Hiatus and Depression

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I didn’t plan to take a six-month writing hiatus. It just sort of happened. Fear and self-doubt are lethal to writing, you see, and when you add in depression, it’s a cocktail for disaster. And not just in writing.

I started having trouble in August. I spent days before my laptop paralyzed and panicked whenever I opened up my WIP. So I avoided it. I caught up on some Netflix, cruised around the internet, and slept. Anything that wasn’t writing. September carried on much the same. I had a weekend where I felt like writing, but I quickly slipped back into my habits of avoidance when I didn’t make the progress I wanted. I avoided other things I liked too, like singing in choir and reading. And I avoided people. No one really cared or noticed, or at least, that’s what I told myself.

By October, I didn’t even miss writing. I started to think maybe I should call it a quits. I mean, who am I to think I’ll ever get published? So far, writing has been nothing but a waste of time. All the things I have in the works are so far from being finished. This dream is impossible. Better to give up and face the inevitable now than waste more time. Not that time matters. I’ve wasted so much of my life, there’s not a point to salvaging what is left of it, not really.

Anyone who knows me well knows that when I stop writing, something is wrong. I wanted to think that it was a conscious choice, that I was giving up because I didn’t want to write anymore, but hadn’t quite accepted my choice or grown brave enough to tell my friends. Then I realized it wasn’t a choice about writing that I was struggle with, it was the monster in my head. Again. I wasn’t writing because I was fighting the same battle I seem to fight every fall.

I wasn’t “officially” diagnosed with depression until three years ago. I don’t tend to tell people or talk about it. I’ve never been that brave. I guess I’m afraid people will look at me differently if I do, that they will see how breakable I am underneath the tough-and-together mask I tend to wear. I mean, how can a girl who looks so together be a crumbling, suicidal bunch of nerves beneath that smile? Surprisingly easily, it turns out.

Octobers are bad for me. They have been ever since five years ago. I was living alone for the first time in my life, recovering from the flu and working a job I hated at nights, barely sleeping during the daytime. There were warning signs before that. I had had bouts of not wanting to do anything and hating everything, mostly myself, in college. I had had angry emotional outburst since high school when what I felt became too much for me to keep hidden anymore. I had tried counseling twice, and it seemed to help a little, but I never stuck with it long and tended to lie about my feelings because I didn’t want the counselors to judge me or tell me I was defective. After all, I had no reason to be unhappy. Nothing bad had ever happened to me, therefore, I was being “bad” asking for help and attention when I didn’t really need it.

Anyway, this particular October five years ago was worse than the miserable months before them. I was alone. I felt like shit. I hadn’t been able to sleep or write with any success for weeks. And, well, the thought popped into my head that it would be a good idea to take an entire bottle of Benadryl. I wouldn’t feel bad anymore then, and I’d be able to finally freaking sleep. Fortunately, I didn’t take the Benadryl. The thing that made me go to the doctor for help, oddly, was my cat. She was still a kitten, and I felt horrifically guilty at the thought of leaving her alone.  Having her probably saved my life.

I finally asked for help after that. And I got help, even if  though it took two more years before I actually received a diagnosis rather than being told it was “just situational.” But asking for help didn’t kill the monster.

Like clockwork, every October, the monster inside encourages me to embrace oblivion, and I have to find a way to fight. I’ve done better since that first October, finding the right counselor and taking medication to help with the worst of the symptoms and talking more openly with friends about my feelings. I honestly think all of things are why I’m still alive right now. All the same, it’s a fight, and it’s exhausting. And I’m learning, slowly, that keeping silent hurts more than it helps.

Now it’s February. The monster is back in its cage. The promise of spring has me buoyed up with dreams. And I’m writing again. More importantly, I want to write again. I want to do so many things.

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Adverbs are not your Friends…Seriously

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I love words. If I didn’t, it would make spending all of my time in front of a computer screen or notebook more than a little boring. However, some of us love certain words too much and overuse them. I’m guilty of this crime. I have pet words and bad habits. But being aware of them, I can fix these mistakes in my drafts before I let others see my writing. The most commonly overused word is a part of speech: the adverb.

For those of you in need of a quick reminder of grade school grammar, an adverb is a part of speech that modifies a verb (add-verb, get it?). It is easy to fall into the trap of using too many adverbs with “to be” verbs or weaker verbs rather than stronger action verbs or with “said” for those of us who write dialogue. The adverbs I’m talking about are the “-ly” family. For example:

There was likely more to the story than I wanted to hear.

He gingerly picked up the cellphone.

“What are you doing?” she said angrily.

What can you use instead? You can take out the adverb entirely, as in the first example…

There was more to the story than I wanted to hear.

It’s more succinct, and it has greater tension than when the adverb is used. Look for these common adverbs and ask yourself if you need them: likely, really, very, quite, rather, just, only, and surely. My current bad adverb relationship is with “hastily,” with “rather” coming in a close second.

There are more adverbs than the ones I listed. I’m not advocating that anyone cut all of their adverbs, but as a writer, you should be aware of the ones present in your writing. At times in dialogue (the bits between the quotation marks), they can be fine because a character might use adverbs a lot when speaking. But be careful of them in narrative for they tell lies and make writers lazy. Try the sentences in your narrative with and without these adverb traps and see if you don’t notice a positive difference.

You can also replace adverbs with stronger verbs, and instead use adverbs sparingly. (See what I did there?) So the second example becomes…

He plucked up the cellphone.

I substituted my weak verb and adverb for the stronger, descriptive verb plucked.

The third one is trickier. The trouble with using adverbs in dialogue tags is that it leads to telling instead of showing. Sometimes you should stick with “said” and add some action in the tag, or perhaps have an action alone that portrays the emotion. So the third example above could change instead to…

“What are you doing?” She snatched the phone from his hands.

or, if you feel you must…

“What are you doing?” she yelled.

Be careful with using the last one. Strong action verbs do work in tags and as alternative ways to say things, but if you use “shout” or a varying derivative for every time your character yells, the verb starts to lose its effectiveness. In other words, when in doubt, don’t use a tag except to identify the speaker or if you must have an action going on at the same time as the speaking. Dialogue is one of my weak points as a writer, so I am in a constant battle to get this last one right. If you’re not sure what works best, read it out loud. If it sounds wrong, it probably is.

And thus ends today’s lesson on adverbs. If anyone has more advice about controlling your adverbs or other “writing trap” they struggle with, please, leave a comment! I’ll be covering some more common pitfalls in the weeks to come.

The Battle of Writing

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True fact: Summertime makes me lazy. It also makes me ambitious.

I’m one of those lucky few who has a huge chunk of time off in the summer. It’s one of the reasons I’ve stuck with the job I have despite the occasional longing to go back to school and get a degree in something I actually like. Also, change is hard, but that’s another post for another time.

With all this time at my fingertips, I gave myself a new revisions deadline and thought it would be easy to meet. I underestimate my own ability to procrastinate. And it seems I have once more. I probably won’t meet my self-imposed deadline, but I’ll be pretty close. You see, even with all the time in the world, with nothing to stop me from writing for hours and hours every day, I forgot about the harder battle, the one with myself.

There’s a saying, I don’t know who it’s attributed to, but I’ve seen in floating around a lot online lately. “If writing were easy, everyone would do it.” Honestly, the writing isn’t the hard part. The hard part is facing yourself when you write. Sometimes it’s in the form of characters, when you see yourself reflected back in something they do, some bad decision or traumatic event. Sometimes it’s the head-editor who knows exactly what to say to make you feel like you are nothing. Sometimes it’s as simple as getting up in the morning and making yourself, despite all the fears and self-loathing, write a few more words.

Writing isn’t always this battle of wills. Some days everything flows like honey and wine. But lately, I’ve been waging war with myself on a regular basis. I hope one day it will get easier. But even if it doesn’t, I plan to keep fighting, to keep writing. Like I said, summer makes me ambitious.

And today, the ambitious outweigh the laziness. Today, I get to claim victory.

Why YOU should care about Diversity too

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20140501-105525.jpgWhen I started blogging, I never intended to talk about my day job. But today, I’m breaking that rule, a little anyway, mostly due to this campaign.

In my day job, I work with kids all day long. The kids I work with mostly come from a lower economic backgrounds and almost all are considered “minorities.” These kids are amazing. They make me laugh. They have great imaginations. They have all the potential for greatness in the world, but so many of them don’t believe it.

It kills me that there are so few books, so few stories, that feature kids who look like them or might be experiencing some of the same things they do. Books that could inspire them to do anything. This eraser, this white-washing of literature, does them a huge disservice. It does everyone a disservice. It tells these amazing kids their stories are not the worthy stories. And this is not okay.

It’s so easy to just say, “Well, this is how things are. Obviously, if people wanted more diverse books, they would buy them.” This is an excuse. This is ignorance. This is not okay.

We need more diverse books because we are all have stories of worth to tell. We need more diverse books because our world is not one color, one race, one gender, one experience, but many. We need more diverse books because the kids I work with deserve stories about kids who looking like them and are amazing like them.

Do you think we need more diverse books? Then say something. Do something. Join up with the campaign linked above.

 

Stuck? Try Bored.

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I think T. S. Eliot got it right when he wrote, “April is the cruelest month.” It certainly hasn’t been particularly kind to me, and it’s been busy to boot. I cannot wait for May, if only for the clean slate of the new month will bring.

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“Human, why are you so boring?” Which is pretty much what I’m sure my cat thinks about me most days.

I had high hopes for my writing in April. I was going to finish my revisions. Spoiler alert: I didn’t. However, I did learn a valuable lesson, so I guess the month hasn’t been wasted. It just feels like I accomplished a whole lot of nothing. Unless staring at my WIP and wishing it would work counts as something.

Funny thing is, if I hadn’t spent hours being frustrated and “wrote through it” instead, I wouldn’t have been granted a lovely little epiphany today. Sometimes when you get stuck on a scene, it’s because the scene is hard and genuinely difficult to write. Sometimes it’s because you, the writer, are being lazy. And sometimes it’s because you are bored.

Reader, I was bored. Not so much by my characters, but by the few scenes I was stuck writing over and over again in a self-inflicted sort of Groundhog Day. I had no desire to continue writing and avoided it when I could because it was so, well, not interesting to me. I figured I was being lazy and kept trying to move ahead, only to run into problems every time I changed something. Of course, I never changed anything too much because I wanted to be done with the revisions by the end of April. Also, I reasoned that if I changed my entire middle, I would ruin things beyond repair. Or that’s what I told myself.

One fact about writing a novel: if it’s not fun to write, then you can pretty much bet it probably isn’t fun to read. In other words, this boredom that overcame me was my subconscious saying, “YOU’RE DOING THE WRONG THING HERE!” I ignored it for a month and tried to keep writing anyway. Insight isn’t my strong suit.

Then today, when I was think of leaving my WIP for another (despite the fact the other WIP is much more of a mess and doesn’t have a real plot yet), it hit me. The novel I’ve been working on is a story I love, one I have to write. Where did that spark go? Could I be wanting to jump ship out of boredom?

The answer appears to be, “yes.” So, I’m rethinking my middle, throwing out what doesn’t keep me interested and adding things that do. I’m probably going to make a glorious mess again. I probably won’t finish revising in May. But at least it will be an interesting mess, and that’s one step in the right direction.

Dastardly Deadlines

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I have a problem with deadlines.20140416-204106.jpg

As someone who is generally well organized and working a day job where meeting deadlines is a thing I must do, I don’t come across as someone who would struggle with them. And usually I don’t. Except when it concerns writing.

I give myself mock deadlines all the time. By “x” date, I will finish with my draft. By “y” date, I will finish this round of revisions. I’m actually alright at making rough draft deadlines, but with revisions…I never seem to make them. I’ve tried giving myself more realistic deadlines, ones that I think have plenty of cushioning. I’ve tried breaking it down into manageable bits, where I only try to get a chapter done by “x” time. Every time, I do the same thing: I start off strong, ahead even, but I fall behind the moment I take a break. Of course when I don’t take a break, I end up stopping simply because my brain refuses to cooperate because, well, I haven’t given myself a break.

Case in point, I planned to finish my revision by the end of March. Thanks to my foot and feeling downright miserable, I decided to take a hiatus from revising, one that reeled from a few days into more than three weeks. Now, I’m trying to climb back into my work, hoping to finish up by mid-May. It’s a completely doable deadline, but I’m not sure I’ll make it if anything jolts me out of my daily writing routine between now and then.

Balance, I realize, is probably the answer to handling these self-imposed deadline. Silencing that voice in the back of my mind that sings, “I suck! I suck!” also might make deadlines a touch easier. Or maybe I need a deadline buddy, someone else who tells me when I have to be finished with things. I’m planning to look into both. I will get better at deadlines. I’ll even make a deadline for it if I have to.

If you write, do you have deadlines? Are they self-imposed or enforced by someone? How do you make them, if you do? How do you keep on writing when the task seems impossible?

When Life tells you to Slow Down

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When I was a kid, I used to cry at the mention of something painful. Needless to say, I got called a wimp a lot. This combined with a need for control, led me to becoming generally stoic as an adult. I get hurt now, badly sometimes, and I walk it off, act like it’s nothing. I’m guilty of doing the same thing when I’m sick, especially at work. I won’t quit even when I should.

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What part of my ankle looked like two days ago

Last Friday, walking innocently down some steps while camping, I rolled my ankle. This isn’t anything new. I’m constantly spraining my left ankle. But it betrayed me on a day when I needed it, when I refused to believe there was anything wrong with it. After all, I could put a little weight on it. So I went through the weekend, traipsing about the woods like I’m not in pain or that my ankle isn’t starting to swell up to golf ball proportions. Monday came around, and sure enough, the swelling was worse and it was bruised on both sides of the ankle and it hurt. I gave up and went to the doctor.

Turns out, it’s only another sprain. All the same, I’m still stuck in a walking boot for a week, and then a brace while I work to regain my strength in that ankle. And I don’t want to. I want to shuck off this stupid heavy boot and just walk and jump and do whatever I want. But I can’t. Like physically, I can’t. And I hate it.

Over the last week, I’ve also been wrapped up in completing as much of my revisions as I can. I want to be done. I want to have this novel all sorted and ready for critiquing by the end of March. But along with my ankle, a part of revising tripped me up. I’m having to wait and recalculate. I want to fly through revisions, but I can’t. Not unless I want to mess up what I already have, much like I can’t run right now unless I want to cause more damage to my ankle.

It’s hard to accept, but life, for whatever reason, seems to be screaming at me to slow down. For someone who constantly worries she is wasting her life away doing the wrong things, slowing down seems tantamount to stopping. It’s not something I’m good at. But it’s something I need, for my ankle and my writing. I know in the end, I’ll have a stronger story, and, hopefully, a strong ankle.

Give me Something to Sing About

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Around this time last year, I went to a marvelous workshop for kidlit writers, the Big Sur Writing Workshop. It was pretty awesome and pretty daunting, and I learned a lot about myself and critiquing. One of those things I learned about, is the subject of today: writing stakes.

This is not the stake you’re looking for, unless you have a vampire problem…

During the workshop, the most common piece of a critique was, “what are the stakes?” Not stakes, like Buffy the Vampire Slayer likes to stake some vampires, but stakes as in what the character stands to gain or losing from a certain situation. All too often, the stakes of a scene would not be clear, or worse, there would not be any. I too was guilty of not having clear stakes. I’m still working on them in my current revision.

Unclear or missing stakes cause loads of issues in a manuscript. Having clear and increasingly rising stakes is one of the main things that keeps a reader engaged and turning pages. Without them, there’s this feeling of, “so what?” or “why should I care?” Stakes are what writers use to make their readers care.

Here’s an example:

No Stakes- Susan has to save the world. After a freak lab accident, the once friendly pets of the world start turning into calculating and cold blooded killers. Cats and dogs threaten to overrun the world, killing out the human race in the process. Only Susan holds the key to curing the animals of their unnatural state and returning order before it’s too late.

So the summary above may seem okay at first glance. It’s not. It’s a premise, but it lacks any conflict. I have no reason to care about Susan or her saving the world because nothing in her tells me why Susan wants to save the world or what will happen if she doesn’t. There are no stakes.

Stakes-Susan never wanted to save the world, let alone leave the house. She would rather stay with her cat, safe from the impending apocalypse and other scary things, like people. But when Mr. Whiskers falls ill with the mutation turning animals into super-killers throughout the world, suddenly staying locked in her home isn’t so safe anymore. To save her beloved cat and herself, Susan must venture out of her house for the first time in years.  What she finds is a world full of dangers, but also possibilities, including the chance to cure dear Mr. Whiskers, and maybe save the world.

Okay, so the stakes are a little ridiculous, but they exist in the second summary. Susan is battling crippling fear to save her pet, and herself. She has a reason to save the world, because it’s the one way to get her world to go back to normal.

I am still learning about stakes. Here’s a few links about ’em, where people wiser than me explain it all. This one and another blog give step-by-step instructions to help make sure you have those stakes present, clear, and high. And this one I like because it gives examples from some well-known books.

Beginner or veteran writer, we all need to keep our stakes in mind. Make sure they’re sharp and to the point, just like one of Buffy’s stakes, and the rest is, well, all slaying writing.

These are my writing pom-poms

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I used to think writing was a lonely sport. It is, I suppose, in that you actually write alone. But I know so many writers. I know so many people in the midst of that first draft euphoria or in the mires of revision. I know, wherever I am, another person is there with me. Another person has gone before me, and another will go after me, repeating forever this phoenix-like cycle.

There’s only one way out in writing, after all. Through the words. As writers, we all know that maze, from blank pages to ropes of sentences. Navigating that maze alone, it’s impossible. The catch is, you have to do it alone, but you don’t have to be alone.  So shout to your fellows. Scream if you have to. We will hear and we will answer. No one has to be alone here.

Wherever you are in your writing journey, take some time today to reach out. I dare you. If you’re lost, share it. If you’re in that shining, untouchable place, share it.

Mountain or molehill, today, we write.

And today, we are not alone.

 

 

Writing Rituals

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If you’ve been writing for a while, whether you mean to or not, the act of writing becomes a ritual. I don’t necessarily mean a religious experience (although it is for some folks), but more, the ritual one does before sitting down to write. The ritual seems like some fancy sort of procrastination to those from the outside (and maybe it is). But to you, it is necessary.

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Because, let’s face it, evil faeries are much more fun than non-evil faeries.

I wasn’t a coffee drinker when I started writing. I am now, gulping down at least a cup, if not more, daily. And it is always before sitting down to write in the morning. I also like my mornings, when the world is still dark and quiet. There’s something magically about writing with the sunrise. But back to coffee. My ritual always includes coffee. It has even come to liking a certain cup, the one pictured, in fact. This one, unlike most of my coffee cups,  has a story behind it.

I won this coffee cup as a “door prize” for coming to a chat to celebrate an author’s debut with her and  about forty other people. In otherw words, the odds were in my favor to win one of the prizes. Still, I don’t usually win things. Back when I got this mug, I didn’t drink coffee, but it didn’t matter. I won something!

That’s not much of a story, you say? It’s not done yet. I mentioned that I won it from this debut author, right? She had a small but mighty following at the time on livejournal. Her posts about writing and a series of doodled scenes from her first book drew me in. I was sure she would do well, had ordered her first book, read it, and loved her style and dialogue. And then I won a mug! About faeries! This author, I decided, must be the coolest person ever.

Apparently I was right not only about the cool factor, but also the doing well. Years later, I finally got to hear that author talk through  another twist of fate while I was at Bath in the UK. She’d moved on from faeries, wrote about wolves and then water horses. I got a sampler of her next book in Bath, about a girl from a family of seers and boys from a prep school. For those who’ve yet to read any of her wonderful books, I’m talking about Maggie Stiefvater. If you ever have a chance to hear her talk, by the way, DO IT!

So maybe it’s just a coffee cup with a random fan-driven story. I don’t care. To me, it’s a little bit magical. Like sunrises.

And now my coffee is done. My ritual is over. Time to get to work.