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On Not Having a Plan (Or How Not to Quit Before You’ve Started)

Blogging is kind of like writing a novel.

Wait, I said kind of.

When you’re trying to nail down an idea for a story, one that will resonate with readers and have enough heft to be worthy of all those pages, your brain tells you to quit immediately. It tells you your ideas are, at best, lame, and, at worst, absolute garbage.

It’s not so different when you’re trying to think of things to blog about. I mean, really. What do people care if you can’t stop missing your grandmother–the one who wrestled with pancreatic cancer and taught you how to die? Or about the grit it takes to keep working on a project, day after day, when you have no guarantee it will end up being interesting or good. Or that when your Taiwanese neighbor collapsed suddenly two weeks ago, it changed your life.

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So, okay–

If I were to write a post about the top ten ways to manage your mornings, I might get some views. But I’m not interested in telling adults how to get things done because 1). they’re adults, and 2). everyone is doing what they can to get along.

Some experts say if you can’t think of ideas for your blog, you shouldn’t have one. That makes total sense. Except I write novels, and I know that if I were to quit because I don’t always know what I’m doing or because ideas slip out of my grasp like greased eels, well, I’d never write.

I’d never write.

Maybe you want to write, but the you feel like you can’t nail down a plan. I say, sit down and blog about the process of not knowing until things come into focus. Even if you’re the only one who reads your work (plus that one follower in Finland), you’re moving in the right direction.

A Way Out

Oh, my goodness. Just when I’d made up my mind I needed a couple or three social media accounts in order to build an author platform, Austin Kleon comes along and reminds me why I don’t want to.

The conundrum (and, yes, I know it’s boring to bring up) is that to be a creative with an audience, you have to find people who might benefit from your work. In today’s world, that means finding them online. But to find them, you have to spend time thinking up ways to virtually “connect” on social media when you’d rather be exchanging ideas with an actual person.

And, look, you have to make the connecting feel real. Not too real because that’s weird. But certainly not fake.

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You have to do this while everyone else in the entire world is also connecting in the same giant room, at the same time, and you have to try not to feel too depressed that no one’s listening to anyone else.

It’s like going back to high school, only meaner, plus you will never graduate, and the principal is selling your data.

There’s got to be a better way to find your tribe. I don’t know what that way is. I’m just wanting to believe it exists.

Austin?

 

 

A Book by Any Other Name

One of the things fiction writers are supposed to be sure of is where their writing fits in the book world.

Do they write romances, sci-fi, or horror? If so, they’re genre writers. Genre writing, also known as commercial writing, is extremely popular. It’s mostly plot-driven stuff and fulfills specific reader expectations. Book marketers and publishing houses call it commercial because it sells.

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The other type is called literary, and boy howdy are there ever different views on what that word means. Some say it’s writing that’s character-driven, full of subtext, or has an overarching message. Others say it’s a way of warning readers a book has no plot. Still others think of literary writing as the kind your English professor assigned you in college (the kind you bought Spark Notes for).

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Guess which kind I write?

I’m attending a huge writer’s conference in early Fall. I’ll meet lots of industry professionals there, and do you know what at least one of them will tell me?

That literary fiction doesn’t sell.

They may also inform me that calling my book literary fiction (even if the plot is well-developed with plenty of action and clean writing) is the kiss of death in terms of marketing.

In the past, I might have said, “Then tell me what to call it, and I’ll call it that. Only let me write the way I have to.”

But times have changed. My writing is literary, and that’s what I’m going to call it. It’s not full of talking heads in cafes or one dream sequence after another. It’s not esoteric or high falutin’. It is character-driven. And, yes, I’m trying to say something.

I’m not worried about the label because there are people who want to read books like that (I know I do). It’s my job to find them.

 

 

 

 

Pushing Through Creative Fatigue

My brain is dead-tired as I finish up the last few chapters of my current novel, but my body feels pretty normal. These days, I crave mental breaks that don’t necessarily have anything to do with sleep.

In a recent post, writer and coach Lauren Sapala reminded fellow creatives that sometimes the best way to practice self care isn’t to sleep but to do something different. For many of us, the world of ideas is an exhausting place to live, but going to bed earlier doesn’t necessarily fix things.

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This is true for me, and I’ve taken to watching old television shows on YouTube and reading British fiction, especially at night. Sapala’s post was a reminder that there’s a good reason I feel like I need to do these things more often right now.

It’s called creative fatigue, and I’m trying to rest by immersing myself in other worlds.

Thinking about it like this (sort-of) lessens the guilt I feel when I tune in to Boris Karloff’s deliciously cheesy Thriller series after my husband has fallen asleep for the night. Besides, I know that as soon as my novel is complete I’ll be out like a light, again.

Everything is Story

The Wangs aren’t the kind of people you wave to as you pass their house on the way to yours. Not because you don’t want to wave, but because they turn their backs when you try to make eye contact. They put orange cones at the edge of their driveway, and after they mow their lawn, they use salad tongs to pick up clumps of grass.

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Tonight there are so many police cars and ambulances in front of their perfect yard that we collect on the front porch and squint. The neighbors across the street do the same thing, and we end up congregating.

Mr. Wang was a Taiwanese refugee a long time ago, someone says, but I think they mean immigrant. He got a job with a big factory in town and did pretty well. He and his wife don’t talk to people in the neighborhood except to the lady across the street. They have brilliant kids who didn’t know to roller skate when they were little. They’re grown up and living in California now. One became a doctor, maybe? Anyway, they’re smart.

Mr. Wang had, has? cancer. He’s small to begin with, but now he weighs 98 lbs, a lady says. He still worked in his yard up until two days ago, though he started sitting on a low seat under the Japanese maple a lot and wore a surgical mask.

My husband walks down to the Wangs’ house, though neither one of us has ever so much as said hello to them.

EMT’s carry a gurney out of the house, a tiny shrouded body on it. We can’t tell if the face is covered from where we stand. Someone says he’s gone already. But then the ambulance turns on its siren, and we figure they wouldn’t do that if he was already dead, would they?

When my husband returns, he tells us Mr. Wang had died, that the emergency people broke his sternum trying to get him to breathe again. His chest caves in at a steep angle, but he’s alive, for now.

I helped Mrs. Wang into the ambulance, he says.

This morning, one of the neighbors from last night’s huddle tells us Mr. Wang died again at midnight, but not before he became responsive in the hospital. That’s what he said: became responsive. We imagine him grasping his wife’s hand, telling her it’s okay, to let him go. But we don’t know anything for sure. Or at all, really.

Mrs. Wang is out in her yard exactly five and a half hours after her husband died. It’s trash day, and she moves her cans to the end of the street so the trash man can do his work without walking on her driveway. Then she gets out the salad tongs and cleans up her grass.

And I can’t help but wish I’d said hello before.

 

 

 

Are You A School Shooter? Am I?

The novel I’m working on involves a school shooting. As I wrap up the book, I find myself gloomy and depressed, and it takes me forever to figure out why.

Then I do.

I’ve immersed myself in a dark fictional world every day for the last several months. What’s worse, it isn’t a dystopian, that’ll-never-really-happen world. It’s a turn-on-the-news-for-the-latest-incident kind of place.

I educate my kids at home–partly because we lived abroad for a chunk of their childhoods, and it was easier to take school with us where ever we happened to be–but I have lots of friends with kids in public schools. My husband teaches in one. So do both of my parents.

School shootings affect me, too.

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One of the big themes in my book is whether nature or nurture has a bigger impact on who people become. Can we pass on certain violent traits to our kids? How can we know if we’re parenting a potential monster? Are there signs? Whose fault is it when a teenager does something horrific?

I’m a Christian. While I don’t write stereotypical Christian fiction, God figures in my fictional worlds because he looms large in MY world. When I open my Bible, I read the story of a broken, pain-soaked world. I see people hurting each other, shaking their fists at the sky while justifying their actions.

I believe everyone, including myself, is fundamentally messed up and in need of rescuing.

Still, what makes some people kill and not others?

These are some of the questions I’m asking. No wonder I’ve been feeling heavy.

 

 

Finishing What I Started

There are two kinds of people: those who group the world into two kinds of people and those who don’t.

I’m in the first group.

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There are two kinds of people: those who have a hard time starting something and those who have a hard time finishing.

I can start novels all day long. What kills me is the follow-through, the big ending. There’s something scary about putting a period at the end of the last sentence.

In anything. In life.

When I was in my early twenties, I became a mother for the first time. I was excited to see those two pink lines on the pregnancy test because I had no idea what I was in for. After we finished the last childbirth class (that I’d forced my young husband to attend), I ugly-cried in a sub shop, a bite of dill pickle in my mouth.

“I can’t do this. I cannot,” I said.

“Do what?”

“Give birth.”

“But…you have to,” my husband said, blinking slowly, watching for any sudden movements across the table.

“I know.”

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I got pregnant two more times after that. Each time, I was jazzed, puke and all. In those early days, labor and delivery shimmered in the mist as future realities. I knew they were coming, but I didn’t acknowledge them.

(How big a cliché is it to compare writing a novel to pushing out a baby? I don’t care. It’s a cliché because it works).

I know women who hate actual pregnancy and live for the day they can hold their kid in their arms. They are finishers.

Then there are those of us who love the idea of things, the big-picture joy of the undefined future. We wish things could stay in the realm of possibility. We are starters.

Of course, one of the big differences between delivering a baby and finishing a novel is that, when it comes to writing, you have a choice whether to get it done or not. After all, you can’t exactly put off giving birth until you feel more inspired.

Or can you? Because I would have…

For me, choosing to see a project through is the hardest part. I tell myself I’ve done it before. I can do it again.

And I will.

Thoughts on Marketing

I sort-of watch my teenagers play video games together. They talk trash while making little square-headed men jump up and down. The ceiling fan goes ninety miles an hour over my head, drying my eyes out as it always does, because our T.V. puts off heat.

As I listen to the kids argue about which avatar is the lamest, I think about the uncomfortable position writers are in now. Gone are the days when an author wrote a book and let a publishing house handle the marketing. Now they’re expected to “promote themselves.”

Promote: to cheerlead for a team made up of oneself.

It turns out, I really don’t want to do it, along with lots of other creative types.

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A book launch guy, a big name who knows what he’s talking about, tried to convince me I should think of marketing as being “relentlessly helpful” instead of salesperson-y.

Thing is, I don’t know how to be relentlessly helpful–to anyone, not even myself.

No matter how you slice it, marketing is saying, “You should pay attention to this thing over here that I made that you should buy.” To a crowded room.

And when everyone is saying the same thing about different things, the room gets loud.

And annoying.

And I don’t want to say any of it.

If it were enough, what I’d say is, I write books I care deeply about and labor over. I want to share them with you.

But I’m not sure that’ll cut it.

These are the things I think through as I watch my kids grow up in our living room.

 

Glad

I have this thing about blogging.

I love it.

I do it.

It takes too much time.

I hate it.

I stop doing it.

I miss it.

I come back and do it again.

As annoying as that cycle is for a writer, it’s (probably) even more annoying for a reader.

On the other hand: life.

I’m finishing my novel. I’m invested in the outcomes of my main characters’ lives. I can’t let this kind of writing trick my brain into procrastinating on the other (fiction) kind. Still, it feels…nice to be back.

I’m glad you’re here.

I’m glad I’m here.