This is a Mental Health Post. You Might Find It Worth Reading

(Note: This is a mental health post. We’ll get back to talking about publishing and writing in a second. I know that these posts don’t get a lot of traffic, but it’s not a bad post, and I think you might find it worth your time. This is a small trigger warning for suicide, a larger one for codependency and a larger one for low self-esteem and self-value)

I woke up this morning about four hours ago, pretty convinced that everything was going to suck at some point in the near future. The laundry I didn’t finish folding last night would be in various states of disaster. People were going to call and tell me that they never wanted to talk to me again. People weren’t going to call and never wanted to talk to me again. The shower wouldn’t work and I’d be left a stinking fetid mess. The sale I’m running would collapse. The dog would run away because I’m such a terrible person. You know the sort of suck-age I’m talking here. The stuff that we work extraordinarily hard to keep under lock and key that only manages an escape when we’re tired or intoxicated or already feeling damaged. Epic suck-age of the highest level.

All these morning horsefeathers come after a late, tired night after a long and draining day. See, among the less-than-lovely mental health issues I deal with on a regular sometimes moment-by-moment basis, I’m codependent. I don’t handle separation well. I don’t feel good enough about myself to know with any certainty that the people I love are going to come back to me if they go anywhere further than a twenty minute drive, like they’re going to hit that twenty-first minute and say, “Holy shit, what the hell am I doing with John?” I don’t know how to be a 100% me alongside another 100% person, so that any relationship is a partnership and two-way street of communication, not just some weird conglomeration of people that occasionally includes food, humping and watching TV.

This lack of self esteem partners with a stunted emotional development growing up. I grew up in a barely demonstrative home. I only heard “I love you” when I was on the verge of tears or about to something consequential (like when I had to go to court for moving violations and was scared) or it would get written to me in emails while my parents were on vacation somewhere. It wasn’t bantered around, and as a result I had no real sense of how to express it. Hell, I thought even hugging a person of the gender you’re attracted to was a prelude to getting into bed with them. This left me fumbling when it came to sex, since I had learned from religion and my parents’ view of it that you only do it with the people you love, that you do it in private, and you do it only in “normal” ways. I’ve spent the last 15 years expunging the sense of limitation and shame that gave me.

I’ve gone through a lot of relationships, dates, and experiences to bring me far enough to where I can see that how I used to be, pre-therapy, pre-working-on-myself was remarkably unhealthy, immature and held back. I tend to use the phrase “-starved” to describe it now: I have been touch-starved, love-starved and affection-starved for more than a decade. Getting it now is like discovering an oasis, it brightens everything, but at the same time because it’s new, it’s feels ephemeral. Most of the good things in life feel ephemeral. I don’t like getting something I like then feeling like it will be taken away. It’s why I eat quickly and give myself hiccups. It’s why I mope around when people go off for a weekend. It’s why I feel jealous when people I know are making awesome things and I’m not asked to help.

Because my moods were unstable and I was mentally volatile for so long, I heard from a lot of people (family, friends, relationships) that I had to “control” myself. I don’t know how to explain what it really feels like, it’s somewhere between feeling shame that you’re doing things that upset others and feeling out of control and off the tracks – you’re trying to make things better so as not to keep hurting people, but the harder you try, the worse you make things, because you don’t really know what you’re doing or how to fix it. So, at some point, I just learned it would be preferable (read: I wouldn’t feel like everyone hated me) to clamp down on all my feelings. Not feel them. Deny them. Lie about them. Skimp on pleasure. Skimp on connection. If I didn’t have to feel anything or risk anything, then I wouldn’t upset people, and then because I wasn’t upsetting people, they’d be happy with me, and (nebulously) love me.

This is probably the same decision that brought me loneliness, worsened my depression and sent me into a spin of really bad decisions and consequences. Because I was constantly trying to avoid upsetting people or avoid any feelings that didn’t conform to what I thought people expected, I never got a chance to develop familiarity with a lot of skills people need. It retarded my growth and rather than learn things in my early 20s, I’m learning them in my mid-30s. I don’t always have enough words to express how ashamed and embarrassed I am of that.

For instance, I never learned really how to miss people. My first experience with the feeling that I would miss someone came in the sixth grade when my friend Alex yelled from one backyard to me in mine that he was moving to Michigan, and did I want to come over and play kickball. I remember telling him no, and I think I said that I had to eat dinner or something, but the truth is that I didn’t want to play kickball because it would end at some point and then he’d be moving away. This began a lengthy game of tag between me and loneliness. People leave to go to different places for different reasons and I don’t know how to deal with that – I’m not okay with them going, I don’t want them to go, they’re my friend/partner/lover/co-worker/whatever and I selfishly ask, “What am I supposed to do?”

Codependency is loneliness’ toady. I don’t like being lonely. Loneliness and disconnection from others is what led to me slice my wrists on more than one occasion. Loneliness convinced me long ago that I was worth less than garbage, and that’s a thing I’m still trying to disprove. Oddly enough, I don’t feel that way when I’m not alone. It makes for a neat little destructive cycle.

Here’s a nice chart that sort of describes my terrible thinking

This goes on in my head A LOT. It sucks.

This goes on in my head A LOT. It sucks.

See how screwed up that is?

  1. It’s incredibly selfish. Notice there’s no box about the other person having to do whatever they’re doing – they might be at a job, or on a business trip, or dealing with hostages or whatever. To my panicked brain, self-preservation becomes self-absorption. AND I’M NOT EVEN UNDER ANY THREAT OF ATTACK OR HARM. I JUST DON’T WANT TO FEEL IGNORED, DISCARDED, NEGLECTED OR LIKE I DON’T MATTER.
  2. The only positive is when I’m not alone. Now, granted, I shower regularly and make an effort to smell good and am, at times, very pleasant and funny. But sometimes, people just can’t be around me (again: jobs, other responsibilities, other things they like that aren’t me). It basically says that if I’m not the center of someone’s universe, then I’m awful.
  3. The negatives are REALLY negative. It’s not that I’m boring or that I only tell the same three jokes, it’s not a matter of being “not fun” as to why I’m alone, it’s because I’m whatever’s beneath pond scum and garbage’s garbage.

This was a majority of my thinking yesterday. It was incredibly draining. I’m pretty sure it frustrated my friends to hear me go on and on about how not-good yesterday was. I know it frustrated me when SIX different people said variations of “Dude, you’re being way clingy and anxious. Sit down and be cool.”

What to do?

Last night, feeling like needed to get a handle on it today, I argued with myself (the dog was asleep by this point) as why I felt the way I felt. Normally I bounce this sort of stuff off someone, but when that someone is the same someone you’re in the middle of missing, you end up talking to yourself and feeling horrible for burdening them with anything less than glorious purpose. Because I know that if didn’t arrest this line of thinking, if I didn’t derail this craptastic train of doom, then it would get worse and then that dread I was uh, dreading … the bad stuff I didn’t want to happen would happen, and I’d be alone. Learning that I deserve and am good enough to be with people, be in a relationship, be good enough to work as hard as I do, be good enough to have friends, be good enough “not to suck” has been a tough struggle over the last three years, with a lot of tough times and a lot of thoughts that sap and erode the idea of “deserving” anything other than boxes of misery and sadness.

After a tough and teary conversation with myself, where I didn’t let myself off the hook until I got into the reasons and feelings that underpin the craving for attention and love and people, I promised myself that the next day would be better than today – not just because I felt I needed to do better by others, but because I didn’t need to drain myself and feel crappy like that again.

Which brings me back to this morning.

So I’m up early, laying in bed, feeling this sense of “Oh this day might blow” when I catch myself and remember the promise I made last night. And then I start applying the tools I’ve acquired. I made a list of facts, things that are true no matter what I feel or think or worry about. Things like “I know that today X Y and Z things will happen” (I’m not going to detail the list, that’s for me, but I’ll give you the broad strokes) or “I know this person said _______ to me.” Because I have these facts, I know I can reference them with two taps of my phone whenever I’m worried or anxious about something happening out of my control or not happening out of some imagined neglect. This list took me a good forty-five minutes to generate 11 things, because they’re all relevant to the problem I’m feeling and I skipped the stuff like, “I know the sky is blue” or “I know the dog likes me”.

This list, even knowing I have it, before I even look at it, helps. Facts get written down, and facts kill anxiety in the face, because anxiety is generated by my lying brain trying to get me to do things (however negative) that I’m habituated to doing thanks to brain chemicals.

I could have stopped there, because it’s enough to know I have 11 statements providing me some manner of grounding and comfort, but I didn’t. I wanted to temper the other side and make a list of wants, although looking at them now, a lot of them read like goals or regular efforts I’m going to do everyday, “I want to be better at _____” and “I want to _______ every day.” It’s good to have these too, although they don’t ground me like the facts do, they give me a vector and a “job” (that’s not the right word) that isn’t worrying about things that are on the fact list. They also snap the cycle of “how legit do I think these facts are?” because I’ve written them down, so they’ve got to be accurate – why would I write myself nonsense?

Doing that motivated me. I got up, I had breakfast, I started my day with a commitment to make it better than yesterday. Is today going to be tough? Yep. No doubt. But I’ve got these tools and I’ve got this resolve, so I’m going to do the best I can (and honestly, it wouldn’t be hard to have a better today than yesterday, that’s a low-ass bar). Then seconds after I got out of the shower (Hello, ladies.), I got a chance to express this plan and what is more or less this blogpost verbally. I’m a verbal guy. Words have a ton of meaning to me, so if I can say to someone, “I’m going to do this better” you can bet I’ll do everything I can to do it, and then exceed it.

Which brings us to right now. I sat down to write this post, knowing full well my mental health posts get as much traction as a running puppy on a wood floor, but I don’t care. Words have meaning and power, so I’m writing this down.

So onward. To make today better. To not be anxiety and codependency’s bitch. To celebrate the good. And put away laundry. And read a book. And pay some bills.

Maybe not in that order.

Yes, I swear, we’ll talk about writing and publishing next.

The Story Of Storium And How I Tell Stories

While I’m in the middle of a crazy sale you should be taking advantage of, and while I’m about to start a weekend that has full potential to be rather emotionally wrenching (yes, you can totally check up on me throughout the weekend), I thought I’d wrap the week with a positive note.

I work in gaming. I make a good living working with a lot of people and companies to make incredible games. These games allow people to tell fantastic stories, and through their stories, I draw a lot of satisfaction. Regrettably, the amount of work I do and the emergence of new projects and people in my life mean I get to tell my own stories somewhat sporadically. Sure, I do a lot of my own writing, but that’s a different facet of the gem: there’s too much control, and the variables other people represent are at times a critical part at telling really meaty stories. Like so many things in life, sure, you can do it yourself, but other people take the experience to whole other level.

This post is my love letter to Storium. They’ve got a Kickstarter going and quite a few of my dear friends have been talking about it, and I thought I’d chime in. Hopefully this won’t read like I’m hopping on a bandwagon or beating a near-dead horse.

I first encountered Storium through Brian Engard, he introduced me to a small 2-player game with some horror elements. I played an identity thief who inherited a creepy Lovecraftian hotel. The game didn’t last long, but it was the start of something. It felt better than reading recaps people posted online about their games. It felt a lot like being around the table with my friends. It made me miss doing that less. I was hooked. From there, I tumbled into a science fiction game, this time with more people, people I am frankly intimidated to game with, despite working and chatting with them regularly. Gaming with people who write games and run companies about games feels a lot like playing a pick-up game with Lebron or Jordan – yes, it’s all basketball, but seriously, those guys ARE basketball. It often makes me want to make huge, brave risks in play, which I guess is the best thing it could do, aside from sending me running from my keyboard and hoping people won’t tell me I suck.

That science fiction game lasted a little longer, I was playing a totally new character for me – the immature hedonist, which I enjoyed because aside from the sci-fi elements, I am a pleasure-seeking addict and spent half my life with the emotional maturity of turnips. It was in that game I came across the first of several storytelling elements: Challenge is fluid.

Making that discovery was like discovering the piano has more keys to play. Too often when I write or run a game or think up a story, the obstacles are fixed things, they’re benchmarks for when more things happen: Okay, the character gets into fight #1, that leads them into the second act where they discover X. There’s nothing wrong with that, it’s just not the only way to have obstacles for characters. To challenge a character, one of the greatest ways a creator/author/player can tell the story and use all their available tools is to surrender some part of the control.

Storium encourages and mechanizes this through a card system.

Here's a sample challenge from my own Storium game, Noir World

Here’s a sample challenge from my own Storium game, Noir World

What this does is shake loose the assumption that your character is going to triumph stupendously over the challenge. It doesn’t change the fact that the character is competent or empowered to, it instead affects the development of action. As in the case above, if the players accomplished the challenge with a strong outcome (as they did), they move the story in a specific way. If they didn’t, the story would go down a different fork in the road. In each case, I stipulated that they need to describe the actions they take or fail, which both alleviates the burden of me doing it and encourages their participation. Which brings me to another great element: Investment isn’t something you force on story participants, it’s something they bring in.

Here’s a sample move in a game I’m in.

Yes, that's Christopher Lambert as Tarzan, just go with it.

Yes, that’s Christopher Lambert as Tarzan, just go with it.

In this case, I’m playing human bait in this sort of Moby-Dick-Meets-Kaiju world that is at once both modern and primal. The “Law” I talk about? I made that up. I could have just written a paragraph, or two really long sentences. I didn’t. Each move is a scene unto itself, I like to think about a move in terms of the camera that’s tracking and zooming and focusing in on my character’s moment. So why not put on a good show? I really enjoy the attention and the spotlight and I’m a sucker for an audience, so why not really play it up? Because I have the camera on me, I get to be invested. I didn’t get told to do that. I didn’t read that anywhere in the game’s instructions – I brought this to the move.

Getting your players or actors or readers to invest is a function of giving characters agency and keeping the focus on them. The reason we care about Hamlet or Harry Potter or Harry Dresden is because the story’s focus follows them. We’re over their shoulders, we’re seeing what they do and how the see the world. Their eyes and thoughts are ours for the story’s duration. Because they’re given considerable power within the story: to talk, to act, to cast spells, to be heroic or tragic, we want to see them succeed, we want to see how the story works out, so we keep turning the pages.

As stories go, I like all the games I’m in. I’m of course biased, being that I run a large game and that I’m in a popular one and I’m playing a support role in a third. But the fact that I can play and run really diverse characters:

  • Pike Gordon, average man in a no-longer average world, recently empowered by one his ex-love interests against his will while trying to solve a murder that happened behind the apartment building he lives in
  • Al-Torr, morose and lonely man whose inherited the mantle of Beacon, the human bait that runs out and lures Kaiju into killing range

and that I can build an entire world to tell tragedy:

  • Noir World (Episode 1: Dinner Parties and Dames), a world forever stuck in the past, where every bright light is partnered with a dark shadow

but all this reinforces one more incredible element: Stories live and die not by their creator but by their characters.

Admittedly that first scene in Noir World was a HUGE mess. I stretched things out too thin, let things gloop together and overplayed my hand, giving away too much and slowing things down. In trying to figure out how to run a game (see the above mentioned pressure), I blundered more than a little. I regret quite a bit of that, and really worry I had killed my game off and disappointed people. It turns out I didn’t. At all. It did teach me what not to do, that it’s easier to slow down and parcel things out, but also it taught me that even though I’m in control (well, not like full control, but I’m steering the vessel), the lifeblood and pulse of stories remain the characters who populate them.

For these lessons and hours of enjoyment, I so firmly believe in and happily backed the kickstarter. My great regret is that I lacked the courage or initiative to offer Noir World as a stretch goal, but that’s likely do to me not asking if it was even possible or the assumption that no one would like it. That second bit will probably be a blog post.

Have a great weekend. Tell the people who matter that you love them. Do something that makes you happy. Chase your passions. Check in on people who are hurting, alone, scared, or overwhelmed. Be awesome.

Happy writing.

The ‘Welcome To Writer Fight Club’ Sale

The road to publication is a tough one. Putting aside for the moment the fact that you actually have to write a book, the expense of getting it looked at, edited, and published can be far more than a simple “this is just something I wrote on the weekends” budget can bear. It’s not uncommon for edits to cost hundreds of dollars or more. And those might be hundreds of dollars you don’t have.

So what can I do to help you, writer?

How about a deal for the next 30 days?

The Welcome To Writer Fight Club Sale

If you’re writing and come to me for editing or developmental advice**, your first 9000 words WILL COST YOU A PENNY EACH.

(** “editing and developmental advice” is defined as ANY kind of edit, from copyediting to developmental)

What Happens After 9000 words?

Starting with word 9001, the rate returns to its variable amount, based on whatever kind of editing you need (so anywhere from .02 to .11 on average) – but that’s something we work out. You’ll know well in advance.

How Do I Know What Kind of Edit I Need?

Here’s a quick guideline:

  1. If you need the sort of grammar/punctuation/continuity edit that you’d receive from an English teacher (commas, periods, quotations, sentence fragments, vague sentences, etc), that’s a copy edit.
  2. If you need a deeper edit that looks at dialogue, pacing, and just a little plot and all of the above, that’s a line edit.
  3. If you need a deeper edit than that, one that looks at character development, plot development, actions, genre appropriate material, mood, tone, POV, and all of the above, that’s a developmental edit.

To give you a frame of reference, without this sale, these edits would normally cost you:

  1. Copy Edit of 9000 words = $180
  2. Line Edit of 9000 words = $360
  3. Developmental Edit of 9000 words = $540
  4. 9000 words edited during this sale = $90

BUT FOR THE NEXT 30 DAYS (until May 22, 2014) YOU CAN GET ANY OF THESE EDITS FOR $90.

$90 to get your novel off the ground isn’t a bad deal.

How Do I Get Started?

If you’re interested, send me an email (thewriternextdoor@gmail.com) and let’s talk. Don’t let budget be the obstacle keeping you from telling your story and making art.

Welcome to Writer Fight Club.

The Other Side of Depression

If you don’t know, if you’re new to this blog or new to me, then I want to tell you up front that I talk about three things: writing, mental health and food. My blog traffic goes crazy when it’s recipe day, and less so when I talk writing or mental health. I tend to think this is because I put my guts on the page when I talk about those things, and that either makes for tough reading or it truly isn’t interesting when compared to blogposts elsewhere that spew the same ten superficial pieces of advice or take lengthy hate-screeds and pot-shots at people.

I already talked about writing today. Let’s get into mental health.

I’m a suicidal depressive, in treatment, medicated and presently stable. I have tried to kill myself on a number of occasions. My body tells the stories of those efforts and the pain and the heaviness I feel in life. I don’t hide them (most aren’t on my arms), and I don’t run from the fact that it’s a part of my life and it rolls its nasty face around my way usually from September until April, and I’m spending those gray months either thinking about not living or trying to avoid thinking about not living. Often I talk about my depression and my pain while I’m going through it. Over the winter, I even tried to livetweet a depressive episode.

It’s important, I think, to be open about how we feel, what our issues are, what shitty traps we convince ourselves to fall into time and again and what we’re really wanting out of life. It’s honesty, it’s raw, it makes a lot of people uncomfortable. The point isn’t to make people uncomfortable, the point is to clearly express what’s going on. Expression beats silence and expression promotes encouragement. It’s through encouragement and support that the scary things of mental health are made less scary, revealing the dark spectres to be more Old Man Jenkins from the amusement park  and less foul Dementors.

But when I write this, I’m not depressed. I feel great, though I think this is a combination of new blood pressure medication, a lot of new and healthy relationships and a positive change in my work habits and diet. Depression isn’t “cured”, so much as it wanes and withdraws like a tide. I’ll never be cured, but I can remain vigilant and disciplined and alert to how I’m doing every day. So, this post is about depression while not depressed.

Depression is the greatest motherfucker I’ve ever discovered. It lies. It manipulates. It skews perspective and encourages unhealthy behaviors to escape the pain it amplifies. It takes terrible activities and ideas and makes them appealing. Hurting because you feel no one understands you? Have a drink, pop a pill or shoot this into a vein. Aching and nauseous because you feel you’re alone on a rock in a stormy ocean while the rest of all existence experiences calm Caribbean waters? Seclude yourself in a bedroom. Feel like you’re suddenly speaking Martian and all your words and expressions and body language are angering any living thing around you? Eat hurriedly and feel like you deserve that indigestion.

Everyone has those doubting voices or passing thoughts about how they’re not good enough or could be better. I don’t trust anyone who says otherwise or who gets all extra swooshy and metaphysical about how those are egoic constructs that I need to jettison. While I’m willing to agree they’re habituated thoughts based on faulty evidence, I’m also willing to believe the bloodwork and tests that tell me there’s a chemical element to it. The little white pills I take aren’t placebo. And unlike what I thought at age 16, they’re not a shackle or something I take so the world doesn’t hate me, they’re tools I need to do what I do in the best ways I can.

Depression isn’t me. It’s my sometime jailor and tormentor, but it’s not my identity. I don’t walk the floors of conventions or into classrooms and hear people say, “Hey Depression Guy”. It doesn’t mention it on my business cards. There’s no giant blinking neon light calling attention to my illness or subsequent disordered thoughts. In this regard, I see it a lot like hair color or diabetes or a stutter – these are things a person has or lives with, but are not defined by. This attitude is hard fought and sorely won, and I’m sure months from now when I’m laying on the couch paralyzed by paranoia and a sense of failure, this is all going to read like applesauce and fluff.

Likewise, depression isn’t a giant block-letter tattoo on my forehead. As with many illnesses, you don’t see physical signs. I might carry myself different sometimes, my already questionable posture might contort more, my shoulders might sag and I might make less eye contact, but there’s no sucking chest wound or trail of gore fanning out behind me.

But the experience of that straight jacket made of suffocating fiber and weighed down with stones carved from your failures and shortcomings is hard to forget. I might drop something and make a mess or I might print the wrong thing out, but right now I can look at it and say, “Okay try again.” Not so when smothered by feelings of inadequacy, where the spilled mess or wrong pages printed are endemic of my absolute pointlessness and sheer stupidity. It feels weird typing that out, because I don’t feel that way now, but it’s like knowing a summer place – it’s familiar, you return their often, you know where all the light switches and towels are.

People want to help, and I love them for it. They offer support, fistbumps, encouraging messages and company. They invite me to places, they bring tea. I only barely get a sense of what it must feel like to watch me go through this, and I know that while I’m in that headspace, I’m making numerous apologies for sucking up their time and for being a downer. They all tell me it’s okay, that it’s part of being a friend, companion, partner or lover. And even now, I struggle with that. I’m not sure I’d have the patience they do.

I try not to talk sex on the blog, but it’s a relevant slice of this depression pie. Depression eats away at feelings of attractiveness, and leaves behind nice giant truckloads of performance anxiety and a junkie-like craving for intimacy, connection and any sensation that feels good. So you might totally want to do some pantsless partying, but some of the parts don’t get the invite, and then you double up on your dosage of failure and inadequacy. Depression generates feelings of wanting to get down and then like a school bully, takes away the ability to do so. It’s cruel.  (Okay sex-talk over. That was a little awkward, right?)

Not feeling these things now, I get to observe them at a distance. I often get to this place and wish I had some kind of weapon to snipe them and eliminate them before they come surging back, but I’ve started to realize that they’re part of the forces that helped to shape me and continue to help to influence me. I don’t think I’d have the appreciation for good craft and work or the ability to tell wracking tragedy without the knowledge of just how bad things can get. Not sniping them is a challenge, but there’s also a sense that by not engaging them, by leaving them all the way over there, I don’t have to worry about being overrun by them.

And that remains a great fear – the fact that I’ll need another course of treatment, but that I wouldn’t ever come out. I’d lose contact with the world, I’d lose connections and I’d be trapped in some medical hell where I was stuck without the ability to do anything other than suffer. It’s the part of the future that frightens me. Winter is coming, and it brings the scary. But that’s what constant vigilance and therapy and talking about it is for – a thing is less scary if you’re open about it and build a good support network.

I’d be dead (literally and otherwise) without the support of people. I cannot repay them, there aren’t enough dinners in the world to cook for them to show them my gratitude for all their help, there aren’t enough ways to tell the people you love that you love them like you do. I hope that any day I’m still upright and kicking is a testament and a thank-you. Building that support network meant taking a good hard look at who I put around me and what they actually brought to me, and then making the hard choices of excising the elements and people who did more harm than good. Thankfully, I majored in Burning Bridges in college, so I have expertise in excising people.

Time to go back to work. The day’s nice and there plenty of things to do.

Thanks for reading.

Happy writing.

 

 

Writer, Why Are You Doing That?

I’ve been away for the weekend, part of a new regimen of relaxation and de-stressing, trying to get (and keep) my blood pressure down. It seems to be working, and in general, I’m finding my weekends a lot more happy and pleasant, doing everything from brunches with new friends to leisurely game playing or even deep conversations.

The upside is that my BP is down ten to twenty points over the last week or so, and I’m sleeping better and generally embracing more of life. The downside? I come home to a crowded inbox of 300+ new messages, all in various states of update, panic or frustration. Usually pruning this inbox down calls for a ginger ale or strong cup of tea, and leads to quite a few tweets:

 

Not pictured: The loud sigh that accompanies writing the tweets

Not pictured: The loud sigh that accompanies writing the tweets

Capture2

It’s not that I dislike talking to writers, quite the opposite in fact. I love talking to writers, and we’re not even counting the ego stroke reasons that come from making a living giving advice. Helping someone do something better, especially in those cases where what they’re doing excites some deep passion, is gratifying. Not unlike good ice cream, kissing or catching Murder She Wrote on television.

But there are times where setting writers straight, addressing issues, putting out fires, assessing professional damage and generally laying down a little smack is tiring. And grating. And draining. I have no kids, but I have to liken part of this feeling to what a parent feels when they tell a child for the umpteenth time to do something. Yes, okay, they protest, but way down the road, some time in the nebulous future, they’re going to be thankful for having that knowledge help them. Cleaning your room sucks when you’re ten, but when you’re 35 with many rooms to tidy, you’re thankful you know how.

So too it sucks when you’re a new writer and you’re trying to figure out your way in the wild world of writing. There are so many blogs to read, so many books to digest, so many “experts” all giving you advice that seems to vary based on everything from the number of books they’ve sold to the size of their social-media-credentials-slash-genitals. Unfortunately, there’s no codified set of things to do or read when you get started. And depending on the crowd around you when you start, you might mature as a writer in a fearful way, that you need constantly check some website for good and bad people because the world is full of thieves and con artists. Or maybe you never really mature because you get caught up in some petty social politicking on a message board that wants to talk more about sales than finishing products. Or maybe you deify a writer because their blog is pretty or because they curse or because they have some graphics in the margins, but you’re quick to knock them off that pedestal when you find new and conflicting information. All of these things are possible. As I write this, I’m thinking of writers who range from really great to really great-at-perpetuating-excuses-and-horsefeathers.

I don’t know where you are in your progression. I don’t know if you’re new or if you’ve been writing forever and a day. I don’t know what you write, how you publish or why you do what you do. Regardless, I want to break out the stop sign and slow the race down under caution (that’s the yellow flag, yes?) because of some behaviors I’ve seen.

Yes haters are gonna hate. Not everyone’s going to like what you write. It’s not bad. Some people will rationalize this as “you know you’re doing it right when people hate your work” and others will say you haven’t “made it” until you get opposition. Personally I lean more towards the first even if I think you can still be doing it wrong AND get negative people talking. And no, I don’t know if they’re hating YOU for being able to do something they wish they could (jealousy) or if what you’re writing is actually a bucket of mediocre-at-best wordspew. Chances are that yes, it’s a little of both. Chances are that people are jealous AND you could be producing better stuff.

But does it really matter? Is it insecurity that makes you need everyone to love you? Fear that if one person doesn’t like your work, no one will? Not everyone is going to like what you’re doing. And they won’t like it for reasons as varied as they are: you curse, you don’t curse, you use too many commas, your character doesn’t do what they expect or want them to do, you take liberties with things that really annoy them, etc etc. Who knows and who cares. YOUR writing isn’t about THEIR praise, is it? (Remember that praise is a consequence of good work and talent)

So let’s assume you’re writing, and that you finish a thing, then you send it off to whoever. Let’s call them Jane Doe. Your book has been written on lunch breaks and weekends and late nights and in coffee shops and at your kitchen table. You really tried your best to tell a story and you fought back the sea of doubts that kept you from finishing it. And you package it up all pretty and write a doozy of a query letter. And Jane rejects it. You get a nice rejection letter that may or may not have some ink-scribbled notes on it. If you get rejected, don’t take it out on the person who rejected you.

You can totally hate the system. You can think it’s elitist, exclusionary, sexist, bigoted, biased, dull, unimaginative or whatever. You can say that it’s outdated, perpetuating a model of success predicated on scarcity as to perpetuate their own jobs. None of that changes the fact that your work wasn’t what someone was looking for. You can be angry, hurt, upset, disappointed, or shocked. You can mourn the lack of success. But don’t think that if you track down your rejector’s website, social media accounts or personal information, that you can make your displeasure felt and somehow Jane Doe will totally publish your work once you threaten to publish their home address and phone number. Getting your work published is NOT a hostage negotiation. You don’t get to blackmail or bully people to get your way. It’s not personal. It’s business. And remember, 50% of the process involves you having produced a thing, so don’t forget to look in that half of the equation when you’re trying to figure out what’s wrong. (Hiring an editor is a good thing to help clarify)

Now, maybe Jane Doe rejected you, and your threw yourself a Sucks-A-Lot party. Once you’re done pulling streamers down off the furniture, it’s time to send your work out again. This time, you find Sarah PlainandTall who could read your work. You check out her website and she’s got something called “Submission Guidelines“, and maybe you think ‘Guidelines are suggestions’. Submission guidelines are RULES, not suggestions. They cover everything from what font to put your document in to margins to size of piece and other similar details. Send out something that doesn’t mesh with the guidelines, chances are it won’t even get a rejection, it’ll just get chucked into recycling or sliced into shreds or cut into scrap pages for phone notes. Also, the guidelines aren’t to be selectively followed. You can’t skip number 3 and 9 just because they invalidate your work. You don’t get to pick and choose which rules you follow. If company or person X has guidelines you can’t meet, then find company or person Y instead. Following rules is a great way to make a good impression. Not following them is a great way to make a not-good impression, or validate any assumptions that you’re hard to work with.

In short: follow the guidelines, don’t take rejection personally, and don’t take your frustrations out on inappropriate targets.

Happy writing.

I Have An Idea For A _____, Now What Do I Do?

This very awesome idea (which totally replaces the angry post I was writing about the problem with repeated descriptions) comes from Jeremy Morgan, who I believe a lot more of you should be hiring to read and edit your things. C’mon he’s got a family to take care of. Don’t let him, like, starve and stuff. That’s not cool.

Now I left a blank up in the post title because it doesn’t really matter what it is you’re making: a book, a movie, a television pilot, a statue, a big painting of celebrity navels, whatever – the initial steps of the process remain the same. For the purposes of this post, I’m going to talk about storycraft, but you can swap “book” with whatever it is you’re making.

We’ll also assume you’ve already thought of the idea in some capacity. It doesn’t matter if it’s just a title, or a scene or just some rough picture of something frozen in time. You’ve got a hook into SOME part of what will become the draft or rough sketch.

Onward.

Step 1Get the idea into another medium. For me, a lot of the ideas for things start off as thoughts in my head like, “What sort of music does a disenfranchised dudebro secretly listen to?” or “I wonder what would happen if you made a hot sauce built on a base of butterscotch and Indian peppers?” A lot of these ideas don’t go anywhere (like “Why don’t I own the complete filmography of Jason Statham?”), but the ones that do survive do so because I’ve done more than just think them. I usually say them aloud a few times, then copy them either onto a nearby steno pad or into a text file in my Dropbox called ‘Ideas For Later“.  Translating the idea into some other form – even if you’re leaving yourself an audio note or a Vine or a whatever-chat the kids are doing these days helps it persist and be less of an ephemeral bubble drifting through your head in between thoughts of what to watch and what to eat.

Step 2. Give the idea a stick figure skeleton. No, not an actual stick figure, I mean, I guess you could do that if you wanted to storyboard it, which I guess is a combination of the this step and the next one below, but I mean this step to be about giving the idea a little spine and some limbs, and see if you still get fired up about it. If this is a story idea, think about one part of it (a character, a setting, a question it asks) and put words to it. If you’re writing a story about a corrupt judge and his sex addicted daughter, do they have names? Where do they live? Do they live well? Do they have secrets no one else knows? Use your base idea as a starting point, and come up with more details. Not loads more, just one or two that really stand out to you.

If Step 1 and Step 2 combined keep making you feel like this idea is a good thing to pursue, move onto step 3. If not, either scrap the idea or save it for later – you’ll never know when they pay off.

Step 3. Make a mess, then make an outline/blueprint/rough sketch/whatever. There are many great people who flip the two parts of this step, and that totally works for them, and I’m way more than envious about it. Is there such a thing as super-envy? I either just invented it or jumped on its bandwagon. I like to throw some words down on the page before I get serious about mapping something out. The first pages of something are a crash course in the idea’s survival skills. If I can write out a scene, or describe the picture in my head in more than a sentence, ideally a paragraph or four, and it’s not awful, it stays in active rotation among the things I’m working on. If it’s awful, I put it in a folder called “Graveyard” and hopefully harvest it later for parts when the next idea strikes.  Once the premature idea has some paragraphs or description on it, I can sit down and more consciously outline it. Like so many other things, I outline in my own way. I’ve talked about outlines before, but I never really thought about THE ACT of the outline as anything other than some horse-apples people say you’re supposed to do. And yes, maybe that rigid “outline” they teach you in school is crap on a stick. But the note card trick? Using Fate Core? All outlines. Don’t tell old me that I’ve been outlining all along, that guy doesn’t need the stress.

Step 4. Schedule an appointment. I’m totally stealing this idea from my local Honda dealer and their awful website. My car is due for an oil change and an inspection, so I thought these were things I could schedule via their website. Instead I found the most mansplain-y videos and how-tos on how to change your own oil, change a tire and when you need to call for a big man with greasy hands to take of a problem for you (right ladies? we can’t be worrying our pretty little heads when we should be in that kitchen fixing dinner, right? — seriously, those videos suck). I ended up calling the service desk directly and after a rousing version of mariachi Barry Manilow, got my appointments. The idea of scheduling makes my division of time easier. So too for writing. If I know that tomorrow I’m going to be writing another scene involving a recovering addict named Saturday who breaks a guy’s hand for making homophobic comments at his favorite bar, I can look forward to that, and ballpark that the scene in my head (the scene that’s gone through this exact process already) should take me about an hour or so to get down in the shape I think it’s in. The rest of my day can then get sliced up into time spent editing, designing and some errands best done when it’s going to be in the mid-70s.

Is there a fifth step? Yes.

Step 5. Create. Create regularly. Feed your word-beasts. Yes, sometimes the words are a trickle and other times they’re a raging flood. But you won’t know which it is until you’re tapping those keys or moving that pen. Work on that sketch. Test out that recipe. Edit those photos. Work on your dance moves. What’s that? You don’t want to? I thought you said you wanted to make something. The idea’s not interesting anymore? Then have a new idea and start back up at the top. That’s not it, you say? You just “Don’t wanna”? Am I allowed to make clucking noises at you? Hey, if you want to procrastinate, I can’t stop you. If you want to prop up a billion illusory fleeting “reasons” (read: excuses) as to why creating this thing slips further and further down your To-Do list, that’s not something you have to justify to the guy on the internet. That’s all you and your commitment. Which will continue to be the subject of many posts to come.

Let me leave you with one last idea: Writers write. Creators create. You have to invest your guts and soul and courage onto and into the thing you’re making. Be brave. Be honest. Art hard.

 

Happy writing.

RECIPE: Refrigerator Chocolate Chile Cookies

Refrigerator cookies are named because you store the dough in the fridge, usually an hour or up to several days in advance. There’s a lot of food science as to why you do that, but the easy shortcut to remember is that cold means butter and flour and whatever you’re mixing into those things (in this case chocolate) get to hang out together, cuddle for warmth and generally get to know one another like their neighbors in a wacky sitcom.

These cookies can get HOT, depending on the chiles you use. I have a plastic bin of chiles in the fridge, with different types in ziploc bags wrapped in paper towels, because I’m two steps away from being a mad scientist and re-animating the dead to sing with Gene Wilder.  You don’t need to go that far, just snag some hot peppers when you’re next at the farmer’s market or produce aisle.

This makes about a dozen or so cookies. Which is good, because if you’re on the fence about liking them, a dozen isn’t a bad sample size.

The Ingredients

1 stick (8 tablespoons) butter, softened, plus more for greasing
2/3 cup sugar
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 cup cocoa powder (get the best stuff you can find, not store-brand)
2 tablespoons panca chile, seeds removed and freshly ground, plus a little more for garnish (or use your choice of hot pepper, like Hungarian or Cobra)
1 small dried chipotle chile, seeds removed and freshly ground
3/4 cup all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting
1 large egg
12-14 ounces dark chocolate, finely chopped (do this in advance, it requires a sharp knife and makes a mess)
Coarse salt, for garnish

Making Cookies

1
In a stand mixer (or I guess you could do this in a bowl by hand, but oh man is that going to require some arm muscles or a tag-team effort), beat the butter, sugar, and salt together till light and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Scrape down the sides with a spatula as needed. Reduce the speed on the mixer to low and add the cocoa and chiles, followed by the flour. Increase the speed when the dough looks crumbly (like dry concrete you want to add more water to), then add the egg. Scrape down the sides again and mix till thoroughly combined. This is also a great time to wash your hands and get the chile oil off. DO NOT RUB YOUR EYES. DO NOT EAT THIS DOUGH LIKE IT IS REGULAR DOUGH IF YOU HAVE TOUCHED CHILES.

2
Heavily dust a work surface with flour (which is cooking talk for “spill flour on your counter”), then get the dough out of the bowl. Divide it into two even pieces and roll them into 1-inch diameter logs. Yes, it’s totally like Play-Doh. Yes, you can totally get your kids to help. You’ll need to add flour from your work surface to keep the soft dough from sticking. Wrap each log in plastic wrap and chill in the freezer for one hour (though colder is better, so aim for like 75 minutes), or until stiff but not frozen solid (that sounds dirty). You can keep the cookies frozen this way for several months, slicing off and baking as needed. For long-term storage, wrap the dough in additional plastic and some aluminum foil. Yes, plastic first, otherwise they’ll get a funny taste from just being in foil

3
15 minutes before you plan to bake them, turn your oven to 350°F and grease two half sheet pans. With a very sharp knife, slice the cookies into 1/8th-inch thin rounds (fancy way of saying “cut the log into cookies”) and lay them on the sheet pans, leaving a 1/2-inch space between cookies. Chill in the refrigerator for two minutes before transferring to the oven. Bake 7-8 minutes for chewy cookies, or 11-12 minutes for crispy ones. Transfer to cooling rack and cool completely. I think chewy is better here, but I know how people get all divisive about that.

4
Put an inch of water in a saucepan and bring it to a boil with a large glass or ceramic bowl on top (this is called a “double boiler” and it’s used for melting things, 99% of the time that’s chocolate). When the water boils, reduce to a simmer and add the chocolate to bowl. Whisk constantly until chocolate is melted, making sure that it stays below 91°F (if it goes above that, reduce the heat, KEEP STIRRING and add a tiny (like barely a spoonful) of cornstarch and more chocolate – AND KEEP STIRRING – then turn the heat up just a little).

5
Line your two half sheet pans with parchment and drop cookies into chocolate 4 to 5 at a time. Stir with a fork until evenly coated, then remove them via spider to the pans.

6
Sprinkle cookies with extra ground chile and coarse salt while they’re cooling, then set aside to cool completely. Store in a large, airtight container in a cool, dry place.

Happy eating.

My Friend Andrew’s Love Letter to a Frittata

Hi John!

This frittata was special for my mother in law, since it’s her birthday. It took me 2 hours to make! Not a fast food recipe.

First I peeled and thinly sliced an eggplant. Then, with lots of olive oil, I caramelized it on low for 1 hour in a fry pan.

In a separate frying pan, I cooked a pound of bacon to get all the fat out of it and get it a little crispy but not burned. At the end, I threw in 4 slices of prosciutto and browned that a bit. Drained the bacon on some paper towels, then chopped it and the prosciutto up into little bits.

When the eggplant exuded some of its olive oil after 20 minutes, I poured off that olive oil into a pan and caramelized a whole Vidalia onion, chopped into slices. That took about 30 minutes. Then I threw in 2 whole shredded zucchinis and a chopped, de-seeded anaheim pepper. I sauteed those until they threw off most of their water.

The whole point of all this frying was to reduce the amount of moisture in the vegetables, and caramelize them to make them taste good. Otherwise, eggplant and zucchini are too bland.

After everything is caramelized in the various pans, throw all the chopped meat and veggies into the pan you intend to make the frittata in, and toss in some chopped garlic to saute a bit. This is an ITALIAN dish, so there needs to be garlic. How much garlic? Well, that depends upon how Italian you want your frittata to be, doesn’t it?

At this point, turn the meat & veggies down to very low and preheat your oven to 350F. It should be about an hour since you started.

Into a big bowl, crack 20 eggs. Yes, 20. Beat them. Add 1 cup of heavy cream or 1/2 & 1/2. Mix. Put in a whole bag of Italian 3 Cheese blend, a bunch of chopped green onions, chopped flat leaf parsley and chopped fresh basil. Lots of fresh cracked pepper. Mix all that up.

Stir the meat and veggies in the pan one last time and scrape the bottom of the pan to bring up any browning and incorporate it. You don’t want the final product to burn on the bottom.

Stir up the egg, cheese and herb mixture and pour it all over the meat and veggies but DO NOT STIR. Leave it in layers. While it cooks on the stovetop on very low, garnish the top with little halves of cherry tomatoes, like little boats. Or don’t. Or put more meat on top. Or cheese. Or crack some pepper. Or come up with something else original, like slivers of avocado. Or more caramelized onions that you reserved from previously. Or finely diced herbs like thyme and rosemary. Or olives. I mean, this is Italian cooking. Improvise. Make it look pretty.

Take the thing off the stovetop and put it in the oven. I sure hope you used an ovenproof pan! I sure hope you used a big enough pan to hold all that stuff and 20 eggs!!!

Now, at 350 degrees, this thing will take damn near an hour to finish. Here’s how to tell that it’s done. After a while, you’ll see it start to puff up. First around the edges, and then finally in the middle. When you suspect it’s almost done, open the oven and jiggle it. If the middle LOOKS like a puddle of water jiggling, then it’s not done. If the middle jiggles only a little, it is pretty much done. You can also stick a knife or a toothpick into it, but since there’s cheese involved, that method is not very reliable. The jiggle method is better, and non-invasive. The top will get a little brown on the egg parts, but not too brown like overdone scrambled eggs. Just a little brown.

When you think it’s done, turn off the oven, crack the door and let the thing rest in there for about 15 minutes before you eat it.

I prefer my frittata stone cold. But this thing is so good that you won’t be able to wait. You’ll just have to eat it warm.

Sometimes I serve it on a bed of spinach leaves or greens. Sometimes I just chop up more herbs and green onions and sprinkle those over the top on the plates. Sometimes with more fresh grated parmesan, or mozzarella on top. A pie server and a knife are useful for getting wedges out and onto the plate intact, since the veggie layer will be a little bit loose. The brown sticky bits on the bottom are fun to pick at when no one’s looking.

Oh, frittata. I love you.

Take care,

Andrew

 

For the curious, here’s what it looked like.

20 Eggs of Awesomeness

20 Eggs of Awesomeness

 

Happy eating.

RECIPE: Jellybeans!

In the last fifty-nine days, my sweet-tooth has kicked into overdrive. I’ve been going through a bag of Hershey Kisses, peanut butter cups, Starburst and was about to power into some S’mores when I decided that I could channel this want for sugar into food science skills. It takes time to make things, so maybe that would occupy my brain enough to get it switch tracks from “PUT SUGAR IN YOUR FACE” to “You’re a dapper and elegant man. Go play Mario Kart.”

So, I’ve tried making Orange Slices. Failed. Tried making Jolly Ranchers. Failed twice. And then, for giggles decided to make jellybeans. Even went super nerdy and borrowed a freezer chest and a tank of nitrogen to see what that can do. (Answer: It can do a lot that has very little to do with jellybeans.) Now, admittedly, this recipe is going to sound scary, but it just takes simple ingredients and some patience and some organization. What I’m about to lay out here is not “dumbed down” but instead written out to reflect practical kitchens that my friends use daily, so that they can make them at home.

And before we get started, yes, you can totally make boozy jellybeans, there’s a note in the recipe as to when you do that. Oh, yes, this recipe does use a jellybean mold, I recommend you get 5 or 6 (they’re cheap) if you want to make a bowl’s worth of beans to impress your guests.

Here Are The Supplies You’ll Need

1 cup water, divided into FOUR 1/4 amounts (so measure 1/4 cup four times and pour them into separate mugs or glasses)
2 cup sugar, divided into THREE amounts: 1 cup, 1/4 cup, 3/4 cup (I used small bowls for this)
1/4 oz gelatin (Plain gelatin should be in your baking aisle.)
1/2 cup juice with no pulp, or your favorite cocktail if you want to get all liquored up and scream “Woo!” when your favorite jam plays at the club.
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoon cornstarch
non-stick cooking spray (like Pam)
food coloring, ideally you want to try and match the color of the juice you’re using, but you can use whatever color you would like
jelly bean molds
a candy thermometer

 You’ll also need:

A saucepan

A big bowl (bigger than the saucepan) filled with ice

A spider (that’s a metal net on a stick, not the arachnid)

A giant jar or other air-tight sealable container (if you use little containers, you’ll also need one friend/servant/person who owes you a favor per additional container)

Where Have You Bean All My Life?

1. In a large saucepan on medium heat, combine 3/4 cup water, 1 1/4 cups sugar, and gelatin. (see why I told you to divide things? Who’s the C student in 8th grade Home Ec now, Mrs. Van Buskirk?) This is also when you clip your thermometer to the pan.

2. Bring it to a boil, stirring regularly to ensure that no clumps of gelatin form. This is going to look sort of shimmery, the way you expect a Disney magic mirror to look.

3. As soon as the temperature reaches 230 F, take the pot off the burner – the syrup should still be quite liquidy. This should not take more than 25 minutes. If your syrup gets any hotter than 230 F, it will make your jelly beans too hard and sort of like bullets you expect Mel Gibson to fire at Malfoy’s dad. In other news, I’ve figured out how to arm our troops in case we discover time travel.

4. Put the hot saucepan in the bowl of ice to stop the temperature from rising. If you don’t have a bowl bigger than your pot, just fill your sink with ice water and put the pot in there, but seriously, if you have a bowl full of ice, you can use that ice later, say for cocktails or iced tea. And if you want to do that, but just put ice in your dirty sink, line it with a trashbag that you’ve cut a hole in for drainage.

A note: This might steam. A lot. This might make some hissing sounds. This might sound like a terrible idea. It’s not. This is called “an ice bath”, and it’s a great way to cool things quickly. Also, science.

5. Quickly stir in the juice (or booze) and salt. When I say quickly, I mean like in one swift motion, not like you’re casually refilling your coffee, but more like the coffee you have first thing. That fast. Stir all this together and let it meld.

6. Spray the jelly bean molds with non-stick spray and pour the syrup into the molds. It’s way better to overfill the molds than underfill them. Seriously, who doesn’t want more candy? Make a mess. You’re an adult.

7. Let the jelly beans sit for four to six hours, or until the gelatin has hardened. It will still be gummy and sticky. If you want to cheat this, wave a blowdryer set on Low over them for about ten minutes. Or you could just leave them on the counter while you binge on some Netflix.

8. Pop the jelly beans out of the molds and transfer them to parchment paper. This part is a little bit tricky. I used a small spoon to dig them out. The great thing is that the beans are very forgiving. Don’t worry too much about mangling them when you remove them, as they hold their shapes surprisingly well. Seriously, use some elbow grease. Get in there. Just be careful you don’t launch them catapult style across the room, because those things will roll and sail and then you’ll have to chase them down before the dog gets them and gets her face all sticky. Or something. So I heard.

9. Lightly dust the beans with cornstarch to help them dry. Let them sit for another 3 or more hours. I had great luck letting them sit overnight.

10. To make the outer shell, mix 1/4 cup water, 3/4 cup sugar, and whatever food coloring you like. Yes, I know, if you’re using orange juice or mango juice or something bright like a Miami Vice t-shirt, you’re going to get some odd colors if you go all nuts with the colors. Yes, you can get artsy. Yes, you can have the kids decide the color scheme.

11. Get your air-tight container(s) out. Into the container, combine the mixture and the beans. I’m going to use the word “container” and “jar” interchangeably. If you have more than 2 containers, make more of the shell mixture from step 10.

12. Seal the jar tightly. Tilt the jar at an angle (like a cocktail shaker) and turn it in your hand (as you would a doorknob), preserving the angle. What you’re trying to do is tilt the containers and rotate them slowly. Think of a clothes dryer. This step is extremely important. If the candy is not well-coated, it will not have any hard outer shell. Tumble for 10-15 minutes. This, my friends, is the workout portion of your candy making experience. Build some arm muscles (or employ “assistants”).

13. Use the spider to fish the coated beans out of the liquid and place them on fresh parchment to dry and harden overnight. Fire up that blowdryer for fifteen more minutes to accelerate this process, but seriously, waiting helps.

14. Once the top side is hard, flip each bean and allow the other side to dry.

15. Once every side is dry, you can start eating/gorging yourself on awesomeness. Also, congratulate yourself, because you just made one of the toughest candies in your own kitchen. You’re a food bad-ass.

 

Happy eating

 

The Rules of Writer Fight Club

As tempting as it might be to use this idea to have Joyce fight Oates or Sanford put the smackdown on Evanovich, I’m proposing something else. I lack the abs to be Tyler Durden (the imaginary guy, not the pick-up artist), so consider this a new fight club. If it didn’t sound lame, I would call it “Write Club”, but I’m trying to keep up my street cred, so Writer Fight Club it is.

I’m not a fan of any idea that suggests that you’re fighting the thing you’re making, because you’re not. And thinking you are, that generally leads me to think you aren’t really comfortable with what you’re making, since it’s gone from “making” to “fighting”. Your project isn’t in direct opposition to you, nor are you to it, anymore than the painter fights green. Don’t confuse “struggle” for “fight”. Some days, it’s going to be hard to put time in on your project.  Some days, you’re not going to want to write – you’ll be tired or distracted. But writers write, birds fly and artists art. It’s when we do the hard work when we don’t want to that we appreciate the effort.

But writing is a movement, a revolution of art and imagination that gets blown out of context by pretense and academe, a hobby that gets inflated by numbers and professions desperate to justify their jobs. Writing is supposed to be one of the fundamental actions that brought us civilization and culture, that made it possible for us to track our place in time and space, sent us to the moon and helps us teach our kids to be better than we are.

Let’s take it back. Let’s knock off all this applesauce about “it has to be a certain way” or “so and so says to do this or that”. You write. I write. She writes. He writes. We all make things. We all tell stories. Writer Fight Club is a new series of posts that’s going to challenge your headspace, challenge your assumptions and urge you to quit the crap and purify your art.

So let’s get into the rules.

1st Rule: Write and talk about what you write. If you’re not writing, you’re not a writer. Period. Full stop. Not like writing to the exclusion of everything else, because yeah, you gotta eat and it helps to do some work to pay the bills so you have electricity to run the fridge and Spotify, but you make regular time to write. And given the chance to do more writing, you take it.  None of us exist in a vacuum. You might write out in the shed on the back acre of your property under the flicker of kerosene lamps while you watch your hound dog romp through fields, or you might write with headphones on and tunnel vision in the coffee shop, but that’s not an excuse to hide yourself or your work. Your voice should be heard, what you write should be shared, what you have to say and how you say it are what define you as an artist. Be the artist you’re meant to be. Make stuff, be proud of it.

2nd Rule: Write and TALK about what you’re writing. I don’t care what you think about social media, whether it scares you or annoys you or you think it’s boring, there’s no denying that it will actually do you some good. The majority of it (at least the things I can say actually do me some good now that I’m proficient) are FREE, they only take time, and this is more like watering your houseplants than constantly watching a boiling pot. It takes a few seconds to compose a tweet or status update, and you can totally spare that 20 minutes you spend listening to drivelous news to compile a list of people to follow or populate your media sphere, right? So use these tools to talk about what you’re writing. Talk about the book. Talk about how it’s going. Show the warts, bumps, bruises, dings and the blood, sweat and tears you’re putting into it. You’re a writer, talk about it.

3rd Rule: You’re the only one who says when you quit. You’re going to face rejection. It happens. You’re going to face poor reviews and poorly attended events. You’re going to tell people they like other stuff better. The truth is that none of us is the special snowflake we were either lied to about being, or that we wished for. We’re people. We’re fallible. And we can’t please everyone. You can please yourself. You can occasionally please your lover or your partner or your spouse. You can please your boss sometimes. You can please your pet. But the media consuming piranhas? They can’t be pleased. It’s not in their nature. They have two states: I want and I have opinions about things. But you’re in charge of when you tap out, give up, concede, throw the flag or walk away. You write, so you’re the boss of your writing. You give up when you want. Otherwise, keep on writing.

4th Rule: Write your guts out. You have feelings? You have things you want to say but find yourself otherwise incapable of getting them across to people? Put them on paper. You don’t have to play it safe in your creations. You want to write a pansexual cancer survivor who fights Hollow Earth patriarchy? Do it. You want to explore your feelings of grief over your cat dying? Go for it. If you’re not risking your heart, guts and feelings on the page, then you’re treading water in a baby pool with those floaty arm-things on in 2 inches of water. Get in the goddamned actual pool, feel your feelings and put them on paper.

5th Rule: One step at a time. I know, you wanna write. And get published. And go on a book tour. And be interviewed. And sell a billion copies. And get translated into 20 languages. And be internationally known. And have a burger named after you. But you’re not going to get to Step 2 unless Step 1 is done. So, finish what you start. Not every novel is going to be the one that rockets you to fortune and glory. Every novel or creation is going to teach you something that you take forward (just like every relationship or friendship teaches you something for the future relationships and friendships), and sometimes that lesson is gonna be “keep this one in a drawer, this is where you figured out dialogue”. It’s not a race. I don’t care how old, infirmed, busy, otherwise occupied, poor, rich, fertile or whatever you are – you have time. How much time is dependent on you and lots of other factors, but in terms of your writing career, that lifespan is in your hands (see Rule 3 above). It’s not a race. There’s no extra prize for finishing ahead of other people, because a lot of us don’t realize (or care) that we’re “competing” with you. So, write. Do so diligently. Do your best to keep that schedule, and when you’re ready to move from step to step, take the leap. Little good comes from being premature.

6th Rule: There isn’t ONE method to rule them all. Guess what? There’s no one book, web series, method, piece of software, best pen, greatest legal pad, piece of computer gear, beverage, pet or crippling addiction to make you “The Best”. There isn’t “a best”. There’s you, and your writing. Now, you can try YOUR best, and you can do YOUR best, you can’t compare Author X to Author Y, because there are too many variables. And don’t confuse “compare” for “have an opinion about”, because you can totally have an opinion – it’s just not fact. Abandon these notions that something external is going to wave a wand or grant a wish and you’re going to suddenly start writing “the way you were always meant to”. Yes, fine, okay, you can encounter books and people that act like signposts, pointing you towards art and creating but that final decision, that final key comes from within you. You’re your best author resource. You’re the one in charge.

7th Rule: The art is as long as it needs to be. Whatever you’re making, it’s got a specific size. Not necessarily some size dictated by some agent on some blog, but a size and shape that it needs to be in order to be in its most complete shape. The trick here is that the “complete” shape isn’t the shape where you’ve bloated and over-written it. That novel might be just as complete at 88k as it is at 90k, but inflating up to 103k isn’t further evidence of completion. One of the hardest things to learn in creating is knowing when to stop and let something be. Maybe it’s part of a culture of obsession or perfectionism and hyper-scrutiny. Whatever it is, learning that when a thing’s done, you move on to the next and take what you’ve learned and go forward, not just saying “one more thing”  and never letting go. You gotta let go. It’s how growth happens.

8th Rule: If this is your first time in Writer Fight Club, you GOTTA talk about what you’re writing. Here’s your challenge:

  • If you’re on Twitter, follow me and then send me a tweet about whatever you’re making. Tell the title, tell me what it’s about, tell me SOMETHING(S) about how you’re kicking ass.
  • Follow this blog, and leave a comment on this post about what you’re making and how it’s going.
  • If you’re on Google Plus, add me to your circles, and write a Public message about what you’re doing and how it’s going.

Think you can do that? I’m pretty sure you can. Now, if for some reason you chicken out, and then find yourself playing Excuse Bingo, I want you to get up, walk away from the Internet for ten minutes, and go look at yourself in the mirror and decide if you’re going to be a writer or not. And if/when you say yes, you come back and take the challenge. Then you go write.

Happy writing.