"Underwater Simulation 2" by WingsOfAHero - deviantART.com

Steven Pressfield talks about “Depth of Work” this week over at his blog and unmasked the true culprit behind the blue funk I’ve been mucking about with this past month.

While it is true that I’ve been at the computer every single day working on various projects, I haven’t been doing good solid work.  He likens this shallow type of work to schmoozing at the gym rather than training at the gym.

I remember the absolute dismal-ness I used to feel when I worked as an official court reporter for the County.  I was assigned to a courtroom that never, ever started on time.  And that set the tone for my whole attitude towards my job there.  Since the boss was late and I couldn’t report proceedings that weren’t yet happening, I was always late myself.

So the routine went thusly:  the clerk and I moseyed down to the Starbucks to pick up coffee for the judge and ourselves; I usually picked up some sort of snack since I left late and didn’t have breakfast; and then I goofed off on the Internet until it was finally time to go on the record.

Easily I burned off an hour or two each day with this routine, and I had no one to blame but myself.  Sure, the judge controls how his courtroom is run; he’s the boss.  But I had a wealth of time handed to me each morning, and yet, I was often late with transcripts, I always complained I didn’t have time to write because of my commute (even though I often took the train), and I always felt like shit.

So even though I was self-righteously griping about how hard I was working, humping my way across Southern California on a two-hour commute each way — oh, you should have heard the violins! — I wasn’t doing good, solid work.  I can’t count the days I showed up where we weren’t in trial, had no proceedings on the record, didn’t do a lick of work, and went home.

Sounds dreamy, right?  High-paid government job doing nothing.  On top of that, as a reporter, I was allowed to leave early — officially, 3:30 — if our courtroom was finished for the day.  Sounds like a perfect situation for a writer-in-training.  And it was.

But I was fucking miserable.  I was so fucking miserable that I quit after seven years.  No more benefits, no more extra 1099 transcript money, no more high salary, nothing.  Just freedom and a huge COBRA payment, which I still pay to this day.

Even though I loved the job — what a great job! — I have no regrets about leaving it.  It was never what I wanted to spend my whole life doing.  And spending 20 hours a week commuting effectively killed a lot of the pluses for me.  (I think commuting in stop-and-go traffic at that level slowly kills you at the molecular level, I really do.)

What I do regret is not being proactive about working hard when I did have the job and the opportunities that came with it.  I had a plum position.  But I was so caught up in this routine, letting it run me, that it was everything I could do to keep up.  As Lily Tomlin famously said, “The trouble with the rat race is that even if you win, you’re still a rat.”  And I hated being a rat.

Now here I am today, lucky to be able to stay at home full-time with my 14-month-old daughter.  I have less time to write than I ever have had in my entire life, and I don’t feel that I can afford the luxury of splashing around in the shallows anymore.  I don’t have a high-paying salary or paid health benefits anymore.  I need to be able to work deep, focus hard, and do good, solid work on a consistent basis each time I sit down at the computer.  I need to be able to do this for my family.

This has been a challenge for me this month.  I’ve let down my guard.  Something’s shifted.  Just as momentum can work in your favor, it can also lead to your demise.  I let a short story project throw me off the horse.  I think that might have started it.  Then, with my foot caught in the stirrup, I let the damn horse wander off the path and graze in the dandelions while I dragged behind in the mud contemplating my navel.

I’m glad Mr. Pressfield brought this up.  I’ve been writing myself in pointless circles this month.  The only writing that counts in my book is writing new fiction.  Blog posts don’t count, outlines don’t count, brainstorming sessions don’t count.  I’ve put in the same amount of hours each day, and yet, all the work I’ve been doing has been work that doesn’t really count towards my goals.  I’m schmoozing at the gym.  I’m being led astray by my own horse.  I’m letting the tail wag the dog.

The only solution, of course, is to recognize what’s happening and take control.  After all, I’m the boss now, and there are perks and benefits to being boss that far outweigh all the wonderful things I left behind with the government job.

I’ve got to go deep and stay there.  That’s where you should find me.  If you catch me surfing in the shallows, kick me in the ass and shove me back to my desk.  Seriously.


"Undiscovered" by AntichristSuperstarX - deviantART.com

I discovered Tobias Buckell a few years ago when I did a search on how much fantasy and science fiction writers make.  (Author Advance Survey 2.0.) At the time, he was excitedly awaiting the publication of his first novel “Crystal Rain.” I immediately dove into the archives of his blog to read from the beginning about his journey to becoming a first-time published novelist.

Since then, I have had the pleasure of watching Tobias’s career grow and blossom as he has gained momentum and notoriety as a writer.  He has been generous in sharing his experiences, both professional and personal, and he is a major inspiration for the direction my own blog has taken.

Recently, he has collected all of his writerly goodness in one place.  He describes it as follows:

“It’s All Just a Draft is a draft of a book on writing, collected from blog posts and other miscellany around TobiasBuckell.com. It’s as much a brief biography as anything else, and hopefully less lecture-y. It’s a response to requests to link to all my writing related posts, or frequent questions I get about writing.”

Check it out.  He’s got a lot of great stuff in there, and he’s a wonderful writer to boot.


Sony Pictures - "District 9"

…I finally saw “District 9,” and I was floored.  I was absolutely floored.  This may be one of the best science fiction films I have ever seen.  It certainly is the best movie I’ve seen in a long while.  And I think it had every bit to do with the character development of the protagonist.


The story is set in Johannesburg, South Africa, where an alien spaceship has descended from the heavens to hover silently over the city.  After three months of no activity, humans cut their way in and make first contact.  They find the ship apparently disabled and full of sick and malnourished aliens.  The aliens are installed in a slum called District 9.  Human Afrikaners and prawns — a derogatory slang for the aliens — do not coexist peacefully, and so a decision is made to relocate the aliens to an internment camp outside Johannesburg.

The protagonist is a bureaucrat named Wikus van de Merwe, who is promoted to be the head of the relocation operation and who embraces this new position with a zealous enthusiasm.  His enthusiasm perishes when he becomes exposed to a substance that begins to change his DNA to alien DNA.  Suddenly the bureaucracy he works for is hunting him.

I won’t go through the whole plot as you can find great plot synopses all over the Net.  I just wanted to mention enough to explain why I thought the story was so great.

In the beginning, we see van de Merwe flame-torching a shack filled with incubating alien eggs.  He’s laughing and calling it “abortion,” noting to the camera in excited glee the popping sounds of eggs exploding.  30 minutes later, he’s waiting in line with other aliens in District 9 — the only place he can hide — buying cat food.  And that’s only the beginning.

He goes from his seemingly superior position as a human in charge to descend through the various levels of suffering the aliens endure…all the way down to becoming a biomedical experiment.  It is this hellish descent that makes you just cringe for this guy.  And root for him.

There’s just so many moments in the film where I found myself really feeling for him.  There were times I wished for his sake that he would just be killed.  And when he’s looking in the mirror at his back, where the skin is coming off and his back ribs are showing — oh, God.  I just wanted to cry for him.

Man, that’s audience/reader empathy.  And if I can ever replicate that kind of feeling in a reader, I will do an Irish jig, I swear to God.

Hats off to the collaborative efforts of everyone involved in this film.  The fact that it was written in two months just furthers my respect for the whole project…and makes me want to be a better writer.

I love a film that makes me want to go straight to the computer and get to work.


"Polaroid" by Thy_Noth - deviantART.com

I am working my way through the current issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction, and I am relearning a very valuable lesson:  the importance of character development.  *Regardless of how cool and neato your story idea is, if the reader doesn’t care about the characters, the whole thing will fall flat.

Back in ye olde days, it seems as though I paid more attention to my characters.  Some of the stories still bring tears to my eyes…not so much because they’re that good (or that bad), but because I still care so much about the characters.

But in recent months, I have been practically besieged by cool and neato ideas, gifted to me hand over fist from the ether.  Being completely focused on writing original stories and a lot of them, I have forgotten to make sure I’ve got adequate pony-power under the hood.  The engine of a story is powered by the characters, and frankly, I think I’ve been relying on hamster power here for the last few short stories I’ve written.

In reading Kate Wilhelm’s quiet tale, “The Late Night Train,” I was reminded of just how powerful a simple story can be if the characters are real.  It wasn’t a spectacular story concept as far as fantasy and science fiction goes, but I’m still thinking about it.  It’s an excellent story.  And it reminded me of another piece she wrote, “The Fountain of Neptune,” which was published in F&SF’s April 2008 edition.  That was another quiet sort of story that still remains with me.

In contrast, “Bait,” by Robin Aurelian (also in the current edition of F&SF) was much more idea-driven, and delightfully so.  And even though the protagonist undergoes a tremendous physical change, as far as emotional impact went, I was rather unfazed.  It was more of a cool story in terms of setting and situation.  A good read, nonetheless.  But I have my doubts that it will last in my memory as Wilhelm’s stories have.

Back in 2008 — actually, the day before the baby arrived — I blogged about the struggle I was having with the novel, trying in vain to work out the whole story in outline and painfully squeezing out a very beige beginning.  I couldn’t figure out what was wrong with it…until I finally realized that there just wasn’t enough conflict for my protagonist.  The stakes weren’t high enough for her.  And with everything just falling into place for her, who the hell was going to care about her and her non-problems?  Lord knows I was having trouble giving two hoots.

Although that post was focused on outlining versus organic writing, the lesson still holds true about the importance of character development and just how crucial conflict is to that equation.  Without conflict, we don’t care about the character.  Good for them and their perfect lives, right?  I got bills to pay, gout in one toe, and something awful growing in the fridge.  But with conflict comes empathy.  And if you’ve got reader empathy, you’re halfway home.

This is, again, another example of the truth of good advice that I have ignored:  if you want to write, you must read, read, read, and write, write, write. It’s amazing how a little bit of follow-through on good advice can yield a whole lot of light bulbs going off.  Who’d’ve thunk?

Anyway, with all those light bulbs burning bright, I can finally see my way through several problems on several projects.  So, in the words of a good friend, I must away.  I have some hamsters to oust and some ponies to catch.


* I feel compelled to mention that after another rejection a week ago mentioning that the story “didn’t quite work” for the editor, a story that Fat Cat previously gave the thumbs-up on, Fat Cat gave the whole thing a passing thought and said, quite casually, “Perhaps you don’t have enough character development.”  Fat Cat is wise, one of the things that irritates me about him.


"A Little Push" by stephaniedan - deviantART.com

I’ll be honest.  This has been a tough month for me writing-wise.  At first I thought it was the blue funk.  Then I thought it was the story I was working on.  Then I thought perhaps I needed to spend time on a different type of story.  Then I thought it was because I was consuming too much dairy, smoking too much, not smoking enough, not walking enough, walking too much, not sleeping enough, sleeping too much…you get the picture.

But you know what it is?  Somewhere along the way, I got comfortable and slipped the blinders from my head (they were chafing my ears), and have since stood frozen and awestruck at the looming horizon of projects I have committed to.  It’s big.  It’s towering.  And I can’t help but wonder if the darn thing is going to tip over and bury me, leaving only my glittery red Carlos Santanas sticking out from the rubble.  (At least my feet will look cute.)

I think it’s part of a necessary skill set among successful people that they are able to focus on one thing at a time, one task at a time, without too much daily energy devoted to how it all plays into the Big Picture.  This is something I am working very hard at developing, as I think it’s the gold standard mark of a true professional.

And it’s not always fear or dread or a feeling of being overwhelmed that slows me down.  More often than not, it’s excitement, anticipation, and daydreaming that trips me up.

Anyway, this is what I’ve been struggling with.  I’m not proud of it, but at least I can say I’m in front of the computer every day.  Because writing is such a solitary endeavor, it’s difficult to find real help.  You can talk about it with your writing friends, you can read inspiring works by other authors, you can blog about it, you can do all sorts of things that will make you feel better — and there’s nothing wrong with that — but none of these things actually makes writing happen.  Only you can do that.

So I just have to talk it easy, put on the blinders, and commit to doing each task to the best of my ability.  It’s the only thing I can think of to do.

That said, I’m getting back on the plane where my characters are enduring a long flight to Australia.  I hear the chicken lasagna in first class ain’t half bad, so I don’t wanna miss it.


Cookie_RAF" by Lly_Lou - deviantART.com / How I picture "The Documentarian" from "The Radiant Car Thy Sparrows Drew"

A wonderful benefit to my newly focused effort to read more published short fiction is that I keep discovering new and wonderful writers…and many of them have blogs.

I found Catherynne M. Valente’s blog, Rules for Anchorites, after coming across her short story, “The Radiant Car Thy Sparrows Drew,” tied for first place in the Clarkesworld Magazine Reader’s Poll of 2009.

“The Radiant Car…” is a decadent read.  I don’t know how else to describe it.  Ms. Valente’s training as a classicist (with an emphasis on Ancient Greek!) lends a depth to her language that both delicious and refreshing to read.  If you haven’t read this story, I urge you to post haste and enjoy.


"Nomad" by wind_swept - deviantART.com

It was a Short Story Sunday not too long ago, though now it seems much longer.  I was looking for something simple to write, something adventurous, something straightforward, something short.

I was sitting in my car at my secret meditation spot when it blew in my window on a faux-spring breeze and landed on my paper in an indigo blue scrawl.

It was a good idea.

The more I turned it over in my hands and studied it, the more I thought, “This is a good idea.”  It was simple, adventurous, straightforward, and short.

So I said to myself, “I will write this story.”

I can’t really say at what point it revealed its true nature to me.  It led me on for some time, a week at least, masquerading as simple, adventurous, straightforward, and short.  It waited until I had waded in up to my waist, the water already wicked up my bathing suit until I was soaked.  It waited until I was committed.

Then it pulled off its mask, shook out its hair, and danced out a stomple and flick in tap shoes.  “Ta-Dah!  How do you like me now?”

“Aw, jeez.”  That was my response.  Then, “Oh, no.  Really?”  Then a groan.  “Are you serious?”  Then, “Maybe I can go back to the original idea.”

What happened, you ask?  Well, I’ll tell you what happened (and you all know what’s coming because you’ve all been there):

<deep breath>  Turns out my protagonist wasn’t Cuban after all, but ex-Mafia.  Turns out my Pollyanna wasn’t a sweet spaceport liaison stationed on the moon, but an MFA-hopeful extern named Charles, not Chaz, Charlie, or Chuck.  And it turns out that although my new friends are willing to go to the moon for me, they have their sights set on the Great Barrier Reef first.  There are coral polyps to cultivate and groom, after all.  (Who knew?)

Worse, my characters have plans.  Lots of plans.  They are no one’s one-trick ponies, they assure me.  They are demanding their rights!  They are staging a coup!

Oh, the humanity!

(Yes, I know.  A bit dramatic.  It happens. <contrite face — kinda>)

In short, although I got the adventurous bit of my wish list, simple, straightforward, and short went out the window with the Cuban and the Pollyanna.  And I think my characters knew all along.  I feel a bit taken.

So what do you do when they get away from you, when your characters run amuck and blow up stuff and turn flash fiction ideas into sprawling epic sagas?

Yes, you in the back.

Very good.  Yes, you can kill them all. That is true.  But supposing it was your desire to have characters in your stories, what do you do when your story starts growing you out of house and home?

You grab a pen, a laptop, a crayon, a tape-recorder, a paintbrush, an eyebrow pencil, whatever you can get your grubby little hands on, and you catch that little fucker before it gets away.  And no trying to flash-freeze it and put it on ice for some unspecified future date when you have time to give it the proper attention it deserves.  These things have expiration dates and can grow stale very quickly.

These are the gifts of the Muse. These are the overblown, over-the-top, handmade items she presents to us with gaudy ribbons and a coy smile.  These are the 10-lb. fruitcakes she brings to us every once in a while.

So if it seems like work to pretend you like the gray crocheted doily or that the pink wool bikini top is totally comfortable, if it feels like work to chew your way through fruitcake briquettes with a smile, it should.  Because the magic is in the work. It’s always in the work.  And if you’re not working, if you’re not writing, you’re missing the magic.

What are you looking at?  Go, go, go!  Here’s a pen.  Go for their ankles!


"Eraser" by MatthewCooke - deviantART.com

It’s only been two and a half months since I declared 50,000-word victory in last year’s NaNoWriMo, and I have already forgotten its most important lesson:  the pursuit of imperfection.

You’ve all heard the expression, “the pursuit of perfection.”  It’s an imperfect expression in itself in that, usually, this malady of thinking we must make art perfectly and on the first try, really has nothing to do with pursuit at all, but more to do with feeling frozen in our tracks by the enormity of all the details that must be worked out in order for a project to be realized successfully.

And if we are to be honest with ourselves, it’s really a form of laziness.  We let this desire to make something perfect keep us from beginning a difficult project…but we also let that be our excuse.  Oh, look, this artist is being conscientious.  “I want to do justice to my art.”

Seems to me that the secret to a successful creative project is not in the word “perfection,” but in the word “pursuit.”  If you are actively pursuing your project, then you’re not stewing at the starting line, trying to figure out how to take the first step.

NaNoWriMo really made being imperfect perfectly acceptable.  In fact, it is expected that a NaNoWriMo manuscript be ugly, scarred up, and full of errors.  And mine is exactly that, with asterisks and edit notes littering the exposition, dropped subcharacters, constant name changes, et cetera.  But it resulted in a story I’m proud of.  And now I have a draft of my story to work with instead of just an idea or a concept.  I jumped leagues ahead with this novel in the one month I spent NaNoWriMoing than I ever did over two years of planning the damn thing.

All these results just from changing the goal of the writing.  With NaNoWriMo, the goal is about word counts, tallying up units of vocabulary, letting our characters have long conversations, exploring exotic settings.

By changing the goal from nailing down a close-to-publishable manuscript in the first draft (because I’m lazy and don’t want to commit to doing several drafts), to simply adding up the words, the sentences, the pages regardless of mistakes, I ended up with something I’m proud of, something that has real potential instead of just an unrealized concept.

Anyhoo, I bring this all up because I’ve gotten myself caught in the perfection trap once more.  It all started with a pretty straightforward short story idea.  But as I started to develop it, it became clear that there was a series here, something fun, and something I really don’t think I should ignore.  These are the gifts of the Muse.  Even if she brings you fruitcake, you tell her, “Thank you, Mistress.  May I have more?”

So it took me a few days to commit to writing the series.  Then I started to get into the research, which led me into the whole I-don’t-want-to-start-writing-this-story-until-I’ve-got-everything-figured-out.  I mean, what if I get my protagonist out to the Great Barrier Reef and have the ocean temperature all wrong, which screws up the science, which… fuhgeddaboudit.  All that doesn’t matter.

In my own pursuit of imperfection, I have discovered two things:

1)  There’s nothing you can screw up so badly in a story that can’t be fixed.  This isn’t brain surgery, thank God.

2)  You can’t ever plan it all out, every detail.  Nope, can’t happen.  And you don’t want it to happen.  Trust me.  There are flashes of lightning hidden in each story that can only be discovered by writing your way to them.  And you know that feeling when you round the corner of a piece of exposition and there it is, that flash of genius, that character you never realized had it in him to — boom!  That’s the magic all of us writers are looking for when we sit down.  It’s in writing, not the planning.

So I’m going to go write the story now.  I accept that I will have to fix the mistakes that I will inevitably make.  But I just can’t read any more about the damn Great Barrier Reef, and I’ve got other projects I want to get to.  So I’m putting my characters on a boat, and we’re going out to the reef together to see what’s what.  And I’m bringing my lightning rod.



"Dark Inside Kitchen Knife" by fragilique - deviantART.com

Thanks to a heads-up from Josh Vogt, I have a new blog on my blogroll:  “How to Kill Your Imaginary Friends, a Writer’s Guide to Diseases and Injuries, and How to Use Them Effectively in Fiction,” by Dr. Grasshopper, a recent med school grad currently seeking a residency in internal medicine.

Besides being a resident-doctor-to-be, Dr. Grasshopper also happens to be a science fiction and fantasy writer, so he understands the writer’s perspective.  And he’s willing to try to answer your fictional cause-of-death questions so that you don’t look like an idiot.

He’s funny.  I like him.  You should read him.

With blog posts titled, “If you shock a flatline, I swear I will come to your home and beat you with a wet chicken,” how can you not check this guy out?


"Happy Year of the Tiger" by HeWhoWalksWithTigers - deviantART.com

We celebrated Chinese New Year’s yesterday at my aunt’s house.  In past years, our celebrations have been boisterous and crowded with exchange students and friends.  But this year, it was just family.

This gave us a chance to really reconnect, look over old pictures, and, of course, eat a lot of good food.  (Oh, man!  I should have taken pictures of the food.  Next year….)

But what made this year’s celebration particularly meaningful to me was that this was my daughter’s first Chinese New Year’s celebration.  Last year at this time, she was recently discharged from a six-week stay in the NICU at a hefty 4 lbs.-14 ozs., give or take a hair.  And so we wisely kept her at home.

Those were bitter-tender times, harrowing and scary, and amazing and awe-inspiring.  I look at those pictures of me holding her, my thumb running the length of her thigh, and just think, “How did we ever get through those tough times?”

I guess they didn’t seem so tough at the time.  I think I was so much in love, it didn’t really matter.  It was just one day after the next.  She slept for so long, it seems.  Then suddenly, she was smiling and laughing, waving her arms and babbling.

Today I got to watch her walk laps around the pool grasping the hands of relatives who took turns for the privilege, so damn proud of her little Frankenstein lurch.  She would periodically be so overcome with happiness that she would squeeze her eyes shut and just laugh in excitement.  She’s walking!  She’s tasting freedom!  And I am so excited for her.

My little girl is the first baby on this side of the family in over 20 years (State-side), and everyone’s in love.  She’s like a little celebrity, with camera flashes popping off like paparazzi.  She takes it all in stride, flashing her two bottom teeth and waving at the onlookers.

I am so proud of her.  For someone who needs a nap after three hours of wakefulness, she held court for about seven hours before we finally took her home.  She ate sticky rice and butterflied shrimp and pot stickers and spicy pork.  And she reminded the family what it’s like to have little ones about.

I feel overcome with gratitude for my daughter, my husband, my family, my life.  This has been the best year of my life.  We’ve got a lot of big changes coming our way, and I’m hopeful that the Year of the Tiger will be another year to be grateful for.

So to all my dear friends, may this new year bring you love, laughter, and happiness.  Happy New Year!