What Blogging Has Taught Me

I run two blogs: this one and Beerily Thus, which updates Mondays and Fridays with beer reviews, knowledge, commentary, and more. I’ve been working on this blog for about three years now (it used to have a different name, but I shifted everything that I could over to here roughly two years ago) and Beerily Thus has been going just since November 2016.  And let me tell you, pumping out new and original content three times a week in addition to all of the other writing and critique that I’m doing tends to go over better some weeks than others.

Here’s what I’ve learned so far:

  1. Titles are hard. Seriously. I’ve never been good when it comes to naming stuff and that hits home every time that stupid subject line sits there, blank, mocking me. You’ll note that this week’s title is… uninspired.
  2. Planning ahead is crucial, but I am very bad at it. I tend to forget that big holidays are coming up until just a few days before they arrive, which is why I almost never have seasonally appropriate posts.
  3. Queuing posts up in advance is a godsend. WordPress lets you write and then schedule posts, making it possible to keep things updating regularly no matter how busy life gets, when I’m traveling, or even if I forget what day of the week it is.
  4. Writing regularly, even when I don’t want to or don’t feel like it or am busy or am burnt out is important to do. I’ve preached about it before, and I’ll say it again: write every single day.
  5. List posts are easier to write when you’re suffering from writer’s block.

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Everything Must Change

Change is absolutely inevitable. It is the very definition of living, I think, to change and to be changed by both internal and external forces. Stagnation is nigh impossible. Even if you hide from the world, the world finds a way to work its magic on you and shove you down, lift you up, or push you onward.

Some changes are uplifting: marriage, birth, a new job, an exciting opportunity, a vacation.

Some are relatively neutral: moving house, a shifting friendship, a change in a relationship structure, engaging in a hobby.

Some are less than ideal: divorce, sickness, death, a natural disaster, job loss, a pay cut.

You cannot avoid or ignore change. Even if you do not work it on yourself, it will come to you in time. It may be time to turn your gaze inward. What transitions have you gone through lately? What changes still lie ahead? Change may often feel intimidating and overwhelming, but it can be transformative in a positive way. Even the negative changes can offer an opportunity for a kind of rebirth,

Change inherently feels disruptive, espesically to creatures like us, who are hard-wired to prefer the routine and predictable. Change is daunting and rarely easy, and to claim otherwise would be disingenuous. Transitions often seem like craggy mountains looming in our path. There’s no way around and so we must climb. The way is hard—harder some times that others—and it can take a long time. But we all reach the peak eventually, and are often better and stronger than we were before the climb.

Remaining calm and focused during great change can makes the process easier. Since you have no control, being upset is wasted energy (and let me tell you, I understand this well – I am a master of wallowing). A clear mind guides you through high-stress situations and enables you to get your affairs in order when it’s time to take control again. It’s helpful to focus on good things, whether a monthly dinner out with friends, regular trips to the gym, or a weekly phone call to a loved one. Do your best to keep those small lights burning in your heart and use them to help you through the challenging time.

Growing as a Writer

Last week, I talked about how valuable the critique process was for me. That’s one of several threads that have allowed me to really bloom and grow in the craft. One of the others is writing conferences. These, to me, are so so worthwhile.

Now, I’ve only ever been to a proper writing conference once, actually, but I’ve mostly gone to genre fiction fan conventions that tend to be writing-heavy in their programming. For example, Capclave, RavenCon, and ChessieCon, which are all in my general area of the US. I’ve also attended DragonCon for some of its author panels and genre fiction, but it’s also a huge social event for me, so it’s hard to network and focus on professional development when there’s also a lot of drinking in costume to do.

The point is that these events can be invaluable. I encourage everyone to go to fan-run conventions in their area! You can listen to panelists talk about topics that interest you, meet writers, and maybe even get in on some writing workshops while you’re there. And, crucially, you can start to network. If you’re looking to be a professional fiction writer, you need to build yourself as a brand. Because you are the product that you are promoting. This is all another post for another time.

Recently, I decided to get a little brave and apply to be a panelist and to run a workshop at Capclave last year. And it was both exhilarating and totally terrifying. Have you heard of imposter syndrome? Well, it hit me HARD that weekend. I had a crisis of faith and an anxiety attack and it was a pretty terrible hour of sobbing and self-doubt. I almost packed my bags and left the night before I was supposed to be on two panels. Luckily, my wonderful friends talked me down and convinced me to stay.

And you know what? The world didn’t end. I spoke on two panels and helped teach an interactive micro fiction workshop and I think the whole thing went over well. It was worth sticking around for. It was a hard lesson in believing in yourself, even when things aren’t going your way at all.

And let me tell you what, that imposter syndrome still haunts me to this day. Every day, it whispers in my ear that if I were any good, I’d have representation on my manuscript by now. But you know what? It can absolutely eat it. I’m doing well. I’m getting better. I’m still working on becoming a more skilled writer all the time. And as long as I’m still working on honing my craft? Then I’m moving forward. And success will come in due time.

Say it Loud and Proud: Critique Matters

Critique is so important. I honestly believe that writers who don’t/haven’t gone through the process – on both the giving and receiving sides – are missing out on an incredible tool for improving their reading and writing. Bear with me a moment as we look backwards in time.

As of 2013, I had hardly ever let a single soul read any fiction that I’d written. I’d had a short story published in my college’s literary magazine, sure, and occasionally wrote some experimental stuff on my LiveJournal (feel free to mock me for this later), but any novel-length projects that I was working on stayed under wraps without fail. At this time, I also didn’t value the short story pretty much at all. In spite of reading plenty of great short fiction as an English major, I just had this stick up my ass that the only worthwhile fiction was in the form of a novel.

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I’m still not clear on what changed in me, but I finally decided to go to a critique group and see if my writing was up to snuff enough that maybe I could try and get a book published. Enter Meetup.com and the Columbia Writers. At my first meeting, I screwed up completely and didn’t have written notes in advance, which I was supposed to give to the writers of the pieces that we were reading that week.

I got better, I swear. I attended regularly and did my best to give helpful feedback that wasn’t mean or overly critical, but that didn’t coddle the author, either.

In this, I failed. For a while. It turns out, I wasn’t very good at giving feedback. I wasn’t focusing on the right things and my tone was too terse and unpleasant. But I learned as I went on, how to find the right balance between being friendly and being a good reader that offered helpful constructive criticism. I learned to stop circling out-of-place commas in red pen and, instead, to focus on character motivations, dialogue, pacing, and other genuinely helpful things to talk about. I became a better reader through this trial and error.

And, in being a better reader of others’ works, I became a better writer as well. I learned how to evaluate my own work with the same critical eye that I gave to my fellow writers.

Then, I started to submit work. First, it was sections of novels I was playing with (the main one from that era is on the back burner – I’m not dropping it, but it would be a tough sell, especially as a first book), but then I started to attempt short stories. In this time, I blossomed. With the feedback I was receiving, I started to see my own shortcomings in a new light and began to understand my own strengths as a writer.

Critique does more than just show you what you need to work on; done right, the critique process makes you a better reader and a better writer. I cannot recommend it enough.

The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin

Can we please talk about The Fifth Season for a minute? Because it is an incredibly good read! It was the selection for a small book club that some friends run (which is often more like wine and cheese and bread and friends and, “Oh, we read a book that we should talk about!” but then there’s cheese in our mouths and it’s sometimes hard to talk). I was prepared to enjoy the book, but it absolutely wowed me.

First of all, I have to thank audiobooks for making reading in my life more of a possibility. I have a 40 minute commute to work each way – plus I drive to Philadelphia and back about once a month and that’s about 3-3.5 hours in a go – so I don’t get a lot of down time for reading. Enter Amazon’s Whispersync and my savior. This is a feature where you can buy a kindle book and tack on the audiobook narration for a fee and – here’s the magic – you can switch seamlessly between reading and listening. It’s all done in the Kindle app itself (no need to log in to the audible app) and the narration starts at the top of whatever page you left of reading on.

Would I have been able to read The Fifth Season, a sizable fantasy epic, in just over a month without Whispersync? I highly doubt it. Additionally, the narration was really well done and didn’t detract from the experience or annoy me at all. I’ve listened to some stinkers, narration-wise, and they can ruin an otherwise good book experience.

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In this book, Jemisin builds a sprawling fantasy setting in which cataclysmic disasters, called Seasons, grip the land and wipe out huge swaths of the population on a regular basis. And as we open the story with Essun, a woman whose son has just been brutally murdered, the worst season in recent history is just getting underway. While there is first a brief visit with an unnamed man who begins the story by breaking the world (and this is done in the most delightful sardonic third person narration), we really do begin in Essun’s small home. And here’s a fun trick: Essun’s POV chapters are all written in present tense second person, creating a sort of forced intimacy, which I think pays off.  The other two characters who we follow (the child, Damaya and the young woman, Syenite) tell stories in past third person and weave together the tales of these three women who wield the power to break and mend the earth.

The Fifth Season also addresses issues of race, class, sex, gender, caste, and creates two powerful forces of oppression: the faceless, hateful, eternal abstraction of Father Earth and the Fulcrum, which trains and controls the orogenes, who have been legally labeled non-human because of their earth-warping powers. While many fantasy books feature enemies that are killable monsters or men mad with power, Jemisin presents more complex and nuanced evil in the forms of nature and a tyrannical system.

It was a seriously wonderful read, built on a world created with incredible depth. The writing is well-crafted and the characters let you lean in close and become hypnotized by this alien and yet all-too-familiar world.

These Aren’t Really Skills That You Can Take to the Bank

Things that I am really good at doing include, but are not limited to:

  • Not taking my own very good advice on writing now and getting things started/finished
  • Writing creepy, gory action scenes
  • Taking cute bird videos
  • Watching cute bird videos

 

Things I am not as good at:

  • Ramping tension up gradually and consistently in fiction pieces
  • Writing sympathetic villains (or at least villains who don’t monologue all the time)
  • Walking or standing for very long (which breaks my heart because there are a lot of marches in DC that I want to participate in)
  • Making curry from scratch
  • Forcing myself to stop working and enjoy a video game