I got my Clarion email

I didn't get in.  I've never done a particularly good job of coping with rejection, so I'm not sure whether the pain I'm feeling right now is going to ebb soon or keep flowing.  But getting over it now should be good practice -- I intend to do a lot of practice with exposing myself to rejection this year.  (First of all, I intend to submit at least one of my Clarion application stories to a venue by the end of today, and probably start new edits on the other.) So, this means I'll be able to go to Readercon this year, which, then, means I need to get together money for registration and a hotel room.  It also means I really need to buckle down on my writing over the next eight months, the time frame I have to write 2 new application stories for next year's Clarion.  (And also I need to find out whether you can simultaneously apply to Clarion and Clarion West.)

I really wanted to go this year.  I was really, particularly hoping for the opportunity to learn from Cory Doctorow and Kelly Link.  (I only found out after I'd applied to Clarion that Neil Gaiman would be teaching at Clarion West.  I'd love to learn under him, too.)

With a heavy heart, I've just turned off my Clarion IFTTT email alert.  I'll turn it on again next year, after I've applied.

Oh, and to any other pattern-seekers waiting for their clarion emails:  my rejection came within the same hour in 2013 as it did in 2010, on the third Monday of the month.  Last time, it was a waitlist email, so my new guess is that the third Monday of March is when they send all the not-accepted-s.  So that will be the date I set my anxiety to next year.

###

While I'm on the subject, now's a good time to brainstorm some potential writing rules for the rest of the year (I'll come back and look at them more carefully later):

  • One short story first draft a week
  • Pixar drill every day[1. See this post, rule #4.  I've been writing synopses every night based on that format for a week or so now, and I think it's really helping.]
  • Never let my Critters score drop below 75%.
  • One story in the Critters queue at all times
  • One short story second draft a week
  • Every story gets at least three drafts
  • Stories that have had three drafts have to be rejected 10 times before being revised again
  • Read one short story from an SFWA qualifying venue every day
  • Read at least two books a month

I'm not sure how many of those I can actually do, I'm going to have to pick more carefully to figure out what I can balance in with my school life, and, this summer, my job.  And working for the school paper.  And writing a research paper for prize money.

I will return tomorrow with a more carefully considered list of commitments, and a timescale on which they will last.  For now, I'm going to spend a little bit of time feeling bad for myself, then get back to work doing all the crap I have to get done today.

Wish me luck.

I've written a (very mean) set of tips for journalism students

I'm the copy editor on my college's newspaper, and every two weeks I get about ten emails each with four or five attachments of articles from the journalism classes.  I have to edit all of them.  (Well, that's not true.  Some of them I just send back with a big NOPE.) This week, I kept a separate file open while I did it.  I wrote out a series of tips, in hopes of passing it off to the teachers.

It's not okay to give to the teachers.  So instead, I've published it here.

Tips for journalism students and other people submitting things to other people who are going to have to reformat those things so they aren't a pain in the ass [NSFW language]

An excerpt (below the fold because language):

9. Check to make sure the pronouns agree with each other.  If you say "Everyone," you have to say "Them," not "Him or her."

10. When you're trying to avoid clichés, don't write the cliché but swap out one of the words for a word with a similar meaning.  It doesn't make your language sound fresher -- you're just generally replacing a shitty sentence that makes sense with a shitty sentence that doesn't.

11. No, but seriously.  The punctuation goes inside the quotation marks.  There are few things more goddamn annoying than having to copy an editor on a new draft of something because everything was fine but you put all your fucking periods outside their quotation marks.

12. You're fucking allowed to use contractions.

John Green is gonna talk to the President -- also, I'm scared of meeting awesome people, too

(Link)  

John Green is gonna ask the President about pennies!

Also, in this video, John talks about anxiety about meeting people you admire.  He points out that it will never be normal, that you're always going to be hyper-conscious of everything that could go wrong.

Obviously meeting the President is a little bit bigger than meeting, for example, John Green.  But this discussion reminded me of the multiple layers on which I have this anxiety.

Layer 1:  I don't want to say anything embarrassing, because I don't want to make that moment, in that moment, awkward or uncomfortable.  I care about preserving the integrity of what will be the memory of that moment, and I also want to be able to enjoy it as far as is possible while it's happening.

Layer 2:  I don't want to stick out, because I don't want someone I admire to remember me for being in some way deeply and memorably creepy or unpleasant.  I know that's vanishingly unlikely, but still.

Layer 3:  I want to be a successful writer.  Relatedly, nearly all the people I really admire are successful writers.  I want to eventually be in a place professionally where the people who right now make me nervous -- so nervous  that at least one literally thought I might have been sixteen because I was trying so hard to shrink into the floor -- are my peer group.  So I'm not just afraid that they're going to think I'm weird and creepy and unpleasant, but I'm afraid that I'll never get to a place where I can deal with being around them and not being so giddy I can't talk.

I mean, it's not like I want to stop admiring them, or stop being a fan.  But one of my many weird fears about success is that becoming a successful writer will put me in an incredibly alienated position where I can't be around any of the other professionals in my trade, especially the ones I most want to.

I have submitted to the Album Challenge

I wrote about WriteWorld's Album Challenge early this month, when I had just declared my album choice -- "Get Better" by Lemuria.  I have since listened to that album so much that I've learned it by heart.  Fortunately, Lemuria is an awesome band. Today, I posted my entry.  It's here, on my tumblr, all in one piece.  I also posted it in a series of pages on this site, to (a.) give it a more permanent home, (b.) embed YouTube videos to the relevant songs for each chapter, and (c.) separate it into different pages for each chapter -- a format that was against the rules for the official submission.  Here is the link to start reading that one.

I'm pretty happy with how this story came out.  But, thinking back, I've been pretty happy with the outcome of some really terrible stories in the past.  Stories that I couldn't re-read, because they made me feel awful about myself.  So, I don't know how I'll feel about this by New Year's.

If you read it, I hope you like it.

Drinking and Art

Did you know? is one of  my favorite tumblr blogs, and they had a particularly good weekend.  I've had several of their tabs open for a few days now, because I wanted to blog about them.  Ultimately, the one I settled on was this:

I've suspected this for a while -- I don't think there's anyone who can reasonably defend the claim that getting blackout drunk can help smooth the work of a creative endeavor, but the effects of light drinking can only help.  In one of my favorite New Yorker articles, Drinking Games, Malcolm Gladwell explains:

Steele and his colleague Robert Josephs's explanation is that we've misread the effects of alcohol on the brain. Its principal effect is to narrow our emotional and mental field of vision. It causes, they write, "a state of shortsightedness in which superficially understood, immediate aspects of experience have a disproportionate influence on behavior and emotion."

Alcohol makes the thing in the foreground even more salient and the thing in the background disappear. That's why drinking makes you think you are attractive when the world thinks otherwise: the alcohol removes the little constraining voice from the outside world that normally keeps our self-assessments in check. Drinking relaxes the man watching football because the game is front and center, and alcohol makes every secondary consideration fade away. But in a quiet bar his problems are front and center—and every potentially comforting or mitigating thought recedes. Drunkenness is not disinhibition. Drunkenness is myopia.

So, that's a reasonably respected reporter discussing the work of an established scientist.  The thoroughly unscientific provisional conclusion I've drawn from this is that having a drink or two while I work will probably help block out the otherwise disabling awareness that Tumblr is just a few clicks away.

TIME Magazine's article in their health section, the one to which the above Did You Know refers, goes further than that:

 Increasingly, science is confirming that altered states of consciousness — whether induced by drugs, alcohol, sleepiness, travel or anything else that removes us from our usual way of seeing the world — do indeed improve creative thought. The inhibition of what researchers call executive functioning, which includes focus and planning — abilities that decline when we’re under the influence — may be what lets us generate new ideas and innovative solutions, instead of remaining fixed on the task at hand.

The study, which, thankfully, TIME actually links to, is published in Consciousness and Cognition, a peer-reviewed journal with a self-explanatory name.

The article also dips into the risks of this kind of finding -- whether attention-focusing drugs like Ritalin diminish creative thinking, and whether this contributes to the rate of addiction in artists:

Having less executive control before you even take drugs means you’ll have less ability to stop once you start.

That would increase addiction risk two ways — by increasing desire to use, and by increasing the risk from use that occurs. And of course, the more high-profile creative types who become addicted, the more it seems that drugs and alcohol must be crucial to creativity. And that itself would attract even more artists to initiate drug use, escalating the cycle.

Personally, I know I'm prone to addiction, so I weigh my decisions to drink very carefully against the various risks, especially dependence. In a world governed entirely by my own preferences, I'd have access to professionals that can help me regulate my use of chemicals to adjust my state of mind to my preference.  By which I mean, I'd be able to get prescriptions for gin and LSD from my psychiatrist.

Clarion writing advice, and a tangent about my own self-esteem

Cory Doctorow posted a link to a list of quotes from this year's Clarion workshop.  It's amazing, and digging through it is lighting up all sorts of points in my head about the story I'm currently working on (for the WriteWorld Album challenge). The quote that stuck out to me the most dramatically was this one:

“You have to be willing to be bad in public, to be a writer.”

Abstractly speaking, I know that's true.  I know that I have to put stuff out there, and I also know that the more I work, the more painful it's going to be to go back and look at my old stuff.  But in practice, I'm not very good at getting over it.

I mean, it's fine on the blog.  I produce so many posts every day that it's not hard to convince myself that the stuff I'm embarrassed to have said is so buried that no one will ever see it.  And, to any historians who might be combing through my archive to write a book about me (just in case), a lot of the most embarrassing stuff back there is stuff I don't believe anymore, or regret saying.  But some of it is just stuff I wish I'd said better.

But with short stories, I have so few, and with none in public, I feel like I'll be throwing a spotlight on my failure.  That needs to be at the top of my list of things to get over -- in fact, I think I'm going to add some stuff about that to my SuperBetter account.  It's not like trying to sell my writing will prevent me from saving money, and it will push me towards being better at the chance of making money doing what I want to do with my life.

Relatedly, I am applying to Clarion this year SO HARD.  Cory Doctorow and Kelly Link are both going to be resident teachers.  So, like, wish me luck and stuff.

WriteWorld's Album Challenge

There's a cool writing challenge going on at WriteWorld's tumblr!  It's called the Album Challenge, and entrants are tasked to write a coherent work which is closely inspired by a single album.  Each separate part of the story must correspond to one of the songs on the album, in order, and include only and all the songs on the album you've chosen. I picked Get Better by Lemuria, because I know I like Lemuria's style, based on the song Buzz, but I haven't listened to that album before so I'm coming at it with a fresh mind.

I'm doing this because I find I have a lot of trouble pushing myself to create full, self-contained narrative works without some particular purpose in mind, and that seriously hinders my ability to just sort of dick around with writing, which is a problem because just writing stuff is how you practice writing and I won't get any better if I don't do stuff like this.

So I figure competitions are a good way to get myself into that (they come with prompts and deadlines) and the Album Challenge one looks like loads of fun.  I'll be up online when I'm done with it, by the end of this month.  And if you want to enter, the rules are at that link above, and the only requirements are that you name your album before submitting your entry, and you turn in the final product before September 1st.

Readercon!

Today's the first full day at Readercon, so this post is coming to you from the mysterious past, and ANYTHING could have happened since I wrote this post.  There could have been a super-volcano.  Causality might have stopped working.  Another cookie company's flagship product might have come out of the closet. I'm back from the first evening of Readercon, though, so I can tell you what happened on Thursday night.

The first panel I went to was about portrayals of medicine in SF -- mostly, about their absence.  Through that panel, I discovered the Spoon Theory, a method for explaining what it's like to have Lupus, or any other chronic illness without obvious signs.

Most people start the day with unlimited amount of possibilities, and energy to do whatever they desire, especially young people. For the most part, they do not need to worry about the effects of their actions. So for my explanation, I used spoons to convey this point. I wanted something for her to actually hold, for me to then take away, since most people who get sick feel a “loss” of a life they once knew. If I was in control of taking away the spoons, then she would know what it feels like to have someone or something else, in this case Lupus, being in control.

[...]

I asked her to count her spoons. [...] She counted out 12 spoons. She laughed and said she wanted more. I said no, and I knew right away that this little game would work, when she looked disappointed, and we hadn’t even started yet. I’ve wanted more “spoons” for years and haven’t found a way yet to get more, why should she? I also told her to always be conscious of how many she had, and not to drop them because she can never forget she has Lupus.

I also got referred back to an article by Elizabeth Bear on Charles Stross's blog, that I read in 2011 and had mostly forgotten about.

The more research I do into human neurology--and writing Dust and the other two Jacob's Ladder books required more about brains than I ever wanted to know--the more convinced I become that we, human we, are not divorceable from our meat. In one of the Jenny Casey books, I have a artificial intelligence researcher protest to her creation that he's nothing but piezoelectrical patterns in crystal; he retorts that she is, likewise, piezoelectrical patterns in meat. And while that remains true... the shape of the circuitry, and the neurochemical baths that wash it, have a hell of a lot of influence over who we are.

I'm not sure this was the specific feminist critique of the singularity that she mentioned in the panel, but it quotes a large chunk of an earlier piece.

The second session was about the utility of realistic fiction, which was fascinating, but didn't give me a huge amount of stuff to link to.  (They referenced a blog post I haven't yet been able to find, but it's in my notes.)

I'll be taking careful notes over the course of the weekend, and will be coming back on Monday with a lot of stuff to talk about.  For the remainder of the weekend, Mike has a book review that's going up today, and an "Ask A Star Wars Geek" installment for Saturday.

OmmWriter: a not-really-minimalist word processor

I'm checking out a new word processor today, called Ommwriter.  Its creators describe it:

OmmWriter emerged as an internal tool to help transport us away from the humdrum noise; allowing us to be at one with ourselves and our ideas. All said and done, after having created something so valuable, we figured that OmmWriter was just too good to keep to ourselves.

It fills up your whole screen right away, and doesn't let you out of that as long as you're writing.  You're either writing with Ommwriter or you're not.  It's a great advantage.  I've got two computer screens, and I often leave video up in one screen while working on something in the other.  Ommwriter won't even let me do that, blacking out the screen I haven't got the text up on.

I read about it at BuzzFeed, in an article titled 5 Minimalist Writing Applications: Which One Actually Helps You Write Better? Ommwriter was the winner at the bottom.

The reason I can forgive OmmWriter for being so far up their own ass about what is essentially an unadorned notepad on top of a new age-y screensaver is because, well, it works. The Sofia Coppola-esque musical score and lightly pulsing blue background do in fact make me less distracted. My fingers don't itch to Cmd-Tab away to check my Twitter feed. For me, this is a minor miracle. So if that means accepting that chromatherapy has subconsciously stimulated my tranquility core and purged me of writer's block toxins or whatever, so be it.

What OmmWriter really has going for it is what it doesn't let you do. Unlike WriteRoom, Byword, and iA Writer, OmmWriter has no mode other than full screen view, which doesn't allow you to access the dock and only lets you have one document open at a time. With no pop-ups, only mouse over options, not even preferences tinkering will take you away from what you're working on.

It doesn't seem like much but all these little touches add up to an experience that keeps me focused on my writing. And this time I didn't have sell my soul to Ray Bradbury to make it happen.

She's right -- those little touches are the difference between a word processor that lets you slip off into distraction land and a word processor that drags words out of your head before you realize what happened.  I'm looking forward to using Ommwriter to do a lot of my upcoming work in the next few weeks.

I don't know what to do next

There's a kind of weird, nebulous space between projects, that I've never been very good at handling.  I've fairly recently finished a book and a blogging project, and I don't have something lined up immediately to start.  Nothing seems to be really grabbing at me. I don't want to stop writing anything serious, though.  I don't want to stop having a big project to focus on.  Because not having a big project seems to be one of the biggest ways I cause myself to collapse into long-lasting depression.

So, right now, I'm trying to cultivate an atmosphere of intentionality, within which I hope to persuade myself to start writing something big.

Here are my ideas so far:

  • A series of short stories -- say, 5, one a week.
  • A young adult novel about how difficult it is to work out how to tell if something is true
  • A new installment in "The Book," exploring another metaphorical direction.

I'm open to suggestions.  In the meantime, I'll be trying to figure out how it is that I get myself to the psychological space where I feel compelled to write a book.

Writing and performance anxiety

Later tonight, I'm going to be writing up the afterword to "T.X. Watson's The Book." In a way, this part of the project is stressing me out more than the actual writing of the piece did. I get a lot of performance anxiety when it comes to writing.  But it doesn't really come up during the process of drafting.  That part, I can just work through.  When it really hits is when I'm doing something that indicates my acknowledgement that I want people to read my work.

It's this weird moment of intense personal exposure -- when I'm writing an author's note, or submitting a story for publication, I have to drop all my defenses and accept that I care about what other people think, that I want them to pay attention to my work and to like it, and like me.  Add to that the fact that this exposure comes at the time where rejection would be most damaging to me, and I'm faced with an intensely terrifying prospect.

Tonight, I'll probably just have a gin and tonic while I write it.  But that's not really a long-term fix.  If I've got any readers who've been checking out my blog through The Book, or who've just stumbled on lately and have anything they'd like to say about dealing with the stress that comes with needing to open up but not wanting to be rejected, I'd love to hear about it in comments.

Workahol

In my life prior to now, I've generally gone through phases of escalating work, followed by catastrophic collapse into depression for weeks or months, until I start working again.  It seems a bit like burnout, but I never really actually burn out.  What always seems to happen is, after achieving some large goal, I decide I need to take a rest in order to avoid burning out.  And that's when things always seem to go wrong. I'm tired, right now.  I've been tired for days.  But this isn't an unfamiliar feeling.  It comes near the middle of every major project, and it comes at the end, too.  But what usually happens is that I don't have anything to do to work through it.  Instead, I just end up stopping.

I don't want to do that this time.  I'm only a handful of days away from the end of my bet, when I won't be obligated to blog anymore, I'll be finished with my book (for now), and by then The Book should be finished, too.  I'll have school, but that's never really been enough.

So, I don't intend to stop.

First thing's first:  I'm re-upping my blogging vow, right now, for another three months.  June 12th is my new deadline.

On top of that, once I've finished typing up the book I'm working on, finished The Book, and sent in some agent queries, I'm starting my next book.  I feel like I need to get started on it soon, anyway, because it's been eating away at my brain for months.

Talk to you tomorrow.

Writing advice

There was a thread on Reddit I posted on earlier tonight, on the /r/WritersGroup subreddit, asking posters to offer their advice on writing.  I like my post, so I've decided to repost it.  You can find the thread here.

I think I accidentally just deleted my first attempt at this post, which was quite long. But I'm going to try again, because (a.) this is a fun post to write, and (b.) I think it's good advice, that doesn't get given very often.

  • Develop a philosophy of writing. Mine is that writing creates similarities between the individual networks of logic and emotion in each person's mind, allowing us to empathize and communicate better as a species. Alan Moore's is that writing is magic. Whatever your philosophy is, knowing it will help you figure out what you want to accomplish in your stories, and evaluate whether you've succeeded at accomplishing it.
  • Learn to say/write exactly what you mean. When people talk, they usually say something that's only close to the thing they mean. The person they're talking to then usually interprets it as being something close to the thing they heard. This works fine if you're talking to one person or a few people, especially if they're all from the same cultural background as you. But if you're trying to reach thousands or millions of people, from a variety of social or economic backgrounds, those gaps are going to create huge holes in the readability of your story.
  • Blog. (Shameless self-promotion.) I've been blogging every day at various blogs (this one's a few months old) off and on for almost three years now, and I don't think anything has had a bigger effect on improving my writing, except reading a lot. (Read a lot really is the #1 thing you can do to improve as a writer.)
  • Connect the story with your own experiences. I don't mean "Write what you know," in that I don't think every story needs to be a veiled memoir, but if there's something in the story that draws directly on your own life story or current experiences, you can use that element as a bridge over writer's block. Then, if you want it gone, just take out those elements in the next draft.

SO I DID IT

Or, I started doing it, anyway.  Over the next four weeks, I'll be working on a writing project soaked in symbolism and self-awareness.  It's called "T.X. Watson's The Book," and is available at www.txwatson.com/thebook.  Although there's a much better starting place

here, at the author's note.

Anyone interested in checking it out is welcome and encouraged to do so, and I am absolutely open to feedback.  Also, if anyone wants to do similar projects alongside mine, or write divergent, parallel, or predictive chapters about mine, or any other variation on playing along, I think that would be pretty awesome and welcome you to do so.

Oh, and one more note -- while I'm doing this project very lightheartedly, the story itself seems like it's shaping up to be pretty dark.  Just thought it was worth mentioning.

I feel like doing something weird

Just getting some braincrack out so it doesn't eat my brain; I may or may not actually do this. Reasoning

Since I'm in a fairly editing-heavy portion of my novel, I feel like my creative psychological resources are being a bit underused.  But I'd rather do something light, that's a bit more like practice than like an actual, publishable project.  Hopefully, it'll be fun and something people want to check out.  Worst case, it'll suck, and then when I'm super famous there will be work available to explore my process #italicsforsarcasm #tellmyselfwhateverIneedtohear #ignoringtheFutilityofBeing

Idea

I was thinking of doing a sort of study in symbolism, by writing a blog style series with really, really blatant symbolism.  Like, it would start with a dude in a hat explaining to the cast that they're in a story, it's super symbolic, and for example the hat represents that he works for the author.  I like the idea of a bunch of characters knowingly interacting with an inherently symbolic environment, while conscious of the fact that there's a narrator who knows everything they're doing or thinking.  (I'm not sure if I want to do 3rd person omniscient, so they all always know that anything they think could be being revealed, and therefore made manifest in the symbolic fabric of the text, or 3rd person limited, so they can try to hide behind someone else's viewpoint when they think or act.  Or maybe some other perspective.)

Implementation?

I might start doing this later tonight, if I feel like I have the energy -- in which case, I'll be setting up a sub-blog on this blog, writing a follow-up post here to link to it, writing out the rules and starting parameters on the new blog, and putting up the first installment.  If not, I might start it in the next few days, and if not then, probably never.  No matter what I do, I lay no claim at all over this idea (not that I could, anyway) and would love to see my friends/readers try it out as well.  It could be fun.

On what I was going to write but I wrote this instead

I started writing a blog ten minutes ago about feeling nauseous and stuff, but it sort of snowballed and now it looks a lot more like a post about America's declared fundamental rights of Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness, specifically that third one, and how I think its implications contradict some of the current popular philosophies of governance in the US. So, I've saved that one as a draft, and decided to relegate it to a future as a longer post for Serious Business Blogging.  What I'm going to talk about instead is the thought process that led me to that decision.

At first, I was thinking that this post would just slightly touch on some of these ideas, mostly focusing on existential commentary and personal exploration.  But once I got started, I realized that I wasn't going to be able to say what I wanted to say in a clear way without dedicating a bit more page space to it, and I liked what I was saying, so I kept going.

Then, about three paragraphs into the L,L&P/H section, I found myself struck by the realization that the first half of the post didn't fit at all with the second.

I'm going to make an entirely un-shocking confession here:  Because I don't always have a lot of time, I don't always put a lot of effort into making these posts the best possible posts they can be.  More often than not, in fact, very little is changed after I type out the first draft.  I mostly edit as I go, trying to get a feel for how much I've said and how much I need to add.

But that post, I realized, I wanted to be clear, compelling and persuasive.  I wanted it to be, like, a good piece of writing.  But to achieve that, I'm going to have to take it through a process of extensive editing.  What I'm trying to convey isn't easy to say, and it's resting on the fine line between preachy and unclear.  I think I can manage to walk that line, but I know I can't walk it in a first draft.

This is something I like about my decision to set aside a day for Serious Business Blogging.  It gives me a reason, and a deadline, to really crank up the production quality on my posts once a week and push myself to blog better.  It also gives me something to do with my posts that I realize are starting to turn into more-than-a-day's-worth of project.

Unfortunately, it also apparently leads to a bit more metablogging.

Talk to you tomorrow.

Appropriate questions

There's a fairly old post from the I Should Be Writing blog that I wanted to link, called Appropriate Questions To Ask Oneself While Writing.  I love this post because it really helps remind me of the mindset it takes to get through the drafts of a work, and I thought it might benefit others.  (Also, posting it here means I don't have to hunt it down next time I need it.)

1st Draft: What happens next?

This is the only question you should be asking yourself as you write your first draft. The. Only. Question.

The point of the first draft is the foundation, the rocks you build your story on. And for that story to be built, the foundation has to be finished. Nothing is more important in writing your first draft than reaching the end. Not your word choice, not your plot mechanics, not your personal politics. All of that can be changed, but not until the draft is finished. This means when you're done you'll have a pretty shitty piece of writing, but who cares? You've got at least 3 more passes to get it right.

Full post here.

Books! I read them.

One of the most common pieces of advice I hear directed to aspiring writers (that is, directed to me and everyone like me) is, read.  Read, read, read and read.  Read broadly, read critically, read for fun, read for work, read as much as you possibly can.  Because the way you learn how to write well is by reading other people -- reading good writing, so you can see how it looks when it's done right, reading bad writing, so you can see exactly what doesn't work,* and reading a huge variety of writing, so you can pick up on stylistic variables and develop your own voice. The thing is, I'm kind of bad at reading.

I don't mean I have trouble with it.  I mean every book I pick up has this intimidating thickness to it, so that whenever I start a book it seems unimaginable that I'll be able to get to the other side.  (They're just so much longer than blog posts, you know?)  I have to psych myself out, pretend I'm not reading a book, and just get into the groove of reading page after page without being too conscious of the number of pages I have left.

So, over the years, I've been sort of passively trying to find a methodology of organizing my reading life that maximizes my ability to finish books.

For a long time, I'd read several books at once.  This seemed to be efficient, but I quickly learned that no matter how many stories I can keep in my head at once, what it actually meant was I'd get a few chapters into six mildly interesting books, and finish one, at best.  I'd only get through the most gripping, most engaging, and often least difficult books.

There are always exceptions -- the truly brilliant books that, though difficult, still manage to drag me from one end out the other.  These seem to most frequently benefit from the paired motivations of (a.) their constant and reinforcing quality and (b.) my desire to have read them.  (As Mark Twain brilliantly put it, A classic is something that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read.")  Books on that list include the Lord of the Rings, The God Delusion, and Perdido Street Station.

I've also tried the well-worn method of a to-read list, or shelf.

Right now, my to-read shelf has 40 books on it.  The last 4 books I've read did not come from it.  I don't particularly think it works.

Most recently, a new methodology that might actually be working has occurred to me.  Or, rather, came somewhat by chance.  I've been reading the Hunger Games trilogy, a brilliant young adult series about a dystopian future America, which is gripping, difficult to put down, and targeted at high school age children, so nothing about it is particularly challenging.**

After the first book, I put the series down to re-read The Great Gatsby.

And I tore through it.  Not just because it's a great book (it really is, it's truly brilliant) but because I was so eager to find out what happened next to Katniss after the cliffhanger-flavored ending of the Hunger Games.

I finished the second book in about two days, and now I've started Cory Doctorow's Little Brother, which has also been on my to-read list for quite some time.  I find myself seeking out opportunities to read it in every spare moment, because I want so badly to get to the third and final Hunger Games book.  Little Brother has, thus far, been excellent.

So, a methodology appears to emerge.  It still bears quite a lot of testing, but it's definitely what I'm going to be trying for the next several books I read, to see if it holds across the vacation.  I'm going to try and alternate between stand-alone books I've been meaning to read, and young adult series (or, failing series, sets of books by young adult authors I've been meaning to get to.)  After the Hunger Games, I think I'll start on Scott Westerfeld's Uglies books.  John Greene's books also look fairly appealing.

In that time, I'm also going to try and cut my to-read shelf down enough that I can fit all the books spine-out next to each other.  (Right now, quite a few are laying on top of one another.)

Wish me luck?

*I think the latter actually works better, because you're more likely to spot -- and fix -- when you've done exactly those horrible things in your own work than you are likely to successfully employ the brilliant devices in good prose. **Though it's brilliantly thought-provoking. I would absolutely love to see these books added to the curriculum of high school classes everywhere.

Background music

I use a lot of background music while I work.  Right now, I'm listening to a 45 minute long techno song a friend of mine sent me a link to some months ago.  Usually, I use Pandora -- a channel I started by seeding Plumtree and refining from that point.  Sometimes I set up a youtube playlist, or, even more rarely, listen to an actual CD. In the past few days, I've been having trouble finding a satisfying soundtrack -- that perfect mix that helps me slip into a state of flow.  Plenty of artists write about this -- it's different for everyone, but you generally need something good enough, engaging enough, that your mind can sort of float on top of it, but not so engaging that you can't focus on your work because you're paying too much attention to the music.

For me, that tends to mean something upbeat, a bit grungy, and if there's lyrics they've got to be not-too-clear.  I can't listen to classic rock, because it's almost impossible to not sing along.  But I can't really listen to jazz, either, because even if there's no lyrics the music is too pronounced to let it drift into the background.  It demands attention.

I'm sure that's not the only ingredient to flow, and it might not even be the one that's been out of place lately.  But it's been on my mind.

On Writer's Block

Hey, I just realized I can totally blog about why I think writer's block is a load of crap!  Or artist's block in general. Reason number one:  It doesn't actually happen.  The inability to write on one particular subject virtually never entails the inability to write anything, at all.  I've had weeks where I've made almost no progress on whatever writing project I was at the moment engaged in, but meanwhile written hundreds of words of Facebook status replies, tweets, rambling, incoherent philosophical musings, emails, and so on.  I've never been completely blocked from a capacity to make words go on to paper or screen, and I've neither met nor heard of someone who has, barring cases of extreme depression.  And that's not writer's block, that's, you know, depression.

What's actually happening when an artist has 'writer's block' is they've hit a block in the story itself.  Their characters are ill-defined, or their conflict is underdeveloped, or they don't know what they want to say.

These aren't problems with the capacity to write.  These are problems with the project.  When you get writer's block, or what feels like writer's block, you shouldn't think, "What's wrong with me?"  You should think, "What's wrong with my project?"