When It Finally Happens

Hello, all.

I haven’t been in touch for a while for two reasons:

  1. I finished my substitute teaching year, which means I’m now spending my days gardening, instead of sitting behind a desk.
  2. I actually got a paying writing job.

It’s that second installment in my life that I want to talk about. It’s been quite an experience. Despite imagining myself as a paid writer in my idle moments, I never thought about the day-to-day requirements of having a writing job. I was more or less thrown into my first writing project with very little training. This meant that I had to race to catch up with all the other, more experienced writers on the contract. It was alternately exhilarating and frustrating. There were moments when I felt like the greatest writer ever. And there were also plenty of moments when I was sorely tempted to lock my computer in a trunk somewhere, run away, and go live in a tree house where the editors would never find me.

I was forced to learn on the go, which made the project difficult, but also very informative. Here are a few things I figured out by the end of the first contract:

1. Check your email religiously. 

My first writing contract, like many contracts, was carried out online. I never met my editors or fellow writers in person. We never talked on the phone or had a group Skype session. What we did was email each other. Every day.

I quickly realized why one of the requirements in the job posting was a reliable internet connection. Since we could only communicate through email and were working under a tight schedule, there was no time to waste waiting for someone to respond to an email you sent out three days ago. If you didn’t check your email every day, you were fired. It seems harsh, but if you couldn’t stay committed to the job, you would weigh down the rest of the team. Imagine if you worked in an office, and your coworker would always wait three days before answering any of your questions. You’d want to throw them through a window by the end of the quarter.

Luckily, getting my MA online taught me to check my email at least twice a day. When I was in high school, I could let my emails molder away without any lasting consequences. However, once I got into college, I learned that the simple act of checking your email folder (and more importantly, keeping it organized) would help you stay on top of things.

If you are going to go into professional writing, learn to check your email and send prompt responses. It helps to have one email address for personal use and one for professional use. That way, if you’re on a tight schedule, you don’t have to wade through advertisements and Groupon coupons. A little spam might leak through, but not enough to drown out the important messages you actually need to read.

2. Learn to proofread your own work. 

Your editors will love you. Their jobs are hard enough without having to be your spellchecker, too. They are there to fix formatting problems and make your work sound awesome. They are not there to do something you should have learned to do in junior high. And a happy editor makes for a happy writing experience.

3. When your editor tells you to wait, wait.

When I started the contract, the project supervisor told all of the writers not to jump into the next part of the project until our work had been approved by an editor. Our editors reminded us of this on a regular basis, warning that if we got ahead of everyone else, we would have to redo our work later.

Guess what I did?

I’ve always been uncomfortable with waiting when there’s a deadline coming up. In school, this served me well. By the end of day one in class, I would already be generating ideas for my final project. I turned in my papers well ahead of my classmates, and then I would sit back and relax while they scurried to finish their work.

However, as I quickly discovered, jumping ahead does not always help when you are working with other writers. Eager to make a good impression, I completed the first part of my work long before the deadline, and, rather than wait for my editor to give me the green light, I leapt into part two. Then, a few days later, I received the editor’s feedback on part one. Turns out, I didn’t have a complete handle on the formatting. I had to revise part one, and part two was practically unusable. I had to go back and redo all my work. I would have been happier if I had spent my time between parts one and two hiking or listening to Radiolab in the garden, instead of trying to get ahead of everyone else.

I’m somewhat abashed to say that I made the same mistake again with part three. The overachiever in me kicked in, and I started part three without approval. Luckily, I had a better handle on the work, so I did not have to rewrite as much that time. Still, I made life harder for myself. I wasn’t used to teaming up with an editor.

So please learn from my mistake. If you get a writing contract and you have the good fortune to work with an editor, take advantage of their expertise. Let them critique your work before moving on with the project. You’ll save yourself a lot of time and embarrassment.

Six Jobs

I once carried the notion around in my head that writers spent all of their time writing. I had images of settling down in the sunny loft of my house in the middle of the woods with a cup of coffee and a notepad. with no responsibilities besides etching out a world on paper. Only now am I beginning to grasp the level of juggling required to make a living and be a writer at the same time.

Sure, there are the lucky few, the band of brothers, who fight the good fight long and hard enough that they manage to secure full-time writing careers. However, most writers have multiple jobs. They have to in order to pay the bills. Writing remains one of my true passions, but I’ve yet to earn a stable living from it.

Honestly, most writers never do. Which is why flexibility is one of a writer’s greatest assets, to be able to carve out time to write while holding down an actual job.

Or six jobs, in my case.

I recently did a tally for my career advisor. I am a substitute teacher, a substitute outdoor instructor, a private tutor, a freelance writer, a pizza maker, and a test writer for A Pass Educational LLC. Some of these jobs only occupy a few hours of my time per week. The most reliable averages at around 12 hours a week. My professional life is less like a stone fortress and more like one of those infuriating 3-D puzzles where the pieces have to fit perfectly or the entire thing starts to sag sideways.

And yet, amidst all of the juggling, there is still time to write. I’ve learned that you can tell what things are the most important to you, because they are the ones you make time for. I may not have that beautiful writing loft in the wilderness yet. But I have study halls. I have long car rides. I have the backs of attendance sheets and the corners of napkins. It might be tricky, but I’m determined to make this piece of the puzzle fit, even if I have to do it a millimeter at a time.

 

 

In Honor of Dr. Rush from Stargate Universe

Rush
The distanced genius
Secluded on a self-made island
Built of apathy and caffeine addiction
Surrounded by waves of regret cresting with hate
Plugging minds into hard drives
Stabbing aliens with screwdrivers
Blowing bubbles
Eating soup alone
Staging coups
Quoting films
Losing glasses
Going crazy
Giving hugs
Breaking windows
Breaking laws
The necessary evil
The mad scientist
Rushing to battle
Rushing through breakfast
Always rushing
Rush

The Cost of Knowing

In the beginning, I was Midas.
Everything I touched was golden.
My parents looked on with oohs and aahs
As I smeared violet finger paint across
Virgin sheets of paper
Almost as tall as I was.
My writings returned unblemished
By the sacrilege of the teacher’s red pen.

And then I was DaVinci:
Still brilliant,
Still unmatched in my generation
But beginning to glimpse the world
Beyond the world.

Next, Van Gogh,
Confused by the vibrancy of a life
I had no way of preparing for,
Compelled to set it down
By any means necessary.
Painting a vast firmament
Of exploding light,
Fumbling for the names
Of colors I’d never seen before.

Now Eliot.
Standing on a frozen shore,
Surrounded by hollow men,
Holding an empty journal
I no longer have the heart to fill.

The Benefits of Fan Fiction

I used to think that fan fiction was a lesser form of writing that was only practiced by those who were too lazy to come up with their own storylines and characters. It was a waste of time that could be better spent creating new material instead of rehashing already published stories. Then I started writing it myself.

I’m not going to argue that all fan fiction is great literature; I’ve read some incredibly maudlin, overdone stories on my occasional expeditions into the fan fiction world. Some writers seem to engage in fan fiction solely because it allows them to shove their favorite characters into erotic scenarios without any regard for the author’s intent or the characters’ compatibility. I’m not talking about this kind of harlequin romance fan fiction.

I’m talking about fan fiction that takes established story lines and characters, and creates something new with them. There are a few things writers can learn from writing fan fiction.

1. You learn how to identify character mannerisms and speech pattern

When I started writing my story, I realized that in order to write convincing fan fiction, you have to be able to ascertain the defining characteristics of characters and translate them into new scenarios. You can’t just copy the lines a character said in a book; you have to decide what characteristics comprise the character’s voice and then apply them to new dialogue.

This has honestly been one of the trickiest parts for me, since I’ve borrowed characters from half a dozen stories who all have their own distinct way of speaking. To make the story convincing, I have to jump from one writing style to the next, juggling vocal tics and accents while still maintaining a believable conversation. It’s been great practice, and has helped me hone my skills at creating interesting-sounding characters.

2. You learn how to craft interesting, but plausible scenarios.

This has been my favorite part of fan fiction writing. I get to take characters who have never encountered each other and then work out how they will interact with each other. Who will be more dominant? Which characters will get along, and which will rub each other the wrong way? Which characters will exert the most influence over a situation, and which will back down from a conflict?

I love it because, in my fan fiction story, I’ve taken characters from over twenty different stories and stuck them together. They come from a wide range of backgrounds and have very different personalities. Whenever I plot out the next scene, I have to consider what role each character would fall into if they were actually in this scenario. Their behavior patterns have already been established by their authors, so I can’t make them do things that would run counter to their personalities. There is a little room for lee-way. For example, over the course of the story, one of the more violent characters has started to mellow in response to those around him. Changes have to be plausible and gradual, just like they are in real life. We all have baseline personalities that strongly influence our actions. People rarely experience 180 shifts in behavior some kind of dramatic impetus. Therefore, when I plot out my story, I have to be mindful of how the characters would most likely react to events.

3. You learn how to create the unexpected.

Keeping in mind the importance of being realistic in your story-crafting, it is also important to surprise your readers. There is a delicate dance between consistency and creativity. While the characters need to act according to their personalities, your stories also have to offer up something new. They need to show a new side to the characters or at the very least highlight elements of their personas that are downplayed in their original stories. For example, one of the characters in my story is Gabriel Gray, the serial killer from the television show “Heroes”. In the series, you mainly see Gabriel’s jealous, power-hungry, insecure side. He kills people because they have abilities that he lacks. He is driven by the need to be accepted, and he believes that gaining power and eliminating the competition is the only route.

However, there are occasional glimpses of his protective side. He defends people, not for personal gain, but because he genuinely doesn’t want them to get hurt. Despite his flaws, he is still capable of forming emotional attachments, and he wants to protect the few people who matter to him. In my story, I brought out this side of his personality, making it the core value of his identity. Throughout the plot, he slowly shifts from an insecure, angry man, to someone who is willing to risk his own safety for the people he cares about. This shift is interesting because it is never fully realized in the tv series, but it is also plausible. It is surprising without being unrealistic.

When I started writing my story, I viewed it as a writing exercise. I was blocked on my novel, but I didn’t want to stop writing altogether. Instead of trying to hammer through my writer’s block, I shifted my creative energy towards fan fiction, where the stakes were much less intimidating. Now, whenever I get stuck on one of my projects, I spend some time adding to my fan fiction. It’s a great way to hone my skills without worrying about whether I’ll be able to sell the end product. There is no way I could publish this thing without being sued, so the pressure to please a publisher is off. I can sit back and let my imagination run free. Somehow, over the course of four years, this little experiment into fan fiction has turned into a 400 page novel, and I still have about two hundred pages to go. For once, I don’t see fan fiction as a waste of creative energy. It allows me to write a story that is just for me.

 

World-Building Worksheet

One of my favorite parts of fantasy and science fiction writing is world-building. Crafting a new world carries its own unique rush. In fantasy and sci-fi writing, you can take more liberties with world-building than in realistic fiction. However, it is important to make a world that is both complex and consistent. If you want to build a world that is detailed enough to hold the weight of your stories, there are a few topics you will need to consider. You don’t need to include all the details in your book, but knowing the answers yourself will keep you from making mistakes or accidentally creating contradictions later.

Here is a worksheet that will help guide you as you design your world:

The Basics

Country Name:

Size:

Population:

Race:

Language:

 

Culture

Education:

Religion:

Customs:

Clothing:

Climate:

Notable Geography:

Noteworthy Historical Events:

Holidays/Celebrations:

 

Politics

Government/Political Structure:

Social Structure:

Rivals:

Allies:

Noteworthy Battles:

Strengths/Weaknesses:

 

Economy

Imports:

Exports:

Natural Resources:

Currency:

Hopefully this worksheet will get your ideas flowing and help you create a detailed world for your stories! Best of luck in your world-building!

The Modern Assassin (A Tribute to Red Eye)

The manager sits in his coach section seat
armed with his cellphone for an evening of unwanted calls
waiting for a lady he doesn’t want to meet
on a flight he doesn’t want to take
that’s been delayed for reasons he can’t control
by a storm that came at the worst possible moment
wasting time he didn’t have

so he’s calling an employer he doesn’t approve of
to work out problems he wishes hadn’t come up
for a job he wishes was already over
to kill a man he doesn’t even know
for people he doesn’t even like
all at some ungodly hour on a red eye flight
hoping for retirement on an island far far away
away from the calls, and the lady,
and the boss, and the plane, and the storm,
and the endless hassles they bring
somewhere with white sand and clear water
where he can wash the blood off of his hands
and relax

The Symphony Next Door

It’s Thursday morning and Travis and Mark are at it again like champions. I can hear them through the wall of my dining room as I sit and watch my overheated cup of peppermint tea cool. I always make it too weak, so that it tastes like grass clippings floating in a rain puddle, or too strong, so that I feel like I am chewing on a pine bough. The row next door begins with Travis knocking sharply on Mark’s door like a conductor calling his drowsing orchestra to attention.

The opening overture is a familiar one, reminiscent of Tchaikovsky; that is, if Tchaikovsky had decided to orchestrate arguments about rent instead of stories about listless princes who had nothing better to do besides sit woodenly beneath Christmas trees and chew away at walnut shells. The theme is beautiful in its simplicity, memorable enough that I can hum along from my rickety chair in my forget-me-not blue kitchen. Travis wants the rent. Mark doesn’t have it.

Next comes the first solo: Travis, in a stunning monologue about responsibility and property damage and smoking indoors. I recline back in my chair, enjoying the lively, crisp tones of his barely-controlled outrage. Then Mark enters into the melody, his own slow, sweet molasses voice crooning like a bassoon that his boss still hasn’t paid him, and the smoke Travis smells must be from the candles he had just been burning. He was having a morning vigil to honor the death of Kurt Cobain.

The theme builds in complexity as Travis launches into a new refrain about last month’s fire, which nearly burned down the entire building. Mark interjects with staccato precision that the fire in question was all Jameson from 6A’s fault. How was he to blame if Jameson decided to light off fifteen strands of Chinese firecrackers in his bathtub? If he had realized how drunken Jameson was, he never would have sold the firecrackers to him.

There is a quarter-note rest as both men take a breath. I test my still-steaming cup of tea and get a burned lip for my trouble. On the other side of the wall, Mark is surprisingly the one to seize the melody, singing out a complicated motif of criminally high rent, drafty windows, and leaky facilities. He powers along for almost twelve measures without a single rest, hoping to pummel Travis into submission. His efforts are all in vain, because on the thirteenth measure Travis jumps in, accusations pounding away like an entire timpani section, increasing in tempo and volume until Mark has been almost entirely drowned out.

In prior performances, they have often ended at this point, the final crash of Travis slamming the door resounding through the hall, but today there is an unexpected rally as Travis returns to the original theme, his voice building to a deafening crescendo. For a moment, there is a breathless stillness, and I swear I can hear the steam rising from my chipped coffee mug. Then I hear the click of a gun and I realize that the musicians have reached a new level of innovation in their careers. Anticipating what’s coming, I rise to my feet, feeling like the queen of England when she first heard the Hallelujah chorus. Mark’s is the only voice now, repeating back Travis’ final notes, a single clarinet, alone on a stage as vast as Carnegie Hall, echoing in the center of my chest. The timpani resound in perfect unison one last time, and then Travis hits the ground, the sound thundering through the apartment like applause.

Separating Writers and Their Work

An April Ending

There was nothing worth the pain of holding on anymore,
So on an April day he let it go,
And he found how easy surrender can be,
After ages of battle lost and won.
Easy as writing a letter home.
One step over the edge,
Letting gravity take over,
Trusting one thing:
The rope.

One of the problems writers occasionally encounter is the assumption that everything they write must have a deep, hidden connection with their own lives. We like to think that books and poetry give us insight into the author’s mind, and that by reading their works, we are in some small way gaining a better understanding of them. We feel frustration, respect, and affection for people we will never meet. Billy Collins has become a trusted mentor of mine, and I only exchanged a few sentences with him at a poetry reading while he signed a book. Art and literature are founded on emotion. A part of the creator seeps into the creation. The greatest artists are the ones who channel their own experiences and emotions into their work, and by engaging with it, we form a connection with the creator.

That being said, it is unwise to assume that every literary work is a partial autobiography. I’m as guilty of this as anyone. When I started reading Stephen King’s books, a thought kept cropping up in the back of my mind: What kind of person can come up with things like this? I had the same thought when I read The Bride Collector by Ted Dekker. Who thinks about stuff like this? I assumed that because both authors use graphic, macabre imagery, they must be a little twisted themselves. That is, until I found myself on the receiving end of the same belief.

My junior year of high school, I wrote a poem called “Before I Wave the World Goodbye”. It was a terrible, sappy thing about saying goodbye to the day before falling asleep, a poem with the same premise as Goodnight Moon and none of the charm. I turned it in for a writing project. Two days later, I was called into the counselor’s office because they thought the poem contained suicidal thoughts. It was a simple matter of misinterpretation, but it got me thinking. How many times have I assumed things about authors based on their works alone? Maybe Brian Jacques, author of the Redwall series, doesn’t actually like mice. Maybe Lilian Jackson Braun prefers dogs over cats. I’ve never taken the time to actually find out; I’ve just drawn these conclusions based on their books.

There are some things we can know for certain based on decades of exhaustive research. Edgar Allan Poe, as hinted by his short stories, was a social misfit. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle valued science and logic, like his immortal protagonist. However, it is unfair to presuppose things about authors without taking the time to research what they are actually like. It turns out the Stephen King is a normal human being with a passion for thrillers. Ted Dekker is likewise untainted by homicidal thoughts. They simply choose to write what they are good at.

It is fun to play a guessing game about our favorite authors. I often wonder whether Robert Frost spent his free time hiking around the woods and picking apples, or whether Taylor Mali really did see a piano being lowered from an eighth-floor window while trying to teach math in a classroom across the street. The trouble comes when our guesses start to color our opinion of the artist without ever taking time to find the truth.

In college, I learned that you can write about sad topics without feeling sad. At the top of this post is a flash-fiction piece I wrote during a sunny day in September, when everything was going swimmingly and I felt on top of the world. I was given the challenge by a professor to write a story using less than sixty words. The truth is, when you want to tell a story in a short amount of time, tragedies are much easier to write. You don’t have to rescue the protagonist and tie up all the loose ends. You can just leave your readers hanging, and they won’t demand an explanation, because sadness is a thing we are all familiar with. Tragedy is a topic everyone can connect with, and it comes in endless varieties, so authors never have to worry about running out of material.

You don’t have to be sad to write a tragedy, just like you don’t have to be a murderer to write about murder. The great thing about writing fiction is that it allows us to be things we’re not, to experiment with thoughts and situations that we might otherwise never encounter. Authors invest emotional and creative energy into their works, which is what gives them their life, but in the end, it’s fiction. We are adults playing pretend.