How Finishing a Novel Changed My Writing

I finished and submitted the draft of my first novel a few weeks ago.

Since then, I’ve written several blog posts, about a dozen letters of various kinds, and my usual 20,000 words a week of paid freelance writing.  I’m currently working on a chapter for the upcoming Monstrosity and Disability anthology (Palgrave, sometime next year?).  And my understanding of writing has changed completely.

1. I only have one job.

For years, I’ve described my work to people as three or four separate jobs.  I’m a freelance copywriter.  I’m a marketing writer for an independent (actually, an Autonomous) press.  I’m an academic. I’m an author and an occasional poet.  I’ve always thought of these as separate spheres.

They’re not.  They’re different tasks I do in my one job, which is to put funny little marks on paper (or pixels) in ways that change actual human behavior.  That’s what I do.  I sit here, rattle my keyboard for a few hours every day, and actual things come to exist in the world that change what y’all do.

PHENOMENAL COSMIC POWER

ITTY-BITTY LAPTOP SPACE

2.  I have no idea what counts as a “short” assignment anymore.  Or a “long” one.

A confession: this chapter draft I’m currently working on is due in two weeks.  I had more than a year to write it.  I started writing yesterday.

Another confession: my word limit for this chapter draft is around 10k to 12k words.  I have 8000 after two days of writing.

Before I finished the novel draft, 10,000 words on a single topic was dang near insurmountable.  In grad school I counted on coming in 20 percent short on every paper.  Professor wanted five pages?  I had four.  Ten pages?  My final draft would be eight.  Twenty pages?  Sorry, I’ve got sixteen.  And on and on.  This didn’t actually hurt me – in fact, I got praised for being able to say so much concisely – but it was a constant struggle.

I’m still that concise.  I can just be that concise for a lot longer.  Having once sustained a narrative arc through 70,000 words, I have absolutely no trouble thinking in a manuscript of that size – in any genre.  My problem with this chapter draft, actually, is keeping myself down to 10,000 or 12,000 words.  I could go on forever, but I’m not allowed to.  (Also I would be repeating a lot of what’s already been written, which is emphatically not the point of this piece.)

3.  I needed all that writing time.

I have nothing but bemusement now for the kind of folks who sit at their perfect desk in the perfect corner of their perfect room, sharpen their perfect pencil, open their perfect journal, and wait for Inspiration to stream in on a beam of perfect sunlight and turn them into authors.  I have the same bemusement for people who sit in Starbucks wearing their smugness hats (excuse me, “fedoras”) and announce to anyone who will listen, “I’m writing a screenplay.

Cool.  What are your rates?

Seven years of writing for a living, thirty years of journaling, nine years of post-high-school writing-intensive education, teaching writing, communicating primarily by writing: none of it was wasted.  All of it got me to the point where sustaining a narrative arc for 70,000 words was something I could do.

Until I actually finished my first novel draft, I didn’t know that.  I really believed that all that other writing was a “waste.”  Sure, it earned me degrees or made me money or whatever, but it didn’t matter because it wasn’t The Novel.  *heavens open, angels sing*

[cat hairball noise]

It’s all writing.  Sure, only writing on your novel draft will result in a finished novel.  But banging out 10,000 words a day of copy, ranting in my teenage journals, producing massive briefs detailing every one of the 26 ways in which the plaintiff does not have a case?  It all made writing that novel draft possible.  It’s all valuable.  The only way to write regularly, consistently, and cleanly is to do it all the damn time.

4.  Writing now involves zero anxiety.

Well, near-zero.  I still have moments in which I get stuck, or I realize I should have made a point three paragraphs earlier, or that I shouldn’t make a point until three paragraphs later.

But it’s no longer a mountain.  There is absolutely no doubt in my mind now that when I sit down in front of the keyboard, something related to my intended topic is going to fall out and that something is going to be workable.  It won’t be a polished final draft; it rarely is, unless we’re talking about a sample of the most basic type of copy I’ve written every day for seven years.  But it’ll be something I can use.  Something relevant.  Sometimes, it’ll even be something that surprises me.

tl;dr I am Alexander Hamilton.  Just you wait.

 

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What Does It Feel Like to Finish Your First Novel?

I have completed the first draft of my novel, revised that draft, and sent it to my editor.

*screams into the Void*

I asked my writing support group slash academic mentoring team slash friends I run amok at conferences with if this is what it feels like when your baby goes to kindergarten for the first time.  The parents in that group “reassured”  me that no, in fact, sending your book manuscript to the editor is much, much more difficult than your kid’s first day of kindergarten.

That explains why my organs are liquefying, I said.

It’s been about 36 hours since I emailed that draft, and so far, I have had feelings I did not know existed.  Feelings I don’t have names for.  Feelings that do not appear on this chart:

LpIH74N.png

The chart is a lie.

Having actually finished a novel draft is simultaneously overwhelming and relieving to me.  Overwhelming, because this is something I’ve been trying to do since I was six years old.  That is not an exaggeration.  Six.

Overwhelming, because for all the years between six and 34, “writing a book” was integral to my family’s definition of me, and so it was integral to my definition of myself as well.  As long as I can remember, the fact that I hadn’t produced a book yet marked me as a failure, a disappointment.  I was “not living up to my potential.”

Now, I’ve pretty much shat on my own potential in a lot of other ways.  Like being multiply disabled (ooooooops), or discovering the hard way that litigation is absolutely not where I belong, or losing everything in the housing market collapse and having to live in my parents’ basement until I could get back on my feet.  (The fact that I rebuilt everything I have by writing, ironically, did not change my sense of myself as a non-writing disappointment.  I wasn’t getting paid to write fiction.)

“Writing a book” been integral to my adult social circles too, but in a different way: all English majors aspire to write a book, or assume they will write a book, or know people who are in various stages of writing a book, with various doses of pretentiousness attached to that, or know people who said “screw it, I’m going to be an editor instead.”  In grad school, of course, it’s presumed that you will write a book, because it’s presumed you will be a professor, and you’ll need that book as bait for the ever-elusive tenure unicorn.

Relieving, because for the first time in nearly thirty years, I’m not “writing a novel”; for the first time ever, I have written a novel.  And that chunk of me that was a disappointment for having not written a book yet is full of success.  And void-screaming.  And caramel.  Also bats.

Relieving, too, because everything that everyone finds so daunting about writing a first novel, everything I found so daunting about it, is behind me now.  Now I get it.  Now I understand why all the books and workshops and blogs and fun generator widgets in the world are just amusing distractions from the business of writing.  Now I understand why people who have actually written novels don’t give advice, other than to KEEP WRITING YOU SCHMUCK.

They do it – we do it – because no other advice is actually going to get the dang thing written.

It really is as simple as putting words on paper till you’re done.  Because until you do, until you’re done with that first novel draft, until you’ve reached resolution of the plot arc and everyone can take a deep breath and go home now, the insecurity demon is going to plague you.  It just is.  There is only one way in the entire world to know whether you can actually sustain a credible plot arc, with relateable characters and a readable pace, through 70,000 or 80,000 or 100,000 words.  And that is to do it.

Until you’ve done it, you don’t know you can do it.  I didn’t know I could do it until I finished the first draft.  Even then, I wasn’t sure I had done it until I reread that draft and revised.

Even now, I’m waiting for my editor to get back to me with the exact same major questions I have about that draft.  (Yes, ma’am, I know the ending is rushed.  Pls to help.)

And it was that anxiety about not knowing whether I even could fling myself into the unknown sea of words and come out with something worth flipping 250 pages for that made writing the first one so difficult.  Until I finished the first draft, my anxiety was that the finished product would be fatally flawed.  That it would (somehow; anxiety is of course never clear on this) manage to get published, only to be greeted by everyone in this business whom I respect with “this isn’t a book. This is shit.  What even is this?”

The moment I finished revising the draft, however, that anxiety evaporated.  That’s not a criticism I’m going to face.  I know it; I’ve been in the literature business long enough to recognize a cohesive plot when I see one, and I wrote one.

Now, I’m not actually worried about this novel’s reception at all.  Every individual response to it is going to be a matter of personal preference.  There is no story ever told that is universally loved, so mine won’t be either, and that’s okay.

At least, that’s what I keep telling my liquefied organs.

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I Feel Like I Always Have to Be Productive. Why?

As a lawyer and later as an academic, I burned upwards of 3000 calories a day without ever leaving my desk.  The first thousand, as always, go to basic metabolic functions; the next 2000 go to thinking.

Thinking is work.  I’m reminded of this every time I have to do substantive thinking: when I’m parsing contract clauses, when I’m researching, or as now, when I’m trying to write an academic article but instead productively procrastinating by updating this blog.  Updating this blog or my more focused one, Autistic Academic, are my favorite forms of productive procrastination.  You get posts when there’s something more pressing I should be doing instead.

Partly, this is because I often process one thing by doing another.  Staring at my blinking cursor is worthless; typing something else, anything else, allows the other “stuff” to percolate at the back of my head.

And partly, this is because, despite ten years of doing sit-and-think work, I’m still piquantly anxious about appearing to be busy.  Staring out a window does not “appear” to be busy, even if I’m working through the implications of a new piece of case law or lining up deconstruction of a complex phrase in my head.  Leafing through the pages of a book does not “appear” to be busy, even if I’m looking for a specific quote that I need to continue writing.

I tend to hold very still when I’m thinking deeply.  This is in stark contrast to the frenzy of rhythmic movement that typically consumes my days, that helps me regulate sensory inputs and process spoken communication (coming and going).  As a kid, I was lambasted regularly by parents and teachers for “doing nothing” when really what I was doing was thinking through the problem.  Explaining this did not help.  “I’m thinking!” was most often met with “Well, think while you [do the thing].”  How I was supposed to do Thing without having worked out how to do Thing was of course never explained.

That anxiety was compounded when I hit the work world.  I was in my thirties before I learned (and I mean learned, as in “discovered totally new information to me,” as in “had the revelation that”) that people typically do not get fired for pausing in the middle of their work day.  I genuinely had no idea.  I had worked more or less continuously since I was fifteen, and it still took me over fifteen years to realize that standing still would not get me fired.

As the response to this blog post suggests, I’m not the only one who suffers from anxieties of productivity, though I hope the extent to which I have suffered them is rare.  But even that I doubt to be the case.  We are a culture obsessed with both productivity and behavior; the inevitable result of those twin obsessions is an obsession with “looking busy,” regardless of the actual “busy-ness” being pursued.  Consequently, the hardest part about my job isn’t the thinking, the analysis, the argument, or even the getting published.  It’s managing the anxiety.

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The Bank of Fucks: An Extended Economic Metaphor on Emotional Labor

Reading this week has been all about emotional labor for me, starting with this piece by Jess Zimmerman at The Toast and continuing with this huge MetaFilter thread (which I am still reading, over a thousand comments in).  In both conversations, one suggested solution to the problem of disproportionately heaping uncompensated emotional labor onto one party in a relationship is to monetize it – to put in economic terms exactly what this work is worth.

This comment on MeFi by Meeks Ormand in particular got me thinking:

I’ve realized in reading this thread that I’ve had my own vocabulary and way of thinking about this for some time. Simply put, good will is a commodity and a perishable one at that. Every time you ask for a favor or someone’s time, you are spending it. Doing favors or giving someone your time accrues it. This helped me understand why I don’t always want a particular persons help, I don’t want to owe them good will. It’s perishable because what have you done for me lately is a legitimate question. Just because you did that one thing that one time however many years ago doesn’t mean you are still entitled to whatever good will was accrued. Ill will is a separate but related thing that is much more shelf stable, earned from being some flavor of jerk, though you also spend good will to get it.

I’ve been struggling for some time with a particularly draining relationship in my life.  It’s not so much that I don’t give a fuck about this person as it is that I no longer have any fucks left to give.

no-fuck-to-give_o_255182.gif

I thought this was a metaphor until it happened to me.

Put another way: this person’s account with the Bank of Fucks is overdrawn.

If we treat emotional labor and its close counterpart “good will” as currency, then we can explore its movement within the economy of our relationships.  Introducing yourself and getting to know me opens your account with my Bank of Fucks.  Performing emotional labor to my benefit deposits good will into your Bank of Fucks account; demanding emotional labor from me withdraws it.  If your demands greatly exceed your deposits, your account runs out of currency, and I run out of fucks to give.

Attempting to offer emotional labor without introducing yourself and getting to know me first is weird; it’s like trying to make a deposit without opening an account (and it immediately makes people think the currency in question is counterfeit).  Demanding withdrawal after withdrawal without making deposits makes the question “what have you done for me lately?” as legitimate as the question “but when have you deposited enough cash to cover this withdrawal?”  The words “fuck you” become analogous to the words “transaction denied – insufficient funds” (long recognized as the middle finger of checking accounts everywhere).

It also works to explain why a person will go to absurd lengths for some people but not others.  Namely, some people have better standing with the Bank of Fucks than others, whether or not they have earned it.  “But s/he’s your faaaamily!” is the emotional-labor version of “but s/he’s a shareholder!” – “this is a person who bought in on the ground floor and therefore we are going to comp them even though their account is overdrawn.”

Thing is, “comping” people doesn’t work forever, even for “shareholders.”  Eventually, the Bank of Fucks becomes unstable; its reserves drop too low to cover withdrawals even from account-holders who have been making regular deposits.  You start crying during It’s a Wonderful Life when George Bailey parcels out his honeymoon budget a dollar at a time to keep the S&L afloat over the weekend.  Because you know how it feels to portion out your fucks, one fuck at a time, to people whom you know deserve more because they’ve given you more, you just can’t give it.  It feels like burnout.

notasingle

Bank holiday.

The surprising thing about a Bank of Fucks account is that it is remarkably easy to pay into.  Take, for example, teaching.  As teachers, we expend a bountiful quantity of fucks on our students.  Transmitting knowledge is pennies compared to the work we spend making things readable, accessible, approachable, absorbable – the amount of time we spend putting ourselves in our students’ shoes to help them get it.  One would think that our students’ accounts would dip into negative balances in the first week.

But they usually don’t.  Any student can, and many do, maintain positive balances throughout the semester simply by doing two things: showing up and trying their best.  That’s it.  That’s all the paying in that has to be done.  It doesn’t even have to be directed at us, specifically as individuals, as long as it’s directed at our efforts generally.

There are, of course, students who run negative balances.  We all know who they are.  There’s always someone who feels it necessary to send repeated emails whose questions are obviously answered in the syllabus, skip class and then demand personal tutoring, or whinge that it’s not faaaair they took a points hit for missing a deadline that all their classmates managed to meet.  “Do  my emotional labor for me,” is the gist of all of these good-will-draining communications.  “I never carry fucks.  Cover me.”

….Why should I?  Pay your own bill.

4db77_ORIG-look_at_all_the_fucks_i_give

Too big to fail?

What to do when someone comes knocking, trying to make further withdrawals from an overdrawn account?  What to do when a shareholder demands to be comped further, despite having overdrawn their account some twenty years ago, because “faaamily”?

The answer, of course, depends on the relationship.  The risk – because the demand – is that you will expend further emotional labor, gambling it on the infinitesimal chance that this person will finally start doing their own damn emotional labor.  This is where the Bank of Fucks analogy can be very useful in personal relationships.  If a family member who owed you tens of thousands of dollars showed up asking for another fifty bucks, would you gamble it on the chance that this time they’ll pay their tab?  It’s worth asking.

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Still Don’t Grasp the Social Model of Disability? Try DST!

Daylight Saving Time is quite possibly the best real-world example of how the social model of disability works that I have yet seen, as this past weekend has painfully reminded me.

Like a lot of people, I spend a week or more after the time change dragged out, sleeping poorly, unproductive, and with wildly varying moods.  Even people who don’t consciously notice the difference to their own health or mood express it in their behavior: studies show that productivity tanks, people argue more, and the number of fatal accidents increases due to the time change.  In other words, DST does a real number on our quality of life – at least temporarily.

What does this have to do with the social model of disability?

The social model of disability states, essentially, that while we may be impaired by conditions that have a medical, bodymind-based cause, we are not disabled by those conditions unless we run up against social conditions that don’t accommodate them.

For instance, using a wheelchair doesn’t actually “disable” the person who wants to go places.  The wheelchair gets them to the places they want to go just fine…until they need to get into a building that doesn’t offer a ramp.  The lack of a ramp is what disables them.

The power of the social model lies in the way it exposes these disabling conditions as largely constructed: that is, they are under our control and we can change the way they are set up.  Humans built those stairs; humans can build a ramp instead or alongside.

What does this have to do with Daylight Saving Time?

DST is a human construct nonpareil.  Unlike stairs and ramps, which are at least constrained by concrete realities like labor-hours and, well, concrete, time is a completely fictional agreement that only exists because we all agree that it does, based on some loose shared perception of when is “now” versus when is “then.”  And so is DST.

DST only happens because we, as a society, agree to change our clocks forward one hour at 2 a.m. on some predetermined day.  Because we all do that, we put up with the disabling consequences for a while after: the disrupted sleep, the brainfog, the mood swings.  These are “symptoms” of a disability that only exists because we participate in a fictional social construct: the time change.

The medical model of disability, which locates disability in the individual and turns it into a problem to be solved by Science, doesn’t have room for DST-disability.  There’s no DST Disease that people get for a few weeks every spring, and that magically resolves.  We disable ourselves.  The social model just underlines how.

 

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Blogging, Submissions, “On Spec,” and “For Exposure”: When, Where, and Why You Should (Not) Write for Free

Want to be a writer?

The good news is that there are endless outlets for folks who want to see their work in print (or in pixels) and are just getting started in the business.  Science Daily estimates that 90 percent of all the world’s data has been generated in just the past two years – and a significant chunk of that is written.  It’s writing.  Someone wrote it.  Why not you?

The bad news is that most of these outlets will exploit the crap out of you if you let them.  Yes, I’m talking about working for free.

Here’s the first thing you need to understand about writing for free:

1. You are doing work.  

Writing is work.  It’s work no matter how much you love it.  You are expending time, effort, and attention to create something that does not currently exist.

Here’s the second thing you need to understand about writing for free:

2.  Your time, effort, and attention are valuable.

Yes, even if you’re having “fun.”  You get a finite number of minutes per lifetime; you have a finite amount of energy to expend on things you do in your day.

Which brings us to the third thing you need to understand about writing for free:

3.  It’s you giving charity.

Your time, effort, and attention are valuable.  When you focus them to produce a piece of writing, that writing has value.  When you give that writing away without being compensated for it, you are giving charity.  It’s a gift.  And like all gifts, you are not obligated to give it.

Naturally, a lot of companies realize that simply asking people to give them charity doesn’t fly.  So “write for us for free!” is often (though not always!) masked with other terms, like “on spec” or my personal favorite, “for exposure.”

What do these terms mean?  When should you write for free, and when should you avoid it?  Here’s what you need to know:

Continue reading

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Deconstructing “Active Listening”

A few weeks ago, “Whole Body Listening Larry” made the rounds of the autistic community:

Image: A green poster, featuring a cartoon image of a little boy on the left and a series of cartoon images of body parts on the right.  The poster is titled "Whole Body Listening!"  Its subhead reads "Larry wants to remind you to listen with your whole body."  The cartoon body parts are captioned, respectively, as follows: Eyes: "Look at the person talking to you." Ears: "Both ears ready to hear." Mouth: "Quiet - no talking, humming, or making sounds" Hands: "Quiet in lap, pockets or by your side." Feet: "Quiet on the floor." Body: "Faces the speaker." Brain: "Thinking about what is being said." Heart: "Caring about what the other person is saying."

Image: A green poster, featuring a cartoon image of a little boy on the left and a series of cartoon images of body parts on the right. The poster is titled “Whole Body Listening!” Its subhead reads “Larry wants to remind you to listen with your whole body.” The cartoon body parts are captioned, respectively, as follows:
Eyes: “Look at the person talking to you.”
Ears: “Both ears ready to hear.”
Mouth: “Quiet – no talking, humming, or making sounds”
Hands: “Quiet in lap, pockets or by your side.”
Feet: “Quiet on the floor.”
Body: “Faces the speaker.”
Brain: “Thinking about what is being said.”
Heart: “Caring about what the other person is saying.”

The discussion at the time centered on how Larry’s approach to listening is a neurotypical-centric one, and that, for many neurodivergent people (including autistic people), behaving in the way Larry describes actually prevents them from listening.  Larry, the argument went, forces autistic and other ND kids to make a tough choice: pretend to be listening but actually get nothing from the conversation, or listen but get reprimanded for not behaving in the prescribed way when they do?

As someone who has to make the choice whether to “listen” Larry’s way or to, you know, actually attend to and comprehend what the speaker is saying, I’m sympathetic to the pushback against this model.  But I’m also struck by how little of what we portray as “active listening” – what Larry demands – isn’t “listening” at all.  It’s speaking.

It’s not verbal speaking – Larry does ask us explicitly not to make mouthnoises.  But it’s communication all the same.  The body postures that Larry’s “whole body listening” demands are all concentrated on communicating to the “speaker” (here, the person making the mouthnoises) that their mouthnoises are the most important thing in the room.  Larry’s intended message isn’t about making himself, or you, a better listener – whatever that means.  It’s about reassuring the “speaker” that they have an audience by telling them that they have an audience.  The form of “listening” we prize most highly, Larry’s “whole body,” “active” form of listening, is at its core a form of speaking in service of reifying speaking.  “Listening,” in the sense of “attending to and comprehending the context, content, and format of someone else’s communications,” really has very little to do with it.

Larry’s instructions for listening might not be wholly useless.  In a world that prized and taught attending-and-comprehending communication on a par with issuing communication, there could easily be any number of people who did their best “listening” while adopting the body postures Larry advocates.  But that world would not seek to impose any particular set of gestures on its population, and speakers in that world would not require the reassurance of this particular set of gestures in response to their speech.  Instead, that world would allow for the fact that there are many ways of effectively “listening,” and not all of them desire or require this particular set of nonverbal signs in order to operate.

That’s not the world we currently live in, and that’s why the autistic community finds Larry problematic.  Larry becomes yet another way autistic children (and adults) are told to speak in a way that is unnatural to them or else.  But Larry also reveals how we subordinate listening to speaking not only by preferring speaking over listening, but by demanding that listening itself behave as a form of speaking.

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