Thursday, October 28, 2010

Decisions, Decisions


A week ago, I really considered skipping this year’s Nanowrimo. Teaching was (and is) stressing me out– curse you, mandatory high stakes exams! – and I also didn’t have an ideal project in mind. I’ve been really focused on my YA dystopian, which is currently at 23,000 words. Theoretically I should have more than 50,000 words worth of plot and description left to add, but wild writing flurries are always easier when you’re beginning a fresh story. Unfortunately, my only other option was jumping into one of my half formed story ideas with no planning at all; but even though I’m more of a pantser than a planner, I still like to have something, and some of my concepts don’t even have characters yet. 

I was also apprehensive because I think Nanowrimo serves a very specific purpose, and it might not be the one that I need right now. Last year it was immensely helpful; it forced me to establish a productive routine, it taught me a great deal about writing, and it showed that I am capable of completing a book-length draft, something I had never done before. It really energized and educated me and I’ll be forever grateful. But Nanowrimo – which freely admits that the goal is quantity, not quality – encourages rushed and wordy prose that is a bear to revise later. It also makes writing a stressful, exhausting, deadline-oriented task (which I guess is what happens when you’re under contract, but at least then you’re getting paid). I just didn't want to lose the flow and the feel of my current story by suddenly forcing my way through it.   

Fortunately, I decided to get over myself and just go for it anyway. Ultimately the deciding factor was my husband; I can’t miss out on Nanowrimo when he’s doing it for once! I’m really excited to share the chaos with him. And if I run out of steam or plot on my current project, I can always start the sequel. It’s currently a very murky, amorphous idea in my mind, but so what? Nanowrimo is all about following the insane adventure, and I'm game. 

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go try out that “planning” thing…

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Font Frustrations

Dear Blogger.com, 

You’re pretty popular, which is why I agreed to work with you on this project of mine. But I’d also heard things about you before our working relationship began.  You have a reputation for sometimes malfunctioning, eating posts whole and refusing to let them out into the world. So I have to admit, I was a little nervous, and I took precautions. Since the beginning I’ve typed all of my posts in Word first, just in case. Word and I have been working together for a while, you see, and aside from an awkward readjustment period after its 2007 makeover, the two of us have gotten along just fine. 

But here’s the problem: When I try to cut and paste my entries from Word to you, Blogger, something tricky happens to the font. You keep telling me that all of the entries are written in Georgia font in the same size, but clearly that isn’t the case. Look at the On the Run entry, with its absurdly towering letters, and compare it to the font in the Ice Cream entry, so cramped and subdued. I’ve tried setting a default font, I’ve tried editing the font on each entry, I’ve tried redoing my cutting and pasting after changing the font in Word… Nothing changes.

I won't even start on what you sometimes do to my spacing and paragraph divisions. 

I had such hopes for our relationship, but you’re driving me a little crazy. I’m willing to put in more effort – I’m going to try to always set the font size in Word before transferring to you, and if necessary I'll pull out my rudimentary html skills – but a little more user friendliness from you wouldn’t hurt.  

With cautious optimism for our future together,

Jillian

Thursday, October 21, 2010

A Surprising Place to Find Ice Cream

Recently my husband started his own blog and quest: to ride his bicycle every day and give up cookies, cake, donuts, and ice cream. Or so he thought. But the other day he had a stunning and horrifying revelation (which fortunately he said out loud so that I could make fun of him):

“Ice cream sandwiches have ice cream in them!”

Apparently he’d eaten several at school without realizing that they violated his no ice cream rule. When I pointed out that they also violated his no cake rule, he argued “No, those are cookies! Wait…crap.”

(For the record, my husband is not actually an idiot. He’s just chronically sleep deprived.) 

But he’s not the only one having “oh, duh” revelations around here. As I mentioned in a previous post, it took me a while to realize that writing is not, in fact, an easy or even entirely sedentary career. And then this week I became very worried that I’d made another glaring error. A colleague was trying to convince me to attend a Renaissance literature conference, and I remembered something:

One reason I decided not to pursue my PhD was because at the time I just couldn’t conceive of remaining with the same project for years and years and putting in the exhausting effort necessary to completely perfect it for publication. 

You know, EXACTLY WHAT A NOVELIST NEEDS TO DO.

Crap.

But then I thought about the situation more, and I discovered several key differences between my abandoned scholarly writing career and my planned fiction writing one. It isn’t really revisions that I hate; I’m actually a proofreading and editing fan, to be honest. I was more put off by the exhaustive research required for scholarly work. (Until you get famous or well-paid enough to have research assistants do it for you, anyway.) 

I should explain that I actually adore preliminary research, and I even like follow-up research to fill in the gaps. What I despise is the need, after you have a fairly complete draft, to read (or skim) everything that was ever written on your topic, mostly so that (1) you have an army of footnotes and (2) you’re prepared for all possible questions during the interrogation period that follows dissertation and conference presentations. (Not that I’m cynical about the ivory tower system or terrified by impromptu speaking or anything…)

Luckily, I don’t plan to write novels that are immersed enough in history, current technology, or other topics that require more than the enjoyable preliminary and gap-filling research. And I think I can survive the obsessive revising required for novel writing, though we’ll have to wait until I have a novel draft worthy of revision to find out. (Last year’s Nanowrimo taught me a great deal, but it didn’t leave me with an end result that seems worth revising.)

So I’ll keep forging ahead, accepting the fact that if I make it as a writer I’ll still have to deal with deadlines and stress and self-doubt…

But I bet I’ll get more pajama days.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

On the Run

I just took my first run in over two months; I finally didn't have a cast or brace on, and it was too beautiful outside to resist. 

(I didn’t want to run while I had my arm in a cast because (1) it was already disgusting inside that thing and I didn’t need to be adding sweat, and (2) I didn’t mind the excuse to be lazy, I’ll be honest.)

It was amazing to be back running on the park paths in the crisp air… for the first ten minutes. Then my throat was on fire and I was gasping for breath and I remembered that I don’t actually like running. I run because it improves my performance in other sports, because I can do it anywhere, anytime without equipment or teammates, and because I like winning things (and by “winning things” I mean “doing well enough in my age group at charity 5Ks that I receive a prize pack or a winter hat,” not winning the actual race.) 

So I don’t hate running, but I wouldn’t call myself a true Runner, one of those rare breed who actually loves running. I’ve never experienced a runner’s high. Running doesn’t help me think clearly. I don’t feel a driving urge to go running. (Well, sometimes I do on really beautiful days, but it usually fades after those first ten minutes.) I’d much rather be playing more multi-dimensional sports with balls and opponents that distract me from the fact that I’m exerting myself. 

But running does have an added benefit at the moment: it can help me get into the head of my current MC, who is very much a Runner. While running itself doesn’t help me think, at least I can channel those first ten minutes of running euphoria and spend some quality time in my MC’s shoes.   

Now get off your computer and get outside -- it's beautiful out there. 

Friday, October 15, 2010

The Superhumans


Successful writers always stress that if you’re in the field for the fame or the money or any reason other than the drive to write and the love of the art, you’re setting yourself up for horrible disappointment.

I’ve got most of it right. I fully realize that writing only brings fortune to a few, and I’m okay with that. Clearly if I chose careers based on salary I would not be tutoring and adjunct teaching right now. I’m also not desperate to be famous; in fact I think it would make me fairly uncomfortable to be a public figure. (Lemony Snicket had a good thing going.) Though admittedly being famous would make me more likely to meet my favorite writers and actors, which would be amazing. But I don’t necessarily need to be world-renown for that to work, right? I would just need a small niche audience. A small niche audience of my favorite celebrities… Alright, so I may need a new plan.

Even though I’m not really in it for the money or the fame, I did at one time have a different misguided motivation for becoming a writer: I thought it would be an easier and more flexible day job than my other options. I envisioned a relaxing existence in which I wrote for a few hours every morning and evening and spent the rest of my time sipping coffee, playing sports, visiting friends, and teaching one writing class of 16 perfect students.

Then I realized that writers, especially published writers, are ridiculously busy. Not only do you have to write and edit constantly, but apparently you can’t just let your books speak for you; you have to go out in the world, in person, to promote them.

I remember how impressed I was when I learned what Neil Gaiman does with himself when he isn't writing some of my favorite novels ever. He blogs, he tweets, he writes episodes for television shows, he pow-wows with other amazing people, he maintains a long-distance romance with a Dresden Doll (that was a world-colliding moment for me), and most of all he travels the world doing presentations, book signings, panels, and events for charity. He certainly doesn’t need the publicity, but he still spends vast quantities of time away from home connecting with fans and apparently being everywhere at once.

I quickly became convinced that Neil Gaiman possessed superhuman powers, because there simply could not be any time left for him to write. Then he posted a photo of himself perched on a concrete block in a graffiti-strewn Berlin alleyway, scribbling in a notebook between public appearances. And I realized that Neil follows the same important rule that all busy and distracted authors follow, and that I’m trying to emulate myself: he doesn’t find time to write, he makes time to write.

Of course, when I thought about the genius and magic in all of his writing, I decided that he must possess superhuman powers after all.

Now go and read his vastly superior blog already.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Failing at Adulthood


Some Things I Hate:
  • Velcro
  • Auto-flush toilets
  • Those random moments of awkwardness that crush my belief that I have finally become a confident and normally functioning adult. 

I thought I had conquered my fear of impromptu public speaking. It was an annoying mental block growing up that allowed me to present with confidence, but only if I could plan words out ahead of time. Read in front of hundreds of people at a Christmas Eve service? No problem. Offer my opinion on a piece of literature in front of twenty classmates? Panic mode. Even if I was utterly confident in my opinions, my hands would still tremble as I presented them, and often my voice would catch in my throat or quicken awkwardly as I began to run out of breath. So I stayed fairly quiet, and always surprised professors when I actually had quite a bit to say in my papers.

I finally got over most of my anxiety in grad school, partly because one of my instructor-idols pointed out that we were essentially preparing for a career in speaking, so we had better start practicing.

And I continued to believe that I was “cured” when I came to my current career. After the first day of each semester I’m not nervous at all when I’m teaching, in fact I feel confident and empowered (a delightful relief). I’m also usually able to converse smoothly with my coworkers and supervisors; in fact I’ve become a rather energetic, talkative, and loud personality. No more embarrassing trembling or voice catching for me.

Until yesterday, when I was sitting in a roundtable discussion with about thirty other faculty members, including some direct and indirect supervisors, discussing how to make the campus a safe space for LGBT students and other potential bullying victims. When the panel asked for questions, I decided to offer up a related situation from class that I thought would be an interesting discussion point. 

I started talking…and suddenly I was back in the most intimidating of classrooms. My voice went up several octaves and started to catch, making me sound like I was on the verge of tears. My breathing sped up so that I could barely finish my sentences without gasping. I was sweating, and my hands trembled under the table. It was an absolute and unexpected nightmare, and I barely made it through the most basic formulation of my question without running out of oxygen and dignity.

After the panel responded I wanted to explain myself further, but I was too terrified. I didn't feel afraid of my audience of coworkers, but apparently my speaking organs were, and they could no longer be trusted, so I spent the rest of the session in an embarrassed silence. I watched everyone else speak with calm confidence, and I wondered how strange I had sounded to casual listeners, and if everyone thought I must be a horrible professor because I couldn’t manage to speak three simple sentences in front of thirty of my peers.

I realize that I’m being an overdramatic and self-critical self-analyzer (surprise!); I probably didn’t sound as bad as all that, and it’s probably already been forgotten by everyone but me. After all, it’s not as if I asked a really inappropriate question or fainted or anything. Maybe people will just assume I was sick. Note to self: start coughing around any co-workers who attended the meeting. 

But the real issue is not the temporary embarrassment; it’s the disappointing realization that my impromptu public speaking terrors are still very much with me. Once again, I found myself wondering if I would ever stop feeling awkward. I just want to grow up, gain confidence, and become a real adult already. I realize that many professionals my age follow the “fake it ‘till you make it strategy” and don’t feel like legitimate adults either, but now I feel like I can’t even fake it very well.  

In other I’m-a-failure news, I’ve messed up WEDIO already. I meant to write yesterday, and I even would have had a few snatches of time to do so, but I completely forgot until 2am in the morning when I was almost asleep and it was already technically the next day. Obviously I’m still aiming to write every day in October except for the one I forgot, but WEDIOEFTOIF just doesn’t have the same ring.

But enough of this unproductive self-loathing. I don’t want to write a blog where I complain about being self-doubting or exhausted all the time (though I am definitely very tired right now, possibly because I had to escape a thick swarm of killer bees that invaded the tutoring session in my dream last night. Just saying.) I’ll have to brainstorm some more exciting and uplifting entries for the future. 

In the meantime, I leave you with the trying-to-be-an-adult struggles of the genius Allie in what happens to be the most hilarious and accurate comic ever

You're welcome.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Making Time I Can't Find


The first full week of WEDIO was technically a success, in that I did write every day. Yay! 

Admittedly I made it because my “write something every day” rule was very lenient, allowing me to work on various projects and count even the most pathetic of word counts. It’s a start, but I have to admit that I’m already dreading Nanowrimo. I adored its special breed of chaos last year and succeeded in reaching my 50,000 word goal two days before the deadline, so part of me is certainly excited about attempting it again. The other part of me, however, is screaming about how much busier my work schedule is this year and reminding me that Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays will never be productive writing days and neither will the weekends when I have to travel. I’ll probably need to average 3000 words every day that I can write, which doesn’t sound insurmountable by any means but is still much more prolific than I’ve managed to be on any day so far this month. Or this calendar year, for that matter. 

But I'll just have to use every drop of time that I can wring out of my days. If my husband honors his plan to try Nanowrimo this year, I'll definitely feel like I need to join in too. And even if he doesn’t, I’ll probably still talk myself into it, because clearly I’m a sleep-despising masochist. 

I'm just stating for the record that it's going to be crazy.