Breaks and Pauses

It’s ironic that sifting through social media today gave me the idea to try a social media break. This is something I’ve tried many times, but it feels more pressing lately, as time management skills slip, responsibilities add up, and regular job duties (not to mention chosen duties, like writing for myself) pile on. Two interesting approaches to manage the stress and distractions passed across my viewscreen today, though, both of which I would like to try.

The first is a cautious approach to social media detox. In other words, rather than trying to cut social media “cold turkey” (an apt description, considering social media is certainly some kind of addiction), I would focus on keeping a consistent “social media-free day.” The idea is, if I can take one day off per week for a while, that might eventually become two, and then three, until the urge/need, or whatever we want to call it, fades completely, and social media presence becomes more of an “as needed” or “as inclined,” rather than a catch-all for every bored or free moment we have. And let’s face it, we don’t actually have that many free moments, especially when we turn those moments into tens of moments, and hours of moments, when we allow ourselves to be sucked-into the social media rabbit holes. So, I plan to pick a day, probably a weekend day, when I can reasonably attempt to take a total break, instead focusing on house chores, outdoor activities, writing, reading, submitting, and etc.

The other interesting idea is a gratitude journal (or gratitude, something). Daily gratitude reflection of some kind. Studies show that finding time each day to reflect on what is going well, even the small things, goes a long way toward improving quality of life and personal feelings of satisfaction and peace. Mindfulness is something I’ve been trying to practice for a few months, now, since I began to travel down a course of Buddhist study, but mindfulness focusing on gratitude is an excellent idea. I’m reminded that Kurt Vonnegut, in his last published collection, relayed a story about his uncle, who in random moments, often in times of stress or argument, would look up and mutter, “If this isn’t nice, what is?” Vonnegut always makes his philosophy seem so much more obvious and simple than it is, of course, but this is a manageable place to start, I think. The options are endless, too. It might be expressing gratitude with my partner at the end of the evening, before bed, as a way of letting the day fall off meaningfully. It might be journaling quietly for a few minutes, focusing on not everything that’s going on, but the few good things that need attention. It could be silent meditation, or listening to a particular playlist that inspires joyful reflection. It could be taking an intentional short walk, even. I’ll be exploring a couple of these methods, or re-exploring, I should say, because most of these are things I do every day anyway, but not necessarily with a focus on gratitude.

I think I may have inadvertently taken a first step toward this journey yesterday, when I deleted Facebook. I’ve been bothered by their privacy policies (or lack thereof) for a long time. Then, I became even more troubled with the mess of propaganda and the socio-cultural tunnel-vision and partisanship it fostered before and during, and since, the 2016 election. Lately, additional troubling details have come out regarding Mr. Z. and many of his top administrators, and their courting of one particular ideological group. “Enough is enough,” I said. I had been keeping it out of habit and lack of options, to be honest, and not because it’s something I enjoy. If I’m going to focus on gratitude and meaningful living, it seems sensible to begin by culling those things that do not bring me either.

So, let’s give this a shot. Today, I’m grateful for my renewed focus, grateful to be off Facebook, and grateful for another beautiful day, which allowed me to take a nice, hour-long walk and listen to some of my favorite music. It also reminded me to sign-up for my guitar class next semester. Onward.

A Language of Mirrors and Light

A history of miscommunication.

This is part of the problem that fiction aims to solve. Some say fiction should function like a mirror; when done well, the story reflects society’s ills and depravities back on itself. I believe fiction can also illuminate a better path. Perhaps, when done well, fiction is both of these things, a mirror and a light.

As I’m working on revisions to my first novel, I’ve started to think about my purpose for writing. Do I want to be a mirror or a light? Do I want my story and its characters to show the world as it is, and hope that this revelation stirs something in the reader’s conscience? Or would I rather show society what it could be, encouraging all of us to be a little better? I think about the characters I’m writing and the motivation for doing so, and realize that at the story’s foundation is a critique of the toxic masculinity under which so many of us have grown up. Is it my goal to reflect that toxicity back on the people suffering from it, or to show readers, young and old, that there are better options of being-in-the-world?

For me, I think it’s a little of both. In the story world I’ve created, the boys are idealized in some ways. They have their struggles and flaws, sure, but they’ve also developed a little bit more freely away from the harmful tradition of masculinity that tells boys they shouldn’t feel, they shouldn’t share, they shouldn’t love—or at the very least, that they shouldn’t express these emotions. We tell our girls it’s okay to be emotional; indeed, the extreme side of this condition is that we have made their emotions cliché. Women are “too” emotional to function in certain roles. Boys, on the other hand, are conditioned away from those emotions so that they supposedly can function better in public roles, be they in leadership, education, politics, business, etc.

What are we doing to our boys? When did we decide that it would be better to condition our children into half-humans? Every person thinks and feels, loves and fears, hates and adores. Everyone experiences fear and sadness, excitement and grief, confusion and confidence. Yet, we tell our girls and our boys that only half of these natural, human emotions belong to each of them. We have split and diluted them, generation after generation, and destroyed our language in the process, because our language has become similarly limited and divided. By depriving boys of their tenderness and girls of their agency, we have deprived ourselves of the ability to accurately communicate who we are as whole persons. Without whole persons, we deprive ourselves of a society composed of thoughtful, complex, and cultured individuals.

I’ve been cautioned recently not to use terms like “toxic masculinity,” “white male privilege,” “heteronormativity,” or “patriarchy.” The rationale provided from those who dislike these terms suggests that the problem with the terms is that they come across as attacks, and attacks necessarily spur response, either of retribution or dismissal (e.g. the instinctual “not all men!” response to societal critique). I do understand the logic, here, but I think it loses the forest for the trees. What I mean is, those who react negatively to the terms are missing the concept behind them. If we can’t get beyond the word in order to see the meaning, then our language is broken, or our way of communicating has become insufficient.

How can we repair it? For me, I think a language of kindness is the starting point. A language of kindness is one that is open to being the mirror and the light; if we can reflect deeply and honestly on our own faults and promises, we might become more prepared to forgive the failures of others, and more effective at fostering others’ potential, too.

This is why we still need stories. Whether we write prose or poetry, fiction or fact, stories that are told in the language of kindness invite everyone in and offer a safe place for individuals to do that reflecting, and to feel inspired. And the stories we share, the narratives that enter into our collective dialogue, remind us how to communicate with one another again. They have the capacity to transcend polarization.

In an age of simultaneous desensitization and hypersensitivity, where it has become habit to respond instinctively and combatively—to defend one’s self at all costs—rather than to listen, digest, and consider before engaging, stories encourage a language of mirrors and light. An invitation to feel and to think, and the opportunity to choose a different way.

Language, perhaps more than anything else, is a choice. What will you choose?

The Hard Part

Writing it is the easy part.

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I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard that comment, whether while speaking with other writers, listening to an author’s presentation, or when reading an “on writing” book or peeking into a Twitter conversation. And I always thought that was the most absurd statement. Writing the book is the easy part!?

Well, surprise, surprise. Here I am, in the middle of revisions to my first YA Novel, thinking back longingly to the days when I got up every morning simply to write. Because, yeah, revision is hard. It’s funny, this is something I share with my students all the time: nothing is ever perfect the first time, or second, or …. however many times after that. Not ever. So many of my students want to write an essay the day before it is due and pretend it’s the best work they could possibly do. This is of course nonsense, and the feeling is often caused by the adrenaline rush we get from working to a deadline. It can feel kind of good, and completing the work under pressure feels even better.

But does that mean you did your best work? Really?

When asked about his revision process, George Saunders responded this way:

“I try to base my revision on a re-reading of what I’ve done so far, imitating, so far as it’s possible, a first-time reader. That is, I try not to bring too many ideas about what the story is doing etc, etc. Just SEE what it’s doing. In other words, read along with a red pen, reacting in real-time as I go along, deleting, adding, etc. When the energy drops, then I know that’s where I have to really start digging in, i.e., turn away from the hardcopy and go to the computer. Repeat as necessary?”

This is speaking to me at the moment, as it is the kind of revision process I’m currently engaging with, though I also appreciate Joan Didion’s comment on marking things up at the end of each night, drink in hand, to revise in the morning. “I have found the drink actually helps,” she said. Who’s to argue? Saunders’s approach seems solid to me, though. Did I write this draft with a reader in mind? Can I go back, now and read it like a writer? How do I coordinate those two skills, opposites of the same coin, really? To sit back and read it and see what happens, to experience it as a reader? That seems a good place to start.

At the moment, I’m working on second revisions and edits. Most of what I’m finding is a lot of silly surface errors or semi-hilarious mistakes. For example, I wrote a scene with a gift exchange between two friends, and in the first place, I describe the gift package that one of the characters’ receives, but later on, I somehow ended up making that gift belong to someone else! Oops. But other things are coming up, too. As Saunders said, there are moments where the energy falls, where there’s too much exposition and not enough action, or when there’s too much telling and not nearly enough showing.

Pen in hand, I mark all of this up, the easy edits and the notes for larger changes. I’ve been doing this on paper, because I read much more closely and carefully on paper than I do an electronic document, for whatever reason (research seems to support this is the case for most people.) Sometimes, though, I have to open up that file and put notes in there for bigger problems, ones that will mean I need to coordinate revisions across different chapters. For example, one character who becomes important to the climax had been mentioned only in passing for the first draft. That didn’t seem quite believable, so in draft two, this character is more of a presence.

Writing it, and having written it, was a joy. Revising? I’m not sure how anyone can enjoy this, and as the new semester begins and I think about revision projects for my own students, I will keep in mind just how difficult and exhausting, and frustrating, this process is. I’ve already prepared multiple physical copies of edited and revised chapters to show them, so that they know that what I’m asking them to do is what the “professionals” do, too. It’s not, after all, an exercise in futility or a waste of time. Revision is what makes the final product, the truly best version, possible.

With ten chapters left to revise in this second round, plus one short epilogue to write, I must remind myself that this is worth it. This hard work is what makes the story, the story. Getting it all down in the first place was an important step. It showed me what I meant to say in the first place, but now is the time to figure out how to share it to the best of my ability, and in a way that will interest readers.

We’ll soon see what beta readers think about the outcome. How horrifying!

“Editing is always a manic-depressive special—moments when you overestimate what you have and moments when you underestimate, but neither is usually true.” —Frederick Wiseman

The Absence of Birds

A few days ago, I woke up to the sound of nothing.

Having spent most of my life in the midwest (except for two years in Los Angeles), one thing I came to expect and to take for granted is the sound of nature. Birds chirping, squirrels scavenging, geese honking, and the like. But for the last two years, I’ve been living in the desert, albeit the “oasis” part of it, and it has only just struck me that I no longer awaken to the sound of anything.

If I’m being honest, I used to hate the early-morning twittering of birds outside my window. They were happily up with the sun and chattering together about the work of their day long before I intended to start my own. Now in the daily silence, though, when I arise to nothing but the noise of mechanical things, an artificial alarm or the sound of traffic in the parking lot, or maybe the landscapers doing what they do, I begin to wonder if I was getting it all wrong.

There’s a line from the band Rilo Kiley that goes, “the absence of god will bring you comfort.” I don’t know why, but lately I’ve been connecting these two in my mind. The absence of god and the absence of birds. The true desert that is the desert, even in this determinedly living part of it. How much I miss living things, animals and plants and trees, even rain and snow, and especially thunder and lightning. We get these, sometimes. We have trees, palms and other kinds. Bushes and sage. But all of it is an effort that takes a great deal of care, and a great deal of water that is not truly in abundance, here, though we pretend sometimes. How I miss water, a lake, a river, to feel the possibility of being refreshed, naturally.

These are the thoughts on my mind this morning, as I begin second revisions of my novel. I’ve already gone through once and changed tense and point-of-view, in addition to a close edit of the first ten chapters, which helped me establish the characters and timeline, and some consistency to maintain throughout the rest of the manuscript (voice, character, pace, etc.). The plan now is to work through two chapters per day, reading closely and revising each self-contained scene so that it works completely as it should as a segment of the larger piece. Once I get through this (28 chapters should take 14 days), I’ll read through the book in its entirety to make sure these segments work together as they should, and then I’ll decide whether it is ready to send out to beta readers.

Bird song.

Perhaps it’s on my mind because, in a way, that’s how I think of this novel. When it’s ready and sent out into the world, I hope it gives a voice to something I can’t quite articulate now. I hope it’s the message I’ve wanted to articulate all my life, without knowing how. I may have written this for an audience of one–me, my younger self who needed it twenty years ago–but maybe it’s a song that will carry farther than that.

Maybe it will bring some comfort.

The First Draft

Yesterday, Monday, July 29, 2019, is a day to remember.

It’s the day I completed the first draft of my first novel. Elements of this story have been in my head for a very long time. I began writing a version of it years ago, but the time wasn’t right; nor, as it turns out, did I have the necessary experiences, motivation, or state of mind to get it out onto the page. Things are different now, thank goodness.

I began formally outlining the plot and characters for this one in March, so this first draft has been almost five-months in the making. That’s quite a bit longer than my “30-Day Novel” resource book said it would take, but hey, done is done, right?

The draft stats on this one are as follows:

  • TITLE: (Redacted – You’ll Find Out Soon!)
  • GENRE: Young Adult, LGBTQ+
  • PAGES: 292
  • WORD COUNT: 83,021
  • CHAPTERS: 28

When I announced on Twitter that I had finished my draft, some of the responses I received asked for my advice/thoughts on the process, particularly about devising a plot. I don’t feel exactly qualified to answer those questions, considering this is only my second book, and first novel. That said, “devising a plot” is what had me stuck for a long time, too. When you sit in front of your notebook or computer screen with nothing but a vague idea of the story and a desire to write, things get intimidating and frustrating very quickly. “How do the words come?

All I can say about this is that I found a process that worked for me, but it might not work for everyone. That process went something like this:

  1. Allow general ideas for the story to develop in my head, writing them down as they come.
  2. Allow the main characters & their motivations to develop in my head, writing them down as they come.
  3. When a sufficient number of plot points (3 or 4) and a sufficient number of characters (2? 3?) come knocking on my brain, start an outline that begins to marry them together.

I also created a writing space for myself, a place I went regularly, at generally the same time, every day. This helped flipped the switch in my brain from “life mode” to “writing mode.” I don’t think this is insignificant. After that, it came down to writing consistently every day for months, in order to get those characters to develop toward, through, and beyond those plot points.

For example, in this 28-chapter draft, I began with 5 characters in mind (3 protagonists and 2 secondary characters). Other minor characters plus the antagonist developed only later. None of the characters remained exactly as I originally envisioned (even names changed.) But I just kept writing. I also had only the first 3 chapters, the final chapter, and 2 late chapters (somewhere around the two-thirds mark) in my head before beginning. The rest had to develop as the story and characters developed. They often led me as much as I wrote them, or so it seems now.

But now comes the hard part. I know I’ll need to go back and re-read the entire draft. I know I’ll be doing extensive revisions. Like writing the draft, revision ideas started to hit me as I went along, and I wrote those down so as not to forget them later. What started out as 3 items that would need reconsideration eventually turned into an entire, journal-page-length list of things I’ll need to do. Characters to flesh out. Plot points to change and plot lines to strengthen. Settings to pare down or edit out. Voices to clarify/articulate better. The list goes on.

I begin to understand what writers say when they claim that “writing it is the easy part.” If you keep at it, the story eventually comes, and you can get it down. But now the hard work of revision, of “killing my darlings,” and of tying-up loose-ends, begins. Eventually, I’ll need to find beta readers to send me feedback as well. I’ll need to process that feedback and revise again. And then, maybe, I’ll be ready to query agents and hope I can convince someone to believe in this book as much as I do. That someone would need to then convince a publisher to take a chance on it.

There’s a long road ahead, but I celebrate the fact that I got the story onto the page. Months of work has resulted in a draft manuscript, and that’s nothing to scoff at, even with a mountain of work ahead of me. For now, I’m going to read some poetry, write some poetry, and let the novel sit and settle for a bit before returning to it with a revisionist’s eye (and pen.)

Onward!


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Two Reviews and Writing Camp

Here’s a little update on my writing life.

Currently, I’m working on a YA novel, queer-forward. It explores the relationship between three diverse friends, with the setting playing a pretty significant role in the plot as well. The story is set in the late 1990s and is book-ended with a prologue/epilogue set in the present. I’ve written 14 chapters out of a planned 30, so the draft is about half-finished and sits somewhere around 160-pages right now. If I continue at the word count I’ve been averaging per chapter, the draft will end up to be around 400-pages when it’s finished; but then of course the editing and revision phases begin, and I’ll likely end up “killing my darlings.” I’m not looking forward to that, but even in first pass-through edits of my completed chapters, I find that I’m editing things down a bit. Probably for the best.

I should be able to complete the full draft before the end of the summer. Then I’ll go through a full revision or two before looking for beta readers (I have one good friend taking an early look as I write, but no writing group right now, unfortunately). After I get through those, if the work is still standing and the piece can be revised again successfully based on reader feedback, I’ll start querying agents. I have no idea what that process is like, so I’ve been trying not to think about it. It’s the most intimidating part of the process to me, even more so than the writing itself (crazy, I know!).

On the plus side, I’ve really been enjoying telling this story. Some chapters have come out like a breeze, often because I had ample plans for them ahead of time. Other chapters have been a real struggle to get through, or to get started. I’ve found, though, that if I can avoid being intimidated by that blank page at the start of each chapter, and just GET STARTED, I do end up somewhere. It just takes a good punch to the wall, sometimes. The most helpful thing for my progress and motivation is to think about how much I wish I had had this book as a teenager or college student. I believe it says a lot of what I’ve been dying to say, and what I would have killed to know/hear when I was younger.

I’ve been reading a lot of poetry this month, too, and that’s keeping the creative juices flowing while allowing me to be free within my own imagination. I’m specifically avoiding any books within the genre I’m writing right now, but I’ll get back to those when I’m in revisions. July is also Camp NaNoWriMo. I’ve been updating my progress on the website. My original goal for the month was 30,000 words, but it looks like I’ll be able to hit the “general” goal of 50,000 instead! Is anyone else participating?

Current word count: 42,275.

Reviews for FROM A WHISPER TO A RIOT

The other item of note is that my first book, From A Whisper to A Riot, is still doing well and being well-received by readers. It’s academic non-fiction, specifically queer literary history and analysis, so the market for it is very tight, and I published it independently, which narrowed the reach even further. That said, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by its reception out there in the reader-sphere. Here are two truly excellent and thoughtful reviews I would like to share:


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The Oligarchs

The Oligarchs

Shall we peck each other
Until we’re skin and bone:
Skinned alive?

Then what,
When the man still feeds
On our marrow and our blood?

Can our plasma be replaced
When the vampire whites
And aristocrats have stolen

What was ours,
What was left of ours?
When we are inside-out?

If we wear our hearts
On our sleeves, then surely
We were asking for it.

-Adam W. Burgess, June 16, 2019


All work found on awbauthor.com is copyright of the original author and cannot be borrowed, quoted, or reused in any fashion without the express, written permission of the author.