12.18.2013

Sincerity vs. Perfection

I read a lot.

That's actually an understatement. But there's no way to make you understand how much I read without giving you a count, and no way to make you believe that I'm not lying. In 2013, I read over two hundred novels, ebooks, and comic books. Who knows how many short stories, one-shots, articles, etc. I'm a reader and I always have been. That's what I'm trying to make you understand. And when you do anything interpretive long enough, you realize there's a natural progression from consuming material to creating material. Reading led to writing. So I wrote and wrote and wrote. Even before I realized someone could grow up to write for a living, it was what I wanted to do with all of my spare time.

But eventually, it clicked--it had to be possible to write for a living because the people who made these books were authors. So I went to Pratt to "become a writer." I studied style, structure, word choice, perspective, theme, resonance, setting, metaphor, and a million other concepts. I learned to edit my own work and the work of others' with brutal detachment, to cut everything I didn't absolutely need, to keep working and striving for perfection, to pour my soul into the prose, then cut it out when it got a little too obvious that it was my soul--right there, see where it was?--and go back and work on it again. Write. Rewrite. Edit. Rewrite. Edit. Rewrite. Edit. Rewrite. It's still not good enough. Fail better. Write what hurts. Kill your darlings. Etc., etc.

But I didn't study reading. Or, more specifically readers. Here's something they don't tell you in writing school: Readers will forgive almost anything if the story is good.

[Honestly, I can understand why they don't tell you that. When you walk into art school, you're so full of stock metaphors and melodramatic prose and the certainty that no one is as deep intellectually or emotionally as you. But I think by the time you're ready to walk out again, the reader thing should at the very least be mentioned.]

What do I mean by a "good" story? A story that stays true to itself, characters who do what only they would do, but more than anything, sincerity. A writer who wants with all of their heart and soul to tell you this story. The books I love the most, the ones that affected me the most, I could feel the author dying to get the story out.  They didn't hold back just because someone might've called them an un-self-aware hack and they didn't give up when they couldn't get the words on the paper as perfect as the words in their head.

It might sound like an obvious logical step, but it took me forever to realize just how connected writing and reading really are. I spent four years learning how to look at my work the way a writer would, then went out into a world where most people are readers. When I finally had a story worth telling, I couldn't get it perfect enough to fit the dream I had for it.

There's an awesome list of rules for storytelling that Pixar put out a year or so ago. I just couldn't wrap my brain around #8. "Finish your story, let go even if it's not perfect. In an ideal world you can have both, but move on. Do better next time."

"But can't I do better this time if I keep trying?" you might ask. I did.

Maybe you can do better, but you can't grow. And sooner or later, you'll realize that you can't remember what was so important about that story you had to tell. You might even destroy everything sincere and replace it with some amalgam of what you imagine the rest of the world thinks of as perfect. Trust me, that will be much, much worse than accidentally using the same body language in two different places to show happiness.

Don't think I'm directing this tirade at you. I'm telling myself all of this. I have to, over and over again, or I'll never finish anything. I worked and worked on How to Kill Yourself in a Small Town. To the point where I have anxiety attacks just looking at its folder on my desktop. If I forced myself, I could keep working on it. I could tell myself, "Just one more draft--this one will be perfect" for the thousandth time. But I need to let it go. I need to move on. More than anything, I need to get this story out into the world because there was a time I was so on fire with the need to tell it that I breathed, ate, drank, and bled it.

Near the beginning of 2014, I will be publishing How to Kill Yourself in a Small Town. It won't be perfect, but it will be sincere--which I'm finally learning is the more important of the two.
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Update 12/21/13:
A few readers have expressed concern that I'm attacking experimental or painstakingly careful literary writing. I understand their concern, but I'm definitely not. We all know I have a chip on my shoulder about elitism (you might say I'm an elitist-elitist), but this is a completely different matter. There's a sincerity and passion to experimental and literary writing, too. It doesn't matter what genre you're writing in, if the sincerity isn't there, the reader will feel it.

I'm also not attacking the editing process or saying that less editing is better. But there is such a thing as over-editing. It's a fine line, but once you've stepped over it, you can feel it all the way down to your soul. It hurts. It turns your story from your labor of love into something more like Frankenstein's monster. It starts to feel out of control, beyond help, and disgusting. That's what I'm attacking, the impulse to keep fixing until we've undone all the good work along with the bad.

11.21.2013

God the Father & Mother

A few Sundays ago, the youth pastor at my church shared a story that had everyone (me included) fighting tears. At about eight years old, he decided to run away from home. Not for any real reason, “maybe just as a way to assert my independence.” His parents tried to talk him out of it, but he wouldn’t be swayed. He was going to run away. So, they let him go. As he started to walk down the block, he heard his father’s car start. But he’d made his decision, so he kept walking. The car pulled out into the road and followed along behind him.

Our pastor said he’d made it a few blocks when it started to get dark and cold and too real. He wasn’t sure where he would live now or who would feed him. He couldn’t go back home, but he didn’t want to keep going.

He said he stood there for a while, then began to cry. After a few seconds, he heard his father get out of the car. His dad hugged him, then led him back to the car, and buckled him in. Together, they went home.

It’s easy to see how our pastor was relating this story to his relationship with God. The point was that even when we turn our back on God, He’ll be right behind us, waiting for us to turn around. But that story reminded me of one from my childhood.

For most of my childhood, we lived in a farmhouse with a quarter mile of lane between us and the gravel road. One day, my sister Emily and my mom were fighting over something. Emily screamed, “I’m going to run away.” Mom’s answer? To help her pack.

I’m a firm believer in the idea that the way you grow up affects every part of the rest of your life. You either overcome the bad or you let it drag you down. You cling to the good. The most important lesson I ever learned, I learned from my mom.

I don’t remember what Mom and I were talking about now, just that it didn’t feel like a big deal until Mom said, “Just make sure you can still stand to look at yourself in the mirror.”

People get upset at the idea of a God who would let people He supposedly loved go to hell. What they don’t want to acknowledge is that without free will, there is no love, only compulsion. God loved us enough to give us a choice—and even when we rejected Him, God loved us enough to respect our decision. Because even though our decisions might hurt Him and the people around us, we're the ones who have to live with them.

That’s why Mom helped Emily pack her little red suitcase.

But Mom also reminded Emily to take a jacket. And she stood at the window and watched Emily head off down the lane. When Emily came back crying, Mom hugged and kissed her and helped her unpack the suitcase like nothing had happened.

Because He loves us, God gave us the freedom to choose. Because he wants us to be safe, He'll give us other options, better ones to lead us out of trouble. Ultimately, He'll respect our choices, but He'll always be watching over us, waiting to welcome us back home.

9.24.2013

The BIG REVEAL


Sooner or later, we all have to tell our friends and family what we’re doing with our time.

I’m a writer, I spend my time writing, but when someone asks if I’m working on anything, I tend to answer with as much vagueness as possible. There are a lot of reasons for this, the main one being that no matter how much I might be in love with my story, talking about a work in progress makes me feel like it’s the lamest thing anyone ever wasted time on. I’m almost positive that’s how my talking about it makes you feel, too.

A close runner up in the reasons for being vague is the question, “When can I read it?” Not because I don’t want you to read anything I write. Although, if you and I know each other, I’d really rather you not. (What if you hate it? What if you think I think everything my character thinks? What if you tell my mom I said a bad word? What if you want to talk to me about it the next time we see each other and I come off sounding like a doofus who couldn’t string together a sentence to save her life?)

This is getting off track. Anyway, what I’ve been doing with my life for the past two months is make these: Bad Decisions and Bad Influences.



You can read all about the Making Of starting here, or you can just read the Roundup.

Now a short Q&A:

Q: Do people actually buy short stories?
A: Apparently so. Fifteen people have bought Bad Decisions so far with almost no marketing. People also download short stories when they’re free. You can see the nifty graph I made illustrating that in Week 6’s Progress Report.

Q: You’re not a man from Arkansas.
A: That’s not a question.

Q: Why E.M. Smith?
A: Why not?

Q: This isn’t going anywhere. I’m leaving.
A: Wait, I was just kidding! You’re right, I’m not a man from Arkansas. E.M. Smith is one of my pen names. He writes only action/adventure and non-paranormal thrillers. Besides Earl Mason Smith, I have two other pen names—one who writes romance and one who writes paranormal, urban and epic fantasy. Each one has his or her own backstory, personality, and style.

Q: I find that hard to believe.
A: So?

Q: Hey, I’ll ask the questions here.
A: Ask one, then.

Q: Why did you do this Insanity: Writing experiment?
A: Mostly because I was stuck in an endless cycle of edits on a much larger book that’s coming out later this year (under a different, more recognizable pen name) and I wanted to do something else for a while. Also because I needed to get some hands-on experience with the self-publishing process before I tried to format and sell a full-length novel.

Q: I own a Kindle or have the Kindle Reader app. Should I buy Bad Decisions and Bad Influences?
A: If you like black ops stories with lots of guns and action, yes. If you like stories of wrongfully accused former troublemakers redeeming themselves, yes. If you like sweet romances, inspirational Christian fiction, or lyrical writing, probably not.

Q: Why not?
A: There are a lot of cuss words in both stories, mostly due to the fact that the main character is a scared, hurt, angry young man who doesn’t have the patience to express himself in more flowery, less vulgar terms. I have tamer narrators in upcoming works that might be more to your liking.

Q: I’ve heard reviews are important for self-published writers. Should I put a review of your story on Amazon?
A: Actually, no. If you’re related to me or friends with me, we could get in trouble for “shill reviews.” Even if you were to write a 100% unbiased, honest review, we could get in trouble. For serious.

Q: Will there be any more Bad stories?
A: Yes. At least three more, according to my current breakdown of the larger arc.

Q: Why didn’t you tell anybody before now?
A: I was doing an experiment. Telling people about an experiment will skew the results.

Q: Your experiment was done yesterday.
A: I was really tired. Now, if you wouldn’t mind reading from the card…

Q: [sigh] How did you do in your 5k?
A: Thanks for asking! Josh and I got 2nd place in our age groups. You can read all about that here.


That’s pretty much that. Feel free to ask any other questions in the comments section below or wherever you saw this posted.

Insanity Roundup

Or, "What happened with Weeks 7 and 8?"

Let me explain something to you about procrastination: When you put off a project until the very last minute, that last minute gets jammed full of scrambling to do four weeks’ worth of work in two weeks’ time. I thought about writing a progress report for Week 7, but figured I could catch up in Week 8’s report. By the time Week 8 rolled around and I still hadn’t finished writing Bad Influences—much less editing, formatting, and finding a suitable cover—progress reports were the furthest thing from my mind.

So, without further ado: the Insanity Roundup.

The Workout (Month Two)
I’ll level with you guys—I gave up on the Max Interval workouts sometime near the beginning of Week 8 and went back to the shorter circuits. It’s not that I got bored, exactly, but…yeah, I got bored. Emily put it pretty well when she said, “I’d rather go twice as hard for 30 minutes than half as hard for 60.” So, if you want to get technical, Insanity: The Workout failed.

The Writing (Month Two)
If you’ve been following along from the beginning, you know that my goal was to write and publish one work in the time it took me to do Insanity (two months + 1 recovery week). I started on July 22nd, and that made my deadline September 22nd—this past Sunday.

But it turned out that Bad Decisions was the first in a series of short stories. I published the first on August 18th, under my action/adventure-writing pen name E.M. Smith. With a month left before the Insanity: The Writing experiment ended, I set a new goal to publish the second story in the series (working-titled Bad Coffee at first, changed to Bad Dreams, and finally titled Bad Influences, a combo of the two working-title storylines) before September 22nd.

God smiled on me, got my parents to take Oak and Bear for the weekend, and helped me cram a week’s worth of writing, revising, and formatting into Saturday. Sunday morning before church, I hit the “Save & Publish” button. Bad Influences and Bad Decisions are now both available in the Kindle Store for $0.99.

So, if you want to get technical, Insanity: The Writing was a success times two.

Rounding Up
So far, I’ve sold 15 Bad Decisions and gave away 496 copies during my free promotion days. I’m offering Bad Influences for free next Monday-Friday (to see whether day of the week affects the number of downloads). Much like Decisions, I don’t expect Influences to sell much until after the giveaway.

I don’t really feel like writing the touchy-feely post about the ups and downs of self-publishing, self-imposed deadlines, and whipping oneself into shape today, but I will include the much-hyped Excel charts. I know they’re what we were all waiting for, anyway.

Insanity Fit Test Excel Chart


Insanity Word Count Excel Chart

9.03.2013

Insanity: Week 6 Progress Report

The Workout (Month Two):
Golly. Just golly.

In 5k news, my dad had the boys for the weekend, so Josh and I skipped the Run through the Jungle and went to town for some grownup coffeehouse hangout time. Best decision we’ve made in recent memory.

The Writing (Month Two):
I still feel like I spent last week lazing off, even though my word count was up. Part of the problem is not being able to decide whether to ditch Bad Coffee and go straight for Bad Dreams (which in my original plans was Bad Decisions #3) or to stick Bad Coffee out. It comes down to whether Bad Coffee adds anything to the overall story arc—something I’m still trying to figure out.

Offering Bad Decisions for free over the weekend (Thursday-Monday) was a total success. The story was downloaded 496 times, went to the double digits (#33 at its best) on Amazon’s Action & Adventure Bestseller List, and gained one review (5-star). I promoted the story in two ways: changing one of the Amazon key words to “free,” and tweeting about it being “#free for #kindle.” Here’s a graph illustrating the Number of Downloads on any given day:


Thanks to the good people at Create-a-Graph Kids’ Zone for helping me make the graph. Apparently, it’s not important to label the axes, but whatever.

I can’t say conclusively whether tweeting helped. My results might’ve been skewed by time of day, holiday status, and day of the week. For example, Friday and Saturday tied for fewest downloads. On Friday I purposely avoided putting up any promotional tweets, on Saturday I put up three. Sunday my numbers climbed with zero tweets.

Thursday and Monday my numbers were high, but Thursday might’ve been new-freebie-on-the-block downloads and Monday might’ve been a result of the “last chance to get this free” tweet. Also, most of the downloads on Monday came at night—yes, after I posted the only tweet for the day, but also maybe because everyone was back from the holiday vacation and wanted something to read. There were just too many factors to say for sure whether tweeting made a noticeable difference.

The truly sad news is that my Excel chart usage took a dive sometime in the past week. I didn’t label it with actual calendar dates, only day numbers, so figuring out what the last day I recorded was is going to take some doing. You saw my cool graph, though, right?

8.29.2013

Insanity: Week 5 Progress Reports

I’m going to be straight with you guys—I didn’t get much work done during Week 5. It was “Recovery Week,” but I still feel a little guilty about how many days I took off.

The Workout:
Recovery Week isn’t about not doing any exercise, but about doing less to raise your pulse and more to make you flexible and strong. Or something. I only did the Recovery Week’s workout—Core Cardio & Balance—a few times and I wasn’t paying much attention. Then Josh and I spent the next three days at the Lake vacationing with my family. My whole family. Everybody’s spouses and kids. Fourteen people. To quote Shaun T again, “That [stuff] is Ba. Nanas.” And other than swimming, I got no exercise over the weekend and I had my mommy cooking for me, so you know I ate good.

We began Month Two, the “Max Interval” stuff on Monday. I’m not sure I’ll live through this.

The Writing:
I wrote a total of 334 words on Bad Coffee. Six of the seven days I didn’t write anything at all.


Josh and I have a 5k this weekend—the “Run through the Jungle” here in town—and I’m also offering Bad Decisions for free from now through Monday. (My hope is that it will be a “Take a copy, leave a review” sort of sitch. We’ll see.) More on how all that goes in Week 6’s update.

I should mention that my Excel chart also took a hit during Week 5, but I updated it later. It wasn't that hard to update, considering I didn't write at all on the days I didn't use my chart to keep track.

8.19.2013

Insanity: Week 4 Progress Report

I forgot to write Week 3’s progress report, possibly because I was so busy revising and formatting the ebook for Bad Decisions, but probably because I have no concept of time. I can’t remember anything that happened during Week 3, so let’s just skip ahead to Week 4.

Insanity The Workout:
Totally paid off! Saturday, without ever having run 3 miles at one time, Josh and I participated in Emily’s Runaway 5k. Heck, we did better than participate—we got second place in our age groups—and Josh ran every single k! I had to walk a few (eight or nine) times, but I still ran more than I thought I could.

And that’s not even the best part. The best part was the costume contest. I was the only entrant not dressed as a bride, groom, bridesmaid, or groomsmaid. With a borrowed Bible and wearing my cross shirt, I welcomed the dearly beloved who were gathered there today as Father Etteldorf. I’m used to no one getting my jokes, so I wasn’t surprised when the winners of the women’s costume contest were announced without even a reference to me. Then they announced the winners of the men’s costume contest. Funniest costume—Father Etteldorf! Yessirree, Saturday night, using only my wits and some stuff I borrowed, I brought home the bacon. In the form of a free one-topping Casey's pizza coupon. (Which we will probably use tonight, as I don't really feel like cooking.)

We’re still doing Insanity the Workout. Today begins our recovery week. Next week we start the Max Insanity stuff, so I imagine the Week 5 progress report will be the last one I post before I die. Unless I forget to post again.

Just in case:


Insanity the Writing:
I learned that formatting a 50-page story for Kindle is not hard, just incredibly tedious. I can’t imagine what it’s going to be like formatting a whole novel. What I’ll probably have to do when I put Halo together is hire a lookalike to play me for a few weeks and seclude myself somewhere far away from friends and family while I go through the formatting with a fine-toothed comb. Also, I’m going to make sure I’ve got all the revisions done that I’m going to do before I format.

Formatting tedium notwithstanding, Bad Decisions by E.M. Smith (my pen name who writes non-paranormal action and adventure exclusively) is now available on Amazon for 99 cents.

So, the story’s published with a month to spare. (Remember how this Insanity project keeps going for two whole months? July 22nd to September 22nd? That's okay, I didn't remember, either. It's something about the core concept that's so hard to grasp.) What now? Now I write the follow-up to Bad Decisions, working-entitled Bad Coffee. I’m not sure what the arc of this series is going to be, lengthwise, but if I can get about the same amount of work done per day on Coffee as I did on Decisions, I should be able to get the second story up before Insanity ends.


When all of this is over, I’ll write a post on the touchy-feely aspects of self-publishing and getting into better shape via exercise and sobriety. I’m still keeping up that Excel chart—obviously because my physical prowess is outstripped only by my powers of organization—so that will be included in the touchy-feely post as well.

8.06.2013

Insanity: Week 2 Progress Report

Insanity the Workout:
I retook the Fit Test yesterday. Still a killer. (I guess in theory, though, if you really pushed it every single time, Insanity could always be a killer.) But I am seeing improvement. Also, I didn’t die, so that’s cool.

Equally cool from an alcoholic's standpoint is that, with the exception of a karaoke/jam session with my in-laws on Saturday night, I haven’t drank since beginning the Workout. And trust me, those three beers and one tequila sunrise I had Saturday were a mistake I won’t make again. Charlie horses and hangovers are not a good way to start your Sunday.

Insanity the Writing:
Still infinitely better than The Workout. Also filled with more excitement. I finished Bad Decisions’s first draft on Thursday, August 1. Turns out it’s a short story! That same night I found the perfect premade e-cover and bought it.

On Friday morning my computer died, taking all 12,000 words’ worth of Bad Decisions with it. (The only document I hadn’t backed up.) My sister—who suffered a major setback in her personal training career that same morning—and I got together to deal with our mutual fury by smashing things with a hammer. Mostly cans of Coke. They exploded and that made us feel better.

I spent Saturday morning in a parade, dressed as the drunk best man, running laps around my sisters (the bride and groom), doing ridiculous-looking calisthenics, and sweating gallons to promote Emily’s upcoming Runaway 5k and (hopefully) future personal training business. It was a good way to keep my mind off the black rot that grows inside your soul after the loss of an un-backed-up project.

Saturday afternoon brought a Christmas miracle in August—my computer came back to life. Bad Decisions lives! And once I get the peer-edits back and edited, it’ll hit a digital bookshelf near you. In the meantime, I’m starting on the second short story in the Bad Decisions series, working titled Bad Coffee today.

Both:
I still keep meticulous Excel sheets for Insanity the Writing and Insanity the Workout. When this experiment is over (Sept. 22, according to people who know what two months are), I’ll post them both here for those of you who love progress-charting. Maybe I’ll even make a graph!

7.29.2013

Insanity: Week 1 Progress Report

Insanity the Workout:
To quote Shaun T, "That [stuff] is Ba. Na. Nas." We're still warming up and I'm dripping sweat. Definitely not for the faint of heart, but I do feel a lot better after having done it.

Insanity also is a great way to quit drinking. There's no way somebody could do this workout and still drink every night. Even just one beer would probably kill you the next day.

Insanity the Writing:
So much easier than Insanity the Workout. Last week I wrote 7,123 words on Bad Decisions--and that's with two days off. I'm three-quarters of the way through the story outline*, and I revise as I go, so it won't take too much to get this edit-ready. At this rate, I might end up at the point of publishing long before my deadline.

*An outline is just the bones of the plot. It doesn't account for how long something will take in terms of pages. I'm right at the rising action of the overall climax, though, so I assume this section will take more space than the other individual parts of the story did. Stories that don't give enough time to the "final battle" or whatever it's all been leading up to drive me crazy.

To keep track of both my progress with the Writing and the Workout, I made Excel charts. Exciting, right? I'm like a professional organizer or something.

7.22.2013

Insanity: Writing

I started doing Insanity (“Dig deep!”) today in lieu of running in 1,000 degree weather.

After I asked my sister if I could borrow her Insanity DVD and explained my motivations, Emily conceded that it was possible that I might not embarrass myself at the Superhero Run this Saturday if I crammed all week long. If I kept it up, she continued, Insanity would help me with the Runaway 5k she's hosting next month.

This morning, I almost died during the Fit Test. That's when I got this idea: In honor of how insane it was to think I could do this for 60 whole days, I’m starting my own thing. I'm going to call it “Insanity: Writing.” What you do is write and self-publish a book in sixty days. (That's insane!)

For those of you at home, I’ll keep as close track as possible and include weekly updates here on the ole blogaroo. (I’ve never even thought the word “blogaroo” before. It makes me feel uncomfortable.) Today—Day One—I outlined the full story for Bad Decisions. (An apt working title, I figured, considering the circumstances.) By August 22, I should have a finished project ready to launch.

Chances are I’ll give up sometime around day 10 (on both Insanities), and then write a post about how I failed miserably, maybe about how I’m not even going to show up at the Runaway 5k, just going to stay home and eat cookie dough and cry.*
*Fun Fact: When I say things like this, I’m forcing you to assume that I will fail so you won’t be surprised or disappointed if I actually do. That’s a pretty common M.O. for me. Also note how I didn’t tell you that Bad Decisions may actually turn out to be a novella. The storyline seemed fairly short to me, but I can’t tell from this side of writing how many pages each chapter is going to require.

There is, however, that outside chance I'll stick with both Insanities, run 5k in decent time, and publish a [thing of some sort] next month. As the Lats used to say, "If there is no wind, row." This is me rowing.
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7/24/2013
Update: It's been brought to my attention that 60 days from July 22nd is not August 22nd, but September 22nd. So September 22, 2013 is the day I should either have a book ready to launch or have failed miserably. I'll do my best to hold off that long, even though the concept of 2 months (not 1) continues to baffle me for some reason.

7.18.2013

Run, eden, Run

My sister, Emily, is putting on a 5k in Shelbyville this August and over the past week or so, I’ve been training for it.

That’s right. The eden who said she would never run—specifically, the eden who said that even if something awful was chasing her, she would rather be eaten alive than pick up the pace—is going to run (and probably keel over dead during) the Runaway Bride/Runaway Groom 5k.

“What on earth could drive someone as adamant as eden to go against principles she’s held for most of her life?” you might ask. “Charity? Personal betterment? An attempt at a healthier lifestyle? The desire to measure oneself? The need to achieve something?”

None of the above. I just don’t want to do any of the jobs Emily might find for me to do if I’m not running. And I imagine there are a lot of them—timer, register, water-hander-outer, the guy who writes down what everybody's number is, etc., etc., etc.

“So, you would rather run 1-3.1 miles a day for the next two months than do a small menial job for half an hour? Say, holding a stopwatch or handing out t-shirts?”

Yes. In fact, I have a long history of doing more work to get out of doing less work.

Ask my high school biology teacher. Instead of gathering, pressing, and labeling the native leaves of Missouri over the allotted 3-month period, I found them all the night before they were due, pressed them between cookie sheets and baked them in my mom’s oven. Then I pretended to be sick that next morning so I had time to glue, label, and binder my leaf project, before suddenly feeling better, calling around, finding a way to school to turn it in that afternoon.

Better yet, ask any teacher who required my class to keep a journal and then turn it in at the end of a semester. You think it’d be easy for a writer to write half a page a week about anything he or she wanted. The thing is, though, you can find about ten different pens and pencils around your house and fabricate entries the night before they’re due. (Helpful Tip: To make it especially engaging for your reader, refer to a “previous” entry in a “later” one. Maybe you realized something about yourself as a person or learned to see things from a different point of view.) My favorite trick is to start an entry with a pen that’s almost dead, run out of ink, try scribbling at the top to get that darn pen to work, then get a different pen to finish. It gives your journal an earnest, true-to-life appearance that your reader can relate to.

I once made, printed, and "wore-in" a funeral program for my little brother, falsified airline e-ticket documents, and forged an excuse from my dad just so I didn't have to do makeup work for skipping one too many (terminally boring) composition classes in college.

I just don’t want to do the up-front work required to make life easier. I can’t even imagine living in a world where I put my nose to the grindstone, make a sincere effort, and rise through the ranks until I hold some respectable position in a reliable 9-5 job.

This is probably a huge reason I’m a writer. Say I write a book over the course of a year (Halo took me eight months, but let’s round up). Then I spend a year revising it, getting feedback, overhauling, and re-revising. Then another year doing the various and sundry things it takes to publish a book. Three years.

If I had a consistent job that paid $7 an hour, with two weeks’ vacation (and not counting all the days I would undoubtedly call in sick because I’m a terrible employee) I’d have made $42,000 in three years’. Also, I’d have 3024 hours of free time (not counting the assumed 8 hours a night for sleep).

The payoff for those same three years as a writer is anywhere from $80 on the low end (this is assuming every one of your family and friends buys your self-published book and not counting the expenses of self-publishing) to $20,000 on the high end (assuming you sign with a major publisher who thinks you’re aces and wants to promote your debut book out the wazoo (Which, by the way, they never want.)). The best-case scenario figures out to a whopping $1.14 an hour. And in case you’re wondering, there’s no such thing as “free time” for writers, only “wasted time.” If you’re not making words into sentences, you might as well be hitting yourself in the head with a hammer.

But I'd still rather write because, in my mind, it seems like a keen way out of doing a real job. (And other reasons that even fewer would laugh at.)

What was my point? I guess that I realize I would rather take the hardest possible way out than do a small amount of work because any way out at all makes me feel like I beat the system.

5.14.2013

Failure is My Business

I love Raymond Chandler. His writing is my favorite kind of beautiful. From drunken descriptions like, "I smiled at him. He smiled back. Hawkins smiled at me. I smiled back. Everybody was swell." to the revelation of complex emotions in the most cynical way possible ("I hoped she was paying her own rent. It didn't make any difference to me--I just liked it better that way."). I could spend a whole day talking about Raymond Chandler and not feel like I wasted a second of it.

Right now, I'm stuck in the worst stalled revision of Halo (a.k.a. How to Kill Yourself in a Small Town) that I've ever been in. I spend most of my day marinating in thoughts like, "I should roll it back a draft and say, 'Screw it. It is what it is.' I should throw this story away and work on something else. I hate this story. I love this story. Why does it hate me?"

I don't want to give up. I know I'm on the edge of something good. If I can just finish this revision without killing myself, all the plot holes will close up--I just know it--but working on it feels like trying to pull teeth from somebody much bigger and less sedated than me.

So, how do you make yourself keep going? No, seriously, I'm asking. Not having any idea is almost as frustrating as not wanting to work on this revision when I'm so close to the end.

Whenever I don't know what to do about something (anything, really, not just writing), I default back to reading. All of my favorite books and stories, the things that made me want to write in the first place, things I've never read before that people have said I should, classics, trash, articles, research, whatever. I still haven't found any answers, but I did find something encouraging in the introduction Raymond Chandler wrote to Trouble is My Business.

"As I look back on my stories it would be absurd if I did not wish they had been better. But if they had been much better they would not have been published. [...] There are things in my stories which I might like to change or leave out all together. To do this may look simple, but if you try, you will find you cannot do it at all. You will only destroy what is good without having any noticeable effect on what is bad. You cannot recapture the mood, the state of innocence, much less the animal gusto you had when you had very little else. Everything a writer learns about the art or craft of fiction takes just a little away from his need or desire to write at all. In the end he knows all the tricks and has nothing to say."

Okay, I realize that to some people this might read like Ecclesiastes, where nothing under the sun is new and everything is futility and death. But guess who has two thumbs and also finds Ecclesiastes encouraging?  There's just something about knowing you can never do as well as you hope to do that makes me feel good about being alive. Like, if I'm going to fail anyway, then I'd like to fail as spectacularly as possible and have fun while doing it.

At another point in his introduction, Chandler says, "As a writer I have never been able to take myself with that enormous earnestness which is one of the trying characteristics of the craft." That's probably the best thing any writer can shoot for--not to take themselves too seriously since we're all going to fail anyway. And if somebody other than me enjoys the end products of my failure, I'll be happy. I just have to get to that end product.

5.07.2013

A Human in Three Dimensions

Two weeks ago—April 26th, specifically—was the anniversary of my granny's death. For that that reason and others that will become obvious as you read, this post is dedicated to her.

Because I was the oldest child in my family and I played softball, basketball, campus bowl, and track, I spent a lot of my pre-driving years with my granny. She worked in town, so most days she drove me to early mornings, then picked me up when afternoon practice got out. I had two options when I was riding with Granny to and from school: I could listen to her talk about my books, my hair, my clothes, my friends, my parents’ friends—she had an opinion about everything that existed and some things that didn’t—or we could listen to music.

My granny loved music. Bluegrass, hymns, old country, Charlie Pride, Andy Griffith. Music spoke to her—she told me so once after I sang a special at church, that music touched her when preaching couldn’t, it told her about Heaven and what it would be like to be loved and safe. This was something we had in common.

Some kids hate their parents’ and grandparents’ music. I loved it. Especially this one group—the Kingston Trio. They were so funny and smart. “To Morrow” was my favorite of their songs. (If you’ve got time, you should definitely check it out. You’ll need two or three listens.)




Being just a dumb kid without any concept of context or history, I assumed that music like the Kingston Trio was par for the old-people-course. More recently, when I finally found all of Granny’s old tapes and dug some Kingston Trio music out of the internet, I learned differently. The band became popular on the college scene because of the way they made fun of bureaucracy, questioned authority, and because of their sincere desire to see change in capitalist America. Adults at the time hated them.

When I was a child, I couldn’t appreciate why Granny was the only person I knew who had even heard of the Kingston Trio. I’ve grown up a lot since she died. I’ve lived places besides Emden, listened to music that you would never hear in Missouri, stuff people around here would think was blasphemy or communism, one. (Communism being the least forgivable.) Now I can appreciate that my granny was listening to rebel music.

When I was a kid, all Granny was to me was the person I pushed away from, somebody to be different from and sometimes to argue with just because I wanted her to be wrong. It’s been until I’ve gotten older that I started to see the full picture. Granny had an opinion about everything and no fear of telling people what it was in a time when good women didn’t. She and my grandpa couldn’t have children—another strike against her—so they adopted. When a teacher told one of Granny’s children that he couldn’t make a family tree because he was adopted, Granny called that teacher up and told her we were all children of God and that made us all adopted, thank you very much. When the preacher told her that she couldn’t teach Sunday school anymore because she didn’t wear skirts all the time, Granny told him she’d like to see him climbing over fences and chasing cows in a skirt. She was first person I’d ever known who stopped going to church because she didn’t believe in the way that the pastor was preaching the Word. She understood that there was a difference between questioning the authority of the ordained man and the authority of God.

Granny was our family’s—probably our entire rural community’s—original dissenter. I wish I’d gotten more time to get to know that side of her better. People like her, people who didn’t let labels or expectations define them, paved the way for people like us the same way the Kingston Trio paved the way for bands like the Mountain Goats.

3.20.2013

Book Talk as Procrastination


Bored, guys, I’m bored, I’m so bored.

Not really. In reality, I have gallons of stuff I should be working on. Final revisions for How to Kill Yourself in a Small Town (Halo, to you insiders), drafting cover art, looking into health insurance things—heck, I’ve even got forks to wash and laundry to do. But today I want to talk about books.

"Why would you stop and talk about books when crunch time is finally at hand?" you might ask.

Who are you, my work ethic? Because if you are, you're too late.

Horns by Joe Hill
If you’re a reader, Horns is probably the most devastating book you’ll ever pick up. If you’ve got a bad heart, weak stomach, or inner ear problem, don’t read it.  But Horns should be required reading for writers. It’s an absolute clinic on how to make the hardest possible decisions for your story. There was never a point in this book where Hill said, “Okay, I’ll give [my character] this one,” or, “Easy way out—just this once.” No, every step is harder to take and every page would’ve been excruciating to write. It’s beautiful and awful and so heartbreaking and I don’t even want to think about how much time and energy went into wrestling this story from start to finish. Horns is what writing should be for readers and for writers.

Whispers in the Dark by Maya Banks (KGI Series: Book 4)
KGI is by far my favorite series of books in the military suspense section of the romance shelf, but not because it’s an example of spectacular writing. I’m no elitist when it comes to books. I read some absolute trash and I love every second of it. A compelling character or an awesome story can convince me to forgive a lot, but even I can admit that Bank’s writing could use a few more passes through editing and revision. I want to talk about Whispers in the Dark because it’s an example of an author veering wildly off the beaten path while somehow maintaining believability. You don’t see supernatural storylines in romantic military suspense, and nothing remotely supernatural has happened before within the KGI series, but the way Banks worked Shea’s abilities into Nathan’s story was so smooth and true to her characters that it seemed natural. And as a bonus, the sex scenes were hilarious while still being super-hot, which is something else you don’t find too often in romance.

Death Sentence by Alexander Graham Smith (Escape from Furnace: Book 3)
With Halo’s upcoming release, I’ve been focusing a lot on the effect that books’ covers, back flaps, and beginnings have on potential buyers. Death Sentence is a perfect example of hooking a reader (me, specifically) done right. It’s the only Escape from Furnace book that I’ve read. Under normal circumstances, I would’ve flat-out refused to start in the middle of a series, but the cover was so b.a., the blurb on the back dragged me in, and the first sentence was, “I died in that room.” Hook, line, sinker. I didn’t have a choice, I had to buy it.

Deadpool Kills the Marvel Universe by Cullen Bunn (Dalibor Talajic, artist)
Deadpool is crazy, yo. Everybody knows that. It’s part of why he’s my second-favorite corporate comic book superhero of all time. But when you take away the things that also make him funny and give his schizophrenic inner voices some focus, then you’ve got potential for a disturbing, psychological gorefest. That’s what Bunn was going for in Deadpool Kills the Marvel Universe, and why I bought it—the concept. The problem was that Bunn didn’t have enough page space to give every murder and mass murder the weight it deserved. (I’ve been accused of this crime a lot lately, so I should know.) Maybe the corporate higher-ups refused to let Bunn have more issues, maybe he was just in a hurry. All I know is that this awesome concept would’ve played out much better if everything had slowed down and the series had drawn out over, maybe, ten or twenty more issues. The Marvel Universe is big and Deadpool is just one guy. One psychotic, homicidal lunatic of a guy.

Four seems like a nice, round number to end on. I’m sure I’ll have more books I want to talk about in the future so I don’t have to work on stuff. I always seem to. But for now, I got to study.



2.18.2013

New Year's Resolution 2013


Or, "The Annual February Progress Report"

This year, I decided to teach myself to skateboard. 

For those of you keeping track at home, this is my third New Year's resolution since starting this blog. The difference between those other resolutions and this one is that, this time, I'm going to accomplish my goal. No more half-finished classy as balls for me. This year, all the stars have aligned—I have access to non-interstate asphalt, I have a place to practice when the weather's bad, my youngest son got a retro dart for Christmas, and I'm finally, finally, FINALLY coordinated enough not to kill myself. 

Yessiree, 2013 is the year of skateboard.

The thing is, almost no one is taking me seriously. I realize there are some ridiculous elements to a stay-at-home mother of two learning how to skateboard and that most of those elements are in the way I phrased this sentence. But I'm already making respectable progress. I know how to shift my weight to weave around something, how to make a very, very wide turn, how to go up and down small hills without falling off or sliding backward, and I'm working on sudden sharp turns.

Since most of my detractors have the same "concerns," I'll be addressing them in this handy FAQ.

"Yes, skateboarding is a skill, but what will you do with it once you learn?"
Well, not become a professional skateboarder, that's for sure. I've got a busy year ahead of me. In case you haven't heard yet, I'm turning 26 tomorrow at 6:19 a.m. and that's kind of a big deal. What with making Halo (How to Kill Yourself in a Small Town, for you non-inside-my-headers) a best-seller, finishing Halo II, spanking my kids, getting snakebite piercings, and spending as much of this this summer in the water as possible, I don't have the kind of time it would take to find out how somebody becomes a professional skateboarder and then become one.

"Why waste your time learning, then?"
Because I've always wanted to know how to skateboard. My whole life I've thought, "That looks like so much fun! And it's so cool." And guess what? I was right. Skateboarding is fun and cool.

There's also this brilliant article I read a few months ago called, "6 Harsh Truths that Will Make You a Better Person." If you need motivation to do anything at all, you should read it. It will also help answer the question, "Why bother?"

"But if you're not going to use skateboarding for anything—"
I'm going to use it for being awesome and having fun. What other anything is there?

2.13.2013

Agapao

This is the blog post I was writing the day that I learned that my friend hung himself. He killed himself because the other guys in his barracks found out that he was gay and made him feel like he shouldn’t be alive anymore. Before you decide that my conclusion was biased by his death, let me assure you that I had written everything but the very last paragraph before I heard the news.
__________________________________________________

I was at my sister Emily’s house the other day while she was checking Facebook. One of her friends had just gotten engaged. That friend is gay.

“How am I supposed to respond to this?” my sister asked. “I believe that gay marriage is wrong, but I also don’t think the government should be allowed to take away anyone’s [right to visit the their significant other in the hospital].”

Some people are lucky enough to have older siblings with all the answers. Emily isn’t.

For the last couple of days I’ve been trying to figure this out and the only thing I’ve come up with is that this is a bigger deal than just a simple “like,” ignore, or comment on Facebook. My sister and her husband lead the youth group at their church and they have a baby boy. They’re role models. The way they respond to this engagement and the others that come after it is going to affect the way their son and those teenagers in their youth group respond to the world.

Let’s get one thing straight—the LGBTQ community is here to stay. It’s been around since Bible times and it hasn’t disappeared yet. Alternative lifestyles (and by “alternative” I mean “other than one male and one female of the same race, religion, and nationality”) are only going to become more accepted as time goes on. Christianity and other hetero-centric religions or belief systems haven’t changed that in the last 2,000+ years, and they’re not going to in the time we have left. As long as there’s an agreed upon norm, there will always be an alternative to the norm.

There are a number of different viewpoints on homosexuality within Christianity. (In the interest of full disclosure, I should say that I believe that God gave us a model He expected us to follow when He made Eve for Adam and any time humans miss the mark, even by a little bit, it’s considered sin. I’m not likely to change my mind without hard scriptural evidence.) But whether homosexuality is right or wrong isn’t the issue here. The question I’m going to try to answer is how a Christian should respond to their gay friends getting engaged and married.

Let’s start out with a baseline and work our way up. No matter what you believe, one thing we can all agree gay and straight people have in common is that they are human. Right? No disagreement yet? Cool, let’s continue.

If you are a Christian, you believe that God created all humans in His image.

Still with me? Awesome.

The second thing all Christians should agree on—Jesus preached the truth while he was on this earth. If you believe that one thing he said wasn’t true, then you can’t believe anything he said—but that’s a post unto itself. If we believe that everything Jesus said was true, then we must believe that he wasn’t just kidding around when he said, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and most important command. The second is like it—‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”

Get ready to bear with me. I just spent three coffee-soaked hours in my Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance (“Strong’s—so you know it’s good!”). It’s about to get semantic up in here.

The word “love” that Jesus used is the Greek word agapao which means “to love in a social or moral sense” and is the root of the word “beloved.” The type of love is used in both Jesus’ command to love God with every bit of yourself and in the command to love your neighbor is the same love that Jesus commands us to love our enemies with.

Furthermore, Strong’s invites the reader to compare agapao to the word phileo used in verses like Matthew 6:5, about the hypocrites who “love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by people” and the conversation between Jesus and Peter in John 21, where Jesus asks three times if Peter has agapao for him and each time Peter responds that he loves him, phileo-style. Phileo in Greek means “to be a friend to” or “to have affection for.” Compared to one another, agapao is the broader, stronger term. It encompasses duty, propriety, and the deliberate decision to love no matter what, whereas phileo is more of a fleeting feeling towards a person or object.

Did that digression into ancient semantics help us in any way? Let’s watch.

Okay, so if the second greatest command in the whole Bible is to love your neighbor as yourself in a way that’s deliberate, proper, and your duty as a Christian, and your neighbor is defined as any human being on the face of this earth (“Neighbor” is, by the way. I can Strong’s it for you, too, if I have to.), then the real question becomes “How should I respond when someone I love has good news, for example, that they’re getting married?”

If I truly loved the person, this is how I would respond—“WOOHOO! YEAH! GOOD FOR YOU! AWESOME! I WISH YOU A LIFETIME OF HAPPINESS!”

You may disagree with me. I welcome well-studied, scripturally supported arguments, but I won't listen to is hatefulness. Gay, straight, male, female, or some other third thing—we’re all human. To hate any human is to deny love to another creature of God, a love that He gave you first, then commanded you to spread to the people in your life. People who He created in His image. To deny love to even one small part of God’s image is to willfully disobey the greatest command—to love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.

Maybe you disagree with your friend’s lifestyle. As a Christian, it’s still your moral obligation according to Jesus’s word-choice agapao to love your friend anyway and react appropriately.

And here’s something that I didn’t expect to find while researching this question: You’re not just supposed to agapao your friends. Jesus said to agapao your enemies, too.

2.06.2013

How to Bloom Late


Or, "Understanding Gender Denial"

Guess what, readers? I am a girl. Female. Woman.

I’m okay with admitting that. Or, really, I’m becoming better at admitting that. Growing up, I wasn’t able to. I didn't want people to think of me as a girl. I wanted to be tough, strong—“totally b.a.” is a phrase I use nowadays that I didn’t know back then, but it’s definitely what I wanted people to think when they thought of me. I wasn’t gay and I never felt like a boy trapped in a girl’s body. I just didn’t want people to see me as a girl.

Why? Because I didn’t want anyone to think that they could hurt me. I had been a girl before. I’d worn skirts and headbands and got my hair cut in all the cute ways that little girls do. And I’d been hurt.

So I dressed in boy’s clothes. I wore button-down shirts and combat boots and—when I could get away with it—pants to church. No makeup or jewelry, ever. Skirts when the religious guilt and yelling got to be too much, but only huge tent-like messes that looked awful and dragged the ground. I was the first female in the history of my school to buy a men’s letter jacket, the kind with the gold sleeves. I tried to speak and sing in a lower voice.

Nothing girly was allowed in my interests. I could only like the things I thought boys liked—wrestling, hunting, BMX. I read comic books, horror, and epic fantasy. In band, I played the drums because that’s what boys played. And I didn’t just want to pack second or third snare in marching band like some dumb girl trying to be cool. No, I wanted the quads and I wanted to be the drum line captain.

To be fair, some of the “boy” interests were genuine on my part. Drumming, for example—I love the drums. I love horror and epic fantasy and comic books. But I was a die-hard Cowboys fan who had never watched a full game.

There are a lot of things I could say about a girl trying to be a boy in a rural area, but I wasn't trying to make a statement or change anything—all I really wanted was to be safe. Gender barriers are fragile things, though. The year after I ordered a gold-sleeved men’s letter jacket, another girl did, too. The year after her, four girls did. It’s such an insignificant thing, but I like knowing that those girls got what they wanted instead of what they were expected to.

With the good, though, you take the bad.

While we were still in elementary school, I told my best friend, a boy, that he couldn’t make me cry. I spent the rest of the week taking punches, kicks, getting scratched, and having my face smashed into playground equipment by the boys in my class. I made it. I didn’t cry. But there’s still a scar where my best friend dug a freshly sharpened pencil into my thumb until the lead broke off.

For the first six years after I started puberty, I denied having my period. If we were out of tampons or pads at the house, I had to buy my own from the school bathroom. I couldn’t tell anyone when I was having cramps so debilitating that I almost passed out. I couldn’t take medicine to ease the pain.

I couldn’t do things the way that girls did. No flirting. No being catty. No long stories that could be summed up in a few words. No depending on anyone other than myself. If I had a problem with someone I either had to fight them, outsmart them, or show them up. I couldn’t have the emotions that girls had. No crying. No fear. No feeling hurt.

No boys.

No one at my school ever asked me outright if I was a lesbian. I know people wondered, though. I don’t blame them. I had all the other clich├ęd markers of a bull dyke—including weight lifting. But I loved guys. I loved the way they looked and the way they smelled. The way they talked and joked and how their bodies moved when they walked or played sports. I knew they would feel great to touch. Kissing one would be incredible.

But I couldn’t like boys—not where someone could see me.

Then I met Josh. For two years, I admired him in excruciating silence. He was all I thought about, the only thing I’d ever wanted so badly. What was weirder, I wanted him to want me. It was as if a safecracker had started working on the locked-away girl part of my brain.

Josh and I limited our interactions to a ridiculous and incoherent set of rules. He smiled at me; I put on a pair of broken glasses and said I’d been hit by a bus. He gave me paper towels from the boys’ bathroom; I wrote a stupid song and sang it in front of hundreds of people to impress him. We spent half a class scraping a rock-hard wad of gum off the bottom of a desk; I popped it in my mouth and tried to chew; Josh laughed and got in trouble. Each new, crazy exchange was another tumbler turning.

One night I couldn’t hide it anymore. Driving home from Upward Bound, I told my best friend that, “I…think…maybe…I like Josh.” She told me everybody already knew. And since everybody already knew—and no one had changed the way they acted around me—maybe I could do something about it without jeopardizing the image I thought I’d built for myself.

I asked Josh out my senior year. We dated according to those first rules of engagement—muddy cemeteries, chemical lakes, and hanging out with each other’s grandpas. I sent Josh encoded letters without a key; he bought a family Bible. After a few months, we held hands, then he asked me to marry him.

Sorry, guys. I didn’t realize this post was going to turn into a love story. I guess that’s a good metaphor for my life.

There are still times when I find myself avoiding something because of that stubborn, scared part of me that doesn’t want to be seen as a girl. I can’t force it. Locks take time to pick. I have hope that it won’t always be such a struggle to admit that I am, in fact, female.