Literary Juggling Acts

As both a writer and a reader, I used to be a one-story-at-a-time kind of person. But in the last few years, I’ve discovered something awesome: I know how to juggle!

For much of my writing life, I always felt like I had to finish my current project before I could move on to the next one, even if I was so stuck that my forehead was leaving dents in the metaphorical wall I kept slamming it against. But a few years ago, I realized that unless deadlines are involved, I don’t have to do that.

So I started juggling.

When I got stuck on my novel, instead of trying to force my way through one painful word at a time, I started working on a play. When I got stuck on that, I switched back to the novel. And when I became stuck on that, I switched again, back to the play or on to a short story. Rinse and repeat. I found that whenever I circled back to a project, I wasn’t stuck anymore. I knew how to move forward. It was like my subconscious had used the time to perform a banishing spell on whatever issue had me previously bogged down.

Of course, in a recent post I mentioned how I had to stop working on short stories for a while in order to finish a novel. Because that’s another thing I discovered about my process: knowing how to juggle doesn’t necessarily mean you should be juggling. At that point in time, I wasn’t feeling stuck on the novel—quite the opposite, I was super excited about it—so there was no need for me to keep jumping back to short stories. Yet I kept doing it anyway because short stories are shiny and fun and distracting.

So that’s the writing part of this post: juggling can be a great way to keep yourself moving forward instead of wallowing in writer’s blockian anguish. But it can also keep you from finishing a project if you’re not careful.

Now for my more recent discovery: juggling with reading material!

As with writing, I used to feel like I had to finish a book before I dared pick up another one. In college, though, that was impossible. When one half of your double major is English literature, you have to read a crap ton of books each semester. So college forced me to not only juggle, but to read faster than I cared to (I’m usually a slow reader). But when it came to reading on my own time, I was strictly a one-book-at-a-time kind of gal.

Until I tried some more juggling.

Back in September, someone recommended a writing book that I really wanted to dig into (Screenwriting Is Rewriting by Jack Epps, Jr.). I was in the middle of reading a novel (Star Daughter by my awesome friend Shveta Thakrar), which normally would have dissuaded me from starting something else, but 2020 is the year of tossing norms out the window, so what the hell, right? I think it helped that the books were in different formats. Star Daughter was a hardback I could read while curled up in a chair with my morning coffee, while the Epps was an ebook I could easily whip out while doing stuff like brushing my teeth or waiting in the lobby of the doctor’s office.

Then I got really crazy in October and tried reading three things at once.

I doubt I’m going to graduate to having four books going at once. But I’m liking the balance of having a fiction and nonfiction read going simultaneously. Now maybe slow-reading me will be able to get through a few more books per year than usual.

Because juggling.

Don’t leave me, summer!

One more week of freedom before my fall semester starts. My brain is finally emerging from its state of denial over that fact. But, to look on the shiny side of the crazy busyness that fall will bring, this will be my final year of grad school. Two more semesters and I’m done, baby!

This summer was strong with the shiny side of the Force, so I’m going to miss it. Two stories that I had lots of fun writing (“The Girl Who Welcomed Death to Svalgearyen” and “Memories of Mirrored Worlds”) were published. There was traveling awesomeness—France in July, several jaunts to the shore in August. When not gallivanting about on vacation, I took full advantage of my summer break from school and choir rehearsals to tackle lots of personal projects I had put off during the school year.

And there was writing time. Lots and lots of glorious writing time.

I went into this summer with a writing goal: there were several short stories I wanted to get revised and sent out, and once I did that, I could finally go back to the long-neglected novel revisions I’ve kept threatening to one day resume. It is with a proud wielding of the productivity stick that I declare that goal met. The short stories in question have all been prettied up and submitted, and last week, I blew the dust off the novel revisions.

And to add to the summer shininess, I can announce another sale! NewMyths.com (who previously published my story “The Cycle of the Sun”) has accepted “The Perfect Instrument” for their March 2014 issue. “The Perfect Instrument” had originally sold to an anthology, but the project fell through before publication, so I’m happy the story has managed to find a new home.

Blog all the things!

Lately life seems to be happening faster than I can blog about it, which is in many ways a good thing. It’s also probably what Twitter was created for, but unfortunately, Twitter and I don’t quite get each other. We’re like co-workers who can get along perfectly well in the workplace, but in social situations we just sort of stare awkwardly at each other and make lame comments about the weather.

Anyway, the things! I must blog them!

Thing #1) If you haven’t read “The Girl Who Welcomed Death to Svalgearyen” in Beneath Ceaseless Skies because you prefer to have someone else read your fiction for you, you’re in luck! The story is now available as a shiny podcast, where it receives a wonderful narration by Tina Connolly. So if you’re in the mood for a lighthearted tale about death, go forth and listen!

Thing #2) Daily Science Fiction has launched a Kickstarter campaign.  Among the rewards being offered are short story critiques by DSF authors like myself and many other awesome people. So if you’re a writer, you have a chance to both support an awesome publication and get feedback from one of the authors they’ve published. If you’re not a writer, there are other rewards available, so check it out! Because DSF? Totally worth it, if you ask me.

Thing #3) If you’re reading this post on my website and not Livejournal (and really, are there more than like five of us even left on LJ at this point?), you may have noticed that things look a bit different. I didn’t plan to spend my entire weekend redesigning my website, but I did. Was I procrastinating? Yes. Should I have been writing instead? Yes. Do I regret it? No, because the whole process inadvertently led to me to The Copenhagen Chansonnier, a medieval music manuscript with awesomely whimsical drawings of things like the lady conversing with a snail dude in my website header. You’re welcome.

Thing #4) Somewhere in all of the craziness that is my schedule, fiction has been accomplished! I’ve finally gotten around to revising some flash pieces that I wrote back in January, right before my spring semester from hell devoured all of my writing time. One of those flash pieces has already sold, one is making the submission rounds, one needs just a bit more tweaking before I send it out, and the fourth one is no longer a flash story—it got expanded into a 3,400-word horror story and has just started wandering around Submission Land looking for work. And it has creepy puppets. With nasty defecation habits. Once again, you’re welcome.

#SFWApro

Ambivalent Hopefulness: Or, why my endings aren’t the pit of despair and misery my friends think they are

jk-rowling-youre-adorableI find it fascinating when people need to have a certain kind of ending in order to enjoy a piece of fiction. Person A is upset about that story with the tragic ending and the high body count; she sees enough depressing things in real life and wants everything in the fiction she reads and watches to work out for the best. Meanwhile Person B is rolling her eyes at that story with the happy ending; she thinks the world is a dark, gritty place and has no time of day for fiction that doesn’t reflect that.

Me? Dark, happy, ambivalent, whatever—just give me an ending that fits the story. If you can give me an ending that fits the story yet still manages to surprise the hell out of me, even better.

As for my own fiction, I’ve gotten a reputation among some friends for depressing endings and George R.R. Martin-esque character-killing sprees. A few years back, I recall one person pleading with me during a critique session, “Just one happy ending, Barb? Just once? Please?” But the thing is, I totally haven’t earned this reputation. For starters, I haven’t killed off nearly as many characters as I’ve been given credit for. (Is it wrong that I’m kind of disappointed by that?) In some cases, the characters were already dead when the story began, so technically, I didn’t kill them off. They came pre-killed. And my endings—well, like my tastes in other people’s fiction, they’re a mixed bag. Yeah, there are some dark and depressing endings, but there are a fair number of happy endings in there as well. Most of them fall somewhere in between.

If there’s any kind of trend in my endings, I’d describe it as one of ambivalent hopefulness—stories where things sort of kind of work out for the best, but not without some degree of loss or sadness or uncertainty. Bittersweet might be a more concise term, but I’m not sure it’s quite right for all of the endings I’m thinking of. Some of them definitely, but not all. But whatever you call it, at the end of the day I’m quite pleased when I write a story that gets responses like this comment I once received during a critique: “It’s okay if everyone dies happily ever after.”

#SFWApro

The Semester That Ate My Blogging Time

So, um, you may not remember me, but I used to blog here. I know it’s hard to tell, what with the eerie silence and the dust and all. In fact, the dust bunnies have grown large enough to feast upon small mammals. And that huge one lurking over in the corner? He’s got that “Why, hello there, lunch” look in his eyes.

But seriously, I need to stop pretending that I’m going to have the time and mental reserves necessary to maintain any kind of blogging routine when grad school’s in full gear. So come fall, blog silence will probably resume. But in the meantime, summer break, baby! And only two more semesters left before I’m all masters-degree-ified!

So what’s been going on during the two-plus months I haven’t been blogging? Let me explain … no, there is too much. Let me sum up:

* School. Ridiculous workload. Fried brain.

* Awesomesauce story sale! Beneath Ceaseless Skies bought “The Girl Who Welcomed Death to Svalgearyen,” a story inspired by the Norwegian town Longyearbyen, where you’re not allowed to die. A story I absolutely adored writing + one of my favorite short fiction publications = squee!

* Lots of singing and piano. Even my clarinet got the dust blown off it a couple times.

* My writerly pal Krista Magrowski invited me to do a talk on “Turning Ideas Into Stories and Other Tales from Publishing” for the South Jersey Writers’ Group last month, which was a lot of fun and involved much discussion of bunny wrangling.

* Day job. I’m not sure if I’ve ever mentioned it here, but I’ve been doing a fellowship in an orchestra library, which has been (and continues to be) a great experience.

What hasn’t been going on these last couple months, unfortunately, is fiction writing. I cranked out a bunch of flash pieces right before the start of the semester, but so far I’ve only been able to get one of them cleaned up and flung out into the submission void. But now that I’m done with school until the fall, fiction shall be accomplished!

The Next Big Thing: My Contribution to Blog Hopping Fun

The obligatory intro text:

There are the authors everyone has heard about: George R. R. Martin, Stephen King. But what about all those books written by people you’ve never heard of? Some of them are treasures just waiting to be found, and that’s what this blog hop is all about: the books you might not have heard about, the authors you might end up loving.

This blog hop is like a game of tag. One author posts and then tags other authors who link back to their website the next week and tag new authors. If you follow the blog hop long enough, you’re bound to find some writers you’ll love! Maybe you’ll even discover a book that ends up being the next big thing.

The Taggening, Part I:

I was tagged by Brent Smith, who is a 2012 graduate of the Odyssey Writing Workshop. Brent and I met this past summer at the annual shindig held at the end of Odyssey where the graduating class and old fogey alumni like myself get to hang out. Odfellows are made of awesome, so please do hop over to Brent’s blog to learn more about him and his writing: http://fossilist.wordpress.com.

The Q&A:

1. What is the working title of your current project?

The novel that I’ve been in an on-again, off-again revising relationship with is currently called Future’s Gambit. I’m not happy with the title, though, so I usually refer to it as My Big Fat Epic Fantasy Novel. Once upon a time it was called Prophecy’s Sons, but then I decided it would be a much better story without the prophecy, so there went that.

And then there are all of those shiny little short story projects clamoring for my attention. I have a few flash-length first drafts that I plan to revise in the coming weeks. I wrote them for a contest over at Codex Writers’ Forum where our entries remain anonymous until the end, which means I can’t reveal their titles without giving myself away. So if you really want to know what the titles are, ask me again in two weeks when the contest is over.

2. Where do your ideas come from?

The better question would be, where don’t I get ideas from? The little buggers are everywhere. I pretty much spend my life looking around and asking myself, “Is there a story in that?” Sometimes there isn’t. Sometimes there is, but it’s a sucky story that no one wants to read. But often, there’s something cool there worth exploring.

3. What genre do you write?

Most of my work falls under the fantasy, horror, and science fiction umbrella, but I write the occasional mainstream piece too, usually of the quirky variety. I write more fantasy than anything, but even within that genre, there’s a whole mess of sub-genres that I’ve tackled—epic fantasy, contemporary fantasy, steampunk, humor, alternate history, dark fantasy, magical realism, etc. At the end of the day, I just want to tell a good story, genre be damned.

4. Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition of your novel?

This is the really sad part about my on-again, off-again relationship with my novel-in-progress: I finished the first version of it back in 2005, which means some of the actors I first pictured as the characters are now too old to play them. Whether reading or writing, the cast in my head tends to have a direct correlation to whatever TV shows I’m watching at the time. So in my head, a movie version of my novel would bring together actors from Angel, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Battlestar Galactica, and Farscape.

5. What would you do with your spare time if you weren’t writing?

Theater. I used to perform in community theater productions, but I haven’t done a show in about eight years now. Finding the time and energy for both that and writing just wasn’t happening.

6. Will your work be self-published or traditionally published?

I prefer the traditional route. Self-publishing involves a level of self-marketing that I just don’t have the time or emotional energy to invest in. Not that there isn’t any self-promotion involved when you’re publishing the traditional route, but I think you have to work twice as hard when you don’t have an established publisher putting their weight (and money) behind your work. I’m an introvert who constantly has too much going on as it is, so my self-promotional energy needs to be carefully rationed.

7. How long does it take you to write a story?

For short stories, anywhere from a couple of hours to a month. It all depends on the scope of the story, what else is going on in my life (trying to write while in grad school has been a challenge), and whether it’s one of those stories that just flows onto the page or one that I have to pull kicking and screaming out of my brain.

For my novel, it’s taken too damn long. First, I wasted the better part of my 20s constantly rewriting the first two chapters without moving forward. Once I finally got serious about writing and started doing it regularly, it took me a year of writing during my lunch break to finish the first draft. After that, I spent a few months getting feedback and revising. I queried agents next, failed to land one. Then I attended the Odyssey Writing Workshop in 2007, saw all of the flaws in my writing, and realized why I had failed in the agent search. Cue brilliant epiphany on how to revise the novel! Unfortunately, I’ve only been revising in fits and starts since then due to divided loyalties—I’m excited about the novel, but after finishing the first draft, I discovered just how much I love writing short stories too.

8. Whose work would you compare yours to within your genre?

I’m such a horrible judge of my own work that I honestly have no clue. About the best I can offer is that I’ve gotten several comments on my novel that say it has a George R.R. Martin vibe to it, though thankfully not in a derivative way.

9. Who or what inspired you to write your novel?

When I was in high school, I wrote a novella that I of course thought was brilliant. Several years later when I was in college, I pulled out the novella and was horrified at how derivative it was. Among the numerous epic fantasy clichés and one-dimensional characters, there was your stereotypical white-bearded wizard. I was sick of white-bearded wizards and decided I needed a different one. While mulling that over, I sat down to watch Deep Space Nine. Epiphany! My wizard would look like Captain Sisko and be just as badass. As soon as theDS9 episode was over, I started writing a scene with this new wizard, at which point my years of constantly rewriting the first two chapters of my novel officially began.

10. When and where do you do your best writing?

I can write just about anywhere, any time. The less distractions, the better, but sometimes I don’t have much of a choice. Right now most of my writing gets done on my train ride to and from Ye Olde Day Job.

The Taggening, Part II

Here are the writerly types I’m tagging to continue the blog hop. Alphabetical order is boring, so I’m going to tag them in order of how long I’ve known them:

Rebecca Roland: Becky was one of my awesome-sauce classmates at Odyssey. She’s also a fellow member of the Codex Writers’ Group, as well as a fellow wine and chocolate addict. Her first novel, Shards of History, was published by World Weaver Press last year and grew out of a story I had the pleasure of critiquing at Odyssey. She has also had short fiction published in Uncle John’s Flush Fiction and Every Day Fiction.

Shveta Thakrar: Shveta and I have been through two writing groups together—a Philly-based spec fic group where we met, and then what we dubbed the Awesome Ladies of Awesomeness. Shveta writes Indian-flavored fantasy that very often makes me hungry, so it’s a good thing we live close enough to go out for Indian food on occasion. She recently finished Sipping the Moon, a YA novel set in Philadelphia and featuring Indian fey, and has had short stories in PodCastleDemeter’s Spicebox, and Steam-Powered 2: More Lesbian Steampunk Stories.

K.A. Magrowski: Krista has been one of my fellow Awesome Ladies of Awesomeness critiquing partners and often incites me to mock Giorgio Tsoukalos’s hair. Like me, Krista is determined to achieve novel-selling success before the zombie apocalypse arrives; unlike me, she has actually finished her novel, a ghostly YA tale called Small Town Ghosts. Her short fiction has appeared in Dreams of Decadence and Tall Tales and Short Stories from South Jersey.

“Ghost Writer to the Dead” & Happy Shiny Writing Time

As you may or may not have noticed, I’ve kind of disappeared from the blogosphere again. My fall semester began last month, and it has been kicking my ass workload-wise. But on the bright side, two shiny writerly things:

1) First, pimpage: my story “Ghost Writer to the Dead” is now out in the October 2012 issue of Penumbra! It’s the first anniversary for Penumbra and its publisher, Musa Publishing, so what better way to wish them a happy one than to consider buying an issue or subscription.

2) Because I kind of sucked about balancing writing and school last year, I promised myself this year that my train ride to and from work would be dedicated to fiction writing, no matter what. One month into the semester, and I’m pleased to say that I’ve stuck to that. It’s not much writing time, but it’s something, which is far more than I managed before.

Full brain is full!

I’m currently trying to readjust to reality after a couple weeks away—first for a week of writerly workshoppiness at TNEO, and then for a week of vacationy goodness down the shore. My brain’s a little scattered, so bear with me as I share the writerly randomness that has occurred during my absence:

* First, story news! My flash piece “The Little Things,” which was published in Every Day Fiction last month, will be available as a podcast (read by Izzy David) on August 13.

* While at TNEO, I finished a shiny new short story called “Memories of Mirrored Worlds” and sent it off into the world. Fly, little story! Fly!

* Speaking of TNEO, it was once again fun and full of awesome people. Lots of great feedback and brainstorming and bouncing around of ideas. Not to mention a highly hysterical evening of people trying to read bad sex scenes without laughing.

* Among my revelations at TNEO this year: I need to stop procrastinating and just revise My Big Fat Epic Fantasy Novel already. I’ve spent the last couple years stopping and starting and hemming and hawing and it’s all rather silly at this point. Brainstorming is all well and good, but there comes a point when the only way to figure out what works is to just finish the damn thing.

* BUT! Before I go back to the novel, I will revise a few short stories that are in need of attention. Revisions on one of those began this morning and will continue after I finish with this post. Which means now.

Rediscovering Words

So I lied about eventually having a more substantial post last week (not that I think anyone was eagerly awaiting one, especially given my half-assed blogging tendencies of late). I had intended to write a post last week, but I got distracted by something that was probably far more worthwhile for me. I rediscovered how much I like words.

I’m a fairly slow reader, so once I started grad school, I didn’t have much time to read anything beyond assignments for class. And as soon as the spring semester ended, I had a big pile of critiques to get through for TNEO. But then, last week, a beautiful thing  happened: I was done with critiques, and I had before me an evening with no rehearsal, schoolwork, meetings, or anything else to do or go to. So I read. Fiction. For fun. For the first time in months. It was glorious. And it continues to be glorious.

In addition to getting to lose myself in someone else’s words for a while, I also got to rediscover some joy in my own words. Even though I’ve still been working on fiction these last several months, my writing routine during my spring semester . . . well, I no longer had one. I squeezed in what I could where and when I could. And everything I was working on was revision. With deadlines. And therefore pressure.

But last week, I started a new story. Every day on the train ride to and from work, I’ve been writing. And when there’s time in the evening, I write some more. And since it’s not revision, I’ve been able to use my old battle-worn AlphaSmart (aka VoldeSmart). In other words, no shiny things on my Macbook to distract me. Just me and my words and no deadlines. I had forgotten how much fun it can be to just play.