Then it can sit and wait for another day. Then I tackle my Wyrd Words novel.

Plus I’ve been writing poetry weekly since the middle of December, but you knew that already.

Movies

If you asked me, I’d tell you that I don’t go to the movie theater very often. However, that clearly wasn’t true last year. I had ticket stubs for fifteen movies. Fifteen! I also know there’s at least one movie I didn’t have the stub for so I went to at least sixteen movies in the theater last year. Yikes.

What did I see last year? Here they are chronologically:

Paddington, The Imitation Game (same day as Paddington), Chappie, It Follows, Spongebob Squarepants Movie, Avengers 2: The Age of Ultron, Mac Max: Fury Road, Inside Out, Minions, Ant-Man, Shaun the Sheep, Green InfernoThe Princess Bride, Goosebumps, Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens, and The Hateful Eight.

Can you tell which ones we saw as a family and which I went without kids?

Live Theater

This was a banner year for me for getting out of the house and into a theater of sorts. Most of the shows I saw were at the American Players Theatre in Spring Green, WI. We saw seven shows there this year, which is the most we’ve even seen at APT. The last two shows we saw in Milwaukee:

The Merry Wives of Windsor, A Streetcar Named Desire, An Illiad, Private Lives, Othello, Pride and Prejudice, The Game of Love and Chance, Wicked, and The Nutcracker Suite (ballet).

 

The Life of a Writer is Not an Easy One

James DeVita as the writer Trigorin; Laura Rook as the aspiring actress Nina
(c) 2014 American Players Theatre; Laura Rook and James DeVita

A few summers ago I was finally able to cross off seeing a Chekhov play from my bucket list. He’s a writer I want to know more about and I’d missed some earlier chances to see his work on stage. I was thrilled to get the chance to see The Seagull at the American Players Theatre (APT). The company at APT is as good as any you’ll see anywhere (Terry Teachout of the Wall Street Journal calls it “the finest classical repertory company in the U.S.”). I’m woefully under-read as far as Russian literature is concerned so I had no idea what the play was about*. It’s not the first time I’ve seen a play at APT without knowing anything about it and it won’t be the last. But it was the first time a play spoke so directly to me about the plight of being a writer and of the creative process.

At its core, The Seagull is the story of a young man—Konstantin—trying to live up to his famous actress mother—Arkadina. His extremely critical mother wants him to be an actor but he wants to be a writer. Throughout the play people ignore him and his work because they’d rather talk about/be around his mother instead. They also don’t understand the risks he takes as a writer trying to invent a new type of play. This takes the natural inclination of the writer to lambaste their own work and exacerbates it to the point of being suicidal. When you think it can’t get worse, his mother shows up with her new lover—the famous writer Trigorin.

Every character in the play struggles with unrequited love. You really get to see the full force of Chekhov’s talents as a writer in this play. He often has the characters speak around the issue at hand. It’s maddening but in an compelling way that pulls you through each act waiting for things to resolve. My favorite part of the play, the part that made me sit straight in my seat, was in Act II. It’s when Konstantin’s love interest Nina—who is infatuated with Trigorin—tries to have a conversation with the talented writer only to have him rebuke her with how arduous his life truly is:

Nina.

Your life is beautiful.

Trigorin.

I see nothing especially lovely about it. [He looks at his watch] Excuse me, I must go at once, and begin writing again. I am in a hurry. [He laughs] You have stepped on my pet corn, as they say, and I am getting excited, and a little cross. Let us discuss this bright and beautiful life of mine, though. [After a few moments’ thought] Violent obsessions sometimes lay hold of a man: he may, for instance, think day and night of nothing but the moon. I have such a moon. Day and night I am held in the grip of one besetting thought, to write, write, write! Hardly have I finished one book than something urges me to write another, and then a third, and then a fourth—I write ceaselessly. I am, as it were, on a treadmill. I hurry for ever from one story to another, and can’t help myself. Do you see anything bright and beautiful in that? Oh, it is a wild life! Even now, thrilled as I am by talking to you, I do not forget for an instant that an unfinished story is awaiting me. My eye falls on that cloud there, which has the shape of a grand piano; I instantly make a mental note that I must remember to mention in my story a cloud floating by that looked like a grand piano. I smell heliotrope; I mutter to myself: a sickly smell, the colour worn by widows; I must remember that in writing my next description of a summer evening. I catch an idea in every sentence of yours or of my own, and hasten to lock all these treasures in my literary store-room, thinking that some day they may be useful to me. As soon as I stop working I rush off to the theatre or go fishing, in the hope that I may find oblivion there, but no! Some new subject for a story is sure to come rolling through my brain like an iron cannonball. I hear my desk calling, and have to go back to it and begin to write, write, write, once more. And so it goes for everlasting. I cannot escape myself, though I feel that I am consuming my life. To prepare the honey I feed to unknown crowds, I am doomed to brush the bloom from my dearest flowers, to tear them from their stems, and trample the roots that bore them under foot. Am I not a madman? Should I not be treated by those who know me as one mentally diseased? Yet it is always the same, same old story, till I begin to think that all this praise and admiration must be a deception, that I am being hoodwinked because they know I am crazy, and I sometimes tremble lest I should be grabbed from behind and whisked off to a lunatic asylum. The best years of my youth were made one continual agony for me by my writing. A young author, especially if at first he does not make a success, feels clumsy, ill-at-ease, and superfluous in the world. His nerves are all on edge and stretched to the point of breaking; he is irresistibly attracted to literary and artistic people, and hovers about them unknown and unnoticed, fearing to look them bravely in the eye, like a man with a passion for gambling, whose money is all gone. I did not know my readers, but for some reason I imagined they were distrustful and unfriendly; I was mortally afraid of the public, and when my first play appeared, it seemed to me as if all the dark eyes in the audience were looking at it with enmity, and all the blue ones with cold indifference. Oh, how terrible it was! What agony!

I think this monologue captures that sense of how the writer is constantly trying to capture the world around him, trying to remember all the allusions he sees so that they can be used later. It makes you distracted in conversation and sometimes useless for activity. I never have such good thoughts about story as I do when I’m doing anything but writing. The trick is getting from your thoughts to the page with enough time to remember what you thought. For all his success it almost seems a burden to Trigorin. But he wouldn’t choose any other life:

Nina.

But don’t your inspiration and the act of creation give you moments of lofty happiness?

Trigorin.

Yes. Writing is a pleasure to me, and so is reading the proofs, but no sooner does a book leave the press than it becomes odious to me; it is not what I meant it to be; I made a mistake to write it at all; I am provoked and discouraged. Then the public reads it and says: “Yes, it is clever and pretty, but not nearly as good as Tolstoi,” or “It is a lovely thing, but not as good as Turgenieff’s ‘Fathers and Sons,’ ” and so it will always be. To my dying day I shall hear people say: “Clever and pretty; clever and pretty,” and nothing more; and when I am gone, those that knew me will say as they pass my grave: “Here lies Trigorin, a clever writer, but he was not as good as Turgenieff.”

And there it is. The self doubt. No matter how famous or successful or talented you are there is always that piece of your mind that thinks (knows?) you could be better. That what you’ve done isn’t good enough. That someone else is better. But there’s a compulsion to write and create—as Chekhov writes, “Hardly have I finished one book than something urges me to write another, and then a third, and then a fourth”—so you keep on no matter what your brain thinks because at the same time you can’t stop yourself.

If you haven’t read The Seagull, you should. The whole play is about creativity and struggle and love and family. So much wonderful stuff. If you get the chance to see it, even better.


* I know, it’s odd to have something on my bucket list that I don’t know anything about, but that’s the way I roll. That’s why it’s bucket-y, right? There’s no point putting things I’ve already done/experienced on my bucket list, is there? For what it’s worth, this summer I was able to check off seeing a Tennessee Williams play from my bucket list and I didn’t know much about his oeuvre going in either.

Measure Twice, Cut Once

Last summer I focused on writing for the first time in a long time. I finished off a half-dozen or so first drafts of stories. It was exhilarating, but only after I had the realization that—or admitted to myself—that there was no reasonable way to create a finished story on the first draft.

I know, that sounds so obvious when you say it. When you let yourself think it. I don’t think I wanted to admit how much work I was going to have to put into writing. But the moment I gave myself permission to say, “This is a first draft. It’s pretty dreadful. Plan on writing a few more drafts before this thing is ready to share with people.” And it was more than wanting to be able to create first drafts of stories that could be sent out on submission; it was getting the story into the form I wanted to spend time editing and revising.

Despite several decades in publishing I am, for all intents and purposes, a new writer. I had to come to this epiphany at some point, right? I have several first drafts of stories—some of them stories that I’ve been poking at for more than a decade—waiting for a rewrite. In most cases these first drafts are straightforward narratives telling the story in chronological order.

They’re pretty boring.

The first story this happened with I almost trunked before I got to the end. I was so disgusted with what I was putting on the page I just didn’t want to look at it anymore. I didn’t let myself stop. I pushed through to the end. I may have literally said out loud, “Just finish the damn thing and then you never have to think about it again.” Because I knew that if I didn’t finish it it would sit in the back of my mind waiting for me. Once I got the story done I sat and looked at it on my computer and I had a second epiphany.

I know how to edit. And this author won’t fight me on changes. I could already see how to adjust the story to make it the tale I wanted to write instead of the one I had written. I’ve decided that the best thing for the story was to treat the first draft as something that was finished and when it was time to revise the story to begin with a blank document. There was no sense trying to mix and match the bits that were in the story that I wanted with the new content it needed.

Better to start over.

Recently I was reading a post on Rob Hart’s website about creating a bulletproof novel outline and it was essentially the same idea. Rather than trying to patch up an existing outline, re-write it from scratch.

I think that works great for short fiction or for outlines. Neither is so long that you’re looking at throwing out hundreds of thousands of words. And the first draft is great practice for yourself as a writer and for where you want your story to go.

It’s like the old renovation maxim: “Measure twice, cut once.” Create several rough drafts before you get your story in the form you want to edit and revise.

Writing and the Magic Spreadsheet

The short version is that I’m writing with some fair consistency.

I haven’t done this since 1996 or so. Writing got put on hold once I moved out East to work in publishing in 1997 and it had some fits and starts over the past two or three years, but nothing consistent. I’ve tried a bunch of different things to motivate me* but nothing has worked well.

The long version is that author Christian Klaver put out an open call for people to be a part of a new Magic Spreadsheet that he was starting in August. I wrote to him asking to be a part of it. I’d been on panels with Christian in the past and found him an intelligent, creative guy.

Plus my writing needed a boost and I’d heard tons of raves about the Magic Spreadsheet.

The Magic Spreadsheet gamifies writing. If you hit your daily word count (250 words) you get a point (there’s a scale for when you write more than that, but let’s start simple). Then you get a point for every day of the chain you’re in up to 30 points.

That means on day one you’d get two points for hitting your goal and starting a chain. Day two, you’d get one point for your writing but two for your chain. That means after two days you’ve got three points. The points add up quickly (see image at the top of this post). If you keep an unbroken chain, you’ll max out at 30 (so you’d get 31 each day for your word count and chain length) but if you miss a day, you start over at one again.

I first heard about the Magic Spreadsheet via Mur Lafferty’s podcast “I Should be Writing” some time last year and was intrigued. I looked into a live one online (they tend to live in Google Drive) and thought it was cool but wasn’t ready to dive in.

The time needed to be right, you know?

Well, in that respect writing can be like children: there is no right/correct time to start. You just make the decision and go for it.

So rather than think about it, I just dove in and got started.

I ‘won’ August for word count but got beat in point total (although I could’ve won that with better planning at the end of the month). It was just more than 9300 words, but it felt great to write and be motivated to write. I’m finishing off a bunch of short stories that had false starts. I’m going to write some posts about them over the coming weeks.

For now, I’m just getting first drafts done. I’m not worrying about the quality of the content I just want to get it on the page. As I’ve discovered, no matter how my first draft looks, I know that I have strong editorial skills to make the draft better.

* Two things come to mind almost instantly: the Storymatic and my two sets of Story Cubes. I’ll be writing posts about those, too. It’ll be nice to actually use them rather than have them gather dust in my closet.